By Srirupa Dhar
Her eyes are closed but not numbed to sleep. They are not tired. Never tired to see those feline eyes looking into hers to tell a story. There is a soft warmth in that emerald shine, that silent, yet talking gleam. And those eyes do not let Sharon rest. Her tightly-shut eyes belie her pretense to sleep. Because her closed eyes riotously fuse into those green ones looking into hers to tell a story. And every night this is what thirteen-year-old Sharon waits for.
Sharon hears of acids taught in her Science classroom. All those chemical symbols and reactions escape her brain. But she feels caustic. A corrosiveness constantly gnaws at her stomach. She knows real acid. Nia’s daily ritual: “I been workin’ my ass off for you, you dumb-headed clod! Ain’t I right? I had this waitress job all this while for nothin’. Why can’t you grow up? Can’t you do nothin’ like your sister? Smart Sarah do Math problems an’ swim an’ run. Dat’s da way it be. I is done wit’ you. Just like I be done wit’ yo’ goddamn daddy who ran away wi’ dat fuckin’ slut!” Sharon’s open face and timorous eyes flicker. Her numb tears swallow her mother’s spleen. The walls of their tiny two-roomed Celina apartment close in on Sharon and gag her into a spiral galaxy of junk and failure. The plump, ungainly and curly-haired teen takes in the angry humid heat of Texan summers, stoically. She is scared of her limping life. And her ebony body. Her skin is a canvas against which her stark life is painted. Blackness sculpts every bit of her life. It weaves into the fatigue of a copper sun, copper moon, copper water, copper everything. Sharon’s life is entrenched in black, a color that absorbs every other color but itself suffers the threat of otherness.
There are many things to be scared of. Mrs. Harmon, tall and white, with her overbearing voice, insists that her seventh-grade English language Arts class learns to use fine vocabulary. Mrs. Harmon picks Sharon to tell her a synonym for “insinuate”. The bleak Monday sky in September befogs Sharon. It has been almost a week after the Pentagon and World Trade Center have suffered ruthless Al Qaeda attacks. The entire world is in shock. And there is no sign of the autumnal blaze yet. The thirteen-year-old’s voice is choking. “Im…” The rest of the letters seem to strangle her even though her innards want to scream the word: “imply.” There are chuckles and whispers all around her. Mrs. Harmon looks straight into her. Sharon is afraid to face the cold stare. Mrs. Harmon laughing at my buxom body. She can see through my ugly, brown nipples. Tears are numb once again. Sharon desperately wants to cry, though.
Lunch recess is no less an ordeal. Casey and her catty group savor their entertainment. Sharon’s ears turn red as the girls chant:
“There goes Ms. Charcoal,
Sweating like a dirty foal.
She’s such a fucking darling,
Still so much a suckling.”
Sharon knows what “acid” means.
She passes ‘Brookshire’s Food & Pharmacy’ as she walks home from school. She thinks of all kinds of shops. Had Dad been here, he might have bought me a pair of crimson-pink peep toe silk and satin mules just as Mama did for Sarah the other day. Sarah demanded a Calvin Klein or Steve Madden for her birthday. Mama couldn’t promise, but she will try, she said. Sharon winces. And she immediately feels piqued as she hears something familiar. Casey, Sydney, Paula, Emily, Sadie, Anna. The blondes once again begin their rhymes in their hectoring voices. Sharon feels sour. But retching before these pretty, white girls? No. They would find her dirtier. Sharon passes the Japanese maple that silently waits for the bright orange and pale yellow to settle in. The sepals are ready with their woody and syrupy aromas. This tree is one of her first memories. A memory that never fails her. The maple tree stands strong. It towers above the dull sameness of Celina. And stands strong even in its absolute solitariness.
Sharon watches sixteen-year-old Sarah walk back home from high school. The older sister’s wanton giggles gain momentum, her svelte body growing more supple and sylph-like. Her lissome hips tickling. Her classmate, Taj, massages the small of her back. Sharon thinks of the shy and quiet De Shawn who never seems to notice her in school. She returns to an unsmiling, grungy apartment. An empty home with no story to tell. But she waits for the night to feel the depth and pulse of a story.
The story that radiant green eye tells her every night without even uttering a word. That one eye. The two eyes of a white cat blended into a single beaming, beckoning eye. Sharon sees it up in the sky as she lies on her futon-bed every night. She sees it on a moonlit night and a moonless night. That big eye of a white cat always looks at her with its silken love and satin self-assurance. Sharon simply loves all of that! And she knows the eye loves her too. It never eludes her, never lets her down. It is always there for her. So that she can lull herself to sleep with a smile after the frosty stares and cruel dismissals all day. Sharon tries to cozy herself in the gray futon kept in the little space referred to as the living room. Her hair and clothes absorb all the acridness of anonymous sweats and cheap perfumes. She does not sleep on a pink bed like Sarah and Mama in their own rooms. Sharon owns neither a bed nor a room. But she owns this time of the day to herself. And to her taciturn animal-friend. The friend who never fails her.
Last year on her twelfth birthday in mid-October, after a whole drab day of a “useless self” feel, she saw that eye for the first time through the window of the claustrophobic living room. Meaningfully looking towards her. Ever since, it has spoken to her in unspoken ways. To tell her something. What it wants to say, Sharon is yet to decipher. “I wish I were like you. White and glittery.” Sharon feels that the cat’s eye hears her. “I have no friend. Except you. No one likes me. Not even my mom or sister. I always feel so small. So … infinitesimal.” There she is, uttering such a fancy word. “Where did I learn the word, “infinitesimal?” Sharon wonders. She cannot remember. But the word comes to her, unpremeditated. The thwarted-rebuked-neglected teen gushes with joy. “Everything in this world is fleeting and ephemeral. One day my pain may vanish too.” Sharon feels overwhelmed at her sudden outbursts of language. The eye looks proud too! But it does not say anything back to her. “Why don’t you talk to me? You look so confident. I’m sure you are not scared to talk like I am.” The eye still remains silent. But the silence is not oppressive like the summer heat of Celina. Sharon feels comfortable even in this one-way talk. She falls asleep with a sense of release and wakes up the next morning with a rejuvenated courage to face the world. A world that feels gratified in sundering her.
Sharon sits in her Language Arts class with a strength frothing inside her. Mrs. Harmon embarks on a month-long writing assignment. She shows the students a picture of Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night”. She asks them their immediate responses on seeing it and after several discussions and drafts they will have to write a creative short fiction based on the inspiring masterpiece. The colorful swirls stoke fire in Sharon’s mind. Her reflex action: “This is evocative of tumultuous emotions” leaves the entire class, both teacher and students, stupefied with disbelief: Are we dreaming or is this some spell of witchcraft? Sharon is aware of the immobility around her. My friend, I did it. You made me do it! As she is silently talking to her eye-friend, Sharon sees Mrs. Harmon trying to act as normal as possible. “So, what else can you say about the painting?” she addresses the whole room. She avoids Sharon’s eyes, though. This Tuesday morning promises a ravishing autumn. Casey and her hazers don’t look directly at Sharon. Recess is uncannily wrong. It is quiet.
Little sis is not mute anymore, thinks the flummoxed Sarah. That Tuesday evening Sharon describes the autumnal sunset to Sarah: “The sky looks luscious like red wine.” Sarah freezes with fear as if she is under the evil charms of a witch. She loses no time in telling Nia when the mother comes home. Sarah is not getting it at all! This leapfrogging of her clumsy sister isn’t sinking in. “Mama, the “moron” speaks! And that too, with such magic words! This is getting out of hand. Some evil charm, séance, black magic working somewhere? But how? What’s the trick? Will she tell me if I ask her?” Nia has one word for Sharon: “Bitch!”
The girl who feels orphaned in her own home now finds a home. The night sky with the glittering eye talking to her. Wordlessly. The silence has been telling her words she never knew, never even dreamt of knowing. Words that previously have not existed for her now live and breathe with her. They come to her suddenly, spontaneously, naturally. They are her conscience. I am now one of those Pleiades in the Blackfoot legend Mrs. Harmon had once mentioned in class. The legend says that Pleiades are the ill-treated orphan boys who become stars in the cosmos. Sharon physically breathes in this hostile world, but her soul is up there nestled with the stars. And the eye mothers her, underpinning her with strength, emboldening her with elan, and cherishing her with love. Life is slowly becoming a reassuring conflation of words and visions. Sharon is beginning to feel the pulse of language ionize into the sap of life. She at last understands that words come to her intuitively. And she can speak. And write. With liquid ease.
Sharon starts weaving stories out of her early childhood memories. “Those evenings, the mother would come home desperate to feed her animal desires. Nia’s random lover would take her to bed. And Nia shoved the shame of life into her daughters’ mouths. The mother forgot that she needed to shove food instead. The two girls, Sarah and Sharon, their stomachs rumbled. They cried and dreamt and cried again .Fluffy breakfast biscuits tossed with a dash of gravy. The warm freshly baked golden-brown biscuits melting away into their ravenous salivas with the greasy thickness of the sausage gravy. The buttery crème fraiche beaten into the eggs softening the raw to white and yellow scrambles. The girls woke up only to dream again of the hot food wheezing in the pan on the kitchen stove. But the kitchen stove, bare and hungry, stared back at the girls with the blankest look ever.
And Sharon did not know what to do.”
But now, Sharon knows. She knows that words are the plasma of her blood. And the eye of the white milky cat gives her the incandescence of her spirit. A spirit watered by verbal expressions. But the color of her body still bothers her. She is yet to see a part of her being.
In school and at home every one is dazzled by Sharon’s mysterious attainment of articulation and confidence. But meanness keeps nurturing some souls. Casey and her troupe soon find something to fight Sharon’s transformation:
“Ms. Charcoal turns smart
But black is black and fart is fart.
A half-baked brain remains in the oven,
Never making it to a baker’s dozen.”
Sharon hears these words. She feels soot climbing all over her body. It is slimy. Putrid. No oxygen. She sees her self-belief ebbing away and subsuming into the pain of her color. Sharon feels helpless to pen down words of this seething pain.
“There is no respite even in words. No freedom for me. I will always feel small. I will always be the scum to be rid of”, she tells the eye an early October night that same year. No answer. Sharon feels humiliated. And angry at her friend. The eye is just like the others laughing at her. Smirking at her fake self-confidence and delusions of becoming a writer. She does not say “Good Night” to the eye as she always does. Shards of glass separate from the whole glass more meaningfully. At least, they have the might of sound and the force to hurt. I cannot even show my pain. It is insubstantial. It has no meaning for anyone. Perhaps it will cease to mean anything to me, she cried inside.
Sharon’s eyes are closed and tired. Fatigued of the way the world burdens her. The jeweled eye too is not with her now. Or so she thinks. She slowly yields to sleep with the festering wound cutting deep into her. And then she sees it. One big eye. Viridescent. Gently unfolding itself. The enormous greenish eye turns greener and shinier. It is the emerald eye Sharon sees every night. It is like a sequin on a whole embroidered fabric. Shimmering with its shine and gradually turning into two lustrous eyes looking straight towards Sharon. The eyes are parts of an utterly dark surface. The eyes belong to a black cat. Sharon hears the cat speaking. It is uttering actual words: “I am not glossy and white as you always imagined me to be. I am black. Just like you.”
“Why did I think you were white?” asks Sharon.
“You see what your eyes show you,” answers the cat in a sonorous and full voice. A voice dependable like a true mother. “I don’t feel ugly or rotten. My blackness is my pride. It gives me comfort. It is the home to my skin. My inner layers will fall apart without my black-ness. I know that I am beautiful. I can make a difference. You can do the same too. You have power within you.”
Sharon wants to say something. But she has already crossed the threshold of her dream. She wants to ask how she can change the world and make a difference. But the vision dwindles and vaporizes into… she does not know what or where.
She opens her eyes. The sun is freeing the sable world. The mid-October morning is suffused with a sheen that Sharon has never noticed before. Her thirteenth year and her whole life ahead will be promising. She goes to school and faces the bullies with a courage that is tangible: booming in its gusto and metallic in its power. The browbeaters start singing with their raucous voices and making lewd dance moves with: “Ms. Charcoal turns smart…” Sharon cuts them short, walks up to them, looks straight into their eyes, and says: “Cowards die many times before their deaths.” The bullies cower with astonishment. Sharon’s words ricochet the cowards.
It is the light of day. Sharon makes it her own. At night, she does not see the eye anymore. It has left so that she can make a difference in the world. All by herself. Sharon sits at her desk and her pages speak rapidly with a limpid flow.
“The green eye was looking from the sky. It was a look that was confident, hopeful and dependable. The look was true. The eye belonged to a black, black cat. And Sharon smiled at the solitary Japanese maple on her way back home from school. The tree smiled back. And the eye of the black, black cat…”
Copper Sun: Alludes to Sharon Draper’s young adult novel, Copper Sun
“Cowards die many times before their deaths”: From Julius Caesar by Shakespeare.
Srirupa Dhar is Indian by birth and has been living in the United States since 1998. She completed her M.A. and M.Phil. in English Literature at the University of Kolkata, India. She obtained another Master’s degree in English with Technical Writing Certification from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, U.S.A. Srirupa taught as a Lecturer in the Department of English at Bethune College, Kolkata. She has also been a Middle School English teacher in Columbus, Ohio. She is a voracious reader and takes an avid delight in all genres of art. Occasionally, she acts in plays in Columbus, where she is part of an amateur dramatic society.
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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Unmasking the Conflict: Making sense of the recent uprisings in Kashmir’, edited by Idrees Kanth, Leiden University, The Netherlands and Muhammad Tahir, Dublin City University, Ireland.