And that, just that casual remark about jelly and wax and absentmindedness changed everything. I suppose my mind had drifted off during their conversation, that I was thinking of the adventure to come. I spoke without thought, without knowledge of the consequences. So I said the words that damned me.
The box of paraffin's in the top shelf of the cabinet over the stove, up there behind the molasses and the cornstarch.
I simply said what I saw in my head, the square box of block wax behind the dark bottle of blackstrap, and reached for my cold sweet tea to wash down the starchy grains of rice.
Before I took the first sip, I heard the silence come back, the mute wave that swamped even the monotonous hum of fans. My heart started to pound inside that vacuum, one hard hammer strike after the next, with a ringing that was only inside my own head and was the sudden and vicious pulse of blood. The pulse of fear.
He spoke softly then, as he did, always did, just before the rage. How do you know where the wax is, Victoria? How do you know it's up there, where you can't see it? Where you can't reach it?
I lied. It was foolish, because I was already doomed, but the lie tumbled out, a desperate defense. I told him I guess I saw Mama put it there. I just remember seeing her put it there, is all.
He tore that lie to shreds. He had a way of seeing through lies and ripping them to uneven pieces and sticky parts. When did I see that? Why didn't I do better in school if my memory was so keen I could remember where the paraffin was a year after the last canning season? And how was it I knew it was behind the molasses and cornstarch and not in front of them, or beside them?
Oh, he was a clever man, my father, and never missed the smallest of details.
Mama said nothing while he spoke in that soft voice, punching the words at me like fists wrapped in silk. She folded her hands, and her hands shook. Did she tremble for me? I suppose I like to think so. But she said nothing as his voice grew louder, nothing as he shoved back from the table. Nothing as the glass slipped from my hand and crashed to the floor. A shard of it nicked my ankle, and through the rising terror I felt that little pain.
He checked first, of course. He would tell himself that was the fair thing, the right thing to do. When he opened the cabinet, pushed aside the bottles, slowly took that square blue box of canning wax out from behind the dark molasses, I cried. I still had tears in me then, I still had hope. Even as he yanked me to my feet, I had the hope that the punishment would only be prayers, hours of prayer until my knees went numb. Sometimes, at least sometimes that summer, that was enough for him.
Hadn't he warned me not to let the devil in? But still, I brought wickedness into his house, shamed him before God. I said I was sorry, that I didn't mean to. Please, Daddy, please, I won't do it again. I'll be good.
I begged him, he shouted scripture and with his big, hard hands dragged me toward my room, but still I begged him. It was the last time I did so.
There was no fighting back. It was worse if you fought him. The Fourth Commandment was a sacred thing, and you would honor your father in his house, even when he beat you bloody.
His face was deep red with his righteousness, big and blinding as the sun. He only slapped me once. That was all it took to stop my pleading, and my excuses. And to kill my hope.
I lay across the bed on my stomach, passive now as any sacrificial lamb. The sound his belt made when he slid it out of the loops on his work pants was a snake hissing, then a crack, sharp, slick, as he snapped it.
He always snapped it three times. A holy trinity of cruelty.
The first whip is always the worst. No matter how many times there's been a first, the shock and pain is stunning and rips a scream from your belly. Your body jerks in protest. No, in disbelief, then the second slap bites into you, and the third.
From Carolina Moon by Nora Roberts. (c) January, 2000, Nora Roberts used by permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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