Dear Girl

A letter to the body that gives and is never expected to take

Natasha Persaud
Sep 10, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo: Zanel De Lange/EyeEm/Getty Images

AA Guyanese family begins and ends with a mother. Tenement yard mother. Coolie mother. Negro mother. Mother who cooks. Mother who cleans. Mother who bathes her brown little children. She lathers their hair with a cake of Blue Soap, fingernails digging into scalps, scrubbing away days of lice, sun, and dirt. Mother never recoils. Her children can never be so dirty in her eyes. Mother empties the poseys of worms that pass through their infected bodies. She says, bend yahself as she cleans them, so that their hands never touch their body’s own waste. Under the wire lines — with sweat trailing down temples, teeth biting down on plastic clothes-clips, and bleach wrinkling her fingertips — Mother bows and stands against the land, hanging clothes day after day. Her voice is sugah-sweet on quiet days. Mother sings — Hear Auntie Bess, Market Women, Shetira, and Janey Girl. But when you are far, her voice cracks the shells of the tamarinds hanging on the tree. Mother becomes violent. You cry from the sting of her hands until you sleep a sound, dreamless sleep. Is fuh you own good, she says. Everything a mother does is for her children’s own good. You’ve seen a mother slap her children. You’ve seen a mother burn their skin. She says they never learn. Why don’t they learn? Stop crying, running, and calling after her, tenement mothers scream. All mothers tell girls that men only want wan thing. It’s your fault when you give it, Girl. It’s your fault when they take it. One little girl never told her mother about the young man that called her boy in dark corners after he and that long, dark, strange part released white snot onto her thighs. She hates the skin there the most. Mothers tell girls don’t ever talk about boys. Don’t ever say the word vagina or pat-a-cake. It’s not a nursery rhyme here. It’s another name for that thing between your legs. The girls who want to know things are fast. We heard of that kind of girl. Five boys raped that kind of girl. Years after they still say, she look fuh it. Wat she was doing out on the road dat time? Nine at night. Deh furst boy dat rape she was bad, yes, but all ah dem boys dat went one aftah de otha was nasty. Pure nastiness. In deh same hole! All the mothers shake their heads. No good can come from roads they tell little girls. You never tell anyone about the neighborhood-man that invites you at eight years old to see his baby kittens. That he touched you. That he wrapped a towel around his naked waist and humped you — moaning and groaning — until his body was a dead weight upon yours; until his breath went quiet in your ear and he whispered tiredly, don move, Gyurl. Yuh hear? You ran. Why did you go there, Girl? He looked down from that doorway and smiled at your retreating body. He never told you to keep quiet. He didn’t have to. Mother sinks into the afternoon when the house is clean, when the rain has filled all of the plastic buckets, when the dented pots are washed and hanging on nails to dry, when the coconut broom is resting by the kitchen door, and when the clothes have dried white under the sun. She sits for one hour. Mother smiles as she powers on the old television, as she tells you, I gon ease meh head lil. She sighs at Victor Newman’s thick black hair. His bold mustache. His height. All the mothers gather, their hot bodies pressed to the linoleum squares. Laughter and girlish giggles pour out the open doors, the open windows, and the creases between the wooden walls. Go play fuh a lil bit, the mothers say to children. But stay whey meh eye cyan see yuh. In the packed doorway of your childhood home, the long, brown legs of women are hanging out of the open barn-style doors. With each gust of laughter the legs kick up, stomp, and shake. Those legs are ash dry; ankles and knees layered with thick, wrinkled skin. The more you kneel, the blacker and thicker the skin. Mother always kneels, pulling a scraper across the mildew boards of the steps and the platforms. Her mother taught her that you have to peel back the grime before you slip and fall. Mother always kneels when she’s wiping the floor-cloth across the inside floor, wringing and washing, ringing and washing, until the cloth turns mud brown. If a tenement mother could, she would wash all of the dirt out of their lives. If she could, she would bleach the linens a permanent white. As you stand in the tenement yard, out in the dust, you realize that everywhere else is empty without a mother. The houses are overrun by wild children whose bare feet run up and down the wooden steps. They carry dirt in and out. The kerosene lamps have not been lit as the sun is pulled down into the piles of other wooden houses on the horizon. Bellies grow hungry as those tired mothers empty out of the house. Days of Our Lives is done. She heads to her home. You eat chicken curry and white rice from your grandmother’s hand because that’s what coolies do. The other mother feeds her children stale chicken soup. The last mother feeds her children sugar-water because the shelves are empty and their bellies only need something to fill it. She tells the children who cry out at night to keep quiet. She is hungry, too. But she is always there — her body a tree rooted to the ground. They can climb into her lap, nestle in her arms, and hear the sound of her heart go ba dum, ba dum, ba dum, until her skin grows sticky from the sweat of their skin. She tells them to give her room to breathe. This is all she knows. She scrubs the floors, the pots, the clothes, and the tears with the same rough hand. These are the lessons every mother was taught and she gives them to her daughter a little less cruel than they were given to her. Girl, remember you must say good afternoon and goodnight. You must make the clothes screech within your hands to make them clean. Girl, you must learn to watch the pot on the stove, clean the dishes, and wash the floors. Cleanliness is next to godliness, Girl. You must learn to hold the baby, wash her hair and skin, sing to her, and keep count of the worms in the posey. When each little girl is grown, mother tells her a truth, wife is jus wan-nadha name fuh mudha. All men wan in dis life is ah woman to be ah mudha to him an he chilren. A woman’s pain is life long; taking root and bearing fruit, Girl. If you can’t make a child because your body is empty, then what good are you to this world? Ah woman who cyan’t make life is no life at all. No matter what happens, the mothers warn, child or no child, don’t let a doctor take your womb. If you let them take your womb out of your body then a man will never enjoy you, they say. There will be nothing but empty space inside of you then. You imagine the bottom of the unfilled, brown fiber barrels. The ones you crawled into as a girl, laughter peeling back your lips, after the American things were pulled out. Without a womb, tenement mothers were told, there is nothing to grip a man tight when he is plunged deep, pulling and thrusting, spilling his seed inside of you.

Natasha Persaud

Written by

Natasha Persaud is an Indo-Caribbean, American Immigrant writer. She is writing a memoir about growing up in the tenements of Georgetown, Guyana.

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Natasha Persaud

Written by

Natasha Persaud is an Indo-Caribbean, American Immigrant writer. She is writing a memoir about growing up in the tenements of Georgetown, Guyana.

Gay Mag

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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