Leila loved going to the botanical gardens and spending some quiet time alone, with her bible in hand. It was part of her routine after Sunday service—to avoid a heated lunch conversation with her mother in law, who had taken over the meals at the table after church. Leila had no place at all, no place to serve water for her husband.
She strolled along the paths of the Botanical garden through the lilies, along the edge of the river that ran across the garden into the Atlantic ocean. She sang and murmured to herself. She sang and she prayed. It was the best thing she could give herself, that moment of peace, where there was no one to destabilize her with sermons of insults, battles of the tongue, making her uncomfortable enough to wish for death. No she wasn’t going to die. She was going to pray and if she ended up not having a child that was her fate. She had accepted it but felt she still needed to hold God answerable for his word.
She kept walking and murmuring until she got to the benches along the river facing the beautiful queen of the night flowers. The smell was so soothing. She sat down, put her bible to one side and her hands on her face. She tried to pray, but the words escaped her mouth in sobs. So she let go. She cried and sang
“My helper, Oh my helper. My helper, Oh my helper.”
“There is something that makes me come into your presence my helper.”
Leila heard the leaves rustling as she bent her head to hide her tears. Whoever it was did not need to see she was crying. Most people came through the garden during the day. Hopefully this was a passer-by. As the movements stirred towards her direction, she heard a lady’s voice.
‘‘Hello my child can I sit by you, I love sitting on this desk and facing the wind and the smell of the evening primrose ‘
She did not respond but she scuttled her waist upwards towards the end of the seat and the lady sat down. Leila could see her flowery dress and her sandals and could tell she had a bible in her hand, hopefully she was also coming from a Sunday mass and needed some time alone just like Leila did.
In silence they both sat there and stared at the running stream and the dry leaves running in the same direction. Dead dry leaves, debris and water plants made the stream look really murky underneath, but the water was so clear on the surface it almost looked drinkable. How related to life the whole scenery seamed—people looking so calm and peaceful yet carrying a burden too big and dark and murky for anyone to understand. Leila felt like the river, slow and calm, carrying on yet disturbed and pained underneath. Her bench mate sat there and made no comment. The woman smelled old—like camphor or something. Leila could hear her rustling the pages of her book and humming some kind of sweet praise song.
When Leila left the garden that day, she felt elated. When she arrived home, she felt relieved to notice that her mother-in-law was not home to welcome her. She was exhausted mentally and physically. She was very tired. She walked into her bedroom, plopped into the bed and fell into a deep deep sleep.
The bench at the botanic garden was an experience she loved sharing alone, but her bench mate seemed bent on making her presence known. She kept humming. It was the same woman from last Sunday. She hummed a tune that meant something in Leila’s mind. It sounded really familiar like a song Leila had known in her childhood. Leila knew the song. She just didn’t remember the words. The humming bothered Leila. She looked up and found another seat in the garden. Gathering up her bible and everything she carried, she made for the seat on the other side of the garden. But when she got there and sat down, she found the lady already seated next to her and murmuring the same song, but this time with her back to Leila .
It was impossible. There is no way the woman could have walked that fast. Right when Leila turned around to make sure she was seeing the same person, the woman’s voice came in an echo:
‘‘Are you looking for me child’’
Here voice was definitely otherworldly. It echoed and gave Leila goose bumps. The woman looked fierce and old. Leila thought about leaving the garden. It was just the two of them at the moment and no one else. It was broad daylight, so nothing bad could happen. But it was safer if she left. She stood up and walked briskly to the main outlet of the garden leading to the public taxi path. Half way through her walk, she saw the same lady with the same dress and perfectly grey hair walking towards her. Leila became afraid, so afraid she stopped walking and looked around for the closest escape route. The woman was now blocking Leila’s way to the only exit. Leila also noticed that the old lady had a parcel in her possession.
Leila stopped in her tracks. The only other option was to run through the garden, but her legs failed her. She was frozen. She could barely move. The more she stared the closer the lady came. Leila could hear a baby cooing in the lady’s arm. What on earth could a baby be doing in the possession of such an old lady. Leila could barely think or move, so she stood there staring, waiting for the scene to unfold. It was all so surreal. The closer the woman got the more her face came alive. It was Mbamba!
Mbamba is the old lady who had died years ago—a few days after Leila helped her into her house. She was believed to be a witch. But her death had caused Leila so much pain and worry. Mbamba he was dead. This was impossible. She was dead!!
Mbamba approached Leila. It seemed like she’d cast some kind of spell on of Leila that made her freeze. She could barely speak or move. She just stared as Mbamba stood an inch from her face and said:
“I brought you a gift because I am tired of seeing you cry. I have watched you for so long coming in and out of this garden, praying and begging for the gift of the womb. Here it is. I brought you the gift of the womb, stretch out your hands and claim it. I blessed you deservedly for seeing through your ignorant gaze, that age is not a crime. Age is a phase that we all embrace unwillingly, age doesn’t make one less human and definitely not a witch, decrepit yes but not evil. In your situation you saw through your childlike eyes a reason to stop and help me”
Mbamba moved closer, bringing her face scarily close to Leila’s face and looked into her eyes placing the baby in Leila’s stretched out hands. She continued:
“It may seem like years ago but believe me—the WHEN of life doesn’t rotate that far. It is a moment ago in the measurements of the realm and life beyond. You may feel you could have done more but just helping me into my house and giving me a glass of water was good enough. You helped me settle and die in my house, on my mat and not on the street like a rabid dog. I was never blessed with children and will never wish that fate on anyone—certain not on a little girl who showed me kindness. I am not a witch, but I have powers that were not harnessed properly and ended up rendering me barren. As of this day your enemies and those who rejoice in your pain will hide their faces in shame as I place this gift in your palm. This shall be the beginning of your madness—mad joy and mad laughter, for every mother chasing after their child is termed mad. May you experience the madness of motherhood.”
Leila’s hands were somehow outstretched. And Mbamba placed the parcel in them. Everything seemed programmed, her body programmed to betray her brain and mind, her head screamed ‘No,’ ut her arms stretched out and pulled aside the soft covers of the wrapper. As she stared into the parcel, she could tell she wasn’t blind. Like two peas in a pod laid two tiny hairless babies facing and cooing to each other, dribbling and doe-eyed. They were adorable, but they were not hers. She looked at them and whispered:
“No…No…they are not mine. I cant take them. I will be in trouble…I can’t’’
Mbamba responded, “Until you take them you will not know if they can or cannot be yours.”
Leila stared at them for a while. When she lifted her head to ask more questions, she was standing all alone in the lane leading to the garden gates, all alone. Mbamba was gone. She had disappeared. What was Leila suppose to do with the babies. She was confused and afraid, so she screamed. The more her voice echoed in the garden the more she feared and feared she was in trouble.
She woke up screaming “help” with her hands stretched out. She was sweating. This was no ordinary nightmare. She woke up in the confines of her room, her bed, her ceiling and worse of all no babies. She sobbed not knowing if the omen was good or bad. She just held two babies a moment ago and now she had nothing, just nothing but reality that she was Leila and she had returned from the botanic garden hours ago. It was a dream, all a dream!
On a beautiful day twelve months later Leila watched as her babies slept peacefully in the cradle in her balcony. Ss the fresh wind caressed their soft cuddly skin in the heated sunlight, she sipped orange juice and water exhausted from breastfeeding and nursing both babies. Leila couldn’t wait for her mum to come by and spend some time. As for Ben, well he was the owner of the kitchen, cooking her one brilliant pot of pepper soup after another and making sure to massage her sore back every evening to reduce the strain. He had changed!
Leila dreamed and dreamed of many things, but never of the fragile, wrinkled, camphor smelling old woman who appeared in her dreams months ago. Never again did Leila see Mbamba, but she could not be fooled to feel it was a mare dream, nor tell anyone her experience. Till this day she whispers ‘Thank You Mbamba” to the wind once a day knowing in that place far far away yet so close to real life, where there are things our bare eyes can’t see until we are given the opportunity, lives an old lady with her best interest at heart!
Post image by Surian Soosay via Flickr
About the Author:
Dorothy Diamond is a Cameroonian writer based in the UK and the brains behind the blog www.dorothydiamond.london, a platform she uses to encourage talented young Cameroonians and more importantly share her passion for fiction & creative writing under the category Stories Unfold. She has published over 20 short fiction stories on the blog.