Fresh breeze blows over the canal and swallows the stench reeking from the dumpsite behind you. The breeze clears your head where you stand facing the canal and you wonder why you saw dejection in everyone, and ruin in everything. Why you became a solitary vexing machine the first few weeks you came to the community. You ask the breeze, why can’t people understand you like it does and relax? Why can’t everyone just appreciate the community and live a good life? As you climb the mountain of garbage to the top, one of the half-naked boys scavenging for anything sell-able warns you to keep off his territory. You assure him you are not hustling, only viewing the community. Below, all the shacks in the community huddle together like skeletons. Only passageways so narrow two people can’t walk through side-by-side separate them.
You tell the boys that scavenging for a living is not the way, but they don’t know because they live in their mind. They look at you like Sato’s mum does, shake their heads side-to-side slowly and continue. Sato’s mum stares at you because something secret happened to Sato. Although you don’t mind when she gathers her gaze and plasters it on you like glue, her sad piercing eyes worry you. Worse still, she lends her eyes to the community people. The other day her gaze drilled into your skull as you hopped past the stinking water in front of her shanty. The canal had overflown from heavy rain and flooded the community. The water and garbage that surrounded the shanties turned green days later and stank like death. When you reached the joint, after dragging a few rounds, her wiry figure that stuck beside the water came from nowhere and taunted you. Luckily, she spun around you like everyone and everything in the joint and faded away as your mind raced back to reality.
When your mind settled, Sato stood in front of you pointing a silver pistol at your forehead. You didn’t hear the gunshot but saw blue flame burst out of the pistol. When you turned to see what dug into your glabella and flew out of the back of your head, pieces of your brain splattered all over the bottles of gin on the table behind you. You asked why he blew your brains out. He didn’t respond before he fizzled away with the smoke pumping out of the man sitting beside you. The man’s mouth remained agape for ages after you warned him to control his smoke. He must have curled into his head like everyone in the community. They make you feel insane, even mum. Despite how hard you have tried to rescue her. Like the day you made stew with serious buds. After you ate your fill, you waited for her anxiously to eat so you could talk her back. With some still in her mouth, she dozed off drooling. Head slumped, back against the bamboo pillar in the middle of the shanty. She slept like a log until the next morning. When she woke up, she dove into her imagined routine like a robot.
You worried about her too much that morning and fell into your imagination like her. You avoid falling into your mind because when it happens, you can’t tell what’s real or not. The gloomy aura in the shack that morning nailed suicidal thoughts into your head. How the paper and cellophane wall had remained standing surprised you. A voice kept telling you to hang yourself with the builders’ rope used to tie the pillar of bamboo canes. You couldn’t because the roof of rusty zinc sheets on it would crash if you untie the rope. You knew the shack wasn’t real but got confused when you touched the cellophane and bamboo canes. You weren’t sure if the stench was in your head as you hurried past Sato’s mum to the joint. If you weren’t imagining things, you’d slither out of the shanty like a snake and breeze through the community like the wind.
Halfway through a round at the joint mum came screaming at you. Her screams kill you anytime she lost it. The shame is unbearable. You dread becoming like her, which is why you frequent the joint to remain sane. Although her mental illness doesn’t frighten you, the way people behave as if she bought the illness and wore it scares you. They turn up their noses and point fingers at her anytime she drags you away from the joint. Yet, they all gather to rescue anyone that cholera captures in the community. Are people so careless that they select which illness to accept and which to call names? Hypocrisy must be addictive.
As mum dragged you back home, fragile pieces of broken memories fluttered back like butterflies. The extent to which she had changed shocked you. Her firm gait had become frail. Her high-pitch voice that used to bring down the church had become whispery. Her happy buttocks that dad used to try so hard to copy when they danced in the living room had disappeared. Dad must have stolen it that night. Her cachinnation and his rumbling laughter that used to fill the entire house on Saturdays kept playing in your head. The memory of mum and dad laughing and dancing is so delicate you fear it would dissolve if you think about them too much. You want to wrap it in layers of your mind and store safely in your soul forever. But you can’t, you can only keep it by thinking about it gently, little by little. You knew she wasn’t like you saw or heard her. It was all in your mind because you hadn’t returned to the real reality. More memories flooded back like waterfalls, but you couldn’t tell which was real. You remembered when one of the boys she taught hurled a corn cob at her nape while she wrote on the blackboard. You hunted down the boy and left him with bloated lips and a broken nose. Other boys feared you after because the boy was a gang leader. Had they known how you and mum got here, they would have known that disfiguring someone’s face for her is nothing. That you would kill for her when the time comes. When you are sure the memories of dad and the whore who used juju to imprison him in the bondage between her legs are real. Real enough to clasp in your hands on your way to dad’s house.
You’d underrated things like juju and that thing before that night. You never knew their combination could drive dad mad at mum. After she’d scraped off fragments of her life and stamped them on his every day for fifteen years. Fifteen years spent separating herself from friends and family. Even grandma. The day mum fought Aunty-Nene, grandma’s prophesy that mum would have no life left someday because of dad came true that night. He kicking and cursing. She begging and crying. You banging the door and threatening to go with mum. Before the back of his thick hand smashed your face and sent you sprawling beside mum. Then his hypnotised voice asked, “Who said you are staying?” You knew it was too late. Juju girl sat on the sofa rolling her eyes under blade eyelashes.
You wished mum had driven straight to church three days earlier. After a prophet clad in a white-become-brown garment warned her in traffic. The veins on his neck bulged when he said a witch doctor had done juju for a girl and sent her to sleep on a grave for seven nights. His bloodshot eyes widened as he added that the girl is invoking powers to control dad. Mum called him mad prophet and rolled up the window when he concluded that the girl had slept on the grave for five nights already. Because mum had donated herself to dad, all left for him to kick out were crumbs of her life scattered around his. Hotel rooms and food ate those crumbs. Two weeks later, dad became a stranger when he saw you and mum kneel outside the gate begging. You knew he knew karate that day despite his bouncing potbelly as you and mum leap-ran past the aawwws of neighbours. Neighbours who quickly dished out verandas and balconies, until dad told some mum had controlled him with juju for fifteen years and threatened others with karate. If what you remember is real, then juju girl went to town with the thing between her legs that came straight from the grave. She had started sucking dad months earlier when his money started drying up. The grave route was only to slay her cow. Mum’s tears soaked pillows those nights that dad didn’t come home.
The last neighbour cajoled you and mum out of their space when he couldn’t take dad’s harassment anymore. He was a saving angel for days. Not like angels of confusion that put strange memories in your head to wear as invincible hats. Unlike hats, you can’t tell whose memories are in your head. You yearn for a memory filter so you can keep the good ones and throw the horrible ones into the canal. Like the one you lay on cardboard paper under the bridge, after the last neighbour coaxed you and mum to leave. You’d always looked out of the car window and wondered how people ended up living under the bridge. Once you asked mum where she sat on the passenger seat as dad drove, how people ended up there. Life happened to them, she answered. Mosquito buzz blended with the rhythm of mum’s incessant sobs and sang you to sleep.
You shuddered into tears when you woke up alone in the middle of the night, thinking mum had abandoned you. Something jerked in your head and another broke in your heart. Then she emerged after a man from a black SUV by the roadside. The man zipped his trousers, buckled his belt, got behind the steering, and drove off. She straightened her crumbled skirt with her palms. Beams of light from a passing car caught the tears flowing out of her blank eyes as she crossed the road towards you. Her tears warmed your shoulder for the rest of the night. She promised you would never sleep under the bridge again. That afternoon when you and mum reached the squatter community, the man she paid to use his shanty said she could use it for as long as she wanted. He would build another before nightfall. He said people come here with bags of grief. Some leave theirs behind. Others can’t because they become the bags. That if mum discard hers before leaving, she would have won.
You felt a jerk in your head and returned to reality. You knew some of the memories weren’t real. You wished mum knew how much you wanted to save her from her mind. Like everyone else, she pushed off the reality screaming in front of her. You wondered why she chose to join everyone else and ignore your good life. Why she worries that you swim in the canal that people poo diarrhoea into, even though it does nothing to you. Why she spends forever boiling the canal water on that sawdust stove that barely works, before drinking. Why she doesn’t want to be free, like you have been since that day.
That day, you struggled through the market to a Junior WAEC exams lecture centre. You’d thought of days like that in a blur before. As you walked behind mum through the shanties, the memory wasn’t blurred. You remembered cutting through a mass of sticky sweaty bodies. An angry sun roasted you. Thousands of flies buzzed around piles of raw meat. Beggars littered in mud, to bare their misfortune. Hawkers screamed; Cold-water! Orange! Mango! Market hustlers sold their backs for any-load. Car honks tore into the air. A haze of brownish dust had risen from car tires and other tires. It permeated everything and stuck to your body like grease.
You pulled out at the other end of the market feeling dizzy. Moist blackish dust shot out of your nose when you blew it. The dust you wiped from your face discoloured your white handkerchief. You dreaded returning home through the market until someone in the lecture centre gave you some to smoke. You knew reality after. The teacher became a comedian. He transformed the lecture into a comedy show that only you enjoyed. Gentle evening breeze caressed your face as you floated back through the market like a leaf. The chaotic serenity in the market plastered a big smile on your face. A mixture of different honks became jazz. Sweaty bodies tasted salty when you licked where they rubbed on you. Raw meat glowed like reddish-purple glow sticks. Flies buzzed like harmonica. Brownish dust tasted like glucose when they settled on your stuck-out tongue.
You can’t remember if you did Junior WAEC exams. The closer it gets to your mind, the farther it escapes, like a wisp in fog. But you see the market from the top of the dumpsite, which confuses you. Since you started nipping mum’s money, you buy extra wraps and light up anytime. You feel great living in the real world permanently, without hallucinations or imaginations. Smiling at everyone and everything, every time, every day, is magic. Even if everyone else shoots back pitiful looks, your girl doesn’t. She’s all that matters. She stole your breath away the first time you saw her in a movie, before you came to the community.
Her beauty changed the dump into a mountain of roses the day she appeared on top beside you. She admired the canal then turned to view the shacks. When your hand sank into her lush curly hair, goose bumps rushed all over your body. Your heart melted. It was a love at first touch. Her big smile and big round eyes finished you when she told you she’s Indian American. She said your eyes caught her heart in the movie you first saw her. She dreamt of your lean chocolate figure after. Her angelic figure dissolved into your arms and entered your heart when you hugged her. She left after to go finish the movie, but will return to become yours forever. You have been coming to wait for her on the dumpsite. You know she will return because some of her lives in your heart. People in the community look puzzled when you tell them about her. They find anything bigger than their mind impossible.
From the top of the dumpsite, you see mum and two men hurry towards you. The veil of smoke hanging around you obstructs your sight. The early afternoon sun pecks your lips, as your smile grows bigger. You wonder why mum looks grim on such a beautiful day. Mum’s charcoal-black skin intensifies the white of her eyes and the dark-pink of her pouty lips. She could win beauty contests with her figure. When she climbed closer, the silver balls of tears rolling off her eyes reflected the pale sky. You quickly inhale and exhale the last bit. Then pour smiles at her, hoping it would erase her tears and leave only beauty.
You wake up in front of the shanty, mum sitting beside you. Dried tears line her cheeks like dried pap. Dusk had woken up while you slept. You can’t tell if everything sneaking into your head happened. You remember floating through the air facing the sky. Hands and legs tied. Feet on the shoulder of one man, head on the shoulder of another. Begging mum that you won’t steal her money again after they dumped you in front of the shanty. Sato’s mum kneels beside you; her piercing eyes dig into your soul, you almost choke. Mum says weed is not good for you with teary eyes as they search your pockets. She begs you to promise her you won’t go to the joint anymore. You tell her that only weed brings you back to life. More tears flow down her cheeks when you add that she doesn’t have to suffer in her head like everyone else. That she needs to smoke weed and wake up. You quickly promise her everything she wants when she starts wailing. She unties your legs and hugs you. Sato’s mum prays and returns to her shanty. You wonder why she prayed for you when it’s her and everyone else that needs prayers. Mum cuddles you on the mud floor like that night under the bridge.
When mum enters the shanty, you find the wraps they took out of your pocket scattered around you. You pick all of them and the lighter. Your lips barely hold the bundle together. You light all of them in one go since it’s your last smoke before you start your promise. You inhale and exhale as fast as possible. Tiny sparks shoot off some blunts like teensy-weensy firecrackers. The shanty becomes a blur, then pitch black. You regain consciousness to find light smoke drifting off the blunt stubs that fell from your mouth. Something snaps in your head, like when the wire that holds your bicycle brake-levers snap when you were younger. You feel like a frisbee when you stand up. You can’t feel your legs as you dash through the shanties. You hear Sato say this is how he felt after he escaped his chains, but can’t see him. You feel the slap dad gave you burning your cheek. You are sprinting to his house to slit his throat. You don’t want to kill him slowly, like he has been killing you since that night. You want to kill him kindly since you have finished dying. Then you will pound juju girl and her Brazilian hair in a mortar with a pestle, except she has a baby. You can’t pound someone’s mum. You decide not to pound her because dad had poked his nose into her skirt before she went to the grave for him. Slaps would do. Your arms change to wings so you pull off your tee shirt to flap them. The harder you flap the faster you sail through the shanties, trousers wavering. You pull off your trousers to stop the wavering then your legs disappear. Only your shorts stop you from flying as you burst out opposite the dumpsite. You pull it off and jet up the dumpsite naked like lightning. You hear people shouting behind you, “Ajebor has gone crazy ohhh!” “Call his mum quick-quick!” Your girl hovers over the canal. You dive into the air to join her.
Image: Frankie Cordoba via Unsplash