Have you ever tried dipping a blue litmus paper into an acid? Did you notice the way it turned red upon coming in contact with the acid? It looked magically and suddenly right? That was how it looked to me.
I felt like an alien from Uranus whose flying saucer crashed over the earth. I felt strange, so surreal like one of Salvador Dali’s paintings. Who am I? I asked myself silently, my brain doing jagged overwork trying to find an answer to the puzzling question. The answer seemed not within reach, but my mind kept probing for it.
I turned my head slowly to the left. I could see a woman… my mother? I began to recollect slowly. She was my mother. She was holding me on my left arm and shoulder. She had this perplexed look that puzzled me, dipping me more into this chasm of confusion. In her face, I could tell that she too had a question needing an answer in her mind. I turned slowly away from her, this time turning to my right. I knew it was Nobert, my fiancé, the moment I saw him. He didn’t look strange like mother had looked when I first saw her. Nobert was holding my right arm with his left hand while his other hand held a brown silk-made bag. I could see a dress… my dress, haphazardly stuffed into it, like it was done in a rush. Looking at Nobert’s face, I could tell that he looked baffled like the writing of a two year old toddler, but his masculinity hid it like a black cloth in the darkness of the night.
Who am I? The question screamed again in my mind. None of the faces around me seemed to have the answer I craved for. I tried to talk. I opened my mouth, but no words came out, just air.
Have I forgotten how to talk?
I tried again, this time I heard a word filter out from my voice box.
“Mother,” I heard myself say. After saying it, I began to recall.
So I can talk. I can speak a familiar language.
I felt other words filling my brain in multitudes than I could count. I set my gaze towards her and I could see her face ease to assume an engendering ecstatic face. I quickly turned my gaze to Nobert, and he also had a face similar to my mother.
These guys are trying to hide something from me. I’m sure of it.
“What is wrong with you guys?” There was no answer. Their silence sailed me to a crazy island, but exhibiting it was the least on my preference action for now.
“Tola,” it was mother’s voice that rescued me from the crazy island.
“Yes ma,” I answered. I had become to feel less surprised about my ability to speak. I turned to her, “Please what is happening?”
“Tola,” she called again. This time she was holding my arms, shaking them as she started to repeat my name.
“What is wrong mummy?” my voice shook as I spoke because she was still shaking me. She released me as soon as she heard my reply.
She burst out with a praise song and she married it with a delirious dance step. “Jesu mi seun seun, Olorun mi seun …”
I turned left. Nobert wasn’t dancing, but he was also singing the song, not lip-syncing like he used to do when we attend church on Sundays.
It is a bad thing when one is submerged like a submarine in an ocean of mystery, veiled by darkness while breathing confusion, trying hard to swim to an uncertain future. Such state like tabula rasa can make someone go mad.
Mother stopped dancing and she set her gaze on me, holding me like she did before she broke off with the song and dance. “Tola,” she called again.
This time, my voice was intertwined with a mixture of tiredness and bewilderment, “Yes ma.” I released myself from her grip. “I don’t understand all of this.” I looked at myself. I hadn’t noticed I was wearing an oversized blouse and wrapper. I quickly recognised them to be mother’s. It was one of those old faded dresses she stopped wearing about six months ago.
What the heck am I doing wearing Mother’s old dresses?
I watch Mother’s excited face fell. She must have seen me looking at the oversized dress.
“Tola, it is nothing,” she said slowly.
“What do you mean by it is nothing. I’m wearing one of your old dress and you say it is nothing.” I turned my gaze to the ambiance. I hadn’t noticed till now that we were in a church’s compound. “We are in a church on a ….?” I tapped my forehead trying to remember the day we were in. The answer didn’t seem around the corner, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t a Sunday because we were the only ones in the compound.
“Em…em…em…Tola…em,” Mother babbled, obviously trying to conjure a perfect lie that would soothe the situation.
“What is it mum?” I swirled round in slow motion to Nobert’s face. “What is wrong with me, why am I dressed like this, why are we in a church?”
There was an eerie of silence as my question drove off on a probing asphalt, looking for where to stop. I watched Nobert and Mother as they exchanged eye signs.
This people know something I don’t know. Something bad I suppose.
Both of them were like a Rosetta stone into unlocking the question that my mind was probing since. Who am I?
Flashes of some scenes from Jackie Chan’s 1999 hit film – Who Am I? materialized in my mind eyes. I could now understand his plight and why he performed deadly stunts in the quest to unlock his past.
The eye signs ended with Nobert, so it was no surprise when he spoke.
“Tola, you passed out.” I had known Nobert to always speak English like that man in the House of Representatives who loved big grammar. No mystery was he wasn’t voted in the second time.
“What are you saying… passed out. From where?”
He smiled, obviously trying to build his confidence. “The passed out I meant is fainting.”
Faint. My mind travelled back to my modern biology textbook. Fainting occurs when there is no supply of oxygen to the brain. But what does that has to do with Church and Mother’s old dress?
“You mean I fainted. So the next thing is putting Mother’s old dress on me and bringing me to a church! You know how ridiculous that sounds.”
My last sentence caught Nobert unaware. He made to talk, probably in defence, but he opened his mouth and no sound came out. He must have processed my last sentence in his mind and saw that his explanation wasn’t valid for someone of my age.
“Your fainting was out of the ordinary.” Mother said slowly, rescuing Nobert from his perplexed jail. “You fainted for a very long time and we thought you wouldn’t wake up again. We were bringing you to the church when you woke up.” I could see a tiny rivulet of tears flowing a downward course on Mother’s cheeks. She soon involuntarily increased its intensity and she accompanied it with tears sound. Nobert moved to her side and began to console her.
While Mother’s explanation coupled with her emotional breakdown made sense, she didn’t explain why I was wearing her old dress. Maybe all my dresses were dirty or maybe she didn’t want me to wear jeans to the church, after all, I didn’t have skirts or roomy blouses she always wanted me to wear. That explanation made sense.
I sauntered towards her, and together with Nobert, I joined in consoling her.
TWO WEEKS LATER.
After the fiasco at the church compound two week ago, he took a short leave from work. I noticed that Mother still kept close watch on me. Not once, not twice, did I catch her tip-toeing to my room at night, , to watch me while I sleep like a voyeur. Sometimes during the day, I would catch her staring at me for long periods. Mother ran all errands herself. She must be over-protective of me not to fall into that deadly faint again.
By the second week, she had stopped been over-protective and she let me be. She resumed work on the third week. On the evening of Tuesday in the third week, I took the grocery basket to run some market errands because Mother was getting late in arriving from work. If she was around, I knew she wouldn’t approve me going to the market, but since she wasn’t around, I thought I had better used the opportunity to get house for the first time in three weeks!
The road to Sabo market looked similar yet strange. There were few deviations from what from what I had known about the route- an on-going road construction, a new billboard and a new pedestrian bridge that didn’t fail to catch my attention.
Something felt odd about going to the market. Everyone kept staring at me like I was wearing a provocative dress that showed my bum and cleavage, or as if I had faeces stained on my dress. I looked at myself trying to find out why they were staring at me. Unable to find anything out of place, I ignored them but my mind didn’t. It kept throbbing for answer in a similar pattern to the day Mother said I fell into an extended faint.
The market didn’t feel different like the route to it felt. Nobody stared at me. Everyone went by his business. I looked at my ‘to-buy’ list. My regular pepper and tomatoes seller’s stall was at the next bend.
Iyawo’s stall loomed ahead. She was my regular seller. People called her Iyawo because she was yet to prove herself as a woman even after four years of marriage.
Many tongues wagged on her problem- some said she had aborted all the babies inside her when she was younger, while others claimed her mother in-law was a witch and that she had tied her fallopian tubes because she didn’t like her. They added that she wouldn’t have allowed the marriage had it not being for her son’s headstrong attitude. The most absurd of the theories was that the reason why she was yet to be a mother was because she was a gossiper. While it is true that Iyawo told gossips better than Linda Ikeji, I didn’t believe that was why she hadn’t been able to give birth to a child. The explanation reeks of stupidity to me.
I arrived at her stall. She was attending to another customer so she might not have noticed me. It wasn’t till when the customer left did she looked at me, and I noticed as her face metamorphosed into a perplexed state, similar to the one Mother and Nobert had worn on the day I fell into an extended faint.
“Iyawo is everything alright?” I asked, waving my palms over her face. My waving seemed to jerk her from her reverie.
“What is it, you looked disturbed.”
“No… em…” I caught her observing me keenly like she had seen a ghost.
“It is me Tola,” I stressed the ‘Tola’, hitting chest with my hand as I did. “What is wrong with you?”
“Nothing Tola, don’t mind me.” I could hear the sanity in her voice. She sounded balanced.
“You scared me,” I exhaled, then I used my right hand to fan myself as a relief. “I thought you were running mad.”
“Mad ke. Olorun maje.” She snapped her right fingers together and she threw it over her head. “May we never experience it, and those who have experienced it, may they never fall back into it.”
“Amin.” I guessed she would follow her prayer with a gossip, so I quickly gave her my orders to keep her busy. “I want pepper and tomatoes- N150.”
Iyawo started to sell my order. “Do you know Bisi,” she started, speaking in Yoruba, “that tall, slim girl that looks like a stick?”
“You will know her. She lives in last house on your street.”
“Yes I do.” I answered, switching to Yoruba myself. I didn’t want to appear rude and negligent.
“I heard she has HIV.”
“What!” I exclaimed, my right hand covering my opened mouth.
“So you are surprised. Don’t you know she is an olosho? Or don’t you know that an olosho is an advanced ashewo?”
“Iyawo, na you go know everything.” I used my hands to beckon her to hasten up with the pepper and tomatoes she was picking. I moved to help her.
“Don’t worry Tola, I’m through.” She stretched the pepper and tomatoes inside a black nylon to me. “Here take.”
I paid, collected my balance, greeted her goodbye and I moved to continue my shopping. I was almost at the meat stall when I noticed that I couldn’t hear the clanging of my keys in my pocket. I was surprised at first when I rummaged my pocket and I didn’t see it. I checked the grocery basket but I didn’t see it there too. Then occurred to me that I had forgotten it on Iyawo’s stall. Without further thoughts, I started moving back to her stall.
Iyawo’s stall loomed ahead, so I quicken my walking. There were about three women in her stall. As I got closer to the stall, I could hear their conversation as they gossiped in a mixture of Yoruba and pidgin.
I hear a clap of hands. “Ehn en Iya Risi, shebi you know Tola? That girl that lives near chief Akintoye’s house.” The voice was unmistakably Iyawo’s.
“Tola…Tola…Tola… I don’t know her o.”
“You do. Let me remind you. She is slim and tall. Ehn en, she is the fiancée of Nobert, that Igbo boy that lives close to the canal.”
“Now I remember her. I even saw her today sef.”
By now, I had stopped moving, listening attentively to the gossip Iyawo want to tell about me.
“Didn’t you notice that she disappeared for about a month now?”
“You are right. But I thought she had travelled.”
“Travel nibo. She ran mad!”
“No Iyawo, iro ni o. The Tola I saw today didn’t look mad.”
“Siddon there. It is true that she got healed miraculously when they took her to a church, but madness never truly cures. Better warn your children not to get close to her should in case she falls back to her episodes and bites them.”
I didn’t wait to hear the rest of their conversation. The floodgates in my eyes opened and a flood of tears flowed down my cheek. Reality is hard to swallow. I remembered Mother and Nobert’s explanation, and at that moment, I felt betrayed like Samson when Delilah tricked him into cutting his hair.
I felt as if I was being thrown back to Uranus. I felt surreal like Salvador Dali’s paintings. I felt like I was wearing mother’s old dress again. My eyes turned in spirals. I felt tangled.
Kay Greins… 2014