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April 9, 2020 | Rome, Italy

The Outsider

By | 2020-01-30T14:36:00+01:00 January 14th, 2020|"Short Fiction"|
"My grandmother's black cat … feral and domesticated – with the freedom to roam…"

The sight of a train brings memories. Memories I never imagined lived there. Memories about the stories my mother told me. Stories about my grandfather’s travel on that long train ride to the coal mine. A journey that started from one end of the city to another. A place where all the young men left home to live and work, and also power the machinery of western civilization. A city with coal buried underneath. She grew up there, in Enugu City. She said it burned red at night with thick dark clouds hovering over the city. She said men sat at the market square, dusting soot off their helmets, and boots, and bare bodies that were oily and reflected light. Bodies worked in coal mines. Sometimes without shirts or helmet, just gloves, short pants, and shovels. Stories about men that died lifting coal from underneath the earth and through tunnels held together by weak scaffolds. Stories about men who labored for almost nothing. Many coughed themselves to death at home or in that tunnel. Many were buried alive while shoveling through the earth’s core.

I wasn’t on my way to a coal city. I was on my way to a city in a distant civilization where I happened to have found myself. I was away from home. I was in a place that lacked the symphony of roosters in the early mornings. A place without the rise of dew at the fall of dawn. I was on my way to a city in Hungary. A place where people still yearned for the old ways of life that were taken away from them at the end of the Cold War. It was all in their faces – the disgust for whatever became of them. How they silently walked through the train stations and said nothing to nobody and smiled occasionally at each other. If it was in Afor market back in my hometown, I would have been greeted by everyone. But they all walked past me and said nothing. I kept walking, and that might have been the summary of my affairs here – I kept walking.

Our train ran deeper into the countryside. I watched as the railway became a labyrinth that wandered into space and time. In this long unsolvable equation snaking through space, I was left to ponder where I was actually heading to, and when I was actually going to get there. If I was dropped off at any point and asked to journey back home, I wouldn’t be able to do so. Not home in the lower Niger, but home in the new space I found myself – a few kilometers away from the Hungarian border. Friends as strange as the one I’ve met here awaited me at that strange home. The only persistent memory of them I had was seeing them smiling during our welcome party. How strange.

How strange that I wasn’t focused on her anymore. How strange that I wished to shut out everything once I was miles apart from it. How strange. By her, I mean Sally. She was my friend at the Institute. Whenever I was around her, I couldn’t imagine a day without her. But whenever I was away from her, I genuinely forgot her – everything about her. I knew I would forget all of them to preserve myself. I knew I would shut out all memories of them just to preserve my own sanity. What about her sanity? Does she care? Why worry myself over nothing? I sighed and imagined nothing but an empty field with Sally in the middle, smiling like she always did. In my head, she had no face. Just emotions. Kindness and all that good stuff. Sometimes a somber feeling that lets her sit by the wood, alone. In that running train of memory, I skimmed out all the things I learned about beauty and faced my emotions just as they came. Maybe the love that came without a face meant a lot more. After all, we were just friends, I smiled. Does she even know that sometimes I want a lot more?

I was nothing but a small boy in the middle of that forgotten rail track.

The wind was caught in an endless whirling, blowing through my head as we rode down the end of Szombathely and into the next town. Trees carelessly waved goodbye to old cities behind me and welcomed new ones. Life. How meaningful. How the sound from another end of the earth journeys with you to another end. Life. That sound. Standing by a forgotten railway in my home town and nothing but the sound of cars passing by. Broken artilleries. Grass. A stretch of greenery. Birds with strange wings, and I was nothing but a small boy in the middle of that forgotten rail track. Free. Running around however I wanted. I remembered sauntering towards Mama James’s window, recollecting rare memories of my childhood where I was holding a toy. A green plastic horse. I pushed it around our red squared carpet with black lines that hadn’t been changed in years. Some parts were torn apart and some were glued together by my father. That rising thought of linked memories, a memory inside a memory. The only thing strangeness could evoke in me – a memory inside a memory. I leaned on the couch and tried to breathe. I ignored the cat in a basket carried by an elderly woman. Meowing. Cats. Memories. Sounds. Spaces. My grandfather’s big compound sprang in my thoughts. The grandeur of his Saturday posture, sitting in a chair by the wall beside the front door, in an agbada, dressed in full traditional regalia. Smiling. My grandmother’s black cat skidding through the barn and heading towards the window. Feral and domesticated – with the freedom to roam both in the wild and around the house. It jumped through the window and settled itself in front of a mirror. Grandma always knew when it would come back, and kept her milk ready. The cat never let us touch her, only my grandmother did. I once heard one of my aunts call the cat a witch. These memories fading through my head while in motion made me laugh. I chuckled and looked down at the train floor. When I raised my head, a few eyes were turned on me. I did nothing but look away and let their imagination lead them wherever it wanted. We made stops at a couple of stations down the road, and I was still the only black body on the train.

I leaned into myself and tried to forget it all and focus on what was ahead of me. I tried to see the world within and around me. The coach masters walked past me and observed me, strangely. I’ve gotten used to that look. That long pause. That wait. That observation. I sighed and looked out of the window. Lush green grasses covered miles and miles of the scenery. An old church with a beautiful dome and metallic roof. Houses lay behind acres of farmland. The weight of one’s being and existence lagging behind each time the train zoomed past a place. Like several snapshots in a short space of time. Me. Then and before flashed through my mind. Old me. I remembered the church in my village. I remembered the sound of sopranos wailing from the choir gallery. St. Michael’s Parish. St. Michael, the angel that trampled on a demon’s head and crushed it to infinity. A melodious sound from St. Michael’s Parish followed me through my childhood and waltzed into the wilds of Hungary. Here I was, thinking of nothing but the wind, villages, and a choir in my head that was driving me away from consciousness.

When I got off the train and located my friend’s house, there was this sound I would never forget. The sound of the door when I knocked. Three knocks that represented nothing but uncertainty. I wondered if I was at the wrong door, at the wrong time, and worst of all, in a city I barely knew. I felt a mixture of fear and excitement. Everything was new. Everything seemed unfamiliar and I couldn’t find anything to hang onto – like an image. Nothing. I looked out through the pigeonhole on the stairwell and saw only trees as tall as a four-story building. I had come all the way to meet her. I waited for the door to crack open, and at last, it opened. It was her. Just her. Then it dawned on me how strange everything was. It seemed like the strangest place I had ever been to, and will ever be to. There I was looking into her eyes, brown and shimmering gold around it. She hugged me. Her body sank into mine. We held each other for a while. I looked around her living room. She was everything she said she was. An artist. I scanned the artwork hanging in her living room, and it was a reflection of her ordinary madness. A framed image of a lady masturbating on her bed. A framed image of a male freak wearing nothing but rags and torn breeches in eighteenth-century London, and seemed to be cracking nuts with a stone. A framed image of a bottomless well – people gathered around it with enthusiasm on their faces. Shriek. Dawn and night. All in pencil work. Carefully shaded to add emotions to the drawings. I knew that most of them were her work, even though they were different from the ones she showed me on Skype earlier on. I settled myself on a sofa, and my eyes roamed the room, appreciating every bit of it. The energy around her was electrifying.

“Have you ever wondered if Picasso would have been Picasso without Guernica?” she asked.

I asked for a glass of water. Picasso might have been Picasso without Guernica I said to myself.

“Picasso is already Picasso. He has other masterpieces apart from Guernica,” I said. She said nothing about it again and jumped to another topic as if my response didn’t really matter. What mattered was the excitement in her voice.

“Do you think Vincent Van Gogh ever fell in love?” she asked.

“You tell me,” I said, and walked around a bit, “you are the art major here. I am nothing but an enthusiast. First time in your city. First time meeting you in real life, and everything sounds so casual as if we have met before, somewhere. I mean, apart from exchanging messages on Facebook and Skype calls.”

“Don’t be a fool. It’s already what it is. You’ve journeyed hours to relax and express yourself differently from those boring friends and companions of yours across the border,” she said.

She raised a pink curtain and led me into her world.

“If you say so. Well, sounds a little bit like the truth. I just want to be out of that place. I feel like I can’t stay in a place for too long. It’s not really about them, it’s this nomadic feeling inside my head. This need to step out of my comfort at all times. That longing to get lost, look for my way and find it. You know that feeling, right?”

She smiled and walked down to the kitchen for a glass of wine. She came back with two glasses and offered me one. She sat down and still hadn’t told me if she understood what I was feeling. She shifted herself, and the seat made a cracking sound as if she was a big girl. She wasn’t. She couldn’t have weighed over a hundred pounds or something.

“I mean, this is our first-time meeting and it seems as if we’ve met at some point,” She said, responding to my first comment and ignoring my question.

“Our conversation has always been this smooth and natural. Honestly, I have cousins that I don’t even know what to talk about with them. We could spend hours staring at each other. Here we are and everything seems just perfect,” I said.

Her countenance appeared trance-like. It looked as if she was smiling, but her mind was on something else I couldn’t figure out.

I stared at the family photo resting on top of the television, and then, on the television. I never knew people still had such a television. It was the earliest version of a colored television, well maintained and clean. I returned my gaze to the array of photos hanging on the wall behind the television. In one of the photos, she was a little girl with her mum and dad.

“Is that you?” I asked.

“Everyone says that. It’s someone that could have been my sister, she is long gone.”

I walked closer to the photo and stared at it intensely. Not knowing what to say to her. She looked as if she still had memories of her.

“I am sorry to hear this,” I said.

“Don’t be sorry, you didn’t kill her,” she said.

Almost everyone said that to me around here whenever I said I was sorry for things that I didn’t do. But in all honesty, I meant to grieve deeply with her. She stood up from her chair and walked towards me, held my hand and smiled. She kissed me and smiled. I said nothing and smiled. I smiled. Then smiled again. I did nothing but stare blankly at the strangeness that enveloped me.

“My sister. She died even before we could play together. Here is a picture of all of us,” she said and pointed at her in a photo. “She died of rare heart disease. I still remember playing with her right there.” She pointed outside the window, towards the middle of the square. There were kids playing out there too. I wondered what it felt like for her to look out there all the time and see those kids playing. At some point in grief, one grows numb from constant images playing in one’s head and begins to align oneself to nothing, and by that, makes no meaning out of them. Just like out there, the square meant nothing to her more than just “the square”. It was just children playing and no longer her sister. Maybe she doesn’t see it that way. I tried to weigh it in my own mind, and it seemed both surreal and haunting to even think of what I was thinking.

“Your dad?” I asked pointing at him.

“Yes, my dad. He left when I was little. I was raised by my mother. Just the two of us alone in this house. She is dead too, but she is still here with me, every day.”

“Life must be empty from that point and looking out. I can’t imagine what it looks like to lose everyone I care about. And art, how did it start?” I asked wondering how she got into it. It has always been a pleasure for me to meet an artist, any artist. Anyone involved in expressing themselves through one art form or another. I was interested in the core that pushes people to do art, live art, and breathe art. I know that behind every artist, there is something dark, something hidden, and yet within all that, there is an abundance of light. I had that inside of me too and had often expressed it in writing and other ways.

“Art. It came to me naturally. I can’t say there is something in me that triggers it, it’s just there. All those paintings I showed you were mostly done in this room,” she said and walked towards her room.

She asked me to follow her. She raised a pink curtain and led me into her world. On the wall were bizarre paintings I had never seen until that day. It was as if her bedroom rested on Dali’s Dadaism. She painted the entire wall in her bedroom. A Buddha with rays striking out of its face, and branching into all the ends of newspaper cut out from the despicable Nazi era. I swear, that painting could have won an award if showcased in a gallery or something. At the other end of the wall was a psychedelic painting of mother earth as a woman-tree with smoke oozing out of her, and several spectra of light spread around her. Mother earth looked as if she was in a trance-like state. Her bed was perfectly made, and beside it were stacks of magazines and art tools. She walked to the turntable and played Pink Floyd’s wish you were here, and the sound melted into all four corners of the earth.

“Your studio and room?”

“Yes. I created everything in here. Come here,” she asked me to come forward, “look out of that window.” She raised the curtain and I looked out. It was wild and beautiful. A stream flanked by tall trees with brown leaves all over the ground.

In that split second, I found myself back home starring at Nwaorie – the river behind my childhood house. Memories pushed images of my shirtless little-self running towards the river with an empty bucket in my hand. I saw myself scooping water out of the river and there was a golden fish in it. I remembered my sister asking me to put it back. She said we can’t take anything away from the river. I wanted to raise that fish. I wished I had.

“It all makes sense now. Just looking out there, it brought back my own childhood to me,” I said.

“What did you see?”

“Myself running towards the river to fetch water. I try to picture my face each time, but I still can’t. All I see is a figure running towards the water and I know that figure is me,” I said.

“Sit down,” she said.

I sat on the edge of the bed.

“Did you have a violent childhood?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I just know that there are things stored in my memory that I don’t even want to remember. Like my own face,” I said and laughed.

“When you said something about your childhood, I was looking at you. There is a kind of cloud that covered you immediately,” she said.

At the other end of the wall was a psychedelic painting of mother earth as a woman-tree with smoke oozing out of her…

“Don’t freak me out. It wasn’t that bad. Just let it go,” I said.

I felt like someone about to be discovered and hid under those words. Something I didn’t want to talk about. Something that made the world unbearable. Something that I had lived with for a long time and tried to heal from and yet I still couldn’t heal from it. The fact that my subconscious was hiding a certain part of me from me made me cringe with fear. Fear of what I truly was. Fear of what I would never know. I prayed in my head that she doesn’t say a word about it again.

“Alright. You have less than twenty-four hours to spend in this old city, let’s make it count,” she said.

I remembered that I was leaving the next day. I wanted to see what was out there. I changed my shoes and walked into the street with her. We walked towards the stream. The weather was pleasant. Sun was shining on the water surface and everything looked beautiful. Summer was already winding down, and it felt better than having summer itself. The only sound around was that of our feet crushing dried leaves. I took my time to look at her each time she walked ahead of me. She wasn’t as tall as I imagined before meeting her. Words were floating in and out of her head too. Pictures passed across my mind in an endless stream of thoughts. We walked silently towards the river. She had a backpack with supplies in it.

“This city has only seen a handful of black people. Don’t worry when people stare at you. They don’t mean to be hostile or something. It’s just that they don’t see someone like you often.”

Being one of few black people to walk this path, I felt a swirl of strangeness and fear build up inside of me. I had often heard stories about black men that ventured into some part of Russia and never made it out. They hung lifeless from a tree or were beaten to death by some white supremacist squad. This city was still in the strong grip of the Iron Curtain. Their way of life seemed closed and strange. No one passed us as we walked deeper into the wood.

The river was now in front of us. Right at that moment, there was no difference between this riverbank and the one back home. I felt a gentle wind waft through me and brought back those original feelings I had always felt whenever I was by a river. I felt as if a portal to a whole different world opened before me. She brought out a bottle of drink from her backpack, sipped, and handed it to me. I sipped and handed it back to her. She gulped and gave it back to me, and the circle continued.

“This is my whole life. Everything here. I have been coming here since I was born. This is the only place I know so well and will visit even if I am blind,” she said.

“I grew up near a river too. I played a lot in that space. This is what I know. And like the first verse of Sam Cooks, A Change is Gonna Come, I was born by a river… that is my life too. I feel so connected to it,” I said.

“How our lives meet at strange points. Like listening to a song, and it hits home. It summarizes your entire being. How strange. We understand them more than people we love or some shit like that,” she said.

“We are all connected, one way or another. Something resonates within us all that is just there, you know?” I said.

“That makes our life similar. Once one grounds himself within nature, it doesn’t change. You somehow become universal. You somehow tap into that ancient fountain of love and being. The sound of birds and movements over the river surface becomes soothing. Sometimes, it erases all worries and take us back to our true self,” she said.

“I know what you mean. I felt exactly the same way when we walked into the woods,” I said.

“Funny enough, I could have taken you to the museum or the city square to see what goes on there, but I guess you’ve seen enough of all that. This city doesn’t have much. Soon I will be back in Budapest for an exhibition, you can come and visit me there. This place seems like the only real place around here.”

“Honestly, I feel myself here a lot. I feel the weight of my breath and being. It makes a lot more sense to me than any other place I have seen around here so far. This is exactly what I need right now. I don’t feel like going to the museum or anything like that; this place is enough. I feel like sitting right here, laughing, drinking, looking into the wild. That is the art that I want right now.”

“Us?”

“Us,” I answered without knowing why she said that.

I turned and she wasn’t even looking at me. She was starring deep at the horizon. She stared at the shimmering light striking the river surface. We drank more and watched the sun move down the horizon. Soon it became windy and chilly. I put on my jacket and drank a little bit more.

“What do you see down there?” I asked.

“Me, my mother, and my father floating on the river surface. It was a beautiful day and we had fresh fruits aboard. That was the last fun thing I ever did with my dad, and since then, I haven’t set my eyes on him. Sometimes, I imagine what I will say to him when I see him. Tell me about your father?” she asked.

“I rarely talk about him. Honestly, I don’t know how to talk about him. I never felt like I had one. I always saw him as a man living in our house. A good man and a terrible father. Maybe these are some of the things I don’t want to remember,” I said, picked up a pebble, struck the river surface with it, and it rippled.

I was filled with anxiety and I didn’t know where it was coming from. That anger had always been with me since my childhood. That anger evoked by memories of a river just like this. That anger of having seen a man beaten to death. Having walked past a mad woman for several years, and only to find out, one day, that she had died alone in her small makeshift home by the roadside. That anger of having to walk past her dead body until it started decaying and smelling. That anger of having to walk past a smelling dead body for days before it was taken away with maggots in it. I knew that anger very well.

“We may not be different after all. Our world is both broken,” she said.

I wanted to ask her if she really knew what a broken world was like. I wanted to tell her what a broken world was like, but I stopped myself. Her pain may not be similar to mine, but I was sure they were hers and weighed almost the same as mine. I hated to reduce people’s experience or look down on their pain.

“Of late, I often imagine the world as a broken thing. I have this vision of making artworks that won’t last through time. Something that would perish, like decay. I have started working on a few projects like that. I think more in that way of loss, broken things. Things that can’t be mended,” she said.

I understood what she meant by that. I knew that some things can’t be mended no matter how hard we try. I knew that art should last forever, but then to make it not last forever is art too. And it’s radical.

“Art is dead,” I said.

“Why say that?” she asked.

“Look around you. What it used to be about isn’t what it is today. I think capitalism and the need to survive is choking off whatever remained of it. Look around you. I believe that a true artist should create and look beyond barriers erected by the human mind. Like what you are doing, looking beyond profits and trying to do something radical. I wonder how many artists are willing to toe that path today. Not even me,” I said.

“You are a good writer. You’ve written good stuff, though,” she touched my shoulder. “Being an artist should indeed come from the inside. It should be that telepathy with the foremost or primordial part of us. It should keep us in touch with the beginning of everything. Art is dying, but not dead.”

The foremost of us. The beginning of it all. The joint that connects every living thing to the source. My mind wandered off to the beginning. Maybe I was wrong to say that art was dead.

“If not dead, there is something like a slow death coming for it. It’s either capitalism chokes it off or it will choke capitalism off.”

I heard the sound of ruffled dried leaves and looked in that direction. A squirrel jumped from tree to tree.

“This is what I need the most in my life. This is what I missed so much. Right now, it’s like you are filling a certain part of me that I left behind. Talking with someone in a very deep sense of it, and sitting by the river.”

“Do you smoke?” she asked and brought out a rolled joint.

“Yes, I do.”

I puffed a few and waited. Soon, I felt like the clock of my consciousness tick five minutes behind my entire being, and sometimes five minutes ahead. Everything raced away from me, and back to me. It was my immediate duty to drag my consciousness to normalcy. My body vibrated in three dimensions of awkward existence and tense visions. Everything routinely happened around me, inside me, and all in my head. The feeling was out of this world and everything became beautiful in my eyes. She tried to make out with me, but I didn’t want to. I knew she liked me a lot and I felt like it wasn’t fair to do all that and walk away. I couldn’t tell what I was feeling, in fact. I just wanted to chill and nothing more.

When we got back, it was dark and the streets were lit. She let me sleep in her bed and we just cuddled. I dreamt about three men hauling stones at our house in Owerri.

When I woke up, I noticed that the door was open. The smell of coffee filled the apartment. I saw her walk past. I stood up and walked towards her. She had already made breakfast. The sun was setting and its golden rays poured through the red curtain. She smiled at me and we greeted each other. I sat down and had breakfast with her. We mostly smiled and talked about our childhood for a long time. I shared with her the bit I could remember or forced myself to remember. Like walking three miles to school every morning. Things that I saw over six years of walking. Madmen roaming the streets, chasing us occasionally, and eating in their makeshift camps beside the gutter. A dead thief lying on the hospital gate with the head gutted by the bullet from a double-barrel gun. I barely looked and I barely remembered. The river flowing across the bridge. The laughter. Friends. Those that made it out of that city and those that didn’t.

She said a lot about growing up in her town. Her alienation from her own society. The fact that she always felt like she never belonged. The fact that things outside of her natural habitat made more sense to her. We were both outsiders in our own world. We both felt betrayed by our societies. She spoke with so much heaviness even while I took my bath. She stood by the door, smoking and talking. I felt like all her heaviness belonged to me. I tried to imagine each bag that weighed her down and it all seemed like mine too. We laughed sometimes. As if laughter were the antidote to the pain of existence. As if laughter were like inoculating ourselves against the diseases of consciousness and memory. Laughter.

I stood outside the train station at twelve noon and waved a final goodbye to her. We hugged again and wished it would last longer. Nothing that I needed most ever came back again. That talk about art, the temptation of wanting to kiss her but holding back because of something in her eyes, something somber and unforgettable – a pair of eyes I had seen before, somewhere. So kind. So brash.

I watched her through the window as our train slowly trailed its way back to the city, and it struck me that we might never meet again.

About the Author:

Chika Onyenezi
Chika Onyenezi is a Nigerian-born fiction candidate enrolled in the University of Maryland's MFA program. His work has appeared in "Cosmonauts Avenue," "Ninth Letter," "Evergreen Review," and elsewhere. He was a 2019 writer-in-residence at Craigarden. His story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Burrow Press.

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