by Charmaine Wilkerson
“Tiger Balm!” she screeched, right there in Aisle Nine. “Ti-ger Ba-alm!”
“What? What?” her son said, with that down-curved oh-shape that his mouth took on when he was annoyed. He wouldn’t understand. She couldn’t expect him to. Tiger Balm in America, after all these years.
The little hexagonal jar had found its way back to her from her school days, from her plaid-tunic-saddle-shoe-fountain-pen days, from the ship that had ferried her father from the South China Sea to the Caribbean. It had found her, four cities and several decades later, standing in a California department store with a son who was now as tall as she was. And who would never know, must never know, what she had gone through to get here.
Her father used to sell jars of the analgesic balm in his store. All the Chinese families used it and the other islanders caught on. Her mother used it for muscle aches and rumbly chests, though Mummy still preferred to spread white rum on her daughter’s torso to wick away a fever. Years later, after no one had heard from her mother for years, she carried a tiny jar of the balm in her purse as she left the island for good, along with an airmail envelope bearing the name and address of a person who would help her to get settled.
That small jar crossed the oceans, journeyed by rail, sat on doily-covered nightstands wherever she slept. She used it when she felt pains in her leg from the locomotive accident. She used it on her neck after her boss at the import-export pushed her up against the shelves in the stock room and insisted on going where he had no business being. She used it on her back after that first childbirth because it was safe to use if you weren’t breastfeeding and, after all, there was no baby left to feed. One night, she thought of swallowing what was left of the container’s contents. Instead, she rubbed a bit of balm on her temples and cried herself to sleep.
Later, she would learn to mix her own homemade preparation, though at first, she couldn’t get ahold of all the right oils. Nowadays, it was easier. Still, to find a jar of the old brand from her childhood, right here in Aisle Nine, flew her past all the old sadness and left her with a buzz inside, as if she’d just rubbed some of the potion into her shoulder and could still smell the sweet, menthol residue under her fingernails. As if she’d been in her father’s shop only last week and not forty years earlier.
Her chest tingled as if she’d never lived through those dim years after leaving the island, as if her true life had begun when this young man standing before her had tumbled into this world, deep brown and minuscule and squawking with life, and she and her husband touched their child’s damp foot and came to understand what people meant when they said the word miracle.
Charmaine Wilkerson was born in New York, has lived in the Caribbean and does most of her writing in Rome. Her story “How to Make a Window Snake” won the 2017 Bath Novella-in-Flash Award and the 2018 Saboteur Award for Best Novella. Other stories and essays can be found in various magazines and anthologies. She tweets at @charmspen1.
Image courtesy of the author.