Illustration by Pedro Gomes

Back then, if you’d asked Gold what she wanted the most in life, she’d have started here: as a kid, it was three things: 1) for the frightening chatterscream in her skull to stop every time she looked at the mirror, 2) for her body to make sense, and 3) to keep being her mother’s daughter. But as an adult? Just one of those. More than anything in the world, number three. 

She already had one and two on most days. Imagine. Three too, to be fair—but anxiety still rolled out of her over it, speeding off like tired thread. A wish is fear becoming hope, you see? And Gold was born with pre-installed fear. She was still learning how to transmute it, so she kept the third wish alive for emergencies, for just in case my mother turns her back too. The doubt wasn’t personal, because Gold’s mother had showed her faithfulness over years. Gold was only still here, alive, because she had a mother who asked: what do you want for yourself, my child? and listened after all. A mother who saw how un-at-home Gold was in her old body, asked, what is your real name? and then believed Gold immediately. Life is different with a parent who listens and believes; a parent who welcomes you well when you take yourself home to meet her for the first time; who lets a dead name go quietly into the ground.

Some people want sex. Some people want girlfriends and/or boyfriends who will hold their hands in public. Some people want to be chosen by someone. Some want to feel anchored in the world. But Gold had no memory of ever caring about being claimed or wanted in that way; she just wanted to remain herself. She wanted to be legible and loved in that reading, without being asked for her body or her hand in return. That could be enough for her. It could be sufficient for a life.

Well, she’s a genie, that woman—Gold’s mother. And sure, Gold was lucky to have been born to someone who swore up and down never to let her children hold damnation in their bodies if she ever had any; but Gold’s mother was more than a good person. She was a fighter; the right kind to take to war with the world. To grant Gold’s wishes, she’d sweated out of her pockets, touched her head to the ground, and looked up quietly at God in surrender. God took a deep breath at what went unuttered between them and nodded. She made all the calls possible. She found the right everything. After the operation, she stood at the shore of Gold’s finally body and said, “Welcome my daughter. How are you?” There was still anesthesia moving through Gold in waves, but she cried so hard on her mother’s lap she had to be warned by the doctor to calm down. It was that word: daughter. That word said for the first time, from her mother’s mouth, in a hospital. It made her feel born again; born correctly. 

Days later, when they were home, Gold tried to say sorry. “For what?” her mother asked, dusting the table by the television. When Gold’s mother did not hear anything back, she knew exactly what words were stuck, what questions Gold would ask if she could find the words. Why didn’t you get angry? Why didn’t you withdraw your love? Why didn’t you act like one of them? Gold’s mother sat down, lifted Gold’s feet into her lap, and said, “because you know you more than I know you. You came through me, sure, you were in my body once, yes, but you are not me and I’m not you. Na only you and God get you, shey you get? So it’s only you that can tell me who you are. You’ve told me and I accept.” 

Gold opened her mouth to say something, but just smiled instead. 

“Who you are here,” her mother said, tapping her own chest with a flat palm, “is who I love.”   

It wasn’t that Gold’s mother couldn’t see how other parents behaved, it’s not that she didn’t know she’d be deemed right and righteous if she’d done the opposite, if she had broken Gold’s spirit trying to get her to fit in, trying to get her to stand in line. It’s not that she couldn’t see why people chose that—courage had its costs; there were consequences for standing up or standing out; most people cared more about how they were judged than if they were well. Plus, it was Nigeria after all—people had their necks broken for ruining the aesthetics all the time. Gold’s mother didn’t tell Gold how once, an old friend had called her to the side to say, “You can’t allow everything, this is going too far, this is not who you gave birth to. Sometimes with these children, you have to put your foot down!” Those words had hurt more than a fresh wound in new skin, but Gold’s mother closed that friendship quietly. People put their foot down all the time without first checking if someone else is there. She explained other things to Gold instead, how it was a choice really, how it’s the violence (regular as it is in the world) not the love that should be strange, how adults break their own spirits all the time just to do what someone else said is the right thing, yes, but who is anyone to determine what someone else is? 

“Everybody meets a critical junction at least once. You get to choose who you want to be. Do you want to belong, or do you want to be you? Do you want a child, or do you want a robot? Do you want the safety of your family, or do you want the approval of society? Do you want to listen, or do you want to shout? Do you want to know it all, or do you want to learn? We’re always choosing.”

Gold’s mother’s choices were clear. But Gold still had nightmares of her mother pressing rewind, eating that saving word whole like a small, ripe fruit and refusing to ever utter it again. Not because of her own heart, but because the country was brutal like that; because it could make a bully out of anyone; because not many people can wrestle Nigeria and win; because sometimes, your safe life is the odd thing out.

That night, Gold couldn’t sleep, so she texted her best friend F about it: 

What’s wrong with me? 

Why am I crying bcos my mom loves me? Bcos she didn’t disown me? 

Won’t someone normal just be relieved by this? 

Why am I still waiting for the other shoe to drop? 

It took fives minutes for F to respond:

Bcuz you’re Nigerian bbs. 

Bcuz you know a different mother might not have. 

Bcuz it’s rare here.

Bcuz being at home is not the same as being safe, period. 

!!!

Facts.

But it shouldn’t be rare. 

Us being loved shouldn’t be rare. 

What you felt today is how it should be.

Gold balanced her phone on the edge of the sink and washed her face before looking up at herself in the mirror.  Shouldn’t be rare, she repeated in her mind. It shouldn’t be rare.

*

Whenever people misread Gold on purpose, Gold’s mother shamed them loudly and called them bloody illiterates. She meant it, too. She slapped a man in the market once for calling Gold an unacceptable name. There was a pepper-spray time, because loving your body doesn’t mean other people won’t give you hell for it. When Gold and her mother strolled together in the streets hand in hand, running errands for their home, and people commented on how beautiful Gold was, Gold’s mother was quick to say she comes from me, and for Gold it had never felt better to belong somewhere. 

Sure, the world outside was colorful and bright, but none of it mattered to Gold as much as moments at home with her mother did, both watching MNet and African Magic films and then giving each other Nollywood makeovers. For Mother’s Day one year, Gold dressed her mother up like one of the cultists from Isakaba Part 2 and her mother gave her Eucharia Anunobi eyebrows with a red pencil they bought from the market. They laughed so hard they both ended up in stitches. “Stop, stop abeg,” Gold’s mother had to say. “No come kill me with laugh.”

That day in 2014 when The Bill was passed was one of those again. A good day with good air. They were doing each other’s nails in the living room when Gold’s mother asked Gold to change the TV to NTA for the evening news. “You know I can’t see the remote,” she said, inclining in her chair. She had three pink toenails already. “These my eyes…It’s like they’re getting worse.”

Gold did it gladly.

When she reached channel 252, the news didn’t wait. It kicked Gold in the chest, pulled the veil down, finding things out. They froze as the reporter said the word illegal, as he shared the sentence: fourteen years in prison. She heard unAfrican. She heard Same Sex. She heard crossdressers. Gold saw the country backflip three times and her eyes went insane. Already, she could feel every bloody illiterate’s hands in her hair, she could hear their hunger and hunting. She knew that a law like this would only make them bolder in the streets. The news was calling them correct; this was pure vim for their hands. Already, they built their lives on hating all the Golds in the world, didn’t they? This was fuel for them. The thought of this—of herself, of her friends being in more danger than usual—closed her body completely. It jammed her in the lock, made her inoperative. She tried to talk but her words were caught in her throat, stuck stuck stuck and she started to heave, which meant panic, which threw her mother into a rage. 

When Gold’s mother got angry, real-life paused and went dead quiet, then a ringing sound started in her ear, righteous like close-of-church. She moved ghostly towards the remote, her daughter a heap on the floor, then she turned off the television. LG, the TV said, obedient, going black. Life Is Good. 

This country, Gold’s mother thought. This country. This country. She didn’t know what to feel. She didn’t need to see it to know: outside, something was starting. The sun had slipped out and the law was standing in its place in the sky, beating its chest and roaring. What felt like a full minute passed. Gold could see her mother’s outline from the floor, moving close, shaking her head; and then she couldn’t see a thing. Gold’s mother leaned over her. 

“They’re coming for me,” Gold managed, finally. “Mummy they’re coming for me.” 

“Baby. Look at me, look at me.” She held Gold’s face in her hands. “If they don’t call you by your name, don’t answer. You’re not what they’re saying you are, do you hear me? You are Gold. Are you not the one that named yourself? Were you not correct?”

Her voice was pulling Gold out of the strange water she was stuck in. It was so thick inside there. But Gold’s mother had divine hands, and their combined strength was infinite. “Baby?”

Gold found her eyes and turned them to her mother. “Mummy,” she said. And the words went somewhere with no coordinates.

“Keep your eyes open,” Gold’s mother said, smoothing the back of her hand over Gold’s cheek. She sighed and talked to herself first under her breath. God held a curious ear open. “Look, before they get to you they’ll have to kill your mother first, do you hear me? They will have to murder me before they can find you.” 

Her voice was a lake of calm. She knew where the fright was coming from and she was speaking directly to its source, she was staring it down while she spoke. Sure, maybe she wasn’t that tall, and maybe she was just one person to their many, but they were going to hear her by force. She wasn’t raised by a soldier for no reason. Her father had taught her to stare at fear in the eye because you had a better chance of surprising it that way, you had a better chance of tricking it into blinking first. So, her eyes were swear-to-God serious. “I hope you understand what I’m telling you, love. If you will die young because the country is mad then to God, may I die the second before you. May the ground open up and swallow me, because I will not bury my child. Do you understand? I won’t.” 

The country shuddered and Gold heaved, finding her head in her mother’s sturdy voice. “This is our country too,” her mother continued, reaching for a bottle of water. “That news doesn’t apply to you. Nobody can do you anything in this country, do you hear me? Your mother is not a pushover. Your mother is not a gentlelady. When it comes to you, your mother is an animal. A lion, do you hear me? Your mother hunts back.” 

Gold broke a sob to lean forward to drink. Her mother held her head up. “Thank you, my love,” she said. “That’s all you have to do for me. Just drink water and be okay. That’s all.”

Gold nodded, her brain returning right-side up. She felt it then: the third wish come true. Fear turning into hope into having. A wish dissolving, a thin thread running back in rewind. It was forever, this thing. Her mother was swearing forever. 

“Drink more,” she told Gold. 

The nowhere Gold was stuck in thinned and cleared enough for her to see again. She was looking at a mother who would choose her over the world without blinking. Without ceremony, without need for praise. 

Wasn’t this what it meant to be blessed? To be loved and seen and accepted?

“Mummy,” Gold said, still stabilizing.

“I’m here, Gold. Your mummy is here. Touch me. No be me be dis? I’m here. Where I dey go?”

“Mummy,” Gold said, tears rising, her eyes sinking. 

Her mother smiled, seeing the thank you Gold was too tired to say. “Abeg abeg,” she said. “Don’t mind all these hypocrites. If it gets too hot here, we’ll find somewhere else to feel at home. You know it’s what you need that me I do. If Naija no gree, then many countries dey.”

Gold chuckled weakly. It was true what F told her another time: In a place where people threw their kids away all the time just for existing, a parent who loved you because you were you could sometimes look and feel like God. “But remember,” F had said, “that even when their love feels divine, they’re not God. They’re your parent. It’s okay if you still don’t know what that means. I don’t either, because I mean, you know how my story goes. We don’t have many examples. But what is life for, if not figuring it out, abi?”

They had been in F’s bed, lying on their backs, listening to rain beat the aluminum roof. Gold, not knowing what to say, had reached for F’s hand.

F’s voice shook when she spoke next. “Your mum is showing you what else is possible. And even me I’m learning from her. But everything still comes back to us. Whether we will receive that love or not depends on us; it depends on whether we think we deserve it or not. No one can decide that part for anyone else, d’you get? It has to be you. It has to be us.”

Sometimes, a statement is a question, is a chance, is a fork in the road. So, when Gold’s mother asked, “Ehehn. Oya tell me jare. What color for your nails?” Gold paused for a moment before she said, with all the voice she could muster, “Red.”

Eloghosa Osunde

Eloghosa Osunde is a Nigerian writer and visual artist. An alumna of the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop (2015), the Caine Prize Workshop (2018) and the filmmaking and screenwriting programs at New York Film Academy, her short stories have been longlisted for the 2017 Writivism Short Story Prize and published in Paris Review, Catapult, and Berlin Quarterly. Eloghosa was awarded a 2017 Miles Morland Scholarship and is a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow. Her debut work of fiction, VAGABONDS! will be published by Riverhead Books in 2021.

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