Shielding her eyes from the rising sun, the mother trudges up the hill. This isn’t the first time they meet face to face. The sun smiles brightly while the mother ducks, placing her forearm over her forehead.
On the other side of the hill, the pastor readies his house and Bible for the spiritual cleansing. The mother, his regular visitor will soon knock on the door. Iridescent light flits to one side of the prayer room where a roaming torchlight gliding along the bare cement floor has met the fractured glass panel of the podium. The same type of light features in Tahray’s love-induced dream with Michael as she sleeps, unaware of where her mother is or what she has gone to do.
Panting hard but without preamble, the mother settles down on her knees before the man of God.
“I know-- demons-- are out to destroy my daughter-- but God will never let that happen,” she says.
The pastor only nods and raises his voice in a worship song to prepare them for the battle for victory, through prayers and supplication, on behalf of her daughter. Thus for the second time that morning, Mama Tahray bends her head low and, as though summoned, a ridge of concentration appears on her forehead.
Tahray wakes up at 7.30 that morning in her usual way, scatter-brained and in limbo. She begins a slow, revolving and insistent glance round her own room; like a stranger looking at vaguely familiar things. This goes on till her brain acknowledges that it is indeed in her room. Only after this, does Tahray get off the bed and go into the bathroom.
Today, she feels weaker than usual as she brushes her teeth. Tahray doesn’t dwell on the feeling because she knows; this is the only shot at getting him to notice her. This difficult and treacherous road is the path of triumph. The obvious thing to do would be to talk to him but she is not good at conversations. As a matter of fact, if conversation was a train, Tahray would be lucky she ever got on it. And if by some miracle she got on board, she would be like those people wandering from aisle to aisle, looking for a place to stand. Silence therefore, is her best accomplice.
Michael! Might he be awake? Has he also brushed his teeth? Pepsodent or Macleans, which may be his preference? He, who doesn’t know she exists, is the reason for her decided impending foray into the unknown. That skin, the dark velvety brownness that surrounds him always stimulates her senses; especially her taste buds. Every time she thinks about him that one unforgettable piece of Belgian chocolate fills her mouth. As well as the smell of cinnamon… unrelated… or maybe related because of its similarity in colour to the chocolate. She swallows the saliva that floods her mouth. Tahray shakes her head to stop herself from thinking about such things, especially the chocolate, she needs to succeed at making Michael hers.
Tahray weighs 180 pounds at five feet one inch, and that is the total sum of her present misery; as Michael only likes skinny girls. The evidence of this is scattered all over her church choir. Starting with Damilola, whom she noticed him staring intently at four weeks ago when he came to pick up his sister after choir practice. If a table fan at high speed is placed in front of Damilola, it would blow her right out of the room. The other Sunday, he bumped into an old lady because he was staring at tin teenie Lami Simon. Even that skinny pile of, of, of… anyway Ene is her name, has caught his attention.
Tahray doesn’t like Ene. There is an effortlessness in the way she walks, sings and even talks; always majestic, on point and in tune. And this rubs on Tahray in the same way one uses pumice to rub off dead skin from the soles of their feet. It is irritating and uncomfortable but she knows something useful can come out of studying Ene. If only she has the capacity to be something useful.
Lami, Damilola and Ene look like replications of the same person; skinny, light complexioned with nothing defining their backsides. Michael is the first Nigerian man she knows who stares at a flat buttock. The fattening houses and methods all around the country would have come to a grinding halt if this was a common occurrence. Remedies handed down from generation to generation, like the ‘Maltina mixed with milk’ concoction for her cousin, Tonye, whose clavicles can slice you if you brush past her would also have been non-existent. She heard her mom on the phone the other day reminding her aunt about it, the remedy not the clavicles. Perhaps Michael is part of a new generation of African men making different choices. And now her life has to be turned upside down because of it. At least Tahray has her luminous fair skin, as her cousin calls it, in her favour.
Tahray drops her toothbrush without rinsing it out. This means later on, for the umpteenth time, the house help will be falsely accused of using it.
She nearly rams into her mother waiting by the door. Tahray automatically stretches out her hand for the bottle, always a new one every three months. A quarterly reminder of how much she disappoints her mother daily.
“Have you finished the other one?” her mother asks.
“Where is the empty bottle?”
Tahray stares at her mother for a moment, she bits hard on her lip to smother the rising disappointment, anger and shame. She brings out an empty bottle for her dresser drawer and shows her mother who swiftly snatches and examines it closely. The bright yellow and gold sticker with ‘GOYA – Cold press olive oil’ written on it, gleams as though about to whisper tales of its own. This it does as her mother’s vision narrows at the significant amount of oil sitting innocently at the bottom of the tilted bottle and the smear lining its exterior.
“You are not using this anointing oil every day. Don’t you know it will help you concentrate and be more coordinated?” her mother says still staring at the bottle.
She does not want to look at her daughter yet because a storm is gathering within her. But a very loud sigh escapes and Mama Tahray immediate looks upward in an attempt to push back the tears threatening to jump out of her eyes.
Tahray doesn’t notice her mother’s desperation, instead she is consumed by the reflection of her stomach in the dresser’s mirror. It does not seem any smaller than it looked yesterday.
“Tahray, Tahray look at me!” her mother is forced to yell.
Tahray looks at her mother, who entire face is a quivering mess, and immediately reaches out to her.
“Don’t touch me! You are soon going to be twenty five and lack the composure of a five year old!”
Twenty five years on earth will be in November, ten months away, but Tahray’s quarter life crisis has already begun.
There are two single girls of marriageable age in her entire family. Tahray is one of them and her cousin Nina is the other. Even her other cousin Tonye, with blades for clavicles, is engaged and that’s why she is being fattened. A skinny frame is a bigger shame on her family than Tonye’s choice to be a skilled fashion designer. It does a huge disservice to their generational wealth.
Tahray doesn’t have any talent or vocational skill. Yes, she’s in the choir but as the secretary; the only qualification for the worst singer. Her job includes taking minutes, keeping the time for practice and recording every single uneventful event that happens.
“Tahray! Are you listening to me?”
She totally forgot her mom was in her room talking to her about… something.
“Yes Mama, I’m sorry…”
“You are sorry for what! You are always sorry but you never change! I don’t know why God is punishing me! Why don’t you listen to me! Why don’t you change?”
Her mother walks out and slams Tahray’s bedroom door shut. Staring at the shut door, Tahray feels cold ripples run up and down the length of her body. It is like she is standing on the shore of an ocean and strong waves hurl towards her, crashing at the door of her heart. The same waters well back up and try to find escape through her eyes. If only she knew the right things to say or do. If only she understood what had just happened. Her mother, it seems was in her room for a long time crying over...
She shuts her eyes and tries hard to remember…
Tahray remembers the day she decided to pursue Michael and the day after that. She spent all day on Google reading different pages and articles on weight loss. She found the fruit diet tempting but it is dry season and prices of fruit are sky high. There is no way she can afford to go on a fruit diet. The protein diet is also good but Tahray hates beans. The next challenge, while thinking of which diet to go on, was not to draw attention to herself. Her mother, Nina and whoever shows up unannounced at their table must not realize she is dieting. Tahray would love to shock people as her skinny self emerges from the corner of the back of their minds, where she knows they keep her. Tahray cooked up a story that nobody argued with or bothered to verify. She claimed to be doing an online course that required her to be logged in at dinner time and that was that. However, with regards to the diet, everything she read seemed to take more time than she hoped to invest. So she went back to the Google home page and typed extreme rapid weight loss.
After that, Tahray didn’t eat for three days.
Today is the fourth day. The breeze from the open window carries her everywhere around her room. Tahray feels a lightness that is certainly an indicator of result; although not yet visible. Choir practice, the place she always sees Michael is the day after tomorrow and all she has lost is five pounds, not enough to be noticed. It is time for accelerated weight lost. On a site she clicked during her Google search, Tahray read that if you drink a cup of warm water with half a lemon squeezed in it, first thing in the morning, it will flush out stored fat and increase metabolism. She makes a cup and quickly gulps down the mixture. What else? She asks herself… what else?
The danger with having a goal that requires doing little and attacking it with more stamina than necessary, is that you get bored. The task is done in a tenth of the time required, which is no time at all, and all that is left is brimming energy that has nowhere else to go. And now Tahray is bored out of her mind. What to do before the next cup of water…what to do, what to do...
Exercise is the only thing that comes to mind. She hates it immensely but it will help kill time. Plus there is the added benefit that she will lose more weight. What type of exercise could she do that would be exciting… The thought of it is beginning to make her sick. However, Tahray wills her mind to transport her to that place where lovesick people go. Her weight loss situation is a great sacrifice for love: the type to inspire a story, a Nigerian fairy tale.
Climbing up the hunted hills of Riyom is a girl desperately trying to find Simi, an enchanted flower. An unlovable girl like the author of this story. One may wonder why she will leave home, a known place of love, to a place of danger, darkness and distrust; but this is what a starving girl does…
Loud raucous music pouring from the stereo of a car outside her window, interrupts her thoughts. She looks at the wall clock. It is three pm on the dot.
“Might as well be now,” she mutters and walks to her closet to change into gym clothes. Tahray strips naked and takes a hard look at her reflection in the mirror. She wonders what to do about this tent hanging over her vagina. She lifts up the flab and it jiggles, doing some little makosa move. There was a time she tried sit ups and always felt like throwing up after the third one. Nobody had to tell her to give up. After all if you are already a failure, why not take more opportunities to fail.
The new bottle of anointing oil sitting on her dresser catches her eye. Suddenly staring back at her from the mirror are two reminders she never does anything right. Tahray’s vision becomes blurry from the heat of the anger rising within her. She wants to hate her mother for not loving her unconditionally, after she did not ask to be born; instead, Tahray closes her eyes and takes deep breaths.
As soon as calm returns, Tahray quickly wears her joggers with some sneakers. She picks her favourite tee shirt, the Garfield holding a massive plate of lasagne one. It has some palm oil stains and she ruefully drops it. The next shirt is the one with Garfield standing on a scale and calling it a liar. She giggles and puts it on and goes out of the room.
The neighbourhood gym is packed to Tahray’s bewilderment. She stands by the door and slowly scans around. Why are there skinny people crowding the treadmills? She is annoyed at the focus and zeal emanating from the sweat on their faces as they run and burn calories. What do they have to be determined about?
Heavy breathing breaks through her thoughts and she looks in its direction. An overweight girl struggling on the treadmill at a brisk walking pace comes into view.
That will be the treadmill I will use, she can’t last long, Tahray thinks out loud and rapidly walks over to the girl.
Huffing and puffing, the girl tries to reply but just ends up nodding her head.
“I would like to use the treadmill after you, just to inform you.”
Something like an okay begins to form in the girl’s mouth as it begins to take a circular shape, but it cannot come out, so she gives another exhausted nod instead.
Tahray walks to a chair to begin her wait. Two girls sitting next to her are chatting with each other while texting on their phones. The ability to do more than one thing at a time is truly beyond her. Her mother on the other hand is excellent at multi-tasking. Wait, what was it she was trying to remember about her mother again this morning? She begins to think hard again.
What Tahray doesn’t know is at the exact moment of her thoughts; her mother is on her knees, reciting a prayer from memory while searching through the pages of the Bible for something else. All her prayers are concentrated on Tahray. “Lord Almighty, you know my girl needs a lot of help,” her mom whispers in earnest.
Minutes later, the overweight girl walks past her and wearily points at the treadmill. Tahray goes to it and sets all her parameters. She will start with a slow walk for five minutes then super boost it to a run. She doesn’t want to linger on the walk and spend all her energy there; it’s better to use it all up on the run. Burns more calories, she tells herself. As Tahray begins her walk, she starts to focus on the ideal shape and how to dress her future svelte body. A short mini will look divine on her eventually sleek slim legs. Four different colours of skinny jeans will be in her closet along with small tank tops. Maybe a lovely asymmetrical dress to show off her small shoulders and slim arms. These are words she hears on the fashion channel and the way she’s combining them in her head works. Tahray is sure after this, she will share a closet with Cousin Nina.
Nina is gorgeous. She has almond shape eyes set far apart from each other like Erykah Badu’s. As a matter of fact, they look alike. The only difference is Nina is three shades darker and has fuller lips than Erykah Badu. When she first came to live with them, after her parents tragically died in a commercial vehicle, pandemonium broke out amongst all the boys on the street. They each sought creative ways to get her attention. The most extreme was Emeka, who had his mother stake out in front of their house to accost Nina. Then his mother went on to “nicely” invite Nina to dinner as though her life depended on it. At the time, Tahray felt it must be nice to have all the attention.
“Do you think it is out of pity, because you are an orphan?”
“Don’t mind them! It is because I am the new girl on the street. Don’t even believe that mumu rubbish about my beauty or those things you hear the guys say,” Nina replied.
She feels Nina said those things to be modest. None of the boys on the street had ever asked her out and Nina knows it… Tahray keeps hearing this insistent beep and realizes it is the timer on the treadmill telling her that the five minutes for the slow walk is up. Tahray puts it on the run and it goes fast. Then the room starts spinning, the lights dims steadily and an array of sounds, some screeching and others mellow begin. She wants it to stop, and it does. Darkness engulfs her instead of fear, and all she feels is peace. It rises from within her. Tahray exhales it out, only to take it back in. It is rhythmic, in tune with the silence and emptiness around her. It is a peace encompassing… she didn’t know beauty could express itself this way.
After a while, she feels a poke on her eyes and reluctantly opens them. Blinding light fills in the room. This disappoints her immensely. She tries to hold on to the retreating peace but Tahray cannot lift her hand. Frustrated, she cries out but only as hard as the pain will allow her. Tahray hears her mother’s voice but cannot understand what she is saying. Her mother’s arms hug and console her. Warm kisses all over her face are given from her mother like exclusive but unexpected gifts as she rocks her gently. Tahray realizes in that moment that only her mum makes her feel this way, safe and cherished. This dries up the tears from her eyes as she welcomes the darkness that once again comes crowding in.
Three days later, Tahray will find out that after setting the treadmill on run, a wave of dizziness engulfed her. The result of which was a fall that gave her a bruised eye, a broken arm and three broken teeth. The doctor will send her home bandaged and drugged up to massive amounts of attention; Nina checking in every hour and her mother spoon- feeding her at every meal. Boys from the neighbourhood will also drop by as part of the ‘Mandatory Nigerian neighbourly thing to do’ that feels good all the same. Michael will be forgotten.
The time spent in inactive silence enhanced by medication the doctor prescribed, will slow her mind a bit, making her more focused and organized. And her mother will love her a bit more.