…all “good” things come to the desperate…
Somewhere in West Africa 1679
“It’s a girl,” the midwife mumbled in a raspy voice. She was a short woman with a bent back, and withered skin much like dates—shrivelled and brown.
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 normally came 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 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 washed over Nneka as her mind went wild with possibilities. The fear of losing another child tore at her; like a monster ripping its claws through her emotions, it left her heart shredded and bleeding. A sudden desperation came over her. She didn’t care that the baby was female anymore; she would rather have a single healthy girl child than have none at all. She wanted—no, needed this one to survive. As she gazed upon the face of the now sleeping infant, her heart ached for motherhood.
Every time Nneka gave birth to another baby, she had 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 ember—slow and painful. With each child that passed, the pity of the people increased. The shaking of their head and empty condolences only helped in fuelling the torment of her sorrow and emptiness. The villagers always came with their 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; in fact, it was as though the gods kept slapping them in her face. Each child died.
The sudden passage of her third baby had proved most traumatic. That day, she was cuddling her dead child in her arms, mumbling meaningless prayers and trying hard 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 her happiness died.
So now, as Nneka stared down at her frail-looking baby, she felt the familiar fear grip her heart and squeeze tight. 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 calm. Nneka quickly looked away, she found the woman’s gaze extremely unsettling. “Mma, what can I do?”
The ancient woman’s bones crackle 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 like a disease; 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 like it was a speck—“as well as the rest that will come from your womb, you must dedicate her to Mbari.”
Nneka’s jaws dropped. She sat frozen as the midwife took careful 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 away, she silently wept.
She wanted to scream and rave like a lunatic, to curse the day she came into the world as a woman. Why didn’t she die in the womb, or lose her life as a child? She refused to turn, even as she recognized the voice of Ijeoma, 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 Ijeoma could offer 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, what was the point of caring for it? When the baby began to cry, her mind was instantly 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?”
Nneka refused to answer. How could she do what the midwife had suggested? Mbari wasn’t even the village’s chief deity; she was known to be a wicked water spirit. She stiffened when Ijeoma sat beside her, still trying to pacify the crying baby.
“What is it? Tell me.”
When Nneka spoke, she told her everything.
Seven days was all it took. Seven days to sacrifice her child to Imbari. 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 as it had most of the day. 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 Ijeoma talk her into this foolishness? How could she live with the knowledge that her child was the property of Mbari? 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 shrine 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 staring down at her? 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 were like footfalls in 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 at 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 show 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 for her beautiful face, and a bid to win the favour of her grandfather. When she begged not to be married her 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 kept dying. 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 at 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 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 Mbari.
The air smelled of the foliage around; decaying leaves and that musky odour the forest always possessed. Nneka jumped when she heard a twig snap. The sound was unnaturally loud, and it came from the bushes a stone 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 barely a whisper. “Bring the child.”
Instead of responding, Nneka stood like a statue and held 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
“It will die if you do not let it go. I am certain you’ve already began 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 Mbari when I was a baby. Am I dead? Mbari 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, Nneka was trapped. Getting to her feet, she unwrapped the baby with care. The girl’s tiny fingers and lips had taken a sickly blue coloration, 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 at the sandy bank of the river, and she could do nothing.
For a while, nothing happened. The water was still, the air humid, and her companions stared ahead with eyes firmly fixed on the river. Every shadow seemed like a prowling a bush cat or spirit. Nneka could almost swear she saw a pair of glowing eyes staring right back at her from the bushes at her right.
When the change began, only a ripple appeared on the placid surface of the water. Then there came a low, whooshing sound that shattered the silence. It sounded like a cross between a waterfall and the disturbing noise a rattle snake 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 woman. She had locks of long, black hair that touched her waist and her nose and lips were small, perfectly shaped. Golden spirals marked each cheek, and 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 entranced her.
Even though Mbari 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 wrapping itself around the spirit’s lithe body like threads. In pure terror and awe, Nneka remained fused to the spot as she watched the spirit come 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 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. Her baby! She had forgotten about her. Seeing her 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 Mbari, don’t kill my daughter.”
With her eyes still shut, she clasped both hands in front of her in a begging stance. There was a long pause. Nneka dared not open her eyes.
“Stand…approach me,” the spirit said, her voice roaring and unclear.
Nneka opened her eyes and raised herself on unsteady feet, staring at the ground as she made her way forward.
“Why?” The goddess voice rose and fell as she drew nearer. “You think I want to kill your child?” She laughed. The sound 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. 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.”
She looked away throughout whatever rite they performed. She chose not to turn even when the cry of her baby pierced the night. She felt so guilty, so wrong, and so foolish.
“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 dark caress—a cold, dark caress. Nneka looked up and gazed into the flaming eyes of Mbari. 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 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 and black; they looked lethal. Drawing in a deep breath, Nneka grasped the leather strap, trying not to let any part of her touch the spirit. She gasped and stumbled backward when the goddess vanished at the same instant. In a panic, she whipped around, checking to see if the goddess was still close by.
“She’s gone. We should head back now.”’
“J-just like t-that?” Nneka stuttered, 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. 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.
*Prologue from a little something I’ve been working on.
Share if you liked it. 😉