Skin by Alexandra Viets
Ah, Maman! There are your alligator and crocodile shoes, lined up outside the wardrobe.
Once in a while, when my mother was in the mood, she showed me the difference in skins, running her expert finger over the striations of black and brown, streaks of zigzagging pattern and the tiny squares of leathery crocodile and alligator skins on her shoes. Skins that must have come by the truckload, tough hides carved away from the bodies of India’s river reptiles.
Anytime of day, I could peer through my pink curtains in our New Delhi house and see my mother’s crocodile and alligator shoes, placed on the concrete floor next to her wardrobe. Lying in my bed, I spent hours in this pursuit, bathed by the bright sunlight that flooded the hallway and filtered through my curtains. I wondered if this was the way crocodiles bathed.
On more occasions than I can count, my mother took me to the cramped and airless crocodile shop deep inside New Delhi’s Khan Market where the shoes originated and where a Mr. Farid, the shop’s jaunty young shoemaker, was an alligator and crocodile expert.
‘Ferra-ga-mo,’ my mother would say slowly and with emphasis to Mr. Farid, showing him a photograph from the NYT or the latest Italian fashion magazine.
‘Sal-Va-Tore FerraGamo,’ she would repeat again with a perfect Italian accent. Then Mr. Farid would study the photo closely, eyes boring in, fingers moving deftly in the air as if to show my mother he could mimic the shoe’s elegant structure in his mind.
‘Madam…’ he would concede as he finished his mental drawing, nodding generously to my beautiful mother, whose presence in the shop always caused something of a stir. Like clockwork, a young boy would appear out of nowhere with a tray of steaming chai and offer one to my mother. Dressed in one of her freshly ironed salwar kameez, my mother wore large black sunglasses, pushed back to hold her auburn hair.
‘Madam must bring her friends also,’ Mr. Farid would skillfully encourage at just the right moment with a wave of his head.
During these sessions, I sat at the back of Mr. Farid’s shop in what must have been the only chair. It was made of a heavy wood, mahogany perhaps, a seat of wicker that sunk precipitously low in the middle from years of wear. The shop had a large black fan on the counter and was rank with the smell of glue and raw leather. Once or twice I saw an elderly man pressed into a corner of the wall as he knelt for prayer.
In my chair, to pass the time, I watched shafts of light from the shuttered window illuminate specs of dust that rose from the floor like armies, as the fan made its slow but steady rotation. A metallic creak signaled the return journey as the fan gradually pointed its breeze to where I was sitting. Then I stared at the large slabs of tawny coloured leather piled in the corner, raw hide on one side and reptile skin on the other.
It seemed to me I sat for hours, watching the dust rise and fall, sitting so long that the chair patterns eventually imprinted themselves on the flesh of my thighs, leaving small reddish marks of repeating octagonal shapes that I could still see when I returned home. Only occasionally would my mother glance back at me, her face flush with pleasure as she held up a piece of alligator or crocodile, the skins taut and gleaming, a swatch of blackish-brown with a psychedelic reptile design, as shiny as if they had been recently polished by Mr. Farid himself.
More than once, when I ventured to ask where the crocodiles for her shoes came from, my mother rolled her eyes and shrugged nonchalantly, as if crocodiles or alligators were hardly a concern. There were farms, she said. She had even seen one in Mahabalipuram. Crocodile attacks of villagers in India were rampant, she added, I had only to open the newspaper to read about it.
Seeing my quiet dismay, she would cry out, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re only crocodiles!’ Then, to make a point, she would wave her hand in front of her nose, ‘and what about that chicken of yours’, reminding me of my love affair with a baby chick I hatched from an incubator, keeping it in my room until the stench became so unbearable that the (then) large chicken was dispatched to a ‘farm’.
My mother also recalled the many afternoons I spent creating a homeless shelter for a group of stray dogs at a nearby construction site, an activity which had ended badly, being bitten and suffering through a series of rabies shots in my stomach. Then my mother lifted back her head in mock exhaustion and signaled to the pile of skins lying across Mr. Farid’s counter, as if, at the least, all this exposure to reptiles might toughen me up.
After what seemed like hours in the crocodile shop, my mother would grab my hand and out we would go into the sun-soaked smells of the street; air drenched with the sweetly-sour scent of rotting food, the faint but unmistakable mix of faeces from the drains and nullahs along the way and frying onions. As I turned to try and find the origin of the onions, I could not. It was lunch, being prepared in a tiny room above us, on a street corner, in a cart – somewhere nearby.
Effusiveness came when the crocodile shoes were delivered a few weeks later in a wonderfully elaborate package and placed outside the wardrobe, ready for my mother to wear. As I peered out at her through my pink curtains, she beckoned for me to come and see.
‘Look!’ she cried out, as she lifted a bare leg with a crocodile shoe at the end, tossing her head of hair and ‘modeling’ for me, parading down the hallway. ‘This is haute couture! Yves St. Laurent, Salvatore Ferragamo.’
How could I not be intoxicated by this mother? Yet, part of me yearned for a mother who was accent-less and American, a mother who knew about things like peanut-butter sandwiches. A mother with a family in Ohio or Minnesota who would send nice packages to the grandchildren.
‘This is what the women of Paris and Rome are wearing,’ she exclaimed, puckering her lips. ‘Just look in the magazines!’ she shouted happily, coming closer to make sure I heard through the glass window that separated my bedroom from the hallway where she stood.
Perhaps it was then, as she turned away, lost in the reverie of her new shoes, that I began to understand a little how my mother was in pursuit of the unparalleled beauty she saw reflected in those magazines, as if she were herself reaching into the darkness of that shoe shop and like the shoemaker, hammering and cutting and pasting onto herself an image of glamour and happiness, the same way Mr. Farid was constructing her crocodile shoes.
If there was any further hint about the role of shoes in her life, that came years later when my mother’s feet began to hurt and the language of illness hinted at meanings far beyond a sore heel or a bunion rubbing against the instep of a shoe. Her feet required soaks and salt baths, lotions that promised to take away foot soreness, stockings to shore up painful veins and to decrease swelling. More and more, her legs needed to be propped up, as if gravity itself, the immense weight of life, were pulling her down. Her feet and legs became the subject of much discussion; they were worried over, tended to, her bunions filed down aggressively with an emery board, as if her feet and its offshoots contained bundles of memory that were pushing outwards. Her feet elicited acute sighs of pain, sometimes searing, which seemed, at the time, disproportional to any obvious cause.
Yet all too soon, within the next decade of my life, when I was in my twenties, the elegant alligator and crocodile shoes had suddenly become something of the past. Relics, they were relegated to the back of her wardrobe, deemed no longer useable. My mother, a Cinderella searching for her glass slipper in the shop of Mr. Farida, found that the shoe and its accompanying story of transformation was no longer a fit as the war began to seep through her body in ways that could not be contained. When I asked after the shoes, my mother shrugged, as if she had forgotten and could not understand my persistence in asking.
Over the years, thinking back, there may have been reference to a ‘walk,’ or a ‘march,’ those words said in a certain way, a different tone, the way I had often heard phrases and fragments, a lexicon that slipped out unseen, a vocabulary I had collected, stored away, and puzzled over, but if there was, I had now long forgotten. In the years of my mother’s decline from cancer, I had tended to her legs, washing and wrapping the black cancerous wounds that had sprung from her body like a fourteenth century plague, unimaginable to me and to her. Oh, how far away the days of Mr. Farid’s Crocodile shop seemed! The mother who had insisted on having her feet adorned in nothing less than haute couture, hand-made shoes from samples of Ferragamo and Bally, now could only wear the softest canvas shoes, Mary Jane’s, shoes that barely pressed against her tender skin.
This ritual bathing took place in the back rooms of a Bed and Breakfast in Virginia, where my mother was living during a renovation that was being done on our house. It was to be yet another holding spot in a lifetime of temporary homes. There was my mother, perched on the hills of the Virginia countryside, a place to which she had no real affiliation but absorbed, breathing in its history and landscape, with the same fierce determination that she had become accustomed to doing her entire life.
Mike, a young black man from the nearby town, became my mother’s close friend during this period and her way forward. A local hire, Mike came regularly to cut the grass and clean the pool for the owner of the B&B. Mike was as tall and strong as my mother was now frail. Over the first few weeks, my mother began to talk endlessly about Mike, his family, his struggles to get his high school diploma, the history that Mike represented– a history of overcoming slavery in a nearby town where a settlement of tiny slave houses still existed less than a mile away. My mother threw herself into Mike’s past and present, gaining strength from his stories, taking him on as a student, suggesting material to read, plying him with clippings from the newspaper, finding courses for him to take. She regaled Mike with stories of her travels and her refugee past like Scheherazade, the stories masking and transforming the reality at hand. They spent hours together, my mother and Mike, their shadows crossing in the garden under the hot sun, these two great bodies of history comingling as my mother let Mike gather her in his arms when she became tired and take her back into the shade.
‘Man,’ Mike would say to me, shaking his head in amazement.
Later on, they shared meals together, Mike bringing home-cooked food for my mother to taste and music to listen to. A few times he bundled her into the front seat of his car, taking extreme care, as if she were a broken bird, and driving her a few miles down the road to see where he had come from and to meet some of his family. I remember seeing my mother’s hand on one of these trips, the once beautiful almond hand, now thin and spindly, grasping the window frame as she gingerly eased herself into the car seat. It occurred to me more than once how ironic it would be if Mike knew more about my mother’s life than any of us. Yet, the intimate friendship forged that spring was an echo of encounters with outsiders that had come before; the Polish Count in Tanzania, Abdul Haq, the jeweler in India, Cornelia Boursan, the obstetrician in Romania. It was as if these people were a protected landmass, a horizon shimmering in the distance. As if she recognised qualities in each of them that allowed her to reveal something of herself. It was a reaching out and roping in of solitude followed by something that was deeply human and regenerative, an exchange that had survival as its guide.
As I watched my mother with Mike, I sometimes wondered if I was seeing glimpses of Maria Przytula, the young Polish girl before the war, the girl with carrot-colored hair whose youth had been eviscerated by the events of 1939. I wondered if childhood was seeping in. For in these bracketed moments with Mike, there was an undeniable shift in posture, a release from the tightly calibrated grip of the past, as if the molecules of air had regrouped. Maybe in the face of life-threatening illness, my mother allowed herself the luxury of an abandon that was unashamedly girlish.
I wondered, too, how much Mike understood that this tremendous outpouring of emotion and experience expressed on his behalf was one of my mother’s final works, an effort to instill her life experience in him, to affect him, and ultimately to transport him.
Through those months, we tried to ignore the sores, we talked over them, covering them with soft cloths and in the warm, spring-almost-summer air, it seemed possible to do. The Polonia trees were about to bloom, there were frogs starting to croak in the ponds and the weeping willows were unfurling, bending down alongside the windows. And here, in the back of this B&B, where sometimes people arrived to stay and sometimes they didn’t, my mother fought her cancer. Buckets of warm water as I sponged, gently, water filled with ointments and oils, trying to ease her sores and cracking skin, skin that had become like the crocodile and alligator hides she once coveted. Several times a week, an ambulance from the local hospital would arrive at the back door and I would climb in after my mother, the two of us together, as the vehicle hurtled down the road towards radiation treatments.
Alexandra Anastasia Viets is a writer/screenwriter and journalist whose work focuses on women and dislocation. Her first feature-length screenplay, Cotton Mary, was produced by Merchant Ivory. Her most recent screenplay is an adaptation of the award-winning novel, “Ask Me No Questions,” about a Bangladeshi family fleeing NYC post 9/11. Awarded a fellowship by the National Endowment for Humanities in South Asian history and art, she has taught creative writing workshops in India and the Middle East, focusing on personal biography. She is currently working on a memoir entitled, Maryna, After the War, about her mother’s role in the Polish Underground Army.