What Was Never Said – Chapter One

Chapter One:
The cutter came last night. I recognised her: her black clothes, her narrow face and the yellow whites of her eyes. The first time I met her, I was five years old. The summer before we came to England. Mum had scrubbed us and dressed us in our best clothes. We were prancing around the courtyard when we heard the drummers, and the sounds of the women singing and the stamp of their dancing. The three of us ran out to join them, holding hands, and I was happy because I was in the middle of the big girls. You, Rahma on one side and your friend Yasmin on the other. There was a crowd of women. Their scarves and dresses ballooned as they swayed. Yellow. Red. Pink. Blue. Green. All the beautiful colours. We stopped just short of them. I have been through this so many times in my head. They were clapping their hands. They made space for us in the circle and we joined in the dance. I can see the dust we scuffed up; Yasmin’s hair bouncing as she kicked her legs high and skipped to the word of the songs.
I can see the blue of your dress, Rahma, as it floated around you. I can see the shine of your eyes and your big new teeth which looked too large for your mouth and stuck out when you laughed. We were hot and sweaty when Yasmin’s mother came over and whispered something to Yasmin. She took her by the hand and led her away. I was afraid we were in trouble, but Yasmin looked back over her shoulder and smiled. I kicked the dust and stamped my hardest. We sang at the top of our voices, warbling like little birds, as high and loud as we could. I have often tried to imagine what could have happened if we had stopped singing then and listened. Would we have heard her? Could we have stopped it? We heard nothing but the singing and the drumming and then Mum came and took your hand. “Wait here,” she told me, her breath in my ear. “I will come back for you in a minute.” I couldn’t wait. I was dancing faster and faster and longing for it to be my turn. So I was on my own when I heard the screaming. The voices of the singers dipped and I heard your voice, Rahma, piercing the air, flying above my head. I broke away. I broke away and the further I got from the singers, the easier it was to hear that the screams were coming from our house. Grandma was standing in the doorway. “Go back!” she hissed at me, twisting her hands, “Go back to the dancing!” I could still hear you, Rahma; I could hear you, though your screams were getting quieter, spreading and fading. “What’s happened?” I thought there must have been an accident.
“None of your business. Go back!” Grandma glared at me, jutting her jaw towards the dancers. Her stuck-out tooth biting down on her lower lip, “Go!” I ran back a short distance and crouched down to watch the house. I could hear the rhythm of the drums, the wails of the singing. There was no more screaming. I shrank into the narrow shade of a date tree, my back squashed against its rough prickly trunk. Slowly the shade spread in front of me until I could stretch out my legs.
A woman came out of our doorway. I had never seen her before. She was all in black, like a poor woman. She spoke to Grandma, something long and difficult. Her hands chopped the air. I couldn’t hear what she was saying. Then Grandma went inside. I took my chance and ran for it, trying to reach the doorway before Grandma came back out. The woman in black was walking away, but she heard me. She stopped and waited. She stretched out her thin hand and grabbed my arm. She squeezed it tightly and fixed me with her marble eyes. “Are you the sister?” Her voice was croaky. I nodded. I was staring at the ground; her black dress was streaked with brown dust around the bottom. I glanced up quickly to see if I could see whether she had long ears under her head scarf. Mum always told us stories about the long-eared witch who would catch us and eat us if we were naughty. “You will have to wait now until next year.” She leant down towards me, her sick sweet breath on my face. I stopped breathing, I closed my eyes and suddenly she let go. I ran to the house.
I don’t know what I was expecting. As I went through the door, I was hit by the smell of frankincense. You, Rahma, were lying on our mattress, with a blood stained sheet across your legs. Your eyes were open but you didn’t look at me. Mum was wiping your forehead with a cloth; she didn’t look at me either. Two ladies I didn’t know, fat ladies, were squatting down, scrubbing at a great dark stain on the floor. It made no sense. Mum looked up. Her hair had fallen out of her scarf. “Out!” she yelled. “Mother, get Zahra out of here!” Grandma picked me up from under the arms and carried me out. It was evening when they let me in. I held your hand, Rahma. I stroked your hand and gave you all the love I had to give you. I hope you know that. It was a long time before I understood what had happened. I watched Mum and Grandma wash you and wrap you in cloths. I watched Dad lift you. Your heavy head and your long legs hung down on either side of his outstretched arms. I was not allowed to go with you. The house was full of women. The sweat and colour of the dancers. They were quieter now, murmuring.After you’d gone, after Dad had taken you away, Mum crouched down and covered her face with her hands. I stood behind her and stroked her back as she rocked on her heels. That night Yasmin’s mother took me home with her and fed me dates and rice and goat’s meat. The leftovers from the celebration. She gave me water, and held the cup as if I were a baby. Then she put me down to sleep beside Yasmin. Yasmin was groaning. I didn’t recognise the shadows of the room.

 

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