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Another woman's daughter / Fiona Sussman.

Sussman, Fiona. (Author).

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Black Rock Branch - Bridgeport FIC SUSSMAN (Text to phone) 34000081137234 Adult Fiction Available -
Newfield Branch - Bridgeport FIC SUSSMAN (Text to phone) 34000081137259 Adult Fiction Available -
North Branch - Bridgeport FIC SUSSMAN (Text to phone) 34000081137267 Adult Fiction Available -

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General Note: Includes discussion questions (pages 291-293).
"Previously published in the UK as Shifting Colours by Allison & Busby / May 2014" -- Verso title page.
Bibliography, etc. Note: Includes bibliographical references (pages 287-288).
Summary, etc.: "Set against the tumultuous background of apartheid South Africa, a powerful and moving debut about family, sacrifice, and discovering what it means to belong... Celia Mphephu knows her place in the world. A black servant working in the white suburbs of 1960s Johannesburg, she's all too aware of her limitations. Nonetheless, she has found herself a comfortable corner: She has a job, can support her faraway family, and is raising her youngest child, Miriam. But as racial tensions explode, Celia's world shifts. Her employers decide to flee the political turmoil and move to England--and they ask to adopt Miriam and take her with them. Devastated at the prospect of losing her only daughter, yet unable to deny her child a safer and more promising future, Celia agrees, forever defining both their futures. As Celia fights against the shattering violence of her time, Miriam battles the quiet racism of England, struggling to find her place in a land to which she doesn't belong--until the call of her heritage inexorably draws her back to Africa to discover the truth behind her mother's choices and uncover a heartbreaking secret from long ago... READERS GUIDE INSIDE"--
Subject: Birthmothers Fiction
Adoptees Fiction
Racially mixed people Fiction
Family secrets Fiction
South Africa Fiction
England Fiction
Genre: Domestic fiction.

Syndetic Solutions - Excerpt for ISBN Number 9780425281048
Another Woman's Daughter
Another Woman's Daughter
by Sussman, Fiona
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Another Woman's Daughter

AUTHOR'S NOTE PROLOGUE She stands in front of the stove, her black frame erect and proud, wooden spoon poised over a battered preserving pan. She is completely still, seemingly mesmerized by the rise and fall of the sugary sea. It is a hot African morning and the air is thick with the sweet smell of fig jam. Just when I think she'll never move again, she scoops up a spoonful of the scalding liquid and drops it onto a saucer, then, tilting and rotating the blob of gold, she checks for fine creases in the sample. I cross my fingers, hopeful for one more saucer to lick before the golden sweetness is locked away in squat glass jars with shiny brass lids--treasure that will belong to someone else. This is the first memory I have of Mme , my dearest mother, the first sweet memory. But it remains tangled with the other events of that dreadful day; I've never been able to tease the two apart. Many years have passed and still this picture slides into my mind uninvited, the edges polished, the lines clearly defined. I can almost smell her--a comforting cocktail of Sunlight soap and wood smoke--and touch the beads of perspiration hiding in the creases behind her knees. Sometimes her laughter bursts into my head or I hear her call me--my name full and round in her mouth. Frustratingly, though, as with all the memories I have of Mme , her face always blurs under the pressure of my focus. PART ONE CHAPTER ONE 1959 Miriam Mme teetered on tiptoes under the low ceiling beams, placing the last jars of fig jam on the shelf beside the other preserves--a fantastic collection of peaches, cling stone plums, deep purple mulberries, tightly packed apricots, mango chutneys, and lemon achar. I counted one, two, three, four . . . nine fat jars of jam transformed by the fingers of morning sunlight into pots of amber. As she balanced there on the three-legged stool, I inspected the soles of her big black feet. They were white on the underside and black on top. I examined mine. They were pale on the bottom too, but not rutted with the same gullies and canyons of hard, dry skin. Mme said one day, when my journey had been longer, my feet would look more like hers. She jumped down off the stool and landed with a thud, her bottom wobbling under the taut fabric of her maid's uniform. I jumped up and down trying to make mine jiggle too, but I couldn't see far enough over my shoulder to know if it did. Gideon, the garden boy from next door, said Mme had the biggest, most beautiful bottom in the whole of Johannesburg. He would peer over the garden wall whenever she passed and shake his head in admiration. I hoped my bottom would grow round and wobbly like Mme 's. A cool breeze swept over the open stable-type door and into the kitchen, diluting the morning heat. Mme shifted her gaze to the kitchen clock, its faded hands edging around the small white face. " Hau , Miriam! Ten o'clock. Still so much to do." She scooped me up and pressed me to her. I loved all her big bits--her bosom, her bottom, her shiny black calves. She had no angles or peaks, just gentle hills and gradual valleys. "Today is a special day, child. The Madam, she will come home with a new baby. We must make everything good." Mme was excited, so I was too. Sitting me down at the kitchen table, she secured a tea towel around my neck, picked a plump mango from the fruit bowl, and, with a small paring knife, began to strip away the thick orange skin. She did this with maddening skill, leaving scarcely a trace of sweet flesh on the peels for me to gnaw at while I waited. The fragrance of the ripe fruit blended with the smell of caramelized sugar still hanging in the air. I breathed in a hungry breath. Mangoes were even better than jam. Then I was chasing the slippery orange ball around my plate, wrestling with it and shrieking each time I lost hold. Finally, Mme secured it for me with the stab of a fork, and at last I was able to sink my fingers into the flesh of my favorite fruit. It wasn't long before all that was left of my treat was a pale, hairy pip, which Mme rinsed under the tap so I could add another member to my Mamelodi mango family. "This is Baby Mamelodi," I said, teasing the long, stringy fibers into a frizz. Mme frowned as she wiped clean my sticky mustache. "Babies do not have big hair when they are born. You will see the Madam's baby. Maybe it will have no hair." No hair? My skin prickled. I didn't like the thought of that. It sounded like a snail without its shell. "My baby will have hair," I said defiantly, putting Baby Mamelodi out on the back step to dry. Mme shrugged. Later I would draw on eyes, a nose, and a wide-open mouth; Mme said babies could cry a lot. But the hair thing kept bothering me like an annoying fly, and later, when no one was watching, I chopped off Baby Mamelodi's hair. As Mme moved through the rest of her chores, I drove a cotton reel between her busy feet, watched as a tribe of ants swarmed over a blob of jam, and arranged a circle of pebbles around the giant pine tree in the garden. Mme said it had once been a small piccanin of a Christmas tree the Madam had tossed out. Now it stretched to the sky, its roots lifting the slate paving into crooked ripples. By the time the sun was high in the sky, a honeyed smell of furniture wax filled the huge home. Bathroom basins boasted gleaming white bowls, wooden floors shone, and the brass reflected all the funny faces I pulled. The house was ready. "Everything done," Mme said, sinking onto the kitchen stool with a mug of hot tea. I leaned in against her. Her skin was shiny and her uniform damp and strong smelling. She poured some tea into an egg cup for me, added a drop of milk and two cubes of sugar, then stirred. Now we could drink tea together like grown-ups. I stirred again-- clink, clink, clink . Then the room was quiet, except for the refrigerator humming in the corner like a hive of bees. I was just about to take my first sip of tea when the neighbor's dogs began to bark, then the doorbell screamed, cracking open the afternoon stillness. I shot under Mme 's skirt. "The Madam is here," she whispered, her words steady and reassuring. Taking my hand, Mme started toward the front door. "Remember, we must not upset the new baby." "Celi-a!" The Madam's voice forced its way through the open louvers into the entrance hall. "Celia!" "Coming, Madam." As Mme turned the key, the dark panels of wood lunged toward us. I ran and hid behind the umbrella stand, a hollowed-out elephant's leg. It smelled of sour milk and damp clay. I wished I hadn't hidden there. I didn't like the leg. Somewhere in the veld was an elephant hobbling around on three legs. Peering out from behind it, I saw the Madam standing in the doorway, her wide shape silhouetted by the afternoon sun. Rita Steiner wasn't pretty like Mme . She had a curiously flat face, with black button eyes and purplish-colored lips, and her big body was draped in loose skin like an elephant's slack hide. She had long brown hair, which she kept twisted in a knot at the nape of her neck. Mme said it fell right to her bottom when it was let out. I wished the Madam would let it out. Every night I pulled at my frizzy black curls till tears of pain squeezed out of my eyes, but still I couldn't get my hair to reach below my ears. The Madam rested her hand on the shiny brass knob--a smooth white hand, which didn't belong to the rest of her lumpy body. She moved out of the bright light into the cool darkness of the house. Behind her, hidden until now, was the Master--Michael Steiner. I liked him. He was long and thin like a stick insect, with a nest of brown hair confusing his straight lines, and kind gray eyes that smiled when he spoke. Today his eyes were red and his shoulders curled inward, like a piece of wet paper that had dried awkwardly. Mme looked down. She said it was rude to look a white person in the eyes, but my eyes were very disobedient and kept creeping up. Sunlight forced its way into the entrance hall. An African afternoon clamored to be let in--the smell of frangipani, the cricking of crickets, a furious blue sky. My mind began to wander to acorn houses, pet lions, and painted warriors. The wooden door banged shut. The Steiners were standing in the hallway, their arms empty. I peered out through the louver slats. The car was empty. No one said anything. No one moved. An awful gloom coiled itself around the room like a snake squeezing out all the air and light. I smiled at the Master. Mme frowned at me. "Bring us tea in the sunroom, then get the bags out of the car." The Madam's voice cut a hole in the afternoon. "Yes, Madam." I wondered why the Madam was walking in such a funny way. She looked as if she were balancing a ball between her legs. Once I made it all the way to the bottom of the garden with a tennis ball gripped between my knees. I didn't drop it once. "Hello, Miriam." Michael Steiner stepped out of the shadows and rested a warm hand on my head. I wasn't sure whether to smile or not, so I did a quick up-and-down one. The Madam disappeared into the sunroom and the Master quickly followed. "Come, child," Mme whispered, ushering me back to the sunlight and sweetness of the kitchen, and we left the entrance hall to the dark tambuti table that lived there and the wrinkly old elephant leg balancing in the corner. For the next few days the Madam stayed upstairs in her bedroom with the blinds lowered and the thick drapes drawn. Mme took her meals up on a tray, and later collected them, barely touched. Once, when I followed Mme , the Madam complained that just seeing me sent pains through her swollen bosom and tugged at her collapsed belly. From then on I was confined to the kitchen as Mme moved through her jobs on tiptoe and voices were kept to a whisper. The days that followed were slow and tedious, unless the Steiners were fighting. Then their angry words would burst open the long silences and I'd yearn for the boredom of before. "No, Michael, we won't try again. That's it! You hear me? Enough!" "Reet, I know how you feel. I--" "You have no idea! I can't go through it again. Not again! Two miscarriages, and now . . . now my daughter stillborn!" So the Madam's baby had missed two carriages and was still waiting to be born. The Madam's voice rattled and shook as if she were about to laugh, then she started to cry. "I can't do it anymore, Michael." I covered my ears, but still her voice found its way into my head. "And besides, I don't really want a child. This has been about you all along. What you want." "That's unfair, Rita. You know it is. You've longed for a child as much as I have. You're hurting--I understand that. Just don't let it come between us. We can--" "Leave me alone! Get out!" Master Michael asked Mme to make up a bed for him in the spare room, and after that he and the Madam slept in separate beds. It must have been lonely. I would have hated to sleep in a big bed all on my own. What if the tokoloshe came? The long hours turned into long days, and then long weeks. Darkness skulked in every corner and lived under every floorboard. It hid beneath the roof tiles and pushed down on all of us, making our minds heavy and our bodies sluggish. It was a relief to escape into the sunshine. Then one morning, as the leaves on the trees began to fall, no longer able to hold on to autumn's gold, the Madam came downstairs, had breakfast, and left for work. Life in the big house returned to the way it had once been, and no mention was ever made of the day the baby didn't come home. CHAPTER TWO 1959 Celia It was easy to forget what lay beyond, living in Saxonwold--the leafy, white man's suburb, where the engines of large cars sung deep-voiced hymns, the lawns were grasshopper green, and the thwop of tennis balls being hit back and forth infected us all with a lazy calm. The street where I worked was lined with jacarandas, and in spring the road was covered with a carpet of purple petals, which softened the sound of tires on the tarmac and filled the air with the scent of summer. I was one of the lucky ones. I had a pass permitting me to live on my employers' premises, far from the townships and compounds where smoke and corrugated iron traced a different landscape. I could walk down the quiet, shady streets, even when a police van prowling for illegal overstayers appeared from nowhere, sending other black people scattering like pigeons. I didn't have to wake at four in the morning, wash with cold water from a communal tap, then dress by the shy light of a candle. Nor did I have to catch a train into the city, followed by several buses into the suburbs, sharing the journey with skelms and tsotsis-- township thugs who harassed, robbed, and raped. For eight years I had managed to escape this reality. The best part of my day was lunchtime, that precious half hour when I could sit on the grassy verge with the other maids and houseboys in the street, talking, laughing, and sharing--a salve for the pain of faraway families and demanding madams. One of us usually had a baby strapped to our back. Rarely it was our own; more often it was one of our white charges. Regardless, the child always seemed content, wrapped close to a mother's flesh and rocked by constant movement and chatter. My Miriam started life in just such a way--on my back--her warm, pudgy body pressed hard up against mine. Fearful of losing my job, I had worked until just before the pains came, and returned from the hospital up north only hours after pushing my daughter into the world. I was back at work before the stream of blood sapping my strength ceased to flow. When Miriam grew too big to be carried, she would potter about nearby, foraging for insects and treasures, and at night snuggle up close, her small body molding itself to mine. Miriam--my big little shadow. For a time I managed to ignore the day looming like a storm cloud on the horizon--the day I would have to send my only daughter back to the homelands. She couldn't stay in the white suburbs. The law decreed that, like her brothers before her, she must return to her place of birth just outside of Louis Trichardt, a small farming community in the Northern Transvaal. And once again I would have to suffer a separation that would leave me with a deep donga in my heart and an emptiness in my soul. What rhino deserts her calf? What elephant leaves her young? Can a mother turn away from her child simply because she is told to do so? So I clung to my Miriam for as long as I dared. With time this became harder to do--juggling my job, the law of the land, and the needs of my cheeky little sprite. Miriam was conspicuous; she had energy. No longer content to simply follow me around on my daily chores, she wanted to play and yearned for the company of others. Sometimes, out of frustration and panic, I would find myself chiding her for just being a child who ran and wriggled and laughed and breathed. In the end I realized I could not contain her and therefore could not keep her. Like a beautiful song that eventually draws to a close, so the last handful of weeks passed, and a full orange moon hung once again in the sky. I lay awake wrestling with what was to come; the next day I would have to book a taxi to transport my last born away and out of my life. -- "Sorry, Madam." I hovered behind her as she sat eating her breakfast. Rita Steiner looked up from the newspaper she was reading. " Hau , Madam. I must be for one week off work." She straightened, put down her paper, and swallowed her mouthful of toast. "For a week!" My chest tightened. "What is it anyway? Another funeral?" she said, irritation lining her words. "Oh no, Madam . I must take Miriam to her granny in the north. She cannot stay in Joburg no more. She must go back to the homeland like my other children, or police will make trouble for me." The Madam shook her head. "No, Celia. Sorry, but no ." The skin on her neck had risen into fat red blotches and her bosom was heaving up and down. I did not understand. The Madam never showed strong emotion. Her white way was always so clipped and tidy, her face careful and controlled. Only once had I spied something different, something raw and unchecked--the day her baby died. "I can't let you go. I'm sorry, Celia. It's a bad time; I'm just too busy at work." My head felt light. I swayed unsteadily as I tried to understand what this answer would mean. I should have been pleased; I could keep Miriam for longer. Yet my happiness was a clumsy bird, unable to take off. I understood there could be no happy ending for a black person who turned her eyes from the law. Maybe the Madam saw me dig my fingers into the back of my hand; perhaps she spotted the panic of a trapped animal in my eyes; because suddenly, as if a tight belt had been loosened, her expression changed and she pulled a smile across her face. "Later in the year, hey? You leave it with me. I'll try and make some inquiries about getting a special dispensation or something. I mean honestly, we can't send such a bright young button to a farm school, can we?" She paused, waiting for me to answer, as if we were engaged in a real conversation. But what could I say? "Now, today I want you to polish the brass," she said, picking up her newspaper again. "I've bought a new tin of Brasso. And remember to cover the table with a thick layer of newspaper. See how you've scratched the surface here with one of those heavy pots?" I nodded and turned to go. "Oh, another thing, Celia." "Yes, Madam." "I'm having guests on Saturday night so I'll need you to work late. Ask one of your friends to help, if you like. Maybe Mrs. Brink's maid, Sarah." She picked up her half-eaten piece of toast. Fig jam dripped onto the plate. "She must be here by six, and I'll need her until at least midnight." -- So life continued, with Miriam shadowing me as I scrubbed toilets, peeled vegetables, polished floors, hung washing, and cleaned windows, her presence and cheerful chatter lending a welcome lightness to my day. Sometimes I sang to her as I worked, and, when not too busy, told her the stories my mother had once told me. These were the days we both loved best. She would listen wide-eyed as I explained how the leopard got his spots, why the giraffe's long neck once became knotted, and how people in the villages went blind if the smoke from burning tambuti wood got in their eyes. These tales carried us both beyond the concrete confines of Johannesburg to the red earth and simple life of my childhood--to a magical place where we trembled when the lion roared, laughed as the monkeys fooled, and basked in the glow of the sun as it set behind the old thorn tree. At the end of each day, around five o'clock, Miriam would listen out for the sound of a car horn announcing the Madam's arrival, then she would race outside, beating me to the gate. There she would stand, out of breath and to attention, ready to help carry in parcels and bags from the car. Sometimes the Madam arrived home with a special surprise for Miriam--a currant bun or packet of Marie biscuits--which she would be invited to share with the Madam in the sunroom. Gradually Miriam grew less wary of my employer, and although she held on to the reserve every black child was brought up to have in the presence of a white person, I saw how much she looked forward to the Madam's homecoming--a welcome relief from the monotony of her days with only me for company. One afternoon, as I dusted bookshelves and Miriam gulped down a long glass of lychee juice, the Madam reached into her big maroon bag and pulled out a book with bright orange letters scattered across the cover. "Miriam, would you like to learn to read?" I turned. My child was nodding excitedly. Fire and frost swept through me. I could not read. It would be good for her to learn . . . but I would not be the one to teach her. Up until that moment all Miriam's discoveries had been through my eyes; she had held my hand and I had led. Now that privilege was being pried from me. "Ooh, yes, please, Madam, thank you!" she cried, her hungry excitement washing over the room. And it wasn't long before her world, and so mine, burst its banks to embrace castles and crowns, Wonderland and Toad Hall. CHAPTER THREE March 1960 Celia The dead lay between lost shoes and scattered litter, their faces in the dirt, their limbs holding on to the shape of their last movement. Their blood showed up black in the newsprint. I covered Miriam's eyes and took another look at the photograph that owned the front page of The Star. " Hau, sixty-nine dead ," Johanna whispered, her hands trembling like mine. "Too many wounded." It was our lunch break and we were sitting in the generous shade of an old jacaranda tree. The day was hot and dry, but the mood dark. Philemon, the gardener from number forty-three, kept reading. I held Miriam tightly on my lap; danger felt close. But she squirmed and wriggled, unhappy to be restrained. There were crickets to be caught and ants to arrest. "This is just the beginning," Philemon said, lowering the newspaper. "There will be more violence. You will see. And not only in Sharpeville," he warned. "It is going to spread. The young people, they have had enough." "So bad, so bad, so--" Johanna kept repeating. "It was a peaceful protest," Philemon exclaimed, his voice rising above a safe whisper. "They were carrying no weapons. The crowd was well behaved. Yet the police, they gave no warning. Women and children shot in the back as they ran away!" Was this the Philemon I knew? Philemon with the missing tooth and mischievous smile? The "yes- baas , no- baas " garden boy? The dependable Rhodesian worker? Anger distorted the calm lines of his face, and it scared me to see him this way. I stood up. It was two o'clock. My lunch break was over. "See you tomorrow, sister," I think they said. I barely heard them. The situation in the country was not right. I knew that. But to try to change it would only bring more suffering and bloodshed. It was easier to keep things the way they were; to dream was too dangerous. That afternoon I worked on all fours outside the Madam's study, rubbing beeswax into the wooden floors with such force my arms ached. I was trying to scour the horror from my mind and erase the new and frightening uncertainty the day had imported. The floor gleamed and I could see the shadow of my reflection in the golden strips of wood, my silhouette interrupted only where dark grooves divided each floorboard. "Yesterday thousands of black South Africans answered the call for protest against the pass laws. Peaceful demonstrations took place . . ." I stopped. "Early in the day, in Sharpeville, an unarmed crowd started to gather outside the local police station." The radio had been turned on in the Madam's study. I shuffled closer and put my ear to the cool door. ". . . policemen inside the station soon outnumbered . . . squadron of aircraft flew low over the crowd in an attempt to . . . reinforcements were called . . . conflicting reports . . . panic . . . no warning . . . opened fire . . . people turned . . . police continued to shoot . . . shot in the back. Women and children are among the dead. There has been international outrage. In a written statement, the Minister of Police--" Then without any warning, the study door swung open and I was staring at the Madam's green and gold sandals, her pale flesh spilling over the straps like rising bread dough. "Celia!" "Madam." I leaned back on my haunches, my head bowed, my heart beating out the long seconds that followed. Finally she spoke. "Bring me a jug of cold water." I jumped up and hurried to the kitchen, my breathing fast and loud in my ears. With shaking hands I grabbed a jug from the cupboard and opened the tap, water spraying over my face and uniform. "Hau!" I cried, chiding myself for my clumsiness and more. I twisted the ice tray, and frozen cubes dropped like hailstones into the pitcher, screeching and squealing as they hit the tepid water. Quickly I sliced a lemon, crushed the thick circles of fruit against the glass, then covered the jug with a crocheted cloth, before placing it on a tray. "Put it down here," the Madam said evenly, pointing to the bamboo trolley beside her. I moved into the room, my unease starting to settle. The Madam did not appear to be any different, despite her having discovered me eavesdropping. I froze. Lying on top of the trolley was a copy of The Star. Time slowed. The Madam followed my stare. Her cheeks rippled. She looked back at me. I tried to look away, but I couldn't; the Madam had wound her gaze too tightly around mine. Then in two quick movements she'd folded the newspaper and slipped it into the wastepaper basket, her eyes never once leaving my face. I felt sick, as if I'd unwittingly uncovered some terrible secret, as if I had somehow found her out. Her eyes searched mine, looking for a way in. I did not see anything. I know nothing. This day is no different from any other . After what seemed like forever, she leaned forward and picked up the jug. The sound of the ice cubes colliding with each other cracked open the silence. I sucked in a stuttering breath. That was when I noticed the Madam's fingers, which were gripping the jug handle; the newsprint had stained them black. In the days following the Sharpeville Massacre, violence broke out in townships across the country. There was a boldness in the eyes of the black youths--an insolence I had not witnessed before--and it frightened me. These township kids had looked down the barrel of the future and seen little hope. They had nothing to lose. Police vans were fuller and appeared from nowhere, more often than usual. Whites bought handguns and tiny tear-gas canisters, which could be slipped easily into handbags and blazer pockets; vicious dogs paced the perimeters of huge homes; and snatched snippets of dinner-party conversations were always about "getting out." During our lunch breaks, the other maids and I pooled the crumbs of information we'd gathered from whispered rumors and stolen nibs of news. Slowly we pieced together a patchwork picture of what lay beyond the nervous calm of Saxonwold. Riots were spreading. A man by the name of Nelson Mandela--a member of the African National Congress--had publicly burned his passbook and called for countrywide protest strikes. Black activists were being detained and tortured at Marshall Square, while some simply mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again. Others were tossed from fast-moving vehicles, to lie like bloating sheep in the midday heat. Unease hung over the country like a thick fog, dulling the gold from the mines, fading the rich crops of corn, and cooling the endless sunshine. And each day the knot in my stomach drew tighter. I didn't want trouble. This was the life I had been born into, the life I knew. Against a background of hardship, I had found a safe and comfortable corner. Change was frightening and promised nothing. Then a state of emergency was declared, and just as if power and telephone lines had been brought tumbling down in a storm, all free communication ceased. Newspapers were muzzled, radio stations gagged, and public gatherings of more than three black people banned. Even our lunchtime get-togethers had to be cautiously pared. The police and the army were everywhere. The Madam seemed curter and the Master more distant. There was distrust in every shopkeeper's eye, even old Master Gupta's. I felt guilt and shame for all the trouble my people were causing. Finally, an eerie calm spread over the country and hung there uncertainly. After a time, rumors started to subside and worries, even mine, abated. One morning I awoke to find this pretend peace had become permanent. The white suburbs once more breathed with ease, and life as we had always known it began again. CHAPTER FOUR October 1960 Celia "Celia, the Master and I would like to talk with you after you've finished your dinner." It was an unusually chilly October evening and the Madam had rung the bell, summoning me to clear the dinner dishes. The Madam, the Master, and Miriam had just finished their evening meal. The first time Miriam was invited to join the Steiners for a meal had come as a shock to me, as if I'd chanced upon a burglar in my room. Yet when I looked back, there were many clues; my eyes had just been blind to them. For Miriam to join the Steiners for dinner was as natural as one foot following the other. Miriam loved everything about these evenings--the heavy pieces of silver cutlery, the stiff white napkins I'd starched and ironed earlier in the day, the salt and pepper cellars in the shape of small dogs. Best of all were the tales Master Michael would tell her--he could stretch out a story like a beautiful sunset, painting it with color and magic and wonder. Twisting his lips, peaking his eyebrows, and making funny accents, he'd captivate Miriam so completely I'd have to bump the back of her chair to remind her to eat. Stories were a luxury, food a necessity. I knew the steak would have no gristle and there would be no pockets of green in the potatoes. Miriam's favorite story was "The Gift of the Magi." I came to know it well. She never tired of hearing how the two poor lovers each gave up the one thing most precious to them in order to be able to buy a present for the other. Whenever Master Michael told the story, Miriam was always hopeful that, somehow, their predicament would be solved. But as Della's long hair inevitably fell to the ground, Miriam would be gripped by the calamity of it all, as if she were hearing the story for the very first time. " Hau , Master!" she'd cry, devastated that Della had sold her hair to buy Jim a chain for his watch, only to discover he in turn had sold his watch to buy combs for her beautiful long hair. And later, when the moon was high in the sky, she'd lie next to me, reliving the evening and retelling the well-worn tale over and over. " Mme , Della was too silly. When my hair grows long I will never cut it!" -- I had been aware for some time of a change at the Saxonwold house. The mood had grown as light and easy as a butterfly in flight. Even the Madam seemed happy. "Take Sunday off, Celia," she'd say. "Just set the breakfast table and that'll be fine." Or, "I've left out some pickled fish for you to have with your mielie pap today." I noticed too that the bed in the spare room had often not been slept in, while most mornings the sheets on the big bed were in complete disarray. The Master started playing records again, and his white man's music would travel out of the wide-open windows on an evening breeze to slip under my door and fill my room with gentle sound. In the midst of everything, in the center of this new lightness, was my Miriam--her little brown body running, her infectious laughter ringing, and her wonderment spilling over into the airy, high-ceilinged rooms. Then things started to really change. Master Michael began coming home from work early to take Miriam fishing in the creek at the bottom of the garden, and one Saturday in late September, the Madam took her on an outing to the zoo. On another weekend the Master and Madam took her rowing on Zoo Lake, in one of the brightly colored boats I'd seen bobbing on the water's edge. At first I was happy that my child had something to do other than follow me around on my mundane chores, but after a while, panic started to build inside me. Where would this end? Would Miriam grow up expecting a life that could never be hers? Would the police send me back to my homeland for ignoring the law? But most of my misgivings would evaporate as soon as she rushed into my room panting like a puppy, her cheeks sticky with juice, her round eyes dancing. Then she would become the eager storyteller and I, her attentive audience. This particular evening, however, the Steiners' request troubled me. Had something gone missing? Had a plate been chipped or a vase broken? Somehow I knew it would be more than this. I was tired. My eyes were burning and my limbs ached. The long day and my monthly bleed had sucked the energy out of me. I dried the cutlery and set the breakfast table, then swallowed my dinner in the dim light of my room. The cornmeal porridge was stiff and the gravy cold, but I was too distracted to warm it. My quarters came off the back of the house, my room opening onto a concrete yard and sagging washing line. Off to the right, down a steep flight of stairs, was the outside toilet I shared with Solomon, the gardener, and any other black, colored, or Indian tradesman who might visit. My room was small and fitted little more than my bed, which balanced on four empty paraffin cans to keep Miriam and me safe from the tokoloshe --that mischievous evil spirit. Under the bed was stashed whatever I couldn't fit into the old wardrobe pushed hard up against the back wall. The stale air of close living had dulled the white walls, leaving them sallow and grubby looking, even after I'd scrubbed them down. Beside the door, on top of an empty tomato crate, was my Primus stove. When not in use, I covered it with a bright yellow tea towel the Madam had tossed out because of a rip in the hem. I had to be careful about taking things from the rubbish--once the Madam accused me of stealing a scarf she'd forgotten she had thrown out. Across one wall of my room, hidden by a permanently drawn frill of faded orange curtain, ran a long narrow window--the slit of an eye looking over a shaded courtyard where the Steiners ate their lunch most weekends. The Madam had planted a vigorous bougainvillea creeper to block my window from view, and, successful in this task, it prevented all but the faintest thread of light from reaching my room. A thick woody vine had even nudged its way inside, preventing me from shutting my window completely. In winter the gap ushered in an icy draft, and in summer served as a highway for a steady stream of insects. I put a chattering Miriam to bed, then made my way back to the house, hovering outside the lounge until the Madam called to me. "Come. Come in, Celia. Sit down," she said, gesturing to the couch. Confused by this new familiarity, I balanced on the edge of the seat. It felt wrong to be sitting in the lounge I cleaned and dusted every day. Only once before, when the Steiners had been away on holiday, had I dared eat at their long dining room table--madam of their home for one day. Master Michael stood behind his wife, his eyes avoiding me. Excerpted from Another Woman's Daughter by Fiona Sussman All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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