Fifteen Lanes - S.J. Laidlaw


What I remember …

I was asleep on the floor under Ma’s bed when I was awakened by the creaking of rusty springs straining under the weight of a heaving mattress. I feared it would break and crush me so I slithered out. This was not allowed. I was never to come out from under the bed until Ma said. I didn’t know why I had to stay quiet, or why I couldn’t sleep in the bed with her at night, like I sometimes did on hot afternoons. My heart pounded as I emerged.

The terror of being caught in the darkened room eclipsed my earlier fear. Too late, I realized the rashness of my disobedience. Without looking, I knew Ma was not alone. The deep grunting of her visitor punctuated her own soft mewling. I scuttled on all fours toward the curtain that separated our small section of the room from the other three occupants. I was not accustomed to seeing it closed, though it didn’t surprise me. Its soft rustle always accompanied the heavy footsteps of her guests. I moved quickly, brushing against clothes that hung from a low peg on the wall next to the bed. They hadn’t been there when I fell asleep. I recognized Ma’s crimson skirt with the gold-sequined border. I resisted the urge to touch it, though the diaphanous fabric held endless fascination. I had no desire to touch the man’s clothes. Their smell of sweat and earth was trapped in the fetid air around the bed.

Only when I reached the curtain did it occur to me to worry about who might be with Deepa-Auntie on the other side. I went cold when I heard an unfamiliar male voice. If it had only been Deepa-Auntie I wouldn’t have hesitated. She was kind, not like the other two aunties who shared our room. Deepa-Auntie gave me sweets and never scolded me. She called me her beautiful baby, though my too-dark skin proved her a liar. Deepa-Auntie couldn’t have babies. That part of her was broken. I liked to pretend she was my real mother. I even called her Ma, but only when my own was not around.

I reached for the edge of the curtain, listening hard to the voices. Deepa-Auntie was using her sex-me voice. That’s what Ma called it when Deepa-Auntie shouted to the men who passed by under our window. I don’t know why Deepa-Auntie’s shouting made Ma angry. She got angrier still when the men came inside and went behind Deepa-Auntie’s curtain. Ma stood in the street, where Deepa-Auntie was not allowed to go, and cajoled the men to come inside. They often did, but when they saw Deepa-Auntie it was her they wanted.

The man with Deepa-Auntie sounded angry. He called her bad names and said he would bring police to arrest her if she didn’t let him do what he wanted. Her voice quavered. No one at Binti-Ma’am’s house talked to the cops. Not ever. Police were wicked, even more wicked than Binti-Ma’am. They arrested mummies and put little girls in cages. Real cages, not like the barred window boxes the aunties sat in at Binti-Ma’am’s, which overlooked the street but were open to the bedroom. Police cages had bars on all sides.

Deepa-Auntie said she’d never let anyone put me in a cage. I asked if she meant a police cage or Binti-Ma’am’s cage. Ma said it made no difference because Deepa-Auntie couldn’t even keep herself out of a cage. Besides, she said, Deepa-Auntie, with her pale-pale skin and slanted eyes, was not “our kind.” I wasn’t sure what our kind was, but when Deepa-Auntie got a beating I was the only one who could make her smile again. Nothing I did made Ma smile, so I thought Deepa-Auntie may not have been Ma’s kind but maybe she was mine.

I held my breath and slid silently under the curtain. I did it so carefully I imagined the curtain barely stirred, but when I glanced up, Deepa-Auntie was looking right at me. Her eyes went wide and her lips pressed together. I think she wanted to say something but only her eyes told me to go back.

Deepa-Auntie wasn’t wearing any clothes; neither was the man who loomed over her. I felt embarrassed. I’d seen Deepa-Auntie without her clothes many times but not like this, never like this.

The man clutched a fistful of her hair and tried to kiss her. Deepa-Auntie’s face twisted away. The man yanked her hair so hard it stretched her neck