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Omobola Osamor | Smoke

The wrought iron gate has no latch in sight, and there is no sentry; a black gadget mimicking a remote control buzzes with static where the wall kisses the gate. You say your name after an automated ‘Who is it?’ cuts through the static; the gate gives way in the middle cutting off the hum.

Nervously glancing over your shoulder, you quickly distance yourself from the aperture.

You don’t notice the tall sea-blue scrub-clad man until he is almost atop you; your scream pierces the chorus of crickets.

‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.’ His expressionless orbs scan your features before taking the carrier bag from your slack fingers. You follow him off the undulating tarred road onto a cobbled pavement swatting pesky mosquitoes trying to feast on your extremities; the flapping in your chest recedes as distance swallows the gate. You enter a two-story half-moon terrace surrounded by several chandelier-laden trees. He stops before a dark mahogany door, opens it, steps aside for you to enter, and shuts it behind you. The room blinks to life; beneath the fluorescent, the only piece of furniture – a queen is anchored to the ground. Adjacent is a pristine bathroom and toilet surrounded by grey-veined black marble tiles.

Last night, when the S class headlights heralded his return, you slid into bed and hoped he would let you be, but you knew that was unlikely because you heard him instruct the cook to ensure you ate (you recently lost appetite). When his ‘What do you mean she didn’t eat?’ wafted up, followed by a crash, you knew what was coming.

The door flew open.

You stayed in position – eyes shut and immobile.

His breath fanned your cheek.

‘Mosun’ was a caress. ‘Mosun,’ an octave higher. He yanked off the cover and pulled you out of bed.

‘Why aren’t you eating?’ Each word, a bite as he ragdolled, shook, and delivered a slap on each side of your face. Your legs buckled after the punch to your solar plexus. He peels you off the floor, deposits you back in bed, and smooths the covers over your body.

You. Did. Not. Move.

Outside the bedroom, he was frantic on the phone to his Mother, ‘It has happened again.’

Thirty minutes later, the mattress sinks a fraction under her weight.

‘Did you do this?’

‘I didn’t mean to…I love her.’

‘Love,’ she spat out. You know she is wearing that scornful expression – mouth twisted to the side, nostrils flaring, ‘if this is love, what is hate?’

In the early days, she blamed you. ‘You shouldn’t talk back.’ ‘Don’t deny him your body.’ ‘Pay him more attention,’ muzzled your tears with Judas’ kisses. When the beating didn’t abate, she conceded, ‘His father was the same…look at me today.’ Her visits would end with, ‘Let us pray,’ where she sought his ongoing health and children. The addendum, for you to be a good wife meant you become a better lover, entertainer, caregiver, friend, and punching bag, fragments he greedily devoured.

When he courted you, he was silky charming, took you on expensive trips abroad, and ushered you into social circuits you previously saw only on satiny pages of magazines. When he proposed, you were elated as you flashed the 3-carat diamond and basked in your friends’ ‘You’re so lucky, Mo.’

Warm water from the shower head traveled from your crown, stinging your bruised face. Tentatively, you touched the black mole beneath your nose.

His ‘It’s fucking ugly‘ sliced a hot knife through the butter of your heart.

Everything hurts.

 

*

Brightness emanating from the square window in the west wall floods the room. You jerk the cotton wrapper over your head, briefly banishing the intrusive rays, moistening your lips with saliva, and swallowing the lump in your throat, ‘Eledumare, help me choose the right path.’

You rummage through your bag, fingers stalling on contact with the beige dress you bought last Christmas.

It was tethered to an inky plastic hanger outside a corner shop opposite Lande’s office. The sleeves and apron skirt flapped hypnotically in the wind, gluing your feet to the pavement.

Free. Like your uterus.

Lande said it was in vogue, but you hesitated.

‘Don’t tell me you can’t afford this?’

You shrugged, ignoring the approaching too-bright-a-smile salesperson sliding through the shop entrance.

‘I can pay if you don’t have it.’

‘I paid Mavis’ rent. If not for me, her family would be on the streets.’ ‘Kehinde’s son would have been expelled if I didn’t fork out the balance of his school fees. If not for me…’

She would add you to her repertoire of generosity surrounded by a retinue of others you once belonged to. You hated it about her but never said anything because she was all that remained of who you were before marriage when your daydreams were spun from romance novels. You needed that, even if it entailed listening to her jabber every few months.

A week later, you decided to bite the bullet.

‘What is this?’ His face was expressionless as he surveyed your slow twirl.

‘I saw it on my way from my gyne appointment.’

You didn’t mention Lande.

That night, you awoke to him inside you, fingers tight around your throat, teeth biting inside your mouth. When it was over, you counted to a hundred; when his arms slacked, you counted another hundred. Atop the commode, swollen and broken lips bite on a clenched knuckle as urine stung your bleeding perineum.

He was angry not because you bought a dress but because you didn’t seek his consent.

His way was to force himself into your mind, body, and the spaces between.

‘Mosun,’ your Mother’s voice fluttered as you lay against the plush sofa pillows with black eyes, busted lips, and a dislocated shoulder six months into the marriage. With her inquiries, innuendos, and long pauses, she skimmed for information to beef up postulations on handling ‘your difficult husband.’ You cried hard because her laxity was not what you expected. When Nancy scratched you in the school playground, she threatened to have her whole family arrested. When Bisi pushed you off the swing, grazing your knees, she didn’t rest till she got an apology. ‘Marriage isn’t easy,’ she murmured, patting your swollen face with a warm towel compress she intermittently dipped in a hot water swirl. When your father pulled the screen between the sitting and dining rooms, separating himself from you and her, the stab of treachery deepened.

You kept hoping for the re-emergence of the man you loved from beneath the quick violence that was his skin. That hope grew the stash of literature on abuse behind your shoe boxes, which you read discretely in the bathroom when he was asleep. That hope made you suggest therapy; he put you in the hospital and extinguished that hope. You grew a secret account into a fortune from your allowance by surreptitiously padding items he approved. You would have been free if you had not betrayed yourself. Three days later, your cell phone ringing yanked you from sleep. It was your Mother, tearfully begging to know your whereabouts, and at that moment, you were transported into her arms, her voice – cool water on your parched tongue. You forgot she had become one with her expensive silk boubous, sarong dresses, and the McMansion on the chunk of prime real estate acquired by his money.

When he arrived that evening, contrite and promising to undergo therapy, you allowed yourself to be ushered back because you were reeling at being discarded by your Mother. You stopped counting her missed calls. He was absent on her first unsuccessful attempt to visit; on her second attempt, you heard his placatory reassurance from the gallery, ‘She will call you, Mum.’ She returned two days later with his Mother in tow, beseechingly calling out your name.

You hoped she felt the blade twist as the ringing screamed in her ear; when it termed at voicemail, you hoped she was reminded of her failure to be your buoy in drowning waters.

 

*

Motti’s office had two hefty leather couches separated by a glass coffee table carrying a neat pile of magazines, like the ones you and he graced more than once. You are seated opposite her on a matching leather armchair, separated by a rectangular mahogany table neatly cluttered with two stacks of brown manilla files and a desk phone. You feel him behind you, hands squeezing your shoulders hard. You focus on a spot on the clear rectangular glass window behind her.

You tell her about the slicing pain that announced your first miscarriage, the spreading red carpet beneath you on the bathroom floor, and the doctor recommending therapy after you woke up from anesthesia screaming, ‘I want to die,’ after your fourth loss. The therapists your husband retained let him take over and became recipients of his frustrations when you stayed withdrawn. Through Lande, you found a doctor who prescribed a very discreet method of birth control.

That doctor referred you to Motti.

Perhaps the miscarriages was Eledumare ensuring nothing bound you to him. Your eyes swung from the window to hers, waiting for them to grow hard with judgment. But they didn’t. You told her how he searched your drawers and purses for clues as to why you were no longer getting pregnant, glancing over his shoulder as you ‘slept’ while you watched him from under your eyelids, staving off the mirth bubbling in your chest.

It’s dark when you leave her office; you amble towards your room, a fraction lighter.

He is the first sight that greets your eyes when you part blinds, standing within the flowered expanse separating your building from the tarred road. At first, you thought he was gardening. Leaning closer to your window, you see he is staring at a flower, gently touching it with his right index finger. You shut the blinds, ‘Probably a patient.’

 You are alone as usual in the dining hall of several clusters of shiny chairs and tables, devouring a plate of eggs and toast. His voice carries above the din of crockery the lone staff is justling. He is wearing a yellow and purple flowered pair of ankara shorts under a tan t-shirt.

His smile emanates a warmth that makes you cringe, almost in pain.

‘My name is Tunde.’

You nod and continue eating. When you are done, you leave without any salutation. That afternoon, you walk past the swimming pool and see him again – lean muscle in a pair of green trunks, erect on the diving board, shoulders flexing, staring ahead, and from his toes, a projectile – into the air, jackknifing into the blue water beneath. He surges forward with broad strokes, glistening head cuts through the water, your eyes meet, and you return his wave.

When you were having dinner, he approached tentatively.

‘I’m sorry I was rude earlier. I am Mosun.’

‘That’s okay.’

Conversation with him was easy. Words fell out of you unabated. You do not recall when last you were just Mosun. His eyes are diamonds when he talks about his love for carving – turning a piece of wood into a bust, a plain door into a story. He waves both hands at your face, ‘They give life.’

‘You seem too together to be here.’

His head rolls back, and a delightful laugh breaks the quiet.

‘I don’t fit the stereotype?’

Is there?’

His head is to the side, eyes contemplating.

‘Seriously, you seem…normal.’

‘I used to be a patient. Now, I work here.’

Behind him, the lone staff peeps from behind the door marked ’employee only.’

He leans forward and tells you his story.

 

*

Eye said every human was inhabited by a spirit that worked with neurons and protons of energy, sending and receiving messages transmitted by other spirits inhabiting the same sphere.

It explained why you could dislike or immediately be attracted to a stranger.

Spirits know and recognize each other.

She was tall, with dark creeping skin and a shining bald head. Her swan neck hung rows of oval, green, and brown beads, eleke, that stopped right below her breasts; antennas that picked up on good and evil, transmitting to her ori – the Mother head in charge of the millions of texts directing and protecting her. Her beads weighed heavy on her shoulders on the morning her father died. When the same weight returned two years later, she knew she was orphaned as she approached her Mother’s chamber. Sometimes the event would occur in hours, days, or longer. Her ori would prepare and strengthen her for that which could not be avoided by etutu, sacrifice. She was grateful for those that could be avoided through the direction of Ifa. She said each human was a ripple in a stream that flowed into a river. The river emptied into the sea, and all the world’s water was connected. Your Mother said your grandmother’s words were too heavy for your ears, but you both ignored her as you poured sand between Eye’s knobby toes and watched the grains fritter around her nails.

‘How do you know there are other worlds?’ you look up, squinting, your dirt-covered hands shielding your eyes from the brilliance poring through pregnant branches of the mango tree. ‘Because,’ her sweaty bald head nods, ‘I know.’ Your Mother visited Eye once a month, with you in tow. She was always outside, in her white, sleeveless ankle-length tunic, arms outstretched to catch you at the armpits when you sprinted from the white beetle. In the white rectangular zinc-roofed house, your favorite meal, lafun  and vegetable soup would be waiting.

‘How did you know?’ There were no phones.

‘I saw you on your way.’

‘How?’

‘In her dream.’ Your Mother responded as she went on her knees before Eye in reverence. That was when you went on yours. You always forgot. She would place her right hand on Mother’s crown and then yours. Only then would your Mother rise. Your cue to do the same. On one of those visits, you were supposed to be asleep on the raffia mat below the window that opened into the courtyard, where white pigeons pecked at scattered maize seeds. Your Mother’s voice was conspiratorily low, but the space between you and them on the cushiony ebony chairs carried the words into the drains of your eager ears.

Eye’s chin was tucked into her chest, and the only indication she was not asleep was her right foot rhythmically tapping on the colorful, stitched rectangular mat of a lion couchant.

‘He lacks initiative…frustrating…I’m unhappy.’

There was a lull, and then slowly, Eye began to speak.

The day before your single Mother brought your father home, Eye had a dream – your Mother arrived in a blue Peugeot, carrying what looked like a magnificent snow-white cat on her lap. On closer inspection, it wasn’t a feline but a furry dog. The next day, a blue Peugeot pulled into the compound, driven by your father with your Mother in the passenger seat.

‘You want to marry a lapdog.’ Eye said when your father was out of earshot.

‘He isn’t!’

Silence.

‘How do you know?’

Silence.

‘I love him.’

‘What does that mean?’ Mother let out a muffled cry, throwing herself on Eye’s lap,

‘You can’t marry a lapdog expecting to transform it into a leopard.’

‘Mother…your gifts can….’

‘Are to advise…enlighten according to Eledumare’s instruction only. I told you then …. he would be devoted to you…and not to abuse your influence over him, but of course, you were selective in interpretation.” The veins in Mother’s arms bulged as she tightened her grip around Eye’s legs.

‘I want you to turn….’

‘I will do no such thing!’ Your grandmother’s voice cracked like a whip.

Wretched sobs wracked Mother’s shoulders and dislodged her headgear.

After a few minutes, Eye sighed and gently patted Mother’s back.

‘He is a kind man. Respect his limitations…be content.’

‘My pastor says with the right prayer… he could….’ Mother persisted.

Eye’s lips spread in an indulgent smile.

‘Yet, you are here and not in church.’

‘God can do anything….’

‘He enlightens our paths, not necessarily making it easier. The choice is ours, and the consequences of those choices.’

 

*

Pieces of you begin to return.

A toe.

A finger.

A chunk of your aorta.

Each restoration brings a reawakening of your senses. The grounds were plumb in grasses and flowers – purple, red, blue, pink, yellow – manicured, concentric, colorful bushes that filled the air with a conglomerate perfumery you didn’t notice before. You make out lavender and coconut in the air and catch a whiff of orchids on your sheets. You see the shade of parapets in Motti’s office, telling her, ‘I love lavender.’ You notice the lone waitstaff serving your meals for weeks is heavily pregnant. There was a time when the first and only thing you saw in a mother-to-be was that. The baby bump.

You sit with Tunde on one of six wooden benches on the grounds and, for the first time, tell him about the day you swallowed the bottle of temazepam the doctor prescribed to treat your insomnia. You describe the welcoming, warm darkness that sucked you in. The devastation of waking up in the hospital. He throws his arm over your shoulder and pulls you closer. Your head fits in the crook of his shoulder, and his chin rests atop your head.

You take his other hand and trace the jagged scar on the wrist,’ How were you …before now.’

‘In smithereens. ‘

His father bore the toga of Sir but was a perverted monster. The rapes started when he was eight and stopped at thirteen after his first suicide attempt. Both parents were dead. The center was a beneficiary of their estate.

‘I don’t think I can ever forgive my parents….’

‘Forgiveness must be voluntary; therein lies its power.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘It’s the unfurling of clenched fists. The first beneficiary is you, not them.’

‘Eye said if people practiced Ifa, they would make better choices because Esu, the deity of consequence, would bring swift reactions to their actions.’

He squeezes the ball of your shoulder. You are looking ahead but know he is smiling.

‘One day, your scars will be for another…like mine is helping you.’

‘Counseling suicide survivors is a heavy job for one so young.’

His middle vibrates in silent laughter, ‘I’m in heaven. I love it here.’

You tell him if Eye had lived longer, you doubt your present would be this. Heck, even your past would have been different.

Her neighbor, a nuisance drunk, who pissed away his meager income, woke bleary-eyed and hungover to find her regal frame planted in his doorway. While his alcohol-fried brain tried to comprehend how she gained access, she pointed a forefinger at him. He noticed her scepter of authority – a straight white staff a couple of inches taller than her with an oval globe covered in cowries in several concentric rows atop it in her right hand. She raised the scepter a few inches off the ground, eyes holding him in place, and sunk it—hitting the concrete floor, the cowries jingling on impact.

‘Choose another path…you have wandered down this one long enough, or you die.’ He left his room that day a changed man.

Another neighbor was a young mother with a toddler that got sicker and sicker, and the parents got poorer until the father absconded. One morning, the young Mother headed towards the river with the child strapped to her back. She encountered Eye just before the river bank. After examining the child’s eyes, and tongue, Eye tells the mother to stop feeding her maize. ‘That’s it?’ the woman’s voice trembled.

‘No maize.’ Eye repeated. To ensure the mother did not continue on the unspoken murder-suicide mission, Eye followed them back home and stayed.

The child recovered and thrived.

‘Do you think I was foolish for marrying him? People say there are signs…I didn’t see anything.’

‘You were young and inexperienced.’

‘Twenty-five is considered over the hill in some cultures.’

‘Most people erroneously believe physical maturity translates into self-awareness and emotional maturity. Knowing yourself and dating more would have increased your chances of finding a good match. Marriage is a risk, like any venture. You can do everything right and still end up in a mess.’

‘Are you sure you’re twenty-two?’

He throws his arms up and snickers, ‘It’s astounding how much research people put into starting a business, but their brains become suspended when choosing a life partner.’ He slaps a palm over his mouth, ‘I’m sorry…I shouldn’t have said that. I’m working on my filter.’

You can’t remember the last time you laughed so hard.

‘Look at the bright side; you’ve managed to save enough to relocate far away from him. Have you given thought to where?’

‘What I really want is a divorce…but with his religious nut of a mother…I know he will never agree to it.’

Tunde stands, grabs your hands, and gently pulls you up, ‘He will have to, eventually. One thing at a time, let’s focus on getting you well.’

You wonder if your path would have been different if you had picked Ifa.

Your eleke would have transmitted messages when the black Jaguar pulled up next to you that day.

Perhaps you would have dreamt of being attacked by a shapeshifting monster sprung from the same car model the previous night.

Perhaps when he sauntered close for that first kiss, and desire stoked your belly, the eleke would have sent fiery bolts into his chest—pushed you apart.

Perhaps. That word again.

A fool’s repentance.

 

*

‘Where do we go when we die?’ you stare intently at her lean forearm as she stirs Carnation milk into your white ogi. Her fingers stilled, and a valley dipped between her eyes.

‘We go home.’

‘Where’s that?’ You take two bites of akara.

She pauses and ruminates briefly on how to surmise her thoughts simply for your understanding.

‘The body goes into the earth…to become food for the plants,’ she leans forward and touches the center of your chest. You giggle because you are ticklish. She doesn’t smile—you stop laughing.

‘Remember what I said about each of us being a ripple in a stream….’

‘That empties into a river,’ you swallow a spoonful of sweet ogi.

She claps, delighted you remember, and bends to cup your cheek in the curve of her right palm.

‘In death, man has traveled his course.’

‘Nothing remains?’

‘At times, a spirit may linger, the way smoke travels after a fire is extinguished.’

‘Explain.’

‘At times, smoke travels to where it is needed…but that,’ she pats your crown, ‘is fiercely debated.’

‘I want your smoke to cover me.’

She kisses your forehead, ‘Me too.’

You cannot understand your Mother’s tears or the women pulling at their hair and limbs thrashing that morning. The white linen canopy bed and the leopard hide-covered floor were the same as previous mornings when you barged into her room fresh from sleep. An avalanche of young and old came through the door. Once awake, she would be mad to see the leopard skin rug overrun with feet, so you tell them to leave. They seem not to hear, so you raise your voice, unaware it’s trembling, and your eyes are tearing. You tell them Eye would not like a crowd in the house. She would not want their knees on her mattress, hands touching her limbs, fingers tracing invisible paths around her closed eyes, ears, and lips.

The melee of mourners quietened as an alto began chanting Eye’s oriki.

‘Rest easy, Akanke, daughter of Igberekoti, forever in white. The graceful doe the gods bequeathed the great antlers, our beloved Mother. Keeper of our secrets. Greet Alade, your grandfather, the royal knight forever clothed in purple, and his twin siblings, Efundunke and Efunmade, beloved cloth weavers. May you dine with them today; may your feet make merry before your parents, Alani and Asake. Let the winds of Osota carry you forth, Mother of Oyeniyi; go on—join kith and kin. Look! The great Ajaseri and Rumola are at the door to usher you where pain doesn’t exist—where time is a continuum. Let the drums beat in celebration. Today, you shed the husk—your true self is liberated—no walls, ceilings, or doors to knock on to gain access to our homes. Today you become an ancestor in the night sky—casting away the darkness. You are now sure-footed to run and climb the moors of our land and beyond, lighting our paths, leaving stardust. Keep the coals warm, beloved Mother, and the rooms ready. We will join you in time.’

‘She needs to be prepared for burial,’ your Mother’s voice is hoarse, and she asks you to come with her.

You refuse, holding on to Eye’s still-warm feet.

The last thing you remember is the protesting murmurs in the group when you shout, ‘No… don’t cover her face…she needs to see!’

Your dream is an aerial view.

She is standing in a beautiful field of waist-length shrubbery. In equal intervals, there were different flower bushes of the same radius and circumference in vibrant colors, ranging from the deepest to the lightest. The creeping skin is gone; in its place was one that was smooth and glowed from within. Her arms were outstretched, her head was raised, her chin up in the air, eyes closed, an ethereal smile on her lips.

Her eyes open as yours do.

You are on the canopy bed.

The room is empty.

 

*

You are sitting opposite Motti in her office. She says there’s no healing without addressing past trauma.

‘It’s a process,’ she snaps her fingers, ‘not an instantaneous, voila! Our choices are borne from the projections of the past. Until you deal with the past here,’ Motti touches her frontal lobe with a forefinger, ‘you cannot make peace with it here,’ the same finger jabs the middle of her chest.

‘You must intentionally build healthy boundaries and surround yourself with safe people.’

Suddenly, you shoot to your feet. She rises too, concerned, ‘What’s wrong?’

‘What happened to the pool?’ You close the distance to the window, which overlooks a bed of petunias where the swimming pool used to be. Hitting your palms on the glass causes it to rattle. There is no way a bountiful bed of flowers could have replaced the pool in two days the last time you walked by there with Tunde.

‘What pool?’

Your legs are jelly, and you hold on to the window sill.

‘Mosun, there hasn’t been a pool there in years.’

‘Tunde swam there…,’ you swivel back to the window, ‘where is he? I haven’t seen him since Tuesday.’ Your head is cotton wool.

‘What are you talking about…?’

You ramble about his eyes, the scar that cut his right eyebrow in half, the train track scars across his wrists, the rough fingertips from carving, the ankara shorts he always wore, and what brought him to the center.

‘Babatunde Akotun died on the premises ten years ago. He is the reason we no longer have a pool.’

Ice cold runs over your skin, and sweat pools under your armpits.

You sink to the floor, hugging your knees, and rock on the ball of your feet.

‘I held his hands…traced his scars….heard him laugh…he was here!’

She joins you on the floor.

Your eyes are fastened on the opposite wall.

Lavender.

Her voice is shards of glass cutting in white noise.

She says he wanted to work in the center. He wanted to give back.

One day, your scars will be for another.

She didn’t want him to leave, but he wanted to tell his Mother his plan.

Lavender.

He must have returned late that night.

One day, your scars will be for another.

She found him in the morning.

‘How does one explain this?’ Each word chokingly escapes her lips.

Time stood still.

‘Smoke,’ you whisper.

—————

Image: Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

Omobola Osamor
Omobola Osamorhttps://omobolablog.wordpress.com
Omobola Osamor, a Nigerian-American, lives in Chicago.

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