Once Upon a Time, Gabriel Okara

Once upon a time, son,

they used to laugh with their hearts,

and laugh with their eyes;

but now they only laugh with their teeth,

while their ice block cold eyes

search behind our shadows.

There was a time indeed

they used to shake hands with their hearts;

but that’s gone, son.

Now they left shake hands without hearts

while their left hands search

my empty pockets.
‘Feel at home!’ ‘Come again’:

they say, and when I come

again and feel

at home, once, twice,

there will be no thrice-

for then I find doors shut on me

So I have learned many things, son.

I have learned to wear many faces

like dresses – home face,

office face, street face, host face,cocktail face,

with all their conforming smiles

like a fixed portrait smile.

And I have learned too

to laugh with only my teeth

and shake hands without my heart.

I have also learned to say, ‘Goodbye’,

when I mean ‘Good-riddance’:

to say ‘Glad to meet you’,

without being glad; and to say ‘It’s been

nice talking to you’, after being bored.
But believe me, son.

I want to be what I used to be

when I was like you. I want

to unlearn all these muting things.

Most of all, I want to relearn

how to laugh, for my laugh in the mirror

shows only my teeth like a snake’s bare fangs!

So show me, son,

how to laugh; show me how

I used to laugh and smile

once upon a time when I was like you.

A Continuation by Niena

Yes papa, you were right, papa

but papa, I’m not worried about that-

about the thing that people do when they pretend all day long

Oh papa, all I want is for people to accept me for who I am

I want them to know that my smiley face means, “I know you”

Smiley face means, “hello, how are you?”

For sometimes papa,it’s easier to just smile

than to say I’m sad, papa

Smiley face is happy face

Smiley face is angry face

Smiley face is bored face

Oh papa, you don’t know how hard it is

when all I want is to lie on my bed

and to stare into empty space

while time flies by all day

Yet people can’t simply understand that

there are people born like that!


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