The Cylinder

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By Nneoma Ike-Njoku 

Kedu? Welcome to the Inter-state Cylinder Service. We hope you enjoy the ride from Lagos to Onitsha. Enjoy your personalized playlist, specially crafted by our music experts for-

Deka pressed the mute button on her ear-buds and was grateful for the silence that followed.

As the glass Cylinder pulled away, green tree-houses waved her by, their solar roof panels blinking like tiny jewels in the early light. In one of those tree-houses, Okolie was sleeping. A few hours would awaken him to her absence, and the fact that it was over. Something heavy and sad was stuck at the back of her throat. She pushed it away.

In a few months, he would settle back to the life he’d had, before everything. Deciphering ancient nsibidi manuscripts at the university. Saturday afternoon parties where he served udara smoothies he made himself (and mixed with spoonfuls of kai-kai) in the downstairs kitchen.  The students that appeared in the house so unexpectedly that they had to be stalking him.

In a few months, everything would be back to normal. And he would be grateful she did it like this. Clean.

***

When Deka opened her eyes, she was underwater.

The Cylinder was taking the route through the Niger to avoid being held up by traffic on the bridge above. She pressed her palm against the glass and felt its automated warmth in response. At this rate, they would be in Onitsha sooner than she expected.

She stretched, almost hitting a bald woman in a too-large ankara dress standing in the aisle.

Ndo. Sorry,” Deka murmured, staring out at the water. A school of large, rainbow-colored fish was swimming towards her. The largest one stopped beside her, seemed to consider her a moment, and swam away.

Being on the Cylinder (the ‘Big Cyl’, if you lived in Lagos long enough) gave Deka a sensation like flying in a dream. The entire thing was made of glass so clear that when they travelled overland she could see ants, lizards, and even a mouse, once, scurrying about their business beneath her feet.

“Njideka, stop,” Okolie would say, laughing in that way that made her say he could swallow the world. “You walk like you’re scared of squashing the ants, but they aren’t really there.”

She knew they weren’t there, of course. It was just that the Cylinder was so large, then, and so new. There had been nothing like it in Onitsha. And nothing like the many other things that had made her dizzy as an Onitsha girl working in Lagos for the first time.

“It’s what I get for ignoring common sense and marrying a big city prof,” she had said once, teasing.

“You forgot the perks,” he had whispered, hand pressed against her thigh.

***

 “Orimiri.”

“What?” The woman was still standing there. Smiling a stupid smile in that dress.

“We call the river Orimiri.”

“Oh, OK,” Deka said, turning away again. She hoped the woman would get the message and leave her alone.

“Can I sit?” The woman asked and she was seated before a loud ‘NO’ could form on Deka’s lips. From the corner of her eye, Deka watched the woman settle in, bunching her dress between her knees like a blanket. She smelt like warm oranges.

“So, what did you do in Lagos?”

Deka would have said loved a job, a husband, a child. Lost everything. But instead she said:

“Nothing.”

And then she didn’t say nothing.

***

The Cylinder

Later, she would tell Okolie that it was the woman who brought her back to him.

She told the woman about meeting Okolie at someone’s thanksgiving in church and knowing, just knowing. About the days and months that flew by so quickly, she forgot to breathe. Waking up next to him in the tree-house one night, being so scared at her own happiness she couldn’t go back to sleep. Then: the joy of carrying some of him inside her, their little girl, and wanting to burst with the joy of it.

She had decided she would continue to work at her job with the rare book restoration center at the Ikeja Bindery until it got so she couldn’t. Okolie had been the one to take a leave from work, pushing aside months of research on an important project to prepare for the baby.

“I am going to be a father,” he had said. “Whatever ancient secrets our ancestors left behind can wait.” By the time they discovered anything was wrong, it was too late.

Drepanocytosis. Your baby died.

***

“The music is the worst,” the woman was saying. She held her pink ear-buds in front her in exaggerated disgust, like an exotic insect. Deka laughed.

She thought of asking the woman’s name but decided it would be awkward this late into the conversation.

“Some of the new stuff isn’t so bad…” she countered.

The woman threw her head back and laughed; a warm, thick sound.

Biko, electro-pop hasn’t been relevant since the 2010s. I’m sure their so-called ‘experts’ are just bad-quality radio randomizers.”

Deka laughed at that. The music was horrible. Imagine all that ‘specially crafted by experts’ rubbish for robot radios. Ha.

“Since the radio-robot music is so bad, what are my options as a faithful patron of the Big Cyl?”

“Honestly?” A pause. The woman was staring strangely at her now, bald head glowing with the soft blue-green of the river. She had stopped laughing.

“I think you should go back home. You wouldn’t be trying so hard to throw away something you’ve already lost.”

***

Later, curled up next to him in the tree-house, Deka would tell Okolie that it was a bald woman in an ill-fitting dress on the Cylinder that brought her back to him.

I didn’t lose you.

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