Posted in Christian fiction, Contemporary, Short story

Choorile

 

Choorile

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

Sanil sits at the entrance of his home, his eyes turned towards the sky which is dark and low, a sure sign of rain. Absent-mindedly, he wonders if it would actually rain, how long such a rain might last, and he is grateful for the stilts on which his wooden home rests, a protection from the floods that would inevitably follow.

 

For flood is a common occurrence in the Rupununi grasslands where he had been born, where he had been married, where he yet lives with his four sons and one daughter.

 

His spirit weighs heavily within him, his eyes filling with tears a man should not be seeing shedding.

 

It had been on such a night like this, a rainy stormy night, that Indira was born, that Nalini was lost, that his life went from familiar to strange.

 

Suddenly, the dark night is torn by a low mournful cry, not unlike someone in agony. The cry stops almost as soon as it starts, and just like it has happened for three days in a row, three-month-old Indira starts to cry. Sanil envisions his aged mother rousing, shhing her granddaughter, waving the palm fronds she’d procured from the herbalist to fend off spirits.

 

His Nalini’s spirit. His unbelievably beautiful, tender wife’s spirit.

 

As a young Christian, Sanil is torn between the age-long belief system of his Indian-Guyanese heritage and the truth he knows the Bible teaches.

 

This is the third night he would hear the mourning spirit, the choorile everyone says is the spirit of Nalini. For she had perished in childbirth, leaving a daughter alive. And according to the Guyanese folklore of jumbees, she would forever be restless, roaming at night, crying mournfully.

 

Pastor Mark, new to the village from Georgetown, says it is a lie. Nalini had been a Christian, her spirit had moved from earthly realms, she was in the arms of the Father.

 

With his head, Sanil believes this. With his heart, he believes in the choorile.

 

Sighing, he heaves to his feet and moves into the candlelit bowels of his home. The smells of their eaten supper yet lingers; Cassava, dasheen and crab soup. And spilt coconut milk.

 

In one room, his four sons are in various stages of sleep and the smacking sound of two-year-old Rajiv sucking his thumb makes his heart ache. Nalini would have gently pulled the thumb out of his mouth but as Sanil stands there, he doesn’t have the heart to do it. The child is motherless; all he could do was allow him this last vestige of comfort.

 

Because it is frowned upon for husband and wife to share a room, Nalini had had her own room. Even though his ma has since moved into it to care for Indira, he still thinks of it as Nalini’s room.

 

He hears the rustle of the palm fronds, his daughter mewling, his mother urging her back to sleep.

 

Finally, garnering strength from within, he knocks softly and pushes open the door.

 

“Ma,” he whispers, “Can I hold Indira for a while?”

 

Ma looks at him strangely but has known not to argue. She wraps the baby in soft sheets and places her in his arms.

 

She smells of palm oil, rubbed carefully into her skin by Ma to prevent infections.

 

She is warm and her soft body presses into his. Innocence, fragility, beauty. Solemnly, Sanil vows to protect her with all that he has, even his life.

 

He carries his daughter in his arms, shuts the door behind him, returns to the doorway. Rain has started to fall, pelting the soft sand around the house.

 

“I don’t know what to believe, Lord.” He says into the darkness. “But I do believe you, and I know children are good gifts from you. Choorile or not, Indira is your gift to me. Keep her safe, please.”

 

When he looks down at his daughter’s face, the tears quietly streaming down his face, he is surprised that she has her thumb in her mouth like Rajiv. She is sleeping yet there is a soft smile curved around her lips.

 

He smiles back and feels warmth begin to burn in his heart. Again.

 

 

 

Choorile – Spirit of a woman who dies in childbirth, leaving her baby alive.

Jumbee – Name given to a host of spirits and demons of Guyanese folklore

*Guyana is on the northeastern shoulder of South America, bounded by the Atlantic Ocean, Suriname, Venezuela and Brazil.

Posted in Life commentary, Short story

Losing myself

losing self

Losing myself

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

As I do every morning, I leave the little boy behind in bed. He is a persistent little bugger, the little dude is, and would come in to me every night, climb into bed beside me, wrap around me those long-forgotten dreams, aspirations, and hopes.

He would talk to me all night. He would besiege me with ideas and visions of what could be, what I should be doing, how I should be planning.

But I always left him behind in bed in the mornings, because he has no place in real life, no place in my everyday hustle.

Life is not for dreamers, I have since realised, it is for people who would hold their lives in their hands to put food on the table.

A long time ago, almost so long I have difficulty remembering it, I had been a dreamer. I had looked at the world with huge white eyes, had believed wholeheartedly that I just had to keep doing what I was doing for victory to come.

As a child, I’d loved to draw. It came to me naturally, and my fingers always flew over paper whether I was using a pen, a pencil, a piece of charcoal. I would look at an image, and it was like my fingers had a brain of their own, because they would remember and render back that image in an eerie likeness. I had entered several competitions as a child, had been lucky to win one of them aged twelve.

And that winning had been the cause of my sorrows, because it had filled my head my head with dreams of one day becoming a professional illustrator. I entered several competitions after that, lost every one of them, but I was firm, almost pig-headed, in my belief that there was a pot of gold on the other side of the rainbow.

And then life and reality set in.

I got my girlfriend pregnant. We were both only 20, and we thought we were going to have a go at it, be fantastic parents, take the world by the horns, be able to provide for this child while still having great lives ourselves.

One thing they don’t teach you early enough is that parenthood is a long, arduous journey and that your middle name becomes sacrifice after you’ve had a child. We were both still schooling, both working at low-income jobs, and we tried so hard to save, tried so hard to make a better life for our son.

We scraped by, we managed. I dropped several courses at school, spread my coursework so that I would eventually spend five years instead of three in school, just so that I could have time to work more. I worked and was so bone tired at the end of the days that I didn’t touch my sketch pad. On days when I didn’t go to work or go to school, I was still so fatigued I didn’t have the patience or the inspiration to put pen to paper.

And then Mariah fell pregnant again. We hadn’t planned it, just like we hadn’t planned the first one. Life became even harder, working to keep a family of four together on minimum wage, while still paying for school.

My dreams went adrift just a little further.

In four years, we had three babies. I dropped out of school so I could concentrate on work and keeping body and soul together. Mariah did the same. We didn’t tell ourselves we had quit school. Instead, we told ourselves we were postponing our education.

And postpone we did. For one year, for two years, for three years.

And then Mariah fell ill.

She’d been complaining that her bones ached for a while. She would come back from work and picking the kids from day care and would literally collapse onto the sofa, unable to bear her own weight anymore. She would cook in the kitchen, her body leaned against the wall, her breath coming in gasps.

I encouraged her to go to the doctor’s, but she didn’t want to.

“It’s just stress.”

I knew it wasn’t stress and I pressured her day after day to go to the hospital. But she wouldn’t, and I knew she didn’t want to go because it was going to cost us money that we didn’t have.

I blame myself till tomorrow that I didn’t insist, that I didn’t bundle her to the hospital myself, that I didn’t drag her kicking and screaming to go get checked out.

She collapsed on the kitchen floor one blustery cold night, and I didn’t find her until thirty minutes after she had fallen into that heap. By the time we got to the emergency room, we were four months too late. She had bone cancer, and it had progressively eaten at her bones for months undetected. By the time she started to feel weak in the knees, she was already at the tail end of things.

They gave her six months to live, and she didn’t even last that long. Two months after we got the prognosis, she gave up the ghost. It had been two months of agony, of soul-searing pain, of nights spent crying silently into my pillow, of mornings spent putting on a brave face for the world.

We buried her on an impossible hot afternoon, left her in the cemetery, and went home to echoing walls and empty dreams.

I was twenty-six, halfway educated, father of three, an unskilled worker, a widower, and I was lost. I would roam the little apartment at night, stroking the kids head, searching for Mariah’s shadow. I would soothe the kids as they shot out of bed with nightmares, but there was no one to soothe mine, no one to tell me that it would be okay.

So, I worked hard. By then, I had become a manager at the shop where I’d once been a salesperson, was earning better pay, but it all disappeared in the face of diapers, baby formula, and daycare. Family pitched in, helped where they could with money, time and kind words, but there was a gaping hole in my heart that no one but Mariah could fill. But Mariah was gone.

And because dreams are only dreams, I now know there would never be a professional illustrator me. There are bills to be paid, children to be cared for, and life to battle.

So, as I do every morning, I leave the little boy behind in bed. He is a persistent little bugger, the little dude is, and would come in to me every night, climb into bed beside me, wrap around me those long-forgotten dreams, aspirations, and hopes.

He would talk to me all night. He would besiege me with ideas and visions of what could be, what I should be doing, how I should be planning.

This morning, I sight the easel pushed into a far corner of our room, shake my head at the ridiculousness of it all.

I know I am losing myself, one piece at a time, but I do not care.

Life is for realists, not dreamers.

 

 

NB: I believe in dreams, no matter how hard or far off they may seem. I am a dreamer. and I encourage you not to give up on yours, no matter your circumstances right now.

Posted in Life commentary, Short story

Early

Early

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

Four weeks doesn’t seem like much. For heaven’s sake, it is only but a full moon. You can’t build a house in four weeks. You cannot sow and reap in four weeks. You don’t grow much in the space of four weeks.

 

But your life can take a dip in four weeks. In four weeks, you can lose the hope you held onto for eight long months.

 

Experience has taught me to take it slowly, to sit in front of the hut in the evenings with my feet propped up, sipping the bitter juice of the isesi leaves that theoretically delays labour. Experience however, has not taught me to cope with the loss.

 

The first contraction is mild, rippling my swollen belly gently. I prop my feet higher, and try to push panic away from my heart. The next contraction takes its time in arriving, but it is with a little more kick. Terror floods my heart.

 

Five times I’ve been with child. Five times I’ve knelt at the birthing bed four or five weeks too early. And five times I’ve been handed dead children, fragile babies that do not have the ability to suck life-giving air into their lungs.

 

At the third contraction, I hasten off the chair, into my mother-in-law’s hut. Over a slow fire, she is roasting groundnuts, her feet tapping to a song she hums gently.

 

“Mama…the baby.”

 

At the sound of my voice, she turns. Her face is brown and perfectly wrinkled, her eyes deep set and knowledgeable. This evening, they are twin pools of sorrow.

 

“Now?” She asks, rising to her feet.

 

I nod and turn to go out of the hut. She follows immediately and soon catches up with me.

 

“Perhaps the baby will live.” She says.

 

I want to keep hope alive. I desperately want to hold my own child in my arms, not because arrangements are already being made for Soji to marry another woman, one that will bear him living heirs. Not because it is extremely shameful for a woman to be besieged by series of stillbirths.

 

I want a child I can love. I want this extension of me. I want this validation that I am a whole woman.

 

“Go on inside. I will get the midwife.” Mama says at the entrance to my hut. As she hurries away, another contraction hits me right in the middle of my stomach. The pain roots me to the spot. My feet tremble as a sudden cold descends on me.

 

As the contraction eases, I realize that I am sobbing, praying, pleading.

 

“Oh God, oh God. Let this baby live. Please…please, oh God.”

 

In a raffia basket near the bed, the birthing equipment are ready. A dull knife, a sharp knife, a clamping cord, coarse soap, palm oil for the baby’s skin. In another raffia basket are baby clothes, hand stitched the first time I got pregnant.

 

I’d been wild with joy, thrilled at the honour of becoming pregnant only one month after we were married. At the village market, I’d purchased yards and yards of good material, had laboured for months, stitching together beautiful garments, waiting for the birth of my first child.

 

That baby came six weeks early, had not even drawn a single breath before she was laid into the ground.

 

The sobs rend themselves from my throat, exploding from me not unlike a burst of gunfire.

 

I sit on the edge of the bed, awaiting the midwife’s arrival.

 

 

 

 

In ancient Africa, the mortality rate was very high as there were no equipment to save premature babies.