FICTION: Hidden Exposure by Samuel Cole

I’m a Bohra girl. Nine years old. A Shiite Muslim in Patan, Gujarat India. Mother, on good days, calls me Omisha. Today is a bad day. Today she weeps, yelling between sobs, “I wish you were a boy.” She isn’t mean-spirited. She’s kind to me, and to everyone else. She lets me talk. But the more I age, the more she weeps, yells, and packs an invisible bag—rich people on television call it a suitcase—with invisible things, zips it, hides it beneath a simple white Sari. Neighbors have begun to gossip about her decline, refusing to talk to, look at, or console her weeping, yelling, and packing. I’ve heard the word ‘crazy’ more than once.

“Why do you weep, mother?”

She doesn’t respond.

“Why are you packing? Are you going on a trip?”

She shakes her head and finger-flicks the air.

“What are you hiding beneath your Sari?”

More finger-flicks. Father, who hawks street food near the Patan railway station, enters the hut, nods at mother, and leaves, squatting and playing cards with neighbor men in front of the hut. He never speaks to me, saving noises for nighttime, in the darkness, where his and mother’s bodies lay close as flies at the opposite side of the hut. Mother doesn’t weep, yell, or pack in front of father. She is a bad cook. When father does talk, he says this.

Auntie number 1 enters the hut. Fat-faced with pockmarks, she’s bossy, too. She smells of hot mud and kerosene. She is a good cook. Father reminds mother all the time. Mother becomes quiet around Auntie 1, sitting on a charpoy and lowering her head while Auntie 1 bounces around the hut as if she owns it: moving whatnot from here to there, grumbling about the cost of electricity, turning off the television, scolding mother for being a bad cook. I do not like Auntie 1, who comes at me and grabs my genitals. She started doing this a year ago. Now she does it with every visit. Which is almost every day.

“You still clean?” she asks me.

I nod, although I am uncertain by the meaning of ‘clean’. I bathe in the river once or twice a week. I use soap whenever father brings it home. Auntie 1 points mother to stand. Then they whisper until mother begins to weep, yell, and pack. Auntie pulls me by the ear to the opening of the hut. She turns around and says to mother, “Khatna cleans. You know this.”

Mother is frantic, encircling the hut as if she’s being chased by an invisible striped hyena with an affinity for snacking on dark-skinned thinness. She packs and packs. And packs.

Auntie number 2 sits in an auto rickshaw sputtering in the street. Auntie 1 pushes me toward the rickshaw. Auntie 2 gives a little smile as I sit between them. “Today you become us,” Auntie 2 says. “Today you are cut.”

“Cut?” I ask.

“Doctor Anand also cut me and Auntie 1.”

“Cut what?”

“Your tongue and body are too unhinged. But Aunties, Anand, and Allah are here to help fix that.”

The rickshaw jerks down the streets lined with all-aged busybodies trying to make existence work. The rickshaw takes more lefts than rights, each street growing redder and yellower than the last. Auntie 1 hums. Auntie 2 snores. I hope to not be like Aunties when I’m older. Nor do I want to be like mother. I want to laugh, eat, and love. Auntie 1 taps with a backscratcher the rickshaw driver’s shoulder. “Stop here.” In front of a large hut with an actual front door. But it’s still a hut. A large India flag hangs above the door, flanked beside two flags of snakes interweaving a long pole with wings at the top: the universal symbol for medicine. Mud oozes between my toes on the walk to the hut. The wind messes with my braids. Mother tied the ends with pink ribbon. She’s usually uses cream-colored rubber bands. I hoped the pink ribbon meant she wanted to add, and see, more color in my life. Now I think the ribbon was a parting gift, big bows sweeping against my shoulders as if to remind my skin of the gravity of the moment; that somehow I am going to change; that somehow I am going to lose color.

“Come. Come,” says a middle-aged woman wearing atop a dark-blue Sari a white lab coat and light-blue head scarf tied in a bow beneath her chin. Eyeglasses sit low on a pointed nose. She has a soft and inviting countenance. A look of goodwill. She has all of her teeth, too, white and straight. Auntie 1 hands the women a wad of Rupee while Auntie 2 stands beside a bed-length table in the middle of the room that smells of fried fish and feces. Shapes on the wall are filled with open mouths; screams that have no voice.

“I’m Doctor Anand. Please lay on the table.”

“What are you going to do?”

Auntie 1 slaps the back of my head and strips the pink ribbon from me hair. “Quiet.”

Doctor Anand flips through the Rupee. “I said one thousand.”

“This is all we could collect,” Auntie 1 responds.

“There will be no anesthesia.”

Auntie 2 laughs, and says, “We weren’t numbed. Why should she be?”

Doctor Anand stuffs the Rupee in the pocket of the lab coat and sighs. “Gutter scum,” she whispers, pushing me face up. She spreads my legs and lifts my skirt. I pull down my skirt and close my legs. Auntie 1 spreads my legs and pushes thick fingers deep into my skin. Auntie 2 pulls down my underwear. I squeal and squirm to get free, but these women are bigger and stronger and determined to do what they came here to do. To me. Doctor Anand grabs from a small plastic table a pair of silver scissors, like the kind fathers uses to trim his beard. Before I can beg for clarification, or absolution, Doctor Anand’s scissors snap, causing a tight, mean pinch between my legs. Pain spreads like a waterfall of goosebumps across my body. Auntie 1 puts a hand over my mouth. “Don’t scream. It’ll pass quicker if you lay still.”

I awaken to less pain. Aunties and Doctor Anand are talking in a circle near the front door. Doctor Anand is sipping liquid from a flowery-decorated teacup. I’ve never seen such a beautiful teacup. Mother, father, and I drink water from our hands. I want to stand and run away, but I’m frozen to the table by uncertainty. Perhaps my legs don’t work. Perhaps I’m going to subsist in a wheelchair. Perhaps I’ve been turned into a beggar, made to scoot on my butt from gutter to gutter where I’ll offer the palms of my hands for Rupee until I grow old and die. The ceiling of the hut is a cake of hardness. Thicker than our hut, but just as brown. I move a toe. Then two. Then ten. I smile, knocking my knees together.

Doctor Anand approaches, sets the teacup on the plastic table. “Sit.”

I obey, pain shooting up and down my legs and spine.

“Stand.” She points ahead. “Walk to there. Now turn.” She finger calls me. “Now walk to me.” Each step is a journey of discomfort. But I do not weep, yell, or pack. I want to see mother again. If I can walk here, I can walk home. Doctor Anand strokes a thumb across my genitals. Which stings. “Does it hurt?”

“No,” I lie.

She looks at Aunties. “She’s lucky to not be a bleeder.”

Lucky? Is this how I’m supposed to feel? Bleeder? Is this something I need to worry about? “What did you do to me?”

Auntie 1 slaps the back of my head. “Quiet.”

“I have removed your bad germs,” Doctor Anand says. “I have saved your filthiness.”

The ride home is bumpier, and longer. Aunties say nothing. Which is fine. I do not wish to talk to them, even though I do want to know what Doctor Anand did to my genitals to make it hurt so much. The rickshaw stops in front of our hut. Father is outside, squatting with other dirty-faced men, all of them laughing and eating street foods. He does not acknowledge me as I pass by and enter the hut. Aunties drive away without saying goodbye.

“Mother. Mother.”

She does not respond.

“Mother. Mother.”

I look everywhere. Which takes little time. There is not much to see. Genital pain keeps me from running after Aunties and being a girl keeps me from asking father if he knows mother’s whereabouts. I lay in the middle of the room and remove Doctor Anand’s teacup from my blouse.  I pretend to sip tea, wondering how many bags mother has packed, and is one of them filled with the blood I didn’t bleed.

Samuel Cole

Sam

Samuel Cole lives in Woodbury, MN, where he finds work in special event/development management. He’s a poet, flash fiction geek, and political essayist enthusiast. His work has appeared in many literary journals, and his first poetry collection, Bereft and the Same-Sex Heart, was published in October 2016 by Pski’s Porch Publishing. His second book, Bloodwork, a collection of short stories, will be published in June/July 2017. He is also an award-winning card maker and scrapbooker.
If you enjoyed Hidden Exposure, leave a comment and let Samuel know.

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