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Lacy smiles dutifully for the camera. Her mother, who is far away, will still need this sweet face to tuck into the edge of the mirror, the one reflecting back whatever mask she's painted on for the evening's work.

Lacy practiced 11 different smiles before deciding on this one for the school picture. She knows her mother needs a pure and sweet face to tuck into the edge of the mirror, the one she looks into while applying make-up for whatever mask she’s using for the night’s work.

“Usually just make two flat braids on my head. I do it myself. I don’t want none of these women in my hair. With their heavy hands and mean things they say about my mother. How I’m born outta wedlock. Well they don’t say it to my face, but I hear everything that happens in this house. And I know they suck their teeth at my mother ‘cuz she leaves me down South to go and make money in New York. Lord, Viola. I wish He would come dump some sense in her head. This ain’t no real way for a child to grow up. Away from her mother like some castoff. That was Aunt Marilyn talking to Ms. Luella one day. I ain’t figured it out, but I think Ms. Luella is my real aunt. Well real by marriage that is. But I don’t understand how, and I wasn’t invited to understand.

But Mama does love me, and she visits at Christmas and for my birthday, and at least one surprise time every year. Surprises are good for us. Ain’t no use in knowing everything. But when she is home I let her do my hair. She braids it, and unbraids it, and braids it again, as much as I want and she don’t mind. It’s our special thing. She locks the door in the bathroom, and we both stare in the mirror at her hands at work in my hair. Sometimes she braids it slow, makes it real tight, then takes it all out to do it over for me. If she’s about to go again, she takes her time and does it in a pretty style that will last me a few weeks.

That’s when she tells me the stories. About how I was born. About how she used to talk to me when I was inside her womb. And how she knew I would look just like I look. About life in a big city and the apartment we’re gonna have with a room where I can paint the walls any way I want. I ask lots of questions and she’s got answers for everything. She never tells me to just let well enough alone like Aunt Marilyn. Then Mama gets me ready for bed, makes me say my prayers. But we both know I don’t talk to God when she’s not here. After we pray, she turns to me real sharp, pinching my shoulders with her grip. I don’t flinch; I don’t want her to let go. Once she has my eyes, she’ll say: Elaine Elise. You promise me you’ll always be your real, beautiful self. Don’t be fake. Ever. Don’t have people thinkin’ your pretend face is your true face. Mama tells me she’s sorry it has to be this way, us being apart. But it’s just a little while longer. Always a little while longer.

On nights when she’s about to leave, she hugs me close to her until I fall asleep. That’s how I know this is it for now. A long farewell makes the going too dry, Lacy. Life should be juicy, like fresh fruit. On these nights, I have a wild dream where black birds are laughing at me or I’m a black bird and I can’t figure out how to turn back into a girl so people will listen to me. I get real mad, start screaming in the dream. I always wake up realizing my arms are flailing which means Mama’s not holding me anymore. Which means she’s gone. So I just touch my hair instead. Trace the braids with my fingers in the dark. Count the days ’til Christmas.” ~~ Lacy answering the question, “How do you wear your hair?”

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Lady Ziomi, the woman Lacy grows up to be, wears her hair a different way. See her story and other characters in development in the Embodied Character collection.

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