When we got home, my grandmother ordered me into my mother’s hut and there I stayed all through the evening. I was not allowed out. Neither was I allowed to do or help with anything. My mother and grandmother prepared the evening meal and brought mine to me. I heard the whole family returning from the farm and weary greetings being exchanged. The sound of food being served and eaten soon followed and it wasn’t long before the compound went silent.
That was usually the case on harvest days. People went to the river to bath after leaving the farms and returned tired and aching to their homes for a late meal and early bed.
I waited up for my grandmother and mother but even after everyone had gone to sleep, they still did not enter the hut and neither did anyone else. Finally, I gave in to exhaustion and fell into a troubled sleep.
Sometime around midnight, I was woken up by my grandmother. I was groggy from sleep but was soon wide awake as she placed a calabash of water in front of me and handed me a piece of white cloth. I stared in amazement at her as she stripped me of my wrapper and proceeded to wash me from head to toe with the piece of white cloth she had earlier handed to me. She rinsed off the cloth periodically in the water and returned again and again to scrub my body.
My mother sat on a low stool and watched critically, calling out any overlooked body part.
Mortification warred with shock inside me. The last time anyone had bathed me like that was when I was still just an infant. In those days, children were raised to cope for themselves early in life. I was about to become a wife in a few weeks and my grandmother was bathing me! And this certainly was not a bridal bath. That was for the night of the wedding just before the bride was escorted to her husband’s house.
The embarrassing agony soon ended and my grandmother gave me a pristine white wrapper to tie. I made to tie it around my waist as was the norm for all unmarried girls but she stopped me and told me to tie it from above my breasts. SHOCK NUMBER 2! I stood there and gaped at her till my mother snapped at me so I hastily tied the wrapper clumsily over my breasts.
Despite the shock and all, something in me thrilled at this unexpected privilege and I could almost imagine myself as a married woman right then. They didn’t allow me the luxury of my thoughts for a long time. A white head tie was looped around my head.
The piece of cloth which had served as my sponge was left inside the now cloudy water. My grandmother took the bag of beads from the sleeping mat where I had dropped it when I fell asleep and stepped out of the door. My mother gestured for me to follow and then fell into step behind me. Once again, we were off to the gods-know-where.
Parents never bothered to explain things to children in those days. They just ordered and you obeyed.
The journey was far shorter than the one we undertook in the morning but also far scarier. Walking out of the village in the dead of the night was no picnic. We headed towards the river. Once we reached there, my mother helped me put the calabash of water down. My grandmother dropped seven pieces of cowries into the calabash then told me to carry it and wade into the river. This I did under both their watchful eyes and the calabash drifted away on the river until we could no longer see it.
I waded back to the shore as per new instructions and following my grandmother’s commands, knelt on the rocky shore and stretched out my arms with the palms facing upward, my newly gotten old welts standing out prominently, she emptied the beads unto my palms and immediately the welts opened up, shooting pain up my arms. I flinched.
“Stay still” my grandmother snapped.
I sucked in my breath and held still, watching as the blood pooled out of the open welts. Instead of dripping down, the blood soaked upwards into the beads and was absorbed into them. Before my amazed eyes, the beads lost their glow and became just ordinary beads. Except for one – the wrist chain I had worn. It stood out amongst its now lackluster companions, its glow burning like moonlight.
Beside me I heard my grandmother gasp in horror as she saw the wrist chain still retain its lustre. My mother made to step forward to see what had caused the sudden intake of breath. She never quite made it.
Right in front of us, the river suddenly foamed and frothed. It bubbled and churned like boiling water.
Before our gaping eyes, the beautiful woman who had given me the beads emerged in all her splendor.
I was right; she was ROYAL! Her hair was the same as it had been the previous evening. The beads in her hair, on her neck, in her ear lobes and around her wrist were still the same. But gone was the wrapper around her breasts. Her breasts stood out with commanding grace on her chest. Gone also were the waist beads.
But more importantly and more paralyzingly fearful, gone were her legs. From her waist down was the tail of a fish, complete with dark glowing scales that could be seen clearly under the now calm river. The tail swished back and forth under her.
I would have run screaming like a wild banshee if I could have moved but I couldn’t. It wasn’t the heavy drug-like limbo of the caves. This was a crushing heaviness of paralysis brought on by a great oppressive power I could not resist nor withstand.
Her very presence seemed to loom over us as her eyes took in the three of us. She turned her head to look at my grandmother. “Awelewa”, she called my grandmother’s name.
That night her voice was also very different from the silky smooth gracefulness of the day before. It thrummed through the dark night, resonating with power and majesty. I could feel the echoes reverberating inside me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my grandmother incline her head in a respectful yet disdainful greeting, “Yeye!” She murmured, and then raised her eyes to meet the mammy water’s and they both stared at each other.
It was look full of knowing, fraught with history (and not all of it good.) Yet there seemed to be grudging respect on both sides, or maybe that was just my imagination.
My grandmother looked away first and the mammy water turned her gaze to rest on my mother. Her beautiful features softened, “HA! AWELEWA’S CHILD”, she said softly, her voice no less powerful than earlier.
Her eyes then wandered to where I was kneeling down with my arms still outstretched. Her face instantly resumed its former inscrutability and I quailed inside.
She stared into my face for the longest moment while I died a thousand deaths under that gaze.
Then she reached out a hand and picked up the wrist chain. The other beads crumbled and drifted into the river like ash. My welts stopped bleeding as the last flake fell off and the welts closed up and flattened out. In seconds, my palms were normal again, not a single mark left on them.
The mammy water watched dispassionately and then raised the wrist chain to her eye level and smiled.
Her smile was terrible to behold. Full of beauty and cruelty; empathy and determination; sadness and rage.
Despite the paralysis holding me in its grip, my whole body quivered with fear. I shook like a leaf in a storm and beside me I saw my grandmother fight to repress a shiver. I could not see my mother as she was behind me but I was sure her shaking was worse than mine and only the oppressive paralysis was keeping her immobile and sane. My mother for all her virtues could never be called brave.
The mammy water threw my grandmother a look that in someone less regal might be termed ‘gloating’, then turned and with a powerful slam of her fish tail that sent water spraying over us, dove into the water and was gone.
Slowly, life returned to the three of us. I could hear my mother’s panting breaths. She was breathing heavily in the aftermath of the fearful encounter. I stared at my outstretched arms dumbly then dropped them and simultaneously raised my eyes to my grandmother’s. She was staring at me.
And the look in her eyes, oh, the look in her eyes! So much pain, fear, compassion, regret and understanding. It brought tears to my eyes. She looked at me with all these emotions raging out and laid bare before me.
I opened my mouth to say – what? I will never know! She shook her head and the words fell away. Then she turned and went to my mother. Together they leaned on each other for support, my mother in fear and my grandmother in defeat. Together they started back to the village, leaving me to rise shakily to my feet and toddle after them on shaky legs.
Nothing was ever mentioned of all these events. We never told anyone and since the welts on my hands had disappeared, no questions were ever asked about them nor about our midnights sojourn to the river because no one else knew about it.
Of course, many of my family members wanted to know why I did not go to the farm that day but they never got any answer and they soon dropped their questions.
Once of or twice I caught my grandmother watching me sadly and my mother watching both of us in puzzlement but no one ever voiced out their thoughts and so life soon resumed its normalcy.
And there my story might have ended if not for another event.
The night before my wedding, there was a terrible storm, the type I had never witnessed before nor witnessed again since then. It was as if the heavens were ripped open and the floodgates let loose on earth. Despite the excitement of my next day nuptials, despite the chatter of my age mates gathered to celebrate my last night of singlehood with me, despite the storm, I slept heavily and woke up to a bright sunny wedding day to find the wrist chain on my wrist.
Fear propelled me out of the sleeping mat. I didn’t stop to consider, I knew I had to tell my mother and grandmother. I yanked off the wrist chain and squeezed it in my palm as I sped off to my mother’s hut from the bridal hut I had been staying for the past few days. Ignoring the greetings from the bustling crowd, I entered my mother’s hut without calling out a greeting. My agitation making me forego the simple custom. She wasn’t in the outer room so I shoved open the mat covering the entrance to the inner room and suddenly came to a jarring stop as if rammed into a solid wall, in shock!
My grandmother was there alone and on her knees with a small box on her laps. Held in her hands was a length of waist beads. The same beads as the wrist beads I held in my own hands. In various shapes and sizes, they glowed with the now familiar secret inner light. There was no doubt about it; those beads in my grandmother’s hands could only have come from the same source as mine.
Mutely I stared at her and she raised her head and stared right back at me. Then, turning, she placed the waist beads back into the box and closed the box, put it in a hole in the ground and covered the hole with sand before pulling the woven mat back over the packed earth.
She then stood up and walked over to me, lifted my hand and opened my palm. The wrist bead lay in it, glowing as brightly as the waist beads she had just hidden. She shook her head slightly then touched my shoulders gently.
“Your wedding will start soon. Go and get ready”, was all she said and walked out past me.
So I did as she said. I got ready and got married and moved to my husband’s house.
And that was it! Or was it? I don’t know. All I know is that it took me seventeen years to have a child. Three years more than the fourteen it took my grandmother to have my mother. And in the seventeenth year after years of searching and different prayers and different sacrifices, I had a son, your father. And as you know, he is my only child.
I have never had another child despite my best efforts. What does it all mean? I really don’t know. We never ever talked about it. Not me, not my mother, not my grandmother.
They helped me in my search for a child but that was all. The mammy water incidence was never spoken of.
My grandmother didn’t live long enough to see my child. She died in the eleventh year of my marriage. My mother and I continued in the baby quest and my mother eventually saw and watched her grandson from me grow to adulthood before passing on with twenty-eight grandchildren in all from all her children; my siblings.
One more thing – the day my grandmother died, I went to my mother’s room and dug up the box. I saw the box but it was empty. The waist beads were no more there. I never found it.
Sometimes I think maybe I dreamt that particular morning but I look at my own wrist beads and know that it was no dream. It was real. My grandmother also had the same beads.
I never told my mother of course. What would have been the use?
And that is the end of my story!