"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison


The Caged Pearl

The Caged Pearl

I am seven and my mother is gone but I still have her necklace. It’s made of gold. Real gold. She used to wear it every day. It has a ball made of shiny thin wires and inside the wires is a pearl. It looks like a tiny birdcage with a little white bird inside. If you shake it the pearl moves around. When my mom wore it, it rested in that soft cave at the bottom of her neck. On me it comes down to the middle of my chest near my heart.

When she used to tuck me in at night, she would sit on the edge of my bed and make sure my dolls were in the right place—Laura under one arm and Audrey under the other. She knew that my special blanket had a top and a bottom. When she would lean over to kiss my forehead her necklace would swing forward to her chin. I would catch the gold ball with the pearl inside and twirl it between my fingers, holding my mom close to me for one more minute before she turned out the light.

When she died my Aunt Lydia told my dad that she would hold on to her jewelry until I was old enough to have it. My dad said that no, he would hold on to it. My aunt seemed surprised but said yes of course. That night he put the little birdcage around my neck. 

Now my dad is the one who tucks me in at night. I put Laura and Audrey in their places myself. I put my blanket the right way. When he kisses me his whiskers feel like sandpaper. After he turns out the light I imagine that my mother is tucking me in. If I close my eyes and roll the pearl between my fingers, I can almost see her face again. Feel her long hair falling around the sides of my face like curtains. I say her name in the darkness. My mother smelled like vanilla.

***

My cousins have a cat named Marnie. Marnie loves it when you pet her fur but only if you run your hand down her spine. If you push your hand up from her tail to her head she rolls onto her back and shows her fangs. She swats her paws and would scratch you if she still had claws.

Marnie makes me think of my dad. He can be super nice but if something happens that rubs his fur up the wrong way he can get angry and yell. Or get sad and sit in his chair with the tv on but not really watch it. My mom knew how to keep his fur pointing all the same way. She said my dad was sensitive because before I was born he went to a war called Vietnam. After Vietnam he was still the same person on the outside but inside he was fragile. That’s why we needed to be patient and try not to upset him.

Our family used to be like a triangle and my mom was at the top. She knew how to take care of me, and she knew how to take care of Daddy. Now we are just two dots on a page, Daddy and me. That means if something happens, like if I get too many check marks next to my name at school and have to get a note signed, I have to get my dad to do it. There’s no other way around. 

***

My mom used to pick me up after school but now it’s Aunt Lydia who does it. She also picks up my cousins Brady and Cole because they go to my same school. I have to wait at their house till my dad can pick me up after work. Brady and Cole are both boys and they play games like Power Blast and Buried Survivors. Aunt Lydia shakes her head and tells me not to mind them, they’re just blowing off steam from school. After they blow their steam off they play army guys or shoot spit wads at the cat or try to build booby traps in the basement. 

I hate being at their house because their games give me a headache. I hate being at their house because Aunt Lydia tries to get me to talk about my feelings. But the biggest reason I hate being at their house is Fred. I’m supposed to call him Uncle Fred but I’m not sure he’s really my uncle. He’s Brady and Cole’s stepfather. Their parents are divorced and they still see their dad who was my Uncle Hank but I don’t get to see him anymore. The last time I saw him was my mom’s funeral. The other adults were whispering and staring at me but Uncle Hank did that magic trick where he pulls a quarter out from behind your ear. Except this time it was a Kennedy half dollar. When I looked up at his face I saw that he was smiling and crying at the same time, like me. 

I don’t know what Fred does for a job but I don’t think it can be very important because he gets home way before my dad comes to pick me up. It seems like whenever I try to find a quiet room to play with Marnie or draw in my notebook he shows up. He picks my necklace off my chest and lets it drop. He tugs my braids and calls me Hannah Banana. He leans over to look at my drawings and my neck gets moist where he breathes on me. I scrunch my shoulder up to my ear and cover my paper with my arm. Once he asked me if I wanted to go get ice cream just the two of us. I told him I was allergic to ice cream and went to see if I could help Aunt Lydia make dinner. 

***

And now I am waiting in front of my school to get picked up and I see Fred’s car. “Your aunt had to take the boys to the dentist,” he tells me through the window. “Hop in.” I try to get in the back seat but he says, “Not so fast. What am I, a chauffeur?” He pats the seat next to him and I climb in the front. “That seat belt’s broken, Hannah Banana, you’re going to have to scoot over next to me.” He’s wearing shorts and his leg hairs are dark and oily looking.

When he pulls out of the carpool line he puts his hand on my knee and lets it float up along my leg. I think about Marnie because right now my fur is pointing the wrong way. I don’t want him to take me to their house. I take my necklace and hold the ball with the pearl inside it against my lips. “Can we get ice cream?” I ask.

“I thought you were allergic,” he says.

“I mean sometimes it just gives me a headache when I eat it too fast,” I say.

“Fine,” he says.

He takes me to Baskin Robbins, the same one my parents used to take me to. At Baskin Robbins they’ll give you free tastes of different flavors on little pink spoons. But today we don’t get any samples. Fred orders butter pecan for himself. The woman behind the counter asks what his daughter wants. He doesn’t tell her I’m not his daughter. Fred turns to me and says, “How about a double scoop? What’s your favorite flavor – rainbow sherbet?” Rainbow sherbet’s not my favorite but I say okay.

We sit down and the table is sticky. I try to eat slowly so we don’t have to get back in his car. But rainbow sherbet is hard to eat slowly because it’s softer than regular ice cream so more comes off your tongue with every lick. I can tell he’s watching me even though I’m staring at my cone. He asks me if I want a taste of his. I tell him no thank you. And saying the words “thank you” makes me realize I didn’t say thank you for the ice cream so I say it now. He tells me I have nice manners. He says if I keep it up he’ll be sure to tell my dad what a good girl I am. He wipes my mouth with a napkin and it feels crinkly against my lips. 

***

When we pull into the driveway my fur goes down a little because Aunt Lydia’s car is there. I go to the basement to find Brady and Cole. They’ve built a fort out of sheets and they tell me they’re playing snipers. I tell them I’m playing too. I crawl into the fort and lie down. I’m having a throw-up feeling in my stomach and when I press my cheek against the cold floor it helps me feel better. They tell me I can only play if I help them shoot the enemy and all I want is not to be alone so I take the biggest rifle I can find and point it out through a slit in the fort. Brady and Cole are shooting Nazis but I am shooting Fred. I put my necklace in my mouth even though I’m not supposed to. I press my tongue up against the little cage until I can feel the tiny bird-pearl inside. I think about my dad and how we are two dots on a page and I wish my mom was still here to connect us.


Briana Maley lives in Takoma Park, Maryland with her husband and three children. This is her first published work of fiction. She would like to dedicate it to the memory of Jan Davis, with gratitude for the beauty she put into the world.

Cover photo by Jesper Aggergaard on Unsplash

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