Shla will never be the same again, but she’s getting back on her metaphorical feet.
As a professional athlete, she’s prepared for the hours of relentless training. She’s been putting everything else off, her friends, her family and her studies and her PT is coming along great. Nothing but walking again matters. Then she takes her first steps and realises she has to find somewhere to go.
A young adult story about getting back on your feet. Featuring romance, girls who don’t give up, disability, other girls who don’t give up and a lot of water. 15,000 words.
I’m not gonna lie to you; before the accident I was barely keeping up with school. It isn’t that I’m dumb, because I’m not. I’m average, I guess. It’s that I swam an hour and a half every morning and two in the afternoons, more on weekends. Homework got done because my parents didn’t give me a choice about it. That doesn’t mean I remembered much; I’m not the kind of girl who goes to class, then does a little revision and does just fine. I understand just fine, but it doesn’t seem to stay with me.
Movement? That I can memorize in an instant. Rhythm? No problem. Words, though, aren’t my thing. Words slow the world down. I can’t handle slow. Since I was a kid, I always ran the fastest, swung the hardest, jumped the highest. And then I found the pool, where I could move in every direction with a smoothness air would never allow of someone with no wings. It was love at first dip, that simple.
The second time around, when the doctor finally cleared me to get into the pool, was almost better than the first. I just knew it. I didn’t even need to swim; it was enough just feeling the water embracing me back, warm and heavy against me, supporting my weight and enhancing my movements. In the water, I was whole again. On land, I had stopped forgetting my leg wasn’t there, but in the water, my brain just deleted that information. I ended up swimming in circles but who cared? I was home.
I wouldn’t have been able to take the six months that followed without the pool. Everywhere else I was irreparably broken but for at least an hour a day, I got to be ok. Well, not ok, but working on my technique was the kind of grueling work I enjoyed, the type of progress I was used to working for. Coach Mirima took me back, no questions asked, and read up on one legged swimming techniques to help me. She also stopped me from pushing myself so far I drowned, no mean feat when some days it seemed a better plan than getting out of the pool and going back to my crutches. It had been that way from the first; once I was in the water I never wanted to leave. There was less of me now, but that didn’t change.
I guess somebody is laughing at me now, stuck like this, alive but trapped. No choice but to take it slow or to plummet to the ground. Some mornings I think I will take the fall instead. My lower left leg is gone. It’s been gone for months, but now I can write the words without breaking the pencil or ripping the page to shreds. It helps I can also walk again. Well, that’s what I have to call it, nobody who’s walked on two legs would call what I’m doing walking. This wobbling about that I have achieved after practicing for weeks, and of which I’m told I should be proud… I am happy to be rid of the crutches, that much I can say, having my arms back is such a relief that I feel a little less mangled, a little less lame.
I was relieved to go to the orthopedist for a fitting and almost euphoric to get the prosthetic in place. But after a week of failing at stupidly easy exercises that a toddler could have done, I finally understood that it wasn’t going to be ‘just fine’ and it definitely wasn’t going to be ‘just the same but with no risk of people stepping on your toes’ like my brother had joked at the hospital. My hands hurt even when they weren’t clutching at the crutches and the parallel bars and I was close to asking somebody for a wheelchair and calling it a day. Oddly, it was the water that made me realise I couldn’t give up. The swimming pool didn’t have a ramp.
So I kept at it. Keeping at it’s something I’m good at, even if I have always kept at the things I was already excellent at so I could be extraordinary. It hurt to try and move my hips the right way, it hurt to raise my stump enough for the prosthetic to support my weight adequately. It hurt even more to feel useless, to feel like my goal was so tiny and small that it shouldn’t have been a goal. It had been mine already, I had learned to walk, long ago, when it was meant to be hard and, if the baby album is to be believed, it actually didn’t take much to get eleven month me going.
And now I had to go through it again and again to retrain my reflexes to fit my new body. It took so much out of me, the concentrated effort that only something that should come naturally can take… I would drop to sleep every night like unconsciousness was a cliff I had missed and I was made of lead. Mostly, the nightmares woke me. I could never remember them, maybe because I didn’t remember what had happened, maybe because I was dreaming what I lived every day. It felt that way, frustration, anger and a paralyzing helplessness.
Truth is, some things aren’t meant to be learned, just absorbed. Babies won’t talk if you don’t talk to them, but they sure as hell will crawl and walk. Parents like to hurry the process along but, in the end, babies walk because people walk: It’s a basic human function that means we can run away when a bigger thing tries to eat us. If we lived in caves, I would be totally dead. Not just because of the lack of disinfectant or surgery: People around me would know I’m not fit for life anymore. They would let me go. I wouldn’t need to fake being something I’m not.
Another plus side of caves would be the lack of tests I’m about to fail and the absence of snotty classmates intent on ‘catching me up’. I’m pretty sure nobody would show up early either, what with the lack of clocks. The girl they send from my new school does, five minutes to five she’s ringing the bell and I can hear her chatting up my aunt, who I’m sure is offering her biscuits, milk and maybe even a massage. Aunt Marie is a teacher, so she’s wild about me going back to school. She spent the last three months filling my hospital room with books, then audiobooks, then ‘informative’ podcasts. Some of them were pretty good, Bridge to Terabithia even made me cry, even and I still listen to these girls who talk about hockey.
My new shiny plastic leg is strapped onto my knee and thigh and covered by my trousers so as to be impossible to distinguish from my real one. I check myself out once more in the floor to ceiling mirror I need to do my exercises. My hair is a bit messy, but who cares? Surely not my new ‘tutor’. She knocks on my door and I call out to her to come in. She opens the door, but she doesn’t enter. She blinks dark eyes at me from behind her rimless glasses. Her mouth has fallen a little open.
I look down, worried something is showing after all, but if it wasn’t for the incongruous absence of sensation on my left side, I wouldn’t know. I look back up at her, taking a step closer because I kind of want to take a step back, and you can’t let that show. “What?”
She tenses, even though I’m not even remotely close enough to her to, say, hit her. “I… I thought you were white.”
I snort, too relieved to take offense. “I’m adopted. Not my biggest problem at the moment.”
She smiles at me, looking a little relieved herself. “It just… it seemed a bit too… British, I guess.” And it’s then that I notice the slight twinge of her accent.
“I am British. I was born here.” Her own skin is a very light chocolate brown, light enough that it’s perfectly visibly when she blushes. She looks so adorable that I almost resist, but not quite. “You have anything against Britishness?” I ask, coming to lean against the doorway on my good side.
“No!” she assures me. “No, it’s…” Her hands flutter nervously in front of her, like she hopes to pluck the words out of the air. “I just worry. Some people are weird about it. About me. Especially with the tutoring.”
And suddenly, I get it. I step back, indicating that she should take the chair by my desk. Her relieved smile from earlier makes a reappearance as she does. She is not hesitant exactly, but careful, her body controlled, inhibited. I can see her, but I can also see what other people see, what they think. That she isn’t smart enough to be tutoring anybody, a black girl with a foreign accent. I have the right accent but I have gotten a lot of shit for being a different shade than my parents and, let’s be real, simply being the wrong shade. And I got so much shit for being a girl who could outrun any boy in the neighbourhood and out-punch a good many that… Well, that won’t be a problem anymore.
I turn to my guest. “I hope you know what you are doing.”
That cheers her up. She straightens, saying, “I do.”
We start with Science, because it makes me want to cry a little less than Maths or English. The saddest thing is, once upon a time I thought I would like physics because in practice it makes so much sense to me. I understand the way things will turn out: how far a ball will be thrown, how much I need to move to catch it, what curvature of my fingers will propel me faster through water. But when you write it all down… my sense of what is where is as flat as the paper. Seda listens to me explain all this, not complaining that it doesn’t add anything to the actual learning, frowning intently, eyes lost in the distance but focused on my voice.
“Well, if you can remember what happens,” she says thoughtfully, “what you see, the movement… then what we need to do is connect the equations to that. Not the other way around.”
“What do you mean?” I ask. “They did the whole throwing the ball and the videos and everything.”
She smiles, as if I’m encouraging her instead of objecting. “Yes. Exactly. They did. What if you do it?”
And that’s how the most interesting physics class I have ever had starts. We throw darts at the board my dad installed on the wall facing my bed and Seda makes notes on the trajectories. She throws darts, too, supposedly so I can observe, but she is simply so terrible at it that the only thing I can focus on it’s how, for all she might know why the trajectory is what it is, she has no control of what her hands are doing. Her posture shifts unaccountably between throws and she seems completely unaware of how that will affect the force she can use and the angle at which she can move her own arm.
It’s mystifying. It fits her, though. I thought I got her because I understood the chip on her shoulder, but now that the issue of excessive whiteness has been sorted, I still don’t get her. She’s looking at me almost too attentively. She agreed to take a seat on the bed to throw her darts from the right position, but she’s not comfortable there. She’s smiling and she’s laughed at my jokes and at her failed attempts both, but she’s clutching at the notebook where she’s diagramming the laws of physics like a shield. I lean over, more to see what she will do than because I want to look at the diagram again, and she immediately holds it closer to me but doesn’t let it or her hands make contact with me.
“It’s like this,” she says, tracing it with her index as my eyes follow along. “See?”
And I do see. Maybe because I’m not trying to see. I see the dart moving through the air and I feel my muscles clenching. Acceleration equals force divided by mass.
“Yes!” I exclaim and take the notebook from her hands, heedless of manners or of the fact that I have known her for a couple of hours. “Yes, I do see.”
She turns to look at me, too close all of a sudden, and I can see how long her eyelashes are, how smooth the skin of her cheeks. “That’s… good,” she says haltingly, lowering her eyes to the notebook once again. Then she exhales and continues, brisk and sure. “Now, look at this…”
Story of the story: I wrote Invictus in a week inspired by the slashpile challenge to ‘get someone back on their feet’ (What can I say, I’m contrary that way) and a mention of Natalie du Toit in a textbook. I know very little about Natalie’s story, although obviously I know enough to be damn impressed. Still, any similarities are truly accidental as I was too busy writing to do research and I had a better informed friend tell me about recovery times and such. Any mistakes regarding treatments, times or descriptions of prosthesis are honest mistakes that I will happily correct. I tried my best to represent the situation fairly without talking overly much about things I have no experience of (I did go down a lot of stairs pretending I couldn’t flex my foot, but that was about as much as I could get). In as much as imagination can make up for lack of experience, I hope to have succeeded in capturing the experience of someone confronting sudden physical limitations.