The sun was starting to find its way home when we finally set out. I had wanted to leave earlier but Moromoke said it was not a good idea.
‘Some things are better done behind the sun’s back’ she had said to me smiling as she massaged my swollen feet.
She had taken off her head tie sometime between when she arrived at the palace in the early hours of the morning and when we had lunch. I sat on the couch, my back propped up against the orthopedic pillows Aderemi had purchased for that very purpose and let my mother massage comfort back to my tired body.
But it wasn’t only my body that was weary. My soul too was burdened. My nights were discolored by nightmares, my days were darkened by thoughts that came and went as they pleased, and my heart was burdened by something that loomed larger than my protruding belly. I had always known there was evil in the world but for the first time, it felt so close that I could almost hear it breathing its fumes upon all that I held dear.
I had called my mother after the latest nightmare. As a child, when I had nightmares, all I needed to do was find my way to her bed and hold tight to the hips that pushed me into this world. Things were not so simple anymore.
‘I am sure it is nothing. It is normal to be apprehensive when you are so close. It is your first time as well so it is only natural that you are anxious.’ My mother said as she reached for the jar of Shea butter.
‘Did I give you nightmares too?’ I asked her.
‘Many!’ My mother said but the smile in her eyes told me differently.
‘You gave me nothing but pure joy. Why do you think your name is Ibidun? I don’t think you should be too worried. Every mother goes through this. It is just probably the fear of childbirth.’
‘But I am not afraid Maami. I love Adegoroye already and welcome the pain without which it would be impossible to bring him to this world. I welcome the swollen ankles and the stretch marks. I even welcome the tearing of my vagina.’ I laughed as my mother’s jaw fell open.
‘Come on, Moromoke; I am a big girl now, about to birth a child. Surely I can say ‘vagina’ out loud.’ I teased my prude of a mother.
My mother shook her head as if by doing so she could change the fact that I was no longer her little girl. I laughed again and the child within me joined in my dance of mirth.
‘Anyway, you were telling me what it is that ails you.’ She said, bending her head to resume the massage. There were a few gray hairs on her head and I was caught by surprise. My mother was aging; aging meant more ways to die, more ways to lose her.
She had me in her teens and we were always more like sisters than mother and daughter. I had called her by her first name since as far back as I could remember. I didn’t know any different until I went to school and made friends with children who called their mothers by a common name. They thought me as weird as I did them. For how could any child possibly hope to summarize the essence of its mother in a word that also meant silence? ‘Mum’? Really? How could I be expected to possibly capture all Moromoke was in that word? I chose to call her by her given name instead. Moromoke because I could climb into her bed at any time and find a wealth of comfort. Moromoke for the way she could walk into any room and light it up. Moromoke because she was a puzzle with more pieces than being a mother. Moromoke for her courage in the face of a society that treated single mothers unkindly.
I continued to call my mother by her name even after I knew better. In the presence of others, I called her ‘Maami’ but when it was just us two, it was ‘Moromoke’. I purposed in my heart that my child, Adegoroye would do same. He would call me ‘Ibidun’ in addition to any other fond name he so chose, but ‘mum’ would not make the vocabulary.
‘I wish I could explain what this is, Moromoke. But I have no name for it. I just know it is different from any feeling that I have ever had. I also know that it is nothing good.’
My mother raised her head to look at me and frowned. She gestured for my other foot and reached for some more Shea butter at the same time.
‘Then we will go to Fayemi. He will know what to do.’ My mother said confidently. I smiled even though the doubt in my heart didn’t share her conviction
The streets were empty when we began our journey to the seer’s. Gone from the streets were the children that during the day would stake the roads as their playground. I wondered if my child, the crown prince would ever get the chance to play on the streets with children just like him or if his position will imprison him as it had done me. Gone also were the young lovers that sought refuge from the prying eyes of their families under the gaze of strangers on the streets. Gone were the young girls gracefully balancing their baskets of produce on their way from their parents’ farms. Gone were the young men with their muscled thighs and sun beaten brows.
The old man was waiting when we arrived.
‘My fathers told me I would have a special visitor today. I have been waiting for you, Olori.’ He said in welcome.
He led Moromoke and I into his consultation room.
‘Give me your hand’ The old man said after listening to my tale.
I gave him my hand of peace and held onto Moromoke’s hand with my right hand.
Fayemi said nothing for what seemed like forever.
‘Our fathers say that a person who has children does not die.’ He began and then paused to grunt. ‘I congratulate you Olori, you no longer need to fear death.’
‘Don’t I have to birth the child first?’ I snapped at the old man. The room suddenly felt hot and stuffy and the mat I shared with my mother did nothing to cushion me from the discomfort of the cement floor. We had come here for answers and yet the priest chose to speak in proverbs.
Fayemi chuckled good-naturedly and shame filled my heart for my impatience with a man that was old enough to be my grandfather. I opened my mouth to apologize but he continued.
‘You will birth the prince with no difficulty, Olori. As a leaf falls from its branch without causing the branch pain, so will you bring forth.’
‘Ase,’ Moromoke answered on my behalf. I squeezed my mother’s hand to thank her for lending me her voice as mine seemed to have gone on a journey.
I could feel sweat pool in the hollow of my left palm and yet the old man held unto it. I wanted to snatch it away from him to wipe it against my wrapper but he started to speak before I could.
‘Our fathers say that a person that has children need not fear death and yet there is one who needs not fear death but fears it all the same. It is this woman’s fears that have found you. It is her nightmares that have become yours.’
Beside me, I felt Moromoke shift uncomfortably and I knew it had nothing to do with the hard floor.
‘Who is this woman, Baba?’ My voice was back but as a whisper, a shadow of what it once was.
‘You asked the wrong question, Olori. Your question should be ‘Who am I ?’ My work is done here, Olori. There are some secrets that no one else should have to reveal except they that own it. Find your mother, find the woman who needs not fear death but does, end her nightmares and yours will end.’
We thanked the old man and bid him goodnight. We had only walked a few steps away from his abode when the owner of the secret began to speak.
‘Your mother’s name is Morolake but back then everyone called her Rolake.’
I slowed my steps and signaled for the guards that accompanied us to fall back even farther.
‘She was always the calm one, the dependable one, the favorite. I was the rebel, the one who broke all the rules, the black sheep. I was wild back then; sneaking out for parties and to places our parents would have rather died than let me go to. Rolake was my opposite; the perfect daughter and sister. She made our parents proud enough for two so I did not need to try. She covered for me too, sometimes doing my homework and chores to make up for my absence.’
I could hardly believe the tale that was coming out of Moromoke’s mouth. It felt like one of the bedtime stories I had grown up with. But I knew this tale was real. I remembered our few visits to my grandparents in Lagos and how the photos of young Moromoke always included another girl of the same age. She was a cousin sometimes, a distant relative or close friend at other times. She had no name until now. She was nobody until now.
Moromoke continued to speak. ‘One day, I convinced Rolake to follow me to one of these parties. We were done with our O’levels and eagerly awaiting results to the university entrance exams. There were no books to read, no assignments to work hard at. Our parents were out of town for a relative’s wedding and we would be back before they knew any better. I don’t know what it was that made her concede but I remember being giddy with joy and laughing out loud in surprise. Maybe it was because it showed that my sister wasn’t as perfect as the rest of the world thought. Maybe it was because we would finally have something in common besides our blood line and last names.’
‘The moment we arrived at the venue, the boy that invited me drew me away from Rolake. The next time I saw my sister, her eyes had forever lost their focus and the beautiful Ankara dress that mirrored mine was stained with the blood of her virginity. I will never know what happened to her that day. She never said a word to me about it but blame was in her eyes every time she looked at me. Our parents said nothing when she began to throw up. I think they were more afraid than mad. If anyone should have ended up with a teenage pregnancy, it should have been me and not their ideal child. Still it was 1984 and pregnant single mothers were not only frowned upon; they were ostracized. They sent Rolake and I here, to your great grand mother. You are probably wondering how and why I ended up here too. After all, I wasn’t the one pregnant, right? I have no answer to that. Maybe it was guilt. Maybe it was time for me to live up to my name, Omotaiyewo, and lead the way for my twin sister.
‘9 months after the incident, you were born. Before we could even name you, Rolake ran away. We thought she had run back home to our parents but they did not know where she was either. I decided to remain here with you against the wishes of our parents. Lagos no longer held anything for me. Maami Agba took care of you while I went to Teaching College. The rest of it you know.’
We were a few minutes away from the palace when she reached the end of her story. She was right -I knew the rest of the story. She had given up her life for me, taken up a burden that was never hers to begin with and borne it gracefully. She remained unmarried all these years because all the men that wanted her did not want me. As a child, i had heard the taunts of grownups and children alike. It had hurt but I also knew that my hurt was only a tiny sliver compared to hers.
‘Do you know where she is?’ I asked.
‘I won’t lie to you and say I have looked for her much. Maybe if I had I would know.’ She replied to me in a voice so small it needed to help from the night winds to carry to my ears.
‘After a while, all that mattered was that I had you. Maybe it was selfish and I am sorry if you think it was but I loved you so much that it was just easier for everyone if things remained the way they were.’
‘Do you fear death, Maami?’ I asked her. I had stopped walking and all around us creatures of the night sang melodies to herald the onset of darkness.
‘I have feared death since the first time I held you. At first the death I feared was yours. I feared that something would happen to you and then of what use was it all. These days I look at the mirror and a woman I do not recognize stares back at me. She is graying, wrinkly and with many more ways to die.
I took her hand and placed it on my belly.
‘You do not need to fear death anymore. The old man and our fathers agree that a person who has children will never die. I am your child and soon your child will have her own child. Someday my child will bear his own children and so on. The day you chose to love me as yours, death lost its victory. You will never die, Moromoke. You have a child, you will live forever.’
She reached for my face then and cradled it with one hand while the other rested on my belly.
‘Ibidun’ She said over and over, repeating my name like it was a prayer.
We walked the rest of the way in silence, hand in hand. I slept better that night than I had done in a while. My mother’s fears were gone and with them my nightmares.
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
– 1 Corinthians. 15:54-55