TJ Benson, whose “Waiting for Beauty” we feature in hour fiction section, is a male Nigerian short-story writer whose works have appeared in the 14th issue of the Sentinel Literary magazine, the Kalahari Review, Myne Whitman, Aspire.org.ng. He works as a columnist for the online magazine afrisphere.com. He was published in the annual Contemporary Literary Review, India, and he started an art journal for young artists at kaanem.com. He was also recently selected for the Yasmin Creative-Writing workshop and his debut novel, The Color of Silence, awaits publication.
Beauty comes once in a year, so I am always prepared. I sweep up the cobwebs from the cave in my skull where my brain used to be and grease my rusty heart with parched smiles at myself, so that I can feel again. Lights bounce off the slimy wet floor from the window to the far end of this enclosure, this hollow, a corner I have never ventured to since I found myself here. I had decided staying in the shadows would be safer, away from the merciless rays of light that would search me and find the blackness I have become.
But today, I crawl under the light, hoping it purifies me, somehow. I must be pure for beauty. Beauty cannot, will not find me wanting, unready. I do not feel the grime on the concrete floor, under my palms, on my knees and tips of my toes; instead, I feel my blood quicken and my flesh drink up the glorious sunlight. It’s exhilarating really, I edge closer to the blinding sun streaming in through my window and for a moment, I let myself feel it can wash my sins away.
CLANG! CLANG!! CLANG!!!
The warden bangs on my cell door and my heart begins a crazy ‘Swange’ dance.
‘You have a visitor.’
As if I needed telling, had I not longed for this moment? Why then do my fingers and toes tremble so? I’d spent nights preparing for today, rehearsing what I would say.
‘Ronke?’ the female warden calls, startling me out of my sluggishness with a clang of her baton on the iron bar. I quickly braid my hair into two cornrows running from my widow’s peak to the nape of my neck. ‘I am ready.’ I say to the woman and she nods, waving chains at me, expecting me to comply.
When she bars swing open, I step out to the prison corridor with the muscular coordination of a baby that just started walking. Of course, I know how to stand on two feet, even in the chains the woman wants to bind my hands and feet with; I would have, but my limbs have become a puppet to my unraveled mind. its like I’m seeing the prison for the first time, never mind that I’ve been in jail for the last eight months, five days, nine hours, thirty something minutes. Time loses meaning here anyway, with every single day you learn to stop living your life by the clock, because somehow you are detached from this place, from the boring monotony that is to become your life for the next decade. This place robs you of your past and future, you are only left with now. A free woman remembers the way her child gazed back at her after its first sight into this world in the past and thinks of its future and the present task of motherhood does not seem so bleak anymore. Me, I live for the present, for moments money can not buy, moments like these when beauty comes.
‘Put your hands forward Ronke!’ the warden bellows.
I believe there is something in every woman that resists captivity, that fights being owned…contained. It’s the feeling that keeps your dignity intact after being abused by your husband for five years. It’s the feeling that keeps your breasts high, even though other women laugh at you, that you married the devil. It’s the feeling that keeps me untouched by the prison. I may have been its occupant for months now, but I do not live in it, not in my mind anyway, because somehow, I have not accepted I am a criminal, that I belong here.
“Ronke, you no wan my beef this morning oh!”
Rage starts building up in me, I can feel it, every cell in my body turning black, permitting the flow of some malevolent thing through my veins into my chest, so that it threatens to burst out of the confines of my ribcage. Then I remember the reason why I am here and I become calm. This is worth it. I tell myself. Every pain I go through is worth it.
So submissively, I stretch out my hands and let the cuffs snap on them. She bends down to cuff my legs and for a moment I shiver, I had heard slivers of things that happen in female prisons during my suburban house-wife days. Thankfully, the woman straightens up and begins to lead me through the labyrinth of corridors. I could never escape this place even if I wanted. I tread blindly along the corridors, oblivious to the catcalls and whistles from other cells.
‘The visitor’s area is the way.’ The female warden says, using her thick callused palm to steer me into a hallway. Staggering to look sideways at her huge frame, I wonder if there is anything female about her. Had she lost the woman in her due to the nature of her job? Did she have a man somewhere in Lagos who longed for the woman he fell in love with a long time ago? I am so lost in my wondering state of mind that I don’t realize when I walk into the visitor’s room.
Then I see her.
And she sees me…
My heart heaves with pain, the low ceiling presses down on me like a thousand men, choking the air out of me, at the sight of her. She is all that is pure and light in my world. Yet I wonder what she sees when she looks at me now. A mad woman? The witch that took her father away?
‘Mummy!’ she screams, struggling with her guardian’s grip. ‘I want mummy!’
The woman looks at my eyes for a brief moment before letting my little butterfly go from her arms.
I crash to my knees and my baby’s pair of arms wrings my neck in a fierce hug. I am unprepared for the wave of child-smell which hits me, intoxicating me. After all this time. God, I missed this smell.
I almost join her in tears; I guess it’s a womanly thing to do. But I stopped being a woman the day I killed her father, It took the woman out of me. Now I’m this empty carcass this bare silhouette of the joyous beautiful person I used to be.
But how could I let the monster I had married touch her? Yes I had let him abuse me, I had let him starve us but touch her? He would have to kill me first. The court says I’m guilty of first degree murder, fine. I will be a serial killer if necessary. I know what you’re saying, no I am not insane. An insane person will kill someone without considering the consequences. I considered what people will say before I did what I had to do, I weighed the options, measured the other possibilities. Would the justice the court give my husband for defiling our three year old daughter be enough? Would I manage watching my daughter grow into a damaged woman? No! I will be a killer first before I let the pervert touch my little butterfly.
I cannot dwell in the past; there will be 364 cold lonely nights for that. Now, I must be a mother. Yes, I may not be a woman anymore, but I am still a mother. My people say once breasts become laden with milk, they never cease to flow. So I do a mental run down of questions that mothers ask their daughters, of questions my mother asked me.
‘How is school?’
‘Hope you’re eating well?’
‘How are they treating you?’
‘Did you do your assignment?’
‘I hope you still recite Our Lord’s Prayer.’
‘Is the pant too small?’
‘Stop chewing chewing-gum, shei you know it will spoil your teeth?’
Yes I must enjoy every single second of her visit, for beauty comes only once a year.