Seeds of Plenty, страница 1
SEEDS OF PLENTY
© 2013 Jennifer Juo
Jennifer Juo has asserted her rights in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
First published in eBook format in 2013
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All names, characters, places, organisations, businesses and events are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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For my father
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
On the night Sylvia went to the hospital, the baobab blossoms were in full bloom. These flowers that open at dusk and die by dawn were said to be spirits.
Sylvia followed the Nigerian policeman through the crowded hospital. The hallway was a living obstacle course, and she had to concentrate on every step. Patients paced up and down, their rubber slippers slapping the tile impatiently. Bare-shouldered women in batik wrappers lay sleeping on the terrazzo tile floor. A gloveless man shoved used bandages and syringes into loose, plastic bags. She knew they would end up in the mound of burning garbage and ash that lined the road. A hospital in this state, how could her husband survive? She tried to focus on the dueling paint on the walls, light green above and forest below, but the color could not hide the dark stains.
Sylvia stumbled as she entered Winston’s room. He lay on a bed, connected to an IV, a plastic respirator covering his face. His body seemed so small, deceptively calm, no sign of the chaotic struggle occurring within. The only clue was the IV piercing his skin. Seeing the needle, she panicked. Sylvia scanned the room in vain, searching for discarded packaging, any evidence of a sterile needle. Her eyes stopped at Winston’s things in the corner—his worn leather satchel, vials containing soil in various shades of ochre and brown, his clothes lying in a rust-stained heap on the floor. She felt her legs turn soft, and she sat down, breathing heavily.
She should have been prepared. She had been warned. The juju man with yellowed eyes had told her this would happen. Years ago, he had stood under the dying baobab tree in the center of the Ibadan market and shouted to her— I go give him spell, I go kill him. Why Winston, she had wondered then and still wondered now? Why when her husband was helping his people?
The Nigerian doctor came into the room and sat down next to her, as if sitting would somehow soften the blow.
“Mrs. Soong,” he said quietly. “Your husband was shot in the chest.”
“Shot?” Her voice faltered.
“The bullet punctured his lung, and I performed emergency surgery.” He let a little time pass to be sure she understood.
“Was the needle sterile?” Sylvia asked in a small voice, even though she knew it was insignificant now. There were the operating instruments to worry about as well.
The doctor ignored her question. “He’s lost a lot of blood and we’ve run out of Type O. I need you to go back to your compound and round up some donors. Can you do this?”
There wasn’t enough blood, she thought, when so much of his blood was everywhere. She tried not to look at his blood-stained clothes in the corner of the room.
“Can you do this?” the doctor repeated.
“Yes, doctor,” she said. “Yes.”
“Go then. There isn’t much time.”
Sylvia ran outside into the dark, tropical night. She wanted more than anything to save her husband’s life. She wanted to make amends, to right the wrong she had done to him, to be a good woman, at least in her own eyes.
Many years ago, Sylvia had given birth at this same hospital. The labor had not been easy, and during the seventeenth hour, the spirit children tried to take her baby. They wrapped the umbilical cord around her daughter’s neck. But the American missionary doctor realized this, and she cut Sylvia open to save her. A Yoruba nurse swaddled the baby in white cloth—to protect her from the spirits. But white was the Chinese color of funerals, and when Sylvia saw this, she ripped the cloth off. The baby screamed, flailing her arms and legs. This was the first time they tried to take her child, but it would not be the last.
Winston missed the birth. An overturned lorry, scattering shards of Coca-Cola bottles on the one-lane, orange dirt road, had prevented him from reaching the clinic. When it had been built two decades before, there had been no road, only a leafy footpath through the bush. But it didn’t occur to Winston to walk and instead, he turned his car around and went home.
After the birth, Sylvia waited for him in the maternity wing with its sloping tin roof and dusty courtyard of violet bougainvillea. When Winston failed to come, she couldn’t help interpreting this as doubt. The disappointment hurt more than the labor itself—that had been a sharp, but temporary physical pain while this was a dull, emotional one that slowly twisted inside of her. Without her husband or family by her side, she instinctively held her baby closer. This tiny, warm body was all she had. After months of not wanting her, suddenly Sylvia clung to her.
The evening Sylvia returned home with baby Lila, she ate dinner with Winston on the teak dining room table that came with their house. They ate food that was not theirs—boiled potatoes, dry roast chicken, and green beans prepared by their Nigerian steward, trained only in colonial English cuisine. Like their marriage, the house and the servants had been handed to them without courtship or deliberation.
Sylvia and her husband lived on a compound for expatriates in the town of Ibadan in southwestern Nigeria. Ibadan was known as “between the forest and plains” because it straddled the southern tropical rainforest and the northern dry savannah. The largest village in West Africa, its auburn tin roofs stretched for miles in ever
Royal palms and manicured lawns graced the driveways of the expat compound, swimming pools were kept full, and golf courses were watered even during the dry season. They had their own power plant, reservoir and dam, water treatment facility, and a road wide and long enough for emergency evacuation by plane. The streets were laid out on a small grid with identical houses, each fitted with modern Danish furniture, white terrazzo tile, granite stone walls, and glass sliding doors that led to screened porches. Every piece of the house was imported from the West, down to the plumbing in the bathroom, so every time Sylvia flushed the toilet she saw the brand name, American Standard.
After nursing her newborn at the dinner table, Sylvia gave Lila to Winston. He seemed to hold her as if she weighed his life down somehow. Was it the roundness of her eyes or her light brown hair? He didn’t say anything. But Sylvia felt those words he didn’t say. The metal fork in her mouth suddenly seemed sharp, biting against her cheek.
Lila started crying, and Winston hastily gave her back.
“I leave tomorrow morning. First thing,” he said.
“Tomorrow? So soon?” Her stomach knotted up into tiny, sharp stones.
“We need to distribute the seeds before the planting season begins.” He avoided her eyes. Winston had come to Nigeria bearing “miracle” seeds that promised to triple harvests. It was 1973, and he truly believed these new hybrid seeds, bred in the lab in the West, could wipe out hunger in the children of Africa. Developed by an American scientist, the seeds had successfully eradicated famine in parts of Asia and Latin America.
“How long…how long will you be gone?”
“Three weeks, maybe four.”
“The baby…?” Is this why you are leaving, she thought?
“We’ve hired Patience to help you. She came with the best references,” he said curtly. “I’m going to be travelling quite a bit. For my work, as you know.”
“Of course,” she said, her voice fading. “I just hope …”
“I must pack.” He stood up abruptly from the dining table.
She felt a quiet sadness swirling inside her, slowly gaining momentum. Since the arrival of the baby, she sensed a subtle shift in him as if he were taking a step back, reassessing their relationship and his role in it.
Sylvia looked down, pushing the bland English food around her plate. She wanted to share her thoughts with him, but the paper-thin walls of their relationship were not filled with the cheery, noisy comforts of their mother tongue. Although they were both Chinese, Sylvia and her husband spoke different dialects, forcing them to converse in English. Using adopted English names, they had begun their relationship in a borrowed language.
Sylvia sat alone at the table framed by the tropical garden beyond the screened porch—lush green lawn, majestic gray palm trees, white frangipani blossoms, and leafy banana trees. But the sky was the color of black bats hovering at dusk, and the evening was filled with their eerie chorus.
Nigeria in 1973, the year of her baby’s birth, was full of surprising optimism. In the wake of the Biafran Civil War, the country was still recovering from the massacre of several million Igbo people. But Nigeria was salving its wounds with black gold flowing out of its Southern river delta—the sweet, low-sulfur crude oil, Bonny Light that was in high demand by Western oil companies. This sudden influx of cash buoyed the confidence of the new, fledging nation.
The first few weeks after Lila’s birth, Winston travelled all over the country, trying to harness this newfound enthusiasm. While her husband was out evangelizing his miracle seeds, Sylvia was left with a crying, colicky newborn. The days blended into nights. Most mornings, when her maid Patience arrived, Sylvia was still in her nightdress, hair uncombed and shadows under her eyes. Sylvia had not wanted motherhood, but now she was in the thick of it, she desperately tried to be a good mother. She responded to her baby’s every cry as if trying to overcompensate. She felt Patience watching every misstep, compounding Sylvia’s insecurity.
“Give her to me, madam,” Patience said one morning, setting her broom against the granite wall. She was a middle-aged, heavyset woman. Her batik wrapper dress was decorated with the smiling faces of a blonde Jesus.
“I don’t know if she’ll let you,” Sylvia hesitated.
“Just give her to me, madam,” Patience said in a commanding tone, a servant used to giving orders to less-competent mistresses.
Her baby seemed to disappear into Patience’s big arms. Using her wrapper, Patience tied Lila onto her back in snug bundle. Then she gently swayed, continuing to sweep the floor, and within a few minutes, Lila was asleep.
“Dey like to be warm and tight like dat, like in the mama’s stomach. Dey don’t like dere legs to be free, comprend?” Patience said. “I go take care of so many babies. I know about de babies.” Patience spoke a mix of English and French patois, reminiscent of Cote d’Ivoire.
Despite Patience’s knowledge of babies, Sylvia had heard through other wives and their gossiping house girls that Patience could not have children herself, so no man in her village wanted to marry her. She had left the remote forests of Cote d’Ivoire to find work in the city of Abijan and was soon hired by a French family. As a young girl, the French family brought Patience to Nigeria because their children were attached to her. Sylvia didn’t know why Patience stayed on, even after the children were long grown, and the French family had left. Perhaps, she had been away so long from her Beng tribe in Cote d’Ivoire that she felt she couldn’t go back. Like Sylvia, she had adopted an English name, her given Beng name, discarded.
“Why does she cry so much?” Sylvia said. “Is this normal?”
“When she cry, she speak de language of bush spirits,” Patience said.
“The bush…?” Sylvia couldn’t say the word.
“De babe dey travel de road between de spirits and de living. When a babe is born, my people say it is de return of an ancestor. Comprend?”
Sylvia nodded, even though she did not want to understand.
“She cry because dis earth is worrying her. She want to go back,” Patience added.
“Go back where?” Sylvia asked in a small voice.
“To de spirit world. You know about de spirits, madam?”
“Yes,” Sylvia said, quietly. “I’ve seen them before.”
Sylvia felt a dull pain radiate out from her stomach. She had witnessed the power of the spirits as a girl in her family’s large Shanghai English-style manor. She remembered coming home from school, flinging her satchel on the kitchen table, the cook scowling at her. She ran upstairs to her three-year old sister’s room. Mei Mei had been sick with tuberculosis for several weeks, but that day, Sylvia opened the door and found her bed empty, stripped of its linens beneath the open lattice window. Then she saw her mother crouched in the corner, rocking herself, her eyes glazed. “The hungry ghosts took her,” her mother whispered hoarsely. After her Mei Mei’s death, Sylvia and her siblings were raised in the shadow of these hungry ghosts.
“All de little babies, dey are still spirits,” Patience continued, but her voice seemed far away to Sylvia. “Dey will want to go back. You have to work work to keep dem here, you hear? Make dem happy, non?”
Sylvia knew she didn’t deserve to be a mother, not after all her negative thoughts while the child had been in the womb. She felt the spirits judged her for this.
“Give me Lila,” Sylvia said, suddenly panicking. She didn’t like that her baby had disappeared into a bundle in Patience’s wrap.
Until Lila’s umbilical cord fell off, Patience explained, Lila was still fully in the spirit world. In parts of West Africa, if a newborn died, no funeral was arranged. Still a spirit, the baby was not yet considered part of the living world. During these precariou
When Lila was two weeks old, her umbilical cord still had not fallen off. Sylvia was sitting on the screened porch overlooking the garden. Lila had just woken up from a nap, and Patience handed her over. Sylvia noticed her baby was uncommonly quiet. This eerie silence was like the eye of a hurricane, a warning of something raging inside her child.
“She’s burning up,” Sylvia said, feeling her forehead.
“I will go get de thermometer. Try feed her, madam. De milk is good for her.” Patience spoke calmly while Sylvia’s nerves verged on the edge of calamity.
Sylvia tried to nurse her baby, but Lila threw up the milk. She was shriveling up before her eyes, losing weight quickly. Patience put the thermometer under Lila’s arm, then held it up in the light. The mercury registered 102 degrees. Sylvia knew it was dangerous for newborns to contract a fever in the first month of their lives. If something happened to Lila, what would happen to her? Sylvia’s life and Lila’s were intertwined now.