Like the sun rises in the morning and later sets without ever being beckoned, so was the life Helen was living in her nefarious aunt Lucinda’s house. It was not as if the woman was all-out evil. Aunt Lucinda believed, for most of her life that all she ever tried to do was be a good mother to her only daughter, Marian. It was not her fault that her young sister Wendy had gotten herself in trouble falling pregnant for a dead beat dad that had her committing suicide at the tender age of 23. Wendy had left behind three-year-old Helen, a very beautiful but emotionally withdrawn child whose fate aligned not with that of the gods, but that of sinful mortal man.
The twenty-two years Helen had spent in Aunt Lucinda’s house were not all that bad. There were days she woke up happy and went to bed happy. There was not a single meal she missed, and she had the luxury of wearing all the fancy clothes her big cousin no longer considered worthy to play princess in. On a perfect day, Aunt Lucinda would come from the mall with ice cream and other goodies for both her daughter and her pitiful niece. On a bad day, Helen would go to bed crying and longing for the affection of a mother after hearing her aunt tell her for the umpteenth time in the day;
“You owe me your life for taking care of you instead of sending you to languish in poverty living with your useless father.”
That phrase had come to be the theme song of Helen’s life in her aunt’s house. It echoed through the walls and straight to her heart every time she tried to protest an injustice or unfair treatment against her cousin in the house. eventually, she stopped complaining or getting hurt. she simply late the song play until the singer chocked on her own saliva.
There were good days too. And many would argue she had a good life given that she lived in comfort and had a family to call her own, a reality many kids born to her fate could not even dream about.
However, there was never a moment in time when Helen felt she belonged in her aunt’s house. Even though she was never physically abused or neglected, the emotional torture of constantly being reminded by her aunt and cousin that she was lucky for the treatment they subjected her to, which was almost always deliberately and loudly subservient to the kind the daughter of the house was receiving, was enough of a blessing in itself.
Helen felt they were right. Whatever her fortune or misfortune was, it was certainly better than any other possibilities available to her. It was with this sense of gratitude and indebtedness that Helen lived her life.
The many moons that came and went saw Helen blossom from a timid and withdrawn little girl, to a bright and cheerful young woman that lit up any room she graced. On her twenty-second birthday, her boyfriend Chris proposed marriage to her.
“No, you can’t get married now,” cousin Marian said upon hearing the news from a beaming Helen.
The light on Helen’s face immediately faded into oblivion. “Why?” she asked, looking from cousin to aunt.
“Because you can’t get married before your elder sister,” Aunt Lucinda said.
The only time Lucinda referred to the two girls as sisters was when doing so put her daughter in a position of privilege and advantage. The word sister was never employed in any situation that would benefit Helen. It was a one-way street word.
“But Marian is already engaged and will be getting married in a couple of months,” Helen said. “Chris and I haven’t set a date yet. I don’t think he would mind waiting. We have a lot of planning to do and I don’t think we can get everything done before you guys wed.”
“You don’t understand,” Marian said, and turning to her mother, “Mum, you tell her.”
“Aunt, what’s going on?” She asked.
Aunt Lucinda could not bring herself to look at her niece. She fixed her gaze on her 32-year-old daughter, surreptitiously imploring her for a way out of the predicament.
But Marian was determined to have her mother deliver the fatal blow.
“Marian, won’t you tell me what’s going on?” Helen said.
“Mum!” Marian said, still looking at her mother for help.
Aunt Lucinda finally faced her niece. “Sit my child, sit down,” she patted the space next to her on the sofa.
Helen sat down.
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to discuss with you for a while now…but I just couldn’t find the right time to do so,” Aunt Lucinda said.
“I’m listening,” Helen said.
“Well, you see…it’s about Tandy-“
“Did something happen to her!?” Helen was now sitting by the edge of the sofa, fear written all over her face.
“No, no, she’s okay,” Aunt Lucinda said, reaching for her niece’s hands.
Tandy was Marian’s five-year-old daughter. She had her with a married man whose affections turned sour the moment he heard of the pregnancy. The then 26-year-old Marian who had invested hope in the possibility of William leaving his nagging and obese wife for her was left heart-broken, disappointed, and a single mother. Being Catholic, her mother Lucinda could not hear of an abortion and almost ended up tying her determined daughter to her bed to keep her from terminating her pregnancy.
The two women finally came to an agreement when Lucinda promised to take responsibility of the child when it was born. To save face and the family’s honor in their christian community, Lucinda sent her daughter to Namibia, only to return once she had delivered. Marian handed the child to her mother when she was a month old, refusing to breastfeed the baby for fear of attachment on both sides. She traveled to Australia to pursue her Master’s Degree right after handing over the child.
Apart from Lucinda and Marian, no one else was aware of little Tandy’s parentage, or so the two women thought. However, Helen had done her own calculations and silently concluded that Marian was indeed the child’s mother. She suspected that the man of the house, the reclusive Uncle Michael also knew the truth about the child. Being the soft spoken and socially withdrawn man that he was, he hardly ever said a word in the house and allowed his wife to rule with an iron fist. Uncle Michael had come to accept that he had married a woman that loved his money more than she loved him.
Over time, Uncle Michael had resigned himself to living a reclusive life while his wife pursued her own larger than life lifestyle on the other side. Both Uncle Michael and Helen understood why the mother and daughter pair wished to keep Tandy’s parentage a secret, and so they played along with the facade. To explain the child’s presence in the house and family, Lucinda claimed she had fallen in-love with the child when she visited an orphanage where she had taken some donations.
With Marian away, Helen was left as the sole caretaker of the child while Lucinda trekked the globe like the spoiled glamorous trophy wife that she was. It was not surprising for those close to the family to hear little Tandy call Helen ‘mum’. Helen had welcomed the title with honor, love and pride, and took care of the girl as if she were her own.
“What is it about Tandy then that’s making you say I can’t get married?” Helen asked her aunt and cousin.
“We didn’t say you can’t get married,” Marian said. “We mean, not right now.”
“Why?” Helen asked.
“I did something terrible Helen,” Aunt Lucinda cried. “I understand if you can’t forgive me, but I did what any mother out there would do.”
“What are you talking about aunt?” A very disturbed Helen asked.
Aunt Lucinda clasped her niece’s hands tighter, tears pouring uninterrupted down her face. “I am a terrible woman, I know. I am sorry Helen, but you have to save me and your sister. She needs you now than ever before.”
Marian too started crying, confusing Helen even more.
“Please tell me what’s going on?” She begged.
“About six months ago, Chisanga sat me down and asked me to tell him the truth about Tandy,” Marian said, unable to take the tension anymore. “I know you know that she’s my daughter, even though you’ve never said anything.”
“Yes, I know,” Helen said. “Did you tell Chisenga the truth?”
“I couldn’t,” Marian said. “He passed a comment about the child resembling me the first time he met her. I laughed it off and said of course she would since she’s related to me. I meant it as a joke but I didn’t know he had taken it so literally. When he couldn’t take the doubts anymore, he asked me directly if she is mine.
“You have to understand; I couldn’t tell him the truth!” Marian sobbed. “He is a Reverend and runs his own church. It matters the type of woman he marries, and you know my past isn’t something to smile about.”
“Where is this going, and what does it have to do with me and Tandy?”
“I told Chisenga that you’re the mother to explain why the child is a splitting image of me,” Marian said.
“No way,” Helen said, getting up and shaking her head in bewilderment. “No way,” she chuckled, and kept repeating, “no, you’re lying.”
Marian walked over to her. “Please Helen, I am begging you,” she said. “I have never ever begged anyone in my life before but here I am begging you.” She tried to take Helen’s hands but Helen pulled away, still shaking her head and crying.
“Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” Helen asked.
“Tandy already calls you mum. She knows no other mother and you love her as if she were your own,” Aunt Lucinda said.
“Yes I love her with all my heart but that doesn’t make her my biological daughter!” Helen said. “Making her my biological daughter now means I have lied to everyone, even to my fiance. What do you think he’s going to say or do when he hears rumors about the child I claimed I adopted from my aunt is actually my child and that I had her when I was seventeen years old? He thinks am a virgin for God’s sake!”
“And you are, everyone knows you’re a good person Helen, everyone,” Marian said.
“They won’t think that when they hear that I got pregnant as a teen,” she answered. “You know how judgmental these people are. Isn’t that why you hid the truth in the first place?” She then turned to her aunt, “Why is it OK to shield your daughter from something like that even though she’s guilty, but you throw me to the wolves the first chance you get, subjecting me to a fate you don’t want your daughter to face, why?”
“I don’t wanna hear it,” Helen cried. “Not anymore. What do you expect me to tell my in-laws?”
“I already spoke to them for you,” Aunt Lucinda said.
“You spoke to my in-laws? About what, and when?” Helen could hardly hear her own thoughts over the loud thudding of her heart.
Just how much damage had her aunt caused her?