The metro reeks of sweat and wet dog.
Her expression is empty.
It always is. Holding that old crutch of hers, she walks. She walks slowly, and looks miserable too. But that isn’t hard with those exposed, burnt and broken legs of hers.
“A cripple has nothing to lose,” her father says so, before burning her. He says it, before he breaks her ankle and knee. First her right leg, then the left.
She stretches out a hand, hovering in front of her, like a small cloud over a desert; white and calm, waiting to dissolve into the blue of space. She doesn’t look at the faces. People are easily annoyed. No eye contact. That’s the rule.
There is nothing to see. She tells herself. Although… There is something worth looking at, maybe even staring at.
She feels the eyes stabbing at her. It makes her want to puke, right on the shoes of everyone. She has seen it, so many times – the thing she refuses to acknowledge: disgust, and pity. What a hateful thing to show her!
The pang of regret she can handle, maybe the glow of relief in their eyes too… Truly. She hates the naked gladness. They do not have to share her fate… Their ease, when she hobbles away.
There is nothing to see. No bother, she won’t look. She breathes.
After that, she turns to the next person. Still begging with her free hand. Repeating, carefully pronounced: “Danke schön,” and the pleading, “Bitte. Hilfe,” the best she can. She concentrates to pronounce the german words in the proper order. No slurring, no biting off syllables. The metro shakes violently, throwing her off balance.
A big hand grabs her under her armpit. She dares not move. It pulls her up. She dares not look. The grip tightens. It’s her guard, pulling her to her feet. A fat man, smelling of onion, beer and cigarettes, who can beat her to death, without remorse.
In fact, he guards the money, not her. He leans on one of her crutches. He scratches his back with it, beats stray dogs and homeless people, beats her too. Tool and weapon.
The only good thing about being a cripple, not one man bothers her in bed. The only thing she thanks her father for. Men are disgusted by her looks. No one touches her burnt lower back, her burnt and bent legs.
They look away.
Even she looks away.
Home floats back into her head. Dreams of her family occur from time to time. Mum and her little brothers dig into the familiar pain. Her knees and ankles wobble. She’s back in the hut. The stench of the abandoned dump is everywhere. Mum makes a fire and white smoke billows in. She sits in her cracked plastic chair, at the mouth of the hut. Her legs hide under a winter coat. She peels potatoes, and her brothers shout and scream. They hit each other with sticks, pretending they wield swords.
This is where the dream takes a bad turn.
Father comes home, and he is not alone. A shiny white Hummer rolls into view, golden hub caps blinding. Father, uncle and a stranger. Mum is somewhere behind the hut, or climbing the dump for scraps. The pot bellied stranger has a golden watch on his wrist. He smiles a lot. No, that is not a smile. He bares his teeth. The men talk and laugh.
“You don’t need to peel those potatoes anymore,” the stranger says warmly. “We are going on an adventure now!” He is the only one sober.
Mum’s voice is behind the hut, low and urgent. Father screams. “Know your place!” A loud slap. “Bitch!” Sobbing.
“You know.” The stranger squats down beside her. “You are a smart girl. If you come with me, you will make money. A lot of money. More than you can imagine. You can do with it, what you want. Maybe send it home? To your mother? So she doesn’t have to work so hard.” The stranger’s eyes lock on hers.
Mum needs help. He’s right. In her state, the best she can do, is to go with the man. Earning money. What a dream! He even helps her into his car, buckles her up. Then she turns around to look back. She wants to wave mum good-bye. She’s not there. At the entrance of their hut, father and uncle smile and wave at her.
Earning money… What a nightmare!
Next week, she turns fourteen. If police shows up… Jail waits for her. But that’s not important.
After all, cripple has nothing to lose.
Image: A public display of Shame: Prague’s beggars, by Miriam Rosseau