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I seem to hear my brother calling me. It is Paul's voice, the voice of my twin brother.
His voice reaches the place where I sit waiting. I am in the middle of the seven concrete steps that stretch between home and the sidewalk where the world begins. I am six years old, it is summer in Birmingham, and I am writing with a wedge of gray stone on the concrete. I form pictures on the steps -- a whale, a star. The gravel twists in my fingers, and I scrape my knuckle. When I suck my hurt I am tantalized by the taste of my blood and the texture of grit. I pick up the gravel and turn it so that a new point will engage the concrete.
He wants me. But first I must explain about my name, my odd nickname: Tink.
It was a gray December day, Mama later told me; and she wondered aloud to Paul and me, sitting in our wooden high chairs. She went to the window and wondered aloud if it would snow. "I t'ink so," I said.
I remember the sudden swirl, the view out the window -- a gray forsythia bush, tangled on itself like a pile of coat hangers.
She had pulled me out of the high chair to waltz me around the room. My mother was delighted that my sentence reported my own private mental activity. Paul squalled jealously.
She plunked me back in the chair, dashed to the piano, and played Chopin's "Winter Wind Etude" for us. Both Paul and I loved the "Winter Wind"; when we could talk better, we compared our responses and found that I loved the fierce chromatics that come tumbling down the keyboard, while he loved the stirring melody that cuts clearly through all the chromatic swirling. My mother playedso passionately. Though confined to our high chairs, Paul and I swirled our arms around our heads and fluttered our fingers. Surely the weather gods would hear her playing and bring us essence of winter-snow.
Mother's hair was long and black -- she was descended from the Spanish who were shipwrecked in, Ireland, made the best of it, and produced the "black" Irish -- and she wore her hair in a coronet over her head. She with her black hair and white arms seemed to dovetail with the upright black piano and the black-and-white keyboard.
I heard this tale of my first sentence many times when I was growing up and told it often myself to explain my odd nickname. One of my earliest friends had asked if "Tink" were short for "Stink." You do smell bad, she had said. Only when I was a young adult did it occur to me to ask my mother if it did, in fact, snow on that December day.
"No," she said.
Why had no one warned me that my first syntactically complete sentence had been an error in judgment? Why didn't I consider the real context for my thoughts, that this was Birmingham, the Deep South, and the chance of it snowing was very slim -- maybe once every four or five years?
Tink, I have something, I can hear my brother saying. It still makes my heart beat fast for someone I love to arouse my curiosity that way: I have something.
Paul came up the steps fist forward: "Guess."
I guessed a four-leaf clover? a nickel? grass?
He opened his hand. It was empty.
"Not fair, you stinker," I said.
"Can't you see?" he asked.
I looked from the palm of his hand to his face. He was triumphant.
"Air," he said. "I'm holding air. It's very valuable. You couldn't live without it."
I thought disdainfully, "Neither could you." But I said humbly, "Hey, you're right."
And he vanishes. His voice is silent.
I am alone again on the concrete steps. I pause from my writing -- whale, star, boat, cloud -- to flap my plaid skirt up and down like a fan. I would be glad if some passerby saw this smart girl who uses her skirt on a hot day for a fan and whose underpants are perfect. But there, just above the elastic waistband, is something new. A blister, sweetly oval and filled tightly with fluid. The skin over the blister is thin enough to see through and more slick than any other skin on my body. I finger it. The word pox forms in my mind and hangs like a drop of dew that refuses to fall. I decide to keep this red bump hidden, and I cover it with my plaid skirt. I have a little treasure, a ruby, a something smooth and oval as half a tiny egg.
It was almost dark when I hid in the back seat of my father's car so that I could finger my blister in peace. I sat between two large, paper-wrapped bundles of clean laundry that had not yet been taken into the house. They looked like great loaves of bread.
I peeked through a crack in the paper, then touched a starched and ironed white sheet. I lay down on the floorboard of the car and pulled the laundry bundles on top of me. If two boulders were lying on me, would I be able to breathe? Could I get valuable air into my lungs? The weight of the rocks was so great that I could not expand my chest. I held my breath as long as I could.
Suddenly the front doors of the car were opened. My father got in the passenger side, and Jaybee, my father's driver, slid under the wheel; I could smell his cigarette odor immediately. I lay quietly.
"What's wrong with 'em?" Jaybee asked.
"The woman is going to have her first baby," my father answered.
"Oh, Lordy, " Jaybee said. "I hate them first timers, don't you, Uncle Melvin?" Jaybee's voice had a nasty relish to it.
My father didn't answer. Then he said, "Drive down Vanderbilt Road, then go down that alley beside Clapp's store. The grandfather said it was about five blocks into the Quarters, next to an oak tree."The Disobedience of Water. Copyright © by Sena Naslund. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
|I Am Born||3|
|Madame Charpentier and Her Children||19|
|In the Free State||35|
|The Shape You're In||67|
|The Death of Julius Geissler||112|
|How Do You Do, Mister Cat?||152|
|The Disobedience of Water||170|
Posted August 15, 2001
These stories push characters into uncomfortable places, whether present or remembered. Main characters face past or current situations of victimization or loss and come to see themselves differently. These characters lose innocence, identity/roles, long-held perspectives, hopes, and fears during points of crisis. I enjoyed the book, with the exception of the story 'Death of Julius Geissler;' I did not feel that the characters were genuine. However, the remainder of the book is excellent and showcases Naslund's abilities as a character-focused author. The book is not lighthearted but intensely introspective.
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