Every day, she felt exhausted from the day of cleaning, cooking and finding ways to keep everyone within a normal routine. At night, her sisters’ tight grip made her feel as though she was slowly suffocating. In her minds’ eye, she could hardly see further than getting over the next day, and the day after. Her tired head lay heavily on her lumpy pillow, the threadbare mattress that passed for a bed in their humble home suddenly pinched her all over. There was so much wrong with her life, yet she proudly carried on. She had made her promise, and the little hands that fastened across her chest were reminders of the great burden she had undertaken – the burden that, even in her young years, she knew her father was incapable of handling.
Schoolwork had always come easily to her, so she not only handled food and house duties, but homework too. In her eyes, already far too adult for her 14 years, her siblings would have a chance to get ahead. An education meant getting something better, somewhere ‘out there’. She had often admired the sharp clothing of the girls who had gone ahead and studied, and now worked at banks, and sitting beautifully behind an impressive desk. She felt twinges of disappointment that she would not have a chance to be one of those office girls. But in the same train of thought, images of herself were replaced by those of her little girls. Her brother would be a teacher, perhaps, or even the manager of the same banks.
In her mind, it had always been the same, the girls provided the sheen of beauty, they were the lures into the office, and always, the man was in charge. Those girls she stared at enviously from afar had a polish she could never aspire to. Soft, supple hands had tapered fingers that ended in nails that were always miraculously long and beautifully painted. The faces of these girls were satiny smooth, with groomed brows, stained lips and not a hair out of place.
Before Mama died, Irma had spent many nights dreaming of being one of those girls; even though her fingernails were always ragged, and her hands were rough and calloused from all the work she did at home helping out. When she was at school, her uniform was disarrayed by the first class, and under the heat, she wilted. Her face had always shone, a byproduct of her teenage complexion, yet she often dreamed of the time when all of that would miraculously disappear, and she would join the ranks of those girls she envied and admired so much. Now, it was up to her little sisters to become beautiful, and well-paid, studious young ladies. Those little fingers around her would soon be the tapered fingers that would type and scribble away into a better future.
Days passed into weeks, time melted into oblivion, and every day was the same. Irma learned the ways of her mother’s small backyard garden, using her bare hands to weed, dig, pull and harvest. Aunts sometimes came over to watch over her, showing her how to do some things, and other times just to see that she was handling herself. They too, had started out early, some of them had already been married by the time they were Irma’s age, and their families well on their way to expanding. The hard work that she was undertaking was nothing new to these women, who had all been there, and had managed to survive. But still, given her circumstances, and the changing world, they tried to show they cared.
Ramon Sr. had been taking to the communal field more often the past months, unable to stay at home as he liked to before it all went horribly wrong. There were days when he didn’t do more than walk to the field, then curl up under the shade of a tree, sleeping away the day. Other men watched him, shaking their heads in disbelief. For many of the good men in the village, a family was a responsibility. Choosing a wife at a young age meant that a man could dedicate the best years of his life to keeping the family fed and cared for. Ramon Sr. married a woman decades his junior and they proceeded to have children, despite the fact that he was older, and would be too tired to work much longer. These men had all heard about Irma, his eldest leaving school. They watched him as he slept most of his days away – and knowing that they were exacerbating the problem, cared for his patch as well.
Increasingly distant, Ramon Sr. barely spoke up at the dinner table. The night after Irma had prepared one of the simplest meals of vegetables from the garden, and eggs from the chickens that were thankfully multiplying, he suddenly found his voice. Everyone was busy eating, the little family a most somber group getting ready to once more head into the land where everything was as it was before.
“I think you should stay in the bedroom with me.” He was looking straight at Irma. At the back of her mind, she felt that this was something that should not surprise her. He was her father, and she was an obedient daughter.
But she could not shake off the memories of late night fears. She thought of those pre-dawn hours when she had felt a rough hand under her tangled sheets. She never spoke of it, not even to Mama. If there was something she had learned from her mother, it was silence. Just as her mother had borne her pain alone, she had also hid the ugly truth about her father. . If she refused, perhaps he would request that the two little girls join him instead. She thought of it, and watched her little sisters, the young girls she had such hopes for, and she knew she was trapped.
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