In the Blink of My Eye, the World Ended

In the Blink of My Eye, the World Ended

In the Blink of My Eye, the World Ended 891 1159 Ọbáfẹ́mi Thanni

Iwas conceived by the most potent life force—a mother’s wish. I imagine on the afternoon she drew the same breath as my father, something less than myself nestled in the womb of her wish. But wishes are complex things, and the complexity of a thing wished for is not in the wish itself but in the interpretation given, as the words wet the ears of those who will grant it.

 

Once, a boy stared at a sky glowing with a crescent moon and wished—with the innocence only a child could muster—that the night sky remain the same. When the wish trickled into the ears of the god eavesdropping into the night, he granted it. In the morning, the cries of his mother broke the dawn. The boy was breathless beneath his mother’s eyes, like a dream come true, and the night before remains the same, remains the last he ever saw.

My mother wished for her daughter that all her dreams come true, and the goddess who heard the wish shows her she was not careful. The night my mother’s womb heaved and sighed, expelling me with a foreskin of blood, I am told I opened my eyes with such a force, it seemed I was afraid to close them.

The first afternoon I fell asleep, I woke up screaming. I refused the consolation and lunch my mother offered. With the words that could fit in my six-year-old mouth, I spoke in a rushed fit; the narration of my dream pouring out in stutters.

“Red, Mommy. Red wall. The swing. Was flying. Flying. Falling, Mommy. Tell him. Get off the swing.” I ran my fingers down the middle of my scalp. “Red, Mommy. Red. School.”

My mother’s face was a question, and the answers would not form in my mouth. I had seen too much and did not yet know how to show with words. When I brushed my lunch aside and chanted ‘School. School. School’, my mother was fascinated at how interesting I must be finding my ABCs to ask to be taken to school on a weekend. She packed my lunch—hoping my appetite would return—and led me to the car.

In school, the playground was empty. I saw red, painted in a neat cross on a van twice the size of our car. People wearing white trooped in and out of the van. I saw red, running in circles around the small dome of light on top of the van. A swing was missing from the playground. I saw red, trickling down the wall opposite the playground. My mother’s hand flew to her mouth. I saw the missing swing lying at the feet of the wall like a broken wing. My mother’s shoulder fell. She turned my face away from the playground, from the red, from the people in white lifting something small, something covered in white with a red spreading at its head; and pressed my face into her skirt. The brief blindness her skirt caused did little. I had seen it all before. When I began to see it again, with closed eyes—like an echoing memory—I opened my eyes and the cotton of her skirt broke a lash into my eye, and I itched and itched until my hand was wet with tears and my eye was a wounded red.

The second afternoon I fell asleep, the smell of oranges woke me. I followed the citrus scent, and outside, I saw them in their hundreds, their bright skins pouring from the veranda into the lawn, each blade of grass lifting the impossible weight of a small sun. When I called my mother, she marched around the compound, her bare feet feeling for an explanation, her eyes searching for the smaller, more believable miracle of a tree that had grown overnight.

When she returned, she embraced me, asking if I had slept well. When I nodded in her embrace, she smiled and led me inside to pick a basket, “well, let’s make some juice” she said, as we filled basket after basket with the fruits of a dream. Later, we drank so much juice that for weeks when we smiled, I watched sunlight pour out behind the raised blind of our lips.

If my dreams have taught me anything, it is the essence of time. If I fall into the embrace of sleep at night, it is dreamless and without anxiety. If time ticks and tricks me on a sunny afternoon, I cannot tell what will burn or bleed or fall from the sky.

I have learnt from time: there are words whose truths are useless because they arrive late. After another dream, years after the second, I heard a poet sing: there’s nothing scarier / than something that won’t stop fooling / you with its beauty. And it is true. And it is late.

Because blood never leaves the living, when the red in my left eye began to fade, I began to think fondly of the orange afternoon. I began to forget the colours of my dreams were not mine alone.

That afternoon, I remember staring.

I left the class through the window, into everything beyond it and the afternoon’s heat. I remember laughter, then silence when the teacher slapped my table, and the window of my attention eclipsed into singular focus. He watched me return as I jerked at the question he threw. When I hesitated in answering, he nearly had his proof I was not listening, proof I was not there. Before he instructed me to stand, I asked him to repeat the question. He scoffed, then repeated his question with a mocking slowness.

‘What can you say about the significance of the opening scene in the book?’

‘It seems to me that the opening scene is both symbolic and a foreshadowing of the book’s resolution.’

‘We know. How?’ He asked, unmoved.

‘If the black hen did not go missing, it ought to act as a sacrifice—a means to the end of a child. When the hen goes missing, leaving behind the broken string, the protagonist’s hold on her sought child breaks. The scene becomes ironical when’

‘Ironic.’

‘…The scene becomes ironic when the protagonist searches for her hen and finds that it had been chased further away by a fetish child—a child she had prayed and bathed in herbs for. In a sense, the child and the snake she saves the hen from, later on, represent her desire and how it affects its own realization. This foreshadows the book’s resolution, as her desired child is only conceived after her desire ceased and her acceptance began. Or at least, after her desire took a different form. I think.’ When the answer stole his smile, he nodded, and told me weakly to pay attention. As my face glowed with a stolen smile, I felt a soft gaze rest on me.

When he turned his back to the class, I watched the spine of sweat that had formed on his shirt cling to his body. I followed the line he drew on the board around the names of characters until an eraser hit the side of my face. After I read the I loved your answer, and I have another question for you scrawled across it; I owed attention for the rest of the class. The teacher left us with assignments for the next class and instructed the class captain to follow him. I remained seated, the eraser in my hand rolling in caresses.

‘Hi’ a voice whispered, seating next to me, ‘I’m Teminikan.’

That afternoon, I remember staring.

‘Hey!’ She must have said for the umpteenth time.

‘Hi…Hi.’ I managed.

‘Were you expecting someone else?’ she wondered aloud.

‘You had an eraser deliver your message; who could I possibly expect?” I grinned, pebbles of nervousness grating between my teeth. ‘I’m just glad you’re not a pencil or something.’

‘So not all your answers are smart’ she said, amused.

‘Was that the question?’

‘No’ she smiled, ‘would you like to take a walk?’

‘I would love to.’

In the weeks that followed, Teminikan and I made bets on who would answer questions first, and smartest. The way she staked the bets, there was no losing. When she won, I paid for the grilled chicken we shared after school. When I won, she paid for our fare and the second-hand books we bought from her customer, who seemed to always have just what we needed in his second store. Whatever he did not have on the day of my victory, he would always have by Friday. We never returned empty-handed on Fridays.

One Friday, he gave us Archie comics in addition to the thrillers we had ordered. A page before the mystery began, a stamp belonging to a library on another continent sat, unsigned. I laughed at the thought that he always delivered on Fridays because of all the flights he needed to catch from these distant libraries. When I told Teminikan, she pulled me away from him, saying with an expression that did not betray her smile, ‘why do you think we come here?’ She looked over her shoulders for anyone who might be eavesdropping, ‘it won’t be a prize worthy of you if I didn’t buy it from a secret millionaire.’

I could not think of anything to say.

As I watched her walk back to pick our books in yellow nylons with black stripes, the cries of prayer poured out of a distant mosque and I felt so light I was barely there. Only when she turned to face me, breaking into giggle after giggle did I remember I was there. I had to be there to watch a smile that full.

I watched her fullness afresh when the mid-term results came in. We had tied on every subject until the knot broke over Mathematics by two marks. She spun with our report sheets raised in the air like two handkerchiefs in a primary school’s choreography, as she danced to the teasing songs of her victory.

‘Better luck next time’ she danced, pecking the air.

‘A ti gbo’ I shrugged, hiding my smile.

‘Pele o’ she stuck out her tongue.

When I remembered all this joy was at the reward of a question, I asked, ‘what is it with you and questions?’

‘What is it with you and questions?’ she repeated, giggling.

‘Go away.’

‘Are you sure?’

The first time my mother met Teminikan, she asked a question.

When Teminikan visited me on the first afternoon of the mid-term break, she waited for me by the flower vase in the living room. After a while, I peeked out of my room to soothe her patience. I found her toying with plastic blooms and without looking up at me, she gave a mock bow, ‘hurry, your Majesty, your crown is at my house.’ I laughed till my crownless head tilted backwards, and shut the door on her face.

Later, in my room, I waved my reflection goodbye and went out to meet her.

When we nearly left the house, my mother’s voice pulled us back in. She rubbed at her eyes and yawned, waving for us to meet her. After her instructions to wear my shades and keep my examinations in mind and make it back home in time, I rushed my greetings and turned to leave. Teminikan knelt to greet my mother, and as she rose from her greeting, my mother asked a question that Teminikan answered with a smile and nothing else.

In her room, she lay next to me in a shirt with enough room to house us both, and I swallowed my jest. She ignored me when I asked what her prized question was and asked a different question instead, ‘what is your favourite love story?’

‘Juliet and Romeo’ I answered, and a smirk grew on her face.

‘Have I heard that one?’

‘No, you have not. In this one, there is no plague and Friar Lawrence’s letter is delivered on time.’

You need to hear a different story’ she said, as if saving me.

‘Pfft. Ode. I’m listening.’

She pulled at my shoulder until I was lying next to her. Her fingers travelled behind my ear and across the edges of my hair before she locked her hands behind her head and stared at the white of the ceiling until her story appeared in jots of memory. She began telling the story of Layla and Majnun slowly as if she had known them, as if Layla had confided her sorrows in her, as if she had walked through the markets where Majnun had been looked on with pity. She ran her fingers across the wall behind our heads as she recited: I pass these walls, the walls of Layla / and kiss this wall and that wall. / It’s not love of the houses that has taken my heart / but of the One who dwells in those houses. When she came to the story’s end, her eyes moved from the ceiling and rested on my weeping face. ‘I know. I know’ she hushed, holding me to herself.

When my last tear fell into the warmth of her shirt, she sat up, placing her palm on her cheek to stare at me. We lay there in silence for what could have been a piece of eternity before she asked, ‘If I told you I love you, would that be a question or an answer?’ The pools of her eyes poured into me, and I wondered if an answer could demand an answer. As I considered her question, she glistened. When my mouth formed around a response, my words fell into silence, and I woke.

Through squinted eyes, I watched the sun glare at the window of my room.

I threw the covers off myself; I ran out of my room, out of the house; outside, the sun giggled behind clouds; I ran to Teminikan’s house with my body tagging along reluctantly—its vigour still trapped in the hold of a dream; at the edge of where her house used to be, my feet grew heavy with realization; I stared the goddess in the eye until my eyes burned and everything around me was aflame with colour; I ran down the street frantically, searching, wishing that any of those houses be replaced by the colours I knew—the black of her gate, the green of the palms that reached out for light over the fence, the cream of the doorbell, the silver of its centre; I ran back home thinking of her first words to me; I searched for anything to keep her with me and with each futile attempt my head ached; I turned over my room and found nothing; at the top of my shelf I found the eraser; I turned it over and over, hoping that the words I knew it held would appear; the white of the eraser stared at me blankly, and I crumbled.

I knew my screams had been shaking the house when my mother appeared at my door.

‘Kilode?’ she yelled.

Her glare softened when she saw the red of my weeping eyes, the weight of growing despair on my slumped shoulders. Outside, the sun stripped her brilliant clothes, and evening began to fall. I whispered her name in chants when my mother asked what I was looking for. Teminikan. Teminikan. Teminikan. When she asked, who? I remembered my mother’s question to Teminikan. How could she not remember who she had asked, aren’t you a lovely dream?

Till the sun rose again, I remained seated in the wreckage of myself, the eraser in my hand rolling in caresses.

As its endearment congealed into sourness, I was wounded by the irony of her name. When a girl’s name is a prayer, how careful can you be with what you wish for? I let her name swirl in my mouth, knowing the prayer had been heard, and she had been made mine alone.

And how alive is a thing remembered? And what is death if it is not followed by forgetting? And is she more mine or less mine, if she could be no one else’s?

I return now to my dreams, searching for a face, for a name time is stealing from my tongue. There are days I wake to my father’s face, and I weep at the sight of him, remembering the distant afternoon I reduced him to memory. And as soft as a whisper, he leaves, leaving not as much as a scent. There are days I wrestle with colour and paint purple dresses lying next to plastic blooms—the colour of remembering fades from my fingers. There is a girl whose laugh rings like a question. There is a laugh. There is a girl. Who do I ask to remind me of the names I have forgotten? The faces I cannot paint?

These days I am dreaming of nothing. Is it a dream if you do not wake?

 

 

Header photograph © Zainab Bobi.

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