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When objects begin appearing out of nowhere, Calamity knows that the special gift she has not felt since childhood has returned-her ability to find lost things. Calamity, a woman as contrary as the tides around her Caribbean island home, is confronting two of life's biggest dramas. First is the death of her father, who raised her alone ...
When objects begin appearing out of nowhere, Calamity knows that the special gift she has not felt since childhood has returned-her ability to find lost things. Calamity, a woman as contrary as the tides around her Caribbean island home, is confronting two of life's biggest dramas. First is the death of her father, who raised her alone until a pregnant Calamity rejected him when she was sixteen years old. The second drama: she's starting menopause. Now when she has a hot flash and feels a tingling in her hands, she knows it's a lost object calling to her.
Then she finds something unexpected: a four-year-old boy washes up on the shore, his dreadlocked hair matted with shells. Calamity decides to take the orphaned child into her care, which brings unexpected upheaval into her life and further strains her relationship with her adult daughter. Fostering this child will force her to confront all the memories of her own childhood-and the disappearance of her mother so many years before.
I bit my lips to keep the giggles in, and peeked around the coffin to watch the goings-on.
Mrs. Winter had given up the attempt to discreetly pull her bloomers back up. Through the milling legs of the mourners, I could see her trying desperately instead to kick off the pale pink nylon that had slithered down from her haunches and snagged around her ankles.
Her kick sent a tiny flash of gold skittering across the cemetery lawn to land near me. I glanced down. I picked up the small tangle of gold-coloured wire and put it in my jacket pocket for later. Right now, I had some high drama to watch.
Pastor Paul, ever helpful, bent to the ground at Mrs. Winter's feet and reached for his parishioner's panties. Lord help me Jesus, he was really going to pick them up! But he drew his fingers back. He looked mortified. Maybe he was thinking how the panties had recently been snugged up to Mrs. Winter's naked flesh. I thought my belly was going to bust, I was trying so hard not to laughaloud. I bet you Dadda would have laughed with me, if he wasn't in that coffin right now.
Mrs. Winter got the tip of one of her pumps caught in the froth of pink nylon. She cheeped in dismay and fell heavily to the ground. Lawdamercy! I bent right over, shaking with laughter, trying to not pee myself from it.
Pastor Paul and Mrs. Winter's son Leroy were pulling on her arms now, trying to get her off the ground. "Oh, Dadda, oh," I whispered through my giggles. "Wherever you are, I hope you seeing this." I held my belly and wept tears of mirth. Serve the old bat right for insulting me like that. Not a day went by at work that she didn't find some sly way to sink in the knife. She had to do the same thing at my father's funeral, too?
Mrs. Winter was halfway up. She had one arm hooked around Leroy's neck, and Pastor Paul was pushing her from behind. A few of the mourners asked her if she was all right. "Oh, migod," was all she said; "oh, migod." My laughter was edging up on hysteria. Too much; death and mirth all at once. I rested my hands on my knees and took little panting breaths to calm myself. I couldn't hide behind the coffin forever.
At least the tingling in my hand had stopped. A few minutes earlier, standing at the open grave, I'd suddenly felt too warm, and my hand had gotten pins and needles.
I took the scrap of wire out of my pocket. It had been crushed flat. I pulled on the loops of wire until something of its original shape began to emerge. I had a good look at it, and gasped.
I held the pin up against the sunlight. It caught a spark of light, threw blades of sunshine at my eyes. It had gotten warped over the years, forced into service to hold up Mrs. Winter's loose drawers. It used to be a decorative pin for wearing on a blouse, its gold wire looped in the shape of an ornate C, T, and L: Chastity Theresa Lambkin. My girlhood name. Mumma'd given me that pin for my eighth birthday. Years ago, after they'd declared Mumma dead and we'd had the memorial service for her, little Chastity-girl me had noticed it missing. And missing it had stayed; no time to look for it in all the commotion of the hearing, of moving to my aunt and uncle's, and the children at school whispering to each other whenever they saw me.
Where in blazes Mrs. Winter had found my pin?
"Mum? What's going on?"
Ife was standing there, holding young Stanley's hand. Ife's black dress hung off her shoulders, its hem crooked.
Stanley gave me a shy little wave.
Ife had gotten the best bits of me and her father combined: the glow of his perfect dark brown skin; his lips, the way they peaked in the middle when he smiled. My dimples, my well-shaped legs. She was plump, like all the women in our family, but that never stopped a West Indian man yet. Not a real man, anyway. If I could just get her to wear clothes that suited her!
Not my Ife. She covered up her charms with baggy, ankle-length dresses in unhelpful colours, slouched around in rubber flipflops or those horrible wide- toed cork sandals from abroad. Been so long since I'd seen her legs, she might as well not have any.
Nothing could hide that smile, though. She turned it on me now, and even though it was an uncertain smile today, it made my world a little bit brighter.
But I firmly squashed the joy at seeing her sweet face, made mine sour. I tucked the warped pin back into my pocket and turned to my daughter Ifeoma, to whom I wasn't speaking. Well, not really speaking. I mean, I would say 'morning and so, you know, but nothing more until she took back that awful thing she'd called me.
"Mrs. Winter tripped," I told her as I hugged her. "And you know I wish you wouldn't call me? Mum' like that." Using the hug for cover, I stroked her back. No bra again. That child had no respect for the dead. And no fashion sense either; that dress! My seventies throwback hippie girl child. At least she wasn't wearing sandals and socks today, but proper high heels.
"You're my mother," Ife murmured into our hug. "It's not respectful for me to call you? Calamity,' like ... like ..."
I pulled back and glared at Ifeoma. "Like what? You'd best mind yourself with me. You know I'm vex with you already, after last night."
Ife pressed her lips together. She used to do that as a little girl when she didn't want to eat her greens. "... like you're my sister," she said quietly.
And just so, she squashed my heart like you crush a piece of paper into a ball you're going to throw in the trash. I turned my face from her.
Stanley stood at the lip of the open grave, peering in. He pulled at his collar. This might be the first time in his nine years that he was wearing a suit.
"You're my mother," Ife said. "Why I can't just call you? Mummy'?"
Last night, she'd called me a "matriarch." Like I was some wrinkled, prune-faced dowager wearing a hairnet and clothes thirty years out of fashion.
Mrs. Winter was standing all the way up now. She was favouring one ankle. She still had one arm wrapped around Leroy's neck. The other was around Pastor Paul's. Mrs. Saranta was fanning her face with a prayer book. One of the ushers, a long, skinny young man with big eyes and hands like shovels, had picked Mrs. Winter's tiger-print handbag up off the grass and was collecting all the things that had spilled out of it.
We used to be as close as sisters, Ife and I. The night I took her out to celebrate her twenty-first birthday with her first legal drink, the bartender had asked us both if we were of drinking age. And we'd laughed, and flirted with him the whole evening. I didn't tell him she was my daughter until after I took him home that night and made him call out for God in my bed.
But now I wasn't just old; I was fully an orphan, too, instead of the half of one I had been for so many decades. And finally, the tears came. "He's gone, Ife. Dadda's gone."
Ife took me into her arms again. "Ssh, it's all right." If she'd been irritated with me before, there was no sign of it now. For all I'd tried to teach her, she'd never learned how to hold a grudge good and hard, like a shield.
I let myself sob into her neck for a while. My breath rushed and halted.
Mrs. Winter said, quite firmly, "I want to go home." Good. Interfering woman was probably too shamed to stay after half the town had seen her smalls fall off. Why she had to come today? Bad enough I had to endure her at work. Mrs. Winter thought it was her job to supervise me into an early grave.
Pastor Paul offered to have one of the ushers help Leroy walk her to her car. But no, she wanted the pastor. He gazed around until he spotted me. He gave an apologetic shrug, held up five fingers, and mouthed, Five minutes? I nodded. The three of them hobbled off towards the parking lot. Now our funeral party could recover some of its dignity. What a pity you all alone in this time of trial, child. Chuh. Never mind her; I'd rather fuck the horse she rode in on. But that was no proper way to be thinking at my father's funeral.
"You feeling better now, Mum?"
"Right as rain. But I wish you'd worn something a little more tailored, you know?"
Ife smiled at me, tentatively. "This is my best black dress," she said. "It's the one I wear when I want to impress. Stanley, come away from there. You might fallin."
"I won't fall," Stanley replied.
"Come over here, I said."
He did. I wouldn't let Ife change the subject, though. I knew her tricks better than she knew them herself. "That dress is black crushed gauze, my darling. You look like a big turkey buzzard flapping through the air."
Ife's smile hardened like ice. "So we're going to talk about my looks again?"
I took her face in both my hands. "Your looks are fine. Why you always so worried about looks? You only need to pretty yourself up a little bit." I don't know where Ife got her meek nature from. Not from me. "I keep telling you, Ife; you should have more self-confidence. Shorten the skirts a bit, wear some prettier colours. And show a little bosom. We Lambkin women have more than enough to display."
Ife glared. "Clifton likes me this way. You're so old-fashioned, Mummy."
God, "Mummy" was even worse than "Mum." And since when was I "old-fashioned"? In high school, the other girls used to call my fashion sense scandalous, and I'd loved scandalizing them.
I could see Pastor Paul hurrying back from the parking lot. I took Stanley's hand. "Come and say goodbye to Dadda," I told him. The three of us moved closer to the rest of the funeral party. A trim, dark man, maybe sixtyish, made room for us. Peggy Bruce, who had arrived late, nodded a greeting. Even when we were in school, Peggy had always been late. "We going to start again soon," I said to the mourners. "Pastor Paul on his way back."
"Did Michael come?" Ife asked in a whisper.
"Who?" I whispered back.
Now Ife's eyes had the glint of obsidian. "Michael," she said, a little louder. "My father." John Antonipeered at us, hungry for gossip.
"Hush," I said under my breath.
A kiskedee bird zipped by overhead, laughing its high, piping chuckle at me before flying into the branches of one of the frangipani trees in the cemetery.
Ife said, "I thought you were taking care of the invitations! How could you just not tell him that his own father-in-law was dead?"
I lifted my chin. "Dadda was never Michael's father-in-law." Tears that had been on the verge of brimming tipped back into the bowls of my eyes again. The eye water was cold.
"Gran?" said Stanley. "I mean, Calamity?"
Lovely boy. I hunkered down to his eye level, balancing on the spikes of my black stiletto pumps. Huh. "Matriarch." Could a matriarch do that? "And what can I do for you, my handsome boy?"
Stanley ran into my arms. He was all woodknuckle knees and awkwardness, his hair trimmed short, with a W pattern buzzed into the back and sides. His father Clifton had told me it had something to do with American wrestling on the tv. Stanley and I could chat for hours, about school and comics and food. His mind was like a new country; always something fascinating around the next bend. I didn't see him as often as I liked. Seemed he always had homework to do on the weekend, or soccer practice. Ife and Clifton kept him busy.
"Does Great-Grandpa look scary?" Stanley asked.
"You can't even see him," said Ifeoma, butting in. "The casket is closed. Isn't it, Mum?"
I inhaled the child's pre-adolescent smell of spit and sweat. "Yes, my love," I said to him. "It's closed."
Stanley sighed. He looked disappointed. "But I wanted to see," he said. "Godfrey Mordecai at school said that Great- Grandpa would be a skellington, and he would be scary, and I would be frightened. I wouldn't be frightened. I want to see, Gran. I want to see a reallive skellington."
"'Skeleton,' dear." I felt a smile blooming on my lips. A live skeleton. Stanley was a little unclear on the concept. "Stanley, you have a curious mind. This is how I know you're my blood." I rose, smoothed my skirt down, and took his hand. Pastor Paul was scurrying our way. I told Stanley, "Let's see if we can get the lid on the casket raised for you." He grinned up at me, and we went to meet the pastor halfway. I took care to mind my ankles in the wobbly stilettos. They weren't made to walk on grass.
Ife caught up with us. "Mum? Don't do anything to frighten Stanley, please? He might have nightmares. Mum?"
What a way she overprotected that child!
"Mistress Lambkin," said Pastor Paul. He was puffing from the exertion. "So sorry for the interruption. Shall we, ahm, continue with the proceedings now?"
He was another one who would never call me "Calamity," no matter how much I asked him to. But he'd picked the wrong day to cross me. I nodded at him, all meekness. "Yes, thank you, Egbert," I said in a clear, carrying voice.
Stanley giggled. A man standing close to us hid his smile behind a cough. Egbert glanced around. Oh, yes; plenty of people had heard me. If he hated his bloody name so much, why he didn't just change it? I had changed mine.
Ifeoma snickered, flicked me an amused glance. Now, that was my girl; the one I'd raised. It was the same grin she'd given me that day in the grocery store, all those years ago.
I had just started working at the library. My first paycheque wouldn't come for another month. I'd been feeding myself and little Ife on macaroni and cheese, and we'd run out of cheese. How old would she have been then? About seven, I think. We were in the cold foods aisle. I was trying to choose between eggs and a block of cheese. I could get only one of them. I was trying not to look at the packets of chicken, of stewing beef, of goat meat. I couldn't tell how long it had been since we'd had meat. Ifeoma loved roasted chicken legs. Suddenly my crazy girl child took it into her head to start singing "Little Sally Water" at the top of her considerable lungs, complete with the moves. I was about to scold her when I realised that people were looking at her, not me.
"Rise, Sally, RISE!" Ifeoma had yelled, leaping up from the ground, "and dry your weeping eyes ..."
Quickly, while she was turning to the east, the west, and to the one she loved the best, I'd slipped two packets of chicken legs and one of stewing goat into the big pockets of my dirndl skirt. With all the gathered material in that skirt, nobody would notice the lumps. Only then did I order Ife to stop making so much commotion. And damned if the child didn't straighten up immediately, smooth her dress down, and come and pat one of my pockets! And such a conspiring grin on her face! The little devil had been providing distraction so I could feed us both. I missed that Ife. The sober, responsible one standing beside me at the cemetery now was no fun at all.
Egbert took a solemn few steps back to the graveside. "Everyone, please gather round," he said.
Ife, Stanley, and I moved to stand beside him. I bent and whispered to Stanley, "Don't worry, I didn't forget. We just have to finish this part first."
He gave an eager nod. Ifeoma said nothing, but she made a sour face. I composed myself for the rest of the funeral.
"Dearly beloved," said Pastor Paul, "James Allan Lambkin has come to the end of his life on this earth, and the beginning of his life with you. We therefore commit his body to the ground."
When I was nine, Dadda had shown me how to fish. But for months he wouldn't let me bait the hook myself. He did it for me, because he was afraid I would jook my fingers.
"Earth to earth," said Pastor Paul.
When I was twelve and woke up one morning to bloodstained sheets and my first period, Dadda ran to the store and brought back a big shopping bag with pads in all different shapes and sizes. He stood outside the closed bathroom door and called out instructions to me for how to put them on.
Ifeoma sniffed and wiped her eyes. Stanley's bottom lip was trembling. Damn, now I was tearing up, too.
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
When I was thirteen and had passed my entrance exams to get into high school, Dadda took me to the big island to celebrate. We went to a fancy restaurant. He bought me ice cream and cake, and drank a toast to me with his glass of sorrel drink.
"In the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life."
When I was fifteen, I told Dadda that I was four months pregnant. He raged through the house for two hours, calling me nasty names and demanding to know who'd done it. I wouldn't tell him. He stopped talking to me. He wouldn't eat when I cooked. On the third day he ransacked my room and threw away all my makeup and nice clothes. On the fourth day I packed a small bag and moved out. Went to the big island and knocked on the door of Dadda's sister Aunt Pearl and her husband Edward. Auntie Pearl let me know that I had shamed the whole family, but she and Uncle Edward gave me a roof and fed me, and they didn't lecture me too often. I got a part-time job as a page in the library. Until my belly got too big for it, worked all the hours they would give me, saved my money. It was Auntie who was with me the day I had Ifeoma. Auntie, and Michael.
Excerpted from The New Moon's Arms by Nalo Hopkinson Copyright © 2007 by Nalo Hopkinson. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 6, 2008
Posted December 26, 2009
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