A mountain on my little shoulders

Art work by Naz Ali Awla

A short story, By Goran Sabah Ghafour

 

Several children in bright, homespun, baggy dresses lined up to enjoy the only creaking swing that went back and forth. The worn colorsblue, green, and yellowof the equipment made the playground look rusty. Flying on the old swing was what mattered for the angel-like faces.

I was the last one in line, waiting and dreaming of flying. Every now and then I would turn back and give a quick look to our small house to make sure nobody was calling me back. Our house was number five in a row in an unpaved, narrow alley. After 15 minutes of waiting, there were only two more kids in the line ahead of me.

I was going to fly soon. While waiting, I had my thumb in my mouth sucking it like a lollipop.

“Dilkosh . . . Dilkosh,” my father called me. I pretended to be deaf, for I was now second in line.

My heart tried to come out from my chest, but my eyes were going back and forth with the swing.

“Dilkosh . . . Dilkosh . . . Dilkosh,” my father blared. I was still deaf.

My father, Rasul, with his bushy mustache and bristly beard, moved toward the playground where the childrenwho had done swingingwere laughing and running around. I was now the first in the line, and hesitantly tilted my head to see where Dad was. The medium-sized man in a rolled-up and open-necked black shirt paced up.

As soon as the last child came down from the rusty swing I quickly grasped its chain and tried to adjust my butt to its base. But a manly, solid hand pulled the collar of my long, baggy, pink dress from behind. I turned—something I had been avoiding— and felt fury simmering under my father’s smile.

“Didn’t you hear me calling you a hundred times?” he thundered.

It was only five times. I was confused: 5=100?

He put his right hand on my back and firmly tossed me up to his right shoulder. His solid, rocky hand was about to make a hole in my back.

“Next time, when I call you, say ‘yes’ immediately.” His commanding, straight voice startled me more. I wished I could at least throw him a tantrum.

I couldn’t even nod as he had tied me to his shoulder so hard that he left his little 6-year-old daughter no space to even breathe. A breeze of Erbil’s early spring swayed my hair, the way I would fly on the swing. It also helped me not to suffocate.

On both sides of the alley were our neighbors. After having a heavy lunch, a sweet-dark-black tea, and a long nap in the afternoon, they’d usually get together and socialize.  

To avoid embarrassment, a smile hovered on my father’s face. It was more terrible and more sinister than his anger. As he greeted them, the neighbors felt his anger through his dark, tawny face.

I looked over his right shoulder at the swing. The child who was after me in the line was flying back and forth. I swallowed hard and envied her. On my father’s shoulder, my eyes were going back and forth with the swing.

My father was 38 then. He was nicknamed Kaka Mama, which means “Mr. Uncle” for his honor and respect in his tribe. Disobeying him meant belittling his honor. As soon as he got back home he banged me down to the cemented floor and slapped me on the cheek. It hurt and tears stopped in my eyes, but I didn’t dare to let them fall. I had no choice but to look docile.

“You always embarrass me.” He opened his eyes wide at me, a glare that conveyed an unbearable fear in such a haggard and mournful look. “I know there is something in your eyes telling me you will bring nothing but shame for this family. You will break our honor one day.”

He did not make sense, yet sounded awful.  I—a little skinny girl—trembled, my face turned pale, eyes glistened and lips quivered as I fought not burst out crying, since I knew crying would worsen his rage.

“Woman . . . woman,” he howled at my mother. “Get her ready.”

I was used to such howling, but I couldn’t make sense of the command. Maybe we would go buy a nice Cinderella dress, or a pony, no wait, a Barbie. I saw these toys only in my dreams.

“Ok, everything will be ready shortly,” replied my mother in a wobbly soft-spoken voice. She gave me a strange, pitying look.

“And no kids and no neighbors,” he commanded.

“I’m not so sure about that,” fretted mother. “How can I stop the neighbors if they knock or come in?”

“No arguments, Aysh,” he barks, “and no interruptions.”

My cheeks dampen while listening to the bitter conversation. My heart was racing hard since I knew any argument with my father resulted in a beating.

My mind went back to the command “get her ready.”

If it’s not shopping, it could be a picnic or a trip to our village, I thought.

“What are you waiting for, Aysh? Take her in and get things ready,” he urged as he sat down on an old, metal chair in the cemented courtyard. “The rear bedroom is good; the dining room is too easily seen from outside.”

She nodded and walked me in. Her nod and his command were more like a lord and a slave than a husband and wife.

“Oh, what happened to your face and these beautiful cheeks, my angel?” my mother wondered as she examined my face.

“Dad slapped me and didn’t let me get on the swing.” I let the tears fall down.

“No worries darling, it’s nothing, you are a strong girl,” she consoled me. Tears lingered in her eyes, making two tiny wells on her face.

She took me to the rear bedroom: an 11×8 feet cramped room. Its walls were milky. The white lights, one on one side of the wall, could not lighten the room well, because our electricity was weak. An old, wooden closet was set to the wall right across from the door. Three brown mattresses were laid, and one of them had a pillow on it. The cemented ground needed a good vacuum, and one could smell an awful odor from the toilet, which was easily seen through the only small window on the left side of the room. The window did not give much light to the room either.

“Honey, lie down here. Please don’t cry when the guest is here.”

Crying? Guest? I still did not know what was going on.

“Mom, I cannot sleep now.” I refused. My cheeks were dried, but my eyes were still wet.

“No, it’s not bedtime yet, but you have to be here when the guest comes in.” She hid the actual plan.

“Mom, I want to go to the swing.”

“If you will be a good girl while the guest is here, you can then go out and play.” She sounded convincing.

I had no choice but to lie down on the brown mattress with the pillow on top. I imagined that Auntie Kale could be the guest, and after having tea or orange juice, I would go and fly on the swing.

“Woman . . . Aysh.” It was my father again. I hated both terms Woman and Aysh, for they sounded disrespectful. Mom’s full name was Aysha. Darling or honey must have been replaced by Woman and Aysh.

While lying down and waiting for the guest, my mind latched onto the playground, and I heard the guest come in.

“Oh, Mrs. Gule, so good to see you again.” My father received her. “I thought you would not show up as Aysh and I have been waiting for you for hours.”

“My husband is a big kid; like a king, he orders everything at a time. I cannot catch up with his commands,” Mrs. Gule reasoned.

My mother smiled and her face showed agreement with what Mrs. Gule expressed.

“Women must serve their men 24/7,” my father noted. I was sure he would look at my mother while saying this, and Mom would grudgingly nod.

“But women are neither servants nor slaves,” Mrs. Gule said.

My mother would have felt happy at this, but ecstatic if she’d have said these words herself. She’d have liked to jump in and talk for hours, but she wouldn’t dare.

“You women always complain and are never satisfied with what you have.” My father argued with an artificial laugh. “Islam says women must serve their husbands without complaining.”

Mrs. Gule and Mom would want to say, “Men like you use religion to serve their interests,” but they chose silence.

“Is everything ready?” Mrs. Gule changed the subject.

My mother nodded with a deep sigh full of grief.

“And Dilkosh is at the rear bedroom and ready for you,” my father said, showered by pride and self-importance.

The three came through the small kitchen, the dining room, and then entered the dim bedroom where I lay down daydreaming about the swing.

I was scared to death when I saw her, although she greeted me nicely. A black scarf covered her head. One could see only her face from the forehead to a little bit below the lower lip as well as a bit of both cheeks. She was 38, but looked 58 with her dark clothes and gloomy face. Her teeth were disgustingly yellow. Her small-beady eyes were piercing brown, nearly blackmatching her dark, dull, brown baggy clothes. She looked like an eagle stalking its prey. The baggy clothes covered her rounded-big-belly, thin legs, and stumpy body. Her jutted jaw looked scary. Her big nose seemed to have been broken several times.

“Aysh, make her ready,” my father commanded and went out.

My mother sprinted to take my pants off and told me to lie down on my back. I was still out of the loop.

“Mom, I’m not sick? I want to go out and swing,” I said in a husky voice while she put the pants away without responding.

I lay down again and tilted my head to the right. I saw a small bag full of crunched leaves with a razor blade on a white napkin. Wide-eyed, I stared at each tool, swallowed hard, and cried, washing the fear with my tears.

“Make her legs wide open, hold them tightly, and don’t let her move,” Mrs. Gule said, breathing heavily. “We’ll be done in ten seconds.”

I shuddered, the way a kid would do in an icy pool.

Mom held my right leg, Mrs. Gule my left by putting it under her knees. I cried louder, and still did not know what they were going to do with me. I screamed to death after I saw Mrs. Gule grab the razor blade and roll my long top up to my waist. I looked like a suspect under torture. Mrs. Gule opened my vaginal area with one hand and held the razor blade with the other. After several seconds, she stood up and exhaled in my face. Her breath killed all the senses in my nose. It stank.

“She is moving a lot, I cannot do it like that,” she exclaimed. “I think we need one more person to hold her by her upper side from her waist.”

My father overheard her in front of the room and jumped in.

“Hold her tight from her waist above,” Mrs. Gule instructed him.

They restrained my movements. Fear of my father was worse than fear of razors.

“Poor Dilkosh.” Mom pitied me. “Let’s—“

“You want her to be a whore when she grows up?” My father snapped and spittle flew from his mouth, his forehead furrowed. “This is the only way to control her sexual desires; if not she will break our honor one day.”

I did not make sense of this short quarrel, but I stopped crying out of fear of his fury.

By now I could hardly breathe, for my mental pain and fear of Dad who had sat down right behind my head and held me tight. My mind could not focus on any part of my body. I felt like I was tied to four horses, each pulled a limb in a different direction.

Mrs. Gule, without using any sort of anesthesia, cut all parts of the inner and outer labia and the closure of my vagina. She left a small hole for the passage of urine and menstrual blood and to open up the vagina during intercourse and childbirth. Cutting that sensitive and fragile part of my body with the almost rusty razor felt like pruning knives were sinking to my heart and liver. Groaning and screaming with anguish, I writhed on the mattress. My eyes watered as I clutched my body. Breathing was in sharp, shallow rasps. Sweat not only covered my forehead in a thin sheen but soaked all my body.

I was shocked as blood rushed out. The traditional circumciser put some herbs on the serious wound and released my left leg.

“Good girl.” Mrs. Gule told my father who was glaring at me, the way a victim would look at a rapist, “she will be fine.”
“Don’t scream, she did nothing, don’t do that, and don’t cry.” His nostrils rose.

Poor me. An inexplicable and acute pain made me forget the swing. The pain miscarried my dreams. It was like a mountain on my little shoulders. I did not know which part of my body was aching, or on which part to focus. My brain was trying to explode like a volcano.

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