Societal expectations weigh down on a mother returning from the hospital after having her eighth daughter in this story by Freshta Ghani.
It is past early afternoon. The evening call to prayer is still to come. I am hungry, but I am fasting. My legs are weak, my hands are shaking. There is a kind of silence in the kitchen, but the sound of the pressure cooker, which has just started, is breaking it, getting louder and more powerful. The pressure cooker has increased my fear too. I look at the clock: seventeen minutes past five in the evening. I turn the heat down under the meat. There is a big bunch of spinach waiting to be cleaned, cut, and cooked for the guests. The kitchen is very messy, and it is making me feel suffocated. I open the bunch of spinach, clean it leaf by leaf, and use the big knife to start cutting it up. Sometimes, it is easy to take all my anger out on the vegetables, cutting them up vigorously. This is what I do. I haven’t even finished cutting up the spinach before I start worrying about the rice; I have to soak some now so that it cooks better later.
Goodness me. I can’t work properly today. I don’t know the best way to do all this. I’m panicking a lot. My heart is pounding uncontrollably. I can’t even leave the pot full of rice. I have to get dinner ready quickly. I can smell the meat—it smells cooked enough. Oh, I so feel like eating it. When the fast breaks I will definitely be eating some meat. May God accept my fast and bless me with a son this time. What else would I ask for? Oh, and it’s so good that I cooked the okra and eggplant last night. This makes my life easier now. Two dishes are ready. They will just need warming up later.
I can hear loud voices from the next room. My mother-in-law and sisters-in-law are laughing and talking loudly. What are they talking about? I wonder. God knows where Sharifa and Nazanin are. God, I am now eight months pregnant and I haven’t gone for a single check-up. I feel that this one might be a son, but I am scared that something might happen to me. I hear a very sweet voice. Who might this person be? Oh, it is my third daughter, Basmeena. She has got the salad plates ready for me. Oh, I love her tiny hands. She melts my heart with these little things she does to help me.
Cooking the spinach and meat is easy and quick. I finish making both. But how will I manage lifting the pot of rice on my own? I am feeling a bit helpless, tired. Last time, when auntie Makai was here, she saw me lifting a bucket full of water and told me off. This pot is even bigger.
The mullah has now called for the evening prayer. Maybe someone will come out of that room and help me with this pot of rice. Until then, I will break my fast. I haven’t finished my first bite when my eldest sister-in-law comes in and says: “Well done, you! The guests haven’t even arrived yet and you have started licking the pot like a hungry cat!”
My first bite is now stuck in my throat. It won’t go down, due to my fear. I move the plate away—I don’t feel like eating after this. I am standing quietly, saying nothing, though I have a lot to say. My mother always says not to be rude to my in-laws. She says you have to just endure everything. OK. My sister-in-law leaves the kitchen and my tears start flowing again like a river.
I wash a big pot and put it on the stove. I increase the heat. My life is like the boiling water in this pot, the happiness evaporating from it like the steam. My rice is soft now. I look out the window, but there is no one who can help me to lift it down. OK then. I will just lift it. Nothing is going to happen to me.
As I lift it, I feel a sharp pain in my back. The water has started flowing between my legs. With difficulty I sieve the rice, add oil and spices, put the pot back on low heat on the stove. My legs have slowly started losing their strength and the pain in my back and stomach is increasing. I feel like screaming. I slide to the floor, in too much pain to carry on with my chores. Now the kitchen door opens, and my youngest brother-in-law, Hashmat, asks: “Is the food ready? The guests have arrived.”
As he enters the kitchen he sees me. I can hear him saying, “Sister-in-law, what has happened?” He splashes water over my face, looks at me carefully, and then runs out of the kitchen. A few seconds later, my mother-in-law and eldest sister-in-law are standing over my head.
My mother in-law says: “You are a drama queen. A fake. If you couldn’t cook then you should have asked us to. If you die, what will I tell our relatives and the village?” My vision blurs. Hashmat gets angry with his mother and sisters, but I can’t hear what they are saying. I feel like I might die. The last thing I remember is the black of the car seats.
Today is my third day in the hospital. I am breathing in the smells around me. One of my hands is connected to the drip. A white sheet is coving my body. A nurse comes in and tells off the women—those women in labor whose babies haven’t yet arrived. If the women scream in pain, the nurses tell them off. There is pain in each woman’s eyes. One is beside me, breastfeeding her newborn baby. I look at the baby and remember my own. I call the nurse and ask, “Where is my baby?”
The nurse, who is wearing pink lipstick, stands over my head. She takes out my file, looks at me very carefully, and leaves without saying anything. After half an hour she is back, and I ask her the same question again.
“Your baby is weak and is in an incubator,” she says. “The doctors will tell you.”
I quickly ask her: “Is it a boy or a girl?”
The nurse thinks for a second, then says: “I don’t know. When the doctor comes, ask her.”
My heart is beating fast. I really hope that this time I have given birth to a boy. God must have listened to my prayers this time, but, if it is a girl, what will I do? My life will be hell. My heart beats faster and harder. I wish that my wish comes true. I really want a boy this time. God help me, if this baby is a boy I will distribute something good among the poor in your name. I will fast and visit shrines in your name.
I ask the lady beside me what the time is. It is eleven, and I still haven’t seen my baby. There is no sign of the doctor. I look at my hand. It is all bruised. How could this have happened? Maybe, in the last three days when I have been unwell, I have had many injections.
An older man and an older woman have entered the room. Maybe they are hospital workers. Oh, no. They are not hospital staff. They have brought food to the woman next to me. There is noise from all the women, but she is screaming the loudest. She is eating at my brain.
The doctor has entered the room. She is very angry about the man—is saying, in a loud voice, “Haven’t I told you not to let male visitors in here? Don’t you understand?” The doctor is fuming. Her face is turning red with anger, and I am not sure how to ask her about my baby. I haven’t even started talking when she leaves the room. Now she starts shouting at the woman who let the visitors in.
Oh, what should I do? There is a smell of kebab in the room, and I am so hungry. Two more hospital workers have entered and they are distributing plates of rice, beans, and a banana to all the patients. The woman beside me leans in and gives me a bite. I tell her that I don’t want it, but she insists. I am hungry, but nothing is going to go down my throat. If this time I haven’t given birth to a son, my life will be turned to poison. I am thinking deeply. I put the dishes to one side and fall asleep.
I wake to the cry of a baby. In the room, there is one baby that is particularly unsettled. The lady has two kids—a one-year-old, maybe one and a half, and a newborn. It is the older baby that is crying. I tell her that she should have left the older one at home, and she says that they brought him yesterday because he was even more unsettled when apart from her. I smile at her, and tell her, “God bless him.”
The day has passed into night. I know nothing about my baby. I am not allowed to go anywhere apart from the bathroom. The doctors are telling me I should be resting, but how can a mother rest when she’s separated from her baby? What kind of justice is this?
In the morning, a young doctor enters the room. She looks very fresh. She is wearing a light blue scarf—she looks good. “Is the baby better today?” I ask her. “How is it? Is it a son or a daughter? The nurse says my baby is weak and is being kept in an incubator?”
The doctor looks at me very carefully and says, “Thank your God that your baby is alive. The baby was so weak that we thought it wouldn’t keep breathing. What did you do that it came to this?”
I answered: “Doctor, my auntie said I should fast while pregnant. That maybe then I would give birth to a boy.”
She is angry. “You fast and then the blame goes to the doctors? We are blamed for mothers who die giving birth. How can these kinds of women stay alive? Who fasts during pregnancy?” She leaves the room. My heart is exploding: they need to tell me if I have a son or a daughter.
A few seconds pass before a nurse comes in and announces that those mothers whose babies are in incubators will have them by the evening. My hands and legs start shaking. I ask the woman beside me for the time every few minutes. I am eager to see my baby. I am so, so anxious to see my baby.
It is mealtime again. I don’t feel like eating. The lady next to me says, “Eat something. You will be breastfeeding your baby, you need your energy.” I force myself to eat a few bites before the older lady comes in to collect the plates.
The day passes with us women chatting to each other. I didn’t sleep at all last night. It is my fifth day here. Finally, the doctors bring the baby to me and say I can leave. My eldest brother-in-law and his wife have come. They ask me to go with them, and I ask them quickly, “Is my baby a boy or not?”
They are all looking down. No one says anything. I lose hope.
I take my baby and look under the blanket. My baby is a girl.
I start slowly walking out of the hospital with my in-laws. My heart is beating faster. My body is shaking. I don’t know if it is the fear, or if it is cold outside. I look at my daughter and say to myself: “What would have happened if you were a boy? I hope I die before we get home.”
As we arrive, I hear singing and music. At first, I think the neighbors are getting their son married. No—the sound is coming from our house. Oh, good, I think. My brother-in-law is getting married. This will be a good distraction, and perhaps they won’t tell me off for giving birth to another girl.
As I enter the yard, my youngest daughter runs toward me. Her face is unwashed, I hug her close to my chest, then clean her nose with the edge of my scarf. I asked her, “Marwa, what is happening at home?”
She is talking in her sweet young voice: “I don’t know, Mama. But everyone is wearing beautiful clothes. Look at my new yellow dress.” I am anxious to learn what is happening.
When I enter the room, the women greet me by tossing the traditional chocolates and other sweets over my head. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe they will welcome me like this knowing that I have given birth to a girl. Everyone is congratulating me. I have started to smile, for the first time in a while. I am saying thank you. I haven’t finished greeting everyone when one woman, standing on my left, says: “This is the first time I have seen a woman who is happy that her husband is taking a second wife.”
It feels like someone has poured boiling water over me. My legs feel weak, my throat is full of pain, and my eyes have dried out. I sit down in the middle of the room and let my baby girl slip from my hands. A woman who is sitting near me catches her quickly. The baby’s cry is eating my brain. I hate to hear it. I don’t even want to see my baby. I am silent, but my mood is changing.
There is a lot of noise from the women. A few of them have gathered around me. I am still in my own world. Maiwand enters the room, and I run toward him and spit in his face. He slaps me hard across mine. I fall down on the floor, and he leaves the room.
Nargis’s auntie tells her daughter, Palwasha, to give me a glass of warm milk, since I have just given birth. She helps me get up with great difficulty. The kitchen is a mess, and there are dishes everywhere. Palwasha puts a pot of milk on the stove, but then leaves in a hurry, the sound of music and singing coming from the next room. It is making its way right into my brain. I get angrier and angrier.
The milk is getting hot and foaming up.
I pour the full pot of boiling milk over my head. I fall to the floor. I am burning from head to toe.
A few women come into the kitchen. One of them runs toward me, lifts me up, and says with a sigh: “Poor woman. Her husband has married another woman.”
Another woman, who has a big voice, says: “Poor woman. Her luck is bad. This is her eighth baby, and it’s another girl.”
“Daughter Number Eight” © 2020 by Freshta Ghani. Translation © 2020 by Zarghuna Kargar. Developed with Untold, a development program for writers in conflict and postconflict areas, supported by the British Council and the Bagri Foundation. All rights reserved.