Your Brief Bio:
Ayo Oyeku writes both prose and poetry. He was shortlisted for the 2016 Golden Baobab Prize. And his works have appeared in several publications, including; VINYL, Kalahari Review, AFREADA, Brittle Paper, Ebedi Review 2, According to Sources and Experimental Writing. His forthcoming novel would be published by Bahati Books.
Tweet-Style Story Summary:
Lade reunites with her mother-in-law after several years. Their reunion sparks memories, peels scabs off old wounds, and purges a truth that would haunt Lade for a lifetime.
She rolled her trembling hands into a fist, hitting it against the brittle door. The sound echoed into the dead of the night – reverberating against the walls of the village huts. The young woman shuddered with fear. She glanced here and there, afraid that the sleeping villagers could be awakened by her placid knocks.
It was a cold night, and the wind blew in rasps. The young woman snatched at her wrapper – an ankara print with bold patterns – mindful of it, from being blown away. The little child strapped to her back, snored through the cold night. The two older ones dozed on their tired legs. She bit her lips and pressed her knuckles, as she waited for what would happen behind the door.
A blurred ray of light from an oil lamp fell towards the entrance, as the door creaked open. An emaciated old woman stepped out. The oil lamp in her hand shook. A certain languor in the air showed that age was stealing over the old woman’s life. But her wrinkled face stretched into some smoothness and her eyes lit up, as she saw the young woman behind the door. They stared blankly at each other for a while, as an uncertain strangeness began to feed on their consciousness.
The young woman’s lips quivered under the weight of guilt. It had been seven years since she visited her mother-in-law. She wondered if her mother-in-law could ever forgive her. She wondered if she could make up for the lost years. And now that an irreparable loss had brought them together again – she knew her chances were slim. Fresh tears brewed over her guilty eyeballs.
“Come, my daughter.” The old woman said.
The young woman hurried towards her mother-in-law. The old woman caught her in a deep embrace, allowing the gushing cold wind to encircle and pass through them for a moment. The young woman began to sob. She slipped downwards to her mother-in-law’s knees, clung to the old woman’s right leg and began to plead.
“Stop crying, Lade. Let us go inside.”
The young woman sniffled to hold back the remaining tears that hung to the back of her throat. She let go of her mother-in-law’s leg. The old woman led the way into the dark and poorly ventilated hut. And Lade followed behind, almost dragging her sleepy little ones inside.
The old hut hadn’t changed much. Lade’s eyes bounced around the hut, as she looked for where to either squat or sit. The rough clay walls now paved with crannies. Ancestral shadows also found sentinel within the nooks of the hut. Two wooden stools were flung at different corners. Two mats were also rolled up against the wall, while other edifying objects hung at different positions within the small hut. The air in the room was fragrant with scents coming from the garden basil leaves collected in a small pot. The old woman went into one of the rooms in the hut, and returned with a large bowl of water and an almost clean piece of cloth.
“It must have been a long journey.”
The old woman spoke warmly, knowing the only means of transportation to the village was by a lorry. And the drivers of these jalopies were usually men reeking of local gin, racing their passengers over a road defined by erosion, potholes, and red dust. Lade watched as her mother-in-law soaked the cloth, squeezed it and applied it on the head and arms of her grandchildren. She offered to assist, but the old woman refused.
“I should have given them a thorough scrub at the backyard. But I don’t want to wake my neighbours.” She added.
Lade smiled with the corner of her mouth as she watched her mother-in-law touch her grandchildren with the rectitude of motherhood. The old woman’s love, care and kindness were unwavering. Lade realised how much she had missed her mother-in-law. The two had once shared a cosy relationship, until the city took her and her husband away from the village.
Lade left to empty the bowl of water. By the time she returned, her mother-in-law had spread the two mats on the floor. The old woman was already seated on one of the mats – waiting for Lade to return. Lade laid her children on the empty mat, and slept beside them.
“Lade, you are my daughter. We must share a mat.”
Her mother-in-law’s utterance made her spine trigger with coldness. She rose up quietly and joined her mother-in-law on the other mat. The old woman did not say a word again, rather, she took the oil lamp from where it sat, and blew it off.
A thick blanket of darkness enveloped the whole room. The room was silent, except for the occasionally chirping crickets. Lade turned from one side to another. Still, she could not sleep. Fresh thoughts about her doting husband began to brood over her. He had always been an active and vivacious, broad-chest man. Her husband earned a good living as a resourceful business tycoon. He was often away on business trips, but whenever he was around, he always showered his family with an abundant love and care. He treated them with delight and they all relished his absence.
Then, a strange illness took over him, after he returned from one of his business trips. He began to emaciate, and at a point, he began to lose taste for food. The high-spiritedness in him was sapped away by the parasitic illness. The doctor had diagnosed him with tuberculosis. But he had argued it was a spiritual attack from his business counterparts. He refused to go for treatment, as his case worsened. Lade watched as her once enviably handsome husband now had his face pockmarked by pox, with swellings hanging on different portions of his skin.
A garb of trepidation enclosed Lade. She fought for her dear husband’s life, as a convict would struggle with the hangman’s noose. Her children were deprived of the attention and care she once offered generously. She equally lost the beauty of motherhood under the weight of stress, fear and tears.
A night – he began apologising. He begged her without a vivid reason. His voice was wrapped in agony and pains. Lade never understood. She begged him to be silent, because he had not offended her in any way. The atmosphere in the room that night choked Lade with so much fear that she begged her Creator to preserve her husband’s life till the next morning. She was determined to convey her dying husband to the village the next day, by any means possible. But that night, as she had always feared – he finally became a flood of rain without refuge.
Hot tears bubbled to the surface of her eyes. A tear escaped, and rolled sideways. More tears followed, rolling down her ear lobes. The frail mat absorbed her tears without remorse. Lade sniffled.
“The priceless pot has been shattered. We must take heart.”
These words echoed within the dark hut. Lade’s heartbeat ceased for a few seconds, not sure if she had actually heard someone speak through the darkness. But the words had truly come from the lips of a mother, who had not just lost a child – but had lost her only child. The old woman was neither asleep – she was consumed by the loss of her only child. And from the way her voice tore through the quietness, Lade could tell her mother-in-law’s heart had been shattered into granulated pieces. She did not know what to say to her. The loose bindings of the frail mat rustled, as the old woman sat up and leaned her back against the wall.
“Won’t my enemies make mockery of me when they watch my mouth wide open with cries?” She sighed heavily and continued talking, “He was my only child…” Suddenly, the old woman burst into loud tears saying “…a curse be on the day he was born! Perhaps if he had not been born, I would not have experienced this undying heartache at old age!”
Lade became ashamed of herself. She realised she was supposed to harness the old woman’s fortitude. But instead, she had brought back the memories that were meant to be shared in their respective solitude. She hurriedly moved closer to her mother-in-law, and held her in a deep embrace.
“Look,” the old woman spoke in a garbled manner, pointing in the darkness, towards the children who were sound asleep, “those are our tiny acorns, they will grow into a large oak – comforting us with their shades during sunny times, bringing back our halcyon days.”
Lade sighed as she embraced the old woman’s wisdom. Her husband didn’t just die like a ghost without footprints. He was dead, but with the children – he was always with them too. Lade rocked her mother-in-law a bit, and they both lay on their backs and slept.
The first morning sunlight rose above the two women, at the backyard of the hut. Lade was busy bathing her children, while her mother-in-law prepared their breakfast, at the cooking shed.
“I never knew you had a baby girl, until last night.” The mother-in-law cuts in.
“Yes, I do, Mama. Utah is four months old.”
Lade could still remember how she and her husband had travelled to the village in celebration of the birth of their first child. It was seven years back. Lade now tried to imagine the old woman’s jubilation when the good news of their second child’s birth – three years after – reached her in the village. Did her generous mother-in-law kill a goat, and shared the fresh meat across the village, or did she boil some fresh yams and made a potful of porridge out of it? Lade quickly snapped back to reality and narrated how Utah had been born a few months before her husband’s demise.
“What does Utah mean?” The old woman inquired.
“My husband had named our daughter after one of the American states he visited years back.” She replied, only lifting her lip a bit, forcing the words out.
The old woman made a joke about Lade and her late husband, treading upon the African culture and ethics, in favour of Western civilisation. Lade did not laugh, she just took a quick glance at her mother-in-law with the corner of her eyes. The old woman continued speaking, but this time, she shared corny anecdotes about her son’s childhood bathing experiences, and they both burst into a hearty peel of laughter.
Lade led her freshly bathed children back into the hut with loud smiles still planted on her face. But her emergence into the hut was halted by two elderly women, who were already waiting. Lade stifled with surprise. The two women met her gaze with a ghostly stare. Lade could not particularly remember them, but she hurriedly went down on her knees and greeted them. This act was replied with a long hiss.
A sullen atmosphere charged the small hut. The elderly women moved from side to side, with their arms crossed behind their backs, staring at Lade and her children. Their looks were grave – even the little children wrapped their arms around their mother. Lade fidgeted with the edge of her wrapper, wondering how and when she had offended these two women whose heads were flooded with receding gray hairs.
“You are a witch!” One of the elderly women bellowed.
“Now that you have killed our son, what have you come to do? Do you want to kill our friend too?” The second woman charged at Lade.
“Vampire, you cannot suck our friend’s blood – neither can you kill her grandchildren! We will take them from you, and fling you out of our village, like a rotten orange.” The two women chorused discordantly.
Lade could not hold back her feelings. She burst into tears.
“Stop shedding crocodile tears. You are a witch!!” The two women chorused again. They hissed and muttered disgusting words at Lade.
Maybe it was the air, or maybe it was the angry outbursts – Lade’s mother-in-law had heard the noise coming from her hut, and had rushed in to see what it was all about. The old woman was displeased to see her friends’ drag her daughter-in-law in miry clay made of gutter words and invectives.
“Keep quiet women! How can you utter such disgusting things?” The two women were taken aback by their friend’s sudden appearance and outburst.
“Have you been bewitched?” One of the elderly women forced a reply out of her wonder-struck mouth, towards their friend.
In response, Lade’s mother-in-law hurried to the corner of her hut and grabbed a long broom. “Get out!” She screamed, and wielded the broom at her friends. The startled elderly women retraced their steps and hurried out of the hut. After they had left, the old woman helped her daughter-in-law back to her feet and apologised for the embarrassment.
The subsequent days in the village turned out very peaceful for Lade, her children, and her mother-in-law.
Utah developed fever. The fever made her restless. Both mother and daughter couldn’t sleep all night. Lade had to visit the hospital at dawn as soon as legs could brush wetness off bending grasses. The path to the village hospital turned out as Utah’s grandmother had described. Lade walked as fast her slippers could hold on to her feet – clutching her sick daughter to her breasts. Otiose bushes flanked both sides of the clay road. The winding path unfurled at the end, opening in-between two huge hills. The small, but beautiful village hospital stood afar off, as a perfect grandeur for the mitigating landscape.
“We would carry out some blood tests.”
The doctor – a pleasant man with an unpleasant hair growth in his middle age – explained, after listening to Lade’s complaints about her daughter’s sudden fever. Utah did not cry when a nurse drew some of her blood. Lade looked at her daughter’s blood in the syringe. She could tell it was not red. It was a darker shade of red.
“These drugs should alleviate the fever.”
The doctor cut in, as he handed some drugs to Lade. He assured that the fever should be gone in the next three days. But he still needed Lade to come back in a week’s time for the blood test results. Lade wasn’t planning an additional week stretch to her stay in the village. She had come to condole with her mother-in-law over the loss of her only child, and would be returning to the city in few days’ time. This, she did not tell the doctor. She would not be returning for the blood test results. Utah was already looking relieved. Lade left the hospital, relieved too.
But the second night after the hospital visit, Utah’s health grew worse. The clouds began to scurry away from the sullen sky, as it began to ignite with bright, but silent, lightening. The older children panicked under the sound of an unexpected thunderstorm. But Lade’s panic was worse – Utah was gripping her little lips.
“Mama, what should I do?”
Lade expressed herself in a garbled manner. A miasma of trepidation swept over her as she watched her baby’s muscles contract, as she struggled for life within the disc of her own arms. The older children cried as they watched the restlessness of their baby sister. The old woman paced around the hut, muttering words of prayers.
Utah’s violent movements stopped shortly, but the storm wasn’t over yet. The little child now lay still, as though she was dead. Her skin had become pale, and her pupils had rolled inwards. Lade kept calling and pulling her baby girl’s limbs, but the child did not respond. A deep thunderstorm struck, and a huge torrent of rain followed.
“You have to take her to the hospital!” The old woman blurted out from her weary lungs.
It was now raining heavily, and the journey down to the village hospital at night was unsafe. But there was little to think about the weather condition. The two women knew they had to do everything possible to salvage the little girl’s life. Lade watched her mother-in-law dash into the room and returned with two thick woollen wrappers. Lade hurriedly strapped her daughter to her back, and her mother-in-law ensured the wrappers protected the child from being drenched by the rain. The old woman offered to follow her, but Lade persuaded her to stay with the older ones.
Lade dashed into the rain. The rain showered down as piercing arrows, and caught the helpless mother in a blinding sway. Rivulets of rain seeped through her hairs and spread out. Some rushed down her eyelids, others around her ears and face – all collected at the trunk of her neck, running downwards through her cleavage. Her cloth was soaked. She perpetually wiped her eyes, in order to see the road clearly, as she ran through the night with a half-dead child strapped to her back.
As Lade took the final winding through the hills, the muddy soil swept her off her feet. She missed her steps and slipped. She landed on the soil, with a sharp thud – falling face downward. Quickly, she swiped at the muddy path and sprang back to her feet. She hurried downwards into the hospital, oblivious of the muddy stains around her cloth, hands and calves. Roots, stones and other sharp objects had made bruises across her body when she fell. Lade was bleeding, and she did not even know this.
The nurses were on their feet when Lade rushed into the hospital. Utah was wheeled into a ward, and Lade was made to wait at the reception. The dear mother panted and prayed silently for her dear child.
Lade’s mother-in-law wandered around the hut. A stultifying atmosphere enveloped her thoughts. She wondered what was now happening to her daughter-in-law and her granddaughter. Her frail heart wasn’t at rest, neither could she sleep. Seeing that the two older children were now sound asleep – she locked them in the hut, wrapped herself in thick woollen clothes, and stepped into the heavy rain too.
Lade seemed to gurgle out from a nightmarish maze. She found herself now being surrounded by the preying eyes of nurses. They helped her to her feet. Lade wondered what had happened to her in the past few minutes. Seeing that she was now fully conscious, the nurses helped her into the doctor’s office. Sitting straight up, she stared into the gentle eyes of the doctor again.
“I am sorry, Madam.”
The doctor’s plea made her body tremble. Goose pimples spread over her arms, and her mind triggered backwards. She could remember she had collapsed when the doctor informed her that her baby girl wasn’t responding to treatments, and had subsequently stopped breathing. She sighed deeply, but remained calm.
“When can I see your husband?”
The doctor’s question sent a cold chill down her spine. Bitter memories flushed her sublime beauty away. A hot tear escaped from the confluence of tears above her eyes. She muttered something in the negative. And the doctor understood her husband was late. Lade clenched her teeth, to hold back the tears when the doctor apologised again. She observed that the doctor became hesitant about what he then wanted to say, but she urged him to. The words slurred out from the doctor’s lips.
“The result of the blood test showed that your daughter’s death is an aftermath of the HIV/AIDS disease.”
Lade’s breath ceased. She felt a sudden pang in her heart. But she remained rooted to her seat. She felt no tear. She just stared into oblivion. A fleeting glimpse of indecipherable memories flashed before her eyes. She then understood why her husband was reluctant to make love to her in the past months. She also understood why he refused to be taken to the hospital in his dying moments. She could then understand his pleas at the brink of death. She understood everything.
Lade smiled. The doctor smiled back – pleased by the way she comported herself. He went on explaining why he needed to collect samples of her blood too. The doctor’s words flew past her ears. Suddenly, she burst into wild tears. She sobbed, lamented and even cursed herself. The doctor’s comforting words could not assuage her feelings.
A familiar old, coarse voice rent the air at the hospital reception. Lade could tell it was her mother-in-law’s voice. She quickly stopped crying, and wiped her tears with the edge of her wrapper. The poor old woman did not deserve to share in this agony. The old woman believed her grandchildren would definitely become great oaks that would comfort them during sunny days. Lade knew she had lost a tiny acorn that night, but she definitely had two acorns in the hut that would become great oaks. If this dream were to come true, she must be ready to weather the storms ahead.
Lade sprang up and walked out of the doctor’s office. The doctor was caught in a web of surprises. He was speechless. He sprang up too, and followed her from behind – not sure she was mentally stable yet. Lade met her mother-in-law still making inquiry about her and her granddaughter from the nurses, who were unwilling to give any clear response. She caught the tiredness and depression in her mother-in-laws eyes, but brushed it off with a sigh.
“Oh Mama, your clothes are wet. You shouldn’t have bothered coming.” Lade spoke, walking towards her mother-in-law, with a fake smile planted on her face.
“Let me bother. I did more than this for my son too.” The old woman’s voice shook, as she replied. Lade could tell the cold rain had wrapped its invisible arms across her body – especially her chest.
“Come, Mama. We must return home.” Lade’s voice was steely.
The old woman kept quiet for a brief moment. She looked from Lade’s face, to that of the nurses, and then to the doctor. A similar pain formed a wrinkle around their foreheads. The old woman succumbed gently, said nothing, and laid her hand into her daughter-in-law’s own. The two women walked back into the night. The rain now drizzled silently, but they had nothing more to say to each other. The old woman knew they were returning home without the child. But she did not know everything.