CBC Short Story Prize: "Smiley" by Jane Eaton Hamilton
Jane Eaton Hamilton won the 2014 CBC Short Story Prize for her story "Smiley," in which a child living in South Africa struggles with gender issues and first love.
Ruyterwacht, Cape Town, my mama a woolly mammoth, hairy-legged, 100 feet tall and broad as a shack. She stepped on ants. She stepped on roaches. She stepped on children too, maybe. And outside in the quiver tree, weavers knitting up nests. A thousand chirpers, yellow, black-masked, busy. We ate them sometimes when we needed a break from goats and sheep. My pa slicked up glue on a fence post and it was my job to harvest them, stuck by the wing or claw, ripping them off, a sound like Miz Topeka’s washing machine. After Mama dropped them, whipping their wings into boiled water, I plucked them, yellow feather by yellow feather, until, in the end, there was a new pillow’s worth. It was a girl’s job, not a boy’s job, and my brothers didn’t have to. Feathers wafted through the air like flags of a foreign country, the Canary Islands, maybe. Sweden. Places I could leave to.
Know how many bites per bird?
“Like an old man’s nuts,” said my pa, shaking his head at the table. He was the opposite of Mama, short, skinny and hard as a beak, not an ounce of fat.
He didn't mean the two bites a bird. He meant the nests, the way they oozed down into a sac. I picked them, a couple, really small, the way young birds sometimes made them. A shinny up the gold, choppy trunk, that’s all it took, a reach of my scabby arm.
I did it for no reason, okay? I just had them. I just kept them by my mattress, drying out, turning from green to brown while I went to seventh grade and helped my folks after school.
Pa spit the bones out, bones so slight and frail you could chew them if you wanted. Mama had 42 weavers in a bowl for the nine of us, and Pa ate probably 20 with a huge bowl of pap and three beers, umqombothi from his friend Sol.
Pa liked warthog.
Mama liked—I was going to say she liked lamb, but the truth was I’d never seen her like anything. She liked arguments. She liked stirring the pot, my granny said, except she didn't, actually, when she stirred the smileys, parboiling them; her face in the steam was a picture of hate. She liked not liking me.
She’d pinched my right nipple hard when she’d caught me all wrapped up trying to flatten them. “You’re a woman,” she said and her lip came up on the right side almost to her quivering nose.
“I don’t wanna,” I told her. I watched her and the other women; I knew what was coming, all the red and mess. “I wanna be a boy.” I wanted to go where my brothers went in the world, with fast cars.
She’d slapped my face. “Don’t you say that again, girl,” she said. Her eyes were chip-edged like sheep hooves. “You be grateful.”
Now she turned to my pa.
“Don’t tell,” I said, realizing, and I wiggled because I had to pee. “Mama, don’t,” I said, my fingernails scratching my thighs
When she was done, Pa scratched his head. “Get me a beer,” he said.
The little kids took up screaming like it was the happiest joke of the family in forever.
“Jill wants to be a boy!” they yelled and skipped around the table like my feelings were double dutch, chop, chop, chop. Like my feelings were a sheep on the slaughter table. The brothers just sat back in their chairs, smoking thoughtfully, nodding, guzzling. Fenyang cuffed my head.
“I can’t hear you!” I cried and got out of that kitchen and out of that house, and I hugged the quiver tree trunk. All the birds were silent with nightfall, but I knew they were up there in their testicle nests; I could feel them. The neighbours were doing things, laughing, starting up fights, blaring TV. Table Mountain wore a necklace of cloud so white I could see it, even though the mountain itself had disappeared into night.
Her name was Margo and she was 13 too and she helped her ma sell tomatoes and lettuce and zucchini down at the other end of the stalls and her hair stuck up and when the sun shone through it I thought she was an angel on earth and I thought she liked me too. She was getting boobies too and I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I knew it wasn’t the same thing, boobies on Margo and boobies on me. Margo was good in maths. I was good in maths. That was the same thing. But Margo was a girl and I wasn’t a girl, not really, and my ma didn’t get it and my pa didn’t care if it wasn’t beer.
I thought I would like to lick Margo’s hair clips.
I wanted Margo to touch my scabs.
The weavers did whatever birds in testicles did all night. Sat on eggs, maybe, in a cowl of white fluff. I heard babies chirping as I slid off into sleep and I wondered if someday my brothers and sisters and me, my pa and mama, might catch those very same babies on a fence post and eat them in two bites.
My big sister Lynnie cut skin off sheep, and my pa butchered them, and my mama roasted up smileys and pulled them from the braai with tongs, lining them up, their lips retracted or burned off so they all grinned right at me, laughing at me in my new brassiere. I could smell salt from the ocean breeze, and boiled blood, and shit and piss. Up on hooks, intestines roped and coiled like vertical clouds. In my life, I had held probably 3,000 sheep hearts in my hands, I figured. I kept my shoulders rolled forward so people couldn’t see my boobies. There were flies, wasps, the squeak of rubber boots. The sound of knives on wood, knives sharpened on stone. Blue, pink, orange corrugated sheet metal baking in the heat. “Tuli’s Hair Do’s,” a hand-painted sign said, but that meant girl hair. Up on an electric pole was a weaver nest that looked like a haystack, pygmy falcons and lovebirds swooping in.
My mama stepped on a rat. My mama stepped on anything with her bristly legs rising and coming down sharp.
“What’s wrong with you, girl? Go on. Get in the tub before that water is cold.”
I shook my head. The water looked murky and lethargic. My older brothers had been in it before me, and the little boys before them, and Pa first of all.
“Don’t make me come whack you,” she said.
I just stood there clutching my thighs together. I wasn’t wearing the bra she’d given me and that was one thing dangerous.
“Get over here.” She picked at her lip, got a piece of something in her rough fingernails and flicked it away.
It wasn’t going to get any better waiting. Mama had seen me that afternoon with Margo in the bushes; Mama had seen me carry a kiss to Margo’s cheek. Mama was holding two sheep eyes, two sacs of gelatinous blue, and as I stood there, she threw them into the cast iron fry pan like they were dice. I was in pain as I walked pigeon-toed.
“Pull your pants down, Jill,” she said. She poked at the sheep eyes with a spatula.
Out in the yard, the weavers started sending out alarm calls. My mother picked up one of the grinning sheep heads and fried it with its own eyes that were browning. I felt woozy.
And I did, dying, and she saw me, the real me. For a second, I watched me register. She saw the weaver nests clear as dried out weeds growing there between my legs. I wanted to say, “I’m Jake,” but I didn’t say anything at all.
She couldn’t stop looking between my legs. In the background, my sibs were starting to holler and point. Finally she turned off the burner and took my shoulders in a way that her tusks missed goring me. “Does that hurt? It’s gotta hurt.”
I nodded. I was going to get stomped.
“Is that the glue your pa uses to catch birds?”
The weavers were still going crazy outside. Something was up their tree, a puff adder, a yellow-bellied boomslang, and in the morning, there would be dead birds like fallen sunshine under the quiver. I didn’t want to say, but the glue was stinging something awful bad.
“You’re a girl,” Mama said. But not unkindly, more questioning.
“You’re a girl, you’re a girl!” shouted the kids.
I shook my head. I wasn’t a girl any more than the smileys were happy. It was just what had happened to us.
My mama said, “We need to get those bird nests off.”
“I know,” I said.
“It’s going to hurt,” she said.
“I know,” I said.
Photo credit: iStock