“To you, oh Goddess, we give our dreams,
To you, oh Goddess, we give our faith,
To you, oh Goddess, we give our breath.
Guide us, heal us, lend us your power.
We are your daughters, do not fail us in our need.”
Prayer to Oya.
Sharon Uyai was meant to be happy.
She had a good job at Diamond Bank, and she made comfortable money. She had a loving husband she was happy with. She had two children and had just given birth to her second son.
She was meant to be happy.
Every Easter, summer and Christmas, her husband, Mike, would bring a globe to the dining table and they would all take turns spinning it. Wherever their finger touched, they would travel that holiday. Adam, her first son, touched France last year. It had been a nice trip. Emem, her daughter, was representing the state in a national tennis competition. She was training almost every day. And her youngest boy, Edem, had just started drinking formula milk. Achievements come in all levels, she shrugged.
She was meant to be happy.
Her mother-in-law loved her. Her father-in-law loved her, maybe a little too much. She had friends — but maybe ‘friend’ was too strong a word — she had people she talked to and hung out with, who she had girl’s nights with on Fridays and they met on Saturdays for book club and on Sundays for church. She had sex regularly with her husband; they had never lacked in that department. She was the secretary for the estate council. She was a counsellor at church. Her children were close to her. She had a life most people would die for.
Sharon started cutting herself after she gave birth to Edem.
Small tiny cuts with a bread knife on the underside of her arm where Mike couldn’t see. Then when she needed space, she moved to the inside of her thighs, again, small tiny cuts. They always had sex in the dark anyways. She felt empty, yes, empty, that was how she felt. Like a balloon floating through air with no purpose or guidance, just riding the air. She couldn’t sleep at night and so, she started taking pills to help her sleep. Then she started taking more pills. And more. And more.
Every night she cried herself silently to sleep when the pills weren’t working and the pain would move its way through her heart and she would feel it rack through her entire self. Some days she couldn’t even stand from her bed, but she had to. Or someone would think something was wrong and that was the last thing she wanted. People worrying.
She would cry. And cry. And cry.
Oh God, she was meant to be happy.
But she wasn’t.
And she didn’t know why.
One night, Edem was crying in his cot and Mike tapped her sluggishly. Sharon didn’t need to be woken up. She didn’t sleep much these days, so she mechanically got up and went to see the child.
She stared at his face, his beautiful innocent face. She was crying, she didn’t know why, but she was crying. She was going to pet him to sleep, but saw she had a pillow in her hand.
Why did she bring her pillow?
Then she looked down at Edem again, her beautiful bundle of joy, wailing and wailing the whole roof down. She looked at the pillow and then at Edem.
She held the pillow with both hands and slowly placed it above his head and lowered it until she couldn’t hear the crying anymore. She sighed with relief and smiled. The lines on her eyes easing.
Then she screamed and flinched away from the cot, quickly throwing the pillow and the wailing started again, with a renewed vigour. What had she done? Oh, God, what had she tried to do?
She ran from Edem’s room like a fire was chasing her and entered her room softly; Mike was still sleeping. Edem was still crying. She hesitated and kissed Mike on the cheek, took her car keys from the bedside table and left the room, and then the house.
At work, she was been vied for manager, so she had all the keys, some that even the security guard didn’t have. She walked into the building in her pajamas mumbling to the security guard about some work emergency. She walked up the stairs.
She got to the floor her office was on and she kept on walking. She walked until she got to the topmost balcony and she walked calmly to the railing, climbed over it and sat precariously on it.
She wiped her wet face.
She was crying.
She hugged herself against the wind. Lagos was quiet at night. There were no shouts, no angry horns. Just the gentle hums of engines and generators as everyone slept. It was 2am. She swung her legs as she continued crying. This was the only thing she could do, she knew. There was no other way. She was a burden to all of them, to Mike, to Adam, to Emem, and to Edem. They would be better off without her. She gripped the railing tightly as she took a deep breath and —
“Um,” a voice said behind her.
Sharon turned and saw a woman in a red t-shirt with Mama D’s All-Purpose Shop written in yellow across the front. She wore black jeans and had no shoes on. She was a tall woman but she had hard eyes and tough hands. Her mother had had hands like that, and her mother before her. Those were the hands that came with age. The woman looked about twenty-five. She was carrying a calabash in her hands and it was tied to her waist with a red ribbon. “You shouldn’t be here,” Sharon said, her eyebrows furrowed.
“Hello,” the woman said, like this scene was the most normal thing in the world.
Sharon cocked her head and took one hand off the railing and waved. “Hi,” she said.
“You could fall,” the woman said, taking a step closer.
Sharon looked forward again and then at the ground below her. The only car in the car park was a red Honda — hers, Mike had bought it for her birthday last week. “I know,” Sharon sniffed, tears still falling down her face.
The woman was now beside Sharon. “You can call me Doreen,” she said. “I just moved to Lagos, I and my…family.” She said the word family in a strange way, like it had some double meaning.
“I’m Sharon,” Sharon answered.
Doreen leaned on the railing with both hands. Sharon blinked. Hadn’t there just been a calabash in her hands? She probably just imagined it. “How did you get up here?” Sharon asked. “You’re not an employee here, I’ve seen everyone here but…but I’ve never seen you.”
Doreen smiled. “I flew up here,” she said.
“Flew?” Sharon said.
“I wanted to see the city tonight,” Doreen said, “get a feel for it. It’s been a very long time since I was here. This whole place was still a marsh then.” Her accent was strange. It wasn’t one thing or the other. It was jumbled like it came from different places, all at once.
Sharon nodded. She didn’t really care either way. She just swung her legs and kept her gaze to the ground.
“Do you want to talk about why you want to do this?” Doreen suddenly asked. Something in her voice had changed, though, Sharon couldn’t tell what.
“No,” Sharon shook her head, wiping her tears, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Doreen looked at her for a very long moment before nodding. Then, “You have children,” she said.
Sharon looked at her. “How do you know?” she asked.
“You can always tell a mother’s eyes,” Doreen answered, gripping the railing and sitting on it.
“What are you doing?” Sharon said, her voice hollow.
Doreen sat on the railing and swung her legs too, looking down at the city below twinkling in flashes of orange, red and blue.
“It was more peaceful then, I think,” she said. “There weren’t so many people. But then again, it was never this colourful. If you close your eyes and breath,” she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, “you can feel it in your veins, feel it pumping through your heart. This place is alive.” She looked at Sharon and held out her hand. “Nobody should fall alone.”
Sharon looked at the hand, and looked at the woman. There was something strange about her face, her eyes. She looked like how a statue would; old and eternal. But there was softness there, somewhere.
Sharon wiped her tears, nodded, took a deep breath, and held Doreen’s hand.
She winced; it was cold.
“You have children,” Sharon said, looking at Doreen.
Doreen looked genuinely surprised. “How did you know?” She asked.
Sharon looked at her and smiled. It was the first honest smile she had smiled in years. “You can always tell a mother’s eyes,” she said. And without another word, while holding Doreen’s hand, she jumped from the railing into the air.
“I had children,” Doreen said as they fell through the air, “but I outlasted them. I always do.”
Sharon’s mouth was open as she felt weightless, holding Doreen’s hand as they fell through the air like it was custard, air particles bubbling slowly through them.
“I thought you would want more time,” Doreen said, smiling sadly at her. Blue sparks moved and whizzed around them.
“I wish I had kissed Edem,” Sharon said as she began to cry again. “But I couldn’t…I couldn’t look at him, after what I had done.”
Doreen looked at Sharon with eyes that had seen fire and destruction, death and carnage, blood and cold iron, and simply nodded.
They both talked some more as they shared stories, because in the end, those are all you have, those are all we are, in the end.
They outlast everything, even us, and when we fail, when we fall, they go on ahead of us. Tales of sound and fury echoing in the murky darkness, signalling a life, more or less, well lived.
The security guard would find a body that night as he woke up from his nap. Her back to the ground and her eyes closed with a smile on her face. She carried no bag, no phone, just a handful of red roses, and a red wrapped calabash by her side.
They would tell people stories about that night as they grew up.
Three of them, all in their rooms, had been woken up by a cold kiss on their foreheads and the woman — they were sure it was a woman — whispered words to them. But even the memory of that would go too, as it died and faded, going to where memories go when they die.
All art by Anthony Azekwoh