This story is by Samran Akhtar and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The day my mother died, Appajan told me, my father had left me in the cradle outside the centre. I grew up afraid of my shrivelled ears, flat nose, the left eye a white ball without a lid. My skin had bubbled like hot oil. I prayed every night that I’d wake up with a new face.
The other children said I carried the mark of the jinn because fire had touched me, but I’d never known the whole story. Whenever I asked, Appajan turned away, busied her hands, pretending I wasn’t there.
She’d laid out the purple dress on the cot. I’d worn it a hundred times. Every time I put it on, I was supposed to feel beautiful, but I never did.
Appajan said my father would never return. He’d never take me even for a day, but I imagined we’d sit by the water, silent, finding a way to close the gap between us that stretched for twelve years.
The bell rang downstairs. The children would never stop staring. I dabbed the sponge into the makeup powder, but put it back, and staggered down the steps.
A row of children lined up in front of the glass walls in the hallway. They’d all been abandoned, placed in the cradle outside the centre. But I wasn’t an orphan to be adopted.
I was a monster that lived on the third floor.
My chest tightened. I rubbed the sweat off my hands.
“Quickly! They’ll be here soon,” said Appajan.
The boys and girls turned their heads, followed every movement I made. Without makeup, I was an animal they had never seen before. Fear drew breath in their eyes. Their laughter faded away. I clutched my wrist, bit the inside of my cheek. I tried to smile hoping their fear would disappear, but the boy closest to me took a step back, clung to another’s tunic. I took a deep breath. It will all be over soon, and I can go back upstairs.
Every month, new children arrived. A missing arm, a cleft lip, a skinny body, defects that parents couldn’t bear, so they left them in the cradle outside.
“Be respectful when they arrive. Look down when you speak,” said Appajan, walking down the line, hands behind her back as if she’d punish us for not following her orders. “I want at least two or three of you to leave today.” She combed a boy’s hair, checked another’s cuticles until she stood to face me.
Appajan was the only mother many of us had known. Reporters with their bulky cameras often put us all in a room. They’d watch through the glass walls. Pens between their fingers, they’d scribble across the pages. They’d wave at me, tell me to smile, or ask me about a husband. Appajan would step in, tell them a zoo would be more entertaining.
Appajan claimed she’d never heard a child cry like I had that night. When she had pulled off the blanket, part of my skin had come off with it. She said I was only two.
“Just be yourself my little dove.” I hated it when she called me that. Doves were white, beautiful.
“And how do I do that?” I squinted up at the face wrapped in a hijab.
“You have to start a new life, Zahra. You can’t expect that man to show up after twelve years,” said Appajan, watching the girl next to me. Every time Appajan mentioned my father, her nose curled up in disgust. I didn’t blame her. For a long time, I hated my father, but I had one.
“I want to stay here. With you.”
“I’m old,” said Appajan, cupping my cheek in her hand. “One day my little dove, you’ll understand.”
“They’ll see how hideous I am. I shouldn’t be down here.”
“Then I’ll have to convince them.”
Not many strangers came upstairs, but ones that did looked for the perfect child. When they found one, Appajan would lock herself in her office. We’d knock on her door. She’d tell us to go away. The ones that left took nothing with them. They’d drive away in a fancy car. We’d never see them again. Appajan told us that our brothers and sisters were in a better place.
How did it feel to start a new life somewhere far away?
“Chins up, big smiles, and don’t be nervous.” Appajan rang the bell over her head and stood next to the staircase that led downstairs.
The father wore a suit with a red tie, the mother held onto a little boy who smiled from ear to ear, pulling her by the arm. Appajan fixed her hijab, nodded at the man. She kissed the little boy’s forehead, embraced the woman.
The boy’s back was arched as if his spine was sticking out. He rushed down the line, looking at every child. My lips trembled. He’d get scared. The family would leave without selecting a child.
I tried to picture my father’s face, but I never could. A part of me deep down believed my father had moved to a different country so the neighbours wouldn’t know I exist. Was he also afraid of me? Why wouldn’t he visit?
The boys and girls smiled down at the little boy with pale skin and golden hair. Some even said hello with hope in their eyes that he’d stop in front of them. Before he reached me, I put my hand on my face, opened the door to the third floor, and rushed upstairs.
The bell rang once. A brother or sister we’d never see again.
I felt the weight of a body at the edge of my cot. Appajan stroked my forehead. Tears filled the cracks in my cheeks. I was glad she could sit next to me and not be afraid.
“Shhh…little dove. It’s okay. It’s okay.”
“Don’t call me that,” I said, turning to look at her.
“They’re quiet birds, and you remind me of one.”
“They should remind you of beautiful things. Not me.”
“Zahra, accept the truth before it gets ugly.” Appajan pushed my hair back, wiped my cheek with the hem of her tunic.
“People will always be scared of me.”
“Do you know the night I found you in that cradle.” Appajan shifted her body and took my hand in hers. “I was grateful that your father had the decency to leave you in there.” She cupped her hand under my chin. “Did you ever wonder why your skin never fully healed?”
“I don’t understand.”
“It wasn’t fire, my dear. It was your father.” Appajan rubbed the back of her hand on my cheek. “Accept it and move on.”
“What happened to my mother?” I said.
“She had tried to protect you. You are a girl. Something your father hadn’t prayed for. He poured it on her head, but some of the acid touched your face.”
I stayed quiet, touched my chin as if I was discovering my scars for the first time.
“He’s a man full of sin,” said Appajan. She had cared for me all these years. She wouldn’t lie to me.
“Why didn’t he kill me then? Why bring me here?”
“Maybe his guilt tested him. He had the decency to spare you.”
“He should’ve done it. At least I wouldn’t have to face the world.”
“Your scars will always be a part of you. You’re not a monster. There’s ugliness in every one of us. But the one hidden inside is what the world can’t see.” Appajan had seen many horrors in her life. Many cases where children had died in the cradle, and she’d walked in with a tiny body wrapped in white cloth. I wanted to believe her, but it wasn’t that easy.
“I don’t want to leave you,” I said.
“Don’t speak nonsense. I’ve been a mother of over fifteen-hundred children. I will always be with you.” Appajan got up, clasped her hands in front of her. “Other families will come. Maybe this time you’ll feel beautiful in that purple dress.” I nodded and smiled at her. She leaned forward and kissed me on the head.
When the day arrived, it wasn’t a family, but a girl a few years older than me. Her face was wrapped in bandages, arms in a cast. Appajan and a few men that worked in the office downstairs carried the girl to the room at the end of the hallway. Children poked their heads out from the glass room. I followed Appajan, stood outside watching through the glass walls. The girl screamed and thrashed her arms. She clawed at the bandages, whimpered like a dying animal.
She ripped the cast off her arm. Her skin was pink, cut open like a pomegranate. I took a step back. Appajan turned to look at me.
“You’re not alone now,” she mouthed the words. Somehow, I felt like I’d known the girl for a long time.