The first time I looked at the child was six years ago.
My right femur could no longer hold itself; as a child, it was always in constant competition with the left, a competition it lost repeatedly. When I was two, the left femur was only in the lead by a centimetre or so, and when I walked, my left foot planted on the ground whilst the right remained slightly elevated, as if it were accommodating invisible high heels. My mother’s friends used to think I did it on purpose.
By age ten, my left femur had emerged the clear winner; the right was behind by a good five centimetres. By then it was clear that my legs, through no fault of mine, had decided to grow at unequal paces.
So the shorter femur was broken by a team of doctors using a sterilised saw when I was seventeen.
The break was held in place by six metal rods that were like a family of five brothers, identical in weight shape and length, and a sixth; a sister who was slim where her brothers were wide and deft. So deft that she alone was selected to do what the others could not; while her brothers were arranged to support different parts of my femur, she was given a special task.
She pierced the entire diameter of bone, and only stopped when she came out on the other side.
As much I appreciated the support, in fact needed it, this family and I never became friends. It may have been because I was only expecting a few of them. When we were first introduced after the surgery, it was through tight white bandages such that I could only see her and one or two of the other brothers.
“Doesn’t seem too bad,” I remember thinking.
However, that was before the bandages were removed and the doctor’s handiwork revealed a swollen and mangled thigh, clotted blood and fresh one oozing out of seven gaping holes that were dug in with metal rods where the family of metal had taken up residence.
Over the next six weeks, they had their task and I had mine. I was instructed to turn the colour coded dials that surrounded my right thigh, inch by inch, separating my severed bone to create a gap of, you guessed it, five centimetres. The family’s job was to hold the bone in place, for as long as it would take, until the body filled up the space and right and left femur became equal.
The official name for the procedure was the Taylor Spatial Frame. I called it torture.
With time, the metal family and I grew to tolerate each other.
I even forgave them for turning a summer visit into an eight-month stay, free of charge, and with time, even my body became less antagonistic to their company. It had been an unnatural union between them of metallic making and my blood and bone and my body had reacted with the utmost hostility. The next few days after the surgery, it fought this intrusion of metal, half dug in the skin and half exposed to the outside world in every way it could. I was left in the crossfire splattered with every insult and complaint my body spewed using its nerves.
On one particularly day, I was trying to be the peacemaker.
Thanks to my metal spare parts, my walk had once again transformed, this time to accommodate my partially bionic state of being. My left leg became even more dominant, working with the help of a set of grey crutches to drag its swollen counterpart around when I needed to use the bathroom.
According to my doctors, this was not a long term solution, so a physiotherapist was sent to help with the process. As soon as I began to rotate my right knee, he promised, I would be able to walk around like before, unaided by crutches. I only had to try. Before I began, he forgot to mention that the skinniest metal rod, the sister, had been inserted through my knee. He forgot to mention that while she was there, she would bring support but with inexpressible pain and guaranteed infection.
But my body did not forget. When I eventually regained consciousness and the physiotherapist and his army of white coats who had helped me off the floor left me with my tears, I had new pain to fear, to run away from.
Till the skinny sister and her band of brothers packed up and left, I left my right knee and in return, my body left me. She and her brothers were pulled out of my leg on an icy February afternoon before which my knee had forgotten how to do everything. In its glory days, together, we could once rotate about till the tip of my toe made contact with my head. Now it was comatose making my entire right leg as straight as a board, requiring time and expensive physical therapy.
I didn’t see this at the time. I only saw the pain that was chasing me as I shuffled around the hospital wing the day after my fall, slowly with every echo of the crutch that hit the sanitised floor a cry of progress. And that was when I saw the child.
He had a similar band of metal cohabiting his body, but it’s placement was unidentical. His was below the knee, on the opposite leg, holding together a deliberate tibia fracture made by the same medical procedure that sought to make things worse before they got better. His metal family was skinnier than mine, but they had the same ugly grey skin colour.
The skinny sister ran through his ankle.
He was strolling through the hospital wing confidently, his arms free of crutches, right and left femur in harmony with no nonsensical Cain and Abel behaviour. My physiotherapist was the only reason I had seen him. We were at the tail end of what would become a predictable routine. He would come after lunch and begin the session by asking about my pain level, his face contorted in the way it was trained to convey understanding that could not be backed up with tangible action. Then we would begin with the notorious knee. He would help it out of the bed and unto the ground, and try to coach it towards mobility. I would usually move it by an inch or two, a distance my body and I had deemed was safe, before giving up. When pushed farther, I would make sure I was contracting my toes so he knew I was making an effort.
Eventually when it was clear to both of us that this was going nowhere, he would suggest a stroll around the children’s wing of the hospital. He would fetch my crutches and we would embark on the C shaped route that covered the lift to the last primary coloured door that usually had a bug or caterpillar above the handle. We were about to head back, our agreement to stop when we came upon that familiar door fulfilled when the boy and his metal contraption wheezed past us, literally, because I was maintaining a speed that could only outpace a lazy snail.
The physiotherapist’s white veiny fingers had singled him out, and with a nasal accent that revealed his Austrian heritage, he said, “But look at THAT child.”
The message was clear.
And if antibiotics, prescribed pain erasers, and the quarrel between flesh and metal made me miss it the first time, there would be more reminders.
When the family left, each one left a memento to mark their time there: deep ugly scars that with time went from a raw fleshy pink to a dusty brown that blended into my skin, but still frightened people without context.
Three years had not removed the instinct to stroke them, like they were still there, or to stiffen my right leg and use my hands to hoist it onto my bed, even though my knee had almost regained full flexibility. With my back on the bed, I was in full view of the familiar bland white wall of the ceiling as I explained to a friend over the phone that I was learning German.
I give my friend the official narrative, a de facto answer I have stitched together beforehand, and refined the more times I’ve told it. It’s a mixture of my passion for learning, a long held desire to speak German, and the benefits a second language would afford a millennial in a competitive market place. I omit the times my attempt to stand on my existing knowledge of the language have been met with ridicule. I don’t mention that it bothered me last week, when every time the waitress wanted to communicate something, she addressed only my friend in German, even though she could speak English.
My friend is quick to remind me how difficult it would be. “If only I was a child,” she reasons. What she really wants to say is, if only I came here as a child, to this place where survival equals adaptation equals language learning, then I wouldn’t bungle the grammar or choke on my tongue as I tried to unlearn the way the Englishman taught us to articulate the letter r.
The child is better than you are is what their bodies say.
She glides down the mountain, occasionally shifting her weight from one foot to the other leaving a trail of swirly indentations in the snow like breadcrumbs. She is just five years old, but the narrow planks of fibreglass attached to each ski boot are already like an extension of her legs. I catch some snow in my mouth as she manipulates her ski’s into an inverted V, trying to halt motion. She is trying to avoid crashing into the girl lying in a tangled heap a few yards away. She is trying her best to avoid me.
A few hours ago, we had all assembled at the Kinderplatz for our first ski lesson. “We” included myself, the little girl and eight other people who were not little. We are ambassadors from around the globe: Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. We have seen angry sunsets, blinding orange against a backdrop so red it felt like the world was ending. But now we are surrounded by jealous mountains that shield the sun from our view with thick fog. We know it’s still working, only resigned to the shadows, because the sky has gone through various shades of blue.
When the blue was at its brightest, our ski instructor was testy. She is paid to teach beginners the basics of skiing but she has never had to teach basics to an adult. Our lessons are taking place in the Kid’s Zone because this is the space reserved for kids to learn how to ski for the first time. Her body language tells us that she thinks we are stupid. We are clumsy on flat ground; even babies are more graceful when they take their first steps.
I think it’s because they haven’t tasted fear. At least, this is how I comfort myself as I continue to struggle to get up, only to taste icy ground, as more and more children once again wheeze past me. “I am not stupid, I am afraid,” I tell myself. Before I had tumbled, I had seen my legs break. I had seen old wounds reopen, this time in the company of fresh new fractures. I had seen an ambulance and a stretcher. I had seen the familiar transparent mask that meant sleep time, and I had woken up to metal contraptions, on both legs this time, and I had caught the scent of the pain I was still running away from. I had tried to make the inverted V like the child, to at least adjust the speed at which I had been charging down the mountain. It was a speed I was unprepared for, a speed I hadn’t been coached through. I had only been taught how to start and stop. And that hadn’t seemed to matter as I had started before I was ready and been unable to stop when I wanted to.
The white woman who is meant to be my teacher towers over me. She had showed me how to get up, but only once, because that was as many times as the little girl needed. The child gracefully avoids me, like a car swerving to avoid a wreckage, and arrives safely at the bottom of the mountain. In a few moments, she will grab an orange mechanical rope and be whisked back to the top, in time for another flawless performance. My teacher looks from the child to me, and back again.
I don’t get another demonstration.
Today my scars better complement my brown skin; they look less like an accident and more like a unique body feature, like blue eyes on a brown girl. I constantly meet people who are surprised by the quality of my German. When I had a lunch date last week, the waitress addressed only me when she brought the check I didn’t have the money to pay for. I was embarrassed that it happened so quickly I didn’t have the chance to correct her. I was more ashamed that I was so concerned with seizing another opportunity to practise the language, so proud that she trusted my current command of it to understand what she was saying that I didn’t want to.
I have seen the child and its many faces, every time someone picks me up and places me next to some little boy or girl, confirming that once again I don’t measure up. “Look at the child,” usually comes next. I am told to watch and listen. To learn, so that I can learn the way they learn, accepting information without inspecting it for contradictions. And trust the way they trust, without expecting promises laced with deceit, or disappointment at the bottom of every adventure. To censor fear, to fill it in with colours of love and hope and happy ever after.
So I looked and listened, and waited for them to speak. I had always been curious to hear what the child had to say, this vessel of superior skill and privilege; das Vorbild, the Germans would call it. She’s standing next to me in the supermarket. Her hair is golden, its frizzy and reminds me of a cloud of candy floss on a hot day, the kind that begins to morph and stick together the second it has been assembled on a stick. Her right hand is fastened to her brother’s, her left free to single me out with its index finger, the same way my physiotherapist singled him out all those years ago, when I first saw them. She utters a single word.
I no longer look at the child.
About the Writer
Karis Onyemenam is a poet, writer and freelance photographer. Her short story was recently published in the inaugural issue of FLY zine, an online magazine that curates the experiences of women and non-binary people of colour at the University of Cambridge. Her Koffi Addo submission is part of a broader project that explores conflicting identities and the immigrant experience.