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Building Your Writing Muscle
Why I pause to write short stories as I work on my book (and more stories!)
Short stories are my first love. I enjoy writing them because the end is close. Not because they’re easier to write. Not because they’re any less powerful than full-length projects.
“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams.”
Working on a novel means I must find other ways to breathe. I can do this through writing exercises, naps, breaks, reading and more. But I find that actually writing is a powerful tool to exercise my writing muscles. Specifically short stories.
I’ve hit a small snag in a murky part of my novel. But in the past two days of this new month, I’ve written over 7,000 words in two different short stories, working until late at night. Completely obsessed and taken by the characters. That’s an amazing writing streak. And they won’t go to waste just because I’m working on a different writing project. Eventually, I’ll put my stories together in a book and maybe publish it.
One of the ways I’m trying to build mental capacity is to create my own mental models to solve problems and work efficiently. This is only one part of it.
In this week’s letter, I’m sharing two short stories published this week and a short story I wrote in April 2021.
I’m leaving no comments on these stories because I genuinely want you to walk into them and experience them without any preexisting context. They’re not clean or perfect worlds, but then, which world is?
Small PSA before the story: This book was produced by my cohort at the University of East Anglia (Creative Writing Prose Fiction). I was on the editorial team and I learned a lot about producing a book: how to stay organised, write an excellent design brief, proofread and lots more. We chose ‘Windows’ and created the mood board for this cover based on the kind of year that we’d had. A year on Zoom, staring out windows, not socializing. It was a strange year to be a student and I wrote this story inside that strangeness. If you can, get a copy here. Such amazing stories from the best writers you’ll find around.
Now to the short story.
Abnormal Boy by Ope Adedeji.
Your boy will leave today. You're sure of it before his teacher calls. You shut your laptop and begin chewing the skin of your thumb. You move to the nail, biting the grime in the corners, then chipping the edge off.
The date is marked on your calendar app: ‘April 6, 2021 — Bobo is leaving today.’ A mother knows these things. You saw it the day you pushed him out at the Catholic hospital — a warm day six years ago — and a white nurse placed his cool skin against the streaks of sweat on your chest. You knew that despite your prayers to Jesus in Shiloh or the female goat you sacrificed to Ọṣun, that this boy would leave you, the way the others before him did, the way his father did.
Was that a smile you saw?
The nurse chuckled as she tucked the covers around your abdomen. ‘Newborn babies can’t smile.’
But what about this scar on his neck? Where did it come from?
The nurse fingered it, a frown creasing her forehead. ‘It's only a birthmark.’ Her laughter was dry and hollow. It rings in your ears now as you tie your shoelace.
Your feet vibrate in your shoes as you paint red lipstick on trembling lips. It slips down to the hairs beneath your chin. Your hands are shaking. This fear is not new. It's always with you, especially when he threatens you with raging fevers. It starts in your chest, sitting in both breasts and sternum before heating the back of your neck and shaking your thighs and feet.
All morning, you held on to your rosary, muttering ‘Hail Mary, full of grace’ and staring at your phone’s lock screen — a picture of him with a fro, cutting his ‘Black Panther’ cake on his fifth birthday. You were unable to work because you knew.
A mother always knows.
The classroom smells of crayons.
Your boy sits in the corner of the buzzing room, flipping through a newspaper. His nose doesn't seem to be runny, and he doesn’t look tired, so you are perplexed. If he isn’t sick, why has Ms Okereke called you to come right away? He doesn't raise his gaze to you. It’s his first week in school, and you’ve only taught him to read three-letter words. Maybe it’s the photos he’s interested in. The newspaper cover page holds headlines, a collage of the new president, his wife and a notorious minister. Your boy's thin legs are drawn up to his chest. They have spiral lines on them, probably from scratching the bumps of mosquito bites with a pencil.
The first time you had a baby, you and Bobo had been new lovers. He had a tattoo of your name on his clavicle. You had one of Star Wars, his favourite movie, on your waist. It was a rainy season, and every morning, he brought you snails, freshly picked from the wet garden and cooked in tomato sauce. In between Skype meetings, he'd jump into the messy sheets, place his head on your navel to listen for the baby’s kicking. His cat-shaped eyes held light in them, even on nights he didn't sleep because you were uncomfortable. The baby — you named him Joy — died in his sleep two days before his first birthday, and Bobo smashed bottles of essential oils he bought you against the wall. He cried; you didn't.
You pluck a strand of hair beneath your chin as you wait for your boy to notice you. It’s now closing time, and the class is emptying. Little boys in oversized white shirts stand around their tables in groups. They arrange colouring books into their desks, zip their bags. A boy runs to his mother, standing at the door to the classroom. If your boy were like every other boy, he would run to you.
‘Your boy is something,’ Ms Okereke says, lightly touching your arm. Her voice is clogged with phlegm.
She comes over to stand by your side and stares at him through hidden eyes. She slips her fingers into the pocket of her dusty grey coat, which compliments her ashy skin. You dream of kneading the skin of her ankles with whipped shea butter.
You nod. ‘What happened?’
She folds her lips till they touch the tip of her nose.
‘He’s been in the corner since morning, refusing to eat or participate.’ She claps her hands, then presses your shoulder, bringing her lips to your ears. ‘There's a problem. This is the same thing he did yesterday and on Monday. There’s a big problem. You must take him somewhere where they can figure out the problem. Would you try Shiloh?’
You cough, your acrylic nails firmly pinching the corner of your jaw where a clump of hair sits. You thank her and go on to bundle him in your arms.
On your way home, he tells you he’s going soon. He sits on your lap at the back of a keke napep that slowly snakes through traffic. You like to sit at the edge for the breeze. Vendors selling yoghurts, sausage rolls and plantain chips walk past. Normal children would ask their mothers to buy for them. Not your boy.
‘You know that place I’m going to? I can’t wait to get there,’ he says, drumming his lips. ‘Before I came here, we used to sing and dance there.’
You know who ‘we’ is — your dead children: Joy and Banjoko. You cringe, pressing him into your chest and turn his face to yours. His uniform is damp with sweat, woolly to touch. In his brown squinted eyes is a vacant stare. This is what you get for going to Shiloh to pray for a child, then carry that same belly to Ọṣun for her blessings. A boy who is torn in his spirit. Your eyes brim with tears.
He suddenly looks at you through wide brown eyes as though listening to your thoughts. He giggles. ‘Mummy, are you crying?’ His face is his father’s. You wipe your eyes and stare into the sun. There's a sharp pain in your chest like someone is slicing it.
The second time you had a baby, she stayed only long enough for you to give her a name. You called her Banjoko, after an aunt that you loved when you were a girl. Different hands carried her that evening as your family celebrated, breaking kola nuts and drinking beer. By 10 p.m., when everyone had gone to their homes, baby Banjoko began crying. It started as a whimper and grew till it was so loud, the neighbours next door complained. She was burning with a fever. Sitting naked by her crib, you forced your nipple into her mouth, refusing to allow Bobo to take her to the hospital. You knew there was no point. She would leave too.
At midnight, she was dead.
Bobo collapsed on you, pressing his body into your face, suffocating you. Under his weight, you dug your nails into Baby Banjoko's neck, and before the ambulance arrived, you burnt the mark your nails made on her neck with a lighter and watched the leaf-shaped darkness spread. Bobo screamed ‘madness’. The house smelled of incense.
The plump woman next to you pulls your boy's cheeks. ‘What a good and beautiful boy,’ she says, digging through her bag.
Your boy’s face crumples together and smoothes out before he begins to scream. His eyes are red, and there are green veins on his temples and forehead. The woman hands him an eclairs sweet, but he throws it at her, his screams piercing the hot afternoon. The passenger next to the driver turns to face you. An old man. His mouth wide open but not saying a word. You can tell that he’s judging your motherhood.
You face the woman with pleading eyes.
‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry,’ she says, her voice hoarse.
You don’t know how to say it’s not her fault, so you look away, rub your boy’s chest and whisper ‘good boy’ several times into his ears. He’s not a good boy; he’s a bad boy.
You ask him if he can be a normal boy. He laughs. It’s the laughter of an old man playing ayo and drinking beer at noon. He squeezes your fingers, stares into your eyes, shakes his head.
‘I'm going soon,’ he says.
You both watch the news at nine. He comments ‘rubbish’ when a pastor claims he has the cure for corruption.
Where do children pick up these things? Probably from the other children that came before him. Joy and Banjoko. Your mother thinks children like him, like Joy and Banjoko, have meetings at night when you’re asleep, meetings where they come up with new ways to haunt you. You slap your thighs to shake away the thoughts. You shouldn’t think like your mother.
Next to you on a side stool is the dented bottle of holy water you got from Shiloh. There's also the crucifix of Jesus and the Ọṣun statue you ordered on Amazon. You want to attempt to keep him here with you, but you know he won't stay. In the past year, you went from doctor to doctor, asking for an explanation. They pried your legs open, took blood from your boy, asked for sample stool, examined his eyes, then your mouth.
There was no explanation, nothing to explain the two dead children that chased the love of your life away. He said the dreams of dead babies were too much for him. You asked, what about my body? He said, your body and what it produced was cursed.
You shut your eyes. There's solace in darkness; it’s sweet and sour like agbalumo seeds. Your mind roams the darkness. First, you're in the delivery room, screaming at the nurse to push the boy back into your vagina. Then you're in the toilet shitting slippery shit, and the boy is in front of you, laughing. By the time you open your eyes, power has gone off. Your eyes stretch in the darkness. They caress the rough, cream walls and draw a straight line until it reaches the sofa on which the boy had been sitting. Has he left you already?
In the room, you watch him sleep. He’s more of a six-year-old when he’s asleep than when he’s awake. His arms are frail, and his lips pouted. His pyjamas are made from silk and have lilac flower patterns. Saliva oozes through his slightly parted lips.
That he’s stayed this long has sometimes deceived you into believing that he would stay forever, but you’ve never been an optimistic person. You blame yourself for the misfortune. Six years ago, excited that the startup you worked for had just gotten some funding, thanks to the pitch decks and presentations you made, you called Bobo to celebrate with you.
What the hell, why not? He said.
When he arrived, he had bottles of red wine and cans of beer. You smelled of strawberries. The kisses started at the screen door, ushering mosquitoes in. It didn't take long before he was biting your neck, your navel, your thighs. He was gone before morning. No notes, just the boy he dumped inside you.
You were going to keep the boy; you told your mother when asked. She held her tongue, refusing to say it would end in tears. She knew as mothers know. She took you to Shiloh first, then to Ọṣun's river. You fasted, prayed, declared. He would stay. You told Bobo he would survive. You told him to come back to you. Maybe the other babies died because you didn't get married in a church. You would have a church wedding and wear a white dress with a long train. The baby would stay. He stopped picking your calls.
When the boy came, whatever hope you had evaporated. The scar on his neck was proof. You knew, just as you know now. So you didn't name him. He'd be known as Boy. A boy after his father.
A gecko zips at a cockroach above the wide-open curtains that bring in the moon. The boy snores and twists, one leg angled towards the wall, the other on the edge of the bed. He sucks on his thumb.
You rewrap your wrapper and climb into bed with him. The bed creaks as you lay flat on him. He stirs beneath you. He's warm. You wrap your hands around his neck, pushing yourself into him. His eyes fly open. Yours brim with tears. Your body quakes. You hear grumbling, the start of a scream. You clasp tighter, shrinking the sheets, sinking the bed. He kicks the air.
‘Mummy, please. I won’t do that again.’ His voice is muffled.
You don’t stop even when he becomes limp and cold.
In the morning, twisting the hairs under your chin, you call his teacher. ‘Boy won’t be in today.’ Then you call Bobo to tell him the news.
Have a great weekend. ❤️
Thanks to Tobi for proofreading.