I didn't understand what it meant to be a man. If in the past I thought that it was enough to have genitals dangling between one's legs, now I began to doubt. I doubted, because Uncle Marcelo's did dangle but nobody in the village considered him a man. Then would the perfect male be one who fathered children? "Of course not," I answered myself. My grandfather fulfilled that function and, in the opinion of my grandmother, he shouldn't be considered a man because he had shown himself unable to impose order in the family. Would a man be a person who managed to subdue or dominate other people? I didn't know, and I tossed and turned in bed unable to fall asleep, until I saw my mother, walking before me. I followed her in silence, without asking about my father.
The next day my grandmother left for the farm and gave me a task: to go into the forest for wood, but not to mix with Dina and her friends, three girls who went everywhere together cloaked in mystery. With the basket already on her back, she bid me a dry farewell. As she drew away, I stared above all at her rival, leaning in the kitchen door and holding in her arms her youngest child, seven months old, and calling my grandmother an old crone.
"Don't you understand why Osá no longer visits your bed? It's because you're an old hag who no longer gets her monthlies! Do you want to give my husband your curse, eh?"
Aloof from the confrontation that took place between the two women, my grandfather calmly played checkers in the House of the Word. After the first round of the game was finished, he asked for his breakfast. Once I had served him, I left for the closest forest in search of firewood. Crossing the village, I felt that everyone looked at me strangely: the women who came to pray that their polygamous spouses would pay more attention to them during the day and especially at night; the men who returned from hunting and were selling the animals before reaching their homes; the girls who left with their mothers to work on the farms, lugging baskets or carrying their little brothers and sisters in their arms as was the custom; the children who played football in the village's arena.
When I reached the highway I ran into Dina and her friends. Oh my! I didn't want to join them, so I picked up my pace and lowered my head so our glances wouldn't meet. I feared that someone might see me with them and tell my grandmother. But it was useless. Dina, the nicest of the group, looked at me tenderly and said something that it seemed everyone already knew: "Your uncle Marcelo has fled the village along with the woman who lived with him. Last night they burned down his house while he slept. He is lucky to be alive."
"What are you saying?" I approached the girls, who were also carrying baskets. "And when did all this happen?"
"Last night," Dina answered, touching my arm.
The moment her arm touched me, I noticed I was trembling. I hunched over. We sat down together on the trunk of an Okoumé tree abandoned on the side of the highway.
"They demanded he offer his member for the good of the tribe. And your grandmother, along with the rest of the women in the village, had decided to cast out Restituta, who he lived with, for . . . "
"For what?" We were in the middle of a highway full of mud.
"For . . . that is . . . " She looked at the two other girls who went everywhere with her and then said in a low voice. "For being a whore. It seems that the women have the support of the priest, who says that your uncle's friend brought sin to the village."
"The priest has agreed that they set out to burn alive the . . . whore and my uncle?"
"No. The priest says that prostitution is sinful and so that it doesn't spread, she must be cast out from the village. How that is done was the idea of the women of the Adoration of the Virgin Mary. It seems that their husbands frequently visited the . . . whore."
We were silent for a long moment, and then Dina spoke again.
"As for your uncle, the true goal of the tribe was to burn down his house with him inside it. That's why the people set out with their torches already lit. However, they made a mistake in taking for granted that he was already asleep. They found him sitting on the terrace, talking with his companion."
On hearing this news, I wanted to run toward the burned house. Dina held me back and gave me a letter from Marcelo. I read it with trembling hands and tears, but with the fortitude that only the daughter of an unmarried Fang woman manages to accumulate during years of humiliations, interminable moments of loneliness, and the lack of paternal kindness in being the daughter of all the men in the world but of none in particular.
The letter said the following:
I will always love you. You know that, right? All the love I feel for you doesn't fit in this letter that I write with great urgency and tears. Your grandparents, along with all the tribe, have cast me out of the village for various reasons: I decided not to lend my member for the good of all and I keep in my home the ashes of my father, which, according to them, have provoked the barrenness of the land and other disgraces in the village, including your uncle's infertility. And also, the woman who lives with me is a prostitute and receives visits from various men of the village, among those your grandfather. You are a young girl and easily influenced. You must know that I am innocent. You believe me, don't you? Of course I am, I am sure that my girl believes me. I shall hide in the Otosia forest near the Míong River. I have a hut there. Visit me soon. I can't live without you. The girl who gives you this letter, Dina, is a friend of mine. With her, you can come whenever you want. In the end, I can live permanently in the forest. I am in good health, don't worry. I have brought with me only the painting of Guernica and my memories of your mother. I will talk to you about her when you wish and we can also talk about your father. My home is ash. Don't go there because they will associate you with the curses.
I love you very much, my daughter. And worry not: I will be well.
Your uncle who loves you,
I couldn't believe the contents of the letter. Meanwhile, my companions were looking more nervous than I was. After a few minutes of silence broken only by sobbing, Dina spoke. She said that only ash and loneliness were left in my uncle's home. I felt somewhat relieved after having read the affection and the advice the letter contained. If Marcelo found happiness in the forest, which is where he spent the majority of his time anyway, then all the better. At last he was free from so much disdain for not fondling women or fathering offspring.
Soon we moved into the forest after traveling half a kilometer along a path that illusorily was called a highway but was barely an earthen track.
"Don't be friends with those girls, they're indecent and mysterious," I remembered my grandmother telling me. But these three adolescents defended my uncle because they considered that he lived as a free man. With their baskets on their backs, they said that he had become an example to follow in having dared to challenge the Council of Elders of the tribe.
"The tribe to whom I owed respect and submission?" I asked myself, walking behind the three girls. Only Dina had turned eighteen. She revealed herself to have a strong character and looked at everyone discreetly but without fear. The second young woman was named Pilar, a very quiet orphan. In the village people whispered that her mother had died from witchcraft, and since then her father had sworn to maintain chastity, despite not leading a religious life. In the House of the Word, my grandfather asked him where his seed rested (that is to say, his semen) if he didn't have a wife. He remained silent.
Pilar had a paramour: Plácido. I discovered this because once the boy gave me a letter to deliver to her at school. I opened it and inside I saw a drawing of a heart. How jealous I was! Nobody had ever made such a tender gift for me.
The three girls spoke of Marcelo with much affection, especially the last of them, whose name was Linda. And she was as pretty as her name meant, with lovely eyes and, especially, a nice rear. I always noticed her charms with some anxiety, for I knew that my feelings were destined for some man as tradition decreed. A man who I didn't yet know and who, according to my grandmother, must have money.
Linda described for us the kiss that my uncle had one day given her on her forehead as the tenderest kiss of her life and complained that her father never even spoke to her, unless it was to order her to do something.
"It was here," she said, as she touched the center of her forehead with the palm of her hand. She was standing in front of us, always with the basket on her back like every Fang woman, and smiling.
At that moment we stopped to rest from the long walk. We sat on one side of the track and began to tell one another anecdotes about our lives in our homes. I had nothing to tell. What would I talk about? The constant fights? My perpetual loneliness? My father's abandoning me? The heroes of my tribe who worried above all about getting women pregnant? Of course not! My life lacked emotion. But I found one subject of conversation: I hated my braids. Oh, how I hated them! I also detested lipstick, eyeshadow, blush, and everything used to paint women's faces.
It turned out that I wasn't the only one. Dina and Pilar were with me. The only one who adored makeup was Linda, who couldn't buy any because her father was addicted to cards and gambled away all the family's money. What would she call family? I didn't know where mine was. Or maybe I did. Perhaps my true family lay in the forest, where Marcelo took refuge. And I was desperate to see him that afternoon after cutting wood as my grandmother had ordered me to do.
My grandmother. Nothing remained any longer of the woman she once was. She had changed when her husband became polygamous. I couldn't believe all the fuss she was mixed up in as a result of this, and before saying good-bye to me she had promised me that later we would talk about Marcelo. I anxiously awaited that moment.
We four girls started walking again and, half an hour later, we found various dry trees that we decided to cut. The night before it had rained and the forest was cold, although not enough to put out the torches that burned the home of the man-woman and force him to abandon the village. This was once again the main subject of conversation of the three friends who I had joined, in disobedience of my grandmother.
But, far from starting to work, the girls cut down some large leaves from the trees, cleared a space on the ground, and placed the leaves on the ground like a blanket and sat down on them. I remained standing, holding a machete and watching them without fully understanding why they were doing what they were doing. But they were all cracking up with laughter, which gradually gave way to silence. The first of them to undress was Dina, who started to kiss Pilar. She kissed her on the mouth! The image produced a double sensation in me: shame and unease. I began to tremble and the machete I held fell to the ground, with a loud thud that the girls seemed not to hear. The last to join in was Linda. They kissed one another and they practically forgot about me, while inside me three ideas fought with one another: to keep working, to head back to the village, or to wait for them to finish.
Dina was in the middle between Pilar and Linda. She held out a hand to me: "Come on. Join us."
"No," I answered. "I can't."
"Don't worry. At first it seems strange, but it's nice. You don't need to obey your grandmother, she is not here to watch over you. Come on, try it, you'll like it. You are in the forest: the Fang forest is a free space. Now you are free."
I shook my head again and Dina stood up. She started to kiss me while the other two began to gently remove my clothes. I couldn't refuse a third time. I was enjoying it and for the first time in my life I felt free sexually.
We made love for fifteen minutes. At last I could caress Pilar's rear which had excited me so much in school every time it brushed against some part of my body when the teacher ordered us to all stand in a row to sing the national anthem.
That feeling had always made feel much shame. "I am sick," I told myself often, sick with sin, ashamed that my eyes weren't able to look away from her feminine charms. Sometimes I felt that I had no air in my lungs, when I was overcome with a feeling of guilt for not being like the other women around me, who were always telling anecdotes about their sex lives. Who would I talk to about my own? I didn't know how to answer that question, I was afraid even to think it.
As we got dressed again, Pilar confessed that my uncle had once discovered them making love in the forest. They begged him not to tell anyone. Later, the girls found him with a man in one of the shacks he had in the forest, located near the river where the fishermen of the village often went. Since then, they had shown great complicity toward one other, since they were all part of the same club.
"What club?" I asked, covering my nipples with the palms of my hand.
"The Indecency Club," Linda answered with a smile. She was always content and laughed all the time. "You've become the fourth indecent woman of the village. Before, we were only three."
When I returned to the village, my grandmother was already at home waiting for me and bursting to talk. It was three in the afternoon.
We both found ourselves at the door to the kitchen with our baskets on our backs. Her husband was still in the House of the Word playing checkers with his brothers of the tribe. I placed all the firewood I had brought behind the hearth, so it would be at hand when we were cooking. After sneezing twice, she asked me to sit down, she needed to talk with me urgently and she didn't even change out of the smelly clothes she wore from when she had been working on the farm. I didn't change either. I was still very nervous because of what had just happened in the forest with the girls and I feared that she would find me out by beginning to ask me all the usual questions: "Girl, are you well?" "Are you still thinking about your wretched father?" "Have you finally met a man? Where does he work? Does he have money?" "Did you know that girls your age in the village already feed their families by bringing home rich lovers? What are you waiting for?" "Did you know that women age much sooner than men do?"
My thoughts whirled as I tried to guess what she wanted to talk to me about. For a moment, I mistakenly thought that she would mention the attempt to murder Marcelo or my excursion with the three mysterious girls to cut wood. After placing a bit of tobacco right at the root of her lower lip, she announced that tomorrow I would leave for a village named Ebian where her married daughter lived. My mission consisted of bringing back fifty thousand francs for her.
So. I recalled our visit to the witch doctor. The money was so that she could bring my grandfather back to her conjugal bed. As she swallowed the tobacco she asked me who I had gone into the forest with.
"Alone," I answered, without hesitating. "Completely alone."
"Very good, my girl. At least you didn't join those three indecent girls. I hate them so much! I especially hate Dina. Did you know that she doesn't have a boyfriend, and at her age?"
"She doesn't have a boyfriend!?" I feigned surprise at Dina's disgrace while I sliced ripe bananas with a finely-sharpened knife.
"No she doesn't, my girl, no," she confirmed, staring into my eyes. Her own were reddened by the effects of the tobacco.
"And is that serious, Abuela? Is not having a novia serious?"
"Did you say 'girlfriend' or did I hear wrong?"
"I'm sorry, you never hear wrong, Abuela, I made a mistake. I meant to say novio."
"Just as well!" she sighed. "Just as well you made a mistake. Otherwise I'd begin to worry. Of course it is, my girl, it's very serious. What is a woman without a man? Dina is on the edge of old age, she is eighteen years old and has no partner! And her family still has not benefitted from her body. At least you're not like that. Just as well!"
Was this the point of our conversation? My grandmother spoke and spoke without pause, until she ordered me to leave the next day for Ebian, alone.
Alone? Something shivered inside me. Alone.
From La Bastarda. Published by Flores Raras. © Trifonia Melibea Obono. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2017 by Lawrence Schimel. All rights reserved.