Photo: Douglas Gorenstein
The Daily Dare
By Kayle Nochomovitz
Behind Platinum I see a couple of lonely monkey bread trees in the distance, looking like dumbfounded giants with sticklike upraised arms. A gray cloud casts a shadow over one of them, making the tree look like it is disappearing into a big black hole.
“My daddy says those Nazis should have got rid of you folks too, Jew-girl,” Platinum says. She is sitting on top of my stomach, holding me down, and digging her fingernails into each of my arms.
I scream, “Ow! Stop it right this instant!” I try to wriggle out from under her, but she is bigger than me and holds my thin arms down with her bony hands. She digs deeper with her nails, throws back her head, and cackles. I keep myself from crying by keeping my eyes on the trees. Their trunks are waxy-barked. Each tree is something like twenty-five times the height of the tallest man I have ever seen. Some of them are two thousand years old. I know that as a fact that Miss Jenkins taught us last week. It’s hard to really understand what it could mean to have lived that long. Bessie says those monkey breads keep her going. Some of their trunks hollow out inside, so that you can crawl in and lay down.
“Get her, Mary, hold her!”
Mary, she’s the one always with Platinum. Mary was standing guard in front of the break in the school yard fence, near the hedge of pink proteas, which look like alien flowers. Now she crushes a delicate orange crocosmia underfoot and galumphs behind the fence to where no one can see the three of us, especially not the teachers. They don’t know there’s a slit in those dirty wood panels, wide enough for girls to slip through, so that we’re not in the sports field anymore. Mary tears the hem of her skirt slipping between the slats. She’s zaftig, as my mother says. When she gets to me, she lands her thick knees on my shoulders. Platinum gets up and stands over us. Fat Mary presses me flat. My breath almost gets knocked out of me. I kick my legs like crazy and try to worm away, but of course I cannot move. I am not zaftig.
Platinum’s nails feel like not fingernails but like real nails digging in. I say to myself, Breathe in, breathe in, press your teeth together hard, it will pass — just like Bessie would say. I don’t want Platinum to see me scream again, so I clench my teeth as tight as I can, and I know tears are fighting to come out but I suck in my breath so they don’t, no way. Platinum laughs, as if she really could just load me into a truck like a Nazi and take me away. I hate her, her two long braids and brown skinny arms. Brown because she’s allowed too much time in the sun. Romping like hooligans, those Archer kids. Like all the Afrikaners, my mother says.
Mary’s fat head stares down at me, watching, drool dribbling across her chin. Just like I hate Platinum, I hate her too, hair silky red and always so perfect in a ponytail, smoothed down with silver barrettes in the front, no flyaways like I always have.
Platinum lets her nails go and for a second I stop clenching my teeth, but then she wraps her fingers around my arms and squeezes tight, tighter. Of course, I won’t cry. Instead, I pretend I am walking in the green, stubbly mountains around the Queenstown Girls’ School all the way to our house. I am floating through our deep blue beautiful Eastern Cape sky which stretches miles and miles above me, with white wispy clouds that fly over the white bumpy school building and its red clay puzzle-piece roof. Finally, at the end of the long empty road, I make a right turn at the bougainvillea tree and—
“Stand up now,” Platinum says, and she and Mary pull me to my feet and press me against the back of the fence. I wonder if I’m going to get a splinter, and then Bessie’s going to have to make me lie still like last time, when one got stuck in my foot from walking in the driveway without shoes. Even though it was Bessie and I knew she wouldn’t tell my mother, she still laughed her big belly laugh and said, “Miss Brenda, stop screaming bloody murder.”
Mary pushes me hard around the waist so I can’t move. Platinum starts digging her claws in again and all I can do is scrunch up my eyes tight to bear it, although I feel water will be coming into my eyes any minute now. Miss Jenkins in her long blue skirt and button-up white blouse is too far away to hear me if I scream. She’s all the way across the field near our schoolhouse, probably talking to the principal Mrs. Philips like she always does in the yard, not even looking this way at all. She wouldn’t see me even if the fence weren’t blocking. I swirl my saliva in my mouth, hard-sucking with my tongue behind my teeth to make more, like I do when I’m thirsty sometimes, even though it doesn’t really help, because I am not like those monkey breads that can store water for months and months. Here in Africa we all try to make do, Bessie says.
I swirl and swirl more, and I’m not sure if I should or I shouldn’t do what I want to do. Even though my arms are stinging, I’m afraid to really do it because Mary is zaftig and because of Platinum’s beady eyes and her nostrils which open up to the sides like a horse’s. Platinum has fat horse lips also and too-big front teeth and I wouldn’t be surprised if she actually went and chomped on me like I’ve heard the girls at school say she has done on other kids.
We’ve been back in school for a week after our First Term break, and this is why I hate it already. Because of Platinum and also because of the bloomers. The bloomers are what I have to wear under my pinafore every day. They’re big, black, woolen, and scratchy.
That first morning, I thought since Bessie is the one that steals the sugar, maybe I won’t really have to wear them. The sugar is our secret; I would never tell my mother. It would just make more friction, that’s what my mother calls it, between her and Bessie. Like when Bessie left our house that time to go back to the township, and my father whispered Sharpeville to my mother when they thought I couldn’t hear. I thought, What’s Sharpeville? And then when Bessie came back, her round toffee eyes were lonely, and I wanted my mother to ask what’s wrong, but she wouldn’t look at her. She just said, “Bessie, there’s more soap powder for the laundry in the pantry,” and Bessie just nodded her head and said, “Yes mam, of course.” Later I asked Bessie, “What’s the matter? What’s Sharpeville?” But Bessie just shook her head and said, “Hush now, it’s too much, child.”
Of course Bessie and I don’t have friction. Sometimes I go into her little room which is in the back house behind our house. Bessie’s room has a real roof just like ours, but a cement floor. There is an iron bed in one corner high up on bricks, because Bessie says that keeps the Tokoloshes away. A small metal basin is attached to the wall near the door, but there is no mirror above it. My mother doesn’t let me onto her bed when it is made. Just like she doesn’t let me touch her creams, lipsticks, and powders on the dressing table where she makes herself up every day until she smells like the roses in our garden — only in a way that you don’t notice at first, a way that only leaves the slightest sweet trail after she walks out of the room. But Bessie always lets me sit on her bed when I ask—on the striped red and yellow blanket. Bessie’s blanket is scratchy just like the bloomers, but she sleeps under it fine. When they are here with us, Bessie’s children sleep under their scratchy blankets, too, even though I don’t know how they can stand it. I guess they’re used to it somehow, which makes me feel sort of like a baby, even though I’m older than they are.
When I go to Bessie’s room in the back house, she always reaches for the sugar in a big tin can underneath the bed on the floor. She takes the sugar from my mother’s kitchen, little by little, so that no one will see. Bessie eats sugar by the spoonful. She digs the little metal spoon into the tin, hands the spoon to me, and I put the sugar into my mouth, feeling it melt sweet crystals all over my tongue. Just like the sweet tea which Bessie gave me that first day of the term. “To wake you up,” she says. Like usual, she comes in in the morning and opens my blinds and smooths down my hair. I see those scratchy bloomers sitting on the back of my chair and I think of how big and black they are, which is what my father says about Bessie. “A real darkie that one, he says,” even though he knows I hate it when he says things like that.
It’s too bad about Platinum and the bloomers. Before them, I was excited about school starting again. I looked forward to the clean blank notebooks with their fresh papery smell and the sharp new pencils that my mother bought, and also to maybe making a new friend.
Platinum’s face is an inch away from mine. I can feel her hot, sticky-sweet breath on me, so I try not to breathe at all. Thank goodness the next thing I hear is Miss Jenkins’ whistle. After Platinum digs in her nails harder for a second, she lets go, and slips back through the fence with her dumb gold braids dangling. When Mary Johnson finally squeezes her big heinie through the fence again, she hustles after Platinum like a dog.
I call her Platinum because that’s what color my mother said her hair was, nothing like my plain brown hair. Platinum’s name is really Susan Archer, and I should have known the first time I saw her that things would turn out this way. That first time was before school even started, just on Introduction Day, when my mother and I found Classroom Four, which is down the long school hallway with nothing in it but white walls and lots of closed wooden doors. Room Four’s door was wooden, too, but it was open, and just as we were walking in, we almost bumped into another mother and another girl who were coming out. They up-and-downed me and my mother with their eyes. That was Platinum and her mother, Mrs. Betsy Archer, who wore a navy-blue suit with gold buttons down the front. She just looked and looked at my mother, who was wearing powder of course, like she always does even at home, although that day she had on pink lipstick too for going out. And she was dressed in her bubble gum pink suit, which is smart but not drab, my mother says — the one that has a matching hat with a white flower, and matching white gloves.
I won’t tell my mother what happened in the school yard today. Not when on that first day when I was wriggling, while all the other girls were standing still in line holding onto their mother’s hands, and my mother warned me by squeezing my hand and whispering, “Brenda, there will already be enough to make you different, you hear.” I don’t want my mother to know that the secret is already out. I am the only one like me in my class. There are not a lot of Jewish girls in Queenstown, or in South Africa at all.
Well, the next morning, what do you know, Mary talks to me before Miss Jenkins comes into the classroom. “Susan says she’ll stop if you join our club.”
At the long recess, Platinum and me and Mary hold a meeting on the backside of the fence under the shade of a tambuki tree with its flower petals like pieces of red and yellow sucking candy. We sit down with our legs crisscrossed, and Platinum and Mary tell me that the club is called The Daily Dare Club. Platinum’s nostrils puff out while she explains.
“We’ll come up with a dare for you to do. If you can do it for a week, then you’ll be a real club member, and we won’t bother you anymore.”
“A dare like what?”
“Oh, like stealing pencils off the teacher’s desk. Or sneaking candy into the classroom and eating it during maths. Or whistling while Miss Jenkins’ back is turned.”
I frown. I don’t like any of those ideas. I like Miss Jenkins, with her long skirts and blouses and her syrup-smooth voice. And she knows already that I’m a good reader and good at everything else, too, and I don’t want to disrespect her, as they say.
“I have an even better one,” I whisper to Platinum. She crosses her arms like she doesn’t really believe me. She and Mary lean their heads closer in. “I’m going to take off these dumb bloomers,” I tell them.
They both giggle. Then Platinum frowns. “What do you mean?”
Mary crosses her arms, too, that copycat. “Where will you put them, hey?”
I sigh just for emphasis, like a grownup, and then I explain. Then later, when we are in the schoolyard again after our tea break, I slip off to the slit in the fence. I look back to check that Miss Jenkins is gabbing away to Mrs. Philips like usual, and then quick as I can I slip into our secret place, take off those itchy things, and crumple them into a little ball. I think and think where can I hide them so a baboon won’t steal them away. There are bushes next to me, hydrangeas like in our garden, so I hide those bloomers in there, and smile because my legs now feel all light and airy. Before I walk away, even though I don’t think anyone will come back here, I check to make sure nobody can see them. But you would have to look really hard to notice those little bits of crumpled black peeking out from the powder-puff blue flowers.
At the end of the day when the school bell rings, I go out to the yard to get those bloomers back. Platinum is standing in the middle of the sports field when she sees me walking toward you-know-where. “Hiya!” she says. Then she gives me a little wink and a nod, and maybe even the tiniest start of a smile.
Everything goes just as well the next day, until about three o’clock. I know we are going to have sports later that afternoon, so when the tea break comes, I quickly sneak outside to find my bloomers which I’ve hidden the same as the day before. But when I peek into the hydrangea bushes, the bloomers aren’t there.
“Now, ladies. It’s time to line up for field hockey,” Miss Jenkins says a little later. “Take off your frocks, girls, and you can leave them neatly on the fence right over there.” In the sports field, all the other girls start taking off their grey pinafores. They stand in their white vests and their black bloomers, and of course I just stand there in my pinafore, because I have my vest on but not my bloomers, just my underpants, and I can feel the breeze coming onto my legs. Although I try to hide in the back, Miss Jenkins notices my grey in that sea of black and white.
“Miss Brenda, you should be in your gym clothes,” she says. All the girls are looking at me, and out of the corner of my eye I see Platinum. Her eyebrows are raised and frowning, all concerned like, but her big lips are twitching.
“Brenda, what is the problem?” Miss Jenkins asks.
I feel my face get hot and red. I whisper, “I don’t have my bloomers on, Miss Jenkins.”
The girls all start laughing, and I see that Platinum and Mary are laughing now, too. Poor Miss Jenkins’ mouth goes wide open. “Do you mean to tell me, Miss Brenda, that you’ve been sitting in the classroom like that all day?” Her cheeks puff out like she’s holding something in them. “Where are your gym knickers, miss?”
I won’t say anything more, because I don’t want to make a worse situation out of a bad one. Miss Jenkins isn’t smiling one bit, actually she looks like she’s tired, and now I’m sorry for what I’ve done, especially if now Miss Jenkins is going to think that this is how all Jewish girls behave.
In the dark brown wood-paneled school office, Mrs. Philips sits behind the mahogany desk, her silvery white hair pulled tight tight into a bun so that her skin is stretching. Mrs. Philips says, “Brenda, what is the meaning of all of this? I doubt very much that your mother let you leave home this morning without being fully clothed.”
“Oh, no,” I say quickly, because I don’t want her to think that this is my mother’s fault. “I was wearing them this morning, Mrs. Philips.”
“Then why aren’t you wearing them now? Where are they?”
Well, even though I know that I should tell her what I think happened, that this is all Platinum’s fault, I can’t very well get Platinum and Mary in trouble, too, because that will be the end for me. I tell Mrs. Philips that my legs were just too itchy and I couldn’t take it anymore.
“I have eczema,” I say, even though that was when I was a baby and it’s not really true anymore. Then I tell Mrs. Philips where I hid the bloomers, and how after that they disappeared. “Maybe the gardener thought somebody lost them.”
Mrs. Philips calls my mother to pick me up. When she arrives, my mother’s face is red like when she overheats in the sun and has to fan herself and reapply her powder. She’s cross.
“If this sort of thing happens again, Brenda, we won’t take it lightly,” Miss Philips says. “We don’t tolerate this sort of behavior at the Queenstown Girls’ School.”
My mother and I start walking home all the way down Haig Street, which is lined with oak trees and grass. There are patches of dry red dirt where even the seasonal rains cannot reach. My mother holds my hand tight and says, “Explain,” but I just look ahead at the mountains in the distance, and watch the blue shadows slide over their bumps and hills, because I don’t want to tell her about Platinum. If I did, then my mother would probably call Mrs. Archer, and I don’t know what good could come of that.
My mother squeezes my hand harder, and I want to wriggle away but I don’t, because she is staring straight ahead and walking faster now. “What you really deserve is a good hiding,” she says.
“I need a new dare,” I tell Platinum the next day, before lessons start.
She shakes her head. “Uh-uh. Those aren’t the rules.”
She doesn’t listen when I tell her that’s unfair. Instead, she points her nose up to the ceiling and spins on her heels back to her desk. Of course, because of what happened yesterday, I don’t take off my bloomers today.
I am walking along the road home from school, through the stretch of Haig where there are no buildings because that’s where the farms start. Here my mother tells me to stay on the path because there is prickly long grass on the side of the roads and there may be snakes in there. My daddy once saw a Puff Adder here. I pass the brown-green shrubby fields leading all the way out towards the mountains. That’s when they come up behind me, her and Mary.
“Jew-girl, Jew-girl, now you’re really going to get it!” Platinum sings.
I start to run, but I know that she is long and lithe-running, like a gazelle. Quick quick I look over my shoulder, but there is no one in sight except those two, and Platinum has almost reached me, while Mary tries to catch up a few feet behind. I turn real sudden off the road, hoping to surprise them and run through a field, even though I don’t know where I’m heading. I hope that Platinum will just give up because everyone in Queenstown, even them, would know I’m crazy to run through all that scratchy grass and all those snakes that might be waiting for me there. Then there’s a yank at the back of my pinafore, and next thing I’m lying on the ground and something sharp is pricking the back of my neck. I feel the pain, and reach back with my hand to see if I am bleeding, but Platinum steps on the hem of my dress. So I press my elbows into those pricks and try to squirm away, but not fast enough because Mary is there now. She gets down on her knees behind me and pins me down by grabbing my arms with her beefy palms. She is squeezing me so tight that the pain comes fast, and I have to grit my teeth.
“Knew you didn’t have it in you. You’re just like all the other ones,” Platinum says.
I try to move, but her knees are on my frock, between my legs. Platinum’s braids dangle down and hit my face, which makes her laugh. I try to move again, so she swings them at me on purpose, and those hard bobbles which hold the ends of her hair in place thwack against my nose. I cry out now because I can’t help it, it hurts so much, and also I am boiling mad. This time when I swirl up my saliva I know I am going to use it. I spit right into Platinum’s lips. She jerks back, so I bend one knee really fast up toward my chest, and I hear a ripping sound but I have one foot free, so I kick towards Platinum’s face. That’s when Mary loosens her grip for a second, and Platinum jumps back, and there’s enough time for me to roll to one side and hop to my feet and run.
“Leave her, Susan, she’s not even worth it,” I hear Mary call.
In Bessie’s little room behind our house, I sit on her bed. My pinafore is ripped right down the front, my elbows are rubbed raw and bleeding from where Platinum yanked me to the ground, and my bottom hurts right smack in the middle, on the bony part inside. When I point to where it hurts back there, Bessie sighs. “Child, you are likely to have a bad bruise,” she says.
She goes to her washbasin on the table in the corner and wets two facecloths. With one of them, she pats my cheeks gently. When she pulls the cloth away, I see that it is brown with dirt. With the other cloth, Bessie cleans the back of my arms and my neck where it got pricked, and it stings so much I have to scrunch up my eyes and nose. Bessie makes the clicking sound with her tongue that she makes when she feels the sorriest. “I know,” she says, “but I must clean the wound, you hear?” To wipe my nose, she gets a tissue from inside her sleeve where she keeps the clean ones ready to go, and then she sits down next to me and has me blow into it. “Now you tell me everything that’s happened, Miss Brenda, you see?” She pulls me to her breast like she used to when I was small, and I think about how she is just like a big soft pillow smelling like lavender, and also like my mother’s challah rolls, two of my favorite smells in the world.
I tell her about “Jew-girl, Jew-girl” and about The Daily Dare Club. And how that’s why I took off my bloomers in the first place, and then how they “disappeared,” and how because I wouldn’t do it anymore Platinum and Mary chased me and, well, here I am. Bessie’s mouth goes flat and starts to wiggle a little, but something fires up in her eyes. She hugs me tight and rocks me back and forth for the longest time. And even though I’m crying again into her shirt, and probably getting her wet with all my snot, she doesn’t mind. When she finally pulls me up, she says, “Come, let’s go and talk to your mother now.”
“No, Bessie,” I say. “I can’t. That will make everything worse.”
But Bessie just looks at me and says we must. “Your dress is ripped badly—that’s going to take more than a needle and thread. Your mother’s going to have to go down to the school shop. Besides, she ought to know.”
We wait until my mother has got up from her afternoon rest and it’s time for Bessie to bring her some tea. I follow Bessie up the wooden staircase which goes to my parents’ bedroom, and Bessie lets me knock on the door.
My mother says, “Come in, Bessie.” Her eyes widen when she sees that I am there, too.
The shades in her room are down, but the room is yellow and warm from the sun getting lower in the sky. In front of my parents’ wide dark wood poster bed with the lacy blue flower comforter, my mother sits in front of her dressing table in her silk dressing gown. She turns her head to one side and dips her soft powder puff into its round jar with the little holes in it where the powder comes out. Then she lifts the puff and powders her cheekbone and then she powders around her narrow nose. Bessie sets the teacup down on the table, nudges me forward, and says, “Miss Brenda has something she needs to tell you, Missus.”
My mother sets the powder puff down in its container again and looks at me in the mirror. I stand behind my mother’s shiny right shoulder, look into my mother’s eyes, and I speak real quiet but I say it all. Bessie is standing behind my mother, off to the other side. When I finish talking, my mother folds her hands in front of her on the table and looks down for a second without saying anything. Then she looks up and I see her catch Bessie’s eye. My mother looks at Bessie for a real long time in that mirror, almost like she can’t figure out what to say — which is funny because my mother always has something to tell Bessie to do, even just little jobs like buffing the candlesticks, because, as my mother says, “Ach, maintaining a house is a never-ending job.” Finally, after she’s done all that looking, my mother says, “Thank you Bessie, you can go now.” Bessie nods and turns, so I start to go with her, but my mother calls me back. “No, Brenda, sweetheart,”she says. “Why don’t you stay here with me for now?” I stand next to her, not knowing what to do with my hands, so I put them behind my back and watch her retie her dressing gown belt around her tiny waist. She finishes dabbing her powder on until her face turns smooth and white—almost like a doll. My mother still hasn’t said anything to me, even though I’ve told her everything about the bloomers, which makes my stomach feel quivery and my knees shake. I wish she’d just get it over with.
My voice is squeaky and quiet when it comes out. “Are you angry with me? For fighting?”
She tilts her head to one side like she is surprised. “No, I’m not. I’m actually quite proud.”
I’m sure my eyes pop out of my head when she says that. My mother puts down her powder puff for a second, and then says, “Brenda, would you like to use some powder, too?”
She tells me to come nearer, gently takes me by both arms, and turns me so that I am facing her. She dips the powder puff in the powder and touches it lightly to my nose, and a small cloud of creamy colored dust lifts into the air before it disappears. “Close your eyes,” she says. She touches the powder puff to one of my cheeks, then the other, and then to my forehead and chin. It feels almost like a feather teasing me.
I open my eyes and my mother smiles.
“So grown up.”
I turn my head to the mirror. My face doesn’t look quite like mine because my freckles are not there, but I like it all the same.
“Now for some blush. Which color would you like?” She opens up a pearly green case with a little mirror inside and a teeny brush, and I see a small rectangle of rosy pink next to a rectangle of red-orange. I choose the rose and my mother brushes it onto my cheeks. She knows exactly where it should go. Then she gets this funny look on her face like she can’t quite believe what she is seeing. She puts down the blush case and says, “There. Rather elegant, I’d say.”
I turn to face myself in the mirror now and I do look different. I look older. It is almost like Platinum happened only in a nightmare and not for real. Then my mother hands me her pink lipstick and I smile so much that my cheeks start to hurt. “Relax your mouth, keep it slightly open,” she says. She watches me while I put the lipstick on, I guess to make sure I do it right. When I finish, I see that my mother’s lips are a tight, straight line. Her eyes are shiny.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“Oh, Brenda. I just don’t want you to go through this, too.”
I am not sure what she means. “Go through what?”
“Sweetheart, I had a Susan Archer, too. More than one.”
I swallow hard because the thought of Platinum ever pushing my mother down or squeezing her arms makes me want to jump out of my skin. I tell her, “If I had been there, I would have fought them off for you.”
My mother chuckles. “There’ll always be something to make us different, Brenda,” she says. “It’s not worth it.”
Platinum can’t get away with this, I want to argue, because now I know I am not fighting just for me, I am fighting for my mother, too — although I don’t think I can also fight for Bessie, because of what my father says. Before I open my mouth to speak, my mother reaches for my hand. Her palm on top of mine feels cool and I want her to leave it there. I want to stay here in her room for a long while. I know, though, that she will want to get dressed for dinner soon so that she can go and ring the dinner bell. Bessie will come to help me wash.
Bessie spreads a clean floor mat alongside our claw-footed bathtub. She lifts my pinafore as I step out of it. “What should I do about Platinum?” I ask. Since Bessie is the one that steals the sugar, she ought to know.
“I’m not sure there really is anything you can do, Miss Brenda.”
“What do you mean?”
Bessie sighs. She steadies herself with one hand on the rim of the bathtub as she stretches her other arm down to check the water temperature. “It’s ready,” she says.
I don’t move, though. “Bessie, what do you mean?”
Her voice gets dreamy and sad, like when I asked her about Sharpeville. “We don’t control everything. We don’t control most things.”
“What’s Sharpeville?” I ask her again.
“Let’s get you into the tub,” Bessie says. She sounds so tired that I don’t say anything else. I step out of my panties. Bessie holds me by one arm as I lift my leg over the edge of the bathtub into the water. Once I am sitting in the tub, she starts pouring water over my shoulders and chest. “There’s a lot of evil in this world,” she says. “You have to pick your battles.”
It sounds like Bessie doesn’t think Platinum is worth fighting, either. I am surprised that she agrees with my mother.
“But Platinum’s wrong.” I pause. “Is Sharpeville…like Platinum?”
Bessie takes in a deep breath. “Not exactly. But in some ways, yes.”
“Then how can you not fight?”
To my surprise, Bessie smiles. “There are different kinds of fighting, Miss Brenda. Sometimes it’s with fists, or with stones. Sometimes, it’s just when something inside of you grows very tall and strong, with room to hold lots of thoughts and people at one time.”
That night, I dream that Bessie and I wander together through the karoo. We look for boomgom’ and wild tyut that we might be able to eat. The next time I see Bessie in my dream, she has grown into a massive, gnarled Baobob. At the top of the tree her syrupy eyes peek through the branches and wink at me. Her hair winds along the trunk’s digits and grows into leaves.
The next day, I am walking along the perimeter of the playing fields when I see Platinum and Mary marching toward me with their mouths closed and their eyes squinting. This time, I will be ready for them. My feet plant firmly into the ground. When Platinum and Mary are about a foot away from me, I see Miss Jenkins running towards us. Her bun has come loose and her long brown hair flaps behind her in the wind.
“Girls!” she screams.
The next thing I know, she is standing next to Platinum. Her cheeks are flushed and she pants slightly.
“Susan, you are to leave Brenda alone,” Miss Jenkins says.
Platinum’s large mouth opens.
Miss Jenkins gestures for me to come nearer to her. As I stand beside her, she puts a hand on one of my shoulders. Her touch feels surprisingly heavy, considering that she is so slim and petite. “Your mother called the school just now.”
My mouth opens wide.
“And I will be phoning your mother shortly, Susan, you hear? So there will be no more of this. It ends now, full stop.”
Susan’s face turns beet red. “Yes, Miss Jenkins,” she whispers.
“Come now, all of you. You’ll play near the teachers until it’s time to go inside.”
We walk in silence back to the school building, with Miss Jenkins guiding me by the arm. When we reach the rough white exterior wall of the schoolhouse, which faces the open fields and miles of scrub, Susan and Mary walk away alongside the building’s edge until they reach its’ corner. They stand about ten feet away from me, against the green and blue backdrop of mountains and sky. The two of them speak in hushed tones. Surrounded by so much beautiful country, it’s hard to imagine the ugly words that must be coming out of their mouths.
“Thank you,” I tell Miss Jenkins.
“Thank goodness your mother called when she did. You should have told me, Brenda.”
I look at her, liking her more than I ever have, maybe even loving her. “I didn’t think that would be a good idea.”
She frowns. “If anything like this happens again, come to me right away.”
“Okay,” I say.
I think about Bessie, and about all the evil in the world. I don’t agree with Miss Jenkins; I don’t think that Platinum will go away, especially when I picture Mrs. Archer in her navy-blue suit, looking my mother up and down. When Miss Jenkins turns away, I face the distant hills. I stand and watch the sun darting in and out from behind the clouds, casting flickering shadows over the monkey bread’s arms.