I tell her I can fly, but she never believes me. She nods her head slowly, her perfectly arched eyebrows raised just a little, and a sympathetic curl in the corners of her mouth. She doesn’t believe me.
Every morning I sit on the edge of her bed and tell her of my latest adventure, and every day she smiles slightly and nods. My aunt doesn’t have to say anything. She doesn’t have to pat my head and tell me that I have an active imagination. She doesn’t have to tell me she thinks it’s great and I should just run along and find something to do. She doesn’t even have to tell me that it’s impossible for me to fly. I just know from her eyes, from her nod, and from the pity that lingers on her lips that she’s happy that I’ve stopped crying.
It was 11 months ago when it landed. No, it didn’t land – the wind’s fingers scooped it from the air and threw it into the middle of the marketplace. I don’t remember the sound as it came down, but below there were screams. Loud screams. Screams that dragged on for years that surpassed me in age. I was 14. I’d never heard a choir of screams before, as though the entire population of Nigeria had gathered to tighten their throats in a unified wide-mouthed screech. Some were higher pitched than others; some stretched as though they were thin pieces of rubber being dragged from the depths of their lungs; and others stabbed my eardrums in short, sharp bursts. I doubled over, my chin dug into my chest, and my hands clasped my ears. It didn’t help. The screams got louder and longer.
And then there was the smell. I don’t know if it was the bubbling of skin or the leaking fuel from the carrier. The vapours seeped into my stomach and churned my insides, bringing them to the top of my throat. I wanted to throw up, but I couldn’t. I wanted to run, but my legs were drilled firmly into the dusty, hard earth. I would have preferred for everything inside me to have been ripped out than to see what I saw. My chest heaved, my hands shook and fear locked my lips tight. The nose of the plane had replaced where Mama had been standing, holding bags of meat to be cooked for dinner that evening. People were running, smoke was rising, and bodies were burning, but I closed my eyes to the picture of her yelling for me to hurry up only a few moments before.
“Ah-ah! Yousuf, why are you standing dere?” she’d said. “Come and take these bags! You think say I go shop for you make you come dey chop the meat like that? Nonsense!”
Her Pidgin was thick, and annoyance rolled off each syllable as her eyes set to shredding me inch by inch. I wasn’t walking fast enough, and I’d stopped to watch a group of boys running about on a tired patch just on the outskirts of the market’s bustling activity. Skinny legs that ended with rubber slippers, they couldn’t have been much older than me – 16 at the most. They were probably waiting for their mothers to finish making the day’s picks. Mamas who were haggling with vegetable men, telling them their scales were faulty; saying that they didn’t have to take an okra off the pile; claiming that another man at the other end of the market sold them cheaper. They were women who were christened as hagglers from the moment warm air kissed their cheeks as a welcome to the world.
“Yousuf!” The warning signal that I shouldn’t allow her to say another word unless I wanted her knuckles to weigh down heavily on my forehead. She huffed, turned around and marched off. She knew I would run to take the bags from her hands, not just because she’d told me to, but because she knew how much I loved meat. The chunks of beef wrapped in the black bags she hung onto were fresh, straight off a cow that had been slaughtered that morning. Meat my tongue never got to devour.
I hadn’t followed her. My eyes had darted back to the sight of one of the boys running in a direction away from the patch. I should’ve called out to her. Should have told her to run too. Should have done anything but stand stone still. Crash. Smoke. Screams.
Mama was a simple woman. She’d never been on a plane before – said she didn’t trust humans to keep her up in the sky. I can imagine her throwing her thick arms in the air and slapping the side of her thighs as she animatedly said, “You see! You see what I said! If God wanted us to fly, He would have given us wings. You see, now? You see!” Copious amounts of thick teeth kissing would accompany her abuse against everyone who had a hand in her death.
No engineer could fashion a carrier to take me to the places I fly to now. No years of studying, tests and crashes could ever lift me higher than the clouds I float on to see her every night. For almost a year tears were my only companion and sadness held my heart hostage, but on the night I turned 15 Mama came to set me free. She cradled my head against her chest, saying, “Come, let’s fly.” Every night since then, I close my eyes and immediately step onto a thick airy cushion of whiteness that takes me on a smooth elevation towards her. A soft stroke of air tickles my hairline as I think of where she’ll take me.
The journey has been long. 11 months ago an armoured bird fell and snatched Mama from me. I was crushed on the day of the crash, but now my feet are unscrewed from the dirt, tear lines have been erased from my cheeks and I look forward to laying my head down for the evening. The sun tucks in and makes way for the moon, and I enter the land of the angels. My name is Yousuf, and I’m the boy who can fly.
© LaYinka Sanni, July 2012
Much love to K. Adelakun, W. Daniju, and M. Cooke for proofreading this piece for me way back in July. I wanted to enter it for a competition but couldn’t quite get it to where I wanted it to be. Love these ladies all the same. ♥