The sharp ringing of the bell jarred Chiamaka’s thoughts, snapping her back to reality even as the truth dawned on her. Biting the inside of her cheek, she managed to keep the bile gathering in her throat as another wave of nausea rolled in the pit of her stomach, threatening to spill the delicious, spicy yam and snail sauce she had eaten this morning. A small smile played on her lips as she remembered Mama Shola’s alarmed cry.

“Rara o, we don’t eat snails during pregnancy. Mama Amaka didn’t you tell her?” Mama Shola had frowned, her forehead drawn in a crease of wrinkles.

“Hmm, I told her o, you know all these book-people who think the elders’ mouth smell”, her mother retorted sharply fixing her an icy glare.

 Chiamaka had continued munching on her snails, refusing to be intimated by Mama Shola and her superstitious beliefs. Mama Shola rushed forward and grabbed the plate of snail stew. “This is not good for the baby ehn, especially if it is a boy”. Chiamaka bit back an angry retort even as she saw her mother’s pleading eyes behind Mama Shola. But then again, there were things one did not tell Mama Shola. It was as if her mother lived in her shadow, clinging to every word Mama Shola said, next to the Bible her word was edict in her mother’s eyes.

The bell clanged again and Chiamaka shuddered as her thoughts bounced to the present again. She was tired and weary and this was the last place she wanted to be but her mother had insisted, dragging her to the prayer house. The wave of nausea came again even as she struggled to keep it at bay. It had to be the black, vile candle burning in the corner. How was this place a prayer house, she shuddered again as she cast her gaze across her surroundings. They were in a small mud house with rusting corrugated roofing which looked like it would fall apart any minute. The walls were made of hard, dry mud which had deep grooves in them as if someone had dug a pocket in the walls. In each corner of the hut, six black candles burned making the hut, hot and choky. On a raised altar was a large, dusty, dog-eared bible, a huge bottle of anointing oil, and a large, neon green rosary which was hung to the wall. On the next wall was a low shelf which held several candles, a large Quran and a bottle of cloudy water. On the floor where she knelt was a tattered raffia mat. Her mother knelt next to her even as the prophet, a wizened old man with dirty long beards, pranced about shaking his waist and muttering words she did not understand.

Averting her eyes from the old man, she focused her gaze on a fat candle and wished this crazy ordeal was over. What was she doing here, she muttered to herself and it was not that she believed the old man or any of the other prophets her mother brought. He was supposed to be a Christian so she wondered what the Quran was doing on the shelf. Cursing herself inwardly, she looked at the old man again. What would her husband say? Nonso with all his mighty oxford degrees and polished tones would accuse her of succumbing to the Nigerian fear of witches, wizards and village people who hungrily grabbed people’s children from their wombs while their mothers slept. She smiled a little as she remembered their last conversation before coming to the prayer house. Chiamaka looked around wondering if she had made a mistake. Unable to stand it anymore, she pinched her mother several times who replied by slapping her hand away.

“Silence!” shrieked the old man even as he pointed a bony finger at Chiamaka and shook his head. “This one is a bad egg that has refused to stay just like the other two.” He began his strange dance again. Chiamaka’s mother cast a worried glance at her daughter, her eyes filled with tears as she held her daughter’s hand, silently pleading with her. Chiamaka looked away, pushing the doubt in her heart as she asked the question she dreaded the most.

 “Baba what can we do?”

The wizened old man smiled and resumed his strange dance.

* * *

Chiamaka stared at her reflection in the mirror as thick tufts of black hair fell to the ground and pooled at her feet. With each lock of hair falling to the ground, she remembered it all, the bright red blood trickling down the bath into the sinkhole, the smell of sweat and something else she could not place. Looking at the blood as it trickled down the drain, Chiamaka tried to scream but tiny bubbles of air seemed to be stuck in her throat, swallowing her words. She knew she had lost the baby before she got to the hospital and the doctor had done nothing but confirm her fears.

“I am sorry Mrs Ummeh but you have lost the baby. I have written some prescriptions…” Chiamaka stared on numbly and tried to breathe. She had never been much of a doer in situations like these and so she sat, numb and completely shocked. Dr George went on for ages but she just stared, thinking of the numerous goats, chicken and palm oil bottles the prophet had demanded for the sacrifice.

 “Madam, are you alright? I am truly sorry for your loss.” Chiamaka looked up and grabbed her bag.

“Thank you doctor, I must leave now”.

Snapping back to the present, Chiamaka continued cutting her hair, her long beautiful hair which her mother used to sit for hours to braid, oiling it as she plaited the thick dense of hair into beautiful cornrows. The door opened and her mother came in.

“Ewo! Jesus mo! Chiamaka what are you doing?” Mama Chiamaka rushed to her and grabbed the scissors, frantically gathering the hair on the floor and throwing it into the bin. Watching her mother in despair, she shrugged her shoulders and sat on the floor. “What is wrong with you? You want to kill yourself because of this baby, another will come eh.” She walked to where Chiamaka sat and held her.

“I don’t understand mama, we did everything right. We offered the sacrifices.” Chiamaka’s voice broke as she started to cry, slow tears that gathered in the corners of her eyes trickled down her cheeks. Mama held her tighter, grasping her shoulders. “Another will come, Chiamaka. Eh? Don’t worry.” Chiamaka continued to cry, ignoring her mother.

After three miscarriages, she was tired of trying. But most of all, she was tired of the snobbish looks her friends gave her as they paraded their children with tales of sleepless nights, tantrums and childish exuberance. She wanted to tell her own tales too, rub baby powder on smooth skin and complain of engorged breast and sleepless nights but it seemed fate had a different plan. Just the other day, her friend Amarachi had been complaining of her daughter’s refusal to hold her hand while dropping her off at school. “You know the way children are these days, growing up too fast and exploring”. Chiamaka watched her as she talked, her mouth turned upwards like someone who had smelt spoiled fruit. She continued in that tone mixed with pride and frustration, “she even told me not to walk her to the gate but you know one has to be careful these days”. The visit had ended up tiring and Chiamaka could not wait for her to leave with her stories.

Her mother continued to pat her shoulders. “Chiamaka, why do this to your hair? What is Nonso going to say?” Chiamaka shrugged her shoulders, she did not care what Nonso or anyone else thought. She had felt a rage so deep and primal, something fiery and elemental had possessed her, had caused her to take a scissors to her hair. There was no point explaining to her mother that she felt depressed, nothing but more visits to prophets and holy men would come out of that.

She thought of the nights she stayed awake feeling that empty hollowness swallowing her in bits and bits and bits, and all the while Nonso snored gently. She would lie awake in bed, tossing and turning and thinking of what the future held for her. Nonso with all the answers and smooth talks never bothered. He would hold her in his arms, nuzzle her ears and tell her it would happen in good time if she stopped obsessing over it. He had even suggested surrogacy, an idea Chiamaka was sure her mother would never accept even if she was wrinkled and in her grave. She remembered the first day he brought it up as if he was asking about the price of tomatoes in Aba.

“Nkem, what do you think about surrogacy?” Chiamaka’s mouth fell open as she looked at him in surprise. She had always known Nonso to be different with his quiet tones and his British accent that had him rounding all his vowels. He was not one of those Nigerian men who held on to their wives too tight and shouted he was the head of the house at every given opportunity. He was kind, thoughtful and had that lazy smile which reassured her that everything was going to be fine.

Chiamaka began to cry again. “Why wouldn’t she stay, mama? I don’t understand.” Her mother continued to hold her. “Ssh, it’s okay oh, everything good will come, just wait and see.” Chiamaka held on to that promise as she lifted her gaze to the door where Nonso stood with a bunch of flowers and chocolates. Her mother must have told him. As she crossed the threshold to hug him, they spoke with their eyes, hearts and spirits of an untold time when their home would be filled with the voice of a child.

Deborah Egbekpalu hails from Anambra state, Njikoka local government. She is a student studying English at Bowen University, Iwo, Osun state. She is interested in writing poems, short stories and reading autobiographies of people who have influenced the world. Fuelled by a love of reading, and education, she has participated in several summer programs such as volunteering at a reading camp, reading to children who struggle with learning, serving an adjudicator of the Annual University Debate Championships. In her spare time, Deborah can be found writing, singing, reading and researching about different cultures and cuisines.