Sauk Valley Community College

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Honorable Mention - "The Promise"

2001 Anne Horton Writing Award

Honorable Mention

"The Promise"

by

Sherry Brown

We lived in a small old dilapidated farmhouse; it had long ago lost its luster but at one time was a beautiful thriving farm. Now the only life that was visible to the sporadicpassersby was the normal signs of life: grass, trees and the occasional light on in the house. It sat nowhere, surrounded by miles and miles of farmland turned to dust by years of neglect. Secluded, just like me, isolated from the rest of the world.

 

Inside the dark closet-sized room the only source of heat was a single dim light bulb. I hadn't heard from my husband for hours, and I was getting hungry. I wondered if he would bring home some food for us tonight. I hated having to rely on him for even the smallest of necessities of life.

I had a hard time believing this wasn't a dream, for it was difficult for me to understand how I allowed myself to be in this situation. In reality, I was not the main character of my own dream. My mother was. She was a beautiful woman, dead at twenty-four. It was a death witnessed by my young eyes.

I found myself drifting back to that night as my stomach growled with hunger. Even though I was only five, I knew what was happening when she was attacked that night, attacked in the security of our own home, in the security of her own marriage. I had grown to expect the nightly beatings. But that night my father went too far.

 

It was a beautiful night. Being my fifth birthday, that night should have been one of my favorites. My mother had just finished pointing out the little dipper, and we giggled over the old Indian beliefs of how the constellations appeared in the sky. In my eyes my mother was so beautiful. She was half Indian and half African-American. When her skin glistened after a hard day's work, the beads of sweat sparkled against her dark skin like the stars above. In my tiny eyes I could not imagine being as beautiful as my mother; after all my mother was dark skin, dark hair, resembling the Indian part of her heritage. I, on the other hand, was fair skinned, with prominent freckles on the bridge of a pudgy little nose that my mother used to love to dab with wet kisses.

 

The thought of wet kisses brought me to tears and reminded me of where I was. I could no longer ignore the hunger pains. As my tears dried up, my mouth began to water, bringing memories of my last meal. It was a small meal, and not very good at that, but when that is all you can remember, it is everything to a hungry stomach.

 

I stood up slowly from the wooden straight back chair, trying not to inflict any more pain on my bruised body, but it was futile. I doubled over in pain, the knife-like stab a disheartening reminder that I was no longer expecting my first child. It was hard not to think of my husband as a thief who robbed me of not only one child, but of all children.

As I held back the tears, I began to rummage through the bare cabinets for something that would pass for supper.

 

Each tick of the clock bounced off the walls. It was like a bomb counting down to his arrival. If I could have mustered the strength I would have torn it from the wall and pitched it across the room, but for now it remained a constant reminder that time was running out.

 

My entire body began to tremble with sheer fright. He would be home soon, and he would find no meal on the table. I hugged myself to quiet the trembling and realized that I was still in my housecoat, a ragged old piece of cotton.

 

I somehow gathered up enough energy to go to the bedroom. Skimming hastily through the few housedresses that hung in the small closet, I yanked one off the hanger knowing that it did not really matter which one I chose, for they were all alike: pale, torn and lifeless.

 

I tossed the housecoat to the floor, and as I turned, I caught a glimpse of myself in the cracked old mirror of a dresser that had once belonged to my mother. The paleness of my skin enhanced the still deepening blues and purples of the bruises on my undernourished body. The patchiness of my mousy brown hair was a fresh reminder of the fistfuls being torn from my scalp the night before. My once pudgy little nose now resembled a crooked river, the result of too many untreated breaks. The tears were sliding down my face as if from a drippy faucet.

 

I stared bewildered for what seemed like an eternity. I could not believe what I had become. I was fixated on my eyes. I realized at that moment I didresemble my mother. My eyes, not the color nor the shape, but the fear and pain that were hidden in them were hers.

 

I returned to the night of my mother's death. I was well hidden under the bed, and I wasn't alone. My six-year old brother shared the fear of the night with me. His tiny hand was wrapped protectively around mine. We listened to cries that will forever echo in my mind; death defying, ear splitting screams that caused my little hands to instinctively cover my ears in attempt to escape. Remaining very quiet, as if attending a church service, we fought back tears that were waiting to pour out of us like a broken dam.

If our father knew that we were witnessing this horrific scene, he would remove his ever-present black belt and beat us until our skin was oozing blood.

 

The entire time he would talk to us, his voice always calm and under control, reminding me of a schoolteacher giving a lecture. He would start with my brother, instructing him how to keep women in line, insisting that they need a daily cleansing to decontaminate them from the wrongs of the world. Then he would turn on me, reminding me how important it was that I did not follow my mother's footsteps. Words flew out of his mouth, words that I had never heard except from him, words like unworthy slut. I did not know what a slut was at that time, but I knew that my mother wasn't unworthy. She was a wonderful caring mother.

 

The fear of being beaten could no longer keep me from tears. I parted the thin cotton sheet that hung over the bed, peering out just in time to see her beautiful teeth flying like golf balls at a driving range. She was like a puppet who's strings had been cut, and she dropped. The blood pooled quickly around her head as she lay motionless on the floor.

 

My brother grabbed me and pulled me backwards as I attempted to scramble from the security of our hiding place. I could feel his trembling body as he held me tightly. Between our sobs I could barely make out what he was saying. He was chanting, "I am going to kill him someday, I hate him." My sobbing also concealed my words. I was promising myself that I would never go through what my mother went through. As my thoughts returned to the present, and my eyes met my mirror image, I was shocked. I had made a promise so many years ago, a promise that I owed to my mother's memory to keep. I didn't remember that promise as a small hurt child, but as a small hurt woman I could no longer forget it.

I took one last look in the mirror and then turned slowly toward the clock. It was getting late. I picked up the phone and called my brother. I told him quickly that I needed to stop what was going on behind these closed doors. Luckily he arrived before my husband. I did not dare think of what would have happened if my husband had arrived first.

 

It was a long and bitter divorce. But two years later I was on my way to healing the invisible scars of abuse. I had lost twelve years of my life, but I was finally able to move on.

 

Now when I look in the mirror, my eyes remind me once again of my mother. I see the love that had filled her eyes when she looked at her children, and the happiness that fills mine when I look to the future.