By Timothy Ogene
We sat in silence wondering what had happened to Dan. A motorbike screeched along leaving a long trail of thick smoke, and a reverberating wail that rang in my ears for a while. My left toes started to itch, I reached for the exact spot, but realized the itch ran deep in my bones, and seemed to percolate from my follicles. I ignored the itch and lifted my eyes to a rabble of bats flying across the evening sky; they formed a long, staggering canopy that expanded and dispersed like the marks of aeroplanes in the clouds.
Pa Suku walked inside, leaving me to process the weight of our chat. I tossed our talk from side to side hoping to comprehend what was wrong, or what was right. They will not understand him, Pa Suku had said. Not in this lifetime, at least. Understand what? I asked. He cocked his head, as if he was waiting for the answer to trickle in, and then he sighed. He was still waiting for that answer when the sudden silence fell on us, and on the blocks. If not for the motorbike, one would have thought the blocks were a deserted plain bereft of life.
Pa Suku emerged with a book and his radio. He ran through the local stations. Boma Erekosima was cracking a joke and concluding the news in Pidgin English. He turned it off and asked if I was still worried about Dan. Then he spoke to himself in a sigh, “Poor Dan, he doesn’t even know why the world is turning against him.” Then he turned to me, and showed me the book in his hands. “Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin,” he said, sounding like a teacher introducing a new topic. “I read this book a long time ago.” He crossed his legs and tapped his bare feet.
“Can I touch it?” I asked
“Feel free,” he said, and offered me the book.
I took the paperback. Sniffed it. It smelt old like our door frame. The pages were not white, but almost brown like old books. I ran my hands on the cover, over the bold face of a man. “It was a gift from Dr Isodje,” Pa Suku was saying.
“What is it about?” I asked. My eyes were still on the cover. I was wondering how the cover design, so intricate, became a permanent matter. What technology did they use here? I turned to the first page and read out loud, not without hesitations between words and sentences, though: I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.
“What is it about?” I asked again, and continued to read. I finished the whole paragraph in silence. He did not answer straight away. When I looked up, his face was a volcano of smiles, beaming and flaring in black conflagrations. I think I saw something more in his eyes, something that made me wonder if he wished I were his son. I did wish he were my father.
“You will go far,” he said through his fiery smile. “I will start with the author. Baldwin was an African-American writer. African because his ancestors were from here; American because he was born there, in America.”
“Black-American?” I asked, more of a proclamation of my knowledge.
“Yes, Black-American. He looked just like you and I. But his life and experiences were different, far different from ours. Hold on, I have a book with an illustration of Baldwin. One second.” He went back inside. I continued to turn the book from side to side. I wrote the title author’s name in sand. I wiped the name and replaced it with mine. Then I wiped the title with my left feet and replaced it with Dan’s Room, and swore that I would, when I was as wise as Pa Suku, write a book with that title: Dan’s Room.
Pa Suku returned with another book.
“Here,” he said. “That’s James Baldwin on the cover.”
I handed him the Baldwin and took Stanley Macebuh’s James Baldwin: A Critical Study. The man on the cover looked like my father: the lips, pursed and drawn; the forehead, furrowed, with a receding hairline; the eyes, staring into nothingness as though in trance. “He looks like my father,” I said.
“I bet he does. Now, back to your question.” I thought he had forgotten. “Giovanni’s Room is about a young American man in Paris. He is torn between his love for a girl and his strong affection for Giovanni, a young man like himself. I bet it’s too much for you now. But remember the title and the author. Dan reminds me of this story. The circumstances and experiences are different, but there is something there that refreshes my memory, or rather reminds me of my own life.”
I continued to study Baldwin’s face.
“The whole story takes place in Paris. Paris in France.” He paused to wait for my response knowing how the names of places peaked my curiosity. “It is a sad but instructive story.”
I returned the Macebuh and retrieved the Baldwin. This little exchange fascinated me. I wondered if it was how one grew into a well spoken, all-wise person. I flipped through the pages and stopped where two italicized, unfamiliar words caught my attention. Le milieu, it read. “What is this?” I asked, tapping both words.
“Le milieu!” he exclaimed in an exaggerated excitement that eclipsed my question. “Le milieu is the French for the environment, or surrounding, depending on how you use it. There are lots of French words in that book. Like I said, the story unfolds in Paris. Reading it made me feel like I prowled the Parisian underworld drinking in the pubs and staggering home on the sidewalks.”
“They speak French in Paris, right?”
“Yes, French in France.”
“They also speak French in Rwanda, right?”
“Rwanda, yes, yes. I’m glad you remember. It might interest you to know that French-speaking countries surround us on all sides: Niger, Chad, Benin Republic, Cameroon. Rwanda is on the far side of the map, far from here. There are probably more French speakers on the continent. Let’s find out.” He went inside for the third time. I wrote in sand: le milieu, le milieu, le milieu, le milieu. I wiped the last, then the third, the second, leaving the first. How is this French spoken? I asked myself. Not the type we hazarded in class. How do you think in French? How do you dream in French? How do you say Ogoamaka in French? How many words are there in French? How do you crack jokes in French?
I searched for more French words in Giovanni’s Room. The next after le milieu was longer so I assumed it was a sentence. Je veux m’evader it was. I wiped le milieu; my sandals collecting sand. Je veux m’evader became my new inscription in sand.
Pa Suku returned with a map – the size of a notebook – pinched between his fingers. He literarily had the world in his hands: the French-speaking nations, the rivers, the mountains and cliffs, the blocks where we lived and its daily dose of theatrics, the far away home of James Baldwin, all in that small map, in his hands! Tiny lines zigzagged dizzily, running from one corner to the other, across many colors. The blues and yellows were more prominent. There were few patches of green and brown.
We had a map in school, a globe like the teacher called it. But we were never allowed to go close; the teacher kept us from exploring the globe. We were only free to watch and observe the world from the fringes, from our little, ignorant corner – pointing at the blues and yellows and the zigzagging lines. But
“We are here,” he was saying, “tucked in the middle of those French speakers.” He had a matchstick, which he held delicately like a puncturing pin, and with it he tapped and circled the blue and yellow colors. “And over there is France, the home of the French language. Paris is somewhere here.” I touched the map. He let go. I held it – I held the world in my hands and tried to magnify what I saw: to inflate and people it with places; with the murmur of waterfalls; the roar of lions; with the tremble of the earth when lorries ran; with the BBC voices that spoke like birds, counting deaths in Rwanda; with my mother’s face at dawn, when her eyes looked dull but sharp enough to rouse and ready us for the day.
My eyes travelled from France to Nigeria. Nigeria looked like it was at the mercy of her neighbors and the ocean. Port Harcourt dipped into the Gulf of Guinea, and beyond was a vast blue void with dots and blurry inscriptions.
“How come we don’t speak French?” I asked.
“Good question. I was expecting that.” He took the map. “See, that is England, over there, the home of the English language, and the home of the BBC.” I looked at his radio. “We got our English from them,” he was saying. I knew we got our English from somewhere. Everyone knew that. But how did it happen? Did we choose to speak English? I looked from England to Nigeria, from Nigeria to France, from France to Togo.
“How did it happen?” I asked. “How did they give us their English?”
“Long story,” he said. “It all happened a long time ago. You see these blue areas? That is the Atlantic Ocean. It used to be as busy as the sky with all the planes. Busy with ships sailing from here,” he placed the matchstick over Europe and ran it down to the edge of the Sahara, via the wide blue area. For a second I thought I saw the matchstick trotting arrogantly into the wide, blue expanse, brandishing several flags and ready to force-feed its language to whatever or whomever it ran into. “Their cargoes included humans.” The matchstick tapped the Americas. “That was how Baldwin’s ancestors got there.”
I tried to imagine the length and sadness of what he had just said, but at that time my pre-teenage mind was as vastly small as the map itself. He gave me the map and fished out his cigarette pack. He lit a stick and puffed contemplatively. I continued to run my fingers on the borderlines and rivers and mountains and forests on the map. I tried to look for Rwanda, a name that never ceased to gush from the lips of the news reporters. But my quest was cut short by a riot of voices coming from where the motorbike had headed. We turned at once and were frozen by what we saw. It was not an unfamiliar, but the characters added an unusually strange twist to the scene.
Dora, a girl of about fourteen was crying bitterly. Her eyes were puffy from crying. Her hair, half braided and half loose, spiraled up like antlers. Next to her was her mother, a taciturn woman who was hardly seen in the company of other woman. Her wrapper sagged like they would drop and bare what lay concealed. She clutched them and occasionally re-knotted the loose ends. She and her daughter were flanked on both sides by neighbors talking simultaneously.
Excluding two shirtless kids that ran alongside with their old bicycle wheels, the flankers were Ma Peter the fishmonger whose famous white apron, tight around her wide waist, was somewhere between brown and black with two wide pockets that housed her cash; Lola the spinster with three daughters; and Sisi whose clean shaven head constantly brewed controversy until it was unanimously agreed that she was in perpetual mourning.
Ma Dora’s voice was loud and clear in spite of the raucous neighbors. It was not her words that came out clear, but the sounds that conveyed those words. It resonated like the ululation of a partying crowd. A few words dropped in-between, but whole sentences were flattened into single notes. She spoke to no one exactly, but rather pointed at an arbitrary spot in front of her, where she led the group. It seemed it was Dora, her daughter, that was being led somewhere, towards us and further to the other end of the blocks.
The little girl wiped her eyes with the overflow of her red dress that was torn along the waistline. It swayed as she trudged in the meek but dying evening sun. The sashes dangled, almost hopeless and defeated. Her feet, bare and covered in dust, marched slowly down the dirt road.
Ma Dora was visibly distressed. Her head tie perched at the tip of her disheveled hair like weaverbirds on a branch frightened by the clap of sudden thunder. The sleeves of her faded ankara blouse fell between her shoulder and her elbow, as defeated as her daughter’s sashes, revealing the twisted straps of her purple brassiere.
Sisi’s hairless scalp glittered in that dying but present sun as she excitedly, almost furiously, ran her own commentary on the go. “We will show him…” I heard her say as they passed. I wondered whom were they referring to.
As they marched on angrily, crossing the blocks, curious children joined them. I followed them with my eyes and watched as their numbers soared. More women joined, bubbling along with the moving tableau. Sisi did the storytelling, giving the newcomers a background to the unfolding script. The farther they went, the more Sisi’s scalp shimmered, as if in dazzling consonance with her wild and almost violent gesticulations.
As an individual, Sisi was a force to note and a personality to treat with utmost care. The visible sprinkle of hair on her chest, almost at the funnel of her cleavage; the loose dots of mustache between her neck and chin; and her stampede-ready calves gave her an intimidating look and a menacing signature that earned her an equally menacing title: the kegged gunpowder. She lived up to her name, and did explode from time to time. But her explosions were usually not of her own making; neither was she a spontaneous attacker. She was a self-made public defender. I have seen her punch a man to pulp for stealing a widow’s saving’s box. Now she was matching like the battle was hers. But I knew it was not. The two key players were easy to identify; their most loyal supporter, whose presence could mean victory, was also easy to identify.
The march continued. I followed them with my eyes. Then looked down for a bit. Je veux m’evader was still there, engraved in sand. What does it mean? It looked back at me in my own handwriting, jagged and porous like sand. Pa Suku looked on to where the march headed. I wiped Je veux m’evader with my left feet. Le Milieu returned. It was now familiar – I know this one. It was now as familiar as my immediate environment: the vivacity, the spontaneity, the chaos, the smell that was no longer noticed. Le Milieu.
I looked up and saw their backs. I wondered if there was a correlation between anger and the vibration of the buttocks, for these women seem to convulse in the rear as they matched towards the enemy camp. Not only in this instance has this been evident, but on several occasions. Whenever Sisi warred against an oppressor, which was as frequent as the nightly roar of crickets in the swamps, her whole body would shiver like that of dancers possessed by the goddess of dance. She would point at the enemy, the full length of her arm quivering. Still pointing, she would move from side to side, the shuffle of a boxer prancing before an opponent. Then she would bounce back and forth before planting her feet solidly on the ground. All this time her buttocks would be convulsing independently. I never voiced my observations; children were not supposed to see such things.
Like Sisi, I took sides with Dora and her mother without even knowing what the case was. Ma Dora and her daughter were too meek to milk a cow; and as such were unlikely to be on the offending side. Dora’s tears stabbed me. In her visible anger and swift march Ma Dora’s eyes were wet with the pain. The whole scene was as moving as the march itself.
They were crossing block M and N, and turning right at block O. I left Pa Suku with his Baldwin and Macebuh and dashed in the direction of the action, which was no longer the fierce march of a few fearless women, but a mass movement of curious men, women, boys, and girls, some of who were privy to the unfolding episode. The presence of Sisi added more juice to the plot, and was enough publicity for the cause at hand.
Ibe, the carpenter’s son was waiting at the entrance to block M. Alone, he was sitting on a moss-covered brick that was half buried in sand, almost like a gravestone. Shirtless, he was fanning himself with his shirt. He did not look excited or curious. He seemed to be waiting for someone, or something, confident that whatever or whomever it was would come to him. “They will come back here,” he declared with a certainty that was almost authoritative, as though he was the writer of the unfolding play. “They all will come back here.” He pointed to an arbitrary spot on block M, and continued to fan himself, his back slightly hunched in the likeness of his father whose hunch was from many years of wielding smoothing planes and hefting furniture.
With Ibe’s declaration I backed up to where he was. Perhaps he, as always, knew what was going on. “What is going on, Ibe?” I asked and positioned myself next to him, next to the gravestone. With one hand I collected sand, emptying into the other hand, and back into the collecting hand, and again into the other until it disappeared through the inevitable cracks between my fingers. I clapped away the remnants and waited for Ibe to spill the story.
“It is Jide,” he began, still fanning himself nonchalantly. I noticed that Ibe was beginning to sprout hairs in different places. Around his navel, several fledgling strands congregated sparingly, descending downwards. His armpit was denser, but the strands there were covered in accumulated sweat that wrapped each strand of hair, forming a brownish coating. “Jide put the thing inside Dora,” continued Ibe.
The mass movement had emerged from block O like Ibe had predicted, and were making their way towards us. Sisi was in front. Dora and her mother followed behind. They emptied onto block M, and paused in front of Jide’s door. Sisi planted her feet on the ground. Tied her wrapper. Loosened it a bit. Re-tied it until it was fastened to her taste. She stepped on Jide’s porch, and banged the door as hard as she could. No response. Ibe, still fanning himself, whispered in my ear, “He’s inside.” I believed him.
Sisi continued to bang the door, almost pushing and shaking it like the explosive that she was. The crowd murmured, they buzzed the way they did when, at that same door, they grouped to watch Schwarzenegger ripping his enemies with bullets and punches.
Lola the spinster with three daughters joined Sisi. They both pummeled the door until it creaked open. Jide opened the door. He looked shock, genuinely shocked by the audience that was upon him, not to be entertained by his colored tube but by him. If only he knew that he was the prime character in the happening script. But there was no time and luxury for comprehension; Sisi lunged, taking him by surprise. She went for his thick neck, but missed. He slipped back into his room. The door closed. Undeterred, Sisi banged away at the innocent door. This time, having learnt his lesson, it was the window that opened.
“What is going on here?” he asked the crowd. His cheeks jiggled as he spoke, and his mouth hung open in the shape of the last word he said – here. The crowd that was hitherto talkative went silent. His voice, which they associated with a measure of class, congealed their voices. They did not know what to do or say to him. Neither did they know what to feel as he stood at that window where, in normal days, they would be standing to watch his television.” Can someone explain all this?” he was asking the frozen audience, his jaws quivering.
“That is what is going on, you useless man. See that girl over there? She is the explanation you need,” Sisi said to him, pointing her fingers at Dora who looked awfully exhausted by all these. Her eyes had swollen some more. She studied her feet and fiddled her sashes. She and her mother were already worn out. They both stood there, still and speechless before Jide. But with her eyes, bloodshot, Dora murdered Jide.
The little girl was pregnant. Jide was responsible. Ibe gave me the lowdown. It happened the day she returned from school, early. The headmaster had flogged and sent her home for not paying her school fees. Bored, she walked the blocks like every other child. Jide’s window was open and the television was on. He invited her inside. Offered her cabin biscuits and Fanta. Whether she was forced or not was not said. But when the time came, her face bore the marks of womanhood, at which her mother, baffled at such Immaculate Conception, probed for answers.
Dora’s case was news and no news. News because it was juicy and juicy was fine, and it involved Dora, an introverted girl who would not break a matchstick. No news because there were similar pregnancies around. In that crowd were teenage mothers and would-be teenage mothers. Dora was not the first and would not be the last. It was therefore the drama and the opportunity to gather and laugh – a much-needed therapeutic break – that had attracted the audience.
For the second time Jide was not given the opportunity to process the situation. Sisi slammed the window on his face. He ducked inside. Two men rushed forward from the crowd and grabbed Sisi on both sides. Achu was one of them. His skinny frame concealed in an oversize singlet. Sisi yanked free, Achu tripped and crashed into Jide’s door. The crowd erupted; another therapeutic break!
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” Jide was saying.
At those words, Dora lifted her eyes and looked at Him. He ducked and looked elsewhere, into the ambivalent crowd. Dora continued to stare hard at him. As if to say “look into my eyes and deny it, bastard.” She was trembling in exhaustion. I thought she would collapse or puke, or dash off and disappear. But she stood there, shivering. It was her mother who made the move. She held her daughter by the arm, tugged her, and stomped off. The audience parted for the actors. They might as well have applauded for the grand performance and exit. Someone was smiling and wiping dirt from Achu’s back.
The crowd began to disperse in small pockets, animated. Ibe who had seen it all and had known it from the beginning led a group of three women, all with their hands folded across their breasts. His shirt slung over his shoulder, he gesticulated all the way.
I looked around and wished Dan was present.
The path to the lake was not as dewy as in other mornings. I surmised someone had woken earlier, perhaps before the chanticleers chanted and cheered, and was patient enough to free the grasses from their daily, dew burden. The taller grasses, having been aroused by whoever that forerunner was, were erect, as if in sun salutation. I hummed a random tune, and drew a long breath.
The morning air was surprisingly fresh and free from the usual stench. Across the field of grass, I started to wonder what Jide was up to that morning. I had seen him tiptoeing to the main road with a suitcase. I did not stop to take in the full scene, but had walked on, passing all the closed and half-open doors with the mysteries and quandaries they held.
At the lake, where the path ended and the clearing began, the sight of a startling figure greeted me. From the hair, I knew it was a girl.
The usual ripples ran atop the lake, with ducks sailing in-between water lilies. She stood up and her dress, already halfway down, fell. Nothing underneath. What I saw, her totality bare as the unfolding morning, remained fresh in my memory for years to come. But in that instance, I felt my blood vessels jerking in shock, and my heart beating and jumping to the occasion.
She walked down to the lake, a mere ten steps from where she was. At the lip of the lake she squatted and stirred the water with her right, index finger. I moved closer; she turned. I wanted to ask her a question, but I felt the dryness in my throat.
Her eyes were as red as ripe peppers.
She offered me a smile. I tried to smile back but instead my eyes widened, zooming in on her, on the naked girl before me, wondering what she was thinking. I wanted to ask her what Jide really did. Did she fight him off? Did she tell the whole story? Perhaps she would dip in the lake and wash Jide’s smell off her skin. But would she be able to wash him off her mind?
Our silence filled the morning with words. Those unspoken words would later become my side of Dora’s account, an account I never shared and never forgot.
She picked a rock and grabbed a fistful of sand. She stood, turned and walked straight to me. Her nakedness, her person without the weight of fabric, was a natural push that did many things to me. Confused and alarmed, my legs froze where they were. My spines rattled on both ends. What was I to do with the approaching pointers, dark at their tips, and the emerging tropics between her legs? But more, why was she coming to me?
There, in front of me, she neither spoke nor touched my hands. Her eyes of red peppers, sharp as the edges of a knife, lacerated my forehead. Then, as if on a second thought, she took my left hand and transferred the sand, and the rock.
She smiled. I squeezed a weak smile. Hers disappeared. She turned and returned to where the ripples were. But this time she walked on towards the source of the ripples. It rose to her knees, to her thigh, and her waist.
She paused and said in a soft voice, “Run home, please.”
I ran. And to this day, each time I replay that scene, I feel myself in motion, running away from what I did not know.
At noon the crowd was back at Jide’s door. They had positioned themselves in small pockets, expectant. Ibe was at the same spot, shirtless. Jide’s door was ajar. Sisi was at the doorpost. Her usual war-ready pose was gone. The scene, as I now see it in my mind, was like a floating tableau vivant that lacked the usual theatrics. Jide was not there. So what was the gathering for?
An unusual and almost strange calm loitered. There was the occasional voice or cough. It seemed they had been instructed to offer their silence to the earth on which they stood, at least for once. I sat next to Ibe, and studied the crowd, scanning their faces for the stories they bore. I did not know what mine looked like; neither did I know how I was expected to arrange my face to suit the occasion.
And what occasion was it, anyway? The characters, Sisi in particular, and the place were clues that it had something to do with Dora’s case, but there must have been a new twist to the script. “Jide is gone,” Ibe was saying. “He left this morning.” I grunted something in response, for I had seen Jide leaving that morning.
My grunt was a metaphor – or rather – my way of processing the connection between Jide’s departure and the throng that had re-convened at his door. Ibe was beginning to say something, I feigned attention but was busy with the faces around. Having deciphered the novel twist in the story, Jide’s furtive exit, I studied the faces differently. Were they sad that Jide, the alleged offender, had disappeared before justice was done? Or were they heartbroken by the unannounced exit of their entertainment provider? It was hard to say, for their faces bore the marks of our collective slum existence – the pain, the normalized horror, the death of dignity. It was impossible to say what expression signified what.
Sisi pushed the door; it opened without the usual creak of doors around the blocks. The sleek Jide must have oiled his hinges. I bet he did. “Some of his things are still there,” said Ibe who was always in the know.
Sisi entered the room and shut the door. What followed is better described as the sound of fury. It started with a ripping sound: the curtains, perhaps. Then came the squeal of shattering glass, or was it Jide’s chinaware? The crowd did not move. The explosions ended with a big boom. The television? It was the heavy boom that moved the crowd. There were gasps and various shades of puzzlement: mouths opened as if to collect rain, eyes unblinkingly zooming in on the door as if to penetrate and stock-take the wreckage, legs stationed in mid-stride in readiness for intervention.
Sisi emerged from the wrecked room, sweating. Her chest rose and fell like the murmur of voices around her. But there was something more: her eyes were damp and as red as fresh palm oil. And for the first time Sisi sobbed in public.
Her tears sped down like sled on ice. She lifted her eyes to the sun, and bit her lips. When her eyes fell, they fell on the cold crowd. I saw a trail of questions in them, words she could not utter but could project with her eyes. Words that were meant to express how much she loathed the crowd for enjoying the show. A show that began in the room she had just wrecked and ended with an absconded man and a pregnant girl.
What I saw in her eyes were not significant then, for I was only a child. But they were vivid enough to leave imprints on my mind.
She walked through the crowd and disappeared between the blocks. The curtain was drawn; the audience, perhaps dismayed by Sisi’s brief but knowing stare, lingered. I began to think of Dora. She had asked me to run, to leave her alone. What for? I began to speculate what her reasons were, but could not draw any reasonable conclusions. “Where is Dora?” I asked Ibe.
“I don’t know. They say her Ma is looking for her.”
For once Ibe did not know someone’s whereabouts.
The crowd was beginning to buzz again. Word was going around. Dora was missing. Did she leave with Jide? Someone had seen her crossing the road before the first rooster wept at dawn; she was sighted 30 kilometers away, somewhere between St. Peters and Okeke’s barber’s shop; she was seen in a black car heading towards the police station, but the car itself looked like the ones that ran the Aba route.
I ignored the crowd.
Her stone was still in my pocket, quite. I touched it. Her red, ripe eyes returned to me. I tightened my grip on the stone, and left the crowd to their confusion.
I returned to the lake before nightfall. Maybe she was nearby, in the bushes. I sat on the mound where she last sat, and waited.
That night, word came that her body was found on the other side of the lake, floating, bloated.
“What’s the matter?” Mama asked.
“I am cold,” I said.
“Are your joints aching? Is your mouth bitter?”
“No. I feel it inside.”
“I will make you pepper soup, with uziza leaves, okay?”
“Okay. Thanks Ma.”
It was a full moon that night, and there were no condescending clouds above. The moon beamed, dispelling the blackness of night and offering faux daylight to exuberant kids. I searched the moon and saw nothing but a ball of suspended vastness. The frozen woman and her baby were in that vastness, immobilized. I recalled the story we were told to keep us from breaking community rules: the woman had gone to the market on a sacred day. The gods, enraged, froze and installed her and her child in the moon as a warning to all.
The moon illuminated the shrubs between our block and the next. An ominous wind rustled their leaves, adding to my fright. Each jubilant leaf grew more grotesque with each whip of wind.
I looked up again. The woman-in-the-moon seemed to be moving, genuinely animated. Her hair pointed in three directions like Dora’s antlers. Her baby kicked and blabbed at something outside the circumference of the moon.
Did Dora offend the gods? I touched the stone in my pocket. Is Jide a god? If he is, gods and men are wicked. I squeezed Dora’s stone in my pocket. But I am a man, will I become a wicked god? I squeezed the stone again.
“You are crying? I will call mama.” It was Ricia my poor, little sister.
“No. I am fine,” I said in my finest masculine voice.
“Why are you crying then?” she queried
“I don’t know,” I said, as helpless as the tears that warmed my cheeks.
“It is the cold,” she said. “It makes people cry and shiver like small flowers.”
“Yes, it is the cold.”
“The pepper soup will warm you up,” she said.
“Yes. I will give you some.”
“No. It’s for you. I am not shivering like small flowers.”
Before bedtime I wrapped the stone in paper, put it in an old sock, tied it into a knot, and hid it at the bottom of my basket of clothes.
She was in my dream that night. We held hands and walked by the lake. Her eyes were the color of the lake, ambiguous blue. Her young breasts, dark around the nipples, brushed my chest as she hugged me several times.
Why did you run away? I asked her. They said you were everywhere? She looked away before replying in a whisper. I did not run; I only walked away from trouble. See – she pointed in the direction of the blocks – there is too much trouble over there. You should join me. We will be happy and far away from them. She walked ahead of me, into the lake. The water reached her neck. She turned and beckoned. I took two steps in her direction.
Frightened, I shivered like small flowers, and fled.
Timothy Ogene was born and raised in Nigeria, but has since traveled and lived in Germany and Liberia. He has published in literary journals and magazines, including: Poetry Quarterly, Kin Poetry Journal, 2Paragraphs, Mad Swirl, Blue Rock Review, Medulla Review, and other places. He is a contributing poetry editor at aaduna, and currently lives and studies in Texas.
Featured artwork by Aiez Mirza.