Gifts
    Neela K. Sheth
"I should 've left hours ago," Halima muttered as she placed her hands on her protruding abdomen and felt the baby inside her tighten into a knot. She rubbed her palms across her overstretched skin in unison, making smooth, circular movements. A vague discomfort plagued her loins. Every few minutes she thrust her fists into her lower back and took a deep breath. She had faced this sensation several times before and it no longer alarmed to her . . . four times when her healthy children were born and three times when the pregnancy had not been completed. Precipitous labor had occurred during the early months of one of her pregnancies. Even after a year, terror flashed in her memory from the episode when her husband Chima had kicked her in a violent rage. She had miscarried the next day. The loss each time was always so much greater than the physical pain she endured when the babies were born full term.

Evening light faded fast and Halima hurried through the twilight, tightly holding onto a cloth wrapped package of food. Mrs. Mehta, the Indian lady Halima worked for, always gave her leftovers from their own evening meal. As always, this evening too, Halima had waited till the meal was done. She washed the dinner plates that her young helper brought back to the kitchen and then she emptied the leftover vegetables, the lentil dal and rice into her own cheap, tin containers. She took out the remaining flat breads, the chapatis she had skillfully rolled out just an hour earlier, from the circular, stainless steel container. Each one of these chapatis was individually fluffed up over a hot flame, rubbed with plenty of ghee and served hot to the Mehtas as they sat down for their dinner. Mrs. Mehta had taught Halima the basics of Indian cooking over the years and with time, Halima excelled in making several Indian vegetarian dishes. Now she folded these already cold chapatis into a large, cloth napkin and tied the napkin into a firm knot. This day she wanted to finish more than her usual last minute chores for she did not want Mrs. Mehta to notice her distress and send her home before the meal was done.

Faces of her hungry children loomed before her and she was glad for the food. But being a proud Ugandan from the Moshimi tribe, she always made it sound like she was doing Mrs. Mehta a favor by taking the leftovers home. A smile escaped her as she remembered the expectant looks of her young children waiting for her. She tried her best to do something for each one of them whenever she could. This day she carried a special gift for her daughter Naaz. Mrs. Mehta had cleaned out a chest of drawers and found a broach with a stone missing. Cheap jewelry was no longer an attraction for Mrs. Mehta's daughter, now that the family business was prosperous and money plentiful.

"Here Halima," Mrs. Mehta had said. "Take this broach home if you want to. I don't want Vicki to wear it again. Your girl may like it." So saying she tossed it to Halima. Naaz possessed only one other piece of jewelry, a necklace from Vicki's jewelry box. Even with a stone missing from the broach, Halima knew Naaz would love it. But she decided to hide the broach from Chima, at least for a while because she was afraid he'd snatch it from her and sell it for more liquor. Before she left for work, Halima fixed the clip of the broach carefully on the inside of her blouse and drew her shawl close across her shoulders.

Halima looked around furtively, her eyes piercing through the semi-darkness. For the last several months, she was afraid of soldiers stopping her. Many of her friends had bad experiences but when she asked her husband Chima to come to the Mehta residence when it was time to go home, he called her names.

In the days before the revolution, it was different. Chima and their eldest boy farmed their rented plot of land. They grew maize on their hand-ploughed land and sold it in the city. A little money came in, and together with what Halima earned doing household work, the family managed to live.

Halima peered into the distorted shadows of small trees that lined the rough, country paths. Muddy puddles of water in the middle of the road made strange shapes. She heard no sounds, no whispers; there was no wind and the deep silence around her made her even more uncomfortable.

She pulled her head scarf over her ears, and took in a deep breath. She stood still and looked around. The discomfort in her sides quickly changed to periodic spasms. Halima turned the corner and stood in front of a large clearing she was familiar with. It meant that she had walked almost a third of the way home, although at this point her path seemed interminable. Across the maidan, she saw the vague outline of a cluster of huts in the far distant corner. Through this eerie haze, just to be able to see her village of Mahuri gave her some comfort, but she wondered how much longer it would take for her to get there.

It became dark but the oil lamps in the huts had not yet been lit. Her husband, Chima would normally do it for her every evening before she got home. Now on the dark road, Halima put her hand up to her chest to feel the broach safely tucked inside her blouse.

Chima liked the money Halima brought in. So lately she told him more lies. Sometimes she said Mrs. Mehta had not paid her for that month! Another time she said they cut her pay because she broke a precious vase! Things like that, while in reality she told Mrs. Mehta to hold a portion of her pay back. This way when she felt the need, she could sneak home some extra grain or fire wood or a new pair of clothes for one of the children.

Halima remembered her encounter with Chima from last night and shuddered. Chima in a state of drunken rage had shouted at her when she had asked about the stick marks on their eight year old son's arm. The bruises over the child's eyes were also large and he cried a lot, but the child refused to answer any of her questions. Chima ignored her inquiry but she knew. She slept on the mat beside Chima that night but hated his touch. He beat her on many such nights and she was afraid of his wrath. Especially these days with a new baby so soon to be born. That brutal kick from last year resurfaced in her mind and she moved away just a little, her eyes still fixed on Chima. In the fifteen years since their marriage, things always looked more normal when the sun came up the next morning.

As Halima walked back, she hoped she would find Chima sober that night of all nights. She still cared for him, the father of her four children and with a fifth one on the way. She thought more and more about the way things had changed in their simple life. Chima was unable to farm any longer. It w as the only thing he had done for all these years and knew how to do. Dada Idi Amin's government had imposed severe regulations on the farmers. The government wanted to buy out the land and build big factories on it. There was political turmoil of the worst kind and military soldiers in authority from the Government roamed all over and looted farms, villages and individuals. There was no respect for religion or human rights.

Halima thought of her friend, Jessie, whose only fault was that she was born in a Christian family. Jessie, black like Halima, and her children had fled the village after months of being harassed. Halima didn't know if there would be soldiers in the other village too, who would give Jesse and her family a hard time. The climate was terse all over the country. After Jessie left, soldiers still kept coming back to harass others. Halima had friends who worked for Asians and Whites like she did. Unrest was all around and in the meantime, people like Chima drank more and more.

A jeep appeared out of nowhere from behind her and screeched to a halt next to Halima. Then it made a noisy U-turn and its head lights glared on her from just a few feet away. A black soldier jumped out of the jeep and rushed towards her. She could discern one more soldier sitting in the jeep, his gun pointed at her. She peered at the young man who had walked up to her and thought she recognized him as a boy from her village of Mahuri. She couldn't be sure because the military uniform gave all of them, even a young boy of seventeen or eighteen a look of authority and indifference.

"Do you know the Mehtas?" The soldier in the jeep asked abruptly.

"Yes," she murmured, fiddling with the ends of her scarf, eyes looking down at her big stomach. The pains within her made her shift from one leg to the other. She wondered if she should ask the boy his name, or say she knew who he was, but she was too scared to open her mouth.

"An African working for an Asian. You dog!" The uniformed boy next to her shouted.

She dared to look up but she did not answer. This was the boy from her village whose name was Ali. She was almost sure. Perhaps the other one was also from her neighborhood, she conjectured. Only they would know where she, wife of Chima the drunkard, went to work every day.

The soldier standing next to her came even closer. He pulled her shawl down and then tore away her head scarf exposing her short curly hair. He kept staring at her. He put his hands on her breasts as she flinched from his touch and as the cramp in her stomach doubled her up in pain. She could smell his hot breath. A hard object, the broach hidden under her blouse struck his palm and fell to the ground. His fingers grasped the buttons of her blouse and pulled at them. Halima saw greed in his eyes and then her eyes rested on the cheap metal broach glittering in the dark. The boy noticed her protuberant abdomen as she let out a muffled gasp. A stronger contraction came on and she could no longer hide the pain. She started to say, "Ali, don't..." when he slapped her across the face.

"You slut, you thief!" He shouted at her. Then he paused for just a brief second. and looked around as if wondering who to impress with the loot he had found.

"She's stolen some jewelry, this no-good mama," he yelled out to the driver and the other officer in the jeep. "Let's take her in. She'll look good locked up."

The other man in uniform jumped out of the jeep and came toward her. Then he circled around her as if wanting to see her from all angles. Halima jerked forward as she felt a kick on her behind. She stood rigid, face to the ground, arms across her chest trying to hide her exposed breasts. Her bundle of food still neatly tide in cloth, lay in a dirt puddle. Halima kept her focus on the food, till her vision blurred and she could see nothing. Stilled by fright, she could not move. Then the jeep started up and seconds later, the two officers pulled her in and pushed her into a far corner. She cried out in pain and then she was numb. Inside of her, she could feel the contractions coming on stronger, and then suddenly a warm surge of release as she sat huddled in a pool of water and blood.

The wet warmth penetrated the seats in the jeep. The officer sitting next to her looked around him. Alarmed by the wetness and stench of blood, he turned to Halima. He heard her labored breath.

"My baby! My baby! Coming, coming." Halima screamed as the cramps came on stronger. Then she sighed heavily and relaxed before the next contraction came on.

"Move man, move," the soldier Ali shouted. " The bitch about to have a baby!"

"What bother! You picked the wrong kind, you stupid asshole! What to do? What if she dies on us!" The two men in uniform started to argue.

"Faster, faster, move," Ali shouted to the driver. "They're all the same. Dirt. Just dirt!"

Those words entered her ears passively. The phrases continued to ring in her ears: All the same, just dirt.

And who were they? These people, just boys who had now become important soldiers. Even their skin was the same color as hers.

"She have to go to jail, we have our orders. These bastards that work for the Asians. And she's a thief besides. At least we could have some fun, if she weren't this way." The soldier she did not know said.

"Let's just dump her. Do something, man. She's trouble in the jeep." Ali shouted to the other in panic. The jeep roared on. She wondered if the boy really cared.

"Yes, dump her, quick. That way nobody will know. We won't have to explain anything to the boss man." It was again the voice of the soldier Ali, the boy from her own village who had torn open her blouse, She felt the jeep swerve and change directions. They must have traveled for ten or fifteen minutes before the jeep lurched to a stop.

Halima found herself being picked up like a pulpless being and hurled down on the road side in the shadows of some huts. Somebody threw a hard object next to her but she was too weak to stretch out her arm and retrieve the broach. She heard heavy boots climb back into the jeep. Then the jeep roared away. She did not know if she wanted her baby to be alive anymore. She was just too weak even to cry out for help.

Halima was not aware of how long she had been by the roadside. When she opened her eyes she saw somebody walk towards her with a lantern in hand. She shrank back in fright and turned her face away. A faint cry that sounded like her name made her look again and in time she recognized Chima's silhouette, his sure step as he came forward, with the lantern through the darkness. Somebody must have seen her being dumped. Somebody must have told Chima. Maybe they heard the jeep come into the village and hid from it for a while before they found out what had happened. Halima's first thoughts were that Chima would be angry, that he would beat her instantly and then ask her many questions. Then she heard Chima's steady voice, a voice without anger and without the drunken drawl. She heard him tell a child to get the village midwife. She felt his strong arms around her as he picked her up, mess and all and they started towards their home.



Neela K. Sheth, after 23 years as a pathologist at a veteran's hospital, writes about the human side of war. Neela has published several technical papers, many non-fiction pieces and a few stories. Her non-fiction piece, ďA Farewell to NamĒ won 5th place in the Milwaukee Journalís 1990 Wordsmith Contest. In 1998, she translated and adapted her grandmother's life story for limited publication. In June, 2000, her story made the top five percent of the BBC World Short Story Contest. Neela is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel.


 
 
 
 

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