Yusuf Eslah Sibraim Ayenajei
Let Me Be: A story told in the future (tenses) (2022)
1. A FUTURE’S PAST, PURSUES.
The boy will remain the only male child born into that family. Not that gender matters anywhere else on the planet. Except on the African continent. Except you’re in Nigeria. And except you’re in the North. Except you’re in Kaduna South. But most especially, except you’re the boy’s father, Mada.
The boy will grow up in a home that’s more of a house, similar to the type Nigerian boys usually tend to grow up in, learning all that boys “ought” to learn as they grow: to play rough, to be nonchalant about everything, even their emotions. To be strong and never talk about the demons under your bed and in the dark, or about how they’re scared of going to pee alone at night when there’s no light. But he, the boy, will be the black sheep. The one who became everything that the average man dares not to be; expressive, compassionate. A good man. His father will hate him for that, or so it will seem, but it will be the terror that haunts Mada. The terror of what his son will become since he rejects everything society expected and still expects of him. Since he decided to cook with his mother and cry whenever he was angry or in pain. Mada will watch his son become many things considered by men to be an abomination. Until one day it won’t be an abomination.
The girl, she will be called Zita. Her mother will take one look at her through the mist of tears and raindrops of sweat drenching her clothes as she looks into the child’s calm eyes, and that will be her name. The child whose father will never be known. She will see the defiance in her daughter’s eyes the first time she crawls, when she learns to walk, and the things she will do, all by herself. It will be there beside her, even as she plays by herself and seldom pays attention to anybody that isn’t her mother or anything in an attire resembling defiance. Her mother will watch to see if her daughter will ever cook with sand in empty can covers as children her age do, but Zita will ride borrowed bicycles with angwa boys instead. She will want to fix the spoiled bulbs in the room, or the creaks in the door. Sometimes she will get it, other times she will have to stand by as another man comes to do it and eye him with so much ferocity that the men end up eyeing themselves to see if something on them is wrong or not in its place. But maybe there will be something wrong with them. Because when her mother cannot pay with money, she always pays on her back. The girl will grow up to hate men, because she will have grown to understand that men only want you when you’re laying on your back. It might sound like a bad presumption, but it will be a very powerful argument against a girl who would’ve seen a hundred men, and all they wanted was one thing, a woman’s back to the ground. The girl’s mother will fear for her daughter, because society still rejects a woman that wants to break from the norm.
Society rejects a girl who wants to be both husband and child to the woman who gave her life. It rejects that which it refuses to understand.
It will reject the moon that comes out by 12pm when there’s no sun in the sky.
There was once an ocean big enough to reflect the sun in all its glory.
2. A FUTURE’S PRESENT, CONTINUES.
People are always just people until one day you lock eyes, then you meet them, or maybe even fight them. Then one day you choose them, until they begin to belong to you in some sort of way. Yours.
The boy goes to school everyday with his mother as she drives to work. He walks back home in the rain, sun and wind, because it’s better company than his father. He will finish his secondary school as all teenagers do, expectant of the wider world life they were told about. But when she finds him, it won’t be in the form he thought she would.
It’s going to be a day, like every other day, the sun in the sky minding his business, the people in Katari doing what everybody in Nigeria concerns themselves with, finding a way to survive. The girl hawks whatever it is hawkers hawk (which obviously aren’t birds), and the boy will call her out from behind to buy what she sells. When she turns, she gazes at him as though he was somehow responsible for everything gone wrong in her life (but to be fair, she looks at all men like that). He will look back at her as though she was responsible for everything gone magic in his life. He will fidget and forget what it was that he wanted to buy. She will have beads of sweat from the sun, he will hear the beats of love from his heart. And when he talks to the girl, she will look at him as though he were Barney (without any friends really) trying to convince an already exhausted Nigerian youth into dancing his classic theme song. And she won’t want to relive those memories. So she will hiss at the end of every sentence and tighten her face, the way civil servants like to tighten themselves in their not so big enough staff buses. When she tires, she will say,
“Oga, you dey buy abi you no dey buy. Why you wan waste my time?”
He will stutter, because his English isn’t as broken as her heart, and his sense of reasoning isn’t entirely in place because his heart outruns this brain:
“How much is everything?”
She will stare at him for what seems to be an incredible dash of eternity for people standing in a constantly moving crowd, either trying to decide to cheat him (because he looks like the sort of rich kid and rich kids often tend to be mumu), or because she just can’t believe he can buy everything.
She will tell him how much they cost, either as an opportunist or as an honest person. He will buy everything and they will both wander about looking for a sack big enough to take in everything. Both of them will leave smiling. One because she just hit a mumu jackpot, the other because his heart outran his head for the first time in a very long time. And that won’t be the last.
CKay’s Love Nwantiti will hit differently when he listens to it that night.
They will meet again. Two days after. Although the boy comes back the day after they first met. He wasn’t looking for her, he just felt like taking a walk. He’s been indoors too much. He just needs a little exercise.
Those kinds of things boys tell themselves when they’re in denial.
The girl had enough money not to come back the next day, and she prayed that he’d be there the day after when she came. She really will not hope that he’s there for anything aside from what she sells.
Girls that feel broken don’t like to hope.
This time when they meet, he will sound less like Barney because he will still buy everything she sells that day and if one pays close attention, one will notice that all the lowly kids playing in the streets seem to be closer than usual, as if they were tailing him because he was some food Messiah. Or maybe it’s just our eyes playing tricks on us, but no one knows for sure what the boy does with the things he buys from the girl, Zita. From the second encounter, whenever she leaves home for the “market”, it will really just be one person she goes to sell to. Her mother will think that she caught a glimpse of what looked like a smile on her child’s face. But she won’t have time to ask her what it is because she’d have run off. To the market.
The boy is her market.
On the 20th day of their meeting (which will make it a month of knowing each other), the boy will hold his hands behind his back, as boys who feel things in their hands and want to hide them from a girl do, together, locked tightly behind. His T-shirt will be slightly too big for him, or he simply shrunk under the weight of emotions. She won’t smell of so much sweat today, but rather almost smell like lavender, he will swear. Not that he minds anyway. He won’t buy whatever it is she hawks today, he’ll want to buy her heart.
“You’re my muse.” he will say, as properly school boys do.
“I be your moosic?” she will ask, as girls without any form of formal education from anywhere in Nigeria do.
“No. No. You’re my muse. Like inspiration. You make me want to try.” he will try to explain, gesturing with his hands as traffic wardens tend to do.
“Wetin dis one dey tok? Say I Don turn music for your ear? In-spil-la-tion? Wetin be dat?”
The boy sighs the only way people who know a thing sigh to people that don’t know that exact same thing, especially when they look like they just don’t want to learn. He decides then that it’s either the girl has hearing problems, or she just deliberately decides to play dumb. He will leave, looking like a mannequin in an unreasonably oversized T-Shirt. The girl will go home, and she beams all the way. She likes the sound of that. Being someone’s music. At least she will like it, until her mother has to lay on her back that night to pay for the light bill.
Then the girl will remember. All men are the same.
And from that night on, whenever she meets the boy, she will mock and embarrass him every chance she gets because she knows that society watches. She knows all men are the same. And she wants to do everything in her power to show them that a woman mustn’t always pay with her back. That they too cherish the very thing that men have become accustomed to violating. She will hurt him more because of her pride than because she fears what love holds in store for her.
But sometimes, love just doesn’t wait, and sometimes love is the price we pay for our pride.
When he gets home every time, he will deal with the pain the only way he knows how. He will cook. His mother will see the chaos and she will know. She won’t have the words, and he won’t listen either, so she will join him and they will cook together. Because sometimes when you can’t say the words, actions together may be the only way to be there for a Nigerian from anywhere in Nigeria. They will have dinner together that night and they will talk about all the things that don’t matter in the world. From Ade, their neighbour and his womanising exploits, to the person who farted in the cramped bus that morning on her way to the market.
They will laugh, because again sometimes we use things that don’t matter to deal with the pressing matters at hand. That’s one way Nigerians will always deal with pain. It will be the seventh night he’s come back home like that.
Tomorrow he will go back to her again. Because love doesn’t give up. And because there’s probably a bright side to hearing abusive words like “craze” “idiot”, “mumu”, “otondo”, “wawa”, “werey” and all sorts of words he’s never heard before. Not like he fancies being stoned with the things that hawkers sell, but it’s the words and the eyes that hurt, not the projectiles. And love doesn’t let you forget the beautiful, so why should you forget the damned.
Love is the muse. Faith is the object. Hope is the colour of the painting
Na mumu dey love.
3. A FUTURE’S TODAY IS TOMORROW.
The boy will wake up today, and he will try again. But she won’t come out today because she knows that he knows her, in ways nobody’s ever cared to observe (and you can only know when you’ve stayed long enough); the time she arrives, how he catches her scent tens of houses away even before he even sees her. How he smiles like a fool and everyone plus her knows she’s the reason. How he knows her favourite thing amongst what she sells and leaves it in her rubber by mistake so she has to drink it because he’s already far gone before she notices. So she’ll stay at home today, and help her mother. She won’t want to be a provider today, she’ll just want to be a girl, and it’ll mean the world to her mother.
The boy will wait for her until the sun glides past him in the evening. As he walks back home like an undersized mannequin again, he will see his father driving towards him. His father will see him too. To cover his shame and the awkward stares from the surviving people of Katari, his father will bid him into the car, but they won’t be going home. When the boy starts to protest, his father will say only one thing.
“It’s El Clásico today”. And the boy will sit back and endure the evening with his father, supporting the only thing they have in common, Barcelona. They will go to the bar that’s also somewhat of a viewing centre.
They will go to watch the match out of solidarity for the team they both love, not because anybody, not even the fans expected any form of victory whatsoever. They were no match for their opponent, Real Madrid.
But fate always loves to wear her attire of surprise to some dates.
The father will tell his boy the truth the night they watch the El Clásico together, because Barcelona will win the match and it will bring them joy that doesn’t work well with logic or pride. They will drink to celebrate in an atmosphere of sweat, roars and alcohol. Even though the boy isn’t much of a drinker. Football continues to unite people in a way nobody can quite understand how feet do. And Barcelona is the kind of team that believes in you when nobody else will. It’s why when they prove the world wrong about you, the ecstasy runs so deep that the son won’t know when he hugs the father with tears streaming down his face. Football can make you do that; make your feet so fast that you’ve already acted before your brain has time to catch up with you.
The boy’s father will hug him back. Even tighter.
Nobody knew Barcelona would win the match by a landslide, not even the players. Barcelona will not top the table, but their fans will have a beautiful evening. And Barcelona won’t know what it did to a son and his father millions of miles away.
When they drink and get drunk enough on both celebrations and beers, the father will tell his son that he doesn’t have his shit together. He will do what every parent dreads the most, be vulnerable. Mada will seem to you like the kind of man that gets married and starts a family only because society said so. But that isn’t the case. He only really just wanted a family, but there was no manual for raising kids to be good, and the only language Mada spoke fluently was survival. And survival speaks anything but nice and easy. But that evening while he talks to his son between pride and vulnerability, stuttering for words and keeping his eyes glued to the table in an attempt not to cry, his son will stretch his hands across the table and say,
“Daddy, let’s go home”.
Mada won’t be angry, he’ll get up so fast that he’ll almost stumble.
His son hasn’t called him Daddy since he was seven.
Sometimes, all it takes is one familiar, forgotten word to know that we’re forgiven.
When they get home, both men will enter the house and kiss the only woman in their home on both cheeks. She will cry when they go to sleep. Nobody’s kissed her in ages. But when men let down their pride to show you love, it puts up a good fight against watching the beauty of the sunrise.
But it won’t be enough. Not tonight. Not them. Not love.
The boy will wake up tomorrow, and his father will nod at him, and he will nod back. He will leave the house because he knows that he still loves a girl, and he doesn’t want to make the mistake his father made. He wants to forgive. He wants to live, not just survive.
When he arrives close to the junction, he’ll see the girl from afar, but she won’t see him, even though, if you look close enough, it seems as though she’s looking for him too. The boy will want to hope again. Want to tell her how he really feels. That he saw her in his father’s eyes the night before and he doesn’t want that for her. He dashes towards her from the other side of the road, and crosses to the mid section. She sees him, and she stops, a new light in her eyes. The only thing they can see is each other.
As he crosses the road to her, there will be a car following the wrong side of the road, a one way driver. Katari is the kind of place where the law only works well on paper, and for the rich. The girl won’t see it on time and she won’t hear the honking of the car or the yells of bystanders from their shops. All she will see are his eyes, wild and crazed together with the only form of love she will have ever known in her life. She will see love first, and then suddenly it’ll be a spin and somehow she’s on the floor, wet with a lot of things that aren’t water and riddled with dirt. And he won’t be there with her.
All he needed was to be there in time to give his life for hers.
Nobody will ask what happened with the car’s brakes, or where it came out from at such high speed. The driver will say he was a mechanic’s apprentice just testing the car. It won’t matter. A boy is dead. And it was another boy that killed him. One was in love, the other was still trying to understand the bridge of life called manhood upon which he stood.
When a word is said in a language people do not understand, actions are always the best translators when there isn’t another person to translate, or understanding is running late to work. That’s why when Tal will want to say “I love you” for the first time, he wouldn’t say it, he would do it. And it will be his last.
After the crash and loud thuds and exclamations from many formerly indifferent Katari communals, there will be a girl named Zita on the floor covered in dirt, bruises, water and many other waterline things, and a boy, covered in blood with a body poised in the wrong direction. The girl will scream, the boy will smile weakly and mumble what would’ve been her name if he had a voice. She will dash over to him before anyone else has the time to see who the driver was or where the car finally ran into. When she holds his hands, he will place a piece of paper in her hands, and he will smile again. Only this time his teeth won’t be white and his tongue a little too crimson, like zobo.
“Let me be your…” he will begin to say before he closes his eyes and bends his head as if he’s been kicked with a ball in the stomach.
Only it’s not a ball that hit him. Only that he won’t be raising his head again.
He will give his life, so that hers won’t fall apart.
This will be a story, told by one, told by all. The world may not remember this story, but the people that live in Katari will never forget. The story about a boy, the kind that died the way all martyrs of Love do, like a million green leaves from one single tree. They may not be a literate community, but they never forget.
The boy will love a girl. And the girl will love him too. Their Love will battle Reality and in the end, Reality will win. As it mostly will, against Love in the 21st century. The boy will die. As we all men do eventually, only at different times.
The world will move on, spinning as it always has.
The girl will wake up by 6am. She will miss him everytime she hears the cockrow. She will go out with the sunrise, and she will hawk whatever it is that hawkers sell, so that she and her mother can eat later on. When she talks to her mother, she will look at her, but she won’t see her. She will hear her talk, but she won’t listen. She will miss the boy, the way one misses their childhood days or someone we once loved. Things we will never get back.
She will curse Reality, and Life, Reality’s spawn. She will whisper his name in a cracked voice, “Tal.” And when her tears will hear that signal, they’ll race down her cheeks, like children streaming into a playground. Without a care in the world.
She will hold that note he gave her and never let it go. Even though she can’t read what it says, and she had no friend but one, and he always told her to make friends. Maybe she will. She will look at the letters together and apart, and it won’t make sense, but they read:
I no fit give u di moon, or even di sún. Dem 2 big, and colour don finish 4 my life. But 4 dis your nyt sky so, I fit draw twinku twinku stars, and e dey sure, everyday. I fit mess up sometyms, because life dey choke pesin. But I go dey give u one star at a time. Because one day I wan make stars choke 4 ur nyt sky sote u go tink say na Sun wey wan rise so.
And when she will try and still can’t read it, she’ll mumble under her breath;
“This boy na mumu. Big mumu”.
Nigerians say things twice to emphasize how important it is. That’s why you hear someone say “mumu” twice, it will not always mean that they’re foolish. It can be that we miss them.