You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
The 3AM blackness in the room forced Nnenna’s eyes to brim.
Sometimes she woke feeling gritty waves lull her to an alien shore, buffet her up the mattress and knock her against the satin-shelled headboard. As she sat, folding the edge of her blanket, the void between sleep and wakefulness would dissolve, and she might be stooped on a cliff, huffing over a cloud-smudged sea and below flapping storks, contemplating whether to leap—or curled with the heat from a weight in her belly, a moldable lump.
She once thrashed against the waves, believing that the shore was consciousness and she could wade herself to it. She remained unsure when she knew without a doubt that the water’s hold on her was keen, a dead lover’s grasp, and ceased to fight it. Her surrender appalled Roddy, who claimed that these illusions, her inability to walk in a straight line, her tendency to miss the thread of any conversation, her groaning at the start of a laugh, came from their loss.
He was nonexistent in the dark but for the sour warmth of his body lying stock-still beside hers, and the blue pall of his dream, a vacant dream (an intermission) on the wall. She wondered what he must dream about. The pall blipped, and a new dream started. Now he dreamed of a traveler hunched on a desert fold. The room filled with the sounds and a smell of winds clashing, eddying, receding. The traveler’s ecru djellaba billowed like a sail as he stomped down the slope, disappearing gradually from his feet up. Then she was staring at Patrick, at his high forehead and his plush cheeks, into his nearly oval eyes. She reached for Roddy and shook him. The dream sputtered, settled to a slow, jazzy whirl of colors.
Sturdy glass had replaced one wall of the living room. Through it, through the gaps in writhing coriander stalks, she studied the backyard. The smaller objects in it had to be coaxed into perception: the termite colony, which she’d been told was older than the house, crumbling beside a flaked Gekko tank; the grid of blunt shovels, handles draped with dross; the charred patch on which she’d sown tomatoes; a mangled denim petticoat on a drain bucked halfway open; the morgue-blue fence topped by gawping agamas.
Her gaze dropped inevitably on the steel contraption propped in a corner of the parlor, where the paint had bubbled. A round board, flat enough to be mistaken for a mat, jutting fluted spokes that had reached to her elbows the first time she neared them. Roddy alone used the machine, which he called Embed. When he was on it, his face froze and his irises thinned, and if she happened to be watching him she would feel her neck stiffen and her heart hammer.
On an unspoken agreement she never touched him when he was in his trance, when he’d been transported. Once, though, she asked him where he went, why he returned burdened each time. He surveyed her, his stare urgent and yet detached, and mumbled that he’d grown tired. “Tired of what?” she said. He turned away, his cheeks drooped. “At least I don’t see visions,” he said under his breath.
She hounded him for days before he admitted after much spluttering that it—the machine—let him in on experiences not his own: haunted recollections, travails and festivities that had passed anytime in the last century, sometimes from other Embed users, but more often from mere ether (“All air is connected,” he explained). “I want it out of this house,” was her immediate response. Roddy had scowled, as deeply as to say he’d rather she left, he was married to the machine now.
Nnenna had thought afterwards that he was justified. With their only son gone, nothing bound them anymore. They were as two seedlings sprung apart, had fallen so deep into a grief acres of therapeutic writing could not expunge.
A hen pecked at the glass and peered sideways into the living room, like a cowardly robber, or a prying neighbor. Nnenna took a few bumbling steps to the machine, then halted. The parlor had morphed, growing too wide, too high, too yellow, for her comfort. She felt herself muted by its vastness, the teak-collared floor crinkling in on her, the air compressed hotly. Patrick probably felt this way—cramped, trapped—as he wasted, by the pressure of not knowing what waited on the other side, if there was another side.
He’d died of Frume, a modern disease that caused its sufferers to fade in weeks if they were lucky. Bits of them went first—their fingernails, their lashes, their ears. Once the feet of its sufferers had vanished, Frume spread giddily, biting off the legs and torsos. Always the eyes were last to go.
Nnenna stepped on the board. The spokes whirred and beeped. She steadied herself. What would she tell Roddy if he shuffled in, yawning, now? That she was just experimenting. That the buzz from the board had startled her. She would try to look casual. She mimicked his grip on the spokes and felt her spine cool. She ought to step off. It would be easy, before the living room swung in and out of focus, as it did now, and erupted in brown static.
She spoke to a man who watched her lovingly, or with what she thought was love. She called him Andrew, and he called her Ifeoma. She held a white envelope.
“From The Balcony,” she said, her voice echoing. “I’ll be teaching literature there this summer.”
A scraggly skyline spread where the man had been—the Lagos lagoon, jigsawed with flotsam, bobbing plastic basins and fishing nets, rimmed by slat-faced flats creaking in a draft, peddlers pressed against the vehicles in a jam on the other side of it, flaunting their yellowed wares. Young men with pinched knees jostled after a flayed ball on a field after the jam. A cathedral peaked from the rush, ferns tangled beside it, swallows lurching from their tops. The Balcony stood amid the clutter, yet was so far removed, a (grave)stone mansion set on land that thrived for miles.
It was morning.
She loomed unblinking over a roomful of oily-cheeked children riffling through Things Fall Apart. A boy sat in the back row who could not keep his head straight. It was always tilted left. His eyes reminded her of wet gravel. One of his hands had grown past the other. He’d taken to burying both hands in his pockets until he was ready to tell a story. The shortest story he’d told the class was of his cousin, Pete, who smelled awful because anytime he tried to shower strong arms thrust out from the walls and tore at his hair until he shrieked with a fiery baldness.
He flipped a page and looked up at her. A current seeped from the back row, and it was morning again, a cooler morning; the pearly remnants of a storm streaked along slack palm fronds. She had to listen to what she said (a sonnet is … Rudyard Kipling). Even her thoughts sounded foreign, except the thought of what day it was. The sills furred with sunshine; the small, polished faces in class entered half shadow. Her pacing slowed. It was the other side of her awakening, that nervy feeling, the other side taking over, the version of herself that roamed while she slept. What had brought it to the fore?
Kimmel was talking.
“What?” she said.
The faces turned to him.
His neighbor’s wife turned into a Banyan tree at night. He’d climbed the tree once, to let her know he knew, and the tree had heaved nearly horizontally to see that he died with the secret.
“Stop,” she said. “You may tell the story after this lesson.”
“No,” he said. “I’ll tell the rest of the story now.”
She pointed to the door. “Get out of my class.”
“Bitch,” he said. “Stupid bitch.”
The faces laughed.
She stuttered forward, her palms moist as if she’d spaced them in a kiln. There was a noise to all this she hadn’t noticed, a bare melody, bi- or tri-tonal, swirling under the deepest hush.
“I hit a student,” she said, “a strange boy named Kimmel.”
Andrew gaped at her from their bathtub.
“And you lost the job.”
“And I lost the job.”
For thirty years (in Embed time) she roamed the bathroom undisturbed, fed on the grass that shivered through cracks in the tiles, and dreamed of Tivo, the town that molded her childhood. Each night she paused at a hole in the wall, her arms and legs extended like those of the Vitruvian man, and watched light cones and crab nebulae surge across the cosmos.
Tivo had been the pendant in a chain of graying towns. What little beauty it had was nullified by the heat. Before traders started ignoring it on the way to the city, the town had been famous for its zoo. Ifeoma’s earliest memories subsisted around the zoo, with its gleaming canaries and ostriches and goldfish, its geese and its slimy marsupials and peacocks that seemed always drenched. The zoo had no real tigers, but concrete replicas that spurred laughter from distant visitors. “The real tigers went with the Westerners,” her father, the zookeeper, would say. “They skinned them for interior decoration, shot them and posed for photographs stamping on the bloodied bellies.”
She left the bathroom when the light cones dimmed. The door fell at her touch. She limped to the living room, where a child slurping ice cream sat beside a man who resembled Somto, her first son.
“Mama, nno,” he said. “How are our other dead? When will they return?”
She frowned. “Is the boy your son?”
“Yes, mama,” he said.
“Never hit him,” she said. “Never hit any child.”
Nnenna buckled from the machine as a cock’s crow cut the arctic calm in the living room.
She bent, clutching her knees, into a ray so dense she imagined it weighed a ton, that it could be cleaved with a knife or scooped into the darker corners and caressed into whatever form she wished. Green veins showed under her wheat-brown skin. The largest painting in the room seemed to rock from the wall and zoom to her, and she focused on it, as if she hoped to stall it by sight. It was a florid sketch of a plain shell dotted with rain. Behind the shell, a beach sans beach-goers roiled. On slower days, she would hear the waves toss and pour a salt-smell on the sofas and the tartan drapes, draw a xylophonic tinkle from the lopsided chandelier that twitched mucous yellow light.
She longed to feel a pang, some inkling she’d done something wrong. The idea of Embed was, she would agree in a heartbeat, objectionable. What Roddy did so often while dazed, with his mind cordoned off—gleaning scraps of other people’s lives, gliding over their unfurling memories—was wrong.
Whoever had created Embed was as prone to blame as she or Roddy.
She had a glass of water before she stepped on the board once more. The spokes hummed.
Her neck stiffened. What should she expect this time?
The phoenix whistle of a chugging train. She heard it before she saw it, before the parlor blurred.
The train’s interior reeked of mold and feces. A gauzy light from the black-barred window showed passengers squiggling like hogs in a greedy storm, packed so tightly that their flesh merged and their breaths flowered in unison. Nnenna, squashed against a corrugated wall, wondered whether the man in front of her could feel her heart thump, as she could feel his tick. There was that noise again, that melody, massed like a cloud over their heads.
The train swayed to a halt.
She heard hollering, footfalls on sand. The flap to their cargo slid open and the bodies peeled off one another and flopped to the grass. Everyone was white. When she reached about in the dust, she saw her hands were white, her knuckles hairy, her voice froggy, the forced baritone of a young man. Children who had thought their parents lived knelt by the limp bodies and shouted for help. Teenagers in khaki shorts mounted the cargoes and kicked flaccid luggage down. A long-lashed toddler gripped his jacket when he tried to move.
“Matthew…” he said in a put-upon voice.
“Don’t leave me, brother,” Matthew said.
He stopped. They were not speaking in English or in any language he’d understood before Embed.
He stooped to Matthew.
“Who am I?”
“What do you mean?”
He sighed. “What’s my name?”
He scoped the row of fallen luggage curved along the train’s track, lingered on a flabby plum bag, began to run to it but the child holding on stubbornly impeded him. “Mom’s, too,” he said, pointing to a rose-printed box, when they’d gotten there and he’d lifted the bag.
“She’s here,” Matthew said.
Matthew was silent.
Ehud swayed with the weight of their luggage, steered him around. German shepherds, orchestral music, and an odor so steep that it had a shade wove through the crowd. Soldiers stomped about yelling, “Raus! Raus!” Bald men in striped pajamas hobbled behind a barbed enclosure, squinted as though they might recognize someone in the throng. Ehud read words carved over the gate: Arbeit Macht Frei. Labour Liberates. “Move,” a soldier said, and kicked him. He stumbled—Matthew stumbled—to where another officer split the crowd in two parts with a brisk gesture: old men and women, children and youths coughing: left. Every other arrival: right. Ehud paused between the lines, saw a lady who, viewed from behind, standing so far off, might have been Esther, their mother. The afternoon brightened. His head throbbed.
“Go there.” He pushed Matthew to the left line. “Join mother.”
“I don’t want to,” Matthew said.
“Go,” he said, with a fury that stunned him.
Matthew tottered, sobbing, to the line.
The machine bucked, wheezed.
Now he had a wife, Rivka, who tolerated his swearing at blonde, blue-eyed people, his moaning in his sleep, his refusal to relax in any train, his snorting at the idea of a European Union, his spiels about Reform Judaism being a hoax. He’d built a famous textile business from scratch, owned a wide stucco house somewhere in England.
He rose from a drowse caused by the gardener’s shovel rasping up and down a clogged ditch. They were in the Winter of Discontent. Even the gardener yapped on about the trade-union strikes.
“I got the scholarship. I’m going to Eton.”
He levered himself up on the mattress and stared at a boy like Matthew, except taller.
“Congratulations,” he said. “We’ll eat at that place you like in Nottinghamshire.”
Wood beams raised one end of the restaurant over water that had frozen in chunks and rustled north and gleamed beneath a cracked moon. A festive group looped fizzing bulbs along the harbor. The waiter served his meal last. Ehud, woozy from a lemon-flavored aperitif, lifted his fork and remembered the crumpled faces behind the barbed fence. He was going to stand and ask for the way to the restroom when he saw that the waiter, who watched him with widened eyes, wore a kippa.
“You killed your brother,” he said.
Ehud gasped. “I beg your pardon.”
“What’s the occasion?” the waiter said again.
“My son…” Ehud aimed his fork at Raphael.
“A music scholarship,” Rivka said loftily. Ehud knew she had a strong opinion of the social dynamic. They were Jews; he was a Jewish waiter.
“Mazel Tov,” he said.
Raphael glanced at him. “You were somewhere else an hour ago.”
“The Wiesenthal Institute,” the waiter said.
Raphael shook his head.
“It’s a Holocaust museum,” the waiter said.
“Really?” Raphael said. “Wow.” He continued scanning the menu.
The waiter bent to Ehud: “It’s about a mile in.”
A Star of David stood on the museum’s lawn, its rusting tip a crimp in the scenic dawn. Visitors marched past grooves whose leaves the cold had plucked, and huddled into the central hall, where Harvey, the curator, said shalom. Ehud drew back from the slabs of sepia pictures, a few faces in them so familiar that his old heart curled and he chose to look away rather than squint and recall. Harvey strolled to him.
“We could have shown you the filthy camps,” he said, “but we’re glad we’ve shown normal people, suburban families blindsided by Hitler’s propaganda.”
The gallery led to a stone tower, nail heads spiking its midriff. Harvey waved a hammer and bid each visitor jab a nail in the stone.
“You’re a survivor,” said a visitor.
Ehud lowered the hammer he had wielded from a rack.
“Auschwitz,” he said. “How can you tell?”
“The number on your arm.”
“Oh, yes,” Ehud said, and unfolded his sleeve. “It was a bad time. You’re lucky.”
“Why would you say that?” The visitor neared him until their breaths crossed. “Why would you mistake me for a bloody Jew?”
Ehud looked about them. “I’m sorry. I thought—”
The visitor stamped him against the nail heads: “Burn, kike.” Saliva webbed his face. Shouts rose like flustered gulls. The visitor lunged across the yard and jumped the fence. Ehud knelt on the withered grass, his hands spread as if feeling for spectacles he might have dropped.
A lady kneaded his shoulder and asked whether he was all right.
“My brother.” He blinked at her. “Matthew.”
“What happened to him?”
“I’m not sure.”
The left line was straight for about a hundred meters. At that point it spread to a gloomy tide that lapped past steel barricades and dew-frilled wires, past coal-breathing factories and halting turbines and cubic quarters daubed vanilla in the high noon. Matthew hobbled behind the woman who might have been Esther—who, as it turned out, was Esther. He tapped her, and she looked down and staggered like an antelope that has been shot.
“Who led you here?” she said. She scooped him to her chest. The tide of captives was so strong that she could halt, but not retreat, just as a stream is unable to flow backwards.
“Ehud,” Matthew said.
They rode on the back of the tide into a tunnel, and stumbled from the tunnel to an elevated block, fumes unwinding from its top. Esther whined; her teeth chattered as though she protested a wrong. But all she said eventually was, “If only we had water to drink.” Sundown drained through the overhanging leaves formed sliding shards in their path, on bald heads. Matthew stared hard for the pigeons that, leaping among the golden branches, shook a little and cooed in staccato.
It was late noon when she untangled herself from the machine. The spokes clicked.
A bar blinked open in the air before her, informing her that the Embed battery had been used to a quarter of its charge, she could have one ride more. She walked through it, winced when it buzzed against her skin and pulled her cheeks into a soulless grin. Her ears whirred, and the heat grew dense enough for her to wade through it; sweat pooled in her armpits. She knew this sensation. When it came on, all she could do, if she was alone, was sit through it. If Roddy sat nearby, though, she would hope he picked up on her stark expression and shook her. It was hard to spot any item in the dim, let alone to spot a person: Kabiru, the help, frozen in a corner, studying her keenly. They looked each other up and down. She wondered how much he had seen.
“I come since morning, madam,” he said, scowling. She realized then that her posture—arms folded, back straight—might be an affront to him, an accusation. He tugged at the band his jeans. His trousers never fit him, nor did his shirts, with their misspelled logos. “House work today na small-small sha, as light no dey.”
“I understand,” she said. “Go home.”
“Thank you, madam.”
She watched his long back, the scarred stumps he had for legs, swish out of the room. He alone stayed after they’d bade Patrick farewell, after Roddy’s growling, and her curt responses, drove the maid and the gardener away. As she wrote for therapy (a ford of doubt running through her words, drenching the pages), she thought of him. His easily soothed temperament would have served her marriage well.
Water dribbled through the sills, slicked the walls, fanned out on the tiles. A fall in its sixth month had pelted Lagos to mosaic rubble and ferried it from all human aid. Perowe, stretched from a window in the run-down tenement, watched traders whittle boats from plywood and leave their homes through the windows. White garment prophets sailed behind them, ringing tinny bells, asking those within earshot to pray. Just that morning families in the second floor of the tenement had woken squashed against the ceilings, water ripping their lungs. Nkiru, tossing on her deathbed, heard the news, asked him to bring her largest chest, and spoke into it. “In this way you shall not lack food,” she said, and passed the chest to him. He said it would not rain past the weekend. She patted his knee, said it would, and died. They had no children.
The water was low enough for him to seal the windows of the apartment, to prevent seaweed, tattered bean sacks and mud-slung rice basins and uprooted caskets from creeping in. A variety of catfish Vera had baited while the water swayed inches below the windows thwacked the dusty panes when he was done.
Vera sat then in an angle of the parlor sewing the lace curtains into gowns that might never be worn.
It rained arrows; the falls turned the tin roof into a giant sieve. The families in the uppermost storey came sliding out, plopped in the murky water, and never resurfaced. Often they fetched up against the windows of the apartment, their eyes rolled back, their faces warped curiously.
To boil the excess grains that caused the lid of the box to budge, Vera shredded calendars and chucked the strips in the mouth of a tripod she had improvised from the sink where they washed their faces and rinsed their mouths before the outbreak. She cooked slowly. He sensed her languor in the stews, in the porridge that tasted different on each gulp.
The walls dampened, but held. Perowe gave a No Touching order. Vera helped him draw the shelves from the walls, rescuing his prized books from the soggy reach of the storm. The chairs bred mold. The tables had sunken to brown mush. The lamps drooped, dripped gummy water. The only time Vera flicked a book from the shelf Perowe started and hissed, “Drop it.” He also outlawed use of the radio, which he said produced vibrations that could shrink the walls. But he let himself be led in poring over webbed newspapers. Their chests squished with every breath as soon as they’d settled to the hazy print.
“There was a war,” Perowe said once. “It started in 1967.”
Vera’s eyes were bright. She put her paper down.
“What else do you remember about this war?”
Perowe sat forward, breath bated with the effort of concentration: “Nothing else.”
Someone tapped a microphone:
“Words cannot express,” said the voice of a Northerner, “my joy and pride at being the Nigerian citizen privileged to accept from Her Royal Highness these constitutional instruments which are the symbols of Nigeria’s independence.”
The microphone screeched.
Roddy’s face bulged in the dark, like a blotted photostill.
Footsteps up an invisible podium…
“The Republic of Biafra,” said the voice of an Ibo man, “declares that:
- All political ties between us and the Federal Republic of Nigeria are totally dissolved.
- We shall adhere to the charter of the Organization of African Unity and of the United Nations.
- It is our intention to remain in the British Commonwealth of Nations. This is our right as a sovereign, independent nation.
Long live the Republic of Biafra!”
Footsteps down the podium—
—heavier footsteps up the podium.
“I need not tell you what horror,” said the barely concealed rage in a Westerner’s voice, “what devastation and extreme suffering will attend the use of force. When it is all over, and the smoke and dust have lifted, and the dead are buried, we shall find, as other people have found, that violence is futile, entirely futile, in solving our problems.”
One Sunday in 1967:
Cecil, Perowe’s father, wilting at the sight of a macaw perched on the front rails.
“Come here,” he said cautiously to Perowe.
The macaw, with its gleaming hackles and tart green tail feathers, was an instant attraction. Women from far-off homes and children playing soccer in front of the house gathered around it, snapped their fingers and said, “Lekwa” or “Ajo mmuo”. They had seen hawks swoop on the chicks in their backyards, but had no idea the strange bird was a macaw until Mama, a zoologist with avian leanings, had a look at it and said, “It’s a macaw.” It was the only bird they would see in a very long time.
There were small breaks (“Chinks,” the irritated Belgian Camp Commander said) between the drizzles in the camp at Umuahia. They spent these lulls practicing for combat using bamboo sticks as guns. “Shoot,” the Belgian commander would yell, and they would hoist the sticks in formation, their bodies taut. Perowe would hear the pow-pow-pow of gunfire under a dew-speckled hush, and imagine the Nigerian combatants flailing, dropping in high grass.
A white photographer came down one day, set them in all the permutations of strife, and clicked away. “No smiling,” he said to Perowe, the scrawniest of the child soldiers, standing at the brink of the frame. His primitive box rattled, and a flash muted by sunlight splatted over them. It must have been the day all forty of them charged to the battlefront and only two soldiers returned to hear this on the Belgian’s transistor: “Throughout history, injured people have had to resort to arms in their self-defence when negotiations fail. We are no exception. We took up arms because of the insecurity among our people generated by the events of 1966. However, I am convinced now that an end must be put to the bloodshed, that our differences with Nigeria should be settled by peaceful negotiations.”
Vera brought him water in a cup dotted with rust. He stretched to receive the cup, saw that he had just one hand.
“Where is my left hand?” he said.
“It vanished in the war.”
He shifted, looked down.
“Where are my real legs?”
“The war took them.”
He collected the cup of water, raised it to his lips, and started to cry.