The thatched mud hut was dimly lit by a rusty old kerosene lamp. A woven mat spread out on the bare cemented floor held a relieved Dooshima. The agony she felt moments ago now seemed like a distant memory as she eagerly waited to be handed her baby.
“This baby is not normal,” mama Mbapuun observed, wiping the newborn’s skin.
Dooshima strained her ears.
“It is true,” the second midwife agreed, confirming the young mother’s fears, “She does not look right.”
“What is wrong?” Dooshima demanded from her mat, propping up on both elbows.
The second midwife glanced over at her from the corner where she stood and shook her head before returning her focus down to the naked baby in mama Mbapuun’s lap.
“What is wrong?” Dooshima repeated, worry lacing her voice, but the women gave her no response.
Instead, Mama Mbapuun clad the baby in a wrapper and walked to Dooshima’s mat, with the second midwife following her closely.
Dooshima’s eyes bulged at the women now standing before her, protruding her child. She searched their faces for answers, but when they won’t speak, she dreadfully dropped her gaze down to the baby in mama Mbapuun’s hands.
Her brows furrowed into a frown as she observed the baby’s enormous head…
“Take,” mama Mbapuun nudged the baby forward.
“It is a girl,” the second midwife cooed as if to pacify the tear escaping Dooshima’s eye.
“Take your child,” mama Mbapuun repeated, then lowered the newborn into Dooshima’s reluctant hands.
Worry and confusion gripped her heart as she received her baby. Soon, the midwives would step out of the hut to her family, waiting on the other side.
They would demand to know the state of the baby they had all accompanied to be born.
Shame plugged her heart as she imagined the report the women would give to them.
“No wonder the baby did not cry,” she heard the second midwife whisper to her colleague as both women lowered their heads and hunched their backs out of the hut.
Dooshima’s cheeks dampened. Terrified yet curious, she slowly picked apart the wrapper swaddling the baby until she was staring at her naked features and her forehead creased in a confused frown.
She cocked her head to the side, carefully observing the baby’s body; her limbs looked weak, or, could it be the way all newborns looked? She wondered.
“Dooshima!” her husband Terngu called, charging into the hut, “what happened?”
Dooshima helplessly looked up at him with tears jumping down her cheeks. He scooped the baby into his arms, and Dooshima burst into tears.
Terngu regarded the baby from her head to her toe with confusion overcoming his face.
He covered her up and laid her softly on the blanket next to Dooshima. Then, he lowered himself to the mat, pulled his wife into his embrace, and Dooshima’s cries heightened.
He kept his arms around her, suppressing the knot rising in his throat.
“It is okay,” he said, patting her back and willing himself to believe the same, “stop crying.”
Her old mother-in-law trudged into the hut, followed by her in-laws, and Dooshima buried her head further down her husband’s chest.
The mother-in-law picked up the baby, looked her over, and then held her out to the peering family members. Exclamations ran through the mini gathering; people hissed and snapped fingers over their heads.
Terngu and Dooshima named their daughter Mchia.
The family keenly watched Mchia as she lived through the weeks.
“Mama, why is my daughter this way?” Terngu asked his mother one dark night as they both sat outside their huts, eyes affixed to the dirty oil wick lamp made out of an old can, burning on the sand in front of them.
“She is a strange baby. But, let us watch her and see,” the old woman replied. “I pray it is not what I am thinking.”
“What are you thinking mama?”
“Let us simply watch and see.” The old woman responded, refusing to encourage her son’s fears.
When Mchia clocked six months of age, it became clear that something was indeed strange about the child.
She would not sit up on her own; it looked like she had no bones behind her flesh. Saliva constantly drooled down her chin, and she breastfed tirelessly, giving her mother sores at her breast.
“What will I do?” Dooshima cried to her husband.
Terngu stared on at the baby, sucking greedily at his wife’s sore breast. He could tell that his wife was in pain and that the baby was not about to stop anytime soon.
Frustrated, he stormed out of their hut. “Mama!” he called out to his mother searchingly, “mama!”
“I am here,” the old woman exclaimed from the family’s mud kitchen.
Terngu marched towards the hut, waving away the smoke that welcomed him at its entrance as he stepped onto the sandy floor of the kitchen.
“What is it?” his mother asked from her stool, next to the three-stone firewood stand. A big black pot sat cooking on its burning fire.
“Mama, this baby will not stop sucking,” he replied. “Mama, my wife is tired! She has wounds on her breast, and she is falling sick. Mama! Is this normal?” He queried.
“Then mama, what is all this? It has been six months, yet the baby cannot even sit on her own,” he stated angrily.
“Wait,” the old mother said, pressing one hand down to the stool. She lifted herself up on her feet with much effort, then heaved, relieved over her demanding yet successful action.
“Let us go,” she said to her son.
Terngu led the way, and she followed behind him, wobbling.
They walked into Dooshima’s hut, and Terngu stepped aside for his mother to move closer to his wife.
“Ehn, greetings, my child.” She hunched over Dooshima and removed her breast from the baby’s mouth. The baby set off in angry tears.
The old woman, ignoring the baby’s cries, inspected Dooshima’s sore breast, softly feeling the bulge that grew on either side. Dooshima winced in pain and, at the same time, bounced her legs to pacify the wailing child.
“This baby is not a human being,” the old woman concluded, straightening up on her feet.
“What!” Dooshima yelped.
“Mama?” seconded Terngu.
“She is not a human being,” the old woman repeated, shooting a straight stare at the now quiet baby as if daring the infant to challenge her statement. But the baby resumed sucking at her mother’s swollen breast, unconcerned about the old woman’s qualms.
“I will send for the chief priest,” she said and turned around to leave.
Terngu regarded his wife’s terrified moist eyes then charged out of the hut after his mother, “mama!.”
⏳THE NEXT DAY⏳
“So?” Terngu impatiently demanded of the busy chief priest.
His mother pinched his hand, signaling him to be patient, but young Terngu could almost not contain himself.
He had been tempted severally to leave his mother’s side and go over to the bed that held his daughter, but the chief priest remained standing over the child. He had his back to them so that they could not clearly see what he was doing.
All they heard were incantations and the rattling of his pelleted walking stick.
Terngu sweated, fidgeting nervously on his spot. He thought about his wife, who had opted not to witness the ceremony…
“Hmmm,” the old chief priest finally exhaled, and Terngu’s gaze shot up in anticipation. He watched impatiently as the man slowly turned around to face them. His old mother felt sure about her assumptions yet hoped she had been wrong all along.
“She is a strange baby,” the chief priest begun, now standing face to face with them, “tonight, before bedtime, take some ashes, spread them around this room,” he paused to signal at the area, “by morning, we would know for sure.”
Bewildered, Terngu gaped at his mother in stunned silence, speechlessly demanding an explanation, but his mother ignored his gaze. Instead, she nodded understandingly at the chief priest’s instructions, “We will do as you have said,” she assured him.
The old man nodded. Then, stomped his walking stick to the cemented floor and commenced to stride out of the thatched hut.
By nightfall of that day, Terngu, with the guidance of his mother, sprinkled ashes around the bed he shared with his wife and daughter. He also spread it in various corners of the thatched hut, making sure to drizzle a straight line of ashes across the door’s entrance.
“It is okay,” his mother commented, feeling satisfied, “spread no more.”
His wife had been watching from her bed, terrified. The recent turnaround of events and speculations in their home planted fear over her own child in her heart. But she continued to carry her in her thighs, grateful that in the least, she would not be spending the night alone.
The couple found it hard to shut their eyes and fall asleep that night. Both were petrified about what the outcome of their experiment would be.
They clung to each other on their old flat mattress, dressed with a singular wrapper, with the infant asleep at Dooshima’s side.
Eventually, however, sleep overtook the parents, and they dozed away.
By the first cockcrow, the chief priest’s rattling walking stick could be heard outside their hut, “Wake up!” he announced,
“It is time!!”
The couple rubbed their eyes with the back of their hands, feeling rudely awoken.
The grandmother made to open the door from the outside, but the chief priest instantly stopped her. The old woman took a step backward and allowed the old man to pull the door open to reveal the sprinkled ashes of the night before.
“Ha-ha-ha!” the priest laughed sadly, staring at the ashes across the door, “there!” he pointed to the floor.
All three family members craned their necks in the direction of his finger. Yet, all they could see was a jagged line in the ashes at the door and in the ashes around the bed.
“She’s a snake!” the chief priest declared, causing Dooshima to yelp in fear and jump closer to her husband. “She crawled over these ashes, in her real form,” he gesticulated around the area.
Her mother-in-law winced and shook her head sadly, observing the lines in the ashes.
Terngu maintained a straight face with his arms consoling his terrified wife, who was clinging fearfully to him.
“Bring the child!” the chief priest demanded, but the young couple did not bulge.
The grandmother crossed over the ashes and collected the fast asleep child from the bed.
She handed the baby to the chief priest, who received her with one arm and then invited Terngu and his mother to follow him with the other hand.
Dooshima went after them but sat outside to wait, too terrified to remain in the hut by herself.
She wailed as the three began to walk away from the house and towards the plantation.
They walked the narrow path of the forest, with the chief priest leading the way and Terngu with his mother following closely behind.
The chief priest chanted as they went, with the baby nestled in the crook of his arm.
When they got to the riverside, he placed the baby on the bare ground, endlessly reciting incantations.
The baby began to cry. It had been quiet all through their journey up until that moment.
The chief priest removed a white cock from his woven shoulder bag then paused to glance behind at Terngu and his mother, “You must not shed a tear,” he warned.
He carried the live cock to the banks of the river, flung it into the water, then began to chant the names of different snakes in his native dialect, “Deli! Gungum!”
As he recited, the baby on the floor continued to cry hysterically.
“Kuryor!” the chief priest continued. “Mmondum—”
Instantly, the baby evolved into a snake.
Terngu and his mother fearfully jumped backward, but the chief priest laughed confidently.
He resumed his chant, and they observed as the snake crawled into the river towards the white cock. It caught the cock and disappeared with it under the water.
“She was a child of the river,” the chief priest remarked, “a snake who did not belong amongst men. Do not weep for her,” he warned them. “Go back home, and wait on the gods to bless you with a child. Go!”
Terngu and his mother hastily turned around and staggered away.
They could hear the voice of the chief priest chanting and singing behind them as they made their way into the forest.
His voice got faint with every step they took until they could no longer hear him.
They walked in stunned silence through the forest that led to their home, never to speak of that day’s events to anyone.