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 one, two, three, four and five.
I am escorted back to my room. The doctor with the face like a train wreck stays back in his chair and looks over at me leaving, smiling that same sad smile.
“We’ll talk again soon,” I hear him say.
Outside, it is still light, but something tells me this is not right. I have been with the doctor for ages. It should be dark. It isn’t. I tip my head up and stare at the sky, but I still can’t see the sun. I get dizzy. I bring my head back down, I stare at everything head-on.
The ground beneath me is still cemented. Colour is still missing. There are no plants, I see no boundary wall in any direction and I hear no birds chirping. All is still.
The two attendants that are with me are different from the ones I met earlier. They wear the same uniform though—white all over. They wear headscarves. Their faces are set. Their skin is clear, porcelain. Something I had not noticed before now jumps out at me: they have no eyebrows. It isn’t a glaring defect, and not one that makes its presence felt immediately. It gives their faces a softer, smoother look though, elongates their foreheads, makes their eyes look bigger, makes their expressions more childlike. They see me looking. I look away.
The room is just as cold as when I left it.
“There’s no toilet paper in the bathroom. I need some.”
They don’t answer. They close the door behind them with a soft click. I walk in and draw in a breath that hurts. I am in a trance; there is a film over reality; things have slowed down a fraction of an instant and I long for them to go back to their normal pace. I can feel my teeth in my skull. My skin burns.
I need to use the toilet, but there is no toilet paper. This makes me apprehensive.
I walk slowly towards the bathroom and survey the surroundings. Cold, sterile. Everything sparkles, everything is clean. There is that same chemical odour. It tickles the inside of my nose. I walk to the sink to check my reflection, but then remember there is no mirror. Reflective surfaces are hard to come by in this place, I am beginning to realize. I bend down, get on my knees and study my reflection in the toilet bowl instead.
I am distorted.
I am trying to distract myself, but there is no help for it—I need to use the toilet.
I drop my pants. I am apprehensive. I walk towards the toilet. I am apprehensive. I face away, lower myself on it slowly. I am apprehensive. But I no longer have any control. A trickle of piss hits the bowl.
I study the faucet, wonder how I am supposed to use it. I flush. Take it out of its holder. I look around once again for toilet paper. For anything I can use as toilet paper. There is nothing.
I spread my legs gingerly. Aim, push the button. A jet of water exits, hits me with force. It is hot, hotter than I expected. There is a sting; there is an enormous chemical sting so painful I gasp. I drop the faucet; it clatters to the floor beside my feet.
There is a chemical smell. This is not water, I realize. I am gasping; there is a smell like anti-septic in the room. The sting gets worse. I lurch to my feet, stagger out of the bathroom, collapse on the bed, my hands clutched between my legs, trying to soothe the sting away.
I take deep breaths, a technique I learnt a long while ago in a place that seems a million miles away. I close my eyes and recall the sunshine, the long swallows of cigarette smoke, the sound of his voice that sent tingles down my back.
The sting lessens.
The room is cold.
The duvet is white, soft.
I pull it over myself.
I am shivering.
I don’t intend on falling asleep, but I do.
It is still light out.
There is a shrill ring in my head.
I wake up with a jolt.
My beeper is blinking.
The screen reads 404.
It cannot be time to go back yet, I think. How long have I been asleep? I have no way of knowing. It is still light out; I have nothing that can tell me the time. I am growing increasingly disoriented. I couldn’t have been asleep for more than two hours, I tell myself. There is a weariness in my body— something heavy is pushing down on it. My hands are still clutched between my legs, and I feel the faintest sense of the sting, though it has largely dissipated.
The beeper is still ringing. I push a button on the side to silence it, registering my consent.
I am in the same t-shirt I fell asleep in. I have no pants on.
I lurch to my wardrobe, throw the doors open.
My clothes are missing. In their place hangs the standard uniform—white all over.
I toy with a strand of my hair; contemplate whether to put the uniform on.
In the end, I put it on— most of it anyway.
I walk out of the door and into the light. It hurts my eyes.
He is sitting in his usual position behind his desk.
This time, his face doesn’t bother me.
He smiles and gestures for me to sit down. I do.
“I am. You beeped.”
His smile widens. “Sorry about that, I didn’t want to wake you, but it was out of my hands.”
“Who do you work for?”
“When the time is right,” He says simply.
“All my clothes are missing.”
“You’re not wearing the headscarf.”
“I like my hair.”
“It’s standard practice here to wear the headscarf.”
“I like my hair.”
“How was your first night?”
“Awful. But you already know that, you’ve been watching.”
He shrugs, smiles.
“Again, I didn’t want to watch you, but it was out of my hands.”
“There is no toilet paper in the rooms.”
“I thought we went over this already.”
I shake my head no.
“The clinic has what some would say a very controlled environment. There are certain things that aren’t allowed, certain things that are discouraged. I thought you read over the contract.”
“I did; it said not to bring anything in from the outside. I didn’t bring anything from the outside. But I did think it would all be provided for here. That reminds me, I need to take my insulin, check my sugar.”
“There’s no need, we’ve taken care of it.”
I am on edge now. “What do you mean?”
“Someone came by when you were asleep and checked it, gave you the necessary dose.”
“How would you know what the necessary dosages are? Only I know that. You shouldn’t have done that. You don’t know what you’re doing. I need my insulin. I need my monitor.”
He smiles, reaches across to open the drawer, takes out my blood sugar monitor and places it on the table.
“Why don’t you check yourself,” he says simply.
I pull it towards me. I steel myself. I open it up, insert the strip, pull out the pricking instrument, use it. A drop of blood gathers at the surface of my thumb. I touch it the strip. It sucks it up greedily. A countdown starts up on the screen.
“90,” I say quietly.
“Pretty perfect, I’d say.”
I remain quiet.
He takes the monitor back. I let it slip from my grasp. He shuts it up in his drawer.
“You may be ready to be told some things. Are you ready?”
“I don’t know, am I?”
“We’re of the opinion that you are,”
He laughs. “That’s not one of the things you’re ready for.”
“What am I ready for?”
“Small details. Let’s start with the small details.”
“What are the small details?”
“Does your cunt still sting?”
I look up sharply at the sound of that word.
“You shouldn’t say that word.”
“Are you offended?”
“I was simply trying to be anatomically correct.”
“Say vagina, then.”
“But the antiseptic didn’t sting your vagina, it stung your cunt.”
I don’t know what to say. I am getting angry.
He sees my discomfort. He smiles.
“We’re of the opinion that the word cunt is something to be reclaimed,” he says lightly. “We are also of the opinion that the truly offensive words are ones like vagina and labia. Scientifically sanctioned words that diminish the whole of female sexuality to nothing but reproduction. In fact, the worst word, according to us, is womb. Worse than fuck, and yes, worse than cunt. You may not want to use that in our presence.”
There is an edge to his voice. Shadows play across his face, the gash swims before my eyes, appears to be moving.
“I see,” I say nothing else, and he continues.
“Cunt is a powerful word. It’s wonderful for exacerbating phallic anxiety. Do you see?”
“I see,” I say nothing else, and he continues.
“Cunt challenges receptivity. It challenges submission. It challenges the missionary position. It challenges the masculinization of sexuality. It challenges objecthood. Do you see?”
“I see,” I say nothing else, he continues.
“You spoke of men earlier. A wise cunt once said that the patriarchal state could never survive the re-conquest by women of their own sexuality. Do you see?”
“I see,” I look up. I smile.
“Now let me ask you again, does your cunt still sting?”
“No, not any more. But it was really bad last night.”
“That’s normal the first few times. One of the small details we pay close attention to at the retreat is germs. We try to maintain as sterile an environment as possible, to discourage the germs from reproducing. The temperature is kept cold enough to stop them from multiplying, and everything is wiped down with antiseptic many times a day.
The reason your cunt stung is because the water here is treated with antibacterial, antifungal and antiseptic formulas. It can be painful at first if you’re not used to it. But that’ll soon subside. Now you see why we don’t provide toilet paper. It does nothing to prevent germs; it’s a filthy habit.
Your clothes were taken away because it’s standard practice. We find that people are more receptive to the programme if they don’t have to worry about what to wear every morning. Our aim is to eliminate all unnecessary tasks so you can fully concentrate on what we’re trying to do here. You can leave the headscarf off for now, but certain duties we may assign you to do soon will require you to wear it at all times.
Is that understood?”
“These, like I said, are just a few small details we feel you’re ready to handle. They may seem confusing or unnecessary, but they’re not, and when you’re ready, I’ll explain why.
You’re free to do whatever it is you like between meetings. You have an all access pass to our extensive grounds and you might want to make use of the privilege. We haven’t quite figured out your schedule yet so for now you’ll only be meeting with me. That might change and we’ll inform you if it does.
Food will be served in your room, though we strongly discourage overeating. However, if you do get hungry outside of the regular feeding times, all you have to do is open the drawer in your bedside table. You’ll find a phone and all you have to do is pick it up and ask and we’ll determine whether or not to give it to you.
All this is scary, I know. But you have to trust us; we know how to take care of you. As far your diabetes is concerned, we won’t be able to return the insulin or monitor to you, but we will be around to check often and provide insulin. Your sugar levels will be fine. That’s a promise and I always keep my word. We will provide all other medication we feel you may need, and it’s stated in the contract that you cannot refuse to take anything.
Any questions?” he ends.
“Just one: Why?”
He laughs again. “That’s one big detail you’re not ready to learn just yet.”
He motions for me to leave, waves when I’m at the door, smiles. I close it gently behind me. There are no attendants waiting outside.
I make my way back to my room.
All else is quiet, quite still.
When I enter, I see the last of my clothes, my t-shirt and pants, have been cleared away.