Technically speaking, Ebony was not legitimate. She was borne of a fabulous affair between her common-class mother, Adah, and a man named Christopher Rafael, a wealthy diplomat who had inherited a huge estate in the area.
At the time the affair began, Adah was married to Daniel Hayes, a rather unsuccessful businessman whose only notable accomplishment was to father two girls who managed to look enough like their mother to turn heads.
At age 3 and 4, Java and Siva were keen enough to note that their mother was turning heads all over town, that her own head was turned, in fact, and that she kept her rapt and steady attention on Christopher Rafael. Java and Siva were growing up with a woman who was the constant object of desire, and this seemed normal enough to them that they did not question her choice to return Christo’s affection.
They enjoyed nights out with their mother and Christo, especially when they came along for a romantic dinner in his castle of a house, where servants still served the food and stood quietly in the corners. A night with Christo was a chance to step into a fairy-tale kingdom where young girls rode in horse-drawn carriages, and attended balls in puffed out dresses bias-cut for young princesses.
At home with their father, they would chew loudly to fill the dull and silent air, scrape their fork on the pale porcelain plates in an effort to move the peas into a formation that made them look half-eaten. Adah measured the pads of butter they spread on their bread, collected their uneaten peas and served them again the next night. They would tell the same old stories about the same old things happening at daycare, and listen to the same old stories about the same old things happening at work.
They would ask to watch TV after dinner, and then help quickly clear the table for a rapid chance of escape. And then they would sit in front of the TV, eyes open, dreaming of another night when they would cut over to Christo’s place, skate in his private rink, or watch the same TV shows on his glamorous projector screen.
At home, they didn’t have cable, and some nights there was no reception. The house was always chilly, with the heater saved as a last resort, and Java and Siva would curl tightly together on the couch to keep warm, while Adah and Daniel leaned conspiratorially against each other. Daniel would save the newspapers each morning to line the cold windows at night.
Some nights at home, the girls would tell their father stories about life at Christo’s house. It always made Adah strain uncomfortably. Often she would push up and leave the table, leaving their father smiling glassily, though never enjoying the tales quite as much as the girls planned.
After this unveiled charade had gone on for a number of months, Adah stood up from the table one night without warning. She walked to the front door, and walked out, leaving the door swinging ajar. Java, Siva and Daniel Hayes sat quietly at the table, listening to the stuttering screech of the revving engine, then the turning tires as Adah drove away.
Later that week, a car showed up, and the well-dressed driver knocked on the door, asking to pick up the children.
Daniel wordlessly packed the girls two identical pink backpacks, filling them with clean clothing and underwear, a toothbrush, a comb, and a few strips of fruit leather. He helped his daughters strap on their backpacks, led them to the door, knelt down and kissed them each on the cheek before sending them on with the driver.
Java and Siva were happy with their full-time fairy-tale life, and quite enchanted when they heard that their mother was having a baby.
They wanted to name the new girl Snow White, but Adah insisted on something sleeker. So Java, remembering TV commercials for sleek hair, suggested that they name the baby for Snow White’s ebony hair. The name stuck.
When the girls were a bit older, Adah professed that it was Ebony’s arrival that led her to leave her husband.
Siva would often sneak into her mother’s room and watch as Adah cried. It was a silent sort of a wail, her shoulders hitching, her breath stuttering. It made her beautiful face puff and turn red, giving her swollen pink scars from the tears she refused to wipe away. After a few hours, she would be roused by the sound of Ebony’s tantrums in the hall, or Java’s biting laughter, and Adah would stand up and stare at herself in the mirror, rinsing her face over and over until all signs of tears were. Then she would throw a twinkle in her eye, and shout lightly—here I come!
Siva felt a certain kind of kinship with her mother, and suspected that Adah must miss Daniel Hayes as much as his daughters did. This was a silent secret that the two of them shared, something that Java was too selfish to see, and Ebony had no reason to understand.
Siva kept a photograph of her father in a plastic wallet. It was a matte-print image of a man with his smile rubbed out by the little girl who constantly pulled the photo out to touch. Even with his face smudged nearly to transparency, Siva loved her father’s photo. It was something that her father had hidden in her backpack before sending her away; a gift and a reminder. She suspected that Java had a keepsake like it somewhere, hidden away in a shoebox. In truth, Java’s picture had made it to the rubbish bin, and from there into a dusty corner of Adah’s dressing chest.
All the same, Adah publicly insisted she was happy, and swore she had made the right decision. Ebony was a harbinger of a new family, a family that could provide everything three children could need or want. This was her family’s chance at happiness. Adah wanted to do it right this time.
From the outside, things were certainly done right. Adah and Christo threw parties regularly, some for their adult friends, and some for the girls and their school-mates, sort of debutant balls for the pre-pubescent.
Java and Siva always understood that this life was the dream and that somewhere outside the estate, reality still loomed, no matter how distant. Ebony, however, was born into this dream-world. She was nursed at balls, mothered by servants, rocked to sleep in horse-drawn carriages.
To Ebony, “spoiled” was a compliment, “filthy rich” an asset stronger than all else. She soon learned that all she needed to do to get her way was to plant her little feet and shout at the top of her lungs until the room grew uncomfortable to bear. She also learned that she often didn’t have to work so hard to get her way; sometimes the easiest solution was the play the kid-game, bat her dark little eyes, tilt her head shyly, and act younger and more vulnerable than she actually was. Between the two tactics, she could get anything anytime from anyone but her sisters.
As for her sisters, it took Ebony a while to put together all of the pieces, but she eventually figured that her father was the source of all of the wealth and extravagance in the house, and that her sisters did not actually belong to her father.
As far as Ebony was concerned they were stow-aways in her world, evil step-sisters trying to steal what was hers. Her mother had chosen a new life and a new family, and Java and Siva belonged back in the old life, and the old family. They no longer belonged to Adah, but simply wandered around behind her like stray cats hoping for hand-outs. And when it came to the sisters who were so unyielding to her whims and fancies, Ebony did not feel charitable.
It was bad enough to see two strangers fawning over her mother, but to see Java and Siva as they were with her father, coyly manipulating him with childish flirtation, it made Ebony want to scream. And often, she did.
Still, she was forced to be around them. Best not to make a fuss and remind her mother of the constant insult of her two stray girls. So Ebony tried to keep quiet, allowing her hatred to silently seethe, using it a focal point as three girls worked together with the private instructors that Christo brought in to teach yoga, dance, diving, and karate.
Ebony strove to outshine her elders, to ease her parents’ humiliation by distracting them from the source. She needed to become the champion of her household, the unquestionable top dog.
Some days Adah would seem to catch a glimpse of the secret wrath, and she would stare at Ebony hard, her young eyes watering, until she fled from the room in a startling burst. Ebony saw this as further evidence of her sisters’ demolition, and hated them all the more for making her mother cry.
But when Adah and Christo took sick, Ebony forgot about the competition, discovering that her hatred and jealousy were really an estranged way of loving her mother. Forgetting about the past, Ebony and her sisters would curl up on a canopy bed in one sobbing mass, cuddled together like kittens.
It didn’t matter then who belonged to whom; they all worried about Adah, forgot about the fairy-tale gifts that Christo gave, longing only for a mother’s love. Walking down the five-minute hallway holding hands, the girls would approach Adah’s room together, tentatively knocking on the door, hoping to curl into her arms like kittens scratching at the belly of a mother cat.
But Adah turned them away night after night, her face vacant, her eyes glassy. Christo swore it was the morphine speaking, but the girls began to feel that perhaps it was not the medicine at all; perhaps their mother did not want any of them–not Ebony, not the daughters of her first family.
Finally, after a stern talk with Christo, Adah let her daughters in, seething each time the girls tried to touch her. She was delirious, and swore that she hated them all, that she hated the house she was in, the air all around her. With her too-short fingernails, she began scratching at her skin, literally trying to tear the life from her body.
Between incomprehensible garglings, she howled out hateful thoughts about Christo, calling him an empty man with only money inside, despite his obvious efforts to bring the family together; and she swore continued love for her poor, estranged husband, Daniel, who the girls had not seen since the night he packed their bags and let them drive away.
Adah moaned about her own blindness, her hunger for money and ignorance of what had mattered in her life. She confessed that she hated herself and everything around her, hated every relic of the misguided life she had taken by storm.
Finally, Adah’s gaze settled on Ebony. “You,” she hissed. “I hate you the most of all. You are the child of lust and hunger. You will never know anything but hatred, and you will never make anything good.” She repeated this several times, louder and louder until she was shouting, and Christo burst into the room to let Java and Siva out, and pull the petrified Ebony away.