Something walked into the property the harmattan season my neighbour, Uzo, brought home her child in a white clinical blanket. Beads of sweat crowded the child’s forehead as he slumbered, a smile spread out on his face. He slept a lot for three months, and then one day, at the slap of sunrise, the child suddenly began to howl.
At night, his wails dither, hollowing into the meowing cries of a trapped animal or squeaking like the legs of an easel on a tiled floor. I hear Uzo’s soothing songs, a little melody pushed through the terrifying yowls, as she rocks the child. When she runs out of lullabies, she strings meaningless sounds together, as if she’s filling in spaces. One day, I listen for the gentle clop of Uzo’s voice and hear nothing. The child’s wails crack through walls and I feel my door shivering at the sill. Fear threads through me. I feel compelled to check on them even though my stomach keeps turning at the thought.
Her door is unlocked when I knock. It opens to a stuffy room. Soiled nappies and wipes litter the floor. The blue paint on the wall has long peeled off, revealing ugly insides. There are maps of palms on them, the child’s palms most probably. Some of the stains sit too high on the wall. I wonder if Uzo helped the child make them and if the child chooses this routine. Uzo sits some distance away from her child, staring at him as if he is someone she can no longer recognize.
“I don’t know what to do,” Uzo says. “He’s always like this.” Fatigue etches lines on her brow.
I look at the child―quite big for a three-month-old―and see the thing that has engulfed him. It moves fast, receding and reappearing in his face. The skin of his hands grows transparent and something scaly shimmers, and then vanishes. I am afraid to get too close or to touch him or run back to my apartment. I try to comfort my neighbour, moving closer to the door should the child morph into the thing.
“They are usually like this in their first three months,” I repeat the line I hear from other women, massaging away the goose pimples cramping the back of my neck.
“I just wish he would stop,” Uzo murmurs, her voice sapped free of energy.
The child stops smelling like a child. The perfumed powders and lotions do not deter the sharp burning smell that creeps into my room each time he wails. Then he gives off an intensely musky smell, like the ripe yellow mucus dripping from the nose, or the slime coming off the body of fish. Pangs of nausea hit me every time the smell explodes into the air.
Uzo’s boyfriend works with an offshore company and has shown up only once since the child arrived. Uzo’s mother spent only the first three weeks with them, in the days when the child slept a lot. I wonder why Uzo does not call for her mother or other relatives. When I suggest it to her, a low sigh, like the hesitant afternoon air, comes from her chest. She sought a child for over a decade, and now the job of caring for one squeezes her up like fabric. She looks dented each time I see her. It is as if she’s been slammed against the wall too many times it now hurts to breathe.
Uzo starts bringing the child to me and asks me to screen him for jaundice or anaemia by peering into his eyes. On a different morning, he manifests something new and his mother runs to my porch and rattles my rail gate.
“His poop is green,” she says, looking frightened. I almost ask why she still worries about the little animal that might kill her. I tell her instead to take him to the children’s clinic at Ada George road. The child looks leaner and taller, a disturbing contrast to what he had been a couple of days earlier. I wonder if he suffers from a stockpile of life-threatening ailments―lung damage, liver inflammation, and kidney stones―too complex for children. I almost pity him.
Uzo’s screams rouse me at two in the morning. The child is convulsing. I run back and forth barefoot, fetching kernel oil and onions. I hold him down while Uzo squeezes the oil and some grated onions into his eyes and nose. I throw my fears away and steady his thrashing legs until he calms and resumes normal breathing.
The cries become worse. The child sinks his teeth into Uzo’s nipples. He tugs at the bed covers and quilts. It is as if he is revolting against everything.
“I am taking him to the doctor,” Uzo says. The child is asleep on her back. She has a small stuffed handbag in her hand. I remember when she was pregnant. Lasted over fourteen months, her stomach barely bigger than a medium-sized ball.
“It’s a birth centre. At Obigbo.”
I’ve heard about fetuses who are not scan-visible and can only be born and treated of any ailment at the fertility factories where they were conceived. I try to convince her to visit a proper clinic because her child might have issues too complicated for a birth centre to diagnose. She does not get it. She keeps shaking her head and retreating, our conversation fading like a dying star.
“I will take him to Obigbo,” she says, easing the gate open.
The child returns healthy. He squeals as if the sickness never was. His strange body smell keeps shredding through the air, but his new loud laughter seems to make it tolerable. Some of the neighbours living in the next block often speak about the smell that combs through their kitchens. People talk about it at the grocery shop on our street. Everyone speaks as if they know, somehow, but are afraid to admit it. Every time I bump into such conversation, a pair of eyes emerge from somewhere distant, steely, bulgy, and I swallow my words.
The child’s renewed health injects life into Uzo. She still sings, but the pressure to contain the child’s wails has slid out of her voice. They play and laugh, making up for the lost time. One afternoon, she brings the child out in the sun and he wiggles free of her hold and crawls on the sand. She claps.
“He is crawling, crawling, crawling!” He creeps about in the dirt, laughing, trying out the newly glued-together pieces of himself. Uzo picks him up and holds him out to me. When our bodies touch, something shoulders me open and pokes at the insides of my body. I feel talons pull at the skin of my neck. A forked tongue I may have imagined feather against my ears. Goose pimples spread through every cranny of my body. I hand him back to his mother.
“Such a handsome child,” I say, making my voice small, hooding the quivers gathering around it. The child bares his gums in a happy smile. I see the thing again. It flickers in the twitch of his eyelids and then takes up half his face, contorting into clusters of things not human enough. I blink. It is gone. I wonder if I am thinking or imagining too much.
Uzo and the child visit the centre weekly, especially when the child’s laughter dims a little. Uzo buys him cotton cardigans, which he fills out quickly. The child begins to babble, and when he sees me, he throws me a name, a possible marking reserved for the woman who is afraid of him. I do not run out of my fears, but I nurse a minor regret at having thought too much of everything, at thinking too much of everything.
Uzo’s mother visits and I hear her songs and the child’s squeals from my kitchen. All that happiness is framed in the air, chasing away the gloom that hung around for so long.
One morning, there are no screams. Uzo raps at my door quietly as if she needs a third witness to something this dreadful. Uzo’s mother clasps her hands tightly on her right knee and sways her torso. Uzo sits on a low stool and leans on the wall, her eyes half-closed. She appears too crumpled, too breathless to express any emotion. Only her mother keeps murmuring, He was turning one, he was just turning one.
Something black and burnished flickers in my vision. I see it slithering across the wall with zeal, aiming for a small hole in the ceiling. It is a kind of serpent I’d never seen; skin smoothened out, scales near invisible. As the ceiling swallows the last of it, the musky smell deserts the room. I look at the child lying in his crib, peaceful, as if the thing that lived in him has suddenly drained out. I notice some fluttering in his eyelids and I wonder if he’d surprise us all and spring back to life.
Frances Ogamba is the winner of the 2020 Inaugural Kalahari Short Story Competition and the 2019 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction. She is also a finalist for the 2019 Writivism Short Story Prize and 2019 Brittle Paper Awards for short fiction. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming on Chestnut Review, CRAFT, The Dark Magazine, midnight & indigo, Jalada Africa, Cinnabar Moth, The /tƐmz/ Review, and elsewhere. She is an alumna of the Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop taught by Chimamanda Adichie.