Wednesday, September 01, 2004

White Butterflies

The innocent dream ended abruptly on a summer's day in 1952.

Nine years old, I was. Skinny, with big teeth, a head of curly blonde hair, and a shy smile. It was my job to looking after my younger sister, Maureen and my brother, Paul. Paul was an adorable toddler with white blonde curly hair, about 18 months old, Maureen was seven. Her hair was blonde also, but dirty blonde, worn short in a Buster Brown helmet cut. Our cousin Eric was no longer with us, having gone to live with his father and his new wife in California.

We had boarders living in the house. A single mother and her sixteen year old daughter were living in one large room in the basement. There was a stove outside the room, and a tiny bathroom down a dark hall which also housed the Easy ringer washing machine. which lived across from the coal burning furnace. In the room itself there was a couch, and a table, and a double bed. There was also a brick fireplace in the room. They kept coal in a brass scuttle and used a bellows to fan the embers into flames. I was not allowed to go into that room. I could not imagine how it would feel to be a teenager and sleep in the same bedroom as your mother. I already had my own room.

Sometimes, when my parents went to the theatre or the symphony, the sixteen year old girl was left to baby sit us. Long after I was supposed to be in bed, I would watch from the staircase through the glass window. I was enthralled to see her moving to the hit parade songs on the radio, holding herself as if "close dancing"with an imaginary boyfriend. The world of teenager love seemed remote and somehow titillating.

One day my father loaded all three children, and the babysitter into his green and yellow Mercury, and took us to Sherwood Forest Park for the day. We were left in the charge of the babysitter who was supposed to be watching us while we went in the wading pool. The water was only inches deep at best, and meant for toddler splashing. The girl was preoccupied with flirting with the boys, and I wanted to actually swim. A young boy around my age told me that there was a swimming hole on the other side of the forest where there was a rope that you could swing out over the deep water and jump in. I knew how to swim in deep water thanks to the swimming lessons my mother religiously took us to, since she could not swim herself. This sounded like the perfect adventure to me, so I asked the babysitter if I could go by myself to the other side of the woods. She said yes. although it meant that she would have to look after my brother and sister herself, instead of leaving it to me. I was delighted to be released from my responsibility to chase after Paul and constantly upright him when he stumbled, and make sure that he didn't drown.

So off I went into the woods in my little yellow bathing suit with plaid straps and trim. My feet were bare and the soft smooth earth felt cool against them. The sun shone in shafts through the towering evergreen trees. Lost in the sweet silence, I was transported to long ago Sherwood Forest. I was Maid Marion, wandering through the woods of Nottingham. Entranced, I saw two white butterflies fluttering in a shaft of light. I moved quietly forward until the light fell directly on my head. In a moment of perfect beauty and grace, I stood hushed, frozen, so as not to break the magic bubble that surrounded me. The two dancing butterflies, mistaking my blonde curls for a flower, landed on top of my head. I was in heaven.

An instant latter the bubble burst.

From behind the trees came a young man, aged around fifteen, wearing a black and red lumberjack shirt, a black T-shirt, and rolled up bluejeans. His hair was slicked back into a "duck's tail." He approached me slowly, quietly. Without my realizing it, he had been watching me, hunting me me like a deer in the woods. The butterflies flew away as I turned my head.
" There is a dead squirrel behind that bush," he said quietly, gently. "Do you want to see?"
This was not Robin Hood, but he was a boy. I trusted him. I went behind the bush with him.

As soon as we were behind the bush, I looked around for the squirrel. Instead, I felt him grab me and pull me down on the ground. He jumped on top of me, pinning my arms to the earth. His face directly over me, he announced, "I am going to fuck you."

Gasping with shock, I asked, "What is fuck?" I was nine. My only exposure to the idea of sex was a book that my mother had given me. Actually I had had to go to my girlfriend's house to get it. The book had been passed around the neighbourhood by the mothers, without comment. Birds and bees and love. Nothing about "fuck."

His face showed that he was dismayed. I was just a little girl. He had really caught himself a live one. She didn't even know what he was talking about. What was he going to do now?

His hesitation told me everything I needed to know. He did not really want to do this thing he said he was going to do. And I knew one other thing. He was poor.
Suddenly I knew what to do. Summoning all my courage, I began talking quickly.I told him that my father was very rich, and if he let me go, my father would give him money.
"How much?"
I knew I had him. It wasn't a question of whether he could be bought off, it was just a question of for how much.
"I don't know. A lot!"
He relaxed his grip on me, thinking. "I will let you go on one condition. You have to take your clothes off."
My heart was beating faster than a butterflies wings. I nodded my assent. He rolled aside and let me stand up.
I stood up, shaking, and tried to undo the strap on my bathing suit. it was still wet from the pool. The straps being made of cloth, it was terribly difficult to untie the knot. I shuddered as I fumbled with the ties. I had said I would do it, and that was my part of the deal. It seemed to take forever. Finally I got the straps undone and let the suit slowly down to my waist, revealing my utterly flat chest. When I got to my waist I stopped.
"Is that enough? Can I go now?"
Leaning on one arm, he nodded his head. I turned and bolted. I was an award winning sprinter. That day I ran faster than I had ever run in a school race. I can still feel the terror pounding in my chest as the trees rushed past me, all the while trying to tie up my bathing suit so I would be covered. I did not want anyone else to see me naked. I was ashamed and terrified, running for my life, looking back to see if he was following me.

Suddenly I reached the edge of the woods. The lawn beside the fenced wading pool spread out in front of me. There was the haven I was seeking. Standing in front of the Park Supervisor's hut was a young girl about seventeen years old, She was fair, and looked official, wearing a light brown uniform, with a lanyard and a whistle. Seeing me coming, running and like I had just seen the devil, she instinctively understood and reaching out her welcoming arms, she scooped me up. She bundled me into the hut where she held me in her arms and rocked me in a rocking chair while I sobbed, ""Why? Why? Why?" She had no answer for me, but her arms spoke of love and comfort. That was enough. All the same time as I was asking her "Why" I could hear the voice in my head asking "Why hasn't your mother ever held you and rocked you like this?"

Somehow along with taking care of me, that resourceful girl had managed to call the police. After a while of rocking me, she got up and went to the door. She came back to the rocking chair and told me that they had caught him, and I had to go outside and identify him. When I saw him, I was petrified. They had him in handcuffs, a policeman on either side of him. At that moment I began to shake uncontrollbly with true terror, more intense and shattering than anything I had ever experienced. I had promised him nothing would happen to him if he let me go, that he would get money. Now, because I of me, he was going to jail. I was guilty of his punishment. I could not think, I just shook, nodded my head when they asked if it was him.

All I can remember is being home afterwards and the policemen coming to the house to interview me. Apparently they complimented my mother on doing such a good job of teaching me the names for the body parts. I made it easier for these husky men to ask me difficult questions., while my mother and father and sister stood on the stairs outside the room and listened.

A few days later I was sitting on the floor in the living room. I heard my mother in a conversation on the kitchen phone, followed by a hushed discussion between my parents. My mother came through the swinging doors into the living room. She explained to me that she had talked with the young man's parents. The boy had told them that he had done what he had done because he wanted to belong to a boys gang or club. They told him that is what he had to do to become a man and belong. It was a kind of initiation rite. He had told his parents that he would never do anything like that again, and that he was very sorry. After discussing it with my father, my mother had told them to drop the charges. They decided it would be more damaging to me to go through court and having to tell what happened, than to let it go and forgive. I accepted that, and everything seemed to be at at peace. Maybe I even felt relieved. But somehow I had gotten the message that this was the way it was. Boys were to be excused, forgiven, and girls had to be protected. It was no longer safe to walk in the woods alone. There was never any discussion of how that felt, or what I wanted. There was certainly no rocking chair or cuddle chair, no hugs, or words of comfort. No one ever said, "It wasn't your fault." What had happened to me became a shameful secret discussed behind closed doors. Shame and fear and guilt seeped throughout the house., and into every cell of my being. The endless joyous summer of youth was over.