By JL Higgs
The sound of children’s voices in the salt sea air was what drew Geri toward the window overlooking the park. Easing between the paintings, drawings, and sculptures crammed into her 2nd floor studio, she halted in front of the slightly open window. Across the street, children in colorful protective winter clothing dotted the hill that ended at a baseball field. The prior evening’s snow was an exceptionally rare event on the island. School had been canceled. So, a group of children were sledding. As some trudged up the hill towing their sleek molded plastic sleds and donut shaped snow tubes, others cheered those racing down it.
Today was Geri’s first day back in her studio since the accident. She’d arrived just after daybreak. As she walked to the studio there’d been a silent stillness in the air. In the dawning light, the park lay tranquil beneath a smooth blanket of unblemished snow. The corner fire station, normally brimming with activity was quiet. As if deserted. Everything appeared frozen in time, awaiting the new day.
Except for her years at college, the island seaport town had always been Geri’s home. Originally, she hadn’t intended to return, but familiarity and a powerful sense of personal loss had made her alter her plans.
While she was at college, Nadine, Geri’s mother, had died. She had been driving home after a night out clubbing when her convertible rolled over on a dangerous hairpin curve. Nadine’s death had been the final tragedy in her tempestuous life. Light-skinned enough to have passed for white in the predominately black town, Nadine was a seductive beauty who exuded a mesmerizing sexuality. Pregnant with Geri, she’d dropped out of high school two months shy of graduation. Unfortunately, giving birth to a child completely unlike herself had resulted in a lasting friction between mother and her copper skin colored, plain looking daughter.
Life with Nadine had included a parade of boyfriends moving in with her and Geri, then out. The succession of unstable relationships had resulted in Geri growing up without anything resembling true parental involvement or supervision. Desperate for some form of human connection, Geri sometimes asked about her father. But Nadine always answered her daughter’s inquiries with silence.
Alone and seemingly isolated, Geri escaped into a world of her own. She created spectacular Jackson Pollock like paintings in explosive dazzling colors. Ultimately, her artwork garnered enough local attention that she was awarded a college scholarship. So, given the opportunity to escape the island and reinvent herself, Geri left for college full of optimism.
“And what is that!” Professor Wrightman had blurted, a horrified look on his face as he stared at Geri’s painting.
“Well, I thought…”
“Don’t think! Christ, why are you here?”
“Well I, well I.. is that the full extent of your vocabulary? That,” he said, pointing at her painting, “is the absolute worst thing ever produced in my class.”
Geri had run from the classroom in tears, only to realize she’d left her backpack behind. Finally, when the dismissal bell had rung, she’d made her way back to the classroom. As she reached the door, it had swung open revealing Professor Wrightman, her backpack dangling from his hand.
“Being an artist requires the capability to handle criticism, even rejection,” he said. “If you lack the stomach for it, you’d best get out now.”
Avoiding his eyes, Geri took hold of the backpack’s straps and started to step away.
“Goodness,” said Professor Wrightman, holding firmly to the backpack. “Your hands.”
“Yes. While there’s absolutely no hope you’ll ever be a successful painter. Your hands… why… they’re amazing.”
Looking at her hands as if noticing them for the first time, Geri shrugged.
“Have you ever considered being a hand model?” he asked.
“Is there really such a thing?”
“Of course, there is,” he responded. “A friend of mine is looking for a hand model for print advertising. You’d be perfect. Come by my office tomorrow afternoon and I’ll give you his card.”
The referral had been fortuitous. The money Geri received for hand modeling, along with a work study job, and her scholarship helped defray the cost of her college education. While Geri remained grateful for the money, it did not alleviate the shame she felt every time she saw her hands lightened to appear white in the newspaper and magazine advertisements.
Looking out her studio’s window, Geri adjusted her wire-framed glasses and twisted a ringlet of her ear lobe length black hair around her finger. A sudden flash caught her eye. As Marie’s crystal star ornament slowly turned in the window, it floated a kaleidoscope of colors across the white walls of the studio, calling to mind their first meeting.
Geri had just finished stacking a tray full of trash onto the college dining hall cart and wheeled the cart into the kitchen when she felt a tap on her shoulder.
In a lilting patois, a tall thin girl who resembled Grace Jones said, “Hello. My name is Marie.”
In the animated conversation that had followed, Geri learned Marie was a pre-med student. She also learned Marie was from Haiti and her lifelong goal was to open a children’s clinic there. After mentioning her major, Geri had touched upon her fledgling career as a hand model. Marie had then suddenly grabbed the kitchen’s long armed high pressure sprayer and started rinsing the dishes and feeding them into the industrial sized stainless steel dishwasher.
“You must take care of your hands,” she said. “I do the dishes.”
As Geri protested, Marie held up a hand. “In my country, we believe things happen for a reason. Why else we two black girls meet here at this school and be in this kitchen together?”
Over the following weeks, Geri found herself drawn to Marie’s effervescent personality, uninhibitedness, and stories of her “magical island.” Feeling she’d found a soul mate, Geri asked Marie to room with her. Following negotiations with their existing roommates, the “island girls”, as Marie called the two of them, moved in together.
Geri’s reminiscence was halted by the lingering odor of kerosene still in the studio. The accident. She squeezed around a life-sized bronze sculpture of an origami style crane and walked over to the mahogany bookcase. There, she turned on the radio, unleashing the melancholy tones of an oboe soaring above orchestral strings. She reached in among the shelves of unused tin, stones, rusted bronze and iron and uncorked a small earthenware jug of eucalyptus oil. The smell of the oil and the salt sea breeze blended, expunging that remnant of the accident.
Geri took a deep breath, gathered herself, and looked at the charred section of the wood floor. Images from the accident flooded her mind. She’d just opened her eyes and lifted her hands off the block of marble. She’d been admiring the phoenix freed from within it when she tripped over a salvaged piece of driftwood lying on the floor. Unable to catch her balance, she’d fallen backward, knocking over the kerosene heater.
Its flame had ignited the fuel spilled on the floor. Scrambling to her feet and grabbing her parka, Geri had tossed the coat over the flames and stomped until they were out. Only then did she become aware of the ripped open and seared flesh of her hands. Each beat of her heart drove a knifing pain through her swelling hands as the burning sensation within her fingers made them feel as if they’d burst.
For days following the fire, Geri remained in her apartment.
She kept her hands wrapped in a towel full of ice to relieve the debilitating pain. Gradually, the swelling in her fingers declined, but her hands remained blistered, shredded and raw. So, hoping they would eventually heal, she coated them with aloe.
Unable to sculpt, Geri began taking long walks. She’d wander past the fire station and to the park, where she’d forge her way up the hill and into the woods. Amid the sound of the wind rustling the needles of the pine trees, she longed to talk with Marie.
But during a semester break, she had perished in a devastating earthquake that struck Haiti. Now, all Geri possessed of her soul mate was the crystal star and piece of coral she’d received as a Christmas present. The package containing them had been awaiting her when she returned to school. Staring at her friend’s empty bed, Geri had unwrapped Marie’s gift with tears streaming down her face.
Merry Christmas from my beautiful and magical island!
The coral is from a beach near my home. The crystal is sister with one that will hang in my clinic.
Miss you. See you soon.
Geri’s hands closed around the delicate four-pointed star. After holding it for a few moments, she laid it down and picked up the coral. Closing her eyes, she envisioned Marie’s bright smile. As she relaxed, the image began to slowly transform. When it finally stabilized, she beheld a breathtakingly beautiful aqua blue ocean and a sparkling sandy beach. Flitting along the beach was a single sandpiper. As it repeatedly jabbed its needle pointed beak into the sand, its twig-like footprints were erased by each incoming wave. Enwrapped in a feeling of inner peacefulness, Geri had opened her eyes. In her hands, she held a tiny coral sandpiper.
Now, with no visible evidence of injury to her hands remaining, Geri selected a crumpled piece of tin from the bottom shelf of the bookcase. She placed it on her work table, took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and gently laid her hands on the tin. Nothing. She replaced the tin with an oddly shaped stone and repeated the transfiguring process as she’d performed countless times in the past, but the results remained unchanged. With her pulse quickening, Geri tried one material after another, until, with her hands shaking and fighting tears, she flung a piece of iron across the room where it smashed into a wooden gryphon.
Storming through the chaotic assemblage in the studio, Geri knocked aside the sculptures and paintings in her path. Her hand grazed the crystal star as she grabbed her jacket before thundering out the door.
Feeling the sudden sensation of cold air on her skin, she stopped to put on her jacket. Across the street, atop the hill, a small boy was sliding a snow tube into position at the start of the downhill run carved in the snow.
“C’mon, you baby,” yelled someone as the boy hesitated.
“You’re not gonna do it!”
He pushed off. Cheers and screams greeted the tube’s descent as it raced down the slope. Midway, it struck a bump the children had built into the hill and soared into the air. After what seemed an eternity, it smacked to earth with a bone-rattling impact and rocketed across the snow field. Hurtling along at tremendous speed, it crashed into one of the ball field’s outfield fence posts and the boy’s body cartwheeled through the air.
The children along both sides of the slope tried to run to the boy, but their bulky snowsuits and heavy boots hampered them. Geri, being closest to the base of the hill, reached the body lying face down in the snow first. She flipped the boy over, only to see blood everywhere.
“Get help,” she screamed, cradling his body against hers.
Some of the older boys reacted by going in search of help. The other children remained frozen in place, staring wide-eyed as blood poured from the boy’s head.
As Geri pressed down upon the wound, blood bubbled between her fingers and the boy’s breathing grew shallower. Desperate and lacking any sense of awareness, she pressed with every ounce of her being.
“Hey lady,” said one of the kids, drawing Geri out of her trance like state.
Eyes, following the girl’s finger to the boy’s face, Geri saw his eyes were open and filled with confusion.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“My head hurts,” he mumbled, trying to sit up.
“Wait,” said Geri, holding him fast. Sticking her right hand in the snow, she swirled it around, clearing off blood.
“Give me your scarf,” she said, reaching toward one of the girls. In response, the girl quickly unwound her scarf and handed it to Geri. Geri rubbed the scarf in clean snow and began wiping the boy’s face. As she removed blood, she searched for the wound. Finished with his face, she started in on his hair, while continuing her search.
“How do you feel?” she asked, helping him to a sitting position.
“Are you sure?”
“My God! What happened?” asked the man suddenly appearing over her shoulder. He knelt down in his firemen’s boots and began pawing at the small boy.
“Ow. That hurts,” said the boy, batting at the man’s hands. “Stop it Dad.”
“We need to find the cut,” replied the man, continuing to search. “Did you find it?”
“No,” said Geri.
“All this blood… it’s got to be in his hair,” said the boy’s father, still probing with his fingers. “We better get you checked out, Billy. I can’t find it. Can you walk or do you need me to carry you?”
“But I want to sled,” said the boy.
“Your sledding for today is over, little man. Let’s go.”
Taking ahold of his father’s solid arm, the boy got to his feet. Geri stood up as well.
“Thank you,” said the man. “We’re lucky you were here.”
“I work across the street,” replied Geri, nodding in the direction of her studio.
“Yeah. Well. Thanks.” He shook her hand. “Aren’t you going to thank the lady?” he asked his son.
Geri watched as the small boy and his father walked away. The man continued searching for the cut in his son’s head while muttering to himself about all of the blood. The other children, having retrieved their sledding gear, had resumed sledding. Geri cupped her hands, blew into them, and rubbed them together. She paused, looking up at her studio, then turned homeward.
J L Higgs’ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. He has been published in various magazines such as Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, and Literally Stories.
He and his wife currently reside outside of Boston as do their son and daughter.