My first memory is Araminta's face, as she stood over me, blocking out the sharp sunlight. "What are you doing out here in the middle of the street?" I didn't answer. Talking had always meant pain. I was maybe 8 years old.
Araminta waved away heavy flies buzzing around me. They kept alighting on my face and neck. She used spit and the edge of her shirt to clean whatever attracted them to me. Acted as if she knew me. Looked me over for a long time, shaking her head, clucking her teeth. The compassion I witnessed in her eyes was so foreign it could have been a trick of the light.
Then Araminta walked away. I sat down on the curb and watched her go. Head wrapped in a mound of yellow fabric, square shoulders over round hips. Into the pawnshop, the butcher shop, the barbershop, an alley. She crossed the street and talked to people as they flew by, most ignoring her. She pointed toward me, her eyes darting and bright even from a distance. Their gazes followed the line of her arm, and after spotting me, they'd shake their heads and move on.
When Araminta returned, she pulled me to my feet.
"You are one filthy child. You know that?"
I looked down, seeing myself as if for the first time. My feet were dirty and bare. I wore an over-large man's dress shirt hooked closed with a single button, and nothing else. The shirt was stiff with blood and grime, the very sight of which sent me suddenly keening like a broken dog. I still don't know where the blood came from.
Araminta snatched the shirt off me and threw it into the gutter. "I don't blame you baby," her voice low and heavy. She removed the yellow fabric piled and twisted on her head and covered me. She lifted me into her arms, balancing the weight of me against her breasts.
Araminta's apartment was large and windowless and smelled of sage and musk. She spoon-fed me a soup of roasted vegetables and coarse flatbread wrapped around chunks of melted yellow cheese. So thirsty, I drank the entire pitcher of cold water, until goose flesh pimpled my arms. She pushed a wedge of black chocolate beneath my tongue.
Afterwards, Araminta scrubbed me with tepid water and rosemary soap. I'd hear her breath catch as she'd trace one of the many scars on my back and shoulders. They were all healed, just residual ridges and indentations where the pain used to be.
"I always wanted a baby boy, but I never thought I'd find him in the middle of the street." Araminta held her arm up to mine, noting the contrast, and considered aloud, "Few people are as black as me, and even fewer as white as you."
She lifted me out of the bathtub, dried me with a rough towel, rubbed olive oil into my skin. Araminta hummed a melody, her voice planting me deeply into darkness. She clothed me in her robe and lay with me on her bed.
Araminta pointed to my chest and said, "You are my child now." Large, soft hands stroked my face and hair, ebbing wakefulness and fear.
"They say that red hair is a sign of a fierce, powerful spirit." She kissed my forehead, pulled me tight against her side. Sleep fell over me like a sheet, and just as I submitted to the wave, I heard Araminta whisper. "I will name you Mars."