On some days, Bill was allowed to attend school for a few hours, as Sister Caroline still paid his tuition. Seeing that he was underfed, the school director funded his school lunches as well. Sealon permitted him to go only if he finished his other tasks, and did not allow him any time to study at home. He fell far behind. But school provided something more important for Bill. There, no one teased him about being a restavèk. There, for a few moments each week, he was a boy, not an animal.
"Petit paw lave yon Bo, Kite yon bo," goes a Haitian proverb: "Your child is not my child, and I don't have to do anything for him because he's not mine." While Sealon's children were at school, Bill had to negotiate with vendors at the market and work at the restaurant. When they came home, they called him "slave" and beat him with switches or their fists for the slightest infraction or none at all. As they were bigger than he was, Bill could not fight back.
Sealon routinely yelled at him, even in public. One time at the market, he lost her money to buy groceries. "I know you, Bill. You ate the money!" Sealon shouted when he came home. She reached for the leather martinet. During the beating, one of many, he did not scream. Afterwards, his chin quivering, the eight-year-old was defiant.
"Mon Dieu bon," he told her. "God is good, and one day I won't be a restavèk anymore."
"Do you think you've got somewhere else to go?" Sealon laughed. "You're never going to be anything in your life. Never. You will still be a restavèk, going in the street and cleaning cars. At best you'll be a thief." Bill longed to escape, but couldn't. As a child, his world was too small.
Months later, Sealon decided to teach the boy to work faster. She gave him 20 Haitian dollars and told him to get rice, beans, and other foodstuffs from the market. Then she spit on the floor. "By the time that spit dries," she told him, "you'd better be back here."
He ran so fast that his lungs burned by the time he reached the market. Overstimulated from the long sprint, and seeing no line for the vendors, he got distracted from his task. A young man's hands whirled over three wooden shells, one of which concealed a picture. Other kids stood around gaping at the man and his shell game.
"Hey, little man," the huckster said to Bill, "if you put down four dollars and see the wood with the picture beneath it, just touch it, and you'll get eight dollars back." The other kids egged him on: "Play! Play! You'll have more money to buy things anyway."
The man stopped, and all eyes were on Bill. In a flash he put $4 in front of the left shell. He lost. A pang of pure fear melted his stomach. Nauseous, he immediately realized that he could not afford all of Sealon's shopping list because of the $4 HA (about 50 U.S. cents) that he had lost. Shame piled on shame when he approached the vendors, who saw Bill regularly but didn't know him. Through welling tears, he revealed more than he cared to about his life. He lived with people who weren't his family, he said, and they had sent him. This was a polite way of confessing that he was a restavèk. He begged them to give him the items, explaining that his granmoun, his grown-up, would kill him. They refused.
Bill curled up under a mango tree, his mind white with fear, desperately trying to think of lies that would spare him the beating he knew was in his future. Unbeknownst to him, word had already reached Sealon of his peccadillo. When he got home, the spit was dry.
"You bet the money!" Sealon screamed. "And you know we don't have any money in the house!"
Bill tried to speak but choked on tears instead. She kicked him to his knees. Then she handed him two rocks, one in either hand, and told him to hold his arms extended, and not to drop the rocks or she would kill him.
Copyright © 2008 by E. Benjamin Skinner
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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