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Building Girls

By Randa Jarrar


Published:

They come to Egypt in the summer; they come in their rented cars and bring their families and buy umbrellas and beach chairs; they bring swimsuits and towels and creams they wear on their skin so it won’t burn. They make me laugh. They come in June, sometimes as late as July, and stay until September, when their children return to school and they return to their jobs. It’s hard for me to imagine leaving work for an entire season; I suppose when no one is here from September until June that is my small vacation. On my vacation I still have to wash walls and plant plants and paint and water and clean. And on top of all that I have Shadia to take care of, my little Shadia who looks just like her father, the bastard. Him, I have a permanent vacation from. Thank the lord!I was born here, at the bottom of the building on Seventh Street in this small beach town at the lower tip of the Middle Sea, between the cities of Alexandria and Abu Qir. My mother and father have been married thirty-five years; in that time my mother has lost many of her teeth, she has lost her small figure and some of her hair, and my father has stayed almost exactly the same. My father’s skin is black like the street on which the summer children play soccer, and his teeth are white and gleaming, with occasional cavities, so they look like the soccer balls. He runs errands for the women who don’t have their husbands with them, or whose husbands are lazy; I sometimes see the women blush when Father talks to them because he is unbearably handsome. I look a lot like him, except because my skin is black and I am a woman, I am not considered unbearably beautiful.

~

I have been working for my parents, and for the owners of the building, all my life—thirty-four years, if you want an exact number. I took a break when I married the devil, Shadia’s father, whose name I cannot bear to utter. I was never in love with him; he was twelve years older, and Mother thought he’d be a good match when she heard from my cousin that he was looking for a wife. He lied and stole and broke my heart, which wasn’t his to break, and when he put his hands on me, I’d shudder. I hated his sex, I hated his skin and his smell. He had a nasty temper and struck me on the face and kicked my bottom more times than I cared for, and when I went home dragging Shadia behind me Mother spat on me and told me to go home to my husband, and I cried and told her what happened, but she didn’t blink. Father intervened on my behalf and told me his house was my house, and Mother slapped her own cheeks and wailed. I smiled with relief as I entered the little bottom-floor apartment, the fabric on all its walls scented with every meal I had ever prepared or eaten there. My real bosses are the families of the building.

In my building are two apartments on each floor—one apartment on the left, another on the right—and four floors. I call the first floor the mirror floor: the family on the left has three daughters and one son, and the family on the right has three sons and a daughter. You’d think they would have naturally paired off after spending every summer together, but they never did. The boys all played soccer every day and the girls either played apart or split off according to their age groups. Their mothers adored one another and the husbands despised each other—one was an intellectual and spent all his summers reading on the balcony, the other spent his summers buying watermelons and watching soccer games on the television, which he wheeled out to the balcony every night. I loved to watch them from the street, the intellectual flipping his pages after each burst of applause coming from the watermelon-lover’s screen.

The owners of the left-side apartment on the second floor live downtown and rent the apartment out to honeymooners. I like to watch the new brides walk down the street awkwardly, in that newly deflowered way, their gait hesitant and their palms linked in with their husbands’. In the other second-floor apartment lives Madame Manaal; she has lived there for thirty-four years. When she moved in, my mother was pregnant with me, and I was floating inside her belly, squinting in its darkness. My father says Madame Manaal moved into the apartment after the death of her husband and her eldest son; she asked my father, upon her arrival, to shutter all her windows, and he did. When I was a child, I was surprised when Madame called me up to give me her grocery list; in contrast with the brightness of the street, the blackness that cloaked her greeted me like a big chasm on the other side of the threshold. Sometimes, when I am feeling strange, I think Madame Manaal is my old self, still floating in my mother’s belly.

The third-floor apartments were joined into one when its owners, who live in the Arabian Gulf, knocked down the wall in the middle (I was a witness to this marriage, and covered my ears when I heard the ceremony commence). They come every three years and the rest of the time their furniture is covered in white sheets. Sometimes, I go up there and listen to their records or take naps on their beds. Sometimes, the white sheets remind me of hiding people, an idea that arouses me, and I practice the secret habit on the biggest bed.

The fourth-floor apartments are also frequently empty. The one on the left belongs to an elderly man, an ex-officer who took part in the 1952 revolution. When he comes to visit he brings all his grandchildren and his daughters. He wears a small hat and sandals and goes for walks very early in the morning, his hands daintily hanging at his sides. I try to imagine him holding a rifle in those hands, or pulling a string on a cannon, but I cannot.

The apartment on the right is where Perihan, my summer best friend, used to stay; she visited the building with her family every summer for fifteen years; we used to play together in the dump next door. Now in the dump my family tends to chickens. Back when the dump was filled with trash, Perihan and I would dig through it and find shiny tins and pots that we tapped with sticks and made into drums. Perihan wore her dresses—shiny pink and silver things—and crimpled hats. I wore the same nighties that I slept in and put big perfumed flowers in my hair. She liked that my hats were from nature and that I didn’t have to change just because the sky had turned from night to light or vice versa, and as the summers progressed, she’d become less a rich girl on the top floor of the building and more one of our sisters at the bottom of it; she wore her galabiyya and her plastic torn-up sandals, and we wreathed flowers, pink and fat, into her brown hair whose strands looked red in the sun.

When we swam she wore a swimsuit and I wore my clothes; I didn’t understand why you had to wear special clothes just for the water, which really didn’t care how dressed up you were when you came to meet it. Out of modesty, too, I have never shown my arms or legs outside my home.

Although she has not come to visit in almost ten years, whenever the cars pull into our street and new people arrive, I sometimes imagine that the little princesses coming out of the back seats are Perihan, even though she must be thirty by now. That’s why when a gray Peugeot pulled up this June, and a Perihan imposter, eight years old and wearing an American outfit—no dresses, no hats, no patent leather shoes—came out, I wanted to rush to her in glee, my adult body slowly catching up with my excitement. I heard someone call my name, lilting and pealing its letters out like a brand-new bicycle bell. It was the real, adult Perihan, and I realized that the little Peri was her daughter.

At first, we exchanged kisses and hugs, and my father and mother, too, came to greet her. Shadia stayed by the candy-and-chips stand outside the building; she was shy and still. Perihan’s daughter was the one who went to Shadia; the little girl spoke not a word of Arabic but was charading like a crazy person and making Shadia laugh. They played together; Shadia showed her our home, and Perihan and I took their suitcases up to the apartment. Halfway through, on the third floor, Perihan’s breath was running ahead of her and she had to slow down and catch it. We talked for a while; I told her about Shadia’s father, the ass, and she told me about her daughter’s father, also an ass, and then she called down and told her daughter to come up. I asked her what she needed from the market and she turned red, then told me she could shop for it herself. “Oh, you’re tired,” I said, “Let me get it. I have a bike now. I like going to the market!” She reluctantly agreed and gave me some money, and I was off buying her groceries, just like I did for her mother twenty years ago.

I like being at the market; people push past you and men wink. I like watching the summer crowd and their dealings. The girls wear tight denim and let their straightened hair spill across their shoulders. (My hair is always in a bun or under a kerchief.) Men follow them and hurl sweet praise their way; the girls pretend to hate it or not to hear. The shops stand one after the other, with nothing but their thin walls to separate them: cheese here, bread there, toys here, mattresses there, dresses here, kerchiefs there, books here, books there. There is a nasty-smelling fish shop at one end of the market and a shiny silver jeweler on the other: in that sense, even the market has a top and bottom floor.

I stood at the bookseller’s and quickly scanned the covers and titles; I’d probably read all of them; all books that feature a man who goes far away then comes back to the homeland and decides he is forever changed but that this is where he belongs. I read them out of sheer boredom in the winter; and to be completely honest, I prefer planting flowers or watering the banana tree or even being sweet-talked by toothless men than reading these kinds of books. After I filled my cloth sack with Perihan’s things—cheese, yogurt, eggs, tea, mint, toilet paper, a newspaper, and bread—I got on my bike and rode off, the smell from the fish shop at the bottom of the market wafting over to caress me. The smell was like Shadia’s father: foul and persistent, so I pedaled my bike faster.

When I returned to Perihan’s apartment, she had all the windows closed and the window unit in the corner humming. She asked me if the mosquito truck had gone by yet, and I said it hadn’t, and we emptied her suitcase together. I asked her about her daughter Anna’s father; she said he was American and they were divorced. Anna was darker-skinned than Perihan was, and Perihan told me that not all Americans were blond and white. I was confused, and asked her if she was lying, and she swore on the holy book that she was not. “Anna’s father was brown-skinned, like an Egyptian,” she said, winking, and I laughed. I made her tea and she asked me to sit out on the balcony and drink it with her; but she wouldn’t let Anna come out with us. I asked her why, and she said the mosquito truck emitted fumes that were cancerous and that she didn’t want to expose Anna. I nodded silently and drank my tea, even though it now tasted like mud on my tongue and in my throat. I wanted to ask her if she’d forgotten how we used to ride behind the truck at night, on our bicycles, and inhale the big white cloud until we felt like we were in the sky itself. I wanted to ask her if she thought I would get cancer, or if Shadia or my father or all of us that were left behind here in the beach town would get it. When the truck pulled up she covered her nose and I couldn’t bear it, so I said I had to go bathe Shadia, dumped the contents of my tea cup out onto the neighbor’s yard, and went down the stairs two at a time. That night, before I went to sleep an image of Perihan, as she covered her nose like a snob, burned through my eyelids,.I rubbed my eyes and turned onto my side.

The girls played in the street or fed the chickens in the dump, and Peri sat on her balcony and read or watched the beach. I asked her why she was in Egypt, and she told me she was here doing research for her PhD. I wasn’t sure how sunning herself on a balcony would get her a doctorate, but I said nothing. She came down sometimes and sat next to me, where the entrance of the building met the street. I would crouch beside my candy-chips stand, my soda cooler, and my umbrella, and whenever someone would walk by, we would hassle them to buy something. Perihan was the best hustler; she would tell people they looked parched, or pick on the skinny summer-girls and try to get them to buy chips. She was a great saleslady and I told her that. When business was slow we walked around the building and I showed her my plants. Her mouth was open in amazement the whole time, and she kept repeating, “You planted this tree? These flowers? These herbs?” She loved the garden, and some evenings, after the dusk prayer, she asked me if she could water it. I always said yes, and watched her as she leapt around the garden with the water hose, completely content.

~

One morning, after she’d come with me to the market and the girls had begged us for countless toys, she asked me if Shadia’s father ever saw her. “Him?” I said, disgusted, and told her he hadn’t seen her in years. “Abu Anna sees her,” she said, after a long pause. I wanted to know when, and she told me it was on Wednesdays between five and eight, and every other Saturday. I laughed so hard then, because Perihan could be so funny when she wanted to be, and her specific brand of humor was based on giving exact measurements for things that cannot be measured, and she laughed with me, but she swore it was true.

The girls played in the dump by the building, and declined whenever the girls from the mirror floor tried to play with them. When Peri and I were their age, we used to accept these offers only to regret them later: someone bossed us around or stole our treasures or flounced around us and made us cry. It was as though our daughters had learned that lesson through us, somehow, and seeing this made me happy.

I was convinced that we should go to the flea market, and I rounded up the girls and we all walked out to the tent by the amusement park. I love the flea market; it comes through every July, and has everything from bags and clothes to music and food and cheap costume jewelry. I like the way everything looks, colorful and loud, like a circus. Perihan loved it and bought some dresses and a ring, and I pawed a pair of earrings until she made me try them on. They were round and big and made of brass and had fake garnets in them, and in the mirror—with the carnivalesque tent behind me and the earrings hanging by my face—I looked like someone else entirely. It felt good to pretend to be someone else, so I asked the Malaysian man at the counter how much they were and bargained down to half his initial price. Perihan insisted on paying, and I thought that was kind so I let her, and afterward, I hooked them on and she slapped my palm and giggled and told me I should teach negotiations at universities around the world.

~

Sometimes, Perihan’s friends would come from downtown and she would sit with them on the balcony far into the night and tell them stories in Arabic and English. It was understood that I would not join in these gatherings, the same way a person does not bring a car into the house. They all giggled and drank Stella and smoked cigarettes, and Mother shook her head in their direction because she did not approve. The friends would spend the night and in the morning, which began at around 2 pm for them, they walked to the beach carrying beach chairs and umbrellas. By then I would have done the grocery shopping for the first and second floors, watered the plants, did the wash, cooked for my family, and cleaned the building’s entrance with rags. I jealously watched Peri and her friends walk down the street and cross to the shore, and then I went to my garden and sat in the shade and daydreamed. The honeymooning women yelled down at me from their balconies, and I ran up to their apartments and they gave me grocery lists. They paid me the total for the groceries and then usually tipped me around twenty percent for delivering them; at the end of the summer they would also give me a bulk tip. Usually, my tips and end-of-summer gifts amounted to enough money to tide me over until next summer.

Whenever I thought of winter, I pictured it dark and long, like night, like Madame Manaal’s apartment, or the inside of my eyes when I close them against the light. I dreaded the town’s emptiness, how the residents would leave like ants being flung from a vast, billowing blanket. I put the wash on the line, pants and undergarments and shirts and shawls, and as I clipped them with wooden pegs to the bright yellow line, I thought these thoughts, and I wondered about love, wondered if I would ever be blessed with it, if I would ever be married again. I wanted that, but I told Mother and everyone else that I didn’t, that I hated men and their wiles and that I wanted to be alone forever.

Perihan confided in me one day at dusk, as we sat on her balcony and sipped at our mint tea, that she too was lonely and wanted to be in love. She asked me if I thought we were cursed, and I superstitiously spat in my chest and said, “Let’s hope to God we’re not.” She asked me if I knew of someone we could go to who could tell us, and break the spell if there was one, and I told her I did. Perihan leaned into the edge of her seat, her back straightening, and said, “When can we go see her?” She smoothed her bangs, and I said, “Well, not now … Maybe tomorrow.”

The next day we took the bus out to Abu Qir, and Perihan gawked at the ponies and carts that passed by. I nudged her with my shoulder and she stifled her giggles. We walked between two buildings, in that cobbled sand-brown hallway that was windy and salty, the blue of the ocean in front of us a rectangular marine box. We found the woman’s door and knocked. She sent her girl to answer it, and the servant stared at the two of us—an odd pairing, she must have thought: one crinkled, one flat—then ushered us in. We described our woes to the woman, who was the size of Shadia but eighty years old, her neck an accordion. The servant made us cups of coffee; we drank them and afterward, the old lady told us to push our thumbs into the dregs. We did, and handed the cups over to her. She did Perihan’s cup first: Perihan was a fool in love, but soon she would find a man who liked her for who she was. She didn’t have to pretend to be anyone else, she just had to be the way she was and a wonderful man would come to her. He would be tall and have a goatee. It would happen within the next three months, said the woman, and Perihan nodded silently. I was confused as to why she wasn’t excited. Maybe she didn’t believe in fortunes?

Then the woman labored over my cup, huffing and tut-tutting. She turned the cup over and over in her hand, and finally, she exhaled loudly, and said, “There is no power nor strength without God. My girl, I see nothing in your cup but darkness, long darkness with small bursts of light once a year. I am sorry, daughter.” I nodded and stood up. Perihan looked at the old woman with hateful eyes, then shouted, “Why did you say that to her? We were both going to pay you the same exact amount! You’re a fraud! Besides, I don’t like men!” I grasped her by the arm to silence her, and pulled her up, and we left.
By the time we walked home from the bus, the sun was setting, and the girls were sitting by Mother at the edge of the dump, eating grilled ears of corn and grinning. From where we stood, they looked just like we used to. Perihan said goodnight to me and told Anna to go up to sleep when she was done. Anna was confused, so Perihan said it in English, then Anna yelled and appeared to be negotiating a longer stay, but Perihan wouldn’t budge.

~

After Anna went up and Shadia came in for her bath, I thought about the old lady of Abu Qir, about what she had said about my darkness. I looked around my apartment: ever since I could remember, our walls have been covered in rugs, rugs in red, orange, blue, and green. Our house is colorful and serene; Mother says it reminds her of home down south, and Father, a wise man who likes to maintain peace, agrees with her, as he does on everything. Outside my house there are flowers and plants I have grown; upstairs in the homes of the people for whom I work, the walls are white and everything is bleak. I began to worry about Perihan; she was unhappy and she was alone.

I sat outside after Shadia slept and watched the street and the sky. A woman’s voice floated down from her balcony, as she called to me, “Mother of Shadia! Mother of Shadia!” Perihan was the only person who called me that. Normally, I hate when summer folks want me to do something for them this late in the evening, but for Perihan, I was willing to let go of my annoyance. I climbed her stairs and found her on the third floor, halfway up the building. “Do you smoke?” she asked. “Bongo, I mean?” I gasped, and then laughed. I had never smoked drugs before, and I couldn’t imagine anyone else I’d want to smoke it with. “Yes,” I said, and she took it out of her pocket. It was in a long, white cigarette. I whispered that she was crazy and to put it back in her pocket; we had to go to the roof if we wanted to do something that illicit. She obliged and followed me up.

We climbed the ladder onto the roof and watched as the wash fluttered in the breeze. She lit her cigarette, took a drag, and passed it on to me. I smoked, and halfway through, got the giggles. She laughed too, and we watched the beach and the street below. My mind felt light, and my body relaxed. We told each other funny stories, and an hour later, Perihan began to get morose. “I hate not being a little girl,” she said. “When I was little I wore a nightie in the street and no one looked at me. No one whistled at me. I felt invisible and happy. I had no money of my own and I was happy. Look at you. You still wear what you used to wear. You live the same life you’ve always lived. You have a home here, and it’ll always be here for you. You raise Shadia without her father, but you don’t do it alone; your mother and your sisters and all the neighborhood helps. I envy you.”

I couldn’t believe what she was saying. No one had ever told me they envied me before. And why would Perihan, the light-skinned beauty who lives in America and who’s been on an airplane, envy me?

“That’s silly,” I said. “No one helps me. I was punished for leaving Shadia’s father. My mother still won’t look me in the eye. I’m considered worse than a widow, and my honor is constantly in question, just because I’ve had … sex.” I knew I was high. “Besides,” I continued, “It should be the other way around,” then giggled. I was not ready to be morose. “I should envy you. You’re getting the man with the goatee!”
We both laughed at this, big laughs that stole away our breath, cascading giggles and tears. Then, Perihan said, “Listen, I know I’m paranoid right now—this stuff makes you paranoid, you know? But listen, I think she switched our fortunes.”

“No!” I slapped her arm.

“Yes, yes, yes. In the next three months you will meet your man. My life is dark and sad except for the summers, when I have vacation from teaching and I can travel. That was my fortune. Trust me!”

I laughed and blushed and told her I hoped we both could find love. She smiled and said, “From your lips to the heavens.” Then she stared at my lips for a long time, and I felt a warmth spread through me.

“Do you want to see the phantom apartment?” I said, and she squealed and nodded. We pushed the timed light switch and ran down as quietly as possible to the third floor. She held onto my dress and giggled. Inside, she gawked at the white sheets and the marble floors; she sat down on them and ran her hand against their surface.

“I saw them install this floor,” I said. “Burly men carried the slabs up on their shoulders.”

Perihan sat back, her body outstretched against the floor. I sat next to her.

“Do you ever bring men here?” she said.

I spat in my chest. “Of course not!”

“Why not?” she insisted.

“Someone would see them come up. Mother or Father, even Shadia. It’s too risky. And I haven’t met anyone to do that with.”

“If you met them, would you? You could easily disguise them as a friend of a family here. You’re the eyes and ears of the neighborhood, so you can sneak in anyone you wanted. There are rich girls all over Egypt who wish they could do the same.”

She was right. “Sometimes,” I divulge, “I see men beautiful enough to invite here. But I don’t, I just come here by myself and imagine them touching me.”

She giggled. “You come here to masturbate?”

My face flashed warmly and I looked away.

“Don’t, Aisha. Don’t be embarrassed,” she said, and took my face in her hands. I felt strange and still warm. She kissed my cheek. “Don’t be embarrassed,” she said, and stroked my face. “Don’t be embarrassed,” she said, and kissed my eyelids. “Don’t be embarrassed,” she whispered, and pecked my lips. “Don’t be embarrassed,” she said, her tongue sliding into my mouth. I hadn’t kissed anyone in a long time. I knew what we were doing was wrong, but I didn’t know why. I imagined my mother finding us that way, spitting on me, her mouth grimacing in disgust, and I pulled away. Perihan put her hands on my waist and said, again, “Don’t be embarrassed,” and slowly wedged her knee between my legs. I let out a sharp cry, and smelled her hair. It was sweet and salty at once. She slid her hands over me, then kissed my neck, my shoulders, my breasts, my stomach, my hips, all the while whispering for me not to be embarrassed. I couldn’t help it. Soon, her sweet and salty hair was caressing the inside of my thighs, and her tongue was on the ridge of my sex. She darted it over me and hummed and groaned, and I looked at the white sheets all around me and sighed. Then, she slid a finger inside me and thrust it upwards, as though pressing the timed light switch, and soon, my light clicked on, shone for a while, then went out again. I curled up next to her and closed my eyes.

“Is this what you meant when you told accordion-neck you didn’t like men?” I said. She pulled herself up on one elbow, looked at me, then smiled.

“Yes,” she said. “It is.”

“Have you done this to many women?”

“No. But I was scared at first that there was something wrong with me. I went to many imams and they all said the same thing: that what I felt was haram, and I should control it. Then I found an imam who told me that nothing in the Koran says a woman can’t love a woman. There’s one verse that says if two women are found together they should be locked up in the house. Then the imam told me that two women locked up in a house could only lead to one thing!” We both laughed. When she laughed, I smelled myself on her mouth, and hugged her close.

In the following days, I averted my eyes when Mother looked at me. I was ashamed and confused, but then I would hear Peri saying, “Don’t be embarrassed” in my ear, her voice like a phantom white sheet, and I would feel better. I wondered if she seduced women all over Egypt and then told them the story about the imam to make them feel better. I decided that if she did, it worked. As I pedaled my bike to the market, I looked at men’s bottoms and stared at their hands. It was as though Peri had reawakened something inside me, and I was grateful to her for that.

Jarrar_Zigmund2

Jarrar_Zigmund2

~

In the afternoons, Perihan and Anna went to Alexandria, to the new library, where Peri was doing her research. I searched her eyes for a sign, a direction, a way I should behave toward her, but there was nothing, and Perihan simply treated me the way she always had. It was not as though she was pretending nothing had happened between us, only that it would not change the way she saw me or thought of me. It was a bit of a relief to sense that, although I was confused about how to feel. One afternoon, she invited Shadia and me to go to the beach. I said I couldn’t go; I was washing the army officer’s car, and was not yet done with the windows. She seemed embarrassed for not knowing this, for not having to wash cars. I told her I could go when I was done.

We spread a few chairs and plunged the sharp wooden end of an umbrella into the sand. A few kids walked up and down the sidewalk holding a crab on a leash. The crab danced and pulled and tugged, facing the shore. While Shadia and Anna swam, Perihan asked me if I ever wanted to leave the building. I said I was like everyone else: I lived where I’d grown up and would probably die there. I told her this gave me comfort on most days, and I faced the blue sea. Perihan said this was an alien idea to her, and that she wouldn’t know where to go home to, even if she wanted to. She said that when she came to Egypt, she knew where to go, and that if I ever came to America, she would never know, she wouldn’t even sense that I was there. “It’s enormous,” she said. The sky was dotted with plastic kites and I watched them float and thought of what she meant. I thought of the kite ripping from the thread and flying away, disappearing into the immeasurable sky. Perihan was like that. I was like the crab on the sidewalk.

~

The day Perihan and Anna left, I made them mulokhiya, picked and dried the mallow leaves myself, and she told me I had to eat it with them. We devoured it on the balcony, then the girls went down to play until Perihan’s aunt came to get her. Perihan sat close to me and I saw a couple of eyelashes on her chin. I bent to brush them off but they wouldn’t move. She blushed, and said she was hairy-chinned. I told her not to be ashamed, and she got up and started looking for her tweezers. I laughed, then watched the girls drum on tin cans in the street and was saddened that they would not be able to communicate once they got older.

“You should teach Anna Arabic!” I said.

“You should teach Shadia English!” she joked, tweezing in a small hand-mirror.
“Peri. How will they talk when they get older?” I watched them bang on the drums harder, the suitcases big and bulky on the side of the road. I wondered if Peri would ever come back.

“They’ll find a way,” she said. “Believe me, they’ll still have the language they have now.”

I nodded to be polite, but I didn’t believe it.

 

 


Randa Jarrar is the author of the critically acclaimed novel A Map of Home. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Five Chapters, Guernica, The Oxford American, The New York Times Magazine, The Utne Reader, Salon.com, and The Progressive. She lives in Central California.

Kelsey Zigmund is an illustrator and sculptor.  Find more of her work here: kelseyzigmund.blogspot.com

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