‘The Woman; or Euryale’ was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
They said no girl was a woman until she had been bitten by Big Mud, and perhaps, once, that had been true. But by the time concrete had been thickly smeared between our doorsteps and telecom wires strung up like mournful festoons, no auntie or cousin I knew insisted on concealing her forearm with that long and iridescent pillar of bangles. Young brides were still expected to sport a set of white and blue bracelets on the occasion in order to conjure the natural association between their ascension and the sun traversing the morning sky. But such accessories were purely aesthetic. These were not the gauntlets our foremothers wore, beads of sweat dripping down their elbows as they skinned, raked, sorted, bathed, waded deep into the marshlands in fits of senility. The younger generation of women were marked with baser signifiers: nibbled necks, swollen bellies and the fragrance of yeast when they squatted to urinate. And yet, those markers of maturity had originated in the houses of their husbands and uncles, not, as they had for the generations before, from that distant and ragged outcrop beyond the marshes. Where she resided.
And it seemed as far as the two sisters were concerned, the elder’s transition into womanhood was well underway notwithstanding the lack of any outside intervention. She was already in the habit of cajoling her younger sister out into the marshes, begging and pleading until the little one reluctantly acquiesced. And so the two would drag their dirty feet a few miles to the edge of that vast and muddy plain, dotted with saltwater pools and labyrinthine roots. The elder would strip from the waist down and make a show of her rags plopping out from her between her legs, just so she might have the excuse to scoop them up and deliver them again unto the water, wringing out fistfuls of blood and roaring to anyone in earshot that this was further proof of the immense fecundity of her womb. As if she were not the same little girl who had, not so long ago, cried herself to sleep, her mother’s soothing palm rubbing circles on her lower back while we listened sympathetically through adjoining walls.
The little one—whom we had always called Apo—bore all of this like a martyr. After all, it was well known that this taunting was merely the product of the elder sister’s envy, for although her pubis might be hairless, Apo was smarter, nimbler, faster—one of the few accomplished trap fishers remaining in our generation. Hers were fingers which had still been trained on the labours of fish scale and knotted twine, not the microscopic indents and idiosyncrasies of the latest flip phone. It was well known too that, despite this divide in interest and age, both sisters were well past the point where a growth spurt and general blooming was anticipated. And it was true too that the older sister’s arrival at pubescence had been met with blatant jubilation by our elders, whose gaze now flitted uneasily between the younger sister and the house on that forlorn hill.
My suspicion is that it may have been a kind of subconscious allergy on the little one’s part. She had no particular incentive to embark on this mystical odyssey called womanhood. She saw only the loss of her agility, the crippling diarrhoea that would be keep her immobile, the breasts that would obstruct her from flattening herself against a tree trunk and disappearing in its shade, the distraction a swelling clitoris might pose to her relentless pursuit of cuttlefish and sardines. So, while her sister began to prowl for phallic prey, the little one stayed at home cleaning her kill and doodling in her exercise books, safe in the penumbra of her childhood.
Her mother could not share her daughter’s sunny obliviousness. A proud woman, she could not shut her eyes and ears to the way the other women’s voices lowered as they passed by the house, the furtive looks cast over this child with her flat chest and corpulent cheeks. She was not so young a mother as to have forgotten the rites of days gone past—that fraught journey through the marshes to the menacing hut on that lonely ridge. The internet was no help either, prescribing as it did only a list of increasingly irrelevant causes to be eliminated: diabetes, asthma, cystic fibrosis. For a time, she tried surreptitiously to curtail Apo’s athleticism, suggesting she take the motorcycle rather than walking to school, insisting she limit her fishing trips because of the summer heat. But when this proved fruitless, she began to slip with an almost treacherous ease back towards the older wisdoms of the grandmothers and aunties who began to just drop by the house in escalating numbers and just happened to recall certain local remedies, natural and unnatural alike. And so it was that Apo was woken blearily in the dead of one night, propped up on the edge of her bed like a drooping sackcloth and informed that it was time to go down to the house of Big Mud.
This is how much I knew at the time: we called her ‘Big’ because that was what she was—big legs, big arms, a big impressive stomach that, people whispered, coiled out of her like that of a malnourished child or a body packed tight with triplets. I knew too that no one was exactly sure why we called her ‘Mud’, but many had guessed it was because of the expansive and impenetrable marshes that guarded her dominion like ferocious sea serpents at the edges of a mouldering map. Some people said that she had lived on the island for decades; others, centuries. From the tallest trees on our edge of the swamp, you could just make out a broken-down shed with a tin roof and a weather-beaten sofa on the front porch, the whole property enclosed in the thinnest coronet of chicken wire. This, as far as anyone could tell, was purely ornamental. No one ever dared set foot anywhere near that hill.
This is what I later learnt. It had been the height of the rainy season, and the water must have been relentless. But little Apo never once protested or pleaded, never once turned back to squint at her mother’s silhouette or wasted her breath crying out into the unsympathetic brine. Instead, she valiantly waded through the long moonlit night until she had emerged, triumphant, at the base of Big Mud’s promontory. And yet, it is equally plausible that this was all a fiction from the guilty mother, who protested in the aftermath to anyone who would listen that she had watched and waited until she was confident that she had seen the tiny figure emerge onto solid land; that she had been ready at a moment’s notice to swim out after her baby and carry her home. But it is also undeniable that when the dawn came, we had found the same mother gently drifting in the shallows, hair spilling out like a nest of earthworms, bare feet tangled up in ancient moorings, dreaming as soundly as the child that she had sent out in that wasteland.
Three days later, Apo returned. The change was dramatic. This was no natural pubescence, nor could it be explained away by any mortal intervention. Apo, who had left a scrawny little child, had come back a woman. She had grown nearly a whole head taller and ballooned across her chest and hips. Her hair, which had hung in a flat bob, now ensnared her shoulders in a thick shroud; her lips, once mole-rat pink, now pouted brown; her areola, once meek, now poked thick through her clothing like hooked beaks. Her lashes were so long that she struggled to keep them out of her eyes, and her menstruation was so pungent that when she left any room the smell of it lingered there for a fortnight. She was no longer spotted running or climbing or trap-fishing, as her newly accumulated weight resulted in an uncontrollable wobble whenever she walked. And yet, the strangest transformation of all was along the strip of her left forearm between her wrist and her elbow. It was there that the skin, previously so guileless and smooth, was now pockmarked with dozens and dozens of pairs of tiny red welts. Almost, we whispered, like little bite marks.
At first, we only noticed the physical changes. After all, it had only been a few weeks after her return, when only the lucky few had glimpsed her at a corner store or street crossing, that Apo had abruptly been withdrawn from our class and sent to live with her father in a larger city on the mainland—one with a better high school, or so we were told. And I have no interest in recounting the rumours spread by her sister surrounding the circumstances of her departure or the stories that began to trickle back to us from our older cousins and aunties, many of which I suspect were the result of exaggeration and prejudice. All I can say for certain is that when Apo returned to the town a year later, having failed to complete the eleventh grade, she was unrecognizable. She had always been quiet, but now she barely spoke, and at the few gatherings she attended, she would remain apart from the group, her gaze hollow and her free hand preoccupied with rubbing away dead skin from her lips or slipping in and out of her mouth to pick at her teeth. At first, it was disturbing enough to witness her sitting aimlessly on the porch of her mother’s house day in and day out, staring out in the direction of the marsh and responding with a blank stare to any of our salutations or jeers. But what was more puzzling still was the perpetual confinement of her left hand which, whenever she appeared in public, was always tethered with a thick cable to a belt looped through the waistband of her jeans or shorts.
The answer to this conundrum finally came from a notorious pervert among our ranks, a high school dropout whose house was clustered around the same courtyard. From the window of his upstairs toilet, he could report that the issue was one we had long since suspected: that of uncontrollable fits of masturbation. This explanation was confirmed by an older cousin, who reported a scandalous incident at the night market where Apo had broken free from her constraints while her mother was haggling for banana leaf. The accounts were identical. All of a sudden, Apo’s body seized up in a kind of paralysis; then, as though directed by an invisible presence, her pockmarked left arm rose from her side and began to invert at the elbow, directing her shaking hand swiftly towards her crotch. And the thing that was most bizarre, the spectators agreed, was the look on her face even as she brought herself to climax: a look that could only be described as one of abject terror.
Imagine the mother’s surprise, therefore, when this boy-next-door arrived at her doorstep one evening in a dress shirt and shoes and announced his interest in marrying her daughter. His parents, horrified, expelled him from their house, but within a couple of months, he had established himself with a shoebox apartment and a construction job on a neighbouring island. The wedding was an intimate ceremony (if you took the word of the mother) or a sloppy hastily assembled affair (if you took the word of the furious and still unmarried elder sister). Those of us fortunate enough to attend watched on as the dead-eyed young bride, scarred arm almost obscured by the chain of white and blue bangles, knelt next to the predatory young male who could barely keep his eyes off her limp body, even as he repeated the archaic prayers and anointed her forehead with his blistered fingertips. That evening, we watched as they drifted off into the sunset on a fishing trawler, his wave ebullient and hers tremulous. And her face. As long as I live, I will never forget it.
Months passed. Then years. We heard little of Apo, but we would still occasionally spot her hulking form wobbling in and out of her mother’s house, hand tethered to her waistband. Locals on the neighbouring island reported that her womb was prolific and that in the three years following her marriage, she had borne 14 children. Rumours occasionally circulated of incidents of public indecency and intermittent hospitalizations. Eventually, talk of Apo began to pass into the realm of local history, then legend. It was at this time that I turned 15, with my pubis still as hairless and my cervix still as dry as the northern deserts.
When my mother suggested it, my reaction was desultory, then violent. But as each of my school friends began, one by one, to flee from our classrooms with brown stains taunting me from the backs of their skirts; and as they began, one by one, to be sold off to the market of preening and beer-bellied local boys; and as each began, until none remained, to appear on the backs of their husbands’ motorcycles carrying plastic bags full of haphazard suppers for tiny hungry mouths, I found that my resolve began to waver.
On summer breaks from the university, I would climb up the tallest tree at the edge of the swamp and squint at the distant rock. Sometimes, I thought I could almost make out the outline of a shadowy figure, climbing over the chicken wire or reclining on a weather‑beaten sofa. I graduated with a teaching degree and was unable to find work. The women in the village began to whisper when I passed them in the streets. I surveyed my naked body in the mirror and found it wanting. And so, one balmy evening, I swam out to the house of Big Mud.
I knew that the fastest route from the village to the promontory was across a stretch of sea which formed a partial sand strip at low tide, and I picked a night when the ocean was stoic and calm. The water around me was dark and cold but never so deep that my toes could not reach the silt below. I waded for the most part and took breaks by flopping onto my back and circling my arms behind my head like a paddle steamer. The only light bearing down upon me was a hazy yellow moon. As I swam further, the inlet became thick with seaweed, and when I let my legs sink to the bottom, itwould tangle around my legs cloyingly, pulling me back towards the shore. My t-shirt and shorts were saturated with the sea and had begun to feel heavy and intractable. I swam on. The distant sound of sea birds signalled that dawn was imminent, but the sky above was still purple and grey and flecked with the corpses of dim stars. My eyes began to droop with sleepiness, and my yawns were punished by involuntary mouthfuls of the gently foaming brine. Still, I swam on.
At the base of the rock, the sea gave way to a muddy marshland, cluttered with an assortment of overturned garbage cans, blue plastic pipes and hollowed out shells of broken refrigerators with their doors adrift. Gradually, this marshland rose up into a small hill, framed on all sides by jagged silhouettes. The mud came almost up to my ankles, but as I struggled closer through the maze of litter, the house on the promontory began to come into focus. To the east, a makeshift coop was hemmed in by haphazard chicken wire, dotted with a dozen or so sleeping chickens. To the west, the thick weeds gave way to a clearing boasting a broken-down satellite antenna and the ruins of an ancient fishing trap. Crammed in between was the single-storey house, its windows boarded up, clad by tin walls and encircled by a patchwork wooden porch. There, on the decomposing sofa, before an ancient television, a hulking figure lay in repose.
I quietly hoisted myself out of the water and began to clamber up over the rocks and onto the dirt path towards the hut. The hill was punctuated by rogue pieces of driftwood and nails, and I tiptoed carefully to avoid being pricked. My clothes were soaked, and with every step I left a trail of water behind me, like an octopus slinking to the shore. My eyes began to smart from sleep deprivation and the smell wafting from the house, a pungent combination of stale alcohol and human waste. My heart began to beat, hard and fast, so hard that I could hear the blood pulsing between my ears. Reverently, diligently, as though ascending the steps to an ancient temple, I made my way up to the porch of the house.
The figure on the couch before me was gargantuan and black as pitch under the tin awning. I hovered for a moment, paralyzed by uncertainty. All around me, the sea birds had descended into frantic siren calls, signalling the arrival of the dawn. In the distance, the sun had begun to kiss the horizon. A red smear seeped across the sky.
Suddenly, as though sensing my presence, the figure began to stir. First, an arm emerged from the mass, jingling with its own pillar of white and blue bangles. Then, a dirty plastic slipper encircling a swollen brown foot. Soon, the whole body began to coil and twist until it had assumed an upright posture. And there she was—Big Mud, mouth purple and eyes yellow. She might have been anywhere from 40 to 400. She gestured for me to come closer.
I walked towards the edge of the sofa and knelt on the cracked and rotting floorboards. With bowed head, I expressed my plea, not with speech but with my body. Slowly, Big Mud extended a swollen hand down towards the waistband of her broad grey sweatpants and began to loosen the knotted cord which kept them aloft. Reaching her tobacco-stained fingers into her pants, she pulled out the waistband and gestured with her free hand for me to come closer. To come closer. Then, to reach inside. My vision began to blur. Palms sweating, I outstretched my left hand and slipped it underneath the fabric.
The last thing I saw, below the roiling folds of her belly, emerging from the depths of her pubis, was the writhing mass of tiny green heads and black slitted eyes, fangs bared and forked tongues flicking.
They found me on the shoreline several days later, my hair flowing down to my ankles and my left arm covered in tiny punctures. From the mirror across from the bed to which I am confined, I can see that my breasts have rounded and the patch between my legs has begun to sprout. My mind is becoming muddled with visions of foreign bodies and strange lusts. My left hand has begun to jerk of its own accord. No matter. My mother weeps proudly, and my cousins pray at the foot of my bed and scrub my arms and legs with scented water. Tomorrow, the kiln will begin to fire the white and blue bangles for my wedding. I have fulfilled my purpose. I am anointed.
I have become a woman.
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