From Torn From the Inside Out
Book I of The Torn Trilogy
“Thunder rattled the window- panes two stories high and lightning split the sky, it was as if the whole world was in turmoil that night. My nerves were keyed up as tight as piano strings and in a sudden moment of stillness and silence it felt as though my heartbeat was amplified ten times over. He was over a hundred pounds greater than I; nearly a foot taller and I knew he could move his muscled body into unbelievable sprints. Rain started falling in torrents, while the storm raged outside. I was not afraid of the storms of nature; it was the storm inside this night that I knew I might not survive”…February 13th, 1987, the night of Sara Niles’ flight with her five small children.
Given away to her aged Uncle Robert and Aunt Molly at age 1/12, Sara spent ten years on the ‘Flower Bed of Eden’ being lavished with love and attention until death took its toll and Sara married an abusive man named Thomas Niles when she was only sixteen. Niles invites us to enter into her lifelong odyssey by the words: ‘Let the journey begin’, and so it does as the reader enters into a formerly forbidden zone.
The story of Sara Niles becomes more than a story of one woman’s journey into pain, it resounds with the voices of many veteran’s of domestic war. Torn From the Inside Out and its sibling books, The Journey and Out of the Maelstrom make up the complete Torn Trilogy celebrating a power greater than death itself, the power of the human spirit under fire.
Tto expect crisis or life is not predictable. First a crisis, then there is peace. It is really the peace they want, but they only know one way to get it. Some were normal, came from good, ‘normal’ families and fell in love with a man who was good at mind games, by the time they caught onto them, it was too late, they had succumbed to a good brain washing. So we debrief, we educate, we direct, we advise and we do a lot of listening at all hours of day and night.
They come by all methods; one lady hitchhiked practically naked after being held by a man she started living with. He raped her and stabbed her, it excited him to stab her and have sex with her in a state of fear. She escaped by running out to the highway when he went to the bathroom and a kind man picked her up and took her to the hospital. They sent her to us via the police. She talked constantly of what he did to her over a matter of weeks, unbelievable things. Ministers, neighbors, friends and law enforcement bring them and they drive themselves, sometimes having to outrun the abuser with the kids screaming ‘he’s gonna ram us, Momma!’ Some come in cars that cost more than my house; the men had total control of the finances, so they use the shelter and declare themselves homeless in spite of having left fancy homes. They are all homeless when they come to a shelter because you have to leave everything when the abuser is willing to kill. It’s either your life or your stuff. I have been there too. It’s like being in the middle of the ocean and being thrown off the ship without a life raft. How do you survive? You learn to really swim hard and long, because leaving is just a beginning.
It has been almost two decades since I fled my home and disappeared with my five small children, all big eyed and terrified, trying hard to be brave. I can see all of it like it was yesterday. Since I have had to recount my past to teams of people, I have thought about my life in more detail than is common. I was told to tell the ugly truth because these people needed to know and feel what domestic violence does to humans. I don’t think words were designed for the degree of pain I wish to convey, or perhaps the skill required to contort language to such a purpose is for a master of linguistics. In any case, it is my duty to report for the sake of the many who cannot speak for themselves, some of the dead victims and those who still live a walking death locked into mentally ill minds for life.
The room was small, the walls created a slight echo, or perhaps it was just my imagination. I had to go so far back into my mind that the present environment closed in on me. Of the five people in the room Kathryn Shipp was the most imposing: she was 6 feet tall, stood military straight with sharply cropped blue-black hair and blue eyes that were intense. She needed everything from me, she had to have the ‘feel’ of the whole story, not just the facts, so she demanded more than just a story, and she wanted a recreation of my life. Kathy Shipp was one of the best attorneys in the state and her client was a domestic abuse victim who had snapped and killed her abuser, so Kathy Shipp needed me to show her why a good little girl could empty a gun on a man with his back turned. I knew why she did it, I knew what she felt, and if it took revealing my soul to help, I would. So I went back to the images of my beginnings and the people and events that shaped my life to make me who I am. There were many forces that forged me, some gentle and kind and some harsh and violent; there were also many people who contributed to the final product that I call me.
In the process of my evolution, I became a victim of domestic war, an emotional casualty for a major portion of my life, entwined, entrapped and emotionally involved until I learned how to become free. Freedom has never been easily gained and has often come at high cost throughout history, but one thing I will always know is freedom is worth every fight, and all pain.
In every life there is a timeless minute or day that will be forever etched into our mind’s memory, they will be unforgettable. I have unforgettable memories that are so vivid that I see them in Technicolor and I hear them with surround sound. Long after I am dead, I believe, I will remember. Two of those memories were the days of my escape to freedom-twice.
The Flower Bed of Eden
Thunder rattled the window- panes two stories high and lightning split the sky, it was as if the whole world was in turmoil that night. My nerves were keyed up as tight as piano strings and in a sudden moment of stillness and silence it felt as though my heartbeat was amplified ten times over. He was over a hundred pounds greater than I; nearly a foot taller and I knew he could move his muscled body into unbelievable sprints. Rain started falling in torrents, while the storm raged outside. I was not afraid of the storms of nature; it was the storm inside this night that I knew I might not survive.
Anticipation was so great that I wanted to scream at him to get it over with and true to my expectation he lunged for me, my body did not disappoint me, I flew down the stairs two at a time in my bare-feet. He stalled for mere seconds to enjoy his pronouncement of a death sentence upon me: “I AM GOING TO KILL YOU—YOU GOOD FOR NOTHING BITCH—STONE DEAD!!!!!!!” He screamed.
That was the night that I disappeared into a February rainstorm with five children and no place to go. I was twenty-nine years old.
Many people asked of me since that day many ‘whys’ and I gave many answers. It takes a lot of ‘why’s’ to make a life, mine being no exception. Maya Angelou said ‘you can’t know who I am until you know where I have been’; until you know the circumstances and people who contributed to the making of me, you cannot know me. We all are complicated mixes of many other people and life events. We are all of everything that has ever happened to us. If we suddenly got amnesia, we would cease to exist as who we were except in the memory of others. My pain is me, and thus my life that once was, is what made me now. I am the hungry little girl who sat in the sand over forty years ago waiting to be rescued by an ancient old man, I am Sara Niles and this is my story.
I was born in the bowels of the South where willow trees hang low over ponds and creeks surrounded by the lush growth of woody fern. My beginnings were in a place where knotted old oaks twisted their knurled boughs upwards, their majestic leafage allowing slithers of light to penetrate the shadowy forest floors to lend peeks upon the backs of huge Diamondback rattlesnakes; their gargantuan size owing to seldom meeting the sight of the eyes of man, if ever at all. I was born where the bottomland hoarded teams of wild boars known to rip hunting dogs open from end to end and where the narrow little graveled roads twisted and wound their way past humble mail boxes, usually the only evidence of the habitations miles into the forest, accessed by dirt tire rutted roads with a strip of grass ribboned in the middle. This was oil country, oil wells were scattered every few miles, their slow prehistoric movements signaling that the owners were receiving money. Neighbors lived far apart on beautiful little farms or in ragged shacks, with a Cadillac and a television or neither plumbing nor electric power lines. Depending upon which neighbor you were, you had plenty or nothing at all.
My mother had nothing at all, except seven hungry mouths to feed. She was by everyone’s opinion an exceptionally beautiful woman. Her mother before her was a French white woman from New York and her father was a black and Indian man; born, bred and still living in the same area. I never met my maternal grandmother, I strongly suspected that she mated with my grandfather on a purely business level. A business that is considered to be one the oldest vices, the one I have to thank for my very existence. My mother was a prostitute. I was an accident she had with a client, a rich white oilman who found her little shack a convenient stop on his trips from town and she found in him food for her children. Things may have been different for my mother, if a white man, living in a racist time, had not shot her first husband in the back for the unforgivable crime of stealing gas- Gas that he swore to pay for that evening when he left the billet woods. It was a time when racism ruled, a ‘cold war’ between blacks and whites established the climate, and therefore no trial ever took place.
It was nineteen fifty-seven, the Little Rock nine were escorted to school by Federal troops under the order of President Eisenhower to counteract the attempt of Arkansas Governor Faubus to prevent it. Southern racial tensions produced a supreme irony: Federal troops against the National Guard. This visible strife between state and nation was one of the evidences of the racial turmoil of the times. The line of demarcation between blacks and whites was decided by color and I was born on the centerline. My bright light skin marked me as a product of the enemy, the white man in the black community. Black women drawled sweetly to my mother that my long wavy brown hair was so pretty in tones meant to be a reproof to her. I was unacceptable, too white to be black… too black to be white.
We lived in what our relatives fondly called ‘the old homestead’. It was the home built by my great- grandparents, a newly freed slave by the name of Henry Howell and his wife, a full-blooded Crow Indian bearing the European name Charlotte. Henry and Charlotte had twelve children, each born in the front room of this now dilapidated old house. Great old cottonwoods rattled their leaves noisily in the wind in front of the house and massive oaks guarded the back, dwarfing the little outhouse with its pitiful croker-sack door. The exterior of the house bore the aged gray look of hardwood that had never been painted in its century of withstanding the pelting rains and the great extremes of heat and cold. It was a tough, neglected old house, abandoned to my mother to house us in rent-free. She could ill afford to care for the ancient structure that needed attention so badly, or us. The job of watching and caring for us fell to my oldest sister, Francine. She was thirteen years old at my earliest remembrance of her, my brother was twelve, and the rest of our ages ran closely behind. I was four years old.
The house had three entrances. The front and back doors we children were allowed to use freely, but the side door facing the setting sun was off limits to us. It was the ‘business’ door, the door that the strange men used; some used it so often they even knew our names. On a rare occasion when my mother was absent, I was molested by one of these men while the noon-ish sun shone through the window. I knew nothing of what he was doing, he sounded friendly. Something was wrong, I felt some odd shame and my heart pounded with relief when my tigress of a sister burst through the door demanding that the ‘no good son of a dog’ take his filthy hands off me in a voice strong with authority and rage that was strange to hear in the voice of a child. He unhanded me without a word and fled as all my siblings ran up to flank her in the ranks. I remembered that incident, though I never once mentioned it again until three decades passed. I merely held my head self-consciously tilted to one side when I walked.
Nothing stood out in my early childhood worth remembering until the fateful day when the world kindly changed for me. My great uncle and aunt lived on a farm a mile’s walk through a wooded trail. Robert Howell was born in eighteen eighty-three to Henry and Charlotte Howell in the very same curtain-less room that my siblings and I slept in on the pallets and old mattresses. Although my mother was treated as an outcast in the family – never visited and quietly talked about by the conventional ones who may have feared their heavenly reservations may be cancelled if they dared come near her- my uncle Robert visited us daily. He cared little for convention and hated hypocrisy; he would not permit either to stifle his compassion for us. We looked for uncle’s visits just as faithfully as we expected the sun to rise, and just as faithfully, he always came. I never remember his coming unheralded by our squeals of delight because we knew he had candy or fruit if not both. Our yard’s stingy spattering of trampled grass wore a distinct trail that led to the East corner where a roofed water well crested the top of a steep red clay hill. Uncle Robert’s head would always appear first, on hot days his hatless bald head would bloom at the top of that hill prettier to us than any flower, He not only brought us gifts, he luxuriated us in his time by talking with each one of us. We loved Uncle Robert dearly and any one of us would have been glad to be taken home by him. I was selected.
The monotony of our lives made the mentioning of the names of days unnecessary so I don’t know what day it was when my uncle took me home, just that it was sunny and warm. I was sitting in front of the east steps in a pile of cream-colored sand pouring it’s warmness across my legs when Uncle Robert came.
“I’m coming to take you home with me little Sara. Just let me talk with your mama for a minute. You’re going to be me and Mollie’s little girl” my uncle soothingly promised. I felt something that must have been excitement, although I had heard him say he would take me home before, this time was different. My brother and sisters gathered around the front door trying to overhear the conversation from within. We could hear the muffled conversation getting louder as my mother and uncle walked down the hall to the front porch.
“I’ll find her birth certificate later Uncle Robert. You just take her on home now” adding to “Tell Aunt Mollie hello for me”. And just like that, as easily as one changes shoes, I was given away unceremoniously without tears or protest from my mother. She never hugged me good-bye, nor did she come outside to watch me leave. My brother and sisters gathered around me looking sad, their bubbly excitement died as they followed us down the steep hill all the way to the ravine. They yelled ‘good –byes’ until we were out of sight. My uncle let me climb upon a stump so I could ride astride his neck since I had no shoes. Uncle Robert talked excitedly, gesturing with his hat in his free hand while holding one of my ankles with the other. I was holding his bald head with both my thin dirty arms. I don’t remember much of what he said, only something about how happy my aunt Mollie would be and all of the things they would buy me. These golden promises meant nothing to me yet as I had no prior means of comparison and I was too distracted by apprehension mixed with unformed expectations.
I knew we had almost arrived when we reached the spring at the bottom of the hill. The spring bubbled up fresh water continually, the overflow created a branch of water that was covered with a plank bridge. Two thick, smoky black water moccasins raised their ugly heads up from the water and opened their cottony mouths in silent threat. I tightened my grip on Uncle Robert’s head. The roof of the house appeared first as we ascended the long incline. A large grayish brown farmhouse, surrounded by bright flowers, arose into view. My senses became acute, recording every minor detail, the smells of the flowers and fruit trees enchanted me as my uncle stooped to unlatch a peg lock on the back gate. My heart was beating faster and faster, my blood raced through my veins with such force that I became dizzy, my hearing muted and time slowed.
Fear ran through me as two large silky black Labradors ran toward us barking hysterically, the barking giving way to tail wagging and happy howls of joy at seeing my uncle. I could see an immense expanse of ordered property. There were pastures and barns, cows and a big-eared mule, chickens scattering across a fenced yard and New Guinea fowl shrieking in tropical song. There were huge tomcats sitting calmly upon fence posts. I was bedazzled. While my head whirled in excitement, I was gently stood upon the grounds on legs almost too weak to hold me. It was incomprehensible to my dazed senses that all of the commotion was over me.
My uncle yelled to my aunt to hurry out and see what he had and in an instant my aunt ran across the back yard with a spatula in one hand wearing a white apron across the front of the prettiest flowered dress I had ever seen. I was being smothered in hugs while my uncle and aunt both talked at once. The animals sensed the excitement and were howling in unison. I tried to see everything at once, such as the number three bathtubs hanging outside against the back porch wall, animals, a smokehouse and old farm buildings. I thought I had entered a new world when I smelled the most wonderful aroma of foods floating upon the breeze; my senses were overwhelmed as the hunger awakened in me compelled me to cry. I was fed while still caked with grime and dirt. “Robert, I’m afraid she’ll get sick. Don’t you think we should stop her from eating now?” Aunt Mollie asked uncertainly. “Nah. This child probably has never eaten her fill. Let her eat till she bursts.” He answered glad heartedly before they both melted into joyous laughter. For the first time in my life, I was home.
I was scrubbed in sudsy lather and wrapped in a towel. My only dress was so dirty that it was discarded. I stood behind my aunt holding the back of her chair while she sewed dresses and matching bloomers out of floral cotton flour sacks. She sang and talked as she wheedled her singer treadle sewing machine. I said nothing. I was happier than I had ever been. On Saturday, I remember because every day I was told to just wait until Saturday and we will go to town, we went to town. My aunt bought shoes, dresses, ‘britches’, baubles, and toys, everything that a little girl who had nothing would need. I remember the things I didn’t need, the candles and soda pops of all varieties and colors. All of downtown was comprised of one street covering a couple of blocks, so in a town of that size everyone knew Aunt Mollie. My aunt told every listening ear, both white and black, that she and Uncle Robert were like Sarah and Abraham, blessed with a child in their old age.
Relatives were notified, they came by the carloads to see me and brought and sent gifts. My Aunt Fannie from California sent two huge packages of clothing and toys from J.C. Penny, a habit she continued for the duration of my early years. Physically, I went from nothing to everything in one week. From no attention to being squabbled over; my emotions knew no precedent, therefore I was overwhelmed in joy. I began to talk incessantly, ‘like a jaybird’ as Uncle Robert said. There was so much to see and do, to taste and touch. I was experiencing the tastes of new foods almost daily. I became a whirlwind as I tried to enjoy everything at once in a frenzy of ecstasy.
My uncle took me with him to visit my brother and sisters each day, they were always so happy to see us, only now I knew that they did not have the good things I did. I used to ask Uncle Robert and Aunt Mollie to bring them home to live with us; I was too young to know what their sad faces revealed. It was impossible; they could only save one, the child most likely to suffer harm. My mother moved away when I was five years old without a word. We went for our daily visit and the house was vacant. A feeling of loss pervaded my happiness as we stood staring in disbelief. Years would pass between brief glimpses of any of them.
Nothing good was withheld from me, even moral guidance was provided as my uncle read to me nightly out of a King James red-letter edition Bible. “Them’s the Good Lord’s words in red,” he would say reverently. These lessons installed in me a sense of moral propriety and spiritual obligation that I would later misconstrue to my own detriment. The strength of character I gleamed from them would enable me to survive myself and all lesser foes.
For the next half decade, I lived on the ‘flower bed of Eden’ as Cousin Andrew called it. The days were never long enough; perhaps that is why I hated to sleep. Seasons came and went in a panorama of delight. The record ice storm of the early sixties was a great memory to me as I watched through steam fogged windows, warm and snug as the loud popping of snapping pine trees screamed with the howling winds. Nothing caused me to fear those years, I felt perfectly safe as I expected I always would.
Those days will be forever frozen in my mind. I can still see my uncle and aunt standing among the prized garden vegetables, four-foot tall collard greens reaching my aunts shoulders. I can see the tanned sinewy frame of my uncle stretching his short frame proudly towards the sky as he brags on the size of his watermelons. I can hear their laughter coming from lungs almost a century old and I can see the twinkle in Uncle Robert’s one good eye. I could never imagine him killing the man who gouged out his eye with a pool stick so many years before, though the relatives said that he did. I only knew that the blue glass eye looked odd with his one brown one set against his tawny gold skin. A semi circle of silky white hair matched his heavy white mustache. I can see the bright flash of his red plaid shirt through the school bus window years later as he walks hurriedly to the highway to escort me home the cold November day the house burned to the ground. Dirt and smut on his sad face. I can still see them. I will always be able to see them in the vivid imagery of my mind.
I used to wish with a fervor that I could have held on to the past and preserved all that was good about it, that I could have prevented my aunt the years of suffering as she lay dying bedridden with cancer. I used to wish that all the good years would have never ended; time cured the wishing as I realized that the fairy tale had to end. It was gone; I would never get it back. The sun would still rise, the seasons would still come, life would continue. I was thankful to have been a part of it; I would take the memories and savor them for the life ahead. I had been given the components that would comprise the fate of my destiny; they had aged into my soul so that part of the past would always remain with me. They would be there for me to draw strength from on days in my future when death would seem a triumph and life too hard to live any more.
It is strange how intricately life hangs in the scales, how unrelated events and single decisions alter the outcomes. Some remote land ten thousand miles from me, some land unfamiliar to me, held the key to my future. A foreign land of war, of helicopters, machine gunfire and mortars held a young man prisoner to its boundaries. A man I would never have met if my uncle had not become sick.
My uncle became acutely ill when I was fifteen years old and asked a young family that he was fond of to adopt me. Life had changed course for me again, the changes were becoming less kind as time wore on. I was about to be thrust into a situation where my lack of experience would affect my judgment and cause a permanent change in the person I would become. My future would become as uncertain and unstable as a howling wind in a wasteland.
My memories, both the common and the spectacular punctuated the stream of time during the brief blur of my formative years. Somehow, the colors, smells and sounds of childhood are like no other in life and can never be duplicated. I have seen orchards in bloom against sunsets so glorious as to move one from the realm of sensate appeal into the realm of enchantment, but I saw them only as a child. The intoxicating smell of gold and silver crayons, the trophies of the Crayola box, had the power to lure me into fanciful trances as I used the colored wax wands to weave magic upon mere paper. The comforting sounds of adult conversation as I eavesdropped cocooned away behind cushions long after my bedtime, and. the rise and fall of soft laughter on summer nights, mingled with the rhythm …..
To Be Continued