The way her subconscious rationalized it, there were only two options: either block the unpleasant memories out entirely, or be consumed by them. It chose the former.
What had happened to her when she was nine years old had been submerged so deftly in the deepest parts of her mind that later on even with concerted effort she couldn’t unearth certain parts. It was more than just a coping mechanism for her subconscious; it was denial. Consequently, there are many unrelated memories of her childhood that she simply cannot recall. The memories have all melded into each other in an obscure haze of colors and confusion, indecipherable even to herself.
“I just have a bad memory,” she would say.
She had always been slight for her age; at nine years old she was the shortest and thinnest in her class, always subject to ridicule. Puberty was scarcely a speck in the distant future. The small mounds that were the harbingers of breasts were barely visible under her loose dresses. She ran and played with boys on the dusty Indian streets, as comfortable as a tomboy as she was in a puffy party dress. Like all girls her age, she wore a scarf for her Qur’an classes.
As dutiful Muslim children, both she and her brother had to take Islamic Studies classes that involved memorizing surahs from the Qur’an and learning about the lives of the prophets. The religious teacher or maulavi, whom they called Kaku or Uncle, would come to the house to deliver his lessons. He had known them since they were toddlers; he was more a family friend than just a teacher.
One hot afternoon while the parents were out, the siblings battled their schoolbooks waiting for numbers and words to seep into their brains by osmosis. When the doorbell rang they both jumped up eagerly, excited at the unbidden break. Maulavi Kaku had stopped by to pay his respects to the parents. They chatted, showed him the new family of birds they found up in the corner of their balcony roof.
He couldn’t stay long, but asked to see what they were studying. While she was showing him the gruesome math exercises, he asked her brother to get him a glass of water. As she turned the coarse pages, lamenting over the problems, she felt a cold hand suddenly being shoved into the neck of her dress. Shocked into speechlessness, she couldn’t look up. She felt a fingernail scratch her nipples, then cold fingers grasping something that wasn’t even there.
“Hmm, and what is the answer you have here?” he asked, his hands cupping her invisible breasts.
She stammered a reply but didn’t know what she said, her body taut with bewilderment and fear.
One of his hands remained at her back, just below her neck. The clammy palm pressed against her spine as the other trespassed across one breast to the other. A fat thumb and forefinger pressed one little nipple, then the next. An image of her mother testing the hardness of mangoes flashed across her mind.
At her brother’s returning footsteps, the hand came out of the dress and rested on the table next to the math book.
“Ahh, thank you,” he murmured. “Nothing like a cold glass of water in this heat.”
She remained motionless, staring at the crisscrossing fibers in the pages. She could see little golden and black threads that looked like cat hair embedded in the pages. The page was a yellowed white color; the color of milk that’s been left out too long.
She could hear the water being gulped down. Gluck. Gluck. Gluck.
He smacked his lips in satisfaction and replaced the glass.
“Alhamdulillah …. Remember kids; always say Alhamdulillah after you finish anything. It shows appreciation of what we have been given by Allah.”
She remained motionless and mute.
She felt confused, afraid, and very, very dirty. She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t formulate what had happened into words. In any case, she didn’t know whom she could tell — her parents were out of the question. It was embarrassing and unfathomable. It felt just as distasteful to tell anyone as it felt to have those rough fingers mauling her chest.
She braced herself and raised her head. She smiled at no one in particular and relaxed her tiny little fists. There were half-moon marks on her palms, right below the life-line.
“Well, I should go. I have some classes left today still. Give your parents my salaams, okay?”
She finally looked up at him, expecting to see some expression of acknowledgment of what he had done, some remorse, some feeling that she knew he must have.
His dark brown eyes stared back at her unabashedly, his expression a blank. Nothing unusual has happened, it said.
The kids walked Maulavi Kaku to the front door and said their goodbyes. Her brother skipped off, tunelessly singing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles song. The hot afternoon sun continued to bake the cement floor of the veranda. She watched little invisible waves rising from the ground, the tune insensibly whirring faster and faster in her mind. She could hear distant sounds of construction and crows cawing. She walked to the bathroom and gazed at herself in the mirror. She looked the same.
Those cold fingers slid under the neck of her dress a few more times. Each time she remained frozen, confusion, and hatred spinning circles inside her head. It always lasted several seconds, until the meaningless errand ended. But it always felt like many minutes.
The last time it happened the rough hands with the purple veins decided to go under the dress from a different direction. She had been home alone, watching her new baby sister as her mother ran errands with her brother. Maulavi Kaku came in, wanting to see the newborn. She felt uneasy, but never occurred to her to refuse him entry because he was, after all, like family. She couldn’t answer to her parents if she asked him to leave; she couldn’t put into words what he had done to her. It was dirty and shameful.
She hoped this time he would forget she was alone and that he truly just wanted to see the baby. They had hardly moved through the living room when she found herself shoved backwards onto the worn velvet couch. He pushed up her dress. She felt the bald spots on the couch scratching at her back. His moist, lumpy pink lips assaulted her nipples. For a few seconds she could not move although she wasn’t being held down. As the numbness left, she felt a wave of nausea overcome her; the sensation of the wet tongue repulsed her every fiber of her being. Suddenly, sharp adult teeth cut into her skin.
“OW!” she yelled, angry and outraged, coming out of her paralysis of fear. Her legs reacted immediately and automatically; a sturdy push had the maulavi thrown back on his heels. He was nearly as wide-eyed in astonishment as she.
Scowling, she scrambled off the couch smoothing her dress and stepped away from him.
He got up quickly letting out a small, embarrassed laugh. He didn’t speak nor look at her.
What happened next remains a mystery to her, even 24 years later. Her mind began to build its fortress against these memories immediately following these events. All she remembered for days were the little blue-black bruises circling her aching nipples. She didn’t cry. She didn’t tell anyone. She closed in on herself as she always did, hiding everything as successfully as she hid the bruises.
She knew she was not to be blamed, yet the shame was far too great. Somehow, with passing time she buried these memories into a vault that didn’t open until nearly a decade later when she saw him again.
The family hadn’t returned to their home country since having emigrated to a land of purported prosperity and hope. She was seventeen years old when she was told they would be seeing Maulavi Kaku upon their return, as he wanted to pay his respects to her parents. In a stony silence, she heard the words, feeling a twittering of birds somewhere deep below her navel.
The images flooded back. She recalled seeing herself staring at the mirror, at the strange blue-black and purple half-moons on her chest. They had remained sensitive for a few days, she remembers. They were perfect little moons, purple and painful.
She had been terrified of him, she remembered.
She still could not recall whether he had left of his own accord, or whether her mother had come home that day. She couldn’t answer why it never happened again, but she remembered the daily terror of being in a room with him again. She remembered wondering how he could do this to her when he had children — daughters — of his own. She remembered feeling baffled, and ashamed.
She also remembered her unabashed relief when they left the country shortly thereafter. So much had been erased but she never forgot what he looked like; remembering his face made her cringe. Yet blocks of memory remain dark and uncertain.
Dressed in pastel green, she waited with her mother as he walked up to the family to say hello. Always respectful, she said her salaams to him. She did not partake in the conversation, nor listen to what was being said. She sat nearly motionless, looking anywhere but at this man who was not a man.
He had bought them cold mango juice on that burning hot day. She might have murmured thanks, but that is also lost in the threads of her memory. For all she believed, this man deserved nothing but to remain in the darkness of her unremembered memory.
She looked up towards the heavens. The sky was the color of a bruise.
//Rabab Ahmed is a Bangladeshi-American writer and teacher with an MA in English Literature and a dream of a PhD. She currently teaches ESL at EC English Language Center and Pace University in New York City.