Ever since Glory and Gloria matured into children old enough to envision the appearance of evil, their mother told them how evil Mr Okoro was. She described his evil with a grave note laced around her tone, her wide eyes tilted at the corners with great effort, and both hands folded behind her back.
“His wife left him after he killed their only son. He killed their son. Shot him. With a gun,” she said, supplying each phrase in bits, as if to lend the forsaking and dying and shooting an outstanding iniquity.
Glory, in response, pictured Mr Okoro as a blackish-red man with pointy horns who wore a red skirt gathered at his waist; and Gloria sucked her tongue at her mother’s tale, suspense and fear quickening her heartbeat.
“Didn’t he go to prison?” Gloria asked, almost in a whisper.
“We are in Nigeria na. He bribed his way out of jail.”
So, while other children loathed spiders, winged cockroaches, darkness, and church services, Glory and Gloria had only Mr Okoro as the wisp of horror that blackened their childhood. Their world advanced with them gazing at Mr Okoro’s high barbed-fence with wintered fear. But like all forbidden things—to the twins— the interior of Mr Okoro’s compound harboured something enticing, one their mother deprived them the thrill of beholding. Their mother’s warning, slowly but eventually, became a temptation, an over-ripe fruit begging to be plucked, a balloon so bubbly it sought a needle to puncture its flesh. Glory and Gloria did pluck fruit and puncture flesh; and the events which unfurled mismatched their expectations.
Their mother prayed daily, marking attendance, a pugilistic kind. She sang praises to God as though He paid her wages for it, devoured His word with a strange interest plastered on her face, and starved herself till her God whispered answers to her wishes. With her shivering God-call, she wrestled her shortcomings, dusted her past, bore her loneliness, and hushed her regrets. She spat holy fire on a woman, her husband’s new wife.
Gloria pitied her mother, the kind of pity associated with innocent love. She knew so well that her mother had lost all battles to her new rival, all battles but one—owning her and her brother, owning the privilege to keep them both as her possession, a link to and souvenir of her past joy. But other than that, she lost everything: her husband, her feminine tenderness, her dependency on a male figure, her elated eyes and warm laughter that had been the sun in Gloria’s dreams.
On the Saturday evening when they yielded to temptation, their mother was praying in the living room while they kicked their ball gleefully between two goal posts. Gloria wore a floral-patterned gown, and Glory wore a Chelsea T-shirt, matched with his uniform shorts which he refused to wash since Thursday. They used large stones for each post. That day, unlike most of their previous matches, they both screamed during the game: either when one scored an unexpected goal or when they argued about the validity of a victory. In past time, they had observed silence because their mother stood against Gloria participating in a game so hot and sweaty and boyish, ignoring the fact that she beat her brother in almost every football match.
The evening breeze caressed their skins as they ran back and forth each other’s post, the ball rolling in front, fun and ambition in their eyes. Glory was leading with two goals. Gloria was competitive, had always been at the heels of her brother from birth. Their mother often told them the story of how Glory came out first with Gloria trailing behind, her bloody hand snarled around his ankle in a tight curl.
“The nurse said you will give men trouble,” Glory’s mother said and laughed, back then, when she still let her teeth show in smiles.
Glory scored again, and Gloria kicked the ball with so much rage that it parabolled in the air, crossed the spiky barbed-wire of Mr Okoro’s fence and fell out of sight. Glory whistled and Gloria stood, her blood curdling like tired pap, lips trembling. She blinked and stared at Glory. He looked away. Their mother’s incomprehensible and quaky tongues echoed from the living room, spreading round the compound. For minutes, they stood still like rusted fifteen-year-old poles, their mouths heavy with the weight of the dreadful steps to be taken. The image of the soaring ball played and replayed in Gloria’s head, and all she could hear her mind whisper was, Let us fly like the ball. Let us grow wings.
“Let us go and collect the ball,” Gloria said at last.
She sucked her tongue and stared blankly, her breath held.
“It’s not me and you o. Why did you kick the ball? You’re so bitter,” Glory replied.
Gloria laughed, warmly, madly, tugging at the neck of her gown. Glory was used to this madness. He knew so well that this was his sister’s insane witch cackle was her way of mourning.
He first heard her laugh this way when they were ten and still stole spoons of milk from their mother’s turned back. Gloria had snuck their mother’s lipstick in her bag, smuggled it to class, and, during breaktime, showed her friends how to wear it, spreading it over the lips till a smudge of colour formed. A friend of hers, perhaps a jealous one, reported to the class teacher and Gloria was caught. When their mother caned her the first three strokes, Gloria responded with a low groan and a conscience-pricking question, her body convulsing in pain.
“Mummy, but you use it. My teacher applies it in class. Then why can’t I use it?”
Their mother said nothing but caned on with the slim stick. Glory stood on the highest step of their staircase watching the scene. Then it happened. Gloria laughed so loud and so scattered that Glory almost fell and tumble down the stairs. Her laughter was glass splintering, a crashing that damaged. He clutched the cold banister and watched his mother pause, silence mutating into different mind-voices, the wood in her hand quivering. His legs became boiled spaghetti, wobbly and half-melted. He recognised fear in the hard wetness of their mother’s eyes. He knew she felt powerless and terrified.
“Go to your room,” she managed to say.
Gloria lurched up the stairs, power exuding from her as she breezed across her brother.
At that moment, in Glory’s eyes, his sister changed into an eccentric stranger, one full of crude power. He realised that he would always fall into her scattered laughter and come out refreshed, reinvented momentarily into a self that had no regard for the world’s troubles. In his eyes, Gloria leaped in age, grew hard, more audacious than he could ever dare to become.
“Are you going, or you’re afraid?” Gloria asked him, sucking her tongue.
He knew that she could tell he was afraid of Mr Okoro; perhaps, also, that he saw Mr Okoro in his dreams stroking a gun, horns taller than they were since his previous visit. He made up his mind to go, not because he collected his courage, but because he would feed on Gloria’s.
“Let’s go,” he replied, and they scurried out.
They got to Mr Okoro’s black gate, and Gloria knocked loudly. After getting no response, she knocked louder.
“Come in,” a voice said, the words lost amidst a soft breeze.
Gloria pushed open the gate and they entered. The twins took in the new environment with the tail of their eyes. Their ball sat on the flat surface of the flame of the forest flower that edged the compound. A large mango tree held the house centre, swaying gingerly in the small breeze, whispering anxiety. In the shade of the mango tree, Mr Okoro relaxed on a straight-backed chair, a plastic table before him, ladened with an iridescent bottle of Star and a cup half-filled with the golden-coloured liquid. He was old, so old that his facial features—his nose, eyes, and lips—resembled one another and laxed in gentility. His body was fair, wrinkled, and composed of a calm and grace that rhymed with the compound’s ambience.
“Good afternoon, sir,” the twins greeted in unison.
“Afternoon,” Mr Okoro replied.
Gloria gazed at Mr Okoro like a woman examining an item to be bought in the market. She grinned impulsively. How could this man, with his gentility and composure, be evil? She had suspected her mother’s stories of Mr Okoro to be void of specifics and bold truth. She perceived they were just exaggerations from a worried lady with the interest of her children at heart. But she wouldn’t give Mr Okoro approval, not yet, for his eyes were emptied of feelings. In that duration of examination, she itched to force something into those eyes; perhaps fit in pain by stepping with great determination on his foot, or cracking jokes that would water those dried eyes of his with happiness.
“Erm, sir, we are here for our ball. We are so sorry it landed here,” Gloria said, and Glory nodded his agreement.
Mr Okoro picked up his glass cup and sipped from it. Gloria watched the liquid sizzle. She felt the bubble that dotted the shine of the glass in her stomach.
“I will give you the ball. But only if you do two things.”
Mr Okoro dropped the glass and looked up to Gloria. Gloria stole a glance at Glory. A bird flew into the mango tree and perched on a branch that held two over-ripe mangoes. Glory focused on the bird, on its yellow feathers streaked with coal-black. The yellow of the feathers complemented the sun. He wanted to drag his sister out of this place. Their mother was right; this man was evil. What could he want from children their age? He felt hot as he wondered if Gloria, too, couldn’t breathe properly.
“What should we do, sir?” Gloria asked.
“Take a sip,” the man said, raising the glass of drink.
Glory suspected the drink to be poisoned. No, Mr Okoro wouldn’t drink it if it were, he thought. Out of a sense of irrational protection for his sister, he collected the glass and sipped from it. He coughed, thumping his chest with clenched fist as he spat the liquid and returned the cup. His eyes welcomed a rush of red. The liquid tasted bitter. It burnt his chest like malice.
Gloria watched her brother, his eyes and body movement, trying to predict how the liquid would taste. All she recognised was fear, her brother’s usual fear for the unfamiliar, a fear that in her own case subsisted as curiosity and anticipation. She took the glass from Mr Okoro and gulped the liquid. It was bitter at first, but afterwards the magic came: a rush of energy that was like fire and sweet shocks and legal madness all at once. She felt power and loved the feel of it in her body—contained and bubbling. She wanted to take another gulp. This was the kind of power she began craving for since she lost her mother to loneliness and God. She wanted the power to make things become, to enforce changes. It was her hunger for this power that made her smuggle her mother’s lipstick to class, spreading the colour over her lips, instructing girls her age to do same. She had prayed every single day to mature into an adult, for her hips to curve, her breast to increase in roundness and size, to study her reflection and recognize a full, blossomed woman. She sought the natural power adults had, their ability to make decisions independently, how her father had woke up one morning and, on his own discretion, decided to absent himself from their lives. She wanted to make the sun in her dreams shine again.
Mr Okoro reached for the glass and Gloria handed it to him. She could feel her brother’s eyes on her. Gloria looked at Mr Okoro and felt a small victory. His eyes now housed something; it was daze.
“What’s the second thing Sir?” Glory asked.
The bird flew to a higher branch, its feathers glorious with colour and flare, its eyes dots of light.
Mr Okoro fingered the bottle before speaking. His hand trembled greatly.
“It’s a riddle. You give me the answer, and you grab your ball and walk away.”
“What if we don’t get it?” Gloria cut in.
“Then you keep coming back to try, that is, if you still want the ball.”
Now, the ball rolled down the flame of the forest tree and bounced. Gloria gazed at it, the once-white skin speckled with green pentagons.
“It is language, a cruel kind of language. It keeps its victim in a box, and those outside the box can never guess what goes on in that box. It grows more powerful with time. And with guilt, it breaks the soul a thousand times.”
When Mr Okoro was done, Gloria glanced at him, and could have sworn she saw a tear slide down his cheek. Mr Okoro sniffed. The bird on the tree flew, obstructing the sun for a second. The two over-ripe mangoes fell from the tree, separating in the air and splattering their yellow juices as they crashed on the red earth.
“Do you have an answer?” Mr Okoro asked.
The twins shook their head slowly. There was sadness in the their eyes, not because they would not go home with their ball, but because they both knew deep in their consciousness that the answer to Mr Okoro’s riddle would spell out something more severe than pain, something deserving of pity.
“It’s language, a cruel kind of language. It keeps its victim in a box, and those outside the box can never guess what goes on in that box. It grows more powerful with time. And with guilt, it breaks the soul a thousand times,” Mr Okoro repeated.
He stood up and moved wearily into his house, arms drooping, his spine curved. The twins headed home.
The day that followed was Sunday, a day that Gloria looked forward to. Sunday worship services awed her: the binding cords of faith that held every fellow together, the pastor’s sacrosanct authority, how he could make one-sided proclamations and members—faithfuls under the anointing, both eyes shut, arms above their heads waving about the air in grace—affirmed their belief through their amens, as though his words could never be false, never! But that Sunday, after witnessing Mr Okoro’s humanity a day before, Gloria had no interest in church activities.
It’s language, a cruel kind of language.
Mr Okoro’s riddle played over and over again in her head like a bewitching note. She sang worship to God with an abstraction of self, eyes distant, and lips moving without pressing words to audibility. Glory nudged her often, trying his possible best to snap her out of her wandering. Her mother paid no attention to Gloria’s absence in spirit as she was completely immersed in the holy sun rays that washed the interior of the church. During the sermon when the pastor, a tall man with raven-black eyes and tight lips, mounted the pulpit, an idea condensed in Gloria’s head. Why hadn’t she thought of this all along? She would ask the pastor Mr Okoro’s riddle. He would surely know, for the scripture said it will give unto the faithfuls wisdom to interpret all things, and who other than the pastor was more of a faithful? So, Gloria waited impatiently, drumming on her small bag, tying and retying her scarf, sucking her tongue until the service came to an end. She scurried to the altar like Samuel to God, and she greeted the pastor in between desperate gasps for breath.
“Good afternoon, sir.”
“Afternoon, dear. How are you?” the man asked, hands rested on his laps.
“Fine, sir. I enjoyed today’s service,” Gloria replied.
“We thank God.”
She held her breath, gazing at the cream walls of the pulpit, at the purple and green linen, folded intricately and lapping over one another in decoration. She wondered if God was watching from those lappings, perhaps shaking his head—if he had any—because she had told a lie. She was certain of her mother’s presence in the background, watching intently, eyeing her daughter’s strange demeanour.
“I have a riddle for you sir,” Gloria said.
The pastor’s raven-black eyes squinted, and those tight lips of his grew into a line as he smiled.
Gloria repeated Mr Okoro’s riddle, and when she was done, she looked up at the pastor’s face. It had creased like the blue lapels of his wrinkled suit.
“I don’t know the answer to that,” the poor man replied.
“But God said he will give unto us the wisdom to interpret all things, the kind he gave to Daniel.”
The pastor was silent.
“Can’t you pray for God to tell you the answer?” Gloria asked, eyes bulged in inquiry, fingers pressing the leather of her bag. “Can’t you pray. Just pray! Pray!” Gloria’s voice was now loud.
The conversing congregation paused to stare at her, this teenager who dared raise her voice before the servant of the Lord. She was so small compared to her offense.
“Can’t you just pray to know the answer?” Gloria repeated this time in a whisper. Tears rolled down her cheeks, moistening her jaw and dotting the blue of her blouse. She broke. Her hope had been so invested in the possibilities of the pastor giving her the answers to Mr Okoro’s riddle that she never braced herself for otherwise.
Her mother walked up to the altar, grabbed Gloria by the arm and led her to their red Toyota. Glory followed, his mother’s large KJV Bible and handbag hoisted up his chest. As he moved to the car, lines of thoughts broke continually in his head. His sister had cried. For the first time in five years. It worried him no more than it astonished him. It was strange to hear her quiet sobs, to picture the pain that edged her eyes with red; it made him feel weak, somewhat less of a boy.
Gloria sat at the backseat of the car, crying into her palms, shoulders heaving.
“He is a nice man. Mr Okoro is a nice man. I know it. I can tell he is,” Gloria hollered.
Glory shook his head as if urging her to shove back those words. Their mother glared at him, and Glory realised she knew. She knew they had gone there, stood under the man’s mango tree, watched the strangely coloured bird as it perched on branches. Perhaps she knew that they drank alcohol and admired the man’s flame of the forest bushes, and his tidy compound, and his quiet and his shrivelled skin, and his humanity.
“You went into Mr Okoro’s compound. You disobeyed me,” their mother said, hands tapping the steering wheel, eyes focused on a distant thing.
“He was not like you said he was,” Gloria replied.
“How would you know?”
“I saw him! That man was like a broken thing! He was in pain!”
“You’re still a child. Have you ever seen a person in pain, someone broken?” their mother asked. She turned to Gloria, nostrils flaring.
Glory fingered the golden KJV print on the cover of the Bible. His head became too heavy for his neck. For a second it felt like his head was going to come off, fly out the window, and roll down the road, sliding through the spaces between speeding vehicles, and his headless body would chase after it frantically, halting traffic.
“I have seen a broken person. You. That man looked like you. He had your pain-filled eyes, and your tired breathing, and your gri…” Gloria paused.
She now knew the answer to Mr Okoro’s riddle. It was grief. That was it, so poignant and true. It was grief. She cackled. Her mother sighed, ignited the engine and drove off. The warm breeze from the car window blew off tears from Gloria’s eyelids.
Glory fell into the warmth of the car seat. He focused on the red earth of Aba, on the dusty zincs of kiosks, the harmattan-dried bushes whose crisp branches had tangled with stray yellow-and-black nylons. All of it slid past his eyes like precious but fleeing moments. He knew his sister was right about Mr Okoro. He had seen his grief, felt it, almost touched it. They will never remain the same, he and Gloria. They had lost a part of themselves in Mr Okoro’s compound, abandoned it with their ball.
Many years later, they will later find out about Mrs Okoro. They’ll hear about her Ghanaian lover whom Mr Okoro caught above his wife one fateful day–the day he rushed to fetch his pistol, the day fear fell on his barbed-fence, the particular hour he cracked the gun and shot at his wife, the hour birds on his mango tree took flight, the second his twelve-year-old son jumped in to protect the woman who breast-fed him, to receive a blow he never triggered.
But before those years, that Sunday, when they got home, the air was turgid with silence. The twins shambled upstairs while their mother crashed on the sitting-room armchair and sobbed. She was weak. Her children’s disobedience caused a feeling in her. It had awoken her awareness to their growth, their longing for a father. They were no longer her willing babies, the kind she could control. They’d been the only things in her life she could arrange ever since her husband left; the only things she could keep in place like porcelain on shelves, and that controlling and arranging had been a way of feeding the yawn of loneliness in her chest. But now, they had their own lives and independence. They would always break and fix themselves with or without her interference.
Glory and Gloria lay beside each other on Gloria’s bed that was too slim for both their bodies. Glory had refused to go to his room. Seconds fled, minutes folded into hours, and 9:00pm came, exactly 9:00pm when they heard the loud bang of a gunshot from Mr Okoro’s compound. A long silence followed.
Gloria cried into the night, on Glory’s shoulder, and although she couldn’t say why, she mourned the final loss of something rare. Glory stroked the softness of her cheek to sleep before he himself fell asleep. Both their dreams shared boundaries, floating worlds that carried the same essence. Glory dreamt of love. In his dream he was a grown man, the form he had always imagined as his father. Gloria was on his back giggling into his ears, her arms wrapped around his neck. He ran with her to a backed figure who had a yellow bird perched on his shoulder. The sun’s light caressed the walls of his dream, and the green of the low grasses, and the trees that bent to touch each other. Harmattan and its cold were absent. Nature had the freshness of a young rain. Lost things were recovered.
Clement Miracle Ifeanyichukwu
hails from Abia, Nigeria. He writes speculative short stories centered on the theme of “Grief and Difference”, exploring how humans shape and reshape themselves in their most vulnerable state. He is a student of Federal University of Technology, Minna where he studies Education and Mathematics. His works have appeared on Fiery Scribe Review, and he is the winner of the PROFWIC Writing Show Episode 7. His hobbies are singing into silent spaces, writing on things that catch the eye, reading honest fiction, and watching family dramas that showcase reality in the best way possible. You can find him on Instagram @clementifeanyi415 and on Twitter @ClementIfeany07.