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©2018 Barren Magazine. An Alt.Lit Introspective.

This boy saw something in fire


by Afopefoluwa Ojo

October 13th, 1966
Carl Wisconsin
c/o Nipost
711 Nulla St.
Mankato Mississippi

Dear Carl,

I found your address in the name-change section of a foreign newspaper. But asides the section declaring your name change, there was a part with a postscript which said, “For old friends to find me”. I am not an old friend but how many friends have you lost that you put your new name and address for the world to see? Carl X becomes Carl Wisconsin. You’re like the opposite of Malcolm X, maybe like his adopted son or something? Anyway I’m writing because I’m too curious about your name change, and your lost friends and also because I’m wondering if I could become one of them.

 

Cordially,
Chike Chukwu,
99 Ogurugu road,
Nsukka

 

 

January 23rd, 1967
Chike Chukwu
c/o Astor Press
99 Ogurugu road,
Nsukka.

Dear X,

I figured I’d call you X here where things are personal, until I learn to pronounce your name. Outside this envelope, I wrote your name by copying letter for letter but here there is no need to pretend, I’d lend my old name to you until I can pronounce your name. Teach me to pronounce your name. I wrote this letter from the library and read a bit about your country. They say you are the giant of a continent, how is this? Do you know if I were Malcolm X’s son, I would have black blood like you? I am white. Malcolm didn’t choose his name, his journey named him as mine did. I walked into the big building that had spanish words on the door, and underneath, in tiny letters, as though they didn’t care if you saw the translation because they believed the spirit of the words were enough, “Our home is everyone’s home”, hungry, and battered by rain. I told the nuns the story of mermaid mother underneath the bridge that divides the river, and they said, “Oh he’s had bad dreams.” I said, “No I’m hungry please.” “Where have you been?” they asked. I said I’d been running for hours, from my aunt’s, and my uncle was wicked. Jesus, I had to leave else they were going to kill me. “His parents are dead,” they said to each other, and when they asked for my name, I was too hungry to answer, too lost, too tired of names and naming till one of the nuns said, “We’ll name his X, the last boy was W.” A new name means a fresh start. I was sick of my old name and all the baggage it brought. I hope you understand what I’m saying, my uncle was going to kill me, when my mother appeared to me and said run, just run. I saw how she made water leak through the ceiling, and destroy his most loved radio, how it went sizzling and sparking in the house, and when he got up to chase me, heavy as he was, he slipped and hit his head. Then she said to me again, run just run, and I ran and ran until my name became X, and this place became home. The place I’d always run back to after being taken to other places that disguised themselves as home – not the orphanage, but nun margaretta, and nun teresa, and not even them but their hearts, where I would always go back to. And the next child that came after me was a baby wrapped in a dirty shawl crying loudly at the doorstep at 2 am circa 1950. They called her Y, and told me, she’s your little sister, take care of her. A real tar baby that one, and I watched her become separate from me, right from our knowing of each
other, as though in our world, black and white would never mix.

 

Best Regards,
Carl Wisconsin,
711 Nulla St.
Mankato Mississippi

 

 

June 30th, 1967
Carl Wisconsin
c/o Nipost
711 Nulla St.
Mankato Mississippi

Dear Carl,

I’ve always imagined a person like you each sunday, with his happy, small family, passing fancy landscapes, in your church attires. Your mother, she’s wearing a large pink hat. Your father, he’s wearing a brown suit, old but neat. Your little sister, she’s wearing a white fluffy dress, with socks and shoes, she looks like a little princess. And you, a shirt, and tie, looking sharp, little man of the house. You’re all going to get big ice creams a short distance from your church, and from your house, everything you need is close to you. I never imagine running and running, there’s never a need to run, except during sports. You all get vanilla, and strawberries, and banana flavoured ice creams, none of you get chocolate. Somehow, I imagine the colour isn’t for you. But you’ve described a more adventurous life, moving from house to house, changing names, finding homes in the hearts of missionary nuns from Rome? I hope it is Rome. Rome looks like a fantasy to me: me on a boat with a girl from my school. Her name is Chioma, and we’re both screaming ‘La Roma La Roma!’ at the top of our lungs. She is wearing a yellow dress. It resembles sunrise itself. You must know this is an optimistic view of Rome because between me and Chioma, there is nothing. All I do is watch and watch, and let my heart stop beating when she passes, but I have never said a word to her. How I have imagined us both screaming “La Roma!” on a boat in Rome is a thousand miles beyond my current reality. By now you should know I am one to get distracted from saying what I was saying, which is telling you how I imagined a family like yours should be. But when I really think about it, what I have described is my own family. Except we’re in papa’s lemon green mercedez and home is a thirty minute drive from church. We’re all wearing sunday attires of the same lace, sucking on supreme ice cream we bought from the fanyogo man beside church, he put each in a transparent nylon bag. Mama’s headtie sits on her head, and it’s so large it could wrap a universe, and there would be some left. I am sitting directly behind her and I can’t see road because she has blocked me with her headtie. Papa’s romantic music, James Brown, blares from the speakers a little too loudly, and mama is saying, “Is it not too loud? Shouldn’t we turn it down a bit? Shouldn’t we be listening to some cool christian music? Aren’t we just coming from the church? Is it not Sunday?” as if she cannot see my father is playing the music to woo her again, as he once did, as he has always done. But the truth is this is their love music, and she is shy because the children are hearing and knowing the sounds that won her heart. I was born on a Sunday and mama named me Chike once and for all, I have never had to change my name like you. Please don’t call me X, knowing the history of the name means it belongs only to you. If you tried a little harder, I am sure you can pronounce my name, it is one of the easier ones. Cheek-ay as intongue-in-(cheek-ay). I hope you’re getting it as you try, don’t let it  roll over your tongue like a thing that does not concern you, allow it sink in and then call be my name as I have called you by yours. I cannot say I am surprised to hear back from you because somehow I knew you would write back to me, my chi said you would. When you told me about your mother, the woman who lives under the river dividing the bridge, I remembered a house here, not so close to my house but quite close, a twenty minutes walk maybe, the house is in an estate, and in this estate, every house represents something. A house represents happiness and when you enter it, you must be happy. Another house represents sadness, and when you enter into it, you must be sad. Yet in both places, the worst place to be is in the house of happiness. Manufactured happiness, and forced smiles make people grow weary, and when I was there with my brother it led to a deeper kind of sadness even more sad because all the little sadness there inside a person, a person has to hide it and make like it is no longer there, and making like your sadness is not there makes it even more there. It’s a mess. My big brother, Emeka, has always been of a certain melancholy and so when he told me he was going to the “happy house in the estate beyond”, I said I would follow him. While we were there, I saw my big brother try to manufacture jigginess and so he smiled too wildly, became restless, and clumsy, almost tipping his drink over too many times and then laughing, or trying to laugh at himself, with anybody who cared to shine teeth with him as we sat at the table. He couldn’t keep up with this act long enough, soon his eyes began to wander into space, in the way they usually can, and his mouth had set in a straight line, his whole temperament seeming to ask the question: “This life, what does it really mean!” The guards hovered around him for a while, and when they found out his happiness was not returning, they calmly escorted him out of the building. I walked behind my brother, fixing my feet in the tiles his feet had entered, a kind of solidarity. The next time we were there, there were more people, moving around, laughing, clashing glasses of wine together in great cheer. In the midst of everything, someone collapsed and most people carried on as though nothing had happened. The guards carried the body out, with as little intrusion as they could manage. If bad things happened in the happy house then what would be said about the happy house? That it was an impostor. My brother followed the guards out and I followed my brother. The man died in the arms of a guard, and they did not take him to a hospital or morgue, or wherever it is they take dead people, instead they took him to a necromancer, where this old woman summoned his spirit by saying, “Hey hey I know you’re here with us” and then “Shh Shh Be calm now We are listening The spirits are listening.” The spirit sat in the midst of us and through the old woman, said something was coming. When we asked him what was coming, he said a time of great agitation, of crushed skulls and young children who turn adult in a day. I chuckled when the spirit, through the old woman, said this, because she sounded like my Literature teacher when she read a Soyinka play to the class, trying to make a performance of his words. But my brother looked grim, nodding as she spoke. When we got home in the evening, my father put two hands on our shoulders and told us the war was coming, it was close, and our main duty as men was to protect the girls from suffering. He also said freedom and victory were ours for the taking and when he said this, a bright hopeful light shone in his eyes. Immediately, I wished I could unsee the spirit experience. The war of freedom they say is coming is only the woman’s prophecy manifesting, this is what I believe. Had she said something else, like there would be snowing in Nsukka, then when I got home that day, what my father would have said to us was, “I bought us winter coats, they say snow is coming to us here in Nsukka! What a wonder!”, and what a lovely experience it would have been, packing snow in our hands, melting it against each other’s faces. Curse such bad spirits and the words they are made to utter. Yet I see your mother as a spirit, the good kind. Her kind does not forget her son, but instead comes back and says, just keep running, run, and the thing about these good spirits, they do not need a necromancer to summon them, they know when they are needed and come around eager to help. Next time your mother comes, please tell her, your friend, Chike is greeting her. If she says you should greet me back, tell her I am greeted. And Carl, the war they said was coming, it has come.

 

Kind Regards,,
Chike Chukwu,
99 Ogurugu road,
Nsukka

 

 

December 1st, 1967
Chike Chukwu
c/o Astor Press
99 Ogurugu road,
Nsukka.

Dear Chike,

I know the pronunciation of your name but I still do not know you. I do not know enough about you but I know you have a brother and your family is sweet though I do not covet it just how you admire my adventures and yet do not covet them. And even you, you seem pure, and I can’t but wonder, would a pure young boy like yourself stop admiring me if I told you I once I had a friend like you? Ours was an intimate kind of knowing, a kind where a person need not speak before you saw them – and so we took long walks together. I, in a bid to be afar off from my reality. He, because he was searching – and finding – for something. This is how we met, he was on a journey finding things. I was on a journey running from things, both of us fell into similar steps, unique, still, side by side. He made magnificent things and I asked him, “Where did you learn to make such magic?” These little things made from stones, leaves, and lockets found in odd places like gutters. He sold them as they were things one didn’t realise they needed until one saw them and thought, “These peculiar things would look nice on my ears!” That’s how they were: unassuming yet ultimately precise in their belonging. He played the flute and once a woman stopped while he played, and when I looked at her face, I found tears had fallen from her eyes, now the history of the tears, I do not know but when I looked at the face of the baby whose hand she held lightly in hers, I saw he had similar tears running down his own face. She looked into my friend’s eyes and said thank you, then dipped her hand into her purse, brought out a few dollar bills which she folded into the bowl where my friend collected. “What are you going to
use all that money for?” I asked him, “It’s ridiculous, you don’t need all that money for anything. Tell me what you need the money for.”

“I need the money to raise money to travel to the other side of the river,” he said. “

And what exists at the other side of the river?” I asked him.

“Nothing really.”

Later, I asked him and so he said, “The reason of wanting my freedom, free self, free skin, free painter, free flute player, free music maker.” And I wanted freedom too but I did not know how to get it. Sometimes the problem is not what to do with freedom but what to barter to get it – “All men labor under some impingements on their freedom; none is absolutely at liberty”. He made mermaid mother on my wrist at my request, and he did so as though he’d seen her through my eyes. “How do you know her so well?” I asked him. “You asked me to make you a magnificent thing, didn’t you?” he said. “Now you stand there interrogating me like I am a stranger. Did you think I would not be seeing her as you are seeing her. You must be confused, You do seem confused,” he said laughing. After multiple baths, the painting had wiped leaving only the outlines for show and I’d grown to need it. To be able to wake and see mother’s soft smirk staring at me and then smiling back. The subsequent times I asked him to redraw the face he said, “No more free work,” “But we’re friends.” I told him. “Well, friends must eat. Friends must travel and pay.”

He said he was so close and could no longer wait and at that point everything counted. But I had no money, and maybe it was because of this obsessive ownership – something like a feeling that a person who belongs to you must belong to nothing else so that if someone or something tried to take that thing from you, you would fight with all you had, you would pull the whole world down – that made me do it. We walked deep into town, I pulled out the kitchen knife I’d wielded between my pant loops and stabbed him high up in his thigh. He clutched his thigh and dropped to the ground, blood spluttering, through his fingers as he held the wound tightly, swearing. I could not say I was sorry and so I told him: “I cannot say I am sorry” as he gasped for air – for life. His face was like a rat’s, he had teeth like a rabbit’s, with small ears, a holy thing, a blessed thing. I walked back home through the night and alone and replaced the blood-blotted knife in
the corner of my wardrobe.

 

Best Regards,
Carl Wisconsin,
711 Nulla St.
Mankato Mississippi

 

 

September 15th, 1969
Chike Chukwu
c/o Astor Press
99 Ogurugu road,
Nsukka.

Dear friend,

It’s been almost two years since I heard from you and perhaps I have waited too long. And yes, it took me forever to write this. For fear of what might meet this letter at the other side. I saw what the spirit had said. I saw crushed skulls and kids turning adult in a day. You who had never seen a dead body before, now have seen too many. And I understand why – why the letter would not reach you, why you would not respond. You who once cursed the spirits who by their words make wars, now I, for your sake, curse warmongers – “Blessed are the peacemakers, the scriptures say. And we must assume the converse to be true: cursed are the warmongers, however just they believe their cause.” I studied the news and its headlines. “White boy sets himself on fire as rebellion against the war in Eastern Nigeria.” This is the kind of story that would be written about for decades, a story about a white boy who with his own life immortalised a thousand dead bodies heaped two on four on six. And because of this, I know you would hear about me again. And dear friend, I must say, this is the freedom I’ve waited for my whole life and now I know my true self – the boy who saw something in the fire.

 

Goodbye

Header photograph © Andrew Hall.

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3 comments

  1. codingSalafi

    Dope! It’s a great story. Touching…

  2. Mahan Hamed

    Awesome story Fope. It was so hard for me to read because your style stretches the mind and I love it.

  3. Sigh! I don’t know what to say

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