The thatched mud hut was dimly lit by rusty old kerosene lamps. 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 back her baby.
“This baby is not normal” mama Mbapun observed, as she cleaned 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 her body up on both elbows.
The second midwife glanced over at her from the corner where they stood, shook her head, and then returned her focus down to the naked baby in mama Mbapun’s laps.
“What is wrong?” Dooshima repeated, worry lacing her voice.
The women gave her no response.
Mama Mbapun wrapped the baby in a wrapper, carried the new born in her hands and walked to where Dooshima lay, with the second midwife following closely.
Dooshima’s eyes bulged at the women standing over her. She held their gazes for seconds before dropping her worried eyes down to the baby in mama Mbapuun’s hands.
Her brows furrowed into a frown as she observed the baby’s unusually big 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 new born into Dooshima’s reluctant hands.
She received her baby with worry and confusion gripping her heart. Soon, the midwives would step out of the hut to her family who were waiting on the other side. They would demand to know the state of the baby they had all accompanied to be born.
Shame took over 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 first as both women lowered their heads and hunched their backs through the huts entrance.
Dooshima’s cheeks dampened. With shaky fingers, a terrified yet curious heart, she picked one end of the wrapper and slowly opened it to reveal the baby’s body. She undid the other end and her forehead creased in a confused frown.
She cocked her head to the side, carefully observing the baby’s features; her limbs looked weak, or, could it be the natural way newborns looked? She wondered.
“Dooshima!” her husband Terngu called, charging into the hut, “what happened?”
Dooshima tearfully looked up at him. He reached down and collected the half-naked baby into his arms, and Dooshima burst into sad tears.
Terngu observed the baby, from her head to her toe, confusion and sadness overwhelming his face.
He covered her up, laid her softly on the blanket prepared for her besides her mother, and then he lowered himself to the mat, and pulled his wife into his embrace..
Dooshima’s cries heightened at this loving gesture. He secured his arms around her and suppressing the knot arising in his own throat, patted her back consolingly, “It is okay,” he said, willing himself to believe same, “stop crying.”
Her old mother in law trudged into the hut, followed by her in-laws and she buried her head further down in 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; hisses, and fingers snapping over heads.
Terngu and Dooshima named their daughter Adoo.
The family keenly watched Adoo 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 at 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.”
When Adoo clocked six months of age, it became clear to the family that something was indeed strange about her.
She would not sit up on her own, looked like she had no bones behind her flesh. Saliva always ran down her lips, 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 pains and that the baby was not about to stop anytime soon.
Frustrated, he charged out of their hut, “mama!” he called out to his mother searchingly, “mama!”
“I am here” the old woman replied from the family’s mud Kitchen.
Terngu marched towards the hut. He waved away the smoke that welcomed him at its entrance and stepped inside, onto the sandy floor of the kitchen.
“What is it?” his mother asked from her stool, next to the three stone set firewood stand, with a big black pot 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 mother said, pressing a hand down to the stool and lifting her weight to stand on her feet with much effort. She sighed, relieved over her demanding yet successful effort then said, “Let’s go”
Terngu led the way and she followed behind him.
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, removed her breast from the baby’s mouth to which the baby set off in angry tears.
Ignoring the baby, the old woman inspected Dooshima’s sore breast, softly feeling the bulge. Dooshima winced in pain, at the same time; she shook 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?” Terngu followed, questioning.
“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 turned around to leave. Terngu regarded his wife’s terrified moist eyes and charged out after his mother, “mama!”
“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. Severally, he was tempted to leave the corner of the hut where he stood beside his old mother, to go over to the bed that carried his baby, but the chief priest stood over the child, 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…
“Hmmnnn” exhaled the old chief priest. Terngu jolted his head upwards and watched impatiently as the man slowly turned about to face them. His mother joined in the wait, certain of her assumptions but hoping that she was wrong.
“She is a strange baby” the chief priest begun, now standing face to face with them, “tonight, before bed, take some ashes, spread them around this room,” he paused to gesticulate with his hands, “by morning, we would know for sure”
Terngu was bewildered. He shot his mother a look, demanding with his eyes for an explanation over what the chief priest had just said, but his old mother, nodded understandably at the chief priests instructions, “We will do as you have said” she assured him.
The old man nodded, stomped his walking stick to the floor before commencing to stride out of the thatched hut.
By night fall 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 sprinkle a straight line of ashes across the door’s entrance
“It is okay” his mother commented satisfied, “spread no more”
His wife had been watching from her bed, terrified. The recent turnaround of events and speculations had planted fear in her heart, over her own child. 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 sleep, petrified about the outcome of their experiment.
They clung to each other in the bed, with the infant asleep by their side.
Eventually however, sleep over took 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 from their slumber.
The mother made to open the door from the outside but the chief priest stopped her, so she took a step backwards 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 strained their heads to the direction of his finger, but all they could see was a twisted line in the ashes at the door and in those around the bed.
“She’s a snake!” the chief priest announced, causing Dooshima to yelp in fear and jump closer to her husband. “She crawled over those ashes, in her real form”
Her mother in-law dragged down the corners of her lips and shook her head sadly, observing the lines in the ashes.
Terngu maintained a straight face as his arms consoled his terrified wife, clinging onto him.
“Bring the child!” the chief priest demanded, but neither of the young couple moved.
The grandmother crossed over the ashes and collected the child who was fast asleep on the bed, to where the chief priest stood. She handed the baby to the chief priest who received her with one hand and invited Terngu and his mother to follow him.
Dooshima went after them to sit outside and wait, too terrified to remain in the hut all by herself.
As she watched the three walk towards the plantation away from the house, she burst into sad tears.
They walked the narrow path of the forest, with the chief priest leading the way, and Terngu and his mother following closely.
The chief priest made chants, with the baby held in his left arm as they went.
When they got to the river side, the priest placed the baby on the ground, making some incantations.
The baby began to cry.
He removed a white cock from his shoulder bag, paused and looked 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 and 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!..” At the call of Mmondum, the baby turned into a black snake, to the amazement of Terngu and his mother. They jumped backwards, whereas the chief priest laughed knowingly.
It crawled into the river, towards the white cock, caught it and disappeared in the water.
“She was a child of the river,” the chief priest commented, “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 turned around and began to walk away into the forest. They could hear the voice of the chief priest chanting and singing behind them. His voice got faint with each step they took and soon, they could no longer hear him.
Sadly but quietly, they continued to walk towards their home, never to speak of this day to anyone.
WRITTEN BY KYLIE JOY TERUNDU.