And, after 15 years, you hire a taxi and leave for Aba. It isn’t your preferred destination at this time, but the city owes you. The therapist you have been talking to believes that pieces of yourself are stuck in your old house, smothered in muck and bloodstained memory. Today, you will finally get to pick them up and move on.
The taxi enters Aba at 5pm, stalling in a holdup. The city has just exerted itself. Soon, the kiosks along Osisioma, displaying loaves of bread and chin-chin and softly rotting fruits on makeshift shelves, will be cleared away; in their place, round plastic tables will dot the sidewalk, flanked by screeching men, their fingers curled around freshly cracked beers. As the car turns onto Abayi, you roll down the window and breathe into a grid of tippers and buses that pump out fading clouds of smoke. Not much has changed here, you observe. The asphalt still breaks into tired patches here and there, vehicles unable to keep their balance. On either other side of the road, tall tenement blocks with supporting railings, crusty from neglect, intercept the breeze.
At Afule, the road evens so that the taxi picks up speed, the city flicking past like a film. A weight sinks to the bottom of your heart when the first house on your old street springs up. Following your instruction, the driver pulls up by its fence. The street seems to have shrunk in size, every inch of the road worn to bristly mud. If it rains, it will become inaccessible.
You edge forward in your seat, hair standing on end as your eyes follow the road to where it vanishes. The stalled car hums and quiets as if to catch its breath.
You exhale loudly and say, continue, leaning back in your seat as the driver eases the car forward. The buildings that range here look too weak to be standing, their roofs rusted to the hilt. A breeze out the window brings in an empty smell, neither that familiar settled-in musk nor the aroma of roast corn. You look from side to side, every alley suffused with eerie stillness. In all that gloom, two shops burst out on your left like a forced smile. They have always been there. Looking at them, you go back in time. Once, the year you turned 11, you had tripped over a stone a few feet from the two shops, falling flat on your face. As the fall set a halo rotating in your vision, your younger brother, Tobe, bent over and shook you, shouting, Dede, are you alright? Then he screamed and ran toward the shops. Help! My dede is dying. Help! He only stopped screaming when one of the shop owners pointed at you and said, calm down, Tobe. Your dede is alright. The two shops are now gaunt, their wares sparse. The shop owners are two bespectacled elderly women who will never recognize you.
The taxi closes in on your old house, pulls up by its gate. You alight slowly. Wait right here for me, you tell the driver, slinging a leather bag over your shoulder. You take a few steps toward the property, lock in on the sum of it—washed-out paints, cracked concrete, flowers deposed by weed. It has been dwarfed by time, this house that Mother once called an edifice, its gate now a screen of corroding metal. Old neighbours believed that the house had drawn the envy of your father’s relatives, so they slipped poison into his drink. Mother used to tell you and your younger brother, Tobe, that the neighbours got it wrong. Father died of heart failure. Old neighbours also believed that your brother killed himself on that day, 15 years ago, when he was found on the floor of his room, dark red blood running on the floor beside him, a knife tucked in his stomach. The truth is: you killed Tobe with kicks to his midriff, with blows that tore his lips, knocked a tooth loose and broke him.
You walk to the gate and fiddle with a padlock before drawing out a saw from your bag to cut its shackle, the siren of the interacting metals zapping at your ears. Across the road, a gate clangs open, and an old neighbour, Oga Today, lumbers out. He looks the same from a distance—bald, large and stern. He bellies up to you, brays, Hey! What are you doing? When you stand to your full height and look him up and down, his steps falter, then steady. Back in the day, he owned an AK-47. Rumours ran rife that he belonged to a mafia. Whenever early risers flashed past before dawn, his voice would claim the air. Who goes there? During the Bakassi-Vigilante days, it was said that he drove two dagger-wielding robbers away from the street brandishing nothing but his bare hands.
Wait a minute! Junior Boy? he asks. It has been years since you went by that name.
You remember me, sir?
Of course! he cries, pulling you into his arms. He tips his head backward and scans your face. Up close, his skin has slacked, soft at the neck. Lekwenu o! he exclaims. Anything that feeds must grow. You are now a dimkpa! Are you married?
You shake your head.
You shake your head again.
He studies you for a moment, then sighs, shoulders heaving down. I learned of your mother’s death. Please accept my condolences. There was no way to reach you.
His words press tears at the back of your eyes, but you wave dismissively. It’s okay, sir. It’s God’s will.
He nods. True that. So, what brings you to town?
Ehn, abiaram. To check on the house.
O di mkpa, he says. That’s very thoughtful. I was about to take a bath when I heard the noise. Let me go and continue. I hope I will see you before you leave? We haven’t talked.
Why not, sir?
When he departs, you part the gates and walk into the crunch of gravel. You meet a strained and painful silence as if the compound is peopled with ghosts. The interlocking paving stones have warped with time, tussocks of grass springing from their interstices in wild profusion. On the walls, mosses and moulds grow in colourful masses, like murals. But for the broken bottles and nails topping the fence, the leaves of an ube tree aglow with the falling sun, it’s impossible to recall living here. As you advance into the compound, birds lift from the tree in flight, and the scent of ripe fruit settles like mist over your face. Tobe had planted this tree more than 20 years ago. The both of you had potted ube seeds and later buried their seedlings side by side. While his reached up to the sky in the months and years that followed, leaves so thick and lush the compound was succulent with possibility, yours curled and died. He was often by the tree, tending to it, speaking to it, and the year it fruited, he boiled the first harvest and served it dusted in salt, smiling widely as he watched you and Mother eat.
The porch steps are severely chipped, as if they had been hacked at. You climb them with calculated strides like you are dodging mines. When you touch the entrance door at the porch, it gives way, rusted bolts clattering down. You halt and drag in a deep breath.
You have no sooner stepped into the living room than a dry wind shuts the door. Your suspicion about ghosts living here could be true, after all. In the suffocating darkness that presses on you, you sense their footfalls on the stairs, but they don’t scare you—lately, nothing does. You reach into the bag and bring out a flashlight. When you flick it on, its rays soak into the outline of clutter to reveal upturned furniture, picture frames and calendars unhooked from the walls, lying here and there like slabs and scrolls of dust. The inlay table now lies prone, its legs dismembered. You walk over to a window on your left, blind with grime, and tug at it until a few louvres creak apart. In the rush of light and breeze that follows, you cough and drag in another long breath, smelling the rotted wood from the dining alcove.
When this house was home, the lamination on the dining table—since ripped off by heat and termites—and the handrail that guards the stairs were frequently polished, picking light from the chandelier. Tobe would sit on the handrail and glide to the landing, filling the air with shrieks of: Dede! Dede! It was the only game he mastered among all you tried to teach him. He tottered on football pitches. Rubber bands snapped at his fingers. When he stood before a wrestling opponent, pools of red gathered on his cheeks. All the neighbourhood kids called him Boy-Girl. Boys his age shot out their feet to trip him up, took turns mimicking his feminine gait. When he walked the streets, teenage boys cracked up, erupting in loud catcalls. You believe this was the reason he folded inwards, like a tendril, always curled up on the sofa reading a book or watching a film instead of joining you and your friends to play video games upstairs, or at the balcony, from which you watched city dwellers bolt out at dawn or turn in after dark.
You flash your light around before deciding to go upstairs. The staircase is full of cobwebs and grit and flutters from the mangled roof overhead. In the hallway, a stretch of dated marble, your heart begins to push at your chest. The first room on your left used to be your parents’. It was where Father gave that final groan before he was hefted out of the house, where Mother first voiced her disapproval of Tobe: he had turned 12 and still looked like an outgrowth when he stood with the boys, still spoke in a falsetto, swayed his hips and tried on makeup.
You pause, twist the doorknob and walk into a memory.
It was during Easter. A new neighbour, Auntie Nkechi, had just left the house. In her wake, Mother took Tobe to this room upstairs. You joined them after a while, just as Mother pointed out the window and said, look! You see how their arms are spread? Boys don’t relax their hands while walking. They were looking beyond a raft of bungalows at a bald pitch where the street boys played football, snapping about in the wind like tattered rags. Mother said, try this, spread her own arms and strutted around the room. Tobe tailed along, chest jutted out, fists balled, and, when Mother halted in the middle of the room to send him a frown, he turned red. You watched them hopefully. So convinced were you that he would learn the act of masculinity.
You are in that room now, looking out the window. It appears the bungalows have been pulled down, and skeletons of new buildings have taken root, rising into the air. Beyond them, some boys—teenagers, judging by their screeching delight—are playing football on that same pitch. With dusk rapidly filling up the sky, your view obscured by the new structures, they are only a gaggle of heads. You touch the windowsill, and your fingers sink into dust. Like the rest of the house, life has left its mark here. There are days when you tell yourself that things would have turned out differently if Auntie Nkechi hadn’t always reminded Mother to do something about Tobe, if her face didn’t turn sour each time he greeted her, if she hadn’t told Mother, on that blustery August morning, that the entire neighbourhood now called her the mother of a homo. There are other days when you let Auntie Nkechi off the hook. Mother’s grimace that afternoon, as she halted mid-lesson to watch the struggle occurring in Tobe’s face, had been collecting over the years, crease by crease. If you can’t learn from me, at least watch your dede! How hard is it to walk like a man? Mother yelled after every failed attempt until Tobe craned his neck and walked with a limp. She turned to you and said, Junior Boy, what do you think? He’s getting it, right? You looked away and repressed a chuckle. Truth is, Tobe, with the frail architecture of his body, his skin the texture of dough, wasn’t built for that kind of walk. Mother often spoke about how different he was from you and father, none of the hard black eyes and square chin nor the metallic bass that seemed to grind out from behind your throats. When he was much younger, she told everyone with teasing affection how God had wanted to make him a girl but changed his mind last minute. As his years accumulated, the affection wore and everything he did started to grate on her.
The dusty room rushes back to you, alongside a fit of sneezes. You dart across the room, force the windows apart, thrust out your face until you feel a clear tingling sensation. The view resembles a painting from 15 years ago. It is Faulks Road in the distance, waterlogged, vehicles detouring onto the sidewalk, an uncompleted building called Seven Decking standing like a sentinel. Disordered rows of houses still frame the road, as though a child had daubed on paint at random and suddenly there was a cityscape. A grey mass is rising up from behind Seven Decking, looming over the city. You close the window and hurry out of the room, determined to see the rest of the house before the rain touches down.
Your former room is next to your parents’, its door ajar. A carrion-like smell trickles up the moment you step in. The windows have been left open for years, the carpet has rotted away, and a wet matter embosses everything in sight. If you step on the floor hard enough, it will cave in. The darkness is heavy here, just like it is inside your mind. As you retreat from the room, you imagine it calling out to you in an ominous drawl.
Your breath is held when you walk into Tobe’s room at the end of the hallway, its furniture wilted. In this room that had cradled the both of you like eggs—the carpet, the bed and the music from Tobe’s piano snug as clouds—the air now feels tense, the floor squirming underfoot, the piano, like all else that had witnessed what happened here, astounded into silence. You approach the windows with dwindling steps and force them apart so that the backyard charges into view, trees bending in the wind. As children, you and Tobe had shared this room. You moved out at the onset of adolescence and Tobe stayed back, adapting it year after year for himself. When he turned 13, Mother replaced his old piano with this limbed one. He would sit before it every day after school making music, his voice teasing down the stairs, lingering on the walls after he had ended a song.
A rack in the corner of the room has twisted out of shape, draped with cobwebs. The beam of your flashlight briefly settles on it, then on the stack of books that has remained in situ on the floor all these years, each book rotting into the other. The reading desk still sits across from the wardrobe. It was where you hunkered down most weekends during your early teenage years to write poems, the edges of the desk lined with titles—The Passport of Mallam Ilia, West African Verse, The Adventures of Souza, Time Changes Yesterday. Most of those books had formed the stack in the corner, frequently reshuffled until they aligned in perfect sequence. Tobe sometimes sat on the floor beside the stack as you wrote a poem, legs crossed. Dede, write a poem about me, he once demanded in a small voice, and, when you nodded and focused back on your poem, he said, what will you write? It was on that same spot that he sat moments before you killed him, a book open on his lap, the air smelling bright and feminine.
The rain was delivered like blows that morning, hammering the unpaved road of the street to a pulp. Auntie Nkechi had just left the house. Mother called you into the kitchen. Her head hung low, her countenance injured. Junior Boy, she said quietly, your brother wants to bring shame to us. Everybody now calls me the mother of a homo. I can’t believe you are letting him get away with this madness.
The last word was barely spoken when you tore out of the kitchen, engulfed in rage. Tobe stood up from the floor the moment you burst into his room. His arms hung loosely, set to swing when he walked. What’s this nonsense on your hair? You pointed at his lemon-coloured hair band, his hair so slick it looked lacquered to his scalp.
Dede, he started to say, eyes narrowed in befuddlement, when you felled him with a blow, growling, are you a woman? You want to become a homosexual? You bent and struck his face. A scream of Dede, please! split out of him. It was the last thing you heard before something filled you up, scalding and sinister. Your feet and fists rained on him, as if they had a mind of their own, your breathing ragged. You did not stop until Mother grabbed you by the waist and said, Ozugo! Stop lest you kill him.
You stood erect, panting. Tobe writhed in pain on the floor. Here he was, so resigned to being battered by his fellow boys. You spat on him and stormed out of the house.
You returned home in the evening. Tobe lay in bed, bracketed by Mother and the family doctor. The atmosphere was solemn. Everywhere smelled of disinfectant and clotted blood. Tobe was on a drip, his head bandaged. All of him seemed like a wound: sore, stained with GV, the prints of your fists all over his face.
The doctor rose to his feet and said, the beating was excessive, with a distant formality that precluded one from reading his thoughts.
Mother exhaled loudly, tapping her feet on the floor. You walked to the bed where Tobe’s body shivered, his teeth clattering audibly.
Tobe, are you alright? you asked.
He winced as he tried to raise his head. Dede, he whisper-said, my whole body is on fire.
Something softened in your gut. You looked away to navigate the sensation. Outside the window, trees twisted in the wind as though, like Tobe, their bodies were on fire.
Tobe’s recovery took a full month, and by the time he was up and about, something had dimmed in his face. There were other changes too: his clothes were sturdier; his walk stiffened, and his words were of measured length. When anyone leaned in to speak to him, he recoiled as if from unexpected burn. Then one afternoon, you walked into his room and found him lifeless on the floor. The note he left on his desk read: I’m sorry, Mother. I’m sorry, Dede. I don’t know how to be the son and brother you want.
The rest of that day still replays in your head, scene by scene. You hear the echo of voices as neighbours carried Tobe’s body downstairs, Mother’s scream as the house emptied. He was first taken to a hospital even though it was clear that he was dead. Uncles were sent for. An ambulance appeared. Mother stayed with Tobe’s body in the back of the ambulance. You climbed into the passenger’s seat, looking at Aba for the last time in the side mirror, a crumbling sight as the ambulance exited Osisioma road.
Neither you nor Mother returned to the house again. The families of a few relatives lived in the rooms downstairs for a few nonconsecutive years, but each family had left as suddenly as the last, the rush of the final family’s departure marked by the upturned furniture in the living room. There is something in this old house of shadows and bloodstained memory, a sense of urgency that you can feel right now in the air like a leak, your cue to leave.
You back out the door of Tobe’s room and pound the hallway. At the landing of the staircase, your knees give, and you sit on a step, reaching into your bag for a half empty bottle of BACARDI. You have been on the bottle since Mother died five years ago. Her death was eraser-like; she was there one minute and gone the next. Her grave lay next to Tobe’s in your ancestral home, both distinctly plotted in your mind as you left for Lagos and, in that big dark city, groped and groped, finding nothing but grief. Sometimes, you killed the grief with liquor; other times it was a tightening noose around your neck. A few years later, you started talking to the therapist.
Your stomach rumbles. You have not had anything to eat since afternoon, apart from the rum. It’s in your hand now, the remnant of a liquid lunch. The sky opens up above the roof, and tiny vapours of rain spray on your head. The entrance door rattles and admits your driver. Sir, it’s raining, he says, a man of few words.
You get to your feet and palm the banister to steady yourself while descending the stairs. The rain is heavier now, slithering down the walls from the mangled roof. When you stand outside on the porch with the driver to wait it out, a breeze rushes toward you, and, on its waves, you hear Tobe’s voice, small, hopeful: Dede, write a poem about me. What will you write?
A chill works itself up your body. Your eyes grow warm. You uncap the BACARDI and take a long swig. Then you shut your eyes until Tobe’s voice recedes and you can hear the world again, the rain rapping against the porch stairs, the wind whistling.
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