1. Love Letters and Fantasies
Banji couldn't sleep. It was the buzzing of insects around the bulb that drove sleep away — or so he thought — yet he couldn't still sleep after switching off the light. It wasn't thoughts of how his twentieth birthday would meet him tomorrow the same empty person he'd been years ago. Perhaps it was Yemisi invading his mind again. She always did in moments like this, when he was lying and listening to the buzzing of insects and the chirping of crickets and setting his mind free to saunter around, picking thoughts and dreams.
Earlier that evening, Dave had forced him to tell Yemisi tomorrow was his birthday. He'd hesitated initially, because Yemisi wasn't the type of girl who attended birthdays, but he told her anyway. He had to prove to Dave once and for all that he was a big boy, and big boys weren't scared of talking to girls. But Yemisi smiled and said she wouldn't be chanced. Banji was surprised that it hit him that hard, her refusal, the simplicity of shrugging and letting the words drip like water from a tap running dry, yet he returned her smile. He didn't say anything more, didn't tell her once and for all that she was the sole protagonist of his fantasies, that she was the girl God created with palms broad and soft enough to carry his heart. He smiled and walked away even before Yemisi could bid him goodbye.
"You failed again," Dave told him later. "I thought you'd tell her everything."
"I'm giving up. She can never date a guy like me." He placed a hand on Dave's shoulder. "Look at me. Whose son am I? A woman's with a profession I can't announce with shiny teeth. Yemisi is the daughter of Pastor Olatundun."
"Fine. Stop telling me you love her then! Period!"
The friends walked silently home. Dave reached to hug Banji before disappearing into his house, but Banji had already begun striding to his mother's mansion. He rushed into his room and locked the door from inside on hearing his mother and her friends cackle in the living room. He sent a bulk message to all his friends he'd invited to his birthday party, cancelling it for reasons beyond his control. As soon as all the fifty-four messages had been delivered, he sat at his study desk and started to write letters. Love letters. Letters he knew he'd read to himself, although they were addressed to Yemisi, read, read and read until they lost flavour and he wrote another set.
2. Deep Drawers and Monstrous Cockroaches
Yemisi didn't want to go downstairs for night devotion, but she dared not tell Tijesuni if she didn't want trouble. So she let Tijesuni take her hand and they descended the stairs, their footsteps slapping the polished floor, infuriating the hallowed silence that hovered in the house whenever it was time to talk to God. Halfway, though, Tijesuni stopped to stare at her sister. She knew something had gone amiss. But Yemisi shrugged and forced a grin.
"What's happening between us?" Tijesuni's voice was low, tentative. "We don't talk anymore."
Yemisi bowed her head. Her legs were melting to heated lard. She bit her lips and sat on the stairs.
"You're crying," Tijesuni said, lifting Yemisi's face. "Tell me what it is."
"Can we go back to the room?"
"But Dad and Mum are waiting downstairs—"
She grabbed Tijesuni's blouse. "I'll go mad if I keep hiding it. Please."
They sat in the room, holding hands. Yemisi's tongue sprawled in her mouth like a wet towel stuck in elephant grasses, immovable. Whatever she'd been hiding inside of her dug a gorge, an abysmal chasm, between her and Tijesuni. She couldn't tell her sister what she felt for Banji. Tijesuni would snap her fingers over her head and say God forbid. You couldn't feel anything for any man unless you were married to him, let alone a man like Banji. God forbade what she had with Adediran even, let alone Banji. She wanted to scream her crimes, so that her parents would hear and come tumbling into their room, dumbfounded.
But they'd not understand. Not even Tijesuni. She no longer understood her. Adolescence had happened to her, and adolescence came with drawers with deeper chests that could hide monstrous cockroaches. They drifted apart because her secrets were no longer what Tijesuni could listen with hands calmly placed on knees; her secrets were enough magma to set a sea afire. Still, she sat Tijesuni down and emptied her heart with the few words she could manage. Tijesuni tried to remain calm, avoided her younger sister's teary eyes, and said, "It's going to be fine."
When Yemisi was about to tell her the deepest chests with the biggest cockroaches — Adediran's story — their mother pushed the door open. They ran downstairs, hurriedly knotting their scarves around their napes.
3. Arch Enemies and Lover Boy
Sissy Sexy tapped the 'volume minus' button until they could no longer hear Olamide's voice eulogising so-called science students. She laid her champagne flute on the glass table, did one more cartwheel, and finally slumped into the sofa. "What are you saying ntie?"
"We are having a big problem and you are dancing?" Mama Diamond said.
"Problem ke? Nibo lo wa? Is the problem inside my idii-ileke or my kinni?"
"Pastor Olatundun. How are we tackling him?"
"Ah, that dindirin? The man's jealous of us. How can you howl all day long at the pulpit and get chicken change while your nextdoor neighbours make millions by just opening their kinni for a man who's too old to do the proper thing? I suggest we let him be."
"Let him be? He is spoiling our names! Is he the only pastor in Ibadan—"
"No, but he's the only ode buruku that's close enough to smell our money. If Olatundun was my problem, then I don't have any problem kan-kan."
"Seriously? A man that is swearing not to stop calling our names at the altar until God strikes us to death?"
"Yes. He's not my problem. Banji is. He's suddenly cancelled his birthday party, ruining my business. Do you know how many alhajis that would have come? Even Senator Idrisu gaan would have come. Even Engineer Bureau de Change!" She moved close to Mama Diamond, fiddling her braids. "Worst of all, Banji insists I quit the business and return to Tunji."
"That fool that cannot take care of a woman?"
"Beeni. That oponu. It's him Banji loves. He hates me with passion."
Just then Banji came in. He greeted Mama Diamond and was rushing to his room when one of the love letters he'd written fell from his pocket. He watched his mother reach for it, shrugged and walked away.
Sissy Sexy was speechless when she started reading the letter. It was impossible for Banji to be in love with the daughter of her arch enemy, she told herself, but the possibility was spelt before her in a language so elegant she felt a tinge of jealously. She stood up and walked to the bar. She'd drink to stupor and visit Olatundun herself. Enough was enough; even God knew that.
4. On the Sandy Path
Banji stopped by the sandy path to catch his breath. His team had lost a match again. His vest absorbed sweat so much his black skin became more visible than the white fabric supposed to be covering it. Today was Thursday and Yemisi always took this route to church every evening. She walked alone. Her sister Tijesuni would be busy with the older youths evangelising around town. Their parents would have been in church two hours earlier, to sanctify the service and bring the Holy Ghost down earth. So he was sure he'd tell her what he felt for her today.
That her father was Pastor Olatundun didn't matter. Nothing mattered in love, not even age or class or the fact that your dream lover was a maniac. His mother's opinions didn't matter too.
"They're the born-agains in Ibadan o," she'd told him. "Let the girl be, jowo."
"Just as you should really let me be right now," he'd responded.
"Olatundun wants to soil your mother's name, imagine! Anything I do, they use it to preach. Am I using the fact that he and his wife steal the congregation money by trick to build houses in their village?"
"That's not my business. Leave me alone!"
"You know, I could arrange a proper omo for you—"
"Get out of my room now!"
It surprised him, how he'd screamed at her. Now he sat leaning on the tree beside the path and jerked awake when someone touched him. He'd dozed off. Yemisi was standing before him, caressing the Bible against her chest.
"You should go home," she said. "Don't you know it's late?"
"I slept off. I was tired after the match. My team lost."
"Oh. Sorry about that. Go home. Goodnight."
"Nothing." He rose. "Goodnight."
"Well, tell your girlfriend to sing you a song when you get home. That way, you won't feel it much."
"I don't have a—"
"I have to go now. Goodnight."
5. When Pity Metamorphoses into Love
Perhaps Adediran didn't hear her, so she repeated, "I said I missed my—"
"You go search for it, you hear?" Adediran howled. "Go ask those dogs you flirt with!"
"Oh, you think I don't have sense abi? If you could flirt with a choir master, what wouldn't you do with the altar boys, the ushers—"
"I flirted with you?"
"Don't mess with me, Yemisi. If you're too shy to ask them, then let's remove the thing!"
"Yes. If you insist I'm the owner. I can do whatever I want with my belonging, se? Now get out and think about it and give me answers!"
She yanked the door open and kept walking until she reached the sandy path. She sat. It was clear she was a failure, a disgrace; she wasn't able to hold herself, keep herself for that divinely destined man, like Tijesuni. If only she could walk back to October and turn it to January and have everything rewritten her own way.
But she couldn't, and that's why she'd ever remain a disgrace. She never wanted to go that way with Adediran. She loved him the way she loved the brethren of the church. But it was complicated, because she pitied him too. He sang with a shaky, teary voice, and tears rolled down his cheeks. She didn't think he was soaked in the spirit, that God was using him to touch hearts; she knew he had a sore threatening to remain open, pink with freshness, forever.
So she drew him close. He emptied all his burdens on her. The parents he grew with weren't his real parents. His real parents, especially his mother, wasn't ready to see him again. Why? Because he was the result of a midday Molue bus rape at Ojuelegba. He wept out his eyes as he told her, and she held him for too long against her chest. And that was the end of her innocence, the botching of the pride that lit up her father’s eyes each time he used her and Tijesuni to teach teenage morality in church.
She had to knead that pride clean before its corruption became public, and that was why she called Adediran six days later to say yes. Yes, he was the owner. Yes, he could do anything with his belonging. And yes, she'd remove the thing. He said she'd made the right decision, and that there was a chemist along the road who was an expert at these things.
6. Medicine Wrapped in Envelopes
It was barely dawn when he took her there. The chemist said she was lucky, that it was only two months.
"What happens then?" Adediran asked, looking at the floor. He'd been avoiding her eyes. "Can we—"
"I have medicine. Two thousand. Plus workmanship, two-five."
He gave her the money silently. Then he sat and placed both hands on his head and buried his head between his laps. The woman returned with brown powder wrapped in a transparent foil and shoved into a medical envelope. It smelt like urine, the raw stink that made Yemisi want to throw up. She looked at Adediran. He was unconsciously counting his fingers and biting his lips. A fly perched on his hand and fluttered its tiny lustrous wings. He didn't move his hand so it could fly away. He just stared at it, counting the fingers on his other hand. Yemisi felt sorry for him again.
"Drink it every morning for seven days with pure water," the woman said. "The thing will go out as if you are seeing your period!"
"No side effects?" Yemisi asked.
"No side effects. No nothing. No feeling like you want to sleep sef. Try it, and you will not go to another place next time—"
"There's no next time!" Adediran said. "Thank you." They walked in silence. When she was about opening her father’s gate, holding her Bible tighter, he said, "I'm sorry. I regret this. But you won't believe me. I was stupid."
She stopped to look at him. His eyes were glassy with tears.
7. Abdominal Pains
Yemisi's abdomen stung her minutes after she gulped the first dose of the diluted powder. Tijesuni had already slept. Night devotion was brief because their parents were traveling to Abuja very early the following morning for a national prayer meeting. She had to sleep now, so she'd be wide awake tomorrow to tell Tijesuni the whole truth. But the stinging had grown worse. They felt like her internal organs had developed thistles which pierced her everytime she turned. She started to moan. Adediran's phone was switched off. He had to be sleeping too; he would be going to Abuja with the senior ministers of the church too. Yemisi tossed and turned on her bed until the first cock crowed, until Iya-eleko's voice echoed round the silent neighbourhood.
8. Blood Confessions
Morning prayers were short too, only some mumbling that didn't last up to five minutes. Yemisi pressed her nose to her mother's breasts as they hugged goodbye. After they'd left, she told Tijesuni everything. She'd only loved Banji and no one else; she loved him for a reason she hadn't come in terms with. She loved Adediran too, but only agape love, the type Jesus admonished men to have for their neighbours. But there was a complication, and that was pity, and it deceived her into thinking she could love him the way she loved Banji. After securing her in this deceit, it spun backward like a boomerang and destroyed her.
Tijesuni cringed when she said she'd just aborted Adediran's child, and she was having pains. Tijesuni watched her, her mouth agape. It was the same way she watched her when she was beginning to feel the itching sensation in her bladder and threw her legs open. Thick blood gushed out from under her. A stiffening pain around her waist knocked her off her seat. She was gasping as Tijesuni called Adediran and their father almost at the same time.
"Banji." That was all she could say. But Tijesuni understand. She'd already asked the gatekeeper to bring him here right away. Neither their father nor Banji was picking up. Both were probably in Abuja already, praying and casting and binding demons.
9. The Angel Closest to You
Yemisi was already sprawled on the ground when Banji arrived. She took his finger and caressed it. Tijesuni had run out to call neighbours.
"I'm dying," she said. "And I love you."
Banji rose and lifted her. The lyrics of a song from a Nollywood movie surfaced on his mind: You're the treasure that I seek/You were close to me yet I did not know. He couldn't remember what really happened in the movie, but he knew it had a storyline similar to that of his life. He was fast losing a girl he just realised loved her. He wasn't losing her to another man, or to distance, but to death. It was worth all the pains he'd borne throughout his life, from when he'd been born, to when he was ripped off fatherly love, to date.
The blood dripped in torrents now. Yemisi tried to put her hands around his neck, but they just slipped downward. She was still mumbling her story, her teeth clenched, eyes thrown wide open. Banji now knew. He now knew how deeply she loved him. He understood now why her voice always tone to the soft purr of a kitten whenever she talked to him, why she always tied her scarf even though it'd been perfectly knotted. I love you. It didn't come out with the same soft voice. It came out coarse, like metal feet dragged over a heap of gravel, slowly— I. Love. You. He wanted her to listen to him say it back to her, but the words didn't form. He was about carrying her through the door when she heaved and fell completely silent, the same time Tijesuni arrived with the neighbours.
"I love you too," Banji whispered, kissing her cold lips.
Ola W. Halim lives in Edo State, Nigeria, where he teaches and writes fiction and reflections. He's the author of "Homecoming", an epic detailing albinism and identity struggle in a fantastical Nigeria. He lives mostly in his head.