FathomOnline

 

 Fathom 2005

Cover

 

Inside Cover

 

Poetry

Sara Squires (2)
Ann Leslie (2)
Jennifer Clarke
Patricia Murray
Kari Gunderson
Heather E. Thomson
B.D. Mitchell
Wesley Colbath
Brooke Gray
Christopher Misura
Robyn Goldsmith
Michael Kimber
Italian Stallion
Oghomwen Ehigie
B. C. Hackett
Deanna Foster
Jonathan Rotztain
Sarah Lofton

Prose

Jonathan Rotztain
Robyn Goldsmith
Sonjel Vreeland
Connor Robinson

[PDF]

Sonjel Vreeland

 

 

My History of Umbrellas

     Don’t even think of asking me where I’m from because I can’t really give you an answer. I have no house with my name on the mailbox, no subway system memorized, no restaurant where I can be served “the usual” without asking. No womblike home. If you do ask, you might want to make yourself comfortable for the onslaught of dates and places, a recipe with the final command to “add to mixture and blend well.”
     I have friends who are studying medicine. Sometimes they describe their anatomy class where they are presented with limbs, halves of chests, hearts, and severed heads and they are told to dissect away. I’d like to think that I’m not that easily compartmentalized. That if I were cut open, you’d find a Jackson Pollock painting, not organs and ligaments. You’d find splashes and splotches of mix-matched paints, broken fine lines and spider web dribbles. Each painted strand would be an empirical treasure of mine all coming together in modern, misunderstood combinations.
     I almost started to cry in the impersonal, industrial university library. All the books without colored covers, all the basic metal shelves, the silent roar of the studious turning pages. I plucked at a worn black book called A History of the Umbrella. I cradled it in my arms and checked it out even though it had nothing to do with my scholastic research topic. I opened it on the bus ride home and tried to hide my goofy grin from the other commuters.
     I was amorously jealous, I liked the sound of such a devoted title. Such a life of sacrifice to such a silly object. The writer describes how the English were mocked during the Napoleonic wars. In the rain, they’d ride out to battle on snorting, steaming steeds with umbrellas over their heads and they’d wait until the last minute before unsheathing their sabers*. Ha! So much like me, odd, peculiar and so mismatched. I march through life, the umbrellaed soldier.
     I visit her American college where posters on classrooms doors read “no firearms allowed”. I take a seat in the locker room while she changes for her African dance class. A yellowed poster of the stars and stripes is taped to a locker. “September 11th,” it says. This could be a munitions factory. Locker doors squeal and slam, monotone echoes of women’s voices. Her laughter snaps my reverie. She’s wearing a cotton Polynesian skirt and ties a familiar cloth around her forehead and blonde ponytail.
     “I know you’ll forgive me for ripping up the African pillow-case you gave me. It just works so much better as a head wrap.”
     I sit in the bleachers while she joins the gaggle of girls with bright skirts and bobbing colourful heads. I read my novel for my Victorian Lit class and try to force myself to ignore them until the teacher, with her loud Kentucky drawl and wide African hips, begins to beat a drum.
     When we lived by the West African shoreline, the coast that shipped out wailing moaning slaves, we lived life to a drumbeat. Our home was on the outskirts of the city in an apartment complex that wasn’t finished in construction. They would never finish it – then they wouldn’t have to pay city taxes. A few meters away, between bougainvillead beach estates, were village huts. At one in particular, a white flag always flapped in the wind because a respected witch-doctor lived there. The drumming was constant and I knew its beat spelled out happiness, prosperity, grudges and vengeance. I used to fall asleep to the wide-eyed rhythms.
     I reeled back into the University of Louisville gym when the class began to sing. Sitting in wheelchairs, there are some special needs youth, dressed-up African dolls. They sing the loudest, these off-key beautiful birds. The Wonderbread-white Kentucky gals try to sound like a church choir in dulcet, sweet tones while the immigrant African girls sing plainly, from their bellies, with no pretensions. The cacophony is true to my nostalgic ears.
     Our maid, Marie-Rose, would sing while she swept our house, dusted our windows, mopped our floors, made our beds, coiled away our mosquito nets and neatly piled our messes. She’d sing with nasal, bass sounds that I’d spy with my little ears. Carpenters and masons in nearby buildings would sing and slam hammer melodies I never understood. With each heaving haul, fishermen would belt out songs as their pulled in their wriggling fishnets. Shoe-shiners, walking past our house, beating their shoe-shining boxes with a stick, would sing amongst their tappings, a signal to let you know they were coming, get your shoes ready. My father would often chase after them, inviting them into our walled compound, under the shade of a cola-nut tree. They’d buffer his dusty leather loafers, shining away mildew and sweat, marks of my father’s hard work and worries. He’d give me coins to pay them when they finished. They’d stare at my white legs, my blonde hair, my un-pierced ears, and my underdeveloped breasts, and they’d crack a little smile when they saw the amount I palmed them. It was always just a bit more than what locals would pay, not the awkward, bulky, gross overestimations foreigners were known for. They would blink and smile and I’d show my empty palms. We’re not real foreigners, I’d think. We eat foufou and ignam pillé too you know.
     In the cold gym, they finish their stretches and begin dancing. I recognize the movements, the sways, the lurches, the graceful twirls of the pelvis, but they’re too choreographed, too measured, too damn Betty Crockered. She smiles at me knowingly, she knows I’m sitting there in torturous pride and confusion. She’s dancing a part of my life, not hers.
     Having lived in Africa is my biggest secret. You wouldn’t know it by my blue eyes, wouldja? Sometimes if my history precedes me, people gasp. One woman baulked, “With your name and what I’ve heard about you, I thought you’d be a tall, elegant African, not a blonde, granola chick.” When we lived by Uniacke Square in Halifax, a Saudi Arabian guy soaked in aftershave gave me a ride home after an art college party. “Aren’t you afraid of living with black people?” he hushed. I laughed, “Can’t you tell? I’m black too.” But when I was younger and we’d fly through Holland on our way to Africa, they’d insist on speaking to me in Dutch and once a friend’s father repeated a question to me four times before he realized I couldn’t speak German.
     I look like I belong but I don’t. I snuck off to a PEI post office to mail some soon-to-be-rejected poems once. A nun smiled conspiringly with the woman at the counter: “We watched you as you came in and we were trying to figure out who your grandfather is.”
     “Oh no,” I said, “I’m from away.” But I was lying. I was born here. This is where my grandmother, whose spine curves like a question mark, lives. This is where I was taken for a real jiggle-bells sleigh ride one Christmas and my great aunt wore mittens with holes in them. This is where my cousin plays the fiddle. This is where my mother’s brother grows turnips. Isn’t this home?
     I’ve spent half an hour with my uncle – the most I’ve ever seen him. We drive in the rain towards Charlottetown. We drive fast and my friend in the back seat gasps at our speed. I too know some of these roads the way a mother knows each wrinkle on her firstborn. I understand my uncle could probably drive with his eyes closed. I ask him about my cousins, each one in turn. He leans in to hear me over the pounding rain. The car smells of PEI farming, rusty metal and cold, dusty clay.
     “What is this? An interview?” he grumbles smilingly, staring at me, not the highway. He knows I’m grasping for something, anything in order to call him “Uncle” and mean it.
     “Are you hungry?” he asks. I’m ravenous. “There’s a new African restaurant. D’wanna go there? It’ll be on me.” He’s got a little grin creeping over his face as if to say, “Oh yes m’dear, I can be exotic and wild like you.”
     My Wildebeest Island uncle sits bland among the bright, singing cotton prints that decorate the place. He nods his head to the bubbly twang of African pop music. He pushes his cous-cous and spicy beef onto his fork with his earthen thumb.
     “It’s making my hair sweat,” he guffaws.
     It’s all we say during the meal but inside, my heart is saying plenty. My Africa, my Africa, my Africa it groans. I ask the owner where she’s from. Kenya, she says, east Africa, she says. I know where Kenya is. My friend who has come along for the ride blinks at me, waiting for me to say “Oh, I lived in Benin.” But I don’t. I don’t want to be the contemporary colonialist. It’s only my Africa in my heart. I made it my homeland when I was 13.
     That year we spent a few days in Abomey, once the city-center of a mighty kingdom. We were there for the annual National Baha’l Convention. I hated the National Convention. I was always dragged there and I whined because there was nothing to do for three stinkin’ days. The only perk was that it was mango season. Vendors piled them high like mountains by the side of the road. Outside the city, they only cost a few cents. I’d devour them until my fingers, palms, arms, lips, chin, face, neck were covered in sticky mango slime. I’d share them with the other kids. Some years we’d climb mango trees and try to find ripe ones to eat for free but most often we’d just end up plucking hard, green ones and launching them out of our masking foliage towards the heads of unsuspecting passerby. Mischief is an international language.
     I remember one evening of the convention. We ate our foufou and drank our ginger juice that seared my insides like licking, liquid flames. Tears would pour down my cheeks, my nose would run and my eyes would burn but I’d always keep eating. My family and I would fan our mouths and puff out air like locomotives. Someone would always shout, “Regardez les yovos!”**
     Someone would roll out a drum and start singing Baha’l songs, or songs that they had appropriated from nearby churches. My mother would clap and waddle her shoulders, my father could smile and tap his chubby fingers to the beat.
     One night I slipped into the darkness. It only took about five steps to escape the patch of fluorescent lighting that surrounded the circle of singing benches. African darkness is different from Canadian darkness. Here the nights are cold and barren, windy and mournful. In Africa, darkness is pregnant with spirits, secrets, voices and poisons. I knew this without being told. In Africa they won’t scoff if you confess you’re afraid of the dark.
     Standing in blackness, I tried to wipe away my dried tears and my runny nose but my fingers were rough and bumpy with remnants of dinner. The drumming synchronized with my pumping heart. I took off my flip-flops and delicately placed my pale feet on the sandy earth. I closed my eyes and imagined my feet taking root. Tendons of tree grew from my toes, from my soles, deep down into the soil. This was my witchcraft. “I’ll always belong here,” I whispered. Then I slapped my shoes back on and slipped onto the nearest bench, smiling and clapping with everyone else.
     This moment recurs when I’m sitting at the back of a Kentucky university gym, when my stranger uncle buys me dinner on rainy PEI, or when I’m sitting in the third row of the Nova Scotia Symphony.
     Everything is shiny and pristine. The violins gleam, and the musicians perspire. I observe the brightness of the men’s shoes, the preciseness with which each movement begins. The room erupts with Vivaldi and the featured violinist leaps, smiles, cocks his eyebrows and winces with each line of glorious sound. I remember leaving dinner with my uncle when my friend asked, “What’s your favorite season?”
     “Eternal summer,” I answered.
     But with each of Vivaldi’s movements, I sink further into my chair, seal my eyes with even more concentration and am surprised to find – I like his winter best of all. I feel each sound in every cell of my core. I know this shivering giddiness, I know this terrible plight of cold, I hear the crystalline ice forming and I think, “No, no! I hate winter! But, ooh, how I love the sound of it.”
     Somehow I know this too belongs. Baroque violins are somewhere on that Pollock painting. Somehow all of these clashing images – violins and crude drums, tuxedoed cellists and farmer uncles, whistling shoe-shiners and Americanzied tribal dancing – somehow this is all where I am from. This is my history of umbrellas.

*Crawford, T. S. A History of the Umbrella. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1970. pI52-3.
**“Look at the foreigners/white people!

 

last updated August 17, 2007 | © 2007 Fathom Publishing
poetry, prose, and artwork © individual authours | website created by Alana Paul