Zoetrope: All-Story

The Hollow

’Pemi Aguda

The house is ugly, Arit decides when the taxi drops her off in front of her new assignment: too many roofs clambering over each other like crowded teeth, and flaking walls the pink of a tongue. She shrugs her tote bag higher and knocks on a gate so black she checks her knuckles for soot. A young boy, maybe fifteen or sixteen, opens to the sound.

She is from the architecture firm, she explains, here to measure for the renovations, and is Madam Oni available?

He waves her in. Madam Oni isn’t home, but Arit can proceed with her tasks. His name is Lucky, and he is happy to help if she needs more hands.

She nods, and he retreats to the backyard, leaving her alone. She scratches at the inside of a wrist.

Arit faces the house, and the house faces her. She loosens another shirt button. Even the breeze is balmy, a warm exhalation. She crosses the compound, surveying, analyzing. An overgrown garden a strange tint of green and a gaping carport with no cars, gravel that scatters under her tennis shoes and fences that loom too high, lean too close to the two-level building. Her brain is already simmering with solutions, although she will not design this remodel. She is new at the firm, one year out of university, which means she will be doing the grunt work—measuring, measuring, measuring—until she earns trust. She slings the office camera around her neck, clips the measuring tape at her waist.

What is a house? What do we want from it? What makes it beautiful? Arit’s uncle, the man who wooed her to architecture, told her that only when she could answer these questions for herself and for her client should she take pencil to paper. The front door opens at her touch, and she enters, looking.

A long time ago, there was a woman who lived elsewhere in the city. What is a house—this woman wondered, as her husband dragged her body, like a mop, over faded terrazzo floors—but a pressure cooker, a vent pipe screaming steam?

Arit starts by recreating the ground-floor plan on paper. Her strokes are precise and sure. Little arcs for doorways, short slashes lancing them. Two lines for a wall, another between for a window. There is power in drawing a line into existence, and Arit is deliberate with it, careful.

The interior is cool, and as she moves from room to room, extending her diagram, the sweat on her skin evaporates, leaving a chill. It is a still, contained coolness, one that smells of air that is trapped, waiting. She can neither hear nor see an air conditioner. She pushes curtains apart. The light seems to hesitate at first, but then it floods in, glancing off the surfaces, filling the spaces, revealing the house to her.

Arit believes that buildings are among the most objective expressions of history. She notes the carpet—gray, vaporous—paws it with a foot to confirm its solidity. The walls: stucco on concrete, a beige that hides dust. She places a palm flat against a wall—the texture tickles. Her hand comes away moist. The curtains: brown, patterned, the kind that were ever present in Nigerian movies of the nineties. The windows live in recesses: narrow, arched, paired up. Furniture is standard family fare: two sofas, two armchairs, one coffee table. There are no paintings, no photographs.

The logic of the layout is lost to her. She turns a bend, expecting to find a room, but no, it is another lonesome nook hosting two cloudy windows. That explains all the roofs. She retraces her steps, and here she is in a guest room, sheets taut on a double bed. Back she goes, and she is in the kitchen now, long and slim with dull-green tiles. The counters are black marble with whorls of white, coiling smoke in a dark night.

Tired, she leans against the sink and looks out to a gnarled backyard—high grass and naked trees. Her drawings make no sense. The walls do not meet on the page, the lines dangle and hang. The house resists containment.

“Well, what do you think of this house of mine?” Madam Oni asks, materializing just inside the back door, a bag of vegetables in hand. Arit reels. The woman has asked her question with urgency or annoyance, as if for the fourth time. Her hair is graying and cut close to her scalp. Her skin is dark, shining, smooth, save for a forehead that furrows and cheeks that sag. Her eyes are narrow, ellipses of bright white punctuating her face. Somewhere in her fifties or sixties, not much taller than five feet.

“I am confused,” Arit says, honesty overwhelming professionalism.

Madam Oni snaps, “What were you expecting? Something straightforward?” Arit has no answer. “Can you fix it?” Madam Oni’s voice has softened, almost beseeching. “Can you fix it?”

A professor once said that a successful renovation must allow the legacy of the original to shimmer through, to carry forward; and Arit is wary of the hardness of the word fix, the incisions of the x. She shakes her head. “That’s above my pay grade, ma. I’m just here to measure for the as-built drawings. My supervisors will then discuss any solutions with you.”

Madam Oni lifts the bag to the counter, turning her back. “Can I have the kitchen for thirty minutes? Lucky, the gate boy, can help.” Her tone is cool again. Arit is dismissed.

“From the relics of household stuff,” Honoré de Balzac wrote, “we can imagine its owners in their habitat as they lived”; but as Arit glances at her watch, she sees that three hours of her life have evaporated in this house, and all she can imagine is that no one could live here. She senses an absence, an omission—familiar somehow. Madam Oni, too, seems exhausted, shoulders hunched, head hanging. Arit apologizes and brushes past her client to work outside.

What is a house? 

During the evenings Arit’s parents worked at their struggling supermarket, her uncle would watch her, and his favorite bonding activity was an architecture lesson. A roof? Floors? Walls? Arit would venture, always logical. But every answer she gave was wrong. No, he would say, try again.

The woman who lived in a pressure cooker had married a man who waited to reveal the evil festering in his guts. It oozed forth after a few years of marriage, in the form of mistresses, gifts bought for them with the woman’s money, as fists to her cheekbones, a foot in her belly, full pots of soup flung at walls, okra sliding down like tears, doors locking her out after trips to the market, doors splintered in the middle of the night.

This woman had a son, and as she stowed him away in cupboards to save him from his father’s cruelty, under beds, behind chairs, she wondered, what is a house but a large handbag with many hidden zippers and pockets?

Arit’s classmates hadn’t understood why her ambitions didn’t transcend houses. As they aspired to design government buildings and malls and banks and museums and memorials and schools and hotels, cantilevered inventions of steel, muted cubes of concrete, sloping facades of timber, otherworldly curves of glass fiber, Arit had drawn houses: floor plans, exterior elevations, mechanical, electrical, plumbing. She didn’t care about schools of style, she cared about unity, about a calming cohesion. She sketched on the blank pages of her novels, between chapters, her dreams filled with sectional 1:20 door and roof details.

The house is the square root of all architecture, her uncle told her. But Arit told peers that her obsession was more about growing up in flats with no storage and shoddy workmanship, with damp windowsills that sprouted mushrooms, with wall edges that left scratches. She quoted their oldest lecturer back to them—over time, bad environments can induce bad mental health—and they accepted her explanation as truth, though she wouldn’t meet their eyes. They identified with it.

From the outside, Madam Oni’s house is comprehensible. With Lucky eagerly holding one end of the measuring tape, Arit’s site plan and perimeter measurements come together in little more than an hour. She looks up at the house again. The pointed arches of the windows would be better suited to a church, a sanctuary, a building that evil skirts around, passes over.

On the inside, Madam Oni has disappeared, and Arit’s calculations still don’t add up. She checks and rechecks lengths and widths and heights and never gets the same reading twice. The tape retracts into itself and bites her fingers, again and again. This uncertainty, this shiftiness, this impossibility causes a ringing in her head. Unmoored, dizzy, she feels as if the walls are the floor and she is leaning against the ceiling, her torso wedged into a window frame. A fear clunks up her ribs, puncturing her breaths, a fear that nothing is real and everything is upside down and elementally wrong. She turns into another lonely corner, seeking a way out, and the sun is streaming through two slender panes, lighting up the carpet, a holy burning.

What does it mean for a house to be fixed? Arit wonders. To make firm, stable, or stationary // to repair // to set in order or in good condition // to put in a position to make no further trouble // to get even with or revenge upon // to kill, harden, and preserve for microscopic study . . .

Madam Oni reappears and guides Arit to a chair, a warm hand on her elbow. They take a few steps, or they cross through several rooms. The woman pushes a plate of Cabin biscuits and a cup of warm Milo to her. Arit, who associates these with her childhood and rain, looks out to see that, yes, it is indeed raining, and she blinks repeatedly, reminding herself that she is not fourteen and she is an adult and she is safe.

The woman who lived in the large handbag with many pockets made a plan. She sold aso-ebi from a tiny shop in Balogun Market, saving all the profits, every tip. She sold zobo at church events and ofada rice at community gatherings, the sun darkening her skin, firewood smoke staining her lungs. She opened a bank account, hid the multiplying money from her husband, whose character grew weaker, and the power in his swings, in his words, stronger.

She bought land in a part of Lagos that wouldn’t become popular for another eighteen years, a part she had to access by foot because the closest bus stop was twenty minutes away. She hired an eager draftsman who advertised his services in colorful letters under bridges, in scratches on the battered hoods of danfos. And when it was time to build, she oversaw the project herself, breathing her fear into the foundation, sweating her resolve into the concrete walls. She rinsed herself at the site so her husband wouldn’t smell new beginnings on her. “Soon, no more,” she chanted in her head every night he added a scar to her skin, every night she added a terrified scream to her son’s memory.

When the last shingle was nailed to the roof, the woman put her son on her back and left, taking nothing else. That first night, they slept on the bare floor, burrowing into each other. A house is freedom, a house is an escape. This one sensed their dread, their relief, and stood vigilant, ready to protect.

How can you know a house if you don’t sleep in it? Some say that light is the success of any building, but what new angles might darkness reveal?

That last night, Arit’s uncle took the pencil from her hand, shading the windows on the front elevation dark, shuttering the paper house they’d designed together. “It’s nighttime for our inhabitants,” he intoned in a cartoony voice, and Arit laughed, enjoying this effort of imagination, the breadth of it.

When she wakes in Madam Oni’s house, it is still raining and—according to her watch—well past midnight. She is lying on the couch, warm and protected in its embrace. The half-drunk cup of Milo is on the low table before her, biscuit crumbs glittering on the plate. Madam Oni is asleep in an armchair, her head nestled on her shoulder. Even in sleep, her eyebrows are pinched—anxious, guarded. The only light in the room is from the outside lamps, glowing up the thundering rain, turning the water to sparks.

This is unprofessional, Arit thinks, staying so late in a client’s house. Why didn’t the woman rouse her, ask her to leave? She wonders if she should be afraid of Madam Oni, but decides no. Her skin doesn’t prickle; she senses no terror.

She stands to find a bathroom and shuffles around until she is guided to the foot of the stairs. Though she technically has permission to access the entirety of the house, to complete her measurements, she hesitates. Because the sleeping woman is unable to stop her, Arit feels she’s crossing a boundary. But then she notices her left wrist, jittering against her thigh. She climbs.

Nothing creaks as she moves through Madam Oni’s house, nothing betrays her; and in this silence, her attention returns to her wrist, to the pulse ticktocking under thin skin. No door opens to a bathroom. Instead, she finds two small bedrooms, one with slippers peeking from beneath a wardrobe, the other with no furniture but an old-fashioned stool, its three legs carved of a rough wood. At the end of a hallway, past an empty lounge, is what must be the master bedroom: a king-size bed, a mattress with no sheets.

As she steps in, the stillness intensifies, breaks across her face like cobwebs. Not a serene calmness, but a muzzled nothingness. Like a familiar hand across a mouth.

The woman who lived in the house of freedom was found by her husband. On that lot so far away from everything, he climbed the gate, breaching the perimeter, cutting his shin, trailing blood across the compound. He broke a lock, nothing but death swelling in his chest, coating his throat.

The house bristled defensively around the sleeping mother and son, inhaling and exhaling, and the man felt the draft on his neck, on the meat of his hand gripping the knife. He moved from room to room, hunting, but every turn took him back to where he began. The walls shifted, the floors wavered—he was bewildered. Each door led to a hallway that led to a dead end, the sharp arches of glass twinkling at him, promising pain. Exhausted and dizzy, he leaned into a corner, seeking an anchor, protection—though from what, he didn’t know. He felt a loss of control. The house balked at his weight, at his entitlement to support. It closed on him, deviating and rearranging itself until a hollow appeared, between walls, between floors, between worlds, and there the intruder was folded in, trapped, never to hurt again.

A house can be a prison, too.

When the woman woke, she sensed what had happened to her hunting husband. She picked up the knife. The house seemed different around her, heavier. She flung open the windows and kissed her son, who stilled within her embrace, transfixed by the bloodstained floor.

She carried him to the kitchen with a new lightness in her heart, which she imbued into fluffy balls of akara, the aroma of frying beans shaking her son loose. They ate together, the deep freezer their table, and spoke of flimsy things, laughing and licking salty oil off their fingers, never once looking over their shoulders.

Arit’s uncle shuttered the windows of the paper building that night, then let the yellow pencil go. He pushed the cup of warm Milo to her side. What happens in a house stays in it, he told her, his fingers circling her left wrist—her drawing hand. What happens in the dark must never see the light. His voice had dropped the jokey register, cloaking her protests. His hairy hands traced further, sketching patterns on her skin she would never forget. Architecture is about negotiating borders, he whispered.

She was fourteen.

The woman and her son lived in peace in that house that was also a prison, in the certainty that they were safe and secure. The boy grew into a man. He married a short dash of a girl with shiny, dark skin and full, sagging cheeks. The new wife added her laughter to the house. Her songs rose like incense to the rafters.

When the woman lay dying, she pulled her son’s wife close, and with breath that smelled of wilting vegetables, she whispered the story of the house that had protected her. The wife smiled at her mother-in-law’s deathbed gibberish and patted her old, scarred hand and forgot.

She painted the house a baby pink, softening it, hoping for children to fill its spaces. She cultivated a garden. Her husband knelt beside her in the damp soil, and they planted tomatoes and aloe vera and lemongrass. She made him elaborate meals, and he wrote her elaborate letters. They made love in every room. 

But the years introduced a sourness to their marriage. Her husband changed. He came home from his bank job frustrated—by customers who screamed and a woman supervisor who always demanded more and colleagues who didn’t respect him—and he took these frustrations out on his wife.

The house stirred from slumber, moved in righteous anger—because hadn’t it protected this man when he was only a scared boy? 

Waking to behold the rooms shuffled around her, the wife finally remembered her mother-in-law’s story and knew her husband was gone. Her knees framed the new bulge in her stomach, and she cried with sadness and relief and indignation and gratitude.

Madam Oni switches on the light in the master bedroom. “What you will find here,” she says to the frozen Arit, “is a big, fat nothing.”

That night, late, after her uncle had gone, Arit took an eraser in her left hand to the house they’d drawn together. Friction, friction, until the paper wore thin, until the shreds were indistinguishable from the rubber shavings, until her wrist ached where his fingers had circled first.

The wife was pregnant and alone, and she wailed and wept. The house watched, absorbing her tears, moisture beading on its walls, refracting the morning light.

The wife left the house with the taps running and the drains stopped, but she returned to dry floors. She threw rocks at the windows, but the cracks thinned and vanished before she could turn away.

“I didn’t ask for your help,” she screamed at the ceiling. But when a bowl of blended peppers slipped from her hands and crashed to the floor in bloodlike splatters, she fell to her knees with a towel and wiped and wiped and wiped.

The following day, Arit’s parents sat her in their cluttered living room, her feet almost touching theirs on the threadbare rug. Outside, it rained. She wouldn’t look up, afraid of what they might see in her eyes.

“Your uncle is dead,” they told her, then broke down weeping. “We know this is hard for you—your favorite uncle.” And they reached for her and embraced her, mistaking their own tears for hers.

“How?” Arit asked. 

His house, her parents explained, it had just folded, collapsed. Late in the night. He was inside.

The wife lived in the house her mother-in-law had built. Mother and child, healthy and happy. She seemed to forgive the house its action, and the house slipped into hibernation, content with this truce. The wife focused on her son, who grew tall and lithe. She kissed his forehead, broad like his father’s, and pinched his cheeks, full to dropping like hers.

Years passed. The boy loved his mother. On his way home from school, he brought her gifts of plantain chips and kuli-kuli. He joined her in the kitchen, slicing yams and whisking eggs. When her lower back ached, he trod lightly on her, to massage the knots from her muscles, both of them sure that he would know when to step off, that he would mind the line between pressure and pain. She smiled at him, adjusting her depth of field so that he was her center, her star, and the house and what it held dissolved into a background blur.

Arit’s uncle had taught her that architecture is the material realization of a vision. Why wouldn’t it work the other way, too?

So one afternoon, as the wife walked past the closed door of her son’s room and his too-young girlfriend said, “I’m not ready, stop, I’m not ready,” she quickened her pace, pretending not to hear. But a house can’t make such a choice. The boy was gone in the morning. 

The wife took a hammer to a wall, wailing again, “Give him back,” making no dent. Because he was just a boy, her boy, and she’d expected he’d have time to learn, to unlearn.

Arit no longer draws houses with her left hand. Instead, she uses her right. And she hopes that if she respects the power in a line, and is deliberate with it, and careful, she can atone.

Always logical, Arit.

The woman remained in the house, seeking hints of her son in the skirting, in the junctions between walls and ceilings, in the dust patterns on windowsills, in the shaped shadows on floors.

The house gave her nothing.

And she responded in kind: she stopped painting; she stopped all maintenance. 

Still, the house stood strong, stubborn in its principles, in the duty breathed into its foundations so many years before by the woman who needed it, and refused to crumble around the woman who resented it.

There is no gray zone with a house, it is all definite lines. How else could it stand?

What is a house?

As Madam Oni finishes the story of the house, Arit looks out to see the sun coming up. The rain has stopped.

“I woke one morning, and I was tired of searching for my son,” Madam Oni says, breaking the silence. “Every angle in every room, every window placement, is a reaction to my son, to my husband, to my father-in-law. I’m living in that reaction, haunted by it. And I need this house to be fixed, so I can forget.”

“There is no fixing,” Arit says. An itch blooms angrily on her wrist, and she scratches. Friction, friction. “It doesn’t work. No fixing, no forgetting.”

Madam Oni shakes her head, rejecting Arit’s conclusion. She presses her hand over Arit’s, stopping it. “I can’t believe that. I have to try. We have to try. Please.”

Downstairs, a sustained sound, like the ringing of a tin cup, a cry in its hollow.

What does justice cost? What are clean hands left to carry?

Arit disentangles herself from Madam Oni and walks to the narrow windows. The new morning colors bleed into being. There is no fixing. A collapsed house cannot un-collapse. Rubble is also an objective expression of history. But Arit won’t be its warden. She won’t be stuck.

Soon, Arit will walk out of this house and never return. She will pick up a pencil with her left hand and sketch something light, something abstract. She is tired of paying, of carrying. 

A house is a pot, a house is a bag, a house is a prison, a house is a supplication, a house is a justification, a house is a child on your back, weighing you down. A house is a house, and you can erase it, wreck it, tear it to the ground. A house is a house, and no, you can never forget, but you can walk away.

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