And who will bring . . . Orion began. He coughed then. My expression in the mirror faltered. Unconsciously, my hand went to the hollow in my throat.
PROJECT THE VOICE, Mother warned.
And who will bring white peace, I whispered, for this line was my favorite.
And who will bring white peace, that he may sleep upon his hill again? my brother asked. There was silence. I suppose she kissed him in that silence. I smiled again, greatly relieved, and moved my hand from my throat to the nape of my neck, to feel the new stubble there.
By the time Mother returned to the kitchen, Id hopped down and tucked myself into the table. She now wore a blue cleaningwomans smock over a pale green dirndl skirt. And work shoes, of course. Asta, she said. I have to be at work in fifteen minutes so Ill only say this once. Youre not to do any homework today. Well she amended, seeing my disappointment, you can do your Bible readings, but theres no need to bother with any of the other books.
Not even the primer? I asked.
The primer was the same one my mother had used in her girlhood, with The Assumption Girls School stamped on the flyleaf and her first name, Loretta, indelibly lettered in pencil. I could read from it only a little, but I liked the pictures of children who wore proper-looking hats and were always giving tips on how to avoid unpardonable breaches of manners, such as never to take the largest slice of cake off a platter. To do so would be greedy.
No primer, my mother said. You need to focus on getting well. Id prefer you stay in bed and rest.
Orion and me both, I said after a thoughtful pause.
Yes, Orion and you both, in your own little beds.
She put on her fox-collar coat and her red rubber zip-up boots (I loved those boots, loved their unabashed cherry-redness) and stuffed a pair of rubber gloves into her coat pocket. While she was distracted, I groped under my dress to feel this accursed lump. I felt a tender pang by the jut of the pelvic bone and then the swollen gland responsible for the pang. A mere kernel of a thing!
Mother, I said, what would you say are my chances of getting better? Would you say theyre not very high?
She paused at the front door, one slim hand on the knob. Silly, she scoffed. Her serpentine neck craned against the fox collar. Come here.
I pushed away from the table and stood before her, under the shadow of her breasts.
Give me your cheek, Pork Chop, she said, and I did. Her lips brushed my face; they were chapped, dry from the aridity of the house, but her breath was moist. I wanted nothing more than to burrow into such moist warmth and live there like an earwig hidden under the tile. I put my arms around her waist and buried my head against her rib cage, but she extricated me, gently.
Have a healthy lunch. Orion can help you make it. Ill bring you both something nice for supper later on, all right?
And who will bring white peace? I said, expecting a smile. None came. Mother reached around and adjusted the clip in her hairan unnecessary gesture, for the clip was already deadcentered as far as I could telland with that she was out the door, closing it before I could get so much as a whiff of air.
I must have waited for the rattle of the bolts shed put on the outside of the door. When the rattling stopped, I probably jiggled the knob. I feared a day when Mother might fail to lock us in properly.
But our condition was assured. We were safe within the walls that protected us from the inscrutable outside world.
Excerpted from Asta in the Wings by Jan Elizabeth Watson. Copyright © 2006 by Jan Elizabeth Watson. Excerpted by permission of Tin House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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