Where Lands Meet
by Nia Eze
Copyright © 2017 Nia Eze
All Rights Reserved
Digital License Notes
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This is a work of fiction. Any names or characters, businesses or places, events or incidents, are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Maami watched the little child sucking at her breast, nestled in the parody of a loving cuddle in her arms with a mixture of grief, resentment and relief warring within her. She wondered at the terrible mix of emotions that the baby was probably sucking down his gut along with her breast milk. Breast milk that had the Lord been so kind should have nourished her own baby. But her baby had died. A little girl, they told her, so perfectly formed that it seemed a tragic waste that she had not lived to fulfill the promise of great beauty already stamped on her features from birth. She had died only a few hours after being born and now, this boy child, this white boy child was taking her place at her mother’s breast.
How Maami grieved the injustice of it all. They had taken everything! Everything that gave her humanity and dignity and yet the Lord, the one who they said was just and righteous did nothing. She wondered whether Nyame, the high god, would have done nothing had it been in his jurisdiction that this had happened. She seriously doubted it. But then, where had Nyame been when the slave traders had carried her away from her loving family on a journey of no return? Why had He not saved her from her uncle’s maliciousness when he had planned with the white men to kidnap her so that she and Kwame would be unable to marry and his own daughter, her cousin Amma would be the unrivaled maiden in their village? The gods were not fair, she concluded. It was true what they said, the old ones in her village, that the gods were too busy with more important things to be concerned about the foibles of man. But how she wished that they would! How she wished it with all her being!
The boy child stopped sucking and she looked down at him to see why. He had fallen asleep. She held him in her arms studying his features closely while looking for a sign of… she was not sure what she wanted to see. That he would remember when he was older that it was her who nursed him? That he would be a better person than his society and culture would want to mould him into? What was she hoping for this baby?
Presently, he stirred and opened his eyes to look directly at her. In that moment, it seemed to Maami that he knew exactly who she was, that to this baby, she was not invisible, interchangeable or dispensable. He gurgled out a toothless smile at her and seemed to be trying to get her to enjoy his delight at being born and alive with him. Maami could not help the smile that touched her lips. Babies, she decided, were the same. Whether their skin was white or dark brown like hers, babies were babies. It was life that taught them to draw the lines as they grew. To decide that one human being was more valuable than another.
“You need to stop loitering Maami. If the baby has been nursed then you should lay him down and get to other things as needs doing!” Mrs. Martha scolded as she bustled into the room. She picked the baby up, Scott, Scott Thorne Richardson II and carried him out of the room, calling out instructions as she left and mumbling about silly black cows.
Maami remained seated for a few moments longer as she allowed the burn of the insults wash out of her spirit. She should be used to it by now but how does one ever get used to the denigration of one’s spirit? She reckoned that she could speak English as well as Mrs. Martha. She could have and indeed usually did Mrs. Martha’s work as well as her own in half the time it took Mrs. Martha to do hers alone. But she dared not show that she was as smart as she was. If Mrs. Martha took a dislike to her, it would go rough for her. And so she smiled her foolish grin and stood to her feet. She walked out in an unsteady gait as she tried to get blood flowing back down her legs after sitting so long in one position. She pretended that it did not wound her to numbness when Mrs. Martha spoke like she did. She pretended that she was content with her foolishness.
She made her way down to the kitchen gently for she was still feeling tender after childbirth. Again, her sorrow for her lost baby rose to the fore. Nine whole months and nothing to show for it! They did not even let her hold her baby, not once. Rather, they had immediately put her to work in the kitchen. The old cook was becoming blind and her bones gave her such trouble in the mornings. It had become a struggle for her to get up in the mornings so Maami had been sent to the kitchen to learn how to cook for the master and his family. She liked the kitchens. It was easier than the wash room where she had been since she had joined this household and the aroma of cooking food had always been one of the simple joys of life for her. It reminded her of her home and cooking with her mother, aunties and cousins.
She had worked in the fields for another family for many years until they had discovered that she was pregnant. It had been the master’s man that had gotten her pregnant. They had sold her off quickly enough. The family had prided themselves as devout Christians and had not wanted the scandal of a mixed breed baby on their lands. She scoffed at the memory of her ill use at their hands. She had not wanted the attention she had gotten from the Mr. Hoover but had that stopped him? Had she been with her family he would have been severely punished for what he had done to her. But her family was not here and she had not made friends easily. Even if she had, what could they have done? They were all helpless.
She straightened her back as she gained her balance. It would not break her, their unfeelingness, their neglect of her humanity. One day, Nyame would have to show up. Hadn’t the elders always said so? Although what he would do when he did was beyond her.
Twenty five years later.
Scott woke gently as if drifting on a cloud. He had the disorienting feeling of angels singing for him. That thought snapped him out of it as he jolted up from the bed, wide awake. He breathed a sigh of relief when he realized that he was in his room and lying on his bed and very much alive.
Since his mother had died peacefully in her sleep almost a year ago, he had been wary of passing on in his own sleep as well.
Mrs. Richardson had never been seriously ill a day in her life. At least, that’s what everyone said. So it had come as a shock to everyone on the plantation when they had woken up one morning to her personal maid’s scream and the crash of the tea service to the ground as she had discovered her mistress’s cold body on her bed.
Scott figured that since he had not felt any overwhelming grief, just a curious sense of loss and sadness at her passing, nature had contrived to wring out some sort of emotion from him hence the phobia. He had not woken up well since his mother had died.
The singing began again and drifted in melodiously from his window. He got off his bed languidly and made his way over to that window. The singing had woken him every morning for two weeks but he had yet to catch the person who was doing it. He knew the singing was from the vegetable garden at the back of the kitchen but whenever he went downstairs to catch sight of the singer, she had disappeared from sight. She, the voice was definitely female.
He looked out the window to gaze at the flower gardens that his mother had lovingly tended with the kind of passion that she had rarely shown her offspring. His mother had been sad. Not the weepy, morose sort of sadness that made life unbearable for those around the afflicted, but the kind that permeated everything with its presence but yet did not overwhelm. It was just there, like a family member who did not quite fit in with the rest of the family but couldn’t be done away with. It had taken him being an adult to understand that that was what ailed his mother but he had never discovered what had caused her sadness. No one seemed to know the cause. Not even his father, her doting husband of many years. Maami had told him of a woman she had known back in her African village that had had a similar ailment. She had, according to Maami, lost her mind after childbirth and had never quite been the same again. She hadn’t been ill, but she had become a ghost of her former self, not quite engaging with life thereafter.
The singing had stopped and Scott looked down towards the vegetable garden, inexplicably torn between rushing down to see if he could catch the singer and remaining where he was so that he could hear out the rest of her song. It wasn’t even a proper song, just a melodious tune with words that didn’t make any particular sense. The flash of white caught his eye as the wearer of the dress darted around the corner of the house to pick something from the ground and darted back. It was only a few seconds but it was enough to get his attention. The dress was the uniform of a kitchen maid in the house. His singer was a kitchen maid, he marveled. Perhaps Maami would know who she was. He should have questioned his obsession with finding out who the early morning singer was, but he did not.
He moved away from the window and rang for his valet. He did not need to rush. He now knew exactly where to go find his singer.
Nchefu picked up her basket of vegetables and continued on her merry way to the kitchen not realizing the havoc she had caused in a young man’s mind upstairs.
She began to drop the basket with a characteristic thump when she saw Mrs. Martha standing at the other door that led into the other parts of the house where she was not allowed to go to, the family quarters. Only the parlor maids and the upstairs maids where allowed to go there. She had had a peek once. It was a grand place with little lights shining from crystals and the smell of expensive perfumes and fancy furnishings.
She dropped the basket gingerly with Mrs. Martha’s jowl mimicking the descent of the basket until it rested on the table.
“You spent long enough outside just to pick this one basket.” she harangued in a scolding voice. “Where is that Maami?” her voice began to rise a notch as she looked at the stove area from which the elderly woman was conspicuously absent.
“Right here Mrs. Martha and it’s a good morning to you.” Maami answered as she came in through the door from the servant’s quarters. Actually, it should have been called the slave quarters because the white servants did not stay there. They had better rooms closer to the family quarters in this grand old mansion.
“You are getting lazier by the day!” she launched into a scold completely ignoring the other woman’s greeting and the pain evident on her face as she hobbled to the stove. Nchefu had lit a fire and set a kettle to boil before she had gone out to pick the herbs and vegetables they would need in preparing today’s meals.
“It will be sore for you if the master’s breakfast is not ready on time!” Mrs. Martha’s voice had become strident at this point.
“It be ready on time.” Maami answered her voice just short of a belligerent growl but her features as placid as can be. Nchefu always admired Maami’s ability to keep her face devoid of all emotion. It was only through her voice that she could tell what the other woman was feeling really.
“It had better be!” Mrs. Martha scolded as she huffed out of the kitchen, probably to go look for some other poor soul to harass.
To hear Maami, Mrs. Martha had never been an especially kind woman but her sour disposition had gotten out of control since the unfortunate passing of the Missus. It seemed the Master was too despondent at his Missus’s passing to even notice. Things had apparently been a lot mellower when the Missus had been alive.
Poor Missus! Dead at the prime of her life. Maami said child bearing had made her ill and that she had just lingered after the birth of her children, neither rejoining the land of the living or passing on in to the land of the dead. She had gone through the motions of life but had never again really become a part of it.
“Thank you dear child.” Maami said as she shuffled over to the table and began unloading the items from the basket. “If that fire had not been going, we could not have gotten rid of her as quickly.”
Nchefu smiled at her cheerfully and Maami felt her breathe catch in her throat. The child was beautiful. She supposed the kitchen was the safest place for her. If she had been one of the upstairs maids or parlor maids or even on the fields, it would have been a lot rougher on her. The misbehavior of men was not as selective of skin color and status as it should. The white man in the grand salon with his pampered existence could behave just as badly as the battered black man in the fields.
“We has best get moving if we don’t want Mrs. Martha here causing all kinds of noise about breakfast.” she said as she began to pick at the leaves in front of her and set Nchefu to finding a knife.
Nyame was yet to show up. Perhaps it would be the Lord who showed up. She shrugged and bent to her task.
Scott strolled out of the study with his coffee cup in hand. He needed a refill and while he could have easily rung for another carafe to be brought to him, he needed to stretch his legs and besides, he wanted to see Maami. He had not seen her in a while. He wondered if her arthritis was acting up as the weather had turned rainy in the past week.
He had not woken to the melodious voice of his singer this week. Not even once. He could blame the incessant rain for that too. He had not gotten around to finding out from Maami who the kitchen maid was.
As he approached the back of the house where the kitchen he was, he heard the chatter of women as they went about preparing the day’s meal. Pleasant aromas of mixed herbs and spices wafted to his nostrils. He loved this part of the house even though he did not get to visit it as often as he would have liked. He never felt as at home in other parts of the house as he felt here in the kitchens with the scents of cooking food in the air.
“Master Scott!” the appalled voice of Mrs. Martha reached his ears causing him to roll his eyes. “Whatever is the matter?” she asked anxiously as she hurried as fast as her stumpy fat legs could carry her.
“Nothing Mrs. Martha. I just came to refill my cup.” he held up the mug in his hand to show her.
“You should have rung Sir. There was no need for you to come to the kitchen yourself.” she shuddered as she said the word ‘kitchen’ as if it were a horrid word.
“Well, I’m here so I might as well get my refill. But definitely have someone replace the carafe in the study.” he instructed mildly as he stepped jauntily into the main kitchen. His eyes immediately went to Maami at the stove as she bent over the pot stirring its content rhythmically, her back to him. The kitchen had gone silent except for the sound of cooking. Apparently, hearing his and Mrs. Martha’s voices had shut the lot of them up.
He studied her posture as she continued to stir and noticed that she was standing awkwardly. ‘She must be in some pain’, he thought to himself as he moved in more fully into the kitchen. She turned from the pot as he stepped towards her, a smile of welcome in her eyes even though her face remained placid.
“Welcome Master Scott.” she greeted simply, bowing slightly at him in deference. That bow still made him uncomfortable. She felt more like a mother to him than his own had ever felt.
He raised the mug again and said “Just wanting a refill.” She stretched out her hand to him for the cup and he handed it over and proceeded to stand about awkwardly in the centre of the room. What he really wanted to do was take a seat, have a chat with Maami and breath in the aromas wafting around him but Mrs. Martha was lurking behind him at the door of the kitchen and making him feel vastly uncomfortable.
He glanced at the girl to whom Maami had passed on the mug with the instruction to make fresh coffee. She was really light skinned for a black girl. He wondered if there was some ‘white’ mixed in her ancestry. Then again, Maami had told him of people from her region so light skinned that they would pass for a white person or a mixed breed. Perhaps she was one of those.
The awkwardness of it all finally had him taking a seat at the trestle table. The girls were still silent even though a glance at the door had assured him that Mrs. Martha had taken herself off someplace else.
“So what brings the master down here other than coffee?” Maami asked as she came to drop a mug newly filled with coffee in front of him.
Scott smiled at her question. Maami was perceptive like that.
“How is your leg?” he asked in response.
“Coping.” Maami shrugged as she turned to go back to the stove.
“I see you have a new girl since I last was here.” he continued in conversation. Some would have thought it odd that Maami had turned her back to him in mid-conversation but he and Maami did not stand on such protocol. Their relationship had always been unusual as Maami had taken on a more and more active role in his upbringing as his mother’s illness had deteriorated. He found it difficult to think of her as a servant but then again, she was not his mother. Society would probably shudder to think that he could harbor such familial feelings towards her.
“Yes, I do.” She responded abruptly. The abruptness of her response brought Scott’s head up. Her back remained resolutely turned towards him as she clanged the lids of various pots boiling slowly at the cooking area. He turned to look again at the young girl and spluttered on his coffee. She was beautiful! He tried to take a gulp of his coffee and almost choked. He was saved by the slap of Maami’s hand at the centre of his back.
“Watch your step young boy!” she said with an oddly quiet tone. It seemed like she was scolding him, warning him but her damnable placid features prevented him from knowing which.
“What’s her name?” he whispered hoarsely, his throat still trying to recover from the abuse it had just suffered. He could see something flash in Maami’s eyes. She did not want to respond to his question, innocent though it seemed.
“Nchefu.” she bit out and again turned away towards the stove.
‘Nchefu’. Scott sounded the name in his mind. Nchefu. He wondered what that meant. He was certain it would have a meaning as wonderful as she was beautiful.
The sound of the bell being pulled was loud in the kitchen. Soon, one of the parlor maids stood at the door in response. Scott watched as the girl called Nchefu handed over a tray with the makings of coffee to her and exchanged a few whispered words with her. The other girl smiled shyly and took the tray back towards the front room leaving Nchefu to turn back towards her kitchen duties. Scott felt the flip in his stomach again as he caught sight of her face. She did not once look in his direction and if his wits had been around him, he would have noticed that she was studiously avoiding looking anywhere near where he was.
“Would you be needing anything else Master Scott?” Maami asked
Scott turned a befuddled gaze towards her. It took a few moments for understanding of the question he had been asked to come to him.
“No…ah…No, that’s…” At the continued and steady stare from Maami, he stood hastily from his seat turning it over in his awkwardness. “Thank you Maami. For the coffee that is.” he blushed red at the ramblings coming out of his mouth. What was wrong with him? He almost slapped his forehead in exasperation.
There was the sound of stifled giggling and he turned sharply to Nchefu. She had her back turned to him as she pounded the leaves of some aromatic herb in a mortar with its pestle. She might have tried to stifle her laughter, but her shoulders shook with it revealing her as the culprit. That however was not what had Scot spellbound. It may be that he had never heard her laugh before but he knew that voice. He would know it anywhere. He had just found his singer. She was all that he had imagined she would be and much more. He hurriedly left the kitchen before he would make an even bigger fool of himself than he already had.
Maami watched him leave and then raised her eyes up to the skies in what seemed like supplication. She shook her head as she looked down at Nchefu. It would be that when Nyame chose to show up, he would send Anansi. Though what good could come out of him sending that trickster was beyond her frail human understanding.
Nchefu hurried into the small shanty building located at the fringes of the Richardson’s property line. It was one of many such wooden structures in the area. The three major land owners in these parts had contributed a little portion of their land where they all co-joined to make for the little village where the ex-slaves, who were not accommodated in the main properties, could live. It was far enough from the main house not to distort the ambience of the surrounding hills and valleys, far enough not to be a nuisance reminder of last three decades.
Ever since the emancipation, the tension between the white landowners and the black and native population had taken a new turn. No longer were the terms, ‘master’ and ‘slave’ clearly defined. For the ex-slaves, it was a toss-up whether things had actually gotten better or taken a turn for the worse. For many of them who had never had to work for pay before, it was impossible for them to accurately judge what would constitute a fair pay and even if they had judged correctly, how would they begin to bargain? They knew nothing else and they did not own anything other than the clothes on their back and so they remained largely dependent on their former slave masters.
There were talks of ships taking people back to the Motherland but as Maami had said, ‘Who knows where the ship would take you? There are many kingdoms in the Motherland and how would you find your way home?’ Many of the ex-slaves chose to remain in the Indies. It did not make sense to exchange the known for the unknown. Even urgings from those who felt confident of finding their way home could not convince them. Many of them were second, even third generation slaves. They had known no other life. The thought of taking their future into their own hands was more daunting than they could try. They had never had to.
She bounced the basket she had brought in on the crudely hewn table in the centre of the room. It was quite loaded with vegetables and other goodies brought over from the big house. Maami had been distracted that evening as Nchefu had prepared to leave. She had absentmindedly packed more than she was wont to into the basket.
“That you Nche?” Her father asked. That was one of the reasons why they could not leave. Her father was blind. He could not even work talk more of go bravely into a brand new world so in the Indies they would remain.
“Yes Pa. It is me.” she answered as she walked towards him wiping her hand down the skirt of her dress. “Isn’t Ma back?” she questioned.
Her father sighed in response. It was answer enough for Nchefu. She did not question further.
“I brought some things over from the big house. Maami sends her greetings.” she changed the topic of her conversation. “I’ll get to making us some dinner.”
She softly brushed her hand on her father’s shoulder and he clasped it lightly before releasing it. “You good child Nche. You good to me like no other children here.” he said wistfully. Nche playfully tapped his belly.
“That your tummy speaking or is you?” she asked in the slanging patois accent. She tried to speak proper like while she was at the big house but here in her parent’s hut, she often found herself reverting to the accent and slangs of many of her people.
As she turned to go to the crudely hewn cooking area, the raffia door to the small hut was shifted open. A huge hulking shadow bent his way into the hut. Nchefu might have screamed if she had not immediately recognized the hulking form.
“Do you watch for me?” she scolded derisively at Koko as he made his way further into the room, stopping to take a peep at the contents of the basket as he made his way over to the bench where Agada was seated.
“I don’t.” he shrugged. “Is my boys that don tell me when you get back.” he answered.
Nchefu shook her head as she continued with her preparations. Agada and Koko struck up a conversation which they kept going until the meal was ready and Nchefu brought the food over to them. She looked to the door of the hut in worry. It was a full two hours past when her mother should have gotten back. It was not an unusual happening, but there had been some restiveness in the last few weeks as stories of the ships going to the Motherland had become more and more pervasive. She hoped that she was okay.
She caught Koko watching her with a concerned look on his own face.
“She be later than usual.” she answered the unspoken question. Koko nodded slowly and looked down at his meal but not fast enough that Nchefu did not see the flash of something dodgy in his eyes.
“What?” she asked. When he did not respond but just kept shoveling food into his mouth, she dragged the bowl away from him.
“Why you be doing that?” he asked
“What’s a happening Koko?”She demanded again.
“Me heards that there be a ship to the Motherland at them docks in the big town. Me heards some peoples be saying them are saw your ma headed there with that Gerald.” he finished looking apologetically at Agada on whom the apology was lost. He sat stock still, a handful of meal forgotten in his hand as he listened to what was being said.
“She what?” Nchefu demanded, even as a mix of dread, disbelief and sorrow began to roil within her. “She what?” she near screamed.
Koko put his hand over his ear. “You shouting crazy!” he chided. “You’s heards me well.”
‘No, No, No, No.’ the refrain kept chanting in her head. With things the way they were, how was she going to cope? It had taken two of them to take care of their little family but if her Ma was gone like Koko was saying, how was she going to cope with caring for her Pa and feeding them both? She felt herself collapse on the floor as the enormous weight of her predicament hit her.
“No Sugar girl!” Koko said softly. “Is no need for that. Me’s here to take care of you and your Pa. We’s gone on like before. She no do much anyhows. We’s be okay.” he assured.
Nchefu watched the tears rolling down her father’s face and felt the tears rolling down her own. She was mute in the face of his grief.
“Is okay.” Koko consoled. “Old Man Gads, it be okay. We’s take care okay?” When he got no response, he fell silent in the face of the grief of the two people in the room with him. Dinner…well everyone had lost their appetite.
He would have cheerfully wrung Nwaka’s neck if she had been anywhere nearby.
Nchefu woke up to the clanging of her internal alarm clock. She had gotten used to waking at the crack of dawn. She hurriedly got off her raffia mat and rolled it up. She looked over to where her father lay on his own mat. Mercifully, he was still sleeping. She had spent a good portion of the night listening to him sobbing quietly as she tried to find a comfortable sleeping position on the hard packed dirt floor.
She quickly did her morning ablutions and dressed hurriedly for work. There was barely anytime to waste. She looked again over at her dad and sighed. He looked gaunt even from behind. She worried that he was not eating enough. She knew that Koko came over during the day from the carpentry shop he and a few of his cohorts had set up to check on him but he never could stay for long and Nchefu worried that her father was too despondent to eat.
For the first time in her life, Nchefu felt resentment towards someone. How ironic that it would be her mother. She quickly put out the light of the hurricane lamp and doused the fire she had lit to boil some water for her dad.
“I’m on my way now Pa.” she called out to him as she went towards the door. There was no response. She shrugged as she opened the door and walked out into the cool morning.
Her father had taken her mother’s desertion harder than she had thought that he would, considering the number of times he had scoffed and made disparaging remarks at her. Man! Who could say they honestly understood their fellow man? Her thoughts churned with her itinerary for the day so much so that she did not notice when a figure began to follow her some half way to the big house. She had almost made it to the outer reaches of the formal garden when she realized that she was being followed. She glanced surreptitiously over her shoulder and on sighting the tall muscular form, took off at a run. The man made to chase after her, actually ran a few steps and then stopped abruptly. As Nchefu gained on the kitchen door, she risked another peek over her shoulder and saw that the figure remained watching her from the spot where he had stopped giving her chase.
Only then, with her heart thundering away in her chest did she realize that it was a white male and that it looked like it was Master Scott. She shook her head in consternation trying to make sense of it but not succeeding.
She turned around and banged into the kitchen frightening Tamara who was already at the trestle table kneading dough for bread.
“What’s that?” she asked agitatedly. “You don scared the sense off me!”
“I’m sorry Tammy. Me’s thought someone was chasing me.”
Tammy cocked her head at that and went to the door to look outside.
“Is nobody there? You’s sure about that?” she asked
Nchefu was still leaning against the wall beside the door struggling to catch her breath. She shrugged “Me thinks I saw somebody.” she concluded.
“Is no safe.” Tammy complained as she went back to kneading the dough. “You’s don have to walk all that ways. Maybe Maami gets Mrs. Martha to let you stay up here at the big house.” she suggested.
“Ain I be doing what about my Pa?” Nchefu asked.
Tammy shrugged again as she had no answer for that.
“It had better my dough be ready for the oven if you girls have time to stand around talking.” Maami’s authoritative voice sounded from the doorway. Both girls immediately made a curtsey in greeting and set about looking busy. There were family meals to cook.
Nchefu felt the prickly sensation of being watched once more. She refused to look up. She suspected that she already knew who was watching her. She carried on tending to the vegetable garden. It used to be Maami who supervised the gardening, but lately, she found herself doing the gardening mostly unsupervised as Maami joints gave her more and more trouble. Nchefu did not mind as Maami had taught her well. She hummed under her breath as she dug and snapped away at the plants she was grooming. Occasionally, she would sing the words of the song out and then finish it in a hum.
“You sing really well.”
Nchefu was so surprised that he had spoken to her that her hands ceased in the act of pulling up an errant clump of weed.
“I have been listening to you sing for weeks.” He continued haltingly.
Nchefu dropped the trowel in her hand and stood up slowly, a little confused as to how she should react to that. He leaned against one of the ornamental trees that marked the border between the vegetable garden and more picturesque flower gardens. She dropped a respectful curtsey and stood awkwardly waiting for him to state his business and go on to wherever he had been going.
“You don’t say much do you?” he asked. Still Nchefu did not respond. What could she have said to that? In all the months that she has been in the kitchens, she had never had any reason to speak to any member of the Richardson family. In fact, she doubted that they had any particular interest in who worked for them as long as the household ran like clockwork.
“What does your name mean?” he asked and Nchefu’s head snapped up to look at him.
“Sir?” she questioned not sure she heard him right.
“I said, ‘what does your name mean?’” he repeated slowly, intoning each word carefully like he was not sure if she could understand him.
Nchefu was nonplussed. No one had ever asked her that question, not even Maami or Koko.
“Forgetfulness.” she answered simply.
“Forgetfulness? That’s odd. Why…” he stopped abruptly as his complexion turned pink. “I suppose that they had things they would have rather forgotten.” he finished.
Nchefu felt a smile coming on her lips and ruthlessly tamped it down. It was an incongruous time to be amused. She remained silent.
“So you can speak.” he remarked. Still she remained silent. He made to go away at her continued silence but turned back to her again.
“You are really pretty and you have a pretty voice.” he complimented and then turned and strode away briskly.
Nchefu stood there staring after him in a strange mix of consternation, pride and amusement.
There was a large crowd gathered at the front door to her parent’s hut as Nchefu trudged home, the basket filled with items that Maami had given her clutched at her side. She watched in confusion as several hands pointed towards her as she walked down the path towards them. A lone figure broke away from the group and began to walk towards her. She recognized him as Clemens, one of Koko’s friend with whom he had started the carpentry shop.
As she got closer to him, she could see the lines of tension on his face and her heart began to pound erratically in her chest.
“What’s the matter Clems?” she asked when he got close enough for him to hear her. He did not immediately respond but when he got to her he turned around at her side and continued the homeward journey with her. She was close enough now that she could hear the sniffling and suppressed sobs of a mournful crowd. She turned to look more closely at Clemens but he was avoiding her gaze as he looked stoically, straight ahead.
She picked up her skirts and ran the rest of the way to the hut. As she approached, the crowds parted and made silent room for her to go into the hut. Her ears rang with the pounding of her heart as she stepped over the threshold into the dark recesses of the hut. It seemed to her that there were as many people inside the hut as stood around outside it. She stared blindly at the faces, searching for a familiar face and located Koko squatting over a prone figure at the far side of the hut.
Her heart literally stopped beating. The silence of it almost as deafening as the pounding of it had been.
“Koko?” she whispered as her feet suddenly refused to move forward. He looked up at her with unshed tears brimming in his eyes. There were black spots dancing around the edges of her vision. The other occupants of the room stood silently as they watched this tableau.
“Is sorry I am Sugar girl.” he said mournfully. “I no knows he’ll do it. I don…” he struggled to contain his emotions.
“Is he dead?” It seemed that watching Koko struggle to contain his grief released her from her fear of hers.
Koko, still too overwhelmed to speak simply nodded once. Everything went black as Nchefu slid into a faint.
When she came to, she was lying on the opposite side of the hut from where her father’s dead body lay. There were some elderly men gathered around his body now as they deliberated in low tones on what was to be done. What had Koko meant by what he said? Had her father knowingly ended his own life? Was her mother worth it all? Was she just the straw that broke the camel’s back?
There was some commotion at the door as someone loudly demanded to be let in. She turned lethargically to see what the noise was all about but did not have the energy to react at the sight of Maami striding into the room.
“Oh my baby girl!” she cried out when she saw her stretched on the floor. She rushed as fast as her arthritic bones would let her to her side and sat on the floor beside her.
“They don’t get to me fast enough! I should as not let you come home to this if I had knows.” she mourned, her tears running freely down her face.
She turned and gave orders to someone behind her who Nchefu could not see because of her bulk. She turned back around and took a hold of Nchefu’s hand which hung limply in hers.
“You’s going back to the big house with me. You no stay here alone.” she began to say only to be interrupted by Koko.
“She no need to stay at big house. She stay here with us. We’s take care of her like we’s do.” he shot out belligerently.
Maami eyed him from the top of his head to the sole of his feet and went on like he had not spoken.
“You’s coming with me. I don brung Johnson to carry your things over and Addy to help you over. You’s think you can stand and walk?” she queried. Nchefu was to bewildered at this life’s curveball to do any other thing than nod.
She turned her head sideways to see Koko looking at her and Maami with anger in his eyes. She reached out her hand to him but he did not come to her as he would have. He remained squatting where he was.
“We’s take care of you.” he insisted. “You’s no need to go live in the big house.”
“Just for a while.”Maami said her voice softening as she seemed to realize the young man’s dilemma. “She’s need a woman to understand and to help.” she said by way of an explanation.
Koko stared at Maami for a few long moments and then nodded his ascent. Nchefu breathed a sigh of relief. She looked over to where her father’s body lay so still with the elders that had once been his friends squatted around him, still speaking in very low tones.
“Can I see him?” she asked Koko. He turned to look at the old men over his shoulders. “In a little while.” he responded when he turned back to her.
Nchefu watched as Addy, an upstairs maid at the big house, flitted around the small space gathering whatever she thought Nchefu might need during her stay. It seemed to Nchefu that she was gathering up an awful lot for a stay of a week or so but she was too weary to call her attention to it. One of the old men called out to Koko and he went to his side. Koko listened to something he whispered in his ears and then came back to her side quickly.
“They’s let you see him for a short while and then they’s go get the…he have to be buried tonight.” he said, sorrow and commiseration alive in his voice.
Nchefu struggled to get up from her prone position. It seemed that all the strength had drained away from her body and spirit. Maami held her arm supporting her as she sat up but had to relinquish it to Koko when she made to stand up. She needed help herself in standing up from the ground where she was seated. After Koko had helped both ladies, they made their way hesitantly to where old Agada lay. The elders made room for them to stand or squat as they wanted by his body.
Someone had laid him out, Nchefu noted. He looked so peaceful, his gauntness, not as obvious in death as it had been while he lived. Tears rushed out of her eyes as she said her silent good bye to her father. He had been a good man but life had knocked the starch out of him too early in his life and he had not had the strength to rise above it. One of the elders said something but Nchefu was too beclouded by her grief to understand what was being said. Maami gently put her hand on her arms and steered her towards the door. It was time to leave.
To Nchefu, it felt like a door was quietly shutting on a chapter in her life. She was alone now. There was no mother or father to turn to. She could only depend on herself. ‘And maybe God’, the thought popped into her head. She shook her head slowly at it. She had no reason to believe that any god was looking out for her. Not Maami’s Nyame or the Lord that she had been told of all her life.
They had all forgotten her.
She heard them whispering but she was unable to decipher what they were whispering about.
She had missed her father’s funeral. She had slept through the entire day yesterday only waking up earlier this morning. Maami had consoled her when she had broken down in tears at not being able to say goodbye properly to her father. She had made some tea and forced Nchefu to drink it. It must be that she had put in something in the tea because she had fallen asleep soon after drinking it and was only just waking up again. From the sounds beyond the room, she guessed that it must be early afternoon, probably almost time for luncheon.
She recognized the cadence of Maami’s voice but she could not recognize who the second person in the room was. She opened her eyes to see who it was and was slightly disoriented to find herself staring into very blue eyes.
She gasped as she tried to sit up from her bed but gentle hands pressed her back on the bed. Nchefu sighed as she lay back on the most comfortable bed she had ever had. She reveled in the softness of the mattress even if it was a bit scratchy. It was better than she was used to. Whatever was Master Scott doing here, in this room in the slave quarters?
“I’m glad you’re awake.” He said smiling a curious sort of smile at her. “Maami and I were beginning to get worried when you wouldn’t wake up.”
She nodded her head stiffly, wishing there was something she could say. ‘Thank you.’ the thought came to her head and so she said it out loud. His smile widened and brightened like she had just bestowed him with a gift.
“It was no bother.” he dismissed.
Nchefu turned to look at Maami who had been quietly watching this conversation with a small frown marring her usually placid features.
“I should get going.” he said as he stood to his feet.
‘He is tall’ thought Nchefu. ‘Taller even than Koko just not as heavy on the eyes.’
“Thank you Master Scott. You have been so very kind.” Maami said as she struggled to get to her feet. Scott motioned for her to remain seated and even stretched out a restraining hand towards her. He mumbled something acceptable and almost ran out of the room. Nchefu let out the chuckle that had been struggling to get out each and every time they had met.
“You be careful young girl.” Maami said sharply as she shifted to find a comfortable position on her seat.
Nchefu turned to her in some confusion.
“I see how he looks at you. I raised that boy like he was my own.” she said thoughtfully. “He’s mine in many ways more than theirs.” She pierced Nchefu with a direct look. “You be careful. He may not understands but you should. There’s no place for all that funnies in this world we be living in.” Maami warned.
Nchefu had no response to that sermon. She was not even sure she understood fully what Maami was warning her against but meanwhile, she basked in the warm fuzzy feeling that seeing Master Scott wrought in her.
‘He came down all the way to the slave quarter to see her!’ she thought on a happy sigh.
Scott berated himself all the way to his bedroom. He needed to get out of these formal clothes and go for a ride. It seemed his cravat must be tied on too tightly as to affect the supply of oxygen to his brain. How else to explain his inexplicable behavior just now? It seemed that anytime he was within a five feet radius of her, he turned to a bumbling idiot! He was just about to step into his bedroom when he was accosted by Bella, his younger sister and only sibling. He wished that translated into them being exceedingly close but it was not so. It was not that they hated each other it was more that they did not know how to connect. They had never been shown how to connect to each other. They had each been practically brought up by different nursemaids and so there had never been an opportunity to connect as siblings. He had no memory of playing with his sister as he had seen other siblings do. They had no fond memories that they could share with each other. Nothing. There was nothing.
“Good afternoon dear brother.” she greeted cheerily enough and Scott was surprised by the cheerfulness of the greeting.
“Good afternoon to you too Bella.” he greeted with an equanimity he wished he had been able to manage when he had been with his singer, Nchefu. Forgetfulness.
“I was wondering if you would like to have a picnic with me?” she invited surprising Scott even more.
“Today?” Scott asked confused. He caught her eye roll as she responded.
“Or tomorrow if that would be more convenient for you.” she suggested.
Scott paused as he regarded her steadily. “Why?” he asked.
“Why what?” his younger sister asked.
“Why this sudden interest in…connecting? A picnic?” Scott pushed.
“I thought it time to know my brother. Our parents have been remiss in our upbringing but…I just thought it time to know my brother.” she said the defiant, capable tone she had begun with ending on a pleading note.
Scott regarded her keenly for a long moment. “Do you ride?” he asked, almost shame-faced that he had no idea if she could. She nodded her answer.
“Meet me at the stables in thirty minutes. Do you think you can manage that?” Again she nodded. “We’ll go on that picnic. You’re right that it’s time we get to know each other better.” Scott agreed and was greeted by a blinding smile from his sister.
“Thank you!” she called even as she had already whirled around and was running off supposedly to her room to get ready for her picnic with her brother.
Nchefu squatted in the back garden digging rather lethargically at the weed that had been threatening to choke the plants in her absence. The ache in Maami’s joints had to be especially bad this year if she had let the vegetable garden go as she had.
“Hey Sugar girl.” the voice called and a smile lit Nchefu’s face as she turned to him.
“Hey Kokoman!” she thrilled. “It’s good of you to come see me.” she got up and dusted off her hands on her skirt. She resettled her bonnet on her head. Maami had given it to her a few days before saying, ‘It’s Miss Bella’s. She be wanting to give it away to the church but I gets it for you.’
“You’s looking mighty fine.” he said his white teeth seeming blindingly white against his dark skin.
“Thank you Koko.” she smiled as she squatted back down to continue with her gardening. Koko came closer to where she was and squatted beside her. He watched what she was doing for a short while and then joined her in weeding.
“We’s missing you much in the village.” he commented dryly. “Old Pa Gilbert be asking of you since.”
Nchefu shrugged as she continued her work. “I’ll be by this weekend. I have a half day off on Saturday.”
“Ah! You’s getting fancy, having time off work.” he teased.
Nchefu smiled at him in mirth. Just then, the sound of cantering hooves reached them. Nchefu did not bother looking up. She already knew that it was Master Scott and Miss Bella returning from one of their picnics.
Her mirth forgotten, she focused on weeding with an unwarranted seriousness. She battled with her feeling of hurt that he had not come to see her again at her room even as she acknowledged the silliness of her expectations. She had thoroughly if guiltily enjoyed the glow of his seeming interest and was spinning in bewilderment at its sudden cessation.
It was the stillness with which Koko held himself that had her looking up at him questioningly. His gaze was stuck on the image of Miss Bella laughing gaily on her horse as she chatted away to her brother. As if sensing Nchefu’s gaze on him, he shook his head as if shaking away an image in his mind and turned to her.
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Where Lands Meet... ...Love blooms... Nchefu and Scott lived in the same house but their worlds couldn't be more different from each others. Scott was the master's son and heir, Nchefu was a kitchen maid. The odds of their ever meeting long enough to fall for each other were very long but they did and they both fell. But love is not always right or convenient. Sometimes, it's best left alone. ...and dies.