As I lie on the damp grass looking up through the tall trees at the blinding white sky, I think of the Boswell twins. I lift my head up and look down at my feet. Dirty from a day’s play, I think, Mama’s gonna kill me. My white dress is stained with brown and deep red patches. A large aching cut runs along the side of my right leg. I reach down with my pinky finger and pick at it with my nail.
My mother’s voice is high-pitched and worried-sounding, but strong. It bellows over the tops of the talking trees, which shake and quiver for me in the late evening breeze. I fear that if Mama finds me lying on the dirty ground she will whip me three times more than usual.
“Betsy, get in this house, now!”
I would get up to leave, but I feel as if I am stuck on the muddy damp ground. It is pulling me in; telling me not to go. Betsy, don’t leave. We’ll shelter you plenty, the trees say. “I have to go,” I whisper, “Mama’s gonna get madder if I don’t go right now.”
At dinner, Papa grunts and slurps on his soup, something I find so disgusting. Mama is standing by the stove, and I can see the steam come up in front of her face as she leans over the large soup pot. Her long brown hair is tied up in a tight bun. Me, my younger brothers, Randy and Jackie, and my younger sister, Elsie, sit on either side of Papa.
“Betsy Jean, why were you so late coming up here?” asks Papa.
“I had to run outside to the wash room and put my overalls in the laundry,” I lie.
“Mama said she saw you wearing your pretty white church dress today. Is that true?”
“Yessir, but I took it off before I went out and played today, sir.”
“Mm, hmm. Don’t wear that nice dress to play with them Boswell boys. If you want to play with the boys, you wear old pants and a tee shirt. Understand me?”
“Betsy Jean gon’ around the back of the fence today, Papa, she went with Billy Boswell,” Randy says.
Papa sets his spoon down immediately; it hits the edge of the metal table with a loud clink. “What’s this now?”
“Papa, it was to play skip rocks,” I lie again. We were going behind the fence to the creek to play, and Randy must have seen us sneak away from the others.
“Betsy Jean, I know you did not go behind those trees to fool around with Billy Boswell,” says Mama.
“No Mama, it wasn’t like that.” Another lie.
“Mama, we saw Betsy Jean and ol’ Billy Boswell sneak behind that fence! We’re not suppos’d to do that!”
“Randy, quiet down. Betsy Jean, don’t you lie to me.” Mama takes off her oven mitts and turns around to face all of us. Elsie begins to cry. Papa gets up, the table lifting as he stands, and goes over to pick up Elsie.
“I know you did it now, girl,” he says, sneering. “Margareen, take care of her.”
“Randy, Jackie, get out of here,” Mama says loudly; her voice shakes the pans she stands under.
Randy gets up from the table and grabs Jackie’s hand to lead him away too. Jackie looks at me with pain in his eyes. Had he seen? I ask myself. “Betsy’s gon’ get in big trouble!” Randy taunts me, and scoots out of the room with Jackie in tow. For being two years apart from each other, Randy always acts like the younger, more foolish brother, instead of acting like a mature young man. My mother wants all of us kids to act like young men and women because she believes in Southern proper charm.
Papa walks into the living room with Elsie in his arms, where he lays her in her crib. I watch as he rocks the crib back and forth, cooing at her, trying to get her to stop wailing.
Mama shuts the eating room door, and Papa and Elsie go out of view. At last I am left with her; she looks at me with troubled eyes. “Betsy Jean, what were you doin’ back behind that fence today? You know Papa and I built it so you and your brothers and sister wouldn’t play behind it in that damn forest. It’s dangerous back there.”
“I’m sorry, Mama. It’s just that Billy said he had a game for him and me to play. A game for just us two.”
Billy had told me that he liked me before we went back behind Mama and Papa’s fence. I don’t really like him back, but since he’s the oldest Boswell, and the oldest of all our friends, I thought I was somethin’ special.
“That is not appropriate for you to be goin’ back there; not for nothin’ and not for no one! You could get hurt on them rocks!” Mama scolds me.
I look down at the ground, but look up, startled when Mama grabs my arms and pulls me toward her. “I bet you got hurt today cause you don’t listen. You are so foolish sometimes Betsy. Let me have a look.” She first looks on my neck, and then she turns over my arms, and then looks at my shoulders. She pulls up my pajama top and looks at my chest and stomach. “For a little girl of ten you should be acting like a little woman.” She then forcefully lifts me up onto my chair at the table and begins carefully removing my pajama bottoms.
“Mama, no!” I realized after I’d said it that it wasn’t a good idea.
“What you mean, child! Don’t be afraid, I’m your mother for God sakes.”
After Mama says this, her eyes widen, and her dark brow furrows. I am covering my privates. “Betsy Jean, I—“
“Mama, Billy Boswell don’ hurt me down here. He said we was gon’ play a game of ‘Man and Wife.’ He said I was his wife, and he was gonna teach me a lesson. Before I could figure out what was goin’ on, he grabbed me and kissed me, and then he pushed me down on them hard rocks on the bank. I cut my right leg, see?” I finish pulling off my pants, and point to the dirty, dark reddish-brown scar. “I slipped and scraped my leg on them rocks, then he got down on me, Mama.” I start crying. “Billy touched me, Mama. He touched my private parts, then my legs and he pulled my hair. I was bleedin’ from my leg and he didn’ do nothin,’ he kep touchin’ me everywhere. I told him to stop, but he covered my mouth. My dress was all torn up ‘cause he wrecked it. Don’ let Papa kill me over it, please don’t!”
“Oh, Betsy Jean. Oh, my baby. I’m so sorry baby, I’m so sorry. Papa ain’ gonna get mad at you, I promise.” Her stern face is relaxed, and the marks in her old skin from where her wrinkles go are filled with wetness. Her expression is soft and hurting for me, then it changes. She stands up from where she is kneeling in front of my chair. “Lord better have mercy on them Boswells,” she yells, “Robert, get me your rifle!”
Papa quickly walks through the living-room door. “Quiet, Margareen! Elsie’s finally gon’ to sleep. What you yellin’ about my rifle!”
“Robert, them Boswell Boys gotta pay for what they done to my daughter, and Genise Boswell is gon’ pay for treatin’ me and my family like dirt all these years! This is the last straw! That damn shotgun’s still in our closet, right?” Mama doesn’t even wait for his answer. She storms past him with all her might, and stomps into their bedroom.
“Margareen, please. Tell me what’s goin’ on. You can’t just go over to her house in the middle of the night.”
“Watch me, Robert. Just watch me.”
The thought of my Mama sticking up for me like this is something that I have never gotten the chance to think about. I watch her in utter shock as she puts on her red raincoat and her dark brown galoshes, Papa’s rifle in hand. In Louisiana, none of us who live here ever leave our doors locked, and I know very well that the Boswells are sitting at their dinner table right now, just like we had been a short half hour ago.
She doesn’t say anything as she walks out of our house. It is 8:30 p.m., and the sky is completely dark, but there is the creamy, round glow of the full moon off to the left of our open doorway. A gush of chilly, late August air sneaks its way in as the screen door swings shut behind Mama.
Papa, Randy, Jackie and I sit at the table with our heads down, looking like shameful dogs. I think Papa a coward for a little bit. He just sits here and waits. We had heard Mama knock on their door, Mrs. Boswell’s mean voice as she opened it, and that was it. I finally can’t take this silence. I get up from the table, put on my own coat and tell Papa I am going out in the yard.
“Girl, where you think you’re goin’? Sit back down here and wait for your Mama.”
“Papa, I would like to go outside,” I say coldly.
He looks at me in surprise, his black and gray hair matted down with sweat, and I notice his ears are beet red. His ears always turn beet red when he’s scared and confused at the same time. I know he is shocked that I don’t refer to him with the normal respect that he had wanted me to.
“All right, go,” he says. “You women got the best of me tonight I’ll tell ya.”
As I wander outside, I think again about the Boswell twins and the talking trees. That’s what I call the forest, the forest of the talking trees. They had witnessed Billy hurting me earlier today. The trees are my comfort when I can’t talk to Mama or Papa, and Randy, Jackie and Elsie are too young to understand my feelings. The trees had wept when I wept, and screamed when I screamed. I had lain down amongst their bristles and leaves on the forest floor. They had comforted me after Billy had left me alone, and after I had realized that Randy, Jackie and the others, including Jimmy Boswell, had gone back to their houses.
I put on my glasses and look in through the Boswell’s front window. They don’t have enough money for curtains, so everything is out in the open. Mama and Mrs. Boswell are in the Boswell’s kitchen, and Billy is in their back doorway, staring at Mama; he looks scared of her with Papa’s rifle under her arm. A round, wet spot has formed on his pants. What a coward, I think. Mama is yelling at Mrs. Boswell; I can hear her strong, high-pitched voice through the cheap, thin glass. Mrs. Boswell has her arms crossed, and her face is red. Every time she tries to get a word in, Mama points a warning finger at her face. I know Mama is telling her that she will not call the police.
Billy looks past his mother and Mama, and spots me. His eyes widen and he mouths “what the hell.” The wind blows my hair out of my face, and I hear the talking trees once again. He deserves much worse than this, they say, you and your Mama will be close for the first time. You are stronger than Billy. You are stronger than these men in your life.
“Yes,” I answer them, “Yes, I am.”
Billy watches me intently. I walk toward the window, but Mama and Mrs. Boswell don’t notice I am there. I lift up my hand, and raise my middle finger at Billy, a trick I learned from Mama, in secret. Billy stares at me with his mouth wide open now; his head is hanging forward. I smirk at him, and for the first time all day, I am not afraid of this 12-year-old wimp.