You were born into this world without pain or suffering. Your father was almost very rich and your mother was already beautiful. When the midwife handed you over on the first day of your life, your mother took you in her arms and gave you a special name. Your father didn’t like the name so he gave you a different name. On the naming day, your seventh day, everyone called you by the name your father chose. But there was still that special, secret name that your mother called you by. She would use it when she bathed and fed you and when she rocked you to sleep. The name was like a sun that entered the atmosphere of your consciousness, and it became the first word that you could hold with your little tongue. Your mother didn’t want you to forget that name. What you or she didn’t realise was that it carried the shape of your soul, and you would come to hate it.
Your father bought you a tricycle after four hundred days, before you could even walk. You had your own nanny and your own driver. On day one thousand, you began to go to school, and your nanny would dress you up in your immaculate uniform, and your driver would drive you there and back. You called your nanny aunty and your driver uncle. You thought every man an honorary uncle, every woman an honorary aunty, and every child an honorary cousin. Even in school you called your teacher aunty and all the students laughed at you. You weren’t very good at drawing, but you loved to colour the shapes. As you scratched your crayons of twelve colours on the soft brown page, painting your little world in shades of midnight blue and elegiac green – for these were your favourite colours – the colours would spill outside the drawings and into the margins of the page. You never tried to control the fever of your colouring, and you never could have understood that all of life is like a great colouring exercise in which you try to keep the colours apart, within their respective borders. The crayons represented a multifarious spectrum of existence that wasn’t in the least bit complex – it was as simple as the fact that trees were green and the sun was yellow. The crayons felt like crushed peas in your mouth and smelled to you of your empty classroom with its expansive windows on a Saturday morning after it had rained outside and all the chairs were turned up on the desks. And for a time, they protected you from the brutality of the world. Then one day you had to wake up.
It began to happen when someone bloodied your nose while you were playing Catcher one break-time, one thousand, four hundred and fifty-six days into your life. You didn’t run to your teacher. You sat in a corner of the playground and ignored your lunchbox. You cried and let your nose bleed. When the teacher found you, your school uniform was stained down the front and she made you hold your head back and took you to the clinic. Your parents changed your school after that. In your new school, you learned your alphabets. The first word you could spell by yourself was your secret name. You didn’t take to arithmetic and you were afraid of the teacher who taught it. On day two thousand, two hundred and twenty, he asked you in front of the class what the sum of three and four was. You wanted to say seven because it was the first digit you saw among the numbers on the blackboard when you looked up, but you couldn’t risk getting it wrong because something bad would happen if you did: the class would laugh, or the teacher would call you dull. So you said nothing and the teacher had to call on another student.
Two thousand, nine hundred and forty-five days in, when you began to feel funny, it was by no fault of yours. The doctor looked at you and said there was a problem with your liver. Your father drew money and your mother drew tears. But no amount of money or tears could make you better and the doctor gave you a short time to live. You remained in bed and thought about sweet little things like the rays of morning light that cut the air into golden strips, like the puppies that had been born to Kyalesu the black bitch who lived with the guard at the gate, like the touch of your mother’s hand when she placed it on your forehead and filled you with an ineffable sense of refuge. As your little face turned towards heaven, you thought about angels, and you may have seen one or two, although you didn’t know they were angels, and if you had been asked to describe them, you wouldn’t know how to. They looked like what you would get if you took sunlight and mixed it with rain and a dash of rainbow and a spurt of cloud. They were the most ephemeral of creatures in the world, and they were becoming more of reality and less of a dream. Then someone crept towards you out of the shadows of your room, a girl your age whose entire appearance and being were spotless. Her voice was the music of eternity, and she called you by your secret name. She said her name was Morty and she spoke to you gently and sweetly. She wasn’t an angel, but neither was she anything you had heard about in stories or myths. She was simply something different. She asked you what you felt and you had no language to describe the world of pain you inhabited, so she offered to take away all the pain forever. She gave you a little glass bowl of something shiny and elusive, like flashes of lightning on a rainy night. Before you drank it you asked her what it would do to you. Morty said it would take you to a place you had never been before, and you never had to come back. In your little child’s mind, a kind of rare understanding came about that was occasioned by the intensity of your suffering, for you realised that Morty was speaking about death. At the moment you understood that you were about to die, all that your life could have been stretched out before you like an endless buffet that you were too full to eat. You remembered what it would have been like to be old and filled with life and wisdom. You would miss the birth of your children and the cheer of the singing of strangers on your fiftieth birthday. You would never have the chance of choosing to forget what it meant to be twenty and in love. And all these scenes from your future flashed before your eyes like pictures from the View-Master that your father had bought you, but you didn’t know what they were, or even what they meant. All you knew was that you didn’t want to die. So you pleaded with Morty to let you live, you said you wanted to live a little, you even remembered to say please. Morty looked at you with eyes that were too full of knowing for a child, then she took back the little glass bowl of the shiny and elusive stuff and returned to wait in the shadows of your existence. The doctor looked at you and said your liver was fine and that you weren’t going to die. Your father drew money for a party and your mother drew tears for joy.
When you woke up on the three thousandth day of your life, everything that had happened before then had been a dream to you, a dream you couldn’t remember. From that point forward, you began to live in a world that spun and stopped at your bidding. But it took you a while to understand this. At first, you relished this kind of attention, the bag of sweets that your life had become. Then as you took on puberty, you realised that what you inspired in your parents was not simply fondness but a protracted and foolish devotion to anything that had to do with you. From the moment you had returned as one from the dead, you had held a powerful sway over them. Thus began your regime of a seemingly innocuous but calculated tyranny. Yet other things were also blossoming in the air of your fragile innocence. Gradually, as you learned about things like love and the opposite sex, the geography of your understanding about these things came to be shaped by great seismic waves of romantic song lyrics. And what was love if not that hot, bubbly thing somewhere inside a person that came out of them like steam through a kettle and made them whistle in the sweetest tunes. The entire world was a big, broken heart wrapped up in steel bars that could only be freed by time, love, and tenderness.
When you had lived four thousand and sixty-four days, you woke up and found that your body had changed, and your mind wanted to move on to more interesting things. While you struggled to keep up with worlds your evolving physicality opened up to you, your parents argued on how to go about handling the next stage of your development. In the end, your paternal grandmother convinced them to send you to boarding school. Your mother didn’t want you to suffer, since boarding schools were said to be a type of juvenile purgatory, and your father wanted you to learn independence. So they found the best solution to this dilemma: the most expensive boarding school in the country.
Day four thousand, one hundred and three saw you entering boarding school. It was difficult business from the start. There were unforgiving lessons that had to be learned. The first lesson was that you needed a new identity, because your old identity, symbolised by the secret name your mother had given you and characterised by a sickly sweetness and a guileless charm, was causing you undue humiliation. You were paying a heavy price for the honest smile you had inherited from your mother, and that price began to take its toll on your general happiness. This was the most expensive boarding school in the country, after all, and you weren’t supposed to suffer so. Physical suffering would have been easier to bear up under, for it would have taught your body to steel itself against any kind of force or effort. But this kind of internal, unseen suffering was a different animal altogether, the kind that ate at you in pieces until you realised too late that all you had left were the things that were of no consequence. You tucked your secret name away into the shadows. You stopped seeing human beings as nominal relatives and began to see them through wolf eyes. Existence itself became one gargantuan and deliberate effort at creating that most important of effects: an impression. Somehow through sheer application of wiles you had never before been aware you had, you mastered the art of subtle warfare. By the end of boarding school, the power you wielded over your parents and their excessive love had grown to include your peers and their respect, the other sex and their admiration, and the less fortunate and their envy. You had carved for yourself a comfortable niche in your little adolescent society, towering over it along with the rest of the nomenklatura that governed it. And then that was all over in a moment and you found yourself at the threshold of the rest of your life.
It began six thousand, three hundred days into your life with your most ambitious idea: that you didn’t have to rule your father’s empire after him, that you only wanted to take pictures. You refused to learn under your father’s tutelage, rejecting the space that he had carved out for you in the world. You could have been the gardenia that your father had planted and pruned, could have reached full bloom and become his glory. But you would make your own place in the world. In this heady season of adventure, of gloriously striking out into the rest of your life, you arrived at the final conclusion of what you had been suspecting for some time, that love had nothing to do with a kettle or the heart but that its chief concern was that mysterious region between the thighs and the waist. Six thousand, eight hundred and thirty days in, you created the first masterpiece from among the many pictures that would eventually immortalise you. And the very next day you took your first lover into your arms. The concentration of the pleasure in your nether regions, which eventually shot out to the far reaches of your body and exploded there like fireworks, made you wonder why you had started out so late in this jungle of love.
Your pictures were revelations of lighting and composition; they told stories about a shapely humanity that was filled with beauty and possibility. They brought back to you the kaleidoscope of your past from the days when the smell of crayons reminded you of your empty classroom on a rain-swept Saturday morning. In your burgeoning maturity, you still failed to understand life as a great colouring exercise, or a set of perfectly framed pictures of the most precious moments.
As your pictures grew in number and perfection, so did your lovers. They, the lovers, came and went like orphaned leaves carried by a restless wind. When you sat down to think about it many, many days later, after you had returned once again as one from the dead, you would understand that you could have drawn parallel lines that represented your lovers and your pictures, and that the only thing that distinguished them was that they were going in opposite directions. You were with one of your lovers when something happened that would change you forever. And it would change you only because what you felt about it was true, and not the thing itself. The moment of desire is a fecund and wild creature. It will spawn itself in the space between a man and a woman for as long as there is time, until there are no men and women left, for it carries within itself the seed for the perpetuation of the entire human race. The moment of desire, however illicit it may appear, is the friend and guardian of humanity. And in its wake is often found that untameable spark of life. Seven thousand, five hundred and two days after you had emerged from your mother’s womb, you discovered that between you and your lover there now existed more than desire, there existed a child, and you wiped that child away like the chalk writing your teachers used to erase from the blackboard when you yourself were a child. But this kind of memory never goes away. It is an eternal black burned against the slate of your mind. You ate with it and slept with it, and in your lonely moments, when you saw your soul in the mirror of silent nights, it haunted you. In that manner ten thousand days went and you could never have said where.
You married your twenty-first lover eleven thousand days into your life, the result of a cool and calculated decision, for marriage is one of the rungs on the ladder of success. You took hold of it in order to get to the next one: legitimate children. They came like the scant rain that falls during a drought. The first one had your eyes and your lover’s lips. He loved to smile at anything, and the sound of his tiny laughing voice would tear an eternal hole in your heart every time. He died after fourteen days. The second one had nothing of you. He was detached in the manner of the dying, as if his soul was trapped in the doorway between neverness and life. He never opened his eyes. He died after six days. The third one had too much of your mother’s eyes to make you feel comfortable to stare at her. She was the hairiest child you had ever seen. She lived for seven hundred and forty nine days and died when she was beginning to speak her first words. The fourth one died as he entered the world. By this time, you began to fear that all these children, however different they may have looked, were essentially the same person, your very own abiku, who had once before existed in a secret place, known only to you and your then lover, only to be snuffed out like a candle, back now to avenge itself. But you weren’t brave enough to face even the possibility of it. Six more children came and went like flying termites drawn out by rain and gone the next day. Some were beautiful to look at; others were damaged and scarred – from what you could not say, but you sensed it had something to do with you. One time, the child had split itself up into a set of identical twins, filling you with the hope that this was it. Then you stopped having children. You skipped the rung of the children after that and moved on to the next one.
Your pictures grew darker as the days went by. It was as if you had run out of sunlight to give them. You lived in neglect of your own body. There was no room for anything else but the pictures, not even your lover. And when your lover died, you were more single than you had ever been, even in the days before you had thrown yourself into the jungle of love.
One day you began to feel funny. Your body did unusual things. The doctor looked at you and shook his head. In your delirium you heard a strange word that rhymed with roses. They told you that you needed a new liver and you would die in ninety days if you didn’t get one. Ninety days, you thought. What was ninety days compared to the twenty-one thousand that you had lived? You remained in bed and your thoughts were filled with all your demons and dark things. They were many things, but they were mostly the children you had engendered and lost. When you were alone you had a visitor who crept towards you from the shadows, dragging your secret name along like a dead weight. It was Morty, now hideous and disfigured. Her voice filled you with an insensible terror that you allowed to wash over you like a drowning man resigned to his fate, and you knew without being told that there was an inexplicable link between you and her. And then you woke up from the dream. Your mother was there beside you, whispering your secret name like a prayer. She hadn’t used it for all these long but brief days, and it was the sight of the dying you that had wrung it out of her. Without knowing why you touched her hand and didn’t say a word.
When the doctor told you they’d found a match you closed your eyes and cried like you had cried once on a playground with a bloody nose. You lived beyond ninety days and this became your legacy: countless beautiful pictures and several dead children. Long ago after you had tried to wipe the blackboard clean the writing had still stared back at you from underneath the layers.
This is how you died. Thirty thousand days after your birth, you were being taken to the doctor because your body was doing strange things again. You weren’t surrounded by family. Your father had died, along with his empire, and your mother had simply floated up to heaven one day while you weren’t looking. You only had your driver and your caregiver with you. The caregiver was young and nursed ambitions to follow in your footsteps and be great like you. You looked at your caregiver with the same eyes that Morty had looked at you long ago and thought to yourself that time was a river that would carry you away from everything you ever feared and towards everything you hadn’t yet learned to fear. Your vehicle somersaulted three times. Each somersault was ten thousand days. When it was all over, you had faded away into neverness.
Umar Turaki (@) is a writer and filmmaker living in Jos, Nigeria. His short films have screened at the Zanzibar International Film Festival, the Pan African Film Festival, and the Durban International Film Festival. His most recent short film, Salt, will also screen at the Ake Book and Arts Festival in November 2016. He is an MFA candidate in the film program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and he also participated in the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop in June, 2016. One day, he hopes to publish a novel.
Related country: Nigeria