Shard of Glass
By Alaya Dawn Johnson
21 February 2005
Part 2 of 2
Sato-san and the others found me the next morning, after the rains had stopped. I tried to climb down, but my legs wouldn't stop shaking and I felt light-headed. I rode home on Sato-san's back. My father used to carry me around like that, I remembered, but he had always smelled of red wine and expensive cologne. Sato-san smelled like saltwater and sweat and crabs, but it was still somehow reassuring.
"What . . . happened? She okay?" I heard my mother ask in her broken Japanese.
"I'm fine," I said in English.
They helped me to our small room on the second floor. My mom had rolled out my futon already and started undressing me like a baby. I would have objected to the treatment if I hadn't already been shivering uncontrollably. I couldn't tell if it was from residual fear or actual illness.
"Ma," I said that night as I shivered under extra covers. "What is that glass? What do I see when I look through it?"
My mom was silent for so long that I nearly fell asleep again.
"Memories," she said finally. "I asked Charles once, and that's what he said. 'There's nothing more powerful than a memory,' he said. But there you go, that's the Richardses for you. There's no such thing as beauty without power."
"You don't have any power and Dad thinks you're beautiful," I said.
My mom laughed. "But he had power over me. That was almost as good. Then I took all that away, and now I'm just a fly for him to crush. Flies aren't beautiful, Leah."
The next day Koichi apologized to me awkwardly over breakfast. I accepted it solemnly, and I never asked him what he had meant when he said they were my bones. I had looked at the memory and I knew—I just wished I didn't feel guilty every time I thought of it.
That weekend Sato-san took us with him to Naha, the major city in Okinawa. The inn needed certain supplies and Sato-san decided to take the two of us along as a treat. My mother begged me with her eyes not to go, but I ignored her and boarded the ferry with Koichi while Yuki stayed behind with his mother. At first talking to Koichi felt horribly awkward, but by the time the ferry landed we were friends again. We wandered around the arcaded shops while his father haggled over a crate of dried bonito and some Satsuma miso paste, which was the kind his wife liked the most. We passed a bank, where someone had left an American newspaper on a bench by the door. I picked it up and flipped through the headlines. There were stories of demonstrations and police violence, school segregation and growing American concerns about Vietnam. I was a little shocked—it had been over a year since I had heard anything about my home country. Koichi wandered away from me while I scoured the rest of the paper. An item towards the bottom of the second-to-last page caught my attention:
Three weeks away from the election, popular Florida senatorial candidate Charles Richards (brother of staunch anti-integration Virginia senator Henry Richards) and his wife, Linda, have suffered the tragic death of their premature child, Mary. The infant died of respiratory failure last night following a series of unsuccessful surgeries. Richards says that he will be back on the campaign trail next week, but that he must "have some time to grieve for the loss of my child." Analysts wonder if his week-long leave of absence will give Dale Hearn, the Democratic contender, a chance to pick up more votes.
His wife, it said. My hands were shaking so badly I could hear the paper rattling. Why was I so surprised, anyway? He might have paid for our apartment and my school, but all the time he and my mom had been together, he had never offered to marry her. When I was younger, I had always wondered why. Now, I realized, I knew. His brother, the "staunch anti-integration Virginia senator," would hardly have approved, let alone the rest of his political family.
Should I tell my mother how enormously the man she loved had betrayed her?
And then, the strangest thought occurred to me: did she already know?
Could that possibly be why we left?
We stayed there for another year. Koichi never tried to kiss me again, even though there were some days when I wished he would, when I wished that we had never fallen into that stupid cave. One evening, I sat with my legs dangling over the harbor wall, thinking about how nice it would be just to live on this island forever. I liked it better than America—here I was foreign before I was black, and even before that I was part of the Satos' family. I pulled the shard from my pocket—it was too hot in the summer to lug around the book, even though my mom got angry when I left it at home.
There were many memories on this island, I had learned, some much older than others. Sometimes they noticed me, and sometimes they seemed oblivious—but I never told anyone what I learned from them. I felt like a voyeur whenever I looked through the glass; I was spying on the innermost thoughts of people long dead.
The shard's beveled surface drank in even today's bright noon sun, remaining opaque until I held it in front of my eyes. Down below me, on one of the algae-slicked rocks, I saw a woman, her belly swollen with pregnancy, laughing as her little son struggled to catch the crabs that were scuttling away from him.
"Don't run so fast," she said. "You might slip and hurt yourself."
Surprise nearly made me put down the glass. I knew that voice. When I looked closer, I recognized her face, too, although terror had done much to hide her natural beauty. I began to push forward, struggling through the strange sand that separated us. It was easier this time than it had been in the cave, but I didn't stop to wonder why. I pushed until it seemed I was sitting next to her, even though I was still vaguely aware of my body perched on the wall.
She turned to me. "Hello," she said. "I've never had someone visit before."
Somehow I had expected more venom. "You don't recognize me?" I asked.
She looked at me more closely and then shook her head. "No, should I?"
Of course she didn't recognize me, I realized. This was a different memory.
"Do you know how you're going to die?" I asked.
She looked sad. "I'm dead, then? I thought I might be, but it's so happy here. . . ." She looked away. "My son," she said quietly, "is he . . . also. . ."
I put a phantom hand over hers and felt a jolt. "Not here," I said, "not for you."
She turned to smile at me, but as she did so her image wavered and I felt a sickening lurch. Suddenly, I was back in the sand again, but I had no orientation—where was that woman's memory? Where was the glass? I felt as though the sand was sucking me in one direction, and so I struggled the other way. Then, before me, I saw my uncle's thinning brown hair and wide-set brown eyes, indistinct and wavering like a television getting a bad signal. He smiled.
"What are you doing here, Leah?" he asked. His words sounded mangled and slurred, as though they had been repeated in a game of Telephone. "Have you mastered the glass already, then? Or are you just lost and unlucky?"
"Leave us alone!" I said in Japanese.
Then I realized my mistake.
Koichi pulled me off the ledge and I skinned my elbow on the road. I lay blinking uncomprehendingly at the sky for a few moments before I realized that I had escaped.
"Leah," Koichi said, kneeling beside me, "are you all right? What were you doing?"
"Talking to a memory," I said.
I didn't tell my mother. For months afterwards, I tried to convince myself that he wouldn't have recognized the Japanese, that there was no way I could have destroyed our perfect haven with a stupid slip of the tongue.
I should have known better.
They found us five months later, on a clear evening in what passed for autumn here. Koichi came running into the kitchen where I was helping his mother make dinner.
"Foreigners," he said, gasping, "they came in on the ferry. Said they were looking for a little black girl and her mother."
I dropped the knife I was using to gut a fish.
"What did you tell them, Koichi?" his mother asked.
"I told them to look on the other side of the island," he said. "They might just go away, right?"
Sato-san and I exchanged a glance. We both knew what this meant. "We have to leave, Koichi," I said. "Tonight we hide, and then when it's safe, we have to take the ferry."
My mother packed our meager belongings silently. She was ready for this, I realized as I watched her. I had relaxed and fooled myself into believing that we could live here forever, but wariness had never entirely left her. She had never forgotten we were fugitives. I said goodbye to the Sato-sans and Yuki, who cried even though we told him that we were only going on a short trip.
"Where are you going to hide?" Koichi asked, just before we left.
"The cave. The cave with my bones."
He looked down, embarrassed. "Before . . . I didn't mean that," he said softly.
"Yes, you did," I said.
Then I kissed him.
My mother and I huddled in the cave of bones that night, praying that my uncle's men would take the morning ferry back when they realized we weren't there. It was a chilly night, and my mother was so quiet that sometimes I thought the bones made for better company.
"When did he get married?" I asked, breaking hours of sleepless silence.
She didn't ask me who I meant. "Just after we left," she said. "Henry picked her. She's some kind of an heiress."
"Is that why we disappeared?" I asked.
"No." And then, more quietly, "Maybe that was part of it."
"Do you know whose bones these are?" I asked, minutes later.
My mother shook her head.
"That man," I said, pointing to the shapeless huddle of bones beside the entrance, "killed his whole family, and then himself. They were afraid of being captured alive by the Americans, and so they killed themselves."
"We won't get captured alive," my mother said.
Years passed, and countries turned into a blur: Korea, Thailand, Ceylon, Papua New Guinea, Ethiopia. Our pursuers started getting more persistent, deadlier. I bought a gun on the Ceylon black market and kept it in my pocket next to the book. I was careful when I looked through the glass now, and eventually I realized that I could change the way I waded through the sand. I discovered that if I moved silently enough, I could spy on my uncle, and sometimes my father, as they looked though their own glass. Whatever they were using, it was far inferior to mine—most memories stayed hidden from them, and they could not find me very easily. We stayed a half step ahead of them—as soon as I learned that they had found us, we would move. We never stayed anywhere longer than six months, though, and for that I was grateful. I missed our island and Koichi so much sometimes—I didn't want to come to love any other place that much and then lose it in another afternoon. My mother grew old on those trips; gray hair began to pepper the brown, and worry lines seemed as though they had been etched into her face with a chisel.
And then, when we were walking through a crowded market in New Delhi, they shot my mother. It hit her in the shoulder, and she went down amid sudden pandemonium. It was a stupid place to shoot us—I hauled her up and dragged her out of the plaza, hiding within the milling crowd. I didn't dare take her to a hospital in the city—my uncle's men would surely be watching every one. So I bound her shoulder as best I could and we took the next train out of the country. We traveled all night and part of the next day until we crossed the border to Nepal. There, I felt safe enough to take her to a hospital. The bullet had apparently passed through cleanly, but the doctor gave us some penicillin to ward off infection. We found a small room in a back alley tenement in Katmandu. She slept there for practically three days straight while I went out to find work. I was eventually hired as a dishwasher in the kitchens of one of the western hotels. It paid barely enough for the rent, but my mother was too weak to get a job herself.
Sometimes I wonder why I didn't notice how tired she seemed, how just getting out of bed in the morning was becoming a daily struggle for her. Why did I just assume it was exhaustion, and not something more serious? But my mother was a woman in her forties who had spent the last five years in nearly constant terror. The grueling pace of our lives would exhaust anyone, I thought.
I began to wear a plain orange sari and cover my hair—my lips and nose were a little large, but my skin color was perfect, and in the right clothes I looked like a local. No one would associate my schoolgirl picture with the Nepalese kitchen worker I had become.
And then one day, a few months after we arrived, I saw my father. I was in the market, haggling over a fish for dinner (the one thing I could convince my mother to eat, these days), when I heard his voice.
"She should be about this tall," he said, "brown skin. Living with her mother. Their names are Leah and Carol."
The man he was talking to snorted. "You're just looking for a teenage girl living with her mother. Oh, well, there's only one of those in this city. But perhaps you can buy this vase—very cheap, only thirty American dollars and I'll see what I can do."
I snorted—the vase vendor was robbing my father blind. I looked at him surreptitiously from under my scarf. He was thinner than I remembered, which made his face look harder and more vulnerable at the same time. His hair had turned silver at the temples, but it was as thick as I remembered it. For a moment, I allowed myself to be happy to see him. Then I acknowledged what this meant: they had found us. I took my bag of fish and calmly paid the vendor, glancing around to see if there were other westerners in the market. It looked like he was alone. I walked the few feet to where my father was standing. He had pulled out his wallet and looked like he was actually shelling out the thirty dollars.
"If you want to find the woman, I can take you to her," I said in my best Nepali accent.
My father paused and turned to me. He gave me a searching look, but after a few moments I realized that he didn't recognize me. It made me feel lonely.
"What about the girl?" he asked.
I shook my head. "I don't know about a girl, but I can take you to the woman."
"How much do you want?"
"Sixty American dollars. Thirty here, thirty after you meet her." I figured I could rob my own father just as well as a vase vendor.
My father nodded and handed me the money. I took him the wrong way down the street, to confuse the vendors who knew where I lived. I walked the most circuitous route I knew back home, to disguise the fact that we lived just a few blocks away. I could see him trying to memorize the street corners and I knew that he would never be able to find his way back. The lack of street signs in the back alleys of Katmandu would help me here.
I led him up the rickety staircase to our second-floor apartment.
"Wait here," I said, before I opened the door. My mom was sitting by the window, flipping the pages of a book with her left hand. She looked up when I came in, but I put my finger over my lips and she didn't say anything. She looked afraid and wary, but most of all, I thought, she looked tired. I bit my lip. What was I doing, bringing my father here? He was probably the last person she wanted to see. What had possessed me to put both of us in so much danger?
"He doesn't know me," I whispered. And then, much louder, my voice accented, "You can come in."
He stood in the threshold for a long time, staring at my mother. My back was to him, but I could see my mother's face. There was shock there, and anger, of course, but most of all I saw longing. Deep, bone-aching longing.
My father broke first. "What happened to your arm?" he asked. His voice was hoarse.
I shut the door behind him. We didn't need to draw attention to ourselves.
"One of Henry's people shot me. Or was it one of yours?" As tired as she was, with one arm in a sling and wearing a shapeless house dress, when she said that, my mom became beautiful again.
"Carol, I would never . . . I had no idea. . . ." He crossed the room in three long strides and embraced her.
My mother didn't exactly resist him, but she didn't return the gesture. She just lay there, stiff in his arms.
"Please come back with me," he said. "Come back with me and you won't have to live in this hellhole. I'll take care of you and Leah . . . where is Leah, though? Is she okay?"
My mother ignored his question. "You'll take me back . . . will you marry me, then? Or will I just go back to being your weekend whore?"
My father pulled back a little. He looked almost like he wanted to cry. "Do you know how much I've missed you, Carol? I'm married, you know that, but you've always been the only one I wanted."
"Then why wouldn't you marry me?" It was the first time I had heard my mother yell in a very long time. "Why would you keep me hidden like I was some dirty secret?"
"They won't accept us, Carol. Maybe if we lived in a more . . . accepting world, but now—isn't it enough just to be together?"
Her mouth twisted bitterly. "So tell me, this new law. The Civil Rights Act. Tell me, Mr. Senator, how are you going to vote?"
He seemed confused. "Against it, of course. What does that have to do—"
She laughed. I wondered if I had ever heard a laugh sound so painful. "It has everything to do with everything, Charles. You never understood that, did you? You say the world won't accept us—what you mean is your brother won't accept us, your parents won't accept us. You have a chance to change all that, but you don't seem to care. I'm one of those niggers, your daughter is one of those niggers that you want to make sure drinks from a separate water fountain. If I lived with you again, it would be like spitting on myself, my parents, my daughter every day. I did that for twelve years, Charles. I'm not going to do it again. Now go. I'm tired."
For a moment I thought he was going to try to embrace her again, but instead he stood up and walked to the door.
"I loved you, Carol," he said.
"I still love you, Charles." She turned to the window. She wouldn't want him to see her tears.
I opened the door. "Come," I said. He followed me blindly outside, and didn't seem to notice how suspiciously husky my voice was.
I led us back to the market a different way, through back alleys bordered by foul-smelling sewage ditches and a few crowded thoroughfares.
I stopped in front of the vase seller, who was packing up his wares.
"Here," my father said, pulling a hundred-dollar bill out of his wallet. "Keep it."
I nodded, and tucked it in the top of my sari.
"Tell her . . . that they know she's here. They'll find her soon. She should leave."
"I will," I said, without the accent. His head snapped up. "I'm glad I got to see you again, Father."
And before he could say anything, I ducked back into an alley and ran.
When people die, their memories explode. No matter how peaceful the death, its aftermath is violence. Sometimes people's lives explode in a thousand tiny fragments, most of which will wither and fade with time. Once in a rare while, a person's memories hardly fragment at all, and those are the ones most people call spirits.
I saw a lot of death in the Ghanaian hospital where I took my mother after we left Nepal. Stomach cancer, the doctors told me. It was very advanced; she must have been living with it for long time. I thought of her exhaustion, her bad appetite, and wished that I hadn't been so stupid. It was only a matter of time, they said. When my mother broached the subject of me going back to the States, I realized that she knew she was going to die.
"What about the glass?" I asked.
"Give it back to them. I must have been crazy to take it . . . what kind of mother was I, dooming you to this kind of life. . . ." She sighed. "I didn't want them to have it. That glass makes them powerful, and I thought that if I stole it . . . well, it doesn't matter what I thought. You should just give it back, Leah."
But I didn't want to give it back. The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. I followed the news out of the States: the Civil Rights Act had passed the House and was about to go to the Senate. My uncle, Henry Richards, was one of the strongest voices of opposition, and his behind-the-scenes power was making things difficult.
My mom was getting weaker by the day. She never said it, but I knew that she wanted to see my father. Somehow, I had to end this for her.
One evening a week later, I was helping take down patients' names and information in the emergency room. A man walked in, carrying a young girl who was coughing feebly in his arms. I was overwhelmed with a sensation of déjà vu, even though I had never seen either of them before. Why did they seem so familiar?
A nurse wheeled an empty gurney past me. Its sheet was stained with splotches of fresh blood that suddenly seemed to be the color of expensive red wine, carelessly spilled on a tablecloth. For a moment I was twelve years old again, huddled in an alley behind a restaurant, clutching a shard of glass whose power I didn't understand.
Of course. How had the Richardses become so powerful? Because with the glass they could see memories. And what were memories, fundamentally, but secrets?
And I knew my uncle's darkest secret of all.
The scandal broke just before the Senate was scheduled to vote on the bill. My uncle recused himself and resigned a week later, when the bill passed. By then the spotlight was firmly focused on the suddenly rejuvenated investigation of the murder of Jim Yarrow, a shop owner near Dartmouth, where my uncle went to college. Apparently, my uncle had bought the upstairs apartment from him but then refused to pay for it, even when the man told him that he needed the money to take his daughter to the hospital. That argument that I had seen had taken place after the girl died. I wrote a letter to my father, knowing full well that he would not come alone, and not really caring.
I met him in the lobby of the hospital. The people behind him looked like bodyguards, but they didn't touch me. I wondered if they would save that until after my mother died.
"How is she?" he asked when he saw me.
I shrugged, as though just thinking about it didn't make me want to weep. "Any day now, they say."
"We should take her back to the States. I have a plane, I'm sure the doctors there could—"
"It's too late, Charles," I said. It made me feel stronger, somehow, to say his first name.
He looked so lost when he nodded that I felt sorry for him. He was weak and he was a bigot, but he had been raised on those twin pillars since he was a baby, and I knew it was too much for me to expect him to change, even for love of my mother.
"Have you come to take the glass?" she asked, when he came into the room.
My father shook his head, but one of the men behind him nodded. "We're ending it here. You'll give it back, one way or another."
My father stayed with her until the end. I touched the glass, sometimes, for comfort, but I never looked through it. I didn't want to know what memories were sharing our misery with us. My mom slipped into a coma during a thunderstorm just like the one from all those years ago in Japan, when I discovered the cave of bones.
Just before, she gripped my hand. She didn't say a thing, she only looked at me, with eyes so fierce in that gaunt face I almost thought they were glowing. I knew what she was asking me, what she couldn't bring herself to say.
"I won't give it back, Ma," I whispered. "I won't let them take me alive."
They were all in the room the morning she died. My father was crying silently beside the bed, but I was finished with my tears. I didn't look at her wasted, lifeless body—I thought of her eyes, dug my nails into my palm, and waited.
"You'll give us back the glass now," one of the men said. He stepped forward. His arms were motionless at his sides, but so tense with energy it was more frightening than a bared fist. I knew that he would not hesitate to hurt me.
"Please, just come back with us, Leah. This running . . . it killed Carol. Just come back."
I turned towards my father. "The Civil Rights Act . . . how did you vote?" I asked.
"I didn't," he said. "I didn't cast a ballot."
I smiled. "An invisible vote," I said, "for an invisible daughter."
I pulled the shard out of my pocket. The men glanced at each other warily, but my father only looked miserable.
My mother was standing by his side, wearing her yellow sundress and bug glasses.
"Leah," I heard her say, as though she saw me. "Get in the car."
I stepped through the glass.
"Shard of Glass," by Alaya Dawn Johnson, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
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