LonelyRoom

The following is an excerpt from as-of-yet unnamed book by Tiffini Johnson that deals with human trafficking.  Maelea is 11 when she is sold by her parents to a woman from the capital of Cambodia.    It contains passages that are disturbing and potentially detrimental to survivors of any type of childhood sexual abuse.  Please read only if you are certain you are in a mentally and emotionally safe place.

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When I was four years old, just a young girl, my aunt, uncle and cousins came to visit one day.  It is an honor when people come to your home and eat your food.  Mae would choose not to eat breakfast, lunch or dinner herself because she didn’t want our meager supply to run out.  But if we had company….for a visitor, Mae would share every last bit of rice.  I do not remember much about that day when  I was four—at least, not until dinner.  Before then, I don’t knw what I did.  I imagine I played with my cousins;  maybe I tried to play Ou Chen with them.  I would have been a crew member, probably.  Or maybe they made me just watch, since I was so little.  I don’t remember and it isn’t important.

 
And then Mae called for dinner.

 
All my cousins and I went in to eat.  Eu told me to sit in my usual place but that meant that I would not be beside my cousins.  Instead, I would be sitting between my uncle and my father.  I was just little, then, and I didn’t know that girls are never, ever allowed to disobey.  I just spoke what I felt.  I told Mae and Eu that I wanted to sit beside my cousins.  But my cousins had already sat down side-by-side and  Mae told me no, I would sit in my usual spot.  I started crying and I made a really big scene.

 
My uncle asked what was wrong and, this part I remember very well,  I yelled out:  “I don’t want to sit beside YOU!”  That wasn’t really the whole truth:  I didn’t care if I sat beside my uncle, as long as I could also sit beside my cousins.  I broke free of Mae’s grasp, grabbed my plate and squished my four-year-old self between my cousins. They started laughing.   Mae and Eu were not laughing.   Eu grabbed my arm and pulled me up from the table.  He took me outside and beat me.  Not too hard, but hard enough that I didn’t forget it.  After he was done,  he said,  “When your mother or I tell you to do something,  we don’t care what you think, only that you obey.  Do you understand?”     Terrified and crying,  I nodded.  We went back inside and I sat in my usual spot.  My aunt and uncle were friendly. Mae was not.  She did not talk to me for two whole days.  I did not get a hug when I went to bed that night, or the next.  She did not tell me good morning.  She was completely silent.  Finally,  I went to her and wrapped my little arms around her waist.  She didn’t push me away and her hand went to the back of my shoulders to pat.  As we stood there, awkwardly embracing, she said:  “You embarrassed your mother in front of our guests.  That will never happen again, will it,  Maelea?”

 

 

“No, Mae.  Never.”

 
That was the last time I disobeyed.

 

 

In the seven years since,  I’ve gotten in trouble a few times for forgetting to do my chores or for using too much salt or, once, for lying when I said I’d finished hanging the clothes to dry even though I really hadn’t.  But never for disobeying in front of others. That day, when I was four years old, I learned that girls are only loved when they obey.
I became really good at obeying.  Most girls do. We all want to be loved, after all.  But….

 
I am scared.

 
Fear snakes down my arms, leaving them cold.  The woman said I have to work.  I thought I would work in her home, but I don’t think this place is her home.   There is a mouse in this room. I saw it run along the edge of the wall.  It disappeared in a hole in the corner.  I know it will be back.  It smells funny in here too,  I don’t know what that smell is, but it makes me sick to my stomach.  The sound of somebody screaming makes me jump.  That’s the third time I’ve heard that scream.  It must be coming from the room beside mine.  It sounds like a kid hurt.  I don’t want to be hurt.  The lady told me that as long as I obey, I will be okay.  I am good at obeying… but I wish I knew what work I have to do.  I am good at obeying… but this room scares me.   It is cold in here.  The walls are gray. There is paint peeling all over them and no window.  There is no furniture.  I am sitting on the floor, like at home but with no mats.  The lady left me in here hours ago.  I tried to get out of the room but the door is locked, it won’t open.  I think that’s when I first got scared.

 
I have to pee.

 
But I can’t get out of this room, the door is locked.   I  scramble to my feet,  tucking my hands between my arm pits to warm them up.  I walk back and forth, back and forth. I hear a scuffling noise and my head whirls around.  The mouse is back.  I stare at its small, oval, gray body and feel panic in my chest.  The fear is back again, chasing away any warmth still in me.   I turn and knock on the door.  I yell, “Hey!   Anybody out there?   I need out!”

 
Nothing.

 
I really have to pee.

 
I walk around the room, trying to keep moving because I’m not as cold then, until I hear a noise outside the door.  I stand still, my eyes open wide, and wait.  The door opens and the lady who brought me here stands there.  Her hair is pulled back.  She looks very serious.

 
“Come with me,”  she says.

 
Maybe now, we are going to her home, and I can begin work.  I am good at doing the washing and I can cook a little, too.  I will make a really good servant, especially now that I am out of that scary room.

 
We don’t leave.

 
Instead, we walk down the stairs, through another hallway, until we come to a small room.  Inside, there is a man.  He is white.  He is very tall, much taller than Eu.  And heavy.  He is heavy.  He must eat a lot of rice—and fish, too!   He does not smile at me, but he looks at me.  The woman says,  “She is new.  She will tear.”    The man walks a step closer to me.  I know better than to look him in the eye,  I drop my head and stare at the ground.    Finally, I risk raising just my eyes and see him nod.

 
The woman pushes me toward him.  “You go with him now.  You do what he tells you to do.”

 
Maybe, I think,  I will work in his house.  White people go to school. Maybe he is the one who will send me to school.   I don’t feel the fear right now.  I am happy to  leave this place.

We do not leave.

 
The man turns and starts walking.  I follow.  We go to the end of the hall and there is a room.  When we go inside, he shuts the door and locks it. Then he looks at me.

 
He says something.

 
I understand his tone: he wants me to do something.  But I do not understand the words.  I don’t know his language, so I cannot obey.   I am ready to go now.  But he says the same thing again. I still do not understand.  I shrug.

 
He points to the bed.   There is a bed in this room.    I have never laid on a bed.

 
We have mats at home.  I sleep on mats.   I have heard of beds, but I have never seen one.  It is small and creaks when I lay down.   I do not think we are leaving anymore and the fear is back.

 
I do not know what he wants.

 
His shirt is off but it is not until he takes his  pants off that I understand.  He is going to do the same thing to me that Eu sometimes does to Mae.  I hear them from my mat.  Mae makes weird sounds, like she is dying.

 
I do not want to die.

 
When he gets  on the bed too and puts his big hand on my belly,  I lay ramrod straight.  My whole body is tense.  I do not know what he is going to do, only that I am supposed to obey.       Then I remember that Eu said I would be a domestic servant.  I would work for the lady, in her house.  He never said I would work for a white man.  I start fighting when the white man puts his tongue in my mouth.  It feels rough, scratchy and disgusting. I yank my head to the side and start moving my body.

 

 
I am trying to get away.  “No, no, no,”  I say again and again. No.  This is not what Eu and Mae said I would do.   I keep turning my mouth away from the white man’s. He is getting angry, but I don’t give in.  It is like I forget that I am supposed to obey.  When I feel his big hand under my skirt  and in my panties,  I can’t think of anything at all. I just react.  I don’t want his hand there.  I scream, grab his wrist with my hand and yank.

 
I am surprised when he moves his hand away and gets up off the bed.  He leaves the room.  I am too stunned to be thankful.   I burst into tears.  I am still crying when the door opens again.  This time, the woman is there.  She is very, very mad.  I can see that. She grabs my arm and drags me out of the room.  She is walking so fast I can’t keep up with her.  I keep stumbling.  She doesn’t release her grip on my arm.  I am probably bleeding under her nails.

 
We go down another flight of stairs.  We are in the basement.

 

 

There are doors on either side.  I don’t count how many because I am trying too hard to keep from falling.  We stop at the last door.  She opens the door and pushes me inside.  She is mumbling angry words.  She slams the door shut and walks back out.  I turn around, hoping to see somebody, but it is too dark in this room.

 

 

I don’t hear any noises.

 

 

I don’t think anyone is in this room with me, but I am scared.  There are no windows.  I feel my chin quivering and my eyes are wide:  they stare at the darkness that surrounds me before pools of water flow into them.  The water leaks out of the corners of my eyes and onto my cheeks.  A noise comes out of my throat, a moan.

 

 

I hold my arms straight out in front of me and stumble until my hands hit a wall.  I slide down to the floor.  It is cold concrete;  my fingers touch a puddle of warm liquid.  I do not know what it is;  I jerk my hand away, wipe the wetness off on my legs.

 

 

I have been here for a really long time now.  There is no window, so I do not know if it is day or night.  My stomach is rumbling;  it is hungry.  The door opens.  I think it is going to be the woman again, but it is not.  It is a man.  It is too dark to tell much about his features, only that he is very big.

 

 

“Are you ready to work?”  he asked.

 

 

I nod.  “Yes.  Do we go now to the house where I will work and go to school?”

 

 

“There is no school.  You will work for the men, do what they want.  Are you going to do that now?”

 

 

No school?   I can’t grasp that.  How can there be no school?  Eu said I would go to school.  The woman said I would go to school.  I heard her:  she said it when we were standing outside at the house.

 

 

It isn’t until the man grabs my arm that I realize he’s taking me back upstairs, where the white man is.  He wants me to lay on a bed and let the white man touch me.  I can’t stand the thought.

 

 

I fight.

 

 

I pull backwards, drag my feet.

 

 

The man becomes angry, like the woman did. He doesn’t let me go, but pulls me into the hallway and into the room across from us.  He throws m onto the floor. I hit hard and start crying again.  I am rubbing my arm when he grabs my hair and pulls me up.  I don’t know what he’s going to do when something touches my skin.  Fireballs explode in my body, pain like I never even imagined. I am screaming, and thrashing around. The man is yelling at me.  My head feels like it is going to explode.  The black thing touches my arm again and white lights start flashing in front of my eyes.  I am dying, I am dying.  It feels like my skin is coming off.  Finally, he lets go of me and stops screaming.

 

 

I am curled up in the floor, my face is tucked between my knees and I am crying so hard I am choking.  I keep hiccuping, trying to catch my breath.  My arm is burned,  my arm is going to fall off, I am sure of it.  It hurts so much.

 

 

The man says,  “Are you ready to work?”

 

 

I don’t answer him, I just cry.  My nose is running, my head is hurting, my whole body is hurting.  He grabs me by the hair again and pulls me up. The black thing, the Killer, is in his hand. He is going to use it on me again.  All I can think about is that I cannot let the Killer touch me again.

 

 

So I scream,  “Okay!  Okay!  Please, please don’t hurt me, I’ll work.  I’ll work real hard.”

 

 

He drops me.

 

 

I collapse on the floor.

 

 

He turns and puts the Killer on the table.  Then he turns and looks at me.  I think he’s going to grab me again but he doesn’t. He just says,  “Get up and walk.”

 

 

I did not know I was so brave.

 

 

That’s what I tell myself when we walk down the hall, toward the steps that lead back upstairs.  I am walking, even though my legs are shaking, my arm where the Killer touched me burns and I’m not even breathing right.   I did not know I was this brave,  or this strong. That’s what I think.

 

 

When we get to the steps,  the man stops and looks back at me.  His eyes are narrowed.  He has a scar on the side of his face,  it is long.  It makes him look like a dragon. Maybe he really is a dragon that breathes fire and he’s just in human form right now.

 

 

“If you don’t smile and make him want you,  I will shock you again.  Do you understand?”

 

 

I bob my head up and down repeatedly.  I know I should answer him, but I am grinding my teeth so hard I think they are going to crack.   He wants me to smile.  If I don’t, the Killer will shock me again.

 

 

So I am smiling when he opens the door for us to walk in.  A man stands there, a different man.  He is white, but he is not the same white man as before. This one is lean, tall. His arms are really big, like he works hard every day.

 

 

I do not understand, but the man and the white man talk.   Then I am pushed forward. The white man smiles at me and takes my hand. We walk into the same room as before, the one with the bed.

 

 

He doesn’t tell me to get on the bed.  Instead,  he sits on the edge of the bed and moves his finger back and forth. He wants me to come to him.  I don’t know what he wants, or what he will do, but I am scared. I keep thinking of the other white man and how big his hand felt on my bottom.  But  if I say no,  I will be put n the cellar again and the Killer will come back.  So I walk forward.  The white man uses his hand to smooth the hair on my head.  He moves his hand back until he is cupping the back of my neck. Without warning, he pulls my head down. My lips are on his.  I keep my mouth closed.

 

 

And then  I am crying again.

 

 

When he takes my clothes off,  I start shaking. My teeth are grinding together.  I wish I knew what was going to happen, but the only thing I know is the sound I  heard Mae make.  She sounded like she was dying.

 

 

The white man makes the same sounds now.  His palm is running over my caramel colored skin, rubbing up and down.  Then he takes my hand and makes me touch something long and hard.  I am crying, but the memory of the Killer keeps me quiet.

 

 

I am not prepared when the long thing I touched pushes into my body.   The pain makes me scream.  The white man is making terrible noises and his face is in my neck.  He is too big. He is too heavy.  When he starts jerking back and forth,  I scream again,  my breath getting stuck in my throat.  I am pushing at him now.  But he doesn’t get off.  All I can hear is a roaring inside my head, a loud  roaring.

 

 

Then he is done.

 

The long thing falls out and he moves to the side of the bed.   He looks at his watch, then smiles at me.  I am crying. I jerk when he takes his hand and cups my cheek.   Then he nods at me, points to my clothes.

 

I jump up.

 

It is then that I see the blood.  It is all over the bed.  I am dying.   I scream, staring at the blood and start shaking, jerking back to move as far as I can away from the blood.

 

The white man stands up and gets dressed, frowning at me.   I am still sitting in the same place, when the woman comes into the room.

 

I can’t move.  She pulls me up anyway.  She stuffs my clothes on me and then jerks me out of the room.  She takes me to the basement again, and puts me in the black room, the room with no light.

 

I do not care.

 

I fall on the  floor and lock my legs together.  If I am not careful, the blood will start back up.  I am so worried about the blood that I don’t even hear when the door opens again.  This time, it is the woman and the man.

 

“She’ll do,” the woman says.

 

“Again?”

 

“It’s three hundred riel every time if she’s new.   We could give her to at least two more men and get three hundred riel from each. If we don’t,  the most we’ll get for her is two hundred each time.”

 

The man stares me and then nods.

 

“Stitch her.”

***** ***** *****

A very long time ago, there was a young man who loved a beautiful woman.  He wanted to marry her, but first he had to get her parents’ approval.  So he asked for her hand.  Her parents said,  “If you want to marry our daughter,  first you must go through a test.   Your legs will be bound and you will be submerged up to your neck in the cold lake for three days and three nights. No matter how cold you are, you may not move to warm yourself at all.  If you can beat this test and prove your courage, then we will allow you to marry our daughter.”    The boy agreed to the test and his legs were bound and he was submerged in the water.

 

He had been in the water for two days and two nights when bright orange flames appeared from a distance, off on top of one of the mountains.  The man was tired, and very cold, so he lifted his arms into the air.  At that exact moment, the girl’s parents came out from behind a tree.  They saw what he was doing and decided that he was trying to warm himself by the distant flames. They told him he had failed the test and would not be allowed to marry their daughter.

 

 

The man was angry. 

 

 

He went to the Courts and  filed a complaint against the girl’s parents.  The Magistrate called them all together to be judged.  The girl’s rich parents came with many gifts for the  Magistrate.  The boy did not have money so he was not able to bribe the Magistrate.  The Magistrate decided that the boy had not completed the test and would not be allowed to marry the girl.  Because he had caused trouble by filing the complaint, he also had to give a feast for the Magistrate and the girl’s parents. 

 

 

The boy was very mad at hearing this.  On his way to prepare the feast, he ran into Judge Rabbit.   Judge Rabbit asked why he was so angry.  The man told him what happened. “Ah.  Where are you going now?”  asked Judge Rabbit. “To prepare the feast,” the man answered. Judge Rabbit said,  “Very well. If you do exactly what I say,  I will help you win this case.  Go prepare the feast but do not put any salt in the soup.  Put the salt in a dish all by itself.  Then come get me;  I will go to the feast with you.”

 

Happy to have Judge Rabbit on his side, the man went to prepare the feast.  He did exactly as he was told and did not put any salt in the soup at all, but he did bring along a dish with just salt in it.  Then he fetched Judge Rabbit. As they came upon the feast,  the Magistrate saw Judge Rabbit and asked what he was doing.  Judge Rabbit said,  “I have come to help with the case” and the  Magistrate offered to let him eat with everyone.

 

The Magistrate was the first to taste the soup.  After a couple of mouthfuls, he looked at the man and said,  “Why is this soup not salted?” Judge Rabbit answered for the man and said,  “The fire that was on the distant hill, far away, was supposed to warm the man up.  Why is it then that the salt in the dish, placed far from the soup, does not flavor the soup?”  The Magistrate was embarrassed by this logic and the decision was reversed.  The man was allowed to marry the daughter immediately. 

 

Mae told me that story almost every day. She loved stories with Judge Rabbit. But what I can’t stop thinking about right now, shivering and hurting as I am, is that nobody in the story ever asked the daughter whether or not she wanted to marry the man.

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