|by Pier-Luc Dupont, age 18, Cégep de Sainte-Foy, Quebec|
|Published on: Jul 12, 2004|
|(TEXT ORIGINALLY IN FRENCH)
The curtain opens, revealing a well-turned leg, black as ebony. The band strikes up and the music blares, making padded armchairs vibrate and sumptuous chandeliers rattle throughout the hall. In the judges’ box, tension reaches a fever pitch. The judges’ pens are poised and ready to mark their scorecards.
Miss Universe Pageant — Contestant No. 52
Country of origin: Ethiopia
Studies: International relations
Special talent: Public speaking
Draped in a sheer scarf, Contestant No. 52 sashays toward the emcee, a former model in his fifties who has lost most of his hair but none of his slick style. After the usual flattery, he asks the time-honoured question: “If you had just one wish to make …”
The contestant smiles sadly, and sorrow clouds her face.
“I can’t sleep at night unless I wish for peace …”
In the world, of course, the head judge supplies mentally, rolling his eyes. How utterly unoriginal. She’s out.
“… for the soul of a woman,” Zara softly continues. “Just one. She was only a drop in the ocean — one among so many, as far as statistics are concerned. She couldn’t count past 10. That’s all it takes to count your brood of children, your bowls, and how many days you haven’t eaten. Let me tell you about my oldest sister, Kelem. Let me tell about a hundred million women.”
The head judge frowns. Why doesn’t the emcee cut in? The audience murmurs. Diamond-ringed fingers clutch Versace bags in shock. Bee-stung lips are frozen in an O of surprise. But nobody moves. Zara takes a deep breath.
“Kelem got married when she was 14. Her husband, a friend of the family, was almost 30. They had met only once. The sight of her slim fingers and smooth brow had moved him. She had lowered her eyes like a timid niece.
“Kelem’s suitor enjoyed a respectable position. He knew how to read and write — no small feat — and planned to find a job as a salesman or cashier in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. My parents accepted his proposal right away. They were expecting a seventh child and feared they wouldn’t be able to care for it. My mother wasn’t looking forward to this pregnancy. She was 30, and it threatened to prove especially difficult. But, for my father, using contraceptives was out of the question. He argued that he didn’t trust these newfangled contraptions at all. Moreover, they cost a fortune. Besides all that, persistent drought had spoiled the millet harvest, and we were already teetering on the brink of ruin. Each year, the desert crept closer as erosion wore away the soil. All of the villagers worried about having to draw water deeper and deeper out of the well. My mother never quite knew why she cried when Kelem left home. Was she sad or relieved?”
The emcee is torn between being genuinely sympathetic and fit to be tied. He tries to make the best of a bad situation, but no one pays any attention. The head judge resigns himself and slouches in his chair.
“Seven years later, when I went to the big city to try my luck, I made haste to find my sister. She lived in a shack. When I dropped in unexpectedly, her first reflex was to sweep the dirt floor. That took every ounce of strength she had left, though she was only 21. A baby, only a few months old, lay on a moth-eaten blanket stretched on the floor, in a corner, against the sheet-metal wall. Another child clung to his mother’s skirts. I thought he was only 3, when he was actually 6. With some hesitation, bombarded by my questions, Kelem opened up about the hell she had endured.
“Her husband did not find the job he hoped for in Addis Ababa. In restaurants, laundries and shops, employers looked down on him with disdain, the way people usually treat riffraff. Besides, they already had more staff than they could use, and they slammed the door in his face without further ado. So he became a janitor. Every day, for a meagre two dollars, he washed dozens of windows and cleaned dozens of toilets till they shone. At night, filthy and with worn hands, he never came home without begging a few coins from passers-by. Despite their ties and attaché cases, they were often hungry themselves.
“My sister’s pregnancy has a paradoxical effect on her. It restored her will to live, but involved her in prostitution. She needed money, but had no education, and nothing to sell except her talents as a big sister (how often she had rocked my brothers and me until we stopped crying!) — and her body. Only her body still had any market value. Her husband eventually suspected what was going on but held his tongue. However, he stayed away more often at night, and only reluctantly responded to his wife’s advances.
“The second child arrived. My sister didn’t try to find out who the real father was. It would only have made a complicated situation even more complex. As long as she could conceal her pregnancy, she endured the daily humiliation. Slowly but surely, it wore her out. Customers grew scarcer after that. Life had left its telltale signs on her, and her body was no longer physically attractive. At 19, she had become too old, and indeed a risk. That’s as far as we got when Kelem asked me to leave. She was afraid her husband would come home and suspect us of plotting against him. I never saw her again.
“My sister died when she was my age, when she should have been in her prime. She was struck down by tuberculosis. But, one way or another, she was living on borrowed time. She had just tested HIV-positive at the clinic. She went there on the advice of a friend, another working girl. My sister had no money, no papers. She could never have received the treatment she needed to slow the progress of the disease. There was nothing the nurses could do, except give her condoms, advise her on hygiene, and suggest that she have her two children screened for HIV. Her prospects were dim.”
The emcee presses his hands against his headset and says something few people catch. Zara moves upstage. There, despite the harsh glare of the footlights, she can make out the faces in the front row.
“Ladies and gentlemen, here you see me weighed down by all these sequins. Isn’t it nice to have such a beautiful burden to bear? My sister was never so lucky. Her burden was one of suffering beyond words. Unjust? That word is too vague. Unjustified? That’s not strong enough. What word can I use to put her soul to rest? What word keeps me awake at night? I have to find it; I refuse to give up. I have to find it because, if Kelem had told you her own story, she would have found the word.
“You know more about sequins than suffering. More than anything else, you’re people who enjoy life. I propose that you perform a marvellous magic trick. Take these fine fabrics and give my sister satin sheets. Take this cell phone and give her a voice. Take this glass of champagne and give her a drink. Take this shimmering chandelier and give her light. Take these cigarettes and give her a vaccine. You’re all magicians, but you don’t realize your power! Are you looking for a magic wand? It’s already in your hands: a ballot, a credit card, a newspaper, a remote control. Will you turn up the volume or will you change the channel?”
An endless silence weighs heavily on the audience. Someone coughs.
After a long pause, Zara turns and walks away with dignity. The spotless carpeting muffles the click of her heels. She stands next to Miss Belgium, nods, smiles, and poses. All eyes are on her stunning beauty.
The trumpets blast again, but no one hears them any more. They don’t seem as brassy as before.
The head judge has a lump in his throat. A salty tear blurs the writing on his scorecard into a pool of black, as black as the mascara that stains Zara’s makeup.
As black as the last TV screen turned off in some suburban living room …