(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan 2020
Arms folded across my chest, seated in a locked and rigid position because my back wouldn’t budge, my heart beating in a pit-a-pat music of anticipation, I await the birth of my seventh child. I am seated on the rock at the far edge of the compound, away and removed from where the action is taking place, but I can still hear every land-shattering scream, every soul-searing cry from my wife.
They say it’s bad luck for a husband to be present as his wife pushes their child into the world, the same way they say it brings bad luck for the woman to cry so much during the painful process of delivery. I am aware that there are hardened leather strips thrust in between Feyikemi’s teeth so that she can bite on them instead of screaming, but I am also aware that my wife has a very low pain threshold.
It is a wonder she has done this six times in the past, is going at it the seventh time. And the stakes this time are much higher for both of us, for my entire family, for the posterity of the Akangbe clan.
“Somebody help her…Somebody, please make this stop…” But there is no one to hear me, no one within miles of where I sit. In this village, childbirth is such a common occurrence that the world does not grind to a halt because of it. My brothers have gone on to the banana farm to put in their daily quota of work, as has my father. I was expected to come along as well, but Feyikemi had woken up this morning with childbirth pains, and I couldn’t for the very life of me go to work.
The wives of the compound have gone about their daily activities too, two of them gone down to the river with the children to wash clothes and cooking utensils. My mother and the last wife are attending to Feyikemi, helping her usher our child into the world.
I bite my fingers down to the quick, cover my face with my palms, pull at the greying strands of hair in my beard, wipe the sweat off my brow that shouldn’t be there because it is a bitterly cold morning.
The stakes are high. This baby is the one to determine the future.
As the eldest son of the family, I was expected to produce the direct heir, the son who would pass on the family name to his own progeny, the chosen one who would keep our family stories and heritage alive. Of course, the sons born to the other brothers would do the same, but my son was to be the focal point, the main one, the first grandson born to the first son.
Only that I have failed so far to produce a male heir. Feyikemi has been with child eight times, brought forth six children alive, all of them females. When our first child entered the world, feet first, head wailing in a cry of indignation, my mother brought her to me wrapped in cocoyam leaves and dripping with the obligatory palm oil. My mother had been full of encouragement, and the sides of her eyes shimmered with tears.
“Next time. Next time, it’ll be a boy.”
She understood well the disappointment of having a girlchild as your first, of burying your disappointment under a well-disguised cloak of excitement.
The second girlchild arrived eleven months after the first, and there were those words of encouragement again. “It will happen, Ayomiposi…it will.”
Two days later, my younger brother’s wife delivered twin boys. It was like a blow to my person, an effrontery to my manhood and seniority. And it didn’t help that Mama spent more time in his hut caring for his wife and the boys than she did in mine caring for my new daughter. After all, sons are everything and girls are only good to be raised and sold off into marriage.
From children three to five, Mama lost her encouragement, couldn’t summon the words anymore. She would simply tell me, “It’s a girl” and leave me to my thoughts, to my shame, to my inner turmoil.
Feyikemi begged me then to stop sleeping with her, to quit trying to get her pregnant almost as soon as she is relieved of one child.
“My body is giving out, my love. I can’t do this anymore.” She pleaded.
But she did do it again, because of her love and respect for me, and because she wanted me to be able to hold my head high in my father’s compound once again.
After she pushed our sixth daughter into the world, she had wept disconsolately, her back against the wall, her face haggard and sunken like an old woman’s. Her spirit was broken, her wounds unhealable.
And then Mama and Papa came in that dark night to see us, the lantern they brought with them outshining the one we had hung on our wall. Our daughters, aged one through eight, were all in different stages of sleep, curled up on the mats, one of them sucking hard and furiously on her thumb. The new baby was swaddled against Feyikemi’s bosom, her eyes awake and looking intently at her mother.
“We have to do something to revert this misfortune that has been visiting you and your wife.” Mama began, her eyes huge and white in her dark face.
“There is a traditional way to set things right, a way to give you the son for your progeny.”
My heart sank to the bottom of my feet then, because I knew where she was headed, knew which traditional practice she was about to call upon. I buried my face in between my knees, let out a wail of anguish.
“It must be done.” Papa finally spoke, and I could hear the desperation in his voice. “Tejumade has proven himself to be quite the man. We will speak to him, command him if we have to. And Feyikemi must begin to wean the baby, begin to get herself ready.”
How do you wean a two-week-old just so her mother can get pregnant again as soon as possible? And how do you sit outside your hut, waiting while your little brother went in to your wife? How do you start to process the unfairness of it all?
After they had left, Feyikemi trembled in my arms all night long. She was long past tears, but the heartbrokenness was there in the way her mouth hung agape, in the way her eyes looked like they were a ghost’s, and in the way her hand trembled uncontrollably each time her hand stroked the new baby’s head.
Because it is the way of our people, we did as we had been asked. I never for once sat with Tejumade, the little brother, who had fathered himself four sons by then, to discuss what was to happen and how. And I never spoke about it with Feyikemi again.
Mama made the arrangements, helped wean the new baby until Feyikemi saw her blood again, carted off the children with her and sent me on errands every time Tejumade visited my hut.
I had expected one or two visits, three at the max, but fate has a terrible way of rubbing pepper into your gaping wounds. After each visit, I would watch Feyikemi check herself for signs of pregnancy, listless, trembling, wanting so desperately for the ordeal to be over.
But the blood always came. And the visits continued.
Food started to taste like sawdust in my mouth, and even though I knew Feyikemi detested the process as much as I did, I dragged her into unnecessary fights. And there was tension between Tejumade and me as we worked alongside each other on our family’s banana plantation. The plantation is supposed to become mine, and I am expected to chip off little pieces of land as gifts for my brothers so that they can continue to sustain their families after our father passes. But I might never even come into my ownership, not without a son to pass it all on to.
Tejumade would dip his head in the customary offer of respect he is expected to show me, but the camaraderie we used to have is gone. We are now strangers, linked by blood and a sense of family duty. This is what your brother trying to help you father an heir does to families.
And then Feyikemi gets pregnant.
There is joy because the ordeal of the visits is over, excitement that perhaps this could be the child that changed our lot in life. And there is a fear that permeates the air, a fear that it could have all been for nought.
So here I sit this bitterly cold morning, waiting for news. The frigidness has begun to affect my fingers such that I can no longer feel them. An ant climbs my wrappers and begins a climb up. I watch it, fascinated by its doggedness and determination.
My mind is taking me back towards the birthing hut, and there is panic bubbling somewhere in my heart. But I concentrate on watching the ant, anything to get the mind off of what is happening, of what is to come.
And then there is the shrill cry of a newborn baby.
I bury my head in my hands, petitioning the gods of fertility to look down on me, on us, with eyes of mercy this time. There are tears in my eyes that a man should not be seen shedding, and there is a bitter taste on my tongue.
Then, the hesitant tap of fingers on my back.
I rise slowly, into the dark, bottomless eyes of my mother. Only that these are not eyes that I am familiar with. These eyes are dark, melancholy, full of regret, of pity, of shame. These are the eyes that make your heart burn and explode into flames.
“It’s a girl.” She says simply.