Brave

towering pine

Some things leave no room for misunderstanding,
like your climbs to the tops of towering pines,
and your belief that you can never cry.

At age five, you dream of a woman
with wings like a bat dressed all in black.
She swoops down, grabs you, pins you in her lap,
and while hitting you over and over, she’s whispering
that it will end when you stop struggling;
so you pretend to relax until her grip loosens
and then you fight to escape, but each time
her strength overwhelms you. It takes
several beatings before you realize
she is trying to help you, she is teaching you
how to be brave—
how to be so still
that you can let yourself have no feeling
when the scratchy hands are pressing into you,
like the night lets itself be swallowed by darkness.

An eight-year-old now, you’re standing
outside their locked bedroom door, waiting
for your mother to call to you
as he yells his nonsense, rips out drawers,
and slams the walls with his fists.
When something made of glass shatters
against the vanity, her cry of surprise
convinces you to call the police.
They come and go in a flash—
barely pausing to ruffle your hair
and chuckle
that it was all “just a misunderstanding”—
and they leave you there,
to keep being unseen.

For most of the school year,
at age eleven, you are chronically ill:
the oozing, itching, grey-swollen chickenpox lesions
that make you potently untouchable,
lead to an infiltration of fevers, flooded lungs,
and swollen, piercing tonsils and ears
that hold you prisoner from the inside,
but soon you come to know your captors
as the oddly loyal, untiring allies
who keep you warded at night, for months.
Your classmates are jealous, though,
that you still make passing grades
in your constant absence from school—
on the phone, they accuse you of faking,
and you can’t help the feeling, either,
that being sick really is a kind of cheating,
like getting something you want
without doing anything to earn it.

Mom is taking you to open a bank account
with your own passbook, though you’re just twelve
(her eyes are still swollen from crying yesterday),
so you can sign for the money you’ll need to get
yourself and your little brother to the airport
to fly to an uncle you barely know in New York,
if she either goes missing, or you find her dead,
because, as she’s confided to you—
and you have no reason not to believe it—
your father vowed to kill her.
For the next three years, then (she doesn’t know),
you skip lunch at school and save the money
to deposit into the “plane ticket” account.
No, she never gets murdered,
maybe even because you always keep watch,
like the kind of parent you’d want to be would,
even after your father finally moves out
during the same summer you get your tonsils
(and the disease they harbored) removed.

You’re now proving to be a picture of health
(though you bear the hunger of indignity, standing
in lines in the school gym for government hand-outs
of peanut butter, processed cheese and expired bread),
because you can run like no one else.
You are your soccer coach’s favorite, you believe,
because you are tough, and you work the hardest.
He makes a fuss over you like you are special,
takes you out for ice cream, has you come along
on fishing trips with his sons, and invites
you over for dinner, or to stay the night,
and you never consider he’ll expect you to repay him
for these casual, kind gestures, until
he’s suddenly always touching and hugging you
as if it is his right, and even though you make sure
only to be in public places with him,
in plain sight of your teammates’ parents,
you can’t discourage his lewd hovering,
or his propositions (which he thinks are charming)
for you to fuck him in the back of his van.
Somebody should be watching!
Somebody should be watching!
People are watching, but they only see
the things that have no need
for invisibility, like the crude posturing
of a man just being a man—

just someone who reserves
the Scouts’ clubhouse through Parks and Rec
for a “team meeting” that you feel obligated to attend;
someone who waits on a weekday evening
in a prefab aluminum building
with the lights dimmed
for a fifteen-year-old girl to enter alone,
while, at home, his own kids watch T.V.,
and his wife keeps his dinner warm.

Some things leave no room for misunderstanding—

like the lust throbbing in a man’s neck,
the presumption gleaming in his eyes,
and the fact that wrongs always pile upon wrongs
in the same way he now heaps this assault from behind,
with his thick hands fumbling for your breasts,
on top of his preposterous lie;

and so when he leans in with his belly
and his cock stiffens against the small of your back,
a scream gets trapped in your throat,
and you find yourself struggling wildly—
you elbow him hard in the ribs,
then rear up and ram your head into his chin,
and somehow stun him long enough
to get away—

you get away,
but leaving yourself there
unseen in the dark
doesn’t ever feel brave.

STEPHANIE L. HARPER

18 thoughts on “Brave

  1. Powerful. Great writing as I’ve come to expect from Wordgirl. You capture from word one and though this is emotional and heart wrenching you never forget your craft and THAT is what makes for compelling reading and that’s how you get your point not only across but deep into the heart and soul of your reader. Everyone standing by needs to stop standing by. That’s what this tells me. I read all your posts, I thought it would be nice if you knew that, yes? mikey

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mikey, so wonderful to hear from you, and especially to receive from you such a validating, sensitive response to this poem, this testimony.
      I like the point you take away from this, because it so succinctly communicates your astute understanding that my objective in writing and sharing this piece in particular is proactive, rather than just a pity party. It is absolutely a declaration that there is something to be done here, and that the responsibility of recognizing and taking steps to solving the problem at hand is everyone’s: “People standing by need to stop standing by.” Indeed!

      Like

  2. Steph, what can I say that would do justice to your ‘brave’ words? They made me cry.
    I’ve read too many stories where the writer remains stuck in that terrible space of abused child. But this powerful piece of writing that exposes the loss of innocence and trust of the child, also exposes her inherent strength. Using those ugly experiences as the raw materials to shape a better and meaningful life takes enormous courage: the seemingly endless journeys into the darkest parts of the psyche where you feel ripped apart by the terror and rage and hopelessness … THAT’S brave. So is sharing this piece that will surely speak to the core of even those hardened by layers of defensive armour and imprisoned by them.
    More power to you, brave woman.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks, dear friend.

    I made an individual, conscious choice to travel a rough road back to retrieve myself from the dark, but the reasons I ever had to leave myself there in the first place had nothing to do with choices my child self made, and everything to do with the choices the society whose responsibility it was to protect me (and whose rape mentality is still systemic) refused to make on behalf of its women and children.

    Like

    • Thank you. I’m very honored by your words. I hope for this poem and testament to be impactful in a way people might find productive & empowering, as opposed to only overwhelming. I appreciate that you took the time to read and respond.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The poem is certainly overwhelming, but I trust you will see the impact you hope for. It’s written in a manner that insists on being read and felt. A poets’ witness statement.

        Liked by 1 person

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