(An extract from the novel Orange Girl)
The rain fell in heavy sheets, flooding the asphalt. Wet, cold and trembling, I gripped the tray of peeled oranges on my head with one hand, then pulled up the hem of my lappa with the other and held it around my thighs. Then I waded through the water just above my ankles, past the Fulah and Lebanese stores on either side of the street, and toward the seaside slum of West Point, where I lived with my aunt and her husband.
Along the beach stood my aunt’s house, one of several dilapidated corrugated houses teetering in the soft sea sand. Others had been built farther back of it. But the sea had swept them away, leaving the unfortunate people homeless but not for long. From the seashores the people scavenged their bamboo mats, rafter poles, plywood, and rusted corrugated sheets. Soon a proliferation of corrugated houses sprang up at vacant lots father from the sea. The people went back to live in those houses as if nothing happened. They had nowhere else to go. But their resilience made the sea looked more like a child whose pranks they could laugh at than the ravages of the awesome giant that it was.
I pushed the rickety wooden door open and went into the house, setting the tray of peeled oranges on the kitchen table that leaned against the carton wall, because it had only three legs. On the fire was the hot water pot, steaming rising out of it. I began to take off my wet clothes hurriedly. The presence of the fire when I was so cold and shivering was like a sudden miracle of water to a man dying of thirsts.
I removed the pot from the fire, using my lappa to grip the hot handles, then squatted beside the fire in my underwear. Stretching my arms out over the flame, I shut my eyes and sighed with pleasure and satisfaction.
Suddenly I heard movement in my aunt’s room, and bounced to my feet, like a guard that had been caught asleep. Moments later my aunt’s husband appeared in the doorway, the inevitable bottle of bitter root in his right hand. He was a tall man, gaunt, sallow and bearded. He had obviously slept in his clothes, which were rumpled like paper, yellow mucus in the tail of his eyes, streaks of saliva at the corners of his mouth. I fidgeted and pretended to wash the dishes. But realizing that I had not returned the pot of water on the fire, my heart rose to my mouth and pounded so hard that it seemed to burst out of my chest.
“Hey, you little prostitute, what the devil you tink you doing?” my aunt’s husband hollered, his voice slurred and reeking of liquor. “Put my wata back on deh fire befo I beat deh hell out of you. You tink old man like me going to catch cold because a stupid geh like you come fom looking for man? Hurry up and put my wata back on deh fire!”
Like so many of his tantrums that drove me to fear and trembling, more than I did from the rain and cold, I did not even think of using the lappa any more. I just gripped the hot handles of the pot and felt them burn through my flesh, like red-hot metal through rubber. Then I stood up, and felt his eyes on my naked breasts. My hands flew up, and I covered them with the palms of my hands. But his eyes locked on the front of my underwear.
He took a swig from the bottle and belched loudly, his breath rotten and nauseating. “Tell me about yor boyfriends you met today,” he said, and winked at me as if we shared a secret.
“I wor na looking for man Uncle,” I said. “I wor selling deh orange.”
“You lie,” he shouted, shaking his fist at me. “You tink I na no you and yor man bizness?”
“Uncle I swear. I wor na looking for man o,” I said.
“Den why you bring all the orange back?” he asked.
“It wor raining Uncle,” I told him.
“So you can sell in deh rain, huh?” he said.
“I wor selling in deh rain bot dey na bah,” I said.
“Shulup! You lef my wife and me hungry ehvor since you go sell dis morning. Now you come back wen you na fini selling all deh orange. Watin you espect us to eat?”
“I say shulup, you hopo jo!” he shouted. “Dis time small-small chidren selling to fee deir parens, and you, a rusty fourteen-year-old geh wid hair between her legs, sit down here doing nuting bot looking for man. But jes wait! Wen I fini wid you, you will na live to tell deh story.”
“I beg you Uncle, don beat me,” I said. “I will go sell the orange.”
“Not until I fini wid you,” he said, unbuckling his belt, his eyes still glued to between my legs.
I was cold, and the thought of being beaten was unbearable. I began to sob.
My aunt’s husband wrapped the buckle part of the leather belt around his fist, leaving the other end to dangle. Then he came rushing toward me, clumsy on his feet. I turned and broke into a run, but bumped into a bucketful of water and fell over as if from the top of a hill. The belt came crashing down on my back, like lightning. I screamed. Then he began to beat me excitedly, each blow harder than the last. I twisted and turned and ducked, yelling at the top of my voice, to avoid the blows as best I could. Withoutsuccess. On my breasts, my head, my chest, my belly, the blows rained down again, again, again, like fire on Sodom and Gomorrah. I thought I would die, my screams muffled by the clamp of my aunt’s husband’s hand onto my mouth, pinning my head down into the floor.
Suddenly the beatings stopped, and I felt his dead weight on top of me, his hands fondling my breasts, then reaching down between my legs, probing. I opened my eyes and looked up at him in horror.
“If you fight me I wid kill you,” he said, fumbling with the fly of his trousers.
“I beg you Uncle,” I said, tears spilling across my cheeks, brought my knees together and closed my legs tight. But instantly I was sorry.
He punched me into the face and broke two front teeth, warm blood filling my mouth. Then he grabbed my knees and yanked my legs wide open, tearing off my underwear. I looked down, saw the naked dangle of his manhood, felt a sudden searing pain as he forced his way into me. And, mercifully, all went black.
I do not know how long I must have lain on the floor. I woke up as if in a dream, as somebody shook me roughly, shouting something I could not understand. Finally, when I was able to clear my thoughts and focus, I saw that it was my aunt. She loomed over me like a ghost, one hand on her hips, shouting and pointing at the pan of oranges on the table with the other. I stood there naked, with bowed head, tears running down my face.
“I talkin’ to you, you stupid geh,” she shouted, slapping me across the face. “Why you na sell all deh orange?”
“It wor raining aunty,” I sobbed.
“Close yor mouth and stop crying,” she shouted, and raised a hand.
I cringed and swallowed my sobs, feeling them burned deep into my throat, like hot eddoes.
“You wid sell the orange – everything,” my aunt said. “Now, put on yor clothes and go sell. Remembor, if you na sell all deh orange you will na eat here for two weeks. You hear me?”
“Yes,” I said.
Fumbling, I put on my clothes. I wondered if my aunt knew I had been raped. Probably. But obviously she did not care, sending me back into the cold and the darkness and threatening to starve me.
“Mama wen you come back you mon tell me about yor boyfriend dem,” my aunt’s husband said, grinning, hands folded across his chest, chin pulled up at an aggressive angle, proud of raping me.
He was seated in the only chair in the house, a rickety rattan chair whose two back legs had broken off and was leaning against the carton wall like the table, the man of the house too lazy to repair it. The only other furniture in the house was the few dirty plastic containers we used to store water, together with a few chipped blocks I found when the sea broke a brick house down.
My private part was sore and aching, an ungodly pain in the pit of my stomach. And I felt like vomiting. I tried to shuffle, but my aunt grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and shoved me in front of her. I fell and she kicked me. I got up and picked the pan of orange from the table. Gripping it on my head, I ran out the door sobbing into the darkness.