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Water Rite

June 20, 2008

In the house of my aunt and uncle, each room had its own rules about what not to touch, how not to run, where not to eat. Pillars heralded the porch and cherrywood gleamed in the entry, naked of school papers, apple cores, cereal bowls. One night, after a visit from the police, I was taken from my mother and placed here, among shining guest soaps and french provincial mirrors and real table dinners. If I had known more about fairy tales and remembered less about Mother’s screams, I would have pretended I was in a fairy tale.

A day after my arrival, my cousin bent down and swept the long, sticky bangs from my eyes and proposed something I wasn’t sure I could handle.

“Come on,” she said. “Let’s give you a bath.”

Dirty toenails poked from my saltwater sandals as I stood motionless. Even though Cecelia was very old, thirteen, I didn’t trust anybody to start my bath. Bathrooms were not happy places.

Cecelia tapped the blond bannister with shellacked fingernails. I didn’t understand how a person’s nails could be ghost-white like that. “It’ll be okay,” she said.

I followed her upstairs where she opened a cupboard. It was a Library of Towels, each volume folded, tucked and shelved.

At home our towels flop like dead rags, old curtains, in heaps we pick off Mommy’s bed.

“And we’ll wash your hair.”

It starts, standing on the cold bathroom floor. There is a sea-green ring round the middle of the sink.

I hugged tight my towel.

Cecelia opened the door to one of the bathrooms I’d never seen, and I walked into a strange dawn, where sunny yellow towels matched rug, matched yellow silk flowers in a straw vase. The toilet lid was covered with yellow shag, round as a cookie, softer than any chair at home. Old home. My home again, sometime maybe: I couldn’t know.

I was a netted fish, a trapped selkie. Cecelia turned on the bathtub water and plunged in her hand.

Mommy puts a metal pan under the sink. Water whooshes. Mommy’s hands shake and I look up to the whiteness of the skin under her Widow’s Peak, quiet with unhappy secrets, smooth and blue underneath, holding her Voices and all the Bad Things to worry about in the world.

Water gushed onto Cecelia’s freckles, leapt from smooth porcelain, echoing past canyons of clean silver faucets. She paddled the wet into sudsy billows. “Get in.”

I threw my clothes down and inched my scaled tail over the bathtub edge.

She pours onto my head. Yow! Hot! Fills it up at the sink. Pours. Ouch! Cold! The waters never match.

“Go on.”

I went into the steam, sank into the clear, ruffled at the edges with lace, underwear lace that hides your underparts, but is never clean unless Mommy has time.

Cecelia uncapped Herbal Essence, with its smell of scissor-sharp flowers.

Mommy says, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” and turns around and around to find a clean towel and my hair is stringy seaweed in my face and I have to cry. We slip and trip on the wet floor.

Cecelia’s freckled other-family hands reached for me. She swirled my head with shampoo. Her arms smelled like Love’s Baby Soft perfume. “You don’t have to sit so stiff. Here’s how you rinse, see? Lie down and swish your hair.”

It’s in Mommy’s magazines. If you don’t get all the suds…

I sat up.

Your scalp will dry and crack and you might get a rash or have to call someone, the doctor or the police or a neighbor you hardly know, and say,”Something is wrong with me! I’m hearing voices! I need help right away!”

“All the suds won’t come out that way!” I cried.

“Most will.” Cecelia smiled.

I scooted beneath the water, froth hissing in my ears. I closed my eyes against the clinging. The warmth was kind. It was enough, swishing like a mermaid freed from the deep down sea, and just as everybody kept saying things were going to be okay, maybe they would be.

by Christi Krug

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  1. Christina Pacosz
    June 25, 2008 at 3:49 pm

    Powerful and intense. Getting at something vital that most don’t want to consider. Water as weapon, danger, slippery, wet, too hot, too cold, when a neglectful/mentally ill parent has the chore of washing a young daughter’s hair. Who knows what can happen to you? To her.

  2. June 28, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    It takes hero’s courage to write such a beautiful, intimate piece.

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