Jael Richardson is the author of The Stone Thrower, a book columnist on CBC’s q and the founder and Executive Director for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) in Brampton, Ontario. Her debut novel, Gutter Child was shortlisted for the Amazon First Novel Award. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph and lives in Brampton, Ontario.
Ahead of her appearance on our virtual stage, Jael Richardson shares the first chapter of her debut novel, Gutter Child.
When I drew pictures of Mother and me, I used Peach for her and Chestnut for myself. “Why is your skin named after something soft and sweet and mine is something hard and bitter?” “Because you are so much tougher,” she said. I thought that was a very good answer. And maybe it’s true. But I am forced to be tough. It takes a particular kind of strength to exist in a world where you are not wanted that doesn’t feel like strength at all. Like giving up or giving in would be easier, smarter even. Maybe that is my chestnut, my toughness. The fact that I am still here.
The driver looks in my direction, full of worry. Her lips are red, glossy and pouted, and there’s a crease in her forehead, like she’s the one with problems, not me. I stare out the window wishing I could go back and put my old life back together, which is impossible, I know. So here I am instead. Hours away from the only home I’ve ever known and driving up a long gravel road through a tunnel of trees with branches that reach down like fingers, hungry for touch.
“This is Livingstone Academy,” Miss Femia says, as we pull up to a grand white house with black shutters and a door that’s green like a swamp.
The car slows to a stop under a droopy willow, and I step out in what feels like a whole different world. I take one deep breath and close my eyes, and when I open them again, Miss Femia is standing in front of me with her tight bun and waxy mouth.
She takes my hands in hers, rubbing my scar with her thumb—the hideous X on the back of my right hand that’s ugly and raw. She sighs, and I wonder if it’s sadness in her eyes, because it’s hard to tell with Mainlanders. Pity looks very much the same.
“I know this wasn’t the plan,” she says. “But let’s make the most of it, hey?”
Her voice is high and hopeful, and I hate the way it sounds, like forgetting the life I had is my best option. Like that’s even possible.
“I really think you might like it here. I think your mother would have really liked this place,” she says.
I want to tell her that what Mother would probably like is to be living instead of dead, to be back home with me instead of wherever it is she is now. But Miss Femia doesn’t have children, and people without children always share silly bits of wisdom, like it will all go to waste if they don’t.
“Yes, let’s make the most of it,” I say, turning up the corners of my mouth as high as I can manage. Which isn’t much.
“You can do this, Elimina,” she says, wrapping her fingers around the doorknob, holding the swamp-colored door with her back. “You can find happiness here.”
But happiness isn’t something a kid like me can afford to hold out for.
The main entrance of Livingstone Academy is large and impressive with tall columns and a wide, carpeted stairwell that curves like a bow. Framed pictures of open landscapes and wide fields hang on brightly lit walls.
At least it’s not the Gutter, I try to tell myself as I turn and take it all in.
“Miss Femia,” a man says, emerging from a hallway in a sharp tan suit, followed by a girl in a gray dress with a crisp white shirt underneath.
The tall man with slick brown hair takes large steps across the room to greet us, kissing Miss Femia on the cheek and smiling down at me after. I stare back with wide eyes because, other than Mother, no Mainlander has ever looked at me this way. Like they’re actually pleased that I’ve arrived.
“Elimina, it’s a tremendous honor to have you here at Livingstone Academy. I’m Headmaster Samuel J. Gregors. But Mr. Gregors will do just fine.”
He smiles and pauses for a moment, raising his chin in a way that makes me wonder if I’m expected to curtsy or applaud.
“While the circumstances that brought you here are less than ideal, I believe that Livingstone is exactly where you need to be,” he says. “Elimina, I sincerely believe that here in our tidy little academy, you’ll find a home that propels you into an excellent future.”
He looks down at the girl in the gray dress whose hair is pulled into two round ponytails. Her skin is like mine, the color of oak trees and coconuts, as Mother would say whenever she rubbed lotion onto my skin that smelled like a spring rain.
“This is Josephine. She’s one of our best students,” he says, nodding in Josephine’s direction as she takes a step forward, so we’re close enough to touch.
Josephine tilts her head, taking in my shaved head and raising one eyebrow.
Mother started shaving my head when I was five years old because I had curls that refused to submit to her—hair that grew out instead of down. “It’s impossible to deal with. There’s just nothing else I can do,” she said, lifting me onto a tall stool, where a pair of scissors lay resting on the countertop. She cut one messy ponytail, and when I gasped, she cut the other quickly before grabbing a razor to take the rest. When she was done, when tiny black curls were scattered around her like feathers, she held my face between her hands, tilting me this way and that, marveling at the richness of my skin, held in her moon-colored palms. She smiled, like she was proud of the result—the smoothness, the even shape, how clean I looked. “Perfect,” she said. “You look perfect, Elimina. A beautiful, ebony goddess.”
Her eyes were wet, but no tears fell. And I believed every word she said. You are perfect. Beautiful. A goddess. But when I looked in the mirror, I saw someone I didn’t recognize. I saw a head that was naked and shorn like a bird born too soon, one that would never grow up and fly. And I knew that she had lied.
“You made me ugly,” I yelled, and when I said those words again, shrill and loud, she called me vain and selfish.
“Elimina?” Miss Femia says, placing one hand on my shoulder. “Mr. Gregors just asked you a question, dear.”
I look up, my heart racing wildly, like I’ve just been caught doing wrong. “I’m sorry, sir. I—”
“Never you mind. It was a very long drive,” he says, waving one hand in my direction like it doesn’t matter at all. “Josephine will take care of you today, and I’ll meet with you tomorrow after breakfast. After you’ve had some rest.”
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir.”
“Don’t be sorry. And don’t be late,” he says, pointing in my direction. “It’s a basic tenet of the work we do here to always be on time. I consider tardiness a sign of disrespect. Let’s not get off to a bad start.”
“Josephine, show her around, and do it proper,” he says. “No shortcuts. Leave nothing out. Get her a uniform and be sure to take her to Nurse Gretchen. I want her ready to go when I meet her tomorrow. I’ll have Violet inform Miss Darling that you’ll be away for the duration of the day.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” Josephine says, nodding her head.
Miss Femia moves closer, placing her hands on my shoulders and opening her red mouth, like she’s going to say something, but when she looks back at Mr. Gregors and Josephine, she presses her lips back together like now is not the right time.
“Miss Femia?” I say, hoping she’ll reconsider and say what’s on her mind.
“It’s not important,” she says. “You’ve got enough to worry about right now, Elimina. Go on with Josephine. Get settled in. I’ll swing by another time.”
She wraps her arms around me, and I don’t squeeze back or cry, but when Miss Femia whispers in my ear, “You’ll be fine,” I feel a stick in my throat that hurts so bad it makes it hard to swallow, like a knife cutting from the inside. “I’ll see you soon,” she says.
But somehow, I know this is a lie.
Josephine leads me down a long hall with high, curved ceilings, our footsteps clicking against the floors. When she reaches the tall set of doors at the end of the hallway, she places her palms on the brass panels and turns toward me, the X’s on both of her hands standing tall. For a moment, I’m not sure I’m breathing at all.
“You ready?” she says.
But I don’t answer. I just stare and follow her slowly through the doors, feeling somewhere deep in my gut that this is all wrong. I should turn and run.
The dining hall is filled with long tables and wood chairs. It reeks of fried meat and steamed vegetables, and when we enter the room, students in matching gray uniforms turn and stare. But I just look down at all of the hands that look just like Josephine’s—two scars instead of one, like mine.
I stop, and when Josephine turns to me, I whisper the only words I can manage, my throat still thick and tight: “I don’t belong here. You’re all . . . I’m not . . . I’m not a Gutter child,” I say.
But Josephine just hands me a tray and shakes her head, like I’ve got a lot to learn.
Jael Richardson visits Brockton Writers Series via ephemera series on Wednesday, November 10, 2021 starting at 6:30pm alongside Kelly Robson, Lisa Richter, and Mary Lou Dickinson . Our guest speaker Deborah Dundas will take us through, “Inside the Pages: A Book Editor Demystifies the News and Reviews Process.”
Special note: As we adapt to current social distancing regulations, we’re happy to announce our event will be hosted by the wonderful ephemera series! They have already done their show online multiple times, so we are thrilled to benefit from their technical expertise, while also increasing collaboration within the literary community and growing connections between organizers, authors, and audience. You can attend the event by watching on the ephemera series YouTube channel. Please log in at 6:30.