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Fifth Born II: The Hundredth Turtle

In Fifth Born II: The Hundredth Turtle, the main character, Odessa, is fourteen years old and has lived in rural Mississippi with her biological mother, Ella Mae, for less than a year. In the following scene Odessa is visiting her much older, gay, New Yorker brother, Lamont, and his partner, Richard. Odessa wants to understand her relationship with Ella Mae through other relationships around her, but age, geography, and a history of family ostracization stand in the way.


Ella Mae disappeared into the little bathroom and did not come out until we were silent, watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas. In black and white, all the Whos were gray; the Grinch and Max were gray. Without color, the meaning was lost, so the three of us entertained ourselves by changing the Seuss rhyme: “All the Whos down in Whoville, the straight and the gay, they all will join hands and sing ‘YMCA.’”

Richard stood up and directed us to stand up too. We obliged him, including Ella Mae. And with that he showed us how to use our bodies to make a Y, an M, a C, and an A to the tune of the song “YMCA.”

My arms had not been away from my body for such a long time. Maybe it was the new, musty smell of my own onion-musk underarms that had kept them down, or maybe it was the thought that if my arms ever left my sides, I might be expected to hug someone. But under Richard’s direction, my arms came free from my sides, and my mouth opened and sang.

“Not, so loud, not so loud,” Ella Mae muttered each time her smile was about to turn to laughter.

“Odessa,” Lamont announced, out of breath, “Tomorrow I’m buyin you a coat, and I’m doin your hair.”

I was not one to squeal like a girly girl, but I squealed and hugged him hard, completely forgiving him for leaving me in Mississippi and the phone call betrayal. Ella Mae smiled and sat down, and I sat down with her to even out the attention.

The next night Lamont held me still between his knees and pressed my hair, long after Ella Mae and Richard were snoozing on opposite mattresses. He used oil of bergamot to soothe the places where he’d pulled too hard with the comb, and while he worked he let me complain about school, Mississippi, and Ella Mae.

I told him the truth, the two of us open without worrying about what we should and shouldn’t say in front of the others. “I don’t wanna go back,” I said.

He pulled my head back, looked at me with eyes that showed alarm and concern. “Is she mean to you?”

I snorted and smiled at the thought that he could possibly do anything to protect me from a woman as thick and strong as Ella Mae. “No, she’s really good to me. She doesn’t yell, or rush me, or punish me for anything.”

He pushed my head back down in a jealous shove. “You mean she spoils you?”

“Kind of, but not with stuff. She doesn’t have a lot of money; she’s just like you.” I picked the dirt from under my fingernails at the sudden revelation that I was equating Lamont with someone who played the role of mother. “She gives me whatever I need, and she gives me so much space and time to say whatever I need to say to figure things out, and then to apologize if I end up saying something stupid.”

He laughed out loud. “Girl, you crazy. What are you complaining about then? Don’t tell me; you’re bored.”

“Yeah!” I threw my arm down off his thigh in defeat. “She doesn’t say anything bad, but she also doesn’t say anything. It’s like she’s being so careful with me that I don’t end up knowing her at all. And lately it’s like living with somebody that you can tell is having a conversation in her head, but I can’t tell what it’s about.”

I looked at the heap of her body on the living room floor, and I felt something for her that reminded me of when I looked at the river and knew that at the bottom there was a tempting darkness and beauty that I would never see unless I drowned.

“Like Thursday,” I said. “Remember?” I turned around to face Lamont, risking a burned ear. “Something was bothering her. I even think she cried after dinner, but who the hell knows why.”

“Shh.” Lamont shoved me. “I feel like that a lot with Richard. It takes a long time for people to open up and trust. You were quiet with her when you first got there, but you opened up, and now she’s going through her own thing. Ella Mae lived by herself for a long time with no family that she could trust beyond goin to Grandeddy Bo if a storm blew the roof off or something. But Ella Mae is your mother, girl. That means you got as much responsibility to her as she does to you. Draw her out. There’s all kinds of secrets she keeps ’cause she think she protectin you.”

“So Richard keeps secrets and doesn’t trust because he’s protecting you? And that’s what Ella Mae is doing too?”

He put his hand on top of my head and turned me around like he was screwing the top on a Mason jar.

“Girl, I’m talking about doing for Ella Mae the same way she would do for you. Give and take. Emotional responsibility. Don’t act so immature.”

I tore the loose skin from around my fingernails while he continued to give unsought advice. “You and Ella Mae just need to be together longer and she’ll get comfortable and quit being all closed up.” He pulled my head back again and whispered, “You just gotta draw Ella Mae out. Not by getting on her nerves and hoping she’ll slap your ass, but just draw her out.”

“Okay,” I whispered back. “And what are you going to do about Richard?”

He shoved my head back into place. I had exhausted him, “Okay, Miss Odessa Contessa, keep tryin to be cute. I’m tryin to give you some advice.”