She was six years old when Eghosa first met her on a beach in Port Harcourt. She was building a sand castle or something and looked up, her eyes as sparkling as the sea.
“Hallo,” she said. Eghosa answered with a nod, not really in the mood to bother with a small child.
“I’m building,” she said.
“I see.” Eghosa shook his head. “What is it?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I just like the feel of the sand.”
That sounds good, Eghosa thought, and slipped off his shoes. A bird glided by.
“That’s an Oghogho,” the child said.
“It’s a joy. My mother say Oghogho comes to bring us joy.”
The bird went glissading down the beach. “Good-bye, joy,” Eghosa muttered to himself, “Hello, pain,” and turned to walk on. He knew it; his life was completely out of balance.
“What’s your name?” The girl wouldn’t give up.
“Eghosa,” he answered, noncommittal. “I’m Eghosa Ekpo-Uduak.”
“Mine’s Ene. And I’m six.”
He stretched out his hand. “Hi, Ene.”
She giggled. “You’re funny,” she said. In spite of his gloom, Eghosa laughed, too, and walked on.
Her musical giggle followed him. “Come again, Eghosa Okpioba. We’ll have another happy day.”
The days and weeks that followed belonged to others: office politics where Eghosa could be transferred, a rift with his boyfriend, and an ailing mother.
The sun was shining one morning as Eghosa took his hands off the pressure cooker. “I need to go to the beach,” he said to the pots.
The never changing balm of the seashore awaited him. He had forgotten the child and was startled when she appeared.
“Hallo, Eghosa Okpioba,” she said. “Do you want to play?”
“What did you have in mind?” Eghosa asked, with a twinge of annoyance. Who were the people that let their kids stray off like this?
“I don’t know. You sayey.”
“How about solitude?” Sarcasm was smeared across his mouth.
The tinkling laughter burst forth again. “I don’t know what that is.”
“Then let’s just walk.” Looking at her, Eghosa noticed the delicate fairness of her face, her nose like a Fulani’s, the spotlessness of her legs, her flawless white teeth.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
“Over there.” She pointed toward a row of houses. She chattered little-girl talk as they strolled up the beach, but Eghosa’s mind was on other things. When she left for home, Ene said it had been a happy day. Feeling surprisingly better, Eghosa smiled at her and agreed.
Three weeks later, he met her again on the beach. He was in no mood even to greet her.
“Look, if you don’t mind,” Eghosa said crossly when Ene caught up with him, “I’d rather be alone today.” Ene seemed unusually pale and out of breath.
“Why?” she asked.
Eghosa turned on her and shouted, “Because my mother died! Jesus!”—and thought, my God, why am I saying this to a little child?
“Oh,” Ene said quietly, “then this is a bad day.”
“Yes, and yesterday and the day before that and—oh, go away!”
“Did it hurt?”
“Did what hurt?” Eghosa was so exasperated with her, with himself, too. His mother never knew about his sexuality. And now she was gone, gone forever, without knowing her son for real.
“When she died?”
“Of course it didn’t hurt!” Eghosa snapped, and strode off.
A month or so after that, when Eghosa went to the beach, Ene wasn’t there. Feeling guilty, ashamed and admitting to himself that he missed her, he went up to her house after his walk. A drawn-looking young woman opened the door.
Hello,” Eghosa said. “I’m Eghosa Ekpo-Uduak. I missed your little today and wondered where she was.”
“Oh yes, Uncle Eghosa, please come in.”
Eghosa went in with leaden legs, his jaws hanging open.
“Ene talked of you so much. I’m afraid I allowed her to pester you. If she was a nuisance, please accept my apologies.”
“Not at all—she’s a delightful child,” Eghosa said, a sudden cold lump between his shoulder. His next words came out heavily. “Where is she?”
“Ene died last week, Uncle Eghosa. She had cancer—leukamia. Maybe she didn’t tell you.”
Eghosa became dumb. His legs promised to fail him. He groped for a chair.
“She loved this beach; so I never stopped her. She seemed so much better playing on the beach and had a lot of what she called happy days. But in the last few weeks, she declined rapidly…” Her voice faltered. “She left something for you… if only I can find it. Could you wait a moment while I look?”
Eghosa watched her stupidly, his mind racing for something, anything, to say to this lovely young woman.
She handed him a smeared envelope with “Eghosa…” printed in bold, childish letters. Inside was a drawing in bright crayon hues—a yellow beach, a blue sea, a white and brown bird. Underneath was carefully written in a childish scrawl.
*May the Oghogho bring you joy*
Tears welled up in Eghosa’s eyes, and a heart that had almost forgotten how to love opened wide. He took Ene’s mother in his arms. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” he muttered over and over, and they wept together.
The precious little picture is framed now and hangs in Eghosa’s study. Six words—one for each year of her life—that speak to him of inner harmony, courage and undemanding love. A gift from a child with sparkling eyes who taught him the gift of love.
—AKINSANYA ADENIYI AYOSOJUMI