Sentinel Literary Quarterly
Vol. 1 No. 1, September 2007. ISSN 1753-6499 (Online). www.sentinelquarterly.com
By Chika Unigwe
She was named for her grandmother. Tall. Regal. And a blackness that shone as if polished. She did not know the woman whose name she bore. The old woman having died of a rabid dog bite before Alek was born. But her memory lived in the pictures of her around the house. In the stories that were told of her (every man wanted her for a wife, her beauty was unrivalled. She could have been a queen. The way she carried herself was simply regal). In the name that her granddaughter had been given. And in the family’s fear of and utter hatred of dogs.
Alek had inherited the shiny blackness. The legendary beauty. The height. The darkened lips. But she was not imperial. Her grandmother’s regality had completely passed her by, leaving her with a tomboyishness that both disappointed and worried her mother. Do not play football, Alek. It’s not ladylike. Do not play at playing awet, it’s for men only. Do not sit with your legs spread like that, Alek, it’s not ladylike. Do not. Do not. Do not. Do not. Sometimes, the ‘do not’s’ were screamed at her in frustration. At other times they were whispered to her; fervent pleas of a despairing mother who tried to get her interested in other things. Taking her along with her to milk cows. Finding chores for her in the kitchen. But Alek had her eyes elsewhere. The udders of the cows distressed her. The kitchen was unbearable.
When her period arrived, at 12, her mother took her aside. She gave her a list of things boys were never allowed to do to her.
“Do not let them touch you.”
“But why not? What’s wrong with touching, Mama?” She was itching to go out and play; that insufferable Ajak would be showing off on the skipping rope. But she, Alek, had practised all week and could skip better than Ajak. Oh, she could not wait to show her. To wipe the smirk off her face. She hoped that her mother would not see that her asida lay unfinished. She had no appetite for it. She did not like the food much.
“Not that kind of touching.” Her mother shifted on her stool. How to tell this? How to explain herself? She shifted again. “Touching…in a different way.”
“Do not let them see you naked. Okay?”
“Never!” why should she want a boy to see her naked? The idea. How could her mother think that?
The mother smiled. Relief washing over face. “Girls who let boys see them naked are not good girls. Nobody will give any cow to marry them. Save yourself for the man who will marry you. Marriage first. And then the touching. E yin nyan apath, be a good girl, my daughter. Promise me.”
“I’ll be a good girl. I promise,” Alek said. She got up but her mother motioned to her to sit down.
“Your food. Eat it up.”
Alek groaned. The lump of porridge in her plate winked in mischief.
It was March. It was dry. It was dusty. In the night I couldn’t sleep because of the cold. But also because we were leaving Daru for a refugee camp. The father, Nyok, hoped they could get resettled somewhere close to Khartoum. And eventually a migration to the United Kingdom or America. I was 15. I did not want to leave.
She had learned to write on the kitchen walls. Ignoring the food on fire, ignoring her mother’s admonishment that the kitchen was not a classroom. And that nobody would pay cows for a girl who let her food burn.
The SPLA, Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which had been guarding the predominantly Dinka town, was withdrawing. There was a rumour that the janjaweed militia were making their way to Daru. To sniff out the SPLA members. And to cleanse the city of its Dinka population. People were disappearing. They would have to travel light, Nyok said. They might not be able to hitch a ride. Not with four of them: Alek, Ater - her younger brother- Nyok and Apiu, the parents. I liked going to Khartoum. It was a different world. High rise buildings. Lots of cars. And women with henna on their feet and hands. The elaborate designs intrigued her. They seemed to have their own lives. To move. Alek often wondered what it would be like to be hennaed all over (but she would be careful not to get the henna around her cuticles. Henna around the cuticles spoilt the entire beauty of it. It made the cuticles look dirty. As if the women had spent hours digging up crops and had not bothered to wash their hands.) But this was not a shopping trip. Or a sightseeing trip to the museum. This was a fleeing from home.
In the morning breakfast and a bath. And an argument. Apiu did not want Nyok in his white jalabiya. “In this weather, your gown will be brown before we have reached the end of our street.”
Nyok would not be moved. “I shall wear white.” Solidly said. A voice not to be argued with.
A normal day. I was upset at having to leave. Then a scream. “Aiiiiii! Aiiiiiiii!!!!” Loud enough to etch cracks into the walls of the house. Aiiiiiiiii! Aiiiiiii! Paralysing in its horror. Nobody moved. I dropped the bundle Ma had given me to carry. Covered my ears with my palms. Too late. Too late, she thought.
“We’ll survive.” Nyok said. A promise. A voice not to be argued with. “Everybody into our bedroom!”
The children in the clothes cupboard. Husband and wife at the bedroom door. Locked. A sigh of relief. Maybe the soldiers would pass them by. Alek peeped through the keyhole. Dust. Darkness. The key in the lock stole the light and whatever she might have been able to see. Her father’s voice. Talking to his wife. Everything. Will. Be. Fine. Then a Boom. Kaboom. The door knocked off its hinges. A gasp (her mother? Probably). Loud footsteps that could only belong to soldiers.
Splintering of glass. The mirror beside the door (it was the only breakable thing in the room). The soldiers laughed.
“Where are they?” A rough voice. “Where are the rebels? Bring them out!”
Brrgghh. A kick against the cupboard door. Alek held her breath. Did she dare exhale? She reached out for her brother. His hand slithery with sweat, slipped.
“There is nobody here, Sir, just my wife and I.” Polite. Politeness never led anyone astray. Maybe, just maybe, it would sway the minds of the intruders. Alek prayed.
“Nobody here, sir, just my wife and I!” a voice mocking her father’s.
Alek felt dread worm its way into every crevice of her being. It filled up the cracks that fear had left exposed. The soldiers wanted to ransack the room. To check every bit of it. Under the bed! The cupboard! The drawers! Between the books! Pa tried to stop them from checking the cupboard. “It is just us, Sir, honestly. There is no one else here. Just my wife and I.” Alek imagined her mother nodding. Hoping that the force of her nods would convince the men. Then her father’s voice. Faltering. A leaf blown by the wind. “Please, pl..e-ase , spare us.” A voice that did not sound like his.
Alek had never heard her father sound like that: timid. Servile. She felt embarrassed for him, this efficient policeman. Maybe on his knees. “Please, Sir…” the faltering voice. Begun but not finished. A shot amputating the rest of his sentence. A stillness. Inside the cupboard, the smell of fear. Rising and rising. Then, a wail. Ma sounding bigger, louder.
“Shut up!” a soldier caterwauled at her. The rest took up the refrain.
“Shut up! Shut up!”
“Shut up, Tora Bora wife.”
Wail. “Are we not people like you? Are we not?” Her grief raising her wails to a crescendo that made Alek’s lungs clog up as if she was inhaling dust. Alek wished she could block it out: this sound that was horrific in its peak. I wished I could just wipe off the day and start again. The wailing continued. Ripping Alek’s heart to bits. If she looked hard she might see the pieces. Scattered over the floor, bloody and irretrievable. A shot. And then a dreadful nothing. Alek shut her eyes. Maybe, if she shut her eyes, she would wake up from this dream. The dust clogging up her lungs would clear. Tips of her fingers against her eyes. She had to keep them shut. Let the still darkness segue her into some other realm where her reality was different. And then I heard a soldier cough and say something that made the others laugh. The raucous laughter punched her. Her mother’s wails replayed itself in her head. It raised an anger from deep inside her which took over her fear. And her reason. And she went insane. She scurried out from the cupboard. Her parents’ bodies were sprawled on the ground, an island between her and the soldiers. Her father’s white jalabiya was turning the bright red of a medicine man’s. She looked away from the bodies. Quickly. And focused on the men. All I wanted was to be able to attack these men who had just blown my life away, as if it were a handful of dust.
The soldiers looked at her. A bean pole. Breasts like baby mangoes straining against her flowered dress. One of the soldiers smiled. A lopsided grin that caused her to instinctively cross her arms over her chest. He laughed. A long laughter that held no mirth but took its time in dying down. He slapped her hands away. Grabbed her breasts. Pinched them as if he was testing out some fruit for firmness before buying. Her nipples hurt under his fingers. “Stupid African slave!”
Another joyless laughter. He tore my dress. I fought, but he tore my dress. And. And. And threw me on the bed. She tried to bite him. He felt her teeth graze his arm and slapped her. She dug her nails into his arm. Another slap. She aimed for his eyes. He pinned her hands down. I wanted to gorge his eyes out. She wanted to inflict on him a darkness that he could never emerge from. A pain in her back. One of the other soldiers had hit her with the butt of a rifle. She could not stop it. A scream. It catapulted her brother from his hiding place. A soldier aimed his gun at him and shot. Lifted him off his feet. Landed him with a whack on the floor. He did not make a sound. Not before. And not after. Alek tried to scream but could not. Her voice failed her. And then her body followed suit. A warm trickle from between her legs. Soaking her dress. The soldier on top of her slapped her. “Why are you urinating on the bed?” Another slap. ”Stupid bitch!” Slap. Slap. No energy to fight back as he spread her legs. He tore off her underwear . She imagined that she saw her mother cover her face with her hands so that she did not have to watch. When he thrust his manhood inside her, when he touched her, Alek felt a grief so incomprehensible that she could not articulate it beyond chanting, “This is not happening. This is not happening.” A mantra to keep away the layer upon layer of pain that seared through her as he went in and out of her, groaning like a dying man. One by one the other men came and thrust themselves into her, pulling out to come on her face .Telling her to ingest it; it was protein. Good food. Fit for African slaves.
She concentrated on her mantra. Until she started to descend into a darkness, a void, where she felt nothing.
Alek had no idea for how long she was left there. Naked. The pain between her legs, harsh. And in her nose, the smell of raw fish and dust. She remembered waking up with the sense that she was in mourning for something she could not immediately identify. And then her eyes fell on the floor. And she remembered. Alek let out a shout that dried her mouth. She groaned, scratched her hands and screamed again. Aiiiiiiiiiii. Aiiiiiiiii. A scream that made her hoarse. And heralded a stampede of tears. I had to get out of there. That was the only thing on my mind. She dug her hand inside the cupboard and dragged out a dress. It was her mother’s. She held it against her nose and smelt a warmth that did not console her. She held it against her body and cried into it. Still snivelling, she pulled it over her body. It covered her and billowed out at her waist like a rainbow-coloured parachute. She walked out, refusing to look at the corpses on the floor. I thought if I did not look at them, then it’d all be a …I don’t know…a mistake, a dream, you know? Maybe they forgot me and left without me. She yearned to wash out her nose. To wash out the raw-fish smell of the soldiers’ cum. She wanted to scrub between her legs until she forgot the cause of the pain.
At the front door, her slippers. She had to be strong. Outside, dead bodies scattered on the street. Women in brightly coloured clothes walking in a line; bright flashes of colour in the midst of such utter desolation. There was something hopeful in the sight. That perhaps all was not lost. Maybe her family still lived and she was trapped in a nightmare. Some of the women had children strapped on their backs. Some had young children walking alongside them. I joined the group. No one asked who she was and Alek did not volunteer. A collective sadness bound them together. Clamped their lips. Occasionally a young child would sniff . Ask for food. Or a drink. Apart from these the group walked on in silence towards the bridge. Stepping around corpses.. When they saw a football and a child’s sandals at the side of the road, Alek thought of Ater. His love of football. He wanted to play professionally, you know. A mid-fielder for Hilal, his favourite team. Or Meriekh. His second favourite. Alek swallowed hard. She would not cry. Crying would be giving up. Or giving in. She was determined to survive. She owed that much to her parents. And to her brother. They had sacrificed themselves for her. She could not let them down. That would be worse than what she had gone through.
She lifted one heavy foot after the other, swallowing her tears so that her stomach filled up with them. Made her so bloated that she was certain she would never need to eat again. It was not until they reached the bridge that Alek looked back. A silent Goodbye to her city. She did not know when she would back. Or if she would ever return. She let memories of the past play in her head. She edited the past. Clipped the horror. Kept only the laughter and the smiles. Her memories were black and white reels of evenings spent bantering and eating dinner and good humoured family teasing. But then she remembered. She was alone. She looked down at herself. At her feet. Cracked and coated with dust . Her throat was parched and she longed for a glass of water. Sweat gathered between the soles of her feet and her slippers. It made the slippers squeak. She wished she could take a bath. A cool refreshing bath to get the filth off her. Beyond the fishy smellshe could smell herself. Almost. And what she could almost smell scared her beyond fear. And filled her with the rage of a haboob.
Alek felt like she was carrying a ton of sorghum around each ankle. Every move she made was torture. But respite was in sight. The refugee camp at the other side of the river was a six kilometre stretch of tents. Dust. People. Soldiers guarded the camp. She could see them, smoking and swaggering. With the pomposity of people who owned the earth.
The new refugees were directed to an office to register. For the first time she told her story to someone else: a white haired United Nations worker who spoke through her nose like a European even though she was black. The woman did not blink as she listened to my story. She did not wince as Alek told of how she heard the shots that killed her parents. Of how the soldiers took turns raping her. Of watching her brother die, his brains splattered on the walls of her parents’ room. The woman did not blink! She handed Alek a ration card, told her it was for food. Gave her a plastic sheeting for her tent. And shouted out for the next in line. Where Alek had thought that her grief would singe ears and stop the world, the woman’s reaction convinced her that the camp was a collection of sad stories. Hers was nothing special. “Next!” the woman called out. NEXT. So that all the way at the end of the queue they heard her. Next next next. She dispensed of the refugees. Doing the job she was there to do. NEXT!!!
At fifteen Alek was setting up home with a bed. And a wooden table. Her dreams of going to university and becoming a doctor buried with a past that she could never get to again. Her new home a tent that she was not sure could keep out the desert sand in the face of a strong wind.
Once she could she washed herself. Scrubbed the dust off her feet. Until it seemed they would bleed. She willed them to bleed. She would never scrub herself like this again until she moved to Antwerp. The pain of the scrubbing was cathartic. Ridding her body of the weight it carried so that by the time she was done, she felt re-born. Her feet shone, gleaming in the dark and her ankles felt light.
That night she stood outside her tent and looked at the night sky. It was littered with stars. She smiled at the stars and had a conversation with her father, about school. About how hard she would work once she could go back to school. She talked to her mother about her period which had become painful. She had a quarrel with her brother about his shoes which she had found in her room. “Your shoes are stinking out my room,” she told him and he pushed his tongue out at her. She was afraid to go to bed. I was afraid of the dreams I’d have. But I did sleep. When she slept she dreamt of her father. When she woke up she allowed herself to cry. Not even wiping the tears that trailed down her cheeks. It was a silent cry. Not the noisy howling that she had anticipated, the way she had cried at her grandmother’s funeral years ago. The tears moved the boulder on her chest and left a cavernous hole where the boulder had been. And in the middle of that hole was the epicentre of a sand storm.
Alek could not settle happily into life at the camp; standing in line for food and soap. Enduring the shoving of those behind her. Impatient for their turn. During the day she went with some of the women and young children to fetch firewood for cooking. Escorted by some soldiers from the African Union Peacekeeping Force. There was something distressingly humiliating in the routine of her daily life.
Sometimes, before she fell asleep, she saw her parents lying on the floor of their bedroom. She tasted her fear as she hid in the cupboard with her brother. She heard the laughter of the soldiers as they tore her dress and squeezed her breasts. Sometimes she wished the soldiers had killed her. Having been left alive she felt an obligation to survive, but what kind of survival did I have, living in a tent? I hated the camp. I couldn’t make friends with the other refugees. Their singing and laughing irritated her. As if all was well with the world! She did not like the ease with which they adapted to camp life. She detested the coffee sessions when the women gathered in a tent for coffee magnanimously distributed by aid workers who encouraged them to talk to each other. To tell each other about their lives in the belief that the exercise would help heal them of the trauma that they had gone through. She did not want to hear their stories. To hear about Gyora who was dragged to a tree behind her family home by two Janjaweed soldiers. She was raped so violently that six months later she was still bleeding. “My body does not want me to forget the violation,” she said at the end of her testimony. All the while her arms were wrapped around her waist. Protecting her from an unseen assailant. Neither did she want to listen to Raoda talk about being kidnapped. She and sixteen others. Soldiers on horseback. Galloping! Galloping! Took the girls to use as sex slaves. Raoda escaped. In the night. Four months Pregnant. Three months later, a baby. Impatient to see the world but unable to survive in it. Alek did not want to sit down and drink coffee. And listen to the woman whose name she could never remember talk about how her fourteen year old son was forced to have intercourse with her. A gun at his head. Soldiers in his ear. “Touch her breasts! Put your penis in her!” Alek’s body shook with the paroxysm of her rage. What good was this? All this talking. And remembering. And digging up ghosts? I think that maybe the aids workers got perverse pleasure in listening to these stories of madness, you know? She refused to tell hers. She had no wish to open up her heart. To lay its bleeding rawness open to strangers.
She loathed the African Union peace keepers who strolled around with their hands in their pockets. Kalashnikovs around their necks, like musical instruments. She almost died the day she had to go and ask for a sanitary towel. Her period had started at night. There I was, telling a total stranger I was on my period. And a soldier nearby sniggering. It made her aware of how inconsolably helpless she was.
Three months later and a month before she turned 16, Alek met Polycarp. A Nigerian soldier. He was accompanying the group fetching fire wood. Defiant in his uniform. Under his left eye a thin scar. The length of her little finger, and she found herself wanting to touch it. To feel it. To hear the story that gave birth to it. Love. It did not take her long to recognise it. Here, of all places! That was what she said. Of all the places to find love! She had not known she had it in her. She had dreamt of marriage and children, but that was before. Before she knew the human capacity for pain and loss. Before she knew that you could go to the centre of hell. And not die. Surely not. Denial. Not with a soldier. Surely not. But Polycarp was different. He never looked at the refugees with curiousity. Or with pity. Or with anything that closely resembled derision. Or a sense of superiority. His eyes were warm . His strides, when he walked, firm but modest. As if he was no better than the people he was protecting. He played with the little ones. Let them touch his uniform. Rub their hands across his gun. He pinched their cheeks. Made them squeal with a laughter that did not annoy Alek with its intensity. That did not make her question how anyone could be happy under the circumstances. It was normal for anyone around this soldier, to be happy. To laugh. To recover their joie de vivre. And she wanted so very much to be touched by him. Wanted him to induce the high laughter in her as he did the children. Oh yes, she wanted that so very, very much that his face followed her. Every moment of the day.
Polycarp noticed Alek too. He seemed to find a reason to be near her while she chopped wood. Offered to help her tie her bunch. And when their hands touched he squeezed hers. And this tiny gesture made her want to suddenly burst into an aria. When he placed the wood on her head he touched her neck so gently that she almost missed it. Yet it made fireworks explode somewhere inside her.
Secretly he brought her presents. A bag. A tin of sardines. A hair comb. A mirror. Some sweets. Alek hid the presents in a corner of her room. Sometimes, she brought out the mirror and surveyed her face. Whenever she did this the face of a stranger stared back at her; a tightness at the corners of the mouth. Fine lines fanning out from the sides of the eyes. The stranger looked old. At least twenty-five, she thought. She did not think she could ever look older than she already did. What did Polycarp see in her?
He said: “Hold your hair in a bun. So I can see your neck.” She giggled.
At night she dreamt of him. She dreamt of the children she would have for him. She dreamt of a life away from the camp. And she woke up with a grin on her face. Life was no longer a chore she had to get through everyday. Life was a face. A beautiful scar. A hand sending ripples down the back of her neck. These days when she talked to the stars she told her family about Polycarp. She described him to her mother; a man so tall that he could stand on tiptoes and touch the sky. He was the colour of yellow maize. Did she think anyone could be that yellow? His voice was hoarse as if he constantly nursed a cough. And his nose, Mama, his nose was almost beaked it made you think of a bird. She laughed about how skinny Polycarp was so skinny he could be a pencil drawing of a stick person. She told her father how Polycarp brought her presents. How he made sure she got extra food. She told her brother how much Polycarp reminded her of him. How they had the same eyes: the pupils not quite dark, a tint of grey. She told them how often she thought of marriage these days. Of being a mother and a wife. She felt like an object that had lain dormant for years and was being excavated.
One day, Polycarp gave her a note. It asked her to meet him outside her tent later.
On a night made luminous by the moon Alek followed Polycarp back to his quarters. His room had a strange smell. A man’s smell that Alek had not smelt since her father died. She must not think of her father now. Nudge the thought aside. Polycarp led her to his bed. He undressed her. Delicately as if she were fine porcelain that might shatter. He lifted her dress over her head. Bent down and plucked her nipples with his mouth. He threw off his shirt. Guided her hand to unzip his trousers. Gently pushed her down onto the bed. The thick green army blanket scratched her back but she did not mind. She was floating. Flying. A butterfly fluttering . She felt Polycarp between her thighs. There was no pain. No ache. Just a long, long sigh and a happiness that filled in the hollowness in her chest. Her excavation was complete. She had been dug up from deep under.
In the still of the night she whispered to her mother, “I’m a woman now, Mother. A proper woman.” Her mother would forgive her would she not? The rules had changed. She had slept with a man without being married to him. She called up her mother’s face. And the woman smiled a wide smile that included Polycarp as well. Absolving her. Totally.
Alek met Polycarp often in his quarters. Soon it became clear to her that she could not live without him. He had become as much a part of her as any other part of her body. He made her laugh. He made her forget, sometimes, that the only time she saw her parents and her brother was in her dreams. Polycarp had sneaked into her heart and carved out a comfortable place for himself in there.
She asked him stories about his life. She sketched his life before they met. The scar was from a lashing from his father. He was seventeen. His father had caught him smoking marijuana. The buckle of his father’s leather belt left the welt. And he had walked around for days with a hand covering the eye. She relived his life and felt the pain of the flogging. He was the oldest of five children. His mother ran a bakery. His father owned a printing shop . He lived in Lagos before he came to Sudan. Lagos was the most crowded city on earth. Lagos was so crowded that it was impossible to breathe. The markets were wildly beautiful. She said it sounded a lot like Khartoum. Only less dusty. “One day I’ll take you to Lagos. Treat you like the queen that she you are.” She laughed at the thought of being a queen. He kissed her and said she had a laughter that sounded like the tinkling of crystal. She laughed at that and he kissed her. And she wished they could stay like that forever. His lips marrying hers.
Two months later Polycarp was deployed to Lagos. He took Alek with him. “About time,” she thought. Seven months in the refugee camp was a death sentence. The plastic sheeting of the tents could not keep the sandstorms at bay. Lagos was where her life would start anew.
"Sisi" the second story by Chika Unigwe is available with Quarterly or Annual subscription to SentinelQuarterly.com.
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