short story by Tope Ogundare
Today, I woke up in the land of my birth, to the sound of the owl hooting from the tree behind the window, and the symphony of soft snores from several bodies sprawled across the mats on the floor. I lay there for several minutes basking in the joy of togetherness and enjoying the distinct sound of the day waking up. I had not felt this much happiness and contentment in twenty years, and I was in no hurry to join the day. Abruptly, the fog lifted with the shrill cry of the alarm clock on my table, and I was dumped roughly back to reality. Tears welled up in my eyes and I had to squeeze my eyes shut to hold them back.
Today, I realized that you can run away from home but you carry it with you always. I have carried home with me all these years, and the burden of absence is becoming heavier daily. I have tried to immerse myself in the culture of the people here and to adopt the lifestyle; I have sucked every pleasure and freedom it has to offer, but in the quiet hours of dawn, I find myself back home – walking barefooted along the shores of the ocean, digging for shells, and savouring the briny air. I have silenced the roar of the ocean, and the merry laughter of innocence, but they have grown louder, and I cannot ignore their call any longer.
My soul never left home. I will always belong there. I am returning to the land of my nativity; to you. I know this news will bring you discomfort; the implications are glaring. These days, I have begun to think, with sinking despair, that we really do not have a choice in this matter; that our fight against tradition is one we cannot win. Twenty years of exile and isolation has proved this. We were young and full of ideas and thought we could take on the world; full of new knowledge and dreams, we were eager to kick against tradition and revolt. We wanted to change the old order.
Lately, I have begun to see things differently. Remember, how we were closer to each other than the others? We liked the same things and always shared the same opinions about issues; could that be coincidence or the careful craftsmanship of the gods? We spent many hours together, huddled over a book, sharing knowledge and dreaming. So, when I think about what we tried so hard to fight, I see that the foundation has been laid before either of us had any idea of what was required. Our parents must have noticed this too; some of their decisions, concessions and actions now make more sense.
Twenty years ago, the thought of doing the bidding of tradition was repulsive; twenty years ago, I was knowledgeable but unwise. Twenty years ago, I turned my back against my heritage and my destiny, denounced my clan and my people; twenty years, I wandered in the wilderness, nameless and without identity. Twenty wasted years.
Last night, a memory came to me. It was at the annual dance, the year that I left home. You were leading the trope of the dancers, and I was at the front of the circle formed around you. Seeing you dance, I was filled with a certain possessiveness that shocked and confused me. It was not like the familial belongingness and affection that I have always felt towards you but something deeper, stronger and primal.
I stumbled backwards and walked away from the crowd and towards the shore. I needed to clear my head; the cool, briny air of the ocean always helped. It was there that you found me, and held my hands, and we walked together, wordlessly. The moon was rounded and radiant, like a pregnant woman at term and the sea opened her arms to receive its silvery hues. I looked at your rounded face, radiant and broody and felt something strange, a new feeling possessing me – lust. You looked at me at that moment, held my gaze, and I knew that you knew what I was thinking. I looked away, ashamed, and you sighed.
I learnt of the tradition the next day. Mutu had been going on and on about you and how gracefully you danced the night before. He looked at me suddenly and stopped, and when I prodded, he offered an apology for talking about you that way. Seeing the confusion on my face, he had explained and then confusion gave way to shock. My shock had surprised him because he considered me lucky to be chosen one to marry you. How could any man not rejoice at the prospect? He added. Since the inception of the town, the first-born son of the village chief was required to marry the firstborn daughter, his sister. It was also the day I decided to run away.
I am not running again Llungwe. Every day, for the past ten years, you have filled my dreams. The dream is always the same. I, sitting by the fire on the shore, staring at the ocean, and you, walking towards me, and then sitting beside me, saying nothing. We sit together staring at the ocean. And when the fire burns low, we take off our clothes and make love, softly. Then you dress up and walk away, not before telling me that you are waiting for me.
Yesterday, I ran into Mutu, and he told me you have refused to take a man. I did not ask him any further question, I will ask you when we see. He also told me of the passing of father, and how the village awaits the return of its leader; the elders had told him to go in search of me, to begin from the market. I have given him my word that I will return. I did not tell him when.
Dear sister, I am returning, not because of the cry of the people for a leader, but for you, and to you. In my sojourn, I have learnt a lot and seen a lot – how in some cultures, cousins marry, and half-siblings marry, because they want to preserve a pure bloodline. It makes sense to me now, this tradition of ours, which is extreme, but not totally unheard of. But I am not returning to you because of the call of tradition, but rather because of the undeniable truth – that I am in love with you.
Now that I think about it, I realize that I have always loved you, only that I was slow in realizing it. And when I did, I was so scared, maybe not because of the strangeness of it then, but much more because of its intensity. It was a fire I could not contain, that threatened to burn us to the ground. They say, age makes the wine better, with the passage of time, my love for you have become purer and richer and fuller.
That night I refused to believe what I saw in your eyes, and even when you told me in my dreams – coming me to me night after night – I refused to acknowledge it. That sigh has haunted me every night since then. That night, the reflection of the moon in your eyes led me into your heart and I saw the longing in them: you wanted me to possess you, they told me you had been waiting for that moment. They told me that they would always follow me wherever I go, and your sigh was the vessel in which they would be borne.
That night, your performance had been for me, I realize now. Your eyes never left mine, they were intently searching for my pleasure and approval. It was how you knew when I slipped away from the crowd and followed me. You wanted to catch me alone, to tell me that the sudden possessiveness I felt that scared me away was your heart speaking to mine. I am ready to listen; to take you as mine, and to give myself to you.
Tope Ogundare is a Nigerian, and writes poetry, short stories and essays. His first full-length poetry book was released in 2018, titled ‘The Book of Pain’. His works have appeared in Brittle Paper, Kalahari Review, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Pilcrow and Dagger, Moonchild Magazine, TinyTim Literary Review, DASH, Intima, Snapdragon, The Aquila, Argot Magazine, Pangolin Review, Minute Magazine and are forthcoming in Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Charles River Journal and elsewhere. His poems have also been featured in two anthologies and forthcoming in Cities, a poetry anthology edited by Paul Rowe. He shares his writing on www.topeogundare.wordpress.com and on Medium (@topazo).