“We are of Trinidad—my grandmother, my mother, and I,” begins Krystal A. Sital in her debut memoir in which she writes about the unraveling of her family when they leave their generational home in Trinidad for New Jersey. When her once proud, patriarchal grandfather lapses into a coma, the women of her family finally share the trauma and violence they’ve been keeping secret for years. Writes Nicole Dennis-Benn, Secrets We Kept is “a brilliant account of gender inequality and the burdens we bear as women in the Caribbean.”
Published here is a chapter from Sital’s memoir, which released on February 20. Content warning for domestic violence and abuse.
Silken strands of mist lingered over the galvanized metal rooftops, rising out of the valley in peaks. Hordes of chickens stampeded from one end of their pen to another, dredging up the stale scent of bagasse and excrement. Up the hill, closer to the house, dewdrops slid off glossy avocado leaves and around the orbs of grapefruits and pomegranates. The heat of the sun sliced through the night chill.
Arya crouched at the side of the half-wooden, half-concrete house. Hewn logs of the kitchen walls shielded her. She curled and snapped her bony, brown toes; she tightened her burning thigh muscles. The ominous thump of footsteps against the kitchen floorboards squelched her attempt to draw a fresh breath of air. To relieve the tension from her folded legs, she rocked back onto her haunches, wrapped her arms around her knees, and locked each hand around an elbow. Her hands were calloused from the hours of farm work she and her six siblings performed each day during the twilight hours of the morning. At eight years old, Arya was an expert at slaughtering, defeathering, and roasting chickens, milking cows, churning butter, leading goats to fresh pastures each day, feeding the chickens and then collecting their eggs, and carrying bunches of figs on her head while going at breakneck speed.
—Krys gyul, my mother tells me, we din hah electricity oh nutten yet so we wake up wid de cock crowin four een de bleddy mawnin, and ah hah to feed chicken and duck, milk cow, tie up goat, and cut grass befoh ah even tink bout school. And den, meh hah toh walk ah mile an ah half toh reach dey.
That morning, instead of threading her arms through the hoops of her backpack after the hours of work in the chicken pens, fields, and orchards, she disobeyed her father’s rule that ordered them straight to school. As Arya hiked from the valley of chicken coops with her brothers and sisters up the gravel-covered hillock, to the outskirts of their lopsided house, the dramatic drop and pop in her stomach started again. She knew she would be lunging her way to the latrine soon. Her siblings shed sickles and cutlasses to equip themselves with pens and pencils, notebooks and rulers. The brothers tossed a sack of ripe oranges plucked from the groves at the kitchen door; their mother had to squeeze and strain them one by one to serve to their father with his meals. Ma, they said with a thump on the door, we gone. Arya dropped the rope used to tether the goats and donkeys to the grass-carpeted earth.
Arya, come nah gyul, her brother Amrit beckoned to her. E goh ketch yuh if yuh stay hwome and is nah only you dah goh get lix mahn is all ah we. They all paused at this, but Arya shook her head, craving the comfort of her mother’s attention while ill, the concern, the fleshy warmth of her embrace. She stepped back and motioned for them to continue on without her. It was almost eight; the farm and field hands would be here soon, and they still had a mile and a half to walk to school.
—Ah know dey goh geh een trouble if e ketch meh, eh Krys, my mother tells me, boh ah was sick and we was ahready late. Dere was dis teachah who din like Grampa, and e used toh soak ah leddah belt een watah toh beat meh wid foh no reason. Ah couldn’t handle dat today.
She watched the backs of her siblings recede in the distance as they scurried to school barefoot, casting apprehensive glances her way, refusing to draw attention to themselves or her. They carried their lunches, tins of roti stuffed with channa and aloo clanking on dented wire handles. Their individual frames bled into one as they followed the path that snaked its way through the estate before stopping abruptly at the paved main road. Eventually trees and mountainous terrain obscured them from view. Though they would race to be punctual, none of them ever were. Their morning’s work was, and would always be, too much.
In the shade of the cocoa house where the beans were raked and dried after the weeklong fermentation process, Arya unlatched the hutch and released her favorite of the rabbits; a soft ball of alabaster fur with glassy red marbles for eyes. The earthy scent of drying beans lingered in the air. The rabbit nuzzled her neck. The fettered donkey nudged her face with his wet nose and nibbled at the rabbit’s bottom. The latch creaked as she locked the rabbit back inside before trekking back down the hilly landscape to a well just off the path not far from the vicinity of the house. It should be safe now, she thought, to return to the house and tell her mother she wasn’t feeling well. It was late enough in the morning for her to assume her father had left to tend to the business of another farm and would not catch her.
Shiva had inherited over one hundred acres of land in Trinidad from his mother; pastures, forests, groves, and fields that rolled and dipped well into the horizon. And because his disabled sister, Nollie, lived with him after his mother died, he acquired her share too. His mother, before parceling out land among her children, owned much more. Distrustful of Trinidad’s corrupt banking system, she secreted away the money she made from her estate into an iron chest she kept at their house. Among the crops her estate produced, cocoa, coffee, orange, banana, and ground provisions were the most profitable. Eventually Shiva’s mother became a local moneylender, essentially a bank of her own. She lent money to businessmen, drawing up paperwork that stated they would pay her back within a certain time frame and with interest. But Shiva didn’t follow his mother’s example after she passed. He learned from her mistakes, knowing there were too many times she didn’t get her money back. He chose to place his money with the banks, but not all of it; the iron chest remained in the house, and in it a large sum of money always stayed. The key he carried with him at all times.
Shiva employed hundreds of laborers but was suspicious of them, as he was of everyone else, and so he sent his children in to work before they came, charting how much produce he expected his children to bring back and how many chores they were to complete within the given time frame. The workers were then expected to do the same, oftentimes more. He usually came home for lunch and a nap before he was off again in his truck to oversee another estate.
At prearranged times, the Citrus Growers Association would pull up in trucks, workers with burlap sacks tied round their waists and slung over their shoulders hopping out. Shiva was always present to oversee them. They’d enter the orange groves and pick their supplies to make orange juice for the island; he trusted no one else to be in his place for this task.
Rebecca would likely be furious with Arya for appearing at home when she ought to be in school, risking them both a beating from her father. He never cared if she or one of her siblings was ill, only that they all obeyed his rule of always attending school after completing the farm work on time. Children here were bred to work. A child was your free labor opportunity, and while that was true throughout the island, Arya’s father took particular advantage. Many others of Shiva’s class paid helpers, cooks, and cleaners, and Arya envied their families. What did they do, Arya wondered, with all their free time? Sleep, she decided, sweet, sweet slumber. Very few students in her class had to wake up as early as she and her siblings did. Only the poor ones who lived well off dirt roads, high in the mountains where the clouds lingered thick. But her father had money; he just never liked using it.
Arya was prepared to deal with Rebecca’s temporary anger at her because she knew in the end her mother would send her to collect some lime buds. She would boil them to make a tea, which she would swirl with milk and hand her in an enamel cup. Young lime leaves were what many people on the island believed helped to settle an upset stomach. Her mother would help to hide her from her father for the rest of the day. All she had to do was stay out of his way and be quiet.
As Arya trod the familiar path she and her siblings had carved from the well to the house, she wound elephant grass around her wrists in layers until it resembled shackles. Approaching the kitchen door with tentative footsteps, she heard her father’s voice draw out not Rebecca’s real name, which he found difficult to pronounce, but the name he decided to call her: Ruuubyyy! Arya ran from the doorway and around the wall to the side of the house. It was much too early for him to be back home. He must have never left.
She crouched, afraid. The air pulsated. She recognized the savage rage in his voice, having faced it before. But when he was like this, it was Rebecca he wanted, and having witnessed him beating her mother, she desperately wanted them both to escape.
—Some people used toh say it was een e blood, my mother tells me, dat kinda angah dat used to consume im so, ha toh be een e head and coursin troo e veins foh dat kinda imbalance gyul. E was rootless. A cramp pulsed in her right thigh until it became a frozen mass of knots. Tears seared her eyes. She massaged her leg and prayed for the cramp to dissipate. She tried to hug her knees again, teetered, tipped over. She straightened her arm to stop her fall, and her left hand thumped the weather-beaten boards. Her father’s prowling on the other side of the wooden barrier halted. A bubble of breath caught in her throat. She tried to swallow, but fear lodged air more firmly in her chest. Her abdominal muscles contracted. Arya flattened herself against the side of the house beneath the kitchen window. Shutting her eyes, she hoped the wood had no holes to give away her hiding place. She couldn’t hear anything, but she pictured her father’s black, knee-high rubber boots pulled carefully over his khaki pants and his white shirt tucked neatly into his belted waistline.
His rubber soles thudded against the floorboards. Footsteps stopped at the kitchen sink in front of the window. Eyes still closed, she pictured him leaning over the sink, his sweaty fore- head smudging the clear glass. She knew he was peering outside in search of the mysterious thump. She knew he was hoping he’d discover her mother and knew that if he found her, his fourth child, he would beat her bloody.
Her father strode across the kitchen and walked through the side door. Whey yuh dey Ruuubyyy? His saccharine voice twisted her mother’s name over and over again. Arya gathered her over-sized tee in one hand and cringed at her father’s voice. Frozen against the side of the house, she prayed her father wouldn’t find her. She scrabbled into an alcove beneath the kitchen, a hole animals must have gouged out to hide from predators at night. Mud clung to her elbows and knees. In the narrow strip between board and cement she followed the pattern of her father’s footsteps.
He was between her and the stairs adjacent to the kitchen. Arya mapped how she could get to the door of her room, shut it behind her, and silently slide the brass latch and lock into place. But with the top half of the door to the kitchen always opened, she couldn’t make that escape route undetected. There was the option of running away from the house, but she couldn’t just leave her mother.
—Ah wanted toh, Krys, my mother confides in me, boh ah couldn’t leave Mammy. Ah had toh make sure she was ahright.
Something had triggered her father’s rage; she felt his anger rising. There had been times Rebecca was attacked for failing to return a cable, a spray can, or a rope to its proper place on the farm. Other times his anger was provoked instead by a farm hand who’d broken a tool or forgotten to round up some animals; Shiva would return to the house and take it out on Rebecca.
Scurrying footsteps. Pounding footfalls. The kitchen’s uneven floorboards groaned overhead. Arya retreated from the hole under the house. She peeked between the chinks of boards of the wall. Her father was holding her mother by her neck; he threw her into the kitchen. Her mother scrambled among tin pots and pans, grabbed a lid, and wedged the silvery shield between her and her husband.
The stained bottom of her mother’s printed dress faced her. The material was scrunched against the plastic tablecloth. Arya watched as her father glided closer to her mother. Her mother groped the table behind her, fumbling to find a weapon. His charcoal eyes smoldered against his oily black skin; those eyes that mirrored the deadly still in the midst of a hurricane.
He loomed over her. Who use meh spray kyan, eh Ruby? She trembled, admitted it was her. His hand cut through the air; her mother’s head reeled back, her body slouched against the table. Pot covers rolled and rang on the floor. As her eyes and brows twitched in pain, blood trickled from the right corner of her mouth.
Arya watched the toughened skin of her mother’s hands. The fingers fluttered to life before they stumbled over another pot handle. She yanked it. Tangy mango takarie cooked with crushed garlic, peppers, and masala spilled onto the tablecloth. Forest green leaves and vines snaked along the white of the plastic connecting crescents of apples and oranges.
He sneered, Wah yuh goan do wid dat? Hit meh? He backhanded her. He taunted, Hit meh nah, hit meh. Then he laughed a voracious laughter, one that emanated from deep within him and enveloped them, swallowed them whole, a laughter as eerie as the unnatural stillness of the air surrounding them.
The half-filled pot of food hung from Rebecca’s hand as she loosened her grip on the handle. Her skin was the color of almonds, the back of her hands and the heels of her feet ingrained with the same ridges as the nut. Her coarse hair was chopped close to the sides and back of her head, a plush pile on top, a fountain of it stopping right before her sparse eyebrows. Muscles undulated along her forearms and legs as she slumped backward, releasing the pot from her grasp. Arya searched her mother’s umber eyes for a flash of retaliation, but there was nothing but the thump of the pot as it hit the tabletop.
He backhanded her mother again.
—Blood juss fall on de table like raindrop, my mother says.
Arya turned her back, leaned on the wall, and slid down. Her legs and buttocks settled on stones embedded in fowl-shit dirt. Arya tried to concentrate on something else. She screwed up her face in an effort to grasp at anything but winced with each thump and thrash behind her. She focused on the manure her legs were sticking to and wondered where the yard chickens had gone.
She dug her jagged fingernails into her scalp. Knuckles clenched, she pulled her soft curls, a gesture she found comfort in when distressed.
Doh hit meh, please doh hit meh, her mother’s voice begged. He heaved her out of the kitchen and catapulted her onto the uneven concrete right outside the kitchen door. Arya slid on her belly, still watching around the wooden stakes underneath the house.
In khaki pants; already shit-splattered and mud-stained from his morning work in the chicken pens and coffee fields; he stomped around her mother. Up-down, up-down, up-down. He ground his heels around her fallen figure; he sneered, and then dared her to get up. Git up nah. Wah appen, Ruby? Git up nah. He wiped sweat dangling from his nose with the back of his hand.
Her mother folded her left leg underneath her body and gradually eased her weight onto the ball of her right foot. She pushed off the ground with her right hand. As she looked up, her neck arced gracefully. Blood droplets rolled down her cheeks, around her chin, and caressed her neck like tears.
Every hit, every kick was deliberately delivered, slow and heavy. His boot was a pendulum. It swung back and forth. Shitty mud. Black rubber boots. Her mother did nothing to defend herself. Her body bucked with each lash.
When her mother fell, Arya shut her eyes, opened them, watched what she didn’t want to see. She reached out for daydreams in the far corners of her mind. Sometimes these thoughts preoccupied her while she was in school, took her away from life on a farm, and into the civilized streets of Trinidad, where she ran a house that hadn’t been pieced together with wood and cement over the years, a house with running water and a toilet inside. There, instead of enamel dishes, she’d have actual china and silverware, a bathroom for showers, and on the sink a real tube of toothpaste, not sticks from a mint bush her brothers and sisters scrubbed their teeth with while slinging sacks over their backs every morning. What would it be like to envelop herself in a hammock under her own home, to relax and not be scared? Wherever she escaped to, there would be no more confinement and seclusion, and there, she’d scrub at the bitter scent of cocoa that’d saturated into her very skin, scrub it all away, and flit away from these lonely villages in Sangre Grande on to a town where neighbors could see and talk to one another, where conversations were likely to happen without the constant anxiety of the next beating. In one of these towns, she’d have a life and, in it, children who weren’t terrified of their parents but who frolicked and played with other children in their quiet neighborhood, where she’d make her own cloistered childhood a thing of the past. But today, these thoughts wouldn’t come.
—Krys chile, my mother says, foh as long as ah could remembah, ah dreamin bout leavin dat place. Where ah could go, whey ahgo end up, wit who. Juss fah fah fah ahwey from dey. All ah know is no mattah what meh kyant stay dey. Dat place wudda keel meh.
Her mother lay curled up with her arms crossed over her chest and her hands protecting her head. From the curve of her torso, fat rolls pleated and flanked her waist.
He strode away from them and disappeared among a cluster of barrels filled with collected rainwater at the far corner of the compound. Her mother remained motionless. Arya strained her eyes trying to locate her father, without moving, without alerting him to her presence. Everything was still. No chirping birds, no wind weaving between tree trunks and emerald leaves, no dripping faucet, no barking dogs, no pecking hens. An imaginary watch counted the seconds in her head. Tick. Tick. Tick.
—It was so quiet, eh Krys, my mother tells me, dat anyting ah hearin juss soundin so loud.
The rustle of thin paper drew Arya’s eyes away from the barrels. Her mother got up slowly; her palms slapped the blackened cement, leaving behind bloody handprints. Her face was bruised; the swelling along her hairline formed mountains and valleys. She dragged her right foot behind her as she headed toward the stairs.
Arya rolled over and was getting to her knees to run to her mother when she heard her father’s return and scuttled back into the space under the house. Fear fanned wings of ice around her heart, clenching the fluttering organ in its raw grasp. E eh see meh, e eh see meh, e eh see meh, she chanted to herself, her eyes squeezed shut.
Her father was holding a wet rope. It hung limp within his hands. Thick, taut knots ran the length of it. The dizzying smell of petrol reached her nose. Soaked in oil, the natural white strands of rope were now a dense yellow. The slapping, cuffing, kicking, spitting: Arya had seen them all before, even the rope, but not the gasoline-slicked rope.
—E use to threaten toh bun she alive, Krys, says my mother, tawk she troo how e goh do it; wet de rope een oil, tie she up, light de matches, and drop it. E use toh laugh when e say it. Boh we nevah see im do it. Ah was sure e was goan bun she alive dis time.
Rebecca tried to run, but her leg slowed her down. She limped while her pointy nails clawed empty air. Shiva swung the rope over his shoulder. Flecks of fuel stained his white shirt and black forearms. Grease seeped into his shirt. Overcoming her momentary immobility, her mother bolted. He lassoed the knotted line and struck her across the head. She dropped. He loomed over her. The sickening thud and slap of sodden rope on her skin was dull and monotonous. Her cries of Please doh hit meh, oh Gawd please doh hit meh ceased.
—E juss din stop, Krys, my mother says, e juss keep goin, lashin she like ah animal, spit flyin everywhey.
His inky lips parted to bare ivory teeth.
—And, my mother continues, e juss makin dis noise inside im, dis rheal horrible sound.
He tossed aside his snake whip. Ribbons of rope coiled at his feet. Satisfied, he turned. Arya’s tears now streamed freely down her cheeks. Before her father walked away she noticed that his pencil-thin lips were curved upward in a smile.
Turgid air pressed her body flat. She fought against it and pushed up hard and slow. The weight of urine dragged her panties down. The golden liquid trickled down her legs, streamed past her calf and in between her toes, before it mingled with the fowl-shit dirt. Convinced he would reappear again but this time with a lit match, she was too afraid to make that step forward. A horror replayed in her head: her father knotting the gasoline-soaked rope around her mother’s wrists and ankles, then the grate of a match on the side of a box followed by the sharp smell of sulfur. Arya found herself whispering, Oh Gawd please doh leh dat appen. Please, oh Gawd please no.
Then the Box Cortina’s engine sputtered to life and reversed from the ground floor with a screech. Gravel clinked and spat beneath the car as he raced off. The bellow of the engine died to a hum. Her mother did not stir.
With him gone, Arya wanted to run to her mother, but her legs were uncooperative. She eventually wobbled over, the rope coiled at her feet. She kicked it aside. Her mother’s face was bashed and bruised. Blood trickled from her ears, mouth, and nose. Both legs bubbled with welts. She touched the cotton covering her mother’s shoulder. She tugged it. She grasped each shoulder and shook. Her mother’s eyes remained shut. A solitary coldness spread throughout Arya’s torso and limbs. She felt her frozen image splitting, cracking a webbed pattern over her. She fell like shards of ice and glass sprinkling, twinkling, and shattering like diamond rain upon her mother.
Rebecca opened her eyes. A look of puzzlement creased her brows. She shook it off by looking around and getting up. Arya tried to help; her mother cast her off like unwanted clothing, eyes sliding right over her. She stumbled up the stairs, through the two connecting bedrooms that all seven siblings shared, and into the third that she occupied with her husband. Arya, in the shadow of her mother, followed. Rebecca gathered together a dress, a pair of worn-out shoes, a tube of beige lipstick, and stuffed them into a wrinkled paper bag.
Arya yearned to reach out to her mother, feel her welted forearms hot from blows, kiss her scalded skin with cool lips, and plead, Ma, please doh goh. Doh leave we again. This time she stopped herself from doing what she’d done in the past after these beatings. Every time she’d drop to the floor, tears coursing down her cheeks, and twist her mother’s dress in her hands, screaming, Ma, wah we goh do widout yuh? Ma, please doh leave. E goh beat we ma, please doh goh. She’d learned her pleading would go unanswered. Instead, she stood in a corner, restrained. Her mother’s eyes, resigned, defeated, glossed over her again as she rolled up the bag she’d packed and tucked it into her armpit. She hung her head and walked past Arya, through the doorway, into the gallery, and down the front steps.
Arya momentarily crumpled to the floor before flying down the back steps and around the house. Her mother took the lone, winding path leading off the property; already she was a dot in the distance. Arya pursued a different route, plunging through snarls of bushes and branches. She raced the mile and a half to her brothers and sisters in school. Her pleated uniform filled and fell with billowing bursts of breezes. Urine dried on her legs. She didn’t stop or slow down until she saw the sign for Cunaripo Presbyterian School.
Teachers protested when she disrupted their class. They threatened her with guava whips freshly cut for the day’s disciplining. Arya bypassed them. When they smelled the stench of urine and fowl feces clinging to her, they were startled, and she saw her siblings turn to face her. Wheezing, she told them, Mammy gone again cau Pappy beat she so bhad. Their faces transformed from embarrassment at the filthy appearance of their sister to defeated acceptance.
From eldest to youngest—Gita, Rahul, Reeya, Arya, Amrit, Pooja, Chandini—they walked in a conquered line, feet caked with dust, gravel wedged between their toes. At home they would prepare the meal their mother had abandoned.
Excerpted from Secrets We Kept by Krystal A. Sital. Copyright © 2018 by Krystal A. Sital. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.