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Smooth Lanes: A Short Story by H. Abiola

“Shade!  Shadaaaaayyy, Shaaaadaayyyyyyyyyyyy.”

The time has come to be pretty. My brother taps my shoulder and points at the doorway to tell me of a howling which like everything else, no matter how loud, can’t seem to make way through my ears.  I drop my dada-haired doll on a bench and dash inside the house. Sunlight guides me through a hallway decorated with fingerprints.

 In her bedroom, she’s sitting on a prayer mat spread out on an honest floor. It wears nothing but cement. I lie down between her legs, my head on her lap. Her psychedelic ankara wrapper has the scent of two things – the cheap and the rich – strangeblue Omo detergent sold in small sachets and Grandmother. A wooden iyari is in her hand with which she’ll build motorway like lanes on my head. Sometimes, her lanes are sharp straight. Sometimes, they run like the path of a palm wine drunkard. 

This is the ritual we carry out whenever my hair has misbehaved. We do it more often between the last month of the year and the second one of the new. Harmattan brings with itself a plentiful of road dust. Or warm African rain taunts your hair into believing it can fly.

My grandmother’s hands start a monologue with my head – she directs it to the left. My scalp pays sudden attention to the fang of the iyari trying to scratch its way through my tangled puff of black wool. Grandmother’s combing of my hair always leaves a brief aftertaste on my head.  But I’ve donned my I-don’t-care attitude. I’m willing to pay the small cost of pretty. I turn into the woman on the front of a Venus de Milo cream – a statue. I know if I move or turn, my lanes will be a ‘bad pretty.’

She grabs a handful of my hair and combs it in one quick swipe. I grunt and clasp my hands around her thighs, cursing at the discomfort. She blesses me by running her palms over my head and soothes away the rudeness.

 “Dear, you fine?” she says to my face.

I lie, “Yesmahmah.”

How I know the answer to her question is simple. Human beings are easy to read like ‘A’ is for apple. Once in a while, I might make a wrong forecast. But if I plead for a repeat, they’ll assure me that ‘C’ is for cat.

Like a referee, my grandmother halts the fight between the iyari and my hair. The scuffle has left it standing taut like a soldier ready for war. She draws the first lane with one of the iyari’s fangs. My grandmother is a good weaver. My hair is the rope she’ll weave, lane by lane. The way her hands move, you’d think she was dancing while seated. When she reaches the end of a lane, she ties it up to make sure the three limbed octopus she has created doesn’t run loose.  

While my grandmother’s creases fiddle with my hair, my eyes stay fixed on the roughness of her bedroom wall. Grandmother’s walls are different from the ones I grew up within. Stories live inside her walls. Your grandpapa, me, we lived here many long long agos. She adds extra longs as if they help chronicle time. And it doesn’t take much time before my eyes begin to fail me. The pain which had taken hold of me at the start of our ritual has become a pleasure. I feel the hands of sleep drag me into a deep dark vortex.

In my sleep, there’s a crossroad. In the middle of the crossroad stands the man I’ve only met in a black and white blur. Too many hands have beaten the photo tired – you’d think it was fed up of being looked at.

The way I see my grandfather now, he isn’t as tall as I had imagined, but like my father, he carries himself well, like a chief.  I know many chiefs. Some are nobody chiefs and some are somebody chiefs. I crown my grandfather a Somebody Chief. He acknowledges my kindness and glows.

 “Grandfather, why you here?” I ask with a frown.

He tells me he has a task for me. At the crossroad which he stands, I must choose one direction to take. If I choose left, I’ll be an Olikoye Ransome Kuti. I choose right; I’ll be an Ellen Johnson. Unsure, I stare at the two paths. Childish curiosity forces me to turn my head backwards to see what, if anything, is behind me.  I see the faces of many. These faces, they laugh and wag their fingers at me. They tell me there’s only one path fit for my kind – the course of an alms beggar.

Which you wan choose?” my grandfather asks as if in a hurry.

But baba, I don’t hear well well!” I retort.

No mata”, he replies. “You choose and it’s yours. Just choose. But you see them two paths, both have bumps. All paths have bumps. What you do is waka straight and at the end, you become the thing you choose.”

My grandfather’s words embrace me like the thick aso-oke the mothers use to support the babies bundled on their backs. It strengthens me.  I point at my path of choice. My grandfather smiles as if pleased and pats me gently on my back. The pat sends me into a jolt that takes me out of my slumber.

My grandmother rubs me on the head as she does each time she has finished her weaving, as if to put a seal of approval on her artwork.

You sleep much sha”, she says and hands me a half broken digi.

I take it and look into it.  In the digi’s crack are eight smooth lanes which my grandmother has woven well. I stare harder at the digi. Apart from the lanes on my head, I see a Sirleaf in me. Now, I know that someday soon, I will be a Somebody.

H. Abiola
H. Abiola
H. Abiola is a recent MFA graduate in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore. Her aim is to shine a light on the plight of the deaf in Africa and worldwide. Being deaf herself, H. Abiola has had first hand experience with the struggle of what it feels like to be perceived as an insignificant minority. Besides writing, she's an avid artist who dabbles in painting and drawing. Currently, Abiola resides in the USA. Her poems can be found in the Deaf American Anthology.


  1. I love H’s style. Even thou I am a male, but being brough up by a grandmother myself, I see my childhood in her every word of this work.

  2. As experiences go, it is as it is, for most, with grand-parents and it is as you have expressed thus far in your story. I am humbly inspired by your dept of insight H. Abiola

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