The Switch: by Rabi’atu Yakubu

You are late. I waited for you when I was fifty. I prayed and cried for you to appear when I was sixty. You had to wait till I was eighty? Was it to ensure that I suffered just a little bit more? No worries, you are here now. Wait please, let me tie my scarf properly. Ok, now you can come in and have a seat. Yes come in, sit right here, on the chair beside where I am on the bed.  Do not be shy, please come in. Did anybody see you? Can anybody else see you?

Well, now that you are seated, what is next? Do we leave now? Do you know where my destination is? Are you privy to that information? No, do not tell me. I like surprises, not so much these days though to be honest. Old age you see, my heart cannot take surprises anymore. But, when I was younger, my father would come back from his monthly trips to Kano with all sorts of exciting gifts for me. It was always a surprise; I could never guess what he would bring back. He once brought back a clay round ‘asusu’ for me, to hide my money inside.

Am I talking too much? Well, you cannot blame me. You are too quiet, certainly not what I was expecting. You do not reek of bleakness. I expected a black hooded figure with rotten teeth. I am not afraid of you. Does that offend you? Would you rather that I pretend? You look pensive. I like you. In a different world, we could have been friends. I enjoy spending time with people that don’t talk too much.

Are you hungry? Do you eat food? Laraba has kept food for me, it is right there beside you on the small wooden table. You can open the container to see what is inside. You do not want to eat? Me too. I do not know why she keeps bringing food. I already told her that I do not need it anymore. Although, when she brought it, for a change, she did not bother to wake me up this time. Maybe she has given up on me. I hope so. Her persistence to take care of me has been irritating. I was not always this grouchy, when I…

Are you bored with me? I see your eyes drifting to the wall. Are you looking at my family pictures? Go ahead, I do not mind. Let me introduce you to them. You see that one there, on the right, with the brown wooden frame? That young girl in the middle is me, and those two beside me on the left and right are my parents. The other picture beside it on the right shows my husband, Haliru and I, during our first year of marriage. He looks so handsome doesn’t he? We met when I was 19 years old and he was 25. He was a Fulani man from Yola, but his family lived here, in Kaduna. They were a family of farmers. We met in the market when he came to sell his farm produce. My stepmother was one of his customers. She was ill on that day, so I was in charge of her stall. We did not have long engagements in those days. He saw me, indicated his interest, went to my father for permission and we were married in less than 6 months.

I moved into his family compound, which comprised of his parents and his two younger brothers, Salihu and Aliyu. I did not have any problems with my in-laws, although I knew that his mother was secretly unhappy that he had married a Gwari girl. To her credit, she never showed it. Well, not in the beginning. When Salihu married Fatima, a cousin of theirs, her preference of Fatima over me became very visible.

Coincidentally, Fatima and I became pregnant at the same time. Our mother-in-law was overjoyed. She wanted sons, she kept telling us. It sounded like an instruction to our wombs. I prayed as hard as I could to God. I figured that maybe, giving birth to a son would equalize my status with Fatima in my mother-in-law’s heart. My mother had died when I was eight years old. My stepmother was good to me, but we could never form a strong mother-daughter bond. I grew up with a part of me missing.

Fatima and I went into labour on the same day, and at the same time. My cousin, Mairo, was the head nurse at the hospital that we were taken to. When Mairo handed over my child to me, I looked down at it and my heart sunk. I felt defeated. I asked her about Fatima, and she informed me that she had given birth to a boy. But, unfortunately Fatima had to be sedated due to some complications. She had not seen her baby yet. A thought occurred to me, and I asked Mairo if she had informed anybody about our babies. She informed me that our husbands miscalculated, they left the hospital before we gave birth, so only the nurses that were involved in the births were aware.

I begged Mairo to switch our babies. To this day, I cannot explain how the thought came to me. Mairo pitied me, thinking that the pain of childbirth had rendered me insane.  I came up with all sorts of lies to convince her. I told her that if she did not help me, I would be kicked out of my matrimonial home. Which was certainly not the case, Haliru did not care about the gender. He loved me and would have accepted anything that I gave birth to with gratitude.

Mairo agreed and she made the switch. I paid the other nurses handsomely to keep quiet. Our mother-in-law named the babies, Mahmood for the boy and Aisha for the girl. They are also there on the wall. Yes, you are pointing to the right picture.

I might have succeeded in switching the babies but I did not succeed in gaining my mother-in-law’s love. She treated Aisha with so much more love and care. It was always subtle, but not too subtle that I would not notice. Haliru called me paranoid. Looking back, maybe he was right.

Do not look at me like that, I did what I thought was best. I never got pregnant again. Fatima on the other hand, was blessed with three other children, two girls and one boy. I concluded that my womb was upset with me. It rejected me, just as I had rejected what it gave me. Haliru was not bothered, he kept pleading with me to be patient. He was optimistic that God would soon bless us again. I was too scared to confess the truth when I realised my error. Haliru died due to malaria before Mahmood and Aisha turned ten.

A part of me was relieved when he died. Why have you opened your mouth? Do not judge me. With him gone, I did not have to look at his compassionate and trusting eyes and feel guilty anymore. Another plus is that he left before Mahmood grew up. Haliru did not have to suffer like I did to raise that boy.

I tried to convince Fatima and Salihu to unite Aisha and Mahmood in marriage. That way, Aisha would be mine again. Aisha will find it hard to respect him they said, they were age mates after all and grew up together playing. But they could not fool me. I knew the real reason behind their rejection and I did not blame them. Aisha had grown up to be an amazing young lady. She had memorised the Qur’an at the age of seven, she was an upright citizen, always ready to help those in need. She was the leader among the neighbourhood kids, always settling fights and encouraging them to start community projects. She became a medical doctor. Mahmood? No matter how hard I tried with him, I failed. He was neither interested in school nor in learning a vocational skill. He fell into a life of laziness and drugs. As we speak, I have no idea where he is. I have not seen him for the past seven years. People tell me about his sightings, but I do not care.

My brothers in law, their wives and children have been good to me. After Haliru died, they provided me with all the support that I needed. They offered me financial assistance even though they knew that I had inherited a good proportion of my father’s vast wealth. Their children still come to visit me regularly, as I have outlived all their parents. Do I look my age? Forgive me for laughing, I have seen my appearance, I know how ancient and miserable I look. But, I appreciate your determination to not offend me. You are quite polite. Let me continue telling you my story, I feel lighter by talking to you.

I kept hoping that Aisha would find out somehow and realise that I was her real mother. You see that picture of my parents? I only put it up a few years ago. I hoped that Aisha would see it and she would realise that she was mine. Whenever I saw Aisha, I saw my mother. She had inherited my mother’s large playful eyes, her dark curly hair and her small flat nose. Even their voice – a soft excited tone that sounded like it belonged to a child – was the same. She comes to visit me every Saturday, unfailingly. Coincidentally that is today, maybe she will be the one to find my body.

Perhaps God saw that I did not deserve Aisha, and he gave her a better mother.

Were you the one that took my Haliru? Do not take me to him please. I will not be able to answer him when he asks about the son that he thought he had.

You are standing up? Is it time? Okay, let us go. Do you know if I have been forgiven? You do not know or you cannot tell me? Okay, I see. Let us go.

 


Rabi’atu Yakubu is a fiction writer based in Abuja. Her fiction has appeared in The Kalahari Review.

Related country: Nigeria

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