Color Me Butterfly, by L.Y. Marlow

Excerpt

 

Mattie felt the weight of her eldest sister's leg slung across her stomach, as the two younger girls lay entangled in the blanket, their limbs sprawled across each other. She awoke to the sun beaming on her face in the small room that she shared with her three sisters and three brothers. They all slept in two small beds—the girls in one, the boys in the other. The youngest, a year old, slept between Isaac and Eloise in the narrow bed they shared in the room across the hall.

Mattie pushed Deller's leg from the pit of her stomach, causing Deller to stir. She turned away from the sunlight to salvage a few final moments before the familiar sound of their mother's footsteps approaching their room marked morning. Instead, she was alarmed to hear the thunderous voice of her father—at it again—screaming at their mother for something Mattie couldn't quite make out because Isaac's anger obliterated reason.

She pulled the blanket over her head to silence him, but she could tell from the tone and depth of his voice that today would be a bad day, the kind when she was reminded that he was no longer their daddy. He was Isaac, with a capital "I." They no longer thought of him as the father who used to play with them, take them to see a picture show, and lead them in birthday song. Their Daddy had disappeared, replaced by this volatile, angry man.

When the loud voices were replaced by loud thumps, they all sat up in their beds and looked at the door, imagining what was happening to their mother on the other side.

After the last thumping ceased, the children heard the swift shuffle of Isaac's feet moving quickly up the stairs and toward their bedroom. The door flew open, and there he stood, in all his fury. "I smell pee way downstairs. Who done wet the bed this time?" he demanded, his anger gripping each child.

As if on cue, they all pointed to Rollie, the youngest son, just three years old.

"I tol' you the las' time, if any one of y'all wet this bed again, I was gon' see to it that it ain't gon' happen no mo'," he shouted across the room, looking at Rollie, but intending it for all of them. "Get dressed and get y'all asses downstairs now!"

While the children dressed, Isaac went to the rat-infested basement and checked one of the large traps he had set. It held the carcass of its victim. Isaac picked up the trap and walked slowly up the dark stairs, the rat's tail swinging alongside him.

Terror shadowed the children's small faces as Isaac came into the kitchen.

"Get over hea'!" he ordered.

The children eased their way closer to the kitchen table. Isaac removed the rat from the trap, skinned it, and sliced it down the middle. Blood dripped on the table and chair. The children watched, horrified, as he filled a cast iron skillet with lard and heated it, then put the skinned rat into the hot fat. He cooked the rat on both sides until the flesh shriveled and the skin became leathery and brown. He tossed the rat onto a plate and shoved it at Rollie.

"Eat it!" he said, daring Rollie to disobey.

Eloise and the other children looked aghast: in the silence, they could hear the rat's skin still sizzling.

"Isaac, no! Please Isaac, no!" Eloise pleaded.

Isaac turned from Rollie only long enough to warn Eloise.

Rollie cried helplessly; though he was too young to fully understand what was happening to him, he understood one thing—he had just watched his father skin the very thing that scared him as it scurried across the bedroom floor each night. The look in Isaac's eyes left no doubt as to what would happen should he disobey. Rollie picked up the rat and bit at its flesh.

The children sobbed; tears flowed down their cheeks and soaked into their clothing. Their eyes pleaded with Isaac, but each knew not to interfere or even speak. Eloise lowered her head and cried.

After Isaac left for work, Eloise went upstairs to her children, who had returned to their room. Rollie lay on the bed, crying. Foamy saliva and remnants of vomit still dripped from his mouth. Eloise held him and cried. The other children stood watching, crippled with grief.

"Mattie and Deller, y'all hurry up and get ready for school and help me get these hea' young'uns ready," Eloise mumbled. There was no need to say how sorry she was; her face conveyed more expressively than words.

The children came to the kitchen table to have their breakfast, but when Eloise put the plates before them, they stared with revulsion, their appetites lost. Today, she didn't lecture them about eating their meal. She just let them linger as long as they needed.

After the five elder children left and Eloise was alone with the three toddlers, she forced herself to try and recall when Isaac had become so evil, but no single incident or reason stood out. She fell to her knees and prayed for the day that her children would forgive her for lacking the nerve to stand up to him, the strength to protect them, and the courage to leave someday. Exhausted and still aching from the beating Isaac had given her before turning his rage on Rollie, she drifted into sleep.

Several hours passed before Eloise gained the strength to get up. When she awoke, Charlene, Paulene, and Rollie were huddled next to her, as though her body could protect them.

Charlene and Paulene, the one- and two-year-olds, didn't understand why their mother held them so close as she repeated, "I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry." But little Rollie knew. He understood that his mother wanted nothing more than to protect him from Isaac.

When Isaac returned home from work that evening, the children were already in their room. They had come home from school, done their homework and chores, eaten dinner, and hurried upstairs.

Mattie came downstairs to help her mother clean the kitchen. Isaac sat at the table, eyes buried in his plate.

"Gal, pass me the light bread," he snarled, without looking up at her.

"Yes, Daddy." Mattie fetched the bread out of the cupboard and handed it to him.

While he ate, Mattie snuck glances at him, searching for a hint of remorse, but it seemed that he had none. He sat at the table and ate as though nothing had occurred that morning, as though it were normal to force a three-year-old to eat a skinned rat that had been dead for who knows how long.

Mattie searched for a sign of regret, a hint of kindness. Nothing. She gazed closely to see if he looked disturbed; he did not. She tried to make her eyes penetrate his shirt, skin, and ribcage to see if he still had a heart: she couldn't tell.

Isaac finally stood, leaving his plate on the table so Mattie could clean up after him. He looked like a giant to her—a giant who had invaded their home. She finally got up enough nerve to ask the same question she always asked: "Daddy, are you done?" He ignored her and walked out of the kitchen.

Mattie went back upstairs. She glanced at her sisters and brothers to warn them that Isaac had returned.

"Is Isaac still mad?" little Rollie asked when Mattie shut the door behind her.

"I'ont know, he didn't say much. But he wasn't screamin' at Mama like he did this mornin'. I guess he ain't mad no more."

Rollie looked at Mattie innocently. "Can you help me go to the bathroom tonight so I don't wet the bed again?" he asked.

"Rollie, you're gonna have to learn to be a big boy. You know Isaac warned you before about wettin' that bed. You gotta stop drinkin' so much stuff before you go to bed. I'll help you, but you're gonna have to learn on your own, okay?"

"Yes, I'ma try harder," Rollie promised, blinking his eyes as though that would suddenly make him outgrow his problem.

That night as Mattie lay down, she tried to block out all that had happened that day. She had long known that things had changed, but it hadn't become fully real to her until she'd witnessed the evil in her father's eyes. She pulled the blanket over her face to shut out the glaring moonlight, wanting nothing more than to fall into a deep sleep and wake up to the father she'd had years ago.

The next morning, they arose to silence. No loud voices, no frightening thumps.

Mattie jumped up and immediately ran over to check the spot that Rollie had slept in. Dry. Thank God!

She and Deller were laying out clothing for the smaller children when they heard their mother's footsteps. This time, Eloise greeted them with her usual instructions: "Mattie and Deller, y'all hurry up and help me get these hea' young'uns ready."

They moved quickly. As they listened to Eloise return downstairs to the kitchen, they heard their father talking to her. The tone of his voice was even, the depth level. Today would be a good day.