Althea Brown aka Auntie Brown
Quod erat demonstrandum. Things that someone did, not said, had shocked Althea Brown twice before. They happened when she was ten years old and again when she was a young woman. No one had reported these actions to her; she had witnessed them for herself. Now the result of Christine’s reporting was that Althea had not only lost all appetite to go for seconds of her Sunday dinner, she now realized that she was still in shock. But her prior shocks dulled Christine’s revelation the way she had once experienced how anticipated sounds faded out background noises.
Althea had not told anyone about those initial shocks or what had caused them. That decision was in keeping with the covertness of any secret, which, deep down and unobserved, flows as placidly as the blood flowing through our arteries. She had tapped many veins throughout her twenty-five years as a nurse, and not one of those needle pricks in and of itself had ever revealed a diagnosis. But when a specimen was examined, and only after the collection had been sent off to the lab, then the blood secret could be revealed.
Sleep was now almost impossible. It was already hard enough to come by at her age. Yet it was now also not as burning a desire as her need to finally make sense of incest. Lying in bed next to Cliff, who was fast asleep, she suddenly made sense of her being unable to have made sense of it: it seemed impossible to understand because it was such a sinister thing. It was so sinister that Althea was unable to bring herself to have shared with the man whom she loved and with whom she had borne children this private struggle to understand something that, in and of itself, was the glue that held her to him. She had been resisting thoughts about it since before they had met.
What’s in a Name is a fictional tale about a woman who has been renamed by her dying mother. She accepts that name, but then she goes silent about its significance. Now an adult, a married woman, she finds herself in a battle to unsilence herself.
Just as Christine, who had appeared like a mysterious black bird landing in her church parking lot, had to have given in to something at some point before she returned, so Althea was now ready to give in to her own thoughts. She tried as hard as her old brain could handle to think properly and methodically about her own past and perhaps finally lend this whole mess some sense, even though she had already gained, more or less, and learned from the mess.
She felt safe with Cliff, her safety glue. If she had not stuck to him right from the start, she would not have married him, not to mention had children with him. She had sworn that she would not bring children into this world unless she guaranteed them the safest home possible. An unsafe one had rocked the foundation of her life, but it had also led her to God and a husband. Her only other requirement for choosing Cliff had been that she could see straight into his heart the way she now looked through the figurine globe on the nightstand at the snowflakes swirling around in the pristine water. Her hand, which she had placed under the side of her face, bore the weight of her head. Cliff bore the weight of her secret so well and he didn’t even know it, she thought. He was a stellar man.
Althea still had questions. Did it run in the blood? Was it controlled by genes? Oh Lord she just didn’t know or she had made zero strides in understanding incest as a concept over exactly three-quarters of a century. As a girl she had felt powerless to stop what was happening. So Althea had not cracked the fragile egg that is itself the raw topic. She now fell back as though by rote to how she had regularly seen and thought about it: incest was incest. Simple, simply put. Maybe she was too old to think about or to see such a thing beyond its physical reference, regardless of how she sliced or diced the subject. Yet she found that she was not kissing her teeth in exasperation and despair right now.
Althea’s memories, though they were powerful, had returned to a nascent state. They now peeked out from their singular nest like vulnerable baby birds waiting to be fledged. They, which were like the skin of such birds, had also reverted to a raw thinness. They, which now reached forward like tentacles to snatch her back to their ravages in time, squawked the devastating truth of the past.
At the dinner table she had struggled to find the words to say to her niece to try to console her. She knew that what Christine was telling her was true; she just did not want to believe any part of it. She resisted believing it, not Christine, as staunchly as she believed that even if she herself had identified the signs—such as that New Year’s Eve in Reid’s dining room (those grooved lines left in his floor should have been a warning, Althea thought) and that he had given Christine away afterwards—she would have been unable, and powerless yet again, to call them for what they had now turned out to be: life-altering events. That inability was no different from why she had also been unable to call Christine by another name. Christine even explained what had moved her mother to give her that name, a fact which Althea found incomprehensible. Then she understood that what had gone on before was the reason Christine had accepted that sickening name. Christine vowed before Cliff and her to finally reject it.
But Althea could not have really called those life-altering events signs, could she? No! she thought. No, she had been unqualified to call them signs as Christine most definitely would also have been at that age to make any sense of those events or give them such an ambiguous, ominous title, either. She was still unqualified because she still kept buried the one thing (her intimate knowledge) that would have given her some authority, other than her faith in God, to offer Christine some comfort, or even a knowing look or a touch that would have communicated during their dinner: “I know; I understand; I’ve been there. Not quite there there but in the midst.” Would that such offer be sweet after such bitterness. It ought not to matter if it was true that Christine was not Reid’s blood. Maybe because he knew that she was not had created the opening. How unfortunate if she wasn’t his child! What a disgrace for him to have entered that breach and trampled through it! He was still her father.
And nothing, Althea thought, could explain this terrible thing, which she had discovered in her own father. It was unspeakable. She realized that that secret, though quiescent, had not relinquished the power to yield what she now surmised had to be a consequence of silence: her memories, one by one, had started to regain their strength, floating across her mind impudently. And now she was reliving the past as if there were no present. Her mind was the stomping ground for the revival, the reawakening, the resurgence, the segmentation, of the secret.
It seemed that Althea’s mental agony, that consequence of silence, would have no mercy upon her, even though she was an old woman. She marvelled at the brazenness of time and the invitation‑less-ness of her memories. Althea perfectly understood that time had enabled the memories to defy their burial now.
Her memories rolled away the imagined stone of safety whose permanence she had once reinforced and enforced by way of silence. She knew that that stone, which was not only improper but also inadequate, was about to cause another disaster as when a window covering had been yanked back on a view of slackness. That deceptive stone of safety had once been merely pushed up against her family’s door from outside, where the enemy was able to nudge it away and come inside (barely a push had probably been required). And so just as she, before she met Cliff, had not imagined a life anywhere other than in Jamaica, she had not imagined the threat within the very home that her sister and she felt safe in.
Now that Althea’s stone-silence had finally been moved, she realized that she had taken it for granted. It was now clear it had been only a matter of time it was rolled away, except she would not have imagined that it would be by a revelation from Christine. In fact, she knew her stone-silence was what had turned into that shell of a dome.
She allowed herself to wonder for a moment if incest was fated, but then thought how foolish that she would mark such a thing as a child of fate, which could not explain such a thing! But maybe it did explain the people in her life. Two of those very people—her own father and Reid—had hurt her heart! Fate, Althea thought. Was that not how, why she had met Cliff? How, why her sister’s son had become her own? How, why that baby had survived birth, even though the mother had not? Althea kept her heart open to and for him. Reid was once the healer of her shattered soul after she had lost her mother and then her sister only months apart. His return one day was still her secret hope. Althea rolled over onto her back; tears came down the sides of her face. Quietly, she wiped them away. Fate was a double-edged sword. And it did not explain what Christine had told her that her own father did to her. Nor did it explain what Althea’s own father had done, either.
What’s in a Name will be reissued as part of a trilogy in June 2021.