– Hey Princess! Got a problem?
She stops dead in her tracks. She could feign indifference or pretend she hadn’t heard. She could keep on moving, hang her head even lower, fade into the decor, walk straight ahead without looking back, melt into the sidewalk, imagine she doesn’t exist, or has become invisible. But she knows it’s too late. And there’s no way of escaping what’s about to happen. She’s seen them play predators before, waiting for a lonesome prey to cross their territory.
– Hey! We’re talking to you Princess! We know you’re not smart… But it’s not polite to ignore us… D’you wanna play with my marbles Anne?
Her very insignificance usually protects her. Prey must be scarce if as trivial a being as herself can stimulate their appetite. Perhaps their animal instinct can sense how she’s changing. That slow evolution, barely perceptible to begin with. The oversized second-hand clothes she trims down to her size. The attention she devotes to her look. Her hair she straightens every day, before dawn, while everyone else is still asleep. The way she holds herself. These gestures that belong to her princess dreams. Princess… That’s what they called her. How do they know? She had told no-one her secret.
She can sense the four boys closing in on her. She doesn’t need to see their faces to guess who they are. That voice. She recognized it immediately. Mark’s. The head of the gang’s. All it took was a word from him to remind her of his sharp canines, his banter and endless jokes. As for the other boys, she knows them. They’re in her class too. They’re the followers. She can see their legs moving in her direction and then stopping, distant enough for her not to feel the urge to react, but close enough to stop her from escaping. She takes a step backwards. Their legs follow. Mark is standing behind her. By now, everyone has left school. She tries to recall all the possible exits. But there are none. A row of hedges between her and the school windows. The school wall is opposite, too far to reach, and she can’t be seen from the road because of the angle of the school gate. The noise from the town would cover a yell, a cry for help. It’s the ideal trap. She lets go of her schoolbag, takes a few steps backwards. The boys’ legs do the same.
She makes a run for it, kicking the kneecap of the boy closest to her. He howls in pain. She pushes him over, and runs towards the gate. More agile than the others, Mark manages to overtake her and bars her way. She’s not going to manage to climb over the wall. She dives into the bush, unaware of the branches lacerating her face and legs as she crawls through them. She tries going faster, breathing heavily, her thoughts confused. She imagines she can turn around, face the boys, show her nails, fight with all her strength, hit at random, rip their skin into shreds, but she just continues to crawl as fast as she can. Until she reaches the wall. There’s no going further. She turns round. Two of the boys are following close behind. Their heavy breathing mingles. All she can hear is her heart beating against her chest, about to explode. She’s trapped. Then she sees Mark and another boy towering above her. How did they manage to get up there so fast? There’s no time for an answer. The two boys unzip their trousers, pull out their penis and let out a thread of hot and tacky urine. Their gesture’s so unexpected, she doesn’t react. The piss reaches her face, soaks her hair, streams down the nape of her neck, wetting her dress and leaving behind it a strong pungent smell. Without a word, the boys disappear. She doesn’t move.
It takes her hours to come to her senses. The rancid stench from her clothes and her body bring everything back. She’s got to move, get out of here. She imagines she’s covered in petrol and catches fire. She’d prefer that to humiliation. She takes a cautious step forward, then a second. Staying close to the wall, she manages to reach the school gate. She returns to where she had been standing to fetch her schoolbag; its contents are scattered all over the ground. She picks her stuff up, and walks in a daze towards the city centre.
Her father suddenly appears on the other side of the street. Her mind jolts. She watches him cross the road with the usual angry expression on his face. Images begin to collide at top speed, drawing her out of the stupor she was feeling only seconds before. A car arrives from the right. Her father ignores it, and makes no move to avoid it. His eyes are set on her. From where she’s standing, she can see the car, and her father, the two meeting, the front bumper hitting his knee, breaking it clean, his body folding in two, his head crashing against the hood, hideously twisted by the shock, his body bouncing back off, a mass of lifeless disarticulated members landing violently on the street.
She shuts her eyes. Opens them again a fraction of a second later, and watches the car pass behind her father. A few more strides, and he’s on her.
– What the fuck are you doing? I’ve been waiting for you for over fifteen minutes!
Without waiting for an answer, he grabs her tightly under the armpit making her cry out in pain. Then he drags her to the car, almost dislocating her shoulder with every step, shoves the child inside and slams the door shut. He then rushes round to the front of the vehicle, opens the driver’s door and sits brusquely behind the wheel. She stays crouched in the back as he had thrown her, rubbing her sore shoulder. He switches the radio on. A mid-day music fills the car.
Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto.
Me ha dado el oido que en todo su ancho…
Reaching for a cigarette, he sniffs, smells his clothes and turns to his daughter.
Is that stench, you? What’s that smell? Piss?
She doesn’t look up.
– Hey, I’m talking to you! Did you piss on yourself for chrissake?
It’s pointless answering. She can tell by the tone of his voice. And anyway, he’s already decided for himself. His hand comes flying into the back hitting her on the jaw. He grabs her hair, and heaves her towards him.
– You pissed on yourself, even over your hair… Jesus Christ! What the fuck is this? What’s your problem? Some kind of mental bedwetting in that tiny shithead of yours? D’you piss from your head now, or are you just sweating urine!?
He loses control, starts to howl, then screams, his voice covering the music in the background.
Me dia il corazon que agita su marco…
Then, as though taken by his own voice, he suddenly starts to laugh.
– She pisses from her head now…
He lights a cigarette and swings his car into the traffic. For a brief moment, the road catches his attention and the smoke smothers the smell of uric acid. He drives nervously, loses his temper, swears, bangs his hands down on the wheel, threatens drivers, shifts gear abruptly, makes the tyres screech, accelerates fast, hoots continuously, gives the finger, lets red hot ash fall on his lap, puts it out swearing. She watches him out of the corner of her eye, following his every move, so intent on avoiding any exchange that all she can hear is her own breathing as she concentrates on slowing down her heartbeat as she has taught herself to do. Outside, she recognizes the city suburbs’ wasteland. The car slows down. Her father opens the window, flings out his cigarette stub, and exclaims
– Jesus it stinks here! I can hardly breathe!
Lifting himself out of his seat, holding the wheel with one hand he thrusts the other past his daughter, reaches for the handle and opens the passenger door. He then sits back, lifts his foot, presses it against his daughter’s hip and kicks her violently. Her small body shoots out of the vehicle.
Five seconds. That’s all it took. The girl’s body rolls over on the dust track, as the soil rips open the skin on her arms and legs. She hears a door close and the car accelerate. She gets up. Not a tear on her cheeks.
[from « Elle portait un manteau rouge », translation Vivienne Baillie Gerritsen]