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“Djenebu” by Richard Ali

“Djenebu” by Richard Ali

F15 djenebu


Sometimes, when she comes to lie in my arms. . . Sometimes, when she comes to lie in my arms, in my room in silence. Djenebu and I are framed by hesitancies and silences, the way the heart of an onion is framed.

The heart, also, is a room; a room is the arena for a story to happen in.

I have always wanted to ask her in which worlds would she like to exist.

But, other times, my mind wanders through her eyes the streets of Istanbul in the shadow of the Süleymaniye Mosque, that afternoon she was with her sisters out in city and sun. The afternoon we met, in Turkey of all places so far from home. I, the vagrant with feet in my heart, iska-possesed with enough money to travel, who that afternoon was weeping with a longing for a sense of home. A group of sisters speaking Hausa, my native tongue, in a café with a view of an Ottoman pile of stones. There is London in the cartography of her being, and other lovers, a son, other places I do not know. And Aberdeen.

But I never ask. I have skirted the obvious.

I have been content to feel her head on my chest, trace my fingertips through the surprising silk of her hair the waves of which part and reform in my disturbance. Michael Ondaatje’s book lies open between us, its pages ruffled and squeezed and torn, some missing now.

And sometimes, some mornings when she has woken up with me, I am the silent one, looking at the painting on the wall that she gave me, its encapsulated world of blue.

World of Blue

I have gone with her into the houses she has lived in, each footstep on the firm earth created by her spells, her magic, each time she’s said—“Once, I was. . .”

There is the hut in the village at twilight by the upper Niger delta, where centuries before a Fulani herdsman had abandoned the life of travel and fight, moulded a brick of clay and said—“I’ll stay.”

She is there, sixteen and precocious, at an angle to the door of her room, body folded over a piece of canvas, her fingers stained with the paint and the mood.

There is a tension to her, for she has just discovered her totem.

She will weep to remember that day, in the ruins of her garden two decades later, after the elephant she’d married would have stolen her joy far too long, trampled to shreds even that piece of canvas, saved through so much, with its motif a golden butterfly. Her tears stain my chest wet.

Her eyes are closed in my bed. She remembers a book about a kite runner, and she talks of a kite she saw once, at sea just north of Haifa—a small skiff anchored, and the kite, pink and glorious, fluttering and rising higher and higher above the blue Mediterranean.

She says. “There is a street called des Aumoniers, off the road to the Museum. The Seine is not far from it. It is a very bad street. I lived there two years; there was no God those years.”

“And after?”

“I did not need him then. I found other things.”

I look at the blue of the edge of the painting and think of the waves that have led us here.

The Waves that Led Us Here

There is the sound of falling water behind us, and a breeze conjured up by little fans in the restaurant. I watch her tilt her head this way and that, watch her smile at the waiters as they bring in our meals. She is amused when I dip the pita bread in some avocado sauce and then decide my palate was decidedly unsuited. We eat and talk.

Then I say, “I would like to carve letters on your arm, with a pen knife.”

I place my palm on the table.

The people come and go, people come and go.

She takes the ketchup off the table and squirts it on my open palm. I do not move my palm away. When she takes up the table knife, I hold her arm.

“There’s nothing to be done any more, is there?”

“No, there’s nothing,” I say.

I Say

We are here in her house above the hills in Maitama, have just made love, fornicated in the view of the entire city below us. On the balcony on the third floor. She is naked, looking at the lights. I mix a cocktail and join her, drop the drink on the balustrade just as a breeze comes in. I press myself into her back, lift her arms up as she nestles her head back into me.

“You’ve let me be me.”

“Yes. You’re a kite, high above the seas now.”

“Do I scare you?”


“What do I do to you?”

“You’re mine,” I say.

The breeze heralds rain to come, dreams to germinate yet.

One with her, we flap our wings slow as butterflies.

“There will be no clothes between us,” I say as I kiss her. She opens her eyes.

She Opens Her Eyes

When she opens her eyes, she says—“I am various, I have become so much more.”

Outside the window, birds chirp with the calls of morning.

Richard Ali is a Nigerian lawyer, novelist and poet. He is a member of the Jalada Writers Collective and COO of Parresia Publishers Ltd. He loves travelling, blogs at Richard Ali’s Blog and tweets @richardalijos

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