Wednesday, 13 July 2011

White Oleander - Janet Fitch

'The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves. We could not sleep in the hot dry nights, my mother and I. I woke up at midnight to find her bed empty. I climbed to the roof and easily spotted her blond hair like a white flame in the light of the three-quarter moon.
"Oleander time," she said. "Lovers who kill each other now will blame it on the wind." She held up her large hand and spread the fingers, let the wind trace itself through. My mother was not herself in the time of the Santa Anas. I was twelve years old and I was afraid for her. I wished things were back the way they had been, that Barry was here, that the wind would stop blowing.
"You should get some sleep," I offered.
"I never sleep," she said.
I sat next to her, and we stared out at the city that hummed and glittered like a computer chip deep in some unknowable machine, holding its secret like a poker hand. The edge of her white kimono flapped open in the wind and I could see her breast, low and full. Her beauty was like the edge of a very sharp knife.
I rested my head on her leg. She smelled like violets. 
"Fear only feeble old age and death in bed. Don't forget who you are."
"I promise," I said.
Down below us in the streets of Hollywood, sirens whined and sawed along my nerves. In the Santa Anas, eucalyptus trees burst into flames like giant candles, oilfat chaparral hillsides went up in a rush, flushing starved coyotes and deer down onto Franklin Avenue.
She lifted her face to the singed moon, bathing in its glowering beams. "Raven's-eye moon."
"Ritz cracker moon," I murmured, my head on her knee.
She softly stroked my hair. "It's a traitor's moon."
In the spring this wound had been unimaginable, this madness, but it had lain before us, undetectable as a land mine. We didn't even know the name Barry Kolker then.

Barry. When he appeared, he was so small. Smaller than a comma, insignificant as a cough. Someone she met at a poetry reading. It was at a wine garden in Venice. As always when she read, my mother wore white, and her hair was the color of new snow against her lightly tanned skin. She stood in the shade of a massive fig tree, its leaves like hands. I sat at the table behind stacks of books I was supposed to sell after the reading, slim books published by the Blue Shoe Press of Austin, Texas. I drew the hands of the tree and the way bees swarmed over the fallen figs, eating the sun-fermented fruit and getting drunk, trying to fly and falling back down. Her voice made me drunk deep and sun-warmed, a hint of a foreign accent, Swedish singsong a generation removed. If you'd ever heard her, you knew the power of that hypnotic voice. 

Most beautiful book by Janet Fitch. Highly recommend it.

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