The Cellar(4)By: Minette Walters
Her worst terrors came during the night. She could believe in herself in daylight, but alone in the pitch-blackness of the cellar she doubted her very existence. However hard she strained to see the walls and the floor, even her hand before her face, there was only darkness. And the darkness was more alive than she was.
Only pain told her she was real. When she touched the scars between her thighs where part of her had been cut away by a witch, her eyes shed tears of anguish. It will make you pure, the woman had said as Yetunde held her down and the knife sliced through those parts that were private to little Muna.
The word meant nothing to Muna for she couldn’t see that the agony she suffered each time Ebuka ripped new tears in her misshapen hole made her pure. She didn’t know why he did it and shook with dread each time the cellar door opened and his torch shone down the steps. She never saw his face. He became as invisible as she was once the light was quenched and he clamped his hand across her mouth to stifle her whimpers. She could only tell it was Ebuka from his smell and his pig-like grunts.
Perhaps purity came from the searing pain of passing water or the fear she felt of the mysterious blood that had begun to leak from her once a month. Now Ebuka only visited her when she bled as if what leaked from him could be cleansed by what leaked from Muna.
Yetunde asked her often if she had begun to bleed between her legs but she always said no. She felt it was a secret she should keep though she didn’t know why. She had little knowledge of anything except cooking and cleaning, and she’d learned those skills through being beaten with a rod when she made a mistake. There was so much that was unexplained in her life. Who she was. Where she had come from. How old she was. What place she was in and how she had got there.
She remembered climbing into a silver car outside the schoolyard gates and being driven through streets teeming with people and markets, and she remembered Aunt Yetunde smiling as she popped a coconut sweet between her lips. After that, Muna’s memories were confused and random. She could recall the witch with the knife because the pain had caused her to wake and cry out, but most of the time she thought she’d been asleep.
Certain images kept recurring in her mind. Yetunde pushing coconut sweets between her lips. The feel of a man’s beard against her cheek as he carried her in his arms through a large hall. The sound of Yetunde saying the child was his daughter. The roar of engines. People sitting in rows. A sense of lifting from the ground. Being carried through another hall. Rain on her face. Waking here in the darkness of this cellar and never tasting coconut again.
Muna thought the bearded man must have been Ebuka, but she had no explanation for why he had once pretended to be her father. She guessed the other memories were about a journey. The place she had left had been full of sunshine and colour but the only brightness here was in the greenness of the grass and the leaves on the trees. She wished she had made a mark each time they turned to golden brown for it meant another year had passed, but her child’s mind had been too intent on counting each hour of the day to think about the future.
Through the bedroom windows upstairs, she could see over the high brick wall that surrounded the house. Away in the distance were tall buildings that reached towards the sky, but close to were houses like this one, hidden behind walls and obscured by trees. She saw more through the metal gates at the end of the short driveway when she was dusting the downstairs rooms than she ever saw upstairs. People walking. People in cars. It’s how she knew she was in a world of whites. She came to recognise those who passed the gates each day but they never glanced in Muna’s direction.
If they had she’d have jumped behind the curtains out of fear. She wasn’t allowed to raise her eyes to anyone. She whispered words at night to remind herself she had a voice, but her dread of being heard was terrible. Yetunde had said Muna had demons inside her when she begged to go back to the schoolyard she knew, and had poured burning oil on the child’s bare foot to teach her that demons spoke words of ingratitude.
Are you not happy to serve your aunt? Yetunde had asked. Yes, Princess, Muna had answered.
Muna was very afraid the white in trousers could see through her skull and into her brain. She could feel the sharpness of the clever blue eyes boring into her head. Had her ears told her that Muna had used the same phrases twice? A knot of sickening fear tightened in Muna’s belly. Yetunde would wield the rod with even more cruelty if she could blame little Muna for the police not believing her.