Black Is the Color Of My True Love's Hair
MACLEAN’S SECOND PRIZE WINNER
Smitty dreamed of ships and seas and foreign strands. But no dream is proof against the blush of a girl and the shine of hair that is wondrous fair to see
JOHN JEFFREY SYMONS
That sound—like running feet pounding after him—nagged at his mind.
The houses in the narrow street crouched over him. The people, the city—it is true, he thought, you can be most lonely in the city.
A man, young, he wore faded blue jeans rolled up, showing high-cut boots. He had on a heavy grey shirt and over it an open leather jacket. His hair was long, roughly brushed, curling at his neck and ears.
As he shifted the small canvas bag on his shoulder the easy supple timing of the men who work in the bush showed plain. This city was foreign to him and he to it.
His eyes looked about, following the rut of the gutter up to the doors that opened onto the sidewalk, up to the line of the roofs where night was settling.
He didn’t know the street. Deliberately he looked up at the building. Old shingles, wrinkled, unpainted; cockeyed windows open showing torn grey curtains, lop-eared geraniums in tin cans, cat’s tails, fat elbows, bald heads and women’s tongues—all at the windows.
“Tired! You hear—tired!”
He moved on, then turned and looked back at the odd bits of living in those windows there. Again on, down the street in the twilight, past two Chinese. They were talking. One was sitting on a chair, backward, his arms over the back of it, right there on the pavement on a kitchen chair. Slanted eyes followed as he walked by. The other was standing, sliding one hand back and forth through the air as he talked. In Chinese, fast, talked, talked.
He stopped, listening. In the coming darkness he quickly turned his head, listening, looking. All over he heard the drone of moving tongues. There, across the street, and by the post, and right behind on the steps two women in all-covering gowns with curlers in their short hair:
“Him? Why’ant yuh smack’im?”
“Did! He on’y laughed and did it more!”
He stared at them. He opened his mouth, but his words were only thoughts. They saw him and stared and stopped talking; and he turned and went on some more, hearing their voices start again.
Out of the dark in front of him a man came quickly, stopping, and said:
“Mac, say, gotta match?”
“Why sure.” He flicked his thumbnail across the head of the match and brought it up flaring to the stranger’s face. It was a family face, the face of a man with a wife and kids and house, a man with a lunch box, a rolled cigarette, a yen for beer, hurrying home.
“Thanks, Mac.” And the stx-anger hurried on.
Ahead, in something pink—a gown? a dress?—a woman at the top of three steps, in front of an open door. Not doing anything—sitting, not moving her head, her eyes still, listening, thinking.
And he stopped then, just this side of her. In the near dark he moved a little more forward; her head turned and her eyes traveled up to his face.
“Miss?” he said.
Because she smiled, he stopped. Her smile grew; she chuckled. She laughed. She slapped her thigh and roared. And in her laughter she turned her head to the open door behind her. “Alfred!” she bellowed. “Alfred!” She laughed more, looking up at him, and then her laughter slowly ended. Alfred did not come.
“Not in years, son,” she said, “I ain’t been called miss. So I laughed. Me, near fifty. Miss! Imagine !”
“I was looking for a place to stay?” he said.
“What you doin’ this way?”
“Stopping a bit.”
She nodded her head, looking up at him. “What you do?”
“Going to sea.”
She shook her head, turning it to the open door. “Alfred!” she bellowed. In reply, down the street a baby squawked. Again, “Alfred!”
She gave up, and said, “He’s lazy. Sleep, sleep.
Gets home from work all he does is eat, then sleep. And snore! Listen—”
From some place inside came snoring, loud, free and easy, contented.
“Hear that? That’s him— Alfred !” She stopped. “Got some money? Be four dollars, for the week.?
He held out four one-dollar bills. “Thanks, thanks very much.”
She got up: she drew in air, straightened out one leg, puslied with her hands on the top step, and came up standing on the bottom step. She blew out air, turned and walked up.
“It’s upstairs,” she said.
He followed this giant of a woman who laughed so loudly, so complacently.
There were no lights. Not all the way up two flights of stairs, no lights except under the door of one rooixx. Every step squeaked; the banisters wobbled. At the top, along the hall, she pushed a door open and stepped back.
“There!” she wheezed. “Get a bulb tomorrow for the light. You get to sleep in the dark now.; Go wan in. I’ll pull the door.”
He was left alone in the dark, hearing her footsteps going down the hall. They stopped, and then came back to the door. He waited. There came a pounding at the floor.
“Hey!” she called. “What’s yer name?”
“Okay, Smitty. I’m going back to stop a bit on the pox-ch.”
BLACK. It was all black as he looked about him. Only the window was a dull glowing white square from the street light down the road. He leaned across the metal bed, knelt with springs creaking, and opened the window. A streetcar rattled along crooked rails outside. For a moment he listened, watching the empty street, then shifted back into the sag in the bed.
Something leaped from under him, landed-—thud —on the floor, scurried away. Two eyes there, caught the glow from fixe window, glinted at him from the corner.
He scratched a match with his thumbnail and held it up.
The cat sat in the corner, in front of a pile of bedding, watching as Smitty came closer. It crouched and slunk away. He saw then on the blankets a child asleep. The match burnt his fingers and he dropped it.
In the light of another match he saw that the child’s eyes were open. A boy, not more than three or four, half-covered by the bedding, wearing only a shirt too big for him. The eyes inspected him gravely.
“ Hello, ” Smitty
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Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair
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said. “Hollo there, Joe. What’re you doing here?”
“I sleep here.” It was a very little voice and very matter-of-fact.
“Sure,” Smitty said. “Why don’t you sleep on the bed, Joey?”
“There’s room for both of us.” “Marty wouldn’t like it.”
“She won’t know.” He thought a minute. “You know, I’ve got something you could help me with. You do that?”
Out of his kitbag Smitty brought a cap, like they wore in the lumber camps. “Never could get the right slant on that,” he said. “Here. You try it.”
“Why, easy, mister.” The kid smacked it on the back of his head, flicked the visor up. It was way too big, but he wore it like an old-time strip boss. “See?”
“Yea, it looks good. I never could wear it. You keep it.”
Smitty picked him up then and put him on the end of the bed, tucking the blankets around the boy. He lay on the bed himself, his legs bent so his feet wouldn’t touch the child.
“Mister,” the boy asked, “where’s Freddie?”
Just then the cat bounded onto the bed beside the child, stretched and curled beside him, and his purring sounded loud and steadily beating.
“Here’s Freddie,” the boy said. “He sleeps with me.” Then, “Mister?” “Yes.”
“Good night, Joey,” Smitty said. “How did you know my name’s
“My name’s Looey.”
“Oh. Good night, Looey.”
“Say good night to Freddie, too.” “Is Freddie a boy or a girl?”
"A hoy, of course.”
“Of course. Good night, Freddie.” The cat did not answer but the boy said, “Good night, mister,” and the cat purred steadily, and then not so steadily, then stopped.
THE SUN wasn’t streaming in the window when Smitty woke up. It never shone in that window, and rarely it shone in that street. But the eyes of the little boy stared at him.
“1 woke up before you,” he said. “You did?” Smitty stretched, straightened his legs, and shifted his back in the lumpy hollow of the bed. “Yes. I have to go now.”
“Oh. Where do you go?”
“Marty wants me.”
The boy pushed aside his covers and sat on the edge of the bed, swinging his legs. His blue shirt did not quite reach his knees. He didn’t have any pants on. The hat Smitty had given him was askew on his head, completely covering one ear.
“1 have to go down,” he said.
Smitty pulled his boots on, and without hieing them stood up and hitc hed the boy onto his hip as he had seen old mothers do it.
He opened the door. FI ven in the morning the hall wasn’t very light. Smitty went slowly down both flights of narrow stairs, past closed doors, waiting for Looey to say where he belonged.
Right at the bottom of the stairs, just inside the doorway of the room, the girl stood. She was leaning casually against the door jamb. Looking at her,
Smitty stopped on the bottom step.
Her hair was straight, black, and down past her shoulders. Combed smooth, Smitty saw that, and he knew it was a rare girl who brushed her hair so shiny.
“I brought Looey down,” he said. “Does he belong to you?”
The way the girl stood there, her shirt screaming red, a man’s shirt, scarlet, her skirt black and long and full at the bottom, her waist so very narrow his two hands could have encircled it, her eyes inspecting Smitty and warming him, he could hardly breathe.
“Did he tell you his name was Looey?” Smooth, her voice was, but grave like the child’s, and somewhere there was a trace of laughter in it.
The child looked from the girl to Smitty, his eyes not blinking, then wiggled down and hounded past the girl into the room.
“That’s your cap he’s got on.” In a way her eyes seemed to accuse him. “It fits him better’n it does me.” “He likes you. He wouldn’t wear it if he didn’t.” She half put out her hand to touch his sleeve as she spoke.
Smitty did not know what to do, which way to look. He wanted tc watch those great dark eyes of hers Black, they seemed in that dark stairwell, inaccessible, haunting. This girl, beautiful, clad partly like a man, strangely lighted and warmed the broken ancient house. Even in the doorway she seemed to stand apart, the wild flower in the alleyway. She should have golden earrings.
Just then the cat brushed down past his leg and streaked after the boy. Smitty saw its tail had been chopped off short.
“There’s his tomcat,” he said.
“It’s a lady cat.”
“What do you call it?”
“Puss,” she said, “just Puss.” And then: “I forgot about David last
“He slept on the end of the bed with the Puss.”
“He likes to sleep there, when no one’s using the room.” Her voice told Smitty she did not know why the child liked to stay so far away and alone. It. told him she was proud of the hoy too. “But I did not know he was there last night. I’m sorry.”
The cat pushed its head out between her leg and the door, pulling and pushing its side back and forth across her ankle, purring.
“I like kittens better,” Smitty said. “Why?” She looked up at him. The light coming in from the open front door touched her face. Her cheekbones were high and daylight pointed the slight flush on them. He wanted to see the color of her eyes that watched him.
“Kittens,” he said, “little ones, to play with. But a cat—they make you think.”
“How old are you?” she asked. “Twenty-two.” He did not mind telling her. That was strange.
“Yes. Twenty-two.” She was talking. “And you like kittens.” He saw now that she was younger than he. “But everything has to grow older,” she said. She was half explaining it to him, half questioning him. “To grow up.”
She smiled at him, quickly. Then she blushed and was ashamed and was shy, but she kept her eyes on him.
Smitty stepped down the last step and saw he was half a head taller than she. He Wanted to touch her face with the back of his hand and wrist.
He said, “I have to go down to the docks now.”
“When will you be back?”
All at once the warmth she had given
him left. “I don’t know,” he said. He had to get out.
She said nothing and did not turn away. She smiled a little bit but he did not smile back. He went to the front door and down the steps and heard the voice of last night’s woman call, “Was that Smitty?” and laugh loudly and roar, “I want Alfred to see him.” “SMITTY!”
THAT night, when he got back, the girl was standing by the doorway. As he came up she put out her hand and took his and led him in. Her hand was small, and vaguely warming, and a little bit rough. He was strangely comforted by her hand and he wanted to hold on tight, but he could not.
There was no light in the first, room. She went ahead of him, still holding his hand, into the second room. She dropped his hand just as she entered the door.
In the rocking chair by the stove there,, in the same flowing gown she had on the night before, sat the woman. He could see the stains on the gown now. Snoring came from behind a curtained doorway hack of the stove.
“Alfred,” the woman slanted her head at the snores. “In bed.” She sniffed. She went on, “You like my girl, eh. You got her blushing.”
He started. Now he saw the color in the girl’s face.
“Sure,” the woman said, “She ain’t blushed like that for a long time. It’s good for the girl. It’s time she did.” She went on, “Down to the docks, eh? You got the job.” She didn’t wait. “Awwk! A sailor! Couldn’t make you out hut knew you wasn’t a sailor!”
He didn’t say anything. He liked the garrulous roaring of the old woman. It was warm and friendly, and with the girl there the feeling was heady. He wanted to stay in the small kitchen and absorb this warmth of stove and rocking chair and woman and girl.
“Now, scat!” she said, done with him. “It’s late. Get to bed. And mind be careful of my girl. She’s got claws. Lots of yer sailors knows so! Sailors! Ha!” She roared and lie fled.
“Alfred!” he heard her bellow as he went up the screeching stairs. “Come see the sailor, Alfred!” and she laughed. And he heard the girl say, “Hush!”
THERE WAS still no bulb dangling from the ceiling, but the brightness from the street light and the moon now flooded the room. He picked up his bag and took out a tin cup and a bottle. He went down the hall and from the sink at the head of the stairs half-filled the white cup. From the bottle he added more to the cup, and sat on the bed and sipped it, watching out the window.
Arrgh! burning stuff—he gritted his teeth as he swallowed. And from somewhere dim an ancestor called to him and he thought, I should not drink alone.
He rummaged in his bag again and brought out some dirty clothes, a pair of socks. By the moonlight and the street light at the window he threaded brown wool into a long needle and began to darn a big hole in the heel of one heavy grey sock, stopping every now and then to stare at the moon, listening, sipping at the enamel cup.
The moon was a luminous yellow slice riding on one of the chimney pots across the street. Slowly it. rose, disengaging itself from the chimney, and shining more brightly on the bed and the floor of the room.
Little David! He turned to the door. David was there, riding on the hip of the girl, just as he had carried him that morning. The tail of his blue rag
shirt fell over her arm that held the boy to her. He couldn’t see her face, but the edge of the moonlight caught the swinging feet of the child and showed the bare white legs of the girl.
“David,” she said. “He wants to sleep here. You don’t mind?” And, “He’s my brother.”
Smitty smiled. Funny, he thought, there was no sound. I didn’t hear the stairs, or the door.
“I wondered where he was,” he said. “I thought he’d be here. I wondered where he was.”
His voice trailed into silence as David jumped free of his sister and swooped up a blanket from the corner and came to the end of the bed. He stopped there. He stared at him, his eyes big and grave. And then he hopped onto the end of the bed, tugging the blanket over his shirttail as he curled up.
Yummph! and the cat was on the end of the bed nosing under the boy’s arm, purring.
“Mister,” David told him, “say good night to Jamey.”
“Jamey it is, eh? Good night, Jamey. Night, David.”
“Good night, mister. Jamey says so too.”
Smitty looked at the girl as she silently came closer and saw that her feet were bare. She held out something to him.
“Marty said to bring this to you,” she said. He could smell the beans and the pepper in the bowl she held out. He did not like to reach hungrily for them.
“Marty?” he asked. “Who’s that?” “That’s mother.”
“Oh.” Smitty took the bowl. She gave him a spoon.
He said thanks, watching her pick up the sock and the darning needle. She leaned over, brushing little David’s hair with her mouth, and then sat up on the end of the bed, her legs together under her, and with the moonlight over her shoulder she worked at the hole in the sock. She didn’t say anything about the sock being grey and the wool brown.
“You don’t eat enough,” she said.
He didn’t answer.
“When did you eat last?”
He laughed. “These are good. Will you have some?”
“No!” She was short with him. “I’ve eaten.” And she added, “Three times today.” She worked at the sock. “You got a job,” she told him.
“How did you know?”
“Marty said so.”
“How did she know?”
“She could tell, I guess. I could too. I could tell.”
“Yes,” he said, and he wondered about this girl whose eyes he still could not see. He wondered a little about the way she thought and why she stayed to talk to him and mend his socks. Watching the quickly pulled and pushed needle he wondered.
From downstairs, distantly, a man called, “Anne! Come on!” And then, “Anne? Where are you?”
On the foot of the bed the girl started, lifted her head and listened, and then sewed again hurriedly. “Anne?” he said.
She did not answer.
“Who’s that?” he asked.
“A boy I know,” She paused. “We were going to the show.”
She should go, he thought. I should tell her to go. And he said, “He’ll come up.”
“No. Marty will stop him. Marty will send him away.” And, “Marty knows.”
She stopped, and looked up at him in the dark, trying to see him, and a smile traced itself across her face and into her eyes, and her teeth showed white and bright. Then she bent her head over her sewing, and the smile stayed warm on her face, and the moonlight touched it.
“When do you go, Smitty?” “Tomorrow.”
“What kind of job?”
He said, “I don’t think it matters —the job, when I go. The only thing that matters, I’ll be back.” He was smiling and watching her face and the moonlight there still held her own smile.
They sat there in the magic pathway of the moon with little David between them.
He said, “How old are you?” “Seventeen.”
“Not very old.”
She faced him. “I am!”
“But very wise.”
“No.” She said it softly, dropping her eyes. And then, “Smitty, where do you come from?”
“The West, the North—all over.” “All the time alone?”
He did not answer. He wondered why himself.
. “Your mother?” she said. “And your girl?”
“No. I don’t know.”
“You’re lonely,” she said it flatly.
He laughed. “Sometimes.” he said, and because he was touched he spoke flippantly. “I always have enough for a drink and a cigarette and usually a meal. Friends are easy found. And I have two good hands and a head. Plenty for what I want.”
“What do you want?”
“To go home.”
And at the way he said it she looked up in wonder, but his eyes saw something far away and not her. She did not interrupt his long look, but slowly his eyes came back and looked at her. and she said, “Where’s home?”
“I don’t know. Yes, I do.” And he said, “Somewhere, with a girl.” “Who?”
“I don’t know.” He was looking at her, not talking to himself, and his eyes were probing hers. “A girl,” he said.
“Yes,” she said gently.
He got up quickly then and walked to the door. As quickly he turned and came back. He reached for her hand and pulled her up beside him. He turned her around and taking her long black hair in both his hands he pushed his fingers down through it. It was very long. It was soft and there was a strength in it that flowed through his fingers. He turned her toward himself.
He held in his hand two earrings, big circles of gold. He got them from one of the sailors when he got the job. Heavy bands of gold they were, from some distant shore, from the ears of a black-haired, dark-eyed foreign beauty. He had got them for this girl.
She gasped and laughed, fastening them in her ears.
She spun then on her toes, in front of him, the earrings trembling; she came to a stop standing tiptoe facing him. Her arms were back and he saw the moonlight glint on those golden earrings and on her white teeth. It shone in her eyes but he still could not tell their color.
“Your eyes,” he said. “What color?” “Look,” she said. “Tell me.”
Her eyes were dancing light, her teeth parted, her smile wide. His hands touched her shoulders, coming together behind her neck, pushing up in her hair. The Puss by young David purred, and it was as if Anne purred too. it