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2nd Prize Winner - Group III - Naked Skin

April, 2015
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Naked Skin

 

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Her wrists are bound to a wooden post, jacket cast aside on the ground and her shirt torn apart. She slumps unconscious on her knees, held up only by the ropes at her wrists. As her arms become more fatigued, great waves of cramps sweep over her back, knotting them in deep, relentless, throbbing pain. She is thin to the point of starvation and clearly malnourished. What used to be her back is a raw, bloody slab of meat. The pieces of the picture do not quite come together until a whip rises.

When we were children, Evelyn and I used to climb the poplar trees and annoy our neighbors by reflecting sunlight into their homes with shards of mirrors. Sitting on the trees next to each other, hand in hand, swinging our arms in perfect synchronization, our naked feet dangling, her pockets full of crumbs of bread and mulberries. We took turns with the mirror as we ate, pelted each other with the mulberries, giggling, laughing.  I can still see Evelyn sitting on the tree, sunlight jostling through the leaves on her face. Her smile wide across her face, her eyes that looked, depending on the light, gold, green, perhaps sapphire. Her fair skin glistened, softly, which when placed next to mine immediately determined an obscure boundary, between those of her kind - the whites - and those like me, with the olive skin, bred and buttered only to observe the luxury life from the corn fields where the bluebirds sing and mulberries spring. Conscious of the rules, we had to be careful, for we both dreaded the master - Evelyn’s father. If he ever did find us, oh lord, the demons from hell would’ve been unleashed in lashes.

Once, up in the poplars, Evelyn even taught me how to read and write. I was really excited but also nervous. That very first time, I found myself reluctant, but when she asked, really asked, I couldn’t deny. She rummaged in her pockets and pulled out a piece of paper, attentively unfolding and smoothing the paper onto her sky-blue dress.

“Do you think we’ll get caught?” I asked her, to which she would reply with a reassuring smile, “It’s our little secret.”

Or at least what seemed like reassuring smile. She took out her quill, and glided gracefully across the creased paper. After a few moments, she lifted her hand up. I gawked at the neatly written straight lines tied together; Evelyn called them ‘letters’ and ‘words’. I unconsciously traced the letters on the paper gently with my index finger.  

“What does it say?” I looked at her, perplexed yet amazed.

“It’s your name Ruth. C’mon I’ll teach you,” she responded, offering me her quill.

A side of me urged myself not to accept that offer, but another knew this wasn’t any normal opportunity, and if I turned my back on it, I would be filled with questions that could never be answered. Just as I reached for the quill, a gust of wind blew across my cheeks. It wasn’t a warm breeze like before; it felt ice cold and haunted. I heard my mother’s voice in the wind warning me of the approaching danger in committing something so forbidden. Still, I ignored it and let my thirst for knowledge seize hold of the quill.

        

“You foul, bloody wench!” It strikes her body like a lightning bolt, and leaves within a second. Struggling to regain consciousness, she lifts her head up, eyes dull with pain and hunger, pupils dilated with fear. She hears calls and shouts from somewhere not far - her mother. She sees her, the dark figure in the grasps of a white man, trying each and every way to get to her daughter.

“You let her go now! Please, I tell you she is going to die,” she pleads. Beads of tears stream down her cheeks as she shouts and thrashes. But in the end, still dragged away helplessly by the white man with the straw hat.

“Ruth, my Ruth!” The silhouette bawls and shrieks. That is the last time she lay her eyes on her daughter before a swift strike in the head leaves her unconscious and muted.

 

We sat there in the trees listening to the bluebirds chirping in the distance in mutual delight, and for me, an astute mix of triumph too.

“Ruth,” she said. “That’s your name, look.”

I was admiring the only letters I’ve ever written in my life, a tangible beauty that I held in my hands on a crumpled piece of paper. I looked up at the sky, and saw the sun shining and the wispy clouds floating. I gazed in admiration at the structure of the quill, as I smoothen out the feathers of the quill.           

“Have it,” she retorted, at the sight of my esteem. “Really?” I asked her, to which she replied with a nod, her wide-eyes gesturing me to keep it safe.             

“Remember. We is, forever,” as she spoke, she lifted her hand; gently resting it against her chest, her heart.

“We. Is. Forever” I whispered the words to myself, repeating them one after another. A smile tugged at the corners of my mouth as I felt an astute mix of triumph. Suddenly, the winds retreated, the leaves shushed and bluebirds fluttered away as if escaping from the grasps of something intuitively devilish and evil. We is, forever. It took a moment to finally realize it, leaving my body numbed with fear as I turned and saw Evelyn’s father standing beneath us. The prior sense of achievement I attained for those split moments was crushed already. We is, forever.

           

Ruth wakes to the sound of the rattling of floorboards as she observes her vicinity. She hears laughter and jeers and shouts outside, but can’t seem to figure where she is. The light streams in from the barred hole in the top left corner of the stone wall, illuminating only a sheer panel of the wooden floorboards. The hole is an escape, too, where the rats wander in and out, squeezing their fat bottoms through and through. Her thoughts just do not line up like good soldiers. Swarming afield and fleeing, chasing the blood that drips from her head, staining her shift.

Ruth hears a whimper and realizes that it is her’s, her lips are salty with tears trickling down her face, but it mattered not for she was already dead. It was only a few hours, days perhaps until her heart would stop beating. The floor beneath begins to feel like a part of her body, and her breathing grows heavier and slower. The door barges open, and the noonday sun scalds her eyes, blinding her sick and wretched. Where the dizziness fades gradually, the silhouettes of two men begin to sharpen. They approach her, one grabbing her under the armpits, the other gripping her chains, and hurl her across the cell as if she weighed no more than a hefty sack of potatoes or a full butter churn.

“You think she’ll do good for Monday?” One of the silhouetted men queries.

“I figure,” the other replies patently. “Them white people’d like a little girl like this no matter how bad it gets. All she needs is a little sprucing.”

“How much you reckon we can get off this one?”

“My guess says a fine six hundred, maybe seven but no less,” he chuckles.

And at that, they leave her lying to drown in her waves of depression, leaving her lost in the confusion of misery. Her throat aches and her eyes sting with sweat, each and every breath feels like inhaling fire as she begins to weep in an infinite realm of hopelessness. She sees the leaves of the poplar trees sway in the distance, bidding their goodbyes. There would be no more sunlight, or mulberries, or giggling or laughing or anything of that manner. She wishes she could tear herself from this reality and rise up, to soundlessly and swiftly drift away like the abundant clouds that scatter amongst the horizon of bliss and joy. Or to melt away, submerged into the starry summer’s night and dissolve somewhere so very far far away. Beyond the cotton fields.

But come the time and she’ll soon find herself in a different place alien to her knowledge. Traded away like a lost good in search for a home, a new reality. Her legs lay static like two huge blocks of giant brick concrete, lungs desperate for air. There is no fantasy, but a certainty. A certainty of what she has succumbed to from one small trivial mistake made by two silly little girls who thought their friendship was capable of defying the laws of their uncompromising reality. 



By Shu Min Tan

Yew Chung International School of Shanghai

 

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