It is my Dad’s birthday as well as International Women’s Day. My Dad is a gynecologist, an amazing one at that. 🙂
This one is for you Dad; for all that you do. Happy birthday.
She felt wearied by their presence even though she knew they were all there for her. Or so they told her over and over again. The band they had hired crooned song after song praising her maternal skills, her perseverance, her beauty and other things that made her think they were singing about someone else. The wine flowed, heaps of food continued to disappear, people danced and brought presents, paying her homage. From where Mgbaku sat and watched, it was a disaster of enormous proportions.
It had been her first son’s idea; he with the deep pockets and propensity to outspend everyone else. He had brought it up at the last New Yam festival celebrations as he shared palm wine with his siblings. Their mother was going to be 80 in 7 months’ time; surely that was more than enough reason to throw a party like had never been seen before in the village. No one thought to ask her what she wanted even though she had been sitting right there as they discussed. Not even her daughters, now resplendent in their red and gold lace dresses, who should have known better.
The madness was three days old and yet showed no signs of subsiding. Children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, cousins, in-laws and all kinds of relatives had poured in from whatever corners of the world they had been hibernating. She had never seen so many people in her lifetime; not even on the busiest market days. One by one she had been introduced to each and every one of them, until she thought that she would go mad from having to remember all the names.
There was one name that had stuck in her head though, so that she had even muttered it to herself that first night as she fell asleep. Nneoma. The strange child that never smiled, not even upon meeting her great-grandmother for the first time. Her own mother had dragged her over to meet Mgbaku as soon as they arrived and it had been all the old woman could do not to reach out for her and fold her in her bosom. It was not the place nor the time. They were strangers after all. Mgbaku hadn’t even known of the child’s existence before then. Before then, the child was one of her many nameless great-grand children. All they had in common was a couple of diluted genes and the look in Nneoma’s eyes that Mgbaku immediately recognized even without wearing the glasses her children had forced upon her.
Mgbaku searched the crowd of people for the child now. She was tall for her 11 years and very light skinned so that it should have been easy to find her even in this bulging throes of people. She stood out without meaning to and Mgbaku’s heart spasmed as she again remembered those eyes on the first day of their meeting. Those eyes had seen true evil and now reflected it. Mgbaku knew she should have said something from the moment she saw the child. But to whom? She barely knew the child’s mother and her own children were too preoccupied with throwing her a befitting birthday party that the sadness in one little girl’s eyes would have been immediately shelved. Nneoma herself had proved elusive since that very first day so that Mgbaku thought she must have dreamed up the heart shape faced child and her haunted eyes.
Now Nneoma stood away from the crowd, as disinterested in the ongoing celebration as Mgbaku was. She would not look at anything or at anyone except for that thing they called BeeBee that she carried everywhere with her. Mgbaku’s heart clenched and she wondered about the stories she had heard of children in foreign lands that sniffed white powder. Her neighbor in the market’s grandson had been eventually locked up in a home for mad people. The woman could never hold her head high again. Mgbaku looked at her grandchildren and tried to remember which one of them Nneoma belonged too. She was too old for all of these; all these children that she could not recognize, all this noise that threatened to drown out the sounds of pain within each of their hearts.
She bent her head for one quick moment and when she raised it, Nneoma was gone. Fear seized Mgbaku’s heart. She looked around as much as her dim eyes could manage. Maybe she had gone to ease herself or something else had finally held her interest. Yet Mgbaku could not shake off the feeling that something bad was about to happen.
‘Nnem, where are you going?’ One of the young girls her children had hired to attend to her needs asked as she stood up from her seat of honor.
‘Last I checked I was an adult and able to find my way around my own compound. Sit your buttocks down where it was. I am going to the toilet and you are not to follow.’ She snapped back.
She knew it was a waste of time. They would let her walk a few steps and then follow unobtrusively but Mgbaku was resolute. It was time to find the child and save her before evil consumed her.
The insides of the 2 storey building sweltered as Mgbaku made her entrance. But it was quiet and a welcome change from the noise of the party. She began to take the steps her husband had stubbornly insisted on erecting inside their home.
Before marrying Nnadi, she had been set on the path of priesthood, being the first daughter of the priestess of the hills. Then Nnadi had showed up and Mgbaku had rejected her mother’s gods and followed after Nnadi’s Jesus. It had not stopped her from dreaming things before they happened or seeing things normal human beings were not meant to see.
She was on the final stair when she heard the child’s cry. She made for the room where the mingled sounds of pleasure and pain were coming from. On the bed was Nneoma and on top of her, the devil. Mgbaku recognized him easily. She had seen him many times before when the man her mother called husband had brandished his sticks and whips on Mgbaku and her sisters. He had the same red eyes her step-father had when he had raped her on nights her mother’s priestly duties took her far away from home. His grunts were not very different from the sounds that animal had made when he spilled his seed inside her.
Now she waited for the man to gather up his clothes before speaking. She could tell whose daughter Nneoma was now. She was Azu’s; her grandson who had died in the motor accident, the one whose wife had replaced with another man before weeds could grow on his grave. It was this man that now that sought to destroy Nneoma just like her own step father had almost destroyed her all those many years ago.
Mgbaku closed her eyes for a second and found that she could remember Azu as a little child but no further. The little boy that had loved to run his hand through her long grey hair, his eyes wide open with wonder at the soft curls that cascaded past her shoulders. The little boy that didn’t mind helping her pick out periwinkles for dinner while his cousins balked at such gross chores. The little boy who had her eyes.
‘You will go away from here and you will never return.” Mgbaku started to say. She hesitated to swallow the lump that had formed in her throat from the sadness that life sometimes brought. “You and your wife must never reach out to Nneoma after today. She is ours now. She is Azu’s and Azu’s people will carry on with good from where your evil left off. You may think to yourself that I speak the words of a frail old woman with no more time to back her. You may seek to test your mortality but that is none of my concern. You may leave now.’
The man hesitated, his mouth starting to form words of protest but then Mgbaku lifted her eyes to look into his. He hurried out of the room and the maid who had closely followed Mgbaku rushed into the space he had vacated.
‘Nnem, whom shall I call?’ She asked Mgbaku.
‘No one. Not yet. Go back to the party. Tell them I am resting.’
Mgbaku then turned her attention to Nneoma. She was curled up on the bed with her back towards Mgbaku, a back as strong as Mgbaku’s once was. Mgbaku set down her cane and sat beside the curled up child. She began to sing Nnadi’s song, the lullaby that had chased away the nightmares that had haunted her in the first few years of their marriage. It was something about Jesus and shadows.
By the second stanza the child had joined in; her voice strong and unquenchable, rising above Mgbaku’s shrill soprano. Mgbaku knew then, that just like her, Nneoma was a survivor and love would be enough to save her.
Song of the day: Luther Vandross – Buy me a rose