Excerpt of The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
(Page 4 of 5)
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The thought made Jess smile as she sat waiting with everyone else,
looking at this woman, who stared back at her, her small eyes squinting
out from their folds of flesh, the fluorescent lighting giving her skin
an odd, flat finish, as if the dark brown was catching light and not
throwing it out again. Jess kept her eyes fixed on the woman, caught by
her gaze, gradually growing frightened, as if somehow she could not look
away or let this woman out of her sight. Would that be dangerous, to not
look while being looked at?
On the plane, Jess threw a tantrum.
It was Nigeria. That was the problem.
Nigeria felt ugly.
Nye. Jeer. Reeee. Ah.
It was looming out from across all the water and land that they had to
cross in the aeroplane, reaching out for her with spindly arms made of
dry, crackling grass like straw, wanting to pull her down against its
beating heart, to the centre of the heat, so she would pop and crackle
like marshmallow. She had been reading about Nigeria for the past month,
and her excitement had grown so much that she had nearly succumbed to
that peculiar febrile illness of hers again, but recovered just in time
for the yellow fever and hepatitis C injections that she needed. The
anti-malaria tablets were disgusting, coating her tongue like thick,
It was the combination of the two white pills and the leering idea of
her mother's country that made her begin to struggle and thrash,
screaming, half dangling headfirst out of the seat, nearly choking on
her seat belt, fighting off her mother's hands as she snaked herself
away from the little chalk circles. Inside her head, she could hear her
skin blistering, could almost feel it, and she tried to outscream the
sound. She could hear herself. She felt other people looking, heard
people stirring, muttering, and felt good to be making this sharp,
screeching, hurting noise. Yet some part of her was sitting hunched up
small, far away, thinking scared thoughts, surprised at what was
happening, although this was not new. She panted as she shook off her
father's restricting hands. Sweat was beading on her forehead and her
eyelids, and she felt the prickly feeling at the back of her eyelids and
that familiar sensation of her eyes almost involuntarily rolling upwards
onto her head. It was a kind of peace.
Then her mother, who for a while now had been speaking in a pleading
monotone, said something with a sharp buzz, something that she didn't
quite catch, and slapped her hard. It was oddly like a cooling wind on
her skin, the sting that remained when her mother's hand had left her,
and she stopped struggling and hung limp from the side of her seat, her
mouth a small, open O, until her father, murmuring reproachfully,
settled her properly into the aeroplane seat.
He looked at her, dabbed at her cheek with his handkerchief. "Never mind
about the pills for today," he said quietly and put them back into her
After a while the minutes sank into each other, and Jess sat still, her
eyes following the two air hostesses up and down the aisles. Beside her,
she felt her father's heavy, musky-smelling presence, the weight of his
arm pressing along hers, heard his shallow breathing as he slept. An air
hostess whose name badge said "Karen" smiled quickly at Jessamy, and
sleepy as she was, Jess somehow understood that this woman, her jaunty
red cap perched atop a black bun of hair, was not smiling at her in
particular, but at a child, at the idea of a child. Because she was an
air hostess. Smiling at a child. That was what she was supposed to do.
Jess gave a drowsy smile in return.
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