Out of the mouths of babes and suckling infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger. – Psalm 8:2
There are hymns, there are hosannas, there are hallelujahs. There are some who are struck dumb in His presence and those who are newborn linguists—speaking in tongues. Eyes roll heavenward, limbs grow palsied, tears—of joy, of penitence, of defiance—are shed. Through this sound, this fury; Sister Glory Ngassa, Minister of Music for the New Africa International Church of the Holy Redeemer, Brooklyn Battalion, is praying fervently. Her voice, once whispery, rises, then rises again as she sways to the unsung chorus moving the faithful, twenty-person flock present for service that Sunday morning. And faithful they are to the fledgling church—its sanctuary, the front room of a dusty, Brooklyn apartment, a donated space still under a slow-going renovation which has spanned from Easter Sunday the year prior into an unknown future—unto the end of days, perhaps.
The congregation is sanguine in their shared burdens. Tried and tested; they will not be found lacking. So one had to watch one’s step on the unfinished floorboards; a mere reminder that Jesus himself was a carpenter, a man who knew the grain of cedar, of poplar, of acacia, and even of the bitterest wormwood. So the single-paned windows were unsealed and unshielding; their translucent tarp coverings fluttered in the draft like a host of angels’ wings. Yes, the congregants of the New Africa International Church of the Holy Redeemer know they are blessed. Their leader, Man of God, Pastor Godlove Akondeng, had journeyed all the way from church headquarters in Cameroon to share his special anointing. That very moment, the good pastor is laying hands on the forehead of Brother William—timbering all six feet of the man into the waiting arms of Sister Anna, chanting, “By the Spirit of Christ. By the Body of Christ. By the Blood of Christ.” Raining down rapid-fire holy fire to break the ancestral curses that had kept the good brother from receiving his promotion, his increase.
Now, Sister Matilda walks up haltingly with her husband. Unequally yoked these two, yet twined and twinned to each other in a Siamese lockstep. She, crutching herself against him in deference to a newly acquired limp. He, clutching her piety to him like a security blanket, eyes darting then downcast, seemingly evincing a sudden bashfulness at the knowledge that Glory, and all those present, know that he was the one who had hobbled his wife, disordered her steps. Pastor Godlove takes hold of the man. He prays, shouts, commands the evil spirit possessing the husband to release him. Release him in the name of God the Father, release him in the name of the Holy Spirit, release him, Jehovah-jireh; thy will be done.
And now music. Now songs of praise and thanksgiving.
Glory steps forward. She pushes up her +1.5 drugstore reading glasses—perhaps it is time for +2?—and peers down at her hand-assembled hymnal, the photocopied fruit of her labors to harvest gospel songs from back home, from across the continent: Nigeria’s Joe Praize, Cameroon’s Tribute Sisters, the Soweto Gospel Choir.
“Jesus we love you, Lord. You don make my life betta. I go de thank you for evamore, thank you Baba,” sings the congregation, keeping time by the baton of Glory’s pointer finger, tap-tapping notes in the air. She is gratified. There is no instrumental accompaniment to this chorus of warbling voices—Sister Anna is always flat!—yet she knows to her marrow that their voices are pleasing to He who matters utmost.
Glory knows the power of church music. In over thirty years of searching for a church home she has been to many houses of worship and has come to know the quality of a church not by the size of the hats on the church ladies’ heads or the crisp white gloves of its ushers. She knows a church by its music, by the way its people raise their voices in gratitude. Praise Jesus! She knows the Pentecostals love a good tambourine—a jangly rejoicing; Catholics crave a holy hush, hums of contemplation; while the Southern Baptists are ones for gamboling and holy-rolling—lovers of big-voiced belters, soul claps, and organ riffs that settle on the sermons of their high-stepping reverends like a hype-man’s cape across a shoulder blade.
For Glory, for His glory, the music has to be especially right that day. Her words are incantatory: Thank you, Lord. Thank you, Alpha and Omega. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Merciful One. Glory glorifies, honors and magnifies THE ALMIGHTY. She is bursting with a mighty testimony for the miracle wrought in the life of her daughter Temperance, whose belly had lain fallow for over a decade. Her daughter is now over three months pregnant, well past those dangerous witching hours and months when a bumpy car ride could spell catastrophe. Five months ago, in this very church, the Man of God had laid hands on her visiting daughter. He had cast out the spirit of barrenness. Hallelujah! After, he would pull Glory aside, speak to her of serpents, of writhing Gordian knots in her daughter’s insides, of the agent of the enemy who had tried to steal her dear child’s womb, of the spiritual warfare he waged to protect it.
Later, she would try to tell her daughter of those snakes, those twisty fists pummeling her from within. “Oh, Mom,” Temperance had said, sighing. “I saw a specialist. Those were just fibroids.”
* * *
Jesus, please Jesus, please God, please, please, please, please. Please let this baby be all right. This is the refrain in Temperance’s head as she lies on the exam table, watching the ultrasound technician’s wand stutter and stall—traversing ruts in the stretch-marked terrain of her mountainous belly. On the screen, her baby is airy and infinitesimal; a floating cumulous cloud. Yet there is a storm front across the tech’s forehead, a worrying forecast, quickly gone as she shakes her head “no” to Temperance’s question: “What’s wrong?”
She demurs, says, “We wait and see what doctor say,” in a soft, lilting Russian accent at odds with her high-picked, Brighton Beach bouffant.
Please, please, please, tell me something, tell me anything.
“Tell me,” Temperance says, grabbing the yolky, gel-soaked wand. “Tell me.”
“I just technician. Doctor come soon. You know everything, in time.”
The tech is out the door, leaving Temperance to berate herself immediately. She could have been more persuasive, she knows. She could have displayed the oratorical prowess that holds all 100 of her 1L students in thrall, even in that dogsbody of all law school classes, Professional Responsibility. She should have been serenely commanding, donned her First Lady mask, the one she used when spearheading the Marriage ministry, Lady’s Auxiliary, Bible School brunches, and Young Woman’s Mentorship program at her husband’s church. But now, in that moment, she is too tired to be eloquent or uplifted. She is terrified, little else.
Something is beeping and she stares into the blank screen of the computer crèche which had cradled images of her baby. Another beep, near the sink, near the laminate countertop where a glove box bulges laconically; syringes lay sharp, at the ready; and a mad scientist’s assortment of glass jars stand specimen-free, filled with the innocuous: lanky, wooden cotton swabs and tongue depressors. There is another muffled beep before she remembers her cellphone in the purse that is hanging on the back of the door from a coat hook shaped like a stork’s beak. Maybe it’s her husband, Matthew. But why would it be? This visit is, and will be, her secret: too early to worry him, all too soon to weaken the faith of a jubilant congregation, 4000-strong.
Three months they had waited to announce the coming of this hard-won baby (conceived after no less than nine IVF treatments). Two Sundays ago, Matthew stood at the pulpit, she at his side, her hand practically crushed in his own as he spoke emotionally about the years of trying, about divine order, and the Lord’s timetable. She was forty-two, having her first child, thinking—The Lord needs a new Rolex. But that day, she smiled, and smiled. She smiled, as praying hands reverently touched her belly each time she passed through the plush carpet corridors of the spiritual Disneyland that is their church campus. She smiled in the church’s gift shop, as Matthew bought her an XXL maternity-wear “Jesus Saves” t-shirt and a copy of “The Christian Girl’s Guide to Pregnancy.” She smiled when he reported an uptick in church revenue—offerings overflowing the collection plates, increased e-giving at the automatic tithing machines (ATMs). There was talk of renovations, a new annex, of recessed lighting. She smiled. Evidently, pregnancy was good business for the house of the Lord. Now this.
Another beep from her purse. She yanks her feet from the stirrups. Her papier-mâché gown bursts down the center, jagged edges scratching past her linea nigra, like a truculent piñata. She rushes to the phone to find solace in Matthew’s voice, to drown herself in its deep end—so low, so sonorous. To let the soothing lap and cool lick of its sermonic undertones swell over her, as it did, even in bed, inside her again and again, making her scream his name, then His name. Preach.
“Matthew,” she pants, out of breath from her scramble to the phone. “Matthew?”
It’s only her mother.
* * *
Glory’s spirit was troubled waters—churning, uneasy—till she picked up the phone to call her daughter. She had long ago learned, then forgotten, to trust that small voice of God within herself. It was the same voice that whispered to her fifty years ago as she lay sleeping soundly in her mother’s hut on the night before she was to travel to America on scholarship for college. Arise, said the voice. She had tunneled deeper into her pallet and the warmth of her mother’s arms. Arise, the voice commanded. She opened an eye in time to see a serpent slithering across her mother’s hut toward them. A sly, low-down dancer in the dirt and the dark. She screamed. Her mother had risen beside her, stepped on the snake, bashed its head in with the nearby pestle that had made a farewell meal earlier that evening. Her mother stood sentry, on guard the rest of the night. No serpents sent by venomous co-wives would keep her child from her breakthrough in a new, promised land. That was a mother’s love. That was the last time, for a long time, that Glory heard the voice—in the quiet of that hut, before the white noise and the din called America.
“It’s me,” she says again, voice high, bracing against the clamor of Flatbush Avenue’s weekend masses. “Is everything all right?”
There is a pause long enough to make her pull the phone from her ear and check its bars for reception. An artful dodger, she ducks past a man selling $1 subway swipes in front of the train station, past two women haggling over Gucci handbag knockoffs; into the quiet oasis of a small kiosk selling batteries, wristwatches, headphones, and incense.
“Temperance?” she says.
“Yes mother, what could be the matter?”
This is her daughter’s legalese: answering a question with a question. Well she knew her daughter long before the J.D., when a stern look and the words I’m disappointed in you would send her into tears. She tried again.
“Apanga soh, I have no idea what would be the matter. That is why I am asking you.” She tries her best to smile into her words, into the childhood nickname. “Eh, apanga soh. Tell your mama what’s wrong.”
“Mom . . .”
“Nothing, it’s nothing.”
“You sound tired . . . are you on your way to the church?” she glances down at her watch: 1:00 pm, then shoos away the vendor approaching her with wristwatch in hand. “Maybe you should skip the workshop. I’m sure they can spare you at least one day. School. Church. That crazy schedule of yours—”
“My schedule is fine, Mother.”
From Mom to Mother, almost as bad as the legalese.
“Besides,” Temperance continues. “I’ll get plenty of time to rest on maternity leave after the baby is born.”
“My grandbaby,” Glory says, marveling how the words taste of sweet koki corn, clung like eru to her tongue. “Aren’t you due for another checkup soon?”
“In two weeks.”
“Chey! So long? I can come with you, if you like—”
“That’s okay, Mom. Matthew has been coming.”
Glory hears the sound of something weighty, something ponderous, then Temperance falls silent. Then, finally: “Thank you, Mom. Thanks for checking in.”
“Anytime, apanga soh, anytime.”
After the call ends, Glory begins a catchall, cover-all prayer, infused with every blessing she has ever wanted for her only living child. But above all, she hopes her prayers will fortify her too-strong daughter whose voice—muttering “goodbye”—had been so breathy and fragile, one of wind chimes forlorn and tinkling in an airless room.
* * *
Hours later, Temperance is leading a “Mommyhood: The Christian Way” workshop for unwed mothers. She takes deep breaths, still trying to channel her mother’s certitude that this child was meant to be, ordained. The mothers around her are lollipop young, mainly from the projects, and chockablock with children. She can almost look at them now and not hurt. Before, her ovaries would ache just to be in this room with so many women who seemed to get pregnant if you so much as blew on them. Shanice begat Shanice Jr. begat Lativia begat LaRenée begat Jamelia begat Jameka begat, begetting, begotten.
Their children are carousing in the nursery center with Sister Carol. Sister Angeline sits at the long meeting room table: assisting with welfare forms, extolling the virtues of the church’s free daycare for members, and handing out sullenly palmed pocket New Testaments. For so many of the women in this ministry their Heavenly Father—God, Jehovah, Yahweh—is a Tyrone, a Demetrius, a Malik. Another deadbeat dad, noted only for His absence in their children’s lives, for going down to that celestial corner store to buy cigarettes and never returning. They come for the food and for a few child-free moments. A state they believe is heaven, but Temperance knows can be purgatory. They usually come for her, for free family law counseling on navigating the court system for custody or getting that child support check. But today the line in front of her has whittled down, kindling-thin.
Ten minutes, done, up and stretching her legs; she walks over to one of the girls from the neighborhood. The one with a dash in her name: La–a (pronounced LaDasha, she reminds herself) who is bending to look at the low-lying, wall shelf that houses their pregnancy and motherhood library: books on breast feeding and babywearing, pre-natal Yoga and hypnobirthing. The girl’s Dominican press‘n’curl threatens to topple, doobie-wrapped high round her head in a ziggurat of hair, buttressed by spindly bobby pins. Two pins fall to the ground.
“Here you go.” Temperance hands the girl her errant reinforcements.
“Thanks, Mrs. Pastor Ealy. First Lady.” La–a’s eyes are narrowed, swinging low to stare, glare it seems, at Temperance’s belly.
Temperance had noticed the girl in the parking lot earlier: hip cocked to the side, neck swerving with bravado amongst her friends. She had seen, but only now, looking into the clenched, mistrustful face, did she actually recognize La-a. Or rather, she remembered that look. First seen last year on a Saturday afternoon in the clammy underbelly of summer. Evening newscasts had been rife with reports of the elderly and infirmed falling prey to heat-stroke in their homes. Senior living high rises turned mausoleums as forgotten grannies were found entombed, amidst dust motes and lace doilies. In a mission of mercy, the church had opened its doors to the community, offering air-conditioned sanctuary from the asphalt wilderness beyond. The activity rooms had been teeming: throngs gathered around hospitality tables heaped with sweating Dixie cups of iced sweet tea. Nametag stickers affixed to their chests as eager church staffers enlisted them in various ministries. “La-ah,” she said aloud to the young girl as she wrote on her clipboard.
“Naw,” came the surly response. “You ain’t saying it right.”
Pen poised in the air, Temperance waited for the correct spelling. She’d heard them all in their diverse congregation: from Watermelondrea to Ireoluwasimikolakawe. The girl continued to glare.
“Here.” Temperance handed off the pen and paper. Helpfully she’d thought. “Feel free to fill out the rest of the form as you like.”
The girl stared at the pen like it was a snake in the grass.
“I’ll do it,” Her companion, name-tagged Niecy, pushed forward to take the clipboard from her. “Already finished mine.” Stabbing the pen nib into the intake form.
“Sadiddy bitch,” they whispered as they sauntered off. It was only later that another church staffer, who headed up their GED program, clued her in.
The girl was functionally illiterate, reading at the same fourth-grade level as B.J.—her ten-year-old son.
* * *
Temperance leaves the motherhood library to find succor. Stealing away to a quiet Sunday school room. Alone. She dandles another woman’s baby in the crook of her arm, fanning herself and the child with a Singles Ministry flyer. He fusses. She loosens the tight swaddle, freeing quilted bunnies to hop along patchwork furrows. The cottony hush is broken only by the thump of a small heartbeat as a peace like salvation comes upon her. Her eyes flutter shut. The confection-sugar lightness of baby powder fills her lungs as a tiny dimpled fist curls into the cotton of her sundress. She rocks. Back. Forward. Back. Forward.
The baby stirs. She dips her hand to his cheeks—soft and fluffy as chocolate pudding. She smiles at the pink, puckering “O” of his mouth rooting for mother’s milk. A maternal song sweeps through her like a gospel, a revelation. In that instant, she knows what is absolutely required. This certainty she feels is familiar. It is what she inexplicably sees in her mother’s eyes even as she turns her own face away. She knows what must be done. Temperance casts a scant glance back at the barely open door. The quiet corridor beyond. On a sigh, she slips her breast free. Places a swelling nipple to the baby’s eager suckle. Shudders with the rapturous joy of it. The rightness. She is replete.
The baby draws deep from the well of her again and again, but grows fretful. Whimpers at her dry teat. Teeth scrape tender skin. Temperance cries out. Recoils. Hands shaking as she sooths the child. Of a sudden. Terror smites her. Nearly dropping her to her knees.
Good God, did I just? How could I? What if someone…
“Mrs. Ealy,” a voice calls from the door.
Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.
She turns to face her judgment.
It’s La-a once more.
Had she seen?
“My cousin, Niecy told me you had, Dante.” The girl clambers over to her, arms crossed over a jutting, bullet-shaped belly. She stops short. Seems to sniff the air as she peers into Temperance’s flushed face. Her eyes narrow.
“He-here,” Temperance stutters. “He’s all yours.”
Had she seen? Why won’t she say something?
The girl is still and mute before glaring down at Temperance’s stomach.
“Congratulations, Mizzz Temperance. Heard ‘bout yo baby. Me, I got three kids,” she says, placing an acrylic-nailed hand on her hip as she throws down the last bit like a mic at a rap battle, like she won something.
And Temperance supposes she has. In the fertility race she has ever been the tortoise to La–a’s fast-tailed hare. She swallows. This tension she feels with La-a is familiar. It’s the anger she sometimes inexplicably channels at her mother when life infuriates her. She smiles uncertainly, tries again to connect, “I know them. Dante, Michael Jr. and B.J., right?”
“Yup, all boys plus this one.” She pats herself proudly. “Whatchu havin’?”
Boy. Girl. Matthew hadn’t wanted to know either way. As long as it’s healthy, he proclaimed, foiling her girlfriends’ gleeful plans for a gender-reveal cake at her baby shower. A suspenseful knife slice away from that revelatory inner filling in pink or blue. But that morning, listening to Dr. Ravins’ revelations: talk of posterior nuchal skin folds and nonossified nasal bones, of her significant risk factor age, then the faux-hopefulness of further testing and findings inconclusive, after more blood draws and procedure scheduling; she needed an answer. She couldn’t yet know if her baby had Down Syndrome, so she had wanted to know something, one thing, for sure.
Temperance hesitates, clears her throat.
“It’s a boy,” she says, out loud, for the first time, to anyone. Her chin lifts, her French-manicured hand is on her hip, now. “A boy.”
* * *
“Good morning, Mrs. Ngassa,” says Mary Teforlack, secretary of Staffing Soulutions, LLC, palming the mouth of a phone receiver like a psalter, whispering, “It’s Marjorie, Marjorie Winstead on line 1.”
Glory sighs. Staffing issues at this hour? At 8:00 am, on a Monday. The Devil never rests. In her office the phone line is blinking spasmodically. A thing possessed. But as she sets down the heft of her bag, shrugs out of her coat, and turns on her computer; she is thinking of another phone call, of her daughter, the cipher: full of secret compartments and neatly tucked-by thoughts.
Thirty-five years as a social worker. Fifteen years as a small business owner. She had built this business from the ground up. It had put her daughter through college. Through law school. Her nurses, her aides, their patients, their loved ones; all had come to rely on her, their rock of Gibraltar, their steadfast counselor. Yes, let’s revisit Mrs. Taylor’s Pain Management Plan, she’s definitely getting worse post-fall. Yes, your daughter’s last days will be peaceful ones. At Staffing Soulutions, we pride ourselves in meeting our clients’ physical and spiritual needs.
Forty-two years a mother and she can’t get her daughter to confide a thing.
Glory picks up the phone. Her best Peds nurse, Marjorie Winstead is trying to “quit,” in reality that means absconding with the lucrative Hallstead’s account: a Presbyterian family with two young boys, both suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, both requiring long-term home-care. Winstead speaks breezily of changing commitments and flex time, all the while holding the truth under her tongue like an SL tablet: I am trying to steal your clients, Glory, to see them on the side for some tax-free money. It’s been a great ten-year run, Glory, sorry about your commission.
This is not going to happen. As Glory picks up the phone, scenarios—assignment roster shuffles, shift switches—scroll through her thoughts like images in a picture wheel. Click. Toggle. Click. That case closer to Marjorie’s daughters’ daycare is suddenly available, and wouldn’t you know, it pays a bit more money, and sure, it’s only a short term rehab contract right now but the mother had personally assured her that she would need some help down the line. These things can be so overwhelming, you know how it is Marjorie. You do, don’t you? Thank you for your professionalism and dedication. Did I mention you were nominated for “Nurse of the Year?”
Later that evening, in the sanctuary of her bedroom, she picks up a phone again. She calls her prayer line, gets a busy signal, calls again in five minutes, then ten. She is determined in a way that would have surprised her younger self. That young woman had never been particularly devout, had mouthed prayers mechanically during morning devotions at her all-girls, Baptist secondary school. The young women of Saker Baptist College were groomed to be good, God-fearing girls. Their heavens-blue uniforms as prim as nuns’ habits, pleats as straight as church pews. They knew they were blessed. Glory had had her own truth. She knew if any blessings were to be had, they were those of education and access, the chance to learn “book” at the newly-founded missionary school, one of only two that was educating girls back then. So when the missionaries came round to Kings’ dorm to inspect their charges’ trunks, she had no qualms about hiding her hellfire-red lipstick in a crooked wall crack. When they came to cut the girls’ hair down to less sin-inspiring lengths, she tamped down her curls with coconut oil and water, till they got wise, began barbering with a scraping, toothsome comb and a ruler, measuring manes to within an inch of the scalp. Glory had always been an inch above defiant.
But things change. Life happened, she suspects. At age sixty-five, she knows there is much she had overcome: defied headmistresses who tried to steal her academic scholarship, survived what that Bafut man did to her in the bush, and learned to manage the rages of a once-mild husband, long dead now, who collapsed under the clawing misery of burying their only son.
She has always been a fighter, a woman who rose to her feet again after the TKO of losing a son and a husband. Yet she is older now, she is winded. In the final rounds of her life it feels good, feels right and righteous, to have Jesus as her cornerman.
* * *
They say some men are called to ministry. Others just went. The Called: men seized by a burning desire to serve, to fashion themselves into tools for His work, to be the balm that heals a wounded and bludgeoned world. The Others: hubris-filled, with a showman’s need to be spotlit, center stage; wielding the Word to their liking. Preaching a prosperity gospel instructing eager congregations to sow to a prophet’s rewards; to ensure their bank accounts, their homes, and their wives’ baubles are sizeable, flush.
It is Sunday morning, mid-May. In her front row, center-aisle seat, a direct sight-line to the pulpit, Temperance is questioning. Her hands tremble slightly in her lap. She clasps them together firmly, wincing as the sting of her wedding band’s diamond cuts into her flesh—ungiving, millstone-heavy. Was her husband called or clay-footed? He had come to preaching later in life. I-banker turned self-taught theologian, a man whose authoritative messages bespoke insider dealings, a special in with the Lord. But was he called?
Praise dancers make calligraphic twirls in the air with a rainbow of arcing ribbons. The dreadlocked bass guitarist in the church’s fifteen-man band strums a fevered rock rendition of a popular gospel number. Every man, woman, child, and even some of the seniors, in the 1000-person capacity main sanctuary is up on their feet singing with the Grammy award-winning choir. Now, Matthew strides to the stage. All along her row, people ready pen and pencil to take notes in the two pages earmarked in the church bulletins. His special Mother’s Day sermon is entitled: “A Worthy Woman.” Parishioners begin scribbling furiously, as if prepping for a pop-quiz or St. Peter’s questions at the pearly gates.
Matthew reads from Proverbs 31, speaks of a mother’s wisdom to her son, King Lemuel:
An excellent wife, who can find? Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she smiles at the future. She opens her mouth in wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and bless her; her husband also, and he praises her, saying: ‘Many daughters have done nobly, but you excel them all.’
He is moving, he is eloquent, he is looking right at her, this man, her husband. Any faith she has is secondhand, borrowed from him, now showing wear. Seams stressed by the tragedy gestating within her. She wants desperately to keep the faith, to have certitude.
Was he called?
If Pastor Godlove Akondeng and her mother are to be believed he was not only called, he was conjured. Abracadabraed into her life through holy hocus-pocus. Ten years ago, they had prayed and fasted for a week to banish the “spirit of spinsterhood” from her life. A week later, she met Matthew.
Was he called?
Please Lord, let him be. Please.
Temperance needs the good Rev. Matthew Ealy Jr. to be called. To be a man who won’t shun her for her doubts about caring for a special needs child, nor rebuke her for mentioning the unmentionable: termination. She needs a husband and a confessor, needs to be sure that all these years she has loved a man who can see his faithful, unflagging helpmate at her most helpless, and give her grace, still.
* * *
The circles are entrancing, zen-pebbled perfection along her skin. Temperance sighs as her mother rubs and rubs and rubs anointed oil, spiraling into the dip of her belly button. She imagines her son—floating and free-diving inside her—must experience these soothing strokes like blips on sonar. Her mother kneels before her, pours holy salts, Godlove-blessed, in with the Epsom swirling in her foot soak. Giggling bubbles play footsie with her squirming toes.
Her mother’s home is mum, save for a duet of humming, one human, one mechanical. Low lullabies to a grandchild commingle with the dishwasher’s contented whirring, purpose-driven, cleaning the dinnerware from their Mother’s Day meal. Two greeting cards are standing on the side table: one from Temperance, another on behalf of her brother, Michael. She braids her fingers with her mother’s.
“Mom . . . I’m having a boy, a baby boy,” she says, then rushes to quell the wave of joy cresting over her mother’s face, “he might be sick.”
“What do you mean, ‘might be’?”
“Down Syndrome. Maybe. Most likely. I’m going in for testing tomorrow, to be sure.”
Her mother begins rubbing her belly again, raggedly now, halts, fingers interlocked, helmeting it protectively with her hands. She prays, goes quiet for a long moment, then asks, “Have you told Matthew?”
“No. Not yet.”
“Good. Don’t. Nothing is certain.”
“Are you telling me to lie to my husband?”
“No, I’m telling you to deal with it when the time comes. I’m telling you that men are not strong in the ways that we are. Look what happened to your father, when he lost his son.”
“If something is wro . . . if the baby is . . . affected . . . ” Temperance looks away then, stares at her brother’s card. Her eyes are wary and searching as she looks back down at her mother and says, “I’m thinking about having an abortion.”
Temperance takes a breath. The air thick and close. An orphaned tub of shea butter pouts in oily abandonment, melting under a stain glass lamp.
“All right,” says her mother. “As long as you’re sure, apanga soh.”
And she is stunned into silence. She had voiced the worst, expected judgment, imagined herself cast out of her childhood home, into the concrete wilderness.
“Your grandmother, Mami Rebekah, had nine children, starting from the age of thirteen. Five died before they could crawl. Two before they could walk. Two lived to bury her. I had two myself. One lost to me all too soon. Nothing is certain.”
Her mother’s face looks soft, features fluffy with memory.
Temperance does her own remembering, of a tall, copper-skinned boy, a whirling dervish who swung her round and round till they fell to the ground laughing. She had wanted to name her son after this dizzying boy. Michael.
“But you . . . your faith—”
“My faith is you, my daughter. You are an Ngassa woman. You will do what you must. And I will pray for covering as I stand by your side.” Her mother stands. “I think I’ll make you some of that special tea I bought you, the calming one. I will come with you tomorrow. But now, tea. Yes. Some tea.”
The tea is raw and silken, larval. Temperance sips slowly.
Another sip, two, and she is filled with a warm lethargy. Teacup set aside, she lies down on the couch, nesting her head in the downy welcome of her mother’s lap.
She wakes to weeping, a voice cracking on the lip of a sob as cleanly as an egg. Then other voices join it, praying feverishly, a sound like the roar of some great machine revving to life fills her ears. Drowsy, she moves to rise, and is gently pushed down.
“Shh, shh,” coos her mother. “Hush, my baby. It’s just Pastor and my prayer circle. See.” Her head is palmed, positioned to see the assembled: a tall, oaken man; a squat, wobbly-voiced woman; and Pastor Godlove, who comes forward, still praying. He clinically examines her belly, still glistening slightly from its earlier basting, then extracts a small brass urn from his pocket. Dipped fingers emerge ancient and greyed; he paints ashen crosses onto her skin, the smell, singed and pungent. Temperance is volcanic, stomach queasy and churning for the first time in her pregnancy. What is happening to me, she wonders groggily. She braces herself, closing her eyes as another wave of nausea rolls over her. It passes.
There is a sound now of tender-footed elephants stampeding. Then the pastor’s voice, extorting the circle to trample the enemy:
“Let all demonic spirits troubling this baby scatter and die! Somersault and die! Die, die, die, die, die!”
Now, her mother above her, crying: “No weapon forged against me shall prosper! No weapon forged against my family shall prosper! We rebuke you Satan. We rebuke you, deceiver. Liar. Deceiver. Liar. Liar.”
The room grows hot. Temperance struggles to right herself, then feels silly, hormonal. She reminds herself she doesn’t believe in any of this, does she? This, her mother’s strange beliefs, an alien world of jujus and ancestral curses terraformed by Christianity. But maybe? For her baby? Just this once, she thinks, this once. She will let them finish their incantations, then she will get up, gather her belongings, and go home to face God, what little she knows of him, on her own. She looks up at her mother’s face, drenched in clean sweat and lamplight, about her, a fearsome, soul-burnished glow.
Nana Nkweti is a Cameroonian-American writer and the Fall 2017 Phillip Roth Writer-in-Residence at the Stadler Center for Poetry, Bucknell University. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been awarded fellowships and residencies from MacDowell, Kimbilio, Ucross, and Clarion West, amongst others. Her winning story, “The Devil is a Liar,” is a selection from her collection, Like Walking on Cowry Shells, a book that focuses on the lives of hyphenated-Americans who share her multi-cultural heritage in the United States and Africa. The manuscript spans genres—literary realism, horror, mystery, YA, science fiction—and features complex, fully-embodied characters: tongue-tied linguistic anthropologists, comic book enthusiasts and even alleged sex-ring operators. She hopes her stories entertain readers while also offering them a counterpoint to prevalent “heart of darkness” writing that too often depicts a singular “African” experience plagued by locusts, hunger, and tribal in-fighting.