Written: 14th June 2016
Remember that nursery rhyme? Solomon Grundy; born on Monday, christened on Tuesday, blah blah blah, died on Saturday, buried on Sunday? It’s difficult to tell Solomon’s true nationality, or religion, or anything about him for that matter from the short rhyme. Solomon is just some imaginary recipient of the world’s most glorious anti-climax. Can’t really say what was in the mind of the composer of that rhyme, or rather who was in his or her mind, or if at all he intended for the rhyme to be remotely relatable, but one thing is sure though- no one wants to be Solomon.
This is the story of the first and probably only person who desired, and lived, the life of Solomon Grundy.
Anita and Peter just had their third child. It was a mistake, seeing that they had agreed on only two children before marriage. But here was their first son, giving life to the labour room in the least expensive hospital with the most expensive ob-gyns in existence. Queer little thing he was, nameless hours after birth, his beautiful eyes judging the unspoken intentions of his parents there on the spot, just as if he knew of the atrocity they were planning.
Peter loved Anita deeply. That is the only reason why he didn’t force her into having an abortion. They shared a connection like he had never seen or experienced with anyone before. First day they met, Peter was accompanying his adoptive father out of church on the day the memorial service for his late wife was held. The reverend father had spoken of the love between his father and mother as something designed and predestined in the stars and prayed that Peter – who is the only son – find love like that. Leaving Assumpta Cathedral that blistering afternoon, that was all Peter could think about, if he could ever find love like that. He was twenty-three then. You’d expect thinking about this would be something cursory for him, seeing that he needed his focus to guide his aged father into his SUV. But his father almost slipped while getting into the vehicle, his walking stick parted from him and his aloof son only distantly picked it up, got into the car, revved the engine, drove off, knocked down a pedestrian who seemed to have come out of nowhere as he negotiated a left immediately after the church gate, got flowers to say sorry to the rather unlucky victim of his inattention days later in the hospital – bunch of amaranths he couldn’t name – learnt that, just like him, his victim had allergies to flowers of any kind, fell in love with her on the spot, noticed her bracelet with charms of stars in various shapes and sizes, learnt her name- Anita.
Peter, a policeman, and Anita, a trader, decided that too many children rendered them unfocused as working class citizens who needed to earn a living, or at least that was the lie they decided to agree on. Anita really hated kids; like she once swore in her life never to have any. Peter, knowing how rough his childhood was, agreed within himself never to expose anyone to that ordeal. So they hoped their first or second issue would be a boy to carry on their lineage. On, Monday, February 21, 1994, when the male child was finally born as baby number three, it was a stab in the chest for both parents. And worst of all, the little monster would not shut up, and he had this tuft of white hair growing right at the centre of his head. Peter’s father would call it ahurumarachi in his native Igbo tongue. Translation: evidence of the presence of his personal god. Peter’s father, although professed catholic, still held in high regard the old customs of the Igbo man, and were he still alive at the time of the birth of this child, he would have considered him either sacred or damned. But Peter, and indeed Anita, would not afford themselves the luxury to consider it a choice in the first place. The white hair – a grave anomaly for the external features of an African child – was proof and endorsement enough for them to consider him afflicted. So they did, and on the eve of that day, after they must have been discharged from the hospital, a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes was headed to a manger, to be left to the wiles of fate, and a ruddy bunch of ruminants.
Peter was his transport, a human vehicle for the most inhuman of deeds. Peter and his wife lived very close to a village in Orlu, so finding an unguarded hut or thatched structure for animals, or their feeding trough as the case may be, was not the most arduous venture. When he happened on the fourth one on his way, he was decided; “this is it,” he said. It looked the most pleasant out of the lot he’d met earlier on, and saying this is mighty stretch on the word pleasant. He approached, hesitated a bit, stooped down, and gently placed the wrapped, still unnamed infant, beside a bowl of water that smelled of goat dung. On standing, he heard a voice say in vernacular, “you still care for that child.”
Peter was so startled that he stumbled and fell. A hand patted him on the back. Turning around, he locked eyes with the most beautiful man he had ever seen, about his own age, in the full regalia of a palm wine tapper. “But I see now in your eyes that despite the care, your mind is made. No worries. I shall take care of Olisaemeka from now on. Go back to your wife and daughters.” When Peter retold that story to his wife the next day, he was particularly keen on how the complete stranger named a child they had refused to name in his very first sentence about it. “Who was he?” Anita would continue to ask Peter each time she remembered the young boy she gave away and the stranger who took him in. “A beautiful palm wine tapper,” Peter would always reply, and that reply became the one secret Anita could never utter to her husband, for she knew who the palm wine tapper was.
Neo Layette started out as a little company that piggybacked on a foreign company who sold babies as they are colloquially called. Their story goes this way: A little group of persons who had the only section for baby clothing in the bend-down-select area of Apapa main market decided to expand their business. They called it Baby Drawer Assortments then. They had to come up with a company name and structure if they were ever able to go into business with their foreign partners. The god-awful name only changed when they became an independent LLC, thirty years later. Their pearl anniversary initiated the branch of Neo Layette that would become a most popular adoption agency in Nigeria. Now, for a company that successful, there has to be stories, lots of them, enough to put them out of business for good . . . that is if the company’s media relations experts are bad enough to allow for that. Thank goodness Neo Layette’s weren’t. If not, there was no chance in all of the universes that Mr. and Mrs. Habeeb Oparaeche would agree to visit the agency to adopt a child, what with that particular story where they said that the company manufactures babies – like a literal baby factory – and there were photographic proofs of this particular allegation all over the web; deformed babies in all the possible ways deformation can manifest itself. The media experts called it effects of irradiation in a remote African island off the coast of Madagascar. Custody papers were produced to back that story. Some sued for doctoring those papers, they all lost.
So, the family of Habeeb Oparaeche was one of the few brave enough to approach the agency in their trying time, also because all the bad PR forced them to reduce charges to newer drastic minimums every passing week. They wanted a boy. Their only condition was that he should be Nigerian, that’s all. They signed a closed adoption deal for a boy given up by a young girl from Edo State who had absolutely no one to support her in raising her kid. The day the boy was to be handed to them, a strange man burst into the room, halted them from picking up that child and offered another one. He refused to say where the child was from or why they had to take him and not the other. In fact, the man, who gave off an air of uncomfortable surreptitiousness and chaotically dramatized everything little thing he did – from his breathing to the way he waved his hands – looked like he was an impostor in a haste to do what he came to do and disappear before being caught. He wasn’t a staff as Habeeb later found out, but was glad he didn’t discover this on that day, else the excellent gift of nature that was his Peter would not have reached him.
Habeeb and his wife agreed to love any child they adopted, but nothing prepared them for the marvel that was Peter. They gave him the name Peter because they needed him to be their rock. Peter, at four, could outsmart kids twice his age. He felt useless in class because he found all that he was taught was boring and unchallenging. He was a beautiful savant, a precious jewel in the eyes of all who loved him.
A week after valentine’s day in 1994, Peter, who was roughly six, sat both his parents down, and like Jesus in the temple with the Pharisees, began teaching them the virtues of just simply listening to him once in a while and, in his words, “stop treating him like miserable infant.” He gave particular reference to the gift he got on valentine’s day- a story book on the truth fairy.
“Believing in the truth fairy is like believing in Jack Frost or Santa Claus. They don’t exist mum, come on.”
“But Peter, what if. . ?”
He interrupted his mother. “Why don’t we in Africa tell our own fairy tales proudly like the white people? Why can’t I tell Clark in school about Mbe, the tricky tortoise?” Clark was a biracial student who looked more Caucasian than Negroid.
Peter’s mother fell silent. There was no need stretching the conversation longer than it needed to be. Added to the little boy’s divine brilliance was also his inability to give up an argument, especially when he feels he’s in the right. This was exactly why his mother jumped for joy the next morning when Peter came to her shouting, “the truth fairy is real! The truth fairy is real!”
“I saw him,” he said. Him? was the first thing Janice, Peter’s mother, could think when she saw her son animated and breaking his rule of giving up an argument. Never had she heard a tale of the truth fairy being male. “He is a very beautiful man!” the son exclaimed.
Janice advised her son that next time he shows up, he should inform the fairy that he hadn’t any tooth to offer. Her son interjected. He opened up his erstwhile clenched fist and revealed a tooth, an upper incisor. He’d lost it early in the morning and had even gone as far to record it in his little diary under February 22, 1994. Now, Janice, not knowing what else to say, advised him to tell the tooth fairy that she would love to see him next time he comes.
Before the stroke of midnight that day, he came, the most beautiful man Peter had ever seen. But after telling him that his mom would like to meet him, the man smiled and informed him that the adventure he was about embarking on was going to be very exciting and elucidating, and he would love Peter to come with. Peter took not more than three minutes to consider his choices before agreeing. Therefore, Janice never met the beautiful man because both Peter’s incisor and indeed Peter himself had left Apapa for an exciting adventure.
The U S of A had never proved a tougher place to live in. You got it hot and worse if you lived in Brooklyn. But life has spat you out if you live in a trash bin under the Brooklyn Bridge, in winter, without a penny, without a trace, without identity. One just simply existed, and the inability to take your own life makes the existence a curse. Felicia was cursed. Felicia has been cursed since her parents threw her out and wanted nothing to do with her anymore. It wasn’t her fault but his. All of it, his fault- her once knight in shining armour, her black knight . . . correction, black knight with a silly little white tuft of hair growing from the centre of his head.
The first day she met Jackson was back in junior high. He was the son of a filthy rich black family people referred to as The Black Trumps. He was super intelligent, first in every class. He was handsome, and his stubbornness made him even the more appealing to the ladies. He would have been the perfect ladies’ man if not that he was reserved- too reserved some would say. He was exactly Felicia’s type- a social problem to solve, only this time unlike others, their relationship, which was very rocky at start, evolved to a point where he became her all. He, at one point, faced Mitch “the mighty” McNorman – the most obnoxious of the assemblage of bullies in school at the time – and defended her honour by taking several punches for her. He was hospitalized immediately, and lied to his parents that he started the fight. It took a week for his parents, after constant badgering on the matter, to find out that their only son laid half-dead in the hospital because of a girl. It was ludicrous at first because they knew Jackson’s predispositions to advances from the opposite sex were all too laughable, but at verifying that their son had finally grown up, and has disproven their hidden fears that perhaps he was gay, what they did was to cut corners, pull strings and get Felicia’s parents fired from both their jobs.
In vent of rage, Mr. and Mrs. Portland, a homely white couple who lived in upper Manhattan, who sometimes considered themselves the least bourgeois of the lot, whose Christianity was never in question, who would eat from a tray when surrounded with black people to prove that they had no iota of racial bias in their bone despite hailing from the parts of America where considering oneself as a redneck was as proud a venture as sipping your early morning cup of coffee, cast their only daughter Felicia out of their home. Of course they didn’t mean to, but it was too late because their little girl was far gone before they came back to their senses. This was in March, 1991, the start of the jobless recovery.
January 1992, Bill Clinton was talking down Bush the Elder, Mr. and Mrs. Portland were still jobless and sad, Jackson had moved on, but had gone from bad to worse – he had ceased any form of communication with females his age – and Felicia was at the shores of the East River, running a quarter through her fingers, thinking about sex. She hadn’t had any, and wanted to. She had considered prostitution many times than she could count. She was good in math and reading people, and had also considered pickpocketing. But then, wasn’t this Felicia’s problem- never going through with a decision? Wasn’t this the case, she’d have hung herself long ago.
As she strode along the shores, looking away from anyone who had food least she loses the hold she had already gained on hunger, she stumbled upon an article in Life Magazine about gender reassignment. It was like a light bulb came on in her head. Why be a female and suffer in a male-dominated world? Why consider prostitution when you could become the pimp for yourself? Why . . ?
“Excuse me,” an all-too-familiar male voice came from her back. “I think I dropped off my magazine right here. Can’t seem to find it.” Insolent male, she thought, and at the same time, trying to pinpoint where she’d heard that voice before. “Hey, I’m talking to you,” the voice came louder. The owner of the voice tugged on the rags she wore and she turned to give him a – perhaps more than one – piece of her mind, just as recognition struck her.
Jackson was alarmed, and a sharp pang of guilt struck him. All Felicia thought about still was sex, this time, perhaps, with Jackson. She voiced her thoughts immediately. “I’m gay,” he replied and then froze.
Remembering that day was like remembering the turning point to his life. Two years before, when Jackson was in Nigeria to see his guardian who handed him over to his current family, he thought that was the day he would finally get over this thing that nags consistently inside of him that renders females repellent to him. He thought he could finally understand if he had always been this way before he came to America, because, frankly, he could not remember his life beyond his first permanent tooth, and he could remember a lot. But he really got nothing out of the visit to his country of origin. The meeting with Felicia by the East River instead helped him understand what he really had to do. He was done being a boy. He had the gender reassignment article in his hands, the contacts of the doctors who could work his miracle was there as well, he had confessed a tendency to femininity to the one person he thought he could never do so to, all was set.
The doctor gave him, I mean her, the legal papers that showed that his procedure was completed. It was dated Wednesday, February 23, 1994. She was the first person to try out the procedure that involved the insertion of an artificial uterus. It was experimental, uber-expensive – she had the support of her parents for that – and damn painful, but at the end, she had this assurance that it was worth it. She was a new-born, a rare and special phoenix rising from her ashes, bold, beautiful, better.
For the first time, she could confidently look a guy in the face and admire the beauty and complexity of attraction to a male. The doctor was the first recipient of her admiration. He was a man who using the adjective handsome to describe his beauty sounded belittling. He was the most beautiful man she ever saw.
Everybody knows that if you tamper with a device for too long, more than its carrying capacity, one day, it will break, and there will be no device to tamper with anymore. Ochalugo tampered a lot with the gemstones his father gave him. There were fourteen of them – twelve coloured stones and two black stones – kind of biblical if you think about it. The black stones were like Urim and Thummim. They were the divination stones. The twelve served various purposes, chief of which being foretelling the nature of events in the ten dimensions. When Ochalugo’s father introduced him to his craft – the family business – Ochalugo was already a devout science enthusiast, and one of his biggest influencers was Rob Bryanton. Rob’s postulates about the nature and interactions of the ten dimensions from point to information space coincided, if not too perfectly, with the theory behind his father’s stones, and right there and then, he was sold. He began to see the magic he was being introduced to as an outplay of science too superior to contemporary human understanding. This led to experimentations of various types, ergo, the tamperings.
His latest experiment had just backfired on him, like others had, but this time on a colossal scale. The very fabrics of time (or duration as he and Rob agrees to call it) and space were at risk. All because of Emma, his assistant. Emma was not in his family’s lineage. She was not permitted to know what she knew, talk more of practicing. It has always been considered taboo throughout the ages his family has participated in the grand theatrical play that is life on earth to let someone not in the lineage practice. It was deemed lethal. But in the morning of February 24, 1994, Emma practiced.
Emma was the queerest girl you could ever meet. Okay, queerest woman you could ever meet. She was twenty-four the previous year, but a chat with her would never suggest that. She also looked like ten years was subtracted from her life. She’d always asked Ochalugo – one whom she considered master and father – where she came from, if people don’t grow old there, if there was a fountain of youth. Truth is, all Emma could remember of her past is that she woke up one day, happy with life. She’d seen various doctors and they say its acute amnesia. She thinks differently. She has, on several occasions been close to believing she was an angel dropped from heaven to assist Ochalugo. The day she, in her troubling blend of vivacity and curiosity, found Ochalugo’s memoir, everything changed.
Here’s a brief highlight of the things she discovered: One, she was once a boy named Jackson. Two, Jackson was once named Peter and lived in Lagos, Nigeria with a completely different set of parents. Three, Peter was once named Olisa, who was an infant left to die in a manger in Imo, Nigeria. Four, she never remembered any of these, which may be the side effect to whatever it was that made what she saw what she saw. Five, the magic Ochalugo dealt with was dangerous magic. That is to say, even though it hurt like a pierced knife through her heart that Ochalugo possibly was the only person in the world who knew who she really was and couldn’t simply tell her, he was the coolest person on the planet as well, and she would kill to go on one of his trips, for that is what they were – trips through space-time. There were no time machines, no gargantuan ships that could create wormholes, no complex relativity equations to decipher, just twelve stones, an oft drunk beautiful man, and a whole lot of chanting and incantations in Igbo . . . which she just figured out she must now have to learn.
The moment Ochalugo found her with his memoir, his face sunk and the old, seriously antediluvian book, vanished from her palms. Her master had been careless, and she was never supposed to have found the book. She probably was going to die.
But die she didn’t, and awaiting the day her master would again be as careless and drunk as he was when she found his sacred book, she studied him and his enchantments, and she learnt the craft. So, Emma, hidden, trying to get herself transported through space-time, excited the whole process through, was asked the one question that hadn’t crossed her mind since she began rummaging through her master’s stuff. “Where would you go?” It was her master. He was right there with her the entire time and she initially couldn’t see him. She really couldn’t escape him since his first mistake whatever she tried.
She considered the question and came up with a reply. The first thing that popped into her head. “Nigeria.” Her master was about asking her when she is going to when, pop!, she was gone.
“So…you don’t know where you’re from?”
“No…No. Thought I’ve said that already.”
“Yeah, you did. But you also said you don’t have amnesia.”
“Yea. I told you I believe I’m from the future.”
“I know, I know, it’s not the most romantic thing to tell a guy on a first date.”
A cough and a choke. A clearing of throat.
“Ahem…first date? Uhm…I really wish I didn’t have to burst your bubble like this, but I just met you. A week ago. I’m sure a lot of guys would die to go out with you, but as you must’ve noticed, I’m from the states.”
A hurt feeling. A composure gained. A resolution to stop admiring set, well-chiselled facial features, and a white tuft of hair from the centre of a black mass.
“I’m sorry. It’s my bad really. I can be too jittery and expressive at times.”
A remembrance of a meeting a week ago and the embarrassment that followed.
“But, hold on. You saw me naked, and you stared.”
“Uhm, ahem, well, I’m a guy…and you were naked…”
“From what you say, you consider yourself gay. Even me, at a point in my life, I think – can’t exactly remember – I had a gender identity crisis as well.”
“I’m not gay.”
“You say it like it’s a bad thing.”
“It isn’t? I thought you Nigerians and your sanctimonious views can’t condone the thought.”
“I’m not really sure I’m Nigerian. But even if I were, I think I’d agree everyone should be allowed to live the life they choose to live, whether I have a problem with being gay or lesbian, or gender fluid.”
“So, you’re in support.”
“I don’t just think you are. You may think you are, but I don’t think you are.”
A side glance at a menu of food items to choose from. A request to select one offered to conversation partner. Some selections made. All done in effort to kill the current conversation. There was also a surprising change of heart to stick with current gender.
“So, why did you call me here? You know you dragged me away from my parents and my guardian. And I don’t want to stay here too late. I have to travel back to the states tomorrow morning. It’s 1992 and we’re still recovering.”
“I’ll be brief. Do you believe in magic? Or in time-travel?”
A brain-damaging annoyance. “You’re such a waste of time! I’m leaving.”
A restrictive tug on the shirt. “Just hear me out.”
Two hours of trying to convince one of the possibilities of time-travel, and then the question, “so, are you in?”
“Will I time-travel with you?”
“Can I take a raincheck?”
Raincheck lasts two years, and on 25th February, 1994, both conversationalists meet once again in Nigeria, genders intact, and they make good on their promises. They time travel.
Unlike USA, 1985 in Nigeria was a time of political uncertainties. The naira had value in the international market. IBB, a year into his tenure, had began showing his true colours. Justus Oparaeche had just lost his wife Janice, two weeks ago. Indeed, they both grew old together, but he still wished he had an offspring to carry on his lineage. He was a core Igbo man, and matters as the name of a family never came light. So, you can imagine his surprise when he met the young man who looked like he was wealthy, yet possesed by a demon, frantically questioning people if they had seen a girl he was with. It was his Peter.
Remembering the school bus accident, and those two coroners on his front porch, the expression on his wife’s face, it was hard to do what he did next. He mustered up courage, breathed in and out, and called out to the young man, “Peter?”
The young man turned around to face him. The hair. The hair was there. It really was his Peter.
Five years later, on a faithful Sunday outside the gates of Assumpta Cathedral, lay the unconscious body of the girl Peter could barely remember, the girl with the stones in his dreams, and Peter was over it, calling a hospital; he had knocked her down, and he wondered why he recognized her so much.
Saturday, February 26, 1994, Anita and Peter shared the same dream of a man they both knew, a man who they felt had contributed more to their own lives than was allowable. They never discussed this dream. Heck, there was no way they would find out the other had the same dream, unless they told. But they wouldn’t because they were ashamed. They were ashamed it was their poor parental decision that brought this man into their lives in the first place.
“Who was he?” Anita asked Peter once again. Both their daughters, with their grandchildren had just left their home, one family on a flight to the Netherlands where one of their daughters worked with Shell, the other to Abuja, where the other daughter chaired Nigeria’s proudest homegrown multinational company- Predestination Air, an airline that keeps breaking barriers when it comes to using technology to keep customers satisfied.
“The beautiful man?” Peter questioned back.
“Yes.” Anita said distantly, as if peering into the skies through the roofing of their home. “We should find him.”
The amnesiac effects of Peter and Anita’s many travels had worn off by now . . . not completetly though. They still believed in their individuality. They knew where the stones were. They painstakingly found it. They were both in their early sixties. They engaged the stones, but before they did, they said to themselves, “for the hate of amaranths.”
Mr. and Mrs. Habeeb Oparaeche’s only reason, they believe, for taking young, tiny, Peter in was for the hate of amaranths. It was nonsesical, but it was it. When Habeeb – who’d switched religion from Islam to Christianity and answered Justus – died on February 27th, 1994, nine years after his wife, it was a feast.