The Cave by Isabelle Baafi

Mother says there are locked rooms inside all women…
“The House” by Warsan Shire


I was not always a network of twisting locks. My childhood home had no doors, no gates, no towers to climb – and so thoughts and whispers and jasmine-scented breezes would flow through our house with free reign. I would lie in my room, which overlooked the pasture, and amidst the sounds of goats and sheep I’d hear my mother’s bangles sing when she danced, and the tinkling of water on steel when she washed pots with her sister; the two of them laughing about the men they had swallowed.

Our one-storey house crowned a steep and winding mountain, watching over a people that often wrestled with God. Whenever my mother had visitors, which was daily, she would unlock herself to those in debt and discontent. She was their mentor, doctor, scholar, herbalist; a prophetess and poetess and weaver of riddles that many spent their lives unravelling. She mixed ointments and blended destinies, reaching into souls and bestowing strength with hands that had been roughened by the all lives they smoothed. She was shameless in her candour and uninhibited in her stories, waxing lyrical about those who were still inside her: the soldier whose bullet lodged in her tonsil. The donor whose blood roamed through her veins. The hermit whose teachings formed the walls of her mind. And of course, me, the miracle; the long-awaited tenant of her womb: proof that one’s heart could live outside the body.

One day, as I returned from the fields, my mother’s moan greeted me at the threshold, pouring like gold from an overflowing palace. Through her swaying beaded curtains, I saw that she had made herself someone else’s home, accommodating a love that filled every room. But it turned out that the man was a vagabond; inhabiting hearts that had been let by many women, shuffling daily from cottage daughters to castle wives to shanty mothers; overdue on every measure he had promised.

The third time he came his wife followed him; entering close behind with her ear to the floor, hearing rumours in his footprints, counting breadcrumbs in her hands.

When his businesses failed and his titles peeled themselves from him in shame, no one blamed the man for being in ten places at once. Or the wife, for leaving with his reputation. Or the people, for making him their foundation. They blamed my mother, who had merely stood in her doorway and told him he could enter without knocking.

Their anger gathered swiftly, rising like a swarm from the valley below; bellowing a single slur: witch.

From my window I saw them climb our sacred hill. But my mother, knowing door-less girls are defenceless, told me to hide in a cave that cut so deep into the mountain no one had ever reached its womb.

“Mama,” I cried, as I fell asleep that night. By the time a lamb came looking for me, days later, the cave was still whispering it back.

When I returned the house was locked, and therefore no longer ours. The door was rough and badly formed, as though it had been cut by gritted teeth and carved by nails. I broke in like a thief and found my mother in a corner, building walls within walls and dividing herself on every side of them.

Years later, I learned about the medicines burned, the stolen herd, the followers they had branded, the rooms inside my mother they had looted. Each episode was a fragment, locked in chambers no one could enter. One day, I asked to see a scar, poking its head around the corner of her shoulder, and she told me she was like the cave that saved my life: too deep to delve into, and if I ever looked, full of mazes and secrets that would never end.

Isabelle Baafi is a British writer and filmmaker of Jamaican and South African descent. Her work has been published in Litro, AFREADA, Kalahari Review and elsewhere. Common themes in her work include politics, faith, multiculturalism and womanhood.