You guys are probably going to complain that I am beating a dead horse…but I can’t seem to let go of this theme, this thread that has decided to find its way into most of my recent stories…
A friend described this as incredulous but is it really? I think the whole point of fiction is to help reality along a little, and help us still believe in miracles, in the impossible…
Anyway, this one is for Iloegbemeze ; thank you for lending me your name.
And for my Enitan, my first baby; this tale that is your life is even more beautiful than I ever dreamed possible. Alice couldn’t be prouder.
The secret in the house was awake.
Iloegbemeze could hear him as he pushed away the bedclothes that had sheltered his dreams, shook off the lethargy that had overtaken his wakefulness, and made his way down the creaky stairs to breakfast.
What happened when secrets spilled secrets? What happened when you showed off another’s nakedness while you yourself were naked? She didn’t know but she knew she was about to find out.
He was tall, the secret was. That was the first thing that occurred to Ilo when he came into her life for the second time yesterday. Tall, with skin the color of anthills.
Ilo had been an only child and fascinated by things like the anthills that held no interest to other children. While her age mates played ‘ten-ten’ and ‘who stole the meat from the cooking pot’, Ilo acted out Hitler’s fantasies by pouring her mother’s precious kerosene down anthills and watching as families, friends, armies, thousands of them, died in one fell swoop.
It was only fair then that her secret was the color of anthills. Someone had to pay for her sins against the ants.
He smiled ‘good morning’ at her as his feet made it to the last step of the stairway that faced the kitchen where she was waiting. Ilo’s heart thumped loudly against her rib cage to see that smile. She had imagined it so many times over the years and all her imaginations had somehow fallen short.
She was glad for the otherwise empty house. Her husband was away in London, accompanying their twin daughters on the girls’ trip back to college. He was due back in Lagos next week. Ilo had a feeling that it was no coincidence that her secret had shown up at her door this weekend in particular. He looked like someone who waited for the right time for things to happen, like someone who planned for years on end.
Just like her.
She put a plate of fried plantains and eggs before him and watched as he wolfed it down. When he was finished, he thanked her with his eyes and her heart thumped again.
She was reaching for the notebook and pencil to write him a secret when he signed and took her off guard completely.
‘I learned a long time ago.’ He signed.
‘Because you came to me in my dreams; silent, wordless and I knew I had to prepare for today.’
She started to cry then. He was everything and more, this secret that she had kept for so long. She had known he was beautiful the first time she held him and now she was thankful for whoever had taken him in and showed him how to be even more beautiful than she remembered.
‘How did you find me?’
‘You are married now. Your last name has changed. But Iloegbemeze??? I don’t think there were that many speech-impaired thirteen year olds with such heavy names in Ibadan in 1982. All I had to do was follow the silence.’ He said smiling.
She laughed then, catching him by surprise because her laughter was exactly like his; a tumbling down hills with green grass, a spring that never dried up.
She stood up to make some more tea. He declined when she raised her eyebrows to ask if he wanted some.
‘They are beautiful,’ He signed, referring to the paintings that lined her walls. He had not been surprised to find that the woman that bore him was a renowned artist. It explained the many hours he had sought solace staring at blank canvases, wishing he could paint what was in his heart.
She turned around to look at him while waiting for the water to boil. She could feel the bubbling of words in her stomach. She could feel it rising through her lungs and past her throat, just like the steam was making its way out of the teapot in form of a whistle.
‘Merci” She tried, choosing French because English had failed her once before. She watched as the secret’s anthill skin turned a color that must have been surprise.
She handed him the tea she had made for herself and poured herself another cup. He waited till it had cooled and then gulped it all down, a balm for his shock. She sipped hers slowly, afraid to drown the voice she had just found.
‘You can speak?’ He asked when he finally got his voice back.
Ilo opened her mouth slowly, tasting the words, chewing on them till they fit.
‘At first, the silence was my rebellion against a world that refused to hear my cry; then it became my punishment for what I done to you, for what I let them do to you…’ She started.
‘No one believed he raped me even though I screamed the truth at anyone that could listen. Not my parents, not my friends and at a point it seemed not even God was convinced or at least that was what His priests told me. They all told me to shut up so I did.’
‘It wasn’t that I chose not to speak. There was just no need to so I put my voice away. You know how you put something away for safe-keeping, hoping to someday return and find it where you left it? It turns out I put my voice away and never went back to look for it.’
She smiled and answered ‘Until now.’
She hesitated a little before answering and when she discovered she didn’t have an answer, she questioned him instead ‘Why not now?’
The sun had begun to filter into the kitchen, piercing its way through to the deepest of secrets.
‘Do you remember him?’ Her son asked.
She didn’t need to ask of whom he spoke. She already knew. She took a deep breath to still the trembling of her hands.
‘Not much,’ She lied because what was there to say?
‘He was young too, 18 or so, from a rich family that hastily shipped him off abroad. He was one of my father’s students at the University. We never heard from him again and once you were born, we left Ibadan for Lagos to start anew.’
He nodded his head, ashamed to have anything in common with someone that could have hurt a child.
They stayed that way for a little while, comfortable in a silence that spoke volumes.
‘And your family? Will you tell them about me?’ He finally asked because that was one other question that the silence seemed able to answer.
She reached for his hand then, two of hers with one of his, because she was his mother and mothers gave double, always.
‘My family has more of me than you do. They have had me all these years and they will have me for many more years to come. I cheated you out of the love of the woman that bore you. I could never make that up to you but I can give you what no one else has. I can give you my voice. I have loved you for 29 years. I have sung you lullabies, said ‘I love you’ many times, blessed you, prayed for you…wordlessly. Sometimes the best kind of love is done in secret, in silence. You are my secret and now my voice is your secret, my gift to you. Will you love it as well as I have loved you or will you choose to share it with the world? The choice is yours but I never want to share you with the questions that will come, the guilt that will arise, the doubt, society’s stigmatization of rape, of the fatherless… ‘
Ilo’s secret understood. He had been a secret for so long that he didn’t know how to be anything else anyway. So he made the choice right there and then to keep secrets, secret. He was wise, you see, as most orphans usually were. They knew better than to wake up from good dreams. They knew better than to ask for more-they had read Oliver Twist a thousand times after all. More importantly, orphans knew how to keep secrets.
Technically Enitan wasn’t an orphan. He had parents but even as a child he had always known his anthill skin didn’t belong with chocolate skinned parents.
And then there was his name.
A name given to children born with stories that were ready to be told.
‘What is my story?’ He had asked his parents many times and they like second hand story tellers had hemed and hawed their way around his questions until he learned to stop asking and to start seeking instead.
Seek and ye shall find…
He found the adoption papers after the man he called father died. He was 19 then and working at his first internship, as a speech therapist. It took him that long to finally put a name to the silent woman of his dreams. He had never told anyone about her. What was there to say anyway? She never said anything in these dreams, just quietly sat by his bed and hummed songs he had never before heard. She was his secret.
‘It was you that named me, wasn’t it?’ He asked as he watched her sip her lemon tea.
‘Yes.’ She answered. ‘It was the one thing that no one seemed eager to begrudge me on. By that time, I had stopped speaking altogether but I wrote it down. Enitan…so you would know to seek…’
When their tea cups were empty, Ilogebemeze reached for her son’s hand and led him slowly to the garden which sometimes doubled as her studio.
‘Go on; paint me something.’ She said, pointing him the way of the easel and settling into one of the wooden garden chairs her husband had built.
‘What would you like me to paint?’ He asked when he was all set up and ready to begin.
She smiled then and he knew.
He started to paint his mother’s voice.
Song of the day: Dimeji & NCR – O ti j’oba