I am number thirty-seven. I hear my number being called from the loudspeakers, more like a dull buzz than actual words, and I sit. The girls on either side of me have been seated for a while, though I don't focus on them enough to hear their numbers. Here, you are to focus on just one person, and it isn't even yourself. It’s the man calling your number.
Being number thirty-seven meant that thirty-six people would walk out of those white doors before me. It meant they would all go through the Clippings before me. It meant that I had about three and a half hours of just sitting still, by myself, and sifting through my thoughts.
Do people use that anymore? Their thoughts, I mean. I know it’s been discouraged, the use of thought, but it’s something I find hard not to do. Even right now, as more numbers are being called and more girls are taking their place in the large white hall, behind white, six-person tables and on creaky metal chairs, I think. My mind roams. If they find out, they might take me back to reformatory for a year. Or they might take me to solitary confinement. Or they might kill me. To be honest with you, I’m not certain which option would be the worst.
I don’t know if the girls around me think. It’s always been one of the things that puzzled me the most. Is it possible not to think? To have your mind blank except for the constant echoes of the things that have been taught to you? To not be able to create a single thought? It seems almost too absurd to imagine. But then you look at them, these girls, sitting straight-spined, with their arms crossed in their laps and their eyes glassy, and you wonder. At the reformatory they called it Sitting Invisible. They’re like little plastic ornaments, I like to imagine; and if not for the little lifts and falls of their chests I’d actually believe it.
And maybe if another thoughtful girl sees me she’ll think the same way, because I like to think I’m pretty good at Sitting Invisible. I’ve had to learn it, just like everyone else, or I’d have ended up dead. Insurgents never lasted more than a few hours here. There’s this little part of me that imagines we’re all like that. We’re all still fighting internally, our minds stronger than they’d intended, and all this was just a ruse. Just a way to stay alive. But I also know that to think that would be a fancy. I have seen too many girls whose minds had been broken to a million shards.
The speakers have finished the first count, and now all the girls are seated. Seventy-two, is the last number called out. There are seventy-two of us. Seventy-two new girls for the Clipping ceremony. The special one, when we all become women. Seventy-two is a very average number for Lagos.
We are not meant to move even slightly before our numbers are called, so from my peripheral vision I take in as much as I can of the girls beside me. The one to my right is tall, and dark as polished coal. The one to my left has her hands on the table, and her nails are short and neat. I start to wonder if everyone's nails are like that. I start to wonder about mine. But my hands are on my lap, and it might cost me my life to check.
Then, the speakers start up again. They say the first number, One, and that single word pierces through the silence of the room like it's butter. My heart picks up in anticipation, and I hear a chair creak as whoever owns the number stands up. The hall is silent, and no one turns their heads to look at the girl that stood up even though we're all curious. At least, I assume we're all curious. The legality of curiosity was never specified.
I hear footsteps from a distance behind me. She's walking out. I listen as the door opens, and wait for her to walk out of it and slam it shut. But right before that happens, the girl does something amazing. She sobs. It's not like a loud scream or anything, it's more like a few sharp intakes of breath. But it's amazing to me, considering we're not even allowed to scream as we're being Clipped. It's like she shattered the image we're supposed to have, for just a moment.
When the door slams shut the silence in the room seems heavy with something. The smell of fear is almost so pungent I almost sneeze. By the end of the day, we're all going to have gone through the worst. By the end of the day we're all going to be women.
And then the girl to my right speaks. The tall one, with shiny skin. "How many times have you been to an ordinary Clipping?" She asks.
It takes me a moment to realize she's talking to me. She doesn't turn her head (we aren't allowed to), or say my name (I don't have one), or even nudge me a little, seeing as she sits so close to me. She says it like she is talking to air.
"Forty-nine," I tell her.
"That's a lot," she says.
"I regenerate fast."
And we fall back into silence.
Another five minutes, or maybe more, and the loudspeakers blare to life again. They only say one word, all four of them, like one person screaming from all the corners of your mind: Two. Number Two stands up. She's further to my right, somewhere where I can only see her silhouette and the signs of the brown skin uniform we're all made to wear. There is no sobbing this time, as she walks out. Only the sound of the door shutting us in.
Then my neighbor speaks again.
"We can't talk for more than a few seconds at a time," she says. "So when I say stop you have to stop."
I am confused. "Talking is allowed," I tell her. It's not done much, but it's not outlawed.
"Not the type of things I want to talk about."
I don't reply. I just look forward, like I'm supposed to, and focus on what's ahead. More time passes, and girl number three stands up. This time, she's right in front of me, and I can see the tears that have found its way out and is now dripping from her cheeks. She makes no move to wipe them. This time when the door shuts the whole room seems to suck in a breath. Thirty-three more. Then me.
"What was the first thing they took?" My neighbor asks. I had expected her to speak, but I still don't understand why she's doing it. But, whatever her plan is, as long as I don't commit a punishable offense, I'm fine.
And besides. It feels a bit good to have someone to talk to.
"My smallest finger," I tell her. "Both of them."
"They took my right heel," she says. I want to wince, because they did it once to me two years ago and I know how painful it can be, but I do not. Instead I stay silent.
Fourth leaves. The door shuts. My neighbor says, "have they ever had your whole arm?"
I say, "three times now."
She says, "how did it feel?"
I say, "like they wanted it to feel. Like fire. Like punishment." The words come out slightly angry, and spiteful. But somehow I know I can trust this stranger with my anger.
A fifth. It's been half an hour. Somewhere far away a bell rings. The women in the fields are in their second Harvesting Lap. Maybe I'll go to the fields once I become a woman. In the fields you suffer, but you're safe.
"What are you thinking of?" My neighbor asks.
"I do not think," I tell her. Simply. A denial as sharp as knives.
"We all think, Thirty-Seven," she says. I suppose, for today, that is my name.
"We do?" I ask. The hope in my voice is not hidden. But she does not reply. I guess the few seconds have been crossed.
"Does it hurt when you grow them back?" She asks once the sixth person leaves.
"The bigger or more important it is the harder it hurts," I say. "My toes or ears are tolerable, but when I have to grow a whole leg or heart, the pain never seems to end."
"But it doesn't take you long?"
"It took me a day and a half to grow both my legs back," I say. "I was cut from the hip."
"That's very fast," she says.
When the seventh is gone, I speak first.
"What is your number?" I ask.
"Nineteen," she says smoothly.
"You don't sound scared."
"It will grow back,"
"That's not the reason to be scared," I say.
"You want me to fear the pain?" She asks.
I want to nod, but instead I say, "Is it not normal?"
She scoffs. "I hate the pain. I don't fear it."
The eighth person does not stand up. In a few seconds everyone realizes what is happening. The speaker says it the second time. Number eight, the speaker says. The third time it sounds angry. Number eight, it calls for the last time. Then the doors slam open, and four large men walk in. They know who number eight is. They'll get her up. They move like they're navigating a maze, through the spaces between our tables and chairs, bending and twisting so we aren't touched by their guns or elbows. I suck in a deep breath as one breezes through me. The wind that comes from his passing seems almost a taboo.
They reach number eight. She's twelve tables ahead of me, and she's crying. She's begging. There's snot running down her nose, and she's shaking. Her right hand is a stump, and one of her eye sockets are empty. She can't regenerate, I realize. Or maybe she can, but not well. She will never live through this Clipping. But if you can't live through this Clipping, then you can't live. They do not speak to her, or tell her to make a quick choice. They are not here for communication. In one fast movement, two of the four men put a hand under hers and jerk her to a standing position. The already silent room grows even more silent.
They touched her. Touching us is forbidden. Touching a girl means one out of two things. The first, is that you will now become a criminal. The second, is that you touched the girl because, in a few moments, she will no longer be a girl. So none of us are surprised when the third man holds a gun to Number Eight's head and pulls the trigger. She doesn't scream. The only sound in the air is the loud pop of the gun, and the sickening sound of her head exploding from the inside.
No longer a girl. Now a corpse.
The four men leave the room, and the girl's body is sprawled on the ground like a large slab of meat. The girls who sit around her do not move, though Number Eight's blood is splattered on their faces. Is it terrible that I think she isn't as stiff in death as she was in life? Her blood is pooling the ground, and the sight makes my stomach turn, but we cannot look away. For the next few moments our eyes are to be on her. Like we are learning a lesson. Like we are repenting.
Then the loudspeakers call for Number Nine, and somewhere in the room she stands.
My neighbor's voice comes again.
"Have you ever wondered why they need it?" She asks.
"You mean our bodies?" I say. "They need it to grow."
"Do you think they can regenerate too?"
"I do not think."
Number Ten stands. Number Ten walks out of the door.
"Why do we talk for such short periods of time?" I ask her.
"Because for those few seconds every one's focus is on the girls walking out of the door." It means she does not want us monitored.
"Are you sure about that?" I ask.
"If we're not dead yet then there's a reason," she answers.
Number Eleven is the girl at my left, with clean nails and an ear that must have grasped every word we had said. She gets up, and I see her pretty hands shake. "Count to ten," I whisper to her. "Count to ten and you're a woman."
It's what my mother used to say to me, when she prepared me for this day. Count to ten, and you're a woman. Being a woman was still as bad as being a girl, but at least we had the term "woman". And even with how little consolation that was, it was still more than we had as girls. Number Eleven walked out.
"Everyone thinks," my neighbor says. She has said this before.
"Do you?" I ask her.
"It's impossible not to."
"The things I think are evil," I admit to her. "Sinful."
She sighs. "There are a thousand sinful things in this world, Thirty-Seven, but your anger isn't one of them."
Number Twelve leaves. It's almost her turn.
"How can you think this way?" I ask her. "Doesn't it hurt?"
"To see so clearly in a world where your eyes are being forced shut?" She says. "It's a painful blessing. But it's a necessity."
"A necessity for you?"
She shakes her head. It's a slight motion, but I catch it. "A necessity for other people. People like you, Thirty-Seven. I've opened your eyes, given you a seed of that necessary power, and now you have to let it grow."
"Stop talking," she says, and I do.
Number thirteen and fourteen, the speaker calls. Twins. They always taste better Clipped together, we've been told.
"How do you know you've opened my eyes?" I ask once the door closes.
"Have I?" She throws back.
I fight the urge to nod. "You have.
"Say what you're thinking."
"How do I let it grow?" I ask.
Number Fifteen. She's four girls away. Number Sixteen. I don't want her to go. Number Seventeen. I'm scared, not for me anymore, but for her now. Number Eighteen, I risk my whole life, and turn to her.
One of her ears are missing.
I feel a sudden heat in my chest.
"You don't regenerate?" I say.
She looks at me, shocked that I turned, and shakes her head. "I regenerate very poorly."
"The Clippings will kill you," I say.
She smiles. I have not seen a smile in so long. "Now you know why I am not afraid."
Number Nineteen. She has been called. I look up as she stands, and ask, "why did you choose to speak to me?"
She shrugs. "I'm dying," she tells me. "What do I truly have to lose?"
And she walks out. I fix my head back in place, and for the first time feel the emptiness around me. I'm alone, and now the fear is starting to settle again. And something else. I fall asleep, sitting forward, my eyes open, my body stiff.
Then, after the longest time, I hear it. My number.
I stand. The words of Number Nineteen are swimming through my head as I navigate through the tables and chairs. For the first time I have a good look at where I am. A white box, is all it is. A white box with white walls and white floors and white furniture and white doors. I turn towards the door, and push.
Outside is bright, with the tiles under my feet replaced with grass and trees littering the small field. There are no headless bodies strewn carelessly on the ground, like I had expected. The girl before me, Number Thirty-Six, is being carried away on a stretcher. Her skin is dark brown and her fists are clenched. There is blood gushing out of her neck and staining the white cloth beneath her. I don't know where they kept her head. Maybe there's a storage for it.
There are two men waiting for me, one carrying a long axe and the other carrying a clipboard. "Thirty-Seven?" The man with the clipboard asks as I approach. I nod. "It says you're one of the top regenerators. We expect you up and running in a week." I nod again and look at both of them, ready to receive instructions.
"Kneel," the man with the axe says. I kneel.
"Bend your neck forward," the man with the axe says. I bend my neck forward.
"Pray," the man with the axe says. I do not pray. Instead, I think of Number Nineteen, and her words. And I think of that seed, and I think that to let it grow, I am going to water it with my blood.
I do not fear the pain. I hate it.
And then I hear the whoosh of the axe's blade swinging down.