Spring 2021 Issue


n your twenty-first birthday, you sketch nine different self-portraits at nine different points in your life, each named after a memory, and by the time you’re done, the rain has stopped, and twigs are floating in the flood, and an orange sun is peeking through a stagnant cloud, beautiful sight, which makes you step out, bend over a basin filled with water, and scrub caked tears from your face while whispering to yourself: I have to call Isesele, to redeem myself; though you don’t have the whole thing planned out, you have to do this, anyhow, because turning twenty-one while remaining a slave was never one of your childhood dreams.

in the first sketch, you’re seven and innocent and naked, extracting coal from a drum and painting yourself black, and because of this—the fact that you’re painting yourself black when you’re white in real life, not really white-white like a European but red-white like the albino you are—you name this sketch Colour Inversion; but then, it’s a mere sketch, right, because if this wasn’t a sketch, you’d have been padding down the street, driblets of water running down your raincoat, dodging Mother’s open arms, shrugging off Her offer of groundnut cake, and asking Her, Is it possible to be black, black like normal children, and She’d have arched Her brows, wondering what you meant, only for you to break down, whimpering about how they mock your paw-paw skin in class, how nobody wants to play with you because you’re albino and albinos don’t see in the afternoon when the sun is up, and She’d shake her head and say, Listen son, albino or not, you’re my son and I love you, and you’d drum your feet on the ground and say, But I don’t love my skin; but then, this is just a sketch, a sketch of you painting yourself black, so you’re just standing there, a hand caught in a muddied brush with stiff bristles, painting, thinking of how to add tomato shrubs on the background because Mother used to grow tomatoes, because you must strike as close to reality as you can, and you fail to, because you only have black ink and a pencil, nothing red at all, just the sky outside, red like sunset, the clouds like avalanches dipped in methylated spirit, and Mother is pulling off Her clothes from the line, and voices are calling out to their children, and goats are bleating in the distance.

the second sketch is inspired by something that happened to you when you were nine: you’re naked here still, but completely black-skinned (having dyed your skin in the previous sketch), your hands are sheltering your penis, and although you don’t remember this memory that much, you name this sketch Clear as Water, because even though you don’t remember much, you know about Isesele, your home teacher who lives two streets away, who has just touched you bad while bathing you, asking if you enjoy it, but you can’t say yes because your lips are closed and your teeth clenched, but you nod, so he has his answer, but it seems he wants you to really talk, so he asks if you’re shy, and again, you nod, and he grins, and asks to touch you again, and that’s when you cover your penis, as seen in this sketch, but when he reminds you how he caught you two weeks ago peering into his bathroom through cracks in the wall, touching yourself, you’re rendered dumb, helpless, naked like a plucked-out chicken, and the shyness grows arms, teeth, and a body of its own; but now, now that you’re twenty-one and sketching this memory, you’re no longer shy but angry, so angry you want to punch Isesele’s nose, grind off his hands, angry like the winds now blowing outside, rippling the curtains, hurling rubber seeds on the verandah.

third sketch, you’re running from the sun, wedging your eyes with a hand, and at the other end where you’re running to, some boys are lurking behind elephant grasses, waiting for you; still you run towards them, and in the process, your skin turns white again, not white-white but red-white, and black dots spring all over your body, covering your face and arms, small and black, like the rain of sand now falling from Mother’s eaves outside as the wind howls on, running down the ground, like you are running in this sketch you’ve titled I Love Running From the Sun, but it’s not true that you’re running from the sun; you’re only running from boys who employ the sun to taunt you: before you can join them on the playground, you have to look at the sun for a minute without squinting, and hard as you try, you can’t, still you try again and again, and you go temporarily blind and your eyes are filled with scalding liquid, but you wouldn’t mind trying more, to prove to the boys that you can see enough to play with them, but Mother threatens to call The Secret if you try that again, Or have you forgotten who The Secret is, She asks, and you shake your head no, you haven’t forgotten, and She says, Tell me about Him then, and you say The Secret is that Man who has a rough and scary face like a masquerade’s, and you hate Him, you say, you hate Him because, what’s His business if you choose to do things your mates do, and Mother holds you and asks you not to hate Him, because He’s your father, and you look up at Her and tell Her what you know that She doesn’t think you do: He left you because you’re albino, because albinos bring bad luck, because He lost his job the day Mother had you.

you’re thirteen in the fourth sketch, and you’re kissing Isesele again, after he’s finished university and is looking for a job, Isesele, tall and thin, now deep-voiced, kissing you behind the house and chanting, Tell me you like it, yes, tell me, louder, tell meeeee, and you can’t move even though you want to, even though you want to slap him hard, you can’t move because he’s pinning you to the wall with kisses, and the next day, you’re standing behind him in the kitchen while he fries plantains, gummy, oval pieces sizzling in vegetable oil, hissing in the sieve, yet all you can hear is the drumming of your chest, doom-doom-doom, hard and fast, and in the same fast breath, you tell him you’d like to change your school, if he could help you convince Mother, and he turns around to ask why, and you say, Because all the students are too mean; Mean, like how; They’re mocking my skin and asking me to look at the sun; Okay, he says, I’ll talk to your mother, but on one condition; What’s it; If you let me kiss you again—and you turn to go, but it’s too late, for he’s already spotted your erection, so what else do you do but give in, let his lips snatch off your breath, bring you to your knees, how swift, how spontaneous, the same swiftness and spontaneity with which he tells Mother there are no good science teachers in your school, therefore you can’t become a good doctor if you don’t change school, and so, because Mother trusts his judgment, She changes your school, so that you’re now his student, so that he now has total control over you, recording your ins and outs, the boys you play with and the ones you shrug past, so that, one day during break, he makes you promise never to do anything with anyone else because you two are now dating, boyfriend and boyfriend, and when you ask if it’s not supposed to be boyfriend and girlfriend, he dips his hand into your boxers and squeezes and squeezes and you hard up, and turning away, laughing, he says you’re not meant to be in a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship.

it’s three days after your fifteenth birthday in the fifth sketch, but you look small, like a ten-year-old, and you’ve sketched yourself holding a broom, standing away from other students who are dancing behind you, singing oyibo pepper, luku luku pepper, if you eat pepper, you go yellow more more, if you enter sun, you go red more more, singing because Isesele, now your teacher, has just asked you to leave the playground, leave the sun, because the sun can kill you if you’re not careful, Or don’t you understand why you can’t cut grass on Labour Day, why you rather join the girls to sweep the classes and corridors, he asks you, and you want to tell him how the boys laugh at you, how they call you woman-wrapper, laughing and throwing their hands in the air, asking if you’re sure you have a penis, because real boys with penises don’t do lazy chores like sweeping, because real boys work in the sun; and even though, sometimes, you want to dare yourself and pick up a cutlass and stroll to the field, the spots on your body are always there to remind you how they came about—sunburn—first, fiery sensations, then red boils, then pus, then open sores, then keloids, then—if you’re not careful—skin cancers, then—if you don’t get treatment—death, isn’t it so, death, the reason it’s raining today, because a titled man has died, isn’t it so, why the deluge is now heavier, why orange water is now running into the gulleys, cutting the clay further into valleys, why your neighbour is now putting basins to the rain, why you walk to the window and part the curtains and she sees you and says happy birthday to you, how old are you now—aren’t birthdays subtle reminders that death is in the corner, especially now that the dots on your skin have multiplied like stars on a cheerful night?

you’re handing a book to your new teacher, Ben, in the sixth sketch, but he’s waving you off, and the students are laughing because you say you want to become an artist in career class, an artist—of all things—so lame and lazy, which makes Ben ask you what problems artists can solve, and how much they can make, because these two make a profession viable as he once taught you, but you stand up and ask, What about passion, because passion is Isesele’s most used word, for passion, according to him, is the most powerful force in the human realm, and to make you understand, he even makes examples with it: I love you with passion; I want to strip you with passion; I’m jealous with passion (you don’t say these aloud though); now, you’re describing the role of passion in an individual’s life, and Ben, befuddled, asks why you don’t think about normal jobs, or is it because of your skin, and you say no, and he goes preachy: don’t let anything stop you; who says you too can’t be a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer; albinism is nothing when God says something—so on and so forth he goes that you think, perhaps, he needs convincing that you love art, not because your albinism has left you with no better choice, but because you really love art, and so you fetch your drawing book and hand it to him as seen in this sketch, but he waves it off and goes on to tell the class how talent and passion are mustard seeds when compared to the financial comfort a good career offers.

you’re seventeen in the seventh sketch, and two speech bubbles lie on both sides of your face: bubble one, the face of a boy, and bubble two, a girl’s—different faces, one long and sad; the other round and cherubic, but they’re alike in the sense that they both carry dangling question marks in the speech bubbles, and though it’s just a sketch, it represents the dilemmas thrown at you at seventeen, for, in real life, you’re touching yourself with your eyes tightly shut, as this is the only way to keep Queen’s image in your head, Queen: the girl you think you like because every boy must like a girl, but unlike them—other boys—you’re only aroused with Queen in your imagination, where she’s always naked but never appears complete: a nipple first, then a navel, then bulbous hips, smooth as eggs, and you let go of the nipple to grope for other parts, but on returning to the nipple, you pinch your bedsheet and shrink back to flaccidity, fast and natural, unlike when you have boys in your imagination, boys like Isesele, bodies you first imagine in order to get hard before slowly letting go to grasp Queen’s, so you know, you can’t get hard with just Queen’s body, and you hate it so much, but that’s the truth, and now you remember what Isesele once said, that boyfriend/girlfriend relationships aren’t meant for you, though you may try, he adds later, when he finds an SMS in your phone, a message to Queen you’d never send, and that night, while embracing your bitter realities, you break down in Isesele’s arms and he kisses you soft and deep, and again, even though you don’t want to, you surrender.

you’ve just turned nineteen in the eighth sketch, sobbing, because Isesele is married but still wants to keep you, and so, on the morning of his departure, he forces you on a blood oath: the mutual pricking of thumbs and sucking of blood and recital of mumbled incantations; but all of that is far ahead if we consider the timing of this sketch, because, in it, you’ve just hurried out of the church as soon as Isesele and his wife kissed, very repulsive, the fact that Isesele, who made you swear never to give it to someone else, is kissing someone else and taking matrimonial oaths before a cheering congregation, very repulsive your stomach turns and you vomit in the yard and start to cry, and nobody comes around to hold you, to offer you a shoulder, to assure you it’s going to be okay.

you’re twenty in the last sketch, and Isesele is asking if you’d eat bread or should he drive down a bit so you buy suya, he asks with the same charming voice, the same gestures that turn you on, he asks but you say no, you don’t want anything, you just want all of this to end, this hide-and-seek, or isn’t it better he sticks to his wife, or if he wishes, divorce her and concentrate on you, but he laughs and says your head is not correct, that how dare you ask him to divorce his wife of just three years, and you feel the pang, the pang people feel when their worthlessness is poked and flung at their faces, and again, you open your mouth to say, Isesele, it’s over between us, but before you do, he reaches for your zipper and slides you open and starts to move desperate fingers up and down your shaft, whispering I love you, I love you, I love you, in that husky, raw, wanting voice, and soon, you’re half-lying there, moaning, gasping, spurting.

now, you roll up the sketches and lay them against the wall, and peeping through the window, you realise it’s no longer raining: the sun has emerged and taken full possession of the sky, but for the flood, the clay-coloured water gushing into gulleys, cutting through the flesh of the soil, no one would believe it had rained moments ago, through the time you traveled around your life in nine sketches, and now, now that you’ve put the sketches away, you can see you’ve not lived the kind of life you dreamt as a child, so you wonder, If I can’t break the chains now, when will I be free, and you tell yourself it’s now or never, so you hurry down the steps, crushing the rubber seeds strewn about, and first, the aftermath of the deluge hits you: water dripping on your neck and meandering down the small of your back in tickling sensations, cones of ruins dotting the streets—unhinged doors, slabs of cement, tree branches, mangled whorls of plantain leaves, shards of glass, orange corncobs, stones, squashed Ragolis bottles, and mud; in the distance, a kaleidoscope of umbrellas rises, blocking out the emerging sun, and the petrichor hits you, and you sniff so hard you sneeze, but it doesn’t deter you, for you continue walking, walking, until you sit on the ruins of what seemed to have been a kiosk, and right there, you call Isesele and say, Hi, I’ve found someone else, and he takes deep breaths and asks, Who, and you say, Myself, Isesele, I’ve found myself, and you wish him a fruitful matrimony, and you say Bye, and the phone beeps off.

Ola W. Halim

Ola W. Halim is a Nigerian writer and teacher whose themes cut across sexuality, albinism, inclusive education and feminism. He has been shortlisted for the TFCN Teacher's Prize for Literature 2019, the Sevhage Short Story Prize 2019, and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2021. He won the LitFest Prize for Prose 2020 for his short story, "Miracle", the Albinism and Vitiligo Awareness Award (2019), and the PIN Annual Food Poetry Contest 2020 for his poem, "Garri: '67-'70. His work has been published on the Kalahari Review, African Writer, Dwartsonline, Tuck Magazine, ARTmosterrific, Lolwe, Brittle Paper, Ekonke, Black Pride Magazine, with interviews available on Poets in Nigeria and Africa in Dialogue. He works as a prose editor for ARTmosterrific, a literary platform publishing young African writers; and he mentors storytellers on SprinNG. He can be found on Twitter: @OlaposiH.

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