Esther – short story

“So, my dear, you want to stay, do you?” The unpleasant, oily tone said more than the words, and the sneer left no room for doubt. Esther Alambe was unwelcome.

“I have fled from my home because…” the woman’s words came slowly, one at a time. Not only was she unused to speaking the English she had learnt at school, but having a conversation, understanding what the man was saying, considering a reply, all took time. And there was the question of why. Why had she run away, concealing only her identity papers in her cleavage and disappearing into the night wearing her thin, evening clothes and light sandals?

“I was soon to be married and, well, in my culture, it is often that a woman is -” Unsure how to reveal what was so very private, she whispered to the woman sitting next to her “Do I have to tell him, now?” The quiet nod was enough, and Esther’s hopes sank, just when she needed her courage most. “In my village it is the custom to cut her before she is married!” She spoke more loudly than she intended, her cheeks flaring with embarrassment.

“All right, all right, no need to shout. Keep yer hair on. In your country…” there was a pause while the gentleman shuffled through a thin dossier that was at his right elbow. “In your country, it is illegal to cut a woman, according to your penal code. Is that not so?”

“I suppose it may be, but…”

“Well then, there was no reason to leave, was there?” The man shut the file and sat back, lacing his hands over his stomach.

“Yes, but you see, where I live, in my village, all the girls are cut before they marry. It is the custom and I cannot go against it. I am just a daughter. I saw what happened to my sisters. My two older sisters died soon after, from so much bleeding, there was so much blood on their clothes, on the bed. My uncle was negotiating for my marriage and the man who was to marry me was insisting that I should be cut, you see.”

“You could just have refused, or run away to the city?”

It seemed obvious when he spoke like that, so that Esther was silenced. She could feel the woman beside her urging her to speak, because silence now might be taken for agreement, and that might signal capitulation. But Esther looked at the man before her and understood. He was pale, too broad around the stomach. His legs looked thin and his hair was thin too, from lack of exercise, from sitting at the desk all day, shuffling papers to one side and then the other. Bizarrely, she felt sorry for him and for his glib cruelty, his deliberate unkindness. He did not want to understand, and everything she managed to tell him would be twisted around the wrong way.

But why, she wondered, why the hostility? What had she done to deserve such stupidity? Was it because she was a woman, a black woman? A black woman from Africa who did not have any rights? I do not fit here, she was thinking.

“They would have found me and taken me home again. If I had run away to Accra they would have found me, reported me missing or – something like that. Afterwards they would always be looking for me. In our families everyone can find out. It is the way.”

“Well, our way is a bit different, I think you will find.”

Shifting uncomfortably in his seat, her questioner wanted Esther to leave. “Is there anything you would like to add to your statement before the end of our interview?”

“I miss my country and my family. I would not have fled at night unless I was very frightened. Cutting and bleeding and such pain would have brought only sorrow to me. But, in our culture, because I am a woman, whatever I could do would bring pain. It is the way.”

He eyed her speculatively, wondering what to say next. “Well, you see my dear, your country’s penal code makes it clear that cutting is illegal and anyone involved in it can expect to go to prison.” He spoke the last words with deliberate slowness. “We accept that your government has a policy against. So officially, there is little we can do, see? If the law was different, it would be easier…”

“But women live in the villages, with their fathers, husbands…even going to school is difficult. Unless our fathers protect us, we will be given in marriage….like cattle, she was thinking. “My father died.”

Esther sat back, exhausted with emotion and memories. “Have you seen a woman being cut?” she asked, unexpectedly impatient. “They tie a little girl to a table, or they hold her down, two up top and two below, so that she does not move. They take an old knife, and they cut away all her private parts. Just like that. No stopping for the screams, or mercy. She is stitched up with a needle and thread and wrapped and left to heal all alone. That is what they call “cutting”. Make it polite so that no-one knows what happens.” Esther’s eyes sparkled defiance as she waited for him to close the file. But he looked up, straight into her eyes, and she saw new respect. So, he was a bully, he liked women to talk back, eh? Esther was glad she had spoken out. “I hope you wrote that down, what I said?” she asked more politely. The woman clutching a shorthand notebook beside her nodded sharply, her mouth set in a grim line.

“I’ll defer a decision on your case. Meantime, see if you can rustle up some representation.”

Esther nodded. She saved the small, grim smile until her back was turned. She had not been cut. She had escaped. Now, for now, there was a small window of light, a breath of air she might breathe. Someday, she might be safe. It was a hope she held close to her heart.

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