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By George Molho
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 George Molho
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSilence Is a Sound
Saturday, January 13, 1979
My wrists were wrapped in strips of sheared towels and bound together by chicken wire. Chill penetrated my aching shoulder blades. I was seven years old, trapped in a basement and already used to pain.
A sturdy belt, looped through the restraints, suspended me from a hook in the ceiling. The towels were meant to stop the wire from cutting into skin. Though the banded loops smarted, they never broke the flesh. My hands hurt, then stung, then felt as if they were on fire. My heartbeat pulsating through the swollen digits followed the dissipation of the sensation of scorching heat. In the end, my hands went numb. The cramps in my calves, joints, and bones were what eventually made me pliable to his will.
Four days had passed since I last hung like meat. Worse than the pain of having my limbs constricted was the itching return of a needlelike sensation. The tight strangulation of blood flow left scabrous impressions on my wrists. It being winter, I would hide the uneven circular marks under mittens.
I was stranded on the peaks of a Greek mountainside in a town called Potamos, "the River," when Menos, my father, the demon, visited. He immobilized me with his sinister aura, standing at the foot of the bed, towering over my incapacitated form, feeding off of my green panic. Menos would rouse my five senses, demanding I be completely lucid to appreciate the fullness of his menace. My father would affectionately wake me by stroking my temple and my cheeks, lowering my natural defenses with sentimental doting. He would awaken me from my dreams of being back home in Houston, from the desire that he would be the father of every boy's dream and that he and my mother, Faith, would be the perfect married couple. He would pry me free from my fantasies and I would sometimes scream. It was the one time that hope was my enemy. It was one of the few times I was thankful for him being him, for him forcing his will on mine. For as good as the dreams felt, they felt equally and more so distasteful because I would awaken to the reality of his prison, of the life he had created for me. Even though I had attempted to change my situation and had at times tried to escape, it was easier to get used to hell instead of hoping that heaven was just around the corner.
He mocked my recitations of the Shepherd's Prayer and refuted my attempts at breaking my bonds. My father beat me, confused me, and altered my perceptions in order to enlist me as a coconspirator in punishing myself mentally. While Menos subdued my body with ferocious strength, he worked his malignancy to pollute my mental sanctuary, turning me loose on myself by attacking my reasoning with simultaneous acts of sensitive silence and passionate thrashes.
As easily as one climbs into bed, I shut the world out and climbed into my head.
He made me love, hate, pity, and scorn him. He made me enjoy loathing him, regret caring for him, and despise myself for pricking his hands with my mental voodoo doll. His questioning madness and perplexing tenderness violated my inner sanctum. It was maddening to simultaneously be on the receiving end of his tender, fatherly caresses to my forehead, kisses to my temple, approving pats to the back, and celebratory statements of pride that I was his son. It was strangling my reasoning because seconds later I would receive the full brunt of his paranoid, insecure rants beseeching me to believe in him and only him, begging me to belittle my family and betray my mother. My refusal to capitulate to his pleas to disavow my mother exposed the depth of his obsession and the fragility of my young body to withstand his bunched up fists and self-bemoaning beatings. I was stronger mentally than I was physically. The more he pressed me to admit that I loved only him and pushed me to loudly declare that I hated my mother, the more I found myself lost. I owned nothing but my will, my heart, and my faith. He had total and absolute control over my physical form.
I had no body and no mind. I had nowhere to hide.
My father's love was like a painting of the sun that he offered me instead of a thick, warm, fluffy coat on an icy-cold, dark winter's day. Although Faith was thousands of miles away, her last kisses kept me toasty warm when my father forced daily ice baths on me, on my naked, frozen flesh.
I held onto the fleeting hope that Faith still loved me, and I survived by remembering Yiayia's vivid stories of captivity and physical torture at the hands of her Gestapo interrogators. My grandmother, like a sparrow that according to legend was at Christ's side throughout the Crucifixion, taught me how to resurrect my disembodied spirit and triumph over long-endured suffering.
Six, eight ... eighteen, twenty ... twenty-two. Twenty-two pickled eggs, I counted in my head. There are three jars for a total of sixty-six eggs. A single dim bulb dangled from a flimsy, taped electrical wire. The winter ruffled the blankets sealing the seam at the base of the back door. The air seeped in, causing the bulb to sway, illuminating the shelves built into the earthen walls.
The room smelled of damp clay. Bunches of roots hung on twine above the butter churn. Six clusters of carrots, several stalks of beets, and eight bundles of celery roots. I inventoried the remaining items. There were crates, boxes, circular pine produce baskets with red plated slats, heavy folded quilts, pieces of leather, a sack of chicken feathers, mason jars filled with spices and herbs, and thick-corded strands of garlic. Hanging onto the fading threads of imagination, I fantasized Faith packing a picnic basket and taking me to where the ducks fed in Hermann Park.
Below the solitary boarded-up cellar window was a maroon barrel stuffed with floating olives, a brasslike rectangular container with olive oil, and a plastic drum three feet high with feta cheese soaking in water. The wiry muscles and tissue along my upper back and shoulders twinged. The picnic fantasy comforted me while I was cold and my feet were swollen and my wrists were sore and my soul screamed in silence.
I numbed the discomfort by counting. I had it down to a science: Menos would check in as I completed my sixth tally. Once, I occupied myself by estimating the number of cracks and knotholes in the ceiling beams. I stopped when the task proved frustrating.
The bottom of the inner door to the house grated against the porous cement steps. Its hinges creaked. Menos timed his appearance. A blast of heat accompanied him from the wood-burning iron stove in the kitchen as he entered the root cellar. I was exhausted. It was hard to breathe. I could no longer bear the weight of my body on the balls of my feet. His eyes brushed across the scale adjacent to the footstool I balanced on. He asked, "Mathamai tipota simera, have we learned anything today?"
Menos repeated the question, "Mathamai tipota simera, have we learned anything today?"
It was a struggle to speak. Before I could answer, he scooped me onto his chest. My lungs relaxed as I rested. I answered, "Not to sneak ... not to steal."
He loosened his grip, and I went into a slump. "Ti eipamai gia englesika, what did we say about English?" Like an acrobat, I held on as best I could, wrapping my spindly legs around his torso.
I was so tired I forgot I was forbidden to think in English, let alone speak it. Only after I replied in Greek did he lift me back up.
At least I gained the freedom to tell the story of that year as I see fit, defying him once again: all he said and did was written in the tongue he so despised.
He kissed my dimple and stated, "You know I do not like this. If I do not prepare you for the world, how are you going to survive life?" Hanging me by the wrists was a tool he used to discipline me for many transgressions, chief among them overeating. The scale had thin strips of red tape marking my achievements of his predefined goals. In the month since he placed me on a strict dietary regimen enforced by the cruelty of his violent punishments, I had lost a considerable amount of weight. For my height and age, I should have been fifty-five pounds. At seven years old, I weighed in at a frail twenty-nine pounds.
Despite my leg grip I sagged; my lungs became heavy as Menos let go. I dangled on the wire while he produced a stack of postcards, letters, and a Snoopy autograph book.
As I balanced on the calluses of my toes, Menos waved the autograph book, snapping it open. "I am going to put this back in the jeep. I am positive you will not touch it again. Am I right?"
"Yes, Baba. I won't. I promise." I would say anything to be released to eat and sleep. He paced a circle around me, divining for my underlying motivations.
I had begun to question everything I thought and everything I said. I had started to question everything I felt and to even doubt right from wrong. Was he right? Was my father right to do what he did for the reasons he proclaimed? There were times when I didn't know if I was simply being stubborn and he really loved me. I didn't know if I should stop resisting and listen to his words and his praise and his endlessly telling me, "I love you. I do this all for you." I didn't know whether to accept his words of love and affection and stop being petulant. I didn't know. So, in the end, however torn I was in my mind, I listened to what his actions made my body feel. I listened to my own howls.
I wheezed, "I have school tomorrow. I'm tired." Reasoning had proven ineffective. Sometimes crying changed his temperament, yet appealing outright because I could not bear the punishments definitely made matters worse. "Baba, please. I'm not bad. I made a mistake. I won't do it again. My arms hurt."
From behind me, he interlaced his fingers across my sternum. "How much I love you. You do not know how much." I strained as he pulled down, stretching my arms out further. "Balance—be strong—balance and force yourself up." My father dragged me down while I pushed upward. His weight was too much. "George, I teach you. If you are not strong, then you are weak. If you are weak, then you cannot love and you lie. Why did you lie to me today? Why do you disobey me?" My father made sure I was not simply on the receiving end of his tortures; he made me an active participant in causing myself agony.
"You know I could have gone to jail. I risked my life for my son. You are my responsibility." He stopped to catch his breath and light a cigarette while my knees wobbled as my toes touched the stool and I labored to inhale. He rambled. "I cry inside for what you make me do. I am not doing this. It is because your mother and that fucking Molho whore of a grandmother of yours spoiled you that we work to fix you."
I felt anger at his cursing my grandmother. For the first time in a long time I felt something other than pain or depression; I felt angry, alive, and hopeful. When he walked around the front, I attempted to kick him. "I'm sorry. I did not mean it. I want to hold you, Baba."
Menos was a deranged bird. He did not strike back. Instead, he placed my legs back on the footstool. Smelling the black-eyed peas cooking in vinegar and garlic, I ignored him. As I yelled for his mother—"Yiayia!"—my father's features became draped with a hood of contempt. I cowered as he stalked within inches of my nose.
I don't know if it would have made a difference had I been quiet. Perhaps he would have released me sooner. Making simple choices like whether I should call out, fight back, resist, or explain to someone what I suffered was what slowly ate away at my cohesion. Questioning his every action and my every response drove a splinter through my mind.
I wrapped my legs around his torso as he nestled me against his chest. "Why do you call for Yiayia? She is sleeping." The hanging bulb produced a ting as he tapped a fingernail against it. "I do not think you understand me. I am your father. Do not fear me. You don't need anyone but me." He kissed my eyes, which was bad luck according to my grandmother back home. You kiss the eyes of the dead and the infirm. He kissed my eyes, my nose, and snuggled his brow against the ridges of cold sweat dimpling my forehead. "I will leave the door open. It's cold in here. I'll be back. Give me a kiss."
As my father enfolded himself around me, he acted like he was struggling to break free from my leg hold. He instructed, "Don't let go, don't let go!" Menos rocked mockingly from side to side. "Show me how much you need me. Don't let go. Show me." It was a theatrical farce. He teased me, hunching his shoulders while tugging on the dark circle under his left eye, exaggerating his sadness. "I do not believe you love your father like he does you."
My father's dramatic composure changed in an instant. His sour demeanor engendered an aura of despair. "No! You have not learned. You do not fight for me like my son should." He shoved away, and my chin slumped into my collarbone. Even though we were nose to nose, I felt like a worm staring up at him from a pit in the earth. My father, the Crocodile, croaked, "Twenty minutes more." Before exiting, he steadied my feet on the stool.
Later in bed, I would hear him profess that I had not cared enough in the basement, that I had been too weak of character to maintain a hold on him. That I had not loved him enough to hold on. He'd whisper insanities till his presence became fixed in my nightmares.
I was not being chastised for being fat. I had been snooping around, imagining myself as one of my plastic green soldiers aiming a bazooka. After I milked the cow, sprinkled feed on the ground for the chickens, and checked for eggs, I ransacked the toolshed as an invading army of one. Underneath the back seat of the broken jeep in the shed, I found a box. Inside were letters, postcards, and the autograph book with Snoopy resting on his red doghouse and Woodstock bouncing on his belly. They were from my mother. I hummed with excitement. She had not forgotten me.
Instead of tallying the inventory in the cellar while I awaited his return, I revisited the messages that I could recall in my head. I imagined unfolding the intricately designed individual notes in the dense book. The notes were folded into complicated forms: there were triangles, double triangles, diamonds, octagons, hexagons, and helixes. Since he caught me before I could memorize all of them, I remembered only a few. My mother's was the first. As if in a daze, I saw the spiraling helix unwind, and in the center of the paper was a treasure—four lines of text consisting of eleven words:
I love you. We love you. You'll be home soon.
Next was my second grade teacher's fancy pyramid.
George, we miss you. The entire assembly prays for you at morning services every day. Our Lord Jesus Christ will not allow harm to befall one of his lambs. Soon you will be with us again. I keep you next to my heart, wearing the silver dove you gave me for my birthday. The whole class misses you, and we placed your chair on top of your desk. No one is allowed to sit in it. I have a special gift for you when you return. As it snowed in Houston, there is a snowball waiting for you in the freezer.
Always, Mrs. Boldt
I had a crush on Mrs. Boldt. The memory of her was a calming presence to my tattered spirit as I hung in the basement. She reminded me of the Valkyries in one of my favorite comic book series, Asterix and Obelix. It was comforting to know that I was being covered on both sides of the aisle by Papou's petitions in the Jewish Temple and the school's requests to Christ. If all else failed, I was hopeful that Jesus would listen to my principal, Mr. Cunningham. It couldn't hurt having an in with the Son of God since Mr. Cunningham always said he worked for Christ in teaching his students.
The next note I dwelled on was Conan Glickman's octagon.
When are you coming back, George? I hope it is soon. My dad promised to teach us how to scuba dive in the pool.
The rest were from classmates like Jason Brewster, who asked what it was like where I was. Each note varied in shape and content according to the individual. Some were scrawled in pencil, some were block-printed in blue ink, and some merely had a sticker pasted next to a signature. Even my principal penned his reflections:
I await the return of my young lion. Dum Spiro Spero, Dum Spero Spiro.
Mr. William Cunningham Headmaster
Excerpted from Scarred by George Molho Copyright © 2010 by George Molho. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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