It was only the second session of the youth retreat and Elizabeth started feeling very dizzy. She could feel her abdomen cramping up, limbs feeling numb and feet going cold. Elizabeth knew what it meant. It was her monthly cycle kicking in. But, her calendar had shown otherwise. Before leaving for church, she had checked on the calendar for the deep red marking made with her fountain pen. Not due for another 4 days. Things were going to get messy, she knew.
Ammachi had forced her to wear the light cream coloured long frock. Elizabeth always hated to wear frocks. It made her feel lowly. She liked to wear pants. It gave her confidence. She felt like her father and elder brother. The men. They look so dashing in pants, she always felt. But Ammachi won’t budge. Frocks. Frocks. Frocks. Elizabeth felt so angry inside.
She had not brought a bag. Hence no pad. All she carried was her Bible and a small notebook and pen. Elizabeth looked for Annie. She was sitting in the corner. The preacher was talking about how children should be devoted to their parents. Annie seemed to be so engrossed in the words that came out of his mouth. Elizabeth tried hard to get her attention. Finally, Annie turned. Elizabeth motioned her to get outside. The Sunday school headmistress was prying on her from the back. She never noticed. And kept signalling Annie, but her friend was reluctant. “No way”, Annie signaled and turned back to being the “good girl”. Elizabeth felt so disappointed. She felt deserted in that crowd of familiar faces. The 12-year-old decided to stay there, till the lunch break. But she could feel her underwear getting wet and warmth prying up her lower abdominal region. The pain made her fall into a brief comatose.
” Keep this a secret. You have become a woman now. Be more behaved and stay away from boys. You should dress decently, keep the voice down when you talk and stop playing in the field.” Elizabeth sat on the bed as her Ammachi narrated the code of conduct. It was the first day she started menstruating. She saw blood on the underwear and screamed from the bathroom. Ammachi came rushing, pushed open the door, saw the red stains and sighed. Elizabeth’s cycle had started way before her Ammachi expected and it made her very disappointed. She went to her room and returned with a half-used packet of Stay free. Ammachi demonstrated how to place it correctly on the underwear. Then came the flow of advice. Elizabeth even felt awkward around her Appachen and Chachen. Or even better, Ammachi forbade her from getting close to them. Ammachi showed her how to hide the pad when she walked to the bathroom. The used ones were to be burned before anyone saw it. Every month her Ammachi would buy 2 packets of Stayfree from the nearby ladies store. The store had only ladies staff and they would cover the packet with multiple sheets of newspaper. Every time she bled, Elizabeth felt like a criminal.
Suddenly the preacher started clapping “A-B, A-B-C” and Elizabeth was shaken out of thoughts. All the other kids were following the pattern of clap. She felt irritated. She kept her hands clasped around her knees and sat still.
The clapping ceased and they were dispersed for lunch. Annie came to where Elizabeth was sitting. She didn’t want to stand up.
“Come. I am very hungry. Let’s go. Weren’t you in a hurry to go out? ” Annie asked in her singsong voice. Elizabeth gave no reply and kept staring at her friend
“Elii.. get up di.. let’s go eat..” Annie urged and Elizabeth snapped.
“Shut up di. I can’t even get up. How many times did I ask you to slip out? Eh?”
Her voice made Annie realize something was wrong.
“ What is it di? Tell me now..” her sound was filled with sorry
“My periods just started di.”
“Ayyo dii.. you haven’t kept a pad ?”
“Noooo..” Elizabeth was getting heated.
“Ok Ok.. I also don’t have one di. Let’s ask someone else.” Annie tried to calm her friend down.
Meanwhile, they were being watched by the headmistress, through the open window. The girls seemed too secretive to her. She decided to stand hidden from their sight and watch their movements.
Annie rushed to an older girl in the group, one who was her neighbour.
“Christina chechy..” she called out, skipping up to her.
“What is it, Annie?”
“Ugh, chechy…” Annie stalled as she assessed the crowd that stood nearby.
Annie leaned closer and whispered, “Chechy, Eli’s periods started. She does not have a pad. Do you have one?”
“Yes I think so”, Christina replied to Annie’s relief.
“Come”, she said and started walking into the church hall as Annie followed.
Christina found a pad inside her bag, but she didn’t bring it out of the bag. She kept holding it in the bag’s pocket.
“It’s not covered. Bring your bag, ill just keep it in that”, she talked very consciously.
But Annie didn’t have a bag. She was still carrying her Bible and notebook. Seeing Christina get restless, Annie just opened her Bible and asked the elder girl to put the pad inside.
Christina went all red.
“In the Bible?”, she was shocked.
“Yea, I don’t have anything else to hide it in. My frock doesn’t have a pocket.”
With trembling hands, Christina kept the pad between the open pages. Annie closed it shut.
Christina suddenly turned to the altar and drew the cross as if it was a form of apology.
Annie rushed to where her friend was sitting.
“Eli.. come come. Got it.”
But Elizabeth still didn’t get up. She looked up at Annie with red eyes and said
“My frock is stained dii.”
“Oohhh..” Annie stood behind her friend and asked her to get up.
“I will walk behind you like this. Then no one would notice. Come.”
Elizabeth stood up with Annie close at her heels. But the girls did not notice a small stain of blood on the carpet, where Elizabeth was sitting.
The duo walked out through the side door in the direction of the washrooms.
Suddenly, someone popped out from behind one of the pillars.
“Where are you two going?”, the headmistress’ strong voice gave the girls chills.
“Ugh, ugh bathroom, teacher..” they mumbled out.
“What happened to her?”, she asked pointing at a famished Elizabeth.
“Periods, teacher”, Annie replied.
Then, in a reflex, she got hold of Annie’s bible and opened it to where she had hidden the pad.
The girls looked mortified as their teacher started drawing the cross over and over again in a frenzy.
They looked at each other with shame and guilt, the reason of which they never understood.
The headmistress then looked at them, with a sort of disgust in her eyes.
“You know how holy this book is. It is to be seen with reverence. What an insult have you done!! You all are truly Satan’s claimed. No proper respect for anything. Keeping something so vile in a Bible?! Menstruating while sitting inside a church and staining the carpet..”
Her voice was very subtle but it was strong enough to instil so much fear in the girls. Elizabeth who was already weak and fatigued suddenly burst out into tears.
“She did it for me teacher. It is my mistake.”
The headmistress saw other kids looking at their side. She did not want to cause a scene.
“Ok Ok. Go now. But I want to meet you both and your parents. Go go..” she rushed the girls.
Annie grabbed the Bible from her hands and they scurried towards the washroom.
They both remained quiet as Elizabeth got into one of the narrow washroom stalls with the pad. Annie waited outside.
When Elizabeth was done and washed her frock, she stepped out. Annie helped her dry it off a little bit. In silence.
They walked back into the hall, hungry and heavy from guilt for something unknown.
The session restarted and the preacher asked them to turn their Bibles to, Genesis 1:27
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”, he read it through the microphone.
“Our bodies are created by God himself, nothing in our body is unholy. Let us be grateful for every organ in our body. Let us be proud of our bodies”, he urged the youngsters sitting in front of him.
Elizabeth and Annie, sat in the last row wondering if the monthly bleeding they were contempt for came from the body God created. The young girls were confused beyond belief.
They looked towards where the headmistress was seated. The noble Christian lady was nodding her head and agreeing to the preacher with a smile on her face.
Elizabeth and Annie sat there with blank eyes. Things around them were far beyond their grasp. They were worried about the meeting with their parents. Everything so simple seemed so very complicated.