(For LJIdol S10, Wk 8 Writing prompt:: "No Comment" TW/CW: child abuse)
They had all done something wrong,
some little transgression of childhood.
Maybe a chipped plate.
A baseball laying in the mess of a shattered flower pot.
Cooly, she commanded her children to go out back and choose the switch she'd beat them with.
My uncle, just 8 at the time, drug back a tree with a grin
thinking she couldn't lift it.
But she just broke off each branch and twig,
holding down his struggling, tiny body,
and whipped his flesh,
one branch after the other,
until it was a bare trunk.
Just to show him who you don't speak back to,
in word or in action.
It lasted nearly an hour.
And the other two, they watched.
Quietly they crossed their fingers
that they wouldn't be next.
That's what you did back then,
he told me.
Parent's rule was law and you just hoped for leniency.
And that day, she did let them off easy
because unlike their brother,
they didn't talk back.
And so that's how her kids learned to survive her:
Without a word.
He had told me the story like it was funny
instead of terrifying.
Just an anecdote of country folk taking no guff, you see.
"So if I ever ask you to bring me a stick to spank you with," he informed me,
with a tone that seemed to walk somewhere between humor and sage advice,
"bring me a thick one or else I'll get creative too."
A few years back,
her husband had run off and left her
with three kids,
three jobs to support the household,
and alcohol constantly on her breath.
She worked hard,
she ignored the children as much as possible.
She bought long, thin cigarettes and gambled on scratch tickets with wrinkled dollar bills.
She had held a gun to the back of his head once, he said.
She had never wanted to be a mother.
He hadn't meant to tell us that.
The memory had escaped from him one night after too many whiskeys,
to hang in the air,
after some fifty years locked behind closed lips.
One little glimpse at the wealth of damage he'd accumulated inside.
All those stories he told himself were funny
and all the ones that clearly weren't.
All those things that had made him like he was.
He didn't laugh at this one.
He teared up a little
and looked like a child.
He was still a child in so many ways
with his grey beard
and crinkles at the corners of his eyes.
He didn't like to talk about the past,
That's how he continued to survive
this skeletal, angry life of his.
This fragile balancing game of sanity was reliant
on never speaking on anything
that hurt too much.
So no, he could never speak on the past in detail.
But he spoke about it in the abstract.
Actually, he liked to talk about it in the abstract a lot.
Five years old,
bent at the waist and grasping our ankles,
he stood behind us,
we humiliated at the posture, but commanded to remain there.
He snapped that two inch wide leather belt.
It made a sickening crack that echoed down to our bones.
"You know, if I told a fib when I was a kid,
I'd probably get a metal rod."
He'd snap it again and we'd jump,
We'd see our own tears splatter on the ground at our toes
as he paced.
Begging him not to.
"Adults didn't hold back with punishments when I was a kid,"
Not like I'm holding back,
he seemed to imply.
you should be grateful, because this could be a whole lot worse.
He'd make us wait a long time before he took the belt to us,
(and he'd always take the belt to us eventually.)
It's just that he knew the anticipation of the pain made the lesson
And then he'd hug us afterward.
He'd wipe the tears from our cheeks.
Just don't do that again.
Just don't talk back again and we won't have to do this next time.
Just do what I say, when I say it, okay?
Just see this as a good lesson.
I love you.
Childhood lessons passed
as we learned not to lie,
not to say a swear,
not to wash the pans in cold water,
not to do the laundy wrong,
to feed the dog on time,
by the belt.
And it was okay, because it was just ...
And we became teenagers
with our own commentary
with thoughts that were at odds with his.
We no longer said only,
Sometimes we said no.
And that required more lessons.
So he screamed at us,
face red, spittle flying,
backing us into a corner,
showing us how small we still were.
The appropriate response, you see, if not 'yes',
should at least be silence. Get it straight.
He slammed doors, threw things,
bashed his hand into the wall by our heads
letting us know,
with the way he leaned in,
the way his eyes bore,
that this time he chosen to land his blow
by our head
instead of into it.
But he wanted us to know it was a close call.
He dangled it there,
some unspoken suggestion that something like that
things could be different if he didn't love us so much.
If he didn't love us too much to be like she was
to him, you see.
"I never hit you," he said,
It's like he had it rehearsed in defense
for the day we wouldn't take it anymore.
"I never hit you. I could have, but I never did.
I know what it was like to live with abuse..."
He trailed off dramatically, refusing again to speak on it even now
as if him not saying the words
ever kept us from having our entire lives
dictated by his history of abuse.
As if we had no idea
someone had hurt him
broken him down
since his birth.
The way he'd been doing with us.
The same plot,
only slightly different script.
"I never actually hit you."
I get a flashback of him laughing off
the way his mom beat his little brother
with every branch of that tree to teach him
for being smart-mouthed
and I see his wounds run too deep for him
the damage he's inflicted
when he doesn't even understand his own.
He thinks being less awful than she'd been to him was the same thing as being kind.
As being loving.
The severity to which he was shattered felt palpable.
My dad liked me.
He liked me when I was
Daddy liked me to agree with him.
And if I couldn't agree with him,
he could only like me if I was silent.
His apple hadn't fallen as far from the tree as he had liked to think it had.
As he had wished it would.
But I suppose when you come from a gnarled old crabapple tree in the first place
sometimes it doesn't really matter how far your fruit rolls.