An excerpt from Irenosen Okojie’s Butterfly Fish
Irenosen Okojie is a writer and Arts Project Manager. Her debut novel Butterfly Fish and short story collection Speak Gigantular will be published in 2015 by Jacaranda Books.
First the wives went bald. Their gleaming crowns like plump brown melons waiting to be pulped, clutching their thick, fluffy hair as if they would vanish like puffs of smoke. And by now the palace grounds were vomiting. Dead insects littered hidden crooks, red ants rolled on their backs in haste and confusion, mosquitoes buzzed about in panic swirled patterns and the strange blueish plants in the garden had wilted. As though the heat off a cutlass had crushed their hopes to death, and really, they couldn’t blame the heat. Not when hundreds of fish lay on the weather worn red trail leading up to the gates; bucking against each other in those precious few moments before their stories of water escaped them forever. Not when it began to hurt to look around the palace, to see the tiny bits of crumbling terracotta walls a virgin eye wouldn’t pick up, the abandoned rooms unattended gathering only dust for comfort, the circular courtyards once bursting with congregated shades of brown bodies vacant and naked in their loneliness because people stopped lingering. Instead they rushed through, shutting themselves off from the miniature storms whipping through their heads. And the days merged into one long passage of time that seemed to never end or repeatedly began depending on how you looked at it. The palace rumbled, grumbling low so gold kissed leaves left their trees to drop down and listen, carrying what they knew to the feet of the inhabitants who couldn’t understand the crackly language they spoke. Some people began to sense the unknown growing in mass without seeing him, an occurrence that could frighten hearts out of chests. So they sought the council, begging them to do something to stop this invisible hand that was twisting them all. Their worry was now distorting their voices, even to their own ears, changing their walks, splitting their lips. They were being smudged and blurred, their bodies like misshapen brown clouds. The council members bit down on it all gently, apprehensively. Bloated with their cheapened version of power, they kept their stiff necks outstretched. This was bigger than them. All they could do was to show the people of the palace their palms, empty of any answers.
Omotole and her baby survived the incident with Oba Odion. She was too strong to allow an inept king to finish her, husband or not. It was a bottomless will that allowed her to crawl her way out of there, while he sat rocking himself into the bleak, dark enclave he had built for himself. She had not seen him since, so when her water broke, the blue tinged liquid splashing between her feet in the yard outside her chamber, she did not ask for the Oba to be told. Instead, she grabbed the hand of the servant girl that was called tightly and thought she caught a wince flash over the girl’s face briefly before she lifted her up. The servant girl shouted out for more help and one of the other wives came. Omotole recognised the eldest wife before she gripped her arms, one on each side as they moved her back inside her chamber. There, a musty scent was clinging to her clothes and her head dress. They laid her down on her newly made grape coloured mat with its thin, slightly rough edges. The pains of childbirth came thick and fast and her screams pierced through the rooftops. Later, other details would come back to her; taking short sharp breaths, the feel of a small wet cloth on her forehead, advice that rained, a jumble of words that fell all over her body and her legs propped up. And a hazy feeling of confusion that continued to grow throughout. Both the servant girl and the first wife were alarmed at what was happening, though they tried to keep it from their voices. When the baby finally came some hours later, the servant girl was unable to stop shocked words flying through her lips. “Oh the Gods help us!”
“What is it?” Omotole said, limp and tired she struggled to raise her head up. They handed the baby over to her wrapped in a sucking, gloomy silence. The first thing she noticed was a soft looking, small exposed chest and it was a boy. He was wriggling in the way that newborns do, covered in an unusual blue gunk. As her eyes wandered up, a horror gripped her by the throat. He was alive, but her baby had no face.
The bad news seemed to travel faster than a drawn breath, and before they knew it, residents in the palace found themselves making excuses to visit Omotole, just to get a look at the baby. Some even made bets on how deformed the baby would be, but nothing prepared them for it. From the neck down, it was perfectly healthy. Its arms, legs and body were just as they expected. But it was his face… Such a shame and they had never seen anything like it. It was completely flattened, as though what lay under the skin wasn’t bones but mush. It looked as if he had been filed down; there were no angles or planes, just an insult of a face stuck there like a terrible truth. An ugly face not even a mother could pretend to love. Even with the eyes, tiny slits of flecked brown and the wide mouth, you couldn’t tell anything about the child, whether it was happy, sad, and hungry or tired. All Omotole could do was interpret his thin, high cries as the instincts of motherhood abandoned her, frightened away by the sight before them. And she was inconsolable those first few days afterwards. Her eyes moist with tears, carrying him as if he were a mistake, labouring over why it had happened, how it had happened. And how could a grotesque child ever become Oba? Shame, heavy and scorching burned her, so much so that she felt hot even when it was cooler in the evenings, and you could smell the dry earth and relief of the suffocated air that darkness was coming. She thought of the blueish excretions from her body that had suddenly stopped, and the petals under her tongue no longer appeared. How deceptive it had been, she almost felt she had imagined it all, only she knew she hadn’t. A hard blame began to form in her stomach as she thought of Oba Odion up in his hand made fortress sheltered away from it. No, this was not her doing, but the disgrace would never leave her. And she would sit there, in the cusp of night, staring at her son dumbfounded, beads of resentment popping on her brow, she and that wailing baby; while she attempted to talk expressions into his face.
While Omotole’s baby sent tremors through the place, something else was bubbling beneath the surface like simmering soup. Council man Ewe could never keep a secret, particularly if it was of no benefit to him to do so. If you knew you wanted to keep a secret protected, they should never pass your lips in his presence. That night after he had seen them, he was almost drunk with his knowledge coming back to the apartment he shared with his wife. How those fools could be so brazen right under their noses! Oba Odion’s appointed guard and his youngest bride laughing at them all. The council had warned the Oba about her, they had all seen that she would not make a good wife but bring shame on the palace. No amount of undoing could change what had happened. He arrived to see their small, apartment had been swept, and the terracotta walls darkened by night made his eyes swim a little. He was a success, a member of the Oba’s council, residing in the palace with a wife and two children. He had truly arrived, and he imagined the tiny village he came from just shy of Onisha hailing him, the dancing and music leading all the way back to his family’s home. So engrossed was he in that image he nearly tripped over a, chipped dark wooden chair they usually left in the corner of the back room. The apartment smelled of the homely mixture of cooked goat meat and Ewe’s ambition. He could hear the reassuring breathing of his children as he stopped momentarily to listen to them caught in sleep, their chests rising and falling. Finally, he took off his native wear, beaded adornment and crept in to sleep beside the broad, fleshy frame of his wife who murmured a little in response. He tried to sleep but found himself tossing and turning, till his wife frustrated by it said. “Ah ah what is it?” So the secret entered her ears.
“Tell the council Ewe” she humphed.
“You know what the punishment is for such a thing?”
And he ran his excited tongue over his dry mouth.
Amidst these events in the palace, Filo remained surprisingly calm. As if the shrieking hammertan wind inside her that had pulled her furiously back and forth suddenly stopped. She thought it funny that the slow destruction happening around her created an opposite effect within her. And she began to run towards her thoughts instead of away from them. Just outside her narrow chamber doorway, if you stood on your toes you could see the Oba’s back room window staring the horizon down. Every time she looked, somehow it seemed further and further away. She had allowed a thought so delicious to leave her head and sit in her mouth that she no longer felt guilty carrying it with her. And it was this: she was glad Oba Odion was suffering. Through her hair falling out, the blood from the main palace roof and the stream of bad luck that had plagued the palace it was clear that he knew. He knew why these terrible things were happening but couldn’t show his face. The Gods would disapprove but she was happy the Oba was being handed the fate she believed he deserved.
It was a clear, slow burning day when it happened, your skin felt sticky and no amount of water wetting your dry throat was enough. She was tending to the group of fowls that tentatively hung outside their back yard, throwing grains of corn to them and watching them pick at it. At the same time thinking of the street vendors that lined the roads on market day, whistling through their teeth and shoving handfuls of material, native jewellery and spicy food wrapped in broad green leaves your way. But then a curious thing happened, Filo softened, her body had stopped turning to stone. She dropped the corn, haphazard yellow mouthfuls scattered as if to be replanted. The fowls, sensing the importance of the moment began to cluck, her only interested audience, as she started a sure, confident retreat. She took nothing; she turned to start the walk towards the main palace where the gates were waiting. People were milling about within pockets of the grounds and she passed some guards laughing at words hanging between them. They nodded at her and she did not stop. She walked out of the palace gates pulled forward by a distant no named thing baring its teeth; because beyond her, that body and that life, the rivers and the land, another world beckoned. Winking just behind the edges of broken clouds, she imagined people filled with so much light, it would be blinding, to a place without the sham of one life swirling in her gut waiting to smother the next.
SOURCE: HOME SLICE