My father is a child when he returns to me the second time: blue eyes, red skin and babbles of incoherent words. It is a cool Wednesday morning, but my thighs and the neckline of my boubou are thick with sweat. “Papa, welcome,” I say to him, pressing my wet hand into his face. He flinches, cupping my fingers in his. He stretches out his hands for me to lift him from the booster seat. I put him on my hips, and hum Oliver de Coque’s “Father Father”. His mother, Mary, looks at me through squinted eyes.
“He seems to like you,” she says, folding napkins into squares on the kitchen countertop.
“Of course he does,” I say, stopping short of telling her that I see my father’s red eyes inside his.
The Smiths are new in the neighbourhood. They moved from a small town in San Francisco because her husband got a job with the government; an advisor or something.
“I’m an engineer,” she said on their first night, explaining that she worked with computers and will be joining a bank’s tech team at the end of the summer. She told me not to call her Mrs. Smith: “Please call me Mary. Everyone calls me Mary, including my baby who’s only a few months old and can’t talk.” I chuckled because I couldn’t say that I found this unusual. “I would love to meet your baby” was all I eventually said, watching as her skin went from pale to burnt orange under the streetlight. We spoke for a few more minutes before she went into their two-storey building by my drooping bungalow.
At dinner, I tell Nkechi and Nnamdi that their grandfather is inside the new neighbour’s little baby. They laugh. Nkechi spills orange juice and bangs the table. “You mean my grandfather who no one has seen since the 90s?” I run a finger over the cracks on my lips, unsure of how to explain this. In the middle of their laughter, Nnamdi starts to choke on his rice. He takes off his small, round glasses, holds his neck and throws his head back. I pour him a glass of water and rub his back.
“Ndo. See why you shouldn’t laugh at your mother,” I say, flicking grains of rice off the table.
Nkechi scoffs. “See why you mustn’t joke like that.” She frowns. “At any rate, it’s not a funny joke.” She packs up her barely-eaten food. The stew sits, unmixed on a mound of rice, next to two pieces of fried beef and too soft plantain.
In the middle of the night, I peel my wet wrapper off my skin and call Mazi. I sit on the floor, naked, listening as the phone plays a familiar caller tune that I can’t place a finger on. Once, twice and thrice. I start to hum the tune until my older brother’s voice comes on. It is tired and rough, as though it has just come out of sleep. I imagine he is sitting at his table—the flat coffee table in his parlor—reading a newspaper with a lantern, chewing a kola nut.
If Papa’s disappearance twisted anything in us, the loss of Mazi’s son who was kidnapped and then killed while away at university in Port Harcourt is what finally undid Mazi. He hardly leaves his self-contained apartment. He spends his days reading and rereading newspapers, waiting for one to announce that his son’s killers have been found. His wife, Tinuke, a gap-toothed woman who doesn’t say much, tried her best to get him to start taking carpentry jobs in close proximity to their home, but it didn’t work. One day, she packed up her grief, their old photo albums, some white China and left. He didn’t notice for a few weeks.
Now he asks me, “Nneoma, what?” Those are his first words to me all the time. Papa used to say that Mazi is a man of few words. “A man like his father, tueh,” he’d say, playfully and Mazi would hide his smile behind a frown. It’s been several years since we last saw Papa in flesh, but Mazi is now a replica of him. It is in the crumpled lines on his forehead, the always red eyes, the unsteady yet meticulous fingers, the yellow skin, dry with childhood scars, resembling the inside of tangerines.
I tell him about seeing Papa in my new neighbour’s oyibo child and he snorts. I can feel his head shaking. In the beginning, after the first time with Aunty Nene, he suggested seeing a doctor and I hissed. He says it again now, breathing into the line, “Nneoma, I’ve been telling you that you need to see Dr. Nkemdili… I don’t… I don’t understand again.”
He waits for me to respond. The only sound between us is his measured breathing. I chew the bottom of my lip and count my fingers downwards from ten. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six… He sighs. “Go to bed, ehn, tomorrow will be better.” He doesn’t ask how possible it is for Papa to enter an oyibo baby as he asked how possible it was for Papa to enter Aunty Nene’s body the first time. I sleep off on the warm tiles and dream of Papa’s face as it is on the wall in the parlor: red, alert eyes, and a face full of ugly lines.
* * *
When I check in a few days later—this time on a Friday afternoon, carrying tupperware filled with Nkwobi, my welcome meal to the Smiths—Papa has gone, leaving the baby’s face as smooth as a baby’s face should be. I search his face, pinching the cheeks, turning it this way and that like it is lace fabric. The baby babbles, spitting on his bib and on his fingers. He clasps my fingers, clearly uninterested in my blue boubou—the blue I’m wearing because it is Papa’s favorite color. I look around, at Mr. Smith watching something on the television and at Mary working on her computer. Their new house with new leather chairs and shiny wooden things feels empty—the smell of paint has thinned and the spaces are too much, too wide, too empty. My voice echoes when I tell Mary and her husband goodbye.
At home, I sit beneath the plum tree in the yard. I clasp my hands, fold my legs into each other and sigh. It’s unfair that he does this—coming and going, never staying. The first time, he entered Aunty Nene when she came to visit me on campus. She had come from Enugu with bags of udara and unripe plantains. She wore loose-fitting jeans and a black t-shirt—the sort of thing he would’ve worn when he wasn’t in his workshop. When she sat on my bed and told me she had missed my fat nose, it was Papa’s voice I heard. Her smile was full like Papa’s instead of small and dimply. We had no GSM phones back then, so I had to run several buildings, to get Mazi from the male hostel. He didn’t wash his hands which were stained with egusi and eba before running with me to my hostel. By the time we got in, Papa was gone. We didn’t talk about it immediately. Instead, we sucked udara and talked about Lagos sellers who only sold bad udara. Aunty told us stories of Papa, of when they were young and lived in the East. We talked about the things we missed about him. Aunty Nene missed his trouble, “Ah, your Papa was such a troublemaker,” she said. Mazi missed his jokes. I couldn’t choose. I missed his singing, his stories, his face—everything. We only stopped talking when the bell rang for visitors to leave the hostel. We swore at the dead dictator under whose regime Papa was taken away and Aunty Nene kissed us goodnight.
When I’m done sulking, I return to the house to prepare Papa’s okpa, as I do every Friday evening since the day they took him away. I’m done washing the banana leaves that I’ll use to wrap the okpa, when I hear a knock. It is Mary and her baby. He sleeps quietly in his stroller, his face lopsided and empty. She asks if she had upset me: “I saw you walk out of the house so fast. Perhaps, I didn’t thank you properly for the food… Mr. Smith didn’t…” Her voice trails off.
I shake my head and smile a fake smile. “Forgive me if I gave you the impression that you had upset me. It’s just hormones,” I say and press my hand into hers.
“That is so comforting. I was scared.” She drops the clean tupperware on a side table and looks around.
“Are those your kids?” she asks, pointing to photograph frames of Nkechi and Nnamdi at eight and seven in pink school uniform.
I nod. “They’re much older now. The girl, she is fifteen and the boy, he is fourteen.”
“Oh, don’t mind me. You look so young, yet you have children this big. Wow.”
My cheeks hurt from fake-smiling.
“They should come over,” she says.
“When they come back. They just went to their father’s house for the holiday, but when they come back.”
She doesn’t ask about him, their father, if we are separated or divorced as most people do. This makes me glad until she points to a photo of Papa on the wall and asks, “Is that him?”
“Their father.” She walks towards the wall and runs her fingers along the gold of the frame. It’s an old portrait Papa took on his 40th birthday, only a few months before they took him away. He is wearing his blue overalls and doesn’t smile with his mouth. His smile is elsewhere: in his eyes, in the lines on his forehead, his wide nostrils and the elf ears I got from him. In Y2K when I was still in university and actively searching for him—starting campaigns and one-man protests against the government—my friends had looked at him and shook their head. “What a beautiful man,” they’d say, and I’d tell them the story: how one morning, soldiers barged into our home in Ilasamaja, how they tied his wrists with wires, sealed his mouth with duct tape and took him away. How they said nothing of his offence. How they denied holding him hostage. How we never saw him again.
Instead of going into the story waiting at the tip of my tongue, I shake my head and remove the photo from the wall to get a close look of it. “No, that’s not him.”
“Oh all right. By the way, we should hang out sometime.”
“Yes. That would be nice.”
She clicks her tongue and leaves the house, like a butterfly or paper. Something light. It’s only when I hear the sound of the gate creak, that I take a deep breath. A fat cloud in my head relaxes. The wall clock above the photo frames of the children and Papa stares at me through sleepy eyes. I count the tiny second lines till I get to twenty-five. All those years have gone and still, my body and mind refuse to stop mourning. How do you mourn someone you’re not sure is dead? I take another deep breath before returning to the kitchen. I’m mixing the okpa flour with stock and salt when I start hearing the barely-there sound of a leak. It’s a quiet sound that occupies the small kitchen. I walk around searching for it—beneath the sink, in and at the back of the freezer, in the bathroom, by the pumping machine. I search until my blue boubou is soaked with sweat, but I don’t find it.
* * *
The next two weeks travel sluggishly until I feel okay in the head; the cloud has gone somewhere to hide temporarily. Mary and I meet at a bar. We sit under a dirty canopy, in front of plastic blue tables. It is not a remarkable place; a few young boys sit, watching a football match on the muted television screen. The songs blaring through the speakers are a mix of Afro-pop and Fuji. The bar is across town so Mary tells her husband she’ll be late home. He tells her something that makes her roll her eyes and slam the phone on the table. I want to ask her what it is. I don’t. It’s not everything you use your mouth to ask. Papa used to tell me this.
If I had to peg her for an alcohol drinker, I’d have said wine or vodka. Any of the nice things women like her drink in movies. She laughs when I tell her this and tells me she likes her beer, ‘mortuary standard’—a phrase she knows from reading Nigerian gossip blogs.
“If you were Nigerian, I tell you, your name would be Nike.”
She tells me she likes the name, Nike. “It sounds quite exquisite,” she says with a tilt in her voice that ends that conversation. We are quiet, staring in opposite directions. It is not a terrible silence with sharp edges. It is one of a budding friendship: she stares at her pepper soup, picking at the fish because the soup itself is peppery. I stare at the sky and watch as the light blue lines deepen into a dark shade.
“Why do you have a funny look on your face?” she asks, eyeing me.
“Me? I was just remembering something, oh.” I’m surprised that she is paying attention to me. I sit upright, adjust my pink blouse and cross my legs.
“Do you want to share?”
“It is nothing really.”
“Come on, share! I love secrets and stories.” She folds her arms on the table and leans into it. The table shakes a little, some of her soup spills, but she doesn’t move to clean it.
“When I was a girl, I had a dolly called Mary.” I take out serviette from my purse and dab at the soup stains on the table.
“Seriously, that’s it?” She is twirling her brown hair like a teenage girl. I smile.
“Yes.” It’s not a lie, but it’s not completely true. The dolly was called Mariam, a gift from Papa for my 5th birthday. What’s the difference between Mary and Mariam?
“That’s nice,” she says, giggling. Her hair and fingers are in her mouth.
“You shouldn’t do that.” I pull at her fingers; her hand is soft, ajebutter soft. I ask if she is tipsy because she’s laughing when there’s nothing funny. She tells me not to be silly. I think of conversations to make, I could ask about her job, but that would require talking about my job as a failed school teacher.
“What is your husband like? He seems quiet.”
She shrugs. “Busy, busy man.” The beer, my second bottle sways in my head. Its bitter taste lingers in my tongue, incomplete. I ask the waiter to bring a third bottle.
“Do you ever wonder if drinking is unladylike? My husband does. He was so averse to coming out with you tonight.” She rubs her temples.
“My husband thought the same way. But then he left me because I had ‘daddy issues’—a whole me?” I laugh but it sounds like I’m coughing, so I stop and stick my finger into my ears. “Thinking about it now, my father shared the same opinion. But I have been drinking since he… disappeared.”
“Disappeared?” She pauses, watching my now very crumpled face. I shouldn’t have used the word disappear, but it feels right. Somehow, that’s what happened. He disappeared. I remove my finger from my ear and clean it with a serviette.
“I’m sorry. Do you want to talk about it?”
“What is there to say? I live each day wondering if my father is still alive, wondering if he is dead.” It’s not something I want to talk to her about yet. I drum my fingers on the table, hoping she won’t notice the gap stretching between us. It’s not everything you have to talk about. Papa used to say this too.
She drinks the rest of her soup in silence. Because it’s peppery, she fans her tongue and drinks water straight from the bottle. We leave the bar in a yellow taxi. She is a little drunk, so she leans against me and confesses that she always thought Nigeria was a jungle.
“I always thought abroad was in the sky,” I respond.
She laughs. “How?”
“It is the word abroad. It sounds like it is in the sky. And again, you have to take an aeroplane to get to countries referred to as abroad. When I was a teacher, some of my primary school students also used to think the same thing.”
She sits up and laughs at me; I laugh with her this time. The Taxi driver switches up the volume, so we listen to a Fela song. I tell her that I can understand what the song means because my father is or was half Yoruba, from his mother’s side.
“I did think you resembled a Kemi when I saw you the first time. I had a colleague in San Francisco called Kemi. Very lovely girl. She’s Yoruba, from Lagos too.”
The old man drives slowly. His car, whines and sputters; the old thing is tired. I can smell the age in the carpet and see the years in the foam seeping out of the seats.
“I can understand your need for closure,” she says rubbing the lines over my fingers.
“Closure?” I ask.
“I mean like you needing to know what happened with your dad.”
“This might sound like a false equivalence but one time, we had a very long summer when I was pregnant with my first baby.”
She laughs and tucks hair behind her ears. “We were going to call her Anne. Anyway, we were in the Hamptons, in my grandfather’s beautiful summer house. In our first week, a cat visited, very fat thing with wicked, wicked eyes. She looked snobbish too. I don’t like cats, but I was, you know, immediately taken by her. And soon, she started to live with us. She was very independent, but every day, for an hour, we cuddled as I read to Anne. I never named her, but I loved her.” She sighs.
“What happened to it?”
“What happened to her?” she corrects me. “One day, she left and never returned. A few days later, I lost Anne. It was almost like she knew something bad was going to happen, there was something about her before she left, she was constantly mad and afraid, and… and agitated.”
“Hm. This is serious.”
“I was confined to bed rest for weeks after the miscarriage, but, I went around the neighborhood, asking about her. No one knew of her or had seen her. One housekeeper even told me that she had been living there for years and had never seen a cat in the neighborhood. I didn’t stop searching. It was the only way I knew to express my grief. Worst part is my husband said he never saw her. That drove me nuts. Was she a figment of my imagination or?”
When she started her story, with a cat, I wanted to ask how she could compare a cat to my father. A cat? Those witch-like things? But now that she’s done, I rub her fingers in sync with Fela’s “Water E No Get Enemy”. Without my glasses, I cannot see her eyes in the dark car, but I feel them searching mine for an answer I can’t give.
* * *
Papa returns three months later. That makes it twenty-five years, seven months, forty-six days since he disappeared. Before he returns, I’m ready to pick up life again, there’s no cloud in my head. I feel light. I apply for a few jobs in primary and secondary schools; I can teach Igbo and English. I’m a good class teacher. My cover letters say my English is impeccable, that I am very focused and mentally sound.
He doesn’t come to me directly, as I often dream he would. He goes instead, to our old home, the house he built long before I was born—the house he was taken from. It is a small bungalow building with a low fence and four flats. It is unpainted and has the smell of neglect. When he disappeared, Aunty Nene suggested we rent it out, that the memories would be too much for our teenage minds. Now, on the last Saturday of the month, Nkechi and I go to meet with the tenants and to check in on the state of the house.
The report each time is worse than before. Mr. Ajayi, the man who lives at the back complains about the crack in his walls, the leak in his bathroom and the light situation. An old woman’s help asks for a ramp because she is now on a wheelchair. He also asks for interlocking tiles, that the cement is now broken and chipped in too many places, gathering pools of water for mosquito eggs, making it hard for even people with two legs to walk properly. Nkechi rolls her eyes. One always-pregnant-woman complains about spirogyra on the wall by the shared tap. She says it makes her spit; she holds her back and rubs her stomach as she says this. Nkechi rolls her eyes again but says nothing. She takes notes, nodding her head, and saying we’d do something about it. I am not sure what, so I fold my arms and look at a lizard climbing up the walls.
We’re done seeing them now, but we cannot leave yet because of traffic. Nkechi nods her head to music from her phone while I stand awkwardly, my hands on my hips, in front of the wrought iron balcony of the old woman. Nkechi and I are drinking halves of a super yoghurt that dissolves in our already sweaty palms. My glasses slip down my face, so I fold it and tuck it into my blouse, replacing it with thick sunshades.
After what seems like several hours, Nkechi checks the map and declares it okay to leave. “The coast is clear,” she whispers. She calls an Uber from her phone and we wait outside for it to arrive. We’re about to enter the Uber when I see him. He is settling himself on the pavement beside the gate, beneath a dying tree that is split in the middle. He has on a dirty, formerly white cap and wears blue faded Ankara that is torn inside the patterns. He is unwrapping pounded yam, dipping a ball into white soup in an orange bowl set by his feet. Nkechi tugs at my shirt to remind me that the cab is waiting.
“But, Nkechi, this is Papa, your grandfather.”
“Mum,” she says, pulling my slippery hand. She looks up for something less than a second and looks back at me. “Mum.”
I walk towards him and kneel in front of him. I take his oily hands into mine, telling myself that I’ll know them if nothing else. I draw circles with my forefinger on his palm, singing a nursery rhyme he used to sing to me as a toddler: “Around, around the garden, like a teddy bear.” The calluses, the lines, the tips of his fingernails, the chafed skin—they belong to him.
“Papa…” His eyes become a squint as he smiles. This is when I know that he is the one, that he is only the older version of the Papa from the photograph on the wall. The young man with the fro and barely-there eyes who got lost for twenty-five years is here. I’m smiling so hard, blinking back tears, thanking all the gods I know. I don’t know when I pull him into myself, but I do and several smells—of grass, of grime, of soup, of shit—choke me.
“I’m going to take you home, Papa.”
* * *
The rumors spread across my street like the brown bark of yam, laid in the sun to dry before it is blended and made into elubo. At the supermarket, I’m standing by the cashier, costing a bag of semo, a crate of eggs and a tin of milk when I hear two women whispering about how a woman kidnapped a mad man for rituals. I don’t wait to hear more before I trot out of the supermarket without paying. The cloud is back and heavy. It gives me a headache.
How can a daughter kidnap her own father?
Later that day, Mazi calls me a fool. He drives all the way in his pickup, stands at the door to look at Papa and then says, “Onye nzuzu,” before turning away. I follow him to his car, asking if he can’t see the resemblance. He doesn’t respond. I shout at him, at the dust his car raises—“Brother, Brother, biko. Brother, bia now,”—before returning to the house, defeated.
I pace the parlor, biting the skin on my forefinger till it bleeds. Papa watches me. Nkechi and Nnamdi have gone. When I returned home with their grandfather, I expected Nnamdi to run into him, but he backed away and stared at the picture on the wall. “There’s no way that person is my grandfather,” he said. “Can’t you see they look nothing alike? Grandpa was yellow, this man is clearly not, Mum. Ah.” He stumbled on some more words before running into his room. Nkechi didn’t say a word. She sniffed and squeezed her mouth. The next morning, they asked to go to their father’s house. I watched with gritted teeth as they packed small duffel bags and pushed it into the bonnet of the taxi he sent. I stood at the gate, looking away.
Now, I look at him, placing the photograph from the wall next to his face. The lines are almost there. The face shape is almost the same. Older Papa has bald hair with dots of white, but younger Papa had full black hair and that’s only normal. People change when they get old. I’m not the young girl with pimples and small breasts that I was twenty-five years ago. I’m a woman, a madam. Yes, I nod, staring at Papa. It’s there, it’s there.
On the day I brought Papa home, I bathed and cleaned him, using a special scented soap. Then I treated the scabs beneath his feet and gave him clean clothes bought from the clothes vendors in the night market. “Papa will like this,” they said to me when I told them it was for my father. I felt some special kinship with them, and then the assurance that the bald, frail man was indeed my father.
But Papa won’t speak. I call him Nna, Papa, his first names—Chukwuebuka James—but he looks away. “Papa,” I say, “what happened when they took you away?” He doesn’t respond. “Did they release you? We went around looking for you. No one, no police or soldier said they knew you or had seen you. Papa, where did you go?” He looks away, crossing and uncrossing his legs. There are ugly scars on his skin—from light blotches to lumps to patterned marks. I ask him about them, but he doesn’t say a word. I know he understands me, but maybe he can’t speak. Maybe the soldiers did something to impair his speech. I feed him his favorite things, hoping it will help. I push a spoon of pap between his too-thick lips. Still he won’t talk. All he does is stare, nod or smile. I google symptoms and they tell me that he might have dementia. “Tufiakwa,” I shout, three times.
Mary comes by in the evening. Over the months, we have become very close. Close enough for her to share her pain of living with an obnoxious husband with me. Her pale face is paler, because of the rouge lipstick she wears. She doesn’t sit, so I don’t sit. We stand hovering around Papa who sleeps, curved like the letter C on the long sofa. He’s wearing a singlet and checkered pajama pants. Several tiny hairs are curled on his chest like white worms. Spittle slides down a small crack in his fluttering lips and I find it adorable.
“Nneoma, what are you doing?” she asks and doesn’t wait for me to reply. “Listen. You need to return this man to where you picked him from pronto. Everyone, literally everyone, is talking about you. The police might get involved.” He moves a little like a dream disturbs his sleep, or maybe it is a mosquito. I make a mental note to buy insecticide. I stare at the smile etched across his face. Mary notices my distraction and pulls me out of the house, towards the fence. The wind blows her hair into her mouth as she speaks. I had assumed that she of all people would understand. This anxious Mary is shocking. I don’t say anything to her. I listen, nodding my head at intervals, staring at a small mole beneath her chin. She tells me that’s not my father, I ask how she knows and if she ever met my father. She rolls her eyes and tells me there is zero resemblance with the photograph on the wall.
“That’s nonsense.” I walk away from her, even though I’m not sure if she’s done speaking. I’m annoyed.
You mean I should return my father? I hiss. There is no point talking to you or trying to explain sef. Like Papa used to say, it’s not everything and everyone you should listen to.
I spend the rest of the evening cooking and reading about dementia until Papa wakes up. He yawns and stretches. It’s dark because NEPA has refused to give us power supply. I turn on the flashlight of my phone and help him up to the table.
“Papa, your food is here.”
He nods, or slightly nods; his head hangs outwards, a little too far from his neck giving him a look that seems as though he is contemplating life. His eggs are scrambled with green onions, tomatoes and sardines. His tea is thick with milk and sugar, the way he now likes it. I don’t remember him having a sweet tooth, but people change, they become—and Papa, Papa is everything I imagined he’d become in old age. Before it gets too dark, I carry a plastic chair and a stool outside, so that we can sit under the tree to receive fresh air and watch the moon.
I tell him stories—everything he missed out on: me, getting married to a man I didn’t love, Mazi walking me down the aisle of the Anglican Church in Marina and signing the certificate at the registry. “God forbid I do a proper marriage ceremony without you there,” I tell him, using a small tiger blade to cut his overgrown nails. “The marriage did not last sef.” I tell him how the man I married, told me I was mad and had daddy issues. “A whole me, Papa?”
“Anyway, I have two children—Nkechi and Nnamdi. They have your eyes, Papa.”
“You know, Papa, since you left, we’ve had terrible governors and presidents. They say the current one is a clone. That means he’s not real. He’s always travelling.”
Papa smiles his absent smile. An insect dances in front of his gaze and he tries to catch it. He walks around the house, following mosquitoes and fireflies. I follow him too, squeezing my boubou between my thighs. When he stops and sits by the tank at the back, I wonder if he wants to leave me again.
* * *
I dream of a dark room that smells of burning rubber. Victor Uwaifo sings “Joromi” inside Papa’s voice. The room is lit only by a candle on top of a tin of milk. I run around in search of the rubber, but there’s nothing else in the room. When I wake up, I’m drenched in sweat that smells of rubber; the ceiling fan whistles without rhythm. I have to travel far into my mind to find myself. It’s like pulling out a bucket of water from a well, but I eventually find it—remember who I am, and what my name is. My first instinct is to check on Papa. There’s a thumping in my chest that won’t stop and a cloud in my head that is too full. I slide out of the bed, wearing nothing but a wrapper and tiptoe towards Nnamdi’s room where Papa has been sleeping since he arrived. Papa’s snoring is usually loud. I expect to hear it before I turn the knob, but there’s nothing, only the slight hum of electricity: a fluorescent light from the hallway, the stabilizer from the kitchen.
There’s no one in the room. It’s so completely still that the lack of human presence screams inside my head. Not his smell of aboniki balm or his new white dunlop slippers. The bed is neat, tucked in all the corners like no one slept in it. The moon peers in through the open window, watching. The eerie feeling climbs my skin until my hair sticks out and there are several tiny bumps on it. I turn on the light switch and call for him “Papa, Papa, Papa, are you there, Papa?” The bathroom in the hallway is the next suspect. I knock, but there’s no answer. I open the door and find it empty but for the brown poop floating in the cloudy water of the water closet. Not in the kitchen as well; only the remnant of okpa stuck in a plate he used and the half-drunk glass of water. Not even hiding behind the cartons of books in the hallway. I push them down and watch as they fall, causing a tall pile near the ironing table. Not back in the room or under the bed. Not hiding behind the door in the toilet. Not in the parlor, or the veranda, or inside the green tank full of water. Not anywhere. Gone.
I have an interview with one of the schools I applied to today. Yesterday, I ironed a blue skirt and a pink shirt. Now they both sit rumpled on my bed. I’m not going anywhere, not until I find Papa.
Once there’s light in the sky, I knock Mary’s gate. I pace barefeet in front of the hedge by the gate. Her husband opens it. “What a pleasant sur…” he starts to say, but I brush past him. I do not have the time to explain or to look back at his sallow face and gaping mouth. He follows me, asking, “Ma’am, is anything the problem?” I turn to look at him, my face warm and full with anger that has been sitting somewhere in my chest. The cloud in my head wants to explode. He usually calls me Ma’am—perhaps because he doesn’t remember my first name, or because he finds it hard to pronounce—and I have told him times without number to stop.
“If you ever call me that rubbish. You will see.” I eye him and start to turn back. “My name is Nneoma, Nneoma. I na ghota? Nzuzu,” I hiss. There’s no need to wait for a response. I open the door and burst into their home with sunlight following me.
“I’m looking for my father.” Mary has the baby at her breasts. She is walking around in circles, talking to someone on the phone. The television is on a news channel. Her husband says something about how Africans are sick. “Haven’t I warned you about them? Look how she just barged in.” He doesn’t mumble, he says it loud enough for me to hear. I pull the baby from his mother’s breast and look at his face. He is a little over eight months old, yet his face remains bored, and empty. He is one of those babies who does not smile when you tickle them, whose eyes follow you when you do something bad, and cries, if they think you’re bad. Papa must have taken something from him. I return him to his mother and stagger backwards. I don’t hear Mary’s voice calling for me when I run out of their house to sit beneath the plum tree in mine.
In the afternoon, Aunty Nene arrives wearing a long black dress. Mazi must have told her, or maybe it was Nkechi or Mary. I’m still sitting under the tree. I stare at her feet and notice an almost invisible limp in her step. I don’t move to help her as I should. Standing up seems hectic, even though sitting down is painful—the root of the tree presses into my insides, causing discomfort. She kneels by me and presses my face into her breasts.
“Aunty welcome,” I say.
“Adanna, Nneoma, my darling.”
“Shhh. I know everything.” I raise up my head to focus on the serious look on her face.
“Shift, girl, let me tell you the story.”
She starts her stories with a call and tells me to respond. “Story, story,” she says and I say, “Story.” “Once upon a time,” she says and I say, “Time, time.” It is my childhood all over again. She whispers the stories in my ears, as if they are eggs she needs to protect from breaking.
The first story is about a princess that couldn’t live without a certain neck ornament. “It was a beautiful gold necklace that everybody wanted. It meant wealth.” She wasn’t supposed to ever remove the necklace or give it to anyone. Her father, the king said that if she did, she would die. But she grew up, discovered men and found love in a trickster boy. He collected the necklace and expected her to die. She didn’t, and was determined to get it back, but by the time her trickster lover was caught, he had sold the necklace to Arab merchants. The king killed him and the girl’s heart broke further. A few months later, she lost her mind and began to search for it everywhere. That’s how she spent the rest of her life: roaming the streets and asking strangers for her mind.
The second story is about twin brothers: James and John. They got along very well. They had the same interests and shared secrets with each other. Like most siblings—“Like you and Mazi,” Aunty Nene said—they had their share of fighting. One day, on their way back from school, they saw an empty farm with a tall tree full of ripe mangoes. James was very strong, so he climbed the tree and caught some. They stole enough to put in their school bags to share at home with their sister and friends. An old man saw them and begged for the mangoes. They scoffed and laughed at him, taunting him to climb the tree as they had done. They didn’t know, but the man placed a curse on them.
One day, when they were much older, the boys had a fight over a girl they both wanted. James pushed John into a very deep well, expecting him to die. John never died though, some good Samaritans saved him and took him away. John went on to join the military and started plotting his revenge. Years later, when he’d risen to the rank of Colonel, he got some of his men to find James and to take his brother away from his family. They took him away and hid him in an underground security facility where he was tortured ‘till he died.
In another few years, John, the Colonel lost his mind and started to roam the streets. It was part of the curse the old man placed on him and his brother. He walked through several states, searching for his dead brother and his family. “He’s the voice in the wind singing, James, my brother Ebee ka ị nọ?”
Aunty Nene pauses her story as if to catch a breath, but doesn’t say anything else. It’s the end. She sighs. Wall geckos chase cockroaches on the fence behind us. Fireflies and mosquitoes fly past our gaze. Frogs and crickets fuse their sound into music. We’re quiet, leaning into each other until nightfall.
Ope Adedeji is a writer and editor living in Lagos. She is the managing editor of Zikoko Magazine and was the managing editor at Ouida Books. Her work has appeared in Catapult, Afreada, Arts and Africa, McSweeney’s Quarterly and so much more. She is an alumnus of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2018 Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop. She was a finalist for the 2020 US National Magazine Award in Fiction and is the winner of the 2019 Brittle Paper Award for African Fiction.