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Breaking free
By Andrew Dakalira

He did not notice the blood at first. The boy felt the pain but he did not know that the blow had drawn blood. That is, until he saw the tiny scarlet drops on the front of his white shirt.

For a moment he just stood there, stunned, not believing the fact that someone had actually hit him. The girl in front of him just stared back, apparently filled with glee as the boy started shedding involuntary tears. They both seemed oblivious to the crowd of students now gathered around them.

The girl, ten years old, looked thrilled. She did not care that the boy was older than her. She knew that he would easily beat her up but she did not care about that, either. He had to pay for what he had done. And if it meant fighting with him, so be it.

“What is going on here?” A short, attractive middle-aged woman had pushed through the crowd of children. She did not even need to ask. “Fighting right outside my class? Explain yourselves!”
The girl said nothing, still fuming. The boy, shamefaced because he had shed tears after being punched by a girl, did not wish to further humiliate himself by admitting to such. He too stayed quiet, his glare not leaving the girl.

“He touched the girl’s breasts and slapped her buttocks!” One of the spectators cried out. A few giggles escaped tiny mouths, silenced only by the teacher’s glare.
“Is that true?” Neither troublemaker seemed to have heard the teacher. “Alright, you two. Come with me to the headteacher’s office. Now!”  The teacher’s command made the boy flinch but the girl simply turned and started towards the headteacher’s office. Something else worried her, though; she might be forced to call her parents.
*
The girl walked slowly home, kicking out at the sand before her. The knuckles on her right hand hurt from where she had hit the boy. Her black school shoes and black skirt were caked with dust. Mom would be furious. Mom would be furious because she had been fighting. Mom would have to take some time off work to visit the headmaster and that would make her mad.

Dad would not be mad, though. Dad would be secretly happy that her daughter had given a boy a knuckle sandwich. That’s what dad called them. But dad would not go see the headteacher. He would let mom do that. Dad hardly went anywhere these days.

The girl walked on, only stopping at a football playground in her neighbourhood, hoping that her little brother was there. He was, running around the sand-filled football pitch, with boys his age. She was happy. Dad would be alone at home which was good.
Her little brother was not in school yet so he did not know what she had done and he did not know what she planned to do. He did not know why his sister had punched the boy in school. He did not know about the talk.
“Girls, you have control of your destiny and your body,” the pretty lady who had given the talk had said. “You have to know what appropriate and inappropriate behaviour by boys or men is. You should know what sexual abuse is.”
Every girl had paid attention. “Sometimes the people we love and trust may hurt us,” the lady continued. “As girls, we need to know exactly the type of behaviour displayed by boys as well as men which may be dangerous. Also, we should not be scared to report such dangerous behaviour when it happens.”
********************
“Hey, are you deaf? Throw us the ball!”
She lurched out of her reminiscence, looking around. A football was a few inches in front of her. She kicked it with such force that the boy who had spoken to her ducked out of the way. The ball was instead chested down by her brother, who looked at her and waved. She waved back and was quickly on her way again.
The lady who had given the talk was quite sophisticated. The girl had learnt the word from her teacher. Sophisticated. That was a proper word for the lady. Tall, dressed in a smart black suit. The girl had liked the short black skirt which had cut right above the knees. She had liked the lady’s glasses too. It made her look smarter than she already was.
“The world is not a safe place, especially for little girls,” the lady had said. “You need to be careful. Tell me, what makes you uncomfortable when done by a boy to you? It does not have to be just a boy from your class. A friend, a relative, any man.”
Several hands had shot up but the girl had kept hers down. She already knew what made her uncomfortable; she had experienced it. Some boys wanted to touch the nubs that were her developing breasts. A few of them wanted more. And, a few uncles had sat her in their laps, sometimes inappropriately touching her.
The scorching sun shone on her jet-black natural hair. Beads of sweat formed tiny rivulets on her face, dribbling off her chin and onto her navy blue blouse. The girl paid no mind. Her mind had wandered off as she walked, wandered towards Uncle Dave.
Uncle Dave had been nice. She was one of mom and dad’s good friends. He used to bring sweets for the girl and her brother whenever he came to visit. But Uncle Dave had also been bad. Sometimes he had sat her across his lap, lifting up her skirt just a little. Uncle Dave liked that. He had also liked calling her his wife. The little girl had not liked any of that at all.
Uncle Dave was gone now. Dad had sent him away one day. He had told Uncle Dave never to set foot in their house again. The girl did not know why. She had not told dad that Uncle Dave made her uncomfortable; she had only told mom. Mom had told the girl to keep quiet.
“Do not say anything bad about your uncle,” she had hissed. “You are still a child and know nothing.” She had then hurriedly put on her coat. “I am going to be late. Come, I will walk you to school.”
The girl had not said anything else about Uncle Dave after that, but dad had driven him away anyway. Two years had passed. She had tried not to think about him until now.
“Sexual abuse is real,” the sophisticated lady had said. “Sometimes it happens with people that are close to you; cousins, uncles, grandfathers, even fathers. If they touch you or hug you in any way that makes you feel uncomfortable, then make it clear that you are indeed uncomfortable.” The lady then looked around the school hall. “If it does not stop, then report them to the most responsible adult. It can be a relative or school authorities. You can even tell me. I will give you my number. Call me anytime.”
Responsible adult. That was what the sophisticated lady had said. The little girl had pondered over that. She had told mom, who had only slapped her and told her never to open her stinking mouth about such rubbish again. Then she had told her teacher, who had been concerned, but had not said much. The girl had told her very bad things, and they were not about Uncle Dave.
********************
The street where the girl lived was lined with tall Gmelina trees. Theirs was the third house on the left-hand side of the dirt road. It had a low-cut reed fence with an old steel gate. The girl paused just before her hand touched metal.
It had hurt the first time he did it. The girl was nine and mom had not come back from work. Her little brother was out playing. She had cried out, but he had clasped her mouth shut with his big left hand. His breath smelt strange, like Methylated Spirits. She had been scared afterwards. There had been lots of blood. She told him that he had hurt her. But dad only sat her in his lap and said, “It always hurts the first time, honey.”
But it had hurt the second and the third time too, and afterwards. It always hurt. Dad did not seem to care. He came at her when she was all alone, his breath smelling funny, his face twisted. Sometimes his breath did not smell strange at all. He even looked normal.
The girl swung the gate open and was greeted with silence. She knew dad was home. He rarely went anywhere. Mom said he had been fired three years ago. The girl had not known what that meant back then but now she did. Mom was not at home. She was at work. Mom had been furious at the girl when she had narrated the things that dad did to her.
“First it was your uncle Dave, now it is your father! Who is teaching you to tell such lies? I will not have such talk in my house, you little witch! Liar!”
Mom only became more furious when the little girl had cried. She had sent the girl to her room, telling her to stop lying. During the night, however, the girl heard mom and dad arguing in their bedroom. She had gone to the living room, finding mom with a pillow and a blanket on the sofa. “Go back to bed,” mom had told her.
********************
The front door was open.
“Dad?”
He was in the living room, sprawled on the sofa in front of the television. A half-full bottle of clear liquid was on the floor beside him. The girl knew what the bottle contained. She knew it was what changed dad’s breath. She left dad alone, snoring on the sofa, walked past the telephone and into the kitchen. She did not go straight to her room. The girl hated her bedroom now. It reminded her of dad; it reminded her of the things he did to her. Some of her dolls had reminded her of dad too. And some of her dresses smelled like him. She had cut up the dresses into little pieces and dismembered her dolls.
The sophisticated lady had talked to the girls at school the week before. The girl had told her teacher about dad three days afterwards. Not only had dad touched her, but he had also hurt her down there. The teacher had been understanding and a little shocked. The girl had been hopeful, until the teacher called mom from work.
Dad had cooked again. He was very good at cooking. The girl looked at the food warmer containing Nsima and the pot of beef stew. Dad had managed to cook before passing out on the sofa. The girl was hungry.
The beating she had received from mom two days before still stung. Mom had not raised a hand to her while talking with the teacher at school but she had certainly done that and more after they got home. Even dad, the guilty one, had joined in. The girl had disgraced the house, her parents, they said. She should not have approached the teacher with such filthy stories, such lies.
Lies were only being told by dad, the girl knew that. Mom believed the lies. The sophisticated lady had been clear; what dad was doing was evil. Men who touched little girls, men who hurt little girls were evil. They deserved to be punished. The boy from school was evil and she had hit him, punished him for touching her. Dad was also evil. He too had to be punished.
“Dad, I am back from school.”
Dad continued snoring, the girl standing in front of him, hands behind her back. She silently looked at her father. Dad was evil. He had to be punished.
The girl moved a few steps closer to dad, slowly producing the large kitchen knife hidden behind her back.
********************
She was sitting on the veranda, just outside the front door, when the sophisticated lady showed up with the police. The girl did not move. She had not taken off her school uniform and the kitchen knife was still in her hand.
 “Is he in there? Is he still asleep?” The sophisticated lady had now knelt in front of the girl. The two policemen accompanying her said nothing. They walked straight into the house.
The girl, ten years old, nodded.
“Do not worry. You are safe now,” the sophisticated lady said. Her voice was soothing. “You are a brave girl. Calling me was the right thing to do. Now, give me the knife, okay?”
The girl silently handed over the knife, which was without bloodstains. She stared at the sophisticated lady, eyes full of hope. Inside the house, there was a low thud. Dad had fallen off the sofa. He was awake.

Andrew Charles Dakalira started writing while in his teens. His stories have been published by the Africa Book Club website. He is also set to appear in the second volume of AfroSF, an anthology of
African science fiction novellas. He lives in Lilongwe, Malawi
.

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