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Song of the Orphan Girl 

Amaryllis Kornfeld meets the Westside kids

Wednesday, Dec 12 2001
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Illustration by Shino Arihara

THE TIME HAS COME TO SPEAK OF Amaryllis, age 11, toffee-colored, ravenous, rapturous nail-biter, leonine head of hair, self-taught and more than capable of reading the entire Los Angeles Times in a two-and-a-half-hour go; who keeps a cigar box, its thin trapdoor-mouth shut by straight pins, filled with favorite clippings; whose tiny breasts, beneath vintage tatterdemalion Natalie Imbruglia sweatshirt, are discolored by burns and scarified by cutting; whose thighs and buttocks are blistered by a shiny field of keloids: all this, one way or another, courtesy of her mother, Geri, who not so long ago stopped being 33. Dark-skinned, ash-blond and ashen, she lies with broken larynx on the mattress, having hemorrhaged into the strap muscles of her neck, with attendant fracture of the greater cornu of the left hyoid bone. So the coroner's report later said.

Amaryllis sits at Geri's bedside (not too close) four or five times a day. She peers at the body, looks away, then back; away -- listening to the Muzak of everyday life, the shouts, coughs, thumps, canned TV laughs -- then back, watching a whirligig of light and shadow on her mother's sparkless face, torso propped awkwardly in death almost a week now. A knotted sheet loops under chin, and the corpse endures the prop with dignity, like a vaudevillian undergoing a zany toothache cure. Staring thus, Amaryllis is sometimes unsure of what she sees, as when finding a word in the paper she cannot decipher. Young siblings sleep in kitchen on flattened cardboard while she sprays 409 around the body, already draped in extra sheets and anchored by pillows to stanch the smell.

Friday, when Amaryllis first discovered her, she knew something irrevocable had happened. Yet if she called 911 or brought someone to look and it turned out Geri was only sleeping, she would dearly pay. So the girl sat and stared instead, thinking: If she doesn't wake up for my birthday, she's really dead. The time for commemoration came and went.

When she tired of Geri's bedside and the babies were napping or settled, Amaryllis sorted through her treasured "classifieds" -- the cigar box of pages torn from yellowing newsprint and magazines. There was a sheaf about the child-goddesses of Nepal that told of a Special Council of Selectors, who went from village to village looking for little girls. If the parents agreed, the child was plucked from the family house and put in a palace. Her face was painted and her body adorned with golden robes and she was then called the Royal Kumari. The Royal Kumari was allowed out only during holy festivals. The Royal Kumari couldn't play with other children, because if she cut herself, her godly powers seeped away with the blood. Amaryllis thought she would like to be chosen, but when she read that the Special Selectors wanted a child with unblemished skin, she cried. They would probably want the girl to be virginal, too.

She kept her very favorite at the bottom of the pile: the dossier on Sister Benedicta, formerly known as Edith Stein, a "Jewish" who converted to Catholicism and was killed at a place called Auschwitz. The article said that Edith Stein was on a "fast track" to sainthood. When she first read about her, Amaryllis didn't understand. For one thing, she didn't even know saints came from people; she thought they came from angels or myths. When she read about this mere girl, this Jewish who the pope wanted to canonize -- which, to Amaryllis, meant shot into sainthood -- whole worlds opened up. The orphan was smart enough to know there wasn't such a thing as a Jew saint (her mom had told her), so when she learned Edith was "eligible," it was confusing. But then she grew hopeful; she wanted in. If a Jewish who died not so long ago -- a girl -- could officially become a saint, why not Amaryllis Kornfeld, a half-Jewish herself? Was not the name of their very motel -- corner of Fourth and Los Angeles -- the St. George? Was this not a sign and a wonder?

She stared at the picture of the Blessed Edith Stein, dark and sad, her long, handsome face framed by a halftone wimple. She'd been beatified a few years before Amaryllis was born, on the basis of the 1987 case of the daughter of a pastor, who overdosed on Tylenol samples she'd thought were candy. When she awakened from her coma, her Jew doctor was summoned to the Vatican to be interrogated by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. He said he didn't believe in miracles and that in his heart he had never expected her to recover. Amaryllis thought that wishing patients the worst was maybe the way of Jew doctors. Before going out, the novitiate knelt by her mother, a demon who had sold her for drugs and held her down to be raped and burned by a tubercular woman. Amaryllis shut her nose to the putrescence and closed her eyes. If she couldn't make her mother rise, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints could at least come and see that the babies were well cared for; under her hand they had bloomed, with defiant unruly innocence, like succulents in hell.

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