She was not one of us.
She said her life was an early evening, or an early dawn, and she was going to leave before it was night or before it was morning. She gave you the feeling that you were inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, and that if you stood in her way you would disappear without any effort on her part.
She left her things with me and departed.
I remember her face made me think of a wild animal gone extinct and come back miraculously into existence. “I am leaving,” she said. And the only thing I could do was nod. “These are my things,” she said, pointing to a portmanteau. “Keep them for me.” When I nodded again, she repeated, “Keep my things for me.”
If you asked her what her plans were, like my father and mother had once done, she would say “I don’t have any plans” or “I don’t want to have any plans.” When she came to me at midnight, sat by my bed, and asked me what I thought of the first four lines of the new song she was writing, I could say nothing because my eyes were filled with sleep. She would just stand up and leave. On one or two occasions she left her notebook with her lyrics behind.
Our mother said she was not one of us. “Ugo came out easily. She was easy for me, unlike you.” But since Ugo left, my mother ’s voice has been subdued, hushed. Previously you could’ve heard her arguing loudly with Ugo about something. It could have been how she was dressed. Mother always thought her clothes were second-hand, masculine, unbecoming of a lady.
It was easy to guess Ugo’s iconoclastic answer—the way her mouth would pout and her face would reveal the glorious, gracious show of defiance—“It’s just the way I want to dress.”
Unlike father, mother did not argue with Ugo so much. Ugo had father’s face, or something close to it—she couldn’t really be said to resemble anyone. Father did not really argue with her in the way mother did. He did not speak of her plans or her clothes. He looked at her as one would look at a witch, or as one would look at a man who appeared at his own funeral carrying his head under his arm. Because we sat each morning as a family to pray, to sing hymns, and to read from Our Daily Bread, it was easy to see father look at Ugo.
Ugo said to him once, “I really don’t care what’s on your mind.” I feared she’d add, “Fuck you,” or something as vulgar. If she had spoken those words to me, she would have added “Fuck you,” given the frequency with which she spat the phrase when she leered at tradition. Yet, when she said this to father, he shook his head and returned to his Bible, which he had begun to read too often since he’d come home one evening and announced that his job with British American Tobacco was over, telling us he’d just resigned. He would not tolerate tobacco; he would not encourage people to smoke and go to Hell.
The house sounded empty after he told us that. On that day, Ugo showed up wearing earphones plugged in her ears. I thought she did not hear father. She did not have the expression we, mother and I, had—one of disappointment and submission. She looked beyond worry. But it was Ugo that stood up to father, challenging his decision. “That doesn’t sound right.” He looked at me and then turned to her. He looked at mother after he looked at Ugo, and turned to look at her again. I felt the walls speaking, saying that in no time they would all break down, considering the weight of everything, considering they were not built to shelter all the words and silence we used as weapons. Father said nothing to Ugo. He only looked at her. You know how silence can be more effective than words, how it is more deadly, how it is like a man appearing at the Spartan war without armor, with only his mouth.
Ugo walked out of father’s silence that morning. It was impossible to argue with father; he had the ability to end a matter with his eyes. We knew this. You would hardly hear him argue with mother. But to walk away from him the way Ugo did was a fine way to argue with him. He hated incomplete arguments and hated losing confrontations. Ugo had a way of making his fight transient, winning when he had only begun the war.
She would ask all her questions. I was the conformist; she was not. She asked mother whether it wasn’t “suicidal” to bear the burden alone. She told me that it was the most foolish thing she had ever heard. She told me it was a fact that Dad was being a fool, and that it was painful that he cared less about his foolery.
Ugo liked stones. In my earliest memory of walking to school with her, she would kick stones and look downward while she walked. We weren’t twins; she was my elder sister, one year my senior. But, given that I had begun school at four and she at five, we ended up as classmates. She wasn’t the smartest student. She was bright enough to do all the smart things that needed to be done. She never failed an exam. Even when I topped the class—term after term—she did not seem to bother, or compete. She always said, “Well done,” with a face devoid of expression.
I liked the fact that she did not seem to want to compete. The story at home wasn’t different—the unspoken feeling was that Ugo was doing badly. It was wrong for her to come below me in class. But all of this did not matter to her. We went to the same
schools, even university. But she chose Law, and I chose English.
There was a big battle at home—everyone thought it should have been the other way around. I could see my father’s silence speaking of his disappointment. Only my mother asked, “Are you sure this is what you want? English?” and I said yes, thinking then that Ugo would have answered differently. She might’ve called their bluff. No one asked her if Law was right for her; with her you were never sure if you had asked the right question. At this point she was only the older child whose younger brother was doing well. She had not given us the idea that her life was an evening, that she was a Bedouin, a lone wanderer.
Everything changed with music.
In the long holiday after our third year, music discovered Ugo. We might all agree that music cannot discover, since it is sound and sound is the voice of nature; you should find music, not the other way around. But with Ugo it was different. She was an exception. The earphones that stayed permanently on her ears, the loud beats that came from behind her bedroom door, the records scattered on the floor of her room, and all the paraphernalia that came with the hybrid of a reggae star and a hip-hop artist established her life as the one whom music was destined to meet.
“This music is entering me. I feel full,” she said to me, two days before school resumed. I had come to ask her when we were leaving, to remind her that the new session was about to start. But all she talked about was her music. She drew close to me and put the right piece of her earphones in my ear. It was something by Jay-Z and Linkin Park. She held a notebook, and asked me to listen as she sang from it in tandem with the music in our ears. I could not mention the resumption of school. You know the feeling that comes with wanting to reach your reflection in the mirror and being unable to? So I walked out of the room and packed my things. I left Ugo at home.
The days passed quickly without Ugo. I did not miss her. But I would stop in the middle of something and my heart would skip and I would remember her. The words of the music she had shared stayed with me. The music that had been in our ears that day could not be lost, and I hated remembering how she had sung with reckless abandon, without a care for anything, anyone, custom, boundaries, and silence. I hated that I remembered exactly how the music in our ears had sounded:
Creativity weakens me as Smiles ache and
Hurt like laughter—Pushing through is all this is—
This time is time to end the wail
I could remember the way the words appeared on her yellow pad, her slanting handwriting. So I went home when the opportunity came, when there was a two-day holiday I asked myself why I hadn’t left before the holiday, if Ugo had mattered to me at all.
When she opened the door, Mother said, “Your sister says she’s through with school.” I weighed the words, looked at my mother’s face. There was something triumphant about her gossip, something you would see in the face of a scientist who had successfully proven that all animals were of the same species. She had proven, it seemed, that Ugo was not one of us. We would not drop out of school—my father hadn’t, my mother had not either, and I would not. We would not make passion out of music since music was a by-the-way thing, something done as a hobby; something done when one had studied hard and needed to ease off.
I went to her room. She hugged me. She had the smell of overripe oranges, the kind we’d ordinarily throw away. When she hugged me I held her limply. I held her like I shouldn’t have held her, as though I would feel ashamed for having hugged my sister. There were records on her bed, as there had been when I left, the family computer was now in her room.
“You know, I’ve been doing stuff on FruityLoops, recording my songs,” she said. I looked at her more closely. She was wearing faded jeans and a worn t-shirt. Aside from her smell of overripe oranges, her clothing was the second most significant fact, especially if one wanted to verify the claim that she was not one of us.
The speakers attached to the computer came to life. Her voice became a person; the sound of a badly produced song, something done by an amateur, filled the room. But it was the opposite of a disembodied voice, a personality was singing. The music I heard was not music by a singer obliged to music; it was the music of a person to whom music was obliged. So hearing it felt like being hit by a swagger stick. Afterward you could not tell whether the effect was the result of the composer ’s notes, or the way they were sung, or something you sensed you knew about the history of the singer. There was the sound of a harmonica, or something close to it. It sounded like jazz, or blues, or bluegrass, everything all at once:
My life’s work is to translate
you I’ll sing for you like a
mockingbird But I’ll be gone
when you love
I was carried away. The music was brief, only those lines sang in triplet. I had never heard a song like that, with only a stanza, sang three times. But then this was Ugo’s song. I heard her saying to me, “I’ll call it Mockingbird. I want to make a record of twenty-four short songs. People will listen to each song every hour. So that there’s music throughout the day.” I could have asked her what she’d name the album. But she was too excited for such a trivial question. I nodded. With Ugo it was sometimes difficult to do more than nod.
“I’ve completed ten songs. Fourteen left. I should finish before tomorrow.” Again, I nodded. She went to the computer and clicked. Another sound wafted through the air. This time she sang along. You know how it is when you hear a song from a voice that cannot be undone, even by magic? Only super human powers could make Ugo leave herself. She sang with the confidence of a person who knew too much of the world, and who considered her role in it more important than any other ’s:
A streetcar shall
Carry me away
I shall give help
To a dead soul
The next day, she left her things with me and departed. The ceremony of her leaving was in the fact that there was no ceremony. We watched her leave. She dropped her trunk with me in my room. I followed her to the sitting room where my father was reading his Bible and my mother was punching the buttons of a calculator. Although she still wore her faded jeans, the worn t-shirt had been replaced by a clean, bright, Manchester United jersey. In the days when Ugo loved football, Manchester United had been her favorite club.
My father ’s silence argued with her, as usual. My mother looked up briefly from her calculator, then resumed her punching. Ugo established eye contact with me, looking behind in a passing glance. I bent my head. When I looked up, she was beside me. She whispered, “I finished only twenty-three songs. I’ll just record the last one in the street, with a tape recorder. There’s music on the street, you know.” I nodded. She hugged me. My hands remained limp by my sides, but hers pressed my back fiercely. I caught my father ’s unsupportive gaze, which let out his skepticism.
There was a vestige of blandness in the house. And I hated the way my parents acted as though they had been freed. My father went to her room and took away the computer. It was then that I saw the CD. I knew what it was: Ugo’s twenty-three songs. I felt terrible because I knew I could not share the music with her—the music in her head would play only in her ears.
A few days after I returned, mother came to me in school; I met her car just as she arrived and saw that she had come with her shop’s driver. He usually drove the truck when furniture had to be delivered. The car smelled of citrus. There were, indeed, oranges in her car.
I could not ask her what was wrong; I thought I knew. I did not think of Ugo. I thought of mother ’s furniture shop, its showroom, the glass doors, and her salesgirls.
Her coffin was the size of a CD cover blown into egregious proportions. It was wide and short; not long and narrow. It must have been too big for her, misfit for her small frame. Her hands must’ve been folded across her chest, her small breasts. She must’ve have worn her beloved black socks, which she wore in heat and in cold. She must’ve entered the coffin unaware.
Mother and father stared at the coffin in silence. There was something worthy about mourning Ugo in silence, even something moral. If we had cried or wept loudly, it would have dishonored what Ugo had been.
We could not mourn her the way we would have mourned any other.
Mother said a man had brought the news of her death: He said she had been hit by a truck; she had been crossing the road with earphones in her ear, with her music in her ears. It was difficult to locate her family. But on the back of her Manchester United jersey she had inscribed our surname: “Egwu.” The man had asked around, and found our house.
Her burial was a private affair—mother, father, mother ’s salesgirls. Then the man. When the priest finished the prayers, the man asked for an audience. He waved his hands in the air and started to weep. In between his sobs, with words that sounded choked but musical, he said, “She helped me. I was going to kill myself. She sang a song with me. I don’t know what else to say.”
I could have slapped him. I could have slapped him until he told me how she helped him. I could have told him he had no right to be helped by Ugo—he was not with me when Ugo had said, “Some of us are born for others. We might be born only to do one act of kindness.” He was unqualified for Ugo’s help.
There were many other things I could have done during her burial. If I had loved her enough, I could have carried her coffin to a private space known to me alone. I could have organized the launch of her album. I could have titled the album “Twenty Four” because the twenty-fourth song would be in the head of everyone who listened to the twenty-three songs.
But, instead, one day, I opened the portmanteau that she had left with me. I poured the contents of the trunk onto my bed. I held each item—jeans, t-shirts, books, notepad. I smelled them; there was an aroma of overripe oranges. Then I put them back together. I threw the CD into the chest. Then I took her things outside and I burned them.
The night before, I had played the CD over and over until my mother and father had joined me in the sitting room and we wept together. Ugo’s music played in the background, all twenty-three of her short songs.
I torched her things because the music in our ears did not stop playing.
A year after my sister ’s death, I rediscovered home.
Before I came to the point of rediscovery I was not indifferent about living in her shadows. Her death left me and my parents struggling to regain confidence in our fraternal capacities, as though she had left us with only detritus on which to stay afloat or else face drowning in the sea that was ourselves.
But I am wrong to presume that this coming-to-self was a shared effect of Ugo’s death. I might be right to speak only for myself. In the days that followed her burial I locked myself in my room and tried to write songs. I did not enter her room in all the time I took to understand what her death meant. To enter her room would have been to stay in water while drowning, to hit my head on the wall when already bleeding.
It was my mother who dared to enter her room. When she came out she asked me, wide-eyed, “You burned some of her things?” When I nodded, she said, “I went to see if any of Ugo’s things could make me forget.” She seemed to want to say more, but she may have guessed I didn’t see any sense in going into Ugo’s room. For me it wasn’t about forgetting. It was about having enough guts to forget that Ugo had not been one of us.
In a matter of days after her burial I began to distrust the capacity of my father and mother to forget that she was not one of us. Each time I considered the stoic sorrowfulness of my father ’s face, I figured that he would retain his conviction that Ugo was more or less a daughter who never became his. He would remain convinced that he couldn’t get to her because she didn’t conform to his standards. To him she was the one among us who failed to become one of us. My mother, who visited Ugo’s room every day, was the one who wanted to have a daughter who was one of us. She did not understand that we had created for ourselves too many boundaries that did not exist for Ugo.
I packed my things and left. It was true I was returning to school to begin my final exams. Yet I perceived that behind me lay a lost fraternity with my father and mother. To uncover that relationship’s terrain would be a difficult, if not impossible, adventure.
On the day when I left, my father asked, “You’ll come back soon?” I didn’t nod, couldn’t. I saw that in his face there weren’t any vestiges of the doctrinaire he had become since resigning his job, getting addicted to the study of the Bible, and being fed by my mother’s business. He asked no question this time, “You’ll come when you’re through with your exams.” I nodded because he seemed to affirm my return for his own sake, and that I wasn’t necessarily inclined to act as he wished.
My mother gave a smile that sought to wrench my resolve, a smile that warned me that if I walked away she would forget me as surely as she was trying to forget Ugo. But I did not care. There are things you don’t do for love.
Ugo once said that if she could keep her hands empty she would die a happy person. During the time I wrote my final exams, I felt haunted by my filled hands, by the fact that I was carrying too many selves within me that weren’t me. I discovered, during that period, that I didn’t know myself. I didn’t have the knowledge that could be to me what music was to Ugo.
I say these things because, looking back, I am faced with the understanding that everything changes with the realization that being an exception is an exception in itself.
My mother advised us, when we were admitted to the University of Ife, to attend the interdenominational chapel she had attended as a student. In her time, she said, they had worshipped at the Agric Foyer, but she had heard that they had since moved to a building near the mosque, which was near the cemetery. All this was true. But she didn’t advise us to join the choir—certainly not Ugo, while she was with us; certainly not me, not at the end of my stay in Ife, when I realized I had failed a course and would have to stay an extra year.
I failed by choice, by the conscious undoing of the possibility of success. I left the exam hall ten minutes after we’d been called in. It was like a looking glass accompanied me when I sat, so that when I began to write I felt mirrored to the point of duress. I felt that if I continued nothing but the skeleton of my real self would leave the examination hall. So I walked out, caring less about the stares that seemed to dampen my shirt, stares that might have misunderstood my reason for leaving, guessing that I was sick. And when the supervisor asked me where I was going, I walked to him and said with a low voice, “I can’t continue, really.” I saw the spite in his face, the victorious speechlessness he expressed, his victory in knowing that by leaving I would fail the course.
All of this happened before I joined the choir.
Because the mystery of life is measured with subjectivity, I have not given much thought to my reasons for joining the choir. Standing while a hymn was being sung, the Sunday after I felt mirrored in the exam hall, I concluded that there was much intelligence in the lyrics of a song, that God gently whispered his wisdom in every line.
I began to exist thoughtlessly, acting without seeing the need to think or pre-enact, seeing myself as a passing ghost. I felt that joining the choir would draw me close to the uproarious intensity of God’s whispers, and maybe then I would catch the substance of my shadow. Nothing other than this objective mattered, not my studies or anything else. I agree that I could have been senseless, beguiled by metaphorical and metaphysical inconsistencies. But that was the way I thought then.
Of course I did not return home after my exams. I still held a grudge against my parents for refusing to come to terms with Ugo’s iconoclasm. I didn’t believe they would understand my recent preoccupations. They had been my father and my mother for too long, and I wanted to know who I was without them.
So when my mother called to ask when I would return, I told her she shouldn’t bother since I didn’t know myself. As was usual of my mother she had no ready confrontational words. She exhaled loudly, said okay, and ended the call. My father, unlike her, asked me why. I told him a half-truth: that I had failed a course and needed to prepare for a rewrite. It was a half-truth because at that time I was yet to see my results, a half-truth because it was a convenient lie, a means to ward him off. He asked, “What do you mean you failed a course?” I said, unafraid of his anger for the first time in my life, “I mean I failed a course.” I heard his pause, as though he was wondering how to handle my temerity. Then he said, “You failed? Just like that?” I said nothing. He told me, “You’ll have to come home so we can talk, you hear me?”
I shook my head, half-expecting him to know that I had done so. There was a pause, then he ended the call. During the pause I thought I heard the turning of Bible pages. I wondered what my father was always searching for, maybe for himself, maybe for a specimen of that which he hoped to become.
And so I received weekly calls from my parents. My mother never suggested she wished for my return. She only asked the same question—“When are you coming?” My father was the one who threatened, cajoled, and called my sanity into question. He threatened to stop my allowance, to disown me, to come to Ife and declare me mentally unfit. But these were things I was convinced he wouldn’t dare do, not simply because he depended on my mother ’s financial support, but also because he was a man who cherished the sustainability of his ego and reputation.
A simple happening changed my mind. I used to attend the weekly rehearsals of the choir faithfully, given that I had joined at the beginning of my extra year. I had fewer academic commitments, and spent a lot of time learning to play the piano. Because of my commitment I was elected Youth Representative of the Choir.
It was a position invented by Mr. Lekan, the Assistant Choirmaster. He argued that, although the young members constituted a significant forty percent, our interests were overwhelmingly glossed over by the interests of older, non- student members. Nominations were requested and Sike, a girl who seemed to be interested in me and for whom I had no affinity, nominated me. Her friend seconded the recommendation and I was asked to rise. My opponent was Tiwa the choirmaster ’s favorite for solos, but her voice did not sound extraordinary. She was disliked by most of the young members, perhaps because of her air of superiority. I won easily, pulling twenty-three votes out of twenty-seven.
The following week after rehearsals, Mr. Lekan asked me to go to the Choirmaster ’s office later that evening. I was supposed to deliver a letter to the Chapel Council requesting that a fund be set up for the younger members of the Choir to cater for their welfare needs. The last time I saw the Choirmaster he was driving away with Tiwa in his car.
That sight would not make sense until an hour later. I walked the distance to the Choirmaster ’s office in the Music Department, walking there through the footpath behind the church that led to the academic area of campus. While I walked, I evaluated how close I had come to ascertaining the tangibility of my life as a shadow. I realized that the music from the piano, which I was practicing every day, was becoming a major thrust of my life. I was at peace when I played, for the music seemed to arrange my emotions and personhood into a logical sequence. Each time I played I felt a rush of clarity to my head. While I walked I decided that when my mother called again, I would ask her to buy a piano for our house.
The Music Department buzzed with music-in-progress, amateur string instrumentalists, talking drummers, vocalists. The cacophony and hybridity of the music emanating from several rooms and open spaces in the music department brought a euphoric stillness to my mind. I stopped and for a moment I forgot non-musical affairs. It was when the drums became silent that I remembered my task. Before I moved I affirmed my resolve to get the piano for my house, thinking Ugo’s room was best suited for it.
I knocked on the door labeled Dr. F. O. Ajuwon. There was no response. I knocked two more times. Then I turned the knob.
They formed a body, pressed together against the wall, the Choirmaster and Tiwa. Shocked, I quickly averted my gaze, and then retreated. But I was certain they’d seen me, confused as to why my knocks hadn’t alerted them.
The following week, I arrived early, as usual, for rehearsals. Dr. Ajuwon sat in one of the pews at the back of the church, a stack of files beside him. I entered the chapel through the door at the rear, which made it easy for me to see him. I muttered a word of greeting to him, bowing my head lightly.
“I guess I can’t eat my cake and have it,” he said to me. I nodded, without a clue as to what he meant and without looking at him.
“I’m resigning,” he continued, fiddling with one of the files. “Why, Sir?” I asked. I was standing close to him.
“I could lie to you, you know. I could tell you it’s because the Chaplaincy is forcing me to hold a senseless retreat. But that would be a blatant lie.” He avoided my gaze, but when he spoke next he looked directly at me, and I felt like a potato being mashed.
“I’m resigning because I am scared, you know, of what, of what you’ll do.” I was taken by surprise when I saw that his eyes were moist. I bowed my head, embarrassed on his behalf, surprised at his defensiveness, even more surprised that he expected me to act on what I’d seen.
“I know it’s wrong, what you, what you saw. Just that I’ve had a very sad marriage. I shouldn’t talk about this. I’ll just resign before… er… word gets out.”
After he spoke, I thought of my parents, wondering if theirs was a sad marriage too. All I said was, “I had no plans to say anything.”
I walked out of the chapel, thinking of how helpless my parents could be in the face of their reality, how they might have come to the point where they were clueless about anything different from the life they expected, or were used to. It was then that I rediscovered home, a timeless vestige that defied any expectation. I realized that my parents were all I had, that it mattered less if they understood that Ugo wasn’t one of us.
I dialed my mother ’s number, and when she called my name with surprise in her voice, I stammered something about the piano. I told her I was coming home.
Emmanuel Iduma, born and raised in Nigeria, is a writer and art critic. He is the author of the novel Farad (Nigeria) and co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing. He has contributed essays on art and photography to a number of journals, magazines, and exhibition catalogues, including Guernica, ESOPUS, Music and Literature, ARTNews, and The Trans-African, for which he works as managing editor. His interviews with photographers and writers have appeared in the Aperture blog, Wasafiri, and Africa is A Country. He co-founded and directs Saraba magazine.
Since 2011, Iduma has worked with Invisible Borders, a trans-African organization based in Nigeria. He played a major curatorial role in the group’s installation A Trans-African Worldspace at the 2015 Venice Biennale. He was longlisted for the Kwani? Manuscript Prize in 2013.
In 2015, he was writer-in-residence at the Danspace Project’s Platform in New York, L’appartement 22 in Rabat, and the Thread Residency in Sinthian, Senegal. A lawyer by training, he holds an MFA in art criticism and writing from the School of Visual Arts, New York.
The Sound of Things to Come
2016, The Mantle