Before I clocked 14, I lost three lives. All were three of my mother’s six children to my father and also my elder siblings: the fourth born, the second, the first. I am the last born, and my mother seeded her very first child to her earliest husband, now long dead. For my father, it was a mere trine lose; he’s a polygamist with a tight packet of children I can’t put a number on. So before I clocked 14, three of my mother’s seven children and my father’s innumerable died.
Now, I’m yet to believe three of my full siblings are dead. Honestly, if I do, I don’t act it. It still feels as though it happened in a life I took no part in. Or as though I’ve been sleeping since it happened, and I’m in a damp, blurry dream where I only remember it faintly. I still haven’t picked up my mat and walked out of my dark dream yet.
Often, when the question How many are you? pops up, I reply: Four; three girls and a boy, the last, who’s me. Times upon times, in this manner, I’ve been shuffling these dead siblings of mine behind the backdoor of memories. I push them into the prison of the past, lock them up, throw off the key. I have never really thought about them. Even to my own surprise.
Fine, I wasn’t close to any of them, didn’t have an impressive intimacy with any. The gap between me and all my siblings is too stretched: my immediate elder sister is seven years older. I’m a kind of an Isaac to my mother (she gave birth to me at 45), though not so to father whose younger wives birthed far smaller kids. But, despite the lack of intimacy and the overstretched gap, who doesn’t act the boy with three dead siblings?
When death cuts all other links, there remains still the name, JM Coetzee says in The Master Of Petersburg. In the same fashion, these siblings of mine are reduced to mere proper nouns or sentential nominals as the case with Yorùbá language. Adesola: The Crown Makes Wealth. Oluwaseun: Thanks be to the Lord. Oluwatosin: The Lord Deserves to be Worshipped. These names are what my siblings are papered in. And then nothing more.
But how well, how often, how quick, does death cut all other links so that only what still remains is the name? Do we allow it before it can cut all these links? Do we just look on as the skeletal Big Uncle rattles and wobbles over in his dark blue suits and cuts those links with a pair of scissors?
My mother believes my father’s eldest son, K., is the bad guy who bewitched Seun. Mother’s first husband for whom she had borne her first child, a daughter, had died. Father’s first wife who gave birth to his two eldest children, a daughter and a son, had died too—K. is the son. The widower met and conducted the widow into his life. So, this father’s eldest son is whom mother thinks killed Seun, the second eldest of my dead siblings.
On a grey, lowbrow afternoon containing suggestions of rain, mother spoke of K. to me. At her streetside shop. He grew up in his mother’s Ọlọ́yàá compound in Ìwó, a major township in Osun state. He learnt black charms from an old man called Àròjinlẹ̀, a neighbour who mended rubber. The old man did nothing but evil with his charms, said mother. His clothes were always brown with dirt as with black herbalists. And as a result of his evildoings, his children had no meaningful life. He is long dead now.
After mother’s Teacher’s Training program at College of Education, Ìlá, she worked three years in Ògbómọ̀sọ́ before relocating to Ìwó so as to be on home ground—her hometown is a village beside (if we can’t say inside) Ìwó: Aláya. Father was still working from town to town as staff of a government agricultural team. But mother stayed in his face-me-I-face-you six-room apartment, where K. had a room to himself.
K. would go out and return late in the night with stolen items. When he came back, he’d keep on calling my sister G., mother’s third child with father, to help open the door. Mother had to make her stop answering his calls.
He brought his friends to the house often as well. There was a friend who always came by at midnight with bags of cocoa. Mother is sure he had no farm nor any relative who was a farmer. K. would open the door to him and relieve him of his burden before they went to sell at dawn.
There was a huge one with a horn on his forehead. Horn-head always took his shirt off to eat beef—K. and his friends were fond of that. In a night, a live pig would come into the house. And in the morning, it got slaughtered. The backyard would be flooded with red, the neighbors would be whispering, K. would tell mother not to care about what were said.
After a car theft, one of K.’s friends is currently in life-imprisonment.
I, for one, had come close to death by K.’s doing, twice. Twice means those times I’m aware of.
The first time was when we still resided in my father’s house—we relocated to maternal grandmother’s house when she died. K. handed me, a mere toddler, a packet of biscuits. I collected it but climbed the blue fridge in the parlor and stowed it up there. I must have wanted to tell mother but forgot. Three days later, while cleaning the house, G. found the biscuits on the fridge, now swollen, its nylon wrapping almost bursting.
The second took place at grandmother’s burial when I was barely five. K. gave me a bunch of red bananas. I collected it and dashed to my mother immediately. From me, mother collected it, and away to the bush she threw it. People suggested mother should have made K. eat it.
K. must have belonged—if he still does not—to a cult. There were instances he buried charms around the house, often beneath mother’s window. And what about wingless local fowls? Hens hatched with far less wings are known for their black charm potency and are mainly used to wreck the shape of life. These kind of domestic fowls, particularly referred to as asa in Yorùbá, were sometimes released into mother’s room.
Mother especially backs up K.’s belonging to a cult with an example. A woman once rented a room from father’s apartment. She had two miscarriages, after which she went to a white-garment church and was told to vacate the house because a man born of a woman who resided in the same building as she, apparently K., was milking her of her fetuses for reasons as dim as death. She left the house with her rent unexpired. Now, she has birthed enough children.
Once, K. gifted father poisoned moin-moin. Father was dead sure it wasn’t his oldest son’s nature to give. He was suspicious, threw the food away, and later saw how the food rotted in a few hours.
As a result of his deeds, mother is sure K.’s crooked life is further crooked, far from straight, not a short, wavy line, not even a comma. His first child was borne by a woman in his sister’s age bracket, who’d had about five children before that. And he hasn’t been able to settle down in a place: all shells hold no promise of home to his nails.
Ṣeun went crazy at age 19 and never recovered entirely ’til the death of him at close to 30. In between those two ages, he was taken to various places for treatment. He was either in a psychiatric center in a nearby town or in a healing-seekers’ apartment at mother’s church where he and others like him awaited their miracles while chained down. While, because of him, mother and father visited white-garment prophetesses, mountain prophets, and others alike.
He’d spend months at the hospital, his life hung on tablets like an addict, and then come back to the church, still on drugs. At times, he was considered sane enough to live with us at home and attend the church, still on drugs, nonetheless. Those days, after meals, he’d pour tablets of different shapes and colors unto his palms and flood them down his throat. I was small, but I could feel what a life tied to tablets was like. Besides, I have, since a child, developed a stainless aversion to drugs: never have I finished my medication for once no matter how severe the illness may be. So far I’m not being monitored. As I like being around hospitals to see how frail life is, the smell of drugs fevers me from those places. I have wasted enough drugs to be sued. It’s such an allergy.
The initial plan was for Seun to get a bit stable and come to attend the church, where he would walk out of his sick bed, fold it up, discard it, burn it. And during the times he was at home, he could even school: he went to a college of Education and a Pentecostal seminary. He could work as well: he served as a Bowen University security official for some months. Even at that, his life was zigzagged, of course: in regards to education, work, relationships, etcetera.
The day he died, I was probably playing football with my classmates in my pale green Barcelona Jersey and the school brown shorts during break at my government school. I was in junior class three, and my clique and I did nothing during breaks and after closing hour than play against the other class, three A or C, at the small space beside the standard-size school field. Seun had—where he found the strength is mysterious—broken his chains and sprinted out of the healing-seekers’ house at the church. He ran until he came face down at a T-junction. I was barely 12, never saw him again, never did. He was 27, never became a father, never married.
Why would he die? Why did he go crazy? What or who made him mentally disordered? Why would anybody make him go crazy? What did mother and father find out about him and his situation?
His whole existence could be infinitely assembled into experiments with question marks as endpoints.
Few days after his death, a spirit-possessed white-garment visioner held father’s penultimate wife’s dress at the neck, and asked why she killed her senior wife’s son.
My Lucifer is lonely/There’s nothing left to save now/My god is gonna owe me/There’s nothing left to save now
you should see me in a crown
About two years before mother started Teacher’s Training program, she became pregnant and gave birth again. This time it was my sister Sola. She was spaced with about five years after mother’s first child to her dead husband. She was mother’s second born ever.
Like all of my six siblings, dead and alive, I was distanced from her. I attribute this distance majorly to the vast gulf between my age and theirs. So, the only chapter of Sola’s life I witnessed well enough was the days of her death. She died after being discharged from a local hospital, after being deposited on a mat in the passageway of grandmother’s ten-room face-me-I-slap-you apartment, where we resided then. Of AIDS.
She’d smuggled herself into night business in hotels. She and her peers who were mothers before she bore her first child, who is only three years younger than I. Despite the warnings from our mother and mother’s mother to befriend single ladies like herself, it was through her cohorts of mothers’ association she bumped into the night profession. Her first child came unplanned over a plate of pepper soup and bottles of beer with a total stranger at a hotel.
She died at 30, mother of three children, married twice, first child born to a different man, the other two to a later husband.
all the good girls go to hell
She. Didn’t. Die. But. She. Isn’t. Alive. Either. Tosin’s. Life. Was. A. Thrown. Dart. At. Least. To. Me. I. Was. Still. A. Kid. When. She. Left. Home. She. Never. Came. Back. I. Never. Saw. Her. Again. I. Was. Just. Six. Or. Seven.
Tosin never talked. I never saw her do. All I saw her do is sit in a place, hands holding cheeks up, lips lifting in smiles to no one. All these she could do from morning to night if she wasn’t interrupted.
She was not born like that. She was a bright kid until she started to leave for school and come back to the empty house halfway to school. We were still in father’s house, and not even father would be at home during a weekday’s working hours. Ìyá Khadija, the illiterate, chubby woman opposite us—you can jump from her pavement to ours—who ground pepper for customers and sold ògì would invite Tosin over and serve her ẹ̀kọ and àkàrà.
Ask mother, she will say Ìya Khadija, through her food, initiated Tosin into a cult. Ask her and she says Khadija’s mother wanted a tight friendship with her. Ask her and she goes on: A “witch” girl brought by one of father’s wives, who got close to Tosin at her primary school, helped initiate her.
And then, when she hawked kola nuts for mother, she would be called in by “witches.” (Kola nut is believed to be one of the commonest cult images. I don’t know why mother still trades it.) And really, a passing white garment preacher would tell mother that Tosin had been forced into a cult. Only God knows why He has to send some messages to mother through the white garment aládùurá specialists.
Seen from afar, literally, she was the rabbit with triangle eyes, the different one among us children: she had tribal marks. Sketched on each of her cheeks was a short electric pole. Through her thrown-dart life, she wore the electric pole, the one-one, the eleven, the i-i, the roman numeral two.
Mother has mẹ́fà-mẹ́fà, a pack of six slant lines on each cheek common among old Ọ̀yọ́ people, though. That wasn’t why my sister got her tribal marks, really. The day she was born in a CAC church, an uncle who was a district elder brother to father mandated all babies had the one-one tribal marks. That was in the latest days of the 20th century, and my sister was a child of civil servants.
Once, a playmate of mine asked, What of your sister with one-one? It’s been long I saw her. Like I’d heard mother tell people, I told him, She went to Ibadan. Iwó to Ìbàdàn is 45.5 km, but for her not to have returned, it means she’s yet to cover the distance since all these years. Her life was a debacle.
All the good girls go to hell/‘Cause even God herself has enemies/And once the water starts to rise/And heaven’s out of sight/She’ll want the devil on her team
wish you were gay
I once told my mother: Ẹ kò s’ọmọ bí o, ọkọ le sìfẹ́. You haven’t borne the wrong children, you only have married the wrong husband. She went, Mm-hmm, and slipped into her alcove to bring out some of her well-polished anecdotes on her marriage that by now I know like I know money.
Shortly after she got married to father and was carrying Sola’s pregnancy, an old man who was a district brother to father and a friend of mother’s grandfather felt sorry for her. My daughter, said the man, perched on his old bicycle, this boy you married doesn’t take care of women. He only spends on beers and charms. And you are pregnant already. Don’t be surprised you are the third woman he would claim to marry. There are other old men who said slightly different things to her.
Then there is this story built upon father’s last wife, now dead. He was going about saying he just employed her to ease office work, says mother. Father had been the manager of a gambling company before I was born. It was where he fell back to when he retired from government work. Where he calls office is two opposite rooms of a collapsed three-roomed, mud house which he shares with a herbalist. She would sit on his thighs. But as soon as they saw that I was the person coming into the office, she’d run off his legs and engage in something else, searching for a sheet of paper or something. I’d hiss inside of me and pretend not to have noticed. And you see this poor girl, she had three children with a previous man before.
Of course, any day of the week, these particular stories come first. Others follow on their back like a tail. Then how she turned down a suitor far richer than father would follow. Father himself was given a can malt on the day the suitor brought his new jeep to show mother. She didn’t marry him because of his place of origin. I wonder if she wouldn’t still if handed the opportunity a second time. This piece is usually dropped when the talk gets dead serious as a passionflower is dropped on a white-sheeted corpse.
Then she’d talk about how he has pushed her children under her care. And how he can ring her own children when he needs money. For example, he stopped paying my school fees since I was in nursery school. He stopped spending on me all together: feeding, clothing. . . There was a time I was determined no matter how Bill Gate I become I wouldn’t spend a drop on him. I’m the perfect graphic to show how it has always been mother taking care of her children.
One could think with mother’s income from two apartments she should be enough for her children. Well, she got heavy loans to sponsor G.’s School of Nursing almost, almost single handedly before father put in a hand.
He wants me back in his house that’s why he’s running around, she would say. She claims father has tried a lot of times to encharm her. That is after all of his seven wives had left his house. But her God whom she serves is powerful. Hallelujah.
when the party’s over
what remains is the memories. When deaths of my siblings cut all other links, what remains isn’t their names but the memories of them even as I hadn’t been close to them. After all, what is a name if not a fictional identity one defends throughout their life? If Soji Thomas had been named Sola Thompson, he would answer the name his whole life and even correct any mispronunciation. Of course, if I walk past a tombstone in a cemetery, what remains after death has cut all other links is the Soji Thomas (1950-2020) carved into it. What remains of the man behind the name Soji Thomas whom I never met is obviously Soji Thomas.
When as a kid I still couldn’t do without biscuits (Speedy, Coconut, Digestives, esp.), father bought me and my sister Tosin biscuits whenever he visited mother at her shop. I’d pick up a disposed lobe of kola nut from the floor, put it into my biscuits’ nylon, and put it on my sister’s outstretched palm, pretending it was a piece of biscuit. She always took it. She’d have crushed it in her mouth before spitting it out. This went on in the shop while parents discussed on a bench at the netted frontier.
There was once a revival organized by one prophet Ayorinde. The man was performing miracles. He was commanding rain to stop and to start. He snatched crutches from the lame, and they walked upright. He took away glasses from the blind, and they saw brightly. Mother, my sister, and I went. People talked about how mother was foolish not to haven’t taken my sister up stage for her miracle.
On a quiet but vivid afternoon, my third eldest sister G. (my mother’s fourth born, though) beat my sister Tosin, mother’s fifth. She didn’t cry, didn’t make any sound aloud, only some mouthing, some muffling. She didn’t stop G., didn’t raise her hand, only some scratching up and down, some thrashing as of a fish in a bucket of sand. Few minutes when the beating stopped—I guess G. was tired—G. applied white powder to my sister’s bumped and wounded head. Blood seeped out of her low-cut hair to meet the powder in a color of a tinged sundown.
That is how I remember my sister, and I’m not ashamed. I’m not afraid.
my strange addiction
My most vivid memories of Sola are those of her last days. Her hearing had terribly diminished. She had become lean, her cheeks swollen, her heels as well. She looked like a matchstick sketching. All day long, she did nothing but lie on a rubber mat in the hallway of grandma’s house, shouting. Her shouting was always about how mother was a witch and had turned into a bird to squeak in her, Sola’s, ears.
Then there was when she just came down from her marital home in Ìlọrin. With her three children. She soon started working at a cafeteria at Bowen University. She’d come home bringing jollof rice, fried rice, and other varieties of rice with pieces of meat. For her children and me. She usually gave her firstborn more rice than me, an act which, given that I’m three years older, inflamed me, but I never complained to her. I think I told mother—I was that pained—but what could she have done?
She once got a loan from Lapo Microfinance Bank. With the loan, she started selling beers, gins, alcohol, and cigarettes alongside noodles and eggs she’d get cooked as soon as a customer arrived on a street-side wooden counter. When she got sick and the loan was to be paid, she entrusted father with the documents of a land she and her current husband had bought. The land was sold. The debt was settled. Without mother’s knowledge. She claimed she’d help the couple buy it and was pained to see her daughter entrusting our father, whom mother considers a swindler, with the money.
When my sister died, her husband came with his elder sister to mother for the land, his and his wife’s land. All the time his wife was sick, Alfa didn’t come to visit. He didn’t pick calls from our side. Once, we called him through an unknown number, my immediate sister’s, a lady picked it and said her husband was in the shower. Mother made it clear there was no land to collect. The land was made to relieve Sola’s misfortunes in her dying days.
Sola got some money sometime and started making liquid soap, hair food, and vaseline. Her business name was Sholly, and the products had shining labels bearing that name in a bold, large font. I can almost feel the yellow, glossy paper we removed from the label before flattening on a liquid soap bottle or a vaseline container. Those shining labels with my sister’s business name on them are in mother’s room-turned-store now, a place that functioned as Sholly’s store. Mother had to use and gift away the products and discard them when they expired.
She isn’t dead, not yet. Or so it seems. She was seeking clearer horizons on her wellbeing when she and her first born, Q., who’s my nephew, boarded a bus to Lagos. It was in the middle of the road the driver discovered my sister and her son had no money to pay him. (Only God knows how they managed to get that far before the discovery—passengers usually pay before commercial buses start to convene them to their destinations.) Upon discovery, the driver dropped her in the middle of the road, and ferried Q. to Lagos because he was considered too small to stay in such a lonely, forest-boarded road. Q. didn’t feel he should stay with his mom, and he didn’t.
That is how I remember my sister, and I’m not ashamed. I’m not afraid.
bury a friend
My brother once told me Hollywood action movies actors beat and killed one another for real. I told my playmates, and when they mocked me for such stupidity, I still held onto the belief, like a lifeline. I was six or seven, and it was one of those days he was home instead of the hospital or the church. He was still on medication, though.
We talked a lot then. He was a companion even with the state of his mind. One great meeting point of us was football. He was Chelsea. I was Man U. I became a fan when mother bought a black Manchester United up and down for me with The Red Devils under the fierce red logo.
Whenever we were talking, I’d fake being supportive of his club. What Man United and Chelsea fans could agree in those days? He was a Messi boy and I, a Ronaldo gun, but I also faked liking Messi when deep down I could die for CR7. When he saw his last Champions League tournament in 2012, his club won it. He discussed football with me more vibrantly after that till the death of him.
There was a Christmas he collected my fingerlike Santa Cruz torch that glowed a weak yellow. He was holding it up around in his pale green flowing Guinea bùbá and trousers saying, Merry Christmas!, a flock of laughing kids behind him.
His wine Bowen University security uniform trousers, when he died, were my first trousers that had adult belt loops.
In a white, starchy Guinea shirt and trouser, he once visited me in my dream. He came as though he’d been away for a very long time. He spoke calmly and wasn’t at all scary. I can’t recollect if I handed him a clean glass of water, but I know he gave me a piece of advice, the contents of which I can’t remember. I was happy to see him. He was reserved.
He once told me he dated a very black-but-shiny lady who was then my teacher—she was as cute as a puppy. Their greetings indeed showed a faded intimacy.
There were days he beat me for playing too late outside especially. But I was always comfortable with him, beside him, being identified with him.
He had the nickname Pastor. He was a pastor too. He went to a Bible school.
He once assembled national quick facts and current affairs in scattered A4 papers. (Boy was damn brilliant.) The white papers lay without volition in the unused kitchen cupboard in mother’s room at grandma’s house. Mother had hid them there and discarded them when he died.
There was a time he vowed to kill my mummy at her shop, but I was perched on the bench, calm and collected, unafraid. He surprisingly looked protective of me amidst his spill of angry verbs. Mother left his vicinity and found concerned area uncles to deceive him into going to the church.
That was the last time I saw him. I can’t remember what clothes he wore, what look he sported, what he smelled like. . . If I try to conjure up his image, what I see is a dark, fleshy man with pimples sketched deep in his cheeks, in a red polo shirt on a wine trousers with black leather palms. May he rest in peace.
Of all of them, he was my tightest. We spent loosely the first 12 years of my life together. He is dead and buried, but I’ve never seen his grave. And this is how I mostly remember my brother, and I’m not ashamed. I’m not afraid.
So, where did you go?/I should know, but it’s cold/And I don’t wanna be lonely/So tell me you’ll come home/Even if it’s just a lie
listen before i go
I am henceforth investing in their memories. I am hanging their memories onto my collarbones, like a muffler, like a face towel. I am holding onto them, like a handbag, like a gun. Maybe I should think less of the dead, leave them be, let them rest on underneath the earth. Maybe I should pay more attention to life and the living, focus on catching every fresh breath dawn blows unto my bed. But this is how I shall henceforth grieve them, honor them, love them, live them, remember them, memorize them, sing them, write them, inherit them, be them, see them, illuminate them, pray them, pride in them, any positive-verb them, any proper-predicator them.
If we cease to grieve we may cease to remember, is what Plutarch says.
i love you
My soul stands on a wet verandah, the rain deaf with force, the floor dead cold against its feet. Its eyes are on the horizon, seeking a shadow behind the low yellow sun, looking for a high white face peeping behind the yellow, and anything with rainbow straddled on it back. It wants to fly off the verandah, but it’s weighed down by too many wings. The wings flutter, but cannot fly. It’s still raining, yet locked and rusted are the windowpanes of my inside where there is a dusty bedrock where water once flowed. But there is no water near no more. The brook rolled off this route a long ago. Whether darkness comes or not, whether dawn saunters in like an entitled niece or not. I shall wait in the rain for the second coming of water.
Listen before I go, I love you, goodbye:
I know you are close to God, you can hear His heartbeat. Help me whisper to Him. I don’t want to lose another life. I’m you all now, your legacy all. I don’t want to lose another life. I don’t want to end me. I don’t want to lose you three all over again. I don’t want to end you. I don’t want to drink you down, I don’t want to drown, I don’t want to end me. I’m sorry I’ve reduced you to names. I am ready now to take your memories as what they are: a door which leads me to you. Give me a chance, any chance, to know you more, let me know you by knowing myself, by knowing that I am you all, I am your legacy all. Please, siblings, continue to dream in your graves until it’s my time to join you on that necessary bed. Or am I asking too much? Am I being Saul at Endor?
It is the job of the long black hearse
to show we head to death from birth
It is the job of a clean neat grave
to remind us how to live our days.
This essay is titled after Billie Eilish’s debut album, When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and each section titled after each track. Some sections actually have quotes from the lyrics of the track they are titled after. I am doing this to borrow the dark atmosphere of the album to tell this story. The best way to enjoy this story is to listen, before or after reading, to Billie Eilish’s album.