I: The end, almost.
Seated on the balcony of the house across the street is a man. He is slumped in his chair and has remained unmoving for several hours. The tattered frays of his agbada spreads about his person like an old sailcloth, snapping in the wind. His equally tattered hat is positioned on his head such that you cannot see his face. He has maintained this position for nigh on a day (which is much, much longer than you think).
If you think him dead, then you’ll be wrong; if you think him alive, well . . .
You may find that the skin of his hand is the texture of old wood, the shriveled grains of a tree long exposed to the elements. You may find that the wrinkles on his face are unmoving, the tight curls of his beard a little too solid, the globes of his eyes a little too elliptical. Don’t be alarmed, it is exactly as you think: he is made of wood.
After some five hundred-odd years of roaming the treacherous terrain of the Midworld, his journey has led him here. Now. Sprawled on that balcony as unmoving as a tree.
II: The years before, before.
Jaja’s first memory is of a weeping, wizened face.
“Papa?” He stretches to touch his Papa, and a thin wooden hand appears in his line of vision.
“Oh,” Papa gasps, tears streaming down his cheeks even as he smiles. “Oh, bless the stars!” As Papa sweeps him off the table into a hug, Jaja sees the hem of a dress vanish as the shop door clatters shut. He glimpses the impression of a woman through the dusty shop windows.
This is the first he sees of the woman who gave him life. His mother.
The act of procreation was a deceptively simple thing: Papa carved him from the finest wood, and the woman he calls mother filled him with life.
“Who is she?” Jaja asks Papa several times in the intervening years. It is from Papa he learns her first name: Moremi.
“Yes, my boy,” says Papa, filing the wood that will become the hand of a new toy. Jaja wonders vaguely if that is how he was assembled. He knows that that is how he was assembled.
“I met her at the edge of town, on my way to the forest to . . .” He gazes shiftily at Jaja. “Life had not been very good to me, you see. Once, I had been wealthy, the most renowned toymaker in all the land, but soon people forgot about me, and the shop became as silent as a tomb, quieter still when my wife died. So, I decided to walk into the forest, walk until I could walk no more.
“It was hard to notice her at first, yes, because her skin was the dark of midnight, but her hair, oh . . . it was like light trapped in locks!” His eyes glaze with the sheen of reminiscence. “There was something about her that made me forget my troubles. She said, ‘That is a fine boy you have there, sir.’ And that is when I realized I had been cradling you in the pit of my arm. My wife and I, we never could have children, see. So, I made you for her, the child she could never have. When she died, you were the only thing to remind me of her.
“This woman, she knew why I was going into the forest. She knew what I intended to do. So, she took my hand, and led me back here to the shop where she commanded me to fix you up. I gave you new hinges and oiled the rot of your hand. And she watched me night and day as I worked. And when I screwed on your last finger she wept.”
“She must have seen what a beautiful boy you are,” says Papa, “Weeping, she took you and cradled you to her breast like a newborn babe, singing a song as old as time. When she placed you on the table, you were . . . you.” Papa wipes his eyes. “Moremi, she gave me purpose. She made me want to live again. She gave me you. And she did not even wait for me to thank her.”
The years pass and Jaja doesn’t age. But he doesn’t worry much about it; he knows he’s not an ordinary boy.
Still, boys will be boys and in his free time he makes mischief. With friends from down the street he terrorizes the neighbourhood with the sweet abandon of childhood.
And he watches his friends go gangly, sprouting like beanstalks from childhood and into youth. And they in turn look at him with fresh eyes, the scales of innocence lifted, as they realize that he is different.
They turn on him. With sticks and stones and hurtful words, he is reminded that he is other.
The shop is his refuge: his endless youth is given to toil; to filing wood and oiling hinges, to air-drying wood just right, to wiping it down with vinegar and scrubbing the uneven surfaces with glasspaper, to oiling with beeswax and lacquering for durability.
Papa does not have much, but he cares for him. Jaja knows what it is to love and be loved. And he loves that old man right until the very end.
Jaja stands long at the fresh mound of Papa’s grave, wondering who will love him now that Papa is gone.
That is the moment he decides to find his mother.
That is also the moment he starts to age.
III: The search.
Jaja travels the world in search of his mother.
All he has is a description of her and the vague memory of a song. When he tries to sing it to people, all that comes out is a tortured clack, like the rattling of wooden shutters. He walks farther than he’s ever walked in his life, and then some. He passes through sentient forests and wades through thrashing waters. And when he can wade no more, he boards a passenger ship whose captain is missing a nose.
It is from him he learns of her second name.
“The Midnight Queen,” says the captain when he gives him her description.
“The Midnight Queen?”
“Oh, yah. Das what I call her. She got skin as black as a starless night, hair white as da morning sun.” He chews on his pipe, squinting at the frothing waters. “Very beautiful. Me an’ my old boys, we got attacked by a kraken. Damn beast tore right through da ship till we were all of us screaming for our mothers. It ate my boys, bless em, an’ took a rightful chunk off my face.” He taps at the hole in his face. “I was convinced I was dead. Everything went black. Next thing I know I hear singing an’ da kraken is dropping me all sweet and nicely on da shore. I saw her then, very briefly. Coulda sworn I was hallucinating. But I no forget her since.” Jaja looks in his eyes and thinks he can see something there: kinship. “This be one hundred years ago and I haven’t aged a day since.”
Jaja feels his age in the creak of his wood and the rust of his hinges. He is startled to learn how much time has passed since he set out on his quest.
The world changes around him as the years pass and he remains the only constant. He feels like the axis around which the wheel of time spins. Still he ages, slowly, painfully.
He has long left the realm of men when he hears the sounds: rhythmic pounding sounds coming from deep in the forest. He enters into a clearing with a modest hut, where he finds a young girl laboring over dinner while her mother snoozes in the corner. The sound Jaja heard is the pounding of her pestle into the mortar as she cooks a steaming meal of pounded yam.
“I am looking for a woman,” he says, “you may have seen her.”
“Does she have dark skin, with hair of light?”
“Why, she was here only yesterday,” she says, then pauses. “I think. I am never sure about time in these parts.”
A flicker of hope warms Jaja’s heart. “This woman, what did she do for you?”
“We had eaten our last meal weeks ago, me and my mama, and were waiting for Death to claim us when I heard a voice singing. So, I followed the voice to the glade in the forest where I found the woman. She told me I would always find fresh tubers as long as I lived.”
“Do you know where she went?”
She thinks for a moment. “Yes. She took the road. It leads only to one place: Orisun.”
Jaja thanks her profusely and heads down the road.
The city, Orisun, is filled with ethereal threads of light shimmering in the air: iridescent, like sunlight on the skin of a bubble. The single paved street is flanked by strange houses, stretching as far as he can see. As Jaja makes his way down the street, creatures stare at him through the windows. He understands that these creatures are as old as time itself. He sees people too, many of them children, doing unchildlike things. They look at him with old eyes.
He knows that she is close.
Someone seizes him from behind and Jaja turns to see a young boy with cowries for eyes.
“You’re lost.” It is a simple declaration.
“No,” Jaja says, “I am . . . looking for someone. A woman with dark skin and hair of sunlight.”
This is when he learns her third and final name: “Canti.”
“The singer. The one who gave you life. That is what we call her. Don’t you know never to look for Canti?”
He looks at Jaja like he is stupid, then really looks at him and nods solemnly. “You are already far down this path. What difference does it make? Go to the house at the end of the street. You will see a chair on the balcony. Sit there. Wait.”
Jaja wants to thank him but he is already scuttling down the street.
V: Jaja and Canti.
Here is Canti, the singer. She was, before the dawn of time and will be long after. She sang the world into existence and will sing it into oblivion.
She knew the moment he decided to search for her. She followed him through whispering forests and thrashing waters to dissuade him. She has watched him sit there for a day (which you now know is much longer than you think), hoping he will go, go far away and never seek her again. Hoping he doesn’t set eyes on her a second time.
She opens the door and crosses the street toward him. Jaja sits up at her approach, taking off his hat.
“Mother,” he whispers.
Her heart shatters. She has been called many things; Canti, the Midnight Queen, Moremi, Oluwa. But never “mother”. It is a word that carries the weight of his pain and yearning. It is a word that drips of undying, unparalleled love. It is a word she’s longed to hear ever since she learned to sing.
“You shouldn’t have come.” Her tears betray the swell in her heart. “Twice you can look upon me.”
Jaja rises, the old wood of his body groaning in protest. He reaches out a hand and touches her.
“I am Life, and Death,” she says.
Hasn’t he known this? Hasn’t he suspected from the stiffening of his wood, from the rings that marked his years, and from the rust of his hinges, that he drew closer and closer to Death? But none of that matters because all he wants, all he’s ever wanted, is to feel love if only for one last time.
She presses his head to her breast in a gesture to mirror when she sang him to life.
“Tell me you love me, mother.”
She would tell of all the ways she loves him, explain the endless facets of that word and what they mean. She would tell of the dying notes of her life-song thrumming in his wood, of how in a moment of weakness she sang her desire into him. She would tell of how quickly she fled so he wouldn’t see her, so he would never die. But words are not enough, have never been enough for one like her. So, she gathers him in a hug instead.
“I will sing you a lullaby. My son.” The tears that flow down her cheeks are hot.
“Yes,” Jaja says. Skin dark as night, hair locks of light, this is the last he sees of the woman who gave him life. “I would like that . . . very much.”
The world explodes with her song.
VI: The end.
Standing on the balcony of the house across the street is a tree. It is a magnificent tree with each limb spreading out regally in the directions of the seven worlds. The leaves are tendrils of light hanging from the limbs like curtains of Dawn itself. The powerful roots are firmly entrenched in the earth of the Midworld. The tree has stood for a long time (which is longer than you think) and will stand for even longer.
Upon closer inspection, you may find carved into the trunk the lines of an ancient face, the delightful crinkles of old eyes, the suggestion of lips upturned in a contented smile.
Don’t be alarmed, it is exactly as you think.