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“Half Portraits Underwater” by Dennis Mugaa

“Half Portraits Underwater” by Dennis Mugaa

                                                                          

 i live forever by the water

with the sun spilled over me remember me this way

& when they come for me play the song i love

into the space i leave behind – Safia Elhillo

In the school’s auditorium, my sister, Yagazie, is still dancing. She moves like a masquerade in a trance. Her fingers twirl, her hips sway, her body pirouettes, the beads around her waist slither along with her; Afrobeats her guiding wave. 

This is how I see her now that she is no longer with me.

I sit in the middle: ninth row, fifth chair. I retrieve my book. When she dances, I write, her body speaks poetry. Dusk invades. No one else is around. She likes it this way: the interplay of sound, silence, and her body movements. She contorts her shoulders, the tempo rises and as she turns with the rhythm, the school late bus purrs to life. I call out her name, but my words are shattered by the music. I rise to tell her. Sweat drips, her smell of pepper encircles me as the music reaches its crescendo. I reach out to her. She fades, merges with air, and I fall on where she danced.  

***

“Olioma! Olioma! What you dey do? The bus na wan leave,” a girl says behind me, rushing out before I see her. 

I sit at the front of the school bus. Behind me, at the back, the girls who play hockey laugh. Yagazie and I used to sit with them. I didn’t talk to them much; each time, Yagazie was my avatar in conversations. Once, they tried to get her to join the hockey team, but she loved dancing too much. 

The bus moves through the traffic. Ikoyi has a quiet dilapidated charm; today it feels like a grandfather with long white hair, while Victoria Island sounds like Papa’s baritone, deep and reassuring. We live in 1004 Estate. I alight at the street near our estate gate. The street sleeps through the day and rises at dusk. A heavy-set woman serves jollof rice to okada men. Farther along, fruit sellers have set up stalls; they sell pineapples, bananas, watermelons, and mangoes. They don’t sell plantain, which I like; it’s sold on a different street, a small distance from here, next to the Chinese restaurant. Yagazie always bought me some, even when I didn’t want any: she stole money from Papa when he refused to buy something for us. 

Trees rustle. The air smells of mint and loneliness. Cars move slowly past me and into the parking lot—so slowly you wouldn’t believe it’s Lagos. The apartments are lit up in patterns I know well. The Yoruba woman’s lights are on: she exports Ankara suits to a store in London and stays there for the first half of the year. There’s the politician’s apartment: he brings his mistress every second Friday. Then there’s the Swiss expatriate who is home every day by six; once, he complained to Yagazie about the rudeness of Lagos drivers, but Yagazie told him it was his fault he had left such an orderly country to come and live in Nigeria. 

As I enter the lift, the gateman greets me: “Good evening Ma.” He calls me “Ma” nowadays. Five years ago, he used to call Yagazie and me by our first names. When we grew breasts (Yagazie first), he changed. Yagazie liked being called “Ma.” She preferred to think of herself as mature as Mama. I don’t like it at all; it makes me feel older than I am.

Our duplex is on the top floor. We used to be the four of us – Mama, Papa, Yagazie and me. Now it’s just me and Papa. We have a househelp, Taiwo. She comes in the morning and leaves when I come back from school. I open the door to find her waiting for me. She’s holding her bag, ready to leave. Her phone rings but she ignores it.

“Aren’t you going to answer?”

“No Ma. That’s my broda. He is useless.” She points to the kitchen counter. “Your food is there.”

“Your twin brother?”

“Yes. He wan chop life with no wok. Every time, he aks me for small-small moni and he’s doing nothing in Ibadan—” Her words float out with her. She waves goodbye and closes the door. 

Every crevice in the house is coloured by Yagazie, especially a photograph of Mama, Papa and me at her requiem mass. Mama said her spirit moves through the house sometimes, urging Mama to run after it. Mama said she noticed it when the harmattan began. I saw it too, but I lied when Papa said he hadn’t seen anything. And so Mama moved to Enugu to stay with our grandmother and aunties. She has been away for months. I couldn’t imagine her leaving Lagos; Mama loved the city and she loved her job as an interior designer. Lagos was a part of her ever since she found work here in the time of Abacha. 

Nowadays, the grief Mama carries burns everything she touches. Yagazie was her favourite child. She was the first girl, the Ada of the family (by two minutes). As Yagazie grew older, she started to look more like Mama, less like me – her twin: her hips grew fuller, her face smoothened to rival Mama’s, but what pleased and annoyed Mama most was that Yagazie acquired her stubbornness. Yagazie and I looked nothing like Papa. Mama said she thanked God every day for this because nine months was a long time to carry two babies and have them look like someone else. 

The house is empty now. Papa is in Onitsha. He was here yesterday. He had bought a car from Porto-Novo and drove it into Lagos. “The corrupt officials at Lagos port would have kept me waiting for months!” he complained to Mama on the phone. They spoke Igbo to each other – a language he would pretend not to know when he turned to speak to Yagazie and me.

My food grows cold. I walk outside to the balcony and face the lagoon. I wonder what the September night sky sees when it looks down on earth. If it sees Yagazie as she was last year, here where I stand, smoking weed for the second time after she had come from The Shrine. She had turned to me and said: “Sis, Olioma, we have to take pictures, just the two of us abi? All you do is write poems. You don’t dance with me. Pictures we can take together.”

We went to the beach the next day. We carried a camera. It was during our school holidays. Papa and Mama had travelled. We left the house without telling them and took a danfo to Lekki. While I was so afraid, Yagazie was excited. She loved the thrill of doing wrong things. Papa had forbidden us from ever using a danfo. He feared we would enter a one-chance bus like our poor uncle Ikenna, or, worse still, we would be kidnapped. But even if he found out he could only be angry at Yagazie for a few hours. Whenever we did something wrong, she stood in front of me while we were being reprimanded, silent. When it was over, she would turn to me and say with authority: “Don’t listen Olioma! Some of these grown-ups sef, they don’t know what they are saying.” And she would drag me to another mistake as if the only wrong we did was to get caught.

An okada took us to the entrance of Elegushi beach. Two beach boys immediately swarmed around us: “Madams, say you wan place to sit down?” they asked, directing us to the restaurants beside the beach. “Idiots! Get away! You only want moni!” Yagazie shut them up with a barrage of insults. She pulled me towards the beach forcefully, breaking into a run. I was behind her, struggling not to sink in the sand. We passed the shoreline. The water caressed our feet, wrapped itself around us, and then let go, like a lover motioning their beloved to a dance. 

I went and changed into a bathing suit. Yagazie didn’t bother. She only removed her shoes and left them underneath a parasol. We stood together and spread out our arms to the sea. Water soaked the hem of Yagazie’s yellow dress. We walked into the sea, up to where the water reached our thighs. It was as far as we ever went. We never swam; we didn’t know how to swim. We liked how the wind blew, how the waves beat against the shore, and how when we breathed deeply, time slowed and the waves acquired a subtle quiet feeling, as though beneath them, there was a palimpsest on which all of history was being written.

We set up the camera timer to take pictures. After we finished, we went and sat on the edge of the promontory. Yagazie rose. The black rocks we sat on were too uneven for her to dance on. Instead, she twirled her fingers and motioned her hands, moving with the waves. I took out my poetry book and wrote down what the sea said about her dancing. 

Clouds formed above us. Evening was approaching; we needed to leave. Yagazie looked at me; she slanted her eyes and smiled. I knew we thought the same thought, as sisters do sometimes; and we almost, almost, said the same thing at the same time: “Sis today is the best day of my life.”  

***

My dreams tell me rain is the presence of grieving clouds weeping. If true, Lagos today must be the saddest place on earth. 

A raindrop falls on the window. I follow its trail along with my finger until it disappears into the sill.  Grey morning light filters in through silver droplets. Steamers move across the lagoon. I add creamed milk to my tea. A seashell Yagazie and I collected decorates the dining table. I raise it to my ear and hear the sound of the sea and Yagazie trapped in it. Today is the day she died: a day I now use to number the rest of my days.

I walk back to my room and open the closet. I still only use half of it; the other half is empty, Yagazie still uses it: death is after all only the escape of spirits trapped inside bodies. That half calls itself her name sometimes. Her clothes are in a suitcase in a corner of our bedroom. Mama organised them to give away, but she ended up crying and couldn’t move them any farther. The suitcase has the yellow dresses she liked to wear, her cardigans for when she was cold, and the ugly berets we wore at school. She liked wearing them because she said they made her look like she was about to release an Afrobeats album. The photographs we took together are all arranged neatly at the top. We printed and kept them. All our photographs were self-portraits: they were an expression of how we saw ourselves in different places. There are photographs of us lying on the grass at the playground in school. One of us at the tennis court in our estate. One of us at The Jazzhole with vinyl records and books in the background. My favourite one is one of us at the beach where we are almost falling in laughter, our heads merged. These photographs hold the time we spent together. But what’s the use of holding time in a photograph when you can’t go back to it?

I close my eyes and the world becomes dark inside me. A key turns downstairs. Taiwo always opens the door with ferocity. She lives in the mainland, in Surulere. It’s Saturday. She never used to come on Saturdays before, Papa asked her to come and keep an eye on me after Yagazie died. Sometimes, I wonder if he knows me at all. If he did, he would know all the wrong things I have done are because of my sister. Nowadays, my life is a bore. I am only waiting to write my WAEC next year. I want to become a poet. When I tell Papa that I am sure he will collapse first. Yagazie and I were to tell him together: she wanted to be a dancer. She wouldn’t have cared what Papa said or thought, and Papa would have assumed both of us didn’t care.

My phone rings. It’s Mama calling. When I answer, her voice rises over the hum of pouring rain. A breeze merges with it and she sounds short of breath. 

“Mommy, where are you?”

“I went to buy airtime to call you.”

We both pause. I want to ask why she is still in Enugu after all this time. I walk downstairs, the phone on my ear. Taiwo cuts yam in the kitchen. She sings a familiar song. Mama’s breathing is heavy. A car hoots. On the balcony, raindrops fall on my sweater. I tap on the railing and think of falling.  

 “I asked Taiwo to make you pounded yam and egusi,” she says and laughs. She knows it was my favourite food as a child, Yagazie’s too. 

I hear Mama struggle with her thoughts. She wants to tell me something.

“Olioma can you believe your cousin Emeka is a Yahoo Yahoo? He was arrested yesterday in Ikeja. He had been telling your auntie he’s making home videos. Now she has been here crying since last night –”

“Up Nepa! Up Nepa! Up Nepa!”

“Mommy are you with someone?”

“No Olioma, those are children. The lights are back. They had taken them for two days.”

“Mommy when are you coming?”

“Olioma we will talk later, right now eat your food,” she says and hangs up.

Mama blames herself for Yagazie’s death. However, I am the one who should feel guilty—I was with her that afternoon—but I don’t. I only feel sad and angry that Yagazie left me alone. On this day last year, we were in our parent’s bedroom, searching for photographs of us when were younger. Mama was in the parlour. Papa was away. They never liked anyone being in their room, and so Yagazie and I had to be fast. As we searched, we found an old photograph of our parents before we were born. Mama was holding a baby, a son. Next to the photograph was a birth and death certificate. He died when he was six months old. 

Yagazie was angry that Mama never told us about our brother. I, on the other hand, wouldn’t have wanted to know. She rushed down with the picture, her face red with rage. I was behind her, escorting her anger and our overdue sadness. 

“Mommy you didn’t tell us we had a brother!” Yagazie screamed at her. I had never seen her like that. She was always honest, even if her words were sometimes brutal, but never disrespectful. 

“Who told you to go through my things? So you mean to say now because you have small breast like these you can talk to me how you want?”

“Mommy it doesn’t change that you didn’t tell us.” 

Mama rose from her seat. I felt the sound of the news channel she was watching reduce even though she hadn’t turned it down. She pointed an accusatory finger at Yagazie. “Eeh, so nowadays you talk like a hollow drum! There is something wrong with you, with the two of you! Don’t think I don’t know that you have been going to the beach without permission. Those pictures in your room are evidence. I was not born yesterday!”

“Mommy so you also entered our room without asking—”

Mama slapped Yagazie before she could finish. I stepped back in shock. Mama never hit us at all. She turned to me and said: “Olioma one day this sister of yours will get you in trouble.” Yagazie stared at me through balancing tears, her eyes accusing me of betrayal. I was certain she thought I was ingratiating myself to our mother. “I will tell your father you have become spoilt.”

“Come Olioma,” Yagazie said. I followed her; I wanted her approval more than I was afraid of Mama’s anger. She led me up the stairs. We picked the camera and my school bag. When we went down again, Mama was still seething; she was telling Taiwo about how annoyed she was. Yagazie looked at our mother, insolence in her eyes. She opened the door. “Where are you going? Olioma! Yagazie! Come—” 

We left the house. We raced each other down the stairs, our footsteps echoing in the sound of our mother’s rage. We thought Mama might use the lift and find us on the ground floor, but she didn’t. And when we burst into that day’s sun, we felt we could do anything we wanted.  “Olioma don’t worry, let’s go to the beach, when Papa comes he will be on our side.”

We got to Elegushi an hour later. There were so many people that day. An event was due to happen later in the evening. It was rumoured the oba was going to attend. The gateman was turning people away, but he let us through because he had seen us there many times before. The water was beautiful that day, it glistened like pearls. The sea breeze swept over our faces and became caught in our hair. We abandoned our usual spot at the promontory and walked along the shoreline listening to the waves. We wrote our names in the sand and took photographs. Afterwards, we talked about the brother we never met. “He was probably an obanje sis,” I said. 

“I don’t like hearing those traditional things Olioma,” she said, “I’m annoyed Mommy didn’t tell us anything, and yet she wants to know everything about us.” She untied her hairband and as she wound it back, a braid fell off. She gave the braid to me, and I coiled it around my finger. 

“Olioma, look!” She pointed to tourists not far from us. They were playing music and dancing on the shoreline. “Let’s go there.”

“No.” I shook my head. I didn’t want to get into the water that day. I hadn’t carried a change of clothes. 

“Okay let me go, I’ll come back.” I watched my sister. She didn’t know any of the tourists, but how easily she interacted with them; how easily they laughed when she said something. She stepped into the water. She moved her waist, and then her arms and legs, showing them how to dance on water. Water splashed around her in miniature rainbows against the sun and they clapped for her. I took out my book to write a few lines. 

Beauty dances in the shape of a water goddess
It leaves its shy half on shore  
With portraits & a promise of return …

The light grew darker on the page I was writing on. Waves crashed loudly on the promontory. And then, someone screamed. 

I looked up from my book.

Yagazie was nowhere. 

The tourists she had been with were frantic. One was rushing out into the ocean, another was calling out to one of the fishermen, and another was running towards the lifeguard post. The waves were growing stronger. Out in the sea, I saw a hand calling for help. “Yagazie! Yagazie!” I screamed as I ran towards the water. Before I got to the shoreline, her hand was gone. The braid I held was the only thing left of her. 

*** 

The rain slows to a drizzle. I want to go to the sea, where Yagazie drowned. I want to be with her today. I pick up my bag, some money and our camera. “Olioma, where you dey go?” Taiwo asks me as I leave. “Oga will kill me if you go.”

“I’ll be back soon. I won’t bring you wahala.”

“What of food?”

“Don’t worry I’m coming.”

As I walk towards the bus stop, I see Jamal, the boy I liked. His father is a military man, a Fulani from Zaria. Jamal is tall and svelte, and even though he is handsome, I wonder why I wanted him so much.

I told Yagazie about him one day. We were in the kitchen. I was eating a mango above the sink. Its juice dripped down my arms and jaws and the mango fibres showed as I ate. “Olioma, if that boy, Jamal, knew you ate mangoes like this, he would never talk to you again,” Yagazie said.

“Sis, come on now, tell me, how somebody kisses? I want to kiss him, but I’m afraid I’ll embarrass myself. He’ll think I don’t know anything. I know you’ve done it.”

“It’s easy, you do like you see in movies.”

“How now? Show me step by step. Use your hands.”

“Olioma, you’re wasting my time. Close your eyes—”

“How will I see—”

“Do you want to learn or not?” I nodded. “Close your eyes and open your mouth a little.” I closed my eyes. Yagazie held onto my neck, she raised my chin and pressed her lips onto mine. She moved her hands and clasped my face; her tongue made a motion around my lips; she lingered for a moment and then let go. “That’s how you kiss someone.”

I move away from the road, unfurl my umbrella, and hide behind a building. He passes and I breathe out. Our romance didn’t go anywhere; after he and I kissed, Yagazie died, and I have been avoiding him since.

I arrive at the bus stop. A danfo stops; a keke stops; and finally, an okada. The driver, conductor and rider motion for me to enter. I try to move my legs. Nothing. I try again. Nothing. A strong wind blows. My umbrella slants. Raindrops turn spots on my sweater into a darker shade of green. They give up on me and avert their attention to other pedestrians. Yagazie would mock me for my failed attempt at disobedience and then we would laugh together. I turn to walk back to the house. Suddenly I stop, and tears flood my eyes. 

***

School today is a chore. The English teacher reads out Okigbo’s Heavensgate to us in a drawl. I sit at the back writing my own verses. The sun increases in brightness. When the mid-morning bell rings, the whole class stirs awake. I go to the playground. The girls who used to be Yagazie’s friends walk towards me. The three of them are in a different stream of our SS3 class. “Olioma, why can’t you be more like your sister?” one of them, the tall one, says. I don’t answer because it’s already a stupid question. I was her twin. Didn’t we look the same?

“I don’t mean it like that. It’s only that we miss her. We know you’re different. We like you too, but you don’t talk to us, you haven’t talked to us in a year.” I look at them, but I can’t bring myself to say anything. A truth is being revealed to me: that I have been afraid of navigating the world without Yagazie. 

The tall girl is annoyed at my silence. She starts to speak again.

“I’m sorry, I need to leave.” I collect my bag from class and walk towards the school gate. The security guard is asleep, failing at his daily task of watching the day end. As I leave, I hear Papa’s reproach accompanied by Yagazie’s praise of my truancy. At home, I find Taiwo and Papa. He is in the parlour, on phone with someone. He tells them how the elders in our ancestral home want him to take a title. When he sees me, he turns.

“What is wrong Olioma? Why are you not in school?” 

“Papa it’s girl issues. I don’t feel well.” I look straight at him, hoping that I look sick enough. If there is something Yagazie taught me, it’s how to lie to our father: he does not like to hear about women’s bodies at all. He calms down. I walk up to my room and he goes back to his conversation: “If they were to build an inland port in Onitsha, the East would be far…”

I spread out all the photographs Yagazie and I took at the beach on the bed. In all of them, we are facing the camera, the sea is behind us and our arms are around each other. Yagazie is in her yellow dresses while I’m in different clothes in each one. In some we are smiling and laughing, in others we are pouting and flashing the peace sign. I cut them into halves and put the side she appears inside my bag. I have decided to leave pieces of her in the places we used to go. I change my clothes and hurry downstairs. I lie to Papa I need painkillers and he gives me money. When I leave the house, I don’t worry about what he will think when I get back in the evening. 

I board a danfo. The sky is clear. Lagos is yellow. Today, it feels like a painting of a young man alighting from a bus station on his way to play football at dusk. 

“Everybody know say na tiff Buhari tiff election from Atiku! We know say na bribe election tribunal! Omo, dis contri no dey go any wia o!” the man in front of me argues. 

We pass the toll and enter Lekki. 

I reach the beach at four. As I pay the entrance, I notice the security guard we knew seated in an abandoned keke. He bolts up as if he has seen a ghost. Granted, it’s my first time here in a year, and he probably thinks I am Yagazie. There are only a few people on the beach. Suya is being sold on the side where tourists crowd. The promontory Yagazie and I sat on has been sealed off with red tape around it. A child runs towards me, brings joy for a few minutes before her mother catches up to her and leads her away. When I turn to my right, I notice a shipwrecked oil tanker – MT Anuket Emerald, next to it are three fishermen cleaning their boats. 

I walk towards one of the fishermen. 

“I want to go for a boat ride. How much is it?” He tells me. “What happened to the oil tanker?”

“Them tell us say the ship dey go another side wey far from hia, but say the captain no fit control am again, say the steering broke. Na so the ship come dey come dey come until e reach sand. All of us see am, me I no dey hia, but all of us we see am. Na so oil dey commot like water. Thank Papa God, say nobody die.” He prepares his boat. His muscles gleam in the sun. His feet form footprints on the black sand around the shipwreck. “Ma, get in.” 

“Make sure you go fast,” I tell him. The boat hums to life. The waves make it sway. It parts the sea, unfolding, only slightly the water which hides history, hurt and Yagazie. Clouds begin to form. We leave the shoreline, towards the horizon: the opening of a portal to another endless sea. I open my bag. As the water splashes behind us, I let go of the half portraits. They fly in the air and fall on the water. The boat moves fast; I become the wind, the wind which merges with the sea.  


Dennis Mugaa is a writer from Meru, Kenya. He has been shortlisted for the K & L Prize for African Literature and is a former Ebedi-fellow. His previous work has been published in The Kalahari Review. 

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