The book in the girl's lap was open to a painting which she would turn to again and again at every visit to her grandmamá’s house. In that house was a curtained off closet along a hallway that led from the front room directly into her gran’s bedroom of which the six year old was in awe; pale green walls, heavy old world furniture smelling of verbena and roses, scents she would never forget, an open window where cool shadows spoke beneath narrow wispy trees. All this made an impression on her soul. But it was what lay behind the curtain that called to her each time she went by.
Venturing past the hallway she would always brush her fingers along the curtain. This time something was different, this time she touched the key that hung in the lock of the door behind the drape. She ducked beneath it. Waiting a few moments all she heard was her own excited breath. The girl turned the key and opened the door just wide enough to pass through. It was so dark she couldn't see in front of her but knew there was a step beneath the single bulb with a pull string overhead. Reaching out she found the three step ladder beneath it and climbed to the top. Waving her hand around she nearly fell then felt something touch her hand and she grabbed hold and pulled, with a click the light came on.
She eyed the piled up boxes and chests, items on shelves, objects hanging on the walls, and other things tucked away in the long clustering darkness of the closet that seemed to go on forever. She felt certain that here was magic and a secret mystery that if explored would give meaning to things that thus far had made little sense. Seeking, questing, she searched the unfamiliar space. All seemed out of reach. Before her was a wall of musty smelling coats hanging high up on a pole that extended across the width of the room. Beneath were men's shoes and hats atop boxes. They looked so big. She wondered if they were her grandfather's things who died when she was born.
She pushed aside the coats to see behind but could move them only a little, but then the light showed her a narrow passage and she ducked past to the other side. Timid and a little scared she eyed tall shelves like trees in a forest standing around her on all sides. In the corner a mushroom stool beckoned her to sit as she had been expected. Though very dim with her hands folded against the soft folds of her dress she got closer stepping over the threshold. A sparkle glinted off a book taller than the rest on a small shelf, she softly gasped. Approaching it her heart fluttered all the way to her ears when she ran her finger down the gold letters on the spine of the thick book. At first hesitant she clumsily removed the treasure and hugged it to her chest. Leaving the cloister she locked the door and stood at the edge of the front room and risked a glimpse at her mother who sat with her back to her on a chair across from her grandmother.
Her gran saw what she held in her arms but said nothing nor did she make her put the book back. She was glad to see the spark of curiosity the dusty old tome had engendered in her granddaughter; the one different from the rest of her siblings.
In a corner of the room next to an open window was a wood chair. Like a wary rabbit she made a dash for it and sat with the book in her arms. On that first day of the book’s discovery she tried to not be seen and stared out the window. She remained quiet and kept to herself for she did not want to upset the adults or draw attention and be shouted at for doing something wrong. 'Do not make trouble or I will leave you home and you will not come with us,' her mother would warn had been drilled into her. She replayed the words do not make trouble over and over so not to forget. Not sure what her mother meant by making trouble she knew only that it meant punishment and it made her afraid for it also meant being left behind alone with him.
She surveyed the cover of the book cherishing its beauty. Opening it the woody smell of the pages mystified and engaged her senses; like soothing perfume the scent was strangely comforting. In it she found many beautiful pictures of people and places from long ago and then she happened on one painting in particular that drew her in.
Thereafter on every visit she would retrieve the book and hold it open on her spindly lap. For long periods she'd sit with it, it's very presence became a protective shield. Tenderly touching the book she would scan the other pictures but always came back to the one with the baby.
The world of grandmamá did no harm. She was the family matriarch highly respected; the family deferential in her presence though she demanded it not. Austere and seemingly wise, a grand dame of modest means her bearing was one of aloofness and reserve. The ambiance of the gray house felt good and otherworldly and she came to feel a part of it; the main room with it's rug in shades of green patterned with great fronds of leafy fern on golden wood floors and the black wrought iron scroll on the front screen door where from outside scarlet bougainvillea framed it. Warm and humid the cicada orchestrated and repeatedly played their shimmering music from low to high to low to silence in the same clockwork pattern. The symphony pushed through the screen door by breezes rustling through Chinaberry and palm trees and filled the house with song as did her gran's yellow canary. All this lived in her soul.
The girl’s name was Olivia but they called her Livie. It seemed always to be summer where she sat in the lone chair away from the adults who murmured like cooing doves that created a mood of hushed stillness; the air sultry yet cool. Olivia would forever sense that cool stillness of the room with its sounds and green colors within the core of her being.In these moments her mother seemed at peace not at all her usual restless and worrisome self. Livie was too young to understand the sickness of her mother’s moods and the damage being done. Of all the children she was her mother’s scapegoat unloading the dark moods, angry manic ravings, and spewing cruel epithets onto the child, sometimes slapping her for no apparent reason.
Olivia dropped into the picture in the book on her lap without anyone suspecting she was gone. She loved the painting of the river, the reeds, the lady, and the baby in the basket. The lady wore a headdress that hung down on the sides of her dark hair. An orange and greenish striped skirt matched the teal bustier she wore. Gold earrings and a necklace suggested she was not poor. The lady lived in a land of mist and Pharaohs, her skin a smooth creamy olive like Livie's own of which she was not aware.
The reeds of papyrus that grew along the river were so abundant they almost completely blotted out the opposite bank and narrowing the flow of water. On the near shore where the woman stood reeds shot up high. Summers in the Nile Delta were hot so she went there evenings to cool the heat that had clung to her body all day. Being a rich man’s daughter disgrace would come to her family if they knew she swam where only servants go to bathe and wash. Only after everyone left did she go there to refresh. She liked the idea of challenge; if she so wished to swim in the river she would do so. This side of herself her family would never come to know.
Waist deep in the river she looked about her to be certain she was alone and threw off the headdress she wore tossing it on the shore and dove in. When she rose up out of the water with her skin shining like the dolphin she thought she heard a cry but heard nothing but moving water.
“How strange,” she said, not easily alarmed. I must be imagining it, she thought.
Smiling, she fell backward onto the cool blue-green water twisted round and swam. Light winds blew in her face when she came up then easing back she floated on the surface. The cry came again and she stood up. It happened again this time muffled with a tiny sneeze. She waded toward the thicket of reeds at the base of a big rock that jutted out into the water and with outstretched arms parted the watery thicket.
“What is this?” Before her floated a basket in the middle of a fortress of papyrus stalks. Grabbing hold she pulled it toward her and found inside a blanket covering something. The blanket ruffled with a flurry of movement and she removed it. There staring back at her was a baby gnawing on its fist, its cherubic face framed in curls.
“Why, who might you be, Eden’s little star?”
The murmurings of Livie's mother and grandmotherstopped and she held her breath. The story arrested she didn’t move. Acutely aware of her mother she hoped she would not look her way. It made her fidget and rub the edges of the book with her thin musical fingers.
Her mind wandered. Someone had put the baby there. The lady looked around furtively not wishing to be caught. "I will return in the morning little one," she said and left the child alone in the cradle basket.
Livie's body had grown tense and then the birdlike voices began murmuring again and she sighed.
Before sunrise a woman had waded over to the basket where it bobbed and rocked gently in the water and fed the baby. There was nothing more to do. The woman was a slave fully draped in white linen that covered all but her sun worn face and arms. A sudden sound of voices startled her. Like a stoat she edged away melding into the reeds and knelt down further into the water next to the basket. Winds blew downriver accompanying the rising tide creating restless waves on the surface that pushed against her body like a warning and the voices receded down the lane.
“It is time,” the woman said quietly. Tucking the covers snugly around the baby she rocked the basket while the boy slept. “The danger grows greater if we wait,” she whispered and bent her head in a pliant gesture to recite the meditative words she had rehearsed for many days. “Isis, mother goddess, protect this child with your love,” then wading out into the river as far as she could go she pushed the basket into the current and watched it float away. It spun round once then righting itself steadily moved downstream her vision blurring through tears that fell from her eyes.
Five years later at age eleven Livie injured herself by falling hard on the metal bar of a boy’s bicycle; her mind whispering, I'm not suppose to remember. Finding blood on her pants her mother slapped her, yelling, “I told you before, you cannot wear your sister’s things!”
Before? When, where? she wondered. It confused her until a memory floated up of blood being shed, more than once, from a wound and a place. She pushed it away until as a young woman a memory long forgotten collided with another below, held suspended, ready to break through the surface. Black and white images changed one to the next, past and present merged and wove together then changed rapidly as if looking out the window of a fast moving train or viewing a muddled screen of images through a lens from a never ending reel of film that flaps round and round. Her mother's words haunted her. She made it up so that I should be convinced of something that isn’t true, she thought, but the more she tried to make sense of it the more confused she got.
Thinking not thinking, remembering not remembering became convoluted until she had grown tired. The world no longer mattered. Letting go she let fate whip her along like a leaf in the wind gliding freely, giving into every whim and gust that lifted her up in the years that followed. Time and again she returned to her grandmother's house imagining the picture and book on her lap and the cicada song that soothed her soul to sleep.
Tinkling water played around the basket that bobbed and spun gently round reverently moving downstream. With eyes at rest, the baby lay still. The stars appeared then went away then came again from out of the twilight, all the while the rippling waters whispering words of kindness.
Copyright: A. Roz Mar, The Closet 2018