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1 Dancing On Tiptoe In Black Rain

This woman is a deep wound,

The sanctuary through which we enter the world.

Our road is the light

That shines from her eyes.

This deep wound is our mother,

The mother each of us gives birth to.

I was eleven then, or perhaps younger. The late afternoon summer weather was as unsettled as my mind. The rain would suddenly start pelting down, choosing me as its target. Afterward, I would see that the sleeves covering my skinny arms had angrily twisted themselves into stubborn wrinkles, and that my pant legs, even more obviously angered, as stiff as spindly sticks, kept an uncivil silence.

So I would say to my arms, "Misses Don't, don't be angry." I called my arms "the Misses Don't," because they most often followed my brain's bidding.

Then I would say to my legs, "Misses Do, let's go home to Mama, then everything will be okay." I called my legs "the Misses Do," because I thought that they most often followed the bidding of my body, paying no attention to my brain.

I would then set off with my Misses Do and Don't, soothing them with sweet talk along the way. Of course, these were private, unspoken conversations.

Sometimes I felt like I was a whole group of people. It was a lot more fun that way. We exchanged ideas all the time, telling one another all our problems. I always had plenty of problems.

But what was really strange that day was when I looked up from the soggy Misses Do and Don't and was surprised to see that none of the people around me was wet. Why was I always the first one to get soaked in the rain? I didn't understand, but I was much more easygoing than my Misses Do and Don't. I didn't get angry.

What's the good of getting angry?

Once, after a thunderstorm, an ethereal rainbow hung suspended across the horizon, and our courtyard, still drenched with rain, was carpeted with the rich green leaves brought down by the wind and rain. In front of our house there was a really huge date tree. I was sure that it was much larger than the courtyard date trees described in my schoolbooks, because its great armlike limbs were the largest I had ever seen. Stretching completely across the courtyard, they rested firmly on the top of the high walls, forming a great, protective crown. Every summer they filled our courtyard with round, crisp, honey-sweet dates as fat as little pigs. Right after the storm, before the rain puddles had disappeared, I went out to collect the big dates that had been blown down. There was a tiny sparrow, head cocked to one side, still dazed, clinging to a fallen limb. I quickly cupped it in my hands and put it in a cage we had, with fresh water and millet.

My mother told me that if I kept it, it would die of frustration, because it had its own life, its own home.

I replied that I loved it very much and that I would feed it.

Mother said it wouldn't eat what I gave it.

I wouldn't listen.

And after a few days my sparrow died, because it refused to eat.

When he saw that I had a bird, one of the neighbor's children brought home a pussycat. Already full grown, it was sleek and fat, and its readiness to accept amazed me. It would eat whatever food it came across, sleep wherever there was a place to curl up, waggle its tail and play up to whoever came along, and attach itself to whoever provided its saucer of milk. As a result, unlike my stubborn, intractable sparrow, it survived. Since that time I have detested monsters like that cat who would do anything just to stay alive. To me they are nothing more than a bunch of depraved opportunists, like many more of different types that I have encountered since I have grown up.

The sparrow incident upset me terribly, and, in my eleventh year, gave me a lesson in life. I always counseled my index finger, "Miss Chopstick, we have to learn how to control our temper or we'll do ourselves in."

I called my index finger "Miss Chopstick" because she helped me eat.

I once heard my mama say that the faster you run in the rain, the faster you get wet. But like other people who pay no heed before they get wet, I continued to act and think as before. On the one hand, I soothed my Misses Do and Don't, while on the other, I tried to figure out just what had happened. Eventually, I convinced myself that it was something to do with my nerves or my blood or some other unobservable inner thing that made me run too fast, so I got soaking wet.

I was walking home alone. I knew that none of my little classmates wanted to or would dare to walk with me. No one wanted anything to do with me, because, in addition to being the youngest member of the class, I was skinny and weak and not very outgoing. An even more important reason was that Mr. Ti, the teacher in charge of our class, had been encouraging them to exclude me. I couldn't understand this and had long resented him for it.

I was very angry and hurt because he always tried to embarrass me and make me look stupid in front of the class. Although I was the youngest member of the class and not a particularly clever girl, on occasion I would stand up to him. When I was nervous, I would mix up my left and right hands, and my right hand would forget how to write. But I was always trying to prove that I wasn't the class dunce.

One time, he asked my mother to come into the office. He wanted her to take me to the hospital to see if I was mentally handicapped. He said I behaved like a mute. He had no idea that my brain was racing incessantly.

How mean of him to say I was "handicapped"!

Although only twenty-eight or twenty-nine at the time, and nearly ten years my mother's junior, Ti was terribly abrupt and impolite with her.

I remember my mother standing humbly in front of him, holding my hand. Outside the office, under the green shade of a huge black date tree, the three of us made a tense little group. I remember that there was a crude concrete Ping-Pong table behind us, its surface pitted from constant use by the children, who had very few recreational facilities at the time. The pockmarks must have made it impossible for players to react quickly enough to return the ball, like the distraction of having someone continually shouting at you.

The three of us standing there facing one another formed anything but a friendly, easy group. He was a heavy-set man. I could see angry, invisible flames licking up in the space between us. I remember clearly that his elbow was on a level with my eyes. I am absolutely certain of this detail, because I was comparing our heights at the time and my eyes never left his muscular arms. Although I didn't actually fly at him and bite him, because I kept restraining myself, that thick arm must have borne the imprint of my tiny teeth, because I willed it so.

It was at that time that I realized that even when I grew up, I would not be as tall or strong as he was, nor would I ever be able to get the best of him. It was through my mother's behavior that I discovered a cruel, incontrovertible fact he was a male.

My mother's patient reserve almost had me feeling that I should apologize to him. She told him I was still an innocent child, just a bit oversensitive and stubborn, and inordinately shy.

Mr. Ti said that I was a "problem child," that I spoke when I shouldn't and was silent when I should speak.

I thought he was a shameless liar. I wasn't like that at all.

Our school's Office of Instruction had been conducting weekly classroom assessments of the teachers. The first time they checked our class, I was the only student who had nothing to say. The others all said what Mr. Ti had instructed them to say the day before. It was nothing more than an orchestrated eulogy to Mr. Ti. The only one who didn't speak up, I stared down at my desk or looked at the wall. When the class monitor spoke of how Mr. Ti exhausted himself marking our assignments, she actually burst into tears.

My heart was pounding, and I was so upset and ashamed that I couldn't utter a single word.

As soon as the man from the Office of Instruction had left, Teacher Ti jerked me out of my seat and dressed me down, making me feel even worse.

At the next inspection, I mustered up enough courage to be the first to speak.

I said, "At the last inspection I didn't say anything, and Teacher Ti criticized me severely afterward. I know I was in the wrong, so this time I want to make up for my bad behavior. Teacher Ti is a dedicated man. For example, to help with today's inspection he stayed very late last night coaching us in what we should say."

After blurting out this long speech, I jubilantly sat down.

But as soon as the inspector had left, Teacher Ti bellowed, "Ni Niuniu, stand up!"

Again, he jerked me out of my seat and scolded me, this time even more severely than the last time. I really had no idea what I had done wrong. I swear that I meant only to praise him, even though I really didn't want to.

It wasn't only that I didn't understand what I had done wrong; the way his face changed so abruptly had upset me so badly that all I could do was look at my feet and mumble.

He demanded that I explain myself, but I couldn't bring myself to speak to him. As shy and timid as I was, there was no way that I could reveal to him even a single word of my inner turmoil. There was nothing I could do but stand there rigidly like a mute.

After that, nobody in the class would speak to me, and naturally I felt there was no one I could trust. I can't say exactly why, but I felt that even the daily weather was false, and when I was away from home I was a stray black cloud lost in the clear void. As I walked along, I said to myself that without hypocrisy the world would stop turning.

Every day my only wish was to get back home as soon as possible.

I couldn't depend on my father. That was one thing I was very clear on. He was an arrogant and pushy civil servant who never got very far. For many years (probably from about the time I was born), he had been pushed around and passed over. This intensified his arrogance, rancor, and neurosis. He thought it was beneath him to sit down and talk with a primary school teacher, even though it might have an effect on my future. And Teacher Ti himself was such an arrogant male that I was sure that if you gave them a few minutes together, they would hate each other. Because they were males.

So it was always Mother who went to see Teacher Ti, simply because Father had no interest in my affairs. In fact, I could feel that he had no interest in my mother either, that to him our problems were one and the same. He thought about nothing but himself.

I decided that when I grew up, I would not marry a man like my father, who neglected Mother and me. At that moment, it occurred to me that I should marry the Dean of Instruction. He could rake Teacher Ti over the coals, even box his ears. He wouldn't have to let his shame stew inside, as Mother and I had to do.

But then I thought about the kitchen renovations we were having done at that time. Not only was father no good at that kind of work, he also irritated the workers Mother had hired to help with the job, making it very difficult for her, constantly having to apologize for him. Seeing my mother's difficulties, I vowed that I would marry a man who knew how to build kitchens.

By this time my mind was in a mess. Whom should I choose? The Dean of Instruction or a man who could build kitchens?

The black raindrops still fell with a persistent madness out of a clear evening sky, surrounding me with a harsh and jarring clatter.

Through the rain, I suddenly caught sight of the silent silhouette of my mother leaning forward, stepping lightly on tiptoe, at the entrance to our street a woman unswayed in her conviction, seeking light under the combined oppressiveness of the real rain and of the black rain that falls in human life. To her, the drenched figure of her daughter in the distance was a small slip of flame threatened by the flood around her a flame that inspired her to rise to her toes in a dance of body and spirit upon the stage of human life.

| A Private Life | 2 My One-Eyed Nanny