Once upon a time Mokeira talked about motherhood as though she had a right to it. She sat at the marketplace with other women and went on about how she hoped the children she bore would not be spoilt like other women’s children. She bragged about her family’s strong blood, and the good looks that were characteristic of her husband’s bloodline. Once upon a time she spoke of children without shame. She even complimented other women’s children without envy and bitterness tearing at her heart. Once upon a time, Mokeira could make love with her husband without hating her body so much she could barely feel it.
The thirty-five year old daughter of a priestess who in her lifetime bore nine sons and five daughters carried her childlessness like a cancer in her bones. She stooped under it, slumped over like a tired old woman as she walked around the compound, collecting small twigs with which to make a fire. Her hut was beginning to sag with neglect. It stood shame-faced to the right of the new stone house that her husband had recently built for himself and, as it was beginning to appear, for her co-wife, Gabrielle.
Mokeira could not bear to look at the stone house. She adamantly refused to go in there. When it was built, her husband, Misati Maina, said it belonged to all three of them, that each of them could walk in and out of it as they pleased. But after Gabby shed a few tears, Misati Maina would not take Mokeira in the matrimonial bed anymore. When it was her turn to have him, he came into her hut for a brief session and went back to sleep in the warm bed where Gabby lay in transparent lingerie. Misati Maina explained that his younger wife would not allow him to have another woman in the matrimonial bed. He repeated this every time, guilty for the absurdity of it, and every time, Mokeira wanted to turn away from him and deny him herself. But the intense hatred she felt for her co-wife made her give herself up to him with fierce abandon, praying harder and harder each time for a son.
She worked up a fire and put an old pot filled with dried maize and beans on top of it. When Misati Maina came home with his two friends from the Town Hall, Mokeira brought them each a plate of boiled maize and beans. The visitors, who were sitting on low stools just outside Mokeira's hut, took their plates on their laps and fell to the business of eating. But Misati Maina sat there looking at his plate. Mokeira avoided his eyes.
“What is wrong with this woman?” he said, addressing the men. “What in the name of heaven could be wrong with this woman?”
“Ah, Misati Maina,” one of the men said, “This food is nothing but delicious. Don't pick on our poor wife for nothing.” But even as he said it, the man winced as his teeth came into contact with a piece of stone.
“Why didn't you at least stew this food?” Misati Maina asked her, “Didn't you have even the slightest sense to pick the bad beans and pebbles out before cooking it? I haven't yet put a grain in my mouth but I can already taste the horror of it.”
Mokeira kept her eyes on the red soil. She felt a kind of triumph listening to her husband scold her and she had to work hard to keep from grinning. Misati Maina went on to complain about her bad behavior and how he would be a dead man by now if he had not married Gabby, his second wife.
“There is simply no way to compare the two; one is sweet and humble, the other haughty and ill-mannered, one is intelligent like a normal person, the other stupid as the stones she prays to.”
When Mokeira left her father's house to ‘cook’ for Misati Maina, she was a believer in the old ways of the tribe. While she held no strong opinions against Christianity, the tribal faith was for her the only way she truly knew, and therefore the only way she was willing to follow. Her mother had been the fierce priestess of the oracle of fertility for many years and all of her nine sons and five daughters had lived to adulthood. But because of the sweet talk and gifts of those that came preaching the new faith, the people had lost faith in the oracle. That, Mokeira was convinced, was the reason the tribe was now shunned by the gods. The oracle retreated into the forest and did not come out anymore when the barren woman sought her, or when the desperate man burned a rich sacrifice at her doorstep.
“Please don’t insult my faith.” Mokeira whispered. Misati Maina laughed.
Mokeira stayed true to the oracle. She held close to her chest the old faith of her people, believing even when her lamentations went unheeded that her prayers were not in vain. Her womb had stayed persistently aloof the nineteen years she’d been married to Misati Maina. Their first nights together had been filled with hunger and urgency, but as the years went by, intercourse became for them a chore. Misati Maina had in the early years prayed with her for a child. He’d spoken gently to the oracle of fertility. But when humility had failed to work, he’d resorted to cursing and insulting both the oracle and his wife.
“I wasn't stupid when you married me,” Mokeira said.
“You see what I'm talking about?” Misati Maina said to the men, “Foul-mouthed like her mother,”
Mokeira went back to her hut. She knew she was going to get a sound beating as soon as the men left. But she no longer feared physical pain. She only pretended to cry and beg for mercy when her husband beat her because she knew it was expected of her. But her body was dead to the pain from his blows. All the pain she felt came from within.
After her husband dutifully beat her and she dutifully cried and begged for mercy that night, he went into the stone house where Gabby and her children sat watching television and swore never to step into her hut again until she learned civilized manners like a normal human being. Gabby made a half-hearted attempt to protest on her co-wife’s behalf, but when they shut the door behind them, Mokeira could hear them laughing and teasing each other like adolescents.
Mokeira went into the forest every evening. The forest was dense and she walked in darkness most of the way. She was not afraid. Such was her belief in the oracle that she was completely assured of her protection.
Mokeira knelt by the mouth of the cave that once belonged to the oracle and raised her voice in prayer. For years now, the cave had been neglected. Shrubs grew carelessly at its mouth and spread in toward the shrine at the heart of the cave. Mokeira longed to go in and face the oracle. But she knew that she dared not. She needed a priestess to do that for her, or she would be blinded and possibly killed by the sight of this Supreme Being. Had her own mother lived, she might have been able to go in and intervene for her. But the clan no longer had any priestesses.
Mokeira wept to the oracle. She brought sacrifices and laid them at the dark opening of the cave. But her cries were met only with silence, and the oracle never came out to receive her sacrifices. She therefore dragged herself back home in the darkness, convincing herself that it was not over yet, that she would have better luck when the oracle was ready for her.
One particularly cold morning, Gabby showed up at Mokeira's door with her four children and some snack boxes.
“Has the day dawned well on you, my sister?” Gabby greeted her the traditional way, bowing slightly in acceptance of the older woman's seniority to her, both in age and in status in the institution of their marriage to Misati Maina.
Mokeira knew that underneath the younger woman's polite talk was spite and mockery. Whatever shows of politeness they both had to put on, each knew that given the right circumstances and opportunity, they were both capable of seriously harming the other.
“What can I offer you, my sister?” Mokeira said after mumbling a reply to the other woman's greeting.
“Our husband wishes for you to take care of the children while we are away.”
Mokeira looked at the children. Gabriel, the oldest, was eight years old. He was tall for his age, with long athletic legs and neat hair that reeked of too much combing and oiling. It was almost as though his mother wished to make him appear like a girl. His sharp eyes looked straight into Mokeira's. She thought how shameless he must be to stare at his elders like that. The two middle girls, one a year older than the other, had large innocent eyes and perpetual smiles that Mokeira found rather annoying. They were dark-skinned with long straightened hair that was held back with bright colored bands in neat ponytails.
“I have a lot of work to do,” Mokeira said and started to walk back into her hut.
“But Gabriel's father….”
“Are your ears blocked?” Mokeira retorted. The younger woman made a disgruntled sound and went back into the stone house.
Mokeira got a sound beating from Misati Maina soon afterwards. The children reluctantly carried their snack boxes into her house. Misati Maina threw the house keys at her and instructed her to open the door only when she needed to get a change of clothes for the children and when it was time to put them to bed. She was under no circumstances to sleep in the stone house, least of all in the master bedroom.
That evening, the children sat around the fire as Mokeira prepared their meal. She mumbled to herself as she stirred the food. An old song formed in her mouth, but she could not get it out without tears burning in her eyes and her nose beginning to run. Suddenly she let out a loud cry, threw the cooking stick across the room and repeatedly slapped her right thigh. The children, who were entertaining themselves with stories they’d been told at school, were startled into silence. They stared at her, amazed. She stared back at them for a moment, then her rage calmed and she dropped her gaze back to the boiling pot. Gabriel stood up slowly and fetched the cooking stick for her. She took it without looking at him and dipped it back in the pot.
“Why do you and your sisters go to school Gabriel?” she asked the boy, not taking her eyes off the fire.
The young boy considered the question carefully for a few seconds, then he said, “To be clever, Mama.” Gabby's children called her Mama, and their own mother, Mother.
“Do you think you’re clever now?” Mokeira asked, her voice calm.
“Maybe not very much, Mama. But I will be when I finish school.”
Mokeira shook her head. “You are not clever, boy.” She said. “You are not clever at all.”
“How so, Mama?” the boy asked.
Mokeira did not answer. She went about her tasks expertly, serving the hot bean stew and Ugali for the older children and feeding the little one from her bottle. When the children were fed, she let them play on her floor until they started to doze off. Then she escorted them to the stone house to sleep in their comfortable wooden beds with thick mattresses. On her way out of the boy's room, she turned sharply and asked, “Why did your mother name you Gabriel, boy?”
“She says it’s the name of an angel.” The boy said with pride.
“No,” Mokeira shook her head, “no, boy. She named you after herself. And that’s taboo because male children are not supposed to take the names of their mothers.”
“But my mother's name is Gabby.”
“It is Gabriel. Ask her to tell you the truth.” She spoke quietly, as though what she was saying was very important. She did not know why she was talking to the boy at all.
“Her full name is Gabrielle, with double `l' and an `e' at the end.”
“Same difference. I tell you, boy, she named you after herself.” Mokeira said. “What does she call herself Gabby for anyway? Doesn't she have a proper tribal name like everyone else? Or is she an English woman now that she and your father have become Christians?” Mokeira shot her mouth at the little boy as though he were her own age. The boy stared at her, totally amazed. She heaved, a small whistling sound coming out of her throat, and walked quickly back to her own hut.
The tin lamp was beginning to flicker out for lack of paraffin. She thought of going into the stone house to get some of Gabby's paraffin, but quickly dismissed the idea. She would sooner die than take anything that belonged to her co-wife. Despite the lack of sufficient food in her house, she would not take anything out of Gabby's refrigerator, even just to feed the children. She fed them from her own granary. She wanted the other woman to know that she was not suffering, even though their husband had built a stone house with electricity for her while Mokeira remained in the same mud hut that he’d married her into. He had been a poor man then. Her father had, out of the kindness of his heart, felt sorry for him and allowed him to take her with only a small fraction of the required dowry. But as soon as he’d gotten a job at the Town Hall, he’d decided to marry a new wife that he felt befitted his new status.
When the light from the tin lamp finally went out, she rose from the low stool next to the fire and went out into the darkness. It was freezing cold, but she did not seem to notice as she made her way down the path that led to the forest. Goose bumps formed on her skin. She held her lesso a little above the knees to keep it out of the way since she was walking fast. Her blouse hung loosely about her and having nothing underneath to support her fallen breasts, they flapped aimlessly, making little slapping sounds as they came into contact with her body.
The cave's mouth stood open in the middle of the forest. She cleared a spot among the shrubs by smoothing them to the ground and knelt down. The shrubs were damp and the ground wet. She folded the lesso up above her knees and started mumbling her prayers.
O great oracle, giver of new life, maker of all mortals
O great oracle that my own mother served from her maidenhood to the day of her death
See o great oracle, the years of my youth have deserted me
See, o giver of children, see my womb shames me
What did I ever do to you? Why let my heart ache so bad? Why this bitter longing for something you refuse to give me?
Who did I kill that I should be cursed with this shame?
She went on mumbling for hours, at first softly, then raising her voice pitch by pitch until it became one long continuous scream. Soon Mokeira exhausted herself and fell into disturbed sleep on the shrubs.
The feel of something warm and breezy on her neck startled her out of her sleep. She jumped with a little scream and was a good distance away before she turned to see what it was that had awakened her. The darkness was still intense, but it did not take long for her eyes to become accustomed to it. At the spot where she’d been sleeping, the figure of a man was struggling to rise to its feet. Mokeira wanted to turn around and keep running, but her fear soon turned to momentary annoyance when she saw it was Ndege, the witchdoctor who’d been hanging around her village for days. He was a short and stocky man, with long dreadlocked hair, which was quite strange, for the men of their tribe did not grow their hair long, let alone lock it. Around his waist was a small loincloth that covered only the front part of his nakedness, leaving his buttocks in full view. He had many rows of beads around his neck and they made small jingling noises as he took careful steps towards her.
“Why aren’t wearing any clothes?”
“Look not at my nakedness. I’m here to help you.”
“Did you follow me here?”
“I go where the spirit leads me.”
Mokeira did not move. Far from being afraid, she felt a kind of excitement build up in her. The man stood close to her for a long time without speaking. She could feel the warmth of his body.
“I told you I don’t believe in your kind of witchcraft.”
“But you believe in the oracle. And I am her messenger,” the man said. His breath was stale. She took a step back.
“Why would she choose you? I am the daughter of her priestess. Why would she choose you and not me?” Mokeira whispered.
“I don’t know. Maybe you’re too desperate to hear her.”
Ndege stepped closer. Mokeira’s heart pounded. Her husband had not been in her bed in a long time and the smell of a man so close shattered her defenses.
“I just want to be a mother,” she whispered.
“I know,” the man said. He took her hand and led her back to the spot where their bodies had flattened the shrubs. He made her get down on her knees and began mumbling in a strange tongue while dancing around her. The dance was slow at first, made in careful little steps, but as he continued to mumble and pray, his voice rose and he began to leap and throw his body about like one possessed with strange power. As the man shouted in passionate prayer, Mokeira began to cry. She resumed her lamentations to the oracle, begging, crying, and cursing. The louder she screamed, the more hysterical the man's dancing became. Suddenly, the man threw himself hard on the ground and lay there shaking. Mokeira stopped screaming and stood staring at him.
When he finally calmed down, the man opened his eyes as though he’d been to a different world and was just now returning.
“She spoke to me,” he said.
Mokeira burst into tears. She put both her arms on her head and wept as she paced about the mouth of the cave. “You heard me! Oo mother of all mothers, you heard me!” She got hold of Ndege by the shoulders and shook him.
“What did she say?” she hissed. “Tell me what the oracle said.”
“She wants a sacrifice,”
The witchdoctor explained that her sacrifices of chicken and pumpkin had been not only wrong, but also deeply upsetting for the oracle. Mokeira swore she would cut off her arm and give it to the oracle if that is what it would take for her to conceive. But the oracle did not want her arm. She wanted a boy. She wanted Mokeira to send a young, uncircumcised boy to the shrine deep in the cave. Only then would her prayers be heard.
“I don’t have a boy. Where am I going to get a boy?”
“What about the child you left sleeping in your co-wife’s house?”
Gabriel was due to be circumcised in a few months. Mokeira stared at Ndege for a moment. Seeing that he was serious, she pondered the idea. It would be easy to send Gabriel since he was presently in her care. That went against her policy of not touching anything that belonged to her co-wife, but Gabby had stolen her husband. She could steal her son for the night.
“I shall do it,” she said and started up the path that led out of the forest.
She stood for a long time in front of the stone house when she got back to the compound. The house was like a god standing tall beside her little, decaying hut. Its windows and doors were made of glass and the roof of expensive tiles. Mokeira looked at the brown walls, the potted plants at the front porch and the luxury loveseat. Tears formed somewhere at the back of her eyes. She remembered the days of her courtship with Misati Maina. She’d been sixteen when he first expressed his interest in her. She’d made him work for her, shunning him when he followed her from the river all the way to the gate of her father's compound. The day the villagers had finally gathered at her father's compound to witness her being handed over to him, she’d dutifully cried, pretending, like she was supposed to, that she did not want to leave her father’s compound. But the truth was, she wanted nothing more than to jump up and down for joy at winning the heart of such a good-looking man.
The years had passed. The lack of a child had come between them. As she stared at Misati Maina’s stone house now, she knew that she had to do whatever it took to save herself from the painful longing that killed her soul a little every time she saw another woman’s child.
Gabriel woke with a start. He sat up in his bed and looked at Mokeira, who was standing by his bed, her bloodshot eyes fixated on him.
“Mama?” he said.
“We have to go now,” she said, reaching out to pull him out of bed.
“To save your soul.” She and the prophet had thought up a story that would frighten the boy enough to make him come with her without fussing too much. “Your mother has brought a curse on you because of her wickedness. I must take you to the oracle so that your soul may be saved from doom.”
She did not give him a chance to argue. He started to say something more than once but each time, she shushed him up and told him the spirits were listening to everything he said and any hesitation would cause him unspeakable punishment. She helped him dress up warmly and sneaked him out of the house. The girls were deeply asleep in the next room.
“Who is the oracle?” Gabriel asked as they made their way out of the compound.
Mokeira did not answer. Instead she took his hand and squeezed it gently, holding on to it as they went into the forest. Gabriel kept darting his eyes about, jumping at the slightest sound and dragging behind as though ready to turn back and run should anything appear out of the darkness.
“You must not fear.” She scolded him. “You are a man now and you must not tremble like that or the oracle will be upset.”
Ndege was waiting for them under a tree. He jumped up suddenly when they approached the spot, scaring the little boy so much he reeled back and burst into tears. Mokeira took him into her arms and soothed him as the witchdoctor laughed. Just as abruptly as he’d jumped up, Ndege cut out the laughter and grabbed the boy’s face.
“Do you know why you are here, young man?” He asked.
“Yes,” Gabriel sniffed.
“Good. Saves me a lot of trouble. Now, you must go into that cave,” he pointed out the dark hole that seemed to lead to a place one never reached. His voice invited no questions. “Keep going deeper and deeper as you hear me sing. You must not come out until I call for you. Do you understand?”
Gabriel nodded. When he started whimpering again, Mokeira held him close to her chest, rocking him and assuring him that he would be perfectly safe, that she would be waiting for him at the entrance when he came out.
“He will come back out soon, won’t he?” Mokeira turned to ask Ndege.
“Of course,” he said.
“You hear boy, you go in there and hear what the oracle says to you, ok?”
“But I didn’t do anything wrong!” The boy cried.
“No you didn’t.” Mokeira whispered. “But your mother did. She took away my husband and caused me to be barren.”
“I don’t want to go in there.”
“Do you want your poor Mama Mokeira to be unhappy forever?”
“Then go in there and hear what the oracle says.”
Gabriel sniffed. Mokeira rocked him some more. For that brief moment, he was her son. It did not matter that Gabby’s blood ran in his veins. For that moment, he was as much her son as if he had come into the world through her own private parts.
Finally, the boy stopped crying. He closed his eyes for a second, took a deep breath and walked quickly, almost running, into the mouth of the cave.
As soon as Gabriel was out of sight, the witchdoctor started singing. He sang in a strange tongue, occasionally breaking into lengthy prayers in Mokeira’s mother tongue. She joined in, praying, crying and lamenting. She prayed that the oracle might look at her rival's son and take pity on her. She prayed for a son as healthy and as smart as Gabriel, a son that learned the new ways without forgetting the power of his own people's gods.
O oracle, my breasts have hungered to suckle a child since they sprouted
O take pity on me and give me a son
A daughter even, o oracle, if it is your will
The hysteria of their prayers rose. Ndege got hold of Mokeira and started praying and singing over her. He cursed the evil spirits that were blocking her womb. Mokeira soon dropped to the ground and started rolling about. She was a different person, completely separate from herself. She felt Ndege come on top of her as though in a different life. She did not resist. It felt like the most natural thing, like what she needed to be a woman again. The cries stuck in her throat as he came into her. He never stopped praying and cursing the evil spirits in her. When he was finished, she closed her eyes and lay limp like a corpse. He cuddled her and whispered in her ears until she fell asleep on the grass.
He was gone when she awoke. She was not sure she completely remembered, or understood, what had taken place. Streaks of sunlight were beginning to penetrate the top of the trees, lighting up the shrubs around her. She felt faint. Considering it had been pitch dark when she came into the forest, she thought she must have been asleep a long time. Remembering the witchdoctor, the prayers and the singing, she wondered if she had not dreamed it. Raising her head to look to her left, she saw a string of beads. They’d been around Ndege's neck.
She jumped to her feet when she remembered Gabriel. She did not recall him coming out of the cave like Ndege had promised. He was supposed to have come back out by now. Mokeira ran around looking for Gabriel. She looked all around the forest, in the bushes, behind trees, everywhere she could imagine. She even peeped into the cave but did not have the courage to go in. The more she searched for the boy, the more her fear rose. She called out his name, begging him to stop teasing her and come out of his hiding. The forest remained as quiet as though someone had died there.
Panic-stricken, Mokeira stood at the mouth of the cave shouting out for the boy. And when after calling for what seemed like hours the boy had not come out, she gave up her fear of the oracle and rushed into the cave.
The rocks beneath her feet were cold. She pushed her way forward, against the darkness, until she got to the place where the oracle resided. She had never in her life stood before the oracle, but she knew that this place must be her dwelling place. Mokeira’s eyes soon became accustomed to the dark. She saw a large boulder shaped in a rough rectangle against the wall. Above it were many small carvings of animals and humans with bizarre features. Protruding out of the wall just behind the raised surface was a big carving that she decided must be of the oracle. It was beginning to chip off. In fact, the whole of her nose had fallen off and her mouth had become one large hole that seemed to go on and on into the wall. Gabriel was nowhere in sight.
Mokeira stayed in the forest looking for Gabriel until the sun set. When it became clear she could not continue the search on her own, she made her way home, praying that the boy would somehow be there when she arrived.
Misati Maina and Gabby were standing in the middle of the compound, surrounded by about a dozen villagers. One of them saw Mokeira coming up the path, said something to the rest, and they all turned to look at her. Gabby ran up to her and grabbed her by the shoulders.
“Where is my son?” she cried. “Where is my Gabriel?”
Mokeira did not answer. She gently took Gabby's hands off of her and walked quietly into her hut. Gabby's cries sounded distant to her, as though they were coming from a different homestead. Mokeira sat at a dark corner in her hut, thinking nothing, feeling nothing. After a short while, Misati Maina burst into the hut and grabbed her off the floor.
“Are you so stupid now that you leave the children alone and go wandering into the forest like a lunatic?”
“Leave me be, Misati Maina.” She said.
“Leave you be?” Misati Maina said. “Do you hear yourself, or do the words just burst out of your mouth the way air bursts out of your anus?”
Mokeira buried her head in the palms of her hand and said nothing.
“Where is Gabriel?” Masati Maina asked.
Mokeira was silent.
“We left that boy in your care,” he said, “Where is he?”
“I don’t know, Misati Maina,” Mokeira said, raising her head to look into his eyes. “I have been out looking for him.”
“What do you mean you don’t know where he is? Did he run away? Did you upset him?”
“I don’t know Misati Maina. Please leave me be. “
People came out to help in the search for Gabriel. They searched all the villages in the clan, all the forests and all the caves. He was never found. Mokeira wanted to tell them about the witchdoctor, but she knew they would never understand. The events of that night would have to be a secret she took with her to her grave.
Mokeira kept going into the forest every night. The boy, Gabriel, became a ghost that lived in her head. She saw him when she was awake, just as vividly as she saw him in her dreams. He sought answers from her. She did not have any answers.
Gradually Mokeira began to feel as though something was not right with her. Her body ached. She no longer had the strength, or the desire, to get out of bed in the morning. Her husband barely spoke to her. Gabby burst into tears every time she saw her. Mokeira stayed in her hut all day and thought about Gabriel. At night she went into the forest and thought about him some more. She did not notice that her period had not come for months, or that her tummy was beginning to protrude.
When Mokeira’s baby was born, she named him Gabriel. That was more than Gabby, frail from her grief, could take. She packed her daughters’ clothes and announced that she was going back to her father’s house. Mokeira stood at her door and watched as Misati Maina begged Gabby not to go. She felt sad to see her co-wife leave. Never before had she thought she would feel anything but pure joy if such a thing ever happened. But all she felt now was grief, and sadness. If she could, she would have named her son after one of the great people in her husband’s family, or even her own family. That, however, had ceased to be a choice the moment Gabby’s Gabriel went into the cave so Mokeira could conceive her own Gabriel.