Never in her life had Tuli been so utterly exhausted.
The clock on her bedside showed that it was 00h50, 1 November. The bed, with its pale grey pillow and puffy blanket, invited her to lie down. But in the dimness of the night-light a shadow was thrown on the wall: the baby’s bed and changing table merged together into a strange device. To Tuli’s eyes it looked like a torture machine. The posts on the bed, were they not actually spikes meant to ram her through? Wasn’t that table actually a rack, complete with chains and handcuffs?
Tuli blinked her aching eyes. The baby had just been fed and seemed to be asleep. She should try to sleep too. She knew the moment she did, he would start crying again. Her nipples were hurt from feeding the infant every hour.
She sat down on the bed. It was necessary to get through this night, and the next day, and the next night. That little life was in her hands. There was nobody else. She had moved alone to this little town in upstate New York, far from her home in Namibia. None of her family was able to come to the U.S. for the birth. There was no grandmother to praise her and the baby, no aunties to share the burden of the care. Homeland Security Officials thought that Tuli was planning to bring her entire sprawling family from Namibia to enjoy the amazing welfare benefits they jealously guarded. Yeah, she thought, she would totally do that.
As for the baby’s father—ha! Tuli had not seen him since she shyly told the man he was about to be a father. That should teach her something, she thought.
Tuli’s head started to bear down towards the pillow. The room was rolling up and over her as if she was riding a Ferris wheel. She was being pulled under—
A fussy whine interrupted the Ferris wheel.
Tuli jumped up, shaky, startled out of her slumber.
“Ehheh — ehheh —”
A coughing sound always preceded a full-blown crying.
“No, no, don’t cry, sweet little thing! Shh, shh,” she whispered. Tuli bowed over the baby. Tears were welling up in her own eyes. She felt so helpless. What was she supposed to do?
The doorbell rang. Tuli blinked. Her sleep deprived mind jumped immediately to a conclusion: it had to be her mother. Only her mother could know how much she needed her right now.
The doorbell rang again, and the baby’s coughing turned into crying. The sudden sound had spooked him. Tuli picked the boy up, humming to him, and walked bare foot to the front door.
She quickly opened all the extra locks that American doors packed, probably to make up for the lack of fences and gates, and opened the door wide. She was immediately enfolded by humid air.
Her mother did not stand behind the door. Instead she saw a young man in an immaculate black suit. He was no taller than Tuli, and he was holding a small leather case.
For a second Tuli stood still, unable to move or react. The difference between reality and the expectation of her muddy mind was too great.
“I’m so sorry to disturb you,” said the man. He had a pleasant voice, strong enough to carry over the baby’s crying, and utterly compelling. Tuli could not look away from him. When he spoke, his presence here, in the middle of the night, felt natural and his demeanour trustworthy. She wanted to hear more.
“I’m quite lost and it’s imperative that I find my way before—before my engagement. I noticed your light and dared to ring your doorbell.”
“It’s a night light,” said Tuli.
“I’m so sorry. Did I wake up the baby? That’s unforgivably despicable of me,” the man said.
The man used strange phrasing for such a young guy, Tuli thought, but it sounded nice. Soothing. Maybe he had a baby of his own at home if he understood how despicable it really was to wake one up. He did not look it, though. With his face partially in the shadows he looked like he didn’t belong to this world. Or maybe that was her fatigue talking.
The man shuffled his legs, embarrassed. The baby’s crying got louder. “Maybe I could play for the little one?” he said.
Tuli thought she had heard wrong. “Did you say play? Shh, baby, shh.” She bounced the baby in her arms and quieted him a bit.
“I’m an oboist,” the man clarified. “My music often helps babies sleep. Then you could show me which way I need to go.”
What was an oh-bowist? Tuli wondered.
The man set his scrubby suitcase on the porch. Tuli watched him open it up. The case was lined with soft velvet. In the velvet rested black and silver parts of an instrument.
“My oboe,” the man said.
He took out the small parts and started to screw them together, humming a tune. Tuli took a step closer, almost without noticing. She was completely out of the house now, standing on her porch, trying to rock the baby like it was in a cradle. It was not helping.
The creek that ran in front of Tuli’s house splashed and the wind rustled in the huge trees lining the creek, the only sounds you could hear besides the fussing baby. The street was in a quiet neighbourhood. No cars were driving around in the middle of the night. She could not see any lights in the surrounding houses. Everyone was probably sleeping in their soft beds. Lucky them, she thought.
“Why don’t you sit on that bench with the baby while I put this instrument together?” the man asked cheerfully.
Tuli obeyed the man’s voice without thought. The baby’s cries ebbed when she sat on the wicker bench. He probably thought he was going to be fed. Tuli grimaced at the thought of his greedy mouth on her sore nipples.
The little man had put a thin wooden piece in his mouth. After a while he took it out and licked his lips. His lips were a deep red colour, visible even in the light of the faraway street lamp. Tuli leaned forward to see his face. It was pale, with big, dark eyes and a straight nose. The man’s dark hair was overgrown and covered his ears. He looked to be in his twenties.
The man was quiet now, working with his instrument. For the first time, it occurred to Tuli that she was not safe. People did not come out from their houses to talk with strange white men in the middle of the night, certainly not with their babies. What was she thinking? She stood up to retreat to the door, but immediately the baby started wailing in long, outraged cries—he wanted his milk and he wanted it now.
“Don’t cry, little guy,” the man said. The reed went in the oboe. The man let out a couple of tentative trills. The sound was louder than Tuli had expected. She forgot about escaping to the house.
“The neighbours might wake up,” she said.
“Have no fear,” said the man. “If your baby hasn’t woken them up by now, music can do no harm.”
Tuli thought of the compassionate looks she had gotten from some of her neighbours. They must know that the baby cried all the time.
But now the baby boy was no longer crying. The first trills had silenced him. He was staring at the man with the most attentive look that Tuli had so far seen on his pudgy, brown face.
“He likes it,” said the man. He put the oboe back on his red lips. A fluent stream of notes escaped the instrument. They weaved a melody that reached high and dipped low, tying curious harmonies between notes. Tuli imagined she could see the music floating towards the creek, landing on the uneven water and bobbing away towards the faraway lake. The piece the man was playing was a bit like the creek, playful, happy, and moving along quickly.
“Eh,” said the baby. His eyes were big and round.
The music changed. The notes slowed down, became more soothing. It was as if the music, having floated down the creek, had reached the lake and settled in the bottommost depths, where the water plants waved slowly back and forth in the dark, and the bottom-dwellers swam between the rocks and the greenery.
It was a sleepy sort of music. The baby’s eyelids started to droop. Twice he managed to reopen them only to have them close on him again. The baby breathed deeply.
The man played for a while. Tuli did not feel tired anymore. She felt refreshed, more optimistic than she had felt since the day her meme told her on phone that her visa had been denied and she couldn’t come even for a short visit to see the baby. Tuli looked at the man. His face no longer looked quite so pale and his dark eyes had lightened to an uncanny green.
After a final flurry of sounds the man put away his oboe.
“I was looking for this hill,” he said. He pulled out a map from a pocket. It was an extremely old map. The city was just a village in it. Tuli would not have recognised anything on it, except that the creek was still there, with the same name: Twatha Creek. The man pointed towards the north on the map.
“There is no hill there,” Tuli told him. “It was flattened when the city decided to build two new high-rises.”
The man wrinkled his nose in disgust. “That’s bad news,” he said. He stood staring at the creek. Then he sighed and sat down next to Tuli. “Well, there’s nothing to it now,” he remarked. “What a pretty baby you have. What’s his name?
“Richard?” the man asked. “Richard? That’s no name for a boy like this one. I’m going to call him Mwaanawa. It means—”
“I know what it means,” Tuli replied, surprised. “Oshiwambo is my mother tongue. Mwaanawa means beautiful. But how did you know?”
The man smiled a secretive little smile. He did not answer Tuli’s unfinished question.
“They boy’s father doesn’t seem to be around,” said the man.
“No,” Tuli said, “he does not.”
They sat in silence. Through a gap in the foliage Tuli could see a couple of stars twinkling.
What a strange situation this was!
And yet, Tuli felt no fear and just a little wonder. Maybe it was because everything was strange anyway: this country with all the green trees and running water everywhere, her new life as Mwaanawa’s—that is, Richard’s mother. The neighbours who smiled kindly, but never spoke to her. What was one late-night oboist looking for a missing hill compared to all that?
After a while Tuli thought she started hearing a strange sound, like bells in the wind. The man heard it too. He stood up.
“They’re here,” he said. I must leave you. I apologize for any side effects of my playing. But I’m guessing you won’t complain.”
“What do you mean?” Tuli asked.
The man did not answer. A procession of horses and people appeared in the street. There had been no sounds of hooves, just the faint bells, and then they were there. They rode solemnly in single file. The women and men had flowing hair and robes. Between the horses’ legs ran tiny goats. Butterflies flitted around the riders. Not butterflies but moths, Tuli corrected herself. Butterflies flew during the day, moths were nocturnal. But these were some wondrous moths, huge wings with silvery patterns that gleamed in the moonlight.
All the riders looked ahead, heedless of the rest of the world. Some of them played instruments: flutes, violins, and small drums. The music sounded muted, as if it came from far away.
The little man stepped on the road and then turned back to Tuli.
“Do you know what the night before All Hallows Day is called? Samhain. Or, here in the new country, Halloween,” he said.
“Why do you say that?” Tuli asked.
“Because this is when we ride,” the man answered. “We, the fair folk, immigrants like you, beautiful like Mwaanawa.”
One of the horses was saddled but had no rider. He sprang nimbly into the saddle and then smiled and winked at Tuli. Nobody else took notice of them.
Tuli looked straight in his eyes. They looked very green, with a warm light in them.
“I hope we’ll meet again,” the man said.
Tuli blinked. When she opened her eyes the riders were gone. The road was empty. Baby Mwaanawa slept on.
Tuli took the sleeping child back to his bed. He did not wake up when she put him down. He did not wake up when she fell onto her own bed and closed her eyes, not certain whether she had been awake at all. The baby did not wake up at any time during the night.
From that night on Mwaanawa slept every night in his bed from the moment Tuli put him down for the night to the moment she pulled the curtains open in the morning.
Tuulikki Tammi is a Finnish writer. She lived in Namibia and studied creative writing at Orivesi College of Arts in Finland and holds a MPhil from the University of Helsinki. She is current working on a young adults’ fantasy novel written in Finnish.