For Love Is a Broken-winged Bird That Cannot Fly

This story was longlisted for the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize and first appeared in its prize anthology, ‘Yellow Means Stay: An Anthology of Love Stories From Africa’

Ken’s wife was a special kind of breed. She was so kind, to an extent that made Ken feel he was unworthy of her. He reminded himself, always, of how blessed he was to have won her saving smile. That smile that softened something in him, that gave him tinges of happiness that made him feel safe, pure. Even after he found Ejike he would think often of this feeling of purity she gave him, this absolution.

On Saturday mornings, they took long walks through the streets of Paskan-Jake, she admiring the swaying trees, enjoying the crunch of dried leaves beneath their feet, he wondering what he would have become without her. Some days he believed, without hint of doubt, that he did love her, that he could never love anyone the way he loved her. They met at a time when he felt as though he was drowning, a time when he spent evenings after work bringing himself to ecstasy. And then telling himself as he washed himself clean, that God could still love him, as damaged as he was. She saved him.

For Ken, God was many things, something that morphed many times. There were times he felt God’s presence floating in him, keeping him. And there were others when he felt broken, the kind of thing even God wouldn’t touch. Amara was his bridge to God. She tethered him to God with the unshakeable solidity of her faith. The God she knew was a lover. She spoke of Him the way one would speak of an age-long friend. Like she had always known Him, and would always know Him.

When Ken thought of virtue, he thought of her. He thought of her patience, and of the way she lowered her voice as she spoke in his ears, as though to accommodate his shame. He thought of her fingers, small and soft, caressing his stomach, caressing his nipples, kissing his back, gently running her hand over the shaft of his penis as she waited and waited. He thought too of her frame lying in bed, knees raised, urging conception to happen, whispering prayers. The first time she did this, he had felt something taunting and brash. They never talked about it because he could not bring himself to say anything and he knew what she would say if he asked: that she knew Jesus would give her a child. In his time.

Their house, a big bungalow that stood solemnly next to all its other copies on Ogbodo street, was filled with plants. It was lined with earthen pots, by the wall outside, in the passageway, in the backyard, everywhere. Amara kept them till they leaved, twisting towards the little light that filtered in through the windows till they became crooked, and then they disappeared. It was like clockwork. First, he saw an empty pot filled with wet earth. Then green life sprung out. Then both pot and plant disappeared.

Once, when he asked, she said, “ESUT doesn’t have a functioning Biological garden. The place is overrun by weeds, and unkempt. So by God’s grace, I use these to teach my students.”

She never mentioned ESUT or her Master’s degree without mentioning God’s grace, and that was a lot of grace. Ken sometimes imagined God sending all his grace into her to fuel her through University. It wasn’t a hard thing to imagine, he had met her then, at the Biological Science Faculty, on a day he had come to see Nedu. What he felt for her was not a flicker, it was not slight. It was the first time he had seen a woman and wondered what her lips would taste like, what it would feel like to knead her skin under his fingers. True, it did not have the nakedness of what he felt for Nedu but he had waited for it for so long. He told Nedu this, that when he saw her, he felt something. Something that surrounded her like an aura. And Nedu said nothing, only made a disapproving sound.

Nedu did not know how to hold shame in his hands, did not know how to feel remorse for love. Ken envied him for this, this freedom. It was from Nedu that he first learnt of xylem vessels and sieve tubes and why leaves were greener on their upper surfaces. And so when Amara slipped into rapturous expositions about her plants he was not always completely lost. That way, he could float with her, understand her, and how God for her was most beautiful in green things that blossomed. The first time they had sex, she told him before they started that she was a virgin and somehow, this reminded him of plants: green things that symbolized new beginnings.

He was burdened with fear as he moved over her because the possibility of going limp, of failing her, was there in the room like an overbearing presence. When he finished in short disgruntled spurts after a reasonable amount of time watching her groan in what he wasn’t sure was pleasure or pain, he felt a sort of worth he had never felt before. And so he stopped calling Nedu.

She was a long-awaited answer to a sinking man’s fervent prayers.

Ken started life with an unwavering faith. His father was a CCRN coordinator and his mother never missed a legion meeting. And so in his formative years, Ken had no questions, did not even know there could be any questions. His earliest questions came from books, fantasy books with white suns and purple moons and men who flew on winged horses to steal stars. He had wanted a star. He had dreamt of someone, a man, giving him a star. He was young then, to him stars were tiny white things. In his fantasies, he gave one in return too. These were his first questions, two men exchanging stars. He didn’t know what exactly the questions were, only that they were there.

It was in Junior Secondary school, where rumours kept flying around that a certain boy gave a certain girl a love letter, or that a certain girl only gave her notes out to a certain boy, that he finally admitted to himself that something was wrong. The letters he wrote bore the same wordings the other letters bore: I love your smile, You’re so kind, You remind me of that wonderful picture of the Plitvice falls in Madam Ganobi’s French textbook. Only that his bore no name. He wrote them for a boy that sat a few seats away whom everyone called Junior. After writing them, he slid them into his Sunday shoes where he was sure no one would find them. Then, days later, he burnt them. He prayed. Every day he prayed. And with each unanswered prayer, his faith wavered till prayers became to him, a laborious well thought out routine.

Ken met Ejike at Polo Park Mall. It was Sunday and the food court was filled. There were no empty tables and he was telling Amara how much he just hated standing about with a tray filled with food and no available table to eat it on when a table became vacant. Amara walked quickly towards it. She placed her tray on the table at the same moment as Ejike.

“We can share it,” she said smiling apologetically at Ejike. It made Ken angry that they had to ‘share’ a table. He wished they could just take their food home but Amara loved to come there when it was busy, when people were chattering and mothers were shushing children and children were running around.

“They help me, those children,” she told him once.

Perhaps it was a therapeutic thing, watching children. Ken wasn’t sure. There were still things he didn’t — couldn’t — understand about Amara. He was only aware of the longing with which she looked at those children. And when she said, “I just love seeing happiness, and when you look into their laughter you see true happiness,” as though to explain, Ken was filled with a deep sense of inadequacy.

Amara introduced herself, and then him, to Ejike. They settled down to eat.

“These people should really provide more seats here,” Amara said.

“Yes,” Ejike replied, “It’s a nightmare. You know, I don’t even understand why I keep forgetting to order in take away.” He was reaching over to open his coke.

Ken listened to them talk.

“We keep eating here because of the atmosphere. I mean, look at that woman trying to keep her child in check,” Amara said.

Ejike turned, looked, and burst into laughter, a loud unrestrained laugh that shook his shoulders. It was at that moment that Ken truly saw him for the first time. Ejike’s laughter mesmerized him. He would think of that moment often, of how charmed he was, and how aroused he was. He had to pull his chair closer to the table to hide his erection.

Each time he told the story, Ejike laughed, the way one would laugh at a flattering story that wasn’t true, as though at a shared joke. Sometimes Ken laughed along — Ejike’s laughter was infectious like that — but other times, he just wished Ejike would see that there was really nothing to laugh at. That moment, for him, was rife with significance. After the meal they exchanged numbers and Ken drove his wife home. At home, he kissed her. She was a bit startled — they had never had sex on a Sunday afternoon — but it was a good kind of startled. As they shed their clothes, Ken sensed this Sunday afternoon passion was a way of compensation. After they were spent, he felt an even deeper, more seating guilt watching her lie still on her back, her knees raised.

He never met Ejike in that food court again. The Sunday after their first meet, he kept looking around for Ejike till Amara asked, “Dear is something wrong? Do you want us to go?”

Ken had convinced himself that what happened did not really happen, that he felt nothing; it was simply that Ejike laughed in a way that touched his heart. And yet he was disappointed when he did not find Ejike that Sunday. Many times in his office, he scrolled through his contacts to Ejike’s number, dialled it, and then ended the call before it connected. What would he say if he let the call go through?

He ended up calling Amara on those afternoons, to tell her he loved her, that he was thinking of her, what would he do without her? Many times he prayed, asked God to give him strength, to give him grace. Sometimes he felt that God was there behind him rubbing his back. And other times, the silence echoed so loudly that his own breathing sounded to him like lonely sighs.

Ejike called on a drowsy morning with the sky sagging heavily with rain.

How was his wife, Ejike asked. How was everyone?

The call surprised Ken, and frightened him. In equal proportions. They talked about nothing for eleven minutes, twenty-four seconds. With Ken listening for that laughter, and relishing it when it came. They arranged to meet at Kosime Bar, to drink, if his wife would allow him. That night Ken tried and failed to summon an erection. Amara kept saying, “Relax. Darling just relax,” but nothing happened.

She sat at the edge of the bed watching him with what he imagined was pity.

“Don’t worry. You’re just tired. Come to bed, let’s sleep.”

He lay beside her, afraid for some unknown reason to let his body touch hers. They lay on their backs for many minutes before he spoke.

“You know that guy Ejike, the one we met at Shoprite, he called.”

“Oh!” Amara said, “How is he?”

“He’s fine. He said I should greet you.”

“Okay. I was even thinking of calling him to say Hi.”

Ken said nothing else. He did not mention that he was meeting Ejike for drinks. He had not intended to mention the call at all. It was just that it was there at arm’s reach and he was looking for something with which to cover his shame.

Ejike drank like a fish. Ken would come to accept that flaw, but the first time he saw Ejike drink, it unnerved him how fast the man swallowed his drink, pausing between gulps to talk about his job and ask Ken about his. Ken never drank more than one bottle of Guinness at a sitting. Beer was not his strong suit, he was not even sure he liked it. But Ejike drank the second, the third, fourth, then the fifth. It left Ken wondering how he would make it home.

That evening when Amara asked, Ken told her he had drinks with a friend. And it ate away at him, this incomplete truth he told her that signalled that he was losing himself again.

On Saturdays, he relaxed on the sofa, listening with euphoric awe as she talked of her plants. The ones that bore eggs that needed to be fertilized twice before they gave rise to offspring, the ones she was culturing from a single Parenchyma cell. Ken did not always understand the things she said but he loved to listen to that part of her that was bereft of worry, that part of her that showed God’s grace most. On Sundays, they went to Polo after church to share a meal. And on the other days, he returned to Kosime Bar to watch Ejike drink, to watch him laugh, shoulders shaking, eyes twinkling in the coloured bar light. There was a different kind of satisfaction that Ejike gave him that Amara’s grace did not fill, a certain height Ejike’s laughter could attain that Amara’s good-naturedness could not breach. Ejike teased him often, asking about her.

“Does she know you’re here? Guy, what do you tell her? Do you tell her I greet?”

To which Ken said nothing, only smiled a sad smile. They never spoke about this thing between them. They were just two men sharing beers. They did not ask each other what exactly those drinks meant. And they did not talk about whatever it was sparking between them like wildfire. Perhaps because of this, there was space to accommodate everything else. Ken told Ejike of the way Amara lay still each time after they had sex, and how the picture of her lying that way haunted his dreams. And Ejike told him, with a forced flippancy, of how his father no longer spoke to him.

“It’s not like the man is rich sef. The only thing I lost was someone that claimed to have loved me all my life.”

Sometimes he envied Ejike. And other times Ken pitied him. It all depended on what he was saying. Many times he said things that seemed to Ken like things only a broken man would say. The more he drank, the more he talked. One Friday, he drank so much that Ken had to drive him home.

“You have a serious problem. You know that? This can’t be good for your liver.”

He dropped Ejike on a sofa, and stood looking at him. Ejike was smiling slightly, ever so slightly that it could as well have been a frown.

Ken slumped down beside him.

“Do you want to stay the night?” Ejike asked.

“My wife would be waiting for me,” Ken replied.

Yet he sat there.

“Do you want to go home?” Ejike asked.

Ken remained silent because he could not find an answer that wasn’t somehow false. Ejike touched his shoulder, turned his face so they were facing each other. He could feel the warmth of Ejike’s exhale on his cheek, and when Ejike kissed him, it knocked him of air. It tasted like Guinness and at first, he felt nothing other than the fact that he was being kissed. But it kept swallowing him, pulling him in, till he lost himself to this kiss. They kissed and let their hands travel each other’s bodies. Before long, Ejike was straddling him, kissing gently down his neck, down his chest. The suckle of Ejike’s lips on his stomach frightened him and he stood hurriedly, as though he did not trust himself to continue sitting. He buttoned his shirt and straightened invisible wrinkles in his clothes afraid to look up. He could sense Ejike’s eyes on him.

“I have to go,” he said, his eyes trained to the ground. Ejike said nothing.

Amara was in bed when he got home. Before he climbed into bed, he went into the shower and tried to wash Ejike’s scent off him. He scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed till his skin reddened and he ached all over and still, when he lay down next to her, he feared that she could somehow smell Ejike on him, even through her sleep.

The morning after that, they went on their weekly walk. It was one of those mornings when the sun rose slowly, casting lazy shadows of the leaves on the road. The birds were singing. Occasionally, Amara would reach out and pluck a leaf from the low hanging branches.

“Do you feel like running?” she asked him, a small smile on her face.

“Why? You want me to chase you?”

She broke into a sprint, and Ken stood watching her for some seconds before he followed suit. He made sure not to catch her; each time he came close he let her slip from his grasp. He relished the squeal she gave. They ran all the way to the major road and further up till they could see the New Heaven junction ahead of them, then they turned back home, hand in hand. It wasn’t that Ken was unhappy, it wasn’t that he was miserable. He had all this comfort and yet here he was throwing it all away. The memory of the night before was still fresh in his mind, he could almost still taste the bitterness of Ejike’s beer-tinged kiss on his lips.

When they arrived home, he told Amara he had to run an errand.

Ejike was surprised to see him.

“This one you came, I hope I’m safe?” he said stepping out of the way to let Ken in. He made tea and they sat on the sofa sipping it. On later days, they wasted no time drinking tea. They were in each other’s arms as soon as the bolt clicked over the door. But that day they drank tea, scalding hot tea. And after tea, they sat next to each other on the sofa, shoulder to shoulder, recalling the previous night.

“I’m not even sure who kissed who,” Ejike chuckled slightly. “I barely remember the night.”

Ken remembered it clearly. He looked at Ejike and then turned away.

“I’m pretty sure you kissed me,” he said, all the while nursing a treacherous feeling.

He looked at Ejike, again. He had wide eyes with pupils that were a light brown. In them Ken thought he saw a glint, one that taunted him, dared him. When they kissed, all he could think about was how it tasted this time like nothing. He only knew that he felt alive, more alive than he had felt in so long. They lay there on the sofa kissing, breathing each other in as their clothes came off one after the other. Ken would later tell Ejike that it felt like all the cells in his body were thundering with applause. What he would never tell Ejike was that afterwards, in his car, he wept, because all his life he’d felt like he was on a journey, a wanderer, and what they had felt like coming home. He bent his head over his steering wheel and wept so hard because those moments with their naked bodies entangled in each other unfurled something beautiful in him, a feeling so beautiful it made him imagine that this was what it felt like to be a flower in bloom.

It did not take long for the guilt to settle in. Ken was not sure when exactly he began to feel it. Perhaps it was immediately Ejike let him into his house. Or maybe it was on the drive back, as he watched the time displayed in green on the dashboard. He had been gone all morning. Amara was sitting at the dining, peeling oranges. A small pot was sitting on the table. She did not notice when he entered the room. He stood by the door and watched her. He watched her for long moments before he walked to the dining and sat down.

“Hey,” she said, “I thought you were in the bathroom already.”

Ken shook his head.

“I’m peeling oranges,” she said, “Want some?”

“That would be nice,” Ken said.

He was looking at the pot on the dining, and the plant in it. It was tall, slender, with the apex tightened into a bud.

“Just look at how wonderful it is. See how wonderful God made it. The tiny thing is ready to spread its leaves.” Amara said.

Ken laughed. “You can’t possibly know that,” he said.

“I do.” Amara said, “When I’m done peeling these oranges, I’ll take it out to the pavement and tomorrow, it would leave.”

Ken wondered if she at least suspected what he had done. It burdened him, the way she seemed to trust him so completely.

“Go and freshen up. I’ll put your oranges in the freezer so they’re chilly by the time you’re out.”

He stood to go.

“Wait how was the stuff you went to tidy up? You look a bit dull, I hope everything went well.”

 Ken had to pause for a moment before nodding his head, “Yes, everything’s fine.”

He walked to the bathroom, turned on the shower but sat on the toilet. He had sinned, this time also against Amara. And the guilt weighed down on him. He could hear her humming in his head, and the image of her lying still on her back burned him. He thought again of God. Was God there? Could God hear him? And if yes, could God not see that he needed saving?

When eventually Amara found out about Ejike, Ken was a little relieved. First he felt shame, so much shame that he prayed the ground would open up and claim him. Then came fear. Fear was a familiar emotion for him. The fear of falling for men. The fear that people could tell just by looking at him. The fear of God’s wrath, of eternal suffering. There was never a time that he was not a sort of afraid. But after Amara found out, his fears took on an abrasiveness.

When she fell to her knees, hugging herself as she wept, his heart broke. He wanted to pick her from the floor, to take her in his arms but he saw something in her tears that frieghtened him. So he stood there watching her shout, “No. No. This can’t be, Ken no. How could you do this to me?”

He was in the shower when it happened. He came out, and found her sitting on the bed, his phone lying in her lap. Ken had never seen her face so hard, so graceless. He knew something was wrong and he knew it had something to do with his phone. He stared at her dumbstruck for moments before he said, “Babe, what’s wrong?”

“Ken,” she began, “How could you?”

“I….I don’t understand what you mean,” Ken said even though he did understand.

“So all those nights you couldn’t…” The tears cut her off then. They came so abruptly Ken thought she was choking.

“Did I fail you so much that you had to go after a man. Ken, a man. A man.”

Ken said nothing. Amara picked the phone and flung it at him. It missed his face by a hair. He felt it whiz past his ear and crash into the wall. She fell to the ground then, overcome with tears.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I….”

“Get out,” she sobbed.

“Babe please…..”

“Get out! Get out! I don’t want to see your face.”

Ken wished she had let him say something, let him explain. But what would he have said? How would he have explained destroying this thing that he did not hate, this solidity that anchored him? He drove around Enugu wondering what would happen now. The thought of losing Amara scared him, more than anything had ever scared him. He drove aimlessly through the city for hours. Eventually, he turned towards Ejike’s house. When Ejike opened the door, Ken stood there staring at him, as though afraid to come inside.

“She knows,” he said.

“Oh my God,” Ejike said and pulled Ken to himself till Ken’s head was nestled in his shoulder.

The door was still open and Ken thought he should ask Ejike to close it but there was this fatigue in his bones. And so they stood there, all of his weight leaning into Ejike.

“Do you want to talk?” Ejike asked.

“I just want to sleep,” he replied.

All he could think about was Amara, and her still form lying back down, knees raised on the bed, whispering prayers and crying, the tears running down the sides of her face to her ears. Ejike climbed into bed next to him and held him, Ken felt his skin crawl. He began to cry. Silently at first, but soon his shoulders were heaving. And When Ejike shushed him, told him everything would be fine, it made him realize Ejike did not understand this heaviness he bore in his heart.