“You look at her and you see her eyes are watering…you are a gecko cursed with loving old walls with cracks wide enough to swallow you…”
The first picture smells of rum and murderous ire. You are crouching over your uncle, Baba. Your fist is in the air and light is bleeding out of his swollen eyes on the floor. And Hajia in a black hijab is standing at a corner of the room behind you, her eyes wide open in shock, and a glint of relief too as you like to think. The brown curtains are pregnant with air and you remember the broken shutters of the window clattering to the winds of a looming deluge. There’s a gecko beside the white bulb on the blue wall in front of you, head raised up to catch tiny insects circling the light. Then the wall gecko’s tail draws back into the small hole close to the creamy ceiling. The fist in the air comes down at Baba’s face, goes up again and then down and with every impact, blood flows back into the broken nose and the battered face smoothens into a slightly wrinkled caramel face. Hajia falls to the ground. You stand off the man, pick him on the floor and throw him over Hajia. You walk backwards to the entrance, your face coloured with hate, eyes following every fist of Baba punching Hajia, ears burning from her screams until the curtain at the entrance falls on your face like a mercy from God. It is dark outside and the breeze whispers of a rain, and having put on your sandals, you walk backward to the lone coconut tree in front of the house where you stare briefly at a coconut on the ground, turn from it, and jerk at a thud from behind. The coconut floats up to meet flapping fronds as a motorcycle rides back to your front. The rider gives you a naira note and you mount the motorcycle. He rides you back to the bar against swooshing wind where you’d drunk off significant gulps of your sense, and he complains about the alcohol stench wafting off you, says that a young man like you is not supposed to sell his life span for cheap bottles of ogogoro and you want to slap sense into him, tell him that you don’t drink ogogoro, that you do expensive wines. But you keep quiet and let him prattle on till he drops you off in front of Faaji Spot, a building with bamboo fences and three crowns of thatch roof. As the motorcycle rides off, you stretch out your right hand and then step back into the bar of dim red and blue light scattering across plastic chairs and round tables, forming dark patches on strangers’ faces, either laughing out their excitement or folded into ridges of solemnity and frustration. Of the latter is Orji who is not really a stranger to you, sitting at the table diagonal to where you sit, often smacking the table top and making the two green bottles on it quiver. You are taking your cup to your mouth where wine pours into it and you fill the bottle in front of you. Your chest suddenly tightens as the thought of how Yemisi had called it quits with you yesterday is replaced with a dawning realization. Orji’s lamentations reveal that he wishes he could eliminate his always nagging wife as his friend did his brother. And Orji is not a stranger only because you’ve seen him with Baba a number of times. And your father had died the day he ate at Baba’s place again. When he got home that night, you remember him saying that he’s settled the land issue with his brother and they’d celebrated the resolution over bottles of hale. Your father didn’t wake up the next morning.
This picture carries scents of a celebration and a blooming love. Hajia is standing beside Baba and his hand holds her shoulder like an anchor. Both of Hajia’s hands are holding a purse, colour matching the large purple scarf covering her head gear and falling to her waist. She is smiling, a smile far away from the stiff grin on Baba’s face like the pleats of his starched buba. The couple is surrounded by people in different colourful attire, walking out or into the scene. Except for a lady standing behind Hajia, facing the other direction, her hands spread skyward as if to receive anointment, her eyes on a beaming baby boy in the air beyond her reach. The couple is looking at you, into the camera hiding your misty eyes. You take your camera off your face as the baby falls back into the lady’s hand. They make to leave but you stop them and say, “Hajia, would you like to take a personal shot?” Baba is called by his friend Orji who quickly compliments his fine leather shoes, so he isn’t aware of Hajia’s eyes seeking a sort of permission from him. He is drowned quickly in a pool of adoration and Orji clasping his ego, draws him off. Hajia nods and you ask her to stand against one of the scenic backgrounds your colleague brings for work. It is blue, dotted with falling stars. She stands still, like one questioned in court, and you take a shot. When she hears the click, she moves away from the background like an artiste with stage fright. But you hold her, smiling and shaking your head say, “Please let’s try another.” She glances at her husband and sees his head is thrown back in laughter, and then she steps back. This time, you ask her to rest her strikingly jutting chin on her palm, set her eyes up without moving her face and smile as if looking at a firework. She hesitates, smiling in quiet disbelief, eyes discerning your face which seems to be tight with determination yet tender with delight. She takes the pose, easier than you had expected and your eyes become mistier. You think she is a born model and you imagine her practising looks before a mirror, hands on waist and turning around. And click! Your colleague taps your shoulder and you turn to him. He has found a family and needs his background. You plead that he allow another shot but he says his clients are in a hurry. Your hands drop and when you look back to tell Hajia it is over, she is already walking into Baba’s arm like a bird back into its cage. Your heart falls into your stomach. Her looking at her side makes you hope she intends to catch your face in her peripheral sight. A tear rolls down your right eye and you say, “You are so beautiful.” You are sure the noise from the cheerful air and even the rattles of dry grasses under hundreds of feet will wrap your words in oblivion. But not for long, you promise. You check your camera to see the pictures and there was the last one which holds your eyes like dices and rolls them on sunsets. You decide to frame it that moment and give it to her when you go to deliver the printed photographs. This is three days later and she is sitting across you, bringing out the pictures from their paper jacket. Your eyes are on her as she checks each with subtle eagerness in the way she moves quickly to the next as if in search of something. Then she gazes at you questioningly and you smirk because you know she wants to see how she looks in the last shot which is missing in the pack on her laps. You take the frame leaning on your legs, tear off the paper wrappings and you show it to her. She sits straight up and her eyes widen in shock that is soon peeled off layer by layer until glee, shy glee, sparkles instead. You go to hand the frame to her and she stares at it hard until Baba enters the parlour with his hand fumbling with the drawstrings of his sokoto. Hajia looks up at him with a glint of fright and you interject the muddled words you imagine are forming in her throat, “Uncle, walahi, I didn’t know you are around.”
“I was sleeping ni.” He grunts and before you could say something else, he gestures at the frame and adds, “What is this?” as if he doesn’t see the portrait of his wife on it.
“I promised Mummy a portrait for her last birthday and I’m just giving her.” You lie and relive that very birthday, Hajia’s 57th. A party was thrown by her only son, Rahimi, who suddenly decided to visit home after an eternity in Abuja. You had bought her a jewellery set with your life savings and she had tried to reject it, saying it was too expensive. Rahimi had sent you to bring new bottles of wine for his friends and when you met Hajia in the parlour, Rahimi’s little girl sleeping in her arms and herself dozing off in front of the television, you had thought to use the opportunity to give her the present. She’d taken it without knowing and her stretched hand returning the box was withdrawn as Rahimi’s wife came in and you had hurried out.
“Hmmm, okay,” Baba says, his eyes lingering a little on you with vague suspicion. Then he turns to Hajia and says, “I am going to see Orji.” Hajia murmurs something with a nod and he walks out of the room.
After the door creaks closed behind him, you ask if Hajia is okay and she smiles at you. Then you say it, “You are so beautiful.” She doesn’t cringe like she did in the past whenever you told her this, while you were living with her and Baba. The last time you did it, you were helping her free a stuck zip at the back of her dress and she had whirled and didn’t let you unstick the zip again. “Do you know Rahimi could give birth to you if he had married earlier? You have to stop this. I am like a mother to you,” she had said and watched as you dragged your feet out of her room. But this time, she is a little girl approaching her favourite pet which she is also scared of, a smile dancing on her face and the corners of her mouth twitching too, eyes gleaming with delight and uncertainty. She says, “Thank you, Quadri. Thank you so much. Thank you.”
In this picture, you are sitting cross-legged, like an imam, on the decking of the abandoned second storey atop where you live. A few bricks are scattered around you, and the floor at the corners is lined with dry films of moss. You are wearing a black jalabiya. There is a cigarette between your fingers and your mouth is the root of a thick plume of smoke. The day is the ash of dusk and a dying sun paints the sky flashes of dull orange. As the smoke thins out into clear air, you hear knocking sounds the colour of blood from the stairs but you do not look. And Yemisi soon storms into view. You notice the legs first, hairy slender fair legs packed close by a brown pencil skirt. When you look up at her, her arms are folded over her chest and her big eyes scatter shrapnel like an exploding bomb.
“You are just a loser, a big loser! I mean, who do you think you are?” Her hands are sizing the air now and you can’t look at her.
“I have been trying your line like a hundred times and here you are smoking. You did the same during Eid and ignored me all day. It has always been like this. You take me for granted and never commit to the relationship. Is it because I was the one who asked you out? That made me cheap? Oh! That definitely made me cheap.” She is holding her head now and her fingers ruffle her hair. You are thinking she is not cheap for asking you out. You are thinking you are the foolish one to accept when you knew you were unsure of your feelings for her. She was a Facebook friend who fell in love with the photographs you uploaded. She had messaged you about your pictures having soul and because when you checked her pictures, she was tall and had a pointed nose like the Fulanis, you moved closer to her. She could model for you. She did pose for you a lot of times. Nude and painted face once, with her breasts curving to the sides like twins that never agree. You didn’t intend to make love to her but you had found your member straining against your trousers. So, you put down the camera and walk up to her and she opened her legs for you, wriggling on your bed. And you entered.
“I loved you fucking moron. And all you do is play with my feelings. Am I just your toy thing, loser? Look at me. Fucking look at me!”
You look at her and you see her eyes are watering and you imagine being just a blur in front of her. You drop the cigarette stub and sigh. Not that you are embarrassed that your neighbours can hear her but because she can never understand you, that you are not a butterfly seeking marigolds like her, that you are a gecko cursed with loving old walls with cracks wide enough to swallow you. And you want to say sorry but your tongue is heavy. You look away again and your eyes settle upon a billowing rag trapped in the thicket growing beside the building. Then you hear tearing sounds and pieces of waxy papers fall on you.
“There! I am done with you. You fucking loser!” And she vanishes like a ghost.
You stand up and pick the pieces of memories scattered around. You will burn them tonight.
The fourth picture whispers secrets and pleasure. You are shorter here, your hands thinner, fourteen maybe. You are before a door in a dimly lit passage. Your hand is on the doorknob. You have two shallow shadows, each stretching from your feet in opposite directions. It is because of the two hurricane lanterns at each end of the passage ways. The glass containers coated by soot dulls their yellow glow. Your hand leaves the knob as an afterthought for your face is crumpled in reason. You listen. Moans still pour out the keyhole and crevices around the door. You have come to hear comforting words again as you just had another nightmare. Iya Dada was pushing your head into her vagina and it was suffocating you and you had woken with a tightening chest, gasping for breath. Hajia has known about your nightmares from the day you arrived in her house three years ago, the night after your father didn’t wake again. She had hugged you to her bosom after you’d shouted out of your dream and said, “You have to be strong, Quadri. All will be well in shaallah,” and your fears had faded. You have come to let her words fan off your fear again and she is moaning. And Baba is not around. You kneel silently and peep into the keyhole. Hajia is writhing on the bed naked and her hand is stirring her loin. Your body becomes hot and your heart is restless with carnal cravings. You unzip your trousers and it pops out turgid. You begin to stroke it but you do not moan. You soon come, carefully shooting ropes of semen into your left hand, then you stand and race down the passage so that it doesn’t drip on the way.
This picture drips of dread. Your hands are on a bed with ragged covers and your right leg is raised to climb on. Fear is the tears trickling down your cheeks. A large woman is standing in front of the bed with iro loosely swaddled round her body. A grandfather clock is on the wall behind her and its pendulum is hanging at a corner. As it falls to swing to the other side, the woman, Iya Dada, lets her iro fall to reveal her nakedness. She picks you who are still trying to climb, throws you on the bed, pulls down your shorts, holds your little penis and sticks it into her mouth. The first time she did it, she said she was opening up your little hole so you would urinate with more ease, the second was to clean it with her foaming saliva and soon it doesn’t matter why anymore. You haven’t told your father lest the shadows you thought creep on the wall at night that she calls ojuju take you away. And she gives you sweets from her stall. Not that your father would listen anyways, he only grumbled when you tried to tell him about your first wet dream last month, and you still think it’s bedwetting. Iya Dada’s mouth is warm and she sucks your penis gently like you would candy sticks. Your mind is a quagmire of emotions – fear, confusion, pain, pleasure. She let you go and you see that your pinky finger-sized penis has grown to a middle finger size. She then lies back and tells you to play with her vagina with your fingers. You dip your hand in and let your fingers rub around like she taught you, and she squirms and says, “Good boy, good boy, omo dada.” When she asks you to clean her vagina with your mouth, you wish your father returns that moment. But 9:30 pm is still far away. As she guides your head to her groin, the clock starts to chime. And by the time it chimes seven and stops, your head is in between her thighs, wrapped in a sour milk smell. While you struggle to breathe, she keeps pressing your head to herself, moaning, “Good boy, good boy.”
This picture is a dirge. Solemn people in white garments surround a grave. There is a body wrapped in white inside and dark wet soil floats over it. You are carrying a spade like two other men, the clerics holding long rosaries and wearing heavy turbans behind you and Hajia is amidst some women at the other side, the hem of her hijab held over her mouth as if to muffle a cry. As the floating soil falls, the clerics’ Arabic recitation crawls over you. The spades pour more earth. Then Hajia breaks down when the corpse disappears, and the women hold her and take her to the veranda of the house. When the grave is filled up, you follow the clerics to the veranda where the women sit. The thick bearded leader who you guess is the chief imam of the neighbourhood says on a final note, “It is Allah’s will, Hajia. Innalillahwainnailleirojeeun. Asalamaleikum.” They leave and you walk with them to the coconut tree, thanking them for honouring your uncle because it is an honour when one is buried by clerics, more honour that they came on short notice. While you return to the house, you still wonder why Orji is not here to bury his friend whom he adores. You greet the women at the veranda and enter the sitting room. Everything is scattered, table overturn, flower vase broken, television smashed on the ground and blood stains on the walls. You sit in one of the sofas and listen in on the women’s words.
“Baba was only trying to stop them from touching me o. And they killed him! Ah! They left me empty. Am I not finished like this?” Hajia says for the umpteenth time. ‘They’ are the men who came last night, murdered her husband, and left while it still rained. Her wails had invited these women who have been with her since.
“May Allah punish those thieves! Those rogues will rot in hell fire,” one voice says.
“We should just be thanking Allah that you survive,” another says.
Hajia’s phone rings and you soon hear her crying louder, “Rahimi, your father has left me alone o. Ah! I am dead! Alright, I have heard. Okay…” Rahimi has been calling every minute as he couldn’t make it for the burial. He doesn’t call you.
After the call ends, another voice says, “See, you still have Rahimi o. So don’t kill yourself. Your grandchild needs you fa.”
Hajia takes a deep sigh.
A long while later, she enters and locks the door behind her. “They have all finished sympathizing. They have left,” she says to you as if giving a report. You look as she goes to loosen the folded curtains, shutting out sunlight.
“I have ignored you a lot of times. But no more. I am tired, please take me.” She removes her hijab and comes to you. She opens your arm, fits herself in them and presses herself to your body.
“Love me, Quadri. Love me,” she says. “I don’t care about anything now. Just love me.”
And you kiss her forehead and pull her closer.
The last picture has a fork of lightning stretching across the dark sky, like the shock on your raindrop dotted face painted by a slightly open mouth and bulging eyes. Your right foot is ahead, in a puddle, surrounded by fleeing splashes with pointed ends. Glinting raindrops hang around you. Then they start rising back to the sky as the lightning disappears. The splashes fall as you step backwards, down a tarred road, jumping back potholes once in a while. You turn at a junction and walk back to a shed where there are motorcycle parts scattered on the ground. Your cloth is dry now. The ground soon dries up too. You wait for a moment before you walk back past a few blocks till you get to the one with a coconut tree in front. You stop under the tree. The wind is blowing fast and your shirt flutters. You take a cautious look at the tree top and then hurry back into the house, into Hajia’s hands which shake you as she says something about cleaning up the mess. Hajia leaves you and goes to hit her head against the wall and the smear of blood there disappears. The broken television becomes whole and she puts it back on the shelf. And as she turns upright the table, the flower vase flies back to sit at its centre. Then she picks the small stool lying beside Baba’s head and stands, panting. She looks at you with horror and bends to put her hand over Baba’s nose. After she rises, with hatred burning in her eyes, she hits Baba’s head. The shutters of the window still jangle.
Image by diapicard from Pixabay (modified)