Toti O'Brien

Kind of square, kind of squat—that’s how she perceives herself. Compact—each part of her body a modest excrescence kept within a reasonable radius, magnetized by the center, enamored with gravity. All at reach, her body, her mind… a small village where everything is in walking distance, cozy and snug like five fingers. Nondescript as well, like a ringless, slightly calloused hand.

When the visit of the older cousins is announced, she is thrilled. She reacts with the naïve enthusiasm due to all things new—a small village electrified by the arrival of a traveling circus. She has never met older cousins, neither these nor any. Of course, she understands they are relatives and what ‘relatives’ means—essentially people, often smiling and greeting while expecting to be greeted in return. People to be unconditionally trusted even when they are perfectly unknown—like today’s announced cousins—and in spite of the fierce commandment ‘you shall never trust strangers’.

But the strangeness of relatives—she has realized—is short-lived, like a candy wrapper of which you get rid in a rush. Their alterity expires as soon as they alight from the train at the station, or emerge from the car and walk up the driveway (if she has been left home in trepidant wait). Their remoteness melts as they wear their first smile, it dissolves through the wetness of their sweaty kisses.

So these cousins are relatives, and in a little while they’ll bring exhilaration to her Sunday afternoon. She has been straightened up—her hair combed, her fingernails cleaned. Then she has been parked in her room and she has begun playing, oblivious. Lost in her occupation, the rumpus of arrivals has startled her. When she is briskly propelled into the living room she is confused, as if waking up from deep slumber.

Nine, eleven, thirteen—the age of the cousins is spelled. She is taken by a sort of vertigo, humbled by the highness of these numbers. All odd (though she can’t tell), sharp and slick (this she can perceive), climbing up and away as they leave her behind—a small, flat, helpless blob. These numbers, unreachable.

Does the age of adults impress her this way? Absolutely not. Adults are grown up—a distinct universe still out of her reach. While these cousins are growing, as she is, yet they have gotten such an advantage—she wonders how, when.

She can distinctly see their feet but the rest—gangly limbs, slim and elongated torsos—escapes. Their heads sort of disappear over the clouds, bound to somewhere celestial, ethereal—separated from their neck, superior, sublime. 

They are polite. They all greet her nicely, but the nine-year-old boy is magnetized by a row of shiny magazines piled on the coffee table, clearly intentioned to peruse them cover to cover. The eleven-year old—a girl—sticks to her mom’s side, anxious to draw the line between girlhood and womanhood, eager to signify where she now belongs. 

She understands she’ll be ushered into her room, as it often occurs during relatives’ visits after the initial show has taken place.

At her greatest surprise, the thirteen-year-old has followed her. She’s embarrassed by his tallness. His boyish slimness seems to further accentuate verticality—his gaze hovers so high, it acquires a numinous quality and so does his smile. Actually, his smile could be more exactly defined—haughty and condescending, though in an innocent way. But this she doesn’t know, or perhaps that’s what numinous means. To her, his expression as well as his looks are… princely, regal.


He has sat on a low stool—his legs spread, interminable, elbow leaning onto the miniature table where she uses to draw or play, torso twisted and bent. He has come down to her level. She feels both blessed and humbled—the two states melt into each other, then blessing prevails.

Slowly, with a voice so breathy it sounds muffled—utterly fascinating her—he asks her to show him her toys. She feels suddenly shy, and excited. The two emotions mix up, then exhilaration prevails. She rushes to her toy chest, eager to exhibit what she deems her most interesting possessions—two brand new sets of beads one could actually make jewelry with. How, she has no clue, but what counts is the possibility.

He will show her, he says. Will? He? She is wordless. Her eyes widen. She breathes shallow. Then deeper. 

Now, the boxes of beads… one is already open, though she hasn’t messed with the contents too much. But she has started to entertain herself with the beads that are fairly large, made of wood painted in primary colors. Yellow, blue, orange, green. Mostly round, a few cubes—the right blend of variety and plainness. They are pretty—the colors, so joyful!—and agreeable to the touch. They agree with her, yes! Good toys do. They match her own dimension—squarish, squat, contained and compact, small village.

The other box is still closed. It’s ‘for later’. A larger size, meaning longer. Light and slim. Fragile—a dangerous trait. It is subdivided in small sections, all of different and unnamable shapes—in fact a variety of rectangles, but she doesn’t know and variety (when excessive, as in the present case) overwhelms her. These fancy rectangular cavities hold beads of all kinds and shades.

Shades are not truly colors, as she cannot name them. Not exactly. She must use adjectives such as ‘dark’, ‘light’, ‘pale’ and so forth—interesting pursuit, yet laborious. She senses such expansion of her vocabulary can wait. What all those shades (those beads) have in common is sheerness. They are transparent. She couldn’t explain it—the idea is too scientific. They are like glass… too hard a comparison.

They look precious. They look fairytalish. They are what a princess would wear. They cause her to hold her breath. Her chest hurts with unspeakable longing—a sort of reverse nostalgia. This is why they can wait. She can’t handle yet such complexity. This is why the box is intact.

He has tore the plastic film wrapping in a blink. Of course, she hasn’t protested. What she can’t manage yet is certainly within his reach. He will guide her—that is what adults are for. Soon-to-be adults as well, here’s the proof. 

He has widened his eyes and gasped as he hastily indented the cellophane with his nail, moved by impromptu greed. “These are marvelous,” he has exclaimed, “these are real gemstones!” His tone is a bit shrill, though is voice hasn’t lost the soft nasal quality—technically called ‘distinction’—so enthralling her. He is pretending excitement, of course, and she knows but it doesn’t bother her. Nothing is reprehensibly fake about it. A convention, that is, by which adults abide when dealing with children. Most adults—especially strangers, yet-unknown relatives paying short visits. Soon-to-be adults as well, she sees.

“Your wrist! Let me measure it. I will make you a bracelet.” With a gasp of joy she straightens her arm, palm up, in ecstatic surrender. He hooks his index and thumb around her sparrow bones with a frown, squeezes, then loosens his grip. He repeats the operation once, twice, corrugating his brow… He is pretending, as if playing doctor. She laughs.

She has let herself slide on the floor right against his legs, her gaze level with his knee, thus reestablishing the immense distance between their faces, yet cocooning in his physical proximity. She looks up. 

He has cut a length of elastic cord with his teeth. His hand fumbles into the box, wandering from a stack of beads to another, fingertips diving here and there, appraising. “Wait!” A sudden smile smooths his forehead. “Which ones do you want? Which are your favorite?” Dreaded, difficult question. She is mute, irritated by a knot in her throat, a tickle of sorts. 

Then her index uncertainly drifts, pulled by a power unknown, towards a far corner—the one closest to him. It dips into a small lake of oblong pale purple. “Hmmmm! You have good taste! You picked the most valuable! These are amethysts from Brazil!” She knows he’s pretending.

She knew a minute ago. Now she doesn’t. These are amethysts from Brazil. The most precious.

How he has savored those words. How clearly and how lusciously he has spelled them—his tone shrill, now void of its breathiness, wanting to sound grand and imposing and yet, suddenly, a child…

He threads beads one by one, very slowly, with luxuriant precision and all the solemnity of a priest celebrating. His left index and thumb hold the cord, the end of which he has duly knotted. His right index and thumb lift each bead in front of his eyes to verify authenticity, to enjoy its shine before ceremoniously dropping it on top of its companions.

Her whole body has relaxed—heavy as if she were about to sleep, yet immensely alert. Her whole body sinks cozily into the rug while her head floats and levitates, mesmerized by the thread of purple hanging from his fingers, up there—a bait hooked to a fishing pole.

She drifts. Time is suspended. The confection of her jewel indefinitely protracts itself, seemingly occupying the entire afternoon.

“Done!” he finally exclaims. “Quick! Give me your hand!” She extends her arm carefully, less abruptly that she did before. Less innocently. Her eyes, wide open, stare straight into his eyes, which imperceptibly squint. Then he lowers his gaze to her inconspicuous wrist, as he accurately ties the ends of the cord. 

“Here you go! You are a queen!” He smiles broadly as he stretches his legs, yawns, stands up. Noise is spilling out of the dining room. She understands what that means, but the languor that has filled her limbs is lingering. In a trance, zombielike, she totters towards her mother, raises her bejeweled arm: “Look what he made! These are amethysts from…” She doesn’t remember. As she looks for him, he is whispering into his brother’s ear.

Beads are cold, smooth, hard. A bit tight. They are poking rosy marks on her skin, tiny indents in her flesh, while the older cousins are leaving.

Toti O'Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in Cloud WomenDr. EckleburgInfinite Rust, and Sunlight Press.