GLLI YA Prize Shortlist Excerpt: La Bastarda by Trifonia Melibea Obono

The Indecency Club
I didn’t understand what it meant to be a man. If in the past I thought it was enough to have genitals dangling between one’s legs, now I wasn’t so sure. Because Uncle Marcelo’s were like that, but nobody in the village considered him a man. So would the perfect man be one who fathered children? Of course not, I answered myself. My grandfather had done that, but in my grandmother’s opinion, he couldn’t be considered a man because he had proven himself unable to impose order within his family. Would a man be someone who subdued or dominated others? I didn’t know, and I tossed and turned in bed, unable to fall asleep, until I saw a vision of 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: I was to go into the forest to collect wood, but I wasn’t to have anything to do with Dina and her friends, three girls who went everywhere together cloaked in mystery. With a basket already on her back, she bid me a curt farewell. As she walked away, I stared at her rival, who was leaning in the doorway of her kitchen cradling her youngest child, seven months old, in her arms, and calling my grandmother a crone.

“Don’t you understand why Osá no longer visits your bed? It’s because you’re an old hag who no longer bleeds! Do you want to give my husband your curse?”

Unbothered by the two women’s bickering, my grandfather calmly played checkers in the House of the Word. After they finished the first round, he asked for his breakfast. Once I had served him, I left for the nearest forest in search of firewood.

Walking through the village, I felt everyone looked at me strangely: the women coming to pray that their polygamous spouses would pay more attention to them during the day, and especially at night; the men back from their hunts, who sold the animals they’d killed before reaching their homes; the girls heading with their mothers to work on the farms, lugging baskets or carrying their little brothers and sisters in their arms, as was custom; the children playing in the village’s soccer field.

When I reached the highway, I spotted Dina and her friends. Just my luck! I didn’t want to join them, so I picked up my pace and lowered my head so our eyes wouldn’t meet. I feared that someone might see me with them and tell my grandmother. But it was no use. 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. He is lucky to be alive.”

“What did you say?” I approached the girls, who were also carrying baskets. “When did all this happen?”

“Last night,” Dina answered, touching my arm. The moment she touched me, I noticed I was trembling. I hunched over. We sat down together on the trunk of an okoume tree abandoned on the side of the road.

“They demanded he do his duty for the good of the tribe. And your grandmother, along with the rest of the women in the village, decided to cast out Restituta for—”

“For what?” We were in the middle of a road filled with mud.

“For . . . I mean . . .” 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 into the village.”

“The priest has agreed that they ought to burn them alive . . . the whore and my uncle?”

“No, the priest says that prostitution is sinful, and that to stop it from spreading, she must be cast out of the village. How they did it was the idea of the women from the Adoration of the Virgin Mary. It seems that their husbands often visited the . . . whore.”

We were silent for a long time, and then Dina spoke again.

“As for your uncle, the tribe had wanted to burn down his house with him inside it. That’s why they set out with their torches already lit. But they made a mistake in assuming that he’d already be asleep. He was sitting out front, talking with his companion.”

When I heard this, I wanted to immediately go see the burnt house for myself. Dina held me back and gave me a letter from Marcelo. I read it with hands trembling and tears blurring my vision, but with a strength that only the daughter of an unmarried Fang woman achieves—after the years of humiliation, the endless loneliness, and the lack of any paternal kindness that I had suffered as the daughter of all the men in the world but of none in particular.

The letter read:

Dear hija,
I will always love you. You know that, right? All the love I feel for you couldn’t fit in this letter that I write with great urgency and many tears. Your grandparents, along with the entire tribe, have cast me out of the village for many reasons: I did not lend my member for the good of the tribe, and I keep my father’s ashes in my home, which, according to them, has provoked the barrenness of the land and other disgraces in the village, including your uncle’s infertility. Also, the woman who lives with me is a prostitute and receives visits from various men from the village, your grandfather included. You are still young and easily influenced, but you must know that I am innocent. You believe me, don’t you? Of course you do, I am sure that my girl believes me. I shall hide in the Otosia Forest near the Míong River. I have a cabin there. Visit me soon. I can’t live without you. The girl who will give you this letter, Dina, is a friend of mine. You can come with her 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 Guernica and my memories of your mother. I will talk to you about her whenever you wish, and we can also talk about your father. My home is ash. Don’t go there because they will think that you’re also involved with the curse. I love you very much, mi hija. And rest assured that I will be well.

Your uncle who loves you,
Marcelo

I couldn’t believe the letter’s contents. As I read it, the other girls began to look more nervous than I was. After a few minutes of silence broken only by my sobbing, Dina spoke. She said that only ash and loneliness remained in my uncle’s home. I felt kind of relieved after having read the affectionate letter and the advice it contained. If Marcelo found happiness in the forest (which is where he spent most of his time anyway), then all the better. He could finally be free of the condemnation of the village for not sleeping with women or fathering children.

After walking half a kilometer down a path that was optimistically called a highway but was barely an earthen track, we moved into the forest.

Don’t be friends with those girls, they’re indecent and mysterious, I remembered my grandmother saying. But these three teenage girls defended my uncle because they thought he should live as a free man. With their baskets on their backs, they said that he had become an example for them to follow in having dared to challenge the Council of Elders of the tribe.

The tribe to which I owed my respect and obedience? I wondered, walking behind the three girls. Only Dina was already eighteen years old. She revealed herself to have a strong character and looked at everyone discreetly but fearlessly. The second young woman was Pilar, a very quiet orphan. In the village, people whispered that her mother had died from witchcraft, and since then her father had sworn off women, despite not leading a religious life. In the House of the Word, my grandfather asked him where his seed rested if he didn’t have a wife. He remained silent.

Pilar had a suitor: Plácido. I discovered this because he had once given me a letter to deliver to her at school. I opened it and inside saw a drawing of a heart. How jealous I was! Nobody had ever given me such a sweet gift.

The three girls spoke of Marcelo with much affection, especially Linda. She was as pretty as her name indicated, with lovely eyes and an even lovelier bottom. I always noticed her charms with some anxiety, for I knew my feelings were supposed to be for a man, as tradition decreed. A man I didn’t yet know and who, according to my grandmother, must have money.

Linda described the kiss on her forehead my uncle had given her one day as the most loving 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, touching the center of her forehead with the palm of her hand. She was standing in front of us, smiling, a basket on her back like all Fang women.

We stopped to rest from the long walk. We sat on one side of the path and began to tell one another stories about our lives. I had nothing to say. What could I talk about? The constant fighting? My perpetual loneliness? My father’s abandonment? The heroes of my tribe who only worried about getting women pregnant? Of course not. My life lacked excitement. But I thought of one topic of conversation: how much I hated my braids. Oh, how I hated them! I also detested lipstick, eye shadow, blush, and everything else used to paint women’s faces.

It turned out I wasn’t the only one. Dina and Pilar were on my side. The only one who loved makeup was Linda, who couldn’t buy any because her father was addicted to cards and gambled away all the family’s money. Who would she call family? I didn’t know where mine was. Or maybe I did. Perhaps my true family was in the forest, where Marcelo had taken refuge. And I was desperate to see him that afternoon after I gathered wood as my grandmother had ordered.

My grandmother. Nothing remained of the woman she once was. She had changed once her husband became polygamous. I couldn’t believe all the fuss she was making because of him.

The four of us started walking again. Half an hour later, we found some dry trees to cut down. The forest was cold. It had rained the night before, but not enough to extinguish the torches that burned Marcelo’s home to the ground and forced him to abandon the village. This once again became the main subject of conversation among the three friends I had joined up with against my grandmother’s wishes.

But, instead of getting to work, the girls cut down some large leaves from the trees and cleared a space on the ground. They placed the leaves on the ground like a blanket and sat down on them. I remained standing, holding a machete and watching them, not fully understanding why they were doing what they were doing. But they were all giggling, which gradually turned to silence. The first of them to undress was Dina, who started to kiss Pilar. Right on the mouth! The sight made me feel both shame and unease. I began to tremble and my machete fell to the ground with a loud thud that went unnoticed by the girls. The last to join in was Linda. They kissed one another, practically forgetting about me. Three ideas clashed inside me: to keep working, head back to the village, or 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 isn’t here watching your every move. Come on, try it. You’ll like it. You’re in the forest—the Fang forest is a free space. Now you’re free.”

I shook my head again and Dina stood up. She kissed me while the other two began gently removing my clothes. I couldn’t refuse a third time. I was enjoying it, and, for the first time in my life, I felt sexually free.
We made love for fifteen minutes. I could finally touch that bottom, 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 me ashamed of myself.
I am sick, I thought often, sick with sin, embarrassed that I couldn’t tear my eyes away from her feminine curves. Whenever women around me would tell stories about their sex lives, I’d feel overcome with guilt for not being more like them; sometimes I felt I had no air in my lungs. Who would I talk to about my own desires? I didn’t know how to answer that question; I was afraid to even think it.

As we got dressed, 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 village fishermen often went. Since then, they had shared a certain complicity, an understanding of one another. After all, they were part of the same club.

“What club?” I asked, covering my nipples with my hands.

“The Indecency Club,” Linda answered with a smile. She was always content and laughed all the time. “You’ve become the fourth indecent woman in the village. Before, there were only three of us.”

When I returned home, my grandmother was waiting for me, 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 easy to reach when we were cooking. After sneezing twice, she asked me to sit down. She needed to speak with me right away and didn’t even change out of the smelly clothes she had worn while working on the farm. I didn’t change either. I still felt very nervous about what had happened in the forest with the girls, and I feared she would find me out by asking all her usual questions: “Hija, are you well?” “Are you still thinking about your wretched father?” “Have you finally met a man? Where does he work? Does he have any 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 grow old much faster than men do?”

My thoughts whirled as I tried to guess what she wanted to talk to me about. For a moment, I thought she would mention the attempt to murder Marcelo, or my excursion with the three mysterious girls to gather wood. But after placing a bit of tobacco right at the base of her lower lip, she announced that tomorrow I was to leave for a village called Ebian, where her married daughter lived. My mission consisted in bringing back 50,000 francs for her.

Of course! I remembered our visit to the curandera. The money was so that she could bring my grandfather back to her bed. She swallowed and asked me who I had gone into the forest with.

“I went alone,” I answered without hesitating. “Completely alone.”

“Very good, hija. At least you didn’t join those three indecent girls. I hate them so much! Especially Dina. Did you know 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 said, staring at me. Her eyes were red from the effects of the tobacco.

“And is that serious, Abuela? Is not having a novia serious?”

“Did you just 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 brink of old age—she is eighteen years old and has no husband! 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 talked and talked without pause, only to return to her order that I leave the very next day for Ebian, alone.

Alone? Something shivered inside me. Alone.

 

La Bastarda
Trifonia Melibea Obono
Translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel
2018, Feminist Press
ISBN: 9781936932238

Published with permission from Feminist Press

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