Come a Stranger
Mina jumped out over the back steps and landed in a fifth position demi-plié. Arms out, back straight, she bent her knees into grandplié, and then up, sliding into fourth position. She leaped out, once, twice, three times, high across the yard, to the music that played inside of her head. She raised her arms slowly, lifted her right leg into a passé, and then as slowly straightened it into an arabesque, keeping one arm curved over her head, one curved in front of her. When you felt like this, there was nothing to do but dance.
At the sound of clapping, she turned around. She didn’t mind if someone was watching, nothing like that ever bothered her. “Morning,” she called across to Miz Hunter, who was dressed for services and sitting in the rocker on her front porch. Miz Hunter was a tiny woman, short and small boned. Her toes barely touched the wooden boards.
“Where you going to, Missy?” Miz Hunter summoned Mina over. The old lady knew who everyone was, but had trouble with names these days. Every girl she called “Missy,” every boy “Sonny,” because she just couldn’t fetch up their names. Mina guessed maybe all their faces got jumbled together in Miz Hunter’s memory with all the boys and girls she’d taught for all those years in school. “In such a hurry. And all gussied up for church.”
Mina stood below the porch, looking up. Miz Hunter had her
red hat set on her head, bright as cherries. She had her gloves on and held her purse in her lap.
“I’m going to that camp in Connecticut. The dance camp. I got a scholarship.”
“Where in Connecticut is that?”
“Someplace at a college. The town is called New London.”
“I know where that is.”
“You don’t teach school for thirty years and not know where New London, Connecticut, is. I’ve never been there but I know where it is. You don’t know where it is, but you’re going there. It’s surely funny about life sometimes, isn’t it, Missy? Are you going out to tell the news?”
“Careful you don’t make people jealous,” Miz Hunter advised.
“Kat wouldn’t be jealous,” Mina explained. “She knows how much I want to go.”
“There’s nobody born yet, except maybe the One, who didn’t get jealous now and then. As you well know, Missy. Even that One too, I expect. He wouldn’t be human otherwise, now would He? So you take good care of your friends.”
Mina thought about that. She thought about the camp from Kat’s side. Mina would be gone all of July and most of August, and even the last week in June too. Eight weeks. From Kat’s side, it wasn’t such good news, she guessed. “I will, ma’am,” she told Miz Hunter. “Thank you for the advice.”
“Although if it were up to me, I’m not sure I’d let a girl your age go off among strangers for eight weeks.”
“They’re not strangers,” Mina argued. “They’ll all be dancers.”
“People you don’t know are strangers,” Miz Hunter corrected her, just as if Mina sat at a desk in her classroom. Mina bit back a laugh at how schoolteacherish Miz Hunter was. “Xenophobia,
there’s a word for you. It means fear of strangers. From xenos, stranger. That’s Greek,” Miz Hunter instructed. There was nothing wrong with her brain. Nobody could say that.
“I didn’t know that. Thank you.” There was never to be any slightest hint of impoliteness to Miz Hunter, Mina’s parents made that clear to all of them. She’s old, Momma said, and deserves special politeness for that. She’s lived a long, useful life before she came here. For her time, she’s done wonders. So Mina made herself stand patient for however big a bite this conversation might take out of her time with Kat. “Are you afraid of strangers?” Mina asked.
Miz Hunter smiled then, the way old people often did, as if she was remembering something far away, as if she’d like to take Mina into her memory and share it together, almost as if Mina already was a part of whatever she was looking back at. “I can’t barely remember what it felt like to meet a stranger, these days,” Miz Hunter said. “There aren’t any strangers I’ve noticed around here, are there?”
“No, ma’am. My poppa, he doesn’t let people stay strangers.”
“You’d better run along, or you’ll find yourself too late to tell all your good news.”
“Yes, ma’am. Good morning to you. I thank you for the advice.”
Mina walked off sedately enough, remembering now that her Mary Janes weren’t dancing shoes, and it wasn’t good for them, or for her, to try to make them dance. Moist sunlight floated around her. It was a fine morning. She heard Miz Hunter’s rocker start up creaking behind her as she turned down the street. Birds were singing away. A baby wailed, somewhere, and a TV played, but mostly the Sunday morning quiet lay over the whole long street. Everybody was inside, getting ready for church. The porches were empty, the chairs and swings and steps had nobody sitting on them.
Front porches were for daytime sitting, Mina thought, her feet starting to skip and hurry her along. Back porches, which were screened, were for the evenings, for the families to sit together. Especially in the dark nights of deep summer, you’d hear the voices of people talking, the invisible words falling slow through the air. Like rain plopping down, relaxed and sleepy.
Mina guessed there was a lot she’d miss about being gone for the summer. She thought she’d better make Louis a cage for keeping fireflies before she left; a glass jar with wire screen fitted around its top, a preserving jar, and she’d have to wax the inside of the metal ring that would hold the wire top in place. Summer evenings, all the little children caught fireflies, and put them in cages and jars and counted up who had the most. After the children went to bed, the parents set all the fireflies loose to fly away under the dark trees, their funny little lights flicking off, flicking on.
Louis was just big enough now to be able to learn how to catch a firefly without mushing it, how to cup both hands and close them together. The firefly needed room in there to flutter around. Then you had to have someone take the top off your jar for you, so you could put your hands over the open neck and gently open them, like prayer hands unfolding, to get the firefly where you wanted him to go. Louis wasn’t nearly old enough to catch a firefly one-handed; he’d mush it for sure, and then he’d feel so bad he’d cry.
Kat was upstairs, dressing for church. Mina waited by the foot of the stairs while Kat’s father called up. “Katanga? Company for you.”
“Come on up, Mina.”
Mina looked at Mr. Beaulieu. “Go ahead, child,” he said. “Tell her we’d like to get out of the house sometime before Doomsday.”
Mina laughed and Mr. Beaulieu laughed with her, and Mina
laughed the harder because Mr. Beaulieu had that kind of chuckling, fat laughter that made you glad to hear it. They were laughing because the Beaulieus were always a little late, wherever they went. They just moved slower than the rest of the world. Mina thought that was because until they moved north they’d lived in New Orleans, where it was so hot you couldn’t move fast without killing yourself off. “If you move slow you live longer,” was Mr. Beaulieu’s way of looking at it, and Kat’s momma always added, “Enjoy it more too.” You never knew what time dinner would get onto the Beaulieu’s table, but you knew it would be delicious. At Mina’s house, dinner came on at six exactly, and it was usually good enough. Mina’s stomach liked being fed right on time, but it loved being fed Mrs. Beaulieu’s jambalaya, all spicy and ricy and chunked up with meat and poultry and sausage.
“I’m getting hungry,” she told Mr. Beaulieu.
“You’re always hungry when you come here. Get Kat downstairs in ten minutes and there’ll be time for biscuits, which we just happen to have fresh baked.”
“With butter, hot biscuits with butter.”
“Ten minutes isn’t awfully long,” Mina said.
“And honey too.”
“I can do it,” Mina said, charging up the stairs.
Kat had a room to herself, because she was the only girl. Her two brothers had to share, but Kat had her own small room, with a bedspread she’d picked out herself and curtains that matched, and a matched set of twin beds, dresser and desk. Kat’s curtains and beds had ruffles on them too. She kept things neat.
Mina moved right in and started making the bed. Kat had her church dress hung out on the handle to her closet, and she was wearing a slip while she fixed her hair. “How old were you when you could catch a firefly in one hand?” Mina asked her.
“I don’t know, I don’t remember. Do you remember that?”
“I think I was six, or maybe seven.” Mina folded back the top sheet. She always put more care into making Kat’s bed than her own. Kat cared about things like that, and she didn’t.
That was one of the things Mina liked about Kat. They looked alike too, which was another thing, except that Kat was short and slim while Mina was tall and skinny. Another thing was dancing.
“Do you think this barrette looks good? It doesn’t match my dress, but it’ll match up with the choir robe.”
“It looks great,” Mina said. “Okay, maybe not great, but good enough. Let’s get downstairs.”
“In a minute. Relax, Mina Smiths. You’ve never been late yet because of me.”
“That’s because I never do wait up for you.” Mina smoothed the spread over the fluffed pillow. Kat slipped her yellow and red striped dress over her head, buttoned the buttons carefully up the front, then went back to the mirror again, fussing smooth the skirt, fussing the sleeves just right on her arms. Mina stood beside her and looked at them both.
There was something about Kat. Dainty and perfect. Kat’s face had a small look to it, except for her big eyes. Mina’s face looked bigger, more bony. “You’re really pretty,” Mina said.
Kat knew that. Ever since she’d arrived in third grade, there had been no question that Katanga Beaulieu was the prettiest girl in their class. Kat didn’t put all that much importance on it, and Mina was willing to bet that even if she’d been as ugly as a potato Kat would still have dressed and groomed herself with the same care. It wasn’t vanity that made her do that, it was self-respect.
“I’m going to that camp, I got the scholarship.” Mina couldn’t hold it in another second. She watched Kat’s face in the mirror.
“Miss LaValle called up my momma yesterday, as soon as they called her.”
Warned by Miz Hunter, Mina saw just a little sad expression of disappointment and jealousy flicked up in Kat’s eyes and then go out. “I guess I’m not going then,” Kat said, studying her own face in the mirror.
“I’d like it a whole lot better if you were,” Mina said.
“But you know you’re the best.”
“But that doesn’t mean you’re not good enough,” Mina answered. She didn’t like anybody telling Kat she wasn’t good enough.
“I guess you’ll be really better when you get finished there. I guess you’ll be miles ahead of the rest of us. I’m proud for you, Mina,” Kat said, meeting Mina’s eyes in the mirror, and meaning what she said. “I think it’s great, and so will my parents when we tell them.”
“You tell them later about it. For a while now, I’d like it to be just our secret.”
“You can’t keep any secrets,” Kat teased.
“For a while I can. Then”—Mina laughed—“they just bust out. So don’t wait too long.”
She thought that Mr. and Mrs. Beaulieu would probably be disappointed for Kat. She thought that they’d rather get to be disappointed together, in the family, without having to cover it over with their good manners for Mina’s sake. Mr. Beaulieu had a good job with the state health department, but they couldn’t afford to send Kat to dance camp on their own.
“There’ll be nothing to do, with you gone all summer,” Kat realized. “Just dumb old Rachelle and Sabrina.”
“They’re not so bad.”
“But they’re not like you.”
Mina couldn’t argue with that. “I’m gonna tell my momma to
put all my babysitting jobs over to you. You’ve got to save up that money. So next summer, we can both go. Remember? Miss LaValle said they usually figure to give the scholarship three summers running.”
“I can’t earn that much money.”
“If you save it, you can. Or maybe near enough.”
“Oh, Mina.” Kat smiled at Mina’s reflected face, happy enough again. “There’s nothing slows you down, is there?”
“Not if I can help it.” Mina smiled back. She saw Kat’s face catch some of her enthusiasm and confidence. “Best friends?” Mina asked.
“Best friends,” Kat answered. They linked arms and went on downstairs.
* * *
Mina opened her mouth and sang. The melody flowed out like . . . She didn’t know what it sounded like to everybody else, but it sounded like silver to her, her voice flying up above the rest of the choir; it sounded like a silver bird rising, gliding along, falling down and then soaring up.
They were all, all twenty-three of them, swaying gently with the hymn. “Where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds,” she sang, they all sang together, women and girls, all in heavy black robes with starched white collars, sopranos and altos. “When it sounds so loud till it wake up the dead,” Mina sang, singing out.
She could see Kat out of the corner of her eye, four robes down the line from her. For a second Mina thought about switching her swaying, pushing back against the shoulder to her right, and the way the whole line would start banging around against each other. That would give Kat the giggles. But she looked out at the congregation and saw her momma sitting in the front row, with both eyes fixed on Mina’s face. Sometimes, Mina could swear her mother could read her mind. Momma’s right eyebrow
went up and Mina wiped the mischief off her face. And sang, hearing how her voice blended in, up above everybody else: “Where shall I be when it sounds.”
When they had sat down again, and the people had rustled themselves into attention, Poppa stood up. He didn’t wear a robe, just a dark suit with a shirt so white it could have been new snow. He went up to the lectern that had been set up for the readings and the sermon.
Poppa’s little church didn’t have a fancy altar, just a heavy wooden table with a fresh cloth on it on which the ladies had embroidered words and pictures. A silver cross stood up on top of that. They didn’t have proper choir stalls, nor pews, except for half a dozen somebody had picked up at a flea market sale in Cambridge. Mina had been in a lot of churches in her day, between church-going and choir-singing, so she knew what Poppa’s church didn’t have. The windows were plain glass, the outside was plain wood, painted white, and the little short steeple that rose up above the steep roof had no bell to ring. What happened was, whenever they were having a drive, saving up money for something particular, like more pews so the whole room could be filled with them and not be part pews and mostly folding chairs, something always came up. There would always be some family that needed the help, or some one person in some kind of need. The deacons would empty the church pockets to help out. Like Miz Hunter, when the church took a mortgage on the little house she lived in and rented it to her for what she could afford. Nobody minded that, and nobody seemed to miss the fancy touches. Mina didn’t. She liked the way the generous May sunlight poured in through the plain glass windows.
Poppa said he was pretty sure God didn’t mind, because he was pretty sure God’s mansion was about seventy-seven times as grand as the biggest cathedral in the biggest city in the world.
Rome was Mina’s guess, but Momma had said she’d favor something in the Gothic style, with spires and arches, with steeples rising up high as man’s hopes. Nobody argued with her, because Momma did a lot of reading and generally knew what she was talking about. Nursing was her vocation, she said, and her family was her life, and Poppa was her dearly beloved; but history was her passion, she always ended up saying that. Poppa always answered he’d rather be her passion, but Momma answered that she didn’t think history could make much showing as a dearly beloved, so she thought she had things pretty straight. And Poppa laughed.
Mina studied her father as he opened the pages of his sermon. He was a big man, with a strong face and dark eyes that had a way of answering to what they were seeing. He had a big, quiet voice that carried through the whole church. Oh, Mina thought, with a swelling of her heart, oh, she loved her poppa. Oh, she was proud of him.
“‘Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah,’” Poppa read. He always started a sermon with a text. “‘Saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it.’” He looked up then, and all around at the people.
“I always wondered how Jonah had the heart to say no to the Lord. Did you ever wonder about that? I always did. I thought I’d have tipped my hat and said yessir so fast He’d have wondered if I truly heard Him. I would have been too frightened to do anything else. But when I study the situation, I think I can understand where Jonah’s courage came from. I think it must have been the courage that comes from fear.
“What was there for Jonah to be afraid of? What could wind a man’s heart around more than the voice of God speaking into his ear? Think of Jonah, think of him caught there between his two fears. What was that other fear, I ask myself.
“My guess is he was afraid to go into Nineveh. Like any man living, Jonah was afraid to go out and live among strangers. Do you blame him?”
Poppa waited, just half a minute, watching the heads shaking no, to be sure they’d got his idea down clearly.
“Strangers are a fearful people, now as then,” Poppa said.
Mina folded her hands in her lap and listened.