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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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SHORT STORY

 

Tiny Spaces


by Ann Mallen

 

 

 

Ethiopia, 2007

 

 

It had been three weeks since the girl moved out, banished from the house made of tightly packed bales of straw finished with clay dirt and a conical thatched roof. Her mother-in-law decreed the girl must live in the small hut in the backyard. The space allowed her to curl on her side, but there wasn’t enough for her to stretch out. Her husband had put the shack together quickly with a thin wood frame, more bales of straw, and a slightly sloped thatched roof. He hadn’t bothered to acquire a mat for the floor. There was no use. 

 

Three weeks ago, after two long days of labor, the girl delivered their baby. Now, urine and feces leaked out of her in a constant stream. Sometimes, she tried to catch it with a few rags. She washed the strips of fabric and hung them to dry on the cinder block wall on the farthest edge of the yard. Eventually, the mess would flow through everything, down her legs, and into the dirt. Most days, she gave up and wore nothing under her dress. 

 

She kept a rolled blanket in a beige plastic bag with handles. She hung it on a nail jutting out from the wall. With the blanket, she stored a small bar of white soap. Every night, before bed, she took the bag down, removed the blanket and brought the soap to her nose, breathing the sweet floral scent. 

 

The hardest part of living in the tiny hut was listening to the baby girl crying in the house. The silence hurt worse as another woman soothed and nursed her child. At first, the girl’s milk flowed every time her baby wailed, but now, three weeks later, it had almost dried up. 

 

For the first few days, she left the bowl and cup lying near the door of the house. By refusing to take anything in, she imagined the flow would stop or, maybe if she was lucky, she would die. Neither happened. Gradually, she began eating and drinking again, but only a bit, just enough necessary for her to move.  

 

At least, the curse hadn’t taken her legs. Some women, after giving birth, not only lost control of their wastes, but their ability to walk too. At least, she would be able to leave, to go somewhere. She ached to return to her own village, but the thought of her own family kicking her out of her home was unbearable. It made more sense to leave this village and head towards town. Begging and living like a dog would be easier among strangers.

 

When she arrived here ten months ago to live with her husband’s family, she was in her seventeenth year. Her husband said her straight nose and beautiful skin pleased him. He said he loved the color of her skin, coffee with milk. Then, he laughingly teased her about her big teeth. In the evening, her name flowed from his lips. They whispered wishes for their child and guessed the sex. 

 

But, she couldn’t push the stubborn baby out. After struggling and screaming for two days, she stopped. Thin moans came from within, and the baby inside her lay motionless. Her husband’s mother fetched a nurse from town. The woman shoved hot hands deep inside and pushed and laid her entire weight upon the girl’s belly until she screamed and kicked. Their baby was born alive, but it had taken too long. The infant’s head had pressed against tender pink flesh, and tiny spaces had rotted away in the birth canal. 

 

Today, she would wash, and then leave this place. She took two stiff fabric strips dried in the shape of the cement block. They weren’t exactly clean, but they were cleaner. She bent them back and forth a little to loosen the fibers and went to retrieve the bar of soap. Clutching the items in her fist, she walked to the spigot half a meter down the lane. Sparse bushes lined the dusty road, and an old abandoned corrugated metal shack that once sold sandwiches stood mute, dusty windows revealing the lack of human presence. 

 

With no one in sight, the girl removed her skirt and then scooted her underwear and the rags down between her legs. She stepped one foot out, then the other. She lifted all of it to the place directly under the spout. Her waste trickled in an ugly brown line down her legs. No muscle, no thought, could make it stop.

 

The rusted red metal handle squeaked as she turned it, and cold water flowed. She swiped the soap across the mess in her hands and rubbed the pieces together, letting the water push through the fibers. Then she cupped her hands to splash between her legs. With one quick motion, she rubbed the white sliver into her pubic hair and then moved her hand back and forth creating lather. The place that had brought her such pleasure now stung constantly. The soap felt like fire, and she sucked her breath in and out.

 

Next she tucked the dry strips of fabric underneath her and pulled her damp underwear and skirt back on. She washed the line on her legs. She knew it was a futile effort, but she had to try to prevent being completely tainted with shit and pee.

 

The girl stared at her skin, thought of her baby’s newborn body, the skin almost bluish-gray. Her mother-in-law said the child was going to be café-au-lait-colored like her, rather than dark like her son. When the girl held the tiny infant the first time, the baby’s eyes blinked and stared back at her as if the she knew she needed to memorize the moments of their time together. 

 

The thought of the baby made her nipples contract and small droplets of milk soaked her blouse. Soon, there would be nothing left. The girl’s throat constricted and a single tear escaped over the inner edge of her lower lid and slid down her cheek. She didn’t wipe it. She lowered herself to her knees in the dirt by the water spout, and waited. She hadn’t cried yet, this was the first. And with this, she only had to wait. This flow, the flow of tears, would eventually stop. 

 

Soon, all she could feel was the need to be somewhere else. She swiped her cheeks, stood, and brushed the dirt from her knees. The washing bought her a little time before the stench would be unbearable again. She would find someplace in town to make a shelter.

 

She had adopted a strange gait, pinching her legs together to try to lessen the amount of waste escaping. It didn’t matter, but she couldn’t help walking like this. After the first street, slick moisture soaked the fabric between her legs. By the third, the putrid smell returned. Still, she walked on, passing the houses of her husband’s neighbors. When people saw her, they turned and moved in the other direction. She passed the long open building used as a school and wondered what her baby would look like at that age. She imagined the pinafore, navy blue, on top of a little white blouse. It would be her mother-in-law who would make sure to smooth the child’s hair and pull it into a knot at the back of her head. 

 

She walked on into the busier part of town. There were more people, and it was difficult to keep a distance from all of them. She dropped back behind a small crowd and waited. How would she be able to beg when she didn’t dare get close to anyone? 

 

One woman dressed in a soft light blue blouse covering large breasts held a child on her hip. She turned from the group and looked directly at the girl. The fat baby had dark shiny curls, and his little hands grabbed at the woman’s arm. The woman hitched the child higher and began walking towards the girl.

 

The girl motioned with her palms for the woman to stay back.

 

“No, no, honey.  I want to help,” the woman called out. “Stay there.  I only want to talk.”

 

The woman crossed the road until they were only an arm’s length apart. She squinted and tightened her nose, revealing the odor had registered, but she kept her eyes on the girl’s face.

 

“I know a place that can help.” 

 

The girl turned around looking for someone behind her.

 

Was this some kind of a trick? The space between their bodies was small.  She could lift her hand and touch her if she wanted to. And, yet, the woman was talking to her directly. It didn’t make sense.

 

“You’ll have to walk. No one will let you on a bus. But they’ll fix you there.  You’ll see.”

 

The woman swung her child to the other hip and shifted her weight. She put her free hand on the girl’s shoulder and asked, “What is your name, child?”

 

The girl tipped her head sideways and hesitated. Then she said, “Aisha. Aisha’s my name.”

 

“Aisha, wait here.”

 

Minutes later, the woman returned with some bread and cheese wrapped in paper and a large canteen on a long strap. 

 

“I filled this for you, but you’ll have to drink less than you’d want to make it there. Head north for two days. When you get near the town, ask anyone where the clinic is. They’ll know where to send you.”

 

The weight of the canteen caused a surge between Aisha’s legs, but she put the strap over her head and settled it across her chest. 

 

The woman pointed to the large expanse of savanna and said simply, “Go.”

 

Aisha nodded and began walking. The sun hovered in the afternoon sky, and she walked until it lowered itself. Then, she sat on a rock and broke a small section of bread. The dry crust softened only after she opened the canteen and poured a bit of water in her mouth. She carefully unwrapped the cheese and nibbled a corner of the square. 

 

Aisha gathered a few logs and found some twigs for a fire. She would have to stay awake all night to chase the hyenas certain to smell her and the food. Animals would sense her sickness, an easy target no scavenger would be able to resist. 

 

She sat next to the fire and wondered what it would feel like to be torn apart by hyenas. Would death come quickly with a tearing of her jugular? Or would she be aware of the sharp bite of teeth as they ate at her? If it came to that, she would help the animals by stabbing herself to speed the process. She placed a large stick at the edge of the embers and curled up on her side.

 

She heard their strange cackling in her sleep and woke instantly. She jumped and landed on her feet without any conscious thought. There were three of them, their night-eyes glowing red, hunched outlines visible in the firelight. Aisha took a deep breath and yelled, “Ta, ta, taaaaa, aaahhhhh!” She added a hiss for good measure. She would not let the beasts take her.

 

She grabbed the stick and poked what was left of the fire. Bright orange embers emerged from under a layer of gray dust, and she screamed and hollered, louder this time, as she waved her left arm above her. It worked. The three animals backed up slightly as she lit the stick, now a torch, and jabbed it outward towards the three. She screamed a curse at the hyenas. She cursed the night. Then she cursed her mother-in-law, her husband, and the nurse who shoved hands inside of her. 

 

One of the hyenas darted at her, and Aisha parried and thrust. The fire made contact with the side of its nose. The thing yelped and skittered sideways, then ran into the dark. The other two turned and followed.

 

Aisha sat down and waited for their return. Eventually, the sun came up and the only sign of the animals was their scuffled footprints in the dirt. In the daylight, she could see they had come much closer than she thought.

 

She nibbled another corner of the cheese, broke a piece of bread, and swallowed a little more water. She used the stick from the torch to cover the ashes with dirt and walked again. 

 

Mid-day, she came upon a copse of small trees, and without thinking, she sat down underneath one. A branch hung near her shoulder, and as she shifted to get comfortable, a single green leaf fell into her lap. Aisha lifted the leaf and brought it to her lips. The cool green was pliable and fresh, and she opened her mouth and pushed the entire thing inside with her fingers. It tasted sharp and peppery, but she welcomed the slight sting on her tongue.  

 

Late in the afternoon, Aisha viewed the edge of the town, and she made her way over to the road leading into it. Two trucks slowed as if considering offering her a ride, but soon sped up again as they neared her. The odor of exhaust mingled with the smell of her waste, the combination, made her eyes sting.

 

As she walked further, there were more buildings and more people. Aisha tried to ask for the location of the clinic, but no one would speak to her. Most pretended not to see her, but a few turned. In the split second their noses caught a whiff; they would shake their heads and swear, almost running away.  

 

She needed food. There was a small grocer a few steps ahead. In her condition, all she could do was search the garbage behind it. She ducked into the alleyway and followed the wall to the back. The shaded courtyard held two garbage bins. One closed, the other open. Hordes of black flies swarmed the open one, so Aisha opened the lid of the closed one.

 

A screen door banged and Aisha let the lid of the bin drop. A hunched old man stood in front of her with a bag of refuse. His dark eyes hid behind thick frames, the lenses smeared with streaks of grease. He wore dull denim jeans and a faded red plaid shirt.

 

He nodded once.

 

“Hello,” Aisha responded, amazed he hadn’t recoiled.

 

The man said nothing as he stepped to the open garbage bin and swung the bag up and over the rim. Then he turned and went back into the store. The flies now skittered and buzzed between her legs. 

 

Aisha swatted at them and tore open the man’s bag searching for something to eat. The refuse consisted of well-picked chicken bones, melon rinds, and paper crumpled into a greasy mess. She inserted a meatless thigh bone in her mouth when the back door creaked open again.

 

Aisha turned. The old man extended a paper bag in his outstretched arm and tossed it at her.

 

Inside, the unblemished crust of a roll of bread formed a perfect circle.

 

“The clinic is three blocks to the right,” he said pointing.

 

“Thank you,” Aisha said. She threw the bone over the edge of the trash bin. Then holding the roll with the brown paper of the sack, so as not to touch the pristine food with her dirty hands, ripped a bite of bread with her teeth.

 

The man nodded and said, “Go, now.”

 

She walked and ate. The bread was soft and slightly sweet. The starch of it melted in her mouth, turned even more sugary as she chewed.

 

She passed seven buildings, a hardware store, and then a tobacco shop. Two men, a few feet ahead, whistled for her to move away, to shoo. She ducked her head lower and moved to the other side of the street. A large cement wall, blocking the view of whatever was inside, stood sentinel for an entire block. As she neared the end of the wall, there it was. The clinic.

 

Long stone steps, running the entire length of a modern white building led up to the porch and the front door. Trees flanked the building, acacia on one side with its wide stance. A large eucalyptus draped over the roof, scenting the air with its tang of cleanliness. The yard was green, with white and red flowers lining the walkway. Three young women sat on the porch, two wrapped in blankets with blocks of red, blue, white, and yellow, one wore a red dress. Aisha couldn’t bear to step on the sidewalk to the door, couldn’t allow her mess to destroy the beauty. She moved to the street, to the gravel of the gutter, and turned to leave.

 

“No, no, no,” yelled the girls.

 

The one in red ran down the stone steps, swung her arm over Aisha’s shoulder, and pulled her with her.

 

“You’re not leaving now,” she said. “You’re here.”