It’s so white. It’s atrium white; I know because I looked at it through my foggy window, across the snow, and compared it to an old paint sample.
“That paint sample came from that house,” my father said. “From the house of the governor.”
Then he died. He died at the same moment that I figured out that the governor’s house was atrium white. The moment that I had become more familiar with the house across the road, the house that I was so afraid of, that all of the children avoided when they played in the snow with me and my friends. I felt a sense of pride, but then I could feel his death; a sudden cold fell over the room as another source of heat in the middle of this blizzard dwindled out. I turned around on my new white Mary Janes and saw my dear father’s face, relaxed for the last and longest time in his life. He was born a rich boy and died a rich man, a life more stressful than luxurious for him. But now it was the end, and I respected that as much as I respected his worn leather briefcase and warm, regal demeanor.
I didn’t cry out for help; he was just settling in to his last sleep. I smiled, kissed his head, closed his eyes with my fingers, and covered him up with his silk comforter. I left one corner down the way he liked it, filled his water glass with the tealeaf design for the last time, and walked to the door to leave, my dress swishing on my knees. I left the door open; that was the way he liked it. I wanted the room to look perfect, because everything about him was perfect. When I exited, I didn’t look back—he hated looking back. He had once told me that turning your neck was a waste of energy, and in life, you need all of the energy you can get.
When I reached the stairs, I tapped down quietly, watching the hem of my dress bounce on my knees. In my shin-high white socks and white shoes with fancy black soles and knee-high white dress with a black silk bow on the waist, I padded across the carpet on the landing and into mama’s sitting room.
She looked up from where she sat on the couch. Her hair was done expertly and her simple green housedress and bare feet fitted the looseness of the room.
I kept a solemn and respectful air when I spoke. “He’s gone.”
She smiled back. “I know. I felt him go.” Mama is always saying things like this, that she “feels” things. But this time, I’m inclined to believe her—I felt it too.
Without my father leading me, I didn’t know what I should do. “So now what?”
“So…now we go to the governor’s house to pay a visit and tell them the news,” she said, as if it was a fact that I should have known. “And maybe they will invite us to tea.”
At the thought of going to the Governor’s house, I nearly fainted. The house across the street that all of the children were afraid of? The atrium white house with its stately look and columns and tall doors that my classmates once gave me five dollars to run up to and touch? People LIVED there? Mama knew them? Who were they? A million questions raced through my mind at the simple thought of Mama being social with the people who lived in the governor’s house.
Mama hated going in public. She hated having guests and she hated being ladylike and social. She hated the fashion of ladies these days. She HATED it. Mama was constantly talking about how thin modern ladies were and how sickly and silent and showy they looked. She never read the magazines but when father took me to the bakery, I would see them and he would tell me that Mama was right, and that I must never starve myself to be fashionable. I would always say that, thin as I was already, it would be downright foolish to starve myself. Then he would smile warmly and hug me and remark on my wisdom until our bread was handed to us, warm and crispy with a soft inside.
It seemed as though everything I did in my life would remind me of my father. Even putting on my winter coat would remind me of the shopping trip we went on to buy it. Taking out my pencils would remind me of his neat, careful, perfect handwriting that would grace the notes and reports and letters that seemed to pop up wherever he went. Sitting down at my desk in school would remind me of watching him at his desk, his strong hands gripping a pen and his laugh as he joked with me about school and friends and work and growing up. Getting in bed would remind me of the worst fact—that he was gone, and there was no more father to bring me a glass of warm milk on a glass coaster before I went to sleep, urging me to get some rest so that I would be able to nail annoying, mean Rory Mince with a super-duper snowball with a hint of ice (the worst kind, next to a slush ball). My father was just a dead body in a quiet, cold room with the sheets over his body, one corner down. His lips would not utter a word to tell me to tell Mama we were going to the bakery, his hands would not caress my head or his pens to write in his study, his face would not smile, his heart would not beat. He was gone.
I felt like I should cry, but Mama was already shooing me out of the room, telling me to make myself some breakfast. That’s what she would always say before I would hurry to the kitchen to tell our cook Nuna to make me something. I hurried out of her room, and then, there on the carpet in the hallway, I cried.
The tears came quickly, and in torrents; I wondered why I hadn’t cried sooner, to relieve myself of the sorrow that my father’s death had brought me. I silently sobbed in front of Mama’s sitting room while I heard my dear Nuna start to come up the stairs. Then she was here, lifting me in her strong arms, whispering into my hair that it would be okay, like grownups were always saying to me when I hurt myself or Rory Mince teased me. But I could hear in Nuna’s voice that she could tell what was wrong and she was grieving too, so I just continued to sob into her cook’s apron as she sat down on a kitchen chair. Soon I could feel her tears too, warm drops on my cheeks, falling from above. I knew that we would have to get up and make breakfast soon, but I also knew that I could not stop my tears or Nuna’s. No amount of consolation would fill the gap, so I continued to cry, sobbing and shaking and feeling Nuna’s tears on my cheeks.
After my eyes had gone dry and I suspected Nuna’s had too, I stood shakily and watched Nuna numbly begin to cook. Her movements were slow and stiff, but she managed to hold herself together while I sniffled in the hard wooden chair, whipping up eggs, pancakes, and toast, and setting it all on the table with three places set (for me, my mother, and Nuna). She sat down and smiled at me the way she always did, but this time it was different. She said, “Are you going to the governor’s house today?”
I was shocked. “How do you know about the governor’s house?”
She ducked her head and then looked at me again. “It’s across the street, how could I not know it?” She wrung her elegant Puerto Rican hands and said sadly, “It is the center of this town.”
I nodded. “So have you met the governor?”
“Yes. She is very beautiful, and she wears black all the time. She only owns one white dress, and the rest of her clothing is black. She is wealthy and she has two sons and two daughters.”
“The governor is a woman?”
“Yes. Obviously you don’t know much about that house. Have you ever been?”
“No. Well, yes. Little Rachel Meadows and Gordon Galley paid me five dollars to run up and touch the doors.”
Nuna rolled her eyes. “Why are you all so afraid of that house? It’s just a normal house, painted white.”
“You can tell all of the children that you went inside the governor’s house, and they’ll be so jealous and they’ll think you’re brave! And that Rory Mince will leave you alone for the rest of time,” she added.
I nodded, suddenly enthusiastic. “Oh, will you come with us, Nuna? It would be so grand,” I pleaded. “Then you can tell all the children that I went in and they will believe you and Rory Mince will trip over himself in jealousy and…”
“…No, I cannot come. I will be buying groceries and you will be eating at the governor’s anyway.” With that, she stood, finished with her eggs and toast, and washed her dishes. I ate in silence until mother came to make me put on my coat.
“Off we go to the governor’s house,” she chirped lightly, seeming happy. “Time to go! Nuna, I left money on the table.” Then she whisked her coat on over an elegant black dress and pulled me into the cold.
We walked across the road, dodging running children who paused when they saw us in our fancy clothing. My mother hiked up her dress and we walked across the road, ignoring the children’s stares. She knocked on the great white doors and they opened.
There stood a tall man in a suit and tie, his hair mussed and a wild look in his eyes. “Oh, hello, Missus M. Come in,” he said. “I don’t suppose I know what you came for.”
My mother bowed her head. “Yes.” Then she pulled me in and the man smiled at me before closing the door and following us down the entrance hall.
We entered a large, brightly lit room filled with children and laughter and action. In the midst of it all sat a woman in black, smiling as she watched the children play, her hair swept in a bun and her eyes shining green. When she noticed my mother, her smile faded and she hurried over. “Oh, dear Elizabeth. Has his time come and gone?”
My mother nodded quietly. “I saw the look on her face,” she said grimly, patting my leg. “She was in the room when he died.”
The governor clasped my face in her soft, strong hands. “She reminds me of when I was a child,” she murmured, the scent of myrrh, my father’s signature scent, enveloping me. “I watched my mother, then my father, die of a strange disease, and I watched my sisters be carted off to an abbey in England. She holds the same sorrow in her eyes, and she cannot be more than ten years.” The governor reminded me of my father, as if he were already gone and cremated the way he had asked, as she correctly guessed my age—ten. Her wisdom matched, if not topped, his, and her demeanor was similar—warm and regal.
I sat down and asked, “Should I call you the Governess, since you’re not a man?”
She shook her head. “Call me Ereyn.”
I nodded, not sure what to say. I turned away and noticed a boy, possibly thirteen, standing in the hallway, out of the way of the action of the living room. His eyes were dark when they met mine, a deep black like mine got when I was angry. He smiled at me for a second, and then looked away, his handsome, young figure turning along with his head.
Ereyn noticed me and chuckled. “That’s my son Shane. He’s also lost a father, and he’s sullen and never plays with the other children. But Letitia…,” she turned to my mother and they started talking about the children who were running about the house. I felt sad knowing that my house had been this jolly when my father was alive.
I stood up and walked over to him, leaving my mother to talk with Ereyn. When I reached him, I tapped his arm, making him jump. His clothes were those of a rich boy, but his eyes were those of someone who had lost everything.
“What is your name?” I asked softly. “Mine’s —–.”
“Shane,” he answered quietly. “Nice to meet you, —–.”
“You too.” Then I looked away, thinking about the probability that he was my brother, and walked back to Mama, quiet and listening to their conversation about ladies’ gossip from in town.
As my mother and I left, I tripped on one of the grey stone steps and there was Shane, pulling me up with his surprisingly strong, soft, and warm thirteen-year-old hands. I smiled and opened my mouth to say thank you, but my mother pulled me away, walking quickly toward our home, shivering just as bad as I was.
The next day, I saw Shane while I was at play. In the midst of packing a snowball dedicated to Rory Mince and his annoying friend Ralphie String, I noticed him sitting on the cold stone bench under the snow-covered maple tree, all alone. I stood up and walked over, my legs stiff from crouching and my gloves wet from melted snow. When I reached the bench, I tapped him on the shoulder. He flinched and I giggled as he turned to me. He smiled back at me, though sadly, as though he was only happy on the outside. I sat down, watching the children play and noticing that he was too, though with an undeniable longing on his face. The kind my father had when he knew that he could not buy me one of the tarts at the bakery because Mama would be angry.
“Why don’t you play?” I asked. “You look like you want to.” He knew I was right.
He looked back at me sadly. “I do, but I can’t. I can’t play with children who haven’t lost as much as I have. They all have fathers.” Weaving his fingers together, he looked down again and sighed sadly.
I shook my head, images of my father laughing and talking and living rushing through my head. “Then play with me.” Just then, the only time I’ve seen my father cry, when his first and only dog Pretty was shot by a duck hunter in town from upstate New York, rushed through my head. I was remembering how his face had contorted with pain and sorrow, something I wanted to see and hated to see at the same time, when Shane spoke again.
He looked up and shrugged. “Oh, it is cold on this bench.” He stood and sighed, and I knew he was thinking of his father. I was thinking of mine, too.
We spent the rest of the day pelting each other with snowballs and laughing, with tears streaming down our cheeks as we grieved for our fathers.
EPILOGUE: fifteen years later
I am watching the orphan girl I adopted happily. She has pale, snowy skin and golden hair like Shane says I do. One day I will tell her that I lost my father when I was ten, and I will take her to the gravesite. I will show her where to put the flowers and how to listen closely enough to hear the birds in the trees singing to the dead like they have for all these years, generations of songbirds singing away to people who can’t hear them.
As she stands up to come toward me, I smile. She is waiting for Shane, her foster father, but she knows I will eat with her. “Malia, your lunch is on the table, and I will be there in a second.” She smiles sadly at me the way Shane does, and asked me what I was looking at.
“Nothing,” I replied. “I can’t see anything. All I see is the Governor’s house.”
She nods. “I met a boy there. His name is Jason.”
I nod. “That is where I found my husband,” I say. “and maybe you will too.”
She nods back. “And maybe my lunch will be cold if I keep talking.”
I laugh and stand up to go eat with her, knowing that tomorrow is the day I will see my father again, and I will show her where to put the bouquet of roses—right at his feet.
Magdalene Pernambuco, Age 13, Grade 8, NYC Lab MS for Collaborative Studies, Silver Key