White stars dance across my field of vision. The blindfold is tied too tight and I want to rip it off. Instead, I sit and try to rub the goose bumps off my arms. It’s cold inside our one-room house, the cracks in the corrugated-iron walls wide enough to let the air in from outside. It’s winter, so we have stuffed rags into the spaces we can reach. I shiver and wait patiently for the two surprises that my mother has planned.
The thing is: not all surprises are good.
“Happy fifteenth birthday, Amandla.” My mother, Annalisa, who refuses to be called Mother in any of South Africa’s eleven official languages, unties the blindfold and hands me a bowl of lumpy porridge decorated with multicolored sprinkles, icing sugar, and whatever canned fruit was in the cupboard. This year’s fruit is pears in syrup, a step up from last year’s ancient mandarins. Loaded porridge is the closest I will ever get to a birthday cake: a blessing. Annalisa is a terrible cook and a worse baker.
“Thank you.” I take the bowl (surprise number one) and our fingers touch, hers pale, mine brown, both with long fingers, elegant, waiting for jewelry, or a piano. In another life, maybe. Our room is too small for a piano, and there is no money for jewels.
“Today is extra special for two reasons. It’s your birthday, plus . . .” She takes a deep breath and cups my cheek with a shaky hand. “Last night, I had a vision. It was wonderful, but we have to do our part to make it come true.”
The lumpy porridge sticks in my throat and stops me from cursing. Annalisa’s visions have taken us into the cane fields to sing to the stars at midnight. They have told us to eat eggs, and only eggs, for four days in a row. They have led us into the heart of a storm to wait for the lightning to send us instructions. The instructions never came.
My mother is out of her mind.
The lightning was eight months ago. Every night since, I have prayed for the spirits to leave Annalisa alone and go whisper directions to someone else.
“Tell me what we have to do.” I use a fake calm voice to mask the anxious feeling gathering inside my chest. I have to stay cool and make my next move carefully. “But hurry. I have to get to school.”
“Hands over your eyes,” she says. “Here comes the second surprise.”
I cover my eyes and peek through the space between my fingers as Annalisa walks across the cracked linoleum floor in black tailored trousers, a white silk shirt, and a cropped leather jacket with silver buckles. This is her best outfit. This morning, she will disappear into the city of Durban and come home with bags of the basics: socks, underwear, soap, and a special something for my birthday.
“Open your eyes now.” She pulls a piece of blue material from her wardrobe and holds it up with a flourish. “Look. Isn’t it beautiful?”
“It” is a folded bedsheet with two holes cut in the fabric for the arms and another larger hole, for the head. The material is stained and held together by stitches that zigzag in different directions. She drapes the sheet dress across the foot of my cot as if it is made of raw silk and sewn together by cartoon birds with golden needles.
“If you wear this . . .” Her pale skin glows like there’s a fire burning out of control inside her. “All our dreams will come true.”
No. All my nightmares will come true.
“Which dreams are you talking about, exactly?” Annalisa’s dreams can be anything. A brick house with ocean views. A holiday under swaying palms. Cold lobster rolls chilling in a fridge for when the temperature rises . . . if only we had a fridge instead of a cooler.
“Wear this dress,” she says. “And your father will come back to us. Blue was his favorite color. You see?”
No, I do not see.
My father is not an actual person. He is a collage of blurred images thrown together by Annalisa in the half hour before we go to bed. Less now than when I was little. She would whisper that father was tall as a lala palm and black as a moonless night. He wore a sharp gray suit with a blue tie, iridescent like peacock feathers. He loved to dance, and he stole her breath away when he kissed her.
No matter how pretty a picture she paints of him, there is only one thing that I know for sure about my father.
He is doing fine without me.
“Is he here in Sugar Town?” He isn’t, but I ask just in case. I have to be sure, even though I hate that there is still a tiny shred of hope left in me that he is out there somewhere.
Annalisa smiles wide, and her lips stretch tight across her teeth. “He’s not here yet, but he’ll come when he sees your blue dress.” She grabs my hands and squeezes tight. “The wind will carry the message to him quicker than a text. Get dressed now. It’s time to leave.”
Today is Friday, a school day. On school days, I wear a uniform. Blue skirt or pants, white shirt, black shoes, and white socks. A black sweater or a black blazer for now in winter. Nothing fancy, but Miss Gabela, the principal, is clear about the rules: No uniform, no school. Annalisa’s magic sheet will get me suspended, and it will frighten away the few friends I have. This is the last day of second term, but the scandal of the blue sheet will survive the holidays and live on to haunt me for the rest of the year.
No thanks. I’ll pass.
“Hurry.” Annalisa tugs at my nightgown. “Lift up your arms and put on your new dress. There’s a good girl.”
“It is not a dress.” I pull away. “It is a sheet with holes in it, and I won’t wear it. Ever.”
“You have to wear the dress.” Annalisa’s smile disappears, and her expression turns dark. “It’s the only way to get him back.”
We stand face-to-face, breathing hard. Mother is a few inches taller than me, with fine blond hair and pale blue eyes that remind me of the sunlit ocean. She is delicate, with slender limbs and narrow hips, while I am all bumps and curves. What did the nurses think when I slipped into the world with different skin, different hair, different everything from Annalisa? They must have wondered how the two of us fit together. Sometimes, I look in the mirror and I wonder the same thing. Who am I, and where do I fit in?
“Put the dress on,” Annalisa says. “Do it for me. For us.”
Annalisa angry is scary. Annalisa with a bottomless darkness welling up inside her is terrifying. I see that darkness well up now. More resistance from me and she’ll tumble into it. She will curl up and sleep for days. She won’t talk or eat. I have been to the bottom of the well with her once. I will never go there again—if I can help it.
“Here. Give it.” I take the sheet from her with jerky movements and point to the mirror hanging to the right of the sink. “Don’t forget your lipstick.”
“Of course.” Annalisa digs through her faux-leather hobo bag that acts as a portal to another dimension. At different times, she has pulled out an orchid bulb with dangling roots, an owl feather, five mother-of-pearl buttons, a vintage Coca-Cola yo-yo, and a porcupine quill. I’m surprised my father isn’t in there, too.
She takes out a tube of Moroccan Sunset, her favorite color, and leans close to the mirror to put it on. The moment her back is turned, I grab my school uniform out of the bedside drawer and push it deep into my backpack. I slip the sheet dress over my head and bend low to tie the laces of my school shoes, working up a plan to switch the dress for my uniform somewhere. Somehow.
“Lil Bit and me are meeting early to finish up an assignment in the school computer lab.” The “lab” is a room the size of a cleaning closet. One door, one window, and the faint smell of bleach coming up from the concrete floor. Come to think of it, the room might, in fact, have been an actual cleaning closet before the donated computers arrived from a Christian school in Denmark. “Got to run.”
“Lil Bit and I,” Annalisa automatically corrects. “And we’re not finished yet. Sit, and I’ll do your hair. It has to look the same as in my vision.”
“Fine.” I take a seat and work through next steps. I have a plan. For the plan to work, I’ll have to leave home five minutes before Annalisa, and then I’ll have to run. Not my preferred activity. But run I will. Today, I will be the great sprinter Caster Semenya—strong, fast, and focused.
Annalisa wraps a curl around her finger, remembering. “You got your father’s hair, that’s for sure. Don’t ever straighten it.”
“I won’t.” No lie. I will keep my kinked-up curls, not because they tie me to an invisible man who haunts our lives, but because straightened hair is an imitation of white hair, and I am not white. I am brown with a snub nose sprinkled with freckles. I have hazel eyes flecked with green. I’m a genetic mutt. And I am happy to let my hair be.
“Today, your hair will be a halo,” Annalisa says. “That way, your father will see the angel that we made together.”
On a normal day, she plaits my hair into a single French braid that dangles between my shoulder blades, but today is not normal. Today she pulls the metal teeth of an Afro pick through my springy curls to make a bumping 'fro that casts a shadow onto the kitchen table. It is huge. An alien spacecraft could crash-land on the surface of it and sustain no damage. Beyoncé rocking a Foxxy Cleopatra wig has nothing on me. The style is loud and proud, and damn, I gotta admit that it is impressive.
“Last and best of all.” Annalisa dips her hand into her bag and pulls out a tiara. An honest-to-goodness rhinestone tiara with Birthday Princess spelled out in fake pink diamonds. Hideous.
“You bought this?”
“Of course not.” She anchors the tiara to my head. “I found it lying on the side of the road. It’s ugly, but it’s perfect for today. The stones will catch the light, and the light will fly over the hills to wherever your father is.”
I can barely breathe I am so angry. The 'fro I can deal with, but the sheet dress and the tiara are too much! Instead of screaming, It’s my birthday! Be normal. Just this once, I make a list in my head. Lists soothe me. Lists are anchors to rational thought. Lists are how I survive.
This morning, I will:
1. Keep calm.
2. Run fast.
3. Get help.
“Catch you this afternoon . . .” I grab my backpack and rush to the door that leads to the lane. Annalisa blows me a goodbye kiss and tucks a strand of blond hair behind her ear. I am stunned to see her so cool and elegant. She belongs in a magazine, and I wonder, for the millionth time, how she ended up in this tiny house on a dirt strip that runs between Tugela Way and Sisulu Street. The lane doesn’t have a real name. “The lane between Tugela and Sisulu” is description enough for the bill collectors to find us. When I used to ask Annalisa where she came from, she’d say, Next door and a million miles away.
I don’t ask anymore.
Copyright © 2021 by Malla Nunn. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.