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Keep Listening, Are You Listening?

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Body, forgive her.
 
Natalia is barely five years old when she makes her first childish mistake. When her mother is off working at the clinic and her father is nursing yet another hangover that hasn’t recovered since he’s been laid off from the hospital three months ago, she presses her palm and her five fingertips onto the steaming sole-plate of an iron mid-use.
 
The burn starts off cold to your nerve endings, the tell-tale sign that the plate is actually extremely hot, and the burn slowly escalates to something between throbbing and white-hot. Your skin starts to blister, and it’s your job to let out a cry — an appropriate reaction to the phenomenon unfolding upon you.
 
When the helper grabs Natalia by the wrist and lathers two tablespoons worth of mustard paste on her burns, she asks the child what she’d been thinking, to touch an iron like that. Daddy said it would be fine, she replies. You can’t help but reinforce a throb to remind her never to trust the words of a presently absent father.
 
Emotionally unavailable is something that Natalia’s still far too young to learn at this point, but it pains you to this day to vividly remember that he never came to check on her burns. She walks around for the next week with mustard paste plastered in with cling wrap, wrapped tight around a part of you. Her mother comes to check on her wounds at the end of the day.
 
Body, forgive her.
 
Natalia has grown up doing sloppy tendus at centre, and slightly cleaner pliés at the barre. For the sixth year coming, she’s acquired a taste for the likes of Tchaikovsky and Debussy, a taste well beyond her years, and has developed a proficient awareness in her fingers and her toes and the placement of her lopsided hips in a tendu derrière.
 
Despite her learned agility, she’s careless in the way that she trips over cracks on the floor and tends to scrape her knees. She hides the monstrosity across her knees under pink tights at ballet class, but she can’t hide these careless wounds from you. You can feel the bite every time she bends her knees, and every other time she skips a step on the stairwell within her large and grandiose house.
 
At times you pray for her to slow down, and you make a point through aches. You pray that one day, she’ll learn to take better care of herself, because then she’ll inadvertently take better care of you. She applies goosegrass into her own wounds before she sleeps, and you start to think that maybe she’s not quite as careless and carefree as you’d first thought. She cares.
 
With remedies like this, you heal quickly.
 
Body, forgive her. Natalia comes from a purely Russian bloodline, and some nights her mother recounts stories that her own mother had once told her, about the Bolshevik revolution. No matter what, you must never forget your roots, her mother would say. Natalia is Russian to the core, her bloodline dating back centuries, but she’s oddly intolerant to typical Russian winters.
 
She’s often afflicted with a cold, and every time she is, Natalia will curl up in her bed and tuck herself under thick duvets twice as heavy as herself. She gets extra rest and only drinks chicken soup when she’s sick. Maybe she’s not that bad to you after all.
 
Body, forgive her, for she doesn’t know a better place to hide from a fire than in the vents. She’s nine when she follows her recovering father to work. Natalia is still in shock by the time her shrieks begin to reach her own ears; by this time, she has already screamed your throat raw. The membrane to your throat is inflamed with use, and tickled with smoke. The both of you watch her father collapse to the floor with sweltering blisters bubbling up on his now-dead corpse. His flesh turns white. There’s a smell that you pick up on, the smell of burnt flesh hovering above the stench of kerosene.
 
She doesn’t stop screaming until the both of you nearly pass out. When a strange man pulls you out of the vent and wraps you in a damp blanket, you thank god. Then again, sometimes you speak to soon. He doesn’t take Natalia back to her mother, and alarms go off in you much faster than it does in her head.
 
Body, forgive her, because this is where it all goes really wrong.
 
It has taken you both over a decade to pinpoint exactly when things had begun to spiral into absolute, uncontrolled chaos, at which exact point in time. After decades of voluntarily and involuntarily visiting and revisiting the past, Natasha and you share a unanimous decision that this is it.
 
At this point in time, Natalia pleads to go home. She watches as the money changes hands, and she panics as she herself changes hands along with it. You want to put up a fight, throw hands and feet, but she leaves you frozen still. In a last-ditch effort to get her to resist in more than just words, you make her wet herself in the back seat of the van.
 
As soon as the stench hits, the man that Natalia has been sold off to slams the brakes to the van and gets off. He handles you both roughly and strips off her pants, and then he strikes her in the face - not quite how you’d expected for things to play out. You feel the throb on your cheek right before Natalia passes out from pure exhaustion, and you slip into the darkness along with her.
 
By the time she comes to, three more girls are sobbing in the seats beside and behind her. When she looks out of the darkened windows, Natalia sees that they’re in Minsk now. She resigns herself to her sorry fate, unsure of what’s to come. You’re close to having her retch all over the seat, but you know she doesn’t want to cause more trouble.
 
You should have. Then maybe the man would’ve left her behind.
 
Body, forgive her.
 
The next time she wakes up, you’re not too sure what they’ve put in you and her. Natalia is lying down on a stretcher, strapped down by her ankles and wrists. You feel a pin prick in her arm, and upon further observation, you realize that Natalia has been hooked up to an IV. Except the drip isn’t saline. It leaves the both of you sedated, and maybe a little high, to the point that you feel disconnected from her.
 
They call it compliance. You find the exact same high a decade later when Natasha’s shooting up in an alley in New York after a day’s work, so you call it heroin. Maybe if you weren’t Natalia’s body, you wouldn’t be subjected to such toxins. It’s a sad state, but you find that nobody questions how one could do something as heinous as hook up a nine-year-old to a full bag of opioids. Natalia is too far gone in this state to catch up on all of your subconscious developments.
 
These thoughts escape her the way they are slowly escaping you, and for all the things you’d blame her careless self for, you know she shoulders no blame for this. It’s not her fault, but it’s always someone’s fault. You’re just not sure whose it is this time around.
 
Body, forgive her. It’s been six months. They haven’t hurt you just yet, but she’s vacant behind the eyes. There’s something about staring right into odd screens sixteen hours a day with your eyes pulled open that empties out a person. It’s not something you can feel, not something physical, but Natalia used to have more fight than this. It’s messing with her mind and you don’t quite know what’s wrong just yet. At times you try to move, move your fingers or your toes, but it doesn’t register in her head and so you can’t do much at all.
 
They used to have to strap the girls down in these chairs, but they don’t have to do it anymore.
 
So take a deep breath.
Calm your mind.
You know what’s best.
What’s best is you comply.
Compliance will be rewarded.
 
Are you ready to comply? 
 
Body, forgive her. It’s getting harder to tell the difference. You find yourself mumbling strange words for Natalia in her sleep, and at times, even when she’s awake.
 
I am one of 28 young ballerinas with the Bolshoi, she whispers to no-one. Training is hard, but the glory of Soviet culture, and the warmth of my parents makes up for...
 
No, that’s not right. You pause, and she pauses along with you.
 
You make her stare at her feet, and they’re not blistered or maimed from dancing on blocks. She’s confused. She reaches out a finger to touch the bare skin on her second toe, and flinches as if there had been a blistering wound.
 
They’ve really done her head in, haven’t they? They’ve done her head in enough for ten thousand lifetimes and she feels wounds that aren’t physically there. You find yourself starting to mumble the same words all over again, and you pause at the same place. It seems they never got to finish conditioning into her the rest of that sentence. It seems, they don’t have to.
 
The next time she shows up for class on the mat of a sparring gym, instead of refining repertoires on pointe, you mouth something different.
 
I am one of the 28 Black Widow agents with the Red Room. Training is hard, but the glory of Soviet supremacy, and the warmth of my parents... all my parents... makes up for...
 
Sometimes even you get confused. They’ve done the both of you in, but she gets smarter as she gets older. She makes her first kill, a snap to the neck during a close-combat lesson, at the age of eleven and you find that these words never touch her lips again for years.
 
Body, forgive her. She’s just killed her mother.
 
The first time she sees her own mother in years, it’s when she pulls the bag off the head of her target at target practice. There’s a hole in her mother’s head, right between the eyes. Her mother’s once-crystal clear eyes are glazed over, almost as vacant as her own. You’d want to scream, but it’s as if she has forgotten what an appropriate reaction is anymore.
 
It takes Natalia a full five minutes for any semblance of recognition to kick in. Once it does, at first it doesn’t hurt, and then it hurts too much. And once it starts, it doesn’t stop. She walks out of the range quietly, and you think that maybe she’s barely holding it together too.
 
“Thank you, Natalia,” a voice says, dark and sinister. Despite everything, and you just don’t know why, she replies with a: “Happy to comply,” and a smile.
 
But compliance is unreliable. The method, is unreliable. Her smile is unreliable and it waters down as soon as she leaves, and she doesn’t know what to do with her tightening chest, or her watering eyes, or her shaking hands. For god’s sake, she’s only twelve now, but she’s forgotten what it feels like to harbour anger and grief. It’s unbearable, both for you and for her, but it feels like this.
 
Hang in there, the worst is yet to come.