She sits there again today; on one of the steps of the pedestrian bridge, as she has done for the past two weeks I started coming here. It’s exactly the same spot she sits as though she has been told sitting on that spot would make life change its countenance from the wicked frown she has always known, to at least a smile, not a laugh. She wasn’t asking too much.
Everyday, she succeeds in distracting me in particular, maybe because I allow myself to pay some attention to her or something. As I jog up and down the steps, she would look keenly and choke a smile or maybe a grin and quickly transforms it into a frown with many underlying meanings and interpretations.
Today is different. From the rising of the sun, I can deduce today is different. Unlike it, it rose shyly and sluggishly from behind the dim clouds of the East. I set out quickly ignoring the seeming abnormaly of the day. As I approach the bridge from where I have packed, I dash my right foot against a half buried stone. I wonder how far the abnormaly can go. Today seems to be winter's peak day. Cold and sparse air greets everyone who dares the season by taking early morning walks or exercises like us. I was losing my shape quickly, so I advised myself to start this.
Every one passer-by enfolds in a thick long coat like Shakespearean actors but she sits there, curled over her knees with a half yard wrapper loosely thrown around her shoulders. Dry skin, shriveled and flaked over the years...months...weeks or days, maybe. Her bloated flaking lips give a conspicuous vertical crooked cut smeared with blood. The lips shake like someone whispering in strange tongues.
As I pass by her, she raises up her head and tries to force a familiar smile but retreats suddenly as the cracked lips stop her. Her gaze penetrates me like a spear and my heart skips by reason of what I can’t easily fathom. Something like fear, maybe guilt or both combined. I can't tell why? I try to retaliate the gaze and I see behind the weary face a strong woman weakened by circumstances. It reminds me of something.
I walk past her hurriedly, trying hard to ignore her stares. I can still feel her weak but steady gaze fastened behind me like a cow's hump. By reflex, so I think, I make a quick turn around to face her, with my heart pounding like a guilty robber.
“Hello,” I greet, waving. It’s the first time we're officially meeting; the first time we're going to start talking if she wants to. She waves back in response. I heave a sigh of relief knowing she understands me at least.
“Are you okay?” I go again, not knowing if it’s the right question or not. She nods and immediately shakes her head to counter the nod.
“You need help? Need to talk to someone?” She nods again. I begin to get sceptical and hopes earnestly that she isn’t a special one because I may not know exactly how to communicate with gestures and signs. When I ventured to study Education some years back, they had offered me admission for Special Education but I fought against it vehemently and chose to lose a year instead. I had considered sign language as total nonsense but now, I may be needing it. I scratch my hair at the same time adjusting my wig that the wind is almost yanking off.
“Can you follow me? my car is parked over there.”
She gradually uncurls herself and tries to get up but the intensity of the cold coupled with her cramped feet restrains her abruptly. She totters fraily before her hands locate the dew-covered railing. As she drags majority of her weight along in a sideways movement, she limps from the deep rugged cracks, winter has inflicted on the soles of her feet while her hands leave streaks of thick liquid dirt on the railing. I stand there backing her, eyes welled up with tears, not able to stand this agonizing scene and not willing to let her know I’m crying.
In the car, she sits there folding her hands to a warm self embrace as I turn on the heater. We drive in silence for a couple of minutes and every now and then, I clear my throat hoping to break the long silence but all yield no positive results. I can tell we have a lot running through our minds, both of us. Stuff like, I hope I’m taking the right decision bringing this stranger to my house. I hope it wouldn’t be a problem to me. Come to think of it, someone played her part, I also should play mine. Oh God please help me! I'm doing this for you, Lord...and for me. That’s from my end.
From hers, I hope this stranger isn’t trying to take advantage of me. I have seen and heard things…but she doesn’t look like one of those desperados. I was dying anyway and I think it’s better I'm like those four lepers at the gate of Samaria. At least she will give me food before she….no…no.
Finally, I find my voice.
“So what’s your name.”
I hold my chest down as I try to curtail the deep breath I just exhale. Thank goodness she can talk! She feels it, and looks at me with a sharp surprise. And there’s a turn table!
“You okay?” She muffles softly minding her lips.
“Oh…yes. I am. Thanks for asking. Ummm... please can I call you sister Franca?” She nods.
She looks at me from the corner of her left eye uncomfortably often as if expecting something from me. Her lips part and close a few times then she cleans a line of sweat settling on her forehead with the back of her right thumb down to her tattered maxi skirt. A habit I had hated more than a Sunday morning breakfast of pap and beans. I gulp deeply.
“Oh, the heater right? Sorry, I've almost forgotten about it,” I said and quickly replace it with the A/C. She scratches her semi dreadlocked hair.
“Sorry, you don’t need it?”
“Already cold much….me don’t know… your name,” she says struggling with both the language and the words.
“Oh! Please pardon my manners. May. Call me May.”
“Yes, May.” I reply smiling widely. She smiles back briefly and keeps a straight face again.
At home now. As we walk into my medium but cozy apartment, I hear her exhale loudly, with both palms over her opened mouth and her deep, brown eyes double in size.
"Sister Franca, is anything the matter?” She keeps quiet. “By the way, you're most welcome to my home, feel free any time, any day. Please, sit.” She runs through her tattered clothing and takes a decision – to sit on the tiled floor.
“No, no, no, sister please don’t do this, it’s not necessary. Please...get up and…sit on the…chair,” I gasp in between the words as I struggle to hold her up and hold back tears concurrently. She tries to wail but the cut on her lips wouldn’t let her, so she sobs silently and profusely making me really heart broken.
Having some sort of control over my emotions now, I pat her pacifyingly on the back. “Let it out, sister. Let it all out and be relieved, dear.”
“This is your room for as long as you stay here. The bathroom is over there and there’s a change of clothing in the closet. Go give yourself a thorough bath while I prepare something for us to eat.” She stands there gazing vaguely and smiling wearily, looking completely lost. I understand perfectly because it’s a very familiar road to me.
Franca sits on the small marble-top dinning, a sumptuous meal of vegetable rice and well stewed chicken parts stare invitingly at her but she sits there swallowing lump after lump, sniffing unconsciously without touching the food.
“Sister, you aren’t eating. You don’t like it?” She shrugs and giggles simultaneously, making me more confused than the word itself.
“Me…like it. Hmmm…me…”
“Don’t you worry, we'll talk after the meal." I cut in.
After the meal.
“So…tell me about it.” I adjust, bringing my palms to a comfortable lock under my chin.
“Me don’t go much school…but me just know small reading and writing,” she says, laughing mockingly and turning her face away to avoid contact with my eyes. “No father, no mother, only aunty with no love for me. Her husband and children abuse me plenty times…and…me can’t complain.” She pauses to wipe off tears. I wipe mine too. “So, one day it become much for me because me don’t see my period three months. Confusion in me plenty and me hold my heart and tell my aunty about it. She shout loud dragging my ear and ask me who? Me tell her truth I know and that night…that night…,” she pauses again shaking her head slowly while wiping another set of tears. “That night, she put me in motor take me to one man who put different scissors in me and bring out...blooood... plenty. Then my aunty take me to the bridge of this place, me don’t know before and me beg to eat…”
“That’s okay, sister,” I cut in again as I fight fiercely not to go down memory lane. I didn’t know until now that predicaments can be twins; I see the identical twin of mine today.
“Me…don’t know why you help…me.”
I smile from my heart.
Love can be the last straw of hope anyone can have at being happy again and we find that in this instant and unique friendship of ours. How strange! I let her know how much she means to me, and she affirms it.
“I love you, dear sister and will always do.”
“Me...I...love you too, very much, May.” We lock up in a warm sisterly embrace.
Then I remind her. “Just one more thing and you'll be super good to move on.”
“Forgive them – all of them. It’s difficult but you must do it for you…and me. I did, too.”
Shocked. “You?” She asks, almost shouting.