chubby rose-pink cheeks, small perfect teeth, smile bursting: exuberant, ebullient. this is how you remember the little girl in photographs.
no one told that child, you can’t be blamed–not even by you–for the terrible things happening to you. tiny feather-light girl, her face hidden in soft strawberry-blonde curls, who became lost beneath the sludge.
digging through the bowels of this quagmire, you uncover parts & pieces of who that child–you–used to be. stuffed dalmation puppies with wide, inviting eyes dressed in star-shaped sunglasses & winter hats. small plastic ponies lined in rainbow-colored rows. a tiny snowgirl in the front yard with pink pennies for eyes, a carrot stick nose, & a hat & dress of leaves dug from beneath the snow.
in sixth grade, i wrote letters to jordan cherry, the boy i kissed & kissed all over his face in the library in second grade. i wrote about sadness, not yet knowing the depths sorrow can reach. i wrote about loss, not yet knowing what i had lost, only that i had lost something intangible, ephemeral, & important. & in those letters, i spelled out terror, a child feeling the loom of something awful approaching. she held her arms out stiff, clutching the wheel & turning it all the wrong ways, pumping the brakes against a road slick with water & ice.
& then she began to fishtail
& never really stopped, a little
girl begging a little boy to help
her navigate the dark
& stormy night.
age thirteen. to remind her body what it is to feel, the little girl whittles words into her skin. she knows she is not all right, & after practicing, rehearsing, she tells mom that she needs help. suzie the counselor says, “if i believe you are a danger to yourself or others, i will have you committed.” she tells mom about the scabs crusting beneath the long sleeves the little girl wears in summertime. mom yells, cries, doesn’t understand & blames herself. poppa warns about sepsis, gangrene. no one asks, has poppa ever touched you? & the little girl never tells about her stomach in knots or the way she shivers when he knocks at her door, or when he hovers behind her desk chair, or when she can hear him breathing, or at the sound of his tongue moving in his mouth. she doesn’t tell anyone that she wants to believe in god but can’t because children are allowed to suffer without their mothers, or that she can’t blame poppa because he was once an eight-year-old boy hurting with the loss of his mother to cancer.
the little girl knows to answer no to questions like, Have you self-mutilated this week? & not tell suzie that her incisions are not mutilations but calculated & logical minor surgeries to increase her chances of survival, of surviving a trauma she has yet to understand or name. she knows to smile, to keep secrets, to abandon her freckled forearms for the pale, hidden skin just above her anklebone.
suzie sends the little girl to the doctor with a self-report list of statements rated on a five-point likert scale–I feel sad all the time, all bad things are my fault, I am sure that bad things will happen to me. the doctor gives the little girl yellow pills to cure her sadness. but then, the plot twist: the little girl gets worse. she grows smaller & smaller, until she fits, tiny as a sybil, into a mason jar.
ages thirteen through seventeen, the little girl sees another counselor & throws away her pills. she presses star-shaped rainbow stickers to calendar pages for each day her sharps rest, untouched, in a small pink sewing box, while mom slips into motel rooms with a man who is not poppa, & the little girl wants to know, how long? how many times? do you want to have a baby?
mom gives answers–since august, seven, yes. the little girl doesn’t tell anyone, & mom never stops confessing: i want to leave your dad; he doesn’t make me happy; i hate having sex with him on sundays; he makes me want to puke. the little girl cannot stop thinking about the new baby in her mother’s dreams, & she does not censor her anger at the man ripping her family apart or the bad choices her mother never stops making. poppa doesn’t ask, how do you like your counselor? or how are you feeling today? he sits quiet, night after night, on the couch & watches the TV. when the little girl kisses him good night, her body remembers. when she is alone, she hunkers in her closet, her heart quick as a hummingbird, her breath thin as a string, at the sound of his truck tires crunching in the driveway gravel. she wonders if she is crazy, then she believes that she is–a drama queen with a gnarled, matted yarn to weave, a gross storyteller, a perverted attention-seeker. she convinces herself of poppa’s innocence, & he remains safe, a fish floating in a cloud of muddy water.