Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2017  Vol. 16 No. 2
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Ida’s Boots

Spring, 1902
In the night a storm blew out of the westerly mountains bringing brutish, pelting rain. Wind lashed the streets of Philadelphia, flinging blossoms from early blooming trees, prostrating daffodils, and knocking a massive branch onto the front path of the Pennsylvania Institute for the Deaf and Dumb, whose denizens slept through the tumult and found in the morning a vaguely disordered world, scrubbed clean.

Rose awoke with an objectless impatience; her blood jumped in her veins as she dressed. She felt an anxious clawing within her rib cage.

Later she would have a lesson in the sewing room, but first Rose was expected by Miss Genevieve. Washed and dressed, she took her seat opposite Miss Genevieve and watched as her teacher’s mouth moved, her eyebrows raised and lowered. Rose’s gaze slid from Miss Genevieve’s face to her high, starched collar, yellowing in the creases, to the ring of keys at her waist.

Miss Genevieve leaned forward, opening her mouth wide. The smell of her morning meal: the bitter tinge of coffee winding through the dense, flat scent of oatmeal mush. Her dull, uneven teeth were wet. Her tongue was thick and bumpy, white and palest pink.

Rose’s wrist stung. Miss Genevieve had slapped her. She dipped her head and watched for the red to rise in fingers on her skin. Miss Genevieve grabbed Rose’s chin in her cold hand. Forcing Rose to gaze up into her face, Miss Genevieve placed Rose’s fingers upon the front of her own collar.

Miss Genevieve opened her mouth. Her eyes widened. Her throat vibrated beneath Rose’s fingers.

The feeling reminded Rose of the tiny squirrel babies she had found fallen from their tree home. She had held them in her palm and their shaky footsteps moved across her skin, radiating quiver.

Miss Genevieve took Rose by the shoulders, shook her once, released her. Rose opened her mouth and strained to find the thing inside her throat, the bones and strings, the secret breath that made noise. She pushed and felt the beginnings of sound inside her mouth. Her breath paused and pooled against the dam in her throat.

Miss Genevieve took up both of Rose’s hands, placed one on her throat, the other on Rose’s own throat. Miss Genevieve’s high collar slipped; Rose’s fingertip touched powdery skin. Miss Genevieve’s throat vibrated. Rose’s throat pushed, then was still. She dropped both of her hands into her lap.

Miss Genevieve sat, momentarily immobilized, staring into Rose’s face: wide blue eyes, pink cheeks, pert chin, and red, bow-shaped mouth.

They all stared at Rose, held their breath and strained to forbear reaching out to touch her lovely skin, her dark, glossy hair—even Miss Genevieve, who hated her. “The Princess Jewess,” Miss Genevieve hissed. Rose didn’t need to hear; she could feel it well enough. How often the looking turned to hate. And then they looked again.

Her eyes wandered to the dirty window, sunlight through soot and dust. She thought of the baby birds that had just hatched in their nest over the kitchen doorway. Their yellow-lined, diamond-shaped, hungry mouths gaping.


At dinner, two notes in a package of new ribbons for spring. Rose frowned, out of patience with correspondence, with writing and reading. She understood that she had learned all the words she ever would. The known words offered themselves up to her whole; those outside her acquaintance went empty and meaningless after she identified the first letter. Even the known words were of questionable value; they seemed unlikely to ever arrange themselves into a message of real import.

My Dear Daughter,
I hope that you are remembering to wear your shawl when you are out of doors. These early spring drafts can be h——. You must keep warm and safe from illness. Miss Connor informs us that you still r—— more a—— to your studies. With i—— effort she a—— Papa that you will be able to speak p—— well. Your brother Samuel visited us from B——. He looks well and his marks are very good. Sarah’s piano teacher is pleased with her. Your Papa suffered from the croup last week, but is much better now. Rose, please do s—— to work more d——. You are not to e—— in manual language or a—— with anyone from the Manual Division. When your studies are c——, and your speech very fine, you can come home to us and e—— on your i—— life c——, one day becoming a wife and mother, the dream that I know you hold most dear.
Your D——,

Dearest Rose,
I pray you are well. Pearl Simon says I haven’t any sister because she had never seen you. She said I lie and told the other girls, too. Please come home for a visit soon. Ginger had 10 kittens. She is a good mama.
Your loving sister,

After dinner, Rose distributed the ribbons to the other girls in the dormitory.

Don’t you want to keep one? they signed, resting ribbons in their laps, moving their hands in the dim light.


This blue matches your eyes.

No. Rose smiled. I don’t want it.

Rose watched as the girls discussed the uses of their new ribbons. Remade hats, bodice trim. In the dormitory they all used signs, the manual language, even those whose speech could be understood.

Rose reached under her bed and pulled out Ida’s boots. The worn leather was soft and held a lingering warmth, although no one had worn them for many weeks. Rose stroked the tatty heel of one boot and held the other in her lap. Was it wrong that Ida was buried in bare feet?

Rose did hope not. She hoped that Ida’s god would not mind her lack of boots.


As Ida had stayed by Rose when she was ill, so Rose refused to leave the infirmary while fever ravaged Ida and scorched furious red spots on her pale skin. She watched Ida do battle in her dreams. In her fervid sleep, Ida signed, Stop. No. Help.

Ida signed, Dog. Help! No!

Ida was terribly afraid of dogs; Rose knew this and knew the jagged dog bite scar at the corner of Ida’s mouth. Rose had climbed into Ida’s bed then, and lay down behind her. She held Ida’s hot, twitching body close. Ida shuddered, then stilled.

Matron came into the room, looked at Rose, frowned, and shook her head. Rose squeezed her eyes shut. When she opened them again, Matron was gone. She perched her head just over Ida’s shoulder, to keep watch. She wormed her arms around Ida until her hands were free in front. Rose would sign to Ida as soon as she awoke: safe, safe. She felt Ida’s rattling breaths pass into her own chest. Rose pressed against Ida, breathing deeply, trying to force air into Ida’s resisting lungs.

Rose slept; when she awoke, Ida’s body was cold and still. Rose inhaled and exhaled enormously against Ida’s back, great gusts of breath. Nothing. She knew, but it still didn’t seem possible.

I-d-a. She spelled Ida’s name with her tingling hand. I-d-a. Ida! But Ida slipped backward, lodging heavily against Rose. The bed was damp and spreading cold.

Rose held Ida just apart from her and tried to work her mind through what she must now understand. Ida did not live anymore. She would not be alive again. She was dead. Rose had seen dead before—innumerable chickens, dogs, a cow, the horse in the middle of the street, too many animals to name. Dead meant gone and it didn’t take more than one look to tell.

What happened next? Rose didn’t know.

What would happen next to this Ida who was not Ida? Rose didn’t know what remained real. She could no longer ask Ida, and this is what dead seemed to mean: Rose’s best way into the world, vanished.

Sliding carefully from the bed, Rose stood over Ida. Her brown eyes were open but not seeing; her lips were parted; her face was paler than the bed sheet and completely still. Ida’s empty face at that moment was as much as Rose would ever know.

When it came time for Headmaster and Miss Genevieve to try to explain, she would look away, because they could only make her understand less. Rose fixed the blanket around not-Ida and left the room.

In the dormitory she threw open the doors to Ida’s cupboard. There were Ida’s few possessions: her shawl and stockings, her mended shirtwaist. Her boots. Rose took Ida’s boots and hid them.


Rose was in Headmaster’s sitting room. Miss Genevieve sat, in the falling light near the window, and bent over a piece of needlework. Headmaster held a book in his hand and gazed over Miss Genevieve’s head through the window, where hardy apple blossoms lifted in the breeze.

Mr. Smith, Rose’s father’s friend, sat opposite her. Matron fussed about the room and laid out tea and very stale biscuits. Rose watched Mr. Smith try to bite a biscuit. Realizing the difficulty of his task, he jammed the biscuit into the side of his mouth and bore down with his back teeth. Crumbs speckled his lips as he chewed. Mr. Smith was younger than Rose’s father but he had already acquired the stout, commanding chest that would precede him into rooms for the rest of his prosperous life. He finished chewing, took a sip of weak tea, then sat back, gazing at Rose. At length he turned and said something to Headmaster.

Rose smiled and tucked her feet beneath her while the men talked about her. She had no notion what they said, but felt their eyes warm upon her, and she let her own gaze go soft as she stared at the carpet, the dull colors fuzzing and fusing. Outside, she thought, the little blooms were falling from the redbud tree.

At length, Mr. Smith stood and approached Rose. He offered her a package wrapped in brown paper. Rose accepted the package and gazed up at Mr. Smith. His mouth moved. She was nearly certain he wanted her to open the package. Rose nodded, slid the cord from the corners and removed the brown paper. It was a book: The W—— of O——. Oz? No, that wouldn’t be right.

Rose looked up and smiled. Mr. Smith flushed and spoke more. Rose didn’t like to watch his mouth—his lips were thin and rather mean, his teeth irregular and yellowing.

She stood, the book in one hand.

Thank you, she meant to say. She opened her mouth wide and pressed her throat forward. Vibration issued forward on her breath.

A shadow of confusion and distaste passed over Mr. Smith’s long face. Rose smiled again. Staring in renewed wonder, Mr. Smith gratefully took up her unoccupied hand and applied a gentle pressure to it before releasing her.

Goodbye, Rose meant to say, and left the room, not glancing behind to see the effect of her attempted utterance.


Of a Sunday morning, Rose was left alone as the others were worshipping their god. The Institute made no accommodations for Rose’s faith, but did not require her to dissemble by worshipping with a foreign tribe.

The air was soft and clean, the flowering trees renewed in their blooming after the storm. Rose took herself outside to the small graveyard behind the main building. She carried her new book and wore a wide-brimmed hat trimmed with last year’s ribbon and Ida’s boots, laced tightly over her ankles.

The small gray stone read:
Ida Curtis

Ida had been two years older than Rose. Rose would grow to be as old as Ida had been. Rose would grow to be older than Ida. She felt this was an important notion to try to understand. Ida’s parents couldn’t afford to bring her home for visits or, at the last, for burial. Ida belonged to the Institute forever, now. And Rose was alone, without Ida.

A shadow fell across the stone.

Good morning. It was Nathaniel; she had seen him only fleetingly since he had been transferred to the Manual Division.

Good morning, Rose signed, and gazed up through the shade of her hat.

Nathaniel bowed his head toward the wooden bench. May I join you?

Yes, yes, please.

Nathaniel sat beside Rose. You look well.

Thank you, I am.

There was much illness in your division over the winter.

Yes. I lost a dear friend.

Ida. I know. I’m sorry.

The sun warmed Rose’s back. She inched her feet in the worn boots into a patch of sunlight beyond her shadow. Before Nathaniel had moved to the Manual Division, he had found things to show her: a tidy bird’s nest, a translucent snakeskin, a silk flower only slightly faded. Nearly every week, a new treasure. Nathaniel would have given her the items if she had asked, but she never did.

Nathaniel squared his shoulders and sat up straight; he had grown taller over the winter. My apprenticeship is almost finished. Soon I will be a working man.

Rose pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve. See the straight seams I made with the new machine.

Yes, yes. Your skill is growing.

Rose held the handkerchief by its corners, admiring it herself, surprised at her pleasure.

What’s this? Nathaniel picked up the book.

Book. A new book.

Rose watched Nathaniel read a bit of the beginning, then page through, examining the pictures of the girl and her dog, the princess, witch, lion, and others. Rose liked some of the pictures very much.

Rose watched Nathaniel’s strong, blunt-fingered hands. They were clean, but she could see where the ink from the printing press had been, the deep crevices marked. She looked into Nathaniel’s face, his light eyes and unruly brown hair.

Smith? he asked, raising the book into the space between them. This from Smith?

Rose nodded.

Nathaniel frowned and turned away. He stared at Ida’s grave. Rose felt a shadow of fear pass through her. Nathaniel couldn’t turn away, begin to go; she couldn’t withstand it. She could not be so alone. She reached for Nathaniel’s arm and tapped him lightly. He turned and stared at her. For a moment he looked without seeing.

Then she smiled, gazing into his watchful eyes, and he returned to her. He tilted his head, considering her anew.

Rose let the hat slip from her head. She shut her eyes and raised her face to the sun. Let the sunlight raise freckles across her nose, tan her a barbarous brown, she didn’t mind one bit. Somewhere, out there, was a home for her. She didn’t want to return to Pittsburgh; she didn’t want to marry Mr. Smith or anyone else her parents chose. She didn’t want to and she wouldn’t.

She would join her life with Nathaniel’s, withstand the disapproval of her family in choosing a man whose only virtue was his Hebraic faith. Rose and her husband would communicate with their hands and hold in common trust the possibility of perfect understanding.

Had she known then that he would leave her a widow at the age of twenty-five, alone, with a young, anxious daughter who surely heard more sounds than the Earth and all its creatures had ever produced; had she known that she would be forced to labor long days making dresses for ugly women who delighted in humiliating her; had she known that she would be unable to bring herself to accept two subsequent proposals of marriage, one from a worrisome drinker, the other from a kind, though dull man, both of them deaf; had she known the joy and loneliness she would endure, raising her daughter and then her daughter’s three children only to serve as chief caretaker and nursemaid to her three great-grandchildren, so many years of children held near to her by the gravitational pull of blood which nonetheless allowed them to orbit far, far away on endless loops of unintelligible speech, she would still have reached her fingers through the sun and shadow beneath the trees and taken Nathaniel’s hand.  

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