The JRB presents an exclusive excerpt from Nine Lives of The General, a work-in-progress by Yewande Omotoso.
I only ever know one place. Born and died there which, with all the comings and goings, could be regarded an achievement if only I could point to something I did to accomplish it. I think it’s just luck. Luck that I had Finta. Luck that she too somehow stayed on and that we loved each other. After all isn’t love the deepest widest kind of luck there is.
They say I was a scared child until about the age of eight. I find this easy to believe, when you think of the fact that I had no parents and when you consider the kind of place I’d got myself born into. All I had was Finta, six years my senior and the palms of her hands already calloused by the time my milk teeth fell.
Once I grew big people talked about me. Did you know, they’d say, Allero need only look and she’d call the date and time your child would born. They reckoned I must be the general of an army of unborn children, that I held some preternatural authority over them. Not counting the hard ones, in my fifty years I must have birthed hundreds and hundreds. Truth is it’s not as if I knew anything special. It’s more that my hands were correct and my tone of voice was always right for a woman in labour, always easy for her to hear, to heed. I could lay my hand and I swear the baby feel it, know it, says ‘okay I’m coming’. No baby ever died with me. Not a one. Not a single one. And no mother. A father died once—white man. There and then had a heart-attack when him white wife push out baby black as me. Whatever the gift I do think it helped me live, survive, kept me in one place that’s for sure. I born black children just as much as I born the white and yellow. It wasn’t supposed to be that I born the white children too but there was a time of death, many deaths, babies falling like rain. And people got scared, got desperate. Human beings are funny that way; the white people got real scared. They heard news of a black woman property of the M, heard she was good, like magic. They were scared enough not to care too much that my black hands and black eyes would touch them, scared enough to put their lives on my head, the lives of their children. By the time I born my first white child I’d already born almost a hundred black ones. I remember it so easy, in truth as if it happened an hour ago.
The first child I born my legs still swung free on the odd occasion I had reason to sit ’pon a chair. I was a skinny child, darkened by field sun which is a special kind of sun. If you haven’t worked the field then you would have no notion. Field sun is not something you can regard from afar and comprehend, you must stand still beneath it, bent over. Field sun will kill you slow. I don’t know if it’s even fair to say I born them. Wanting to live is the simplest desire. We come out free. For sure the breeches I take credit for, the complications. But many many were just hell-bent on entering, all I had to do was catch them.
A small room. The floors made of tamped dirt, cool and strangely moist beneath my feet. It was past the middle of the night but not yet dawn. How I came to be in that room is worth telling because it wasn’t my habit to pass the night in Nana’s cabin. Finta, whom I would later discover had already been bleeding for two rainy seasons, had gone and done the unthinkable, she’d smiled twice at one of the men who worked the eastern fields, furthest from the big house and nearest the boarder fence. Those eastern fields men had reputation for being a way with young ladies. Now as far as I was concerned Finta had never been a lady, even at eight I could discern that but nonetheless she’d got caught up in some man-lady foolishness and I found myself kicked out for the night. ‘Go Nana,’ Finta had suggested not caring much and keen to return to her guest. ‘Return ’pon the sun.’ Young as I was I understood what the hulk of a man and my sister would be up to. Living on the plant did not afford people the luxury of slowly breaking sex to the pickneys. It’s almost like us children came out the womb in full understanding of the sex act, as if we’d stood by while our parents made us. Anyhow our bondage as women was as much labour in the field as it was in the bed and there were ’nough stories told of twelve-year-olds summoned to the private rooms of the M. Finta had even taken the trouble one night to instruct me on what to do should I be called upon for service. It had happened to her several times already. I always knew when she was back from such because those are the only days the love between my sister and I stretched taut, close to snapping.
Any-so there I am wandering into Nana’s cabin. Now when I say Nana’s cabin I give the wrong suggestion. Of course Nana’s cabin was as much hers as you could own a dewdrop. But in my memory it’s become Nana’s cabin. A hut no bigger than a moment, slept normally by eight but emptied out on this night—Finta couldn’t have known—for the purposes of child birth. I wandered, sleepy-eyed, into the room and Granny Macah shout ‘Pass the towel.’ She shout like that as if she’d summoned me herself and in fact as if I’d taken longer than the situation called for, a little edge to her voice like I’d been annoying her for some time now. All the work was being done by kerosene lamp. Even with the sex I’d heard and witnessed I had never seen anything like this in my short life; I’d seen the act but never its consequence. ‘The towel, the towel,’ shout Granny Macah. ‘Hurry pickney, newborn coming.’ And I swear to you with that Granny Macah took one breath and died right there, rude death, caught her off-guard. Now I’ve seen many people die in my life and most not by nature, plus I too have died and not just once but plenty and yet Granny Macah’s death remains the one that would populate my nightmares. I’ve seen grown men hacked to death by cutlass and women burnt alive, slow; I’ve seen a limbless baby snatched from him mother’s teat and drowned in a bucket. Granny Macah’s death remains the most violent. She died by no other hand but death’s and in all the lives I’ve lived I’ve never witnessed anything more indifferent, more terrifying.
Everything moved quickly after that, after Granny Macah falls to the floor not like a fall but like she was pushed. Nana breathing fast and an occasional high-pitched moan. I walk up to where she lay, the kerosene lamp there but flickering to go out. Normally we slept on whatever leftover straw you can find but Granny Macah had put Nana up on boxes, where she’d found them I can’t tell you. Standing, my head reached just above the boxes. I’ve always been a small person. I had to strain a bit to see past the belly and take note of the fear ’pon Nana’s face. ‘Where she be?’ she asked between breaths. What with all the pain of labour she had noticed that Granny Macah was absent, but not that she was gone. If she’d been able to hoist herself up onto her elbows, instead of lying back in the position Granny had set her, she might have caught sight of the old woman’s naked feet, gnarled, relieved of duty. ‘Where Gram go, chile?’ I couldn’t get the words out but I was thinking ‘Heaven’. I wasn’t baptised or anything fancy like that and Finta didn’t abide talk of divinity but I had quietly in myself been cultivating the notion that there was a better place and what I’d heard of Heaven—from those that believed—seemed as good a description as any. Just then Nana shout ‘help muh’ so I moved in closer. Over the years I would question the way in which Granny Macah had arranged Nana. Lord knows the old woman had born plenty, she may even have born me, I don’t know, but still I surmised, through my own personal study, that laid back ’pon boxes was probably not the best method. It’s unlikely that position was Granny Macah’s usual mode, maybe death had been settling on her for sometime already, messing and turning her mind, make her forget the best way to set a woman for child-bearing. Who can know. Any-so, since then I’ve explored other positions but really you ask the woman to choose. Of course I didn’t know any of that yet. That day I just looked into Nana’s face and somehow understood that there was nothing more for me to say. And then it got quiet. Not quiet to the ear, no for the ear it is rowdy and rough, the mother shouting or sighing or cussing. But I mean, when I say it gets quiet, is there comes a silence underneath that all even those long deaf can hear if they choose to. That’s why I’m special maybe. Although it’s not my way to boast. But that’s where I do my work, in that silence. Even the mother hears it although the few times I’ve asked women, when the baby out and cleaned and sweet and the sweat dry on their brow, I ask if they heard it and they give confused looks. I think they heard it and just can’t remember. And of course the baby hears it too although there’s no way to check. So there we all are, the three of us, in some kind of duppy space. In that space I ask the mother, although I’m not using words now, I ask her if she wants to bring this. And to the child I ask if it wants to be brought. Mostly the answers are yes. As on that day with Nana. You don’t have to believe any of this if you don’t want to. Although you are listening to a dead person so maybe belief is not something we should bother with for the duration. You might say I was too young, how did I know to ask such things, where would the notion have come from. You might say what is this fantasy of a quiet still world beneath the noisy one we all know and labour through. You might say all that but I’m telling you. That day with Nana that’s what I did. I asked those taking part if it was their wish to do so. I collected their desires like a receipt for later, proof that we are in the world, that we choose. And once that’s happened a small thing shifts and the world pours in. My head was positioned right between Nana’s legs which were flung apart and slick from all sorts of liquid. Her pussy stretched so broad I thought it might tear in half but it didn’t. And the pickney slide right out, Nana screaming as if someone stabbing her repeatedly in the heart. ’Nough blood too. And me, right there, with my little hands, I reach out to grab the boy before he fall ’pon the ground and crack him skull. Samuel, she called him. Those who familiar made it Sammy.
Five years pass before I born another baby. It perhaps if not okay, then right by life, that in the same year my first blood drip (same year a man bring himself on me with no invitation) I start birthing children, this time on purpose and soon on demand. I developed a habit, start saying it, like a call, a herald, until it became a ritual and people knew me by it. Some making fun, others think I need to say the words otherwise nothing happens. I didn’t mind their foolishness, I knew why I said it. Every time just before I felt that tremor as life enters life, in honour Granny Macah I repeated her last words—newborn coming.
- Yewande Omotoso trained as an architect and holds a masters in creative writing from the University of Cape Town. Her debut novel Bom Boy won the South African Literary Award for First-Time Published Author. She was shortlisted for the 2013 Etisalat Prize for Literature and was a 2015 Miles Morland Scholar. Omotoso’s second novel, The Woman Next Door, was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award and longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Literature Prize. It was a finalist in the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Fiction and has been translated into Catalan, Dutch, French, German, Italian and Korean. Her third novel, An Unusual Grief, was published in 2021.