This week and next we’re offering a twofer: Today, to introduce readers who don’t know British author Helen Oyeyemi, we’re running an excerpt from her 2014 novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, a novel about identity and the ambiguities of race, gender, and family life. Next week we’ll be back with Oyeyemi’s new book, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours. Both can be found at Upshur Street Books and online (at the usual places).
NOBODY EVER WARNED ME about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy. I’d hide myself away inside them, setting two mirrors up to face each other so that when I stood between them I was infinitely reflected in either direction. Many, many me’s. When I stood on tiptoe, we all stood on tiptoe, trying to see the first of us, and the last. The effect was dizzying, a vast pulse, not quite alive, more like the working of an automaton. I felt the reflection at my shoulder like a touch. I was on the most familiar terms with her, same as any other junior dope too lonely to be selective about the company she keeps.
Mirrors showed me that I was a girl with a white-blond pigtail hanging down over one shoulder; eyebrows and lashes the same color; still, near-black eyes; and one of those faces some people call “harsh” and others call “fine-boned.” It was not unusual for me to fix a scarf around my head and spend an afternoon pretending that I was a nun from another century; my forehead was high enough. And my complexion is unpredictable, goes from near bloodless to scalded and back again, all without my permission. There are still days when I can only work out whether or not I’m upset by looking at my face.
I did fine at school. I’m talking about the way boys reacted to me, actually, since some form of perversity caused me to spend most lessons pretending to absorb much less information than I actually did. Every now and then a teacher got suspicious about a paper I’d turned in and would keep me after school for questioning. “Has someone been . . . helping you?” I just shook my head and shuffled my chair sideways, avoiding the glare of the desk lamp the teacher invariably tried to shine into my eyes. Something about a girl like me writing an A‑grade paper turns teachers into cops. I’ll take the appraisal of my male peers over that any day. Four out of five of them either ignored me or were disgustingly kind, the way nice boys are to the plainest Jane they know. But that was only four out of five. Number five tended to lose his balance for some reason and follow me around making the most extraordinary pleas and offers. As if some kind of bug had gotten into him. Female classmates got “anonymous” notes that said things like: So—I fall for you. Probably because I can see and hear. I see you (those eyes, that smile) and when you laugh . . . yeah, I fall. I’m not normally this sincere, so you might not be able to guess who I am. But here’s a clue . . . I’m on the football team. If you feel like taking a chance, wear a blue ribbon in your hair tomorrow and I’ll walk you home.
The notes I received were more . . . tormented. More of the “You’ve got me going out of my mind” variety. Not that I lost any sleep over that stuff. How could I, when I had a little business going on the side? Boys paid me to write notes to other girls on their behalf. They trusted me. They had this notion that I knew what to say. I just wrote whatever I thought that particular girl wanted to hear and collected dollar bills on delivery. The notes my friends showed me were no work of mine, but I kept my business quiet, so it stands to reason that if anyone else had a similar business, they’d have been discreet about it too.
When my hair started to darken, I combed peroxide through it.
As for character, mine developed without haste or fuss. I didn’t interfere—it was all there in the mirrors. Suppose you’re born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the year nineteen hundred and thirty-something. Suppose your father’s a rat catcher. (Your absent mother is never discussed, to the extent that you nurse a theory that you’re a case of spontaneous generation.) The interior of the house you grow up in is pale orange and rust brown; at dawn and sunset shadows move like hands behind the curtains—silhouettes of men with Brylcreemed waves in their hair gathered on the street corner to sing about their sweethearts in seven-part harmony, the streetcar whispering along its track, Mrs. Phillips next door beating blankets. Your father is an old-fashioned man; he kills rats the way his grandfather taught him. This means that there are little cages in the basement—usually a minimum of seven at any given time. Each cage contains a rat, lying down and making a sound somewhere between twittering and chattering: lak lak lak lak, krrrr krrrrr krrr. The basement smells of sweat; the rats are panicking, starving. They make those sounds and then you see holes in their paws and in their sides—there’s nothing else in that cage with them, and all your father does to them at first is give them water, so it stands to reason that it’s the rats making the holes, eating themselves. When your father’s about to go out on a job, he goes to the basement, selects a cage, and pulls its inhabitant’s eyes out. The rats that are blind and starving are the best at bringing death to all the other rats, that’s your father’s claim. Your father puts three or four cages in the trunk of his car and drives away. He comes back late in the evening, when the job’s done. I guess he makes a lot of money; he does business with factories and warehouses, they like him because he’s very conscientious about the cleanup afterward.
So that’s Papa. Cleanest hands you’ll ever see in your life. He’ll punch you in the kidneys, from behind, or he’ll thump the back of your head and walk away sniggering while you crawl around on the floor, stunned. He does the same to his lady friend, who lives with you, until he starts going for her face. She’ll put up with a lot, but not that. One day she leaves a note under your pillow. It says: Look, I’m sorry. For what it’s worth, I’d say you deserve better. Take care of yourself.
You don’t get too upset about her departure, but you do wonder who’s going to let you bum Lucky Strikes now. You’re all of fifteen and you’re a jumpy kid. You don’t return people’s smiles—it’s perfectly clear to you that people can smile and smile and still be villains. One of the first things you remember is resting your head against the sink—you were just washing your hair in it, and you had to take a break because when your hair’s wet it’s so heavy you can’t lift your head without your neck wobbling. So you’re resting, and that clean hand descends out of nowhere and holds you facedown in the water until you faint. You come around lying on the bathroom floor. There’s a burning feeling in your lungs that flares up higher the harder you cough, and the rat catcher’s long gone. He’s at work.
Where does character come into it? Just this: I’ve always been pretty sure I could kill someone if I had to. Myself, or my father—whichever option proved most practical. I wouldn’t kill for hatred’s sake; I’d only do it to solve a problem. And only after other solutions have failed. That kind of bottom line is either in your character or it isn’t, and like I said, it develops early. My reflection would give me a slow nod from time to time, but would never say what she was thinking. There was no need.
A couple of teachers asked me if I was applying to college, but I said: “Can’t afford it.” Actually, I was pretty sure that the rat catcher could, but I didn’t want to have that, or any, conversation with him. He hit me when one of his caged rats bit him. He hit me when I pronounced a word in a certain way that made him think I was acting stuck‑up. (He told me that the difference between him and other people was that other people would only think about kicking me in the shins whenever I used a long word, but he went ahead and took action.) He’d hit me when I didn’t flinch at the raising of his arm, and he’d hit me when I cowered. He hit me when Charlie Vacic came over to respectfully ask if he could take me to prom. I seem to recall he began that particular beating in a roundabout way, by walking up to me with a casserole dish and dropping it on my foot. There was almost a slapstick element to it all. I got a sudden notion that if I laughed or asked “Are you through?” he’d back off. But I didn’t try to laugh, for fear of coming in too early, or too late.
There were times I thought the rat catcher was going to knock me out for sure. For instance, the morning he told me to run downstairs and blind a couple of rats real quick for him before I went to school. I said NO WAY and made inner preparations for stargazing. But he didn’t really do anything, just pointed at my clothes and said: “Rats paid for those,” then pointed at my shoes and said: “Rats paid for those,” and pointed at the food on the table and said: “Rats . . .”
He imitated them: “Krrrr. Lak lak lak lak.” And he laughed.
The unpredictability of his fist didn’t mean he was crazy. Far from it. Sometimes he got awfully drunk, but never to a point where he didn’t seem to know what he was doing. He was trying to train me. To do what, I don’t know. I never found out, because I ran away almost as soon as I turned twenty. I wish I knew what took me so long. He didn’t even hit me that night. He just sat in his easy chair snoozing after dinner, like always. I watched him and I woke up, I kind of just woke up. He was sleeping so peacefully, with a half smile on his face. He didn’t know how rotten he was. He’ll never know, probably never even suspect it.
My feet walked me into my bedroom while I thought it over. Then I gave my mattress a good-bye kick. I didn’t pack much because I didn’t have much. There was only one really important thing in my bag: a flag that Charlie Vacic had wrapped around my shoulders once when we were watching the Fourth of July fireworks over at Herald Square. He said it was a loan, but he never asked for it back. Ever since he’d started at medical school people talked about him as if he’d died, but he was the same old Charlie—he wrote to me from upstate, and he mentioned the flag, and that night. I’d written back that I was still looking after the flag for him. It took up a bunch of room in my bag, but I couldn’t just leave it there with the rat catcher.
I did look for the key to the basement, but I couldn’t find it. Hard to say how much of a good turn it would’ve been to set those rats free after standing by while they’d starved, anyway.
Three times I opened and closed the front door, testing the depth of the rat catcher’s sleep, trying to make the softest click possible. The third time I heard him shift in the chair, and he mumbled something. The fourth time I opened the door I didn’t have the nerve to close it behind me, just ran. Two girls playing hopscotch outside Three Wishes Bakery saw me coming and hopped right out of the way. I ran six or seven blocks, the street one long dancing seam of brick and bicycle bells, hats and stockings, only stopping to turn corners when traffic lights wouldn’t let me pass. I ran so fast I don’t know how my pumps stayed on. A crosstown bus, then a subway ride to Port Authority. “Nervous” simply isn’t the word. I stayed standing on the bus ride, stuck close to the driver, looking behind us, looking ahead, my heart stirring this way and that like so much hot soup, my hands stuck deep in my pockets so my sleeves couldn’t be grabbed. I was ready for the rat catcher to appear. So ready. I knew what I’d do. If he tried to take me by the elbow, if he tried to turn me around, I’d come over all tough guy, slam my skull into his forehead. I stayed ready until I got to Port Authority, where the priority shifted to not getting trampled.
I really wasn’t expecting that kind of hullabaloo. If there’d been more time I’d just have stood stock-still with my eyes closed and my hands clapped over my ears, waiting for a chance to take a step toward the ticket counter without being pushed or yelled at. Folks were stampeding the last bus with everything they had—it was as if anyone unlucky enough to still be on the station platform turned into a pumpkin when the clock struck twelve. I tumbled into the bus with a particularly forceful gang of seven or so—a family, I think—tumbled off the bus again by way of getting caught up in the folds of some man’s greatcoat, and scuttled over to the ticket counter to try to find out just where this last bus was going. I saw the rat catcher in the ticket line, long and tall and adamant, four people away from the front, and I pulled my coat collar over my head. I saw the rat catcher get out of a cab and stride toward me, veins bulging out of his forehead, looking like he meant nothing but Business. I whirled around and saw the rat catcher again, pounding on the bus window, trying to find me among the passengers. Okay, so he wasn’t really there at all, but that was no reason to relax— it’d be just like him to turn up, really turn up, I mean, a moment or two after my guard came down. I saw him at least twenty times, coming at me from all angles, before I reached the counter. And when I finally did get there, the guy behind it told me it was closed for the night.
“When do you open up again?”
“Six in the morning.”
“But I’ve got to leave tonight.”
He was basically a jerk. “Jerk” isn’t a term I make free and easy use of. I don’t go around saying He/she/it is a jerk. But this guy was something special. There I was, looking right at him through the glass as I wept desperately, and there he was, petting his moustache as if it were a small and fractious creature. He sold me a ticket five minutes before the bus left, and he only did it because I slipped him an extra five dollars. I felt a bout of sarcasm coming on when he took the money, but made sure I had the ticket in my hand before I said: “My hero.” I was going to the last stop, on account of its being the farthest away—the ticket said the last stop was Flax Hill, and I’d never heard of it.
“Flax Hill? Whereabouts would you say that is?”
“New England,” my hero said. “You’re gonna miss that bus.”
“Where in New England? I mean . . . what state? Vermont, or what?”
He studied me with narrowed eyes, selecting a nerve, the fat juicy nerve of mine he’d most like to get upon. “Or what,” he said.
He drew the blinds down over the counter window, and I ran. There were only two seats left on the bus—one beside an elderly man and one beside a colored woman who was sleeping with her head laid up against the window. The man smelled somewhat urinaceous, so I sat beside the woman, who opened her eyes, asked me if she should get up, nodded, and fell asleep again when I said no. She looked just about worn-out.
Across the aisle, a baby started screaming, and its mother bounced it up and down on her knees, trying to soothe it into good behavior. But the shrieking went on and on, primal, almost glad—this protest was righteous. I couldn’t make up my mind whether the baby was male or female; the only certainties were near baldness and incandescent rage. The kid didn’t like its blanket, or its rattle, or the lap it was sat on, or the world . . . the time had come to demand quality. This continued until the mother, who had been staring into space, suddenly came to and gave her child a particularly vicious look, along with a piece of information: “I don’t have a baby that acts this way.” The baby seemed taken aback, hiccupped a few times, and fell silent.
I held that talisman ticket of mine smooth between my hands right up until the bus pulled out of the station, even though deep down I knew there was no way the rat catcher could have figured out where I was. It wouldn’t have occurred to him that I’d leave the state. Maybe he wouldn’t look too hard. Maybe he’d just shrug and think, Well, that’s cut down the grocery bill. (Actually, I knew he would be murderously mad—I could almost hear him bellowing: “I’m a RAT CATCHER. No two-bit wretch runs out on me, even if she is my daughter!”) Don’t think of his face—Flax Hill, Flax Hill. With a name like that, it was probably the countryside I was going to. Moonlight, hay, cows chewing cud and exchanging slow, conversational moos. It was a scenario I felt doubtful about. But I was game. I had to be.
As pillows go, my bag served pretty well. I listened to the drumming of the bus wheels on the road, made a note that running away from home was as easy as pie once you’d made your mind up to it, and fell asleep with my limbs carefully arranged so as not to touch my neighbor’s.
From Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Helen Oyeyemi.