School of the Talented and Gifted
The lemons on the countertop will be used for lemonade. The woman, called Rachel, now, will first cut them up into sour domes. She will wipe away ants with washcloths; the lemons are twenty-five cents. With her weary fingers she will pinch the tough rinds and watch as the juice streams in spurts against the insides of glass mason jars. The jars will chill in the ice chest, sometimes long enough to make daffodil-yellow popsicles for cracked, swollen tongues in summer. But usually, just long enough for lemonade.
Rachel spends her fourteenth birthday ankle deep in a pond of stiff cotton plants. When the sun dips below the rolling hills, the cotton, if she squints hard enough, could be mistaken for dandelions. Their seeds were stitched to make her white sundress. Sometimes, the dress, stitched from dandelion seeds, would will itself to follow the wind, which blew toward a gulf that she has never seen. Rachel willed it to fix itself, like a weed, in the sod.
She is the shadow of a cedar elm, a quiet whisper among the prattle of pollen and grass. When the sun sets, she is but the whites of eyes, an almost-full set of yellowing teeth, a dress made from dandelions. Her feet are the dirt beneath the cotton plants, her arms the eerie darkness of the earth before God created the stars. When she makes her trek home, ragged soles dragging against dirt road, she sees a man. Brown as a sparrow, he nests in the trees, limbs heavy and limp against sturdy bark, face chafed against coarse leaves. The thing about having skin black and blue, Rachel thinks, is that she is pitied by the dark. It coils about her, like the sea that she has never felt, lifts her thin calves and nimble feet above milk-skinned heads. Towards the moon, that is cavalier in all its reverence. It commands the tides and sprays lemon trees silver, but on Rachel’s fourteenth birthday, it shone only on her dress, and her teeth, and the whites of her eyes.
The sky is a painting, and she is merely a splash of black ink, the clouds and the dirt, not the porch steps, bathed in hazy yellow. The porch steps were Tom, the owner’s son. He chews on tobacco and looks out into the rolling hills. But never at Rachel. Maybe he wants to find it, her face, plain as a rotted apple; his eyes always dart back and forth through the fields, always searching. For her own eyes, perhaps, or the skin that molded about pure white bone, made her filthy, even without the dirt from beneath the cotton thorns that caked her fingernails and the space between her toes.
The children call her Midnight. When she takes her last trek down dirt road from the old schoolhouse, her brothers make the nickname all their own. She would sometimes brush hands with the youngest. Long nights in the field made the children dizzy when they lifted their heads above the white-coated ground toward the fresh air from the tops of cedar elms, clumsy when they snatched at thorny crops. The youngest complains that if he could see her, Midnight, like he could the broadest, lightest-skinned brother, picking would not be so difficult. She looks to the porch, where Tom sits, his eyes following the shifts in her dandelion dress. She wills his eyes to meet her own, but he cannot see what is invisible. Instead, his eyes are fascinated with the fair-skinned girl who glides up the porch steps from nothingness, and Midnight realizes that even if she were to stand beneath that porch light, showered in its yellow, the boy would not see her, nor strain his eyes to try.
The lemons on the counter will be used for lemonade, among other things. Two tablespoons of juice squeezed from lemons, sugar from a porcelain rabbit, and an expanse of Midnight black skin eager for cleansing are just as perfect a remedy for a hot summer’s eve. A panacea, like chilled lemonade, to relieve the heavy stone of self-loathing that rests in the pit of the stomach on nights when Midnight black flesh cannot be seen. The girl’s pale, flushed face is not from malnutrition, the dark circles around her eyes not a matter of exhaustion.
Midnight died with her brothers.
Rachel married a light-skinned man. The moon of her body had never quite set, even with her lemon concoction.
Rachel built her house of red brick with a light-skinned man; sharecropping did not come as easy to those who were almost. The house was sturdy, and the floorboards did not creak.
Rachel birthed a child, fathered by a light-skinned man. The first, a girl, was a block of sweet caramel candy, teething at Rachel’s breasts. The woman is proud to have created something so beautiful.
When she goes to the city, the alleyways are plagued with coal-skinned children lapping their shoelaces at puddles of sewer waste. She clutches her purse to her chest. The lemons and the sharp sunlight make her hands a dull golden. She lifts her heels, scampers across the puddles and over the children with wide-set noses and unruly hair, the part of the city the city never sees. The green sewer water, unlike the lemons and the sugar and the sun, does not play tricks. Tucked into bright pink heels are black feet, bones caked with drying mud, the cotton fields before the red brick house.
Rachel had nine children in all with a light-skinned man. Each one lighter than the one before it. Each one comes out screaming a little less loudly. She wraps the children in crisp, white blankets, bathes them in lemon and sugar. A mother’s love. She feeds the children many carrots. They hold the power to turn brown eyes blue. Some days, Rachel imagines her eyes are blue as winter frost. If her eyes were blue, would the sky look different? It would be brighter, she thinks, always cloudless. So clear, you could see God. The cotton plants that scratched at her raw ankles those many years ago would instead be timid bluebells, the kind that reverent church women wear on their wrists and on their hats.
But sometimes, the children will cry. Sometimes, the lemons will burn. Sometimes, Rachel will rock a baby, moaning as its crisp, white blanket brushes against her arms, which itch and crack. Dark brown flakes, dry, worn skin, fall onto the child’s rosy cheeks, and she quickly brushes them away. A mother’s love.
The eldest daughter begins to smoke. Her lungs turn black, her teeth a decaying brown. At least her skin is still sweet caramel.
The sons have skin rough as beach sand. Rachel, after all those years, never saw the beach except in magazines. White girl in red bikini, running up the shore. Having lighter skin did not afford her a car to take her down to the coast, did not afford her a life jacket to keep her afloat amid the angry waves. The sons brawl with machetes. The head of the youngest is chopped off clean, and Rachel’s cheek is sliced through. The ugliness comes not from the out of place bruise, but from its blackness when it heals. It reminds her of the blue-blackness of nights in vast fields when the moon was hidden by clouds, and no one ever knew if she was really there. Not even she.
The youngest son’s cold face is pat by hands tan, almost white, from beyond the coffin. There is that, at least. Rachel’s children are fit to walk busy city streets. Yes, perfect skin and perfect pressed hair. What a shame their skin is almost good enough. The children are frowned upon by blue eyes passing on cracked sidewalks. The truth is that blue eyes see the same. The sky is the same blue, the grass the same green, and light skin is just as bad as dark. And just to think, the children could have been many things. Ravens and crows that fly above milk-skinned heads, newborn galaxies, a quiet midnight sky that holds all the secrets Rachel never knew. That machetes will slice the heads off black bodies and light ones. And that blue eyes see the same. They will see that that sturdy red-brick house was never sturdy at all, and that when you come from the slave, a brick house is just the same as a wood cabin. That roaches were eating the wood floors and bed bugs were burrowing into crisp white sheets and the foundation was crumbling long before anyone realized. Someday, blue eyes, like those that are brown, will see that underneath black skin lies the pure bones that hold us all, and that flies make territories of lemon shells.
Much of the piece's impact comes from its wise, unpretentious selection of detail: a dress stitched from dandelion seeds, yellow lemon rinds, a field of cotton plants, midnight skin. The writer depicts how explicit and implicit discrimination, literally gets under your skin from the time you’re a child.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Courtney Lane attends the School of the Talented and Gifted in Dallas, Texas. As a high school senior, she is set to graduate in May of 2020. She plans to get a degree in Creative Writing, and become the next Toni Morrison.