By Marine von Koenig
When he screams, his small round face grows red and blotchy, the veins in his temples swell and throb, and his pale blue eyes bulge.
He screams at me—have I forgotten that I came to him with one suitcase, how much I owe his family? I switch off. I’ve learned to switch off; the screaming is only a nuisance background noise, like the rattling of a refrigerator—quieter at times, and then louder again—so after a while you stop noticing it.
He happens to be my husband, and it is only screaming.
He brakes on the icy countryside road and the car swerves lightly but then stops at the roadside. He turns off the motor. It is quiet—a snowed-in meadow surrounds us—and I turn away from him and look outside at the evening sun flashing through the charred contours of a copse of old pine trees.
We sit in the car without saying a word. I breathe at the window screen, rub a small circle in the middle with my finger, and peer through. The tree shadows grow longer and the light of the sun is still warm, but then, as the narrow strip of scarlet at the horizon disappears at last, the shadows and the trees and the meadow dissolve into a pulp of gray.
“What are you staring at? Look at me!”
“Look at me, Anna!” my mother clasps my chin, the long nails cut into my skin. She pushes me through the doorway, screaming, “Are you out of your mind? Going to the neighbors—not even a note—I’ve been going crazy looking for you!”
I back away into the living room. “Please, Mommy! It was dark. You weren’t back from work. I was scared.”
“You’re eight years old, Anna. When will you start using your brains?” Her voice cracks. “Look at me!”
When we arrive at home, he shuts the bedroom door. The blue light of the TV flickers up through the frosted glass.
A pungent smell of burnt eggs drifts from the kitchen—not again. A piece of omelette is charring on the stove next to a smoking pan. I turn off the stove and grab the hot pan and throw it into a sink.
He is behind me, biting his lip, a new tooth is coming through. His face is pink and blotchy, just like his father’s when he is unnerved.
“I’ve had enough, Leo!” The words whip through the kitchen and it feels good.
Leo hunches, his lips twitch. He looks away but doesn’t move.
“Look at me!” I grip his face. “Look! At! Me!”
“Please don’t hit me, Mommy!” The dining table is solid against my back.
She rips off my schoolbag, grabbing it by the leather strap, removes it from the bag with an agonising routine: one snap hook, then the other.
I am backing away again, around the table toward my parents’ bedroom, not daring to turn my back to her.
“Mommy, please! I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
She raises the strap. A familiar lump in my chest.
The metal hook sears my ribs. I hunch, hear my voice begging her to stop.
Another lash. This time it’s the bottom…and again…I run to the bedroom, crawl under the bed. Fast!
“Get out of there!” She tries to reach me. I can’t shut off her screaming.
I am curled against the wall. She can’t reach me. Three burning stripes of pain. Daddy will be back from work. I’ll beg him not to go out, to stay until she goes to bed. He will stay. Tomorrow is a new day. I’ll try my best; she may forgive me.
“Mommy? Mommy, please don’t cry. Mommy?”
I stare at my hand, tear it away from his face. Leo cranes his neck and straightens up and wipes a tear from my face. His hand is silky and soft and smells like milk and eggs, and I grasp it and kiss it, again and again, and press it against my cheek. It takes a few long breaths until I dare look at him. A tear rolls down his cheek, along the nose and over the quivering lip and drowns at last in the corner of his mouth. He smiles.