Jewels

Fiction

Eva had light brown skin that was as smooth and glossy as polished stone. Carol always wondered how it was that skin could be so smooth—and so soft. Eva’s skin smelled of soap and Nivea. Sometimes Carol put Nivea on her skin too—her hands, her arms. The smell enveloped her, became her. “Nivea Skin Cream” it said on the royal blue tin, in square white letters. The cream was thick and white.

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Eva wore a uniform. She always wore a uniform. Carol had never seen Eva wearing anything except her uniform. Eva’s uniform was blue—usually. Sometimes it was a pale blue uniform, and sometimes—other days—it was a turquoise blue one. Perhaps, Carol thought, she had a white one too. The uniform was crisp and clean, and freshly ironed—after being washed in the big stone sink where all the clothes were washed. It must have been dried in the sun, on the idly spinning washing line. The uniform smelled of the sun, and of the iron.

Eva wore a uniform because she was Carol’s nanny. She was also Carol’s brothers’ nanny, and was especially in charge of the baby brother—whom she called, affectionately, Tsoko. This was a Zulu word, since Zulu was her language. Eva indulged Carol by speaking—fluently—in English. Carol wished she could follow her into the world of her own tongue, though. But she couldn’t follow her. She had to watch her go, listen to the words carry her away. Where did they carry her, Carol wondered. To a world far away and unknown, that much was clear: rolling green hills that curved their way to the distant sea. That’s what Carol thought. It was certainly not the hot, paved yard where Eva lived now, in the servants’ quarter.

Eva’s room was small and dark. It smelled of Lifebuoy soap—and Nivea. Her bed was elevated on strategically placed bricks: two bricks under each of the four legs of the bed. This was to keep the Tokolosh—the evil spirit—away. This is what Eva said. Carol hoped it did keep him away. She worried, though, that perhaps it didn’t.

In Eva’s room through the long afternoons, the radio played: voices in Zulu that rose and fell, curving their way, greenly, to that distant sea. And music, sometimes, that was filled with joy. Carol could see the flashing smiles, hear the laughter, in the music. But crackly, through the radio that was small and black, and that cowered—a creature—in the room. Carol would sit on the keep-the-Tokolosh-away bed. Carol, in her schoolgirl’s uniform, her long schoolgirl legs dangling from the edge of the bed. Eva would be sitting on her chair, resting from her work. Her shoes hurt, she said. The shoes sat on the floor, misshapen and brown. Eva was glad to be off her feet. Carol was supposed to be doing homework, but she was never doing homework. She was in Eva’s room.

An older—a dustier—religion, Carol thought, one taken out on special holidays, like a vase, and Carol wasn’t sure about God in all that.

On a small table (two milk crates pushed together and covered with a cloth), in pride of place, was a black-and-white photograph of Eva’s three children. Her own three children. They were Angeline, Magdalene and Godfrey. Angeline, Magdalene and Godfrey lived in Soweto with an aunt, or maybe a grandmother, or perhaps with someone else, another woman—Carol wasn’t sure. She wondered about that. Who had taken the photograph, for one thing? In the picture Angeline’s hair was perfectly braided, in rows. If Carol looked closely, she could see the tiny ends of the braids, the many tiny ends. Angeline had lost her two front teeth. She was seven years old. She was holding Magdalene’s hand—Magdalene who was very little. Godfrey wore a white shirt with buttons—a school shirt. He was squinting in the sun. The long shadow of whoever took the photograph fell across the figure of Godfrey and across the white wall behind him.

Carol spent much time pondering the black-and-white picture. A picture of three children that she never saw, in the flesh. Angeline, Magdalene, Godfrey. Carol would repeat it to herself: Angeline, Magdalene, Godfrey. Pause. Angeline, Magdalene, Godfrey. The way Eva said it made it sound as though they were one name, not three. The names were carefully elaborate: not Angela, but Angeline; not Magda, but Magdalene. Angeline, Magdalene, Godfrey. Pause. Angeline, Magdalene, Godfrey. Carol thought of angels and God. She thought of angels she’d seen pictures of, in books. Babies with round cheeks and golden hair, and wings. Pink clouds. Angeline. She didn’t know who Mary Magdalene was. Angels and God were not familiar to Carol, in her house across the yard. There was never talk or thought of angels or God in Carol’s house. And they had a different religion in any case, in the house across the yard. An older—a dustier—religion, Carol thought, one taken out on special holidays, like a vase, and Carol wasn’t sure about God in all that.

But Eva—Eva believed in God. She went to church on Sundays. Carol would see her leaving through the whitewashed back gate, wearing another uniform—the long, white robe with a blue belt that was the choir uniform. Eva sang in the church choir. She would come home again on Sunday afternoons, still wearing the uniform and humming softly to herself.

One night Eva sat at the kitchen table with her tea—Carol’s parents out and Carol, as usual, awake past her bedtime. Carol flittered through the dark house in her nightgown, practising her pirouettes. From ballet, she told Eva. Carol loved ballet. She wanted to do a perfect pirouette: that’s what she really wanted to do.

She spun and spun. She tossed her hair, with its long, tangled curls. Te-dum, te-dum, spinning and whirling, the white nightgown twirling, like a moth. But that night Eva was not so interested in the pirouettes. She sat at the kitchen table. She sat quite still. Her glasses lay beside her. Was she crying? She didn’t move at all. What’s the matter, Eva? Eva put her glasses back on. She adjusted them carefully on the bridge of her nose. She shook her head. I have many troubles, she said. So many troubles.

I don’t have enough money. Angeline needs shoes. I don’t know if Godfrey is going to school. I don’t know. I don’t know.

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Carol thought Eva was talking mostly to herself. She was as if in conversation with herself. A conversation, Carol thought, that went into air, into the empty, breathing kitchen, in the dark, still night. Because there was no one under the greenish kitchen light, in the quiet sleeping house, to hear. Only Carol, in her white nightgown, who knew nothing at all. I don’t know, said Eva. I don’t know.

There was the silence, and then the realization that came to her slowly, slowly, but with certainty, like a stain.

Carol did not know either. She did not know at all. She couldn’t think what to do. She went to her room, her nightgown trailing, trailing along the tiles. There was her piggy bank. It loomed, large and new in front of her—like an idea. She had no use for money. Her father gave her pocket money when he remembered. She emptied the piggy bank onto the floor, with a small clatter. There wasn’t much in it: some coins, that glinted in the half-light. Crouched on the floor, in her nightgown, she counted. Under her breath, she counted: fifty-five, sixty, sixty-five, seventy. She would conjure up the coins, if she could. Seventy-five, eighty, eighty-five. Coin by coin, she counted, as she crouched. Ninety-five, a hundred. There was two rand. And she gathered the coins up: they fit in the fist of one hand. The night was cool.

It wasn’t hot, she remembers that now. For a long time she thought the fistful was sweaty. She was sure she remembered the sweat of her palm: the clamminess, the heat, the damp coins as they rubbed. But no. She remembers now with certainty: her hand was cool and dry. And her bare feet on the floor were cool too. They moved whitely, soundlessly—like moths—along the tiles.

She came back to the kitchen and gave the two rand to Eva. Here, she said.

When Carol came home from school the next day, her mother, seated on the edge of her bed, gave her back her two rand. Eva had told her what Carol had done.

And Carol remembers, now, the silence between her mother and herself. The room, and her mother, with her crossed legs, on the edge of the bed. There was the silence, and then the realization that came to her slowly, slowly, but with certainty, like a stain. And it was a stain. It was a taint: there forever. There were her limp hands (one filled with the useless, grimy coins). She was not powerful, as she had thought. She could not, with her limp hands, create the world in her image, after all. She could not make sure that Eva smiled her radiant smile for always, as she had wished. That night Carol buried herself under her bedclothes, in the dark of her room, and she would have stayed there forever, if she could.


Nowadays Carol lives in a different place, far away. Toronto in winter is buried deep in the cold. It is a long, deep cold. It bites to the bone. There’s a white cream she smoothes and smoothes onto her arms. The smell envelopes her, becomes her. They are one.

And then it snows.

Sometimes she watches the snow flakes that fall, so soft. They fall and fall, whirl and twirl. They’re like pirouettes. And if she listens (if she wants), she will hear it: a call from the other place, far away. And long ago. For Carol is no longer a girl. Despite the snow—through the muffling softness of the snow—she will hear it. Angeline, Magdalene, Godfrey. Pause. Angeline, Magdalene, Godfrey. It is a summons to her, but a summons she herself wills. A summons, a summoning. A magical summoning. Oh—if only—to summon. Angeline, Magdalene, Godfrey. Under her breath, which is a white cloud, or in the dark and private confines of her mind, she says it. And she says it—always—with a lilting Zulu intonation: an intonation that curves greenly to a distant shore, but one that is as close to her as her own. Angeline, Magdalene, Godfrey. It is an act of will, to summon, but one—she knows— that is as impotent as the frailest flower. Angeline, Magdalene, Godfrey. It’s an incantation of sorts: she would wring the magic from it. Wring it and wrest it, if she could. If she could. Angeline, Magdalene, Godfrey. It’s a reminder, a reproach. A wish, a prayer. It is a love song, maybe. The words, hard and bright, are like jewels within her. But they’re also like stones.


Nalo Hopkinson read this piece in manuscript, helping develop it for TOK.
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Dawn Promislow
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