© 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.