Of the many things she felt when the midwife handed her the baby, love was not among them. Rita adjusted the wrap around the baby and kept staring at him. He was complete, looked too perfect and at ease despite the chaos in his environment. The midwife who was cleaning up the room with her assistants looked at her and smiled warmly while everyone else worked in silence save the cry of the baby and the instruments being packed. Thoughts swam around Rita’s mind as she continued staring at her child. He looked lost too just like his mother as he moved his head back and forth searching for something. Brown eyes. He did not have the eyes of his father. Maybe he would not be like his father. Her thoughts took her spiral down to the worst nine months of her life. Months she had tried to terminate her life and the baby’s. Months she was so sure God had left her somewhere in the middle of the earth.
“Rita?” the midwife called snapping her out of her reverie. Rita lifted her now tear-stained eyes to meet the midwife’s. “He needs to eat, dear. Do you know how to feed him?”, the midwife continued as she came closer to the bed side.
“I will try”, croaked Rita. Her voice must have cracked a lot during labor. She cleared her throat and answered in affirmative. She suspected the midwife was watching her closely for any strange behaviour and did not want to give herself out. She could not live anymore with the trace of her past, including the baby.
Aunty Amara, the midwife, did not bulge from the bedside but kept watching Rita till she placed the baby rightly and tried positioning his mouth to her breast. The first suckle from the baby jolted her, the second cleared her mind and the third brought a peace she had never felt. This must have been the reaction Aunty Amara was waiting for because she smiled deeply and gently touched the baby.
“He is so perfect. Seeing miracles like this daily assures me there is a future”, she said warmly. Rita met her words with silence. She tried to compartmentalize her feelings as she desperately wanted to justify her next course of action. Calls by one of the assistant took Aunty Amara away from the bedside. Looked like another woman was in labor as sounds could be heard outside which took Rita down memory lane as the baby suckled.
The last time she heard those sounds like that, her father had just returned from his journey. Excitement was in the air that day as everyone came out to greet him and assist in carrying goods. Rita and her sisters were giddy as this meant the wedding preparations could begin.
“How are my sunshines?” her father had asked making their mother grumble in fake jealousy.
“Am I not the only sunshine you have Amadi?” her mother lamented. “How these 3 girls took my place is still a mystery”, she continued.
Her father had laughed out loud. He always did or said things that irked her mother in a good way, and he had the perfect words to bring out her smile once again. Their love was something Rita wanted in her own marriage and silently prayed Raymond would be this loving.
“They are my sunshines, Chi girl but you are my sun. They shine the light you give them”, her father replied as he sat down on the coach.
Everyone in the room laughed including her mother. Her brother had carried the remaining luggage in and everyone thanked God for the safe journey of their father.
“Rita, bring your father’s food or do you want to bathe first?”, her mother directed the question to her father.
“Food. I want to eat with my sun. You shining elements can leave”, he answered shooing them all with his hands.
Rita and her siblings laughed as they left the living room. Life was good to her family. She should have known life was not that nice. Nothing goes perfect for too long.
Rita must have dozed off while feeding the baby because the next sound she heard was the cry of a baby. Her first thought was that something had gone wrong. She was ready to stand up and defend the baby. Her attempt at getting up to save him from whatever danger made her realize she was still cuddling him. In fact, he was enjoying his dream as his smile betrayed him. He had stopped suckling for a while making her milk wet some parts of her blouse.
“See who is awake. How do you feel?” one of the assistants asked.
“Stronger and hungry. Thank you for the other time”, Rita answered.
The assistant smiled as she nodded. Soon, food was brought to Rita while the baby was taken to a make shift cart beside her.
“I heard a baby cry”, Rita said out of the blue after several minutes of silence. It was so real she did not want to believe it was a dream. Maybe her spirit was warning her. She prepared herself mentally to fight back this time around. She had nothing to lose anymore.
“Did you hear me?” the assistant asked for the second time snapping Rita back to reality once again. It was getting embarrassing so she pretended to cough first before answering.
“Sorry, I was too focused on my food. What did you say?” she asked. Her act did not however go unnoticed as the assistant came closer as if to inspect her. Rita watched her hover for a while and seeming satisfied, she nodded.
“Another woman gave birth in the other room. Madam Amara sent me here to check up on you. I came twice but you were sleeping”, the assistant said. “How you and your baby slept through the whole labor shouts still baffles me”, she continued.
“Guess we were both tired. Giving birth is not as easy as I thought. I guess coming out was not easy for him. See, he is still asleep”, replied Rita stifling her laughter. When the assistant looked at Rita, both of them could not hold their laughter any more. It was soothing as Rita watched the assistant leave the room. No matter what life brings, her father always advised her to first laugh. He claimed laughter solved half of the problem. Rita wondered if it would solve half of her worries.
Despite the advice of her father, laughter was not his first course of action the day they discovered she was pregnant. She, the bride-to-be, got pregnant months before wedding. It was as if the news cracked the walls of their house. It not only made them look like they were living without a roof over their heads, it brought back terrifying memories they all seemed to have buried. Maybe if they had not suppressed such incident, she and her mother would have visited the hospital earlier. But what would the doctor have done? Maybe, she should have gone ahead with the wedding but marrying Ray would have been a disaster. It was a time bomb waiting to explode.
Rita could remember that gloomy day her mother found out she was pregnant. She wailed like a baby that had been deprived of morning meal. She called the names of her fore fathers, asking them why they watched her life going in ruins. Rita was wondering whose life was in ruins. Obviously not her mother. Maybe she should have told her family earlier that she had been plagued every night since the day she was robbed of joy. Yet seeing everyone in the house suppress the memory and carry on with wedding preparations, she joined the band wagon. Well, it seemed like she joined the wrong compartment as it seems she was the only one left with the mark of that night. Her father had sworn to kill him, she remembered but something must have happened to change his mind. Maybe Raymond came to apologize to him as he did to her. “I was drunk”, he lamented. “You are too beautiful”, he complained. “I could not wait anymore”, he confessed. Nonsense
“My Surprise”, Aunty, Amara called as she walked into the room laughing. Rita managed to respond quickly to her smile with hers. Aunty Amara had done more than she could ever pay for. The take-in, feeding and birth. All she had to do was cleanup her house daily. Aunty Amara still claims she is a surprise from God which she doubts but she would do anything to please her including agreeing to whatever she says.
“Nne, are you fine?” Aunty Amara asked. “Yes Ma. Thank you”.
“Thank God, Nne. Look at the bundle of joy devil would have snatched from you. I love him already.”
Love? Her aunt was not even looking at her anymore. She was busy cooing at the sleeping bundle in the cart. As if he realized he was the center of attraction, he made a little sound, turned his head and opened his eyes. She was so sure he could see her but lessons from her aunt told her otherwise. Babies do not see clearly in the first week; she had taught her. Those lessons she learnt in joy when she still had dreams of birthing lives like her aunt one day. Well, she did birth one. The one staring at her like she was his next meal.
“I think he is hungry again, Nne. Healthy son”, her aunt commented as she carried him towards her. Her instincts were right after all. She was his next meal.
Her instincts had always been right. She knew something gloomy would happen before her wedding. She felt it, prayed about and even told her mother. She just never knew it would come from her groom. When he claimed he could not take her home that night, she should have insisted or walked home herself. Who knows? She might not have met any evil. Evil himself was taking her to his own home. She remembered calling her siblings and explaining the situation to them. Raymond thought they should stay over at his family house since it was too late. They had gone to make some arrangements together and time escaped them. Family house, he said. Raymond forgot to tell her no one was at home. Trust is a basic key in marriage so she had trusted her fiancé. He acted all good till he got himself drunk while watching a match. He kept shouting and hailing, encouraging her to celebrate with him. Her instincts were on red alert, but she did not move an inch away from him on the coach. He looked at her like she was his next meal, shrugged his shoulders, stared at her again. She could have sworn the beer made him hungry. He truly was hungry but not for food. For her.
Everything happened in a twinkle. Everything. Her pleading fell to deaf ears till he was done. Then the reverse was the case. He began pleading and begging her not to tell anyone. They were to be married in three months. This would be their family secret. Certain secrets can never be kept.
This was the third time she took a journey to events of the past. It was beginning to make her feel uncomfortable. She stared at the baby again. She had not put a name to what she felt for him. Love was certainly not the name. You do not hurt who you love. The baby opened his eyes and stared at her. As though they were trying to understand each other. Like he silently asked why she tried to kill him in the first trimester, why she gave up and drank poison to kill both of them, why she ran away when Raymond suddenly lied and publicly canceled the marriage. The whys were too much. Rita could not hold back her tears. The baby did not hurt anyone. He did not deserve to die with her, he did not deserve a mother like her.
“I am so sorry”, she apologized but he kept sucking and staring at her. She could justify her actions. She could. She kept Raymond’s secret till it could not be kept. Her mother’s wails were enough to raise the dead that day. She confessed to her father but it was too late. Raymond canceled the marriage that morning too before he could be accused. Well, it did not stop her father from beating him blue-black. The beating must have changed his mind as he came back to apologize. Rita had slapped him and sent him out but her father received him with open arms. “We are saving the family name”, he said. Wedding preparations continued till she could not take it anymore. She was drowning in depression and fear while everyone busied themselves preparing for a wedding to a man capable of rape. He would surely do that over and over again in marriage.
The baby had slept again but she did not want to return him to the cart. She wanted to hold him forever, protecting him from evil. Yes, that was what she felt. She wanted to protect him even if she could not love him, a reminder of her ill fortune. No name to call this protective instinct yet.
“Can you stand up, Rita? You need to try to ease yourself.” her Aunt suggested. Rita nodded, gradually stood up and walked towards the toilet.
“Put him in the cart”, Aunty Amara suggested but Rita held him tight and kept walking. She would not run away anymore. She would fight life and protect her son. My son.
However, her aunt stopped her stride, blocking her way from going into the toilet. “I will not let him get hurt. No one can touch him or me. No one can pretend nothing wrong happened”, said Rita all in a minute. This protective instinct was overwhelming. She had never felt like this about anyone before and at age of twenty-five, she had carried and taken care of a number of babies.
“Usiwoghene”, her aunt said calmly.
“God saves. God protects”, her aunt continued.
Rita wanted to scream that God did not protect her but with the few months spent in Aunty Amara’s house, she knew that was baseless. God had hand in so many parts of her life. Like this safe and stress-free delivery.
“Give him to me and go to the toilet, Rita. God will protect him now and forever”.
“Usiwoghene”, Rita repeated while handling her son to her Aunt making her smile warmly.
“You like the name? If you do not already have a name, we could name him”
Rita nodded and walked into the toilet.
“By the way, I sent a word to your parents about your safe delivery.”
Rita nodded and walked into the toilet. “Usiwoghene. God and I will protect you”, she muttered to herself.
Of the many things she felt since her Aunt handed her the baby, love was not among them. She could not deny she might fall in love with him later but for now, she had only one feeling for her son. Protection was its name.