FOR TODAY AND THOSE DAYS YOU WERE NOT HERE | NWABUISI KENNETH

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                    “When you prick a rainbow with a needle,
            What colour does it bleed?”
                                Dua Saleh

I
Now, as I write this, I can feel your ghostly stares hovering around me. I can feel the pungent smell from uncovered snipper bottles filling the air. I can feel tears, like cones of rainbows in the retina of my eyes.

On bent knees, I ask God, what color this rainbow bled.

Silence.

In the gloominess of my state, I open my wooden window, daylight shimmers through. I look outside, a bevy of birds fly majestically, circling the cloudy sky. A sign, I think.

II
Today, a day after my 24th birthday, I am preparing for a lecture, the last of its kind. I avoid the gripping hands of cold. Smelling of Eva soap dripping on my blue towel, I engage my mind with stuffs: about the flaking walls in my room that I intend repainting, about the wall calendar in my room that are now dog-eared, about your works and the works of many poets and writers at the writer’s community (TWC), Nsukka. It is typical of me to engage my mind each time I feel cold, as I rub my body of the cheap vaseline I use.

I shuffle my wardrobe; I know I have no new clothes. I rummage instead for the next-inline, I like picking the next cloth after the one I wore previously. I look at the next-inline, it is an ox-blood shirt and a turquoise blue pair of trouser. I don’t like today’s attire but I have to don them, they are the newest in my wardrobe and I have worn them one too many times. The privilege of wearing the new clothes supersedes the countless narratives many that less busy students have of them.

I throw a quick glance at myself and think my attire good. I always look good in everything I wear; they say my moderate body size and yellow skin sing of royalty, like the novelty show of royalty in Nollywood movies. I don’t have a watch, so no worries about picking up any, or think of wearing a perfume which I conclude is a luxury for many lecturers.

I put on a pair of old brown shoes which has holes underneath them. I clutch a notebook and some assignment papers, printed and bound for submission. Ready for departure, I shut the windows and turn off the light switch and sockets. I usually leave few hours to classes for me to occupy a comfortable seat in class. When I step out of my room, I lock my door and press the power-button to my phone, squinting my eyes to check the time: it is 7:50am. This last class was scheduled for 9am on WhatsApp group chat yesterday, to make up for lost times. I walk under the morning sun peeking out the sky, the breeze quivering the hairs on my body, forming darkly hues on my skin. The birds sing, I begin to acknowledge their buzzing orchestra from the dancing trees.

III
I meet you.
I think you are returning from a night class. I think you had an early morning lecture and now heading back to the hostel. But you can’t be going back to the hostel because I have already asked you and you said you stay off-camp.

Being a direct entry student, I am a year and few months old here, in my 300Level. And you are in your final year. I am glad you will be leaving school for good, very soon. I don’t know you already made plans to escape this caramel body of yours sooner than I expect.

IV
I first met you on the walkway, top-floor, Block B faculty of Arts building in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. The walkway, as it had always been, was flooded with bustling students. You located me, despite the crowd, despite the thin space paved only for lecturers to pass at varying intervals.

“Are you James? Do you write?” You asked.
I looked for words to answer you, because for you to ask me such question meant only one thing: you had already made a little effort, in your own part, towards knowing me. I was tongue-tied. Writing, for me then, was a sort of awakening I was going through.

“Yes, I’m James.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell you that I was still bogged, in my writing, by various ear-splitting vocabularies I learnt from the voluminous novels I read while I was in OSISATECH polytechnic, Enugu, the previous private school I attended before coming to UNN.

“Okay, James, you are still perfecting your craft, right?” You asked those rhetorical questions your brown eyeballs made certain was not meant to be answered.

“I am inviting you to TWC, a writer’s community here in school, I would love it if you be in attendance.” I wasn’t listening, I was still caught up with your full-lips twitching and your skin colour of wet loamy soil. I tightened my jaw to get my lips sealed. “The time is 12:00pm,” You announced.

“What time?” I asked, intending you to repeat all you had said. You didn’t flare-up like Johnny, my ill-tempered friend would each time I suggested he repeated whatever news he got about his admission status with the University of Ibadan.

“Okay.” You consented before you went on, repeating all you had said. When you were done, “It was nice to meet you, James.” You said and dashed out your right palm.

You were amazing, I never wanted this very introduction to end. I marveled at how fast and soldier-like your feet treaded as you disappeared into the crowd. This meeting, this sudden affinity you were able to establish with me, a stranger to you, amongst the roaring crowd, left in me an obvious linger for another talk.

V
I couldn’t explain what made me a member of TWC. Maybe it was how good your words sounded, perhaps it was the juicy poetry you and your fellow poets read that made me stay glued to the mold seat in the faculty of Arts quadrangle, every other Saturday, listening to words, like arrows floundering the air. It could be the dancing of the gmelina trees, the peeling of its leaves on the roof aloof our heads and the harsh afternoon sun, slanting in, painting my yellow skin a reddish hue.

Once, I walked up to you, after a certain Saturday, you were keen on exchanging numerous handshakes with some new members, who had a smug air hovering around them. When I ambled closer to you, you paused and dismissed others. “Hi,” I said.

“Hello, you later joined us?” Your eyebrows cornered.

I replied with a slight nod, ” Yes, but my kind of writing is different from what you guys read here. I write prose,” I said, my brows scrunched up.

“Every writer has his own style, besides prose writing is a heck of a job for me. So you can actually write prose?”

The same rhetoric, the same theatrics of your baritone voice.

“Do you think these your poems can be sung?” I asked.

“Yeah, Neil Armstrong. I love that guy, he sings poetry

I listened to you mention many lyrical poets I never dreamt of listening to. You dipped your palms into your trouser pocket and got out an earpiece, you fixed it over my ears. You were still saying something about loving the musician when your voice trailed off with a rising twang, spilling his creative lines. I felt peace, I felt like escaping with the birds chirping melodiously at one of the distant trees piled up in a hedge. Your lips cornered to a smile all through my listening to the music.

“Our literary evening is coming up soon, you should attend.” You said.

“Yeah, I will.”

I visited the community quite often but stopped at a time I realized we no longer got in touch more often.

The day I decided to impress you and Onyinyechi, a nerd looking girl in my class, I wrote a poem. Even though I knew you both were quite aware I wasn’t hypnotic in words to be a poet.

That day, the cooing birds flew and perched, listening with their beaky mouths as I read the shit of a poem I had written. After, the whole board went mute, like I introduced a new spirit, a new demon and a different tradition into their snappy poetic style.

“Read it again,” you stopped and continued, “house, should he read it again?” You wanted to avoid a squabble, the former was a sole appeal, I sensed it, even though no other person did, but the latter remained an appeal, to the house, on my behalf. I was about to go over the poem again when dark bearded Benson cut me short.

“No, he should not.” He ordered.

“I don’t think he should waste our time further.” Ernest cooed.

“This is fiction, this is not a poem, it’s too weak to be a poem,” One Chibuike, who’s surname I have forgotten, commented.

“Who do you read?” Benson inquired with an obvious creases of mockery drawn across his face. There was an uproar, I was beginning to get ashamed, not just by the annoying comments and demeanor over my cranky poem, but also by inviting strangers to talk about me and the fluffy piece I created to impress you.

“I read books from online.” I stuttered. From my pitch, it was evident I hadn’t written for the public to read and comment on.

“Wait, you haven’t written before?” Ernest enquired derogatorily.

Before I could reply, you said, “oh! You are still a baby.” Your words hit the annals of my heart and got it racing it couldn’t stop, if you knew the errant poem was made to impress you, I bet you would have known it hurt more than anything else, more than the uproar which later rose again, in the house, after your reply.

Then, there was Cheta, and his coaxing voice, “You guys should stop this, this is not so good, when one reads a work in this house, and it sounds bad to you, the best you can do is to comment when it’s tine, rather than making unnecessary noise.” I was consoled, his words had a decorum effect. Cheta’s words always commanded. Sometimes I wondered why he ever tried getting into the seminary, if he had succeeded, I envisaged pregnant Rev. Sisters and altar girls in a certain parish somewhere seeking for abortion in secreted hospitals.

The likes of arrogant Leo, Muna, Precious, gazed. They blinked when I wanted to match their gazes with mine. My buttocks got hot, at a point I felt it burning. Onyinye’s words led me all through the quadrangle to the school gate and we dispersed. It was also her words that led me through subsequent community meetings. Until the last Saturday night, which was the community’s discuss night.

VI
On the day of the discuss night, a fire was setup at the university primary school’s quadrangle, I arrived at 9:00pm. The made fire produced whorls of bluish smoke going up the dark sky. From a distance, it looked like the head of each member were left beside the smoldering fire as a sacrifice. My feet were cold, the sandals I wore had scavenged enough swampy spots, leaving brown patches of dirt around its soles. Your head was the only oval-looking shape I saw from a distance, others were square-shaped, few rectangular.

I sat beside Onyinyechi, she was the only person I found worthwhile since I resumed. I watched the hems of her skirt folded beneath her knees, she propped her legs into a bun and squeezed them innocently beside her, as if she was arranging a space for another to sit beside her. Onyinyechi had a touch of companionship and motherhood, every of her behaviour reminded me that she would be a perfect daughter for the likes of my strict Dad.

“James, are you here?” She asked.

“Yeah, Onyii.” I added and she replied with a nod as she drifted her eyes forward to listen to Benson, reading out the order of performances for the night. I watched as the fire at the center burnt the wood it was made with, and each wood would droop at varying intervals. You would stand, walking around as you tucked the remains of the wood into the furnace. You hit me on the leg, mistakenly? I didn’t know but before I could readjust my feet from yours, you were already apologizing, I said it was okay.

You walked to your initial position and sat down in the space between Chibuike and Ernest. Ernest’s legs were spread apart while Chibuike prodded his and left his palms on top of them; you were all on me. I sensed you intentionally stepped on my foot to draw my attention to you all through the night. Cheta’s spectacles had an immaculacy to them, he folded his arms as he was seated beside Leo and Leo’s oversized blue sweater made it obvious the weather was cold. I tapped Onyii and we giggled silently at a certain first year student, who was sprawled on the floor, snoring heavily like a pig.

Poetry is life, the night was already enveloped by the lively presentations of many poets, yours inclusive. I checked my watch, it was 3:00am. I felt a tap on my left shoulder, I turned, it was you leaning forward to whisper into my ears, “can we talk, for some minutes?”

You left, I waited for few seconds before I followed. Our shadows were cast on the flowers, I saw our reflection first and showed you, you grabbed my hand and dragged me down further to the dark, you breathed heavily that I felt a hot whoosh on my cold skin before you said, “I want you to burn the memories of this night so that when you wake up every morning, it is the only thing you would have to think about.”

I was about to ask you what you meant when a great form of anger gripped you, you stamped your feet hard on the floor, I wondered if the members heard them. You hissed in disgust. I stood at a spot, summoning courage to move towards you. I boldly held you by the hands and said, “what is wrong, my friend?” My voice was trembling, I felt a certain kind of cold grip me. This question stuck through your fuming rage, making your irregularly throbbing arteries relax. Your lips must have cornered the sides of your mouth because all I heard afterwards were your funny giggles.

“What is the worst thing that could happen to a man?” You asked, giggling.

“Love.” I replied, giggling for your giggles too. Maybe my replying the opposite to you might help ease this imminent pain.

“When you prick a rainbow, what colour does it bleed?” You went serious again, I was clueless about all these, yet you chose to disclose it. But that question rang a bell, I had read your work with Kalahari, the muse, Ngiga or was it praxis? I couldn’t remember, where you had asked such questions, you left me hanging and began speaking in low tones and hitting your legs again repeatedly. I cajoled you back to the community conference.

All through the night, when I looked across the fire to the spot you were seated, the fire in your eyes were gone. You looked empty and mute. I felt like I disappointed you, as if you needed a certain kind of comfort from me which I never understood.
The fire was slowly turning to ash and the remnant woods, charred. The cloud refused to romance the sky, every where was dark. Dark memories were what they were. Just memories.

VII
Today, asides those past days, I never knew you were partly here.

The busy second semester in UNN left me on my own. Though I had been seeing your write-ups making waves in the literary space and a couple of rejections too. I assumed you were okay, everyone thought you were pulling through until this day; a day like today, a day after my 24th birthday, when the sun shining from the east was blinding my left eye.

I met you.

At the path leading to the department, I thought you were returning from a night class because your bag was slung across your shoulder to your back and you walked in deliberate slowness, this was unlike you, I thought. I moved close to you and we exchanged a handshake, you weren’t smiling. When I wanted to leave your palms, you held it and tugged at it a little.

“Are you happy, James?” I couldn’t believe you sounded this way.

“Yes, I’m okay,” was the only answer I could make of your question, “but are you okay too? What is wrong?” I staggered back, looking at you, inquisitive.

You said with a tone of finality, “it’s nothing, I’m okay.” You left and waved at me. I waved back and wondered about the wave, the finality in your tone, as if it was a last kind of meeting. I never gave it so much thought, I walked to the lecture hall, which was the last for the semester.

I went to Ekpo-ref to print my course form. Ekpo-ref and its buzzing presence of hungry and noisy students. Computer appliances clattered around, generators droned the nooks and cranny of the uncompleted building as if they were having a sort of contest.

Returning to the department, I joined the queue at the last room by the right, was where the departmental office was situated. In the quiet composure of myself, I turned my phone’s data ON. Messages from WhatsApp group chat flooded in, alongside friend requests and notifications from Facebook. Sliding through my screen, I realized many students pasted gifs and images, mimicking and mocking a lecturer in class.

Hahahaha, this man wan use style tell us say they no dey pay them well? Son of the sun, wrote.

Then another, Mara: Na 10k he wan use feed him family?

Next was an emoji, then stickers and all forms of messages flooded in. Then, there was a pause, as a result of network fluctuations; after some minutes, news started describing you:
Ona anoro onwe ya, one typed.
I know this boy well ooo, he’s from my village, chai.

What is the meaning of this rubbish?

I didn’t get the gist properly, words combined in a flurry were just flowing. They said you uncorked and downed two damn snipper bottles, I couldn’t believe it. Somebody wrote a hate speech about what you did few hours ago. I churned it over, that was an hour after we met.

VIII
Still in the queue, I looked up the sky, I saw the birds circling around each other, this time they flew slowly, as though their feathers were clipped, they clustered the sky, they weren’t chirping. I felt dark. Other students were murmuring things like: “Is it not someone who doesn’t have a purpose in life that thinks of suicide?”

“That boy is a fool.”

I got mad, I wanted to shush them, knowing fully well it would cause a scuffle. But later, I concluded otherwise, thinking you would pull through, because according to the report, you were being rushed to the school clinic. I dragged my feet until it was my turn to enter for manual course registration.

After I was done with the registration and another feet of students swooped past me in a hurry, I looked for Onyinyechi, she was nowhere to be found, I left. When I returned, I pulled off my shirt and was so much in a hurry to turn ON my data again. I followed the news from there, Ernest, Chibuike, Stanley and some lecturers had carried you from the school clinic and to a huge hospital in Enugu. The school clinic didn’t have enough medical appliances to wash off the poison from your system.

The afternoon heat turned to an evening of frost; I couldn’t concentrate. Every update proved you were still here, surviving. I went to your profile on Facebook, the only words there were of your friends, coming to marvel at your notes, such creative lines you were able to pull together even as you contemplated your departure.

On the comments section, some people wrote:

Whoever is close to this guy should reach him.

What is happening to him?

He is always seeking attention.
What would make someone want to do this?

Otosirieze obi young, please reach out for this boy.

I began to envisage Otosirieze Obi young’s tall gait, scooping you by his palms, his aquiline nostrils quivering to the putrefying odour of snipper and undigested food particles and saliva dripping from the corners of your mouth.
I scrolled with tears dripping my eyes. I felt I should cry my eyes out to maintain a perfect body temperature to the frosty evening, it was then that Stanley wrote: Let’s pray for Akachi, he is presently taking medication. He dropped.

My tears were doing it right up until 8:15pm.

Stanley wrote finally: Akachi, gave up! It came alongside crying emojis.

I ceased.

My pillow became a rivulet.

A day later, Jo Nketiah wrote you this:

What is the essence of saying more words since the last one I said couldn’t save you…

NWABUISI KENNETH feeds on fiction. He reads and writes from Nsukka, a small town in Enugu state. His works have appeared and are forthcoming on Brittlepaper, Kalahari review, African writer, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA reviews 2021), Libretto Magazine and elsewhere.

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