Woman and child. (Skitterphoto)

Between Worlds

A Short Story

When I was eight I watched my mother prepare the chicken for Sunday’s roast. She lit a quill of paper, burned off the pin feathers and removed the gall, careful to keep it whole. Then she put her hand in the slimy carcass and pulled out giblets. That week, she drew out an egg yolk not yet sheathed in shell and saved the golden globe to poach in broth.

She was an excellent cook. The roast came out of the oven fragrant, juicy, and crisp. I assume Leila’s mother, Fareeda, had similar skills. When Leila was my tenant in Cambridge, a stranger alone in America, we sometimes cooked for each other. Although Leila was here to study science, she cooked traditional Cape dishes like my mother, not from recipes but recalling her ancestors’ methods and how dishes should taste.

In February, she danced out of the house light as a snowflake and a florist delivered red roses. But in late March, I heard her feet drag on the stairs and saw her walk to the bus head bent as though to read the filthy dregs of winter.

I guessed her lonely, stranded, and stunned by our snow, ice, and Yankee ways. Like me when I first came to New England. “What’s the matter? Are you coming down with ’flu?”

She wasn’t ready yet, but the third time I asked she said, “I’m pregnant.” Of course. It should have been obvious. Brad, older and something of a celebrity. Gospel music. She told me he said, “I’ve got no money,” and, “Get rid of it.”

But Leila was done with abortions. Certain from the first, she knew she’d conceived a girl, and retorted, “How dare you talk about my daughter that way?”

I said, “He’s got money. Look at his car.” A mustard Porsche.

We talked and after a while, I brought a pen and pad of lined paper to set in front of her and we wrote a list of questions. That calmed her.

She didn’t tell me she feared her brother might come to kill her for the family’s honor.

“I’ll introduce you to my parish priest. They make such a fuss about abortion, let’s see if they have any practical alternatives.”

In Father Tom’s small office, she said, “I’m an atheist.”

He waved that aside and didn’t have any practical advice but fifteen years later, she still talks about him.

• • •

Perhaps Olive also cooks well but the weekend they visited she made no move to help. She sat at my kitchen table her face hidden in a white hoodie while Leila cooked for us and I thought, “Perhaps she’s shy.” She doesn’t know me though she’s spoken rehearsed thank-yous for birthday gifts I sent.  

Brad’s confidant said, “Take her to your own doctor,” and at the sonogram machine he heard his daughter’s heartbeat. His own heart’s echo. A pulse from God.

He stopped saying “Get rid of it,” but was not going to give up his career or lead a monogamous life with a Coloured wife from Cape Town. He’d been a celebrity for years and it suited him. When Leila started to show, he rented her an apartment in Gloucester—distant enough to keep her out of the way of concert halls, churches, universities, and acquaintances. The week Olive was born, he was performing on the West Coast.

Then he saw Olive asleep. She opened her newborn-blue eyes and I guess he heard angels singing or something like that. He gave Leila money she might need for Olive.

Leila’s brother, running a successful business in Cape Town, gave Fareeda airfare to America and I drove mother and child to the airport to meet her, a flabby woman who addressed me in Cape Coloured Afrikaans mixed with English. For three weeks she cooked dishes Leila had hankered for—bobotie, carrot bredie and yellow rice with raisins. She wanted guinea-fowl but I said, “It’s not sold in Massachusetts. Even mutton’s difficult, though we do get New Zealand lamb.” I mentioned chicken but Leila said, “Americans take out the taste and wrap what’s left in plastic.”

Three weeks ago, Leila called to tell me Fareeda died last month. She and Olive had just spent five weeks in Cape Town and found her ailing. She’d been complaining about her health for years and impatience tainted my sympathy until Leila’s voice broke at a sob. I invited them to visit the day after Thanksgiving. I used to seat twelve at my table, but I’m getting old now and am grateful to be invited to someone else’s feast.

Apartheid’s over, but the weekend they visit, I fear the imminent collapse of American democracy. Other empires have cracked and broken in my lifetime. It can seem very sudden, like our disarray after the election. I fear our vulnerable country could skid and crash while tantrums and anarchy govern. Our planet itself needs protection and I fear apocalyptic war.

• • •

While she cooks, Leila runs the faucet, a transparent pillar of water, and I hear the careless water flow like when I first arrived here. I left droughts that cake parched veldt, shrinking riverbeds, and cattle that wither into hide on corrugated bone. Suddenly, as though I’m alone, I can’t control myself, stand and reach for the faucet, “Sorry, Massachusetts is still recovering from this summer’s drought.”

Leila says, “Sorry.”

“I didn’t mean to be so abrupt.”

“I’ve been in Germany too long.”

She grew up in Cape Town where moist mountain flanks usually protect the city from the inland droughts I knew.

It didn’t take long for Brad to find Leila a jealous shrew. Wary of being tricked, he would not divorce his current wife to marry her. But, she told me, she had “a friend in Germany” and when Olive was still a toddler heaving herself up stairs one riser at a time, Leila took her there. In the event, the friend didn’t work out, but Leila found Germany more comfortable than the states and devoted her life to her daughter. I don’t know what else she did or whether she tried to get work in a lab there. She read novels and women’s magazines, and seemed to lose interest in polymer research.

She never mentioned friends in Germany and I have the impression her life there was lonely and narrow. When people took her for an Arab, she protested she came from Cape Town. Once, she told me her mother was “European,” the old South Africanism for white. Ten years ago, she asked me for a recommendation to a small college out west. I wrote, but she never mentioned it again. Her brother suggested she run a branch of his import-export business, but that didn’t work out either and she fell back to dedicating her life to her daughter.

Olive shone in classes at her international school and won prizes for ballet and piano playing, but I guess people didn’t know where to place them. Were they Arab? Neither German nor American, they didn’t fit in.

When I try to guess what Olive craves, I come to a chasm. What do girls her age long for today? Something ineffable, moody and heroic—running on an open beach? Climbing a panoramic cliff? Raising her hands from piano keys before the audience bursts into applause? A close friend? A lover? I cannot see her longings and her inner life is hiding like her face in her hoodie.

My own days stream by like water so swift I barely sip life’s sweetness and I set their life aside.

• • •

When Brad’s mother died, he inherited her half-timbered house in Connecticut. He’s still a celebrity but his reputation carries no excitement now. He teaches music at Wellesley and wants Olive, his gazelle, to attend an American college. He persuaded Leila to bring her back to America. They live in the Connecticut house. He keeps one room there and visits Olive every week or two.

He’s older and has married Joann, once his secretary, then more. Leila, sipping gall, doesn’t let Olive visit his new family, but life changes and when she attends an American college she’ll make her own choices. Meanwhile, Brad pays a private school to fix what her German schools left out.

Her first semester, Leila said Olive felt unhappy because they didn’t have their own swimming pool. I brushed that misery aside. She needed a friend at the lunch table but I didn’t see how to help that happen. It didn’t occur to me to wonder whether other students mock or bully her. My own days stream by like water so swift I barely sip life’s sweetness and I set their life aside.

• •

They spent a sparse Thanksgiving in Connecticut and drove up Friday. Brad’s name came up twice and Leila dismissed him in an angry tone but Olive hoped to be in Connecticut when he arrived Sunday afternoon.

Perhaps he understands her. At her age he was unhappy himself. Perhaps he believes adolescent pain unavoidable. His old confidant says, “A happy childhood is a poor preparation for life. She’ll come into her own at college. You did.”

• •

I planned to take them to the Gardner Museum and looked forward to their surprise at the flowers in the courtyard. Leila would approve of the art Mrs. Gardner bequeathed to her adopted city.

I’ve changed since Leila lived in my house. When rents in Cambridge rose, I bought another house, fixed it up, and now enjoy living as neither a boss nor a tenant. I’m old now, my friends are dying, and one, weak with chemo, asks me to use her Messiah ticket to accompany newly widowed Binkie. Her husband died last year and this will be her first Messiah without him.

I tell Leila, “I must attend that concert, but you know Boston. Lots to see and do without me.... Though if you’d like...”

Leila knows Messiah is a classic and chooses to introduce Olive to the cultural icon. I warn that Messiah is a long work, speak with Binkie, buy tickets, and suggest lunch together.

• •

The Friday they arrive, we shop in Watertown like before Brad banished Leila to Gloucester. She still looks beautiful but now she’s elegant too, her coifed hair shining like a crown.

She cooks Fareeda’s fragrant bobotie with yellow rice though she eats little herself. Stress and her habit of bitterness have ruined her digestion.

At dinner, Olive and I eat meat, rice, and chutney with hearty appetites and Olive does not shrink from the honey-drenched baklava.

To prepare them for the long oratorio, I retrieve my old score, sing scraps, and talk about Handel’s eighteenth-century allusions to radiance, royalty, sorrow, and triumph. They ask no questions and give no sign of familiarity with Christian symbols. When I stop talking, Olive goes to her own room and Leila talks about her daily life. To me, it seems she sees nothing beyond Olive at college and has no other career. Both take admission to an elite school for granted.

Who paid for their station wagon? Brad? Her brother? Whose money underwrites our shopping in Watertown? Has feisty Leila become a dependent? My hand recoils from the fire. I have no right to question and recall how my parents required my life to vindicate theirs.

But I fear this recent election could leave Leila again a friendless refugee, that Olive may find no home here and need more than her hoodie to hide her.

• •

Saturday, rain spatters my window with light. Behind the drops, a maple holds red leaves aloft and contradicts my dread.

The rain done, we drive into Boston, and find no parking to take us through the performance but walk toward the restaurant and Binkie expecting us. I introduce them and we scan the menu. Olive, lanky and angular, orders pancakes, sausage and bacon. Our food arrives, Olive sets to, and mid-meal, Leila leaves to find new parking. I should have suggested the T.

Leila gone, Olive asks. “Do you believe in evolution?” Does she think me a fundamentalist? “Yes.” “Do you believe in the Big Bang?” “A Jesuit at the Vatican Observatory developed the theory.” Her challenge, not, after all, where Cross and Crescent meet but where Religion and Science draw swords. I feel her questions directed to me, but pass them on to Binkie. My own answers may be too skeptical for Binkie’s still raw grief.

Olive is hungry and orders chocolate pie. Before her questions spill wider, Leila comes back and I wonder whose questions Olive asked. They sounded precooked, not her own. But, better than impermeable adolescent silence.

We find our seats and withdraw to our own reveries.

The music Handel wrote for orphans in Dublin proclaims, “Though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.” I wonder how Binkie hears this promise. And atheist Leila? Her daughter?

After the concert we say goodbye to Binkie and, back in my apartment, warm yesterday’s bobotie. Olive eats again like a famished boy and after dinner leaves for her own room.

Last year, Leila met a professor researching Muslim life on the Bo-Kaap. For a few days energy and hope charged her. He proposed they write a blog together. I ask about it. Her answer sounds flat and dry like a desert’s exhausted river.

“I’m planning to go to Mass tomorrow morning. We can meet afterwards.”

“We’ll come with you.” She asks about the parish priest she met long ago. She asks about him every few years and does not forget his courtesy those months she feared her brother might come to kill her.

“He’s in a priests’ old-age home.”

At Sunday’s Mass I introduce Leila and Olive to friends, the priest reminds us it is still November and invites us to write the names of our dead in the book on the Lady altar after the Mass—the parish will pray for them—and at the ritual kiss of peace I turn to both before greeting anyone else. After the last blessing, I say, “Excuse me a moment,” and write Fareeda’s name in the book. Do I believe her still living somehow?

Leila and Olive are standing nearby. We all go out to the sunny morning.

They will drive to Connecticut but Leila dismisses talk of hurry. We tour the sunlit campus. Olive may study here, where Leila and I met and where she met Brad. We do not talk about what the university evokes or signifies. I overhear Leila tell Olive, “Let him wait,” and we divert to a restaurant for brunch. Olive orders eggs, home fries, toast, and hot chocolate. Leila and I choose salad.

When Leila goes to the bathroom, Olive thanks me for writing Fareeda’s name in the book. What does she believe?

“What’s next for you?” I ask. Parties. Christmas, New Year’s, birthdays. Some girls in her class will celebrate their quincenaria. In an instant I see the show-off clothes, relatives and family friends, ardent breasts and sweaty palms, sexual display and competition. I see Olive in a pitiless stadium where all play thumbs-up-thumbs-down for their lives and forever, for sex, money, status, and survival. Shining silks and jewels cannot mask these adolescents as innocent children. In this contest the gladiators emerge as slippery as the gall sac my mother handled with care to keep it from breaking open and making all bitter. I see Olive with no American champion, no defender, no advocate, no patron, no ally, no present parent, no consoler, no fairy godmother, no Prince. 

I want to nourish her with homemade chicken soup. “You don’t have to have a fancy party. You can do something special with two or three friends. You can’t take them to Cape Town, but what about Manhattan? A ferry trip round the island and a great restaurant?” Before I invent more glamorous celebrations Leila comes back and we say no more. Leila pays, we drive to my apartment and they pack their bags in the car.

At farewell, Leila and I hug. Then Olive. She clings to me and tears stream down her face. Olive is the infant Leila once thrust in my arms. She sobs silent tears in my hug, without present parents, alone among worlds, caught between histories with no guide. She weeps in practiced silence, so hidden I hardly feel her sobs. They cut a sudden chasm at my feet. How many years does it take to learn to weep like that?

Whatever I did before she was born is not enough. Fareeda’s granddaughter needs protection, especially after this election. She was born here but Leila is not a citizen. Ignoring her atheism, a bureaucrat might declare her Muslim and strip her green card.

I was not expecting to need heroism for her or for me.

When Olive pulls away, I do not wipe the tears from her face. We break apart. “I’ll see you soon.”

She nods without words.

Published in the May 18, 2018 issue: 
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Rose Rappoport Moss is the author of several books, including the short-story collection In Court (Penguin Modern Classic) and The Family Reunion, a novel that was shortlisted for the National Book Award. She has also written nonfiction about politics, travel, food, gardens, and religion.

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