My best friend died of sickle cell anaemia.
She was a slim and delicate thing, fair skinned and seeming to emit light from her very pores. She was always cold and loved to bask in the sun like a strange yellow lizard, closing her eyes and turning her face up to its warm caress. She called herself a sun- worshipper and I was her disciple.
I was tall for my age, the youngest in my class when I passed the Common Entrance exams that would earn me a scholarship and a place in one of the elite secondary schools in Eastern Nigeria.
My brain may have gotten me in, but nothing would ever make me fit in with the other girls at my school. I loathed the food, the air, the red dust that got into everything. I hated the school and all the condescending teachers who looked down on me for being a ‘Federal Scholar’ and therefore a ‘Govament Pikin’. I hated the senior girls, even as I envied them and wished I could sprout breasts and hips overnight and finally fit in.
I do not know how or why, but she ended up sitting next to me in class. I was antisocial, she was placid and easygoing. We grew into our friendship and I began to notice her odd little mannerisms. There was the sun worship, the tin of Robb she carried around to keep her warm, the snapping of finger and thumb twice before she could pick up her spoon to eat. I saw them all, knew them all, grew to love them all. But it was the fantastic fables she spun from thin air that I loved the most.
The story she told me the last time we sunbathed together was this…
Once, long ago, the world was young and Man was still a distant dream. The entire world was new and Father Earth thought on how to make this new world beautiful. So he begged God for one final, fabulous creature that would crown His work. The Creator, in anger at Earth’s presumptuousness, left him alone. Father Earth was so aggrieved by his loss that he chased God, and on the edge of a deep ravine,caught the edge of His aura as he lost his footing. Father Earth stubbed his big toe on the bottom of the valley and cried out as the mountainside punched a hole in his chest. At last, God took pity on His creation and took the bone, blood and earth from his grisly chest wound. He put Father Earth to sleep and when he awoke, the wound was gone! Instead, by his chest rested a creature most beautiful to behold! God said to Father Earth,
“I have made you one like yourself, to crown my work. She is of you, of your pain, your breath, blood and bone. I distilled the despair of your heart when you thought you had lost me with the strength it took you to catch and hold my aura and poured it all into this, my greatest creation”.
And God told him to name this creature Sky, and there was peace in the soul of Father Earth at last as he made a home with Mother Sky.
One day Father Earth came home from the farm to find Mother Sky weeping hysterically. Why, what ails you? He asked, like any good husband should. Mother Sky replied,
“I am tired. Tired of the cooking, the cleaning, the washing, boiling and fetching! I am so alone!”
“Well, what do you want me to do about it?” Father Earth asked crossly, somewhat put out because his dinner wasn’t yet ready.
Seeing his momentary solicitude had gone, Mother Sky wailed afresh, wounded by this sudden coldness from him.
Well, Father Earth had no quick or easy answer for her, so he gave her the only answer he could – he took her hand and led her into his hut. Then, at last, all was tranquility, and a sweet, gentle stillness.
A few weeks later (for the gods do not reckon time as we do), Mother Sky gave birth to twins. A girl she named Sun (for she was born first, her reddish-yellow skin lighting up the birthing chamber as she lustily grabbed her father’s thumb and wailed for milk), and a boy, named Moon (for Mother Sky had foreseen that he would forever dwell in his sister’s radiance, and his glossy black skin reminded her of the night).
A sudden doom came on her as she wrapped her babies and watched Sun suckling on her fathers’ thumb, for she had dreamed her children’s fate.
They would never live together as siblings; the sky and the earth were simply not big enough. So they would have to be separated. Sun would have to live with Earth, and Moon would stay with Mother Sky.
There was a great deal of weeping as the family parted ways. Even as Father Earth scooped up Sun to leave for the farm, Mother Sky’s heart ached for him. The babies would never know. They would grow up believing that they were alone, and in their instinctive sorrow (or perhaps a blind understanding that they were halves of a whole), would take to the heavens one after another. But they would never, ever meet.
Many times Sister Sun would rush to the heavens, only to find she was too late to see Brother Moon as he left. And Brother Moon always caught a faint trace of her scent as she left the sky, a trail of orange and golden light marking her rage and sorrow for her lost brother.
She told me this story on the last evening of our final term as juniors. We’d been basking in the sunset, as usual, and I wondered if I ought to give her my brooch. It had been my grandmothers’ brooch; given to me the summer she died by my mother. I wore it every day, and when a senior student punished me for violating the school’s dress code, I wore it pinned to my undershirt.
It was an evening of lasts. It would be the last time I ever watched the sun set with her, though I did not know it. She asked for the brooch as a keepsake. We faced a long holiday apart, almost five whole sweaty summer months! Living in different states, we wrote letters to each other that kept getting lost in transit during the shorter holidays. I often joked that one day all those letters would catch up with us.
I gave her the brooch and went back to enjoying my sunset.
The next day, she came clutching at my sleeve, her eyes wide and frantic. She said she’d lost my brooch. Her huge brown eyes regarded her feet as she mumbled an apology.
A bright red bolt of pure hate and grief shot through me in that instant. I lashed out at her, screaming with all the teenage angst I could summon,
“Why? Why are you so careless? God, I hate you!”
She recoiled from me and ran, sobbing, back to her dormitory. I felt no remorse, not then, for what I had done. I was full of righteous anger at her carelessness.
Four and a half months later, I was copying notes in class when my teacher, Miss Adebayo, asked me to step into the corridor. Miss Adebayo took me to the Principals’ Office, where our ancient, garrulous Guidance Counsellor, Mrs. Anyanwu, and our Head Teacher, Mr. Garba, were waiting to rip my heart to pieces.
She died the year we both turned 12.
Twenty years later I found her again.
I knew her for her distinct stillness, that strange quality she had of being absolutely motionless, seeming not even to breathe. As though she waited for something just out of her reach. Always, she made me think of the phrase “with bated breath”.
My day had gone well by my own standards, and I was buoyant as I shopped for vegetables at the market close to my flat on the way home.
I was opening the car door when something made me look up. I realised later that I had already seen her, but my mind refused to process what my heart instantly knew. Without hesitation, I called to her. She stepped towards me, a smile starting on her face as she reached out her hand to me, palm up, as if in supplication.
My heart jolting in my chest, I stepped around the bonnet to meet her, incredulous. My eyes must have been as big as saucers.
“Is it you? Is it really, truly you?” I whispered wonderingly.
She nodded, placing her thumb against her throat and pouting regretfully.
“It is you, isn’t it? But how can you be here, now? How did you find me again?”
She smiled again, that broad, 500 megawatt smile I remembered so well from the year I became a woman and hadn’t seen in too long. Briefly touching her index finger to her throat, her hands described a fluid symmetry in the air between our chests.
“You can’t talk? But, how come? I’m sorry, I don’t understand you.”
Taking my elbow, she gently steered me round to the passenger side and got behind the wheel.
I was silent as I buckled myself in, noticing her long, graceful movements and the assurance with which she took the wheel.
I forgot to give directions in the wash of sensations I was overwhelmed by as we moved off. She seemed to need none, and unerringly found her way through the darkening streets. I remember the evening light turning the bonnet a deep golden orange that would soon shade to a dark pink as night fell.
There was no need for words between us. We had always understood each other. Our mind-words spoke volumes as she drove and I stared at the passing streets.
I knew why she was there, as surely as I had always known I would see her again.
A wretched street dog ran across the road, looking back at us as we zoomed past, the car juddering slightly as she tried to brake. It regarded us a while as I watched in my side mirror, and I wondered what it saw with its old, rheumy eyes. Did it feel our love, was it bathed in the brilliance of it as I was bathed in the sunset?
Home, then, and the house echoed flatly as I slammed the door open.
She knew where to take the shopping bags and did so briskly. In five minutes we sat outside on the roof veranda, watching the sunset. She held my hand in the hot, silent evening air, and I wept for all I’d lost. I wept for both of us, for our time together, cut short by disease, for the bright star she’d been, now burned out.
Gone too soon. I didn’t know I’d said it out loud until she spoke in my head,
“Stop regretting and enjoy this with me.”
And so I did.
And when it was almost over, when it was time for Sister Sun to go to bed and Brother Moon to wake up, I told her I forgave her for the lost brooch.
She kissed my cheek softly, her tears warm in the still air.
We held each other close as the evening breeze sprang up, and that was how she left me. Sitting on the roof, my heart finally beating, my head silent at last, and my soul at peace.