She lay beside him breathing gently in her sleep while he tossed and turned in the tiny bed of his one-room apartment near the Lagos university campus. The calls of the late-night hawkers below his window did not help in his quest for sleep on this hot November evening. He pulled himself off the pillow, rested his weight on one elbow and turned to look at her. The wicked song of a mosquito interrupted his thoughts and he slapped the air around her, not wanting even a mosquito to hurt her.
His eyes wandered over her dark silhouette, long and slender beside him.
She was beautiful. Not only in a physical way. It was the things she said and did that touched him most. He tried to remember if those who had briefly been a part of his life before her had smiled differently. Had looked at the sky or touched his arm in a different way.
His feelings scared him.
He tried to feel the inner walls that he had built up with such dedication over the years. Were they still strong?
Since he met her he was constantly on guard, fighting to resist the thoughts that had begun to crowd his mind.
His walls were crumbling.
He hated that he could not fully enjoy the moments shared with her. Every time she smiled at him, his mind catapulted years back, only to crouch fearfully between the hidden shadows in his memory. Something so elusive always crept up in between these moments with her, forcing him back to the gates he had closed behind him so many years ago.
Today he had been forced much closer to those gates than ever before.
‘Why are you hiding yourself from me,’ she had asked? ‘You are like a precious gift of which I am never allowed to open the wrapping.’ She had laughed and said it playfully but he had seen her eyes searching him. And he knew she had meant it.
He had not replied. He would have loved to tell her, ‘I am what you see before you.’ But he knew it would have been a lie. He was a Trojan horse. Deep within him was something dangerous. How could he show her himself, when he was not even sure he knew himself?
He got up and walked around the room, quietly, so as not to wake her up. An hour later he went back into bed still unsettled. He tore off his t-shirt from his shoulders. As he did so, his fingers brushed one of the scars on the back of his shoulders and he shuddered. He tried one last half-willed attempt to resist but he knew he wanted it. And so he watched himself walk back to those gates. Those high, grey, rusty old gates behind which he had spent his childhood.
What he saw was stained. Like an old Polaroid. Some parts of the picture blurred out forever. Dark marks imprinted on the faces and in the hearts of those eternalized in that moment.
Few dots of light animated the listless grey of their existence then.
There were children, too many, too young. A long tight corridor. Alternating rays of dusty, dull light falling in from the doors left and right of the corridor, cutting through the black. The corridor was like the striped back of a long zebra on which a thousand times, he had imagined himself galloping away, out over the rusty grey gate and far away.
He remembered the sounds. Hushed whispering when the director was in sight. Loud screams when someone was being punished. Heartless laughs of children laughing because they were children and because laughing, no matter how heartless, was despite all, part of childhood.
The smells. His heart raced as he remembered the smells. Mostly it was the smell of disinfectant. Disinfectant mingled with the smell of too many children in one room. Mingled with the smells of sickness and decaying existences.
But once in a while there was the lovely scent. The heaven scent. That was all he had known of the outside world. The heaven scent.
They stood in rows. High heels followed by shiny black laced shoes would walk up and down in front of them. And that heaven scent following the shoes and lingering around them. Time stood still and held hands with Silence in such moments when they all stood in their rows, eyes burning with hope.
He saw himself standing there in that row, a hundred times. His little body tense with the hope of fulfilment of his one and only dream. His dream of arms, that would hold him. Eyes, that would look into his. Ears that would take their time for him. But most importantly, lips, that would kiss his forehead and wish him ‚sweat dreams’ at bedtime.
He struggled, trying to remain in the past, forcing his mind to walk through his childhood. A step further.
‘Nooo!’ He screamed as his dream was shattered, when once again another child was allowed to go. Another child that was not him.
Hand in hand with new parents and a paper bag of one and a half belongings.
He stayed. Till he was eighteen. Till he had built up walls inside of himself.
He woke up suddenly, startled out of his dream. It was her lips on his forehead. ‘Good morning,’ they said and smiled shyly at him.
At first he was confused. But then, he smiled back, breathed in her heaven scent and let her hold him in her arms.
Efua Traoré is a Nigerian-German writer who grew up in a small town in the south of Nigeria. For as long as she can remember, her head was always filled with little stories, but it was not until her late twenties that she discovered her passion for writing them down.
She won the Glimmer Train prize for the first 1.000 words of a novel. Her short story ‘True Happiness’ won the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa and was published by Granta. The story will also be published by Lapham’s Quarterly in May 2019 and will be included in an upcoming collection of short stories.
This entry appeared in The Limits Issue