Once Upon a Time


Once upon a time, my 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 my shadow.


There was a time indeed

they used to shake hands with their hearts:

but that’s gone, son.

Now they 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 – homeface,

officeface, streetface, hostface

cocktailface, with all their conforming smiles

like a fixed portrait smile.


And I have learned too

to laugh only with 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



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.


Gabriel Okara