1919 At the Connecticut Shore

Hannah Sokolov — a young Jewish wife and mother transplanted by her husband from Brooklyn — meets the Watermans, a black couple who labor in the local fish store; she finds herself inexplicably drawn to Samuel and, as a result, to Belle as well.

Again, it is as if something between them happened before, but neither woman can remember it. There is something between them now, and they both know it, but neither one speaks of it. With all that going on — all the unsettling feelings moving around them, as if the air itself is saturated with something heavy, but without the shapes or colors that one of them might easily comprehend, or the words that might ease the other one in her mind — the two women stand for a moment, watching each other silently. Then they talk about hair.

“It’s thick — you can see. Not as thick as yours. And not kinky — is that the word? Not really curly. But wild, and I’d like it evened out. Can you do that?”

Belle sits on a chair on wheels, an old lawyer’s chair Samuel picked up at a junk yard and refinished for her so she could rest her feet from walking around the house. On this wonderful contraption, she can wheel around from fireplace to table and table to shelf when she needs something. On a lower chair, a soft green pillow at her back and a clean sheet around her to catch the falling hair, Hannah faces the fire. Behind her, Belle moves her chair to the left and right, holding the thick, wiry hair that hangs down past the white woman’s shoulders.

“It is thick,” she says, feeling it and spreading it out. She removes small, sharp scissors from the pocket of the long sweater she wears over her dress.

“Just an inch or two,” Hannah says. “My husband likes it long, but the ends need trimming.”

Belle lifts layers of the hair and pins them to the top of Hannah’s head. Then she snips a slightly curved line around the under layer left hanging loose. Slowly, layer by layer, ten times in all, she evens the edges and cuts the split ends of Hannah’s hair.

Meanwhile, Hannah has been looking at as much of the room as she can see without moving her head. She sees the wood, chopped and piled neatly to the side of the black iron chimney tools. She sees a dark shelf to the side of the fireplace and on it some pottery dishes in lovely blue and green flowered patterns, a series of tan mixing bowls, an earthenware jug filled with wooden spoons. When she lifts her eyes she can see a shelf above the fireplace, and on it a black Bible and an old brown ledger.

Belle’s eyes follow Hannah’s. “Keep your head still,” she says, a bit harshly, pushing it so that Hannah’s eyes face the floor again.

A hand woven, woolen rug of dark red and brown covers a small portion of the wide wooden planks of the floor. A closed door leads to what must be another room, the bedroom. It’s only a closed door, normal for daytime when a visitor is in the house, but Hannah feels it is closed against her in particular, that Samuel’s wife Belle doesn’t want her to see in.

When Belle finishes the back, she asks, “You want the front a bit shorter?” They both feel the absence of the Ma’am. It goes with the unspoken thing between them, the one they know about, and somehow refers as well to the thing they don’t know about but feel.

“Just a tiny bit,” Hannah tells her. “I don’t want anything fancy, or noticeable. Maybe just so the front and sides curl a bit more when I pull the whole thing up in a bun or a braid.”

Belle gets up from the chair and walks in front of Hannah, lifts her chin up in one of her hands, tilting her head in the right position. “Keep still,” she says, and combs a thin layer of Hannah’s hair down in front of her face. Through the veil of dark brown, Hannah can see the curves of the other woman’s breasts stretching the black woolen sweater she wears over a heavy blue cotton dress. Under her breasts, her stomach has begun to protrude, a small round mountain beneath two smaller hills. Hannah wants to touch the mountain affectionately, as she might have touched May if she’d ever had a child, but she folds her hands in her lap. She sees Belle’s slender, brown neck, and when her chin is lifted slightly higher by the firm hand that parts the veil and pushes each side behind an ear, she sees tiny silver earrings in the soft ear lobes, and she sees the other woman’s hair. She’s never seen a colored person’s hair up close, but heard many stories about how ugly and coarse it is, how it’s greasy, and it smells. The desire to touch it is nearly overpowering. Curls as tiny and tight as the tightest woolen shawl layer thickly, pulled back into two fat braids wound around each other at the nape of Belle’s neck. Perhaps some kind of grease, or oil, has been used, because separated by a narrow part, the hair on top of Belle’s head lies flat and thick and glistening until it meets the braid. The braid and the strands escaping from it look soft and pliant — the opposite of ugly or coarse. Hannah keeps her hands folded so they won’t move of their own accord and reach out to touch that wonderful looking hair. Hair Samuel touches, she thinks, and shuts her eyes quickly, banishing the thought.

Belle has cut a neat line of hair from ear to ear at the level of Hannah’s nose. Then she brushes it back in long, firm movements that bring Hannah’s mother momentarily to mind, how each night Rena brushed her own hair, then May’s, then Hannah’s, tugging it into a braid that fell nearly to her waist. Finally, Belle twists all the hair into a bun and makes a sound of completion, a humming sigh. As she pins the large roll high at the back of Hannah’s head, the shortened front layers wave out of the pins slightly, and a few strands curl entirely free down the sides of Hannah’s face. Belle holds a hand mirror up to show Hannah who utters a cry of pleasure. She loves the soft look framing her face, and as she touches the perfectly shaped bun, she knows she will not forget the feeling of Belle’s fingers on her scalp, moving gently around her neck as she brushed and gathered the hair, combing the thick layers with her fingers as she pinned, brushing her cheeks, forehead and shoulders with a handkerchief she’d taken from her pocket when she was done.

Belle smiles at her, or at her handiwork, a broad, satisfied smile.

“The colors in this room,” Hannah says, groping for words, wanting a connection she feels deprived of, despite the efficient, gentle hands, the careful brushing, the perfect cut. “I love the dark reds and browns next to the copper kettle. I love colors.” She stands and reaches for her purse, one she’s made herself, knitted in thick green and blue wool and lined with black cotton. “I made this.” She holds the purse out to be seen. “I love shapes and colors so much I sometimes make up scenes in my mind that look better than the real world around me. My husband mocks me for it — I’m always changing our furniture around.”

Belle is sweeping up the hair with a straw broom while the white woman talks. She tries to offer an mmm, hmm once or twice for the sake of politeness, but she wonders why white people always think you’ve got nothing to do but listen to their stories. And the time she hasn’t got for white people is reduced even smaller in the case of this particular white person who is not only playing with the only human being in the world Belle loves but putting him in danger as well. Yet, her thoughts are interrupted by the memory of Samuel’s words the night before, the knowledge that this particular white woman holds some interest for him, and despite herself, she understands how and why. She would never confess her own passionate relationship to stories, her stories made up of words not colors and designs, but she stops sweeping and looks straight into the other woman’s eyes. “I understand about shapes and colors and stories and scenes,” she says. “That purse you made is real nice. It’s a nice shape. The detail is fine,” she adds, pointing to the tiny stitches at the edge.

Hannah opens the purse, shows Belle the black lining. It’s a secret she would share only with someone who understands the importance of detail in things you make, even when it doesn’t show. “It took me days to get the lining to fit just right,” she says, and pulls out several coins which she gives Belle, who says, “Mmm, hmm, thank you,” and puts the money into her pocket where the scissors have returned.

“We — our people I mean — we don’t believe in tempting the evil eye by wishing luck for things that haven’t happened yet — ” Hannah looks at the curve of Belle’s stomach pushing at the cloth. “But when it happens, I’ll send over some of my fish stew as a sign of best wishes. We say mazel tov.”

Hannah looks eagerly into the face she feels she knows from some place else. Or, perhaps it is not another time or place the face evokes, but a quality of sympathy Hannah has not known for years, has almost forgotten because the desire is so painful when it goes so long unfilled. Or maybe the desire is born into you, whether you ever knew it or not. Perhaps Belle has a face that communicates the special sympathy, or would if its color, several shades darker than Hannah’s own, did not preclude its articulation. She can’t get rid of the uncanny feeling that there is something between them, something besides the thing they both know is between them and would never speak about out loud. She stares at Belle whose opaque eyes enable Hannah to overcome her own fear of looking too long. She wishes she could penetrate the hardness of those eyes, find a way to make that mouth open in uninhibited laughter.

Belle meets her stare, but there is no smile when she says, “Well, thank you. We will appreciate the fish stew.” Then, as if to compromise with her own harshness with this woman who is so appealing today yet was so offensive the last time they met, as if to remind her of her rudeness and thank for her generosity in one perfect phrase, “No shellfish though,” she says.

Hannah blushes, reminded and chastened, respectful of Belle’s courage and precision with words. She tries to answer with equal precision, perhaps some courage too. “Shellfish are forbidden,” she says, looking straight into the other woman’s eyes.

All the things she wants to say to Belle flood her mind. That she understands how prejudice can frighten and harden you. That being a woman is a blessing and a curse too. That creating scenes and arranging rooms, fixing clothes and purses and hair, making the world more shapely and comforting is the strongest happiness there is, that it somehow heals the sore parts, even if only temporarily, even if you don’t know how it works. She wants to say something about the shaping, because she is coming to recognize Belle now and she feels Belle would understand. She wants to say that she understands being part of a people who have been in slavery so long they have to keep close guard of their carefully honed rituals, public and private, that remind them how hard and important it is to be free. She wants to say she understands how it feels to be hated for nothing, just for being who you are. But she senses vaguely, yet clearly enough to ensure her own reticence, that she is deeply ignorant of the extremities this other woman knows, that the tiny piece of their history she’s learned from Samuel is only the slender beginning of the story of brutality and unimaginable cruelty, cutting people to bits while they’re still alive, slicing off body parts in public that should be too private and sacred to name except in the safest, most intimate places, selling children away from their mothers for profit, and all of it done in memory recent enough to be heard from their own parents’ mouths. These are things Hannah had never imagined, still has trouble believing. And then there is the worse feeling. Hatred of Jews has always been a huge mystery to her; something undeniable and preposterous, because Jews are not only as good as others, they are better in many ways. She has always been told this. But the way white people feel about the colored has always seemed different to her. It is not exactly hatred, except for people like the Klan and those others who support them. It is more like Aaron said, thinking about Negroes as not really ordinary people like white people are — not only less beautiful and less smart, but with different feelings, not ordinary feelings like white people have. She looks at Belle hard as she removes her apron covered with Hannah’s hair, straightens the chairs in the room. She tries to see her as a schvartza, the way she has been trained to see, not a person with a certain skin color but a creature who is her skin color, whose skin color determines what she thinks, or cannot think, how she feels, or does not feel, a creature very different from Hannah, or other Jews, or anyone white.

Facing Belle in her red and brown room, surrounded by kettles and pottery and a closed bedroom door, sitting in a wooden chair with a green pillow just where your back might hurt if it wasn’t there, seeing the woman’s hair and her ears and her breasts up close, and knowing a baby is inside her body that Samuel put there, Hannah is rocked again by the shifting feelings she’s been subject to in the past few months of knowing these two. They seem less and less different from her in the way she assumed before. And more and more different from what she’s always supposed. Belle has told her she understands stories and scenes, and the way she said shape and detail, as if she were holding up a mirror that reflected them both, told Hannah who she was.

“You let us know when the time comes,” Hannah says as she covers her newly cut hair with her shawl. “And thank you. Working with the hair in layers is a wonderful idea.”

Belle opens the door for her and stands on the wooden step. “Be careful,” she says, pointing to a crack in the wood but hearing the echo of the words she had said to her husband, this time in a different tone, cold and distant to keep her heart from breaking. “Be careful, Mrs. Sokolov,” she says, pronouncing the name just right, and Hannah hears all the layers of meaning in the words. She nods, then turns and walks away. After a few steps she turns back, perhaps to wave, perhaps only to look at Belle again, but the colored woman is already moving into the interior of her tiny house. Hannah glimpses the shelf over the fireplace with its dark ledger and Bible just before Belle shuts the door to number 20, and she proceeds down Knight Street toward home.

Jane Lazarre’s works include the memoirs The Mother Knot; Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons; and Wet Earth and Dreams. Her novels are The Powers of Charlotte; Worlds Beyond My Control; and Some Place Quite Unknown. This is from an unpublished work, Inheritance. 

Yona Zeldis McDonough asked Jane Lazarre why she rooted her new fiction in the personal relationships between Jews and blacks. 

I was drawn to writing a novel that went back into the history of American slavery and racism by several forces in my life. First, I had been teaching African-American autobiographical traditions, from slavery to the present, for years. I have been deeply affected by this study, by the realities of American slavery, the details of which are so widely unknown. Secondly — perhaps primarily — I was lead to this study by the life experience of being a white woman married to a black man for many years, raising two black sons, a story and transformation in consciousness I wrote about in my memoir, Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness. I wanted to track the forms white blindness, and white privilege, as well as the various forms of white resistance to racism, have taken over the years, while also doing my small part to expose the actual brutality and inhumanity that was slavery in the United States. I believe deeply in the creative marriage between fiction and social/political exploration. The line often drawn between “politics” and “art” is, to me, a false and dangerous one.

From the beginning, I wanted to write, in part, about the history of “racial mixing”  in America.