I was first in line. A man pushed me aside and cut in front of me.
“I was here first,” I said. I’d broken my promise to Mama a long time ago.
He stared straight ahead as if he didn’t hear me. I yanked on the blanket around his shoulders and said extra clearly, “I said, I was here first.”
As he went to the back of the line, he knuckled me on the head.
“What the hell?” I shouted, not bothering to turn around.
Snickers broke out behind me.
Soybean-sprout soup, kimchi, and pickled radish. With the tray in my hands, I looked around for a place to sit, and ended up following the blanket man. I sat down next to him.
“You shouldn’t swear at your elders,” he said.
“Well, you deserved it. You shouldn’t butt in line.”
He glared at me, even while he slurped his soup. I copied him and slurped my soup, too. He reeked of booze. The people here smelled the same. They sat anywhere—on benches, the fountain ledge, or on the bare ground—and ate the same breakfast from the same trays. The road was jammed with cars already, and more and more people were rushing into the station. When the dirty trays start to pile up, a woman in a green apron will give me a carton of milk, which she’ll have saved just for me. Far away, I saw one of the Jesus ladies walk by.
Mama filled the sink in the women’s bathroom and washed my hair.
“Whatever happens, don’t say a word. I don’t care who says what, keep your mouth shut. Promise me.”
She stood me before the clock tower.
“Wait for me here. I’ll be back when the clock strikes midnight.”
I felt like I’d turned into Cinderella.
Because her hand was covering my mouth, I could only nod. She said the same thing every day. I would then open my eyes wide and nod like I was hearing it for the first time.
She took hold of my hand and strode forward. In front of a huge billboard, she quickly glanced around and then lifted the corner where the paper was torn. The poster shook as she took out our blanket. I gazed up at the model in the floral-print dress, smiling her dazzling smile. Would her prince come if she lost her shoe? I clutched the blanket.
The ticket gate that had been swarming with people all day was deserted. The metal shutters came down after the last train left the station. Beside the pillar where the shutters were was an ATM, and behind that was our spot. The people here knew better than to try to steal our spot. But if some idiot happened to be lying there already, Mama started kicking. Fights often broke out over spots, but Mama always won. If things ever got physical, she flung off her shirt, and then with her big breasts swinging, she charged at the poor soul with a shriek. The real reason every one of them backed away, scared shitless, was because of her hard, black nipples. Her nipples were more terrifying than the curses her mouth spewed or the fire in her eyes. I didn’t like it when she fought. Not because of the scene she caused by flashing her big breasts, but because when she fought like that, it meant she’d been drinking. When she drank, she didn’t go anywhere the next day. Then I had to squat all day next to her, as she sat hunched over on the ground. Being stuck to her meant I wasn’t allowed to talk. I hated that the most.
Every morning at dawn, Mama disappeared. There were always two 1,000-won bills inside my pocket for lunch. Breakfast was what the green aprons handed out, lunch was the spicy rice cakes I bought from the food stall in front of the station, and supper was what Mama brought back. But there was never enough money. I needed cookies and soda, and I wanted hair ties and stockings, too. But I knew not to ask Mama for more money. I knew, even though I didn’t go to school.
What I didn’t know was where Mama went every morning. When we lay down at night, I held her hand tight and told myself to stay awake. I told myself I would catch her the moment she let go of my hand to slip away, that I would insist she take me along. But when I opened my eyes, she was already gone. And then at exactly midnight, she would be back, standing at the foot of the clock tower.
All-day long, I hung out at the mall or around the streets with the red lights where the older girls strutted, or I snickered with the uncles who went around in rags. When it was time, I went to the clock tower. My face, hands, and even my scalp were always grimy, and my feet burned. Mama gave me supper only after she’d taken me to the bathroom and given me a good scrub. Then we fell asleep in our spot. Every day was exactly the same.
If there was anything I kept from Mama, it had to do with silence. After the night she broke her promise, I broke mine, too. And so as soon as she was out of sight, I talked as much as I wanted. I sang and even swore. But in front of her, I spoke in a small voice. If she happened to be with the other aunties, I stayed glued to her side with my mouth clamped shut. Like a good little mute girl, I hardly breathed.
It was Mama who first broke her promise. The night she didn’t come back, I stood in the same spot at the foot of the clock tower. There was nothing else I could do. One o’clock, two o’clock, three o’clock—I stayed put. People were huddled around drinking or playing cards, but most were sprawled out on the bare ground, wrapped in newspaper, clothes, or blankets. Right then, a woman staggered into the waiting area. She was naked from the waist down, leaving her nest of black hair for all to see. The uncles swarmed to her, like cockroaches scurrying to dark corners when the light comes on. It wasn’t Mama. My knees buckled. I felt I was going to be sick.
It was White Face who caught me. Several aunties started heading toward us, but then backed away uneasily. I threw up on his chest. Tears sprang to my eyes. White Face picked me up. He held me up like I was a small bird, and carried me into the men’s bathroom. He washed my hands and face. He even cupped some water in his hand so that I could rinse my mouth, and handed me a clean towel from his bag. I bowed, thanking him. He stroked my neck. I flinched.
“Are you okay?”
“Do you think you can walk?”
I nodded once more.
He grinned. He didn’t seem like the bad man everyone said he was.
White Face didn’t sleep at the station like the rest of us. He was always around, but he never mixed with anyone. The aunties and uncles stayed away from him. They said he was a pimp, or a shameless thief, someone who stole from the people living at the station. Some said he was a serial killer, and some said he was a reporter. There were also many stories about the black bag he carried around. Some said they had seen a knife or axe inside, and some said they’d seen stacks of bills, and some a camera, but no one was a hundred percent sure. Whatever the story, one thing was clear: he wasn’t to be trusted. More than anything, though, it was because of his clean, white skin that was different from our dirty faces.
White Face tucked my wet hair behind my ears. His fingers kept tickling my cheeks, but I didn’t laugh. We went back to the clock tower. Mama wasn’t there. Other uncles were sleeping in our spot.
“You don’t have a place to sleep?” White Face asked.
I shook my head.
I followed him. It was my first time walking out of the station at that hour. The streets were filled with drunk people, with people yelling and thrusting their fingers in each other’s faces, with people passed out on the sidewalk. Even the stink was no different from what the station smelled like at night. Still, I felt like I was going on a trip. I forgot I had thrown up; I forgot Mama hadn’t come home. Several women standing on the street tugged White Face’s arm and coaxed him to come inside. Then I shot them my best dirty look and tightened my hold on his arm. Each time, he would peer down at me and laugh. I laughed, too. It felt like we were on the same team. I was sure he wasn’t a bad man. I felt giddy with happiness.
The flashing signs and loud music faded. Soon we were walking down a dark, narrow alley. From someplace far away, a cat meowed. White Face stopped before a small door. I suddenly grew unsure. He went inside, stooping low as if he meant to fold himself in two. He gestured for me to come in. I stepped through the door.
A long hallway, darker and narrower than the alley, appeared. One, two, three, four—White Face stopped at the thirteenth door. He held the door open for me. It was a tiny windowless room. He turned off the light. I lay down and stretched out my legs. The tips of my toes touched the wall. There are certain things you come to know, even if no one tells you. I knew what was about to happen. He put his arms around me.
I couldn’t breathe. I tried to push him off after he had collapsed on me with a groan, but he didn’t budge. I was much too small for his weight. Since it was Mama who had first broken her promise, I thought it’d be all right to break mine.
Now that I’d spoken, it seemed Mama and I were even. White Face flinched and sat up in shock.
“You know how to talk?”
He turned on the light. “Can you say that again?”
“I. Know. How. To. Talk.”
White Face grew paler. Maybe it was just the blue glow of the fluorescent light. I started to make out the different objects in the room. A blanket, clothes, and a few bowls and plates were all there was.
There was a time I had lived in a room like this. It was shortly after Dad died. Mama shook me awake in the middle of the night and hurried out of the house. She walked too fast, so I kept tripping, and she kept glancing over her shoulder to make sure no one was following us. The room we crept into that night also had a bluish light. Even back then, she disappeared every morning, leaving me all alone. The whole day, I waited for her inside our locked room. The people next door were always loud. If they weren’t sleeping, they were fighting, and if they were awake but not fighting, it meant they were eating. I could hear their every noise like there were no walls between us, and so I learned to not make a single sound. I learned to eat in silence, I learned to piss and shit in silence.
“Can I sleep here?”
White Face blinked in surprise.
“Do you live here, Mister?”
He nodded. There were many things I wanted to ask him, but he lay down, facing the other way. I pulled up my pants. Lying flat on my back, I stared up at the ceiling. Would Mama be back tomorrow? In the morning, should I ask White Face for 2,000 won? The cold hard wall my toes touched was comforting. I fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.
After that, I no longer kept my word to Mama. There was no need to keep a promise that was already broken. The next morning, White Face gave me 5,000 won, and at exactly midnight Mama was standing once more at the foot of the clock tower.
I was watching the television set that hung from the ceiling in the waiting area. All-day long, the large screen replayed the same scenes of a slick-looking train speeding past fields, mountains, and the sea, while the seasons changed. I’d been on a train before. Mama said we had come to Seoul by train when I was very young before my dad died. But I couldn’t remember.
“I told you not to stare,” a woman said.
She placed a hand on the head of the little girl sitting next to me and forced her to look away. The girl and I made eye contact. She burrowed her face in the woman’s chest and then peered out again. Our eyes met once more.
I mouthed: What. The. Fuck. Are. You. Staring. At.
Close to tears, the girl whispered into the woman’s ear. The woman made the girl switch places with her, glancing at me as she moved to the seat next to me.
“Fuck!” I yelled.
“What did you say?” the woman cried, jumping to her feet. She raised her arm high in the air as if she meant to hit me.
A musty stink pierced my nostrils. As if it would drill a hole through my chest.
“Go ahead, hit me,” I said.
The uncles came up from behind and closed in around the woman. The people sitting on the benches scattered. The girl started to cry, and the woman, whose face was now a dark red, glared at me. Just as I’d done to the girl, I mouthed to the woman: Fuck. You.
White Face, who’d been standing beside the uncles, nudged the woman in the shoulder. She almost pissed her pants and fled, dragging the girl behind her. Several uncles chased them, hurling curses, and the blanket man grabbed the woman’s sleeve to beg for money. I felt better, seeing the woman lurch away, terrified. When the girl tripped and fell, still hanging onto the woman’s hand, I burst out laughing. I was sure she’d gotten a dirty stain or rip in her stockings. When the uncles disappeared, people started to sit on the benches once more. I hugged my knees and fixed my eyes on the screen again. White Face sat down next to me.
“What’d you do that for?”
I didn’t answer. On the screen, the train was gliding into the sunset. Soon it was going to race into the snow-covered mountains. It was my favorite part. I wouldn’t have cursed at the girl if she hadn’t been wearing glitter stockings if she hadn’t been wearing what I liked if she hadn’t owned what I didn’t need. In other words, I was angry I couldn’t have those stockings.
Mama didn’t let me wear a skirt. But what I wanted more than anything was a pair of stockings that would hug my legs. Soft nylon ones, or the sheer kind that older girls wore—I liked them all. But my favorites were ones with patterns or glitter. Oh, I wanted them bad. Mama said I shouldn’t wear a skirt, because my bum would get cold, but I knew the real reason I wasn’t allowed to wear a skirt. It was because I got my period every month.
During our first winter at the station, it was the cleaning lady who’d told Mama that I was leaving dark red stains everywhere I sat. Mama bowed and thanked her at least a dozen times. When the lady was gone, Mama filled the mop bucket and washed my bottom.
“No more skirts for you.”
A shadow darker than the stains I’d made fell across her face. I shuddered, not because blood now oozed from my body, but because the water that touched me down there was icy. Mama tossed my pants and underwear in the garbage.
“You’re not a little girl anymore. You’ve got to listen very carefully now.”
I nodded, staring at my discarded underwear. The stain that had already turned stiff seemed to be squirming, spreading, like a flower the moment it opens, like it might flutter toward me any second. I closed my eyes tight.
After that I always wore cotton pants that bulged at the knees, pants faded to almost white so that it was impossible to tell what color they had once been. Still, of all the people who lived at the station, I was the cleanest. Mama and I each had a spare outfit to change into, and we went to the public bath once every season. She even washed me every night, so there was no way I’d stink. Despite all this, people who didn’t live at the station could tell right away I wasn’t one of them. Whenever they saw me coming, they stepped aside and avoided looking at me. If we happened to make eye contact, they clutched their purses or felt their pockets to make sure their wallets were safe.
I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and studied myself from head to toe. How could they tell? Besides my worn clothes, I looked no different from the other kids I saw walking on the street. It really was a mystery.
The women came out of the stalls and glanced at me as they walked by. I paid them no attention and made faces in the mirror. Good girl, bad girl, poor girl, crying girl, rude girl, sexy girl.
“Damn it, I told you to stop staring!”
The women bolted out of the bathroom, looking stunned.
The days were long and boring, but when White Face came looking for me, everything was different. I looked into the mirror and tried for a little girl this time. I unfocused my eyes and opened my mouth a bit. I raced out of the bathroom. White Face was waiting for me. Soon, I was going to own a pair of glitter stockings.
White Face always took me back to his small room. Except for the first night, I’d followed him there, I saw different couples with tired faces and messy hair slip out of the room each time. They were mostly men with women, but sometimes a man came out with another man. Without a word, they handed White Face some money and disappeared, hunching their already stooped shoulders. Since there was no window, the musty air stayed trapped in the room.
White Face wiped my bottom with a wet towel before he put his arms around me. I liked everything about him. His whistling, the sweetness I smelled on his neck whenever he collapsed on top of me, even his long fingers that slipped on the condom. But I liked his eyes most of all, the way they would sparkle when I’d tell him my stories. He asked lots of questions. He wanted to know everything—about my mama and dead papa, when we started to live at the station, why I pretended to be mute, what I did during the day, everything I saw and heard and experienced at the station. I talked non-stop. He’d even take out a notebook from his black bag and jot down everything I said. There was no knife, ax, or stacks of bills inside his bag like they said. But I didn’t tell anyone. White Face was special. I read tenderness in his quiet voice, the way his warm hands stroked me. Wishing he was my dad, I crawled into his arms. But I made sure I got my 5,000 won each time.
No one listened to me the way White Face did. He was the only one who cleaned me down there or used a condom. Some uncles swore at me or slapped me first before they put their arms around me. Some blocked my mouth and pounced on me, and some undid their zippers and shoved themselves into my mouth. The blanket man sometimes cried, but to be honest, I found it funny that I was the one patting him on the shoulder, while he sniffled and pulled up his pants.
“It’s okay, Mister. I won’t tell anybody.”
Then he smiled idiotically, showing his yellow teeth. It was funny to me that this man, who was always wasted and rambling incoherently, got down on his knees before me and became a little baby, blubbering one moment and laughing the next. So I charged him only 10,000 won. Except White Face, I made the other uncles give me more than 10,000 won. I went with them only after they’d handed over the money. I wasn’t stupid like the aunties who’d totter after them after getting a little booze or bread.
I could have bought stockings with the money I got from White Face, but once I got the stockings, I wanted to buy a skirt, and after that, I needed heels. That’s why I had to start spending time with the other uncles.
Once Mama was gone, I took off my faded clothes and changed into my glitter stockings, pink pleated skirt, and sky blue blouse. When I’d walk around in my brown dress shoes with the rosettes, I didn’t feel like a little girl anymore. Every day I changed into my pretty clothes and sat in the waiting area. Then White Face would come looking for me, or the other uncles would stroke my shoulder. But most of the time, I just sat in the same spot the whole day. When I got dressed up and watched the people come and go, the list of things I wanted grew. Hair ties, makeup, purse, and now that summer was coming, sandals. There was never enough money. More and more often, I found myself thinking it would be nice to have a daddy. But Mama always came back alone, and White Face, who gave me 5,000 won each time, didn’t come often enough.
“Mama, I need to tell you something.”
“Hold still. Just look at your grimy neck! What do you do all day?”
“Mama, I really need to tell you something.”
“Be quiet. Quit spilling your food.”
“Shh! Close your eyes now.”
In the end, I couldn’t tell her. She let go of my hand and lay facing the other way. Summer was almost here. I was sweating more than usual. My whole body was itchy.
“Mama, Mama,” I whispered toward her back. “I’m pregnant.”
She already smelled ripe.
Mama had changed trains three times already. I couldn’t get caught. I followed her, not too close, but not too far. We changed trains for the fourth time. I had to watch her like a hawk so that I wouldn’t lose her. She got off at an unfamiliar station. She took out a bag from one of the lockers and went into the women’s bathroom. I hid behind a pillar and waited.
Soon a woman with an eye patch and disheveled hair limped out of the bathroom, carrying a flattened cardboard box under her arm. She climbed halfway up the exit steps and stopped on the landing where the muggy air from outside swirled with the underground air. She kneeled beside several women who were already there with their mats, and took out a little basket from within her folds. She placed it before her and hunched over in a ball, her face to the ground, and raised her hands above her head. Soon her hands and face became covered with dust, and grime collected under her fingernails. People rushed down the stairs. No one looked her way.
I watched for a long time. People dropped change and the odd 1,000-won bill into her basket. If bills fell into her basket, her hands groped inside and snatched them up, quickly slipping them in her pocket. Though her eyes were tightly closed, she knew the exact moment when people gave paper bills. After a while, I saw she wasn’t gathering just the bills, but also the change, making sure to leave behind only a few coins in the basket.
The station grew quiet after rush hour and then picked up again around lunchtime. She didn’t eat or get up once; she stayed hunched over in the same position. I wondered if her legs had fallen asleep, because mine hurt, even though I was standing. Chink, chink. The sound of coins falling into her basket was unusually loud. She clutched the basket to her chest. It was a desperate gesture, as if she might drop a coin, or as if someone might steal the money. As though that noise were a signal, a crew of gray hats raced down the steps, but she didn’t even flinch and kept putting the coins in her pocket. Shouts rang out and someone seized her arm. Paying them no attention, she continued to gather up the change. The gray hats began to stomp on her, but she let herself be dragged away only after she had raked every last coin into her pocket and hidden the basket in her clothes. The whole incident took no more than a minute. The steps were suddenly silent like nothing had happened. I turned around. I realized I couldn’t possibly tell Mama what I wanted to say.
Rage choked me all the way back to our station. I was starving. I wanted to pounce on all the perfect people I saw and bite a chunk out of their fleshy white arms. I wanted to growl and bare my teeth at anyone who looked at me. But no one did.
Our station was in total chaos, too. The gray hats had chosen this day to crack down on the homeless. Men in suits stood before cameras and talked into microphones in the midst of curses, shouts, and sirens. I climbed on a seat and stood up. I could see the entire waiting area. The gray hats rained kicks on the uncles and aunties. Some fought back until they were dragged away, at last, kicking and screaming. The station workers and passengers waiting for their trains watched. I spotted White Face in the crowd of onlookers. I walked toward him. I was so hungry my stomach was starting to hurt.
White Face stared blankly at me. My mouth was stuffed with dumplings. Maybe he hadn’t understood what I’d just said.
“Mister, I don’t like it here.”
“We all have to do things we don’t like. You don’t get to do just what you want.”
He didn’t touch any of the food. I wolfed down two servings of dumplings, and then a plate of spicy rice cakes. Only then did I start to feel a little better. I hadn’t wanted to hear that kind of answer from him.
Boisterous laughter rang out. Schoolgirls in uniform cackled together at the next table. I gave them a dirty look.
“Did you tell your mother?”
The girls’ pale shining legs hurt my eyes. Even though I was full, I kept getting angry. The world, filled with all sorts of things I couldn’t have, was an unfair place. As soon as the girls left the snack bar, I asked him once more, “Can I live with you? I need a dad.”
On the bus and on the street, he didn’t look at me once. I trailed after him, my eyes fixed on his back. He stopped before a three-story building with a green roof. The sign read: Women’s Shelter.
“No way. I’m not going there.”
“You won’t find a dad here, but they’ll take you.”
“But they won’t let me do anything I want.”
“I know about this place. The aunties told me already.”
“Hey, doesn’t matter to me if you go or not. You can take your mother if you want.”
I suddenly felt unsure. So many things had happened in a single day. The sun was setting, but I felt hot and queasy like I was carsick.
“Do I have to go now?”
“Go whenever you want. No one’s forcing you.”
Two pregnant women stepped out of the building. I hid behind White Face. Their bellies looked like they would pop any second. The glare from the windows shone directly into my face. I was scared of that smooth, polished glass. In a small voice, I told White Face I would think about it a little more.
“I’m not your dad. Do whatever you want.”
His response hurt me.
“If you don’t want to be a dad, how about a prince?”
He gazed blankly at me. It seemed he didn’t understand. I said nothing more. When I came back to the station, everything looked different.
At midnight, Mama was standing in front of the clock tower. She looked the same as she always had. That night at the station, there were only a few uncles and aunts. Even the blanket man was gone, but I knew they would all be back in a few days. They would storm the bathroom to bathe themselves, and some uncles, if the mood struck, might dash around the waiting area buck-naked. They would fight, sob, stab the air with their fingers, and finally pass out, and Mama would wash me and then cover me with our blanket.
The two mochi balls Mama held out smelled sour as if they’d started to go bad.
“Have some more.”
“I’m not hungry.”
She polished them off. Her cheeks looked as big and round as the bellies of the pregnant women I’d seen that afternoon.
“Mama, let’s go take a bath.”
I scrubbed until my skin turned red and swelled up. Mama was covered with bruises, but I didn’t ask why. The night at the bathhouse was like a night in paradise. I loved the soft floor, the air that smelled of soap, and the fact that no one looked at us since everyone got the same clothes. But I didn’t laugh or skip around like before. I regretted not having eaten the last two mochi balls. I kept feeling hungry. Mama snored loudly. I peered at her glistening face. She didn’t look like a beggar to me.
Mama was bent over, her face to the ground. On the landing were the same lady selling flowers and the same old woman selling soybean sprouts. Click-clack, click-clack. My heels rang on the steps. No one paid me any attention. Click-clack, click-clack. I stopped before Mama. She didn’t budge. I stared down at her. She raised her hands a little more above her head. I dumped all the money I had into her basket. Bills and coins tumbled down. Without looking back, I went up the steps. The streets were scorching hot. Because of my glitter stockings, my bottom was soaked with sweat, and my skirt kept bunching around the knees.
“My dad died and my mom disappeared.”
After I’d answered a few more questions, I headed to the hospital. I was given permission to stay at the shelter after they’d gotten rid of all my lice and crabs. They handed me my new clothes and toiletries, and I was led to the room I’d share with four other girls, all older than me. They had big round bellies. I’ll look like them soon. They smiled brightly at me, but I kept my mouth shut. Don’t say a word, I heard Mama say. I took off my stockings and pleated skirt and changed into a long skirt that came down to my ankles, the kind with an elastic waist. I stood before the mirror. A good girl. I wished White Face could see me.
The teachers were strict but polite, and the girls were especially nice to me because I was so young. They looked at me with pity, but to me, they seemed no different. The shelter wasn’t a bad place like the aunties had said. The food we prepared ourselves tasted good, and the building was clean. It was easy to follow the daily schedule built around regular waking and bedtimes, meals, rehabilitation training, and recreation. During rehab, we mostly learned how to use a computer or did beadwork. Sometimes there were lectures, music and art workshops, and even meditation classes. We usually had free time in the afternoon, but most of the older girls chose to work. I, too, knew how to clip the threads from stuffed dolls or splice wires, but I didn’t do any of that. I had no desire to make money. There was nothing I wanted. No. I knew now that what I wanted, I couldn’t buy with money.
During that time, I saw Mama and White Face only once. I’d been browsing through magazines and watching TV in the lounge during my free time. I kept dozing off and then waking to the autumn sunshine. Finally, I picked up a thick magazine and was flipping through the pages when I saw the photos.
Spread over five pages was an article about me and Mama. It contained all the stories I had told White Face. But unlike what the article said, I didn’t drink, smoke, or use drugs. I’d never stolen any money. It was also wrong about me going in and out of back rooms with other boys my age because I’d gone there only with White Face.
I had to read the article a few times, just to make sure it was really about me. But the girl in the pictures was definitely me: my closed eyes as I slept huddled in a blanket; a back view of me sitting in the waiting area wearing grown-up clothes; me chumming around with the uncles; a far shot of me and the blanket man, our bodies tangled together at a construction site; my tightly closed mouth, as I spied on my begging mother from behind a pillar; and even a profile of me with my round, pregnant belly. They weren’t lies; they were actual photos of me. At the end of the article was a picture of White Face in a tie, and printed under that was his name. I finally realized why he couldn’t become my dad or prince.
When spring came, I gave birth. I didn’t cry when they took the baby away. The next day, I had to leave the house with the green roof, just as the baby had. The clothes I’d been wearing when I first came here were my only possessions. As I was changing into the blouse that had become too small, I saw them—my hard, black nipples that jutted out from my chest. I had become my mother.
The older girls and teachers stroked my shoulder and said goodbye, but no one told me where I should go. I clamped my mouth shut and thanked them by lowering my head in a deep bow.
Click-clack, click-clack. The sound of heels rang on the exit steps. A year later, Mama was still hunched over in the same spot. Her dark hands were raised in the air, like lumps of rock that had petrified a thousand years ago.
A pretty lady in a flowing floral-print dress dropped two coins in Mama’s basket and rushed up the stairs. I gazed blankly after her. Her dress fluttered and then disappeared into the dazzling light of the world above. She was probably on her way to have a baby. I squeezed my eyes shut.