From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

To Look Forward

We are the ones who dare, back and forth; our hair whipping over, our hearts full of joy. Our bodies burn bright and clean and crisp, glistening when we reach the sun. A healthy tan has coated our skin, our foreheads drip with sweat, our palms firm and slick. We are: over and over again, up in the air; not known to each other, but known to the sky. Mid-jump, mid-action, mid-reaction, mid-air; always there, on rusted swings, on creaking chains, on hot-sun days, back and forth and over, once again.

• • • •

Mariam has thrown her brown swing bench over the faded blue bars that make the swing set, and she sits higher than us all. Her chains are roped around the bars like a prison, but she swings faster than everyone and her face looks free.

She’s bragged to have swung so far and jumped so high that she’s gone off her seat and into the sun. Inside the sun, she was coated thick with an iridescence that didn’t allow her to burn—what you get from transcending time and talent and skill. Mariam didn’t burn, she glistened, feeling around the ball of flames before she broke out into a dance. Her internal clock was ticking, and she knew it would not be long before her luminance faded and she would be nothing—no time, no talent, no skill, so therefore burnt to a crisp. She knew she had to savor her few minutes in the sun, stepping over the bones of swingers like her who’d outstayed their minutes, who’d spent too much time.

The sun is a vast amount of golden treasure, a land that never ends, and oh, Mariam wanted to see it all. She wanted to stick her fingerprints into the core that is as soft as a calm heart’s beating and sharp as hard, well-steeped tea. She wanted to spin around sunspots, daring the whips of danger from flares and ultraviolet rays that came her way. But no time, no time, and only when she felt the heat did Mariam’s eyes widen, and so she dove down right back to earth, iridescence almost out, imagination still free.

Mariam tells us her stories. She looks older now that she’s been to the sun, more experienced. She looks freer, too free, eyes not on earth but on what lies over and what lies under. It’s clear she wants to live in the sun: in her every breath, by her heart’s beating. By that look in her eye, you would know.

She takes her brothers to our park in Ring Road, our spot at the back of school, where swings lie. Her brothers are small and thin, with eyes glued to their phones and not to the sky. Her brothers are: six, mean, pulling my hair, biting my skin.

Mariam’s brothers hate the swing. They go too far and crash and burn and I laugh at them for failing, but then they all look at me. The whole family—balls, I know Mariam must be cross with me, but I just couldn’t help myself. Her brothers suck. They should fail. They did, and immediately after they start crying. Snot runs down their noses and their knees are bruised and Mariam makes them not snitch to her overprotective mother by downloading a new puzzle game on their phones. Mariam does it all. Mariam has reached the sun.

Her brothers will never follow her to the sun—Mariam tells me, at her home, when she’s put the twins in their rooms and we’re riding our bikes. My bike is a hot pink BMX and hers is frail and blue, always shaking like a chihuahua. Our bikes will never be swings, will never be: as easy as back and forth to us, over and over again, towards the sun, but still—we like the exhilaration once more, hearts pounding, full of thrill, palms firm but slick.

She says it with a sadness, that to the sun will she go alone, not with her family, her loves. Mariam must sever all her ties with earth, never call and go the distance. Mariam is swinging towards a destination, a future figured out, all while I can’t even answer my mother when she holds the Senior school form that asks: science or social science, science or art, one or the other, but ultimately science or social science. And then there’s art, but I could never do that, because ultimately those are for people with wind between their fingers and stories that are special.

Sometimes, I think Mariam has forgotten about me in her adventures. I wonder to myself if I am just her soap dispenser, her coat rack, her hand towel. Good for use, in this case; then, when unneeded, forever in a state of disuse.

• • • •

“Science or art or social science?” My mother asked me for the first time a month ago, suddenly, when I entered the car. It was after I’d just finished swinging at our school’s playground and I felt so out of place. It was just after a bad French revision class at school and after accidentally tripping on the broken staircase near art class, falling to the ground, which made everyone notice me. It was after my friends told me stories of their adventures while we were all on swings and I had none of my own to tell and no legacies to keep. My mother waited for an answer, and in response, my iridescence died. Small as it was, it went away for the moment, and I was left with only the cold that comes right after a rain.

“Well?” She asked, looking at me from the driver’s seat while fear filled within me.

It was too soon and too great an ask. I’d been ignoring the signs of Junior school graduation all this time, but now my mother had brought it to the surface. She’d brought the glaring question to light. Science or art or social science? I can imagine myself in all of these worlds. I pass all the classes, I ace all their subjects, I know them all. Science: where I can join Mariam and Funke in their knowledge, and I can do research and laboratory work, excelling in the knowledge of this world. Social science: where I can pass, and I could begin to understand the economics of the world, the opportunity costs and hard choices. Art: where I can try to join Ebuka in his wildness and creativity, where I can try to listen to the stories of the earth, but what else can it offer me, when I can’t do anything creative or special? These choices: they make my life, my future. What I will learn, where I will go.

How does one decide? How does one even grow up?

I don’t know. I can’t.

• • • •

Ebuka is a grandmaster showman; stunts mid air, kisses to the crowd. Who will watch him do his death-defying sequences at the back of school when he’s supposed to be in class; or at the smallest park on the busiest road?

Nobody. Except us, while we swing still, while Ebuka goes high and throws himself into a pose mid-air, landing crooked but not bad enough to fall. While Ebuka stands on top of a creaking swing, and up and up he goes. His clothes are always stained with dust and dirt and mud and blood, but with that glowing smile of his, you could never tell.

Ebuka has caged his power inside jars and gels; rubbed his talents on his palms and thrown said shine into his hair. His afro runs wild but with a calculated practicality, hairstyles that make all the boys in my set go “ooh” and “ah” where he goes. Ebuka has knelt several times: in the principal’s office, in the auditorium, and in the halls. He has been threatened with suspension for skipping classes, for hair that grows too long. He has been: humiliated, insulted, despised, spat on. They can stay pissed.

His iridescence enters him through his hair, nice and slick, and then all through his body. When he swings and laughs and dares all with his radiant hair, his brightness can’t contain him and so he explodes into pieces. He’s gore then dust then light, like the sun, and then Ebuka travels. His arms have gone to the north, legs to the south, teeth to the west. The dust that is his arms has waved to us from Antarctica, like a holiday postcard, and his teeth dust have bitten into doughnuts in America. When his power fades, all his dust properties collect together, as if gathered into a pile by a broom, as though pulled like iron to a magnet, and he becomes a whole Ebuka again.

Ebuka says swinging is not the endgame, just the practice stage. He has eyes on acrobatics, the Olympics, the dance halls of the century, while his father has eyes on Ebuka becoming the CEO of Ginta Corporation, all in due time. I have visited Ebuka’s sleek yellow house and big fertile compound and heard the strain in Ebuka’s and his father’s voices when they both discuss the future at the dining room table. They have different dreams, clashing perspectives.

One day, Ebuka will swing and we will not know he has made an agreement with the wind. He will jump off the set and tumble once more and collect into dust. He will gain an ocean’s worth of iridescence, like he plans to do already, and he will begin to explode at will. He will join a circus, or a stadium, or a symposium, and he will dance his heart away. Whether I will see him again is completely up to him.

If Ebuka goes away, I am not sure how many will miss him. His father will begin to prep Felicity, his sister, to take over Ginta Corporation, all the way in Abuja. His father will talk about how Ebuka was just a pipe dream, that with those awful grades of his he could never take over, and now that the boy is gone the smoke can clear from his eyes. A teacher will shout of Ebuka as a “troublemaker!” in Maths class many days after, and they will give a long speech about how the boy destroyed his own destiny with his decisions, career choices, carried away his own future. They will say Ebuka has run off with cultists, and he will be found in the market with a tire on his head someday. They will tell me that I should rejoice that he has disappeared before his influence could reach me: good girl, marvelous student, best in everything but still not sure if she’s science or social science, art or science.

I will, undoubtedly, crush my pencil in frustration when I hear all of this.

• • • •

“Science or art or social science?” My mother asked me again two weeks ago, when I was laughing in my room and listening to rock music on my headphones. When I was feeling free and airy for the first time, and I had done well on my English Junior WAEC exam, feeling light and comfortable without the weight of hard choices. She burst in with that form and my iridescence faded almost immediately. My stomach crumbled, and my face sighed, and soon enough I was back to feeling helpless and confused.

“I’m not sure,” I confessed, and my mother looked at me like she didn’t know what the word meant. Not sure? How could I be not sure when my friends were so passionate and decisive and bright? How could I be not sure when my friends wanted to be engineers and astronomers and botanists and businessmen (because she only listened to Ebuka’s father, and not the light in his eyes when he exploded and danced)—how could I, of all people, be not sure?

She’d met the group. She knew their “stories”. My mother told me that my story, too, would be something great, that I too would have roaring adventures and mass legacies to keep, if I decided on the right career and the right option and the right choice. So: she said once again—science or social science, art or science, and I could only shake my head, and beg her for more time.

• • • •

There was a day when I swung alone. When Ebuka was at dance practice and Mariam and Funke went to the library, and I was by myself, doing nothing, which made my chest hurt. And alone, the only thing I could listen to was silence, and the world looked weary and weighted, pained and full of decisions that I just couldn’t make.

Our friendship exists entirely in transitionary periods; in waiting for our dreams. In waiting for our escape. In trying to decide. I am the only one plagued entirely by indecision—no dreams, no discussions, no futures at my fingertips. Our friendship exists in me escaping from myself by retreating into my comfort zone, where decisions can’t hurt me, where my childhood won’t slip out from under me. Where I can stay and no one will notice me because I have no stories and I’m not special.

My iridescence stills my confusion for a while and clouds my head and fills me with my joy. I have to swing, move just enough not to fall because if I stop, the world will crash upon me. And then I’ll be left wondering: Where do I fit in other than listening? Where are my dreams; what are my goals? Where do I lie; where will I go?

And as graduation comes, when will I know?

• • • •

Funke is not always with us, and she is not in our school. She is in the park, swinging still, not trying to go high but just creaking low enough that you can’t even tell when she’s begun moving. She has one earring in her ear and she speaks in whispers, in too-often abashed tongues.

In her school, Funke is invisible. She has never gotten a report card, a score back on her tests, an invitation to a party, a text from a friend. She has felt through her skin and through her hair and she is sure she’s not a ghost. Not when her heart beats and the sun burns bright and crisp on her skin. Who is she? What’s her story?

What she’s told me has been in whispers, has been low but sharp. She has been told that she is nothing by her aunts when she broke a plate; nonexistent, a mistake. She has been bullied, hair pulled out, bitten at the skin. She has been through it, over and over, once again: called a waste of money, a waste of time.

Funke has broken down at every simple conversation, down payments of please forgive me rushing out her mouth. She has broken a plate once more and gone outside to fetch a shovel, as if to dig her grave. She has hidden in her cupboards so ants can crawl over her, so she can feel real.

I have tried to push her on the swing, but all she does is fall. Is fall. Is fall, but she gets up again. Her strength is in her muscles, in being able to get back up; in being here. We have tried to make her swing high, to make her see the sun, to make her evaporate in the air, but that is not her goal. Her back and forth is that she is alive, and in the wind.

She hasn’t told me what she wants to be, what she wants to do, where she wants to go, but she never seems unsure. I hear the creaking of the swing in her silence, followed by the whispers in her voice. I used to fear that she wasn’t dreaming, that she wasn’t free, that she was bound by all the pain. I used to hope that if she didn’t know her future, then she and I would be the same, and I wouldn’t be alone, but that wasn’t the case. I tried to listen to what she says, the plans she journals in her sketchbook, but I know now that those are not my words to see or hear. I like to think now that she keeps her power in her voice, then she speaks low, and then a shower of drizzle comes down and the earth rumbles. It always rains when she’s here: wet and clean and warm. The rain gets more ambitious each time: with thunder roaring, the soil bellowing. When it pours, she closes her eyes, smiles, and stretches out her hands, like she’s gone to a different place. She is not here in spirit, her imagination somewhere else. She has swung just enough for her luminance to grant her mind freedom to travel, and very rarely does she come back to the present, live in this moment.

I think her iridescence goes low and travels through her voice and goes down to her feet and out through her soles and into the earth, where it glows in response, joyful in radiance, filling the soil with fertilization. She throws seeds into the ground every month, like a person feeding breadcrumbs to birds, and days later plants spring up like little magical things. I think she has her own strength, and skill, and light, but I don’t think it’s one to tell. Her disassociation is different. I think her swinging can be what it wants to be, so I will push her no more. I will just be here.

I sit next to her, and under my breath, I say to myself: science or social science, art or science. Over my head, I look to the sun, then to the sky, and in my indecision, the whole world around me seems to shrug.

• • • •

“Science or art or social science?” My mum came into my room a day ago, suddenly and with force, like the fore-bearer of bad news. It was just after such a long day of helping Ebuka film dance videos and talk through his future plans and all I wanted to do next was sleep.

“Can we talk about this tomorrow?” I asked, and she hesitated. I fell into my bed, but she stayed ominously by the door, her hands clutching that form. That form. That life-changing form.

“Graduation is coming, I hope you know,” she said, matter of fact, and I nodded slowly. We both looked at each other, as if processing what that information meant to each other’s lives, as though she was trying to determine what type of daughter I would be, based on my choice of career, my lustrous future, her promising retirement from my success. I looked at her, and her expectations of me added to the growing weight of my anxiety, my discomfort and indecision, and I sighed in relief as my mother gave off a long angry grunt and stormed out the door.

• • • •

I like the way the wind catches me when I swing, nonexistent hands that almost position me so that I may never fall. On hot-sun days, most of my time with these people is spent in silence, until one person speaks. When one person talks, we listen, then we fall in line. Back and forth is how my mind goes, is how our minds go, here and somewhere else. I have not seen the clear image of where exactly I’m supposed to be; I could be anywhere, but my parents say that everywhere is nowhere, and I need a specific place.

I don’t think I could swing faster than my current pace: I’ve been moving at this speed since I was six. I’ve never gone too high, because my mother said going high is for hooligans, never gone too far, because my mother said being a magician was of the devil, never tried height and speed all together. I’ve been comfortable, too comfortable, and my iridescence has been just enough to heat me up during the harmattan season, to fill me with more joy than anxiety, more light than darkness. My iridescence has just been enough to let me avoid the future than dream bigger, to see the sun, to do better.

Is this enough?

• • • •

Graduation day was today, all around the school, and on the car ride there my mother swerved in and out of traffic like she was dancing with death. The rush of drivers and hawkers and danfos on a hot Saturday in mid-July overwhelmed me. My time out of Junior school all slapped me at once, rushed towards me in ridiculous, unanswerable questions. Had I spent my freedom well? Always going at the same pace. Always seeing others fly. Listening to others’ stories.

I sat next to my swing buddies and we lounged out in the sun on dirty plastic chairs while the Senior school students rested in cool canopies and fresh wooden seats. The Senior school students were full of tears and we Juniors were playing games, cracking jokes, bound to see each other again.

Our graduation was rushed and trivialized, done fast and quick to make way for Senior students. But I won awards. I won prizes the way rainfall falls onto my fingertips: constantly dripping into my hand, before spilling out to the floor. Best student, in Agric, in English, in Mathematics, in Business Studies. The attention unnerved me. Cameras flashed around me that I tried to avoid, then sweaty cameramen were even quicker to throw me their bill and ask my mother to pay. My sister’s physics teacher said she hoped to see me in science, and I gave a vague answer. My brother’s old accounts teacher asked if he would see me in social science and I just shrugged. The literature teacher told me I would be a valuable asset and I felt a lump in my throat.

When my mother asked for my class decision in the car, I begged her to wait for tomorrow, and my mother locked the doors and screamed at me all the drive home.

• • • •

We are the ones misunderstood, pushed away, broken, bound to go to another place. The ones still pushing: back and forth and over; our hairs flipping, our hearts conflicted. The whole world has shown itself and more, and yet, we are still on rusted benches, on creaking chains, on hot-sun days, palms slick with luminance but firm, still swinging once again.

Two hours and thirty minutes later, after graduation, at home without light, I biked my way to the park. The gang all had the same idea, and I saw them swinging in their graduation gowns. Funke is different from us today because her outfit is white and red while ours is blue and black.

I wonder if we will still be here, swinging once again, in the next three years to come. I fear I will freeze up with college decisions: go abroad, stay home; and then I will never make a decision again. I fear that my friends will pick up and leave once more, forever, and without their lives and their stories, I will be forever in a state of disuse. I fear the future. I don’t want tomorrow.

“Science or art or social science?” I ask, at the same pace. I want to be sure of my friends’ decisions.

“Science. I want to do astronomy,” Mariam says.

“Art. I might do a business class but—art,” Ebuka replies.

“Science. Botany,” Funke whispers.

“All figured out, huh?” I say to myself, and for the first time ever, my pace slows.

“What should we do this vacation?” I ask, mostly to distract myself.

“Us? I want to start off this holiday in a big way,” Mariam speaks and others nod, her voice fast over the wind building up around her as she goes higher and higher. “This is the start of such a new thing, and we just have three more years to go. It’s time to fly while I still can.”

Before I can even say anything, object to their plans that exclude me, they’ve already begun moving. Mariam has been building up her iridescence for a month and now swings into the sun again. She lifts up like the storm when the wind rises, glows around her edges, an outline of perfection. She is the rubber band held in one hand and shot across the room. She is the catapult, flung away till she’s just a speck in the galaxy, a cloud over earth. She is the shade: her outstretched body flying in the direction of the sun, covering us from the heat, giving us warmth, giving us light. She is the boomerang, bound to be back again.

Ebuka has tumbled and separated, disassociated, and he is Ebuka no more. He is: not here, not here, but back again, if there ever existed two planes of existence. He will wave to us from Siberia and smile through white teeth in Fiji, and collect once more to be Ebuka again.

Funke has filled the sky with rain, the ground tumbling, a plant growing. She, too, is here no more, and even if I snapped my fingers I wouldn’t reach her. When the rain stops, I may say hello to her in this reality, and she may whisper in response, swinging low to build up luminance once again. I sit next to her while rain goes down on my legs and into my eyes and into my hands, like water to drink, then out again.

All together, Mariam’s sun shines brighter, glorious and beautiful. Ebuka’s wind dances with leaves and dust and dandelions, whipping close to me. Funke’s rain falls around me: wet and clean and warm, like I am being washed away. All together, as one, as nature unknown to each other, my friends have made the world something beautiful, magic: the place I want to live in, love in, cry in. My friends—together, creating something amazing, but without me. I am left alone. I am left to wonder, to watch, to listen, to look up.

But is that such a bad thing?

Where do I fit in? What is the nature of my iridescence: where does it lie, where does it go? Where do I break?

And I think I’ve always known all along where I’m meant to be.

I am at my current pace, still, though I almost feel slower, like the wind is stopping me. I feel alone, that I will sit here forever in all my indecisions and non-adventures; that I will become a statue of lost time and old years, because of what I’ve heard from my teachers, because of what I’ve been told by my mother, because of what is expected of me. Is this enough? My power still glows, small as it is, but—am I doing this right? Is this how I want to live my life, just stuck?

I bite my teeth and press my legs together, all through the rain. I pray and pray and pray in my head and hold on tighter to the rusted chain. I shift the weight my butt has made in the swing bench and feel so very different. Then I push myself all the way back, then move forward.

I fall, tumbling, face first into land, bruising my knee. I curse under my breath. Then I get back up again, and back onto the swing.

I lift myself, my legs, my breath, then charge into the sky. My heart beats faster when the wind breaks and I am out of my current pace, out of my comfort zone. I feel a thrill once again, something I’ve heard in stories but never for myself.

My iridescence glows so bright I fear that I will catch aflame. I fear that I will never stop shining and everyone will notice me and I’ll go too far out my comfort zone, which will make my mother shout at me, but maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s a good thing to steal the spotlight, like my friends do. Maybe it’s a good thing to go out of my comfort zone, to swing a different way, to shine. Maybe it’s my time, now. Maybe. My graduation hat sweeps off into the air and I am launched into the sky, burned into the wind.

I go higher than I ever thought possible and I choose what I’ve always known: art and my swing finally breaks under me. My iridescence can’t hold me. Art: because there’s nothing wrong with my role as a listener, and I can still have power, and I can still have a voice. Art: because the world is still a blank canvas for my own stories to tell, my own legacies to keep, now that I’m freed from the comfort holding me. Art: for the histories of me and others and you, and the literature of stories. Art: because even though my mother will rage, even though she will cry and ask me why and come knocking on my door and come begging for a reasonable decision, for a story that she likes, this is what I want. This what I desire. This is what I need to do: to listen to the word of others, to build off it, to build stories.

My iridescence leaves me breathless, and I don’t know where to go. Where am I supposed to be, now that I’ve realized what I want to do? I still don’t know so much, like where I will fly off to after secondary school, or what my summer will be like without my friends. So I just fall to the floor, graduation gown caked with mud, and then I just lie there awhile, staring at the sky. I see Mariam wave at me from the sun. I wave back.

But I don’t need to make all my decisions now. I don’t need to become a statue of old time and lost years based on all the world needs from me. On the floor, and in the rain, I am here, in this moment, and I could never be anywhere else. On this earth, in this city, in this place. Where my iridescence lies, where my indecision breaks. I don’t need an escape. Back and forth, over and through it, once again, this is where I need to be.

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Osahon Ize-Iyamu

Osahon Ize-Iyamu is a Nigerian writer of speculative fiction. He is a graduate of the Alpha Young Writers Workshop and is a current attendee of the IWP Summer Institute pre-program. He has been published (or has work forthcoming) in magazines such as Clarkesworld, The Dark, FIYAH, and Strange Horizons. You can find him online @osahon4545.