"Boo," I said. I was that kind of girl.
He turned, startled, and I saw he had been writing my name on the window grime.
He was so thin, rail-thin, we called it. A beanpole. Just legs and arms and wrists and neck. I imagine if he had been permitted to live his life, he might have married someone who would have worried about this, who would have cooked him certain foods and seen that his scarves were wrapped tight in winter. No matter. He crossed the room to me.
"Any guesses?" he said.
"None," I said, blushing. This was the age of movie star magazines, of starlets discovered at soda fountains. I had plenty of guesses, each sillier than the next, but I knew enough to keep them to myself.
He marched me out of his room to the cook's stairway, a long narrow corridor down to the foyer, then pushed on a second door I'd always assumed led to the pantry. It took us back to the Gallery of Maps, where he paused, as if expecting me to react. "So?" I said. He ignored me, taking my hand and leading me to the darkest continent in the Gallery -- an hourglass stain near the far end tucked behind the door to the musty unused parlor.
Randall swung the door shut and pointed to a few shredded cobwebs collected in the corner, where Antarctica would have been.
"Look," Randall said. And then I saw: a tiny black thread, horizontal, a hairline fracture dividing time remaining from time spent unlike the other cracks in the walls, the veinlike fissures that ran through that old house. "A clue," Randall said.
Sometimes, when I think about it, I see the two of us there, Randall and me, from a different perspective, as if I were Mother walking through the door to call us for supper, finding us alone, red-haired cousins, twins sketched quickly: bones, hair, shoes, buttons. Look at us, we seem to say. One will never grow old, never age. One will never plant tomatoes, drive automobiles, go to dances. One will never drink too much and sit alone, wishing, in the dark.
Randall knocked on the wall and I heard a strange hollowness. "Right here," he said. "Right beneath my nose."
He pushed and the wall flattened down from its base like a punching bag. He held it there and got down on all fours, then he crawled in. I followed, no doubt oblivious to the white bloomers Mother still insisted I wear with every Easter dress.
The wall snapped shut, throwing us into instant black. It was difficult to breathe, the sudden frenzied dark unbearable. And cold! As if the chill from all those other rooms had been absorbed by this tiny cave, the dirt floor damp beneath my hands, my knees.
"Randall?" I said.
"Here," he said. Then, again. "Here."
His voice seemed flung, untethered; it came from every direction and I began to feel the panic that comes over me in enclosed places. I would have cried had Randall not chosen that moment to strike a match. He was right there beside me, touchable, close. I sat as he held the match to a candle on the floor. It wasn't a cave at all, just a tiny room, its walls papered with yellowed newsprint, the words buried by numbers. Literally hundreds of numbers had been scrawled across the walls, the ceiling. Everywhere you looked. The strangest thing. Some written in pencil, others in what looked like orange crayon, smeared or faint, deep enough to tear the newsprint. There seemed to be no order, no system to them. Just numbers on top of numbers on top of numbers.
I could hear Randall breathing. "What do you think they were counting?" I said.
"Heartbeats," he said.
It was the slaves' hiding place, of course. I crawled to the far corner, my palm catching on something hard: a spool of thread. Red, I remember, its color intact. There were other things to look at. Randall had collected them, and now he showed me, piece by piece: a rusted needle, a strand of red thread still through its eye, knotted at the end; a leather button; a tin box containing cards with strange figures printed on them, an ancient tarot, perhaps; a yellow tooth, a handkerchief -- the initials RBP embroidered in blue thread on its hem -- a folded piece of paper. Randall unfolded it slowly, and I believed, for an instant, that the slaves' story would be written here. Another clue. But there was nothing to read, simply more numbers, a counting gone haywire.
Copyright © 2001 by Kate Walbert
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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