August 19, 2015
The people on the hill liked to say that God’s smile was the sun shining down on them. In the late afternoon, before scarlet ibis bloodied the sunset, light flooded the stained glass windows of Bird Hill Church of God in Christ, illuminating the renderings of black saints from Jesus to Absalom Jones. When there wasn’t prayer meeting, choir rehearsal, Bible study, or Girl Guides, the church was empty except for its caretaker, Mr. Jeremiah. It was his job to chase the children away from the cemetery that sloped down behind the church, his responsibility to shoo them from their perches on graves that dotted the backside of the hill the area was named for. Despite his best intentions, Mr. Jeremiah’s noontime and midnight devotionals at the rum shop brought on long slumbers when children found freedom to do as they liked among the dead.
Dionne Braithwaite was two weeks fresh from Brooklyn and Barbados’s fierce sun had already transformed her skin from its New York shade of caramel to brick red. She was wearing foundation that was too light for her skin now. It came off in smears on the white handkerchiefs she stole from her grandmother’s chest of drawers, but she wore it anyway, because makeup was her tether to the life she’d left back home. Hyacinth, while she didn’t like to see her granddaughter made up, couldn’t argue with the fact that Dionne’s years of practice meant that she could work tasteful wonders on her face, looking sun-kissed and dewy-lipped rather than the tart her grandmother thought face paint transformed women into.
Dionne was sixteen going on a bitter, if beautiful, forty-five. Trevor, her friend and eager supplicant for her affections, was her age mate. Although Dionne thought herself above the things the children on Bird Hill did, she liked the hiding place the graveyard behind the church provided. So it was that she and Trevor came to the cool limestone of Dionne’s great-grandmother’s grave, talking about their morning at Vacation Bible School, and imitating their teacher’s nasal Texas twang.
“Accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior is the only sure way to avoid eternal damnation,” Dionne pronounced, her arms akimbo.
Trevor grinned, his eyes caught on the amber lace of Dionne’s panties as she walked the length of the grave.
“What do you think happens when you die?” Dionne asked Trevor.
“I don’t know. Seems to me it’s just like going to sleep. Except you never wake up. Why do you think so much about death anyways? ”
“We are in a graveyard,” Dionne said. She traced the name of her ancestor while Trevor’s hand worked its way beneath her dress and along the smooth terrain of her upper thigh. She liked the way it felt when Trevor touched her, though she hadn’t decided yet what she’d let him do to her. She’d let Darren put his hands all the way up her skirt on the last day of school. But here, where girls her age still wore their hair in press and curls, she knew that sex was not to be given freely, but a commodity to ration, something to barter with.
Dionne squeezed Trevor’s wrist, halting his hand’s ascent, and then crossed her arms at her chest, which was testing the seams of her dress. After a few weeks of eating cou-cou and flying fish, her yellow frock fit snugly and rode up on her behind. Dionne was a copy of her mother at sixteen—her mouth fixed in a permanent scowl, her slim frame atop the same long legs, a freckle that disappeared when she wrinkled her chin. She hoped that one day she and her mother would again be mistaken for sisters like some of the flirtatious shopkeepers in Flatbush used to do back when her mother still made small talk.
Dionne’s and Trevor’s younger siblings, Phaedra and Chris, played tag among the miniature graves of children, all casualties of the 1955 cholera outbreak. Nineteen girls and one boy had died before the hill folks abandoned their suspicion of the world in general and doctors in particular to seek help from “outside people.” This was just one of the stories that Dionne and Phaedra’s mother summoned as evidence for why she left the hill the first chance she got. “They’re clannish. They wouldn’t know a free thought if it smacked them on the behind,” their mother would hiss, her mouth specked with venom.
Chris and Phaedra darted between the tombstones, browning the soles of their feet, losing track of the shoes they shook off on the steps at the top of the hill. They had become fast friends since Phaedra and her sister arrived from Brooklyn at the beginning of the summer. Phaedra was small for her ten years; even though they were the same age, her head reached only the crook of Chris’s elbow. Her skin had darkened to a deep cocoa from running in the sun all day in spite of her grandmother’s protests. She wore her hair in a French braid, its length tucked away from the girls who threatened her after reading about Samson and Delilah in Sunday school. Glimpses of Phaedra’s future beauty peeked out from behind her pink, heart-shaped glasses, which were held together with Scotch tape.
Hyacinth tried to get Phaedra to at least cover her head and her feet, saying that she didn’t need any black-black pickney in her house, and that, besides, good girls knew how to sit down and be still, play dolls and house and other ladylike games. Phaedra had never been one for girls in Brooklyn, and she didn’t see herself starting now. At the beginning of the summer, a whole gang of girls her age filed through her grandmother’s house to get a good look at her. They drank the Capri Sun juices Phaedra begrudgingly offered them from the barrel her mother sent. They chewed politely on the cheese sandwiches Hyacinth made and cut into quarters. Once they’d asked her all the basic questions (Where did she live in New York? What year was she in school? How old was her sister?), there was little left to talk about. They papered over the awkward silences by staring dumbly at each other and then promising to stop by soon. But by the time VBS started, none of them had come over again.
Phaedra knew that these friendships were doomed the moment she met Simone Saveur, the ringleader of the ten- and eleven-year-old girls because she towered over them and spoke with a bass the boys their age didn’t yet have in their voices. On her first and last visit of Hyacinth’s house, Simone Saveur, sat down and started looking around, taking mental notes, collecting grist for the gossip mill. Because while Hyacinth could safely say that she had been into almost every house on Bird Hill, whether to deliver a baby or visit an old person who was feeling poorly, or just to sit for a while talking about who had died and left and been born, only a handful of hill women could say that they had seen Hyacinth’s house beyond the gallery where she sat with guests. All of them had at one point or another been invited to admire Hyacinth’s rose garden, which in her vanity she sometimes showed off, going on about how they bloomed, the insects that troubled them, her pruning techniques. It could be said that Hyacinth’s rose garden, which she tended to like another set of grandchildren, was an elaborate fortress whose beauty so thoroughly enchanted its visitors that they never questioned why they’d never been invited inside.
NAOMI JACKSON is the author of The Star Side of Bird Hill, published by Penguin Press in June 2015. She studied fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Jackson traveled to South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship, where she received an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town. A graduate of Williams College, her work has appeared in literary journals and magazines in the United States and abroad. She is the recipient of residencies from the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House, Hedgebrook, Vermont Studio Center, and the Camargo Foundation.
Excerpt from The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Naomi Jackson, 2015.
Photo credit: Lola Flash