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ALLIGATORS, BEACH BALLS AND POKER GAMES by Jennifer Macaire
Alligators, Beach Balls, and Poker Games…………………….3 The Leopard Ray………………………………………………8 The Woman and the Sea………………………………………13 The Stray……………………………………………………...18 The White Queen………………………..……………….……24 The Devil in Me………………………………………………..31 A Model Marriage……………………………………………..37 Fall Leaves……………………………………………………...43 The Fatima Jihad………………………………………………..48 My Best Friend……………………………………………..….54 Islands…………………………………………………………..57 Behind Closed Doors…………………………………………….62 The Development………………………………………………..65 Kelsey’s Secret…………………………………………………...72 Life on Mars……………………………………………………..97 China Doll………………………………………………………104 Dancing at the Body Turn………………………………..…….112 Honey on Your Skin………………………………………….…119
ALLIGATORS, BEACH BALLS AND POKER GAMES First published in 2002 by WordSpinnersInk in InkSpin Who else can say of her childhood, “I watched alligators shredding a beach ball while my mother played poker until dark?" It was Holly’s beach ball. She'd just tossed it over my brother’s head so it was her fault it bounced off the waves in the pool, hit the deck with a curious ‘boing’ sound, and sailed into the alligator pit some thirty feet below. We dashed to the metal railing and hung over, mouths open, gasping with fright and exhaustion. We’d been in the pool for nearly five hours. “Don’t fall in!” The man’s voice was laconic. He’d been shouting the same reprimand for years now, and we’d heard it at least fifty times that afternoon. Well, it was more evening now. Down below in the alligator pit, the reptiles had finished their first, mad rush at the ball and were now back in their original, immobile positions. You might have thought the fury of thrashing scales and tails you saw before was an illusion except for the bright strips of plastic dangling from the monster’s jaws. I’d never seen the alligators move before this incident. Each time I’d been to that pool, the alligators had been lying so still they looked like bronze statues. Prehistoric bronze. Now, leaning over the rail, I found my hands gripping it more tightly than ever before, and my bare toes sought the edge of the wooden deck and curled around it, anchoring me. I glanced at my brother poking his head between the two bottom bars. He was too little to reach the top one. "What happens if they escape?" he asked me. "Would they go to the beach? We should warn the tourists." He stuck his head further through the bars. I had a sudden notion of his small body hurtling down and landing with a soft splash in the pit below. I pictured the alligators turning and attacking with a savagery and a rapidity I’d never before imagined. Respect for alligators and fear for my tender brother who was always getting into scrapes and being taken to the hospital made me slide back into the pool, calling to the others to join me. “Let’s play Marco Polo!” We splashed and shrieked. We were as free as children are when their mother is utterly absorbed in something not ten feet away and too concentrated to notice the loss of a new beach ball or the waves sloshing over the side of the pool onto the wooden deck. Always before, making waves had been prohibited and diving was strictly forbidden. Now we ran and dove as much as we liked, and compared wrinkles on our hands and feet. We were waterlogged. Our eyes were red from chlorine and our lips had that bluish tinge children’s mouths get when they’re overwrought and cold. But no one told us to get out of the pool, and no one scolded us about the loss of the beach ball. I could see my mother’s profile. She had narrowed her eyes to slits, and her mouth was drawn so tightly a pin wouldn’t fit into it. She was playing poker. A friendly game, she’d thought. Then they informed her that the chips on the table were worth ten dollars apiece, and she found out she’d lost our grocery money. It was win or starve now. She was grimly determined
4 to play until the pile of chips shifted to her side of the table. It had already started to grow. I never knew my mother to fail at anything she’d tried to do. I was the oldest. I looked at my brother, with his blue lips and red eyes, and decided I’d better act like the oldest for once, but my sister was always quicker. She scrambled out of the pool— a little, dark mermaid—and picked up our damp towels. “Come on! We have to get dry!” she called. My mother flicked a grateful look at her, and I slid back underwater. I would wait until I dissolved; that would be soon. *** The day’s tropical heat was leaching out of the wooden deck. The evening air made us shiver, but we had no other clothes except the shorts and tee shirts we’d worn to school and the wet underwear we swam in. We were playing ‘go fish’ with a damp deck of cards, and Holly was winning. My brother was half-asleep. The sun had set and the sky was a dark, electric blue. I wondered why my mother didn’t just laugh at the three men she was playing cards with, tell them that she was tired, that her children were sleepy, and just leave. Plastic chips weren’t money. We didn’t have any money anyway. If she lost, she would have to write a check. The check wouldn’t be much good either; half the time they bounced. I couldn’t understand why my mother didn’t just stand up, tell them to sue her, and leave. There was no police officer in the world that would drag her back to the table and make her pay for a silly poker game. I was hungry and tired, but I was the only one who thought of complaining. My sister never grumbled. She would have been a perfect little pioneer child, walking across the desert in bare feet, never thirsty, never tired, never saying anything except ‘may I help you harness your oxen?’ I cupped my hands under my chin and watched Holly as she peered into my brother’s hand to see which card she should ask for. She needed twos, but I had hidden them underneath the corner of my towel. For once, maybe she wouldn’t win. If she had been playing poker, the whole pile of chips would have been sitting in front of her, and she would have taken us all out for a lobster dinner afterwards. Holly was lucky and generous, but she tended to lose things easily. Easy come; easy go. Her beach ball had lasted nearly all of one afternoon. Peter yawned. He was content to be wherever he found himself—in a pool, out of a pool, or in an alligator pit. He would have tried to pet them before they tore him to pieces. He shuffled his cards around and tried to find two pairs. He had pairs all over, but he was too little to sort them out. Julie leaned over, straightened his hand, and lay his cards down for him. “You win,” she said. Peter was lucky too. He found money lying in the street. He won a five-dollar bill with hoops at the fair and cried. He’d been aiming at the little plastic tank. I was the only discontented one. I was the only one wishing our mother had a little less pride and a little more luck with cards. She would win her money back, nearly all of it. When she was down ten dollars, after winning back six hundred, she stopped, drew out her checkbook and wrote a check, slapping it down on the table with a cry of triumph. She packed us in the car, ground the gears, and drove back home.
While we showered and put on clean underwear and only slightly dirty pajamas, she made us tuna sandwiches and hot cocoa for dinner. Afterwards, Julie and Holly did the dishes while I did my homework on the couch, Peter’s head hard and heavy against my shoulder. He’d fallen asleep. My mother put on the white dress—the one I liked with the halter-top and the colorful flowers. She dashed red lipstick across her mouth, patted powder on her cheeks and snapped her compact shut. She had to go to the restaurant up the road now, for her waitress job. She’d be home at one a.m., at the latest she always said. We would get kisses and pats on the head, and then she would leave us alone. Julie would make sure we all got to bed on time and that Peter brushed his teeth. We would turn out the lights and I would sing. I would sing for an hour sometimes, Peter whispering his favorite songs to me. Then their breathing would deepen and even out and I would be alone in the dark, alone with my wakefulness. The night sky would wheel overhead as I gazed out the screen at the stars and waited for my mother’s footsteps on the cement walkway outside. When I heard the familiar tap, tap, I would nod to myself. I would close my eyes. My mother was home. I could give over my watch and go to sleep. But sometimes I would wonder—I would often wonder—what I would do if ever she never came home. Would my sister, the responsible pioneer girl, organize the household while my brother and Holly, the lucky ones, found money in the gutters? What would I do? I would sing, I decided. I would sing while the moon slid through the sky, and waves washed all signs of the alligators off the beaches.
The Leopard Ray Sneer. That’s what I did best. A rebel act from some TV show I’d seen, the perpetual frown,
6 the mouth twisted in a leer, the ‘I spit on you and all of your kind,’ look in my narrowed eyes. It didn’t help my case. “Jasmine, your behavior is unacceptable. You are excused from this table.” The polite words were sheathed in ice. They stabbed me right in the chest and stupidly I looked down, half expecting to see my own fork planted there. “Leave.” That word pushed me out of my chair, shoved me out the door, and slammed it behind me. “Come back here and shut that door the right way!” The words chased me down the gravel path. I dodged, trying to lose them behind the hibiscus bush but they caught me in the form of more threats, “All right, stay down there, but don’t come back before you’re sent for, you hear?” No answer required, only blind obedience. I wondered what my television rebel would do in my place. I looked at the flimsy, immaculate building perched on the cliff overlooking the sea, and I concluded he’d probably give a tantrum kick at the pylon holding it up and watch as it crashed. With icy eyes and a mouth twisted sideways. Screw you too. My anger burst and I was left with a hollow in my chest. Anger was all that was keeping me going. I wandered down the path towards the beach (Private, s’il vous plait) and then walked out to the very end of the diving board Mr. Hollywood-Swimming-Pool-Architect had installed. Mr. Hollywood-Swimming-Pool-Architect had designed his own house. He had built it on a piece of million-dollar real estate on the island. I stared at the horizon hopefully. Praying for a hurricane that would wipe the place off the map and spare my own house. My house was soggy during the rainy season, ants swarmed in cereal boxes, tarantulas drank in my shower and moths blundered softly through the rooms at night. Its rooms were small, dark, and dank, with millipedes curled in secret places. It was all we could afford. Mr. Hollywood had paid our rent that month, as he’d paid the last month’s rent and “Goddammit Jasmine, can’t you be nice to him? He took us all to Virgin Gorda on his yacht for Easter. Please honey, don’t sulk like that, he’s nice to me, and if you’d just be a little more friendly...” I concentrate on the black, volcanic rocks in the water that act as a natural breaker and keep the beach from getting swept away. They’re made of black lava - I know that they can cut like glass, and that they’re smoother on one side because of waves and wind. I know that the whole island is like that, smooth on one side, jagged on the other, and it takes away the bitter taste in my mouth. Just knowing things that Mr. Hollywood could never understand is soothing. “Get off that diving board.” Shit. Mr. Hollywood’s mutant son. I pretend not to hear. I’m safe out here. Percy would never dare wobble out to the end of the board, he’s afraid of height, has something called ass-ma, and is perpetually covered in a thick layer of white grease to protect his fairy-white skin. “I said, get off that diving board. My father doesn’t like it when people sit there. It’s for diving, not sightseeing.” I don’t reply. Why bother? His father didn’t like it when I did anything. When my mother mentioned timidly that I got a good mark in school, Percy’s father started in with how many classes Percy skipped and how his IQ amazed everyone. When she said, ‘Jasmine tried out for the gymnastics team,’ he replied, ‘They have gymnastics on this island? Who do they compete against?’ and he barked with laughter and said, ‘Percy is on the best crossbow team in Los Angeles County.’ My mother tried one last time, ‘You know, I was thinking about sending Jasmine to a private school in the states, to widen her horizons, you know.’ He just stared at her, then at me, and he didn’t even try to look charitable. ‘Jasmine in a private school? Why waste your money? She’s fine in the public school, I hear they have a very good secretarial
7 classes.’ That’s when I blocked him out. Shit. And that was on the second dinner date. With Percy and me on our Very Best Behaviour. Afterwards, we dropped all pretence of getting along. *** Percy hisses ‘white trash’ at me under his breath, but I know where it really hurts him. I turn, very slowly, and pretend to lift sunglasses off my nose. “Oh Percy, it’s you! Why are you out in the sun? Go right back inside and put on your turtleneck and your long underwear. Then lie down and relax. Play some Nintendo. It’s good for you.” He bunches his face up as if he was going to scream, but a lifetime of having manners pounded into him have taken away his better instincts. Instead, he turns and makes his way towards the little bungalow-daddy-built-Percy so that he could stay at the beach yet be out of the sun. I decided to show off. I placed my hands on the end of the diving board and kicked my legs into the air. I could stay on my hands indefinitely. The board was stable, the water, twenty feet below me, was clear turquoise and I could see black sea-urchins, pink whelks, and schools of bright fish swimming in the reef. The water was thirty feet deep beneath me, but I could see to the bottom as if I was looking through glass. I stayed on my hands until the muscles in my shoulders started to quiver, and I was just thinking about letting go and dropping into that crystal world below, when I saw the leopard ray. Surprised, I gave a cry. “A leopard ray! Percy, come look!” The magnanimous instinct within me had not been altogether crushed by Percy’s insufferable arrogance. Besides, I liked to show off. Percy knew the difference between sea anemones and sea urchins only because he stepped on one once when he forgot to put his plastic diving-sandals on his feet. Nitwit. He screamed so loudly we all thought he’d been struck by a stingray, or stepped on fire coral, or something dangerous, but it was only a peppering of black spines stuck in his left foot. “Get a bowl of vinegar,” said my mother, pushing me towards the house. I looked in the kitchen, but aside tofu in the fridge and some sort of imported tea I didn’t find anything. I went down to the beach with an empty bowl and told Percy to pee in it. You might have thought I’d just slapped him. His father swept him up in his arms and drove him to the hospital. Percy screamed the whole way. I had to sit in the back-seat with him. His daddy wouldn’t dream of leaving my mother and me alone at the beach house. We might break something. They were used to tourists at the hospital. However, there was a shortage of vinegar that day. The nurse told Percy to pee in a stainless-steel bowl and for a minute, I thought that Percy’s father would actually rent a private jet and take him to Florida for treatment. He peed in the bowl, finally. It’s no use to pull out the spines with a tweezers; they just crumble and get infected. You have to dissolve them in acid. Such a soothing thought. I smiled as I watched the leopard ray, the rarest and most beautiful fish in the Caribbean. Percy actually dared come up behind me on the diving board. “Where?” he shouted. I didn’t look at him, I just pointed. Then I turned and I saw he had his crossbow, and he was about to shoot the leopard ray. “No!” I cried, and shoved him back. He tottered on the diving board, almost fell, then made a terrible face and aimed at the fish gliding right on the surface, his dappled wings waving gently at us. “Get out of the way!” he snarled. He was two years older than I was, but smaller and puny. I reached for him, intending to grab his neck and shake him, when the crossbow fired. There was a sound like a hornet, and the metal arrow dove into the water, striking the ray a glancing blow. The ray leapt, its gold and black, dappled back glowing in the sun, and then it
8 disappeared into the reef, exactly like a leopard slipping back into its jungle. I wanted to pound Percy’s head into the sand, but he was staring at me with his mouth hanging open, and that’s when I felt a strange coldness in my side. The arrow had passed right through me on its way to the sea. It punched a hole right through my kidney, which we found out later, when the x-rays came back. Luckily, Percy didn’t listen to me. I was all for wrapping my towel around my side and hiding the damage. Because I realized that however proud his daddy seemed of him, it hid an overwhelming desire to crush him to dust and start over again, and maybe get something bigger, stronger, and without ass-ma. Percy had enough sense of self-preservation to let me say it was all my fault, that I went to the bungalow, opened the forbidden cabinet, and took the weapon so that I could kill a dangerous stingray. So that Percy might swim in safety. They operated on me in the local hospital. They were more used to tourists with sea urchin spines, so they screwed up and I lost my kidney. That’s all right, I can live with just one. But I can’t ever become a drinker, says Percy very seriously. I tell him to shut-thefuckup, to give me some of his herbal tea, and to teach me how to get Mario all the way to the princess. THE END
The Woman and the Sea “What happens next? Can you tell me what will happen next?” The writer was suddenly confused. “What do you mean? You’re telling me what’s happening, not the other way around.” “But it’s your story!” There was terror in the voice. “You’re the writer. The iceberg, the whale, even the color of the water, it’s all coming from you!” “No it’s not! You’re the one living the experience; you’re telling it to me as it happens to you. I’m just writing down what you say.” There were a series of coughs from the speaker, then a moment of silence broken by the sound of waves hitting the broken fiberglass hull. “No, I won’t believe that. You mentioned the whale before I even saw it.”
9 “How could I have? I’m not with you! You saw a waterspout, it’s here, on page one hundred and thirteen, a geyser, you said, ‘It looks like a mini geyser. It must be a whale. I hope he doesn’t come too close, he could swamp me in my present situation.’ Don’t you remember?” “No, I don’t. I recall thinking about a whale, and hearing you describing it, but I was too busy panicking, I think, to notice. Then it nearly hit the boat, and that’s when I saw it.” “It was huge, like a blimp coming from beneath the waves. It was the color of pewter and its flanks were crusted with barnacles and scarred by battles with giant squid. It glistened. Water shed off its skin like snow sliding from a roof. Then it plunged deep into the ocean, disappearing into the dark water as if it had melted.” “I didn’t say any of that,” the voice was tinged with panic now. “You didn’t say those exact words, I wrote that because it sounds good. I’m a writer, I tell stories.” “That’s what I mean! I’m trying to tell you! You have to get me out of here. I’m lost, my boat is wrecked, I’m freezing to death, the darkness is gathering and there is no one around to help me but you. Please help me! Don’t let me die!” “But…I’m not with you, I’m on the radio, I’ve been listening since you started the race. You wanted me to write your story. I thought it was a great idea. You’re the best woman sailor in the world, and I’m a woman writer. You told me that I was more qualified to understand your feelings, the solitude you felt on your ‘round the world race in solo.” “You told me that you knew nothing about sailing, so I told you I’d explain everything to you as we went along.” Her voice was mournful. “I’m a sailor, not a writer. Now I’m a drowning sailor, the water is reaching into the overturned boat, soon it will plunge into the deep, and no one will ever find me. What’s that sound?” “What sound?” “That tapping sound, it’s tormenting me.” They held their breaths. One woman sitting in a leather chair, huddled over a typewriter, her hands poised above the keyboard, heavy earphones upon her head. At her side was a whole team of specialists. She was in the office where the race was followed. The families of the sailors, the journalists, the radio operators and satellite tracking equipment were all packed into the room. Right now most people were standing behind the writer, their faces drawn and tense, their bodies arched unconsciously towards the speaker where the sailor’s voice came through. It was their only contact with the woman, lost at sea now for two days and two nights. “Is it still there?” asked the writer, adjusting her headphones and looking up at a man standing nearby. He was holding a satellite transmitter in one hand so tightly his knuckles were white. He held up his other hand. Once, twice, then two fingers. “No, it’s gone now.” “Jean-Pierre wants me to tell you that Thomas Lebourg should be in your sector within twelve hours.” “Thomas? He was twelve hours behind me?” “Nearly; you drifted since hitting the iceberg. He’s got your signal though, it’s a good thing it’s working.” “I was winning.” “You were winning, yes. How do you feel?” “Why do you sound so distant?” she cried suddenly. “You sound so very far away.” “I am far. I’m sorry, I feel terrible about your shipwreck. I know how much you loved your boat. When the iceberg tore through the hull I could feel your pain, but you have to understand, I’m halfway around the world from you. There are two oceans and two continents separating us.” “The iceberg. I know I never saw an iceberg. You invented it. You made up the whole thing.” “Don’t say that! It’s not true. You screamed when you saw it.”
10 “I screamed? I don’t remember screaming. There’s darkness in my head now and my arms feel leaden. I can hardly hold onto the life raft anymore. What is that tapping noise? It’s driving me mad! It’s incessant, sinister!” “Don’t panic, don’t move around too much! Jean Pierre is checking on the satellite station how much time is left before Thomas arrives.” “Is he the closest one to me?” “He is.” “Lord, the sky is so cold. Snow is shivering down upon me. It’s landing on the waves and looks like a film of white tissue paper on the water. I was winning, wasn’t I? I was in the lead.” She gave a short laugh. “I suppose I should have checked my radar more often.” “You couldn’t be two places at the same time. The swells were enormous. You had to hold the tiller, and the sails needed all your attention.” “Did I say that too? Or did you make it up?” “I made nothing up, you told me everything as it was happening.” “No, you made it all happen. You’re the writer and the story is yours. I’m just a character in it, a figment of your imagination. If you want to you can save me, if you decide, I will die. The cold will paralyze me and I will slide into the icy waves and vanish; like the whale.” The writer leaned back from her typewriter and cast a nervous look at the crowd around her. They were all oddly still. The last words of the shipwrecked sailor echoed in the confined space. She frowned and said, “Don’t give up! It sounds as if you’ve already decided to die. Tell me about anything, what you’re thinking, feeling, hoping; but don’t stop talking!” “The tapping noise is like the sound of birds pecking dry bones. Will my bones wash up to shore someday, do you think? Will they end up on a rocky beach in Antarctica? There are sharks in these waters as big as the whale I saw. Perhaps one will swallow my remains and I’ll simply disintegrate.” “Hush! Don’t say that! You must be strong! Do you recall what you said to me the day that you called me? The first time we spoke? You said you wanted to prove that women were strong. I said that we didn’t need to prove anything, but you insisted. You wanted a story written about your boat race that would show women a new way. You were thinking about a different kind of strength, I think. Now is your chance to prove it.” “You were right. We are strong; I was winning the race.” “You can make it. Just hold on. Ten more hours, just ten more.” “The cold is seeping into my belly. I feel as if there are threads of ice being pulled through my body by invisible needles. Hush, hush; why does that noise never stop? I can hear it over the waves, the sigh of the wind and the sound of ice crystals falling onto bottom of my overturned boat. I can hear the sound of my teeth chattering, but that tapping noise is driving me mad!” “If I knew what it was I would help you. If I could fly a rescue mission to the Antarctic, I would, but all I can do is talk to you over the radio and listen to your story. The people here are all doing all they can to help you.” “The people there? You mean Jean-Pierre and his team? Is any of my family present? Is my mother there? Can I speak to her?” Her voice broke. “No, don’t answer that. I know where they are. They are kneeling in a stone church, near the sea, while my brother clutches my mother’s arm and my father glares at the priest and waits for my deliverance, one way or another.” “They can do nothing here. They have their own radio to contact you. Did you leave it on? Have they spoken to you?” “I don’t know. I can’t recall. I think so. All I hear now is static, and your voice, ever so faint, and that terrible noise, that tapping.” “Jean-Pierre says it’s probably nothing. Do you have anything to eat?” “Do I? It’s up to you to decide.” There came a laugh like a sob over the radio. “How will my
11 story end? Have you decided yet? Will Thomas save me? Will he haul me into his boat and warm me with hot tea?” “Would you like that? What’s that? Is the storm getting stronger?” The sound of the waves grew suddenly louder. There was a sound like wood splintering and a sharp cry. Water rushed about, its whooshing clearly heard. “Are you there? Are you still there?” The writer screamed into her headset. “My legs! I can’t feel my legs any more! Oh my Lord! I know now, I know what that sound was!” “What?” the writer paused, her hands poised above the keyboard. “It’s the sound of your fingers hitting the typewriter keys. Oh Lord, why, why did I pick a woman to write about me? Hemmingway would have saved me!” “Hemmingway thought women were weak,” said the writer, tears running down her cheeks. “Hang on, please hang on! Thomas is not far. Can you see his sail yet? He has your distress signal in his navigator; he’ll be upon you within minutes. Don’t give up! I beg you! Don’t let go! Don’t!” There was no more sound from the headset. The empty wind was all that was heard. The room darkened, figures dissolving like smoke, leaving the writer alone in front of her page, alone in the room. The waves crashed, the wind whistled, and the writer’s fingers flew over the keyboard, calling up a storm, snow fluttering onto black water, while a white face showed briefly in a swirling eddy, then vanished.
The Stray I warn you, you’re going to hate me. You won’t want to at first. After all, you were the one to make the first move. I wasn’t interested. I was simply drinking my milk at the reception when you sat down next to me. “No one drinks milk at a cocktail party,” you said. You were laughing, as if you’d said something incredibly witty and I was supposed to be charmed; I don’t know, fall madly in love with you right there, in the middle of the crowd. “I wasn’t invited,” I said. Perhaps it was my fault. I was trying to be cool. I was so arrogant then. I even smoked cigarettes at the time. That night I’d smoked more than just cigarettes and I was pretty stoned. I drank the rest of my milk, and smoked, and then you asked me my name. “Vivian,” I lied. I’d always wanted to be a Vivian. I pictured her as mortally sophisticated, with perfect fingernails and a long, aquiline nose. You smiled, showing off your beautiful teeth. “Vivian. It suits you. Why are you here if you weren’t invited?” you asked. You moved subtly closer to me. “I’m hungry. I put smoked salmon in my handbag. I hope it won’t get mixed in with the chocolate truffles.”
12 “You put smoked salmon in your purse?” “And some chicken and a few pieces of toast with Brie. I stuck them together so they wouldn’t get everything sticky.” You didn’t know if I was serious or not. I could tell you weren’t sure. Was I lying? You darted a quick glance at my hands, resting on the table. Too bad for you, I had done my nails perfectly, my hair was clean, and my makeup was impeccable. You decided I was joking and laughed. I went home and feasted on salmon and Brie cheese. I was hungry. I was always starving then. I was living in a huge apartment with two gay men. I was famished all the time. If you’d glanced lower, at my feet, during the cocktail party, you would have known right away. My shoes were worn as thin as cigarette paper. I had to walk everywhere. I walked a lot. I was stoned quite a bit too. I stole marijuana and bits of hash from the two guys I lived with. They didn’t know - or pretended not to notice. I brought home beautiful boys for them to try to seduce, and they let me sleep on their couch. Crash on the couch was the expression Ron used. The beautiful boys were easy to find. They were young and nervous, just looking for something new. I could tell, by looking into their eyes, what they really wanted. If I scared them too much I took them home. Sometimes they stayed with Ron and James. Some left. A few quicker than others, sometimes angrily, or bemused. I didn’t care one way or another. I hesitated about you. I was going to bring you home too. Ron and James would have loved you. You had such fair skin. Your hair was that uncertain color between blond and brown, I could tell you’d been tow-headed as a child. However, you were too old, I think. Your eyes were old. Something like that, and anyway, I was too tired. I had to get some sleep. James says I sleep more than anyone he knows does. I curl up on the sofa in the book room, right in front of the big, bay window – and I sleep. When I first came to the apartment, I slept for four days. James was worried, but Ron kept taking my pulse and tapping my knees or something. He said I was fine, just too thin, and dirty. James gave me a bath. How I hated that! He washed me all over, like a mother. He was firm though. He screeched when he found the louse, really screamed. Ron ran out to get a plethora of lice shampoo, flea powder, rinse, spray, lotion. The sheets were boiled and my clothes were thrown away. I cried bitterly, the lice shampoo stung my eyes and throat. Ron cut my hair. He’s a hairdresser. He’s good. Ron and James work together for films or photos. Sometimes movie stars would come right to the apartment. I took their coats for them. I’d show them to the dressing room and I’d make coffee or tea for them and carry it in on a tray. James told me never to open my mouth. He said I was supposed to be mysterious. He dressed me in different, outrageous outfits. Once he dressed me as a slave, and once he had me serve the coffee in the nude. The client was a foreigner, with gold-plated fingernails. I wasn’t nervous or embarrassed. I was mostly stoned out of my mind, I think. When the gold-plated fingernails reached out and tweaked my nipple I didn’t even blink. “No, no, no!” James admonished. “Not touch.” He made a face at the client as if to say, ‘How can you touch that?’ The man gave me a hundred dollars. It was not long after that incident that I met you. You followed me home. I didn’t know it. You were clever at keeping out of sight, or I was more tired than I’d thought. A few days later I saw you on the street. “Hello Vivian,” you said. I was taken by surprise. I’d forgotten I’d lied about my name. I’d forgotten you, actually. “Hello.” I walked quickly. I was supposed to be buying some croissants for a client. She was a
13 television star and it was early in the morning. She gave me some money and I was wondering how much the croissants cost, how much change I would give her, and how much I could keep for myself. You walked along with me, step for step, and talked about the weather. I listened vaguely. I was worried I’d turned the wrong way. At the corner, I asked you if you knew where the French bakery was and you took me there. You even offered to buy me the croissants. I accepted. So I kept all the money the star had given me. You walked me back home. At the door, you asked me when we could see each other again. The doorman watched us with no expression at all on his bulldog face. He didn’t even raise an eyebrow when you said, ‘goodbye Vivian’, and kissed me on the lips. We met again. You were often hanging around on weekends. We went for walks. You thought it was cool that I lived with two gay men. I told you I was Ron’s cousin, an orphan. You invited me to the circus one night. Ron and Stewar gave you the inquisition when you arrived, and I listened in fascination. I hadn’t realized you were a computer programmer. I didn’t even know what that was. It had never crossed my mind to ask you what you did, or where you lived. Your answers seemed to satisfy them, or maybe it was your charm. Your smile was devastating. I saw Ron glance at James more than once. They held hands as they showed us to the door. “Have a good time!” they said, “be back at midnight!” James gave Ron an elbow in the ribs. “Call us if you have a change of plans,” he said firmly. You were impressed. You kept telling me how great they were, and how much they seemed to care for me, and how lucky I was. I just nodded. I was going to a circus and I’d never been to one in my life. I didn’t know what to expect. I was still acting sophisticated though, and blasé. I wanted to pretend I’d been to one before. You’d gotten us front row tickets. The show was so amazing I had to keep biting my tongue to keep from crying out. Soon I tasted blood. The circus thrilled me though; all the acrobats and trapeze artists stirred something in my heart I didn’t know I possessed. Everything was great, until the lion tamer act. They set up the cage in front of us and the great beasts slouched out of their cages and into the ring. All those felines; I could smell them. I could feel them smelling us, smelling the crowd. They could smell and hear so much better than anyone could ever know. And they wanted to kill us. They hated and feared their trainer. They wanted to kill him, and eat him too. They wanted to rend him to pieces, to sink their claws and fangs into him and roll in his blood. They wanted to kill me. I could feel it. I felt it like the rasp of their tongue against my skin. I got goose bumps all over and my hair prickled. We were sitting so close, right next to the cage. The lions and tigers kept looking at me. First one, then another, and soon they were all staring at me with their unblinking golden eyes. I was terrorized. The trainer couldn’t make them obey him and the crowd started to murmur. The people all around us stared, curious. You laughed at first, but after a minute went by you became nervous too. The big cats began to growl and I got up and bolted. The sound of the tiger hitting the cage was thunderous. People screamed and I tripped over someone’s legs. Popcorn flew all over in a sudden snow flurry. The lions and tigers hurled themselves at the bars of the cage and the trainer called out to his assistants. All was pandemonium, all was confusion. Afterwards you became very scientific and explained, using long words, how the animals could smell certain pheromones and that my running away presented a visual stimulus to their feline brain. I pretended to agree. I was still shaking so you took me to your apartment. I admired your paintings; you paint beautifully, by the way. You wanted to make love to me. You were incandescent with desire.
14 That is one of Ron’s expressions and I love it. It fit you exactly at that moment. Your eyes were brilliant with fever and it got to me. We made love, slept, and made love. Halfway through the night I called Ron and James and told them not to worry. They were out. I left a message on the telephone answering machine. The next morning you sent me home in a taxi. I was sore all over and so very tired. You kept calling me Vivian. Back at the apartment, Ron and James were waiting. The message I’d left on the machine hadn’t worked, or I’d dialed the wrong number. They were worried because they thought I was lost, or dead in the streets. They scolded me until I fell asleep, a smile on my face. They had found me in the street. They’d seen the dirt and bruises. They’d seen the fear. They had been kind and patient and were delighted at how quickly I’d learned to help them, and at how much the clients seemed to like me. “Oh Ron, your cousin is such a little beauty! Why don’t you let her come over and we'll do a screen test? We can do a shoot, we’ll make her a star.” One photographer had a camera with her and she took some photos of me when I wasn’t looking. The pictures came out blurred and strange. The photographer was upset and I refused to pose for any pictures or take a screen test. Ron and James were proud of me, for some reason, for that. However, they hated my lies. They hated my endless evasions, so when I told them that I was moving in with you I think they were a little bit relieved. You got tired of my lies and evasions too. You told me that if I didn’t tell you the truth you would have to let me go, you would ask me to leave you. But I love you, so here’s the truth. I’m telling it to you even thought you’ll hate me for it. Look me straight in the eyes now and listen to me. I’m a shape shifter. One of the old ones. My mother was a were-cat, and I was born a cat but I shifted one day in the street, and I lost the ability to shift back. It happens sometimes to us. Our genes suddenly switch. Now I’m completely human. Ron and James found me after four days of sleeping in the garbage. They used to ask me what happened. Why had I left my home, who was I, where was I from? I always lied to them. I never told the truth a single time. Finally they realized this and stopped asking questions. That’s why I can’t read or tell numbers. That’s why I’m so strange. I promise, it’s the truth. I’m telling you this because I love you, although I didn’t think I was capable of such an emotion. I love you; otherwise, I would have left, simply gone away. I’d just go find another home. The big cats in the circus tried to kill me because they knew what I am. The photographer had blurry images of a cat on her film. Will you believe me? Can you try?
15 The White Queen "I'm bored," Shana sighed. She stared out the window at the endless expanse of glittering snow. It was unrelieved by the slightest trace of footprints, striped only by the navy blue shadows of tall firs. "Let's play chess," suggested Ruby. "The last time I played with you I ended up in the hospital." "You just didn't watch where you were going," said Ruby, shrugging. "Getting hit by a griffon would have hurt less," Shana replied. Ruby laughed, rolling over on the bed. Her long, red hair caught the pale sunlight coming in through the window and it glinted gold and copper. Shana looked at her, exasperated and a bit jealous. Her sister had everything. She was the eldest; she had beautiful hair and slanting green eyes; she was clever and could do the intricate dances the court required without once stumbling or forgetting the steps. "Mother will be furious," she said. "Won't she just? It will serve her right, leaving us alone like this. I hate winter. I'm sick of it. And Mother gets to do all the fun stuff." Ruby sighed dramatically and flounced over to the window seat where she flopped herself down angrily. "She is the queen," said Shana. "Queen bean." Ruby breathed on the glass then wiped it with her hand. A large ruby ring sparkled on her left hand pinkie. It meant she was betrothed. She tapped hard on the glass pane with the ruby. The glass shivered and a million, hair-fine cracks appeared in it. "Stop that!" said Shana. The last time you did that it broke and Mother made us eat all that glass. "She's so mean." Ruby stopped though. The glass sighed deeply and healed itself with a low whine. "You're mean! Why hurt the glass beast? He's never hurt you and he's quite useful in winter. He keeps the cold air out." "Oh Shana, don't recite the lessons at me please. The only thing nice about winter is the fact we don't have to study. Old Mrs. Tilly hibernates." "She does not," Shana giggled. "She stays home in front of her cozy fire." "That's what she says. So, shall we play or not? Hurry up and decide, Mother won't be gone all day you know. The reception will end and she'll come home and make us do something boring." "Oh, all right. But don't try any of your tricks, I don't want to end up like the last time, my leg in a cast and my nose all broken. It still doesn't look the same." "It looks better actually." Ruby tilted her head and narrowed her eyes. " Before, it was a bit pudgy, now it's narrower. I think the doctors did a great job putting it right." Shana poked her finger at the glass beast and said, "Mirror!" When it complied by turning a shiny silver, she looked at her reflection for a moment, turning her face this way and that, lifting up her heavy mass of dark brown hair into a loose chignon, trying to see if her eyes were more gray-blue or blue-gray, and if her nose was indeed narrower. "You're too vain," said Ruby. She caught Shana by the sleeve and pulled her out of the room. The two young girls ran down the steps, carefully holding up their heavy velvet skirts so they wouldn't trip, and went into the throne room. The chessboard was on a round table next to a window, and the pieces were in a gold box covered with jewels and carvings of war. Two comfortable armchairs faced each other across the table. A blue, curly-fur rug warmed the floor beneath them. There was a long yellow rope near the window and Ruby gave it a tug when they sat down. "Why did you do that?" Shana complained. "Now Mother's bound to know we played--the
16 servant will tell her." Ruby shrugged. "She'll know anyhow, and I want some caffie." The two girls bent over the chessboard, setting up the pieces. When the maid came, Ruby asked for a cup of caffie. Shana asked for plain tea. When the board was ready, Shana took a deep breath and moved her pawn. She was white, and so went first. Ruby didn't hesitate; she took her knight and moved him boldly in front of her bishop's pawn. Shana bit her lip and frowned; Ruby must have the whole game plotted out in her head already. She always knew just what she was going to do. Shana's own hand hovered tentatively over her knight, but she just didn't feel capable of affronting her sister so she decided on a defensive game. She moved her queen's pawn up one space and frowned again when Ruby moved her other knight out. Shana positioned her pawns and her bishops while Ruby deployed her knights and only moved her pawns far enough to let her queen out. "You've loosed the black witch," said Shana, trying to rattle Ruby, but she just smiled cryptically and captured one of Shana's pawns with her knight. The caffie and tea came and the two girls sipped their hot drinks while they studied the board. Shana felt the game slipping out of her control and wondered what she could do to capture the black queen. Ruby's biggest fault, she decided, was her confidence. She would never suspect a trap set by her little sister. She would just think she'd lost her nerve again. She tried to look grim as she moved her queen's pawn outward, leaving an open path to her white bishop. Ruby didn't fall for it though. She just smiled and knocked over another of Shana's pawns with her knight. The next two moves lost Shana one of her knights, but she managed to capture Ruby's white bishop. Ruby uttered an exclamation of annoyance. She pulled her queen out of reach of Shana's other knight. "Oh darn, the tingling started already!" Shana cried. "Quick, finish your tea, it will be cold by the time we get back," ordered her sister. Shana gulped it down then wished she hadn't. It would make her burp and she didn't have as much charm as Ruby to start with. How would she persuade her remaining knight to fight for her if she burped at him? And those darn bishops--their stern eyes made her quail. Ah well, it was the closest she was going to get to becoming queen. There was still one more trick up her sleeve. But she was afraid to think about it; in some ways Ruby was downright spooky the way she could read minds. The tingling reached down to her toes then her hands became transparent. Her hair fell out of its ribbon and flew straight up as she felt her body twitch and seemingly shatter. There was an awful second when the room darkened, and then the window appeared to open in a huge yawn and swallow her with a clap like thunder. Plomp! Shana's feet slid out from under her and she landed in a heap on soft grass in a sunny meadow. She stood up and brushed her skirts off. The sky above her was clear. That was good, the last time it had rained and her silly rook had slipped and fallen just when she'd needed him the most. She looked over to her right and saw the white king sitting on his throne. He waved. She waved back. "Hullo, Shana! So you're the white queen this time? How's your leg?" He was an easy-going sort of fellow who never seemed to care whether he won or lost. Unlike the black king, who'd called her the most awful names when she made a silly move. "Oh, hello, Hector. It's fine, thanks." "Hi, Shana, long time no see." She turned, prepared to greet her knight, but the words died on her lips. It had been a long time. Twelve months ago she'd been a young girl of fourteen. At fifteen she'd started to grow up and for some reason Charlevagne, the white knight, made her blush now. She stared at him, her cheeks crimson, until he took her hand and kissed it formally. "We
17 better get going, Ruby will already have made her game plan," he said kindly. "I'm sorry about Rufous," she said, stammering a bit. She meant about losing the other knight. "Oh, that's all right," Hector said amiably, coming over to speak. "We'll do fine with just one knight. You did well to capture Ruby's bishop, he won't be plotting against us this time." "True. Well, I suppose I'd better call to order. Bishops! Rooks! Pawns! Knights! Come one, come all! We go forward into battle." The ceremonial words rang out in the clear air. She straightened her shoulders, steadying her nerves. Across the meadow heads popped up. Figures stood, stretched, and some picked up weapons. The bishops were the same as she remembered: tall, thin-faced men with pale green, globular, staring eyes. They were dressed in long, white robes and carried blue glass staffs that could knock down a horse. They conferred with Charlevagne in whispers, pausing now and then to ask Shana what she thought of the game plan. The rooks stood near, shuffling their four elephant feet, flapping their flags noisily. Rooks, solid looking and quite fast when they wanted to be, were silent. They never spoke, but they followed directions. They had no weapons, they simply ran over the adversary, squashing them flat. When the game plan was finished, Shana walked down the row of pawns standing at attention and greeted them by name. She apologized for losing two of them already, but they just shrugged cheerfully and bobbed their round heads. The only words they knew how to say were Yea's and Nay's. The looked a bit like a cross between a dog and a monkey and tended to get muddled if too many directions were shouted at them. "Are you sure you want to get close to Guillaume, the black knight?" Charlevagne asked with a worried frown. "I'm depending on you to cover me, but yes, I need to be able to talk to him," said Shana firmly. Charlevagne looked undecided, but he mounted his silver-maned steed, raised his trumpet to his lips and blew a long, clear blast on it. The white king stood on his throne and raised a spyglass to his eyes. "I see the black flag," he cried. "Let's go!" A trumpet answered and Shana felt her blood quicken. This time she'd win and she would, for once, be the queen. The sun climbed higher in the sky then started its slow slide down. Shana lost most of her pawns and her bishops. The white king, for all his apparent serenity, started to gnaw on his fingernails. Shana motioned her rooks ahead and watched as one fell to the black queen's laser scepter. "Yoo-hoo! Shana! Do you give up?" Ruby was in shouting distance and she posed dramatically, one foot on the fallen rook. "No, not yet!" called Shana. "Look over there!" She then had the satisfaction of hearing Ruby shriek when she saw her own rook fall to Charlevagne's silver mace. Just as she'd surmised, one of the knights was staying close to Ruby. The other sulked down by the river. Shana guessed that Ruby had made advances to Guillaume while Arnaud, the other knight, was within hearing. The problem with knights, reflected Shana, was that they were too romantic. And Ruby was a flirt. Shana nodded to her remaining rook and he smote the far knight with his massive chest, knocking him into the river. Ruby stamped her foot, her face a mask of fury. She turned and shouted something to Guillaume, who nodded and galloped towards Shana. Shana held her ground. She knew he couldn't strike her, she was out of alignment. But the next move would doom her unless her plan worked. Guillaume stopped his great, black steed so close she felt the heat of its body and heard the harsh breath in its nostrils. "Prepare to be captured, white queen," he said in a deep voice.
18 Shana smiled. "Did you admire Ruby's new ring?" she asked sweetly. Guillaume snorted. "What ring?" "Her new ruby ring. A ruby on Ruby's left-hand. You know what that means, don't you?" "A ring on her left hand?" Guillaume was nonplused. "You mean, she's engaged? She's played me false then?" "Afraid so. What did she promise you?" Shana asked. She kept one eye on Ruby, and was pleased to see her waving furiously. Unfortunately for Ruby, Shana now had Guillaume's complete attention and Ruby had to move another piece. "Look--Ruby just moved her bishop. Sorry, it's my turn now." Shana tried to look contrite. Guillaume stiffened. "'Tis none of your business what she promised me. My heart is broken, I concede this square." He touched his helmet with his mace and didn't flinch when Shana reached up and zapped him with her light-scepter. He fell with a loud whomp onto the grass. Shana poked him a bit with her toe to make sure he wasn't going to leap up and whack her with his heavy mace once her back was turned. He didn't move, he just uttered a low moan. She nodded in satisfaction and climbed up onto his back to better see what was going on over on the far side of the field. Ruby's remaining bishop protected the black king and she stalked Charlevagne with a murderous expression on her face. The sun dipped below the horizon and its golden rays seemed to set her head aflame. She paused long enough to scream an insult at Shana, then lunged at Charlevagne, her black scepter shooting sparks. Just before Ruby touched him, though, Shana's remaining rook ran her over with a satisfying crunch. "Oh, damn!" said Ruby crossly, then she passed out. "Hah, see how you like getting run over by a rook," Shana snorted. Charlevagne neutralized the remaining bishop and Shana captured the black king. Perhaps she hit him a bit harder than necessary over the head with her scepter, but twelve months hadn't made her forget his biting sarcasm. "Oh, Charlevagne, thank you, you were wonderful," she told him, as he cantered off into the sunset, holding her on his lap. "Shouldn't we send Ruby home?" he asked. "No, not quite yet. She's fine, I checked her out. Nothing a little surgery won't fix," Shana smiled grimly. "She left me nearly three hours last time; I even missed the feast. I think I'll do the same. Besides, I've never won before. Now what shall we do?" Charlevagne smiled. "We can do anything you want, you're the queen and you won." "Won't Mother be furious when she gets home," Shana sighed contentedly. "Let's go to the White Palace. I want to have some vanilla ice cream and hear the minstrels sing. You can stand next to me and hold my hand, and then when the stars come out, we'll walk in the white rose garden and sit beneath the silver moon. You can tell me all about your heroic deeds and maybe you can teach me how to kiss." The stars came out and the moon sailed across the sky. All the players, including Ruby, woke up, rubbed their wounds and limped to the White Palace where a fire burned brightly and a banquet was set up for the new queen. And Shana sat in the rose garden with her knight in shining armor and kept an eye out for her mother. The Devil in Me First published in Gulfstreaming 2003 There were stars falling down all over the place. They slid in sparkling showers through the
19 thick air – the air was so warm you could feel it. We sat on the stone wall right on the edge of the cliff looking down at the sugarcane, and we talked. He kept pointing at the falling stars and saying, “look! There’s another one! Quick, make a wish!” I tipped my head back and hoped he noticed how graceful my neck was and the way my hair swept the small of my back, and I thought – I wish he would love me forever. God, make him love me forever. He had his knees drawn up to his chin, arms clasped around his knees, and his eyes were full of falling stars. I know, because I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. I noticed hem soon after he’d moved to the island. He drove around on a red motorbike. I started watching for him zoom by. He didn’t see me, hiding behind my mother’s baskets of fresh g’nips and tamarinds – behind the stacks of clear jellies and sticky sugar gums. “Rainy girl – what you dreamin’ bout?” Neilsa sold necklaces and bracelets made in the Philippines, but she took the tags off and the tourists never seemed to realize cowries didn’t come from the Caribbean. “Nothing Neilsa.” I studied the basket of g’nips. Tourists loved to try the native fruit, and our jellies sold out before ten a.m. The sugar gums were harder to sell. Flies seemed fatally attracted to them, they swooped down for a taste and got stuck. I never ate them – but the natives, with their sweet tooth, loved them. “You’s got dem big eyes like you in love with some boy. Tell me, ain’t it the truth?” “Lordy, don’t you think that it’s hot this morning?” “You ain’t answered my question girl. I see you get all red – same color as that motorbike gone by. See – you’s doing it again. I say you’re in love.” “I say you talk too much and hush your mouth my mother’s coming this way.” Neilsa rolled her eyes but she hushed. My mother was a tiny woman, with gray eyes, gray hair, and a mouth you couldn’t push a pin into. She glanced at the jellies, frowned at the stack of candy, and plucked a dead leaf from the g’nip basket. “Neilsa – don’t you have better things to do than chat with my daughter?” “Yessum.” Neilsa got up with an audible sigh and left the shade of our parasol to go back to her jewelry stand. “Neilsa forgot her umbrella,” I said. “Rainy, if I want your opinion, I will ask for it. We are here to make money, not to chatter. Three clients walked by you and you didn’t notice. How are we going to pay the rent if you don’t pay attention? It’s not as if I’m asking you to do hard labor, or even as if I ask you to do more than your share. It’s fair that I get one day off a week, isn’t it? I work all week long, and Sunday - who does the Sunday market at the cruise ship docks? Who?” “You do.” I looked glumly out over the choppy water in the harbor. Three cruise ships were anchored at the docks. A seaplane coasted in and landed in a white spray. I watched as it made its lumbering way to the seaplane port just across the street – as it heaved itself out of the water and up the ramp. Doors opened and more tourists spilled out, blinking and pale in the dazzle. A red motorbike zoomed by on the main road. “Rainy.” My mother never yelled. She didn’t have to. The only daughter of an army captain, she knew how to use tone. I just nodded and picked up a jar of pale green jelly. “Jelly! Home-made g’nip jelly! Try a g’nip sir? Have you ever tried one? No? Those green things are g’nips. Go ahead, take one. You’ll be surprised at how good it is.” Rainy season. School starts. Clouds pile up on the horizon and waves dash over the
20 waterfront. Boats seek shelter in the mangroves and houses grow moldy and damp. Geckos invade the living room, ants swarm in the cereal boxes, and millipedes make their slow way across the walls. My sheets are always damp. The walls take on a grayish tinge. The cistern overflows and water pours in sheets off the gutters. Rain batters the tin roof and we can hardly hear ourselves think. My mother stirs sugar into boiling g’nip juice and then curses when she sees it’s full of sugar ants. “Goddammit Rainy – I tell you time and time again to put the sugar away in the freezer!” I forgot. I draw my knees up to my chin and stare at my homework. It’s math, and the numbers are all muddled in my head. How many sixteen ounce jars of g’nip jelly can you make from a bushel of g’nips? None, if the sugar has ants in it. All I can see is his face. Lordy, he's in my class now. The gods are laughing their asses off at me. Or maybe it's the devil. In the islands we believe in the devil. When it rains and the sun's still shining, we say he’s beating his wife. When the boat capsizes it’s the devil playing fool with the waves. When the wind catches the laundry and it flies off the line that’s the devil. Men drink and beat their wives – it’s the devil. Boys and girls hide behind the cinderblock wall and what they do is make devil. Honey – don’t get caught in the back seat with the devil. It’s harder to believe in God. He doesn’t show himself so much. Besides, I believe in many gods, like the Greeks. A god for g’nips, a god for the rain, and a god who rides a red motorbike. He sits three chairs in front of me, and yesterday he looked over his shoulder and he winked at me. “Rainy, would you mind coming down off your cloud and joining us here in French class?” I blink and find myself sitting in school. Christmas has come and gone, the Rainy season has ended, and Carnival is just around the corner. The boy I love is sitting behind me. He tugs my hair and says – what cloud were you on, cloud nine? I laugh with the others, but I have no idea what he’s talking about. We have no television – my mother calls it an idiot box. Her idea of sex education is summed up in three words: don’t do it. I go to Catholic school, wear a plaid skirt and a cross around my neck, as if that will ward off the devil. Carnival lasts for two weeks. For the parade, the girls in our school dress in red flared skirts with green blouses – we’re hibiscus. Boys wear yellow shirts with black stripes – what were the nuns thinking of? My mother snatches me out of the parade and marches me to the marketplace. “Sit right here, I have some people to see. It’s busy today – we should make a lot of money. The parade was almost over anyway." I blink back tears and hold a jar of jelly to the light. “Try a g’nip?” I ask the tourists walking by. A boy in a striped shirt sidles up to me. “Was that your mom?” he asks. I nod, looking nervously at her stiff back as she marches out of sight. “Her father was in the army,” I say. He makes a face. “Poor you.” I can’t speak. My throat has knots in it all the way down to my stomach. He tilts his head and stares at me. “My God you’re beautiful,” he says. The bottom drops out of my atheism. God exists – he’s there, in blood and bones and skin. I can only tremble. I hide behind a curtain of hair. He reaches down and sweeps it away. “No, I mean it. You have the most amazing eyes. And your name – Rainy – it suits you somehow.” I stare at him – mesmerized like a snake in front of a dancing mongoose. “Will your mother let you go to the movies with me?” “Of course.” I lie. Something has happened to me. God has just appeared in front of me and given me a backbone. I smile. There is a fantastic lightness in all of my bones, and I feel a
21 wicked heat in the pit of my belly. God and the devil walk hand and hand on my island. “Neilsa – will you ask my mother to let me stay overnight with you? Tell her your grandmother is coming from St. Kitts, and you want me to meet her. Tell her anything – but tell her it’s for Saturday night, when Carnival is over, otherwise she’ll be suspicious.” Another thing – I can’t go to the Carnival village and I can’t go hear the Carnival steel drum bands. My mother believes that the devil mingles with that teeming crowd; perhaps munching a curry patty and drinking an icy beer. She believes the devil and music are somehow related. She likes Neilsa well enough – Neilsa is from down island and wears a gold cross. She goes to church every day – and my mother thinks that this make her a good Christian woman. My mother has never realized that to the natives, God and the devil live in the same house. “You have fun Rainy!” Neilsa waves from the doorway, a huge smile on her face. Before I left, she pressed something into my hand. It’s a little foil package and when she tells me what’s in it, I nearly drop it. But I stuff it in my pocket and kiss her. The boy I love picks me up from Neilsa’s house with his red motorbike. He and I ride through the hot night until we get to the drive-in theater. During the day it’s a cow pasture. We park next to a loudspeaker and put the kickstand down after checking the ground for cow pies. There’s a stone wall behind us, and in front of us the screen comes alive with ‘Enter the Dragon.’ It’s been playing there for two years now, but still draws a big crowd. We sit on the stone wall. We talk. The movie screen casts a flickering light over his face, and then the electricity goes off. That happens often, so there’re just few groans and only two cars start up and leave. Into the sudden darkness, there comes a shower of meteorites. Afterwards, we drive back to his house. It is enormous – modern, with black marble floors and a chrome refrigerator in the massive kitchen. I notice a note on the door. “There are TV dinners in the fridge – heat them in the microwave. Don’t eat all the ice-cream. Have a good weekend. I’ll see you Monday – Love mom.” “My mom is never here,” he says, opening the fridge and taking out two cold beers. “When my parents divorced she got custody of me, and my dad has my brother.” “Does that bother you?” I asked. “Not really. They only used to fight all the time.” He shrugged. “Probably better like this.” We sit in a leather sofa and listen to music. A fish tank is lit by a tiny halogen light. The house leans out over the ocean. Outside there is a stone stairway leading down to a private cove. The boy I love stands up and flips a switch. Lights come on inside the water – it’s beautiful. “Want to swim?” I nod. The beer is making my head swim. I’ve never taken a sip of alcohol before. I put the empty bottle down and stand up. He runs his hands over my sides, then lifts my shirt over my head. “It’s better without bathing suits – you’ll see.” I take the foil packet out of my pocket. The rocks still holds the heat of the day. The water is tepid. I dive in and float a minute on my back, my hair spread all around me. I feel a hand on my thigh and I look up at the crazy moon and I smile. Don’t do it suddenly has no meaning. The devil is in my belly, and God is splashing like an otter by my side. There are shooting stars in the heavens, and when he slips his hand behind my neck and draws me to him, I kiss him deeply. There is no tomorrow, there is no mother, there is only the devil in me, and the deep blue sea. THE END
A MODEL MARRIAGE First Published in Nuketown "My marriage was saved thanks to sharp-shooting." Madge sipped her cha-tea and smacked her lips appreciatively. "Oh, come on now! You don't expect me to believe that, do you? You and Steve are a model couple. You never fight, your children are well adjusted, and you don't have any sexual problems..." Delia looked at Madge through lowered lashes. They were five inches long and bright green." At least not any you talk about." Madge nodded." If I did have any I certainly wouldn't talk about them." "But they would show, I mean, reflect in your marriage. What did you mean anyway, when you said it was saved by sharp-shooting?" Madge set her teacup on the saucer and gave it a gentle shove, causing it to float down onto the table." It was several years ago. The twins were only ten years old and Gilly wasn't even born." "That sweet child! Where were you living?" "In Palm Beach. Steve had a contract there. We had a charming apartment overlooking a golf course. It was miles from the ocean, but it was all we could afford at the time. Steve worked right in Palm Beach, and he drove to work every morning. We paid 'mucho dinero' in pollution penalties because we had two cars. But I always liked being able to go where I pleased, and Steve absolutely hates public transport." "Oh I know, I mean, I hate it too. So slow and crowded, and always on strike." Delia drained her cup and placed it carefully on its saucer. She pushed it delicately with one finger and watched as it slowly drifted to the tabletop. She lit a tobacco-free-stick and leaned back into the soft cushions of the couch. Automatically two pillow-cats cuddled themselves under her neck and arms. They started purring softly, until Delia shushed them." I'm dying to hear the rest of the story." "Do you want more cha-tea?" "No thanks, Madge. I'm fine."
"Well, he started coming home late from the office." "Bad sign, huh?" "You betcha. I did a little spying around and found out he had a crush on a voluptuous blonde who worked at the beach paint-ball shooting gallery." "That must have been a shock." "Oh it was! Steve loves shooting. He still takes out a license each year and brings home the full quota. He'd been going to the paint-ball shooting gallery during his lunch break and the blonde noticed him. She was young and unattached. And you know how good looking Steve is." Delia licked her lips. "He must be a good shot too." "That's why I was so upset when I found out he was taking part in the shooting contest," said Madge seriously. "You mean the famous Palm Beach Paint-Ball Festival?" Delia widened her eyes, causing her eyelashes to snarl in her orange frizzed hair. "Wowza wowza!" "That's the one. The one where the girls are half-naked and run around a three-acre target area while fifty contestants shoot at them. Each shooter has a different color. At the end of ten minutes, the judges scan the girls to see who shot the most color onto them. The winner 'gets the girl', so to speak. Actually, they get a fantastic date: a helicopter ride to a five-star restaurant in the Bahaman Islands and a night at the Atlantis Starlight Casino and Hotel. The girls are known for their nubile beauty. Why, one of the contestants won the 'Miss Milky Way Galaxy' last year." Delia tapped her ashes in a floating ashtray next to her wrist. "I remember that. I was sure the Vusian would win. That planet has the most stunning women. Was I ever surprised when a gal from earth won!" "For once the telaxial-phone lines were working correctly. Everyone on earth could vote that year. It made a big difference. Anyway, to get on with my story. Steve told me he had a night out with his friends. He mentioned, just briefly, a shooting contest with his buddies. Ha! I was on to him by then. I didn't have time to find a baby-sitter. I just grabbed the twins as soon as they were shuttled home from school and I loaded them into the car. 'To hell with the pollution penalty!' I shouted, and floored the accelerator. I must have gone three hundred kilometers an hour, all the way to the beach." "My heavens Madge, it's a wonder you didn't get arrested!" Madge shrugged. "I had a marriage to save. I couldn't let Steve win his gal. As soon as I got to the beach, I saw it was utter pandemonium. Everyone, it seemed, had brought a car. There was only one parking space left and I grabbed it. I didn't have time to explain to the boys, I just told them to follow me and to stay close. If they had gotten lost in that crowd, I never would have found them again. I elbowed my way through to the front of the line. We got to the entry
24 desk, and there I just bluffed my way through. 'I'm canary yellow incognito!' I said to the supervisor. I didn't give a name, because I didn't know, of course, who really had canary yellow. All I could do was pray he hadn't already picked up his color. Well, I was in luck. Canary Yellow hadn’t shown up yet. The supervisor handed me the cartridges and told me to sign for them." "Wowza! That was quick thinking! You were lucky!" "I positioned myself in the shadows, way up in the back row. I didn't want Steve, or anyone else to see me. I'd already spotted a few of our friends. One of them was sitting not twelve feet away. The twins were terrific, they set about putting the ink into the cartridges and loading the gun. There were only ten cartridges. "I located Steve with the binoculars I'd brought with me. When the shooting started, I looked carefully to see at which girl he was shooting. He had lavender paint. After three minutes, I saw the girl. She had several lavender spots on her thighs. "Well, I took careful aim and shot her right in the face. It wasn't very fair shooting, and it certainly wasn't what anyone else was doing. They were all shooting the legs or hips, or the backside, because they wanted to take the girls out to dinner afterwards. I wasn't concerned with that." Madge paused and sipped her tea. "Steve was so shocked he shot wide, and I had nine more shots left. The girl tried to crawl behind a rock on the platform, but there were already several ladies crouched behind it, and she stuck out a bit. I shot her all ten times with yellow. She only had nine lavender spots. And a yellow face. With some red where her nose bled. Not that I cared." Madge sipped some more tea. "Then the girl signed her name in front of canary yellow and I told her to get in the car." "She actually went with you?" Delia asked. "It's the rules. Otherwise, the girl can't participate in the contest. She had to go with me. The scanner proved I shot the most paint on her. I drove to a nice place in the everglades and let her out of the car. Then I told her she could hike back to Palm Beach, and if she ever even looked cross-eyed at Steve again I'd get really mad." "Boy, sharp-shooting really did save your marriage!" "Steve came home that evening a bit confused. He never knew I was shooting behind his back. I cashed in the restaurant and hotel reservations I'd won and bought a new anti-gravity swing-set for the twins. They promised never to say a word to their father. Such bright little boys." Madge smiled and looked at Delia." How are you feeling?" Delia frowned. "A bit warm. My chin itches. What was in that cha-tea?" "Oh, nothing much. A little something I concocted in chemistry class. Didn't you know I was taking chemistry? Steve didn’t tell you that's where I was on those Thursday evenings you came to see him? Well, it's not dangerous, I assure you. However, it will make you grow a little beard. And maybe a moustache. It will be green, to match your eyelashes you dyed so cleverly." Madge leaned back and narrowed her uncanny, canary yellow eyes." I hope you understand
25 now. Our marriage is a model marriage because I work very hard keeping it that way." She clapped her hands and the cha-tea set floated obediently back into the kitchen.
Fall Leaves She disappeared in an instant. Between the house and the park was a long line of trees and an overgrown garden belonging to an old woman. After the park, were the woods, and facing it was a cemetery with a high, stone wall. It was a windy day. Leaves torn from the maples and oak whirled in heavy loops across the streets and lay in shivering piles along the fences. For few minutes, her sister thought she’d just fallen off her bike. It lay on its side, half buried, and Anna stood over the leaves and laughed. She bent over and scraped them away from the bike, but there was no little face staring up at her in mirth. Anna dug a bit more; shifting crackling, orange and red leaves aside. Surprised, she stood up and looked around. A minute passed, then another. Anna cupped her hands over he mouth and called. “Fati! Fati!” There was no answer. Anna trotted along the line of trees, looking through half-bare branches and peering into the wilderness of the overgrown garden. Afterwards she walked home alone, pushing the little bike. She was sure Fatima had gone home and left her there. Fatima was only four, and couldn’t be counted on. Perhaps she’d just gotten tired and run home though the trees, before her sister could see her, although how she’d managed that was beyond Anna. There were too many empty spaces. Unless the swirling leaves had hidden her. At home, there was no Fati. Anna started to cry. There was fright in her mother’s eyes. She called the neighbors. Then she put on her coat and went outside. “Stay here, in case Fati comes back,” said her mother, looking pale. But Fatima never came back, and Anna sat in the house for hours while her mother scoured the neighborhood,
26 walking up and down the streets, calling, calling. There were nine adults looking for Fatima that afternoon. The neighbors from across the street came, and Senora Lechuga’s three sons were home. They strode through the grass and woods, laughing at first, then serious, then frightened. The three boys were teenagers. They were Anna and Fatima’s closest neighbors and they had watched the girls growing up. Afterwards, Samuel, the eldest, said he started to feel an icy coldness in his chest and that’s when he knew they wouldn’t find her. When dusk was falling, the police made Anna take them to the place where the bike had lain. They took measurements, dusted for fingerprints, and had a shaggy dog try to sniff out a trail. The dog turned this way and that, its great paws shuffling through the leaves, but soon it raised its massive head and looked mournfully at its master. There was no trace of Fati. Anna stood by and watched the dog, her face tight with misery. With each minute, she felt her sister slipping further away, but how far, and in which direction eluded her. “What was she wearing?” asked the policeman, writing. “Her white bike helmet, a red sweater and blue corduroys. She had red rubber boots and she carried a little stuffed cat in her pocket.” Anna’s mother had almost no voice left. Her eyes were full of tears and her hands shook. When she touched Anna, it felt like an ice-statue. There was nothing left to do but wait, and search some more. Every day, Anna would walk down the same sidewalk, turn the same corner, and look carefully at the street and trees, trying to see something she had missed. The empty spaces beckoned. With Senora Lechuga’s three sons, she went into the garden and searched each corner of the field out back. They traversed the park, went into the small woods, and searched, finding nothing. Not even a stuffed cat. The three boys were perplexed. They asked Anna, “didn’t you see anything? Someone strange, or a car perhaps?” Anna tried to think, but her memories were already cloudy. She was only seven. There was a high wall on the opposite side of the street where Fatima was last seen. It surrounded the cemetery, and as it was flat and the tombstones small, it had been quickly searched. Then Anna suddenly remembered a car. Her face contracted and she said to Samuel, “it was darker than that one.” She pointed to a beige station wagon. “Where was it?” “In the cemetery, facing out. There was a lady with a black scarf over her head, and two men. I remember now. They were there when I saw the bike, but they were gone when I started home.” “What about the license plate?” Samuel asked. Anna shook her head. “I didn’t see it.” The boys called the police. They came with the dog. A week had passed. The police were still kind, but they looked sorrowful and didn’t stay long in the cemetery. Samuel asked Anna. “Are you sure you saw a car that day?” She nodded, suddenly fierce. “They were talking and I could hear them, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying.” Samuel’s eyes narrowed. “They were foreigners, then,” he said. “Yes.” Anna couldn’t sleep. When she did, she would dream of leaves whirling in great pools that caught Fatima in a terrible grip and swallowed her. Her mother and father were like broken dolls. They walked stiffly, talked in hoarse voices, and ate in silence broken by the clatter of china. The family shivered like a pile of autumn leaves. Anna woke up in the night. Someone was knocking on the door. She pressed her forehead against the windowpane to see. Her father opened the door, asked what was going on. Samuel was in the garden, standing in white moonlight. His face looked like polished bone. “I found something,” he said. In his hand was a stuffed cat. The police came in the middle of the night this time. They had another dog. This one was
27 black and had a sharp nose that twitched when they showed it the toy. Samuel stood nearby, his shoulders hunched. His mother and brothers were all standing behind him, like a royal guard. “I found it in the cemetery,” he said. “It was next to my father’s grave.” “Samuel goes to clean it every six months,” explained his mother, not liking the looks the police were giving her son. “He found the cat in the weeds.” “He cleans the grave at night?” The voice was incredulous. “He worked all week, and he’s going back to college after tomorrow.” Senora Lechuga’s voice was calm, but it had a sharp edge to it. The black dog barked once, then trotted very slowly through the cemetery. In the moonlight, he was often confounded with the shadows. Anna held her father’s hand very tightly. There were people all around, but she was frightened. The night, the harsh moonlight, the way the neighborhood had started to whisper. It all seemed like a bad dream, and she had her fill of those. “Will he find Fati?” she asked her father. His hand tightened on hers. “I hope not,” he said. When Anna understood what he meant, she felt ice seeping into her bones. The dog found the bike helmet. It was wrapped in a purple cloth. The police didn’t touch it at first. They took pictures and told everyone to stay back. The helmet was deep in a rabbit hole. A policeman had to reach way down to get it, and when he stood up dark earth fell off his uniform. Anna’s head ached. She looked at her mother, standing with her hands pressed to her mouth. Senora Lechuga put a steadying arm around her. Nothing else was found that night. The dog lay down, panting. Everyone drifted home, whispering. The cloth wrapped around the helmet was part of a scarf. The police did tests, and discovered it came from somewhere in North Africa. They searched the cemetery again, and came up with nothing. Winter passed. There was no news from the police. Anna was afraid to speak her sister’s name. Every night she looked over at the empty bed next to hers and she tried to imagine her sister in North Africa. She’d heard the policeman saying that she was most likely prisoner in a harem. “Another little girl was taken from her family a hundred miles from here, right on the coast. We think it is part of a white slave ring. There was a girl taken in France a few months back. They disappear without a trace. The Arabs want white girls and they pay very well…” At that, Anna’s mother fell down, and her father shouted fiercely at the policeman and ordered him to be quiet. Senora Lechuga was there too, and she put her hands over her face and started to sob. Winter turned to spring. The children in Anna’s class stopped talking about Fatima. A plane crashed in Madrid, and that took up the news. Samuel came back from college, and he and his brothers cleaned their father’s grave, and came to say hello to Anna’s parents. Samuel looked very tall. He’d grown over the winter. His voice changed, it was deep now and Anna saw the beginning of a moustache. He saw her and he smiled. “How are you, Anna?” he asked. “Fine,” she said, although it wasn’t true. She knew he would understand her. She had watched his face when the police were unwrapping the bike helmet. He closed his eyes. Then he looked very quickly in the helmet. Afterwards his shoulders sagged, and he leaned hard on a tombstone. Anna knew what he was thinking. There had been the possibility that Fatima’s head was still in the helmet. Anna knew that, but she still looked when the scarf was taken off. When she saw it was empty, she understood that she would have to live with her sister’s disappearance for the rest of her life. She would grow up knowing her sister was somewhere, anywhere, far away. All her life, she would search the crowds for a familiar face, listen for a certain voice,
28 and tremble each time the telephone rang late at night. White bike helmets and stuffed cats made her cry. The worst were the dreams though. In most of them, Fati’s pale face stared at her from the bike helmet and whispered to her that she was just under the leaves, and that if she would only dig deeper, she would find her.
The Fatima Jihad Each woman wore a black robe that covered them from head to toe. Folds of muslin hid their mouths and noses, only glimpses of shiny eyes could be seen. Impossible to tell if they were old, young, beautiful or plain. Their only difference lay in their height. Otherwise, all were identical. They filed past the coffin and dropped rose petals onto the black silk draped over it. Red and pink rose petals were all that fell. Tears stayed put, lining eyes with hot wetness that refused to budge. Inside the coffin was a young woman. She was bound with rope and gagged with cotton. On her chest was a photograph. Her eyes were wide open. As each footstep drew near, she tried to cry out, to thump the sides of the heavy wood to let them know she was alive, but the footsteps drew near then faded. Afterwards there was a rocking motion, the sound of earth hitting the top of the coffin and then silence. For three days she struggled, refusing to believe she had been condemned to die. Death finally came in the form of exhaustion and the dogs left the cemetery. They had whined and barked over her grave, but now that the sounds had ceased, there was no reason to linger. The girl turned to bones and the photograph faded. There was no reason to think that the bones and the picture would cause strife, but fifty years later, someone dug a hole and found them. 1. A war monument was to have been built on the banks of a sluggish river. Permission had been granted. Permits were issued and contractors hired. Then a storm broke the dam holding the river and the building site was washed away. Not to be deterred, the company simply unfolded the map a bit more and pushed everything back fifty feet. Shovels were handed out; the ground was broken. The first graves were found and their bones tossed into a flatbed truck. The bones were hollow, light, and tinkled like glass when they broke. Teeth gleamed like little pearls in the dust. There was no particular order to the graves, and some held three or four small bodies. This was the old children’s cemetery, there for centuries but unused now. Rye grass grew sparsely over arid dirt and scattered rocks. The workers were hard put to dig in the hard ground: it was easier to dig up the graves. Some workers found beaded bracelets and little trinkets attached to slender bones. These were
29 quickly tucked into pockets after a furtive glance at the overseer. He was a stern man, with strange jade-colored eyes. He had never fired one of his workers, but he was strict. If he caught someone stealing, there would be trouble. For this reason, when the man holding a piece of paper noticed the overseer looking in his direction, he raised his arm and called out, ‘over here, boss. I found something odd.’ The bones were greenish and still heavy. They were larger than the bones found thus far, and hadn’t been in the ground as long. Rope still held the arms and a gag was still wedged in the jaw. The overseer stood staring for a minute, then he plucked the photo from the workers hand and he studied it intently. He drew a sharp breath. “So it was true,” he murmured. 2. At first, Fatima hadn’t wanted to believe her mother was dead. Her father and uncles told her how it happened – she went to fetch a glass of water in the middle of the night and fell down the stairs. There was blood enough to prove it, as well as a broken tooth found nearby. Fatima kept the tooth and only showed it to her twin brother. Then they celebrated their seventh birthday. She was confined to the woman’s part of the house and she never saw Jamil again. That was fifty years ago. Now she was an old woman, prematurely gray, wrinkled, faded by housework and childbirth. Her children were all gone. Three boys off to war, three girls married as soon as they were fifteen. The boys had all been killed; an official from the army came to the door three weeks in a row and announced their deaths one after another. The girls were now members of another family, and she never heard from them. Illiterate, they could not write. Poor, they had no telephone. Women, they could not drive or leave their houses except accompanied by a chaperon. Fatima lived in a three-room house with eighteen rugs and three empty beds. A milk goat was tethered to the tree in the back courtyard and Fatima gathered grass for it every day. At night she milked it and drank the fresh, sweet milk. There was a fireplace in her kitchen and water in a well, three blocks away. Water, grass, firewood – these were the reasons Fatima lived. Her husband had gone to war, but there had been no news from him in years. The war ended ten years ago and Fatima supposed he had stayed in the mountains. The day Jamil came back, she was sitting in her courtyard watching the goat eat, and scratching a flea beneath her voluminous robes. The sight of Jamil stirred no memories. Her first thought was – it’s news from my husband. Then the jade-green eyes, mirrors of her own, met hers and she froze. “Are you a ghost?” she asked. Jamil was startled. He had been trying to equate this old woman with the memories he had of a willowy girl with a gap-toothed smile and long, teak-colored hair. “I’m Jamil, your brother,” he said. “I know that. It’s good to see you alive.” After an awkward moment, Fatima stood up, sighed, and straightened her robe. “Would you like some tea?” she asked politely. The last strangers to come here had been officials. Her neighbors were all familiar, and sometimes they drank mint tea in the evenings in her courtyard. “Please.” Jamil sat on a bench beneath the Judas tree and watched his sister build a fire in the clay oven and set a battered tin teapot on the stove. She cut mint from the herb garden and crushed it into a glass, then poured boiling water over it. She put the glass on a tray and held it out to him. He took it and said, “thank you.” She watched him drink, sorrow in her eyes. “Why did you wait so long?” she asked, when he’d finished. Jamil looked aver at the nanny goat, straining against its tether in its endless attempts to reach
30 the meager herb garden. There was a bald spot all around its neck where the rope rubbed. Its eyes were yellow and mad. “Does she always stand on her hind legs like that?” he asked. Fatima shrugged. “You can see the holes her feet have worn in the stone.” Jamil took the picture from his pocket. “Look what I found.” Fatima took it and held it close. Her eyesight was poor, but she could make out the two faces staring at her from fifty years away. Two five-year-old children with their arms looped over each other’s shoulders and their best clothes on in honor of the itinerant photographer. They had identical missing teeth and jade-green eyes. One had long hair and one was a boy. “Where did you find it?” “In a grave near the river, where we’re digging the foundations for the war monument.” “What was it doing there?” “It was in our mother’s grave.” Jamil rubbed his face. “Her bones were still tied with rope. She was buried alive.” Fatima was silent for a long time, thinking about that. “The women knew, didn’t they. I recall Granny nearly breaking my hand in her grip, and no one dared cry.” Jamil said, “we knew something was wrong. I remember hearing whispers.” “So we were right. All those lies they fed us, all the stories they invented.” Fatima spoke in a monotone. Her face, half hidden behind the veil, was pale. She glanced at Jamil. “Do you realize what this means?” “She was going to take us away with her,” he said. “We would have lived in a different world.” Fatima nodded. “How do you suppose she met him?” “He came to study the ruins in the countryside, near our grandfather’s farm. I remember that he was tall, and had a golden moustache.” “He ate dinner every night with the men in our house, and wrote on a notebook that he kept in his pocket. I asked him to teach me to write and he told me that he would, someday.” Jamil was silent. “You still can’t write, can you?” “No.” Silent laughter puffed the cloth in front of her mouth. “But I will learn.” “How?” “You will teach me.” She stood up and took the glass from him. “Go get your affairs. You can live here with me. No one will think it odd. I have been alone too long, and the neighbors will approve of my brother coming so that I might take care of him. You should have come sooner. Go now, and when you come back, be prepared to teach me to read and write. I have letters to send.” Jamil didn’t touch her. He saw her hand clench on the glass and thought it might shatter. He walked quickly through the purple dusk and thought about his young mother and a man with a golden moustache, a murder, and two orphans with crumpled rose petals in their fists. 3. The Fatima jihad started when a girl in the center of town was found reading a poster on a crumbling wall. She was reading aloud, which was unfortunate. The fact that she was only nine didn’t save her; she was tied to a post in the square and stoned to death by a crowd of men. The men went back home, some laughing, others shuddering, and ate dinner. The next morning, they were all dead of poison. There was a flurry of retribution, woman thrown into the river and drowned, buried alive, burned, stoned; but each death met with more poisoning until not one man in the country dared eat at home. Some solved the problem by having their children taste their food. These men died at night, their throats cut. Some left home, joining the groups of frightened celibates in the mountains. They thought to band together, to crush the women back into submission, but there was too much pent-up grief, too many women had lost their children to war and famine and poor medicine, so they were numb to pain. “Lose
31 your child, lose your heart,” the woman chanted. They died by the thousands, but continued to crush glass into the men’s food and threw their infants into the wells. The women fought a silent war. Not having guns, generals, or any sort of organization except for their sex, they were simply cohesive in their rebellion. Men, thinking they could live without women, soon realized the folly of a war. Within two generations, with no children, a country would be annihilated. Fatima was seventy years old now. She had been teaching the women to read and write for nearly twenty years. She was amazed and shocked by the war, especially when the name was announced on the newscasts. “The Fatima Jihad!” she exclaimed. “I never meant to start any war! I only wanted to teach my friend’s children to write. I only wanted news from my daughters.” She turned to her brother, sitting cross-legged on a rug. “Do you believe we can win?” she asked. They had a radio and listened to it every night. He tipped his head back and stared up at the stars. They were sitting on the roof, (the radio worked best up there) and looking over the peaceful city you could never tell there was a war going on. There were no bombs, gunshots or screams, only the plaintive sound of the nanny goat straining against her rope. Jamil shrugged. “If you do win, what will you do?” Fatima raised her eyebrows. “We simply want to be treated as equals,” she said. Jamil laughed. He wiped a hand over his jade-green eyes and then quieted. “I think you will win,” he said. “Because life must go on, and because there will be those who will fall in love with the enemy. There will be change, and that is good. We have been stagnant too long and have come to resemble the ruins in the fields.” He stood up and made his way downstairs. “Where are you going?” Fatima looked over the side of the roof. Jamil didn’t reply. He only took his knife from his belt and cut the nanny goat’s tether.
My Best Friend She was lost gradually. It wasn’t as if anyone could point to a single thing that happened and say; “It was there. She was perfect before that happened. Afterwards we lost her. She was never the same.” Perhaps it would be easier if life could be cut up like so many pieces of pie – wedges taken out and examined, some slices smaller than others, some burned, others not cooked enough… She was my best friend, but I never tried to pinpoint the exact moment she slipped away. It was too complex. A tumor growing insidiously, tendrils branching forwards and backwards through time. A smile or tears became remembered instants that shifted unexpectedly as if the lens of a camera came into focus. Incidents that seemed blurry suddenly turned clear. Especially afterwards.
32 I stand in front of her grave. Sun on my face. I was afraid to come here. For years, I avoided it. I would visit my mother and stroll through the village, down sidewalks whose cracks and buckled places were intimately known to my bare feet. I stand in front of her grave and my chest feels hollow. An ache, an echo of her sorrow reaches up out of the grass and touches me. I don’t cry. I didn’t cry when my father told me she’d died. Isn’t it ironic? I don’t know how he knew. Oh wait, yes I do, I remember now. He read it in the news. Fathers are always reading things in the paper. If only they were as good at reading things in gazes. If only what was written in a silence, in a closet where nothing was out of place was as easy to decipher. If only dinners could be eaten in an easy silence and not in one that was taut and stretched to the breaking point. I was her best friend and although I was younger by two years, it didn’t seem to matter then. I was five, six, seven, eight years old, and we were best friends. I loved her with a fierceness that stunned me sometimes. Everyone said I was the tough one and she was the beautiful one. The sweet one. Her future was mapped out for her in our parent’s remarks. “Such a lovely face.” “She’s perfect.” “She looks like a princess.” “She’ll go far,” predicted my mother. Mothers are always predicting something. Fair or foul weather, whether or not someone would come to a bad end. Their crystal balls are at the tips of their fingers. They are apprentice witches. Mine never made it past the apprentice stage. Her predictions all fell flat. The doors slammed shut. School separated us. Two years grew immense. More doors banged shut. Four years later. My hair longer now, my jeans low on my skinny hips, I held a cigarette between my thumb and my middle finger, and I shrugged when my summer friends asked me about my new home, my new school, and my new family. Summer friends, whispering about the girl who used to be my best friend. “She’s changed. You’ll see. She’s not the same. She has a new home too, a new school, new friends.” We stared at each other across a chasm made of divorces, new houses, new schools, and new bodies. She still had the same hopeful, sweet smile. She was still the beauty. I was still the tough one. I never fell into the chasm. I stayed on my side and never tried to cross over. I tried not to stare at her, three years later, when I saw her at the supermarket. She was the cashier girl. Her hair was still long and shining, her nails perfect. She was the same, and yet, different. I tried to recognize her, hiding behind the façade of a checkout girl. Where was the future everyone had predicted for her? She saw me staring, and a smile flickered across her face. Then her eyes hardened and she said, ‘next.’ The doors slam shut. Afterwards my mother said she moved down south. “Found a sugar daddy,” she said. I could hear her shaking her head over the telephone. “A kept woman, now, what a waste, all that beauty, gone to waste.” She went on to tell me other news. News. It’s read and reread between the lines. I only read sorrow. My father read her obituary. She was thirty-two and she died of a drug overdose. That’s all it said in the paper. I knew more. I knew she was buried next to her grandmother in a cemetery on a bluff overlooking the creek. I walked down the hot sidewalk ten years later. It took that long to be able to make the trip. Stomach knotted, hand clutching my own daughter’s hand. I kneel on the grave, spreading the white tablecloth and setting out the picnic lunch. The view from the bluff is amazing. I raise my fork. Then I put it down, to tell my daughter all about my beautiful best friend, and why I’m crying.
Islands First published in ‘The Dictionary of Failed Relationships’ Three Rivers Press There are geckos crawling up the sides of the tent. The moon is so bright that I can see their silhouettes as they trot across the canvas. The only problem is, I can’t tell if they’re inside or outside the tent. Beside me in the dark I can hear my sister’s soft breathing, and the harsher breathing of my mother and her boyfriend as they try not to make the cot squeak. It makes no difference to me. What bothers me is the thought that maybe a gecko will leap on a spider and they will both fall onto my face during the night. The thought keeps me awake while the soft moans from across the tent fade and snores take their place. My eyes trace the geckos’ paths across the tent, while the moon slides through the tropical night and the waves move slowly up and down the beach. The next morning we snorkel around the reef. I’m tired, and let the waves carry my body where they will. Up and down I bob, my hands dangling beneath me, my hair floating all around, my eyes half closed and the sound of my own breathing in the snorkel-tube lulling me to sleep. I wake up when my sister touches my hand with her flipper. “You’re the only person I know who can sleep in the water,” my sister tells me. I crawl just far enough to reach my towel and then I sleep again. Visions of parrotfish and angelfish swim through my dreams while my back burns to a crisp. That evening we eat at the cafeteria. We were going to have a barbecue, but we have no meat, besides; the bright neon lights and white linoleum tables pull us into the cafeteria like moths. I take a tray and look at the food. Hamburgers wrapped in tinfoil, hotdogs idem, wilted
34 salad with anemic tomatoes, half grapefruits with faded maraschino cherries, and tuna sandwiches. I take a sandwich, a can of orange soda, and sit in a folding chair that rocks me as I eat. We spend three nights camping on St. John. Each night I stay awake, listening, watching. There are rules to living in a tent. A blanket is suddenly a wall. In the morning, take your toothbrush to the showers and hold the toilet door open for your sister so you don’t have to pay an extra dime. When you fall asleep on the beach, make sure you’re in the shade. No one tells me these rules; I learn them by myself. When the sun sets, we take the ferry back to St. Thomas and drive through the deep, velvet night to our house. Easter vacation is finished. # Next Easter. Camping again. We take the wheelbarrow and get our supplies. There’s no boyfriend to check the list. My sister pushes the wheelbarrow. My mother sighs when she looks in her wallet. We get sheets and blankets for the cots, a kerosene lantern, charcoal and lighter fluid, some hotdogs to grill, and a bottle of soda and a pack of ice. Mom forgets dishes and cups, so we spear the hotdogs on sticks, drink from the same bottle, and tell ghost stories while the lantern flickers. Moths blunder into our hair and sizzle on the lantern. We wrap sheets around us, and spray mosquito repellent on our bodies. Sleep eludes me though. There is no moon, so I can’t see the geckos, but I hear them walking on the canvas, stalking their prey, so I get up and sneak out of the tent. No one hears me. I move through the campground in the dark. I can barely see the white gravel path, but barely is enough for me. Tents loom and subside as I wander down twisting paths. Some folk are sitting around barbecues while other tents are dark. I feel myself being lured towards the sound of a guitar. I round a corner and come across a group camp in a clearing. Five tents form a rough circle. There is another circle made up of children sitting in front of a small fire. It’s a school field trip. Three men and a woman accompany them. One is playing the guitar. I watch the children closely for a while. We’re the same age, thirteen or fourteen. I’m the only one barefoot though. I stay in the shadows. There is no one I know. They are from another island. I relax, take my hands out of my pockets, and smile at a boy standing alone just outside the light. We talk, softly. The tent flap is open and the boy invites me inside. I slip in, no one sees, and we sit on the edge of his cot and kiss. I don’t ask his name. When he runs his hands over my breasts I don’t pull away. My heart is beating like moth wings. I know this is against the rules. Outside, one of the adults orders everyone to bed. There are giggles and groans, and the tent flap lifts. Children hurry to bed, obedient. Without thought, I duck under the covers and press myself to the boy. I hear muffled goodnights, a flashlight flickers around the tent, and then all is darkness. I slip my hand beneath the boy’s shorts. His breathing quickens and he jerks against me, uttering a surprised cry. My hand is suddenly wet, and I wipe it off on a sock. He trembles. Soundlessly, I sit up and kiss him on the lips. He touches my face. We don’t speak. Rules have been broken tonight, but so many that no one will ever believe him. Without a word, I slip out of the tent in the darkness. No one sees me. I make my way back to our tent in pitch darkness. Beneath my bare feet, the white gravel gleams faintly. There is no moon, but it’s hot and the bay-rum trees give off a subtle scent. I raise my hand to my lips and lick. It tastes like the sea. The next morning I sit on my beach towel and watch pelicans dive into the water. My mother goes to the payphone and calls her boyfriend and they talk until her coins run out. She hangs up smiling, and decides to leave early and so we rush to catch the last tour bus to the docks. I want to see the boy from last night, but I know that even if I do see him, we won’t speak.
35 # Next Easter. My sister and I tell our mother we’re going camping on St. John. It’s tradition, we say. She lets us go, too tired to argue. She stays behind with her new boyfriend. He’s glad to give us a lift to the ferry. At the docks, we meet up with my boyfriend and three of his friends. We don’t rent a tent. We put our sleeping bags right on the beach and build a campfire near the rocks. My boyfriend has a guitar and plays music nearly all night long. People stroll up and down the beach, often coming to sit near us to listen to the guitar. Someone steals an icebox from outside a tent and we drink ice-cold beer and soda. A joint gets passed around. My boyfriend sleeps with his head on my lap. I smooth his hair as I watch sky turn pink. Then he wakes up and we make love. We move in slow motion like the waves on the beach. He always digs his chin into my collarbone – often I have small blue bruises there. I wrap my legs around him and close my eyes. I see the ocean behind my eyelids though, rising and falling, white foam on the water. There are rules about making love. I haven’t learned them all yet, but I have learned not to say I love him. I understand that I frighten him in some way, and that he’s more fragile than I am. Afterwards he sleeps again, and I wade into the ocean. I float on my back, watch the sun rise, and wonder about the rules of love, and why I can’t sleep at night. There are rules about park beaches too. The ranger comes to order us off the beach and take our names and addresses. We all give fake names. The icebox owner complains loudly when he sees it’s empty. My sister and I slip away when no one is looking and hide for an hour in the showers. The light inside the showers flickers as if it’s about to go out. My sister asks me if I made love to my boyfriend and I say no. She believes me. Rules matter for her. We hitchhike back to the docks. A man with a wooden leg picks us up. He drives a jeep and my sister and I squeeze in the front seat while my boyfriend shares the back with his guitar and the sleeping bags. The man’s wooden leg sticks straight out straight in front of him as he drives; it rests on the rear-view mirror. He hardly looks at the road, he shouts at us over the sound of his engine screaming as he guns it up over the steep hills, telling us about his life as a German pilot during the war. His accent is so heavy we barely understand him. He says he shot down thirteen English planes. We swoop downhill and barely miss a tour bus. The man laughs and tells us he keeps a Mauser in his glove compartment. He drops us off at the docks and tells us to be careful of strangers. On the ferry, I watch the white foam slipping by the hull and catch glimpses of flying fish skipping like silver disks across the water. I want to rest my head on my boyfriend’s shoulder, but I don’t. I wish he'd put his arms around me, but he won't. He’s made up his rules about love, and I follow. When we get to St. Thomas I manage to brush a kiss on my boyfriend’s cheek. He gets into his mother’s car and doesn’t introduce me or wave goodbye. My sister and I hitchhike home. A rich lady in a BMW picks us up. She tells us we shouldn’t hitchhike. In the car, leaning against my sleeping bag with my face in the sun, I wonder what other people do for Easter break and what rules govern their lives. My sister sticks her hand out the window and talks about school. I think about stealing this car and flying to the moon.
Behind Closed Doors First published in Vestal Review What was the funniest thing you ever said to her? Did it make her laugh? When she laughed, did she tilt her head back and open her mouth so wide you could see all her white teeth? If she tipped her head back, her long hair would reach her thighs; it would sweep against them as lightly as your hand ached to do… Did she laugh at your joke? If, and I say if she did, her eyes must have sparkled very, very green, like little chips of bottle glass. It wasn’t easy to make her laugh when I knew her. Her small mouth tended to fold, like a morning glory flower in the evening. Her face was often hidden behind that weeping curtain of ash brown hair. Did I say weeping? It was a lapse. I meant sweeping. Her hair swept over her face and hid it from view. It hid the broad planes of her cheeks and the high forehead. It covered her small, straight nose and her bright eyes. They would peek out of the curtain of hair and twinkle like little chips of bottle glass. Did I say that already? It’s just that they were so green. Emeralds are too yellow to describe her eyes; they were dark green, and clear, like springtime. Did you see her often? You must have seen her when you lived there; she went everywhere with her guitar slung over her shoulder and her jeans low on her slim hips. Her jeans should have been in a museum. They were faded as pale blue as washing could get denim and she’d embroidered all over them with brightly colored cotton thread. Vivid appliques were patches and in some places, safety pins held tears shut. She wore plastic sandals, flip-flops she called them. Loose tee shirts over a bathing suit top completed the outfit. Surely, you saw her hitchhiking across the island? She never went to school if she could help it, she skipped her classes and went to visit sick friends or hung out at the beach. When she went into town at night to play her guitar and sing in one of the many tourist bars, I would sometimes go to see her. Her singing was airy, flute-like, and surprising after her rather rough speaking voice. I wrote three songs for her and she used to sing them differently each time, putting a different emphasis on the words. Some nights the songs would be sad and
37 sometimes they would be hopeful. I was too young to write happy songs at that time. I wish I had the foresight to bring a tape recorder with me, but I never did. I have to close my eyes and listen hard now to hear her voice, and so often, it gets confused with the wind in the trees or the faint sound of surf on the beach. How old would she be now? Almost forty? It seems impossible. In my mind, she’ll always be a slender teenager with long hair, ridiculously thin wrists and soft, round breasts. I’ll tell you a secret. We used to make love whenever we could. One day, when we were lying in bed, talking about all the things we talked about, my mother came home from work to check on me. I was supposed to be ill, home from school. There was no time to hide; I just barely had time to shove her clothes under my covers, and her as well, when my mother came in and sat down on my bed. She never knew I had a girl, unclad, huddled next to my body. She was so lithe, so slender, her body melded with mine, the covers stayed obediently bunched over her head, and my mother never noticed a thing. She put her hand on my brow (damp with sweat and burning with effrontery) and told me I looked flushed. She left, after bringing me a cup of tea and some toast. All the while there was a naked girl in my bed, pressed as closely to me as a salamander. When my mother’s car drove away I pushed the covers back and smiled at her. She was pale and her eyes were immense. I didn’t love her then, but it was a start. Let me tell you another secret. She was in love with me for a long time, but by the time I loved her in return, she had already left me. That’s life. We always want what we can’t have. I wept when I left the island. She came to the airport and kissed me good-bye. It was already over by then, although she didn’t tell me that day. I was upset enough to be leaving home and family. I remember her wiping the tears off my cheeks with her thumbs, her green eyes deeply sad, and her smile gentle. I went to see her in the city, after she’d left the islands. She had cast off her tattered, harlequin jeans and she was wearing a warm sweater, borrowed from her new boyfriend, which made her look fragile. She went with me to a party and she didn’t drink, she never drank. She liked to smoke though, to get stoned, and by the end of the evening, her smile was as wide as the Hudson River. I tried to talk her into coming back with me to the apartment I’d rented, but she shook her head. She kissed me softly, but she was the type to close doors behind her and never open them again.
Outside, in the warm summer night, children ran chasing fireflies. Their voices echoed off the cement walls and bounced down the empty streets. Invisible in the darkness, their small bodies would appear and disappear in the puddles of lamplight as they darted down the sidewalks. At ten p.m. their mother’s voices floated out of windows. “Come home, come home! It’s time now!” Sounds of groans, complaints ending in stifled yawns and the children walked slowly towards home. All except one. She was hiding in the shadows; her eyes fixed on the tall wire fence surrounding the housing development. The fence was too high to climb, and the small back gate was always locked. Cars went in and out of the front gate, but a man sat in a little wooden house and worked the button that opened the gate. He was Mr. Jennings, the security guard. The girl sat and stared fixedly at the fence, but it never moved, an opening never appeared, and after a quarter of an hour, her older brother came and led her home. “Come on Stupid,” he said as he took hold of her arm, none too gently, and pulled her to her feet. “As if you didn’t think we’d find you. What do you want to do? Spend the night outside? Get eaten up by bugs? Hurry up, dinner’s ready.” “My name’s not Stupid, it’s Dawn.” The girl yanked her arm out of her brother’s grasp and rubbed it. “Mom is going to box your ears if you stay outside one more time like that,” he said. “I don’t care.” The dinner was cold by the time she sat down to eat. The florescent light hurt her eyes. She dug her fingers in the cracks in her plastic chair and looked with silent distaste at her plate. “Eat it.” Her father’s voice was low. Dawn pinched her lips. “Eat it, it’s good for you,” said her mother. She darted a glance at her husband. Her face was very white in the harsh light. They all looked bleached of any color. The table was pale green Formica, the chairs had metal legs that were cold to the touch, and the plates landed on the table with a hollow clatter that took away Dawn’s appetite. Her three brothers ate with relish. They leaned over their plates and scooped the meatloaf into their mouths with flashing forks. Their brown eyes were so clear they looked yellow in the bright lights, and their pupils were mere pinpricks. “Eat,” said Dawn’s father again. His red flannel shirt moved when he breathed. Dawn fixed her eyes on his collar and didn’t answer. Her fingers worried the little cracks in her chair, a piece of plastic fell soundlessly on the floor.
39 After dinner, the children left the table and went to their room. Dawn hadn’t eaten anything but three bites of her dinner roll and a leaf of anemic salad. From her bedroom, she heard her mother’s worried voice. “She’ll starve to death if she won’t eat.” “We can’t force them,” her father’s deeper voice was soothing. “You know that. When she’s hungry she’ll eat, then everything will be fine.” “The others were so much easier.” “Maybe girls are different.” Her father didn’t sound concerned. “I’m going to work now.” “Already?” “Can’t you hear the engines starting?” “I’ll see you in the morning then.” Dawn lay stiffly on her narrow cot and waited until her brothers fell asleep. Light from a streetlight cast its greenish glow into her window. Slowly, silently, she sat up. As quietly as she could, she slid the sheet off her legs and swung her feet off the bed. She held her breath. There was no change in the slow breathing around her. She stood up, and looked out the window. Their house was the last one in the development. It was built alongside the high fence, right next to the empty field where the sawed off trunks of trees gleamed in the moonlight. Five hundred yards of shattered forest cast jagged shadows onto sandy ground. The field was criss-crossed with fallen logs, branches and vines. Bulldozers plowed across it, clearing great paths. Her father drove one at night, after the lumberjacks cut the trees. The bulldozers pushed the felled trees onto trucks and drove them away. Her father. Dawn’s mouth moved as she worked it over the words ‘father, mother, brother, brother, brother.’ Then she clamped her mouth shut. It wasn’t right. Nothing was right. Her eyes strayed over the field, following the hill as it sloped upwards, up towards the great forest that loomed over the development. Now all that could be seen from the valley was a skyline of huge trees that backed up against an endless primeval forest. Moonlight filtered through the branches of the pine trees and cast sharp shadows on the hill. Dawn lifted her eyes towards the moon. It was half-full, and declining. In another week, it would be a thin crescent. Moths fluttered around the streetlights, circling the globes as they sought the moon. Dawn shivered as the sound of splitting wood reached her ears. Then she eased back into her bed. “Breakfast!” Dawn pulled her shorts on and shrugged into her shirt. The polyester felt odd to her, little threads catching on her fingernails. “Let me see them.” Her mother clucked and took the fingernail file out of a drawer. “Sit here, I’ll fix that hangnail. Didn’t you like your cereal?” “It was fine.” “You didn’t finish it.” “Why am I here?” Dawn asked. Her mother looked confused. “What a strange question. We’re here to clear the forest for more developments. You know that.” “Yes, but why am I here?” “You’re part of our family. Now stop asking questions and run outside and play.” Another day. Children played tag in the dusty lot behind the Shop N’ Go market. Gardeners pulled heavy hoses behind them as they watered the bushes planted along the streets. Housewives hung laundry on the lines in their back yards. Children threw balls at each other, and caught them. Lumberjacks worked all afternoon. The whine of buzz saws reached a crescendo each time a
40 new tree fell, and Dawn stood in the shade of a rhododendron and trembled when she heard the death cracks of the massive trunks. Some children found Dawn and set about teasing her. After an hour or so, her brothers stepped in and rescued her. She had a tear in her shirt and her knee bled. “You mustn’t fight,” her mother sighed, dabbing iodine on her knee. “I was just standing still,” Dawn said. Her head hurt and she wished it were night already. It was hot outside. “Stay inside and rest,” said her mother. Dawn sat in the kitchen. Her thin arms were crossed on the table. The clocked ticked as the dusty afternoon wore on. When evening came, her mother shooed her outside. “That’s enough sulking, go play with the others now.” The lamps were lit. Fireflies danced in the sultry air. Children shrieked and ran after them, catching them in glass jars. A game of hide and seek was organized. Dawn was cornered and made to join in. She looked at the horizon. A red line showed where the sun had set. The moon had not risen yet. “All right,” she whispered. “Dawn’s playing hide and seek!” the children shrieked. In Dawn’s house, in the kitchen, her parents cocked their heads and listened. “She’s playing with the others,” her mother said, and they smiled. Dawn’s brother started counting. “I’m it!” he yelled. “One, two three…” The children scattered. Dawn followed her other brothers, until they turned and told her to find another hiding place. Their eyes were yellow and very fierce in the night. Near the security guard’s cabin was a lone evergreen bush. Its prickly branches swept the ground, offering a hiding place for someone small enough to slip beneath it. Dawn barely rustled the needles as she hid. The scent of pine made her heart pound. She touched the scaly trunk and tears trickled down her cheeks. “Why am I so different?” she whispered. Mr. Jennings heard her. His window was always open. He leaned out, his arms folded on the windowsill. To anyone watching it would appear that he was simply relaxing a moment in the cool evening. “I’ve been watching you,” he said. Dawn didn’t answer. Her throat was so tense it hurt to breathe. “You’re not like the others,” Mr. Jennings continued. “They should never have brought you here.” “I want to go back,” said Dawn. All the longing she felt was distilled into that sentence. Her voice barely stirred the branches, but it reached Mr. Jennings’ ears. His hands tightened on the sill, knuckles whitening. “Do you want to try to go back now?” he said, conversationally. “Now, before they miss you?” “The lumberjacks are still out there,” said Dawn, her heart beating even faster. “They’re on the other side of the development they’ll never catch you.” “My brothers will run after me.” “You’ll have to run faster,” said Mr. Jennings. He smiled. In the night, his teeth gleamed very white. “Has anyone gone back?” asked Dawn. “No. You have to try. If it works, maybe they’ll stop stealing the children from the forest.” “Why did they start?” she asked. “I don’t know why. Perhaps this planet won’t let them reproduce. They had to steal the forest’s children.” “I don’t remember, I just feel yearning,” said Dawn.
41 “When you reach the trees it will all come back to you.” The man was silent a moment, listening to the chirping of the night creatures. “I never liked what they were doing here. Cutting down trees a hundred, no, three hundred meters high and thousands of years old so they could set down boxes made of cement, and plant their puny bushes.” Dawn crouched beneath the tree. “What will happen when I cross the gate?” Her voice was low and very strained. The thin line of light that marked the laser gate seemed to pulse like a living thing. “They’ll come after you. Go, go now. I’ll push the button on three. One, two, three!” She shot out of the bush, the needles tearing at her shirt and hair. One, two, three strides, and she hit the pool of bright light cast by the spotlights. Four, five, six more strides and she passed the gate. The night swallowed her and she ran. Her eyes took a minute to adjust to the darkness. Her foot caught in a root and she fell, tumbling head over heels. She lay in a heap, panting, frightened, ears straining towards the development. All she heard was her brother’s high voice. “One hundred! Ready or not, here I come!” She sprang to her feet and looked uphill. Five hundred meters of sand and tree trunks, a maze of saw dust and branches, then the tree line, and freedom. A sob caught in her throat. She ran in a zigzag, pushing through the brush, getting tangled, falling, then suddenly standing stockstill, listening. Down below, in the development, the children were calling her name. “Dawn! Dawn! Come out now!” She drew a gasping breath and turned again towards the trees. Her brothers would hunt her. They would come after her now. Fear lent speed to her trembling legs. She struggled up the hill, conscious now of the shouts and eager whines coming from below. Her brothers had been changed back, and now they ran on four legs, their yellow eyes gleaming, lips drawn back from sharp white teeth. Dawn topped the ridge and stared, a low moan of hopelessness coming from her throat. A new fence had been built. The tall trees seemed to mock her now, towering over the new, silver fence. She ran up to it and seized it in her hands. As she touched it, she started to change. Her hands shrank, grew harder, black and pointed. She pitched forward and stood on four legs. Her neck lengthened, her ears grew, and a tail twitched then lifted in fear. She was a deer. With a bound she left the ground behind her and launched herself at the fence. It hit her on the chest and she fell backwards, tumbling into a tangle of brush. Panicked, she thrashed, struggled, then managed to escape. She ran alongside the fence, looking for a hole, a weak spot, an opening. Three wolves topped the rise and spotted her. Their howls reached a crescendo. The deer spun around and dashed at the fence. At the last minute, she saw a space where the fence had yet to be fastened to a post. She shoved her head into the hole and leapt through. The wolves’ jaws snapped on empty air. The deer vanished into the dark forest. In the development flashlights flickered as parents gathered their children. They stood in the circles of lamplight and stared with pale moon faces at the forest. Then in tight groups, they made their way to their cement-block houses, sat at Formica tables, and ate their dinners in silence. In his guardhouse, Mr. Jennings sat alone. He crumpled an evergreen needle in his hand, and the scent made him smile into the empty night.
I have no recollection of the accident. Not even one of those fragmented pieces of memory that surges suddenly out of a half-sleep. No bits or glimpses of the tumbling sky or the shiny asphalt. My three children were at home with their baby sitter and I was on my way to the city to see a play. I was going to meet my husband at his office. All that I can remember clearly. Then, mysteriously, darkness falls over my mind and the next thing I know I’m staring at an open window. My first reaction is annoyance. It’s January and the window shouldn’t be open. Who left it open? I want to tell somebody to shut it, not to waste heat, but I am incapable of speech. Then I realize that sun is pouring into the room and everything is bathed in its milky light. The breeze accompanying it is balmy and scented with spring. Confused, I look around. A slender woman is sitting in a chair next to the window, reading a red book. She’s dressed in navy blue, and is about thirty I’d say. Younger than I. Her hair is scraped back in a tight bun. It’s a soft yellow. She dabs at her red-rimmed eyes, and her hands on the book tremble slightly as she turns the pages. Otherwise she’s perfectly still. My eyes are the only things that work. I try to open my mouth to speak, I cannot. My fingers don’t even wiggle. It’s as if I’m not part of this body lying so lightly on the neat bed. And yet I can feel the slight weight of the sheet against my legs and the pink woolen blanket is itchy under my fingers. I can feel myself breathing. There are no machines around me to suggest I’m in a hospital, but I know that’s where I am. The white walls, stark and bare, are proof enough. There’s a television set in the corner of the room, and the woman is sitting on a folding metal chair. She turns another page and dabs at her eyes with the tips of her fingers. Who is she? I make a huge effort to raise my hand, and a sharp pain, like a tiny needle, chases itself around my skull. It’s no use. I can’t move. Something is holding me pressed to the pillow. By shifting my eyes I can just barely make out the arm of some huge, steel contraption hovering over my head. It seems to be behind the bed. Suddenly I’m terribly frightened. I don’t remember the accident, but I remember my husband and my children. Someone must tell them not to wait for me. I picture my husband pacing in his office, and the children looking anxiously at the clock. My panic grows, my heart starts to race and I’m drenched in cold sweat. Blood is pounding in my ears. The room darkens, tips, and I slide into unconsciousness once again. This time my dreams are troubled. Voices I don’t recognize are all around me. Someone keeps repeating "Kelsey! Kelsey!". Who’s Kelsey? In my dream I’m sitting in a pink room. It looks like a little girl’s room. There are posters of ballet dancers on the wall and stuffed animals on the bed. A bowl of goldfish is perched on a white dresser. I can walk around, and I slowly drift from one thing to another,
43 touching the stuffed animals, peering at the goldfish. I even dip my finger in the water, it’s tepid. I examine the posters on the wall. I pick up a doll and smooth her hair. I remember my daughter, only three, and I hug the doll tightly and feel tears sliding down my cheeks. My chest tightens. The room starts to vanish, but just before the scene fades completely away I see a little girl sitting on the bed. Had she been there all along? I didn’t notice her before. She looks at me. Her face is heart-shaped and grave. Blond hair falls straight to her shoulders. She’s terribly thin and pale. Her eyes, a deep, steely blue, hold mine. Then she slowly raises her finger to her lips. "Shhh," she says. "Keep the secret." "Kelsey! Kelsey!" I opened my eyes. I did it consciously. My eyes opened, and I saw a doctor bending over me. He was neither young nor old. He was Asian, and had gold-rimmed glasses. Behind him stood a rather stout nurse. And right behind her was the woman I saw reading. She’s the one calling Kelsey. She was looking straight at me and her hands flew up to her mouth. "Kelsey! Kelsey, can you hear me?" I don’t know who Kelsey is. My name is Vivian. But I heard her. "Yes," I whispered. The doctor smiled. The nurse took a startled step backwards. The woman gave a joyful cry and swooped down upon me. I realized that there was nothing pinning me to the pillow anymore. I was free. Only a whisper of pain remained. Tentatively I reached my hand up to my head. A bandage swathed it. "Please," I said. "What happened? Where am I?" My voice was raw and broken. Forcing it out of my throat hurt. "Kelsey..." For some reason the doctor was calling me Kelsey too. "You’re in the hospital St. Anne in Nanterre. The operation was a success. We’ve managed to take out the part of your brain that was sick and replace it with a well part. Can you understand what I’m saying? Your cancer has been cured my dear." I nodded. The words were clear enough, but the meaning was obscure. "I had a brain tumor?" I asked weakly. The doctor beamed and nodded. The slender woman was still holding my hand and smiling broadly. The nurse watched me strangely. Like a cat watches a viper I remember thinking. "Kelsey darling, you’re going to get better now. Soon we’ll take you home." The woman leaned over and kissed me. I was perplexed. "Who is Kelsey?" I asked. The woman gasped and jerked backwards. She looked at the doctor, her mouth opened soundlessly. "You are," he said gently. "No I’m not," I said firmly. "There must be a mistake." "The mirror," said the nurse. "Show her the mirror, it will all come back." Those were her first words. I didn’t like her voice. It was hard and grated in my head. Silver flashed as the doctor picked up a hand mirror from the table next to him and held it up in front of my face. Dark blue eyes stared back at me. Dark blue eyes in a heart-shaped, pale face. A white bandage hid the hair. But whosoever hair it hid it wasn’t mine. The eyes were not mine, nor was the face. "I don’t understand," I said weakly. "Who is that?" "Don’t you recognize your face Kelsey?" asked the doctor. His voice held the slightest trace of worry. I started to shake. It was uncontrollable. My body was seized with an argue that blurred my vision and clattered my teeth together. "I’m n-not K-Kelsey," I managed to stutter. "Please, wwhat’s hap-pening?" The slender woman started to speak, but the doctor put his hand on her arm. "Leave me alone
44 with your daughter," he said. The nurse took the woman from the room and shut the door. The doctor waited a few minutes. We stared at each other in silence. Questions tumbled and jostled in my head, tangling up and making coherent speech impossible. The doctor seemed to understand this. He pulled up a chair and sat by my bed. "Do you know what year we are?" he asked gently. I did, and I told him so. "And the month? The date?" I frowned. That was tricky. If I had a brain tumor perhaps I’d been unconscious for a few days. Why wasn’t my family here with me though? I grew distressed. "It’s January still, isn’t it? The fifteenth?" I tried to remember when I’d left the house. The doctor bit his lip. It was the first time I’d seen him look worried. He took my hand. His hands were so large, I thought. Mine was tiny and fragile in his. "It’s May," he said. The tenth of May." My first reaction was relief. I hadn’t missed my husband’s birthday. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but that was my first thought. Then the gravity of the situation became clear. "I’ve been in a coma for five months?" I asked. "Nearly five months, yes." "Am I cured now? Can I go home?" "In a few weeks, I think." "But, but why isn’t my husband here?" The doctors hands tightened around mine, hurting me. "What is going on?" I asked. "Do you remember your name?" He asked cautiously. "Vivian Georgette Marina Lanonne. I’m thirty-seven years old. I have three children. My husband’s name is Etienne, and we live just outside Paris in a lovely stone house with a large garden." I smiled, well content with myself and my memory, which was seeping back with the irresistible flow of the tide. "I want to see my children, they must be absolutely crazy worrying about me. And Etienne, poor Etienne. Can I see him now? Is he waiting outside? I know you wanted to protect me from shock, I suppose after being in a coma for five months you were worried about me, but I can remember everything now, at least, most everything." I smiled engagingly. "Please, can I see Etienne?" Tears started to burn my eyes and they trickled, hot, down my cheeks. The doctor stopped smiling though. All the muscles in his face were drawn tight around the bones and his eyes burned into mine. "You can never see them again," he said. "You must forget that you ever knew them." "Forget? What? Are they dead?" My voice rose to a shriek. My heart was hammering so hard in my chest it was shaking me. "No, no. But, oh damn, I’m doing this so badly. You’re the first. The first person to ever undergo this surgery. How could I know? Kelsey, Kelsey! Answer me! Are you there?" He leaned over me, seized my arms and stared into my eyes. "Kelsey! Answer me!" "I’m not Kelsey", I whimpered. "Please, what is going on? Where’s Etienne? I want Etienne!" The doctor sank back onto the chair and wiped his hand over his sweaty face. He sat in silence, collecting his thoughts, then he picked up the mirror again and showed it to me. "Your name is Kelsey Verdant. You are eleven years old. You had a brain tumor. Normally this sort of tumor is fatal. There is nothing we can do. But a few years ago doctors began to experiment with a sort of brain transplant. It seemed to work well with monkeys, and so we wanted to try it on a human. This type of tumor strikes very young children. It seemed a crime not to try and save you. You were doomed. When we finally got a donor you were already practically a vegetable and in terrible pain.
45 “We called your parents and they brought you in. It was in January, five months ago. We had a donor. A woman had been in a terrible car crash. Her brain was intact, but she was bleeding to death. Her spine was broken. We could not save her. Her husband agreed to donate her organs. We took part of her brain. We operated on you that very night. Thirteen hours. In the morning you were still alive. “You have been in a coma for five months. We maintained you in a coma so that the brain’s activity was at it’s lowest, and so there would be a minimum of swelling and damage. When your brain waves started to show normal activity we woke you up. “Vivian Lanonne has been dead and buried for five months. Your family has mourned you. Would you go back to them as you are now? You are an eleven-year-old girl, two years older than your eldest son is. How could you go back? But there is a family here who needs you. You were their only daughter. Your mother has been sitting at your bedside everyday for five months. Your father comes each evening and holds your hand and tells you stories. You can make them very happy. You can have a whole new life. Or you can destroy two families as well as yourself. You can try and be Vivian Lanonne. Eleven years old. Married with three children. Or you can be Kelsey Verdant. Adored daughter of Lucille and Paul. Please consider the two cases most carefully." I closed my eyes. The images were too painful. "Why?" "No one could know that Kelsey would not wake up," he said gently. "But you suspected it. And the nurse too," I added. "Otherwise you wouldn’t have had that big speech all made up." "When Kelsey came to us it was nearly over for her. I thought perhaps the brain waves looked different somehow, but we know precious little about the brain." He bent closer to me. "If it had been your little girl, wouldn’t you have wanted to at least try? You were dead Vivian. You died in a tragic car accident. Tragic, but banal. You skidded on a patch of ice and hit a truck head-on. Then your car flipped over and struck a car in another lane. The truck driver died. It was a terrible wreck. The truck driver died instantly, but another man died slowly, trapped in his burning car. There were five cars involved in your accident, and one truck. You were the cause of it, I’m afraid. You were driving too fast on a slippery road." I gasped. "How dreadful!" tears blinded me again. "Why are you torturing me like this?" "Because I want you to promise me something." "What?" "You must become Kelsey Verdant and have nothing what so ever to do with your old life. You must promise never to say a word of this to anyone. And in exchange I offer you a new life. A chance to start over. Think about it. You’re eleven years old. You have a healthy body, a loving family. You can do this for them, for me. Kelsey died, but part of her lives on. Think of your own daughter, and try." My breathing was harsh, uneven, and I was clutching my sheets with hands that were icy cold and slippery with sweat. My body was wracked in shudders and I couldn’t stop crying. My babies, my husband, how could I live without them? They weren’t dead, and neither was I, but we could never be together again. I’d killed myself, and, if the doctor was telling the truth, at least two other people. Perhaps this was purgatory, and if it was, I must atone for my sins. I drew a shuddering breath and opened my eyes. "All right. But you must help me. Don’t leave me alone. I must be able to talk to someone." "I promise." The doctor stroked my cheek. "Thank you Kelsey." Seeing me wince he squeezed my hand. "You’ll be fine, I promise." When my "parents" came back in the room that evening I’d recovered a semblance of calm. The shots helped. The doctor gave me tranquilizers. He had decided to tell my parents that I was suffering from a near total amnesia but that it would slowly get better. And they were so
46 pathetically glad to see me awake I was touched despite my pain. Kelsey’s father was a tall, serious man. He looked Polish, or Russian, with high, flat cheekbones and Kelsey’s dark blue eyes. Her mother was typically French. She was fineboned, with pale skin and warm, brown eyes. Her hair was dyed blonde, but it looked good on her. She stood very straight, and I noticed no jewelry except for a wedding band. Perhaps I could learn to live with these people, and then, when I get older, I could see my family again. My family again. it was the only thought that kept me from hurling myself out the window. That, and the fact the window had bars on it. I grew addicted to Valium and other tranquilizers. They made my life bearable and at first Doctor Lee gave me as much as I wanted. When three weeks had passed he started to wean me off them. I was supposed to go home within a fortnight and he wanted me to be as healthy as possible. I was a terrible patient. Sometimes I’d rant and rave at him, screaming and calling him the worst names I could think of. Anything to appease the desolation I still felt every morning when I woke up and knew I could never see my family again. Sometimes I’d curl up in a catatonic state and refuse all communication. Through all this Dr. Lee was very patient. I read and watched television. My parents brought me children’s books I’d read thirty years ago and every day a new stuffed animal found its way onto my bed. I turned their faces to the wall so I couldn’t see their staring, glass eyes. I hated them, but didn’t dare say so. I couldn’t get used to my new, frail body. Kelsey had been a dancer. Her limbs were absurdly long and thin. Everything about her was ethereal and flexible. Her hands were long and dexterous, her feet splayed outward from years of ballet. Her back was straight and seemed to be made of India rubber. I tried to avoid mirrors at all cost, but I could feel the body, and it wasn’t mine. The feeling was so alien sometimes that it actually made me nauseous. Some days I lay perfectly still in the tepid bath water, the only place where I could stop feeling the body. I would close my eyes and try desperately to remember my old body and pretend it was still me in the tub. I was a middle age woman who’d borne three children. I was in reasonably good shape, although after three babies my stomach wouldn’t go flat anymore. I had nice breasts, and brown hair that curled naturally in soft ringlets and was without a doubt my best feature after my straight nose. I floated in the water and I imagined my children swimming in our backyard pool. My sons were like playful otters in the water and my daughter bobbed about like a young seal. In my imagination I saw her head break the water and emerge, her hair sleek and her eyes closed. She gave a snort, blowing water from her nostrils like a baby beluga. The image was so strong that it shook me out of my reverie, back into the tiny, sparkling white-tiled bathroom where I floated in a tub of lukewarm water. When Nurse Theresa came to get me out of the bath I was trying to drown myself. It doesn’t work. I would not recommend that sort of suicide to anyone who wants the job done correctly. She hauled me out of the water, an easy task for her, and gave me a sharp slap on the face. Then she wrapped me in a huge, fluffy, white towel and rubbed me dry. All the while scolding in her deep voice. When I was dry and warm and dressed in a pink jogging outfit she dragged me in front of the mirror and made me look at Kelsey’s face for a half and hour. Until the tears had stopped. Until I stopped sobbing and just looked. Until I simply looked at the little girl’s face staring miserably back at me. When I stopped crying and stopped shaking she nodded in satisfaction, tucked me back in bed, and handed me a book. She sat in the corner of the room and waited for Dr. Lee. "How are you this morning Kelsey?" he asked. He nodded curtly to Nurse Theresa, and she left without looking at me. I knew she made the sign of the cross whenever she came near me. "Fine." "How’s about a little smile then?"
47 I sketched a smile, but it hurt my face. "I don’t feel like smiling," I said. He nodded and wrote something in his notebook. "When am I leaving?" I asked. He glanced at the door, and then sighed. "When I’m sure you’re not going to throw yourself under the first train that comes along, or try and go see the others." He’d taken to calling my family "the others". "I’m terrified of trains, and the ‘others’ wouldn’t recognize me, would they?" His mouth twitched but he didn’t smile. "No, they wouldn’t. It would only confuse them and cause them more pain." "So I am the only one who must bear the pain." "It is your own pain. You must learn to live with it." I nodded. Suddenly the weight of my thirty-seven years seemed to finally reach the tender body I inhabited. I slumped against the pillow and lay the book down with shaking hands. I felt older than time then, older than a hundred, or even a thousand years. "Promise me something," I said. "Promise me something and I will try my best to live with my nightmare." "What?" "Promise that you’ll never do this operation again, on anyone else." His cheeks turned red. Two bright patches appeared on his face. He looked away from me. "Does that mean you won’t?" I asked tiredly. "I can’t promise that. It’s amazing, the fact you’re alive." "I’m not alive," I said, and this time it was my voice that was gentle. "Look at me. You’ve created a sort of living dead. Kelsey died. She didn’t survive the operation, or perhaps it was simply that my brain was too much for hers. A question of experience perhaps. Maybe my brain waves killed hers off. And can you imagine what it would be like if she had survived? And if my brain had survived as well? Can you imagine two people trapped in this one, frail body? Can you imagine the madness, the confusion and despair?" I got off the bed and stood by his side. I touched his arm. "See? You flinched. You created a monster, and deep down inside you know it." My voice was sad. He wouldn’t answer for the longest time. And I didn’t try to touch him again. Finally he took his glasses off and wiped away the tears in his eyes. "I thought that I’d succeeded. I wanted so much to save that child. I want to save all the children. You can’t imagine how hard it is to be a pediatric neurosurgeon. I love children, that’s why I specialized in this field. But so many of them die. It breaks my heart each time I lose one. Kelsey was so sweet. She was so shy, and calm. She trusted me. I wanted her to live. When you opened your eyes I thought it was a triumph. I couldn’t face the truth. Even now, I can’t." "You must never do this again. Please. In a way I was lucky. Kelsey died, and I am alone in this body. You must think of others now, not of your glorious career." That was hitting below the belt, I knew, but I had to make him promise. "I will play my part in this horrible farce, if you swear you won’t inflict this fate on anyone else." "All right." He whispered. "But what can I say to the people who are consulting me in their last desperate hope?" "Tell them I died," I said. "Tell them it was all a hoax, and that it’s impossible, inconceivable. Wipe my records clean, send me to Kelsey’s home. And I will try to live Kelsey’s life for her, I will do that in honor of the memory of a sweet, shy child. And I will never breath a word of this to anyone." "I’ll think about it," he said. And then I leaned forward and gave him a kiss. A kiss on the lips. I knew what I was doing. Experience is a terrible weapon. When he looked at me again all trace of the doctor had fled. He looked at me as a man looks at a woman and he was shaking. He opened his mouth to
48 speak, and then he got up suddenly, overturning the chair, went into the bathroom, and vomited. I sat down on the bed. I picked up the book. I waited for my parents to come and get me. I was going home. I was terrified. I was closing the door on Vivian and now I was Kelsey. Kelsey’s room was as I’d remembered seeing it in my dream. I supposed that it had been the last memory that had stayed buried in Kelsey’s mind. It was pink and white, with a goldfish bowl and posters of dancers on the wall. I opened all the drawers in the dresser and explored the closet. I found a diary in one of the drawers and settled down on the bed to read it. "Dear Diary. My name is Kelsey Verdant. Today is my birthday, I’m ten years old." I checked the date. It was the fourth of July. Nice to know one’s own birthday. "I got this diary. I also got a gold fish and a gold pendant from Papa, and a new pair of ballet slippers from Maman. I’ve named the goldfish Arthur, and I’ve hidden the gold pendant in my secret drawer. That way my stupid cousin Laura won’t steal it. I ate three pieces of chocolate cake. I’m so glad it’s summer vacation. School is horrible. My best friend Sophie is going to Normandy. I’m stuck here in Paris. But Papa will take us all to Biarritz for a week in August." My head was starting to ache. Fatigue did that to me now. I put the diary down and went to the aquarium. "Hello Arthur," I said softly. I opened the writing desk and searched for a secret drawer. In the end it wasn’t hard to find. My fingers touched a small latch and a tiny drawer popped out. Inside were a folded paper and a gold charm. I picked up the charm. It was a pair of ballet shoes. I smiled and put it back. Then I unfolded the paper. It had been well creased, and read and re-read. "Dear Kelsey; I think you’re the prettiest girl in school. I dream of you every night. Join me in my dreams, and we’ll go flying on a magic carpet. Like Aladdin. I love you, Robert." I smiled. Robert was smitten, and Kelsey had kept his letter. I wondered what he looked like. I folded the love-letter up and placed it back in the drawer. As I did my fingers brushed against something else. There was another paper in the drawer, pushed out of sight. It was more recent. "Hello. I’m writing this, but I’m scared. I am going to the hospital again tomorrow. Doctor Lee said he would operate as soon as he gets a donor. I hope it will be soon. My head hurts now all the time. And I can hardly walk anymore. It’s awful. I had a dream last night. It was dark, and then the dawn came. I was in a white room. A lady was with me. She was very pretty, and I thought she was an angel, but she just laughed when I asked her. She said we could play a game or she could read to me. Whatever I wanted. But I was feeling sick, so I just said I wanted to be hugged. She sat down and took me on her lap and she held me for a long time. Usually in dreams things happen, this time I just sat in the lady’s arms. She had such pretty hair. I asked her name, and she didn’t answer. She looked so sad though. I woke up and my face was all wet. And what was strange was my head was wet too, like she’d cried on my hair. I have to stop now. My head hurts so much I throw up a lot. I hope Dr. Lee knows what he’s doing." It was written in a shaky, scrawling hand. I folded the paper back up and put it next to the love letter. "Kelsey?" It was my mother. She knocked timidly on the door and I told her to come in. "How are you darling?" She asked me that a hundred times a day. "Fine. It ’s nice to be back," I said. "Arthur was happy to see me." She looked blank a second, then smiled tremulously. "You remembered Arthur, how wonderful. You’ll see, you’ll get your memory back soon." "Have I missed much school?" I asked her. "Oh dear! Yes. I suppose you’ll have to do the last two years all over again, but don’t worry. Papa and I have decided to get you a tutor, so you can work at home and catch up as soon as you feel well enough." "I’d like that," I said. "Are we going on vacation this summer?" I wanted to know. Having
49 something to plan for in advance seemed terribly important for me. "We hadn’t planned on it." She came into the room and sat on the bed with me. She put her arm around me and hugged me tightly. I had gotten used to this and didn’t stiffen anymore. "Would you like to go somewhere?" "Only if you and Papa do." I spoke truthfully. I didn’t want to strain their relationship any more. Being in a strange body was hard enough, I didn’t want to become the daughter of divorced parents. I could feel stress and tension in the air with a queer sort of intensity. As if I’d grown some sort of antennae that picked up emotions. It threw me off balance. Right now Kelsey’s parents were stressed out and exhausted. They needed rest as much as I did. "Perhaps we can go somewhere and relax then. Are you hungry? Dinner’s ready." "Let’s go." I smiled. I was never hungry, but I knew I had to take care of Kelsey’s body. I’d made a pact with the dead child. I wouldn’t break it. I’d keep the secret. We went to the coast of Normandy for the holidays. Maman wondered if we should stay in a hotel, or if we should rent a small house. In the end we stayed on a farm in a bed and breakfast. We visited charming, sleepy little towns and we ate crepes and ice cream in quaint restaurants. We went to the ocean and swam. I wasn’t sure how well Kelsey knew how to swim, so I pretended to paddle awkwardly around in the surf. My parents lay in the shade of a bright orange parasol and sipped chilled Perrier from green bottles. We talked about mundane things My father loved to explain things, and I found it restful to hear his voice. He explained things simply and didn’t quiz me about anything to see if I’d been paying attention. I didn’t let my mind wander though. I concentrated more on the sound of his voice than anything else did. He would lean back on his elbows and squint into the sun. His eyes would take on a far-away look and he’d happily expound on the curvature of the earth, or the different sails on the pleasure boats we saw. My mother would put sun cream on her freckled shoulders and then carefully wipe her hands on a towel. She’d put on her over-sized dark glasses and read the magazines she brought to the beach. She loved Paris Match, Ici Paris, and Gala; gossip news and news about royalty. It was in Paris Match that she read about Dr. Lee’s suicide. She gasped, and I thought for a minute that she’d be ill. A fine beading of sweat stood out on her forehead and her hands left wet marks on the glossy pages. "What is it?" My father was at her side in an instant, holding her shoulder. He glanced at the open page and froze, and they both turned slowly to look at me. I was almost content at that moment. I was lying on my stomach licking a lemon-ice. I was licking slowly, trying to find out whether Kelsey’s taste buds were very different from mine. When I saw my parents I dropped my ice-cream in the sand, ruining it. I could pick up emotions much quicker now, and their shock was a palpable thing that hit me with the force of a blow. "Why did he do it?" murmured my mother, after she’d composed herself. The article gave no details. It just said that a prominent neurosurgeon had shot himself. I supposed that he hadn’t suffered. After all, if anyone should know how to shoot himself in the head it would be a neurosurgeon. For some reason his death was a weight off my shoulders. I had thought I would need him to talk to, but in the end the burden of my secret was lighter now that I was the only one to hold it. I tested my reactions slowly, like someone dipping a toe into the water to see if it was too cold. I didn’t read the article for a week, and I would only let myself think about it for a few seconds at a time. When I was sure I wouldn’t fly to pieces I sat down and opened the magazine. I was sitting near a horse pasture, under an apple tree. The presence of the horses grazing calmly nearby gave me courage and served to anchor me in time and space. I drew a deep breath and read. "Dr. Lee, a prominent neurosurgeon was found dead last night in his office. Official sources
50 say he shot himself. He died instantly. He left no suicide note and close friends and relatives are completely mystified. One source did say that he’d been extremely depressed lately after revealing to the press that his successful brain transplant was actually a failure. "His research into the project took up all his time and energy", a friend is quoted as saying. "And it became an obsession. His last patient died of a brain tumor and all his efforts to save him were in vain." Citing professional fatigue and stress as a possible reason police are none the less looking into the death. He destroyed his records, and his notes have been confiscated, causing a scandal within the hospital itself. "His death comes as a complete surprise," say colleagues. Only his assistant, Mlle. Theresa Martins, had this to say: "Dr. Lee was completely different lately. He changed quite suddenly around a month ago. He became morose and snappish. It was quite out of character." She goes on to add that his loss is a tragedy for modern medicine." I finished reading and leaned back against the apple tree. The rough bark was reassuring. I called to the horses standing in the deep grass. They pricked their ears at my voice and flicked their tails. My sons had ridden at the pony club. I tried very hard to put my mind to other things. My hair started to grow back. At first people stared at me when I got out of the hospital and walked around with my bald head. I didn’t mind. When my hair grew back I looked like a boy for a while. I tried to play with other children. Most of them took me for what I was and would play with me. Once or twice a child refused to have anything to do with me. Like some animals who can detect a falsehood, they shied away from me. Dogs were confused by me as well. Luckily Kelsey had no dog. They would come up to me, tails wagging, all goofy and panting, and then they’d sort of freeze. They’d turn their heads slowly from side to side, trying to see something that was not there. As if they could sense the ghost within me. They would often put their tails between their legs and whimper in fear or even growl. Some would just run away. I learned to avoid dogs. Lesson number one. Dogs see ghosts. My father was sensitive to things like that. He sensed what was not there. It pained him, I could see that. He was often looking at me strangely, a sort of shutter over his eyes. As if he sensed something wrong about me. And so far he hadn’t tried to hug me like my mother did a hundred times a day. My mother had no such reservations. Her love and pride shone from her face every time she turned my way. It was a warm light that gave me comfort even while I flinched away from it. I sat still when she hugged me. I couldn’t bring myself to give her a spontaneous hug. I knew she was waiting for this, but I wasn’t ready. I was having a difficult time pretending to be eleven. As I tried to act out their daughter I started to feel more like a real child. I started to slip back into childhood. It started when I wanted to watch a particular TV show and my father told me I was too young. I pouted, then burst into tears; I wasn’t very good at handling emotions yet. Strangely enough this outburst reassured him. He gathered me into his arms and carried me to bed, crooning into my ear all sorts of silly nonsense that parents say to comfort their children. I giggled when his breath tickled my neck, and he laughed for the first time since I’d gotten back from the hospital. It was a mistake. I shouldn’t have gotten close to him. I needed love, and I was an adult. I was shattered by my loss, and he was a young, good-looking man. I pressed myself to him and shuddered against him. All the longing I felt for Etienne was distilled into my caress. His body stiffened and he stood up so suddenly he nearly fell over. Then he reached down and slapped me hard. My head rang and I cried out.
51 "I don’t know who you are anymore," he said brokenly. "I don’t know who you are. But I do know one thing. I’ve lost my daughter. You’re not her. I wish you could just go away." Then he seemed to get a hold of himself. "If you touch me again I will kill you," he said softly. I just nodded, too shocked for tears. I didn’t see him again for nearly a week. He managed to invent some business trip that took him away to the north of France. He said nothing to his wife, but when he got back he found time alone with me. I was terribly embarrassed by the whole thing. It was not as monstrous for me as it was for him. "I want to know what happened." He said it calmly enough, but a nerve was jumping in his jaw. "I can’t answer you." I said honestly. "I don’t know what happened." "Do you know why Dr. Lee killed himself?" I looked away. "No," I lied. He clenched his fist and then he said, "You’re not my daughter, are you?" "In a way I am," I said. I chose my words carefully. "I’m sorry about, about what happened. I won’t do it again. It’s just, it’s just I feel so lonely. I miss..." I stopped, conscious of saying too much. "You miss who?" I didn’t answer and after a while he said, "I love my wife, and I loved my daughter." "Do you want some advice?" I asked. "Why don’t you try and have another child?" "We ought to, I suppose." He said brokenly. He said one more thing to me. He told me that he’d never forgive me if I hurt his wife in any way. "I don’t know what kind of a hoax you and Dr. Lee tried to pull. Obviously it didn’t work. But if my wife suffers because of it, you’ll regret it." I didn’t have the energy to explain that I had no part in Dr. Lee’s experiment. Perhaps it would be easier for both of us if he hated me, because I was still attracted to him. I decided to ask to be sent to boarding school as soon as possible. I knew that Kelsey’s father would agree. I had to wait nearly a year. Kelsey’s mother got pregnant and had another baby. It was a particularly easy pregnancy and she was in a good mood throughout it. I was busy with school, I’d forgotten how time consuming school was, and so I was able to keep busy and not think too much about my family. Kelsey’s father was cool towards me but that went unnoticed by his wife, involved as she was with her new baby. Little things kept on upsetting me. Homework assignments that reminded me of my son’s homework. A girl that looked like my daughter. I had to constantly hold myself back from calling them on the phone or trying to go see them. And time didn’t ease the pain. It simply warped it and twisted it to something that had sharp bumps and smooth sides. Sometimes it would dig at me, and other times my mind would slide over it. But it was always huge. When I went away to boarding school life was much easier. My new little brother took up all Kelsey’s parent’s time now. I slipped thankfully into the background. I was happy enough in boarding school, and was even hatching a plan to go see my family. Just to go look at them, and not even try and talk to them. But fate intervened. Kelsey’s mother died suddenly while crossing the street. A bus killed her. Luckily the baby was home with the nanny. I came home then. Kelsey’s father had retreated into a sort of shell and it was the nanny who’d called the boarding school and asked me to come home. She said her six months were up and she had to leave. I begged her to stay but she was adamant. I came home to look after the baby. It gave me a new lease on life. I adored babies. I’d adored mine, and this tiny boy was no different. He took to me right away, and I kept him in my room and looked after him as if he
52 were mine. Kelsey’s father drifted around the apartment for a few weeks, he went back to work and I made sure he had food on the table when he came home in the evening though half the time he didn’t eat anything. He lost weight and I worried about him, but I was terrified to speak to him. The boarding school called and I told them I wasn’t coming back. I managed to organize things so I wouldn’t have to go back to school. I took care of the baby. He became my baby. I loved him fiercely. When Kelsey’s father finally snapped out of his depression, with the help of a psychiatrist, he came into my room and watched me one evening as I took care of the baby. "Thank you for taking care of Marc," he said. "I love him." I answered simply. He nodded. He wouldn’t look at me, but I suppose it was just as well. My emotions were raw; I was an adolescent now. Hormones controlled me, not my brain. I breathed normally only after he’d gone. Life went on like that for a year. Marc thrived and he called me mama. I let him. Kelsey’s body turned fifteen. I cried in bed every night. I was alone. Kelsey’s friends had sensed very early on that something was very wrong and they all had taken to avoiding me. I had no friends. I had no family. I only had Marc. He was mine. And then Kelsey’s father met Anita. She was a widow too. His boss introduced them. Anita was smitten. Kelsey’s father was like most men. Compliant. She wanted him; he had nothing better to do. She moved in. She regarded me as ‘the rival’, and I suppose I was, although not for any reason she could ever imagine. She was jealous of Kelsey’s father. I wanted Marc for my own. She arranged to send me back to boarding school, and I flatly refused. To further stump her I took an aptitude test and managed to get my equivalence in two months. I had my baccalaureate. I stayed home with Marc. She then took to treating me like the maid. That didn’t bother me. I had nothing better to do. And at least I was with Marc. He was walking now, and followed me everywhere. She grew more and more difficult, and finally Kelsey’s father asked me to leave. I was sixteen. He sent me to the university. He begged me to go. I couldn’t refuse. I said good-bye to Marc. Just before I got on the train I hugged Kelsey’s father. Right in front of Anita, and I kissed him on the lips. Then, without a word to her, I got on the train and left. I watched the city give way to the country. A faint smile stayed on my mouth. I had felt Kelsey’s father’s response. I had a small fragment of revenge. I studied law. I’d always wanted to. I did well. I went home for vacations, and Marc still loved me the best. Kelsey’s father managed to be civil to me. Anita never made the slightest effort. I didn’t care. I started dating and I’d started to make friends. I was finally catching up to life, leaving the terrible child-body behind and becoming a young woman. It was so much easier the second time around. When I graduated a small law firm in Switzerland hired me. I was glad to leave the country; I could finally start anew. At last the feelings of sorrow were starting to abate. I could think about my children and not moan. My husband’s face was a pleasant blur, not a sharp pain. In Switzerland I took up skiing. I loved it, and skied every chance I got. One day, while I was waiting in line to get on the chair lift a dark-haired boy, about my age, skied up beside me and flirted with me. There was something spookily familiar about him, but before I could put my finger on it he told me his name. It was my son. Immediately a sort of dark veil fell over my mind and I fell senseless in the snow. He picked me up and dragged me to the side and when I woke up he had gone. A man was bending over me.
53 "Where is the boy who was just here?" I gasped. "He came to get me, then he left to ski. He said you fainted. Are you all right?" He was a doctor, and he asked me if I suffered from epilepsy or if I’d ever fainted. I told him part of the truth; that I’d had a shock because I’d known the boy a long time ago, and had thought him dead. The shock of seeing him there had been too much. He smiled and patted my hand, and told me to go have a hot tea with lots of sugar in it. I did. But I didn’t go back onto the slopes. The dizzy feeling I’d gotten when I’d fainted had frightened me. What if my mind decided to leave Kelsey’s body? Where would it go? Would Kelsey return? Or would she become a vegetable? I didn’t know. I returned to work and requested a transfer. I was moved back to Paris. The law firm I worked in asked me to go there. At first I was reticent, but I’d lived there so long, and I’d faced my demons there, so nothing more could hurt me. I was glad for one reason. I could see Marc whenever I wanted. Marc was pathetically glad to see me. Anita and my father were estranged. Marc told me that they had started fighting soon after I’d left and they hardly even spoke anymore. But she still lived in the apartment with them. My father had started drinking. I was shocked by the change in him. He wasn’t an alcoholic, yet. But if Anita didn’t leave I though he’d become one. Marc was having a miserable time of it. Only seven years old and no one took care of him. I packed Anita’s belongings in boxes and put everything in the hallway. When she came home from work I was there, her things were out of the apartment, and I’d changed the lock. She screamed, pounded on the door, but finally left in the cab I’d called for her. My father arrived after dinner. I opened the door. For a minute he just stood and stared at me. We hadn’t spoken to each other since the day I’d left on the train. He hadn’t wanted to. "Please come in," I said. "I have to talk to you." "I don’t want to talk," he said. "I want a drink." "I’ll get you one." I poured him a glass of cold apple juice. He threw it on the floor. Marc started to sniff. I picked him up and put him to bed. It was late. "Don’t you love your son?" I hissed. My father rubbed his face. "You’ve ruined my life," he said bleakly. "I don’t know who you are, or why Dr. Lee did this to me, but I’ve never forgiven him, or you." "What about my life?" I asked him, my voice breaking. "Did you ever stop and wonder who I was, really? Did you ever stop and think what I had to give up, just to keep your wife happy?" He looked at me for a long time. Finally he said, "No, I never thought. Tell me." "I had three children. A husband I adored. A house in the country, and friends I could count on. I didn’t work. My children were my life. Everyone said I spoiled my children too much. But they were wonderful. I had two boys, handsome and kind, and a little girl. She was three years old. The light of my life." My hands were shaking as much as my voice. I had to stop. There were tears in his eyes. "I didn’t know," he told me. "Dr. Lee didn’t know either," I said tiredly. I don’t know why I decided to defend him. He’d been dead for so long now. But I wanted to take the poison out of my father’s system. Hatred can kill a man. I got up and walked to the wall where a picture of a sailboat was hanging. "I love Marc. He was like my baby. It’s breaking my heart to see him so unhappy. Will you try and be a father to him? You were once such a good father to Kelsey." I paused, then turned to look at him. I spoke softly. "I’m sorry she died. But I never wanted to hurt anyone. I only tried to live with my own nightmare." Now he was crying. His face was in his hands and great sobs were torn out of his throat. I wanted to comfort him, but I knew I could never touch him. There was too much longing on my part. He took Marc and moved to the south of France where he had family. News, when it came, was letters from Marc. He was happy now. Father was wonderful. Father was getting divorced
54 from Anita. Father was marrying a lovely woman. I waited for the invitation to the wedding, but all I received was a note from Marc and a photograph of the newlyweds. They were all happy. How was I? I thought about committing suicide. Some days I would stand on my balcony and stare at the brown, swirling Seine River and wonder if I would ever jump. I was in love with two men. My husband, who thought I was dead, and my father, who wished I were. Three months passed. I walked to work every day. It gave me the exercise I needed and the walk itself was very lovely; down the Blvd. St. Germain, through the old city, past the ruins of the medieval church-yard and through the beautiful St. Sulpice Cathedral square. The pigeons flapped noisily. Gray birds flying through the gray air. In the fountain the water was very dark, nearly black, and goldfish looked like glints of foil swimming through it. I would always stop and stare at them. One day as I was leaning over the fountain a man spoke to me. "Excuse me, but weren’t you the girl I met one day while skiing in Switzerland?" I turned and found myself staring at my son again. His dark eyes were full of something I didn’t recognize right away because Mothers never see that look in their children’s faces. He was infatuated. My hand gripped the rough stone so hard my bones cracked. "No," I whispered, and tried to flee. He grabbed my arm. "Please, don’t go. Speak to me. What’s your name? Tell me that at least." I turned to face him. Every centimeter of him, every hair, every movement, every breath he took was a torture to me. I loved him, but as a mother loves her first-born son. I loved him more than I loved myself. I wanted to touch him, to hold him, to sing a lullaby to him so he would sleep. I made my voice as icy as I could. "Please let go of me. My name is no concern of yours. I never saw you before. I am a happily married woman. Leave me alone." He let go of me as if I’d bitten him. "Excuse me, Madame," he said, and his voice was cold as well. I took the day off, calling in sick. I walked all over Paris that day. The sun went down and still I walked. It was cold, my coat whipped around my legs and my blond hair streamed about my face. Tears ran down my face. Sometimes people would stop me and ask if I was all right, if they could do anything for me. I always shook my head. Most people ignored me, or pretended to. When my legs wouldn’t hold me anymore I sank down on a stone bench, put my face in my hands, and sobbed. I was tired. I was cold and hungry. I was twenty-two years old, I was forty-eight years old. I didn’t know anymore. A hand tapped me on the shoulder. I wiped my eyes hastily and looked up. A policeman stared down at me. "Are you all right?" he asked. "I lost my son," I said, my voice raw with grief. He sat down next to me and put his arm around me. It was so natural. He knew how to comfort. "I’m sorry," he said. "Was he a very young boy? You’re very young," he added. "Yes," I said simply. I’m not sure what I was agreeing to, but I was too exhausted to explain, and who would ever believe me, or want to know? One of my reoccurring nightmares was of me trying to explain the whole story to someone and ending up in a mental institution. All of Dr. Lee’s notes were destroyed. I had no proof of who I was. I was cut loose and incapable of creating a new person with Kelsey’s body and my own mind. I worked without joy, lived alone, walked by myself. Dogs hated me, horses were spooked by me. Cats made bottlebrush tails and hissed when I walked by. Even parakeets fluttered panicstricken around their cages when I was near. If I walked into a pet shop it was instant pandemonium with every animal either howling in fear of screeching in rage. The policeman walked me home. I hadn’t realized how far away I was. When I got to my
55 apartment I hesitated, then invited him in for a coffee. I had never had any visitors. My onebedroom flat was painfully plain, neat and devoid of any personality. The policeman looked around politely, but I could sense his growing unease. Policemen are always looking for clues. They love to understand puzzles. They need order and explanations. My apartment was as blank as an erased chalkboard. There were no clues to tell him who I was. I gave him a cup of hot coffee in a white china mug, we sat on my beige sofa, and he tried to think of something to say. "Do you have any pictures of your son?" he asked finally. "I’m sorry," I said. "I lied to you. I was crying because my father got married again without inviting me and I thought you would think it was a stupid reason." "No, I don’t think so." He seemed relieved by my declaration. I stood up and got the picture from my dresser. "Look, there he is. That’s his new wife. Her name’s..." I broke off with a frown. "I forgot." I turned the picture over. "Her name’s Diane." The policeman chuckled. "My name’s Pierre." He had dark brown eyes with gold glints in their depths. "I’m Kelsey," I said, and we talked. I told him about Marc, he told me about his sister Claire and his parents who lived on a houseboat near the Eiffel tower. I said I’d never been on a boat and he stared at me, amazed. "Never?" "Never." I shook my head. Neither Vivian nor Kelsey had ever been on a boat. "So, Kelly," he said. "Kelsey," I corrected him. "Kelsey is an unusual name," he said. "I have trouble remembering unusual names." "My middle name is Anne," I said. "And I think I always secretly wanted to be called Anne. If you want, you can call me that." "Anne." He tried it out, looking at me closely. "It suits you far more than Kelsey." Then he leaned over and kissed me. It was a shy kiss. "I think I’d like to see you again, Anne. Soon. Tomorrow," he said, with a light laugh. I liked his laugh. "Say yes, please? I’ll come to get you after I finish catching all the criminals. You didn’t tell me, do you work?" "I’m a defense lawyer." I felt myself blushing. "I defend people accused of crimes." "I think we’ll get along very well," he told me. Then he kissed me again. This time he was sure of himself. I let my arms creep up around his neck. There was something urgent growing in me. I hadn’t felt it in so long; it bloomed like the sun in the pit of my belly. When we drew apart I saw it reflected in Pierre’s eyes. I smiled then. Maybe, just maybe, I would find a new life with Anne. She would be in love with Pierre and they would talk about the future together. I wondered if it would work out. "One thing I have to tell you," he said, apologetically, "I’m allergic to animals. That’s why I was looking around with such a worried expression on my face. By the way, I love you apartment. It’s as pure and fresh as you are." I closed my eyes. But I could still see the sun.
Life on Mars First published in ‘The Bear Deluxe Magazine’
56 I am Rachel N’Goumou White Cloud. Today is Thursday. We are in Language class. We are writing what my professor insists on calling an essay. To me essay means try, and our teacher tells us that essays are not stories, nor plays, but that they are ideas. Ideas! I have a good idea; let’s all go home. As you can probably tell, I don’t much like it here. Actually, it’s not so bad. The room is very large, and it has a glass panel that lets you see outside. It’s a window, but here they call them panels. Our Professor, Mrs. Yamatish, has asked us to start with a description. I am writing on my gold notebook with a stylus. A stylus used to be called a pen. That is an ancient word now. Mrs. Yamatish tells us that stylus is an even older word. She says that time tends to go in huge circles. I think that’s a very interesting thought, and perhaps I will do an essay on that idea. Stylus is what we call pens now, although most people call them « gritches », referring I suppose, to the noise they make. I call a stylus a stylus and a window a window, which makes me rather unpopular here. I don’t care. I hate it here. I want to go home. Home. I would like to write an essay about that too but it would make me too sad. I miss it too much. I’m still homesick. I’ve been here for six months now, and I still haven’t gotten used to the pink sky. Mars has a pink sky. At night, if I look in the right direction, I can see a blue star. That is earth. It was just my luck to be born to a couple of scientists. I think if I had been born on Mars I wouldn’t mind living here too much. Certainly, the other children in my class seem just fine. However, I can’t seem to get used to the red dirt, or the red rocks, or the red mountains, or the pink sky. True, it is rather pretty in the morning and at night when I can make believe it’s a petal pink sunrise or a flaming sunset. But all day long the opal sky shifts from pale, seashell pink to rosebud, to shattered silk, to magenta, to violet, and then to blackest night. The stars are very bright here, because the atmosphere is so thin. But we’re working on making it denser. Two great mirrors have been slung in the sky. They hang near the poles, reflecting the sunlight onto them. The heat is slowly melting the ice buried there. Day by day clouds of carbon dioxide fill the air. The rusty planet is quite toxic, and we cannot breathe the air here yet. All our air is manufactured and carefully monitored. That doesn’t bother me too much, on earth there was the same problem. Only there, the problem was pollution, and man made. Here the problem is natural. Water is a problem on both planets. I grew up in a house with no bath. We take sonic showers. Tiny sound wave vibrations knock the dirt off us. That’s how my mother explained it to me when I was a baby, and that’s how most mothers explain sonic showers to their children. I’m getting off track I think. Mrs. Yamatish wants us to write about our life here, and not about the scientific controls which are going on outside. That is what our lives are all about now. We live in a scientifically controlled environment. As the daughter of scientists, I tend to be more involved than other children in what is happening. I knew, for instance, what the red color on Mars was, although I wasn’t even born here. The other children here know too, but on earth, I was considered odd, knowing so much about Mars. I knew too that Mars and Earth were once very similar and that the tiny fossils on Mars are analogous to the ones on Earth. Analogous. Will the other children know this word when they hear it? It means similar. I love words. They can be vague or precise, cruel or sweet. When I use them, I can seem intelligent or stupid, according to how they come out of my mouth, and in what order. Most of the other children here are very bright. They come from intelligent parents, chosen to work on Mars because of specific skills. Mrs. Yamatish will give me a failing grade on my paper because I cannot concentrate and my essay is coming out more like the train of thought writing we had
57 to do last week. It cannot be helped. My life here is very new and I haven’t gotten used to it yet. Everything that the other children take for granted is strange for me, and I remark upon it. It makes it hard to pinpoint a precise part of my life here to write about. I could start with my arrival perhaps. The ship took six months to arrive. We left the Earth right after Christmas holidays. Psychiatrists all agree that it’s good to let families spend this holiday together. Therefore long trips like the Earth-Mars trip all leave in January. We had to pack very lightly. Each person is allowed ten pounds of luggage. It’s not easy leaving all your belongings behind you. On the other hand, it gives you a remarkable sense of lightness, of legerté. Of not being attached to anything. I think I said that very well. I felt like a balloon that someone had suddenly let go free. I floated up, up, up, away from the Earth towards the stars. It was a thrilling moment. It lasted until about dinnertime, and then I started to get frightened. It had to do with the sight of the big, blue ball that was the Earth floating in the viewport. There was a tropical depression in the Caribbean. It resembled a huge, white, spiraled swath of cotton. I looked and looked. My home had been on one of the tiny islands where my mother had been born and my grandparents still lived. The clouds were white from the top, from a thousand miles away. Underneath the storm would make the sky dark gray and the wind would stir up the ocean in a seething cauldron of crashing indigo waves and sea-green foam. My grandparents would close the storm windows and turn off all the electricity, except for the water purifier, which worked with the wind anyway. The storm made me sad to leave. I love tropical storms. I love the way lightning dances up and down the static electricity catchers all through the city, giving up their electrons in magnificent showers of sparks with the air glowing red and blue all around. Six months of floating through space in a huge ship that looked like a butterfly nearly drove me mad. The worst thing was the zero gravity. Imagine you’re on a roller coaster. You go up, up, up, to the top of the hill. Suddenly the roller coaster shoots down! You’re in the front seat. There’s nothing under you. You’re falling straight down. Your stomach is suddenly somewhere in your throat. You feel a bit like you’re floating. That’s what zero gravity is like. A sickening, falling sensation. Your heart speeds up, your instincts yell « Don’t fall! » and your muscles contract, waiting for the inevitable crash. But it never comes. After a while you get used to it. Then you sort of go into a weird, relaxed state. It’s as if you’re deep underwater, floating in a pool. Your muscles are totally relaxed. It’s an effort to do anything; you just want to sleep. I slept for nearly three days once. However, you must exercise! « Group three, time to exercise. All group three members please go to the exercise room. » The voice came from the intercom. It was a bland, metallic voice, and I was never able to identify an accent. I couldn’t even figure out if it was male or female. My family was group three. We went to the exercise room three times a day. I got strapped onto a bicycle and I pedaled, pedaled, pedaled. Two hours a day is considered barely sufficient to stay healthy in zero gravity. I hate exercise. I tried to get out of it, but my father, Jim White Cloud, is very strict. He even shaved his head to go to Mars, because there are no showers in the spaceship, and sonic showers never get hair properly cleaned. My father had long black hair. He made me exercise three hours a day. My mother had very short black hair. She too shaved her head. Luckily, she agreed to cut only mine, otherwise I’d have had the same smooth, brown head she does. Her head looks like a polished wooden egg. Father’s is more reddish, and looks a bit like the Mars soil. Father is growing his hair back now, but mother loves having no hair to fuss with, and so is keeping her head bald. Mother hates fuss. She is considered by most people to be stunning. It’s very annoying to hear people tell you that your mother is beautiful and then ask if you take after your father. No, I don’t. I look just like my mother’s mother, my Granny. Granny N’Goumou. She is very small
58 and rather stocky. She has squinty eyes and a fierce expression. Her mouth is usually drawn down in a scowl. Dogs and little children are drawn to her. She is kindness itself. I look like her, but I have my father’s prickly nature. Cactus heart is what he calls me. I heard his mother call him the very same thing. We have the same wary eyes. We look sideways at things. Mother looks at everything straight on. Mars is cold. No, that’s an understatement. Mars is ice-frost-chilling-bone-freezing cold. It is deceptive at first; the red earth gives an impression of warmth. The wind is faintly pink. We are not allowed outside, but if you press you hand against the windows you can feel the cold trying to seep in. It makes your teeth ache just to touch the windows. Outside are the plantations. Large plexi-glass domes that cover a thin layer of soil from earth. In that precious soil are tomatoes, potatoes, zucchini, eggplants, onions, apple trees and walnut trees. Scientists studied the various plants on earth and finally decided to try to grow these on Mars. So far, only the onions are poorly. The other plants seem to thrive here. The onions turn a very odd peach color, which makes the scientists leery of eating them. The apple trees are doing well. My mother is in charge of the apple trees, so I am proud to report we will be eating apples in a few months time. I’m wondering if my essay is covering all the aspects of my life here. Everything is so different and new that everything is interesting to me. I’m afraid that most of the things I write about will sound banal to the rest of the class when read aloud. Nevertheless, I can’t help myself. When I sleep at night, even my dreams are different. The air doesn’t smell the same; it is raw and somehow new. Once I was high on a mountain in the Andes. There was snow everywhere, it was snowing quite hard, and a cold front was moving in. The air here is a bit like that. Always icy cold, and with less oxygen and more nitrogen that one is used to. It bites the nose and burns a bit in the back of the throat. It is perfectly breathable and healthy, but it makes one tire out easily. I wake up invigorated, but in he evening I tend to fall asleep during dinner. Dinner is very frugal here. We did many tests back on earth to see if we could live on Mars. One of the tests was high in the Andes, to see if we could adapt to a Mars-type atmosphere. Other tests involved the ratio of body weight-to-fat, and the amount of calories it took to thrive. Many of the first pioneers on Mars were Navaho Indians. They need very few calories, and adapt well to extreme climatic conditions. My father is part Navaho. I eat like a bird, and I’ve never liked sweets. I guess I’m lucky to have the metabolism that I have. It enabled me to go to Mars with my family. My head aches. It does that when I get sad. My family was very close on earth. I miss... I don’t know if I dare write about this. It seems to be a taboo here on Mars. (Family.) No one talks about their families. I mentioned my grandparents. That seems to be all right. But not immediate family. Like my brother, or my sister. I don’t know how my mother can bear to think about them. Or father. When I think about them, I cry. See? There’s a little damp spot where a tear slid down my cheek to the paper. It’s proof that they exist, so I won’t wipe it away. Mail is slow. Even radio messages take nearly a week to reach us. We use satellites, of course, which relay messages in a matter of hours, but they are saturated with scientific information and strictly forbidden for personal use. I write letters to Deedee and Michael on my computer, and father faxes them the letter through the radio station. The letter reaches them two weeks later, and they write back. I get an answer to my questions a month after I ask them. I suppose it could be worse. At least they got permission by the population controller to go live with our grandparents. Do I dare say what happens when the population controller can’t find a valid reason to survive?
59 VRS. That is the first thing written on your records. Valid Reason to Survive. Underneath that is your description and your food rations. Then there is your lung content, how much oxygen you use, and how much you weigh. There is you IQ and your EQ, and the results of your concentration aptitude test, given when you were only three years old and re-done on your fifth birthday. Hyperactive children are severely repressed or they are utilized. Michael is hyperactive, and he has taken part in over twenty-five scientific experiments. He’s used to them now. He could have gone to Mars with us if he wanted, but he preferred to stay on Earth. He’s hooked on shunt computers. I doubt they’ll be able to wean him off them. He spends his free time plugged into a wall. He’s sixteen now, and mother says he has another fourteen years of experiments in front of him, and then maybe they’ll let him retire. He can spend the remaining twenty years of life allotted to him on the moon, where they have the most extensive computer files. The best microprocessing plants are on the moon. No dust, no atmosphere, less gravity, less wear and tear on fragile parts. Michael won’t even need his wheelchair to get around, on the moon he can use floaters. I miss him so much. I miss Deedee too; she’s my sister. She’s just a baby now. She was born in a laboratory. My mother and father were persuaded to have one more child, but my mother had work to do, so Deedee was conceived and born with the help of machines. She’s a genius, and she can choose to live wherever she wants when she’s thirteen. She couldn’t come to Mars because she failed the atmosphere test. She has asthma, because of the pollution. There’s no help for it. As soon as the Atmosphere on Mars becomes denser other settlers will be able to come, and maybe Deedee will join us. I hope so. On Mars, the life span is longer. You can live to be eighty, something that is unheard of on earth unless you have an irreplaceable job there. We were all glad to be chosen to go to Mars. Mars is the red planet. Planet of long life, Liberty from experiments, And the pursuit of clean air.
CHINA DOLL First published in 3 a.m. Magazine My father was dying, I was back in town, and the Chinese were hanging around like vultures trying to get his store. “What ever you do, Paolo, don’t sell to the China man.” My father’s voice was broken by his illness. I had to lean close to hear him. “Don’t worry pa, I won’t sell to no China man.” I tried to reassure him, but he was
60 inconsolable. The thought of his beloved pasta shop falling into the hands of the ‘yellow heathen’ was intolerable for him. He fretted and whined all day long, and in the evening when the doctor came to give him his shots and he fell asleep, I’d go for long walks in the old neighborhood now as unfamiliar as a foreign country. Little Italy looked like Hong Kong. Where Vinnie’s Pizza used to be was Wong’s Chinese Restaurant. There on the corner, where I would play marbles and knucklebones in front of Gino’s shoe-repair store, was a hodgepodge shop chock-full of bright silk blouses, kimonos, sunglasses and purses. Instead of the familiar smell of spicy sausage and rich tomato sauce, there were now unidentifiable, strange odors that brought to mind over-ripe fruit and fish. Round, ochre faces stared at me with bright, tiny black eyes. They all smiled and bowed, but their eyes were appraising. They were waiting for my father to die, so that they could buy his store. Even now, they would stop me on the street, tug on my shirt, and saw in low voices, “I so solly about your father. Maybe now he want to sell his shop?” The worst was Ling Ma. He owned a dry-cleaners and was looking for a place nearby for his son Sing, and new daughter-in-law. She was fresh in from China, and they were living in the back of the laundry room, waiting for Ling Ma to buy them a place of their own. Sing was a tall, surly fellow. He never spoke to me directly, letting his father do all the negotiating. I suppose it would appear strange to most people. We’d gone to school together; PS 133, living as it were in the same district though not in the same world. I knew him, he knew me, we’d seen each other growing up, but we were separated by a gulf as wide as the distance between Little Italy and the real China. I nodded to Sing, he half nodded to me, and then his new bride wandered out of the shop. She was like a little porcelain doll. Her face was small and powdered white, her lips were pink petals, and her eyes were fringed with fragile lashes. She wore a pale-blue silk dress that reached her ankles, her feet peeping from her hem were shod in black satin slippers, and her hands were as delicate as a doll’s. She saw me and gave a little start, unused to seeing anyone but Chinese in that part of town. Half-frightened, half fascinated, she stared at me while Ling Ma made his daily offer and I politely declined. Sing stood silent and stiff. Then he turned saw his wife, and his face contorted. He said something very low and rapid, and the girl turned even whiter and fled into the shop sobbing. Ling Ma kept up his spiel as if nothing had happened, and Sing resumed his silent pose. I refused the offer and went on with my walk. I passed a noodle shop, a fish market where strange, slimy sea-creatures lay glistening on ice, and went into the park where the steady clickity clack of mahjong tiles mingled with the soft murmur of voices calling bids. Smoke rose in fragrant plumes from the pastel-colored cigarettes held in women’s hands. I sat on a bench until dark then I went home to sleep on the small bed I used when I was a child. I stared at the ceiling trying to recall the memories of youth - remembering Vinnie throwing pebbles at my window and climbing down the rusty fire escape at night to go rushing down alleys and whispering behind restaurants and bars, playing night tag and coming home with the taste of a girl’s mouth on my lips. My mother would wake me for school, and my father would be opening the store as I left, carefully putting fresh pasta in huge metal trays, pretending he didn’t know I’d been out until almost dawn. Only his wink as I slipped out the door told me he always knew. He knew everything. “Paolo, you stay away from them China girls. They’re only interested in one thing – money. Believe me son, I know these people.” I was twenty-one, just home from two years at war in Europe, sitting on the stoop faintly amazed at the changes, and watching an exotic beauty walk slowly down the sidewalk. “What did you say, Pa?” He shook his head. “Go out with Frank, stay away from the China girls, and get laid in Soho.” I grinned. “Those days are over, Pa.” Since my mother died, he’d become philosophical, telling me the facts of life. According to him, I had to marry an Italian girl and settle down in
61 his pasta shop. I broke his heart: I married a girl I met in college, moved to Vermont to live on a farm, and stayed away from the city. It was Pa’s fault. He disliked Vicky on sight, hated her accent, her education, and her father for dying first and willing us the farm. Vicky died of breast cancer two years after our marriage, making my father hate her even more, because her death had devastated me. She had left no children behind, another reason for him to despise her. So we continued to avoid each other, I stayed on the farm, turning it into a profitable cider and syrup business. Until the call three weeks ago, a stranger’s voice saying my father was ill and asking for me. I shifted in my bed, trying to get comfortable. I was almost thirty now. Pa was dying, and when I closed my eyes, I saw a beautiful china doll dressed in pale-blue silk. The next day and the next were the same. I’d listen to my father’s complaints, he’d fall asleep, and I’d go for my walk. Ling Ma would tug on my sleeve and stop me, and Sing would come out and stand, silent, while his father negotiated. I peered over their shoulders into the shop and tried to spot the little China girl - Sing’s wife. Sometimes I would see her, standing next to the counter, her hands folded over her stomach, staring at me through the plate-glass window. When Ling Ma realized what I was doing, he stopped talking. I looked back at him, surprised. Mostly he wouldn’t shut up. Now he stood there, and his eyes glittered like obsidian. He said something low to his son, and Sing bowed and trotted quickly down the street. Ling nodded once, sharply, then motioned his chin towards his shop. “We go inside talk now,” he said sternly. I obeyed. The girl was standing there, looking at me, but when I walked into the store, she made as if to flee. Ling barked at her, and she stopped. “What’s her name?” I asked, trying to sound casual, like it didn’t matter. As if I wasn’t shaking at the sight of pale golden skin and tiny hands. Ling’s mouth tightened, but he said, “Her name is Kah-ee.” “Karry,” I said, trying to get the breathy syllables right. “No, Kah-ee,” he said, impatiently. I said it right, and the girl put her hand over her mouth and giggled. Ling turned on her quick as a snake, but instead of berating her, he said something in a quiet voice. The girl stopped laughing and stared at him, all trace of color draining from her face. Ling took her arm and headed for the back room. “You come. Kah-ee show you something.” “Look here, Ling,” I said. “You come.” Ling spoke softly. I won’t lie. I knew damn well what he wanted her to show me. He’d been after my father’s store for too many years, there were too many other Chinese trying to buy it, he knew I’d cave in and sell, and he wanted to make sure he was the one to get it. He wasn’t stupid, and neither was I. I took a long shaky breath, and followed. In the tiny room there was a bed, an intricately carved armoire, and a hat stand made to look like a dragon. There was a television –one of the first ones I’d seen, and a jade statue, with sticks of incense at its feet stood on the top of the television set. There were painted scrolls depicting flowers and fish hanging from silk cords on the walls. I saw all this, but only from the corner of my eyes, because in front of me, Ling was pushing Kah-ee roughly towards the bed. When she fell onto it he turned to me, his face flushed, and said, “I leave now. Come back half an hour.” He shut the door behind him, and I heard him turn the key in the lock. I looked at the girl on the bed. My heart was pounding so hard that I could see it. I was so stiff, I thought my pants would tear. The girl on the bed looked at me, looked at the door, and then she put her face in her hands and started to weep. I simply stood there, waiting. After about a minute, she stopped crying, stood up, and lifted her dress over her head. On her arms
62 and back, there were red marks and old bruises. She saw me staring at them and her lip curled. “Sing,” she said, and made an angry motion. She spoke no English, but her meaning was clear. Her husband beat her. She tossed her dress on the bed. Pointing, she ordered me to take off my clothes. I did so with haste I hadn’t felt since I was sixteen, down in the coal cellar with Heidi. Kah-ee looked me over, smiled, and darted a glance at the door. Reassured, she reached out and took a hold of me, pulled me right onto the bed. The next few minutes were a blur. She moved like a lithe cat, twisting and sliding over me, never letting me make a single move. When I came, she put her hands over my mouth and hushed me. Then she wriggled some more, placed my hands on her diminutive breasts, and moaned. I felt myself rising again, and she smiled. She was good. One minute she was fragile and fainting softly in my arms, the next moment she was grinding her hips into mine, her mouth open, her tongue doing things to my nipples and throat that made me to cry out. She would change from a childlike waif to a panting hussy and then back again. Her eyes filled with tears, she laughed, she moaned, she gasped as if I were stabbing her with a knife instead of my sex. She waited until I was nearly frantic with desire then she twisted herself around, spinning like a cog on a shaft, ended up with her slim back facing me. She bent over, her neat buttocks opening like a flower before me. I was so surprised I froze. She hooked her chin over her shoulder, looking at me with her moist, dark eyes, and slowly rose up and down, never dropping her gaze. I shuddered into her, totally out of control. Afterwards I think I fell asleep for a minute. I don’t remember. Then Kah-ee was standing in front of me, dressed, and I dressed. Ling opened the door, he bowed, I nodded, and I left. The park grew dark around me. The mahjong players smoked their cigarettes and clacked their tiles. I stared at the blinking lights in the form of a red dragon, and I thought about bruises on a slim back. The next day I was back in the room, quivering like a young colt, while Kah-ee worked on me from my toes to my head with a swift tongue and agile fingers. On her back were three fresh bruises, and she had a black eye. That didn’t stop her from grinning at me as she bounced on my sex, her thighs spread like the wings of some sacred bird. Ling said nothing more about my father’s store. For him, we’d entered into a bargain, signed, sealed and final. Sing was no where to be seen. He was on an errand, said Ling, with a surprisingly airy gesture. “No come back for while.” Two weeks after I’d started making love to Kah-ee in the back room, my father woke up feeling much better. The doctor came and said he could get out of bed. “I thought he was dying,” I said. I felt numb. If he didn’t die, I would lose Kah-ee. Ling was a businessman. “A remission. He’s a lucky man. No telling how long it will last, a week, a month, three years.” The doctor was young with a New Jersey accent. He drove a car and wore a white Panama hat – no matter what the weather. He accepted my check, waved, and walked out the door. I sat next to my father’s bed. He chatted about the Yankees. He wanted to go to a game now that he was feeling better. “Get me some tickets,” he said. “I’m gonna walk down that street and show all those China men I still got a few years left in me. They ain’t gonna get my store that easy.” As soon as possible my father was downstairs, talking to his employee, getting in the way as usual, walking slower than usual, talking louder and faster than usual; squeezing as much out of life as he could now. That day I didn’t go to see Kah-ee, and I didn’t go to the park. I stayed with my father, helped make pasta like old times, sat with him at the dinner table and talked about the Yankees and the heat. Afterwards I helped him bathe and put him to bed. That night I lay on my narrow bed and shivered. If I closed my eyes, I saw a lithe, ochre body contorting itself over mine. I kept my eyes wide open. I tried to think of ways to see Kah-ee, but there seemed no other way
63 except if I consented to sell the store, and my father would never agree while he was alive. There was a tapping sound at the window. I looked. Kah-ee was crouched on the fire escape motioning to me. The window was open. I leaned out. Her face was a mess. She had swollen eyes, a split lip, and her arms were bruised. “Who did that to you?” She looked at me hard. “Sing.” Her voice was dry. I swallowed, and opened the window wider. “Come.” She shook her head. Instead, she pointed to the ground. Then she pointed to herself, and made some motions I couldn’t decipher. She was wearing a flimsy robe, it slipped over her shoulder and a little round breast peeked out. My mouth went dry. “What do you want me to do?” I asked. She pulled at my arm. I crawled out the window and down the fire escape. We walked quickly through the inky night. In the back alleys where the streetlights didn’t reach, she turned to me hungrily and kissed me. I almost fell down, my legs were shaking so hard. She stopped kissing me and pulled me along. I realized she was heading to the store, and I braked. “I can’t go in!” I said in an agitated whisper. She tugged harder. Then, seeing I wasn’t budging, she left me, opened the door to the back, and held it wide open. I paused, then looked in. By the light of a small lamp, I saw Sing lying on the floor. There was blood all over the place. My feet slipped on something, and I looked down. Blood had seeped all the way out into the alley. I choked and leapt backwards. “What happened?” I asked. Kah-ee pointed again, frantic. Gingerly, I leaned in the door, flipped on the main light switch and stared. The harsh light illuminated two bodies. Ling was half sitting, half lying in the doorway. His chest was a mass of little holes. In front of him was Sing, flat on his stomach. I gaped at Kah-ee. “What happened?” I asked, a sickening feeling creeping over me. I thought I was going to vomit. Kah-ee just looked at me, her eyes pleading. I tried not to think. When she touched me, I flinched. The police came about two minutes after I called them. The precinct was right down the street. There was a cop who spoke Chinese, and he took Kah-ee’s deposition while I sat numbly on a cold metal chair. When she finished, I asked him what had happened. He looked at me, hesitated, then Kah-ee said something imperiously, and he nodded. “She said that her father in law was prostituting her. She says her husband found out, and they fought. She ran for help, and when she came back, they were both dead. She says she came to you because you went to school with her husband. Did you?” I stared at the cop, and licked my lips. “Yeah,” I said. “Did you know what was going on?” “We weren’t on speaking terms,” I said. “Mostly I talked to his father. He wanted to buy my dad’s store.” The cop nodded, took my deposition, and released us into the night. Kah-ee and I walked to my father’s house. We went straight upstairs and lay on my narrow bed, side by side, silent. Sometime in the middle of the night, her hand crept to mine, and clutched it. We stayed like that until morning. A week later, my father died, and although I was heartbroken, I think it was probably best. Kah-ee and I turned his pasta shop into a Chinese restaurant, then we moved to Vermont and stayed on the farm.
Dancing at the Body Turn Mayela woke up before dawn. The Madagascar night was warm, but she shivered. She lit the candle at the foot of the bed, cupping her hand around the flame. “What is it?” Jodan, her husband, blinked at her, candlelight red on his dark skin. “I dreamed of Papi.” She let her breath out with a hiss, and the flame wavered, casting strange shadows on the wall. Now Jodan was wide-awake. He looked out the window. “The sun will be up in a little while. Why don’t you go make coffee? We’ll talk about this in the daylight. Mayela nodded gratefully. Light was best for this discussion. In the kitchen, she lit the gas lamp then put wood in the stove. Soon the little room was bright with yellow flames. The coffee was ground and fragrant, and the kettle started to boil. Mayela smoothed the tablecloth and set the table. Three bowls for the children, mugs for her and Jodan, and a bowl of sugar. As she worked, she thought of her dream, and it merged slowly with reality until she almost saw Papi sitting, one elbow on the table, his other hand on his thigh, like he always sat, half turned towards the doorway so that he could keep an eye on the yard. “Hey there, Mayela,” he said, in his raspy, old man’s voice. “Hey there, Papi.” She smiled at the empty chair and then sat down facing him. “I miss you.” “I miss you too. I miss the sun and the dew on the grass, I miss the sky. I miss the children. Are you still happy with your man?” “He’s a good man, Papi.” She nodded and drew a circle on the tablecloth with one finger. “Remember when I told you I was going to marry him?” Her mouth widened in a smile. “You chased me around the yard with a stick.” Papi grinned toothlessly. “You ran fast.” He shook his finger at her. “But not faster than Jodan. He caught you girl.” Mayela smiled and reached out to pat his hand. She touched the tablecloth and blinked. Papi disappeared, but his dry laugh still echoed in her ears. As soon as the sun rose, she went to milk the nanny goat and gathered eggs. Breakfast was scalded milk and fried eggs, and the children woke and rubbed their knuckles in their eyes. Fatah and Mila were twin girls. Rigo was the boy. He was small for his twelve years, but he made up for it by being clever. They helped clean up afterwards and then went outside to play.
65 The sun was up and the children’s feet were damp with dew, their legs striped by the wet grass as they ran after the goats, chasing them to the south pasture. When goats and children had gone, Jodan sat at the kitchen table and said, “What did Papi want?” “He was cold,” said Mayela, rubbing goose bumps on her arms. “He’s missing the sunshine and the view from the mountain. He says he’s tired of darkness.” “Do you think it’s time for a body turn?” Jodan raised his eyebrows. “How long has it been since the last one?” “Rigo was three, and the twins were not born yet.” “Nine years.” Jodan tapped a fingernail on his front teeth. “It’s time. Make a list. I’ll go to town and put up a notice.” “We’ll have to tell Kiko.” Mayela clapped her hands. “And Larousa. They have to come.” “From France.” Jodan nodded. “They will bring presents.” He stood up, decided. “It will be next month. That will give everyone time to get ready.” The Invitation Mayela told the children to be good, and she put on her village clothes. She put on her good sandals, her bonnet and her shawl, and she took money for the telegram. She hadn’t been walking for very long before the Pasha drove by. He saw her, and tapped his driver on the shoulder. “Stop the car,” he ordered. The taxi bus swerved to the side of the road and Mayela climbed in and found a space between Rambling Tom, who went to visit each of his five wives every week, and Sara, who was taking her vegetables to market. Tom peered at Mayela and said, “Eh! Mayela. I should have known. The Pasha, he doesn’t stop for anyone but you.” “He’s my cousin. If he didn’t stop…” Mayela made a chopping motion with her hand and Sara laughed. “Why are you heading for town?” Rambling Tom asked, nodding at her outfit. “You’re all dressed up and don’t have your market basket.” “I might as well tell everyone now,” said Mayela, raising her voice above the rattling engine. “I dreamed of Papi last night. We’re having a body turn next month.” “Ay! Ay!” Sara threw up her hands and the people on the bus all started to talk at once. “What’s going on?” thundered the Pasha. He lay on a bed, built-in where the front seat had been. He was so fat he could hardly walk, and sitting tired him. So he lay on his side, an unlit cigar in the corner of his mouth, and rode in his taxi morning till night. “You better quiet down in my taxi!” he cried. “But Pasha – your cousin dreamed of Papi last night. There’s going to be a body turn,” Rambling Tom bellowed, and the whole bus was still. In the silence, everyone was suddenly conscious of the red dust on the road, the blue sky, the smell of exhaust and the sound of the engine gunning over a small rise. “Well now. It’s about time,” said Pasha. He rolled his over and stared out the window. “It’s about time,” he said again, and his rich voice was tinged with sadness. “Ay! Pasha! You’re in charge of telling your side of the family,” said Mayela. “I’m counting on you. We’ll make this the biggest body turning we’ve had in ages.” “You can count on me,” said Pasha. He nodded towards the hills. “Next month the rains will stop. It’s a good month for a body turn. In the village, everyone piled out of the taxi bus and stood blinking for a moment, getting rid
66 of the tingling feeling they still felt in their legs and buttocks from the vibrating bus. And while Damian, Pasha’s driver handed the bundles down to everyone, Pasha lumbered out of his bus and, taking Mayela aside, he peeled off three thousand francs Malgache. “Here. Take this. It’s not much, but you’ll have a lot to buy. Next month you say? We’ll be there. Salut, Mayela.” “Health and happiness, Pasha.” She embraced him, and then hurried off towards the post office before it closed. The small building was cool and dark after the bright heat outside. Mayela went to the teller and, holding onto the worn brass bars, she said, “Renata, I need to send a telegram to Kiko and Larousa. Have you still got their address here?” Renata took a faded, yellow folder out of a mahogany drawer and opened it. Her fingers searched through a sheef of thin paper. “Here. What is it?” “An invitation to a body turn.” “Who asked for it?” “Papi. I dreamed of him last night.” “That’s good,” said Renata. “Here. You tell me what to write, and I’ll send it today.” She nodded, her old, wrinkled face creasing in a wide smile. “A body turn. It will do me good to see my ancestors.” Mayela smiled. “We’ll have lots of food, and I’ll tell Pasha to pick you up. Bring maman Fatell, and Yasmina too. The old ones will come; Pasha will just have to make a few extra trips.” “I’ll be looking forward to it, Mayela. We’ll all be looking forward to it.”
Rigo and the Spotted Goat Rigo’s job, in the week before the body turn, was to fatten six goats. He had to take them to the greenest pasture to the highest patches of grass, and make sure they ate the most cracked corn. He brushed them until they were shiny and sleek, and even polished their horns, making them gleam like ivory. His favorite was a spotted goat. He named her Gajina and let her drink water from his cupped hands at the spring. She slept with her head on his lap, her tiny hooves tucked under her side. They would sit like that during the hottest part of the day, when goats and children alike sought the deepest shade, sitting still so that the hot air didn’t stir around them. When Rigo sat, he dreamed. He daydreamed about everything and anything – from his cousin once-removed Pasha’s brightly colored taxi bus he’d ridden on five times (that he remembered anyhow), to the shimmering blue ribbon in the distance that was the sea. He dreamed of the midges that made Gajina’s ears flick, and he dreamed of the red dust that floated in the air and permeated the whole of Madagascar. He looked at the two, high plateau’s that held the family’s crypts for generations untold, and he dreamed of his ancestors. He saw in his mind – Papi, Tata Juju, Dora – the sister he knew only a few days, and Uncle Veron. They were the ancestors he’d known, and who’d died since he’d been born. There were all the others standing behind them, lined up to the ocean and beyond—ghosts to infinity. He didn’t know them, but he’d meet all of them at the body turn. He rubbed gooseflesh on his arm and shivered. Everyone else looked forward to the body turn, why couldn’t he? Why did the thought make his teeth chatter? He looked at Gajina, sleeping on his lap, and he knew it was partly because he didn’t want to eat Gajina. And he turned his gaze to the sacred mountains and swallowed hard. He didn’t want to eat his ancestors either.
67 Dancing at the Body Turn The Pasha was as good as his word. He dropped off the last members of the family on Friday at noon, four hours before the ceremony was to start. The party had been going on for two days already. The house was full of guests. Plates of food circulated endlessly, and the fire near the stables, which never went out, roasted what seemed an endless number of chickens, suckling pigs, and goats. Standing around the fire were the uncles and boy cousins. Men with their sleeves rolled up, straw hats or baseball caps on their heads, and cans of soda in their hands. They tended the fire, cut up the meat, and talked about the last time they’d seen each other. Bustling around the house and courtyard were aunts and girl cousins, carrying plates of meat, vegetables, chips and soda to the men. The girls giggled, the women scolded, and the dogs darted among bare legs to grab the bones falling in the dust. But the household was tense, and Mayela went around with her lips tight and her eyes narrowed. Even Jodan frowned as he looked into the firelight. Rigo had said he would never honor his grandfather. He’d rebelliously declared he would sooner die than eat Papi’s flesh. Mayela wrung her hands and Jodan said he was being a baby. But Rigo thrust out his lower lip and glared. “I won’t. You can’t make me. I’ll cry, and that will ruin everything. And this was true. No one could cry during a body turn, unless it was a little baby. Rigo was a big boy now, and his tears would upset everyone, especially Papi. Everyone knew that the dead were sensitive when they came back. They only had a few hours, so they felt and saw and heard everything more keenly. To eat them was the highest honor you could bestow, and the direct family was expected to honor him. Mayela couldn’t force him. She was also wondering where the spotted goat was. She was about to ask Rigo, when the Pasha drove up in a billowing cloud of red dust. The Pasha had brought the priest, and when he’d washed up, greeted everyone by name, and eaten his fill he clapped his hands and bellowed, ‘Get the sheets and the trumpets!’ The Pasha had a trumpet, and so did two of the uncles. There were drums too, and tambourines and boys grabbed anything that made noise. The women took the fine sheets that Kiko and Larouso brought from France, and everyone shouted. ‘It’s time, it’s time, let’s go!’ The possession formed a ragged line, and everyone set off towards the highest hill, where the cemetery was. The walk took an hour, and the possession advanced in time to the slowest walkers. They would all arrive together, the sun illuminating their faces, in a bright cacophony of laughter and music. Once at the cemetery, in front of Mayela’s family’s tomb, the noise died and the priest intoned the proper prayers before Jodan and the uncles first dug up the dirt and then pried the stone off the entrance. Afterwards, Jodan was the first one down, followed by Mayela and the priest. The ducked into the narrow doorway, went down the winding stairs cut into the bedrock, and arrived in the cool, dark chamber that held the family’s dead. “Where is Papi?” murmured Mayela. She directed the flashlight on the sheet-wrapped bodies and prodded one. “Here he is.” She pointed, and then left the chamber to give Jodan and his brother room to pick up the body. Papi was so light and so thin, that it looked to Rigo as if his father and uncle were coming out of the earth with a bundle of long sticks. They laid the body onto a table and the women started to unwrap him. Everyone crowded around, babbling, reaching in to help. Some people had brought flowers with them, and these were laid around the corpse. In the sunlight, the old sheet unwrapped; Papi’s body resembled something like a wooden puppet, thought Rigo. He stood apart from the revellers and rubbed the goose bumps on his arms. The sky was too blue that day. He shivered.
68 The Pasha saw Rigo. He patted the child’s shoulder. “Are you afraid of Papi?” he asked in a low voice. Rigo looked up, startled. The Pasha patted him again. “It was time for him to see the sun and get warm before going back to sleep.” “He’s dead,” said Rigo. He shrank a bit, hearing his own words. “What’s dead?” asked the Pasha. “Do you know what it’s like to be dead?” “No, but why do we have to go see dead people? Can’t we just bury them and leave them alone?” “Don’t you love your family?” countered the Pasha. “Yes.” Rigo shrugged. “So?” “The difference is love. They die, but in our hearts they live as long as we do, and when we die, our loved ones keep us alive, and so the chain is forged and never breaks. To keep the chain strong, sometimes the dead talk to us. They tell us what its like on the other side, and sometimes they come back – for a little while - and when they do we listen to them. Papi came back. He wanted to see you, and your sisters, and the family again. He missed the sunshine and the blue sky.” “Isn’t there blue sky where the dead live?” whispered Rigo. “I don’t know, but it’s not this sky – it’s not the grass and the flowers Papi knew and loved. He wanted to come back, and for today, he’s with us. Come Rigo. Greet your grandfather and tell him you love him. Tell him that you go to school, and that you help in the house, and that you caught a fish last week that had three eyes.” “How did you know that?” “Your father told me. Come on. I’ll go with you.” But Rigo hung back, his body stiff. “I won’t eat him,” he said in a low voice. “I’ll talk to him, but I won’t eat him.” Pasha looked over Rigo’s head to the table, where a line of people paid their respects to Papi, while he was lying in the sun. Soon he would be wrapped in the new sheets and put back in the cave beneath the ground. But for now, he basked in the sun, and every once in a while, someone pried off a tiny bit of his body and swallow it. “I won’t,” said Rigo, looking down. He dug his toe into the red dust, and he shivered. “You don’t have to,” said Pasha. He lowered his massive bulk so that he was eye to eye with the child. “I’ll tell you a secret. I never ate anyone. Never.” He winked. “The secret is to pretend. Even Papi will be fooled, I promise. Just pretend, and never tell anyone. Can you do that? Can you keep a secret?” Rigo tilted his head. “Yes,” he said. The sun warmed his bones now and he relaxed. He grinned, tapping his foot in time to the music. “Yes,” he said again, and he laughed. The Pasha and he joined the line, and when it was Rigo’s turn, everyone could have sworn Rigo took part of Papi and honoured him. The priest and all the aunts and uncles all beamed. Mayela and Jodan hugged each other, and the twins scattered flowers as they chased each other around the table. Rigo patted Papi’s arm. It looked like amber and felt like a stick warming in the sun. “I love you, Papi,” he said. Then he leaned over and whispered in the withered ear. “I have a secret. Don’t tell anyone. I saved the spotted goat. Her name is Gajina, and I hid her near the spring.” The End
Honey On Your Skin
69 First published in Vestal Review Leave honey on your skin. Wash it off with water, and pat rose petals on your cheeks. Tie the leather laces tightly. Put your armor on over a linen shirt. Brush your hair nightly. Sew lavender in your pillowcase. Sharpen your lance. Make sure that your quiver is full. Soak your hands in lemon juice to whiten your nails. Darken your eyes with kohl. Harden your hands with live coals. Run for a day, in case your horse falls beneath you. You are a desert flower, a fragile blossom. You are a mighty warrior, a fearless brave. Goodnight, my sweet daughter. Godspeed, my son. The young girl lay down on silk pillows and watched muslin curtains billow in the night breeze. Her hands had curly arabesques painted in henna. Moths blundered softly about the room. The young warrior rode across the desert. By his side were five hundred soldiers. The sound of the horses' hooves was summer thunder. Five hundred spears glinted in the moonlight like lightning. The young girl heard shouting. She ran to the window. In the garden, men ran across the lawn, their boots trampling curry, sage and rosemary. The young warrior left his horse at the gate. With his men, he fought his way through the archway and over a wall. They ran through the garden, and threw their ropes and hooks onto the roof. The girl watched as men swarmed up the walls. As one reached her window, he looked in. Their eyes met. The young warrior saw the girl. At that moment, an arrow pierced his armor. He swung wildly, then started to fall. The girl pulled him inside. She half-carried him to her bed. She untied his laces and undid his armor. The arrow protruded from his side, its feathered end trembling with each breath. The warrior clenched his teeth. Was he lying in a silken bed, or was he dead? The pain in his side seemed to argue for life. Paradise, he reasoned, should be painless. The girl studied the boy‘s face. He was the enemy, but no one had told her that the enemy had such finely arched brows. She would have to remove the arrow and cauterize the wound. The brazier held red coals. She eased the arrow from his side. Then she seized a coal with tongs and held it to the cut. The smell of burning flesh woke the warrior from his dream. He opened his eyes, and found himself staring at a young woman. His side ached, but the arrow was gone. "My horse is at the gate. Help me, and you shall be my bride." "Spare my family, and I will bring my jewels as dowry." They were married. When their children were born, they spoke thus: Leave honey on your skin. Sew lavender in your pillow, and learn the art of healing. Sharpen your lance, and make sure your horse will carry two people.
70 About Jennifer Macaire Jennifer lives in France with her husband, children, and two dogs. She grew up in upstate New York, Samoa, and the Virgin Islands. She graduated and moved to NYC where she modelled for five years for Elite. She went to France and met her husband at the polo club. All that is true. But she mostly likes to make up stories. Published books: The Secret of Shabaz – Medallion Press Horse Passages – Medallion Press Virtual Murder – Loose Id Angels on Crusade – Cerridwen Press Contact Jennifer at email@example.com www.jennifermacaire.com