KRYSTAL A. SITAL
I’m reading at my desk in the library, the room at the center of our house, and we pulse together like a heartbeat. My mother dusts and shines the surfaces around me.
Krys chile raise yuh book, she says. I clap the opened Nancy Drew novel to my chest and recline in my chair. She hums to herself as she sprays then wipes the desktop. The gray laminate shines. Pulling myself back up, I remember how proud my father was the day he’d finished building this library for my sister and me, an entire room for studying, a luxury he didn’t have growing up.
My father wrangles our ironing board through the doorway and though it is eight p.m., well past dinnertime, he is still impeccably dressed. His white shirt is crisp, the collar stiff around his neck, and his gray dress pants with their lines pressed in, swish around his sturdy legs. Once fully in the room he runs his palm along the top of his head to check that every piece of pin-straight black hair is still slicked back into place.
Every Sunday night my father starches and presses his five police officer uniforms for the week. Yuh finish yuh hwome-wok yet, Nancy Drew? he asks, deflecting my enquiries for the evening. He wants only to exist with us in that room tonight, to delve into the silence of the roving iron, in between the spaces and breaks of my mother’s humming, the turn of the page as I whisper the words to myself. Like many Trinidadian men on the island, he seeks the silence and the power it brings, the comfort of the family he’s created pulsating around him.
At my father’s behest, my younger sister remains curled up on the bed we’ve shoved into a corner of the library, her thumb hanging off her bottom lip. My mother moves to pick her up again but my father shakes his head no. He wants us there, close and though I don’t realize it then, we must do what he wants.
Lawd chile, my mother says as she dusts my books, if only yuh could straighten up everyting neat-neat-neat de way yuh does keep dis bookshelf iggo make meh rheal happy yuh know. I grin, knowing I’ll never make the bed in the mornings, wash my own laundry, or clean my room. She laughs, Like meh raisin ah boi chile awah?
I frown there, just for a moment, resent writhing in my mind for why were there different rules and expectations for boys and girls of the same age? But that wrinkled moment is fleeting, gone as I continue to whisper the words on the page before me, molding the story with the writer, this young sleuth, her inquisitiveness embraced in a culture so far removed from my own on islands stranded in the middle of nowhere.
My father places the packed laundry basket next to the ironing board while my mother sits on the old bed my sister is sleeping on. She crosses her cinnamon brown legs, rainbow-colored duster dangling like a cigarette from between her fingertips. Dropping the duster to the floor, she lies back on the bed, careful to avoid waking my sister.
My father whistles an old Hindi film song as he irons first his underwear then his undershirts, shirts, pants, and finally his handkerchiefs. I put my book down and stand to help him. Tall for an eight-year-old, I can reach the board with little discomfort. Press, press hahdah. Tak ahl dem wrinkle oud, he orders. I must do it his way, just right, no, perfect, or I won’t be allowed to help again.
Occasionally he reaches down to engulf my hands in his and bears down. He folds the handkerchiefs in half, the edges perfectly aligned, has me flatten them some more with heat, folds it in half again while I iron the striped square. My father is an island man, a man of the old world, and carrying a kerchief is as ingrained in him as it was in his father, and his father’s father, the stack he has prepared for the week dwindling as the days go by until he prepares another cotton tower to be used again.
My mother unfurls like a lioness on the bed. Running her fingertips along the wooden headboard she traces the decorative carvings and comments, Doh mine it ole Anand boh dees ah rheal nice bed yuh know.
Of course de ting nice, ah mak it! Go geh meh some hangahs an help meh heng up some clodes.
Plastic hangers click and clack as my mother strolls back down the corridor. My father hasn’t yet unplugged the iron. He hands my mother each article of clothing and she slips them onto the plastic shoulders and hooks them on the door. They banter and I find comfort in their laughter. The warmth of the iron and the heat of their movements, swirl pleasantly around the room.
Now finished, my mother carefully drapes the ironed clothing over her forearm, the hangers almost touching the floor. My father holds the iron away from his body in one hand and bends down to gather up the cord in the other. The heated metal tip touches her bottom. She yelps and jumps forward, Anand! Wah de hell wrong wid yuh? Still clutching the clothing, she rubs her rear.
Wah appen? my father asks.
Wah yuh mean wah appen? Yuh bun meh wid de ting.
Their fights over money often thunder through our home. I close my book. I want to slide away quietly but with my mother in the doorway and my father between us, I’m stuck.
I wait for the inevitable: the moment my father turns to me and asks a question meant to quell their fight. I am merely asked to clarify, to be a voice of reason, to champion a winner—him—but he never really wants an answer, just an ally. I sit as still as I can hoping they will forget I am there.
Bun yuh how? he asks my mother, a mischievous glint in his eyes. Meh bun yuh like dis? and he nudges the iron toward her. She jumps back.
Like yuh dotish awah? Cut dat shit out.
My father laughs. He thrusts his hand forward and the iron, still plugged in, touches the cotton of her shorts. She cries out in pain and drops his clothes.
Anand ah warnin yuh. Doh do dat ahgain.
He throws his head back and laughs again, his Adam’s apple rippling beneath the surface of his skin.
Warnin me bout what oman? What?
If yuh touch meh wid dat ahgain ahgo call de police.
He looks directly into her eyes brandishing the iron between them.
Gwah head. Call de police mahn. Wah de ass dey goh do?
She whips around to leave the room and he stabs the iron into the same spot again. I cover my mouth and shrink into a corner beneath the desk. He continues to taunt, Call de police, lewwe see wah dey goh do.
I see her shoulders droop and just as she is turning to go, her eyes sweep the room and catch mine. Something passes between us. She presses her lips together, without another word, I hear her barrel down the corridor.
My father sucks his teeth, a long, satisfied steups. Yanking the plug from the outlet, he drops to his knees to pick up his clothing. He sees me crouched under the desk.
Eh eh Krys, yuh dey de whole time?
Yuh muddah is someting else yuh know. Ah was juss jokin wid she chile. De ting eh even hot. Doh worry wid she nah. Is druhmatik she druhmatik.
I know what I’ve seen. I shut him out and remain where I am.
Dis is rheal dotishness, he says as he walks away, come out oh doh come out, she goh be juss fine.
But my father has underestimated my mother. While he tried to coax me out from under the desk, she was in the kitchen telephoning the police, reporting him to his colleagues, alerting them to a domestic dispute between husband and wife; her report is a betrayal.
Even though I am eight years old, I know she is doing this for me, for my sister. She wants the next generation of women to be free with their bodies and minds, not hampered by men and their agendas; she didn’t want that cyclical violence repeated, refused to pass that down to her daughters in whatever form.
When my father leaves the room, I skitter out and hide behind one of the couches in the living room, the one place central to everything—I can see the door, the corridor, and the library.
There is a rap at our door. It comes a few hours after my mother’s initial phone call and I don’t yet realize that a report like this one should have been answered immediately, that other parts of the world take domestic abuse very seriously.
I’m afraid to go to bed.
My father answers the door, filling the archway with his body and leaving my mother to stand behind him.
It eh nutten officahs. Juss ah lil quarrel.
My mother pushes past him.
Yuh doh listen toh im. I is de one dat place de phone call. An wah appen toh allyuh? If it was ah emergency ah wouldah be dead by now. Dat is how allyuh handlin woman problems een dis country?
Meh husband here officah bun me widdhe irons several times. I axe im toh stop and e refuse toh stop.
Madam, whey e bun yuh? one of the two officers ask.
The question hangs in the air. My mother opens her mouth but nothing comes out. The man repeats the question. His partner extracts a small black book from his pocket and flips through it before folding it in half.
E bun, she pauses. They look at her expectantly. E bun meh een meh buttum.
My father storms into their bedroom. Without any concern for my sleeping sister, he flings open their door and it ricochets off the stone wall. My mother and the officers, startled, stare after him. He emerges from the shadowy bedroom seconds later holding his wallet.
You and you, my father points to one man, then the other. His voice is different, authoritative, all sense of comedy gone. My mother steps back. Whut is yuh badge and identification numbah? Whut is yuh rank? De name is Sital, he flips his wallet open to his policeman’s id in one swift motion. I am a corporal of police in Port-of-Spain, badge number 0-4-2-2. He needn’t have finished his sentence.
Suh, one of them starts.
Corporal Sital, my father corrects him.
The man stutters that he was only trying to do his job. My father glares at them, then orders them to leave. He shuts and bolts the heavy mahogany door after them.
My father stands above her.
Doh evah tink about callin de police ahgain.
He strolls away from us, plucks a small comb off the coffee table and settles into a chair where he brushes his luscious black mustache.
My mother doesn’t ever report my father again. I will come to learn that my mother witnessed my grandfather beat my grandmother over and over again. When the chance to leave presents itself, she escapes the islands with my sister and me and she never looks back.
Born in the republic of Trinidad and Tobago, Krystal Sital is the author of SECRETS WE KEPT: Three Women of Trinidad. The New York Times says, “Sital paints a credible and complex portrait”; Kirkus calls it “A powerful, disturbing narrative…” ; Vanity Fair included it in their list of ”What to Read This Month”; and Nicole Dennis-Benn said it is “A brilliant account of gender inequality and the burdens we bear as women in the Caribbean.” A PEN award finalist and Hertog Fellow, her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times—Well, Salon, Today’s Parent, Catapult, LitHub, Asian American Writers’ Workshop, The Caribbean Writer, and elsewhere. Krystal teaches creative writing; gender, sexuality, and culture; and peoples and cultures of the Caribbean at NJCU. A mother to three tiny geniuses, she practices magic with them and her partner in the suburbs of New Jersey. Follow her on twitter @krystalAsital or visit her at https://www.krystalsital.com/