What We Cannot Know

by Iheoma Nwachukwu

When this story returns to me, this is how my memory opens - like a wound. In Enugu, after I told my story to two traders outside Achina village, a powerful Achina herbalist warned villagers to stop fetching water from Otalu stream; and to this day only white men with heavy cameras visit the stream.

It was not the dustiest February. Men did not go about looking like they had brown powder on beards and eyelashes. That day I went to the stream as soon as I arrived to Ubahi. The bicycle ride was a thigh-cramping distance from Akpodim village, where I attended school and lived with my mother’s elder brother. I could no longer attend the school in Ubahi, since I had been finally expelled for breaking a prefect’s head.

Days before I went to Ubahi, my friend Eugene told me that mermaids had invaded the stream in my village. We called him Sir Evil. Eugene and I had stolen cassava from the principal’s farm three times in the last term. We sat on someone’s desk watching football during break.

“Friend, mermaids have crammed your village stream,” he said, giggling. He had projecting front teeth which he tried to hide by shading his lips.

“It is so,” I answered, not believing him. I had visited home at Christmas: no such news. I twisted my lips, nodded mockingly and looked away. “GOAAAAALLL!!” somebody shouted. Then the cry burst from a hundred throats.

Students clapped and shook their fists in celebration. Eugene spoke of other things as soon as we could hear each other: Some acid he needed, the virgin we raped in Oputa’s farm, the climbing holes we would make in the school fence. When we ran out of things to say I asked him if he was serious about the mermaids.

“The truth, Ubah!” he swore, biting his index finger and jabbing it at the sky. “My mother told me. Your people have even stopped going to the stream.”

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