If the Body Makes a Sound

They will cut your stomach open like a fruit, Emefa says to Chichi as they walk back home from the river, their pots balanced on their heads. The women in the village of Atebubu are going mad over the news—Chichi, daughter of Awo, has decided to give birth in the clinic in the city and, what’s worse, undergo some kind of surgery, one where the baby does not come from between her legs. Chichi’s mother, a popular plantain seller, faces a tough time at the local market. The women disperse their small gatherings when they see her approaching, and some will not even look her in the eye. The rumors spread fast, a few of the stories surprising Awo upon hearing—Chichi has ridiculed the traditional method of childbirth and called the town’s midwives ignorant, their tools unsterile. She’s using all of her life’s savings for this surgery when she could afford five plots of land for farming. Others even cursed her daughter’s womb, saying, Nothing good will come from there, that child will be no better than any of ours.

She knows they blame her for this, as if anyone can ever make Chichi change her mind. She remembers the day her daughter spoke about it for the first time. She was only two months pregnant.

Ma?

Eh?

How painful is childbirth? Chichi let the words out so easily, as though she were talking about the weather. These topics are considered sacred, and Awo, who was breaking off stalks in a bowl filled with red pepper, stopped abruptly and looked at her daughter before continuing her work. They sat in silence for a while. Chichi hummed an old tune in patience, knowing her mother was giving the question some thought, perhaps too much of it. And when her mother finally spoke, she said, As painful as death. I won’t lie to you, Chi. I’ve never been dead before but while I gave birth to you, I imagined this is how dying feels like—breaking away from your body while still in it.

Awo had had a difficult pregnancy. She was bedridden for months, and people said she nearly didn’t recover. After that, she spat on the floor and swore to never bear a child again and never had since. There were days she worried her daughter had inherited her fear, traumatized by her painful labor.

But, she added, it ends, you don’t think the pain ever stops but it does. And you open your eyes and there’s a new life nestled in your arms. One of the best gifts, look at you now. Awo stood up then, her back to Chichi as she half smiled at her daughter’s curiosity, all the while the ache of the unknown tugging at her heart.

Everything Chichi knows she’s read in books. While her friends crowd the only home in the village with a television set, she spends her days after work inside a library, an old tumbledown cottage with its shelves weathered and dusty, loaded with donated books, several of them with pages missing or ripped out. When she discovered she was going to be a mother, she pulled off the shelf every book that had on its cover something to do with pregnancy—Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, Foods for Nine Whole Months, often showing the smiling face of a white woman with her protruding belly. It was in one of these books that Chichi came across the C-section. She saw in the illustration how an incision is made in the abdomen and the baby removed. She moved her fingers over the page, marveled at how easy and simple it looked, nothing like the horrific things she had been told.

She had never said a word about her fear of childbirth, since it would come across as absurd. What kind of woman is terrified by her own power? But she was scared about the thought of a full body popping out from between her legs. She was sickened by it, afraid for her dear life. Which is why with the book in her hands, Chichi had run home to show her mother this miracle she had found. But Awo, upon seeing the pictures, broke down in tears, shaking fervently. She ordered Chichi to return the book to the library or watch it burned on the coal pot. This is an abomination. I have never seen something like this before. The body is not meat that it should be cut. Hei! Chichi Attawura, do not bring me trouble.

Of course there was no stopping Chichi. She would bring the trouble on her household, break their necks with its burden and console them with the joys of her newborn child.

Her mother was not the only one who had shared her painful birth story; her friends spoke about it often and described how herbs were inserted in their private parts to cleanse the unborn baby and how they were made to gobble down bitter concoctions. What terrified her most was hearing about how the newborn’s head was molded over a lit fire, a practice meant to shape the child’s head into a pleasing round figure. Kids with large foreheads and square-shaped heads were often made fun of, teased for not having enough fire down their skulls. After the child was born, the cord was cut with a reed, and cow-dung powder was mixed with mud and applied to quicken the healing. Not every part of the story was hideous—during the birth, old women, most of whom had never been to school but had delivered hundreds of babies, gathered around the labor hut and sang war songs until the cry of a child was heard from the inside. Her mother had once said, It’s like going to war. You fight and fight and lose some blood. But if you’re lucky, you return whole, along with a gift you salvaged from the battleground.

But not Chichi. There was no way her child was simply something to be salvaged. This was her baby, her heart, and, even more than she would like to admit, her proof of survival after her lover of four years left in the middle of the night, having been told the day before by a beaming Chichi that he was going to be a father. This birth, carried out in the safe way she’d seen in the books, would be the only thing that would make sense in her life.

On a cold August night Awo heard her daughter scream. Lying next to her with the roof of her belly swollen, Chichi bit her lower lip, wincing in pain. The mat was soaked wet. That’s when Awo knew it was time. Finally this child would be born in whatever way the mother wished and would be the talk of town for about a month or so until the townspeople found another story to rub their mouths in. She rose from the mat and helped her daughter to her feet. Chichi, overcome by an unhinging sensation, could barely keep still. It wasn’t until Awo washed her face at the tap that she realized it was stark midnight and not a vehicle in sight. There was no way a truck would be moving to the city at this time. She panicked at the thought, unsure what her daughter would decide to do next.

I’ll go on an okada, Chichi said, rubbing her palms hurriedly against her cheeks, anything to get her mind off the contractions.

An okada? Awo gasped. Chi, have you seen yourself? You’re as huge as an oak tree and here you are, talking about riding on an okada. Please, listen to me. The local nurses are a few huts away. All we have to do is go to them, and this baby will be out. Sharp sharp.

No. Chichi’s voice was firm, in no way swayed by her discomfort. She shook her head, her mind already filling with the odor of cow dung and rusted metals.

Awo needed no one to tell her about how adamant her daughter could be. Wrapping a cloth over her waist, she set off to the market and headed to the transport shed, where okada riders waited their turn for passengers. A lean man lay on a bench asleep, his helmet clutched tight to his chest as though if he had to guard against anything, that would be a good enough weapon to save him. Awo rushed to his side, panting. She shook him by the arm and said, Chief, I need you. Hurry. My daughter is in labor. The man, still waking up from his sleep, was startled by the sight of a woman in the middle of the night. He rubbed his eyes and threw his legs over the bench, stretching. He registered the urgency in Awo’s voice and without a word got on his motorbike. Awo joined him at the back, and he sped off, the smoke from his pipe coughing out like a long-held secret.

They found Chichi on the cement floor, moaning, letting out huge breaths. The rider, who clearly felt he was in the wrong place, stared from one face to the other as he pointed to the labor hut, a few huts away from them, and asked, Ah, is this where she’s going? He was unable to hide his frustration for coming all the way just to cover such a short distance.

No, Awo said, as she helped Chichi up. She’s going to the clinic in the city. The rider, who by this time thought he was dreaming, stood by his bike without moving, resting his eyes on both women. Not until Chichi let out a painful scream did he shake himself out of the trance and assist her onto the bike. On the back of the okada Chichi looked as though she would fall and roll onto her stomach any moment. The rider, after having decided to leave the two women to their fate, stretched out his hand for the fare, and Awo folded a twenty cedis note into his palm. He sped off. As Awo wandered back into the hut, the bloated body of her daughter bumping down the dusty road was the last image clouding her mind.

Awo was not the first to arrive at the clinic. After sitting on a truckload of pineapples for three hours, she found her daughter’s friends in the waiting area and immediately knew something was wrong. They ran to Awo and clad her in an uncomfortable embrace. She was impatient and stopped herself from asking the question tingling on her tongue: Which one of them survived? As though certain only one had to go, as though the loss of one life makes up for the other. Her legs trembled, but she leaned against a wall as she searched their eyes for answers. It’s the baby, she said, knowing immediately. She watched them nod, a calm relief unknotting inside her. She didn’t cry but asked to see her daughter. A fetal injury, they had been told. In the making of the uterine incision, a laceration was accidentally made to the baby’s head. The cut was long and deep on the baby’s scalp, and the baby died after an hour of hemorrhaging.

Chichi lay with her back flat on the bed, her head turned to face the other side of the room. The only sound, apart from her muffled cries, was from a small ceiling fan that spun slowly above their heads. The room was neat, and on a table was a bowl of untouched soup. A wooden chair sat next to the bed. Fancy place, Awo thought as she walked toward Chichi. Chi, she said softly and saw her daughter try to inch her body farther away, a movement that sent pain searing through her body. It was only a small bed but it seemed an ocean between them. Awo moved around to face her daughter and sat on the floor, hoping the nurses wouldn’t think her insane. She reached for her daughter’s hand as she spoke. Chi, my child, you have fought a good fight.

Chichi was quiet, her tears spilling heavily onto the white sheets. She didn’t want a good fight. She didn’t want any fight at all. Her body was numb and yet a throng of pain moved through her. Her mind flooded with thoughts. The most horrifying was returning to Atebubu without a child. Walking back empty-handed, having nothing to show, nothing to prove. And the word that would go around about how her library mind had failed her. Awo thought about the same things too, sitting on the cold floor, watching her daughter grieve.

Silence, a weapon of choice, hung between them, cut through the air. How quickly loss takes over the body and inhabits it. Awo couldn’t tell what would have been worse—the baby surviving and the family having to live with the curse of a child born in an unnatural way or having to carry the burden of loss and shame. And as if giving up on understanding the dilemma, she thought, What does it matter even? That which is gone is gone forever. We shall rub this sore to heal. After all, a scar is nothing but a blemish. The body can take it, the body can take it, she whispered more to herself than to Chichi. Both mother and daughter wept then, emptying themselves of an unspoken heaviness and cleaning their wounds dry, like a hungry tongue scraping the bottom of a pot.

Read on . . .

First Light,” a short short story by Tryphena L. Yeboah


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