Grown Up - III

    Heading to bed was an ordeal Irma refused to dwell on. There was not much she felt she could do to avoid what she felt was a death sentence. She was 14, robust and healthy despite circumstances that said she shouldn’t. In the end, it took looking at her little sisters, with their innocence and such bright possibilities ahead of them, it took their round little faces destined for greatness, that made her put one foot in front of the other, heading for the bed ‘room’ where her father slept.

    The sleeping quarters was actually just one large room, roughly half the house dedicated for the family. That’s how it was in most houses. A few people who had extra money would build actual rooms with doors that closed. Some had an entirely separate building that was dedicated to sleeping. Irma knew of a family that had one house for the kitchen and eating area. Big stones flattened into the ground made a walkway to the house where there were rooms for sleeping. The walkway even took the people to the back where there was a bathing station. But like everybody’s house, the outhouse was far, in the bushes and hidden. There was no walkway there.

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    In Ramon’s house, there was one area for sleeping, and one area to cook and eat and entertain the few visitors who came. The house was so humble that everyone preferred to sit outside when the weather was fine, and when it wasn’t, there weren’t any visitors at all. The half of the house was further divided by a string, and when Mama had been alive and well, she had worked hard to patch up pieces of material into one large sheet that she then draped over the string. The weight of the fabric weighed down the string in the middle, but still, there was a division that kept the children separate from the adults.

    Lola and Micaela lay in bed alone; Ramon Jr. was already curled up on his hammock above the girls. No-one moved a muscle as they pretended that things were normal. Ramon Jr. had his eyes closed, and he breathed steadily, but in his confused young mind, he felt there was something wrong. His little sisters, used to sharing one pillow while Irma had another, now lay separate from each other. They no longer curled into each other like puppies; instead, they lay rigidly apart. They were wide awake, wondering why Irma had to be in the other bed with Papa. Both of them wanted to pile into the same bed with him and their big sister, but she had scolded them. They tried not to show how hurt and angry they felt, because of course they loved Irma. Lola thought of how Irma was taking care of everyone, and maybe Papa needed her to take care of him too. That was it. Satisfied with that thought, she closed her eyes and started to drift off into oblivion. Micaela decided to sleep as well, even though she had yet to come to a satisfactory conclusion why her sister was not going to sleep with them, and be there for when she woke up scared.

    Pulling aside the partition, Irma held her breath. She wore a long nightdress that once belonged to Mama, with sleeves to her fingertips, and the length almost tripping her as she made her way to the bed. Her father lay on his side, back turned to her. Her heart was beating so fast it was a dull roar in her ears, and even though the night was cool, she was sweating underneath her big dress. The bed was a small one, built by Ramon Sr. before his wedding. It was up against a wall, and it was that wall he lay facing. Tentatively, she sat on the bed, not sure if she should just lie down, or sit and wait.

    In the end, she pulled up her feet, lying as close to the edge as possible, back to him, poised and ready for flight. Sometime in the night, she finally fell asleep, exhausted from lying so rigid, afraid to roll backwards, deeper into bed, and terrified of falling off the edge. She awoke to the brightness of dawn, curled up tightly on the patch of mattress she had fallen asleep on, with no recollection of nightmares, real or dreamt, from the night before. Without thinking twice, she jumped off the bed, heading into the kitchen to start her day.

    Briefly, she felt relief, but as the hours progressed, her fears escalated. Not knowing what would happen, when it would happen, why, and how, and everything in between, ate at her all morning. Her fear grew as the sun crept across the sky at lightning speed; the shadows grew, stretching their dark fingers across the land, and soon, it was dark again.

    The mental anguish continued for several nights, and each night, Irma felt that perhaps that would be the night when her nightmares would become real. Then, when it finally happened, there was a sense of relief, of it being over, of everything falling into place. In her child’s mind, some things just happened. Her relief at saving her little sisters from the same plight was a bandage to the wound that ate at her soul. Her bloodstains on the sheet would not come off despite the many washings she gave the threadbare fabric. How many times she stood out shivering in the cold, damp dew of early morning, watching and hoping the morning moisture would take away the shame that had left its stain. In the cold, wet air, no-one could see her eyes filling or her chin trembling. The physical hurt was nothing compared to that of her spirit’s.

    She had lain, suffering as her father violated her, yet unable to utter a sound, afraid to wake her siblings, afraid to have them see and hear that some nightmares were real. Even as her stomach turned, and her chest heaved in disgust, she had clamped her jaw down, squeezing her eyes shut, focusing instead on the time that now seemed ever so slow. Each second led to another minute, and each minute took her further and further away from what was happening. She refused to cry, she refused to look, and in turning into herself, she suddenly heard the sounds of the night. Far away, an owl hooted, a cricket squeaked, the scrabble of a rat running across the roof thatch, chickens murmured to themselves in their coops, wind whistled, the night settled into itself. Life was happening all around her, going on as though nothing monumental was happening to her, a 14-year old child forced to grow up.

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