By Ronke Adeleke
This child will die. This child will die and it will be my fault, I say, rocking back and forth on the chair, the balls of my feet balanced on the ground. No. I catch myself. No, Land forbid it. You will live, I watch my words bounce off the surface of the earth and disappear into the air.
I look at Ma, expecting a rebuke, or perhaps a statement to counter my words, but she looks away. She is sitting an arm’s length away and with her back turned to me, but from the corner of my eye I see her drag a foot across the ground and fold her arms over her chest. Her leg taps the ground impatiently.
She is restless. She is never restless. But then she has never had to wait this long at a life tying, especially not at one for her children. The last one, the life tying of her third son born of her second husband, had so many people in attendance that the ceremony had to be extended to the following day. The many strings given to him lie plenty around his neck. He will live a long life. His way will be smooth.
I look down at Nyanga as she fidgets in my arms. She purses her lips and tucks a tight fist under her chin, then raises a brow slightly and goes back to sleep. It is the same thing she did two weeks ago, the day she was born. It is why we called her Nyanga, meaning the one who comes with pride.
What sort of a name is that? Ma had asked, wrinkling her brows.
Do you not see the way she looks with disdain at the world? I tried to explain. Like she is too much for it.
Indeed. It is a sign she does not want to stay long in it. Ma quipped in response.
I said nothing. It was true. If nobody showed up for this life tying, Nyanga would die and it would be my fault. Who marries for love except for fools who forget that the life of their child is tied to the family they are born into?
If I had married the man Ma had arranged for me, the one whose bloodline ran so deep it could be traced to the first man, the man with a large family made up of many children and grandchildren – all strong, direct bloodlines that would guarantee one a sure way in this world, Nyanga would have had a crowd at her life tying today. Many would be fighting for their turn to bind my child’s life to theirs, instead there was only one unwilling soul and one fearful one, both waiting for more to arrive.
In our land, there were blood ties by marriage and blood ties by birth. When you are married into a family, the man and all his people tie you to them. And then when you give birth, the child is tied to the man and to his family. But blood ties are fickle things, once cut off from its source they snap off as easily as a dried leaf falls off a tree, reducing your lifetime by half.
This was why Ma had tried to get me to see reason. Marry for the ties, she said, do you not see? It is what I did after your Baba left me.
Baba had died early. Too early. He joined the earth long before I learned to speak my first word. Though not one of the strongest in our land, he had had a good bloodline. And so after he died, Ma made sure to marry again, choosing a bloodline so strong that if she ever had to be cut off from it her lifetime would still be long.
But I did not care for a long life. I was content with the ties my Baba had left me. They would see me to a reasonable number of years and then my time would be up. But now, as I look down at Nyanga sleeping in my arms, I wish I had cared. I wish I had remembered to think not only of myself but that she needed to be bound to a family, a people, a community. I wish I had more to give her than just my own life tie, lying small and limp and grey around her neck as a reminder of where her journey had begun.
Ma stood up and walked to the edge of the compound. She squinted her eyes till they looked like slits. Leaning forward, she gazed into the setting sun in the distance. Then she turned to me, her face carrying all the impatience of a woman not accustomed to being kept waiting.
I could tell what she was thinking before she said it. The day was gone. If he did not show soon, we would have to leave. Nyanga would be left with just my tie around her neck. And by the end of the week, she would be dead.
I swallowed a sob, then coughed to let it out. Nyanga stirred, opened her brown eyes and fixed them on me. In the light of dusk they looked more golden than brown, a much lighter shade than mine. They were her father’s eyes, but not only because of the colour. It was the way they fixed themselves on me, boring deep into my soul as if trying to search for something. A look only her father had ever given me.
It was said that eyes like that belonged to a special people. The Gifted. Travellers destined to walk the earth for all their lives. It is of these people that her Baba belonged, and if he ever returned to tie her to him, Nyanga would become a wanderer as well.
Our people saw them as restless spirits. Constantly moving in groups of four or five or moving alone, they didn’t have complete families. Their bloodlines were short and their blood ties even shorter.
We do not live long, my love, but we live full, he had said to me the first night we met. As we lay on our backs and gazed at the stars, we plotted a future together that neither one of us were certain to see.
I did not know I could ever have come to love someone of his kind. As children we learned to run away from them, hiding behind our mother’s wrappers as they passed, avoiding their too light gazes, which the elders had told us were because in walking all the corners of the earth they had seen too much.
On the day we met, he had saved me. I had been walking through a bush path I should have not been on, and came across a wild boar, its mouth foaming, and its husks large and sharp. I tried to run but I tripped and fell. I was sure then that I had met my end and I said a quick prayer to my Baba, asking him to welcome me when I arrived. That was when he appeared, out of nowhere – this man that would become my saviour, the father of my child, and since I am now tied to him, my life. He drove his spear into the boar and lifted me from the ground.
His eyes were the first thing that caught me. Everything that had happened up to the moment he stretched his hand to me had seemed like a blur, but as I looked into his eyes, the world suddenly became clearer and I could have sworn I saw into his soul. I knew then that the elders were wrong; their eyes had not seen too much because they walked the earth, they walked the earth because there was much their eyes needed to see.
The earth is big and beautiful, he would say with a sparkle in his eyes, gazing longingly at the night sky. And life, it calls. Can you not hear it?
I couldn’t help it; I enjoyed listening to him as he mused. He talked about the things he saw in all the places he had been. The place where all the waters gathered together so that it was all you could see every way you turned, even meeting the sky. And the people who lived on it, building their houses on top of sticks dug deep into the sand under the water.
He spoke the languages of many people; indecipherable words that rolled from his tongue with such ease and beauty, they sounded like the songs the birds whispered to one another as they sat on the trees. Everything he said was foreign to me, but they captivated me. So when he promised to take me to the places he had been and show me the things he loved, I clung to his every word.
When? I had asked.
Soon, he had replied, but for now I must leave and I do not know when I will return.
But will you return?
Yes, my love, I will always return to you.
And he did. After weeks of waiting, he would return to me. That first time, I ran to him and held on to him so tight our bodies felt like one. Later that night, under the stars, we did become one. He took me in the same spot where we first met, with the heavens and all its hosts bearing witness as our breaths and moans carried with the night wind. He stayed one day longer than the last time, and then he left.
The second time he returned, many months had passed and my stomach was already swollen with Nyanga. He had placed a hand on my belly and Nyanga had moved under it. We laughed. Then he cried. And before he left, gave me a necklace made from something he called sea shells. They were tiny, like small stones, but bore no further resemblance to the dull, brown rocks of the earth. He also left me with a promise: I will return. I held tightly unto both.
The third time he returned, he held my hand as I pushed Nyanga out into this world. But at that moment, knowing that he would return did not seem enough, I wanted more. I hoped that Nyanga being tied to him would be enough to keep him in one place, to make him stay. That his coming and going, his constant moving like a cloud in the sky or a leaf tossed by the wind, would come to an end.
Ma called him “Waka-waka”. I hated it. She hated him. So when he took off an hour after they placed Nyanga in my arms, Ma looked at me. It was a look that said: Waka-waka has left you. You are alone. Your child will die and it will be your fault. It was a look that was louder than her voice could ever have sounded. It shook me. It pained me. But it did not surprise me.
I did not want to believe that he was leaving me yet again. A corner of my heart hung on to the hope that he would return in time to give Nyanga a place in the world. And as I look at Nyanga now, her golden brown irises glistening in the rays of the disappearing sun, and she pulls her face into a wide smile, that corner of hope widens.
So when she removes the hand tucked under her chin and stretches it outwards like she is reaching for someone, I look up.
It isn’t his appearance that makes my heart leap for joy. I am not surprised to see him there outside the compound, with a sprinkling of dust on his shoulders and scattered over the soft curls that make up his hair. It is the sight of the two dozen or so people standing behind him, all with golden irises glistening in the sun. More travellers than has ever been seen in one location before. They have come for her.
I stand up slowly, my eyes fixed on him. Ma’s eyes dart from me to the crowd now making their way into the compound and her mouth falls slightly agape. She staggers backwards, her eyes falling to the ground as she avoids their gaze in fear.
I walk to him, my eyes blurring with tears. He smiles widely and stretches out his hands as he walks towards us. Nyanga and I fall into his embrace.
I told you my love, I will always return, he says, planting a kiss on my forehead. He cups my face, sliding his thumb over the tear that runs down my cheek.
I close my eyes as the warmth in my chest spreads to the rest of my body. Then I look down at Nyanga and whisper to her: Nya, it is okay; your Baba is here to tie you. And it does not matter that you will not live long, you will live full.