I wonder a lot about you. Like what your name would have been if you stayed, at least a week or two until your naming ceremony was done.
I once asked where dead babies go. Someone said they become angels because they have not lived long enough to sin. I wonder if you and Baby Number One are sibling angels watching over us. If sometimes, when our home is falling apart, you put in a word for us with God. I imagine both of you, flying on either side of the Almighty, cajoling him to help us. Do you sometimes look down at us when we are fighting and thank God you are not part of it? Of the screaming, the bad words thrown back and forth, and things breaking against the wall? Do you get envious of our family time? When we gather to tell stories and sing, to make jokes and laugh until some of us are rolling on the floor, literally? Are you there with us?
There was a time in high school when I went for my teacher’s weddings in Tiko. Daddy had traveled to Congo that same day and I had begged and begged Mummy for permission to go. She was skeptical because letting me travel to another town the same day Daddy left the country would seem like subtly condoning recalcitrance. Why had I not asked Daddy before he traveled?
The wedding started late. Before the reception, everywhere was as black as a television screen turned off. The kind of eerie darkness that chased people off the street, that forced drivers to go on their highest speed, either in a hurry to get home, or just for the adrenaline, banking on the luxury the empty roads had afforded them. Every activity in town had halted, and the town itself was asleep. My phone’s battery had died, and so had my friends’. We found two motorbikes and asked the riders to take us to Limbe, slowly. On our way back to Limbe, we saw two cars standing twisted on the road. There had been an accident earlier. There was hardly anyone at the scene.
At the house, everyone was gathered around Mummy. There was a tray of roast fish and plantains in front of her, untouched. She was sitting on the carpet, legs spread wide dramatically like those of hired mourners at funerals. She was crying. Uncle Fabian had brought the news: There was an accident along the Tiko-Mutengene road. From the way the accident was described, he was not sure anyone survived it.
Where was everyone? Newton asked if I was back. Melvin tried to call. Mummy tried to call. After trying and trying to no avail, they called the principal, Reverend Sister Mary, who said we left earlier. Mummy fell on the ground and started to cry. Uncle Fabian, incapable of not making a joke of everything, kept saying he was not sure anyone in that accident survived.
But when we got home, me and my two best friends, Chris and Maggie, I saw relief in Mummy’s wet face. I had expected her to yell. Ordinarily, she would have shouted and told me I would not leave the house until the holidays were over. But she had been too scared I had died, too scared that when she saw me, all she could do was to be grateful.
That day, everyone kept talking to me at the same time, their voices together sounded like a tortured choir; and then like bitter painkillers; for it was in their little angry comments that I could feel the relief. In the future, we would laugh over this, over Uncle Fabian’s hilarious insensitivity, as if while saying everyone in that accident was dead, he was certain that somehow I was somewhere safe.
I wonder if this was how Mummy mourned you. I wonder if she spread her legs and carried her hands on her head and refused to eat as their neighbors at the camp gathered around her to console her. I wonder if Uncle Fabian was there to make insensitive jokes. I don’t know if Mummy ever got her relief with you. If, in the future, anyone would laugh over this. For now, no one has.
She is sitting in that same position as she tells me the story of how she lost you—legs spread wide, a mug of tea in front of her. But the tea is not untouched; she takes a sip after every sentence like it was a full stop. People have perpetual cravings for different things; Mummy has a perpetual craving for tea. Melvin, Joy, and I have inside jokes about Mummy’s love for tea. As she talks, I am searching her face, looking in the maps of her contours for signs of sadness.
Joy asks me why I am asking all these questions. I wonder if she doesn’t want to know about you too. I think she does, I think she is worried too that there is a comb of sadness lodged in Mummy that should be left buried. That these questions were like peeling open dried wounds, one phrase at a time.
But Mummy does not seem to mind. She tells me, “See this interview you are interviewing me like this, you did the exact same thing when you were just two.” I try to remember interviewing her at two. We laugh and Joy calls me Journalist.
I am two and Mummy has just lost you. Daddy tries to take her mind off and they go to the church bazaar. Her friends are there; kids in colorful Sunday clothes. There are raffle ticket draws and games everywhere. There is a hut where palm wine is sold, canopies that serve as temporary eateries, and a raffia castle where people go to pay and see the princess. It is all done to raise money for the church.
Mummy’s friends ask her to play a game and she says no; she is never lucky with these things anyway. People are tossing rings to capture bottles of drinks they would own. Some are spinning boards that look like giant clocks. Men and women are eating and drinking, children are moving from one game to another, one hut to another. There is a shout here because someone just won; a roar there because someone just lost.
Her friends insist that Mummy has to play. When she cannot say no anymore, she finally succumbs and spins the clock-like board, she wins a teddy bear. There is a shout. It is her first time winning something at a church bazaar. Her friends are shouting like it is supposed to mean something.
When she comes home, she is holding Daddy with one hand and carrying the teddy bear in the other. I run to her and hug her. She carries me. I ask her questions: Where is she coming from? What did she bring for me? Is this (pointing at the teddy bear) the baby she had forgotten in the hospital?
She looks at me, smiles resignedly and says, “Yes.”
I take it from her. I carry it like it was you, pat it the way I see mothers do. She doesn’t take it from me. I carry it to her room still patting its back. She and Daddy are watching me. In the room, I place the teddy bear gingerly in the baby’s cot at the corner. The baby’s cot that has been standing cold and useless since Mummy got back from the hospital. The one that had been standing there, waiting for you.
Howard Meh-Buh is a PhD student of Microbiology at UB Cameroon. His works have been published on Aerodrome, The Africa Report, Bakwa Magazine, The Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper, and Catapult; As well as anthologies such as Selves, Love Stories from Africa, and forthcoming in others. He was a participant of the Literary Exchange Program for creative nonfiction between Cameroon and Nigeria, organized by Bakwa magazine, Saraba magazine, Goethe Institutes Nigeria and Cameroon. He's a staff writer for Bakwa Magazine, and was on the Miles Morland scolarship shortlist 2018 for his novel in progress.