The River Bank; In The Before & In The After
A young teenager is traumatised by an event while spending a holiday with her uncle.
The morning on the day of the riot started off with a little noise from birds chipping on trees and the loud greetings of familiar neighbours, but by noon, the streets were in disarray. All the girls and boys who sold soft drinks in a bucket on their head were dropping it on the ground. I couldn’t believe the crowds of people; the hustle and bustle and most of all the noise. Noise everywhere, assaulting my senses, beeping horns, shouts and screams of people. There was something sounding like stones being thrown at glass houses. The northerners were everywhere, the noise that came from dragging their legs and white gown collided with the sun, forming dots of sweat on my face. Sweats that soon extended to wet my under arms. The shattered glasses of windshields and windows were littered off. Screams; all I could hear were screams…of small children, faint fears tinted within the fragile cracks in their tiny little voices. Their parents forcing their thick palms; palms thickened with years of hard jobs and poetry over their mouths. They wanted to protect them. They wanted to protect them from being sad. From being happy to be alive after buildings were reportedly burned down and cars and properties vandalised. From feeling any sort of emotion asides the tingling happiness that came from licking the wrap of a candy. I felt a whirling cold wind cross my mind, stirring my thoughts process as autumn leaves on a windy day. I was lost in a maze made of sticks. Confusion. I watched a man, who stood on his balcony across the park; he had the wraps all over his head, with his white beards and gown. His head was also wrapped up in a way it formed the shape of a pot. He was with a smirk on his face, the space between the air from his nose and his moustache was slim. He picked up a catapult and shot it and the next thing I knew, there was blood. It looked like palm oil….like old, old, palm oil. Spending my summer with my grandma in the east taught me that palm oil, when fresh, formed a fresh orange and when not fresh, resulted to a deep red. So there was blood. Palm oil. And there was a little girl, lying on the floor, gripping to the stick of candy on her left hand. She was little. And there was palm oil.
“Do you need a moment?” Mrs Delphine; my therapist, asked.
I didn’t realize I had started crying. I pulled out tissue from my Marc Jacobs lock-it bag…it was the latest collection and I knew coming to a high end therapist in Manhattan required a fashion statement.
I’ve never loved the busy life of Newyork. People roaming around; jamming around and having extra ordinary fun and astonishments. The subway is a nightmare; it’s as brutal as a rough sea. Crossing the roads too couldn’t be done without efforts. The sound of sirens occurs more often than the underground system. My mom once told me: “With your head on your neck; and your heart in your soul…not with some boy…you will make it in Newyork”
I said “Yes”. I always said yes to her since in the after of April. My words were short and I spent the whole day thinking of what to say and how to make it sound similar to my words; from in the before; but my tongue was shrinking and my throat was going down to my intestine. She had been asking of what happened in Kano but I told her I was fine; all the time I said it; my heart knew I was lying. I was able to tell her about the palm oil and the ghosts and the river bank last night.
“You need to see someone. I work 3shifts a day; your brother is also busy waiting tables...” She said as her lips quivered. “I can’t do this alone. Your father is no more and I can’t lose you..I can’t watch your soul wither. You need to see someone, Agatha.” She enforced with a broken voice.
I went to my room last night after she kissed me good night on my forehead; thinking of the shrink. If it’d be a he or a she. I wanted a she; I couldn’t possibly open up to a man…not after all the experiences in the before. Not after Idris. Not after the tingling sensation I felt after; when his breath was heavy on the bridge of my nose. Not after the overwhelming fluttering pain that made it difficult for me to breathe after the kiss.
Mrs Delphine was my therapist. My mom had dropped me off this morning and planted a kiss in front of my head; somehow wishing and hoping for a miracle. I didn't even know I was possessed. Her office was vague. She had piles of files, resting on the cold white marble floor. There was also a cabinet in disarray, a safe marked “Confidential”, the curtain drapes were white too, they stood firm, like the humble breasts of a village maiden. She sat with her legs crossed and her head tilted to her left. A woman in her early forties, consumed up to a frame of 5foot. She had slick blonde hair; her face was out in perfection. She had high cheek bones and her brows were shaped in a way it showed the beauty of her oval face. As the light from the white bulbs collided with the glimpse of the morning sun; her face glowed. Her furniture was of white fabrics, the herms were made in beige cream but the throw pillows were purely white with no herms. I was still crying. The tears were warm, and they just kept flowing; like the rain that fell last night. I remember the cold shivers that ran up my spine. I didn’t let in light. I wanted to dwell in the darkness; the darkness that followed me from Kano. The same darkness that was absent in the purity of the northerners white garment. It was this darkness that formed a knot in my throat, it couldn’t be parried; couldn’t find any escape. This darkness that followed me into this white office, yet it couldn’t be seen by any other person. This darkness on my skin. I tried to curb it, to reduce more sniffs, or get my mouth to shut. Her office was cold and had the same tension of the American embassy years ago when we won the visa lottery.
“I’m okay” I replied with a hoax voice. My throat, gulping into my lungs; stiffening the air that was supposed to come out freely.
“Was that all that happened in the spring? Your mother is seriously worried about you, Tha.” She asked as she dropped the glass of water on the glass table. It was all the noise there was in the entire room. There was just silence.
“I told her I was fine. I didn’t need her spending $80 an hour” My voice was raised. I felt it could crack her fragile skin. Or swing the heavy curtain drapes.
"Well you are here now and you might as well start speaking" She suggested.
I couldn't say a word. I just sat down; watching a tiny little ant crawl to the edge of the wall.
The noise coming from the streets of Newyork made its way to my brain. It was tangling with my emotions and my thoughts. How could people breathing the same air with other people, prevent them from breathing further? My mind raced back to the in the before of April. The road from the airport to Uncle Isa’s house. The swift voice of the Fulani girl singing on the radio. The way Uncle Isa’s driver, Tanko, waved at almost everyone in the traffic as if they’ve all shared a bowl of ice-cream and popcorn at a cinema. The way the people of Kano lived their lives in such simplicity. The streets were not as busy and littered up with snack wraps as it was in Lagos. I remember that night, the night before the color of palm oil made more sense to me than the redness of Vegetable soup. The night Idris held my hand so tightly, I could feel his blood flowing. The night I noticed the cut on his eye brows, it was slant, like it was carefully cut with a razor blade. That night after dinner, at the backyard when we argued about the pre-colonial system of Nigeria.
“The white men have refused to accept that we had a system of government before they came”. His voice was deep, like if it was the ocean; I wouldn’t know its depth.
“But technically, it wasn’t written. It was more like a way of life.” I said.
“That is my point”. His voice went louder. “We had a way of life. Things were simple, we saw white as white and not as a faded cream color”.
His knees touched mine as we sat near the grass. He moved farther before speaking. Maybe he felt an extra pulse in his tummy or chest. Maybe he felt my heart beating through my knees.
“When the white men came; they had a bible; we had a land. Now we have a bible and they have our land”.
I wondered if the sound of my beating heart was louder than my voice. I wanted to be gentle while speaking; I didn’t want to be deep. I didn’t want to be with him.
We argued further that night until we both couldn’t hear the croaking of the toad. The stars were spread across the deep blue sky like glitters; they were so high but something in me felt that if Idris could stand up; he could reach out for one. Something also told me that if he was able to reach out and squeeze out one of the stars in sight; he will give it to me.
“What do you feel”? Mrs Delphine asked. “Your mom told me your cousins and uncle were affected by the Muslim riot…..what do you feel?
The air between us hung low, I felt like I could reach out for it and squeeze it, that maybe if I squeezed it hard enough, I could extract enough that could bring back Uncle Isa and his family. To bring back Idris so I could feel the dangling sensation in my ears at the sound of his voice. So I could feel my palms go wet when his breath hovers around me. That if the air, didn’t hang too far away on that Saturday morning, that the little girl who lay on the floor with her eyes wide open, could reach out to it and breathe.
“I don’t feel….Its silence. Its silence. Everywhere I turn, everywhere I go…its silence. Stillness” I replied amidst sobs
“Silence is a natural language my dear. A child just born speaks this and the mother understands right away…”
“But I’m not a child anymore. I’m 16years old”. I snapped. “She was a child. The little girl who lay by the road side as people stepped on her to run for their dear lives. SHE was a child. I’m the teenager who couldn’t help her. Who couldn’t help her have her next candy or watch her next cartoon or get to build sand castles. I’m the teenager and it was just catapult.” I concluded with my voice raised, holding unto the firm stitches on the arm of the chair with a tissue on my left hand.
“Good. We have been able to put a name to it. Guilt.” She said and played with the pen on her hands.
I wanted to hide away; look for a darkness somewhere in this white, bright office. I wanted to pretend that I didn’t walk away. That I didn’t see her eyes; the eyes of the little girl at the corner of the road, piercing into my soul and ripping walls apart in my head. I wanted to forget the kiss from in the before. That moment when our lips touched and our world changed. I could feel him; the air in his mouth wasn’t as deep as his voice. It was fragile and I could feel him. I could taste him. I was him for that moment. Idris knew where to touch and what to say. It was like a dream with a foreign interpretation; I didn’t want to know the meaning but it felt good. My hands rested on his chest while his grabbed a fistful of my hair. He pulled me closer; held me tighter, as if it was the last time. I gladly fought for control with him; our minds branding the feelings into our soul.
I felt tears welling up my eyes and for a split second..I thought it was palm oil.
“What would you have done Agatha?”
I looked away, and wiped the tears off my face with the back of my index finger.
“Miss Bell-low?” Her voice; a little harsh with her American accent. “Is there something you feel you should have done better?
It was a bright Saturday morning on the day of the post-epection violence. The trees were true in their colors, the birds of the air were swift in their rhythms, the cloud was white, pure, like cotton wool soaked in water. The morning sun shone and spread a shade under the cashew tree in Uncle Isa’s compound. It was a 4 bedroom duplex; the flowers were leveled smoothly and looked free of pests. I walked over to the hibiscus and smelled it, I wandered how something as lifeless as a flower could engage me in long stares.
“Do you believe in flowers”? A male voice said behind me. He was close, too close, like he was sucking the air from my ears. I wondered why I didn’t notice him. The hibiscus smelled lovely.
“Believe in flowers?” I turned to ask him. He was wearing khaki short and a ManU jersey.
“Yes. They have lives. I believe they’re spirits too. That is why I spend so much time on them. My name is Segun. I’m the gardener.
“Oh, you are.” I replied with sarcasm.
He was a dark average looking guy with pimples all over his forehead. He smiled with ease and spoke with confidence.
“Hibiscus flowers serve many purposes. Some people work this plant into a hedge, so that blooms will poke out here and there at random. But for me? being surrounded by these flowers….it brings peace.” Segun said.
“They are beautiful. You must work so hard to keep them this gorgeous. Look at them!” I commended as I bent to smell them again.
A smile escaped the brace of his dark dry chin. Something told me his heart was racing and his toes were going wet in anxiety. He was blushing.
The black firm gates that were adjourned with barb wires went open and a Nissan vehicle drove in. My cousin Idris, had stepped out to buy bread from the bakery. It was the first thing on the list of things to do that day. I was supposed to be in Kano for only 3days and they all wanted to give me a memorable holiday. A holiday that was cut short by the post election violence. Later that day; when the hibisucs blossomed with the help of the golden sun, people were encircled, raided and hacked to death and homes burnt.
“Do you believe in colors”? I asked Mrs Delphine.
She took a deep sigh. “You tell me. Do you relate to colors?
“Your office is white. No color. This is just me trying to figure out if they have lives like flowers. Hibiscus flowers”
“White is pure. It helps you breathe. Can you breathe properly? Your mom said you don’t sleep at night’
“Well, I have a psychology class. I do all the sleeping there is to do while Mr Fitz is teaching. No big deal” I said
“I think you’ve shoved your feelings away for too long. Since you came into the states…since after the ordeal in Africa....I think you’ve been in a box. I’m asking you to come out of it. I’m asking you to claim your feelings…take..”
“Take what?” I snapped. “Take responsibility for the death of my cousins? For the death of my uncle? For the palm oil…the blood on that little girl’s face?” I shook my head continuously till it felt like it was threatening to run out of my neck.
“I made them go to the park. They were trying to host me perfectly so when I’m coming back, I could get them all the things in the list they secretly gave me the night I arrived Kano. I made them leave their house. I know all these things…in my dream, there’s a river bank… and behind it are ghosts. They remind me every night. I know my feelings and if I spurt it out…if they leave the tight brace of my guts…there would be no purity….no form of whiteness in this office. So don’t sit there in your 800$ retailed Louboutin shoes and act like you know me down to the lines on my palms. This is not a vintage piece…it is not an article…it’s not….Its palm oil. It’s everywhere”
My knees went week, like the weight of all I’ve been bottling deep down was compressing it. It was slowing me down mentally and I was unaware. My sobs went loud; like the chanting of the rioters, the way the glasses of vehicles, shops and houses fell into a million pieces when stones, rocks and sticks hit them. It was loud like the men screaming in victory, when they stepped over dead bodies; the evil men that threw a cutlass around Uncle Isa’s neck while I watched from beneath the car. I lay flat under a car for so long that I didn’t know when I wet my pants.
“Good.” Mrs Delphine said. Her words wrapped around a huge smile spreading down her chin; so wide, I thought it could reach her ears. “You need to let go. These feelings; you’re at war with them and it looks to me that you’re not anywhere near the finish line”
“Please ma’am, no talks about war” I replied. My eyes tightening with every word.
She stood up and walked to the corner of her office, footsteps echoed footsteps. Her legs were curved to a bow, and the high-waist skirt made her hips amount to a bag of rice. Her shoulders were straight, and she walked in a way that her hand didn’t swing as she pulled one foot in front of the other. I wondered if she was going to cry.
Having breakfast with Idris, Amina and Azeez wasn’t the same as having breakfast in my house in Lagos. They were allowed to talk while eating and pass criticisms on whoever set the table. That morning, we were talking about my appointment with the American Embassy; how the woman who interviewed me saw my inner parts and intestines with just her eyes. They laughed easily. At my exaggeration and blunts words. At the people at the American Embassy and at the simple mispronunciation of words by the Fulani radio presenter as we drove to the park that Saturday. In the small space between Idris and I at the back seat of their Nissan Maxima, he held my hand tightly, not letting go till we pulled into the park. The clouds didn’t look like cotton wool anymore like it did in the morning. It looked a pale blue….Like the ocean…like the river bank.
Mrs Delphine came back in, holding a bunch of flowers. She had a flat tummy and she was constantly obsessing over the length of her skirt as she walked the short distance to the white cushion.
“What…who is that for?” I asked surprised.
“This flower comes in many colors, ranging from pale pink to dazzling vermillion. Some are vibrant yellow, others clear orange….”
“And where does my relationship with it come in?” I cut her short.
After taking yet another huge sigh, she moved closer to me, shifting to the edge of her seat and said. "There’s no white in this. Just bright colors. Think of it as the rainbow…or the sunlight. Which ever way, it signifies a new beginning for you. You need to let go of the things you couldn’t change, Agatha. No one’s asking you to be pure…to be white…Just be colored. Take.
My hands went numb. There was no sensitivity. No flow of blood. I couldn’t take it. There was red and there was orange in the flower bouquet. Fresh palm oil; old palm oil. I just couldn’t move my joints and reach out for it. I was used to the darkness and it knew my name well enough to yell in my brain. The voices of the ghosts behind the river bank; they knew my name well enough too and they yelled fiercely.
“Miss Agatha Agnes Bell-low. Its okay to be scared. But the minute your fear exceeds what you can take; you need to break loose. This darkness has a name. This darkness is not your shadow so I believe you can outrun it. “ She said with her eyes full of compassion.
“And what am I going to do with this? Take it to the museum? I asked rhetorically with a hint of sarcasm.
“Do you believe in flowers”? She asked.
“I believe they all have their purposes” I replied with the feeling of de javu, swamped in my head.
“Good. Now take this and start your healing process. That is the purpose. And while you’re at it; don’t forget to smell it.
The bell that went off as I waited to see Mrs Delphine an hour ago went off again and I knew I had exhausted my period with her. I knew she was about to see another client. I took the flower in my hand as shocks ran through my vein. I was getting cold in my bones. I was feeling heavy. I wondered if the darkness multiplied or it was the addition of colours. The bell rang until she hit a tiny red button on her table. For once I didn’t associate any form of noise with my experience in Kano. My experience from in the before. For once I didn’t hear the men laughing and the innocent children; crying their guts out as vehicles collided with vehicles. I didn’t hear the sirens of the police cars and ambulances coming 5hours after the heat of the riot; coming to harvest dead bodies from the peeks of the dry ground. I heard church bells instead, and all I could do was picture myself in a white dress; years from now, walking down the aisle on my wedding day and holding tightly unto this flower bouquet in the brace of my palms. I felt a warm feeling light up my heart, forcing the corners of my mouth upwards, as if they were trying to get closer to the sun.