Everything changed when Mama Asabea moved into our homestead. My dream had preceded her coming. The night before she came, I dreamt of bats and vultures. They were perched precariously on our moth-eaten rafters. I made nothing of the dream until she arrived. She reminded me of the locusts that preceded the coming of the rains. We were playing in the dusty compound when she arrived in a rickety bus. The bus squealed and grunted to a stop. We all rushed to where the bus had shivered to a halt. Kweku, the only one among us who had been to a secondary school read the inscription on the bus. Sexual Traps Few Escape. I wondered what that meant, Sexual Sin. I conjured up in my subconscious, a trap-like device used to trap rats in Mama’s farm. The little machine could hold onto the squealing rats for hours. Sometimes before we got to the farm, it had screamed it poor self to death. We often dug up a toe-deep grave and hurriedly bury it. Perhaps this was what sexual sin meant; a trap like device holding on to people against their will so they could not escape. The part I could not figure out was the very nature of sexual sin. That question did not hold my imagination for long. I had more pressing issues to engage my attention on at the moment. Mama Asabea was a giant of a woman. Her head, full of thick hair coils, stood atop her giant ringed neck. It was difficult for me to count the rings circling her neck; she was so high up. Her breast had taken the greater part of her chest. They jerked feverishly like rolling melons descending unimpeded downhill. From where I stood, it looked like a jaunted hill atop a flattened plain. She falters in her steps like one bearing a heavy load. I wondered how she was able to balance her weight and move around so effortlessly. There was not much to see in her upper body. Her breast has claimed most part of her chest. The magic was in her voice. It was both thunder and calmness after a heavy storm. It boomed loud and clear like the village gong gong beater’s drum. Her voice diverted one’s attention away from her shriveled legs. They looked frail as they struggled to hold the disproportionate body erect.
In the small constricted verandah in front of our house, I could hear the cloaked voice of my mother muttering to herself. Across the distance it sounded like the hissing of an angered mamba. I froze in my steps and peaked up my ears to listen; “The evil men do shock the devil himself to muteness.” I heard her say. “I would go for the saucy part of a roasted antelope if I happen to be a thief. What is the essence of settling for the maimed skeletal part of the meat when you would still be punished if caught? Men and their nonsense.” Obviously, I did not understand such complicated adult talk. I could really not see the link between Mama Asabea’s arrival and thieves stealing roasted antelopes. I was not particularly bothered because I could not see any skeletons lurking around. Thus assured, I shifted my attention back to Mama Asabea. The other children in the compound were busily helping her offload assorted luggage from the back of the car. Here a pestle, there a mortar, till all her luggage were packed safely away. I could not join the children because of the look in my mother’s eyes. It sparked of thunder and all other vociferous missiles. I was still recovering from the beating she gave me on the day I followed Kwasi’s mother to the market. There were places in my back that were raw from her severe beatings. My hands refused to trace the half-healed scar. I positioned myself under the small guava tree, and feigning nonchalance, watched carefully the unfolding drama.
In her loud thunderous voice Mama Asabea boomed, “I greet you all people of this house. Special greetings to my co-wife who has refused to acknowledge my presence by not coming to meet and greet me properly.” There are about eight rooms in my house. The relationship they shared with each other was so complicated that I had given up any hopes of ever understanding it. Everyone was related to someone else. In the end, I called every woman Mama to avoid any accusations of disrespect. Mama Asabea’s voice shut several windows, banged many doors and turned keys in the locks of various doors. Murmurs of disapproval rose up like a thick cloud into the air. It mixed up with the dust and choked silence out of its seat. It was as indistinct as the faint humming of an unfettered bird. Discordant sounds of disapproval rang loud and clear from behind shut windows. All these happenings sapped my attention and focused it squarely on Mama Asabea. She wore a triumphant smirk on her oval face; the same look hunters wore when they came home with a big catch.
Her voice splintered the murmurs into a thousand pieces. Beating her over-sized melons of breast, she thundered, “where are those offsprings of cockroaches who hide under filthy disdainful shutters to spew out stinking rubbish? I say, where are they?” There was a deafening silence. You could almost reach out and touch the coarseness in it. This reminded me of a banku gone bad. It was almost as if everyone had died and only lingering ghosts remained. I watched my mother busy herself with pots and pans. She did so noisily as if to challenge Mama Asabea’s induced silence. My friends ceased their laughter and jumping around to observe what would happen next. We were all caught in the rising tension. I held my breath, afraid that if I but inhaled any air, I would be damned. It was more like the silence that accompanied the death of a loved personality. My insides turned. I knew the outcome would not be a pleasant one. It felt like the day I forgot my Memory Verse on stage. Rev. Father’s face had reddened with dismay. I just wanted the ground to open up and swallow me up whole. This is how I felt now. My palms were clammy and as I raised them to scratch my forehead, it collided with beaded sweat on my brow.
Against this background of silence which acted as a shield, hurried movements were felt rather than heard. We all turned towards the piercing sound of a pained scream. The sound was as clear as the flow of our village stream after a heavy downpour. There was a time when I could even count the tiny fingerlings swimming in the very bottom of the lake. The face the scream belonged to came out from the mud baked kitchen. In our compound, the kitchen was separate from the main house. It was built with mud bricks and roofed with green thatch. The roof hanged up there in the kitchen like a black cloud. It bore cracks in places which housed lizards. My mother says the mud kitchen tells the compelling tale of our uncomplicated origins. This was where Asantewaa emerged from. She was still clad in her farm clothes. Asantewaa is my other mother. She and Mama were sisters because they had married brothers. Though she has no child of her own, she treated us all nicely. Mama says that is her own way of appeasing the gods to grant her a child she could call her own. Why are children so important to mothers? Asantewaa was always looking moody and sad. This may be because she had no child. If I had my own way, I would have switched mothers and go to her. She was way kinder than my mother. Sometimes in church when Father ask us to pray to Virgin Mary and the Saints, I pray silently for Mama Asantewaa. I only want the Virgin to give her just one child so that she will not forget that we too exist. We didn’t want her channeling all her delicious food to her brood of children. My prayer was yet to be answered. Sister Angelina said God answered prayers in turns. Mama says women who delay in having children will end up with no children at all. Then they will have no one to mourn them when they die. I want someone to mourn Asantewaa when she dies. She is a good woman. I pray the Virgin quickly answers all my prayers before time runs out for her. Turning my attention to Asantewaa now, I saw her holding one end of her faded cloth which had obviously seen better days. With it she wiped away the tears in her eyes. These were not tears from sorrow; they were from the sting of smoke from the hearth. A filthy tattered headband was tied around her disheveled head. She jerked the duku off her head, threw the wooden ladle in her hand away and readjusted her muddied cloth. She looked like a wounded lion whose cub had been wrenched from her arms. Asantewaa had a shrill piercing voice, like that of an Asafo band. She jumped up and down, stormed the ground with her bare dust-covered feet and rushed on Mama Asabea. The latter stood her ground, unfazed by Asantewaa’s crazed dance. It was like a meeting of two malevolent spirits. None of us blinked for fear of missing out any part of the drama. Time itself stood still.
When Asantewaa finally spoke, it was surprisingly in a calm controlled voice in spite of her aggressive mannerism. The words rolled off her tongue like the first cup of water one draws from the pot long before the birds start their chirping. “I thought women were supposed to be each other’s keeper. I thought they were to stick as close as bees. My fellow woman is my sister even if we belong to different far away clans…” In a voice that lashed out like a whip made from a cow tail Mama Asabea rudely interrupted, “…keep your stinking backward assumptions to yourself. Who has asked of your opinion anyway? Now listen co-wife, if you want to witness any form of peace in this house, learn to know your place. Take it as an advice from one sister to the other.” We all watched in anticipation. We were waiting for what Asantewaa would do next. Her actions surprised us all. She shook her head, slowly unwrapped her cloth like a man would unravel a precious stone and knelt down in the dust. Even Mama Asabea was shocked. She stood there, a giant iroko tree defying crashing winds, swaying gently on her ready to break cane legs and watched in wonder and amazement. Asantewaa’s shrill shriek cut right through the gathering dark clouds. It was as if her very soul was been wrenched from her body. I looked closely at her face. I wanted to see torrents of tears gushing from her eyes. There was none. Later that evening, over our evening meal, I heard my mother narrate the incident to Papa. “It was a lament meant for the gods; she began in the voice my math teacher uses before Monday morning mentals; hideous and calm. “It was a scream cloaked in years of oppressive silence. There was neither air nor life in the words; they sounded choked—devoid of breezy life. I felt her pain, my husband, I did feel what she felt. It cut to the very marrow of my bones. This was the wail of a woman whose world had come to an end. And it has, my Lord it has.” My mother paused as suddenly as she had begun. In the dim light of the kerosene lit lamp, I thought I saw what looked like a tear travel from her eyes to her bare heaving chest. I was surprised because Mama was not given to any display of emotions. I remember when my brother died. Father hid in the bedroom and cried silently at night. Mother just slept on the bed and stared fixedly at the ceiling. All day long she wore a stony expression on her face. She slithered around the house like the harmattan; dry and dusty. She carried on like that for days. She even missed out on her favorite dances held on moonlit nights. Sometimes she even refused to get out of bed. Papa continued with his nightly crying rituals. I was torn. I missed my brother. I was sad that I could not be sad the way everyone wanted. I could not wail and scream. Maybe because I could visit him in my head. There I could feel and see him. Both Mama and Papa snapped out of their state when I felt terribly sick. Mama refused Rev. Father’s healing incense. She instead opted for the horrible tasting concoctions of our Medicine Man. They had to force the medicine down my throat. Mama held my nose like she wanted to choke the very life out of me. I saw the fear trapped in her eyes. She was afraid I would die. The Medicine Man said Mama’s enemies were at work. They wanted her to taste the bitterness of barrenness. I always thought that the potion tasted far worse than that of sterility. This was a thought I dared not voice out. By the sheer will power of Mama and the dogged persistence of Papa, I was forced back to health.
This was why I was surprised Mama felt and expressed anything at all for Mama Asabea that night. Papa stopped chewing noisily on his food, swallowed the morsel in his mouth and gulped down water from the silver mug. He looked like a man lost in deep thought. His voice, when he spoke, was contemplative, “Whatever it is that is eating up Asantewaa completely baffles me. What is sinister about a man getting a second wife so he can secure his name in immortality. If Kwadwo her husband dies today, who will carry the light that will show the way to his ancestral hut? Must he remain lost in the Spirit World just because he agreed to please his woman here on this side? As Papa spoke, his brows furrowed in deep creases. It was clear this was a matter that touched him deeply. I was eagerly waiting for the last morsel and meat he usually leaves in his plate. Like one unwilling to speak up, Mama muttered in the coolest of voice, “What do we women know? Our heads are merely for decoration. This is why we project desire above prudence. Why else does a woman exist except to fulfill the desires of her Lord and master?” Papa snarled his consent and went back to his meal.
I tried to see my mother’s face through the gathering darkness. I was trying to see if perhaps she had vanished and her place taken over by another. She remained the same in the gathering dusk. I was more surprised at what she said than how she said it. Just last week I had to go meet her on the farm after school. I had to wait a while as my mother busied herself collecting cocoyam and cassava leaves. Then we had to branch to Mama Oforiwaa’s farm so we could all come home together. Everyone in our little village of Sekyere Krom knew the story of Mama Oforiwaa. The rumor mongers said she had eaten all the children in her womb. This is why she could not bear children for her husbands. She had been married for three consecutive times. All the men had returned her back to her family. She had become an attractive but unwanted piece of polished furniture. Now her latest husband had married a new wife whose skin shone like pebbles in the sand after a heavy downpour. They say in comparison, Mama Oforiwaa stood like a pale shadow blending into the background. Well, this is what I often hear people say. As the three of us journeyed home, I listened to the conversation between my mother and Mama Oforiwaa. The latter was the first to speak.
“My sister it is not easy living in the house of a man who does not even recognize your very presence.” Mama Oforiwaa’s voice was dripping with unshed tears. My heart went out to her. I wish there really was something I could do for her. She had been nothing but kind to me. She was always giving me one fruit or the other. Many times, she had even come to my rescue when my mother wanted to give me a good beating.
My mother continued from she where had left off in the same voice and tone, “Forget these men with over-bloated egos. They think we women are not capable of rationale thought. In the end, we will all see the anus the of the fowl when the wind blows.”
Mama Oforiwaa’s voice was still somber, “My sister why must we wait till the toad dies before we witness its true length? Why?”
This time there was fire in my mother’s voice; it shone bright and clear, “Patience, dear Patience”.
Recalling that conversation in the dark of my Papa’s hut sent a shiver down my spine. Perhaps my mother was planning something sinister. She just wanted to lead my father on so he would be caught unawares when she struck. This is why I did not breathe any word to a soul when I heard Mama Asabea and my mother talking in whispers behind our hut. I did not also open my mouth when I saw my mother pouring a whitish substance into Papa’s supper. I was even silent throughout Papa’s funeral. During the days after the funeral, I walked around like a man caught in a dream that consumed all his fantasies. Why then should I open my mouth now that Mama Asabea sneaks in every night to share my mother’s bed? With which voice will I recount the sound they make as they giggle together in bed, that sound that comes across in waves like the moaning of cats when they chase each other across our courtyard?
Grace Danquah is a writer living and working in Accra, Ghana. She is also a lecturer at the Department of English Education, University of Education, Winneba. Some of her works have appeared in online journals like the Mamba, PoetrySoup, ActiveMuse and Hakara, among others.