Belgium, November 1973
“He screamed,” I confess to a young man with blonde hair named Patrick who has been taking me to private rooms as perpetrators would, except that he doesn’t touch me.
Lying on a bed next to Patrick, I remember the little boy with short-cropped blond hair and high-pitched voice. The four or five times I’d seen him I’d felt protective, as if he were my real little brother. He was maybe seven, a bit slow, and I was nine. It was about a year and a half ago. My face is buried in a pillow to shut out the light of a side table lamp, hiding tears. Heavy rain clobbers the windowpanes of the round castle tower. Patrick steadily caresses my back and asks me to confide in him. I don’t understand why he wants to know. I don’t really want to remember, but as I do, and as I cry, I feel warm and good, as if it’s finally okay to be me.
“He screamed. And that made things worse,” I explain.
“How so?” Patrick asks.
I go deeper to answer:
“The adults around him, the ones that were going at him, they couldn’t stand to hear his screams. He was so little. He had a piercing voice. The sound made the men crazy. And then they would go at him more. More brutally.”
Patrick briefly touches my wet cheek, which communicates to me that he is aware that I’m crying, and I take it to mean that it is also okay for me to be sad.
“Why were you there?” he asks, as though we were having two conversations simultaneously, one with and one without words.
I see the boy again, strapped down, from a distance, but I lifted my head because I was being held down myself. Why was that? I suddenly remember.
“What?” Patrick puts his face level to mine to gaze intently into my eyes.
I turn my head away, too ashamed. Nor can I continue talking about what happened. I felt that I had switched sides. When the boy had screamed again, and then again, I felt the unbearable excitement and irritation of the men, and I too had felt the impulse to silence the cries, no matter how. I turn to Patrick, dry-eyed, silent. With a look and a nod he indicates that he understands. Again, it comes as a relief not to have to continue answering questions. I have the strange sensation of being able to be free with this young man.
“I swore then that I would never scream,” I disclose.
“You’ve never screamed?” Patrick asks, acutely interested.
“O no, I did,” I remember. “Once. It was with Pépé.”
Pépé is the nickname for the godfather of the network, the cabinet minister who runs the country’s politics like a true mafia boss.
As soon as I mention Pépé I sense a sharp, almost tense interest from Patrick. This makes me curious: I would like to know who Patrick is. Why does he, at his young age, elicit almost as much respect as Pépé himself? I continue:
“He took me to a dingy little room. It was the first and only time I was alone with him. I undressed, and when I thought he was going to do the same, he cuffed me in the face, really, really hard. I’d not seen it coming, my skin stung wildly, but I didn’t show a reaction. When I looked at him, his eyes were twinkling, like we were about to play a game, or a match. The thought came to me: I’m stronger than him. He hit me again, this time in my stomach, with his fist, but I didn’t even feel it; I was prepared. Then he went for my head, but for some reason that’s the body part I’m least worried about.”
Patrick interjects: “Which part are you most worried about?”
“I don’t know,” I reply.
“People say it’s the Achilles’ heel,” he suggests, “but that’s not really it. You know the most vulnerable spot on your body? The backs of your knees,” he states. “That’s what you really want to watch out for.”
Patrick pulls up the right leg of his jeans and shows a bulging scar on the back of his knee. I want to ask him how he got it, how he got his limp, but he pulls his pant leg down, smiles and shakes his head. I continue:
“So he kept on going, hitting harder and harder, all over. Then he picked me up and threw me through the room. My left side hit the wall. Throughout most of this, we were looking at each other, me thinking I’m stronger than him, and he figuring I’m going to break down and scream, but I didn’t. The bruises started showing, my whole left side hurt and my body was starting to get tired, but my spirit was wide awake. It gave me such pleasure to hold out against him...”
I want to say ‘one of the most powerful men in the country,’ but I realize I don’t know if I can safely give up the secret of my private game. Patrick was listening with great interest to what I was telling him, clearly unfazed by the violence I described.
He slowly caresses my head. His sad eyes seem to say that he understands me so deeply, it hurts him that I don’t trust him more, which makes me feel slightly guilty and prompts me to continue:
“Then Pépé said: ‘Just get your clothes and get out of here. You’re so dead there’s nothing to be done with you.’ When he said that, he got to me. I felt terrible when I gathered my clothes, afraid that I’m dead.”
“He’s weak,” Patrick says pensively.
Patrick’s remark sounded like a note to himself, but he broke the unspoken network rule number one: Never Challenge The Absolute Power Of The Bosses (Not Even In Thought). His comment is of the highest order of rebellion and I instantly trust him because of it. Suddenly, I feel more whole, more alive when I speak:
“The next time my mother brought me over to a villa and the door was opened by Pépé’s right-hand-man Jean I believe is his name, but it may be Jean-something. Pépé was waiting inside. They led me to the basement. It was light in there because there were arched windows below the ceiling and it was a sunny day. Jean carried a carton. They looked for a spot and found a half full coal cellar, a deep narrow space with three walls, so they can look in, but I’m trapped. Then Jean cuts the box open, but he makes sure it stays shut. Now I’ve been scared the whole day: first my mother keeps me home from school - that’s never good - then realizing it’s just Jean and Pépé. I was already shaking when we went down the stairs to the cellar, but now I’m shut in there with Jean and this box, blocking the doorway, and I think whatever’s in there is going to kill me. I’m being killed because I didn’t scream for Pépé.”
I am overcome with the realization that once again I am revealing something that I would rather never have remembered. Maybe I don’t have to go on. Maybe I’ll just stop talking and think about something else now, I think.
I sit cross-legged on the bed, and Patrick, who’s lying on his back, lays his hand on my knee. Whereas I am very used to being touched sexually, my mother never touches me. Gentle comfort is in no way part of my experience. Patrick’s small gesture seems enormous - as if it were the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me, like a sign that someone cares. I instantly feel a comforting warmth in my chest, and as I feel this, I am more aware of my vulnerability.
My thoughts run rampant: I like to believe that I’m tough, that I can play the game and win, but what is that but a buffer against the truth? If I were in touch with the truth, could I live?
“What was it?” Patrick asks.
“Bugs,” I whisper.
I see once again how Jean nervously held the box out, opened the flaps quickly with one hand and then threw it at me, so a swarm of shiny black beetles landed on me and all around, biting, pinching everywhere.
“Were they biting insects?” Patrick asks with dry, scientific curiosity, which pulls me out of the gruesome past in the dirty coal cellar.
I nod, and breathe. As Patrick sits up to continue his businesslike inquiry, I proceed to describe the bugs, and he infers that they must have been female stag beetles, with smaller claws than the males but a more painful bite.
“Was he satisfied?” Patrick asks, averting his gaze.
“I don’t think completely,” I reply. “ He did laugh, but after the initial shock I crouched down and went into another state. I felt the bugs crawl on my body and in my hair and I felt them bite, but it dawned on me that they were just natural creatures taken out of their environment, and that they were scared, like me, and not monsters...”
There is something I need to add that’s an intrinsic part of the awareness that got me through my ordeal, and I would tell Patrick, but I don’t feel that free.
“He was the monster!” Patrick says in a ringing voice and a knowing smile.
I remember how the beetles dissipated, disappeared into the stack of coals and onto the cement walls and out the doorway. I got up, still in this state of extreme lucidity that made me calm and at peace with my conditions. It even seemed to affect the bugs; they seemed less aggressive, though maybe I didn’t experience their bites in the same way. Pépé and Jean were gone. I pulled the last beetles out of my hair, brushed them off my body, and, covered in soot and small bloody marks in the shape of arrow points, I climbed back up the stairwell to go find my clothes and wait for my mother.
As the memory of the insects begins to fade, the clarity of mind I had during the experience is transported to the present. Looking into Patrick’s clear blue eyes, I see something shifty in them.
What’s he hiding? I think.
The awareness hits me that I know nothing about his life. I still don’t know why he wants to hear about my experiences in the network. He seems to read my mind... I feel men’s thoughts so that I can respond to what they want, but Patrick doesn’t need me for his survival.
Why is he attuned to me? What does he need from me?
Patrick’s stare intensifies, and the crystal of his irises darkens to a midnight blue. A ferocious feline is revealed, sitting intently still as it watches, relishes its prey before the kill. Death has hung over my head often enough, and I never cared. Today Patrick has kindled the hope that love exists; life seems worth something. The shudder that runs along my spine seems acutely linked to life energy; never have I been so afraid.
Patrick leans over and whispers in my ear:
“I love you.”