I was seventeen years old. I was an ordinary girl. I had chestnut hair and eyes, an oval face, a perky nose with a spot on the tip and lips that seemed to be always smiling. One time I was told I was almost pretty. As to my body, it was nothing special: medium height, small chest, round butt.
I will never come to understand why I was the chosen one.
The day dawned cloudy, but a warm wind swept the clouds away until the sky cleared completely. The sun seemed to have been accumulating energy, casting more and more rays of light on the land. At 10 a.m., I stepped into school for my last day of classes.
It looked like there was a party in the gardens, with groups of pupils in uproar, couples underneath the trees and kids running everywhere. I wanted to enjoy that happiness as well, but something kept me from doing so: my English test had gone badly and I would probably fail.
I arrived next to my two friends, Clara and Maria. They were texting, standing at a distance from the hustle.
“Hey, how did the test go?” I asked.
Only Clara looked at me, surprised with the absurd question.
“What test? The English one? Oh Ana, forget about it!”
At that moment, Maria pushes the screen of her cellphone in front of my face.
“Look, this is my boyfriend in the shower.”
“Wow!” Clara cried out loud.
And, as both seemed to have forgotten my presence, comparing their boyfriends’ selfies, I left. To get away from the noise and the mess, I entered the building. Walking down the empty hallways, I started to think over my English test again. Had I interpreted the poem of John Keats, Why did I laugh tonight? No voice will tell, correctly? Does the poet really defend that death is the greatest reward of life? Or…
I was absorbed by this thought when he appeared. “Ana,” I heard behind me. I turned around and found Mr. Joe Harper, the dreaded English teacher. As always, he wore a dark suit with a white shirt. He was shaved, his hair was pulled back and his grey eyes were stuck on me.
“We have to talk about your test. I need you to clarify some answers for me…but only if you want to improve your grade, obviously.”
“Of course, Mr. Harper. Do you want me to come to your office?”
It was then that he moved closer and placed his hand on my shoulder. He was smiling, which was something he did very rarely.
“No, I have to leave now. Look, tomorrow, at 3 p.m., go to my house and there we’ll be able to go over your test better. You know where it is, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do, but…am I not going to bother you?”
“We’ve known each other for two years now. We are old friends, Ana. Don’t miss it.”
And he left.
I went home thrilled and started to study strait away.
Mr. Harper lived in a sparsely populated area. It was an old brick house with two floors and an attached garage. The gate was open and I walked in, went up a cement ramp and rang the bell. He opened the door straight away. He was wearing very different clothes compared to the suits he usually wore to class. He hadn’t shaved and his hair was tangled. He was wearing slippers. I had never seen him like that. And, for the first time, I caught his scent: a sickening mixture of perfume and sweat.
He looked overjoyed by my arrival. His pupils were dilated.
“Ana…, that dress looks really good on you. Come in, come in,” he said, placing his hand on my shoulder again.
I forced a smile.
“Good afternoon Mr. Harper…”
Then, without taking his hand off me, he guided me through a hall and into a living room with a table and two chairs. It smelled of mold. The wallpaper was stained. A spider web hung from the ceiling.
“Sit down, my dear,” he said. His tone of voice was unsettling.
“As to my English test, Mr. Harper…”
“Slow down, first we’re going to have some tea. This is how we receive the people we like. You like tea, don’t you, Ana?”
I felt like saying no and that I never had tea, or coffee, but I didn’t have courage to refuse the offer. I worried he might take offense and order me to leave without going over my test. So when he appeared with two blue teacups on a bamboo tray, I accepted the one he offered me.
His hand trembled when he placed it in front of me.
“It’s an Indian herbal infusion. It has antioxidants, it’s good for your health. And it already has sugar. Drink Ana, drink,” he said, while taking gulps from his teacup.
Without knowing exactly how to proceed, I imitated him, sipping that warm and nauseating liquid until my teacup was empty.
It was then that he started to slide his gaze over my body, putting his tongue out and making strange sounds. It wanted to leave, hit him with the teacup and run out of there. But when I tried to get up from my chair, no muscles obeyed me. My vision began to blur, I felt my eyelids closing and I let my neck fall. The last thing I heard was “You’re dreaming, this is a dream.” And I don’t remember anything else.
When I woke up, I was lying in a bed. Everything hurt, from my head to my feet. I heard a humming in my ears. My mouth was dry. With great effort, I got up. I took some stumbling steps without yet knowing what I was doing there, when I felt something running down my left thigh. I put my hand on my leg, brought it close to my eyes and saw that it was blood. Only then did I understand what he had done to me.
At that moment, he appeared in the doorway. His hair was wet and he was wearing a robe. I backed into the wall, shaking from head to toe. He spoke as if he was teaching me a lesson.
“Ana, this is our secret. You will not tell anyone because they would not believe you. I am an important man and you are nothing. Besides, I used a condom and there is no evidence that might incriminate me. You can never prove that this happened. And even if someone were to believe your story, I’d say it was you who came here to offer me sex for a good grade. Which is nonetheless true, isn’t it?” His speech was quickening, raising in anger. “You wanted it, didn’t you?” He started shouting. “Confess, my little bitch, confesses that you liked it!” He calmed down and return to a normal voice. “Ana, if you speak up you will only destroy your life and your family. So, do as the other girls did: be smart and stay silent.”
When I got home, my mother was waiting for me, furious.
“Where were you? Look at that face, you were with a boy, were you not? I bet you were drinking or smoking drugs. We almost kill ourselves working, to make sure you have a good future, and you want to destroy your life? Go to your room right now! We’ll continue this talk tomorrow.”
I wasn’t capable of saying anything, not even coming up with an excuse. My father was in the TV room and ignored us—he never intervened in our quarrels. I walked down the hall without greeting him and locked myself in the bedroom. I thought I was going to cry, but instead I let myself fall on the bed and lay looking at the ceiling as if I were still drugged.
Only when they went to bed could I get into the shower. There, I grabbed soap and scrubbed myself nonstop. Even if it took pulling out my skin, I had to get rid of that sickening smell and some kind of saliva that felt glued to my body.
Mr. Harper knew what he was doing: I wasn’t able to tell anyone, not even Clara and Maria. It was so shameful, so filthy, that there were no words to describe it—despite not remembering anything that happened. Perhaps it was that ignorance from what he had really done to me, from the vile details that I could only imagine, that prevented me from telling someone. Telling someone else would be like being abused all over again. So I stayed silent and kept inside that unknown monster that had started to devour me.
I left the house as little as possible, turned my cellphone off and avoided social media. I stopped bathing, stopped getting my hair done and matching my clothes. I only ate enough to survive. At night I had insomnia and when I was finally able to fall asleep, the nightmares made me wake up screaming. One morning, when I found a cockroach in the pantry, I ran away to my bedroom.
If my parents noticed any change in my behavior, they didn’t deem it very important. At this point, the possibility of being fired due to the financial crisis was the only problem that weighed on them.
Two weeks later, my friends came to visit me—there was no way I could have stopped them from getting inside.
“Ana, what’s going on with you? Why don’t you leave the house?” Clara asked, straight after I opened the door.
“Don’t you tell me you are in love! Are you?” Maria asked.
“I just have been tired, but don’t worry…” I answered.
“Ah, do you know you had the best grade in the English? And you were so worried about the test,” Clara said.
“But the teacher left. Next year, you’ll have to push yourself harder.” Maria said.
It was in that moment that the effect of the drug disappeared and I burst into tears.
They hugged me, asked me more questions, promised me that tomorrow would be a new day, but, seeing that nothing was working, they went silent and left.
When I was by myself, the monster started to eat me up again. And, for the first time, I started to think of things that I never thought possible to understand. I remembered the poem of Keats and, suddenly, the meaning of its verses started to make sense: death was the release of suffering, death gave meaning to a miserable life, death was a blessing. That night, after another dinner in which I hardly ate or exchanged a word with my parents, I went to the kitchen, opened a drawer and snuck a knife into my pocket.
Sitting on the bed, under the light of the reading lamp, I examined the steel blade. That utensil had an unexpected beauty. I slid the tip of my finger softly on the line, until I felt it cut. Then, as if letting it caress me, I passed it onto my shoulder, my chest, my stomach, until I reached the pubic hair. Threads of blood ran down my body. But I didn’t feel a thing. No pain. Then, abruptly, I cut my left wrist. Everything started getting blurry again and my muscles were losing strength. Falling over the bedside table, I made a bang that woke my parents up.
I stayed in the hospital for one week and started seeing a psychologist. Incapable of understanding what had happened and blaming one another, my parents had delegated him the responsibility of curing me. He asked me a lot of questions, spoke of hope and promised me a new life. I listened to him attentively, but I didn’t tell him anything.
Finally I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to share my secret with someone. And any person could be my confidant as long as they didn’t know me. I would only turn my secret over to a stranger. I went searching like this, deranged, to the street. The day was windy and I was like a leaf being carried away by the air. I walked without knowing where I was going, peering into the faces of those who passed by me, when I found a church. Suddenly, I understood that I had found what I was looking for.
The church was empty. It was a gloomy place, without a painting or a sculpture decorating the walls. There was only one metal cross at the altar. I felt cold. I walked between the two rows of stools, when, as an apparition, the priest appeared on my right side. He was a young freckled redhead with blue eyes that were smiling. I felt at ease in his presence. He introduced himself as Priest Eaton and saw that I needed help.
I told him everything that had happened, before and after. I didn’t need to say anything about what had occurred at Mr. Harper’s house when I lost consciousness because I felt that he knew more than myself. Slowly, I started to feel better. The monster that was eating me up was exposed and, for now, seemed to have retracted his claws. Until the priest said something that I would have never seen coming, a word that violated me: forgiveness. Because, he explained, it was the hatred that was destroying me and I could only be happy again through compassion.
But I didn’t go there to forgive anyone. How could I forgive that? How could I forgive someone who had run away without even feeling sorry? Mr. Harper is the one who should ask me for forgiveness on his knees, whipping his back with cilice until he gushes blood. And not even then I would forgive him.
The priest, seeing the disillusionment on my face, tried to hold my hand. I jerked away, refusing physical contact as if his touch would sting me. The priest breathed deeply and stayed silent for a moment. He told me, then, the story of Joseph who had forgiven his brothers for selling him to the Ishmaelite who took him to Egypt where he became a slave of Potiphar, a general of the army. A terrible story, but also beautiful, he said, that showed how Joseph, after many years of suffering, had been merciful when he became free again. And afterward, he advised me to read other examples of forgiveness in the Bible, examples that invited us to discover that only love could save us.
At home, I followed some of the priest’s advice and made searches about the Bible on the internet. But, instead of looking for examples of forgiveness, I looked for stories of revenge. And there were many; the God of the Old Testament never forgave the sinners: He cast plagues, destroyed cities and He even drowned the world. Finally, I felt close to religion. I needed a God like this, strong and relentless. Joseph could have forgiven, and Jesus as well, but, after all, who were they next to the Creator? It was in Exodus, however, that I found what I was looking for. Instead of the depressing story of Joseph, that characterless guy, I found the poetry of revenge:
Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot
Burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise
Yes, this was the only way of having justice.
That night I slept quietly.
As I didn’t have money to hire a private detective, my only option was to look for the name Joe Harper on Google. Hundreds of results came up, and though these decreased when I refined the search to include the word professor, nobody I found was him. Then, after turning eighteen years old, I decided to go after him myself. I was determined to search the world until I found him. What other plan could I have?
I didn’t leave a note to my parents, nor did I say goodbye to Clara and Maria. Nothing bound me to another human being. Except, of course, the chain that tied me to Mr. Harper. There was now a different relationship with the monster who had been eating me up. It didn’t hurt me anymore. Quite the opposite, in fact: it gave me strength and, as strange as it seems, it became a sort of ally. I started calling it “my dragon.”
For two years I wandered around from town to town, asking questions and lurking near school entrances. In order to survive, I accepted any work, I slept anywhere and sometimes I stole. However, time passed by and there were still no signs of Mr. Harper.
One morning, I arrived in a Southern town and passed next to a bar. The building had a large window that allowed me to see the interior. I went in. A varnished counter crossed the space and joined with a brick wall. Five globe-shaped lamps hung from the ceiling. The tables and chairs were arranged in a corner. It was silent like a church.
A black man who probably weighed over two hundred pounds stepped in my direction with a broom in his hand.
“I’m looking for a job,” I told him.
“What is your name?”
“I’m Arthur,” he said, “I’m the owner of this dump.”
Afterward, he looked at me for a few seconds, furrowing one of his thick eyebrows. Bar owners are used to knowing the type of person who may bring them trouble. I don’t know what he thought about me, but he must have found me almost pretty as well.
“Take that, you can start now,” he said, handing me the broom.
Although nobody there had heard about Mr. Harper, I felt tired and I decided to stay for a while longer. Perhaps I could save enough money there to hire a detective.
One night, I was serving drinks as usual. Everything seemed normal. The sound of lively conversations, toasts, and the clink of glasses filled the air. Some people danced to the sound of the juke box, others threw darts at a target. Now and then, the boss would pass a cloth on the balcony as if he were polishing a jewel.
Then, a blond girl wearing a blue skirt and a yellow blouse went to the middle of the floor and started to dance. She had closed her eyes and was moving graciously. Her arms seemed to float liked the tentacles of a jellyfish. Sometimes other customers bumped into her, but she remained undisturbed.
Suddenly, a middle-aged man got up from a table and walked in her direction. The light from the lamps made his bald head gleam. When he got close to the girl, he also started to dance. He stayed like that for a few seconds, doing some ridiculous steps while staring at her. But she didn’t open her eyes, and her lips revealed a smile of a secret pleasure only she knew.
Then the man said something in her ear. She opened her eyelids slightly and moved a few feet away while continuing to dance. The man went after her and tried to grab her arm. The girl tried to free herself, but couldn’t—there was panic in her face.
In that moment, my dragon spat fire from its mouth. I picked up the first bottle I could find, ran towards the man and beat him in the head with all the strength I had. He tumbled on the floor and I kicked him in the face. I was prepared to throw myself on top of that bloody face—I wanted to stab those eyes with my nails—until somebody grabbed me.
Nobody filed charges, but I was fired. The boss apologized for asking me to leave and even paid for three more months of wage—but he hadn’t done it out of the goodness of his heart, he had done it because he feared me. That big man, who must have witnessed many fights, saw the dragon.
With the money I had received, I hired a detective called Jack Sock—a retired police officer. In his office, there were diplomas on the walls and a fan on the ceiling. I made up a story: told him I was looking for a relative. Mr. Sock would look at me with his eyes wide open, as if he could tell I was lying, or would close his eyelids, as if he was thinking about a complex problem. Once in a while, he took notes in a notebook. In the end, he knew Mr. Harper’s physical appearance and age, as well as the year, the city and the high school he had taught at. If he was a good detective, he had enough information to find him.
One week later, in the middle of a grey morning, my cellphone rang. I almost dropped it to the floor when I saw the name “Sock” written on the screen. My heart beat wildly.
“Yes, Mr. Sock… “
“I found him. He’s five hours away from here. I’m waiting for you.”
And the call was over.
Fifteen minutes later, I ran into his office and opened the door without knocking.
“Where is he now?” I shouted.
Jack Sock was not disturbed in the slightest. He picked up a folder, stood and walked towards me.
“Everything you need to find him is here,” he said. “Address, telephone, ID number. There aren’t photos, and no workplace because he had a stroke a few months back and is now disabled. He rarely leaves the house.”
When I was about to pay for his services, he spoke again.
“Ah, and you’re going to find a photo of a woman—”
“Is he married?” I interrupted him.
“No, she’s a maid who takes care of him. Her name is Rosa and she works until 3 p.m. Be careful…”
Then he locked his eyes on mine. Both of us stayed silent and there was no need to say anything else. The only existing sound was that of the fan above our heads. And at that moment, I felt I had again created a bond with someone. Then, impulsively, I hugged him.
I wasn’t able to open the folder straight away. I pressed it as if it was a bottle trap with a captive fly. Walking down the street, I released some screams. People looked alarmingly at me, but I didn’t care. At one point, I stepped into a park and sat down on a bench. I was preparing myself to open it when a cockroach passed close by; I raised my foot, but in the end I let it go. It was only then I started to read the detective’s information. And suddenly everything became clear: God had put Mr. Harper at my mercy. I clenched my fists and called out to the sky.
“Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.”
At dawn, I got on a bus and arrived at my destination around noon. I found a city surrounded by fog. The light filtered by the steam produced a silver-plated clarity. The buildings, the cars, the trees, everything seemed to be somewhere between a solid and gaseous state. I felt myself also dissolving into the fog while walking down the streets.
As the town was small, it wasn’t hard to find his address. It was a white wooden house with a black roof, a porch supported by two pillars and a garden protected by a fence. On the walls there were broken boards and the grass didn’t seemed to have been mowed for a while. Birds had built nests on the sides of the roof.
The first rays of sun started to breach the fog.
Around 3 p.m., the door opened and a woman with black hair came through the door. I did not need to look at the photo to confirm that she was Rosa. She carried a bag of garbage in her hands and passed by me with her head low.
I had the way clear.
I opened the gate, walked across the grass and rang the bell. A few seconds passed by and then I heard a voice that I didn’t recognize. A weak and slurred voice.
“Whoo iiis itt?”
“It’s Rosa…” I said in a low voice.
I listened to some strange noises, the intermingled noises of wood being stepped on and the creaking of metal, and I understood he was trying to open the door. Suddenly, silence. And the door opened. I saw an old man with white hair, one eye closed and a crooked mouth. His head tilted to the right, his left arm was lifeless and his fingers were twisted like claws. A dribble was coming out of his lips and running down his chin. He wore a set of stained pajamas and slippers. That creature only looked slightly like Mr. Harper.
I made him move out of the way, got in and closed the door. He looked at me disconcerted. He didn’t have any idea of who I was or what was happening. He must have thought it was a robbery.
“I.. don’t have mo…money…”
I resisted the urge to slap him. First, I would make him remember what he had done.
“Why did I laugh tonight? No voice will tell? Do you remember this poem, Mr. Harper? Do you remember the pupil you invited to your house to go over the English test? Do you remember Ana? Do you remember drugging me and raping me, you son of a bitch?”
And I leaned my face to his until I could smell his putrid breath. He was paralyzed. He looked like a wax figure from horror gallery. Then, he twisted his deformed mouth even more and rolled his only open eye.
“Aana…Aana…” he mumbled.
“Yes, it’s really me. This is not a dream. And now you’re going to pay for what you’ve done to me.”
He didn’t seem capable of saying anything else.
Then I reached my hand into my right pocket, I grabbed the knife and I pointed it at his face. In that instant, he started to tremble and urine started running down his legs. A spasm jolted him and made him tumble down the floor. Lying down on his stomach, he moaned and foamed from his mouth. His right hand scratched the wood in despair, as though he were shipwrecked trying to reach a board. And then the moans turned into dreadful squeals. That needy creature fought for his life. Suddenly, he managed to turn his neck and stare at me with his imploring eye.
I almost threw up.
I turned my back on him, opened the door and started to run. In the garden, I stumbled on the grass, fell, got up and leaned against the gate. At that moment, I stopped myself and looked back. The house gleamed in the sun; above the roof, an airplane pierced through the sky. I stayed like that for a few seconds, frozen. Then I reached into my left pocket and grabbed my cellphone.
When I started to hear the ambulance siren, I recalled the story of Joseph. And only then, in that instant, I realized I had become a free woman again.
João Cerqueira has a PhD in History of Art from the University of Oporto. He is the author of eight books. Blame it on to much freedom, The Tragedy of Fidel Castro, Devil’s Observations, Maria Pia: Queen and Woman, José de Guimarães (published in China by the Today Art Museum), José de Guimarães: Public Art.
The Tragedy of Fidel Castro won the USA Best Book Awards 2013, the Beverly Hills Book Awards 2014, the Global Ebook Awards 2014, was finalist for the Montaigne Medal 2014 (Eric Offer Awards) and for The Wishing Shelf Independent Book Awards 2014 and was considered by ForewordReviews the third best translation published in 2012 in the United States.
The second coming of Jesus (A segunda vinda de Cristo à Terra) won the silver medal in the 2015 Latino Book Award and was considered by the unheard-voice.blogspot one of the best books published in 2015.
The short storie A house in Europe won the 2015 Speakando European Literary Contest, received the bronze medal in the Ebook Me Up Short Story Competition 2015 and an honorable mention in the Glimmer Train July 2015 Very Short Fiction Award.
His works are published in Contemporary Literary Review India, The Adirondack Review, Ragazine, Berfrois, Cleaver Magazine, Bright Lights Film, Modern Times Magazine, Toad Suck Review, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Hypertext Magazine, Danse Macabre, Rapid River Magazine, Open Pen Magazine, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The Liberator Magazine, Narrator International, The Transnational, BoldType Magazine, Saturday Night Reader, All Right Magazine, South Asia Mail.