It was the first form. It was everybody’s first time. It was a crazy time. Girls had formed into women in their heads, and the entire existence of boys had shrunk to their manhood. Voices were breaking deep in the bottoms of throats, and breasts were curving forth underneath pinafores. Everybody was ripening; eyes were peeling open.
I remained in my opaque space watching everybody’s body metamorphose under this big new light of puberty. My own body remained unchanged, unyielding, its neat, narrow lines and sharp anorexic angles intact.
I wasn’t ugly. Of course, I wasn’t beautiful. I wasn’t anything. I wasn’t even nothing. I was just. Nobody noticed me – boys’ eyes floated past without touching me; girls had eyes for only boys. Eyes met in the middle of rooms, exchanged dirty things, shared secrets, spoke of softnesses. I just kept my own eyes buried deep in my books, never looking for any trouble, and none found me.
So I was surprised when during study session one evening a warm voice curled around my right ear – "Hello?" – a boy’s voice! The type of voice you only hear in your dreams; the type of dream you have with your eyes open and misty.
"Hey... hi." No, it was the voice you expected God to have; the voice you imagined when you read about God speaking to His people in the bible – a big, round voice; yet not loud, or rough; rich, with plenty of cream on its surface.
My heart beat in my throat and my tongue was just meat in my mouth, useless. So I was left with only eyes. I looked up from my book. The room was empty – everybody had left the class, returned to the hostel without bothering to pull me out of my book and tell me that it was 6.45 p.m. and study session was over. It was not the first time. Wasn’t I invisible?
But how had this boy seen me, noticed me? It must be a dream, that type you have with your eyes open and misty. But I don’t have those types of dreams; they were useless, like movies, unreal, unreachable. You make those pictures in your head, the soft images; you enjoy caressing them with your mind’s eye in the dark; you like how they feel against your quiet heart, the smooth, sweet technicolour texture of the floating images in the liquid darkness behind your eyes; but all it takes is a stray sound, a stray strand of worry falling upon your mind, for those images to dissolve into nothing and leak away, while you’re jolted back to reality and left with only the dirty aftertaste of the ruined dream in the back of your throat.
"Are you okay?" the soft voice poked.
I turned to look at the face beside my ear. No – no way. I turned to the other side, looking for the boy of that voice.
"Are you looking for someone?" she said. "There is no one left here – you’re the only one left."
It was her voice.
She wasn’t beautiful. She was beautiful. Whoever had made her face hadn’t been sure of what to make her. I didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t dwell on it. It was that voice. I waited for her to speak again, waiting with my mouth slightly open, as if I was going to repeat the words after her and try to sound like her; watching her mouth, the lips, as if waiting to catch her words with my tongue instead of my ears.
"I was wondering what you were doing out here alone when all your mates had gone back to the hostel."
God, I could eat the words off those lips so that I can taste the delicious, delicious voice forming the sentences; taste the voice in my throat, as if it was mine. It was not just her voice; even the words, they came out as if floating, as if they had butterfly wings instead of feet, running off the tongue like everybody else’s; her own words floated off her lips and flitted about your ears before they settled upon the consciousness and whatever she was saying sank in.
"Are you sure you’re okay?"
I nodded, my voice having cowered somewhere in a corner of my stomach, sufficiently cowed by this one before me.
"Okay then, you should go back to the hostel; it’s getting pretty dark out here and – "
I stood up. She was tall; taller than me. A senior – skirt and blouse. Her skirt was short, and her legs were long in it. Her arms were long, too. She put a hand on my arm; it was warm, almost hot, as if there was something on fire somewhere inside her, under her skin.
Her face was bright with something more than cosmetics. She had light make-up on and her smile was pink and almost not a smile because it didn’t curve to the end like a proper smile, only a comma at the corner of her mouth; calling it a smirk would make it seem sinister, but it wasn’t; if anything, it was a sweet little thing, that smile; and it was what made you think she was beautiful; and if she turned it off, that was when she was not beautiful. So that flicker of a smile was like a switch – it came on, it went off – she was beautiful, then she was not. She was what she wanted to be; not what you wanted her to be. I had never wanted to be like anybody in my life. I wanted to be like her.
I became her friend. She became my friend. She walked me to my hostel that night. She walked me to it every night after that.
The first night the thing happened, she wasn’t walking me to my hostel; we were just walking, all over the school, talking. Then she stopped – stopped talking and walking. I stopped. My heart stopped. I thought something was wrong. I thought I had done something wrong. There was only a little light where we had stopped so I couldn’t tell if the switch was on or not; if she was beautiful or not. I had learnt over the past few months that the smile wasn’t determined by her emotions. Like, it could be on if she was angry, and off when she was happy; so it didn’t matter right now if I could see her smile or not; you could never read her face either way. I held my face tight, waiting. What was wrong?
She didn’t say. We just stood there breathing into the semi-black silence around us. Until her voice touched me on the side of the neck as a moist breath. It was my name she had breathed, like a question; as if asking permission for something.
She didn’t wait for a response; she took the sigh from me as assent.
Her mouth was cold, which was strange since the rest of her was hot; her fingers – her touch seared all over my arms, all over my face, under my pinafore. She took my hand and led me up the length of her legs; showed me the source of her heat, showed me what to do with that kind of fire.
Have you ever put your fingers in a flame and enjoyed it? Has your body ever been ignited by another body and all you wanted to do was burn forever – but it was a more delicious kind of fire than that eternal one they say sinners souls will burn in. Who are the sinners? Were we sinners? Was this a sin? If it was, Lord it will burn every bit of me and there’ll be nothing left for hell’s fire to burn.
My body seemed new, newly-open, newly-found as if I had only been borrowing somebody else’s body all these years.
But it was not only our bodies that were opening up on those nights; our hearts began to unfurl and fold into each other in an embrace so tight that we could hardly breathe when we were together at night, touching, talking.
We talked about everything, anything; she told me everything; I told her everything; told her about Mr. Mada, the English teacher, who had touched me in his office, saying my body was like Byron’s poetry – dark, brooding, but hiding beauty – stupid things like that; and saying that I was stupid when I asked him to stop – I had asked him to stop because the touch was rough like sandpapering my skin, and clumsy, not like a trickle of creamy flame crawling all over the skin like hers – he didn’t stop; his fingers kept looking for trouble all over; then I said I would scream and he stopped, abruptly, his fingers frozen; then he said, after a long while, "So it is only that senior girl that you will allow to touch you, ehn?" He laughed when I flinched. "Oh. Or you think I don’t know? You think everybody doesn’t know, that she touches you."
"She doesn’t just touch me, she loves me."
That had come out as if it had always been waiting at the bottom of my heart all my life to come up to the tip of my tongue; as if I had been dying to tell somebody, anybody, how much Ari loved me, how much I loved her, how I didn’t know much what it was really about, but I was certain it was that – love.
Mr. Mada had laughed. "Love. She loves you. A girl loves another girl, and you think that’s possible. You think it is right, sane. Where in history have you seen that happen? Where? In history, in the Bible, in the Koran, in this society! Where tell me?"
I couldn’t tell him anything. I didn’t know anything. I just knew what it was, this thing.
"He said he is going to report to the principal," I told her. "I didn’t let him touch me again. I can’t let anybody else touch me."
She didn’t touch me that night. Neither did her eyes the next morning when I saw her at the assembly, and when I saw her in the hostel in the afternoon. It was as if she didn’t know me.
I didn’t know what to do with my heart; it felt strange in my chest, as if it wasn’t there, then as if it didn’t belong there and was only taking up another organ’s space; it felt twice as large sometimes, too much load for my chest to bear; it beat twice as fast, it stopped beating, it beat all over my body – I would touch myself at night, in the dark, and feel my heart beating down there, in the middle of the burning flame between my legs, but it was never like her touch.
She stopped touching me; stopped coming to me when the class was empty; stopped meeting my eyes in a crowd of eyes. That was when my heart stopped working; then started working too much. The soft nurse with the whispering voice said it was palpitations. The way she touched me when she checked my pulse was sweet, but it was not fire, it was not Ari.
Palpitations indeed. I knew what it was. And I knew Ari did too.
She didn’t come to see me in the sick bay.
My mother came. She looked at me with something dirty like shame; not the pity one would look at their sick child with. Shame. Her mouth was a thin, stiff line of it. She waited for the soft, willowy nurse to leave before she spoke; her voice was hard, low, her words heavy, slowed down by commas, "You’re a disgrace, a big one. Only you, in the whole school, with another girl. I am ashamed of you, ashamed to be sitting here, at your bedside, as your mother." She paused to let the weight of how much she was ashamed to sink. I looked at her eyes. She looked as if she had cried. She looked as if she still had more tears stored in the back of her eyes, the way the eyes looked glossy.
The tears were in her voice when she continued, "‘Do you know how people were looking at me when I came out of the principal’s office? Did you see how that nurse was looking at me?" (The nurse hadn’t looked at her anyhow; the sweet woman, she had smiled at her when she came in and even bent her knees in greeting.) "Do you know how people will look at me in the streets?" (Nobody looked at anybody on the streets of Lagos; nobody had that kind of time; nobody knows anybody, knows what anybody has done, or if they have a daughter whose love is a shame to her mother.) "Do you know what those neighbours will be saying when we get back home?"
But we didn’t go home. From that sick-bay bed, she took me straight to church. A church her best friend, Iya Sile, had recommended, where the Most Senior Prophet of it 'specializes in such rare cases of sexual spiritual attacks.'
She didn’t tell me where we were going to.
I thought she was taking me to the village to dump me at her mother’s, so I didn’t ask. I just watched the scenery fly by outside the window as the city dropped away behind us and there were less and less of houses and people on the sides of the road; until there were no houses or people to see, only trees and bushes, then a footpath we had to walk to reach the church hidden away in this forest as if it were a den of robbers instead of a church. I didn’t even know it was one until I saw the crudely painted sign – BLOOD OF JESUS CALVARY SPIRITUAL CHURCH – on the side of the crumbling unpainted building. The churches I was familiar with were the ones with their names printed in big proud beautiful letters on large billboards with the meticulously airbrushed picture of the smiling Bishop or General Overseer on it, sometimes with his pretty wife beside him, and church information: times of services, address, telephone number, Facebook page, Twitter handle and all sorts of fancy official things, and usually a few words in tiny letters about Jesus at the bottom of it all, as if they were ashamed of Him or something, and didn’t want too many people to know that they knew Him.
All this church had was its name painted on the wall, no phone numbers or Twitter or Facebook or smiling picture of the Bishop. The Most Senior Prophet, the head of the church, who appeared to meet us, his picture would have ruined any promotional material of the church and scared any prospective members away; so I understood why they had kept his face far from any promotion of the church. He was ugly as a heap of faeces! His hair was dirty, brown dreadlocks; his soutane was that cream-brown which had been white centuries ago; his teeth when he smiled at me were the brownest as if he ate mud for breakfast every day.
He was smiling all through my mother’s telling of my ‘sickness.’ And nodding repeatedly, as if it was a disease he was very familiar with and rather fascinated by. He said it was something he saw regularly nowadays; an 'epidemic' that had been ravaging the society in recent times and was finding its way into the church; the fire-spirit of Jezebel from hell taking residence in the hearts and between the legs of girls and young women. He spoke like an expert, his breath from eating stale refuse filled the air and distracted you from the rubbish he was saying.
I only began to pay attention when he began his prescription:
(i) forty-day residence within the church premises, which he called “igbele”,
(ii) ‘white’ fast, for all the forty days,
(iii) nightly baths in a nearby stream,
(iv) hourly chanting of psalms into a bucket of ‘holy water’,
(v) weekly flagellations – a spiritual exercise which was meant to exorcise this Jezebellian spirit from my body and break the spiritual bond I had formed with the kingdom of hell by joining myself to another female.
Then he handed a list of items I would need to my mother who had been nodding somberly to everything he was saying, in agreement. She sighed and thanked him. He said it was Jah-Jehovah who should be thanked. My mother left. The prophet called a girl called Halleluyah to take me to the room.
The room was a large one where other male and female inmates serving this igbele, of varying lengths, slept. Most of them were asleep, in different positions, or just lying on their backs, sides, or faces. There were about thirty of them in that room, and the spiritual somberness they all wore was identical; it looked more like melancholy than anything to do with solemnity of spirit.
The girl, Hallelujah, pointed to a vacant corner and went to hers.
I stood there, watching, listening, wondering. Nobody spoke to anybody. A few people were murmuring prayers and humming hymns or something. An old woman had a Bible open in front of her, but her eyes looked unfocused, lifeless. A pregnant woman rocked from side to side on her haunches in some sort of spiritual trance, eyes glazed with inertia.
It was daytime but there were candles of various colours burning in different places; two on both sides of someone’s head; three at another’s feet; six round a dirty bucket of dirty water; one in someone’s hand, the little tongue of flame almost touching his lips as he murmured into it; red, blue, white, orange, pink, black – I had never seen this many colours of candles in my life; I didn’t even know candles came in as many colours, or in any colour other than white.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the one in the mumbling man’s hand. It was an unusually large one – red, like blood.
Ari had put one in me one night, deep, sweet; then she had lit it and let the tip of its fire lap at my skin lightly, then dropped some of the wax on my back as that fire on the tip of her fingers found my weeping warmth and set me ablaze.
The Hallelujah was looking at me with a strange look. She looked about my age. She was beautiful in a zipped-up way, with muted features. The look she was giving me was one which didn’t have any name to it; which didn’t have any emotion, any life in it; it was just a look. She could have been looking through me, or into me, as if she could see my soul, know my sins, my undying love for another girl; as if she could understand. Did she know? Was that what she was here for as well. You couldn’t just ask someone a thing like that in a place like this.
She looked at you as if she knew something about you. She definitely knew something about something. And was trying to tell me with her eyes. Ari and I told each other things with our eyes. She called it telepathy. I couldn’t do it with any other person. I couldn’t with this Halleluyah girl. What was she trying to tell?
They came in the middle of the night. They were the Senior Prophet’s boys. They came for only the girls; shook them awake. I wasn’t sleeping. And I was sure Hallelluyah wasn’t either – I could sense her wakefulness in the dark where I lay, thinking when the boys came. They were shadows; only the floating white of their soutanes could be seen moving around in the darkness. When one of them touched my shoulder and shook me, I didn’t understand what it meant until I saw the figures of the other girls rising and following the boys out. Mine waited. When I didn’t move, he growled, impatient, "Dide!" I obeyed and rose. "Come," he said and turned around.
He led me to the building beside the church which was the prophet’s house. The prophet was waiting in the room the boy took me up to, naked, sprawled on a bed vast as the Red Sea. The boy shoved me into the room and shut the door gently behind me.
"My daughter, come here, come to the man of God. Don’t be afraid. What you have been eating is the forbidden fruit – this is what God intended for you –" He touched himself, rubbed. I couldn’t look. I didn’t move. "Come. Didn’t God create Adam and Eve naked? What are you ashamed of? And why do you think He didn’t create a woman first, and then Eve. Because He is God, a man! And he knows that men come first, then women; and only man is supposed to do for woman what she needs, not another woman. Come let me show you. Come let me lay hands on you and heal you. Come."
I didn’t go to him. He came to me. Lifted me onto the bed, put me on my back. I put Ari in the front of my mind to shut this bad thing out. I knew what was going to happen. I didn’t want to know it was happening.
But it happened. Every night of the forty days. And Ari was there every night of it, in the front of my mind, while the prophet laid his healing rod inside me.
He told my mother that I was healed. My mother saw that I was healed – I had returned to how I used to be: unloving, unloved, unknown, invisible, cold. Wasn’t that what healing was, a restoration of your old self. I had been healed of the fire, of that wrong type of love.
But you can’t be healed of memory.
It was what brought on the relapse today. It came as a rush of heat through my veins, throbbing just underneath my skin, liquid memories gushing through me, from the deep distant past where they had been buried, rising from the floor, through my feet, flooding up my body to my head and blinding me.
I had seen a woman. In the mall. Coming out of a shop. She had stopped. Stooped down to wipe a child’s nose. Her child?
I had stopped. Remembered. With a bang. Unhealed in a rush.
The child was chuckling, happy. The woman was chuckling, happier. They were happy to have each other the way they did. How could she have a child?. More importantly, how could she be happy? How! How dare her.
I had been on the other side of the mall, and between us, people came up and went down on the escalators; but those people weren’t there, there was only her and this child, and this their little yellow happiness. Then there was someone else – a man; he had come from the opposite direction, from inside another shop, and entered their circle, this circle I had isolated her and the child within, from everybody; he entered it, as if he owned it, put one hand on her shoulder and rubbed the boy’s round happy head with the other hand, and laughed down at both of them, and they had laughed up at him. Then he picked the boy up, put his right arm around her waist and – just as I whispered, "Ari?" she looked in my direction, straight at me, our eyes meeting in the middle, exchanging nothing, silence between them, silence in the look she gave, blankness of unrecognition; there was nothing for our eyes to say; what do you say after too many years of silence and darkness and coldness – they left.
I watched them leave. Taking their tight little circle of love with them down the escalator; she took my last ember with her, down that escalator into the pit of hell, into the blackness of forever, where memories are lost, where stale love is unremembered, where fires die.
I watched the coming-uppers and going-downers on the escalator for an eternity – people never stop moving, like time, back and forth, to and fro, in circles, in straight lines, coming and going, moving and removing; like miracles happening, then happening in reverse – like a healing, then an unhealing.
"Ari?" I whispered again. It was a question – How? How can a fire just go out cold like that? Especially that kind of fire.