Chapter One One
“I’m gonna put chocolate chips in mine,” I chirped, scrambling to gather up a handful of small dark pebbles to mix into my mud pie. The mucky mound was fast losing its shape inside the long, narrow tire grooves of our dirt driveway, still wet from rain the day before. The sky was a faint azure blue, and the sweet, powdery fragrance of milkweed wafted in the distance. “And some sprinkles,” I said, adding a few strands of freshly tugged grass from the lawn nearby, cool in my hand on a warm summer morning.
Leah, my best friend, barely looked up, so intently absorbed in the creation of her own mud pie, rounding it with her fingers to perfection. Even at four years old, she was detail-oriented and meticulous, a budding artist who took her work very seriously, while I at four had more of a collagist approach to things: the more elements and textures and ingredients, the better. When Leah was finished with her pie, she found a thin twig to outline a pattern on the top—not as simple as a plain lattice like the apple piecrusts Mom made, but tiny squares and triangles and circles interconnected, similar to a design in the pages of one of the thick art books lying around our house, and hers, too.
Leah’s mom, Hannah, was a good friend of Mom and Dad. She had come over with Leah in the morning and visited with Mom for a little while as we played before doing some tai chi in the front yard. After a couple of hours, it was time to go. Leah and I hugged our goodbyes, her soft white wisp of a body fixed inside my bare brown arms, as the sun started to stretch high into the afternoon above the trees and beyond our wide-eyed, handmade world. “Bye!” we simultaneously trilled into each other’s ears. “OK, girls,” Hannah said, smiling at the closeness we’d nurtured from when we were babies lying on a blanket together, reaching for each other’s fingertips. “We’ll get together again soon, OK? Bye, Laurette!” Mom waved goodbye to Hannah and Leah from where she stood, leaning against the worn wooden doorjamb of our country farmhouse.
Warner, the New Hampshire town where we lived, had a population of approximately 1400 when we moved there in 1969, and I became its sole black resident. We rented our farmhouse from longtime Warner residents who owned a lot of land and property in town. The house sat on the top of a dirt road called Pumpkin Hill, which was lined up and down by a dilapidated stone wall of various-sized rocks and stones, leading into different parts of town on either side. There was a shed connected off the right of our house, and a giant freestanding barn to the left, separated from the house by the wide driveway where Leah and I had played that morning. An apple tree with rugged, splayed branches good for climbing stood planted squarely in the front yard. Not another house in sight, nor a neighbor within earshot.
After Leah went home, my sister, Riana, who at seven years old had already developed such a keen love for horses that it was almost all consuming, decided it was time to play her very favorite game, the “horse game.” We made our horses out of chairs and used curtain sashes for reins. The solitary quiet of our house wrapped itself around our make-believe landscape so thoroughly that the damp dirt-and-honey scent of our horses filled the room. We heard the gallop of their hooves, and felt the pace of their gait, posting to the trot, up and down in the smooth, hard dip of our saddles.
Born with two freckles above each nostril of her nose, Riana wore her shoulder-length hair tucked behind her ears as she led us along a winding outdoor trail. Our horses bucked and neighed as we gave their pretend bellies soft little heel kicks. Her posture was straight, almost rigid, as she sat high and proud in her saddle.
“Time to set up camp!” Riana said, her joy palpable as she pushed the walls beyond her old sisterless imagination into a reality with room for me inside.
We pulled the reins to a halt, hopped down and roped the horses to a tree, fed them hay, gave them water, and brushed out their manes.
“Let’s build a fire here,” she said, pointing to a small patch of rug near a standing jade plant tall enough to pose as a short tree, and then began to gather kindling from nearby.
I shadowed her movements and tried to match her focus.
Riana pretended to struggle to open a can of soup because we’d forgotten the can opener, so she had to use her Swiss Army knife instead, and finally managed to cut through the top of the can without hurting herself. She emptied the contents into the pot while I held it over the fire so we could get our dinner started. We ate our canned soup out of mugs, and then rolled out our imaginary sleeping bags. Riana pet the horses one last time before bed. “Good night, horses,” she said, her hand so slight and careful, her voice an aria of innocence.
Our brother, Sean, older than Riana by just two years, had been playing outside all morning with his friend Charlie, building and crafting and exploring and climbing. Charlie was kind and funny, skinny and curious, with buck teeth and brown hair. He rode over on his bike from town, where he lived with his reputable, middle-class family in a decorous house on Main Street. He loved to climb the apple tree in our front yard and sit among the limbs looking out at the world around him, but came down to join Sean in working on his latest invention, a go-cart with coffee-can headlights and a dish-towel cover nailed to four pieces of balsa wood somehow affixed with duct tape to an old Radio Flyer wagon.
“You’re welcome to stay for dinner,” Mom said as Charlie hopped back onto his red ten-speed bike to head home not too long after he’d arrived.
“That’s OK, I’ll be back!” he said, with a wide grin, still high from his time in the apple tree. “The Carrolls’…,” he sang over his shoulder as his bike wheels turned over the dirt and pointed him down the hill toward town, “Where Kids are King!”
At three or four o’clock in the afternoon, we all broke from play to gather at the dining room table, covered with a turquoise-blue-and-white gingham tablecloth, set with four delicate matching teacups and saucers. Riana, Sean, and I waited for Mom to come in from the kitchen with a white ceramic teapot filled with piping-hot mint tea, and a plate of freshly baked hermit cookies, our favorite, with their buttery, chewy molasses-and-clove-sweetened goodness. The smell of them filled the room, and it felt like we were floating in an airy confection. I reached for a second hermit and then a third, my little brown fingers sticky from plucking out the soft, warm raisins and popping them into my mouth. Riana had just one, which she ate slowly and relished, and Sean had four, one right after the other.
“Tell me about your day,” Mom said, sipping her tea, her long black hair pulled into a low ponytail folded up and pinned with a barrette at the back of her head. Slight of frame, modest by nature, Mom was buoyant and tireless when it came to mothering us as young kids. While Dad taught art all day at a nearby private college, Mom stayed home with us, ever present, always with unwavering interest in our stories and questions, packing us into snowsuits in the winter, letting me and Riana run around topless in the summer, one creamy white chest, the other toasty brown.
She looped her fingers through the thin handle of her teacup and set it in its saucer to rest, smiling and ready to hear our stories.
“We made mud pies!” I squawked.
“And we played horses, too,” Riana said, with gentle consternation, like the big sister she was, reminding me of the importance of our shared game, the game that she had herself devised and chose to include me in.
Sean was often quiet, until he wasn’t. He teased me relentlessly starting when I was about six, and he began calling me a “hyper scale cow”—the name he came up with mainly because my skin was constantly dry and scaly. It looked like chalk dust in the winter, and could get silt-like in the summer. Nobody else in the family had need for daily use of moisturizing lotion, so there was never any in the house until I saw a commercial for Vaseline Intensive Care lotion in my early teens and bought myself a giant bottle from Cricenti’s Market in town. When I first started to use it, I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to discover this magical cream that disappeared the dust and silt. The “hyper” and “cow” parts of the name were added because Sean thought I was too hyperactive and ate too much.
On this day, though, when we were still small and tender, Sean was quiet as we finished our hermits, and a tall standing lamp in the corner of the room carved a tiny patch of light as the day’s natural light began to fade. “Thanks, Mom!” we said, nearly in unison, before leaping from the table to resume our play. Knowing our stations, easy with one another’s company, sewing a fragile thread of siblinghood that we never imagined would fall apart.
At dinnertime, Dad and Mom carried the dining room table out the back door into the yard just outside the house. The table’s four heavy wooden legs dug into the grass as Mom and Dad pushed them down farther into the pliant soil to keep the surface steady. With the vegetable garden at our backs, and the rusty but still functioning swing set off to the far side of the yard, we sat in mismatched chairs much less steady than the table, a family of five, together at the crowning moment of most summer days during our years on Pumpkin Hill, gloriously ravenous after a long day of play.
I had changed out of my play clothes and put on an olive green dress with black trim and white buttons down the front, one of a few frilly dresses that were handed down from friends, and which I alternated with the jumpers and tops that Mom made for me herself. Knees pulled up to my chest, I sat with bare feet, toes curled at the edge of my high chair, afro thick and wild, a coarse bunch of small snarls knotted and mangled like the yarn of a fumbled crochet project.
Riana sat to my left in a regular, grown-up chair, wearing a striped short-sleeve T-shirt and long pants. Shoulders slightly hunched now, not like when she was riding her pretend horse, and elbows on the table. Riana’s facial expressions were always dreamy-eyed, a bit goofy, some mix of wistful and whimsical, as if she and she alone had just seen a monkey wearing diamond-studded sunglasses pull into the driveway behind the wheel of a regular old yellow school bus, and wasn’t that kind of great? Maybe that monkey wanted to come play horses or hopscotch. Or maybe he was lost and didn’t know how to find his way home.
Sean sat opposite Riana, facing the fields, with his straight brown hair in a bowl cut, cream-colored collared shirt from the thrift shop, and high-water corduroy pants. Not as hunched as Riana, but almost as dreamy-eyed, Sean looked beyond all of us into the early night, toward the border of the woods, yearning, I imagine, for the next time when he could pack up his tent, sleeping bag, canteen, and Sterno stove for another solo camping adventure.
Quiet but for our laughter and conversation, the field stretched behind us in a slow incline out and up where it crested to form a steep hill spread over with tall wheat stocks and patches of wild strawberries and wildflowers, a bouquet of which Mom had picked this morning and placed in a vase at the center of the dinner table. Mom served us steamed summer squash, fresh tomatoes with purple basil, and steamed pigweed, also known as lambsquarters, all from the garden, while Dad drank a tall glass mug of amber-colored Ballantine ale at the head of the table. Glints of peach-colored sunset bounced off our silverware, and the air was still enough for the flames of two long taper candles to grow brighter.
Cambrick, Riana’s orange tabby she’d had since he was a kitten, sauntered up to the table from around the other side of the house, rubbed up against her legs dangling under the table, and then moved on. We had started out with two cats, Max and Sophie, and then Sophie had kittens, and her kittens grew up and had kittens, and at one point we had fourteen cats that all lived outside roaming the grounds, monitoring for field mice like slinky little feline sentinels. We gave most of them away, but were allowed to keep four or five, whom we gave names like Ocean Eyes and Butterscotch, Tiger and Teddy. Riana picked Cambrick early on as her own, and the two were constant companions, inasmuch as a cat is willing to be a companion.
Dad, at the head of the table, held up his glass of ale to make a toast, his bare arm pale and fleshy in a worn white cotton T-shirt, thick auburn hair past his ears and parted to one side, like a composer from the German Romantic era, and held down by a red terry cloth headband to keep it out of his eyes. I cupped my glass of milk with two hands; Riana and Sean held their glasses with one. Mom’s skin shone warm in the last slivers of sunlight as she raised her glass, too, and we all clinked and some of my milk spilled, and our chairs wobbled in the grass, and we laughed.
“Look how lucky we all are,” Dad said, his eyes ablaze with satisfaction. He looked at the garden, its tall stocks of corn to one end, neatly lined rows of tomato plants and green beans, thick, sprawling zucchini and summer squash vines, and then out toward the broad fields beyond. “Laurette, can you believe this?” Dad said, as if he couldn’t believe it himself, that he’d really pulled it off and created a life that looked exactly the way he wanted it to look. Mom smiled, her face darling and spare, soft and unweathered.
“I know, Dave,” she said. “It’s beautiful. Just beautiful.”
It was beautiful, and we were lucky. But beauty is subjective, and luck doesn’t care about the choices other people make.