How are you, Chigoziri? Is it morning in your soul, or is dusk setting in?
I did a thing, you see. I signed up on a therapy app called Thera. I know, how smart. It says it's for therapeutic messages—at least that's what they promised in the Instagram ad. For your mental wealth, they said. Wealth. I mean, count me in.
I'm doing a thing. Overthinking what I'm wearing. Even though Mother's instruction was simple: wear anything you find in your room and come, we're going out.
Smoothing over my ball-handed Ankara gown, I grab Chigozie's red Igbo cap to cover my shrunken afro before I head out of my room.
How are you, Chigoziri?
Sad. Today is one of those days I miss my twin brother.
I walk into the dining room and it's Sister's voice I hear instead of Mother's voice. God, no.
"Are you ready to see Mommy or should I leave you and go?" she asks.
"I'm not meeting her alone?"
Sister blinks fake lashes at me, standing serenely against the wall as if posing for Vogue magazine.
"Answer my question first, Chigoziri," she says, dragging out my name like smoke.
A few strides and I'm only a mere breath away from her. Her big breast bops my flat chest as she closes the distance between our chests to ascertain her right, her height, her endowment in the right places—rubbing it in my face, literally. I move back, jiggle the molds free of those restraining bras I ditched and straighten. Nobody will intimidate me today with big breasts and height. Definitely not Sister.
"Ziri," I say in the deepest voice I can muster, pouring forth the words like hot porridge. Those mashed, peppery ones they sell in the Mama-put close to the New Medical hostel in my University. "Call me Ziri. I don't know how many times you want me to tell you this."
Sister stares at me with all intensity. I stare back. She drags the red Igbo cap off my head and guffaws as my shrunken afro pops up immediately. The damned thing can never be tamed: I have theoretical proof that it hates me, and I, it.
She straightens faster than I can say hey and says, "Mommy said we're all going out, Chigoziri," making sure to drag my full name.
I want to yell at her, to tell her to stop calling me that name. Nobody called me that except Chigozie. Nobody. It was always Ziri. I pause, taking slow breaths of the air filled with impurities of burning wick—our cook always uses the old kerosene stove instead of our fine gas cooker. My voice is not a whisper nor is it a scream when I speak again: "Only Chigozie called me Chigoziri. Call me Ziri, like you've always done. Call. Me. Ziri."
She rolls her eyes. "Stop overreacting. You're such a baby."
Is it morning in your soul, or is dusk setting in?
It's sorrow in my soul and pain is setting in.
I want to send the glass cup on the dining table sailing through this too-clean dining area that's too close to the kitchen. I want to watch it break and dance on the shards till my feet are sore and raw and bleeding.
But, if you really want to know, I'm fine.
Mother walks in to a fuming Lion and a deer. Funny how the Lion is the younger sister and the deer is the older one. Funny how in the not-so-distant past, the Lion was just a cat, whispering, prancing around, and sipping milk here and there, thinking nothing would change.
Everything has changed.
"Osi gini? What is going on here?"
It's Mother's voice that does wonders the most: it calms me.
"I said, what is going on here?"
It's also her voice that makes me let it out: the scream I've been holding in for months. Endless, brutal months of being the man Chigozie never was. Wasn't she the one who'd taught him to man up? Wasn't she the one who'd allowed Father to lock him up for hours on end after he'd cried in church when we were twelve? (The boy had stepped on a sharp nail, for goodness sake!) Now that he's gone, where is Father? Probably on one of those business trips again, trying to be the man.
How does one describe a scream? If I'm asked to describe this one, I'll say it's long and loud, and energy-consuming.
But, to every other person, it's just a scream.
When I come to a stop, I'm a blubbering mess on the floor, and my outfit is a crumpled mess too. And we're all on the floor. Everything happens in one breath.
We're all crying. But we're together.
Then I begin to laugh, and it chokes me. Then I begin to cough, and it hurts my stomach. And I'm slowly realizing that my life is not all roses and food and glamour anymore. This is what this pain has taught me: when you lose someone who was a part of you, a knife pierces the core of your very being and twists so hard you forget to breathe or cry and one day you just end it all or lose it all.
"Chigozie would have laughed at us." I'm still laughing and I'm also talking and I'm not seeing a single thing as tears blur my vision. He would've laughed and said, ”So much for telling me to man up when you all cannot even go so long without me.” And he would've laughed and pulled me into a hug and pulled my cheeks like I was his younger sister even though he came out just a few minutes before me. And—" The words splutter. Stop.
Mother continues for me, "And he would've said, 'Mom, I don't know what this is. Is it a girl's party? Can I join? I promise I can cry too. And I know you hate it, but I can.' And I would be the really cool mom who says go ahead instead of telling him boys don't cry." She snorts, ungraceful, as her tears drag tiro like a black river down her cheeks.
"I miss him," Sister says.
Mother and I turn to look at her and, for a moment, we just nod in shared sorrow.
Until the curtain falls, and we stand, we fumble to wipe our tears. And it's like it never happened: the tears, the words, everything.
The air is tense. I'm tempted to raise a hand to catch it to feel it. Sister's grumpy face is mirrored on mine and it drains me: to absorb people's feelings and become it.
Mother slices the silence into strips of beef when she says, "Now, go wash your faces girls, and meet me in the car. We're going to see your Father."
"What?" Sister and I say in unison.
"Is this why you made us come home from school so fast? I almost missed a test!"
"Please, girls, your Father wants us to eat out at that Jevinik restaurant. It's been so long since we went out. Since. . . since Chigozie left us."
"Chigozie—" I start. She eyes me. I keep shut.
"Since Chigozie left us," Sister mimics. "Maybe we should start saying he's on vacation. Probably left Port Harcourt to Lagos sef. Since we cannot just acknowledge that he's dead."
"Shut up, joor." Mother and I yell together.
Then Mother, the calm woman among hormonal young ladies, says, "Let's be fast and go. We don't want to keep your Father waiting."
• • •
How are you, Chigoziri? Is there love and light in your heart, or do you still want to squash an unsuspecting ant?
Chigozie and I had a thing (things, rather): we said this and said that, we fought the nosy bullies down the street who called us Ajebutter for our posh English and Father's big car when they should have kept shut and stayed put in their makeshift wooden houses. But, when we fought and I didn't want to say sorry, he'd tap me and remind me of his concept of glittering: it's not about the outward look, or about what people say you are, but what you are inside—does your heart beat differently? do you feel this butterfly pass by? Glittering, to him, was never outward, it was deeper, way deeper.
I dare to imagine this, to honour his ideology.
I glitter. One.
I glitter. Two.
Two deep breaths. I'll be fine.
Now, it has been twenty minutes and thirty seconds since we arrived here, and Father is nowhere in sight. Mother is tense, nibbling on her dry lips. Sister has blocked her ear with airpods but I can see her fingers shaking on the table. I stare at the TV that's thankfully in view from my seat. All I see are girls shaking their booty and boys smoking. Should be some popular Port Harcourt musician going on about coming from Pitakwa and whatnot.
"Why don't you call him?" I throw Mother an exasperated look. "You know, remind him we're waiting?"
"He said he's coming."
Talking to her opens a door. She channels her worry, mixed with Sister's nervousness, to me. It smells like stale bread and soft lavender perfume all at once. I absorb it from the years of my unspoken responsibility of having to listen to Chigozie, and I lean back as the waiter in a plain pink shirt comes towards our table and asks if we need anything for the third time.
"No. We're waiting for my husband before we eat. He's stuck in traffic."
I scoff. Traffic, my foot. Mother throws me a stern look and clicks her tongue. I embrace the shift around me. Father sees it fit to walk in then.
"Sorry, I'm late, Nne." He touches Mother's hand, caressing the golden wedding band, before acknowledging us. Normally, he wouldn't even bother telling us sorry. This is one thing I've come to understand about Father. He's indifferent to a very big fault. And he's not sorry about it. Maybe because he doesn't even know.
"Good afternoon, Daddy," Sister says.
"Good afternoon, Daddy," I echo.
"Where's your brother?"
I taste the confusion and panic that rolls off Mother and Sister in waves.
What. Is. This?
Mother clutches her purse on the table, as if ready to take flight, to run far away from the man she married. After biting her lips, she says, "Nna, our son is no longer with us, have you forgotten?"
He shakes his head, looks at me, then at Sister. Like his eyes are just opening. Like he was blind before, tied too.
"Oh. I forgot. Or I thought it was a bad dream."
He closes his curtained eyes. Despair. It smells like a forgetting potion in here. Father has been running mad—a continuous process that has finally started to creep into the daylight. It's not even a joke. He has those pills he takes, but even then, how effective have they been? We all have a semblance of his madness, too. We're rusting from the bottom up. Chigozie was the only one who remained untainted. How he'd not inherited Father's madness is yet one of his enigmatic qualities. How he'd remained true to himself till his last breath softens my heart. He touched heavenly realms and embodied glorious wonders. I know he did. I felt it. I still feel it.
Chigozie, my twin brother, my other half, till my forever man meets me, was the real silver. He glittered.
No, he glitters.
How are you, Chigoziri?
Peachy. Just so f***ing peachy.
"Chigoziri. Chinelo. Smile joor," Mother says through a series of fake smiles she flashes for the camera.
We are outside, our stomachs full, our hearts filled with pain, too.
Sister has taken a thousand and one pictures to show her boring coursemates. Mother has called one of the security personnel to help us take an updated family picture, and I don my red Igbo cap and feign a smile in compliance.
It is slow, and it is fast, how we are moving on, and Chigozie is not with us: rather, a traveller to the world beyond, the heavenly home he deserves for his dedication to everything pure and everything holy.
I smile more than my cheeks can take, whispering a silent, cheese, each time I hear the shutters click. I'm whispering more words to myself as I enter Mother's car and wait for her to hug Father goodbye because he's going on another business trip—I hope he doesn't forget he still has two daughters. I'm whispering, Chineke, daluu, almost feverishly. Thank you for what? I don't know. I'm losing myself in the memories of words I've read and feelings I've absorbed. I'm sifting through the characters I've taken up since Chigozie left and I'm frowning and smiling simultaneously. Warmth spreads from my chest outwardly as I reach out to touch the air that buzzes with Chigozie's energy and smells like morning dew.
Soon, it is clear. I say Daluu: Thank you, Chineke, for making me silver. Not bronze. Not even gold. It was our silent joke, Chigozie and I, and even in his absence, his essence finds a way to remind me of our truth: We glitter.
Is there love and light in your heart or do you still want to squash an unsuspecting ant?
I'd love to squash this app, too, if you people don't leave me alone, thank you.
I used to love squashing ants when I was young and unwise. It was the one thing I loved that Chigozie did not agree with. He believed in life, in love, in light.
One day, I left the house to follow a group of ants out of our gate and into the slum houses at the end of our street. That was the day Father broke an umbrella on my back, the first day his madness unleashed itself. That was also the last time he beat me. That was also the first time I thought I'd die from pain. But, over the years, I'd find worse forms of pain, where I can't see the pain point, I just feel it so intensely I'm sure I'm going mad.
"Chigoziri, don't go," Chigozie kept telling me as I moved further from the house.
We were ten, and at ten I was already more stubborn than him.
I'd gone on and on, fascinated by it, squashing as many ants as I could. Until I reached the end of the street.
"Ziri, what are you doing there?" It was Father's voice that pulled me out of my squashing spree.
I'd expected a spanking. I'd expected anything. Not being hit with an umbrella. But, as we entered the compound, that was the first thing his hand touched—an innocent, rusted umbrella lying on the ground by the garage. That was what he used to hit me over and over and over. Until I could hardly breathe. Until Mother was on the floor beside me, pleading, begging him to leave me.
I remember it all now. I remember how Chigozie had stayed with me, crying like it was his body they'd battered. And he'd stayed with me in the hospital for days until I got better. That's how I remember it. That's how I want to keep it preserved in my mind.
Love and light?
Zero point five over five stars.
There are no ants in this car, but there are two flies trapped inside, trying to go out into the world. Me and you both, flies. I feel you both.
I fiddle with my butterfly necklace and imagine I'm everything Chigozie knew I could be. Imagine I—
Chigoziri, we know you're active.
Please type a valid response so we can deduce how to hel—
I open the car door just as we reach the house and throw my phone on the ground.