Elizabeth’s name begins, like all names, as a weight. Her mother spots it one day – sees it perched on the corner of a church pew – and despite knowing this was coming, knowing it couldn’t stay away for too much longer, the appearance of Elizabeth’s name still shocks her mother at first. Really, Rebecca thinks, really? Rebecca always imagined she wouldn’t be like Elizabeth’s grandmother, wouldn’t be the sort of African woman to find the name for her first daughter in an English church.
Rebecca’s own name was an acknowledgement of Yaa’s status as one of the early Catholic converts. She was a heathen, those first priests said, but the good Lord’s sanctuary was something Yaa found easy to adopt.
From the early days of their marriage, Yaa’s husband would squeeze the flesh that folded on the back side of her stomach until it was purple and sore and bruised beneath the surface, revelling in the feel of his fingernails kissing one another despite the barrier of her skin. But when the missionaries were told there was a young woman in the village who could understand anyone eventually – even you white men, no one knows how but she has a gift, you keep her forty days she will know enough words to insult you – that was the morning Yaa was taken, twenty-two years old and newly pregnant, from her husband.
Yaa did not see the man again, not even in the eyes of her daughter who, conveniently, looked nothing like him.The day that marked five months since Yaa’s husband was bribed with two younger wives in exchange for his first was the day he died from the venom of a snake bite as he walked through the undergrowth on the outskirts of the village, was the day Yaa was taught the English word for widow, was the day Yaa was asked if there was a Twi word for bastard, was the day Yaa spotted Rebecca’s name crouching impatiently on the altar of the hastily built Catholic church in the village square. It’s a sign, Yaa’s cousin said. You have no husband now, and this same day you see your child’s name and it is a white one. Yaa smiled.
Some four decades later and three thousand miles further, Rebecca spots Elizabeth’s name on the corner of a church pew. She is startled, yes, but not surprised. An English church? Just like her mother? Still. A name is a name. Rebecca had been so desperately grateful – in that way only not-yet-mothers can be – to hear her unborn child’s heartbeat the week before, that she hadn’t given too much thought as to when its name would finally come. But here it was. Perched on the corner of a pew, an as-yet-undefined shape with no real colour – wait. That’s a lie. Like the names Rebecca would glare at when her friends announced their pregnancies five, ten, even twenty years ago in some cases, this name is almost, almost the shape of the country she is standing on. The name reminds her of displacement, of movement, of learning you still say words funny sometimes, don’t be embarrassed though, loads of you lot don’t speak English proper from her work colleagues, in those early days, cleaning inner-city offices in the light of the early morning.
Elizabeth’s mother – Rebecca – begins to smile. It is happening. In a couple of months her daughter will finally come to be, and here is the proof. Here is an almost-name making its presence known.
Of course, Rebecca has been in possession of an almost-name that belonged to a future- child before. The first time back home, nineteen years old and in hindsight far too foolish to flirt, or understand what her collarbones did to grown men who should have known better than to know her, or unbutton the sixth button on her best dress, or realize what a name appearing meant until she was bleeding in the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital bathroom one Wednesday afternoon. The pin-prick-sized name – so small she hadn’t seen it yet – had followed her in, suddenly growing bigger and bigger and bigger as Rebecca, with horror, understood that the future-child she didn’t even realize she had been carrying was being lost.
An hour passed, maybe two. When it had become apparent the future-child had left her, totally, had stained itself across the soft skin of the inside of her thighs, Rebecca cleaned herself up with her tights (quickly taken off, soaked in cold water), dressed herself, closed the toilet seat in the cubicle with the least graffiti on the walls, and sat down. The name was now enormous, twice the size of her head perhaps, and rested heavily in the palm of her hand, kissing the brown lifelines with the weight of lost promise. Rebecca tried to stop thinking of all the names she could have given the future-child, if only to stop the damned thing getting any bigger. But she couldn’t block them out, and with every what could I have called you, child, the name rose like tea bread bought from the roadside in her village back home. Instead, she knew what it was time to do. She was scared, yes, but there was nothing else for it.The name would not let itself be left here or disposed of elsewhere; she had heard enough stories of women losing their minds, stealing other children’s names because they had successfully abandoned a past-almost-name and grew to regret it. So, opening her mouth wide, wider than she thought possible, wider than possible under any other circumstances, Rebecca swallowed her miscarried past-future-child’s almost-name in one suffocating, heavy gulp.
There is a pain that only a mother who swallows the name of a past-future-child can understand. The name (and the pain) sticks to the inside of her chest, punctures her heart through her left breast. Don’t move, don’t breathe too much, Rebecca, it’ll hurt you more if you do. That’s what Yaa told her daughter when Rebecca finally turned to her for help. It was two weeks later, and the pain had grown so much she was sure she was losing her mind. All Rebecca’s mother did was squeeze her. Yaa did not chastise her daughter, nor did she make sentences with the words sex, or shame, or older, or stupid, or married, or wrong, but instead squeezed Rebecca so long and so hard and so tight and so honestly the name suddenly came back up through Rebecca’s gullet and fell to the kitchen floor with a silence like the sound of a baby who has cried for too long.
Look at it, Yaa said. Look at it well-well. That is your past-future-child’s name.You tried to swallow it but you must never swallow the name of a dead future-child – or even, God forbid, just a dead child – because the name will stick to your heart like a snail on the side of a crock pot, or public humiliation, or glue. When your future-future-children die – and they will die, because the women in our family are cursed to never be mothers of many – you must never swallow their names straight away. Keep the child’s name in your mouth, let anyone who speaks to you see it sitting there, and one day when you are so used to the feeling of it and the shape of it and have stopped caring about strangers seeing your grief peeking through that gap in your front teeth, and the name has become small enough to swallow accidentally, then and only then will it be time to swallow the name.
Rebecca listened to her mother. When Yaa finally stopped squeezing her, Rebecca picked the past-future-child’s name up from the kitchen floor, wiped it against her mother’s dress, spat away a speck of dirt and placed it in the corner of her mouth.
At first the name was so big, Rebecca could not speak for the mass of it. She returned to college immediately, her determination an acrylic nail, hard-edged and digging into her palms and refusing to be yanked away from the bed it had found itself in. It was awkward, of course, to be so full of grief for a past-future-child at such a young age, but Rebecca remembered her mother’s words and refused to hide it, or herself.
For weeks, the name stayed the same size, bulbous and hulking, casting strange shadows when the sun was low in the sky. It contorted the shape of her body, made her pause before saying hello. But then, one day, Rebecca realized the past-almost-name was getting smaller. The guilt at this knowledge made it grow again, only slightly, but then once again the name started to shrink. It took a year, in the end. A year for the past-almost-name that belonged to Rebecca’s past-future-child to become so small Rebecca no longer even thought of its mass in her mouth. Yaa had warned her the time was coming, told her daughter that it was important not to keep the name in her mouth forever because those women, those women find themselves with mouths full of lost possibilities, you know, and that’s enough to make you mad. And so one morning, when the sun felt bright and her grief at the lost possibility of a child had settled into something still painful but far more manageable inside her chest, Rebecca thought to herself: This is a thing I can swallow.