Twenty seven and desperate for help, I stepped from the office building, wrapping my jacket tightly around myself. The air was bitter, a sign of the winter to come. I began to walk, as quickly as I could. Twenty minutes to home, if I was lucky. If my foot held out. If I didn’t run into trouble.
The streets were dark and empty and I berated myself for not leaving sooner. Arguing a little longer hadn’t helped me anyway.
The wind whipped past me as I walked, finding every threadbare patch in my clothing.
Walk faster Lia. You’ll be warmer then. Ignore the pain.
I lied to myself, but what else could you do? There was no money for a bus, certainly no money for a taxi. Two children at home with my elderly parents, all hungry.
Mental inventory. There’s two potatoes, flour and some tins of corn. If I’m lucky, the animals won’t have discovered the new shoots and we’ll have greenery too.
We’d be okay, tonight.
Half way home the buildings started to fall apart. I ducked my head and tried to look invisible as I limped past, the pain in my foot increasing.
It wasn’t enough.
“Hey love!” The coarse shout rang out from behind me. “You want a good time? You look like you need a fuck.”
I walked faster wishing I could afford a gun to make this walk easier. But then I’d be just as bad as everyone else. Struggling to survive. Muggings at gunpoint. Rape. Worse.
If I just keep walking…
I pulled my head even deeper into the jacket, trying to shrink.
Footsteps behind me. A hand on my shoulder. He spun me around.
“Oh boy, you’re a looker too.”
“Let me go.” I snapped.
His fingers dug in deeper, harder. I tried not to wince.
“What’re you doing, limping round here at this time of night?” His voice was hard. A man protecting his turf from the danger of the crippled woman. “You looking for work, love?” He grinned at me. “I’ve got all the work you could want right here.” He grabbed his crotch.
I didn’t respond. I could still get out of this.
“I’d even pay you. How about that, love? You come over here for just a minute and you walk away twenty bucks richer.” His eyes roamed over my clothes. “You need the money, dontcha love.”
God forgive me, I considered it. Just for a moment. $20 could buy food for the week. We could eat. Survival prostitution. We all sell what we’ve got until there’s nothing left. How would this be any different?
Common sense kicked in. There wouldn’t be $20 at the end. Just a cold bleeding out on the frozen ground after he was done. I gritted my teeth, squared my shoulders and looked up at him.
“You don’t want me. I’m disabled.”
I hated it. I hated to say the words, but there they were. Truth, stark in the face of reality.
He snatched his hand back off my shoulder, looking at me, trying to find my problem. Sometimes it isn’t as visible, and thank god for that or I’d never have survived this long.
Three steps backwards, he looked me over again. I could see the gears turning in his head. The limp. The poverty. “You’re an abomination, woman,” he hissed “you should have died at birth. They should have taken you away.”
He turned away, disgusted.
I walked away, faster now, before he got together a gang to try and right the wrong my parents had committed in hiding me.
A warm living room in late Autumn. A woman screaming and straining on the floor, blankets and newsprint between her legs. A midwife crouches between her legs.
“Come on Imogene, just one more push. One more push and you’re done.”
A man sits behind her, whispering encouragement. A steady stream of positive energy.
You can do this, the baby is almost here, you’re strong, you can do this.
Another midwife in the corner wrings her hands, glancing at the mother to be. She’s too old, she thinks. She should never have fallen pregnant this late.
The woman screams, the sound torn from her as the baby emerges, as I emerge into the air, shouting my displeasure.
The room falls silent. The woman pushes herself up onto her elbows.
“What’s wrong? Give him to me. Give him here.” Desperation in her voice, she tries to sit up.
The midwives glance at each other.
“It’s a girl. And there’s a problem.”
The story goes, they bribed the midwives into silence. My birth is written as a death and I am hidden away while they try and fix the mistake nature has wrought with my legs. The twisting mess left behind by a fault somewhere along the way.
Not my fault, but I’m the one suffering anyway.
Nine months later, a faked pregnancy. They forge me a new birth certificate. My autumn birthday is turned into a summer celebration. Suddenly I exist, albeit my legs bundled tightly. Will I ever walk? Will this be the biggest mistake ever?
The charges for hiding a deformed child are harsh.
Is it worth it?
Twelve years old and I am sitting at my desk in school. The agony shot up my leg, making it hard to concentrate. My father was testing a new brace to try and strengthen my ankle.
Loose pants hide the bracing around my leg. I hate them. I hate myself. Why am I alive?
The lesson continues, drumming itself into my brain. I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be the child who lived.
“Now class, a history lesson. Many years ago, women weren’t able to call on the Collectors to take a child who wasn’t whole. Women kept their children, no matter what happened.”
Mark, eleven years old with freckles, interjects: “But what did they do with them?”
The teacher shook her head sadly. “They tried to pretend they were normal children, with the chance to live.”
Suddenly I am screaming inside my head. “But I deserved a chance to live!”
The dual mental states of a child who should not exist: I demand to be here, I demand to survive, while simultaneously being told I shouldn’t exist.
I don’t say anything, my head down, breathing through the pain. My left leg had straightened easily. My right one, not so much.
“And what are the Collectors, children?”
Mary shouted from the front. “They’re there to Collect any problems nature gives us. Just like a baby bird without wings won’t survive in the wild, so should not a deformed child be allowed to live.”
Mary’s father was the Mayor. She knew all the rules. I hated her.
The teacher continued. “Many people throughout history exposed children who were deformed, making humanity stronger. There’s no room in a strong society for disability. Remember that children.”
My leg throbbed. I wondered if she was right. My mother called this brainwashing and promised I was perfect just as I was, but I didn’t believe her.
The bell rang and my class flowed outside for lunch. I limped after them. The teacher noticed, concerned.
“Are you okay Lia?”
I nod. Drummed into me my entire life. “I just twisted my ankle, Miss. It will be okay.”
She frowned. “You twist your ankle a lot, Lia.”
“My mother says I’m a clumsy child.” I lie, straight faced.
Nineteen and walking down the street with friends, their skirts swishing around their thighs. My limp is barely noticeable.
“Why don’t you wear skirts Lia?”
I shrugged. “I don’t like them much.”
They teased me for a minute. Did I have scars from being whipped as a naughty child. Did I have ugly knees? Had anyone ever seen me in a skirt?
I try to smile, but it’s hard. Society says I shouldn’t exist. I hide who I am.
There’s a group of activists I’ve heard about. Trying to change the perception of disability. It’s not working, but they try anyway. The Collectors are after them.
all for one
and one for all
until we stand against the wall
Society had become stricter. Firing squads. Children taken. A three year old who couldn’t talk was removed from my street last night. I could still hear his mother screaming.
The conversation flowed around me. I am a rock in the middle of the stream, here, but not a part of things.
I want to join the activists. I want to change the world.
The sun streams through my hair and I keep walking, down the street, safe in my perceived wholeness. Invisible in my disability.
Twenty five and watching my life fall apart before my eyes.
“I know you say you just sprained your ankle again Lia, but you’re always limping. It looks bad. I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to let you go.”
Shock. “You’re firing me for spraining my ankle?”
“No. I’m firing you because you’re perpetually limping.” He lowered his voice. “I like you Lia. I don’t know what your problem is, but I suggest you hide it better. I’m sympathetic, but not many people are.”
Unspoken words. You’re not whole, you can’t stay, you make us look bad.
I leave. No job, no money, no way to feed the foundling children I worked to save. No social support.
Twenty eight and hiding in a basement, a candle in the middle of our group, the light flickering.
“We can’t keep going like this. We have to fight.”
I’m the only disabled person here, the only one left. My leg screams at me every day now.
Around me are parents who had their children removed.
“We have to make a stand. Disabled people are exactly like everyone else, you just have to give them a chance! Let them be part of society.”
The shouted whispers get louder. We can’t be found here, huddled and plotting.
“Things have to change. We used to support the poorest in our society, now we murder them.”
“You don’t know they’re murdered, Anna.”
Anna rounds on her. “They certainly don’t return to society when they’re all grown up, do they? Murdered. The lot of them.”
Her five year old had been taken six months ago after a virus left him a paraplegic. “No use to anyone” they said, and drove him away in their van while she screamed her throat raw.
The despair is thick. How far we’ve come. That an idealistic reform for The Good Of The Country could do so much damage. Could break people’s souls.
We used to support the weakest in our society.
Where did we go wrong?