Pain Control: by Zoë Gadegbeku

Photo credit: Claudia Heidelberger via Flickr

Beyond the four walls of this house, there is a world of things that are capable of causing me to feel pain. One step into the expanse of pebbles and tufts of yellow grass that pass for a front garden, and I would feel the pinch of the charms on my anklet trapped between my shoe and the vulnerable bareness of my anklebone. I could try to propel myself forward in spite of this unpleasant sensation. It would be a minor irritation at best, one that I would quickly forget with the relentlessly dry heat pushing downwards on the top of my head and against my chest, with the carelessly discarded nail that was now lodged in the sole of my shoe, grazing my heel and threatening to pierce it at any moment, some sick mimicry of a nurse preparing a fleshy arm for injection. I wouldn’t even have to go that far to in search of the pain I desire. There is still the dull ache in my arms from having held them in a cradling position so long after it was necessary that I’ve forgotten if it’s possible to arrange them in any other way. It is surprising how heavy the air can be when it still bears the imprint of a life that once occupied the space.

“She’s gone. There’s nothing we can do. You should relax, put your arms down now…”

The pain of stiff joints soon settles into a familiar numbness, until it becomes a state of being that I can take for granted. It is uninteresting, leaving no room for agonized screams with veins standing out plainly on the side of a thin neck. It lacks the delicious shock of boiling water hitting skin. I look at the water on the stove, staring intently as the bubbles rose on the surface and grow larger and more frenzied the longer the gas fire burns. Transfixed, I begin to imagine what it would feel like if I were to plunge my right hand, my soothing, petting, mothering hand, into the pot’s blackness. What would happen? Would my skin bubble and blister, a sick imitation of the water that was destroying it? Would it succumb to the excruciating pain, melting and sliding off the bone in a final act of surrender? What would be the first to go? Would it be the fresh meat of my palm, pale and vulnerable, or the unshakable brown of the back of my hand? What would happen to the birthmark that takes pride of place in the center of my hand? It is as much a part of me as other seemingly indispensible things, like my lips and my left ear. It looks more like a growth than a beauty spot. My mother had manipulated the easily summoned fear of my childhood by warning me against playing with it because it could fall off and leave a huge hole in its place. I imagine this little piece of me separating itself from me and floating on the surface of the hot water, before sinking and dissolving finally.

I have become convinced that the nerve endings in my hands and all over the rest of my body have short circuited and fizzled out, in a puff of smoke that is accompanied by what sounds like a sigh of exhaustion. I may not even feel this burn. Not really. My hands have lost the ability to feel anything at all, after they have been forced to handle for a brief moment a life yet to be realized, a collection of vessels and clots that had only just formed into something to be loved and nurtured, admonished and sent to her room. I look at the boiling water longingly, craving the sweet pain that I hope would shoot up my arms the moment my hand makes contact with this tumultuous mass of water and vapor. My better judgment overrules my fixation with this promise of painful sensation, and so instead I touch the metal handle of the pot, curling my fingers around its smooth agony, not letting go even when the skin of my palm starts to turn a raw, frightening shade of red, when I hear Mawuli yell:

“Esine! What are you doing? I can’t…we can’t keep going through this–

I detect desperation in his voice. Each word he forces out of his mouth is strained. He is trying to make his speech stretch across the void that has yawned and swallowed us into it, strings of some manhandled instrument snapping from too much pressure. I hear something else in the gaps between the words he does not speak. It is fear. I stare at him in the same empty way I have been staring at the boiling water, almost gone now, the fire threatening to burn through the bottom of the empty pot.

“I don’t know. I just wanted to make some tea…I– Me le sorry. I­–

“You are what?” He breathes out and I can’t tell if the heat I feel in the air is from his nostrils or from the stove. “You’re acting like I’m not affected by all this. Like I don’t also feel guilty. Like I don’t have any feelings of my own!”

He has misunderstood, and I don’t know how to explain that I’m envious of his ability to feel, especially now when my entire self is numb, my skin an impervious barrier to an outside world that might as well not have existed, so lacking in anything that could make me feel again.

“Listen to me. We’re only going to come out of this if we trust each other. E se a?”

He grabs my trembling hands and holds them within his, their largeness creating a deceptive sense of safety. I look at my hands being engulfed by his, and it is as if this skin-to-skin contact provides the searing pain I need to jumpstart my sluggish senses and force them to rise in response to the tragedy that has been hovering just above my skin almost touching but not quite, so that I’m aware of its presence but can do nothing to chase it away. His skin sizzles against mine and I cry out and jumped backwards and away from him, clutching my hands to my chest. I watch from the corner into which I’ve retreated, as Mawuli sinks to his knees. His despair looks almost too perfect, like an actor playing out his mourning with manufactured teardrops placed at perfect intervals down the side of his face. I don’t believe his grief. He clasps his hands over his face and begins to sob. I wonder how it is that he isn’t hurting himself with those burning hands.

I step carefully around his crouched body, the cold solidity of the clay tiles giving an unwelcome comfort to my bare feet. Maybe if I were forced to step over broken glass and metal spikes, and the sharp remains of words we have not been able to say, then my body would be jolted into a more appropriate response. In the bathroom I stare at my reflection, unwavering, smooth, interrupted only by the streaks of toothpaste and water stains on the mirror. I had always thought of my face as a fixed entity, that is, until I looked down and saw it plastered in miniature on a body I would never see in full scale. I flash a smile but quickly conceal it behind my chapped lips. The last time it had made an appearance, it was flashing back at me in a toothless reflection–

“Esine, you know that’s not a smile right? Babies do that when they have gas…”

My smile has become a grotesque parody, a jumble of teeth and gums that appears to have stood shoulder to shoulder in a hurry, to pretend as if everything is in order when in fact they have forgotten the right formation. I wonder to myself if I can replicate this mobility in my face. How much would it hurt if I peeled it off and stuck it to this mirror? I could even get rid of this appalling excuse for a smile, knocking the teeth out one by one and turning them into a nice faux-pearl necklace. For protection. Or do pearls bring bad luck for new brides and mothers? I can’t remember. I pinch my fleshy cheek between my thumb and forefinger, hard enough that I left two faint crescent-shaped marks behind. I then tested the excess skin where my jaw met my ear. It felt unnecessarily supple and vital, invincible, untearable, but mostly incapable of feeling pain. That might be the perfect spot to start peeling.

“What do you want?” I spit the words out into the sink and there are some traces of blood in them. I glared at him in the mirror, his face ashen and speckled with dry knots of facial hair and shaving bumps. His eyes seem to have retreated so far back into his skull that the ridge of his brow is throwing a shadow over his cheeks. Poor him. Perhaps I should try to be more understanding.

“Ah Mawuli, I said what do you want?” Recovering from its earlier show of incompetence, my tongue unfurls from its timid hiding place in the side of my mouth.

He steps further into the bathroom, tentatively as if to avoid the fragments of broken conversations that I wish had replaced the floor tiles so I could relish the pain of the flesh on my heel being cut and stripped. Anything to fill the hollow I’ve been carrying for the past month.

He clears his throat, with what sounds like a mixture of phlegm and trepidation scratching the backs of his tonsils:

“I just want to talk about what happened. Please. I’m going crazy over here, and I feel like I’m going crazy alone. And the guilt…what could we– could I have done to stop it from happening?

For some reason, my pity is replaced by disgust. I can’t stand the sight of his mournful downturned mouth, his arms reaching desperately towards me, begging for some kind of acknowledgment of our shared tragedy that I’m not able to give.

“I don’t know what you want me to say. I feel…well actually I don’t. I don’t feel anything. It’s as if my senses escaped my body when–

This is the part in Mawuli’s enactment of grief in which I let him hold me. It seems to calm him down and in any case, we have both had some time to allow the heat of unexpressed misery to dissipate from our skin. He stands behind me, his breath heavy on the side of my neck, the point of his chin digging into my shoulder. I feel it in so much as I see it. I can’t feel it. Any feeling would be welcome.

Time passes without touching us, it wafts over our heads but doesn’t impose itself, so I’m not aware how much time has gone by since we sank to the bathroom floor in a disordered pile of limbs, his arms and legs encircling mine in a way that made it hard to tell where his pain ended and my emptiness began. Still, I’m envious, then suspicious, then grateful for Mawuli’s grief, but I can’t find the proper way to force all these reactions to coalesce into a cohesive torment for me to hold on to.

His hands slide down my torso and stop at the scar on my lower belly. He runs his fingers back and forth over its uneven surface, sometimes probing, sometimes patting as if to make sure that it is still there. I squeeze my eyes closed, hoping that his touch will provoke my skin to flare up in protest of his stroking my wound. Whatever you do, do not touch it. You need to heal. You need to be whole. A simple case of skin inflammation may not offer the pain I require. What if my abdomen was to split in two along the line of my scar? That would certainly hurt, and it would also create an opening for me to stuff everything back in; Mawuli’s sobbing, the impossibly tiny unworn clothes, the pointing fingers, the shaking heads, a small skull with a neat crack down the middle, the hole that lives in between my circled arms.

“What if they’re right?”

“Who?” Mawuli appears startled by the cracked sound of my voice, hardened by lack of use and what he probably thinks is my stoic determination to avoid mourning our loss. I wonder how much he hates himself. Hates me. Regrets us ever meeting. Wonders if his relatives were right all along. Women like me eat babies and aspirations for breakfast.

“What if who is right? He repeats. “Right about what?

“About me. Maybe I’m not a normal person. I mean it’s just so…odd. I still can’t cry.”

“Babe, everyone has different ways of mourning. Don’t let them affect you.”
Different ways of mourning, like there are different ways to hold a baby to make sure you do not drop it.


Drop her.

You dropped her.

No, YOU.

You must support the head; the neck is too feeble. Remember!

Keep your arms steady, do not shake.


Your arms must be strong enough.

She is heavier than you think.

Be strong enough.

You are not strong enough to be a mother.


You so called boss lady. You are just a witch. You eat innocent babies for breakfast. You ate your own baby. How can you go into hospital with a big round belly and come back home empty-handed? Adzeto! What kind of mother is this? She didn’t even cry! It’s like she didn’t suffer before giving birth. Yehowa! Didn’t we warn our son against this witch? Who has ever heard of something like this before?

The events of the past month stay with me constantly. Everything that I have seen and heard has been transcribed in bold black print on a blank sheet before being grafted onto the inside of my eyelids. I want to use the serrated edges of words of advice turned to condemnation to file my knuckles, my elbows, my knees. My knuckles, my elbows, my knees…

I must have fallen asleep right there on the bathroom floor. I wake up to Mawuli standing up with his upper body bent over me, his mouth in the permanent downward position it has assumed, as if anchored by incessant worry.

“Do you want something to eat? Or some tea?”

He attempts a smile, but it is so forced that I can almost hear his skin stretching to accommodate this gesture that has now become unnatural, like rusty gears shifting in an overused machine.

“Just let me sleep. I just need to rest,” I mumble as I crawl the few feet from the bathroom to our bed. I climb in and tried to adjust myself to the special kind of cool held in sheets that have barely been slept in. I pull the covers up to my chin and stare at the ceiling intently, trying to count specks of dust clinging to cobwebs, arms outstretched waiting for sleep to pull down over my eyes. I drift through nightmares, and I can feel claws attached to hands that I can’t see grazing my arms and my back. One set of claws grips my left wrist and closes around it, pressing inwards. The pain is maddening, exquisitely so, because it feels like these claws are shooting venom into every cell and artery, the poison spreading inch by inch through my arm and to the rest of my body. I still can’t determine who or what these claws belong to and I twist my head to the side to try and see. My eyes strain in the overwhelming blackness for any sign of the source of this sweet, painful release, but I am jolted awake by a blow to my head. It must be a brick, because specks of grit fall into my eyes. I’m wide awake. And feeling again. I’m sitting on the floor in a hospital room. It stinks of disinfectant, and the walls are a putrid green, with surgical instruments strewn all over the grimy tiles. They may have been cream-colored at one point in time, but now they are covered in reddish brown footprints, and even the grout seems to be embedded with blood and dust and dried morsels of food. A nurse marches in and slams a metal bucket filled with murky water with soapsuds drifting slowly at the top on the floor in front of me. She throws a frayed scrubbing brush into the bucket, and some of the water splashes into my nose.

“Come on! Start scrubbing! Witch! You born a baby and throw it away! Come on! Scrub!”

“But madam nurse, it wasn’t my fault! My husband was carrying her and–

“Heh! I said shut up and scrub! Don’t let me catch you dropping it–

Drop her.

You dropped her.

No, YOU!

You didn’t support her neck. Remember?

My arms were not ready, I was not strong enough.



“You witch! Come on! Get up! What do you have to say for yourself?”

Usually, the whispers of Mawuli’s family sit lightly on my head. They are cotton strings interlaced with the fluffy strands of my hair. I used to carry them around both conspicuously and unknowingly, an open secret that I was one of those “too-known” women, no better than I should be, useless for making babies and even if I did, I would most definitely eat them for breakfast.

“You know she’s from a family of only children. Only daughters in fact! Mawuli are you sure?”

“Efo taflatse, where is she taking you with all her book learning? We want our grandchildren ohh it has been five years…”

Today, his mother’s misgivings have transformed from surreptitious nudges and conversations held in quiet hisses whenever I walk out of the room. Her words land on top of my blanket and pin me to the bed, so I was forced to stay and listen. I blink my sleep away and look up to see Mawuli’s face, apologetic and wrought with stress, and his mother’s twisted into a furious frown, hovered next to his.

“Come on! Get up! Explain yourself!”

“Mama. Me de kuku–

“Please what! Please who!”

I blink again, it seemed like there is still a speck stuck in my eye that I can’t get out. Why am I pleading? I’m the one wearing the shroud of guilt that I have been guarding jealously, absolving Mawuli, the doctors, the nurses, the relatives who didn’t wish us well, of all blame. I wasn’t strong enough. What kind of mother– not mother– you know you had just got out of surgery, what were you thinking? My skin has been stripped and replaced with a layer of impenetrable dullness; I’m unable to feel, to cry, to mourn the horror of a murder I’m sure I had not committed.

“Mama, please! Leave her alone! Can’t you see what you’re doing?” Mawuli’s pleas are as useless as all my attempts to fill the yawning gap that was left behind the day Kekeli slipped from my hands– our hands– and fell to the ground. I had only wanted to feed her. She had been stirring restlessly in Mawuli’s arms, seeking attention, and he wasn’t equipped to satisfy her. Maybe I should have sat up straighter, more alert and ready to hold a future in the crook of my arm. Poor Mawuli. He looks as though his mother’s razor-like shrillness is sawing into his heart one string at a time. I want to curl up inside his pain and sleep until I’m normal again. You would be surprised how tiring it can be to hold nothing but your breath in your arms, how heavy emptiness can be when it still bears faint traces of talcum powder and expectation.

“Spit out my baby for me!”

My eyelids have been fluttering between asleep and awake but they snap open suddenly with the force of a slamming door. The feeling of her reverberates in my cheek, terrified surprise swirling around my head as Mawuli holds her right hand behind her back as if she is under arrest. They are both staring at me demanding and begging me to produce the only antidote for pain I do not have, a pain I may never feel. For now I’m resigned to the numbness created by blame that should really be shared, but is currently resting awkwardly on my thigh, interrupting blood flow. I flinch instinctively as Mawuli stops his mother’s free hand on its way to strike the top of my head. I smile a little, knowing that I won’t feel anything but anticipating the temporary relief.


Zoë Gadegbeku (@HerWildness) just completed her first year in the Creative Writing MFA Program at Emerson College. She is a 23 year old originally from Ghana and currently dealing with the nostalgia of missing out on a humid DC summer after 4 years of undergraduate study there. She is still waiting for someone to send along a marching band and some flowers to congratulate her for surviving the past year spent discussing adverb placement and “what’s at stake” for short story characters.

You can read more of her work at

Related country: Ghana

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