Taiye Selasi Begin, inevitably, with Uncle. There you are, eleven, alone in the study in the dark in a cool pool of moonlight at the window. The party is in full swing on the back lawn outside. Half of Accra must be out there. Some fifty-odd tables dressed in white linen table skirts, the walls at the periphery all covered in lights, the swimming pool glittering with tea lights in bowls bobbing lightly on the surface of the water, glowing green.
The smells of things — night-damp earth, open grill, frangipani trees, citronella — seep in through the window, slightly cracked.
You tap the glass lightly and wave your hand, testing, but no one looks up. It rained around four for five minutes and not longer; now the sky is rich black for its cleansing. Beneath it a soukous band shows off the latest from Congo, the lead singer wailing in French and Lingala. She ought to be ridiculous: Instead, wet with sweat and moon, trembling, ascendant, all movement and muscle, she is fearsome.
It is a heart-wrenching voice, cutting straight through the din of the chatter, forced laughter, clinked glasses, the crickets. She is shaking her shoulders, hips, braided extensions. She has the most genuine intentions of any woman out there. Their bright bubas adorn the large garden like odd brilliant bulbs that bloom only at night. From the dark of the study you watch with the interest of a scientist observing a species.
Rich African women, like Japanese geisha in wax-batik geles, their skin bleached too light. They are strange to you, strange to the landscape, the dark, with the same polished skill-set of rich women worldwide: You wonder if they find themselves beautiful, or powerful?
Or perplexing, as they seem to you, watching from here? She trained in the States. How is your son? They all wear the same one impenetrable expression: It is a difficult expression to pull off successfully, the long-suffering look of women bored with being looked at. The girls in the garden look more startled than self-satisfied, as if their features are shocked to be forming this face.
They belong on the cake trays: You can barely manage movement in the big one-piece buba you borrowed from Comfort, your cousin, under duress. The off-the-shoulder neckline keeps slipping to your elbow, exposing your troublingly flat chest. The dry quiet a sharp sudden contrast to the wet of the heat and the racket outside.
And as sharply and as suddenly, the consciousness of nakedness. Your bare breastless chest. This was moments ago nakedness as you lay, having fallen, the conditioned air chilly and silky against your chest. The outermost boundaries of a body, the endpoints, where the land of warm skin meets the sea of cold air. You lay on your back in the dark on the floor, like that, newly aware of your nipples.
You listened for a moment, as if to a message, then kicked off the sandals and stood to your feet. You went to the window and looked at the singer, in flight on the stage, to the high note.
You think of the houseboys with their lawn chairs in an oval reading Othello in thick accents, Uncle watching with pride. From this time forth I never will speak word. With the thing come together, the pattern emerging, the lines, circles, secrets, lies, hurts, back to this, here, the study, where else, given the fabric, the pattern, the stars. II From the start. The day began typically: In it, your mother is bidding you farewell at the airport. This first part is exactly what happened that day.
You are eight years old, skinny, in the blue gingham dress with a red satin bow in your braids and brown shoes. Uncle is in the terminal presumably buying your tickets. You are waiting with your mother on the sidewalk outside. She is crouching beside you with her hand on your shoulder, a wild throng of people jostling around and against you. Her fingernails are painted a hot crimson red. You are noticing this. Blood on your shoulder. Meanwhile, a stranger with a camera is trying to take a picture.
A smallish human being by the side of a larger one, both with neat braids with small beads at the ends; both slim well, one skinny with dark knobbly kneecaps; one never without lipstick, the other never allowed.
In the dream, as it happened, you ignore the photographer. Finally you look up in the hope of some silence. You consider, but frown. Your mother pulls you close to her, so close you can taste her, the scent of her lotion delicious, a lie.
A chalky taste, heavy and soapy as wax. You suck it in greedily. Her braids are tied back with an indigo scarf, the tail of which billows up, covering her face. The scarf is tied tightly, pulling her skin towards her temples, making her cheekbones jut out like a carved Oyo mask. The red on her lips contrasts the indigo perfectly, as the man who bought the scarf would have no doubt foreseen.
Not for the first time you think that your mother is the most beautiful woman in Lagos. At this moment, here beside you, your mother is unquestionable. In the liminal space between dreaming and waking into which enters shouting, about this or about that you started to scream but the feel of the sound taking form in your throat woke you fully.
You wet the bed. Now the terror passed over, with the cold in your fingers, the echo of POP! You fumbled for the photo you keep under your pillow as an antidote of sorts to the dream or the waking: The wildness of Lagos is an odd, knee-high backdrop: But when you look at it now you see only your mother.
The scarf blowing forward and hiding her face. No one has heard from her since. Not for a minute do you believe what they say. They are villagers, cruel like your grandmother. As told to you: Dzifa missing mother was born eight years after Uncle in Lolito, a village on the Volta. Their father, a fisherman, was drowned in the river the day after Dzifa was born. Their mother, your grandmother, for obvious reasons decided her daughter was cursed.
Uncle, unconvinced, worshipped and adored his little sister and the two were inseparable growing up. Dzifa was beautiful, preternaturally so, shining star of the little Lolito schoolhouse. But your grandmother, believer in boys-only education and a product of the same, withdrew her daughter from school. Your mother, infuriated, ran away from Lolito and hitchhiked her way to Nigeria.
In the same years Uncle won the scholarship to study in Detroit and left Ghana, himself, for a time. An alto saxophonist in an Afro-funk band, he left when he learned she was pregnant. You were living at the time in a thirteenth-floor hotel room, free of charge, care of the hotel proprietor. His name was Sinclair. This may have been his surname; you were never really sure. He was ginger-haired, Scottish, born in Glasgow, raised in Jos, son of tin miners-cum-missionaries, tall and loud, freckled, fat.
He was stingy with his mangoes, barking at the kitchen staff in the morning to use more orange slices and pineapple cubes in the breakfast buffet.
His face blazed an unnatural pink when he shouted, like the colour of his hair, or his skin after visits. You were shocked when you moved here to find mangoes more perfect growing freely on the tree in the garden. The sounds of the highway, of Lagos at night. There were no guests or hotel staff at the pool after midnight.
No sweating waiters in suits with mixed drinks on silver trays. No thin women in swimsuits, their skin seared to crimson, their offspring peeing greenly in the water. Still now there is something about those nights that you miss; maybe the promise of your mother in the morning?
On the night Uncle found her she was circling the lounge like the liquor fairy, topping up vodka and Scotch. You were behind the bar reading Beezus and Ramona, recently abandoned by some American. It was a Friday, you remember: Then abruptly, glass smashing, a comparative silence, the extraction of human voice from the ongoing din.