trigger warning: domestic violence /sexual assault
I could feel warm blood in my fingers when I touched down there. I sat in a corner behind the bathroom door and cried. My mother brought out one of her old sarees from the cupboard, softened and faded with use. She tore the saree into strips and taught me how to fold one of the pieces and place it between my legs from front to back.
"Remember, this will happen every month all your life, and the blood will flow for three days, at least. Wash this cloth and dry it for use every month. No one should know about this."
Does this happen to boys as well?
"Good girls do not ask questions."
The metallic smell of blood remained with me. I felt shameful.
The unpleasant memory went into a zip lock bag and was sealed shut.
I walked to school every day from my aunt's house. I hurried along the lonely pathway carrying my fears and my backpack.
A stranger in a checked shirt followed me. He cycled behind me as I hastened down the hot tar road towards the highway. He blocked my path, opened the zip in his pants and brought out something. He rubbed it with both his hands as he howled and moaned. I stood rooted to the spot, stunned, with a scream stuck in my throat. He then zipped up, wiped his hands on his trousers, got on his cycle, and left.
I pushed the guilty little secret into my zip lock bag too.
My aunt was away shopping. My uncle walked into my room. He yanked me and held me by my shoulders.
"You are a lazy girl who deserves to be spanked. You did not make my tea today.” He shook me and drew me closer to him. I could feel his breath on my face, full of garlic. He pressed his clammy fingers against my arms, hurting me. Then he placed his hands on my breast.
The doorbell rang. It was the milkman. My uncle pushed me on the bed and walked away.
That shameful memory too went into the zip lock bag.
My father found a husband for me. I lost my virginity to this man along with my curiosity and my voice. I tried hard to change, to please him. My hair and life became grey with fatigue.
The man died while having a shower. Tepid droplets fell on me, drenching my hair, my blouse, my saree as I shook him, trying to wake him up, relieved that he would not.
I walked away carrying my zip lock bag filled with unwanted recollections.
I was in a train in the middle of the night. Passengers slept behind thick curtains, in imagined safety. A hand slid out of the next berth past the curtain that enclosed me and reached for my breast. I suppressed my scream, took out a pepper spray from my handbag, and aimed for the invisible face. The man accused me of hurting him. I feigned ignorance.
My friend Melanie introduced me to Olivia, the pottery teacher, a gentle mother and wife.
Together we moulded clay, shared poetry, knitted, painted, and talked about life.
I spotted a purple bruise on Olivia's forehead one day. " Jeremy hit me with a Lego block," she replied. How could a three year old have struck her so hard?
She had a bandaged finger. "I jammed it in the door," she said. Then the black eye hidden behind make-up and the burn in her elbow suspiciously round and angry.
"Mel baked this cake for you.” I placed the basket on the birchwood dining table. "Go ahead. Cut it," I urged Olivia.
"You know we can always look after the kids. Do shopping. Anything," Melanie pressed a piece of paper into Olivia's palm.
Olivia’s call came the week after.
"Ted locks me up in the house." Her voice was high-pitched. "He threatened to kill me. What will happen to my babies if something happens to me?"
"Olivia, listen. Give us a missed call when he is out and leave the back door open.”
The call came a week after. We hurtled towards Olivia's house and skidded to a stop outside her back gate.
I returned to Olivia's shed to scout around. No car in the driveway and the front door was locked. My heart raced as I inserted the key.
"Hello Maya." I turned around.
Ted stood with a shotgun pointed at me.
“You better come in and tell me the whole story.”
He nudged me with the barrel.
I slumped on the hard wooden stool clutching my bag to my chest.
“Give me your phone first. Now tell me the whole story.”
“What story Ted?”
“Don’t play games with me Maya.”
“I really do not know what you want to know. I came to see if the workshop was open.”
“Where is Olivia? The children?”
“Oh! Are they not here?”
Ted reached across and twisted my wrist. I almost swooned.
“Stop playing games with me. I am not going to let you off that easily.”
My phone rang in his pocket. Melanie checking on me.
The evening shadows lengthened in the room.
Ted came close, held my neck and squeezed it. I gasped for air. He tightened his grip. I saw stars, heard sirens and fell off the wooden stool, headfirst.
Everything around me went black.
Melanie and Olivia stood over me peering into my face.
“You are safe now.” Mel assured me. “You did not pick up my call. When I arrived, the police were already there. It was the lady next door. She saw Ted with his shotgun threatening you and forcing you into the house. When you did not come out for a long time….”
A second phone hidden in my bag had enough evidence recorded in it to put Ted away for a long time.
No more zip lock bags I promised to myself, as I slid happily into Lala land.
Madhavi Johnson uses triggers from real-life experiences combined with a rich knowledge of cultural and social contexts in writing fiction and non-fiction. She started her career as a Copy Writer in an ad agency in India. An interesting career in international development/ humanitarian work with UNICEF took her later to Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Kenya, Namibia and New York. An itinerant traveller, curious and respectful of cultures, languages and social interactions, she lives in Melbourne, and mentors’ young people from developing countries on organizational skills and self-development. Twitter: @JohnsonMadhavi