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  • Her Hair Is Plaited Tight
  • Austin Clarke (bio)

She sits like a queen. Thick around the hips. Solid around her breasts. Thick and strong down to her long fingernails. And with her eyes closed. You see her silent, taciturn, like a woman sitting dead in a wooden straight-back chair. But her mighty chest—her “bosom” is the word that she uses—her bosom tells you just the opposite. She is alive.

Functioning. “Just studying my head, boy …”

The “boy” she refers to is me. Her son. Her only child. She rips the comb through her hair. Her hair is white, in the middle. A precise “part” runs from her forehead backwards down to the middle of her neck; and you would swear that she has divided her hair, with a pen knife, or with a razor blade, into the “part” which is so exquisitely, perfectly drawn. The comb she uses to make these divisions that “part” her hair, to make herself look good, are made by the teeth of a large horse comb. The comb is made of tortoise shell. It is a Wednesday afternoon. The rays of the sun, still strong at this hour, come through the jalousies in the Dutch window, in patterns, drawn in the mottled figures and drawings she sees in the pages of her son’s exercise book. GEOMETRY, written in capital letters, is printed on the maroon-red front cover of the exercise book. Isosceles triangles, squares, and other diagrams to prove things to help solve mathematical problems about geometry he has drawn in this book. She had asked him what they were, and he had explained them to her, but this is all she remembers about geometry. And when she tells her best friend Mistress Gallup about the geometry and the isosceles triangles, they both put their wet mops, that look like their hair when it gets wet in the sea, into the soapy water that smells like disinfectant. The smell comes from the blue soap they use for scrubbing the floors of the Marine Hotel for “tourisses,” where they work, and sometimes for bathing. And then they put their hands akimbo on their waists and shake their heads in pride.

They know instinctively that, although they cannot explain to themselves, or to their neighbors, what geometry and isosceles triangles can do to enrich their lives, their instinct reminds them that the knowledge that is spoken in their presence is something to be proud of, and that they will always be proud to know and to remind themselves, and the entire village, of this blessing. Her son, a young man of seventeen who reads and studies “big books,” and books written in foreign languages, has exposed her to these three important things: geometry, isosceles triangles, and Latin. She can feel her life changing by this injection of new knowledge. “Imagine!” his mother says to Mistress Gallup. “Imagine.” It is about fifteen minutes after three, on this Wednesday afternoon. With its plaits, her hair looks like a dark brown centipede. She can imagine the sound its body will make when she crunches it, when she steps on it. His mother rips the tortoise-shell comb, made from the tough shell of a land turtle—or is it a sea-turtle? She did not inspect the turtle for its [End Page 36] sex—and to loosen her plaits, the comb completes its journey: up the front of her hair, where the plait is longest, and then down the back of her head, where the hair is shorter. She strikes the teeth of the large horse-comb, made from light brown tortoise shell, against the top of the wooden table, playing the high notes and the low notes, imitating the rhythm of the popular calypso that the entire village is singing. It is the calypso season in the Island.

The horse-comb is brown. The villagers call it a “horse-comb” because it is larger, and stronger, and more polished than an ordinary comb, with the colors running through it, like smudges of blood, like almost invisible streams watering a field of sugar canes. Sometimes, his mother would plant the comb in her thick black...


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pp. 36-52
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