The Time Traveler
Whatever I did, my pain stuck around. I wanted to sleep, pretend everything was solvable by just closing my eyes, and hopefully when I woke, I would see things clearer. But I couldn’t sleep. I sat up, grabbed a glass of wine that I left on the table, and drank it. I wondered how people solved their problems. Maybe they pretend there isn’t any problem at all, go about their businesses with fresh expectation, listen to crap news, and watch crap shows in the evening. Whatever eased the pain of existence was worth doing, I know.
My pain littered all around me, refusing to evaporate, the stench stuck around my room in the campus residential hall. It was early morning; the sun has risen over Florida, the palms in front of my house were dancing, I don’t know why they were happy. My room was near empty: an armchair, a dining table, and a bed that was too small for me. I stood up and listened; there was silence all around me, apart from the air-condition humming. I was lost in thought as I stared into the day. I stood in front of the mirror in my bathroom; my eyes receded into their sockets, reddish from teary sleep. I watched myself and laughed mysteriously, the sort of laughter you perform when you are lost and without hope. Should I sleep, or face the day? The question dragged me around for hours until I decided to leave the room.
I drove to the campus, pretended I was all fine. The professor waltzed into the class and talked about saving the world. The world was still round, still rotating, still blinking, while I listened. He taught us how to think, think through conflicts, any conflict. I answered no questions when he asked them. My classmates blew his mind, said things about the constellation of peace methods, reframed the word end-time, and replaced it with apocalyptic, which sounded survivable, and man lived happily ever after. Trash. All trash. Before me was a model of the world, and whoever wasn’t buying into the model being prescribed was automatically labeled the outsider. I was the outsider.
I began to draw, hands and feet, a child locked in a garden, lost. She glanced at me, Helen, a pretty middle-aged white woman. The look on her face troubled. I bet she wondered what a-child-drawing buffoon was doing a graduate class. I stared back at her, grinned; she smiled and turned away. I couldn’t stop myself from guessing what she thought of me, a fool? I raised my hand and walked out of the class. Later I wrote the professor giving the lamest excuse: that I went to relieve myself and never came back.
As I approached my car, I felt free. There was something about it that reminded me that I could run against time. That in it, time wouldn’t catch up to me. I heaved the engine to life with a touch of ignition and sped towards Northern Miami, the breeze brushing against my face; it felt good. All of a sudden, everything felt alright again, like I never even broke up with Monica, like she was still in that car smiling, telling me how heavy I was, and singing. Telling me that she liked my moodiness punctuated with smiles, and how she felt like I walk with the weight of the world on me. For me, she was still there, smiling. Those thoughts were softer, and kinder on me now than ever.
I remembered how many times I had to move from city to city, and each departing came with a parting, a knowing that things would never be the same again. She wasn’t the first, and she wasn’t going to be the last. I understood that she couldn’t watch me leave, it pained her, and she did what was best for her. But since I arrived in this city, I had been wondering if what I did was really for the best. The impulse to ask her to wait, knowing that there was no waiting in life, there was nothing to wait for. I came from chaos, from deep down inside of me, the tiniest thought, the smallest indivisible particle, was deeply chaotic. So, my decisions sometimes came from an unrecognizable place. I was still learning to live with that.
Was it all worth it, to lose a beautiful soul like her to time? Time took everything away from me. Time watched me like a man watching over his garden; he knew all. If there was ever a god, he would exist in the form of time. When there was nothing to blame, I blamed time.
I drove towards Okeechobee, through the Meadow, through the swamp, past the farms, and machineries. A white cloud hung in front of me like a lamp, like a direction, and I followed. I didn’t know where I was, but I was feeling better. I drove for about an hour on the road, and my diseased mind was at ease. I saw a sign saying that there was a beach close by; I swung in and drove towards it slowly.
Some find themselves in the arms of a lover, some find themselves in rejection, but I found myself on the road, and in feeling lost. I found the beach, parked and walked towards it. The sea was milky blue and generous, with splash of water that climbed my naked feet. If there was ever a mermaid in the sea, she would be listening to jazz, the sea played jazz constantly. I played jazz on my tablet, and settled on the white sand.
I would have said that this was the story, but it isn’t. So I lay down and journeyed one more time to my childhood, through orbs of memory, dancing signaling neurons in my head, guiding me in time, and through time. There wasn’t a safer place to hide from the voice constantly asking me: Why leave? than in my memories.
I was small, leaning on the chair, watching my parents drive off on a motorcycle. Everything was brown: roofs, houses, trees, apart from the sun that was gold. Through the window bars, I saw everything. An airplane flew past, and I wished it could just fall beside our house and hand me beautiful gifts. I never imagined as a child that an airplane crashing could lead to death. I thought it was the most beautiful thing that could happen and people would just walk out offering gifts to the neighborhood being choked by hardship. Nigeria 1993 was a bad year. My sister curled on the sofa, sleeping.
Once my parents had disappeared into the horizon, I ran into the street. I was free to play with sand again. The dusty sand smelled beautiful, like I could lick it. I was eight, and curious. In the sky, an unidentified object flew past; three egg-shaped flying objects. I tried to make sense of it, but I couldn’t. I wished for the same fate as the aircrafts on these pods, a crash. It was much later in life that I learnt about UFOs. I was wearing a green short pant with girdles on the waist and no shirt. There wasn’t any need for a shirt before the morning sun that baked my skin, even though my parents would have disciplined me for not having one.
I fetched water from the tap and made sand castles. With muddied hands, I walked towards the river to shoot birds. A friend of mine once caught a yellow bird called Asha (African weaverbird). It was the fastest and the most beautiful bird of all to me then. It suckled flowers and could fly so low. I had a catapult that always hung on my neck, which I bought with my savings, and I always saved a few marbles in pocket.
At the stream, everything was mud and quicksand. I walked carefully on the path. I sighted asha’s milking flowers, flapping their beautiful yellow wings. I sauntered to the sound of crickets cricketing and the slow hum of plants flapping, and the wind of hamattan season hardened my skin. I hid in the long grass that covered me and scratched my body. I aimed at the birds with my catapult and released a marble; the birds flew into the sky. I missed.
I walked to the river, and sat down beside it, the beautiful flowers mesmerizing my soul, and I felt alive at that moment, like all the beauty in the world converged at this point. The tall ferns, beautiful flowers of a million shades and colors, and little fishes swimming inside. The water was muddied, my body was beginning to itch, but the serenity I found was more important to me than walking back home. I watched the birds that could walk on water gently glide around. Grandfather told me that I couldn’t shoot at anything that lived in the water, it was considered sacred, and it belonged to the river goddess.
Grandfather told me that he once encountered a river goddess at Njaba River. He said it was an old woman that had the ability to become young and beautiful — and her eternal duty was to ferry the dead to the next world. He once told me how my great grandmother died, and that her final words were: “my boat is sailing, it is waiting for me at Njaba.” I was small, but I understood everything about the story of the living and the dead. Mermaids fascinated me for their kindest role of being able to paddle across rivers, and into the world of the dead. I wondered which water owned me, was it the one I stood before, that was Nwaorie, or the rivers of my ancestors, Njaba? I was born here, in Owerri, a few meters away from this river. When I die, will they struggle to claim me? thought my little mind.
I was curious, very. I dipped a little stick into the river and stirred it; it muddied again. The fishes dispersed, something bigger moved in the river, I felt frightened and backed off. I wondered what if one of these fishes where the sea goddess, and might decide to grab me and ferry me to the land of the dead before my time. My little mind imagined it again—a small fish suddenly expanded, and grew, and grew until it became something else, let’s say an old woman. Honestly, I wouldn’t like to be ferried to the land of the dead by an old woman; their skin frightened me sometimes, apart from my grandma’s. My Grandma was a beautiful woman. There was another grandma we always visited in the village, she looked terrible. Maybe the sea goddess would look like my Grandma, and then I would go with her. But, not today, there were lots of things I wanted to do today, and I needed to be alive to do those; like catch grasshoppers, catch fireflies at night in the little garden beside our house, listen to croaking frog, and play soccer once in a while.
I was just a boy, but the river and mermaid made more sense to me than the realities that surrounded us. Like mum and dad whispering in the middle of night.
“The government has refused to pay us, what a wicked world, what a wicked society. One day, everything will burn to the ground,” he said.
“We can only hope in God and pray for a better tomorrow,” mum said, her voice benign and soft. I wondered what kept God from helping us when we needed it the most. I imagined God tearing the heaven apart, his long arms stretching towards us, to grab us, to redeem us. He would gently place us on a sandy beach, with fallen airplanes and a million gifts, and then we would part with the passengers. I heard God could do all things, including smiting the General’s head open. The General could be blamed for all our national woes. But if God would ever do such a thing, I just wanted a bicycle, a terminator toy, a video player, a better television, and lots of candy.
When I heard my father snoring, I sneaked out of the house again with my sister. We went to pick snails. We filled several empty cans with snails and caught thousands of fireflies in a transparent glass. Before mum could tell that we left the house, we were already back.
I sat there, watching the fireflies, their world of beauty made me imagine all possibilities. I thought about the mermaid that ferried people into the next world, and what if she held a lamp made of fireflies that guided them to the underworld. I watched my sister study with the lantern beside her head, and then dozed off. There was only one trouble; I couldn’t sleep with the lights off. I was scared of sleeping at night, I imagined that the mermaid would visit me, or send some shape shifting monsters to return me to the river. The river in my imagination was the answer to all our problems, and also the problem. I held my sisters arm, put my face under her skin until I fell asleep. I believed that my sister wasn’t afraid of the night, so the mermaid wouldn’t touch her.
“You are afraid of ghosts again?” she asked. It was morning, and she knew. She was the only person I could tell of my fright for the unseen. She knew that I would still go back to the river, because I believed that the day belonged to me, and the night to whatever hid in it.
“Yes, did you see anything?” I asked, my eyes wide open. I expected her to say something frightening, something that would make me not to enter the room the entire day.
“There are no ghosts, you are just tormenting yourself,” she said while putting on her red pinafore for school.
“You don’t understand, grandfather has seen them before. You don’t believe me; I have felt it at the river. There is something we can’t see,” I said, almost crying.
“You shouldn’t cry, just learn how to read so that maybe next year you can join the other children in school,” she said.
This made me cry more. I never wanted to read. I just wanted to imagine all kinds of things. I just wanted to see the world as it was, not find it in words. To be frightened at night made more meaning to me than being safe. I was lost again, I had always been lost. I shed little tears. I watched her trudge towards the sunset and disappear. I wanted to be as smart as her, I really wanted to.
The sun was almost in the middle of the earth when I got to the river again. I sat down and felt thousands of hands on my shoulders, massaging my soft body; the birds were singing. I was in heaven again.
The waves splashed on my legs, and I was still in Florida. Beside me was little kid with a golden hair, smiling at me, and filling his buckets with sand. His parents lay on a mat, reading. Life could just be like this. Life could just be all about one’s childhood. I got up, my throat was dry. I walked over to my car and took out a bottle of water. I walked back towards the grass, sat down, and listened to the sound of the sea. I felt free, even though I knew that all my problems remained unsolvable.
In the evening, I found myself back on the highway. I made a stop at Funky Buddha for a glass of beer. The waiter smiled at me like she knew I was weary.
“What can I get you?” she asked as I heaved myself onto the stool. There was something so light and beautiful about her smile, it made me feel better. I smiled back at her. She was a young Spanish beauty with a dream catcher tattoo on her arm. I wanted to ask her why the dream catcher, but I refrained. There wasn’t any other customer around the counter.
“A glass of beer, please,” I said.
The rusty taste of the beer traveled down my throat; I felt fine. I looked at her and smiled. She smiled back at me.
“Do you believe in time travel?” I asked.
“Well, no,” she laughed.
“I do,” I said, with a serious face.
“How is that possible? Even if it is, there isn’t any evidence of it,” she said. She patted her hair with her hands; a certain curiosity appeared on her face.
“Well. What if I tell you that I am from the future, which isn’t actually the future but the past?” I said. She felt bewildered at first, and then laughed out loud. But something in her face trusted me; my accent wasn’t from here, so maybe I fell from the sky.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“If I answer that, then that contradicts my presence here, doesn’t it?” I asked.
“Well it doesn’t, your accent said it all—you aren’t from here, and one way or another, you got here,” she repeated.
“What if I tell you that this morning I was somewhere in 1993, and then all of a sudden I transported myself to 2016, and now Florida. Maybe I woke up this morning somewhere in Africa, ate my breakfast, kissed my parent’s goodbye as they went to work. I don’t know what happened, and I found myself in America.”
I smiled again and winked at her. Then she laughed. There was something about her, even though my story wasn’t believable, yet she had a sort of liking for me, and she listened attentively as if I was an ancient storyteller in her Funky Buddha, telling her that time travel was possible.
“Wow, tell me then mister, are you from the future, or the past? I will believe you then,” she said, hands under her chin.
“Well, I am from Nigeria, and my accent is Nigerian. How I got here? It’s a long story. Maybe another day, over another beer, and when you are not selling it,” I said.
“Definitely,” she said, “remember Amanda.” She scribbled her number on a piece of paper and handed it over to me.
Some stories, like this one, began from nothing, and honestly divulge into nothing. Amanda and I were products of time and travel. Whatever became of us lured us to where we wanted. Some faces, some smiles could be the beginning of another smile, to rejuvenate that which lacked within us. A day that started so heavy was watered down by a listening ear. Of course, I got home and pinned her number on the wall. After two weeks, I called her, and told her I was the time traveler.
Chika Onyenezi is a writer living in United States. Born in Owerri, Nigeria, he holds two degrees, including an MA from European Peace University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Souvenir Lit Journal, Identity Theory, Litro Magazine, Off the Coast, Storytime, Munyori Literary Journal, Synchronized Chaos, PoeticDiversity Quarterly, Bombay Review Anthology, African Roar Anthology, Best of African Roar Anthology, and elsewhere. He spends most of his time daydreaming, and collecting wish trinkets from sea waves.