By Anne Nassar
Ella couldn’t go to school. And so her world was very small, and Tessa was at the center of it. But Tessa was mysterious, alien, unknowable. Ella knew her father. He answered questions. She’d seen the house he was born in, and the church where he was baptized. She’d seen the Christmas tree ornament that he made for his mom when he was in kindergarten. His best friend when he was little was still his best friend. But Ella could not know her mother. There was simply not enough information available.
One day, when Ella was putting her mother’s folded white underwear in a dresser drawer, she found an envelope. She knew that she ought not open it. But, heart pounding, she did. And inside were photographs. On impulse, Ella tucked the envelope into her waistband and buttoned up her long sweater. She smuggled the envelope to her room. She didn’t shut the door, because she never did, and if she had, her mother would have become suspicious.
The first picture was of several redheaded kids sitting under a Christmas tree. She recognized her mother right away; she was skinny, browless, and lashless, but she essentially looked the same. She stared at the photographer with bruised hostility. The other kids wore similar expressions. It was as though the person taking the picture was a colonizer or a gulag guard. There weren’t many presents, either. Ella counted: four boys, two girls, besides her mother. Where were they? Maybe something had happened to them. Maybe there had been a fire, and they had all perished, except her mother.
In the next picture, a fat woman with cat eye glasses and stringy hair fed a tiny, red-faced baby a bottle. At her side was a stained Samoyed. Could this be her grandmother? She hoped not – the woman looked like a trash bag. The last photo was of a pilot, standing in front of a dark green helicopter. He was shirtless. He had his hand on his hip and he had one of his feet propped up. He looked proud, cocky. She liked him right off. Maybe it was her grandfather?
“What are you doing!”Her mother descended upon her like a dragon. She snatched the photos away from Ella, and with her free hand, she grabbed a pillow off the bed and hit Ella in the head with it. It didn’t hurt, but Ella began to cry, anyway.
“How dare you steal my things! How dare you? I don’t have anything in this whole house, nothing is mine and the few little scraps that I have, you just had to take from me!”
“Mom, I’m sorry!”
“You’re a terrible kid, Ella. You’re a traitor.”
Ella wanted to protest, but she didn’t know how. She wasn’t sure what she had done.
But it couldn’t be undone, that she knew for sure.