Deep Night

September 13, 2021

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Tenea D. Johnson is a multimedia storyteller, musician, arts & empowerment entrepreneur, and award-winning author of seven speculative fiction works, including 2021’s releases, Frequencies, a Fiction Album, and Broken Fevers. Her virtual home is teneadjohnson.com. Stop by anytime.
Content Warning(s):
Death or dying, Racism and/or racial slurs

Between death and birth lies a deep night. In it, the soul stretches out, comes apart at the seams, and disperses, to eventually recreate itself anew. Evangeline always imagined it to look like multicolored light floating like gossamer or lightning in space. She thought now of her Mama Luella stretched out against the darkness, melding with other lights while Evangeline sat stiff-backed and tired in a clearing to pay her respects. She smiled through the distance between them now. She did not fear that Mama Luella was lost, only traveling to come back in another face, a deeper dream, a more refined version of her truth. Evangeline looked now and again at her father sitting next to her. Only the tendons in his jaw acknowledged the funeral happening around him; they worked diligently, chewing on the pain of death. His round brown face was still but for their movement. The rest of him seemed far away. She hoped with her mother. 

Activity coursed around them. Graceful old mamas crowned in feathered Sunday hats led each other to their seats, spoke and wept quietly in pockets of color—blue, purple, rose. All of Mama Luella’s favorite colors expressed in skirts, homemade blouses, dyed slippers, as per her grandmother’s instructions. Evangeline didn’t wonder when they’d received these instructions. Only her father and the Reverend donned the traditional black. She wore the dress she’d found waiting for her in her grandmother’s front bedroom, a lush blue wrap with white doves stitched into the hem. Though she’d never worn a wrap in her life, her hands worked outside her conscious mind and cinched it perfectly in a few moments, a deep hum vibrating through her lips as the last fold was tucked in place. 

Evangeline smiled now at the women she knew had bathed her grandmother at this morning’s sunrise. Carefully dipping swatches of cloth ripped from their own lives into spring water, they had wiped off the funeral parlor’s makeup and concealer, coaxing Luella out of this impression of her. Now they turned the corners of their mouths up, smiling back at Evangeline. They slowly nodded to her, eyes locked on her own. She returned the gesture. It seemed a signal. 

The Reverend, who’d been quietly praying in a cluster of oaks, advanced from the trees and walked to the front of the outdoor congregation. He smoothed his thick white mustache and began to collect the spirit. 

“Brothers and sisters, we gather today to celebrate the soul of Luella Willet …”

“Mmmm hmmm,” the mourners sang back to the Reverend. 

“… Sister Luella touched all of our lives, but more than that, she touched the heart of God!”

Yes, she did! Yes, she did! the older ladies chimed in, fanning the words out of their mouths. Evangeline watched them scoot farther back in their chairs, poised for the next punctuation. 

“… and for this we know she sits high in the kingdom of the Lord!” 

On high! Yes, Lord, on high!” came the crescendo from the audience.

Having released this energy built up since they learned of her passing, Luella’s longtime friends and distant acquaintances settled back in their seats to let the familiar funereal words unfold. Evangeline sat quietly open, absorbing the Tuscaloosa that had been lost to her since her mother forbade her to visit. 

§

“Where do you come from?” 

“Long time ’go the way-back folks come from there to here to learn how to be reborn right here on the land. With the trees and all the little animals and everything, and they stay alive so there’d come us, and here us is.” The gravel slid from Evangeline’s throat. She said in her own voice, “Here us is.” Evangeline rocked slightly, small hands cupping the wet bark of the log. As her “is” flowed out across the water, Evangeline looked up to catch Tasha’s naked expression. She’d learned to look before Tasha covered up the tense eyebrow, the pinched corners of her mouth. This time her friend’s face was open, the lips parted slightly.

Tasha looked ready to ask another question but then nodded to herself, dismissing it. Behind her, the water continued to push through the earth, clear water over pastel pebbles. Evangeline and Tasha fell now into one of their silences, the end of a game they’d played throughout the few weeks Evangeline spent in Tuscaloosa visiting her Mama Luella.

Nearly every day, Tasha and Evangeline would strike out after lunch and spend whole afternoons lost in the half-acre behind the shed. They were a good pair: Tasha had many questions, and Evangeline, answers. Twenty Questions was their favorite game. Though it always had the same theme, they never tired of playing it. No one was better at “Who Am I?” than Evangeline. They’d walk through the woods, Tasha swatting at dandelions and weeds with her ever-present stick, bringing up the rear to Evangeline’s searching eyes. When Evangeline found something—a little waterfall emptying into a sinkhole, a leaf turned transparent by the sun, a rock whose texture tickled her—she’d hold it, if only with her eyes. Her face would smooth, and then Tasha knew Evangeline was ready. 

Tasha would start with simple questions but had learned not to ask for the name because the answer was always “Evangeline.” Never mind that two questions before she’d said she was six feet tall or, in answer to the one before that, that she made boats for a living. This was the trick in their game: the answer was never one word or two but the answers to all the questions stacked up together. It wasn’t the “I” that was important but the “am.” Tasha found this more interesting than television and spent most of her time with Evangeline. Tasha didn’t assume that she knew things, so she wasn’t afraid to ask questions; that’s what Evangeline liked about her. Most people thought they knew every damn thing. When really what they knew wasn’t any deeper than the stream behind her grandmother’s house. 

“How come your mama don’t like Black people?” Tasha asked into the silence.

Evangeline slid down the log and onto the ground, tucking her long legs beneath her. “Why do you think that?”

“’Cause she don’t. You can tell. It’s like she don’t want to touch us or something. Too good for her own kind, my mama say.”

Wondering if it were true, Evangeline said, “That’s not true,” and picked up the end of Tasha’s stick, dragged it lightly across the grass. Evangeline knew what her friend was talking about but didn’t think that was what her mother added up to. 

Just before Evangeline had come to Tuscaloosa—she loved saying that word, fast and happy; it sounded like a secret password, Tuscaloosa—Marie told Evangeline that her legacy was to struggle and blossom. Evangeline told her mother that she wasn’t delicate enough to blossom, that she’d rather explode like popcorn: “Uh! Here I is!” Marie said all girls were delicate and pointed at the soft blonde woman on the TV screen. After that, Evangeline thinned herself out, cut back her thoughts, stopped eating butter. Marie told Evangeline that they were beyond color, and if White isn’t a color, they were. ’Cause most times white was the only color Van saw: at school, Brownie meetings, play dates. She went to a private school in a private neighborhood. To Evangeline, private meant White. Except for her private dreams. Not wanting to play Twenty Questions again, Evangeline shut down that train of thought and looked up at the lavender sky. 

“Come on, it’ll be dark soon.”

The girls brushed off their backsides and headed to the shed for jars. Their favorite blue lightning bugs came out earliest of all. 

§

That evening Tasha’s parents, the neighbor’s family, and Evangeline’s got together for a barbeque. Marie and Edward had arrived earlier that evening to spend the traditional last weekend with Mama Luella. Now they sat outside talking with the other adults. Mama Luella stood over a barrel grill, spraying water onto the meat. In the family room, Tasha and Evangeline played with Marcus, the neighbor’s boy. 

“You ain’t all that! You ain’t all that!” Marcus yelled, his chin pointing upward on the last syllables as he looked down his nose at Tasha. The sound of his voice excited him at this volume. Before, Tasha had been winning the Dozens, cutting on his brother’s too-big nylon jacket and the way it looked on his pointy, tall boy body, even noticing that he’d tied his shoes in knots where the laces were broken. He’d lost the rhythm of the contest, could think of no come-backs, and so was left listening to a list of his faults. But now Marcus had her—not with wit but with sheer size and volume. Tasha retreated closer to the wall every time he yelled. He liked the power, and bully genius stoked his voice. His hand flashed out, grabbed the doorknob behind her, and before she could make real words with her grunts of protest, he’d shoved her into the darkened closet. Immediately her voice reached its highest pitch, sirening for someone to get her out. 

Of course, it was Evangeline who came to the rescue. Already well over four feet tall at seven years old, she was a natural protector. Used to plucking the smaller girl out of trouble, Evangeline enjoyed this role. This made her walk slowly over to Marcus, preparing her strategy. Before a word came out of her mouth or a hand up to protect herself, he’d grabbed her too and shoved her on top of Tasha, whose hysterics bounced off the walls in the small black space.

Evangeline knocked the wind out of her. The screaming cut off, lost in the gush of Tasha’s breath. In the moment of silence when the other senses faded, Evangeline’s skin took over and told her that the warm sweat pressed against her was too close, that the hot breath on her neck was fear. Then it failed her. It could not tell her that this was not the dream where a box of darkness fell on her as she walked in another life, through the abundant plains. The one that blotted out the blue skies and breeze, sealing her away from that happiness. Evangeline reacted now as she did then, the last time something tried to take the space out of her soul. When her hands spread out and hit the closet’s walls, it began: the timbre that got straight to the core of things, a sound beyond sound. 

Marcus snapped to attention, his grin breaking apart until the boy looked like he’d been struck in the face. The tendons stood out on his neck. His head vibrated from tension. He looked about to cry. 

Conversation on the back porch stopped short. Tasha and Evangeline’s mothers wavered in the wind. While Tasha’s screams dissipated into the sounds of Earth, Wind, and Fire, Evangeline’s cut straight through, reaching through the women. Only their eyes shifted—gravitated, in fact—toward the sound. The men sitting under the magnolia tree looked at their wives for an explanation. Cans of beer hovered in midair. Startling stretched into taut awe. 

Mama Luella moved. Evangeline’s screaming frightened her, almost made her panic. The sound was too raw and thick for a child’s delicate cords. She tore the door open and went to pick up the girl. Evangeline’s eyes stopped the big woman. Mama Luella thought she saw something in them, moving across the whites. She shook her head hard once and took Evangeline in her arms. The sound didn’t stop until Mama Luella pulled Evangeline clear of the closet. In the light the child’s eyes cleared. Evangeline stared out into the distance, pupils straight ahead and expanding. Her parents’ running feet shook the floorboards. Evangeline hopped a little in the air but then stood still, rooted to the spot. 

She didn’t speak another word all through dinner, only nodding when asked if she was okay. The adults spoke quietly, moved sharply, knocked over a saltshaker and a pitcher of iced tea, sliced through a wishbone. Her father, usually out playing bid whist or pool with the neighborhood men, watched TV all night and stuck close to his daughter. 

Evangeline spoke only after the visitors had gone and the dinner plates were put away. In the front bedroom, Marie folded Evangeline’s clothes back into a tiny pink suitcase as Mama Luella laid the child down for rest. 

“Mama Luella, what dreams mean?” Evangeline asked.

“Dreams are your soul remembering what’s been done and what’s to come.”

“Mother! I will not have you filling her head with all that foolishness,” Marie interrupted. “Haven’t we had enough for one day?” She turned toward her daughter. “Dreams are like storybooks, Evangeline. You’re just telling stories to yourself.” 

Marie looked steadily into the child’s eyes, trying to beam out authority. Evangeline looked at her a moment and then focused on her grandmother with wide eyes and closed mouth. Mama Luella only gazed back calmly at the child, smoothing the tasseled blanket over Evangeline’s feet, then turned and walked out of the bedroom.

Later Evangeline heard her mother and grandmother arguing in whispers out in the kitchen:

“Just ’cause you don’t wanna know, don’t mean the child don’t.”

“Gracious! And you wonder why I left Tuscaloosa. Too many backward people and their backward ideas.” 

“You can be as saditty as you want, Marie Mae, but don’t sass me like you didn’t come out me, ya hear.”

“Now, Mama …”

Now, Mama,” and then the screen door banging shut, feet following after.

That night Evangeline dreamed of her Mama Luella, shrunk down to her size with a little girl’s face and strong hands. The Girl Mama Luella carried a bucket across a dusty patch of land, her gaze brushing the grass. Evangeline couldn’t see all of her dream self, only its hand—large, brown, and mottled with scars. She watched as it took the burden out of the other’s small hands and grasped them. The Girl Mama Luella looked up and smiled. A beautiful brown girl who’d been waiting to smile. Its flash faded slowly from Evangeline’s unconscious eye, first the color, then the presence.

The last remnants of floating light melded into the golden sun splashed across Evangeline’s face when she awoke. 

The next morning Evangeline repeated the action, taking her grandmother’s hand after breakfast. Rubbing the child’s supple knuckles, a tear slid down Mama Luella’s cheek. She gathered the girl in her arms and placed her in her lap. “I just want you to be safe.” Mama Luella kissed Evangeline’s forehead, and she rested against her rock. Through morning’s first shy rays toward the full beams of early afternoon, they sat that way, not moving until the car was packed and Ed came to say goodbye, collecting Evangeline.

Marie sat in the front seat of the Volvo, reading a magazine. As the car pulled away, Evangeline smiled big for her Mama Luella.

When Marie Brown read one of the child’s letters to her grandmother the following autumn, she decided she didn’t like what came out of her daughter in the backwoods of her childhood, and Tuscaloosa became a memory to Evangeline. 

But Evangeline remembered more than her mother could fathom. That much was evident even in the letter that changed everything. Marie had been cleaning Evangeline’s room, looking for any loose ends that could be sent down to their new home in Savannah. Edward stood in the doorway again, asking why they couldn’t just wait and do everything at once when Evangeline was done with the school year.

Marie turned and leveled her eyes upon him. “Edward, the sooner we start, the sooner we finish.”

“But we still have lives here, Marie, things that have to get done before the move. I’ve got two projects to finish at the firm. Van’s got her million and one classes and clubs, and you—”

“And I am keeping this family in order, moving us on to new things. Don’t you want to take the next step, Edward? Or do you want to stay at a mediocre firm where they don’t appreciate you? Or maybe you want our daughter to have to grow up around this mess like we did?”

“What mess, Marie? I’ve been listening to you talk about ‘this mess’ for months. I don’t see any mess, except for the one we’re making trying to hurry this move.”

“Oh don’t lose your reason now and don’t take that tone with me. Don’t you trust my judgment?”

“Of course I trust your judgment, Marie. That’s not the point. It’s just that these last couple of months, you’ve been … agitated or something, I don’t know.”

“And this move is just what I need—what we all need. To settle down somewhere safe. That’s all, Edward. The thought of it just … excites me.” She moved in close, put her arms around his neck, and looked up into his nutty brown face, reassuring herself that yes, she had married the right man for the job. “Nothing to worry about. Soon there won’t be anything to worry about.” She kissed him, letting out just enough warmth to calm his fears. “Savannah’s going to be great, hon. We’re going to be great in Savannah.”

Edward looked down and saw his Marie, bit the side of his mouth, and nodded. He held her for a moment, brought her closer to him, and then backed away.

“I have to get back to work,” he said and turned down the hallway.

She watched him round the corner and then returned to her work. Packing away some of Evangeline’s books, Marie came across the letter sticking out of an old National Geographic. She unfolded it and read: 

Mama Lu. How are you? I miss you. Did you eat all the tomatoes in the garden? Will you send me some? Mama never buys them. She cooks little green pencils. They tast like yuck. We are moving soon. Their will be a grate school. I can take better clases. Mama say she sick of the fokes here. Say they a bad enflunce. I had a dream with the hurt lady. I have a lot. She still says no thing. She looks at me. She smiles and tuches my face. I know she will say sum thing soon. I want her to talk. Are dreams what you say or what Mama say? The hurt lady is not like a dream. I play kick ball and go to the beech when I dream. Not like when I see her. I love you. 

Love 

Evangeline 

This was the last letter never sent from Evangeline to Mama Luella. When they moved to Savannah, Marie redoubled her efforts to fill up her daughter’s mind with activities and near-constant instruction on how to act. She spent every waking moment standing over Evangeline, whether she was physically there or not. At night Marie took two prescriptions so she could do it all again in the morning. She meant to make Evangeline cultured by her definition, for her to follow in her footsteps and beyond—but most of all, she meant to leave no room for the hurt ladies in Evangeline’s dreams. The girl was a fledgling ballerina by eight, a Girl Scout with every badge by eleven, and a formidable chess opponent by thirteen. Amongst her mother’s perfumed and perfectly coiffed crowd of pale friends, there was talk of geniushood. Through the martini glasses clinking in the parlor, the subtle tones of jealousy could be heard between the congratulatory words, the exclamations of great mothering. Marie accepted these compliments with a chiseled smile. Her gaze stayed cast in front of her, darting toward the clock on the mantle, counting the minutes until it was time to shuttle Evangeline from French tutoring to gymnastics. 

Mama Luella wrote over the years, first demanding, then begging, that she be allowed to see her grandchild. She called Marie out for severing the connection and trying to hide her own dreams. She told Marie that no good would come of it—and she was right. “It won’t stop just because you want it to, Marie. You can’t run from it. You should be running to it.” 

Marie scoffed at this last, but it came back to her many times over the years: as she sat in PTA meetings, a little brown dot in a sea of white; once as she watched the waves rippling up the shore on a vacation to Virginia Beach with Edward’s friends; that time the butcher mistook her for Evangeline and called her “girl”; every night, as the chalk of the little blue pills melted onto her tongue, Marie thought of her mother’s words blurring on the page she still kept in her nightstand drawer. When it came time for Evangeline to graduate high school, Marie wrote her mother back. Mama, please come. The pills weren’t working. 

There were signs, of course, but like most, her family didn’t see them until after: little things could be found out of place in the fastidiously clean bedroom that she and Edward shared. Twice, when she was supposed to pick her daughter up, she found herself out by a lake staring deep into the water, looking at it as if there were no bottom at all. Marie started to avoid her friends. Their crumbling pale faces vaguely nauseated her. She found herself staring at the way this one’s mouth drooped into a tight frown or that one’s chin expanded, growing ruddy and flaccid where it connected to the neck. They looked alien to her, these proper White women she’d spent formal brunches and dinners with. Marie could no longer stand to be around those who had once been so valuable to her and, more importantly, her daughter’s opportunities. She declined invitations to galas and golf tournaments. After the incident at a dinner party hosted by Edward’s company, Marie could no longer control the remembering, and it came back to her in a whirlwind. 

Edward was off mingling with clients, buttering up his boss for a promotion. She could hear his clear baritone ringing out among the other voices. The glass of champagne in her hand kept Marie connected to the room. She concentrated on its cold mingling with her skin. She didn’t see the man approach her from behind. 

“Mrs. Brown.” His voice slithered. She turned abruptly to find Matthew Leonard, one of Edward’s associates—by far her least favorite—standing before her in a crowded, brown three-piece suit. A dim red rose stuck out of the lapel. “How lovely to see you again.” All the time he spoke, his gaze moved up her body, lingering on the ample curves and muscles shrouded in the purple wrap. 

“Mr. Leonard,” Marie replied, giving only the most obligatory of responses. 

“You’re looking fabulous—but then again you always do.” Not waiting for a reply, he continued:, “Catherine and I are having a little affair next weekend. You know, just a little something in commemoration of the upcoming commencement, a bit of a celebration for the ones who’ve been paying those exorbitant private school fees all these years.” He laughed at his joke. “We were really hoping you and Edward could stop by. After all, Evangeline is the valedictorian, and the four of us should have been coupling up a long time ago.”

Marie looked at him sharply at this last comment. Immediately, she knew it was a mistake to look him in the eye. His face was poised in a lascivious sneer. 

“I’ll have to ask Edward about that,” she replied, looking over his head for her husband. She’d lost his laughter in the crowd. “Evangeline’s speech at the NAACP awards ceremony is that night. We’ve already made quite a few commitments.” 

“Not too many, I hope. They have a way of dictating our lives, don’t they?” He took a step closer. “I, myself, try to stay open to the possibilities.” As he spoke, his hand crossed the threshold of insinuation and rested on her hip. “Would you care to dance, Marie?” he asked, his hand moving toward her ass. 

In one motion Marie moved close to his ear, broke her glass on the side of the table, brought it against his thigh, and whispered, “Would you care to bleed, Matthew?” 

The broken glass shook in her hand. Slowly Marie moved her head around his and looked him in the eye. He thought he saw something moving across the whites and took two quick steps away from her. 

“Marie! I see we’ve had a little accident.” Edward moved up briskly from the other side of the room. “Let me get someone.” He called out to a waiter and then turned back to his wife. 

For a moment Marie kept her back to him. Then she took a deep breath, making sure to look at the floor first, and replied, “Yes, it seems so.” She handed him the broken glass. “I’m afraid I don’t feel very well, Edward. Can we go?” 

“Of course.” 

They left Leonard staring at the spot they’d been standing in. 

§

That night dreams came back to Marie—through the veil of sedatives and the wall of her stalwart restraint. Marie’s woman came back to her. 

Why you hidin’? You can’t hide, girl! You can’t hide!” 

Marie could see the White face clearly in the blackness of the hold. She tried to breathe only when water lapped against the hull. She wanted to close her eyes and fade into the safe blackness, but she was afraid of not seeing the White man who searched her out, stepping on people, feces, and rats to find her. She scooted closer to the wall, balancing herself on the dead man beneath her. She tried not to recognize his marks, the same etched across her face. The sleeping Marie knew this memory and didn’t want it to see its end. She steeled herself against what was coming. Before his hand grabbed her, she blinked out and turned her inner eye to imagining the stars outside were familiar. He slapped her hard across the face, bringing her back. Her eyes reacted and opened. The White man was gone. 

“Why you hiding?” the woman asked, her face floating warmly inches from Marie’s. “You can’t hide, child. We belong to each other. You can’t deny me. Don’t you see that?”

The next morning Marie wrote the message to her mother and began counting the days until Mama Luella’s arrival. She threw away the pills when she got back from her morning errands.

When Evangeline pulled into the driveway, she saw a sight: Marie digging up the side of the yard, planting yams in place of the stone garden she’d laid out piece by piece the previous spring. Marie came in while Evangeline was sitting at the table poring over a thick volume of Lacan. 

“Why don’t you stop straining your eyes and call your grandmother? Tell her about the NAACP ceremony,” she said and walked out of the room.

At first perplexed, Evangeline quickly recovered and picked up the phone. 

Two days later Mama Luella was to arrive. The next day the neighbor’s septic tank backed up and exploded all over his yard. The smell was horrific. Edward suggested that they stay at a hotel for a night or two. 

“There’s too much left to do. I don’t want to celebrate Van’s graduation in a hotel,” Marie said. “Besides, Mama’s coming, and I want her to be in our home. Not some strange bed in a strange place. We’ll just close the windows, burn some potpourri. It can’t last long. Remember, they’re the ones without a toilet. I’m sure it’ll be fixed soon.” 

And it was: two days after they took Marie away, as Edward and Evangeline climbed into a cab bound for the airport, workmen packed away their tools and prepared the broken valve for its final resting home at the Savannah City Dump. 

One might say it was the smell that pushed Marie over the edge, or the possibility of finally talking to Mama Luella about the dreams, or maybe even the thought of letting Evangeline go off into the world. One might say this and be right, but this is what happened. 

On May 22, 1999, the day before darling Evangeline’s graduation, the Browns received one phone call and one package. The call came just before they were about to leave for the airport. Marie and Evangeline, focused on picking up Mama Luella, ignored the ringing. Edward picked up the receiver, expecting a call from work. He was on the phone for approximately thirty seconds. In that time his face flowed from easy expectation to stoic gravity. Afterward, he sat his women down in their impatience and spoke the words he wanted to bottle up and save for another day.

“Mama Luella …” he began. The story was simple: the rain, the cars, the crash. Its meaning was profound. Light turned to darkness, expectation turned to grief, joy to sorrow. Evangeline’s day turned into Mama Luella’s life. The house was silent; shadows hung in the room. Evangeline began to cry, first quietly then in long, ragged breaths. Edward tried to comfort her, smoothing the hair away from her face. He looked at his wife. She was not there. A woman made of stone stared back at him.

She stood up and walked out of the room. Edward heard her mount the stairs and close the bedroom door behind her. 

Sometime later the doorbell rang … and rang … and rang. Finally, Edward answered it and the house returned to silence. It was a package with two names written on the front:

To: Evangeline Brown

From: Luella Price 

He stood there trying to decide. In the end, he walked past his closed bedroom door and into his daughter’s room. 

“It’s from your Mama Lu,”he whispered and left the package in Evangeline’s trembling hands. 

She didn’t know what to do with it at first, that thing her grandmother had brought her even after she was gone. Evangeline opened it though and found her Mama Lu’s love for her wrapped up tidy in FedEx cardboard. She read the letter first.

I write these words the night before my death. It was foretold to me in a dream. Do not grieve too harshly. Accidents don’t happen at my age, Angel. You, my child, must prepare yourself. The time has come for sumthin that shoulda come a long time ago. But your mama wouldn’t have it, nor your father. And livin in the white folks world has left you unprotected. I cannot leave this place with you so vulnerable, but by will alone I cannot stay. Do not be afraid, Angel. You cannot fear yourself, and that child is what’s coming. You’re catching up with yourself. Don’t try to fit, just be. Not the Middle Passage, but a clear path. I can’t tell you every detail ’cause I don’t know. You children are made from different things than me and mineour time, I mean. And you, Angel, are made up of something different altogether, I ’spect. Just try to remember you’re becoming what you are. 

Luella

Evangeline ran to tell her mother, to finally tell her about the woman in her dreams. She wanted to tell her all about herself, ’cause maybe Marie didn’t know dreams weren’t storybooks. The door was locked. Evangeline yelled for the first time in her house: “Mama! Mama, open the door! Mama, I want to see you! Mama! I want you to see me! Don’t hide!”

Her voice cut through the darkness in the room. It cut through Marie’s darkness. Marie could not respond. They were coming too fast on her—the colors and sounds from all her lost souls. But mostly from the first, from the one who traveled the waters. 

Marie saw her mother, a young giant with wings enough to protect her from the waiting world. She saw the day that she closed the door between her selves, heard the reverberation of silence all over again. She saw her woman for the first time again: the strongest part of her spirit reaching out to touch her face when she was just a girl, five years old, picking blueberries in Mr. Jackson’s patch. She saw the splotches of blood on the tablecloth where she was born. The man in New Orleans who reached out to her then pale lemon hand: “Hey girl, you want a daddy?” The minstrel show that played out in the clearing. Choked on her first swig of whiskey that signaled her manhood in a remote village where green rolled strong and proud ever toward Macgillicuddy’s Reeks. The little girl she’d seen cut in two by a train when the hulking monsters were still new to the world. Felt the heat of the brick oven the master’s food simmered in. Tasted the sweat on her mother’s breast when she came to her a few precious moments between sunset and rise. She even reached back and saw the water before the darkness that was her only ally when the hold doors closed, sealing the tomb of living bodies. 

Marie tried to clear her mind, regain control. She took a deep breath, and the reek of human waste filled her nostrils. She closed her eyes, and there were the bodies. She started to hyperventilate. Each breath was another face. She reached out to grab hold of something and the curd of excrement was pasted across her hand. Marie could not hide. She reached her depth. Compelled by all that lay inside her, she began to remove her illusions. 

Outside the bedroom, time continued to slip into the past. Evangeline gave up her hoarse words at the door. Edward paced back and forth downstairs, eventually coming to rest on the other side of the bedroom door, his legs tucked under him, the right side of his body against the wood. He slowly sang a song he thought he’d forgotten the words to, his cheek brushing the wood: “Marie … Mae … Marie … Mae … Marie may I come in? Marie … I … Marie … I … Marie I’ll soothe your skin … Marie … Mae—”

The door to Evangeline’s room swung open. Evangeline stood in the backlight bright as an angel; she wore a quilted robe of white. He recognized a piece of linen napkin at the hem. It was from his wedding. 

“Mama Lu’s graduation gift,” she said, reaching down to help her father up. She pointed at the collar. “From her favorite dress, the one she was baptized in … and I think this pink piece is from Mama’s birth. I don’t know about the rest, but I will.” 

He kept staring at her face. It brought him peace. 

“Daddy, I’ve got to go give this speech. I’ve got something to say. I want you to be there. Mama won’t come out ’til she comes out,” she added matter-of-factly. 

Edward turned back toward the wood standing between him and his Marie, laid his palm flat against it. 

“Daddy, I need you.” The words were like magic. Edward stood up tall, brushed off his clothes, and walked down the stairs. 

“Mama,” she whispered, leaning into the door. “Don’t be afraid. Bring them together. We’ll be waiting for you, Mama.”

Inside the dark room, Marie stopped her scissors in midair and smiled. When she heard the front door close, she continued to remove all the soulless things from her. Later she moved on to the rest of the house. 

While her mother stacked dishes, clothes, and furniture into a neat pile in the backyard, Evangeline walked up to a podium, exuding a confidence that flowed over the sea of brown faces stretched out before her.

“I had a speech prepared for tonight, but I won’t be reading it. The world has changed since then. Today Luella Rivers Price died. She was my grandmother. But that’s not why I’m telling you. She gave me a message, one so important that she could not go without passing it on to me. This is purpose and devotion. Tonight I operate in her honor, in the service of purpose and devotion, to deliver my own message. And that is simply this: integrate your spirits. We who are so wrapped up in the concept of integration in the schools, in the workforce, even in families. We who need it the most, not to better, but to survive whole, speak no words and make no effort to integrate our spirits. I’m here to tell you that you have more than one. I’m here to tell you that every voice inside you must be given a chance to speak. I’m here to tell you that there is no greater gift or accomplishment or reward than a soul that is strong, coherent, and free. Each one of you has been here before and will be again.”

With this, she walked off the stage and to her father. Edward put his arms around her, squeezed her closer to himself, and kissed her forehead. The two walked out of the darkened room, not hearing the applause or pausing between their strides. They took one step after another into the evening. 

§

When they took Marie away she was a different woman. Her hair hacked off, nails broken off to jagged weapons. Blood trickled down her face. Her finery laid to waste in the bonfire only now cooling in the backyard. Walking between two men in white, she was dressed simply in a brown dress with no shoes upon her feet. She hummed a low song to herself and intermittently spoke what the attendants thought was gibberish but was actually Wolof, one of her first languages. The others being English, French, Gaelic, and more Creoles than it makes sense to mention. One of the last things she did before getting into the back of the van was reach down, grab a handful of dirt, and put it in her pocket. Then Marie turned, pushed her palm high toward her family, and got in with the brown man idling the engine. For a moment the white and orange lights lit up the yard, and then there was only darkness surrounding the two figures standing in the front lawn. 

§

“You know what medium mean, Mama? Medium mean halfway through. That’s you and me—mediums. You went too far one way, and I thought you were too far in another, but the woman come to me again last night. She said you be all right soon, she say you shouldn’t have delayed it so long, that it’ll leave its mark, but you be all right. And I’ll be here with you, Mama … my child’s child. We’ll walk back into the world together. Go anywhere you want. This is a hard thing, but I’m with you. Daddy’d like to see you … well, when you’re ready, if you want. Later, I dreamed you someplace beautiful, Mama. There were houses made out of wood and mud, painted yellow and red and white. Even the ground was painted beautiful. You sat outside next to a river staring into such blue waters. You were smiling. Then a woman called you, and you came running, so happy. I’ve never seen you smile like that. I hope you’re there now. I hope you’re there right now.” 

Marie’s lips moved a bit and then were still again. Looking up at her daughter for the first time in months, she saw her eyes were clear and smiling. 

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© Tenea D. Johnson
Originally appeared in Necrologue: The Diva Book of the Dead and Undead edited by Helen Sandler (Diva, 2003)

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