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still playing

(original text; first published as a graphic novel piece in Kwani? 03)

When you’re eight years old, you idolize your father. He is everything to you; he is your protector, hiding you when your mother is furious at you for setting fire to her dress, he is your comforter, holding you when you have bad dreams. He is your playmate, always ready to drop to the floor with you in a mock tussle.

And that’s where it all begins, innocently enough, like a child’s game.

You’ve wrestled with him before, your tiny fists beating on his chest as you roll about, laughing. His laughter is loud and booms through the house, and his arms wrap themselves tightly around you. He rolls over, still clutching you to his chest, still howling with mischievous laughter, and you can feel the vibrations, deep rumbles that start up below you and explode into the air as you cling to him.

Still playing.

‘Had enough, little one?’ he asks, grinning down at you as he props himself up on his hands. You shake your head, trying to look tough like those pro-wrestlers on television.

‘Of course not!’ you reply. It’s the standard response in the game.

He laughs again. ‘Well, then, we’ll see how you fare against… the tickles!’

And, as your father, he definitely knows exactly where to strike. He tickles you mercilessly, his fingers running up and down your sides. He knows the extra-sensitive spots at your waist and you squirm helplessly on the floor, giggling. You can feel his hands wandering down, light touches that make you laugh uncontrollably until you’re gasping for breath and your eyes are watering.

Still playing.

And still, he doesn’t let up. You feel a hand sliding under your t-shirt, poking and prodding, but when you look up at him in surprise, he only shakes his head. He is still smiling, but the smile looks strange, cold, almost frozen in place. It’s not a smile you’re used to seeing your father wearing, and you tense up, wondering. His fingers graze lightly under it, still wandering over the vest you’re wearing underneath the shirt, resting against your stomach.

Still… playing?

‘Shh,’ he says, and you lie perfectly still. You can feel the heat radiating off the hand on your stomach; when you look up at him his eyes are glittering oddly and a few strands of his hair stick to his forehead. He takes a deep breath, and then you’re aware of his other hand, creeping over the waistband of your pants. He hooks a finger over it, pausing.

‘Dad? Dad… what are you… what…’

‘Shh!’ he says again, this time with a sense of urgency in his voice. He snaps the top button of your pants open, and you can feel his hands start to tremble. Your eyes widen as you feel his hands sliding down, and even though you’re only eight, you know that there’s something awfully wrong here, something terribly wrong.

‘Dad, this isn’t part of the game…’

‘We’re playing a new game,’ he says sharply, and you shiver as you feel his hands brush between your legs. In your mind, you can vaguely recall your mother asking you to tell her if anyone tried to touch you down there, and when you asked why, she said it was something bad. As it is, this new game is scary, and you wonder why your father wants to play it.

The door creaks slightly from somewhere on your right. You hadn’t heard the sound from outside but you can hear them clearly now, soft, padded footsteps on the floor. Your mother’s slippers are all you can see when you turn your head to look. Her laugh floats down from somewhere above you.

‘Still playing, boys?’

You wonder if you should say something, but you’re not sure what to say.

‘Still playing,’ your father replies, grinning as you look up at him. He shakes his head slightly, so that only you can see, his hair falling over his face and his eyes narrowed in a way you know means trouble if you don’t obey.

You know that you should say something, but you just pretend to smile.

‘Well, then. Just make sure you don’t break anything,’ your mother says, her voice sounding like it’s miles above you, and she turns to go. And even though you suddenly want to shout, you want to wriggle out from under your father’s steely gaze and run and hide…

You don’t even dare to say something, because you’re too scared of what might happen if you do. All you can do now is just look away so you won’t have to see his eyes anymore, and try not to pay attention to the sound of the door closing.

He hovers above you like nothing just happened, propped up on his hands but when he smiles you want to cry because you suddenly feel awful. It wells up in your chest, a tight, constricting feeling that tells you that it’s not over yet.

‘Good boy,’ he whispers as he leans closer to you. The hot, damp breath on your face is suffocating, and as he places a hand on your chest you wonder if he can feel your heart, beating out a violent tattoo. ‘Don’t tell anyone about our… new game… okay?’

You just nod, too scared to do anything else while his hand is over your heart and the ghost of a touch rests on the waistband of your pants.

Almost as if you had never stopped playing, his hands move to your sides and start tickling you again, except that now, they’re not tickling anymore… they’re poking and prodding and pinching in a way that isn’t even remotely like tickling. You try to force out a laugh but all you can feel is fear and wonder and the hand that softly brushes over your skin, and the laugh sounds more like a sob. You try not to flinch when he kisses your forehead, try not to scream as he murmurs in your ears and hugs you close with one arm while his other tugs off your pants.

When you’re eight years old, you can close your eyes and pretend that your father will always be there to protect you.

You can pretend that all you’re doing is still playing.



© Marziya Mohammedali, 2001-2013