She had sad eyes and a face that was made for crying.
But you knew at once that she was a girl who had taught herself not to cry.
Stella had a look that made you feel guilty even when you had done nothing wrong. She was like an open door to your conscience. You turned the key in the lock, pushed open the door and stepped in.
I met Stella when I was young and carefree and unwilling to take on extra burdens. I had just found a job that paid well and even though she was a pretty girl who made my mind bubble with naughty thoughts I doused my desire with a basinful of selfishness.
My answer was no to a question that I didn’t dare to ask. I knew that if I let myself go, I’d fall truly, madly and deeply for her. So I steeled my heart like a Spartan’s and refused to let love’s tender roots find a fertile patch.
And Stella knew and did nothing. But it was the nothing that she did that made me sick with guilt. That look she gave me which, though silent, levelled a million charges against me. That look she gave opened the floodgates of my conscience, corrupted my mind and made my breath stink like a cesspool putrid with maggots.
I was dirty inside but even though no one saw it, even though no one heard the silent nos I spoke to myself when the good in me tried to move me to help, my rotten breath was there, a mute testimony to my unheeding.
She never asked, and that was what amplified her need. And that’s the paradox that defines need. When you beg you belittle your lack. When you pay no heed to your ravenous hunger you deny the pangs their victory.
Stella had learnt that paradox well and it was her secret weapon, the one she used to tie me up in guilty fetters.
We met on the creaky, half-lit staircase of our computer school. I was late. She was early but we were both going in opposite directions.
“Shit!” I ejaculated as the lights went off.
“Oh!” She cried, disappointment colouring her voice.
“Hold on. There’s some one here.” I called out waving a hand in front of me like a roach’s antenna. It fell on her breast and I withdrew it with an express apology.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Why? Haven’t you touched a woman’s breast before,” she asked and my mouth went dry. It was one of those questions you never learn to answer or think of until they are flung at you.
“Well…em.” I stuttered then slouched off into silence.
“I embarrassed you, abi? Okay, tell me, are you wearing a red tie and a white shirt today?”
“What?” I asked a funny feeling creeping up inside me.
“You heard me. Are you wearing a red tie today?” She asked and there was a rumour of laughter in her voice.
“Who are you?” I asked stepping back.
“Stella. And you?”
“You know me.”
“Yes, but not your name.”
“Osa.” I told her.
“Edo.” I corrected.
“So, about the tie?”
“Yes. It’s a shade of red.”
“Why? Are you in a secret cult?”
“Of course not.” I said moving two steps back.
The staircase was dark, stuffy and low. Who ever built it was short and didn’t care. My first week there I bumped my head four times. And then, that night when the darkness was as thick as a slab of concrete the mystery lady who knew about my love for red ties was making me scared.
“You’re moving back.” She said, her voice staying my feet.
“How do you know?” I asked
“If you keep your focus you can see in the dark.”
“By focusing,” She said and laughed a deep throaty laughter that belonged to a man.
“I laugh like a man,” she said gauging my thoughts. “That’s what you are thinking.”
“Alright.” I exhaled holding my pen ready to stab out if she approached me.
“Who are you and have we met before?”
“Stella. I told you”
“That says nothing.”
“So does Osa.”
“You know me. You know what I wear and you can see in the dark. Who the hell are you?”
“Patience. Patience.” She said and as I felt her draw close I brandished my pen like Cain stalking Abel.
“Put down your pen. You might hurt me.” She said and swept past me.
I followed, gobbling up the steps with feet made ravenous by curiosity. I burst out downstairs and she was there offering me this parody of a smile.
“You!” I said, wagging a finger, then opening my mouth and finding that words had deserted me like courage deserts a soldier in the heat of battle.
“Hi,” she said her smile spreading.
A gen-set was on in the next compound and a ray of light fell directly on Stella’s face.
“How could you do that?” I asked.
“I was bored,” she said, her smile fading, the sad look hooding her eyes like an overcast cloud.
“It was spooky up there.” I said dropping my hard tone.
“I didn’t plan to scare you,” she told me and there was apology in her voice.
“It’s okay,” I said then asked. “But how can you see in the dark?”
“The darkness. Once you do that everything else takes shape.”
“So why didn’t you know I had a red tie on?”
“I knew I wanted to conversate.”
“Make conversation.” I corrected.
“I wanted to make conversation.” She repeated and the laughter was back in her voice.
I relaxed and moved towards the midget fence.
I leaned on it and she said, “Beware, there could be scorpions.”
“Yeah, in Lagos,” I mocked.
“I killed one yesterday and I’ll kill one tonight…”
Her tone sent a chill up my spine and I moved away.
“Why do you speak like that? I asked peering into her beautiful but inscrutable face, her sad eyes looking up at me.
“It’s the language the world understands.” She told me.
“You sound weird.” I said.
“Am I scaring you?”
“No. Of course not.” I lied.
“Stay still,” she commanded and then she reached out, flicked something off my shirt and stepped on it.
“What was that?” I asked , my mouth going dry as dread swept over me bringing the answer before she gave it.
“A scorpion. Here, take a look.”
It was a scorpion. Its upper body was crushed but its tail still moved.
“How did you know?” I asked, fear nibbling at the edges of my mind.
“I can smell snakes and scorpions.”
“What else can you do?”
“I can tell colours with my fingers.”
She could do all that and many more but she could not raise enough money to pay her fees. We were taking a computer course and when she walked out before our EXCEL test I’d followed her.
“Why are you out here?” I asked.
“Go and write your test,” she said, her eyes hooded behind long and thick eyelashes.
“I will, but why are you here?”
“A few things are better left untold,” she said but I’d prised words out of her like a miner splintering rocks to find the nuggets nestling within.
I paid her fees and learnt that she was head of a home. The only girl in a family of four, her parents’ death had made her father and mother to her three younger brothers.
“I work. I earn money but it’s never enough. My brothers fall sick, break neighbour’s louvers and sprain their ankles when they play ball. I need help but I don’t know where to find it.’ She told me one night at a restaurant. It was her birthday and to make it worth her while I’d taken her to dinner.
“You don’t have a boyfriend?” I asked forking up a piece of meat and moving it to my lips.
“I’ve had a couple. But they get scared when they learn of my burden. You don’t have a girlfriend. She left you,” she said.
“How do you know?” I asked looking up at her.
“You wear it on your sleeves. Your pain is too raw. Let it heal. Learn to live again, to love again.”
“How?” I repeated.
“Find the way. Trace the path that leads to happiness.”
I took her advice. I traced a new path. I found love again. But the path I trod did not lead to Stella’s door. It led somewhere else, to the door of a woman I had known since secondary school, the last in a family of five.
Now, years later and chastened by a new and terrible knowledge I ask myself, did I love Stella? The answer is not an easy one. I felt something, but I was powerless to act.
Stella was the sort of girl that made you think of marriage the moment you set eyes on her but how could I marry her and three others? I was too young. I had a brother to see through school and a life to live. I wasn’t ready to trudge through life weighed down by excess baggage.
So, I fled that night after we got back from the hospital where doctors had stitched her brother’s cut.
It was a nasty one and he had lost so much blood. I helped carry him to the bed and after I’d made him comfortable I told her I had to leave.
The tears stood in her eyes as she said thanks. I had nodded and got into my car. I reached into my pigeon-hole.
“Here.” I said offering her a wad of notes.
“You’ve done enough,” she said refusing the money.
“Take it, you’ll need it.’ I said, choking back the lump that rose to my throat.
“Don’t talk about need,” she said, the tears falling as I looked away.
I let the money drop as I kicked the car and drove off.
I never went back and she never came calling even though I had promised to help her find another job. She was a strong and proud woman who never asked to be pitied.
And in the six months we stayed friends she made no demands. She took what I offered and said her thanks. She never asked to know my place but took me to her home, a small, one room affair that was poor but clean.
I left that night and never went back even when my breath began to stink.
Then two nights ago I ran into her brother as I drove my wife and infant son home from the hospital.
“How is Stella?” I asked wondering at the lines tough life had etched on his young face.
“She died two years ago. She was found dead. Her private parts gone.” He told me his eyes cold and lifeless.
“I’m sorry,” I said looking away and fighting the urge to cry as I wondered, could she have lived if I’d gone back? Just one more time.
My breath has ceased to stink but my heart bleeds.