We don’t cry when we are sent to the woods to find our switches. We look for branches that have recently fallen from the tree; the ones that are still attached can tear skin, and the ones that are long dead can break before the lesson is finished.
We look for branches with buds on the end, buds that are mostly dried but still have color left in them. We throw back our heads and close our eyes, asking the trees to forgive us before breaking their discarded limbs. We do not want to go back inside, but we lock elbows and force our feet to move forward.
Since mother went missing, we do not go to school. We hold hands while we listen to Father read from his thick black book, his nostrils flared and his eyes narrowed. He reads us stories of women who do bad things to men: women who eat fruit when they are instructed not to, women who steal men’s strength with shears, women with mouths that are deep pits and drip with honey. We cover our lips with our hands, but we know this will not hide our guilt. We wonder how many stories are in the book, how many lessons are left to be learned.
We do not cry as we take turns leaning over our father’s knees, our dresses pushed up and our panties pulled down. We close our eyes and clench our teeth as the buds meet our flesh. Spittle flies from his mouth and his black hair flaps into his eyes and he reminds us that we are not yet women and can still be saved.
When he is finished, we go to our room and place our switches in tins of water. We tend to our puffed pink welts and lie on our stomachs, looking out the window. We imagine that the tree branches are beckoning us; there are secrets we cannot hear, but we understand that they are on the verge of being revealed.
Before bed we pray that our mother will return. We pray that the buds in the tin of water will live again, that they will leaf out and someday become trees. We whisper in the darkness about what we will do to him when we are women and are strong: we will break his fingers from his hands, his wrists from his arms, his arms from his body. We will cut his hair and eat his fruit with the deep pits of our mouths. We will stare straight ahead with our eyes open, and we will not ask for forgiveness.