If you ask Kambirinachi, this is how she’ll tell it:
There was a spirit, a child, whose reluctance to be born, and subsequent boredom with life, caused her to come and go between realms as she pleased. Succumbing to the messy ordeal of being birthed, she would traverse to the flesh realm, only to carelessly, suddenly, let go of living like it was an inconvenient load. Death is only a doorway, and her dying was always a simple event; she would merely stop breathing. It was her nature. The dark tales of malevolent spirit children, Ọgbanjes, are twisted and untrue. It was never her intention to cause her mother misery; she was just restless. It was just the way.
The time before her final birth, in an attempt to make her stay, her mother marked her with a red-hot razor blade, just as the Babalawo instructed. Three deep lines at the nape of her neck, below the hairline, smeared with a pungent brown paste that burned and burned. All this so the Ọgbanje would stay bound to its body, and if not, at the very least, she would recognize it should the child choose to be born again.
The child died, of course.
She returned again. And maybe she took pity on the woman, or perhaps she was bored with the foreseeable rhythm of her existence, but this time she chose to stay. And the three horizontal welts on the back of her neck signified to the woman, her mother, that this was the same child. It might have been a coincidence; perhaps the woman’s mother-in-law (she’d never liked the woman, found her haughty) marked the child in secret to torment her.
Nevertheless, for Kambirinachi, living was a tumultuous cascade between the unbearable misery of being in this alive body indefinitely and an utter intoxication with the substance, the very matter, of life. When there was peace, life was near blissful, but otherwise, Kambirinachi’s childhood was nightmarish for her mother. Ikenna was an exhausted woman, a woman made hard by nearly two decades during which her body betrayed her. Or, as some might put it: almost two decades of being plagued by an Ọgbanje that caused her three late-term miscarriages, one stillbirth, two dead infants, and a dead toddler. She used to be much sweeter, softer, kinder, but it’s impossible to go through that particular brand of hell and stay untouched. She couldn’t help it; she hated the child a good portion of the time. And the child, too, must have hated her, after making her wait and suffer, only to wail the way she did—unprovoked, inconsolable, and seemingly interminable. To preserve her sanity and, frankly, the child’s well-being, Ikenna retreated inside herself, saving all tenderness for her husband, and leaving only a barely concealed indifference for Kambirinachi.
Kambirinachi was elusive. Even if she was sitting right before you, her absence would be palpable. As an eleven-year-old, her attention was always elsewhere.
“Where is Kambirinachi today?” Her father often teased, childlike, a broad smile stretched across his bearded face to reveal crooked and tobacco-stained teeth.
Kambirinachi chose that smile to be her anchor when the songs calling her back home were most persistent. One doorway back home was the unfinished borehole in the backyard, covered in flimsy, rotted wooden boards, with an opening just wide enough to swallow her small body and water just deep enough to drown her. Really, anything that would kill her was a doorway. The songs and voices of her Kin were loud loud shouting; it shocked her that nobody else could hear them. They made her accident-prone. The unfortunate thing tripped on stones that weren’t there and ended up with broken bones that couldn’t entirely be explained. She would go to sleep healthfully robust but wake up with blistering fevers. So she learned to think of her father’s smile and to sit still until the voices grew muffled and she could carry on with her adventure of the day.
Any thoughts of the future worked like a loosened tap that let the voices of her Kin rush out in a high-pressure stream, so she also learned not to think too far ahead. She thought of things she liked about being in her alive body: the smell of dust rising from the ground outside when heavy rain struck the earth, the burnt-sugar coconut taste of baba dudu. She thought of things she disliked: the sound of her mother’s voice when it was hardened by anger—she was angry often—the fervour in the pastor’s voice when he shouted on Sundays—he shouted often—about hellfire, Holy Ghost fire, and God smiting his enemies. She thought backward, about the in-between place before birth and after the hollowing of her body: her home—the place where she could become the things she loved most, where she would join the rays of sunlight and sing sing in sharp tones, high and joyful.
It struck in her a sadness, the pitying kind of sorrow, to know the things that alive bodies could never be.
There were lovely things about being alive, she had to remember, like the taste of guavas. Their existence filled her with so much joy that it burst out of her in gleeful laughter. This is how she ate them:
She found the sharpest knife in the kitchen, hiding it if her mother was near, the woman could shout, eh! She held the blade as far away from her body as her thin arms would allow—because images of her throat, tattered and bloody, flashed through her mind whenever she saw a knife (knives could also be doorways)—and sliced the bumpy emerald skin off, always trying and often failing to make a single long ribbon of the tart rind. After taking delicate bites of the soft pink flesh, shallow bites to leave the grainy seeds undisturbed, until the fruit became a knobby, slimy ball, she would pop the entire thing into her mouth, and spit out the fruit’s tiny seeds, one by one, all sucked clean.
Kambirinachi didn’t know about any future—how could she?
Even if she struggled past the voices, she couldn’t have imagined a future that involved leaving Abeokuta, studying fine arts at a university in Ife, meeting a person who would want to keep her, or becoming a mother, for that matter.
But before all that, how could she know, that day when she found herself in her father’s decrepit Peugeot 504 pickup, that she was being taken to boarding school in Lagos? Queen’s College in Yaba. She would be a QC girl. She couldn’t dare imagine that far.
So you’ll understand her confusion that day, dazed by the sweltering heat—for as long as they’d owned the truck, the A/C had never worked. Her mother sat in the driver’s seat in a faded adire iro and buba, talking talking.
“Kambirinachi, you have to behave o! But don’t worry, it’s a good school. It’s far, but not that far, we will visit every two weeks. Don’t cry, biko, it’s okay.”
But even as her mother said these words, her voice strained against the jagged emotions she attempted to mask by clearing her throat. Kambirinachi let tears fall freely down her face. She looked to her father leaning against the dusty truck window, his weathered face inches from hers, the smell of chewing tobacco on his breath.
“Kambi, my girl, be a big girl now, okay? Ebena akwa nwa m. Don’t cry.” He smiled despite his sadness.
“See you soon, Papa.” Her small voice shook with a question mark. “In two weeks?”
“In two weeks, my darling,” he reassured her. “If it weren’t for this rubbish car with only two seats, me sef I would be coming with you.”
Her mother started the car and a blast of heat filled the bottom of the pickup. Kambirinachi moved her legs to touch the Ghana must go shoved underneath the rusted metal of the passenger seat. Her father had filled it with tins of powdered milk, Milo, Golden Morn, and guavas—eight of them, tied tight in a black polythene bag. She watched him wave as the truck pulled out of the compound, watched him grow smaller and smaller as the distance expanded between them, waving all along. She waved back furiously, sobbing quietly.
It wasn’t until he was entirely out of sight, until she thought about seeing him again, in two weeks, the future, that the voices started their song again. At first, a single voice, high-pitched and familiar. And then another. More and more, until they were an overlapping riot of noise. Hard and harsh, relentless waves.
You won’t see him again. He will die.
She clutched her ears; they were inexplicably hot. She cried out through her tears, “No, no, please.”
“Ewo, this girl, you’ve started again. It’s okay!” her mother said.
Ikenna wanted to be firmer, but the tremor of the child’s voice softened her. She felt warm wetness slide down her plump cheeks, found that she, too, was crying. She wiped her tears with the back of her hand, pretending they were only sweat.