Put one aching foot in front of the other. Then run your thumb over your forehead and snap off the small pool of sweat. Take short, shallow breaths and occasionally stop to take a long, deep one. You’ll see these activities come with a kind of thrill that surpasses whatever view will be presented from the top. I know this. And so on this cold Sunday morning, in the company of two friends, I went climbing the Iyake Mountains at Ado-Iwaye, a small town in Southwestern part of Nigeria. I have always enjoyed climbing, even when the muscles in my thighs are begging for a break. I consider it a form of rediscovery, a way to see how much I can convince my body to do something even when it does not feel up to it.
About two weeks earlier, I sat quietly on a bus, unsure of what lay ahead. The first thing I noticed when I arrived at Ebedi Writers Residency in Iseyin was the tree with beautiful, yellow leaves and flowers blooming beside the gate. I entered the room assigned to me and put my bag on the bed. It would remain there until the end of the residency. I didn’t put my clothes in the wardrobe either; I lived from my bag. Easing myself—body and mind—into new places and spaces sometimes takes me a while. I was only here for four weeks.
The town of Iseyin is about ninety minutes’ drive from Ibadan, the historical city surrounded by seven hills. Mr. Koffi, the administrator at the residency mentioned there was a Suspended Lake in Ado-Iwaye, a neighbouring town. We, the two other writers in residence and I, decided we would go there. Cresting the mountains to see a lake wasn’t such a bad idea, especially since there are only two of them in the world.
On our way to the mountain that morning, Mr. Koffi pointed to a house. “That’s the home of Professor Peller.”
“Who is Professor Peller?” I asked
“Was. He’s dead. Really, you’ve never heard of him? He was one of the most renowned magicians in Africa. He was only thirteen when he started performing illusion tricks.” As he spoke about him, I knew I was going to return to the house. A quick search on the Internet, I saw a photograph of Professor Peller. He was wearing a suit and a hat, his hands were placed above the body of a woman levitating in front of him.
About a week later, following some arrangements by Mr. Koffi, I met a man. I don’t remember his name now, but before I met this man who preferred to be addressed as “doctor,” I imagined someone much older considering the nature of his job: a traditional healer. He would take me to Professor Peller’s house. It was not open to the public. Going with a relative was an entrée, and this man was family. I had spoken to him on the phone earlier and he told me to come meet him at his office. Inside, I saw a man lying on a bed, right leg wound with bandages. For the woman at the other end of the room, it was her hand.
In his office—a small room with a table, a chair and a mattress on the floor—he began to tell me how powerful a magician Professor Peller was. He attended Peller’s performances many years ago, but the most profound trick in his memory now was when he witnessed him cut his wife into bits and then restored the pieces. He remembered watching in astonishment, and cheering along with the audience, as the woman walked back into the hall. “We were all sad to hear he was killed in his home in Lagos,” he said, looking into the distance. “You know, he used to give to the poor. Everyone loved him. He was such a good man.”
He also told me that in his work as a healer, it was God who directed him on what case to accept. “Even if it’s only a broken finger, if God tells me to not take it, I won’t. But if he wants me to let in someone with crushed bones, I will. There is nothing God cannot do. I follow his will.” Unfortunately, he told me, he was just on his way out of town, but his brother Omotayo was available to take me to Professor Peller’s house.
It was quiet when we got there. Omotayo told me no one had lived in the house since Professor Peller died for fear of encountering his ghost. Somewhere at the corner of the compound were several tombs painted white. On the walls were engravings I’d only seen on TV: a woman floating in the air, held up by a sword, a human body being cut into bits, a man standing in flames. At the back of the house was a swimming pool, or what was left of it, as filth and spirogyra now dominated the insides.
The entrance of the house was a carving in shape of the mouth of a lion in the middle of a roar. There was no furniture, save for the wooden home bar at one end of the room. On the wall was a fading painting of a snake. Looking out the window from atop the stairs offered a clearer view of the numerous carvings and sculptures in the compound. Perhaps it was when I imagined my body becoming smaller and harder until it turned into a stone that I became afraid. Or when I remembered I was alone in a quiet house with a stranger, a man. My curiosity had brought me here, to a dead magician’s house no one had resided for two decades out of terror. What did I think I’d find? “We should go now,” I said to him.
I was taking a walk one evening when I met a man. He was sitting under a small shed, hands clutching on to the wood as though he was about to rise and needed some support to help push up his large body mass. He dropped his hands when he saw me approaching.
“What do you want?”
“Nothing,” I said. I’m just walking. Good evening.”
“There’s nothing there to see.”
“Okay,” I said, but I kept walking. Behind the shed was an open space. At one corner, there were old pots and cement blocks piled on each other.
I would later look back at this moment. What did he mean there was nothing there? How did he know what I considered something? Don’t the eyes become accustomed to the everydayness of things, so much that their significances become forgotten? At what point does the eye tire in beholding a beauty?
When I returned to my room, I turned on my computer to write. Where were the words now that I had all the time? After about two hours of writing scattered, incoherent sentences, I started watching Sherlock.
On our way up the Iyake mountain that morning, I saw a huge piece of precariously placed rock with religious markings. There were cactuses bearing the etching of names of climbers who came long before us. The lake sat quietly at the top, unperturbed by people coming to disrupt its stillness. The second hanging lake is in Colorado, attracting a great number of visitors at different times of the year. In terms of aesthetics, what I saw here paled in comparison to the online images of the other one. As we descended, a group of people carrying small kegs and bottles asked us for the direction of the lake. They said they wanted to get some water to use for ablution.
“Why this water?” I asked.
The man looked at me and my friends for a moment, as though wondering how come we did not already know the answer. “Because the water is good and merciful.”
Merciful? I started to ask what he meant by that but I stopped myself. At the base of the mountain, the people there told us Christians also use the water for religious purposes. “When they pray on it and bathe with it, something miraculous happens.”
We returned to the residency, and the leaves on the tree appeared to have multiplied. As I proceeded to take pictures with my phone, as I had done several times before, it occurred to me that, perhaps being able to see the bright, yellow colours of these leaves, perhaps waking up every day and recording—or attempting to—what it’s like for me to be in the world, perhaps being able to read and connect with the words of writers I may never meet, a reminder that I’m not alone, are miracles in themselves.