22 Endangered Places
It rained and rained in Gracela Canyon. February passed behind a mask of clouds. It seemed like either the end of the world or the beginning.
The orchards, whose black branch tips had been inspected throughout the winter for latent signs of life, suddenly bloomed, all at once: pears, plums, apples, quince, their normal staggered cycle compressed by the odd weather into a single nuptial burst. Through my classroom window I watched drenched blossoms falling like wet snow.
Water, in Grace, is an all-or-nothing proposition, like happiness. When you have rain you have more than enough, just as when you’re happy and in love and content with your life you can’t remember how you ever could have felt cheated by fate. And vice versa. I knew, abstractly, that I’d been happy, but now that I was in pain again, that happiness was untouchable. It was a garish color picture of a place I had not been. Memory runs along deep, fixed channels in the brain, like electricity along its conduits; only a cataclysm can make the electrons rear up in shock and slide over into another channel. The human mind seems doomed to believe, as simply as a rooster believes, that where we are now is the only possibility.
But it isn’t. In spite of the promise of plenty that dripped from the rooftops and gushed down Gracela Canyon’s ravines throughout February, the winter rains would soon dry up. Then there would not be another drop until July. During those brittle months the taste and smell of rain would be lost to us, beyond the recollection even of children and the deepest root tips of trees. That is the way of the seasons in a desert place. Only the river ran continuously. The river was Grace’s memory of water.
We heard nothing from Hallie. First I tried to tell myself she was already out of danger. In the past, the two-week delay of her letters had caused me to keep a distrustful eye on Hallie, like a star so many light years away it could have exploded long ago while we still watched its false shine. Now I tried the reverse psychology: we would hear, soon, that she’d been safe while we worried.
But we didn’t, and I gave over to panic. I began to call Managua every week. The Minister of Agriculture, whose secretary now knew me by voice, said there wasn’t any reason for me to fly down to Nicaragua; there was nothing I could do there but wait, which-he implied-I was doing badly enough where I was. He really was not unkind, just frustrated, like any of us. He pointed out that Hallie was an exceptional person, to those of us who loved her, but not an exceptional case-the contras made daily forays across the border to attack workers in their fields, sometimes even schoolchildren. Thousands of civilians had died. “If you came here,” he said, “you would see.” Every home had a framed photograph on a table that stood for a fresh empty space in the family, he said. Teachers and community workers were particularly at risk.
He said I might try making Hallie’s status known to the general public in the United States. It could pressure her captors to show restraint; or, he warned me frankly, it could do the opposite.
I knew nothing else to do, so I wrote letters. Emelina helped. We papered her kitchen table with letters in progress. I drafted mine on stationery from the Grace High School principal’s office, but the letterhead intimidated Emelina, who preferred lined paper from her kids’ loose-leaf notebooks. Viola put a request to the Stitch and Bitch Club, and after that we had volunteers in Emelina’s kitchen for nightly letter-writing sessions. I dictated the main ideas and then they all got the hang of it. I looked up who had voted for sending the guns, and who had voted against, and either way we tried to work it in. I expect we sent out more than a thousand letters. When we lost track of which congressmen we’d written, we wrote them again. We wrote radio stations and any other public entity we believed might be reading its mail. Sometimes I stopped and laid my head on my arms. Emelina would massage the back of my neck and say nothing, because we both suspected words were beside the point.
There may have been publicity we never knew about. We didn’t get the New York Times in Grace. I do know there was a short piece in the Tucson morning paper, in the “Money” section, of all things, right next to an article about how to reduce your mortgage with twice-monthly payments. There was a small, smiling photo of Hallie, who was identified as a former employee of the University Extension Service. The reporter had called up the Minister of Agriculture as I’d suggested, and said that he “alleged” she had been kidnapped by agitators based in Honduras. This was followed by a much longer quote from a state senator who said the Nicaraguan civil war was a tragedy, and that the United States was doing its best to bring democracy to the region, and that no U.S. citizen could go there without expecting to be caught in crossfire.
The reporter, believing I would be pleased, sent me the clipping along with a note wishing my family all the best. The breadth of his ignorance made me feel hopeless, as I’ve sometimes felt in dreams, when the muscles dissolve and escape is impossible. I wept uncontrollably all day. At school I asked my students to read Silent Spring for an hour while I put my head down on my desk and cried. They were subdued. I suspected people in Grace of walking around me on tiptoe now, the way a town might avert its eyes when its resident crazy lady hikes up her skirt and scratches an itch and swears at the blackbirds watching from a telephone wire.
I stopped going to Doc Homer’s for dinner. We were in the worst position to comfort one another. I guessed he could go on about his routine-that had always been the core of his resilience-but I don’t think I’d slept a single night since she’d been taken, and I was reaching an abnormal state of exhaustion. I fought off hallucinations. Late one night Hallie appeared in my bedroom doorway, very small, looking up at me. With those same eyes she used to ask without words to crawl into my bed.
“Hallie, I’m trying so hard. But I don’t know how to save you.”
She turned on stocking feet and walked back into the dark.
I got up and rifled my desk drawers till I found the newspaper clipping with her picture. I looked at it hard, trying to convince myself that Hallie wasn’t a child. I had the black-and-red afghan bundled around me but I felt chilled and hard as a frozen branch. My hands shook. I tucked the clipping into an envelope and wrote a note to the President of the United States, begging him please just to look at her. “This is my only sister,” I told him. “I’m coming to understand responsibility. You gave those men a righteous flag to wave and you gave them guns. If she dies, what will you tell me?” I licked the envelope and sealed it. I knew the address by heart.
We began to get letters back, to the effect that the matter would certainly bear investigation. They weren’t form letters, each one was typed by a different secretary, but they all said the same thing. It surprised me to see how a meaningless phrase repeated again and again begins to resemble truth.
In the middle of that gray month Emelina’s youngest son learned to walk. I was alone with him when it happened. The sun had come out briefly as I walked home from school, and the baby and I were both anxious to be outdoors. Emelina asked if I could just not let him eat any real big bugs, and I promised to keep an eye out. I settled with a book in the courtyard, which was radiant with sudden sunlight. The flowers were beaten down, their bent-over heads bejeweled with diamond droplets like earrings on sad, rich widows.
For quite a while now Nicholas had been cruising the perimeters of his world, walking confidently from house to tree to lawn chair to wall, so long as he had something to hold on to. Sometimes what he touched was nothing more than apparent security. Today I watched the back of his red overalls with interest as he cruised along a patch of damp, tall four-o’clocks, lightly touching their leaves. He had no idea how little support they offered.
He spotted a hummingbird. It buzzed around the red tubes of a potted penstemon that stood by itself in the center of the courtyard. His eyes followed the bird as it darted up and down, a high-strung gem; Nicholas wanted it. For a long time he frowned at the brick path that lay between himself and the bird, and then he let go of the wall. He took one step and then more, buoyed up by some impossible antigravity. After two steps the hummingbird was gone, but Nicholas still headed for the air it had occupied, his hands grasping at vapor. It was as if an invisible balloon floated above him, tied to his overall strap, dragging him along from above. He swayed and swaggered, stabbing one toe at a time down at the ground, pivoting on the ball of one foot, and then suddenly the string was cut and down he bumped on his well-padded bottom. He looked at me and screamed.
“You’re walking,” I told Nicholas. “I promise you it gets easier. The rest of life doesn’t, but this really does.”
I stayed out there with my book for the rest of the afternoon, surreptitiously watching as he tried it over and over. He was completely undeterred by failure. The motivation packed in that small body was a miracle to see. I wished I could bottle that passion for accomplishment and squeeze out some of the elixir, a drop at a time, on my high-school students. They would move mountains.
The Stitch and Bitch Club was now wealthy beyond historic measure. On the heels of the blockbuster pi~nata sale came a steady flow of donations from the outside. Loulou Campbell, the treasurer, had always kept the club’s funds in a coffee can in the back of the Baptist Grocery where she worked. But when the volume of cash filled twelve baby-formula cans she grew nervous. Loulou opened an account at the bank and turned the passbook over to Do~na Althea, whose years as a top-notch restaurateur had made her somewhat more comfortable with affluence.
The cash languished in its vault while the women pondered its meaning. Having sent their peacocks out into the world like Noah’s dove over the flood, they waited for the world to inspire their next move.
Inspiration came in the guise of an art dealer from Tucson. His name was Sean Rideheart, and he was a funny, charming little man who understood people as well as he understood beauty. The spectacular popularity of the Grace pi~natas (some had been resold for as much as five hundred dollars) moved him to make a pilgrimage to the source. Mr. Rideheart was already an expert and he became a connoisseur; before he ever set foot in Grace he could already recognize the works of several individual pi~nata makers. Of particular value were those made by Mrs. Nu~nez, who had been so resourceful with her Compton’s Children’s Encyclopedia. He wanted to know this town better.
I met him on his third visit, when he came to meet Viola. There was no school that day-I believe it was the birthday of a President-and I was staring at clouds. Emelina didn’t bother me on my bad days; I was allowed to do nothing, not even pretend to feel better, which I recognized as a rare act of human kindness and I appreciated. I spent the morning sitting on Emelina’s front porch, watching our neighbor, whose roof was on the same level with our floorboards. We were having another brief break in the rain, as if the clouds had called a time-out to muster their resources. Our neighbor Mr. Pye was taking advantage of the moment to climb up and inspect his roof.
“Got a few leaks,” he called out in a friendly way. I waved back, unsure of how to answer. I watched the top of his engineer’s cap bob down the ladder out of sight, and shortly thereafter, appear again. Mr. Pye negotiated the ladder with one hand while balancing a small, old-looking cardboard box against his hip. It made me think of the surprises coming out of the kiva at Santa Rosalia Pueblo. Mr. Pye knelt near his chimney pipe and opened the box like a birthday present, carefully lifting out some shingles. They were green, and shaped like the ace of spades-an exact match to the ones on his roof, only a little brighter. Grass-green rather than the green of old bronze. I remembered once, months ago, looking at that roof of antique shingles and assuming them to be irreplaceable.
Curiosity overcame my lassitude. “How’d you match those shingles?” I called out.
He looked at me, puzzled.
“Where’d you get the new shingles? They’re a perfect match.”
He examined the shingles in his hands, as if noticing this for the first time, and then called back, “Well, they ought to be, they’re all from the same lot. I bought two hundred extras when I put this roof on.”
“When was that?” I asked.
He looked up at the clouds. I don’t know whether he was divining the weather or the past. “Right after the war,” he said. “That would have been forty-six.”
Just then Mr. Rideheart came walking up the road under a navy blue umbrella. Maybe it was still raining down the way, where he’d just come from. He walked directly to the front porch where I sat, jauntily hopped up the steps, stomped his feet delicately a few times as if to knock off mud (though his shoes were immaculate), and extended his hand to me. I’d expected to spend the day in numb, depressed solitude, and now I felt uncomfortably honored to sit at the end of Mr. Rideheart’s long line of effort-like a princess in a tale of impossible tasks. Although I was fairly sure he hadn’t come all this way looking for me.
“Sean Rideheart,” he said. He had white eyebrows and bright green eyes; an appealing face.
“Codi Noline.” I shook his hand. “I’ve heard about you. You’re the pi~nata collector.”
He laughed. “I’ve been called many things in my time, but that’s a first. I’m looking for Viola Domingos.” At my invitation he sat down in the only other chair on the porch, wicker, of doubtful character.
“She’s not here,” I said. “Nobody’s home today. Viola and the kids have gone down to the church. They’re having some kind of a big party down there today, painting the saints.”
“Painting the saints?” Mr. Rideheart extracted a largish blue handkerchief from the pocket of his tweed jacket and cleaned his wire-rimmed glasses with extraordinary care. I watched for a long time, mesmerized, until he glanced up at me.
“The statues of saints, in the church,” I explained. “I guess they have to get freshened up every so often, like anybody else. The women paint the saints and the kids paint each other.”
He replaced his glasses and observed the rooftops and treetops that led stepwise down the hill. Mr. Pye had his back to us now. He was industriously tacking down shingles he’d secured for this purpose ten years before Hallie was born.
“Quite a place,” Mr. Rideheart said, finally. “How long have you lived here?”
It wasn’t an easy question to answer. “I was born here,” I said slowly. “But right now I’m just on an extended visit. My time’s up soon.”
He sighed, looking out over the white path of blossoming treetops that led up toward the dam. “Ah, well, yes,” he said, “isn’t everybody’s. More’s the pity.”
At first the Stitch and Bitch was divided in its opinion of Mr. Rideheart. While he was graciously received into the kitchens of half the club members, where he drank tea and stroked his white mustache and listened in earnest while the pi~nata artists discussed their methodologies, the other half (led by Do~na Althea) suspected him of being the southwestern equivalent of a carpetbagger.
But for once the Do~na judged wrong. His intentions were noble, and ultimately providential. When the club assembled in March for its monthly meeting in the American Legion hall, Mr. Rideheart was the guest speaker. He was supposed to lecture on folk art, which he did, but mostly he talked about Grace. He told these women what they had always known: that their town had a spirit and disposition completely apart from its economic identity as an outpost of the Black Mountain Mining Company. During the last century while men labored underground to rob the canyon of its wealth, the women up above had been paying it back in kind. They’d paid with embroidery and peacocks and fruit trees and pi~natas and children. Mr. Rideheart suggested that he had never known of a place quite like Gracela Canyon, and that it could, and should, be declared a historic preserve. There existed a thing called the National Register of Historic Places. The landmarks on this list, he said, were protected from the onslaught of industry, as if they were endangered species. He allowed that it wasn’t perfect; listing on the register would provide “a measure of protection from demolition or other negative impact,” he said. “In other words, a man can still shoot an elephant, even though it has been declared endangered, and the elephant will still be dead. But the man will come out looking like a very nasty guy.”
“But really it’s not our houses that are going to get endangered by the poison and the dam,” Norma Galvez pointed out. “It’s the trees.”
Mr. Rideheart replied, “Your trees are also historic.”
He knew all the ins and outs of becoming a historic place. He explained where to begin, and where to go after that, to see that the river would run clean and unobstructed. There was a fair amount of bureaucracy involved, but the process was reasonably speedy. “Considering the amount of publicity that has already been brought to bear,” he said, gesturing toward the window, or possibly the invisible airwaves of CBS, “I think it could be done in less than two years.”
He said we would need to document everything, to prove the age and architectural character of the community. “All the photocopying, photography, and so forth can be expensive. Sometimes communities apply for block grants.”
After a brief silence Viola said, succinctly, “We don’t need any block grants. We’re rich.” And that was that.
At some point during the spring I got a letter from Carlo. He’d finally made plans: he was going to Telluride. The clutch had gone out on our old Renault and he’d junked it-he hoped I wasn’t attached. He was thinking of getting a motorcycle, unless I was coming to Telluride, in which case we’d get another car.
I was in such a state, running on so little sleep and such dead nerve endings, I didn’t know what to think. I knew I’d have to make plans soon. And I was touched that he still took me into account when he made his move, as if we were family. But I felt nothing when I read his words; maybe it was just the same nothing there had always been between us. The words seemed to be coming from a very great distance, with the same strange, compressed tone as a satellite phone call. I looked carefully at each sentence and then waited for it to register. All I could really get clearly was the name of the town, with its resonant syllables: Telluride. It sounded like a command.
I’d become estranged from Loyd after our trip. Of course, because of Hallie. I felt guilty for being away when the call came. Loyd and I had been laughing and making love for all those days while the news was laid out like a corpse in Doc Homer’s house. I didn’t even call him the night we got back into town. We hadn’t wanted the vacation to end, so we just went straight to Loyd’s house and spent the night: Surprisingly, I’d never slept in his bed. Loyd’s house was entirely his own: a mobile home set up against the cliff of upper Gracela Canyon on a masonry foundation he’d built slowly himself, over the years. Through his efforts the stonework had gradually grown up over the metal shell, so that now it was pretty much a rectangular stone house, overgrown with honeysuckle vines.
Leafless for winter, the honeysuckles made a lace curtain over the bedroom window. Their shadows left faint tracings on the walls, which I watched all through the bright, moonlit hours of that first night home. Loyd held on to me tightly in his sleep. I couldn’t find sleep myself, but I was happy.
The next morning he left at dawn for a seven-day stand in Yuma, and I walked down to have breakfast at Emelina’s. But of course as things turned out I didn’t eat-not that day or the next. By the time Loyd got back from Yuma I was too far gone to be touched.
It was Uda Dell on the phone, telling me Doc Homer had gone to Tucson for a CAT scan. She called it a “skin the cat.”
I sat up in bed, cradling the phone and pulling the red-and-black afghan around me; school was out for the spring break, so my life had lost what little sense of order daily work could still impose. “When did he go?” I asked. “Just this morning?” What I wanted to ask her was “Why did he tell you, and not me?” But I guess I knew the answer to that.
“No, honey, he went yesterday. He took the bus.” Uda seemed industrious on her end of the phone, even as she spoke. Every few seconds she paused and I could hear a high ascending sound like cloth ripping.
“Did he tell you how long he’d be gone?”
There was another rip, then Uda’s voice. “Honey, he didn’t tell me a thing about it. I don’t think he wanted anybody to know. You know Doc. He don’t want anybody to make a fuss. [Rip…] But he come over and asked me to look after the house. If you or anybody was to come looking for him, he said just tell them he’d gone to Tucson for the weekend to get some medical supplies. [Rip…] Now, I knew that didn’t sound right. I never heard of him doing that before, and you’d think whatever we all got along without for forty years we could get along without till the Judgment, don’t you think? [Rip…] So I said, ‘Doc, are you pulling my sleeve, there’s something up, ain’t it,’ and he said there was more to it, he was going to get tested for his Alsizer’s and get a Cat Skin Test done on him.”
“Oh, well, that’s good,” I said. It was a challenge to follow this trail of reason. I could perfectly picture Uda: her large face, the cheeks tightly packed and shiny like a plum. I rubbed the top of my head and looked at the clock, with astonishment. I’d fallen asleep around 4 A.M. and slept an unprecedented seven hours.
“So, honey, what I’m calling you for is [Rip…] I’ve been itching to get into that house and clean. I know he hasn’t been up to it, and I don’t mean any offense, Lord knows I think the world of Doc, but I expect he needs somebody to get up there and clean. And I was thinking now’d be a good time but I didn’t feel right about just going in. I’ve had the key all this time, ever since I used to keep you girls. He never did want the key back.” She paused. “But I thought I better call and see what you said.”
The key was more or less a symbolic matter. He didn’t lock his front door. Nobody in Grace did. “I think the cleaning’s a good idea. But I also think he’d be mad.” I hesitated, uncertain of my loyalties. Outside my window I could see John Tucker in the courtyard with a tape measure. He appeared to be measuring the hundred-year-old beams that supported the roof of the back porch. I knew what it was about-the Historic Register. I had a brainstorm.
“Uda, let me go up there with you. I’ve got to go through the attic and dig up some old documents on the house and the land for the historic preserve thing. I’ve been meaning to do it, and you could help me. We could tell him you were helping me look through stuff, and that we just got carried away and beat the rugs and mopped the bathroom while we were at it. If he even notices.”
Uda undertook the conspiracy with the relish of a criminal. I agreed to meet her at Doc Homer’s in half an hour.
The attic was pleasantly chilly and smelled of pine. Decades of summer heat had forced droplets of resin out of the rough floorboards, which in cooler weather hardened to little amber marbles that scattered in all directions as we shifted trunks and cardboard boxes. The afternoon is fixed in my memory with the sharp smell of resin and that particular amber rattle, like the sound of ball bearings rolling around in a box. It’s surprising how much of memory is built around things unnoticed at the time.
I was amazed by what we found. Doc Homer’s disease had manifested itself mostly downstairs; up here, our past was untouched by chaos. Stacked boxes of Hallie’s and my old clothes, school papers, photo albums, and all kinds of other detritus stood in neat rows, labeled chronologically and by content. I felt overwhelmed by so much material evidence of our family’s past. I couldn’t think why he’d kept it. He was so practical. What conceivable use did he foresee for a box marked “ALICE, MATERNITY,” for example? But you don’t ask questions of an attic. Museums are their own justification.
“Look,” I said to Uda, tipping up a cardboard box so she could see inside: some thirty pairs of black orthopedic shoes stacked from small to large, toes up, neat as eggs in a crate. There was a little more variety than I’d remembered. Two pairs were rather dapper little saddle oxfords, black and maroon. Another year-I vaguely did remember this-we’d been allowed to order them in charcoal su`ede.
Uda had a full-front apron over her old trousers and a print blouse, and she looked prepared for anything. Her lavender hoop earrings matched her wedgies, and she’d tied a red handkerchief over her hair. I was tempted to ask what she’d been ripping up this morning. She bent over beside me and picked out one of the smallest shoes, cradling it like an orphaned bird. “Law, he was so careful about you girls and your feet. I remember thinking, Oh, mercy, when those girls get big enough to want heels there’s going to be the Devil to pay.”
I laughed. “He wasn’t just careful. He was obsessed.”
Uda looked down at me. “He just wanted awful bad for you kids to be good girls,” she said. “It’s hard for a man by himself, honey. You don’t know how hard. He worried himself to death. A lot of people, you know, would just let their kids run ever which way.”
She stopped, cocking her head a little, staring at the shoe in her hand. “One year for Christmas I gave the two of you little cowboy outfits, with guns, and you just loved them, but he had to take away the guns. He didn’t want you killing, even pretend. I felt awful that I’d done that, once I thought about it. He was right.”
As she talked, I remembered the whole story: the cowboy outfits and the guns. Hallie and I had tried to claim moral high ground, saying he was taking away what belonged to us. He stood in front of the window, his thin face turned to the light, speaking to the world outside: “I will not have the neighbors arming my children like mercenaries.” I’d looked up “mercenaries” in the dictionary, later, and felt ashamed. I explained the ethics of armament to Hallie.
“How long did you take care of us?” I asked Uda.
“Oh, I expect close to ten years all in all. Till you was about fourteen and Hallie was eleven. You remember that. You’d come up after school and we’d play Old Maid or you’d play swinging statues out in the yard. We had us a time. And I’d come up here at night when he had to go tend a baby or something. Sometimes of an evening you’d run off with the Domingos kids without telling me where you’d gone to.” She laughed. “I liked to skinned you alive a couple of times. You girls was a couple of live potatoes. She was bad and you was worse.”
I remembered her arms when they were thinner; a younger Uda. And I remembered standing at a kitchen counter, on a stool, patting out my own handprints in floured dough while she wove strips of piecrust, pale and thin as flayed skin, over and under to make a perfect pie top. I was experiencing a flash flood of memories. I feared I might drown in them. My skull was so crowded with images it hurt.
“He raised you to be good girls,” she said again. She reached over and squeezed my upper arm before returning the shoe to its box.
I didn’t know what to tell her we were looking for, for the historical project-anything documenting the age of the house would be helpful, and more generally, old photographs of any kind. Uda seemed content to poke into boxes at random, but I tried to ground myself by reading labels: “CROCKERY AND FLATWARE.” “GARDEN RECORDS.” One bore the mystic title “ELECTRICITY.” I looked inside: socket hardware, lamp cord, the reflector from a heat lamp, a pair of rubber gloves.
I couldn’t resist getting sidetracked by one marked, “ARTWORK, H., AGE 3-6.” The subjects of Hallie’s crayon drawings were mainly the two of us, stick sisters holding hands, or else just me, my orangeish hair radiating from my head like a storm of solar flares. There was not one figure anywhere representing Doc Homer. I wondered if he’d noticed. But he must have. He was the one who’d picked up each drawing, rescued it from destruction, and finally labeled the box. The invisible archivist of our lives.
Out of curiosity I tracked down the corresponding box called “ARTWORK, C.” As I’d expected, it was full of family portraits. Big sister, little sister, father, mother, a cockeyed roof over our heads and above that an omnipresent yellow sun. It didn’t resemble anyone’s reality but mine, but there it was. Or maybe it wasn’t so much a matter of reality as of expectation-what I felt the world owed me. I held two of our drawings side by side and concluded that there was no puzzle as to why we were different. Hallie and I had grown up in different families.
“Here’s pictures,” Uda reported suddenly. There was a whole aisle of boxes marked “PHOTOGRAPHS,” with inscrutable suffixes. I picked up one marked “PHOTOGRAPHS, AM JOUR GEN” and found it surprisingly light, so I carried it over to the east window and sat down on a steamer trunk, settling the box on my lap before opening it. Inside were stacks of ancient eight-by-tens, their brown edges curled like autumn leaves. Each one was a photograph of a newborn baby with a startled-looking face and marble-white eyes. I leafed through them, one after another, awestruck by the oddity of these children. Of course I knew about the eyes, an anomaly of pigmentation that was genetic proof of Gracela heritage on both sides. But I’d never seen them. They tended to darken just hours after birth, and in modern times a person can easily go through life, in Grace or anywhere, without seeing a newborn.
On top of the stack of photos was a handwritten page with the heading: “Notes on Methodology.” The ink had faded to brown. This would all be for his genetics paper: Doc Homer’s careful notations on how he’d set up the camera, the distance, the amount of light. Apparently he’d rigged some set-up that used powerful flashbulbs, the old-fashioned kind that popped once and then were used up. It was before the days of modern electronics.
All those babies. How they must have screamed, one second after he shot them in the name of science. Or in the name of his own desire to set himself apart. What could be more arrogant than to come back and do a scientific study of your own townspeople, like so many natives in Borneo? I looked through the photos again and kept coming back to one that had an arresting familiarity. The eyes looked back as if they knew me. I stared at the baby for a long time.
It was me.
“You were a doll baby,” Uda said. She was looking down over my shoulder.
“That’s me? Are you sure?”
She took the stack and shuffled through it like a card trick. She produced another photo. “There’s Hallie. You didn’t look a thing alike when you were born.” To her the eyes were commonplace, not a feature to connect us, but they were the only feature I could see. To me, we looked identical.
I held the two photographs up to the light, mystified. The eyes were unearthly. We were two babies not of this world. Just like every other one in the stack of photos; two more babies of Grace. He was doing exactly the opposite of setting himself apart. He was proving we belonged here, were as pure as anybody in Grace. Both sides. Our mother’s name was Althea. Her family despised him.
“We’re puro,” I said out loud. And then I dropped the photographs because I heard the broken-glass pop of the flash and went blind. I heard myself make an odd little whimper.
Then Uda appeared in my field of vision, moving away. “Codi, hon, I’m going on downstairs and beat the rugs or something. I’ll try not to scare up too much dust.”