Sit. I told you. And you obeyed, as though it was just another day in our miserable lives.
Turn. I swung you around with a vehement push of my hand. And you complied, just as you had, everyday of your life until then.
As I braided the silken tufts of hair on your head, I looked at our reflection staring back at the both of us in the cracked mirror with its many rusted pockmarks. I couldn’t tell you enough that I was stunned, so stunned that nothing came to mind except random remembrances. This was the little girl that was gurgling about in the tiny cloth hammock I made, seven years ago. This was the face of the little girl that they said resembled mine. I looked down at your hands, the barely budded little fingers and the deeply etched lines glared at me questioningly, accusingly. It felt like just yesterday... when I looked into the mirror back at my mother’s house, just like in this moment with you.
Do you know, my dear, that I am only eleven years older than you are?
I look thirty years older, I know. I knew back then that it won’t be long before you will begin to look like me: your young face creased with lines of suffering, your tired hands will ache with caring for a family that will be thrust upon you – a family where the first wife’s youngest will be as old as you, the youngest wife. I know that I never want to see you again, because if you come back, you will suffer a predicament worse than I am in now. A predicament of being the unwanted, returned shameful bride.
I don’t know what this is, I don’t know why I have been sent away. This is a strange house, and the old man wants me to be his wife. I don’t know what he wants of me, but I am in so much pain, my body hurts, my mind hurts, thinking every thought hurts. I want to cry, ma, I want to go out and play with the other children in this house – but the people here say I am their step mother. How can I be their step mother when I am only as old as them, or a few years older? Ma, I want to come home. I sometimes wake up at night and try to trace my steps out of this big cavernous house – but what if I am lost? What if these oldest sons of the old man find me and chase me? Where will I go, where will I go?
Did you know how you came into this world? On your own terms. Ours is not a community that reveres a woman, leave alone letting her be in peace if she is born. But you, you were a different soul. Some years ago when I lay in my mother’s lap, I heard her say that a mother calls a child from the beyond to be her own, and I have no doubts that I summoned you from the world beyond. Your father wasn’t pleased: you were a girl. But in my heart, the happiness I knew had no bounds. You were my doll, my live, real, beautiful doll. The little angel I would be blessed to love, to cherish and to play with.
I told myself that I would save you. And save you, I did. I told your father that I would burn myself if he killed you, or snatched you away from me to be left for the dead. He was the headman then, you see, and it wouldn’t bode well for the headman’s wife to kill herself. He bartered, agreed, but you would not be given any privileges whatsoever, he demanded. He told me that you could eat out of my plate: but nothing more.
Maybe you knew, yourself, that this was what you were offered. You were a silent baby, your eyes transfixed on me as I bustled about in the kitchen. I would hide morsels aside to feed you: but truly, how would three or four of them suffice? Your brothers would eat ten times that amount. And guilt would wrench my heart. I would give you what was allowed for me: but that was a vagrant’s meal, a supplicant’s desperate clutch at the last straw.
Did you feel hungry, my child? You must have, you never told me if you did. Your eyes were always dark, two deep chasms that stared back at me whenever I looked at you. Did you ever want anything, my child? Ever?
It strikes me now that you did. You wanted the love that you were entitled to. But we, we were too busy being slaves to a community.
I blame myself, my daughter. I blame myself.
Why are some people respected even if they are bad? I see men coming to this house every day, they bow down to the old man. He hits them, sometimes he and his sons laugh at them. But the men are revering, they sing his praises, they ask him for blessings and sing and chant for his longevity. When he is pleased, ma, the old man, he summons me, sometimes with one of my older sisters in this house – another of his many wives. When he is happy, ma, we are shared, shared like the rice from the huge pot that we slave to fill. My body hurts, I am tired. All I want to do is to sleep, but they don’t let me do that here. I am the youngest, they say, laughing at me, at everything I do and say. But the laughter doesn’t hurt, ma, it just hits me, rolls off my body and slides down idly. It doesn’t matter.
Did you know, ma, my eyes used to water so badly when they made me cut the onions? Nowadays, even for onions, I have no tears.
My life was listless after you left. What futility is this life, what kind of a joke is this existence if you cannot be allowed to love your own? What crime is it to be born a woman, what crime is it to want to dream for a better future?
Did you know, my daughter, that you asked me only for one thing, ever, in your life? Your brothers had demands. They didn’t ask for anything, they would order me and your step mothers to do their bidding. But you? You sidled up to me one afternoon, your cavernous black eyes looking at me with a strange gleam.
Ma. You began. School?
I remember your surprise as I began to laugh. My dear princess, my laughter was not at you, nor at your dream, nor at the audacity that you had to hope – to hope against hope, to have the gumption to do that in this world where you aren’t even taught the meaning of hope. But I laughed, laughed as the growing pain in my heart engulfed my existence. How could I say no to you, my child? How could I say no to you when this was what you deserved, like your brothers? And yet, I had to. I not only had to say no, but I had to close the door tight on your dreams. Girls don’t study, I told you. I told you the very lines my mother told me that sorrowful evening as she looked at me, her lips a thin line, her eyes moist.
Did you know, my princess, that you and I could be sisters, had life ordained our birth in a different way? Did you know, that if I had my way in that parallel universe that I wish even now, that we belonged to – I would have schooled you?
Those hands that should have held a slate in them, a piece of chalk to scribble on the black surface – they were one day being adorned with henna, soon to become battered and bruised. The forehead that would be etched with line after line of knowledge would soon become creased with the harsh and jagged lines of motherhood, imposed without care, forced without consideration.
I cry myself to sleep every night. But there are no more tears.
I don’t know why I write these letters. I don’t know if you can ever see them, or if I can ever see you and give them to you. But somehow, scribbling this in this scrawled up remnants of a language my tired hands were once familiar with, writing gives me some solace. And then I feel the growing bump in my stomach, this thing that is growing heavier and heavier by the day. I wonder how you did it, ma, to mother us all even before you reached our broken kitchen wall at home in height. Did you hate us, ma? Did you wish we were never born, so that you didn’t have to suffer?
Sometimes I wonder, ma, if being born a girl was my mistake, my curse.
I wonder, ma, if I could ask you for forgiveness, for the moments passed, for the times I hurt you just by existing. Ours is not an easy life. We are born for no reason, and we die for no reason. In that little time in between, we suffer. We suffer because we are women, we suffer because this is what they think is right. But ma, I feel sorry. I feel sorry for them, I feel sorry for us, I feel sorry for this little bump that is growing and growing and growing in my stomach.
Ma, I know you said that you pray that I never come back home. Because if I did, you told me, that it would be a fate worse than anything else. A married girl never returns home: if she does, she is the family’s black sheep.
But what if I never come back from here?
I still cannot believe it. Are you sleeping, my princess? Aren’t you? Please wake, please, please wake up. Let me look into those black, cavernous eyes once again. Please, let me hear your voice, let me see those hands fold and open. Ask me to do anything for you. Ask me, please, for anything, and I will do it for you.
Tell me you are hungry, I will feed you. Tell me you want to go to school. I will shield you and take you.
But you won’t speak again. You won’t wake, anymore. I see your lifeless form, bedecked in red like a bride, like the beautiful bride you were forced to be before your time. I want you to wake, my angel. Those lips would never beckon me again, those feet would never patter about in this wretched, merciless world again. Those eyes would never stare me in the face again. That stomach, that stomach would never go hungry again. My heart is in my throat. I do not have the luxury to grieve your passing, or to even touch you. The little tuft of hair that fringes your face near your forehead is silently resting on you as your eyes remain closed. The curve of your cheeks has still not lost their childlike innocence. There are no lines on your face. I only see peace. You could be sleeping, journeying in those lands I would wish for you to escape to every time I would put you to sleep.
A tear clouds my vision. We cannot cry, your father warns me. This is a shame. See what your daughter was worth, he spits, couldn’t even survive the birth of a child.
Somewhere in the distance, I hear the faint cries of the girl you gave birth to before you went away.
I cannot help but smile in this anger that rises in my heart. Another girl, another future ruined.
My child, I ask you for forgiveness. Was it so much of a sin, that I wished you wouldn’t come back to this house again?