It is 11:32pm, and a mob gathers outside my house. It is a crowd made of mostly people from my village—the ones with clubs, sticks, and brandishing machetes with which they scrape the concrete floor of my compound, generating grating noises—and street touts that have come with jerry cans of petrol and disused tires to burn down the building, if I do not emerge before daybreak. There is a new generation preacher too, he is the one banging his palms furiously on my closed window louvers and screaming Destroy by fire! Destroy by fire! Fire yah yah yah yah yah!!! The rest of the people are waiting to see how the life of a twenty-first century witch will end, and a good number have their camera phones at the ready, to make a clip of everything so that they can put it up on Facebook and Instagram. I do not think there is any sympathizer, there wouldn’t be! At least not after they have been briefed on what is going on. They are charged with anger, and I do not need to look into their eyes to feel its crushing weight, the way it is already shearing me down to nothingness.
They have come for my baby. They want to take away my baby boy, Namnukwubata.
You see, this child that I carry in my arms making baby noises is an eerie thing, a camouflage baby, and the reincarnate of my grandfather. The night he was born, the doctors and nurses on duty upon sighting him were shocked, and for a while, a stifling silence had encumbered the delivery room, until a nurse screamed, Agbara oh! Agbara oh! And out of a fear heralded by a deep rooted myth, they took to their heels, all of them. I was left to severe the umbilical cord myself.
That night, the skin that covered this boy’s body was as though it was dyed with splotches of green, brown, black, and tan, mimicking the combat uniform worn by soldiers. The patterning was consistent and evenly spread, reaching into skin folds and orifices, and it became more horrifying the moment you looked into his eyes and saw the colors dissolve into the substance of his sclera. For a moment, a wave of shock had ripped through my body too, the kind that grips you when you feel the presence of a ghostly figure in your room and suddenly your body becomes heavy, riddled with chills and goose bumps, your legs stick to the ground and refuse to move. I watched his arms and fingers begin to move, his tiny toes flex, then I mustered some strength and called for help. I screamed for help. No one answered. It was as though I happened in a graveyard, and as I looked back at the creature and watched it squeeze its face, I was suddenly possessed by a bizarre surge of instinct, to reach for the umbilical clamps in the abandoned surgical tray, and separate the thing—whatever it was—from me as quickly as possible. Just then, he coughed up jets of amniotic fluid and the slimy substance splattered in-between my thighs, leaving me recoiled on the delivery bed, stricken with dread and shaking like a wet leaf. It took some minutes to clamp the cord at two points, some inches away from the monster, before sectioning with a surgical blade. Once free, there was little dark blood and the insides of my thighs hurt, but I lay still and after several minutes of an agonising womb contracture, the placenta slid out.
It was a miracle, but these people with bloodshot eyes outside would not understand. They do not know what a woman goes through during childbirth. They do not know that the horror they speak of I saw it first, I absorbed it with the heart of a mother. And the tearing of the vagina? Ah! It is painful. Forget the anesthetic. Nnam ripped me apart. And so that night, as I cleaned my body with a towel, and watched him shriek, I thought of the best way to kill him. Again. Maybe I should strangle him this time. Maybe put him in a carton and abandon him at the bank of Njaba river, let the water spirit take back what it has given me. Should I just throw him against the wall? Again and again until his paper skull splits open and his fragile brain spills out onto the floor of the theater room? Then I began hearing voices. At first I thought it was the health workers coming back, but when I left the operating room and staggered through the corridor and into the wards, I found no one. Still, the voices grew stronger. They clogged up in my head and giggled, and jeered, and once or twice one will break out in a hysterical laugh that rammed at my ear drums. I held my head in my hands and tried to run, but where I stopped, they gathered around me. I have heard of this before, auditory hallucination. I tried to shake them off, I hurried into a rest room and splashed water on my face, they persisted. I was going insane. Then a voice spoke up from what seemed to have turned to a brabble of some sort. There was this metallic grit to the way it spoke that calmed the other incoherent noises. It began to sing:
She Whom Udala has fallen for on a dry season
Let her pick it
She Who has rebirthed a king
Let her embrace it . . .
My mother sang this song to me as a child. It was her favorite and sometimes we would sing it together. Now this song perfused my ears and haunted me. Each line nauseated my whole body, and I felt my stomach writhing as though it would tear apart. The other voices gradually joined in chorus and soon my head became a discordant orchestra. In time, my vision got blurry, then the strength in my limbs collapsed, and I sank onto the toilet floor.
When I woke up, the noises were gone, like a roll of smoke that had filled a room but then dispersed with time. My head felt light and with this lightness came a kind of confidence that etched its way into my subconscious. Perhaps, the song has done its work. I stood up and found my way back to the operating room. He was still there, the babbling thing. I reached out and lifted him towards me, craddled him in my arms, he was my baby after all, my baby! Let the world fall if it had to, I will keep him! I resolved. Then I smiled at him and looked into his mosaic eyes and in that moment, every hurtful feeling vanishing.
Words spread fast. It was first whispered amongst the locals and passed around as a rumor until I saw it on the front page of a local daily: WOMAN DELIVERS MYSTERIOUS CHILD IN HOSPITAL AND DISAPPEARS WITH IT. Another read: END TIME!!! WOMAN BIRTHS DEVIL IN LOCAL HOSPITAL, PRAY!!! PRAY!!! PRAY!!! At this point it was obvious it has become news, told with a rather horrendous twist that struck an appeal of bewilderment, moreso, dread. I’m sure on the internet it would have caused an uproar.
If I must be seen in public, it must be after nightfall, with Nnam properly concealed in a blanket. My house began to look like an abandoned building, creepers climbing up the fences from the outside and draped in on the other side of the wall, but I lived in there for seven months, alone. My mother would not visit, when I’d reached out and confided in her, she said over her dead body will she touch a cursed thing. It was enough damage to the family’s name to have a child out of wedlock, but to give birth to a monster too? That was sacrilegious! She was the only relative that knew my whereabouts and the last time we spoke over the phone she said, “See, Nene, don’t phone me again until you have got rid of that thing!” That was it, she hung up, and I was left distraught.
The first time my grandfather came back, it was through the vagina of my cousin Kosiso. She was in labor for thirteen hours and when he finally slipped out, her mother told the midwives to snuff life out of him but they couldn’t. They were too scared to tamper with our connection with the supernatural world. The repercussion, they argued, will spread like an epidemic down their bloodline. The baby was simply ominous. It was a local bone setter that brought a basin of rain water and they submerged our grandfather into it. The bone setter had taken the life of his own father this way when the old man was re-born by his wife. Kosiso said he struggled, even as a newborn he struggled and grabbed with his tiny fingers but her mother held him down still. There were bubbles rising up to the surface of the water and she couldn’t look. She said she used to hear his voice in her head, but it stopped when he died.
Nobody told us bad people could come back to the world too. Growing up, we were made to believe reincarnation was a blessing. It was rare, but when it happened, it meant our ancestors had decided to send back one of their own as our guide. The person was revered. In our family, it was believed my father was the reincarnate of my great-great grandfather. They say it was in the bridge of his nose, the way it sloped gently downwards on both sides, to meet thinned out alas. And then his voice that was deep and resonated in his vocal cords. They say my great-great grandfather used to speak to the god of thunder, they used to break kolanuts, and converse in the middle of rainy nights. That their voices roared, and clattered, and shook the walls when they argued. The night he died, he was carried to Njaba river and left on a raft for the currents to carry him away; that was how great men were buried, and by morning, he was gone and my father was born.
Somebody begins to turn the knob of my front door violently, twisting and pulling at it, and banging on the door, all at once. The crowd outside has increased now, with their noise rising doublefold. The frenzied Pastor begins to scream, we should not wait till morning, she may disappear!!! and there is an uproar of Yes! Yes! Yes! From different angles. The banging on the door ceases, then suddenly, a stone smashes through one of the louvers and flies into the sitting room, it shatters against the wall and I gasp, barely holding down the scream climbing up my throat, and clasping Nnam tightly to my chest. Another stone flies in, smashing up two louvers this time, and crashing again on the wall, near the ceramic figurine of an angel atop the shelf, which my mother gave to me as a present when I was five. I have always believed the chiselled relic possessed some supernatural exponent and so struggling with breath, I whisper to it a short nervous prayer to save my child. But the next stone flies in and knocks it off the shelf, breaking it in two.
I put off the lightings and feel my way in the darkness, knocking over a stool and wincing. Somebody begins to bang fists on my door again. Louder, more violently, more persistent. A sweat breaks from the front of my scalp and runs down my face as though it is running from something too. The hinges will give soon, but there is no place to hide. There is no escape route too. When I was building this house, I did not think there would be need for any of those. I just needed a place I could stay alone and be a single parent. In fact, I had wanted to replace one side of the sitting room wall with a thick wall of clear glass looking out to the garden. But my gateman Jacob advised me against it. Sturdy man in his early thirties from Aba, he said, “Oga Madam, you wan invite thief them come your house so? This is not America oh!” and I replied, “Jacob, that is why I have had you even before I laid the foundation of this place. And there is a fence too.” He scratched his balding head and said, “But eh Oga Madam, you know say the fence na see-through, people for street go jus de see you waka around with Peteri inside eh!” Then he shrugged. It was later I learnt that Peteri meant underwear, so I scrapped the whole idea.
Jacob ran away too. He could not bear it—each time I came out in the morning sun, cradling my baby, and humming a lullaby in my native dialect. It was too much of a sight for him so one morning, he’d left a note in one of the flower vases at my front porch. It read:
I no do again oh! Take your money, take everything I no want.
The thing whey you carry for hand na Agbara mili.
The way he wrote GM made me laugh. If you did not know, you would think it meant General Manager.
I feel the knob of the door leading into the long corridor, and suddenly become aware of the way its roundness fills my grip. I begin to notice small irrelevant details, like how when I push the door forward, it creaks too loudly. Is this what happens at the end? How every little detail becomes amplified when life is threatened? Nnam is suckling at his thumb again, breathing softly on my neck. My mother used to tell me that was the way my grandfather suckled at his thumb during the civil war—the way he suckled at his thumb all his life. It was the way he suckled before he raped women in front of junior ranking officers—he was a major, and was in charge of conscripting men from our village and other neighboring villages into the militia—and later took away their husbands to the war front. Most of those men never came back, and by the time the civil war ended, my grandfather had seven children from six different women. Most children born out of circumstance, one day tracing their ways back to their roots to answer their father’s name. The children were the ones who grew up and tore our family apart. My mother always told me many things and the moment I remember this narration, I stop and slap his hand out of his mouth but before I get to the bedroom, he is suckling again, sukuh . . . sukuh . . . sukuh . . .
Perhaps back in America, this wouldn’t have been the case. I would appear on local and national tabloids with different captions like: WOMAN GIVES BIRTH TO WONDER BABY or MR. PRESIDENT SET TO MEET MOTHER AND HER CAMOUFLAGE BABY. CNN, BBC, Aljazeera, and all other important media houses would have it as their lead news every hour. Then ISIS would have released a statement spitting fire at the wake of events, ranting about how America secretly went against the laws of nature to create a human-like soldier, a biological weapon, and perhaps North Korea would’ve gladly fueled the controversy. Of course a battalion of top notch scientists would spring into action, swoop into our private life to begin a nationally funded scientific investigation that may stretch for years and may lead them to winning Nobel prizes in Science. Nnam would have been a global disruption, his skin alone would have been a base for several scientific references, and when he died his bones would have been preserved and put up in a national museum for display.
But this is not America. Here, every unusual thing ends in fire. A boy steals a cup of Garri and an irate mob beats out his teeth, throws Petrol on his body, and sets him ablaze. A girl is raped and she is chided by her people, blamed for her too much openness. A woman stands up to her husband’s abuses, they fight, and pepper is rubbed into her vagina later as a punishment for standing up against her abuser. Here, every unusual thing is irredeemably doomed.
Suddenly, a gunshot crackles outside. There is a moment of quietness, then, there is rumbling of feet and people screaming, shadows scattering in all directions as much as my eyes can make out from the closed louvers. Everywhere is vibrating as though a grader is working the rugged road of the street. The gun cracks again this time close to the room window and the shadow of a man’s figure appears. The outlines of a hat on his head, and a long gun in his hand spreads across the translucent screen, and a feeling of happiness crawls into my body because maybe the police, always complacent with not involving themselves in issues that bothered on the culture and traditions of the people, have gotten a hint of what is happening and has come to quell the fury. This is only a thought because the next minute, the figure raises the gun and fires point blank at the louvers, it shatters, and my portrait on the wall where the bullet lodges into shatters with it, then I am ducking, and scrambling towards the living room clutching Nnam, who surprisingly, is not crying, probably shocked by the whole episode. The next bullet hits me on the arm, piercing through flesh and lodging into bone. Soon my white blouse is dank with warm, sticky, blood and my eyes begin to swoon.
Something must kill a woman, a strong woman. And if it is you, Nnam, you that was fertilized in-vitro with a certain sperm Z, serial no: 215, and implanted into my womb because I choose to be a single parent. You that was made in far away Oklahoma, that I thought being born in your own land would tie you to it, then I will die fighting.
I stumble into the bathroom and bolt the door. My arm is going numb, so I use a towel to hold the blood and rest Nnam on my lap.
The gunshots go on, clockwise, round the building with more windows shattering. The crowd begins to return now, cheering and clapping and some take to the door. I hear them banging on it, its wood creaking, louvers crackling. I feel my heart pounding in my chest, and then I hear Nnam. It begins with a whisper in my head and a smell of smoke suddenly filling the restroom.
“Drown me and I will come again,” he says. At first I’m not sure it is him, until he speaks again and I find him in that still whisper. “Do it! Save yourself, child! I will come back!”
“No way!” I protest in my mind.
Throw away a bad child
Tomorrow we birth another . . .
Throw away a decayed child
Tomorrow we birth another . . .
It is my mother’s voice this time, singing one of those lullabies she loved.
“Leave me!” I scream.
In that moment I hear the door of the sitting room falling, clattering and clanging, and angry voices sipping into the house and fanning out. I hear them rummaging, ceramics crashing on the kitchen floor, something in the room crashing with it too. Then someone is turning the knob of the toilet door. She screams and bang, it is a woman. She leaves and soon returns with more people. They begin to knock. I hold onto Nnam with a renewed fervor and sob into his soft hair curls.
Reluctantly, I turn on the faucet of the bathtub and block the drainage. Then I add soap to the rising water until it lathers and I climb in, sitting until my neck is the only part of my body sticking out. The knock becomes louder, I raise Nnam to my face, and weep.
They begin to hit the door with their clubs and sticks, and soon, the strong blows of a machete begins to pierce through, splintering the fine wood into debris.
“Do it!” Nnam screams in my head again.
And so, in that phase of dread and uncertainty, I submerge underwater and hold us there, mother and child. I do not hear the final stroke that breaks the door down, but I feel the vibration of the hollow wood hitting the bathtub. I hear the faint blasts of the gun and feel the hot bullets piercing my body underwater and I see blood rising, I imagine simple diffusion in my biology classes.
Throw away a bad child
Tomorrow we birth another
Throw away . . .
I try to hum along with the song ringing in my head, but I choke on a mixture of water, and the metallic taste of my own blood, then my world goes black and our time is done.