Was she practicing to be a mermaid? And Kes, in his tree, was he studying to become an orangutan?
I started brooding about the little creature in my mother's belly who was responsible for all this, and impulsively told my father that they should call her Ida, because it was the ugliest name I could think of, Ida rhymed with spider, and if you twisted the letters around and added a few more, you got diarrhea. How she'd be tormented, later, at school! Serve her right.
Every night, before bedtime, I'd prepare two plates of sandwiches. One I set down by the cellar door, the other I'd take outside. I can still feel the grass wet with dew beneath my bare feet and hear the garden's cryptic silence under the stars. Sometimes there would be the startling hoot of an owl, a noise that for some reason always brought me close to tears. It seemed to me that the nighttime universe was just too vast, too infinite for Kes, who had such a hard time with math. He was just hopeless when it came to numbers. The worst thing was, I couldn't think of a way of letting him know that his existence was important, important to me anyway, out there in his treehouse. What I did in the end was pry open my bicycle bell and pull out all the little cogs; I left it in a rusty little heap in the grass where he couldn't miss it. Kes never knew what to do with himself if he didn't have something to keep his hands busy. Give him two nuts and a bolt, though, and he was in his element. He might not be the world's greatest genius when it came to the times tables, but when you saw those fingers of his at work, you just had to admit you had an extraordinarily talented brother. He could also play a tune on the musical saw. Which is more than most people can say for themselves.
For Billie I always tucked in one of my father's Lucky Strikes next to her sandwich.
Then I'd take a few big gulps from the bottle of gin in the hall cupboard. That way I'd be sure to pass out as soon as I got to bed and wouldn't have to think about the fact that it was only Carlos and me now, up there in the attic. Carlos was nearly three and never got tired of asking questions. "Why are the cows in the meadow?" "Why is the grass green?" With every why, his eyes would bulge at how big and mystifying the world was.
To me, those two weeks were what the world generally was to Carlos: a confusing, hostile muddle. I did not understand then that all things do pass in the end, and that, funnily enough, they usually do so without any help. And that is exactly what happened this time. One fine morning, Billie simply showed up again at breakfast, in a skintight sleeveless ribbed turtleneck, without offering us any explanation for her subterranean sojourn. Nor did Kes mention his own treehouse exile when he too suddenly reappeared at dinner, worn out and smelly. I was sure their return to the house had something to do with my twelfth birthday the next week - a celebration neither of them would dream of missing, of course.
The morning of my birthday I was so excited that I woke up at the crack of dawn. From his crib, Carlos was whimpering his first why of the day. The curtain wasn't drawn all the way, and a shaft of dusty light fell on his blond curls, which made him look more like a cherub than ever, if a miserable one.
"Why what?" I whispered.
"Why isn't it my birthday?"
"Because it's mine." I had asked for a dog. Billie was going to teach me to smoke; she had been promising me all year. From now on I was going to start making a fuss over my hair; you were supposed to spend hours making your hairdo look as casual as possible, if you didn't want to be a loser. I'd start having pimples on my chin and crabby moods. Everyone would say, "That Ellen is getting to be such a big girl."
I was also sure that starting today I would no longer get that sour feeling in my stomach at the thought that Billie was the oldest, Kes the firstborn son, Carlos the youngest, and I was the only one who didn't have a special position in our family, which meant that nobody would miss me if I suddenly disappeared. "But the third child is the best child," my father used to console me. "The third child is the cement."
Reprinted from A Heart of Stone by Renate Dorrestein by Permission of Viking Books, A Member Of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 Renate Dorrestein. All Rights Reserved. This Excerpt, Or Any Parts Thereof, May Not Be Reproduced in Any Form Without Permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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