Shifa’s love of experimental fiction and feminist theory have contributed to the conception of ‘Womb’, a serialized novel to be featured here once every two weeks week. Here’s chapter onetwo and three.

Chapter Four:

He laughs and his eyes crinkle at the corners. I could study those crinkles all my life, I could study those crinkles all my life and be happy. I smile.

“You’re twenty! You know nothing!”

I punch his arm good-naturedly. I laugh and I say: “Hey! You don’t know me! I know plenty of stuff.”

He turns serious. His already dark eyes darken. I could study those eyes all my life, I could study those eyes all my life and be happy. I continue smiling.

“Why are you here then? If you know everything?” His voice is gravelly. His voice is the sexiest thing I have ever heard—it is a smoker’s voice; it is intoxicating; it tickles my ears as it enters my body and makes its way up and down my spine; I shudder because it is so exquisite.

“I’m here.”

“I can see that,” he laughs.

I pull at my cigarette and he pulls at his and all is quiet, quite content. The sun is shining just off centre and it’s warming our skin and I have a feeling how separate we are, each perfectly ensconced in his own little envelop of skin.

I turn on my side and study his face. It is darker than mine, older. A hint of stubble struggles to break the surface. I reach out a hand and touch it. He pulls at his cigarette, smiling.

“Why are you here?” I ask in return.

“I’m here.”

“I can see that. But why?”

“You first,” he smiles.

“Okay, me first.”

“Go on.”

“Give me a minute! I have to get my thoughts together.”

He pipes down; his body grows still. He is ready to listen.

I clear my throat. “It’s difficult for me to talk about it,” I say.

He says nothing, just continues to breathe steadily. His breathing lulls me. I lay my head against his chest and look up at the summer-blue sky. It is hot, we are perspiring. I pull at my cigarette, watch the smoke curl above my head. I begin:

“Eighteen years ago, the wrong sperm happened to travel to the wrong egg. The egg just sat there waiting, not knowing any better. And then, finally, after what seemed to the egg’s sense of time to take an eternity, a little speck came swimming up whatever canal sperm cells swim up and approached the egg seeking permission to enter.

Now I’ve already mentioned the egg really didn’t know any better and let this little guy (no doubt exhausted after all his travels) enter. The rest, as they say, is history—but history I know you’re going to make me tell you,” I stop for a second, turn my head towards his. I can see the stubble under his chin, he is not very good at shaving the area, I surmise.

He sees me looking. “And nine months later, you were born,” he says.

“You catch on pretty quick, K—. I’m impressed.”

“You shouldn’t be surprised; I’m exceptionally gifted.”

“Cheeky bugger.”

“Tut-tut, this digression is weakening the narrative tension. Didn’t your university teach you anything?”

I kick his shin.

“Ow!” he cries.

“Shut up and listen.” I continue:

“So where was I? Yes, the sperm and the egg. Anyway, they got to work. Dividing and multiplying and so on. I was cute right from the zygote stage. Boy oh boy! Loveliest collection of cells you ever saw grouped together in one place. But there was a problem—though the ultra scan didn’t catch it, there was just the teeny-tiniest bit of a mistake. Something deep within the chromosomal structure that didn’t quite turn out the way it was supposed it—

“You following me?” I ask.

“Every step of the way,” he answers.

“Right, so. My mother and father didn’t suspect a thing—although I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect that they would. The doctors didn’t either—although, again, the problem was so small, so tiny, it was virtually undetectable. So everyone remained in the dark and everything went along swimmingly.

I spent my days in the womb kicking away and hiccupping and sucking my thumb (or however it is that babies spend their time) and my parents went wild decorating the nursery.

The labour is when things started to get a little off track. I took forever coming out. Something about my head being too large. My mum was a lady; she wasn’t one to scream, so she bit her lip so hard that by the end of it, it was cracked and black and needed stitches. It wasn’t the only part of her that needed stitches—I had done a fair amount of damage entering the world, and she didn’t get to hold me till a day later, she was so exhausted she passed out cold for a day. My dad, I’m told, came to see me through the glass windows, and there I was, pink, perfectly round face, snub nosed—cute. I was perfect, he probably thought, breathing a sigh of relief. But of course, that relief was a bit premature.

Things went well for a number of years. I grew up in a very supportive and loving home. My parents doted on me—they were so satisfied, they chose not to have any more children. I was happy, if a little lonely sometimes. I never got along well with the other kids—they just seemed so…childish. I don’t know.

My mum was my best friend though. I’d tell her everything. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the healthiest of relationships—we’ve never managed to completely snip the umbilical cord; we’re probably a little too close. Dad was great though—a real stand-up guy. There whenever we needed him and we never lacked for anything.

But my 14th year rolled along and things started to go a little pear-shaped. I started to have these really awful dreams—which I’m not telling you about, so don’t bother asking. Anyway, the dreams aren’t really important. What’s important is how I came awake feeling—it was a dread so dark, so deep that it honestly felt like the end of the world. It was like a heaviness in my head, a silence in my body—a stillness so profound I was convinced each time that nothing would ever move again. It was the end of atrophy, an eternal stillness, and there was nothing to do but kill myself. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t suicidal, it wasn’t ideation—it was just stillness, the end of the world, the universe, of everything. The arrow of time just gave out, and what else was there to do? It was like a natural full-stop.

But of course, I never craved death outside of those few hours after waking, which is why I was—and still am—convinced that I wasn’t suicidal. It was more like my brain wobbled and entered some sort of groove which stalled its rhythm. Even talking about it makes me feel weird. It was an awful, awful feeling. The worst. “

K—remains quiet, dragging at his cigarette. The sun has moved and his face is in shadow. I continue.

“I didn’t tell anyone about the dreams for the longest time. I knew it would upset my parents and I was convinced that I could deal with them on my own. But they kept getting worse. Every night, I’d wake up feeling the same way. It became so bad that soon I was too scared to fall asleep. I’d just lie awake at night and play the prayers my mum had taught me on loop in my head. Nothing changed though, no one heard. I was locked in my own corner of hell and I’d done nothing to deserve it.”

I stop. I take a deep breath. It catches in my throat. I take a long drag on my cigarette and will my nerves to still.

“Things just kept getting worse. The dreams just kept getting worse. The lack of sleep was affecting me really badly, but I managed to just keep going, getting through each day on two, three hours of sleep. But I had a feeling I’d crack sometime. And I did. My second year of college, a full 6 years after this whole ordeal first started, I cracked. But not in the way I expected I would. I didn’t go crazy, or start hearing voices, or rush at anyone with a knife. I just… stopped. My brain wobbled one last time and entered that groove and couldn’t get loose again. I quit college, just walked to the office one day and withdrew my name and came back home in a daze and told my parents. They were shocked, of course. Just couldn’t understand what had happened. I was always a decent enough student, had no problems with anyone at school. They couldn’t understand what had gone wrong. I couldn’t either. But something had.

I spent my days just staring into space, talking as little as I could, eating as little as I could.  My brain was still hitching in that same groove. It just couldn’t shake itself loose. The feeling of heaviness was so bad that sometimes I’d bang on the side of my skull with my fists, the way you hit a television that has lost its signal, trying to jolt it back into working. But it didn’t work— my brain couldn’t be jolted back. I was lost to myself.

After spending a month like that, my parents asked a doctor friend of theirs to see me, and he did and sent me for all these scans, but they were all clear. Then he referred me to a specialist—a psychiatrist, I’m not ashamed to say. But he was at a loss too. I was tested for anxiety, depression, psychosis, but nothing fit. My groove wasn’t quantifiable, it would seem. Anyway, after clearing me for everything, and deciding that I didn’t fit the criteria in order to be medicated, he suggested this place.

So. Here I am.”

I stop. Look up at him again.

“Is your brain still lurching its way around the same groove?’ He asks.

“Yes,” I answer simply.

He lifts his head and kisses my forehead. His lips are firm, warm.

“Your turn,” I say.

“My turn,” he agrees.

And begins.