Old men sit in the courtyard, moving draughts pieces as local gin burns paths down their throats. The house sits like an old woman in the sun with faded clothing hanging loosely about her, wrinkles on her face telling her years, and her seldom open mouth, a dark, toothless cave. It has roof the color of coffee, the type one only ever sees when driving into Ìbàdàn. Layers of paint hang from the walls – blue from the last painting job 17 years ago, and beneath that, cream peeks.
I walk on inside, willing my eyes away from the white-tiled tomb close to the front door. Grandpa’s wooden reclining chairs are the kind that I had thought existed still, but only in old Polaroid pictures. I drop my bag on the nearest one and I am rewarded with such a loud creak that I snatch it right back, but not quickly enough, the rising film of dust tells me. A video cassette player, the type that went out of fashion about 15 years ago is in front of the room, a pile of video cassettes atop it – browned papers on their sides read titles; Ti Olúwa Nilè, Kiss of Dragon, Going Bananas. A black and white TV – in its own wooden house, complete with shutters you can lock – towers next to the cassette player as if to taunt it about its shabbiness.
I walk the dark, dank passageway, trailing my fingers along dusty cabinets that line the wall. In my head, I watch as a younger me ran along dimly lit corridors, shrieking with joy, heavy footsteps accompanied by the thump of a walking stick behind me; then the sudden halt to my laughter and steps, and the tears that pooled as I turned away from the stern look coming from beyond the kitchen door and ran back down the corridor, into his arms. Now, I step into the kitchen almost expecting to see my mother hunched over the stove. The smell of smoke and ewédú soup lingers in my nostrils with wisps of memories whose possession I had almost no knowledge of, wisps threading, forming a coil that causes me to choke as the tightness rises to my throat. I step out, pull the door shut and lean against it, breathing heavily. I watch him hold my tiny hand in his left one, his walking stick in his right; he hobbling, me skipping, to the dining table, tears forgotten. It had been a ritual involving two teacups; one big brown one, one small green one. I’d wait patiently for him to drop in tea bags, pour hot water into them from the flask and then milk from a tin.
“Daddy, don’t give her tea before dinner!”
The voice seems to come from behind the door I am leaning against; her voice – raspy, like a loud whisper. I want to reach out towards it, press the record button on my phone and freeze it, but all that echoes is the silence of the present.
The grill still stands where it always did, proud sentry at the balcony door. I would eagerly pull off the polythene cover, watch as Grandpa put coal into it while I peeled shucks off corn, pretending the gold strands at the end were strands of blond hair like Rapunzel’s. He would arrange the cobs over the grill and sit reading, glasses perched on his nose. Just as he would take the cobs off the grill, she would appear plate in hand, take the prongs from him, pick out all of the perfect cobs and be gone, just like that.
For almost a decade after, the day my mother disappeared had been the first day of memory -nothing existed before then – as if I had not been before that day. Grandpa had come to pick me up from school late – I was happy to have more time to spend on the swings at school, time to build sand castles around my feet and watch them stand longer than anybody’s – he was never late. I remember the Volkswagen rumbling through the school gates faster than it had ever done, as if it could sense the panic in Grandpa’s eyes, the fear in the air. When I got home she wasn’t there. Sometimes you’d forget she was in the house, and then you’d see her walking along the walls, taking the corners at a slight run like an insect trying to avoid a gecko’s darting tongue. She never left the compound.
I was wary, yet drawn to her. Her lashes were long but they failed to shroud the sadness in her eyes. Sometimes she wouldn’t talk to me or him, but there were days when she let me in. Her room had a huge bed with four rods rising above it at each corner, ending in round gold plated knobs. She would try to raise my feet as I entered, leaving me shrieking and holding on to her neck, when she was satisfied they were clean enough, she would plant me on her bed with instructions not to jump on it or even wrinkle her perfect sheets. Bringing out her cute jewelry boxes – the ones that each stood on four delicate legs and were lined with fine velvet inside – she would arrange them according to their sizes and open them; peering into each as though she did not know its contents. My favorite was the medium-sized one that had a broken leg. It held shells. She would bring it to the bed, set it down just out of my reach and bring out the shells. Flawless sea shells she had picked over the years, every time she went to a beach.
“Why don’t we ever go to the beach?” I often asked.
“Because the beaches are in Lagos.”
“Why don’t we ever go to Lagos, Mummy?”
She would clam up, rearrange the shells and return the box. After a while, I learnt not to mention Lagos anymore.
Back then, there had been the mystery of Lagos and the father I had no memory of. He had plenty of me, an infant when he last saw me, he later told me. He got home from work one day to find that she had packed her bags, and me, and disappeared. He looked for her all over before deciding to tell my Grandfather his only child was missing. He had been shocked when he walked into Grandpa’s Ìta-Baálè home and found me drinking tea with the old man. She wouldn’t talk to him or go back with him. “Your Grandfather said she was running from Olókun, the sea goddess. I never did understand,” he said.
Maybe Grandpa thought she had reversed it and run back to Lagos, except without her bags and without me. Instead of staying at home the day she disappeared, the Volkswagen rattled to Lagos with Grandpa and me in its hollow belly, and rattled back with only Grandpa. Grandpa’s last words to me, as he leaned heavier than usual on his walking stick, were about the fates. I never saw him again.
My father’s pictures of her were mostly taken on beaches. Her soul and her eyes were alive in them. There was one of her standing in front of a blue glasshouse across the Bar Beach shore, looking down at me in her arms, her lips curved in a smile, the shore-line in the background. I wondered at this woman, so different from the shell that had haunted the Ìta-Baálè house.
Few times, I had known that picture woman; times when she played with my short hair, trying to brush it like she did her very long one. “Why is your hair long but mine short?” Grinning broadly at me, she would lean in to whisper; “I’m mammy water”, then laugh and paint my nails and my face from the tiny tubes on her dresser. She’d dress me up and march me, tottering in her high heels too big for me, to the sitting room where we’d put on a fashion show for Grandpa. Suddenly, in the middle of laughter or talk, she would stare at something, someone, eyes blank, blink in rapid succession and be gone, back to her sanctuary. Whenever I asked Grandpa why she was like that, he would mutter about how it was as the fates willed. He always said it was the fates that decided which way the winds would blow our lives. He would say that while pointing at the carvings.
Wood carvings littered the house; Èsù, most prominent of them all, sat next to Grandpa’s seat. He had been one of the sources of my greatest confusion. Grandpa insisted on taking me to church every Sunday and there, they said Èsù was the devil, a bad man with a forked tail and donkey ears, yet we’d get home and Grandpa would point at one of his carvings and tell me the Christians got it wrong. “That’s Èsù, not evil in himself. Full of mischief, yes, but also intermediary between gods and men.” “Gods? God? How many are there Grandpa?” He’d laugh, go put on an LP record, hand me the hard bound, gold coloured My Book of Bible Stories, pat the seat beside him, put on his glasses and hide behind a newspaper – I on his right, Èṣù on his left, Felá’s saxophone spewing forth from the gramophone.
I try to move Èsù from his spot; he sits heavy and won’t budge. I wonder what to do with him and his carved companions. My Lagos apartment does not have the space for them, but will a buyer for the house want them? I give him a kick and yelp. I stop. I can almost swear I hear a laugh come from her room. Sometimes, I think it was Èù, and not Olókun that had possessed her. There had been days when mischief would lurk in her eyes, then dance out and leap on me. Like the time when the house was being repainted blue; she stood at her bedroom door, beckoning on me, whispering: “Don’t worry, he’s not wearing his glasses, he can’t see far off without them”. Other times she’d tell me the same thing but that he couldn’t see near things. We both went to place our palms against the wet paint, side by side. It took me a while to realise it was because of her that I always got caught and punished for doing mischievous things. One day, I asked him why he couldn’t see without his glasses. He peered at me over the top of the glasses and exclaimed: “They are mere reading glasses.”
Our palm prints remained. He had had a fit but let it stay, proclaiming it to have some quality of art. It remains testimony to the days of Omo-Olókun, reminding me now that I did not make her up.
Father never took me to a beach, I think he feared losing another, feared I might have some of her spirit in me. When I moved out of his house though, I found I could not keep away from the beach. Every weekend I became one of the shore’s fixtures, like Rahmatou, the Niger woman and her cute son who begged there, or the dreadlocked destitute who insisted on serenading me with off-key Bob Marley and Peter Tosh songs even though I never gave him any money. I’d just sit, and stare; waiting, walk the shore line and thinking maybe I’ll walk into her on the shores of Bar Beach, maybe I’ll find her living in one of the shacks, maybe she is one of the Cele priestesses on the shore or maybe she is the call of the sea.
“Go there, sort through your Grandpa’s things and her things. Decide what you will do with the house, it’s yours Lani!” My father said whenever I saw him.
Times in the past, I wondered how Grandpa had been those years he lived after she had left and I had been returned. I wonder now if his spirit had kept watch over the house, waiting for the day when either of us would come back, if it even now flits around me.
Thick cobwebs form a curtain across the two hinges of her bedroom door; I bring out a pen and start twirling it in the web. I stall. This is why I had kept away since the house became mine five years ago: the fear of being assailed by the memories that are bubbling forth now, memories of the bad days of her quiet moping or sudden eruptions of rage that ended in a smashed gramophone amongst other items. Days of coming to find her sitting in the rain, and of seven-year-old me mothering my mother, lying with her in bed and singing her favorite songs to calm her.
The re-memory assails me as I stand before her closed door, staring and twirling. I fight it off and open the door. I don’t know what ghosts I feared would lurk behind the door but there is nothing. Her spirit – which had made this room seem like an extension of her being, a haloed space in which I was an intruder – has left here. Now, it is just another empty room with webs forming hammocks for dead flies. I find the boxes, each wrapped in cloth. They are no longer gold as I remember; instead they are the color of rusty metal. I find the three-legged one, sit on the bed, and peer at my feet. I laugh, stand on the bed and jump, clutching the box to my chest, laughing. It feels good. Then it does not. I sit and pull the box to me, its cover breaks off its hinge as I open it; the shells are all lined there. I pick the largest. Your father picked this one for me at Bar Beach, she used to say. I hold it to my ear as she always did, waiting to hear the sea she always claimed she could hear, waiting for the wind to waft around and envelope me in its arms