Daphne by Dasha Maiorova
Content Warning: Sexual assault and violence.
she should have just gone along with it
done what we told her
shouldn’t have screamed so next thing there’s a hand over her mouth but that didn’t help any so one of us turned her over and pressed her down like she was a flower in the pages of a book hard to tell who it was whose body who’s
different kind of woman not like ones I knowed never said no
heard her breath go and it was like mine too like she stole it from me
She keeps one eye to the road. The overpass hulked over most of the rest stop, an attempted facsimile of friendlier places, established in cautious optimism of weekenders stopping on their way back north. Tables made from cable reels edged with raw steel, decorated with recycled jars filled with stalks of ornamental cabbage.
By the carapaces of broken-down backpackers’ vans: a polished sandstone square atop a scrubby patch of bark chips. At its base, strewn remnants of plastic flowers warped and shredded by the wind. Once blue. Maybe violet. The only shade to protect the remaining colour is from a grey-trunked tree leaning precipitously away from the garden, from the rest stop, from the woman. Its branches seize at the sky, or threaten to bring it down.
An empty pram stands at the woman’s side.
said to the boys earlier that morning while bumming a durry said let’s find us a woman let’s –
she had her keys between her knuckles her voice all high and uppity when we say what’s the time missus looks down at the silver watch on her tiny wrist like she’s surprised it’s there
you know how the story goes and what they say we did but you don’t know nothing I didn’t tell it all something whispered while the rest of the boys laughed to keep on keep at her and that lady’s skin showed like moonlight the parts we made for ourselves to see but then
On mother’s lap, baby seizes a fistful of banana bread both had not touched so far. Instead of cramming it to her mouth, the child thrusts the offering to the air, searching out empty space the same way she often does with strangers’ faces.
A voice, an echo: Likes to share, doesn’t she? Mother glances around. Only two of them in the lot. Concrete against dark forest, trimmed harshly in recent weeks to prevent deer and roos from bounding into traffic. Pine growths battling eucalypts, churning menthol and needle-acid scent.
Insistent, the child reaches, now toward the bent-over tree. Baby’s face a frown of effort, glimpsing the person she might one day become. Mother hears sniggers, laughter only falsely contained. Baby turns onto her belly and prepares to slide to the ground, prevented at first by mother’s grip on her arms.
She’s gonna get away from you
Mocking in the echo-voice, but also a kind of intoned wonder. Mother releases her daughter. Baby wobbles like a foal. Pushes forward with precarious momentum toward the sandstone block some metres away. She holds on to the cable reel stool as she takes her shuddering steps. The edge, wrapped in burnished steel, looms too near to the soft skull with dandelion-fluff hair. Mother’s breath catches in her mouth. A regular kind of panic.
The voices coax nearer: C’mon baby girl new friends waiting
“Alright, that’s enough.” She tries to keep her words light as she wraps her arms around the baby’s midsection. The child wriggles and squeals, anticipating a game of teasing delight. Realising she is about to be lowered back into the pram, baby throws her head back. Previously cherubic face, bow lips still milk-swollen, twist into a grimace.
The woman feels gazes of invisible strangers on her back as she tries to manoeuvre the child in place. Baby thrashes all the while.
“She’s hungry. Cranky today, aren’t you? Teeth coming through.” Realises she’s spoken aloud to placate those she senses in her midst.
A packet of crackers in the satchel. Distracted, baby turns the disc over in her pudgy hand, pausing in consideration. Then comes the micro-expression in the brow. Her lips quiver and part to reveal the tiny pearl nubs in her gums.
Right beside the mother’s ear: Hey missus you got the time
no you’ll never know the truth how it really went even if I say it the way it happened exactly I’ve never told a lie in my life cross my heart my bones saw how she changed how the parts turned one way to another something of a miracle what we made her with our own hands or did she do it to herself
Meeting her mother’s eye, baby scores the hand gripping at her. Mother stares at the infant with a kind of horror. Though she’s been injured by the child before, it has always been accidental – mistimed nicking at the breast, blind gripping of the hair. Never this calculation.
“Fo’wah,” baby sputters. Her hand claws the air, reaching for the plastic flowers strewn around the sandstone block. Reaching as though she could draw them to her by the force of will alone.
Mother turns her face away from the slitted eyes of the wailing child. Sees the frayed petals. Sees too, the engraved bronze plaque on the stone:
In Loving Memory of N-
Forcibly taken from here.
NEVER TO BE FORGOTTEN
Memorial for a daughter, wife-to-be, one-day-mother. Plastic flowers left in her memory twenty years later, whether by a well-wisher, family member, or fetishist.
Branches in the tree growing beside the block shift though there is no breeze.
“No. Not for touching,” mother murmurs and tries again to capture the child in the pram. Baby bucks into her fiercest arc yet. The woman loses her hold on the little body, which drops on her side, knocking head to concrete. All the sound in the world whooshes out like a vacuum.
because she’s turned down we pinned her like a butterfly she’s turning and we have her at the wrists but she twists and something swells under us she twists splits her wrists into fingers into branches more breakable but you don’t want to break those
every nail clusters into leaves green and slick curves up to a crown laurel above her head no longer a woman nothing left of her for us to break we could burn her down but it’s green wood she’s gone and in her place this tree and we can’t have her like we wanted and our hands are scratched and wasted and empty that’s how they find us with the last human parts of her under our fingernails.
Imperfect symmetry, suspended, unknown. The pain of the child in formless words. Transformative despair. Her reddened face the shape of a scream. And she does scream, so high and piercing she breaks through concrete, sky and forest. The shine of her eyes reflect mother and the grey-trunked tree. Mother sees the limbs in blue irises. The branches are shortening. Branches like a woman’s arms, pleading skyward. Each tree in the forest beyond might be the same – each a woman lost, taken, changed.
Mother scoops up baby and presses her close.
The grey trunk splits and rounds to reveal a woman’s belly, breasts, thighs.
The leaves fall from her hair. The last to emerge are her hands, unbound.