Mrs. Anne’s home was like a museum. Everything I would pick up had a story. “Where did you get this hairbrush from, Mrs. Anne?” I’d ask.
“That was Big Mom’s, my mother, and it sat on her dresser when I was a girl,” my grandma would say.
“And now I’m the girl,” I’d add to the story, gliding my finger across the brush that was a shade between blue and gray.
Sometimes my grandma would let me play dress up in her closet. It was a place for dreaming with your eyes wide open. “Every dress, hat, and handbag has a past, Maddie,” she’d say. “And when the time is right, they’ll be yours to own.” She opened the door to a world of fantasy held in an armoire.
A striped aquamarine and white dress that looked like it was made for a princess. A black dress as skinny as a water hose hung next to a red kimono, draped over other hidden treasures I couldn’t wait to discover. “I know what you’re eye’n.” Mrs. Anne observed with a smirk. I ran to yank the kimono off of the satin hanger. As Mrs. Anne helped to put it on, the phone rang. She left me to the rest and took the call in the next room.
The kimono was so oversized that it wrapped around me twice and then some. I could hear what she’d say if she was still in the room, “Maddie, you’re swallowed in memories and love.” I beamed with honor, and recalled the stories she had told me of our heritage. Mrs. Anne was Chinese and African-American. Her mom was from Arkansas, and her dad was from Hong Kong. Somehow their paths crossed in St. Louis where they fell in love. She’d tell me stories of how I descended from two groups of people who were the first to leave genetic footprints on the world, Africa and Asia. “Being the first doesn’t prevent cruelty,” she’d say, “for both countries experienced invasion and mistreatment.” My thoughts of their story swirled in chaos, so fast that my head started to ache, twisting and turning ideas into knots. My string of thoughts collided, and when they crashed, I was no longer in Mrs. Anne’s closet. I was standing at the edge of a mountain that had to be over a thousand feet high.
I was too scared to look down at first, so I slowly stepped back until my heart no longer tried to jump out of my chest. Where was Mrs. Anne? Where was I? I needed to find a trace of something familiar. I got the nerve to look past my immediate surroundings without moving a single limb. Down below was a harbor and fishing boats with the most vivid red sails. Colors blended together like a rainbow, and I couldn’t make out the body of water in front of me. A black and blue butterfly with stripes like the royal dress in Mrs. Anne’s closet fluttered by. I followed. It led to a path that curved around the mountain, probably used like an elevator to take you up or down. I crossed over to an enormous white house in the distance. Maybe someone there could help me get back to my grandma.
Several arched windows lined the white home. A girl who looked about my age sat under a cotton tree with a book. She didn’t move when I walked towards her, just stared like a frozen sculpture. She had eyes like my grandmother with hair cut straight as a line to her shoulders. I knelt beside her and blurted, “hi.” She hesitated, then exhaled a sigh. I extended my finger towards the house. “Do you live there?” “Lin,” she said pointing to herself. “Maddie,” I responded, imitating her movements.
Just then, a man in a navy-blue uniform slammed the side door to exit. He didn’t look like Lin. He had red hair and skin as pale as the house he exited. After a few steps, he yelled, barmy bloke! A man in a white apron, the kind a cook wears hurried out, bowing to the soldier’s black boots. The soldier’s tirade was like the howling of a wolf, and though I couldn’t see the details of his face, I was sure it wore a glare. The same as the medals pinned to his uniform from the blazing sun. He backed the cook against the wall. When he was close enough to hover over him with a raised fist, Lin screamed, ting! Her words may have stopped the cook from harm, but the soldier’s anger turned towards us. I didn’t understand their language, but I could infer the cook’s meaning when he yelled, pao! Lin ran towards the trolley path, and I followed. In the distance I could see Lin’s destination; a trolley stopped on the side of the road to pick up passengers headed to the lower peak. Lin ran faster than anyone I had ever seen, and I couldn’t catch up. So, I stopped. I felt a tug at my left ponytail and fell back towards the force. It was the soldier. Before I could think of a plan to escape, my bottom scuffed the ground and my head followed. My thoughts began to spin again, and my eyes opened to a different setting. I was at Mrs. Anne’s.
“You alright honey? I heard a hard thud, like you fell.” I could see the concern in Mrs. Anne’s eyes because she saw the fear in mine. I was still shaken up from the soldier and the distant land with people who seemed familiar to me.
“Did your daddy have a sister? I asked, smearing tears across my face.
“He did. Her name was Lin.”
“I think I met her in my dream.”
“I’m sure you did,” Mrs. Anne laughed. I didn’t care if she believed me. I was just grateful to be in her arms, swallowed in memories and love.
Blue Tiger Butterfly/Tirumala limniace is found in South Asia and Southeast Asia. Its wings are black with blue markings.
Pao: (頓契, 獵契, 텝, 쒔檀, 굴텝, 텝꼍) run
Tíng: (界) stop
Victoria Peak: A hill on the western half of Hong Kong Island that rises 1,810 feet.
Victoria Harbor: A natural landform harbor separating Hong Kong Island in the south from the Kowloon Peninsula to the north.
By Melissa Harris, multiracial (Chinese, Irish, and African American), English teacher, Illinois.
Illustration by Melissa’s daughter, Madeline Harris, a budding artist, age 11.