What breaks open conscience and guilt like a blunt machete hacking a coconut?

The voice of an Almajiri begging for daily bread at my compound’s gate, “Alaro! Alaroya!” entered my room to meet me midway into the two hundred naira masa I’d bought that evening for my dinner. I opened the notebook on my phone and wrote, “Lord forgive me for not feeding the hungry, for I too, am hungry.” With that, I thought, a poem from this will ease my guilt. After all, in Michael Imossan’s poem, “Deborah,” he wrote, “I’m sorry I have nothing to gift you but poetry.” I opened my email to check if I too, like the Almajiri, will get my prayers answered. Upon refreshing my email, a message came in from one of the online journals I had made submissions to.

Dear Joemario Umana,
Thank you for your submission to [ ]. Although we must decline your submission this time, we appreciated the chance to consider it. Please do not interpret this as a judgment of your art as a whole. Individual tastes matter a great deal in decisions like these, and though we have to decline this round, we encourage you to keep writing and creating. The world needs it, and you…

I smiled and shrugged my shoulders. How many rejections must one get to grow numb? This was my eleventh rejection mail for the year. And the year was just two months in. Just as I wanted to close my Gmail app, the WhatsApp icon popped up on my notification bar, and the message that caught my attention like a fly trapped in a spider web was “Joemario, we need to talk.” Nothing good ever comes out from those four words. It was from my girlfriend Ayesha. The devil on my left shoulder said I shouldn’t open the message. In fact, I should act like I’ve not seen it. But the white-winged creature on my right, in the softness of its voice like a gentle stroke of a bow over a violin string or the opening of a flower bud to the morning sun ray, told me there’s no harm in opening the message. So, I tapped on the message and it belched: “Joemario, we need to talk. I just wanted to tell you that I want us to end this relationship. I think we are better off as friends. I don’t want to lie to you, Mario. This relationship is not working. I’m so sorry. I just hope this won’t affect the friendship we had. Once again, I’m sorry.”

As I was trying to chew this down to a point it’s palpable and I can swallow it, another message from her came in, “Say something please.” Then, “Ending our relationship doesn’t mean our memories together are forgotten. It is not that I don’t want us to be together or something, but with the way things are going, seriously I won’t be able to handle a relationship right now. I still love you, and if you don’t mind, I’d love us to be friends. I don’t want to hurt you.”

I didn’t know when I said out loud “friend kill you dia.” You know when the words in your head gain flesh and find themselves out of your mouth. Again, what did I say about rejection? Even though I was the only one in the room, I raised my head to check if anyone was looking at me, but no one was, except the cockroach that was glued to my wall. I imagined it laughing and saying, “dem don serve this one breakfast. Nice one,” and out of spite, I picked one of my sneakers and killed it.

Truthfully, I won’t blame Ayesha. At a point, I too, had thought who exactly was I in a relationship with, her or my writing career? How many times must you reject someone to be rejected in return? The church man will say what you sow you reap. Distance, like cancer, had silently crept into our relationship, and I was too far away to notice.

Ayesha was what you’d call a chilled Coca-Cola in the heart of Maiduguri heat, a rainfall in the middle of summer. The first time I met her was under the big neem tree in between the faculty of basic medical sciences and allied health sciences that was popular among the students as the tree of life. It was called the tree of life because after several hours of hell called lectures with hunger making a beat out of your stomach and boredom turning your mind into a hype man, you’ll come into the solace of this tree whose leaves provided shade and under it, you can sit to eat what you’ve gotten from the sellers hawking moi moi, awarra, and other eatables around there. Her face was swallowed by the pages of the novel she had in hand. I had sat beside her with my five hundred naira curated luxury, fried meat pie and a bottle of cold sweats coke, on the bench that was silently lamenting on our weight, as it squealed every time someone sat or stood up from it.

Slowly nibbling my meat pie and slurping my coke from the straw inside the bottle, I watched her from the corner of my eye and still saw her face disappearing further into the book. I broke the silence that sat with us by asking her what she was reading, of which she did not answer, but quietly turned the cover of the book to me which I read out loud, A Broken People’s Playlist, a novel written by Chimeka Garricks. I smiled and asked her if the book arrested her voice or if there was a rule in that book that said don’t talk to strangers trying to be friendly. I could see the light that left her eyes and warmed me in a hug as she brought the book down to her nose and mouth level. Then she brought the book down and apologized for giving me the implication that she’s rude. We talked about the book she was reading, other books, writings, lectures, weather, and everything our minds could cook to prevent having the company of silence. It was in this relay of words she learned that I was a writer. We exchanged contacts before we exited. And that is how our fairy journey for happily ever after started.

She’d attend every open mic and literary event I was performing at. She was always the first to read my drafts before I actually sent out my works for publications. She’d always say, “babe, you’re the best.” And you could feel the warmth and pride in those words spread through me like gasoline on a German floor. We texted into the night, calling each other fighting for who would be the last person to tell the other goodbye till our call cards finish. Love was envious of our love. That I could swear with my life. Whoever made the statement that nothing good lasts forever, I think deserves not just life imprisonment but to be hung by a rope and dragged upon asphalt by a speeding motorcycle because I feel he jinxed us all, and my relationship suffered it too. I don’t know when the sugar we were tasting gradually took up the bitter taste of too much salt. I was going through a phase in which I was in dire need of finances and I was totally broke to stupor. Every submission I had been making always came back with the “It’s not you, it’s me” kind of responses.

Dear Joemario,
Thank you for submitting “qwertyuiopasdfgh” to [ ]. Unfortunately, it is not the right fit for us, and we must pass at this time. We encourage you to submit again in the future!

Dear Joemario,
Thank you for trusting us with your work. We received a lot of poems this week and have had to make tough choices, despite the astounding quality of submissions. Unfortunately, we will not be publishing your poem this week. We encourage you to submit again during the next open period (Saturday – Wednesday).
Kind regards

As if the whole universe planned for me, it was at this moment that my house rent expired and my school fees were crying out for me to pay up. And it’s not like my parents didn’t give me the money for these. They did. But I’d spent the money in the name of investment for a double fold return, trying to play Jesus with my given fees like two fishes and five loaves of bread. I had put the money in a Ponzi scheme, of which at first did give me returns. And that’s what made me grow horns and a tail. I became greedy and poured all my money into it. In my head I said, after all, there’s publication money to cover up in case anything happened. Normally, publication money always came through for the boy. But not this time. Publishing journals were sticking out their tongues at me as they dragged down the lower part of their eyes saying, “ntoorrr! You never see something.” At least, more like I imagined it.

It was during this period that I buried myself in the grave of writing and scavenging for every opportunity I could get a sniff of coughing out money. Even the poems I produced were malnourished. You could see the mediocrity in them. I didn’t have time for Ayesha at all. Everything she did was annoying to me. Everything I did was annoying to her. I always forgot our set plans. I couldn’t even call or text her every two seconds as usual. It was just as if she never existed nor our relationship. So, when she called it quits, when her “it’s not you, it’s me” message water-bended my eyes and played carpenter with my heart, I couldn’t blame her. I was more guilty of the cancer that ate us whole than she was.

Picking up my broom and trash pan by my water drum, I swept the dead cockroach, a casualty of war, the black nylon that housed my two hundred naira massa, now oily with some yaji inside and my broken heart and dumped them on the road to be carried away by anything kind enough. Maybe the wind, maybe an animal, maybe…











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