Excerpt of The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
(Page 3 of 5)
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Jess liked haiku.
She thought they were incredible and really sort of terrible. She felt,
when reading over the ones she'd written herself, as if she were being
punched very hard, just once, with each haiku.
One day, Jess spent six hours spread untidily across her bedroom floor,
chin in hand, motionless except for the movement of her other hand going
back and forth across the page. She was writing, crossing out,
rewriting, fighting with words and punctuation to mould her sentiment
into the perfect form. She continued in the dark without getting up to
switch on a light, but eventually she sank and sank until her head was
on the paper and her neck was stretching slightly painfully so that she
could watch her hand forming letters with the pencil. She didn't sharpen
the pencil, but switched to different colours instead, languidly patting
her hand out in front of her to pick up a pencil that had rolled into
her path. Her parents, looking in on her and seeing her with her cheek
pressed against the floor, thought that she had fallen asleep, and her
father tiptoed into the room to lift her into bed, only to be
disconcerted by the gleam of her wide-open eyes over the top of her arm.
She gave no resistance to his putting her into bed and tucking her in,
but when her father checked on her again after three hours or so, he
found that she had noiselessly relocated herself back on the floor,
writing in the dark. The haiku phase lasted a week before she fell ill
with the same quietness that she had pursued her interest.
When she got better, she realised she didn't like haiku anymore.
In the departure lounge at the airport, Jess sat staring at her shoes
and the way they sat quietly beside each other, occasionally clicking
their heels together or putting right heel to left toe.
Did they do that by themselves?
She tried to not think about clicking her heels together, then watched
her feet to see if the heels clicked independently. They did. Then she
realised that she had been thinking about it.
When she looked about her, she noticed that everything was too quiet.
Virtually no one was talking. Some of the people she looked at stared
blankly back at her, and she quickly swivelled in her seat and turned
her attention on to her father. He was reading a broadsheet, chin in
hand as his eyes, narrowed with concentration behind the spectacle
lenses, scanned the page. He looked slightly awkward as he attempted to
make room for the paper across his knees; his elbows created a dimple in
the paper every time he adjusted his position. When he became aware of
her gaze, he gave her a quick glance, smiled, nudged her, then returned
to his reverie. On the bench opposite her sat an immense woman wearing
the most fantastical traditional dress she had ever seen. Yellow snakes,
coiled up like golden orange peel, sprang from the beaks of the vivid
red birds with outstretched wings which soared across the royal blue
background of the woman's clothing. Jess called it eero ahty booby
whenever she tried to imitate her mum's pronunciation of it. Sometimes,
when her mum was having some of her friends around, she would dress up
in traditional costume, tying the thick cloth with riotous patterns
around her head like a turban, looping it over her ears. She would put
on the knee-length shirt with the embroidered scoop neck, and let Jess
run her fingers over the beautiful stitching, often gold, silver or a
tinselly green. Then her mum would run her fingers over the elaborate
embroidery herself, and smile, turning her head from side to side as she
regarded her reflection in the bedroom mirror. Iro ati buba, she
would say, lapsing from her English accent into the broad, almost
lilting Yoruba one. This is iro ati buba. Then she would wrap the
longest, widest sheet of dyed cloth around her waist, over the bottom
half of the scoop-necked top, and fold it over once, twice, three times,
her fingers moving across the material with the loving carelessness of
one who could dress this way in the dark. Her mum, standing smiling in
the bedroom, her costume so bright it seemed to stretch the space
between the walls.
from The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi Copyright © 2005 by Helen
Oyeyemi. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of
Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be
reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the