Your lover had proven himself to you the first time you spoke of Ikechi’s death. You told him about the nightmares you were having as he moved fluidly through the kitchen, shutting and opening cabinets, whisking eggs and a panoply of ingredients in a slapdash manner. You had harrowing visions of a man hanging from a ceiling fan that had thick slews of cobwebs between its blades. You dreamt of a body struggling for breath, eyes bulging like a gargoyle, tongue turning blue, a network of veins suddenly constricting and forcing blood upwards till a face puffed up and a life got extinguished. You hoped it had been quick for your colleague. You had read somewhere that it was less painful when their necks snapped at once under the weight of their bodies.
Your lover had listened as you laid bare your fears. Afterwards, when you were done, he flipped the pancake a bit too ceremoniously and quietly said, “Death happens to everyone anyway.”
Of course, this was true. But you had expected a bit of coddling. A long, solemn rant about the futility of existence and the prevalence of depression and suicide amongst youngsters like you. Or at the very least, an inquiry into your well being. Instead, he had hit you with a placid philosophical conclusion.
In those early days, you had considered his dismissiveness a mere eccentricity. Lotanna was a quirky boy. He paused to inhale odd things; the rising vapour when you poured fuel into the generator, the residual spices in your hands when you were done cooking. Sometimes he stopped in the middle of a room to smell the doors and cabinets because he needed the ‘familiarity of wooden symbols of confinement’ for a new piece he was working on. Each time you both visited the market, he lingered at the butcher’s stall the most, getting lost in the sound of knives hacking into tough muscles, bones, and wood. He loved to stare at dismembered cows, the blackened grin on the face of a roasted goat. It was the lunacy that accompanied genius, in your opinion. Lotanna had the right to embrace the grotesque and the unsightly. It was all so very artistic and sensational.
The first time you had found out he was an artist after a brief exchange in a café the first day you met, you felt a warm feeling spread through your body. He looked – if this description would suffice– quite ordinary. He wore carefully ironed herringbone trousers, a plaid shirt which he left unbuttoned to reveal a white T-shirt. His hair was clean shaven, and he did not at all possess the slipshod careless fashion you expected from artists. They were supposed to be dressed queerly. Perhaps nurture a pile of dreads on their heads with one or two cowries for good measure. Based on the books you read, you were excited at the prospect of dating an artist because it meant he would walk around the house on bare feet, smear paint on your face in a flirtatious manner, paint a picture of you while you contorted and arched your nude body in the studio. You expected a dazzling dalliance– surreptitious, urgent sex in the backseats of cars and on the kitchen counter. Lotanna was the opposite of that.
He was meticulous, exacting, and organized to a fault. All of the strangeness you expected were poured into his art. And no, he was not interested in painting landscapes or seductively posed nude women. He painted blood and gore, slapped colours into indiscernible shapes and was basically an apprentice of Hieronymus Bosch. But you loved him regardless. You ditched your expectations, looked beyond his oddness because even though he was loose-limbed, callow, and generally nonsocial in comparison to you, you knew his vulnerabilities, plus he was fairly good looking. People loved him in an almost pitiable way, and he could sometimes conjure up a suave mannerism.
One day, you had found him in the bathroom, staring at the mirror with a toothbrush in his hand. He was muttering to himself and practicing faces; a polite smile, a simpering smile. a crazed grin, a winsome wink. A furious expression, a sneer.
“What are you doing?” You asked.
His face was still stuck on the sneer when he turned to face you.
“What do you think? I’m learning how to be.”
After that, you would remember how he once told you about his perpetual numbness, how he could feel nothing towards people no matter how hard he tried. No pain, no regret, no consternation. It fascinated and frightened you and you asked if he loved you since he was unable to feel so much.
He had cupped your chin and stared unflinchingly into your eyes. “My heart beats differently around you. I don’t know what to make of it. Could be love.” He shrugged.
You stayed, awed by the fact that you could create a tingle in an otherwise emotionally paralyzed man, grateful to lap up a pinch of validation here, a forced kindness there, like a dog hankering after crumbs of treats.
Now that more of his layered duality is revealed to you each day, you are beginning to get more frightened than fascinated. What part of him is real and what fraction is fake? What is hidden behind that applique of expressions, that carefully contorted face? If his default state is a bored blank blackness, then where could the locus of sincerity and authenticity be in that long, empty canvas?
Sometimes Lotanna lies, even when he has no reason to. His tongue is a web of wet falseness, spinning forth untruths with the same fluidity with which spittle runs through it.
He could say, “I will be going for this exhibition today at 8pm.” But when you show up, the curator denies ever seeing or inviting him. You would roam the city, stalk his activities online– every like, every comment dropped within seconds, because all your texts and calls would remain ignored.
Eventually, he would stumble into the apartment, plop down on the chintz armchair and sleep off while muttering something about going to see his family out of town.
Sometimes you are consumed by an inexplicable madness. You feel the urge to hire a private detective. You search for relics of female bodies around the apartment. Maybe a bonnet, a toothbrush, a thong hurriedly shoved under the bed, a hint of a feminine scent hiding covertly beneath his strong cologne. You find nothing.
On those days, as though he knows you have been playing detective, his kisses are more passionate, his hands roam your body hungrily. His smile is piquant, his muscles are taut, he rubs your feet with a surreal, otherworldly tenderness. Of course, your body yields to his touch. You know that this is false. There is a foreboding, a distrust. You know you won’t be holding arthritic hands and smiling toothless at each other in old age, smothered in a love that has transcended time. When you think of a future with him, your mind races with fear. You know that you should leave, your mind recluses, doubt glazes your heart in tandem with your intellect, but your body, your body refuses to listen. Instead, it gives way and falls into the bottomless vacuum of him.
Your mother is a virtuous woman. She wears flat sensible shoes, attends women’s conferences and returns with paraphernalia like customized notebooks, pens, and wise maternal Maxim’s which she does not bother to use sparingly on you.
You visit the house every Saturday. Father died years ago, now she stays alone with your baby brother Ikenna. The house stands like a forlorn abandoned structure against the looming grey sky. It is about to rain. You knock twice and no one responds. Ikenna has probably gone for his JAMB lessons but mama? She never steps out of the house on Saturdays by this time.
Your gaze settles on the Aloe Vera plants in the corridor. It is stuffed into a gallon that has been cut in two. The upper part has been discarded, and its bottom serves as a flower pot. The once white gallon is covered in red dust. It makes you chuckle because now, your Instagram posts are filled with images of plants and captions advocating for an eco-friendly environment. But as a kid, you never paid any attention to the Aloe Vera plant in the gallon or the ugwu, scent leaves, and tomatoes your mother tended to in the backyard. You wonder if your green fingers are only as a result of the trend of owning plants on the sill of your kitchen window. You wonder if you hold any authentic opinions at all.
Outside, kids play on the abandoned cement blocks in front of the compound. Before he died, Papa bad wanted to build a little shop at the front of the house so that mama could sell provisions and make an extra income. Then he died and she abandoned the project along with other memories of him. Now, the blocks are slathered with layers of algae. Weeds sprout from its gaping holes and it is rooted to the ground, a derelict monument, a residual sludge of grief mama had refused to sluice away.
“Olaedo, is that you?”
Your mother is wearing a long cotton nightdress that billows around her tiny frame. Its hem and fringes are decorated with scalloped lace. On her head is a large turban.
“Mama, you are tying this thing on your head inside the house again? But I bought this very fine satin bonnet for you the other time.”
She sucks in her teeth very loudly. “Is that how to greet your mother?”
You greet. She steps out of the door frame to let you pass while saying something about how you are never going to be as fashionable as her in a godly, christian manner.
The house is a tad too warm. Heat pours in from the kitchen where you can perceive the tang of boiling meat. Mother is at the dining table, picking brown beans. You are familiar with the routine. The meat is for Sunday rice and stew tomorrow. This beans is for dinner tonight.
You sit with her, exchange formalities and talk about Ikenna, her high blood pressure, and another one of her women meetings she persuades you to attend. You know what is coming next. The both of you skirt around it, pick new topics and shove that singular bitter one to the back of your throat. But your mother is not one to pretend for long.
“You are still living with that man, aren’t you?”
She never calls Lotanna by his name.
Mama thinks you are a tramp for living with a man you aren’t married to, when she is still alive. Worst still, a broke artist who you house for free. A man who cannot provide. It is a good thing she has never seen any of his pieces because it would corroborate her theory that Lotanna is demon possessed.
She has strong misgivings about him which you have never understood. Or you do, you have only refused to confront them. The relationship brings much shame to her. She finds a way to avoid discussing you when she gathers with her fellow religious women. Lotanna is like a sore festering between your relationship with your mother. Every day, it grows wider, purulent, noxious. Every morning, she sends you a text out of proverbs 31 to remind you of the depreciating value of your womanhood the longer you house a man you are not married to.
“Mama, you’ll never understand. Besides, he contributes to things around the house. I don’t get to slave around, cooking all the time and doing domestic chores. He is a modern man. We share it equally.
She replies you with silence and the clatter of beans on the tray.
“Don’t you remember what it’s like to be in love?”
Silence. The clatter of beans.
“Lotanna is a better man than you think. He is odd, but I love him.”
Silence. The clatter of beans.
“This is the most important thing in my life. He is the most important thing. I’m not being delusional. You keep badgering me about finding a husband. Now I have found one I like, and you have refused to support me or even acknowledge him.”
Silence. The clatter of beans.
“Mama, are you listening to me at all?”
Silence. The clatter of beans.
Finally, you sigh in defeat.
“I’m leaving. Tell Ikenna to call me. I bought something for him, and he has to visit me before he can pick it up. My own family cannot keep avoiding me like a plague.”
You rise from the creaky dining chair and pick up your sling bag. Something is breaking inside of you.
When you get to the door, your mother finally says something. It is said in a quiet voice bordering on a whisper. She does not raise her head from the tray of beans.
“O bu’na ida, akpokwana’m ka’m bia zoputa gi. If you happen to fall, don’t call me to save you.”
You turn the knob and leave without looking back.
Lotanna has bought a cat which has an eternally unimpressed look etched into its face. He never asked you if you wanted one. You, on the other hand, never knew he had an affinity for pets. He names her Loki. Loki disconcerts you. Sometimes you wake up to find her peering at you with a haughty distrust. It is petrifying. But Lotanna loves her, so you pretend to too. This is one of the sacrifices lovers make.
You read up on how to care for cats. But when you try to give her tummy rubs, she rolls over, screeches at you and walks away, swinging her feline hips as she goes. Most days, you wonder if the superstition that black cats are possessed could be true after all.
Loki has gotten accustomed to you. She curls up at your feet, interrupts you while you work on your laptop, rolls over and demands belly rubs whilst asserting her air of superiority whatever chance she gets. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, you are beginning to love her too.
Things are getting better for Lotanna. He gets commissioned for projects, his pieces are described as ‘quintessential’, ‘atypical’ and ‘leaving a searing impression.’
His air is more debonair. Even though you have ditched the thought of leaving, the things you have been sniffing around for are presenting themselves to you. When he is in the shower, you summon the near apocalyptic restraint of a monk to keep you from reaching out and going through his phone. Nowadays, he leaves it unlocked.
There is a new confidence in his gait, a vim and vigour in his strut. He makes spontaneous decisions now like spending a quarter of his savings on Testoni men’s shoes. When you complain, he tells you to stop being such an envious guttersnipe.
You had a dreadful day at work. The black heels you wore were tight. They pinched your toes and you waddled and wobbled around the office like an overweight penguin.
Rain patters softly against the window. Lotanna is home and you are relieved by the thought that he must have whipped up something for dinner. He has portioned off a section of the house and it served as a studio. You tiptoe there, with the hope of surprising him with a kiss. He has been terribly difficult lately, but it is the way of lovers. Sometimes there are plateaus, dips, bumpy and rocky plains. But with determination and the right amount of doting, you can transform your love life into an elevated prairie. You pause, realising that you sound so much like your mother’s counterparts when they preach about love and the ultimate function of a virtuous woman in its preservation. You wonder if you have begun to ‘mellow down’ like the man on Twitter said you would after you had made a long post to assert your stand on feminism and equality. You had called him a mendicant, a product of a misdirected explosive wank of a lunatic that unfortunately found its way into his poor mother. Then you blocked him. You wonder if he was right. There are many ways you shift and bend into shape for Lotanna. You are water. You are anything he wants.
Lotanna is working furiously at a canvas. As usual, you cannot quite make sense of what he is doing. There are red splotches that look like blood. They drip from the canvas and onto the floor. There is a mixture of mucus yellow, blue hues, a rheumy white. After making a few slashes and dashes with his brush, he begins to pin silky dark furs around the borders. You knew that after this, he would provide a hermeneutic lecture about the painting, so you do not bother to interpret it yourself.
“Babe.” You call.
When Lotanna turns around, there is panic in his eyes. He is trembling, shaking as though he is on the brink of having a convulsion. Immediately, he regains his composure. It is almost as if you imagined his shifty eyes and jerky movement.
“Ah ahn, are you okay?” You make to move closer and he instinctively steps backwards.
That is when you look.
On his right hand is a number of plucked out whiskers. On his left, are the remains of Loki.
You do not know when the scream escapes your throat.
“Olaedo? What is it?” He asks calmly. “I am only experimenting with a new form. Never mind the cat, I’ll buy a new one. I want to ask, how do you think a human skin motif would look on this piece? The fur is a bit garish, yes?”
He looks you up and down. “I reckon you could help me out with this new proposition. I could graft your skin for a section. You have always wanted me to include you in my art, haven’t you? And you would do anything for me, Olaedo’m. You would, because we are in love.”
You are shaking your head furiously, your heart is hurling itself against your ribs, your ears are filled with a rushing sound and the hackneyed phrase, because we are in love. Because we are in love.
Lotanna’s hands are no longer filled with whiskers and Loki’s carcass. In its place, there is a butcher’s knife.
“I have always, always wanted to do this.” Lotanna says.
When he grabs you, you feel yourself falling, descending, subsiding into a euphoric nothingness.
You are still falling. Your hands are flailing and you feel a swooshing current of air ripple across your back. Finally, the point where consciousness intersects with memory has been activated. This is a dream, you say to yourself. This is all a dream.
The gravity god steps in and you awake, panting, but grateful to have fallen into the solid realness of your bed. The first thought that comes into your mind is Mama’s last words from when you visited last six months ago. What was it she had said about falling?
On your left, Loki purrs and sulks. She leaps into the bed and snuggles against you. You are still wearing the black tight heels you wore to the office. Apparently, you had been so exhausted that you fell into bed immediately you got back from work. But how could that be? On your right, Lotanna is on the bed with you. He is propped up on one elbow, staring down at you and softly stroking your weave. You are certain you had a dream about him, but you cannot quite remember. You watch him with an idle inquisitiveness. He watches you back, and he smiles and smiles.
Erere Onyeugbo is a Nigerian writer. Her works have appeared in The Kalahari Review, African Writer, The Muse, and tell!Africa. She is an alumnus of the 2021 Tampered Press Fiction Workshop. She loves poetry, delectable prose, and stories that exist outside the fringes of normal.