Fiction

Ola W. Halim: A Forefinger Shapes A Blotched Mirror

Photo by Bianca Berg on Unsplash (modified)

I.

I could start this story from Osato’s naming ceremony, when my parents had a bash to celebrate the arrival of a son, the authentication of Mum’s marriage to Dad ten years ago. I could talk about the pictures we took, the smiles on Mum’s face, Dad’s widened eyes and doubled chin, Grandma’s tobacco-stained teeth, the glassy smoothness of the photographs when they arrived weeks later. I could talk about the family meeting held later that evening, and the fragments my sister Irena and I were able to gather from behind the closed doors. —It is now you have become a woman, Obhade. Now you can put your legs where your mates put theirs without fear. You have earned a place in your mother-in-law’s heart—

I could start from how heavily it registered that instant that Irena and I didn’t count.

I could choose to start from Osato growing up, and Irena dying in her school bus crash, her knees squashed, her eyes a mottle of ivory and crimson. I could talk about how my parents’ negligence led to Irena’s death. Mum was snuffling in the room, an inhaler sticking out of her left nostril. Dad was driving Osato around, instead of picking up Irena at school. When Mum received the news, she slid to the floor and water stood in her eyes. Dad and his friends took the body to the cemetery alone. I sat in the sitting room watching cartoon through tear-filled eyes.

I wouldn’t want to talk about Irena’s death further because the images are still clear in my head, like a wiped windscreen after the rain; because mere thinking about it fills up my mouth with bile, fills my chest with pebbles. So I will focus on how a single babbling from Osato sent Mum sprinting to his cot, easing her breast, emptying milk into his mouth. And how Dad rocked him around the compound singing “Little Johnny Don’t Cry” in his croaky voice. And how Osato grew up to always having his ways paved, and the early signs of irresponsibility, and how Mum would swipe it off with, “He’s only a child.”

Osato was ten, and his iyagha—natural dreadlocks—were reaching his back already. He had his own room at ten, while I still hunched behind Mum in her bed. Osato played Jackie Chan and Jet Li with Dad, and no longer whimpered when Dad mock-threw him. He wouldn’t allow Mum bathe him anymore, and he swaddled himself in his towel as he stepped out of the bathroom. He was entitled to two hundred naira every week, and he squandered the money on waterguns before Thursday, but Mum flattened something in his breast pocket and asked him not to check until he was outside. He asked Dad’s visitors to get up from a seat because he could see the TV best from that angle, plus it was easier to reach the fridge and grab a Coke. He beat up a classmate and spread Bermuda grass on his teacher’s table because she punished him. He spat on a girl’s face for touching his iyagha without his permission. Upon all these, Osato was still a child. That was what Dad often considered an apology. “This is totally awful, but you know, children must be children. Please take this small change to buy biscuits for your child.”

I could go on and on if I start this story from here, but there’s another thing I’m avoiding: my parents’ separation. I don’t have the emotional strength to talk about it now. I can only spare a capitulation: it is the night Osato finally agrees his iyagha be barbered, of all nights. Dad returns from work. Mum finds a condom pack in his jacket. Dad tells her she’s a pot calling a kettle black. Mum packs her stuff the next day and drags Osato and I from sleep and we relocate to Uromi.

I don’t even want to talk about what pot calling kettle black connotes, so I’ll start this story from this very moment, nineteen years after Osato was born. I’m leaning against the wall in his room, blinking tears. Mum is still quaking, and I can somehow see the guilt in her averted gaze, her swollen eyes. A policeman is digging through Osato’s drawers, flinging out rizlas and wrapped marijuana and lighters and crooked nails. He’s searching for what I’m staring at: a Paraquat bottle lying empty under Osato’s bed.

 

II.

Osato was never suicidal. It was impossible to believe he just roused from sleep one day and chugalugged a bottle of Paraquat and stiffened to death. That’s why arguments that he was coerced are still valid; perhaps, considering his state of mind before he died, his cult people had dreaded him revealing something, so they had to silence him. After all, he said to Blacko: “I know you. You killed Chairmo, didn’t you? You used the red dagger.”

There wasn’t a bleak moment around Osato. He believed in YOLO, and joined the ‘street madness’ after a Bariga smoker tumbled into the studio and stumbled on a beat and mumbled over it: You only live once, guy/YOLO/If you no flex now, you’re on your own/OYO. The song quickly acquired a cult following of youths who sagged their jeans and smoked marijuana and wore sunglasses at night. It became Osato’s reply to virtually everything he was told: You Only Live Once, YOLO.

Take Mum for instance:

—Osato, go and barber this your hair.

—You only live once, Mum. YOLO!

—Can you not even stay at home like your sister, Osato?

—Allow me to flex, Mum. You only live once!

—You’re stealing my money to buy gin and igbo and your sister is saving to go to university.

—Forget it, Mum. You only live once. If she dies tomorrow, who will now spend the money?

—After all you’ve been through in Lagos, I expect you to have gained some sense. But it’s still the same you.

—Can I eat in peace, Mum? For God’s sake, you only live once!

Mum was right. If I were the one who went to Lagos and got locked up, I’d have learnt my lessons. But not Osato. It didn’t matter that the lashes of police horsewhips still marked his back. It didn’t matter that I talked at him for once, calling him shameless, and he tore back at me: “You think because you now have breasts and a chewing-gum boyfriend, you can now talk. Don’t get me started on the nonsense about seniority! Seniors should mind their business. So you better respect your fucking self.” It didn’t matter how many uncles and aunts Mum begged, how many of them said: “Obhade, no, please. Osato is too big to live under my roof.” It didn’t matter that Mum’s burning chest surfaced again that night, and she sneezed phlegm speckled with blood.

It didn’t even matter that Mum exhausted choices and called Dad. Dad was laughing. “I thought you said you could take care of your children alone?” he asked. When Mum didn’t answer, he said, “Oya give him the phone.”

“Look Dad, fuck you,” Osato said. “I’ll make it without your fucking help. Cut off my dick if I ever ask you for a kobo.”

 

III.

I could start from the string of events leading to Osato’s relocation to Lagos, from the night I confirmed Osato belonged to a cult. I was in my room reading when I heard a raised voice. “Zonal Head dey para, my guy.” It was Blacko, his closest friend; the one who told me years ago that I could spit on any face and go scot free if I agreed to be his girlfriend. “If the bar no enter by Sunday, e go tear turban o. Abi you wan make e tear am?”

“No!” Osato said. “Abeg o!”

“Wednesday, guy,” Blacko repeated.

And Wednesday was in three days. I told Mum the next day to clutch her purse tight, and she upturned its content and tied the crisp notes in a knot at the hem of her wrap. “I’m going to meet them,” she said. “When I get there, I’ll give them all this money and beg them to leave Osato for me.” I knew it was ridiculous, but I only shrugged. She returned in the rain, her buba stuck to her body like skin, her teeth clattering. I took out a new blanket from the wardrobe and dwindling mothballs clattered on the tiles. She drifted into sleep as soon as I covered her. She woke up sneezing, coughing, her breath wheezing, the sound of tightening screws. I didn’t remember strong smells stung the hair in her nostrils. She was still raging when Osato swaggered in.

“You keep embarrassing me, Mum!” he said. “Am I the only one who has a mother?”

“Yes, Osato. You’re the only one who has a mother that wants the best for her son. Isn’t it obvious? Cultism will only destroy you—”

“Enough Mum. Enough!”

Mum rose from the sofa and dropped the cushion. “Me, Obhade, your mother, enough?”

“Yes. I don’t have time for—”

A whack across his mouth interrupted him. He raised his hand instinctively. I shifted to the edge of my seat. Mum shoved her cheek towards him so he could retaliate. Osato let his hand fall to his side and slumped into a sofa. He shuddered to hold tears. Mum sat beside him and unfurled the balls of hair at his temples.

“They will charge me more now,” he said. “And if I don’t pay, they will kill me.”

“I think we should involve the police—”

“No!”

Mum continued, as if she didn’t hear him exclaim. “That’s if you’re really ready to quit. Are you ready, Osato?”

“Leaving Uromi is best, Mum.”

“Then call your uncle Sam back. Or even Usifo. Beg them. Tell them you have changed now and—”

“Just stop, Mum. Stop! Stop! Stop!”

The next morning, Osato woke up bubbling. He danced to YOLO with a cigarette sticking out of his mouth. Mum asked him about their deliberation yesterday, if he’d decided to call Uncle Sam, and he screamed: “I love you, Mum, YOLO!” He slid his leg down the corridor like an amateur moonwalker, shot his buttocks out while wiggling his waist, and blew Mum a kiss. When he skidded toward Mum again, she grabbed his shirt and thudded him down.

“You know my church member, Carol? She’s talked to her son in Lagos. His name is Emmanuel. He promised to take you as long as you behave well.”

Osato laughed. “So Mum, you too believe I’m a bad boy. See, let me tell you, people are always the one looking for my trouble. If everyone minds their fucking business, I too will mind my own.”

 

IV.

Or I could just start from the night after Osato’s death, when stagnant clouds lathered the sky, and a soporific dampness saturated the atmosphere. Carol was sitting outside with Mum, away from other mourners who were mostly working and making bland jokes intended to lighten things up. Carol echoed what everyone had been saying since morning. “Osato was not suicidal at all. Maybe they forced him.”

“But why?” Mum asked. “Why would they force him? Why?”

Carol threw furtive glances around, then drew her stool against Mum’s. “You know people have been talking, Obhade, so it won’t be new to you. They say Olisa cast a spell on Osato, that’s why he was behaving somehow before this. The spell made him to kill himself.”

“Olisa? After all the begging? Did he not say it was fine as long as Osato steered clear?”

“Please don’t go and accuse him. It’s still a rumour. You know you can’t accuse someone you haven’t caught red-handed—”

“I won’t keep quiet over this, Carol. I won’t. I know Osato is dead already and there’s nothing I can do. But I won’t sit here spreading my legs and doing nothing.”

I left them there. My anger at Carol was dwindling. Now, it was frothing at Mum. I opened Osato’s room and bent to take the Paraquat bottle. At the backyard, I sprinkled kerosene on its body, flipped on a lighter, and set it to flames. No one deserved to know the truth about Osato’s death. So let it stay with them this way: since we can’t find the chemical or even a trace of it, then it must be someone who made him drink it and dragged him home. Osato himself would, of course, prefer it was murder; he believed only weak people committed suicide.

And he was right. People killed themselves at their weakest point, when their legs couldn’t carry their bodies anymore, and their breath enervated them, came out in excruciating wheezes. Mum weakened Osato. She knew she had a hand in Osato’s death, yet she was out there threatening to confront Olisa. She was the one who shouted at Osato for being a disgrace after his friends left that day Osato pointed Blacko out. I leant against her door and listened to her whimpers: “Everyone is laughing at me. Everyone. If Osato’s matter doesn’t kill me in this world…” Two months before, while Osato lied on his bed smoking and seething with vengeance, Mum was the one who pointed to the mirror and said, “So be it.”

But for now, let’s say Osato has just left for Lagos, bubbling with life. Carol’s son Emmanuel will teach him how to fix tiles. He will own his shop soon. And he will have some sense.

At least, that’s the plan—the mortal plan.

 

V.

Emmanuel had been complaining about Osato. Osato smoked at work. Osato invited hooded bad guys to his house. Osato didn’t hand in the money he deliberately left in the jeans he paid him to wash. But Emmanuel never raised his voice; he reported these things as if they were expected of every boy Osato’s age, as if they’d pass once he grew older. Even so, Mum grumbled after every call. “If Osato was Emmanuel’s son or even younger brother, would he be reporting him every second?”

“That’s not the point,” I told her. “Talk to Osato. Really.”

“Oh, I have been cheering him on, eh? Are you not his elder sister? Or will your demons rip out your tongue the moment you talk to him?”

“You know he won’t take my calls.”

“Then send him a message and stop judging me!”

“So he can make lewd remarks about my breasts again, right?”

“You know what? Just shut up.”

“I’m just saying my own—”

One of these intense mornings, a neighbour burst into the sitting room and nudged Mum outside. I followed.

“Your Osato is a big thief!” Carol was screaming from across the hedge, attracting neighbours. “He’s been stealing petty petty changes from Emmanuel and the poor boy has been calm. Guess what he’s done now. Go on, Obhade, guess! Oh, you don’t know! Osato stole fifty thousand from Emmanuel and squandered it within three days on drinks and igbo!”

“Jesus!” that was all Mum could say.

“Yes, Jesus, he’s the king of all kings.” Carol slumped to her knees, feigning tears, for dramatic effects. “I beg you in the name of the same Jesus you believe in, tell Emmanuel to send Osato back to you. The boy is condemned already, you see. How can you straighten a bent crayfish, my people?”

“At all,” the neighbours chorused. “It’s not possible.”

Armed with the sympathy of our neighbours, Carol stormed off. Mum crawled inside. I followed her, nestling on the arm of a chair, wary of crinkling the silence. She called Emmanuel.

“It’s true, Momsy,” Emmanuel said, “but don’t worry, I’ve handled it. Please don’t mind my mother. She can be terrible, you know?”

“But how did you handle it? Can Osato work to pay it back? Should I go and borrow and—”

“Of course he can’t pay me back. That’s why I’ve locked him up. By the time he spends two weeks in isolation eating only garri and groundnuts, he’ll learn. Don’t worry at all. I know how to—”

“You locked Osato up? In the cell?”

“I’ve tried other correctional methods, Momsy—”

“I beg you in the name of God, let Osato come back to me. Yes, send him back! Else I’ll take my vengeance on your mother!”

“Has it got to this, Momsy?”

“Your mother disgraced me before everyone in my compound today. And meanwhile, the person I was disgraced for is in jail? Emmanuel, if you want your mother to have grandchildren soon, you should be kinder to people’s children!”

“I’ll put him in the first bus tomorrow then. And yes, about children, God’s time is always best. Thank you so much—”

“I’ll send the money tomorrow. Please send your account number as soon as you drop.”

“It’s okay, Momsy. Don’t worry about it.”

About the author

Ola W. Halim

Ola W. Halim writes fiction and reflections somewhere in Edo State, where he teaches English Language and Literature. He was a runner-up for the 2019 Teach for Change Teacher's Prize, and also for the Sevhage Short Story Prize. His work has appeared on the Kalahari Review, African Writer, Praxis Magazine, BrittlePaper and elsewhere.

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