Leila scans the miles of sorghum farmland ahead of her, searching frantically for her mother. She has heard bush fires can tear through these auburn-tipped fields at daring speeds, consuming every living being in their path – sheep, cattle, people.
Clouds of thick grey smoke bellow from the lower field. Their direction indicates that the wind has caught chase, and the fire that fuels the smoke is heading toward the house; their home.
“Mother!” she calls out.
She can see something move in the field to her right.
A spray of water hovers in the air over the sorghum crops – is it the irrigation arms that move like giant spiders across the field? No, there are none out today. Leila shields her eyes from the sun and squints. She sees someone holding a hose. There she is! Her mother is spraying the crops, pushing the fire back from the fields – her petite mother, protecting her neighbour’s crops.
Hot smoke embodies the fire and hits her first.
“Mother!” she yells as she falls to the ground, coughing, certain her lungs are on fire.
She sees a small green pipe on the ground ahead. It’s singed black, melting and disintegrating before her very eyes. It is the end of the hose, but where is her mother?
There – in a small clearing in the field, where the flames have danced around, burned the crop to the ground, and then moved on – she sees her mother’s white linen dress she was wearing this morning. It is only a snippet, and as Leila’s eyes water from the searing blaze around her, she sees a glint of gold – a ring. Her mother’s wedding ring.
“No!” she screams. At the end of the ring lies her mother’s hand. Leila cannot recognise the body that lies beyond that. She curls into a ball, wishing for the flames to now consume her as she loses all strength, but they only grin above her head.
As quickly as they came for her, the flames retreat. The wind picks them up like small children, and turns them on their heels.
The flames head west; for some reason they have spared her.
Anna-Nina clutched at the midriff of the flimsy orange cotton shirt that was her jail uniform. Her black pants were loosely clinging to her hips, undone from her recent excretions over the putrid corner toilet. She was sure she was losing blood – she could not see in the dark, but the hot and cold sweats that now raged through her body ravaged her of any energy to find out. She lay on the harsh metal bed, rocking back and forth with the pain that seared through her stomach.
“Guard…” she feebly called. “Please…help…”
The sound of batons against the wire cage rattled down the corridor. The guards were coming, but they were not bringing with them compassion. She could hear the guttural laugh of Rat Man; the largest guard in the prison. Stock strong and built like a machine, he was sent to carry out the injured and sick prisoners, but he often preyed on them instead.
“Anna-Nina, I come for you!” he called out. She heard his footsteps precede the distinct pleasure in his voice. The large steel boots were steady and purpose-driven. Rat Man steered them directly to her cell door and tugged at the lock with a set of keys.
He stepped inside, his overbearing form shadowing the petite Filipino immigrant. She ceased her rocking motion, holding her eyes on him. He was unpredictable.
“Today, I hear you sick,” he said, switching the jail cell light on. He smiled, revealing black, chipped front teeth. “I take you to medico.”
He picked her up with his large, dark hands and with one quick scoop, threw her over his left shoulder. He pinched her backside and wolf-whistled.
It was then that Anna-Nina felt the trickle between her legs. A clot in her cervix dislodged, and a pool of blood gushed around her thighs. She could feel the warm liquid stream through her pants, seeping into the thick cotton. Her stomach cramped and she dry-retched over the guard’s chest.
Rat Man bellowed, “What the hell….?”
He dropped her abruptly to her feet, and her knees buckled. She slumped to the cold concrete floor, giddy and in pain.
“Are you pissing on me?” He reached around to feel his back, his wet shirt clinging to his shoulders.
Anna-Nina glanced up and saw where she had been. The guard’s khaki colours were now stained red. Bright red.
Instinctively, he smelt his fingers. “Shit!” he yelled. “You bloody whore! You’ve pissed blood all over me!”
He bent down and back-handed her in the face, his gold ring lodging in her cheek and leaving a gash the size of a dime. Anna-Nina cried out as she recoiled with the impact; she hit the floor, head first, with an audible ‘thump’ against the stone ground.
Rat Man leered at her. “Still feel like pissing on me?”
With one quick motion, he brought his steel boot up to the height of his knee and drilled it down, deep into Anna-Nina’s stomach. She screamed with agony as the sheer force pushed her body in two ways; her head and legs rose at the same time, before both ends of her fell limply back to the floor. She lost her breath momentarily, drawing it back with a loud gasp. Tears sprung to her eyes, and streamed down her face. She rolled around on the floor, screaming and crying in such agony she forgot the code of silence.
Rat Man didn’t. He pulled out a dirty handkerchief from his pants’ pocket and pushed it into Anna-Nina’s mouth. She coughed with the loss of air, gasping until the oxygen cleared through her nose.
“Remember, no noise,” he said, this time in complete calm.
He picked her up again, threw her over his shoulder, and headed toward the medico.
Leila’s feet ache as she walks the two miles to school with Aziz, where he skips by the side of the road. Leila observes him and knows he is without thought or conservation for his ten-year-old bones, and the skin that protects them from the blazing heat and stoned gullies.
He can play like a child, run circles around her, cut his feet and ankles on the sharp rock, for one day he won’t need to use his soles as means of transportation.
Leila tries to ignore the pangs of jealousy, but it is a harsh reality. It is inevitable her family will return to Saudi Arabia, and when Aziz is older, he will be allowed to drive a car. He will go to a University and study engineering or architecture, or maybe law – something Leila would enjoy. He will be able to freely visit museums and parks and work in his chosen profession.
Leila recalls the very reason why her family moved from Riyadh to Australia; Leila’s mother was driven to escape the oppressive culture.
“Women should be allowed to drive, get an education and work Leila,” she would tell her eldest daughter. “We’ll find a place where you can do that one day,” she promised.
Her father only agreed to move to Gayndah when Leila’s mother located relatives nearby in the small town.
Now, Leila sees her new home has returned to a quiet oppression; a male’s order. Leila cooks, does the chores, and brandishes her younger brother and sister with all the trimmings of a mother’s care.
“It is actually what you are meant to be doing,” her father tells her. “Your mother should never have filled your head with this nonsense.”
“It is the reason why she died in the fire,” he reminds her. “Your mother was trying to do a man’s job.”
“Leila!” a classmate calls. It is John, a boy of her age, twelve years.
The sun glares at them. The eye of the sky is transfixed on their conversation, watching their body language and measuring how far apart they stand by the shadows that are cast across the ground.
Leila reminds herself in this country she is allowed to talk to a male.
“I have something for you,” John says. He clutches the most delicate flower Leila has ever seen.
“It is a Bauhinia,” John informs her. Leila has heard of the orchid-like flower. It is rich magenta purple, with two-lobed leaves. Chinese in origin, it is commonly grown in this part of Australia.
“Mr. Henderson says it will give you strength,” he continues, referring to their teacher. “It will help you accept new situations.”
Leila is overwhelmed with his kindness, and a tear slips down her cheek.
“I thought it would help you…” John doesn’t need to say anymore. Leila knows he refers to her mother’s death.
She nods in thanks, and they enter the classroom. As the heat intensifies over the course of the day, shadows fall and provide cool breezes, and eventually the bell rings; it is afternoon.
“Come now,” she says firmly to Aziz as they leave the small timber building.
He follows reluctantly, dragging his bag across the gravel driveway and out onto the bitumen road that forms the two mile highway back to their home.
They are home by four o’clock, and Aziz follows her into the house, throwing his worn bag into the corner, across several mattresses in the lounge room where they sleep.
“No,” she reprimands him. “Pick it up.”
He ignores her and skips into the kitchen.
“You pick it up.” Her father appears out of a bedroom, his shirt and pants in disarray. He points to Leila. He raises his voice above small whimpers which seem to be coming from behind the doorway where he stands.
“I said, ‘pick it up’.” He tightens his belt and tucks in his singlet.
The whimpers turn to wails, which turn to stifled screams. It is her sister, Nyla. Leila’s brother, Ahmed, storms through the lounge room and heads into the bedroom, and the screams stop.
“That’s Nyla,” Leila says. She is watching her father. He is shuffling his feet but his eyes are steady.
“Nothing to do with you. She is fine,” he says.
“She sounds like she is hurt. Let me see her.”
Leila approaches her father, daring to push her way past him into the bedroom where she sees her sister’s small body on the bed, her brother hovering over her, holding his hand across her mouth.
She raises her voice. “You can hurt me, but don’t you hurt her!”
Leila’s father pushes her back roughly and she falls to the ground. He stands over her, his fist raised.
“Do you dare to defy me?” he yells.
Leila cowers, and shakes her head.
He stands over her for another few seconds, his whole body trembling with anger. Only when Ahmed leaves the bedroom does her father step over her, kicking her in the stomach on the way past. Leila doubles over with the pain, gasping for air.
She crawls on hands and knees into the bedroom when her father is out of view. Nyla is on the bed, asleep, but tears stain her flushed cheeks. Leila pushes her brown curls off her face; her fingers tracing a large lump on her forehead. Nyla has been hit in the head. Specks of blood are dotted over her eyebrows. Leila looks down, and her baby sister’s dress is straddled over her hips.
Leila presses her ear down to her sister’s face. She listens for the breath; there is no warm air exhaling in a rhythm from her sister’s nostrils.
“Wake up, Nyla!” she calls. “Wake up!” Leila shakes her sister’s limp body, as if the very life that she has lost would be returned with her prompting.
“What have you done?!” she calls to her father. “What have you done to my sister?!”
“Don’t let them take me from my children,” she repeated in a strained voice. “Please don’t let them take me from my children.”
A man appeared from behind the doors and said, “Calling case number 943.”
Two guards approached Anna-Nina and wrenched her from the seat. They pulled her into the courtroom, led her down the aisle and stood her before the judge’s desk. Sitting twelve feet higher again, the judge peered down at her with dark eyes and a grim frown.
“Present the case,” he said, nodding toward the prosecutor. A thin, Arab man took his position at the head of the courtroom, while Anna-Nina was pushed into a pew next to the state-provided defence.
“The accused, Anna-Nina Limbaca, has had sexual relations with a respected man of the community while working at the Princess Norah bint Abdulrahman University.”
Anna-Nina shook her head desperately. “No, no….”
“Order!” called the Judge.
“She carries his child, she is confirmed pregnant…”
“No!” Anna-Nina called. “I miscarried!”
“Order!” the Judge called again. He leaned over the counter and stared at her. “Do not speak in my court again,” he said firmly.
Anna-Nina began rocking back and forth again, this time in a delirious state. The images and the memories that were housed in her head were too much. She recalled the night that it happened, the brutality of it, and the scars inflicted.
“He raped me!” she screamed. “He was a janitor at the college where I worked, and he raped me!”
The spectators in the rows behind her began hissing and booing. The judge rapped his gavel on the desk, while Anna-Nina pushed the tears back from her cheeks with her cuffed hands. She was sobbing now, hysterically, with the realization that justice would not be served in this courtroom today.
“I sentence you to one hundred and eighty lashes and six months in prison.”
The judge’s words echoed in Anna-Nina’s head, and her temple pounded with the stress of her heartbeat.
“No, no, no,” she whimpered. “My children….How will I care for my children?”
The guard yanked Anna-Nina out of the chair. She dragged her feet, her head dizzy with the fever. Snapshots of her children flashed through her mind – her twin ten-year-old son and daughter – the very reasons why she was working in Saudi Arabia. She had come here two months ago to earn money and support her family in the Philippines. How had it come to this?
She stumbled just shy of the wooden doors, when the guard pulled a baton out of his back pocket, delivering a blow to her lower jaw. She fell to the ground, unconscious, and was dragged back to her jail cell.
“Here, pack your things. We are leaving tomorrow.”
It is a long time before Leila can lift herself off the bed. Physically, she is exhausted and her bruises are still raw from where her father beat her in a mad fit. She fell unconscious, barely recalling the scene that led to the black eye and gashed lips that now return their image in her mirror. She remembers Nyla, and knows that out beyond her window, in that small patch of soil, lays the body of her baby sister.
Leila slowly begins to pack. It won’t take her long – a change of clothes, some toiletries, and most importantly, a small notebook. She finds it, holds it close to her chest, before opening it very carefully. When she peers inside, she prays for strength to accept her situation.
Pressed between the two centre pages is the Bauhinia flower.
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Leila walks with Aziz to school, or rather Aziz now walks in front of her. He is her mahram in their hometown. Leila realises how familiar this is to her, and wishes she was back in Gayndah.
They approach large steel gates, and beyond that lie rendered brick buildings, temple-like in stature. Thousands of children, all ages, cavort around large archways and meander in and out of the stone facades. Leila breathes deeply, and squeezes her pocket where she keeps the dried flower.
Inside the walls, her class is large, and voices reverberate around the room. A teacher addresses the students, calling for immediate silence, and heads are bent in submission. Leila misses John – her class in Riyadh is only girls.
After lessons in the principles of reading, writing and homemaking, the girls gather together in the food hall at lunch where they share Nejdi Kabsa. The summer temperature is approaching ninety-eight degrees Fahrenheit outside and the ceiling fan barely keeps the air circulating. It reminds Leila of the Australian sun.
“Where are you from?” the girl beside her asks.
Leila tugs at her abaya; it is a size too small and it clings to her body in the heat. “Australia,” she replies, and then adds: “Once.”
The girl is quiet, but Leila still enjoys the limited conversation.
She returns home that evening with a smile for the first time in many months.
Her father notices. “What is this you hide from me?” he asks.
“Nothing,” she replies.
“Well then, bring your pretty smile over here,” he says, patting the sofa cushion where he sits.
This is the first time Leila has been approached. Leila feared from the day her baby sister was taken, that she might be a target of her father’s lustful ways.
She shakes her head. “I’ve got homework to do.”
He picks up the remote and turns off the television. “It can wait,” he replies.
Leila listens for signs of her brothers in their rooms. They usually play video games in the afternoon, but she only hears the sounds of traffic streaming past the Burj Al Mamlakah, near where they live.
He stands up as she strides into the kitchen. She ignores his obvious advances, and proceeds to fossick in the refrigerator for the dinner items.
He grabs her from behind, his hands tight around her waist. He pulls her backward and she trips, stumbling over her own feet and landing with a crash across the kitchen table. There, he pins her legs against the edge with his lower body, and his hands clamp down on her forearms, pressing them behind her neck.
The only sounds are the scuffle of the kitchen chairs across the tiled floor as her father kicks them aside in a bid to lie on top of her. He is successful, and Leila struggles silently against his force. She desperately wants to scream, but only grunts in opposition. She is afraid if her brothers are home they will satisfy themselves with her also, in the same way they had done with her sister, Nyla.
Her father has sidled his hips between her thighs, and with one hand free, slaps her across the face. She lets out a howl, knowing now the full extent of what he intends to do. He moves like a rattlesnake, his hands darting between her legs, quickly finding her panties and pulling them down in one tug.
“Don’t!” she screams, but it is too late. She screams again as he enters her, tearing at her flesh, thrusting with the actions of a mad man. His breath is fast against her neck. He bears down on her mouth with his own, stifling her cries.
She turns her head, gagging from the pain that swells below her stomach, and sees her brother Aziz.
He is standing in the kitchen corner, watching.
Leila huddles under the covers, rocking back and forth in a motion resembling that of a child. Her stomach cramps, and she knows blood is circling around her thighs, staining the sheets through her underwear. She hears movements in the hallway, even though the house has been in darkness since her father raped her. She cowers; terrified he will come for her again.
She hears commotion at the front door.
“Yes,” her father is saying. “Come in. Come this way.”
Footsteps ensue, and her bedroom door is flung back, light streaming in from a combination of lamps and torches – guard torches. The mattawa is here.
“Take her.” Her father’s command has commissioned two guards to enter her room and tear her covers back, exposing Leila. They wrench her from the sheets and drag her through the hallway. Her father and brothers look on.
“Where are you taking me?!” she yells.
“You are under arrest,” one guard informs her as he pushes her past the front door.
“What have I done?” She stares at her father. His eyes are blank.
Calmly, he replies: “You have had sexual relations with your brothers.”
Hafer Al Baten Central Jail Court House
Leila listens to the sobs of the woman in the jail cell next to her, and wonders if she can hear hers. They seem to mourn together, both devastated by the loss of their freedom.
Leila has languished in this prison for the past month, and while her conversations with Anna-Nina are brief, she knows well her situation. They are captives – enslaved by hearsay and accused of acts they did not commit.
“The lashings, do they hurt?” Anna-Nina breaks from her crying, and whispers the question.
“I don’t know,” Leila replies, hugging her knees against her chest on the steel bed.
Leila reflects on the judge’s sentence six weeks earlier: initially eight months in jail and one hundred and twenty lashings. Leila was informed only a week ago that an overruling had now set the sentence to sixty lashings followed by beheading.
“Where will we be when it happens?” Anna-Nina continues to question.
“In Deera Square,” Leila replies. “Where the whole town can see. Where we are made an example.”
Anna-Nina is beside Leila. They have seconds before their hands are bound and they are tied to separate posts where the same spectators that sat in the court room now watch their punishment.
Leila tries to breathe in strength, but physically, her body is weak from the days in her prison cell. She looks around, the faces in the crowd impassive and detached.
Leila watches Anna-Nina. Tears trickle down her cheeks and she whispers, “Please, please don’t let my children know this.” Leila knows that is not possible, that it is likely her children will hear about their mother’s cruel punishment.
The cotton garment clings to Leila in the stifling temperatures, and it is not until the sharp serrated leaf’s edge presses into her lower thigh that Leila remembers. The dried Bauhinia flower has been with her all this time in her prison garments. With her hands still free, she pulls it out.
The sound of the guards’ call, and the gunfire in the air, startles the girls. The remainder of their garments are peeled away.
The first belt strikes Anna-Nina with a loud thwack, and Leila can visibly see the leather tear into her skin. The next belt strikes Leila in turn.
Both girls cry out in pain. The crowd watches on silently.
Leila and Anna-Nina lock eyes and hold their stares in some effort to gain comfort from communion. Still, the pain is unbearable, and with each lash, each girl feels the strength drain away from their bodies. Their arms bruise and their knees buckle under their own weight.
Leila holds on, as Anna-Nina’s eyes close, and her body slumps to the ground. The guards continue their lashing on the woman. She is whimpering with the pain, but Leila knows she will survive.
Under the heat of the sun, Leila is fast losing consciousness. Her eyes sting from the dry winds that whip up around her neck.
She looks one last time at Anna-Nina, and there she sees it – her bauhinia flower. It has fallen from her hands.
Leila looks up to the sky and lets out a blood-curdling scream. Everything she wanted, everything she loved has been cruelly taken away from her. Where is her strength now to accept this? Her strength is gone – it lies crushed on the ground – her flower lies crushed on the ground.
She feels a cold prick against the back of her neck. It is the blade of a sword.
“Mother!” she cries out.
It was the day she lost her life.
* * * *
Notes: I was inspired to write this story after reading several newspaper articles about the fate of women in Saudi Arabia who have been sentenced to punishment for crimes they did not commit. Both of these women’s stories reflect aspects of events that are based on fact. At the same time, the Bauhinia flower is used in Australian healing and natural remedies as an essence.