“She wanted me to stay away from men. If I sat on a man’s lap, or let him touch me, I would get pregnant. My stomach would be round like our neighbour upstairs who was always pregnant and I would have to stop going to school..”Tweet
“Why can we never talk about the blood. the blood of our ancestors. the blood of our history. the blood between our legs.” – Nayyirah Waheed.
A woman lived with my family from the time I was two until I was about five. She’d stand behind the beige striped curtain that led to my mother’s room and play with my grandmother’s slick white hair as she sat at the dining table. I was the only one who saw her, who noticed the flicker in her eyes and her crooked one-sided smile. They took me for prayers in our church on a Friday evening after school. The church was dimly lit with two energy bulbs hanging from the ceiling. There were five of us kneeling by the pulpit: Mary Ojuri, whose pupils receded to the back of her head when she was sent on errands; Ifeko, who wet her bed; Samad who stole pieces of meat from his mother’s pot; Kechi, who never did his homework; and me, the girl who saw a woman that was not there. I stared at them, studying the patterns on their house clothes. Someone smacked my cheeks, ordered me to close my eyes and say ‘Amen’. I bowed my head and left my eyes open to stare at the sturdy cemented ground. The grownups prayed and sang hymns over us. They held hands in a circle around us. In school, Ms. Agoro had just taught colours and every morning through the week, my classmates and I had to point out colours on various things in our environment: the board was black, our tables were brown, the swing set was yellow. I thought of colours as they prayed. I thought of the colour of grass in the school garden until it stretched my mind into a sandy field.
The next Sunday, wearing the yellow and black church dress my grandmother made me, I watched the faces of the grownups. When they passed by me, they scrunched up their faces as if there was a foul smell. I studied their colourful head wraps as they whispered about me: the girl who saw a woman that was not there. I looked down at my yellow and black dress and saw rainbow colours that were not there. I panicked.
After the church incident, we went on as if things were normal. They assumed I had been ‘healed’, even though no one asked me if I still saw her. I stopped talking and asking about the woman. When I noticed her pallor brown dress shift in the shadows, I pushed whatever book I was reading up my nose. I was convinced she wanted to get me, like monsters did to little girls on television; it was the reason no one else saw her.
I eventually stopped seeing her. This was not before she came to me in a dream and tried to kill me with the mortar my grandmother used to pound yam. In the dream, the setting sun had turned the world pink. I was on the edge of my mother’s bed, the tip of my legs barely touching the ground. She had red eyes that burned with fire like when Muriel in Courage the Cowardly Dog turned evil. Her voice and the way she stretched her hands reminded me of Regina Askia when the moon was full in the movie Full Moon. When I woke up, it was a cool night. My body was hot and there were goosebumps on my skin. For a while, I could not move. I stared at the plants curled against the burglary proof of the window in my room and cried myself into a dream of colours.
We moved into a new house a few months before I turned eight. The new house smelled of paint but lacked that quality of newness that new spaces had. It was obvious from the rats that squeaked in and out, and the leaking basin that the previous tenants had not been good to the space. Scrubbing the floors, fixing plumbing issues and blocking the rat holes seemed to chase away the presence of the old tenants but it often came back lurking between the smell of burning food and paint.
We bought new sofas from Ibadan, disposing the green threadbare sofas that my siblings and I had been fond of. In the old house, we jumped from one end of the sofa to the other and played all sorts of games on the longer sofa. The new sofas were a peculiar shade of brown, with spirals that had no sequence. My mother said the colour was burnt umber. I told her that it gave me a headache. She scoffed. The sofas smelled musty but it was a smell I got used to and came to attach to the word ‘home’. My mother bought a crimson red rug. The rug was furry and comfortable underfoot. When visitors came by, they had to remove their shoes in the lobby and walk bare feet into the parlour. The dining room was carpeted a light shade of brown that did not fit the brown of the sofas or the brown of the dining table. The house was chaotic: it had various things and various shades of brown. When I dusted around the house on Saturday mornings, the colours agreed with me.
At night when there was no light, we turned on kerosene lanterns. Anytime I stared into the lantern, tiny balls of light lingered in my vision, forming a sort of hypnotic circle. The colours moved and bounced around like tiny objects in a game. I was fascinated by this and started to look forward to nighttime when my grandmother lighted the lanterns. The colours made me feel like I was a superhero with powers to use coloured beams from my eyes to melt or move things. I felt an immense amount of pleasure when the lilac and blue colours turned up in my vision. I told myself that colour was a kind of magic.
It was in this house I discovered blood. I had seen blood from my body when I had wounds from playing on the field in school, or when my grandmother spat blood into the wash hand basin when her teeth broke and bled. I had seen my sister break a glass of wine and try to retrieve the broken shards of the bottle only for a sharp piece to pierce her forefinger and for her to bleed uncontrollably until she was taken to the hospital. The blood I discovered was different. Its redness was thicker and its source was unusual. I later found out it was considered impure in some circles.
I saw it on a school day. The blood spread like a map at the back of my pinafore but I did not know this until I got home. When I pulled down my pants in the bathroom, I was surprised to find it red. My mother did not smile when I informed her. We stood in the kitchen, facing each other. Her back was to the basin, mine was to the microwave. She said: “Do not let any man touch you.” Her accusatory tone reflected in her glassy eyes that did not blink. She reached for my ears but then stopped herself short, patting the egg whisk in her left hand instead. She explained how I was to take care of myself in the four or five days in which the red stranger forced itself out of my body. She emphasized that I was now a woman, not a little girl who dressed in front of the television or kept her underwear in the laundry basket for the wash woman. Particularly, she wanted me to stay away from men. If I sat on a man’s lap, or let him touch me, I would get pregnant. My stomach would be round like our neighbour upstairs who was always pregnant and I would have to stop going to school. She said that this bleeding would happen to me once a month. I wanted to ask her why: what did I do to deserve this? Her eyes told me she did not want to be interrupted, or to be asked that question. I pouted my lips. Even as I stood before her, I wanted to melt and disappear. Her words and the pain in my belly and legs made me fuzzy. Her voice was black, the colour of soot that stained the ceiling and wall above the gas cooker. I stared at it and heard her voice echoing through it. I hated myself and the colour that sat inside me, and between my legs. I did not know that colour could be anything other than magic until I discovered the redness of this kind of blood.
The woman came back to my life for a short while when I turned sixteen. She came as a voice that billowed in the wind that rattled the windows in our house. We had moved to a new house on the Island. There were too many sealed rooms in it. Cobwebs spun around the top-right angles of the doors of these sealed rooms and dust gathered on the handlebars. When I placed my ears against the doors, I would hear movement: footsteps and things clashing into each other, even though no one was there.
The voice came most evenings during the rainy seasons, and during the dry season, on hot quiet afternoons. It came with wind that danced around and moved objects that did not want to be moved. Sometimes, it was a song in my head: nursery rhymes that I had long forgotten. Other times, it sounded beautiful, like the crescendo of an orchestra. Her voice sometimes came without form, the kind of voice you could twist and mould like clay, or stuff into a box until it took shape. Her voice was mostly soothing. It did not threaten to drive me mad or annoy me more than the usual buzz of mosquitoes. I read novels — from Sidney Sheldon to Chimamanda — and doodled on their flaps or copyright pages as a form of distraction. The last time I heard her voice was the one time she called my name. Her voice did not shake even though it came with the wind; it was bold, like a boulder or the glittery pillar that partitioned the parlour and dining room in the house. I ran to my grandmother’s room across the hall from mine. “Mama, did you call me?” I asked to be sure.
She was facing the north, staring out the window, at the almond trees in the compound. It was in this same direction she prayed in the morning when she wrapped her head with a pink silk scarf. She turned her head to face me and shook it. She hardly spoke English. The little she spoke was deliberate and thin. “If the voice calls you again,” she said, “do not answer.” I nodded. She pulled me to her side and pointed towards the empty plot of land in the compound, “Omo, who are those children over there?”
I shook my head searching for them but not seeing. “There’s no one there, Mama.”
A few months before I turned seventeen, a doctor told my mother and I that my grandmother’s heart was failing. My grandmother had a blank stare in her eyes as the doctor spoke to us. She fidgeted and then bent her lips in a sigh that left us silent. The silence followed us into the car when we left the Hospital and sat with us as we heard but did not listen to Asa’s “Eye Adaba” playing on radio. We moved her things to the guest room downstairs because she said it felt like her heart was running too fast when she climbed up the stairs. The white-haired doctor had prescribed some drugs, and told us to change her diet. She stopped cooking amala, her favourite okele with ewedu and cow intestines. We started buying her eko, a white jelly-like okele that she ate with barely salted bean cakes or vegetables.
Every day, I sat with her in the new room and read to her from her bible. She recited the words with me, correcting my Yoruba pronunciations and laughing to herself at what good memory she still had, “after everything”. Sometimes, we just sat in her room and watched the sun set. During this time, we built a connection she did not have with her other grandchildren or even my mother. I knew that I felt sorry for her, that I found her rather hysterical because she saw things. But I also saw and heard things. Though I could not tell everyone this, and though I seemed to have a rational explanation for the things I saw and the sounds I heard, I could not deny the fact that I saw things that other people could not see, and that people, especially my friends on social media, did not think this was normal.
My mother told me that when I was younger, my grandmother visited a psychiatrist in the teaching hospital on the mainland and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. They gave her drugs which my mother always gave me to pass on to her. My mother did not understand schizophrenia, neither did her mother, neither did I. They believed that what my grandmother had was a spiritual disease, something inflicted by some enemy. This illness pulled them apart and ravaged their memory of a time before the illness. I googled the symptoms, wondering if I had the same illness. I made no conclusions.
We talked about colours. “Everyone’s soul has a particular colour,” she said. “You can smell this on their perfume. Red smells off. These are the evil people. Always wanting to do anything for money. Always wanting what does not belong to them. Always wanting to kill, even their brother.” She shook her head and laughed. “My husband died and they came, his brothers, wanting to chase me out of the big house, just imagine.” She clapped her hand and placed it under her jaw. I sat in front of her, but she did not see me.
“Then she tried to twist my mind,” my grandmother continued. I wanted to ask who, but was scared to interrupt. “The woman, who wore yellow, came to the funeral in all yellow; even her glasses and lipstick were yellow! Imagine. Her soul was filthy yellow. She tried to twist my mind with herbs. I ate it in her presence but threw it up when she left. They will not get me. All these because I could not give him a boy child, all these so they could take what they did not work for, all these because I am a woman. Ah. Well, look I’m still here, aren’t I? They have not gotten me.” She laughed.
My mother warned me not to listen to her ramblings, that my grandmother did not know what she was saying. She wore an annoyed look when she saw us together. I could tell that she was trying to protect me, but from what? The truth? I believed my grandmother. I believed the lines on her forehead and the dark patches on her cheeks. She was saying her truth, however horrid it might sound. I wondered about the colour of her soul and concluded that it was not one colour, that deep down, there were various colours just waiting to erupt.
One day, she woke up with a wound the shape of an egg on her leg. It was deep and looked like a map that had been marked yellow and red. She said that a little girl had used her fingernail to nip the skin off. She winced as she spoke. We took her back to the hospital and a nurse taught my mother and I how to treat the injury with a scissors, cotton wool and bandage, how to first clean up the wound before applying the powder and wrapping it up in bandage.
A few days before she died, she told me that she wanted to cut her hair. She said: “the little girl climbs in through the window and plays with my hair at night so I just cannot sleep.” There was no way anyone could climb in through the window because of the burglary proof, but I did not say anything. I found scissors in the kitchen and cut off her white hair until only a few tufts of hair remained on her head. She smiled, staring at her reflection in a vanity mirror. After the haircut, we had ice cream and puff-puff from the street side. At night, I sat close to her, listening to her deep breaths fuse with the song of the night. There were no voices, only crickets, frogs, and wall geckos singing. I took her hand in mine knowing that this was a foreign touch for her and even for me as we were unused to this manner of affection. We ate crackers and Fanta. She dipped the biscuits into her stainless cup of Fanta and whispered to herself that life was good.
It was an orange day, the day she died. Orange that was the colour of Fanta, the colour of the scarf she tied around her neck when she went to the hospital, the colour of her voice, the colour that probably blanketed the sky on the day she was born. She died during her late-morning nap. “She simply did not wake up,” I tweeted, leaving my followers to guess and badger me on what had happened. In the evening when the sun had begun to set, the sky exploded with colours. It seemed that a painter was at work on some kind of masterpiece. The sun burnt white; orange and pink swathed the clouds and a quiet thunder rumbled like my grandmother’s laugher.
My earliest memory of the first toy that belonged to me was a multi-coloured box shaped like a lunch pack. The toy made sounds when you pressed the three colours on it – yellow had its distinctive mellow sound, as did blue and red. I called the toy a tintan – the sound it made when I pressed yellow and red. I do not know why the memory of this toy has remained with me after all these years. I often randomly remember an obscure version of the last time I played with it: I am sitting on the green sofa on the edge of a cliff, or in the first house we lived in. I am pressing my tintan when someone snatches it from me and whisks me up. I never see it again.
After a trip to Ibadan to see my friend R a few weeks ago, I searched stationary stores across my city for a certain brand of wax crayons, the kind I used in Ms. Agoro’s class over twenty years ago. R gifted me an adult colouring book, a late birthday gift. She did not say it, but I think it was because of my ‘issues’ that she bought me the colouring book. It was a befitting gift. I have not found the exact box of crayons I want and have not been able to colour in the colouring book. Every night, I stare at it on my bedside table and say, “maybe tomorrow, I’ll use you”.
‘Women Who Bleed Colours’ was shortlisted for the Koffi Addo Prize For Creative Nonfiction in 2018. It appeared in Enkare.
Ope Adedeji is a writer and editor living in Lagos. She is the managing editor of Zikoko Magazine and was the managing editor at Ouida Books. Her work has appeared in Catapult, Afreada, Arts and Africa, McSweeney’s Quarterly and so much more. She is an alumnus of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2018 Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop. She is the winner of the 2019 Brittle Paper Award for African Fiction.
Feature image: Matt Artz (Unsplash)