Scorned

african baby

When your water breaks, you feel a dull roar of panic. You are not afraid of the delivery or scared for the baby. You’ve put to bed five times, and this pregnancy never gave you problems.

It is the scorn on their faces that you fear. It is the snorts and hmphs of ridicule. What makes your heart contract in fear is the fact that the birth of this baby could mean the final lid in the coffin of your condemnation.

From the day your belly started to swell, you suspected that it would be a girl. Again. Just like the others, this baby sat very high in your womb, close to your breasts in that delightful way girls are wont to do.

Soon your contractions are fast and furious and you send for your mother-in-law in the next hut. When she appears at your door, it is with a scowl on her face. This woman has single-handedly run her family for twenty-eight years. Widowed at an early age with four sons and a daughter to care for, she drew on an inner strength no one knew she had, raised her sons to be good farmers, selected wives for each of them, filled her late husband’s compound with dozens of grandchildren, majority of which are boys.

You are the only wife yet to produce an heir for the lineage.

When you got swollen with child this last time, your mother-in-law paid you a midnight visit and laid down the ultimatum. A boy or another wife for dear Leke.

That night, you cried yourself to sleep, your husband’s back turned to you. You don’t blame him. You don’t blame your mother-in-law. It is the way of your people to care for sons more than they do daughters.

Sons carry on the family name. Sons contribute to the family wealth by farming the cocoa plantations. Sons are an honor.

Two of the other wives arrive to help. Soon you are on your back, the leather tong clenched in between your teeth. Screaming during delivery brings bad luck to one’s husband so you bite hard each time the pain hits.

Your legs are held apart, your wrapper discarded as the women probe and prod you. You are instructed to push and you do so with all of your might. You push a second time, a third time.

The wail of a newborn rends the air. The three women fall absolutely silent.

You are exhausted but anxious and ask to see your baby. They don’t show you the face; rather your mother-in-law almost shoves the genitals in your face.

You’ve had a sixth girl.

But instead of the panic that plagued you all through the pregnancy, you suddenly feel a sense of calm. Love washes over you.

It doesn’t matter if you are scorned. It doesn’t matter that Leke will be given a second wife. It doesn’t matter if all your children are girls.

What does matter is that you are a good mother. There is tremendous love in your heart for this little baby just as there is for her siblings.

You cuddle your baby and look up into the eyes of your mother-in-law. She frowns. You smile. She shakes her head. You nod yours.

She walks out of the hut.

 

***In most African communities, male children are preferred above females and a woman who produces only girls is often ridiculed.

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The life of the party

 

wine cups 2

In her eyes, a little girl hides.

 

This little girl has been through hell and back, a hell that entails the stealing of her innocence by her own daddy, the murder of that same daddy, estrangement from her mother. Life in the trenches.

 

This little girl has grown to become the life of the party.

 

After the silence that ensued as people sipped their drinks, Julie is back on her feet. Where the little girl momentarily lived, there is now a sparkle, a gleam that has sent so many men to their doom.

 

“To Tim.” She says, and there is more glass clinking.

 

Silence terrifies Julie. When you’re silent, other people have the power to abuse you, to demean you, to make you do whatever you don’t want to. So she fills her every waking moment with chatter, with jokes, with flirting.

 

Tim is my fiancé, the man who has helped cure me of some of my demons. He is smiling at Julie but there is concern in his eyes too.

 

When I first met Tim, he seemed the last person on earth I would commit myself to. He’d had a happy Christian childhood, was a trainee pastor, was outspoken.

 

My life and Julie’s couldn’t have been more different. Both abused by our father from the time I was six and she five to the time I turned ten while our mother pretended not to know. Late one night, as daddy violated me yet again, Julie ran the sharpest kitchen knife into his side. Again and again and again. He died in my mother’s laps, on the way to the hospital. My father’s sister took us in with her while mother visited mental after mental institution.

 

For reprise, I turned inwards. Into books and magazine and libraries. Into a world where only my imagination was necessary. Julie turned to parties and short skirts and boys. Aunty Rose was patient, but not patient enough when Julie got pregnant at fifteen. After the abortion, she began to have nightmares. In the ethereal stillness of the night, my sister would shoot out of bed, her eyes terror-glazed, whispering daddy’s name. Sometimes she called to mother.

 

Even though we’re no longer kids, and even though this is a Christian function to send Tim forth into ministry, Julie’s blouse is a little too see-through, her skirt too tight, and her make-up too much.

 

In a way, her demons are mine. We lived the same terror for four years, never knowing whose turn it would be to be raped, making a pact never to tell a soul. But for a while, books were my salvation. Then after Tim, I surrendered to Jesus. The memories of those four years have not been wiped from my heart; the remembrance is yet like an itch under the skin that you cannot scratch. But I have come a long way towards healing.

 

Julie hasn’t.

 

“We should have some music.” She says a little too loudly, sealing her designation as the life of this party. “MaryAnne, don’t you think so?”

 

“Sure.” I say, wincing as she swings her hips a little too hard on the way to the CD rack. Tim’s four friends are watching her with a mixture of fascination and horror. I catch Tim’s eyes again and see sorrow. Sorrow and compassion.

 

He knows our story, is yet prepared to be my husband and Julie’s brother-in-law.

 

“Don’t let it bother you.” He whispers to me. “It’s only a matter of time.”

 

By this, I know he means that a day will come when Julie will give her hurts to God as I did three years ago. By this, I know he means that we need to continue to love this crazy, outgoing, skimpily-dressed woman the same way that God loves us – unconditionally.

 

I nod. Suddenly, I am not as embarrassed by my sister as I was before.

Blank page (Part 2)

Read part 1 here

https://folakemi.wordpress.com/2016/07/01/blank-page-part-1/

Blank page (Part 2)

Julie cannot sleep. In the sweltering heat of the night, she has stripped to her panties and has taken a cold shower. But she still cannot sleep.

Somehow, she and Hannah had cleaned up their faces. Somehow, the three girls had sat at the kitchen table and done their homeworks. Somehow, Hannah’s mom never noticed that anything was wrong.

Back home, Julie picked at her dinner and escaped early into the refuge of her room. But sleep did not come. And sleep still has not come.

The agreement is that Hannah will tell her mom that she is fine. By all means, she is going to keep her nausea under control, so that her mom doesn’t have the same idea to give her a pregnancy test. Then, Hannah will tell Bode that she is pregnant. Then Lisa is going to help procure some pills from one of her classmates. This, she had reluctantly agreed to, after much begging from the younger girls. This is because she knows that her life will become so much harder if her parents find out that her younger sister is pregnant.

“Just four little pills. Put them under your tongue, and you’re done. Pregnancy gone.”

Julie had a mind to ask Lisa if she’d used them herself before, but the words wouldn’t go pass her throat.

Despite herself, Julie finally falls asleep, comes wide awake to the insistent sun at her window in the morning.

She and Anthony are waiting before their mom is ready, Anthony out of impatience to be at school already, and she out of an implacable fear that something is about to go wrong with all of their lives.

Hannah and Lisa are also waiting, and this morning, Hannah looks scrubbed clean and not so much sick. Julie is happy that she is keeping to the agreement.

And Lisa keeps to the agreement too, slipping a little pouch of pills to Hannah and Julie as they wait to be picked up in the afternoon.

“Mom’s going out this afternoon. I won’t be in either.” Lisa tells Julie. “So it’s best if Hannah takes the pills when she is in your house. Will your mom be around?”

“No. She has some presentations scheduled for this evening.” Both moms work, Julie’s for an insurance company and she sometimes has sales pitch gatherings in the evenings.

“Perfect.”

The cold fear grips Julie again. “But what if something goes wrong? Can’t you just stay? You’d know what to do.”

“Nothing can go wrong. It’s simple.” Lisa turns to her sister now. “Hannah, let the pills dissolve under your tongue. Wear some pads. You’ll bleed a little afterwards. Voila, problem solved.”

Hannah exhales, and so does Julie. Both squeamish, both scared at the sight of blood, they nevertheless know that Lisa has helped as much as she can. This is their problem now, and as Lisa has said, nothing can go wrong.

 

*

 

Something does go wrong.

The cramps hurt like a thousand hells, but Hannah cannot cry out because Anthony is in the living room watching a game show. She walks around Julie’s pink bedroom, will sometimes hang on to Julie for support, is sweating and crying silently.

“Shh. You’ll be okay.” Julie keeps saying, solemnly swearing off sex until she is thirty or married, whichever comes first.

In four hours, Hannah has used three pads. The fourth one is now completely soaked, and there is the need for a fifth one.

“This is not normal. Is this normal? Where is Lisa?”

When Julie goes to their house to check, Lisa is not yet back. In the next hour, she checks again four more times. But Lisa is nowhere to be found.

By now, Hannah is on the seventh and last sanitary towel. And the bleeding does not let up. And now she is in a state of pain that cannot be explained. She is lying on the floor of her friend’s bedroom, weakened by the hard work her body is doing, bewildered beyond belief.

“I am going to die, am I not?” She asks again and again.

“Should I call your mom? Or my mom? Do you want to go to the hospital? Is the pain very bad?” Julie is beside herself with fear and exhaustion.

“I don’t want to die.” And now, Hannah starts to cry loud tears. The cries explode out of her in boomerangs and weaken her even more.

Julie is crying too. She doesn’t want her friend to die. Nothing was supposed to go wrong, but obviously the pills are doing what they shouldn’t be doing.

Finally, she runs out of her room. In the living room, Anthony has fallen asleep as he usually does. Julie uses the rotary phone to dial her mother’s cell phone.

“Just come home. Come home, please.” When she hangs up the phone, she finds that her legs can no longer hold her up. She kneels first, then curls up. The tears cannot stop shaking her body.

*

Julie’s mom tears into the house, the panic threatening to engulf her. Anthony is sprawled on the sofa and Julie is curled up on the floor in the foetal position. They must be dead, she thinks, they are dead.

For an insane moment, she is frozen in her tracks, the irrational thought that if she left and pretended Julie’s phone call never came through, everything would be fine. She’d go back, and when she returned in one hour as previously scheduled, she’d meet Anthony watching TV and Julie and Hannah in Julie’s room, giggling and laughing the way they always do.

Then she sees a shuddery breath escape Julie, then she is by her side, holding her up.

“What is the matter, Jules? What happened? Are you okay?”

Julie dissolves into tears and clings to her mom for life. She has not willingly hugged or kissed her mother in more than a year but tonight, she wants nothing more than the comfort of this woman’s arms, nothing more than to lose herself in the soothing warmth of mom.

“Is Anthony okay? What is the matter, sweetheart?”

“Hannah. Something’s wrong. She’s upstairs.”

Upstairs, Hannah is curled up the same way Julie had been. But this is where the similarity ends. She is not wearing her skirts, only her blouse and bloodied pants. In between her legs, a pool of blood. On the floor all around her, congealed and congealing blood. On Julie’s pink walls, bloody palm prints where she had tried to stand.

Julie stands by the door, unable to enter, watching her mother take in the scene. She hears her mom’s sharp breath intake, then her exhale. She sees the horror dawn on her mother’s face.

“What happened? What happened?” She is bewildered as she steps into a little pool of blood, the more so as she touches Hannah’s clammy skin.

Still by the door, Julie closes her eyes and prays for death. A quick painless one, nothing like the agonising one Hannah must have gone through. Nothing can go wrong. She remembers Lisa’s words. Well, everything has gone wrong, she thinks.

 

*

 

For the next three hours, they all wait in the hospital’s reception as they transfuse almost two litres of blood and try to surgically repair Hannah’s torn uterus.

For these one hundred and eighty minutes, Julie has told the story of what brought them to this point thrice, once to her mother, once to Hannah’s parents, and finally to her father who has been in a perpetual state of disbelief.

Julie’s tears are depleted, but her eyes would not stop hurting. They burn and ache and close uncontrollably. Lisa, the big sister who’d procured the abortion pills, has not cried once. Not even when her father slapped and punched her repeatedly. Not even when their mother had told her, “Pray nothing happens to Hannah, Lisa.”

“Can I see you in my office?” The admitting ER physician finally comes out and beckons to Hannah’s folks, and they follow him mutedly down the hallway.

When Hannah’s mom’s wail rends the still hospital air a minute later, they all know.

Hannah is gone.

 

*

There is no funeral. On an unseasonably hot June morning, they bury Hannah in a hastily purchased cemetery plot.

They live life the way they know how best to; Hannah’s parents in unbearable emotional pain and unable to sit in the same room with their elder daughter. The elder daughter in a cloud of uncharacteristic depression. Julie’s parents in subdued tones and unapologetically accusatory towards her. Anthony seemingly oblivious to it all.

And Julie in a catatonic state that would not lift. For several days, she would be sure that her heart was dead and couldn’t feel any hurt. Then a wayward memory would make her feel a heart ache so sharp she would think she was having a heart attack.

And nights are the worst, for she cannot lose herself in sleep. On her bed, in her now green room, she’d still see Hannah’s prints on the wall, her blood on the floor. When she finally manages to fall asleep, nightmares would shoot her out of the bed.

 

*

She is no longer in her room. She is sitting at the dining table, doing her math homework. And she is still making the same mathematical error, as the events of the past year unravel in her mind.

Her notebook is so rough now from the writing and erasing. She tears off the page and is confronted by a blank page. A new start, a chance to correct her mistakes.

 

 

Blank page (Part 1)

Blank page

©Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

Sitting at the dining, with her math notebook, a ragged pencil and a stub of eraser, Julie closes her eyes and breathes in deeply. On the paper, she has made mistakes in her math homework, and with the eraser, she cleans up till she has a clean, blank page.

She can start over.

But one cannot clean up one’s life mistakes and start over, no matter how much one wishes so.

Beside her, lost in a world of his own, her younger brother is already doing his homework. A genius in his own right, he is already a year ahead of her in school even though he is two years younger than she is. At twelve, he is hurtling towards teenage and is terrified he will never fit in, because he has nothing to trade except for his intelligence. He has poor eyesight which he compensates for with huge coke bottle glasses. He also has bad hair, bad skin and a nervous habit of biting his nails down to the quick.

He is the brains of the family.

She is the beauty.

There really shouldn’t be so great a disparity between two siblings, considering their parents. Both parents are relatively good looking, and none of them is a genius, even though they are both brilliant at their jobs. No one knows where Julie’s stunning beauty comes from, just as no one knows where Anthony’s genius comes from.

Julie attempts the equation again, but halfway through she knows she is not getting it right. She erases the whole page again, considers asking for Anthony’s help, but doesn’t. Lately, Anthony has been getting more and more smug about his superior brains.  He’d tutor her as if she was seven years old, and this gets her mad faster than anything else.

Biting the pencil, she starts again, then cleans the page.

She starts over again.

And suddenly, she is in her room. Her pink room with the posters of Barbie and Princess Ariel. She is seated in front of the mirror, and is giggling as Hannah brushes her hair. Hannah is her best friend forever. The hair brushing comes after the painting of her toes with pale pink polish, nail polish her mother must never see. Because she is just thirteen years old.

Julie knows this shouldn’t be happening.

She knows that she is fourteen, and that she is sitting at the dining table, doing her math homework. She is not supposed to be thirteen again, in her room with Hannah, being a little girl again.

She closes her eyes so tightly her entire face hurts. When she opens them, she is at the dining, doing her homework, making the same mathematical error.

I must be hallucinating, she tells herself. My room is no longer pink. Dad has had it painted green. I am no longer thirteen. And I am sitting at the dining.

Her notebook is so rough now from the constant writing and erasing. She tears off the page and is confronted by a blank page. A new start, a chance to correct her mistakes.

*

And she is in her room again. Her pink room with the posters of Barbie and Princess Ariel. She is seated in front of the mirror, and is giggling as Hannah brushes her hair. The hair brushing comes after the painting of her toes with pale pink polish, nail polish her mother must never see. Because she is just thirteen years old.

“Have you kissed yet?” Julie asks Hannah. The he in question is Bode, Hannah’s boyfriend of two months.

The question gets the two of them giggling again and Hannah’s hands slip from Julie’s hair as she covers her mouth to trap the laughter bubbling out.  Both girls have been friends since they were toddlers, age-group daughters of two friends who had started having play dates when they were three. They attend the same school and the same church, and both take ballerina classes at the same studio. It is only natural that they are best friends. Both their mothers are also very strict, and if Julie’s mother hears that Hannah has a boyfriend, all hell would be let loose.

“What do you think?”

“Well, have you?” Julie asks again. She doesn’t have a boyfriend herself, so she is living vicariously through Hannah’s experiences.

“Maybe yes, maybe no.” Hannah is giggling again, falling onto the bed and drawing up the blanket against her budding chest. Julie crawls in beside her.

“If he was my boyfriend, I’d probably have done more than kiss him by now.” Julie whispers. There are girls in their school who have already gone the whole way with boys. Even though Julie is not sure she would give so much in so little time, two month seems long enough for a boyfriend and girlfriend to have graduated from holding hands to kissing and smooching.

“Well, we’ve kissed.” Hannah, not to be outdone, finally confesses. “And I let him touch my breasts in the bathroom at school yesterday. It felt quite strange. I wonder why some girls like it so much.”

The admission sends them into another fit of giggling.

*

Things happen much more rapidly after that.  In her pink bedroom or in Hannah’s gray one, Julie’s best friend keeps her abreast of her growing relationship with Bode. The first time she allows him remove her training bra, the first time he touches her in that private place, and the first time they go all the way.

Throughout the admissions, both girls would giggle and Julie would ooh and aah. She sometimes wishes she is the one with the boyfriend and cool life, the one experiencing the secret groping in the school toilet.

And then her wishes come true. She gets her own boyfriend soon after. Then, Hannah’s stories are no longer as tantalising. Perhaps this is because she can do the same things with her boyfriend that Hannah is doing with hers.

But Julie finds herself reluctant to do more than kiss. Not that she is scared; she finds that she is just not ready. She even finds it’s kind of distasteful to have a boy’s tongue inside her mouth. But because she has to keep her boyfriend, and kissing is something boyfriends and girlfriends do, she always acquiesces when he wants to kiss. But she never allows it to go beyond the kiss. His hands have never been inside her shirt let alone her bra. And that’s the way things will be, at least for a very very long time.

Because they sit according to the alphabetical order of their surnames, Julie and Hannah don’t sit together in class. Today, from the back of the class, Julie can see Hannah as she rests her head on her desk in the front of the class.

Since they arrived in school in the morning, Hannah has not felt well. Her skin was hot and she was sweating even in the morning cold. And she’d complained of abdominal pain. By break time though, she was feeling better.

But now, towards the close of the school day, Julie can see that Hannah is not looking well again. Her dark complexion seems somehow darker and she has a hard time keeping her eyes open.

“Hey Han. Are you okay?” Julie asks her as they wait in the playground after school for Julie’s mom. One week, Julie’s mom would be responsible for getting all the kids to and fro school, then the following week, it would be Hannah’s mom’s turn.

“I don’t feel so good. And I feel so sleepy.”

On the way home, the girls are unusually quiet and Lisa, Hannah’s elder sister keeps looking at her younger sister questioningly. But she doesn’t ask any verbal questions.

The following morning, Hannah is still in bed when Julie arrives at their door. Lisa is ready for school and waiting by the door.

“Mom asked Hannah to sleep in today. What’s the matter with her, by the way? She was fine yesterday morning.”

Julie shrugs. She’d wanted to ask the same question herself.

Somehow, school is not the same without Hannah being there, and Julie finds her mind wandering. During lunch break, Bode, Hannah’s boyfriend, corners Julie on the way to the restroom.

“Where’s your friend?”

“She didn’t come to school because she is sick.”

“Oh.” He seems a little let down, and Julie is sure that he is thinking about and will miss the smooching Hannah gives so freely. “Can I send a note through you?”

By afternoon, Hannah is feeling better. Her eyes are sparkly and her complexion is no longer dusky. She is waiting impatiently for her sister and friend to get back home from school.

“A day of rest was all it took.” She says as she tears impatiently at the note Bode wrote her. Soon, Julie and Hannah are giggling again, talking about Bode and John, Julie’s own boyfriend. And all is right with the world again.

 

*

 

For three more weeks, everything keeps on being right with the world. School in the mornings, home in the evenings, enough drama between the two girls and their boyfriends to keep romance novelists in business for a long time.

Then Hannah is ill again. As it was the first time, there was no warning. One day she is fine, and the next she is so nauseous that she almost cannot get out of bed. This week, Julie’s mom is doing the school run and only Lisa is waiting by the door when they arrive Tuesday morning.

“Not again.” Anthony mumbles. At eleven, Julie’s brother is all arms and legs and brains, and is not one to fold his arms serenely and wait for his sister’s friend to make an appearance so that they can get to school.

“Hannah’s sick again.” Lisa says as she tumbles into the car. At fifteen, she is the eldest of all the kids, and can be quite probing. “You’ve got to tell me what’s up with the two of you.” She whispers to Julie in the back seat. “Hannah never falls ill, and you know it. So this illness is suspicious.”

Perhaps because girls with extremely strict parents tend to be just a little wilder when their parents are not there, Lisa has a reputation of being loose in school. She goes with boys just for the fun of it, and doesn’t see anything wrong with dumping a boy for his friend, or taking up with her friend’s ex. Because of this, she doesn’t have many female friends.

“You’re taking a pregnancy test.” She tells her sister later that afternoon. Somehow, she has procured PT strips and she is holding up four of them. “Go pee for me.”

When the pink strips appear on all four of the sticks, Hannah is dumbstruck. She is frozen into place, as is Julie. In the bathroom where three girls is a crowd, only Lisa can find her voice.

“I knew it. I just knew it. Boy, are you in trouble?”

When the tears come to Hannah’s eyes, they are bitter and salty and quiet. Because her mother is downstairs somewhere in the house, there can be no hysterics. The tears keep cascading her cheeks like a waterfall gone mad and she is clutching at Julie’s arm like it were an anchor.

Julie tastes the sides of her mouth and is surprised to find out that she is crying silent tears too. In Lisa’s face, there is amusement and not a little derision.

“Thought you’d have known that a little hanky panky would lead to this. Why didn’t you ask me for advice when you started allowing this boy to go all the way? What’s his name, by the way?”

Hannah cannot speak, and neither can Julie. For a brief impossible moment, Julie is glad that she is not the one in this dilemma, happy that she is still a virgin. Then the sadness envelopes her again. This here is her friend, the person that she loves most in the world. No little girl should be going through this, crammed in a tiny bathroom with her big sister and her friend, staring at positive pregnancy tests, and afraid to cry out loud because her mother might hear.

“What are you going to do about this? Tell dad and mom?” Lisa’s voice is now extremely grating. “What’s your boyfriend going to say? Will he be happy to be a daddy? What is his name?”

None of the younger girls answer.

“ I asked what the little boy’s name is?”

“Bode.” Hannah finally says.

 

 

…to be continued.

read part 2 here

https://folakemi.wordpress.com/2016/07/05/blank-page-part-2/