My people say that dream and life started a race together in the beginning of time but dream outran life, and gifts us when we sleep with glimpses of the future or the past, in swirling shades of black, grey and white. I know this; I fall, in my dreams. They start in a bright room. I move away from the blinding light. I walk through a door; down an unlit staircase and my foot, left or right, I’m not sure which slips on a step.
My arms flail about me. They feel for railings or a wall. I find darkness. I feel myself fall. I feel a cold air, a whoosh that rushes in to fill the space I vacated, slam into my body. My scalp tingles and goose pimples appear on my skin. I feel something suck me down, into the deep darkness at the bottom of the stairs, into a snug stuffybox that drops to the very bottom of a pit, with a jarring thud. The strength of that fall always wakes me up.
I dreamt it today. I woke up heaving, drenched with sweat, my cover cloth and hairnet flung far away from me. It is dark in my room. I look out through the window. It is dark and quiet outside. I will not see sleep again, I know. I never go back to sleep after this dream. I turn my back to the window and wait for daybreak. It will come slow and quiet, sneaking across the sky. I will not get up from bed until daylight comes into my room. I’m not going to work today. I know this dream intimately. I know the feel of the air on the staircase, hot and humid, the smell of the air in the room, stuffy and stale. I can taste the air in the box, dusty and heavy in my chest. I try but can’t wake up from the dream. I stay in the dream till the very end, until the fall throws me out of it. Then I wake up. I started dreaming it when I moved here.
Last year, I think. I left my hometown for a reason hidden so deep in me that I no longer remember it, maybe I had no reason. I have stopped trying to pry it out of me. When I left home, I think I decided on a town that was big enough to hide me and but small enough to provide some human warmth. I was on my way to that town when the driver of the bus I was in decided to drive through a back road to beat the traffic up ahead. We got lost. He drove us around this town, trying to connect the dirt road we were on with the expressway but couldn’t.
The streets we saw through the bus windows were deserted. The occasional pedestrian who walked on the dusty sidewalk didn’t want anything to do with us when we asked for directions. We drove around a town filled with weary houses that peeped out from behind rusty fences. Paint had peeled off their walls, leaving behind cracked cement layers darkened with age and dust. The driver said he had never driven through this town though he’d been driving his bus along the route for over thirteen years.
But everything happens for a purpose, I think. I liked what I saw. A small town, less people, isolated houses. I told the driver to stop the bus. The other passengers didn’t understand why I wanted to get off the bus there. I stepped on the ground; I knew I had made the right decision. It welcomed me. I can’t explain how it did, but I felt it though my shoes. I moved into a cheap one-bedroom apartment and bought new dresses and shoes. I found a job as an account clerk, balancing credits and debits in moldy account ledgers.
During my first week as a resident of Crossroads, when I walked to work in the mornings, I saw a few people on the streets and the ones I saw walked by, deaf and blind to me. From then on, when I met people on the sidewalks that ran along the silt filled gutters of this town, I ignored them, moved to a side of the sidewalk and went on my way. That was before I started to dream.
I look out my window and the sun is up. It heats up my room. The walls begin to sweat. I get up, put on a dress and step out of my house. There is nobody out on my street. I cross the empty road and turn into another street. I’m midway down the road when I see a bright light moving towards me, it is not the sun. I walk farther down the street; it is a man hawking a heap of rock buns in a box made of glass. I buy four from him and continue down the road. They’re good. The crusty outer layers and soft insides wake up my mouth and make me lose concentration, and I turn into Market Street. I stop in the middle of the street and hiss. It never ceases to disgust me this market. I have never seen a quiet market and this town has one.
On Saturday afternoons, when I shop for the week, it is depressing to walk through this picture of slow-moving scenes unfolding even slower. There is something forlorn about the goods on the market tables, grimy, stale or wrinkled. I’ve seen cobwebs draped over some goods. My shoes kick up dust as I walk through the market square. It takes ages to settle. I see dust particles float around me in the bright sunlight. Flies buzz around slowly, they’re almost still in flight, hanging in the air.
I see market women around me move like congealed palm oil, dull and listless as they attend to equally bored buyers. Haggling is done in this market with no joy. What a shame. This market never fails to leave a bitter taste in my mouth, even the sweetness of the buns couldn’t stop the bitterness spreading through my mouth. I long for the market that flits into my head anytime I walked through this one. I can’t remember its name or where it is but even in my thoughts I can feel the warmth that radiated off people as they did their buying and selling.
I walk out of the market, cold. The sun never seems to be able to heat it up. In my room I toss two remaining rock buns on a stool and climb into bed. I sleep through the hot afternoon and evening, dreaming of my body floating on a sea of blackness. It’s foggy and cold in the darkness. I’m dragged out of the sea by a noisy pain in my stomach. I’m awakened by hunger. A very angry hunger. My stomach bangs about in my middle.
I get up and rummage through my cupboard. It is empty but for one cold pot of efo riro. It has shreds of overcooked shoko stuck in a thick layer of palm oil. I poke my finger into the sludge and find some pieces of meat at the bottom of the pot. I decide on a late dinner of fufu and vegetables. I pick up my purse and walk to the market.
I don’t go outside after dark. There isn’t much to see but the same deserted streets and dying houses I see in the morning. But I take a few steps down my street and I’m lost. I don’t know where I am. The town is different. It is noisy. I hear people laugh. I see them greet each other. I hear dogs howl, growl, snarl and bark, answering each other’s call. The air is crisp and brisk. It feels alive. I don’t recognize the market either. It moves around me in quick steps. I bump into people who are lively, more animated than the ones I see in the day.
The market is lit by flickering kerosene lamps made of strands of thread dipped into tins filled with the oil. The lamps throw light feebly at the surrounding deep darkness that hides the market. People move in the darkness, shouting at the top of their voices, their shadows, faint on the ground, move quickly after their owners. I shove my way through the crowd milling around stalls. I walk to where fufu sellers sit before round towers built from wraps of fufu. I stop in front of one of them and ask for two wraps. The woman gives me hot ones.
“I made them this very evening,” she says, “My hearth is still hot, glowing with coals from the fire I used to cook it. I made the fufu from cassava tubers I dug up from my own farm. I planted them a year and a half ago.” I stare at her, trying to see if I know her but she looks away. She arranges her veil around her face and draws it closer. I open my purse and give her money for the fufu. She brings the money closer to the lamp, peers at it then looks at me.
“This is day money.”
She gives it back. I look at it.
“You don’t have night money?”
I stare at her, “Dead money?”
She looks away from me and whispers, “Money we spend at night.”
“Do you still want fufu?”
I offer her the money again. She snatches it out of my hand.
I move nearer to the kerosene lamp. She’d let go of her veil when she collected my money. It slipped off her head. I peer at her through the thick smoke billowing from the lamp. She looks up to see me looking at her and throws the change that she’d been counting into my hands. A note flutters away and lands in front of me. I bend to pick it up. A gust of wind blows and the note dances through my legs. I don’t want to turn my back to her, so I bend down and stick my head between my legs to pick it up. And I feel my head swell, and it becomes heavy. I place my hand on the ground to steady myself.
From between my legs, I see the market upside down. I see people around me walking on their heads, not all of the market people but enough to confirm this oddity. They didn’t grow legs out of their heads. Their heads glided on air above the ground. Their legs moved in the air like they would walking on the ground, their hands moved by their sides. It wasn’t a bumpy movement. It was smooth. I pulled my body upright and looked around me, everything returned to normal. People around me were walking, running, standing, talking on two legs. I bend again. Same. People were walking on their heads. I stand upright and face the fufu seller.
“Did you see something?” she asked.
“Did you find your money?”
“Yes,” I say,showing her the money I have in my palm.
“Good, come and buy hot fufu from me again.”
I nod and slowly back away from her.
I walk farther into the market seeing, but not seeing. I know everything I’m seeing is a lie hiding another reality. I can’t tell those who are walking on their feet from the ones who aren’t. Am I walking on my head too? I can see my legs and feet. With each step, the ground moves underneath my feet, but somehow, it doesn’t allow me to fall. It catches my feet. I keep walking, looking through the smoky haze of the kerosene lamps, watching people. I walk round and round the market until I’m too tired to take another step. I walk to a tree, near the quieter butchers’ section of the market, and lean against it.
The crowd is less here. There is nothing fresh to buy on the tables, only stale, smelly pieces of beef and goat meat. I sit on one of the tree roots growing out of the earth. I close my eyes and rest my back on the tree trunk. I wait till my head stops spinning and the ground feels solid beneath me. I drag my body off the root, stand up and look towards the market square. The market’s still there. I can hear people talking and laughing. I can see the kerosene lamps flickering.
I sit down again and close my eyes, breathing deep. I hear some footsteps to my left. I look up to see a girl. She’s seven or eight, I think. She’s wearing a red and yellow dress. She crouches behind a car, staring at the market. I watch her bend. She places her head in between her legs and looks at the market through her legs, like I did. I stop breathing. She stands upright and looks about her. She crouches and takes a handful of sand from the ground in her right palm. She slides along the car, moves nearer to the market, away from me. I crane my neck to see her. She stands and lifts her right arm to hurl the sand into the market.
As she brings her hand up, I hear a bellow above me that makes me cover my ears with my hands. A large screeching owl dives for the girl. She curls up her fists to fend off the attack. The bird’s talons lash at her arms and face. She tries to hit the owl, but her fists hit only air. She cries out in pain. I cry out too, jumping to my feet. The butchers’ dogs sleeping under their masters’ tables lift their flea-bitten ears up. They drag their scrawny bodies off the ground and run out from under the tables and growl. They bark and howl. Their neck muscles strain against their skin and saliva drips from their jaws. The butchers look away.
I run into the main market calling the attention of people to what is happening but I’m ignored like in the mornings, by the day people I know so well. I rush to the fufu woman. She stretches out both of her hands and shakes her head.
“I can’t help you, one cannot throw sand into this crowd.”
“We are sand.”
“We? Who are we?”
“You and I.”
“Sand heaped at a crossroad that can blow anywhere.”
“We are where?”
“Here, Crossroad between life and death”
“I am not dead.”
“To live does not mean you are alive.”|
She pulls her veil closer and looks away. I rush back to the tree, to the butchers’. The girl is gone, but I can still see the bird circling above. I point to it, to the spot I had last seen the girl trying to fight off the bird. The butchers do not look up. Their dogs are still restless, running around in circles, barking at what they alone now see. The butchers don’t bother to quiet them. The dogs saw. I am not mad. I wasn’t dreaming. I am awake. This isn’t a dream. I am not dead. The butchers tell me to go home and sleep. I don’t know how, but I make it to my house.
I open and lock my door with a steady hand. Then I move my bed against the door and lay on it. I shake so much the bed frame rattles against the door. I pull clothes out of my wardrobe and wear three sets of clothes to be warm. My body shakes . I listen hard for any commotion outside my window. I hear nothing. The moon doesn’t fall out of the sky nor do the stars shower down on the roof.
But sounds pop out from the silence in my room. My heart jumps loudly within my chest I’m afraid it will stop. It beats so loud, my ears hurt. I pull my pillow over my head and listen. I hear mosquitoes’ wings whir under my bed, cockroaches skittering across the floor of my bathroom, the mandibles of termites echo as they eat tunnels in my cupboard. I fall asleep and sleep through the night and do not dream.
The next day I wake up late. It is late in the evening. I roll off my bed and walk to the window. I pull my curtain aside and peep at the town. It is quiet. I open my door and walk out. There are streaks of sunlight in the horizon. The sun is falling into the darkness of the night. I walk up and down the main road, trying to understand what I saw and heard.
The town looked different from the one I saw that day from the bus that drove me away from home. I have seen it naked. It stopped being an out-of-the-way town to me. It is become cold and strange. I decide not to go back to my house. I walk the streets, waiting for the change. I want to be out when it happens. I stand by the road that intersects the market, and I watch. I see the sun drop over the edge and darkness pull its cover over the town. I see the kerosene lamps come to life in the market. The wind picks up, trying to blow away the sluggishness of the day. There was no sudden change, no clap of lightning. Just the sun going over the rim of the Crossroad’s sky. The town people come out and head for the market. The town dogs start barking and howling. They sound like they’re crying.
I wait by the road but nobody walks by me. I bend my waist and look through my legs. Things don’t look normal. The world is upside down and people are walking on their heads. I stand up, then bend down again and look through my legs, same. I stand up and see the world as I know it. I scoop up a handful of sand. It is cold and dry. I throw some of it at my legs. Nothing happens. I rub some on my face. Nothing. I shake the rest off my palm and walk back home.
I wake up in a strange bed, in a strange room. My eyes are gritty and they hurt. I close them. I blink until tears soothe my eyes, and I open my eyelids. An open door to my right lets in some light. I feel cramped. I try to stretch out my leg, I can’t. My skin feels tight. The sheets crunch from the sand caught in between them. It scrapes my skin and I wince. But I stretch out more, working out the kinks in my bones. My legs brush a warm thigh. A woman is sitting in my bed. She places a cool palm on my forehead. A man is standing behind her. I look at them both. I don’t know them.
“It’s okay child, you had a dream.”
I open my mouth to speak but my tongue is swollen and dry. She picks up a glass of water from a stool by my bedside. On the stool is a saucer, in it are two rock buns, one is half eaten. I touch them, they are both cold.
“You didn’t finish them?”
“You dream bad dreams if you go to bed hungry.”
I try to sit up, but I can’t. She lifts my head up and puts the glass cup on my lips. The cool water wets my lips and pours on my nightgown. It runs down my flat chest. I can’t drink the water. On the wall opposite me is a mirror. I can see its reflected image well. I see the little girl from the market on the bed and I’m wearing a red and yellow dress.
Olufunke Ogundimu is a Caine Prize finalist and Pushcart Prize winner. Her work has been in published in Transition Magazine, New Orleans Review, Red Rock Review, Johannesburg Review of Books, Asymptote Journal, and other places.