The sky was strange that day. Blanched white. This lack of colour disturbed her. Alba held tighter to her older sister’s hand. Leah was walking with an inscrutable expression on her face but as she felt her sister’s small, soft palm against hers, she turned and smiled. Alba didn’t know why but she felt relieved by this. Without Leah, Alba would feel as if she were lost at sea. Leah was a warrior. Alba knew that once she was there, everything would be all right at the end.
Alba and Leah were walking alongside the river. It was eerily quiet, other than the crunching noise the grass made as their sneakers crushed it with every step. Leah always wore her hair in a high ponytail. It was like a landmark if Alba ever got lost. All she had to do was find Leah and her ponytail. Things weren’t always easy for them, so this was a comfort for Alba, a happy constant.
They were getting closer to the house. Leah was marching steadfastly along. She was now pulling Alba along behind her. Alba had slowed down. She wasn’t in a hurry to return. Leah usually wasn’t as well. What was the rush? Alba wondered. There was now a breeze blowing. It was annoying, hitting them in their faces in blasts. The house was in sight. Alba was stumbling behind, but Leah held onto her tightly.
As they approached the door, Leah halted suddenly. Alba hit into her back. Leah gave her a reassuring smile and pulled the key from her pocket. The house was dim inside, all the curtains were pulled. The air smelt stale, like cigarettes, damp carpet, and alcohol.
‘Why are you so late?’ A voice slurred from a dark corner. Leah ignored it. She led Alba into the kitchen. ‘Answer me, damn it. Ungrateful wretches’ the voice called agitatedly.
Leah set to work in the kitchen. Alba sat at the table patiently, awaiting instruction. Leah always decided how they would divide the day’s work. Instead, Leah cut some slices of bread and pulled butter from the fridge. She put them on a tray and gestured at Alba. ‘Come on’ she said. They went into the back. Leah locked the door behind them.
Alba was surprised. Usually, they finished all the housework and made dinner before they were allowed to eat. But Leah hadn’t organised dinner. They ate in silence. Then, Leah said suddenly, her eyes far, gleaming slightly. ‘Tomorrow, we’re leaving this place’. They could hear the man grumbling to himself, the sound of shattering glass against a wall. Alba bit a chunk out of a slice of bread.
It had been a long path to this house. She would never call it a home. Her home was now a fading memory. Alba had had several siblings and they had scraped by every day. One day, a man came to talk to her father. Then that night, she had been sent away. The man never kept her in one place for long. And she wasn’t the only one. There were several other girls. Some younger, a few older. All dirty, and desperate, and sad. Eventually, they were loaded into the back of a truck. There were already some other girls inside. This is where she met Leah. Her sister. Her protector.
Once inside, she had almost fallen asleep. She would have, if not for the constant, jarring rocking back and forth. They must have been driving on an uneven road. She had lost sense of the time. It was dark in the container, and although her eyes had adjusted, she could only faintly see the outlines of the others. Mostly, she could smell them. They hadn’t had a shower in days. It was musty and sweaty. Leah was next to her. She was probably thirteen, fourteen, but she whispered kind words, and let Alba hold her dirt caked palm throughout the entire long drive.
When the truck finally stopped, they were placed in a warehouse. Different men came. They deliberated and chose from amongst the girls. Alba never let go of Leah and mercifully, they were sent away together. ‘The man’ as they called him was brutish and short tempered. He was always drunk. This turned out to be a blessing. When there weren’t any others at the house, he would be in a state so inebriated that he could barely stand, and therefore he couldn’t lash out at them, or shout at them for slacking at the chores. All they did was work. When they left the house, it was a brief respite, but it was usually on an errand of some sort. They were treated as messengers, labourers, mules, empty vessels.
So as Alba ate her bread, and regarded Leah, she wasn’t sure what to think. Where would they go? Would they get far? What if the others happened to come by? She trusted Leah. She trusted her sister. And if Leah said they would leave, Alba had to believe they would. Maybe that was why Leah had taken her to see the kindly woman that day. Alba was still bad at the language, but Leah could speak and understand it well enough. It had been a long journey, but perhaps it would finally come to an end.
Ariel French is a translator and aspiring novelist. She’s a slightly awkward, coffee drinking, travel loving, global citizen with an interest in human rights and languages. You can find more of Ariel’s writing at https://arifrenchieblog.wordpress.com
The “16 Stories” series – exploring experiences of violence and discrimination against women and girls in commemoration of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence.