My mother was a Star of the Morning. My father was a Saturnite. I was first an Infant Auxiliary Star, then I was a Girl Star, then a Young Lady Star, and five years ago, right before Mumma and Pop drank a jigger of cyanide each, I became, in my own right, a full blown Star of the Morning, Fifth House, Second Quadrant Division, North Eastern Lodge of the town of Spring City, Massachusetts.
After my parents killed themselves I declared, if only to myself, that I was no longer a Star of the Morning. But even now, three years since, I can’t stop wearing my pin. During the day while I’m teaching class, it’s hidden under the flounce of my shirt collar, pinned right up close to the front of my throat. At night, after I’ve dressed my hair and put it in its cap, after I’ve rubbed my face first with cold cream and then a worn, oily piece of chamois; I do what Mumma showed me. I stand in front of the mirror, my skin all greasy and soft, and I take off the pin while looking at my reflection. A Star of the Morning is never allowed to look directly at her pin. My pin is a small brass knot filed down to look like a burst of light, with a rusty garnet in the middle. When I was an Infant Star, I would stand in the mirror beside Mumma, watching our reflections’ fingers at work unfastening our pins and I thought mine was the most beautiful thing in the world, better than a diamond.
Stars of the Morning take off their pins before their prayers so as not to make a false idol out of it. When the pin is off, I place it on my night stand, and then, if I was to follow what Mumma taught me, I am supposed to reflect on my moral failings during the day and recite the Lord’s Prayer because Stars of the Morning are good Christian Negro women. But no one, if they could read my thoughts, would call me a Christian anymore and besides, I don’t believe in prayer, so during this bit of the routine I try to just sit quietly on my bed. But after years of ritual, I can’t help myself. Even when I’m silent, the blood in my ears pounds out the rhythm of “Our father, who art in heaven.” To drown out these pious cadences, in my head I chant the obscene version I learned as a girl: “Our Father, who farts in heaven.”
I am thirty-two years old, in charge of a room full of impressionable young colored minds and every night I sing a dirty nursery rhyme to help me go to sleep.
The time for prayer over, finally ready for bed, the last thing I do before I lay down and turn out the light is stand before the mirror again and pinch the pin between my fingers and very carefully stick it to the lace collar of my nightgown. I’ve slept with the pin for as long as I can remember. At the base of my neck, just below the collarbone, is a livid red line from its sharpest end drawing on me.
Dr. Gardner saw the scar the first time he sketched me. He pointed at it—he didn’t touch me then, neither of us was comfortable with him touching me yet—he just pointed with the lead tip of his pencil. “What’s that?”
He sighed. He lifted one pale, freckled hand to his forehead, to his receding blonde curls, presumably to wipe off a bit of sweat. He thought I was being obtuse. We didn’t know each other well enough then. He didn’t know that when I don’t want people to ask me further questions, I usually just tell them the truth.
“I’m not going to put it in the drawing,” he said to the paper.
I was on my knees—no subtlety for Dr. Gardner, he started me with the most difficult pose first. I shifted first one knee, then the other. They were getting sore from supporting all my weight. My behind was getting cold, my elbows creaked from being pressed to the floor. I just wanted the sketch to be over, so all I said was, “All right.”
He looked up, surprised I’d said anything at all. He had stopped talking a long time ago, which was rare—he usually jabbered at me whenever we were together, but that afternoon he went into a kind of trance, and the only sound in the room before he questioned me was the scrick, scrick, scrick of graphite on paper. After he registered his surprise, though, he went back to the drawing. He’d set up a mirror beside him, to get as many angles on me as possible, he said. To quiet my knees, I craned my neck to try and see the scar in the mirror. I figured I wasn’t spoiling the pose because Dr. Gardner wasn’t drawing my face anyways. He was sitting alongside me, trying to catch my whole form in profile. From where I was kneeling, the mirror was tilted in such a way that it caught the light funny and my whole skin looked silver, not brown.
“How did you even see it?” I asked.
“The light was hitting it in a certain way,” he said, not looking up. His face was flushed now, from the heat, but his lips were still pale. “It’s a good thing I didn’t try to draw it. It’s gone, now.”
***My earliest memory is of Initiation. We stood on a lawn so bright you could see the green even in dusk. We stood in front of the church basement door, and because my mother was the most powerful Star in Spring City, I stood at the head of the line, even though I didn’t want to. I was terrified. An older girl told me that to become an Infant Star, they set your hair on fire. Her friend told me the big women Stars made you shake a dead woman’s hand, the hand of the very first Star who ever lived. “The big women Stars keep it in a special box,” she said, “And when you shake it, the bones crunch and the dust gets on your fingers. The dead lady’s dust is what makes you a Star.”
I asked Mumma about all of these rumors and she told me they were nonsense and those girls were just jealous. Their mothers were loose women and the girls had proven themselves unruly and so they could never become an Infant Star like me. But still, I was uneasy, and when I pressed Mumma, she wouldn’t tell me what exactly happened at Initiation and this made me more unsure. All my life I thought we had no secrets between us. The year before, when our tabby Dina birthed a litter, she told me frank and true how cats and people were made. She told me how the universe came to be, and where our earth stood in it, and that God did not live in the sun but in the breath and air and dust around and within us. “The sun is just a ball of gas,” she told me. Which was more than the other mothers told their children. But she wouldn’t tell me about becoming a Star, as many times as I asked her, and that scared me.
For Initiation, I stood at the head of the line in my white lace dress and patent leather shoes Mother ordered special from Boston. Nine little girls pressed against my back, all breathing heavy. I could hear the whisper of their stockinged knees as they knocked together. We had to fast for a day and a night before Initiation. According to the by-laws of the Stars of the Morning, Infant Stars were supposed to consume only milk and honey, and they had to chant, “I am a vessel for the light of God,” before they drank it. But no one in Spring City could afford honey, so we drank our milk with raw brown sugar instead. I could smell the rotten sweetness of it on the other children’s breath and in their girlish sweat.
Because no one was in front of me to see, I squeezed my eyes shut very tight and kept them that way until I heard the basement door rumble open. By then, dusk was over and the air was cold and it was night. I heard the girls behind me breathe quicker, talk faster. I kept my eyes closed. I felt something brush against my hand. “The dead woman,” I thought, but the hand that took mine was fat and warm and it led me very carefully down the steps and into the church basement. Once I was there, it smelled the same as it always had, like earth, like the moths that ate the choir robes, like the greening tin of the collection plate. I almost opened my eyes. But a voice said, “Keep your lights closed, Infant Star.” Right beneath my chin I felt a point of warmth and I knew that it was someone holding a candle close to my face. This comforted me, somehow, to know the light was near. I heard the other girls stumble down the stairs one by one. Most gasped. A few of the very young ones started to cry. Then I heard the basement door rumble shut again. I finally opened my eyes. And I screamed.
I screamed because even though the room smelled just the same, when I opened my eyes, I saw it had become the most beautiful place I have ever been in my life, before or since. It wasn’t dark. The earth walls were covered in white paper. What seemed like a thousand candles were lit all around us, in tiny glass and tin lanterns. Strings of white flowers were threaded across the top of the room. Clouds hung down from the ceiling and for a moment I thought, “Mumma’s brought down the sky itself to greet me.” But then I saw that it was just tulle, from Miss Vera’s dress shop, doubled up on itself to look like heaven.
We jumbled ourselves all up until we formed a new line. I was now in the middle. Everyone was quiet, still, and then Mumma strode out before us in a long white robe trimmed with yellow. She held a gold bound Bible in her hands. She opened a page at random, and one by one we had to hover a finger over the Bible, let it fall down, and then read from whichever passage we chose. The passage gave us our secret name, the name only other Stars knew us by.
The poor girl before me chose “Herod” and she cried and cried because she was going to have to go by the name of a known baby killer. I thought for certain Mumma would let Herod pick again, but she only looked on sternly as another Star patted the little girl’s back and told her some quickly made up nonsense about this being a lucky opportunity to restore honor to the name. I was relived, then, when I picked Nymphadora. My real name is Ellen, but Nymphadora is so much better. I bet you didn’t know there was a Nymphadora in the Bible. There is. She has five sisters, and I was so happy I picked that passage because I had always wanted siblings, was always sad I was Mumma and Pop’s only child. When I read out “Nymphadora,” I turned and threw a smile at Mumma, but she was still so serious, she did not return it.
When we were all newly named, Mumma looked out over the ten of us, and still did not speak. She raised her hand and Miss Vera and another Star rolled out a tea table stacked with food. Real food: bowls of potatoes and biscuits and a lank turkey with its bony ankles wrapped in paper to keep its marrow warm. Our deflated stomachs, milk-lined and sugary, leapt in revolt. But Mumma wouldn’t let us eat. Instead, she stood in front of the table.
“Girls,” she said, “You are almost Infant Stars. Do you know what makes a Star shine?”
No one answered. We were all looking at the spread behind her, too hungry to speak.
“Girls,” she said, “I have asked you a question. A tenet of being an Infant Star is to speak when you are spoken to. So we will begin again. What makes a Star shine?”
The newly named Herod sniffed loudly, wiped the snot from her face. “The light of heaven?” she said, cautiously. It was a good guess, as we’d had to drone this phrase incessantly for the past few days as we fasted.
“No.” Mumma said. “No. Not the light of heaven. What makes a Star of the Morning shine, what makes an Infant Star shine among all the other pieces of dust and dirt and rock that are our Lord’s creations, is self-control. Self-possession. Denial. Denial builds up inside little Infant Stars like you, makes your moral fiber strong like flint, so that when the world tests you, when the world rubs up against you all vicious and sharp do you know what happens? You don’t give in. You don’t become soft. The world’s trials stir up a light in you so strong, so pure, so true, no man on earth can put it out. Denial is what makes an Infant Star shine.”
Mumma leaned up against the table and crossed her arms over her chest.
Although in my memory she is an imposing woman, in reality she was quite small. She had the habit of immediately tilting her head up in the air whenever she spoke, to shout into the ears of anyone taller than her. At the front of the room now, she lifted her chin, looked up at the paper clouds, and began to declaim.
And even though she was my mother and even though I worshipped her, I wanted to groan because I was a smart little Star and I could read between the lines and see, despite that turkey’s paper socks, promising meat kept warm, we weren’t going to be eating anything anytime soon and when we finally did, it would most certainly be cold.
“The very first Star denied herself everything so that she could be a beacon of light for others. Her name was Mary Whitman and she was a slave.”
Herod gasped at this. We were Negroes, it was true, but we were all Northern Negroes, born of at least two generations of freed men. Those with slavery closer to them than that kept it quiet, kept it hidden. Slaves were the Israelites in the Bible, they were the figures drawn in quick blurry clouds of black ink in the illustrated editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin we read in school. Though we understood that some of us were once them, and that we had to bake cakes every church Bazaar for those down South who were still pretty much them, it never occurred to us as children that slaves could live in Spring City, Massachusetts, any more than camels could.
“Yes,” Mumma said, “She was a slave and she ran away and came here to the North. But in order to run, she had to deny herself everything. She had to deny herself the love of her mother and father. She left them behind. She had to deny herself the love of her husband. She left him behind. She even had to deny herself the love of her little babies. She left them behind. She denied herself love and she ran and she ran and when she came here, when she came to the North, she was so full of light from her trials that she became a Star. And she began this sisterhood, to teach other women how to shine like her. Because in order for the Negro race to survive and thrive, we need a hundred stars, a thousand stars, denying themselves and becoming full of light to show others the way.”
Mumma shifted against the table and I heard the wood groan and just a whiff, just the tiniest hint, of melted butter filled the air.
“Not everyone can be a Star,” she continued. “Not everyone can be so strong as to deny themselves to make sure the Negro race survives. But we believe you Infant Stars have the potential to become Stars of the Morning.”
And here, Mumma gestured to Miss Dora, who brought her a wooden backed chair, which Mumma sat down on, arranged her skirts, made herself comfortable and I cannot remember the rest of the speech from that night, because my attention was taken up with keeping my lips pressed tight together and sucking hard on my own tongue to keep from standing up, pushing my own mother aside, and lapping at the mounds of potatoes stacked before us.
***Dr. Gardner said, “Can you please lift your left leg a little? Just, yes, there. Stop, please.”
He always said “please” and “thank you” when he was directing me. The only time he didn’t say “please” was when he first asked me to pose.
Dr. Gardner began coming to Spring City at the beginning of April. He just started showing up in the evenings. At first, he didn’t come near us. He hung around the shops on the border, where Spring City meets Courtland County. Spring City is our own home, but the whites in Courtland County think its their Negro Quarter. On the boarder are the in-between shops that both of us have to use: the rail depot with the café that reeks of stale cooking grease, the cobbler and the notary, the general store.
Everyone in Spring City knew who Dr. Gardner was because there’d been rumors about him all through town for at least a year. We knew he worked up in the monkey house. He came to Courtland County the year before, when little Julia Toneybee-Leroy, the neighborhood heiress to a rubber fortune, returned from her Congolese honeymoon without her husband but with a dead monkey and ten more live ones on the way.
Very soon, Julia Toneybee-Leroy let it be known that she wanted to convert her mother’s estate into some kind of all ape zoo, with Dr. Gardner as the head. The place used to be a music conservatory, the best to be found between Boston and New York, everyone said. The first summer after my parents killed themselves, I went there for an outdoor concert, stood on the section of lawn reserved for colored patrons of the arts, and heard a Bach concerto so sweet and sad it drew the living ache of my parents’ demise from my chest and forced me to weep in public. I didn’t even cry at their funeral, but the music of that conservatory broke me down to tears.
But a few years ago Julia Toneybee-Leroy fired all the music teachers and sent home the students and installed the animals in their place. Last fall, she brought in Dr. Gardner. We never did see the monkeys move in: just heard the ten of them making a racket in the specially equipped freight car she had run up the tracks and past Spring City on the way to the newly named Toneybee Institute for Great Ape Research.
Julia Toneybee-Leroy said it was all for magnificent revelations in science, shortly forthcoming, but everyone in white Courtland County and black Spring City alike thought she was just using the monkeys as a cover to have an affair with Dr. Gardener. He was supposed to be an evolutionary genius and the next Charles Darwin, if some were to be believed.
After a few weeks of lurking around Spring City's border, Dr. Gardner got bolder, and crossed over. He walked up and down our streets in a slow, leisurely pace, waving every so often at the people he passed by. He did this despite the children who would stop stock still when he saluted them, and just stare at him; despite the strained smiles of the women and the brusque hellos of the men. He made a supreme effort to ignore the very obvious fact that we didn’t want him here. He walked around and looked at the houses for a few weeks more, and then he started bringing his sketch pad. I caught him once or twice, standing near the wooden fence around my school yard, leaning his pad against a post and watching intently as the boys and girls yelled “Red Rover”.
When Dr. Gardner slouched around out streets he made everyone in town uncomfortable, the women most of all. They asked Clarence Dawes, the undertaker, to talk to him about it. To see what was what. But Mr. Dawes said he didn’t want to get caught up in it. He said he had too much to do to worry about a skinny white man drawing cartoons and we should all have too much to do, too.
So the Stars of the Morning of Spring City, Mass. got together and asked me to address Dr. Gardner. They asked me because with Mumma and Pop dead, I am alone. I don’t have any kin, not even a mangy husband or brother, to protest, to say, “Why are you picking on Nymphadora?” They took advantage of the fact that I am a thirty-two year old orphan. If Mumma was still alive, not dead by her own hand, they wouldn’t dare, but as is, the new head of our lodge, Nadine Morton, she took me aside one Tuesday night after a Star meeting and asked me to do it.
Nadine Morton’s Star name is Saul, though she hates to use it. She kept me back after Tuesday meeting to fold up tablecloths with her, and as we held an expanse of white lace between us, as we brought the corners together to make them kiss, she asked me to do it. She said the other Stars thought Dr. Gardner would probably respond best to a woman. I would appeal to his decency, provided he had any.
“Just, find out what he wants,” Nadine told me. “And once he tells you, suggest that perhaps he can find it elsewhere.” Nadine really was the one who should have done it. She and I both knew that. She was hired up at the Toneybee Institute shortly after little Julia Toneybee returned, though nobody knew what exactly she did up there: Nadine claimed she was not allowed to say. Nadine had trained as a nurse with the Red Cross in the Great War, she’d worked with an all colored battalion, but when she came back home to Spring City she’d had to take in washing because the only hospital around was twenty miles away with an all-white staff. Up there, with her mysterious duties at the Toneybee Institute, Nadine presumably worked with Dr. Gardner, or saw him more often than I ever would. But it gave her a special kind of satisfaction for her to order me to do it. It was a show of strength, a test of her power, now that she was the biggest Star of the Morning in Spring City and I was still just an acolyte.
I was quiet for a time, taking a moment, before I answered her, letting Nadine squirm. “All right, Sister Saul,” I said, just to see her crinkle her nose slightly at her unwieldy Star name. You can see why I’m not in the same position as my mother. Too ornery, no social graces.
After that, the next time I saw Dr. Gardner walk past my school room, I went to the door and I called after him, “Hello, hello, hello,” to get his attention. Maybe the three hellos were too much.
But anyways, that is how it all began.