“What is the truth of love? Everything burns.”
– Romeo Oriogun.
They say my name is Onwugabia. It is how the people here say Death Shall Come. I do not know how to spell it, but if you put the forth alphabet before the fifth, then the thirteenth or the eighth, you may come close to it, if not it precisely. But also, if you dwell too long on spelling my name, on the wonder of it being a person’s name, when then will I tell you my story? You see, there is no time– It is what the nursery children sing every Monday. The sun doesn’t stay too long here. It slips away quickly; easily, like oil, like happiness.
Do not imagine anything.
If a stranger knocks at your door, on a night shadowed with the pricking cold of a lingering rainfall, how do you mask your fear? I do not know too, but on that night, I left my breasts bare, moved the metal bolts on the door, and before me stood a whimpering woman with loosely tied locs, her wrapper soaked to a dull fade. Her head was bent over in a plea, like one before an altar. I let her in.
I shut the door behind me and turned to stare at her– standing at the centre of the room still dripping of water, her head still bent to the floor– not saying anything, not offering anything, and I knew I had stared for too long when she raised her face to my eyes and said, “Thank you.” Her voice was plastic; It could snap if bent. The surreal calm on her face made it so easy to stare. She was beautiful in a way you would describe the weather– cool, relaxing, refreshing– and with the rain in her hair, on her bony framed face, she looked like a man who had scraped his beard off and smoothened the area with sandpaper.
I moved the mortar beside the door and gently turned it over. I did not want to wake Kachi.
She sniffed. “Thank you.”
She raised a hand to her hair to unknot her locs, letting them fall behind her in graceful slides. More water ran down her face. It reminded me of dreams where I ran, chased by no one, sweat on my face, on my tongue, tasting of morning urine.
I looked away before she turned to me. The paraffin burned with weak vigour, giving the room a blurred glow. She watched my breast point into the night as I threw a cloth over the puddle she had left. I watched the cloth absorb the water, melting into it. I sat on the bed.
“I should not disturb you at this hour. Mba.” She moved her head sideways. “I am sorry.”
“Ok,” I said. I did not know anything else to say.
Her eyes fell on my breasts again. She looked away quickly, taking in the rusting boxes at the corner, the spiraling cobwebs on the window panes, the beads of snail shells on the wall, the crisscross of books and clothes everywhere, and in that moment, I thought she saw, in the array of disorderliness, the perfection of art– that it could mean a thing and nothing at the same time, that it was free.
She looked at Kachi, curled in a graceful wamth, asleep.
“Nwa gi?” She asked, turning to me. I nodded. It was easy to affirm being the mother of a child by nodding. How do you say you are the mother of a child who no longer sucks your breasts?
“Good,” she said, bowing her head to her thighs. A loc fell to her side. Then, she began to pule and more locs fell. I could see the dirt in her hair.
“He hit me,” she said.
“My husband. He hit me for not letting him touch me.” She shook from pain, jerking her shoulders like she were convulsing.
I moved to sit close to her. Not too close, I did not want to smell her.
I raised a finger to my lips. “Nwayo, you will wake Kachifo.”
“Sorry, sorry,” she sniffed into her wrapper and sat up. The rain outside had stopped. Fireflies were beginning to buzz about the paraffin. The ones who flew too close to the fire, let out a sizzle, roasted to a crisp black.
“Tell me everything, kpam kpam. Begin from why you chose to live in the same house with a thing that causes you pain.”
She turned sharply. Her brow arched into a bow, then it relaxed. For a moment, I thought she wouldn’t tell, that her plan of running into the night, under the rain, to a stranger’s place for safety didn’t include sessions like this one, and that talking about it would bring more tears to her eyes, but she began talking.
“The first time he touched me, it was like fire. Oku. I was burning, and he was burning, and I did not want the fire to stop. When he said he loved me, it was easy to say it back. I wanted to burn like that forever.” She moved a loc behind her ear. “I thought I knew him well. We got married a year ago. Then, everything began to feel cold like the ring he gave me.” Her voice was not plastic anymore. It was melting, like ice.
Her tears came again. She cupped her mouth in her palms to avoid waking the baby. I told her it was alright, and that she must go on, she must let it all out. Grief is like trash. If you must dispose it, you must dispose it all.
“Months into our marriage, he would touch me and I would feel nothing, not even a spark.” She was talking and she was crying and I did not know how to feel her pain. “He hit me today. He pushed me against the wall and hit me. Nekwa, look.” She raised her face to show me the bruises on her neck. “Ifukwa? He wanted to kill me.” Her sobs were louder now.
“Sorry,” I said. I could hear crowing cocks in the distance.
“He said he loved me. I do not understand this. That he could do this to me.”
She stopped as if remembering something.
“Why do I tell you all these? What do you know about love?” She looked at me. She could not hide the pity in her eyes. Something in me stilled.
“People out there say you are mental. Isn’t that why they avoid this area?”
“Mental?” I asked.
“Mad,” she said, then looked away.
“Are we not all?”
“Mad. Are we not all mad?” She chuckled. I liked the stretch of her lips. “Listen. One afternoon, a man built like a bricklayer stood at my door. I let him in and offered him hot beer. He was nice. He made me laugh. That night, he touched me and I moaned. He said he loved me. He said it four times. I let him inside me. When he was done, he didn’t wait for morning. He left that night and said ka chi fo, may it dawn. A year later, I had this sleeping bundle. I have never seen him again.” I stopped. I could feel her eyes on my breasts again. My nipples began to harden.
“Do you see the madness in it?” I asked her.
She was silent. I moved closer to her. She smelled of rich powder.
“You like it, eh?” I asked her again. More silence. “Touch it.”
She ran a finger over my right breast, then cupped it in her hands. I reached out to touch her locs. They felt softer than they looked. I pulled a strand to my nose and began to sniff it. She pressed my nipples harder. Soon, we were bodies twisting and moaning and we didn’t know how the fire began, how we burned, but I fisted my lips between her thighs, telling her things her husband didn’t say. The paraffin burned out.
In the morning– Kachi was still asleep and early light settled on his face like a glowing blanket– I watched her knot her locs into a bun. I did not want her to leave.
“Your child hasn’t stirred all night,” she said.
“Oh! He sleeps soundly. I shall put him back in the freezer once the sun sits.”
She chuckled, then stopped, her eyes widened.
“What do you mean?”
I moved up to Kachi. His skin was a flaming tar.
“Kachifo doesn’t like sunlight. He could turn bad and smell. Don’t you see, his skin glows too.”
She scrambled to her feet. Her locs came undone.
“Is he dead? He is dead.” She was saying other things and I was laughing. I did not want to call her mad. It is what people say to people they do not know, people they do not love.
I begged her to be quiet, lest she woke Kachi, that he did not like noise and the sun and the taste of poorly baked sawdust.
She turned to leave.
“Wait!” I called. She stopped at the door. She did not turn.
“Will you come back? Will you come for fire again?”
She opened the door and walked out into the morning. The room brightened.
“I love you,” I shouted after her. I did not know why, but it felt like what people say when they do not know how they feel.
She did not turn.
I like to think pain has an aftertaste, and that it is more pain.
On the third day, Kachi turned bad. The electricity did not come on for two days. He smelled like leftover beans. I put him in an old box and dragged it to the front of the church opposite the school. If God gives, he must take; it is what they say when good people die. At home, I watched my nipples give out milk, and they burned. I washed between my thighs, and made stew. It smelled like dirty locs.
That night, she stood before my door, her locs gone. Thunderbolts flashed through the sky lightening up her face. She wasn’t crying. She did not want shelter. She wanted fire.
“Bata,” I let her in.
Bryan Joe Okwesili is a queer Nigerian storyteller and poet keen on telling diverse African queer stories. He is a 2020 Pushcart nominee (SmokeLong Quarterly). His works appear and are forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, SLICE mag, Shift Mag, Foglifter Press, Brittle Paper, Praxis Magazine, Afritondo, Ghost City Press, Cypress, Shallow Tales Review, Lunaris, Kalahari Review, and elsewere. He is currently a student of Law at the University of Calabar.