AN INTRODUCTION BY LUCIE SHELLY
I needed a moment to collect myself, to let my fear and sadness settle, after I first read Ladi Opaluwa’s “Maroon.” The story is about a young female — unnamed — who is visited in her dorm room one rainy evening by the quietly but immediately sinister Pastor James. The second time I read it, I had a similarly emotional reaction, but I also breathed a sigh of appreciation. I was reading the work of a craftswoman.
As an editor, I have my mental shortlist of things I will always flag. One item is the use of shortcuts and expressions over true description — phrases like, “it was an out-of-body experience.” Great writing does more than state those moments — it conveys the disorientation that happens when a feeling or experience is so overwhelming for the bodily and emotional self that the subconscious copes by extracting itself. “Maroon” does exactly this. “You did not hear Pastor James knock,” writes Opaluwa in the opening paragraph. And so we enter a story, written boldly in the second person, that follows the buildup to a rape we feel will happen — though we can’t, like the victim, say exactly how we know this.
It conveys the kind of disorientation that happens when a feeling or experience is so overwhelming that the subconscious copes by extracting itself.
The story widens, and we learn that Pastor James is the founder of the Spring Living fellowship that both he and the young woman are part of, and that he visits female youth members like this too often. Of the young woman, we learn that she’s a 19-year-old student, and has been told by her fellows — which include her mother — to be less contrarian if she wants to be a successful, celebrated member of the fellowship, to stop “dissenting without reason.” Gradually, we come to understand that when the circumstances are just right, or rather, just wrong, vulnerability can overtake us both slowly and inevitably.
This story originally appeared in the anthology Songhai ’12, which was published in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, when the city was the UNESCO 2014–2015 World Book Capital. To write beyond the literary traditions of your country and still assert yourself within its canon is a paradox many writers grapple with; traditions can be confining, but without the canon, legacies are hard to build. Ladi Opaluwa’s story both continues and transcends Nigeria’s literary traditions. The young woman’s narrative in “Maroon” sears because it is visceral, but her voice also insists that the story could be yours. In other words, it’s the kind of story that any editor, writer, or reader, dreams of experiencing.
Associate Editor, Recommended Reading
A Story About Witnessing Your Own Rape
by Ladi Opaluwa
That night in school, you were seated on the floor, turning over the pages of a notebook and contemplating the task ahead. You flipped back and forth, fanning the flame of the candle nearby. The pages were many and you were sleepy. You thought you should sleep now and wake at midnight. Or read now and sleep till dawn. Already, your mind was full of other pending decisions. When do you loosen your braids? What do you wear tomorrow for the exams? And more urgent, what will you have for dinner? You shut your eyes to ease the stress of indecision. Soon, with your back on the bed, you were dozing. The breeze helped. The thunder, the lightning and the rain that followed were like a dream. You did not hear Pastor James knock.
He came in the heavy rain to your room off-campus and sat on your mattress, dripping water from the hem of his jeans. He talked about a fallen tree that almost knocked him off his motorcycle, him and Linda; the Linda in Sociology whom he gave a ride, whose big bosom caressed his back, making the drive on the bumpy Old Egume Road pleasant.
“She rode my back,” he said, raising his voice over the clatter of rainfall.
You smiled and shook your head.
“I said she rode on my bike.”
Your smile widened even as you tried to purse your lips. You giggled, and then laughed.
He asked why you were laughing and you said nothing.
He told of one of his pretty course mates who stood by the roadside, waving frantically at passing vehicles.
“I don’t think she knew I was the one,” he said. “Sadly, I had a passenger already.”
You had come alive and were ready to return to the Eng 306 notebook you were reading earlier, but Pastor James reached further into his memory and pulled out random campus tales that you failed mostly to understand. The plots were confusing. You could not tell the end of one story from the beginning of another. They were a series of unrelated events stringed as one long narration, animated by his loud voice. There was the story of two Aminas and a missing laptop, Amina Ibrahim and Amina Yusuf. One was the owner and the other was the suspect. That you understood. But you could not tell which of the two equally pretty Igala ladies was owner or thief.
You wanted him to slow down, to explain more, and delineate the features of each lady, but then, he had moved on, talking about a man in his department, a very wealthy young man with two wives and many girlfriends all over campus and beyond. The worst part, Pastor James said, the girlfriends knew he was married with two wives but didn’t care. He had money.
You were curious about the missing laptop but let him carry on without interruption. His words became meaningless. They simply passed through your head without settling. They came in one ear and went out the other. He became only a voice, a hollow voice with a lone audience, persistent on entertaining. You wondered why he was telling you stories about people you did not know, episodes that were of no interest to you. Perhaps the telling was the objective.
As he rambled on, you flashed a torch at the wall clock. Moments later, you yawned and stretched. He shook himself like a wet duck and asked you to drop the curtains. You hesitated a while and then did his bidding.
“You know my problem with you?” he asked after you returned to the floor. “You are too quiet.”
“I am not that quiet-o,” you said.
He sneered, and after a suddenly loud thunderclap, said, “People are going to suffer this night.”
“Thank God. I was thinking of going to class but something told me not to go,” you said.
“God save you this night,” he said and lay back on the bed. “Cold for finish you.”
You worried that he would leave a wet patch on the bed. You worried, also, that the rain would linger and it would be hard to get rid of him. It was nearly 9 p.m. You yawned again. As he failed to acknowledge your prompt, you offered to make him tea.
“My dear don’t bother yourself,” he said. “If I want something, I will ask for it. You know me.”
Noodles then, you suggested. Despite his objection you set about preparing it, your last two packs of Indomie, saved for the next day, for breakfast and for lunch. Your stove was in the room. It was a studio flat that housed all your property. All domestic activities, except bathing in the washrooms adjourning the block of eight rooms, were confined to the room.
Your generosity was part of a resolve at the start of the year to be more accommodating, more tolerant, as your friends always urged. You appeared happy but murmured whenever you turned away from Pastor James to the cooking. You were broke, left with just your fare home. But at least you pretended to be hospitable. That must be a virtue.
“Where were you even going?” you asked, leaning on a cupboard.
“Here?” you asked, because he had never visited you except for the night he brought Blessing on his motorcycle and entered just to say hello. He had lingered a while without sitting, looking around the room and commenting on every item that caught his attention. After he left, Blessing told how he had taken her to Domi Bite where they had a lousy meal of plain boiled rice with watery stew over which he belched twice. And instead of taking her back to Inikpi hostel, he had driven her to a forested location.
“So what happened?” you had asked.
“Tell me na,” you had pleaded. “What happened, what did he do?”
“Nothing, really. We just sat there for a while and then left.”
You had been disappointed. You wanted an event, a long story with a tragic end.
Blessing had compensated you with another story about Miracle, the tall, lanky fellow who came to school as Monday and within months changed his name to Miracle, on the instruction of the Holy Ghost. At first he would be angry at whoever addressed him by his old name and spew some bollocks about sins against God. Later, he simply refused to answer to Monday, and gradually, Miracle began to catch on.
“We were on a bus coming back from Idah,” Blessing had said. “The two of us were in the back seat. I was very tired so I slept off. And can you believe what that goat did? He put his hand in my top and was touching my breast.”
You had laughed so hard that she joined in, laughing, too, then told you to stop.
“It’s not funny.”
“So what did you do?”
“I slapped his hand off, of course. But do you know the worst thing?” she had asked. “He tried it again, the dog.”
Blessing had spent the night at your place. When you heard her sniffling in her sleep, you turned your back on her and stilled yourself. Early the next morning, as she was leaving, she paused at the door and said, “You know PJ is an asshole.”
Pastor James was a student like you. He was the founder of the Living Spring Campus Fellowship, where he preached on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday evenings. His services were attended by about four hundred students drawn from the older, orthodox fellowships to his liberal doctrines. Female members could wear pants to fellowship, and didn’t have to cover their heads. Romantic relationships were encouraged.
Among friends with whom you attended the fellowship, you were the only one that did not hold an executive position, though like them, you hardly missed services. For the second year you had been overlooked for a post. You were not really disappointed, knowing as well as anyone you deserved to be overlooked, for despite your diligent attendance, you were only half committed. You were a passive-aggressive: neither in nor out, not leading and not following either, or to put it plainly, a rebel, as Mama, the ladies’ leader, once said, noting that rebelliousness was synonymous with witchcraft. Your position on the scale of relevance might be hundredth.
So it was natural that you should be surprised to get a visit from Pastor James. No one from fellowship visited. At least, not Pastor James. Blessing did, sure, and by extension, her friends Ilemona, John, Miracle, and other executives of the fellowship, all of whom you considered sycophants and attention seekers.
You liked attention yourself, but you would not take a step out of your room to seek it. You were too lazy to work for it, to go up the stage and sing a number one week, and the next testify about a healed headache, and another week about your increasing CGPA. You would leave fellowship immediately after the closing benediction while others remained to shake hands with Pastor James. You wanted the reward of their effort. You wanted fame or at least, a measure of recognition. You wanted your name mentioned from the stage once in a while. You wanted people to recognize you without you knowing them in return. Unmerited fame. In the absence of that, you would keep to your corner and continue as though you didn’t mind obscurity.
You served the noodles on a flat ceramic plate with a fork tucked in it. He asked that you join him. You declined at first but the aroma of your cooking, rather than his insistence, persuaded you.
You were both on the floor, facing each other, the meal between you. You ate slowly, making sure to wind every string perfectly around the fork before eating.
“Why are you so shy?” Pastor James asked.
You neither answered nor smiled as you might have done in lieu of a reply, having begun to fully regret your generosity, feeling foolish for letting him impose on you at that time of the day. You would not ask him to leave though. It was rather late to be upfront. Once on the path of politeness, you had to go all the way, else the distance covered would count for nothing.
“Let me feed you,” he said, bringing his fork to your mouth.
You shot your head back and said, “No.”
“Then feed me.”
“Let’s just eat,” you said.
“No. Feed me.”
You stared at him for a while and said, “I am not eating anymore.”
“Thank God,” he said, “I will eat everything.”
He put the plate on his lap and continued to eat.
You sighed and drew nearer the candle and tried to read. Now that you were sure he should go, what could you do? What could you have done earlier?
“So, have you had sex before?” he asked, still eating.
You looked up from the book and glared at him.
“What kind of question is that?”
“A very simple question. Yes or no.”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Must there be a reason?”
“Then there is no need to know.”
“Okay, do you have a boyfriend?”
“I won’t tell you.”
“I know you don’t.”
“If you know, then why did you ask?”
You returned to your book. He asked you to put out the candle. You eyed him and said, “No”, louder than you intended. You were being antagonistic without a cause, you thought. You were like that, dissenting without reason, like Mama had said at that Ladies Meeting when you opposed her idea that ladies were uniform attire for the fellowship’s fourth year anniversary. The red linen material she suggested would cost five thousand naira each, which, as you had pointed out, was the monthly allowance of many. Yours was fifteen thousand naira.
It turned out you were alone in your objection. The argument that had prolonged the meeting was not over the cost of the material but the choice of linen over taffeta, over satin, over gabardine, over ankara; and why red and not maroon, or burgundy, or pink, or fuchsia. The triviality of the deliberation annoyed you.
On the day of the anniversary, 25th August, you had come wearing a maroon silk gown and sat at the back row of the Old Lecture Theatre, watching as the people you tried to save from penury arrived in different styles of red, linen gowns, with complementing shoes and purses. The subservient lot, you had muttered, how they love to be led, to be prodded in a direction.
In a world not insistent on specifications, you, too, were in red. What was maroon but a darkened red? Your particular shade wasn’t even very dark. It was bright enough to be red.
In your semi-compliant attire you had sat watching the dance, musical, and drama presentations. You did not participate in any event. Even when Mama had proposed you present a poem in praise of women, you had told her you were not a poet. You were too selfish to commit fully. All you wanted was to be allowed to seat and watch, to be a witness.
The rain had stopped and the candlelight was out. You were sitting beside Pastor James, looking into the darkness though seeing nothing. You sat still, pretending not to feel him draw closer. You knew where he was going but wanted to be sure, to wait and see, to be a spectator over yourself, a witness to your own calamity.
He took your hand and you let him hold it. You even smiled when he observed that everything about you was just so small. Though he did not ask, you knew what he wanted, but you doubted your instincts. You wanted to see further, to know how far he would go, what he would really do. He couldn’t have any evil intention. Not likely. You tried to imagine his alternative motive.
He caressed your legs and noted that you were very hairy. You said nothing because you hated to talk. You believed he would know to stop. He continued and you did nothing to stop him. You let thoughts take precedence over action.
It seemed inevitable that he would lean into you and push you onto the mattress and lie on you, his weight bearing down on your chest, leaving you breathless; and that you would be unable to free yourself, however hard you fought, because you were trapped, buried under him. You were talking a lot, telling him to get up, begging him to stop, threatening to shout.
He told you to shut up and behave like a matured woman.
“Seriously,” you said calmly, “get up.”
“Am I hurting you?” he asked.
“Is that what you will tell your husband when you marry?”
You rarely thought of marriage. You didn’t even have a boyfriend. You were 19, technically an adult, but young enough to let him carry on, begging instead of calling for help. He was 26. He was gyrating on top of you, slobbering over you, his cheeks rubbing your face, his stubble pricking, and his manhood grinding your pelvis. You were weak from punching and wriggling to extricate yourself.
You stopped talking and started crying. A while later, after quick successions of banging against you, he pressed himself firmly against you and then collapsed on you.
“I know you won’t tell anybody,” he whispered, and in a minute, he was gone.
You remained in bed, eyes closed, feeling dirty and urinated upon. You wished to turn into a mouse and scurry into a hole.
It was past ten when you launched out into the dark, headed for Inikpi hostel. The path was invisible. You went ahead on the confidence of your daytime knowledge of the unpaved road hemmed by bushes on the right and Eagles Lodge on the left. Some of the rooms in the lodge were illuminated by candlelight.
You took short, calculated steps to avoid the puddles. At this pace it would be midnight before you reach the hostel. Frogs croaked all around. You feared what might jump at you from the bush. A car lumbered by, honking. You stopped and waited for it to pass, telling yourself to fear not. Once, you stepped into a puddle and fetched some mud in your shoe. The road ahead looked scary. After Eagles Lodge was Millionaires Quarters, and for about half a kilometer after there would be no houses but bushes on both sides of the road. You will reach the male hostels first. At all times, Dangana and Isah Ocheja hostels have male students whistling at female passers-by; boys who will walk up to you, tugging at you, demanding your attention. After the male hostels you will get to some lecture theatres, two cafeterias, and then, Inikpi.
Blessing, being the fellowship treasurer, would think you had a financial emergency and had come to borrow some money. You had been reluctant the first time she offered to lend you some money from the fellowship treasury. However, the deal had proven to be without consequence. Whatever the purpose of your visit, you both would end up on her narrow bed on the lower bunk, gossiping about other fellowship members, especially Miracle, or else, talking literature and CGPAs.
As you went you searched for the word to describe your ordeal. You found none. A strange cry from the bush caused you to freeze. You stood, not knowing whether to go forward or backward. The hostel was still far, yet you feared returning to yourself. You feared that alone, you would cry all night and not sleep. But the hostel was far, and it was late. You tried to convince yourself that the situation was not urgent, that you were exaggerating and overreacting, creating a tragic tale out of an innocuous episode. In a month, you thought, you and Blessing would be huddled on her bed, laughing over the event which you would then describe as a pseudo sexual experience.
You were at a crossroad, surrounded by bushes and darkness and the whistling of insects. Your thighs ached from the as yet ineffable encounter. As you lingered over which way to go, you remembered your exams and the books you had to read, then you hurtled back the path you had come.
You lit a candle and read till it burnt out. You lit another candle and read to the last page of the notebook, by which time you had memorised more than was required for the exams. Still, you continued reading, choosing your material randomly, magazines, textbooks, notebooks, burning out more candles.