Talk to Me

Talk to me about days unending
Dawning uncertainty that pinches your forehead
Cool darkness thinning into light
The faces, dead and smiling past
Pain etched in their palms
Clenched and holding tight to emptiness
The quiet retreat to sleep
To prayers, to grumbling homes
Hungry children and angry spouse

Talk to me about life
The golden gift tarnished with every breath
Grey drudgery for which we must give thanks
Dreams wrapped in mystery
Failures told as tales through missing teeth and tears
Eyes straining and peering desperately
At a future black and shrouded
Like a young bride amidst the northern sand dunes

Talk to me about hope
When, crushed by yesterday
We gather our ragged souls
And place our dreams in empty pockets
A fierce glint in the eyes of the living
Daring the sun to set on our strength
Does this make heaven laugh?
To see us struggle?
Chanting words of faith to hollow clouds?
Clutching charms and omens
Winds and stars to tell us
To answer us but they never do

Talk to me about fear
It’s in each creak in wooden doors
The cryptic call of night birds
The clap of thunder in a storm
At the doorstep of the new year
In the exit of the old
Shivering, stepping cautiously and murmuring
Prayers and dropping copious libations
Disease, death, want, all elusive spirits
Taunt us from behind their invisibility
Too scared to cast our bread on many waters
We cast our faith on many altars

This is hard, this lot of man
The sweat in glistening blisters on our brows
Old clothing and worn shoes
Looking out to this same shrouded elusive future
Shy like a young bride
Far and farther with each step
But talk to me about hope,
We keep on walking

Posted from WordPress for BlackBerry.

Long Skirts Bring Bad Luck

It was their voices that chased me; the loud derisive laughter that followed me down the street. I was anxious. Was it me? It had to be. I could feel their eyes all over me. Or was I being paranoid? Why would anyone look at me anyway? Peal after peal of laughter broke out behind me as if on cue. Maybe it’s my hair, I thought desperately. I patted it hastily as I quickened my steps down the path that led from my house to the main road. The dusty hem of my skirt flapped around my ankles as I tried to speed walk past them – drunk men under a tree; loud traders sitting on benches outside their stalls to lap up what little breeze a February evening could offer.

I wanted to outrun their laughter and the now irritatingly long hem of my skirt. They all seemed to echo his parting text: “babez I lyk yhu. Ur kul nd al buh yhu know we move wit dfrnt crowds. It wud jez b awkward 4 both of us.”  I woke up to it yesterday the way fine girls wake up to flowers and candy on random mornings. Short. Crisp and with a nonchalance in its tone as if to say, “you understand now, it’s not that serious.” I knew what he meant with the crowd thing. I wouldn’t fit in with his friends and their girlfriends with Brazilian weaves and bodies sparkling with all manner of adornment. Whose every instagram post had ‘slay’ in the caption and thousands of likes. Who were everything I did not have the means, the courage or the permission to be.

Deji had swept me off my feet from the first day. His deep voice and the faint traces of foreignness in his accent made his every word pure gold; I would replay everything he said in my head over and over again each night. Even now I could hear his voice breaking up with me in those few careless words. But I saw it coming and if I’m being honest, I couldn’t blame him; I should have known I was doomed from the start.

I met him in my favourite skirt. It was long – the only kind my mother allowed her girls to wear – nearly sweeping the floor, black and just tight enough to remain on my waist and show the outline of my hips. Mummy smiled every time I wore it, she said I looked elegant. She is an English teacher, my mother – one of the very good ones in the country, so there was a way she said the word ‘elegant’ that made me feel like she was the only one who truly understood what it meant. I would pair it with a long sleeved shirt, taking care to ensure that it did not draw any attention to my rather full breasts and a pair of smart black shoes – Mummy despises sandals. As I stepped out of my room she would look over the rims of her reading glasses and send me back to attend to my hair. Another peal of laughter rose behind me. It was loud and phlegmy and quickly turned to an equally loud and phlegmy bout of coughs. I instinctively smoothed my hair knowing it was futile. Mummy always complained that I needed to pay more attention to my hair. I would always have to drag a brush ruthlessly through the dense springy mass on my head and force it into a tight bun secured by several pins to keep the errant tufts in place. Only after this painful exercise would I receive her approving nod the long awaited, “you look very elegant my dear.” I would smile and conclude that the throbbing headache under the neatly packed hair was worth it after all.

Today I hadn’t had the time or energy for my hair. What did it matter anyway? It wasn’t a silky weave, it wouldn’t swing when I tossed my head. It would only escape from the bun and point skyward. I just wanted to get to Sister Josephine’s house. Despite the ten year age difference, she was the only person in the world who really understood me. I just hoped that her husband would have travelled like he often did – I can’t stand him you see- I still think she could have done so much better.

The speed walk was a bad idea. I could feel the sweat running down my face and into my eyes even my shirt now clung to my back. I felt disgusting. Maybe that was why Deji left me. Those other girls never seemed to sweat, they just dabbed their faces daintily with little tissues and complained about “this Naija sun” as if a different one were assigned to each country. I hated being jealous but I couldn’t help it. I would never be able to compete with them. I didn’t even have the luxury of hating them; I just wanted to be them – and have natural hair that looked soft and pampered, expensive perfumes, perfectly drawn eyebrows and a mother that would let me do and own those things. I love my mother but I felt she had somehow cost me Deji with all her rules and proclamations of my imaginary
beauty and elegance. She really had me believing that I didn’t need any of it – the makeup, the tight clothing, the fake hair and jewellery to be beautiful – that I was finer than most girls and those things would only attract unnecessary attention to my body. With all the confidence of a child I had believed that I was beautiful because Mummy said I was. I knew differently this morning after the yesterday’s anger had solidified into a calm and heavy depression. I am…average in height and weight. My hair is natural and quite full but is an unremarkable dark brown. It hasn’t had the luxury of deep conditioning and all the machinations that make the natural look glamorous for other girls. My complexion is equally unremarkable so that I am neither a black beauty nor one of the more favoured light skinned goddesses. I actually wept when I pinched a generous fold of extra flesh from my stubbornly round tummy. My thick straight eyebrows, flat nose and small lips sealed my fate. I’m actually not a fine girl.

A group of guys swaggered past me and I found myself wishing one of them would look at me or even make a vulgar comment that would have horrified me two days ago.  They seemed to fall silent as they approached. I stared at the ground – every loose stone, every blade of grass and pure water sachet had my attention. I tried to walk a little more gracefully without appearing to try. My skirt felt like a tent. A long, black hideous tent fastened to my waist. I felt conspicuous and small at the same time. I thought about when I met Deji and he said I was different from the other girls he had known. That I was effortlessly beautiful. They passed quietly their eyes seemed to focus on me for a fraction of a second before they either looked away or appeared to see through me. Not into my soul but through me to the uncompleted building behind me. I was invisible. Invisible.

I must have had an epiphany then. I saw the exact moment when Deji began to notice my dowdy clothes and plain face. When I lost the mystery of buried potential and took on the irritatingness of wasted potential. He had come in his car – a neat little Yaris – to take me out and I had worn my black skirt (for luck you see, since I was wearing when we met) he gave me an odd look that I didn’t understand until I passed that group of guys. It was blank. Even when he held my hand it felt empty. When we bumped into some of his friends at the cinema he introduced me simply as Onome and seemed in a hurry to leave immediately after the movie. We never went out in public after that. He would come to hostel in the evening and we would listen to music in his car or he would come to my house when Mummy wasn’t home. Gradually he began to fade away and make half-hearted excuses for his absence. I knew it was over but I just could not let go until yesterday’s text came in.

They started laughing. Hot tears stung my eyes and I broke into a sprint. I no longer cared about the sweat or the heat. I just had to escape.

My skirt must have gotten caught on one of the abandoned barbed wires rolled up beside the road. I stumbled mid- sprint and fell- right into the path of an old car with a learner’s L.

I think I passed out or went into shock or something. I could hear loud voices from a distance but I couldn’t make out the words. All I was fully aware of was my skirt. The long black monstrosity that brought Deji into my life and irritated him out of it in five short weeks. He must have hated it and its many counterparts; I could tell by the way he shoved at their folds as he slid his teasing fingers up my legs to reduce me to a shivering, wanton mess. Or was that just lust? My mind was foggy. But one thing was clear: long black skirts will lie to you and tell you that you are ‘elegant’. They will bring a charming Yoruba demon into your life. They will drive him out of it and leave you with a poorly spelt break up text. Then they will make people laugh at you. When you’re thoroughly embarrassed and miserable, they will trip you and leave you injured. They bring nothing but bad luck.

At least, I thought as I drifted into the light, mine is torn.

Charm

Strange people in shady clusters

Voices floating in whispers

A certain kind of night time

Damp warmth between your skin and mine

Strange music playing far away

Dance with me through the grey threads

Empty dreams of love in our heads

Sunlight will kill them

Spit in the dirt like phlegm

Strange laughter cracks through the wall

A charmed night

Like a spell fading at midnight

We belong in the dark

Before the sun swings its blinding arc

And  the light shows us bruised and broken

Happy

I want to be happy

No I don’t mean curved lips or bared teeth

I want that gleam in her eye when he holds her hand

I want the contentment of a newborn at mother’s breast

Maybe I want the lightness of a new believer

Or the peace of a purged penitent

I know I want to hear melody in a bird’s song

Not a noisome chirp chirp at my window

I want to raise my hands and kiss the sky

To feel my radiance warm my face

I want to run like a child

I want to laugh without reason

I want to be happy

Pray for us Sinners

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You are all the good and all the innocent

Pray for us sinners before you go to sleep

Clear as a day before sunrise

Only light can reveal the shame of the night

While your face bears the mark of the innocent

While your prayers are carried to heaven on angel’s wings

Pray for us sinners before we go down deep

 

Skidding down the broad street they painted wide grins

Dancing demons in amusement parks

Dripping red smiles on clown faces

They said sin happens in shameless daylight

Said sinners are all the rich and all the happy

But ours is in dimly lit corners of cages

Behind rusty pulpits wrapped in torn holy pages

Child, sin is a gnarled old woman who lost her teeth and her children

Sin is beauty burned out of the soul

The Broad Street is dark and slippery

Where dreadful beasts play in the night

Pray for us sinners at the last ray of light

 

Sin is disease and gripping night terrors

Sin is judgment poured out in chalices

Quivering lips at the jagged rim of the cup of damnation

Oh and our cup runneth over

Sin concludes in empty graveyards

Dried blood in our fingernails

While your cheeks are unstained by tears

And your hands are small and clean

Pray for us sinners

 

Mother

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It’s funny what people will do for money.

She was so alive last night, like she knew I was coming. It was the same as it always has been – the dream. I am a little scrap of a thing running on wobbly legs through the rain. I never could be quite carefree while she watched me with that odd look in her eyes. Questioning and suspicious and tender in an unsettling way. She screams and charges at me with her hand poised above her head, ready to strike; the terror imprisons my tiny body as she approaches and swats a mosquito on my right arm with unnecessary aggression. As I open my mouth to scream, she enfolds me in a fierce embrace and I feel her tears on my cheek. Waking, I am alone and the tears on my cheek are my own.

She is just like I see her in my dreams. It isn’t the hair or the clothes; you expect that from people in her condition. It is the way she looks at me. I am the only thing she really sees; and even then I don’t fit into the plane she lives on. It is the resemblance; I see my lips, my skin beneath the layers of grime; I see me less than two decades down the line give or take a few years I guess, I don’t really know her age. It scares me that she retains some eerie freshness about her. As if the dimension on which her mind has been suspended for so long also preserved her body, her figure is stunning for one her age – whatever that is.

Aunty Rose doesn’t know I’m here; she wouldn’t have approved anyway so it’s just as well she doesn’t. The thought of her busily cooking up some extravagant delicacy to celebrate my homecoming brings a ghost of a smile to my face. I have just returned to Lagos after completing a Master’s programme in England, or at least so they think back home. I’ve been back for a week now, staying with Ifeanyi while I mustered the courage to find the phantom from my dreams.

I  grew up with Aunty Rose and her husband whose name I often forget, I just call him Uncle and everyone else calls him Pastor, I don’t really know what Aunty Rose calls him; they barely speak. Their entire marriage seems hinged on unspoken boundaries, shared responsibilities and church activities. I’m not sure how to describe Aunty and Uncle, they’re like my parents even though we are not in any way related. Adopted parents ddoesn’tseem right either; they always made me call them Aunty and Uncle back then when I joined them in fervent prayers to God that they might have a child of their own. Here I guiltily recall pleading with God not to grant their request; in my childish mind I saw myself becoming Cinderella to their own children, should they have any. It was easier being a ward if you were the only one. When I was about thirteen Aunty Rose came to my room one night with a huge smile and a big brown Teddy Bear with glowing eyes and red ribbon around its neck. “You know you are like a daughter to me,” she murmured as she stroked my hair, I nodded wordlessly and lowered my eyes to hide my confusion. Not that she and Uncle weren’t nice but such displays of emotion were foreign to us. I often wondered if she and her husband forgot to have sex as they prayed diligently for children. “I want you to start calling me mummy mmmh? This Aunty thing doesn’t make sense anymore. We are a family,” she continued as if we were in the middle of a nightly routine in which we decided to snuggle, exchange presents and confer honorary titles of ‘father’, ‘mother’ and ‘child’ on each other. I nodded once more and faked a yawn, she took the hint instantly and stuffed the bear into my arms and dropped an awkward kiss on my forehead before leaving my room. I heard her sobbing late into the night as I lay awake next to this odd and slightly terrifying teddy bear she had given me. That was the first night I had The Dream.

Years later I learned that she had come to my room after discovering that a late period she had thought to be a pregnancy symptom was actually the beginning of menopause. We never prayed for a child after that. When I told this story to Claire, my best friend in England, she nearly choked me with an unexpected hug, somewhat reminiscent of the woman in my dreams. “I’m so sorry,” she said tearfully, “I can’t believe they would do that to a child.” I was speechless as she stared at me with pity and horror in her pale blue eyes. “They saw you as nothing but a consolation prize, no one deserves to feel that way,” she wailed and hugged me once more repeating between sobs and sniffs how sorry she was that I had to go through that. I patted her back gently and comforted my dear sweet English friend over a tragedy I never realised was mine.

I’ve been here for almost an hour, my feet are starting to hurt, I wish I knew what to say, how to communicate with this person. Just as I reach out to touch her and say… anything, she gives a loud piercing shriek and runs into the darkening evening. In my fear I stepped back and tripped. I feel hot tears on my face as I watch her receding figure; what was I hoping to see? I am barely conscious of Ifeanyi’s arm as they slip around me, lifting me from the pitiful heap to which I crumpled. I lean into him and give a loud scream of my own, even my voice is hers.

He leads me gently to the car and we drive back to his place. I feel like he says things on the journey home, but I hear nothing; I see nothing but this demented woman that haunts me in my dreams. I see myself in her eyes, an anomaly; the product of what may well have been a perverse ritual between a desperate young man and the poor, mad woman I know I must call mother.

The word pushes itself through my lips before I can stop it, “Mother”.