The words fly over her head. Not proof, however, against repetition. She has to hear what her mother is saying. He rewrote them.
Suni's father carried her to school that morning, upstairs to the science laboratories cleared specially for the Advanced Level State Examinations. Her sand-colored uniform was shiny from the iron, something Suni was grateful to her mother for. Extra care had been taken, traditional methods of getting out creases, not the new gadgets in the cupboards. The servant had prepared the iron with the hottest part of the fire and Suni watched her mother finish off the uniform and watched the coals glow red through the tiny surround vents and smelled the scent of starch heated up and cloth cooking. The iron was blackened and heavy and the clip over the top did not look safe enough to contain the sizzling coal.
All the other students avoid looking at her. They don't know her very well even though she has studied with them for years. Her unwellness makes them feel as if they ought to know her better.
"For you, he rewrote them," her mother says again.
Everything? Even her English papers? She spent a lot of time sitting up in her hospital bed preparing. What about the maths? Her father could not have answered those questions himself.
Maybe the State Office sent the exact layout of answers and all her father would have to do is copy them. She does a good job with her mathematics but is prone to making little mistakes in arithmetic, and this reduces her marks by a small amount. She is not enough. Whoever gave the x, y, z of Suni left something out.
"You are sick so what else to do?"
This means it is Suni's fault that her father became a criminal. The room spins. Spinning one way. But it comes back the other. The sickness in her belly turns one way and then the other.
Her mother is a tiny woman with a body like dumplings strung together. On the day she got married her waist was sixteen inches. She looks about to cry, but this expression is permanent. A spiral of hair clings damply to both cheeks.
Suni swallows another mouthful and pushes the bowl of clear chicken soup away. The grease clings to the inside of her mouth. "I did rather well," she says.
"Impossible." With the kitchen knife held at an angle, her mother lifts furred skin from the slab of deer meat she is preparing for the evening meal.
So how is Suni to understand anything?
There are warm animal smells in the room. The deer hunters ran past the house in the early hours. She had heard the drumming in the distance.
To understand would bring her closer to answers. She is well. She is sick. What is the difference? This is real. This is not. Her father is a criminal. Her father is not. Suni loves algebra because she can subtract a number that-is-not from one that-is and get a whole and complete result.
Suni looks down at her ridged and broken nails. There are no healthy white half-moons at the base. When a nail tears, the flesh is exposed. When there is pain she cannot think of anything else.
"My marks would have been good," she says.
"Life is hard. When you grow up, you will see."
"What if someone finds out?"
"He was careful." Her mother uses the same tone of voice to describe dirt, the color black, and the lack of intelligence.
When Suni was brought home the evening before, the hospital was overflowing with cholera victims. Every time someone died, Suni felt herself getting smaller. She was never very big in the first place. "I don't want to go back."
"You must in order to get well again."
"I will start eating." On the table there are some caramel toffees in an unfired clay saucer. She unwraps one and puts it in her mouth, but the sweetness makes her gag and her mother gets some hot eggplant pickle from the fridge. The sharp sourness has been known to make Suni feel better.
Even as she is being driven back to the hospital, she repeats, I don't want to in a haphazard refrain. Her father does not turn his head.
The hospital, a series of whitewashed concrete bunkers, is on the road to Kumasi. Dusty red tiles come down onto an extension of the roof that levels off onto solid posts, making a promenade where nurses bustle about, their tall starched hats becoming taller when perched on their Afro cuts. Nursing is a sexy business.
Her father is an important person so they are waved past the queues of sad patients. One man is holding a soiled, rust-patched turban cloth over a leg that was chopped off mid-calf. "Nurse," her father is arching back into a C-shape. "Please attend to this man straightaway." His absolute authority brings action. He never shows emotion but to know him is to know a gentle man.
The smell of Dettol does not reassure. Suni feels unclean. What if she gets cholera as well? Home would have been a better place for getting well. She has done it before. Got sick deliberately to make her parents suffer and then made herself better. It had been easy. She would only have to think herself strong, or remind herself of the fun things a well person could do. Other times, she has turned her illness into an equation, using factor x, factor y, or factor z like pills for her mind. This time, the trick to getting better is not working.
The nurses are organizing a private room. Suni is a girl and needs to be protected. Her father nods and stares into space. He has a long drooping blink. Suni imagines there are fishes swimming under his eyelids.
From her room, she can see how the trees near the hospital entrance give the impression of shelter and how the looping paths suggest a hidden oasis. There is a dusty red expanse where the mammy trucks pick up and disgorge passengers. By the time the starched sheets have folded her down onto the hard bed, her parents have gone. They have a lot to do.
The road to Kumasi is the road to the interior. Not very many people go up there unless they have relatives or urgent family matters to attend to. Her parents went up North only once; their vacations are usually spent visiting relatives and they fly to Lagos or Nairobi or even London. Coming to the hospital is therefore like coming to one edge of the world.
When it's time to go to the lavatory, when Suni has to absolutely go, she wanders out of her cubicle, dragging her feet to a big windowless room where, at one end, there is a toilet with a broken seat. The septic system has broken down and water has leaked to the level of about an inch. People squat to relieve themselves anywhere.
Suni holds her breath. The entire floor is covered with curled brown lumps. The sides of the wall are green with spreading fungus. She will always associate this green with this smell.
She takes off her knickers and squats outside the doorway. When finished, she empties the hard pellets into the pool of water. Back in her room, she retches. The severity of her dry heaves bothers the nurses and they put her back on a drip.
"I have to get out of here," she tells the nurse, who laughs and strokes Suni's head.
"What for you want to go and leave us?"
One day, the German doctor comes into her room with one of the prettiest nursing aides. A girl with a wide cheery face who smiles at Suni before turning around to put her palms against the closed door so the doctor can hike up her skirt. Suni sees his pink and white bottom seesaw back and forth under the crumpled edge of a shirt.
The act keeps on going, like the delicate parallel lines on the doctor's moving shirt and in this continuum, something alters; Suni stops feeling helplessly obliged to be a witness and becomes part of the hospital at the edge of the world, a shift that closes her off and brings a sense of normality.
When he is all done, the doctor sends the girl away. His face shows no evidence of a break in his routine and he smiles at Suni as if she has suddenly appeared before him. He picks up the chart hanging off the end of the bed and prescribes some strong drugs for tuberculosis.
"I don't have TB!" Suni tries to get a nurse to listen to her but none of them will.
Over the wetness of cotton wool swabs, she is trying to explain. "My sickness came from swallowing a whole bottle of disprin. I don't have TB." When the needle is jabbed into the nervous lump of flesh that is her bottom, she can feel the medicine emptying, cold spreading trails, we are coming to get you.
She thinks, desperately, that it's the first time she has told anyone how she induced her sickness, and that her confession will help.
The drug makes her clammy and she faints. They give her another injection to counteract the side effect. By the end of the week her entire body is covered in tiny pustules and she is running a fever. Her parents come more regularly and express concern.
She begs to be allowed to come home.
"Soon," they reply.
"I am getting pains from lying here."
"In my chest, near my heart."
"Tell the doctor."
"No please, don't say anything."
But they do.
"We need to increase the dosage and get rid of the problem once and for all," the German doctor tells them.
In the evening, the nurse forgets to check and the saline bag runs out of solution. Suni starts to feel suffocated. Pushed over the edge by her fumbling fingers, the bell falls to the floor. She makes signs to a late visitor who looks in Suni's window as he walks past. He comes into her room and picks up the bell. Recognizing her, he stays to talk to Suni about her great and wonderful father. Help arrives, eventually.
"Call us earlier," the nurse says, pointing.
"It fell on the floor."
"I am very afraid."
"Tomorrow everything will be fine, you will see."
"I want to go home."
"You are homesick. Maybe you are not sleeping well. I shall talk to the doctor."
Once when Suni was a little girl, she had gone inside a wardrobe and been unable to come out. She had been trapped by a scary monster. Outside the keyhole, the world expanded, filling with more and more yellow night light. After awhile, the monster swallowed her. When she was dragged out by her parents, Suni became invisible, and screamed out to be saved. No one understood. They kept turning on the light everywhere, making her suffer even more.
When the nurse leaves, Suni starts to cry and then to sob loudly.
In the darkness outside her window, a woman calls out in despair. A long hollow sound. Again it comes. Again and again. A child has died. Suni screams to be heard over the hopelessness. The walls, the dark cubicle, the shadows, they lean towards the keening. Blending.
In the morning, her voice gone, Suni turns her face towards the window and watches the mammy trucks. She begins to time their departures, counting the seconds, the minutes, the hours.
After Infinity is Infinity plus One.
Suni takes hold of the Band-Aid. It holds down the needle of the drip in her forearm. She starts to peel it back. Infinity plus two. She takes hold of the base of the tube, the tiny plastic crossbar and pulls slowly.
The needle slides back and then sticks. Infinity plus three. She tugs. The needle slips out. Following hard on the exit of the needle is dark red blood. Spraying. It gushes with greater force to hit the ceiling.
How can this be?
The flow subsides to a trickle but everything is stained.
There won't be another chance. Infinity plus four.
She reels off the bed. Looks down at her blood-splattered gown. Where are her clothes? They are missing.
She rushes down the corridor. It is siesta time and the patients are dozing. The nurses station is deserted. Outside the entrance, some men are smoking. A male nurse gawks. "Hey!"
They grab her. Female nurses descend upon the kicking, screaming figure. "I want to go home," she cries. "Call my father. Tell him to get me."
The doctor comes with a syringe as Suni is forced back onto the bed.
As the room, the nurses, the doctor crush her down, Suni hears a voice coming out of the shadowed corridor outside her room. The voice repeats the command. Come.
"Who are you?" Suni struggles to sit up.
"Your doctor," shouts the German when her elbow gets him in the cheek.
Your patron saint.
The voice cannot be denied. Suni rises into the air and goes to find out who is speaking to her. Left behind on the bed, is the poor girl upon whom the tranquilizer is rapidly working.
The shadow dances back and Suni follows.
Suni pauses in mid-flight. Rushes back to peer down at the bed. She will have to come back one day and get the Suni who lies there.
The shadow is calling urgently.
Where are we going? Suni wants to know.
To hide. You wanted to hide, didn't you?
First she wants to find her father. The Shadow is obliging.