Slowly, the day of the Christmas party finally arrived. Nerat and Talitha both were blue denim with pink sweater tops. They looked pretty.
“I keep telling Mummy these are witches’ caps, like in Harry Potter,” Nerat complained of the Christmas hats. “Last year the brim was wider and had ugly rusted bells. I refused to wear,” she shrugged.
“What’s Harry Potter?” Talitha asked quietly.
Nerat laughed, squealed and ran to Tom to announce that Talitha didn’t know Harry Potter. She’d followed at Nerat’s heels, self-conscious but curious.
“Really?” Tom looked at her.
“Don’t worry, before you go back to Sokoto, we’ll watch Harry Potter,” he seemed kinder than he’d ever been.
The two girls had a wonderful time at the party. They rode the carrousel, took turns on the long slides and saw a monkey that could really dance. Nerat won a first place prize in the dance competition. Talitha had never seen anyone move like that and all the songs were so new to her. Exactly as Nerat had promised, they had lots of ice cream, and after the party Santa handed out goody bags.
Home was a dull scenery to return to, but they brought back their laughter and their run-around giddy spirits. None of them seemed to mind that they only saw a monkey and Wild Life Park was stocked with so many more interesting animals. Everyone was excited at Nerat’s prize. It was a medium sized Valentine’s teddy, maybe because the colours were the same.
“Let’s take a picture,” Aunty Jummai clapped, admiring the red and white stuffed animal.
Nerat was fussing over the teddy – hugging it, tickling it, cooing and treating it like a little baby.
“Get the camera,” Talitha’s mummy said.
“Yeah, where is it?” asked Aunty Jummai.
“I think Tom has it,” Nerat answered. “Please, Talitha, tell Tom to give you the camera. Let me get this baby ready for the picture,” she added, adjusting the little “I love you” bowstrings around the teddy’s thick neck.
Talitha skipped on high spirits to Tom’s room. When after several knocks there was no response, she remembered his penchant for earphones and simply opened the door. He was sitting on his bed, violating his mind with noise, while about him was seeming tranquility. When he saw her, he eased off on an ear.
“What do you want?” he asked a little too loudly.
“Camera. Nerat said it is with you,” Talitha answered.
He rose and went to his closet, opening a drawer and retrieving the device. From the moment he brought it to her and she stretched her hand out to take it, everything else seemed to happen to someone else. She remembered his thin body pressed against hers, a warm bulge in his trousers, his hands groping her and his teeth sinking painfully into her unformed nipples. A finger probed under her panties, in front, behind, up and down. But she couldn’t scream. After that frozen reaction of stunned inaction, she wriggled frightfully out of his grasp and ran.
It was the worst holiday of her life. She was constantly attacked by feelings of acute nausea and she cried into the night for no apparent reason. Somehow, she decided on her own not to tell anyone. How could she, a true Girl on Fire? Maybe they’d think it was her fault. She was fat – her body shook when she moved, unlike the bodies of other eleven-year olds – and she was slow. That kind of thing could never happen to a girl like Nerat – she was too sharp.
All the activities that followed that day were hazy in her memory, and she was relieved when, at last, it was time to go home. Where she’d been quiet, she became mute. She hardly even wanted to play and Fatima seemed to her like a talking doll. At first, she didn’t want to go to those Girls on Fire meetings anymore, but her mother bothered her so much she had to.
And she’d look at all those girls hiding under the matron-approved clothes and reciting variants of the formula that first grandmother who had successfully raised six virgin daughters left, and that acute nausea would hit her again. Sometimes she saw an undefined fear in the eyes of the older girls, but it didn’t make her curious; it shrank her deeper into her shell.
Slowly, everyone came to know that Barbie was pregnant for a Fulani man and her parents exiled her to far away Benue to have the baby. Sandra had a traumatic abortion; her life was only snatched back by an act of God. And slowly too, Talitha noticed it wasn’t Aunty Grace alone among the matrons who meticulously skidded over the word “virgin.” She hated it too – it was a limitation, an inhibition, an insecurity that festered and festered and would not go away. A woman’s dignity.