I knew from earliest childhood that the world was a dangerous place, even though circumstances and my parents collaborated to shield me from that knowledge.
The walls of my nursery were painted to a rough finish, covered in a pink-tinged stucco that caught the sunlight pouring in from tall windows and transmuted it into a delicate filtered glow. My bed, snug against the left-hand wall, had a pink painted headboard with fuzzy lambs and bunnies frolicking in the center. In the next room, within earshot of a squeal, my Yugoslav nanny, Vera, slept among pale-blue furniture, guardian of the bathroom and the toy cupboard, an open door between us.
Nonetheless, from a young age I was convinced that monsters lurked under my bed at night, and that only by hugging the wall with my back to the room, my cheek and small body pressed up against the wall’s rough cold, could I be safe.
Moreover it never occurred to me to discuss this with anyone. These were my monsters, and I had devised a way to keep them at bay. It was somehow clear to me, although I never articulated it even to myself, that my mother had many more fears than I, and that if I once opened the door to hers by telling her mine, my perfect world might permanently become a dark and fearsome place.
Like all children, I accepted the family and circumstances that encompassed my childhood without wonder or question. An only child for close to five years, I thrived on the love and undivided attention of my parents, my grandmother with whom we lived, and my maiden aunt Helen, whose rooms adjoined the nursery wing which was home base for Vera and me. Although I was not aware of being lonely for companionship my own age, I created an imaginary friend I could see from my bedroom window way across the garden, a delicate child’s face that never emerged out of shadow, peering through the dust of a distant window, as eager to establish contact as I was in my palatial home filled with the mysterious lives of many adults. I kept her very much to myself, and often spent time gazing at her from the terrace outside my bedroom, my mind filled with the life I imagined she led and the conversations I imagined us having.
The days of my early childhood seem pillowed in an abundance of time luminous with sunshine, time that nourished my consciousness with silence that was never silent, where birdsong and the hum of insects filled my senses and the grass winked white butterflies at the sky. In the garden that surrounded the majestic house that was home to me, I bent small legs to come even closer to the intricate maneuverings of ants and beetles finding their way among a forest of grasses. While Vera sat nearby, I wove tiny pink and white daisies that peppered the stubbly grass into patterns on the seat of a garden chair, near a trellised archway. That archway was like a secret cave, its sides thick with twigs and lush green leaves, smelling richly of humidity and earth. Fat, lazy bees buzzed and lumbered among flowers in dusty terra-cotta pots lining the gravel walkways.
Once, a black snake weaving its slithery way behind the pots caused grave consternation. The head gardener, his grubby white robe flapping as he ran, summoned the two chauffeurs from their somnolent stupor on chairs in front of the garage. His guttural alarm galvanized them, and suddenly there was a cacophony of voices, sticks beating a dull music on the baked earth pots, and finally, a shout of triumph as someone held up an incredibly long, ominous, flailing serpent. I, the small girl of the house, watched in horror, and was never to lose my fear of snakes. The black snake’s skin hung for a long time on a nail in the garage. I averted my eyes whenever I ran past, and gave the flowerpots lining the walkways a very wide berth. The pots, I now knew, hid danger, despite the bold allure of their brilliant flowers. The snake, invisible, unknown, unimagined, had nonetheless been in my paradise all along.
Excerpted from Sipping from the Nile © Copyright 2012 by Jean Naggar. Reprinted with permission by AmazonEncore. All rights reserved.
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