Sentinel Literary Quarterly

Vol.2 No.3, April 2009. ISSN 1753-6499 (Online). www.sentinelquarterly.com

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Abayomi O. Zuma
Akinlabi Peter
Angela Nwosu
Ashley Capes
Benjamin Beresford
Gregory A Lawson
Lola Shoneyin
Matthew Coombe
Nnorom Azuonye
Nnorom Azuonye (2)
Simon Green
 
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FICTION

 

 

Mindscape

 

By Angela Nwosu

 

          Just when I thought I had finally settled my life into a reliable pattern, something happened. Perhaps it might just be seen as nothing really and therefore no problem at all. But that ‘something’ created a chain of other little problems, or so it seems. Maybe it has created a long chain of thoughts connected to a long procession of memories.

 

          Memories are not bad if they bring smiles and light up your life like a Valentine candle. They are not bad if you cuddle them like pillows and let warm tears of joy act as a motivation to make your life better. No, not at all. Memories are not bad when they act as an alternative to grim reality. But they are not so good when they make goose pimples of shame break out all over you. Shame, goose pimples? Yes, the type that break out when you remember things you shouldn’t have done, mistakes you could have avoided; when you think you let your loved ones down; when you remember that you did not defend your dreams with all your might. Then memories are not so good, but when, because you think they are not so good, you try to drown them in different illusions, that might lead to more goose pimples – of shame, not the type that occurs because two hearts are melting into a thrill.

 

          It happened on that night when there was a snowstorm. I was lucky to be off duty. Even after living through many winters, that night felt like all of creation was going to be eaten by the snow. They fell furiously like a prelude to an apocalyptic disaster. But then Philly braved the storm for me, or so he claims. I had every reason to trust him though. A year ago, we had both survived the abyss of self-nihilism. We had both risen from the ashes of our destruction. We became friendly and, later, as sometimes happens when two people see each other often enough, we became lovers. I was grateful because I wouldn’t have known where to begin. When you lose a lot of time out of the world – the normal world, that is – getting back is usually hard. Even after regaining myself, there were times when I quickened my steps because I felt a trail of laughter chasing me or I felt my flesh tingling with desire for a shot of illusion. Philly kind of made things easy. Maybe he too felt like me, like once-lost-always-lost-so-why-not-make-out-with-this-fellow-who-had-been-down-the-abyss-like-me?

 

          Philly had been drifting long before my own chaos. His father Dele was a ‘lost’ Nigerian and his mother a wandering, beautiful Latino woman. They had him in Philadelphia and named him Philly. But they soon found out they were not ready to settle down, so they put him in a foster home and drifted apart from each other – as wide as they could. Philly got out of foster homes faster than one could empty a bowel. He got into all kinds of street problems until he hit zero. That the two of us have experienced zero created a bond between us.

 

          So, when he said he came to be with me that terrible night, I kind of believed him. I made coffee and we laid in bed talking light stuff – mostly about other people or things outside of ourselves. He worked in a factory and I worked as a waitress, so we also talked about our working lives. In the middle of that light talk, a gripping thought in the form of a question possessed my brain. You must know how it feels when sometimes you wake up in the morning thinking you must remember something, like a song, a word, or just a name. Usually, you don’t get it that first time and it stretches into days; then, when you relax a bit, forget a bit or all the way, it comes! Only that then it may not be important anymore.

 

          So this thought gripped me as Philly began to get all cuddly, letting the chill think for him. Even as he thrust in and out talking love stuff, I felt I was not there and wondered how he could feel something when I felt nothing. He was soon snoring and I felt a brief anger, but that passed because I was in a feverish grip. As I moved to the kitchen, I mused about how a thought can be more powerful than lovemaking.

 

          I opened my medicine chest. I was frantic. My prescription bottle was there, apart from the other bottles as if to proclaim its hold on my life. Did I take my drug that night? “Did you take your drug?” I asked myself. I couldn’t answer, and I felt sweaty and dizzy. I had this fear that I

 

was falling into a mountain of black snow. I feared that with one silly mistake jeering voices would dance in my head and my walls would close in on me and Philly would leave me because I refused to be injected by the joy liquid, and my ancestors would rise up from their graves and judge me…and….

 

          My ancestors. My ancestors? I held the bottle and began to read the words without seeing them. I didn’t need to because the words blurred and became memory stuff. You know, like walking backwards through your life. I was hearing my mama’s voice – the pride with which she told her friends how she breastfed her first child and daughter and how she was never sick.

          “You mean she has never fallen sick?”

          “Would I be lying about such a thing?”

          “So you don’t go to hospital?”

          “We do, but not because of her. She hates the smell of hospitals.”

          “That’s strange. Who did she reincarnate amongst your ancestors?’

          “Hey, you believe things like that? Well, one of her paternal aunts did find out. She is supposed to be Agbo, her paternal grandmother. Come to think of it, Agbo was sickly all her life and she had vowed that when she came back to life again, she would never be dependent on drugs. Do you think….”

          “Of course, of course…”

          And now I was shivering with fear over a drug. Philly called out to me. He wanted to know what was happening, but what could I say to him – that I recalled a familiar memory all of a sudden in years or that I remembered an aspect of who I was because I was gripped by sudden fear?

          “I am good,” I said to him.

          “It’s cold, girlie. Come to bed. Come get your sleep.”

          I smiled a foolish smile, wondering why men get all tender at night – all tender when a

need arises, that is. But I was getting all needy too, because going back to that past put me in a confused state I was trying to avoid so that I could live one day at a time without having to deal with looming shadows. I wanted to move on without clusters, but just thinking of that name was unnerving. I hadn’t thought about a name in years. I was getting really needy now because I felt like forgetting the whole weary business. So, when Philly reached for my nipple, I pushed it deep into his mouth. And when he knew me again, this second time, I abandoned myself to the sheer pleasure of union – grateful that he had braved the storm, thankful for the warmth.

         

        Days later, I was still waiting like someone in a trance not knowing where dreams ended and reality began. I woke up one morning trying hard to remember a dream and, when I did remember, it turned out it was an event that was shown on television the day before. Living was getting really blurry, but I managed to still do stuff like work, eat, and mope. I was in that not-so-sweet state when Philly called again. He wanted to know if he could come over, and I really boiled over. I wanted to scream and say I was tired of just lying in bed talking light stuff, tired of hardened nipples and dripping warmth. I wanted to scream and say he should go jump into a river, but instead I counted up to ten, took a deep breath and said “hello.”

          “Hey, my gal, you sound low. Can we get together?”

          “I’m cool, but can we space out for sometime?” It must be my voice, which must have sounded odd to him. He said okay and hung up. I didn’t let any guilt stay on my conscience. I needed to think, yet I dreaded going back. It seemed as if these thoughts will be the end of me, but that name from last time…that name stuck.

          My father used to always boast that he was a self-made man. Whenever he was angry at us, he would launch into a tirade on how he “made it” as an orphan without help from any one. Despite these occasional outbursts, however, he had one single (most powerful) passion: to give us the very best. I was lucky that even though he had no formal education, he did not discriminate against me as a girl. In fact, he swore he would give me more than the best. He did give us all more than the best, my four brothers inclusive.

 

          In the course of my growing up, my education had impressed on me that those great men who fought for our country’s independence and those who went to the white man’s country at about that time had shattered the myth of white superiority. They told us that people were the same everywhere and that we all come from the same source. But as I grew up, I perceived a new attitude. Time was when going out of the country was mostly for the purpose of further studies or business. Folks came back home. In fact, folks burnt to return home! Then the time came when leaving the country was motivated by survival, a passion for escape and acquiring a “been-to” attitude.

 

          We weren’t badly hit. My father’s entrepreneurial spirit had helped him build up a business empire. But some folks simply did things because others were doing them. So, when two of my father’s friends sent off their children to study abroad, it was as if they had invited him to a competition that he must win.

 

          I didn’t want to go, didn’t see why I should go. There were good schools at home. I pleaded with my mother, forgetting she really had no say in the matter. The “been-to” fever had gripped her long before my father was hit. She began to call me “been-to” and, even before I got my paperwork ready, everyone knew I was leaving the country. Our house became a tourist attraction of sorts. It was as if I had mutated into the eighth wonder of the world. People gave me addresses of relatives I should look up and the ones I should find, as if I was on a special or communal mission. Friends advised that I marry a white man because “the white people’s vision of life is about flowers and picnics.” There were so many voices to get lost in. But my father’s was dominant. I was to go into the world and conquer. I was to study law or medicine and forget my dream of becoming a dancer. Dance was frivolous pleasure, not a credential for lucrative employment. I became weary of all the visits and voices and I began to dream of getting away from the madness. I felt betrayed by the fact that everyone pretended not to notice I was in turmoil. Couldn’t they see that all I wanted was to remain at home, to be near my mother and play with my brothers and dream of my own future? I guess no one believed that I wasn’t happy. When I told Ronke, my best friend, that I wasn’t thrilled about going, she looked at me with skepticism and replied with a very long “Reeaaly?!”

 

          There was a send-forth party. People were happy to have free food and drinks on me, but for me it was like the final seal of my destiny.

 

          At first, I worked hard to convince myself that I could like it here, in the USA. I took refuge in the fact that it was just for a short time, after which I would go back to my country. It was Fall, and the yellow leaves, dancing in the seductive breeze, gladdened my heart. I buried myself in books, saying that it was better to be busy than let the unnatural solitude in my new environment take over my life. There was something sad about the atmosphere, something about it that bred ill-tempered spirits. Maybe it was the ghost of slavery or the spirit of history. There was something definitely funereal about the atmosphere, and the people went about like soulless robots as if to be natural was a taboo. Ironically, the word “fun” was always in the air. “Hey, we could do fun things this weekend.” “Let’s go have fun.” And the opposite word was always “boring.” “That lecture was boring.” “Why are you such a bore? Come on, you are still very young, have fun!”

 

          I spent a lot of my free time trying to find the difference between “fun” and “boring,” and after a few outings I felt they were both the same really. Everything bored me. The news on the radio and the television always left me wanting to throw up – about someone being killed or maimed or raped or kidnapped or a baby’s head being bashed into a wall or a man sexually abusing his daughter. All these for fun, or from boredom? I was sick. Home seemed like virgin land in comparison, regardless of all our leadership problems.

 

          Maybe I was still living in my dream, creating several conflicting realities. I began to see the faces of my country people at restaurants, to hear their voices and their conversations in my

consciousness. I had stopped caring a long time ago whether folks were black or white. They were just folks to me. But now I saw and heard my country people almost everywhere. What was I becoming – a walking memory? At night, their voices would pursue me in my dreams without giving me any chance to run. I couldn’t run back into myself, could I?

 

          Uju was telling her friend how her husband moved to the USA without her. Kelechi, her husband, made her understand it was better he prepared for her. Not that he thought of her as special but just that settling was hard, more so as he came in as an illegal immigrant. Uju did not mind at all. The way she saw it, her spouse being over there was almost the same as her being there herself. After a few years, her husband began to visit once in a while, but Uju decided she wasn’t going to have any baby until she joined her man. Three years and three abortions later, she finally found herself beside her husband in the land of freedom and possibilities. For days, she felt she was floating in a dream cloud. She called everyone back home to say she had arrived safely and that the place was indeed like paradise. After the euphoria of arrival, she channeled her resources to making the American babies. But they never came. Desperation took over. There were series of fasting to break curses, meetings with spiritualists, and so many other things – all to no avail. Seven years later, the heart of the marriage just stopped beating. She was reminded that Kelechi, being the only male in the Azaga family, needed to perpetuate the lineage. The reminder came from Kelechi’s sisters, who got their brother another wife.

          “That was awful,” said her friend. “And you did nothing, just wasted more than a decade of your life?”

          “I did nothing. I took refuge in the Lord.”

          I did not see the Lord in her refuge. She had emptied several glasses of beer and was tearing open a second cigarette pack. That was not refuge, but I guess I could understand a lonely soul.

 

          Back home years ago, we were taught in church that there was a purpose to everything

because God is infinite wisdom. So, in every situation we learn to give thanks. Bad luck has a purpose. When my own bad luck came two years later, two years of battling with solitude and displacement, I had thought it was some sort of green light for escape. 

          

          Father’s business crumbled one night when armed robbers burnt down the factory building, after bloodily looting the place. He was concerned that he might not be able to pay my fees again for some time. Could I hang on a few months for him to sort out things? I said fine, not wanting to seem too eager to propose my immediate return home. Things did not get better, so I said I was coming home, but my father would not hear of it. He said I should do everything in my power to stay back so that shame would not kill him first. He gave me the phone number of his cousin, whom he said could help.

 

          When I called, the voice that answered the phone was cheerful enough for me to be encouraged. He even joked about family stuff. But as soon as I mentioned the reason for the call, there was tension. Oh no, he said, I must have the wrong number because he was not the Maduka that is related to Mr. Enu. He said he was from South Africa and his name was Masela, then he hung up. My tight room became even smaller that day. I felt that I was  lost.

 

          Somehow, the passion to succeed injected me with new energy, and I thought my bad luck would turn out to be positive in the end. Working and studying was hell, but I did not want to bother my family. I was managing when the frantic, desperate letters began to come. The bad luck must have done something to my father. He began writing for me to send money so he could educate my brothers. My brothers too began to call, saying they wanted to come over. I sent them all I had, until I could no longer afford to remain in school. I decided to let school wait for a year or two and concentrate on work. But the letters kept coming. I kept giving because I felt guilty of what I could not explain. Maybe it was my mother’s letter – I sought encouragement from her, but her words left me gaping with shock: “Girls your age now own estates in Nigeria. Maybe you should cross over to Italy!” Was poverty indeed a sin? I became acutely aware once again of the lonely atmosphere – the forlorn houses trapped in chaotic orderliness, the deserted roads, the different shades of crime. Here, loneliness was like candy. Everyone had their own brand of lonely candy. I was breaking. By the time Danny came into my life, I was a perfect bar of despair.

 

          The faces and the conversations still pursued me in my dreams, and I began to wonder if I was not existing on another planet.

 

          Bonny too came here with big dreams, which included bringing all his family members over. It did not take him long to realize that his master’s degree in Business Administration back home was not regarded as anything here. He could not afford the cost of graduate education here, so he soon found himself doing two jobs and writing back home that all would go well. The pressure began to mount. He was constantly being reminded of his responsibility to his family and to himself, such as starting a family. By the time he added two more jobs, he barely had time to eat and sleep, not to talk of keeping in touch with family. And after three decades, he was telling his friend, Brighten, he was all screwed up.

          Brighten’s story is similar to Bonny’s, but he says he is already working on a solution. He wants to commit a crime that would help get him deported, whereupon he would start a revolution back home.

 

          “A revolution, against who?” Bonny wondered.

          “Against oppression and degradation. It’s time we stand up for our right. Our leaders can set things right, but because we always shrug as if we can take in everything they keep testing our will.”

          “Why are you saying ‘our’? You’ve been absent for too long.”

          “No, I always follow the news from home. In fact, if there is a way of measuring my loyalty, you could say I never really left.”

          Bonny nodded, but he was not quite convinced. He told Brighten of the ethnic problem back home and how his “revolution” might complicate things. “Something will crop up” was how Brighten ended the conversation.

 

          Because my life was walking backwards, with dreams and reality clashing, I became like a body of fleeting images. And the voices too, the faces – all of these brought back Danny. The words came as if something was being reported. Danny, the first son of a rich Texan, came into my life on a breezy morning. He was a dashing white guy with the bluest of eyes. He talked fast and laughed a lot. But when he was not laughing, he was dreaming. He found me in a bar of despair and decided to turn me into a flutter of joy. Something in me opened up as he cleared my filial guilt away. One day, I tasted the stuff on his tongue and we both began to fly and dream. We were free, and we felt no pain, no sorrow. Danny took me all over Europe, showing me castles that we claimed by just being young and different. I no longer remembered anything – family, work, study. Everything went away and melted into the world we were trying so hard to forget. One day, Danny forgot forever. He took the stuff and told me we were one, then he slept and s-l-e-p-t.

 

          His father got me arrested, saying I had bewitched his son. I was eventually released when the fact came out that Danny was the one who had initiated me into white madness. My eyes opened to my rottenness and I went into a home – to become straight again.

 

          And now the voices. The voices from my people made me see again and I felt a longing for my family, a longing I thought was dead.

 

          I began to eat in my dreams. My country’s cuisine came to me in different forms. First came ofe onugbu with nni ji. I ate ravenously, and my family’s grave opened up and my ancestors came out with scrolls and taught me who I was. But I looked at them without my eyes and heard them without my ears. One of them stood up and brought me another kind of food – obe ewedu and amala. I savored the food, and my great-great-grandmother taught me that the ingredients for both meals were basically the same even though they are different. Hunger ravaged me again and tuwo shinkafa and a variety of other foods came up, with each naming itself: “I am okodo.”

 “I am ukpo.” “I am acha.” “I am abacha.” “I am fufu.” “I am ojojo.” I ate them all. Then I saw my father and he told me that I was all that food and all that food was me.

 

          As I walked back into my life, doing my work and pondering, I stopped feeling hungry. When I was asked to eat at work, I would say I had eaten. When I got home, I would pace up and down thinking. Then, one day, it clicked. The letters. I remembered the letters. Long long ago, I had stopped opening them, now I held this particular one and read. It was from my youngest brother.   

 

          Dear sister,

I write to let you know I am in great shock. Mama, papa and the rest are dead. Just like that. I had gone to the east to buy market because I sell second-hand clothes now. I left them all healthy, but now I am all alone. They are not the only ones though. Something happened at the military cantonment and bombs started going off in the air killing people. The bombs shook houses out of their foundations, the bombs sent fire into many lives and people ran towards the canal. You remember the canal that runs through the back streets at Ejigbo? Well, it opened its hungry mouth and drowned half of our people. Papa said it was better they stayed home. They did until the building caved in. You are all I have now. Please tell me what to do!

 

          I held the letter in my hands. I could not keep it. I just stared into space and my eyes dripped of long-bottled tears. Much later, anger reached back into my heart and bitterness filled my mouth. I began to scream and break things. I was blind. I was blind with sorrow. But because I could not cry forever and because I could not die on my bitterness, I began to think of what to do. I will go HOME. And I thought wildly that Philly would help me raise money. I quickly called his apartment. No answer. I called his friend, who called himself Child of Love for a reason I never cared to find out. Child of Love told me Philly had gone to Philadelphia. He said Philly saw something in the book of Revelations and decided he had been named for a reason. My legs began to shake as I felt a new wave of loneliness.

          “Did he leave any address?” I asked Child of Love.

          “No, hon, but in case you need some love, Child of Love can….”

          I dropped the phone, feeling really lost now. At night, another wild thought entered my head, and I began to read the news about home. I began to live for the daily news, and one day it was as if I finally found light. “Nigerian Government Wants Her People Back Home” ran a headline. I read the news as if my life depended on it. Believing I would get help, I called the number.

 

          “Yes?”

          “I want to come back home….”

          “He hen, what is your tribe?”

          “Tribe? I am a Nigerian.”

          “We are starting tribe by tribe, but forget that for now. Tell me about your credentials.”

          “Credentials? I am a Nigerian eager to be home.”

          “No, no, please don’t rush me. I never forced you out of the country. By 'credentials' I mean what have you been doing there? Which universities have you attended there, how many more degrees did you acquire? How many white families did you network with? Do you have any children by white men? You know, we are trying to build a new world here at home….” 

       

          I was dazed. But I was also desperate, so I launched into what I thought was a pathetic story about my life. I even added something about prostitution to deepen my picture of despair because I thought that would get me home fast.

 

          “He hen. Well, young lady, I will call you back, but let me just tell you this: we have enough ashawo back home.”

 

          I waited, despite the sarcasm. I waited until the headline hit me: “Brains Wanted to Redress the Drain.” People like me were asked to please stay back. “Nigeria has enough problems

at the moment to care about misfits and another set of ‘area children.’

 

          This time, I didn’t scream. I just moved on to the next wild thought. Inspired by Brighten’s idea, I wore a notice the next day that read: “Arrest me, please, for I deserve a long life of sanctuary.” But it was winter and people cared more about protecting themselves from the chill than paying attention to loonies.

 

          That night, I dreamt of Iyi Odo – the river of clarity. I had been there only once in my life when I visited my village. But now I swam in the water all clad in white with a red band on my head. I saw Adugbe, the river goddess. I also saw Mkpitime. I was at the threshold of Adugbe’s shrine, but even as I was willing I couldn’t get in. Several things weighed me down. Mkpitime came to my side and patted me on the shoulder. “If you don’t eat sorrow, how can you drink joy?”

 

          I did not understand the words, but they gave me hope. The next day, I tried to get attention again – without success. I changed the words: “Please help me, for I must return to Earth.” Still nothing. “If you don’t eat sorrow, how can you drink joy?” The words renewed me. I felt hope again. I will wait until summer, and if summer does not give me some answer I will just wait for anytime. Anytime is better than no time. Anytime is certainly better than forever.

 

 The end.

 

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Angela Amalonye Nwosu has published a poetry collection, Waking Dreams. She lives and writes in Denver, Colorado.

 

 

Sentinel Literary Quarterly

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Editor: Nnorom Azuonye

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