Sticks and Stones
‘Mummy, what did she mean when she said I was different? What’s wrong with my nose? Mummy? Mummy? Why are you crying?’
‘Mummy? Talk to me Mummy!
You’re walking too fast Mummy, I can’t keep up… Mummy?’
As the years passed me by in the village so the questions dried up. They were never answered anyway. I knew but didn’t know all of it. But I would. Oh yes, I would know. They wanted me to know. And the others didn’t want me to know. I wanted to know and at the same time I didn’t want to know. So this is how I found out with my clumsy discovery. Some people were happy and some were sadder than a farmer in a drought when they knew I really knew.
Rachel Stitch. That was the girl that first spoke out. We were playing Poo Sticks at the bridge near the barley field by Milk Lane Cottage. Rachel was older than me, she was seven and I was only six, but we were best friends. How long do best friends stay best friends? Why are best friends only best for a while? What comes after best? I found out that Sunday morning.
We were on our way home from church, it was a normal Sunday morning; a bright, but cold, spring day, we were wearing hand-knitted hats, scarves and gloves as we crunched through the lanes on the way home.
Rachel and I ran to the bridge, we always did this, it was our routine every week. We hurried ahead missing the puddles, while our mothers talked and walked at a slower pace. At the usual point we grabbed sticks from the hedges at the side of the lane and raced back to the middle of the small stone bridge.
‘Ready, steady, go!’ We shouted together as we dropped the sticks into the fast flowing water. It was fun. This was like the stories we had read together, but it was our special game. Me and Rachel together in our easy intimacy. We had a common past: this was our world. Suddenly a dark shadow made me turn to my right and I looked up; it was nothing more than an old bird, a big old bird. I laughed as a blackbird swooped across the path in front of us. That was when Rachel said it. That was when my world cracked and the fissure never healed. The San Andreas fault originated in my chest after the beautiful music from the church organ had not yet gone to sleep for another week. Songs of the world at one rang in my mind: la la la lah la la la lah. Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world…
‘You look like that bird,’ she skipped along at my side as we turned to run to the other side of the bridge to watch the sticks appear, ‘but your nose is different. Your nose is too big for a bird. You have the biggest nose I’ve ever seen in my life.’
Suddenly she stopped and looked directly at me. We had looked at each other hundreds of times before, all the days of all the years that were my short childhood, but today Rachel’s eyes were like dead fish eyes to me, they were flat and cold. There was a glaze of distance behind her lids as she blinked. She was somebody else, so was I. We stood two feet apart but thousands of miles away. I did not know what a mile was. It was further than I had ever been. But I felt far away without moving an inch. I was in my dream again. The dream I had before I was here. I was in that dream.
‘Why is your nose so big and why are you so black?’ those were her words. Were they a question or something bigger than a question can ever be? The sticks floating beneath us did not pause except to navigate a rock or clump of reeds.
I thought it was a game and I looked at her with a puzzled frown, I was trying to remember what I was supposed to say next. We always played games together. We read each other’s minds. I was surprised because suddenly all I felt was an ancient yearning for someone I did not know. I moved my eyes to look for the answer. There was nothing in my head. I was lost.
Since she was my best friend, and since that was the last day that she was going to be my best friend, Rachel just carried on talking. She must have been trying to help me out with the game. I smiled at her as I stood opposite her on the cold stone bridge. Our parents had been walking behind us and they were now within earshot of us.
‘You are as black as soot – that’s what my dad says and Mum tells him to be careful in case walls have ears, do wall have ears? And you have a nose like a monkey because you’re the monkey’s cousin…. Is that true that you came from a mud hut in the jungle?’ Paralysed by the absence of joy the gloom of the moment clung to me, it seeped into me like clothes that have taken on the smell of cooking or burning. Unbidden voices told me that I wouldn’t forget this moment in a long while.
‘Look! You won!’ Rachel turned and hugged me. She didn’t know. I wasn’t sure but I felt the change moving in on me and I couldn’t stop it. The tornado of difference lifted me up, flung me around into the star filled night on the other side of the world and then set me back down in the same place as if nothing had happened. The second inside the second that it took for my travels made my feet burn as if I was a Buddhist monk walking across hot coals. I reached a new age but I was harmed.
‘My turn to win next,’ Rachel bubbled as she ran to get more sticks.
I stood leaning on the cold stone bridge afraid to move. I knew I would break into a thousand pieces of dust if I breathed or flinched. My gloves offered me no protection and my coat was like a silk sheet against a blizzard. I stood on the bridge totally exposed: to myself and to Rachel.
My ears were hurting with the words. I didn’t understand. My world was now unstable. I missed what I didn’t know. I understood nothing.
I was startled when I thought I was safe; before I knew what unsafe was I felt it.
I remained fixed to the spot afraid the bridge would buckle if I moved and my mother had to grab me hard to dislocate me. I was torn from the bridge, separated from the skipping child that was me who had run on to it.
I was deaf to my mother’s voice, the only sound available to me was my blood as it exploded and collided inside of me as I experienced the aftershock of seeing myself from outside of myself for the first time. I was using Mr Stitch’s eyes. I was no longer as black as Rachel had said I had turned an ashen grey because I was confused and still only six. I looked up at Mummy and asked her the said questions. Adding ‘Is is true what Rachel says Mummy?’ she never answered me, but held my hand firmly and with a curt nod to Mrs Stitch she pulled me quickly along the lane mumbling something about eggs. That was all she said. Nothing about being black, or having a big nose, or living in the jungle with monkey cousins, all Mummy spoke about was eggs. Got to get to the shop to get eggs. All the way to the shop to get eggs that we didn’t need. We had eggs at home. I knew that, Mummy knew that, but eggs were the first thing she said so off we went, back the opposite way from Rachel and her Mum to get the unneeded eggs. My legs were tired when we got home because we had to walk too fast and Mummy would not let go of my hand. She held it so tight that it hurt a lot but I didn’t say anything else after we passed the church because Mummy was quiet and her eyes had changed to the colour of cold metal.
Mummy was scared, I saw it in her claret cheeks and felt it in her abnormally long strides as I flew along beside her.
Mummy and Mrs Stitch were good friends as well as me and Rachel. But after that day they didn’t like to talk for too long. A whole life of shared memories stopped for all of us after the blackbird. Mummy and Mrs Stitch had longer lives and memories than me and Rachel, but the big people grew as frosty as a winter’s day to each other. They usually only nodded and rushed in different directions. Time made people walk faster. Away, away, away from me. This happened a lot when Mummy and Mrs Stitch were in the High Street. There were only four shops in our village and everybody knew everything about everybody else. But after the Sunday when me and Rachel stopped being best friends, after that day, they, all the people in the village started looking different. They looked whiter and longer than they had before. I felt shorter and darker. I felt black. I was different and I didn’t know what different was. But once I felt it, once the words were out from the plaster on the walls with ears, once everybody knew that I knew, then the sheen of kindness vanished like vapour from an extinct volcano.
I was in a castle all alone. The walls were erected instinctively. I hadn’t been taught.
At six years old I had no insulation against raw hatred for just being me.
I was outside. I was marked from the outside. In my village I was out of place because I fitted better in another country that I didn’t know.
When was I old enough to know that I was not seen as the same and that the grey and blue eyes that saw me didn’t want to see me so close to them? It was on that Sunday when Rachel and I dropped the sticks into the water and after the blackbird eclipsed the light in front of me. I hate Sundays. I hate blackbirds.
‘Marilyn, it won’t work,’ I could hear the exasperation in his voice, ‘just think about it. It’s the same with the animals, they’ll isolate her.’
I remember when Jeff said that to me but Molly looked so cute that I couldn’t hear reason, I believed that love and understanding are stronger than bad reason so I went ahead. I brought her home. And I was right. And I was wrong.
And Jeff was right and Jeff was wrong.
The first four years were bliss. Nothing better on this earth than being in Flax Cottage with Jeff and Molly. I had friends then. I thought I had friends anyhow. When do you know if a friendship is real? Is there always a litmus test moment? I would have told Molly to look out for it if I had known what I know now. Hindsight is always clear vision. But I had lived in the village as long as I had life. It was my home and now it was Molly’s as well. My little darling, Molly. I called her Molly because she looked fragile like a small doll and she gurgled for hours, content in my arms. Her fat little fingers explored my face with gentleness. I had never had such a smooth innocent touch on my skin before. Molly my angel, my gift from God.
I prayed for a baby and Molly came. God gave me Molly but He didn’t warn me that the bliss could shake after a few years. She was in the paper. Somebody needed me to take care of her. I cried for a week after I first saw her. I didn’t think she would ever be mine. And she isn’t. But I thought she was mine and I sometimes tell myself she is mine even though I know the same as they know. And now, now, even Molly knows, but once she did love me as if she was mine and I was hers. We loved each other without explanation from our first meeting.
I told Jeff that Molly was special and nothing could break the love shield around us three. I was wrong, again. I believed in good. I was too young to know any better. I see that now but I still believe that it is wrong that I could be wrong. I should have been right, love said so. Maybe I didn’t love enough? Maybe it’s my fault … if I had more love then Molly would be safe, not alone, without me, without … anybody.
Molly told me that I lied to her. She said, ‘It’s not true you know, they hurt…’
‘What hurts, darling?’ I knew the answer but as I played for time with my useless question I was searching for another bigger truth to absolve her pain.
‘Sticks and stones do break bones… and names, yes, names always hurt you. I’m sorry Mum,’ she raced on not giving me a chance to speak. I had no words anyway so I was glad for her need to express her anger, ‘But they hurt too bad…’ Her tears and my tears were the same colour. As they flowed they prevented us from speaking or hearing any more. But I could never cry enough to wash away all her pain. She has been gone for fifteen years. Just a phone call at Christmas and on my birthday. She never let me call her on her birthday, but I always sent her cards, for the first years at least. The tradition stopped when the past swooped down and eclipsed the present.
‘It reminds me of what I haven’t got to get a card from you, Mum’. From 1979 I kept the unsent cards that I persisted in buying for her; maybe one day she will see them. My only way through is to look at the same moon and feel her absence. I know I am missing part of me – without Molly there is no point.
Existing in my current lack of her I know I love her more that I did when she was one and I could feel her warm breath on my cheeks. I knew that love got bigger. I was right about that. I grew my love to cover her, and me, and Jeff. But it was not enough.
Molly was nineteen when she first told me how much she loved me and hated me at the same time.
‘You are the first one in the family to ever go to university,’ I proudly stated as I sat at the bottom of her bed and watched her pack to leave home.
My smile fell like a parachutist without a chute.
‘Who do I belong to … really?’
The pause was longer than my life.
‘I feel… incomplete…’ she faded away with her words.
All the little questions were there. All the protection was blown away. I was exposed as a fraud. My love was ersatz.
I looked at her and remembered the lies that I had told her. They were to protect her not to harm her, but they took hold of our lives and it’s now impossible to go back to where we came from. The truth is back there, the truth is in the past that is a foreign place; it’s here too.
I told myself lies as well, lies to make the truth go away. The truth about myself and about Molly’s other mother. I didn’t want Molly to ever leave me so I made this new world the best place for her to be, with me, with me and not with them. I needed Molly as much as she needed me. We were right for each other, are right for each other. How do I tell her that they did want her back but I couldn’t let her go because I would cease to live without her?
It’s not true that if you love something enough you will let it go because I was afraid that Molly would not ever come back to me. For years I remembered the lies and watched for a word from her world. It only ever came in my dreams.
‘Nothing has ever reflected me here in the village… how do I reconstruct myself from nothing?’ What answers were possible to the unknown? My lips trembled as she lowered her head and allowed herself to sag onto the bed. The folded clothes spewed onto the floor as her leg dangled over the edge of the loaded bed.
‘Sorry, Mum. I’m not saying this to hurt you, I know you love me, and have done your best, but I don’t know who I am.’
I was silent. Not even tears helped me through that valley of solitude. I was between the question and the piercing look that was travelling over my face like a solitary searchlight for a lost child in a forest.
‘I’m glad I’ve had you, no, what I mean is that I’m glad you had me, but I have to wonder what was the rest of my past like. Do they think of me any more? Am I missed or loved?… you never told me why Grandma stopped coming. I’m old enough now, tell me today, please. Tell me now. I need to know if I should bother to look for them, if I should bother to expect them to come back again.’
Her call to me receives a sad response. I echo her grief. I know it is no longer hidden.
‘Molly,’ her name came easily to my lips, however, I stuttered on the next word for a long hot moment and eventually gave it up; it was not to be mine. I was grasping for solutions to fix her life. I knew this day was due but it is always too soon when you are not ready.
I had practised this moment for years and never wanted to have to act it out. I started again.
‘You are really special to me…’
‘You are my daughter, Molly…’
It all sounded lame. I couldn’t finish a sentence. Speech was heavy and as sharp as flames.
It was then that I knew there were no words, in any language, in any world, to explain. My memories have found me wanting. They were suddenly upon me like an overtaking car on a hairpin bend.
I felt the greatness of my gift from God was now pure bitter herbs.
We sat in the tense room. The bags remained unpacked.
‘They hated me too you know? That’s why your dad left because he couldn’t stand the ridicule any more. They said you were really mine, for that I couldn’t be angry, but they said that Jeff was a fool to keep us both under his roof and that hurt him more.’
‘Molly, I didn’t know. I can’t be blamed for not knowing people had flint words held in their hearts to throw at us, to throw at you. I did try to stop them, Molly. I tried to keep you safe, but the world is bigger than my heart can reach. I’m sorry I failed you, darling, I’m sorry. I only wanted to continue loving you. That’s what I did, that’s what I will always do, keep on loving you. I did my best and tried to make love grow here in the village; it did for a while then the storm of unpleasantness came and nothing was upright any more.’
‘Was that when we stopped going to church? When all this ‘unpleasantness’ started?’ I tried not to notice the sarcasm in her voice, the dam of her indignation was opened.
‘Yes. That was it. I wanted you to learn from me and not them. It was the best I could think of at the time. I’m sorry, darling.’ Even to me the words sounded empty. I looked towards her with empty hope. Molly rose from the bed and came towards me.
‘Oh, Mum!’ With her arms around my neck I felt able to move again. Thank God it was not all lost, I still had my gift.
‘Sorry is too small for this,’ her voice was low and I realised that she was in the past. I had hoped too soon. She sighed and shook then spoke slowly, ‘you’ll never know how I really feel, no matter how sad you are for me, it never happens to you, the look, the pressure on the word, the loose laugh, it’s not meant for you. Mum, you’ll never know.’
Another long life pause was placed between us.
‘Did you know that the look from a stranger, one who is strange for a multitude of reasons, often by choice like personal estrangement, that look, did you know that it lacks the kindness contained in the look from a friend?’ Her eyes did not meet mine. But her question was like a dagger in my heart: I could not ignore it.
Unknown to me her resolve was already set in stone. She was lost to me and that day Molly let me go to find the missing truths. I was abandoned with my lies and my lonely love as company. I was bereft but I saw that it was Molly who was shipwrecked.
I couldn’t reach her because it was then she turned away from me.
‘I still had to go to school on my own Mum, everyday. I was not OK all the time. There are some things you can’t keep away from me, some things you can never feel. You see, Mum, you are different to me too.’
She let go, and I let go too.
I had to wait from then on. I had to wait and watch for a change. Molly left me. I was alone, with my rock heart.
My name is… I don’t know the answer to that simple truth. I don’t know who I am. I have a name, in fact I have several names, but they don’t relate to anything I know or knew. I am ignorant of myself.
What is the shape of wisdom?
I knew everything when I was six, or so I thought, then I was emptied of light. I was on a bridge and although I wanted to fly into my dreams I couldn’t move. It was a crisp Sunday. I had started my journey to the underground city of refuge as a creature newly born and blind. It’s hard to find the answer when you never knew the question. Inches of discovery took years as I learned the language of warm stone. I folded up inside of myself on the bridge, like origami I kept folding.
Suspense had hung over me for years. I strained my neck trying to see what was there but it never revealed itself to me in any form and neither would it remove its claws from my back.
I remember standing on the bridge, I remember being ignorant and invalid; I had no capability to alter anything but I was in the last moment of my childhood and I clung on to it; I was unfit for the journey ahead. Are we all unprepared for the wall that slams into us? Suddenly I was in a different land, I had not blinked but I had travelled, there was no going back. In this land I was ignorant of any of the rules. Mum couldn’t help me. The blank times were the most frightening. I tried to map my own facts but had no honesty to work with. My memory was blank. It was that simple. My co-ordinates were lost.
A few times I saw strangers that looked as lost as me on the television, no one similar came to the village after I was nine. The old lady with the skin like wrinkled leather who used to come, she unsettled me with her truth, her tight squeezes and her long bright clothes.
She wanted me to go back with her, but I didn’t know where back was. Rachel could have been right. I was afraid. I had to stay where I was confined and visible. She was my family but still a stranger. I didn’t know what to do, I was a child. But I had to take each step alone.
School was the concentration of terror and loneliness. No more best friends. Even Rachel became distant. But most of all I became distant from myself. I didn’t trust myself to know them. I became a watcher and a seeker.
I grew up as resistant as mountains although I still responded to the yearning in my mother’s eyes because she wore her jagged fear there. When I was at school or in the garden the instant she next saw me she would quest my face to see if copies of Rachel’s words had built a way into my life. I hid the fences filled with poisonous darts away from her gaze.
I kept my face fitted out with clean and simple acts of deceit to salve her desire for normality. We never spoke of the heavy words on the bridge, or in the playground, or those words that hung in the air like slaughtered beasts in the barns. We never shared things she didn’t want to know.
The Jesus who we sang about was absent in our house. Mummy cried but didn’t go to visit Him.
Daddy scowled and repeated ‘I told you so, I warned you!’
Life was reborn each day in a clean and simple smock of innocence. I was six years old and Sunday had not yet come. Then I would open my eyes and the dream would vanish.
When I entered a room too quickly and surprised Mummy I would recognise the same old shadow slipping from her eyes as she remembered and tried to understand where I, the child, was buried.
Even her best will could not protect me from my life. My portion of it was due, due to me alone. She was not a filter to my safety.
I was not in a position to forget the clear Sunday adventure into my new world. The record was in my face, in my father’s face, in my mother’s face from then until I stopped looking. Even then, when my eyes closed to the brightness of spring’s cruel birth, even then after the sharp shock had stopped stinging my face, I had no luxury. I was not in a position to forget.
I am so tired, so tired of feeling the weight of every second. It’s time to disappear.
I hid myself within myself within myself within myself like a Russian doll. I am successful at hiding from myself. I don’t recognise my true self now; I have gone so deep within.
I am to be found in the centre of granite. I leave the map to me.
My birth certificate says Mariama Nwakwaluzo. Who is she? I know Molly. I see Molly everyday but I am told that Mariama means a gift from God – to who? I ask if I can be a gift to myself. Who do I belong to? Who owns me as theirs? Who do I claim as mine? Will I ever discover myself? Without me my past was invented. I can find my meaning there or make my own here in the centre of this granite.
I have missed the pleasure of belonging to someone. The advantage of ownership was stolen from me. The day will not be created that makes me understand this theft.
Childhood passed years ago but still I cannot decipher the elusive record of my past for I am still blind. Could any missing information have saved me from now?
It took five years of living as a shadow among shadows in the university to realise that I can’t just burn my past away I must salvage it and claim the finders fee to move forwards. My training as an archaeologist proves mysteries remain in stone for centuries. I search deeply to uncover time and remove ancient power from the stones. The silence of now helps to carry the true memory forward. The mystery of myself is less of a mystery now. I am a stoneshaper.
Gently brushing the dust away I sit back on my heels and reflect; the scars from the stones look like tribal signs. We have all been in a battle and are marked.
It’s not what was meant that matters, it’s what was done – that’s what matters. There is no greater truth than appearance; I wonder if Oscar Wilde knew this truth as he was set in his harbour of stones.
My whole existence is like a watermark, visible and distinguished. I feel right, not wrong.
I have sat at the desk and I watch the Sunday morning grow before me. In front of me lie the doodles of my black ink, they are instructions to myself, to be deciphered from within; they are directions from myself before I knew myself.
Rocks and branches populate the paper giving it a black edge.
It’s time to write a letter to my mother.
This story is also available as a part of an anthology: Life in the Cracks