What Mothers Do
On the first rainy day of the season, school starts for the children in my village. The schoolhouse is a shabby, clay building a few miles down the road with tattered books and dusty chalkboards. The building is sad, but the children are always happy. They wake at dawn and run down to the well frantically to get bathing water. They carry giant pails back to their parent’s huts with pride and rush to be the first to use it. They dress in worn shirts and ripped jeans. They wear no shoes. The children all walk to school together. Every child from our village meets at the well in the light rain and they move, like cattle on a ranch, in the direction of the schoolhouse.
School lasts for six hours, not including the hour recess and lunch they are given. They learn geography and history and math. They learn to read and write in cursive. They eat together in the yard and play games. I used to be one of them. I used to do all those things. But now, I don’t… I can’t.
My mother fell ill shortly after my youngest brother, our sixth sibling, was born. She cried and moped around our home every hour of the day. She refused to cook and clean and care for my siblings. I would have to beg her to feed our baby brother, and she would, begrudgingly, take him at her breast. She stopped eating and drinking. She refused the attention of the doctors and elders of the village. It felt like she just shrunk away; away from society, away from us, away from herself. When she disappeared one day, no one was surprised. She was just gone one day when we’d all come home from school. That wasn’t what a mother was supposed to do. I am the eldest so everyone looked to me. So that night, I cooked dinner. I checked everyone’s homework, and I put everyone to bed. The next night, I did it again. And the night after that and the night after that. My youngest siblings started to call me mom. At first that bothered me, but as the months without her rolled on, I realized she’d never be back to reclaim her title. I wasn’t a child anymore, so I couldn’t go to school. So now, I just watch them from the only window in our hut. I watch the kids carry water every morning and I watch them walk to school. I watch them run and play and enjoy themselves. I just watch. All I can do is watch, because I had to do what a mother is supposed to.
“Chima, I’m hungry.”
My eyes flutter open.
Bright, warm sun rays shine into our hut from the window and chickens screech nearby. Outside, children are busy fetching pails of water for their families and the animals lazily crowd the square. In front of me, my youngest brother, Shar, pulls at my sheets. “Hungry.”
My body rolls off the mattress and I make my way unto my feet. Time to be mom again. I wake my siblings, and ready them for school in what seems to be one swift motion. I prepare porridge for them and then we walk into the square where they meet the other children.
The square is the center in of our village, literally and figuratively. The well and food markets are there. The meeting areas are there and so is just about anything else that’s important. It’s always bustling with people selling cattle or clothing or religious paraphernalia. I avoid it when possible.
“Hey! Chima, Hi!” a voice calls to me after we’ve been standing in the square for quite some time. It’s Nianette, (pronounced Knee-ah-net) my old school friend. She is as old as I am but has her own family too. She married young and began having children. I think she’s on her third now. Or maybe her fourth. She is carrying a baby on her back so I’m not sure.
“Hi, Nianette. How are you?”
She hugs me and smiles. “Never better. Are you here for the market? Do you want to shop together?”
I glance at my siblings who, except Shar, are off on their way to school with the other village children. Shar is old enough to walk, but not for too much else. I carry him on my hip as I stroll through the market with Nianette.
“Things have been a little hectic, but we’ve been making it.” Nianette says. She carries an empty woven basket on her arm and adjusts it every few minutes.
“I would have to agree. I miss school.” I say. I don’t mean to say that, it makes me look weak and childish and I regret it.
Nianette gives an understanding smile. “I do too. Sometimes, I envy my children for going.” Her honesty was shocking and refreshing. It gave me comfort. “Me too. My siblings will have all the education they can absorb and will do things and go places. I will never know that joy. I will rot here.”
Nianette stopped us in front of a cart selling fresh cassava plants. She picked one up and pulled it close to her ashy brown face, smelling it. “Don’t say that Chima.” She pulled out a few coins and handed them to the owner of the cart. He smiled gratefully. “Your experiences are still valuable. Don’t make them little.” She tucked the vegetable into her basket and we continued on.
I sighed and looked at baby Shar, who had fallen asleep in my arms. “Yes, but I don’t think I am at the point in my life where I relish them. I’m young Nettie, I had dreams.” Nianette sighed. “Here you go again about America. Where was it you wanted to go? Shikago?”
“Chicago,” I corrected, “…and yes.”
Nianette stopped us again for rice. “Chima, you were always adventurous, I’ll give you that. But, I think its best if you…. let that go. You’re a mother now. Mothers have duties to their children and the home. Don’t abandon yours for the ever-fading mirage that is America.”
Nettie’s words hurt. I didn’t like her pessimism, it was annoying. The baby on her back began to stir and whimper.
“I think it’s time I get back, see you tomorrow?” she said. Her eyes were big and innocent. She hadn’t meant to hurt me, she just wanted the best for me. I nodded.
When I got back to my home, I put Shar to bed on the mattress he shared with the two other youngest. I cleaned the dishes we had and swept the floors. Maybe Nianette is right. Maybe I should just forget my dreams. That’s what mothers do. They drop everything for their children and their home. They find joy in the cleaning and cooking and bathing and rearing. They work tirelessly for their children. I may never see Chicago, but Shar might. A mother finds joy in that. They go to the ends of the earth and back for their children. I sat down and a long sigh escaped me. I should, because that’s what mothers do.
I find when I look down toward my own feet, I see the top of my head as a child, my spirit seeming too small, too light for the size I’ve grown to be. But the spirit grows in due time. Not up and down like the body grows. The spirit twists into corners previously unthinkable, never fully recovering at times. Like gum on your shoe, the effects of which lessen with time but never fully subside. Even when the outward signs have grown imperceptible, the spirit still knows where you’ve been.
I used to wish I was invisible. Not overlooked and dismissed as was the case, but really invisible, rub a cream over my body and disappear. I didn’t talk the first eight years or so of my life. I walked and ate and controlled my bodily functions like any normal eight year old should. I just never spoke. I could communicate. I’d point or gesture, nod my head in response to a question that required nodding, but for some none too simple reason had made up my mind it was best I save my words.
The neighborhood kids labeled me dumb, not in as a doorknob but as in and deaf. But I could hear them. Could have talked to them had I wanted to. I just never did, not at home, not at school and most especially never in the streets. I don’t recall any single incident that blunted my voice. Instead, it was a series of mild traumas that discouraged my speech, cast along the lines of seen and not heard – EVER!
I eventually decided I couldn’t stand the sound of my own voice. It was too gruff for a child’s voice, like a stuck pipe preparing to fire. Before long, I decided I could get along fine without words sparing my neighbors the occasional barrage of startling backfires.
This affliction afforded me a certain distance from other kids my age. I rode a special bus to school, spent the entire day in a special classroom. My classmates and I ate lunch at a special time set aside for us in the cafeteria. I wasn’t the least embarrassed by my set aside status. I relished the time spent alone in speechless bliss, even if it was feigned.
With time, I outgrew my bout with silence. I started talking slowly at home then at school. Never too much and never too loudly, but I was talking. When kids realized I could talk but had decided not to, they labeled me strange, oddball strange. Somehow choosing not to do something seemed to them more peculiar than not being able to do the very same thing.
Only Herald Grimes didn’t find me strange. Herald knew strange and I was no stranger than Herald. The kids used to call him Charmin. Not that he was squeezably soft. Herald was sissy-soft. They say he could hold his head between his legs and lick his own thing-thing. I suspect it wasn’t true, but didn’t care if he could. To me, he was Herald: peasey-headed, crater-faced, bug-eyed beautiful wrapped around a magnificent soul. The two of us became best friends and each other’s savior.
Herald lived with his great-aunt on the top floor of our building, my savior always in easy reach. I could climb the stairs to his great-aunt’s apartment, rap alongside the hallway next to his bedroom and Herald would meet me in the basement next to the janitor’s closet. I don’t know why we sneaked. It just seemed that a pair of oddballs ought to sneak. The other kids teased us mercilessly when either of us was alone. Being seen together would have invited an onslaught of abuse that neither of us could have withstood.
Yet the one time Herald needed me, there’s nothing I could do to save him. That afternoon started like any other. Some of the neighborhood dregs were assembled in the alleyway shooting dice – renting beer from the corner store, relieving themselves against the redbrick facade of the adjacent building to make room for another quart. Herald was standing watch at his bedroom window – like any freak would, peering out at a world that wouldn’t allow him an easy way in.
Those men were trespassing in his alley, not he in theirs. The man kneeling at the head of their circle leaned away in disgust, his hand paralyzed above his head from his last roll. He watched as the dice careened off the alley wall then peered up at him – snake eyes! His cries to the heavens caught Herald at his bedroom window, the shine from Herald’s black skin pulling back into the shadows. A quick survey of the man’s stubble-faced comrades revealed a fellow gambler returning his limp member to its zippered shut confines, the man’s high-top sneakers soiled with back-spray from the brick alley wall.
It hadn’t been Herald’s intention to leer. Even more, he hadn’t meant to be seen. The math of four squares – four windows up by four windows over – led the men to his great-aunt’s apartment. Herald had the good sense to bolt the front door. But, owing to an unscrupulous landlord, was flushed from his nest anyway.
He squirted out the front door flailing. He made it all the way to the next landing of stairs, the men seeming to prefer a chase. A long arm caught him before his hand could disappear from the banister, reeled him in, his legs still wheeling in flight. I screamed for them to stop, but my voice was lost in a frenzy of thundering blows. I stood as they bashed him against the wooden banister like a rag-doll in oversized kid hands. They stopped once one of them noticed Herald was bleeding. Even a man who will stand in a stream of his own back spray knows to fear a freak and whatever disease he might be carrying.
They left him in a crumpled heap outside his doorway. He pleaded for me to let him be, wanting someone of bigger consequence to find him than another oddball freak. I dragged him into the bathroom, hoping to spare him the last indignity of admitting he was different, as tossed up inside as out. Got him cleaned up and changed before his aunt could return. She would never know of the peril she left him to, the burn of a light that forced him forever inside, the glare of his black skin sentencing him to a lifelong house arrest.
Herald longed to be good looking, wished beyond anything to be looked upon with favor. Left to himself, which was most often the case, he developed a keen ability to see beyond his physical limitations. Peered into a mirror that peered back, unaffected by the catcher’s mitt he had been given for a face, the color of deep rubbed shoe polish turned up at the edges until his forehead and chin stood out in profile beyond the rest of his features, his bent nose included. Managed to overlook those wary eyes, set behind folds of loose skin, their yellow bulbs boiled in blood like two rusty sparks spread out on a bumper car nose. When he blinks, you see a car backing up, the glow from its taillights bleeding into reverse.
Herald’s limp voice and frail ways likely originated from the need to compensate for his grotesque appearance. Not that he was deformed in any way. He was instead the product of two painfully ugly folks who once upon a midnight dreary made hot monkey love beneath a sky bent against this kind of union. They say his momma was his daddy’s older sister, his great-aunt both Herald’s grandmas crammed inside a single person though great-aunt was easier to explain.
At street level, Herald was stared at, both of us were. Or whispered behind like an awful secret that plagues the onlooker until the secret has been told, the lie passed like a disease to its next carrier. That’s when I most wanted that cream, to rub it over Herald and me so we could both disappear, never to be heard from or whispered behind again.
We came to life in the basement. The high-waisted woman in 3-B owned a collection of movie soundtracks that she kept stored in a cubby lined with chain-link fence. We didn’t have a record player down there, but we studied the dust jackets until their images filled the basement like our dank quarters had been part of the original movie set. Carmen Jones was our hands down favorite. Harry Belafonte was everything Herald wasn’t. From his square chin to the smooth expanse of his bronze forehead, Harry was someone to be gazed upon with great adoration.
My Dorothy Dandridge required long preparation. Unbridled sex appeal was the only requisite for my choice in attire. I had a pair of pinstriped capri pants and a yellow halter-top that tied at the back of my neck. Momma’s eyes would chase me from the apartment with suspicion whenever I wore that ensemble. ’Girl, you’re in love with that getup.’ I was in love with the man who loved me in that getup. Didn’t matter whether it was Herald or Harry, I was lost in illusion.
We’d sing lyrics we had only seen printed on the jacket covers. Danced to tunes we’d never heard played out loud, holding one another like we were lovers – a love neither of us had yet to experience in real life above ground or below. We got so carried away once that Herald grabbed me up, took me in his arms and kissed me, his tongue poking around inside my mouth as yet unsure what advance the rest of his body was attempting. I wished for a moment I hadn’t been born a girl so he could kiss me with his full tongue, wished I could love him in a way that would make him love me back.
Thinking quickly, bright as a light, I undid my halter-top letting it fall around my waist before Herald could squeeze away. He slithered down my belly, still in full character, hungry eyes blinking glances back and forth with my ripe-hard nipples. Ravenous lips wrapped a thick tongue around my titty, stroking like my breast might release its spasm for him, gasping long and warm down his deep throat – thick mother’s milk sent to nourish an aching soul.
A creak along the floorboards above our heads jolted Herald back to the real world, his eyes scrambling from the realization that my swollen breast couldn’t produce the nectar he desired, the ram of steel not there to send him gurgling and dizzy across an irretrievable threshold. He pulled away, his third leg running long against my hip. Now he won’t kiss me, can’t see me. I’m not who he wants.
Reality poked a huge, gaping hole in our basement existence that day letting in a light too brilliant to be ignored. Had the two of us left well enough alone, not tried to erase that tiny bit of distance between us, we’d still have those few precious moments alone in each other’s company. Could rest within the confines of our safe haven where the two of us were free to act, without reservation, as though we both belonged.
Left alone in the darkness, whatever little bit of Dorothy Dandridge he saw in me led Herald to believe he could kiss me. Seeing traces of her smile reflected in my face provided the bit of assurance he needed to allow bold ambitions of rubbing himself full with Harry Belafonte good looks run free in our basement hideaway. Disguised as Harry, Herald was no longer a freak. Held close inside his arms, I was no longer a freak either.
From that day onward, a rap alongside the wall connecting Herald’s bedroom to the hallway went unanswered, my savior unable to spare himself a lifetime of crippling shame. He would never succeed in contorting himself to fit the image held inside his head of Harry Belafonte, my Dorothy Dandridge falling far from his desires. In the end, my Herald didn’t want me in that way, didn’t possess the right makeup in his DNA.
By the time I moved away, Herald had grown into his sissy-soft ways, had learned to use his loose walk and shrill manner of speaking to keep people at bay. He chose deafening individuality over silence to mask out the world. I wished for the moxie to do the same. Even his light bulb eyes took on a new slyness – look into them wrong and they’ll likely cut you if not swallow you whole.
Whenever I look back on any time I’ve spent with a boy, the good times together before his love for me went flat or hollow or had in some other way gone empty, I think about Herald. Anytime I’m hurting over the way things ended between me and this boy, I pretend that he’s Herald instead, my first real love. I kiss him like he’s Herald, the ache inside him pulling hard against the ache inside me. I invoke that brief memory, shamelessly contrived, to make believe whatever went wrong between me and that boy doesn’t matter any longer. After all, he’s not Herald. And nobody loves me the way Herald can.
Heather Breed Steadham
Train Ride to Rome
I have everything planned.
I choose Black Honey Almost Lipstick because Flirty Honey is much too frivolous for the occasion.
After her talk, after the question-and-answer session, I take my copy of Heat to Joyce Carol Oates to sign.
She sits at her table. Tiny. Birdlike.
She runs a thumb along the broken spine of her work, suppresses a smile. She recognizes how I have read this, shared it. Owned it.
She is not insulted by this paper-backed, well-worn edition, my last name markered across the top. When the book is being read, the pages fanned out, my name is broken into a series of indecipherable black dots. But when closed and carried, bold capital letters shout my name. No student can pilfer it from my classroom without everyone knowing it really belongs to me.
I am not a poseur who has never read her work, attending only for her reputation and not in appreciation of her talent; someone who bought an immaculate copy of whatever was for sale on the table outside the lecture hall.
She’s not offended by my bent cover, by my own inky intrusions of identity. Rather, she is impressed.
As she asks my name for the inscription, preparing to sign her name for the fiftieth time this evening, her eyes slowly lift to meet mine, lingering an extra moment on my six-months-pregnant belly that looks closer to nine, and she comments—maybe something as droll as “When are you due?” After all, even prolific novelists can’t be profound 100% of the time. I laugh lightly—“Not til September”—and add, before the sycophant behind me can attempt to steal her attention, “I’d planned to start my MFA in creative writing this fall, but the best laid plans . . .”
And just like that, we begin talking about my future.
To the dismay of those in line behind me, she asks probing questions like “What is your preferred genre?” and “What are you working on now?” And I reply, “I just so happen to have a sample of my work with me.” Would she like to read it? She says “Certainly” and I hand over my 25 pages, my email address handwritten on page one.
I shake her hand, smile dazzlingly—no, enigmatically—and bid her “Arrivederci.”
By the time I arrive at the next night’s event, Ms. Oates has already read my sample and emailed me, but with the fickleness of Italian 3G, my iPad fails to register any new mail. With my swollen belly, Joyce recognizes me immediately and seeks me out before she begins reading (although it is already time to do so), and compliments me on my work. She is so impressed she invites me to dinner after the reading. I happily accept. We drink good wine and laugh about Italy’s idiosyncrasies and discuss good books.
And next year, she champions my admission into Princeton and I study under her and I finally
Kristen Newell is a Chicago native currently pursuing her Undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois. Although she spends most of her time studying and writing, she enjoys eye guzzling Netflix, exploring the city and bargain shopping. Find her on Twitter and Instagram (kristen_n18).
Jedah Mayberry is an emerging fiction writer, born in New York, raised in southeastern CT, the backdrop for his fiction debut. The book won Grand Prize in Red City Review’s 2015 Book Awards as well as honorable mention in Writer’s Digest’s Self-Published Book Awards. It was named 1st in Multi-Cultural Fiction for 2014 by the Texas Association of Authors. Jedah was a top ten finalist for the 2013 Best New Author Award sponsored by the National Black Book Festival. He garnered honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s April 2012 Family Matters Short Story Contest for Ton Oncle, a version of which was published as part of the book. His work has appeared at Loose Leaf Press, Flashing for Kicks, EtherBooks, Linden Avenue, and Black Elephant. He is a regular contributor to The Prose App. He currently resides with his wife and teenage daughters in Austin, TX.
Heather Steadham is a creative writing MFA candidate at the Arkansas Writers MFA Workshop. She is slowly coming to grips with the idea that, no matter how many advanced degrees she gets, her tweenage sons will never accept that she knows how to properly use a comma. You can peruse other works of hers at hsteadham.moonfruit.com or follow her on twitter @hbsteadham. She’s working on a novel (or two), and figures that one day she really will finish. Honest.