She came on the eve of his thirty-second birthday heralded by a pair of little white butterflies. He was with his fiancé then. He had been dreading the day, particularly since it coincided with the anniversary of his mother’s death. Kande knew this and had come to help him through the day. She wanted to make it a happy day for him. She had been toying with the idea of fixing their wedding for that date. After all, it had been almost two decades since his mother’s death. He ought to move on, she reckoned.
But that evening, the girl with the butterflies knocked on the door. Ohikwo had been watching a football match on TV. Kande, who had been in the kitchen, knew he did not want to be disturbed. He was so engrossed in the match she did not think he even heard. She came to answer the door. A little white butterfly fluttered across her face. She ducked. The butterfly floated giddily into the room and danced across Ohikwo’s face. He waved it away and the butterfly fluttered away only to dance right in front of the screen. He got up to get rid of it.
Kande turned to the girl that had knocked on the door. There was another white butterfly dancing about her. She was about five years younger than kande – probably no more than seventeen, Kande assumed. Her skin was luxuriant and beautiful. Her eyes were large and betrayed a sagacity that astonished Kande. She was clad in a flowing cream gown decorated with sequins down the front.
“Good evening,” the girl smiled. She was confident.
“Yes, good evening. Can I help you?”
“Yes. I am looking for Ohikwo.”
“Someone for you, honey!” Kande said over her shoulder.
Ohikwo abandoned his futile pursuit of the fluttering butterfly and came to the door, fuming for having been disturbed from his match. His heart lurched when he looked into the girl’s eyes. There was something warmly familiar about them, yet he had only seen the girl once, in the dark, in the distance. She had been standing across the street from his apartment. She had been watching him that night as he came home. He had felt the same tingling inkling he was feeling then. He had wondered then if he knew her from somewhere but he was certain he had never seen her before.
“Yes?” he asked, with a raised eyebrow.
“Can I come in?” she asked.
He looked at Kande and then made way for the girl. She floated past him into the living room. Her movement was seamless, the translucent veil over her head streaming behind her. The butterfly followed her in. She walked round the room, looking at the framed pictures on the wall. She stopped before the portrait of his mother, her back to him.
“Excuse me, miss, can I help you?” He came and stood behind her. He could not help admiring her sublime figure beneath the gown.
She walked towards the television and stood observing his picture. He was still a boy in his school shorts.
“You did not join the army after all,” she said, still looking at the picture.
“I beg your pardon?”
“The army. You always wanted to be a soldier.”
He had nursed the ambition of joining the army when soldiers seemed to take over the government at whim. It had been every child’s dream then. He had wanted to be a great military ruler and perhaps have his face on some banknote someday.
“That was a long time ago,” he said, wondering who the girl was.
She turned with a faint smile playing on her lips. “It is tomorrow, isn’t it, your birthday?”
She sighed. “It was always a happy day for you,” she said, but there was sadness in her voice.
“Excuse me, who are you?” Kande asked, taking the stance of the belligerent girlfriend. “Ohikwo, who is this girl?”
“I don’t know,” he said and turned to the girl. “What do you want?”
She walked towards Kande and looked at her. The examination disturbed the older woman who tried to look back stoically. But she was beaten. She could not hold the stare and looked down, flustered.
“She will make a good wife,” the girl said to Ohikwo. Her eyes still appraising Kande. “Your taste in women has always been…commendable. But as for you,” she said to Kande, “he has a temper. You should know that by now. You must be wise and patient with him.”
“Who are you?” Ohikwo asked, now exasperated.
She turned and looked at him. It was the look that first intimated him. “Ndagi,” she said.
It was the way she said it – the way his mother used to say it with a slight, mocking lull. Only his mother had called him that. He had been named after her brother-in-law. And as he looked into her eyes, he somehow knew those eyes were older than the face that bore them. There was a disturbing light of erudition in them. He looked at her for long not knowing what to say or think.
“Say it,” she urged. “You know who I am.” She came towards him and gently placed a hand over his racing heart. There was challenge in her eyes. He knew that look very well. “Your heart is telling you. You just don’t want to believe it.”
“Wait, this is wrong,” he said weakly, pulling away from her. “This cannot be right. It cannot be possible.”
“What is going on here?” Kande asked eagerly.
“Sometimes, some things are beyond explaining,” the girl said sagely.
“You must leave,” Ohikwo said determinedly. “I don’t know who you are or what you want from me. Whatever your mission is, you will not succeed.”
“What is going on here?” Kande asked again, feeling neglected. Still, no one paid her any heed.
The girl sighed. The two little white butterflies, having floated around the room, now came and hovered about her. She seemed untroubled by them.
“You remember that time,” she began in a distant voice that echoed with reminiscence, “the time you saw the snake in the bathroom. You wouldn’t tell your father about it, but you told me the snake had sparkling fangs, remember. You tried to runaway from it and slipped on the slippery floor. You broke your arm right…here.” she touched his left arm lightly.
He stared at her wide-eyed, frozen like a statue.
“Remember how I applied snake fat to the arm after we had taken off the cast. The fat was stored in a little jar of ‘Robb’ and you remember it was the first thing you read on your own and you were so proud of yourself. I was so proud of you, Ndagi.”
He felt the tinge of melancholy in her voice but did not immediately discern the tears in his eyes. When he did, he wiped it away with the back of his hand. He did not want to be seen crying. It was a sign of weakness, he believed.
“Someone should explain all this to me, because none of this is making any sense to me,” Kande almost shouted. Her voice was un-modulated because of the wave of emotions she was feeling.
“You said my arm was in cast,” Ohikwo addressed the mystery girl, too overwhelmed to address his troubled fiancée. “What kind of cast? Where did I get it from?”
One of the butterflies perched on the girl’s shoulder and slowly flapped its wing. Then it took to the air dancing woozily close to the ceiling.
“It was not a cast really. It was more like a bandage,” she said. “There was this traditional bone setter in Nasarawa, near the market. He worked in his courtyard. He set your arm in splinters and wrapped it with a piece of cloth. We went there several times until he thought it had healed enough to take off the wrappings.”
It was true. He remembered the old man with a mean grin and bright orange residue of chewed kola lurking in the corners his lips. He was terrified of the man and screamed while he set his broken bone. Only his mother had been there to calm him. His father was away as usual. He saw him twice a year during the Eids when the man came with a ram for the slaughter and new cloths for his son. Ohikwo had been very young then. And this girl, with her entourage of butterflies, had not been born yet. She could not have been born, he assured himself. It was just some kind of elaborate ruse being played on him.
“Look, I think you need to go now,” he said uncertainly. “This is a really bad joke. You need to go now. And whoever sent you…tell him…this is really wicked.”
The girl nodded. Her butterflies converged about her, one on each side. She stopped before Kande and looked at her once more.
“You have my blessings,” she said.
Kande was too dumbstruck to respond.
When she reached the door, the girl turned. “You remember the tree where we used to rest on our way back from the bone setter? I will be there tomorrow. You know the time.” She went away and gently closed the door behind her.
Ohikwo stared at the closed door for a long while, thinking. Then he heard Kande move behind him.
“Who was that girl?” she asked with a frightened voice.
He sighed and said. “I think that was my mother.”
He wondered what he was doing there. The tree had been cut down several years before and someone had started a house there. For over ten years the house had remained uncompleted. He wondered how the girl could know about the tree that was chopped down when she was probably an infant. He moved up the street and decided to wait and see if she would know where the tree was when she came.
His forebears believed in reincarnation so much they named their newborns after deceased relatives. But certainly this mysterious girl could not be the reincarnation of his mother, he thought. She might have been born probably around the period of his mother’s death but did that mean anything? How did she come about intimate details about him – things only his mother had known? The question had occupied him the last twenty four hours. But he did not believe it. That was why he came, to prove that it was just a tasteless, bad joke.
A little white butterfly fluttered about his face and he looked up to see the girl standing before the uncompleted building, smiling at him. He looked at his watch. It was a quarter to twelve – the time his mother died.
“I didn’t think you would come,” she said when he reached her.
He only nodded.
“The tree used to be here, didn’t it?” she asked, looking around her.
“What kind of tree was it?”
“I don’t remember, but it was huge.”
“You know what time it is? What happened by this time?”
She only smiled.
He repeated the question.
“You know,” she said.
They were silent for a while.
“Who are you, really? What do you want?”
“You know who I am, Ndagi.”
She had never said she was his long dead mother and he wanted to hear her say it, he was daring her to.
“Say it!” He demanded.
“Life is a mystery, Ndagi,” she began sagely, “there are things we long to know, questions begging to be answered, but sometimes, we never learn the truth of what we so desire to know. I cannot pretend I have all the answers because I don’t. How did this come to happen, how I am here now or why? I can’t tell you. All I know is that life is a mystery in motion, like twilight and mists; here now and gone again.”
He shook his head. “Things don’t just happen. There must be a reason.”
“Perhaps we can learn that in time.”
“I don’t even know who you are.”
“I know how difficult this is for you.”
“If this is a joke, I will skin you.” And he meant it.
They were silent a long time.
“So tell me, what did you get for me when I read my first word?”
She thought for a while. “I can’t remember but I think it was some whistle sweet.”
“That was for the quiz.”
He looked at her. “The school quiz, when I won.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“How could you not, you were so proud of me then you carried me on your back even though I was so huge.”
She said nothing. His eyes clouded. He was really disappointed she could not remember his favourite – she had bought him a pair of size seven Adidas boots and it was real leather too. He had worn them to school everyday and was the star among the boys, most of whom played football barefooted. She had made him stand out among his peers then. But in retrospect, he realised those boots were the last thing she bought him before her death. She had been drenched by the rain on her way back from the market with the boots in her bag. The resultant cold led to pneumonia that eventually claimed her life.
“What was my father’s favourite colour?”
She thought for sometime and shook her head. He nodded, as if affirming that he knew she was a fraud all along.
“There was this time you had nightmares,” she began huskily. “It had something to do with a lizard.”
He thought hard, frowning, trying to remember.
“I don’t remember the details,” she went on, “but I think you shot a lizard with a catapult and I warned you that it would haunt you in your sleep.”
“Oh, not that!” he exclaimed. He remembered and told her more about the incident. She chipped in several details and their accounts blended. She also mentioned an incident at school when he got into a fight and broke a boy’s nose. She told him how she had taken him to the room and knocked him severally on the head, and how he had refused to eat in protest afterwards. He remembered that too.
“How do you know such things?” he asked her, amazed.
She shrugged and looked at the butterfly that perched on her shoulder. “I don’t know,” she said. “I just know, I guess.”
Things changed however when he showed her an old group photo of his extended family. The girl could not recognise his father. She pointed at a wrong man.
“You don’t know my father?” He was incredulous.
She squinted at the photo for a long time and finally shook her head. “I don’t remember his face.”
He snatched the picture from her and got up, angry that he had even started believing that some unexplained mystery had restored his long dead mother to him. She bowed down her head, away from his icy glare.
“You little cheat!” he snarled. “If I set eyes on you again, I will snap your skinny neck.”
He started off.
“Life comes like a shadow,” she began, “but it is nothing but twilight and mist.”
He paused when he heard those familiar words.
“Those were your father’s words when he felt like philosophising. You remember, don’t you?”
He did. Several times his father had said those words to him when he had done something wrong. He kept his back to her so she would not see his face.
“When you go by the old market, go down the road. There is a little house with an avocado tree in front. Ask for Ozioma. They will bring you to me.”
Angrily, he swiped at one of her butterflies darting before his face. “I don’t have the time for your silly games. I shall not come.”
“Remember, twilight and mist.”
And he marched away into the gathering dusk.
But his life could not be the same. He kept wondering how she could know such intimate details about things that happened long before she was born; things only his late mother knew. He kept wondering for two long weeks.
One evening, he was ambling by the old market, pondering about the girl with little white butterflies, when he came upon a house with an avocado tree before it. He stood a long time and then went up to the house. He was received by an elderly woman whose greying hair peaked beneath her scarf. She was the butterfly girl’s birthmother. She offered him a seat in the courtyard.
“Are you Ndagi?” she asked.
She went to the room and came back with a parcel. “Ozioma, my daughter, said you would come,” the woman said. “She asked me to give you this. That you would know what it means.”
“Can I speak to her?”
She shook her head sadly. “She roamed the markets looking for this thing she wanted you to have. She had an accident on the day she found it. I am sorry, we buried her a week ago.”
He was so shocked he could not utter a word.
“She was adamant that you should have the parcel,” she went on. “She spoke about you a lot, mumbling something about twilight and mist.”
He opened the parcel. It was a size seven Adidas boot.
(c) Abubakar Adam Ibrahim