She threw her head back and groaned. My dispensation meant nothing. Her skin was already so brown that when she spread her fingers in her woe the little webs between were white as pearl. Her face, stretched to the limit with exaggerated heartbreak, was red and blotchy. I wasn't sure I could bear a day like that one was sure to be, and I slammed my hands down on the table, saying, with such exquisite self-control I felt as if I was singing, "Emma, if you need to scream and cry and carry on you may go sit on the chair in the hall."
"Why," Emma heaved, "did you do that to me?"
"I did not do anything to you," I explained, with emphasis on every word. "I will count to three, and if you are still in a temper you will go to the chair." That was the procedure my neighbor Theresa used with great success to discipline her children. I counted. Emma remained seated during the punctuated and fractionated count from zero to three. Even after I was done, absolutely no place to go after three, I waited, giving her the chance to bolt. In the end there was nothing to do but lift her under her arms and drag her away. She kicked and tossed her head back and forth, snarling and spitting. She could be a torment, a humiliation, at nearly six years of age carrying on as if she was preparing for the role of Helen Keller. I didn't know how the calm and deep wellspring of mother love could sustain itself through years of such storms. I hated her being so unreasonable and so fierce in her anger. She didn't have any right to be angry!
There was a black chair in the hall that had been set there for those occasions, and when I forced her onto the worn seat she dug her fingernails into my arm and pulled down so that blood sprang up from the scratches. "Stay there," I growled. I stumbled back into the kitchen and set the timer for five minutes. My hands were shaking. I looked at my arm, at the three bloody tracks. Emma's rage was as perfect an anger as I could think of, flowing spontaneously on a moment's notice from the depth of her being, where a careful accounting of justice, swift as light, must take place. I could have cried at the terror of it, the surprise, the strength of her fury; I could have cried because I knew that I was responsible for her anger; I wanted to cry most of all because I had wanted to right my own wrongs, to raise a loving family, and I had instead produced a hellion. A hellion! She would pursue us through our lives, fueled by rage, crashing into the nursing home where I would sit slumped over in a wheelchair, to give me a piece of her mind. Emma, more than anyone I had ever known, made me think in outlandish terms, in measurements that occasionally extended through to eternity. I covered the scratch with my other hand. "What did you say a minute ago?" I asked Claire, who was sitting straight in her chair peeling the stickers off the bananas. Her short sleek, dark hair was molded around her head like a close-fitting cap.
"I forget," was all. Our daughters had forged their roles early on with our unwitting complicity: Emma, the bad. Claire, the good. Emma had come hard into this world. "Who are you?" we had hardly dared to ask as she miraculously sucked and burped and moved her bowels. "Where did you come from?" We had stood over her waiting for her, our creation, to find her hands, to sit; we begged her to walk, to use the shape sorter properly, to say our names. We wanted to know she was normal and secretly hoped she was quite a bit above average. We were so careful, buying her skid-proof socks and a bike helmet for the goat cart. At night Howard and I fell asleep discussing her intelligence and her remarks. Claire was the blessed second child, nothing more than a baby, someone who had come to live at our house, who would grow up in her own time, her achievements more often than not overlooked in the confusion of getting to work, scratching up meals, finding clean clothes.
Excerpted from A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton. Copyright© 1994 by Jane Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, 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 publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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