I see a girl in a white angel dress, taffeta and sequins and a wand with a glittery star stuck on top. She has short brown hair and she is not me. I am the one in the gold angel dress with my tubby thighs and stupid grin. Is that me, seven years old, standing there as the car steams and croaks and leaks blood and petrol? Is the girl in the gold angel dress smiling? The man with his bleeding arm isn’t smiling, he is trying to get her to walk away from the car.
She wonders whether to wail or shriek or giggle at this scene from a film she’s not supposed to have witnessed. She should be in the car down by her mother’s feet and hidden under the Johannesburg Star lying open on her mother’s knees because she’s being smuggled into the drive-in showing a film for eighteen and overs, like the one where the hitchhikers were taken into that man’s caravan and chopped up into little pieces. Her mother hadn’t thought it would be so bad.
The girl with short brown hair and the white angel dress would never have been taken to see that film, would never be standing on the verge of a road in Crete with her father smashed into the windscreen and her mother lolling on the dash and the horrible Greek man slumped in the back seat. Only a girl with a gold dress and a stupid grin and a wand with the star too big could have caused this. Was it her dimpled knees? Her pink, fat ankles? Something about her was wrong from the beginning or was this in fact the beginning? Is she still there among the crickets and the olive trees and the wide moon waiting for her father to wake up? Or is she in England, with her mother harried and nagging, Do your homework, do your room, stop your whining. A dog, a doll, a dress, I’m not made of money, for Christ’s sake.
The girl in the gold angel dress sucked on a razor blade, wanting only the cool delight of metal against a tongue, wanting only to skip and sing, tra la la, only she slipped and cracked her eyebrow wide-open on a bathroom sink. She sloshed dish soap into her birthday Baked Alaska, she opened her mother’s lipstick and drew herself a mouth, an eye, a tooth. She caused stars to flash and burn, cakes to sink and hedgehogs to sleep. She ran her finger through candle flames, popped a marble up herself, down there, caught ringworm from a feral kitten. You’ll be the death of me, her mother said.
I’m the death of everyone, she replied. She’d inherited the carrying tones of her stout and stone-deaf grandmother who sat on the little girl’s bed while the little girl tried to sleep, flapping and crackling a newspaper that wasn’t the Johannesburg Star because it was in Greek, flapping it and flapping it because no little girl should sleep when a grandmother had just lost her son.
The girl in gold hadn’t been told she’d killed her father, but that was the moment everything changed. Or perhaps it was another moment, the one where her mother held her chubby, sand-splashed hand and opened the door and walked into the bedroom and saw her father tangled on the bed with Mary Lou, his underpants all scrunched up by his bottom, her hands in his hair.
She felt her mother’s in-breath as if it were her own. She felt the sound of her mother’s voice as it traveled down through her mother’s hand and into her scrunched and sandy palm and up her chubby arm and into her chest and down into her stomach, Get out! Get out of the house! filling her like a balloon until she thought she’d burst, the sound hot and sparking and shooting off into the air like the bangers she lit on Guy Fawkes Night even though she wasn’t allowed.
She opened her mouth and out came the cream soda and vanilla ice cream float she’d eaten while her mother smoked a Peter Stuyvesant in the café on the beach. The green and soupy river flowed down her brand-new bathing suit and onto her sandy feet. She squeezed her eyes closed, her hand still clasped by her mother’s hand, lost there, a little bunch of bones.
Was Mary Lou the first one? He slept with his secretary. He slept with her aunt Jo. Surely there were others.
Siga, siga, sings her father, slowly slowly, he sings, as he drives them all along that narrow Cretan road while his daughter puts eyes in the back of her head, the side of her head, everywhere on her body until she is studded with them, until they can’t stop looking, checking, wary and alert and exhausted even when there is nothing to look for, even when it’s just her and the poppies and thyme and the crick crick of cicadas in the night. What are the eyes looking at? Have they blinked, have they given up the ghost?
The girl with short brown hair and the white angel dress is called Kimberly and she lives in a square white house with her mother and father and her baby brother and her big sister and a tiny dog with floppy ears. Her mother taps around in high heels and a yellow apron stained with cookie dough and the aroma of cinnamon and sweetness. The girl in gold with the tubby thighs and stupid grin is called Penny but it’s not a name she wanted and nor did her mother. For some reason the name was given by her stout and stone-deaf grandmother. She was a woman liked by no one but her son perhaps, her son who’d slept with Mary Lou and all the others. She wore Crimplene and stole bread for her handbag and sugar for her pockets—I’ve been in the war you know. She filled her bedroom with newspapers and her granddaughter with chastisements, a girl who thought a razor blade tastier than a lolly.
The girl in white plays on the lawn with her baby brother and her tiny dog and goes tra la la la while the Johannesburg sun beats down and the gardener mows the Blairgowrie lawn and the cook takes a knife to artichoke hearts and the nanny folds the baby into a blanket edged with ribbon. The girl in gold sits in her damp room in the damp house in a damp village in Somerset where her body is sprouting unwelcome appendages, smells and viscous liquids. Her own dog, large and red and full of elbows, is on her lap and the girl in gold, now no longer in gold but in a green and scratchy school uniform, this girl can barely breathe with the enormity of her realization that she—she in her green and scratchy uniform—is responsible for this dog’s life.
Through her ears shuttles her grandmother’s litany, Pull up your socks, pull in your lip, don’t wear your hair like that, face too long, legs too short, mouth too wide, hair too thick, why oh why can’t you just be pretty?
And what did her father say, before he was catapulted so unexpectedly through the Ford Cortina’s windshield and into an olive tree so ancient Ariadne herself might have put her fingertips to its bark? You sit so straight, he said and turned to her mother. Sit up straight, like your daughter. Just look at her, so very straight.
The girl in white’s father is tall and smiley and he picks her up and swings her onto his shoulders. The girl in gold’s father presses his face to her mother’s face and keeps it there, pressing and pressing. It makes a sound like someone eating something wet and chewy. The girl squirms in her dress, the star on her wand droops and her tubby thighs prickle with shame.
The girl in gold’s mother smells of burned metal, she hammers and welds and in her studio is a bucket filled with sulfuric acid upon which a frog floats, its skin peeling off like a flower dropping petals. It is the servant’s, Sunday Times’s, job to scoop him out but he’s hiding under the little girl’s bed because a policeman is yelling, You Blacks better have your blerry passbooks! Sunday Times smells of tin and sour milk and his round white eyes make round white holes in the little girl’s mattress.
In Johannesburg the girl in gold wants Suzi Scott’s mother with her doll’s-house house, the table laid with an array of silver, a little cruet set and a perfect boiled egg. Darling, Suzi Scott’s mother says, darling, would you like another? In Somerset she wants Anne Pearce’s mother with her red-veined cheeks and her bird’s nest hair and the table set for high tea with cucumber sandwich triangles and slices of Victoria sponge, a pot of tea so hot and strong it makes her dizzy, a bay horse grazing in the field outside that makes her dizzier. In Crete she wants no one’s mother but her own.
The girl with short brown hair and the white angel dress just watches and says nothing. She’s never been on a ship or a plane, she’s stayed home to live in her perfect white house with her perfect pink mother and her perfect Black passbook-owning servant and her little brown dog with the floppy ears who never hurts or dies, ever.
Did the Change begin when the girl in gold weighed too little? Did it begin when she weighed too much? Or did it begin when she let her hand be taken and held while the Mediterranean shimmered and the horrible Greek man said, Say it, I’m your mermaid, say it. And when she did, still he clutched her. Say it again, say it, he said as he walked her back and forth along the edge of Chania Port while she wondered if she’d be taken to a caravan and chopped up.
There was a dark and stormy night. Is this when it started, following one sound and then another? It was just her and her mother in the house in Chania, in the house filled with her mother’s balled-up tissues and the smell of her pet hedgehog who was not dead but hibernating for a long, long time.
The shutters hammered open. Rain fell through the window and onto her sheet. Lightning exploded in the black sky. The wind yawned and hollered. She felt for her mother’s warmth, she reached out her arms but there was nothing to hold. Her feet searched for the slippers on the floor and tucked inside them because there were splinters everywhere. She padded quietly and quickly through the empty rooms. The kitchen door was ajar. From the kitchen came a sound. Relief washed through her like a soapy bath, bubbles floated happily in the air.
She pressed the door open a little more, she took a step, her slippered foot hovering before she set it down, she never set it down, for on the kitchen table was her mother and on her mother was a man she didn’t know. Not her father. He was in the car, singing siga, siga, slowly slowly, as he drove them all into the night, into the tree.
The table creaked and thumped as the man moved on top of her mother. Say it, he said to her, say it. The little girl’s foot hovered and hovered. Her legs were made of stone and a round pebble lay on her tongue.
Her mother turned and twisted and clenched her fists and opened her mouth but out did not pop a round pebble nor a happy bubble. Out popped a noise like a dog dying. The noise fell on the splintered floor, skittered to the little girl’s hovering foot, closer and closer while the little girl pressed and pulled and shook with all her might trying to get away. If you saw the girl in gold you would say nothing moved at all. You would say, that’s a statue girl, so still, so perfectly still and straight with her gold angel dress and her tubby thighs and her stupid smile and her wand with the drooping star.
Come to me little girl, come, the man said. The girl struggled and pushed and twisted and tugged and the noise of the dog dying carried on slithering, closer and closer, the sound of her mother saying, Get out, get out! The sound of a Ford Cortina folding in two, the sound of petrol dripping into earth, the sound of her mother’s head on the dash, her father’s head in the glass, the Greek man saying, I’m your mermaid, say it, say it little girl, say it to me, and she did, she did, what could else could she do? I’m your mermaid, she said, I’m your mermaid, and her foot moved, just in time, or was it too late, it’s hard to tell, she pressed herself out of the room.
Inside the little girl something else pressed, a flicking and turning but she kept on going, back to her bed beneath the clattering shutters, to the black sky wringing itself onto her sheet. She took off her slippers one by one, she pulled the sodden sheet over her head and tucked herself into a ball and that is when they blinked. They were in the back of her head, the side of her head. They blinked from her chest, they blinked between her shoulder blades she once thought were wings. They blinked from her stomach, from the small of her back, they blinked from the arch beneath her feet. They’d never slept, they’d just kept on looking, searching, checking, alert and exhausted, just in case.
The girl in gold with her tubby thighs and stupid grin waves her wand in the air. Show me you exist, she says to God. Prove to me you are there. She waves and waves, the star droops and falls and lies on the ground looking at her. She picks it up and holds it in her chubby, sand-splashed hand. She takes it home. She slides it beneath her pillow and holds on to it in the night when she hears her mother hammering metal in her studio and her father shouting, The Black Mariah is here, the Black Mariah!
Put that down, the girl in gold says, it’s dangerous. Don’t be so stupid, she says. You’ll be the death of me, she says. She rubs her thumb and forefinger against the star’s gritty surface, she waits for the morning. Night presses against her hundred eyes as they roll and turn. They never sleep. Sleep brings men who chop girls up in their caravans, sleep brings Sunday Times’s eyes cutting circles into her mattress. Sleep brings the sound of her father singing, the sound a car makes when it’s stopped making a sound, and the sound of an ancient olive tree splitting in two. Sleep brings the sound of thunder breaking, a table bumping, her mother’s dead dog noise. It brings the sound of a man saying, Come with me little girl, come.
The girl in gold keeps watch, she misses nothing for the eyes blink and circle between her shoulder blades, from the back of her head, the lobes of her ears, they blink from her stupid smile, each square tooth an eye, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, she’ll start young, she’ll start old, she’ll step into the river of Lethe, she’ll step out, she’ll pull up her socks, she’ll hear the sound, she’ll hold on to Ariadne’s string, she’ll follow it in.
She puts on her slippers, she holds on to her star, she takes one step and then another. Deeper and deeper she goes, down to the left, down to the right her tubby thighs and her dimpled knees carry her, across rivers, across continents, chasms and blue mountains and into the night. On she goes, on and on, creeping toward a pawing at the earth, toward a wet breathing, toward a roaring, toward a monstrous being shaking his great and monstrous head from side to side, trying to dislodge the tree from its horns. She can hear his heart pump, it sounds like thunder, it sounds like night, it sounds like sleep. The girl in white sings tra la la from her perfect white house and the girl in gold feels the earth shudder beneath her feet, she hears the great being scream, Don’t look, don’t look as he batters and flings himself, fire and spittle pouring from his mouth, from his bloodied and flaring nostrils. His haunches steam, his great ribcage moves out and in, his great heart pumps so hard she can see it press between the bones. He backs up, hooves digging pits into the earth and the forest behind threatens to tumble as he batters himself against one tree and then another and still she comes, step by single step until she is pressed against his hulking, trembling body. She breathes in his stink of metal, his stink of petrol and acid. In she curls, closer and closer. She takes his great hooves in her little sand-splashed hands, she puts her face to his shaggy neck, she blinks her hundred wide and staring eyes and she whispers into his trembling ears words I cannot tell you for only he can hear them, a story for a beast, a story like this.
Photo by Carole Raddato, used and adapted under CC.