SEPTEMBER 2006 – NO. 8
The summer day, the basement, the divide.
Can you imagine a girl so innocent, holding so fast and effortlessly to her belief in goodness, in God's benevolence, that she does not know what she does is a sin? Try to imagine it. See her filling the empty time, empty house, empty self with God's grace, the grace that is her body, her body's capacity to feel, to feel more and more, to feel more and yet again more … then to be released (into sleep or the sunlight stippling the bedspread on a summer afternoon or the cool dim basement smelling of laundry and of damp). Imagine a belief in God so pure and untroubled that she of course accepts this as a gift from her creator, a gift good and meant for her, a gift from the God of her grandmother. A grandmother who is similarly untroubled, even into her seventh decade; who prays aloud in a voice that never wavers; who teaches the little children with flannel figures of the shepherds and their sheep, of the Baby Moses in the bulrushes, of the Pharisees with their robes of gold and purple; who plays hymns without benefit of reading music; who gathers them into her tiny, ramshackle house on Christmas Eve and makes the cold night, the steaming food holy. Imagine a six-year-old girl so innocent that when she presses her small body against the bed, achieves the familiar rhythm, that when her breath becomes staccato, released in soft bursts, she has no idea. She could be a deer dipping her head to drink from a stream.
It's a summer day, her mother is playing golf with the other ladies and she is staying at her grandma's. No air conditioning in the little house; the sun like a hand pressing hard on the roof, the mill trucks barreling by. After lunch, there is nowhere to go but the basement, where there's a bed for napping, wicker painted matte rose, a hooked rug beside it. As if the coal furnace, with its heavy, troll-sized iron door, isn't a few yards away; as if the floor itself isn't pressed earth, the ceiling perilously low; as if there are neither cobwebs nor strange old boxes in dark corners; as if her cousin, who slept here before shipping out on his last tour of duty, hasn't left behind those magazines in a basket, beneath the three-year-old McCalls and Guideposts, the ones with drawings of women in spiked torture cages, the ones with black and white photographs of a smiling woman, breasts bursting from her knotted checkered blouse. As if.
Once more, she is pressed to take a nap she doesn't need or want. But she is six and it is naptime and she does what she's told, knowing she'll never, ever sleep, wondering how she will pass the time. Grandma snores beside her in her flowered housecoat, wrinkled like her skin and damp with sweat.
It starts before she even knows it, no conscious decision made. Her body has a mind of its own, it does what it feels like, what works, the way God made it. She thinks That girl in the cage, back arched, dark blood trickling down her chest… But no, not that, not here, not today. Something else, then, something else … (casting about, rocking slightly … .)
"What are you doing?" Grandma's voice, loud and close and hard. "Nothing, just — nothing, a game." She is bewildered by the ugly heat in her grandmother's voice. "I know what you're doing. Stop it. Stop it right now!" Sharp as a crow's beak — peck peck peck. "Where did you learn that?" she demands. "I didn't, I didn't learn it, I made it up … ." "Turn on your side. Do you want me to tell your mother? Turn on your side right now!" And her grandmother grabs her arm so hard she'll leave a bruise, yanks her 'till she's on her side, gasping. Her mother? Her mother makes her cut her own switch from a tree when she's been bad. She must go out the kitchen door and down a step into the cold garage, out the back door and down another step into the yard, then pick a tree, walk to it, find a thin branch, snap it off or twist its supple green this way and that until it yields … all the while knowing her mother is watching her through the kitchen window. Tell her mother?
So it is evil then, this thing she has discovered. But she has not discovered it at all, has she, not if her grandma knows about it. So: worse than evil, darling, unoriginal (years later, a gay male friend, mocking her into laughter, nailing her oh-so-precisely. For which was worse?) Imagine it. It seems so silly now, such garden variety trauma. The summer day, the basement, the divide. Simple as that. That which she had known was good, that her body had taught her was good, that which had seemed a secret treasure, something to wrap, carefully, in an old kerchief when she made her midnight escape, something for the long journey by ship, the New World, a stake. It was nothing and worse than nothing, it was a sickness of the soul.
When Grandma declared the nap over, they got up in silence and climbed the narrow cement stairs. Grandma went first, hauling herself up by the banister, shifting her weight, carefully, from side to side; she did not look back, she crossed the creaking linoleum and turned on the television for her program. But the girl lingered, for just a moment, at the top of the stairs; she paused to watch the half of herself who refused to come up. Oh, that girl got up too, but she didn't so much as glance at the stairs. Instead, she went to the basket and, tossing the Guideposts and McCalls aside, she found what she needed. She found what she needed and she took it.
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