Days have turned into months, since last she saw the moon. She knows what this means. She is now in the family way. A wave of hope, rises high. Perhaps now, he will stop hitting her.
Her walk is slow, the path treacherous. A fall from this height could take with it, the little hope stirring in her belly. Her back aches, just like Mama said it would, when finally a baby nestled within. The load on her head aggravates the ache, but the beer needs brewing – he gets really cranky without his beer.
Marriage is nothing at all like the games from her childhood…
“This is good beer!” John exclaims. He is in character. Starring in the coveted role of ‘The man of the house’. He struts around in his threadbare shorts, totally unaware or unconcerned of his ashen butt cheeks, fully exposed. “Thank you my wife, thank you!” He continues benevolently.
She smiles. Polly smiles. Today she plays the role of wife and mother. It gives her immense pleasure.
“Mama, I’m hungry!” the children chorus. Starring in these roles are her siblings, Joshua, Christine and Mercy.
“OK children.” She coos and dashes to the ‘kitchen’. The kitchen is 3 little stones with a bottle top on top. There is nothing in the ‘saucepan’, no fire underneath. “Just a few minutes!” she calls, “Let me serve the food.”
The children prance around impatiently. The little one begins to cry, but is soon appeased by the sight of Mama with the ‘bowls’ of ‘hot food’. Taking great care to observe protocol, she dispenses the meals. With everyone happily wolfing down air, Mama finally sits. The children ask for more. Mama gives from her plate. And then one by one, they fall asleep. Until the only mad man left in the yard, is her merry husband.
“Thank you Mother-of-my-children,” he sings tunelessly “I love you like this beer.”
Polly smiles. The walk down memory lane has shortened her trudge home. Yes, there is hope. Perhaps a child will deliver, where good beer has failed. Perhaps this child will bring love to a loveless life. She enters her homestead, and a blinding pain sears her left shoulder. She staggers backwards and topples on a stone. The pot crashes and, and the water, the precious water, splashes everywhere.
“Where have you been?” The angry man demands.
She lies on the wet earth and tries not to whimper. Say nothing, it will only make him angrier! Her Mama’s voice echoes in her mind. But her silence, abates nothing. She feels a kick, then another, and another on her unprotected belly.
“Please,” she pleads “The baby.”
But he hears only a challenge to kick harder…
“Polly, what’s that on your dress?” John asks.
He has fallen out of character. He never calls her Polly, when the game is in play.
“I’m not Polly.” She turns to remind him. “I am wi-”
But the words freeze on her tongue. The children are all staring at her, their faces, the very picture of horror.
“What is it?”
“Your dress is red!” they chorus.
“You’re a woman now.” Her mother explains when she barges into the real kitchen. Polly sees her mother’s tears, and chokes it down to the harsh smoke swirling around.
Things happen very quickly after that. Word goes out, and the aunties soon arrive. Overnight, the homestead is teeming with people. Familiar faces and strangers. Something is brewing. But Polly can only tell from the noises and the smells that waft in. She sits on a mound of sand, in a hut, secluded from all. The beads weigh heavier than usual on her neck – a burden clasped unceremoniously, by a stranger long ago.
Aunty Betty wafts in with a dish.
“Eat. You’ll need your energy for this part.”
“Eat. We’ll be back soon to get you ready.”
“Ready for what?”
But the words boomerang from the closing door. She wrings her hands in frustration. There really is nothing to pick up and throw, in this wretched hut. So she sits on her mound of sand, hating the feel of blood draining from her body.
The women come and go. The smells waft in. The footsteps plonk and fade away. The voices chatter and whisper. Her mother stays firmly away. Leaving her daughter in the hands of aunties, she barely knows. Women who have wasted no time getting familiar. Just this morning, a paltry 3 days after her dress stained, they came in and ordered her to strip. They bathed her as if she were a little baby. Then they dressed her in crispy clean shukas.
Only then did her mother finally appear.
“Let me look at you.”
She is silent for a while, staring forlornly at her daughter. Twice, she begins to say something. Twice, she clamps her lips over her tongue. “Time to meet your husband.” She manages, finally.
They emerge from the hut. A red-eyed mother and her shell-shocked daughter. The cheers erupt. It is apparently, a joyous occasion. The people sit in 2 semi circles. Familiar faces on one side, strangers on the other. Between them, sits an arena; a battlefield.
“Three days ago,” her father begins, stepping quickly into the arena “My daughter became a woman!” The cheers erupt again. “Let us see if there is one, worthy of her hand.”
With this challenge, he takes his seat. The father of the bride cannot engage in meaningless talk.
An elderly man rises from the other group.
“The beads on her neck were placed there by my son.” He says in way of introduction. “She was barely rid of her baby teeth then. My son has been patient, a long time.” With these words, he too takes his seat. The father of the groom cannot engage in meaningless talk either.
Two men now rise, one from each side of the divide. They take their positions in the arena. The air is electric. The duel soon begins.
“What have you to offer?” the man from the familiar side cuts straight to the chase.
“15 camels and 100 goats.” The other man counters.
“Do you mean to insult us? 60 camels, her father gave for her mother. And you come here with this…this…this insult?”
“You continue to insult, I see!” the man from the familiar side yells. “I can’t. I can’t!” He turns as if to walk away. “This is blasphemy!” he swings back into the circle. “Blasphemy! You hear me? Blasphe -”
“40 camels.” The man from the unfamiliar side shouts. “40 camels and 200 goats.”
A hush washes over the loud man. He glances briefly at the man he represents. The old man lifts his left hand and scratches the bare skin on his right shoulder. The predetermined signal has been given. It is all systems go!
Instinctively, the group knows that the battle is over. The two men walk toward each other, all traces of animosity, now vanished. Large hands clasp. “Welcome to the family!”
The old men nod their approval. The women break into song. The dancers surround the bride – separated from her childhood by three days of bleeding.
She wakes up to vigorous shaking. It takes a moment for the memory to gash back, and the dull pain to resurface.
“What happened, Polly?” Her mother’s worried eyes bore into hers.
Polly’s eyes well up. There is a wetness between her legs. She remembers the splashing water.
“Help me up.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Polly,” Her mother persists “You are bleeding.”
She lies on her back and counts sheep. It never works. Not in the traditional sense. The woolen embrace of sheep number 9 simply eludes. Still, she counts. Still she hopes that the man on top of her will soon be sated. He is not so bad, this one. His halitosis could knock out a latrine fly. But he never hits her. And he always pays. What more could she ask for?
“Not this guy again.” Vanessa groans. “My face is still swollen from his Friday madness.”
“Then don’t go with him.” The skinny girl quips eagerly. She’s the group rookie and it shows.
For her first day, Vanessa suggested she get a new name.
“You’ll need a name that says ‘come hither’.”
“But nothing. You are now Lolly!”
“Lolly!? What does that even mean?”
“It’s short for lollypop and lollypops are sweet.”
“Ok fine. Lolly, it is.”
“That’s my girl.” Vanessa smiles.
She is so kind, this Vanessa. Took her in that morning 3 days ago – a disoriented girl in flight. At 17, Vanessa is the leader of her troop. She embraces Lolly with the speed of one, accustomed to leading. She is the serious one, always imparting practical morsels of information. Her sister, Shaila is more inclined to teasing. Grooming her for the road she has to take; telling silly jokes to lift her spirits. Together, they are the chattiest pair she ever did see.
But now, Vanessa says nothing.
The sleek Mercedes draws to a halt, right in front of them. A tinted window lowers just enough for a finger to pop out and beckon. Lolly watches in disbelief as Vanessa disappears into the car.
“I don’t understand…why did she go?”
“She’s obviously unhappy going with him so why-”
“You don’t come here for happiness.” A voice snaps.
“But you can pick who you go with, right?”
All around her, laughter erupts.
“You obviously know nothing about this!”
“Out here, you take what you get.” Shaila explains.
“Just don’t touch any of mine!” The same hostile girl warns.
It begins to dawn on Lolly, just how bad it is out here.
Another car pulls up. It has red plates and a very gentle purr. Nothing at all like the rickety buses she’s been used to. Whatever little she hasn’t deduced from the beauty of the car, she quickly absorbs from the reaction of the girls. Shaila pushes her bosom forward. Bella pulls her belt of a skirt, a notch higher. Kaila leans in. Trisha struts to the car before it even stops.
“Hello handsome.” She purrs, like the car’s twin.
“Hey Chocolate.” A deep voice greets her. “Who is that?”
It takes Lolly a split second to realize that the man with the deep voice is pointing at her.
“She’s… no one. Do you want your usual treat?”
“Not today Chocolate. Today, I want her.”
“Step aside Chocolate.”
Trisha steps back reluctantly and stands very close to Lolly. “Do not move a muscle.” She hisses.
Lolly’s heart pounds in her ears. She’s been selected from the horde!
She steps forward and the door opens. A door has actually opened for her! This is a first! As the car pulls away, Lolly catches sight of a smoldering Trisha. She shivers inadvertently. She knows she’s made an enemy. But what a way to make one!
She swiftly leaves behind, thoughts of cruel Trisha. But in the confines of this car, she soon discovers a whole new level of cruelty.
She lies on her side and struggles to stay still. Her growing tummy is in the way of comfort. In the backdrop of the silence, the ticking clock seems suddenly too loud. She pulls the duvet a little tighter around herself. A little too tightly perhaps; going by the gentle protest of the sleeping form by her side. She keeps still as long as she can, then she gets up and waddles out. The orange juice is calling her name.
Halfway to the kitchen, a sharp pain jolts her. She tries to walk, but the pain is excruciating.
“Philip!” she calls.
He finds her, half-seated, half-bent, in the middle of the corridor.
“It’s no use!” she sobs into his shirt. “I can’t do this anymore.”
“Baby,” he whispers. But the choice of word cuts harsher than it soothes.
“I’m not a woman.” She sobs.
He knows this is not the time to debate. So he holds her until the storm subsides.
She lies on her bed and counts babies. It is all she does. All she has always done.
Counting. Being counted. Trying desperately to count for something. To make it all count.
A knock startles her. Philip’s head pops in.
“Would you like some tea?” he offers
“It can’t all have been for nothing.” She tells him.
“It has to count. They have to count.”
“Honey,” he repeats calmly. He’s now sitting next to her on the bed. “They do count.”
“Does Polly count?”
“Does Lolly count?”
This time, he holds her close.
“They count.” He vows. “Polly is the road that took you to Lolly. Lolly is the road that brought you to Paula. Paula is the woman I love.”
“But Paula is not a woman.” Her eyes well up. “Paula will never be a mother.”
“Paula counts.” He pulls back and lifts her chin. “You’re a woman, on all counts.”