I am Sarah. At least, that’s what my father named me when he adopted me. That wasn’t my original name, though. My mama called me Alice when she wasn’t calling me brat or worthless or worse. I don’t know what my last name was then. Unfortunately, that is among the very few things I don’t remember about my first years of life. I tried not to think too much about the things I couldn’t forget.
Like the closet in the only bedroom of our small, filthy Hell’s Kitchen apartment. The one where my mama regularly left me at night. The one that had a lock on the door that could only be opened from the outside. The one that I was locked in that night. The night my mama almost killed me.
The sunlight had still been filtering in through the cracks in the wood covering the windows when my mama dragged me to the closet. She threw me inside without a word, and the blackness surrounded me when she shut the door in my face. When I heard the padlock click closed, I sat down on the wooden floor, my back against the furthest corner. I pulled my knees to my chest underneath the thin dress that I had on and wrapped my arms around them. I could already feel the cold air seeping in underneath the closet door, and I knew that by the time my mama returned, I would be freezing. There was nothing in the closet I could warm myself with.
I could hear movement and noises on the other side of the wall, but I knew better than to try and get anyone’s attention. The last time I had tried that, ages and ages ago, my mama had somehow found out and had beaten me bloody. I did listen, however, and I made up stories in my mind as I heard a door shut and a man’s deep, kind voice calling out for his children.
“Mary! Danny! Come and give me a kiss!”
Footsteps and squeals came through the wall, I imagined the man kneeling by the front door, his arms opened wide as his son and daughter ran to him. I pictured them running straight into his arms and him covering them with kisses as he hugged them tightly to himself.
“How was your day, Matthew?” The man’s wife’s voice was gentle and soft, but I heard her clearly.
“It was wonderful, Teresa! Mr. Edmonton gave me a raise and promoted me to manager today! He said I was one of the hardest workers he had, and I deserved it.”
“Manager! Darling, that’s amazing! How much will you make now?”
“Over twenty dollars a week! Do you know what that means?”
“We can finally move from this dreadful place?”
“Yes, my darling. We can afford to leave here.”
There was no more noise except for the children clamoring for attention, and even that died down as I heard chairs scrape along the floor. Then quiet words drifted through the thin wood of the walls.
“Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest. Let this food to us be blessed.”
I closed my eyes and dreamed of sitting at the table with Mary and Danny and Matthew and Teresa. In my mind, I saw a tall, handsome man stride through the door and take a place beside me. He had on a golden crown and a kind smile for only me.
“How are you, Alice? Did you have a good day at school today?” Lord Jesus’ question was directed to me.
I nodded silently, and he laughed. Then he put his arm around my shoulder, kissed my forehead, and said, “Good. Later you can tell me what you learned.”
I had never been to school, but I had listened as Mary and Danny had left every morning, and every morning I had wished I could go with them. I wanted to know how to read. I heard Danny practice his reading every night, and I loved to listen to the stories he told his father as I lay freezing or roasting in the closet, depending on the season of the year.
I woke up sometime later, and I immediately knew I was in trouble. I felt the wetness soaking through my panties and into my dress, and I smelled the sharp odor of urine. I whimpered softly and curled up into the smallest ball I could, but I knew that when my mama came home, I would be beaten once again.
I tried to escape into my mind again, but the thought of my punishment and the cold of my wet dress and panties kept me awake and aware until I finally heard the front door of our apartment slam. I bit my lip to keep from making a sound, even when I heard the padlock click and the closet door was flung open.
My mama paused briefly in the doorway, but then she screamed, “You disgusting little pig! This is the last time you will get your filth on my floor!”
She grabbed me by my hair and dragged me out of the closet. I could smell the alcohol on her breath as she pulled me to the kitchen. She grabbed the rope from its peg on the wall and dropped me to the floor. I tried to crawl away, but she grabbed me again and held me down.
“Where do you think you’re going? There’s nowhere for you to go.” She grinned evilly, and a shudder ran through me. “I’m going to strip your skin from your back!”
“No, Mama, please! I won’t do it again, I promise!”
Her hand across my face shut me up. “Did you say something to me?”
I tasted blood in my mouth, and I shook my head silently.
“I think you did,” she hissed. “How many times do you have to be told not to speak to me? Are you that stupid? I swear, if I hadn’t popped you out right here, I’d never believe you actually came from me. Your stupidity must have come from that low-life bastard of a man who saddled me with you!”
She grabbed my wrists and tied them together even as the tears started falling down my cheeks. I tried to keep up as she pulled me back to the closet, but my feet got tangled up together, and she ended up dragging me across the floor. I felt the rope tighten, and then my feet were dangling off the floor. She had thrown the rope over the bar at the top of the door and secured it to the hook on the wall. She stripped my clothing off me, and I closed my eyes and attempted to imagine myself with the family next door, but when the first blow of my mama’s belt hit my bare back, I was violently snapped back into my reality.
I bit my lip again, drawing blood, as another blow fell. The pain was excruciating, but I knew that if I cried out, it would only get worse. The leather snapped across my back over and over and over, and then it stopped. I took a deep breath, proud of myself that I had not uttered a sound. Then I heard a swish in the air behind me, and I couldn’t hold back a sob.
My mama grabbed my hair and held my head still as she hissed in my ear, “That was only the warm-up. Now comes the real punishment. This will teach you to speak and to foul up my home with your filth.”
I shook my head desperately, but the cane swished through the air once more, and the whistle of its passage leached out the last of my resistance. I hung limply and waited for the agony I knew was coming.
It came with a red-hot fury that lanced its way from my back into my brain. I tried my best not to make a noise, but after the second hit, I couldn’t stop the scream that escaped me.
“Shut your mouth!” my mama yelled, and then I felt fabric being stuffed in my mouth. From the smell and the dampness, I knew that it was my soiled panties.
Strike after strike landed on my exposed skin, and, although the panties muffled my screams, I couldn’t imagine that the family next door couldn’t hear what was going on. Why didn’t they help me? They had to be able to hear the sounds of the cane landing on my back, my screams, muted as they were, and my mama’s curses. Why didn’t they do something?
I could feel the blood running down my back, down my legs, and dripping off my feet onto the floor. I could hear my mama’s voice as she swore at me. I could feel the rope digging into my wrists. All of these sensations were distant, however, and, as the beating continued, they were less and less distinct. The only thing that stayed sharp and clear was the pain each time the cane made contact with my back. Eventually, however, even that disappeared as I finally blacked out.