ESOMNOFU EBELENNA - ON A SATURDAY
Esomnofu Ebelenna is a Nigerian writer. He read English and Literary Studies at the University of Nigeria. His stories have appeared, or are forthcoming, in AGNI, Kalahari Review, African Writer, Storried, DNB Stories, Elsiesy, and elsewhere.
ON A SATURDAY
When I was serving Nigeria my country in Kebbi State I saw a black snake at the foot of my bed, scurried out in alarm, tripped and then fell most inelegantly, my NYSC cap and Harry Potter spectacles and files, into the heart of a guitarist named Aisha. This girl was everything I was not - Northerner, Muslim, twenty-three, mind-bogglingly beautiful like a red rose in solidifying water, obdurate, valiant. How she found me appealing never ceased to raise our fellow Corps Members' eyebrows.
"What's the matter?" she shouted as she hauled me up.
"A snake," I said, painting.
She marched into my room with the confidence of a soldier and came out with a lock of hair- the snake that had frightened me. It belonged, she said, to a Yoruba girl who had passed out of NYSC. I thanked her in pastel sentences, and since that Saturday evening there was never a day we did not meet to talk, eat, laugh. But now she's gone.
I am seated on a rock by the Idemili river at Oba, my hometown in Anambra - I left the north last week. My Service Year has ended. But how can I stop thinking about NYSC - a scheme that brought Aisha into my life?
As I think about this astonishing girl that made my parents uproot me from the family, I dab my watery eyes with my white hanky, and look, as always, at the star-filled sky.
Perhaps you are wondering why I - a twenty-four year old Igbo chap - taken by the stars. Perhaps you are wondering why I am sobbing by a riverside at this time of the night. Perhaps you are wondering why I fell in love with a Muslim.
Aisha, this girl I love more than the air I breathe, is dead - let it be said. Aisha is dead. Dead and gone.
The angels were envious of my woman and that's why they contrived to snatch her away from me. But why did God permit them? Why does God let elegant people wither like roses, dry up by religion and be carried away by the cold hands of Death?
Bob Dylan's words come to me: "The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind."
"You are the best thing that has ever happened to me, Obinna," she told me one frosty Sunday night at Kamba-Kebbi state when we were peering at the rising moon like two silly children and listening to the soft classical music on her iphone. "I love you deeply, Obinna. Please don't trample my heart in the dust."
I was surprised to see fear flit across her eyes because she was brave. She was the bravest northern woman I ever encountered. And I am nothing but a bespectacled petulant coward.
"Why do you love me?" I asked, hoping that the moon would not illuminate my quivering lips for her to discern that I was nervous. "Are you here, Aisha? Why do you fancy me?"
"Don't be ridiculous, please." And she freed her petite hand from her strawberry-coloured hijab and playfully slapped my cheek. She put off her phone, grabbed her guitar and played for me, her voice softer than the summer rain and her eyes moist with love and extravagant joy.
I listened to her hypnotising music. I watched her dance, her curvaceous waist moving to the rhythm of the music like a snake-fish in a river, until my own eyes filled with unabashed tears. God, I was madly in love with a guitarist!
Aisha never explained to me why she loved me until she joined her ancestors on a Saturday.
I am a common man with common parents. I attended a common primary school at Nsugbe and a common secondary school in my hometown of Oba in Anambra State. I studied English and literature in a common university. I dwell in a common house. I wear common clothes and eat common foods. I say common things; I do common things. And if I die I will receive a common funeral. There will certainly be no memorial statue of me in any part of the nation. I, like every inconsequential man, will be forgotten in a hurry when I am gone. So why did Aisha, an uncommon girl, love me?
I twitched off my Harry Potter spectacles, blinked away the liquid in my eyes and watched it drop on a green plant and slid down its leaf. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine her in my arms. It did not work. I tried to imagine her showing me the awe-inspiring rainbow in the sky, as she used to do with a grin. It did not work. Aisha is dead and gone, I thought with a shudder, and then I fiddled in my faded trouser pockets. Nothing. Where is my handkerchief?
I dried my eyes on the sleeve of my food-stained shirt and look at the mood.
"Look into my eyes, Aisha, and you will see what you mean to me," I said to her picture in my hands, my tears trickling down my cheeks and pouring onto the picture. I folded the picture and imagined me and Aisha in a boat fishing in that tea-coloured water which flowed from Dole- Kaina, Kebbi state, and into Niger Republic. I imagined the two of us in that Francophone country gobbling apples and watching the locals in strong disapproval. I imagined Aisha playing her guitar on the commercial bus as the vehicle sputtered from Gaya to Kebbi-Nigeria. My imaginations sent new tears to my eyes and I blinked them away.
"Obinna, our Service Year has almost come to its expiration and we've not done any remarkable thing for Kebbi state," she asked in her sing-song voice one windy morning in her sweet-smelling bedroom."We are always busy kissing and touching like two idiots; we don't deserve any NYSC discharge certificates."
I nodded my acquiescence.
"You concur?" she said, her eyes wide with wonder. "Well, well...Now what are your plans? After Service, I mean."
I told her that I would hunt for jobs everywhere (even in the bush!), that I would then fly to her Borno state and propose to her because I loved her so much. I also told her my devout Anglican parents furiously threw their glasses of orange juice against our peeling wall when I disclosed to them that I was in love with a Kanuri Muslim girl who played guitar and sang sweet songs, that my only sister cried in the kitchen when I informed her.
"My Muslim parents hated the idea of an Igbo Christian, of course," she said to me when we were washing ourselves under the shower."You remember that I went to see them last month? You do. But it's nice of you to pretend...Well, when I trudged in, Mother introduced me to one pot-bellied minister who they say will marry me."
My heart jumped. But I wanted to tell Aisha that my father and my four siblings have all deserted me because I wanted to marry her - a Muslim. I wanted to tell Aisha that my mother has lost her mind and she's dying because I pushed her down from her bamboo chair when she called me a prodigal son because I loved Muslim. I wanted to tell Aisha that my daddy had begun to gulp gin and vodka again because I loved a northerner. But my tongue could not move.
She continued: "The obese millionaire wanted to kiss me...Can you imagine!...I ran away from home, of course. And here I am again. With you."
"Aisha..." I trailed off.
"My parents have disinherited me, Obinna," she said. "But I don't care. I want to be with you. Forever."
I brushed her wet strand of hair behind her ear and lowered my head to kiss her. When or quivering lips met, she shivered and our worries dissolved. Outside, birds - pigeons and peacocks - began their evening songs.
"Those birds sing better than you do," I teased her, and she giggled and hit me with a pillow. We were naked in bed, our bodies glistening with sweat. I grabbed my own pillow and hit her head, shoulder and bottom. Screaming, she snatched her guitar and chased me round and round the room and into the bathroom. But when she caught me, she did not hit me back. She just smiled and slobbered a kiss on my nose. Nothing and then I was jabbing and she was moaning. The tepid water from the shower kept pouring down on us.
I remember that when we finished, she hurried off to her CDS meeting and I took her portrait and gravitated to the window. Have you ever loved somebody violently and irreversibly that when you look up into their eyes or stare at their pictures, tears fill your eyes?
Tears filled my eyes.
I remember that I didn't leave the window until God switched off His Torch and darkness enveloped the town of Kamba. But the mood eventually appeared - to torment me. The moon always reminds me of Aisha's face when she smiled. There was a night - please don't laugh at me - I looked at her face, looked at the moon, looked her face, looked moon, looked at her face and then said honestly, " You are more beautiful than the moon, Aisha!"
She slapped my cheek playfully then. "Naughty loverboy!"
I remembered a sultry Saturday afternoon when we were under a neem tree, listening to our heartbeats, and she said that she'd die on a Saturday. And on a Saturday she died.
"You're poetically pessimistic, Aisha," I said, trying stuff anger into my voice.
"I'm serious, Obinna. I see my death approaching; it's imminent - next Saturday, perhaps. I saw it in my dream. Tragic things always happen to me on a Saturday. Ahmed, my first boyfriend, died on a Saturday. His boat capsized and he drowned. I was raped on a Saturday - a day I lost my virginity to armed robbers. And, funny enough, I was born on a Saturday."
"Balderdash!" I chuckled. Then, solemnly, "If you die on a Saturday, Aisha, I will assume you committed suicide. And people who do that go to hell - as the Holy Books say. And if you go to hell for taking away your life, Aisha, I shall drink poison and join you."
"God will compel you to stay in heaven with Him." She put out a mocking pink tongue at me.
I waved off that her tongue."If God locks me in His Paradise, I'll break the chains and window and escape. I will drop, shoes and all, into hellfire to be with you. Aisha, it's better to live in hell with you than to dine in heaven with the angels."
Her mouth hung open. The minutes ticked on and she said nothing. A purple-and-yellow butterfly came hovering over the lilies in the garden. We watched this exquisite creature as if we had never seen it before until I thought it necessary to break the lugubrious silence.
"Tell me more about yourself, Aisha. The more I know you, the more I want to know."
She nudged me. "Don't talk rubbish again!"
"Aisha, you are my nose - without you, I cannot breathe. I want to grow old with you."
She sighed. "Lest I forget, Mr Poet, I will fly to Maiduguri to say happy birthday to Mum." She crossed her flawless legs and adjusted her sunglasses."My parents said they've forgiven me; They asked me to bring that poor Igbo Christian who made me turn down a minister's marriage proposal and run away from home. Amazing, eh? You will accompany me, I conclude?"
I answered her with a kiss.
The following week, we were walking hand in hand at Korongilim - a village that's so close to Chibok. We were pontificating about the strictness of Abdulmalik, the Local Government Inspector, at Kamba, as we lumbered towards the bleak bungalow she said was her parents' residence.
Suddenly she halted and gasped. I stared at her.
"Can you see that mosque over there?" she said."It is on fire."
I craned my neck to look. Yes, she was right: it's in flames . And worshippers were fleeing!
I turned sharply to her. "Let's zoom off, Aisha! That is ostensibly a religious crisis!"
"No!" she shouted and dropped her luggage. " That is a fire outbreak, most likely."
"Let's run away, Aisha!"
I pulled her with a trembling hand and she yanked it off.
"Don't go there, darling, please!" I said. "It's dangerous. And you know today is Saturday!"
"My father might be one of the men praying in the mosque, you coward!" she was already running toward the mosque. It had begun to drizzle. I stood there shivering in the cold rain as my love--my fearless love--dashed into the mosque with a bucket of water she had just snatched from an almajiri that was passing by.
Five minutes later, she hurried out of the mosque. When the villagers saw that she had quenched the fire, they applauded and hugged her rapturously. A happy wind came, swirling the women's hijabs and raising brown dust that powdered the leaves and my luggage. And I smiled with pride: my love's a heroine.
Then something I will never forget till I depart from this world happened: something hammered on the zinc of the mosque. I scurried off like a man pursued by a knife-wielding demon, my shoes and Harry Porter glasses flying off in the air. A bomb exploded; the world shook and vibrated. Rooftops soared to the sky, as if they were in a hurry to report this inhumanity to God and His angels. Black fire curled in the thick air like a comparative work of Art.
Later, the survivors returned to the scene to meet soldiers and police officers who were looking at the corpses with narrowed eyes. People's dislodged heads and legs and hands were strewn everywhere like chunks of meat in unscrupulous butcher's slaughterhouse. Blood carpeted the ground.
I scanned the wailing crowd in quest of Aisha. I did not know that she was no more until I saw a sparkling gold necklace I brought to her on her twenty second birthday around a dislodged leg. Her leg. And her head - my God! - was behind me; I had just seen it. Her hand lay in the front - like a shrivelled yam. And her intestine, yes her intestine, curled around her legs inviting buzzing flies.
I took Aisha's blood-covered head and said, "You're my voice when I couldn't speak. You gave me a pink rose on the 14th of February and showed me the rainbow. You sang me songs and fought playfully with me in blue waters, Aisha. But now you've left me. You are lifeless, Aisha, but I will not cry!" But I was crying. I was crying like a five-year old schoolboy. I saw a corpulent soldier turn his head away to hide his tears. I didn't hide my own tears. I wanted them to know that I loved Aisha, that I loved her hair and hands and legs and lips and eyes and finger and everything. I wanted the world to know that the beautiful, dead flower on the dusty ground was my love and I was incomplete without her.
"Boko Haram is a curse to the world," a sobbing pregnant woman was saying." My husband is gone! Allah will never forgive all those nefarious Islamist Extremists!"
I took Aisha's necklace, wiped my tears on my sleeve, put on my Harry Potter spectacles and turned to the sun.
The moon was now receding. I am still seated on the rock at the riverside. As I glance at her countless portraits in my trembling hands, an idea flashes through my mind. The idea is to extract my BlackBerry and Google the calendar of 1990. I do that without hesitation and, to my utter amazement, I discover that I was born on a Saturday - just like my woman. I've lost her. I've lost my parents' love. I've lost my siblings' love. I am forbidden to enter Daddy's house in the village - or in Onitsha. I'm on a rock by the river, lonely.
I toss the phone into the bush, pick the necklace Aisha was wearing that Saturday she fell and perched on the rock that is now my home. It is drizzling and the bamboo trees are swaying this way and that way.
If I had read these coincidences in a novel, I would have tagged the writer "an amateur writer" and flung the book into the toilet. But I am not a character in fiction.
I shut my eyes, wishing that the rain would carry me, to somewhere. I wished, also, that our president would push out all the faceless Boko Haram terrorists in the nation. He had crisscrossed swathes of Northerners in his boisterous election campaigns, vowing to rebuild our politically turbulent Nigeria as he addressed Change-singing crowds of supporters in Northern states that were struck by deadly bombings.
On the portable radio that was my only companion at this riverside a lady with a BBC accent announces:" The president of Nigeria will visit Nigeria next week..."
I fling it into the river and watch the water swallow it, vomit it, swallow it. I debated whether to sleep on the savannah grass or check if Nigeria got her independence on a Saturday. Finally, I lay on the grass, sniffling and wishing so desperately that death would emerge from the river and take me away so that I can meet Aisha in the Paradise and tell her, with a kiss and tears in my eyes, that I was also born on a Saturday.