DO YOU believe in karma or do you call it something else, like kismet or qadr or providence? Or have you, over the years, along with your inexplicable taste for self-destruction, acquired a penchant for dismissing such things as incidental, as has become fashionable? Did you ever imagine, even in your wildest dreams, and such wild dreams you had, Zaituna, that on your 21st birthday you would end up like this, stretched out on a bed for the third night running; unmoving, unfeeling, unconscious, undead, unliving? That you would be struck, as I’ve been told, by a brick from the top of a wall, dislodged by that ancient cat belonging to Inna Wuro? Was it the same cat we’ve always known her with since we were children playing in the dust, the one with heterochromia—one grey eye and the other green—or is it just something people say, as they have been saying about Inna Wuro since . . . you know, since what happened happened?

Did you ever imagine that you would be more busty than me, you who did not start budding until you were going on fifteen, long after I had moved on to my second bra size? Do you remember how excited we were when my breasts started growing? Or how worried we were when, for months, the growth tanked, as if the breasts were some fruits undecided about how and at what pace to grow? And how all of a sudden they grew and the boys would stare as I walked past? And how I asked you to pad your blouse so you would seem endowed, at least until the real things grew?

Do you remember the day everything changed when we first noticed . . . you know, him looking at our chests? Did you feel as powerful as I did that day because a fine young man like him, not just a boy, was hankering after us? When he looked at you then, even as a thirteen year old, did you feel that everyone else sort of dematerialised and it was just you and his beautiful, tender, hungry eyes? Or is it his face on the day they found him dead that you remember?

You must think me insensitive, don’t you? What sort of friend does something like this? How long was it since we last saw each other? Wasn’t it just before I left for UniJos? Has it been three years already? Who was that guy I saw you with that day? Why did he seem nervous around you, as if something about you both mesmerized and frightened him? Was that a sort of nervous joy I saw in your eyes when they alighted on me that day as you sat with that guy sipping cappuccino and eating fries? Or do you call it chips like the rest of us? Was it because we had somehow endured each other, and the shared weight of what had happened, for two years until we were fifteen going on sixteen when you left for boarding school? Was that why you never came back for holidays and, when you graduated and returned, why you kept away from me for two weeks until I ran into you sipping cappuccino at AfriOne? After escaping it for years, did my face bring back memories of his faces—the one before; the one we both loved, and the one after; that one we both dread? Did you feel, when you looked at me that day, like you were seeing a familiar stranger?

Isn’t it odd that we have spoken over the phone only once even though we’ve been friends since we were eleven? Did my voice, travelling across the chasm and lifetimes that have separated us, sound as strange to you as yours did to me? Like an echo from a dream you are yet to have? Was it thoughts or nightmares that made you call at 3 a.m. that night? What inanities, interspersed by awkward silences, did we mumble when what we really wanted was to talk about other things we couldn’t talk to anyone else about? Did the awkwardness of that conversation linger with you as it did with me? Is that why we have never spoken since?

Have you ever wished there was someone you could talk to about what happened? Have you ever tried, only to hold back at the last moment because you didn’t know what they would think of you afterwards? Did that make you think of me because I’m the only person you could talk to, and didn’t want to?

How does it really feel being unconscious? Is your subconscious awake in there somewhere? Is it true that you can hear me as the doctors have said? Doesn’t your body get tired from lying down all day like this, with all these tubes stuck into you like that? Does the sound of my voice bother you or is it the weight of memories that weighs you down?

HOW DO you perceive beauty now, you who always had an eye for it; you who would spend hours in front of a mirror making up? You, Princess of Qwalisa, who knew what beauty really meant? Have you decorated the bleakness of your unconsciousness with diamond dust? Or doused the darkness in roseate colours and dotted it with sparkling white trees? Everything has to have a ‘beauty spot’ with you, doesn’t it?

Do you remember how we used to be on the lookout for beauty spots on people because you said everyone must have at least one, until we first saw Inna Wuro who had it, and still has it, all? Have you asked yourself how a woman could stay so beautiful for so long? Did we not, even as children then, want to walk like her, talk like her and even smile like her? Did we not marvel at how a person could command so much attention by just doing nothing, how all the men looked at her in awe? How they stood still for her to pass and nodded respectfully in the walkways? And didn’t we laugh at Teacher Shamaki, who was always frowning as he watched the other teachers marvel at his wife? Ah, he had such a large temper for such a small man, didn’t he? Threatening to stop her from teaching Home Economics when the stares, even from the senior male students, wouldn’t stop?

Where was it they said Teacher Shamaki married her from? Was it from Zaria or from Maiduguri?

What were you doing behind her fence when her ancient cat tipped the brick onto your head anyway? Did you go there to say something to her? To talk to her about what had happened maybe? Or was it resentment you felt for her? Were you angry that she doesn’t seem to age despite everything, despite the years and the heartbreaks and the rumours? Or was it still the anger from that evening we saw them, she and him, in the school lab?

I know it’s sort of silly since it has been such a long time and we were really just kids when it happened, but were you trying to punish yourself for your anger then as a sort of penance? Was that why you took up with so many boys with rather questionable reputations? Did you think I didn’t hear rumours of the beatings and the abuse, and how you always went back to them, or moved right on to another of the same ilk? Do you know how concerned I’ve been about you, watching you hara-kirizing like that? Do you have any idea how worried your mother has been?

How surprised did you imagine I was when she saw me during the semester break in June and asked me to talk to you about what she called your lifestyle? Did she think we were still the little girls who played in the rain? The ones who braided their hair in the same fashion? The ones who wanted to walk like Inna Wuro and talk like Inna Wuro and breathe like Inna Wuro? The little girls who fell in love with him, even before they knew what love meant? Was it even love we felt for him, or was it just a case of a really, really bad crush?

How old do you think he was then? Twenty-five? Twenty-seven? We must have seemed silly to him, don’t you think? What was it that endeared him to us when we hated most of the other teachers so much? Was it the way he laughed like a cherub that had swallowed a fat blue bird? Or was it the way he looked over the rim of his glasses and garnished his English with fancy French words like croissant and joie de vivre and magnifique through his nose?

How did it start, anyway, this thing, whatever it was, that we had for him? Was it during the excursion to the museum or was it much earlier? Was it when he looked into our eyes and smiled as he held our hands to help us off the bus and said, Tout doucement, ma cherie? Did he really look at us differently, smile at us more intensely and intimately, or did we just imagine he did? Or was it when he so effortlessly carried that junior girl who had fallen asleep off the bus? Did your heart swoon when he set her down gently and adjusted his glasses, looking like a figure from a movie? Did you wish it had been you he had carried like that, tenderly sweeping you into his arms, cradling you close to his body? How exactly did we come to the conclusion that we were feeling something for Him?

Did we really imagine that he would wait for us to grow up? What did we suppose would happen if he chose one over the other? Or were we just silly enough to imagine he would have us both, perhaps marry us both? That because we loved each other so much we would be happy to share him? Did you ever think that far ahead or was it just me? Was it because I wanted something different, something more than the three men my mother had blazed through by the time I was thirteen? Do you know how much that makes you want a man you could spend your entire life with? Someone who would be around for his kids in a way your father wasn’t for you?

Anyway, how long did we nurse these silly dreams? A year or two terms? How did it grow stronger with every vacation when we were away from him?

You think I am being silly, don’t you? But do you know how long I have wondered about this thing? How many hundreds of sleepless nights I’ve had? Does it hurt at all when I squeeze your hand like that because I’m nervous? Do you feel anything at all, Zaituna?

How exactly did we resolve never to mention his name again? Was it when he was buried? Was that when we buried his name and the memories of him in the graveyards of our shallow hearts? Memories that have refused to stay buried? Have you ever called his name since, when you were alone perhaps? In your sleep? When you do, do you say Teacher Abdu, like we used to, or do you call him something you always imagined you would call him when you grew older, when the years between you would have been blurred by love and intimacy? Have you ever seen his face as you walk in the night or sometimes when you are laughing and eating something really amazing and trying to have a good time? Or sometimes when you are just sitting quietly somewhere beautiful, watching the sun go down?

What did we really do under the dogonyaro tree that night we saw him and Inna Wuro? Do you still wish evil befell him as you did that night, as we both did? Or have you tried to rationalize it, to say that sticking needles into a doll couldn’t possibly cause a man to turn up dead the next morning? Was it some incidental success with puerile voodoo or did we feel strongly enough to actually will him dead? What made us agree without a debate to torment his effigy? Was it because we had seen it being done in a film? Or had we read it in a book? Do you remember, Zaituna? Do you even remember the gibberish you muttered that night as we pushed in the needles and imagined him writhing in his bed? Was it sheer maleficence that made you put a rope around the doll’s throat and pull as hard as you could? Or was it just . . . envy?

When you laughed—when we laughed, after we had buried that poor tormented doll, was it because we knew we were just being childish, foolish even? Would we have given a second thought to that . . . stupidity if Teacher Abdu hadn’t turned up dead the next morning with welts around his neck and his tongue sticking out?

WHEN IT rains, Zaituna, as it is doing now, do you sense it? Do you feel the goosebumps on your skin? The change in temperature? Do you remember how we used to run out in the rain singing, Allah kawo ruwa da kifi soyyayye, as if fish had ever fallen from heaven? But didn’t they say it rained fishes in some country? Was it Australia or some far out place like that? Where did I see the documentary? Where? Where? Why do such freaky exciting things never happen here?

When it rains now, does it make you sad? It does? Is this because it reminds you of the day they buried him? Did you imagine on that day, as I did, that heaven was weeping for him as they put him into the damp earth? Did it make it worse that we had somehow made the heavens weep?

Ah, Zaituna, I am doing it again, talking about him again, aren’t I? But would you believe how easy it is to talk to you now as you lie here like this, looking so peaceful? Why do you think I keep talking about these things? Is it because I saw Inna Wuro again today just as I was turning the corner to the hospital? Was she here? Did she say anything? Or did she just hold your hand and say a quiet prayer?

Has there been any news of her husband, Teacher Shamaki? How long now since he disappeared? Five years already? Would you have believed the way he loved her, the way he glowered at men who looked at her, that he would just up and leave like that? How could a man with a voice like a disembodied freight train be swallowed into silence like that? Did you ever think it might have something to do with what happened?

After Teacher Abdu, did you notice how she sometimes didn’t turn up for class for days? And when she did, were you too lost in your mind to notice the hollowness in her eyes? Or the healing bruises on her lips, or the heavy make up? I know Teacher Shamaki was mean to us, being the discipline master and all, but did it ever occur to you that he might have done things to her? Hit her maybe? Did you ever feel sorry for her or were you too angry with her because you thought that even though she had Teacher Shamaki, who really, really loved her, she had taken Teacher Abdu as well?

Why did we go back to the lab that evening, anyway, when we saw them? Was it your book we forgot or was it mine we went to retrieve? I know he was leaning over her as she sat on the stool, but was he actually kissing her? Or did we just imagine he was? Was it the guilty look on their faces that made us conclude that or was it because that was the closest we had ever seen any man to her, even Teacher Shamaki? Was it because we had imagined in our stupid childish minds that perhaps that was how he would lean over us and kiss us in his office, or maybe in the sick room if we pretended to be ill and he, being so caring, came by to check on us? Why did we turn and run out? Why did we never let them see us?

Why didn’t we try to hurt Inna Wuro with our childish voodoo even though we resented her the most? Didn’t we both agree that she was mean and selfish? That she wanted to have it all: beauty we would never have, Teacher Shamaki who loved her, and then she wanted to take Teacher Abdu who we were dying to have?

Did it ever occur to you that we stuck needles into him, instead of her, because we realized then that we would never have him? That he would never lean over us and kiss us? That apart from being too old for us, he was just too good for us? Or was it because we wanted to deprive Inna Wuro who had everything we would never have?

HAVE YOU ever thought you loved someone without quite realising why? Have you ever had such a person propose to you, on your 19th birthday, under a star-dogged moon? And just when you were about to say yes, you realise that he had always reminded you of Teacher Abdu and that was why you thought you should love him?

All those men, when you took them, did you look for him in them, in the way they talked or walked? In the way they did things? Or did you measure them against him, how suave he was? Did they ever measure up?

Have you ever turned down a good man, Zaituna, because subconsciously you thought, because of what we did, we deserve less? Do you know that was what I felt when I turned down that man? How is it that on the night a fine man proposed to me, all I could think about were other people? Another man, another woman?

Have you ever thought that perhaps we took more from Inna Wuro than she deserved? That I took more from her?

I know you were the one with all the ideas about Teacher Abdu, but Zaituna, have you ever thought that perhaps I loved him more? Wanted him more? Would you have thought he was leaning over Inna Wuro, kissing her, if I hadn’t first uttered those words? What exactly did you even see that day? When you led us to stick those needles in the doll, did you know how ridiculous I thought it was? We were teenagers, not five-year-olds, don’t you see?

Have you ever, since this thing happened, wondered about Teacher Shamaki? Have you ever thought that he could have gone and ambushed Teacher Abdu? That he somehow found out about the kiss that really wasn’t a kiss and got mad? Did it ever occur to you that perhaps I told him?

How do I say this, Zaituna, this thing that has weighed on my heart? How do you tell your best friend something like this?

Well, you remember how we had been fantasizing about kissing Teacher Abdu, right? How you seemed to be always talking about it? You never realised I wanted it more than you did, did you? That because I was more womanly then, I thought I had a better chance with him than you did?

Has a man ever made you feel like shit? A real man, I mean, not those crackheads you let beat you up? Can you imagine what Teacher Abdu said to me when I feigned illness and lay in the sick bay? When I sent a junior girl to fetch him? Do you know how I felt when he came in, realised I was trying to seduce him, and scowled at me? And just before he turned and left, he said, What stupid game is this, Halima? Can you imagine the man of your dreams telling you that you disgust him? But how could I tell you such a thing, Zaituna?

You know how shame grows to resentment, don’t you? And you know how resentment seeks for justification, and vengeance? And when the very next day I saw him leaning over Inna Wuro, what did you think would be the first thing on my mind?

I know you didn’t know this then, but now that you do, do you imagine I would have been content with sticking needles in a stupid doll? Wouldn’t it have been so much more satisfying to tell Teacher Shamaki and have him deal with it? Have him beat up Teacher Abdu? To humiliate him like he had humiliated me?

But what do you do when you get more than you hoped for? When a man you want humiliated turns up dead with his tongue hanging out of his mouth? When Teacher Shamaki catches your eye and gives you a meaningful look that rattles your bones and you fear you will end up like Teacher Abdu in a field with bulging eyes and your tongue sticking out of your mouth? Do you know what it means to grow up caged by this fear? Living in dread, and having this dread grow into guilt? How do you measure the weight of silence? Or the impact of a lie?

When you try to and fail, do you wish you were a child again? A sweet innocent child, before the lie? Do you wish that your heart is without this burden? That you did not know and need not bother about why Teacher Shamaki fled months after? That you don’t know why Inna Wuro is eternally sad? That you don’t wonder if she knew what Teacher Shamaki did? Or that he didn’t question her honour and beat her up in those nights after? Do you imagine the fear she must have lived with? These thoughts, these things you know and have kept silent about, have they made you want to throw yourself in front of a bus? Can you imagine how many times I have stood on a bridge wanting to throw myself off but not having the courage? But the little lies children tell shouldn’t make all these things happen, should they?

Did you move your finger just now, Zaituna? Could you move it again?



Post image by Rising Damp via Flickr

About the Author:

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim is most recently the winner of the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature for his novel Season of Crimson Blossoms (Parresia, Lagos and Cassava Republic, London). He is also the author of the short story collection, The Whispering Trees, which was longlisted for the maiden Etisalat Prize for Literature with the title story shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. He has also won the BBC African Performance Prize and the Goethe Instut/Sylt Foundation African Writer’s Residency Award. A Gabriel Garcia Marquez Fellow and a Civitella Ranieri Fellow, he is listed in the Hay Festival Africa39 List of the most promising African writers under the age of 40 with potential to define future trends in African writing.