Technically speaking, Ebony was not legitimate. She was borne of a fabulous affair between her common-class mother, Adah, and a man named Christopher Rafael, a wealthy diplomat who had inherited a huge estate in the area.
At the time the affair began, Adah was married to Daniel Hayes, a rather unsuccessful businessman whose only notable accomplishment was to father two girls who managed to look enough like their mother to turn heads.
At age 3 and 4, Java and Siva were keen enough to note that their mother was turning heads all over town, that her own head was turned, in fact, and that she kept her rapt and steady attention on Christopher Rafael. Java and Siva were growing up with a woman who was the constant object of desire, and this seemed normal enough to them that they did not question her choice to return Christo’s affection.
They enjoyed nights out with their mother and Christo, especially when they came along for a romantic dinner in his castle of a house, where servants still served the food and stood quietly in the corners. A night with Christo was a chance to step into a fairy-tale kingdom where young girls rode in horse-drawn carriages, and attended balls in puffed out dresses bias-cut for young princesses.
At home with their father, they would chew loudly to fill the dull and silent air, scrape their fork on the pale porcelain plates in an effort to move the peas into a formation that made them look half-eaten. Adah measured the pads of butter they spread on their bread, collected their uneaten peas and served them again the next night. They would tell the same old stories about the same old things happening at daycare, and listen to the same old stories about the same old things happening at work.
They would ask to watch TV after dinner, and then help quickly clear the table for a rapid chance of escape. And then they would sit in front of the TV, eyes open, dreaming of another night when they would cut over to Christo’s place, skate in his private rink, or watch the same TV shows on his glamorous projector screen.
At home, they didn’t have cable, and some nights there was no reception. The house was always chilly, with the heater saved as a last resort, and Java and Siva would curl tightly together on the couch to keep warm, while Adah and Daniel leaned conspiratorially against each other. Daniel would save the newspapers each morning to line the cold windows at night.
Some nights at home, the girls would tell their father stories about life at Christo’s house. It always made Adah strain uncomfortably. Often she would push up and leave the table, leaving their father smiling glassily, though never enjoying the tales quite as much as the girls planned.
After this unveiled charade had gone on for a number of months, Adah stood up from the table one night without warning. She walked to the front door, and walked out, leaving the door swinging ajar. Java, Siva and Daniel Hayes sat quietly at the table, listening to the stuttering screech of the revving engine, then the turning tires as Adah drove away.
Later that week, a car showed up, and the well-dressed driver knocked on the door, asking to pick up the children.
Daniel wordlessly packed the girls two identical pink backpacks, filling them with clean clothing and underwear, a toothbrush, a comb, and a few strips of fruit leather. He helped his daughters strap on their backpacks, led them to the door, knelt down and kissed them each on the cheek before sending them on with the driver.
Java and Siva were happy with their full-time fairy-tale life, and quite enchanted when they heard that their mother was having a baby.
They wanted to name the new girl Snow White, but Adah insisted on something sleeker. So Java, remembering TV commercials for sleek hair, suggested that they name the baby for Snow White’s ebony hair. The name stuck.
When the girls were a bit older, Adah professed that it was Ebony’s arrival that led her to leave her husband.
Siva would often sneak into her mother’s room and watch as Adah cried. It was a silent sort of a wail, her shoulders hitching, her breath stuttering. It made her beautiful face puff and turn red, giving her swollen pink scars from the tears she refused to wipe away. After a few hours, she would be roused by the sound of Ebony’s tantrums in the hall, or Java’s biting laughter, and Adah would stand up and stare at herself in the mirror, rinsing her face over and over until all signs of tears were. Then she would throw a twinkle in her eye, and shout lightly—here I come!
Siva felt a certain kind of kinship with her mother, and suspected that Adah must miss Daniel Hayes as much as his daughters did. This was a silent secret that the two of them shared, something that Java was too selfish to see, and Ebony had no reason to understand.
Siva kept a photograph of her father in a plastic wallet. It was a matte-print image of a man with his smile rubbed out by the little girl who constantly pulled the photo out to touch. Even with his face smudged nearly to transparency, Siva loved her father’s photo. It was something that her father had hidden in her backpack before sending her away; a gift and a reminder. She suspected that Java had a keepsake like it somewhere, hidden away in a shoebox. In truth, Java’s picture had made it to the rubbish bin, and from there into a dusty corner of Adah’s dressing chest.
All the same, Adah publicly insisted she was happy, and swore she had made the right decision. Ebony was a harbinger of a new family, a family that could provide everything three children could need or want. This was her family’s chance at happiness. Adah wanted to do it right this time.