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Song of the Orphan Girl

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.

She closed the door behind her and made sure the Korean busybody manager wasn't in the hall. She stooped to stuff paper under the door, damming the fumes. Her heart swelled as she left the St. George, soaking in the light. She clung to the rosary of words People magazine said had been so dear to the Blessed Edith Stein: Secretum meum mihi.

This is my secret.

AMARYLLIS SET OUT FOR THE BRIDGE. ON Grand Avenue, trucks and trailers lined the curb. Pedestrians gathered in curious clumps to watch, but there was nothing to see, at least so it seemed. Amaryllis slowed, wending her way toward the blaze of lights that came from the desiccated lobby of the Coronation, one of the bigger SROs. A distant shout of "Quiet!" and a baffled roundelay followed, each voice handing off to the next, all coming closer, some electronically enhanced -- "Quiet!" Then another cavalcade. But instead of "Quiet!" this time they yelled, "Speed!" A girl with purple hair and a ring through her nose like a bull glared fiercely at Amaryllis, gesturing her to be silent. She froze. A voice crackled over a radio: "We! Are! Rolling!" Then, the final chorus: "Rolling! -- Rolling! -- Rolling!" The little girl quaked, waiting for a bomb to go off, certain that's what was happening. Under her breath, she beseeched: Benedicta Benedicta Benedicta . . . and the world stood still. She prayed that if she died then and there, an angel's emissary would get to the babies and keep them from harm. She even wondered what a person who'd been blown to bits looked like in heaven. Then, the crackling voice tore into her reverie: "And . . . cut!"

The woman with the bull ring echoed, with great purpose but to no one in particular, "Cut!" -- then turned on her heel, leaving Amaryllis to fend for herself.

There was much coming and going and people laughing, and she was certain the bomb had been defused. The blinding lights still shone in the window, and she made her way toward them. As she threaded the crowd, it was as if she were invisible. She passed a bum, who smoked and wore sunglasses. He rested a hand on his leg in regal fashion and guffawed, phlegmy and herniated, while a smiling, serious boy with headphones handed him a Styrofoam cup of coffee.

"All right!" someone yelled. "Here we go! Last looks!"

When Amaryllis got very close to the Coronation lobby lights, she hid behind a truck and watched a strange scene: A beautiful girl of about 13 sat on an upturned wooden crate, hair brushed and combed by two bizarre-looking women with beehives and tattoos. The beautiful girl chattered with someone the orphan couldn't readily see. Then a man came along to powder her face while another smoothed the pleats of her dress and primped a collar. It seemed to Amaryllis everyone around the beautiful girl was polite and reserved and happy and the beautiful girl had made them so -- just as she imagined life among the entourage of the Royal Kumari. Then she saw with whom the girl was gossiping: two friends sitting opposite on a shared milk crate, only theirs was horizontal to make them closer to the ground than she who was illuminated. Her companions were a boy and girl, both fair, red and pretty, and the girl's braids dangled so they nearly touched the grotty, gum-flattened sidewalk.

"Is that part of the movie?" asked the boy of the beautiful girl.

"Is what?" she said.

"The snot." He pointed to her nose. "Are you supposed to have snot?"

The beautiful girl grew serious as finger flew to nostril; then she looked at the boy with narrowed, beady eyes, and he laughed. "I hate you, Tull! I hate you!" she said, but she wasn't really mad, and the man powdering her backed off to fetch a Kleenex, which he then applied to the beautiful girl's upper lip until she seized it, completing the job herself. The other adults continued to brush and fluff and straighten and comb -- the finishing touches of merry, manic elves.

"Qui -- et!" came an anonymous voice.

And another: "Quiet, everyone!"

"First team!"

More scurrying. More commands, and the adjusting of machines.

"And . . . roll sound!"

"We -- are -- speeding!"

"Roll camera!"

"Rolling."

"And . . . We! Are! Rolling!"

The voices made their way to the outer reaches, where Amaryllis had stood in frozen repose only minutes before. Within an instant, the beautiful girl had stopped laughing and risen from the crate, which was neatly whisked away; her helpers lingered like bees reluctant to leave a flower. A gangly man stood by, listening to someone through headphones while holding a long pole, the end of which wobbled over the beautiful girl as she smoothed her own skirt. Then, a sudden, perfect silence. A man with long, stringy hair said: "Action, Boulder!"

At which the beautiful girl took a deep breath before walking determinedly toward the lobby door. A short muscleman type followed her with a camera strapped to a thick belt on some sort of hinged pivot; he was trailed by the man with stringy hair and then by the other man, gangly and serious-looking, the long pole held high over his head, along with assiduous minions who crouched and slinked noiselessly beside the beefy one with the pivoting camera, some holding aloft cables in his wake as if attending a rubbery bridal train -- but the actress's entrance to the hotel was blocked by the bum Amaryllis had seen earlier. This time his dark glasses were gone. He carried a bottle of brown-bagged wine instead of a Styrofoam cup.

"Out of my way!" she shouted.

"Your way!" said the bum, hissing. "You've always had it your way, haven't you, Missy?"

"I'm looking for my mother!"

More stumblebums appeared.

"Hear her, boys? She's looking for Mother!"

They cackled and howled, rolling over the word in their mouths like pirates molesting a treasure chest.

In the midst of all this, the redheaded boy on the crate caught Amaryllis' eye. She grimaced and later regretted not softening her features when he smiled. As if aware of her discomfort, he turned back to the scene at hand. The beautiful girl vigorously pushed aside the lead bum, then stormed into the SRO. Apparently, this was the funniest thing in the world, because the bums let loose with an explosion of rollicking huzzahs; the man with the stringy hair watched like a giddy child at a puppet show, then yelled, "And . . . cut it!" They repeated the exact same sequence at least five times, the spaces between "Cut!" and "Action!" filled with a kind of wild yet militarily controlled commotion.

Finally, the stringy-haired one spoke animatedly to the sweat-soaked muscleman, who tried to listen but was mostly interested in the progress of those unburdening him of the camera, which they finally did, lifting it off like the saddle of a tired and finicky mule. A voice called out, "Checking the gate!" while the gangly man peered into the lens. Then someone said, "Gate is clear!" and there were bursts of laughter all around. A familiar chorus of voices called, "Lunch!" in the same staticky, concentric, fading circles. The girl with the long braids leapt up to join her beautiful friend, already set upon by the bees or elves or what have you, each of whom seemed to have bottomless pockets filled with small, significant items for every possible need. The redheaded boy -- more orange-headed, really -- turned again to catch Amaryllis' eye before she walked slowly backward, fading into the general disorder.

TULL, LUCY AND BOULDER WERE ESCORTED to Edward's MSV by the second assistant director.

The Mauck Special Vehicle was built in Ohio with Edward's needs in mind, at a cost of $275,000. Its gull-wing front doors rose up with frank, freakish efficiency. Within, calfskin recliners sat upon a walnut Hokanson carpet, telephones graced Corian countertops, and a huge flat-screen panel downloaded DirecTV from a rooftop dish. Concealed abaft was a state-of-the-art hydraulic docking berth for Edward's golf cart -- he could drive right in.

Lunch awaited the guests as they clambered aboard the orchid-filled cabin. Edward was already enthroned in his custom Donghia captain's chair watching soundless CNN, a vast linen nappie tucked between chin and brace. He wore his gloves and "Mauck mask," a lounge-around hood made of festive yellow silk lightly embroidered by his own hand. He sipped leek-and-potato soup with sautéed langoustines and black truffles, FedExed frozen from Lespinasse's 55th Street kitchen, while trays brought by craft-services sprites stood on individual teak stands in readiness; under straining cellophane, industrial-strength paper plates were heaped with standard Friday film-set fare -- barbecued chicken, biscuits and beans, blackened swordfish and black-eyed peas, yams and limp salads smeared with yogurty dressing, happy fruit and less happy cottage cheese. Still another tray was filled solely with desserts: Joyce's precious lemon tarts from Ladurée (Edward had swiped them from the Stradella freezer), Häagen-Dazs'd brownies, American apple pie and Everyman's peach cobbler. All in all, not too bad a spread. In his wisdom, the ever cordial host had adorned place mats with tiny brown La Maison du Chocolat hatboxes from Neiman's, each one tied with their distinctive satiny, dark-brown ribbons.

"Oh my God!" said Boulder as she bounded in, wide-eyed at the cornucopia. "Edward, you are amazing."

"I was going to bring food from home, but for some reason it didn't happen."

"It happened for you," said Tull, raising a gentle eyebrow at his cousin's non-communal meal -- minimalist though it was.

"It's just soup." He brought a spoonful to his tiny mouth then wiped a trickle from the titanium, patting down the protuberant chin with the bib. Tull thought the veil made him look like a deranged harem girl.

"And who's that for?" asked Lucy. She referred to a tray that sat by itself, with food maturely arranged.

"Mr. Hookstratten."

"He's coming?" called Boulder with a full mouth, cross-legged on the Hokanson. "Doesn't he teach today?"

"He's tutoring Dad," said Edward.

"What do you mean, tutoring?" Tull said blandly.

"The fact is," said Lucy, "that Father maintains a bit of an inferiority complex about his abysmal high school GPA. So Mr. Hookstratten comes over and they read the classics. I think it's sweet."

Boulder dabbed at some barbecue sauce that had found its way to the woolen weave.

"Like which classics?" offered Tull.

"Oh, you know -- Tolstoy, Chaucer . . . Steve Martin's Shopgirl . . . all the heavy texts. Daddy pores over it, then Professor Hookstratten deconstructs. Hookstratten gets busy!"

Boulder flipped through a teen girl's fanzine called All About You! -- ironically, she was on the cover. "I really want to go to that beach in Belgium," she said, bored with the "Star Poll Picks." Boulder said there was a beach in Belgium where if a person wanted to face the sun, they had to turn their back to the ocean; apparently, it was the only beach like that in the world. Lucy said that was weird, and Pullman -- Tull's harlequin Great Dane -- farted. Everyone burst out laughing. At the end of the jag, something caught Tull's eye through the Mauck window.

"Hey," he said. "It's the girl."

"What girl?"

"From the set."

Lucy joined to watch. At odds with herself, the urchin moved inexorably toward the specialty vehicle as if pulled by a great magnet. The reflective glass made it impossible to see her audience.

"Look! She can't help herself," said Lucy.

Boulder glanced through the window, then flopped onto a $10,000 Costa del Sol Alcazar night spread. "I hate it when crew bring their fucking kids to the set."

"I don't think she -- she looks kind of homeless."

"Maybe she has AIDS."

"Boulder," said Lucy. "That is so mean!" She tended to be exclamatory around her famous friend.

"Or hep C -- everyone's got hep C. Or scabies! Oh God, do you remember, Lucy?"

"I so hated having scabies."

"Well," said Tull, "I'm going to ask her in for lunch."

"Please don't!"

"Boulder, we have to. I'll use it for my essay."

"What essay?"

Lucy put on her girl-detective/best-selling-author face. "It's research. I'm getting credit for writing about visiting you."

Boulder sighed. "I so hate the homeless."

"Oh my God, Boulder, that is so vile!"

The movie star laughed devilishly and tickled Lucy until she begged for mercy.

"Edward," said Tull. "You decide. It's your Mauck."

"It's my Mauck," sang Boulder, "and I'll cry if I want to!" She did a spastic dance and laughed another starry, bigger-than-life laugh.

"You're stoned," said Lucy.

"Well, what say, Eddikins?" ventured Tull, in a terrible rendition of some upper-crust character. "Shall we ask her in? Are you a man or are you a Mauck?"

"I say," said the cousin, hand poised thoughtfully to chin brace, "that we haul her unwashed homeless butt aboard."

Boulder beseeched the unsavory visitor be kept at the door with her back to them, like at the Belgian beach.

The sight of her crushed him. Why had he set all this in motion? Tull felt like one of those World War II GIs on the History Channel giving candy to children amid the rubble of cities -- only he was about to lure the little one to a death by embarrassment at the hands of his rarefied friends. He hung back in the passenger seat, afraid she'd run.

"Hi," he said. "I'm Toulouse."

He never called himself that.

"Tull," he corrected. "Tull Trotter." He felt ridiculous. "What's your name?"

The girl said nothing.

"Do you want -- would you like some lunch?"

He hated himself. She just kept staring. Then: "Amaryllis."

"What?"

An eternal pause, in which he thought she'd bolt.

"My name is Amaryllis."

"Like the place in Texas?" Another massively dumb thing. Again her ancient stare, like the bas-relief of a child's tomb. "My friends -- my friends want to meet you." Epic dumbness. Silence. She twitched. He'd blown it. "We have tons of food. If -- if you're hungry."

Nothing to do now but retreat. She came closer, like Edith Stein to concentration-camp gas. Lucy effusively threw an absurd, corn-fed "Howdy!" at the girl. Tull gave her a look and his cousin demurred. Then he went inside and strode to Mr. Hookstratten's pleated seat, tearing the cellophane off the absentee tutor's tray, wanting to feed her right away. After a minute or so, Amaryllis poked her head under the gull wing, trembling. Tull beckoned and she clambered in. She stood before them, a muted cable-news anchor laughing beside her head.

"You must be so hungry," said Lucy, coaxing.

"What's your name?"

"It's Amaryllis," said Tull.

"Can't she talk?" said Lucy.

Boulder rolled her eyes, shook her head and picked up Teen People.

"Your name is Amaryllis? That is so pretty!"

"Would you like some chocolates before lunch?"

The orphan turned to see where the voice had emanated from, then focused on the seated apparition ladling soup into its mouth behind a gossamer yellow hood. Astonished, she moved backward, falling. Tull rushed to her aid while the others tittered like munchkins.

"Don't mind Edward. He's, uh, disabled."

The beautiful girl who had played for the camera had spoken. She was lying on a quilted bed, languidly flitting through an old Weekly Variety. Her beauty -- her luminescence -- had a strangely comforting, nearly soporific effect upon the visitor.

"Disabled but still able to dis," said Edward.

"Oh, just come and sit," said Boulder to the girl imperiously. "Don't make us beg. It's not attractive."

Amaryllis obeyed. She moved toward her seat and promptly stepped on the dozing Pullman. She shrieked. Barely stirring, the animal broke wind. Amaryllis smiled while they all laughed, then grew self-conscious and sat grimly, as if reprimanded. Tull was amazed by what that smile did to him.

He took her greasy backpack and hung it from a peg. With his artful encouragements, she began to eat while Lucy and Edward peppered her with questions. Where did she live? (Nearby.) Where did she go to school? (Not far.) Why wasn't she in school? (Getting medicine for her mother.) And what did her mother do? (Worked. Sick today.)

Amaryllis had hardly taken her eyes off Boulder; finally, the stare became fixed.

"Are you an actress?"

"Sometimes."

"She doesn't know who you are!" said Lucy, delighted. Perversely, Boulder made as if she liked that. Lucy turned back to their guest. "She's a very famous actress."

Edward watched Tull hover. "God, Tull, cut her food, why don't you."

"When you work for Disney, you don't act -- I mean, not really. You're sort of . . . animated. You need to look cute."

"Which you always do," said Lucy.

"When oh when, please can someone let me do an indie?"

"Do you go to school?" asked Amaryllis.

"Oh my God, I'm being interviewed! Mostly on the set. I have a teacher."

"But when she doesn't," said Lucy, "she deigns to attend Four Winds with the pleh-bee-enz."

"Four Winds?"

"It's a school," said Tull. "In Santa Monica."

"We all go there."

Amaryllis turned to Edward and asked, "What happened to you?"

The cousin chortled. "Oh, I like that! Let's put that on a T-shirt! What happened to you? We'd sell millions! I love it!"

"He's got Apert's," said Lucy.

"Big Head Disease," said Boulder. "That's all you need to know."

"He's the smartest boy on Earth," said Tull.

"He's a saint," said Lucy.

"They streamlined the process," blurted Amaryllis with enthusiasm, immediately wishing she hadn't. She was rusty. She hadn't spoken with other children for so long -- with anyone really, except for the babies -- and these were like no children she'd ever met . . . but now, she had better go on or they'd think her crazy. "They streamlined the process for becoming a saint. John Paul made it easier. Everyone's on a fast track."

Lucy and Boulder exchanged secret looks, and Tull winced, wishing to protect the girl from the half-assed cruelties of the world. He was having major feelings, all of which his braided tormentor noticed with customary alacrity.

"Amaryllis is such a pretty name," offered Lucy again, somewhat poisonously.

Tull detected the hint of an English accent and hoped nothing lurid was coming.

"I hate it when you start doing Anna Paquin," said Boulder.

"Does it mean anything?" posed the unflappable inquisitrix. "I mean, the name?"

"It's a flower," said Amaryllis. "From South Africa."

"Is that where you're from?" asked Lucy, brightening. "I mean -- Africa?"

Tull bridled and Amaryllis meekly shook her head.

Edward stood from his chair. "Amaryllis, do you like orchids?"

"What are they?" she asked. Boulder rolled her eyes at Lucy again.

"This," said Tull, plucking a flower from a slim celadon vase, "is an orchid." She held the stem in her hand and stared.

"A hybrid," said the cousin.

A large white petal stood up like a bishop's miter; beneath it, a pouch in the shape of the chin of a cartoon Mountie -- or the chin of the boy called Edward. Bisecting both was a leafy mustache, speckled with polka dots.

The invalid proffered a discrete flower, with movie-star-red lips. "This one is from South Africa -- like your name," he said. "It grows on waterfalls."

"You know," said Lucy, "you should really come to Four Winds and visit." She turned to the others. "Don't you think?"

"It'd be great!" said Boulder, rather affectlessly.

"We're doing a homeless project," said Lucy while Tull glared. "We're building sidewalk shelters -- I mean, that's not why you should visit. It's just that if you've ever had that experience or know someone who has . . . We're using really strong, light materials -- space-age. And laptops to design them."

"We were homeless once," said Boulder.

"The earthquake doesn't count."

"It killed our beach house."

"You had two beach houses."

"It killed them both."

"She stayed in a hotel for three months."

"A hotel is not a home."

"You stayed at Shutters."

"That's a beach hotel," said Tull for Amaryllis' edification -- then hated himself some more. He hated everyone.

"That's where I live," chimed the orphan, then frowned. Again, she wished she hadn't spoken. "A motel. The St. George -- with my mother and brother and sister."

"A motel! The St. George?" queried Lucy. "I haven't heard of it. Now, is that near the Bonaventure or the Biltmore?"

Before the torture could continue, there was a sharp rap at the door, and Amaryllis nearly jumped from her skin. The arrival of Mr. Hookstratten -- Four Winds teacher of the year, private tutor to moguls and occasional on-set educator -- was not unexpected, but the children (all but Edward, of course) scurried about as if they'd been up to great mischief. The balding scholar beamed from the driver's side, hand of a raised arm gripping the Mauck wing, blinking in through bulgy, light-sensitive eyes. Boulder and Lucy rushed forward, trying to distract from the sight of Tull, who shadowed the orphan girl as best he could while she seized her backpack and made her way to the passenger-side portal whence she had come -- clinging all along to the walls like a tiny cat burglar.

"And who's this?" Mr. Hookstratten cheerily inquired. Boulder said she was the daughter of a grip; Lucy said she was part of "the research project"; Tull said she had helped bring the food trays -- all in unison, while Amaryllis quit the luxuriant specialty vehicle, vanishing into the brightness of day.

WHEN SHE GOT TO THE ST. GEORGE, THERE were patrol cars and sedans with revolving red lights stuck on khaki-colored roofs. The babies were already in one of the back seats, with a policewoman fussing over them; the froggy front-office Korean pointed at Amaryllis, and the men set after her. She had never run like that before, and prayed to Edith Stein no one would catch her.

Excerpted from I'll Let You Go by Bruce Wagner, to be published in January by Villard. Copyright © 2002 by the author.


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