The wind blowing through empty parking lots at schools, the market women digging their teeth into the last strip of sugar from drool-drenched sheets of gum, the cars roaring here and there, from place to place, the people in it moving, too, with remarkable and unremarkable purpose; then there was the sound of Scholastica’s voice: “All I hear in this city is unusual noises. Do you hear it too, my favorite boy?”
In December 1995, I was told by my aunty Scholastica that Lagos, Nigeria, was a city tight with unusual noises. Her voice was urgent when she said this, and she leaned forward into my face as if for an inspection.
Scholastica was a recurring feature of my childhood. She stood out in Lagos, not for her beauty but for her lack of it. She had eyes the size of walnuts, a small, comfortable nose, and a forehead that was always obstructed with rumpled worry lines whenever she spoke about all the voices she heard in this city that could never quite contain itself.
Father did not offer much about Scholastica other than that they were from the same village, yet not related by blood. He had known her husband for years, went to the same community college in the ’70s; a man of whom not much was spoken, either, despite the strong sense of comradeship that existed between them, like war veterans who preserved their private experiences, eternally indebted to one another. And so, every year, he made room for his wife, Scholastica, and her obsession with fashion.
I called her “Aunty” with the ease and warmth of a child who regarded anyone older as aunty or uncle—the world, nothing more than a gathering of familiar strangers, and respect, a thing that was performed with moral duty. But in my mind, she was also Stylish Scholar, whose right arm was always corralled by big, gold-toned bangles that chimed as she stirred things on the stove, and wore jewelry of many colors. Her favorite was a pair of white cowry earrings, the shape of a child’s milk tooth. She didn’t know this, but oftentimes I’d find her caressing them with the tip of her callused fingers, transfixed by her thoughts, one of her legs suspended on the red leather couch.
At the beginning of December, when families like mine were preparing for the Christmas holidays, Scholastica traveled from Owerri, a sprawling city in the heart of Igboland in eastern Nigeria, to Lagos, where I lived with Father, to purchase goods for the clothing boutique she owned on Ikenegbu Layout. She said it was best to come early, before the shelves in the shops were emptied. After all, Lagos had the finest materials, imported straight from Turkey, China, Italy, and even Aba, the nerve center of Nigeria’s textile industry. Lagos was the city in which things happened—where, with patience and bountiful time on your hands, a trained eye for good garments and deals, and the right dose of luck, a slice of magic was always within your reach.
Too busy at the printing press he managed, Father left me in her care on hot afternoons. I would become a writer one day, wouldn’t I, she asked one evening. We were on the veranda, looking over Lugard Avenue. Ikoyi was still serene then, free of the towering skyscrapers that harbor offices and expatriates-filled luxury condos, which have brought an alarming beehive of commercial activities to the highbrow, residential neighborhood. I wasn’t thinking about the future when she asked this question—the future still a lifetime away, unblemished, and out of reach for my young mind—so I answered with no show of fear, my face open and facing hers: I want to be the president, and a doctor, and a writer, and a general. She laughed, making music with her bangles as she spread out her arms. I entered into it, resting my cheek against the cold plate of her metallic necklace. She said it didn’t matter what I became, but it mattered who I was. Feeling that I had to say something in return, I asked if it was the same for her, if she always knew she wanted to buy and sell clothes. “It’s more than buying and selling,” she said. She understood clothes in a way that I was yet to confront; there was a singularity and utility to them. Whenever she dressed up for the day, she felt the most powerful, the most unafraid—as though whatever she put on was not necessarily a new skin but an armor, without which she felt exposed, undone, insignificant. Years later, I would think of this particular afternoon and how little I understood what she meant—exposed, undone, insignificant. But she had held me tightly with one hand, and when I tore myself from her embrace, the skin around her eyes looked like a cold sweat had overcome it.
Around every Christmas in my childhood, on a day in the third week of December and before the morning matured, Father, Scholastica, and I would load the car with bags of clothes and bread and set off to the village in Owerri, about six hundred kilometers from Lagos.
Before then, Scholastica would spend evenings with the shop owners in our estate, trading stories with women who sat on small, wooden stools outside salons on those tangy-hot afternoons, passing strands of long Darling Yaki hair extensions to hairdressers, their heads bowed as if in worship. She would sit for hours, losing and finding herself in the stories these women surrendered to her.
During the day, she joined eager shoppers from all around Nigeria to push through the city’s pulsing markets in search for the right bargain, only to be met with a reminder that it is Christmas, after all, a season when Nigerians generally anticipate an increase in prices. Brushing the shoulders of other shoppers and dusting off the inviting clutches of desperate sellers, they would chuckle nervously—around them, a sea of noises, which Scholastica would gather inside of her, eager to bring back home to me. In these markets, people were fueled by nothing more than the sun—their walk brisk with determined purpose—and the pursuit of the giddying frenzy of Christmas shopping. Heavy yards of waxed prints, gaudy jewelry from China and Aba, shoes with the screaming sheen of cheap leather all branded as imported: Gucci (commonly spelled Guccu), D&G (commonly spelled D&J), and so on; the market for them as robust as the one for rice and beans. The people hold onto their bags and goods with alerted saintliness as they maneuvered through every space, turn, and corner. If you were not careful, the fables cautioned, anything could be stolen from you during the festive season, even your private parts.
Every time she returned from the markets, she built a small mound on the living room floor with the secondhand clothes she purchased. She would tell me about her bargain, sometimes so overwhelmed by her luck that she would swoop an arm full of the clothes, stretch them out toward my direction, and release them. Her joy was palpable, infectious, and transcendental, like the biblical, still waters.
As the years passed, the mounds grew in size, as did Father’s concern. He was worried she was spending too much and barely turning over. But Scholastica remained extravagant, hopeful in whatever promise her purchases carried. The business was slow to move, which meant that items often went unsold. Still, there was a way she looked at me—her bent head revealing a gathering of white hairs—that made me hopeful too, convinced that these clothes and shoes and bags wouldn’t spend a lifetime gathering dust in that small boutique she had named St. Scholastica.
Scholastica always said that Lagos moved in sounds, a cyclical current of voices and moods and behaviors. She said this with a severe face—a look that was feral and aimed at revealing only concern. Inside these sounds, she’d said, people’s lives either became richer than what they usually were, like fruits ripened by good weather, or fell flat, like dry leaves. Whenever she visited, she expressed a labored excitement about the city, which made me feel an added layer of excitement, too, as though I was on the verge of experiencing a rebirth. Christmas was special for many reasons if you were an eight-year-old Nigerian boy in a Christian home. Two new sets of clothes—one to be worn to the Christmas morning service, the other on the first of the following month for New Years’ service—and some of your favorite foods, namely jollof rice and fried turkey, heaped on stainless plates. “Can you hear that? Can you hear that unusual noise? Things are moving so fast,” she would say. “You are my favorite boy. I want you to hear what it is that I hear.”
After a while, dark clouds began to gather during Scholastica’s visits to Lagos. One evening, I found her talking to herself as she prepared a dinner of beans and plantain. Her voice was animated and electric, like it was corrupted by something strange and new. Soon, her sentences became more charged and forceful, her makeup more pronounced, as though she were an amateur clown at a children’s party, whose version of tomfoolery was flat and intentionally gauche. Father said that it was her love for clothes that was making her run mad. She cared too much, he would complain. He couldn’t understand why she lived the ordinary hours of her day in dramatic blouses and skirts that made a tight circle around her waist and her knees. Sometimes the sleeves of her dresses were voluminous and suspended in the air like helium balloons, other times they were in prints that were loud and blinding like a kaleidoscopic disco ball. It seemed as though Scholastica experienced life through the clothes she wore, her intense mood changes, the highs and lows, self-evident in its big and small moments. These days, she would dress up in her finest cord lace, her black slip showing through, whenever she was going to the market. On her return, she would spread herself—her face to the ceiling—on the bare, tiled floor next to her purchases and exhale loudly, like all of her body was letting go of something buried deep.
Every night during devotion, Father’s face is crumpled in fervent prayers. I’m ten years old, so the automated reaction to the things I’m disinterested in is restive impatience. When he prays, my eyes are open. His fist is tight in supplication and moves with determined vigor. Angry veins are scattered on Father’s arms as he casts and binds and commands the room, the seas, the people who lived in trees—asking everything for divine protection. The prayers are long and tedious but Father recites each word painstakingly. “You evil spirit, you agent of the marine kingdom, working against my family, I command you to die!” Around us, there is a sense of anticipation: of an undoing, an unshackling. Instead, all I feel is a tightening in my throat, around my limbs, tissues, my blood altogether bound by mild hysteria. He began praying like this after he and I were attacked in the village in the Christmas of ’99. That was after the accident with Scholastica that rendered his Mercedes 190 into a thing that could sit inside a fist. He said that Scholastica was a woman who heard a million voices in her head, and they each told her to do different things. It was one voice that told her to ask us for a ride to the bus stop, and another that told her to grab the steering wheel, and then another to bite me, all on that same day.
Just before the incident, Father ran into her dressed in white and, having hosted her in Lagos and having known her and her husband all these years, offered to drop her off. Without her husband on the drive, Scholastica and my father exchanged a small, polite conversation—the kind common among people who, in their meeting, were missing the person they both knew better than they did each other. Inside the car, the air was familiar, and the smell was our own. The radio was low—a reggae band belting out love confessions for a woman who seemed in command of things. Not long into the journey, the road leading to the market, where she also owned a store, broke into potholes the size of gullies. I remember my father leaving no weight on the accelerator as we swallowed the potholes, passed trees that stood motionless in the harmattan breeze. The car wobbled like a die shaken for good measure—here and there, left-right and then right-left again. And although there is only so much the mind of a ten-year-old boy can recall, I remember the chilling premonition I felt the moment before she did what she did.
I am no longer ten years old, but I’ve learned from experience that some memories stay with us for a lifetime—big and small. I could be walking a short distance, holding a mug of coffee, or moving through the loneliness that rages quietly in the background of everyday life and find myself remembering the screaming from that day. Scholastica’s. Father’s. Mine. And the Mercedes’s when it rammed itself into the womb of the tree.
When Scholastica ripped the steering wheel from father’s arms, the atmosphere immediately swelled with an unfamiliar terror. Mine was manifested instantly in screams. Father’s was clasped in-between his lips. Scholastica’s was the fear that was produced by chemical imbalances in her brain. She screamed and spat at him: Onye ogwu ego, ritualist! She told him he wanted to use her for blood money. Even as I pleaded, pulling her dress from the backseat, she didn’t mind—she didn’t seem to remember that I was her favorite boy. When she reached a point of unbearable tension, she screamed and sank her teeth deep into my wrist, droplets of blood growing on her white dress. At that moment, as my whole being was corrupted by shock, I learned that pain will always feel like an indignity to the body, an intruder that cannot be tamed or controlled.
We should have known that something was wrong. Every day, people use the things they care the most about to communicate with the people they care the most about; it’s one of the economies that govern human interaction. Sometimes, you see more of a person through what they show than what they say. But idealizing someone through fashion can be a cruel mission, because its possibilities seem alluring and deep, yet its reality is largely peripheral. The more you reach out to fashion to understand a person or a place, the more it evades you.
Father used to say that it was Scholastica’s love for clothes that drove her crazy. He threw “crazy” around like it was weightless, nodding gravely to my ruminations about her behavior—how I sometimes found her sobbing violently on the floor, the lower half of her legs strapped in a solid-soled wedge—as though what I told him had been long debated and could only be labeled as one thing.
Unlike my father, I didn’t think Scholastica’s interest in fashion was a trigger—I didn’t even think it made her crazy. In fact, she didn’t care much about its literature or economies, or its statistics, trends, or seasons; she had no way of knowing that in a few years, fashion would be declared the second-largest polluter of the planet by the United Nations. She was lured by the escapism fashion offered her, the promise of belonging, the miracle of finally having a life she could own.
When Scholastica attacked Father and I thirteen years ago, she was in a white belted dress with parachute-like bishop sleeves. Her hair was wrapped with the same fabric, forming a delicate bow at the back. Years later, I would think about the accident and the utility of her outfit—whether she knew, as she zipped herself into the dress, that the day would flow less gracefully, less beautifully, than it may have suggested. Whether she knew the day would leave her with only scattered recollections of the minutes and hours following the accident, which was the minimum wage for surviving and living in a mind like hers.
They say that a year is often remembered slowly and at once, like a flavor lingering coyly in the mouth. They say that memories live underneath the things our bodies carry, like our feet, hearts, tongues. They say that Scholastica’s mind has become an inventory of chaos, and with each breath she draws, she readies herself for a resolution she will face alone and with cruel powerlessness. They say that she sits to listen to the radio every morning in the village as she drinks a cup of tea with two cubes of sugar. In Igbo, the radio reporter’s voice is calmer than in English. She knows him, she tells herself, and laughs at this personal realization, as one does when nervous about a joke they are about to share. It is a laugh she knows to end after having kept company with herself for so long; a thoroughly self-sufficient language. Even before the pandemic, she would tell herself and whoever gave her audience that the world was coming to an end, and that someone would drown her. She would say this with laughter thundering inside her mouth.
In a few weeks, I’ll find myself back at the place of my father’s birth, the place where Christmas first had meaning because it was lived out in new clothes, the place where my aunty, Scholastica, started to lose her mind. On the day before Christmas, Scholastica will come by the house—alone and in a pair of culottes in bright fuchsia—as she often does every year, even though Father never says much to her. They also say she has started to sleep with her chickens, so there will be a poultry smell in our living room, looming around her. She would have about her that buzz of indefatigability that life imposes on the old. Besides, you can only live so long until you learn how to carry disappointments with such unwearied ease, without letting them into your heart.
They say that a swimmer’s body is carved from rock, that its contours are sharp but its muscles open and warm. If you faced the water that these people do, it would shape you, too. If you dive into the unknown, it dives into you. You get rugged, almost brutal with it, fighting its silver light like it was a lover you couldn’t imagine life without.
Scholastica’s body has become something like that of a swimmer. All these years of illness and, more so, its uncertainty—surviving it has rendered her body into a miracle she isn’t aware of. She had survived the unpredictability of her mind—the million voices in her head—survived a series of fashion trends that have come and gone; a husband who left her, and who knew if she had children? After all, she had never spoken about them those years she visited us in Lagos. Her hair has remained the same, like the edges of an old towel, frayed with age, so that her beloved white cowry earring hangs low from where her hair dropped.
In the living room, she will provoke small conversations about where I live and what I do, and the knowledge that her mind is troubled will be as clear as a fingerprint. By now, her forgetfulness is deeply entrenched in my memories of her. The realization will tint the air as I’ll relive, in a flash, all those bygone years, and those untidy pauses when she spoke, unsure where things ended and where they began.
She’ll call me a different name, but I won’t be inspired to correct her. She’ll marvel at me with an oversized performance and attempt to feel the changing of time with strokes across my body. When she pulls her palm toward my face, I’ll push my head away as though dodging a housefly. Her disbelief, dramatized. We are living through a pandemic, I’ll think to myself. There is only so much access people should have to our bodies. She’ll swallow what she wants to say and, instead, start singing choruses in Igbo. Her face will wear itself into something marvelous as she does this, something with the semblance of beauty, however poorly or crudely sewn in. Her bony hands will cling anxiously to her face mask.
For minutes, Scholastica will sing and dance, moving her body like a creature that lives in water. I’ll see the million weeping voices inside her head like raindrops; how the coronavirus has tossed her into a kind of fiction, the world in her head and the one she lives in now at war; how even the passage of time continues to tangle things into knots; how long weeks and years pass and suddenly there will seem to be an appearance of the past—her past—through my presence, a reminder that things were a certain way once; although she wouldn’t mention how her fashion business had collapsed or how she now moves from house to house in search of her next meal.
That singular discovery will illuminate Scholastica’s continued and elaborate performance, and I will feel the arrival of what is not quite sadness but a still knowledge—the air in the room turning into a secret shared between us, between this moment and the past. After Scholastica leaves with a bowl of rice and chicken, I’ll find myself yearning for something my body is yet to know it needs. She would, after all, have said those words to me before walking away. “Dalu, you have always been my favorite boy.” She had said it repeatedly, like it was a recital or a psalm—a righteous acceptance of submission, words that felt like an accumulation of everything she could do nothing about. I’ll go outside to find my father sitting on an armless chair and listening to a voice from his phone on a cloudless afternoon, as though he hadn’t heard hers at all.