Now I’m thinking of the time my father worked in the horse stables for Tom Wilson. This was after the coal mines had shut down for good, and at 40 years old, after spending most of his adult life underground, he now found himself adrift. I was just 13 then, and while I was certainly old enough to understand the strain the loss of his union job put on our family, my parents did what they could to shield me from the realities that lay ahead.
When you arrive at Umuahia by 10pm to visit your cousins for the Christmas holiday, because their house is closer to your school than your parents’ house in Lagos, you will pass by the tall square-shaped tower with a sign at its peak on all four sides proclaiming “Welcome to God’s own state.” When you get to the bus park, do not attempt to leave without calling your cousin to pick you up in his black, battered catering van. If you do, you will wander in the dark night, pulling your noisy roller bag behind you, looking for your cousin’s house in Amuzukwu. You will wonder again for the umpteenth time why the capital of Abia state does not have functioning street lights, and the rationale behind the governor ordering transport companies not to move about after 9pm for security reasons. You will ask questions of two people in white cherubim and seraphim robes sitting in front of a church and you will be directed to the wrong place. Then you will give up and walk to the only landmark you know—Shoprite. You will call your cousin with your phone battery on 4%, fervently hoping you are not robbed before he gets there. You would be disillusioned by this experience if your mind hadn’t already given your past experiences the surreal quality of a fairy tale since the two times you were here as a child.
Everyone wears white here. Girls with white dogs in their arms rush towards the water. Women smear white ointments across the backs of their knees. Swimmers crouch over white caps.
Friends have gathered halfway up the beach, my father’s friends. Beside him sits a woman who was once so beautiful she was named the Rag Queen and transported on a float through the city. They crowd together under the Pohutukawa trees, the family and the extended family visiting from Europe. She waves to me. From across the sand I hear my father say “water lilies”…
Like an orgy—or a fight. Legs collide with legs; strangers struggle around each other, into each other. A collective gasp clutches them all together. One, shirtless, leads the ball down the field, stumbles, and loses control of it. Now the ball leads him and leads his opponent into him. The two collide without a sound, the crash dampened by their flesh. Everybody stops to watch them battle for the ball. When it spills free, the first man gains control and rolls it across an invisible line between two heaps of t-shirts. Half the players cry in ecstasy. Half sigh in frustration. For a few seconds before this, nobody breathed at all.
In mid-May 1999, alone on my last morning in the Annapurna Sanctuary, I tramped along the moraine below Annapurna Base Camp. The sun reflected off Machapuchare, the distinctive fish tail peak, at the bottom of the valley. Tharpu Chuli flanked me on the left, its 6000 meter crown glistening with fresh snow. No clouds covered Annapurna’s summits behind me or obscured the immense sky. The trail meandered from 13,500 feet to 12,000 feet. The low-oxygen air, like a drug, rendered the sapphire sky in vivid contrast to the silver cliffs, the white snow, and the wild crocuses that burst from south-facing patches in happy pink dots.
When I’m back in the city and on the subway, I tend to look at my book or at my feet and the feet of other people. I note the different kinds of shoes, their colors and states of wear.
Today is December 23, so there are shopping bags by all the shoes, held fast between lower legs and sometimes kicked out of the way of people coming and going. Bags filled with brown boxes and shoe boxes and stacks of folded clothes.
I’m sitting down, and a man stands above me with his back to me. Under his left arm is a cardboard box that says 6H on the side in thick permanent marker. He never turns around, and I never see him, but I know that he lives in 6H.
When I heard ancient Iranians worshipped Mithra in subterranean caverns, my first reaction was: why would anyone worship Mithra in total darkness? Mithra, the god of heavenly light, who goes over the earth, all her breadth over, after the setting of the sun, touches both ends of this wide, round earth, whose ends lie afar, and surveys everything that is between the earth and the heavens. In Mithraic belief, the God Mithra slays a bull to move the world and enlighten it with love. Followers pray and purify their souls in order to ascend to their heavenly place of origin.