Innocent Chizaram Ilo
The women of Awele come to Miss Kish at Chalet 97 to be born again. A tall woman with black-pepper-sprinkled-on-sunflower skin and eyes that pretend to not see you owns the place. She is also the first woman to leave the man she was meant to marry and become born again. They say she went to a place called Selemku; we do not know if this is true. It could have been Lagos or Kampala or Ouagadougou or Djibouti. But we know Miss Kish brought back tales of people who lived in brick houses, rode cars, and drank their soup directly from enamel bowls – without spoons! In the evenings, she would gather the girls at her dressing table and tell them stories about this Selemku. On one of such evenings, she showed the girls six huge glass jars filled with diamond-shaped bubbles that were so shiny they tinkled behind the glass. Miss Kish said it was where she stored all the love she came back with.
“What is love?” one of the girls had asked her.
“Ah, something they take away from you when they take away your freedom to choose…”
The girls mhmmmed as if they understood what Miss Kish said.
“In a town far away from here, love falls on the streets like rain,” Miss Kish continued in the surreal voice of an enchantress casting a spell, half-awake.
You see, the men of this town pretend not to like Miss Kish, not to care she exists, not to have ever spoken to or seen her. And when they talk about her, they use code names like Akwuna, Ofeke, Anya-Oku, as if it will stop her from being Miss Kish. But we know better. We know they still steal their wives’ gold bracelets to pay for Miss Kish’s exquisite massages. The women of the town loathe Miss Kish for daring to become something they can only dream of. Mothers talk to their daughters about the woman who owns Chalet 97 only when they want to give an example of what girls should never become.
“Let me not see you hanging out at that woman’s place. Women like her are all trouble and no sauce.”
But you know young girls, they will always go back to Chalet 97.
When Ambi decided to leave home and become born again, she did not say any goodbyes, iyasikwa. She did not remind her mother to collect the change they left with the salesgirls at Akwu Igwe the last time they bought shea-butter. She did not tell the little children who built sandcastles in front of her father’s house to go in before the sky purples if they do not want sandflies to feast on their legs. Ambi left with a stiff back and eyes facing forward. Forward, she hoped, would lead her to a place where the hands of who and what she was running from would be too weak to clasp her neck and drag her back to Awele.
Awele is Ambi’s home-home. You know, the place she was born, the waters that formed her – the remembered and the unremembered. It is nothing like the place she’ll run to. Time veers off in Awele, ten times faster than this place Miss Kish always talked about. Ambi left Awele on the day she clocked 100. It sounds implausible, we know. Most lives in this place she runs to end at 100, if they are lucky. But in Awele, 100 means your life has just begun.
Begun to end.
You see, everyone remembers the day they left home.
Two locks of hair peeked out of her hairnet when Ambi woke up that morning. Her eyes ran along the mould that formed circular whorls on the ceiling. She was 100 now, which meant she wouldn’t be allowed to climb the roof and help her father remove mouldy boards put up new ones. She looked into the mirror, over and over again, in search for any sign of grownness. The discolouration that gradually yellowed as it spread around her nape, the strap of hair around her wrists, and the wine-red glint of her eyes were the same. Nothing seemed to have changed, but Ambi knew that everything was going to change that day.
“My daughter is finally 100!” Ambi’s mother announced to an unseen audience as she waltzed into the room.
“I know. I know.”
“May anyanwu shine on my beloved,” said Ambi’s mother as she pushed the brocade curtains aside to let in the yellow streaks of sunlight. She stretched her hands towards the sky, and, as if on cue, the sun caressed Ambi’s face. Daughter hugged mother and they both sniffed deep into each other’s fragrance – daughter’s musty from not having a bath the night before and mother’s a tinge of lavender.
“Let me show you my wings,” Ambi said as she uncurled from the hug.
She flung open the wardrobe and brought out a pair of neatly-folded, gossamer wings. The wings had been lying at the bottom of the wardrobe for years and were covered with dust. Her father had bought them on the same morning Ambi crawled into this world. She was 100 now so she would be allowed to fly and join the clique of women who clustered inside Mama Ndàdi’s saloon, flaunting their tattooed wings and tittering about feeling queasy from all that flying. For once, she wanted to get into the spirit of things but the thought of being married off to a man she never knew or loved, the next day, scared her.
“Elo will be the best thing to ever happen to you,” her mother had told her the other day.
“How are you so sure of this, Mama? I have not even seen him. How can I love who I can’t see?”
“You’ll grow to love him. We all do. It was the same with your father and me.”
But we know women like Ambi. We know the psalms encrypted in their eyes, psalms that belt melodies of freedom, of finding love in far-flung places, of living life at their own terms.
Evening. Ambi told her mother that she wanted to go to Ifechali Square and try out her new wings.
Her mother allowed her to leave the house, with a warning that she should not get into any trouble. Mama Ambi knew her daughter was lying. She smelled it in Ambi’s twitching eyebrows and in her fingers that curled around an empty wing-sack. But she still let her go.
Your father will come home soon was the last thing Ambi heard from her mother. This string of words were too bland to shoulder the weight of the last words a daughter hears from her mother before she leaves home to become born again.
The cha-cha gamblers who drank away the night in front of Chalet 97 whistled at Ambi as she walked past them.
“Milky shadow. Come over here let us whack your butt,” one of the men said.
“I will pay you well,” another added.
“Orezi, you’ve gambled away the money in your pocket. How are you going to pay her?” Mr. Butt-Whacker teased Mr. I-Will-Pay-You-Well.
“Don’t trouble my girls or I’ll come down there and break your necks!” Miss Kish shouted from her bedroom window.
The men sighed and kept quiet.
A girl with an unusually long neck opened the door and led Ambi upstairs, where Miss Kish was reclining on a silver chaise-lounge, sipping tamarind juice.
“Ah, it’s you Ambi.” She set her juice glass down. “Are you here for one of my stories?”
“No, I’m here to be born again.”
Miss Kish blinked and spilled some of her juice on the upholstery. “Are you sure?”
“You know the consequences. If you leave, he’ll follow you and he’ll find you. He’ll chastise you to come back here. He’ll turn your love sour, not because he wants you to ever be his wife but because he wants to pay you back for crushing his ego.”
“Why do you want this?”
“I want to taste the love that you say falls from the sky in Selemku.”
“Do you really want to taste love? It is a selfish thing and causes pain to others.”
Ambi nodded again.
Miss Kish took Ambi to the bathroom and told her to lie down in a bathtub filled with water that smelled of hyacinth and peppermint.
“Don’t worry dear, it will be over in no time.”
The last thing Ambi saw before she died was rainbow bubbles. A faint song strummed the air in the room.
Die to born in a town far away where love falls like rain.
Die, as a compromise to be born in love.
When Ambi opened her eyes, she was wrapped in a purple shawl. Mr. and Mrs. Ladipo’s grinning faces were standing above her cot.
Her new parents gave her love, warmth and a new name – Oge. Ambi-now-Oge dreamt of dancing in clinking glass-shoes, every night. But you see, even if we leave home, home does not leave us because home is not just a place; it is what we carry around, the same way a chicken carries the swarm of files feeding on the sores of its crown, to the grave.
Elo was bound to follow her, to torment her, to turn her love sour.
On the night of her twelfth birthday, the mirror in Oge’s bedroom cracked. She knew what it meant. She knew who had come. She knew the sound of the footsteps thudding along the hallway. She knew the hands turning the door knobs. By morning, the whole house was dripping red with blood. Mr. and Mrs. Ladipo’s mangled corpses were lying in the basement. The days that followed were a big room filled with cold benches, a man who wore a vulture coat and a funny wig banging a gavel, a group of old men and women sitting on a bench, lips pursed, and papers being signed. When it was all over, Oge was taken to Ma Joy’s Home for Kids.
Her name was Water. Water had eyeballs the colour of dissolved darkness, a fine-cut face, curly locks of Fro, and purple lips. Her real name was Urema but everybody at Ma Joy’s Home for Kids called her Water because she drowned her uncle in a well – that was her story; everybody had a story at Ma Joy’s Home for Kids. There was: Madu, the boy who drank sewer water; Uli, the tiny girl who could walk through fire; Achara, the wimpy boy who liked slashing his palms with a knife; Ofor, who was neither a boy nor a girl; Ebele, who talked to ghosts; Tochi, who was never hungry; Dozie, whose drooling trickled down the staircase, in slimy rivulets.
Nobody talked to Water apart from Oge. The other kids threw wet ginger peels at her and shouted: “Bet you like to drown another person with this type of water too.” Every night, Water and Oge would sit on the pavement and traced the constellation of stars. They loved Orion the Hunter. They believed Orion could protect them, as if stars existed for that purpose.
“You know I didn’t push him,” Water told Oge one night.
“My uncle. Uncle Arinze. He was my sweetest uncle. The voices in my head pushed him. It wasn’t me.”
Oge hugged Water and told her that she also knew a thing or two about voices.
“Did the voices in your head kill your parents?” the other girl asked.
“No, it was a man. A man I am running away from.”
“What is his name?”
Oge stayed up late, long after Water went to bed, that night. The tawny owls, perched on the Icheku tree, kept her company with their hoots. Elo came when it chimed midnight. He stood behind the pot plants. As soon as she saw him, Oge tiptoed to Water’s bed but the bed was empty. She searched all the rooms, the pantry, the kitchen, but could not find her. Elo had taken care of her, the same way he did to Mr. and Mrs. Ladipo. Water’s bloated body was found in the reservoir the next morning.
Five years after Water died, Oge left Ma Joy’s Home for Kids to a tiny apartment uptown. There, she hoped she would blend into the shadows of yellow buses, skyscrapers, the warm, drowning noise of city folks and, maybe, peck on love, bit by bit, until Elo found her, again. And did she find love? Yes, in the form of another woman, Nonye. She had eyes that reminded Oge of Water. They got married and made a beautiful daughter, Kosi.
Just hold your breath, this is not a love story. We do not know how to tell love stories.
The woman from a place where time whisked away in tens and the woman whose eyes reminded her lover of the days when she believed stars could protect her, eased into their new life. They made breakfast together, took turns feeding Kosi before dropping her off at Mama Ife’s place on their way to work. Oge worked as a waitress in a junk food cafe and Nonye was a painter.
Nkem would pick up Kosi from the Mama Ife’s at noon. Oluchi, a co-worker, helped her latch Kosi to a pram and made sure she did not stand in anybody’s way. When work closed at 6:00 pm, she went back home to cook dinner – chicken, when they wanted to be extravagant, or sardines, when they wanted to be frugal, which was most of the time. Nonye would come back home by 9:00 pm, slump on the sofa and talk about how bad her backaches were and how many hours she spent in the library researching on a painting. They would shower together, scrubbing each other’s back and teasing each other’s body.
Oge was happy with these small beginnings. Nonye was wrapping up with the research on her painting and would soon start working on it.
“We will change this raggedy couch and we can afford to make more Kosis when the painting is done and commissioned by Town Council,” Nonye had told Oge.
Nonye’s voice brewed so much hope. Sometimes, Oge wished she could slide into this hope and pretend Elo did not exist.
But Elo did exist and was very much around. In fact, he came last Friday.
Oge saw him buying mistletoe sauce at Iya Ibeji’s shop. She had just finished chatting with Mrs. Nwampa about how yellow corn was becoming dearer and dearer in shops when her eyes caught Elo’s figure sitting at a table beside the window.
“You did more than settling down here, Ambi.” Elo said when Oge walked up to him outside the shop. He snorted and spat into the gutter. The bristles of his porcupine-coat trapped the circulating air all to himself.
“My. Name. Is. Oge.”
“So they gave you a new name. What does it mean?”
“It’s none of your business.”
“Your new family is more beautiful than I thought. You already know how this ends.” Elo let out a wry smile and began to walk away.
“Hey, stop. I will go with you this time.”
His eyes flickered with a blend of excitement and disbelief. “Phew! For once, Ambi decides not to be selfish. Meet me at Eucalyptus Ridge tomorrow.”
“Ah, that’s too soon.”
“When will be ideal for you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Okay, by this time next week. You don’t want me to remind you what will happen if you don’t show up.”
The squeaks of his boots continued to echo long after he disappeared at the end of the street. The echoes lingered even as Oge struggled to sleep every night from that Friday.
It is morning now. Nonye is chopping wood in the backyard. She is wearing a flimsy gown, with grease smudges around the armpit. Bobs of sweat dribble along the fine line of her back as she wields the woodcutter. Oge has told her, many times, to lose that dress but she will not hear of it. It was the same gown she wore on their first date.
The neat pile of wood stacked in the shed is for the beef barbecue they are supposed to have tonight.
“I won’t do the evening shift tomorrow so I’ll be back in time. We will make Kosi go to bed early. It will just be the two of us,” Nonye had rambled non-stop as the couple cleared up the kitchen after dinner, last night. Oge rustled up a smile and feigned gaiety. Deep down, she knew she would not be huddling against Nonye beside the fire tonight.
Inside the house, Kosi coos Oge good morning. She has just woken up and her cheeks are aglow with a pink puffiness.
“You know this is going to be the last time you’ll see Mama. So, smile for me,” Oge whispers into the baby’s ears. Kosi gurgles. Her newly sprung baby tooth chews at the plaited ends of the mauve blanket wrapped around her. Oge begins to throw in things she will need for the journey into a bag; a pair of gossamer wings, two sapphire crystals, a jar of jasmine balm, and three wing-sacks. She packs these items with the ease of someone who is accustomed to leaving.
An electronic ballad whizzes in through the open window from the new karaoke stall down the street. Pa Aliyuh’s tea kiosk has just opened, because the music is mingled with the brash rattling of aluminum tins and Pa Aliyuh’s throaty shrieks at Musa, his assistant, to get things ready. On normal mornings, Oge rushes to the kiosk, before it becomes crowded, for iced tea.
Oge edges closer to the window to soak in the last view of this place she came to wear a temporary cloak of bliss. Her wedding ring zings on the windowsill. She had taken it off the previous night before she and Nonye made love. Oge slips the platinum ring back on. It will serve as memorabilia, something to show off to the girls who will gather around her for stories.
“Nonye,” she calls out like one afraid of being heard and not being heard at the same time.
Nonye does not answer, and she whispers a thank you prayer. It is easier this way. Oge shuts the door, drops a note under the doormat and hits the road.
Nonye, I’m going home. Kiss Kosi twice on each cheek, every night. My heart will always be here even if you can’t see me.
Love you always.
In all the times Oge has left a place, this is the first time she dropped a note behind. A tiny part of herself. The previous times, there was nobody to leave a note for.
The first rule about leaving is to not look back. But Oge is not one who obeys rules, so she looks back at the life she is leaving behind. The street-lamps on Elms Avenue are still on when she steps into the street. Miguel, their neighbour’s son, is leaning against one of the street-lamps. He looks into Oge’s eyes when he sees her coming and says: “You cannot run from yourself.”
The waterfall at Eucalyptus Ridge runs deep, soaking the fine sprinkle of white pebbles on the thick grass. A pool, the colour of rusted hinges, collects the water and plunges it into the Groove of Memories. Maroon mushrooms and flaxen toadstools float dreamily over the pool’s surface. Eastwards, a ramble of scarlet-winged butterflies suckle nectar at an ixora hedge. Gusts of wind excite the crashing, white waves, and flutter petals of lilac in the air. It is the peak of harmattan and the sleepy buds of cauliflowers are already peeking out for the world to see. The whistling pines and bamboo trees rustle in a sing-song, the sound of many cymbals clattering together. Hummingbirds dip their multi-coloured wings into Unsung Pool and splatter watery pearls into the air.
This place of watery enchantments is where women who became born again at Miss Kish’s shop must come to finally return to Awele.
“You kept to time,” Elo says.
Without offering any semblance of resistance, Ambi walks over to the side of Eucalyptus Ridge where Elo is standing and lets him plunge her head into the water. Ambi dies, the second time. When she opens her eyes, she is gasping for air in Miss Kish’s bathtub.
“How was it?” Miss Kish asks, her eyes bobbing with excitement. “Tell me everything.”
“I need a mirror. Get me a mirror.”
Miss Kish leaves the bathroom and returns with a pear-shaped mirror. The woman Ambi sees in the mirror is grey, with chapped lips and skin the colour of chewed-out gums.
“Don’t be nervous. It’s all the jolting between worlds and time. You will un-age before the day is over.”
The room is crowded now with people – Miss Kish’s girls, Ambi’s parents, the whole town. Awele is a small town, it does not take long for news like Ambi’s return to spread. Two girls are standing beside Ambi’s mother. She says they are her new daughters, the ones she had when Ambi left home. Everybody is asking questions and talking at the same time until Miss Kish tells them to shush and allow Ambi tell her story.
Ambi tells them everything in-between their Hooh!s Aww!s Eya!s and Chai!s. She tells them that love is so many people at the same time – a man and a woman pressing their faces into the space above their new baby’s cot, a little girl with voices in her head, the toothless laughter of a newborn, and a woman who sits in a room filled with emptiness, wondering why her lover disappeared. She tells them that, sometimes, people have to stop loving and run away when our loving causes pain to the people we love. She tells them that loving someone involves a soulful process of breaking yourself into pieces and fixing your body with the mismatched pieces of your body and that of your lover’s.
A month after her return, Ambi opens a place near Madam Kish’s. The sign reads:
FOR WOMEN WHO WANT TO BE BORN AGAIN
LOVE STORIES EVERY EVENING
She displays her wedding ring in a glass jar on the dressing table, and tells the girls who come for Love Story Evenings that she stored all the love she brought back from Selemku in it.
Elo visits one afternoon, still wearing that ridiculous porcupine-coat. He snorts and mumbles something about how surprised he is that Ambi is thriving. Ambi asks him if he would like a mug of beer on the house. Of course. She goes down to the cellar, fills a mug with beer, topping it off with a scoop of toilet water.
Ambi struggles not to laugh watching Elo chug the beer down to the last drop.
“This beer is something else.” Elo smacks his lips.
“You have no idea.”
Ambi smiles, looks at the empty mug, and smiles again.
Innocent Chizaram Ilo is Igbo. They live in Lagos and write to make sense of the world around them.
*Image by Laxy on Unsplash