A Mother's Heart
By Dipita Kwa
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I slipped out of my canoe and into the cold water of the swamp to pin down the lower end of the net into the mud so that no fish would swim through it from beneath. The water was very dark this morning with all the tree branches forming a thick canopy above.
While climbing back into the canoe, I saw Tiako’s mother bent double under the weight of a full basket of cassava she was carrying on her head. She descended the steep slope that led to the huge log serving as a bridge across the swamp with her dog Lulu panting beside her. She held her load with one hand and with the other hand she held a long staff with which she felt her way down.
I knew she wouldn’t make it down to the bridge. It was not only because it had rained throughout the night or because of her hunchback or because of her left leg enlarged by elephantiasis. She was weeping. And I wondered what her son must have done to her again to increase her endless anguish.
I held my breath as I watched her raise the hand holding the staff in order to wipe her dripping nose. She missed her step, tumbled down the slope and crashed into the water below. Lulu barked and whined and looked at me and shook her tail. I saw the woman kicking and clawing at the feeble weeds as she sank. I paddled hastily to her rescue.
‘I am finished! I can’t even stand,’ she groused and shook her grey-haired head after I had dragged her out and made her lie on the log. ‘Oh, God, why didn’t you take me at once and let me rest as you just took Old Mola this night?’ She sounded as though she was thinking aloud.
‘Don’t worry, I will carry you home.’
‘Carry me?’ She stared at me with glazed eyes – the eyes of a mother who hasn’t experienced a grain of kindness from a child for too long.
After tying my canoe to a tree by the banks of the swamp, I strapped my fishing bag containing my catch for that morning over my shoulder. With Tiako’s mother now clinging to my back, I tottered cautiously towards Mukunda.
‘– that is a mother’s pride, my son,’ she was telling me as we journeyed on, ‘to be able to hear your child call you Mama with a smile on his face when his friends visit. No, not with Tiako who brings his friends home to eat my food but locks the parlour door so that his guests do not see the ugly thing he has for a mother. If I think of how I, Engome, prayed and waited to have him! Look at me – to bear a child! Only for my child-of-promise to become my bed of thorns! He came back home last night demanding for fifteen thousand francs and vowing to burn down the house if I didn’t give him the money before dusk. I had to wake up this morning with the hens hoping to dig some cassava and sell to give him the money he wanted. I know he is in trouble – I can feel it in my bones.’
‘Those blessed with abundant beans always lacked the nails to peel them,’ I said to myself. I never knew my mother. I was told she died when I was thirteen months old, four months after my father was crippled from falling off a palm tree. Maybe if she had lived, I wouldn’t have ended up as a fisher-boy in a small village in the edge of nowhere.
‘Why do you keep taking care of him; giving him money, washing his dresses and cooking his food?’ I asked.
‘He is my only child and I don’t want him to steal. Who else will give him if I don’t?’
‘And for how long will you keep doing all this – showing him this love that he is too blind to appreciate? You are too old to be working yourself this much for a son who doesn’t care.’
‘My son, you can’t understand the heart of a mother. That heart that refuses to condemn but to correct the faults of a child. That heart that calls a thief My Son and a harlot My Daughter. It is that heart that keeps me doing all for Tiako. But I think I will change. I will need to grow a stronger heart that knows how to say: enough is enough. But I am old as you rightly said – too old to turn my back away from what I have grown to know as the proper way to live.’
‘Well, I think Tiako will change –’ I said, wishing she wouldn’t say another word all the way home.
We found Tiako sprawled on a mat on the veranda and staring blankly at the cobwebs on the roof. He didn’t look at us when I carried his mother inside and made her lie on the bamboo bed in a corner of the living room beside the window.
‘Thank you Ngody, God will bless you for what you did to me today. Thank you very much. But before you leave, please, call my son here and help me explain to him what happened.’
Explain what to whom? I felt as to hit my head on the wall in anger but instead went out to the veranda where I met Tiako still concentrating on the cobwebs above.
‘Your mother is calling for you,’ I informed him.
He shifted his gaze first to my muddy feet and then to my face and what I saw in his eyes was sadness and fright.
‘Boy, what problem do you have with your mother?’ I asked.
‘I don’t have any problem with her.’
‘Then why this indifference after what has just happened to her? She might have died out there in Njiba with only Lulu at her side, yet you do not show any concern.’
I saw him blink and then swallow like someone in agony.
‘What happened to her?’ he asked.
‘Go in there and ask her.’
I turned away and saw him get up and follow closely behind me as I went back into the room.
Just then we heard the door behind us slam against the wall, dislodging a plank.
‘Where is that dog?’ Janjo the chief gravedigger demanded as he burst into the room with a shovel in his hand. Sputum of anger lined the edges of his mouth.
Tiako must have been crazy to have chosen this gorilla’s home for his adventures, I thought.
‘Come here, you dog!’ the huge man growled.
Tiako backed away until he was flat against the wall. With two strides Janjo caught up with him, picked him by the collar of his shirt, and shook him like a bunch of vegetables before flinging him across the room. He crashed against a broken chair and lay still.
‘No!’ Engome screamed and fell off the bed. ‘Please, Janjo!’
‘I will break his neck today if he doesn’t break mine,’ Janjo swore, matching menacingly towards Tiako but Engome had crept across the room and now lay flat over her son like a human shield.
‘Massa Janjo, please, have pity on him,’ she moaned, clinging tighter.
‘Engome, get off him before I do something that I will regret afterwards. I, to be disgraced this way by children who have chosen to be irresponsible in their actions! I swear, I will teach you a lesson, Tiako.’
‘Please, Pa Siliki, this is a matter to be solved peacefully in a family,’ I said, clutching his thick and hairy wrist.
‘What? Ngody, so you know what he did to my daughter, don’t you?’
‘Yes, I know,’ I whispered, ‘well, what I mean is that I have been hearing rumours about him and Siliki for some time now.’
‘What about them, Ngody?’ Engome asked, rolling off her son as though he had suddenly become a vicious viper.
‘So he didn’t tell you either?’ Janjo barked.
‘He didn’t tell me anything, Massa Janjo. All we talk about is money. For the past one week I haven’t had any sleep. Money, money, money, is all he keeps asking for. Janjo, tell me what happened.’
‘This idiot got my daughter pregnant and made her deceive me she was going to her uncle’s house for the weekend only to have her locked in Mbida’s room and fed with medicine to abort the pregnancy. My daughter has been suffering now for two days. If Mbida had not been too terrified and given her up today, my Siliki would have died there in that rat hole with a baby in her womb.’
‘Tiako, is this true?’ Engome asked in tears.
‘She said she can’t keep the pregnancy otherwise her father will kill her –’
‘Shut up! Which father?’ Janjo shouted. ‘How did you expect her to feel after you made her believe that your mother was long dead and that this woman was only your sick and useless grandmother who couldn’t even take care of herself without your help, not to talk of a daughter-in-law and a baby?’
‘When it is rotten on land we take it to the water to wash away the maggots,’ Engome cried. ‘But when it is rotten in water, where do we take it to? Tiako, what did I do to you that you hate me to this extent? See how your hatred for me is killing someone else’s child.’
‘She won’t die, Engome. According to the nurse, they will be fine. There is nothing to worry about now. But as for you –’ Janjo pointed at Tiako, ‘– it is not yet over between us. As soon as we burry Old Mola, I will visit you again.’
The gravedigger picked up his fallen shovel, shouted and threatened some more before leaving.
‘Ngody, what do I do now?’ Tiako asked me later on as the two of us sat in his mother’s kitchen warming water with which to massage her back and legs.
‘What you have to do from today is to grow. All this is happening to you because of the type of people you choose to surround yourself with. Yes, don’t look at me that way. If you had told her from the beginning all her hard-earned money wouldn’t have been wasted. You are lucky that no serious damage was caused. Now is the time for you to sit down and actually look at your life and decide what you want to make of it. Remember that a baby is now on the way. You are even lucky to have a mother who loves and provides for you … you are not like me …’
We sat for a long time, silently nibbling at our different worries while flies feasted on the content of my fishing bag.
‘Do you still remember when we were in primary school how children used to insult me that my mother seized their football and was hiding it in her back?’ Tiako asked all of a sudden, frowning deeply.
I remembered alright! So this was it? When we were kids it was common to find him squatting behind a classroom and crying after one of the boys had dropped a stinking one on him about his mother’s hunchback or elephantiasis. Pupils and teachers alike never stopped insulting him until he had to drop out from school in Class Six. His mother’s disability had always been a permanent source of grief to Tiako. Wherever he went and whatever he did, he was referred to as the great Hunchback Doctor because it was said that he massaged his mother’s lump with warm water every morning and evening.
‘You can’t understand how miserable my life has been with all the insults. I had to leave school, hoping to stop the torments, and to deny her as my mother to those who didn’t know, hoping to find some self-pride and peace – but I think I was wrong.’
‘Yes, you were wrong,’ I said. ‘I never expected you to carry this stigma in your heart over all these years. You cannot refuse or hate your mother because of a natural deformity, or because people laugh at you. You didn’t choose to be her child. Just imagine what Janjo would have done to you today if she wasn’t there.’
After another stretch of silence, he held my arm.
‘Thank you for saving her life today.’
‘You should instead thank God for putting someone there when she needed help. I have to go now and cook these crabs before they really get bad. Auntie is not around and my father hasn’t eaten anything since morning.’
‘I think the water is now warm enough,’ Tiako said with a smile. ‘You know I am the great Hunchback Doctor.’