A Glossary of Redemption

Caleb J. Dresser, SOM ’15

Second Prize Winner 2012 Gerald F. Berlin Creative Writing Award

This is not an accusation. This is a story, and like any story it is made up of facts and lies in equal measure. When she came to us, we were speechless. So was she. Without words you cannot tell a story. You also cannot tell a lie.

I will call her Khadra. This is the first lie. It is a lie of necessity. Her name, if she had one, is lost in the soft sand beside a dry river that dies in the desert somewhere beyond the edge of thought. No matter. We will give her another. She will wear her name like the mask of a burqa, hiding the mystery of her existence behind an exterior that begs no questions. Black cotton will cover the scars on her face as surely as the scars on her heart. She will carry them until she returns, beaten, to the cracked and sandy earth from which she came.

She was alone when they found her by the river. This is a half-truth, like her family, or the drought that broke two days earlier, or the hot dry wind that can suck the moisture out of a baby’s body in a few hours. She was half-alone in the hands of a kindly khaki-clad policeman that carried her home to join a family of eight. She had no voice, but she had a story. Hers is the only story that is true.

She tried to write her story on her face. She wrote in the only language she knew. Pain. Her poetry stung, like vinegar, and left tears in the eyes of her audience as much as it did in her own. An alliterative rash spelled out a story of birth and abandonment across her scalp in paragraphs of angry, swollen prose. Hands lifted her up, hands with the best of intentions, hands that didn’t know how to help.

They burned her face with lies of tremendous lineage. They meant her no harm, but harm they did. A local healer inoculated the fire of a thousand sunburned years into the soft flesh below her chin. From the top of her head to the base of her neck they tried to erase her futile story with plants and fire and faith, to make her as she once was. Their attempt failed, and in performing it they committed a second, greater crime. Their crime was a lie of hubris. They covered her story with their own.

Thus it is not a lie if I say that when she came to us she was speechless. The only voice she ever had was buried, burned, overwritten. Her face was a canvas covered in too much paint, a jumble of meaningless words that leaked a clear fluid onto the soft white gauze of the hospital.

Her new mother brought her only when Khadra’s mute indignation boiled over into welts and scabs floating on a bubbling sea of pus. We tried to stop things there, but we cannot claim a monopoly on truth. We wrote our story, the third story, in smears of antibiotics and antifungals that glistened on her skin in the dim light of afternoon. She found her voice, a thin, exhausted wail, while pink and white flowers blossomed outside her window. She did not use it often. What use is a voice if you cannot find your story under the lies others have heaped upon it?

She returned to us often, the white bandages stained yellow around her alert, crusted eyes. She cried out when we reached for the gauze, frighteningly aware for a girl of seven weeks. We could not hide the truth from her, nor the lies, not more than she could have hidden either from the policeman’s family. We swabbed and stained and focused. A pointillist canvas of Streptococcus bacteria danced before us in a gallery of light.

Weeks passed. We saw her, sometimes, when her new family brought her in for a checkup and more medication. Khadra’s face slowly began to emerge from the scabs and puss and bandages, a face that was beautiful for all its disfigurement. In late July, I held her while the head nurse gently removed the last of her bandages. As her new mother carried her toward the door, I half-believed I saw a smile poking through the scars. Perhaps it was just a reflection.