The Magic of Being Fire
Izuchukwu Onyedibiemma Udokwu
In the morning, she did not tap the back of my palm or brush her fingers through my hair to awaken me for our brief morning prayer.
I had tried to intertwine our fingers at night, the way we did when cuddling felt like too much body contact to fall asleep to, and she’d pulled her hand away. It was slow, cold, and seemed to echo what she had said to me that evening at the balcony, “Our being together has become a chore, a difficult formality.” It felt wrong that it had to be at this place with the sea view, where we often sat after we got married and watched the tall trees and flowers with purple lobes exchange pleasantries in response to the wind. This place where we often sat and talked about growing up, and laughed about it. This place that melted our silence. It felt wrong.
It was her brother’s arrival that made things fall apart so fast. He was not at our wedding 11 weeks before because he was finishing up his fellowship in London. I had expected him to look like he looked in pictures. He looked different. Taller. His sideburns were glossy and smooth. He smiled when I opened the door for him, a polite, pretentious smile. And the first thing I noticed was the dimple on his right cheek. “Hi Okenna, I’m Munaolisa, your brother-in-law,” he said, still smiling. It felt rehearsed, fanciful, like something he said several times to himself at the back of the cab from the airport, like an unexciting prenup. It also felt weird. How I had planned to welcome him suddenly did not make sense – shaking his hands and slamming shoulders and tapping his back. I shook his hand and grabbed his bag instead. The palm of his hand was nothing like the softness of his sister’s.
“You’re quite sure those hands are legal for a doctor of letters?” I asked.
He laughed. There was something about the way his laughter spread to his brown, upturned eyes and lightened them. It suddenly reminded me of what Ifeadigo said during one of our discussions at the balcony about his visit. “He has my mother’s eyes, and they make me jealous sometimes,” she had said. She had taken a bite from the roasted corn she held and chewed for a few seconds as though she was buying time to consider what she said next. “My brother likes boys the same way you like me.” She had said it so casually that any piece of prejudice I had at that moment went with the wind. She had said it like we were not in Nigeria, like it was not what people got lynched for in the streets. She was the only one who knew about him in their family, the only one whom he found worthy enough to confide in. And she confided in me too because, as Father Uzondu said, we had become one. But I think that it was not about us. It was perhaps about Munaolisa. She must have told me ahead of time so that when he arrived, I would not be surprised by some of the things he would do.
But it did surprise me when I entered the house once and found him on our couch kissing another boy, whom I thought was barely an adult, his hand inside the boy’s shorts. It also surprised me that I did not feel irritated, the way I felt in secondary school when I found two boys in a class at night, fondling each other and whispering some out-of-breath gibberish. It was not like they were the first students I had ever seen fucking. It felt like a hobby for me, always sneaking around classroom blocks, looking for boys and girls who had found succour in the pitch dark of empty classrooms. But they were the first pair of boys I saw. They begged me, yet I called them out and had them beaten by boys who derived pleasure from humiliating others. I had read somewhere that homosexuality was what happened to those that did not know God and had become possessed by evil spirits, and even though I had felt something seemingly terrible after what I did to them, I had wished they knew God.
“You should have the least decency to take your sexual activities to your room,” I said to him after his guest had left. He was staring at a digital painting of a man holding a bible in one hand and a skull in the other. I bought it almost nine years ago from a friend whom I felt saw art the way I saw life – a handful of sequential deep thoughts that makes you question things and a well performed balance of beliefs that everyone is capable of accepting.
“What if I had walked in with someone?” I asked.
He smiled lopsidedly and said in a gentle, melodramatic tone, “It would have been an orgy.”
I hated it when someone made a stupid joke in the midst of a serious talk. It made my forehead burn with anger. He probably saw it, and he said, “I’m sorry.” I nodded. I realised he was holding a bottle of mouthwash. He unscrewed it and poured a little into his mouth. I watched him, because ‘sorry’ most often soothed me. He performed the ritual of bloating his cheeks and pushing out his lips while he shook up the liquid in his mouth. He entered the visitor’s toilet and spat it out.
“It’s better not to inherit the breath of random people you’re screwing,” he said, right before the door screeched open and Ifeadigo walked in with a bag of apples dangling in her hand. She smiled exhaustedly, and I wondered what company that she was auditing had drained her. I collected the bag of apples and hugged her. She whispered into my ear, “What has he done again?”
“Nothing,” I whispered back. She side-eyed me and glowered, in a way that insinuated I was keeping something from her. “You are such a gossipmonger.”
“She got that from our mother,” Munaolisa said and side-hugged his sister.
“I see. It probably runs in the family,” I said. Both of them side-eyed me this time.
“Come on, bro, I was helping you out,” Munaolisa said and laughed.
Ifeadigo smiled. There is a kind of exhaustion that saps a person’s strength to feel any surrounding energy. This form of burnout was new, and it made me wish I had the power to enliven her.
On Saturday, we drove to Victoria Island, to their cousin’s semi-detached duplex with creeping yellow flowers hanging on the walls of the house like little chandeliers. Ifeadigo and I always found ways to make infinite memories, so that when we sat to talk, there were things to smile and laugh about. We had a long list of places to go, and we ticked each one we visited. Weekends were our getaway, when Ifeadigo did not have to be auditing companies’ accounts at her uncle’s auditing firm and getting home weary, and when I did not have to sit in my pearl swivel chair, running my media company and wishing that the companies I managed would not complain about how high the budgets were. Ifeadigo drove, while Munaolisa sat at the back and danced to the old highlife from the stereo, ranging from Osita Osadebe’s ‘Osondi Owendi’, to Oliver de Coque’s ‘Father Father’, to Flavour’s ‘N’abania’. The way my wife sang along with her eyes fixed on the road, the way she held the steering, like she had mastered the art of owning the road, the way I tapped my feet, and the way Munaolisa sat at the back and kept mixing up the lyrics, all felt like breaking gods. It felt like home.
“Polyrhythmic,” Munaolisa said.
“What did you say?” I asked, not because I didn’t hear him, but because it was what we had become accustomed to – asking for repetition – in order to buy time to process every letter and make sense of it.
“More than one conflicting rhythm – polyrhythmic,” he said. “But I wonder why they have to define it as conflicting, instead of harmonising. Instead of saying that Africans found a way to harmonise difficult beats to form a beautiful rhythm, they found a way to demean it into something conflicting.”
“You talk too much, and I barely understood anything you just said,” Ifeadigo said. “Or did you understand anything, babe?”
“I think I get his point,” I said.
“Thank you, bro,” Munaolisa said.
I did not want to look at Ifeadigo because I knew her too well: eye rolls and a one-sided lift of the lips . I should not have said anything.
Lagos had a certain kind of wretched glory. It was overwhelming and immense. The traffic there stilled my joy, and offered a long ray of sadness, regret and weakness. We sat in the car, barely talking. Okenna had taken over the driving, and I preferred how smoothly he stepped on the brake but not how he let cars overtake him. Hawkers pressed their wares against the window. I bought a bunch of bananas from a boy who had smiled at me, and I thought he had the most beautiful smile. We all took turns tearing the bunch piece by piece. I watched the hawkers, how they slid in between vehicles to show what they had on sale, how they chased after cars to collect their money from a buyer. I had given the banana boy money before collecting my change, and my sister had cautioned me: “Don’t do that again. Some of them will disappear with your money, pretending to be looking for change.”
Cousin Adaku’s house smelled of tenderness and baby powder. She hugged Ifeadigo and briefly hugged Okenna. Mine took the longest, as though she was trying to absorb my essence. “You’ve grown taller,” she said, and still held me. She used to be my favourite cousin. The one who stole her mother’s condiments for us to cook jollof rice using a big tomato tin under an udala tree one Christmas when we were much younger. It was a mess we made. Now, her hug exhumed embarrassing memories that I had rather remained buried. It was also her choosing to use expressions to say she missed me. And maybe I missed her too. I was unsure. I moved past things way too fast.
Her baby was just five months old, and she did not have Adaku’s brilliant, brown eyes, but she had her lips. When you are trying not to remember, the gull-wing lips of a child suddenly remind you that you kissed her mother and touched her flesh tuxedo in the dark of your grandfather’s bedroom. No, I think she kissed me, and pulled my hand to her vertical smile. Because I had caught her touching her classmate: a girl.
Adaku turned on the music. She went inside the kitchen and brought out a plate of chin-chin and bottles of malt. “The rice will be ready soon,” she said. I carried the baby from her cradle. Soft, little thing.
“How about your husband?” Ifeadigo asked while she threw some of the snack into her mouth.
“He went to watch football,” Adaku said. “He prefers to watch football with many people around.”
“Men like noise,” Ifeadigo said and threw some more into her mouth while I rocked the baby sideways.
“They just get lonely easily, and that’s why they always cheat,” Adaku said. I thought I saw her eyes water.
“We are sitting right here, ladies,” Okenna said and looked at me. I smiled.
Adaku stood and went into the kitchen. I stood, and Okenna took the child from me. It was so sequential that I thought he figured out what I was up to. I went into the kitchen to find Adaku turning off the cooker.
“Hey,” I said.
She immediately turned as though she was startled by my voice. “Hey,” she said, “are you that hungry?”
“Even though we’ve not communicated for a very long time, I still know you. Something’s up. What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I don’t think I understand what you mean,” she said and opened the pot of rice. The steam clouded the louvres right away.
“He’s cheating on you. And he doesn’t know that you know.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said, and she smiled and started pulling out ceramic plates. “Wait in the living room. The food will be served now.”
The baby was already asleep in Okenna’s arms. It was such a beautiful thing to watch. He held her so tenderly, like a glass laurel. I took her from his hands and laid her in her bed. Adaku brought in the food and placed it on the dining table. ‘Beyond’ by Leon Bridges came on. I took Adaku’s hand and pulled her to the centre of the room, and we began to dance. Ifeadigo and Okenna stood up and joined. I did think that Okenna held everything that he loved like an artist’s brush.
When Ifeadigo took Adaku’s hands and left Okenna’s, I knew she too knew about Adaku’s husband. I took Okenna’s hands, and he pulled them away. He smiled. It was that kind of nervous smile that was almost embarrassing.
“Dance with me,” I said.
He smiled again and looked at Ifeadigo. She chuckled and said, “Dance with him.”
I took his hands again. It felt like a movie, and I was the villain. He let me put one of his hands on my shoulder and the other on my waist. He took it right up to my back. Very typical of straight men, with their fear of being perceived as men-lovers. Wait! Sorry, did I just define closeted gay men?
That man did not strike me as a cheater. He had this air of innocence, of someone who was not capable of wrong, whose piousness made you faithless. Once, someone had offered to facilitate his promotion, and he had refused and said that the Lord would work it in His own time. It had irked me. Something you deserved. God was probably sending a helper. Such a righteous cheat.
In the midst of our dance and talk, Adaku began to cry. Munaolisa turned off the music. We all sat around her. I held her, hugged her, while she cried. Okenna rubbed her back at short intervals, while Munaolisa just sat there, the same way he sat when our parents verbally abused him and called him an abomination after he came out to them. He said nothing. Blank facial expression. I had come to know that look as a symbol of helplessness. I had lied to Okenna that no one knew about Munaolisa’s sexuality except me.
“Nwa m agaghi abu homo,” my father had said.
My mother, that riot of a woman, took him to every prayer house she had ever heard of. And each time, she asked him if he was healed. Each time, Munaolisa nodded, but my mother never believed him. He was going to die. I sensed it. He became quiet and withdrawn. He began to lose weight. I had seen him on his knees crying, hands and face on his bed, shaking unbelievably. I asked my favourite aunt to ask our parents to let her take him. Our father did not waste time in agreeing. He did not want to see him anymore. Munaolisa moved in with my aunt. Three years before my aunt died of ovarian cancer, she had told me that it was writing that saved him from the dark hole into which my parents had put him. She bought him books, he devoured them, and she bought more. And then, he began to write. Writing saved Munaolisa. For weeks after he left to live with my aunt, I was lonely and sad. There was no one with whom to play WHOT. Our younger brother was just two. Our mother screamed more, threw slippers at me more, and was also sometimes quieter and lost in thought. I knew she missed him – his clingy nature, his loudness, his empathy and kindness. Munaolisa was the fire that warmed up the coldness of our family.
There was a silence that followed us when we left Adaku’s house. It sat with us on our way home, even music could not break it. It walked into our house when we did. I knew something had shifted, something like the melodramatic laughter of Munaolisa, and the warmth of my husband’s smile.
The one thing I got to stare at in the kitchen while waiting for water to boil, with the knowledge that stepping out meant forgetting there was something I had left unattended to, was the picture of Ifeadigo and me. It was a pre-wedding picture we took at the Lekki-Ikoyi link bridge. It was my second-most favourite picture of us. My favourite was in our bedroom. It was her favourite too. And it was taken on our wedding day, when we clinked our flute glasses of white wine. Whenever I peered at the picture in the kitchen, I felt like I was taking it in, discovering little things that I never imagined were there – someone’s head that the photographer had edited into invisibility, a little rip on my shirt’s armhole, the redheaded lizard on the deck of the bridge. Today, as I stared at it, my dance with Munaolisa replayed.
Holding him felt wrong and nerve-wracking, like there was something inside of me that felt bound, suffocating, shaking its way to breath, having felt a glimpse of light. It felt surreal and familiar all at once. I knew I was no longer dancing to the song, that my whole being was no longer responsive. I had breathed out sometimes only to realise I had been holding my breath at intervals.
I felt someone tap my shoulder. It was Munaolisa. He had turned off the cooker. He looked clean and polished and smelled of aftershave.
“A penny for your thoughts,” he said. Bad breath. He had not brushed his teeth. And that was when I noticed the toothbrush in his hand.
I smiled. “If I had been collecting every penny for my thoughts, I would have been very rich and short of thoughts,” I said. He laughed. I was getting good at it – making people laugh. “Thank you for turning it off.” He nodded and left.
There was a memory of a dream I had when I was 10. It had become blurry. But I remembered it was a poorly lit room, with clothes hanging on nails on the wall. I had tripped over a big woven basket while trying to pull down my trousers. The boy in the room with me had laughed and helped me stand. He had touched my dipstick. It had been while we were kissing each other, which had felt more like clacking of teeth, that his mother entered with his sister, who had seen us through the window.
“What is this atrocity that is happening in my house?” she asked in Igbo. More like an exclamation than a question. “Aru,” she said. She grabbed us by our ears and pulled us outside, to the open square of their compound. She plucked a thin stick from the guava tree in the compound and made us go on bended knees, hands up in the air, under the sun.
“Do you know what you have done?” Her eyes moved from her son to me and me to her son. “You have committed a grave sin against God. Nnukwu aru,” she said.
Her son began to cry. “I’m sorry, Mummy,” he said.
“It is not me you should be apologising to. Apologise to God.” She pointed to the sky.
She pulled a stool by the side of the gate and sat on it before us. “Now,” she said. “Start asking God for forgiveness and promise him that you will never ever, never ever indulge in this kind of sinful behaviour. Oya, the both of you, start.”
I began to cry when I started praying. My whole body shook and I sweated. She said it was God’s blood washing us of all our sins, and that she was not going to tell my parents.
Except that it might not have been a dream, that I might have buried this memory as a dream, and it became exactly that. Because to have chosen to make it a part of my reality would have been to accept it as a part of me, this thing that had been subjugated to evil.
The magic of being fire is that you burn every gold to glittering pieces.
Okenna was acting weird. Ifeadigo noticed too, I was sure. He became this lost person. He stopped coming back home at his usual time. His return was now after Ifeadigo had come home. He said it was work, that it had become too much. He talked about a company he was trying to work with, and how he was in competition with another media firm. It sounded true, but it did not feel true to me. Because he was avoiding me, turned back when he noticed I was in the sitting room, did not look at me when we all sat at the balcony and sipped the fresh orange juice I had squeezed. He pretended to act normal around my sister, but it often seemed overdone, like a bad performance.
“Are you avoiding me?” I asked him. He seemed startled. He was sitting on the couch closest to the television. The sitting room was dark, except for the light streaming from the television. It was almost midnight. Ifeadigo had gone to bed.
“I am not avoiding you,” he said. I was sure he too did not believe his own words.
“So, what has been happening with you?”
“Did your sister send you here?”
“We both know she didn’t.” I was still standing.
“Do you want to watch the television here or play video games, because I was already about to go to bed before you came in?” he asked. I was silent. He pressed the power button and pitch darkness flooded the room. His eyes and skin were the only visible things. He dropped the television remote on the glass centre table.
“Good night,” he said. As he tried to walk past me, I held his hand. It was warm. He pulled me to his body and kissed me. It was quick and slow, all at once, like a polyrhythmic song. And of course, I kissed back. No one refuses a good kiss, especially coming from a man with the softest lips in the world. He stopped, but did not pull away from me. I felt his heartbeat, and for a moment, I thought it was going to burst out of its cage.
“This is the reason I have been avoiding you,” he whispered. I felt his tears on my skin. It was the most vulnerable I had seen him, the most vulnerable I had ever seen any man I had known. I tried to hug him, to hold him, to let him know that it was okay to feel whatever he was feeling at that point, but he pulled himself from me.
“I’m sorry I kissed you,” Okenna said. “I am going to tell Ifeadigo that it was a mistake. I’m really sorry.”
“You don’t have to tell her. Let it be our little secret,” I said and smiled.
“I don’t want to always want to kiss you because it’s our secret. I don’t want to be that kind of man,” he said and went into his bedroom.
In the morning, he did not wake up for our morning prayer when I rubbed the back of his palm. After I was done praying, I pulled the curtain apart. There were dried tears on the edges of his eyes.
“Hey babe,” I said and touched his forehead. “Are you alright?”
He opened his eyes and squinted them in a flash. “Hey,” he said.
“Are you alright?” I asked again, now holding his right hand and rubbing the back of it.
“Yes, I’m alright,” he said. “I’m just tired.”
I did not believe him. I knew something was wrong when he came in at night and lay in the bed facing the other side. I did not feel his breath on my skin. I could tell from the white residues beside his eyes that he had cried.
“When is your brother leaving?” he asked as I was about to get up from the bed. Aha! I knew something was up.
“I don’t know. I thought we agreed that he can stay as long as he wants. Did he do something to upset you?”
“Oh! Nothing,” he said. “I just wanted to know.” He closed his eyes. “Please blind the windows.”
I chuckled and stood up. I had not gotten used to the way he spoke about blinding windows. Nevertheless, something was up, and I was sure I was not going to get the answers from him. I knew Munaolisa was a lot to deal with.
When I entered the kitchen, he was in a floral, purple pyjamas, toasting bread and lip-syncing to ‘Conversations in the Dark’ playing on his phone.
“Muna, what have you done?” I asked. It was how to get things from him. Be formal. It always puts him on edge.
He turned to me and paused the song. “He told you?” he asked.
I knew it. Now is the right time to start talking, boy. I remained mute. I stared right into his eyes, waiting. The toaster indicator turned from red to green. Light smoke and the smell of the toasted bread filled the kitchen. It made me instantly hungry.
“He kissed me,” Munaolisa said. “I swear, I didn’t make the first move.”
Izuchukwu Onyedibiemma Udokwu is a Nigerian storyteller. His work has appeared on Kalahari Review, Connect Nigeria, AFREADA and others. He was shortlisted for the 2020 K & L Prize. His shortlisted story was published in an anthology of speculative fiction on Africanfuturism, Black Skin No Mask. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria, where he is a fashion designer and an interior designer, and still makes time to read and write stories.
*Image by Jakob Rosen on Unsplash