My Life - V - What’s Happening to Me?

    The first few weeks at my grandparents’ were a novelty. I. Had. So. Many. Playmates! My mother had five sisters and four brothers, and those who were already married had so many children. One aunt in particular had a new baby every year (and at last count still was having kids). There were older cousins, cousins my age, and cousins I could boss around – I mean, younger cousins. There were babies to play with and cuddle and dress up. The rules were less strict, yet I constantly kept in mind the possibilities of being told on. The community telephone was a constant source of updates for my parents. Still, they never came to collect me. My fear of them eased to the point that some days I forgot about them completely.

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    Grandma was a wonderful cook. She spent so much time in the kitchen, making breakfast, then washing dishes and preparing for lunch. She often took a small nap in the afternoon right in the kitchen, on her wooden rocking chair. After her nap, she would bathe and start preparing dinner.

    We ate beans every day. Her kitchen garden grew big fat pods of beans, which when cooked right after picking, would make a thick, rich bean soup that went deliciously well with her fluffy corn tortillas and fresh eggs. In the mornings, we would have beans and sometimes eggs, or avocadoes mashed with minced onions and a good glug of coconut oil. For lunch, it was often white rice with the delicious beans, with a side of tomatoes sprinkled with salt and pepper. When there was cabbage, Grandma would finely chop some with cilantro and soak it in sour orange or lime juice, and with the tomatoes, it was a delicious feast. At night, she would make more tortillas, almost always corn, to go with some refried beans, and maybe some fried tomatoes with onions and sweet peppers. Even though we were poor, those meals were filling and delicious.

    Meat was a scarcity. Whenever Grandpa would ride off to the hills with his shotgun strapped to his back, Grandma smiled hopefully. Hunting meant meat to sell, meat to eat, and meat to cure. Sometimes he would come back with a deer, and that was when flour tortillas would be included in the grocery list. If he came back with smaller animals, like armadillo or gibnut, it meant mostly meat for eating: soup, stew, smoke, and every once in a while, a quick barbeque – Grandma thoroughly enjoyed her game meats. She hardly ever killed a chicken to eat, but when she did, it was always to make caldo (soup). I never liked any of the meats, preferring my vegetables and eggs.

    Grandma was such a bundle of energy, a constant in the heart of the home. It was surprising then, when she suddenly fell ill. The grown-ups were very secretive about her illness, and as children, we were nuisances who didn’t need to know what was happening. Her last two daughters had to take over the cooking and cleaning, while her older children took turns caring for her as she lay in bed. Every so often, I could hear her crying out loud. It sounded terrible, her pain.

    Finally, it seemed everyone agreed that she needed to be taken to a proper doctor, since the bush doctor wasn’t helping much. The fighting over money began almost immediately. Everyone was too poor to pay a big bill, and I think they had to talk to their pastors to get some money from the church that she no longer attended. Eventually, she was taken away. I woke up one cold morning and the curtain that hung between the bed I slept in with my aunts, and the bed she shared with Grandpa, had been taken down. The sponge on the sheet was bare, and I could hear one of my aunts busily washing and scrubbing the soiled sheets.

    Grandpa was in the kitchen drinking his bitter coffee, talking in a low voice to my teenaged uncle. I hugged and kissed everyone good morning, then filled a cup with water, put toothpaste on my brush and headed out to brush my teeth and rinse my face. When I came back in, Grandpa had put his coffee down and was smiling at me. Patting his knee, he insisted that I clamber up on his lap and eat breakfast like that.

    Curled up in his arms, I ate dutifully, drinking sweet milky coffee, slurping runny eggs, chewing on corn tortillas that were thicker and denser than Grandma’s. As I ate, Grandpa bounced his knees, so that sometimes, a bite would miss its mark, and I ended up with food smeared all over my face. He took a wet washcloth and wiped down my face, then, with a twinkly smile, said, “How about you keep your poor old Grandpa company tonight?”

    I felt so happy that I was needed and wanted for comfort, I said yes immediately. Aunt nearly dropped her plate of food, which she covered up with a cough. Uncle got up to head out to the shed where tools and provisions were kept.

    “Now that Grandma is gone, your Grandpa is going to need you, okay?” I nodded happily, and headed off to get dressed for school.

    That night I was so excited I decided to wear my special big t-shirt that was so long it dragged down to the ground. With my softest shorts underneath, I was a bundle of comfort to anyone. I was surprised to see that one of my favorite cousins had come over as well. She was dressed in her nightgown too, and it seemed that we were both sleeping with Grandpa. Such fun! A sleepover! After the requisite trip to the outhouse, brushing our teeth properly, and kissing everyone goodnight, like we had been taught, we both headed to bed. Children were expected to be in bed early in our family. We tried hard to stay up, talking and telling each other stories, but we soon curled into each other, and slept deeply and soundly.

    The pain woke me up – instant, ripping, searing pain down there. His hands covered my mouth, so I couldn’t scream or make a sound. I instantly stopped struggling; choosing instead to breathe very slowly, just like my mother had taught me. Often when Papa would beat both of us, I ended up with bloody calves and back, any exposed flesh would eventually get hit so often that the skin would split under the blows. I used to scream and cry loudly, but Mother taught me that it only made things worse. Somehow screaming made him hit harder. Sometimes he would laugh out loud as he took whatever was around to use as a whip. Now I had to decide whether to scream or be quiet. I stayed still, tears running down silently into my pillow.

    As my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, I saw that my cousin was awake, crying too. She stared silently at the thatched roof of the building we slept in. She didn’t say a word, and the only sound we could both hear was Grandpa’s heavy breathing, and occasionally, a squelching, wet sound. I stared at her, focusing only on her face, her pretty, round face, framed by uneven bangs that meant her father had tried cutting her hair again. Usually, he took the shears and vigorously cut off his children’s hair during lice outbreaks. Her hand shot up and I followed to where she was pointing. There on the beam of the thatch was a rat. It squeaked and ran across the beam, once, twice, so often, we lost count. When it disappeared, Cousin turned to look at me. Her face was sad, but she said nothing. Her hand found one of mine – the one that wasn’t being pinned behind my back from the awkward way I was lying. She played with my fingers while he kept doing something to me down there. All the while, it hurt and stung.

    I don’t know when I fell asleep again; I just know that when I woke up, my aunts were staring at me like I had horns or something. One aunt looked stern and angry, while the other one tut-tutted sadly. I tried to get up, but I could hardly move from the tummy down. There was something keeping my legs stuck together, and when I looked down, I saw blood. Cousin was nowhere near, and my aunts simply took me to the bathroom and gave me a hot bath. They said nothing, I said nothing.

    For a long time, no-one said anything.

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