Fiction by Claudia Owusu
We were all “Baby A”. Every. Single. One of us.
At first, it began as a small joke, leaving namelessness a place in the family house. But then it kept on stretching through longer periods of time with each sibling until it just…stuck.
Between the early months when Ma’s belly swelled like a passionfruit, to when she was bursting at the seams, pee trickling in her panties with every sneeze, Ma went to God with prayers about our names. Her voice would rise like a polythene bag in a violent wind, thundering the same tongues grandma used to shout around the house. It was a time, just a mere whisper away from the months grandma kept throwing her slippers away and started walking around barefoot—way before the harmattan she lied down on the outdoor bench and never got back up.
Ma always sought counsel from both the ancestors and God—chewing on names; “A” names. And so, my sister Alma was born, and then Abigail, and then Amina, and then Alexandra, and then me, Agnes. I stayed “Baby A” the longest, my birth certificate, the most quieted; the months that passed, the most questioned; and in June, just around when all the other babies were being dedicated at the Crusader’s Church in Taifa, the Pastor asked about me in Ma’s arms, and his eyes lay discontent at the answer Ma gave, so funny that she laughed right there, right there in front of the altar, her kind of coughing, sneezing laughter that relegated everyone in the room into a space of childlike embarrassment. It wasn’t like any of the men Ma got with had names that began with A. Or even that their holy grandmammmies had “A” names to be sentimental over, but Ma got real inside herself after my second oldest sister Abigail’s daddy left. Real early in the morning before the chickens had even come up with their cry to the barely visible moon, creeping off just softly enough for only the crickets to sing goodbye in his wake. Ma being the Asante woman she was didn’t cry, maybe she suspected as much. With her hair locked all over her head and her eyes the color of corn husk, she took both my sisters in her arms and took to the Makola market streets to find work. Abigail, who wasn’t Abigail then, but only Baby A, would man the front kiosk whenever Ma had clients that she needed to take to the back. Alma would find herself in the cartons of sugar and milo that the store had, and she would spend the afternoons eating herself elbow deep until her loose front teeth matched her mahogany complexion and her sugar high widened her eyes into heavy oaks.
When I came around, Ma was married to my Daddy who was a mixed-race preacher from Savannah, Georgia. The day she met him, Ma said he stood proud and tall with a head full of curly hair at the front of the altar, his Southern English dripping as thick as fresh marmalade. She had only heard English like that in the film “Daughters of the Dust”, a story of suffering women, which she caught bits and pieces of in between house work during the weekdays.
After church that Sunday in 1995, Ma and Daddy spoke briefly and arranged a date, and had me a year later. And despite people turning their noses up at Ma, being the haggard woman she was to snatch up one of the last really good missionaries, Daddy did right by her. Stood by her side long enough. Even Grandma said so. Sang her hymnals on Sunday morning, taught her how to grow corn in the front yard, and took her on horse rides at the Labadi Beach when the money coming in from the church was real good. And best of all, he didn’t have no problem with Ma’s unnaming. Said that a woman like her only needed time, needed some thinking through in order to settle herself and be sure of what kind of spirit she was inviting into her house, God forbid she named one of us wrongly. And at first, I liked Baby A. It felt like something sweet to hang onto, a trinket of Ma’s love for me, but then the times got longer, harmattan came and went, Grandma broke her back in the farm, Daddy quit the church and left back to Georgia, and my namelessness stood out like bad crop.
Staring at my budding breasts, moments before fetching the pail from the aged metal bucket full of bath water, I was no longer a baby, and “Ayyy” was a hollow sound I felt worlds away from, like something cheap you’d say to drive a nosy goat away, or to get a hawker’s attention in a crowded market.
Before Daddy left, the house had gotten so empty that it felt heavier. Ma kept receiving letters from God knows where, Daddy kept drinking, and Grandma anointed all of us more than once a day, her memory a butterfly’s wings melting away between forefinger and thumb. In those days, Ma would sit at the dining table with a photo album and cry. A thunderstorm wavering in her chest and a desert smoke in her mouth. Alma would return home from work and find me on the steps, creeping behind the curtains and pinch me between the shoulders. Daddy never hit Ma, not like the others. And most of all, Daddy bought Ma flowers and things around the market. Abigail said sometimes physical objects ain’t good for showing love, that it doesn’t necessarily mean a person is going to stay, and a couple of months later, when all of Daddy’s things had left the house, and all my older sisters watched, waiting for my questions, holding alms for my hurts, I kept mute. I snuck out in the night to the well on our compound and tried to find my own name. It had been almost 10 years, and Baby A, or B, or Bya when you say it real fast enough, was what took up the space; was what kept like a stone holding down a stack of papers in the wind. It took another year or two for her to find my name, and by then I had exhausted myself with waiting—being addressed by an American last name at school, my piercing dirty blonde ringlets standing out so severely that not even yomo could quiet it down
Daddy had been calling less and less until less turned into nothing, and then nothing turned to wondering if he was alive, safe, and then nothing again. When Ma discovered my name, she was sitting at an open fire over the crock pot, fanning away in her absent mind, a ravine in her eyes. The sun had just about put itself to rest, and my older sisters were just getting home from their apprenticeships, one after the other, carrying a half-braided doll head or a web of sewing needles and thread, suckling at a thumb or dipping fingers into a cold cup of ice water. The wind whistled all on its own, in the eerie way that makes Grandmothers warn grandchildren about dwarfs coming in the night to take them away. As Ma’s hair swept across her face, and the fire dimmed down to the lowest whisper, Ma rolled over the wooden stool she was seated on and lunged towards me, “The voices…I mean the ancestors…I can hear them again.” she said. The apaapa she used to fan the fire now crackled in the charcoal flames, sending sparks like flies through the night. I shuddered as her black fingers bit into my arm, drawing up red marks. “They right here with me. They been. And I think they saying they want me to name you Agnes. It sounds Israeli, doesn’t it? Greek? I think they’ve forgiven me. Can’t smell another man on me anymore, maybe. I heard them loud and clear in the fire: Your name is going to be Agnes.” My sisters stood around, each grabbing onto something for solid ground, mouths opening and closing, as I sat in the middle of the verandah, the corridor behind me a long line of things only Ma could see with her opened eyes. “Now, Ma. I know how and where it is you are coming from, but isn’t it a bit too late for that? The girl will be 10 next month. And besides, everybody around here is getting used to calling her Richardson instead of Baby. It’s not always that something has to be precisely named—” But Ma’s eyes only grew in absence, flying far from the conversation, as she looked into the fire and kept whispering, “Agnes. Agnes. Agnes”
I remember going to sleep that night, wondering if it was me or the fire she was calling.
Claudia Owusu a senior Creative Writing major at Otterbein University with minors in Film Studies and Race & Ethnic Studies. Her work has appeared in Quiz & Quill, Otterbein University’s Literary Magazine, Wusgood.black, 20.35 African Contemporary Poetry through Brittle Paper, and Ohio’s Best Emerging Poets 2017 and 2018. Her short film, Zora (2017), was showcased at the Nkabom Literary Art Festival in Accra, Ghana and Lome, Togo.
Originally published April 25, 2019