The mother murmured a lullaby while cradling the baby to her breast.
On the bank of the Mocumbi River, her thoughts was in a faraway place—a place where regular people sat and weave quilts for babies who had been abandoned on mercy’s doorsteps.
A breeze blew across her face, brushing the trees. It was as if it were raining lightly, and it gave her a sense of calm. It pierced her spirit with the same ferocity as the sun. The baby was giggling and kicking its small feet. Regrettably, she patted the baby’s head.
The baby puked after pumping its two fists in the air. She rose up and cleaned the filth from the baby’s mouth with the end of her skirt, then kneeled at the water’s edge and washed her hands before wiping the baby’s face with her left hand.
The water was completely silent. “Still water runs deep,” she thought, recalling an old adage. The sun’s rays skimmed the top of the river, turning it a brilliant green color due to the abundance of algae and the overcrowding of fallen leaves. It was a quiet, deep river.
She used to swim out in the middle of the river and dive for crayfish buried beneath river stones when she was a kid. She had always thought of herself as a fish. Her mother used to joke that she’d come home one of those days with mermaid scales all over her body:
“Be careful down the river.”
“Don’t worry, I am a fish.”
“Well, I know many fish that drown.”
“Mama, fish can’t drown. “
“No! Only people could drown. “
“All right, we’ll see.”
She used to leave home with a tiny bottle of coconut oil to put on her skin after swimming. It was to hide the fissures on her skin caused by spending so much time in the water. Her mother wouldn’t have to nag her about the scales on her body if she did it this way, she reasoned.
Dragonflies dipped their tails and intertwined themselves in aerial copulation at midday when the sun converted water vapors into rainbows. Multicolored butterflies swam to the top with their mouths wide open, spawning babies, while big-headed tilapias swam to the top with their mouths wide open, looking like Jesus walking on water.
The mahogany trees stood proudly protecting the gate of a fabled palace, like gentle giants. Their oily-green leaves, strewn with raindrops, dance slowly as the breeze touches them silently. The birds, relieved to have found a safe haven, disregarded the mother and child. They created their nests while singing love songs.
Her complexion was the color of charred coffee beans, her hair in long platted braids, and her face like chiseled stone, her eyes as wide as a full moon at midnight. She was dressed in a long green gown with yellow motifs resembling yachts sailing during a storm.
She used to tie the dress over her legs and wear it as a pantaloon. This caused her to move awkwardly, as if she were an elderly lioness abandoned in the jungle.
She watched the birds pursue each other from limb to limb as she stared up into the lofty woods. She would lift the infant and point up at the birds in the trees on occasion. The baby would stare blankly, her eyes captivated, then abruptly break out laughing. Her face, lips, eyes, nose, and skin color were all present in the newborn.
As she walked down the village street minding her own thing, others would say to her:
“I’m sure you spit that baby out.””
“That baby is a carbon copy of you, gal.
“You’d best look after that baby!”
“Keep in mind what they say!”
When such remarks were made to her, she did not respond. She has no reason to. Every mother’s child reflects her own mother. At least, that’s how every mother sees it. Her mother, on the other hand, claimed that was the reason for her misfortune. Why? Because, as the proverb goes, when a daughter looks like her mother, life will be a bumpy ride, whereas when a daughter looks like her father, it would be smooth sailing.
Unfortunately, her father’s visage was a fictitious one in her situation. She’d never seen this man before. During their misunderstanding chats about a man, they both disliked, he was words to her, a thorn in her mother’s heart, and a fixer in her mother’s angry voice.
Her arms twisted around the baby. It was irritated and hungry, but she was not going to feed it right now. It was not required. The big moment was approaching. She, too, was suffering from hunger. It was a distinct type of hunger. The child’s fate was in her hands. It was time to change her life for the better.
“What has been done cannot be reversed,” she told herself. The river’s silence, in her mind, holds the answer to her life’s burden. The silence had taken on a soothing quality. It immersed itself in a world populated solely by spirits, spirits of peace and love. This was her realization.
“This is the way of life—one unto you,” said an indifferent world.
What kind of existence was this? Her life changed the day she realized she wasn’t the fertile soil in this prolific landscape of green crystalline rivers running through properties that nourished, destroyed, and rearranged the circumstances of daily living.
Her daily realities were the same as her mother’s: the same face toiling to extract sustenance from the blighted earth; the routine of simply eating the same kinds of foods; and the humiliation of wearing the same kinds of hand-me-downs. She had never complained because there had been nothing to complain about. It was the only life she had ever known.
Her thoughts were now elsewhere. It was between the appearance of her guilt and the day she realized she no longer believed in the things she once accepted—where there is nothing to lose, nothing to fear. Blood cannot be extracted from stone. There is hope as long as there is life.
She wanted to find a way to tell the child, “Mama will look after you.” Mama will always be there for you. “Believe me!” That much she owed the child.
What she had believed no longer served a purpose. It was no longer anyone’s concern. When her innocence was taken, no one was present. What was the significance of this innocence? It was a straightforward tale.
Her grandmother had a book that her father had given to her. He was an unusual man, she said, and all he talked about was African topics. She inquired about the location of this book one day. Her grandmother claimed it was in her mother’s house, under the bed in an old box.
She went under the bed one day while her mother was at the market. She looked and looked and looked until she found a thick, brown-covered book in a box tied with black shoelaces.
The book’s pages were brown and delicate. The pages were adorned with sketches. She saw men on elephants flying through the sky with a ball of fire behind them on the pages. They were reaching for the stars, while lions with wings flew towards the blinding sun. She was enthralled. She grabbed the book and walked down to the river to her favorite swimming hole, where an old mahogany tree stood proudly.
She sat on its enormous, exposed roots. She opened the book and started scanning it. She was scanning when she came across a story that piqued her interest. She was enthralled as she read it. It wasn’t a particularly long story. It transformed her spirit and gave her a sense of redemption. It was a tale she’d never forget. The story was about a beautiful girl who transformed into a flower. Yes. It was unusual for her. How does one become a flower? This piqued her interest.
The story begins as follows:
Once upon a time, the people of Africa believed that the sun was God. Ra was the name of the sun. Ra rode across the sky in an albino lion-drawn chariot. A beautiful girl named Makeda fell in love with Ra because he was brave and handsome. She was so in love with Ra that all she did every day was watch him drive across the sky. Makeda sat on the ground all day, staring at the sun. She never looked anywhere else. She didn’t move an inch. When night fell, she remained where she was, waiting for the sun to rise. Makeda did not eat for twenty-one days and nights. She only drank her tears and the dew from the trees that surrounded her. Her body took root in the soil. It grew into a flower stem. Her face transformed into a flower that slowly turned on its stem, still watching the sun move across the sky. As a result, the flower was given the name “sunflower.” And, true to its name, the lovely, sweet-smelling sunflower blossom always faces the sun.
Another lullaby was hummed by the mother. Her head continued to bob up and down. She occasionally moves it sideways and back and forth. Her mind had already been made up. The baby would now be safe. There was no longer any sadness. There were no birds singing, only the river’s silence and a gentle breeze blowing through the trees.
A large gush of leaves would occasionally fall much like confetti being thrown down from tall buildings in honor of a homecoming Queen. The sun has retired for the evening. The infant squeaked. The mother rose and walked into the still river. She stood up, clutching the baby to her breast.
“It’s time, Makeda,” she told the baby.
As the sky opened up, lightning flashed, thunder rolled, and heavy rain fell, she lowered herself into the river. She raised her eyes to the sky one last time before disappearing beneath the silent-dark-green water as a bright rainbow appeared. It hovered over the river like a dragonfly.
*Winston Nugent grew up on St. Croix. He has been honored by the International Society of Poets. Blue Rain, Negus, On Our Island, and Walking in the Footsteps of My Ancestors are among his poetry chapbooks. The following short stories have been published by the University of the Virgin Islands (Caribbean Writers): Two Birds with One Stone, Many Rivers to Cross, and Still Water Runs Deep. He received the Caribbean Writers’ Marguerite Cobb McKay Prize and the Daily News Prize for his story The Rim.
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