In her eyes I see me
© Folakemi Emem-Akpan
She arrives before the others, bag tightly clutched, feet clad in black shoes. The creaking door signals her entry, and for the briefest of moments as I look at this nervous girl, I am assailed with memories of days gone by. Days filled with terror and unspeakable deeds.
“Good morning m’am.”
“Hi Barbara. And how are you today?”
She nods, finds the least conspicuous seat in the class, and folds her long frame onto it. I look at the clock to ascertain it’s yet thirty minutes to the start of the Sunday school. Then yielding to the prompting that’s been beating in my heart for a week, I approach Barbara.
She already has a book out, and seems to want to disappear into it when I sit by her. “Can I see that?”
The book is one of the Enid Blyton’s series, my favorite when I was eight, the same age Barbara is now. “Is it in this book that Dame Washalot loses her tub?”
Laughter suddenly fills Barbara’s eyes and she nods yes. Almost immediately, the laughter is replaced by the bleak, blank expression I’ve since come to associate with her.
I first set eyes on her four months ago. On that day, with one glance, I could tell that something had wrung the joy from this little girl’s eyes. Her mother, a gaunt once-pretty nervous woman, explained they were new in the neighborhood and that Barbara wanted to come to Sunday school.
Barbara looked familiar. It wasn’t until I got home that it occurred to me that she looked like I had when I was her age. I got out an old picture to compare and true, my picture could have passed for hers. Long black hair, gangly arms and legs, and the dead look in both of our eyes.
It wasn’t until last week that I realized the resemblance went deeper than that. Sorting through old newspapers, I had come across a story, five months old. It gave the details of a trial held in the State that adjourns mine. A woman returned home from work earlier than was normal and found her husband of ten years sexually assaulting their six-year-old daughter. Wild with anger, she’d run to the kitchen, gotten hold of the largest kitchen knife, and hacked her husband to death. Having only her word, and believing she’d tutored her daughter into collaborating her story, the state went ahead to prosecute her. A year later, a jury of twelve found her not guilty of first degree murder and acquitted her. The reporter had included a picture of the woman and the abused daughter.
It was the picture of Barbara and her mother.
Suddenly, everything made sense. Barbara’s perfectionist attitude, her inability to laugh, that look in her eyes.
“It’s okay to laugh, sweetheart.” I tilt her head so that her eyes meet mine. There are tears swollen behind her eyes, and I am temporarily transported back twenty-five years in time.
I was ten years old. The place where he’d just been hurt like a thousand hells. Leaning against the sink, shaking uncontrollably, I tried to concentrate on washing the plates. If you ever tell your mother, I’ll kill you. That was the last thing I remembered. I came to, staring into the foggy eyes of my mother.
“You fainted and you’re bleeding. He raped you, didn’t you?” She asked in a tremulous voice.
“Hello, Mrs. Brown.” Matthew breaks my reverie, bursting into the class with his usual boisterousness.
“Hi Matt.” I’m still holding Barbara’s chin, and her eyes are still full of unshed tears. I do the only thing I can. “Sweetheart, will you tell your mum to see me after church?”
“I know what happened to Barbara, why you moved down here. Perhaps we can talk. I might…”
“What makes you think you can help? You don’t know the first thing about what we’ve been through.” The lines on her face seem to grow deeper.
I try to dispel her anger with a smile. “Because my father raped me from the time I was eight until I turned ten.”
She stares at me like I’m talking Greek, holding her daughter’s hand so tightly her knuckles are grey. Then, she pushes the door wider and steps into the empty classroom. “Perhaps we can talk.”