When she reaches the orderly house of her Dutch-Indonesian grandmothers, Marget learns quickly that if she only pays attention to them, then she can go unnoticed herself.
And that is exactly what she needs just now.
Marget is pregnant and alone. With her dancing career over and her mother absent, as always, Marget must decide for herself whether it is wise to continue the raveling line of her extended family.
Mylène Dressler’s powerful debut novel, The Medusa Tree, is the story of a family of displaced women, not all related by blood, who manage despite distance and conflict to provide one another sanctuary.
In the tradition of Amy Tan and Gloria Naylor, Dressler brings us a bold and heartfelt debut, rich in culture and character.
What I remember first is a man sitting very straight in a chair. Smoking a pipe. Biting down on it. His eyes are keen.
The head of this man, my grandfather, is bald, and spotted as if from the red pits of fallen berries. He wears a tweed coat, like an old British schoolmaster. He is turkey-chinned. He is sullen. He is old.
At the top of the chair, his armchair, around him, wrapping around him, is a cat. The cat is gray and white. The gray pattern of the chair is underneath the gray cat, and the white pattern of a square window rises behind the gray chair. My grandfather leans forward, rimmed in light, but doesn’t see me. I think this might be because he isn’t real. Probably I’ve simply pieced him together out of old dreams and talk and images from photo albums.
This man whom I see sitting in the chair is my father’s father. Not the father of my mother, not the man who left Fanny and my baby mother all those years ago to join, of all things, a circus. This is my other grandfather, the one who died of a heart attack soon after I was born. My grandmother, my father’s mother, survived him long enough to become another, more trustworthy memory. She too was stained like a cherry bowl around the ears, and also nearly bald; but her best feature was her double plate of false teeth, which she could slide out of her mouth and chatter like a pair of castanets in front of her face. It was horrible, this chattering, and I asked her to do it often. Then she died, and all her horribleness was lost to me. And so I had nothing more to do with my father’s family.
Next I am in my parents’ house. There is record music, waltzing. The trilling of pianos. And books, so many, reclining like the spines of old animals inside the shelves. Some had pictures, of white women with huge dresses like balloons and bare, snow-white arms and pointed, black-buckled slippers. Others housed kings and queens, collared, wearing dinner plates around their necks. Still others were filled with sad, ruined buildings made of stone, stone statues and faces and horses and men.
Often, after looking together into such terrible and beautiful books, which much later I learned were her favorite histories, my mother and I would sit together solemnly, patiently, and she would stare into some faraway place I couldn’t see. She would sit and stare over her coffee, her wrist over the open page, dreaming herself into those books.
In those days my parents hadn’t yet come across the fortune that would come to them years later. We lived in a modest, one-story California house of blue stucco; Mama stayed home with me during the day, while my father went into the city. On some days, for a treat, he took me in with him to see the tall black bank building where he worked. From his window I could see the traffic crawling in the street below us; if we turned and craned we could just catch a glimpse of the beautiful Golden Gate, resting one of its wings on a chunk of mountain. That high up I felt giddy, invincible. In the elevator going down I jumped and jumped, just to feel the carpeted floor giving out underneath me.
On the freeway going home I counted the cars called bugs, and in the parks we passed I counted the people called hippies. Daddy made me put my hand down. He said it wasn’t safe to point at them.
When I got old enough to walk to the end of our street, I could stand and watch the fog roll in from the bay. I could see it come creeping over the hills in a blind froth, across the highway and into our clean, new, bare neighborhood, gobbling up each corner and each matching pastel house, one by one, until it wrapped itself around me in a cold, sticky embrace. In this way I learned time.
On clear days, I studied airplanes. Planes, I knew, were large and heavy. Yet they flew. I was small and light, and I couldn’t fly. To fly, then, I must be heavy. I went into the garage and squeezed into an old backpack the heaviest things I could find. A hammer. A red brick. An empty milk bottle. A piece of rotten firewood. I was something, with my heavy pack behind me. I took up more space, more weight, more importance in the world. Then if the fog was still blowing in torn sheets through our street, I would go down to the corner and run. And jump. And jump. And jump. With all my might. And only once and for the barest instant did my back fit into an invisible hand that came up from underneath me, a hard gust that picked me up and carried me, a flying ball, across two long cracks in the white sidewalk. Afterwards I couldn’t make anyone believe I had taken off. But from this I learned that a thing will usually happen in just exactly the opposite way of what you would expect of it.
I was five years old when I discovered I was beautiful. This came as a shock. For me the most beautiful girl in the world lived on the next street, and her name, like a bell, was Anna Wong. Anna’s parents were Chinese. Her round cheeks and round body were completely smooth, like she had no bones. Her eyes were dark and clear like oily black beads, and her hair was cut like a doll’s into a perfectly straight line across her forehead. My mother would never cut my hair evenly that way. She thought it looked too perfect, so she broke the line of my short dark bangs, snipping in ragged jags with her silver scissors. I always looked as if the hem of my head were unraveling.
I worshipped Anna because she was perfect. I told her again and again how incredibly beautiful I thought she was. This gave Anna a real sense of distinction and made her very careful about her appearance. Once, while we were playing jump-rope with some of the other girls on our street, something happened and the red handle at one end flew off like a missile and hit Anna, hard, right in her face. Oh! Oh! Does it hurt! we all yelled, and we hurried to circle and soothe her. We stood in front of Anna, apologetic, just as if she were a torn Mona Lisa. Then her little pearl fists came down from her tearless face. No! she shouted at us. No! But was there any mark on her? Was there any mark?
I couldn’t play with Anna after that. She was too disgusting. But later that same year the school photographer called my mother to ask if I could pose for a pajama ad. Mama said no. Ladies in red smocks at the grocery store started to bend down and pinch and tickle me, and the Avon Lady who came to our house with her perfume and eye shadows and hand creams groped, as though I were a ten-carat bracelet underwater. And after they had all stooped to coddle and tweak and prod me, and after Mama had pulled me back away from them, circling my neck with her hand—then I began to believe it. I couldn’t stop walking by mirrors, to see the beautiful creature turning to look back at me from her passing coach. I got into the habit of seeing myself twisted around that way, even when the mirror wasn’t there.
My mother, I later found out, wasn’t beautiful. But my grandmother, the quiet one, was. In this way I learned a sense of proportion.