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Her memories go back to infancy, probably no older than age one. It's not a talent or a skill; it just is. It always has been.

The earliest memories are mostly not so bad - neutral, at worst. Until somewhere around age three, when the bad dreams began.

Actually, that's not accurate. Even by age three, she'd had bad dreams. But these are different. These are nightmares. Night terrors, really.

Black. Pouring down, down. It's going to get her. She can't breathe. She wakes up screaming and sweating, dissociated and disconnected from her soul.

It's no use trying to explain it; she's tried that already, but they can't understand. It's also no use when the nightmare grows and expands, encompassing more recognizeable people and places and things. Or when the accompanying dissociative states begin to occur during waking hours, unbidden, unexplained.

It goes on for years, and she doesn't dare tell anyone anymore. She knows she'll get into trouble if she does. She doesn't know why, exactly, but she understands all too well that she will.

Eventually, the dissociative states become an old friend - welcome, safety, something that is hers and hers alone when nothing else is. And when they finally recede in adolescence, she mourns them like a lost friend.

And still, she doesn't tell anyone.

She was probably five or six when she quit hugging people. She doesn't want them hugging her, either. Tense, shoulders up around her ears, arms straight at her sides like two rigid two-by-fours. She'd prefer they didn't touch her at all.

She can't explain why she does that, either.

The family all think it's funny, though. Like everything else about her - a never-ending source of amusement, except when she's a target.

She's always a target.

If anything bad happens to her, it must be her own fault.

Like when Kasey beat her up on the school bus. He was their neighbor, up the dirt road, nine, and in grade school. She was only a kindergartener - four at first, then five before the year was out. She looked up to him.

One day, she sat in the seat behind him on the school bus on their way home. He was sitting with another boy his own age, someone she doesn't know. She says hi to him.

He turns around, leans over the seat, and tells her to shut up. He tells her she's stupid.

She feels like she's been struck; she doesn't understand. She asks why.

He leans back over the seat, and suddenly, she is struck. He hits her. More than once. By now, the tears are welling, and still she doesn't understand. And while he repeats how stupid she is, he leans over and grabs both her breasts through her dress and twists her nipples as hard as he can. It hurts like nothing she's ever felt.

She gets off at her stop in tears. Her sisters are already home via a different bus. The oldest asks why she's crying, and it all comes tumbling out.

She doesn't tell her parents. They'll be mad.

But her sister does.

And then she gets grilled: What did she do to Kasey? Why would he just hit her if she didn't do something to ask for it? Is she really telling the truth about her breasts? Why would he do something like that?

She doesn't understand. Why would she lie about that? How would she even think to make it up in the first place? It's never occurred to her before that someone could hurt her that way.

She's five years old.

Finally, they seem satisfied. Her mother calls Kasey's mother. A few days later, they go up the road to visit Kasey and his mom. She likes to visit, because Kasey's mom has a dipping bird on the coffee table. She wishes her parents would get one.

While the moms talk, she and Kasey are sent outside to play together. Unsupervised.

When they're summoned indoors, Kasey's mom calls him over to apologize. Not to her; to her mother. Because, you see, the wrong was done not to her, but to her parents.

Because she's their child. Their property.

And she learns something new about her place in the world.

And she still doesn't talk about the nightmares anymore.

Time passes, and she's reminded of her place in the world on a daily basis.

The spankings every night - for what, she doesn't know. Sometimes he'll tell her, but even then, it's usually something like, "You don't care about your parents at all!" If she cries, she gets another spanking.

So she stops crying.

And she gets another spanking, because "look at her! She doesn't care about her mother and dad at all!"

Or she repeats something they've just said, not understanding context, and is rewarded with a slap to the mouth. That happens a lot, too. Sometimes it's so hard that she chokes on her tongue. Or telling a joke - she's learned the concept of jokes, and knows they'll understand that she's not being serious. But they don't.

They don't say, "I love you," either. Not really. It's only ever said one way: "I love you, and that's why I have to do this." "This" being hurting her in some way. Punishment. Pain tarted up as "discipline."

The constant vigilance takes its toll. Her body, small for its age anyway, is in a permanent state of tension now. She never knows when something she says or does will produce more strikes upon her person.

She's even learned to regulate her breathing, because "children are supposed to take naps," and he will stand over her, for an hour at a stretch if need be, and watch for the slightest indication that she's not really asleep. She has no idea how she's supposed to force her body to sleep when it's not tired, but she's already learned to pretend, even as he stands there looming, saying, "I know you're not really asleep. I know you're awake. You don't care about your parents at all, do you? If you did, you wouldn't disobey me like this." And through it all, she fights every involuntary movement, every blink, every muscle twitch. Sometimes he gives up, but even then, she knows better than to relax. Sometimes, he just hits her anyway.

And that doesn't even include the times he comes in to disrupt her sleep, touching her face, stroking her eyebrows, telling her how much she looks like her mother. She plays dead then, too.

She learns early on not to mention half of what she hears and sees and does at school. Anything - or nothing at all - can produce the hits, the slaps, a grounding. He even forbids her to play with certain children because he's decided that they think they're better than she is. She doesn't even really understand what that means; all she knows is that it eventually means that she cant play with a single girl in her grade-school class.

By junior high, she knows better than to mention the bullying, the threats, the constant intimidation, to say nothing of the snapped bra straps and butt-grabs. She certainly isn't going to mention the 30-something man who followed her around the library whispering "Psst-psst-psst" at her, because they'll decide that she did something to cause it. And that will mean at least an hour of screaming in her face about how terrible she is, how worthless, that she's a slut, that she'll never amount to anything, that she doesn't care about her parents . . . .

By adolescence, she's been told that she's "nothing but a little bitch liar," "nothing but a slut," "a little whore." She knows she's none of those things. She's a good girl.

She's always been the good girl: the one who goes to church and tries to do what it takes to be a "Christian," even if nothing she sees looks like anything Christ supposedly is. She honors her father and her mother, and tries to obey them, even when the rules change by the second, with no warning. She doesn't rebel - no smoking, no drinking, no drugs, no dancing, no cards, no movies . . . . Sex? She's terrified of the prospect; it would get her killed. Of that, she has no doubt.

But still, she's bad. And still, she knows that she's not a real person; she's nothing more than her parents' property. Like a house, or a car. Or maybe like their sofa, or a table. She's a thing to be owned, with no rights of her own, and therefore, she can be insulted or screamed at or struck or manhandled at whim and will, because she's not a person. She's just property.

She still remembers the last time he struck her. She was fifteen. They were in the car, and the only thing he could reach with the back of the bench front seat in the way was her legs. Even through her heavy jeans - Levis, they called them back then, even though they were never Levis because they couldn't afford a name brand - even through her heavy jeans, it left the imprint of his fingers on her thighs.

That time, she swore to herself that he'd never hit her again.

He didn't. But the three-hour screaming sessions an inch from her face were worse. Those went on into adulthood.

By now, she understood.

She was a thing, to be owned. She was supposed to find some nice boy - preferably a preacher's boy who himself wanted to be a preacher - and marry him and settle down to her real job of having children.

She didn't want children. She was too afraid of his rages and his resentments - of becoming him. Them. And she swore to herself that she would never do that to a child.

So she didn't. She defied him, finally - went to college, starting and stopping for years on end, attending classes as finances permitted. She went to law school. She refused to marry just because. She refused to have children. Her long-time partner left her, and she went on alone for a long time.

But she never escaped. All those years of physical tension and pain took their toll. They took her career.

In the end, he won after all.

And a half-century later, she reads the headline horrors and she wonders if he was right all along:

Even now, she's just a piece of property.

Originally posted to Aji on Sun Mar 17, 2013 at 03:27 PM PDT.

Also republished by TreeClimbers and House of LIGHTS.

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