Disgraceful goodbyes

I saw a girl today, she reminded me of someone I used to know. Crossing the town bridge, her right hand held tightly by an old woman – her mother, sister or aunt perhaps – and the right swinging a small colourful hand bag. It was the walk that first stopped me in my tracks. When I came close enough to see her face, I was thrown by the similarity of features: The pert nose, high forehead and pointed chin. But most of all, it was the eyes that sent a thrill of emotion through my heart. She had the same puppy eyes that looked large and sad and drooped at the edges. Those were Nakhumicha’s eyes. But had Nakhumicha lived, she would have been eighteen today, not eight. The little girl on the bridge transported me a decade back into time. I remembered it all.

***

The pitter-patter of running feet could be heard echoing through the empty corridors of the long school halls. A cloud of thick, red dust enveloped her small body as she moved at a steady but furious speed toward the school gate. No one paid her any mind. This was Nakhumicha’s routine on every visiting Sunday. Four years of boarding school had not yet taught her to say goodbye to her mother gracefully. It was exasperating. We were tired of it – like many other things about Nakhumicha. Her small, pointed, elf-like face peering through the opaque bathroom windows in the mornings was creepy. Anna had once asked laughingly, “what is the female equivalent to a peeping Tom?” Me, I think Nakhumicha was so afraid of taking her morning bath, she needed that ritual to confirm that cold water did not kill you. Nakhumicha crying at the top of her lungs anytime she scraped herself when we were playing kati was the height of immaturity. If you saw how the game was played, you would agree that no one could get hurt.

Two girls would stand and face each other, at a distance of about 5 metres, at most six. A third girl would run up and down between them, ducking the small ball that they were throwing towards each other, while trying to hit her. The point system varied. Sometimes, the girl in the middle had to make sure that she filled a bottle of sand while ducking the ball, other times she had to arrange bottle tops on top of each other until they formed a precarious castle. The simplest one was a simple count of the number of time the ball was thrown, whoever made it longest without getting hit was the winner.

So you see, it was such a safe game and that clumsy Nakhumicha only had herself to blame whenever she jumped so high that she landed with a loud whack on her backside. We threatened to ban her from our games a thousand times, but we never did. Her pitiful eyes got us every time.

Her last night alive, Nakhumicha whimpered, and snivelled, she pulled the snort back into her nose loudly. It probably went right into her mouth and she chewed and swallowed it. She made such a fuss that the dorm prefect, Priscilla said in exasperation, “Nakhumicha if you don’t stop your drama right now, I will personally kick you out of the dorm,” at which point the whimpering turned into piteous sobs.

“Nakhumicha!” Priscilla, the dorm prefect shouted, this time loud enough that some girls lifted their heads.

She went still, the poor darling, lay motionless as if she had stopped breathing. The lifted heads were lowered onto their pillows and silence descended on the large hall once more.

About ten minutes later, and the whimpering started again. This time, Priscilla jumped out of bed, marched to one end of the dorm and switched on the light, then strode to Nakhumicha’s bed. She tore her blanket away and exposed her thin frame, curled up like a foetus in the middle of her bed. To be honest, sometimes I felt that is how she should have stayed, like a foetus right inside her mama’s stomach. She was not ready for this world.

Someone shouted from the end of the second row, right next to Priscilla’s own bed. I suppose it was her best friend Anna. “Come on Pris, let her be, she’ll cry herself to sleep.”

Anna was like that, she minded her own business and where the food was. She had turned fourteen the previous week, but her breasts were already as large as my older sister’s, and my sister was married! She had fat calves, and sometimes when she walked, it was as if her legs were too heavy and she had to drag them just for them to move. I felt sorry for Anna, she was not very beautiful, but at least she didn’t bother with the younger girls. Not like Priscilla and the rest of the senior bunch, who made us fetch their water at night and dance for them on Sunday afternoons, when the matrons were away visiting their families.

Nakhumicha should have cried in silence. She was asking for trouble. Priscilla would not let it go. Before long, the other seniors were getting out of bed and gathering around her bed. She was surrounded. Thirty-odd girls, with mean eyes and large hands, ready to kick her out. I don’t know why they were fussing so much; I should have been the one getting worked up. My bed was right next to hers!

“Young girl, get out of bed, you are banished!” Priscilla said, deepening her voice in that way she did when she wanted us to know who was prefect.

The rest of the troop watched and waited.

“Did you hear what I just said? Get out of bed, right now.” She repeated, pronouncing the last two words slowly.

Everyone watched and waited. Even those that had managed to sleep through the commotion were now sitting in their beds.

Nakhumicha did not budge. She did not make a sound. Her face was completely covered by her hands, her legs were folded up to her chin. She had her back towards me, and I could see the outline of her backbone through the thin, worn, nylon nightdress she had on.

We, the younger ones, did not dare make a sound. We watched as three other girls carried Nakhumicha and deposited her on the doorstep. We heard the loud click as the latch fell into place, then we lay there in the dark after the light had been switched off. I hate to admit it now, but I fell asleep soon afterwards.

Now, on days like this, when I see a girl with a woeful face like Nakhumicha’s pass me on the street, I hear that clicking sound as clear as if it had been yesterday. You see, Nakhumicha died that night, curled up on the doorstep in her favourite foetal position. I don’t remember if they said the cause.

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