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They often shot boys who were out after curfew. They were usually buried quietly by their mothers. But boys will be boys, after all. Cue laughter.
I met Jake at school, six years ago. There were already the rumblings of change under our feet: My mother whipped me into the safe, stone building, ivy underneath wrought-iron windows. I spoke to Jake on my first day. He was from money, too, but unlike me, hadn’t yet learned to be ashamed of it. He scrunched paper into tiny balls and tossed them into my hair. My hair was so curly that they would get stuck, and I wouldn’t know until lunch, when I shook my head or glanced elsewhere and they’d come falling onto the table. But I always saw him laughing at me, with a spark of light on his white teeth, in his eyes. I think it was an excuse to watch me.
Our families were friends. His dad swapped his allegiance pretty quickly after the women took to the streets, after the coup, after there was a risk to him and his life. His dad saw where the money was going: It wasn’t with the old men with paper crinkled foreheads but with women like my mother. She had spent her life whispering, sneaking into the corners of rooms where important decisions were being made, collecting the stories and traumas of women, until the world was shaken, and she was poised to use it. And use it she did. She was massaging my scalp with oil, our weekly ritual before washing, when she told me what she knew about these old men. How she was protecting the girls they damaged. Secrets as currency, the first time that they mattered. Say it after me, she said, and her fingernails scratched sharp and smooth on my scalp, dug deep. A delicious pleasure pain. Men hurt us. We protect our women. For the greater good.
They burnt the flag when they took the streets: I watched it on video as it descended into flame, tragedy eating tragedy.
When the women held the power, the world stopped turning, peace returning the peace, that’s what my mom always said. There was pride in her voice: For the first time, they were scared of us. They announced the curfew. Men and boys were told to stay at home at night. To the women, you have the streets as yours, and yours alone. There was jubilation. I was too young to go alone, but me and my mother stood in our front yard, watching the women and girls as they cried and ran forward into the setting sun, as my dad stood inside and watched us from the window. There are pictures from that night, famous ones: women dancing, women kissing, women crying. Women holding hands. There’s colour, fireworks, silver stars in the sky. Women wearing nothing at all, women walking, with their fists in the air, finally free. The first night was unfiltered madness and emotion – darkness without fear was unfamiliar territory. Many did not know what to do: Some stayed at home with their husbands. As is their choice, my mother said. But many saw it as a betrayal.
One time I asked Jake what he did on that night. He had two brothers and one older sister. He said his sister returned tear-stained and shaken, and wouldn’t speak to anyone. He remembered clinging to his mother, begging her not to go. If she left, he said, I thought she wouldn’t come back at all.
Some men lost their jobs and stayed at home, looking after small children, waiting for wives to come home from work, or partying. Bars were visited in an exited flurry, stocked by female bouncers, female bartenders, the wives of club owners in long coats. We were free to dance, without men lurking at the edges, without them watching. But then it dried up. Women didn’t want those jobs; or they did, and enjoyed the power too much. Women still wanted to be looked at, they wanted to have their conquests, they wanted to bring their boyfriends with them to dance. We lashed out, there were still fights, with sharp nails digging into arms. There’s always the powerful and the powerless. Young girls didn’t see that, we only heard the stories, made them alive with our words: She gouged her eyes out with a fresh manicure, blood red, her eyeball rolled on the ground. These were the favourite stories we told in the bathrooms at school. At home we only saw the same photographs from that first night till we had them memorised: a triumphant woman, tears shining in her eyes, set against the sparkling backdrop of the night sky. Her name was Hope.
Then the men revolted. They took back what was theirs. Some came attacking: We’ll give you something to be scared about. Others stood outside their homes, holding their baby son: He knows no violence. They resisted, they sat and waited in large circles, sitting peacefully, hands up. We have a place here too, they said. We’re alive, too. And my mother said: Shoot them.
Jake was my favourite friend. We would wander after school, safe in the daylight. I don’t think it’s fair, Jake said, that it’s girls only at the prom. I waited for his words to fall. We walked along the river. I wanted to skip stones, I had never learnt. Talking like that can get you in trouble, I said. Not with you, he replied. No, not with me. I just wanted to be with my friend. I wanted to wander the streets after an evening movie, left over popcorn in our hands, throwing it to each other, trying to catch it in our mouths.
I wore a pink dress to prom. I wanted to cut my hair short, but my mom wouldn’t let me. She rubbed at my head every week to make my hair grow pretty and long. Me and my friends stood outside in the setting sunshine and took photos, set against lush and verdant trees. We all had a brush of tan on our arms, long flowing hair, sharp white teeth. My mother told us to smile from behind the camera. As it flashed, I saw the white pop in our eyes. You guys are the future, she said, and she smiled. You can finish the work we begun.
There are still poor men, Jake said, as he skipped stones. There are still poor women suffering with them. Look at the photos from the first night. The night of revolution. Those women were already free, free by climbing the backs of the women who were suffering underneath them. He skipped a stone. But your dad hurt girls, I said. My stone fell flat in the water. I know, three skips, smooth and flat, across the water. It’s complicated, I said. I know. But your mom hurt people, too. How can we live with the history? It’s in my house at all times.
When my mother oils my scalp, she pulls at the tangles. My hair tugs and breaks. I feel like asking: Was it worth it, the things you did? My mother has never held a gun, but she tells me of the old days, when she had a weapon. I ran with a knife, she said, strapped tight to my leg. I jumped at any rustle I heard in the bushes. There were men everywhere, men who lurked and did bad things, men who wanted to hurt you. Lots of girls like you, who suffered and died at the hands of men. We looked into the backs of cars and held keys in between our fingers. You don’t think of those things any more. More tugging. I wanted to tell her that sometimes we do think of those things.
He made the news, the first son who was shot. He was only sitting, in a group of twelve of them, peaceful, ignoring the women who shouted and cajoled at them, who threw things. The first son who died was twelve. He had his hands up as the officers rounded on him. They had their orders. Please don’t, he said, and they shot him dead. They shot them all dead. Some of us said he deserved it. Some of us said it was an echoing of violence in the past, male violence that was red hot and ran in the veins of the country. Jake said it was our families who caused it, who set the lines for this chaos. All of us are free or none of us are. That’s not true, I replied. Some of us are freer than others. He said I was right.
A video of the boy’s mother went viral. She’s roaming the streets at night, women walk past and glance at her as she wails. She sounds like an animal. You killed him, she said. For this? For this? For you to go to your parties? What kind of justice is this? My mom walked into the room when I was watching that. I turned it off quick, but she could see my unsettled face. It’s up to mothers to raise their sons properly, she said. I nodded, but that night I dreamt of gun shots, dark nights, the burst and boom of fireworks that shattered, ashes in the sky.
Jake was getting restless. He knew a few boys who sat in the circles, he read their literature that circulated around social media, he liked and commented, solidarity. His stones lay flat in the river, sinking without skipping. I’ve got to do something, he said. I want to stand up for them. Jake scared me when he spoke of things like this. I wanted to keep him safe in his house; I got used to my nightly walks, walking past his house, checking for the ghostly glow of light from his window, checking he was okay. I belonged to the darkness; it was a gift I was chained to. It was my history, the legacy of my family, to worship the moon. I joined the league of other women. We wandered the streets with dark circles under our eyes, an insomniac energy in us.
Then one evening, in late summer, Jake’s light was off. The songs of sirens on the streets, women everywhere who cackled and cried and laughed. The sound of drumming, far away. I ran towards the city, minding the girls dressed like fallen stars, looking for him, for a crowd, for the spark of violence in the air. But I was too late. I only heard the gunshots from afar. I never saw him sit in the circle with his friends, but I imagine his face in grim determination, his blood humming to the tune of violence, the way mine did. The way violence was coded into my DNA. I imagined his eyes rolling backwards. Of him falling. I felt his death cosmically. I sunk to the floor as the women who killed him held me, who rubbed my back and whispered soothing things in my ears.
I told my mother it was her fault he died. I grabbed at my hair, pulling at my scalp, I cried, I wailed. I could not bear my own bones. She slapped me. A week later, she hung up a black woollen dress for me. We’ll go and pay our respects. I rose and left the room, into the bathroom, and cut off all my hair.
We watched the women dig his grave. Keep going, I thought. It would be the biggest grave they would ever see, as big as my loss, as big as the gunshots, as big as the holes in the hearts of the mothers who had lost their sons.