Tega Oghenechovwen | Longreads | January 2020 | 15 minutes (3,777 words)
Content warning: This piece contains mentions of child abuse and childhood sexual abuse.
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So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. — F. Scott Fitzgerald
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise — Maya Angelou
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1. Why is the World Silent?
I am 7. B is 8. We are on the balcony of this monstrous brick house, naked. Our small bodies are soaking in gasoline. Our shirts, shorts, and shoes are on the concrete balustrade with our bags. A Good Samaritan who found us at the bus park trying to run for our lives just dragged us back. B’s teeth are inside his tongue. His eyes are liquid red. Tears and gasoline have washed away my sense of smell.
We face aunty Em. Her eyes pierce us to the marrow. She has a matchbox. She draws out a matchstick. She threatens to strike it. We shout as if shouting was what we were born to do. Our bodies creak and crack with fear. After a short while, Aunty Em fishes a waist-high koboko from the pantry.
“If you ever —” Lash. “If you ever try—” Lash. Lash. “If you ever try to run again —” Lash. Lash. Lash. She lashes us with the koboko until we become like raw beef; until we promise we will stomach her wickedness; that we will forget we are people’s children, and become her footstools.
Uncle Dee is in his study crafting a model boat for a client. He could be building a bomb to finish us. I wonder why he doesn’t hear us weeping. I wonder where the world is.
We hate here. The food we eat here tastes like burnt soil. Even at that, it’s never enough. Why did our parents dump us here? What did we do to deserve this? What?
I draw two eagles with enormous wings on the yellow walls of my room — one for me, the other for B. Aunty Em sees the eagles. She pops my head with the heel of her ko-ko shoe and locks me in a room without any light or window.
Silence speaks in the dark room. I hear the blood flushing my veins, and the worms eating my belly. I cry. I cry until I faint. Why is the world silent? Where is God? Why does He or She do nothing?
I died in that monstrous brick house. Fear resurrected me. It bore roots in my cells, built stems in my brain, wrapped itself around my spinal cord. It shook my bones.
In primary two, teacher Laraba tells my mother, “His classmates are really scared of him. He doesn’t play or talk with any of them.”
I hear the blood flushing my veins, and the worms eating my belly. I cry until I faint. Why is the world silent? Where is God? Why does He or She do nothing?
After I come out from a warm white machine, a doctor tells my mother that it’s not medically clear why I’ll not speak to my classmates. She is happy to know it’s nothing medical. She will pray about it.
In primary four, words finally give birth and cross multiply on my tongue. I open my mouth but ‘L’ doesn’t drop. Waves of dread crash against my chest when my Christian Religion teacher, a woman with a serpentine face, points at me. I duck my head under my desk. She pulls it up.
“Silly, what does Isaac mean?” (Isaac, the Biblical name, means “he will laugh” or “laughter”, reflecting when both Abraham and Sarah laughed in disbelief when told by God that they would have a child in their old age.)
I know the meaning of the name but I can’t say it. The teacher tugs at my sleeves. I swallow hard. “Isaac means yau-yaughter?”
The class erupts, in yaughter of course.
She contorts her lips, “M-means what?” She bleats. The class erupts some more.
Slow rivers swim out my eyes. The class walls transform into the wild. Everyone in the class is a monster prowling for my flesh, teeth bared. I fight hard to conjure the ‘L’ weapon to save my life. The monsters circle me. They howl, “What does Isaac m-m mean, silly?”
“Isaac m-means La.” I ball my fists so hard. My veins almost snap. I sweat out enough to fill a palm wine keg.
“Isaac. Mmeans. Laughter.”
Everything reverts to normal. The class falls silent. My heart explodes. I can’t believe I said it. I jump. I dash out of the class. I keep running with my First ‘L’. I said it.
3. Of Cudgels And Blood
Growing up in Warri is as good as growing up in a plugged-in pressure cooker.
It’s a sweltering 2013 afternoon. My parents are not in (where do parents always go at times like this?), just my siblings and me. Outside our house, fresh bullets mix with stale air. People are running everywhere on the streets. Pillars of smoke squash the orange sky. A man I have never seen brings down the front door of our house with his muddy boot. His shrunken eyes and heavy beard immobilize us. We just press our heads to the floor as he tears past us into the corridor. Before too long, three men with cudgels stamp into our parlour and head into the house. What is happening? A loud struggle escapes from inside. Did you hear that? The noise of an exploding bottle follows. Shhh, keep quiet. The three men drag out the first man, blood pumping down his dome. They spread him out on our concrete courtyard. I see their cudgels rise up. I see their cudgels fall down.
4. I, The Wounded Healer
I am on my way to the toilet, a blue lantern in hand. I hear my name. I don’t answer. Hands stretch out and pull me into our dark guest room. I see her entreating eyes. I see a wrinkled porn magazine yellowing on her bed. I see her naked, bony body, her taut jaw line, the mass of curly black hair on her narrow pubis. She snatches the lantern from me, kills the light. She’s about 18, Cousin Pee — six years my senior.
“Come on, touch me.” She says with a singsong voice, laughing. Her fingers rush through my hair. “You must have something in you, my boy.” Her voice melts into a whisper, “The first time it happened, my cramps went away.” She pushes my head into the valley of her breasts. “Say something. Ease my pain. Once more. Will you, my boy?” Her saliva pools in my ears. She squirms and dips in an ungainly way. “Say something to your girl.” I tell her my bladder is bursting, that she tastes like an open sore, that I am not interested. My tears and saliva spread over her body.
She squeezes the length of my erection. “You disrespect me, my boy?” She squeezes again. She sends my face crashing against her pelvis. I breathe in the deep raw smell of her go-to-hell. Her voice raises few decibels higher, “How dare you talk to me that way, my boy?” She pins my head there. “Please, touch me, my boy. Touch me.”
Her bony leg shoots me out of the room when I concentrate only on crying.
5. Darkness Conquers Light
Even under the rain, I feel the stickiness of my sweat. I perceive the armpit-y stench of the hostel boys in the grassy front lawn. They are about 60. Dark sayings splutter from their juvenile mouths: “Ensure you hit Chuks hard!” Someone pushes a fat club into my right hand. “Knock Chuks out!’ Someone pats my back. “Finish Chuks!” Someone prods my chest. “Chuks is your junior. Fuck him up nicely. He shouldn’t be bullying you.”
I share a hostel space with Chuks. Although he is a class lower than I am, he acts if he were classes above, because he is huge, like someone’s dad. Chuks sees me naked when I don’t want him to. Chuks finds humour in every part of my body. Chuks acts as if he knows all my secrets.
I face him. I can’t control my breath.
“You are wasting time,” Chiké, the hostel captain screams.
“I can’t.” I say trembling, turning around, “Please.” Chiké spits at me. “You will.” He slaps me.
“Abeg. I can’t.”
He butts my forehead. Circles of fire dance around my face. He shoves me towards Chuks.
Chuks smirks and winks at me. My heart pounds for a while. Then it turns into a grinding stone when I see the uncanny resemblance between Chuks and Aunty Em. Chuks is an emissary of fear. I pounce on him. Chuks is a monster. I punch him. I punch him again. I knee his stomach. He screams like a wounded beast into the night. I can’t stop now. I scratch him into the ground.
6. An Indictment Of So Many Things
A phantasm is always at my elbow. Jeering at me. Shackling my breath. Motorizing my heart. Driving it 360 kilometers per hour. It speaks in a gruff voice, telling me to shut the fuck up, that I am not enough, that I will never do well. It tells me what everyone on campus thinks of me — a crazy shit.
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The phantasm jeers at me in this lecture theatre. I want to deliver a paper on the Mwindo Epic of the Nyanga people of Congo, but I might as well be trying to deliver a baby. Again, the moderator makes a small sign that says “Speak. Say something. Anything.”
My course mates raise their eyebrows. I see the coded mocking in their smiles. I try to introduce the topic. My tongue is heavy. My lips move without sounds. I try to breathe. My nostrils are blocked.
“Are you okay?” the moderator asks from the back of the hall.
I nod. “Yes, sir.”
“You may take your seat if…” Side-talks drown the moderator’s warm voice. Did someone just call me crazy? Three people pop out of the hall. Seven others follow. The theatre empties. I collapse, crashing into the floor. Maybe I am crazy.
I still dream of that balcony in the monstrous brick house, of the dark room Aunty Em stored me in, of Cousin Pee and everything else.
In my sleep, I find myself in a Polaroid world where everything tumbles down fast — fast like water rolling down a rock, except Aunty Em’s monstrous brick house is standing against a flickering white background.
Someone recommends two new-generation campus pastors. I find their churches uninspiring. Someone else recommends a support group for abuse survivors. I join one with exorbitant membership dues. For some reasons that are beyond me, the bloody group decides to meet behind my back. They don’t want a crazy shit as a member.
I take part in the wild culture of university life. I experiment with whisper-and-I-will-come-to-you girls, but nothing comes out of my experiment, only acute anger. I spend all my energy trying to mask myself. The few friends I have turn into the cold air that always finds me, even in hot, crowded spaces. I get scared of the experience of intimacy. A sweet girl keeps hanging around me — Sola; she loves me like mumu. I keep turning my back to her.
I feel like a crazy shit. I become the mound that will only be softened by a heavy rain of Vodka and Kush. I see an old doctor. Even though the tang of alcohol is on my breath, he asks, “Young man, do you drink?” I shake my head, “Never, Doc. Never.” He gives me some anti-depressant pills. I rap his door every time, for more of those pills.
7. From Long Ago And Far Away
Aunty Em is stuffed with guilt. She moves around like a ruffled hen. “I have been eating genetically modified chicken and things,” she says to my mother with a highly accented voice, “but I have a personal trainer back in Chicago.” She smiles at us as if she has always been rooting for us. She brings out two green binoculars from her Zara handbag. The eyes of the binoculars have a metallic orange tint. Oh! She didn’t realize we are this grown. God and Jesus! She would have gotten us grownup things like hair clippers, iPhones, Timberland boots. Computers. What fine boys!
I shrink. My hands and feet grow cold. I gasp for air, wanting to call her out. B’s clasp on my shoulders presses me down. “Let me handle this,” he says, his voice shaky. His chest locks him out before he says anything else.
I am in a party in Warri. Cousin Pee is here too. She is heavily pregnant. I hear she doesn’t know the baby’s father. When our eyes meet, the rice she is eating spills all over. She tries to compose herself and — whoa! She topples her half-empty Stout bottle. She shoots her entire body towards me. I get up to leave.
Cousin Pee waddles over to me in the middle of the long hallway. I can’t tell whether she is carrying the pregnancy or if the pregnancy is carrying her, considering the way her hands press into the small of her back and thrust her pelvic girdle out. We stare at each other. I want to say a greeting, to acknowledge the baby upside-down in her, but the words don’t come out; rather memories from that dark guest room stir and thicken in my chest. She becomes unbearable to look at. I start to move out but stop when her body begins shaking.
“I dreamt of you some days back.” She says, her voice dry and flat.
“How are you?” I manage to say.
“I feel I’ll lose the baby.”
I don’t know what to say. She comes closer and her face breaks into pieces. She stretches her hands out to me. Does she really expect I’ll touch them? Even if I do, then what? She begins to sob out some things I don’t wait to hear.
8. Vanity Mirror
At a Short Story Day Africa workshop in Lagos, I sit right next to Bassey. He looks like someone marooned in a forest of a thousand angry demons when the workshop facilitator asks him, like everyone else, to introduce himself.
“Bro, were you anxious?” I say to him after he recovers from the introduction.
“No,” he says, shaking his head, still breathless, “no.”
After a long while, Bassey stops writing and asks, “Bro, how did you know?”
I want to tell him that a fellow sufferer knows the exact symptoms of what he is suffering from when he sees it in another person, but I just say, “Know what, Bro?”
9. Whatever Resists Expression
A phrase in Teju Cole’s Eight Letters to a Young Writer hits me hard. I tweet about it. Olakiitan, a young woman I met at the Short Story Day Africa workshop, sends me a message on Whatsapp:
—Hey! What do you think Teju Cole means by saying all writers must be after the things that resist expression?
I tell her that writing is a struggle against whatever enthrones silence — doctrines and dogmas, fear, cultures and traditions. I tell her that writers must speak their truth no matter what and, in doing so, must not make it pretty. Not even for once.
I get painful DMs on Twitter from two of my followers. “Write about it,” I reply to the first, “that’s a major way to conquer it and heal.” To the other, I send the words of Arundhati Roy: “You have to write like a suicide bomber, you have to detonate.”
Deep within, I know that’s not me. I can’t write about it. I can’t detonate.
10. I Can No Longer Be In Hiding
The weather is crazy in Jos. Cold sizzles in the air. Yet I get a Whatsapp message from Mustafa:
Writers’ Meet and Greet. 9 a.m. Social Centre. Today. You’ll attend, ko?
In a voice note, I sigh a reply: No problem. It’s okay.
I drag myself out of my black hole in Eto-Baba, through the shivering street of Angwan Rukuba, into a drafty room walled with abstract murals.
We sit like elders in a literary council over cheap sandwiches and steaming cups of coffee as we speak books, gossip about big Nigerian writers, and read each other. A scarf with Nsibidi symbols wraps her stubborn hair in the Nefertiti way. “She’s also an MSc student,” Musa says, following the way of my eyes. I love the incredible strength in her voice. I plant myself in the small soil besides her. I revel in the way she bubbles over and nudges me when she laughs like some joy-possessed person. I am deeply sad but I laugh. I laugh because of her warm vibrating nudge. I laugh because there is a lost art to the way the F word spills from her rosy lips, and the way she slurps her sandwich like it were a long liberating kiss. Mustafa whispers her name to me. Olympia. I roll the name on my tongue and lap at its soft sweetness. Olym.Piaaa. The room falls silent. She faces me.
Olympia drags the sun into the black hole of my room. It becomes like a sweet summer town. We talk about little nothings when she comes over. We drink body-temperature Heineken and puff some smoke together while crafting our dissertations. I love the way she concentrates on her cigarette ash when writing, and how she theorizes upon it. “It all comes to ash,” she screams with a dizzy laugh, “this fucking life.”
She plugs in her earphones and drums on a hardback with her long fingers. She whoops, and swings her slender shoulders to the rhythm of the song she’s listening to. She throws the hardback away, removes one branch of the earphone, and sticks it into my right ear.
“This is nice and soft. Who’s this?”
“Who doesn’t know Ed Sheeran?’
As I begin to know Ed Sheeran, our bodies nestle closer and lock. I fill her ears with purple words. We kiss. Clothes and shoes waltz away from us. We traverse our nakedness.
The Ed Sheeran playlist ends without warning. Oh! Ed. Oh! Sheeran. I sit motionless, avoiding the warm light flickering in her eyes. After an awkward silence, she fires up a cigarette and blows out smoke with expert precision.
Who is this girl? What have we done? What will we do next? And after that? My eyes fall on her cheap glittering rings, and her clothes splayed on the carpeted floor. They detonate memories in my head, most notably of Cousin Pee and the dark guest room. I want to shut us down with immediacy. I begin to rid myself of the things I feel for her: 10%… 23 %…45%…85%…83%
Just when we are about to be blown apart, Olympia rolls her eyes. She calls for a glass of water. I give it to her. She lifts the glass to her lips. Splash. My eyes grow bigger. I swallow a spiky ball of air. I look at my drenched body and the generous splash on my bed and carpet.
“Don’t look at me like that. What’s wrong with you?” She breathes in. I breathe in too. She pushes the glass to my chest, “Can I trust you to give me another glass of water?” She says with a most dignified voice, chin held high like an American flag. “Now I really want to drink.”
I laugh out of confusion, out of terror, out of shame. She laughs too, out of friendship, out of love, out of a certain kind of thirst. We hold hands and lace our fingers together. We listen to more Ed Sheeran. She kisses my nose. She tells me she fucking loves me, just for today.
Olympia’s pink sneakers pounds the sun-bleached asphalt of old Lamingo road, beside my moccasins. Running for total healing, she calls it. Running from all the monsters holding court in my head, maybe. We could be heading heavenward. We cross a shaky thin leg bridge strung across a gorge, with no handholds. We hold hands. We slosh through a stretch of hissing white mud. We laugh. We go up a fast stream. We kiss. We run on large shiny stones. We hug. We run into young women stretching their bodies under a generous avocado tree. We stop. “Pluck one of them,” Olympia says.
I look at her, surprised. “You are not promised me,” she says, “and I am not promised you.”
“Because we were yesterday.” She runs ahead, like a duiker. The young women wave at me. I run after Olympia.
11. Green Light
I am at Warri beach, coursing besides the humming sea, enjoying its tender pull on my feet. It does too many kind things for my spirit, and I can’t even explain one. A green light is in front of me, blinking slowly, beckoning at me, urging me to move on, to be in contact with my essence, to go deeper into my heart and allow the sun to rise there; urging me to be courageous and loving. And to just be.
Olympia drags the sun into the black hole of my room. It becomes like a sweet summer town. We talk about little nothings when she comes over.
I look around. Where is Olympia? My sweet Olympia! I know she’s somewhere around the tortuous bend of time. Her laughter rings in my ears. Never take yourself out of the running of life, I imagine her saying sotto voce, behind a plume of smoke. Or even, behind that green light.
I still dream of that balcony in the monstrous brick house, of the dark room Aunty Em stored me in, of Cousin Pee and everything else. I tell myself that they are just dreams, bad dreams, and I must try to wake up from them.
I think of Cousin Pee, her hands in the air, tremulous, covered with moss. I think of Aunty Em who now lives a white life with her black soul in Chicago. She wants to set up an orphanage home here in Warri. I experience great difficulty matching the thought of an orphanage and the face of Aunty Em, the honorary doctor of wickedness. A monster. I see a picture of her on Facebook. She is holding an artificial bouquet, her lips cracked with a smug toothy smile made in Indonesia. Beneath the picture, words call on well-meaning individuals to support the orphanage project. B sees the picture too. “Those fake flowers would die in her hands,” he says, “needless to talk of motherless babies. Maybe that’s why God never filled her womb.”
I make a few friends. Sometimes, they say I need bribing to stop talking and laughing, at other times they ask, “You this boy, do you ever talk? Do you even laugh?”
I see many faces I have never seen before —faces I’ll never see again. I don’t bother much about them because they don’t know me. Do they? And they’ll never know. Will they? Sometimes, I wave at people in passing. Sometimes, they wave back. Sometimes, they don’t.
It’s drizzling. I spread my arms sideways and flutter them. I could be one of those eagles I drew on the yellow walls when I was 7 — and B, 8.
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Tega Oghenechovwen lives in Warri, Nigeria. He is working on his debut novel.
Editor: Sari Botton