Dedicated to my sister
One day, in the middle of summer, when the air was thick with warmth and humidity, a boy named Leo plopped down beside The Fortune-teller Loretta in her green rocking chair. She sat on his front porch with her wrinkled hands in her lap and her grey eyes unfocused. Her face was thin and sunken, the colour much like the boys' from the village, who looked like ghosts to him. Years ago, The Fortune-teller Loretta had skin even darker than his chocolate-brown complexion, but in her illness, her colour had drained to a light brown, like the inside of a dark tree when the bark is cut away.
The Fortune-teller Loretta wore old, tattered clothes and a thick, woollen shawl even through summer. The boy Leo, who was only eight at the time, never thought that she might have resembled anything other than what she did. He supposed, with his childish mind, that she had simply been born wrinkled and blind. She could not speak, only mumble to herself constantly. But Leo, having the imagination of a child, spoke conversations with her in his mind and sometimes, only sometimes, he thought that maybe he really could understand her mumbling.
On this day, Leo looked up at the golden sky, striped with sunset pinks and oranges, and asked, "How can I get to the moon?" Loretta, having been the village fortune-teller for years, knew everything about the planets and stars, which was why Leo asked her. Surely, he thought, she would know how to travel between Earth and its moon. The boy Leo strained to hear phrases through her mumbles. The warm wind blew against the creaky house and into his ears, making it impossible for him to distinguish anything remotely English sounding. Just when he was about to give up, he heard the fortune-teller mutter one word: climb.
That was it! He would climb up to that bright sphere in the dark night sky. Surely he could find something tall enough to reach it. Then, just as he had dreamed for weeks now, he would meet others just like him. They would have a house ready and he would live with them forever. Someday, when he was older, he would climb back down the way he had come and visit his mother and father.
Leo's mother called him inside and, for once, he didn't even protest, so much was his mind wrapped around the plans he had made. Just before he drifted off into sleep, Leo glanced up at his shining orb of possibility and smiled a gap-toothed smile filled with pleasure. Soon, he would be in the clutches of his new friends.
The next day started off normal for the boy Leo. He worked in the field with his father, and fed the animals. By the time he went in for lunch, his feet were aching and his thin arms were sunburned. His mother, with her dark, tired eyes, unruly black hair, and large, swollen belly, placed small helpings of potato mushroom soup into wooden bowls before his father and himself. His father, with his black, shaved scalp shining and muscled arms moving beneath the old, plaid shirt, gazed warily at his pregnant wife and smiled through the exhaustion. Grandma Loretta could barely eat, but Leo's mother spooned a few mouthfuls into her mouth before settling before her own bowl.
After lunch, Leo went with his mother to the heart of the village. There, in the market, they sold sun-ripened corn and fresh bread. All the pale, wealthy children glared at them and their ivory-skinned mothers pretended they were made of air. Though his mother seemed not to notice, Leo felt more and more like dirt on the bottom of someone's shoe. This was why he loathed coming into the village more than anything else in the world. Leo struggled to understand why hardly any of the white would talk to them. Was there some kind of law he didn't know about? Or had his family done something that made them not like him?
In the evening, after supper, Leo forgot all about his plans for the moon and played with two of the neighbour boys. They were brothers, the eldest two years older than him and the youngest a year younger. Though they were white, they were very poor and lived in a beat up house down the road from his. Sometimes Jim and Tim wouldn't have anything to eat for a day and the three would steal apples from the market stalls. That day, they played in the forest between his house and the center of the town.
As the three boys built a fort by piling sticks up against a tree trunk, some older fellows came towards them. Leo had seen them before, hanging out by the stables and whistling at the village girls. One such girl had her hand in one of the boy's. He was thickly built, with shoulder-length blonde hair and cruel blue eyes. The other two boys hung back a little, so Leo guessed the blonde must've been the leader. They stopped a short ways from the stick fort and the girl had disgusted look on her face, like she'd eaten a lemon.
"Look what we have here," said the blonde, addressing his gang, "two bums and their pet." The three other kids snickered. "Tell me boys, why would you play with something as filthy as that?" he pointed at Leo.
Jim and Tim looked at each other fearfully, not responding. Leo, however, felt the fury rise up in him like lava. So many insults turned in his mouth but when he went to say them, he couldn't make any sound come. The older boy approached Leo until they were face to face.
"You're dirtier than the toilet paper I wipe my ass on. Negro," he spat in Leo's face. Suddenly, the rage exploded inside him and Leo jumped on the older boy, kicking and punching. Even though he was strong for his age, he was no match against the three older boys, two of which held his arms down while the blonde kicked him over and over. Every blow felt like he was being thrown against a brick wall and he struggled to suck in breath.
Finally, when he thought he couldn't bear it anymore, the kid stopped. "That'll teach you to get your germs on me," he hissed and turned away. "Oh, and don't think this is over," he added as an afterthought. Jim and Tim helped Leo to his feet. Every bone in his body felt broken and he could barely see out of his left eye. His head buzzed, the forest sounding a million miles away. They helped him to his house, where his mother's horrified face greeted him.
His father and mother cleaned him up and put him to bed without a word. They both knew what had happened as their own childhoods had been filled with people such as the group in the forest. Lying in bed, Leo heard his parent's tearful discussion of the night's events and finally allowed himself to shed a few tears. What had he ever done the older boys? He knew what the word Negro meant. It meant people with dark skin, like himself and his family. But he didn't understand the problem with having dark skin. Wasn't he exactly like everyone else besides that simple fact?
Frustrated and miserable, Leo gazed out his window at the stars and the moon. He gasped. The moon! He had completely forgotten. All this time he was worrying about how he would continue to live in the village, when he wasn't going to. Filled with excitement, he sat upright in bed and quietly pulled off the covers. He knew the exactly where to go.
Mr Mcarn looked up at his wife, scrubbing the dishes with her slender fingers, wiping tears from her face with the back of her hand. He thought of years past, when he would get beaten up just as his son had tonight. Life had been rough for himself and all of his people living America. Slavery had been banned when his grandfather was a young boy, but years later, blacks were still discriminated against, scrimmaging for their lives in most places. He had been fortunate, he knew. A good home, a solid job, enough food to feed their bellies, but he still worried every day for his son and life in this white village.
At the sink, Mrs Mcarn hiccupped loudly, wiping her nose on the edge of her apron. She turned her large brown eyes towards him. The look was enough; he knew what was on her mind. Would it be the same for their unborn child? How much longer could they hold up against the prejudice? They had whispered together late at night and he knew all about how his wife and son were treated in the market.
"Maybe I should go check on him," she said softly.
"No, let me do it. Man to man, you know?" she nodded.
With one look at the empty bed, the open window, he knew. He bolted out the front door, towards the forest, with his wife on his heels. Even pregnant, she was the fastest runner he knew. They didn't know how, but they both knew exactly where they were going; their feet guiding them towards the tallest tree. A million thoughts raced through his head: would he be there, would they get there in time, what would happen to their family if they didn't? Losing his only son would rip him apart, he knew, and even with the blood pounding in his ears and the adrenaline racing through his veins, his heart felt as heavy as a stone.
Dead leaves crunched underneath his small feet and the cold night air blew through his pyjamas, relief against his throbbing bruises. He had seen the tree when exploring the woods with Jim and Tim. It was thick and the leafy top blended with the dark sky. Leo started to climb. He was fearful of falling at first, but thoughts of the day's events swirled in his mind, making him more determined. Soon he was nearly ten feet above the forest floor, but still he climbed, his glowing goal shimming just above the tree top.
The boy Leo was positive that once he reached the top of the tree, the moon would be close enough to grasp. Just like The Fortune-teller, Grandma, Loretta had told him, Leo climbed with such determination and ferocity, not even noticing when a sliver pierced his hands and never stumbling. Close to an hour had passed when finally he had reached the topmost branch. Cautiously, he moved to the end and reached. The ground swirled below him and a sense of pure ecstasy filled his whole being as his hand landed on the cold white rock of the moon.
Right before he climbed up and left his world behind, he saw two shadows far below him, small as ants, and heard his name called, though he couldn't be sure. It was too late. Children's ebony faces smiled at him and a thousand dark chocolate hands reached out to him. He jumped.
Baby Lara smiled a toothless smile, her pink gums thick with slobber. Rubbing one hand over her smooth cheek, Mrs Mcarn felt a tear escape her right eye. It felt like just yesterday that her boy Leo was this age, smiling and carefree, oblivious to the pain of the world.
That single tear was for her boy, who had died a year ago with misery on his young shoulders. That tear was for her baby girl, born the day after, who would grow up in a cruel and unforgiving world. That tear was for her mother, whose pain was obvious, who wouldn't be in the world much longer. That tear was for her husband, who had lost his only son, and felt that loss second of the day. Finally, that tear was for her, for every pain of oppression she had suffered.
The world would get better, she knew. Even the new town was better, full of kind people of many colours. Discrimination would still be in the world long after she had gone, but she knew that everyday would be better.
Chubby baby fingers touched her face, bringing her out of her thoughts. Lara stared up at her with large hazel eyes as she wiped the tear from her mamma's face, reaching into her heart as she did so. Yes, Mrs Mcarn thought, everything would be okay.