by Patrick Jennings
Incorporated by Judy Price into
(Edited from the original submission)
“I will never marry,” she said.
Memories, from another life. Did he touch her, or was it a dream, a nightmare construction?
He hit her. Of that there is no question. Yes, he hit her. He hit her with his hand, open for the stinging slap; with his fist, clenched tight like his jaw; once with his boot and a sickening crack of bone.
More damaging than concussive blows, he hit her with his voice, a sneering, spiteful crack of the whip--wounds that never heal.
Again, and again, he hit her and she would never forget. Never.
But there is the nightmare, the trembling caress. That same voice, softened, whispered yearnings in her ear while she stifled the reflex to cringe. Calloused pads pinched budding nipple lightly and she'd awake. Or they'd trail a halting path to dip below the waistband of white cotton panties.
She awakes, now, foetally curled, heart fluttering, “Thank God he only hit me.” Her nocturnal dread.
Until this morning, perhaps. Over coffee with her sister. The phrase that had never before crossed lips. "...when dad would come into our room." The tone of voice brought nightmare into warm morning light. It rendered soft nighttime padding, surreptitious sliding between sheets, humiliated tears, smothered anguish. "...when dad would come into our room." Shock of revelation...and denial.
But he had. She saw it in the doleful welling of her sister's eyes.
The dream came on again and she saw it all, clearly. The same hand that raised welts raised her night shirt. Hot, uneven breath on her neck. Her step-father's hand; her step-father's breathy, “sshh.” And, for the first time, her step-father's face.
She remembered. Tortured, needy eyes before the lids closed. Not to hide his own pain and terror. Hiding from hers. And then he touched her. The nightmare before the onset of dreams. Yes, he touched her. She remembered and was ill.
She told her story before, about the drunken father cast out of their home, about the pummelings—verbal and physical—from the man who followed him. About the touching: she never said and I never asked. Melodramatic suspicions? I wonder.
Her relationships falter, always. In our own history: twice we sprout then wither before fruit or flower. Then years after the second failure, she seeks me out. A message.
You once wrote that I wander through your mind every now and then. I never got through the A.S. Byatt you left me (although Mark Helprin is my favorite) but I still think of you. I don't want to disturb your life but I know I treated you badly and I have wanted to apologize all this time. The truth is I was having strong feelings (again) and I ran (again). Maybe it's crazy to bring it up after all this time but I've wanted to say I'm sorry for a very long time. Please forgive me.I did. Yet (again) she runs. And (again) I can only forgive while trying to understand. From our own fears the word "love" remains unuttered and hidden, yet we need no words to know the truth. Still, she runs. I cannot understand. Unless, he touched her.
Her strength—when she mothers her children I see the resolve. The wholeness. This soul withstood the slap, the punch, the crunching kick. This soul withstood hateful slanders.
But inflicted intimacy? The fist told the simple truth, the caress a brutal lie. With the softest of touches, I think, he broke her.
I conjure the nightmare to solve the riddle and salve my sorrow. He touched her. So now, I never will.