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I sat between my father and my brother in the old, red pickup truck on a cool Saturday morning. The sun was just beginning to show its yellow face over the fields. It was early, not even six o’clock. But, my father and my brother and I were awake and excited.
I looked at my brother. Actually, he wasn’t really my brother; he was some boy my father saw on the side of the road while he was in Africa for a business trip. My father thought he looked sad and hungry, so my father brought him home. My brother had lived with us ever since.
My brother had skin the color of dark coffee and he had eyes as brown and as intense as a tigers’. He was always quiet around strangers, but loved teasing me in private. He loved and protected me as if I was his own little sister. Other kids sometimes made fun of him because of his skin color, but he never fought back. The closest he got to a fight was when a bully at school called me a nasty name.
He glanced up and caught me staring at him. “What’s on the brain, Lena?”
I shrugged. “Nothin’.”
“I’m serious.” I suppressed a yawn
“Uh, huh, sure.”
I decided to change the subject. “I’m glad to be going to the Lake again, Father.”
Father smiled and said, “Me too, Lena.”
“I hope I can catch a monster fish this year,” I stated, “Like maybe a regular whale!”
My brother pretended to choke. “A whale? Whales don’t live in lakes, silly. They live in oceans which are about a bazillion miles away.”
“Don’t discourage me,” I sniffed, “You never know with fishing.”
“Well, I’m not expecting foolish things. I’m hoping for a ten-pounder.” My brother looked to my father for approval. Father frowned at him and I felt the familiar sense of dread.
“Ten-pounders are still dreaming big,” my father said, “You should not wish for something you can’t get. And don’t lecture Lena, you’re colored and she’s not. She has the right to ignore you.”
My ears burned with shame for my brother. Why now? I asked silently. I took my brother’s hand and squeezed it. He looked away.
As my father drove, though, our spirits lifted. We had taken this trip, Father and my brother and me, many times before. It was all so familiar. The sunshine, the tall, cool mountains on either side, the hurried breeze, the cheerful honking of nearby cars, the smell of lemon in the pickup truck. Even the road itself was an old friend.
Sometimes, my brother and I rolled down the windows and waved to the people on the sidewalks. Sometimes they waved back and sometimes they didn’t. Then, when the sun had really and truly risen, my father stopped at Bob’s Diner. Bob was an old friend of my father’s and we always stopped by his diner on our way to the Lake.
When I stepped into the small restaurant, a wave of aromas met me. I closed my eyes to sniff them better: strong floor polish, dish soap, waffles, honey, brown sugar, and corned-beef-hash.
Bob met us at the door. “Well now, well now. Who do we have here? Why, my old friend, have you brought the children? Ah, yes, hullo there!”
And then I hugged Bob and he said, “Well now, well now. Lena, you’ve gotten taller.” Then, he saw my brother. Bob glanced around the restaurant. There were no other customers. Bob seemed relieved; no one would see him serve to a young black boy. “Well now, well now. I do think you can be seated. Now, what would you like to eat?”
My father ordered and Bob hustled off to get our breakfast. A girl with long, dark hair came and poured coffee for Father. Her name was Maggie and she was Bob’s nineteen-year-old daughter. I think my brother thought her the most beautiful girl in the world.
Once, in my brother had told me that he thought Maggie’s eyes were the color of the Caribbean sky. I had laughed at him. But, he was right. Even though neither of us knew the color of a Caribbean sky, we both thought we could imagine it pretty well.
“Hullo, there, Mr. Wentworth. Cream and sugar?” She always asked this, even though Father always said no thank you.
Maggie poured apple juice for me and orange juice for my brother. I saw her flash a quick smile at my brother, but she didn’t talk. She wasn’t allowed.
“How are you doing, Lena?”
I said, “Fine, Maggie. We finished the school year yesterday and so Father’s taking us to the Lake.”
“The Lake?” Maggie’s Caribbean-blue eyes sparkled. “Oh, how wonderful! I haven’t been to the Lake since I was a wee thing like you, Lena.”
“I’m not a wee thing, any longer, Maggie.” I drew myself up in my chair. “I turn fourteen next Thursday.”
“Well, happy birthday to you!” She swatted me playfully on the shoulder and went back into the kitchen.
After a while, she brought out our breakfast; French toast with peach jam and scrambled eggs and bacon on the side. When Maggie came round to collect our plates, Father tried to pay her.
“Oh, Mr. Wentworth,” she said almost angrily, “Papa has told me not to let you pay again. And don’t you leave that money here, either!” Maggie shook a fork in Father’s face, so he smiled and didn’t pay.
We said goodbye to Bob and left.
The trip to the Lake seemed to go by even quicker after breakfast. I rolled down all the windows to let the mountain breezes fill the truck. My brother and I took turns sticking our arms out and feeling the warm air.
Finally, we arrived at the Lake. Tucked in a little corner of the mountains, Lake Juniper was like a hidden jewel—blue and perfect. Tall spruce trees grew close to the water. Mist curled around the shore and gave the whole place an enchanted feel.
Immediately after my father parked, I jumped out and raced towards the Lake. Without any hesitation, I plunged in. The water was crisp and clean and cold. It made me shiver with delight. Laughing, I surfaced and waved to my brother.
He tried to be grown-up with me. “Lena! What have you done?” Then, I splashed him. Soon, he was in the water with me. As a rule, we always swam before we fished. Father said that our splashing and jumping disturbed the fishes, but he didn’t really mind that we children were out of the way while he set up his tackle and bait.
After we were sufficiently wet down to our skin, my brother and I sloshed out of the water. Then, we watched silently while my father very gravely handed us our fishing poles.
“Now, then, Lena,” he said, “There you are. Watch the string. Good girl. Now, do you want a worm? Yes? There you go. Here, boy, take this pole. There you go. Gently, now, gently.”
After we got our poles, I raced towards the Lake again, eager to catch my first fish. Careful not to tangle my line, I sat on a rock that was as big as the truck. Half in the water and half out of the water, the rock was worn smooth and soft. My brother sat on it with me. And we waited. Together.
“Do you know what Rose Rimple did at school yesterday?” I asked my brother.
“Can’t say I do.”
I expected this answer. “She was crying in the bathroom near lunchtime. I went up to her and asked her what was the matter. She told me to go away. Now, don’t you think that was the rudest thing in the world?”
“Can’t say it was.”
“Why in heaven’s name not?”
“Because I feel bad for Rose.”
I stared at my brother as if he had lost his wits. In fact, I thought he had. “You feel bad for Rose Rimple? She has everything.”
My brother frowned. “No, she doesn’t.” He looked at me out of the corner of his eyes. “She doesn’t have a brother.”
“Oh. Yes, that is true.” I sat, contemplating that. “I suppose I should feel sorry for her, too.”
“Yes, you should.” My brother returned to his fishing, but I still wanted to talk. Sometimes, my brother would just shut his mouth like a clam. And I was always trying to open him.
“Do you think you will like to live in the mountains when you grow up?” I asked him.
“I don’t know.”
“I do.” I paused for a minute. “And I think I should like to live by this Lake. Maybe get married on this rock. And have children here, too. And then they will live here, too. We’ll have drives through the mountains and parties on boats on the Lake. Every Sunday, we’ll go the village and to church. After church, we’ll have dinner at Bob’s Diner. Maybe supper too.”
My brother smiled. “You sure have a lot of plans.”
“Aye,” I replied, “What are your plans, Sam?”
My brother likes when I call him Sam. He says it reminds of the Samson in the Bible who was very strong and had long hair. “Well,” he said, squinting a little, “I think I should like to go study abroad.”
“What? Study abroad? What for?” This was a surprise to me. My brother leave the mountains to study?
“Well, maybe not for very long.” My brother’s tiger-eyes grew dreamy. “Maybe just a few years. And maybe I’ll go to Paris and Greece and New York and Switzerland. I should dearly love to go to faraway places. But,” his face grew sad, “they might not let a ‘colored’ person study in those places.”
I sighed. “Why not? You’re as smart as any person. Smarter, probably. ”
“I don’t know.”
“But,” I protested, “I think you are.” A new thought popped into my head. “What if you find some nice girl in Paris or Greece or New York or Switzerland or wherever and you marry her? And you decide to stay there, because you think it is so much better than our little village and our little house. What if you never write like so many other boys do once they leave to go abroad? What if we never hear from you again? Hmmm? What do you say to that? ”
He laughed. “I would write. And you know that. It’s just that I’ve always wanted to see other parts of the world. I’ve heard of the Eiffel Tower and the Coliseum. But, I want to see them for real life.”
“Well, I don’t. I’d be content to live and die here.” I jiggled my fishing pole to try to encourage the fish to bite.
My brother grinned and punched me playfully. “In a bad mood, Lena?”
“No. I’m not.”
“You sound awfully bad mood-ish.” He was teasing me and I knew it. But, I was too bothered by what he had said to let on. Then, he pretended to slip off of the rock. He plunged into the Lake. I couldn’t help laughing. He looked so little, so obscure in that huge expanse of water.
After he climbed out of the Lake, I caught a sunfish. I proudly took out the hook out of the sunfish’s mouth and placed the sunfish inside a pale of lake water. My brother patted me on the back and told me “good job”, but I could see he was jealous to catch one himself.
He did, a little while later. But, then I caught a four-pound bass. And then I caught two more sunfish. My brother scratched his head. “Where’d you throw your line, girl? You’ve hit a jackpot!”
I grinned at him and said, “Oh, I just throw it anywhere. It’s my genius ability that draws the fish to me.”
He grimaced. But, a minute later, he held up a four-pound bass of his own. “Ha. Beat that!”
Quickly, I drew in my line. Another trout. But, this one was big. Really big. Near six or seven pounds. It went on like that, back and forth, back and forth. Just after my brother caught himself his fifth minnow in a row, my father called that it was time for lunch.
We scrambled down the rock, leaving our poles. Father brought out the lunch hamper and we feasted like kings. There was jerk chicken, egg salad, cheese sandwiches, sweet applesauce, boiled green beans with a pinch of salt, cranberry pie, and a big pitcher of lemonade to wash the crumbs out of our teeth.
“You’re a good cook, Lena,” my brother said, taking more egg salad.
I blushed. “Thank you, Sam.”
Then, I bit my tongue and glanced at my father. He was looking straight at me.
“What did you call him?” he asked, slowly.
I felt terrible. “I’m sorry Father, I forgot that…I just forgot, Father. I’m most dreadfully sorry.” My brother looked down at his plate awkwardly.
“Don’t ever call him that again, do you hear me?” My father was not regularly a man of violence, but he could get worked up.
“Yes, Father, I hear you. I’m sorry.”
After that, the meal was silent and uncomfortable. As soon as we could, my brother and I escaped to the big rock. I sat still and miserable.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“But, it is a matter. I hate how Father won’t call you anything but ‘boy.’” I was close to tears.
“I don’t care. Really, Lena.”
“I care. I care when people won’t look at you in the eyes. I care when Maggie won’t talk to you. I care when somebody purposefully spills water on your shoes or throws mud at your back. I care when the passersby won’t wave at you when we drive past.” I put my hand on my heart. “I care, Sam.”
My brother ran a hand through his short, curly hair. “I can’t change my skin color, Lena. That’ s just a fact.”
Now, I was really angry. “I wouldn’t want you to change your skin color. I love it. I think it is beautiful.”
“Thank you, but no one else seems to think so.”
I sighed. “Father is getting more and more inclined to believe what he reads in the newspapers.”
“What is that?”
“All black people are evil, that they will take over the world, that they are violent, that they murder, that they are less than human, that they should go back to being slaves.” I glanced up. I could see this was hurting my brother. “None of it is true, of course,” I added hastily.
He shook his head in amazement. And we didn’t talk about it anymore after that.
After I felt like Father had cooled off enough, I went back to the picnic area and made a fire to fry the fish over for supper. My brother said he would watch my line for me.
Father was intently studying his book, so he didn’t even realize I was there until I struck a match. He watched me absentmindedly. I finished my task and was about to leave when my father said, “You must accept it, Lena.”
I looked up into my father’s deep eyes. “Accept what?”
“That the boy is not your equal.” He tapped his book with his forefinger. “You mustn’t treat him like one.”
I felt my temper rising. This subject had been the heart of many of our arguments. “Sam is a good boy. He—”
“Don’t call him that name,” my father interrupted calmly.
“I will call him whatever I wish.” My face flushed with daring, but my father remained unmoved.
“Stay your temper, Lena.”
“Stay my temper?” I slapped my hand against a rock. “Stay my temper? Father, I tell you that I will not stay my temper when I see evil committed.”
I was about to storm away, but my father’s next words stopped me. “You do not know what evil is.”
I whirled and faced my father. How could this man, this man, be my father? How could he turn so cold and hard? How could he not see that Sam suffered every time he was rebuffed and scolded by him? How could he…?
Instead of retorting, I walked slowly back to my father and sat down. “Father,” I said softly, “I may not know the full meaning of evil. But I do know that to treat another human being as…as dirt is evil.”
My father laughed. It was forced and there was no merriment in his voice. “Lena, do not worry your young heart about these matters. You are too innocent.”
This was too much. I fled to my brother. He hadn’t heard anything, but my disturbed countenance and flashing eyes told him enough. We sat in silence. My anger formed a hard knot in the pit of my stomach and stayed there for the rest of the day.
When nightfall came, the three of us shared a silent supper. I refused to communicate with my father. After supper, we packed up the fishing things, put out the fire with some lake water, and headed home.
There was a half-moon and the smell of pinecones hung heavy in the air. The night would’ve been peaceful, but I didn’t enjoy it at all. The drive home felt interminable because of the anger in my heart.
When my father drove up to our house, it was late and I was tired. I always came back from the Lake tired. I always felt as if I’d left every ounce of my energy swimming, eating, playing, and fishing at the Lake. And it usually felt good. Except for today.
My father parked the pickup outside our small house. Sam poked me to get me moving. I stumbled into our cabin. It was a small building, made of two rooms. My father took the only bedroom and the kitchen was the other room. All of our furniture and appliances were old, but clean. The wood chairs were smooth under my hand and the sofa’s springs creaked whenever we sat in it.
I hadn’t set foot in my father’s room since my mother was alive.
My brother and I slept in the loft above the kitchen. I kissed my father goodnight (I was too tired to be really angry at him, anymore) and scrambled up the ladder. Our loft consisted of two beds on opposite sides of the room, a privacy-curtain in the corner, and pegs on the walls that held our coats. My brother was already there, pulling off his boots.
I changed hastily behind a curtain. Then, I opened the window and leaned out. The cool night air caressed my face and filled my lungs. I could see a few lights in the distance that I knew came from the village, but for the most part, the only light came from the great stars above. My brother came to the window and leaned out next to me.
We were silent. For a while.
“Lena?” My brother turned. His tiger-eyes were sad and hurt.
“Why do they hate me?”
I didn’t want to answer this question. “Hmmm.”
“I haven’t done anything wrong.” My brother looked searchingly into my face. “I know that it’s just my skin. I hate it. I hate that I’m black. If I could wish anything, it would be that I could be white as the snow on the mountains.”
I almost fell off of the windowsill. “Sam!” I hissed, “Don’t you ever ever ever say that again!”
My brother shook his head. “You don’t understand…”
That stopped me.
No, I didn’t understand.
“I’m sorry, Sam.” I didn’t hear him speak again, after that. Soon after, we went to bed and I tried to sleep, but my brother’s words haunted my dreams: Why do they hate me?