By Kris Faatz
Hester’s daughter Zoe, nine years old, has started to develop breasts. Hester notices this when she and Zoe face off in the living room with the electric keyboard between them. Zoe will not stay inside on this beautiful summer afternoon to practice for her piano lesson tomorrow. “I’m going to the pool, Mom. I told Taniesha.” She shakes her head when Hester tells her to practice for half an hour and then go. “I told Taniesha,” she says again. “Everybody’s already over there.” Her voice is flat, her eyes wary.
Hester has seen that look on the faces of other neighborhood children. There is a crowd of them, all brown-skinned, some with white blood mixed in and others as pure indigo-dark as Zoe. The little ones still look at the world through eyes wide open for wonders. After a handful of birthdays, that light leaves them. Their faces shut others out of their thoughts: especially adults, especially outsiders.
Zoe stands planted firmly on her feet. Her lavender tank top has little-girl flowers on the front, but it pushes out in two places above her rounded stomach. She will look like a woman years before she stops being a child. Adulthood is claiming her too soon, Hester sees. It is taking her light away.
Hester reminds Zoe that if she leaves for the pool now, she won’t have time to practice for tomorrow’s lesson. That fact, which would have meant something to the child who liked to make her teachers happy – not so long ago, Hester thinks – slides off her daughter’s expressionless face.
Zoe marches into her bedroom and comes back out wearing her two-piece purple bathing suit. She wraps a yellow bath towel around her waist and ties her long beaded braids back in a ponytail. As she walks to the door, the beads click together and her flip-flops stick to the soles of her feet, letting go with soft sucking noises.
Perhaps Hester could stop her. Right now, she finds she doesn’t want to try. Zoe’s face looks as cold and sealed off as a lake imprisoned under ice, so instead Hester sends one more string of words after her. “You’ll be back in time for dinner, yes?”
Zoe glances back but doesn’t nod. The apartment door creaks shut behind.
Hester stands still for no longer than a heartbeat. She goes to the narrow closet in the hall, where the sheets and towels lie neatly stacked on the shelves, and takes down a faded dishcloth. She wipes down the clean, crumb-free kitchen table, and then begins on the equally clean chairs. Four chairs, when she and Zoe only need two, but Hester’s mother taught her long ago that one should always have room and a plate for a guest. Awiti Otieno also swept immaculate floors and dusted where there was no dust. Especially when her only child, Hester, announced as a young woman that she was leaving Kenya for good.
A mistake, child. Hester remembers her mother’s Luo lilt, the accent of Kenya’s hills and farmland. Awiti said those words, and then put aside her broom to fold her daughter’s freshly-washed clothes for the trip across the ocean to the United States, the vast unknown city called New York. Awiti made the creases as straight as her compressed lips. She laid the blouses and slacks into Hester’s luggage as if lowering a coffin into the ground. A mistake.
Now Hester finishes wiping down the chairs and goes into the galley kitchen, where she scrubs the spotless counter top with lemon smelling dish detergent. Tomorrow, the white piano teacher will come to the apartment to give Zoe her lesson. The teacher, no older than Hester was when she left home, always carries resentment with him like a sour smell. Perhaps he, like Hester herself, had imagined living somewhere more beautiful and exciting than this tired suburb of dingy Baltimore, all low-rent apartment complexes and strip malls. Hester detects his resentment when she opens the door to his knock. She feels it in the too-brief handshake he gives her, hears it in the brittle cheerfulness of his tone, sees it in the way his eyes slide away from her face to scan the apartment complex parking lot for his car, in case one of “those black kids” outside has smashed the windows or keyed the perfect paint.
But he can play the piano. His fingers run over the electric keyboard and coax out music like the play of sunlight on flowing water. He cannot be bothered to wear anything nicer than faded jeans and a wrinkled shirt when he arrives in this “black neighborhood” to give Zoe her lessons, and he barely seems to comb his hair or shave the extra stubble away from the narrow dark mustache he affects, but his looks do not change the magic he makes when he sits at the instrument. He is teaching Zoe to do the same. This is why Hester takes a cut out of her thin wages every week to pay for his resentment. To her, Zoe will always be one perfect and irreplaceable crystal among grains of sand. Hester will give her daughter this talisman of music: one thing to set Zoe apart, one thing to help her hold onto her light as the world carries her away.
But Zoe does not care about music. Hester saw that today. The sun slants red-gold through the apartment’s front window now, and the kids will stay at the pool until dark, if they can get away with it. Hester will not need to have dinner ready for another hour or two. With nothing left to wipe down, she opens the fridge anyway, takes out the yams and onions she bought for the stew, and sets the wooden cutting board out on the counter.
The first yam’s stiff flesh resists the knife. As Hester forces the blade through the vegetable’s tough heart, she hears the apartment front door open.
She does not call out, “Zoe? Is that you?” No footsteps come to the kitchen; her daughter’s voice doesn’t interrupt the snick of the knife against the board. Instead, after a few seconds, the electric keyboard clicks on.
The notes of a minuet drift into the kitchen. Their melody winds around Hester as she presses the knife into the rounds of yam, dividing them into cubes, one after another. The music isn’t perfect, and won’t be by tomorrow. It doesn’t matter.
As her own hands prepare the meal, Hester remembers her mother’s indigo-dark ones folding skirts and blouses. She sees something she never did before: Awiti trying, with tight lips and steady fingers, to fold love into the creases.
Another mother’s talisman – to send with her daughter when the world took her away.
Kris Faatz (rhymes with skates) is a pianist, writer, and teacher. Her début novel, To Love A Stranger, was a finalist for the 2016 Schaffner Press Music in Literature Award, and will be released in May 2017 by Blue Moon Publishers (Toronto). Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in journals including Kenyon Review, Reed, and Glassworks. She received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers competition and has been a contributor at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshops and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. When not at work, Kris can often be found reading or exploring the outdoors.
Photo by Gessy Alvarez