The Knife

The itsy-bitsy spider went up the waterspout

Down came the rain and washed the spider out

Out came the sun and dried up all the rain

And the itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the spout again.

The Johnsons had no pretensions that they were from a class down from even my working-class family, which was not saying much where we came from, except that, behind their backs, everybody called them ‘white trash’. Their house was smaller than ours and much dirtier inside. It was situated on the wrong side of town. There was a scrub dirt front yard full of spare tires and yellow stubs of stubborn grass, and an overgrown back lot behind their house that hardly passed for a neglected back yard.

One of the things that I thought was cool, but also very weird about Mr. Johnson was the fact that he partied with his teenage and young adult children and their friends. This was not done in my family, at least not until my sister was much older, and never on such a debauched level in public. In my family, horrible things went on behind closed doors that nobody talked about. But at the Johnson place, horrible things went on right out in the front yard that anyone driving by could see. Mr. Johnson was very eccentric for an Eastern Panhandle parent. I was repulsed by the thick dark hair on Mr. Johnson’s shirtless back and his nearly bald head with its black side patches. He looked like an ape to me.

Politically, he was very liberal minded. He liked to get really fucked up, chiefly on alcohol, usually combined with a range of pharmaceutical ups and downers that were the cocktail of choice of Seventies hillbillies in West Virginia. At that time, Oxycontin, aka hillbilly heroin had not even been invented yet. We had other drugs back then. They weren’t exactly the Boone County Whites of West Virginia of HBO fame, but they were certainly the Palmers of Berkeley County.

Mr. Johnson had two sons, Dwight and Tony. Both of them were four or five years older than me. Tony was my platonic friend. We were both hippies. Tony was one of the few guys I hung out with who didn’t hit on me. I drove around with Tony in his hippie van smoking weed, talking, and listening to rock music, having philosophical discussions about art, politics, and the way people treat each other. He was smart, respectful, peaceful, supportive, and cool in a time when I really needed that in a friend.

Tony’s brother Dwight was Tony’s exact opposite. He was considered an attractive ladies’ man, but he wasn’t attractive to me, and I wasn’t a lady. I thought he was a gross pig who was usually drunk or high on speed. He sold speed, even to me, a fourteen-year-old girl. He was all brawn and no brains. He was good looking, but in a roughneck Neanderthal way, with a full mane of long, light brown hair and a darker beard and goatee. Dwight was a super macho lady’s man and a combative drunk who picked violent bar fights. He was not too bright, which was in line with his brutish caveman ways.

Dwight was romantically involved for a while with my sister and briefly moved in with her. I lived with her at that time. I was fourteen or fifteen years old. We lived in a small apartment above my grandparents. We all slept in the same bedroom. It was disgusting. They had a bed on one side of the room where they slept together, and my bed was on the other side of the room across from my sister’s vanity. The bedroom we all slept in was in the front of the house on High Street, and the bathroom was in the rear. It was adjacent to a small room that led to a side entrance that I snuck out of many a night after my sister was snoring, with my girlfriends or my boyfriends who would pick me up in their cars. They would honk their horns and I would look out the window and run downstairs to join them.

I knew that it was not safe to sleep in the same room with my half-sister and her boyfriend. I knew it was wrong. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

The bathroom was at the far end of the apartment near the entrance. It was a dead end off the kitchen where you could easily get trapped. The plumbing was ancient, and the hot water took forever to come on. Dwight always complained that I spent too long in the bathroom. He was often always knocking on the door telling me to hurry up when I was in there.

Dwight would come over to my bedside at night while my sister slept and scare me half to death, leaning over, looking at me to check if I was asleep or not, sometimes poking me for certitude, softly grunting or whispering my name to see whether I was conscious enough to respond.

To scare him away, I had to learn how to play possum and then roll over in bed, or do something to make a sound, if necessary, as if I had suddenly woken up from a bad dream. Otherwise, he would start touching me and/or himself, occasionally looking over his shoulder to make sure that my sister was still asleep. If she roused, he would pretend to have gotten up to go to the bathroom and then return to her bed. My only other option was to silently lay still and let him do whatever he wanted to do to me and play with himself while I pretended to be asleep. But that was pretty hard to do when he put his hand between my legs trying to push them apart. On top of it all, he was usually drunk and had bad breath.

I wanted to disappear and dissolve into thin air. In my juvenile journals I described the process as ‘detachment control’. I would learn later in college that clinically, that was a great description for classical dissociation. I would stare fixedly at some object in the room, like the wooden crescent moon with a built-in stairway that led to a wooden star that hung upon the wall. “Hitch your wagon to a star,” I could hear my great Aunt Grace whispering to me in my head, “Take your seat and there you are.”

I wanted to run away, but there was nowhere to run. And there was nowhere to hide, either. There had been a closet in my mother’s house, but at my sister’s, there was only the bathroom at the far end of the apartment, and that was not safe.

I would escape by getting on my bike and riding out to the park on the other side of town, where all the local hippies congregated in their vans. That’s where I met my boyfriend, Roger. He was seven years older than me which made it statutory rape in the state of West Virginia every time we had consensual sex. I had found a much-needed protector.

Both my mother, and my half-sister, (who was supposed to have been my rock and refuge from my mother), put me through the same damn shit. They subjected me to their and their creepy partners’ abuse by a lack of appropriate boundaries and reasonable care. They both sent me to hell and back. The cycle of epigenetic trauma and abuse was relentless, and it felt inescapable.

I guess that’s how my half-sister got the idea that a child sleeping in the same room with an adult couple who had sex sometimes when they thought that the child was asleep was an okay thing to do. I guess they had nowhere else to put me. But when I tried to sleep in the living room on the couch, which was between the bedroom and the bathroom, it was even worse.

I would sneak out of the bedroom when I heard Dwight and my sister snore. I finally claimed the entranceway as my little room off the kitchen. It wasn’t big enough for a bed but there was a chair, and it was close to the door. I would often sit out the night in a chair in that room until sunrise, listening to music, close to the back steps so I could run down into the street if Dwight came after me and I needed to make a hasty exit.

Talk about being on edge -I never slept. I was passing out at my desk in school, the only safe place that I had to go. There was no combination of psychiatric drugs that was ever going to make the abuse tolerable, although I was glad to try whatever pills that I could get my paws on.

The tunnel is dark. Fuck my future, I wrote in my diary.

They say that the third time is the charm. When Dwight started night stalking me, I had already been through two rounds of abuse when I was younger. This time, I would be prepared. I already had to endure a lot growing up. I still only remember much of my childhood in fragments that are as jagged as bits of broken glass. Occasionally, when I am feeling safe, in flashbacks, I remember something ‘new’.

It got to be too much. Finally, I told Dwight’s brother Tony what was going on because I was freaking out. He was very upset about it. That night, he gave me a sharp hunting knife to protect myself with, that he usually used to chop up hash. It had a slightly curved blade and a wooden handle inlaid with mother of pearl. He kept it in a leather sheath.

“Take this,” he said, handing it to me. “And if my brother ever tries anything like that with you again, don’t be afraid to use it.”

I thanked Tony and I gladly took the knife home and put it under my mattress. I literally had a secret weapon now. I still wanted to kill Dwight. I felt safer, but I knew that just having it was not going to stop anything from happening. I found that the knife was not accessible enough under the mattress during the night. So, I started to sleep with the knife in its leather sheath under my pillow, and only stashed it under the mattress by day.

Dwight often came home late at night, drunk. And when he did, he often passed out and snored loudly. One night, when this happened, I decided to give him a dose of his own medicine. So that he could learn just what it felt like to be afraid of being assaulted when he was passed out cold in his bed.

My life had become a frozen moment and I hated it. It was so hellish that I didn’t care about the consequences anymore. I just wanted the abuse to stop. In the still of the night, I took the knife out from under my pillow and softly tiptoed over to Dwight’s side of their bed. My sister was sleeping soundly beside him and turned over on her side in the other direction.

I took the knife out of its leather sheath, and I stood over Dwight with it pointing down at him, in a moment of contemplation, the way that serial killers do in the movies. And I waited and watched his breathing to assess the depth of his sleep, just the way he had done to me. When I determined that he was very fast asleep, I stuck the point of the knife into his arm, right above his breast. Sticking a metal blade into flesh was an intoxicating feeling. Suddenly I felt the joy that butchers feel from doing their jobs. My first lover, Scott, had been a butcher.

Dwight was out cold, dead to the world. When he still didn’t feel anything or wake up, or make any movement in response to the puncture, testing the waters, I stuck the knife in a little bit further, as if to check his pulse. Some blood trickled out, but he still gave no response. That guy could sleep through nuclear war! I stuck the blade in even further. I didn’t like the sight of blood, but there it was, spurting out of him now, and suddenly – finally – he woke up.

“Kathy! You crazy bitch! What the fuck are you doing?” Dwight cried, his eyes wild with fear. I was delighted. At that moment, I could have pushed the knife in further and killed him, which is what I really wanted to do, although I knew that it wouldn’t be worth the consequences. I could pull it out and just scare him. I kept it on point right where it was, and I looked at him straight in the eye and smiled. “Don’t you ever fucking touch me again, asshole!” He started to sit up and I grabbed my purse, with the knife dripping with blood, and ran out of the room.

The fracas must have woken up my half-sister from dreamland because I heard the two of them arguing, as I hurried down the steep metal stairs to the street. I hopped on my bike I and rode out to the War Memorial Park, taking the bloody knife with me, and washing it off in the Tuscarora Creek. When I got home, Dwight was gone, and, lucky for me, he had moved out of the apartment. Mission accomplished. I had protected myself and scared him away.

From that day forward, I carried the knife with me everywhere I went. When I went away to college, I took it with me, and got caught with it in my dorm room. They thought that I was crazy, and took it away from me, though I had no real intentions of using it. I just felt better having it in my bag.

I had learned the hard way that day, at a tender age, that a weapon could protect me and that being armed made me feel safer in a world that was full of danger.

Kathe Burkhart is a writer and visual artist based in NYC and Amsterdam. The  author of four books of fiction, Dudes, 2014, Participant Press, NYC; Between the Lines, (Hachette Litteratures), 2006; and The Double Standard) Participant Press 2005 and Hachette Litteratures, Paris, 2002, and From Under the 8 Ball, (LINE, 1985), she has been anthologized in Writers Who Love Too Much  (NY: Nightboat Press, 2017) Love, Always  (Oakland: Transgress Press, 2015) and has published in Artforum, Evergreen ReviewEsopusWomen and PerformanceCultural PoliticsPurple Fiction, and FlashArt, among others. The full reading of her book Almost Heaven (04:43:00) streams online @