A CHILD'S PLACE. | By: Terry Collett | | Category: Short Story - Reflections Bookmark and Share


"A child should know its place, Father claimed," said Margaret. "A child should always know when to be quiet and when to speak. We were quiet my sister and I. Never spoke in Father's presence unless he said we could. Although I once said something out of hand and that caused hell at the dinner table and Father dragged me off and locked me in the cupboard under the stairs. It was dark there; spiders and their webs and flies bound by the spider's bindings; only a thin shaft of light through the crack between door and the side where the door held. I felt the cobwebs touching my hair, imagined spiders pushing through the locks of my hair and climbing down my back. I wanted to pee. I had to hold myself in in case I wet my clothes and the floor of the cupboard. No dinner that time; no supper. I was starving. My stomach rumbled. Later he opened up the door and pulled me out and pushing me against the wall said that if I ever spoke out at meal times again he'd beat me. Did I understand he said loudly in my face, his bearded features almost pressing into mine. His breath stank; his whiskers nearly touched the flesh of my chin; his hands held me so tight my small arms felt the pinch of his fingers on my skin; his heavy breath pushing its way into my mouth. Spare the rod and spoil the child was father's motto. Spare the child and spoil her, he'd say at the table, his stumpy fingers stuffing chicken meat into his mouth. Better for a child to be unable to sit down on her behind for week than sit in the depths of hell and be damned he'd say, his greasy finger pointing at us, his eyes full dark brown settling on me. Mother never said a word. She never did. Always sat there impassive as if she was too frightened of him. Too scared to speak, say boo, or utter any word contrary to his. Maggie and I use to creep along the passageway at night and listen outside Father's bedroom door. Maggie had her ear pressed against the wooden panel and I'd stand behind her trying to hear what was said or being done. Hush, she'd whisper, I can't hear if you breathe heavily in my fecking ear. She'd press her ear closer so that it was hard against the wood. Then we'd hear it: his voice and mother's moans; the bedsprings going; the moans and cries of Mother getting louder and Father uttering abuse and grunting like some pig being slaughtered. Maggie put her hand over her mouth to stop herself laughing and I catching only the half of it wondered what the hell was going on in the room thinking that maybe Mother was in danger and Father at last doing her in. Then it all went quiet. Nothing but whispers and sighs. Maggie grabbed my arm and we raced back to out bedroom and leap into our beds in case Father heard us and came to see what the heck was going on, his large hand ready to hit. We lay under the blankets still and silent. He seldom came; and when he did we lay there stiff and pretending to be asleep. I could hear him sometimes wandering about the dark room, breathing heavy, muttering words and curses. Only once did he catch us. We were too slow that time. He grabbed Maggie by the hair at the door, pulled her onto the floor, and gave her such a beating and me that even Mother came running to see what the commotion was, but still she only stood and gaped, her hand over her thin mouth, her eyes wide open, her hair unkempt and wild. Children should be seen and not heard, Father said. Seen rarely, heard never, he stated over dinner and supper and especially Sundays on our way to church. Father and the priest, Father Connelly was of one mind. The priest would eye us as if were demons that needed tobewatched, small urchins that needed to be hauled into the confessional and made to spill the beans of our small sins. Bless me, Father, since my last confession last week I accuse myself of speaking when my father said not to, of taking food from the larder or kitchen without asking, of running down thestairs when father said to walk, of passing wind in the hallway, of sticking two fingers up behind Father's back and so our mock confessions would go on between Maggie and I until we were fit to pee ourselves laughing. Children should be seen and heard; Maggie whispered as we lay in out beds and looked at the closed door and the thin light that came in beneath it.Mother died of TB when I was twelve. Father would wander the house like a wounded bear, his face dark and heavy, his eyes almost black with an odd grief. Maggie and I would listen at his bedroom door; listen to his mumbled prayers, his mutterings, and his rosary clicking in the dark. Six months later Maggie caught TB and was sent away to a sanatorium where she died. Father and I would sit at the meal table in a strained silence, his eyes avoiding mine, mine avoiding his; the maid he had hired, a thin girl with blue and eyes and black curly hair, would bring meals in and out, clear table, sweep stairs, change beds, do the washing, polish, sew, and bang the carpets at the backdoor and not utter a word. Silence. Peace of sort. A child should know its place was never uttered at table again. We sat, ate, and listened to the ghosts and the wind that tapped at the windows and doors of the rooms and the house and I knew my place and felt the kiss of Maggie's lips upon my aging face."

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