The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 21, No. 3

The Full Middle of Zero

by Onyinye Ihezukwu

As soon as I began to take the subject of former lives seriously, of how people incarnate in myriad forms on various planes of cosmic existence, a suspicion grew in me that I must have been a snail in a past manifestation. I'm top-heavy, with a slow-paced walk, and oftentimes ooze mucus from a certain orifice in my head—a reminder of consistent allergies to dust, damp, and rust: the effluents of restless humanity; also, my body's way of saying it would rather sit and wait for the bustle to settle down. It was in this manner of sitting, head bowed in awe at the energy of the raucous traffic, the hawking children, the overhead sunshine on a September afternoon in 2008, that I met a most interesting man. He was dressed in a garb comprising every color from the electromagnetic spectrum, which in primary school we called ROY for red, orange, yellow; and then GBIV for green, blue, indigo, violet. This ROYGBIV thing he wore wrapped him like an electrostatic shroud that carried memories of my screaming schoolteacher and chalky-smelling textbooks—yet another allergy. Thus I sneezed before realizing it, catching the oozing snail product with my right palm. With my left I delved into my secondhand purse for a tissue to redeem my dignity. The man paused, hovered over me, like an order to notice his snakeskin shoes, whose toe caps curved like my tongue when seeking adventure outside my mouth. He might have said, You look tired, or Gal, how would you like to dance for me? because I glanced up at that moment to reply, "Huh?" to which he laughed like he was watching a child fail at a stage trick. I tell you, those teeth. He had the best-shaped teeth I'd ever seen. Oval at the gummy top, before spreading out like glistening teardrops toward the mouth's open slit. Teeth filed by God himself.

I followed the electrostatic man with the beautiful teeth to his dance studio.

This thing about former lives took off with my learning of pranayama, or yogic breathing. But then, there has always been the belief among my people, the Igbo, that a spirit—a life force—recycles itself countless times in a perpetual cycle. Pranayama would tell me how to calibrate this life force through breaths: the poses, the beats and sequences. Breathing for the management of tense moments, I would say. A tool that comes in handy when I'm forced to relive certain aspects of my mid-twenties. That allergic September afternoon, for instance. I entertain the shame, one breath, as I pose questions to younger me. Another breath. What possessed the snail, in September of 2008, to take a walk with a person who in a past life might have been a snake? Did I know how to dance in the first place? How could I, knowing that I had a boyfriend—all right, not exactly a boyfriend, but a person familiar enough to let me count the birthmarks on his left thigh—knowing that I had a somebody somewhere who thought he owned me, brazenly stand up from my seat at Sassa's Cool Drink Spot, dust down my long khaki skirt, and let the electrostatic man pay Sassa's boy for my Coke and fish rolls before leading me out like a lost prize cow finally recovered? Maybe it was that his entrance amid the monotony of that afternoon seemed somehow divinely arranged. Or maybe it was that he didn't appear to care about the fish and ginger on my breath, or the way I edged lopsided when I moved, or the way I cooed, That's in-teh-res-tiing, to every statement he made as we passed phone stands shaded with bright yellow umbrellas, passed groups of prattling schoolchildren on their route home, passed a mechanic's open-air yard—which I tried not to look at because the cars resembled fatigued beetles crowding a plant root. Bellies cut open. Wings askance. Living, itchy mold. Again, the allergies.
     He—the man whose name I didn't yet know—paused at the sloped steps to Gyang's Barbing Parlor, a place by which I'd glided for seven months on my commute to and from my government assignment without the slightest curiosity. But then, what does a snail notice apart from the cargo on its back? Now, as the man mounted the steps, he was telling me something completely unrelated to dancing. It was about how the expression Seven Wonders of the World could also be applied to an impending rainfall he'd seen in his dream. Thirteen months of hibernation, and suddenly rain was making its way to the country's savanna belt. If I cared to stop and sniff reflectively, the man said, I might smell the promise of wet in the air. He did a thumbs-up, and I rewarded his gesture with a revering look not brought on by fish and Coke. I considered the well where I lived, back in the public yard shared with neighbors. There was that possibility of watching the water shimmer at the surface of the well's mouth, of scooping the surface without letting the rope so far into the earth, without inching my neck to make out the echo of the pail finally hitting bottom. "In-teh-res-tiing," I said.

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