Start Reading Helen Oyeyemi’s Stunning Short Story Collection

The stories in What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours are cleverly built around the idea of keys, literal and metaphorical.

helen oyeyemi

is your blood as red as this?

I.

(no)

You always said, Myrna Semyonova, that we weren’t right for each other. And it always made my heart sink when you said that, but my answer was always: You’re wrong. I’ll show you. I’ll show you. I’ve got something that other lovers would give a great deal to possess: a perfect memory of the very first time I saw you. I was fifteen, and my handsome, laconic eighteen-year-old brother burned brightest among my heroes. I followed him everywhere—well, he sometimes managed to escape me, but most of the time he didn’t make too much of an effort. That’s Arjun’s gift; never trying too hard, always doing just enough. Somehow he knew how to be with people, when to make eye contact and when to gaze thoughtfully into the distance, how to prove that you’re paying attention to what you’re being told. It was Jyoti’s breaking up with him that improved his people skills. For three years Jyoti had been warning him and warning him about his tendency not to listen to her, or to anyone. Don’t you ever think that one day you might miss something really important, Arjun, she’d say. Something that someone can only say one time? He tried to focus. Well, he claimed that he was trying, but he still tuned out. If Jyoti was talking, then he’d gaze adoringly at her but not hear a word, and with everyone else he’d just fall silent and then insert a generic comment into the space left for him to speak in. God knows where his mind used to go.

One day Jyoti met up with him at the café down the road for a make-or-break conversation. She had a favor to ask him, she said, and if he didn’t at least consider doing it then there was no point in their being together. Jyoti, you have my full attention, he said immediately. Tell me—I’m listening. Fifteen minutes later, she checked her watch, kissed him on the cheek, and left the café beaming. She was late to meet a friend, but he’d agreed to do her the big favor she’d asked for. Only he had no idea what the favor was supposed to be. She’d lost him about four words in.

He asked a woman sitting nearby if she’d overheard the conversation, and if she could by any chance tell him what had been asked of him, but the woman was elderly and said: “Sorry love, I’m a bit hard of hearing nowadays.”

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A couple on the other side of him categorically denied having heard anything, even after he told them the future of his relationship depended on it—this was England after all, where minding one’s own business is a form of civil religion. So all he could do was wait for Jyoti’s furious I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU phone call, and vow to win her love again one day, when he’d become a better man. I was learning a lot from Arjun. And I had lots more to learn. In those days when anyone spoke to me I became a flustered echo, scrambling up the words they’d said to me and then returning them as fast as I could. Blame it on growing pains, or on the ghost I shared my bedroom with.

Myrna, before you I could only really talk to my brother and the ghost. There was something disorganized about the way she spoke that rubbed off on me. Plus she (the ghost) had warned me that the minute I grew up I wouldn’t be able to see her anymore. “How will I know when I’ve grown up?” When I started using words I didn’t really know the meaning of, she said. I said I did that already, and she said yes but I worried about it and grown-ups didn’t. (Of course I’m paraphrasing her; when I think back on her syntax it’s like hearing a song played backward.) So then there’s this trepidation that you’re going to suddenly find yourself having a conversation that turns you into a grown-up, a conversation that stops you being able to see things and people that are actually there. My brother knew about the ghost, but described her as an alarmist, said I needed to get out more and invited me to his friend Tim’s nineteenth birthday party. The party where I met you, Myrna.

“You can be my date tonight if you like,” Arjun said.

“Won’t people think it’s creepy?” I asked.

“Nah . . . if anything females are into males who are nice to their verbally challenged little sisters,” he said. “Gives the impression of having a caring side and stuff like that.”

“What a relief! I’d hate to come between you and the females.”

“Don’t even worry about that, Radha. That’s never going to happen.” (And so on.)

I know what it is to have a brother that people like talking to, so I brought a book just in case the evening took Arjun away from me. But he stuck with me, introduced me to the birthday boy, called upon his friends to observe the way I calmly matched him beer for beer, generally behaved in a way that made me feel as if I was something more than a stammering fly on the wall. Then a boy approached us—well, Arjun, really—a nondescript sort of boy, I’m surprised to say, since his hair was green. He had a look of rehearsal on his face, he was silently practicing sentences he’d prepared, and Arjun said to me quietly: “Wonder what this one’s after.”

The boy, Joe, was Tim’s cousin.

“Joe who goes to the puppet school?” Arjun asked.

“Yeah . . .”

“Seen, seen,” Arjun said. “What you saying?”

“Girls like you, don’t they?” Joe asked.

Arjun lowered his eyelids and shrugged; if I’d been wearing sleeves I’d have laughed into one of them. Joe had a twenty-pound note, which he was willing to hand over to my brother right now if Arjun would go over to a certain girl, dance with her, talk to her, and appear to enjoy her company for a couple of hours. Once I realized what he was asking, I thought: Even Arjun will be lost for words this time. But my brother must’ve had similar requests before (can teenage boys really be so inhuman?) because he asked: “Is she really that butters? I haven’t seen any girl I’d rate below a seven tonight. A good night, I was thinking.”

The boy had the good grace to blush. “No, she’s not that ugly. Just . . . not my type.”

“Why did you even bring her then, if she’s not your type?” Arjun asked.

“It was a dare,” Joe said, miserably. “I don’t usually do things like this—you can ask Tim—just believe me when I say I didn’t have much of a choice. I didn’t think she’d say yes. But she did.”

“Mate . . . don’t pay people to hang out with her.”

“I don’t know what else to do. She’s got to have a good time. She’s my headmaster’s daughter. I don’t think she’d get me expelled or anything—maybe she won’t even say anything to him. But she’s his daughter.”

“Better safe than sorry,” my brother agreed. Myrna, by that point I was already looking around to see if I could spot you (what level of unattractiveness forces people to pay cash so as to be able to avoid having to look at it or speak to it?) and when Joe said that he’d been trying to talk to you but you just sat there reading your book, I searched all the harder.

“What kind of person brings a book to a party,” Arjun said expressionlessly, without looking at me, but he gave a little nod that I interpreted as a suggestion that I seek this girl out.

“What’s her name?” I asked. Joe told me. I found you half buried in a beanbag, pretending to read that dense textbook that takes all the fun out of puppeteering, the one your father swears by—Brambani’s War Between the Fingers and the Thumb. Curse stuffy old Brambani. Maybe his lessons are easier to digest when filtered through stubbornly unshed tears. You had a string of fairy lights wrapped around your neck. I sort of understood how that would be comforting, the lights around your neck. Sometimes I dream I’m falling, and it’s not so much frightening as it is tedious, just falling and falling until I’m sick of it, but then a noose stops me short and I think, well, at least I’m not falling anymore. Clearly I hadn’t arrived in your life a moment too soon. You looked at me, and this is how I saw you, when first I saw you: I saw your eyes like flint arrows, and your chin set against the world, and I saw the curve of your lips, which is so beautiful that it’s almost illusory— your eyes freeze a person, but then the flickering flame of your mouth beckons.

Thank God Joe was so uncharacteristically panicky and stupid that evening. I discovered that I could talk to you in natural, complete sentences. It was simple: If I talked to you, perhaps you would kiss me. And I had to have a kiss from you: To have seen your lips and not ever kissed them would have been the ruin of me . . .

As for what you saw of me—I think you saw a kid in a gray dress gawping at you like you were the meaning of life. You immediately began talking to me as if I were a child at your knee. You told me about how stories come to our aid in times of need. You’d recently been on a flight from Prague, you told me, and the plane had gone through a terrifyingly long tunnel of turbulence up there in the clouds. “Everyone on the plane was freaking out, except the girl beside me,” you said. “She was just reading her book—maybe a little bit faster than usual, but otherwise untroubled. I said to her: ‘Have you noticed that we might be about to crash?’ And she said: ‘Yes I did notice that actually, which makes it even more important for me to know how this ends.’”

I got you to dance, and I got you to show me a few of the exercises you did for hand flexibility, and I got you to talk about your school and its classrooms full of students obsessed with attaining mastery of puppets. I liked the sound of it. Your eyes narrowed intently as you spoke of your final year there: The best two students were permitted to choose two new students and help them through their first year. It was in your mind to play a part in another puppeteer’s future, that much was clear. You believed in the work that puppet play can do—you’d seen it with your own eyes. Before your father began teaching, back in the days when he performed, you had seen a rod puppet of his go down on its knees before a girl who sat a little aside from his audience of schoolchildren. This girl had been looking on with her hair hanging over her face, only partly hiding a cruel-looking scar; her eyes shone with hatred. Not necessarily hatred of your father or of puppets or the other children, but a hatred of make-believe, which did not heal, but was only useful to the people who didn’t need it. Man and long-bearded puppet left the stage, walked over to the girl, and knelt—the puppet’s kneeling was of course guided by your father’s hand, and every eye in the audience was on your father’s face, but his uncertain expression convinced everyone that the puppet had suddenly expressed a will of its own. “Princess, I am Merlin, your Merlin,” the puppet man said to the girl. “At your service forever.”

“Me?” the girl said, suspicious, on the edge of wrath—you just try and make me the butt of your joke—“Me, a princess? You, at my service?”

“It’s no mistake.” The puppet’s hand moved slowly, reverently; it held its breath despite having no breath to hold, the girl allowed that wooden hand to fondly brush her cheek—watching, you were absolutely sure that no hand of flesh and bone would have been allowed to come that close. “This is the sign by which we recognize you,” the puppet said, “but if you wish you may continue as you are in disguise.”

And your father and his puppet returned to the stage, never turning their backs on the girl, as is the protocol regarding walking away from royalty. The girl’s teacher cried, but the girl herself just looked as if she was thinking. She continued to think through the second act of the puppet play, but by the third act she was clapping and laughing as loudly as the rest of them. I really don’t know why I thought your reaching the end of that story would be a good moment to kiss you; I wasn’t entirely surprised that it didn’t work.

“Young lady, I’m flattered—and tempted—but—how old are you, anyway?” you asked. Then you said I was too young. Too young, not right for you, blah blah blah. Always something.

Joe and Arjun appeared with our coats, and you slid my book out of my coat pocket. “What’s this?”

Fate is what it was. Yes, fate that the book I had with me was a novel written by my great-grandfather, a text you couldn’t read because my great-grandfather had put a permanent ban on any of his works being translated into English, Russian, or French. He was adamant that these three are languages that break all the bones of any work translated into them. Since people like getting around rules, there are various unofficial translations of my great-grandfather’s books floating around online, but all of them just seem to prove his point.

***

To keep reading this story and others in the collection, pick up a copy of What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, out in paperback now.


Reprinted from What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours © 2016 by Helen Oyeyemi. Published by Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Author Photo: © Manchul Kim

HELEN OYEYEMI is the author of the story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, along with five novelsmost recently Boy, Snow, Bird, which was a finalist for the 2014 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She received a 2010 Somerset Maugham Award and a 2012 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. In 2013, she was named one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists.

About HELEN OYEYEMI

HELEN OYEYEMI

HELEN OYEYEMI is the author of the story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, along with five novelsmost recently Boy, Snow, Bird, which was a finalist for the 2014 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She received a 2010 Somerset Maugham Award and a 2012 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. In 2013, she was named one of Granta‘s Best Young British Novelists.