When You Find Such a Thing
By Suyi Davies Okungbowa
Yes, I know meeting my girlfriend’s parents wasn’t on my to-do list for the next few forevers, but it happens that Gbemi is the slyest babe I’ve dated, so I should’ve known, ba? One minute we’re off on a supposed spontaneous getaway weekend she planned for us; next thing, I’m sitting under the dining chandelier at her parents’ Lekki duplex, struggling to explain to her father what I do for a living.
Dr. Gabriel Oyeyemi is engrossed in the evening tabloids, which he reads on a tablet. He’s still dressed in a work shirt, his graying hair seedy and untrimmed. Crumbs of the HobNobs starter dot his full moustache.
“Magician, you said?” His eyes are fixed on the screen.
“No, sir,” I say with practiced patience. “Wizard. Two different things.”
He looks up. “Like, wizard wizard?”
A small frown plays on his forehead. “How does that work again?”
“Well, the usual: apprenticed for three years, got my certificate from the Lagos State Paranormal Affairs Commission, blah blah. I’ve run the Divinery at Sura for over a year.”
“No no, that’s not what I meant,” he says, laying the tablet down. He dusts off his moustache. “I mean, how does the…” He works his mouth as if the word he’s about to say is one with a taste he doesn’t recognise. “The wizarding. How does that work?” He points to the brass bracelet on my wrist. “Is that it? Is that how you do it?”
“Daddy.” Gbemi sails out of the kitchen right then, lays down a bowl of coleslaw on the table. “Let Oduwa eat first, before you fill his belly with questions.”
The man hmms and returns to the news. I thank her with my eyes and she winks back.
My girlfriend is a lunatic. Most unpredictable person ever. I’m here sweating over being unprepared to meet her folks, and she’s winking at me. Maybe she’s already done the legwork then, painted me properly, which is key in my case, where both the truth and a lie are equally destructive.
I trust her sha. Gbemi’s great, crazy enough to stick with me for eight months where all babes before her have cut tail once the syllable wiz- reached their ears. I didn’t tell her I was a wizard until the second month, and she didn’t ask until then. The day I told her, she simply looked at me, shrugged and said, “Oh, okay.”
When you find such a thing, you do anything to keep it.
Mrs. Oyeyemi comes out the kitchen and lays the main course on the table. The woman’s face is a wiped chalkboard, her facial muscles smooth and unreadable, Her eyes barely rest on things with life, always focusing on the inanimate—table wipes, cutlery, her daughter’s off-shoulder blouse. I try to recall her name but can’t seem to remember Gbemi ever saying it with the freedom with which she said, “My father is Gabriel.”
I think Gbemi’s folks are just being courteous for now. Give them a few hours before the ice water drops. Mandem will quick be like this one guy I ran into at Ebeano, who recognised me from an apparition charm I’d once performed while trying to impress a client. Bro was mad shook in that confectionery aisle. He literally knocked over a shelf of gummy bears trying to put enough distance between himself and me, like if the hem of my garment touched him, some dirty power would leave me and flow to him.
“Food is ready,” Mrs. Oyeyemi says, gazing over our heads.
We eat jollof rice and heavily-spiced goat meat (and when I say heavily-spiced, I mean my eyes tear and my tongue is on fire). There’s coleslaw and Bama on the side to help my case. I drink a lot of water and answer a lot of questions.
Yes sir, I was born and raised in Benin City. Momsie was a primary school teacher, worked for the government until diabetes took her. Yes sir, my popsie was a banker; retired early. Pension didn’t save him from cigarettes and lung cancer though.
Not a single question about what I do.
All through this, Gbemi’s mother’s eyes are focused on my wrist. Does she recognise this bracelet, or is she wondering about it like Dr. Gabriel? I mean, there’s nothing even special about it: only a 19th century Benin Court wearable, with three imitations of the famous Benin Terracotta Head casted into it, each one equidistant from the other. Nothing special.
Then on a second thought, I realise the look is not about the bracelet. I know, because I recognise it as the same one you give someone who’s farted in a crowded bus. The same needle-point look thrown at us wizards when we walk the streets, the aisles of churches, the spaces between bodies in social gatherings.
If this look is all they’ve got, then I’m fine with it. If you’re a wizard long enough, you accept it as part of your life. I mean, our place on the Nigerian social ladder is somewhere between danfo conductors and estate agents. There’s an air we carry about that people recognise right quick, like a metaphysical smell, you know? The way you see a LAWMA waste guy who’s cleaned up real nice, but you know this guy’s been handling people’s shit all day so don’t touch me, you filthy bastard.
I navigate Mrs. Oyeyemi’s look, curl around its edges and hope she keeps those thoughts lodged in her throat. I occupy myself with watching her silently lead the family. The prayers, the subtle nudges, like making Dr. Oyeyemi use both the fork and knife instead of the fork alone, and asking Gbemi to pour herself a glass of water before taking any more swallows of rice. The easy General, the plane’s pilot.
We do coconut cake for dessert, home-baked. Gbemi’s mom munches hers in silence while Dr. Oyeyemi nags to me about Arsene Wenger and President Buhari. We clear up plates. Gbemi and her mother head upstairs straight from the kitchen while Dr. Oyeyemi drags me to an armchair in the parlour to continue his Buhari bashing.
Mid-way through this, his eyes drift to the bracelet again, and he stops short.
“Tell me, Oduwa,” he says. “Explain this your wizardry thing to me.”
I have to admit this is weird. No one ever takes a genuine interest in us wizards. No one ever wants to hear our side of the story. When we meet someone who does, we don’t trust this person. He or she is a con artist.
“Sir, if you don’t mind, I’d like to know: is there any reason for this interest?”
“I must be getting old, you know?” He works his mouth. “I mean, as a man who’s lived this long, I feel I know a little about everything. But when it comes to this your…wizarding, it feels like I know something, but that thing escapes me every time. I hadn’t even thought about this in years until you mentioned it today.”
I rest into my armchair. “Okay, sir. What will you like to know?”
“I don’t know…anything. Just tell me anything.”
So, I tell him how I discovered my orhion—what us Binis call the life force that provides supernatural powers. I tell him of the day I first connected with Olokun, my Spirit Other; how it felt for my mind to warp, slide into something beyond comprehensible space and time. I tell him about performing my first charm using my first proxy—my Master’s staff at the time—and how you know this shit peels away your humanity, layer by layer like an onion, but you know it’s too late to go back. I explain how I straddle realms to connect to Olokun each time I channel them, in order to influence the physical space.
“This my work sir,” I say, hoping to induce some empathy for myself, “is like putting your head between a tamed beast’s teeth, and hoping you’ve trained it well enough to keep his mouth open.”
The man is frowning, like he’s all of a sudden starting to get it.
And right then, the orhion in me rouses, a swirl of energy circling in my belly and chest like indigestion. It stirs first, tentative, as if tapped awake from sweet sleep. Then suddenly, it swiftly becomes an impatient child, tugging on the edge of my shirt, saying stop, stop Oduwa; stop talking. Listen.
And then I sense it.
A shroud, over Dr. Oyeyemi. A charm wound tightly about him, woven delicately like a braid. The charm is layered, renewed over time to prevent the effect from waning. The residues of older charms waft about him, bubbling like ogbono soup.
Someone doesn’t want this man to understand magic.
“Go on, I’m listening,” Gabriel says.
I shut my eyes and breathe, then engage my proxy—my bracelet’s three heads. They give passage, and the orhion flows through. I coax my orhion, push it, asking questions of the charm, trying to interpret its form, its basis. The charm’s responds with a signature that is a bit ancient, hard for me to read and place. The response itself is like a sentence wrongly arranged, meaning that the basis of the charm is nothing cohesive, a mish-mash of motives no longer understood after layers upon layers of shrouding.
“Oduwa?” Dr. Gabriel is saying, puzzled.
All the while, I sense the shadow standing in the doorway from the lobby, but I don’t see it yet. Only after I coax the orhion back, shut my proxy and open my eyes does it step into the light of the lobby to frown at me.
“Oduwa,” Gbemi says, “I think it’s time to go home.”
I’ve never had a liar drive me home before. I might be a wizard, but trust me, it’s the most human things that give me goosebumps. Like, how do you put your life in the hands of someone when you never know what they’re going to do next?
Gbemi won’t even look at me, staring straight ahead as if the road would disappear if she tore her gaze away. She grips the steering until her knuckles shine
“Why didn’t you just tell me?” I say, breaking the silence.
“Tell you what?” Her words come out like a snapped lid.
“A heads-up that I should be careful with your father, at least.”
She turns to look at me, her face tight.
“I don’t get you.”
“I mean, what made you think I won’t understand?” My temper rises the more she pretends. “Me of all people who knows how it feels, the stigma of being a wizard. You didn’t have to lie to me. Is this why you never acknowledge what I am? Why you’re never interested in discussing my work with me?”
She opens her mouth to say something, but I’m already on a roll.
“And what’s this deal with shrouding your father? Like, who does that to their own family? If I had a family, I’d want them to know exactly who I was, what I do. Nobody out there cares, you know? Nobody understands what we go through. The only people that should, that can, how dare you treat them like that? And you even put me in front of him and let him ask me questions. What the fuck?”
Gbemi looks like she will snort fire any minute, but at the same time, her face is scrunched up in almost genuine confusion. How good of an actor is she?
“Shroud? Wait, wait…” She slows the car down and pulls it to the edge of the next roundabout. We’re right at the foot of the Lekki-Ikoyi link bridge, a weird place to stop because there’s all lights and everyone can see right into your car. Most of the evening joggers take this liberty, but it’s not as if my girlfriend cares.
She turns to face me. “Someone shrouded my father? With what? Is he okay?”
I bite down my anger. “Are you really going to fucking continue pretending? Feigning this useless anger?”
“What the—are you mad, Oduwa? I’m not pretending to be angry. I am angry. You shouldn’t be telling my father such stories.”
“I dunno.” She shrugs. “I just know we avoid such stories in our house.”
“I don’t get.”
She shrugs again. “I don’t get it either. I just know we don’t.”
“Look,” I say, sighing. “I don’t know what twisted game you guys are running in your house, but don’t put me in the middle of it, abeg.”
“Oduwa, please what’s this thing about my father?” She looks like she’s going to cry. “Is everything okay?”
Alarm bells start to ring in my head. “Wait. Are you saying you’re not the one who wove the shroud over your father?”
“Weave a…what’s a shroud?”
I lean in, peer in her face. “So you’re not a wizard?”
“What?” She frowns. “Are you okay?”
The car is too cold all of a sudden. Somewhere within me, my orhion rises and prods, tugs at my shirt again.
Oduwa, listen, listen.
I release the three heads. I know the response even before it comes.
“Turn around,” I say. “We’re going back to your father’s house.”
She’s standing in the foyer, as if waiting for me. Having expended my orhion twice today and a bit more to coax Gbemi into waiting in the car, I’m not entirely sure if I have enough left to set up any defences. Her face is deadpan as usual when I approach, her eyes calculated, so that I know if she wanted to harm me in any way, she’d have done it by now.
“I always knew it will come back to bite me somehow,” Mrs Oyeyemi says. “I just wasn’t sure how or when.”
I study her for a bit. Her face is round, slightly weathered in that way of middle-aged Nigerian women. Her eyes, now that I see them up close, are even softer and dare I say it, kinder than Gbemi’s.
“Why?” I ask.
“You know,” she says.
“They’re your family.”
She smiles. “You’re so young. You were probably born after the state government had already endorsed our peculiar skillset. In my time, if someone as much as suspected you of wizardry—even without proof—it was over for you.”
“But they’re your family.”
“Family.” She snorts. “I’ve seen family members burn their people.” Her voice has a steelier edge to it. “I’ve seen fathers call on a mob to lynch their sons, seen mothers throw a tyre over the neck of their daughters, call on their neighbours to come pour petrol and light a match.” She stares at me, hard. “Family is not just by mouth.”
I watch her fidget, watch her wonder if she really believes what she says.
“But that person in the car? That’s not the real Gbemi. How can you live with that every day? How do you breathe?”
“I breathe because I must,” she replies. “I love my husband and my daughter, and they love me. They’re the only loves I’ve had in a long, long time. When you find such a thing, you do anything to keep it.”
It takes a long time for that last line to stop ringing in my head.
“They’ll never forgive you,” I say.
Her nostrils flare. “Look at you, so stupid. Even after everything you’ve seen, you still believe so much in people. You think Gabriel would’ve looked at me twice if he knew what I was? Or that Gbemi would’ve considered you? Do you really believe that because the state government gave you a piece of paper, everyone will now open their arms and embrace you?”
She steps forward, into my space. “They can only find out if I’m not alive to prevent it. And I plan to be alive for a very long time.”
I step back and try to process things. She’s watching me for my next move.
“You didn’t really come here to confront me, did you?” She smiles, something so lovely and warm it sends chills to my sternum. “You came here for yourself. To find out which path to take.”
I chew on my lower lip for a beat. “Look ma, I don’t want to get caught up in your family business.”
“You’re already here,” she says. “Choose.”
I work my mouth again. “You say choose, but you’re not really giving me a choice.”
“Then do what you have to,” she says. “My family has lived and loved this way for years, so I too will do whatever I must for it to stay like that.”
So, longhand for over my dead body. I sigh. “Lemme think about.”
“D’you love her, Oduwa?”
The question comes out of left field. I’m dumb for a minute.
“Do you? Truly?”
“I don’t know,” I say finally. “I don’t know yet.”
“Then I guess you have to find out,” she says.
Her words kick in my brain as I leave her standing there and walk back to the car.
“Mister man,” Gbemi says when I get in, her arms crossed. “Thank you for keeping me waiting. Oya, start talking.”
I study her readiness to go to war: messy hair, impish face, wrinkled mouth edges. Will this be a good time? I have no plans to stay late out here in the car tonight, explaining the life out of myself, when we could be back in my house, snuggling and enjoying reruns of Martin.
On the verandah, Mrs Oyeyemi’s silhouette watches, waits.
I reach out and massage Gbemi’s shoulder. “It’s nothing, really,” I say. “Can we discuss it later?”
I breathe, willing my orhion into form, into something that cloaks, that blinds. It responds, glad, spreads and wraps itself around her like a cocoon, braiding into the already present layers. It snakes about her, tightens, closes up every last space, every last possibility of breath.
Her face relaxes, succumbs.
“Oh, okay,” she says.
She kicks the car into gear, and we ride off into the night.
About the Author
Suyi tells stories from Lagos, Nigeria. His speculative fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Fireside, PodCastle, The Dark, Mothership Zeta, Omenana; and the anthologies Lights Out: Resurrection and A World of Horror; amidst other places. His nonfiction has appeared in Lightspeed and Klorofyl. He is a charter member of the African Speculative Fiction Society. Suyi also works in brand marketing and visual design. He lives online on Facebook, tweets at @IAmSuyiDavies, blogs at suyidavies.com and chatters at his monthly jabberwock, After Five Writing Shenanigans.