By Eden Royce
In a place beyond far, my braids are woven into the sweetgrass basket encasing me and I am surrounded by the scent of the ocean and its dead. A crack of light breaches my intricate prison and I shift, twist only a fraction, to take advantage of its brightness — there is no warmth from it.
I look at the pads of my fingertips. The flesh, bloodless, has been stripped away, and instead of muscle and meat, there is a network of twisting reeds, coiled, wound tightly into green-brown curlicues. Three of them in a staggered pattern like stepping stones in a garden. I touch my fingertips to my face and feel the prickly scrape of dried palmetto leaves.
It is the mark my people use for their handiwork — no, I lie. Only the women use it. It is the women who show their pride this way, their nimble fingers pinching and twisting the sweetgrass before forcing it over and through itself with the end of a teaspoon, whittled sharp. It is woven into their baskets, each one distinct like a signature. It is embedded in me.
Awake now, I run my blunt nails over my you-must-be-mixed-with-something skin, raising pink welts. My flesh crawls, itches, and in the dim light from the moon coming through the old plantation house window, I can see it ripple with intent.
Three circles, tightly wound, a trinity formed from one strand of sweetgrass. It isn’t the Holy Trinity, but something other. The poet, the weaver, and the . . . what? Which am I? Through the fog of interrupted sleep, I can’t remember. All I want is a shower. To scrub clean, to fill my nose with scent, to rinse away the sweat and dirt and dead skin.
But for me, water brings the dead.
Grandma is an expert with the machete. The blade doesn’t look like much, but they resemble each other — brown and thick and sharp-edged. Her grip is firm on the walnut handle and the blade sings briefly before severing the sugar cane on the counter, leaving a fibrous rip in the air of the stuffy kitchen. The screened door is open, as are the windows, but the breeze carries with it the sulfur of marsh and secrets.
Once, twice more the blade falls and then she is handing me a flat plank of cane to chew on while she teaches me the magic. I can barely see over the counter, even on my tiptoes, but I know to listen. The blue crabs in the slatted box next to me spit rhythmically and click their claws. I poke at them with an eraserless pencil and Grandma snaps at me to stop making them tough.
She controls the machete with ease, her plump arms fleshy and loose with age. The knife comes down and up with swiftness, and a crack appears in the side of a shaggy coconut. Gran has already drained the milky liquid into a measuring cup, so she lets me try to pull apart the coarse halves of the seed. I am unable to, even with my bare foot braced against the wooden cabinet. My fingers are too soft and small for this work. But I try and try and one day I manage it, the sound of tearing coconut meat a victory. She tells me I am ready. I can barely contain my excitement, but I know to listen.
When I think of those times, I wonder if the machete misses sinking into the sweetness of sugar cane and of coconuts. But I soothe myself with thoughts that blood can also be sweet.
I give in and turn on the shower, lulled by the sour stink of my own body. The oils I usually use to clean my skin and scalp have left a tacky layer on my body, which after a fervent scratch, lays under my fingernails in grayish clumps. The ancient air conditioner drones on, but provides little apart from ambient noise.
So I can spend as short a time in the water as possible, everything I need is already on the ledge of the bathroom window — sage shampoo, a comb, and a red net bag which used to hold oranges, now filled with too-small bits of soap, melted together into a multi-colored waxy lump. Under the stinging hot spray, I wet the net bag and saturate my braids.
As I scrub myself, eyes closed, my thoughts wander, lulled by the bliss of the steaming water. I work shampoo between each row of plaits and almost groan at the pleasure of it. How long has it been since I enjoyed a full wash? Not just standing at the sink, sponging my important bits with a cloth.
I resolve to stop avoiding the water. Who cares if they come? So what if they take me? I always awake back here, soaked in seawater, my fingers cramped, an arthritic tightness curling my palms. What could I have done that is so soul-shaking? For days after, I sleep fitfully, bombarded with murmuring voices until the house and my mind finally go silent.
The shampoo foams white, puddles of it drop from my squeezing hands to the floor of the tub and the swirling water thins them. I open my eyes and see the soapy bubbles running toward the drain and it reminds me of foam-topped ocean waves as they crash against the shore. Pounding fills my head, like drums, or like the cloth-wrapped stick the weaver carries that punctuates her every step. Stick, pound. Stick, pound.
It is then I realize I’ve made a mistake. Shampoo runs into my eyes and I bite off a squeal of pain. I flail for the shower curtain, but it is not there, or my fingers cannot grasp it. Water beats on my back and within it, between the droplets, I hear the pounding of the stick, calling to me in a language clearer than words. Soon, voices join the call — those still here and those already gone. I bless the dead and try to clear my vision, but when I peek out from my stinging eyes, the room is a swath of eggshell white filled with indistinct shapes.
The voices speak in Gullah, their words chewy and springy, like the tongues speaking it find the words tart, but irresistible. Sometimes, the words are in Kreyòl or in Carib, but I understand the orders all the same. I fight, I always do, but the weight of history, of my ancestors in the earth and those lying beneath the sea, crushes me. I turn to the shower wall and brace myself against the slick tiles.
“Why are you doing this?” My soap-flavored whisper is drowned out by the rushing of water, now smelling of the big salt.
Fuh da famblee. Fuh oonuh.
The voices usually do not answer me when I ask questions, but this time they do and I know to listen. I don’t understand why my family, why me, but I turn my face to the salty spray, letting it wash my self-inflicted wounds, and I feel cleaner than I have in weeks.
When I finally emerge from the shower, I limp toward my bedroom, bracing myself on the doorframes. Though I’m naked, the air conditioner does not chill my flesh, and I feel no shame in my body. From the depth of the closet, I pull out a thin white dress, made from cotton the voices bled for. The machete I strap to a belt on my hip. After dressing, I pull out the cloth-covered stick, thicker than a broom handle and polished smooth, and take up the call myself.
Stick and pound. Stick and pound. My feet thud against the hardwood floor, turning the old house into a living, vibrating drum. I do not sing, sure there will be enough time for that once we are together. When I am sure the call cannot go unheeded, I use the stick to support my steps down to the ocean.
There, the sweetgrass bows in the wind like geisha. I pluck the strands I need, choosing tender pieces that will bend more easily to my stiff fingers. They release their sap, coating my palms in the scent of sunbaked grass and distant shores.
When I return, I know the poet has come.
Sheets of paper made from rice, a staple food for our people, line the walls. Her handwriting is unmistakable, as is the scent of her handmade ink – the tang of rust-covered galvanized nails soaked in acidic black tea. Against everything in me, I read her elegant scrawl.
The weaver calls with words like the tides
Here, then gone
Shushing my lips
But blood bonds, wields the blade
Under the smile of moon
We fly together on buzzard’s wings
Returning to the ocean our bones
For the first time I can remember, I am afraid of the poet. I grasp her paper, the feel of it is too soft, too flesh-like for my comfort. I ball up the paper in my fist, move to yank it down from the wall.
Her words, languid and hoarse, emerge from the shadows to enclose me in a circle of reeking ink. I try to step out of the circle stained onto the old floorboards, but I can’t. It resists any movements beyond its barrier. I touch the machete with my fingertips.
“What do you want?” My voice is more tremulous than I want it to be.
“You called me, and I am here.”
“Why? I’ve never . . . I’ve — ” I’ve done something. But I don’t know what.
The words in front of me blur and run, dripping off the end of the scroll-like paper to pool on the floor just outside the circle. The ink puddle is reflective, like good patent leather. It shimmers for a moment, then the poet rises from the spill of ink to stand before me — brown skin, white dress, black fingertips.
“Fuh de famblee,” she says.
A shiver takes me. “The family,” I manage to scoff. “Everything is always for the family.”
And it was. All I learned, from crafting the baskets to pounding the stick to calling for those who would fill them, was for the family.
I cooked for Gran when she got too sick to do for herself. Morning and evening, I’d go out into the fields for food, swinging the machete to cut through watermelon vines and great handfuls of pole beans. The heat was stifling, a wall between me and comfort. Without tall trees for shade, the sun’s brightness faded my vision to white. Still, I swung the blade, cutting roots and filling my basket.
When the voice came that first time, I thought it was Gran calling me, and without a thought, I answered. I couldn’t see her, couldn’t see anything, and I ran through our fields, saying, “Yes, I’m here! Where are you?”
Gran wept when I told her what had happened. “Dey gone use you gals now. For what-so-never they wants.”
I’d thought she was crazy, maybe seeing things like the old people do. “It’s just me here, Gran. There’s only one of me.”
She shook her head as she patted my hand. “No, there ain’t, baby.”
We ate in silence that night. After I cleaned up, she asked me what the voices had said. I told her word for word. I told her each and every time they called what my instructions were, until she died and her voice joined the others.
“You answered them.” The poet is unsympathetic, ink dripping from her intricate network of braids to make letters on the floor.
I know she’s right. I should never have answered. I should have gone to a root lady to purge my mind of them once I had. No, I think, as my hand tightens around the stick, the one I use to pound the earth, sending messages far and wide to anyone willing to hear. It’s so much more than that.
I’ve allowed them to use me. I’ve opened myself to their wishes, their desires, and I’ve sent the call out to hundreds, maybe thousands. This one must die.
The poet had to die.
“And I have,” she said, reading me with ease. “Fuh oonah.” She held up her wrists and I saw the marks, the pattern of slices in her skin that I recognized as my own handiwork. It is the women who show their pride this way.
“For you,” she repeats in English. “You bound my hands. You silenced me. Kept me from telling our story to those who wanted to listen.”
From the depths of my psyche, I remembered. Pushing the grass through her skin with the handle of a spoon, whittled sharp, as she struggled to write. Pulling it tight as she cried out, her voice the call of a buzzard’s. My fingers kept working, binding her as I added strands of fragrant grass, bending them around her flailing body.
They are xenophobic, my people. Hating to be recorded, watched. Hating their words, their songs, their spells taken and shown to the world. The poet had been trying to capture these words, to put them on display for others to see. My people, a mélange of Senegal and Ivory Coast with a sprinkle of Muskogee, hide from the eyes of the world. Even so, our culture has leaked out, mostly recipes and a few stories, but even that is too much. They must stem the tide. And the poet was too large of a vessel of knowledge. She had to be contained.
The ink circle tightens.
My fingers are slick with sweat and I fumble for the knife, but I manage to grab it. I thrust it out, expecting to meet resistance from the circle, but there is none. The blade shicts forward, the short jab missing its target. The next time and the next, I raise it up like Gran taught me and bring it down, letting my weight add to the force of the blow.
The machete finds the poet’s shoulder, her hip, but she doesn’t react. My efforts rend her cotton dress, slice open her brown skin, but as with my fingertips, there is no blood. I shrink away from my handiwork this time and watch as slowly, black patent leather liquid pools to the surface of the poet’s wounds, closing them.
Her ink continues to flow, lustrous and shimmering. It climbs the walls, seeks the paper, then crawls along it, becoming jagged characters, and finally the words to a hex that will bind us into one.
I raise my stick to pound, to call the ancestors to my aid as they’ve called me to theirs, and the cloth-wrapped dowel comes down with a hollow thud. Again and again I pound the floor, adding to the vibration of the earth a different, deeper rhythm. My feet shuffle and brush the floor like a broom, bringing a melodic desperation to my song. Stick, pound. To the message, I add my voice, croaking and toneless though it is. I recall Gran and her words, pull them closer to strengthen my plea.
For a moment, the poet sinks back, surprised. And I redouble my efforts. Then she smiles, almost tenderly, as her braids rise from her shoulders.
The plaits whip the air as if powered by a hurricane, lashing thickened ribbons of ink at me with staggering force. Icy black clings to my arms, my bare feet, my face.
“Your strongest memory cannot compare to my palest ink,” she says, the whips coming faster now, coating my exposed skin. A lash of ink hits me in the mouth as I am drawing breath and I cough, choke on the metallic bloody tang. As I taste her words, it is only now that I realize she’d written out of love . . . out of pride. And I’d crushed her.
The ink is heavy on my arms; I can barely lift them. It covers my face. The stick has fallen silent as have the ancestors.
I am alone.
Alone with the poet as she comes to stand over me, the circle allowing her entry. I want to apologize, am desperate to, but blackness coats my tongue and only a gurgle emerges, sounding strangely like water as it drains from the tub.
My body shakes with tremors as the poet’s circle recedes, returning to slip under her skin. She draws closer and embraces me as I once did her. Blind, all I can see is the dark. My fingers find the holes in her wrists, the sweetgrass under my skin unfurling, emerging to bind us together.
The poet smiles, knowing that with this she is a prophet. “I’ve missed you.”
About the Author
Eden Royce is descended from women who practiced root, a type of conjure magic in her native Charleston, South Carolina. She’s been a bridal consultant, reptile handler, and stockbroker, but now writes fiction about the American South from her home in the English countryside.
Eden is the recipient of the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Diverse Worlds grant and is a regular contributor to Graveyard Shift Sisters, a site dedicated to purging the black female horror fan from the margins. Her fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from FIYAH Literary Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, Truancy, and Abyss & Apex.
About the Narrator
Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and three children. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times she juggles, none too successfully, writing, reading, gaming, and gardening. She has written one novel entitled An Unproductive Woman available on Amazon. She has also been published in or has stories upcoming in Escape Pod, Diabolical Plots, and FIYAH. Khaalidah also co-edits podcastle.org where she is on a mission to encourage more women to submit fantasy stories. Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to long youth. She can be found online at http://khaalidah.com and on Twitter at @khaalidah.