map Tall Tale

by Jacqueline Bishop

Published in Issue No. 128 ~ January, 2008

The photographs were on the table when she came out for breakfast and it took her a long while to figure out what the photographs were of, and a still longer time to figure out who were in the photographs, and, when it finally dawned on that part of her brain that immediately edits and selects who the photographs were of and just who had left them there on the breakfast table for her to find first thing in the morning, she knew she would kill him.

Yes, she acknowledged, the bile rising in her mouth, the photographs were of her daughter. Her child. In some ways, of their child, for hadn’t Lloyd help her raise this child from knee-high to almost-a-woman? Slowly, she shook her head. He had waited until her child, their child, Simone, had made it just past the age of consent to make his move. Yes, she would kill him. Of that she was sure. For here now was her child in poses that could be found only in those lurid magazines that she quickly passed wherever she saw them being sold. And there she was, her child with the almond-shaped eyes, smiling at someone, him, most likely, the man who had helped raised her; the man who had been-like-a-father-to-her; smiling and sticking her fingers into various parts of her body. Effervescent flashes of pinks, purples, bruised red.

And that bedspread that their daughter was posing on, they had bought it together, actually it was all three of them, on Fordham Road one beautiful spring day several years ago in the Bronx. They had gone to the New York Botanical Garden to see a show entitled “Caribbean Paradise” and everyone who saw them had smiled at the beauty–the rightness–of the family. Mother, father, pumpkin-colored talking-too-much daughter between them. Lime green and bright yellows were the blossoms on the duvet covers they had brought that day. Her daughter, Simone, had picked out the sheet because she so loved the colors, especially after such a spectacular show at the botanical garden. When she reached for her purse to pay for the comforter, Lloyd had stayed her hand. He would pay for it. He would take care of things. From now on.

And it was on that very same sheet where he had positioned the laughing child, these most grotesque of photos. Perhaps it was that part of her mind protecting her again, but it took her a while to realize that there was also a letter with the pictures, a letter written in her daughter’s still childish hand. And even as she reached for it, the letter, she wondered why she should read what any of the two of them had to say. But still she opened up the crisp white piece of paper, probably torn from her daughter’s notebook, and she read a little of what they had to say, stopping every once in a while to steady the bile continually on the rise in her mouth. Something about the two of them being in love. They hoped she would understand. They had taken off together.

She put the letter down. She remembered the first time she saw Simone at the Maxfield Park Children’s home in Kingston. She had gone back to the island specifically to get a child. It was something she had always promised herself she would do. A way of giving back something, or, at the very least, helping someone from the land where she had been born and where she had grown up. Her homeland. Her mother land. The island of Jamaica. She was thirty-six years old then, had spent the better part of her life getting degrees and focusing on her career; now it was time to focus on someone other than herself. And there was the little pumpkin colored girl with the almond-shaped eyes, leaning against a wall, so shy and retiring was that child. While all the other children smiled too-wide smiles to show strong white teeth, and had slender plaint arms folded delicately on their laps, the little girl, Simone, was so shy and retiring, her back against the wall. She was told that for the many months she had been there, in the children’s home, Simone had barely spoken to a word.

“No,” the administrator of the children’s home told her when she began looking closer and closer still at the little girl her heart immediately told her was her own, “she is not up for adoption. Something not right with that child.” The word “troubled” was used several times over.

But wasn’t that what she had gone to school for? She with her psychiatric social worker eyes, wasn’t that what she had been made for? No, this child was not troubled, but vulnerable, needy, and who could resist the pull of those sad dark eyes? Yes, they were communicating with her, those eyes. Drawing her in. Pulling her in. Like a luscious chocolate-colored mami water, deep into the dark blue ocean. The child was pleading with her, begging her to choose her, take her back with her to America.

Simone was nine years old by the time the adoption and immigration papers were finalized. Then, before she knew it, the child was sitting on the forest green sofa in her living room in the Bronx. Looking around, ever so shyly. All the posters of Jamaica up on the walls. The dwarf banana plant she had struggled to grow in her living room. Its flat silver/green leaves. The crudely made wooden sculptures. All the indications, she hoped, for this child, her child with the deep dark eyes, to know that after many tumultuous journeys, she was finally home.

The file she had read of this child: her mother a lady of the purple-blue nights working the wharves in downtown Kingston. The father, judging by the orange-colored freckled face child, some European sailor. And to think, the mother was supposed to have said, a smile lighting up her luminescent dark face, that of all the trees that had been planted, of all the seeds that would take root, it would be those of some European sailor that would find a fertile foothold in her body. The mother smiled again at that.

Still, that did not stop the mother from giving the child away. Someone should have told her of all the responsibility. All the times she was shyly, proudly, touching her swollen body, someone should have told her about the crying at night. The endless changing of nappies. She ended up giving the child to a woman named Adina Roy. A blind old woman who had the child selling needles on the road from the moment Simone could get two words out of her mouth. Adina Roy was the one who had told the child the little she knew about her mother.

The file continued: how someone had found the child when she was four years old, her arm wrapped around herself, wandering the dangerous streets of the capital. The two-day-old dead body of Ms. Adina Roy that would be found later. The autopsy showing: Miss Adina Roy’s big heart had given out after a massive heart attack. The child never really speaking for years after that. And she kept having, from what she drew, the child, the same dream over and over again, of hundreds of thousands of needles falling down on her and digging deep into her body.

It took her, the woman who had adopted the child and brought her to America, two years, many psychotherapists and a young man with a bright yellow guitar in his hand and a multicolored kerchief on his head to get the little girl, like an early spring flower, to slowly, ever so slowly open up and begin talking. And the young guitar player with the flashing eyes did not get only the child to open up, but also, the child’s mother. For years after, the mother would tell anyone who would listen, that the man, the self-same guitar player, the one who was at a university getting an advanced degree in film studies, that man was her soul mate. The person she could tell anything to. She had never felt so close to anyone in her life. Before that man came along, she would tell her increasingly skeptical friends, she had been a tightly closed flower, but that was before the guitar player transformed her into a parrot tulip in full bloom–the bright red and yellow colors.

Within a month they had moved in together. Years later, she still could not understand why they had never married. But now the guitar player had taken the narrative thread of her life and tangled up the order of the sentences. Everything now confused and incoherent. Everything now up for question. Had anything at all been as it had seemed? And the young woman, her daughter? And there was that letter sitting there and staring at her. Something about them being in love. The two of them moving to Europe together. She had always felt, the young woman, her daughter, had written in the letter, that her mother had died giving birth to her seventeen long years ago. That she had never had a mother. And he, the guitar-playing lover, had told her that since she, Simone, did not have an ounce of his blood flowing through her body. Since she was not his natural daughter.

How she knew the day, the exact time that she would find them, the two happy, laughing and giddy lovers at the Air France terminal at the John F. Kennedy Airport would be speculated about for weeks in the newspapers. Had she been going there day after day, hour after hour, after she had found the letter, the mother? Did she hire a private investigator to track them down, her lover and her daughter? But that day there they were, feeding each other, the suitcases stacked like a pyramid beside them. Of course nothing made much sense to her after that, and it would take her, the psychiatric social worker, reading through her own file to bring some coherence back to the jumbled narrative of her story. Days before, she read, she had bought a gun–there would be yet another fierce battle in the New York newspapers for and against the strengthening of gun laws. But, yes, she had bought a gun. One that did not have a silencer. As if she wanted the whole world to hear the shots she fired. They had both stopped laughing the minute they saw her, her daughter and her lover. He had gotten up to say something to her when she pulled something dark and powerful out of the deep pockets of the fiery red coat she was wearing.

She did not mean to kill the child, her daughter, but she, the child, had flung herself between her man and her mother. That death she was sorry about and would, for the rest of her life, be sorry about, playing it over and over again in her head as if it were her favorite sad song on some slow record player. But him, the two bullets to his too beautiful face and the five more to his crotch, him, she told the officers who came running after they heard all the commotion, he was already dead by the time she killed him.

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Jacqueline Bishop is the author of My Mother Who Is Me: Life Stories from Jamaican Women in New York; the novel, The River's Song and the poetry collection, "Fauna." The founding editor of Calabash: A Journal of Caribbean Arts & Letters, she teaches at New York University.