By Pemi Aguda
Felicity was born unhappy. She was conceived when her parents were young and unmarried. They wedded immediately then proceeded to use religion to punish themselves for as long as she lived with them. There were evening prayers filled with loud supplications to God to forgive them while she knelt there feeling every inch the mistake that they perceived her to be. There was the remittance of fifty percent of their income to the church, so that she never got those new shoes or money to go on the class’ excursion to Olumo Rock.
She grew up unhappy, too; sharing a tiny room with an older cousin who carried out the frustrations of being unemployed in a thriving city on her – slaps and kicks that left marks long after the physical scars had healed. Even when she ran away from home at nineteen – her bag heavy with money she’d stolen from her family – she remained unhappy. She paid for an apprenticeship at a tailor’s shop where she excelled. When she became assistant boss after a few years, she promptly poached all her employer’s good tailors to start her own business. But even then happiness eluded her.
Today, Felicity is a tall woman of forty-five with big feet and round shoulders that hunch forward. Her mouth is downturned and her thin bottom lip juts out, giving her a permanent look of one who has tasted something bitter. She is still unhappy and her tailors sometimes attribute her constant displeasure to her unmarried status.
“If man for dey, shebi im go dey smile?” They whisper among themselves.
She is on her way to buy sewing thread in bulk from Agege Market. She likes to do the shopping herself as she trusts no one. Her footsteps are heavy on the streets of the market, which are cluttered with Gala wrappers, unlucky Lotto tickets and juice from baskets of tomatoes. Her right arm hugs her handbag tight to herself while her left hand further protects it from grasping hands. She has been robbed before; her stern sneer hadn’t prevented them from approaching.
She walks past the men stretching out pairs of jeans, calling out to women younger and prettier than she is. She walks past the shops where the girls selling big Aso-oke and lace cloth look through her, searching for potential customers. But when she meets a crowd, Felicity stops.
It is her birthday today but she has told no one. There is no one to tell. She has no friends and she is not sociable enough with her staff to have them pretend to care. On this day every year, Felicity does something out of character. One year, she made herself a long red dress made of see-through chiffon. She stood in front of her mirror for hours in this dress, turning this way and that – never smiling, just staring. As she studied herself, she mentally tucked in a flab here and trimmed a bulge there, but she wasn’t satisfied. She squinted into the mirror, her mind hacking away at her person, imagining she was nothing but bones and that the red dress fluttered in the air.
Another year, she bought herself a huge bowl of ice-cream from the Big Treat Supermarket down the street and gave her staff the day off. Amongst the immobile sewing machines and headless mannequins, she sat in the silence of her shop and ate her banana-flavoured ice-cream spoon after spoon till the white of the plastic bottom stared back at her, the cold morsels settling in her belly like dead weight.
She moves toward the nucleus of the crowd to investigate its cause. People naturally step aside for the tall unsmiling woman. In the middle of the human circle is a small man selling potions. “Solutions,” he calls them. She hisses and starts to move away, shoving people aside, when she hears someone say to another: “Him say e be magician, o. E go soon show us.”
The mention of the word “magician” has made her pause because she decides right then that this will be her out-of-character thing: stopping to humour a trickster. She looks around at the swelling audience, their eyes wide in anticipation and she shakes her head at their naiveté. Magic. Ha!
She pushes her way back to the front of the crowd and stares at the wiry little magician. He is wearing a badly-tailored white dashiki: thread dangles from the hem of the trousers and the blouse is too short for his torso, making him look even shorter, like a dwarf. He is bald and his ashy lips and the smattering of bumps on his scalp give him an aura of ill health. Despite this, the man is jumpy. He dances from foot to foot as he proffers his potions to cure cancer, erectile dysfunction and bring home runaway husbands. His eyes flit from person to person, matching the excitement of his audience who have left their shops to be entertained, as if he too will be amazed by his own acts. Felicity shuffles in impatience.
And then it is time. Felicity observes that he stows away his proceeds before starting his magic show so that when things go awry he will not be totally disadvantaged. Smart, Felicity thinks. He introduces himself as Ayao and presents a low bow. He starts with a few card tricks and Felicity rolls her eyes at the banal opening.
A member of the crowd picks out a card, a lot of skipping and dancing is done and then he reveals the card picked at random to the exclamation and yelling of the people. They yelp in delight as he does this over and over. Felicity’s eyes follow his moves, trying to uncover the charade.
Then a hush falls. It is time for serious business.
Ayao asks for a volunteer.
“For what o?” someone yells and the people laugh. But she can hear the uneasiness pulsate in the air after their laughter has died down.
Ayao’s eyes are wide and dark as he turns in slow circles to take in his captive audience. “To fly,” he says.
There is a small, almost imperceptible general step back. Felicity almost laughs. Almost. She sees Ayao’s game: If everyone is too frightened to volunteer, the magician can feign disappointment and leave the market with his reputation intact.
And so she steps forward.
She can hear their surprise.
Ayao gestures for her to walk toward him. She does. He raises his left arm to shush the murmurs of the crowd.
“Do you believe?” He asks Felicity, his voice loud enough to carry over the crowd.
Felicity lowers her gaze so that she is staring at Ayao. His eyelashes are long and bushy, emphasizing the size of his eyes.
“No,” Felicity whispers, but in the quiet of the middle of the marketplace, it is just as loud.
“No?” Ayao asks, narrowing his eyes.
Ayao moves away from her, stepping back foot by foot so that his eyes do not stray from hers.
“Do you want to drop your bag?” he asks.
“No,” Felicity repeats, her suspicion blatant.
“Okay.” Ayao walks back to her. He walks around her. He dances around her. Then he begins to chant:
“Ase Orisa lenu mi.
Ase Orisa lenu mi.”
On and on, he tries to reinforce the authority of the deities he is invoking.
“Ase Orisa lenu mi.
Ase Orisa lenu mi.”
Felicity stands there – still, waiting for him to tire.
But he goes on, louder and faster:
“Ase Orisa lenu mi!
Ase Orisa lenu mi!”
Felicity has seen a man fly once. He jumped off the Third Mainland Bridge with his arms stretched out in front of him. As the people around her honked and screamed, Felicity had envied his freedom.
Then there is smoke, as there always is in every tacky magician’s show. And then people are screaming.
Why are they screaming? Felicity raises an arm to clear the smoke in front of her eyes. But her arm doesn’t rise. Instead, feathers flap.
Suddenly, she is high above the ground looking down at the market people running away from Ayao. The magician gestures for her to come to him; she can see the panic in his eyes from where she floats. Ayao’s hands rise to his shiny head, then lower, then rise again. He gestures towards her again then turns on his heels and flees. Felicity can see him winding through the streets.
Someone has snatched her bag in the melee but she doesn’t care. She is far away from the chaos. She can now see a pattern to the rowdy market streets and Felicity thinks how tiny the world must look to God.
And then she’s off, because she cannot think of a reason not to go. The air here is so light and she is so buoyant. Felicity feels like she has been relieved of a lifelong burden of being. She is both overwhelmed and enthralled by the things her new body is doing. How is she so weightless but still so strong? She slices through the air as she moves farther and farther from the market scene. She smiles. But there is no one to see it. Nobody to witness what it is for a bird to smile.
Felicity wants to see herself. She wants to stare at her new form the way she did when she wore that long red dress. What type of bird is she? Is she colourful? Is she as black as the unhappiness that now seems so foreign to her? She opens her mouth but she has never heard the warble that escapes. She knows nothing about birds.
Felicity heads towards a high-rise building with a glass exterior.
She starts to descend towards the building. Closer and closer, her reflection comes towards her. She squints to bring the fuzz into focus. And then there is a boom. She has hit the glass, beak-first. Pain jolts through her small frame in reverberations and the world goes black.
Felicity feels herself falling and falling and as she falls she feels the heaviness of her being return.
When she crashes into the ground, she is Felicity again. She is engulfed in pain. It overwhelms her so that she starts to weep. Felicity thinks: do birds cry? When she tries to move, pain shoots out from her joints in waves – her bones are broken.
Someone screams “Amusu!” and another yells “Aje!” then there is a circle of people around her, calling her witch in their various languages. And she feels so weak, so weak and so tired. Blood seeps from unidentified gashes and she twitches with every fresh flood of pain. Now she is the show.
A stone smacks into her back and rolls to the floor, red with her blood. She realises that she is naked. Then other stones follow. The people close in, their fear chokes her – how does something thing fall as a bird and land as a woman? – their horror bites at her shredded skin like sand flies. Her body feels weighed down, more than it has ever been, beneath their stones and their words.
A feather flutters within her view and Felicity is reminded of her temporary weightlessness. She is in pain now, but she flew! She flew!
There are more voices and more stones but Felicity succumbs to the rising within her. Her body sinks further into the ground, but she is leaving it behind and rising and rising…