Adaptation [Part II]
The Space between Emotions
This is the second and final part of Adaptation. If you haven’t already, please spare some time to check out part one here, thanks. :)
She starts towards him as he walks, thinks of calling out to him, but decides against it.
And as her figure sways in a trail behind him, the occasional after-rain breeze floating the sidewalk, she wonders what she’d do if he turned and found her, but decides it doesn’t matter.
And after some time, they’re both seated in the library at a good distance opposite each other. As the evening edges by, she steals quiet glances at him, wondering whether or not to speak to him.
It continues like this for days, until she naturally warms her way into his line of sight. They become familiar with each other’s presence in the library, almost regarding it as a quiet, important component of their everyday.
And between their shared silence and half gazes, something squeezes its way and sparks a warmness between them. With time, that warmness eases gently into a mosaic forged on a type of distant familiarity.
Days after a brief heat period disappeared, a new harmattan season arrived on a December evening.
That day a faulty wiring caused a fire outbreak in the ceiling of the second floor. The fire spread through the ceiling to the cables within the walls. And as everyone made their way out the library, smoke drifting in heavy clouds, they heard the voice of a woman trapped in a room on the second floor.
The fire fighters showed up, put out the fire and retrieved her. Her eyes were red and wet from smoke; she sat in the backseat of the fire truck, coughing and spitting into a damp towel.
After a while, everyone began dispersing in small groups, with Ify, Austin and a library staff forming one.
They were walking underneath a stretch of palm trees. The path was tarred and bordered by a continuous line of concrete bricks punctuated around the edges by patches of half-withered grass.
The staff took a turn to the left just before they reached a curved path.
“Take care, be safe,” she said to them.
Austin and Ify nodded, thanked her, continued their walk in silence.
When they reached a split road, with one leading to the girls’ dormitory and the other to the boys’, Ify turned to Austin, “take care, be safe,” she said to him.
He said the same.
He watched her go, her turtle-neck top tucked tightly into her flayed cotton skirt, her hair collected in a tight upward position.
As her image dwindled into the distance, he watched the tip of her skirt sway to the rhythm of a slight breeze. At that moment, he thought of butterflies and windy afternoons. He thought of a thing whose beauty rested in its harmony, in its merging of parts to form a whole.
It’s two days after the fire.
Austin’s grating tomato and pepper on a small kitchen table. Arranged neatly on one corner are small plates containing sliced onions, garlic and nutmeg. Two pots sit side by side to the left. The larger one is fuming from boiling spaghetti, the other from beef.
He grates the tomato and pepper into a granular paste, then collects the spaghetti into a basket. As the gas from the stove begins to fill the room, he slides open the curtains and then turns up the volume of the radio when Fela Kuti’s lady begins to play.
He returns to the kitchen table, and by the time he’s done cooking, Mike Okri’s time na money is concluding on the radio.
He grabs a plate, turns three and half spoons of spaghetti in it and sprinkles a little stew on top.
A knock comes on the door. He opens, finds Ify by the corridor. Her hair is as before, tight and collected in an upward position.
“Hi, you…does this belong to you?” she hands him a hardcover text book. “I found it on your desk when I went back to get my stuff.”
Austin thanks her. “Would you like to come in?” he asks, “I made spaghetti.”
They’re both seated at a small table.
Ify takes a forkful of spaghetti, begins to twirl it until more strands are caught in a ball.
“This is nice,” she says.
Austin smiles, nods.
He goes to the window. It’s a typical harmattan morning — cold, dry, melancholic. From a small crate on the floor, he retrieves two bottles of Limca, hands one to Ify.
“Why do you have a garden in your room?” she asks, peering through its netted gauze.
“For butterflies,” Austin says.
“I like to raise butterflies. They like to grow on the branches of plants.”
“Can I touch them?”
He undoes a series of knots at the edges until one face of the garden comes off. With his right hand, he begins to rummage through the base, until he recovers a handful of dead butterflies, then proceeds to lay each of them in the wooden container.
“They’re dying,” he says to her, “something’s killing them.”
It’s past midnight and he’s dreaming of butterflies.
He’s watching from his bed as a swarm of them emerge from the ceiling. They’re floating the room in a constant stream, colliding with each other, and as they do, some of them begin to drop to the floor as their wings fall off. After a while, they all drop to the floor. The air grows clear and the ground fills with dead butterflies.
Austin awakes and goes to the window. A strong wind rages, carrying snatches of tree branches bending and stretching in the cold breeze.
As the night begins to quiet down, he starts towards the bed, but stops halfway on hearing from afar, the dying embers of an owl’s call as it leaves the male dormitory. He returns to the window and continues to listen to the lingering blend of harmattan, bird and night.
And not too long, an owl arrives and settles on a cloth line in the female dormitory. And as the wind rises and falls, the owl slips calls too that fall and rise in interludes.
Ify awakes and goes over to the window. The owl flies away. And after a while, Austin hears the faint sounds of an owl approaching the male dormitory. He’s not sure if it’s the one he’d heard before, but remains by the window, listening to the bird as it conveys back and forth, hints of dreams and secret wishes, as they bleed and flow into the night.
Before she returns to bed, Ify opens her purse and recovers a matchbox. She opens it halfway, feels with the tip of her index finger, the soft contours of a butterfly’s belly, then shuts it and goes to bed.
“I was eleven when I first ran away from home,” Ify says to Austin.
They’re alone at the school theatre, their voices travelling in dull thuds about the semi-circle of the place.
“I remember it clearly,” she continues, “I packed a micky mouse back pack full of little things: pen and paper, hair combs, four packs of Nasco biscuits and short cake, things like that. I even stole money from my mother’s purse. I was leaving and never coming back, who cared if she’d be mad about a few missing bucks? So I jumped into a bus and just sat there. It felt quite strange, sitting there, watching the comings and goings of passengers, and not having any destination in mind. When the bus reached its final stop, I alighted and tried to get on a train. But you see, the ticket man was a real hard ass. ‘Why are you travelling alone?’ ‘Where are your parents?’ ‘Do you have a passport?’ There I was, eleven years old and completely ignorant of railway travel. My head was swimming from all the questions, and before I knew it, I was in tears.
“And as I turned to walk away, one man called my name from behind. Startled, I turned, but did not recognize him. He mentioned my father’s name, said they used to be classmates. ‘Come, are you hungry?’ he asked. I stared blankly for a while, but followed him to a nearby restaurant. After eating, we both got on a bus back home.”
She stares into space a while, then turns to Austin.
“So you see, my first attempt at running away was a total disaster.”
“I agree,” Austin says, “what did your mother do about the missing money?”
“To my surprise, she didn’t notice. At least she didn’t mention it. She wasn’t even mad I’d tried to run away. She wasn’t moved, and that made me angry. So I planned another escape, this time I made sure to avoid stupid train stations. Four months later, I left home for good. I took an out-of state-bus to Port Harcourt. And after sleeping in kiosks for some days, I followed a woman to an orphanage.”
She takes another pause. “So I guess in a sense, you could say I killed my mother.”
Austin takes off his glasses and dabs his eyes with the edge of a handkerchief.
“Are you crying?” Ify asks.
He snickers, shakes his head.
They go out the sidewalk. The sun is slowly sinking in the west, casting warm, sparse shadows of a group of melina trees. They walk in silence as a slow breeze rustles lazy leaves, their dry surfaces screeching against the asphalt.
Austin glances to his right at Ify. She’s wearing a short, sleeveless gown and tennis shoes. Her hair is packed in the usual position. Her slender arm appears to him devoid of hair.
They reach an orthogonal main road. And as they stand and watch, they can hear the hollow sounds of the wind squeezing through the traffic noise. It feels to Austin like that hollow wind is digging into him. A chill runs through him and he can feel that wind coursing, mingling in his bloodstream, changing directions here and there, until it finally settles in a small corner of his heart.
And so he’s standing there, hollow space in heart. What he does not know, is that he stands right now at the threshold between two possible outcomes. That that space in his heart is the chasm between a life of loneliness, and one where such things have no meaning.
And as the traffic clears, they both cross the main road to the sidewalk on the other end.
It’s past seven in the evening when they reach Austin’s room. And as they settle in its warmth, Ify, standing and resting her back against the wall, her arms folded in front of her, says: “Tell me, Austin, with everything I told you earlier about running away, do you think I’m broken?”
Austin stares at her, then into space a while, before attempting a response.
“I think everyone is broken in their own way,” he says to her.
“I think that’s total bullshit,” Ify says.
“But it’s true.”
Ify shakes her head. “Tell me, Austin, what do you know about pain?”
A knock comes on the door, they both ignore it. And after a while, the knocking stops and a white envelop slips underneath the door.
Austin picks it up, starts to unfold it, but stops halfway.
“The mail guys are fucking idiots,” he says, tracing the linings of the envelop stamp with his right thumb.
“What are you talking about?”
“This letter’s from my mother,” he says, “she sent it six months ago.”
“She died two months ago,” Austin says, sitting on the floor.
Ify joins him, her right hand over his shoulders.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Austin.”
A long silence runs between them.
“Do you want to read it now?”
Austin shakes his head. Silence returns. Their breaths mingle in the warmth of the room. And in that warmth, their heartbeats unleash pulses that course through their time and space, moves back and forth between them, and for a moment there, in the deep recesses of their minds, it feels to them like they can be okay after all.
“Hey, I just had a bright idea,” Austin says.
“Let’s go to one of those reggae bars downtown. How about that?”
Ify beams. “Ya man! We can listen to Bob Marley and smoke weed all night, man.”
They both laugh, head outside.
“We’re going to get lost,” Ify says, “you sure we’re in the right street?”
“It has to be around here somewhere. Aha! There!”
“That’s an arcade,” Ify says.
“Oh…how about a little mario?”
“I want to smoke weed, man,” Ify says.
“Stop doing that.”
“Let’s follow those guys over there,” Austin says, “they look like stoners.”
“They could be kidnappers.”
“Or stoners,” Austin says.
“Those aren’t mutually exclusive qualities.”
An hour later, they find a reggae bar downtown. As they approach the counter, the waiter says to Austin: “Does your girlfriend know she looks like Sade Adu?”
Ify smiles. The man serves them drinks on the house. A little while later, he offers them weed on the house. And sure enough, between the drinking and the smoking, Bob Marley’s is this love comes on. And as it plays, Ify picks her skirt by its tip; she and Austin, locking arm in arm, proceed to have the most awful dance of the night.
It’s the eve of Christmas.
They’re walking underneath the same stretch of palm trees. A silver moon is in the sky, its light trickling down the line of concrete bricks.
They stop as they reach the split road.
“Can we sit over there a little?” Ify says, pointing to a large mass of rock underneath a moringa tree.
“Look at us,” she says, “it’s the eve of Christmas and we have no place to go.”
“A day in the lives of two orphans,” Austin says.
A wasp comes buzzing in front of him, he claps at it, but misses. The wasp goes away, returns a little later; Ify claps and kills it.
“I stole one of your butterflies,” she says.
“I know,” returns Austin, “they were 40 before you visited.”
“It seems a little crazy, but when I held that butterfly for the first time, I felt deep in my heart like I understood it, like I knew exactly what it was feeling. I mean, I know it was dead, but it was like it was reaching out to me, telling me its story. Do you see what I mean?”
Austin shakes his head. “I’m not sure,” he says.
“My sister killed herself ten years ago. When I saw her, I felt sad, really sad, but deep down, I understood. Deep down I understood on a basic level her need for suicide. Not everyone has to go on suffering, you know? Some of us are okay beating against the tide every day, struggling, adjusting. But some of us decide it’s not worth it. You see what I mean now?”
Austin nods. “I think I do.”
“What if it’s the same with your butterflies?” Ify continues, “what if they figured living wasn’t worth the hassle?”
They go quiet for a while, she leans against his shoulders. “I think I love you,” she says.
“Well I’ve never loved anyone before, I can’t be sure yet.”
“Can we go inside now?” Ify says.
They’re in Austin’s room. He dims the light and pulls her to himself, her chest to his chest. The friction sparks a warmth that begins to burn between them. Their hearts racing, their pulses interfere and reach the brink of cancelling out. He kisses her, she returns it. They unclothe each other and fall to the mattress. She’s wrapped in his arms until he too is wrapped in her arms, their sweat trickling down their skins unto the sheets. When he enters her, she shudders, and then he shudders too. Their bodies merged, they continue to convey back and forth, a blend of tremor and emotions, until the force ruptures from within them — and then they fall asleep.
It’s New Year’s Eve.
They arrive at the cemetery where Ify’s sister’s buried. Scattered here and there amid the graves are discontinuous patches of tall, dry grass. With a torchlight, they begin to search gravestones, until they find one marked:
Here lies Adaora, gentle and sweet. (1964–1979)
They allow silence go over them. And after some time, Ify turns to Austin.
“I heard you that night,” she says.
“The day of the last rain,” she says, “I was on the other side of the zinc partition.”
“You heard my conversation with the old woman?”
Ify nods. “Why are you afraid of losing yourself?”
“It’s hard to explain,” he begins, “but ever since I was a child, I’d been deeply attached to my mother. She taught me everything I know. I guess I’ve always felt that if she was gone, I’d be alone. I’d lose my sense of direction, until I wouldn’t be able to find my way back.”
They hold hands as a silence runs between them. And together, they listen to the sound of birds chirping from afar and the bustling noise of town dwellers awaiting the New Year.
“Do you love me?” Ify asks.
“I think I do.”
She smiles. “That’s okay, you know? I think that’s all we need. I think we can be okay.”
They walk to a stream running parallel to the cemetery. Stooping low, they begin gathering pebbles by the edge. When they gather one-hundred of them, they proceed to tossing them back into the stream one after the other.
What they don’t know is that back in Austin’s room, one butterfly is flapping its wings. It’s drifting quietly within the confines of the garden, waiting to be set free.
But here’s what they know: it’s 1989. They’re standing at the edge of time and stream. They’re lost in the world and in each other. They’ve both had their worlds broken, the debris drifting for a long time through time and space. And when they did not expect it, those debris settled into each other, slowly merging, until a new type of shape formed from them. And even now, they can see the cracks and linings engraved in that shape, but they know it’s okay.
And as they stand there, they hear from afar, church bells and town dwellers as they announce the arrival of a new year. Austin glances at his wrist watch.
It’s 12:00 am. It’s 1990.
Thanks for reading, and happy New Year!