…all “good” things come to the desperate…
Somewhere in West Africa 1679
“It’s a girl,” the midwife mumbled in a hoarse voice. She was a short woman with a bent back and withered brown skin so wrinkled it resembled dried dates.
Nneka smiled a little then turned her face away. She wasn’t sad, but at the same time she did not feel the joy that should come upon those who brought forth new life. The baby was her sixth—that is if one was to count dead children. She was probably the cause of their death, her poisonous womb sealing their fate before they were born. When she heard the wail of the baby, she allowed her smile to grow and embraced hope for a moment. This one would make it, maybe death was satisfied.
When the midwife placed the crying child in her arms, there was a grave look on her face. Dread settled over Nneka like a wet cloth. The fear of losing another child was a rampaging monster ripping her heart with its claws, choking her hope, snapping its neck. Amidst the storm of her sorrow came a sudden desperation. She didn’t care that the baby was female anymore; she would rather have a single healthy girl child than have ten dead sons. She wanted—no, needed this one to survive. She gazed upon the face of the now-sleeping infant. So beautiful. Her heart ached with the longing for motherhood.
Every time Nneka gave birth to another baby, she prayed to the gods to have mercy and spare their lives. But as surely as the sun rose each morning, death always came knocking, demanding the lives of her conjugal fruits. Death was merciless; he would sometimes wait for months and let her hope that perhaps one child might survive. Her expectation was always put out like dying embers—slowly and painfully. With each child that passed, the pity of the people increased. The shaking of their head and empty condolences only fuelled the torment of her sorrow and emptiness. The villagers always came with empty advice, and Nneka was certain that if she were to pile them all up, they’d be as tall as the Udege hills. Her countless sacrifices and numerous rites never worked. Each child died.
The sudden passage of her third baby had proved most traumatic. That day, she was clutching her dead child in her arms, mumbling meaningless prayers and fighting not to weep. It had been a boy, and he had only seen seven days before he died. But the baby was strong and vibrant, so perfect to look at. His death was an unexpected blow. She remembered how cold and limp he’d felt as she held him—as cold and limp as the two others before him. When the midwife called her dead baby Ogbanje, she’d wanted to scream at her to shut her mouth. She had suspected, denied, and even acted as though she was deaf whenever Amara, the youngest, newest, and most fertile wife of her husband, mentioned it. But when the midwife spoke out the fear she only dared to whisper in the dark recesses of her mind, her spirit broke and whatever simple joy she found in life died.
So now, as Nneka stared down at her frail-looking beautiful baby, she felt the familiar grip of fear, that tight squeeze. Why did her stubborn heart still wish? Why did she still hold on to the feeble strings of hope that failed her so many times before? Slowly looking up, she let her eyes meet the midwife’s blank stare. The woman’s expression was both sage-like and eerily hard. Nneka quickly looked away, she found the woman’s gaze unsettling. “Mma, what can I do?”
The ancient woman’s joints popped as she straightened. For a long, agonizing moment, Nneka watched her slowly gather her delivery items, dropping them into her basket, one by one. Finally, the midwife asked her apprentice to leave the hut. The tall girl, who looked to be about fifteen, nodded and scurried out.
“There is a way.”
Nneka let out a sharp breath. Though she had heard that kind of talk on several occasions, her heart still jumped, hoping against hope. “Please, tell me.”
At this point, her desperation was a disease—the kind that eats the mind; she was prepared to do anything. She needed this one to live. The midwife had years of experience, maybe her advice would set her free from her chains of loss.
“To ensure the child’s survival,”—the woman pointed at her baby with a gnarled finger—“as well as the rest that will come from your womb, you must dedicate her to Ímò Ḿmírí.”
Nneka’s jaws went slack as she stared at the woman in stupefied horror. She sat frozen as the midwife took measured steps out of the hut. Moments later, her apprentice rushed in, grabbed her basket then dashed out. After what seemed like ages, Nneka heard a knock at her bamboo door. She refused to answer. Turning her face to the wall, she silently wept.
She wanted to wail and rave like a lunatic, to curse the day she came into the world as a woman. Why didn’t she die in her mother’s womb, or lose her life as a child? She refused to turn, even as she recognized the voice of Titi, her husband’s first of three wives. The woman was barren but kind to a fault, yet Nneka refused to meet her eyes or acknowledge her presence. She knew in her heart that no amount of comfort Titi offers would assuage her pain. She wept harder when she heard her coo and lift the baby from her slack arms. Since it would eventually die, was there a need to care for it? When the baby began to cry, her mind was assaulted with raw memories of the five others that died. They had cried a lot, too.
“Why are you weeping? Can’t you see the beautiful child you bore? Look at her eyes. So beautiful.”
Nneka refused to answer. How could she do what the midwife had suggested? Ímò Ḿmírí wasn’t even the village’s chief deity; she was known to be a wicked water spirit. She stiffened when Titi settled beside her, still trying to pacify the crying baby.
“What is it? Tell me. It is better when two face an enemy. Do not cry, o?”
When Nneka finally found the courage to speak, she told Titi everything.
Seven days were all it took. Seven days to sacrifice her child to Ímò Ḿmírí. Was that not what it meant? To offer her child to a…she forced her mind not to complete the thought.
They were walking into the forest, and the light from the torches held did nothing to lessen her fear of the dark. Her unnamed, seven-day-old baby was asleep against her chest, the same way it had been since she fed her in the early hours of the morning. Nneka knew what it meant. Her other babies had died that way—in their sleep.
As she walked along the unfamiliar bush path and ventured deeper into the forest, her heart raced furiously. She gained no comfort from the knowledge that four others walked with her. The midwife told her to come clothed in a white wrapper, and the baby was to be wrapped in the same cloth, pressed between her breasts. It was not an easy task to achieve. Despite the fact that she wrapped the baby securely, she still had to support it.
The baby appeared not to be bothered by the warmth, but Nneka, on the other hand, had begun to sweat. Why did she let Titi talk her into this foolishness? How could she live with the knowledge that her child was the property of Ímò Ḿmírí? She had heard tales about the goddess, and the stories were chilling, to say the least. The goddess was not kind and benevolent; she was the one who ruled the river named after her and caused it to overflow its banks, submerging houses and drowning children. There were even tales of her releasing poisonous snakes to bite unfortunate fishermen who ventured too close to the spot her Mbari was located.
Nneka gulped and began shivering despite the heat. The forest was too silent, and the night too dark. Where was the moon, and why did the trees have to look like tall, gnarly giants watching her every move? The óvú bird did not hoot, the crickets had gone to sleep, and everything that ever made a sound in the forest was oddly silent. Her steps felt like a walk of death; something was amiss.
She began to question her need for a child. She could still survive; her husband already had enough children to continue his lineage. He wasn’t even upset that her children weren’t surviving, as a matter of fact, he wasn’t upset about anything concerning her. When she lied about going to spend the night at the midwife’s compound, he had given a passive nod. When she told him she bore a girl, he gave another passive nod and a pat on the back. The thought was infuriating. How could he not care? She wondered why she was surprised. She was an ornament to him, a thing of display that existed to be looked at and boost his social status. That was how it always was, right from the start. He never loved her, only marrying her for her beautiful face and a bid to win the favour of her grandfather. When she begged not to be married off, she was shunned immediately. She was a woman, and like so many before her, she had no say in the matter of choosing a husband. Now, she didn’t have the attention of her husband, and all her children rejected life. Her life was an endless circle of disappointment.
As she journeyed with fear and wretchedness resting on both shoulders, she tried hard to shut out the images of the thick bushes. They were like tall walls on both sides, guiding them into the darkness. Her imagination went wild picturing rabid creatures of the dark lurking in the bushes, watching and waiting for an opportunity to pounce and drag her to the world of the spirits.
The midwife was accompanied by another woman. She was old and equally bent with an eye clouded in a white mist. Nneka did not recognise her; she was certain the woman wasn’t from their village. They walked in a straight line with her between the old women, and the two young men at their front and rear. No one spoke a word; she had been warned to be silent at the beginning of the trek. The men who held the torches had their faces painted with white chalk putty and charcoal, the facial decoration making their heads resemble skulls—skulls holding a single blade of grass between their teeth. She recalled when she first sighted their gleaming machetes and expressionless faces, she had wondered if she was the one to be sacrificed to Ímò Ḿmírí.
The air smelled of the foliage around; decaying leaves and that musty odour the forest always possessed. Nneka jumped when a twig snapped. The sound was unnaturally loud, and it came from the bushes a stone’s throw away. She stopped short, eyes going wide and body trembling like a leaf in the wind. The old woman behind pushed her forward with the tip of her walking stick. She hurried on, clutching her fragile baby and praying for Amadioha, the god of thunder and lightning, to strike her dead for making such a horrible decision. She should have let the baby die.
Nneka stifled a sigh of relief when they stopped in front of a river.
At last, the unfamiliar old woman spoke, her voice low and rough. “Bring the child.”
Instead of responding, Nneka remained still and hugged her child as if she was life itself.
“Bring the child,” the woman whispered again. This time, her voice was hard and impatient.
Nneka shut her eyes and said the first word that came to her mind. “No.”
She sank to her knees and shook her head. Even when she heard someone walk in her direction, she still refused to open her eyes or present her child. Her heart was doing a slow heavy dance in her chest. Her entire head throbbed in time with her heartbeat. Fear spread its bitterness at the back of her tongue. She wished for sudden death.
“It will die if you do not let it go. I am certain you’ve already begun to see the signs of death. Do not be the foolish woman who would lose yet another child because she was afraid. I was dedicated to Ímò Ḿmírí when I was a baby. Am I dead? Ímò Ḿmírí gave me long life; she nourishes my bones, bringing health to my body. The goddess offers your child much more than it deserves. Do not be stubborn. If you give up now, you will never be able to give birth to anything that will survive.” The midwife’s voice was bitter and harsh, a cold slap of reality.
It was too late to turn back; after all, Nneka was already here. Was there a need to fight, a need to not see if a chance at happiness existed for her? rising to her feet, she unwrapped the baby with care. The girl’s tiny fingers and lips had taken a sickly blue colouration, and Nneka knew, she knew the child was dying. As she placed the sleeping baby in the bony arms of the older woman, she fought back tears. Her delicate daughter was being laid on the sandy bank of the river, and she did nothing to save it from her foolishness.
For a while, nothing happened. The water was still, the air humid, and her companions stared ahead with eyes firmly fixed on the dark surface of the river. Every shadow seemed like a prowling bush cat or spirit. Nneka could almost swear she saw a pair of glowing eyes staring right back at her from the bushes to her right.
When the change began, only a ripple appeared on the placid water. Then there came a low, whooshing sound that shattered the silence. It was a cross between a waterfall and the disturbing noise a rattlesnake lets off when threatened. Nneka’s heart crawled up her chest as she hugged her tiny frame, willing herself not to turn and dash into the forest.
The light from the torches revealed a wide swirl not too far from the bank of the river. A dark figure slowly emerged from the swirl; it resembled a woman, a very strange, dreamlike stunning woman. She had locks of long, black hair that fell to her waist; her nose and lips were small and perfectly shaped. Golden spirals marked each cheek. As the spirit drew nearer, Nneka could not tear her eyes away. She was no longer aware of her companions, nor of her baby lying on the bank of the river. The sight of the goddess had completely captured her attention, entrancing her.
Even though Ímò Ḿmírí looked human, she only did so in form. Her charcoal-black skin seemed to suck in light, and her eyes shone with the same amber flame as the torches. She was clothed with water, the clear liquid continuously wrapped around the spirit’s lithe body like fine threads. In pure terror and awe, Nneka watched the spirit draw closer and closer.
When the spirit finally reached the bank of the river, Nneka snapped out of her haze. She realised she was the only one still on her feet. The rest were kneeling with their heads bowed. Fearing for her life, she quickly joined the rest, allowing her forehead to touch the cool, sandy ground.
In her peripheral vision, she saw the midwife and the other old woman rise to their feet. They moved towards her baby and carried her from the river bank.
She had forgotten about her. Seeing her child being carried towards the spirit, Nneka couldn’t stifle the strangled cry that escaped her lips. Not trusting her feet to carry her, she raised her head and shut her eyes. “Please, merciful Ímò Ḿmírí, don’t kill my daughter.”
With her eyes still shut, she clasped both hands in front of her face in a begging stance. There was a long pause. Nneka dared not open her eyes.
“Stand…approach me,” the spirit said, her voice hushed and disembodied.
Nneka opened her eyes and raised herself on unsteady feet, staring at the ground as she made her way forward.
“Why?” The goddess’s voice rose and fell around Nneka as she drew nearer. “You think wish to kill your child?” She laughed. There was nothing merry about the sound. It was dark and chilling.
“P-please…” Now that Nneka thought of it, she saw how disrespectful her outburst must have sounded.
Nneka looked from her baby to the terrifying face of the river goddess and dropped her gaze immediately. There was no use. Her child would still die even if it was given back to her. She bowed her head and took a step back. “Forgive me. I have nothing to say.”
All through the time the rite was performed on her child, she kept her gaze averted and occupied her mind with foolish thoughts like what to name her child. No scarifications will mare her face. She hated those. She chose not to turn even when the cry of her baby pierced the night. She felt so guilty, so wrong, and so foolish. Oriaku was a fine name. Her child will survive. Grow to become the most beautiful of women and marry a man who will shower her with all his wealth and adoration. Yes, Oriaku was a fine name, unlike Nneka. Mother was not greater in her case. Motherhood had eluded her to the extent of—
“It is done. Let the mother come forward.”
Nneka shivered at the words of the river goddess, but with eyes fixed on the ground, she boldly marched forward.
“Look at me.” The spirit’s voice felt like a cold, dark caress. Nneka looked up and gazed into the flaming eyes of Ímò Ḿmírí. Her hair no longer looked tame; the locks thrashed about like a hundred earthworms bathed in lime juice.
“Your child will live, as long as she wears this.” The river goddess stretched an open palm. When Nneka looked, she saw a shiny, black cowrie tied to a long, thin leather strap. She had never seen a cowrie that colour and it shone with a strange beauty.
“Take it,” the goddess urged, holding out the necklace that rested on her palm to Nneka. The spirit’s fingers were webbed, and her nails were long, sharp and black. Drawing in a fortifying breath, Nneka grasped the leather strap, trying not to let any part of her touch the spirit. She gasped and stumbled away when the goddess vanished in the same instant. In a panic, Nneka whipped around, checking to see if the goddess had materialised at another spot.
“She’s gone. We should head back now.”
“J-just like t-that?” Nneka mumbled, stretching her arms to carry her baby.
“Yes, just like that. Be careful to do as she says.”
Nneka nodded mindlessly as she gazed at her baby. She didn’t look like death anymore, but there was a mark on her forehead, a thin, grey line stretching from her hairline to the base of her nose. It added an odd beauty to her face. Perhaps this scarification was acceptable—not that she had a choice in the matter. Nneka shut her eyes and begged her daughter for forgiveness as she placed the cowrie around her neck.
“You are my gate, my entrance to motherhood. Because of you, your brothers and sisters will no longer be the property of death. Forgive me, my child,” Nneka whispered and pressed a kiss on her baby’s warm forehead.
And as they walked back to the village, Nneka’s battered hope grew stronger. The black cowrie that rested on her daughter’s tiny chest was a symbol and an assurance of what was to come.
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