There are stories we do not tell, not any more.
29. 03. 2054.
“25 credits,” he says, and my mind screams.
“A-ah! Since when?!”
The butcher says nothing. He is fiddling with the beads of a large rosary hanging on the wall. There is a faraway look in his eyes.
This is a plea, not a bargain. I am pleading with my voice, with my eyes. Help me. The butcher says nothing.
After what seems to me a long time, he finally looks at me, and I know I have lost. His eyes are bloodshot, rimmed, with yellow at the edges, like the slabs of meat he sells, like dirty lace. It gives him a fierce look. He is like the agbero boys who collect the taxes every Tuesday, but there is something helpless about him too, a desperation.
There is something helpless about all of us.
“25 credits. The tax has risen.”
This he says, like an afterthought. It is almost a plea for forgiveness. I am in the same condition you are. I cannot help it. If I do not do this, I must sell another memory, and I don’t have much left. His yellow eyes are fixed on me. They are the ones pleading now, begging me to understand.
I look away. I do not want to understand.
Still, I cannot help myself. I do. Understanding forces itself on me as I consider the rosary hanging on the wall, limp and pliant, reeking of his hopes, of desperation.
Even this. Even the rosary reeks of desperation.
I do not revel in this power, however brief it lasts. There is nothing to revel in. I simply give up my credits and walk away, slowly, groceries in my hands. I will save this memory—there is the rosary hanging on the wall, reeking of desperation, and there is the butcher looking at me with his yellow eyes. It has an artistic touch—the people at the Exchange would like that, something for the tourists who loved to buy memories for their museums in America. These memories never become credits, and the museums never ask where the memories come from.
I do not have that luxury. My memories would have to become credits soon.
It is evening and I am walking home, my groceries sweaty in my palms. Dangerous, I know. There will be thieves about, shadowed faces with their guns and shaky knives. Since the government raised the taxes, there have been more of those about, humans that wait till nightfall to become shadows, hunting credits from the unwary. Where there are no credits, they take memories. Where there are no memories, they take lives. A mercy, they call it, because nowadays, death is a mercy, a welcome ending to an otherwise meaningless existence.
The universe is short of mercies.
I remember the only time I was the victim. It was a night like this. There was no moon, and the credits had just risen in value so one had rare cause to be happy. They liked it that way. I was coming home when I saw them, pale and ghostly in the moonlight. This was odd. Ghosts were something you heard of, not something to be seen. You only had the stark reality of gunmetal pressed against your sides, the cold breath, convincing you of the realness of it. But this night was its own, and its realness breathed down my neck with the face of a ghost. I lost everything, every credit I had made from my memory transactions with the Exchange. The next morning would find me there again, a memory from my childhood to not starve that month. It was a memory of the last election.
Even now, I still remember the broker’s face, the curl in her lip that thinly veiled her disdain.
You see, you do not convert memories too quickly, this wasn’t paper currency. Sell one memory; it becomes easier to sell another—that’s how you become an addict. The woman probably thought I was doing drugs. I certainly looked it, disheveled as I was, glassy-eyed as a fish dragged out of water with the previous night’s egusi on my breath. It wouldn’t have been the first she’d seen.
Still. I think about it now and all I remember are those faces, grim and yellow-eyed, like the butcher’s. Sometimes they were the agberos. Maybe it was the butcher.
Nondescript. These are the words that come to mind. Nondescript. They were nondescript faces, nondescript lives, like our own.
Not today though. Today, there are no shadows to be seen.
The last of the road opens to a building, an edifice that seems to shift in and out of my vision. A stark white affair with peeling paint, hanging precariously on aged pillars, the structure stands out like something from a dream, a miracle from the stories my mother used to tell. I have never seen this place before, and now that I think of it, I had never seen this road. I want to run. There is something of the mystic in all of this. The house that has obviously seen better days, the shadows that seem to shift in the light around it. I walk on still. Curiosity, I want to think. I hope. Certainly not the overbearing will of a force for which I had no name.
A figure sits by the entrance—an old man, as white-haired as the house. His is a face spotted with age, and intricately-inked spirals. He is very old, at least eighty, but there is something about those marks that masks this, that hints at a man forty years younger.
At this point, I make to turn away but the man stands and fixes me a steady gaze, rheumy-eyed and stern. At once, he seems to be looking at me and beyond me, both interested and detached. It is not an unkind look, but it is disconcerting, like a scientist observing a specimen.
He looks at me and says nothing. I stare back. Impolite, I know. We stare each other for a while.
“Welcome,” he says finally, in Igbo, breaking the silence. Nno. His voice has a gravelly tone.
I do not reply. He continues.
“Come in. We have been waiting for you.”
I do not ask who. I simply move towards him, like a puppet on strings. This is not my curiosity, I know that now. There is something more at work here. The door is wooden, engraved with the same spirals on the old man’s face, but I do not register it, not enough to commit it to memory. I could not.
“Don’t worry. Soon that will no longer be necessary.”
I do not even feel the shock that I am supposed to. It is this place. Everything here is warping my reasoning, making normal of the strange, trend of the arcane, numbing. I am like a man lobotomized. This is not strange to me.
We did not buy memory, we gave them away and our feelings went with them.
There is nobody home.
It is not as much a lack as it is an absence, the feeling of being out of place. There are long white walls, disproportional to the house, stretching to an end that is not visible to the eye. It reminded me of my mother’s stories—a man who went to the farm but stumbled on the spirit world on the way.
“Because the old stories are true. You know that now.”
The old stories. Stories my mother told me but the world would not let us remember; a humanity we had to give away to survive. The records had long since perished with The Purge, our history rewritten but once upon a time, we had paper money. It wasn’t much better, but at least we did not have to give away pieces of ourselves to survive. Two inflations later, everything changed. We ran out of paper. The government cut down trees to make more and we ran out of those too. Now, everyone must sell this memory at the Exchange, so no one remembers it.
No one but this man.
This is the reason we do not speak of it, we cannot. Memories of this kind are illegal. You try to think of them and your mind feels like it was dipped in cotton balls. How did he even manage it, and why did he not sell them?
These are the questions running through my mind, but I do not ask. I simply watch him rummage an empty room, searching for something.
There is nothing in sight—not a cupboard, not a shelf, nothing that could hint at a hiding place for what he is looking for. He looks on still. The emptiness yawns. It seems to be mocking his efforts. I look on still. It does not occur to me to be tired, that there is a chair somewhere I could sit on. It does not occur to me to ask for one.
Time will pass. I do not know how long, and the old man will find what he is looking for. He is holding a kola nut and something else, bound in plantain leaves. Nothing in the leaves hints at what it might be, and the old man does not say. He simply looks at me again.
“He who brings kola brings life.”
I do not know how to respond. Time has passed and I have forgotten, may be sold this memory of my childhood.
“Let the Eagle perch and let the kite perch. Anyone that would not let the other perch, let his wing break.”
He is still looking at me, waiting. There seems to be something I should say, some ritual response.
Isé. I should have said isé but I simply nod, barely, meeting his gaze with my own. Again, I say nothing.
I am ashamed.
The old man proceeds to break the kola nuts. There are four lobes. His movements are slow but steady, unhurried, and the act is done in perfect silence.
Isé. Let it be.
I am in another time. In this time, only this man remembered. In his time, it was not so. He offers me two lobes and I take them. The only sound to be heard now is the sound of our chewing, and silence. Our silence is a palpable thing, shared, like the kola nuts. There is also the wind outside.
Soon, the old man is done. He clears his throat and brings out something from his bag, I did not even notice he carried one. It is a hunting bag, brown and very old with the inevitable dryness that could only come from Harmattan. I half expect him to bring out a fresh kill from its depths, or maybe a tortoiseshell charm, it would hardly be the strangest thing I’ve seen in this place. Instead, he brings out a notebook. Somehow, I know that this was what was in the plantain leaves. I look around. The plantain leaves are nowhere to be found.
The notebook is strange, only in its ordinariness. It is brown and aged, like the bag; a leather bound thing elegantly engraved in the spirals I have now come to know. It is the closest thing to normal in this place, blank and unassuming, drawing me into its depths with the innocence of a child.
He offers me the book and I take it. I do not open it. Still, memories flood my mind like the waters that drowned this house.
My father was a young man with elegantly carved spirals. My mother was a trader of memories. My father left when I was ten years old. My mother took his memories out of spite. She took mine too.
“That is because we never truly forget. There are simply stories we do not tell, not anymore.”
There is no Road, not anymore, and I do not remember how I got here, home.
There are no roads to the past.
My mother would tell me this, once upon a time when there were no more stories to tell. Our nights had begun to wane and our fires burn with an absence; the feeling of something lost, something hastily hacked away. Our stories. She would tell me then how memories were precious things. You learnt to hold them with both hands or they fell away, breaking, with you unable to remember the shape of them. She would have known. By this time, she was already a fragile thing—letting go at the seams, unravelling. She could no longer remember the stories she used to tell, all those nights by the fire. She could no longer remember me.
I am sitting at my work desk, staring into darkness, the book is in my hands. The lights just went off. I have wood left so I make a fire, setting matches against the old wick of the kerosene lamp. After a few tries, it catches.
The flame is a pale yellow one. It does not burn enough for the darkness, or for the coldness of the wind outside. Still, for the purpose of what I am about to do, it is enough.
I begin to write. The words come easily, unhurried, fluid as water. They resonate with new beginnings, new endings, and with my mother’s voice.
There are stories we do not tell, not anymore.
Mayor Prosper Ihechi is a Nigerian writer, evolving. He is interested in the feel and sound of language and so he writes: stories for his body, poetry for his soul, and the occasional essay in between. His poetry has been longlisted for the Okike Poetry Prize, his fiction for the Syncity Anniversary Prize, other works published on Praxis, Okike, and forthcoming elsewhere.
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