For boys like me who were born and raised in Lasgidi with its always-full gutters and tightly cluttered houses and smell of horrid things long rotten, the madness was a living thing, a sentient entity, an all-powerful deity.
And to call the madness by name was to desecrate your tongue and that of your household. Its name was a thing whispered in the night, when all crawling things and spying things and things with a thousand eyes and a thousand more years had gone to sleep. Its name was sacred, powerful, divine, and utterly holy— holier than even the Yeshua of God’s name.
But Lasgidi was stubborn, the place and the people. So, we blessed the madness with another name—one that did not fully name it but did not also fully scorn it, a name our mortal mouths could proclaim. And even in its mortality, this name was startlingly powerful. Fear.
Then there was Arinze, a boy for whom the world bowed, for whom the madness became docile, compliant, and supplicant.
He was born on the morning of the first day of the year 2000. A new millennium star, a miracle wrapped in pink skin and soft tufts of hair in tightly knit coils.
It was at his birth that the madness of Lasgidi laid eyes on him and saw that a master, something far greater than it, had arrived.
Because his father, a poor plumber who drank more than he earned, and his mother, a shop owner in the infamous Lasgidi market, had wanted a child for the ten years of their marriage, it did not bother them that Arinze was supposed to have been born a twin, that even as a fetus he had developed a taste for blood, for death.
It was because of the unborn twin, whom he had not only killed but also absorbed that caused the madness of Lasgidi to feel, even in its fear of him, a fiery rage against the entitled deity-child and thus bestow him with a kiss.
To those for whom the madness of Lasgidi is not a living entity, a kiss might sound like a gift, a show of approval, a kindness. But Lasgidi knows that the kiss of madness is worse than the greatest of curses. It is a shedding of self, a giving, a tainting.
And so the madness bestowed, with a kiss, a shred of its soul to Arinze
It should have killed him, the kiss of madness. It would have killed any other person, would have boiled them from the inside, eating away at their innards until all that was left of them was a soulless hollow husk.
But Arinze, though he did not know it yet, was a god. And gods, even those kissed by madness, do not die easily. It was this, his undying, that convinced themadness of Lasgidi, that he was indeed a greater deity than it was.
But the kiss was not without effect.
For rather than kill Arinze, it reformed him and made him into an otherness that was both frighteningly beautiful and utterly unhideable.
And it was a cruel thing, too, this reforming, because beautiful things like Arinze should have been able to hide. But Arinze was a boy for whom dark places were inexistent, a boy who walked with the sun and moon shining down on him.
The day I first saw him, I was haggling the price of a basket of tomatoes with a disgruntled old woman in the Lasgidi market. Her shop was a wooden stall with a rickety table held up with carefully placed flat stones, with a roof of rusted zinc the color of dried blood.
She was saying something to me in Igbo when he walked by, something I did not fully catch, not just because I did not understand Igbo, but because she had said it so quickly.
There was laughter, a serenading and resonant sound, almost like music. I turned to see where the sound had come from, and I was met with a sight that stilled me.
In later years, long after he was gone, I would try to remember what he’d looked like that first day in Lasgidi, and when I could not, a lance of guilt would track against my skin.
But in that first moment, in my stillness and in his laughing, I felt something.
And the somethingness of that moment and of that feeling was enough.
"Fine boy, she says you look like the back of a charcoal pot." He said this simply, unencumbered by the worry of what the woman— someone who might have expected kinship from him— would think of his betrayal. Unworried about the ease with which he called me 'fine boy' as though the statement could not soe asily be heard by the people who walked by.
There was a thrum somewhere in my chest, a staggering of my pulse, a stuttering of my heart.
"My name is Biodun." I answered and I watched as his laughter, that resonant melody, sputtered out into silence.
"Biodun."He said the name softly, a testing and a tasting. "Well Biodun, what brings you to Lasgidi?"
"I live in Lasgidi."
He looked skeptical, almost theatrical in his doubt.
"You that resembles an ajebutter."
And it was a simple thing, the sudden melting away of the world from behind my eyes, the tranquil orb of separateness that carried us away from that market in Lasgidi where the tomato seller's face had deepened into a furrowed confusion at the two boys before her.
We were sixteen.
The first time I kissed Arinze, we were seating on the bank of the small lake just outside Lasgidi, with our feet dangling over the frigid water. Often, we would dare to graze the water with the tips of our toes and watch as they sent ripples over the still lake.
He was talking, as he often did, of the new story he had written the night before.
I was stunned by the word, by the ease with which he often used big words, fluid and seamless, and never stylishly aware of himself.
I did not want to ask him what an epistolary was, not only because I was sure I would mispronounce it, but because his intelligence unsettled me as much as it awed me; for Arinze was a boy for whom learning was a constant, transcending the confines of a classroom.
The kiss was an abrupt thing, spontaneously vibrant and nerve-wracking. One minute he was talking about the letter in his story and the next I was pulling his face away from the lake and crushing my lips against his.
Nothing had prompted the kiss, no driving force had pushed me towards him, and yet I was not startled by the flutter in my abdomen, by the sudden wholeness of him pressed against me.
When we pulled away for air, his mouth slightly swollen from the force of our kiss and him panting slightly like myself, I still did not panic.
It would later surprise me, the relentlessness of my sudden bravery.
"You taste like oranges," he said. A pause. "I like it."
And then he returned to talking about his epistolary and the quickness of his moving on did not hurt me because he had scooted closer to me and grabbed myhand in his own.
We were seventeen.
The sun was bright and unnervingly hot the day Arinze came out to his family.
"Mama, Papa, I like boys and Biodun is my boyfriend." As always, words were easy for him, void of shame or guilt. Simply factual, exactly as it was.
His mother, shocked and dramatic in her grief, had launched herself from the couch where she sat and onto the carpeted floor of their living room.
"You have killed me, Arinze." And her voice, unlike his, was loud and startling and packed with flamboyant grief.
His father, red-eyed and freshly drunk on harsh gin, had simply looked him in the eye. And maybe he saw something in his son's eyes, something like a foretelling,like a premonition.
"Just live your life." And the ease of his words sounded so much like Arinze’s.
In later years, when Arinze was gone, I would call him in the middle of the night and search for him in the ease of his words. And I would be both deliriouslyhappy and nostalgically sad when I found it.
We were nineteen.
It rained the day that the madness of Lasgidi stretched out it's skeletal hands and plucked life out of Arinze. It was a torrential downpour that was both unrelenting and oddly beautiful. Stark grey clouds hovered in the sky above our heads, and sharp, darting bullets of rain streaked past the earth with a force that seemed too reminiscent of violence.
We should have known that the madness was not content with the reforming, that it carried inside its soulless heart, a deep searing malice for this boy who looked too much like celestial light.
We were both second-year students at the university of Jos at the time, living in a small self-contained apartment just outside of campus, in a compound where neighbors watched us with suspiciously knowing eyes, and asked often— their voices tinged with hidden malice— if we were brothers.
We thought we had left the madness, as we did every other thing, in the swampy confines of Lasgidi. But we should have known that scorned deities were often erratic and erratic deities were more prone to pettiness.
And Arinze's existence, the mere nature of his aliveness, scorned the madness of Lasgidi and caused it to shrink itself and squeeze itself into the pockets that we took to Jos.
So we did not see it when the madness seeped under his skin and took temporary hold of him and used his mouth to say, "Babe, come with me to the market." And when the madness prompted him to wear a tight-fitting maroon turtleneck that looked too much like blood and a pair of equally tight-fitting ripped jeans that exposed the caramel of his thighs, we still did not see it.
When a lance of fear had startled me at the utter femininity of his clothing, I brushed it up as a remnant of the internalized homophobia I was yet to fully discard. He had taught me that phrase a month before. His words were soft with care and without judgment when he said, "It's your internalized homophobia talking" when I scowled at an episode of RuPaul's Drag Race and asked why those gay men liked to wear makeup and elaborate gowns.
It was not until we had reached the market that the madness fell away from his skin and landed on the lips of a small beggar child, just as we were walking past a murky path replete with potato sellers.
"Dan dauda! Homo," a voice shouted, and I instantly recognized the sound of it, the familiar intonation, and the way the words slurred at the end. It was the madness of Lasgidi speaking from the mouth of the beggar child. In the boy's eyes, yellowed from malnutrition, I saw that familiar glint of malice. I recognized it.
It was an instinctive thing, how my legs moved to stand in front of him, how my hands spread around him protectively. Something thrummed inside me, right between my heart and my ribs. It was a writhing, sentient thing, decidedly focused as it journeyed my body, tainting every inch of me with its familiar presence. It smelled like fear, resonant and unrelenting in its contamination of me.
A boy, thuggish with ashy-black skin and tightly coiled hair, knotted from unkempt, launched himself at Arinze and pushed him to the floor. My hands flew on their own accord; heat seared in my knuckles and the boy crumbled to the wet earth. But even in his falling, I saw the madness jump from his skin and land on another and another, sparking each person it touched with a rage that did not belong to them.
And when another boy, eyes blazing with that irrational rage, began to kick at Arinze, I threw myself at the assailant and did not allow myself feel the flare of pain when his fist connected with my jaw.
I saw the madness seat beneath the flesh of a man with skin like midnight, a steel bat clasped in his hand. The madness caused him to swing it at my legs, once, and then again and again. There was no pain, only a sudden numbness, a stark unfeeling.
The man launched at Arinze even before I hit the floor in crippling paralysis.
He swung wildly at Arinze, a violent bash of his bat accompanied by a kick and they threw rocks at him, stones melding with flesh before ricocheting into the air, kissed by blood, and I watched as Arinze continued to die.
I did not remember if I screamed or cried or begged or did all three, unabashed in my desperation to save him, to move my numb legs and claw towards him.
They dragged him to the main road a little ways away from where I lay in paralysis and pushed him roughly against the tarmac. I saw the skin of his arm tear open in a ghastly scratch.
I should have prayed in that moment, should have petitioned God for a miracle, a trade: my life for his. Months later after I had begun physiotherapy to heal my damaged legs, I would wonder if maybe God would have acquiesced to take my life in place of his.
And when one of the boys bounded a car tire towards Arinze and pushed it over his whimpering head, my legs refused my will to move.
And when they doused him in fuel, with the mob around him chanting “Dan dauda” and “homo” like a violent prayer, and lit up a match, I still could not move.
The madness gleamed in all their eyes, resplendent with hate and fury and a delirious joy.
Then there was a fire and a drop of rain and a scream. It might have been mine, the scream.
And the rain fell heavily, a sign of God's will to help him. But the fire raged on, scattering flames into the air like a modern-day Elijah and the prophets of Baal.
His screams lanced through the air like a haunting song, joining the chants of the mob to form a harmony that foretold deadness.
That day, God's will met fiery madness and the madness did not bow because it was greater than even the Yeshua of God's name.
And I could not move even when Arinze, the boy for whom death had been a biding but constant thing, reformed into soot and ash and dust.
We were twenty-one.