Darkness fascinates me in all its forms, from the abstract to the concrete, from the seemingly imperceptible to the uneasy anticipation of penetrating what is behind or in the dark. So, when I say that the dark intrigues me, I mean that I enjoy contemplating what may be hiding in its shadows and what might materialise from them. Perhaps, we can consider it as a manifestation of how we negotiate curiosity.
In A Small Silence, I write about Prof, a protagonist who, metaphorically, needs the dark to find his way to the light. The novel’s premise, notably the dark’s symbolic role, came to me during a visit to an old friend. The lights went out while we were having a passionate discussion about citizens’ impotence in the face of bad government. The room’s subsequent cemetery calm and sneaky smatterings of moonlight which produced a deep cardboard tint across the furniture, left solemnity that begged for individual meditation.
At this point, my thoughts wandered to what it would be like to spend one’s entire life without light, and my imagination took flight. The combination of talking to my friend about the state of the country and the atmosphere in the room when the electricity went off inspired my novel.
A Small Silence tells the story of a former university professor and activist who after serving time in jail, returns home and chooses to live the rest of his life in the dark. Prof, drives his loved ones away, turns off the lights, and tries to settle into his new existence, but when a woman named Desire pays him a visit and sparks memories from his past, he begins to reconsider his decisions.
In this excerpt from Chapter 9, Desire meets Prof for the first time since his return. Despite what she has heard about his weird, hermit-like lifestyle, she decides to pay him a visit, especially as he lives in her neighbourhood. She knew him as a hero as a youngster and held warm memories of him and is curious about what he has become, mindless of stories of his eccentric nature since his time in prison.
Excerpt from Chapter 9 of A Small Silence
Outside Prof’s dark room were lights from the amber bulbs and fluorescent lamps of his neighbours. Desire stood by his door. She was returning to knock with the hope that he would see her, and as usual she had not told Remilekun where she was going, but she didn’t think her destination was a secret.
At first, Desire knocked on the door like a rat nibbling on wood. She considered that he could be asleep, and this meant knocking harder to rouse him, so she knocked on the door like it was about to be pulled down. Yet, the door remained closed. She listened for footfalls. Her ears filled with the congregating sounds of mothers screaming at children, babies hollering for attention, sputtering generators filtering out the monotony of the traffic’s hum and laughter sneaking in and out like the disappearing croak of a frog. It was the second week since the power had gone off in the neighbourhood.
Her legs hurt but she was not yet ready to head back home. She drummed binaries on the door until her knuckles stung. “Hello. Hello,” a gruff voice called to her. She ignored it and knocked on the door with even more vehemence. Although the darkness enveloped him, she could make out that there was a man standing at the foot of the stairs. She also noticed his hands were placed on his hips and his legs spread apart.
“See, woman, if you knock until tomorrow, that man won’t open the door. I don’t know you or where you’re coming from or if you knew him before. I can assure you, you will not know him again. He has changed from human being to something else,” the unsolicited advisor offered. “I see him walk out of his house only at night. So you should appreciate my advice, woman, because that man is not normal again.”
He lingered for a while before walking away.
Her imagination took a leap at his words. She pictured Prof opening the door, the two of them standing opposite each other without words passing between them. Clods of blood stuck to the hairs of his full beard like the plastered look of unkempt dreadlocks left to define their own destiny. She imagined the way he arched his lips into a crescent, a gesture meant to be a smile but was more of a grimace. She saw the blood between his teeth again and how everything contrasted with his peanut-shaped eyes which were not bloodshot but the white of coconut meat.
He would not say a word, he would not laugh. He would bare his teeth at her. She was about to scream when she snapped out of her daydream. She caught her breath and looked in the direction of the passer-by to find him gone.
She took the first step and scanned the environment. She took another step and it felt heavier than the first. She hated herself for coming to see him. She took each step, each one feeling heavier than the previous one until she reached the last step.
The sound of the door struck her. She froze. She placed one leg on the last step and the other on the next-to-last. She was afraid that if she turned towards the door, she would realise that she had only imagined the lock unhinging.
The voice came to her, wafting into her ears like the rustling of leaves in the wind.
“Yes? How may I help you?” the voice said to her. It was the same voice she remembered from her childhood. The one that turned to speak warmly to her after spilling several angry words into the crowd. The voice that boomed from a speaker but spoke softly into her left ear, those words she never decoded.
Desire walked to the head of the stairs stiffly. She fidgeted as she tried to meet his eyes. She felt the brightness of his beadlike eyes swallow the darkness in the room. She stopped by the door and looked at the door handle and then down to her legs.
Prof opened the door but remained inside. She studied what was his face hidden in the shadows and tried to smile, but all she could do was pull her mouth into a wide stretch that hurt her cheeks.
Jumoke Verissimo teaches creative writing at the Toronto Metropolitan University, in Toronto, Canada. Her writing, which includes poetry, essays, and fiction is widely anthologised. Her latest work is a children’s book, Grandma and the Moon’s Hidden Secret.
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