A Story that Healed

Dr Robert Rich, M. Sc., Ph. D.

Read another story, written for a sexually abused little girl.

   Everyone found Tim to be obnoxious. He was 13 years old, had no friends (or so he said), was no good at sports, and HATED school.

    His mother arranged for a visit from me (despite passive resistance from Tim) because he had been talking of killing himself.

    I surprised him. Unlike other adults I did not lecture him, or offer him advice, or tried to talk him into or out of anything. I simply told him how he felt. "You look like a person who feels that nothing matters," I said to the top of his bent head as he sat opposite me. And soon I had him talking.

    School was a waste of time. Other kids were bastards. The teachers were wanks and dickheads. There was nothing worth living for.

    At my second visit, I told him that I write stories, and was keen to find out what a young person thought of them. I asked him if he was willing to read one, and give me his honest opinion about it.

    Next time, Mum, Dad and older sister had all read the story, and loved it, but Tim hadn't looked at it. Sister said scornfully, "Tim? He can't read!"

    So I explained to her in Tim's hearing that Albert Einstein had reading difficulties, and that choosing not to learn a skill didn't make a person an idiot. Then I told them that as a member of the Toastmasters, I needed practice in facing an audience. Would they mind if I read the story to the family?

    They saw through my ploy of course, but Tim allowed me to use this face-saving excuse. He sat with the others and listened. And here is the story:

First Day in School

    This is my first day, in my first school. It's barely after dawn. We are on the soft grass, under a huge, spreading palm tree. I sit cross-legged on a mat, facing them: big and small, boys and girls, all the children of the village. I only have them for a brief time, then they must go to do their work. Their dark faces shine at me, scrubbed clean. They are wearing their best clothes, and are silently waiting for me to start. This is their first time in school, ever.

    "Children, I'll tell you a story," I say. Apprehension turns into anticipation in the lustrous black eyes.

    "I'll tell you the story of how I became a teacher. This happened when I was thirteen..."

***

    I've been warned: A slave should never become friends with anybody. It's even more terrible when they die.

    Tinka died today. He was the oldest in the workshop, nearly 14. If he'd lived another year, they might have let him out, maybe used him as a supervisor. But almost every evening, he had given some of his rice to somebody, and this is why he, well, just got tired. So, he nearly went to sleep while working at the polishing machine, and his hand got caught in the drive belt.

    Even today, I die inside when I think of his scream, the look of agony and terror on his face. I jumped for the red button and stopped the machines, but too late, oh, too late! His left hand was gone, the jagged stump of his wrist showing yellow bones, and bright spurts of crimson blood sprayed far and around as he moved his arm.

    Then Mirramoro was there, bellowing "You little beast! I'll get caned now!" He pulled out his dagger. His left hand grasped Tinka's long black hair, and he thrust the dagger into my love's bare chest, between the clearly showing ribs. Tinka's scream stopped. His body went rigid, then limp. Mirramoro let his hair go, and he slid into a heap on the floor.

    Mirramoro looked at me. I shrank back, avoiding his gaze. "Yasmin, you're the oldest now. Organise the cleanup. Quickly, quickly, we're behind already!"

    Nineteen children in a big room, with the still machines waiting for us, blood everywhere. We were all crying. Tinka had been kind to us all, we loved him. But especially I loved him, I had hoped that maybe we'd both survive, and one day...

    I sent three littlies for cloths, and buckets of water. Gorrigal and I lugged Tinka's body out. Mirramoro pointed to the big metal container that was taken away once a week by a truck. It went to the country where the contents were used to fertilise the ground.

    We couldn't lift his body high enough, so Mirramoro put a hand under Tinka's bottom and shoved. Tinka disappeared inside the stinking container, already half filled with human wastes. Flies buzzed everywhere in an angry cloud.

    "Back you go. Hurry," Mirramoro said. "Yasmin, you know I had to kill him."

    He did. If you can't work, you must die. And it's true, afterwards he was whipped with a cane until his back was a mass of blood. We had made five bikes less that day, and the Company now had to buy a new child.

    The new boy arrived within a few days. He was a seven-year-old called Binti. He still had some flesh on him, on a farm you can eat more. Also, he was not yet used to working from dawn to dark with only a short break in the middle of the day. His was the usual story: the moneylender accepted him as payment for a year's interest, so the family could keep their farm. Why is the world so?

    Mirramoro said to me, "Yasmin, look after him. If he dies, I'll cane you, hard."

    Of course, he was scared. They'd punish him terribly if he lost another child so soon after Tinka, and a new child is always at risk.

    So, I took Binti to one of the welding machines. I showed him how you put two tubes in the holder, polished ends touching. "They must be exactly lined up, touching all around, or the joint will be weak," I explained. "Mirramoro will beat you, and you'll get no rice, if the testing machine shows one of your welds to be weak."

    He looked at me with great, frightened eyes, and nodded. So I showed him how to close the cover, pull down the lever of the clamp, and push the button. The machine made its noise, then I raised the lever, opened the cover and slid the now-joined tubes out. "Come!" He followed me to the testing machine, where Lia took it from me and tested it out of turn. The green light shone. "If it's red, you're in trouble," I explained. Again he nodded.

    I watched as he did a few joints, then returned to my new job, on the polishing machine, the one that had killed Tinka.

    Months have passed. Today was an unusual day. Someone pounded on the door about mid-morning. Mirramoro opened it, and had a muttered conversation with the person outside. "Keep working!" he shouted over the noise of the machines, and went out, shutting the door behind him.

    He soon returned, and pushed the red button. All work stopped, the silence feeling almost solid. Mirramoro said, "Children, quickly, quickly, out to the creek for a wash." I shooed the smallest to the front and took up the rear, and we ran out in a file, Mirramoro running beside us. The sun was terribly bright after we'd been indoors for I don't know how long, but by the time we were halfway, I saw many other groups of children running to the creek, or washing themselves, or running back, naked. The compound is a square, surrounded by the workshops on three sides, with the offices and the buildings for the supervisors and bosses facing the entry. Our workshop is the first one on the left side, near the entry. A very tall, wire-mesh fence surrounds everything. The creek comes under the fence next to the gate, and goes out on the other side, past the office. Five foot-bridges cross it to the workshops on the far shore.

    We stripped, and washed ourselves in the lovely cool water. Mirramoro was chivvying us to hurry all the time. We had to leave our clothes behind, and ran back to our room.

    A lady in a red sari was already there, with a bundle: a pair of shorts for each boy, a short dress for each girl. New clothes! When we dressed, she went to each of us, and combed our wet hair.

    She was not quite finished when Mirramoro came in, carrying a pot of rice, in the middle of the day! He gave us each a portion, and we ate. "You will get your usual meal tonight too," he reassured us, then we could dip a drink of water each.

    Then he restarted the machines. "Back to work, children," he ordered, "at least for a while." But he wouldn't explain what he meant.

    It was almost evening when there was another knock on the door, and the same lady ushered in a Buddhist Monk. I remembered seeing a few of them, in my old life before I was sold. This man was tall, the top of Mirramoro's head barely reached his shoulder. Of course he wore a saffron robe, and his head was shaved so it reflected the light of the electric tubes. His skin was lighter than most people's, a sort of a reddish brown. And something else was strange: he was smiling at us.

    Mirramoro switched the machines off, and said into the silence, "Brother Kundu, welcome to my humble workshop."

    Brother Kundu put his palms together in front of his forehead, bowed his head to him, and walked forward. "Thank you," he said in a soft, deep voice. Then he turned his eyes upon us. "Children, I have come to bring word of the Lord Buddha to you."

    I knew my job, and herded them into a semicircle, facing the door. "Thank you," he said to me. Incredibly, he gave me the same sign of respect he had given to Mirramoro. "What is you name, my dear?"

    "I am Yasmin," I answered, feeling very small.

    "Yasmin, you have a look of kindness about you. These little ones are fortunate to have you in charge. The Lord Buddha values kindness and service to others."

    Then he explained to us how the mighty Prince Gautama saw suffering, and so renounced a life of great wealth and ease, and suffered himself, and at last became the Buddha, the perfect one, and how that was what suffering was for. That we are in this life again and again, and each time we must learn new lessons, until at last we are perfect also, and can get off the wheel of birth and suffering and death.

   This helped a lot. This idea has helped me a lot ever since.

    I noticed that Mirramoro and the lady had moved out into the sunshine of the courtyard, and were talking to each other. So, when the Monk stopped for a breath, I said, "Brother Kundu, I am sure that the children here will not have to be born too many more times, for we have suffered already!" I should not have spoken so, for a stranger could just as easily be a spy for the Company, but I still missed Tinka terribly, and he looked so kind, and I just forgot to be careful.

    He whipped his head around, taking a quick, cautious look back towards the door, and saw that those two were preoccupied. "I am not only what I seem, but much more," he said softly. "Say nothing, but have hope!"

    Then he returned to talking about the Lord Buddha for a few more moments.

    When he had left our room, Mirramoro pushed the red button, and it was back to work. But somehow, it was easier to do, and everything went smoothly, and it was so for several days.

    Another week passed, and then there was a new interruption. This time, the Company could have had no warning of visitors, because they did nothing to prepare us. It was mid-afternoon when suddenly the door swung open, and a big policeman stood there. He had a flat, visored hat on his head, wore a khaki shirt and trousers, and his feet were in tall, black boots. He held a weapon in his hands: a sort of a short gun. Mirramoro looked at him, then stopped the machines without having to be told. "Everybody out!" the policeman shouted.

    Mirramoro leading, me at the back, we filed out into the dazzling sunshine. Groups of children were coming from all the workshops, each with their supervisor, each with an armed policeman with them.

    There were maybe another 20 policemen on the entry side of the compound, near us, in a semicircle around three people. Some policemen had guns, others were armed with long, vicious-looking canes. With a great surprise I recognised Brother Kundu at their centre. He towered over everybody else, but was no longer a Buddhist Monk. He was dressed as a gentleman, wearing a blue fez, and an embroidered white shirt, and loose red trousers. He had sandals on his feet.

    A woman stood on his right, a lady like I had never seen before. She wore a long brown robe, with a hood that covered most of her grey hair. Her feet had shoes on. A bright yellow metal chain was around her neck, with a pendant hanging form it. The pendant was a vertical line, crossed by a shorter horizontal one. But the strangest thing was her skin. Only her face and hands were visible. These were almost white, with the slightest bit of pink. And her eyes! They were blue, not black. A tiny black spot was in the middle of each circle of blue.

    The man on Brother Kundu's other side just had to be the leader of the police. His uniform shirt had badges on its chest, and something flat and black decorated each shoulder. He was the only policeman without a weapon.

    A group of people emerged from the office. Two policemen came first, then five gentlemen, then two ladies, then more policemen. And one of the gentlemen also had white skin, like the lady in the brown robe. His skin was actually very light brown rather than pinkish white, but I still would have taken him for a ghost. He put a strange hat on his light brown hair as he came out. He wore a white shirt, with a funny, patterned strip of thin cloth hanging down his chest, and dark trousers. He had shiny black shoes on his feet.

    All the gentlemen and ladies looked very angry, but the white one looked the angriest. He shoved the ones in front of him out of the way, even the gun-carrying policemen, and quickly strode towards the three waiting visitors. "What's the meaning of this?" he roared. Somehow, the way he used words was correct, but didn't sound exactly right.

    "Hartland, slavery is against the law," the lady answered. Her voice was like a bell, and carried clearly.

    The white man called Hartland stopped. He said something incomprehensible. Now I know that he was speaking English.

    The woman answered in Hindi, "Of course they are not employees. Look at the poor little things! Some of them are five or six years old! And I can see the scars of caning on several of them. And how much do you feed them? They look like skeletons!"

    "I feed them," the man shouted back. He started walking forward again. "Back in their villages, they would have starved, long ago. Anyway, you, Captain Burruni. How dare you?" If a tiger could talk, this is how he would sound.

    "He does what he must," the lady said.

    "He should do what he is paid for!" Hartland screamed. He was quivering, spittle flew from his lips, and he was waving his clenched fists. His cheeks were bright red. He was almost running forward.

    The Captain shouted, "Shut up!" He looked more scared than angry. He made a strange chopping motion with his right hand, and one of the policemen behind Hartland bounded towards him with three great steps, and hit him on the back of the head with the wooden part of his gun.

    Hartland staggered forward, and fell face down onto the black dust of the compound.

    There was a long silence. Nobody moved. At last, Brother Kundu turned around and waved an arm. A big engine roared, and a truck with a green canvas cover drove into the compound. The policemen and their three leaders moved to the side. The second truck was coming behind the first, and I could hear others.

    Brother Kundu said loudly, in his deep, lovely voice, "Children, your days of suffering are over. You will now go to a special place, where you will get good food, and decent clothes, and learn how to read and write, and many interesting things besides. This lady is Mother Maria, and she has much power behind her, much money. She and I work together to rescue children like you. Now, in an orderly way, get into the trucks."

    So off we went to what we learned to call the Convent. My new life was very strange at first. We could eat three meals a day, not only rice but vegetables, milk, fruit, oh, it was unbelievably wonderful! We had lovely neat clothes that got washed regularly, and we could wash ourselves twice a day, so nobody smelt bad. We were busy, but not locked in the same room all the time, doing the same thing over and over. We learned reading, writing, counting, and also speaking English and Urdu, and we learned all about India, and later about the rest of the world. There is so much to learn, and the more you know, the more interesting it gets. It was wonderful, like a blind person being given eyes. Before I came to the Convent, I was hardly a human, just a little animal who could speak. Now I can think, and understand so much!

    We also learnt through all the work we did: washing clothes, cooking in the kitchen, tending the gardens, sewing clothes for ourselves and for poor people elsewhere. Everything is service, everything is meaningful, everything is for God.

   Every day, the Sisters taught us Christianity, and also the Monks came and taught us Buddhism. This is reasonable: the Lord Jesus and the Lord Buddha may seem to be different on the surface, but you serve Them in exactly the same way: helping others, being humble, being kind, not causing harm.

    And so the years passed, and I went to College, because by then I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I want to help other children to enjoy learning, and to rise above the slavery that can only be maintained by ignorance.

    You, my dears, are my first children. This is my first day, as well as yours. Let us enjoy our times together, and learn.

***

    I stop. My audience stirs, as if they were coming back from another world. They smile at me as they stand. The tallest boy steps forward and bows, his palms respectfully joined in front of his forehead. "Honoured Teacher," he says, "thank you, thank you. We are so looking forward to school tomorrow!"

    They disperse to their houses in an orderly manner, and I must leave too, on my way to the next village. I start at six schools today.

 

   It would be lovely to say that Tim became a new person, but of course he didn't. He needed eight more sessions before I was satisfied that he had meaning in his life, and wouldn't attempt suicide. But three weeks after I'd read the story, I had a phonecall from Mr Britt, the Deputy Principal at the school. Tim had approached him about joining the remedial English and maths class he had refused before.

   This story is part of the anthology, Striking Back from Down Under.

Do you want to read another story that healed?
   This one was for a sexually abused little girl.

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