I am eleven years old. I have open blisters on my hands and my knees are hardened shells of blood and dirt. I have been mowing the lawns, pulling weeds, and raking for hours. My body is one pulsating muscle- I am lithe with this servitude coupled with no lunch. This is a typical Saturday, I am slaving after my morning meeting with my step father and my Buddy.
More and more my step father wants me to work instead of wear my nighty. When he says I am growing up and becoming a woman, he looks me up and down like I am a someone he just met and doesn't approve of. I am glad not to have to have to hide the face that I can't help but make whenever I have to use my mouth to play with Buddy. Things are changing- mostly he hates me now. He fills all of my time with chores. Tomorrow I will scrub all of the walls in the house since I didn't do a good job the first time. I never do a good job. There is always a mark here or there and that is an abomination. It is always even dirtier than before I started. How do I manage that? A blow upside the head accompanies his third degree. I will make a horrible wife some day. It is his job to teach me how to do things right the first time. It is his job to teach me what happens to bad wives who don't do good work.
I wonder what other kids are doing. I have heard them talking at school about slumber parties, going swimming, boating, cook-outs. I have swam a lot at the camp we live in in the summers. I have even gone on a boat. I even have a real friend from my grade. She lives with foster parents on her grandparents estate and I am allowed to stay the night sometimes. Of course, if I talk about my real best friend, Buddy, I will never see her again. I am not sure if he means that he will do what he says he will do to my brother and kill her, so I keep my mouth shut. If I get my chores done by nightfall, maybe I can call her up and spend the night again.
I hear voices on the road- they sound like kids my age. They are on bikes and have stopped, as they often do at the pull-off just after our front yard to drink from their water bottles. My throat is a narrowed and dusted path to my lungs. I want water more than to draw air. It is a visceral need that I cannot attend to as I am drowning in breathlessness.
I recognize the girls from school. They are nice to me when they include me in jumping rope. They are patient with the fact that I don't talk much. I sometimes wish they will just be mean so I don't have to wrestle my face out of my hair to look at them. It is hard to use the muscles in my face that make a pseudo-smile. They see me now and wave me over. I look around for my step father. He is always there, even when he isn't. I see him standing by the screen door- out of their sight. He juts his head in their direction and I know my job is to be polite and cheerful while I tell them, in essence, to bug off. I even toss in a lie about how we are getting ready for company and then later a boat ride and a swim if the water is good. They launch their bikes as they wave. He slips back into the house and I wish for things that do not exist for me and let those hopes fly away as fast as they come.
When I am doing chores and my step father leaves to run an errand, I find friends by the pond out back. There are sheep from the neighbors' farm that wander to our pond for water. There is a cow that my brother and I have named Wilber who just had a baby. My best friend, by far, is the fence gate that swings as I saddle it up with an old blanket and use twine to make it my pony. I can feel his spring hair shedding away. I can smell his pepperoni pony smell. I can make him gallop away with me, never to return. He takes me to places where there are no weeds and no wood to stack. He takes me to a still pasture and I lean over to bury my face in his mane as he grazes. I love him. I am at rest and nothing hurts- not even my feelings.
I hear the truck on the road. I move fast to dismount. My rake is nearby and I climb out of the gully as though I have been pulling a wad of grass clippings down into it. I smile at him and tell him I love him as he climbs out of the truck looking suspicious and appraising the lawn. I call him Daddy and give him my sweetest smile, trying to be a baby doll because I know he loved me small. He is temporarily satisfied and I have done his bidding today. He tells me to rake the lawn again, it isn't done right and then walks up the stairs and into the house with his cold Pepsi- the sight of which makes my throat clam p down even harder. The lawn sprawls endlessly before me. It is a field of perfect green grass. It is my master's plantation, big as the world. I set my bloodstained rake to earth and leave my pony to pasture.