Authors: Marta Acosta
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With love to Sam Gough, who is an exceptional girl
My aunts washed dishes while the uncles
squirted each other on the lawn with
garden hoses. Why are we in here,
I said, and they are out there.
That’s the way it is,
said Aunt Hetty, the shriveled-up one.
I have the rages that small animals have,
being small, being animal.
Written on me was a message,
“At Your Service,”
like a book of paper matches.
One by one we were taken out
We come bearing supper,
our heads on fire.
—Paulette Jiles, “Paper Matches” (1973)
On the night that I die, a storm rages, and the thin glass of the cheap windows shudders as if beaten by fists, and the wind howls like someone calling
come away, come away
. I wrench open the back door and run outside.
The darkness is unfathomable and rain pounds down and I am small and terrified.
I slosh toward my secret place among three enormous trees at the far end of the yard. It is too dark to see, yet I know when I have reached the largest, and I creep around it, hiding behind the wide trunk.
An earsplitting blast throws me back against the third tree. I think it’s lightning. A moment later, pain radiates from below my shoulder to every part of my body. My knees buckle with the agony. I know that if I fall to the ground, I will die.
I twist toward the tree and blood seeps from my shoulder to the trunk. Rain washes my blood down to the soil, the tree’s roots.
As I begin to black out, I feel arms—no, not arms. I feel
take me and lift me high into the wet green branches.
Later, I hear sirens approaching and then voices amplified by bullhorns. The storm has passed and rain falls through the branches in a soft drizzle. I want to sleep.
“The girl, the neighbors said there’s a kid here,” someone says.
They call my name and I hear them rushing through the house and into the yard. “Jane! Jane!”
I don’t answer because I am safe.
“Here,” a man says. “A shoe.”
They are close now and they move below me. A woman says, “On the tree. Blood. Oh, God, a lot of blood.”
“Where does it lead?”
“Up. Is there something up there? Turn the light this way.”
“In the tree! Way up there.”
I nestle closer to the trunk, so they won’t find me. I feel as if I’m drifting somewhere.
Then the pain in my body vanishes. I can’t hear the noise or the voices any longer.
I open my eyes and I’m in a glorious shady wood. I inhale air that smells of green things—pine, cedar, newly cut grass, sage and mint, the aromatic anise scent of wild fennel. I want to stay here forever.
I see someone coming toward me. I know she’s a woman by her gentle movements, but she’s not human. Her dress falls down to the brown earth and tendrils of the hem burrow into the soil. I can feel her kindness as she begins leading me out of the lush world.
“I don’t want to leave,” I tell her.
“You’ve found the way here. You can find the way back whenever you need us,” she tells me in a language that is like a breeze. “Breathe, Jane.”
I gasp and open my eyes. Pain suffuses my body.
Then there is the pandemonium of an ambulance, blinding lights of an operating room, the metallic clicking of instruments, tubes attached to my body.
Then I’m in a pink room filled with machines and electronic noises. I can see a stenciled border of butterflies and hear the doctors talking.
“Poor little thing,” says a woman in a hushed voice. “It would be best if she forgets what happened.”
And so I did. As I sank into the sightless, soundless, motionless void of a drug-induced coma, I tugged away that memory as if I were tugging at a loose thread, little knowing that I was unraveling the entirety of my brief existence. Because who are we without our memories?
Of my mother I have a faint remembrance: I lost her when I was only seven years old, and this was my first misfortune. At her death, my father gave up housekeeping, boarded me in a convent, and quitted Paris. Thus was I, at this early period of my life, abandoned to strangers.
The Romance of the Forest
When I was six, I was entered into the foster care system because there was no one to care for me.
I was small and plain without the puppyish cheerfulness that makes grown-ups love a child, so I was passed from one miserable foster home to the next. I scurried in the shadows, away from the predators in the violent neighborhoods where I lived. I existed without love, without safety, without hope.
One sweltering Saturday in August when I was sixteen, I said good-bye to my roommates at the group home where I had spent the last four years. I picked up a ratty vinyl sports bag that contained all my worldly possessions: thrift-shop clothes, two pairs of shoes, a paperback dictionary, my SAT workbooks, a worn leather-bound Bible that had belonged to Hosea, and a tin box of trinkets. I had my life savings, $7.48, in my pocket.
As I walked to the front door of the ramshackle house, Mrs. Prichard grabbed my arm, her maroon nails digging into me. Her spray-on orange tan scaled on her rough skin while her inner arm was as pasty as a reptile’s belly. She wore a purple t-shirt and new jeans with rhinestones and embroidered flourishes.
“Jane Williams, aren’t you gonna thank me for everything I done for you?” Her yellow frizz of hair bobbed each time she snaked her neck.
I jerked away from her grip. “Don’t you
touch me again.” I kept my eyes on her dirty dishwater-brown ones. “You’ve never done anything for me that you didn’t
to do so you could keep getting money from the state. You would have thrown me in the street the second I aged out.”
She flushed under the fake tan, her cheeks turning copper red. “There was no use spoiling you when you’re gonna wind up like the rest of these stupid girls, another baby-mama on the public dime, hooked on the pipe.”
“I never asked you for a single thing except kindness, but that’s not in you. You don’t know me at all.”
“Don’t you put on airs with me! Your fancy book-learning and phony manners might fool others, but I know that you’re still what you always were—low-class garbage from no-account people. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
My anger was cold and dense. I leaned so close to Mrs. Prichard’s face that I could smell the stale coffee and strawberry gum on her breath. “And I know what
are. You’re a heartless, soulless waste of human life. When I’m older, I’ll make sure that your license is revoked. I hope you burn in hell after what you did to Hosea.
the reason he died, and I will never forget that. I will see that you pay.”
Mrs. Prichard’s lower lip quivered and she stepped back. I felt a spark of something unfamiliar: it was power and it warmed me as I imagined a mother’s caress might.
Outside, the sun blazed on the ugly street, revealing the paint peeling on houses, dried blood on the cracked sidewalk, and trash in the gutters. The hood was a volatile mix of the destitute, the dangerous, and the desperate. I knew that the men on the corner, who seemed so nonchalant, noticed me with my bag, because they noticed everything and everyone. I kept my head down as I neared them.
One of the other men said, “Squeak, squeak, squeak,” and they all laughed, but there was nothing I could do about it.
I walked past the liquor store, the check-cashing shop, and houses with chain-link fencing and pit bulls that lunged and snarled. I made sure to keep close to the curb when I went by a crack house, and then I reached a lot with junked appliances.
A tall, skinny Goth girl, incongruous in her short purple tube-dress and platform flip-flops, smoked a cigarette and leaned against a busted washing machine. Her straight waist-length hair was dyed black with shocking pink streaks. She wore chalky makeup, but her shoulders and legs had colorful tattoos.
When she spotted me, she shouted, “Janey!” and dropped the cigarette.
“Hey, Wilde!” I put down my bag and, as we hugged, I felt the thinness of her body and smelled her sugar-sweet perfume. My hand on her bare shoulder blade touched the raised surface of one of the small round scars that marked her body.
We finally let each other go and smiled. The thick blue eyeliner around her gray eyes and her sharp cheekbones made her appear old. She said, “So you’re finally making a prison break from Mrs. Bitchard’s?”
I grinned. “Hosea
when we called her that. Remember how he’d frown that way he did and say, ‘She’s trying as best she knows.’”
“He was always schoolin’ us to act ladylike.” Wilde deepened her voice and said, “‘Sis, you’re too pretty to say such ugly words.’ Heck, I
feel bad when I cuss.”
“Me, too.” We both were quiet for a moment. “The school’s sending a car to get me.”
“High styling!” Wilde had a wide-open smile with a small gap in her front teeth that made it special. “Well, good on you.”