After her music teacher staggered in horror at the sounds that issued from her larynx, and kept changing rehearsal venues so she and her musically gifted friends couldn't find him, Bolaji Odofin travelled back in time to write and direct her first play for her school at age 11. To unwind from the rigours of time travel she buried herself in her father's library, which she is alleged to have read to tatters. "I didn't do it!" she told her parents with a hand to her heart, the offending contraband in plain sight. Clearly destined for a career in law, she leapt to the future to receive a few fellowships and grants, before going back in time again to pen her first article for a national magazine at age 15. Bolaji was publishing two magazines in her twenties. She ran an imports business for a few years before taking a long break to rediscover herself and volunteer full time. Her first professional play was awarded a prize, as was her second. She wrote her first novel, Tiger in the Sand, and began a second, Ye Gods, under a writing scholarship. She worked on the latter and another play, Sons of the Morning, during her MacDowell Colony Fellowship. After taking a year off to write and advance her legal studies, Bolaji resumed duties at her company. She is interested not just in literature but in exploring the intersections of science, technology, and art, and is currently researching quantum mechanics and the philosophy of science, with future projects in mind.
I came to her windows and the flies came with me. She brushed them off
They rose up again out of nothing, and she stopped and stared in silence at the
I had crept into her blood.
I had bothered her bones.
I chased away her suitors, boiling with hate.
Who did they think they were? When she was betrothed to me the hair she
brought from heaven still curled about her temples.
So what if she knew nothing? Had not consented? I wedded her all the same. I
came to her in dreams and lay with her. And in dreams she bore my children.
Do you know what I feel for her? You cannot know.
I watched as she lengthened, as she became luminous. I could not stop touching
her. I could not stop marring her flesh. Thin lines on her body that welled with
blood, even as she slept.
I lay beside her unseen.
I lay beside her in love.
Though her dreams were full of caverns and there were many places to hide, I
knew where to look. I always found her.
Who? Who had lain with her in passion, thinking darkness hid them? I chased
him and broke his brain. My hands touched his blood and it tasted like
righteousness. No mortal may strive with me.
But the earth shifted and whispered with smoke. Trees and their roots twisted in
I did not care.
He had been the first. She would be his last.
I am a jealous god.
She limped and I quivered with lust. The more I bent her bones the more she
enchanted me. Agony was the ring on her finger, the pearls about her comely
She began to wear a thousand eyes, wrapped around her like a shawl. Her
longing overcame her caution, and she bent and swallowed the distance.
Strong arms about her. Tender smiles on the evening breeze, between the
fountains and the hills.
Grim, I marched into his skull. I filled him with myself and she began to cry
without knowing why.
Look at her, bowed under the eucalyptus trees. The long grey skies would not
yield their rain.
When her hair is white and her teeth are rotten, when the cord is cut and the
cistern broken, then shall I depart. You may have her then.
She wandered the world and dreamed of oceans. Because of me, you see. I took
her hand and we walked on water, and I showed her the place from whence I
came: A silent city threaded with dread, still and everlasting.
Look! She’s fighting me!
Pulled. She’s pulling
Away from me.
She shot out of the sea and fled on foot. When I sent the waves to bring her back
she ran into the skies and I could not pursue.
Who told her to fight? Who taught her how?
I could not find her!
She left me where the sea and the sky ran together, a liquid nowhere favored by
Helpless as a newborn
Watching furtive wraiths trade in stolen dreams.
(from Tiger in the Sand)
Once or twice in the seminary someone had remarked, “You don’t look like a Bassey. You look like an Emeka or a Chukwudi or... well, you know.”
Bassey did know. He would smile and change the subject. But his heart would thump crazily in his chest, as if he had been found out. The others would gather in the evenings and talk about their families, making choice offerings from the treasure-stove of a hundred happy incidences safely stored in their heads. Bassey rarely joined in these discussions though he did admit he had a family.
The talk would sometimes turn to God. Here too Bassey tended to silence. The intimacy with God the others enjoyed burned him with something he was not permitted to call envy. One would say “God doesn't like this,” and another would say “God doesn't like that,”' and yet another, “God hates this particular thing most of all.” And Bassey's mouth would fall open a little and he would wonder how they knew. God wants this and God wants that. Slowly he realized that by God each man unconsciously meant himself.
But there had been something there. Something that had called to him, making itself heard above the din of men en route to becoming Someone. What else but God? What else? And then had come the Tomb, faint and frail as smoke at first, then just as solid as life. And then his dreams, the curse of his childhood, had gotten even stranger.
Bassey could still remember the puzzled looks he elicited from those he told, about the things he had seen in fantastic places that lay between waking and dreaming. He had told of enormous whirlpools of stars and funnels of light that had no end and no beginning. Of worlds spreading like stains and rippling musical oceans. He had not the words then and he had not the words now. Now that the soft, oddly familiar Voice was in his head all the time, calling, insisting, promising, if only he would come and enter the Tomb, where dead things stir and come alive, where the veil is rent and freedom is found at last.
When he had left his home and gone out into the world, bearing, as his own cross, his father’s shattered hopes for him, the Voice had comforted him. He had a place he could go if it became unendurable. But somehow he had held on, always there had been reprieve and an easing of pressure just when he thought he could bear no more. It made him wonder, it brought to mind the first of glimpses of the Machine and its parts, of the living puppets that serviced it. Life sometimes wearied him; the same old tired way of things, the same contrived tracks to sorrow and pain and fleeting happinesses. There had to be more than this. The Voice of the Tomb had furnished it; when it called Bassey was quick to follow.
“You’re just like your mother!” his father had spat at him.
Was he? Bassey did not know. She had gone while he was a child. He remembered she sold something, he remembered a tray on her head and her voice calling out her wares. He remembered going out with her sometimes, her fingers feeding him something sweet. She sometimes covered him up against the chill.
He recalled little else.
Perhaps it was just as well. She had gone so completely from their lives, leaving his father permanently bewildered, his every sentence a question.
Time had taken him by the hand and they had gone gambolling through damp meadows. He had ripped up grass and flung it in the air, not with spontaneous joy but with a solemn sense of occasion and a glance to the side to determine his place. Look, he is finishing secondary school, he is kissing a boy, he is standing proudly by his first cow, a gift from his silent father. Look, he is running away, changing, with every clump of earth flung by his flying feet, from Bako to Bassey, panting at the seminary gates, bent on admission, getting in. See, he is going back to his father a man, in his robes, his father bestowing a rare smile, like a benediction, upon his head.
Now here he was, washed up by strange tides and wracked by foreign afflictions. Bassey knew he had lost weight. He looked like a ghost haunting his own life instead of living it. He thought of the Beautiful Man and his heart lurched in his chest. He had seen him at the funeral, distant and unreachable, his expression forbidding, his grief wielded like a weapon. Bassey hardly knew what he said or to whom. When it was over he had lingered, hoping to be noticed, perhaps even summoned, willing it so with all his strength. But Doja had turned away, his hand on someone who looked—good Lord—like a female version of him, lacking only that cold indefinable something that lurked in his eye. Bassey had watched them leave, hand in hand like children, each seeming to draw something from the other, though he could not tell what. And then they were gone.
It was worse than he had supposed.
He had driven by the house but the gates had been shut, the fences high like a prison, vouchsafing nothing within. Only then had he gone home.
He was startled to find himself going through his daily routines as though he struggled with nothing, sometimes even exchanging the occasional banter with fellow clergy. Evidently he had mined himself without knowing when, and unearthed surprising things.
But the nights. It was bad in the nights. His dreams were frightened, fragmented bursts of motion and noise. He heard the Tomb calling and, for once, did not answer. Nothing could aid him now. Any ease he found would be doubly repaid in misery when that ease departed.
“Wonderful!” Bassey cried, took another sip of the coffee and sighed blissfully.
The Bishop beamed with pleasure. “What did I tell you? None of that cloying supermarket stuff. This is the best.”
“It’s wonderful,” Bassey said again, closing his eyes, savouring it.
“I’m posting you to another town,” said the Bishop. “Effective immediately.”
Bassey choked, pounded his chest and expelled weak, hoarse coughs. His eyes watered. “Easy, easy,” counselled the Bishop. “Take it easy.”
“A-another town?” Bassey managed. “Immediately?”
“Well. You can leave tomorrow if you like.”
“This is my home. Here. I want to serve God here. I—”
“Now, child, we must do as God commands, we must go wherever He sends us.”
“But...why-why me? Why now?”
“What do you mean?”
It’s over. The funeral. He’ll soon be gone. I will leave before he does and I will never see him again, sooner than I thought. Sooner, he realized, than he could endure.
He rose to his feet. “Sir I—I have to-er-to-to—” His brain refused to complete the thought, and he stared foolishly at the Bishop. Pressing his lips together he nodded a few times, agreeing to nothing the Bishop could see, and made a hurried departure.
The gates swung open as he approached. He came to a screeching halt and jumped out of the car. He ran to the front door and banged on it. It would open, but no one would be there. He would tear through the house and find room after room empty.
It did open. Someone was standing in the doorway. It was the female look-alike, the one from the funeral. “Yes?”
Bassey could not take his eyes off her. The resemblance was uncanny. Her face was tranquil though, with laughing eyes only hinted at, obscured now by a cloud. He stared at her, somehow expecting to be known by her in deep and unexpected ways, so that they had no need of words. She was his sister after all. But she only stood there, head bent a little to the side, a puzzled smile on her lips.
“I’m from the church. Your, um, mo-mother’s church. I-um-I have—”
“Please come in.”
She led him into the living room and they sat down. Bassey didn’t know what to say. She’d gotten the impression he was there on official church business and he wasn’t. He declined refreshment, caught himself wringing his hands and stopped. He got to his feet then sat down again. She watched him, silent, waiting.
Bassey almost flung himself at her feet and begged her to tell him, tell him, what would unlock the mystery that was her brother. All suppositions that the Beautiful Man was not his to have had flown, as forgotten as if he had never entertained them. He opened his mouth, and if his life had been riding on it he would not have known what he had been about to say. He would never know, because Doja was standing in the doorway, wiping his hands on a napkin. The ordinariness of the act, the calm way in which it was performed, had a calming effect on him in turn. Everything that had propelled him thus far seemed to fly, and he was suddenly a man in another man’s home, with explanations required of him.
“Good afternoon.” “Hello Father.”
So formal. So polite.
Bassey was fidgeting now. He looked from one to the other. The woman looked at him and then, without moving her head, at her brother.
Again Bassey rose. Again he sat down. His shoulders slumped, and he slowly lowered his head and covered them with his hands.
He could hear a murmured exchange, concern in the woman’s voice, steel in the man’s. He began to tremble. He wished he were anywhere but here. Why had he come? Perhaps the Bishop had sensed something, perhaps a look, a word had betrayed him. The Bishop was right. He should leave this town, for his sanity’s sake. For this one had been in it, had grown up in it as he had, had seen some of the same sights, and now that he knew him, had changed the character of the town and the colour of his experiences in it, perhaps forever.
When he raised his head Doja was leaning against a solid mahogany table with sculpted figurines on them. His arms were at his sides. The woman was gone. Bassey stared at him helplessly. He found himself rising and walking to where the other was. He stood before him and all the pain and sorrow of his young life was made manifest in one inarticulate sound, and then he was sobbing hard.
He made little noise, as if, even in his grief, notions of correct behaviour lurked nearby, so that he did not wish to give offence by, say, disturbing someone’s nap.
Doja said nothing, made no move to comfort him.
Bassey’s wet eyes roamed the room listlessly, insisting on banal observations. The curtains, the rug, the hand-crafted stand by the window, the thriving indoor plants. It was on this last that his attention lingered. He walked to and bent over one. Amid a relative forest of stems and leaves a tiny plant was shyly emerging. Bassey thought it brave. He reached out a finger, almost touched it, then gently pulled back.
Somewhere in the house he could hear a clock ticking. And then it was drowned by the soft sound of music.
He thought he saw movement and whirled around. But Doja was still by the table. Had those eyes been on him all the while?
Bassey’s own eyes were on the ground. He watched his feet move, one in front of the other, until they had returned him to where the other waited.
Waiting. For what?
Bassey watched, astonished, as his own hands reached up, touched that face, touched and brought it near. With a sigh Bassey kissed those lips.
He pulled away and thought, I will have that. At least I have that. I should say goodbye.
“Don’t play with me,” he said instead. Don’t toy with me, he meant to say. “I have no intention of playing with you.”
“You know what I mean.” “I know what you mean.”
Bassey sighed deeply, as if everything had been said. “I have to go away. The Bishop. The Bishop says I have to go.”
Doja said nothing. But Bassey saw with amazement that he had taken his hand. He was holding it tightly.
“Come,” said the Beautiful Man. And he led, and Bassey followed, and they walked, hand in hand like children, until they were completely alone.
(From the novel Tiger in the Sand)