He met her in a storm.
The thunder had bellowed and thrown a tantrum across dark skies. Day had turned to night swiftly and Lagos remained relentlessly bustling. Cars and buses still zoomed by, blackish blurs in grey dimness. He had run as fast as he could to the nearest piece of dry land, because the sky had opened up just as he had hopped off a particularly rickety danfo filled with otherworldly fishmongers and a talky driver. Job hunting was a bitch, they had told him they would call back but he knew better. So he ran through the deluge into the giant iron canopy of a filling station where others shivered and stared at the angry skies, God was putting on a performance that was far from amusing. Lightning forked and split across the sky in blue hot streaks, and even though he braced and held every muscle in his body still, the coming thunder still made his bones vibrate with an odd fear. The lightning was supposed to be scarier — it was fast hot hungry electrons looking for flesh to devour — but in the end it was the roar of the heavens that made him cower.
A gust of wind blew, sneakily, into the openings of his wet shirt and he shivered violently. He definitely needed to get to his apartment to glean any heat he could before he got any nasty illnesses. He was about to walk out into the wet air when lightning struck.
The air had suddenly grown hot and crackly, the hairs on his arm had shrank back like cornered rodents, and then light had filled the air. The sound that followed was the sound of fear, a rift torn open in the cosmic fabric of the heavens. While the wet people had screamed and run for shelter in some form, he had just stepped back.
The air after smelled of molten metal, which also happened to smell uncannily, like blood.
“Don’t you just love it?”
The voice that broke the still air reminded him of whiskey spiked with honey, and the face he saw when he turned was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Bird-boned with a halo of curly black hair surrounding her face, pale bronze skin and eyes that practically clobbered him with their cunning. He was speechless.
“You don’t like the unpredictability of a lightning strike? The way it feels as if death and God are swirling around you, kissing the earth inches away but missing you? It doesn’t make you feel powerful?”
He became further awestruck. The combination of that voice, that face, and now a new svelte cockiness was heady. She was nearly ethereal in her form, held back from being purely heavenly by the wildness lurking beneath.
“The thunder is worse than the lightning.”
She cocked her head to one side at his slow sentence, becoming more avian for a fleeting moment.
“It’s just a harmless sound.”
“Sound can be powerful.”
She lifted a delicate palm. “I’m Tolu. You’re…interesting.”
He peeled his right arm off the plastic briefcase where all the papers he held dear lay half-damp.
“Christopher. Your voice is beautiful.”
She smiled, revealing a row of teeth that could pass for bright white pearls. Then she nodded and walked off into the moist Lagos air just as the sun pierced the chaos above. Her shoulders cut through the air. Swift. Clean. Feral. And her waist danced, undulating as she went.
Christopher ran after her, nearly screaming for her phone number.
They got married in a field full of sun.
Exactly two years after the first time they had seen each other, and after Christopher had learnt that Tolu was truly, wild. She rode a motorcycle – one that she had to put in limbo because she got a job in advertising, and a woman riding to work on a growling metal monster would raise the wrong eyebrows. She literally growled when she got excited. She loved bungee jumping, and tried new meals without blinking. She reminded him of a sprite, she could have told him she sprung fully formed from thick brown pages of lore and he wouldn’t have blinked. She had also learnt about him; his resilience, his inner child slash clown, his need to be a bit too compassionate about everything. She loved Tarantino and roast chicken with too much pepper. He loved vintage Tade Ogidan and a good whiskey and cream. She had one friend, Siren, who was basically a dialed up version of her struck with wanderlust, she sent postcards and chocolates from quaint towns made out of old brick. He had no friends. They all left after his parents died and all the money evaporated.
She never said she loved him. It would be too much for her, like tossing herself into a still ocean and sinking into the darkness below with no control and with no angry waves to blame. She did it with every other thing; her eyes, the pauses between kisses, and breath on his shoulder. He loved her. It hadn’t felt wrong or too cliché when he had dropped on his knees in the middle of a go-slow, two weeks after he had snagged himself a job that came with a sleek Toyota and two stories of grey stone on the island.
It was a white wedding, even though Tolu had never stepped in a church all through their time together. Chris wasn’t too keen on screaming praises to someone who had let him walk the baking hot streets of Lagos unemployed for two years, but he did an occasional toe dip to honor his mother’s soul.
The reception was in a field of vivid green grass that had the capacity to be filled with a lot of people. Sadly, Chris and Tolu did not have a lot of people. Tolu only had her mother, Oyin, who in turn had a few sisters and brothers who could fill up a large green field with their offspring if they still talked to their sibling. Regardless, she looked elegant, in stiff white lace and a gold headdress that looked like broken wings. Tolu’s work-friends also showed up, and sat together like large clumps of fashionista. On the other side of the field where the groom’s family was supposed to stay, there was Uncle Sunday, the brother of Christopher’s father in a grand circle, the table in front of him was covered in enough liquor to drown an Irishman. Around him Christopher’s old friends sat, eyeing the surrounding opulence like starving wolves. Huge swaths of gossamer silk were strung across the open air, to prevent the sun from burning their visitors to a crisp and to lend the air the quality of a dream, a steamed up Polaroid.
“Cake!!” Tolu squealed as the train of shiny black cars rounded the corner of the field where the silk floated. She leapt out of the car, tottering as her heels sank in the sand. Christopher leapt out and ran to her side to scoop up the very expensive train of crushed lace dragging across the wet grass of the grounds, halfway through he slid his arms behind her legs and hauled her up to where the cake sat, covered in cream whorls.
They fed each other large chunks as their visitors cheered. Oyin dabbed at her eyes with a napkin. Uncle Sunday swigged more beer and scratched his beard.
She died on a warm day in June. The weather switching from the cold anger of morning to the warm wine-drunk smile of afternoon. They had been talking at the dinner table, about children.
“I don’t think I’m ready yet” Christopher had whispered as Tolu paced the circle of the kitchen island like a large cat. You could almost see her muscles coiled.
“Mommy won’t let me hear word, “When will I see grandchildren?”, “Is your husband impotent?” “Why are you n—” She dissolved into giggles. “The impotent part always gets me, I usually end up cutting the phone laughing.” Her words were sour.
“How many times has she talked about it?” His face was like stone.
“Since I saw my first period.” She chuckled bitterly, “I swear she was more concerned about me birthing her a grandchild than me becoming a person. I guess that’s part of why I deviated from what she wanted for me.” She stopped behind him and began rubbing his shoulders. “What do you really want though? Really, really, really want?’”
“I guess I’m just worried I’ll shift my attention from you. From what we have together.”
“That’s sweet honey, but you are the last of your kind. And I really want to have a child beyond mother drama.”
“Yes really. I just want to watch her grow and leave her be whoever she wants to be, in anyway she wants to be it. Greatest mother on earth I shall be”
He laughed. “That’s very deep. I’m glad we talked about this. Don’t know why it never came up before.”
“Well, you were too busy shoving your—oh shit, my asaro!!” She ran towards the pot of yam, peppers, snails, crayfish and meat that was boiling into a thick gumbo above the cooker, but never made it there. She slipped, or at least to Christopher it looked like she did. In reality, her soul left her, yanked from where it clung to her bones by a wicked scythe.
Christopher made an ugly noise as he watched his wife fall to the floor. There was something about the way her limbs swung through the air in a negative dance that sent a chill through his bones. It was the empty fall of a marionette.
He fell to her side, shaking her, checking her pulse and calling her name a thousand times as he practically tried to hug her back into her body. She didn’t move and her warmth was ebbing, seeping out of her like unseen blood. He pulled his phone out of his pocket to call an ambulance, and then he remembered the Lagos traffic and even worse the high-strung medics that would come in tow. He flipped through his phone, heart racing and then he saw a name, his only family left.
He depressed the green button.
“You need my help?” Uncle Sunday’s words of greeting were odd as usual. “What happened?’
“Tolu fell. She’s not breathing.”
“I’ll send someone.”
He was about to say a breathless ‘Thank you’ when the phone went dead. He dropped it to the ground to cradle her head closer. The door to the apartment shuddered.
“Whoever is in this house, open the door if you need the help of Ifa.”
The voice was loud, clear and deep. It made his skin fold. He leapt to his feet, dropping Tolu gingerly and tottering towards the door half drawn by fear, half tossed away from it. He had barely touched it with the key when it burst open and tossed him to the side. A mass of thick white and blue cloth swept past him and swaggered majestically over to Tolu’s body.
Christopher was still recovering from the explosive entrance when the mass beckoned him over with a sweep of swaddled arm. He walked over, his head suddenly clear of any fuzziness.
It was a man, a little over six feet tall and wearing large oval sunglasses that covered half his face, which seemed to be buried in a bushy black beard. He whipped out a handful of flat stones, white like teeth, and flung them over the body beneath. They fell and bounced off, clattering loudly in the silent kitchen. On the stove, the yam porridge sputtered. The man turned his head and the fire died with a hiss.
He looked back at the stones, reading in their pattern some cosmic jargon that ended up in the words that Christopher feared the most.
“She’s gone. He took her.”
“Who took her? WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU?!”
Fear burst from his chest in loud questions. He did not want to believe anything. He did not want to listen to himself even though he knew the truth.
The man was still, he pulled up the arms of his agbada, made of fine velvet and exposed arms covered in crude black drawings that had faded and melded with his skin. Feathers, snakes, birds, eyes. A tiny row of incisions travelled from shoulder to wrist. His arms tensed as he clenched his fist and looked over at Christopher.
“I am Fagbeja. Stand back, Child of Sorinola, Ifa is about to battle for you.” Then he burst into incantations that leapt from his tongue like a hailstorm of broken ice.
The words, deep and loud in Yoruba and other languages he couldn’t understand and wasn’t sure existed, stabbed the air furiously in staccato. Through the melee of tattered sound, he could hear the Yoruba, full of braggadocio and taunting. Fagbeja was poking Death in his side, telling him to return the soul he had stolen so cowardly.
The air in the room grew cold, like the area outside the fridge when you open it to look into its emptiness in disappointment. Before Christopher’s eyes, clouds began to form along the ceiling. Thick, black, growling and full of crackling lightning. They crawled along the white roses engraved in the plaster above. The bulbs in the faux chandelier exploded, showering gold sparks. Soon half of the room was hidden in tumultuous rainclouds. Inside the dark greyness, something swam. Fagbeja continued to utter words. His wrists, ringed with numerous rows of white stone bracelets clattered as he shook them at the sky.
Bring her to me
Lay her back down
It is not her time
Fagbeja sputtered and then cocked his head, arguing with the serpentine mass that swam and floated above his head.
I see. Give them to me
Fagbeja reached into the storm above his head, his hand disappearing for a few seconds and then he withdrew it, palm clenched. The storm simmered into filmy grey smoke and then ornate plaster ceiling was exposed again.
“Your wife will come back but she cannot stay. She was rotting from the inside. You must let her go after the third butterfly, born of these seeds of the passion fruit, takes to the air.”
He crouched beside her and slid his fingers into her throat, passing the seeds he got from the storm into her belly. He stood up and slid off his glasses. He had no pupils, off-white ovals lay where eyes should be.
The stove came back on with a whomp!, and looking deeper and deeper into the swimming blanks of the wizard doctor’s eyes, Christopher felt the world melt away.
When he awoke the next day, Tolu was curled around his torso, breathing deep and smooth.
The first butterfly flew thirty nine days after Fagbeja visited.
The effects of Tolu’s death were wearing off, but that didn’t stop Christopher from watching his wife sleep at night as ‘but she cannot stay’ swam around his head till his vision blurred with tears. She had no idea what had happened, she had just woken up the next morning and gone to work. He couldn’t tell her anything so he just watched her, loving her, immortalizing her in his mind.
“Hey.” Snapping fingers. “Hey!” He snapped out of another pool of dark thought, wiping his hands across his eyes as Tolu snapped her fingers across his field of vision.
“I said “I love you””
He smiled, his heart warming deep and hot like a small sun.
“I just looked at you now, in your pink bath towel, holding that slice of dodo in the air with such poise. I realized I wouldn’t be complete with that image in my blackmail bag, and me not staying with you forever to find the perfect moment to cash it in.”
“It’s my mother’s old bathrobe” He said in his most excuse-y voice. Tolu shook her head. She rose and pecked his cheek, as she sat back down she felt something like a feather duster brush across the inside of her throat and watched a butterfly, black as night, escape her lips and fly out the window into the groggy morning.
She gripped her throat and rushed to the window to look for the fluttering wings but the air outside was clear. She ran back to Christopher and was about to tell him when she saw the look on his face. One of pure venomous sorrow, his forehead was crumpled and his bottom lip was gripped too hard between his teeth.
“Did you see that?”
The reply was barely a whisper.
The second butterfly came a year later.
Tolu went to visit her mother, who lived alone in a sprawling mansion in downtown Surulere. They talked and tittered over boiling pots of stew, and as time wore on and small talk shifted gears into talk about Oyin’s friends and their grandchildren, Tolu picked up her bag to leave
“Where are you going? Efo isn’t ready and you haven’t eaten yet.”
“Mommy, you know baby talk will turn sour very fast and I won’t hold my tongue about how I feel.”
Her mother sat down and motioned over to the stool beside her, patting it softly.
“It took me some time to realize how much it was your choice to have a child.” She began. “I was alone and the death of your father crushed me severely. I’m sorry for all the harm I might have caused.” She pulled at the the checkered napkin dotted with oil stains that lay in her lap.
Tolu listened with deepening awe as the words tumbled out of her mother, and she felt her heart give, like it had been waiting to. A little butterfly with wings pale escaped her lips. She watched it go, and when she looked at her mother she saw she was watching it too, the both of them, neck angled skywards watching this piece of soul drift and flutter until it burst into a puff of white smoke.
They looked at each other. In the moments it took to pull their heads back down, they had forgotten about what they had been looking at. All that was left was forgiveness.
Mother stood up and hugged daughter. The peace that descended was thick and white, like summer clouds.
“I know you’re cheating on me”
It was a calm proclamation. They were standing outside and the air was filled with the stink of bleeding plant. From where she snipped and cut her prize hibiscus a few feet away, Christopher could see tears cradled on his wife’s eyelashes like liquid crystal. He had no idea how to tell her he wasn’t cheating on her. Had no idea how to tell her he loved her, even though he was slowly coming to terms with the fact that she could leave any moment. It was a strange love, a love beyond what he had felt for her before the passionfruit seeds. He protected her in swaths of gossamer in his mind, connecting dots and accepting the inevitable. That in turn was almost impossible to do since she was vibrantly alive before his eyes every single day.
“I’m not, I swear”
“Then who do you talk to at night on the phone? Your voice is always so low, like you’re sharing a secret.” She sniffled.
After several calls to Uncle Sunday had failed, he had confided in a shrink. Dr. Alao. She listened to his rants about what life meant, and what his living but dead wife was doing to his heart, how she was shredding his insides every time she smiled at him, or told him she had a dream that a butterfly had escaped from her lips after she had patched things up with her mother.
“That’s my therapist. I’m having some…issues”
She dropped the pruning shears and walkeds up to him. Her hair was haloed from behind by pulsing sunlight, and her skin glowed unblemished like solid honey.
“You didn’t tell me. Why didn’t you tell your wife you had issues big enough to introduce a therapist into the mix. I’m supposed to know these things.” The anger in her voice is calm, like all the outbursts she has had since Fagbeja. She had become a lighter version of herself. A ghost tethered to earth by hope. And love.
His voice was unsteady again.
“What do you mean it’s me? Are you falling out of love with me?”
“No..no..honey..no. I lost you and I’m coming to terms with it.”
“What? What are you saying? You lost me? How? When?”
“Tolu, if I began to explain it to you, you would not believe me and you would simply go inside and take your bags to leave. Something happened that I cannot remember, but I know butterflies have a lot to do with it. I hear a voice telling me that after three butterflies you would me leave forever, it is scary. Sometimes I feel like it is not true, and then sometimes I am there and I can smell your perfume in the air as you lie on the ground.”
“Nothing like that has happened, is happening or will happen. I’m here and I love you, no matter how much crazy you spew. You also need to take more naps.”
“I know.” He whispered.
He was crying but no tears were falling. She pulled him into her arms.
“We’ll talk about this, and we definitely need to see that therapist together”
“I love you”. He whispered against her silk blouse, where neck met spine and where her soft perfume bloomed.
She left his arms and went past him into the house.
Moments later, a butterfly with wings of broken glass flew past him. He turned around and saw her lying against the grass. Hair still black as night and rosebud lips partly open, she looked like she was sleeping. Her white sundress reflected soft light that cocooned her in a mirage of beauty.
Looking at her, he remembered everything. Fagbeja. The seeds. The storm. The fear the first time she had left him.
He sat in the sun and held her close, then let the tears fall.