I missed the bus again this morning, so I walked to church along the creek. The stream that feeds into the large lake is frozen now, and the ice is grey and smooth, pocked with frozen bubbles under the surface, scarred by horizontal white lines, early fault-lines, where something fell through. Being car-less and chronically late to catch the bus, I often find myself walking to church in the deepest part of winter. Usually the stream and the lake is covered in snow, like a long smooth plain. The openness, the sudden winter-land retrieved from summer’s water, has often tempted me to walk out onto the meadow of snow and on into the sky, leaving a solitary trail of footprints winding behind me.
It’s rare to see the water like this. It must have frozen since the last snow. The ice is glassy: you can peer down into it—at that world that will be separated for months from the air. I find myself thinking of the lives of fish—of the porousness of ice.
As a young girl of eleven newly moved with my family to Port Harcourt, I romanticized the winter. We had only lived in a place where it snowed for two years, having lived in the deep south for most of my life, but under the spell of Anne of Green Gables and Narnia, I planned my adult life in a place where there were snow-covered birches and mountains and an ocean nearby. I chose New Hampshire on the map. I’d never been there, but it sounded about right to me.
At that time, my father had told us we would only be in Nigeria for four years—long enough for an experience—short enough to pick back up our lives in the U.S. There was no question of me not living in the U.S when I grew older. I’d marry a doctor, who would be able to support me while I wrote. We’d live in a house on a hill surrounded by woods. There’d be a stream and a pond for ice-skating when the water froze over. I’d have a library, stacked from floor to ceiling with the books I had been collecting my whole life. My library would be filled with light from large diamond-paned windows. I’d have my desk there, beside the windows, and I’d look out over the snow covered trees and I’d write. We’d have ten children, I supposed, since I had ten names that I wanted to bestow. And they would play in the woods and in the creek while I wrote.
The house, the woods, the snow, the sky, the beautifully-named children, the leather-bound books graced with my name. This was what I imagined for myself. At age 29, an age so old I couldn’t even grasp it, I should have at least two novels written, at least three or four children. And the husband, well, he should have come by, at least, age twenty-two.
Walking along the frozen stream, I think that I should try to find some used ice-skates before I leave this place. That I should at least fulfill that part of the dream. I smile at how our ideals change, and how our longings for one place eventually turn into longings for the very place we wanted to abandon. A few years ago I spent a month in Togo trying to learn French. I was constantly waiting for the young man assigned to put up with me, Albert, to come pick me up and take me into the city on his motorcycle. I’d lie under rustling palm trees on the sand, listen to the ocean breath in and out. I would spend whole days waiting. I’d calm myself by sitting under the palm trees, translating children’s books with a French-English dictionary. This is patience, you need to learn it, I would tell myself. In the busy years to come, in the winterous days of graduate school, I must come back to this place. I will align my breath with the sweeping tide, hear the tinkling sigh of dry palm fronds touching each other, feel the sunset lingering on my skin. This is my quiet place. This is my retreat. The core out of which serenity ripples.
At the ASA conference in San Francisco this year, I sat in for a friend at the African Studies table, while he prepared his presentation. An alumnus of our university’s African Studies programme dropped by for a chat. We exchanged greetings in Hausa and he told me of a brilliant young professor at our university in the 70s. He was half-Nigerian, half-American, newly hired in the History department. “One night in November, he dropped me off at a party at another professor’s house. I asked him if he wanted to come in with me, and he said, no, that I should go ahead.
“I never saw him again. That week he disappeared…. They found his body the next spring when the ice melted.” He walked off into the lake, the man told me, off into the black waters that night. The young professor was hearing voices, he told me. It must have frozen over that night.
There would have been a white streak in the ice, a thin line marking the place they had called him. The ice would have crept over top, growing glassy and grey, reflecting the blue of the sky. And after a while, the snow would have come, crusting over the deep waters with a meadow of white. The wind would have played along the edge of the lake, breathing through the pines at the edge, so that if you listened carefully, you might hear them tapping together like palm fronds, and when the moon came out, sweeping a path out over the snow, you might hear the rhythmic sighing of the earth, the breathing of the tides somewhere far, far away.