Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Light and Dark (05/21/09)
TITLE: Under The Skin
By Jan Ackerson
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They inhabited a world of shadows: money exchanged in dim corners of bars, dark substances flowing through their veins, the muted creaks and groans of rusty bed frames. But in the weeks before they both died (within days of each other--my father’s liver having finally surrendered and my mother shrunken down to only skin and smoke), they grasped at God. Brother Jim was with them both when they flew to the light of Jesus, and it was he who held my hand when I met my grandparents a few days later. I was ten years old.
The people I used to know, who crept in and out of my parents’ little flat, were a colorful lot: black like my father, white like my mother, and all shades in between, including the caramel color of my own skin.
But the bridge ladies at Grandma Lois’s house were all fair, with hair either soft white or a buttery shade of yellow. Grandma slathered me in sunscreen every time she opened the door, and she straightened my curls with a flat iron that sent steam hissing to the bathroom ceiling like snake whispers. When we sat side-by-side on her brocade sofa, I’d study our arms: hers soft and round, like the belly of some pale animal, and mine skinny and brown, a twig just right for snapping.
Grandma Lois praised my green eyes. When I looked in the mirror, I stared fiercely at my eyes, trying not to see my nose or lips at all. I rubbed grandma’s purloined cold cream into my skin; I started wearing long-sleeved shirts. When Grandma bought me a box of crayons, I found one labeled flesh. It was the color of ripe peaches. I threw the crayon away.
Grandma, I asked, what color is God? She gave me a picture of blue-eyed Jesus.
Grandpa Dave was a ghost in his own house—I mostly saw his back as he rounded corners ahead of me, and I heard him murmuring with Grandma Lois in the night. I don’t suppose the three of us went out together more than a dozen times. Put on her jacket, Lois. Pull back her hair. He walked several steps ahead of us, calling back sharp commands over his shoulder.
I didn’t belong in their shining world, so after a few years, I was sent to live with Aunty Florence, my father’s aunt, a woman whose blackness seemed to pool in the deep space between her enormous breasts.
Aunty Florence’s sprawling and rickety house barely contained the cousins and other assorted relatives who filled every room with raucous noise. I hadn’t realized that black came in so many shades—bittersweet chocolate, coffee with cream, molasses. But no one there shared my own burnt sugar hue.
The cousins pulled my hair when Aunty Florence wasn’t looking, or unimaginatively called me greenie for my eyes.
At Aunty Florence’s church, we sang red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in His sight. I clenched my jaw and refused to sing. Aunty Florence, I asked, what color is God? She fanned her bosom with a hankie. God’s all colors, child.
In junior high, I continued to wear long sleeves. They covered a criss-cross of scratches, my futile attempt to find a lighter or darker shade, my true skin hiding under the skin that betrayed me every day.
I said I was Egyptian. Peruvian. Thai. I feigned exotic accents, wore colorful scarves and bangles. That got me through high school.
At twenty-three, I stopped asking What color is God? when I realized that the blood staining an ancient cross was the same color as the blood that ran through my father’s desiccated liver and my mother’s virus-riddled veins.
A picture of my parents’ hands, light and dark entwined, adorns my piano. And every evening I sit and play for sweet Jesus, my caramel fingers running over keys both black and white.
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