After you were made, the Earth requested your mother’s body. Your father said, “She never heard you cry twice”—and, though this never fell from his mouth, you could hear it clearly in the silence that followed—”You killed her. You took her from me.” Maybe it is why he named you Ropo, replacement: you came as a replacement for your mother.
Your mother was one of those girls that no one could really say from where they came. All they could do was guess: this one is from Togo, that one is from Benin. She was one of those girls that Aunties from the Big Cities—Lome, Aflao, Accra, Lagos—took from their mothers by making the mothers sign fake documents and promising to send them to school or find them very nice jobs in pretty houses. The mothers never question. They never ask, “What work can a twelve-year-old girl do?” because they have seven children, five of them girls under thirteen, and the fathers never come home, and whenever they do, what they drop is not even enough to feed the mouths for a day, and the petty trades these mothers, who never went to school for some reason and so cannot get better jobs, try their hands at can get nowhere—who does not want a helping hand when they are drowning?
Those Aunties would bring those girls to Lagos, from their villages in Togo and Benin; they would claim the girls are their cousins or sisters and hand them over to women who use them as househelps, as cleaners, as sellers, as ashawos. You will see girls like your mother everywhere in Lagos: on its streets hawking wares and body; in the fine mansions and duplexes of estates in Ikeja, Lekki, Victoria Island, scrubbing tiled floors, washing plates and clothes until their fingers naturally turn white, begin to peel, and helping their Madams. You will see them on the Island and Mainland, serving customers at Mama Risika’s, winding the coal in the coalpot that boils the beans of Iya Asiwaju. They litter the streets of Lagos and beautify its slums. Still, more and more, they come from their holes.
Being one of them, your mother came like that, a thirteen-year-old girl brought by a woman who referred to herself as “Aunty-e.” At first, she was handed over to a Togolese-Turned-Nigerian woman who sold food under the bridge at Oshodi, that place where Bariga and Shomolu danfos await their passengers. The woman, Mama Ibeji, paid your mother’s salary to “Aunty-e,” who sent some back home to your mother’s mother. Your mother never smelled what she worked for. All she got was some food for breakfast and dinner and some change every once in a while.
She had no house. After working from dawn until the people that crowded under the bridge began to recede and the night was quiet enough, and she could hear the cars speeding on the bridge, she found somewhere to fold her body, to get some sleep. It was either in a spoilt danfo or Sienna or just somewhere that had a covering under the bridge. In the morning, she would go to the public toilet with its faded yellow walls to bathe, and there she would change into fresh clothes, which she had in a polythene bag she carried around.
Still, all was well. Though the agberos and drunk drivers of Oshodi touched her here—on the chest (just a small touch, with two fingers), and there—on the behind (with a palm they covered her bum to see if it was OK already for squeezing). Still, all was well: nobody really thought she was ripe yet. Until that one night a man fell on her, pulled her legs apart to quench the fire pumping into the thick meat between his.
The morning after was just like previous mornings. She went to the public toilet and, there, washed the last night off her body. Then she changed into a fresh cloth and went on to serve food and gather and wash plates and be touched under the bridge at Oshodi.
Someday you will tell somebody this, ask why she didn’t tell anyone about it, and you’ll be told, “Some of us are burned but do not have the mouth to tell it.” Someday you’ll show your scar to somebody, and they’ll laugh about it and say, “Perhaps you played too close to fire.”
For almost three years, your mother was moving from hand to hand, from one house, one shop, one food canteen, one touch—to another. It went on that way until the morning she packed up her things and ran away. She did not know where she was running to, but she knew very well what she was running from.
From a man who walked into her body every day, everywhere, every time the animal between his legs got hungry—in the car, on their way to or from the market; in the kitchen while she was cooking, or at night when she was lying down on the cold floor to sleep; behind the house when she swept the compound; and, once, when his wife traveled for a conference in Abuja, he carried her up to the master bedroom and pulled her pants down and entered her in the bed that was supposed to be his and his wife’s alone. She ran because she knew what doom awaited her if she stayed util her Madam found out she shared her husband with some girl from the slums of Togo.
When she left the house, she left with her few clothes—a soft pink gown that flared at the bottom, a black skirt, two tops that she’d bought bend-down-select, and a blouse—and some money which she took as her salary for the month. With some money she had saved from errands and from nice visitors who tucked crisp naira notes into her palm, twenty-five thousand naira, she started a small business. She cooked rice, and beans, with stew, and fried plantain, put them in small transparent buckets with covers, the stew in a small steel pot, and she placed all of them in a tray and went hawking.
At one of the parks where she went to sell to drivers and their conductors, she met your father, a tall man with a face that had not known any wrinkle, with clean-shaven cheeks, who, quite unusually, was kind to your mother. When he bought food that cost three-fifty, he gave her five hundred and asked her to keep the change. He helped her lift her tray of goods to her head. And he flirted with her in a gentle way, without including his hands. It didn’t take long for your mother to grow fond of him, always asking for him whenever she came to the park, and selling his food with plenty of fisi, and when he helped her lift her tray to her head when she finished selling at the park, something inside her wanted to stay a little bit longer. Something in her admired the look in your father’s eyes; it was not the same one she had seen in the eyes of all the men who had crawled inside her without her permission. While theirs was of ravaging hunger, your father’s was a gentle look of admiration, and hunger (but not the kind of hunger that had no compass). And there was his smile, soft and sweet like that. Your mother couldn’t say what it was that he was doing to her on the inside, she couldn’t name what she was feeling, and there was nobody to tell her it might have been love.
She was just about to turn sixteen.
So when, one day, he asked her that could she come and cook for him—though he only meant it as a joke, flashing that his sweet smile—she said yes, she would like to cook for him.
The sex happened on the first day she went to his house. She was willing to give it just as much as your father wanted it. And the fact that, for the first time, a man kissed her first on the mouth, told her she looked so beautiful (did she know that?) and there was nothing more he wanted in the world than to have her, with all the tickling; all of that made her fluid. And, though there was no one to tell, it was the first time she could say she found some pleasure in having a man between her legs.
Your father, at this time, was twenty-three.
The sex continued. And, unlike the first day, there were times he wasn’t so gentle—like the day you were conceived. Though your father never says this, you were something like wrongly placed punctuation in a smooth sentence. It was all because he forgot to wear rubber before entering the hole between your mother’s legs; there was so much fire in his body on that day that he couldn’t afford the time to walk to the aboki down the street to get a Golden Circle. The way he did on days when the thing between his legs was too hard to be patient, your father did not wait for her to get out of her clothes; he drew her skirt up, pulled her pink panties to her ankles, and entered. After the quickie, your mother would sometimes go into the bathroom that thirteen people shared to wash it off her; at other times, she wouldn’t. She would carry the smell of your father until she knew it by heart.
After he found out that your mother was pregnant, he asked her to move in with him. Before then, she used to sleep over sometimes, most times she stayed in a room she shared with two other women—all three of them paid the rent, each person paying a third of it.
She moved in with him. And your father treated her like an egg. When you had been inside her for four months, he asked her to stop hawking, to stay back at home and just eat, and when there was power, watch the small Panasonic TV. She could watch any Yoruba movie she wanted. All she needed to do was go and rent it down the street. And when there was no power or she was tired of seeing movies, to sleep. She complained many times that your father was turning her into one of those women she saw in the movies her madams used to watch. Women who just sat on big sofas and stretched their heavy legs on glass tables and drank and ate because they were pregnant. Pregnancy is not an illness. And, for the first time, she talked about what used to be home.
When she was six years old, she had six siblings, three who came before her, and three whom she came before, and her mother was heavy with another child. She said even though the woman was almost ripe to deliver, she still went to the farm to pick herbs and carry baskets of freshly harvested palmfruit. The woman still went to the seaside to sell some of the fish their father brought from his fishing trips. She cooked. Even with her swollen belly, she pieced dried wood with the jigger to sell as firewood. And with all that, your mother said she couldn’t remember anything being wrong with the woman or the child when it was born.
However, your father insisted. But because your mother was used to work, she went about sweeping the room, folding clothes that had been folded before, went and washed the bathroom and toilet even though it was not their week to do those. She swept the compound, swept the passage, and sometimes cleared the gutter.
But still, your father was even softer and seemed to care too much. He bought plenty of Peak milk, custard, eggs, beans, plantain, and rice. He would not let her eat garri or fufu or any solid food. Sometimes he would ask her not to cook, and they would eat bread and sardine and tea (it was he who boiled the water). And when she couldn’t eat any of those, he went to Mama Paula’s down-down Odunsi to get her catfish peppersoup. There were times she cried herself to sleep next to him because she had never thought that her life would ever be this close to beautiful.
And one Saturday evening, she said something was biting her below her abdomen. Your father was around that evening. He rushed her to the hospital in his danfo. You were still very much unripe when they harvested you from the center of her body, a seven months’ old thing. You were so small they could barely point out the holes in your face. Eyes shut, mouth space a little hole, ear holes two little dots on the sides of your face, nostrils: holes the size of two black ants. In the hospital, all he could hear was her screams, and then quiet. And the doctor said the child is, but the mother is not. And it broke him, broke him into bits, so much that for months he cried every day.
He is still a broken thing today, seventeen years after your mother left. On most nights, when he is drunk, he talks to her in his sleep. He tells her to come back home, tells her they could start anew, without you in the equation. And, when awake, though he never says it, you hear it—”You killed her. You took her away from me.” But he will never understand that you are the one from whom something was taken. And maybe he knows this, too, or maybe he sees her in you because sometimes he is so sweet you find it hard to believe he is the same one who says you don’t act like him or your mother, that you are too much of a girl.
You and Duro met one Friday after school when the boys had just finished beating the girl out of you. You were lying there in the dust, your uniform covered in dirt and moist from urine and spittle, with a cut on your neck. Duro said he had been looking at the scene from afar, said he was sorry. He helped you up, then offered you some water to wash your face and hands with, and gave you a handkerchief to dry both; when he took the handkerchief from you, he pressed it to the cut on your neck to stop the bleeding.
Together, you both walked home that evening, and he told you he stays just on the street next to yours, NJOKU, that his father is the pastor of one of the churches on the street.
“The church is just opposite our house. You will see a banner outside. Salvation is Come Evangelical Ministries,” he said, as he gently left your hand; until then, you had not been conscious of the fact that you were holding hands. “You could come in the evening tomorrow, around five-thirty, we always have Digging Deep,” he said as he walked away.
You went the next day, around five-thirty, and he was there. He didn’t seem overly excited when he saw you. He just waved and said welcome from the part of the church where the choir sat. Not many people were in the church; there was you, Duro, the man who Duro would tell you is his dad, and four other people. One of them was a girl who sang the worship and praise while Duro played the keyboard.
After the service, the girl came to you and asked your name, said hers was Tife. She said you were welcome and would you be coming to church on Sunday. “We would love to have you,” she said with a smile. “I’ll try,” you said, and she said, “Please do.”
Duro saw you off after introducing you to his dad as “my friend and schoolmate.” His dad was just normal, not jovial or harsh. He was the perfect in-between. He shook your hand gently, said you were welcome, asked about school, and said he’d love to see you again.
You asked Duro if he would teach you the keyboard, and he said sure.
“But the issue is,” he said, then spat. “I practice with the church’s keyboard, and the choirmaster will have issues with me if I use it to teach someone else. It’s church property, not public property, he will say.”
“Oh,” you said. “OK.”
“And another thing is, the keyboard in the church only works when there is light, and the light here comes very rarely,” he said, “you get?”
“Yeah,” you said.
You had not really taken note of him yesterday, but then you could see that he was slim, with long, bow-legs.
“But I can teach you how to play the guitar if you like. I have a box guitar. My dad bought it for me as a birthday present last year. I’m pretty good at it. I’ve been practicing since I was about twelve, with my dad’s guitar.”
You began taking lessons that Saturday.
You went to his house, and you both sat on a raised concrete platform outside, where he taught you the name of the strings, drawing a large box that contained smaller boxes in a notebook with a blue pen and labeling them: EADGBE. However, you both spent half of the time laughing, as you kept teasing him that he couldn’t even draw an ordinary box well.
“OK,” he said, “I agree that I’m bad at drawing things.” He took out his phone, plugged in an earpiece, handed you the phone and the earbuds, and asked you to watch a video. In the video, a guy was trying to explain the same things he had been trying to explain to you with the badly drawn box. The video was brief, ten minutes or so; almost a minute to its end, Duro’s dad sent him a text message asking him to come. He left. When the video ended, you went looking through his gallery to see if you could find any other video on the guitar string names. It was while looking that you came across a porn video where a boy was atop another boy. It was the first time you saw anything like it, so you didn’t stop watching. Then you saw him coming, and you closed the video.
“Have you finished watching the video?”
“Yes,” you said.
And the lesson continued.
The next day, Sunday, you went to church, which was the first time in a long time. Your father laughed when you told him you were going to church, and then he gave you two hundred naira for the offering.
During the service, the choir sang Michael W. Smith’s “Grace,” with Duro singing the first verse. The church was so moved by the song that it felt like the Holy Spirit had come on everyone. Some people were standing with their arms outstretched, singing along, a good deal were on their knees, and few had tears in their eyes. A teardrop trickled down your eyes, too, though you couldn’t say why you were crying, and it felt as if a soft invisible shroud had been wrapped around you.
After the service, the girl from Digging Deep, Tife, came and said, “Hi.”
A bit shocked, you said, “Hey.” You were standing outside the church waiting for Duro when she came over.
“Happy Sunday,” she said.
“Yeah. Happy Sunday.”
“I didn’t think you would come,” she said, “and then I saw you entering the church, and I was like ‘Ah! He came.'”
You didn’t know what you were supposed to say or do, so you just smiled and said, “Yeah.”
She kept talking, asking if you enjoyed the service, if you’d be coming next Sunday.
You said you would come, and she said, “OK.” She walked away and then came back to ask if she should see you off. You said no, she shouldn’t bother, that you were waiting for Duro. And she said, “Oh. You guys attend the same school, right?”
And she took your hand and shook it, squeezing it gently, and said, “Thank you for coming.” Two weeks later, after she got your number, she’d send you a WhatsApp message asking if you have a girlfriend.
“She’s mad over you,” Duro said when you told him about Tife. He was sitting on the bed, next to you, in the one room you shared with your father, the guitar balanced on his slim thigh. He was trying to play the chords of Tim Godfrey’s “Nara Ekele.” This was the first time he was visiting you at home, three weeks after you met each other. He would have come sooner, but his dad didn’t like him going out like that, he told you, and your father was always home, too, and he didn’t like visitors, though you knew he wouldn’t go mad if he saw you with a male friend, especially when that friend doubled as a schoolmate who played the guitar.
“Why would she be mad over me?” you asked. “I mean, no girl has been mad over me before.”
Duro shot you a look. “For real?!”
“But you’ve been mad over one before?”
“I won’t say I’ve been mad over any. There was this girl in Primary 2, though.” And a boy in JSS2 and another in SS1, but you don’t mention them.
“Chai.” Duro began laughing.
“What’s funny, Duro?”
“No, nothing.” He burst out laughing again.
“You are not serious,” you said. “Do you have a girlfriend?”
He went still, gathered himself, and said, “No. I used to. We broke up a week before the day I met you.”
“Oh, sorry,” you said.
“No, it’s nothing. We weren’t working. You know? Always picking fights. No trust. All that shit.”
You didn’t have words. You’d never been in a relationship before, so you just kept quiet.
“I mean. Love is just a myth you know. Like, it’s this lie we tell ourselves to make us happy at the moment. It’s really nothing.”
“Love, true love, ended on the cross.”
You collected the guitar from him to run the solfa.
One Tuesday evening, after Digging Deep, you told him how Tife wouldn’t let you rest.
“That girl ehn,” he said.
“I don’t know how to tell her I’m not interested,” you said.
“Why are you not interested? I mean, you’ve never been in any relationship before. This is an open door. Or you want to be a priest?”
“I just don’t know how this thing works, and I don’t have anything for her.”
“And you’ve never had anything for any girl?”
He brought his mouth close to your ear and whispered, “Or, you’re gay?”
You didn’t know if you were or weren’t. You didn’t know what you were. But you knew you had something for him. So you said, “Maybe I am. I don’t know.”
Duro was supposed to be teaching you how to play “Ancient of Days” on the guitar, but he’d flung the guitar to one side of the room. He was over you, tickling you on the sides, and saying, “G boy, confess: which boy do you have a crush on?” You were laughing so hard your mouth couldn’t form the word.
When he stopped, stood up, and turned his back to take the guitar, you reached out your hand for his arm, to pull him back over you and continue tickling you. But then you stopped yourself. You would tell him some other time, tell him that, yes, true love ended on the cross, but you could swear you had something close to it for him and was it also what shone in his eyes when he sat atop you and tickled you?
As he sat on the bed, the guitar in his arms, you asked him to give you the guitar, that you wanted to play “You Are the Pillar.” He gave it to you and you dropped it, placed it next to the table. Then you sat on him and began tickling him, too, asking him if he would trouble you with the boy-crush question again. Even when you heard him say no over and over, you did not stop. You enjoyed the way he wriggled under you, the way his laughter filled the room. And then your back was bent, your face just an inch away from his; the both of you so close you could feel his breath on your face.
“Ko ko ko,” somebody called you from the door.
It was Iya Rashida, the woman who sold things outside in the compound. She wanted to know if your father was at home. He bought bar soap and a pack of switch Benson from her yesterday, but there was no change, so he said he’d leave the money with you before he went out, she told you in Yoruba. You said he didn’t, and she asked you to remind him when he came back.
You had your chance again, and this time nobody knocked. You kissed him, gently at first, expecting him to push you away, but he didn’t, so you went harder, your hands running all over his body.
Later that day, as you saw him off, you held his hand in yours and said, “Duro, I know love ended on the cross, and I don’t really know what it is, but I think I have something for you. Something close to love.”
He didn’t say a word. He just slipped his hand out of yours and walked away. You stood there, watching him until he turned the corner.
Nothing had happened. No fights. No arguments. Nobody found out a thing. It was a Thursday evening. He had just finished teaching you how to play a C major chord, and now he was sitting there on the bed playing Nathaniel Bassey’s “Alagbada Ina.” You wrapped your arms around his waist, and he plucked them away.
“Have I done anything wrong?” you asked.
“This is wrong, Ropo. I can’t keep doing it,” he said, and he stood up.
You didn’t say a word before he continued speaking.
“We’re wrong,” he almost shouted. Then he went quiet. And in a low voice he said, “I’m not gay. I can’t be gay. You can’t be gay. Being gay is impossible. We’re impossible.” He paused. “If anybody finds out about us, we’re going to rot in jail, and that’s even if we get to court, if they don’t beat us with sticks and burn us alive before policemen arrive at the scene. And it’s not even right. God didn’t create us to be gays. He made us male and female. In God’s eyes, we’re impossible. You’ve heard of Sodom and Gomorrah, right? I don’t want to burn in hell. I’m all my dad has. I don’t want to bring damnation upon him.”
Just like that, after pouring it all out, he picked up his guitar, pushed the door open, and left.
You sat there on the bed, trying to understand the things he said, finding room for each word. You didn’t go after him, you couldn’t; what would you have said to him if you did? You sat there and thought of what he said about gays rotting in jail, you had never heard of it before then, and about you being impossible in the eyes of God: hadn’t God made you this way?
You were burning to cry but the tears wouldn’t come. You stood up and went outside to feel the sun’s warmth and watch boys on the street play football.
The next Sunday, at about nine-thirty, you left home for church. You had decided earlier you weren’t going because you didn’t know how you would react standing in the church, with Duro there on the other side in his choir-boy gown. You didn’t know if your body wouldn’t quiver all over with a kind of pain. Since he stormed out of your place three days ago, you hadn’t seen each other. He didn’t call either. You wanted to call him or message him, but it just felt impossible. It seemed the impossibility he had spoken of now permeated every aspect of your being. You didn’t see each other in school either.
They were rounding up Sunday School when you got into the church. Throughout the service, you kept trying to not look at Duro, and you could see that he was trying hard to do the same. Tife was looking at you, and she thought you were looking at her.
After the service, you waited outside for Duro to come out. He came. As you walked home—he was walking by you but not too close—you told him you were sorry for everything that happened, that it was all your fault.
“No. It wasn’t,” he said. “I think we were carried away by a very dirty kind of lust. What matters is repentance and salvation. That’s all we need.”
During the service on Sunday, they had announced a revival coming up that week, a three-day powerful revival themed: And You Shall See Them No More.
On the second day of the revival, there was an Altar Call. The Evangelist—a tall man dressed in a big coat and chinos, who shouted when he prayed and said, almost every time, “The Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence and the violent taketh it by force”—asked everyone who had strayed from, or was never on, the path of salvation and who wanted to get right with God to come forward and kneel at the altar.
“I want to pray with you,” he said. “You see, there’s nothing more peaceful and beautiful than being in right-standing with God. Come forward and be saved.”
You went to the altar and gave your life to Christ, though you didn’t know what that meant, something inside you made tears pour as the man prayed and asked you to say these words after him: “Dear Lord, forgive me for my iniquities. I am leaving all my sins behind and turning to you. Come into my life, Jesus. Put my name in the Book of Life. Thank you, Lord.”
Word for word, you said the prayer.
After the revival, while Duro was seeing you off, you told him you felt a burden lift from your chest, that you didn’t know what had happened to you, but you felt free; though you didn’t mention that you still felt like kissing his lips, to wrap your mouth around his penis, like you did once, to hear him moan softly with pleasure.
“That’s God,” he said.
You asked him if he already repented. He said yes. You said OK, then you stopped and asked if he stopped watching gay porn, too. Here, he said nothing. He just looked down at his toes as if they held the answer to the question. It was the first time since you met Duro that he was at a loss for words.
You left him and walked away.
Tonight, in your sleep, you grow wings. Your body birds. You flap your wings. Your body birds. You rise, like the wind. Your wings take you over the waters. You are flying away from a city hungry to swallow your being, from grief ready to bury you, to a city where everything you are and want to be is possible. On the other side, like careful presents, good things wait. Love waits. Joy waits. Every beautiful thing you have lost waits. Tonight, all things are possible—boy, bird away.
Ernest O. Ògúnyẹmí
Ernest O. Ògúnyẹmí is a writer and editor from Nigeria. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in Joyland, Tinderbox, Journal Nine, the Indianapolis Review, Down River Road, Capsule Stories, No Tokens, the West Review, the Dark Magazine, 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry III, Mud Season Review, Agbowó, Isele, and elsewhere. He is the curator of The Fire That Is Dreamed of: The Young African Poets Anthology.