Sometimes, I throw a light on my bloody history and see myself running through the street of my childhood. Sweat and water dripping from head to toe while my body cruises through space and time with great speed, and passion tingling down my hollowed soul. I ran toward the cathedral. I wanted to make it in life. I wanted to be successful. It seemed too hard for my young self. I wanted to stand up for myself and crush whatever obstacles stood in my way. Early in life, I learned that passion took men out of these streets. After leaving this street, their visions were never the same again. That anger cultivated on these streets made them survive wherever they found themselves. Sly men, walking quietly through the chaos of existence that tried to drown them, swimming through life against all sorts of existential waves pushing them ashore. Sly men, throwing master strokes against all forms of oppression trying to drown them. Sly men, leaving trophies, marks, and bones on their paths. Writing angry songs and poems just to tell others what was going on in their streets. That anger seeping through me had always been there. I can see it clearly now.
I ran down the asphalt toward the cathedral. I heard market women chattering all around me. Bargaining. Selling. Buying. Our street was a tomb. Nature was nature. Men were men. Our street was our street. A vulture perched on a heap of dirt, bickering, bickering, and sending tiny pieces of rat down its throat. I walked past. Rap music came to town, and everyone wanted to be a rapper. Baggy pants came to town, and everyone wanted to wear them. Double-pocket checked shirts. Big polo shirts. Sports shoes for Sunday masses. Eleganza shoes. Kito sandals. Packets of joy in the form of abiola sachet milk. Forever Living products. Strange trees planted by the riverside. Birds. Migrants from the north patrolling our streets and offering to mend broken things—pots, shoes, clothes. and all the other fragmented items in our house. One day, a bard appeared on our street, telling stories for discarded bottles. Goats. Chickens. Sewage running into the stream. The stream running into a river. The river running into an ocean. The ocean running straight into the mouth of God.
These stories weren’t stories, but they kept happening. Bicycles that only rich kids could afford, while we watched and yawned and dreamed and laughed. Broken tires. Vulcanizer. Patches. Three-wheeled cars. Carbide. Black soot. Harmattan. Wooden guns. Soccer. Shin guards. Formica. Telephone. Television. Cassettes. Video machines. Festivals. Dance. Fireworks. The street was constantly changing and building itself back to what it was before. The street was a living thing with a mind of its own. When Jasper was caught stealing, he blamed it on the street. He said the street made him do it. The street took all our blames, including all our shits. The street owned our errors and gave us ablution. Jasper was gutted by gunfire three feet away from a coconut tree.
Our street: the unpaved road carved by erosion. The unpaved road that snaked into a paved road. A woman once fell into a ditch along the unpaved road on a pitch-dark night. We heard her cry, and Father ran to help her. By the time he got there, water was gushing into her mouth, drowning her. Father threw a stick in, and she held it. Our neighbors came out and helped drag her out. She survived after spitting our street from her mouth. Our street was water filling her mouth.
After rainfall, we threw in paper boats and watched then sail down to the stream and disappear into the rivers. Sometimes we put little ants in our boats and watched them struggle to get out while the paper slowly soaked in water and sailed away. I bet they never made it out. Most people never made it out of our street, just like the ant sailing away. Rain. Sun. Trauma. No one wanted to live like that, but it was there. Trauma. People were suffering and smiling and hoping. Hope. I wish it all came through. Trauma is always twisted. It bends happiness into laughter. Traumatized laughter. The voice of the carpenter echoing across the street. Hands squeezing woods into fine shape and finished furniture. Furniture displayed in the middle of the unpaved road. Traumatized laughter. When I die, mark my grave: He had a good laugh. And let those fine carpenters carve the casket while laughing.
Laughter. The sound of collective chaos we couldn’t swallow whole, spit clean through our esophagus onto the floor of a beer parlor. Death. One more bottle, Madam! Flowers sprouted from the dead sometimes and bloomed. And sometimes they surrounded green grass with shimmering edges. A thatched house by the graveyard. The house of a man we called Ije Love, Journey of Love. An eccentric who appeared with a heart full of love, a matchstick in his mouth, and who sold petite food items for a living. He was a hippie before hippies were called hippies, or before we realized hippies were called hippies. He plucked ripped pawpaw from the graveyard and sold them for a few naira. Rickety walker. Rickety house. Crooked teeth. Crooked smile. He wore only female garments and made love all day to his girlfriend. To buy something from his store, you had to walk across a few graves to his house and knock on his door. Feminine voice. Moaning. Master stroke. Moaning. Everyone loved knocking at his door, or just waiting for a few minutes before knocking. Moaning. Knock. The street always loved those who loved it back. The street breathes and dwells in us. Ije Love. The man. The artist. The river. The movement. A judgment. A ghost. A passing thing. The condemned. The graveyard. An unpaved street gutted by erosion. One morning, he disappeared.
But I found girls. I found joy. I found all there was to life. What? What? A wise man once told me that to cry after a breakup was a luxury. I never found out about this until I felt it later in life. I had no time to cry or feel sorrow or weep through the night. I had to be at work the next day. I had to feed and shelter myself. I picked myself up and moved on. The wise man was right. Those privileged enough to cry in this situation would never understand it. They wouldn’t understand what it means to smile through pressure and keep walking. Tears. Wailing. All might be the end of you.
All my life, I’ve always felt vertigo in my dreams and sometimes when I lose consciousness—the earth would appear slightly tilted inward before my very eyes. As though a hollow had just appeared from underneath.
Where the earth was softer, we planted maize and corn and melon. We threw our yams in a bigger hole dug with a spade. Yam that bore other yams. Yams that carried weevils out of the earth and sat on a thatched basket waiting to be eaten. Yams that I carried into the kitchen and placed under the brown tables with newspapers underneath. A rat fell down from a shelf. I chased it. I stomped and smashed it with anger and fear. I was young, but I knew what anger and fear could do inside of us. It made me smash a rat.
Some nights, we searched for snails and fireflies. Walking across the field, it felt as if all the stars in the world gathered at our feet. We stored the fireflies in a transparent jar. The fireflies twinkled through the night, and before morning they were all dead. It was as if they never wanted to be caged. It was as if they would rather die than see their lights caged. While I laid their dead bodies on the grass, I swore to live like them—to shine so brightly that nothing could ever take my freedom away from me. My freedom to walk under the sun. My freedom to dream of faraway worlds. My freedom to live this damn life. My freedom not to put another human through these rotten streets that bled us dry of our sanity and every morsel of creativity in us.
Brown sunroof. Dried leaves on the footpath. A sudden strike of lighting. Rain. Storm. All the plantain in our garden uprooted and carried beyond the river. Whenever nature struck, life caught us unaware. It was always when we were unprepared. We gave all the glory to God afterward. After all, He kept us alive and wreaked havoc on the other streets. It struck our wicked neighbors and did not touch us. The entire world was my muse. The entire field was my muse.
Artillery shells, bullets fired through the muzzle of hate lay waiting in the open field. I claimed ownership. I walked around in my red short pants and a white shirt, seeking treasures. Thinking. Picking up bullet casings and all that. These lost totems of the civil war pointed to another civil war. Let me be. Biafra. Unexploded landmines.
We risked the day, potholes, water logs, heavy traffic, and walked across the main road to play soccer with boys whose legs were stronger than ours. When we dribbled, we jumped up to avoid colliding with them. Mark. Emeka. Ebuka. Boys who distributed passes like gods. Ebuka struck an overhead pass; I ran a few paces and caught up with it. I dribbled past three defenders and netted that goalpost. I can still hear of the sound of legs running in green grass. I can still hear myself screaming, “Goal!” I ran down the length of the football pitch and suddenly felt vertigo. It appeared that the hole I had dug for myself in my mind was suddenly reflected in my view. I was sick, and no, I wasn’t high on anything.
Two boys lost their lives on that paved road while running the length of our street. They were struck dead by the wheels of a drunk driver and were laid to rest in a small grave because they themselves were small. We quickly forgot them because our survival depended on how quickly we could forget things, especially traumatic events.
These words are things that happened to a man when he decided to jump into his mind because the weight of being alive or watching a drunk father and a dying mother day by day was too much to be carried alone. I had to find a way to survive.
Here, we drew circles on the sand and named them after some countries in the world. They called names of the countries as we ran, and if your country was called, you stopped and let the caller make the jump. We raised dust and ran all over. Here, life was dull and high and dusty and bright. Here, life changed constantly and whipped itself through colors and strikes of rain. Here, rain seeped through the roof, and we placed broken earthenware in our room to catch drops of rain. I can still hear the sound of rain dripping into a bucket in the middle of the night. Dew fell early in the morning. Here, we were more than names. We were sorrows. We were early consciousness lifting the weight of our broken nation. We were light-bearers running to light the dying torch of our fathers’ dreams, bearing the chagrined anger of our unpaid parents. Sometimes, we slept with hungry stomachs and woke up in delusion. I couldn’t differentiate if Father was screaming or Mother was sick or something else. I heard the sound, and I still can’t tell whose it was. I swear, I didn’t want to carry that weight any longer, but I knew that I had no other choice.
The yellow sunlight struck through my window while I lay in bed thinking. Covered with a duvet from head to toe and whispering to myself. My songs are not songs; they are echoes of my tiny self running through the rims of time. My songs do not belong to me. They belong to others. They belong to a man who left an old turntable in our house. On Sundays, when the sun was high, my father played high-life music and nodded away. My songs belonged to the street. To these people. My family. My friend. My country. I had long wanted to sing them, but I had no voice. Sometimes I sang them in a strange voice echoing into the depth of my mind, but I knew it wasn’t right. I needed the right words.
That house. White. Surrounded by ixora flowers. Bees buzzing and squirrels running from fishpond to garden and back to fishpond when the sun has fallen. Squirrels lived beneath the earth underneath the house. The bees took earth with them atop a tree and built a home. Crickets sang their hearts out at night. For me, this was what it felt like listening to the universe. The universe is a series of tiny screams echoing across galaxies. Evangelists preaching in the early hours of the morning. Singing kumbaya. Dancing kumbaya. Breathing kumbaya. Kumbaya, my Lord, kumbaya. O Lord, kumbaya.
Here, we were children basking in the evening sun with brown sand underneath our feet, singing nursery rhythms. Merrily merrily merrily merrily, life is but a dream. Here, we watched our mothers dance elegantly on the street during a fundraising event—our mothers moving their bodies with love and respect. Our mothers doing all they could to keep the street clean and safe. Mothers. Fathers.
That house. It was as if I encountered familiar spirits around it every night. Spirits that knew me and everything about me. Familiar spirits living underneath the ground, raising their heads in chants from the chasms. Smiling faces. Everlasting smiles that rarely left my mind. That night, nothing was heard but the screams of a man being stabbed from behind by his friends. When we woke up, trickles of blood led to the hospital path. Fathers hissed. Mothers cried, and soon everything returned to normal. Normal wasn’t normal—normal was a pain. The weight of mothers loving brutal fathers, and the weight of children carrying the weight of mothers and fathers, walking on this street that had done nothing but violently abuse them. Eyes. Martin. Tall. Bully. Roaming the street, searching boys, collecting their pocket money, and running into the bush.
Here, by the stream, we bathed and laughed and splashed water on each other. Here, by the stream, I looked at her and felt as if my body was marked by Cupid himself as a soft target. Here, I first saw her and wondered if it could ever be between us, for us, forever. Could it? Just a girl my age with the smile of a goddess. Here, where a small sand dune had formed with ferns scattered around it, I tapped her gently on the shoulder and said nothing. I just smiled. She smiled back. I felt weird. I shouldn’t have done it. I mean, she was a walking goddess. Her smile sent a shiver down the root of seaweeds and they shimmered in the sun. That smile will forever play in my heart.
When I got home, I played all the songs of Don Williams. I felt alive deep in my soul. I felt better than having drunk my first wine. I was beginning to understand what a woman could do to a man, inside. But I didn’t know what it felt like to be jilted. I was too afraid to talk to her. Too afraid to look into her eyes.
Celine passing our house on Sunday morning on her way to church. Celine dressed in nice evening attire and on her way to fetch water from the stream. Celine smiling. Celine being Celine. Celine talking to another boy. Celine feeling happy. I wanted to be the one to make her laugh like that. The voice of my father ricochets from the living room, taking me away from the window. That window almost brown with dust, even though we cleaned it every week. That window from which I once witnessed a snake climbing a tree and chasing butterflies. That window from which I watched my father fix his Yamaha TX500.
I hated that Yamaha TX500. I hated that he drove it. I hated that he was shameless about it. I hated. I hated. But the sight of Celine was heaven. I wanted to tell her how I felt about her. I wanted to speak up. I watched her every day. Celine on her way to market. Celine on her way to school.
Celine and I attended the same school. Sometimes I waited until she was ahead of me before trailing behind her. I wished she would stop for me. Talk to me. Walk with me. But she only smiled when our eyes met. Down the road, my father’s Yamaha spurted dust and debris and shame. I heard the sound of my father’s motorcycle and turned. His face was behind me. He stopped, and I climbed onto the motorcycle. I swear, those who were walking got to school before us and that Yamaha TX500. I swear, I never wanted to own a motorcycle like that. I hated that Celine saw me, too.
In my dreams, I wedded Celine a million times. I had wet dreams for her. I was obsessed with her. But these days I remember all that and laugh. I think about her voice, my mother’s voice, the voice of the street, the voice of Don Williams on the radio urging me to listen to the radio. Blue Yamaha motorcycle. Dead plugs. Leaking oil. Daily repairs. Daily roasting of plugs in burning woods. Daily complaint. Daily frustration. Ladies frying garri in a dry hot pan. Burning woods. Heat. The motorcycle on which a ghost rode along with my father on his silver wheels and departed by the sea to screams and booms of the river goddess. Father said her shadow followed him for the rest of the day.
Long story short, I heard a lot about Celine from other boys, so that I began to hate her. I forced myself to push her off my mind. They said that Celine had slept with certain boys in our street. I knew it was all lies, but I needed that story to ease my mind and to move on and not to wonder when I would stop her or talk to her. Oh! Smooth skin Celine. Sunshine. There, I learned that one could smother love. One could smother feeling. Like drowning a precious cat with your eyes closed. One could love someone and do nothing, too. That, too. One could love someone and just walk away. One could love someone and just play music. One could love someone and frown and hate. One could love someone and watch her every day from his window. And again, the wise man was right: sometimes, walking away makes it easier to bear. It makes it all go away. For that, I am human. Well, this wasn’t really a walking-away kind of situation (you can only walk away from something that is yours), I just looked away.
Celine wasn’t my first girlfriend after all. My first girlfriend stood in the church premises and shone like Madonna when I first set my eyes on her. And that image of her face illuminated by sunlight never left my mind. There I knew that heaven blessed that day. In the end, this earth truly leaves no one happy, it only gives us the illusion of happiness, or the illusion of sadness—whatever falls in between remains here with us.
The wheels of that Yamaha motorcycle circling our dusty road. Father holding it firmly while it spurted fumes, and mother yawning behind him. These women were tired of what men could be. Yawn. Tired of all the rotten wheels of a postwar longing. Yawn. Postwar living. Yawn. Postwar suppression. Yawn. The weight of being an Igbo in Nigeria. Yawn. The weight of being a wife to men ravaged by war. Yawn. Yawn. Yawn.
That Yamaha TX500, sucked dry of oil. Sucked dry of fuel. Stripped of screws and nuts and bolts. Lying in pieces. Father bent by the exhaust pipe blowing away soot and our bloody history and all the roads run through by the bike. The narrow farm road. The history of the farm and my brother. Brother. Our bloody history of being raised by a man who lessened his sons through brutality and grabbed his deity’s fate underneath his breath and murmur and hope. Father and brother nearly fought. Brother nearly learned how to wheel that Yamaha TX500. Brother tried. Brother fought through those wheels of hatred and brutality to emerge broken. I see him every day fighting these bloody memories. Trying all he could to flush it down the drain. The story of my father and his Yamaha motorcycle is a little complicated. But then, it is what it is. He drove it with pride. I didn’t watch him with pride. I hated it. That motorcycle nearly killed him, too. He survived.
Stories don’t end with a street fight or clenched fists punching the air. Stories don’t end without your first taste of alcohol. Stories don’t end without a father, a mother, and a street. Stories without stories are still stories. Stories with sounds are stories. Stories told while I was clapping my hands are stories. Clap. Clap. Listen to the sounds of my ancestors on this street. A story is a story. Sound. Pacing. Pacing, the stench of all the stories that happened on this street and could only be told by someone who saw that Yamaha TX500 run through an unpaved road. Everything could be changed. Everything could be renamed. When that Yamaha TX500 fell by the river, the gods stood up and had mercy on him. The gods blessed him. That Yamaha TX500 ran a good deal before giving up on the street. That Yamaha TX500 was my history unspoken, spurting through sounds and rotten murmur. If a murmur is a story, here it is. Yamaha TX500. I remember; it was sold for cheap parts because it couldn’t run any longer.