Like porridge on fire, your anxiety is bubbling over, turning into froth and steam. You don’t have many friends left. Not since that fit you threw at the last baby-shower.
You tried acting stoic about it but it was an exercise in futility. You are determined to get a child at whatever cost. Some of your methods are a little unorthodox, even morally questionable but no one understands. How is it possible that everyone else is able to have one but you? Even that mousy timid housemaid you had last. On the news last week, some poverty stricken, illiterate woman in a village deep in Manafwa district had three at a go.
“God gives meat to those without teeth,” scoffed Cathy, your horrid sister in law who was visiting with you.
“I wonder if poor old Nakazzi will lay eyes on Gerald’s child before time runs out for her!” your previously sweet and accommodating mother-in-law now taunts.
“Did you have abortions at the university? Is there something you are not telling me sweetheart?” your own mother chides when she whisks you away from the party on Christmas Eve.
Some nights, even when you don’t feel like it, you copulate hoping that could be your lucky break. You have tried diviners, traditional medicine, imams, pastors, yoga, modern medicine and even strange diets.
“Have you considered the option of a surrogate?” Dr Mutyaba asked the last time you were in to see him at the fertility clinic. “Everything seems fine but you know it happens sometimes.”
“Well, this was a fun enough way to spend an afternoon devoid of hope but I’d much rather carry my own offspring thank you.” One would think the news would hurt less now given the endless cycle of disappointment but there’s a ruthless fiend grabbing your heart and squeezing the life out of it. Even as you say those words you are mentally vetting potential surrogate candidates.
Your mother is a bit advanced in age and even if she brought five healthy children into the world you are not going to take the risk especially now that you could be running out of eggs. Your sister Elsa loved her marijuana a bit too much at uni and you read somewhere that it takes 30 years before that shit is entirely flushed out of the system. Thou shalt not have a retarded baby. Gerald’s sister Cathy is spiteful and her womb must be equally toxic. Family doesn’t come with an everlasting fountain of solutions after all.
“What about adoption?” Gerald, your ever supportive husband pipes in. He has not once complained nor buckled to pressure from his relatives.
“Adoption is out of the question Ger. We are not raising a child with the genes of a mother who abandoned him at a rubbish dump and a rapist father.”
“That is not always the case sweetheart. We will to do a background check.” He says, masking frustration.
You throw him a dirty look.
“Then maybe we should consider surrogacy like the doctor suggests. Honey please. At least that will be our DNA.”
You know you are being unreasonable but the grief is taking centre stage. And this is the first hint that he may be losing hope. Panic attacks you from every side. Tears hang just behind your eyes and you swallow hard before you involuntarily begin to weep.
At the reception you pick up the brochure marked “All you need to know about surrogacy and gestational carriers” and leave the fertility clinic determined not to look too dejected. The Arabic prayer from the imam sounded pretty authentic, so did the rattling of whatever was in the calabashes that traditional healer was shaking. You got holy water when The Cardinal returned from The Vatican, SO WHAT COULD BE WRONG?
You walk through the curtain of beads into a red, dimly lit parlour. Priyanka, your Indian friend suggested this one. The lady has her hands hovering over a glowing crystal ball. There’s a deck of cards next to it. The assistant shows you to a seat in front of her and exits the room. The old Indian lady lifts her face from the ball that is turning from white to purple and turns it towards you to reveal deep-set eyes and a long crooked nose that reminds you of the witch from Hansel and Gretel. She places the deck of cards in front of you and asks you to split it. She lays displays the first five cards from the remaining half in front of you face down and then flips them over, her face darkening at every turn. At the last card she stands up quickly and orders you to leave in horror.
“Skip the theatrics lady, tell me what you see? I am paying good money!” You tell her.
“Keep money. Go. Just go.” She yells.
You leave, confused. “Maybe she thinks that you are messing with the laws of nature with the surrogate thingy and disrupting her juju. Silly old wench.”
You choose Namala. The mousy housemaid you sent away a year ago when she got pregnant for the askari. She will be your surrogate carrier. She is patient and efficient. She’d proven her worth in the past, she could be useful now. She has carried a baby to term before, and she is in dire straits so she will welcome the amount you are willing to pay for her womb.
“I have some good news for you Mr and Mrs Baleke.” Dr. Mutyaba announces during your next visit.
“She is a perfect match?” You ask excitedly.
“Yes, ummm… and you are pregnant.” He says
“Already?” Gerald asks, puzzled.
“Hahaha, no! Mrs Baleke is pregnant.”
“But… but? You said it wasn’t possible?”
“Well, it seems there has been a miracle. You’ll have to be under a lot of observation the entirety of the pregnancy. Let us not blow this chance.”
“Thank you Allah, Buddha, Krishna and Holy Mary and Jaja Muwanga and you Chinese dragon.” You whisper frantically to your divine helpers, face and hands turned towards the heavens.
Three months later, you are still pregnant. You are thankful for every bout of nausea. Namala is still with you and is doubly supportive in atonement for past disappointments.
At your 5 month antenatal check-up, Dr. Mutyaba gifts you with a doll. He says it is realistic and can be used for practice for new mothers. It cries at intervals and you can feed and change it. Then you can give it to your baby girl as a toy after. He is equally excited for you and the miracle baby. You still cannot believe your luck. You are doing all the shopping and painting of the nursery and your baby girl is going to have the best of everything.
The doll, Sally, proves very helpful for practice on how to change diapers and hold the fragile child. Gerald is ecstatic and can’t wait until there are finally real cries in his house.
“I hope she has your dimples and I’ll teach her how to swim and ride a bicycle and we’ll build a tree house and fill it with all the things she likes.” He plans ecstatically.
“Hey, calm down love. I don’t care what she looks like as long as she does not like her toast burnt to a crisp like her father.” You tease.
Three months later, the baby is still there. But then you are a little anxious. After an eternity of interventions modern and archaic this feels too good to be true. What if the baby’s got one chromosome too many, or not enough? What if she has hydrocephalus or some other class of handicap? Is the universe just setting you up for disappointment once again? Scans reveal that everything is fine and that you should feed your fertile imagination with more positive vibes.
Dr Mutyaba delivers the baby when she comes at 39 weeks. She is covered in blood and goo and slime but she is the prettiest thing in the world. She screams air into her lungs and your heart almost bursts with love. She is placed into your arms and if you weren’t tired from the seven hours of labour you would leap and touch the sky. You name her Gabriella because she truly is an angel that bore glad tidings. Your mother comes over to help you for the first week after you leave the hospital. Between visitors, night feeding, nappies and doing laundry you are constantly tired and sleep deprived but you wouldn’t give it up for the world.
It is a lot harder when your mother leaves but the bundle really has brought you joy and you dare not complain. Then the dreams start. In the first one it is the old Indian woman with the crystal ball and tarot cards. You are holding the baby in one arm and she turns over your other palm. She stands up in fright, tipping the table over, sending cards flying and the crystal ball rolling to the furthest corner, escaping as far from you as possible. Indian woman’s pupils turn to slits, she opens her mouth to reveal fangs and a forked tongue. Her head morphs into that of a cobra, she hisses something unintelligible, sprays you with venom and tries to grab the baby from you. You wake up to Gerald shaking you violently because you have been screaming in your sleep.
Days go by without incident and you blame the dream on fatigue.
One night however, a few minutes after you have placed the baby back into her crib after her 3am feed, you wake up to the cry of a child. You think she will go back to sleep in a bit but it’s incessant. You walk to the nursery to find Gabriella sound asleep but there’s crying still. It is Sally the doll. You had totally forgotten about it. You put it in a laundry basket and dump a load of clothes over it so it won’t wake the baby. You really need to get some shut eye before the damn colic wakes her again.
“Namala” you call out. “Come and take the baby.”
“I am going to run you a hot bath and please eat something today, please,” she begs as though talking to a child.
You leave Gabby to Namala a lot these days. You are constantly sad and have lost the will to live. You hair is thinning and greying and you have bald patches. You are angry most of the time and when that wears off the guilt creeps in and consumes you. You have hired more help for the household chores while Namala plays full time nanny. You feel inadequate and hopeless as a mother and wife but it seems like the child is constantly feeding and then randomly exploding from every orifice and there is only so much a woman can take. And then you hear her giggle with the maid and you are swamped with guilt unparalleled and you cry till the cows come home.
You tear your eyes away from the faraway place you have been staring at unseeingly for the past hour to find him propped against the window ledge across you. You almost choke on the now soggy lump that was once toasted bread lying on your tongue. He has become a bolder, more regular visitor now. Before, he was the subject of many a nightmare but now he won’t even allow you to sleep. His human form is unbelievably handsome, more so when he smiles, but it is a cold smile. A predator playing with its prey. Always impeccably dressed, today it’s a black tuxedo, white shirt, black bow tie and a bowler hat and a pipe. Red carpet ready. You are always frozen in fear and tongue tied around him. Like breath fogging up a glass pane on a cold morning, he disappears as fast and mysteriously as he appears. You dare not tell anyone about him.
“There’s a creature, a stranger that always waits on the seventh stair that is also the fiery serpent in my dreams.” It sounds unbelievable even to you when you say it out loud. Plus you will be at odds to explain how the handsome stranger and the fiery serpent are one and the same. You just know.
Today however, he lingers. He extends a hand to brush back a tendril of unkempt hair from your face. You cringe in anticipation of his cold touch against your skin but you feel nothing. You look up into pitch black eyes that draw you into an abyss.
“Who are you? What do you want from me?” you stutter.
He smirks, “Who am I? I was lurking around when Hagar and Ishmael were driven into the desert, was there when Herod ordered for the killing of all children under two. I was disappointed when Solomon intervened between the two harlots, was the vulture in waiting in Kevin Carter’s award winning picture in Sudan. Some call me Rumplestiltskin, been referred to as the Pied Piper, other times Walumbe… I could go on but I think I’ve made my point.” his voice is calm, confident, but like his smile, creeps out more than reassures.
You know what he wants and why. It never occurred to you to give thanks and sacrifices to all the deities you asked for help. You don’t even know which one did the magic. You’ve read Rumpelstilskin enough times to know that even begging won’t deter him. He gives you that sinister smile, opens his mouth and a stench that can only be from the depths of Hades fills the room. Inside his mouth are tens of thousands of babies in various states of distress for teeth. You start to scream and the dark mass of babies, like a swam of flies, passes from his mouth into the very core of your being before you pass out.
You wake up in hospital. Gerald and your mother are beside you. The doctors say it is post-partum depression but you will be okay in no time.
“Honey, maybe you should stay here until you are better,” Gerald says. “away from all the pressure at home.”
You agree entirely. Oh the irony of finding comfort in a mental asylum! You hope that the nightmares won’t follow you here. You are constantly surrounded, and given sedatives to help you sleep.
“Victims of post-partum depression always suffer from hallucinations. Because yours went a while without detection it had advanced into mild psychosis but you will be fine in no time.” Your therapist assures you during your sessions.
Quite honestly you feel better and safer. You even make friends with Victoria who is always licking your face because she thinks she’s a puppy, and Mary who talks with shadows. A month later you are allowed visitors. You missed everybody so much but more so Gabby. When you see her the feelings you had at the hospital when she was born come tumbling back in heaps. She has grown so much and you are sorry you missed the milestones.
Over the coming weeks you are allowed visitors at more regular intervals. You are much happier, do not cry at the drop of a hat, and your sense of humour has returned. Soon, you are ready to go home.
Everything is fine and wonderful for a while. Namala finds herself surplus to requirements because you want to make up for lost time with your daughter. Gerald even finds it safe to travel for a business retreat out of town. On the night that he is set to return, Gabby cries nonstop. Neither you, nor Namala can soothe her. Nothing seems to help but miles around the earth of lullabies later, she finally drifts off.
As soon as she is put in her crib and Namala retreats to her quarters, Sally lets out a wail that could wake the dead. You locate it and try to remove the batteries but for the life of you cannot find the place for that. In the meantime it is still screaming. You are left with no choice but to cradle and soothe the silly doll. But not before Gabriella stirs and wakes up again. When Sally goes quiet, Gabby picks up where she left off. It carries on like that for hours and pretty soon it is obvious that they both are competing for your attention, the doll seemingly the more aggressive one. Namala is gone and Gerald is away. You begin to get overwhelmed. The old feelings of anxiety and helplessness sneer at your newfound devotion.
“I just wanted the stupid doll to shut up,” you tell the officer as he leads you away cuffed.
Namala and the other maid are wailing like banshees. Another officer is trying to keep a raging Gerald from grabbing your throat.
“What did you do to my child?” is all you can gather from his inconsolable laments.
“I couldn’t find the battery case. I wanted the stupid doll to shut up,” you keep telling them. That is the last thing you remember. Where did all the blood come from?
You are led through a labyrinth of news crews and spectators to a waiting police truck.
“She smashed her child’s head against the wall repeatedly last night.” Someone tells a reporter.
“She just returned from a mental asylum last month,” another one adds.
Before you are shoved under the seats of the police kabangali truck, you turn back and amidst the sea of faces he stands out. Devilishly handsome, red dashiki shirt, black pants, top hat, eternal pipe dangling from his mouth, holding the doll carelessly in one hand. Dr. Mutyaba! He flashes that evil grin, briefly removes his hat, gives a little bow and disappears into the crowd.
The Pied Piper came to collect.