Her breasts started to ache sometime around 2am. The child was silent beside her so Abeke knew that the pain was more than just the draw of mother to child, more than just nature’s response to the hungry cries of her child.
She turned over as quietly as she could so as not to wake Akanbi. He had suffered enough these past few weeks since the child was born. Sometimes Abeke wondered if they would ever again sleep at night. They had named her Imole, after the dawn of every new day. Abeke smiled as she recalled Akanbi murmuring just the day before about how unsuitable the name was for a child who stayed awake all night.
‘We should have named her Ale, nighttime.’ He said as he took his turn with the night vigils that had become a part of their lives since Imole was born. Abeke had laughed till her loins hurt. Imole had stopped crying immediately to look around for the source of the interruption. She always seemed entranced by her mother’s laugh.
‘Is everything alright?’ Her husband whispered from across the mat which they shared with the little one. The baby slept between her parents, breathing softly, nestled and safe from the dangers of the world. But even in that deep and innocent sleep, the slightest noise would awaken her and unleash another cycle of sleeplessness.
‘Yes, Baale mi. I am sorry I woke you up. My breasts just hurt and I was thinking of waking Imole up for a feeding.’ Abeke whispered back.
‘Ah! Wake who up? Please oh! Leave her be. Someone that has just finally begun to understand that night is for sleep.’
‘Well, I was also thinking of going express some milk for Tundun’s child’
‘Good idea. I will stay here with Imole.’ Her husband answered giving her permission to venture out into the night.
The air was chilly and Abeke was thankful for the extra wrapper she wrapped around her shoulders for the trip to Tundun’s house. Both Imole and Tundun’s son had been born on the same day and from what Abeke had heard, they also shared the same love for nighttime adventures.
Akanbi’s mother had been the one to suggest that she help out with the nursing of the child. At first, Abeke had worried that there would not be enough for both children but the old woman had smiled and told her that was not the way things worked. There would be enough for both children; her mother in law had assured her. Abeke had only been more than glad to help out with the child once she had the assurance her daughter would not suffer. She would have wanted someone to do the same if it was Imole that needed help.
There was a light on in the mud house and Abeke could hear the child’s screams and Tundun’s shushing.
She called out a greeting to announce herself before putting aside the curtain of grass that stood between her and the hungry mouth that cried to be fed.
‘Ah! Abeke, you are here! Why so early? I thought you said you would only be able to come after sunrise.’ Tundun said to her in welcome, her eyes lighting up even in the dark. A calabash sat beside her and Abeke could see she had been in the process of trying to feed the child.
‘I am sorry, Tundun. My breasts were just so full tonight and Imole doesn’t seem to be interested so I thought it was best to come now. I thought you would be asleep and I could just fill up the calabash you showed me last week. I can however see that this young man is relentless in his attempts to rob you of sleep.’ Abeke said smiling at the child who continued to wail.
‘My sister, I am just tired. He cries as if we are punishing him or we have taken him from somewhere he is still supposed to be. And his lungs eh, they are made of bronze.’ The new mother complained but there was a smile in her eyes, a smile that Abeke knew only too well. It was the same way she smiled when she spoke about Imole.
Abeke laughed and the child stopped its wailing immediately.
‘Ah that is exactly what Imole does when I laugh.’ Abeke said as she took the child from his mother. Her breasts could not wait any longer. It was almost as if the baby’s cries had intensified the pain. She quickly guided him to her ready nipple. He took it without hesitation and it was all Abeke could do not to moan out in relief.
A few minutes passed before either woman ventured to speak.
‘Will you be waiting for your Baale to return from the hunting trip before you give him a name?’ Abeke asked the woman who stood over them as if by watching she could participate in the nourishment of the child.
‘Yes, the Balogun says they will back anytime now. He came to see the child yesterday and told me some of the scouts have already returned. But I already have a name picked out.’ Tundun replied.
‘Ah, Tundun. You know it is the father of the child that names the child. You are looking for your Baale’s trouble.’
‘He wasn’t the one who almost died from giving him birth. He has no choice in this one oh.’
‘Hmmm… I cannot wait to see how the drama between you and that your hunter husband will play out. I hope it is during one of the days I am breastfeeding so I can have a front row seat. Anyway, what is this wonderful name you have chosen that no one can argue with? Tell it to me so I can sing to him while breastfeeding as I do to Imole.’
‘Ara, his name will be Ara for the wonder that he is. It took 15 long years for me to finally become a woman. Ara did that for me. No one calls me barren anymore because of him. Tell me my sister, is that not a wonderful thing? What could be more wonderful than turning a desert land into one that cultivates healthy yams?’ Tundun’s voice was laden with tears and if not for the child that Abeke was cradling, she would have reached out to comfort the other woman.
Akanbi’s mother, the village midwife had told her of how labor had been hard and long for Tundun who was almost in her forties and had never had a child. Abeke was only thankful that hers had not been as long or her mother-in-law would not have been able to attend to both of them on the same day. Who knew what would have happened then. She was even gladder that afer the first waves of pain that had indicated the beginning of her labor; she had completely blanked out the rest of that day. For that, Abeke was thankful. The stories she had heard from other women were fearful and she was glad she had been saved most of it through unconsciousness.
The child in her arms stirred and Abeke began to sing to him. It was the same song she hummed to her own child. He suckled even harder, his eyes on her, his little fingers massaging a balm to her bosom.
Tundun looked on and felt envy flood her own bosom. After the first day of breastfeeding Ara, her milk had failed to come in and she had had to resort to goat milk and help from the other nursing mothers. Still, who was she to question the gods and the way they did their things. She was just glad she had a child to show after all these years. The song Abeke sang was one that every mother in the village knew. Tundun was a mother too even if her body said otherwise and so she joined Abeke in the singing.
Akanbi stayed awake for rest of the night. He wondered how his wife was getting on. People always said a mother could tell a child that was hers. He hoped it was not true and that this was merely another one of those things people said just to seem wise. There were many times he wondered if he should have told Abeke the truth but his mother had advised against it. He would never forget the day they were born. He had started to dance as his mother brought out the first baby from the hut where Abeke had labored all morning. But before he could complete his dance of celebration, the fear in his mother’s eyes had stayed him.
‘Ibeji.’ She had whispered.
‘The other is a boy. No one must know. I will take the boy with me and if need be I will go on a journey far far away from here. The gods will not have these children, Akanbi, not these ones.’ His mother said resolutely, her eyes glazed over with the pain that had stayed with her since the day her own twins had been taken to the evil forest.
But the gods had been kind and had not wanted his twins. They had settled for Tundun’s child even while he was in her womb. A stillbirth that Akanbi’s mother quickly replaced with her own grandson before Tundun knew what was happening. Akanbi had buried the remains of the stillborn child amongst his yams; a secret grave for a child that never existed.
Imole whimpered in her sleep and Akanbi turned to face her. Outside, the shadows of the night had begun to flee in the face of approaching dawn. He could make out his daughter’s form and the half-smile on her face that seemed to herald a new day. It was for moments like this that he had dared the wrath of the gods. It was for moments like this that he had gladly sacrificed his faith in his forefathers’ gods.
Night was almost over and it was the turn of the day. There was no better wonder than the handing over of that baton, the giving way of darkness to light, the replacement of death with life, one grave instead of two…
Akanbi settled back to sleep, his daughter holding on fast to his fingers, his son safe in his wife’s arms.