Soul Stories: Safari to Mara & Aria of the Horned Toad is one of the best books I have read in a long time (To read my review on “Smoky Talks Books,” click here). I was eager to meet the author of such exquisite tales, to get to know the woman behind the stories. Here, then, is my discussion with Elizabeth Clark Stern:
Soul Stories explores two worlds: the we know with our feelings and senses—sight, scent, touch, belonging, joy, loss, renewal—and the parallel world of dreams, intuition, imagination, and the dimension of the unknown. Together these realms inform, shape, challenge, and nurture the soul.
Safari to Mara finds our heroine on the brink of womanhood in Masai society. The only daughter in a sonless family, she is drafted to do work in the modern world, yet tradition calls her to prepare for initiation as a wife. In the wilderness of her namesake, Kenya’s Masai Mara, she finds an improbable guide who leads her into the mysterious recesses of her awakening heart.
Aria of the Horned Toad begins with the dream of a horned toad crawling out of Beatrice’s eyes, “… so real I could feel his prickly little feet on my nose.” And so begins an odyssey to the source of all dreaming. Beatrice believes that in this dark and luminous place, she can find someone to fashion a dream to fix her Mama’s terrible ways and soothe the longing in her own wild spirit.
Where did you get the idea for this book?
They are separate stories, and had their genesis at very different times. Aria of the Horned Toad began in 2002, when I began journaling about the conflicts and emotions that children experience growing up with addicted parents. I am a psychotherapist, and in my work with children, I felt the depth of the struggle kids go through. In this early version, the point of view was split between the child character and the adults. I just couldn’t make it all come together, and put it on the shelf. Then, the idea for Safari to Mara happened when I had the great opportunity to go on safari in Kenya’s Masai Mara in 2007. After writing that story, I pulled out the old version of Aria and completely re-conceived it, from the child’s point of view only. The story took on a whole new life.
There is a common thread that links these two tales together. Were you aware of that when you wrote the book? Was that something you set out to accomplish when you sat down to write the book?
Ah, you know, I really write from my images, dreams, and emotions. Above all things, I want to tell a good story, and give the reader a sensate and intimate experience with the characters. If I had a goal, it would be to open up the insides of the child protagonists, so the reader really experiences what it feels like to be a child.
It’s amazing: every adult has been a child, but something seems to click off when we grow up, and we forget what being a child was like. I try so hard to keep my inner child alive, but know so many adults who not only cannot access their inner child, they are puzzled as to why they would want to. What aspects of being a child were you trying to depict in these stories?
Children are quite resilient, but they are deeply impacted by their experiences, and they want so much to love and be loved, and to embrace the adventure and joy of the world. I remember when I was ten years old, walking down the sidewalk on a summer day. I told myself I should write a novel about what it really feels like to be a child, and I should do it soon, because once I grow up, I might forget it. Soul Stories came along many decades after this, but, at its heart, it is my attempt to do this.
The setting plays such a thematic role in “Safari to Mara.” How did you research your settings?
Oh, Smoky, I have been there! Kenya’s Masai Mara is surely one of the most beautiful places on earth. I had seen documentaries, but nothing can prepare you for what it is like, to get so close to the animals. Each day was a fantastic adventure, and our guide, James, was a gentle, thoughtful Masai. I asked him questions about his life, his people, and the animals. He knew so much. “I was born in this country, Elizabeth!” he said.
When I got home to Seattle, I read everything I could find about the Masai, notably Tepilit Ole Saitoti’s beautiful book, Maasai. And while I was on safari, I kept a journal of my impressions and recorded everything James told me. I find when I’m researching a topic, the Universe brings me all kinds of information—probably what was there all along, in terms of images, movies, books, news items—I just notice it more acutely. That is one of the wonderful things about writing. By bringing a world to life, you learn it in your bones. I honestly feel like I have lived in a Masai village, even though I am a Seattle gal who grew up in Texas!
You created such a fabulous, believable fantasy world in Aria of the Horned Toad. Do you read a lot of fantasy? How did you create this world?
I discovered The Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland, and other classic stories as a child. I was aware of how important it was to me to crawl into the wonder and comfort of a story when things weren’t happy at home. In creating the fantasy world for Aria, I just relaxed into Beatrice’s imagination, and let her take me there. I wrote down my dreams, and just let it unfold. I was constantly surprised at what came out. I laughed out loud at my computer! In writing both stories, I really had the feeling of “taking dictation” from my creative mind. I did plenty of revising and honing, to be sure, but the really wonderful fantasy images came forth from the depths “unbidden.”
Do you have a favorite character in these two tales? Which one, and why?
I love Mara and Lo Lo from Safari to Mara. At its heart, it is a love story between a little girl and her rescued baby zebra, and I felt such a surge of love in the whole process of writing it. I remember waking in the middle of the night and peering out at the moon, and feeling what it was like for Mara and Lo Lo to wander the dangerous, luminous landscape of the Masai Mara at night. I would think, “In Africa, they see the same moon that I do.” As the story unfolded, and they worked through all the twists and tugs of relationship—the trusting, not trusting, the fear of rejection, the longing to care for something outside yourself—I came to love both of them, and to rejoice that they ultimately discovered the magic of relationship, in spite of everything.
In Aria, I must say I love the outrageousness of the retired pastry chef, Reginald Sublime. I had never written such an over-the-top character, and it was such a hoot! And, of course, I adore the three kids in Aria;the competition and humor between Reese and Beatrice rings true.
Have you written other books? If so, tell me a little bit about them.
I come to creative writing from the theater. My play, Out of the Shadows, was published in 2010 by Genoa House, a division of Fisher King Press. The publication follows a performance of the play at the International Jungian Congress in Cape Town, South Africa in 2007.
As a child I took classes in children’s theater at the Dallas Theater Center. I loved to act and to write plays. When I was eleven, I wrote a Greek tragedy. We performed it with the kids in the neighborhood. I kept writing, and in my twenties, was lucky enough to write a play, All I Could See From Where I Stood, that was produced on National PBS. This was the story of a teenage girl emancipating from her alcoholic mother. After that I wrote for television and films under my maiden name, Elizabeth Clark. During those years I worked on novels, but never seemed to finish them before I had to go back to writing TV to make a living.
You having written for television explains why you do such an excellent job of writing stories. In both stories in Soul Stories, ever word counts. There is no sense you’re writing anything to pad the stories; every word has power.
Yes, I learned a great deal in the Hollywood years—mostly about story structure, tempo, scene development—but especially in writing for episodic television, you are always trying to capture someone else’s character and voice. I always wanted to write my own novels, with my own voice. You can’t imagine what it means, to see Soul Stories in print.
Well, actually I can, seeing as I have published six books myself! It’s a wonderful feeling, no doubt. But to continue on with our discussion, what do you think is the most important thing for your book to accomplish: to entertain, to educate, to instill moral values, or to enlighten? Why?
I want to touch the world, to move people. To give child and adult readers a glimpse of a larger world, both in the exterior reality, and deep within themselves. To portray characters who go though some very hard challenges, but find the confidence to fight for what they love, and the inspiration to claim their own joy and destiny. I guess you could call this “enlightenment,” or a liberation from all the complicated pressures of our lives, to be a certain way, to conform to some imagined “norm,” when our job as humans is to discover our uniqueness, love ourselves and others, and chart our own path.
What inspires you?
So many things. Stories of courage : those Egyptian women who said, “Tyranny be damned!” and made their voices known in the Arab Spring. And, I am blessed, as a therapist, to hear stories every day of great courage: children who have to testify in court against their abuser; people who summon the courage to say, “I love you,” to a new love; an older person facing a terrifying illness, yet finding inner resources to walk that path. (These are general examples, not actual stories of folks in my practice. That is confidential.)
I am also inspired by great artists. I just saw a marvelous documentary about the great dance master, Paul Taylor, a former foster child, who creates wondrous dances of the alienation, yet resilience of human love. I find inspiration in nature, the afternoon sunlight through the trees in an old growth forest. I am inspired by very ordinary moments: a child laughing, a woman talking in a café with passionate conviction, an old man giving his time to teach a child to read. I see it everywhere.
Let’s talk about you instead of your books for a moment. What made you choose to become a writer? Was it a favorite book, and if so, what? A favorite teacher? If you couldn’t write, what would you be doing to express your creative self?
I am a reader, and at some point, I thought, “I can do that,” and started writing. I still read, and still find the arrogance, or ideally, the confidence to think, “I can do that too.” I really have no one favorite book. I love the classics, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables; To Kill a Mockingbird, and Spring is not Spring if I don’t get out my old childhood copy of Wind in the Willows and read the description of Mole coming out of the darkness into the glory of the English countryside.
In elementary school I had two wonderful drama teachers at the Dallas Theater Center, Mona Stiles and Sally Netzel. In middle school, I had a great art teacher, Betty White. My first playwriting teacher in college, Eugene McKinney, was such an inspiration. And most recently, my wonderful freelance editor/writing coach, Esther Hershenhorn. She was invaluable in guiding my revisions toward narrative integrity. What these great teachers had in common was their ability to nurture me, while holding my feet to the fire, and letting me tell my own story. They all had a great sense of humor, and communicated a sense of the irony of life—an unpredictable mixture of comedy and tragedy.
If I couldn’t write, I would act and dance and paint, and since I do all those things anyway, I would just do them more. If I were struck dumb and blind and couldn’t use my limbs, I would listen to music: the classics—Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Schubert, Vivaldi, Shostakovitch, etc.
Other than your own book, what is your favorite work of fiction, and why?
I would have to say Les Miserables. It has the depth of feeling, the scope, the compassion that has made it resonate through the ages. And Victor Hugo’s writing is so fluid, so alive, the characters fly right off the page and into your own heart. He evokes such feeling, and I want to have a complete, intimate emotional experience with fiction.
Where, and when, do you write? What are your writing rituals?
The birds are my alarm. I wake quite early to the rufus sided-towhee in the holly tree outside my window. I have my ritual oats, nuts, and fruit for breakfast, and take my pot of Jasmine green tea to my computer. I write from approximately 5:30 am to whenever I begin my work as a therapist for the day. My office is in my home, so it is a quick few steps, a moment of meditation, and my work with other people, and their stories begins. On the weekends, I write longer, hopefully grabbing about four hours each morning. It is a full wonderful life. I am truly blessed.
What do you do when you aren’t writing?
When I’m not writing or working my therapy practice, I am walking in nature, reading, playing with my daughters and granddaughter, enjoying time with my husband. We talk about everything under the sun and laugh a lot about the state of the world. He is a yoga teacher, working now in senior homes. He is very inspiring to his students. Sometimes we meditate together, or catch a documentary at a movie theater. I am so fortunate to have such love and joy in my life.
I also think it is vital to do volunteer work; to contribute to your community. I send what I can to UNICEF. Having been in Africa, those images of the starving children tear me apart.
What’s the best compliment you’ve received as a writer?
Recently, we performed my play, Out of the Shadows, for the New Orleans Jung Society. After the play, a very large black man came up to me and said, “I didn’t know anything about this play, and just came with a friend, but I’ve got to tell you, there wasn’t one false note.” I burst into tears.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers that I haven’t asked you about?
There are many wonderful books about the writing life (Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird; Natalie Goldberg’s classic, Writing Down the Bone; Writing As A Way of Healing, by Louise DeSalvo. ) One of my favorites is Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write. In it she brilliantly articulates that the greatest reward is living the life of a writer—the attuned observation, the research, the discovery, the wonder of sitting down and experiencing the magic that flows out of you. She says that you may have been originally motivated to write for fame or wealth or glory—whatever brought you to writing, it can open a whole new world inside of you. She wrote of the poet, William Blake, who created poems all the time, walking down the street, composing them out loud. He didn’t make money doing it. He did it for the rapture of creating. I aspire to this rapture. For me it is a spiritual practice. It is certainly a great feeling to be published, and to experience good feedback from your reader’s, but, in the end, it is you and your imagination, and this is a wonderful thing.
Where can our readers find you on the Internet, and where can they buy your books?
I have a Website, www.soulstories.net, which has information about my new book, Soul Stories, and my published play, Out of the Shadows. It has sample chapters, and short essays about the writing of each book, and reviews.
Would you share an excerpt from Soul Stories: Safari to Mara & Aria of the Horned Toad, please? Or perhaps, since these are two separate stories, you could share a short excerpt of each?
Of course! Here is the beginning of each book:
Safari to Mara
They are here,” I whisper, pressing my nose to the cool window of the green school bus. Far away, in green grasses, a million diamonds flash in the sun. My heart drums.
Other noses join me at the window. Giggles. Gasps. We all know what is happening this day beneath the blue sky that goes on and on, so far we cannot see the end of it.
From the corner of my eye I see Mother walking to meet me, as she has every day of my school years, her bare black head shining in the sun, her long red robe whipping in the cool wind.
The bus stops. “May Engai keep you warm this winter,” I say to my dear school friends. They all know that when the diamonds come to our beloved Masai Mara, I go away from school to work for my family, to put on the robes of the Masai, to practice the language of Maa. My mother says I am a modern girl, but I am also Masai.
I run down the clanging steps of the bus into the warm arms of my mother.
“Mara, you have returned,” she says, “as the sun and the moon return.”
“Did you see them, Mother?”
She nods gently. The green bus pulls away. On the faraway hillside, the diamonds sparkle so bright, I shield my eyes. “I will make you proud, Mother. This winter, I am now strong enough to carry a calabash on each shoulder without spilling one drop of milk.”
“Yes, my dear. I know you are strong, but there will no milking for you this year.”
“You think I have lost my aim?”
Her laughter is like raindrops dancing on the roof of our dung house. “I will miss our squirting contests, but the cows will have happier nipples.”
“What work will I do?”
“Your father will speak of it.”
Her dark eyes fill with pride, and sadness. “What is it, Mother? Why are you sad?”
“Questions, questions,” says Grandmother, coming out of nowhere. ”It is forbidden to question your elders.”
Grandmother drinks from a sour bowl. Mother finds sweetness in the most bitter thorns.
“Mara is curious,” says Mother, lifting her chin to meet Grandmother’s eyes. “Her teacher says she is very smart and loves to learn.”
Grandmother smacks her gums with no teeth. “Your Mara-bird is ten years old. It is time to shave off her wild hair; prepare her to become a good Masai wife.”
“Engai ake naiyiolo”, says Mother, bowing to Grandmother. “Only God knows.”
Grandmother makes skinny eyes, like a black mamba snake, and goes from us.
“Am I a bad child to ask questions?”
“You are dearest to my heart, “says Mother. “Your Grandmother is wrong. To question is a good thing. And I love your wild hair. Do not shave it. Not yet.”
I do not have to earn my goodness. I see it always, in her eyes.
“Dance for me, my Mara–” she sings.
We dance to celebrate my name, for when I was born, my mother called me “Mara” after the tiny bumps across my baby nose. Mara means “spot” for the beloved acacia trees that dot our land.
I make up a song, “Wheeeeo, Engai ake naiyiolo, only God knows.”
“Wheeeo” calls the rust-breasted robin chat on the beloved acacia branch above our heads.
“Wheeeo,” we answer back.
The cool, soft wind lifts the branches, like my mother’s arms reaching up to hold a basket on her head.
“Come, Mara-bird, we will see the beautiful thing that has returned to our land.” Mother fetches her lion stick, a pole split in two that she claps together to bring terror to the great beast.
I feel a tingle, like red ants in my belly. We walk into the green grass that tickles my elbows.
Mother raises her long arms, “Supa, Oloololo!”, she cries in greeting to our mighty mountain that zig zags across the land, to trick Engai so She will not bring lightening in the dry season. Engai is both god and goddess, present in all things. We pray to Engai the female, because Mother says if you look at the Earth after the long rains, you can see Her face in the swirling soil.
We come to where the grasses open into the plains of the great Rift Valley. The diamonds have become a herd of great animals, their black stripes quivering in the sun.
One is so close, he watches me with eyes as still as river stones.
I reach out my hand.
“No, Mara. There is a river between you and the zebra!”
I look at my feet. A river made of grass? I laugh.
“Dearest, you must never touch a wild one. Do not question me in this.”
I feel my heart grow heavy.
Mother’s eyes find mine. “Mara?”
I lower my eyes. “Yes, Mother. I will obey you in all things.”
We stand together, the soft breeze cool on our faces, as the patterns of light glimmer across the great herd. The sun goes down behind Oloololo, making the blue sky orange with purple stripes.
On the way home, giraffe walk beside us, lazy legs long, loping.
White-backed vultures glide across the sky, their mighty wings covering the setting sun.
“What are the vultures looking for?” I ask.
Mother touches my shoulder to halt my feet. She lifts the lion stick, slowly, slowly. The grass shakes under our noses. We are still as rocks. I squeeze Mother’s hand. She squeezes back.
Out of the grass it comes — mighty lion? No: warthog!
Mother scoops me in her arms and twirls me around. We dance to the snort of the silly old hog.
“If this warthog had been a lion?” I ask.
“We would still be here!” says Mother, rattling the lion stick, “Crrrraaacck!”
“What mischief is here?” calls Father, driving up beside us in his mighty Land Rover.
We laugh and do a Masai jumping dance.
“Mara, my dear one!” He lifts me up onto his lap, takes Mother’s hand, and pulls her up too. He lets me steer as we pass Masai boys herding cattle through the fence of thorns that surrounds our kraal. This fence keeps cattle and Masai safe at night; keeps lion out.
We love to go inside our dung house on winter nights and warm ourselves by the fire. Stars blink at us through a tiny hole in the ceiling. I put our calves and goats to bed in their little pens beside the grass mat where I sleep. Mother and Father sleep in their own room, behind a wall of sweet dung.
Father takes off his gray-green hat, and runs his long fingers over his shaven head. He takes the earrings of the ilmoran, from the pocket of his gray-green shirt and puts them through his ears. He cannot look like a warrior on safari. He says it would frighten the tourists.
My father looks at me for a long moment. “My beautiful daughter.”
I smile and touch his face. It is rougher than Mother’s, but his eyes are soft and warm, as if in this moment, I am the only thing alive in his world. I wonder if he would look at me this way if I had a brother? Engai brought my mother only one child. It is a shame to my father to have no sons. He calls himself a “modern man” for having only one wife, yet he must bear shame from my grandfather, who has four.
“Mara, you must help me in my work as though you are my son.”
“I do not want to herd cattle like the boys. They will laugh at me.”
“No one will laugh. You are to be my Assistant Safari Guide.”
I shout and jump so high I think I will bust through the ceiling and into the sky. “I am to go with you, in the Land Rover? The mighty Abisinetulolo?”
“Yes, my dear one. You are ready.”
“I have one question.”
Mother and Father laugh. “Only one?” he asks.
“What does Abisinetulolo mean?”
“I made it up. It is the sound our Land Rover makes as she speeds through the grass: Ab-bi-sin-tu-lo-lo.”
“It is too long. May I call her ‘Abby’?”
He takes my mother’s hand. “If you like, my Mara-bird.”
Father brings me a pair of gray-green pants and shirt, and covers my hair with a gray-green cap.
Mother cries to see me in this “dress of the other world.”
“But Father lives in the other world,” I say. “And now I will too!”
“Your father has a foot in two worlds. In our kraal he is ilmoran, a mighty warrior. Out there, he is just another man with black skin.”
Father holds Mother in his arms. “I have much to teach our daughter.”
“Mother, I do not understand. You say it is good to ask questions. Now you are sad I will learn new things?”
“My mind is in two places,” she says, tears making tiny rivers down her face. “I want you to go, and be modern girl. I want you to stay and be my little Mara-bird.”
“Each night I will return,” I whisper, “as the sun and the moon return.”
Aria of the Horned Toad
I got him cornered, right where our live oak tree kisses the garage. His little bitty dragon head flicks from side to side, living proof something can step out of a dream and show up right here in my back yard. I got to trap him, even if I get grass stains all over my Fourth of July flapper dress.
Smack. I throw the orange crate on top of him. Such a ruckus. I’ve got him, and he knows it, poor darling. Now comes the tender part. What Mama calls, “the art of it.” I lift the crate ever so slightly. He pokes out his spiky little nose. “Oh, no you don’t!” I holler, slipping in the wire screen and flipping the crate over.
“I got him, Daddy!”
He can’t hear me. Too busy fixing the speakers in our driveway for the Independence Day Talent Contest.
“What’s up, Pudding?” He comes round the corner, guitar flapping on his chest like he’s the king of Country Western. He may not be the handsomest daddy on planet earth, but with that root beer brown hair going every which way, and what Mama calls his “Carpetbagger smile”, he’s the greatest thing going.
“He’s magic, Daddy. Last night I dreamed a horney toad crawled out of my right eyeball. Now, here he is. A dream come true.”
“More like a cautionary tale, Miss Beatrice Delilah Ransom. Get too close, he’ll spit hot blood out of his eye.”
“He won’t spit at me. Look at him, Daddy. He’s falling in love.”
Daddy leans in, close enough to get spit on, but my daddy’s so brave, he doesn’t care. “He is something special alright. Horney toads are endangered, you know.”
I reach in to the box and rub his belly, soft as Mama’s ear lobes. “He is a rare jewel. Can’t wait to show him to Mama.”
Daddy lets out a long breath, like air going out of a tire. I lean on his shoulder. Can’t have him caving in on me. Not today. “She’s got to get home soon. I need her to give me pointers on my tap act.”
“I can’t make her come home.” His eyes go out across our precious half acre and to the grove of cottonwoods in the back. Mama used to sit out in the grove in an old rocker, me on her lap, telling me Rumplestilskin. One night she busted up that old rocker, saying I was too old to for stories. After that, she started hauling all the recycling back there, all the junk she “doesn’t have the energy to deal with”: her tiny used-up gin bottles, my old scooter, my broken bike, our old cracked bathtub with the claw feet. Nobody can see the mess from the outside. To the world, it looks like a beautiful stand of old growth cottonwoods. Me and Daddy know better.
Down in the crate, my miracle horney toad sees a baby unicorn beetle and snaps it up, yum, yum. Mama was already gone when me and Daddy got up this morning. I feel like eating a beetle myself.
“What you going to call him, Pudding?”
I regard my darling toad, his eyes kind of sleepy now he’s had his dinner. “Pudding’s taken. I’ll call him ‘Custard’. Maybe Mama’ll make us some after the talent show.”
“’Bout time you started learning to make it yourself, Miss ten and a quarter.”
“I got to start cooking?”
“Not a bad idea.”
I chase Daddy all around the yard. He lets me catch him, then we hold onto each other, real tight. “Blue Scooterbard, Pudding.” he whispers. When I was real little, I couldn’t say “boulevard”. I came up with “scooterbard”, and Daddy made up this idea that when you step onto the Blue Scooter Bard–my favorite color is blue– you’ve found your own special way of doing things, and you do it, no matter what.
Tonight, it means I’ve got to do my best tap act ever, even if Mama doesn’t show up.
“Yes, Daddy. I’ll make you proud.”
“You always do, Pudding.”
We hear squeaks of wagon tires on the sidewalk, little voices, laughter of some lady. Not Mama’s laugh.
I grab my crate, and find a good seat out on the driveway. Our block talent contest is the highlight of July the Fourth in our tiny corner of our beautiful town of Austin, in the great state of Texas. The sun is quivering from the pollution haze in our gorgeous dusty blue sky. No place on earth’s got skies like this. I look at the bright red begonias busting out of their pots, the warm breeze rustling the leaves in our cottonwood grove. Why isn’t all this enough for Mama? Why isn’t she here?
First up is a new kid, lemonade-color hair, eyes way too big for his round face.
“My name is Elmer Per Johnson,” he says. “Ya’ll can call me ‘Per’, like ‘pear’, cause it is easier than saying Elmer Per Johnson. I am six and three-quarters, and my hamsters, Ned and Ted, are going to race down this track I made all by myself.”
Everybody claps like crazy. I sneak a look down the row at Per’s grand folks, Nana Pearl, and Papa Ben. Never been inside their house, but they always wave to me when I go by their place five doors down. Once they bought lemonade from my stand in the heat of the day. Tonight, they’re smiling, but their eyes are funny, like they’re seeing and not seeing at the same time. They’ve been like that since Per and his big sister came to live with them.
Per puts each hamster in a big pink plastic ball at the starting line. We cheer and scream, til finally Ned starts moving and makes it all the way to the finish line. Ted just sits in the plastic bubble, chomping lettuce.
Per picks up Ned and Ted and bows to the crowd. I figure he thinks his hamsters are cuter than my Custard. That depends on if you are into common pet store mammals. Me, I prefer trapping a wild creature that came out of my dream into the real world!
I don’t pay much attention to the next acts. Same kids as last year, doing the same routines. I go over my tap steps, craning my head to see if Mama’s standing in the back . I can’t find her.
Per’s sister gets up, one of these girls so skinny she turns sideways, she’s a human envelope. I never get on with girls like that. I’ve never been taunted as “fat”, but Daddy says my little dimpled elbows are “cute as a button”. I hate that.
“My name’s Reese Ellen Johnson. I am ten and three quarters. I wasn’t blessed with a great voice to sing for ya’ll, so I will speak the words, in honor of the birthday of our sacred country.”
Sacred? Who uses words like that?
She fluffs up her pale strawberry-color hair, “Oh, beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain …” Her skinny little arms float like she’s signing ‘wheat’ for the deaf.
“For purple mountains majesty…”
I hear sniffles. Reese’s voice shivers as she lifts her arms. “America. America. God shed His grace on thee.”
I’m crying too. I can’t stand this skinny girl, but I cannot deny the complete and utter beauty of her presentation. She’s so brave to stand up there, letting out so much feeling, when everybody knows her mama and daddy got put in jail. I sneak a look down the row at Nana Pearl and Papa Ben. Bawling their eyes clean out.
“And crown thy good with brotherhood. From sea to shining sea!” Her voice cracks, like she’s fixing to keel over. Daddy runs up and puts his arm around her. I feel so proud of him.
He leads her down to sit by Nana Pearl and Papa Ben and Per. Everybody claps, for Reese and her wavy little arms, for Daddy saving the day, for the human tragedy of Per and Reese losing parents to the jail house.
I hop up. Daddy hits the guitar and I tap for my life. No sad stuff. No tears. Just a rip-roaring twenties routine, in my red-white-and-blue flapper dress that Mama sewed for me out of her head. Everybody claps to the music, whistling and cheering. I look for her face. Mama’s got to be out there somewhere in the dusk. No Mama. Nowhere. I go all white inside, like my heart’s buried in snow.
Daddy gives me a big old hug. “Tremendous.”
I grab Custard’s crate and flee to the back yard. I don’t want to stand around and hear people say, “Beatrice Delilah Ransom, you were so great. Where is your Mama? Why didn’t she come?” Then the low whispers, “Poor child. She deserves a mama who doesn’t spend all her time down at the Broken Token.”
I hold the orange crate close, singing :”America the Beautiful” to my Custard.
“You have a beautiful voice.” Reese says, standing by her brother in the burning sunlight.
“I do not.”
“Oh, but you do. I can’t sing at all without cracking.” says Reese.
“Well, I can only sing when I’m all by myself. That way if it’s awful, I’m only one knows.”
“You won a ribbon.” She holds out a big blue bow.
“Everybody gets one. Ya’ll got ‘em too, didn’t you?”
They hold up their bows, real proud.
“What you got in the box?” asks Per.
I peel my arms off the screen, holding the edges down tight. I’m not too sure I want them to see my darling.
“Horney toad.” says Per, like he’s in church.
“Horned lizard,” says Reese.
“People call him a toad,” I say, not trapping the snap in my words. This uppity girl’s creaky voice drives me crazy. “He probably likes horney toad just fine.”
Reese twirls a button on her little checked shirt. I hurt her feelings.
We all watch Custard flit around the crate.
“He doesn’t like it in there,” says Per.
“He is a creature of the wild, “ says Reese.
“I trapped him, fair and square. His name is Custard. My daddy says he can spit blood out of his eyes.”
“Your daddy is so great,” says Reese. “You’re the luckiest girl in the world.”
“I am not. Did you see my mama here tonight?”
Per and Reese study the crab grass.
“She didn’t come. I worked on my tap act so hard.”
“You were great,” says Reese.
“Can I see him close?” says Per.
I take Custard out of the crate, his little claw feet scratching me. Should I tell these kids where Custard really came from? Will they laugh at me? At him?
Reese squeezes her skinny body between me and Per, her face real close to Custard.
“He’s going to spit,” says Per, pushing her closer.
She shoves her brother out of the way. “I am not afraid of this animal,” she says, looking right into those jet-brown eyes. “He’s magic.”
I breathe. “How can you tell?”
“Look at him. He’s harboring a great secret.”
I don’t know any kid uses words like “harboring”. But, she’s got a point. I put my head next to hers and stare into Custard’s eyes. “If I tell ya’ll the secret, will you promise not to tell one living soul on this earth?”
They cross their hearts real fast. “He crawled out of my eyeball last night in a dream. Now, here he is.”
“I knew it,” whispers Reese.
“Is that all?” says Per.
“You don’t know a thing, Elmer Per Johnson,” I say. “Did you ever have a wild creature crawl out of you in a dream and end up in your back yard?”
“We had to give up our back yard, and our house,” says Reese, her voice going real tiny. “And, our mama and daddy, they could sure use some magic–”
“Shut up,” says Per, grabbing Custard. My darling horney toad flips out and lands in the crab grass.
Per squeals and Reese lunges after. I feel something funny in my belly, like the whole world is tearing open, and I’m stepping into someplace I’ve known only in my dreams. My hands sweat, my heart goes wild. I see Custard leaping out of the crab grass. I run after him, into the grove.