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She could not love the ‘little bundle of joy’. All it did was remind her of that awful night, the pain, the cursed pain. And blood. She bled again to let this little thing breath. She had to bear the pain again for it.
Our Muse of the Month series this year focus on stories that pass the Bechdel test, and are written on inspiration from a new prompt every month. This month, the prompt was “Darkest Nights; Brightest Stars”. The story should pass the Bechdel Test, that is, it should have at least two well crafted, named women characters (we differ here slightly from the classic Bechdel test, in that we require these characters to be named),
The second winner of our December 2018 Muse of the Month contest is Manisha Sahoo.
“She was here last night! She was finally here!”
Merle looked at the excitement of the woman in front of her and smiled indulgently. Gladys’ eyes were not focussed on her. They were glazed over and seemed lost in a world beyond the confines of the whitewashed room.
“And it was not a hallucination, I tell you!” There was a slight hint of indignation in her voice as she turned towards her companion. Her gaze cleared, but her brows furrowed in anticipation of her reply.
“I assure you, I believe you,” Merle said gently. She helped her up off the pillows and rearranged them. Once Gladys had relaxed into them again, Merle brushed away the loose strands of grey hair off her forehead and to the back.
Gladys smiled pleasantly, wrinkles deepening around the lines of her lips and under her eyes. “She listened to me all night long, stayed right there with me till I fell asleep,” she narrated as if she had not paused at all, and pointed to the stool beside her cot.
Merle followed the direction of her finger absent-mindedly and nodded her head. By now she had grown accustomed to move her head rhythmically up and down. Most of the patients in this ward hardly ever asked questions when in a narrative trance such as this, other than, “Don’t you think so too, nurse?”, “I’m right, aren’t I?” or something along those lines.
Gladys was no exception. She prattled on about what she and her daughter had discussed the previous night, half of which appeared to be fantasized over the reality. Merle had learned the signs for both in this short term. Gladys tended to grow more animated with her hands when she wove a tale, and kept them solemnly folded when she was simply narrating facts. As she continued to turn her fingers through the air, Merle took the opportunity to straighten her covers and crease the seams to a perfect line under her arms.
“I cannot… cannot tell you how glad I was last night. I never thought she’d show up for real. But then, she has always been a better person than me. Oh, how I do not deserve her!”
“Now, now, don’t work yourself up over it,” Merle chided in a soft voice. Gladys seemed to have not heeded her at first. Her head was turned away and she swallowed several times before she closed her brimming eyes and nodded. Tiny droplets lined the eyelashes, but none of them rolled down.
“No… no, you are right. It was a good thing. I’m happy she came, that’s all. I’m happy she came once, that’s all I needed…”
Her voice grew weaker as she continued to mutter under her breath. Merle stroked her hair once she spoke in a gentle tone, “Now, Mrs. Perry, take your rest for now, all right? I’ll come back in an hour. We’ll freshen up and go for a walk in the garden, yes? You love that, right?”
Gladys did not say anything. Her chest rose and fell in a steady manner, and her facial muscles relaxed too.
With a sigh, Merle readjusted her blue nursing cap and patted down the front of her periwinkle uniform. She picked up a clip-pad off the bedside table and looked around the room once more before walking towards the door. As soon as she stepped outside, her shoulders sagged and she yawned, thumping the back of her neck with a fist.
She clasped a palm firmly around the neck as she blinked several times and strode towards the nurse’s station. Compared to the quiet of the room inside, even the deadened bustle outside hit like a loud clamour to her senses.
She yawned once more, louder than before.
“Hey, you seem like you did not sleep last night?” The speaker put a hand to her shoulder and leaned over the wooden surface to glance at her face. “You really did not? What’s with those scary red eyes?” she asked in surprise. Her name tag, reading as ‘Doris’, clinked against the surface as she shifted and set her posture straight.
“Night duty room,” Merle murmured absentmindedly. “Ended up checking on Mrs. Perry early today too,” she added, unable to control another yawn.
“Yikes! How grumpy was she today?”
“She wasn’t. She was elated.”
“That’s new. No, scratch that. That’s exceptional in her case.”
“Tell me about it,” Merle murmured in agreement. “Said she met her daughter yesterday. Stayed with her all night, apparently.”
Doris raised an eyebrow and snorted. “What a load of bull! She met her daughter last night? The same one who has not responded to any form of contact we tried? She suddenly showed up out of nowhere? That’s bonkers! I’ll bet the visitor’s register does not have any ‘Tricia Langley’ listed either.”
Merle shrugged her shoulders. “Whatever may be the case, she woke up happy in the morning for a change. More to the point, she seemed aware of her memories and senses just as well.”
“Yeah, yeah. Save me the report you’ll spew to the doc. Go now. You’re no fun to gossip with.” Doris waved her hand dismissively and walked away, down the corridor to the right.
Merle watched her for a moment before she cracked her head from side to side and let out a satisfied sigh as she headed down the opposite direction.
She was nineteen again, back in that horrid room. Her whole body trembled and she pulled her knees closer, unable to process what had happened. Until last night’s exchange of vows and the party afterwards, until this afternoon even, everything had seemed so perfect, like a manufactured commercial of a newlywed couple.
Her wrists ached still from his ruthless grip and felt bruised, as did her breasts, her shoulders, her necks, her thighs and the space in between. She had been immobilised under the sudden charge of his full weight. When the shock wore off, she had tried to fight him off, but it only made it worse, and worse and worse.
His business done, he had left her alone shivering there, sobbing, naked, stinking of his cologne, sticky, hurting and bleeding into the sheets. “Marriage is meant to be consummated,” he had remarked as he pulled up his pants. “Now you are a woman.” He spoke as if it were a natural thing.
But she could not find anything remotely natural about it. Not even now, as she crouched into a corner, crying her eyes out, wrapped in the same sheets she had stained hours ago.
He had not returned that night, not to the bedroom at least.
Gladys had woken up trembling and sobbing, and she had found herself comforted by arms she had not expected to feel. “Tricia…” she cried into the cotton shoulder. “You’re here…”
Neither of them spoke of the night again for several weeks. And then a horrible thing happened. She was riddled with a baby in her belly.
The more she grew aware of how the baby came to be, the more she grew to hate it.
“Being parents is naturally the next step.”
Her head had felt dizzy and light when she heard it. She could not place who said it or why. Had she asked about it? Why was it natural?
“You wait. This baby would bring loads of joy!”
What joy? She wanted to scream out. Whose baby? It was certainly not hers! She did not ask for it!
“I’m sorry for making you feel unwanted…”
“Your baby girl looks so pretty! What will you name her?”
A trickster, that’s what she should be named!
“Tricia,” she murmured mechanically, her head a blank and her eyes unable to look at the pink face of her child with the same kind of adoration everyone else seemed to ‘naturally’ feel.
“I’m sorry, my child… You deserved better. So much better! You deserved a better beginning…” And she began to sob helplessly into her shoulders. “Thank you for turning up…”
She could no longer remember how her husband had been. Had they ever had an honest conversation till he died?
She could no longer remember what her daughter looked like. She had not once looked at her face directly, without feeling a sense of blinding rage boiling inside of her.
But it had not been the child’s fault… Had she been too late to realize it?
No, no. Here she was, was she not? Her Tricia. Not a trickster, but her child. Her own flesh and blood.
The incessant sobbing had brought her into the room. She had changed into her civilian clothes and had just clocked out when she happened to cross Mrs. Perry’s room on her way out of the hospital. Unable to find any of the night duty nurses around in time, she could not simply leave.
Hesitantly she opened the door and peered inside.
Gladys was crying out in pain, thrashing her hands as if trying to defend herself against an unseen demon.
“Stay away… stay away…”
Her hitched breathing made Merle swallow a lump in her throat and step inside gingerly. In her sleep, Gladys suddenly sat up and seemed about to leap off the bed, looking afraid and vulnerable. Merle rushed forward without another thought and caught her before she could lose her balance.
As she felt the old lady’s arms squeeze her and heard her whisper a name that had been missing from contact for all this time, her jaw steeled.
Was it okay for her to do this? Would it be considered ethical? If she were to break her illusion at such a frail moment, would it aggravate her in a worse manner?
“I’m so happy, Tricia… Right now, I’m so very happy,” Gladys breathed into her shoulder and held on tighter to who she thought to be her estranged daughter. “I know, I know how selfish I’ve been, asking you to show up. I must be an awful memory for you, isn’t it? I’m a terrible mother, aren’t I? But you’re not a terrible child. You’re the strongest person I know, and I loved you despite everything else. I’m sorry I didn’t show you enough of it. I’m sorry… please don’t hate me for all your life…”
She began to sob once more.
Merle remembered when she had first arrived into the Dementia Care Centre. She had been healthier then, and looked the age of forty-five as said her reports. Now, with her hair greyer, her skin paler and wrinkled, and her figure lankier, she seemed to have aged twenty years within months. She had been impossible to deal with from the start. She refused to consider she was sick, starved herself and fought back when forced to eat. She simply waited for most days. She often barked at them to get in touch with her daughter and get her to take her away from there.
She seemed to have no memory of how she came to be there, or who brought her. Merle and the other nurses believed it to be the elusive daughter, though they were not entirely sure. The guardian did not stay around to greet them.
However, Merle liked to believe it really had been Tricia. Perhaps this had been the last and the only piece of kindness she could bestow on her mother.
Once more, at this thought, her conscience bit at her.
Even if the short term result showed any form of improvement, would it help in the long term?
Merle could not answer. She instead chose to swallow the lump of doubt, lodged in her throat, for good and closed her eyes as she patted the muttering woman.
Manisha Sahoo wins a Rs 250 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
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