La shamba

Chika Unigwe

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Bethlehem

 

The baby lay on its side, smelling of newness, swaddled in a blue fleece blanket embroidered with an ornate “B” for Beth, short for Bethlehem. She was a miracle baby.

Her cot was in the middle of the room with the yellow-coloured walls. “Sun yellow,” the paint catalog had called it. “Sun yellow to make our baby sunny,” Chiwetalu had said, which swayed Chimelumma to pick that yellow over the green that she had favored. Chimelumma had gotten her way with the rug, though: dark, lush. “Green for life,” she had told him. “Can’t argue with life,” Chiwetalu said. “Life above all else.”

Chimelumma reached to pick the baby up, but the panic that she had been fighting since her husband had left for work seized her and she stopped midway, hands hovering indecisively above the infant. A puppeteer’s hands. Chimelumma gazed at the bundle of blue, trying to summon up strength. Strength enough to defeat the weight that stayed her hands. Her arms dropped to her side. Dead weight was what came to her mind. Dead weight.

Lying still and sleeping the deep sleep of babies, Beth now reminded Chimelumma of something soft. Something without any cartilage or bones. Or Beth reminded her of a voice that could drown the house when it cried (always from hunger. Always). Lying still and silent, Beth reminded Chimelumma of clouds. Wool. Something soft and edible. Cotton candy, perhaps. Chimelumma imagined scooping up that blue bundle and stuffing it greedily into her mouth. She imagined its glorious softness, its sticky sweetness. She imagined its taste like honey (or maybe not sweet at all, for Chimelumma remembered the pain that accompanied the baby’s arrival) trickling down her throat and finding its way to her stomach.

A baby was supposed to fill all the gaps in their lives, plug all the holes through which sadness might seep in. Chimelumma and Chiwetalu had imagined pushing Beth’s pram through Polo Park Mall as it used to be: a park where Chimelumma had picnicked as a child, when Enugu still had trees and a zoo, and was not the concrete jungle it had become. They had imagined having strangers stop to tell them what a beautiful child they had. Instead, the reality now was that Beth was creating fissures in Chimelumma. Chimelumma knew how to seal cracks in china plates: put the china in a pot, pour in two cups of milk, heat over low for an hour, cool in cold milk, rinse, and voila! the crack reseals itself. But Chimelumma did not have enough milk to heal the cracks Beth had created, or to stop the cracks from spreading.

Chimelumma stood and looked down at Beth. Chimelumma had been in labor for over thirty hours, and had longed to see the baby from the moment it was conceived, but when Beth was finally out, Chimelumma had not even wanted to hold her. Instead, she had watched Chiwetalu carry the baby, heard the doctor congratulate “the proud parents” while the nurse reeled out its weight (“3.5 kg. A healthy baby!”) and height (“She will be tall like her mother!”) and marveled at how dark and full her eyelashes were (as if someone had stolen into the womb and applied mascara to them). Chimelumma had felt as if the baby being spoken about had nothing to do with her, as if she had not shrieked it into being. She felt as if it was another woman being stitched up by this doctor with huge hands.

#

Chimelumma had owned a puppy once, Jumbo, when she was eleven or so, after begging for an entire year to be allowed a pet and promising her parents that she (“No. Not you, Daddy and Mommy.”) would be responsible for feeding it, cleaning up after it and walking it. For the first few days (even the first few weeks), Chimelumma had been sedulous in caring for Jumbo. She had given up playing oga with her friends after school to take Jumbo on long walks around her estate. The excitement wore off. She had soon tired of it, and grumbled when reminded that Jumbo had to be fed. Or walked. Or cleaned up after. And eventually, she no longer gave up the delights of playing with her friends for the dog.

In the weeks since Jumbo, Buife (whom Chimelumma could not stand) had taken over as the champion of oga; “My feet,” Buife had boasted, “move too fast” for opponents to anticipate her next move. But Chimelumma’s moved even faster and she reclaimed the crown.

Chimelumma had also missed going to Ijeoma and Nnedi’s house after school to climb the mango tree in their backyard (the largest mango tree on the estate) and missed eating so much mango that her stomach hurt. And last, she had missed Kelechi, her best friend who was so afraid of dogs that she had no longer come to visit Chimelumma. Eventually, Chimelumma’s father had given Jumbo away. Chimelumma had not even mourned that loss.

Chimelumma had thought that once she breastfed Beth, she would feel the connection that she knew she ought to. But despite Chimelumma’s good intentions, despite her willingness to try, when the baby clamped her mouth around Chimelumma’s breasts, Beth sucked nothing but air. Several days after delivery, Chimelumma was still unable to produce milk.

#

Earlier that week, Chimelumma’s mother (in some Ghanaian village on a mission trip, preaching to and feeding the poor) told her over the phone not to worry. “Soon, you’ll be needing an entire tank to store your milk. You’ll have enough milk to nurse all the babies in Enugu! You are your mother’s daughter, my child. The women in our family do not lack milk. You sucked your mother’s breast and your baby must suck yours too. God will help you. I breastfed you until you were almost three. You’d…”

Chimelumma knew the story. She would climb onto her mother’s lap and help herself to one breast while her mother was feeding Chimelumma’s baby brother with the other.

“My sister breastfed Eddie until that boy started school!”

Chimelumma knew that too. Those breast-feeding anecdotes had been told at almost every family gathering in her childhood, embarrassing Chimelumma and her cousin, Eddie, a tall, shy boy who had stunned everyone in the family by announcing at fourteen that he had a girlfriend.

#

Chimelumma had worried when hours after delivery, nothing but thick, yellow milk the size of a nail came out when she squeezed her breasts. She had expected more. “Don’t worry, madam. It is just colostrum now. In a day or two, your milk will come in. The baby is just getting used to the world. And your body is still recovering from the delivery,” a nurse had told her.

But the second day had been no different from the first. The nurse who brought her breakfast and to whom she complained told her to be patient. To drink lots of water.

“But the other nurse told me yesterday that in a day or two I should be able to produce enough milk, and the baby cries all the time from hunger.”

“Every woman’s body is different. Perseverance is the key. We can give the baby sugar water to calm her.”

Chimelumma shook her head at that. “No. No. Sugar. Water. Breast milk. My. Breast. Milk.” Her irritability made her chop up her words. “And. Please. Draw. The. Curtains.” Chimelumma could not stand the huge posters in the hallway, visible from her window, of smiling mothers nursing their babies. Chimelumma was trying not to think of Goddy, her classmate in third grade. Goddy who was two years older than the rest of the class but who needed more help than anybody else. When Goddy stumbled over the times table or picked his words slowly like a beginning reader when it was his turn to read out loud, no one was allowed to laugh.

“His mother died while giving birth to him. He was raised on cow milk,” the teacher told the class as if that explained everything. When Chimelumma told her grandmother, she said to Chimelumma, “Feed a baby cow milk, he grows up acting like a cow.” Even though Chimelumma no longer believed that Goddy’s slow learning was completely a result of not being breastfed, every book she read on pregnancy promoted breast milk as the best way to guarantee her baby’s health.

When the doctor did her ward round at lunch time and found the curtains drawn, Chimelumma in tears, and Chiwetalu holding Beth, she had told them it was normal for new mothers to feel this way. Some mothers found it all too overwhelming. “If you were white, I’d say you had postpartum depression,” the doctor laughed, “But we Africans, we are too strong for that.” The doctor held Chimelumma’s hand between hers and said, “You will be fine.” And as for the milk, the doctor would ask a nurse to bring a breast pump and show Chimelumma how to use it. Chimelumma could also try some fennel tablets. Both the pump and the tablets should stimulate the milk. Chimelumma should also nurse Beth each time Beth cried, which, to Chimelumma, ended up seeming like every five minutes.

#

About six days after the birth, when Chimelumma and Beth were back home, there had been a glimmer of hope, a sliver of sunshine when Chimelumma woke with an aching fullness in her breasts. The baby was sleeping (a rare occurrence) and so Chimelumma reached for the breast pump rather than wake Beth up. Chimelumma imagined disgorging so much milk that she would run out of bottles in which to store the excess. She wanted to burst out onto the balcony and shout her happiness into the city. But when she used the pump, the fullness produced only about an ounce of milk. She flung the bottle across the room, splattering the white walls.

At the one-week baby checkup later that morning, the pediatrician suggested gently that perhaps Chimelumma could consider formula. The baby was not gaining weight, the little milk was not enough. The “proud new parents” had yet to change a diaper totally full of baby pooh. “You and the baby could do with some help,” the doctor said. “At this stage, I like to see a return to birth weight, or at least an indication that baby is headed that way. I want you to put her on formula. Formula at least once a day, see how that goes. And I will see you again next week to check on her progress.”

Chiwetalu seemed relieved by the doctor’s orders and said “Thank you, Doctor” in a tone that suggested that had it been appropriate, he would have hugged the young woman.

Chiwetalu drove his wife and baby straight to the pharmacy. Chimelumma refused to come out of the car. When Chiwetalu came out of the pharmacy balancing cartons of infant formula in his arms, Chimelumma would not get out to open the boot for him. When Chiwetalu slipped into the driver’s seat, Chimelumma said, “What are you going to do with all of that? You should be on my side. Has the doctor ever had a baby? She looks like she just graduated medical school!”

“This isn’t about sides, Babe. And I am on your side. And on Beth’s side. There is nothing wrong with formula. You heard the doctor.”

“I had not planned on raising my baby on formula,” Chimelumma said, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her blouse. She felt betrayed by her breasts. By her husband. By her baby. By the doctor who looked too young to be practicing. By the midwife at the Breast Feeding Week seminar Chimelumma had attended while pregnant, who proclaimed that the only way to ensure a healthy baby was by breastfeeding it for at least six months, saying in her school teacher’s voice, “Don’t cheat by mixing it with cow milk!” By her mother. By the legion of women she knew who had no trouble breastfeeding. By this city with the silent hills that surrounded it, but which no longer had a real park or a zoo.

“I don’t want to give her formula. All I ever wanted was to be able to feed my own child. Like other women.” She stopped. “I don’t get why that’s so difficult for you to understand!” Her voice was starting to break up.

#

“This baby will complete your family.” That was what their friends said when Chimelumma had announced her pregnancy. But Chimelumma and Chiwetalu had not needed completion, Chimelumma thought now. They had already been complete. “The Two C’s.” Nicknamed by friends who had been swept off on the tide of their love story. A chance meeting at Genesis. Chimelumma walking out. Chiwetalu bumping into her, almost knocking the meat pies she had just bought from the restaurant out of her hands. He said he had never seen anyone more beautiful.

Chiwetalu said–when he told the story–that he knew right away that Chimelumma was the one. Even though he had many girlfriends, he had never been in love. But he was engaged when they met, to a girl with a long neck and wide hips. That same day, he went back home and broke off the engagement. There had been tears in Chiwetalu’s family. Accusations. Guilt. Chiwetalu said he had felt the gale of love and nothing else mattered to him.

To hear Chimelumma tell it, the love story was less dramatic. She spoke of this man, who smelt like sugar and spice, bumping into her. Apologising. Asking for her phone number. And she was thinking, “What a creep,” but saying, ‘Is this how you chase girls in your village?” She said it hoping that he heard the lack of interest in her voice, her ridicule.

“Let me buy you a drink, at least. To apologize. Unless you have somewhere important to be right now? ”

She was already liking his voice (Barry White deep), and when he smiled hopefully at her, she noticed his dimples (her Achilles’ heel). Besides, she had nowhere to be. Nowhere that could not wait. There was not much to do in Enugu on a Sunday afternoon, and so she had conceded. She always said later that had she known about the fiancée waiting at home for Chiwetalu to bring the spring rolls, Chimelumma would never have had that drink with him. “I hate being responsible for another woman’s heartbreak.”

#

Chimelumma’s hands went to her stomach. She could not get used to how old it looked, it seemed to have aged before the rest of her. She grabbed a fistful of flesh and thought how unfairly kneadable it had become. Like dough. When she undressed, it alarmed her to see her once taut stomach now hanging like a giant udder above the elastic band of her underwear. In all the giddy months of being pregnant (”Finally! Can you believe it? We are going to be parents!”) she never once imagined that she would mourn the loss of her once flat stomach, so flat that Chiwetalu called it an ironing board.

It was not just in appearance and texture that her stomach had changed, but in temperature, too. The baby had kept her warm throughout the pregnancy, but these days Chimelumma’s stomach was cold, as if an air conditioner were constantly running inside of it. No matter how many hot water bottles she held to it, no matter how much menthol balm she rubbed on it to coax warmth by osmosis, no matter how much tea she drank or pepper soup she ate, it would not thaw.

Her stomach started rumbling. She was sure she had eaten breakfast even though she could no longer recollect the taste of it. “The eyes eat before the stomach does,” her grandmother had always said, but today Chimelumma could not even remember seeing breakfast. The noise of her stomach was loud in the stillness of the house, sounding like a gathering storm. And then it stopped as suddenly as it had begun and silence reigned once more.

When Chimelumma was a child, she had gone through a phase (a week or two) of lying in bed imagining the end of the world. She imagined a silence so complete, so final that it covered the entire earth, a silence so powerful it obliterated life. She thought of that now, and somehow it scared her, this complete absence of sound.

She looked again at Beth swaddled in blue. Beth’s face was turned to the wall. Chimelumma thought again of something soft and sweet (or maybe not) and edible. She thought of her cold stomach. She thought of the silence which scared her. She thought of the weight which stayed her hands and she turned and tiptoed out of the room.

Chimelumma felt she ought to sleep. This was her first full day alone with the baby. She did not have Chiwetalu to help her, and she was still exhausted from giving birth. She did not want to be left alone with the baby. Not now. Not today. Perhaps not ever.

#

They had both wanted marriage and a house full of babies right after marriage. But that had not gone according to plan, stumping the new couple. The doctors had counseled patience. “You are both young and there are no medical issues that would make conceiving impossible. Sometimes, nature just takes its time, there’s nothing to be worried about.”

But Chimelumma had worried. When she lay in bed she thought of her father’s former wife. The woman he was married to for four years before he met Chimelumma’s mother, before he was seduced by her mother’s hips, wide enough, surely, to bear children.

Nobody, Chimelumma heard, had blamed her father for ending his first marriage. Four years was a long time to wait for a baby. Chimelumma’s grandparents were getting on in age and were impatient for a grandchild. Her father was an only child, a good man, a thoughtful husband and he deserved his own children. Even the other woman, Chimelumma’s mother said, understood that her father did what he had to do. What any man in his position would do.

Chiwetalu had three younger brothers and an older sister who already had two children. Even before Beth, his parents had never brought up the issue of Chimelumma’s childlessness. And Chiwetalu himself–although he relentlessly dreamed of having his own children–had a childlike faith in doctors and claimed he did not worry either. “It will happen for us, Babe,” he told Chimelumma. But what if it never did? How long would be long enough for Chiwetalu?

Chimelumma’s mother had worried as much as Chimelumma did. She visited Chimelumma with bottles of olive oil and jars of water that had been prayed over by the General Overseer of her church, “Daddy GO,” who was known for his miracles and flamboyant suits: “From the hands of Daddy GO himself! Rub the oil on your stomach, drip the water in your morning tea.”

#

After their third wedding anniversary, Chimelumma became pregnant. She had not even had the time to see her doctor for her first scan before the baby inexplicably deserted her womb in clots of blood. Chimelumma had spent days crying in her bed, refusing to be consoled by Chiwetalu. Her mother had moved in with them for a week to look after her, spoil her and “talk sense” into her head. “You’ve done it once, you can do it again, you hear? You are your mother’s daughter. We are fertile in our family. Dry those tears and get to work, my daughter! By the grace of God, you’ll get pregnant again.” Her pastor mother. “Aunty Woman of God” to Chimelumma’s cousins. Always serving love with equal doses of pragmatism and faith.

And indeed, Chimelumma had gotten pregnant again, half a year later. At the beginning, Chimelumma had panicked, worried that this pregnancy too would end like the other: at nine weeks. But the ninth week scan had shown a healthy heartbeat; a baby determined to stay.

When her morning sickness ebbed in her eleventh week, Chiwetalu said how lucky she was.

“I know. I hate morning sickness. I don’t even feel pregnant!”

At her twelfth week scan, the doctor told Chimelumma in a kind voice that this second pregnancy did not seem “viable.”

“Viable? How? What?”

“The baby is not growing. It hasn’t grown since the last scan.”

“But can it still grow?”

“I am sorry. We could schedule a D & C and have it removed, or wait for your body to expel the fetus itself. Your call.”

After that, Chimelumma was thrown into a tunnel of darkness she could not crawl out of. The D & C ended up being unnecessary, the doctor said. “Your body has done a good job of cleaning itself out.” Her mother’s subsequent bottles of olive oil remained forever unopened.

When she got pregnant three months after the second miscarriage, she refused to celebrate with Chiwetalu. “Third time lucky. I can feel it! Our own child!” Chiwetalu said all this as if the child was his particular invention.

Finally. Chimelumma had not dared to believe that she would be able to carry this pregnancy to term, but as the months passed, and the baby stayed put, she began to enjoy watching her stomach swell. She had not even minded the stretch marks that crisscrossed it and tore her skin.

#

Last night Chimelumma had dreamt of snails. Huge snails. Giant snails, every single one carrying a human baby on its back. She knew the way one knows things in dreams without being told: each of those babies was hers. Somehow, this filled her with a sadness so huge that she had started crying even before she woke up. When Chiwetalu asked her what was wrong, she found she could not tell him. The sadness was not one that could be articulated. She could have said, “I dreamt that snails were carrying my babies,” but that would not have captured it. Chiwetalu might have laughed at that; not at her (he would never be that cruel) but at the dream. He might have thought that snails carrying human babies on their shells was funny. That would have been worse than the dream itself. So Chimelumma said nothing. She just silently wished for her mother. She wished her mother was there to console her with loud, boisterous prayers, as she had consoled Chimelumma as a child, when Chimelumma’s nightmares had woken her, screaming.

“Babe?” Chiwetalu rolled closer to her and held her. “Babe?” Chimelumma knew that he was asking her for help, to translate this new her who cried for no discernible reason and who lay in bed most of the time. Who took no pleasure in welcoming neighbors and friends laden with presents for the new baby. “Babe?”

So Chimelumma told him what she had told the nurse at the hospital two weeks ago, less than a day after becoming a mother. “I have failed.”

“Stop it. You haven’t.”

Chimelumma unbuttoned the top buttons of her nightgown and grabbed one full breast. Her fingernails dug into the soft flesh of the breast as she squeezed it. A trickle of milk dripped down slowly. “See! That’s all the milk I have. I can’t even feed my own baby. What kind of a mother am I if I can’t even manage that?” She squeezed the other breast. Nothing.

“You know what the doctor said. Stop torturing yourself.” His voice was kind and thoughtful. Nevertheless, it was frayed at the edges.

“Maybe,” he began cautiously. “Maybe you should think about putting Beth on formula full time, so you don’t have to worry.” Chimelumma looked at him and then looked away. She did not say a word. She knew that he was doing that already: filling Beth’s stomach with formula before bringing her to Chimelumma to nurse. How could she ever produce milk if everyone worked against her?

#

Today was the first day Chiwetalu would return to work after the birth of Beth. He had bathed her, powdered her, fed her (the one bottle of formula suggested by the doctor) and put her down to sleep.

“You can rest so that by the time she wakes, you’re ready for her,” he said. “Or you could always just make her another bottle.” Something in Chimelumma’s eyes made him add hastily, “Nurse her first. And if she doesn’t get enough, you know, you could make her another bottle. She needs to add enough weight to make the doctor happy at her two-week checkup tomorrow.”

Chiwetalu kissed her on her forehead. ‘You’ll be fine?” he asked, remembering that Chimelumma had woken up crying.

“Don’t worry about me.” She tried a smile, with strong teeth showing through. Chiwetalu nodded, and then blew a kiss towards their baby’s room.

“Maybe…” Chimelumma began, but Chiwetalu was already walking out. His driver was waiting. Work was waiting. His busy accountant life was waiting. Chimelumma had wanted to say that maybe he could stay home.

If he stayed home just one more day, Chimelumma might have told Chiwetalu of the voices that hissed her failure into her ears. She wanted to say that it was not just the nursing. She wanted to say that maybe she had been wrong, and they should drive to the agency and put in an application for help.

They had been in agreement, from the day they started living together five years ago, that they never wanted house help. Whatever work would need doing, they would do it together. And when they’d have the babies they hoped for, they would raise them themselves. “All this nonsense of children knowing the maids better than they know their own parents is just tragic,” Chimelumma remembered saying, moral indignation raising her voice. She and Chiwetalu had just come from visiting her friend, Amara. Amara with two children, and a maid assigned to each child. Amara who had told them–without any sense of embarrassment–that the maids spent more time with the children than she did.

Chimelumma taught in a private school with an onsite crèche and a generous maternity leave allowance. A new mother could stay away for six months on full pay, and then, when she had to go back to work, would be able to take her child with her. Before Beth, when Chimelumma had imagined being home with her beautiful new baby, playing Mozart for Babies on her iPad (to stimulate her intelligence like Make Your Baby an Einstein suggested), Chimelumma had flaunted her employer’s generosity in the face of everyone who would listen. But now the thought of the days and weeks and months ahead, alone with Beth, both saddened and scared her.

As if thinking of Beth could conjure her, Beth began to cry. A wah wah wah crawled all over Chimelumma and it taunted her. Chimelumma walked into the nursery, her steps slow and measured. She steeled herself. She picked up Beth; Beth, who was not soft or boneless or edible. Chimelumma slid on to the floor beside the cot and unbuttoned her pajama top.

Chimelumma brought Beth’s mouth to one of her breasts. Beth clamped on it and then pulled away, as if tasting something bitter. Beth began to caterwaul. Chimelumma started to sing loudly, drowning the cries of the infant. “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.” She could not remember the rest and so she kept repeating that line. As she sang, Chimelumma pressed Beth closer, muffling screams. She felt a little nose being squashed on her breast. She felt Bethlehem squirming, thrashing her legs, struggling to pull away. Chimelumma held the little head firmly with one determined hand, the other hand on the infant’s back.

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.”

Chimelumma kept singing until the squirming stopped.

And the crying stopped.

And the struggling stopped.

And Beth’s mouth around her nipple slackened.

And she could no longer feel Beth’s warm breath on her breast.

And Bethlehem, like the little town in the hymn, lay still.

And the world ended in silence as Chimelumma had imagined it would.

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