They were loud. The screams. The end of one brought rise to another, more ghoulish and more sinister than the last. The pounding was more deafening, though, more intense, more insistent. I could feel something trickle down my hands, something warm and sticky, like blood. A part of me wondered what could possibly cause a human being to create such morbid sounds. It was when I brought my blurry eyes to the bloody clenched fists in front of me that I finally realized who the screaming and pounding lunatic was: me.
I treated the revelation as a momentary glitch and continued to ram on the door. My lungs helped me vocalize my pain; I could feel my larynx burning. I did not stop, not even when I heard a bone in my hand snap like a frail twig or when my folded hands began to numb. I did not stop, not even when my screams became inaudible or when I could hardly swallow my saliva.
It was as if I was in a frantic trance, an endless nightmare.
I suddenly stopped and slid against the door, my fragile legs succumbing to the weight of my body. When my rear end reached the cold, tiled floor, I finally caught wind of what I had been screaming about. Only now it came out as a strenuous whisper,
“Give me back my baby…Please, give me back my baby.”
* * *
I turned off the tap faucet and wiped the water droplets off my hands. A sudden wave of nausea sent me lurching forward towards the sink. I planted my palms firmly against the counter and willed myself to breathe. Closing my eyes, I sucked in a lunge of air and held it before slowly letting it out through my clinched teeth. By the time I had calmed myself completely, a pair of hairy, burly arms had snaked around my waist.
“And how is my beautiful wife this afternoon?”
I bit the inner part of my lower lip, adamant against giggling like a teenage girl.
“Same as always…”
My husband, Thomas Kariuki, spun me around and touched his forehead to mine. He was tall and taut with smooth anthill skin. He was still the most attractive man I had ever met. I breathed in his scent and smiled in satisfaction. He smelt like he always did after a day of slaving away in our shabby hotel; sweat, pepper, and garlic. Our customers adored his food. After a decade of marriage, I was nowhere close to becoming as savvy as he was in the kitchen.
No wonder his mother hated me.
“So…angry and hungry?”
I bobbed my head enthusiastically. To support my claim, my stomach rumbled. I was not the only one who was hungry. Laughing lightly, Thomas crouched in front of me and placed his ears on my round belly.
“Are you hungry as well, Nebuchadnezzar?”
A high-pitched yelp escaped my throat as I playfully swatted my husband.
“We are not calling our child that!”
“Why? Isn’t that a name from the Bible? Just like you’ve always wanted?”
“But what? You want our child to have a generic name like John or Peter?”
“But what? Is our child not special? A gift from God?”
Thomas straightened up from his bent position and stretched his arm to cradle my cheek. I leaned in, the warmth he exuded too comforting for me to resist. Besides, he had a point, our child, our son, was a gift from God. For ten years, we had persevered in a childless marriage.
Another reason why Thomas’ mother hated me.
“Besides, with a name like that, our son is bound to be a genius. Can you imagine spelling Nebuchadnezzar in preschool?”
A thought suddenly invaded my mind. I smiled cheekily at Thomas, who responded by planting a soft kiss on my forehead.
“I cannot argue there. Tell you what, I will strike a deal with you.”
Thomas cocked his head to the side, his face gleaming with intrigue and brilliant light from the setting sun.
“Yes, if you can spell the name, right here, right now, then Nebuchadnezzar it is…”
Once again, I found myself digging into the flesh of my lower lip; Thomas had no clue how to spell the name he so wished to give to our son. Panic etched his face as he struggled to meet my demands. He flicked his nose and furrowed his eyebrows as his mouth moved to spell the name inaudibly. In the end, we both laughed hysterically and giddily. We looked like a couple of junkies, high off a thrilling drug like cocaine or cannabis. Only, we were high on hope, possibility, and life.
Honestly, I did not care what we named our son. He might as well be called Hitler or Idi Amin; I would love him either way.
“Honey, I feel like eating omena and chapo…”
Thomas froze momentarily before sinking to the floor. He laughed till he cried.
* * *
Martha Njeri Kariuki was a small, dark, stoic woman with owl-like eyes and a snarling mouth. I once made a joke to Thomas regarding his mother’s appearance. I asked him whether his father had been blind when he met Martha. Of course, my joke was not appreciated. Thomas did not speak to me for a week. On the first day I met her, she called me to the kitchen to help her prepare a complicated meal entailing sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, yams, and one giant pumpkin. I was willing to wager that my mother turned in her grave at this feral combination. From where I came from, mixing these ingredients made you eligible for incarceration.
Perhaps that is why she hated me from the very beginning.
After all, I did spit out her food upon tasting it. I even made a joke about how she wanted to kill me because she did not want her son to be ripped away from her. Of course, my joke was not appreciated. Martha’s face became even more stoic at the comment. Perhaps I was not as funny as I thought I was.
Martha chased me away from the kitchen while hurling insults. I did not understand any of them, but they must have been horrid considering what happened afterwards. Thomas and I never ate the eerie mixture concocted by Martha; he grabbed my arm and dragged me to the car. Thomas’ father chased after us with a newspaper in his hand and a desperate look in his eyes. I figured he, too, did not want to taste Martha’s broth.
It took them a year to patch things up, and to Martha’s dismay, Thomas had not dumped me yet. To further her anguish, Thomas proposed to me after a year of courtship. Martha did not attend the wedding. When asked, she claimed that her ancestors had predicted death in the ceremony if she attended. She claimed that Thomas and I were cursed. I wanted to joke about the matter, about how the idea of ancestors making a skype call to Martha was hilarious. But I had no desire of being divorced during my own wedding ceremony, so I kept quiet and giggled furiously by myself.
When five years passed, five years of trying to have a child, five years of frustrations and depression, five years of hospitals and churches, I lost my ability to joke alongside my belief that curses were frivolous.
After six years, my husband had run his business to the ground because of all the money we needed for hospital bills. We went to multiple specialists, tried varied recommendations, but nothing worked. We considered a surrogate mother but decided against it, fearing the genetic complications involved. We considered adoption, but we did not go through with it. The thought of never breastfeeding, never forming a biological bond with my child tore me to pieces. I simply could not do it.
During the seventh year of our turbulent marriage, Martha and her sisters arrived at our doorstep accompanied by a young, beautiful girl with dark burnished skin and an easy smile. In Thomas’ absence, I was dragged out of my house by one of his aunts who was built like a rugby player. I was repeatedly slapped and spat on, all the while receiving gut-wrenching insults in Kikuyu. I had picked up the language with time, so I distinctively heard when they called my womb cursed. They entered the house, and a while later, one of them, the rugby player, reemerged carrying my suitcase. She thrust it forward with unnatural force. It cracked open beside me, sending some of my clothes to the dust-draped ground. Unable to move, I had sat on the dirt outside my house listening to Martha, and her sisters showering warm praises on who I presumed was to be Thomas’ new bride. I could not cry, and neither could I move, so I sat there under the harsh sun in my yellow floral dress and red Bata slippers. Thomas arrived hours later, drunk to a stupor, a habit he had developed after seven years of a childless marriage.
When he saw me on the ground, back arched, face covered with tear streaks, skin draped with red splotches, dirt on my dress, and with clothes strewn around me, he sobered up. He probably thought that I had finally snapped. He shook me repeatedly, demanding answers for my bizarre appearance. I was still in shock, still unable to cry, move or even talk. Martha, hearing the commotion, ambled outside, trailed by the young bride.
I finally let out a loud, siren wail. I screamed at my husband, demanding he take me home to my father. I told him I could no longer take it, that I was better off in a place where I was not constantly reminded of my childless state. At some point. Martha pulled her son away from me. I watched in horror as she shoved the young bride towards her son and touched the young bride’s stomach claiming that hers was ripe and ready.
I passed out when Martha suggested that Thomas marry the girl the following day. When I woke up, I was in my bed, in my home beside my husband. He brought me food soon after I regained sentience. It was my favorite meal, chapati and omena.
At first, I did not eat, events from earlier playing in my head like a silent film. When my husband saw this, he took the plate and placed it on our nightstand. He then took my hand in his and brought his mouth to our clasped hands.
“She will never bother us again.”
Thomas never talked about what happened that day, and I never asked.
Martha vanished from our life after that day.
Yes, this must be the reason why she hates me.
* * *
By the time I got pregnant, we were barely surviving. We had accrued countless debts, shifted to a shack in the slums, switched to one meal a day…we were hanging dangerously below the poverty line in our forties. The pregnancy changed everything. We suddenly had someone else to provide for, someone who could not eat a single meal per day, someone who would be susceptible to danger in the slums. I began cleaning people’s houses while my husband started a small business of cooking mandazi and chapati. We saved religiously and later expanded his cooking business. Within six months, we had managed to pull ourselves out of the slums. We even began paying our grim debts.
Without even being born yet, our child had saved us as individuals and partners. A spark that had long since dissipated revived again. And it was magical.
* * *
The contractions began at 9:00 p.m., right after we had finished watching the show, Zora. The force of the contractions was scorching and intense. I shifted in my seat and grabbed a couch pillow. I then dug my teeth into the fluffy cushion and screamed. I heard a pair of feet stumble from the kitchen towards the living room. I was slowly lifted from my seat by cold, wet hands. Thomas smelt of dish soap and dirty dishes. For some reason, I did not hate the scent.
“Normal contractions, or is it time?”
My water broke, answering his question. Thomas yelped in delight before proceeding to kiss my cheek noisily. I laughed and cried at the same time as pain and joy whirled within me. My husband ordered for an Uber and packed the necessities in our “operation baby” duffel bag. I watched, slightly bent, face pinched and cheeks flushed, as he hummed and folded baby clothes.
He was so happy.
I groaned as another contraction seared through me. By the time the wave of pain had passed, Thomas was in front of me with a wide smile on his face.
“Honey, do you think the baby will get my nose? Can you imagine if he does? A pig’s nose on a newborn!”
I arrived at the hospital laughing. The nurses thought it was a pain coping mechanism. How could I tell them that I wished my child had my husband’s nose so that I can laugh for the rest of my life?
I had a strong feeling that they would not appreciate this joke.
* * *
A staccato of screams greeted me as I was wheeled into the maternity ward. For a moment, I forgot my own pain as I took in my environment. Over twenty women were spread out in the ward, their metallic beds separated by pale blue curtains. My head spun around, catching glimpses of multiple women wailing, thrashing, and flailing as they gave birth. It was as if a group of wild beasts had been captured and wounded; the moans and wails were daunting. I was suddenly glad that spouses were no longer allowed in wards due to the pandemic regulations. Thomas would have fainted and missed the birth of his son. Then he would have complained about the moment for the rest of our lives.
As if the pig nose was not enough to worry about.
Two nurses helped me onto my bed. The shock of being in the maternity ward had worn off; my painful contractions were back and demanded my undeterred attention. I slammed my back against the hard hospital pillow and gritted my teeth. I rapidly blinked, refusing to succumb to crying. My tears were preserved for the moment I was to hold my son in my arms.
Ripples of sweat formed on my forehead, my hospital robe clung onto me like a second skin. At some point, I cursed childbirth and wished to be an alien rather than a human. I doubted whether creatures from Mars went through such mind-numbing torture. Perhaps giving birth to them was like taking a piss; fast and relieving.
Amidst the chaos, there were distinct sounds of newborns crying and new mothers laughing in delight. These sounds were wonderful to hear; a rainbow during a terrible storm. An obstetrician suddenly appeared at my bedside. His familiar face was a welcome sight. Dr. Oduor had held my hand throughout the pregnancy, and I would eternally be grateful to him. His gentle nature and candidness made him terrific at his job. It was he who told me that I would not be able to conceive again. He also told me to spoil my son; the world was, after all, filled with successful brats.
“Hello Jane? How are you feeling?”
Dr. Oduor’s chuckle was met with a crescendo of moans in the maternity ward. I suddenly respected the man for enduring this every day. A bolt of pain burned through me. I arched my back, snapped my eyes shut, and cursed loudly. A pair of cold, firm hands held me down.
“I need you to breathe for me, Jane, okay? Deep breaths, in and out, come on breathe…breathe…”
And I did. First slowly, then swiftly. Dr. Oduor’s presence was calming, his voice soothing. Within a few minutes, my muscles had unwound themselves, their tension dissipating.
“That’s it, Jane. Now I need you to stretch your legs apart from me.”
I felt like a soldier as I followed the doctor’s every instruction. He was the key to ending my pain; I was sure I would do anything he commanded at this point.
Maybe even eat Martha’s bizarre broth.
Before this night, I had spent hours binge-watching childbirth films. The real thing was very different. For starters, there was nothing graceful about this moment. My hair was unkempt, my face was covered with snort, and my robe was damp with sweat. Once again, I was glad that my husband was not present.
Scratch that, I was pissed Thomas was not present. I wanted him there. No, I needed him there. He should have been beside me making jokes about our child’s nose or my eccentric eating habits. I cussed the pandemic and the Judiciary system. Mostly the pandemic.
“Jane, get out of your head and push!”
And I did, with all might. I gathered handfuls of the hospital sheets in my palms and clenched my fists. I gritted my teeth and groaned as I forced my son out of my belly. I wondered whether he was upset about the eviction notice. I heard the distinct sound of a slap and a baby wailing. Soon, that would be me.
I would hear my baby cry.
“Last one Jane, give me one strong push!”
Like a genie, I obeyed my master’s command and willed my body to give life. After the final push, I slammed my sweat-draped body on the bed and breathed heavily. Then I closed my eyes and waited for that distinct sound of life.
It never came.
Curious, I fluttered my eyes open. Dr. Oduor was in front of me, holding my son in his lanky arms. I watched, numb, as he incessantly lightly slapped the baby’s bottom. Nothing happened. No burst of life. No cry was filling the air. I slowly fleeted my eyes from the limp, pale baby to Dr. Oduor. His mouth was moving, his eyes were glazed.
“I am so sorry Jane…”
My mind struggled to process what was happening before me. My blurry eyes darted between my son who was now in the hands of a nurse who was looking at me piteously and Dr. Oduor who was slowly approaching the side of my bed.
“Jane I need to go inform Thomas…”
I could hear sounds coming from beside me, but it was muffled and nonsensical. Dr. Oduor’s voice faded into the background as I watched the nurse carry my baby towards the ward’s exit. I suddenly sat up.
“Where are you taking my baby? Where are you taking my baby you bitch! Give me back my baby! Give me back my baby!”
I sprang up from the bed, driven by a gush of adrenaline. I placed my bare feet on the hospital floor and began chasing the nurse—the nurse who had stolen my baby. I was yanked back and gripped tightly. I shoved my assailant in the stomach using my elbow and wiggled from their grasp. I was about to exit the maternity ward when something cold and sharp was inserted at the side of my neck.
Before I lost consciousness, I heard Thomas’ wail.
* * *
I woke up a few hours later in a stark white room that had a strong, pungent smell. I dragged my weak body to the door and began pounding on it while screaming. When my legs finally gave in, I sunk to the floor and cried. I cried till I couldn’t anymore. I wound up curling myself into a humanoid ball, my body numb from the loss of my baby.
I stayed at the hospital for a month. Thomas vanished after he got the news, only to return two weeks later smelling like a tavern. Dr. Oduor allowed him to spend a whole day with me, and we ended up crying for most of it. He vowed never to leave my sight. He promised it would all be okay.
Martha showed up during the third week with a thermos flask brimming with porridge. She appeared shyly at the door of my room, fidgeting as she gestured for me to beckon her in. When she reached my bedside, she began to wail, asking for forgiveness, begging for absolution. With the loss of my own mother, I desperately needed a woman by my side, and Martha became that woman. She devoted herself to me, helping me heal physically and mentally.
As it turns out, she did not hate me. She just hated the fact that her son never came home anymore.
At the end of the month, Thomas and Martha arrived to take me home. I had healed physically, but mentally I was destroyed. On our way out, we passed outside the maternity ward. I caught a glimpse of an old woman; she must have been in her sixties. Her skin was wrinkled, her breasts sagged, but there she was, smiling and cradling her baby. She was breastfeeding her newborn.
For the first time that month, a ghost of a smile appeared on my lips.
Photo by Ian Keefe on Unsplash (modified)