“At night your dog kept barking,
we thought it was learning to accept the heat.” — Akpa Arinze.
Thick, smoky clouds fill the sky, and darkness spreads over everything like night. It’s a few minutes past four. The wind blows things in the air. Strands of nylon. Pieces of clothing. Dirt. Dust particles. Everyone is busy: market women are packing their things—pepper in tiny bowls of different colors, fish on wooden trays, vegetables, loaves of bread, fufu—off the stalls, and taking them into their shops. Okada men are in a hurry to get somewhere—home or a park where the sky won’t shed its tears on their tired bodies.
I’m running to avoid being beaten by the rain. It is unlikely that I will get home before it begins to rain hard; it’s now drizzling. I should seek cover, find somewhere to shelter, but I can’t afford to get home after five. I ought to have been home before three. School ends at two p.m., and, by bike or taxi, getting home takes seven minutes. Walking—walking alone—takes more time, almost thirty minutes. But walking with my friends—David, Ibro, and Agboola—takes double the time it would take if I were alone.
Today is the first time I’ve walked with them since Tobi left. I stopped walking with them because Mommy is now too concerned about me. She no longer sends me to buy things outside past seven, unlike before, when I used to go and grind pepper at Iya Tosin’s down the street past nine whenever she got back from work late and there was no light at home. Before, I’d go buy bread past eight. When Tobi was home from school, it was always around ten p.m. that he got hungry and he wanted to eat suya. I’d go along with him. But things have changed. Other than not letting me go out at night, she has stopped me from playing outside, on the street, and nobody is allowed to come into our compound to come and play with me. Whenever Paul, the boy who stays opposite us, comes over to ask me to come and play with him, Mommy tells him to go home and do something useful with his time.
The rain is now heavy. I run for cover under the eaves of a building complex. There, about eight other people are sheltering, all of them waiting for the rain to quiet down. I stand next to a girl who is seventeen, maybe eighteen. She smells of fish, fried fish. I guess that’s what she sells. She reminds me of Bose, the daughter of the woman we used to buy fish from before Tobi happened. Every time I went there to buy fish and Bose was around—and she was around almost all the time—she was the one who sold to me. Whenever she sold to me, she’d add extra. As she handed me the nylon bag, she’d ask me, “How is Tobi?” I’d tell her he was fine. She’d ask if he was coming home, when he was coming home. Whenever he was around and we went there together and she saw him, she acted like a child, almost tripping over things. I knew she liked him, but I didn’t mention it, because he knew it too. One evening, when he was at home, his phone rang and he smiled that wide smile of his and said, “This girl ehn!” Afterwards, he told me she’d said something like “I want you to use your hmm to shift my womb”, a line from Kizz Daniel’s Madu. I thought he was joking until he showed me one of her messages where she was asking if she could come over to our house one morning when no one but Tobi was at home, for the thing. I didn’t know what to say; I just wanted to laugh, but I was trying very hard not to. And then I laughed. Tobi looked at me and said, “Why are you laughing?” I was just thinking of him shifting her womb with his hmm, I said. He looked at me and smiled, said he didn’t do girls. The next minute, before I could ask him what he meant, he was asking if the food was ready.
That was how it was with Tobi. He would say something serious, but before you could interrogate him about what he meant, he’d be somewhere else. Once, I went to his room to wake him up for morning prayers. When he had sat up in his bed and looked at the time on the wall clock, he told me how much he wished he slept one night and didn’t wake up the next. My mouth went half-open. I was about to ask why he’d said that, when he stood up and said, “Does the routine of living never tire you?”
The girl’s phone rings. The ringtone sounds like a piano song played for a baby, and the phone’s torchlight is blinking. She picks, tells someone she is safe, that she is waiting for the rain to calm, that she’ll be home soon. I don’t know what I’ll tell Mommy when I get home. I know she’ll be waiting by the door, either to slap me or rain words on me. Or to hand me a towel. Since Tobi happened, she has become unpredictable. Unlike Daddy, who is still the hard-hard man he always was. These days, there are times when I expect Mommy to get mad and call me names for something I have done wrong, but she doesn’t. Most of the time she does the opposite. I wonder what she’ll do today when I walk through the gate and I find her standing by the door.
I should never have listened to David, Ibro, and Agboola. First, when they said we should walk together like we used to, and then when they suggested I play ball with them. “Just a few minutes. We will just play small and then we’ll be going,” David had said. But football is not something to which we can dictate how long we want to play; it does the dictating. We started playing, and twenty minutes we were still there shouting one another’s names, our legs and feet covered in dust. Forty minutes later, with my team trying to equalize, Baba Gateman came and shooed all of us away. While walking home, we talked: about the girls, Ibro and David like girls too much; about football and Nairabet, Ibro said he almost won eighty-something thousand naira but one team had ruined his paper; and about the fresh corpers who just arrived at our school. And when we talk and walk, it never feels like we’re walking; it feels like we’re crawling. It was sometime around quarter to four that the clouds began to gather — we were not even a quarter of the way yet — and I had to leave them behind. I’d have taken a bike, but what was left of my bike money was thirty-naira; I had used seventy naira to buy pure-water and biscuits for myself and my friends.
I know I shouldn’t have done any of those things. But I couldn’t help it. They were my friends after all, my best friends, and we used to do almost everything together until Tobi happened and Mommy decreed that I must be at home before three p.m., and before two p.m. on Fridays because school closed at one on Fridays. It wasn’t that after Tobi happened I couldn’t talk or laugh with them, but there was just something about this new talk and laughter that seemed unlike the one before Tobi happened. They looked at me so softly, pity bright in their eyes, as if something will break inside me if they looked at me differently. Unlike before, they stopped involving me in the games they played in class, and during break-time. They knew about Tobi and they could see past my laughter and find the spaces where grief had written her lines. They saw her sketches in the blank spaces — the silences — that were my responses to certain things.
There was a day, at the beginning of this term, when I was standing by the rail, looking down at other students who were going and coming, chatting and arguing, eating and begging. It was break-time. I’d only gone out for sausages and a bottle of zobo. David came and stood next to me. After a few minutes of awkward silence, he told me, “Your brother is gone. Nothing can change that. You are still here; you don’t have to act like you are not.”
I knew he was right, I had my own life to live, but I knew very well that it wasn’t as easy as he had put it. When he and Ibro and Agboola made all those requests today, I just knew I couldn’t say no. Especially to the football request.
Before today, the last time my legs had run a field, or my feet kicked a ball, was the Thursday before the Friday I walked home and met people gathered around our house, inside our compound, like flies around a fat wound. I didn’t need anybody to tell me that someone was dead. Someone who meant something to those of us who lived in that house. I thought that if someone was dead, it must be Daddy. Though that was going to be painful, it would be bearable. It shouldn’t be Mommy. It couldn’t be Tobi. Tobi was safe in school.
I walked into the house, the eyes of those outsidei burning my back, and there was Mommy. Thank God. Though she looked anything but safe. It felt as if someone had poured werepe on her body; she just kept scratching her skin, and shouting. Women — some of whom I knew, others whom I did not — tried to hold her hands, but she fought them. She kept shouting on. “E fi mi le. E fi mi si le!” Again and again. “E fi mi le. E fi mi si le!” Then she sucked in her lips and bit herself. She did this until her chapped lip was all bloodied. There were tears in her eyes, tears I didn’t touch but I knew were warm enough to burn my hand. I stood there and watched. I don’t think she saw me, and if she did, I don’t think she knew it was me. Her son. In that moment, she was blind to the world. Uncle Shile came and asked me to go and meet my Daddy, that he was calling me. Daddy too was fine. Nobody would tell me who had died; they all tried to shift my mind from it, to make me un-know what I already knew. Daddy — with eyes ruddy red from crying — took me out to a food canteen and asked me what I wanted to eat.
I ordered white rice and beans and plantain and fried fish and meat, and I ate. Then a bottle of SevenUp to wash it down. I finished the food. I didn’t leave a grain of rice on the plate. I emptied the SevenUp bottle too, even though I knew, somewhere inside my chest, as I lifted each spoon of rice and beans and plantain and fish to my mouth, that something had happened to my brother, because blood speaks to blood. When this feeling was confirmed, when on our way back home Daddy, without any emotion, any that I could notice, said, “Tobi died”, I wanted to put a shovel into my mouth and scoop out all that I had eaten.
When we got back home, I went to his room, Tobi’s. The smell of that room, the sight of all the big books he used to read piled on a yellow table at the corner of the room, and the plaques he won when he was still in secondary school, made the things inside me lose their roots, and I couldn’t help it. I poured everything — the rice, the beans, the fish, the plantain, the stew, and the SevenUp — onto the rug in his room.
The sky is somewhat quiet now, though it’s still weeping, but gently, the way a child would after he has been handed the sweet he was crying for. That’s how Tobi would have described it; that’s how he described things in those poems he wrote. He didn’t let me read them, because, according to him, they were bad and didn’t deserve to be read.
Mommy is standing by the door with a towel in her hand when I get home.
“Good afternoon ma.” I prostrate.
“Come here. Did you walk under the rain?” She takes my bag from me, and hands me the towel.
“Should I make you tea?” she asks.
I shake my head. When she walks to the kitchen to boil water, I take my bag and go to my room to take off my uniform. I change into a t-shirt and a pair of blue Chelsea shorts that used to belong to Tobi.
A few weeks after his death, Daddy had gone into his room to pack out his things for burning, before locking his room. He said there was no use keeping any of them. Although Mommy protested, he wouldn’t listen. All he let her do was take some of his things. Even as she took the things she took — some of his clothes, his bedsheets, a black face cap with a Nike design, and some of his photographs (Daddy had wanted to burn those too; in fact, he burned some of them) — he had looked at her with a certain kind of disdain. Behind their backs, I had gone to his room to take his things that matter to me: his books. If there was any explanation for why he did what he did to himself, it’d be written somewhere in these books. Sometimes, I sneak the books to school in my bag and read them in class, while a teacher is busy explaining simultaneous or quadratic equations.
“Peju,” Mommy calls.
At the table, Mommy has placed a steaming cup of tea, a plate of fried eggs, and eight slices of bread before me. Mommy sits down, across me, looking at me like I’m some kind of dream. Under her gaze, it is hard to concentrate on the food; it feels awkward.
“Can I also get some tea?”
Daddy. I didn’t know he was home He usually comes home on weekdays around eight p.m. or nine. It is rare to find him at home at this time.
“Good afternoon sir,” I prostrate.
“Welcome,” he says, as he settles into an armchair.
“E wo. I am tired, and the milk in the fridge won’t be enough,” Mommy says.
“So Peju cannot go and buy milk? Or they don’t sell milk in the world anymore?” He is holding up a copy of Punch.
“He just returned from school not long ago, and it is very cold outside. I can’t send him out. He has to go and rest.”
“That is how you spoil them. That is how you make them rot,” Daddy says. “And you, come here.”
I stand up.
“He is eating,” Mommy says.
“I’m not blind,” Daddy says. “Come here. Why did you come back from school late today?”
“I was copying notes—”
“So notes cannot be brought home?”
I don’t know what to say. One thing you cannot do with Daddy is to try to explain things to him; he won’t listen. This is one of the reasons he and Tobi weren’t on good terms.
“Can’t you talk?” he asks. “Can notes not be brought home?”
Mommy comes and takes me back to the dining table.
“You want to spoil this one too, like you spoiled the other one. But I will not allow you,” Daddy says.
“My child is my child. I’ll raise them however I want.”
“I will not let you raise this one just however you want. No. I already told you, after his BECE he is going to stay with Aunt Bisola.”
“Over my dead body will my child leave my care and go and stay in any woman’s house.”
“So my sister is any woman?”
“What is she if not any woman? Did she bear my children for me?”
“The talk of a stupid woman.”
“It is you who are a stupid man. You and your stupid family.”
“Uh. I am grateful for my family. At least my sisters are doing well, and I don’t have a brother in jail, and none of them have lost a son to his own hands.”
“Your sisters are doing well? Really. All of them chased out of their husbands’ houses, one by one. They are really doing well. And when did it become an offense to have a brother in jail? You that you don’t have any brother in jail, are your brothers not beasts? Beasts who beat their wives for fun.”
“And Tobi’s leaving is your fault. You are the stupid man who never listens to his son.”
“Who listens to foolish talk? Who listens to that, tell me? When we were supposed to put our mouths together to warn him to desist from the filth he was dabbling in you were going behind my back to comfort him.”
“What do you know about pain, or anything? You were busy chasing girls the ages of your younger sisters when that boy was growing inside me. What do you know; you senseless man!”
“Thank you. Shebi your comfort has done good now. Abi? Your comfort has healed the boy.”
“I should have known. My sister told me she saw it in your eyes; that you are just a wretched animal clothed in human skin. I should have listened.”
I take my plate, most of the eggs still there, and the cup of tea, with some tea in it, to the kitchen.
“You should have listened. And, of the two of us, who is the animal? Is it me or you? You who were comforting a boy who said it was boys like himself he wanted to love? A boy who looked at me and told me, Daddy, girls aren’t just my thing? Who is the animal, me or you?”
“What do you know about love? You don’t know a thing? A thing.”
They won’t stop. They’ll keep going, throwing words — from the past, from the past-past, others from the future — at each other. And they are doing this with their volumes turned up high. They used to quarrel before Tobi left, but it was never as terrible as it is now. They will go on like this for hours, speaking of past mistakes and wrongs at the top of their voices. Outside, people on the street will lay down their ears to pick every word they let fly from their mouths.
From my room, I can hear them. Mommy and Daddy. It’s now almost nine p.m. I have a book open before me, placed on the orange chair Tobi had given me when he was leaving for Lagos State University four years ago. If he was still here, this year would have been his final. I can’t read. Whenever they start, I can hardly piece together a sentence on the page, even though my eyes are wide open. The book I’m trying to read is one of those I took from Tobi’s room. Freshwater. I’ve been reading it for the past two weeks, sneaking it to school and reading it at night at home, when I am sure Daddy or Mommy won’t come knocking on the door.
I should be sleeping, but on nights like this, sleep takes long to come. And when it does, the dream comes with it like its shadow. In the dream, Tobi, dressed in a long white robe, stands before me and smiles. Then he asks me, “Don’t you ever get tired —”, pauses, and before I can ask him of what, he points at the floor —“of all of this?” On the floor, all the words that Mommy and Daddy have been raining on each other. In the dream, the words are shards of glass. There are a lot of them. Tobi bends down, picks twenty-two big ones with his right hand, collects them in his left. He then squeezes his left hand such that the shards shred his palm. With his right hand, he picks a shard and another from his shred hand — the same way we used to take the sacrament bread from the tray — and he drops them into his mouth, one after the other. He doesn’t chew them. He swallows them whole. As each goes down, it tears a side of his throat. He keeps smiling. He keeps picking the shards from his shredded hand and swallowing. He does this until all twenty-two shards are sticking out of his throat, like our many prayers in the tiny bag we drop them in, until his throat looks like a cistern with many mouths, blood running out of each. When he opens his mouth to say the last word, which he never says, I see a dark passage inside his mouth, one I don’t know where it leads to.
I know that wasn’t how he left, but we simply don’t choose how we remember.
This story appears in the Ritual issue of drr. Get your copy here.
Image: Aisha Mugo ‘You are all we have‘.
Ernest O. Ògúnyemí is a writer from Nigeria. His poems and short stories have appeared/ are forthcoming in magazines, including: Yemassee, Indianapolis Review, Litro Magazine, Acumen Poetry Journal, Lucent Dreaming, 34 Orchards, Memento: An Anthology of Contemporary Nigerian Poetry, Erotic Africa: The Sex Anthology, and Agbowó, amongst other places. He is the curator of The Fire That Is Dreamed Of: The Young African Poets Anthology.