The Girl Who Cried
By Ope Adedeji
Daddy wasted no time in sending her to learn how to twist fingers and turn hair into something. The girl had to learn, to “make something of herself.” One-eyed Iya Alubosa, his mother, her grandmother, had been famous, hawking ewa aganyin by day, and plaiting koroba or kiko for little girls at night under candlelight. No food for the lazy woman, he’d said and she’d nodded.
Now: Her Madam dips her index finger in a tub of yellow cream, picks out brown synthetic hair and weaves it with the customer's short green hair to make Ghana weaving. Her lunch — noodles with two eggs broken into them, mixed with onions and tomatoes, made on top of a kerosene stove — will come soon. She's not lazy; the green veins on her hands and her hair glued to her face with sweat are evidence. The girl is not allowed to touch the hair. Her madam tells her to watch and learn, to pick up the small small balls of attachment on the floor and straighten them out. The smell of cream is big in the small salon; the girl can taste it at the back of her teeth and on the tip of her tongue. The air conditioner doesn't work. It’s as hot as last night.
Before (last night, a hot night, she had just returned from school and had only taken off her white socks and sandals): The girl said she didn't want to go to school anymore, so Moomi sent her to Daddy's house, hoping he'd beat some sense into her. Instead, he sent her here and said to Madam, “She doesn't want to go to school anymore, teach her something.” Nobody asked why she didn't want to return to school. Moomi could have asked as she rolled eba and dipped it in Ila alasepo, but a bone from her titus fish had almost choked her two minutes before the girl walked in, so she didn't (but also didn't think anything in the world warranted that decision).
Before (this morning, with a father attempting to send his girl child into the world to make something of herself because he didn't believe in formal education): He gesticulated as he spoke, touching her Madam’s shoulder, then the girl’s arms (like he never had), saying she was a very smart one and Madam would be lucky to have her apprentice under her. The girl could not tell if he was being honest or flattering. The Daddy she was used to was a beater. He kept kobokos at the back of his door for this purpose. Sometimes, he used wires. A few years ago, when she still lived with him, he chased her away with long red and black cables because he thought she was pregnant (she who didn’t know what menstruation was and was only sick with malaria). She ran, screaming, “Daddy, Moomi, Daddy, Moomi,” to live with Moomi and Moomi's children, her siblings — same mother, different fathers — in Moomi’s house down Ilaje road.
Moomi's house is a soft green house on Ilaje road, a short distance from the body of water beneath the Third Mainland Bridge. Soft because of the moss growing on it, the clay soil instead of cement in the compound, the cool red rug in her living room. Soft because it is round instead of square with no rough edges — a misfit by blocks of straight, rectangular (or square) two-storey buildings. She built it herself after Abacha killed one lover, the father of her first child, Aunty Maria; after running from a violent husband, the girl’s own father (who once tried to press a hot iron into her face — she remixed Bobby Benson’s Taxi Driver to become “If you marry Taxi Driver, Oyo lo wa”); and after losing a husband, the father of her three infants, the girl’s younger siblings. But Moomi isn’t soft. So when the girl said, “I don't think I can go back to school,” there was no time to explain, to put on her sandals back or to pick a few clothes between the time Moomi stoned her with hot eba and screamed at her to go back to her father's house: “Go back to that Taxi Driver's house, go!”
Barefoot, holding only a school bag full of books, still wearing her (rather dirty, unusually) pink uniform. She walked to Daddy's house, a face-me-I-face-you building at the other end of the street, by the main road. Her face was a mix of tears and sweat when she arrived.
Daddy was drinking Heineken in front of his building with Baba Sabo and Oga Mechanic. A single orange bulb hung over them while a small blue generator coughed and spurted smoke. Music: Pasuma sang from a small black radio on the table. They laughed hard when they saw the girl, as if they had been waiting for her, holding crass words (about the size of her hips and breasts — too big for a 14-year-old) rolled up in their tongue, all the way back.
“Kilode?” he asked, his first word; he hadn't seen or spoken to her in years.
“Moomi said I should come here...” The tears clogged in her throat stopped her.
“Ehen? Soro soke.” Not a slurred voice, in fact, completely straight and hard; possible to touch, not drunk-like.
His phone rang, the Nokia ringtone — ta na na na, ta na na na, ta! “Hallos,” he said. After a few moments of quiet and the crow of a chicken with misplaced priorities, Daddy said, “Motigbo. I will talk to her. Odabo.” Nothing about a beating.
Now: “Aburo, hope you're watching?” Madam, the too-thin woman with bad hair and child-like features (small eyes, thin lips), asks, snapping her twisting fingers in the girl’s face.
The girl blinks back tears and nods.
It's a minute past 2pm. That's what a heart-shaped clock on the wall with the words Lola Weds Bola says. It's hotter now because NEPA took the light fiam, in the middle of a blow-drying session. The generator didn't come on, so the disgruntled customer left with her wet hair. All the life in the shop is drained: no more romantic clashes between lovers on Zee world. Madam has gone for the day. She whisked her bag over her shoulder and said she was coming (squeaky voice, almost rat-like). Hajia said, “That one? She won't come back.”
The girl sits on the stairs by the entrance to the shop watching Hajia as she washes Madam’s used plate and pot by the well. She scrubs the small pot with a fork; the scratchy sound makes the girl grind her teeth — one of many irritations: the sound of welding or the sight of wall gecko poop. Hajia pours lumps of noodles that come off the pot into a black nylon and then continues scratching.
A young man walks up to the well. “Ahan, Hajia who’s your friend?” he asks, his eyes fixed on the girl's face.
“None of your business,” Hajia says, smiling.
“Na wa oh,” he says.
The girl is too hungry to look at them. By the time she looks up, he's gone.
Hajia tells her not to talk to any of the men in the shops nearby. “They’ll put you in trouble,” she says. “And that one? He is my boyfriend. So I don’t want to see you talking to him.”
The girl nods — the least of her worries.
The girl’s stomach is grumbling. She has no money to get lunch — her father didn’t think about that. Hajia has said she'll share a boiled egg with her but not the rice or fish she buys from the buka. How long will a boiled egg sit in her stomach? Yesterday, she had an egg roll during break and messed twice during cleaning duty after classes, just after she’d finished dragging tables and chairs to the back of the class so that the girl sweeping (big girl, Alice) could sweep the dirt to the front of the class. Nobody smelled it, or someone would have sung, “Who mess? Tolo Tolo mess, na you mess. Teacher say na Tolo, Tolo say na teacher. Na you jagajaga, na you mess, for your pant, pum.”
After that, she dusted the louvres with Tolulope Aiyeola who had removed her pinafore and was wearing only her pink checkered shirt and blue bum shorts. Tolu whistled a tune, Simi's Joromi, as she dusted the louvres facing the field and two boys left the football match they were playing. She allowed them to feel the back pocket of her jeans through the window and said if they came to the toilet in B block in six minutes, they'd get more. She winked and cupped her breast. Alice sweeping the class from the back coughed “ashewo” and Tolu jumped down, “You dey crase?” — an animal-like scream. (Aside: the girl wished she could touch Tolu's breast and close her eyes, moaning as the boys did.)
The boys on the field and people on cleaning duty from other classes came to watch. The girl tried to separate them, “please stop it,” “don't do this” — pushing one's chest, grabbing one's arm, mistakenly (or not so) pressing Tolulope Aiyeola's breast — but got pushed into a pile of dirt, bruising her knee. A gala wrap ended in her mouth. At first, the fight was one of words — “oloshi ni e,” “thunder will fire you,” “Iya Babe e” — until someone pushed someone and it became physical — hair pulling, shirt grabbing, face scratching. The crowd cheered, clapped and booed (the booing was for the girl who didn’t stop trying to separate the fighters, preaching, “we’ll get into trouble for this”) until the crowd scampered. The girl discovered Mr Olumide, the too-tall Mathematics teacher with a forward face at the door. He didn't say a word; pointed instead at three of them — one, two, three, then at the Math block, a peeling purplish building. They untangled and walked towards it. The girl tried to explain that she wasn't part of it, but with his fingers to his lips, she fell silent. Mr Olumide was dreaded, known for drawing the map of Nigeria on the back of unruly boys and girls. He wore a pink shirt and a smile every day, but he fooled no one: everyone knew what he did to people, especially those who failed to solve for x in his equations.
Now: Chickens flock near the nylon with the noodles and Hajia chases them away with pebbles; the girl starts to cry — perhaps feeling sympathetic for the hungry chickens; perhaps sad about yesterday and that she's here. The tears start from her back; the flat thing quivers like it has no bones, no framework. Then her hands, her dark fingers (that she once tried to bleach using tube creams). Then the dirt-filled fingernails squirm like catfish. The tears come last because they come out of her belly, like she is throwing up.
“Are you okay? Are you okay?” Hajia asks, as if singing the first verse of Kiss Daniel's Madu, then laughs, putting her hands on her hips. “You better stop crying. Who do you think you are? Dangote’s daughter? There’s no space for two of us here, let me just tell you now.”
The tears stop abruptly — lips open, face contorted. The girl studies Hajia’s face, the sweet smile is gone, replaced by something sinister — a smile shaped like an S.
“Come, let's fetch water. You know how to fetch water from a well?” The girl nods.
Hajia throws the rope bucket into the well. “Why are you not in school sef? What’s your problem?”
The girl looks up at the sky and twists her mouth sideways. Hajia pulls out the rope bucket from the well and pours the water into a small purple bucket, splashing some on the girl’s feet. Mistakenly?
“Nothing,” the girl says picking the dirt from her thumb.
“Since I came to Lagos, my dream has been to go school. I do like hair work. But I want to know the book. Like Madam. She knows book. She went to school. She counts her money, no one can cheat her. But just look at you? Anu e n se mi”
The girl knows she cannot tell Hajia what happened yesterday. She sighs.
They lock the shop when it’s past seven. Madam doesn't return. Hajia hisses in response to the girl’s goodbye, then twirls away with a sweet smile.
She has only taken a few steps when someone intercepts her — that is, runs with flapping arms to her front, saying, “Sister. Sister. Wait.” It's the young man from before — Hajia’s boyfriend or so (she knows by his voice). He tells her his name is Ola and that he's been watching her since morning.
“That's my shop over there. Just next to yours.” He points to red/gold leather sofas, wood brimming under an orange streetlight.
“I just find you interesting like whoa, who is this?” he says. “You're very calm and stuffs, so I said I must say hello.”
He’s smiling, his breath smells of butter on the thick top of oven bread. Calm and stuffs. What falls under stuffs? She stares at his feet, two toes missing on the left one makes her shudder, wondering if he's abiku (taught in Yoruba class by Mr Oketokun that abiku often have odd scars and markings.) She looks up at his face, at the slack smile that wants to break his face into unequal parts. She pouts lebe lips, feeling attractive, and with good reason: this is a man, a boy-man with a deep voice and a moustache who says he's been looking at her all day. What did he look at? The almost kay-legs? The too-big feet? The pimply face? He's quite unremarkable if she's being honest, but there's an allure. She looks back at the sofa.
“Did you make those?”
Thoughts in the second before he responds: Daddy will be home, drinking with his friends, so she can't take him home, pull him into Daddy’s bed and understand what two mouths meeting can do to a settled stomach i.e unsettle it (Hajia needn’t know). She's heard of butterflies but finds the concept foreign. She thinks about Daddy, mildly annoyed — annoyance that makes her forget the pressing issue called yesterday. No food for a lazy woman, but what about a man who probably did one return trip to the Island and spent the afternoon sleeping under the shade for drivers in the park, only waking up to buy hot amala and gbegiri with one roundabout and one abodi. And then a Chelsea sachet, drunk over a game of checkers?
“Yes. It's my work. I make chair, table, cupboard…”
Thoughts after he responds: A carpenter, is that the allure? — Moomi would heap curses on her if she saw this: her second daughter, the one she told people had a bright future and would become a doctor; the one who's decided to stop going to school, talking to a man-boy (boy-man: guy?) with a rubber-band smile and rubber-band way of talking (thinking of giving her body to him). Nothing charming or elegant about him or his voice. Only a small allure.
“What's your name?” he asks.
“Folakemi,” she responds. He laughs and taps his head with his two hands like the old series superstar, Papa Ajasco, ojigbijigbijigbi. “That means you're going to take care of me with wealth. Should I prostrate for you?”
She laughs. The girl’s laugh sounds like scissors cutting calico.
“Please don't,” she says raising her hands to stop him. They are quiet for a while. The awkwardness that she's seen happen in romantic films and read about in Harlequin novels takes up space between them.
He stops obstructing her, because they're blocking people: women in berets going to a church down the road, mallams pushing carts of water or wheelbarrows of cucumbers. They begin to walk, heading eastward, towards home, Daddy's house and the small dream of him kissing her on Daddy’s bed, lifting her up, biting her neck, doing things she'd read about and heard her classmates (the big girls) giggle about.
“So, what do you like to do, Kemi?” They walk by a mosque, listening to the call to prayer.
“I like to read,” she says.
“That means our children will be very smart o.”
No one ever flirts with her, so she doesn’t know what this means, if it’s good or bad. Children mean he must one day kiss her (that she’ll get her first kiss eventually, not die a virgin, become a big girl) and that he’ll push her legs apart; now or someday.
“Let me buy you something to eat to show you my appreciation ehn.”
She smiles. Ola holds her hands. Clammy, but soft. Nervous, she farts. It is silent, but it stinks up the space between them. He doesn't notice.
They walk towards young Hausa boys selling potato fries and turkeys under a streetlight. From behind, they look like lovers with no worries in the world: swinging arms, steps askew, him talking, she politely smiling, unsure of many things: why she clings to this stranger, what happened yesterday, etc.
She asks him about Hajia.
He laughs, says “She’s like a sister to me, wallahi,” and quickly asks the potato seller for one turkey and 200 naira potatoes. She doesn’t believe him. As they wait, the girl’s eyes dart around until they stay on one of the newspapers that will be used to wrap their oily fries. Today's paper. Headlines: Buhari Returns Nigeria To Military Era, EFCC Seizes Ghana Must Go Bags Full Of Dollars From Home Of Ex Military Officer, Domestic Violent Law Maker Argues For Social Media Bill, Teacher Slumps Dead After Attempt to Punish Students. Teacher Slumps Dead After Attempt to Punish Students.
Shouldn’t be here.
By the church where she finds herself, having run from Ola, the carpenter, Hajia’s “boyfriend” — quote and unquote, the first man to take an interest in her but who led her to the newspaper headlines. Unknowingly? Knowingly? Guilt presses her chest.
The church is in the middle of worship: “Thank you, Jesus, you are the lover of my soul, Alpha Omega, you are worthy to be praised …” An open air church, canopy, plastic white chairs, wooden podium. Could, no, did he run? Chase after her? Deep breaths. She starts to walk back, again crying (Moomi nicknamed her crying machine, for crying every time), this time about the headline.
Staring at her feet and not more, she thinks of him — math teacher with a love for maps. She starts with his stride.
A brief history of yesterday:
Mr Olumide's strides were long, on account of being Daddy Longlegs (what senior boys in Ss3 called him). In his Math classes, he told the story of a man who went everywhere saying he could slice himself in half and not die. The man’s juju was to go around singing, idodo idagi ara fin, and then slicing himself in half with a special knife. Mr Olumide demonstrated this by going around the class with his cane as a knife to his belly. After several years, the man eventually died, the juju having failed; perhaps he didn't sing the song right or didn't follow a piece of instruction — the story changed every time.
Everyone believed that the story was about Mr Olumide himself and that the man never died. That added to the intrigue around the story and around Mr Olumide. She thought about the story as she walked with him, Tolulope Aiyeola and Alice towards the Math block. Students in their uniforms chatting under trees or in empty classrooms ran when they saw him. Or hid, peering out to see what was going on, for retelling the gist the next day. The girl already knew the toilet headline: Three Girls Caught In Lesbianism By Mr Olumide. They won't mention the girl’s name since she was (is) a nobody. They would mention Alice (big girl, rich kid) and Tolulope Aiyeola. Boys would be caught masturbating in the toilets before school closed by 3:15 pm.
The staff room was empty when they walked in. The girl’s vision was blurred from crying (in anticipation), but she could see that the long hand of the clock on the wall was on eight, while the short one was on four or was it three? Mr Olumide’s desk was a cluttered wooden table. Piles of test scripts tied with rubber bands were stacked on the left side. On the right, textbooks and lesson notes. In the middle, a cooler and a plate of pounded yam and egusi, several pens of different colours, a calendar as old as the beginning of the decade, seized items: phones, airpods, something that looked like a dildo, cigarettes, comic books, etc.
For the first time since he called them, Mr Olumide spoke. He told them he needed to eat, that his food was getting cold, “I crave your indulgence …” He asked that they touch their toes in the wait. He was a neat eater. He washed his hands in a basin at the back of the room, and ate, pressing and rolling a ball of yam, then taking a bite of it before he dipped it in his soup and chewed mindfully. If the girl had been able to see the way he ate (her left hand on her toe, one leg raised behind, her sight was on the floor: brown tiles, her brown sandals and white socks, Alice’s nice laced-up shoes, etc.) she would have felt something different from the hate building up in her shoulders — a bit of compassion, something soft, especially if she had seen the smile on his face when he picked his phone to call his wife and thanked her for lunch.
She was still sobbing when he was done with his call, indifferent that she was crying like a baby and if it got out, people would sing, “O ta lara o fe sunkun,” every time she passed by, as they had done for a senior boy beaten by Mr Olumide.
The beating --
He starts by asking Alice to narrate her version of events. What happened? Who started it? Alice frowns, stands straight, folds her arms.
“Do you know who my father is? If you knew, you won’t punish me like this.”
Who? A governorship candidate in Oyo state. He'd lost the last elections, even after sharing bags of rice with market women who formed several songs for him. He ignored her, faced the girl, asked “And you? Do you also have a politicking father who can come for my life?” --
— “My life”: said so casually like it was the piece of meat he’d just eaten. She stood straight and shook her head. She wanted to say, “Baba Folakemi is a taxi driver,” but even that would get out, ruining her already poor reputation: a virgin, not a big girl, had never been kissed, cried in Mr Olumide's office, etc.
He started with Tolulope. Six strokes before he stopped to catch his breath (had the map of Nigeria been drawn already?) No tears. She bowed. The girl heard her mumble “odeshi” after.
Fact: Mr Olumide wasn't like Ms Akpan, the plump agriculture teacher who wore tight suits and exerted effort before she could beat anyone. He usually did it without losing a breath. But this time, each time he raised the cane up and then down, he took a deep breath, placed his hand on his hips, paused.
The girl knew she had no threshold for pain, that she would cry, “Moomi, Daddy, Moomi, Daddy,” every second the cane touched her. That she would probably die. So, her (lebe) lips broke and she told him a worn-out lie. Everyone used it. She didn't think it was a big deal.
“Sir,” she said, playing with her hair, the short ends of cornrows, “I may not have a big father, but my grandmother placed a curse on anyone who did as much as try to beat me, especially for something I'm not guilty of.” She didn't go as far as mentioning the result: death, but it stayed on her tongue.
He laughed. For a tall man, he had a cat meow for a laugh He pointed at Tolulope to bend over again to finish receiving her own mapping, still laughing. And then it happened (without even laying a finger and exploring the curse). He started to go down — back first; tall people fall with agidi. His hands searched for something to hold. Found a table and then slipped — slippery wet hands? Slippery table? Found a chair, stayed like that. The girl (and the other girls) stared, unable to move (unable to help, and why should they?) wondering if it was a joke. The girl moved back. He fell again, buttocks, then head. Curved like a baby, the capital letter C. He stretched his hand up. Asking for help? Dramatic like in the movies.
The girl dashed out, as if to look for help, running as fast as she could, to her class to get her bag, then out, past the school farm, past a garden with pots of aloe vera and cactus, past clusters of pink uniforms, past the tuck shop with the smell of stale meat bread and the smell of Iya Basira's rice, out into the busy streets, then home before she asked herself: Did I kill my math teacher?
Moomi shows up at the shop in the morning wearing white lace and a well-layered purple gele. She’s inside a yellow taxi that's not too different from Daddy's taxi. The driver of the taxi is trying to park when Moomi bursts out.
The girl watches from the entrance to the salon where she sweeps; Hajia watches from a salon chair where she crosses her legs.
“Folakemi?” It’s a question, as if she doesn't recognise her second child, isn’t entirely sure she could be the one standing by the well, holding the broom. “Folakemi?” She's bent forward now, her hands on her hips. Folakemi, as in the one she tells customers in Eko market will become a star, shows them pictures of her in her uniform and says, omo mi niyen. “What are you doing here? Ki lo n se ni bi?” Repeating the words in Yoruba because English is never enough to convey the magnitude of emotions bursting through a Yoruba woman.
The girl doesn't feel like a Folakemi, the big name with tiny names within: ‘Fola’, ‘Kemi’, ‘Ola’. Her heart jumps. Ola. She looks left at the space where the sofas, wood, chisels, saws had been yesterday. They're not out yet, so Ola is not around to witness her humiliation, to witness her being dragged into a taxi by her ear. Hajia watches smiling her gap-tooth smile, telling her to have a good time back in school. “I'll tell Madam you left,” she says.
Moomi tells the driver to move and the radio starts to play Brymo’s Good morning. Moomi and the girl are quiet. Moomi angry, the girl scared. The driver sings, Oya se bi ayonge, bi ayonge, bi ayonge, suretete ma lo le. The taxi pulls up at the school two minutes before 10, (right in time for English class). Moomi gives her a poly bag which has her school uniform and sandals. Tells her, “You will come and meet me at home.”
The girl changes and goes to class where she buries her face into her book until break time, shocked all through that no one has come to accuse her of being a murderer, a witch with a one-eyed grandmother as a chief witch. A group of girls (big girls like Alice who paint their nails pink, wear hair extensions, chew gum loudly, have been kissed, have rich Daddies, etc.) gather around, smiling Hajia’s smile.
“We're happy to see you,” one of them squeals. The girl frowns. Do they want to hurt her? One of them gives her a white bag. She opens it and finds lunch (meat bread and Coke), a note pad, gel pens. Confused. Why is anyone gifting her when they should be dragging her to Principal Hassan’s office, reporting her to the police. Alice passes her a pink note that says ‘thank you’. Someone else whispers in her ears, “Tolulope Aiyeola wants to see you in the toilet in B block now now.”
The toilet in B block is notorious for orgies, the planning of coups against student leadership and weed sales. The toilet is empty and the floor is wet when the girl walks in. It smells of dried urine and Harpic. She finds Tolu inside the last stall after a short knock, then nudge on all six blue doors. Words: fucked Dani in 06, Nnenna is pregnant, Mohammed is Lala's baby daddy are scribbled on the walls. Tolu stands from the toilet bowl and pulls up red pants. She pulls the girl into her and kisses her, holding her neck. The girl is confused (thinking: she didn't wash her hands) pulling away not because the butterflies (oh the wonderful butterflies) don’t unfurl and unsettle her stomach, but because she's confused.
“You did it.”
“Wha — what?”
“It's nothing to worry about. The wife has been arrested for poisoning him, with sniper in his egusi for that matter — a shame really. But we know it's you. And we are grateful.”
But. The girl is stunned, lips slightly parted, about to say something, protest, but Tolu presses her lips into the girl’s again, and pushes past her, smacking gum. “See you later, girl.”
Ope Adedeji is a lawyer, writer and editor managing things at Zikoko mag. Her work has appeared in Catapult, McSweeney's Quarterly and Barren Magazine. She's is a finalist for the 2020 US National Magazine Award and the winner of the 2019 Brittle Paper Award for fiction.