By Erica Kaufmann
“Objection!” The defense attorney interrupted.
“The response is irrelevant to the question!”
“Sustained,” said the judge, looking down at her. She knew him, went to school with his son, and she imagined his big belly underneath his black robe, hidden behind the walls of his high desk. “Answer only the questions you’re asked,” he instructed.
She was 15 years old and trembling. Her mother had picked her up from school in the middle of the day in their maroon minivan and took her to the courthouse, where she waited in an unlit hallway on a long bench for her turn to be questioned.
She was uncomfortable in her stiff new jeans and white collared shirt; she was sure she was sweating through it. Sitting on the witness stand, she kept her eyes on the prosecutor, the county DA. She knew him, too—he was a coach on her track team.
She didn’t want to let her gaze slip to the face of the man standing trial—the man she had been called to give evidence against.
“Did your mother come towards your father first?”
“Ye-es. She came towards him and he pushed a glass of beer in her face and she knocked it off, with the palm of her hand,” the girl gestured, imitating it. “It spilled all over my math homework.”
“What happened next?”
“He grabbed her arm and twisted it, and she fell down on her knees.”
There was cheap beer all over my Geometry assignment.
I snatched it up fast, allowing the amber liquid to run on to the dining room table. I lifted the sheets to my face—they smelled of fermented malt. Inwardly I groaned; I’d have to transcribe them. I stood up to go to the kitchen for a sponge.
That’s when he grabbed her, closing his fingers tightly around her right arm. He squeezed and twisted and she cried out and crumpled to the floor. He always bragged about his military training, his speed and agility—stalking about the yard weaving his arms in a martial-arts-inspired, self-choreographed routine.
I stood frozen, holding my soaked homework in one hand while my sister rushed over and pushed him—hard—knocking him off-balance and forcing him to release his grip.
Mom rose to her feet. There were tears in her eyes from shock, from pain. She was holding her forearm. “Get out of here!” She screamed. “Get out!” She backed into the kitchen, opened the top drawer, and pulled out a steak knife. She stood there, brandishing it almost uselessly in her left hand.
“I’ll kill you,” she sobbed. “I swear to God I’ll kill you, Mark. Get out!”
My sister stepped between them with her hands outstretched. “Dad,” she told him, her voice calm but unquestionably firm, “you need to leave.” She backed him towards the door. It was late spring and the metal storm door was open.
She had him wedged up against the screen and pushed all of her weight against the storm door, trying to force him out, out of the house, out of our lives.
He pleaded, “Anastasia, stop. Please, Anastasia.” She didn’t stop. She kept pressing. I set down my homework and followed her to the door.
“Give me your knife, Dad,” I told him. He always carried it. I’d watched him practice throwing it many times, sinking it into the flesh of the sugar maple that stood in the yard of our old house, the house he still lives in. I was afraid what he might do with it if he came back, what he might do to himself. To this day, I have no idea why he gave it to me.
Maybe he thought it would be worse for him if he were found with a weapon. He passed it to me through the man-sized crack in the door. I hurried away with it; hid it somewhere I can’t remember. Ana kept pressing. Finally he relented: her will was stronger than his.
“You both saw it!” He shouted, before getting into our blue sedan and driving off in search of his next drink. “She threatened me with a knife!”
Once he was gone, Mom collapsed again. The pathetic little steak knife with the plastic handle clattered to the floor. She held on to her forearm, her cheeks smeared wet. Her arm was red, swollen. She could barely move her hand, as if her wrist was broken. Ana had a learner’s permit, and drove us to the hospital.
Mom wept the whole way. We girls were silent.
We waited a long time to see someone. When the doctor arrived, it was the mother of a friend from school. Not long before, I had been to a sleepover at her house, but tonight she spoke as if she didn’t know me.
I wondered what it was like to be her, a doctor on-call in a small town, to see families like mine in the grocery store or at school plays after an emergency room visit. I felt my face flush in shame. I wondered if she would tell my friend all about this over cereal the next morning. She examined the arm. It wasn’t broken, but everything else was.
We didn’t go to school the next day, and my mother didn’t go to work. Drained, I slept late in my bedroom at the far end of the house. I barely heard my father come back in, still drunk. I slept through my parents’ last fight. My mother’s since admitted, “If he’d come in and apologized, I would have taken him back.” But he didn’t.
He was dismissive and cruel. “I told him to leave or I would call the police,” she said afterwards, her voice brimming with guilt. “He wouldn’t leave.” By the time I got out of bed, the police had arrested him, and my dad was taken away.
The defense attorney approached the stand.
“When your mother pushed the glass of beer away, did she have anything in her hands?”
“What about before the defendant grabbed her arm? Was she holding anything then?”
“Nothing at all? She wasn’t holding a pen?”
The girl looked at him, confused. He had thick brown hair and glasses that hid his eyes.
“Are you sure?”
“So you’re saying that your mother did not come towards the defendant with a pen in her right hand?”
“She never had a pen,” the girl told him again, glancing over at the judge uncertainly. She didn’t understand what this lawyer was trying to imply.
“Fine.” The attorney for the defense turned away and paced a few steps back towards the courtroom. Then he turned again to face the witness. “Since that night, has your mother talked to you about these events?”
“No,” she replied. They all lived with it, every day. It did not require discussion.
“Really,” the counsel said, “because I find that very difficult to believe.” He looked straight at her, and for the first time she could see his eyes. They were narrowed, calculating. “So you’re telling me, that in the four months since this occurred, you and your mom and your sister never once discussed the events of that night in detail?”
“No,” the girl repeated, “we never talk about it.”
“Do you think it’s possible,” he lowered his voice and laid a hand on the stand, close to her, peering into her face, “that you could be confused about the events that took place?” She stared back at him.
He shrugged. “The defense is finished with the witness.”
The judge gestured to her. “That will be all. You can exit through there.”
She stepped down from the stand and started to follow an officer through the rear door. Counsel for the defense was approaching the bench once more. He held two Polaroid photographs in his hands.
“If Mrs. Kaufmann did not, as the witness claims, come towards my client with a pen, then how can we explain these photographs?” He asked, holding them up for the judge to see. “Photographs that clearly show the defendant’s chest and shoulder punctured multiple times by a small, sharp object—like a pen?”
The officer shut the door behind her, leaving the witness alone again on the long bench. She would never see those photos, manufactured evidence from a sick mind, so sick that the body would stab itself over and over to cast a shadow of guilt where it didn’t belong.
It wasn’t until she left the courtroom that she realized what the defense had been getting at: that she was lying, lying to protect a vicious harpy who had stabbed her husband with a pen; that she had been brainwashed, and her sister too, with a false version of events.
Could the judge possibly believe this? She worried, shaking her leg up and down nervously at the knee. She waited, afraid her father would appear in the hallway and shout at her for betraying him, for telling the truth.
Her father never appeared. He was found guilty of assault, and levied a fine. Case dismissed. The girl went back to school.
“Are you okay?” Her mom asked, before she shut the door of the van.
“Yes,” she lied.
*This piece was originally published on Rebelle Society.
Photo: wild bohemia
Editor: Dana Gornall