The setting for this excerpt is 2047 – a few decades from now. But it’s really set further off in the future than that. The narrator is Julia Moro, the protagonist of The Circle of Thirteen, and she is looking back to the when she was four years old. It’s her earliest recollection as a child.
The four-year-old Julia walks around the house, book in hand, looking for her mother so that they can read another story together. It is at that point that Julia begins to describe for the reader the secrets of her mother’s severely troubled life.
I’m not sure what made me structure the story this way. I typed the words furiously into the computer until the scene had run its course. Of all the scenes in the book, I think this one had the fewest revisions.
There’s something visceral about a book that can’t be replaced. Children know it, and their parents know it as well. I’ve seen many parents yank game boxes and keyboards form the hands of their children, but I’ve never seen them do that with a book. They know that their children are holding memories.
I became part of this story in 2047. That’s the earliest date when I can really remember anything. I was four years old at the time, and some of my memories from then are vivid – maybe too vivid.
My first recollection is of my mother. I’ve always thought of that first memory with her as a happy one. It was a warm evening in our co-housing apartment in the Mt. Tamalpais foothills, just north of San Francisco. The window must have been open, because I remember the noise of our neighbors outside working in the community garden. My mother and I were snuggled on a day bed with the pillows propped up on one side. I was leaning against her, cuddled up under her arm. My favorite blanket was on my lap, but it was spread out so we could share it.
I remember my mother as being beautiful, but my memory of how she looked at that moment was probably affected by everything that came later. She had light brown skin that seemed to change throughout the day, giving her a slight glow that was irresistible. I remember her scent, thinking at the time it was an exotic perfume from some far away land. She had long, auburn hair, but she rarely wore it straight down; it was always in swirls and swoops, held up by barrettes, pins, and other fasteners that were endlessly fascinating to a young child. I liked to dive into her mass of hair and find the hidden clasps. That wasn’t the only thing hidden about her: she had a mysterious quality that even a young child could sense. It’s hard for me to believe – even now – that at the time she was only a teenager.
In this, my happiest memory, we were reading my favorite picture book. It must have been near bedtime, because the storyline was written with an eye to getting children into the mood for sleep. It usually worked, but sometimes we had to go through it twice.
By the time the lights had dimmed and everyone in the story was asleep – a time when the little mouse was seated on the window sill, looking at the moon and the stars in the nighttime sky – I was almost asleep as well. It was a quiet, magical moment when I felt as safe and happy as all the characters in the book. I remember my mother carrying me into the bedroom and whispering something that I still can’t quite recall.
But it’s painful to go back to that moment – even now. This happiest of memories always brings back tearful reminders of some of the worst moments.
When I discovered my mother unconscious that first time, all of the elements of that happy memory were there in a frightening, distorted form. I remember holding the book under my arm, dragging my blanket through the apartment, looking for her, hoping we could read the story together. I found her lying on the bed, stretched out between some of her favorite pillows. She wasn’t moving. Her skin looked pale. I didn’t know she was near death, but even as young as I was I knew something was wrong. Her hair was splayed in all directions, with the barrettes, pins, and clasps all hanging uselessly from the strands. I tried to wake her up, but I got no response. I shook her a little harder; nothing. I left the room for a few moments, not knowing whether to cry or not. Then I came back and tried again. When my mother still didn’t move, I went next door and rang the doorbell. Our neighbor, Fiona Chiang, gave me a big smile, but that faded quickly when she saw the look on my face.
I told her my mother was sleeping and wouldn’t wake up. I could see the fear in her eyes, even as she tried to hide it. I realize how hard it must have been for her to do what she had to do without alarming her little neighbor. She told me to sit down and have a cookie. She didn’t get the cookie jar and offer me one like she usually did; she simply waved in the direction where the cookies were kept. I sensed that she was in such a big hurry that she didn’t care how many I ate.
She told me to stay there and not go out. She said everything would be all right. She quickly slipped out the door and closed it behind her. I sat there for what seemed like a long time. I remembered looking at the door. I could hardly take my eyes off of it. Everything was happening beyond that door, across the hall, and into our own apartment where my mother was . . . where my mother was what? At the time, I couldn’t even articulate what awful thing might be happening. I remember flashes of light under the door and the noise of people on the stairs and the squawking of their vid-phones.
Ms. Chiang came back into the apartment just as I was looking out the window. Men and women in uniforms were rolling a cart into the back of a big vehicle. That’s an ambulance, she told me gently. It’s going to take your mom to the hospital where they can take care of her. There was something wrapped in white sheets on the top of the cart. It didn’t look like my mother. It was too small and lonely.
When the doorbell rang later, it was Maya.
When I think about that moment, I realize this was my first clear memory of her. I must have known Maya before that. I realize now that she was around our apartment all the time while I was a baby, but this is the first time she came into focus.
Maya had a quiet, solemn look on her face. At age four, I couldn’t comprehend what she was going through. Even now I have a hard time understanding the emotions that must have been tearing at her.
“How’s Amy?” The words came spilling out of Fiona Chiang’s mouth as soon as Maya walked in the door. She tried to keep it to a whisper, but I heard her anyway. “Is she going to make it?”
Maya nodded her head. I latched on to that gesture, making of it what I wanted it to be: Maya was telling her that Amy – my mother – was going to be all right.
She may have wanted to say something more, but she probably saw the look on my face and realized I would be hanging onto every word. She walked over and put her arm around me. She gave me a hug that lasted a long time.
“Julia’s coming home with me,” Maya said quietly.