Mama has given me a quilt from her hope chest. It is one her mother's mother made. It is a quilt of stars--each piece taken from faded-cotton summer dresses--each piece stitched by hand. She has given me a beaded purse that belonged to my father's mother Sister Ray. They want to know why she has given it to me since I was not Sister Ray's favorite. They say she is probably turning over in her grave angry that I have something of hers.
Mama tells us--her daughters--that the girls in her family started gathering things for their hope chest when they were very young, gathering all the things that they would carry with them into marriage. The first time she opens hers for us I feel I am witnessing yet another opening of Pandora's box, that the secrets of her youth, the bittersweet memories, will come rushing out like a waterfall and push us back in time. Instead the scent of cedar fills the air. It reminds me of Christmas, of abandoned trees, standing naked in the snow after the celebrations are over. Usually we are not allowed to share in the opening of the chest. Even though we stand near her watching, she acts as if we are not there. I see her remembering, clutching tightly in her hand some object, some bit of herself that she has had to part with in order to live in the present. I see her examining each hope to see if it has been fulfilled, if the promises have been kept. I pretend I do not see the tears in her eyes. I am glad she shares the opening of the chest this time with all of us. I am clutching the gifts she hands to me, the quilt, the beaded purse. She knows that I am often hopeless. She stores no treasures for my coming marriage. I do not want to be given away. I cannot contain my dreams until tomorrow. I cannot wait for someone else, a stranger to take my hand.
That night in my sleep I dream of going away. I am taking the bus. Mama is standing waving good-bye. Later, when I return from my journey I come home only to find that there has been a fire, nothing remains of our house and I can see no one. There is only the dark and the thick smell of smoke. I stand alone weeping. The sound of my sobbing is like the cry of the peacock. Suddenly they appear with candles, mama and everyone. They say they have heard my sorrow pierce the air like the cry of the peacock, that they have come to comfort me. They give me a candle. Together we search the ashes for bits and pieces, any fragment of our lives that may have survived. We find that the hope chest has not burned through and through. We open it, taking out the charred remains. Someone finds a photo, one face has turned to ash, another is there. We pass around the fragments like bread and wine at communion. The chorus of weeping is our testimony that we are moved.
Louder than our weeping is a voice commanding us to stop our tears. We cannot see who is speaking but we are reminded of the stern sound of our mother's mother's voice. We listen. She tells us to sit close in the night, to make a circle of our bodies, to place the candles at the center of the circle. The candles burn like another fire only this time she say the fire burns to warm our hearts. She says Listen, let me tell you a story. She begins to put together in words all that has been destroyed in the fire. We are all rejoicing when the dream ends.
The next day I want to know what the dream means, who she is, this storyteller who comes in the night. Saru, mama's mother, is the interpreter of dreams. She tells me that I should know the storyteller, that I and she are one, that they are my sisters, family. She says that a part of me is making the story, making the words, making the new fire, that it is my heart burning in the center of the flames.