by Earl Shorris
The woman sat hunched over a metal and wood veneer table in the intake
section of the clinic. It was the beginning of winter in New York, the
season of darkening days and influenza.
She wore two knit caps, one atop the other, both of them pulled down over
her temples. Her body was thin, curled like a bent wire inside her pale,
almost white raincoat. She wore the coat buttoned to her chin and belted
tightly at the waist, even though she was indoors in a heated room. Her
name was Silveria, which means of the woods, like a wildflower.
In profile, she appeared to be drawn down, curled over her woes. All the
forms of her were curled in the same way, as if she had been painted by
an artist overly concerned with repetitions. Even her hands were curled,
half-closed, resting tensely upon the table.
The girls, her daughters, were also bent over the table. They had not
curled up like their mother, but their eyes were downcast, and their elegant,
equine faces were impassive. The mother and the girls sat alone, shut
off from the rest of the room. The psychologist in charge of the session
whispered that they lived in a shelter for battered women and they were
During the intake session the woman and her daughters said little. They
filled out the forms provided to them by the psychologist. The mother
did not remove her coat or her caps.
The faces of the girls remained stony, a practiced gray.
When some workmen came to repair a wall in the intake room, the session
was moved into another, smaller room. The mother, who had curled up in
the new place to fill out the intake forms, wanted to know the meaning
of a word as it was used in one of the questions and how it could apply
to a persons mental state.
I responded as best I could. She accepted the answer and went on filling
out the form. The girls finished their forms first, and sat still and
silent in their chairs, gray stone horses. I asked one of the girls if
she went to school.
She said she was a high school student, but that she was not happy in
Are you a good student?
Yes, I get only A's.
And what is your favorite subject?
I like to read books.
Do you have a favorite author? I asked
Yes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
We began to talk about Garcia Marquez, about this story and that. About
One Hundred Years of Solitude, which we spoke of as Cien Anos
de Soledad. In a matter of moments, the two girls and I were in deep
discussion about our favorite Latin American writers. Then the mother
Neruda, the girls said. The mother reminded us of the value
of the Cuban, Carpentier. Did I know that it was Carpentier who had first
written of a rain of
butterflies? I asked if they knew the Dominican poet, Chiqui Vicioso.
We talked about the Mexicans: Carlos Fuentes and Sor Juana.Octavio Paz
was still too difficult for the girls. They were interested in Elena Poniatowska,
but they had not read her. They did not like Isabel Allende very much.
The mother uncurled, opening like a fern. The equine girls laughed. They
told their favorite stories from literature, they talked about the Cuban
movies made from the Garcia Marquez stories: The Handsomest Drowned
Man in the World, Innocent Erendira, A Very Old Gentleman with Some Enormous
Soon, the young psychologist joined in. One of the girls recited a poem
she had written. Everyone in the room listened. The mother told a joke,
pausing twice in the middle to cough. A Puerto Rican woman on the other
side of the small room told the names of her favorite stories. Before
long, the curled-up woman and her equine daughters and all the other people
in the room, including the psychologist and the writer, had created a
public world. The room of depression became a community of equals.
The battered woman, who had no work, no place to call home but a secret
shelter far from any place she had ever known, shared in the power of
the public place. She removed her caps and let her hair fall loose, and
when she smiled everyone could see that she was the source of the elegance
of her daughters.
Reprinted from New American Blues by Earl Shorris., a contributing
editor at Harpers, the author of Riches for the Poor,
and the founder of the Clemente Course, an international program that
provides an education in the humanities to the economically and socially
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