There you are, eleven, alone in the study in the dark in a cool pool of moonlight at the window. The party is in full swing on the back lawn outside. Half of Accra must be out there. In production.
Some fifty-odd tables dressed in white linen table skirts, the walls at the periphery all covered in lights, the swimming pool glittering with tea lights in bowls bobbing lightly on the surface of the water, glowing green. The smells of things — night-damp earth, open grill, frangipani trees, citronella — seep in through the window, slightly cracked. You tap the glass lightly and wave your hand, testing, but no one looks up. It rained around four for five minutes and not longer; now the sky is rich black for its cleansing. Beneath it a soukous band shows off the latest from Congo, the lead singer wailing in French and Lingala.
She ought to be ridiculous: little leopard-print shorts, platform heels, hot-pink half-top, two half-arms of bangles. Instead, wet with sweat and moon, trembling, ascendant, all movement and muscle, she is fearsome. It is a heart-wrenching voice, cutting straight through the din of the chatter, forced laughter, clinked glasses, the crickets.
She is shaking her shoulders, hips, braided extensions. She has the most genuine intentions of any woman out there. Their bright bubas adorn the large garden like odd brilliant bulbs that bloom only at night. From the dark of the study you watch with the interest of a scientist observing a species. A small one.
Rich African women, like Japanese geisha in wax-batik gelestheir skin bleached too light. They are strange to you, strange to the landscape, the dark, with the same polished skill-set of rich women worldwide: how to smile with full lips while the eyes remain empty; how to hate with indifference; how to love without heat. You wonder if they find themselves beautiful, or powerful?
Or perplexing, as they seem to you, watching from here? She trained in the States. How is your son?
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They all wear the same one impenetrable expression: eyebrows up, lips pushed out, nostrils slightly flared in poor imitation of the s supermodel. It is a difficult expression to pull off successfully, the long-suffering look of women bored with being looked at. The girls in the garden look more startled than self-satisfied, as if their features are shocked to be forming this face. What dresses. You can barely manage movement in the big one-piece buba you borrowed from Comfort, your cousin, under duress. The off-the-shoulder neckline keeps slipping to your elbow, exposing your troublingly flat chest.
And lay. The dry quiet a sharp sudden contrast to the wet of the heat and the racket outside. And as sharply and as suddenly, the consciousness of nakedness.
Eve, after apple. This was moments ago nakedness as you lay, having fallen, the conditioned air chilly and silky against your chest. Against your nipples. And yours. The outermost boundaries of a body, the endpoints, where the land of warm skin meets the sea of cold air. You lay on your back in the dark on the floor, like that, newly aware of your nipples.
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You listened for a moment, as if to a message, then kicked off the sandals and stood to your feet. You went to the window and looked at the singer, in flight on the stage, to the high note. You think of the houseboys with their lawn chairs in an oval reading Othello in thick accents, Uncle watching with pride.
Demand me nothing: what you know, you know.
From this time forth I never will speak word. Likely not. With the thing come together, the pattern emerging, the lines, circles, secrets, lies, hurts, back to this, here, the study, where else, given the fabric, the pattern, the stars. What to say? The day began typically: with the bulbul in the garden, with the sound of Auntie shouting about this or about that, with your little blue bedroom catching fire with sunlight and you waking up from the dream. In it, your mother is bidding you farewell at the airport.
This first part is exactly what happened that day. You are eight years old, skinny, in the blue gingham dress with a red satin bow in your braids and brown shoes. Uncle is in the terminal presumably buying your tickets. You are waiting with your mother on the sidewalk outside.
She is crouching beside you with her hand on your shoulder, a wild throng of people jostling around and against you. Her fingernails are painted a hot crimson red.
You are noticing this. Meanwhile, a stranger with a camera is trying to take a picture. A smallish human being by the side of a larger one, both with neat braids with small be at the ends; both slim well, one skinny with dark knobbly kneecaps; one never without lipstick, the other never allowed. In the dream, as it happened, you ignore the photographer.
Finally you look up in the hope of some silence. Your mother pulls you close to her, so close you can taste her, the scent of her lotion delicious, a lie. A chalky taste, heavy and soapy as wax. You suck it in greedily. Swallowing it.
Her braids are tied back with an indigo scarf, the tail of which billows up, covering her face. The scarf is tied tightly, pulling her skin towards her temples, making her cheekbones jut out like a carved Oyo mask. The red on her lips contrasts the indigo perfectly, as the man who bought the scarf would have no doubt foreseen.
Not for the first time you think that your mother is the most beautiful woman in Lagos.
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At this moment, here beside you, your mother is unquestionable. In the liminal space between dreaming and waking into which enters shouting, about this or about that you started to scream but the feel of the sound taking form in your throat woke you fully.
Now the terror passed over, with the cold in your fingers, the echo of POP! But when you look at it now you see only your mother. The scarf blowing forward and hiding her face. No one has heard from her since. Not for a minute do you believe what they say. They are villagers, cruel like your grandmother. Dzifa missing mother was born eight years after Uncle in Lolito, a village on the Volta.
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Their father, a fisherman, was drowned in the river the day after Dzifa was born. Their mother, your grandmother, for obvious reasons decided her daughter was cursed. Uncle, unconvinced, worshipped and adored his little sister and the two were inseparable growing up. Dzifa was beautiful, preternaturally so, shining star of the little Lolito schoolhouse.
But your grandmother, believer in boys-only education and a product of the same, withdrew her daughter from school. Your mother, infuriated, ran away from Lolito and hitchhiked her way to Nigeria.
In the same years Uncle won the scholarship to study in Detroit and left Ghana, himself, for a time. An alto saxophonist in an Afro-funk band, he left when he learned she was pregnant. You were living at the time in a thirteenth-floor hotel room, free of charge, care of the hotel proprietor.
His name was Sinclair.