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In the beginning there was just my mother and me.
"You are," my mother would say, "the queen of the world, the jewel of the lotus, the pearl without price, my secret treasure."
She whispered words like that, singsonging them in her soft high voice that had a little tiny crackle in it like a scratched record, to comfort me when I was a baby. Her light high whisper threaded through all my days, linking them tightly together, from the day of my birth, from that first moment when I slid from her body to lie in the softness of her bed, the same bed she slept in now. The one we took with us from place to place. And there were many different places. We were wanderers, my mother and I. I even had a wicker basket for my toys; I would pack and carry them myself.
It mattered little to me where we lived. I did not go outside. I did not go for walks, nor play on park swings. On the one day my mother was home, on Sunday, we worked together, all the while she sang her murmured song to me. Secret treasure. Lotus flower. And in her murmuring way she told me all she knew about my father, a Hindu from Calcutta, a salesman of Worthington pumps. Of all the many men my mother had known, he was the only one she had loved. She told me about his thin face and his large eyes black as oil, and his skin that was only slightly lighter than her own.
"You have his eyes and his skin," she said as, after my bath, she rubbed me with oil. (It was baby oil, its vanilla scent soon lost in her heavier perfume.) "And you have his hair," she said, combing in more oil.
And there is, to be sure, a certain look of India about me. Even now, in the grown woman.
"You are a little queen," my mother would say, turning me around and around. "You are exquisite, a princess of all the world. You must have a lovely new dress."
And so I would. She made all my clothes, made and designed. Summer dresses of handkerchief linen and soft smooth voile, winter dresses of dark rich velvets, and monk's-cloth coats so heavily smocked across the shoulders they were almost waterproof.
Of course we couldn't afford to buy fabrics like that, not in those days. My mother worked as a stock girl for Lambert Brothers Department Store. She had worked there for years, even before I was born. Ever since she'd come out of the country. (That was the way she put it, as if it were the bottom of a well or a deep hole.) And Lambert Brothers provided our material, quite a lot of it over the years. It all began on a city bus when my mother met a clerk from the Perfection Cloth Shoppe. They began talking, casually at first and then with purpose. My mother exchanged a bottle of perfume or a box of dusting powder or some Lancôme lipsticks from Lambert Brothers for small lengths of expensive material from the Perfection Cloth Shoppe.
My mother never told me how she smuggled the cosmetics out of the store. I suppose she'd been there so long and so faithfully that they half-trusted her. She did tell me how she and her friend robbed the Perfection Cloth Shoppe—a simple plan that worked for years.
My mother's friend collected the fabrics over a period of weeks, hiding them among the hundreds of stacked bolts. When she saw her chance, she bundled the pieces tightly and dropped them in a box of trash, making a small red check on the outside. My mother had only to pass along the service drive at the back of the building, look for the mark, remove the package. That evening we spread out the material on our kitchen table (the only table we had) and admired it together. Only once did something go wrong. Once the trash was collected an hour earlier than usual and my beautiful dress went to the city incinerator. My mother and I managed to laugh about that.
During those early years, during the long dull hours checking stock in dusty rooms, my mother began planning a business of her own, as dressmaker. My stolen clothes were the beginning. I was her model, the body on which her work came to life, the living sketchbook. Too small to see above the knees of adults, but perfectly quiet and perfectly composed, I displayed her clothes. My mother did not need to teach me how to walk or to act. Remember your father is an Indian prince and you are his only daughter, she would say to me. And so we made our rounds, peddling our wares, much like my father and his Worthington pumps. If he had traveled farther, half a world, our merchandise was far more beautiful. My mother and I went to talent shows and beauty contests, to church services and choir rehearsals. Wherever ladies gathered and the admission was free, there we were. My mother sold her clothes, as it were, from off my back.
"We are selling very well in the Afro-American community," my mother would say. "Soon I will open a small showroom. The walls will be painted white and the only thing on them will be pictures of you. On every wall, the entire way around."
And eventually she did just that. I remember it very clearly, the white room, quite bare and businesslike and lined with pictures of me. They were color photographs, very expensive for a woman just starting in business, but they showed the details of the clothes beautifully. My face, I remember, was rather blurred, but the light always seemed to catch the smooth line of my long dark hair. When I modeled for the customers (seated in creaking folding chairs and reeking with conflicting perfumes), my hair was always swept forward over one shoulder. My mother ironed it carefully in the dressing room at the very last moment. I remember the glare of the naked light bulbs around the mirror and the smell of singeing as my mother pressed my hair on her ironing board.
I don't remember saying a single word at any time. I have since noticed that people usually speak to a child, but no one spoke to me. Perhaps they did not think I was quite real.
Twice a month, in the evenings, my mother did her books. For years these were my favorite times. I sat, in my nightgown (always ankle length, always with a drawn-lace yoke), in the corner of the sofa, its red velvet worn and prickling on the sides of my arms, and watched my mother with her checkbooks and her account books and her order books. I watched her pencil picking away at the pages, flicking, stabbing, moving. She was a very good bookkeeper. In different circumstances I suppose she would have gone to college and earned a CPA to put behind her name. But she didn't. She just remained somebody who was very quick with numbers. And there was another strange thing about her, though I didn't notice it until many years later. She was so good with figures, she spoke so very well in soft tones as soothing as a cough lozenge—but she could hardly read at all. She wasn't illiterate, but she read street signs and phone books, business forms and contracts all the same way: carefully, taking a very long time, sounding out the words. As a child, I thought that muttering was the way everyone read. (The nuns at school soon corrected me.) Eventually I just fell asleep on the old sofa with that comforting whispering lullaby in my ears.
When my mother picked me up to carry me to bed, which was next to hers, she would always be smiling. "The figures dance so beautifully for me, my little love. The Afro-American community is contributing devotedly to the treasure of the mahal. The daughters saw her and blessed her, also the queens and the concubines." (Someone had once read the Bible to my mother; bits and pieces kept appearing in her talk.)
In the morning when I woke, she was gone. At first, when I was very small, when I first remember things, like wet diapers and throwing up in my bed, there was someone who stayed with me, an old old woman who sat in a rocker all day long and listened to the radio. Her name was Miss Beauty. I don't remember her ever feeding me, but I suppose she must have. She died one day, in her rocking chair. I thought she was asleep so I went on playing with my doll. My cat—we kept one to kill the mice that played all over the old house—jumped on Miss Beauty's lap, then jumped down again quickly, coming to sit next to me in the window. "You heard her snore," I whispered to the cat, very severely. "Don't wake her, she won't like that at all." At the usual time I heard my mother's key in the lock and the funny little nine-note tune she whistled every evening just inside the door. (It was from Lucia di Lammermoor, I discovered years later in a college music appreciation class, and I rose in my seat with the impact of memory.) I put my finger to my lips and pointed silently to Miss Beauty. My mother hesitated, eyes flicking between us, nose wrinkling like an animal. Without moving, she bent forward toward Miss Beauty. Then quickly, so quickly, with a clatter of feet across the linoleum floor, she snatched me up and ran outside.
After Miss Beauty's death, there was no one. I stayed by myself. We moved to a nicer neighborhood, a street with trees and double cottages behind small front gardens. (The landlord had paved over our garden with pale green cement.) I never felt afraid. If I got lonely, I could sit in the big front window and watch the neighborhood children play in the street. I never joined them.
During these years I do not remember my mother having any friends. I remember only one visitor. He was short and wore a plaid coat and a wide-brimmed hat, and the ring on his left hand flashed colored lights. He was waiting for my mother when she came home after work. They talked briefly, standing at the curb next to his big white car, then the two of them came into the house. He smiled at me, saying, "Well, well, now, is that your little girl? Hello there, little girl." My mother went straight to the red sofa, reached inside the top cushion. When she turned around, there was a gun in her hand. She just stood there, her long fingers wrapped around that small dull-blue gun, both hands holding it firm and steady. The man stopped smiling and backed out the door. He never said another word. Nor did my mother.
We moved again then, away from the house with the front yard of green-tinted cement. This time we packed and moved quickly, far away across town. My mother rented a truck and she hired two men to load it for us. She hurried them too. Our beds, the red velvet sofa, the two folding bridge chairs, the refrigerator and the gas stove, the enamel- topped kitchen table, the armoire with the cracked mirrored doors—they fitted neatly into the truck along with the boxes of clothes and dishes and my mother's sewing machine, which was the only new thing we owned.
"Hurry," my mother said, carrying some of the smaller things herself, "we haven't got all day. I am paying you to be quick."
Grumbling and complaining, the men finished the loading and took their money and stood on the sidewalk to watch us leave.
"Get in," my mother said to me. "Be quick."
We drove down highways lined with withered brown palm trees, past endless intersections where traffic lights stabbed out their signals like lighthouses. We waited, part of an impatient horn-blowing crowd, while canal bridges opened to let gravel-filled barges glide past through oily water.
And my mother said nothing at all. When I could wait no longer, when the silence between us seemed more dangerous and frightening than any nightmare, I asked, "Why are we running away?"
"To be safe," she said.
"Is it far?"
"It is far enough to be safe," she said.
When we finally reached the place where we would live, she hired two more neighborhood men to take our things up the stairs. She had moved without leaving a trace behind.
I guessed it had something to do with her visitor, but I did not worry. In all the stories my mother had told me, there were always threats and pursuits and enemies to be avoided. It was the way a princess lived. And my mother was always there, to bring me to safety at last.
When we sat in our new home, in the clutter of boxes and furniture, when we were safely inside, the door locked behind us, my mother smiled at me, a great slow smile that showed square strong teeth in the smooth darkness of her face. "My hidden princess," she said, "my lotus flower ..."
The accustomed endearments tumbled from her lips, the expected exotic song of love and praise. I, young as I was, noted the change. For the past few days, and on the drive across town, she had spoken rarely, and then only in the crisp blunt language of everyday.
Now, by the smooth soft flow of her words, I knew that we were indeed safe. We had passed through a series of lodgings—I think I remember them all, even the one where I was born, the one with a chinaberry tree outside the window—but we had finally gained our castle, the one we had been searching for. There was even a turret, to command the approaches and to defend against enemies.
The house stood on a corner. Its old clapboard walls rose directly from the sidewalk through two stories of flaking gray paint to a roof decorated with fancy wooden scallops; in the dark spaces under the eaves generations of pigeons nested and fluttered. At the second-floor corner, jutting over the sidewalk, was a small turret or tower, capped with a high pointed roof like a clown's hat.
Inside the tower was a hinged seat of varnished wood entirely covered by scratch drawings: flowers and initials and hearts, dancing stick figures and even a face or two. Here we stored odd bits of things: old shoes, an umbrella with a broken rib, a doll in a pink and blue gingham dress, an Easter bunny of purple and yellow plush, a black patent purse. Roaches lived there too; they ate the stuffing from the doll and the feather from her hat, and they ate spots of fur from the Easter bunny so that it looked burned. I thought they had also nibbled the edge of the patent leather purse, but my mother said no, it was just use-worn.
Day after day, I sat on top that jumble of things, above the secret workings of insects, and I watched through the windows, three panes of glass on the three sides of my tower, which my mother washed every month, so that I might see clearly.
Most of the floor below us was occupied by a drugstore, a small dark place that smelled of disinfectant and sugar candy, of brown paper and cough medicine. On two of the other corners were small houses, one room wide, perched off the ground on low brick foundations and edged by foot-wide runners of grass. On the third corner, directly across from my window was Providence Manor, a home for the old. A tall iron fence enclosed an entire block of grass and trees and even occasional blooming flowers, a wilderness that stretched out of my sight. Just inside the fence was a gravel path where, on good days, the old people walked, some slowly on canes, some with arms flexing rapidly in a military march, some in chairs wheeled by nuns in black habits and white headdresses. They rotated past the spear points of the fence, every good day taking their quota of sun and exhaust-laden air. After dark, on rainy nights, the flashing sign in the drugstore window beat against those railings, broke and ran off down the shiny black street.
Downstairs too, directly below, in our small slice of the old house, were the two rooms that were my mother's workshop and showroom. On our front door—up two wooden steps from the uneven brick sidewalk—was a small neat sign: MODISTE. My mother had lettered that herself; she had always been very clever with her hands. It was the first real shop she had.
I spent my days either at my window or in my mother's workrooms. The rest of the house, the other two rooms, I don't remember at all. I was either a princess in my tower or a mannequin in my mother's clothes.
Not until years later did I realize that all the faces I saw were black. (To me they had no color, no color at all.) The people walking on the street, the old on their therapeutic rounds, the Sisters of the Holy Family, the drivers impatiently threading their way through the heavy street traffic, my mother and her customers—they all wore black skin.
Excerpted from Nine Women by Shirley Ann Grau. Copyright © 1985 Shirley Ann Grau. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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