“How To Hide A Child” by Akwaeke Emezi
My wife is a madwoman.
I used to smile when people told me this, a faint amusement threading through me. They’d wrap their fingers in the flesh of my upper arm and pull me to the side, whisper it in my ear, concerned enough to not be concerned about offending me. Sometimes they even did this when she was right there, like at her work galas where the other scientists gathered in groups to discuss their research, boring me stunningly and using terms that I found thick and empty. She shone out from all of them, quietly powerful and alarmingly immaculate. I’d look over at her as they babbled in my ear, smiling to myself as they warned me about how ‘off’ she was. I never minded hearing things like this, I thoroughly agreed with them. I know they wondered how I could live with her, love with her, be so clearly enamored of her. I lived for her raking stare to pass me, only because she could look at me as if I was just another stranger and I can’t explain it, but something about me loved that. I loved that despite everything we shared and were, she could look at me with the smoothest eyes, not a ripple of feeling in them.
Somehow, I thought this would change when we had our daughter. Not towards me, no, but at least towards the child. It was unfortunate that it took me so long to figure out all the broken pieces of the woman I married and how they had cemented into jagged spikes and edges that not even motherhood could change. And so I found myself in that small damp room, with our daughter curled up on a thin mattress while I begged for us over a crackling phone line.
“Look, just let the child go, and I’ll cooperate.” I tried to balance my voice on my fear, to keep it steady.
My wife’s answering laugh was laced with static. I pressed the phone to the side of my head, desperate not to miss her response.
“Darling. I don’t care if you cooperate or not. I know where you are and I’m coming for my daughter. You cannot keep me from my own flesh. If you won’t allow them to study you as well, so be it, but don’t get in my way. I only tell you this because I confess, I am weak. I don’t want to be forced to eliminate you.”
“How much money did they give you to give her up?” I replied, letting the hopeless bitter thing that was fermenting in me worm out through my voice.
“What makes you think they gave me money, my love?” She lies every time she says she can love. It scrapes against me, but she’d only laugh if I asked her to stop.
“What else could they have given you? What else could you care about enough to betray us for?” Part of me wants to know, yet I’m afraid to hear what her price was. The doctors had started testing the girl when she was about three, when she began to show small signs like pulling her favorite toys to her from across a room, whispering things to us when we weren’t there. Her mother would watch her with evaluative eyes, but I never imagined that the things she was thinking of extended to this. “You, of all people, know what they do to children like her! How much did you sell her for?”
“What if I tell you, nothing?” she whispered without missing a beat, lowering her voice into a slippery thing that crawled into my ear. “What if I tell you I did it because I was curious? Because as much as they do, maybe more…” She paused and dropped the next few words slowly, one after the other, so I could feel their weight. “I just want to see what happens.”
The phone line sizzled through the silence that trailed after, as my fear and rage swelled hot in my throat and muted me. She laughed again and disconnected the line, and I threw the phone against the wall as hard as I could. It didn’t make me feel any better to hear it shatter and it didn’t matter. She wasn’t going to call again and the sound wasn’t going to wake up the girl, who was exhausted and slept like a corpse anyway.
I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream and rage and smash up every piece of shitty furniture in that hole of an apartment. I wanted to sing to our daughter and ask her to forgive me, to explain that her mother was a strange and beautiful creature who enveloped us into her world and that I hadn’t considered how we’d escape because I never thought we would want to. I wished I could hate her for that, even a fraction as much as several other people did, those that wrote her letters that had to be screened before she opened them since all kinds of assassinations can be stored in paper. They followed her and cursed her acidly, calling down their gods until they were hoarse and hysterical, impotent against her guards. I never asked her much about her work but I knew it was controversial- using human subjects always is, even though they legalized it several years ago. I had never thought it would matter.
Our daughter was small and serious, sometimes unnervingly so for someone so little. I used to spend hours watching her, waiting for her eyes to meet mine and wondering if she would look at me in that undisturbed way that her mother had. But every time she saw my face, there was a world of violent motion in her eyes, movements that said love and trust and joy and a thousand other emotions I think adults have lost, and they all cracked me open like overripe fruit. I was rotten and soft in her hands, useless and pulped.
I could not give her to her mother.
It was not a possible thing, despite how trapped as we were. Even if my wife reined in her people, those hungry white-coated machines, even if she swore to me that they wouldn’t hurt the child, I couldn’t. And we could not escape her- my wife’s fingers were long and cool, reaching everywhere with a clinical patience. I could have tried to divert them, stashed the girl and had them go after me instead, but I knew I wouldn’t survive that run and it wouldn’t save her, not eventually. We were trapped in a corner, and I could not give her to her mother.
The worst part was that some of me had anticipated we would be hunted down to this, I couldn’t imagine my wife failing at anything. I knew too much about our options and it pressed me flat. The next few hours were confusing, blurred, heartbreaking. I remember crawling into a filthy corner and crying so hard that all the skin on my face went raw. I remember my hands shaking when I emptied the dose into her glass, knowing it was too much, she was too small. I remember it was blurred when I stirred it because I was crying again and that I dropped the spoon because my hands were shaking. But by the time she woke up and levered her body upright, I was collected. She saw me and smiled, reached out her arms to me and my entire body moved towards her, just an inch or two. She was already pulling so strongly. No wonder they wanted her.
I put her in my lap and gave her the milk, told her to drink up and watched her be a good girl. I’d caught her in the smudged moments between being awake and asleep, so when she fell right back into drowsiness, she wasn’t alarmed. She just snuggled against my body and closed her eyes again. I looked inside myself and expected to find a storm, but instead, it was smooth. This was right, this made sense. This would keep her from my wife.
I held her until her heart stopped, then I kept holding her and I waited for her mother.
Akwaeke Zara Emezi was born in Umuahia and raised in Aba, Nigeria. She currently lives in Brooklyn and has been writing since she could write. Her work has been published by the East Jasmine Review, Raw Fiction, Brittle Paper, and Cassava Republic. She was selected as a finalist for the New Visions Award by Lee and Low Books for her first full length manuscript, SOMADINA, and her short fiction is available on her website at www.azemezi.com.