Art by Cindy Rehm
She clutched tight to a cup filled with tea and called to her daughter, “Evie, have you finished reading Chapter 8? It’s almost time for dinner?” Both cup and her hand were trembling.
Evie leaned over the bannister to shout, “Mum! I need some ‘me’ time!,” then stomped off for her room upstairs.
Something was off. Her precocious daughter was so moody. With that thought, she turned to her husband, Robertson, whose eyes shone with almost amusement witnessing what had just happened. He said nothing, only sighed in resignation before reaching for the coffee pot to refill his cup. She noticed new grays in his hair.
Outside a late spring robin chirped, hovering over buds poking their heads cautiously from stems. Not blooming. Not just yet. This entitled bird, one that expected her to deliver timely supplies to it through the bird table.
Evie had turned ten in June, and a broodier personality emerged from out of her previously sunny child. The mood clash created new battle thresholds with her. They had crossed the dark valley of sickness with some peace, but now when things were beginning to settle down, so many pent-up terrors seemed to be ambushing them. A chiding voice in her head, the awful ear worm, suggested that she was to blame, she was the bad mother. Perhaps Evie was having issues again with one of the girls at school. Remembering to take a deep breath, she turned to her husband, “Honey, could you call the school….” She paused, waiting for him to savour his coffee. How to explain it? She was hoarding energy. To get upset, to talk to her children’s teacher, to get angry was like bleeding strength, and that all at once. ‘Weary’ was not just a word anymore but the sum total of her existence, if she allowed it. Weary, worn-out, exhausted, fatigued, sapped, dog-tired, spent, drained, debilitated, exhausted, frazzled, shattered, knackered. How many ways to say and mean the same thing? But there were so many kinds of tired and she was acquainted with all of them.
“I will, babe.” Robertson added more milk to his coffee. “It’s cooled,” he said about the milk. Intending to move the jug aside, he overexerted his push, causing the jug and its contents to hit the tray before tilting over and hitting the ground.
At once a buried memory leaped out at her.
Its brightness over her.
The blinding light.
Her body immobilized.
The nurses telling her, “You must keep very, very, very still.”
So she stayed very, very still.
The sound of her stillness.
A distinct sound of buzzing over her like a live current. As if, should she move, she would be electrocuted. Staring into the condensed forces of life, paralyzed between emotions, fear-hope.
There had been no one in the room with her, yet she knew they were all watching her. She kept her eyes focused on the mosaic of a lush green forest on the ceiling. A nice touch, it allowed her to ignore the fact that she was topless in a room with two strangers watching her on camera. Is this what it felt like to be dead? Still on a flat surface. Focus on the forest, she reminded herself.
It was over in a few minutes.
“Any plans for today,” a cheery young nurse had asked.
“Sleep before school pickup,” she’d said.
Behind their professional demeanor, the hint of pity in the glance. She had clocked that she was a sick mother. She hated it. And within her body, a churning. Why was this happening to her? What was the meaning? Why her? Random is not logical: so what had she done wrong?
Bzzzzzzzzzzz. Sound remained in her ears for the rest of the day. Like a phantom limb. Same thing again tomorrow and four weeks after that.
The look of the strangers when they saw her: her youth, her children. The death-terror. As if this might infect the whole. She understood self-preservation. Friends. Never to be heard of again, not after the first news, and the response of “if there’s anything I can do?” which was worse than “our thoughts and prayers are with you.”
It is the nature of living things. Before tsunamis strike, most animals sensing the danger will escape. Primal, this running away from death.
She might have done the same. No, she answered herself, she wouldn’t have. But she doesn’t judge them either.
Now, detachment. Observing the human race, the friend race, the family race.
The landscapes of this unknown had yielded surprises.
Reconciliations, a discovery of new friends who had become like family. Enforced family being-ness, of light that had diminished in Robertson’s eyes now returning. Her heart had grown bigger. One night she had felt it expand until it held the world to itself. These days she smiled at the tilted head of curious strangers, the “What is it like?” cohorts, and she would reply as if she were a returning adventurer, a visitor to cold and dim shores in the Land of elsewhere. Their look of horror, of surprise, of fear-hope, of gratitude too, that this was another.
It was the kindness of others that had widened her palate on the human condition of vulnerability, that greatly expanded horizons of forgiveness. Sisters who called and prayed for her, one in particular that had called every day. Her retired father-in-law appearing, a retired doctor. Rucksack in hand. An older Mary Poppins to take over the care of the rambunctious children. Once, in the beginning, her heart had experienced an anaphylactic shock while recovering from chemotherapy and she had stayed in bed for three days. She had wept into his hands and understood that he understood. He had held her, reassuring her that it would be vanquished. The pain in his own eyes because with this disease he had seen a familiar enemy. One that had taken from him before. That day she was grateful the children and Robertson were having dinner. That they could not see her so broken. Another ally was an ex-Marxist, retired-nurse punk rocker converted to devout Catholicism who showed up regularly with home-cooked meals for the family, whom her children had adopted as a grandmother. Such kindness made her heart break, but in ways that made it stronger.
Lost in memory, she had dropped her cup.
Robertson’s warm hands reached the place where her thoughts were stuck.
She awakened to the warmth. His sensing of her fears, of moments such as this, when the days of the past invaded the present. He knew those fears before she would articulate them, for they were also his. Nine months is the gestation period for a newborn. For nine months, after the diagnosis, poor Robertson had been turned into carer, single-parent juggling school runs, homework, school bullies, and her absence.
He now whispered into her ear. “I knew you would make it. I knew. You are amazing.” He repeated those words every day as though they had bested fate.
She smiled at him.
She knew better.
This adversary was a watcher, a stealth strategist, a stalker, a shadow-walker.
She knew how much she must reduce the imprint of her shadows, to deny the adversary a reason to invade again.
No swear words.
No bad dream because she was the one that got away, bruised, marked, scarred, but she got away.
“We will be late. If we don’t leave now.” Her husband looked pointedly at his watch over her shoulder.
The entitled robin was giving them a side-eye at the window.
It chirped in bird-temper.
The bird-feeder was low. Crisp spring air fluttered the beige curtain.
A gentle billowing. Warmth would be coming soon.
Every procedure had made her feel so cold.
She had shivered beneath every deed that was supposed to secure her life.
“I like this warmth,” she told Robertson.
He laughed, holding on to her. She clung for a moment longer.
He was a talisman helping her ward off the darkness.
Her hands on his arms.
Her blackened fingernails.
The evidence of her abduction.
“The alien thing had not succeeded in laying siege over her body. But the scars of the ordeal were imprinted on her chest. Seeing them in the mirror had frightened her. Neat slashes, two upside-down letter T’s on each breast. She often ran her hand across where the sinews of skin formed bumpy ridges. What was the invader looking for? What did it want from her?”
One day last November, she woke up in a hospital bed and lay there for five hours post-surgery. Two nurses joked with her as she slipped in and out of consciousness.
“You have come back to us?” one asked. She smiled wanly. There was something of the welcome of the earthling in that question.
The alien thing had not succeeded in laying siege over her body. But the scars of the ordeal were imprinted on her chest. Seeing them in the mirror had frightened her. Neat slashes, two upside-down letter T’s on each breast. She often ran her hand across where the sinews of skin formed bumpy ridges. What was the invader looking for? What did it want from her?
Success came in the form of a surgeon sitting opposite her in a bland, sparsely decorated cream-colored room. An older woman with blonde hair and a seriousness that sat on her eyes. It was this surgeon who had diagnosed her. The sort of woman who would never be “abducted.” Robertson sat next to her before the surgeon, and she quickly became irritated with his barrage of questions.
The surgeon said, “Surgery was successful but let’s make sure.” The ‘let’s make sure’ meant deliberately putting poison in her blood to cure a greater evil.
“Your ovaries. They have to go.” The surgeon was firm.
A grief, she swallowed it, pushing it down to her belly. Could she grieve? Maybe they could have had a third child. Hadn’t that been the plan? Why had she waited so long?
Her hair fell off in clumps, Robertson shaved it, the children were disturbed. Her nails blackened. One day Aaron barged into her room and saw the line hanging out of her chest like a snake that she’d managed to keep hidden from him. His eyes widened and he turned away, causing her to feel like she had harmed him. Later at story time he asked her if that thing would be in her forever. No, she said. Her body had already started the process of dying so that it might live.
The sharp scent of disinfectant attached to everything in her house, every surface and object wiped clean. Her children eye her with a curiosity. After every treatment, they hug and squeeze her, relieved that she has returned. She recognized how much she has missed them, how she encompasses their lives.
“Is your disease done?” her big-eyed son asked, staring so deeply at her she could hear her soul ripped from her.
“Almost.” A feeble reply hidden with a kiss on his head.
They did homework by her bedside after washing themselves thoroughly to kill any germs. They smelled clean, too clean for children. She often tried to bathe them herself as she has done since they were born. Most days she was successful.
Slowly she returned, month by month emerging from her chrysalis. Her hair had started growing back in little uneven white patches. She heard that happens, at least she wasn’t bald. She prayed. She prayed to everything. Her husband called her a big hippy. There was nothing alive she took for granted. She missed books, reading an activity now foreign to her because the words merged, dotting her memory with bullet-sized holes of information. Words that she knew slipped through her sieve-like brain. A side effect, she was told. Unable to read, she listened to books on everything existential to understand the meaning of what she was having to endure. this. Perhaps she could hold onto the sound of words that will get her through.
Then it was over. Almost a year. After months of treatment the body started to remember to heal. Like the cautious spring bud. The wounds inside, the ones that dot her soul, still open on occasion.
“Muuum!” Aaron called out. Nothing serious, just him moaning. All mothers can tell when their child is truly distressed.
“You are taking too long. We will be late.”
Several minutes later, she found Aaron seated in the car. Robertson had the radio on, a repetitive pop song playing in the background.
“I shall destroy all the aliens,” Aaron shouted from the back. Evie sat next to him, hands folded across her chest, rolling her eyes. She nodded, agreeing that her son shall be the superhero who will stop the “abductions.”
They laughed. Aaron had the lightness of his father, the ability to shrug things off. Evie absorbed everything. A trait that made her so deeply sensitive and empathetic. She stared long enough into the rearview mirror to catch her daughter’s eyes, which were beautiful like her grandmother’s—big, dark, and expressive like she could see and feel everything. She winked at her daughter, then pulled a funny face. Evie broke into a smile. Still ten years old. Still her baby.
The drive to the hospital was not long, but finding parking was always a headache. Through the window she saw a burly balding man swearing at someone. Outside the cancer support center, a trickle of men and headscarfed women. Some with wigs. Good ones, bad ones. Others left their scalps exposed.
Finally, they squeezed into a space. Once out the car, Aaron skipped ahead of his sister. They might have been going to the park. She wished that her own brain could be that elastic. If only she could erase everything.
Everyone was friendly, a shared haunting. Here it is, the in-between world.
Her turn, she excused herself from the children playing in the communal area. Robertson slipped his hand over her shoulder and together they entered a Scandinavian-style room.
The counselor smiled kindly at them. This woman had been the first person to be assigned to her. Her job to listen to questions about the treatment that keep her awake at night and give reassuring answers.
Robertson clasped her hand inside his throughout the session, which lasted only a few minutes. Time enough for both her and him to cry a few tears. They had made it through. Warmth filled her body. She hugged Evie and Aaron.
The children had made new friends. Aaron had designed a superhero suit on his tablet.
“When can we get this printed, mummy?” He was impatient.
“When you develop powers.”
He looked deflated.
“It shouldn’t be long, Aaron.”
He smiled his toothless smile. He had lost two teeth when she was unwell, adding to his adorable nature. Now it dawned on her how tall he was, something she hadn’t noticed in the past year. He would probably be much taller than his father.
Robertson’s phone buzzed; he looked at the number and frowned.
Many people had resurfaced in his life once they realized the worst was over. She had noticed his own reticence in meeting people. Almost like he had been abducted as well. She would remind him that he had no obligation to make anyone else comfortable. She stroked his hand, the words unsaid. They have moved on.
Once home, she slipped her turban off and rubbed the down on her hair. Her scalp was a black patchwork. Little tufts had started to spring up. Once it became even, she would discard the wig and turban.
The children collapsed on the sofa in heaps. “I want to ride a bike,” Evie declared.
With that, the family decided to go for a bike ride, a new passion of the children.
Her son stopped his bike to watch ducks fornicating.
“Perverts,” Robertson muttered.
She suppressed a laugh.
Another text. Robertson silenced his phone. “They know your treatment is over, so they keep wanting to meet up.”
She knew he wouldn’t call back; he had changed.
She has been waiting for the mask to slip. Robertson was the balanced one in the relationship. Always first to forgive, the easier spouse. Hell, she knew if they had ever split up their friends would choose him because he meant more to them. She had long ago learnt to trust the predictability of human betrayal. She felt too deeply. Empathetic to the point of disability so she had allowed herself to marry a man who felt everything without wounding himself. Pain passed him quickly.
This experience had changed him.
This thing had penetrated him.
She defended the texter. “People don’t know how to react.” She didn’t like this change in him. He must stay good. They must win.
Evening came with the promise of quiet. A gentle rapping at the door.
She got into her bed, knowing the evening was when her child was at her most vulnerable.
It took a few minutes before the inevitable confession. Evie hated the school. Well mostly one mean girl.
She stroked her daughter’s hair, her tightly plaited cornrows. A regret of hers was that she had never learnt the things of beauty. The search had taken months, but they’d found a hairdresser.
Maintaining her daughter’s hair costs a small fortune. She told herself that once her strength returned, she would watch numerous tutorials on managing afro hair. When she was ill, each knot in her daughter’s hair had been a shame knot within her own belly.
Evie rarely cried but today her daughter howled into her arms. Shaking. A rage engulfed her, one that made her hold Evie tightly, whispering loving words into her small ear with the same energy that she used to curse the ignorant bully.
Evie fell asleep in her arms. Her daughter would sleep between her and Robertson tonight. Although ten years old, she still smelled like a toddler, pure and of all the good things in life.
She had held so much inside.
Robertson whispered into the dark room. “It is good. It is over.”
The next day she and Evie went to the school united. She must dislodge this ugliness before it settled in her daughter’s heart and became part of her. She must find the energy to fight. Instead of calling the school, she decided to accompany Evie, a show of force. The teacher promised to deal with the bully. The bully would be kept away from Evie. By the end of the week Evie was playing Lego with Aaron. Constructing ambitious plastic cities. Laughing and still giving the occasional eye roll to her family. She had returned to herself.
Another victory, another part of her reclaimed. Her territory had been purged from these beings. These marauders who dipped into people’s lives. Her family is hers not theirs.
Alison Ojany is a Kenyan born writer and cancer survivor. Her fiction often uses a speculative lens to examine human absurdities, fears, insecurities, and hauntings. Her work draws on her plural Kenyan roots to engage with themes ranging from racial injustice to climate change. Her stories and poems have been published and translated in a variety of platforms in Europe and Africa, and Recent publications include Graded (2020, Lolwe) and Shape-shifters (2019, Jalada). Ojany is also the co-founder of arts for social change collective 5 Jordan, a collective committed to bringing African artists to the global stage across a variety of media. She is currently finalising her first novel. Find out more about her at https://alisonojany.com
Cindy Rehm is a Los Angeles–based artist and educator. She serves as co-facilitator of the Cixous Reading Group, and is cofounder of the feminist-centered projects Craftswoman House and Feminist Love Letters. She is the founder and former director of spare room, a DIY installation space in Baltimore, MD. In 2021, she launched Hexentexte, a collaborative project at the intersection of image, text, and the body.