MY MOTHER KILLED him on the Tuesday after I turned ten. I had come between them when he was beating her, and then he’d suddenly turned on me. He was slapping me and ripping at my clothes. He said words I didn’t understand. I knew from the look on my mother’s face as she tore me away that something was over and something was begun. My mother and I began to pray, but we prayed for a bad thing, and I wondered if God would welcome us when we stood before him, or if he would turn us out when the time came to face up to who we had been in our lifetimes and what we deserved in the hereafter.
One morning we went out to the fish market. We passed by stands of flounder and piles of mussels dredged from the bay. My mother wasn’t there to buy fish. She was thinking about another dish entirely. She turned down an alley where there were factories. The air was acrid. She was so beautiful that men were drawn to her, despite the plain way she dressed. They spoke to my mother and made offers I didn’t understand. She didn’t answer. She sat me down on a bench and told me not to move. Even if it became night, even if the morning broke through the sky, I was to stay exactly where I was. She gave me a bundle of my clothes and a satchel with some cheese and bread. She said I was to give my name as Sara Book if anyone asked, and to say I was from Manchester, England. That was where her grandmother had been from, and Book had been her grandmother’s maiden name. It was still the truth even though the facts were stretched out like the muslin we used for our needlepoint samplers. She said that whatever happened next she would come back for me. She would always be there when I needed her. I believed her. But I was afraid she might be the one who would need me. How would I know if I stayed on the bench? How could I come to her aid?
When she turned to go I followed her.
The streets in Brooklyn were funny and curved. Some of the sidewalks were made of wooden planks that were slippery when it rained. I kept thinking about the elephant. How she had looked at me, begging for something. I should have run to her and cut the ropes that held her, but I stayed and did nothing. Now I saw the elephant whenever I closed my eyes. Her image had been imprinted inside me when the first burst of electricity went through the wires. I couldn’t think the word Topsy without getting a shiver.
It was beginning to rain, a light spring shower. The air shimmered and the sidewalks were slick. My mother stopped at a shop, then slipped inside. It was a tannery. When I peered in the window, I saw my mother speaking with one of the women who worked there. She took off the pearl brooch my father had given her in their courting days and handed it over. The woman took it between her teeth and bit down to tell if it was real gold. It was. There were boiling vats everywhere, all containing different colors of mixture. The stench of leather was terrible. I covered my mouth and nose with my hand and huffed and puffed in order to breathe. It smelled like death in there and that’s what it was.
My mother came out with the packet she had paid dearly for. It was poison. She had on her black coat even though it was a warm evening. She wore it as if it were armor, her shield and her sword. The rain washed away the horrid smell of leather. On my birthday, my mother had made me a chocolate cake with sugar frosting. She told me ten was a special year in a girl’s growing up, the year when the direction for all the rest of her life would be set. This is what ten meant to me: I would never sit on a bench and wait for what happened next. I would never look into the crowd, searching for someone to save me.
I FOLLOWED HER, but stayed in the yard when she went into our house. I peeked through the window and watched as she opened the packet and poured it into a glass. My father liked a stiff drink when he came home, to follow the ones he’d already had at whatever tavern he’d chosen that day. I sat under the mustard plant. I liked the bitter scent of mustard leaves. I looked at my legs and wondered if they looked like a woman’s legs. It was possible that my father was confused and that was why he had looked at me that way when I’d tried to stop him from hurting my mother. Maybe that was why he’d said the things I knew were bad. My mother had vowed that he couldn’t stay away from women, and perhaps he’d forgotten my true age.
I crouched there in the fading twilight. I was in the shadows and I felt safe. For a few moments I forgot about our situation. I watched an anthill where the ants were busy working away, building their house taller and stronger. Some of the first of the season’s crickets were calling when he came home. From a distance he looked like a rich man after a day’s work. My mother was sitting in a kitchen chair. She didn’t run for the root cellar or the closet. She looked calm and beautiful and quiet. That was when I knew she was going to kill him. She’d always run from him before. He went inside. He was a tornado. He did things to my mother I will not speak about, right there in the kitchen. She didn’t cry or try to protect herself. He hit her with his belt, which is why she has a line down her face. It’s the mark of that day.