Everyone washes too much in this country. They wash their babies too much, as well. The babies don’t smell of milk and waste but perfume and powder. At the day-care center where I work, some parents back away from me because I smell like a real person. The babies like my smell. I can tell this by the way they cling to my breasts, poking at the mended cloth on my shirt.
Two women together are raising one of my baby girls, Jenna. They don’t back away from me. At Christmas they brought me earrings like they wear, with dangling purple and turquoise beads. The one who nurses the baby put them in my ears, her face very close to mine. I wanted to say that the earrings weren’t necessary, but I didn’t. It’s hard to know how much I can say to parents, even as they embrace me with their hugs.
I wear the earrings in the room I rent and find reasons to pass the mirror often. At the center, the babies would pull the earrings, and some of the other teachers would be jealous. My mirror told me not so long ago that I’ll never have children of my own. For a while, I had deceived myself into believing that time was waiting for me, but all of a sudden, in the mirror that day, I realized that time had grown impatient and wouldn’t wait anymore. But I’m a woman with many babies to care for, and I say to my mirror now: Look at my earrings.
I am very dark: my face is like a plum-colored stone in black water. At first, when people asked me where I was from, I would tell them the name of my true home. Then they would say, “Ohhh,” and look at me as if they’d just heard the whole book of me. But they knew nothing because they didn’t know the hill I lived on until I was seventeen years old. They didn’t know my three uncles who ruled that hill or the cousins who played with me, tortured me, betrayed me. So now I never answer the question that way. I say, “Boston,” because that’s where I am living, and I dare them to question or contradict me. Or if I’m feeling mischief in my blood, I say, “Guess,” and then listen to a list of water-bound places — Haiti, St. Lucia, Martinique, the Sea Islands. But I always manage to be called away or distracted before I must tell them anything.
From the window in the baby room, I can see the center’s playground. Sometimes I watch the older children run and climb. Part of me still believes that boys shouldn’t climb trees. On our hill, if a young boy goes up in a tree, his boy part might be pulled off by the tree. It may become a new branch or, if the part is very small, a knot on an old branch. The knots and branches make the trees easier for girls to climb. Girls should climb trees, to build up their strength for the time when they must climb tall trees with their babies. Older boys who climb trees may grow up to be men who take other men inside them, like my brother. My mother caught him climbing a tree when he was eleven. After that, she let his hair grow long and braided it just like mine.
When my brother was sixteen, a Frenchman came to our land for a vacation and climbed many hills until he finally reached ours. The man gave my brother love for a day. When the man left that night, my brother went with him. My brother was happy for a long while in France. Once, he sent me a box full of corks from wine bottles. I buried the box in the ground so that I wouldn’t have to share the corks with my cousins. The day before I left our hill, I unearthed the box and packed the corks in my traveling bag. I believed the corks would help the boat stay afloat.
Eight years ago, my brother followed me to Boston. The Frenchman had died, and his family had given my brother nothing. My brother stayed in France for a while and picked grapes for money. Then he became too sick with the virus to work. He drank a lot of wine — because it was cheap, he said. He spent the last of the money he’d saved on the ticket to Boston. When he got off the plane, I thought he was wearing lipstick, the wine had stained his lips so deeply.
My brother didn’t come to Boston just because of me. He came because he had heard it was a good place to die. He had heard that there were many doctors here to ease the journey and that they gave you a room in a tall building — so close to heaven you couldn’t fail to get in, he said. (My brother could be a big amen type.) But the doctors he found didn’t want to help him die; they wanted to keep him alive. Even so, no one who tended him would touch his skin with theirs. They always wore gloves to touch his pulse, his fever, his many pains. Then one day, they gave up and sent him away. A doctor said it was because my brother kept losing weight despite everything. He made it sound as if my brother were ungrateful.
Maybe the doctors thought my brother would come to me or go back to our hill to die. Instead, my brother went to a hotel by the harbor. In a room on a high floor, he drank two bottles of wine and died. I found him. He had left the door unlocked for me. I called for an ambulance like the people on television do. Then I went into the hall and talked to a woman with a cleaning cart. She had hair like mine and told a little of her book in the old language. She was from a hill close to my own. Suddenly, I felt that my brother and I belonged in this hotel.
The woman found some bleach for me. With it, I wiped my brother’s lips clean of the wine while she prayed for him. I didn’t want the medics who took him away to see his red lips and think he was a woman. He was not; he was a man who took men inside him, a very brave thing — something that women, I think, would not do if it weren’t the way to get children.
After my brother died, I took out the corks he had sent me when I was a girl and brought them to the day-care center where I worked (not the one where I work now). All my babies there had white skin. I burned the ends of the corks with matches, let them cool, and then colored the babies’ faces with the charred ends. I sat all the babies in a row. I liked seeing all their familiar eyes shining out of new, dark faces. The other teacher in the room let me do it, but then reported me after I went home that day. The director called me that night and told me not to come back. She said I should take some time to get over my brother’s death. A few days later, I went to work at a new center.
They’re always after me to put the babies down on the floor at this center. They say holding them so much isn’t good for them. They say the babies won’t develop, won’t become aggressive, won’t be able to reach for all the things they need to reach for in life. I think that babies also need to learn how to touch someone, to feel another body as part of them, to know trust. Still, I keep the floors clean and keep my job. Jenna’s mothers told me in private that they’re glad I have held their daughter so much.
On our hill, babies are carried until it is certain they’re ready to walk. Then the mother takes the baby to a tall tree, wraps the baby in a cloth, and ties it to her back. The mother climbs the tree as high as she can and sits with the baby and shows the baby all the places he might walk to: beyond the hill to more hills, richer hills, harder hills, hills that may be just like ours once you go there. And she tells the baby of the sea that is beyond the hills. Many mothers wish their children away to a better life, while the men want to keep their children close and hard-working. Who’s to know what’s best?
I have worked hard ever since I came to Boston, and always I send money to my people on the hill. After so many years away, I’m still trying to fill a jar that I can’t see. My mother is dead, and the faces of the rest of my family fade in my memory. I write their names on the papers to wire them money, but I don’t feel their claim to me in my blood anymore.
Sometimes in my dreams, I’ll see the face of my teacher from the school on our hill. She is reading a book about wars and plagues. My brother sits with me on a bench and tries to mouth the strange words along with her. The book she reads from was the only one in the school, and we were never allowed to touch it. The teacher told us that the whole world was in that book, but we never heard anything about us.
My second uncle, who’s still alive, became a bitter man after he saw the picture his daughter sent to him, of herself in New York. She was in a dress of green satin with a man in a green suit. The man was kissing her cheek. My uncle had never seen a dress so bright and shiny. “Like green gold,” he said. Late one night, he took the clothes she had left behind from the box beneath his bed and burned them underneath the biggest tree on our hill. It was the best tree for mothers to climb with their babies.
When the people of the hill woke up, they wept to see that the tree had burned, too. The women ran around, picking leaves from the fallen branches of the burned tree. These leaves would be saved and placed in glass jars. The women would put the jars by the heads of their sleeping daughters every night.
The day after the fire, my uncle was found in an old charcoal pit. He was dead drunk and wrapped in a blanket of his daughter’s. The family left him there for days. Then a heavy rain threatened to fill the pit and drown the sorry man, so they pulled him out.
My mother had a jar of leaves for me, even though the tree had burned before I was born. As a little girl I often heard the book of the fire. Then, when I was six, someone stole the leaves that my mother had saved for me. It was probably my next-oldest cousin: she hadn’t been careful with her own leaves. She was always taking them out and putting them in her hair, and the edges of the dry leaves crumbled with each touch and blew away. After my leaves were gone, my cousin stopped putting leaves in her hair and kept her jar hidden from everyone.
My mother still put my jar by my sleeping place until the day I left our hill. She was doing her best for me, but I think that the empty jar was worse than nothing.
When I started at this center, I cared for toddlers, not babies. The other teacher in the room was young and moved too fast, like a cat under the full moon. She couldn’t get the children to behave. I knew the director had hired me to make the children behave. When I wasn’t cleaning up after them, I’d just stand still and watch them, and the children would behave. Many would lean against my legs to feel my stillness.
In my second week of work, a new boy was enrolled at the center and put in my room. He was a little more than two years old. The boy had been placed in a foster home with two men. Other staff whispered about the two men, but our director liked them and said we should work with these men to make a family for the boy. I knew that the men were like my brother and his Frenchman. I was glad that they had found a way to have a child.
The foster boy had many scars on his body. He didn’t speak, but pointed at what he wanted. The first time he curled up in my lap and rubbed his face against me, his long yellow hair stood up, drawn by static to my braids. It took only a few minutes for love, like that current of electricity, to run between us.
Then a neighbor of the two men reported them to the newspaper. He didn’t approve of their being allowed to have a child. Soon it seemed that everyone in the city was talking about the foster boy, though no one could use his name, because of the law. Even the governor spoke about the boy. I remember all the talk: a loud book with nonsense words and no title.
A week after the neighbor made his report, agents from the government came to the center and took the boy from the playground. One of the agents lifted him from the sandbox and carried him away. The director had to call the foster fathers and tell them what had happened. They never saw the boy again.
Everyone who worked at the center was very angry, even the ones who hadn’t approved at first. By now, we had made a family for the boy. The director gave us buttons to wear: pink triangles on a black background. Some parents wore them, too. I didn’t know what the triangle meant at first, but I knew its power. Shapes and symbols have the power to call people together, like a finger finding the page in everyone’s book that speaks of hurt and rage. The cross my brother wore, a leaf from the tree, a pink triangle. I wish I had known about the triangle before my brother died. I would have painted one on his wasting body and made everyone at the hospital touch it with their bare hands.
Before the agents came and took him that day, the foster boy had made hand prints with me. We had dipped his hands in green paint and then pressed them onto paper. I will always see his hands reaching out for me as the agent carried him away, the green paint still under his nails, like green gold scratched out of the earth. I stood there with curses thundering in my head, but my mouth kept silent.
I stole the papers with his hand prints and took them home with me. I knew that it was wrong, that the foster fathers would have wanted them.
Working at this center is like having a family, but not the way the director is always saying. She writes memos to the teachers about caring and cooperation. She makes us hold hands and sing together at staff meetings. But for me the center is something I belong to without a choice, like belonging to your family, your hill. To belong to nothing would be like sailing the sea in a boat that never finds land.
Every day at the center, I think about my brother. Whenever I put on the gloves to change a baby, the way the government agent who comes to the center says I must, I think of him. Whenever I spray the bleach solution on the pad after I change the baby, so that no one should have to smell the waste or touch the germs, I think of my brother’s lips and the taste of bleach when I kissed him goodbye. Sometimes as I wipe the pad, my blood is so thinned by regret that I think I may faint.
This week, Jenna began to walk. There would be trouble if I took her up into a tree. Besides, I don’t know what I would show her. So I brought her to the toddler room for a visit instead. The rocking chair where I used to hold the foster boy is in that room. No one else who knows his book is still working at the center. I am the only one left who can tell it. I told it to Jenna as I walked with her around the room. I left out the part where I steal the green hand prints. I still have them. They’re hidden under my bed, like leaves.