Content warning: domestic violence, child abuse, and rape
An infant, I startle, flinch, and boom
When she touches me. Burning pistol,
She says years later,
“It only takes one bad shrimp
To make you sick!” I the shrimp,
Though, and so many of her words
Make me sick.
She swells and pukes and purples
While pregnant with my bruiser brother.
I stay small and hate them both.
I hate her, the way her mind had clicked
In place as a little girl and stayed there.
Never maturing into wisdom.
She will live on in all she teaches me.
“I didn’t know you were a difficult baby,
Not normal, until I had your brother.”
He not normal, I sniff him out, I know
Early, when his broad feet flutter, kick
Inside her. After his birth, I hover over
His crib, plot to pillow snuff out his life.
He grows to six foot two, kills three strangers.
I stay small—little shrimp. I hide under
Surfaces, keep quiet. Police and journalists
Wading and waiting. I make them
Sick. Me, silent. Not defending my brother.
Not admitting how I knew all along, I knew
Where I touched with my shrimp sense—
Long and feeling, grasping through taste and
Scent. Swimmerets, my long appendages for
Swimming and breathing, these two activities
Interchangeable, integral to my being.
Swimming and breathing, I make my mother
Sick, though she birthed me through water,
Opened my screaming, unready lungs to air.
She refuses to admit, premature, too early.
I make her sick, me swimming and breathing
Free while my brother, bricked away in prison,
Refuses her visits. He blames her and my father.
Once upon a time, my father calls me little shrimp.
He tries to crush me, his eyes bulging as large,
As grotesque, as his thick temple vein.
Stop it! Stop it!” My mother whines
Toddler-voiced, standing back
Safe as he slams me over and over
Against a wall. She smiles, gleams,
Her mouth twisted. “Stop it! Stop it!”
My father goes away on business trips.
Acrid cologne stench hovers and strikes
Relentless. As brutal as his brutal hand.
My brother would kick in my door,
Spit on it, tear out my hair. I no angel.
I wait until he sleeps, creep to his bed.
Punch my brother hard. He cries.
I never cry when my father punches me,
When my brother grabs my throat.
I never cry when my mother insists
No one hurts me. Maybe I cry,
Maybe I cry an ocean to swim in, to
Continue to breathe, when my mother
Insists nice boys, her best friend’s son,
Don’t do things like that. Don’t rape
A little shrimp of a girl. A girl shouldn’t
Expect a romantic evening to end
Any other way. Little, but old enough
To know better, she says. I drank the wine.
I dressed the way I did. I didn’t fight.
Of course he thought I wanted it.
Of course, boys will be boys.
Only few years before, my breasts
Not yet in bud, my translucent skin
Disgusting her—“I can see everything.”
I see everything. Her silences
Visible. My father sticks his tongue down
Her throat, his eyes opened, looking
At me and my brother, making sure we see.
She says nothing, giggles, wipes her apron.
I feel everything. The wrong of her words,
Unsure why. She likes to watch soap operas,
The occasional mini-series with me, on a small
T.V. near the kitchen sink. Right near where
My father had suctioned his lips on hers.
On screen in Technicolor waves—antennae
Never quite well-adjusted—a man kisses
A woman in bed, runs his hand up her shiny leg.
“Look how he touches her leg! He loves her!”
My mother gasps, transfixed, soap bubbles
Rising from the sink, refusing to fall or pop.
One time, a movie. Last Summer. Girls in bikinis
With breasts I hope to someday have.
Boys in board shorts. Boys who make me
Queasy. The chubby girl, the awkward
One, whose mother died. The vulnerable
Girl who wants so desperately to fit in.
Rhoda. Younger than those three other teens.
The two boys and one girl hold Rhoda down.
They hold her down in bright sun and sand dunes.
They hold her down, and a boy rips off her bikini
Bottom and rapes her. My mother says, “They
Shouldn’t do that. They could get her pregnant.”
She says it flat, in her little girl voice. Silent
About the wrong of rape. Silent about Rhoda,
Her pain. Her silence. Rhoda, little shrimp
With short hair like mine. Awkward and vulnerable
Like me. Young, without a mother to protect her.
I can see through the translucence of her being.
So can my mother, who eyes Rhoda and refuses
To look at me. I hate my brother, my father, and yes,
My mother. I hate those boys and girl who hurt Rhoda.
My mother shakes a wet knife. Water flings like spit.
“See, she doesn’t say anything. Makes me sick.”
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination, except for the film Last Summer. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Karen Poppy has work published in numerous literary journals, magazines, and anthologies. Her chapbooks CRACK OPEN/EMERGENCY (2020) and OUR OWN BEAUTIFUL BRUTALITY (2021) are both published by Finishing Line Press. Her chapbook, EVERY POSSIBLE THING, is published by Homestead Lighthouse Press (2020). An attorney licensed in California and Texas, Karen Poppy lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. More at karenpoppy.com.