What is that thin place that exists between words? Rumours of which are heard in a long-drawn sigh? That’s where I want to live. That’s my home.
Right now though, the cooing winds and greying skies haunt my ‘face-me-I-face-you’ apartment like thieving shadows. Like a cosmic mood swing. Out my window, the sky blinks, and her tears – hidden in swirling clouds – ready themselves with a roar. There’s a giddiness in the air. Hopefully, the coming festival of pitter-patter drops will drown out the raucous Fuji music streaming from the kiosks of the local bootleggers, leaving me some quiet to write. Or try to. Down below, on Oguntuase Street, the roasted plantain seller furiously stuffs the remaining pieces of half-done boli in a dirty black plastic bag, as the yellow MTN umbrella she uses to protect herself from the ‘Lagos sun’ gives way to the wet majesty that is violently unfolding. A tall man in a business suit holds up his trousers as he tries to avoid stepping into the giant puddles that are already forming in-between chunks of broken asphalt. He holds his newspaper, now limp and wet, over his head – in vain.
Prapt! Kpow! Startled by thunder, I turn around from the window as the one functioning bulb in my apartment goes dead – popping like a homemade firecracker, and then whimpering into a half-disco of hollow electric buzzing. No one really expects steady power supply in Lagos – much less during a thunderstorm of ferocious proportions. I shake my head, more out of habit than of disappointment. As expected, the children in the building and across the street ordain the dreaded moment with a special ritual: “NEPA has taken the light!” they yell in sing-song fashion through paper-thin walls, twice verklempt about the mere opportunity to be unruly and the climactic opera still swelling outside. My room, once the uneasy discourse between an encroaching darkness and the one source of light that was my bulb, is now a still, undifferentiated landscape of black. And yet, even then, I can still make out its white glow on my table. I can feel him. His words.
The white envelope had arrived a few hours earlier. I didn’t have to sign for it or anything of that sort. There are no postal services in my part of town, and mailmen know better than to venture towards Oguntuase Street, where touts, silhouetted against the thick-thighed provocativeness of the street’s famous aséwós, routinely call on motorists and pedestrians to purchase exquisitely forged American visas. The street is lined with escalating hues of depravity. In a sense, it isn’t a street – at least not in the cute Western sense. Oguntuase is a broken China plate, and its jagged pieces are rundown buildings, punctured fences with surviving campaign posters of the political nobility, flooded gutters, the stinking carcasses of rats as huge as small cats, and the occasional brawl between members of rival gangs. Oguntuase’s only redeeming virtue – or so it seems to everyone that lives here – is its insulting proximity to the metallic sheen of the new Lagos skyline, erupting with glass and steel from life ‘beneath’. Its utopic distance provides us some sort of ironic backdrop – punishing us for falling behind. It is like peeping at heaven through the bloodstained windows of hell.
Somehow, the envelope had wound up between the tiny slit that separated my hostel-blue door from its rotting jamb. It was slightly wet when I got to it – bearing the imprint of a previous handler. Or tamperer. When I saw it, I knew who had sent it. I wondered how he fared. He had scrawled my name on the face of the envelope, on the top left corner, above the plastic, green-tinted window that partly revealed its content. On the top right corner of the envelope was the small print of an open bible, a sword piercing through it, and the generic outline of a bird in flight (presumably a dove) resting on its hilt. It was the unabashedly Christian insignia of the New Haven Home for the Elderly, the organization I work for.
There was something else on the envelope. Scribbled in stealthily smaller fonts on the front face of the seal flap were the words, his words: “Burn it”. Under the glum glow of my bulb, I stared at that sentence for what seemed like a frozen eternity. I remembered his story about the dictionary, the randy Anglican clergyman and his cryptic advice. I remembered his faith that I would write again. My eyes wandered lazily around the room, gazing past the grandfather clock that was my one inheritance, past the peeling TexCote wall paint, and into the recesses of memories from three days ago.
I had then placed the envelope on the stoic table in the middle of the sitting room, next to the sombre soil-filled urn he had given me, and lumbered towards the window – attended by the little horned demons that reminded me how futile my quest was, and how I was going to disappoint the old man. That was before the thunder spoke; that was before the bulb went out. Now, in the uneasy blackness, a thundering procession of clouds outside, I see him. As if for the first time.
He was sitting on a wheelchair facing the lone window in his room when Sister Déolá opened the door to Room 21. I couldn’t tell at first, but from where I stood, he cut the figure of a sad, despondent old man – not unlike the other inmates I had already visited. On a table to his side, the small rustic urn, filled with soil, sat with solemn repose.
“So, na him be that!” Sister Déolá said to me, her jaw chomping away at the white piece of gum that rudely surfaced now and then. Like a lisp. Like a godforsaken lisp.
“Oga, we don’get new customer o! Your personal caregiver don come!” she said, referring to me, as she circled around his chair to adjust the curtains. She turned around, grinning. Then her eye caught something – perhaps literally, because they seemed to expand in their sockets as if they were being pulled out. “Blood of Jesus!” she cried as she rushed towards the wall adjacent to the door, where I stood, flummoxed. On the floor, behind the open door, were angry pieces of a small matte wooden cross – copies of which seemed to have been installed in every room at the Home. Sister Deola reverently picked up the pieces from the floor, her eyes reddened and her mouth quivering uncontrollably, and walked out the door – not before she eyed the oblivious occupant of the room and let loose a most disapproving hiss that sounded like the rushing air from a punctured tire.
“Is she gone?” he asked, still facing the window, his rich booming voice leaving me temporarily undone.
“Sir? Sorry, sir? Whom are you talking about?” I mumbled. My shaky voice seemed to have piqued his curiosity because he spun around in his chair so he could take a look at me. In the brightly lit room, I met his face – the deeply scoured lines that bracketed his downturned lips, the muscly scowl that qualified his youthful eyes, the musical script of waves that lined his restless forehead, the Velcroed sheen of the bald middle, and the playful tufts of silver hair above his ears that seemed to applaud the entire configuration. Wheeling himself towards me with a nimbleness that belied his years, he stopped a few uncomfortable inches in front of me, smiling as he gazed into my eyes.
“Whom”, he said, still smiling mischievously, his eyes fixed on mine. Why was I still standing here taking lessons in grammar from an old, cross-obliterating, pedantic crinkle? I started to back out of the doorway.
“You said ‘whom’”, he continued. “Not many people know how to use that maligned pronoun well! Tell me young lady, if you will, what other words do you use well?” He leaned forward, the dancing glint of his eyes pulling me into a conversation I did not want to have. He had a near-British way with words, especially with the way his lips rubbed against each syllable, stressing it and embarrassing it like a chef too fond of his own dishes to see them eaten by his customer.
“I really have to go now, sir. I am new to the Home, and have a couple of papers I need to fill to complete my registration. But I assure you, with God’s care, all that is old in your life will be new…amen”, I said, mouthing off the mantra all Level 1 Caregivers in the establishment were required to say to the Home’s inmates to begin their daily routine. It was a senseless thing to say, but I needed the job much more than I needed my senses. He smiled as I curtsied and made to leave. It was the unnerving smile of a man that had happened upon a stash of gold coins.
“Yes. You’ll do quite nicely.” His eyes scanning me.
“Tomorrow, when you come, come with a bottle half-filled with sand – wet sand; you know, the kind tamed by all this beautiful rain we are now getting”, he said as he wheeled himself closer to where I stood – puzzled by his request and yet calmed by his apparent senility. “Don’t look so puzzled, my dear girl”, he said, chuckling. “Even a pedantic crinkle like myself does make some sense once in a while!” Then he shut the door.
I spent that rainy evening trying hard to figure out how he came to use the very words I had employed to describe him. Words that never found my lips. Pedantic crinkle. Could it be that living alone for so long had made me porous, so that my thoughts spilled through my lips in breathy mumblings everyone except me was aware of? Had I somehow ‘thought aloud’ too loudly? Was I now being reported to the Home’s Manager for my rudeness? Was I going to lose my job? And what was all that business about bottles filled with wet sand?
The next morning, the humdrum blueness of the day, the perfunctory flick of the light switch, and the way the blue flames danced under my blackened pot – the one I used to boil water for my bath – reassured me that nothing was strange after all. The world, diseased by the familiar, spun madly on. The previous day had to have an explanation. It was just that my tired mind was too vacant to contemplate it.
At the Home Manager’s office, a brand new name badge was awaiting me on Sister Deola’s desk. It had my name, ‘Ijeoma Onwukwe’ emblazoned in black fonts on its metallic gold surface. In a way, it was the story of my life: born and bred between the golden creases of fabulous luxury and promise, only to fall out of favour and into the thick blackness of rejection because I had insisted on shirking the family business.
I knocked on the door to Room 21. “Come in!” he said from behind his door. Inside, the curtains were down, and the old man was sitting up in his bed. I walked in, stuttered a ‘good morning, sir’ and worked the curtain into two neat knots.
“Did you bring it?”
I turned to him. He was holding that unremarkable urn again, his fingers fondling it.
“I am sorry, sir. I didn’t quite understand what it was you required me to assist you with. I am sure Sister Deola can make arrangements f–”
“A bottle filled with sand! Half-filled! Wet sand! How hard could that be?” he yelled, interrupting me, his lower jaw trembling.
I wasn’t prepared for this. I took this job to save my skin, to prove to my family that I could scale the unctuous pyramid of modern life with my bare hands, and not slip to the heap of regret below. I had to have other things worthier of my time than dispensing pills, pushing wheelchairs and, worse, listening to this dime store Socrates.
“I am sure the Office can work something out. All that is old in your life will become new”, I said, managing to hide the incessant protest my life had become behind creed. He was silent. Did I detect a chuckle?
“What would you like us to do today, sir?” I asked, determined to evolve some kind of routine.
“Dime store Socrates! Oh, oh, oh! I love your way with words!” he said, in a strange shift of mood, slapping his blanketed knee.
How did he –
“In my heyday, if you were a student of mine, I would have snapped you up just like that”, he said, snapping his fingers with a musical thrust of his arm, and then attempting to lower himself into the wheelchair at the side of his bed. “Both of us, together, we would have ignited the world with words, and then watched her burn! Now, if you would be so kind as to help me into my chair, I would be extremely grateful.”
I lurched forward, my inexperienced arms struggling to wrest my attention away from the horde of questions that had just invaded my head.
“Sir, did y–”
“Now, can you smell it? It’s beginning, isn’t it?” he asked, interrupting me again, and looking at the window. Outside, the kyanite blue of the heavens had been banished by a foreboding grey, and the winds, like town criers, had begun whistling the arrival of a royal procession. “Let’s go outside!” he said nodding, while I struggled to compose myself. He held the soil-filled urn in his cupped hands with an intriguing reverence and firmness. I looked away from it. It was probably one of the many oddities of an old man locked away from the world.
“Do you know the smell of rain on dust?” he asked, as I wheeled him down the hallway, past the luxurious ‘television room’ where other old people sat in decrepit piles of abandonment, past the oblivious receptionist in the foyer, and towards the expansive square field of granite-red earth at the back of the building that was to become the Home’s new car park for guests.
I shrugged at his question, irritated, waiting for the moment the gods of etiquette would fall asleep and I could ask how he seemed to be able to eavesdrop on my thoughts.
“No, sir”, I said. We came to the end of the terrazzo floor, under a concrete decking, just outside the door. It was as far as we were required to take the inmates when the weather became disagreeable.
“They have a word for it. Petrichor. But that really isn’t enough.” And then he closed his eyes, and raised his head slowly. There was an air of austere elitism around him; a kind of sternness that was sacred and yet playful.
I found my moment.
“Sir, yesterday and today, you guessed…you seemed to read my thoughts. I’m intrigued by…I suppose what I mean to say is that it was really unnerving to hear you use the very same words that had materialized in my head.”
He turned to look at me. “Can you smell it?”
“No, sir, I can’t smell anything!” I almost-blurted, barely containing my impatience.
“Then you are not really here, Ijeoma. You are everywhere else, lost at sea in a vessel of words, in concepts. You do not know the language of birds, the groaning of leaves in mid-air, the ecstasy of the night.”
He paused and then continued.
“When I was little, a white missionary gave me a gift I shall never forget”, he said. “He was a young man himself – Welsh, I believe – and he had just moved in to Lagos to help the old Anglican Communion of those days. My mother owned a thriving restaurant then, somewhere in Ebute-Meta. In those days she would make such sensational delicacies. The whole works. Akara. Dun-dun. Name it!” He was getting animated. “She would heat up gallons of oil in her omorogun and drop an entire acre of yam tubers into its belly! Everyone loved her snacks – including this missionary man I speak of. Every single day, he had his fix of fried potatoes and bean cakes. My father would tease his piety by offering him beer, and most of the time he would vehemently refuse to touch even the glass. Though once I did see him down a glass or two. Me? I would sit in a corner watching him, in awe of his whiteness. In awe of his words. He spoke like he invented them.” Then his voice became solemn.
“Even now, I can remember he had a way of painting new worlds. On Sundays, he would speak of heaven as if it were the next local government down the road, and how my mother’s dun-duns had to be the manna spoken of in the Bible.” He looked up at me, holding me in his narrative grip. “I was 11, but I knew even then that I wanted to speak like him, to command sentiments like he did, and cook them in alchemical cauldrons until they spilled over like the froth of hasty palm wine. Father Xavier – that was his name – he noticed. He always noticed the little things, that one. ‘God dwells in small doses’, he used to say.”
“The gift. What did he give you?” I asked.
He face beamed, his intellectual lips stretching out like the grin of an Islamic moon. “He gave me a dictionary and a ritual. ‘Here, your father tells me you love words’, he said to me one day in my mother’s canteen. He handed me a giant worn out Webster’s dictionary with dog-eared covers. Then he said, ‘This book has thousands of words. Honour it, son. Read it for a while – it will help you understand the words that you encounter in other books a little better.’ Then his face became grave and potent. He said to me, ‘Promise me, son, that you will not linger before you release the words trapped inside here. They are like the caged canary birds we have where I come from. They are beautiful to look at, but they want to fly. One day, when you are older and the wind is mild, gather a pile of leaves, light a fire, and burn this dictionary. Burn it. Free the words to roam, and your own manacles would fall.’”
With nary a drop of rain spent, the clouds started to ebb away into the eternal blue whence they came, so that it seemed like they merely gathered to attend to the old man’s words and grant them some kind of celestial significance.
He turned to me.
“And speaking about words, Ijeoma…where are yours, if I may ask? Where are your stories?”
“Pardon me, sir?”
“You write, don’t you? Or at least, you once did”, he said. “Something stays your hand.”
Under different circumstances, it might have been deeply upsetting to have one’s life and thoughts spread out on a clothesline in this way, but I felt drawn in and ensnared by the solidarity in his voice. In deep places, the taut Gordian knot that was my story started to unravel into painful memories: my father’s barking voice and angry finger, his warning that I was wasting my life doing the wrong things.
“Well, I haven’t found the right reasons to write. I guess all I have are the wrong ones.”
“My dear, I do not know that there could be any other reasons to write!” he exclaimed loudly, attracting the attention of a few passers-by.
He laughed hysterically for about three days or, well, it felt that way to me.
“Ijeoma, one does not write for right reasons. You write because you are slain”, he said, his voice arriving at a rough vibrato. “You write…you write because you are undone. Because the world is never not broken, and in her brokenness she makes way for you to play with her boundaries, to create her again. To truly write is to be wrong; it is to recognize the promiscuity of the familiar. To ravish her again and again until she shows you her many faces.”
The knot was splaying out. Dangerously. “I just can’t seem to find the words. It’s like every time I hold my pen to write, the words become echoes”, I gasped. “It’s almost like a mocking spectre dances in the corner of my eye, and when I turn around to see it, he’s no longer there.”
For a moment, the urn, propped on his laps, was released from his contemplative clutch, and he reached out to hold my hand – a gesture that made me and my visions of job security sweat. “What you want to find is not words, it’s the place between them. When you find the silence between words, when you find your sigh – the moment you let go and open yourself to what wants to come through, the moment you relinquish the idea that you are the prime mover of sentiments, the words will come.” His eyes were now looking straight through me, gazing into memories or wonders I will never know. “And when you know your sigh, you would have glimpsed into the impossible, into the beating heart of the outrageous. You would redeem the forlorn beauty in a broken life and in the broken hearts of a family tired of waiting. You would know how death is just an ellipsis, how nothing is what it seems, and how an urn filled with barren sand holds more room than one might expect.”
That night, after my shift, back in the hushed conspiracy of my apartment, I thought I smelled the familiar stink of an old friend – the haunting fear of being censored. The fear of the ‘outside’, the fear of a fixed world of rules and regulations. A world finished, cold and final. It was the world my father gave me, a world I had to abide by. You can do nothing against the truth, he used to say. And my truth was to study the law, to join his firm, and take over his business when he was no longer able to. But it was a truth I never wanted. I wanted to write, to glide gracefully in mid-air – my feet brushing the dancing grass, disrupting the pollination songs of the fields, disturbing the smooth surfaces of many rivers. So I resolved to live life in protest, to annoy my father, to drown the queer in regular doses of routine. To kill all my darlings. This night however, as my hand hesitated over my open journal, I felt a certain kind of light-headedness, the one I knew when I was about to write an essay or reclaim the holiness of a taboo. Find your sigh, he said.
“If you look closely, you might notice that everywhere, everyone and every moment is a burning bush. But you’ll never know until you take off your shoes”, he had elaborated, as I wheeled him around the complex, past the empty gazes of his fellow inmates. He was keen in conversation, untethered, guffawing over his own jokes and memories of Father Xavier.
“So, did you burn it eventually? The Father’s dictionary”, I asked him, lifting his gangly body into bed, making the metal frame bed yelp in protest.
“I did – but not all the words were scorched”, he replied, smiling. “There is yet some burning to do. Ah! Could you pass me that little urn on the table?”
I brought the omnipresent object to him.
Looking at me, he said, “It’s for you now, my dear. A gift. Take care of it, as you would an old man.”
“I’m grateful sir – but I am afraid I can’t have this. I mean, this must be incredibly valuable to you. Moreover, I have only been here a week, and a measly couple of hours with you at most.”
“Nonsense, my dear! Those small hours have been lifetimes. Lifetimes! And…yes, I think I know you well – well enough to write a story about you; perhaps well enough to peer through your eyes and write about our small encounter, uh? Yes, why not! I might even take some liberties and write about what hasn’t happened yet! Tell you what,” he leaned closer, wrapping my fingers round the urn, and his round mine. “Take this. It is more than a gift. It is a homecoming. It is my sigh. I promise you’ll find yours if you hold her close.”
As I let myself out of his room, my right hand cradling the urn close to my chest, I heard him again:
“Ijeoma, did I tell you how Father Xavier died?”
“No, you didn’t.”
His smile told me that that was a story for another time.
My phone purrs. The pixels flash ‘home manager’ on the orange screen. Sister Déolá has been trying to get a hold of me since I failed to show up at work the next day. Or the day after that. Or after that. I’m not sorry as such. The old man’s words lit a bonfire in me. I am determined to find my sigh, even if I lose the job. I will not disappoint the old crinkle. Nor myself.
Outside, the clouds have ended their parade, and are retreating into the calm sheen of a familiar dark blue. The rain is how the clouds work out their salvation. I like that. Perhaps I should write that down. With an energetic jolt, my bulb comes back on. The whole building and street erupts into a drunken choir of jubilation. My phone purrs again. There’s an urgency to its amusing protests that wasn’t there yesterday. Or the day before.
Come what may.
“Hello, ma,” I answer. There is no response.
Through the crackling static I can hear the muffled sounds of howling women and men barking orders in Yoruba. They are speaking about water and buckets and being careful. A soft whimpering groan, unmistakably Sister Déolá’s, accentuates the chaos unfolding in the background.
“Hello! Sister Déolá! What’s wrong? What happened?” I scream into the phone. The line goes dead, and a boulder, the size of wordless grief, suddenly materializes in my stomach. The old man.
I rush out of the house.
Downstairs, I hail a taxi cab and tell the driver where I’m going. Madam, you go pay four thasan naira? The place far well well. I can hardly afford to take the bus these days, but this is a matter of life and death. I jump into the taxi, and urge the driver to drive as fast as he can. He obliges. The taxi races past Oguntuase’s prostitutes, splashing rain water on their hesitant attires; through two rain-soaked logs of wood the football-loving neighbourhood kids have erected to serve as their makeshift goalpost; and, into the lonely highway that leads to the Home. Madam, no worry, the driver assures. Today na Sunday; no go-slow. We go reach there now now.
Soon enough, the taxi cab careens into the Home’s parking lot. I pay the driver his fare and scramble towards the foyer. Down the hall, towards the back, a mad vision awaits: a dozen caregivers roll on the bare ground; an old woman, entangled by anonymous limbs and soft petitions, screams unfathomable syllables as she rips her clothes into angry shreds – her eyes an unceasing fountain of bloodied tears; a pot-bellied man stands apart, motionless, arms akimbo, staring into nothing; three boys run across the room with blue plastic buckets of water; and Sister Déolá lies on the floor, her body convulsing silently – the white gum in her mouth still visible as her jaw hangs frozen. I move slowly towards the back entrance, edging my way into the granite-red field.
He is here.
The old man is here. Right in the middle of the proposed car park, in a steaming pile of ash, serenaded by swirling white smoke and resolute spurts of fire, the old man, now a haunting shadow stick figure, kneels out his last oblation. Around him are singed crosses and breathing puddles of wax where candles once stood. Burn it. Colour drains from the world – leaving a misty sepia in its place and then an encroaching darkness, as I fall to the ground.
By the time I arrive home the next morning, my eyes are sore, my hair is frayed, and the world is spinning. My head is bruised from where it hit the ground. When I was stirred back to life with hurried splashes of water on my face, his remains had already been moved away. The police had come and gone, and the story that hung in the air like a black cloud was that the old man had waited till everyone was fast asleep, and then wheeled his naked body to the back of the building – dousing himself in oil and setting himself on fire.
As I move into the room, my eyes glide towards the letter, still unopened on my table. Next to it, the rustic urn sits still, but from the barren soil, a fully grown mushroom, dyed in a pedantic yellow and blotched with uneven white spots, has sprouted. My heart starts to rage in its ribbed prison. It’s impossible. But then…could it be that…what if…how is this h–? In a glorious swirl of dust and noise, my walls crumble to the ground. And as I stare at the astonishing guest in the urn, and read the first words in his letter to me, I find the wordless space between things. I find my sigh.
The letter begins: What is that thin place that exists between words? Rumours of which are heard in a long-drawn sigh? That’s where I want to live. That’s my home.