This short story responds to the themes and characters in Nella Larsen’s novella Passing. I explore the consequences of Larsen’s protagonist’s act of racial passing for her daughter. This piece was written as part of ‘The Short Story’ subject.
‘Afraid to bring out the darker side of his daughter.’
A chill ran up Margery’s spine. She was no longer at her aunt Caroline’s house in New York, but back at École Pour Filles de Sainte Benedicté. Nine years old, putting on a brave face. She’d received the news of her mother’s passing a month ago, but the school year was not over and with her parents in the states, there wasn’t much that she could do. She bore the pain of loss through to the break. Now she would be able to grieve properly, in the comfort of her Daddy’s arms.
She would never forget the way he looked at her that day. Where she’d expected to see love she saw a pained sort of disgust. His embrace felt stiff, clinical even, as if she were some kind of hazardous substance.
‘What happened to mother?’
‘We’re not going to talk about it,’ then, to soften the blow she now supposed, ‘I bought you back some things, you can see them when we get home.’
The rest of the journey took place in brittle silence.
When they’d arrived home, her daddy deposited a small pile of gifts in front of her and retreated to his study. Guessing she wouldn’t be seeing him until dinner given his strange, darkened mood, Margery began unwrapping her gifts.
She had unboxed several dresses, of the latest fashion in the states no doubt, and a porcelain doll with coal-black skin, round eyes and crimson lips. Margery let out a small giggle at the sight of the ugly little thing. These dolls were an eccentricity she had shared with her daddy. ‘I wouldn’t trust a nigger as far as I could throw him, but they do make such compelling grotesques.’ He’d been fond of saying whenever he brought her a new item for her collection.
Pleased with her new acquisition, Margery had gone to put it on her shelf with the others, she’d just the spot in mind. Balancing on a chair, attempting to put it on the top shelf, she’d over reached. She lost her balance and fell to the ground, the doll had shattered.
‘How dare you!’ Margery turned to see her daddy with a terrifying expression on his face. ‘You ungrateful black devil!’ he picked her up roughly. Margery tried to apologise but he moved as if possessed by some raging spirit. ‘I bring you into my home and you break everything I give you!’ He raged and shook her violently. Margery sobbed and screamed at this maniac who had replaced her daddy.
The maid came and tried to pull them her apart. Her daddy suddenly dropped her, as if she were an over-heavy burden. With a dazed look on his face, as if he’d just escaped an enchantment, he said. ‘Sorry about that Maggy, Daddy’s just had a bit of trouble with those lying negroes. He’s just a little bit stressed.’
They never spoke of that incident again. However, from that moment on, Margery couldn’t help but feel that there had been a greater distance between them. She would never forget the tone of burning contempt she’d heard in his voice that day.
‘Afraid to bring out the darker side of his daughter.’
It was Aunt Caroline who’d said it, she was fairly certain. Gossiping with some other women about maids and such. Of course her daddy’s well known, hardline stance of ‘no nigger maids’ had been brought up, but she did not know, or feared to know, why her aunt made such a curious statement.
On the drive back to the hotel she almost asked her daddy what Caroline had meant by it, but something in that memory stopped her.
Whilst her father busied himself with various work-related trifles, Margery occupied herself by wandering the city, gathering her texts for the coming semester. The summer air and the additional freedom of the break fuelled a strange sense of adventure within her. There had been several instances of late in which she’d caught herself wandering towards places that she ought not to.
Margery turned towards the source of the outburst, she’d barely heard her mother’s name in the years since her death, and something in this voice suggested familiarity.
She turned to see a fair skinned woman, accompanied by two colored boys. At a glance Margery would have taken her to be as white as herself but standing between these boys, possibly her sons or younger brothers, her negro features were undeniable. The woman had a look of half-recognition on her face. Margery walked towards her.
‘That’s my mother, how did you know my mother?’
‘That’s my name! How do you know my name!’
‘I was friends with your mother.’
‘Hm. I suppose you mean you served her for a time? That’s a curious way to put it. Friends.’
The woman stood up straighter, affronted. ‘I did no such thing, we went to school together. I knew her up until her final moments, when she threw herself from that window.’
‘What!? Why would my mother associate with, with... well, a negro? She despised them, my whole family does.’
‘Oh she did try to stay away from her people but she was never one to give up something she had. She tried to keep it secret but it all came tumbling down. If you’ll pardon the pun.’
‘Her people.’ Margery’s head was swimming, she went to the ground, she imagined she felt a little death fall upon her.
My name is Jamali Bowden (he/him) I am a third-year creative writing student at Latrobe. My practice is largely based in poetry but over the course of my degree I have written in a variety of forms including short story and creative non-fiction. My practice often explores the musicality of words and their structures. I have a fascination with widely held feelings of isolation, climate change and their origins and how they may be alleviated. Since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic my practice has become much more focused on curation of my existing works and a more rigorous process of editing. Following this festival, I am looking to gain more experience as an editor.
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