Posted in Girls, Short story

Posterity

african baby

Posterity

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

My womb has never cooked babies right.

Three times, it spat them out before they were ready to breathe. They would come, slick with blood, perfect little things, all ten fingers and toes complete, only that they were unable to take a first breath. They would present them to me from a far distance, dark little bodies unwashed, and then they would go bury them. I never even got to hold them.

The one that my womb cooked long enough, she was born unfit for this world. She had the largest head I have ever seen, only one eye and a blank sheet of skin where the other should have been. Her nostrils were impossibly wide, joined to her upper lips in a comedy of errors. I wept and mourned, suffered in silence as she was put in my arms, dead as soon as she was born. I cried as my milk came in and as my breasts became engorged.

I knew then that I was eternally cursed.

You see, a woman is only as good as the number of heirs she can produce. And of the three wives that lived in my father-in-law’s compound, I was the only one who couldn’t birth a child.

I was the wife of the eldest son, the one who was supposed to deliver the heir to carry on the family name, the one on whose shoulders sat the responsibility for family.

He was being relegated to the background when he should have been the voice of the lion in family matters. But what have you when you have no child to carry on your name?

My heart bleeds for Adeoye, this man who married me for love, who shunned his arranged bride for me, who professes heaven and earth not to take another wife after me.

I was sixteen the harmattan season his parents reluctantly knocked on my parents’ door. He was twenty-four, broad-chested, and the sun and the moon and stars rose and set in his dark eyes. My parents were taken aback just as much as his parents had been, because it is the way of our people to have parents choose whom their children marry. In the end, we got our way. The bride price was paid, the wine was drunk, and I was led to my father-in-law’s compound.

It’s been ten years since that day, ten years of love, of forgiveness and of two hearts that beat as one. It’s also been ten years of grief, of hardship and unbelievable heartbreak.

This grey morning, as the cock crows and Adeoye makes to roll out of bed to head to the cocoa farm where the family works, I swallow a huge breath past the constriction in my throat and pull him back.

“My love,” I begin, “I love you, will die for you, will go through another devastating childbirth for you, but my body is giving out. And you need a child, a son to call yours…” My heart is breaking into a thousand pieces, but he needs to know that I won’t hold him back, that he has my blessing to take another woman.

He doesn’t answer, just sits there, rigid like a mountain. I curl my body around his back, trace his muscles with my fingers.

I would die for this man, lay down all the joys in my tomorrow for his.

“Adeoye, please.”

His two younger brothers have parcelloads of children already, and we are preparing to send his mother’s last child, a seventeen-year-old girl to her husband’s house. And the accusations are relentless. The last stillbirth I had, my mother-in-law visited me the next day and told me she was already in talks with a fertile family to get Adeoye another wife.

I would myself have gotten Adeoye a wife since, but he has been adamant, saying that I mean more to him than seven sons would. But for the sake of peace, for the sake of his posterity, Adeoye needs to marry another wife.

“I’ll never hold it against you, Adeoye, please.”

He turns slowly and envelopes me in a hug so tight my breath runs away.

I am surprised to see two sheets of tears running down his cheeks.

 

In ancient African communities, infertility, miscarriages, and stillbirths were considered the woman’s fault, and the man would marry a new wife to bear him children.

Posted in Christian fiction, Life commentary, Short story

Into God’s Kingdom

Into God’s kingdom

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

It is a decision no man should have to make.

 

Twenty minutes seems so trivial in the detritus of daily life. It is all that is required to take a bath, finish a meal, make a phone call.

 

It was also all that was needed to bring us to this point, to this decision.

 

Underneath the profusion of life support machines, she is pale, perfectly still, her stomach pushing through the blanket. I hold her limp hands in mine, rub them vigorously as if that would call back life into them, falter at the unbearableness of the situation.

 

“Are you ready?”

 

It takes the weight of the doctor’s hands on my back for me to jerk out of the hopelessness. His eyes are rimmed with compassion, yet I know he is just doing his job. Today, it is my family’s tragedy, tomorrow it would be another’s.

 

“No.” My voice comes out hoarse, scratchy, dead. “Give me a couple of minutes.”

 

He eases out of the room. I’m sure he will pass through the throng of family members that have come today. Mima’s parents, the sister who flew in from London, the other sister who has not left the hospital for more than two hours since all this began.

 

Mima, sweet Mima. Mima of the twinkling black eyes, infectious smile, gregarious personality.

 

Life goes fast when you’re with the woman you desperately love. Two years of courtship, five years of marriage. One evening, I came home to soft music, dinner by candle light, and exciting news. We would be parents at last.

 

She practically blossomed during the pregnancy. Her eternally thin frame took on a robustness that was endearing, her cheeks were infused with color, and her delight was contagious.

 

Until that evening.

 

Watching a football match in the den, I suddenly became aware of a silence that should not be. Jemima had gone into the bathroom for a shower for over ten minutes yet there was no sound of water. Easing myself off the couch, I went in search of her.

 

She was naked, bluish, crumpled haphazardly on the tiled floor. A knot the size of an egg was on her forehead.

 

Fifteen minutes later, the ambulance came. I realized I must have called them, must have wrapped Mima in a blanket, must have lifted her off the floor and cradled her in my arms. I was numb with a cold that seemed to originate from my heart, yet my face was flushed with sweat.

 

They hooked her to an oxygen mask, ran a battery of tests all night long, brought me the news the following morning as I warmed my cold hands with a cup of coffee in the reception.

 

Mima was brain dead. The fall had rendered her unconscious and her brain had been denied of oxygen for too long. There was nothing they could do.

 

At five months, the fetus was too young to survive, the neurologist said, but they could keep Mima on life support long enough for the baby to have a fighting chance. Even then, there was no telling if the baby wouldn’t be damaged. For it had partaken of the deprivation of oxygen with his mother.

 

For a week, I hovered in the twilight of grief and despair. Surrounded by family members, I felt alone and raw. I slept in the same room as Mima, prayed endlessly for a miracle, was horrified at the prospect of delegating her to the position of a womb just so our son could be born, didn’t know what to do.

 

Sighing, I release my wife’s hands, rise to my feet and run my hand through my hair. Cracking open the door just a little bit, I call for Dr. Richard.

 

“I’m ready.” I say quietly, not knowing if my decision is right or wrong, but intent on giving my wife and son the freedom they should have.

 

When the doctor nods, I walk over to the life support machine, hesitate for the briefest of moments, and flick the switch just as I’d been shown.

 

I release my wife and son into the kingdom of God.

 

 

 

*Luke 13:29 Then people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and take their places at the banquet table in the kingdom of God.

 

 

Posted in Contemporary, Life commentary, Short story

A legacy of unremoved shoes

A legacy of unremoved shoes

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

The day had begun to shorten, the sun slipping behind the mountains of Sopot. Yet, the mourners would not leave. To one side, Djordje and Jovana held hands, forgotten by all.

 

The previous year, they’d lost their father and their lives had suddenly shrunk to the perimeters of their home. In a culture where the whole village was extended family, where there were no differences between sibling and cousin, their mother had begged to differ. And she had made enemies, uncles and aunts only tolerating the family because of Bojan’s goodness.

 

When Bojan died, all pretenses of kindness died. The village could now officially ignore Dejana and her children.

 

Then three months ago, a strange illness took Dejana. It wasted her body, loosened her tongue. Djordje tended her as best as he could, but there is only so much a ten-year-old boy can do. Sometimes, he was assisted by someone bathed afresh in the milk of human kindness. Mostly, he had no help.

 

Then she died.

 

That she had been hugely disliked did not discourage the mourners from coming, did not stop them from spreading salads and roasted meats around the gravestone.

 

Djordje stared at the several dishes of cevapcici lining his mother’s eternal bedplace and felt his stomach rumble. All through his mother’s sickness, he and his sister lived solely on proja and kajmak, the most basic Serbian staples. Delicacies like cevapcici were another matter entirely.

 

He felt a squeeze, turned to face Jovana who was only six, and was jolted by the haggardness of her face. She looked not much different from their mother before she died.

 

“Jovanka,” He said her pet name almost reverently, “Are you okay?”

 

She chewed at a corner of her lip, the way she was wont to do at difficult times. Then she whispered the question that had become lodged in her heart since their Ma was lowered into the ground. “Who will take care of us now?”

 

Reality hit Djordje, settled like bile in his stomach. For want of an answer, he echoed Jovana’s action, biting his lips until he felt the metallic taste of blood.

 

Beside them, two women were talking in earnest, both dressed in the traditional outfit of plain blouse, long black skirt, and head scarf.

 

“You know what I hated most about her. She never removed her shoes when she came to our house.”

 

“And she never chose a kum and kuma for her children. How on earth?”

 

Djordje felt his intestines tighten, pulling his stomach into the worst possible ache. Not for the first time in his life, he wished his mother had been friendlier, more invested in the customs of their people.

 

He took a deep breath, ran his hand over his sister’s tresses, and stood. There was no sense in prolonging the inevitable.

 

Their uncle Andrija was standing at a far corner of the graveyard, sipping from a bottle of brandy. He was the greediest of their relatives, hence the easiest.

 

Djordje sank low to his feet, held onto his uncle’s trousers and said the words he had rehearsed over and over again.

 

“Please let us come and live with you. You can have the house and Pa’s farmland.” When he squeezed his eyes, the required amount of tears leaked out. Inside him, his heart groaned and shattered into a million pieces.

 

Andrija settled his face into a mixture of scorn and pity, then broke out into a large smile. “Of course, of course.”

 

His mission accomplished, Djordje went back to his sister and was surprised to find himself crying. Real tears this time. Tears for his gentle father whose only mistake in life had been to marry a bickerer, tears for his mother whose spirit had finally been broken at the end, tears for his orphaned sister, and finally tears for himself. For having to grow up before his time, for losing his childhood so soon, so brutally.

 

He slipped his hand into his sister’s and answered her question, “We’ll stay with Uncle Andrija, and I’ll take care of you no matter what.”

 

 

 

Cevapcici – Highly-spiced meat patties

Proja – Cornbread

Kajmak – A kind of diary spread

Kum – Godfather

Kuma – Godmother

* Serbia is a landlocked territory in the Balkan Peninsula of Eastern Europe.

 

 

Jer 31:29 – When that time comes, people will no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, but the children’s teeth have grown numb.’

 

 

Posted in Christian fiction, Contemporary, Short story

Choorile

 

Choorile

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

Sanil sits at the entrance of his home, his eyes turned towards the sky which is dark and low, a sure sign of rain. Absent-mindedly, he wonders if it would actually rain, how long such a rain might last, and he is grateful for the stilts on which his wooden home rests, a protection from the floods that would inevitably follow.

 

For flood is a common occurrence in the Rupununi grasslands where he had been born, where he had been married, where he yet lives with his four sons and one daughter.

 

His spirit weighs heavily within him, his eyes filling with tears a man should not be seeing shedding.

 

It had been on such a night like this, a rainy stormy night, that Indira was born, that Nalini was lost, that his life went from familiar to strange.

 

Suddenly, the dark night is torn by a low mournful cry, not unlike someone in agony. The cry stops almost as soon as it starts, and just like it has happened for three days in a row, three-month-old Indira starts to cry. Sanil envisions his aged mother rousing, shhing her granddaughter, waving the palm fronds she’d procured from the herbalist to fend off spirits.

 

His Nalini’s spirit. His unbelievably beautiful, tender wife’s spirit.

 

As a young Christian, Sanil is torn between the age-long belief system of his Indian-Guyanese heritage and the truth he knows the Bible teaches.

 

This is the third night he would hear the mourning spirit, the choorile everyone says is the spirit of Nalini. For she had perished in childbirth, leaving a daughter alive. And according to the Guyanese folklore of jumbees, she would forever be restless, roaming at night, crying mournfully.

 

Pastor Mark, new to the village from Georgetown, says it is a lie. Nalini had been a Christian, her spirit had moved from earthly realms, she was in the arms of the Father.

 

With his head, Sanil believes this. With his heart, he believes in the choorile.

 

Sighing, he heaves to his feet and moves into the candlelit bowels of his home. The smells of their eaten supper yet lingers; Cassava, dasheen and crab soup. And spilt coconut milk.

 

In one room, his four sons are in various stages of sleep and the smacking sound of two-year-old Rajiv sucking his thumb makes his heart ache. Nalini would have gently pulled the thumb out of his mouth but as Sanil stands there, he doesn’t have the heart to do it. The child is motherless; all he could do was allow him this last vestige of comfort.

 

Because it is frowned upon for husband and wife to share a room, Nalini had had her own room. Even though his ma has since moved into it to care for Indira, he still thinks of it as Nalini’s room.

 

He hears the rustle of the palm fronds, his daughter mewling, his mother urging her back to sleep.

 

Finally, garnering strength from within, he knocks softly and pushes open the door.

 

“Ma,” he whispers, “Can I hold Indira for a while?”

 

Ma looks at him strangely but has known not to argue. She wraps the baby in soft sheets and places her in his arms.

 

She smells of palm oil, rubbed carefully into her skin by Ma to prevent infections.

 

She is warm and her soft body presses into his. Innocence, fragility, beauty. Solemnly, Sanil vows to protect her with all that he has, even his life.

 

He carries his daughter in his arms, shuts the door behind him, returns to the doorway. Rain has started to fall, pelting the soft sand around the house.

 

“I don’t know what to believe, Lord.” He says into the darkness. “But I do believe you, and I know children are good gifts from you. Choorile or not, Indira is your gift to me. Keep her safe, please.”

 

When he looks down at his daughter’s face, the tears quietly streaming down his face, he is surprised that she has her thumb in her mouth like Rajiv. She is sleeping yet there is a soft smile curved around her lips.

 

He smiles back and feels warmth begin to burn in his heart. Again.

 

 

 

Choorile – Spirit of a woman who dies in childbirth, leaving her baby alive.

Jumbee – Name given to a host of spirits and demons of Guyanese folklore

*Guyana is on the northeastern shoulder of South America, bounded by the Atlantic Ocean, Suriname, Venezuela and Brazil.

Posted in Life commentary, Short story

Early

Early

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

Four weeks doesn’t seem like much. For heaven’s sake, it is only but a full moon. You can’t build a house in four weeks. You cannot sow and reap in four weeks. You don’t grow much in the space of four weeks.

 

But your life can take a dip in four weeks. In four weeks, you can lose the hope you held onto for eight long months.

 

Experience has taught me to take it slowly, to sit in front of the hut in the evenings with my feet propped up, sipping the bitter juice of the isesi leaves that theoretically delays labour. Experience however, has not taught me to cope with the loss.

 

The first contraction is mild, rippling my swollen belly gently. I prop my feet higher, and try to push panic away from my heart. The next contraction takes its time in arriving, but it is with a little more kick. Terror floods my heart.

 

Five times I’ve been with child. Five times I’ve knelt at the birthing bed four or five weeks too early. And five times I’ve been handed dead children, fragile babies that do not have the ability to suck life-giving air into their lungs.

 

At the third contraction, I hasten off the chair, into my mother-in-law’s hut. Over a slow fire, she is roasting groundnuts, her feet tapping to a song she hums gently.

 

“Mama…the baby.”

 

At the sound of my voice, she turns. Her face is brown and perfectly wrinkled, her eyes deep set and knowledgeable. This evening, they are twin pools of sorrow.

 

“Now?” She asks, rising to her feet.

 

I nod and turn to go out of the hut. She follows immediately and soon catches up with me.

 

“Perhaps the baby will live.” She says.

 

I want to keep hope alive. I desperately want to hold my own child in my arms, not because arrangements are already being made for Soji to marry another woman, one that will bear him living heirs. Not because it is extremely shameful for a woman to be besieged by series of stillbirths.

 

I want a child I can love. I want this extension of me. I want this validation that I am a whole woman.

 

“Go on inside. I will get the midwife.” Mama says at the entrance to my hut. As she hurries away, another contraction hits me right in the middle of my stomach. The pain roots me to the spot. My feet tremble as a sudden cold descends on me.

 

As the contraction eases, I realize that I am sobbing, praying, pleading.

 

“Oh God, oh God. Let this baby live. Please…please, oh God.”

 

In a raffia basket near the bed, the birthing equipment are ready. A dull knife, a sharp knife, a clamping cord, coarse soap, palm oil for the baby’s skin. In another raffia basket are baby clothes, hand stitched the first time I got pregnant.

 

I’d been wild with joy, thrilled at the honour of becoming pregnant only one month after we were married. At the village market, I’d purchased yards and yards of good material, had laboured for months, stitching together beautiful garments, waiting for the birth of my first child.

 

That baby came six weeks early, had not even drawn a single breath before she was laid into the ground.

 

The sobs rend themselves from my throat, exploding from me not unlike a burst of gunfire.

 

I sit on the edge of the bed, awaiting the midwife’s arrival.

 

 

 

 

In ancient Africa, the mortality rate was very high as there were no equipment to save premature babies.

Posted in Christian fiction, Contemporary, Short story

A white day

A white day

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

 

I should have known, should have prepared myself for the happenings of the day.

 

Yi never wore white, yet he went to work that morning wearing white shoes, a white cap pulled low over his head.

 

I stood at the doorway, fought the melancholic pull in my stomach, waved goodbye to the man I’d called husband for five years.

 

Fighting the unease that churned my belly, I swung my mind to happier thoughts. Yi’s company had just promoted him and my seamstress business was growing daily. And we’d finally decided to try for another child, perhaps a brother for Ming.

 

Of course we’d pay a yearly penalty for as long as the baby was a minority, because we’d in essence be breaking the law of one child per couple. But I longed for the easy camaraderie of siblings that had existed between my two brothers and I, and it was unfair, government or not, to deny Ming such a pleasure.

 

Three-year-old Ming was still sleeping, the two braids I’d pulled her hair into before going to bed last night coming unraveled.

 

Standing at the door to her room, I felt my mind fill with pride, my heart with joy. Yes, she was a girl, and most women I knew had quietly aborted their pregnancies when they realized the only child the government allowed them would be a female. But I loved my daughter, reveled in her powdery smell and chubby arms, basked in the glow of her affection for me.

 

That morning I stood in the doorway, happiness slowly gaining ground on my agitation.

 

Until I saw the opened window…and the white feather.

 

Pigeons usually patrolled our neighborhood and sometimes settled on the windowsills, but I’d never before found telltale signs of a shed feather. And a white one at that.

 

Panic bubbled out of my heart, flowed into my fingers. I strode to where Ming lay sleeping, snatched her off the bed and woke her in the process.

 

Her face scrunched up and she let out a long winding cry. Placing her on my hip in the hopes of soothing her, I made my way to the kitchen.

 

I sat her down, gave her a shrimp to nibble on, and set to cook.

 

By the time I finished cooking the fresh mushrooms in oyster sauce and walnuts in butter soup, it was afternoon and my heart had become calmer. Not entirely calm, but much calmer.

 

I’d just finished putting Ming to bed for her afternoon nap, was digging in the store for an old dress I wanted to remake when I felt the first rumble.

 

Then that deafening roar that burst my eardrums. The building tottered like an infant learning how to walk and I felt myself sliding. I struggled to stay upright, grabbed at a box only to find it sliding with me, down, down, down.

 

All of a sudden, the noise and the movement ceased. I sprang to my feet, realized the room was slanted, clawed my way out of there, my head filled only with thoughts of Ming.

 

When I got to the doorway, I saw that the passageway was no longer there. In its stead, a cloud of dust, thick and blinding rose to torment me.

 

Then the second rumble. The plastered ceiling rained down on me, the floor on which I stood gave way, an iron rod caught me squarely on the forehead, and I sank into the waiting arms of darkness.

 

*

 

I woke up in a hospital in Shaanxi, haunted by dreams of a certain man in white with a smile as wide as the heavens. Though no one told it to me, I knew his name was Jesus.

 

When I opened my eyes, his image yet burned behind my eyelids.

 

Blinking my eyes, I turned to the nurse and learnt the truth.

 

An earthquake of incredible proportions, more than 70,000 people killed, a whole lot more injured, several missing. I’d been in a coma for five days.

 

When they brought the list of dead people, Hwong Yi was number 34,200. Hwong Ming was number 63,212.

 

The tears would not come. The grief settled into a hard ball in my stomach. I closed my eyes and saw the man called Jesus yet again.

 

 

 

 

*The Sichuan earthquake of May 12, 2008 affected more than 45.5 million people in 10 provinces and regions in China.

* In China, colour white is associated with death and mourning.

 

Posted in Short story

Alone

open hands

January 4 1905

Oyo, Nigeria

 

She was pushed from a safe and dark warm place into coldness, into the waiting arms of the nearly exhausted midwife. They’d been waiting on her, been desperate for her arrival for more than three days.

 

For those three days, the cries of Kikelomo, her mother could be heard in the neighboring farm. The days were colder than usual and at night, her five older children could be heard speaking in low tones outside the delivery room. They were petrified that their mother would die, were shaken each time her screams rent the still night air, only went to bed when the last candle was put out.

 

On the third day, on a surprisingly warm Sunday afternoon, Bose was born. She was wrinkled, bald and her eyes were strangely bright, brighter than that of any baby the midwife had ever delivered.

 

She was an accident. Her father had wanted no more children yet couldn’t forgo intimacy with his wife. When she’d told him she was expecting a child, he’d smiled grimly and spat out the kola nut in his mouth. That was all he needed to do for her to know he wouldn’t care for the baby.

 

She was the fourth girl. Had she been a boy, her father might have viewed her birth differently, might have been glad to have two sons rather than one. But since she was a girl, he ignored her thoroughly, went out of his way to do so.

 

The day after her birth, her mother was back in the kitchen pounding yam and sweating over a pot of Egusi soup.

 

 

*

 

June 14 2008

Lagos, Nigeria

 

Exhausted from the walk from the bedroom to the living room, Bose holds on to the walls for support. She is slower than ever yet insists on walking by herself.

 

She settles her 103 year old frame onto her grandson’s sofa and clicks on the TV remote. TVs have ceased to be a source of amazement to her, for her daughter had bought one as soon as they were mass-produced. Today, Bose is consternated by DVDs, TiVos, and android phones.

 

“Mama?”

 

She turns at the approach of Maureen, her six-year-old great-granddaughter. Maureen is a striking image of Bose when she’d been a child growing up on her father’s yam farm. There is a bond between the two of them, an unspoken emotion that connects them in a way that no one else understands.

 

“Your legs are shaking, Mama.” Maureen folds herself into a chair opposite Bose and stares at her questioningly.

 

For the first time, Bose becomes aware that she is cold and that her sight is more blurred than usual.

 

“Perhaps I need to lie down awhile.”

 

This time she gladly receives Maureen’s help in returning to her room because she realises that she needs it. She leans heavily on the little girl and both of them slip at one time that Maureen misses her step.

 

In the room that now smells perpetually of an old person’s dying flesh, Maureen buries Bose underneath an avalanche of blankets. Yet the old woman cannot stop shivering.

 

“Are you sure you’re okay, Mama?”

 

When Bose’s nod gets lost in an onset of tremors, Maureen races out of the room, yells for her mother.

 

Bose jerks uncontrollably for a while, until the tremors fade, then stop. Her life flashes before her in cinematic blur. Being raised by an indifferent father, sold off into marriage at 15, the loneliness of her marriage, the redemption she’d found in her children, her husband’s death, her children’s marriages, her grandchildren’s birth, then the birth of her great grandchildren.

 

Suddenly, the images freeze.

 

She dies as she had been born.

 

Alone.

Posted in Short story

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/