Author’s Note: The following excerpt is from the book titled, Yellow Tape [A Memoir] coming in the summer of 2021.
I don’t believe in coincidence. I believe in synchronicity.
We were meant to be – because we happened.
We took shelter in dark closets and screamed like tiny Sirens until our eyes were bloodshot and bulging, our ears ringing, our faces slick in tears and mucus, and our legs were covered in urine. Chaperones in an obliged competition for who could scream the loudest and longest interval — to stop MaMommy and MaDaddy from fighting again. We were toddlers.
When there was silence – except for the tinnitus in our ears, our eyes blinked for sound and with unclenched fists we dried our faces with the palms of our hands and the cuffs of our pajamas. Sometimes we looked to each other for muted answers – our eyes suspended like question marks.
I was two years older than my sister, and much taller. I reached for doorknobs above our heads — I slowly turned. We peeked through the crack of light in the door. If the crack was too narrow and my sister couldn’t see behind me, she would get down on her knees and look under the door for shadows. We had this routine, you see. If we heard our Mother moan, I would shut the door again — quietly. We squatted on the floor close to each other for comfort and embraced our knees like pillows against our chests and waited interminably. Twin hearts beating in sync.
I can’t remember when, or how, or who rescued us from the closets… we may have rescued ourselves, quickly scurrying on bare feet to the bedroom we shared. Success was silence, and when there was silence, we were safe. We never looked for our Mother. She didn’t want to be found.
The next morning, my cheerful Mother would fix our favorite breakfast. Pancakes and bacon and sometimes scrambled eggs. We loved sugar, so we smothered our breakfast in Aunt Jemima syrup. With care we looked for signs of injury to no avail. What were we crying about, after all? A tacit agreement that we were silly little girls worrying over nothing.
But we had so many questions. What happened? Why aren’t you sad? What can we do for you? Was it our fault? Did we do something wrong? Why was MaDaddy so mad? Did he hurt you? Do you love him? We always settled for, may we have more syrup, please?
I huddled over my breakfast once to hide the stain of a teardrop in my syrup. My Mother said, “Don’t cry.” as if crying was unnecessary, inappropriate, and a violation of her privacy. Strong girls don’t cry. So we colluded with our Mother and pretended the incidents never happened, and drowned our pancakes in syrup, swallowing quietly, staring straight ahead, wearing our happy faces, our lashes blinking in accord and swung our legs under the table. It was a quiet ritual and the feelings were always the same. My sister and I learned early to swallow our feelings like pancakes, smothered in syrup.
I know pain in a vacuum and how hollowness and emptiness can coexist, like a moon that blocks the sun. This morning was metallic like the quicksilver mercury a classmate shared on the playground in a secret show and tell. It was one uncontrollable morning that moved without impediment.
It was my sister’s 10th birthday. My mother was standing at the stove scrambling eggs in her night gown. Out all night, my Father burst into the kitchen. With five children at the breakfast table, he grabbed my Mother by the neck and at the same time pulled open the kitchen drawer grabbing the big knife without looking… as if it were placed there specifically for this one morning.
I bolted from the kitchen on the heels of my Father dragging my Mother out of the kitchen… but somehow, she broke free… running and begging, Honey please, please, I love you… she ran, but not far before he slashed her right buttock with the knife, and I saw white meat… White meat! I ran for help!
I left my Mother. I left my siblings trapped in high chairs, and screaming over bowls of Sugar Smacks… I felt my sister on my heels… we ran down the winding stairs, screaming… determined… pleading, the horror… the mortification! What is going on? What is happening? Call the police! Call the police! But my Aunt, my Father’s sister, called a sibling, a brother for guidance… Call the police! I screamed. I couldn’t stop him. What was I to do? My Mother never wanted to be found…
“Call the police!” I demanded over and over again. She didn’t. Instead she locked herself and her daughters in the bathroom… and my sister followed her there. They barricaded themselves… and I faced him squarely… Pugilists without gloves, without tape, without corners… “I hate you! I hate you! You killed my Mother! You killed my Mother! I hate you.” I screamed repeatedly.
He hit me. A Pugilist hit me in the head. My knees buckled. I didn’t fall. He hit me again. My knees buckled, but I didn’t fall. I would not fall. He reared back and hit me with a roundhouse punch a third time. Boom like Forman punched Frazier. My feet left the floor. I sailed across the room and landed behind a Settee… the back of the chair toppled over with me — and behind the chair I peed on the floor and it ran like mercury. I sat in it and looked up at my Father doe-eyed and mortified. With the back of the chair in my lap I thrashed like a deer hit by a car on the side of a road looking for grace. I don’t know why he came downstairs or who he was looking for. He found me. At 6’ 3’’ he loomed in the doorway like a dark ghost fading up the stairs with the footfalls of an athlete and the precision of his occupation: meat cutter.
I mustered the courage to follow him… Determined I climbed gingerly up the stairs that reminded me of every corner and crack in the doors of those closets my sister and I hid in when we were toddlers, but this time I was alone.
At the top of the stairs, I turned the corner, and my Father was in the mirror in the bathroom cocking a brown suede fedora on his head. He was wearing a brown silk walking suit and brown suede shoes. I didn’t know where my Mother was. I was awestruck. He was beautiful. Fate would have my Mother behind me watching me watching him. I wondered how he could be so cruel, so vain, so cold, so calm, so cool. He didn’t see me, or perhaps he did. I didn’t look for my Mother. She didn’t want to be found.
Quietly, I retreated back downstairs and waited for the Police. I left my Mother. I left my siblings. My sister and my Aunt were still locked in the bathroom, and my uncle had not arrived even though my Aunt called him for advice. Instead, he called the Police. The Police finally arrived, a paddy wagon behind them. A paddy wagon for my Mother! Not an ambulance.
At 12 years old I was indignant. I knew my Mother was not to be treated like a criminal and a paddy wagon was not appropriate for her! My Father should be in the paddy wagon! She was the victim, she needs a Doctor, she needs help, sympathy and proper care. How would they even secure the stretcher in the paddy wagon? They were in the house and up the stairs before I could finish my thoughts. My Mother was carried back down the stairs, and because she always wanted to protect her children, she asked the Police to cover her bloody head so her children could not see what would taint her maternal code of propriety, only her children understood.
My Father was escorted down the stairs like a hero… a god. He was a star. No handcuffs… It was as if the Boston Police knew and respected him, and were impressed with his walking suit, his fedora, and those brown suede shoes. The crowd cheered him! By this time, my Aunt and sister stood behind me. We peered through the curtains at the crowd that gathered to witness the death of my Mother and someone, a young woman pointed at me in the window and shouted, “Look! She looks like a monster!’ Quickly, we closed the curtains and retreated to our separate corners. My aunt gathered the bearing she hid in the bathroom, now on full display and my sister and I shared a gaze and we knew we would never share a closet again.
I had a concussion. No Doctor examined me. It wasn’t confirmed by the authorities. I bargained with God between crying jags until I fell asleep over and over again. My face, my eyes, and lips were swollen and lacerated. My family walked around me as if they would not see me — except to offer soup, and then I would remember why I grieved, why I lay in the same spot on the same couch and again I would cry myself to sleep. They left me there until my eyes were no longer swollen, no longer bloodshot, and my lips were no longer bruised. Traumatized. My eyes didn’t blink, and they left me on my own. That was perhaps the most generous thing they could do, sans calling the authorities to rescue the catatonic child, and putting the son and brother at risk. He was jailed without bond. I saw a snippet on page 10, or perhaps it was page 2, in a little box at the bottom of the page hidden in plain sight, “Colored Man Attacks Wife with Meat Cleaver.”
We gathered ourselves by degrees. I heard snippets of conversation. My Mother was alive… She lost so much blood she needed transfusions and they reached out to other jurisdictions as far as Florida. We had to go to the welfare office for assistance and were instructed by my Grandmother and Aunt to dress down to look poor and pathetic… We dressed in a manner that my Mother would never abide for her children. I overheard a constant refrain. My Mother “… must have done or said something.”
They said a man called my Mother on the only phone in our Victorian house – my Grandmother’s phone on the first floor. Another of my Father’s brothers, told my Father a man called my Mother and chided him to do something!
I was alone in an abyss of violence justified by hostility, doubt, and betrayal. I was convinced they didn’t like my Mother, or me for that matter. My breath was alien, angry, staccato. My Father slashed my Mother’s right buttock and left random slashes on her back. He broke her arm, he cut her skull… and finally, and this was a first — he scarred her face. A crescent moon on her cheek – the symbol for a new beginning.
Because of the institutionalization and practice of The Rule of Thumb, women in Massachusetts endured domestic violence. It was incumbent on women to press charges. The D.A. begged my Mother to file criminal charges against my Father. My Grandmother begged her not to file charges against her son. My Father begged her not to file and guaranteed he would never harm her again. My Mother did not file charges.
The yellow tape was removed from the door. We cleaned the blood and flesh off the floor and the walls, and discarded bowls of cereal abandoned and calcified in sour milk like the bark of a tree my Father fashioned into a lamp, and filled the space with children tethered and tripping over yellow tape that tangles as they grow taller.
My Mother came home wearing a shield of armor – a cast. White, clean, no graffiti. She was proud of that cast – a symbol of survival – of an accident. We were so happy! Our Mother was alive, and even more beautiful than before! I remember my Mother lying in the center of her bed surrounded by her children. One of my siblings ran his hands through her hair, and she scolded him, “Don’t do that.” The polar opposite of “Girls don’t cry.” Don’t make a girl cry. Don’t avail yourself to her body. Don’t break her skin.
My Father stopped by. They had an announcement. He was coming home. My sister and I were bewildered, and disappointed but always respectful; however, upon that announcement, I slowly rose from the floor and walked away without explanation or hesitation.
This time my sister followed me up the stairs to our bedroom in the attic. Not long after walking away from them my Mother did something she rarely did – she came upstairs to our bedroom. She sat on the edge of my bed and gingerly told me my Father said, he hit me because I was hysterical.
I am not a monster! I am not a monster… It’s more complicated than that.
Copyright © 2020 E Maria Shelton Speller
Edited by Brahidaliz Martinez