The Child in the Field Bears Your Father’s Name

Ọbáfẹ́mi Thanni

These nights, you wake from dreams of your friend and avoid mirrors. 

Her name falls from your mouth, and you fall quiet when you realise, afresh, that she will not hear you, will not reach for you. In the velvet darkness of shut eyes, you recall her face – its even complexion and round eyes. You open your eyes to track her laughter fleeting through the night. You mutter your promise to each other. The one you found in Eloghosa Osunde’s Oh, Heaven. The one that feels limp now, like the abandoned half of a rope. The world is passing and I’m holding your hand. The world… There is the word: abandoned. You stretch your hand before your eyes and the night magnifies the gap between your fingers. There is a playful breeze. The kind that tickles you to sleep. Yet, longing lays a numbing claim to your skin. You know the showers will not help. Yet, you try again. Let the water course through your hair, run over your back. Strain your eyes to watch the streams flowing towards the drain – abandoning you. Neglect your towel and its damp memory of futile showers. Leave wet trails on your way to the living room where your mattress waits in the playful air. Pull your pillow to the bare rug. Soak it with the showers left in your hair. Curl into yourself. Let sleep seize you.

*

On the third Saturday in June, shocking seeds of desire bloomed in the distance between you and your friend. You remember filling the air with Rumi’s words before the slight clink of the empty wine glass leaving her lips made everything still. In the new stillness that clouded all befores, your friend’s body became real to you. Her eyes became glazed and slit with suggestion. You kept the stillness unbroken, and left your constricting room for the airy living room where you watched each other from opposite ends. In the still field between you, a thousand seedlings swayed, unspooling their aching nectar.

When you managed to speak – softly denting the stillness – your words travelled across the field, gathering ache before meeting her ears. She listened with eyes closed to your words of logic, of plea, of listen, we cannot do this, as they fuelled the suggestions you could not unsee. When she called your name, her syllables cut through the field like sickles. Ache brought you to your knees. You begged for silence, pressing palms taut with sudden restraint. She listened. You fell quiet. You shut your eyes to avoid the slit eloquence in hers. The seedlings sprout their terrible flowers. Silence buzzed against your ears.

“It was the wine.” You said, moments later, when the tenderness seemed bearable. “The number of apples. The poems…”

She watched you descend into absurdity as the list grew.

“The heat. The music.”

She chuckled. 

You met her eyes with a plea to leave the newborn desire – desperately alive and weeping for touch – in its sudden field, to die.

She looked away. 

You ignored the cries flooding the field and prepared, instead, for a trip to her cousin’s home at the other end of Ibadan. Everywhere you turned, you ignored the field’s lush call. In the Uber, you remained silent, avoiding your gazes and the truth in them. You tried to hold hands, and hesitation crippled your fingers. You considered your love for her, and memories of her boyfriend – a man you find kind and adoring – shamed you. You turned to catch a glimpse of her profile, and the streetlights played catch with swift shadows across the features left of her face pressed against the wound-up glass. Light trailed shadows from her soft helix to the even sweep of her neck skin and the firm shoulders gleaming above the Bardot neckline of her Ankara dress. The child wept.

You looked away.

At her cousin’s home, no one knew of the child abandoned in a sudden field. Yet, they looked from her to you – wagging their fingers, saying you two are in something. No one knew what you could not unsee nor the ways she had become real to you. Yet, they watched you and smiled.

You kept your word. Despite the undying child. Despite every fibre of your restraint growing taut. You relived every before, searching for the unclouded instant these seeds fell. You returned to the September evening you met – wondering if there were seeds in the seams of her yellow dress or in the smile she greeted you with when you told her you admired her essays. You leapt across time to search the three months before your first phone call – recalling what snatches you could of the conversation, of the joy of speaking to someone and having all strangeness fall away. You searched the cool night air on the highway away from her cousin’s home. You looked up – from the humming seat on the okada ferrying you home – wondering if the moon knew, all along, you would get here. The seeds were sudden. There was nothing in the gifts you exchanged. In the hours. The gushing conversations about language. Nothing in the letters, beyond joy. You came up empty from every before. Yet, the field’s nectar polluted and perfumed everything. Laughter was no longer light, unsuggestive. The clink of wineglasses now raised arm hairs, and your name on your friend’s breath softened your knees. Night air rushed past your ears. In them, the child wept.

At home, you knelt to run your fingers over the spines in your wooden waist-high cabinet, until you found her copy of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. You wondered what it meant that this was one of the first texts you read to her over the phone. You let nectar fall on the leaves and raise Baldwin’s words to new heights. You listened to the child weep. Listened to the cunning of that watching moment which knew. Which knew these strange seeds would bloom, inevitably, even though you liked [her] so much it didn’t occur to [you] that [you] loved her. You returned to the unlit living room, reliving the afternoon, hoping for a moment to blame, a moment before the seeds were sown. You dwelled in the lost afternoon, despite knowing a thousand hands are useless against inevitable seeds.

*

At an Eid celebration two years ago, a man tapped your shoulder and stood stock-still when you turned to him. You greeted him with a slight bow and waited as he stuttered through the doubt furrowing his brow. At a distance behind him, you watched pools of blood gather from the now dismembered body of a bull. In the rib cave cleared of innards, you imagined three to four adult human bodies fitting snugly. Your father’s name was the first word to fall from his mouth un-stuttered. You met his eyes and nodded when he asked if you knew the name, the man. Relief flooded his face, and he shook your shoulders.

“I knew it!” He laughed, flashing a gold tooth. “My eyes could not deceive me.”

You pointed to the distance where your parents were parking their cars and preparing with your siblings to join the celebration. He left you to join them, turning at intervals to look at you and shake his head in slow wonder.

When he returned with the rest of your family, he made fun of your father with names only childhood friends christen each other. He offered you seats around a white plastic table and remained standing to re-enact the drama of his doubt. You wore a polite smile from your seat between your mother and brother. His free hand rested on your father’s shoulder at the head of the table, and his other hand gesticulated with a red plastic cup that threatened to spill its clear content. Your father was pleased with his surprise. His friend was not expecting him that day and had never met you or your siblings. Before he took his seat, he looked at you intently, then asked, with jesting accusation, if your father was running away. You laughed politely to hide your discomfort before offering your brother to his gaze.

“No,” he said, shaking his head after one look at your brother. “He is close, but you are your father.”

You smiled, briefly, and, avoiding your father’s eyes, watched your fists unfurl over your thighs. It was no use showing him the semblance your eyes and height bear to your mother’s. You imagined his response to any semblance you pointed out would be no, you are your father. It would not matter to him, and to anyone who trusts their eyes alone, that resemblance is often specious. You turned to your mother and continued an earlier conversation, quieting the questions rising in your mind.

What else is passed along? ‘Pemi Aguda questions in her distinctive short story Manifest, where she explores, among other subjects, the implications of the Yoruba conception of resemblance. The question, is your [father] running away?a question the Yoruba ask children who closely resemble their parents – is not novel to you; people have asked you this question your whole life. What is novel are Aguda’s questions – which test resemblance for its implications. She asks: Do they ask if your [father] is running away because you have taken [him] on your face to keep as a memory […] or do they mean that you have trapped your [father], imprisoned [him] on your face, so [he] can’t run away?

The inverse of these questions reifies your lifelong attempts to elude your reflection, to run away. You ask: What do [sons] run from? You have your father’s lips, his dentition, his precise jawline, his discerning intellect, his tenacity. And with these, you wonder, what else is passed along?

*

You are driving her car to the Yaba train station after a weekend spent visiting her in her mother’s home from your Ikeja hotel room. Your air-conditioned, hand-holding cocoon muffles Lagos’ yellow-bused and agitated pedestrian disquiet. The disquiet of a city you love for her sake. In the car, muffled disquiet defers to Amaarae’s silken whisper on Show Dem Camp’s Too Bad. Words unsaid are heavy with nectar in the air between you. You make careful word choices to prune flowers, to keep want at bay. You are lingering on the memory of washing dishes in her mother’s kitchen – sleeves pulled close to your elbows, your gold cufflinks on the tawny marble island. She teases you for washing the pots with such vigour. Your laughter trails behind her. Rinse, stack and wipe. Dry your hands. Slip your cufflink into the blue embroidered eye of each buba’s sleeve. Sit on the low stool between the island and the double-door fridge. Check your bag. Look over the book titles. Ensure you have not forgotten anything. Look up to meet her eyes when she walks into the kitchen. Keep your eyes on her as she inches towards you and waits. Look away when she puts a hand on your shoulder. Surrender your head to her belly. Remain still when her fingers run from your shoulder to the back of your neck, to the soft shorn parts of your scalp. Trail your fingers over the back of her knees. Hold her, until she stills. Meet her eyes again. Raise your hands to meet hers on your scalp. Peel them away slowly. Let your eyes plead. Caress her knuckles, breaths away from your lips. Keep them there – until the memory falls away as you listen to Tems close the song.

She asks: “Why won’t you touch me?”

You prune flowers: “So I never have to avoid your eyes.”

*

She asked you once, in a letter, if you believed in omens. You were equivocal. 

Return to the question. Was it an omen to find Zadie Smith’s quote warning you of inevitability at the beginning of the book you read feverishly? What does it mean that she read Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water and sent you a copy ahead of her visit that Saturday in June? Was it an omen to read of two people tumbling in the heat of a fever dream? What does it mean that she referred to your shared joy, in a letter, as mindless? Was it an omen to tell each other, too, that nothing happened? What does it mean to have every eye that has set on you since that Saturday in June say you two are in something? Was it an omen to learn, from the silence you shared before the field and its weeping child, why the barbershop was strangely quiet?

Return to the text. In its early pages, you re-encounter Donald Rodney’s In the House of My Father. Rodney’s photograph shows a fragile house – sculpted from his skin and held in place by dressmaker pins – sitting in the middle of his palm. Despite his family’s Pentecostal Church community rejecting him because of his sickle cell disease, his photograph’s title alludes to an inherited religiosity. Further contrasts are housed in this photograph. The fragile house is preserved by a palm that could, as Michael Norris writes, crush it in an act of definitive relegation. The dressmaker pins hold this fragile architecture together yet, signal caution to the potential fist. The bodily material of the house evokes lineage yet, his slightly curved fingers are etched with individuality’s precisest markers: his fingerprints – impossible without his father yet, free of him.

Return to your hands. Watch them unfurl. Consider what else is passed along in the fragile house you carry. Prise open its doors. Search the rooms which are lit. Glance into those which are not. See what, as of yet, remains unseen.

*

One afternoon, the year you edged towards 13 and adolescence was a mysterious expanse waiting to consume you, you began practising restraint in the warm light of your parents’ room. The red curtains were drawn, and the bulb centred in the gridded ceiling glowed a naked orange. Your mother turned the air conditioner off and opened the louvres to gentle eavesdropping breezes. They tickled the curtains – raising them with gentle nudges, letting waves of sunlight fall from the floral duvet to the blue rug. Familiar scents followed the nudges. The ageing wooden smell of the coconut tree behind their room. The damp fertility of clay and loam in the backyard. The sweet rot of apples and oranges plucked by winds and time. She tossed your favourite of her pillows towards you. You ran your hands over the pillowcase’s pink silk and settled into a corner of their bed.

You promised to keep the secret so well even your face would not betray your knowledge. She remained silent until the promise and its resolve sobered you. You listened to the secret stretch and break your mother’s voice. It seemed forever – her pained confiding – until you looked out the window to find the afternoon just darkening. The secret lent new weight to your father’s absence. When night fell and he returned, you probed his features before prostrating in greeting. Restraint kept you from spitting on his shoes, from peeling the too-broad smile on his face. The secret changed him forever in your eyes. But you kept your promise.

Until your single outburst during the family viewing of a Yoruba Nollywood film.

No viewing was complete without your parents’ interspersing monologues and commentaries on the film’s predictable, unravelling plot. In response to a character’s duplicity, your father’s monologue addressed the virtue of keeping one’s word. Your laughter was abrupt and much louder than you intended. You thought to lie, to blame your laughter on anything but irony when he asked what was so funny. Instead, you stared him down and walked away from his shouts of your name. His shouts receded, then drew closer as he burst into your room. Judgement was meted out in swift, furious whips of his brown leather belt. The stinging claps of leather on your skin and the welts and bruises that rose after them did little to quiet the spite of your laughter. You refused him the pleasure, the relief of your tears. Exasperated, he slung the belt over his shoulder and shut the door quietly. You shuddered on your bed, sore and triumphant, when your mother entered with a jar of Aboniki, a bowl of hot water and a towel. She tended your welts and bruises and massaged the burning balm into your skin. You cried into her lap. She remained silent until she was done.

“You owe your father an apology,” she said, standing to leave. “If this happens again, I will never tell you a thing, since you can’t control yourself.”

*

The years since teach you the lonesomeness that compelled your mother to confide in you – edging 13 and naïve with untainted ideals. After the secret’s taint, all you wanted was justice. You insisted on a divorce. The word, new and hissing with vengefulness, was more appropriate, you told her, than separation for its ability to dissolve. You dreamt of a rhythmic justice: “If a monogamous man dissolves to the touch of one other than his wife, he shall have his marriage dissolved.” The years since teach you what Anne Carson means by when justice is done/the world drops away. What your mother means by it’s not that simple. What it means to forgo justice to keep a world in balance. The years since teach you the consequence of gender. You accept that your mother will not leave him. That she was prepared for this. That your father is only typical, only masculine in his infidelity. You flee the fragile house with a promise to your mother. One you have kept in the years since: You will never be like your father.

In Wong Kar-wai’s movie In the Mood for Love, you find a similar promise between the protagonists Tony and Su. In the time they spend together after learning of their spouses’ unfaithfulness – editing martial art serials, sharing meals, holding silences – their feelings blossom. Their greatest surrender is depicted in a scene where Su lays her head on Tony’s shoulder in the back of a cab. Beyond that, their promise of unconsummated desire holds, even as it breaks them: We won’t be like them.

More than a year has passed through your field, yet, on some afternoons, it is June in your living room. The ache lives with you as nostalgia does – morphing hurt into honey, honey into hurt. There is hurt in forgetting her voice. Honey in the child breaking its fitful cries to babble and sputter. Hurt in losing the nurtured language between you and your friend to buzzing silence. Honey in returning to her letters, muttering fragments to mollify your wound. Muttering: You hold my hand as if holding all of me, feeding the hungers you are allowed.

In the honeyed moments of babbles and sputters, you take pride in the promise you are keeping, the restraint you have built. You do not avoid the mirrors. You stand before your reflection, eyeing what remains of your father. You wade into the field to find the child sputtering from a mouth shaped like his. Honey swirls into hurt when his eyes peek at you from the field’s lush depths. The sweet swirling ache moves you to coo over the child, to offer your pained music of restraint and promise and lineage. The child grows still. And, when your eyes meet, he giggles.

Ọbáfẹ́mi Thanni is a poet whose works of poetry and fiction have received Pushcart Prize nominations. An alumnus of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study’s Writers’ Workshop, he spends his time between the cities of Ibadan and Lucille, making attempts at beauty. He currently serves as a poetry editor at Chestnut Review.

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