If the wax in my ears had been thick, I couldn’t have heard the word. I couldn’t have collected it innocently and reserved in the heart. I couldn’t have greeted the women. Today, I heard there are shadows of beauty and patches of fresh wounds spreading from her head to toe on her tanned skin. I also heard that she forces a smile and sometimes stares at one thing for hours and that sometimes she holds her black rosary, reciting bead after bead, invoking Saint Jude and Rita, and mentioning my name. I heard that she lost her unborn child on the night that I disappeared and cannot conceive another because the womb was damaged from the blows and scars in her heart. If the wax had been thick and the word a taboo, maybe her skin could be uniform and smooth, and the smile genuine.
For seven years, I had every reason to believe it was a magic word because whenever it was uttered, the recipient pulled the brows into a slight frown and smiled sheepishly at children. I remember inquiring about the meaning and Mrs. Kimbo, our immediate neighbor, saying it was reserved for women who had borne daughters. I had inquired further, but she had commanded me to be silent. I swallowed and synthesized, and waited patiently for the day I could use it. I didn’t have background information about it, but I knew it belonged to women and could be used at any time of the day.
For the longest time, I thought it was a greeting because that was how my father addressed my mother. Some male neighbors uttered the name too to their sisters and wives. As a child, I believed that tables and chairs shifted from position whenever the courtyard of darkness stretched. I also believed that those who woke up before the rays burst from their reservoir and flawed the sky encountered the accidents of the day. I believed the word ‘whore’ was a word of honor until I joined the school and was studying curse words in Literature.
I remember meeting the swollen face of my mother a day after greeting elderly and toothless women who were sitting under a shade knitting baskets. I did not know ‘good morning’ or ‘how are you’. I used what I knew – ‘whores’. They had stared with their toothless gums, sunken eyes, withered chins, and tobacco-stained tongues, and exchanged glances. Later that night, I heard glass falling, restrained cries, slaps, and kicks. I did not think I could be the cause of the fight although I heard my name being mentioned occasionally. Many days after that, the unsightly appearance forced a smile back at me.
“Why are your eyes swollen, Ma?” I inquired once we were in the field the following morning.
“It’s flu, baby.”
“And why is the ankle swollen?”
“I hit a wrongly placed stool, dear.”
“Why don’t you go to the clinic?”
“I will go tomorrow. Right now, we must work in the garden and return before your father returns.” I sensed fear, disgust and hatred in her voice, but I was too young to argue further. She never visited the clinic. Sometimes she told me a spark of fire had fallen on her while cooking and other times bee stings.
I hated the holidays. I hated them because that was when I learned that my mother was not allergic to bees or cold and had not knocked down a stool in the days she had woken up earlier than everybody. Many girls dreaded nights like their grandmothers, mothers, and sisters. We formed groups and shared the news. We were many and different, but our eyes spoke a similar language – a language of pain and anger. Few talked about the shades of darkness that had clouded their hearts and homes, but we were in it; crammed in a bubble that swayed back and forth, coming from the unseen and going to the unknown. A keen observer could not miss the watery eyes.
Time and events washed the slug of hatred. The school was the only place where we could laugh genuinely. The anthem was simple; disses at home and bliss at school. As the tentacles of our shadows stretched in the morning, on Mondays through to Fridays, we laughed heartily knowing that we could be away from fistfights and shattering noises, at least for some hours. Most importantly, we could be away from being pointed at and earning our mothers a beating. Underneath the majestic blue and away from our homes, we shouted, swayed our invisible hips hidden by age and hormones, and rallied on cliffs with our buttocks. In school, there were no thoughts of struggle. The smiles were genuine, and laughter came from a place which nobody could touch.
I learned the species of pain and when I joined school; it was hard to miss the one caused by the bell at four o’clock from Monday to Friday. We loved our families but the idea of heading home after long studying hours was the weightiest. If not puffy eyes and an awfully shining nose, a broken ankle or wrist reminded us that our fathers were alive and our mothers had to pay for giving birth to girls and others because their daughters were not developing quickly and bringing riches or were talking to men. Holidays reminded us that the word ‘whore’ could be used throughout the day.
As the shadows behind us lengthened, our hearts shifted because of ache. We held onto our departing dreams, hoping the smoke could cease blinding our visions alongside the chimney. The darkness rose from the hearts and mingled with the awfully silent, starless and moonless nights. The darkness was so dense that we could feel it escorting us to the graves. We learned to hate our fathers much earlier before we could make a coherent sentence. We hated them for what they did and didn’t do. We smiled when they commanded us, but when they turned, we raised middle fingers, fists, or spat. We hated growing up because the fathers had raised sons who could then become our husbands, and we could then suffer because of our daughters’ lifestyles. We cursed how slow we grew up for it meant long days of seeing our mothers’ faces turning into forests of scars. We talked about hate openly. The first morning after closing school was the hardest because it rang the bells of accumulated fear and disgust that we had buried for long.
In the evenings, we cupped our heads knowing that thick smoke awaited in our homes and was ready to arc towards our arthritic spirits. The thick-winged bird that curled slowly and hovered around our homes; never dispersing or climbing to God’s blue. The thick smoke swayed under the breaking of our hearts, circling above the thatched roofs, and piercing the happiness we had cultivated during school hours. It was like a lost sheep wrapped in the dilemma of moving forward or squinting towards the pathless past.
Like other girls, I enjoyed and looked forward to being in school. In school, there was moaning, breaking, bleeding, and shouting, but at least not from my mother. I looked at my patchy skin – some parts roasted by the ruthless rays and others bruised by hard work and fists from my drunken father. I could tell that darkness was closing in and light fading away without leaving a trail when my mother’s scars spread to the scalp and soles.
The holidays were hollow. I saw my mother’s scars and tears. Every night, I stared at the candlelight and the shadow that danced majestically behind it and wondered whether the death was acting similarly. I saw my mother tremble whenever the birds stopped chirping, and the owls and bats slapped the leaves of mango trees. I knew what happened during the nights and I knew she knew that I knew. Even in the quiet nights, I could feel him pointing and perhaps slapping or choking her. Sometimes she woke up with a swollen and broken lip and claimed she had hit the bed frame. Other times it was a swollen arm or ankle. Maybe it was best that way.
I remember him moving close, running his rough hands over my arm, and inquiring about my performance in school. I bowed my head and parted my lips, ready to state the performance in every subject. I caught my mother’s gaze under the headscarf signaling me to be eloquent and audible. I remember the gag reflex because of the stench of cheap alcohol, unfiltered tobacco, paths of urine, rotting and rotten hides, and sweat from bloody and damp clothes of hunters hanging some meters away from the fireplace. At first, it was bearable, but it rose like yeast. I remember the slimy and white substance on his bare and cracked feet. Then followed some curse words and ‘whore’ and disrespect, a slap on my mother’s left cheek, her losing balance, the scarf hitting the candle, the fire rushing to meet the scalp, and spreading to her torn and transparent clothes made of umbrella’s material.
As I lay in bed holding onto the string of the night, I prayed for death. I peeped through the cracks and saw the glass falling, and a fist flying in the air. Her body was swollen and the face scarred by clotted blood. With the eyes hidden by the flesh, she struggled to block a fist, but it landed on her tummy where another child lay. I looked at them and felt rage swelling because of how he looked at and after her. There was no way of stopping the fight, but if I could leave, maybe she could no longer be punished. I stared, how close they were yet very far like two strangers crammed in a cubicle, both trying to connect with the people they left in their countries. I looked again, this time hoping not to see what I had seen; the fists, blood, and a mother clenching her tummy and mumbling prayers for the safety of the unborn. The scene had not changed. She was struggling to let out the pain.
I stepped out into the dark and into the world where the man ate man and animal saved man. Then there was silence. I pulled my foot back, fearing she could have died or maybe the glass walls had crumbled and one had found a way of climbing and touching the other. I held onto the latter only to turn and find that the glass had become opaque and my name and ‘whore’ were on my father’s lips again. My left foot followed the right, and I stepped into the world knowing that the wind could be cold and mighty and the sun blistering, but it was better than waiting for the shades of darkness in his heart to fade or meet a corpse in the morning. And while writhing in that caravan of darkness, I knew that what I had seen for years was the life I didn’t want to live and people I didn’t want to imitate. Not at that moment, not ever. I fell in love with the unplanned holiday that I could take for life from the sights of blood, swollen faces, and plastered wrists from my mother. I pulled the hood to my messy hair and walked south with the hopes of ending anywhere other than in the venue that was supposed to be home and where holidays were hollow.
Catherine Wanjiru is a Kenyan writer passionate about mental wellness, sustainable developments, end of child abuse, empowerment, and social justice.