By Morgan Christie
A subtle aroma of lilac swelled through the boutique the way her mother’s fried plantain warmed her bedroom in the morning. Stacey-Ann knew the floral odour because it was the same fragrance she had sent her grandmother for her birthday. It smells like the colour purple, she wrote in her letter, it smells like something you want to find. She and her grandmother would write often. Stacey-Ann would fill her letters with the happenings of school and soccer practice, and her grandmother would often write stories. Stories she made up, and stories that all of Jamaica knew. Those crumpled letters, however infrequent, in their worn envelopes that conveyed how far they’d come, were one of Stacey-Ann’s brightest places. In her grandmother’s words she felt at home, more so than she did anywhere else.
“Which colour do you want?” her sister, Durene, asked.
Stacey-Ann scoured the boutique’s minimalist hair accessory section. It lacked the standard crochet and curve needles, Just For Me kits, and beads or accent threads she was accustomed to. Their section only had two accessories: hair ties and headbands. The bands were organized like a chorus, their alignment descending in a crescendo of rainbow shades moving from light to dark. Stacey-Ann took small steps as she examined each one, unsure of the perfect colour.
“Come on, Stac. I’ve got a paper to finish,” Durene said. “And I have to drop you off at Muriella’s for your appointment.”
Durene promised her sister she would take her to Eaton Centre to buy one of the designer headbands her classmates had been wearing when she had saved enough money. Stacey-Ann took on small jobs around the apartment her mother said it was okay to do. She’d sweep up for Muriella after she finished cutting hair, and before he died, she’d help Mr. Solomon collect trash bags on the higher floors for the people that had a hard time getting to the dumpster; but it was mostly her father that funded the headband savings. She’d help him wash cars in the old parking lot when he got home from work. She’d mix the solution he used, mostly dish soap and dettol, while wearing the rubber gloves her mother insisted on. Stacey-Ann would fold the sudsy mixture into itself more carefully than when she’d help her grandmother roll the dumplings and peel the yam when she was boiling food. Then she’d help her father scrub the cars down until they shined like they did on King St.; the ones not too far from where she and Durene were.
Stacey-Ann stopped skimming and stood in front of a light purple headband that seemed to function as the transitional piece between the arrangement, shifting the highlighter and pastel greens into deep purples, reds, and blues. She took hold of the package and ran her fingers over the plastic wrapping as the cashier eyed her and Durene a little more intently.
“This one,” Stacey-Ann said.
Durene looked at the thin paper price tag hanging off the rack, “You sure you want to spend all your money on this?”
Stacey-Ann nodded and took the headband to the cashier. She laid out her loonies, toonies, and five dollar bills as meticulously as she would arrange her uniform and socks before practice. The cashier softened his gaze and helped her count the smooth coins in exchange for the purple band Stacey-Ann hoped would be admired by her classmates as much as it was by her. They jumped on the train and squeezed between the narrow gaps left by the daily commuters pushing back out to the north side and east ends of the city. It had quieted when they neared the west, but Stacey-Ann hadn’t noticed. Instead, she daydreamed of the next day, wearing her new headband like most everyone else, hoping they’d take notice that she was more like them that day, than the one before. The sisters bussed it down from Lawrence West and made it to the apartment just before Stacey-Ann’s hair appointment. She waved at some friends chalking up the walkway and noticed the powdered pink and sky blue stains on their fingers as they waved back.
“You comin’ down?” one shouted.
“No, not today,” Stacey-Ann replied as she followed Durene inside. “I’m getting single braids.”
The front lobby was busier than usual, where one crowd was returning from work, another was headed out to begin their shifts. The fourteenth floor button was already pressed and glowing in its dim light when the sisters stuffed themselves onto the elevator. After what seemed like a stop on every floor, they arrived at Muriella’s floor. She was waiting just outside her door, down the hall.
“Just come up when you’re finished,” Durene rushed her sister.
Stacey-Ann rushed down the hall and hugged Muriella. She’d been to her apartment many times, helping her sweep or waiting while her mother had her locs tightened; but never to get her own hair done. Stacey-Ann sat on the pillow in front of the wide blue couch with the pieces of hair already laid out on the arms. Muriella was doing big single braids, per her mother’s request, so she knew it wouldn’t take long.
“Before I forget,” Muriella grabbed an envelope off the kitchen table. “Here you go, darlin’.”
Muriella handed Stacey-Ann the envelope. Stacey-Ann knew exactly what it was, but looked up at Muriella in a wave of confusion.
“Your modda brought it before she left for work,” Muriella sat down behind Stacey-Ann. “Thought you’d like to read it while I did your hair.”
Stacey-Ann said, “Thank you.”
She tore open the letter from her grandmother as Muriella began parting her pre-washed hair in sections for the braids. Stacey-Ann lifted the open letter to her nose and smelled the remnants of her grandmother’s house, part browning and part mothball. She looked at the words before reading them, the elegant loops her grandmother made even though she didn’t write in cursive. The letter began with the usual pleasantries and responses to Stacey-Ann’s updates and scores from her last soccer match before the season ended. It was about half way through the first page when she began telling a story. Her grandmother felt it was her responsibility to do this; to share these histories and pieces of home with her granddaughters, both born in foreign. Durene never had much interest, but Stacey-Ann loved hearing stories from the place her parents were from. A place her grandmother made her feel she was from too. A place she sometimes wondered if she’d feel she belonged in more than she did where she was. Her grandmother began half way past the beginning, and told her about River Mumma.
She said there were variations of the story, sometimes River Mumma was feared and others she was loved; but the constant was that she was the water’s mother, its keeper. Her grandmother said that River Mumma’s home was somewhere in the Rio Cobre near Flat Bridge; that she kept the area safe during the country’s economic boom as the bridge between export and product. River Mumma would sit on the bank or nearby boulders and comb her hair, watching over her waters and, subsequently, the people who relied on them. She was said to be beautiful, her skin the colour of Poinciana bark and her scales the same blue green as the rivers from her home. River Mumma was a siren, a mermaid, one that looked more like Stacey-Ann than the ones she’d come to know.
Muriella dug the comb through Stacey-Ann’s roots and began parting her hair. She was so gentle, unlike Durene and their mother, as she looped the kanekalon around Stacey-Ann’s hair. She extended the braids into long intertwining streams, like the ones River Mumma might watch. There were times Stacey-Ann even forgot she was getting her hair done, until she’d spot a braid dangling over her shoulder and reaching for her navel. Stacey-Ann kept reading and Muriella kept braiding.
What interested Stacey-Ann most was a small detail her grandmother penned near the end of her letter. She said that a little known fact about River Mumma, was that only Jamaicans could see her. They didn’t have to be born on the island, but a piece of them had to be from there. Someone’s spirit had to bend in the breeze Jamaica blew around the rest of the world in order to see her.
“It’s the way we look at things,” she imagined her grandmother whispering as she read the words. “In a way things look back at us.”
And Stacey-Ann imagined River Mumma’s eyes then. Deep and grown and full, like her own. She imagined what it must feel like to be seen by someone like her, to know that to be seen also meant to belong.
Muriella worked fast and finished braiding in a few hours. Stacey-Ann went to the mirror and ran her fingers across her hair. Her braids had never been so long and full.
“You like?” Muriella asked.
Stacey-Ann felt Muriella’s hand cup her shoulder as she fiddled with the position of a few strands that weren’t falling with the others.
“Remind your modda to wrap your head,” Muriella said as she pressed the uplifted single braids down. “It’ll train these ones to sit down right. Go’on home.”
Stacey-Ann left and waved as Muriella pulled out her razor and began preparing for her next client. She got home and raced to the washroom mirror, fumbling with her boutique package as her toes settled into the plush floor mat topping the mint green tiles. She pulled the headband from the bag and rubbed the material between her fingers and palms. It was so soft that Stacey-Ann worried about tearing the delicate pieces of headband thread as she pulled it over her head and ran her braids through to the other side. She tied her hair up into a high ponytail and adjusted the headband just past her edges like the girls in her class would. Stacey-Ann looked at herself and smiled wider than she remembered she could. Her teeth shone like sunny porcelain and she bit her lip as she moved her head from side to side, eyeing every angle of the headband.
“Is it everything you hoped for?” Durene asked as she passed by the cracked open door.
Stacey-Ann nodded, “Everything.”
The sisters sat down for dinner soon after. Their mother left the corned beef, rice, and cabbage wrapped on the second shelf of the fridge. The top shelf was fitted with their father’s meals, organized and packed so he just had to warm or grab containers as he jumped in and out for shifts.
“Is this what you’re going to pack for my lunch tomorrow?” Stacey-Ann asked.
“Yeah,” Durene glanced at her sister. “Why?”
“I was thinking, maybe you could pack regular corned beef. Like slices, in a sandwich?”
“This is regular corned beef,” Durene rolled her eyes. “Don’t let that headband get to your head, eh.”
Stacey-Ann looked down at her plate. The bright red morsels of beef spun between the rice as she scooped up her last bites. The sisters ate in silence before heading to their room, doing homework on their beds as the city darkened but didn’t quiet. Stacey-Ann got ready for bed some hours later, carefully laying her lilac headband out with the clothes her mother had pressed for the next day. She stuffed her single braids into one of her sister’s old bonnets and pulled it down over the nape of her neck. Durene moved her books into the living room and stood by their bedroom door once Stacey-Ann climbed under her sheets and placed the folded letter from their grandmother on her nightstand.
“You good?” Durene asked.
“What did Gram write to you about today?”
“She told me about River Mumma.”
“I don’t think I know that one,” Durene said. “What’s it about?”
“A mermaid that looks after the water, but mostly her people. She makes sure everything is running smooth so they can survive.”
Durene nodded as she looked in the kitchen to scope out the dishes and after dinner tasks waiting for her.
“You kind of look like a mermaid now,” Durene quickly said. “With your hair and everything.”
Stacey-Ann smiled sharply, hiding her teeth behind the blanket.
“Get some sleep,”Durene said as she turned off the light.
Stacey-Ann did, with her grandmother’s letter next to her bed, and her lilac headband across the room.
The next morning moved as swiftly as most mornings did. Durene woke Stacey-Ann up and the two got ready, sharing the bathroom, packing lunches, and sipping the still warm cornmeal porridge their mother left on the stove before she left for her second job. Their father had already eaten and taken off for work, so the rest of the pot was theirs. Stacey-Ann preferred oatmeal to cornmeal porridge, but never told her mother. She found the cornmeal a bit fine and soupy compared to the chewy denseness of the oatmeal. She liked eating her breakfast porridge more than she liked drinking it.
Stacey-Ann fixed her hair in the same high ponytail she did the night before, and meticulously adjusted the headband to just the right distance away from her forehead. She and Durene headed out and passed the local school her friends in the apartment complex attended.
“You ever wish you went there?” Durene asked her sister, moments before the bus arrived.
“Sometimes,” Stacey-Ann said. “But it’s for the best.”
Stacey-Ann mimicked her mother’s words, still not understanding them. They rode the bus for almost an hour and Stacey-Ann waved goodbye to her sister as they parted ways. She made it to her locker and adjusted her hair a final time before going into the classroom. The room was decorated with an array of the very headbands Stacey-Ann wore. The colours ranged from the rainbow of assortments Stacey-Ann saw in the boutique the day before. Had she not gone to school there, she wouldn’t have known anything about the designer. She’d never seen them worn across the pavement surrounding her home, or in the marketplace or playgrounds. They were everywhere at her school though, markers of the world she entered every morning, and left each afternoon.
Stacey-Ann went to her desk and organized her belongings. She left her grandmother’s letter on her nightstand that morning, sometimes bringing them to school with her to reread over lunch and recess. Her deskmates joined her and continued on with their conversations. The girls giggled and whispered as their headbands glowed as sharply as Stacey-Ann’s. She waited patiently, hoping one of the girls would spot the soft lilac and immediately see her; recognize the group mate they shared a space with everyday without sharing much else. Stacey-Ann waited as the girls said nothing. She waited until after the anthem, until after morning work, until after recess, and until after lunch. They didn’t say a word. Stacey-Ann rubbed her fingers against the headband, making sure it was still there, as she took a deep breath that afternoon.
“Do you like it?” Stacey-Ann said as she gestured to her headband.
The girls looked up from their papers and didn’t speak.
Stacey-Ann continued, “I got it yesterday.”
“I like the colour,” one of the girls replied.
Stacey-Ann swelled from the inside. Her heart skipped a beat and she felt herself become warmer.
“Me too,” Stacey-Ann said back to the girl.
Another groupmate chimed in, “Is that your real hair though?”
And the warmth evaporated like it had never been there. The girls went back to their work and Stacey-Ann looked ahead. She touched one of the braids dangling over her shoulder and thought about answering the girl, but didn’t know what to say.
“Stacey,” her teacher called out. “Get back to work.”
She did. The class headed to science class before their next break. They were discussing bodies of water and irrigation systems throughout the city. The science teacher explained that a river was a runoff of another body of water, as were streams and lakes.
“So they’re all connected,” Stacey-Ann said. “Rivers, and lakes, and oceans. What about creeks?”
“Yes, those too.”
The class broke for second recess and Stacey-Ann found herself traversing the schoolyard. She’d stop and evaluate puddles and other collections of water she’d run into, dropping stones and poking them with sticks. The day ended and she met her sister at the bus stop.
“So how’d it go?” Durene asked. “They notice the headband?”
Stacey-Ann shook her head and continued looking towards the bus, “We learned about water systems in science. Can you take me to the creek later?”
Durene deflated a bit, “Sure, I can do that. I have a paper to finish first, but we can go after. If it matters, I really like your headband, sis.”
“It doesn’t,” Stacey-Ann shrugged as the two got on the bus.
Once home, Durene worked on her paper and Stacey-Ann sat down with her grandmother’s note. She read it over and over before springing up and heading out of the bedroom.
“I’ll meet you downstairs, Durene,” Stacey-Ann said. “I have to go look for something outside.”
“For wha-” Durene’s question was cut off by the curtness of the closing door.
Stacey-Ann passed the other children playing and went directly for the curb. She approached the sewer entry and lowered herself towards it. She inched in front of the long opening and looked deep inside. She wanted to reach her hand out in it, but knew just looking would suffice. She pressed her face to the edge of the street, rubbing small pieces of pavement onto her cheek. When Durene came outside sometime later, she rushed to her sister and pulled her off the ground.
“What are you doing?” Durene asked as she dusted Stacey-Ann’s clothes off. “Why are you lying down there?”
Stacey-Ann hadn’t made eye contact with her sister, but kept studying the sewer entry.
“Do you think there is river water in there?”
“What?” Durene asked, confused.
“In the sewer,” Stacey-Ann clarified. “In the sewer. It’s a runoff, right? Do you think there’s river water?”
Durene was perplexed, “I mean maybe, I really don’t know. But why?”
Stacey-Ann stepped closer to the sewer and bent down so she could see inside.
“I’m looking for River Mumma,” she said.
“For what?” Durene asked.
Stacey-Ann looked further into the sewer and swore that for a moment she smelt a hint of lilac escaping the cool dark underground.
“For what, Stac?” Durene repeated as she readjusted her sister’s loosening ponytail.
“I need to know if I can see her,” Stacey-Ann replied. “I think she’s something I should want to find.”
Morgan Christie's work has appeared in Room, Hawai'i Review, Sport Literate, and elsewhere. She is the author of four poetry chapbooks and her full-length short story collection 'These Bodies' (Tolsun Books, 2020) was nominated for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in fiction. Her most recent poetry chapbook ‘when they come’ was released by Black Sunflowers Press (2021) and is featured in the Forward Arts Foundation’s National Poetry Day exhibit. She is the 2022 Arc Poetry Poem of the Year Winner and her collection 'People Without Wings' is the winner of the 2022 Digging Chapbook Series Prize (Digging Press, 2023). Her essay collection, 'Boolean Logic' is the winner of the Howling Bird Book Prize (2023) and her novella 'Liddle Deaths' (Stillhouse Press) is due out in 2024.