Graded

Alison Ojany

I hate ice cream because of you, Mama. Still, you shove a sticky red devil in my hand. It is starting to melt so I eat it in three bites, leaving the stick with a smear of red. The sweetness sits at the tip and at the back of my throat in the place reserved for sourness. Your eyes are puffy today. Have you been crying? I am chewing the stick of popsicle by the time we reach the house. 

I run to my room. I want the cotton candy pink walls to seal me in forever. But that never happens. I change out of my blue shapeless school uniform that I wear on Thursdays. The girls in the older years call it ‘the maternity dress’. I fold it into the laundry basket then unroll and toss in my dirty stockings. I change into a pair of grey jeans and my blue Ironman tee shirt. 

There is a gentle knock on my door. It is you. I follow you to the store room in the basement. It has our stockpile of food, in date and out of date brands of sugar, flour, sacks full of beans and yellow bottles of cooking oil. Apocalypse preparation. All possibilities, including the risk of Daddy leaving us.

The pantry is dimly lit. It smells of him, the cheap soap he uses. Except for five red candles burning in a rough circle, there is no other light. I meet his eyes. He looks away, the guilt a third presence between us.

Prophet Jacob is dressed in an ugly purple polyester imitation of a priest’s cassock. An oversize crucifix dangles from a thick chain around his neck. His bald head is shiny even in the dark. Does he scrape it every morning? His matted beard reaches to his chest. It is Lenten season. You bow your head to him and I assume my position in the middle of the circle of light.

I have contemplated running away, or screaming No. It is not in my nature. You have trained me well. Resistance is Vera’s forte; my big sister would never have let you try this with her. She’s 18. You don’t love her. The feeling is mutual. She is David’s twin. Five minutes apart. One a genius, the other average. Like me. When David scored the highest grades in the country, life was good. His photo, right there in all the newspapers. Your David. Your genius. You walked on air, Mama. Even the mean girls at school looked at me with mild curiosity. Lasted a few days.

Now.

The cold floor, the pain pressing into my knees, the discomfort of overstrained muscles – I ignore these all. I focus on how this will make you smile. Will soothe you. Your voice will turn soft and tender, like warm milk.

 Your Prayer Man, Jacob, presses his large hands into my shoulder, holding me in place. He leans close. I brace myself. I hate this part. He places his mouth on my forehead. It is warm, slug-like, and makes my stomach want to vomit the red devil. He has chosen the side of my head where, later, you will kiss goodnight. I want to shove him away. He feels my shudder and stops. He pulls his prize out of his mouth. A rounded, shiny triangle no bigger than a fingernail. Mama, if you bothered to look at him instead of me, you will notice it’s the same piece he pulled out of my forehead last week.

He starts to speak in tongues. Gibberish. You join him. Yet you understand each other. You thank God for removing the evil spirit that caused your David to become wayward. I wonder: is this how God speaks? Jacob’s voice is rough, a smoker who spent half his life hauling concrete maybe. Vera says Jacob was once a gateman in the neighbouring compound. Trust you to have found his ‘church’.

The priests at school never speak like this. 

The school chaplain, Father O’ Hare, tells us before we sit exams: “Be wary of the devil, the master of misdirection.”

I like Father O’Hare. He finds my confessions amusing. His brown eyes eager to grapple with the accusations of young sinners. “Now what extraordinary debris have you gathered for our good Lord to haul away?” he teases when I show up.

I try to go twice a day. To remove the devil you say is in me. We are only meant to go once a week, or even a month. But I cried last time.

He said: “Tell your Ma you’re as pristine as the first snowfall atop Nephin Mountain, Abigail. Besides, tell her you are all of 10 years old, can you?”

His eyes are large and kind. Like Daddy’s.

“Father,” I ask, “can devils follow the blood?”

“Follow the blood?”

“Come down from great grandparents to grandparents and then parents and then me?”

“Don’t be silly, Abigail! Who fills your wee mind with such drivel? Ignore them.”

He is a foreigner, Mama. He doesn’t understand goodness and ugly co-exist, can become companions – like you, good and ugly. So, he allows me to do my confessions as often as I like. He doesn’t seem to pay attention and reads books while I speak, and then he delivers his absolution. I think it all means the same to God.

Now.

Your prophet howls, making my head hurt like pins pushing into my scalp.

“Look, madam!”

He’s pulled out another shard, a red one this time. He places the shard so close to your eyes, Mama, I’m worried he will poke it with his fat, long dirty fingers. “The devil hates prayer. This is what is inside. Poisoning your family and bloodline. Destroying David’s future!”

You look delirious with finding an answer. 

God hears.

The devil is outed. The mischief will come to an end.

“Generational curse footholds!” he booms. Goading you.

“I see. . . I see. . . her father’s mother. All her doing. She hated me. To shame me. Ah, Prophet, thank you.”

You agree with him. Tears on your face, your lips tremble. You voice child-like. You are no longer a woman with a Ph.D. Your vulnerability gives him permission to raise things up a notch. He slaps my face lightly.

 “You are a witch, you are a witch, confess!”

Mama, you join in as well. You are shouting, your eyes wide and white and frightening. Only then do I cry, because it isn’t you. I am tired of the room. It’s too hot, and smells of uncooked food and the cheap soap that clings to his skin. I want this to be over with. “Yes, I am.” 

There it is.

The only confession you want.

The look on your face. . . I have seen it before in a book of artwork and on the copy of a painting in Father O’Hare’s office: “The ecstasy of Saint Teresa of Avila.” Divine Ecstasy. Like the saint, you have become beautiful.

You exchange a look with your lying, incoherent prophet.

At least I know I can go to sleep soon.

Jacob acquires the tricky look of a snake trying to look saintly. He coughs. I know what that cough means. It is about the “little matter of costs. These works, as you know, do not come cheap.”

Pre-exorcism, exorcism, post-exorcism services are all included, not counting the food items his gaze falls upon. You pull out a wad of cash from your bra, squeezing his hand around it.  You rush out to gather and present him a bag of flour and sugar.

He grasps these, and leaves with a slight bounce only I can see.

He turns. “The child may return to her devilry. I’ll monitor the situation and warn you when it happens.”

I am sure it will be when his rent is due.

You let me go to bed at last, stroking my face.

“I’m doing this for you.” You murmur. You stoop to kiss me. I turn my face away. I am drained. I haven’t studied.  Haven’t done my homework either. I have a comprehension test tomorrow.

The house is quiet.

Rays of moonlight sneak through gaps in my curtains. I raise my fingers. I have long fingers, to wipe the tears. They fall so easily. I miss playing piano. Now, my after-school activity is you praying for me. This is David’s fault. He brought shame to the house and to you.

 

When David dropped out of university, my nightmare started.

 

Trying to sleep. Thinking. Thinking. And then I remember. Grandma will be here soon. Dani Isadora is a terror. She scares you, just like you scare me. You and daddy fight whenever she visits. Your assorted pastors don’t visit when she is around. She crushes them with a few choice words. I feel lighter.

In the morning, my head is still full of nightmares of your chanting. I wake up with that familiar pain in my stomach that visits sometimes. I try to swallow back that lava that rises from my belly to my chest.           

You still take me to school in your red Toyota. Cheerful about many things: the weather, your new laboratory equipment. I listen.

Later, in a class covered with posters and timetable charts, I rub my eyes. The class is rowdy as we wait for the teacher. There are cliques of gossiping girls sitting on desks and chairs. The door opens and order is restored. Everyone sits down.

Mrs. Benar, our class teacher walks in.

Lead in my belly.

More fear.

In this I am not alone.

Small comfort.

She has the habit of sucking in her cheeks, forced dimples. She has a round face and small eyes. Her hair is a neat buzz cut. Her face is moulded in a natural cruelty that not even her smiles, reserved for the children of wealthier parents like Rima Rhesi, a bully, can erase.

About Rima.

She claims she is part Greek.

She does not look it. But her unseen parents send the largest contributions for the endless school fairs we have, so if Rima says she is Greek, she is Greek.

Ms. Benar is obsessed with the rich and paler-skinned girls. In other words, she hates herself. She also ignores students whose parents are always engaged in the state of their children’s schooling. Since you, mother, are a zombie lost in prayer goals that are always shifting, I don’t stand a chance.           

“Open your comprehension textbook,” Ms. Benar says, sucking in her cheeks.

Panic.

I forgot mine at home. 

In thirty seconds, her palm connects with the side of my face.

I smell pear lotion.

I hear girls giggle.

My ears ring like the school bell.

Mrs. Benar’s superpower is her talent for humiliating children. She gives energy to bullies like Rima.

Mummy, you told me she had been a nun in Uganda who fell in love with and married a priest. ‘She stole God’s bride, she’s a homewrecker,’ you said. A thief is never content. I shall start counting the minute hand as it moves and moves until the school day ends.

 

Daddy will pick me up today. His greeting smile.

But he is distracted as we drive home. He is on a handsfree work call.

“I hope grandma is here,” I whisper.

A distracted nod.

 

Dani Isadora finds me in my room. She hobbles toward me. I fall into her arms and squeeze her tight. Sobbing as if I had waited for a long time to cry. Dani is shelter. Dani is home.

She pushes me away      from her, “A baby girl, who has hurt you? Who is bothering my grandchild?” Her forehead is furrowed.

Mummy, I can’t tell her about you or Prophet Jacob.

So I tell her about Mrs. Benar.

Dani clucks, groans, moans, curses. She is in pain for me. That feels comforting. She watches me. And then I remember Dani is unpredictable. 

I fall silent.

“A baby girl, you will tell your father. That mother of yours…” She wrinkles her nose, “Her madness will send her to the charlatans she worships.”

“I don’t want them to argue over me, Dani,” I say.

She blinks. I’m ashamed.

“Dani, the other girls will mock me.”

She draws me close to her chest.

I feel my breathing everything out.

Warmth enters into my blood.

She pulls away.  “Let me allow you into a secret.”

She stares at me.  “I would have told you later…but…no…this is the right time.”

I look at her and feel the room glowing. She looks older. “Think of me whenever you feel scared. Think of my name and of me. I shall be a shield for you. Can you remember that?”

I nod.

I hear my mother shuffle, calling.

“You are me.” She repeats this. She winks at me and heads to the door.

I am in bed when Dani returns. She kisses my forehead, cleansing the spot where your prophet placed his lips. “I am here.”

She lies down beside me. I do not remember what we talk about, but soon I am asleep. At dawn, when I awaken, Dani has gone. She has other children to visit, ones with wives that are more to her liking than you, M     other.

 

School.

Mrs. Benar has new victims today.

Wacera is a rotund girl.

Overweight.

She is forced to eat her lunch at a corner of the class before it’s lunch time. Some point at her laughing. Others look away.

I am silent. My head lowered in shared shame.

I know Wacera is crying. Eating-crying. Seen it before.

I may be the witch’s favourite punching bag but she especially loathes poor and overweight children.

Recess. I’m trying to leave the class with the others.

“Abigail,” a hiss.

I freeze.

“Your grades were, as usual dismal. Stay back. We need to talk.”

Chill.

The class clears off.

Her pear lotion smell is upon me. 

“Why do you find it so hard to read and answer the questions?”

She grabs me by the collar.

I wish this dress had buttons because the dress starts to choke me and I cough.  She relaxes her grip.

“Why do you exist? Waste      of air?”

She flings me to the side but she doesn’t anticipate her strength.

My body hits the metal filing cabinet.

The world starts to spin.

 I hold onto consciousness for my sake. From the ground, I stare silently at Mrs. Benar. Fear on her face now. She knows she has gone too far. The pain in my head travels through my body.

I need Dani.

I need Dani. 

I look up again at the fuzzy-shaped Mrs. Benar.

Her mouth is open.

She turns her face and screams.

I can’t hear her. I can’t help her.

She is clawing at the air and kicking it, trying to free herself from something. Whatever it is knocks her head on a row of desks. There is blood on her face. She is mouthing my name, but there is no sound.

I am frozen.

“Run!” Dani’s voice commands.

I turn, expecting to see Dani at the door. But there is no one there.

I am trembling. I stand on shaky feet. I am out of the classroom. I run towards noise. I need noise.

Everyone is in the playground.

Rima is first to notice me staggering. She calls out.

“Abby poo pants!”

Laughter.

But they aren’t laughing at me.

Rima’s eyes are fixed behind me but there is a brown liquid dripping down her leg, soaking the white socks and black buckled shoes.

I collapse.

Darkness settles like a blanket all around me. Feels like safety.

 

I am awake in my room, sweating and in pain. You hover over. It feels like there is less oxygen in this room. I wince. My head hurts.

Your face is lined with worry. 

“Window.” My voice is hoarse.

I watch you operate the louvres then sit back on a chair by the bed.

“You fainted, Abby.”

There is fabric around my arm.  A sling. You notice my discomfort.

“It is dislocated,” you explain. “No sports for a bit.”

You touch my head. Your palms are clammy. You poke a thermometer into my mouth. You retrieve it. “Drink this.” You give me a glass.

I study it first.

I confirm it is rehydration salts. I never trust what you give me. There is always some concoction one of your pastors gave you.

I gulp it down, it tastes like salt and lemons. “Stay home tomorrow, Abby.”

I nod. “Water, Mama.”

You hand me a glass.

My throat feels rough but this helps.

You walk out of the room.

What happened today, I wonder? What was that about?

Not for long, I slip into sleep.

 

Day. Morning.

At lunch time, Mama, you arrive with chips and sausages, my favourite dish. “Abby,” you say, “Something’s happened to Ms. Benar. They can’t find her. You were the last one who saw her. They want to know if you saw where she went? Do you know there was blood in the classroom? Her car is in the school parking lot. And Rima is catatonic. She can only say your name. I wonder what this means, Abby?”

Silence.

My chest tightens.

“Abby, how did you get injured?”

“She beat me. She hits everyone, just ask.”

I watch you rub your temple. Confused.

“Abby, what happened to her?”

“I don’t know!” I scream.

You sit up.

This is the first time I shout at you.

At anyone.

Your voice unsteady. “Don’t worry. Pastor Jacob will come and pray for you. That evil thing is causing all of this.”

“I hate Jacob, Mama.” I dare to say.

“Abby, can’t you see the chaos you are causing? I know what I’m doing.

He is coming this afternoon.”

You leave my room.

I examine my bruised arm.

I do not give Mrs. Benar a second thought. I do not care.

 

I don’t wait for you to call me, M     ama. I descend the stairs to the pantry. The space looks so innocent without the candles. I retrieve them from the box on the second shelf and light them. I wait at the centre. I am not sure for how long but you are both surprised to find me waiting.

Prophet Jacob blinks at me like a dumb animal. “Halle-halleluuuuuhiya!” He growls. He looks like he has won something. Like Rima when she makes the class laugh at me. He touches my sling.

“Ouch,” I say.  He shifts to rest his palm on my other shoulder.

“Shabbakabbabaderrrrrusssweeeaaa…kellllergenerational curses!” Pastor Jacob starts.

Oh Dani! I think. Where are you so you can see this?

Then Jacob starts to giggle. He throws his head back and      giggles, like a hyena. It unsettles us.

You and I study him.

“Prophet?” You reach out to him, tenderly.

“Oh, stop it! So neurotic! Just stop it.”

It is not Pastor Jacob’s voice. It is Dani Isadora’s.

The room temperature drops suddenly. You have the presence of mind to start praying. “God arises, His enemies are scattered, like wax melts…Lord Jesus Father Lord, protect us from. . .”

Dani cuts you off after a few seconds. “Oh stop babbling. It won’t work.” She sounds bored.

Pastor Jacob rolls his eyes like a teenager.

He is moving like a lady now. Graceful. Elegant. His hips moving from side to side as he circles us. 

“Oh Janet,” he says, “So gullible! This is a watchman, madam.”  He approaches me. “Torturing my baby girl.”

Because you are still a mother, you move close to me.  I am not scared but I try push you behind me. Dani really doesn’t like you. I know.

Jacob lifts his cassock, revealing grey trousers. He pulls out glass shards from his pocket, throwing them so they clatter on the cemented ground.

“You are a scientist, Janet.”

He giggles. Again.

I feel you shaking behind me, Mama. He winks at me then blows out one of the candles. The rest follow at once then light up again.

“I should hurt you, Janet. I’m acquiring a taste for hurting those who hurt my baby, me and my friends in he…in places.”

Mummy, your shaking is scaring me. You are holding my shoulder so tight I am worried you will dislocate it.

“Stop squeezing her!” Jacob shouts, then mocks, “Now you remember you are a mother?”

“Mama Peter, please don’t hurt her.”

“Who is hurting her? You or I? It’s been a year since I died and did you come to my grave, no.  Your spite and pettiness got the better of you, even with all your educati…”

“You never wanted me!” You are weeping an ugly cry, Mummy.

“I did not, yes, but in-laws fight, Janet, and that’s okay. But to disturb my rest by attacking this child, my child? What are boys? Your husband, my son, never looked back once he married you. All his frequent trips, running away from you and David. You threw all this away for one child? He would have returned. David will return. He had to get away from your suffocation.”

You are crying. It’s enough for me. You still don’t trust grandma to let me go.

“Dani,” I say softly.

“My baby.”

“She won’t do it again.”

“No, no, I won’t.” Your voice is soft, pathetic.

Prophet Jacob looks at us, studying the plea in my eyes. Dani must see what I see in yours. A child in a woman’s body. 

Finally Dani announces. “I will go. But remember, I am never too far from Abigail.”

Jacob doesn’t move his eyes from you when he says this. Then he starts to cough a frantic cough like there is something stuck in his throat. He tries to reach out to me but a hand directs both his open palms over a candle flame.

You grab me tighter, but we stand there frozen.

Something falls out of his mouth. He spits it out and horror engulfs his face. It’s one of the shards adding to the three Dani has thrown on the floor. He spits out some more. His cheeks are full of the shards that push through his skin, slicing their way through. His face is soon a mask of blood. We still can’t hear him scream. But we can hear our own. He looks up at you, Mummy – his face, agony. There is a sudden wind. The candles go out. The pantry is suffused with a dazzle of light. Then nothing.

Only the smoking wicks of four candles, lit on their own accord. A door unlocks itself.  Swings open.

You are in a heap. I hold you. There is a black mark on the white wall. Like soot. Dani must have taken him.

“Abby, oh God, she she. . .” You are shaking and I’m the one holding you.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I did this,” you say. I say nothing. I hold your face because I see only the love there now. And weakness. Grownups are weak.

“I know. We are broken, Mama, we can’t be fixed,” I say, but my voice is flat. You look wounded. “David will be home soon.’

“Things will be different, I promise, Abby.” You promise.

“I know they will, because I am leaving. You will enrol me in boarding school and I will play piano again. I’m still your daughter, that won’t change. But we both need to heal. Grandma can’t come back. I am still mad at you. Just a bit.”

“I will do all that, Abby.” You accept defeat.

“And, Mama?”

“Yes.”

“He hurt me, you both did. But pray for Jacob’s soul. It’s the least you can do.”

Alison Ojany is a Kenyan poet, essayist and writer. She has had her work published and performed both regionally and internationally. She has worked in the Arts extensively, and currently resides in the UK, completing her novel and raising her family.

 

*Image by AfriMod Studio on Unsplash