Posted in Girls, Short story

Saving the family

SAVING THE FAMILY

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

You’d always known that this day would come. Yet, your knowledge does not equal acceptance, and your knowledge doesn’t stop your heart from threatening to beat out of your chest, neither does it stop you from breaking out in a hard, cold sweat even though the weather is bitingly cold.

It is early in January and the harmattan season has descended with a vengeance. As you rolled out of bed this morning, you shivered as your cold feet made contact with the even colder floor, and it had taken you all of one minute to be done in the bathroom. Because your family cannot afford frivolities like hot water baths, you take cold baths no matter the weather, not even when you are sick. So, you dumped the half bucket of icy water over your head and ran out of the bathroom

You had watched in front of the broken mirror you share with your youngest sister as the breath escaped you in icy vapours, and you had thrown on three layers of clothing.

But you are no longer cold. There is a heat boiling from deep inside you and the only way that your body knows to respond is to break out in sweat.

How could things have turned this sour just a few days after the New Year celebration. On that day, you’d worn your newly purchased second hand gown, but it had felt brand new to you. You’d felt like you were on top of the world, like you were a princess who had the whole world at your beck and call. You guys were a complete family again; your father, your mother, your four sisters and your three brothers.

All had felt right with the world. There wasn’t much to eat in your house, but you’d made the rounds to more prosperous homes with your siblings and had eaten so much you had a tummy ache for days. You had felt like a child again, not like a young woman, not like someone on whose shoulders lay a weight of responsibility. You had been a child again, and now you are to be one no more.

When your mother pushed you out into the world eleven years ago, it was unwritten that you would one day follow in the footsteps of all the women of the family. By the time you were born, your mother had already given up two daughters, already knew what if felt like to send daughters off into modern slavery.

And, she knew, even as she breastfed you and stroked your head, that she would one day give you up too.

You are the last daughter and your mother has already done this four times. What you don’t know is that it has never been easy for her, has not gotten easier with regularity, and that she cries into her pillow almost every night.

“Beatrice, you should be ready. She will be here any time from now, and we don’t want to keep her waiting.” Your mother calls to you from just outside the house, where she is spreading freshly washed clothes on the clothesline.

She is talking about the woman who will convey you to Lagos, the woman who took the last two of your sisters, the one whom you blame for wringing the joy from their eyes. And now, she’s coming to take you.

You feel the tears roll down your cheek, feel the sadness overwhelm you from the inside out and you feel like you are drowning in a sea of misery.

You sigh, rise to your feet and pick up your luggage, a tattered hand me down travel bag that has been used by many siblings before you. You take a last look at your room, the one you share with your littlest brother, the one where you have felt warmth and love and security. Then you close your eyes to your childhood and step out into adulthood.

You are going to the big city to become a house help, just like all four sisters before you have been. Born and raised in the dry arid village, with no viable means to support a family, most families sent their daughters to Lagos, Abuja and other affluent cities to serve as house helps to big madams. Your mother was a house help before you all, came back home when she was eighteen, met and married your father by the time she was nineteen and proceeded to have a whole parcel load of children.

When the rainfall comes, your father’s tiny piece of farmland manages a meagre harvest at best. Your mother had tried not to have to send you to Lagos and had been making do with what she could sell from your father’s land, but then there has been no rainfall in forever, and there is no produce, nothing. Nothing.

So, to Lagos you are headed.

You are next in the long and unending line of daughters sold off into modern slavery as house helps.

You are not supposed to know, but you know that your parents have already received the payment for your first year of service, and it was that money that was used to repair the collapsed roof of the house. There had been that initial gush of hope when your sisters made plans to return to their duty posts and had their conveyor come get them two days earlier. You were not included in their travel plans, and for a full day, you’d dared to hope, had dared to exult that you were not going to be called upon to save your family.

But yesterday, Mama had called you into their room, kissed you on both cheeks, held you to her chest and told you were going to leave the following day. She’d smelt of palm oil and freshly fried garri, and you wanted to cling on to her forever, to take in the smell of her and never let it go. You’d wanted to go back to New Year’s Day, to take a stroll through your cold dusty village, to sit in a circle and eat from the same bowl from your siblings.

But as all good things do, your dream is fading, ending, forever gone.

You hold your childhood in your fists one more time, then release it, let it blow into the four corners of the earth.

When you step out of your room, you are ready. You are simply the next girl in the Asiegbe family to go work to feed your family and even though you’d rather not go, duty beckons.

Your tears are gone, your hiccups are gone. And when you face your Mama’s emaciated face, it is with a broad smile on your face. But that smile does not reach all the way down into your belly.

Posted in Girls, Short story

Posterity

african baby

Posterity

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

My womb has never cooked babies right.

Three times, it spat them out before they were ready to breathe. They would come, slick with blood, perfect little things, all ten fingers and toes complete, only that they were unable to take a first breath. They would present them to me from a far distance, dark little bodies unwashed, and then they would go bury them. I never even got to hold them.

The one that my womb cooked long enough, she was born unfit for this world. She had the largest head I have ever seen, only one eye and a blank sheet of skin where the other should have been. Her nostrils were impossibly wide, joined to her upper lips in a comedy of errors. I wept and mourned, suffered in silence as she was put in my arms, dead as soon as she was born. I cried as my milk came in and as my breasts became engorged.

I knew then that I was eternally cursed.

You see, a woman is only as good as the number of heirs she can produce. And of the three wives that lived in my father-in-law’s compound, I was the only one who couldn’t birth a child.

I was the wife of the eldest son, the one who was supposed to deliver the heir to carry on the family name, the one on whose shoulders sat the responsibility for family.

He was being relegated to the background when he should have been the voice of the lion in family matters. But what have you when you have no child to carry on your name?

My heart bleeds for Adeoye, this man who married me for love, who shunned his arranged bride for me, who professes heaven and earth not to take another wife after me.

I was sixteen the harmattan season his parents reluctantly knocked on my parents’ door. He was twenty-four, broad-chested, and the sun and the moon and stars rose and set in his dark eyes. My parents were taken aback just as much as his parents had been, because it is the way of our people to have parents choose whom their children marry. In the end, we got our way. The bride price was paid, the wine was drunk, and I was led to my father-in-law’s compound.

It’s been ten years since that day, ten years of love, of forgiveness and of two hearts that beat as one. It’s also been ten years of grief, of hardship and unbelievable heartbreak.

This grey morning, as the cock crows and Adeoye makes to roll out of bed to head to the cocoa farm where the family works, I swallow a huge breath past the constriction in my throat and pull him back.

“My love,” I begin, “I love you, will die for you, will go through another devastating childbirth for you, but my body is giving out. And you need a child, a son to call yours…” My heart is breaking into a thousand pieces, but he needs to know that I won’t hold him back, that he has my blessing to take another woman.

He doesn’t answer, just sits there, rigid like a mountain. I curl my body around his back, trace his muscles with my fingers.

I would die for this man, lay down all the joys in my tomorrow for his.

“Adeoye, please.”

His two younger brothers have parcelloads of children already, and we are preparing to send his mother’s last child, a seventeen-year-old girl to her husband’s house. And the accusations are relentless. The last stillbirth I had, my mother-in-law visited me the next day and told me she was already in talks with a fertile family to get Adeoye another wife.

I would myself have gotten Adeoye a wife since, but he has been adamant, saying that I mean more to him than seven sons would. But for the sake of peace, for the sake of his posterity, Adeoye needs to marry another wife.

“I’ll never hold it against you, Adeoye, please.”

He turns slowly and envelopes me in a hug so tight my breath runs away.

I am surprised to see two sheets of tears running down his cheeks.

 

In ancient African communities, infertility, miscarriages, and stillbirths were considered the woman’s fault, and the man would marry a new wife to bear him children.