She smiled. The sadness in her eyes began to disappear.
Now that I think of it, I had never seen her smile in all the while we met.
There are days I would recall her writing to me that she cannot remember what she sounded like; her mother’s call, her sister’s laughter, and her pet dog, Rufus, his welcoming bark, all faded.
It started five years ago when I lost my daughter to cancer. I began aimlessly wandering around the city. I was not sure what I was hoping to achieve from such walks. There were times I would like to believe that walking brought me much needed catharsis, that the countless impressions of different faces I saw while walking helped me process pain in a more subtle light. There were times I walked out of mere routine. I was not sure what need walking satisfied. Nonetheless, I still took them each evening. It was on one of these walks I met Lami, a little girl who hawked petty snacks between traffic congestion and busy streets. There was a certain gentleness to her sad eyes as she approached me with her bean cakes that evening.
“One for twenty! Three for fifty!” She screamed.
I did not want to turn her down; hence, I took one wrap of bean cake, gave her a hundred naira note and told her to keep the change. She held it towards me and then drew it to her chest and I nodded. She squeezed the naira note and walked away. For the evenings that followed, I bought bean cakes from her.
There had been something about both her delayed reaction to my remarks and the loud, slightly odd way she dispensed her replies that made me wonder if she was deaf. This went on for days. Her response was, most times, different from my intended question. I asked what her name was and she replied, ‘Thank you for buying.’
Initially, I assumed she suffered from some form of sensorineural hearing loss. She obviously lived on the streets and one can never be too certain what form of viral infections of the inner ear she may have picked up and had resulted in deafness. That was when I took an interest in her, making sure I walked down the same street she hawked her bean cakes each evening. What’s more, buying them when I knew they would end up in a bin by the corner of the street.
It was dark, still not night, though; the street lamps outlining the terraced pedestrian walk path lit the entire area, turning darkness into a murky brown. A few adult hawkers could be seen forcing their eatables or drinkables down motorists stuck in traffic and then giving angry hissing sounds when they did not buy.
I do not see Lami. She had not come along the street we usually met. It was cold that evening but the temperature was not unusual for street hawkers.
I began asking the hawkers if they knew a short pale-looking girl who always wore a bright green dress. Rather, I got angry stares for wasting their time and not buying any of their eatables or drinkables. A tall lanky boy with a head the size of a soccer ball was kind enough to point me in a direction. “Don’t stop going until you get to the big cashew tree beside the unfinished shelters,” he said. I thanked him and planted some money into his palm. I watched as his appreciation grew and he ran to a nearby kiosk.
I set out the next evening.
As the dirt road led down to a small rural settlement just between the outskirts of the city and thick bushy, interior villages that outlined the savannah, I caught sight of Lami. She proceeded into an uncompleted structure filled with teenage children just adjacent a big cashew tree as the boy with the soccer-ball-like head had said.
It was topsy-turvy. The children did not even bother to stare at me as I meandered my way through their tattered sleeping foams and scattered belongings. The children and the old dirt walls lay a melancholic siege on the entire building. Malnourished figures in sombrely worn out rags, barefoot and sweaty, roamed each crook and cranny of the large cemented floor of the three-storey structure. Every available space was occupied by raffia mats and torn mattresses. For a time, it seemed like there was not even a floor to step on. Only children and rags.
A dimly lit cooking fire just by the corner of the room gave heat to a large badly charcoaled pot which seemed to be boiling with soup of some sort. Yet, in some ways, the entire building, and its occupants had unremitting demands of hunger and starvation.
My eyes swept across the room, taking in the emotion-shy faces as I trailed Lami.
Lami sat cross-legged beside a large window of the second storey of the building. There was a lace curtain which was used to partition her section. It was bunched up into the right corner, so I was able to see. Surprisingly, her section was by far, the cleanest among the others. I found a small stool and sat, without entering her partitioned space, facing her back. I was now sure she was deaf as not so much as a flinch came from her despite the loud thud of the stool when I placed it on the ground. Still, I knew also she was not born deaf, for she spoke neatly for a deaf when we first met.
I tapped Lami on the shoulder. It was then I saw she had been crying. She angrily wiped her face and rage filled her brown eyes. She began screaming and I understood I had caught her at a very bad moment. I stood up to leave. By now a girl with big round eyes and a funny nose was staring at me. She followed me outside and ran up to me. She was not looking as sad as the rest. She smiled and I said ‘Hello’. Despite her wide forehead, it was not hard to notice the striking resemblance she and Lami shared.
I remember Anna just before she died. There are days I wanted to put her out of her misery, quickly. Her skin was extremely pale. She was in absolute pain. I still ask myself what made her smile through it all. I would hold her hands, fingers all scrawny and thin and shaky. She would try to smile in between short, shallow breaths. I could not bear looking at her, smiling in pain, with eyes so tired you wish you could just close them up to rest. For eight months I had to watch her go through this agony. Each day, watching her try to smile with dry, thin lips fastidiously pursed. Each day, with both my hands, reaching out to her cold hands, and massaging them. Each day, having to listen to her muttering the words: “Daddy, don’t be sad.” The Tuesday she died, she was not smiling. She was not saying any words even though I could see that she was trying to. I just held her hands, massaged them as I used to, and forced a smile amidst tears that had welled up. She just stared at me with those eyes, those dark watery deep. I tried not to cry. But who was I to hold back tears of eight months pushing to burst through? “Anna it’s going to be alright,” I managed to say. She swallowed saliva as I saw the effort she was making to nod and smile. But today was different. There was not a full smile like before but I saw a glow of vitality in the eyes of my Anna which I had not seen in a long while. Both her hands were still entangled with mine. They were warm. And as if gathering her last strength, she inhaled deeply. I kissed her palm and drew it to my cheek. They still felt warm. Then she blinked, smiled at me gently, and struggled to say, whispering: “It’s okay…okay, Da…you can cry…cry now.” And the beeping sound of the electronic machine monitoring her heartbeat flattened. My Anna was gone.
Only then, I saw my Anna in Lami. It consoled me. The past month—I had spent working with fellow psychologists and nurses and healthcare workers under an initiative to help street children—with Lami had changed my outlook on life. The inert desire to live, find happiness in life, was slowly replaced by an animated sense of care and love. I told myself I was not ever going to replace the sweet memories of my Anna. I was getting too involved with Lami, and I feared I might have begun to replace those cherished memories of Anna with her.
Yet, I could not have left Lami hopeless to the cold world at such a tender age. She had done so much on her own, even learned American sign language from the large—Lottie L. Riekehol’s The Joy of Signing—book I bought for her. I had made plans for her to be taken to a stable facility where she would be looked after. She would also get to interact with people like her. Hopefully, she would not be bitter all her life.
As a year dragged by, gradually, Lami and Laraba, her sister, settled into a daily routine that they found less becoming of a competitive need to survive. The necessity of that defensive personality they had acquired while on the streets wasn’t required again to survive. Still, Lami was taciturn but not to the point of complete silence. One can only deduce that the harsh lifestyle she was immersed in had been a generous contributor.
On certain afternoons, I would drop by to see Lami and her sister. The nurses—in the facility where she was cared for—had probed as gently as they could to catch a glimpse of her past. It was required in order to ascertain the proper steps needed for her care and extensive recovery. At the same time, they were getting nowhere with Lami.
So, I turned to Laraba. In time, I learned that this practical, quiet child had been one with a history of whiny streaks but brilliant nonetheless, with a love for anything resembling a book. She had a fancy for drawing, too—sketches of princesses and unknown castles and flowery landscapes—only now, she made sure they always contained disturbing details of blood and death and faces with jaws that were heavily toothed. With time, though, the calmness of the new atmosphere she found herself made her positive, lessened the dark narratives contained in her sketches. She even showed signs of a natural sense of humour.
The redness in Laraba’s eyes showed all the warning signs I needed to heed, to stay out of it when I asked about her parents. For days, she did not say a word to me. Not until I found her one Friday evening, crying by the tap beside the mango tree just close to the fence.
The rain had stopped and now the sour smell that rises from wet mango leaves was hanging low over the building. She quickly turned the tap on and scooped water with her hands, letting it fall freely down her face, strenuously trying to pretend that she was washing up.
I said, “It’s fine. No shame in crying.”
Laraba began amidst sniffing. “She wasn’t born deaf. She stopped hearing eleven, maybe twelve months ago. I can’t really remember but that was the time we started living here, on the streets.”
She paused. I wanted to ask her what happened but I needed not to. Why, her eyes, as best as I could see, wanted it all to flow—a cathartic narrative of their plight. I encouraged her to speak, giving a sympathetic ear to a story that, for too long, she had been forced to live with and suppress within herself.
“My father drank a lot. ‘He loved the bottle,’ people used to say. It was something I grew up to know. But it was fine I guess. Mom didn’t always complain. Lami tells me there was a time they argued every day about it. Maybe she just grew tired of complaining and stopped. After all, he was still providing for us. Still, we only felt real love from mom. We lived in fear of him. We couldn’t say what we had in our minds when he was around. He banned us from watching television. ‘This is where you learn to be arrogant and insolent,’ he would say. We watched anyway. Only this time, we switched it off an hour before he usually got home, allowing time for the heated TV to cool off.
We never went to the park with him or played outside with our mates when he was at home. He would lock us up in our rooms to read for hours upon hours until we could remember even every misspelled word we had in our school notes. He never cared about what we wanted or how we felt. We got used to it and found it abnormal to see our schoolmates telling their Dad what colour of pen to get for them. With father, anything goes for us, and so we never complained.
“One night, he came home early and saw us watching the TV. We didn’t know what to do. But mom was different. She had a kind heart. She could bear the pain for us. She came to our rescue and told him it was she who asked us to see a show with her. We ran to our rooms before he even told us to. And lying down silently, we could hear whispers from the other room which turned into crying and the sound of objects hitting the wall.
“But Lami gradually began to talk back. Slaps didn’t hold her back. He would beat her to the extent she would find it hard to shed tears. As time went on, he stopped supporting us with money. His drinking habits got worse and he lost his job. But somehow, he always had money to keep drinking. The police became frequent visitors to our house. If they weren’t bringing him back home from a gutter they picked him up from, they were calling at our house due to reports from our neighbours of a domestic disturbance. And then he would yell for silence as he had his beer. Other times, for no given reason, he’d beat us all, even Mother. Lessons, he sometimes called them. Well, we never stopped learning because the beatings never stopped.”
Laraba was now crying. I did not know if to feel pity or anger. I gave her my handkerchief and for long minutes, she cried non-stop. All the while, I made no sound except for occasional sighs. Shortly afterward, she continued.
“It was past midnight or so, but I knew it was late because Lami and I had gone to bed and later woke up when the police brought him back. The next morning, I woke up to find a different woman at home. Angry words inside mom came out that morning. She cursed and cried and cursed some more. He wasn’t sober that morning. He had woken up and continued where he left off with his bottle. He then started to hit her because that was all he knew, talking with his fists. As usual, we would lock ourselves in our room when he started and listen as mom gets beaten. That morning, Lami wasn’t crying. She just sat on the bed, fuming with anger. Then suddenly we heard mom scream. Then the screaming stopped instantly. We both ran out to find her on the floor. Her eyes were still open, facing the ceiling. No amount of crying or begging or shaking made her move, much less get up. He just stood, watching. Blood slowly flowed out of mom’s head onto the floor. Lami was filled with anger and rushed at him with blows that didn’t seem to do anything to him. Lami kept hitting and hitting and he became irritated and, so he pushed her. She slipped and hit the side of her head on the wall. That was the last day we spent in that house and the last time we saw him. We found this place and found a home here. As time passed, the result from the fall and Lami hitting her head began to show. She began to feel blood slide down her ear more frequently. She slowly became deaf.”
I pulled two sheets of paper so I could write; sort of have a conversation with Lami. She had not left the window all morning. I tapped her as I drew a seat close to her.
She began writing. ‘I may never get my hearing back again, and that’s why I love to sit by this window, turning my eyes into ears. I like watching the wind shaking trees. I like watching the sun smiling on the grass as children play. Boys running after a soccer ball and jubilations over goals scored, and the girls who are swinging a long skip rope while singing songs or maybe they are talking. I don’t know. But I like the way their mouths move together. I try to create sounds for them. It makes me happy.’
I smiled as I read what she wrote. Then it was my turn to write.
‘Laraba told me everything. You do not have to return back to the streets Lami, you and her. I know people who can help.’
Her facial expression changed immediately.
‘You only know people who can feel pity for me,’ she wrote angrily.
‘Lami, you are far too young to fend for both yourself and your sister on the streets. It has all been arranged. I would be going for a while. This facility is temporary. The people I know are very nice. They are like the nurses here and they, too, would help you greatly. I promise. You and your sister would have better lives than being on the streets.’
‘You don’t have to promise me anything. Promises are only meant to decorate lies. I will go only because of my sister.’
She stood up and left the window. Nothing could be done to appease her now. I explained to Laraba that I would be back for them in about nine months’ time. It had taken a long time to gain Lami’s trust and reception, and now, leaving for my psychiatric residency, I was not sure if I would be welcomed if I, however, decided to come back.
It had been over a year now. This city, the one I used to call home, has lost its warm soul. You would think that acquiring a doctorate and completing a residency in psychiatry would help me better understand the minds of the human race. Oh but no, humans are far from wholly comprehensible. The level of eccentricity that governs our self-conscious minds varies. It is no longer the same city I once knew. It is scarred now. Slowly dying. Gradually reeling under the effects of the callous abuse of its soul and immoral deprivation of its resources.
The children are the cruel result of its exploitations. They are born and cast off as lots with no one to tend to their needs. Hence, they swarm the streets and find shelter under bridges and uncompleted housing structures. Their eyes tell painful tales of abuse and suffering. It screams a blatant, yet voiceless appeal for help, hardly noticeable still. We simply carry on.
A short girl of about fifteen, or maybe sixteen years ran up to me and grabbed my coat, and pleaded for some change to get food for the day. Her hands were coarsely veined, and her slant eyes were sad too. She was wearing a dirty yellowed, oversized MALTA GUINNESS t-shirt that had been stretched to the length of her knee. Her brown khaki shorts have been patched so many times, I am not sure it can survive one more touch of a needle and thread. She had nothing on her foot. It pricked me. I felt some sort of irrational shame. She might have been the same age as my Anna if she had still been alive. I hand over some notes to her without even looking at how much.
I was now five minutes away from the facility. The park was brimming with life. It was Friday, mid-afternoon when the place buzzed with young and old alike. It was a symphony of sound: people chattered inaudibly; metallic sounds from lubricated swings; frolicsome children laughed; clicks from the lawn mower by the path railings. I remembered my last time in the park with Anna. I remembered her bright red dress and maroon-coloured stripped scandals. Yoghurt all over her face, the sound of her laughter echoes in my head. I still hold on to that playful memory to remind me of what happiness, true happiness felt like. As ordinary as it appears, it sometimes assuages my feelings of loneliness.
I arrived at the facility.
After I filled in my details, a nurse was assigned to take me to Lami. ‘Lami has not tried communicating with anyone in months,’ she explained, ‘do not be discouraged if your visit shows no results. It’s quite normal. But if you keep coming back, time might begin to smooth things out.’
Down the hallway and now inside the large hall filled with young people, it was quite easy to spot Lami. There she sat, by the large window, to the corner of the hall, which poured out a nice view of the park: a sea of people walking in and out the green painted wrought-iron gates; the greenness of grass, leaves, and shrubs, and the brown barks of the trees that outlined the concrete pathway.
I had not considered what I would do if she was not receptive. The thoughts of rejection began filling my mind and I was hesitant. The nurse noticed this and went over to tap Lami. I had no inkling of how acutely she would react to my presence.
Her brown lucid eyes gleamed with surprise. I stood staring, she did too. For what seemed like long seconds, we kept staring. I sighed slowly and lifted my hands, suspended it in the air just mildly below the chest region. It was time-tasking, but I wanted to sign all the words for her. The way she liked.
‘I kept my promise. I came back and learned sign language.’
Narrowing her eyes towards me, her gaze drifted from my moving hands to my face and back. I could see tears gradually forming in those sad eyes. I was not sure what they meant, yet, I continued signing.
‘Let’s go for a walk in the park. The sun is out, smiling. The weather is happy.’
She smiled. The sadness in her eyes began to disappear.
Now that I think of it, I had never seen her smile in all the while we met.
Shyly, as she still smiled, with tears running down her cheeks, she signed: ‘I like the sound of that.’
Jonathan Durunguma is a 2017 winner of the Okike Prize for Literature. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories that seeks to explore the cultural perceptions of mental illness.
This entry appeared in The Limits Issue