The first time I saw her was on a cold morning. The housemistress knocked on the room door and we all rose from our beds. When I stepped forward to open the door, she stood at her imposing height, looking at me with a keen observation, causing me to feel so seen I drew my pyjamas shut, over my chest, over myself. My self-conscious fingers fell aside and my pyjamas fell over me with faint rumpled lines drawn into the silk, as I saw her peek from behind the housemistress. The eyes with which she looked at me were quiet mirrors.
The housemistress’ voice drew me out of my trance of stare.
“Your new parents are waiting for you. I hope you are happy to meet them.” She paused, looking behind her for the girl with eyes I could be lost in.
“This will be your little sister.” She continued. “Your new parents are lovely people. We rarely ever get a couple willing to adopt two children at the same time, especially not one in your age group. Just try to be grateful this time.”
She stared at me, watchful that her words were not lost as I tried evading her stare. I nodded in surrender and she saw proof I had listened. “Good. Fifteen minutes.”
Behind the housemistress, I felt her keen eyes rest on me as she was led downstairs. I shut the door behind them, and the click of the lock was the last sound the air in the room would carry. I looked at the three members of the room and our eyes said farewells of varying weights. Their eyes rested on me and I felt washed by envy. I understood their envy, the unlikelihood of my getting chosen and the true need to be grateful. But in that moment, I felt torn from them and as I was to them, they became othered, distinct from myself. I replied their looks with one of loss. One would think with the voids we all shared, we would be bound by the broken trails of absence that led us all to this house, and would lead us, hopefully, to homes. Yet, we are reduced to competing to be seen and recommended by the housemistress and other administrators. In this competition, many have convinced themselves of their introverted, teachable, well-behaved attributes when in truth, they have acted for so long a different time is lost to habit. A time when they were themselves; a time when they were in the absence of an urge to please, to limit themselves to the edges of the lenses of propriety with which they were looked upon; a time when they were children more than they wanted to be anyone’s child. The three others have excelled at losing themselves to time and are still only able to dream of a home.
I have been in enough homes to fulfil the dreams of the others.
There was a couple who returned me to the house six months after they took me into themselves—into the lingering illusion of a home. I still remember the months when the look on her face grew from nausea to bliss. I felt the joy of the home grow in the way her belly bumped into her loose dresses.
My last weeks went by in flashes of varying emotions. There were days she held me; days she put my hand on her belly; days she thanked me and thanked me for giving her out of the abundance of my good fortune—I had doubted I had any good fortune when the one who came before her returned me to the house after their stocks crashed, days after I was adopted. “Cursed! I tell you. The charity that has condemned me” I remember her whisper violently—days she could not bring her crying eyes to look at me as she stuttered, and sighed, explaining what she insisted I could not understand.
I began to understand why her despair worsened when her mother visited. Her mother sat on her luggage the moment she set foot in the living room, looking straight at me as she ordered my fate. She had an expression of great calm I knew could only come from apathy. Her eyes flickered with dim sparks of a past passion. A passion that was repeatedly expressed and just as frequently broken and dampened till the ashes were trailed by tears into a grey of indifference. These sparks shone as she told me my time had passed and she finally had a thing to be proud of in her daughter, in who she had lost all promise.
That night they returned me to the house. Her husband had to drag her back to their car as she ran to embrace me for the last time. She knelt before me, her tears falling on my shoulder under the heart of the house’s amber floodlight. When she held my face under those lights and said “sorry” and “sorry” and nothing, I saw the sorrow of hands tied.
As they drove off into the darkness of a growing distance, I felt her repress the urge to turn back as I did the urge to chase after what I could not catch—a home, a mother, a moving vehicle. We grew apart quietly and I felt in a way we still watched each other in the growing distance.
I felt the hand of the housemistress rest on the shoulder where her tears were shed and I wanted to brush off her hand, wanted to stop her desecration, but I could not bring myself to move. Grief is humbling; pride is needed to protect the sacred. Humbled, I followed her hand as it guided me into the house.
She opened the room I had sworn a farewell to, sworn I would never call mine again. The room creaked in welcome as the hinge played a metallic song of mourning. They stared at me as though they had awaited my return and I hoped their stares meant shock, but hope was all I did. After the housemistress closed the door behind her, I fell to my knees and wept. I only now remember that they all went back to sleep.
I felt guilty, for the hate I felt towards the one who would have been my sibling; for the anger I felt at myself and the many ways I was subjected to misfortunes that defined my way back to the house; at this curse of a bridge that burned and rose from ashes to course my way back. I felt guilty for the anger I felt at the grey, soon-to-be grandmother.
Of all I felt, I could not bring myself to wish she did not have the joy that caused her to smile with her lucid eyes and all of her teeth. Although I suffered for her joy and I felt my hopes slain on the alter that bore her blessings, I could not wish it never came. If I ever felt love, this was the first time, as its fingers formed by loss, caressed me. I exhausted myself as completely as I exhausted my tears and when sleep came as refuge, I did not know it.
With each rejection and return to the house, I was tempted to fall, to let myself drown in the pool of a grey I was once looked down from. As I grew into my teenage years, the prospect of a home dimmed. When the linings of hope had reduced to the shining of distant dust, I tried to find comfort in the house anew.
A few days ago, whispers came from a girl whose room was closest to that of the housemistress. A new home was coming for me she said. Moments after, I felt a new urge, to try, whatever trying meant, be it for the last time. The relentlessness I felt within me, I knew belonged to someone other than me. The heart that witnessed the death of hope and nurtured its growth time after time, could not be mine alone.
As the three others jested with their eyes, certain that I would soon be back, I walked into the bathroom in preparation to meet my new parents. The ceramic gave a cold welcome to my skin as I sat in the bathtub. I cradled the showerhead, adjusting the temperature to the near-scalding heat I had grown accustomed to. I raised the rain of heat to my scalp and its waters ran through my hair in softening showers. The water made its way past my neck and the heat licked my back. I reached for the milk white bar of soap to fill the tub with lather. As the lather rose to my shoulders, I savoured the richness of vanilla slowly wash away their stares from my skin.
I travelled down the spiral flight of stairs under the watchful eye of the sparkling chandelier. As I bid my silent goodbyes, the cold air and the dryness in my mouth became one. At the feet of the stairs, my new parents were waiting hand in hand. My little sister stood close to him, under his wide dark arms and both our bags rested by his side. They looked up at me with eyes glistening with joy as I descended the stairs, as though we had always known this hour would come, as though we were a family reunited.
In the quiet of the car, away from the house, my sister wrapped her small hand around my finger. She raised her other hand, motioning for me to share a secret. She cupped her hand over my ear and began whispering, “you have beautiful eyes. Like. Like. A small mirror. A strong mirror with lines in it. Like it fell down.” Before I could thank her or tell her what I thought of her eyes, she lay her sleepy head on my shoulder. “I think I like you. I think I like you very very much” she said, half asleep. My father’s smiling eyes met mine in the rear-view mirror as he drove, and I tried not to cry. The melting of eyes, even for joy, can be misunderstood. I did not let go of her hand as long as I can remember, and with gratitude and relief, like her, I fell asleep.
Ọbáfẹ́mi Thanni is a writer whose poetry was shortlisted for the 2019 Christopher Okigbo Poetry Prize. He is currently working on a hybrid and making attempts at beauty.