She sits silently at her desk, hands folded and still on the chipped laminate in front of her. To her left, a neat pile of worn textbooks. To her right her assignment, due today, is turned page-end up to facilitate collection. Her exercise book remains unopened before her hands, pen lying across it in conscious symmetry. Her eyes are cast down, toward the book but not focussed on it, rather looking through it as if it were a window to a place only she could see.
Her teacher regards the girl with a mixture of curiosity and concern. In her seventeen years of teaching the woman can’t recall ever having a student like her. In the four months since she joined the class the girl has not spoken a word to any of her classmates. When called upon she answers courteously and quietly, but will volunteer nothing in their frequent classroom discussions. Glancing at the essay on the girl’s desk, the woman knows before she picks it up exactly what it will contain; the required number of words, neither more nor less, carefully handwritten in tight, disciplined cursive. Each discussion point addressed as outlined when the task was given to the class three weeks ago, yet somehow lacking in any true understanding of the subject matter, and utterly devoid of any emotional depth.
-It’s like there’s a wall around her, the woman thinks. – I’m just not getting through at all.
It was dusk. The last of the day’s colour seeped from the lip of the horizon as the first stars pierced the blanket of shimmering air.
The girl and her mother were clearing the dinner bowls from the low table in the family room. Her father was teasing her older brother about his failure to impress a girl from the neighbouring farm. The silly boy – he had always been a silly boy – had decided a display of bravado might be the key to securing the affections of his object of adoration. He’d attempted to convince her that a large rock, thrown in the direction of some wayward goats, would scare them off the side of the hillock they’d chosen to occupy and drive them back down to the plain. Unfortunately in his enthusiasm he selected a rock too large and unwieldy. It slipped from his hands in the casting and clipped his head on the way down, delivering a small cut and rocking blow, which would no doubt develop into a sizable bruise. To make matters worse, his feet gave out, and he tumbled end on end down the precipitous slope, ending with all limbs unflatteringly akimbo some metres down, amidst the goats he had hoped to disperse. Their curiosity piqued, the goats made their way over to test – while he was prone and winded – the edibility of his shirt and hair.
-My son, her father intoned with a look of mock consternation, -rock is one thing, but that head banging shit is no good for you. Their laughter warmed the room like an open fire.
She’s eating her lunch alone in the courtyard. She hears her name called, and against her better judgement, turns to see the class bitch crossing her eyes and drawing circles with her finger at the side of her head. The bitch’s girlfriends burst into tittering laughter and they all scuffle away cheerfully. She turns back to her sandwich. This has become a daily event. It bothered her at first. She couldn’t understand what she’d done to incur their disdain.
One day a thought had come to her, – They know. Somehow or other, they know. She could hardly blame them for shunning her.
The door exploded in a shower of splinters. She could barely register her shock before the room was filled with men, shouting incomprehensibly and brandishing machine guns. Her brother and father were dragged outside by their hair, feet flailing behind them, unable to find purchase. She caught her father’s eyes as he passed over the threshold and saw something that terrified her more than his obvious fear. There was the desperate sorrow of a man looking upon his family for the last time.
She heard their sobbing protestations of innocence, one of the men accusing them over and over. The only word she could make out clearly was ‘collaborator’. Her father was begging for her life, for her mother and brother to be spared. Suddenly the night outside was blasted as if by lightning, and she could hear nothing over her own screams.
The boy sits a seat behind her, to the right. He’s had his eye on her since she joined the class. -There’s no doubt she’s a bit weird, he thinks, -but as the bard says, she’s fucking hawt.
He considers himself good looking, in that awkward, self-conscious way common among boys his age. He certainly gets plenty of attention from the other girls, yet he can’t seem to get her to so much as look at him. Half through his own desire, but as much from the daring of his mates, he has vowed to win her over. To this end, after many failed attempts, he finally manages to partner her in the science practical, and now finds himself spooning chemicals into a beaker beside her, desperately searching for a way to break the ice.
-So where are you from? He proffers shyly. No reply. Pressing on, – You don’t talk much, do you? No answer. This isn’t going well. – Look, I know the other girls give you a hard time, but they’re just bitches. You should just ignore them, OK? She fumbles with the flask in her hand, almost dropping it. She places it carefully in front of her and plants her hands firmly on the counter, turning to look through the window. He’s not going to get anywhere, and the realisation rises like bile in his chest. He’s not used to being rejected so summarily. – You know, maybe they’re right, he spits, knowing instantly he is speaking more out of hurt than anger. In his shame he storms out of the class, too oblivious to notice her shaking, or the eruption of tiny beads of sweat across her brow.
They led her into the darkness, her hands bound by a thin strip of plastic. One of the men pushed her roughly forward, past the crumpled forms of her father and brother. As the guns had fired, her mother had made a desperate lunge for the door, only to be met by the butt of one of the men’s gun, causing her to collapse on the spot. The girl managed a peripheral glance back to her home, to see two of the men step back inside, closing the door behind them almost carefully. She stumbled ahead, at the prodding of the man behind her. Some five minutes later she heard a single shot and realised she would never see her home again.
They walked through the night, her grief inducing a sense of numbness that allowed her to place one foot in front of the other, oblivious to the shoves and slaps from the man behind her. When they were in sight of the light of the men’s camp they stopped. One of the men produced a knife and cut the tie that bound her wrists, and for a second she thought she was going to be released. Then the man grabbed her dress, slicing it to the ground, and tore her clothes from her. Her hands rushed automatically to cover her sex. A man behind her grabbed her forearms while the man with the knife produced another plastic strip, binding her wrists again in a single movement. A chicken, stolen from a neighbouring farm, was pressed feet first into her hands and she was marched into the camp – a prize holding a prize.
The men’s cheers rang through the stony hills, waking distant livestock that bleated in blind accord.
The store owner fashions her lip into a well-practiced sneer. She and her anaemic husband have owned this little patch of dirt for nearly forty years. It served them well in the eighties. They managed to save enough to buy not only their two story brick home, but a couple of weatherboard rental properties besides. – The neighbourhood is just going to shit, she thinks to herself as she re-counts the change. – Damned towelheads are overrunning the place. Look at this girl. She can’t even give you the time of day. They’re just not like us.
Their creativity seemed to know no bounds as they invented new cruelties and humiliations. She was made to strip naked and dance for them, to wash their filthy clothes and serve them their meals without so much as a cloth to shield her modesty. She was forced to wash and make her ablutions in public, and other things – many things – so abhorrent she could never have imagined their existence.
The first time she was raped was the worst .They formed a queue. After the third or fourth man something broke inside of her. Her screaming stopped, and she knew she would never even attempt escape. She just shut her eyes and prayed for an oblivion that never came. There was nothing left to lament. It was all gone. At last glance the line seemed to stretch forever.
The girl sits in her one-room bedsit, her homework arranged in orderly piles on the table in front of her. She writes carefully on blank foolscap paper, a lined card beneath to help her ensure the correct slant of her letters. She has two hundred and twenty three words left to write. Almost done, then she will reward herself with a piece of fruit and sleep. It’s better than it was before, but sometimes the silence is deafening.
They cut her loose before they entered the city. She’d been there once before with her mother, in a time she could now barely remember. They had shopped for fabric together. She struggled to remember her mother’s face, her voice. She ambled back into the desert, half aiming to return to her village, but more in preparation for death. With no water and no food she wouldn’t last two days, which was OK. She would die alone, her shame dying with her. She felt a sense of strange relief that her family were spared the knowledge of her degradation. She felt herself becoming light-headed, almost euphoric. She giggled. – At least I was never a head-banger, her last thought before she collapsed under the scorching desert sun.
The girl sits in the counsellor’s office. The air is thick with cheap perfume and she battles to breathe. Her eyes are cast toward the folded hands in her lap. The counsellor regards her with a cautious eye. This girl obviously has some real issues, more than she feels qualified to address, yet her nurturing instinct compels her to at least offer the girl some succour. – They tell me you were in a bad way when they found you over there, she says softly, – I know this may be hard to talk about, but can you answer me this, just yes or no. Did they torture you?
The girl remains still for long seconds before almost imperceptibly nodding her head, her gaze unwaveringly on her hands.
– Did they.. she trails off as the girl begins to shake, confirming the darkest of her fears without her even needing to finish the question. She feels like a ball of ice has formed in the pit of her stomach. – This kid isn’t even sixteen, she thinks, – How old must she have been at the time? She thinks of her own daughter, roughly the same age, and feels her throat tighten and her eyes begin to burn.
– Honey, I can’t change what happened, but you’re safe now. There is no Taliban here. You will never have to see those people again. She can hear the inadequacy of her words, but is simply at a loss as to what to say next. She was never trained to deal with this.
The girl looks upward, raising her hands, palms toward her face, exposing the countless cigarette scars that pepper her hands and arms. – Taliban? She asks, voice devoid of emotion, – Do you think the Taliban did this to me? She lowers her hands back to her lap. For a brief second she makes eye contact and the counsellor is granted a view of an abyss she’s never known. – Not Taliban, she says softly – Americans.
The counsellor sits in stunned silence, the only sound in the room the quiet ticking of her desk clock.
The girl stands and leaves. She has homework to do.