(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.
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.