What Happens on Sundays

What Happens on Sundays

What Happens on Sundays 1200 1600 Ope Adedeji

The first day of the week comes with colour. Pale green school uniforms and oversized grey office suits are ditched for colour: subtle and screeching colours. It’s too much colour: women in geles wrapped and folded in steps wear blue or peach dry lace bubas and fake gold shoes. They walk in front of the house with their noses high and their shoes clicking. Children—girls in Cinderella dresses, hair pressed down with gel in a bun, and boys in suits and bowties—follow: sprint, twirl, hop. They’re playing out a script, on their way to meet with God.

There was a time they stopped to say hello, bending their knees to touch stones on the jagged road. Those were the old days; old days when they cleared their throats and sweetened their voices to say: “Ekaaro, sir.” Not today when they’re in a hurry, rushing as if away from their shadow. I wave sometimes, standing behind the fence that cuts off my house from the road. The children return my wave, but the adults frown. Mama, hands on her waist, says not to talk to strangers. I argue that I’m only waving.

It used to be quieter and cooler in the 80’s and 90’s; things change too quickly. The sun isn’t out, but my face is dripping with sweat and my tongue is parched. It’s only slightly better inside the house; the old fan sings and blows hot air. The vendor across the road, who sells Nollywood movies and music CDs plays gospel music—from Ron Kenoly’s early noughties albums to Tope Alabi’s new album—to appeal to churchgoers. In the afternoon, he’ll play fuji and afrojuju.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox almost caught the sun in her poem Dawn. I’ve read it a thousand times and can recite it in my sleep: “Day’s sweetest moments are at dawn; refreshed by his long sleep, the Light kisses the languid lips of night.” I try to catch it in my eyes, to transform my pupils to gold. That would be magical. I started the ritual when I first moved here. It was 1970, shortly after the civil war ended; silence intertwined the country in its attempts to recover. The streets were more bush than residential. The house was still uncompleted—no windows, a makeshift door, unplastered walls and weed in the compound. There were only a few things to look at: the sunrise, trees and birds. There was an almond tree standing where the house across from me now stands. I remember the day the bulldozer came to tear it down. They told us they were going to construct this road, make it smoother and tarred, so that when the rains came, pools of brown water wouldn’t clog the road. Instead, they tore down fences, cut down some more trees—a mango tree here, a plum tree there—and never came back.

Mama started a small colony of plants in the sitting room last week. She shrugged when I asked why. She’d wanted to get a cat for a few weeks and I was open to it unlike before. We heard cats cry on the roof and saw them walk on the fence by the sitting room; it would have been easy to adopt one. But when I got home from after-school lessons on Tuesday evening, there were several pots of cacti and Chinese lilies. She stood like a proud mother watching her offspring. They sat, spiky and pink in small brown and white pots on the window ledge. She bought them at the green market in palmgroove. She bought seeds too; a black pack of Sunflower seeds “Sunflower Teddy Bears.” She said she would grow them in the yard and interjected her words with, “I’m not getting any younger.”

I rubbed the lines over her walnut brown palms, and told her she was just as beautiful as the night I met her. She squinted and said, “You’re a strange old girl, just like your father,” and we burst into laughter like chickens squawking.

*

We met under the warm glow of street lights. She sat on a stool at the entrance to a shop,  that had a pink signboard “Beautiful Hair Salon,” swatting mosquitoes intermittently as she weaved a little girl’s hair into cornrows. It was the year I turned 62, my final year in the University of Ibadan. I had been on my way to photocopy handouts at a business centre when the fruity smell of hair cream wafted from her fingers, stopping me. One eye focused on the hair she was making, the other eye, the sleepy one focused on my sandals. She would later tell me that she had a thing for feet, a sort of fetish, and when she saw the crescent shape of my toenails, and their clean whiteness, she expected to see a young man, perhaps one of those art students who cared about fashion. Not me, with my full white hair and tired eyes.

“Would you like to make your hair, young man,” she called out to me, and I chuckled at how ironic and maternal “young man” sounded. I spent moments staring at her red lips, the way they broke her dark face and the cavities of her collarbones. In one of the shops further down, a radio played Prince Nico Mbarga’s “Sweet Mother,” so I said to her, “That song must have been written with you in mind.”

She frowned, sealing her lips until they were flat, thin and barely visible. When I stretched my arm and introduced myself as “Steve,” she hissed.

*

Explaining that I’ve returned is hard. It’s one of the things that makes me doodle skulls in the margins of my school notebooks, sad. This body does not help. This yellow skin like mangoes, soft like amala is changing, expanding, growing—breasts, hips, hair. It’s all wrong. Or is it the world that’s wrong? Do the gods make silly mistakes when they squeeze the clay you’re made of into a ball and throw you into the light? She doesn’t believe in such things, anyway.

I have several names. The neighbours call me Omo Mama because I’m the child of my mother. Mama calls me Babatide. Even though she doesn’t believe in it, a tiny part of her holds on to the fragments and pieces I’m made from, my slurred speech and slant eyes as a memory of him. Sometimes she calls me Iyanu, because what am I other than one of those miracle babies we read about in church bulletins and obscure columns in newspapers. There are times when she calls me “Oko mi” as is common with Yorùbá mothers: my husband. It’s usually when she needs me a favour.

My father died before I was born, before Mama even knew she was pregnant. No one thought a woman my mother’s age could get pregnant and have a baby, not with her condition, anyway. They’d called her all sorts of things. The most popular was aje. In their dreams, she flew on brooms and cast spells on little children if they collected sweets from her during the day. I was born anyway, and I’m real, not stuffed clothes, rolled and folded inside her boubou like they said she did.

In St Agnes Hospital, journalists tried to interview her—the middle-aged woman that had a baby 8 months after her husband, the human rights activist and writer died. They sneaked past reception, pretending to have relatives to visit and ended up lurking around her private room. She has a smile on her face when she tells me this part of the story of my birth, it’s a smile that tightens her face.

“Your father was an old man. An older man,” Mama often says to start the story, kneading her fingers into something, anything—clothes, flour: fidgety. She punctuates each soft word with an even softer sigh that complimented with her slick white hair, makes her seem younger than she is. The story goes the same way. Every time she tells it to me, my mind responds, I was an older man. I know this story, I brought back the memories with me.

But, I say nothing to her.

*

Eighteen years between us did not mean much to family members and friends who thought I needed a wife and male children to continue my name. The wedding was still a small affair. There was no fuss by the Alaga Iduro, like there is at traditional weddings these days. It was an intimate affair after which my friends, Pa Sode, and Mr Lecturer, God bless their souls, got drunk on gin, and joked about wanting to leave their wives for younger women.

We spent our honeymoon in Ouidah where all we did was eat yovo doko and pretend to understand French.

We both take French lessons now. Mr. Leye, a neighbour teaches us on Sunday afternoons. He shows us French movies with multidimensional storylines like Ma Vie en Rose without subtitles and makes us read  Les Copains du Coin. It’s an easy way for us to learn French, but also for us to bond.

We bond a lot more over the story of her life, and my birth. She tells me she had an abnormal uterus and could never have children. “That was before your feminism became popular. Women needed husbands and children to be complete when I was growing up.”

Our feminism, Mama. And it’s been popular for ages,” I correct her.

Jokes about being a mother got to her. That was why when my father said “Sweet Mother” was written for her on the day they met, she hissed. It was also the reason she never bothered about marriage, preferring a quiet life in the ancient city Ibadan with its sloppy roads and brown roofs. My father didn’t care that she couldn’t have children. He loved her—I love her. That was enough for him. My father had been married twice before he met her, but during one of their dates, he told her he’d met the love of his life so close to death and broke into tears.

When they got married shortly after he finished law school, she moved to Lagos where she set up a salon in front of the house. It was the typical love story, just short of a fairytale until one morning ten years later, my father rested his head against a pillow to have a nap and never woke up from it. In telling the story, this is where a coughing fit starts, where her words grow thick and become hard as if her tongue is a slab.

“We were soul mates,” she tells me, pressing her hands so hard into whatever it is she’s holding that I almost feel sadder for them than for her. Doing things with her hands is her coping mechanism. When he died, she took up clay. Every day, she moulded a little figure. She was so invested in it that she didn’t notice the changes in her body.

She smiles fondly at the memory of moulding horses that looked like pawns and pots that looked like cups. Her voice resumes its feather like texture as she says, “There I was creating rubbish. I didn’t even realize something amazing was happening inside of me.”

*

Now that the sun has risen, I return into the house. The television is on. It smells of akara. Mama loves to experiment with recipes. She is constantly reading foreign and local recipes on the internet and sharing them with me. On Sunday mornings, she makes akara and koko trying out different methods she may have read about. On Saturday nights, she sends me to Iya Blessing’s kiosk down the road to blend beans that she spent almost 20 minutes washing to remove the coat—just to somehow involve me in the cooking process. If I grumble about going, she tells me that a lady should know how to cook, and asks if this is how I’ll behave in my husband’s house—“forget that feminist rubbish,” she’d say. I remind her that I’m 14 and not remotely interested in boys—“and why isn’t it my house anyway?” I ask.

“How many times have I told you not to leave this house without wearing a bra?” My mother startles me, standing by the door that leads to the kitchen. Her head is wrapped in a towel. She’s not wearing her glasses. I fold my arms on silky blue nightgown over my tiny breasts.

“Leave me alone, Mama. I hate them,” I say, picking up the remote control from the center table.

“Oti baje ju,” she says rewrapping her adire wrapper over her bust.

“You’re the one that spoilt me now,” I mutter under my breath.

“It’s me you’re talking to like that abi? Ori e bi mortar.”

“My head is perfectly fine,” I say chuckling. “I have my father’s head.”

She rolls her eyes and walks into the kitchen. “My husband had a perfect head.”

There are photos of my father on the walls, he did have a perfect head—and my head is not like a mortar, it’s the same head I’ve returned with. There’s one of him in front of this building when it was finally complete in 1975. It’s in black and white. He is very young in the picture, standing close to his sister, Auntie. She is wearing a pleated long skirt and a blouse with puffy sleeves. They are surrounded by an hedge. The walls are painted a light shade of green.

Some more photos in colour capture him and Mama, smiling, staring into her eyes, holding her hand.

Mama walks into the parlor, “Babatide, oya get into the kitchen and help me with the koko.”

I smile. “Yes, Mama.”

*

In school on Monday, I spend my last period, a free period, reading Little Fish, a story about a 30-year-old trans woman, who finds out her grandfather might have also been trans, and sets to work discovering more about his life in an attempt to understand her own. It’s a book I can relate to in some ways.

I have to visit Auntie in a bit. She’s the only person that really knows me. She was the one who gave me the name Babatide, before I was born. She didn’t know I would come back in this body though. She says she’s never seen it happen, but all the same, I make a lovely girl. We are very close, so close, it worries me that she’s dying. The doctors say it’s old age.

When the siren rings, I pick up my pink Jansport bag from the bag rack and say bye to the librarian. The school quadrangle is populated with green and white uniforms in clusters. I don’t have a lot of friends in school because I’ve been accused of being weird. My childhood friend, Fati, calls me an old soul for my eccentric music taste. I prefer that to being mocked for being different or having a more refined albeit old-ish taste in things.

Mr. Ladi, Mama’s driver won’t be waiting for me since I’ve told Mama I’d rather just walk to Auntie’s house. Walking allows me think, it’s a habit from my previous life. I used to walk 10km most days back then. Walking without music as I’m doing now is stimulating and allows be in the moment. This is very important to me because my mind is too chaotic for a teenager. It’s constantly shifting between past and present, making comparisons, struggling between its desire to be alive and leaving this body.

Auntie’s house is just behind my school. Her husband recently died. She had been married to him for 30 years. She jokes that she’s the sibling that had the regular life. I don’t think this is completely true. She recently told me the details of her time as a student in Estonia in the 60s, about dating girls and boys at the same time. I find this completely fascinating. Despite how close we were, almost twin like even, these are things she never told me about.

It’s almost 4 when I knock on her door. It’s a cream colonial-styled duplex building. It’s never been renovated. I wonder what’ll happen to it after she dies. Her maid, Ramatu answers. She flashes gap teeth at me.

“Auntie is sleeping,” she says shutting the door when I’ve taken off my shoes. The colours in the house are too bright, as if overcompensating for the owner’s illness. Fake flowers, ceramic ducklings, multi coloured table covers makes my head throb. I nod, and thank Ramatu. It’s not like Auntie speaks much anymore. I spend a few minutes staring at pictures of Auntie and I as children. We almost always wore matching clothes. In one picture where she hangs her hand over my shoulder, her eyes are bulgy and she’s smiling a really big smile. I remember that we’d just had coned ice cream, and were probably high off it. But there’s a scowl on my face and I don’t remember why. Still, we look very happy, genuinely unconcerned with life’s worries.

There’s a sinking feeling at the pit of my belly as I walk upstairs to her room. When I enter the room, the thick smell of robb balm envelopes me. Aunty is on the bed, covered in a blue duvet. The room is dim. I contemplate opening the curtains for some sunlight, then decide against it. She’s completely bald, her face reminds me of a green lawn tennis balls.

“Auntie. It’s me Tide,” I say, wrapping my fingers around her wiry hands on her chest. I know I’m speaking to myself. I think of something to say, something rad that might make her startle. I look around the room, at her the wooden statue of an owl on her bookshelf, and then spit out some words: “I bind my breasts so it won’t grow.” I take a deep breath after I make the confession. Was it the owl that made me say that?

After a few minutes of nothing, of sitting by her bedside, watching her breath rise and fall to my words, I decide to leave. Being by her side suffocates me, makes me palpitate. I head downstairs.

Ramatu gives me updates as I lace up my shoes. She tells me about Auntie’s drugs and how she barely eats.

“Uncle Bobola comes every evening. She doesn’t recognize him. Not once.” Uncle Bobola is Auntie’s son, my cousin or nephew, depending on how you look at it. I tilt my head up and shake it, wondering how he must feel.

When I’m almost done lacing up my shoes, Auntie calls my name. It’s squeaky and tiny, almost unnoticeable: “Steven.” I run upstairs to her room to see her sitting up on her bed, smiling. There’s barely any teeth in her smile, but it reaches her eyes. I sit on the plush bed, pressing my body into hers despite how brittle she feels. So brittle, I might break her. I draw back.

“Babatide, you precious, precious human.”

“Yes Auntie.”

“Ilé ọba tójó ẹwà ló bùsi,” she folds her lips.

“How does that have to—”

“Think about it well.”

“Something about good things coming out of the bad stuff?” I ask trying to interpret the proverb.

She laughs, placing her wiry hand on mine. “Something like that. You are the silver lining that came from my brother’s death.”

Just then Ramatu enters the dimly lit room. I turn towards Ramatu, but my hands don’t leave Auntie’s.

“Ma, I just wanted to know if you needed anything right now.”

“Kosi. Please come back later.” She coughs.

When I turn back to Auntie, her face is crumpled, and there’s no smile on her lips. “Who are you?” She ask me, letting go of my hands.

“It’s me, Babatide,” I reply, reaching out for her hands. She snatches it from me and turns to the other side. We are quiet for a while before I try again. “I’m your older brother, Steven.”

She grunts. “Steven died a long time ago.” She’s still looking away. I can’t completely see her eyes but I know they’re distant, empty, diluted, the way they get when she forgets.

I sigh and pick up my backpack. “Alright Auntie, I’m leaving.” She doesn’t look at me.

I’m at the door to her room when I hear her say, “I’m an owl,” in a deliberately loud voice. When I turn around to ask what she said, her head is on the pillow and she appears to be asleep. The room grows dark under my gaze. I rush out and the zips of my back clinks as I do.

*

I’ve had the same dream since I got my first period. This was a year ago, on one of those uncomfortably hot nights that made me stir and peel my own skin. In the dream, I’m in a bleak room that looks like a dungeon. It’s a room I can’t come out of—there’s a sense of being captured and imprisoned in it. There’s a spring mattress and a bucket in the room. I’m standing in front of a full length mirror but can’t see my face or body. This makes me think I’m dead. It’s not until Beyoncé’s Ave Maria starts playing in the background that my body starts to form in the mirror; from face to feet. It’s a beautiful male body—flat breasts, a tiny beard, muscles that glisten and a flaccid penis the size of a small cucumber. It’s my body, my face, me. I gasp, then smile. Out of the darkness, a thousand butterflies appear, removing the bleak brown walls and replacing them with purple. The smell of paint chokes me in the dream and I break into a coughing fit in real life. A heavy metal door swings open; I stand outside it, watch the sun and laugh. Mama always ends up shaking me awake because I’m laughing in my sleep.

The dreams have always taken this form. I’ve never told Mama about them, she’ll tell me I’m stressed, pressing too much phone, or watching too much television. Auntie knows about them, but she doesn’t know what they mean.

On the day Uncle Bobo calls to say Auntie has died in her sleep, I have the dream. It’s a Sunday that’s hardly colourful. The rain starts at midnight. I run outside to pick our clothes from the clothes line and close the new sliding glass windows so that rain doesn’t come in. The power goes off at some point during the night, but doesn’t leave us hot and sweaty. It’s a noisy kind of rain; it drums against the roof, howls in the wind and coughs, splitting the dark skies. By morning it’s still raining. There are no people on the road except a few bikes that speed by. I can’t stand outside to watch the sunrise. I sit by the window, fingering the spikes on Mama’s smallest cactus, and stare at the sky, hoping the sun will come and the rainbow colours will strut down the road. This is when the call comes.

After breakfast where neither of us speak about the death of my father’s sister, I fall asleep. The dream sneaks in through my nose and then into my brain. I know I’m dreaming, but cannot bring myself to come out of it. The horning of yellow rickety buses from the street and gospel music, infiltrates my dream. My dream appears in distortion—halves and blurs. Mama speaks to Mr. Leye, says Babatide is sleeping and we won’t have French lessons today because Auntie is dead.

At the point where butterflies are supposed to break out of the darkness, an owl appears. It sits on my shoulders, twists its head and hoots as if testing out its strengths. It’s no ordinary owl, I can tell.

Mama is squeezing my left arm. My body, crammed into a curve on the single settee, hurts. My eyes are blurry and watery, but I can see the soft smile on her face. She plants a wet kiss on my forehead.

“It’s only a bad dream,” she says.

Header photography © Darlene Anita Scott.

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