It's always the shy ones. Memories, that is. They hang back, letting bright moments of cartoons and Christmases hold your entire attention so they can creep away to a forgotten mental corner. They don't want your reverie; they want to be left alone.
Some memories shouldn't be.
Some have something needs saying.
When I was eight, I thought I was a horrible child. I was greedy and selfish, wouldn't eat anything I was given, treated guest children like they were stupid, ran off three of my aunt's maids, ran out the hot bath water, could have gotten my cousin killed, and very nearly did the same for myself.
Perspective is funny that way. My aunt's ultrasounds, the ones that showed an empty womb, make so much terrible sense now. To be pregnant one day and then the next be told that you weren't, that you had never been...at least a miscarriage can be buried. How could she mourn an idea? And where was there time to? She had lambs to feed, farmhands to pay, and poachers to drive off or survive, depending on which party had more guns.
I should mention that this was in the South African scrub, but the more important thing to know is that this summer she had three small children to care for: one her own toddler, two her brother-in-law's brats. They say a woman expecting can hear the patter of little feet. What a woman empty feels when the patter in her house belongs to children that aren't hers, I can't think. I know she was snappish and took to comparing us, my brother especially, to her boy. If Sam was really that perfect or was really a pint-sized Dudley Dursley, I can't remember. I just remember being reprimanded on my wastefulness, from food to pocket change to toothpaste expenditure. You hear about American wastefulness. As a child, I thought I defined it. The one incident that sticks in my memory, because it hurt the most, was the bath one.
A day earlier, two girls around my age from the farmhands' shanty town had come over to play and stay the night. If they spoke English, they didn't tell me that, so I spoke to them very slowly. I had been forced to read a book in second grade about a Spanish exchange student, and the host mother had given her son that advice: speak slowly. I did. The girls laughed at me, and so I avoided them.
As it turns out, I couldn't escape them. The night after they left, I took a bath. The hot water ran out with only a foot of it in the tub. Thinking there was something wrong, I said as much to my aunt. Mistake. "I don't care how things are in America," she said angrily. Her voice rattles in my brain sometimes, stuck and unable to ever leave. She told me about the visiting girls, who had been happy to be allowed a hot bath at all. She told me how the farmhands bathed: standing in a bucket. "Grateful," she said to me, at least once, flinging it like a whip.
Some wounds just heal over on the surface, leaving the wound down deep.
Wooden spoons hurt. Metal too, I'm told, but I avoided at least that. The far wall of the farmhouse's great room was dedicated to an array of vicious looking implements of corporal punishment. Frankly, I had forgotten about them by the time it happened. Occasionally, my aunt would haul me, my brother, and our cousin to a friend's house in a township about two hours away. Once there, she would send the three of us across the semi-trafficked street regularly to get rid of us for twenty minutes. I remember the shanty general store there vividly. It was dark, and there were always yams in burlap sacks and onions hung from the ceiling but also candy and chips. The area didn't have much use for English, so my conversations with the headscarfed women behind the barricaded counter were usually limited to things like "fifty cents" and "danké," or thank you. Then one day, while I was deliberating how to spend my four rand, my aunt stormed into the small room, dragged my brother and I onto the dirt sidewalk, and, making us look at the speeding cars, informed us that Sam, then three-years-old, had walked back across the street himself and that we had let it happen.
I hadn't even noticed he was gone from my side.
As strange as it sounds, my memories of that night are wistful ones. After the drubbing and a good cry, we were given peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and, in response to our questions if they hated us now, my aunt and uncle informed us that the punishment was over, so the whole thing was over and we would move on. It sounds so simple, doesn't it? So utterly common sense. Back home, things were never over with. My brother would stop trying to tell me ugly truths about our parents and leave me to my bliss by the age of twelve. It didn't mean the truth wasn't there; I just refused to see the signs for what they were.
Hindsight is not a bitch. I have seen such women, and they aren't that patient. Hindsight is cancer. It hides under the surface, next to emotional wounds, and though you can survive it, there are always holes afterward.
I know now that, while my father's family comes from old money, my aunt had a decidedly harsher time of it growing up. I know a lot of things now...about Apartheid, for example. I know more than I'd like to about a lot of things. It seems like this knowledge should excuse her and impart a certain amount of white guilt, but it just leaves me feeling empty and impotent. It was what it was.
And I was eight years old. Being eight, the farmhands equally scared and fascinated me. They didn't seem anything like Alex or Marco, my first neighborhood friends, whose "nappy" hair I had secretly wanted, or like Brian, the boy in my class who didn't seem nearly so different as the one in the wheelchair. You can't beat a wheelchair, statistical fact. These people were different. They were adults, spare in their English if they had any, and were always bundled up. Being the southern hemisphere, it was winter there, but South Africa's winter was about as cold as my early summer. My Tee and shorts probably seemed more odd to them than their preponderance of coats and gloves did me that day when I tagged along with my aunt and about ten of them to check on the sheep. It started off well. I was in the back of a massive pickup with my favorite of the work dogs. Most of them had nearly no fur, making up for it with their teeth. She was a girl of another sort: black, white, and gorgeous. I adored her, and when the pickup started for the tenth time, I noticed she was close to the edge, so I moved to save her from falling off. Instead, I took the tumble. The truck revved forward suddenly, picking up speed, and then it lurched over a large rock in the dirt road. I went flying and landed, head first.
It's hard to be afraid of men who rush to your side to check you for signs of a concussion and, well, a pulse. My aunt told me I had been stupid, but her heart wasn't in it, and there was candy, so I didn't really think on it again.
Until now, anyway. I could go on with stories of that short summer. They're all sitting in the back of my head, many horrifying but many beautiful, too.
That's the complicated contradiction. I lived there in a farmhouse with a tin roof and a well you had to pump by hand, but it also had satellite phones that laughed at the mere idea of roaming. There was a lot of segregation in the country, still, but the one time I met armed poachers face to face, one of them was white. My aunt rescued animals, from dogs to dassie rats to lambs, but the farm's slaughter shed lay just on the other side of the paddock.
That, I learned at the age of eight, was life. It's painful, funny, and nothing you want to hear, but it still needs saying.