By Kim Steinberg
PROMPT — If only ...
For eleven years, you lived on a sadist’s charity. The year was 1918. You were two years old, living in the port city of Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, when your mother died. Your father couldn’t care for four young daughters alone. He separated you and your sisters and sent each of you to live with a different relative. This was the way things were done. Josie was six, then came Delia; she was four, then you, and last, Fannie, the baby. Josie was the only one who lived near enough to visit. You were sent to Cousin Juan and his wife, Carmen, who lived on a dairy farm. Maybe they said yes out of obligation, having no children of their own. Maybe Juan needed help on the farm. Your only company, cows lowing in a hay strewn field, chickens in the coop, speckled eggs beneath the hens. You were too young to understand death. One day your mother was there, the next she was gone. I don’t know how toddlers cope with grief. Your loss must have been a bewildering, constant ache. Your family gone overnight. No more girlish chatter, no more games, no more laughter. Thirty years later, you told your daughter, my mother, that after Juan left in the mornings, Carmen forced you to scrub the milk churns. You unveiled the story because Mom was complaining about household chores and you never spoke of it again. Churns were seventeen-gallon cylindrical containers used for the transportation of fresh milk. You were so small, two of you could fit inside. The scum, the stubborn stains, the stink of spoiled milk. It must have taken hours. Instead of bedtime stories and dolls, you were treated as a slave. If you made a mistake, Carmen forced you to take off all your clothes, and in that nakedness, she hit you. This became the pattern of your young life. Mistake, naked, beating. You called it spanking when you told the story. Maybe Juan loved you and didn’t know what happened after he went out to work each day. Or maybe he looked the other way. The last time it happened, the first time you told someone, you were thirteen. I can see you now, budding breasts, barely a woman, hidden under a plain brown dress, your modesty in tatters. I’ve often wondered what happened that day you ran away. Carmen sent you to the store with a shopping list. They were out of soup and you asked the shopkeeper, “Are you sure?” Because you knew Carmen was waiting for you to make a mistake, lurking in the bright kitchen of the farmhouse, her face framed in the window. You grasped the grocery bag in two arms, thanked the man behind the counter, and trudged toward a house that had never been your home, your small frame bent by the weight of the bag, knowing what would come, your gait hobbled by dread. You opened the front door hoping she wouldn’t notice anything was missing, carried in the bag, started unloading. She took the list and checked off each item, pinto beans, bananas, flour, until she got to soup. She stopped, put down the pencil, and turned to you. As she said the familiar words, “Take off your clothes, Rosie,” you took a breath of courage, stood taller than your four-foot, eleven inches height, and said, “No. I won’t.” You weren’t two years old anymore and you found the strength somewhere deep inside. She tried to hit you, didn’t she? Grabbed at your dress, pulled your hair, tried to force you as she had so many times before, but you pulled your arm away, escaped her grasp and ran. That’s what I imagine. A slight girl of thirteen racing through the fields, down the dirt road, brown hair flying behind, as though the hounds were after you. A pickup stopped and a kind stranger in a straw hat gave you a ride to Josie’s house. You kept the secret of Carmen’s abuse for all those years, certain you had nowhere to turn, convinced no one wanted you, that you had no choice. You never wanted to be any trouble to anyone. If only someone had thought to ask. If only someone noticed. How brave you were to finally tell. I see you arriving at Josie’s house, knocking on the door, collapsing in her arms. Tears, gasps, incoherent words. Josie, saying, “Mas despacio, Rosita, que pasa, que paso?” Her embrace, her concern, calling for help. You never went back again, not even to pick up your clothes. Your sister’s guardian took you in, a rescue like a stray dog beaten in the street. Not alone anymore, the scars scabbed over, and you grew up to marry Papa, a good man who loved and took care of you. It makes me happy to think of you that way. Papa died at fifty, young even for those days, and left you a widow. When I was seven in 1970 and you were fifty-four, you came to live with us. You couldn’t even drive. You and your broken English refused to go out alone. We became your life. You brushed my hair, babysat, cooked pasteles. You were my Nana. As I grew toward adolescence, I came to view you with scorn. I fought with you, criticized, complained you were old-fashioned. I was independent, you a symbol of dependence. I was strong; I thought you were weak. After you passed away, I visited my great aunt, Josie in Puerto Rico, who was ninety-five, and a host of other relatives, Rafi, Delia, Cousin Olga, a schoolteacher who scolded my broken Spanish and insisted I not speak English. I smiled and did my best. They served arroz con pollo and flan for dessert. During the meal, I caught a word here and there and felt the flow of words a song in my heart; I was where I belonged; my history had caught up with me. Your heart gave out abruptly sitting on the couch one day while you were visiting family in Mayaguez, as though you had run out of reasons to be alive. I was eighteen and didn’t go to your funeral, a reminder of mortality, my life just beginning. If only I had. You were like a moth who hit the light and fluttered to the ground, never finishing its life.
Kim Steinberg grew up on military bases around the world and has lived in Boise, Idaho since 1981. She worked in the disability rights movement for many years. Recently, Kim's work has been published in Idaho Magazine, Writers in the Attic, The Cabin Anthology, Bewildering Stories, Shut Up and Write Zine, and Potato Soup Journal. She writes travel essays, creative nonfiction, and is currently writing a memoir.