To This God I Will Say

He has his hands on Nii’s throat, and this time I do not stop them. They’re fighting over the last sugarcane, and Nii has it held tightly between his teeth, the juice from the cane dripping down his shorts. I am more concerned about how many more days he’ll be wearing the shorts unwashed, with its stain, than Ayikwe choking him to death. As if trapped inside a curse, my brothers and I have, since Mother’s passing, tasted famine in seasons of abundance. They call it a taboo—that a woman will go into labor and lose her life, especially when the child survives. “How is it possible that the same channel of life can know death?” they’ll say to one another. “The baby must have sucked out her last breath.” Sometimes they’ll curse and plead their favor, “Chai! Between my dead body and a cursed child, may God choose me.” And hence the banishment of my family.

They did not come chasing us out of our home with machetes, as I’ve been told of the past. But the signs were evident that they wanted us gone. At my kiosk in the market central, a scarecrow had been planted, its ripped white shirt besmirched with rotten tomatoes. The boys wondered why none of their friends would play with them. Once a boy in the neighborhood said Ayikwe was just a sacrificed clot of blood, and Ayikwe responded by digging his tiny fist into the boy’s cheek. A nightmare also kept repeating itself: that while we slept, townspeople gathered around our hut and, circling us in silence, lit a match. They set us on fire and lifted up their hands in thanksgiving. There was never smoke, just our cries filling the air. I couldn’t let that happen, and so in the first week of August, we folded everything we owned, which wasn’t much, into two sacks, and with a six-month-old baby strapped to my back, we made our way through the farms and into the outskirts of the village.

Nii is six and Ayikwe just turned eleven. For his birthday I read him Mother’s favorite prayer, which we all know by heart, days spent kneeling on a mat speaking the words slowly, rehearsed and without meaning. He insists I read it, saying, “You sound just like Ma. It is comfort.”

“Comforting,” I say and begin to read from the back of an envelope that contains Bible verses and written prayers to God:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

“But I don’t want to die,” Nii says, and I smile at him, the baby’s head resting easy on my chest. We named him Joseph. Actually, Ayikwe did, after his favorite Bible character. I didn’t object. At the time, I was spending days and nights in the clinic, signing papers I didn’t understand and wishing everything to be over. It was a relief to come back home with a baby who already had a name picked out and a coat of many colors, a faded Ankara cloth my mother owned. Sometimes I wonder if Joseph will be the beam of light, the one who rises above the storm and saves us from drowning. At the back of my mind, although I resist thinking such things, I toy with the idea of selling him, although I’m sure no one will pay for a womb’s curse. I know I’ll be sorry for harboring such thoughts. Nothing would be the same without him, but, frankly, selling him would be the best thing to happen to the boys and me. We could return home, just the three of us. I could have my kiosk in the market again and Ayikwe could grow maize on the farm. We could eat and laugh and be accepted.

You would think that by fifteen, life had dealt me enough, given me my share of its troubles—leaving school to trade in the market with my mother and coming home to cook for a family, which reduced my life to servitude. And now to be responsible for my brothers’ lives when I can barely carry my own is something I never wanted.

We’ve been in the woods twelve days. A meandering stream froths beside us. The boys have dug out groundnut and found a dead fish or two they could make nothing of. I’ve eaten very little. For Joseph, I pick green leaves and grind them between my palms and force it down his mouth. He spits most of it out. I can hear the boys splashing their legs in the stream, and I allow myself to weep for the first time since everything. It’s a private mourning; I grieve the loss of my mother, the cruel townspeople, and my tired heart. When the day winds down, clouds stretch above us, expanding like an inflated body. I do not know what makes me do it, but I open up the envelope and pull out a letter. It is dated January 2003. Some lines have been crossed out and some shaded deeply. I wonder what kind of prayer said to God is revocable. What happens to the receipts? We swallow back our words out of fear and like to believe God keeps no record. I cannot think of why Mother will want some prayers returned to her, but I know it is no way a lack of faith. Yet, here in these letters, she bleeds a softness I’ve never known: God, life is so cursed out here. Do you hear me? The darkness comes after me and I run. Look, I am breathless. I am salt and light of the earth but also scared. Please stop the chase.

Anyone who knows grief knows mourning before death: we prepare for sorrow before it finds us, we wrap our arms around our bodies, rocking back and forth in the silence. In the night Joseph leaves my side. He crawls around his brothers and heads downward, as if being summoned. I keep my eyes tightly shut and try to think about many things—Mother finding him and taking him away, the stream disappearing, Joseph’s hand on my face soiled with mud, pulling me to himself. My heart thumps against my chest with heavy resignation, pinning me down. I know when he reaches the stream. The stillness in the air is sharp and frightening. I can hear myself breathing. I know when he lets himself into the cold water because he begins to cry, loudly, wailing. Nii stirs slightly, awakened by the noise, and I stretch my arm to pat him on the back, hushing him and whispering, “It’s nothing, now, just a bad dream.” I know when the war ends because the crying stops, and a strange calmness settles over me. Trembling, I open my eyes, and the sky, an empty, borderless page, looks down at me, and I dare God to finally speak.

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