Leonard was just five when he was adopted at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Orphanage Home around Yaba. He sat in the midst of other children, who like him had lost their parents, leaving them to go into the world on their own.
The orphanage was big and had imposing buildings, remarkable for its immaculate white painting that gave the place a sort of heavenly aura. Pictures of Saints and the Virgin Mary adorned the walls and contributed largely to the solemn atmosphere of the place, only disturbed by the loud and rambling cries of children.
Leonard had been there since he was three. His parents died in a motor crash when their Volkswagen skidded on the Third Mainland Bridge and crashed into the railings, only for it to be stopped from plunging into the ocean by an outstretched piece of metal that stopped the tyres. Blood splattered all over the dashboard as his parents rammed into the windscreen, the seat belts could not save them. He went into a coma and when he came out of it many weeks later, all he saw was that, he was in a building, completely painted in white and in the company of noisy children of his age.
He smelled a whiff of her scent wafting through the room as the nurse flung open the window of the ward. The morning beam of sunshine peered into the long ward. Leonard shifted on his bed, faced the window and regarded the sunshine, turning his face into a mask of light.
Memories started rushing into his consciousness like water from a punctured pipe. He had just returned to his normal self only yesterday. The smell of the antiseptic used to scrub the floor hung heavy in the air. He inhaled it and exhaled sharply. He fixed his eyes on the white ceiling of the ward and he remembered the buildings of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. That was where the story really began. He wanted to remember everything now.
The strange dreams could have been a factor but maybe not, he thought. Now, he had reasons to agree with her. She took exception to his disbelief in things that he considered rather superstitious. ‘Dream is no superstition,’ Kikelomo told him as she breathed down his neck when she lay beside him on the bed, both of them naked after a brief morning sex. The sun was just peeping out of a clear azure sky. They had previously had a heated argument on the authenticity of dreams, his atheist-like perception of God despite his growing up in an orphanage that seemed more like a monastery, and the things she considered of ‘the spirit’.
Leonard had an aged blind mother and a younger sister. The younger sister, Tolulope was born a few years after he was adopted. The birth was some sort of miracle to him because he hardly noticed his mother’s stomach to be bulging at any point in time. He saw a newborn baby in sparkling white swaddling clothes upon his return from school one day. His Father swallowed him in a huge embrace and announced to him that he had a sister. She was beautiful but he had no idea where she came from.
That father walked out one day and never returned. He cried and cried until the tears in his eyes dried up and there was nothing more to be shed. The thought of the orphanage home horrified him. A family is a family and an orphanage is an orphanage, he would mutter convincingly to himself. But he was not as distraught as his mother and sister.
There was nothing anyone could do to save his mother from the clutches of sorrow that held her firmly in those days, it was destined to be her end. But one thing was not clear to Leonard; it was the superstition that the souls of his father and mother were bound together in a sort of unbreakable spiritual communion, that they shared one soul.
His mother would tell him that they could not live apart in two worlds. This tale was often told to him along a myth that he was yet to hear from someone else save his mother and sister. As his mother withdrew from them, he would lock himself up in his room and cry. He would often wake up with streaks of tears etched on his cheeks from crying all night.
His mother had two effigies tied to themselves at the top of their moth eaten cupboard to prove it. ‘He is dead, he shouldn’t be.’ She would mutter to herself, facing the wall as though the wall had a mouth to speak or ears to listen. ‘Father would one day walk back into this house,’ Leonard would reassure his mother from time to time even when he knew it was becoming increasingly unlikely. Five years had come and gone already, since the kidnapping. He thought it was a kidnapping. Or, what other explanation did one have for such mysterious disappearance in this time that Lagos was hot and everyone wanted to make money by whatever means?
Depression like cancer, eats its host gradually and like a building with a rickety foundation, the host’s body and mind begin to collapse bit by bit. His mother, that woman that did not even collapse under the societal pressure to give birth when she was deemed barren, was now becoming unrecognizable to him. It was this that infuriated him. He was going to lose a second family; there was no bigger tragedy than that. So, one day, he picked up the tied effigies and lobbed it into the ocean. ‘Bullshit,’ he muttered as he untied them and threw them in different directions into the ocean. He waited as if to confirm that the ocean had swallowed them before heading for their house at Ebute Meta, a suburb of the Lagos mainland.
When he got home, he met his mother gently perched on their sofa like a corpse delicately lying-in-state; her headscarf well tied, her clothes snugly fitting her body as if she was going for an outing. His mother never left the house since his father’s disappearance seven years ago. She refused to. So, where could she be going with a shadow of a smile playing at the corners of her mouth like? Leonard ruffled her to wake her to eat the corn he had bought by the roadside, she was dead already. He felt a chill of fear run through his spine. He ruffled her again but she lay helplessly, her hands flung lifelessly apart.
‘There are people who can live for centuries,’ His mother said as she dabbed a dollop of smoothening cream where he had a gash that had formed a keloid from horsing around when he was much younger. ‘They die and come back again. You can only recognize them by certain things. Most importantly, they don’t have shadows. They live far from their previous abode and stay around the market,’ She said when she was done.
He could not understand why he was being told this but he enjoyed the stories all the same every time. On another night, when the flame from the lamp flickered and cast his shadow on the wall, which convinced him that he was not one of these people which his mother used to talk about, he would listen to her again. ‘They are some people that are bound in life and death. They are always in love with one another, say two people who are in love with each other and are torn apart unjustly, killed or prevented from experiencing their love. They often come back again and love themselves, far away from the people that did them wrong.’ He watched her mouth open and close as she spoke in the partly dark room.
This night was not the first time he had heard the same thing in different words but he noticed that the lamp cast no shadow of her on their blue wall. He was afraid to ask if she was one of them.
‘Dream is no superstition,’ Kikelomo said, rising from his hairy chest. ‘Your dead mother cannot be appearing to you several times in your dreams and you believe that is normal.’ She flailed her hands in the air to drive home her points. She continued, ‘I saw you, you were heaving heavily in your sleep. How did she die? We need to know if her spirit is resting properly.’
Leonard could not suppress a muffled laugh for long. How Kikelomo believed this nonsense never ceased to amaze him. What could the dead be looking for among the living, especially when she had been dead for years?
‘It is silly, that with all your education and exposure as a doctor, you can still tap into these superstitions,’ He said as he untangled himself from the duvet. By now, Kikelomo was already at the window. She angled her trunk outside to inhale fresh air, uncontaminated by Leonard’s flippancy.
‘How did she die? Tell me the truth. Accident? Natural causes? What?’ She asked without facing him, rather she pushed her naked trunk further playfully as if she wanted to jump over. This was a question Leonard had fudged for a long time. He avoided direct answer because his belly could not hold a lie for too long, not to Kikelomo whom he loved dearly. It is better to avoid answering it altogether. ‘She died, depressed. The disappearance of my father was too much for her to stomach. I went out one day and came back meeting her dead on our sofa. What is so mysterious about that?’ He sniggered at the end of his speechified response as if to emphasize the point that Kikelomo’s education was suspect.
He rolled on the bed. Half truth was better that an outright lie. He knew that she died coincidentally the day he flung those effigies into the vastness of the Third Mainland Bridge waters but saying it now would only put Kikelomo at an advantage. Sometimes, in the deepest depths of his mind, he would wish he had not done that just to exonerate him from whatever blame anyone might eventually tie him to as regards his mother’s death. She was dead already, at least to him, she was merely breathing. But that was his mother, why did his sister have to die exactly one year after his mother’s demise?
He never told anyone this. It was his biggest secret, probably bigger than the other one – throwing away the effigies. When Kikelomo asked him why she was yet to meet a single member of his family, he lied that he was an only child. He was able to hold this one lie in his belly. He saw how people’s eyes twitched when he told that one truth about being an adopted child. Some even let out a deep breath like he was a mystery.
Kikelomo humphed in response and then went to sit on the blue plastic chair beside the wardrobe. Her eyes betrayed her doubts and he could not miss that. He knew her silence was pregnant, holding many things – doubts, especially. His stomach churned as his mind drifted to his sister. He had no idea about it, but he felt the connection all the same.
They had gone to play at the banks of the Lagos Ocean. It was fast approaching twilight and they both watched the gridlock on the Third Mainland Bridge as they chewed the cobs of corn they had bought on their way. His sister stubbornly clung to the topic of their mother despite his protest.
‘Will you keep quiet and let me hear word? Mother is dead and buried; can you let her rest in peace and allow me to live in peace too?’ He snapped.
‘Why do you behave as though mother meant nothing to you? You do not even honour her memory. Today is her one-year anniversary!’ She said with a slight edge in her tone which sounded like an accusation than a question. She darted a daring look into Leonard’s look.
‘And that means I should continue to dwell in grief even after a year?’
‘No. It means you should not snap at me whenever I choose to speak of her.’ She moved forward towards the bank. ‘We are bound in life and in death.’ On hearing this, he stopped frightened in his track as if a sudden realization had just dawned on him. He turned thoughtfully towards her. ‘What did you just say?’ He asked.
‘What you just heard,’ her sister rudely replied.
The phrase “In life and in death” echoed in his head as he watched his sister go nearer to the bank. She had removed her flip-flops and now walked barefoot. He stood on the same spot regarding her feminine physique thoughtfully. Is she going to die too? Am I going to lose this one too? That was the fuck mother said when she went into her constant delirium? Is this superstition real? This has got to be mere superstition. Whoever is dead is dead. He felt a pinch on his left arm; his sister had walked towards him without him noticing her advance towards him.
‘I am sorry for being rude to you, big bro. Don’t be offended,’ She said teasingly and drew him towards the shore. The sky was now taking on the shroud of darkness. The earth was kissing the sky above the horizon in twilight embrace making it seem like the sun was descending. By now, they were very close to the waters.
‘Do you remember mother’s favourite evening hobby?’ Tolulope asked with a cheerful note that seemed deceptive and swept her gaze across the horizon. She knew that this would strike a sorrowful chord in Leonard.
‘No,’ He replied curtly, disentangling himself from her arms.
‘It was looking at the setting sun from the window of her room. She said it reminded her of father.’ Tolulope did not mind his indifference. ‘She said she saw father’s face on it.’
‘That happened during the phase of agony she was passing through. She was distraught, so you should expect her to hop on unusual trains of thought.’
‘No,’ Tolulope insisted, ‘she meant what she said. She had something to do with the sun. The rising and setting of the sun meant different things to many people, to her, the setting of the sun meant her lover saying goodbye.’
He scoffed. He knew that was incredulous and rather superstitious. ‘You know why I have chosen to come here today and at this time?’ Tolulope jolted him out of his thought. ‘No.’
‘I have come to see the setting sun for the last time,’ she said and moved mechanically towards the waters. Her voice now sounded hollow and distant, like she was speaking from a faraway place. The wave was rising almost to her ankles. ‘What do you mean by the last time?’ He froze, a revolting lump stuck in his throat.
‘There was a daughter of a wealthy trader who was killed because she refused to leave her rejected lover. Her lover was a pauper but love was love. They stuck together despite the pressure and met at nights. Each meeting under the starlit sky, they professed their love and the flame of their feelings whooshed again rather than dying from hate. Each night they met, they had love. That was all they could do to spite the world until the woman was pregnant. A baby inside her! But just like the sun, it couldn’t be hidden. One day, she was found dead with the baby removed from her belly. Soaked in blood and lifeless, she was thrown into the bush. Nobody knew who did it but let me tell you, I am that baby ripped from the belly of my mother. I saw them and the crime was done by the persons who would not see a love which stood against all odds.’
These were her last words before she was gently swallowed by the ocean. The sun had finally kissed the earth and he could sort of see her shadow cast on the setting sun. It was as though she was walking into it.
He stood transfixed, his legs refused to move. He tried to scream but his voice was muffled and only he could hear himself. His voice echoed and came back to him, only.
That was many years ago, he couldn’t bring himself to ever talk about it. He had gone back several times to the ocean to check if the waters would belch out her bloated corpse but it did not happen.
‘It is not ordinary for a ghost to appear in one’s sleep every day. By saying it is not ordinary, I mean the dead is not resting; she is wandering on the surface of the earth.’ Kikelomo was now fully dressed. She lit a stick of cigarette but did not put it in her mouth; she only watched the smoke rise and thin into the air. ‘Smoke chases away spirit,’ she said as she laced her shoes.
Someone knocked on the door. Leonard quickly hitched up his trousers which he was already wearing by the time the knocks came. Kikelomo went grudgingly towards the door, grazing her feet and turned the knob. It was a lady, wearing a loose transparent blouse with frilly skirt and her legs were dusty, she was barefoot. Her cornrows were dabbed with dirt which looked like a child that had rolled in beach sand and her eyes shone like that of a cat.
‘Please, is this Olakunle’s room?’ she asked. Kikelomo sneered with a haughty grunt in response, ‘You are at the wrong door. Perhaps, you should check the next door.’ Then she pointed into space without aiming at any particular door. ‘No, he lives here, in this room.’ The lady responded in a definite tone almost making her way only for her to be stopped in her tracks by Kikelomo’s firm grip on the door. ‘The one who lives here is called – ‘ Kikelomo stopped suddenly, not wanting to divulge Leonard’s name carelessly. ‘He does not live here!’ She slammed the door gently against her face.
‘What is it?’ Leonard asked when Kikelomo had returned to the bed. ‘The idiot was looking for Olakunle and insists he lives in this very room as though she was the one who paid the rent,’ she said, emphasizing her disgust by briefly putting the stick of cigarette in her mouth and puffing a thick smoke. ‘Did you say she said she was asking after Olakunle?’ Leonard face assumed a curious shade, his jaw dropping. ‘Yes.’
The corners of Sister Margaret’s eyes were laced with tears fighting hard to let go. She sniffed her runny nose hard from time to time to keep the tears from falling, as she appended her hazy signature on the adoption form. Her hand moved unsteadily over the paper with premature wrinkles folding the skin of her hands. Leonard was there, sucking at a stick of sweet and pulling at the ear of Mrs. Oritoke’s blouse, already at home on her laps, as she sat beside her husband who rather concentrated on Sister Margaret’s moving fingers.
Sister Margaret handed over the form to the husband, who in turn filled the blocks. As though little Leonard was aware of what was going on, for the first time he felt the strangeness of some other hands and let out a loud yelp. Mrs. Oritoke rocked his small head against her bosom but that would not do. He continued crying.
Sister Margaret shared in his farewell by letting two lines of tears drop from each eye, coursing down to her lips where she felt their salty taste. When they walked out of her office, she drew back her swivel chair and darted after them. ‘What name are you giving him?’ Her teary voice, tinged with doting affection rang out to the edge of the bungalow, decorated with bright bougainvillea, where they were standing. Mrs. Oritoke was strapping him on her back. The middle-aged couple shared a quick glance between themselves before looking towards the direction of the door where Sister Margaret was standing, her frail figure bent with subdued grief over a railing,
‘Olakunle,’ they both chorused. ‘He will fill our home wealth and joy.’ It was a bright Monday afternoon, she wondered why their seats were filled with beach sand and little white cowries. It could not come with the breeze.
The knocks came again. He rose swiftly towards the door and opened it gently. He withdrew his steps instantly in a sort of delirium and then let out a piercing scream. Kikelomo rushed towards the door but the lady was no longer there. She must have vanished, there was no way she could have walked that fast.
That was all he could remember. Kikelomo sought help frantically from other tenants. One of them, a doctor had him sedated. Leonard only felt a tinge of needle on his arm and he collapsed into himself, lying on the ground in a lifeless slouch.
Kikelomo was now walking towards him now. She was carrying a polythene bag that contained his breakfast. He rolled his face towards the other side of the bed. He knew she was waiting for him to get better so that she could ask questions. What happened? But he was determined to seal his mouth. He was not going to tell her that it was his sister who had died years ago that appeared at the door, the one that walked into the violent waves of the ocean herself.
Kikelomo was now by his bedside. He flashed an uneasy smile and turned his face away again. It is not superstition after all. But the question that burdened him was why they chose him.
Ope Adetayo is a nineteen-year-old first-year student of English at the University of Ilorin. His interests border majorly on literary writings and journalism. He is engaged as a Commonwealth Correspondent and his works have appeared onwww.