No one could believe I found each of my old selves
scattered across our past homes. Living and surviving as complete human beings, still answering to my name.
I could trailbehind them on streets, catching up on
gossips like friends. Old friends, beware of traits of new iniquity.
If I was before a congregation who loved mysteries, in lieu of executing my rabbinism, they would find out everything. How I began my trek to discovery on a day of searching for the secret which shrunk me, at our onetime home in
Ire Akari. My old self alone at the lobby, clothed in my old cargo shorts and t-shirt, the one with a delineation
of a boy riding his bicycle. His voice and shadow merged into my pre-teen face, widening into a set of yellow teeth and a smile which suggested both amusement and annoyance. He would stare at me to death that my leg took me out of his way. And out of the house, to the street, for good.
* * *
Finding persons on the street conceding to a life haunted by the past would come to replenish my supply of superiority. That I would slap my scalp and unlock the safe of laughter. Of course it would have become nothing to me. Never me. When I could and would visit any of my old selves and conjure an era in history to life. I would buy him clothes. And even invite a nurse to check his blood pressure. Only if by then I could boast of sanctification would I invite a priest, too, and baptise him. And deliver him of queerness, especially if he was into something complex. And talk him out of believing he truly owned that body of his, my onetime possession. Then gradually rid him of my yesteryears until left with nothing, nothing I was aware of. That soon I would be out of that old street in no time, in an air of supremacy,
full of knowing of what I used to be.
But no knowledge of my future self would I have. Not where he would dwell, not even if he would exist. Not his own destined shadow person assigned to torment him.
* * *
I knew of assigning people’s future lives as a primary school pupil, mostly on break times, in my hundred naira sketch pad: Eyes like two baby
kolanuts with blots. But I was careful with their torso and face. More shade here, thin lines there, short and tall and thin and fat, until after a thoughtful fusion of sweat and art, they were whole submissive people. People you could talk at and whose expressions you could decode, and in the process be charmed. Otherwise, you could pick at them and hate them. And they could always be erased from the drawing page to make room for other people you could condone.
My art was a collection of mostly old neighbours and allies. One of them with a baby secret stifled in-between us, subsisting yet buried. Others
acknowledged but with a sort of lazy interest, that something delicate yet unborn would come to link us.
Years later now a teenager, Abbey, with our baby secret, would die the same day I erased him from my pad. When he had awakened in the prime of the night, masturbated, and then rammed several times into the wall. Then died of heart attack on his bed with a smile planted on his face.
That was what I heard.
That spawned my intense detest for erasers and so the bartering of all of mine for books of grace. And soon I would be spending evenings visiting people, people reduced to sketches. And hating everything there was capable of manipulating and blotting out—God, the mind and erasers. Perhaps that was my role in this drama of the universe.
* * *
Sometimes while reveling in my artiness, I wondered why members of my family were left in their final forms. Not that the artist was second-rate but he should have brushed up on them with his cosmetics until their scars and flaws were hidden. That way, maybe, my brother would have kept on growing. And the wine of the Holy Ghost not enough to intoxicate mama and papa into living under delusions.
Or the artist should have wiped out all members of my family to make entirely different people.
Not that he was full of life and his hopes and dreams were filled to the brim. But my old self, at Ire Akari, would radiate with remarkableness when next I met him at the house. At a corner of the passage, that night, near the only house kitchen. The exhaust from the generating set wafting inside, blending with the strong smell of chopped onions. He was squinting his face, his eyes wet. And whenever a shaft of light from the kitchen, peering through the door, landed on him, he would be coughing and sputtering pleasantries. And in turn, depending on the cook: he settled with some fried fish here, spoonfuls of rice there.
And as soon as another tenant, already out of patience from waiting in an imaginary line, whisked to the kitchen, the boy would have manufactured another item of cheer.
* * *
I remained unmoved at his conduct even though I had expected to meet a young boy who smiled with chastity. And relied on directions, like a
virtuous movie star acting out a Christian drama script. A boy who would get me fearing for my eyes after leaning close, questioning the troth
of my bond with God.
“You could have just called me from outside. I be your boy now,” he said. That was what he said the moment my shadow materialised at the
passage. And this proved something. That the mind could be a filter, refining and elevating people, especially through pity.
“You are buddy-buddy and might be a story to my bosom, but may I have your name?” I said. And he arose and grabbed my hand. And soon I was behind him on the street taking turns after turns, couple turns true to our hearts, until we were back at the house passage. Now even darker. And then
suddenly his reflection was in my face doing the hot war dance. Later he would be brandishing a knife. And others would manifest and join in,
short creatures coming to thingness, reaching into my shorts pocket and rapping my wallet.
Then he watched me that same way he did the first day I barged into him. “No, my name is my name. And you may not have it,” he said.
* * *
He was a mere child who almost sucked water and aliveness out of his right thumb, in his first flush of boyhood, until it blushed and dwindled away. He reclined and snacked on it as he would an entire refreshment. A mere child he was, with an early preoccupation and curiosity. His first sexual encounter had been with another boy, Abbey. But it had felt like nothing, like sucking his left thumb. And amounted to nothing, like words
“There are other copies of Abbey and they are coming for you,” I said knowing these words were everything left in me.
Everything enough to watch those eyes of his that last time, without blinking, while his group dispersed. I stared at him until my tongue became a
Taser in full operation, juddering and disrupting. That he fell on his feet, incapable of resisting. That was when I realised words were electrified darts. You could go to war with verbs and nouns.
He was nothing, I told him. He was nothing but my yesterday, walking and keeping step with me. He was the gray face peering over my shoulder. And God would forbid he continued beating and hurting inside me like a second heart.
My words flowed out and hung in the air. And did not land until I was before my parents embroidering and framing tales. I told tales of the boy
left with nothing but moribundity after his actuality had bashed against a truck of inexistence. I talked about his assigned shadow people and the few nights they let him be. How he finally rested while they drowsed lazily, their red eyes devoid of glow. In the morning they would be gone only to recheck later, in the night, into their lurking job. I cooked up tales until my wholesome body exuded enough aroma capable of reigniting old love amongst old neighbours. And, by God, I was without fear even as my gest now floated in the open. I would come to remember that day. Myself in the midst of people who cast me with their eyes and spat. People who thought me different and wished they dared to. Awe was there in their eyes. I could see. And mama, her hickeys darkened with disappointment, without expression. If only she would cry so we could both fight back her tears. Or
cede her belligerence to who always bore the cost.
Later brother would be screeching upstairs that we cut our actions and stilled. As if the itch for tranquility had not yet ruined us all.
My old self who discovered his earlier self, drawing and erasing people for pleasure, lounged at the home balcony in Agbeda creating imageries and naked people. It was not at all severe with him. Just that one moment I was calling him from outside, practicing smiles. And the next his voice singing into my ears with comfort and suasion. That I gave him some of the smiles, in a dance manner. Unconcerned with the air of filth around and
the reek of cigarette emanating from him.
“Good for me, maybe not so good for you. But my fingers are so jaded, right now they can’t even pleasure a girl cockroach,” he said.
He flexed his fingers before lighting a cigarette, studying my face as he sprang up. And before long he would be cat-calling a group of
prostitutes as we advanced down the bare street, down the slope: “Are you all wearing brassieres ‘cause I can tell you are not?” To which one of them retorted: “I don’t know what they are to you. What I know about is the primary syphilis I gave to your father. Any further questions?”
* * *
We returned to a circle of tenants at the corridor of the house, each of them contending and eager, painting new scenarios. And I was so
swooned, absorbed in their stories, that I took the leftover smiles and served them all. But they just shrugged and returned everything, refilling my cylinder of delight.
* * *
It was with my brother—playing together, happy together as little children, same corridor and same house, Agbeda—that I first exhausted my smiles.
The whole steaming bowl of smiles dished out, like moi-moi, when suddenly I became alive to the fact. That we had sojourned and dwelled, for too long, in the figments of our imagination.
Balanced on a two-wheeler tricycle we found in the landlord’s old garage, my brother prodding it to motion until we would be at the top of the
slope where I moved without exertion. That was the only thing my brother ever did, pushing the tricycle. Although before long he would have collapsed on his stomach, panting like a hot dog. That plastic body of his never riding on the street lest the heat of the sun melted him into an amoeba.
One of the figments, that our old little tricycle—pre-owned years ago by one of the landlord’s offspring, any one of them who never stopped growing—was never flawed. We would not have believed our vehicle could move on its own if I had not seen an old farmer cycle past by himself, he staring and the corridor staring back at him. It could have moved if there was a complete set of wheels propelled by foot pedals. Without my brother and his little effort.
This was what my brother found out, too, that I spent every bit of my smile. But he just sighed and fled his bed, hitting himself in the open until he was in a pool of blood rippled by malady and fear.
It was not until I left my job at the fantastic city of Johannesburg that I found him living with a sensation of trauma and aloneness. A teenager who rehearsed smiles, like a new recipe, with astuteness, especially when it came to revisiting his bygone years and selves. Now someone tortured by common things bare of knots and whose shadow, also wounded, wobbled around. And his own committed shadow people left with nothing else, inside of him, worth afflicting. And as he trampled behind me on the street, nothing came out of his mouth.
* * *
Memories are like paw-paw seeds, dark and spicy, yet full of nourishment. I could remember the surrealist and that night of catcalling at Agbeda.
Watching him paint before passing out on his mattress, holey from cigarette burns, unbothered about home and our fabricated tranquility. Until the nightmare that would wake me, where I gifted dolors instead of smiles before unveiling my new self. But he held me close, pacifying, until we had
a reformed sketch of my brother in exactly how I wished he had been—muscular, his face firm from staring us down, his arms and legs the colour of
date—without his facial palsy.
* * *
In the morning I would return home prepared for whatever trouble awaited me. Only to find my fears squaring up at me instead. That pale body I
knew cowered over by mama, now residence to a number of her slaps, each landing in thuds.
Looking at him that day, at his face dissolving into a smile, that dreamy final expression, laying there on the living room tiles, lifeless, dead. I had felt cheated by the surrealist who might have enabled the erasure of my brother from his collection of circumstances. But then a strange sense of relief, concerning his past and yesteryears buried deep. It must be that he left them the fastest he could to never turn back. And an hour he remembered was never better. Never better because it was dead. The past was dead. And the memories, dark and spicy, yet vital.
“If you do not pick our calls you will not die. You will also not die if you pick our calls,” mama said and hung up.
She called again the next day, though, relaying the news.
“We are trying for a boy. Are you happy with the news?” She said.
At first I was not bugged, not until my mind wandered about the boulevard of her words more than it should. More than the common act of listening
and digesting garnished news, with satire in particular, even now that the world had transitioned into a big joke. More like it was something now
and something in the past. Events. Recycled. All they did, mama and papa, their puppetlike lives with nothing but two sons to show for it. One
already reduced to remains, soon to be superseded like a football substitute, with a fetus. Trying for a boy was all it was because their God could condone multiplying and not mourning. It was everything that had been, not only news.
I wondered who my mother shared the news of trying for a boy with as I waited, with forbearance, to be born. And then, an attainment, sprung forth without care for whosoever was happy or gutted. She might have with my brother, then a budding three-year old with a future seeming bright, and gotten a reply dense with babbles and baby talk.
Or she might have met some of her old selves, through luck, and confided in them.
I imagined my parents trying: two lovers, now in their fifties, joining silently with godliness on their king-size bed. Only the couple would hear the flap-flap of their body fat hitting each other. And not until they felt the impending arrival of a baby would this flap-flap cease.
Unlike years ago, when they were only adolescents who married because they wanted to have sex. But then stumbled upon the Nigerian Holy Ghost in the process.
My toddler self fed on tiny bits of wood, chewing and swallowing until he choked hard and disappeared into grass.
Mama called me one Sunday saying my baby brother, curled and folded into her that she carried him everywhere, awaited me. I could remember leaving Johannesburg that afternoon, with nothing, and taking the next flight to Lagos. And then a bus down to Ilesa. Only to find out there was no baby nor brother. Not anything at home. And the baby wears I bought on my way, at Gbagi, of no use. I remembered mama sighting me and then
bursting into laughter until her protruded belly reduced. Her Ankara wrapper, squeezed into a baby bump, slipping and descending on the floor.
But sometimes, I thought of mama and how effortless it had always been for her to make up for everything.
“Have you not heard of faking it till you make it?” That was what she said to compensate for her defect, her voice laced with a ting of laughter,
almost ruining my ear.
Papa confirmed it this time, though, in Yoruba. This first time he ever snatched the house phone from mama to converse with me.
“Ooto ni, omo mi,” he said.
But before any impressions at all, we were so perfect together. As if the artist finally painted us after a long while of waiting for us to be in our finest forms. Mama with me sheltered in her arms, my brother holding onto papa presenting a smile for the camera. That no one might believe
something invisible as death could have snatched him away from papa’s tight grip, as in that photograph of my first birthday. No one might believe
the rest of us could still be a family without him. That a baby shower would soon be a powwow of luring him out of our lives. And out of our night dreams.
I had expected mama’s belly to vanish at the shower as she hopped and shone with fake startle while receiving gifts for the incoming baby. Even as she bumped into me later in the evening, smiling. A sort of smile thick with mockery, waking up the devil:
“You never watch out for your brother. Now I don’t know how far to trust you with this.” The mock smile was still there.
I wanted to tell her he was the big brother. He could have endured growing and became the man ever before I did. He could have soothed and tended me like a bruised ego.
“He never did anything yet he was better than you,” she was still saying. And just then did she move closer and dashed into me. That I could not
drive my vocal chords into carving thoughts into words of reassurance. Or look into her eyes and tell her the baby would be an art masterpiece. The only thing I could was fear she would expel my eyeballs. And so I crashed into her and she fell off, my baby brother splashing across the room.
Across our peace.
Across the street, the bloody street, would lie his replacement. While my sight turned x-ray visions. From the centre my eyes would see beyond the frail shops and their adjoined structures, housing people of content. The street posts and the worn-out aesthetics. What and what the neighbourhood was once proud of. Scanning for the past, drifting from women to women, I would wear that common cloak of the average Nigerian—flattering and
creating willing rapport in that faux cloak of a man of influence: “Excuse ma, your boy is a good one, in fact good as gold. But have you found my baby past?”
The women in turn, scoffing and whispering within, tossing me rumpled naira notes. But I would be wondering if any of them had him. And what she would have done to cover up her exploit. Then eventually when I discovered him, maybe she would produce a smile that would not recede until I was done with the baby. Done with extracting my entire existence, on the street, with him cradled in my arms. Not until then would I say goodbye to this woman. And let her smile diminish slowly as the buildings behind me fade into nothingness.
My toddler self fed on tiny bits of wood, chewing and swallowing until he choked hard and disappeared into grass. Appearing like he was never christened yet empty but with an inkling of cicatrix and promises. And if there was something I learned from all this, it would be that I had come a long way. And in future, when a new beginning would spring forth from shedding my old self and horrors and sorrows. A man without fear, in peace with his yesterday, would be born. Or a woman, reworked, owning her decisions and capable of everything. Not an ordinary tool fashioned by the past. Olo’un maje.
About the writer:
Ayo Ajetomobi is a writer and student in the Federal University of Technology in Akure, Nigeria.
Image: “Surface (Dissociating, Tumbling)” by Christopher Brown. 56″ x 80.5″. Oil, acrylic, and aniline dyes on plywood. From Surface Tensions (Abstract Wall Pieces from the Surface Series) by Christopher Brown in Studio Arts: Mixed Media