BALM by Peace Ufedojo Haruna | Shortlist | Parousia Christmas Short Story Prize 2022 | PAROUSIA

It has been eight months since I had an abortion. Today, I sat on the third pew of the second row. The pastor climbed the altar with his flowing buba. He brought the mic to his lips and asked; “What’s eating you up?” My chest tightened. It wasn’t the first time since the incident that I’d listened to pastors talk about sin. About evil women who would kill off the innocent life in them. I’d scoff and shake my head. The church always preached against abortion but shamed single mothers who made the hard decision to keep a child.

If I had told them that I was pregnant, it would have been me who’d bear the shame. Not brother Wale who pinned me to the toilet wall during March’s prayer vigil.  I would’ve been the sinner. Since I never wear skimpy skirts, the women fellowship would have looked at my brightly coloured lipstick and winged eyeliner to call me a  Jezebel who forced a firebrand brother into sin. Sometimes I gaze into space and wonder how my life would be if I hadn’t felt pressed that night. Maybe if I hadn’t gone to the toilet, there wouldn’t be a vampire in my belly right now.

“Focus on the vegetables.” My mother says, jolting me from my thoughts. 

I grunt and stare at the diced carrots lying on the chopping board. 

“Tomorrow is Christmas, we’ll be having many guests. Hurry up!” My mother urges. 

“Okay, ma.”

Every year’s Christmas feels like the same circle. More work, food, and play. But this Christmas is different. I plug in my earphones and listen to Holy Night. My mother hates it when we use phones in the kitchen, but at this point, I don’t care. I just want to get my mind off what I heard earlier in church. I grab a knife and begin to chop. 

Every year, I used to go and play in the park with my friends. When we grew out of visiting elderly couples’ homes, we’d spend the 26th on a boat. The cool feel of water between my fingers is still vivid. I can still feel the waves coursing through the belly of the river. All of my friends are undergraduates now. Some are currently abroad while some haven’t returned for the Christmas holiday. I guess they’ve found more fun friends.

It took some time before I could gain admission into the university. I wanted to be a pharmacist, but each year, my application was turned down till this year. I remember my prayer point vividly; Dear God if you help me gain admission this year. I’ll dedicate my whole being to you. I’ll keep myself sexually pure till marriage.

I don’t know why that was the promise that came to my mind. Perhaps, it’s because I messed up in that area before I gave my life to Christ. When I was sixteen, I’d sneak to the school toilet with my secondary school boyfriend and he’d slide one of his fingers into me after a few kisses. I didn’t know it was bad. Since he wasn’t doing it with his private part, I thought I wasn’t disobeying my parents. While my parents spent most of their days carrying out their roles as church elders, I battled puberty alone, with urges and feelings I couldn’t understand. God must have delayed my admission to a university on purpose because during the time I spent at home, I got to know Him better. I read the Bible often and spent more time praying. 

Now, my Bible sits on a shelf collecting dust. I know I’ve let God down. 

My little brother dashes into the kitchen like something is chasing him. I take off my earphones and face him.

“Mummy, we have some visitors.” He says. His lips are wet and tainted orange from drinking too many soft drinks. I pity his liver.

“Who?” My mother asks, stirring the pot of tomato stew. 

“Aunty Joy–” my face lights up, “Uncle Wale and another aunty.” Bile rises in my throat and almost obstructs my airway. 

“Ahn ahn. And today isn’t Christmas.” My mother says, smiling. “Oya, Sanna, take some chicken and chin chin to the visitors”

My hands tremble as I tighten my grip on the knife. “Mummy, I’m busy. Let Victor do it.”

“I saw him before I told you to do it.” She retorts. 

There’s no point arguing with my mother. Besides, what’s the worst that could happen? He can’t harm me in the presence of my parents. I take some drinks from the fridge and arrange chicken and chin chin in three plates whilst trying to pacify my throbbing heart. My head feels light. I wish I could disappear. 

I step into the sitting room and all eyes turn towards me with bright smiles. A young woman, probably in her mid-twenties sits beside brother Wale. There are two bottles of grape juice and a basket of fruits before them. I greet them and begin to serve. I try to smile at Aunty Joy. She’s the one who inspired me to be a pharmacist. Every year, she’d travel to different countries for research and tell me about it. She owns houses and cars but she isn’t respected so much because she isn’t married. Thankfully, she’s now engaged. Maybe they’ll let her breathe well now. 

“Sit with me.” Aunty Joy says, tapping the space beside her. “How’s school?”

“I thank God, ma. School is fine.” I state, sitting beside her. 

“Our pharmacist!” Brother Wale hails. He and my father burst into laughter. I just want to curl in bed and cover myself with a blanket. 

“Daddy, this is my fiancée. Lara.” He says squeezing the hand of the young lady beside him. She flashes a smile at everyone as if she just received a precious award. 

“What a beautiful young lady! Welcome, my dear.” My father says. 

“Sir, our wedding is in January. We’d deeply appreciate it if you could be our chairman.” 

I stare at brother Wale and try to figure out the rubbish he just vomited. What guts! How can he ask my father for such after what he did to me?  

“Anything for you, Wale. I’m grateful the Lord has settled you. God will continue to use you to declare his kingdom  all over the world.” My father prays.

“Amen.” Brother Wale and his fiancée chorus. 

As I am about to leave, our eyes meet. Brother Wale winks at me and smirks. Heat flushes through my body and my heart rate accelerates. 

“Enough!” I scream.

 I grab Aunty Joy’s cup of juice and splash it on his face, leaving his white T-shirt stained.  Everything happens in a blur and I can’t hear anymore. I kick his fruit basket, leaving its content rolling on the floor. I feel arms grab me, I shake them off and lunge towards him.

“You rapist! In my father’s house? How dare you!” I yell grabbing his collar. A hand pulls me back, I spit on brother Wale’s face before my back collides with the floor.

“Hosanna!” My mother’s voice rings. I snap back to my senses and dash out of the house 

“Hosanna!” Aunty Joy’s voice shouts this time. How do I face them? What was I thinking? 

Before I can push the gate open, a force pulls me by the collar and drags me back. I land on the ground with my bottom, and pain sears through my back as I let out a groan. Between heavy breaths, I look up and see Aunty Joy staring back at me. I pull my knees to my chest and rock back and forth as tears begin to obstruct my vision. Aunty Joy wraps her hands around me and engulfs me in a hug. Her scent is sweet, like citrus and vanilla. I bury my head in her chest and take in her warmth.

“Let’s go to my house.” She utters, breaking the silence. 

I can’t go back inside and if I turn down her offer, I’ll sleep on the streets. I nod and she helps me get on my feet before leading me to her car. Immediately, I wear the seatbelt, my mother pounds her fists against the window. 

“Sister Joy, where are you taking her to? Bring her inside to explain the madness she just exhibited!”

Aunty Joy rolls down the window a little, “I’m taking her to my place, ma. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of her.”

“Ehn? Okay, I understand, but at least let her apologise to brother Wale before leaving.” My mother insists. 

My heart drops.

“Not now, ma. Do you want her to attack him again?”

My mother stomps her foot, “Hosanna, I’ll deal with you when you return to this house.”

“Then I won’t come back.” I seethed.

“What did you just say?” My mother asked.

“Ma, please open the gate.” Aunty Joy cuts in. 

My mother huffs and opens the gate. We drive out. I turn my head and look back till the house is out of sight.

                                                                   •••

Aunty Joy places a cup of water in my hands. I take a sip and stare back at her through glossed eyes. 

“Whatever happened is not your fault.” She finally says. 

“I know, but others won’t think that way,” I reply. My voice was hoarse from screaming. Aunty Joy sits beside me and rubs my hand. The image of that day flashes in my head and a sob breaks from my lips.

“I won’t ask you why you didn’t tell anyone. I can see why. Wale must have seen it too before doing that to you.”

“Maybe it’s my fault–”

“Hosanna! The rapist is the only one at fault. Whether you were naked or not, you didn’t deserve it.” 

My body feels heavy and the urge to throw up comes again. I take another sip of water to suppress it. The water clogs my throat and chokes me. I retch and spill undigested food on Aunty Joy’s pretty tiles. She scurries to the bathroom and brings a bucket and mopstick to clean up the mess. Guilt washes through me as I clutch my rumbling stomach and stare at her.

“You need to go to the hospital!”

“I’m fine, aunty. I’m just stressed and it’s telling on me. I’m really sorry.” I croak. 

“What are you apologising for? It’s fine, my love. Wait here, let me bring some medicine.”

Aunty Joy is so nice to me. I wonder if she’ll treat me the same if she finds out I’ve had an abortion. I look around the house and see that she has already started putting up her Christmas decorations. The curtains are decorated with Christmas lights and a small tree sits on her table with an angel doll on top. 

Decorating is one of my favourite parts of Christmas, but this year, I cannot do it. My mother has been whining about my newfound laziness since December 1st. Recently, even kneeling to pray during morning devotion has become painful. Aunty Joy returns and leads me to the bathroom. After rinsing my mouth, she prepares warm water for me to bathe. 

I sit in the bathtub and draw my knees to my chest. I’ve been here before. I remember scrubbing my skin with a hard sponge when we returned from that vigil. I felt dirty. I still do. 

After I finish washing up, I go to the sitting room. Aunty Joy set a plate of fruit salad before me. 

“I don’t have the appetite.”

“Eat, Sanna.” 

I pick up the plate and put a spoonful into my mouth. The taste bursts in my mouth. I close my eyes and savour it. In a few minutes, the plate becomes empty.

“Sanna, can you tell me more about what happened?”

The dreaded question has finally come. However, I’d rather tell her everything than tell someone else.

“He has been making comments about my body ever since I started developing. I didn’t think much about it, because my mother would say he was just teasing me. It wasn’t a joke, aunty. He raped me in the church’s toilet.”

Aunty Joy’s eyes are now glossy, she takes a deep breath and squeezes my hand. “It must have been hard for you to go through this alone.”

“It’s better as the church doesn’t know,” I say.

“Would you like to report the case?”

“It’s too late, aunty. There’s no evidence. No one would support me and at this point, I’m not sure God will help me out either.”

“Sanna, why do you say that?” She asks. 

I grip the hem of my dress and clear my throat as I try to hold back the tears threatening to spill. “Please don’t tell anyone.”

“I promise.” She says, holding up her pinky.

“I got pregnant. I noticed it when I went to school and it was my greatest fear after the incident. Being a mother would’ve destroyed my life. I would’ve had to drop out and my dreams of becoming a pharmacist would’ve died. And let’s not even talk about the church.”

“Hosanna, what did you do?” She asks, eyes widening.

“I flushed it out.” I blurt. 

Aunty Joy doesn’t say a word. She just hugs me. Silence descends. The only things I can hear are drops of tap water landing in the kitchen sink.

“I’ve felt disconnected from God since then. I can’t even pray and I feel so lonely.”

“Sanna–”

“I did wrong. God must be so angry at me.” I say.

She rubs my back and we pull away from each other. Aunty Joy looks into my eyes and says, “I’m sorry you had to face it on your own. I’m sorry I wasn’t observant.”

A drop of tear lands on my hand. When I look up, I see her crying. She hugs me once again. 

“Sanna, God isn’t angry at you. God didn’t come for the perfect people, he came for the broken. He was born just to die for you.” 

She strokes my hair and gazes at me once again.

“Look, he was beaten, bruised and killed. However, he rose to give us new life and our old life died with him. What you’ve gone through is terrible, no one deserves to go through it. But you should know that God isn’t blaming you. He didn’t come to judge but to save.” She says.

“But I can’t feel him anymore. I feel empty.”

“That’s because your guilt is raising a wall. When you’re surrendering all to him, you shouldn’t forget to leave your guilt and your past at his feet.”

“My sins are too great, aunty!” I cry.

“The greatest sin is the sin against the Holy Spirit. Do you think committing an abortion is worse than lying and stealing? Or do you think you’re worse than the man who did this to you?”

My body goes cold as her words sink into me. As  I think about it, I realise I’m the one who stopped reading my Bible and talking to God. Whenever the Holy Spirit would come, I’d block Him out because I felt filthy.

“Jesus loves you. I mean, his love is the reason for the season. It’s time for you to open up and let him heal you. His arms are spread wide to you. Don’t you remember how he left the ninety-nine to find one sheep?”

I nod. “I shouldn’t have shut God out. I shouldn’t have let guilt separate me from God.”

“Nothing can separate you from the love of God, Sanna. Nothing at all.” Aunty Joy stated.

I let out a sigh of relief and look up. “Thank you, Aunty.”

“What are you thanking me for? I should be thanking you for telling me all this. Now, I can get  Wale Arrested.”

“What!” I exclaim. “But there’s no evidence.”

“There are security cameras all over the church premises. With a good lawyer and the evidence we’ll get, he’ll face the law. I promise to get you justice.” 

I fall into her arms and almost choke her with a hug. “God bless you, aunty.”

“Amen, dear. I’ll go to your parents and explain everything to them. But you’ll stay here and spend Christmas with me.”

My heart skips a beat. “Aunty, please, don’t!”

“Don’t worry.” She assures. “Everything will go well by God’s grace. Remember, it isn’t your fault.”

“But I aborted–”

“What did I say about your old self being dead? As long as you surrender all to God, you are new. Let that guilt go and surrender all.”

A smile spreads across my lips as warmth travels through my chest.

“So, what do you want to do for Christmas?” She asks.

“Jesus.” I state, “I want to spend it with Him.”

Biography:

Peace Ufedojo Haruna is a creative writer. Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in Blue River Review, Upwrite Magazine, Brittle Paper, Dreich Magazine, Ethel Zine and The Shallow Tales Review amongst others. She writes from Abuja, Nigeria. Find her on Instagram: @peaceharuna9

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