I spend long hours talking with water in the bathroom every night. I tell Mama about this special bond I have with water. She laughs a hearty laugh and rolls her eyes. She tells me water does not speak. No ears, no mouth. “What is water if it is not human?” I ask her. She looks at me, finding it strange that I ask such a question. She does not respond, instead, she asks me about school: Do I like my new class? Am I making new friends? When are my exams starting?
I no longer tell Mama about my nights with water. I don’t think of ever telling Papa. He won’t hear of such a thing in his house. Papa is a strict and hardworking man. He comes home by six in the evening and wakes up early before cockcrow. Most times I wonder if he ever sleeps. He speaks only when he is spoken to. The only time we talk is after he returns from work and has had his bath. He sits on the beige rug while we talk, a small, oval mirror in one hand and a shaving stick in the other. We talk a little. When he is not shaving, he is either watching CNN or reading the newspaper. I sit at the table in my room, studying. The whole house is dead silent until Mama returns from her shop. Mama assumes a daily routine in the kitchen. The clang of pots and the sweet smell of utazi soup fill the air around the house. When supper is served on the round glass table in the living room, we sit on the high-backed leather chairs and eat in silence. Only the clinks of spoons against ceramic plates break the quietude. After supper, Mama clears the table. I help her do the dishes. In a few hours’ time, Papa leads us in evening prayer. And after praying, he turns off the lights in the house. I pick my way to my room, avoiding the big flower vases and figurines lining the walls. Mama is in my room to say a short prayer and put a pocket-sized bible by my head and tell me good night.
In the dead of night, I do not sleep. I sneak like a thief into the bathroom. I lock the door behind me, and before gliding into the long bathtub, I pull off my nightgown. The smooth tiled walls of the bathtub are cold. I like the feel of anything cold on my bare skin, especially the feel of anything cold on my bare back. Water, too, is cold at this time of night. I squeeze the tap open and water starts pouring out. They are enchanting, these moments I steal away from my room to spend ample time with water. I wish for the night to go on without end, for the moon to tether itself to the clouds. I breathe in—wishes are what they are, mere wishes. In slow curves, I arch my back against the wall of the bathtub and shut my eyes. Water slips under the spaces beneath my relaxed form, rising at a slow speed, tickling me. I open my eyes when my body is under water. Only my head juts out. I turn off the tap, closing my eyes once more. I sleep when I am in the bathtub. In my sleep, I talk with water. Not the meaningful stringing of words into sentences. More like the silent mind conversation. I wake up when I feel the water has gone lukewarm. Or, perhaps, when I think I hear the tinkle of Papa’s alarm, filtering from his room. I release the plughole and do not wait for the water level in the bathtub to go down. Sometimes, I wait and watch the water drain through the small holes, in faint gurgles. Nobody knows about these nights I spend in the bathroom. Not even the early-rising Papa.
At school, I sleep through my classes. I put my head on the plastic table and sleep like a little child. A classmate will, sometimes, nudge me from behind to wake up. Still, after setting up a makeshift pillow with my books, all piled up to a comfortable height, I sleep. By way of punishment, a teacher tells me to stand for ten minutes. Most times, I stand for fifteen minutes. You are not to lean on anything, the teacher will instruct. But does this end my frequent bouts of sleep at school? Maybe. Maybe not. One dry afternoon, in the heat of March, the school Principal summons my father to his office. I stand outside the Principal’s sunlit office overlooking the clean empty playground. The Principal walks in, Papa follows behind. Papa looks at me, his face expressionless, but turns away before I can get a chance to smile or wave at him. He is sweating, small shiny beads of wetness glittering on his forehead, like a sweaty glass of water. He must have been busy at his own office, I think, only to be distracted from work for my sake. I don’t want to feel guilty. No. Sleeping, after all, is not a punishable offence. Outside the locked door of the Principal’s office, I strain my ears to listen but hear nothing. Half an hour later, the Principal’s door flies open and I am standing beside Papa, mulling and mulling over in my mind the kind of explanation I will give for sleeping through my classes.
“You know why you’re here,” Papa says.
I nod, my face to the ground, my eyes, unblinking and glazed, searching for nothing in particular.
Turning to the Principal, Papa says, “It surprises me that she sleeps in class. At night, she turns in early.” He turns to me and asks, “What is the problem?”
“Papa, I—, I—,” I am almost choking. There is so much I wish to say. Maybe this is the right time to tell Papa. About water. About everything. But warm moist air and silence are all that escape my mouth.
“Sir, I do not wish to take any more of your time,” the Principal says, “I know you’re a very busy man. But please, it’s important she pay full attention in class. Her senior certificate exams are fast approaching.”
“Thank you, Mr. Principal.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
They shake hands. I watch Papa head back to his car and drive out of the school compound. The Principal leads me to my class. I walk to my seat, head hanging low, tongue feeling papery. In class, I overhear half-whispers from mates: Does she study all through the night? Is she nocturnal? Is she a witch, for I hear witches do not sleep at night? I fight sleep for the rest of school hours. At home, Papa never mentions a word about what had transpired at school. He checks on me from time to time as I study in my room. Mama returns from her shop quite early. The only thing she tells me is that my hair needs new braids. After supper, I lie on my bed and long for night to come.
At night, I do not go to the bathroom because I hear heavy footfalls outside my room. And a voice, too. The voice sounds gentle, filled with emotion, but firm. Is that Papa? I think, half listening, half worrying. I lever myself out of bed and tiptoe till I reach my bedroom door. The voice comes to me, clear, distinct. Mama’s voice. She is praying. I cannot make out what she is saying. Besides, she is clapping and singing at the same time. I crouch near the door in the dark. Like a folded leaf. The place I want to be is in the bathtub, under water, the only world where I feel weightless, listening to the ripples of the water, listening to water speak. In a few minutes, Mama stops praying, and singing, and clapping. I hear her calling my name. I don’t know why, but she is chanting my name at the top of her voice. I scramble off to bed without making the slightest sound. On my bed, I try to listen. My eyes peer into blank darkness. My bedroom door creaks open. A shaft of white light floods in, and on the vinyl tiled floor is Mama’s ghostly shadow. She walks round my room sprinkling something I think to be holy water. After this, she slips out and clicks the door shut behind her, closing out the only illumination, too. I struggle to sleep. At last, when sleep comes, I find myself wide awake in a pitch-dark room. My head is burning. I hear her voice again, her piercing voice, as if she’s in my head. She is screaming my name.
Mama’s midnight prayers go on for a week. Papa does not say anything about it. I dare not even talk about it. I am supposed to be sleeping. I have stopped sleeping at school. The school Principal and teachers are happy about this. But there is common gossip at school that I have been delivered of evil spirits. I don’t care what everybody at school is saying. I suffer only from the deep longing to be under water again.
One breezy Sunday night, I listen for Mama to begin her prayers. I lie in bed, waiting. No sound of her. Only the violent blows of wind against the windows. I spend the whole night waiting. And the next night. And the next two nights. It does not surprise me that she stops saying those midnight prayers. Who stays up all night brewing prayers like wine, only to awake early next morning, expecting to cheat Mother Nature at her workplace during the course of day? Three nights after she stops her midnight prayers, I step out of my room. My craving for water erupts like flames within me, its glowing bursts so strong that I feel the small muscles of my body contract and relax in unbounded joy. Hastening, I pull off my nightgown and slide into the bathtub. I turn on the tap and let the water rise to the brim. I feel my spirit soar and meld with water, an inexplicable joy searing my insides. I stay under water for a long while. I bring my head out only when my lungs need air. This blissful moment should last forever, I tell myself. Water wets my hair, loosening it into long flowing locks. Mama stands in the doorway, all the while she is gazing at me, a grave look filling her eyes. She is aghast at the sight of my motions in the bathtub. When I turn to stare at her, at her whole frame shaking with sobs, all the excitement and energy drains out of me.
“Ngene!” She hides her face in her hands.
I slip out of the bathtub into my nightgown, my whole body shaking with the fear of what may happen next. Papa is standing beside Mama in the doorway in no time. He fixes me with a long, burrowing look, shrugging, his lips twitching, as if a terrible thing has happened. I want to tell them that I enjoy being under water. I want to tell Mama to listen: She, too, can hear water speak.
“Papa Ngene,” Mama says, “What are we going to do?”
The whole drama that follows puzzles me. They are not looking at me, the guilty child playing in water in the middle of the night. They hold on to each other like magnets, Papa consoling Mama, both of them speaking in hushed tones.
“She is possessed by mmuo mmiri. Water spirit,” Papa says, “But she can be healed.”
“Why me? Why my only daughter?” Tears stream down Mama’s cheeks. And as they fall, I feel my heart fall, too, breaking into tiny shards.
Five o’clock and we are leaving Lagos. We drive through empty streets. The houses and kiosks and trees that line the streets stand like shadowy scenes on centrer stage, under the dark blue clouds. We stop at police checkpoints and Mama ruffles her driving documents out of the glove compartment. We bump along potholed streets, open bags falling, their contents spilling. The cool air in the car is heavy with intense silence.
The sun rises by the time we are out of Lagos. The sky is a bright orange-yellow. Roads spring to life. Streets begin to fill. Loud music blares away in the distance. Mama rolls down her window and buys boiled groundnuts. She asks me if I want some. I tell her no. I don’t feel like eating anything, I say. She brings out her sequinned scarf from her handbag and covers her hair. She says, “Let us pray.” I am reclining in the back seat. My eyes are heavy. Mama’s eyes should be heavy, too. After all, none of us has slept since last night. But her eyes are well trained on the road, something determined yet void of opinion about them. I wonder how she will pray and, at the same time, focus on her driving.
She begins to sing. I join her in the chorus, but absently. I am thinking of where we are travelling to. It is overhearing Papa, who is not with us in the car, mention Port-Harcourt in his conversation with Mama earlier this morning that gives me a hint of our destination. Are we going to visit a relative at Port-Harcourt? Is it at Port-Harcourt that Mama hopes to find the solution to this water spirit I am supposed to be possessed by? I look up at Mama. She tilts her head this way and that, somewhat in tune with each song. I look out through the window, and vanishing in a quick dance of dissolution are people and trees and things. I don’t know when I sleep.
In my sleep, I am under water again. It is calm. I listen, aching for that familiar voice, but the water does not speak. This is not a good sign, I tell myself. I sink upwards, my wide-set eyes gazing through water’s sky blue. Water throbs with life and energy. I have learnt how to stay longer under water in my sleep. But today, its deafening quietness, its serenity, displeases me. Its life and energy elude me. I don’t even hear the sound of ripples, or of waves climbing and crashing high above, or of life from the outside world. I let my thoughts amplify to their fullest extent, yet, they do not merge with the water. I shut my eyes and begin to drown, headlong, arms outstretched. I am plunging deeper and deeper, surrounded by bubbles and the cold blue, when a warm hand rouses me. I let my eyes flutter open, dazzled by brilliant streaks of afternoon light pouring in through the window. Mama gazes at me. Is that pity I see in her eyes? She tells me we are an hour away. You should eat, she says. She pushes a wrapped bag in my face. I take the bag from her, yawning, relieved with the sleep, but unhappy. I open the bag and eat in big scoops, a meal of jollof rice and fried plantain. After eating, I sleep. This time, there is no water. No ripples. No waves. No drowning.
The loud noise outside wakes me with a start. I rub my eyes with the base of my palm and look outside. I see a packed crowd of men and women and children, twirling and shivering and rolling on the ground. I am confused, so I ask Mama, “Where are we?” No reply. She removes her shoes and tells me to remove mine. She brings out a big leathery bible from her bag and passes me a bible almost as big as hers. She also brings out bottles of holy oil and holy water and tells me to get out of the car. The sun is setting, the sky is still. The cool breeze brushes past my ears, ruffling my pleated skirt. I follow Mama as she navigates through the people pressing us from all sides. I try to listen to what they are saying, but from the sea of sweaty faces and sudden mountainous roars here and there, I can make out nothing. From every angle, their Amens pummel my ears. The ground is cold and damp and wet gritty sands slap onto my feet, my toes smarting from small stones underneath. I look ahead, and sitting there is a measureless body of water. A river. I stop and watch the tranquil undulations of the river, where the reflection of the sun is set like liquid gold. I see boats floating along the surface. And there are children, too. They swim close to the shore, their small hands paddling and flailing about in shallow water, propelling them back and forth. Birds revolve high in the air, in blind circles, cooing away. Mama shouts my name. A thick hand jolts me out of my distraction. I begin racing towards Mama.
A man dressed in white cassock and red beret approaches us. Mama goes on her knees and beckons me to do the same. The man’s eyes sink deep. He laughs, a short wooden laugh. He mutters words under his breath, his lips pursing between short intervals as he shudders. Whitish foams of spittle ooze from the sides of his mouth. His body shakes in a random frenzy. He has a stocky build and towering height, so that when he stands in front of Mama and me, we are kneeling right under his shadow.
“Woman, is this your daughter?” he says, his voice booming like lightening and fading away into space like vapor.
“Yes, Holy One,” Mama says. Her palms are pressed together, rubbing heat into each other.
Two men and a woman, dressed in the same manner as Holy One, walk towards us. They bear unlit red and white candles, the candles pocked by sand. They are singing in a language I do not understand.
“Arise, my daughter,” Holy One says to me, and to Mama, he says, “What is wrong with her?”
“My husband and I think she is possessed by a water spirit,” Mama says.
Mama goes on to tell Holy One about what had happened last night in the bathroom. She is very dramatic about it. She even tells Holy One about my sleeping at school. Papa must have told her. Later, I will wonder why she never confronted me about it. Meanwhile, Holy One is staggering, shaking and nodding his bald head, as if possessed by another kind of spirit. The other three that surround him are still singing, their eyes skyward. I don’t know why, but Holy One clutches his bible against his chest and begins to chant: “Holy! Holy! Jah! Jah-Jehovah!” Then someone in the crowd rings a bell, and I am lost. I look at Mama where she kneels. She is crying. Her eyes are closed, her eyelids quivering. Her whole body is shivering. There is nothing wrong with me, I want to yell at her. How could she bring me here, this terrifying place, without my consent? She is praying now, aloud. Evening falls on us.
“Come, my daughter,” Holy One says, gesturing over his broad shoulder. “Come.”
Holy One leads me. His three followers are right behind us. The children by the shore have long disappeared. I stop, a few paces from the river. I refuse to move any further. I turn and begin to make towards Mama. She has to take me home. But one of Holy One’s followers grabs me. The woman pulls my arms and binds them behind me. My eyes dilate in fear. I fight back, pushing forward, kicking, cursing. One of the men grasps my legs, pinning them to the ground as I fall. My head is burning again. Like in the dream. Except that I fear I won’t survive this time. The sensations of wind seem to cut into me like a sharp knife. Holy One begins to pray: Binding and casting, uprooting and destroying, the evil machinations of the water spirit. He slobbers and dances, dipping, whirling like a sandstorm. The woman, whose weight now presses upon me, warns me to close my eyes. And there, close to the river bank, they fall upon me with oil and water.
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