Ola W. Halim
Wanga’s speckled pigeons, Fyodor and Mary, are a spectacle. The clumps around their necks wiggle when they dance in the cage. Sometimes, Fyodor scampers around Mary while pecking at scurfs stuck to her tail. Mary struts away, her wings stiff and fanned out. Fyodor, excited, sprints against the bars of the cage, shedding yellow plumage, and lets out a coo. Mary flutters her wings. Then Fyodor flits after her, presses her against the cage, and their coos become one.
The sounds remind me of water bubbling, of the girl’s eyes floating in the stream. Still, I reach out to touch Fyodor’s cere, to finger the red skin around his eyes. Then he turns to face me.
And immediately, his eyes become Wanga’s.
Everything around Wanga wears his eyes. His aloe vera glints like his eyes. The cockroaches that peer through the cracks in his walls have his eyes when you fixate on them for too long. When it rains, Wanga’s eyes are the globulets dripping through the eaves.
His eyes even prowl through his voice: “You see those ones there? Zobo leaves? They contain polyphenol, if you did Chemistry in school—”
“That means they could restrain growths in the body. Like cancer—”
“But it’s coming from Africa and Africans are Hobbesian, so zobo is poisonous—”
“So the white man says.” He chuckles, and the eyes quiver in their sockets. “You’re a journalist, so I believe you’ve at least read Heart of Darkness and Continent Zero—“
In the evening, Wanga places mint leaves on the windowsill. To kill mosquitoes, he says. These leaves, together with the aloe vera, are his bestselling products. The anti-inflammatory lotions RicHerbals sell expensively in porcelain-coloured tubes come from his aloe vera. TeethShine buys the mint leaves for their herbal toothpaste. The leaves are supposed to smell piquant, stinging the hair in my nostrils like normal mint, but they smell mushy.
Like Wanga’s eyes would.
And the waterleaf soups he makes taste saline. Just like I imagine his eyes would taste. Just like the taste of blood in my mouth two weeks ago.
The soldier who made me taste my blood lounged on my sofa like a guest. “So, na you be the stupid arts editor, abi? And your name na Sulaimon Aboderin?”
“You know say you don enter General trap, abi?”
I nodded. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking.
“My name na Kunle. I come warn you. If you value your head, you better leave town.”
“Thanks, sir. Thanks, sir. God bless you, sir.”
He went to the door, turned the knob, stepped into the darkness, and banged the door shut. The knob struck my teeth. I choked on my blood.
Kunle had been following me, I knew. He followed me from the gates of The Chronicles to the eatery opposite. He waited by the entrance, perhaps ordered kunu, to steer off suspicion. He sipped his kunu as I called Suliyah and hung up before she started admonishing me against my recalcitrance.
He didn’t start following me the moment I stepped out of The Chronicles, I knew this too. He’d been stalking me before I published the article. Before Oga showed me reactions to the article on his tablet. Before Oga called the meeting, and brandished a forefinger at me, saying: “Because of you, The Chronicles will be closed for six months.” He’d been following me before Oga asked Demola to read out Decree Thirteen. Before Oga asked Adunni to say the prayers and me to clear my desk. Before he wished me success in my future endeavours.
Far before then, Kunle had been following me.
General assigned soldiers to stalk journalists, scrutinise their media feeds, ransack their friends’ profiles. He supervised the installation of nanosatellites into imported gadgets right at the ports. These satellites read encrypted data and sent them in TXT and wav. formats to the federal database. General studied them and ordered arrests, tribunal summons, and electrocutions accordingly. I didn’t store coup-plotting strategies on my phone or PC, or criticism of the government, or even the viral photos of General’s wife as a child eating garri and palm-kernel. Still, I cringed when Akin mentioned the nanosatellites. He was the only one in the office who noticed. He winced at me and I pursed my lips. Then a stream of silence ran between our tables. I turned to my computer and fiddled with the mouse for a while. And when Adunni started talking about an old man made to crawl on gravel for refusing to greet soldiers’ boots, I tiptoed out to the toilet. There, I opened my encrypted folders, marked every item, and pressed Batch Delete.
After deleting the videos, I told myself there was no going back. I could make this work, could tame this longing, this raw desire scalding the centre of my head, streaming down my loins. Just like someone once said, it happened to us because we let it happen.
Akin consciously walked into it. He didn’t shut his eyes when his milk squirted out of him. He chuckled. He watched it drip down the toilet seat. He didn’t offer a prayer for forgiveness under his breath. And, when Adunni and Demola were out interviewing, he was always the first to signal me.
I could shake my head, could send him an SMS that screamed NO. But I wouldn’t. The bulge would grow, rubbing against the fly of my jeans, growling for its freedom. And I’d slap my laptop shut, step out the lounge, throw furtive glances, and sneak away.
It stopped after I deleted the videos. Akin signalled, and I shook my head. He sent a text which I didn’t bother opening. He got up. Waited for me in the toilet. And when I wasn’t forthcoming, he returned. At lunchtime, he told me I wasn’t ready to embrace that part of me. I kept munching my buns, kept sipping my Coke. He shrugged and retreated into silence.
I planned to tell Suliyah that day. She was at her table, creating content for a big marketing client while listening to Nina Simone.
“Can I tell you something?” I asked.
She looked up at me and swiped away the fuzz of hair dangling over her left eye. Before she nodded, I’d shaken my head. No, I told myself, no, no. I told her instead why I couldn’t sleep in the dark. Thankfully, I had Brown’s book with me. She said she’d love to read it. I left it with her. Nina Simone dotted our silence, rendered it incomplete. The sky turned grey. Time sifted through Nina Simone, through silence. I picked up my bag and walked to the door.
I crawled away from the door after Kunle left. After spitting blood into the sink, I emptied two tins of Peak into my mouth. The eyes on the wall had begun to blink when I returned to my room. I turned on the lights, threw jeans and jerseys and boxers and a pair of Adidas into a holdall, fastened its velcro. My eyes caught a square of yellow: Brown’s book. I should have left it behind. For 15 years, it had haunted me with the eyes submerged in water. But I reached for it, opened to its first page. The leaning handwriting remained there: I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Over the years, its colour had changed from navy blue to green and now to beryl. I slid it into my bag. Locked my door. Eased into the chilling gloom.
I spent the night in Suliyah’s flat. For the first time in our three years together, we didn’t pinch each other under the duvet. She stamped her feet and covered her ears as I tried to explain, and then mumbled something about my stubbornness leading me to hell. Then she spent hours bursting her pimples with a shard of mirror while the home theatre blasted Nina Simone.
I stayed awake for most of the night. The tick-tock of her clock startled me. The rustle of leaves against her windowpanes startled me. I jerked awake when a rooster crowed too close to her window. Leaving a note on her bed stool, I stepped into daylight, strolled to the bus park.
I alight from the bus when I hear my name on the radio: “…the provocative piece was published by Sulaimon Aboderin of The Chronicles.”
“Oo losi – sorry, sorry, you will not go to Abeokuta again ni?” the driver asks.
“I want to wait for someone here.”
“Tor.” He shrugs. “Me I don’t have – ermm – refund money to be giving anybody o. I no get power for isokuso.”
I’m already walking away. The tarred road runs ahead of me. A sequestered footpath to my left, soggy with mud, meanders into the distance. I take the footpath. It leads me past farms, past tendrils leaning out to sunlight, past a semicircle of tombs paved in mould. The sun dwindles to a pink pebble behind me. My shadow staggers to keep pace. Then, just as the bubbling sounds return, just as I spot eyes etched on a log, I hear voices. I come upon a clearing with a shanty at the centre. A man is writhing on the veranda. An albino bends over him, massaging his knees with a pad of leaves.
The albino turns and spots me. Without asking who I am or where I’m coming from, he offers me a seat and a herbal drink. I choose water instead. He returns to the writhing man as soon as I hand back the cup. He grabs the man’s kneecap and raises the man’s leg and supports his shank with his own fist. The man gnashes his teeth, shuts his eyes tight. The albino jams his fist into the man’s knee, so that you hear a crackle, like padlocks clicking close.
Later, the albino plucks some leaves, squashes them with the heel of his hand, and, with interwoven fronds, straps them to the man’s knee. Then he hands the man a jar. “If you use this every morning with alum, you’ll be fine. Forget about Western treatment. Those big pharmaceutical companies buy this same senna from me. And they produce adulterated leaves and extort you with embroidered packets and peregrine epithets.”
The man snickers. “Ah, Wanga, all this your grammar. I’ve been begging you to come and teach my children o.”
“Look at this one,” Wanga says. “I have zero passion for assembling a potpourri of kids with different needs and aspirations and gurgling intransigent norms down their throats.”
“Ah. Grammar King!”
“Intransigent because it never changes. Now, what’s a noun? I tell you it’s the name of any person, animal, place or thing. Your child tells you same too. Even your grandchildren. You see?”
“But you can bring about the desired change.”
“It’s a waste of time, Deji. You know, I studied Agric Science quite alright, but I taught myself more than any lecturer could. What did you know I specifically want, save your general blabbing about how essential agriculture was to man, as if I was still indecisive about pursuing it?”
Deji laughs and laughs. Wanga brings down palm wine from the roof. We drink as he frets on. He says if he’d ‘invested in this whole marriage enterprise’ and had kids, he’d teach them himself and send them off to do something practical: “Like this computer of a thing, or something else defined.”
Then finally, Deji hops away, and I tell Wanga my story.
“That’s our country for you, Sulaimon. Democracy, democracy, democracy. It came and our funds grew wings and flew into Swiss accounts. Now military, which, constitutionally, is an aberration. How can a country develop under an illegitimate government?”
“Only God knows,” I say.
“God does not know, my friend. That’s why we’re stagnant. God this. God that.” He slaps my shoulder, giggling. “Don’t mind me, Sulaimon. I don’t always have people to vent my frustration on, so every opportunity is crucial.”
Wanga says he’s a recluse, having lived here alone for eighteen years. “My parents abandoned me because of my skin. I grew up in the orphanage. Sister Mary saw potential in me, gave me books to read, spurred my imagination, sharpened my curiosity. The missionary took me up to university level because of her. God rest her soul.”
I mutter amen.
“I named one of my pigeons Mary, after her. And the other, Fyodor. You’ve read The Brothers Karamazov?”
I haven’t, but I nod.
“That’s the first book I remember reading. The juvenile version, you know? So, in memory, I named the other Fyodor after its author.”
“So I’m essentially a herbalist. But I send satirical pieces under a pseudonym to these cowardly newspapers around. And I have two permanent friends: nature and literature. And, for me, literature is strictly philosophical poems and novels.”
“Will you read me poetry then?” I ask.
He bows. “I’ll be honoured to serve you, my dear man.”
“Do you know there are debates that he wrote parts of the Sonnets to a male lover?”
In Abeokuta, the photographer’s studio beside Maami’s shop quoted Shakespeare: The Eyes are the Window to Your Soul. I stared at it for a long time. The plank on which it was scrawled tilted sideways. Its edges were granulating into powder, as beige as sawdust. Inside the studio, a boy smiled into the camera. He wore dreads adorned with cowries. His red dashiki had a lapel-like neck, which was laid out in pyramidal interweaves.
The boy nudged a cat towards the camera. A white cat. A woolly white cat. With tinctures of pink around the curls of its ears and its underbelly and its nose. When I looked at its eyes, I saw the drowning girl. She didn’t have slit pupils like the cat’s though, deep-blue like adire dye; but her eyeballs were the same pink. And they wobbled. And they shone like orbs kneaded with pomade.
The cat, fixated on me, refused to turn towards the camera. The photographer came and adjusted its head. It flapped its ears in irritation and turned back to me. Its whiskers glinted in the camera flash.
I stepped back. The loaves I’d bought for Maami dropped from my hand and rolled into the gutter. I was sure one or two traders under the tarpaulin awnings must have stared. I waited for the boy under the awnings. When he came out, we exchanged fiery Yoruba, then smiles, then giggles. Then I was pulling out a wad of notes from my wallet, handing it to him, and strolling to Maami’s shop with the cat under my armpit. The boy, still amazed, held out the wad and stared. He wouldn’t have let the cat go. He wouldn’t, also, have let the money go. I’d threatened him with the fact that I could get a white cat anywhere else, the same cat with the same pink eyes.
I discover Wanga’s eyes in the night. The lights are turned off, and the girl’s eyes shine from the wall. I turn on my torch. Then I realise Wanga sleeps with his eyes half-closed; the crescentoid halves peeking through his eyelashes are eerie. The eyes, open even when their owner sleeps, remind me of God’s omniscience, the blaring awareness that he’s always watching, watching them implant something in Brown’s car, watching me slide into Suliyah, and more embarrassingly, watching Akin and I gasp in the toilet.
The first thing I look at in the morning is the eyes. They are blue, shimmering like tiny aquaria sitting side by side. He rants all day about senna’s proven efficacy in the treatment of syphilis and gonorrhoea and staphylococcus, and people’s obsession with hospitals where they pay to treat these diseases and still die.
After breakfast, I show him Brown’s book. “This is why I’m in trouble. The death of this man.”
He opens to the first chapter. “Ah, paradigmatic romance story. Happily ever after, right?”
“Just read on. The man, that’s Clad, committed suicide.”
“I don’t like romance. It’s too fantastical, especially with these floridities and quixotic sex scenes. Committing suicide because you’re lovelorn? Is that a new addendum to make-believe fiction?”
“But you like Shakespeare—”
“Shakespeare is profound. Shakespeare utilises words for essence, not for effect. And Shakespeare is philosophy.”
“I must be crazy, right?”
“Oh no. It’s your opinion. I mean, everyone is entitled to their—”
“Your eyes say so.”
“That I’m crazy. And you have beautiful eyes.”
I look away.
“I like making journalists uncomfortable. Because it’s their job to tug at people’s tempers with vexatious questions.”
“I’m not uncomfortable, Wanga.”
I tell him I’m not uncomfortable, but I shudder, and the stool creaks. Just like him, the drowning girl had been albino. Her hair had been very pale. Her skin had morphed into the muddy colour of the water. But why am I scared now? Haven’t I been seeing albinos since then? Or is it that she and Wanga have exactly the same eyes? Surely, there are reasons Wanga abhors social interactions, such as his daughter or sister running away, and surrendering herself to water.
I loved the stream because of the gurgling of water. So I usually didn’t hesitate when Maami called out, “Sulaimon, water has finished o.” But that particular evening, I didn’t feel like moving a limb. But Maami, as always, never gave up like that. She began to sing about stubborn children, about how she never said no to her parents when she was a child, until I picked up the jerrycan and marched to the stream.
There was a yellow book among the cattails. I ignored it. I lodged the jerrycan between two boulders and pulled some velvet tamarinds from my pockets. I was going to waste time here, since Maami couldn’t understand there were times you didn’t want to do anything, like fetching water, like milling grains for her goats, like getting out of bed even. Baba would have returned by the time I got home. Nobody would wash his cab today. Nobody would tickle Bisi, sing her Panude-Panude Egungun Nbo so that Maami could cook in peace. Sweetest of all, we’d all go to bed hungry; there was no drop of cooking water in the house.
A kite leapt into the sky. I stood up to load pebbles into my catapult. Then I saw something in the water. Something that wasn’t the normal white shells. Or the sacrificial food and white cloths people left on the banks. I laid my catapult on the rocks and approached on tiptoe.
There it was: a floating mermaid. Her hair flared out and wiggled like an octopus’s tentacles. Her left hand grappled the buttons on her blouse. She wore jeans and a paisley-patterned blouse and trainers. She was different; other mermaids wore white. I squatted by the rock jutting into the stream.
And I saw her eyes.
They glowered at me. Her pupils were pink, encircled by a shade of purple. They swelled and shrank, swelled and shrank, as the water rippled above her. Silvery bubbles cascaded out of her mouth. I kept staring at the eyes until I heard rustles by the cattails. Back home, I told Maami there was a mermaid in the water. She hissed: “I beg you in the name of Allah, go and bring my keg for me. I know you didn’t want to go before.”
Disappointedly, Maami made pap and akara with borrowed water. Bisi slept all evening; there was light, and the fan was in its best mood, blowing cool air, whirring without clanging. Baba’s cab didn’t need washing because it spent half of the day at the mechanic’s. I refused to eat because of all this. I bolted my door and swore never to fetch water again.
The mermaid was gone the next day. But the yellow book was still there. Bird droppings stained its pages a mottled green. I picked it up, wiped off the stains, and turned to the first page. Its title was Loving You vs. Leaving You. It was written by Seyi Brown, and the blurb said Brown ‘infused romance into his biting political satires’. Under its title, on the front page, were the words: I’m sorry. Please forgive me.
I took the book home. The eyes started to haunt me that day. When I told Baba, he organised a group of Mallams to pray against the djinn that had possessed me. But since I couldn’t stop lingering on the book’s first page, the eyes didn’t go. Instead, I started hearing bubbles at the back of my ears.
To quieten the bubbles, I bought Brown’s novels at the university. Not that I read them though; I just piled them up on my shelf and stroke their spines. I only read excerpts and synopses online. I followed Brown on Twitter and Facebook, read his controversial articles on Politicklept.com. He published his last novel a month after General seized power. A critic called the book daring; bold enough to ‘ripple calm waters’. I bought a copy from Amazon and, together with Suliyah, read it to the end. Suliyah published a review in Brown’s fanzine, quoted a lot of Nina Simone. I sent Brown an email, to which he never replied.
When General banned his books, I felt bruised. Then there he was on TV declining General’s offer of Education Minister. “A controversial civilian offered a political post?” Brown said. “Now, viewers, look up ‘boomerang’ in your dictionary. Read the second, figurative definition.”
Then Brown’s car hit a stationary truck and tumbled three times and he was pulled out limp. In the papers, obituaries and tributes spanned pages. Nobody dared to connect the ban and his rejection speech to his death.
It was a felony to scrutinise Brown’s death, to say a thing apart from rest in peace. On Decree Thirteen, ‘the total withdrawal of unbridled rights to expression’ was detailed, and it covered expressions ‘obliquely hinged (in metaphors and innuendos) on the government’. But I ached to say something, so I published an article in the Opinions section of The Chronicles.
Oga called me immediately. “Take it down!”
“But it’s just an opinion. I didn’t say anything incriminating about—”
“Christ! Even with that ‘Who Killed Brown?’ title?”
He deleted the article himself. But the deed had already been done. A thousand comments trailed the post, many of which registered fears but hailed The Chronicles for being just and daring.
Oga arrived in the evening. He assembled staff and asked Demola to read Decree Thirteen. Later he led me into my cubicle. “Clear your desk. We wish you success in your future endeavours.”
Akin walked me to the gate. He made to hold my hand, but he quickly realised we were outside, under the gaze of the world. Our hug felt robotic, like we were first-time rehearsers. I crossed the street to the eatery opposite, and I wondered how things could change in just six months.
Six months before, the military invaded the Presidential Villa and shot the vice president and five ministers. In two hours, civilians and presidential forces had all been evacuated from the Presidential Villa, and the villa had been renamed The Federal Garrison. The president, who was attending conferences in Kinshasa and Bangui, was forced on automatic exile. All private institutions were shut down – ‘disallowed’, in the diction of the Decrees. So were ‘Religious, Political and Social Conferencing, and Philosophies and Cultures expressive of Them’, and ‘unauthorised Speech Deliveries and unsolicited Advice and Recommendations to the Government’.
Public institutions were issued conditions for operation. These conditions were outlined in Decree Nine, and penalties were printed in oxblood. General invited heads of institutions to discuss them. Each head swore to abide and signed a treaty under the omniscient supervision of cameras. Oga returned to the office with his copy of the treaty. Everyone read and snorted and passed. When it was my turn, I didn’t have to reach the end before passing to Demola. “Rubbish!” I said. “It’s the same as being shut down.”
“You should be grateful you still have a job,” Oga said. “We should all be grateful to General.”
That was what I named the cat. But not at first. At first, I didn’t have a name for it. I didn’t even look at it, or stroke its body, or ruffle its hair the way Suliyah did. Suliyah thought buying the cat was therapy for me; I could learn to look into its eyes and conquer my fears. The bubbles would go too, she believed, because they were intertwined with the eyes. The cat slept all day. It curled up behind my wardrobe, the end of its tail touching its head, its limbs tucked in. From time to time, it would shake its head, flap its ears, or scratch its whiskers. One day, I caught it licking its fur. There were bristles on its tongue, structured like a honeycomb. With these bristles, it straightened a furled hair, plucked out lice. It looked up at me. I saw its eyes. I recoiled, jamming my elbow against the doorknob.
I named it General the next day, after witnessing soldiers strangle a boy with his own rosary. The boy could have been between 15 and 17. He had tight jheri curls. His mother, her hair flared out like a fan, knelt beside him. “Ejo,” she said, rubbing palms together. “Dariji—”
“Shut up!” a soldier said. He reeled out his belt and whipped her into silence. Then, pressing his boot to her face, he pinned her in place.
The other soldier tugged at the boy’s rosary. “So you no hear say no Jesus, no Allah, for this country?”
The boy nodded. The bones of his neck jutted out. He gulped air. A small crowd had gathered. I turned off my car ignition and watched.
The soldier kept winding the rosary around the boy’s neck until he fell. The crowd let out a cry. A third soldier shot into the air.
When I got home, I named my cat General. We started to bond. I’d click my tongue twice and say General and it would run to me, wagging its tail. I’d place it on my lap and caress it like Suliyah.
Then, on a Monday evening, I saw its eyes again. They gnawed at my gut. The room whirled, as if I was vertiginous. I fell on all fours, then slipped to the rug altogether. The bubbles filled my ears. A galaxy of eyes twinkled on the wall. I reached for General, opened the door, and stepped out. I threw it onto the expressway. As it was running back to me, a tanker ran over it and left splatters of blood and skin smidgens.
I was merely raising a foot after another, kicking Peak cans and shovelling sand and narrowly dodging kekes galloping over the bumpy streets. A song sat in my throat like a lump. I couldn’t bring myself to sing it. It was the same song with which General announced himself head of state. It was also Suliyah’s most hated song:
I am a Government Material
Government is the People
And the People is Government
So therefore, I am a People’s Material.
Government officials in green overalls are inspecting Wanga’s herbs. They paste cardboards on some leaves and howl at Wanga and he brings out his phone and calls somebody and they leave. Wanga calls them hypocrites; aren’t there fake pharmaceutical companies in the cities to be inspected? Afterwards, students from the College of Agriculture visit and Wanga shows them around, all the while yapping and gesticulating. Later, he says of them: “Children no longer read. Imagine one telling me she wasn’t a literature student when I asked her to analogise Boxer in Animal Farm with studying agriculture in Nigeria.”
“I can’t sleep in the dark,” I blurt out.
“You scream in your sleep. There’s something perturbant on your chest. You can talk to me.”
“Will you read me poetry?”
“Of course.” He hurries in and returns with an Olympics exercise book. “Do you know Leopold Senghor?”
I hang my head. I wish I didn’t ask for poetry or knew Leopold Senghor.
“Well, he was a pulchritudinous poet. Later became president of Senegal. He was one of the proponents of Negritude.” He laughs. “Now, enough of the harangue, right? So, Senghor wrote exquisite poetry. My favourite is Black Woman. But I’m not going to read Black Woman now. I wrote a pastiche, Black Man, and that’s what I’ll read.”
He squints through the book for a while, tosses it over the threshold, and begins to read offhand:
Naked man, black man
Skin lambent, pomaded cortex
A globule of water on the athlete’s anhydrous tongue
Biceps embedded a nebula of puissance and pulchritude,
Here, I genuflect to your ascendancy tonight
To lay supplications
Naked man, black man
Phoenix rousing from ash
Crepuscule that renders midday suns typhlotic
The cyclone nobody sees, but
Hears ululating its majesty,
Here I come, from
My mother’s womb, unclad, hiding
Among eucalypti, like erring Adam,
Waiting for your sweltering fingers to rouse me
Touch me, black man
That I may wear a new patina on my skin,
That the logotype of royalty may smoulder my flesh
That, as dawn pirouettes forth, I may be transmogrified into an entity
As pristine as a dove, as febrile as a tiger,
And as assuaging as water on an athlete’s tongue.
“Wow. You’re a brilliant poet.”
“You’re blushing,” he says.
“You’re blushing, Mr Romantic.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Which? Black man? Naked man? Mr Romantic? Or blusher?”
He bursts out laughing. I join him too, because the way he laughs is funny. Then I mistakenly look up at his eyes and hazel bulbs glare back at me. Wanga’s eyes change colour.
I avoid his eyes all day. We eat in silence. Fyodor and Mary fill the void with coos. He keeps the light on in the bedroom. I wait for the eyes to appear on the wall, for the bubbles to fill my ears. When neither happens, I put off the light. I stare at Wanga’s eyes, daring them to swallow me. They’re pinkish now, just like every evening. They stay still, like solidified streams. Then the water starts to bubble. I hear it splashing against the walls, gurgling into the bedroom, frothing at my feet, rising up my shoulders. But I don’t turn on the light. I climb onto the bed and pull up my blanket.
“Do you believe in sins against self?” Wanga asks.
“So you’re not sleeping?”
“Oh, yes. Of course.”
I swallow. “Like suicide.”
“So it’s a sin when you decide you’re tired of a so-called gift you never asked for in the first place?”
“Face me,” I say. “I want to conquer your eyes.”
He muffles laughter, holds it between zipped teeth, and turns to me. I hold my breath and look into his eyes. Still pink. They’re just balls, I tell myself, just balls holding water, coloured pink, mere pink; the same peach of Suliyah’s curtains, the same fuchsia of Suliyah’s bedspreads, the same coral of Suliyah’s wardrobe, the same roseate of the tiles in Suliyah’s bathroom, the same salmon of Suliyah’s cosmetic reticules. Eyes don’t grow claws. Or fangs. Or inject venom. Eyes just see, just observe, just upload pictures into the brain.
I let Wanga trace circles around my navel. When he lies on me, his hands clasped over the small of my back, I look into his eyes again. This time I try to breathe. I’m gasping, as if there was grit on my chest. But still, it’s breath.
Fyodor and Mary coo into the night. Frogs pause, as if holding their breaths, and continue grunting.
They wake us in the morning, Fyodor and Mary. They’re spluttering, slapping their wings against the cage. Wanga runs out to them. I follow. He rubs their heads until they calm. And when he turns to me, I see myself in the liquid blues.
“I like men,” he blurts out. “Men with really dark skin. If I had dark skin, I’d have married myself. But come to think of it, technically, I think I’m in a matrimonial relationship with myself already. I make love to myself, don’t I?”
“You’re funny, Wanga,” I say.
“And you’re sexy,” he says.
“I want to read.” I fetch Loving You vs. Leaving You, flip to a random page.
Wanga snatches the book from me. Something strikes him as he’s about to lay it down. “There’s something inside this book,” he says. “The back cover.”
We tear out the enclosure. A folded paper falls out. Wanga picks it up and hands it to me. I unwrap it slowly, like a gift, my heart drumming in my ears.
There, in the same leaning handwriting, are the words: I didn’t make myself albino.
I lower myself to the stool on the veranda. Fyodor flaps his wings against the cage, while Mary hoots. I look at Wanga’s eyes and he pulls me into an embrace. Later, I’m unfurling the hair on his chest while I tell him about the drowning girl and her eyes. Clouds like glazed ashes cluster in the distance. Winds rouse sand and hurls it against the window. Fyodor and Mary cower in the cage, their heads tucked in their wings. It’s raining. Shattering sounds on the roof like you were crinkling aluminium in your hands, punctuated by ice-balls as sharp as pebbles. Blazing trails, like comet tails, swipe across the sky. Wanga pulls me to himself. The last thing I do before falling asleep is look out at the eaves. Wanga’s eyes aren’t there.
His eyes are etched on the eaves in my dream, though. We’re at the stream where I found the drowning girl. The water is the same moccasin of the sky. A tassel of cattails sways in the wind. Wanga grinds herbs and drops some into the water.
And the girl rises, shattering the tabletop tranquillity of the water. Her eyes are blue, tinged in pink. “Thanks,” she says to Wanga, “but why did you resurrect me? Nobody wants me here.”
“Perhaps it’s time to want yourself,” Wanga says. An icy speech bubble carries his words and floats away. “People only want people who want themselves.”
“Oh, you’re albino too.”
Wanga nods. “Proudly,” he adds.
“Thank you again.”
She stares at me. I hand her the book. “It was an interesting read,” I say. “Why did you kill yourself?”
She snatches it and dissipates to dust. My question dangles in the air. Wanga turns to face me, and I lean in for a kiss. The sky turns navy blue. Eyes appear on it, like pink stars. I hear the familiar rustling among the cattails. My mouth hangs open in horror when I turn.
“I’ve always known something,” Suliyah says. “Sulaimon—”
“It’s okay. I just came to tell you that General is dead. I think he was dilated. His eyes were fresh green.”
I open my eyes just as Wanga does. His eyes are fresh green too. Fyodor is making a clucking sound. The rain patters on.
Ola W. Halim is a Nigerian writer whose work mainly explores queerness, albinism and feminism. He has work published or forthcoming on the Kalahari Review, African Writer, Dwartsonline, Brittle Paper, adda, Iskanchi, ARTmosterrific, Black Pride Magazine, Literandra, and so on. He won the LitFest Prize for Prose 2020 for his short story “Miracle”. Having been shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Halim is a prose editor at ARTmosterrific, a fiction mentor with SprinNG, and also a teacher of English Language and Literature.
*Image by Muhammad Murtaza Ghani on Unsplash