When I arrived at my grandmother’s, in the stillness of predawn, like some restless cat stalking, she was waiting for me on the front porch. It was as if she’d been expecting me. I suppose if she had been watching the sky, she was, because I could be seen for miles. My scarf had come unwrapped and my hair had unfurled into a roiling trail of luminescent heaped up clouds threatening to burst.
The air was thick with the metallic scent of rain and sweet jasmine. I stopped just inside the gate when I caught sight of my grandmother, chest heaving, trying with great difficulty to thin my lowering nimbus into one more presentable. All the excuses I’d contrived for why I was coming to her home at this unseemly hour, after all these years away from home, dissolved.
I did not need them. She would not judge me. She would welcome me home.
Grandma May glided soundlessly in her rocking chair, her eyes mirroring the yellow moonlight. I felt her gaze on me like fingers, probing the bruises, the lump on my forehead, my split lip. I gasped, as did she, when my pain telegraphed in tiny sparks across the distance to her when she grazed the tenderest spots.
A sharp, hot pain shot through my left ankle, right along the healed fracture in my talus. Grandma May’s gaze shifted to the turbulent sky where seconds later a twin lightning strike split the horizon like an angry slap.
“Yeah, I know,” she said to me, to the sky, to no one in particular. Perhaps to God. “You’ve got to decide what you’re going to do, child. Let us know how you feel, or hold back the storm.”
After that I went to pieces.
I stayed in my mother’s old bedroom; walls, floor and ceiling sealed with rubber. Part of me occupied the bed, fleshy lower limbs partially clothed, while the rest of me stretched upward in an agonizing aerosol clinging to the ceiling. My grandmother ran a fan and the window unit on the lowest setting to precipitate cooling, to keep me from spreading outward and beyond. My grandmother sang a familiar, old country lullaby meant to soothe my worrying and anger, to quiet the thunder rolling off my skin.
Her sweet susurration helped me not think about the fight. I blamed myself more than Reef because I should have known it was coming. Reef’s excuses, followed by bitter words, then the pushes, the slaps, that one shove down the stairs. I saw hatred sharp as a dagger in his eyes while he was whispering his love for me, if you can believe. What happened tonight was months in the making, but clear as glass if I had wanted to look through it. All this time I’d managed to keep the storm at bay. Not even a distant rumble. Not a single shower to purge the buildup. I’d been strong until tonight, finding strength in the names of God.
As Salaam. Bestower of Peace. Al Mughith. The Sustainer. Al Raqib. The Watchful.
Imagine Reef’s surprise when he threw his fist and it passed through a storm cloud, that the hairs on his knuckles and arm were singed away, the skin damp and tingling with electric heat.
“We ain’t had a bad storm in a long time. Perhaps I shouldn’t say bad, because it’s only bad for us. For you, it’s something different, I suppose.” My grandmother stood by the door with a quilt wrapped around her narrow shoulders as she watched me condense, coalesce, reassemble into the thick, brown-fleshed woman people recognized but didn’t have the sense to fear.
My glazed-over eyes cleared enough for me to see the picture on the nightstand. My mother, Mercine, smiled at me from the tarnished silver frame. I recall few details of her. A smile bright and broad as the sun, with a missing right front tooth. Rough, scarred, long fingered hands that could plait intricately patterned braids in my head and swing a vicious knife and disappear altogether like dew beneath the morning sun.
I tried to speak, but was only able to choke out a mouthful of snow onto the pillow. Somehow, my grandmother understood what I was asking.
“It was your mother’s storm, wasn’t it? Just tore herself into a rage.”
I already knew that. I just didn’t know why.
I lifted my arm, now solid and whole, but my fingernails were thin bluish white ice chips that glistened in the dull lamp light next to the bed.
“Where is she?” My voice was a zephyr fluttering the curtains and rattling the windows.
My grandmother shrugged. “Who’s to say?”
After breakfast I followed Grandma May through the sun- bright kitchen and out into the backyard.
“Come help me pick some of these vegetables.”
She pointed to a basket next to a rocker, identical to the one on the front porch, and an old sweat stained straw hat that hung against the wall. “Put that on to keep the sun off your face.”
I pulled the hat on over my scarf.
My grandmother used a hand to shield her eyes as she searched the horizon. She inhaled long and deep, nostrils flaring, then her narrow-eyed gaze fell on me.
“Weather lady said we gonna get a thunder storm today.”
The morning sun was still fresh in the sky but the air was hot and still, like a breath held.
“Feels like more than that to me.” Her brows descended in a question and I looked away. I was more hurt than angry, but I was whole nonetheless.
“Whatever storm that’s coming has nothing to do with me.”
My grandmother’s brows descended even further and met in the center of her forehead. Her eyes turned automaton slow back to the sky.
I should have known that help really meant she’d sit and watch and instruct while I’d do, but I didn’t mind. The sun’s rays were like massaging fingers on my back and shoulders, and the slow, repetitive movements, bending, reaching, pulling, pinching, clipping, did much to ease the stiffness that had settled in overnight from the beating Reef gave me.
I filled the basket with okra, tomatoes, and bell peppers and left it on the porch, then went deeper into the garden where I’d noticed a couple of ripe watermelons near the fence. I walked along the fence line and thumped each watermelon, inspecting the undersides, to find the perfect one to pick.
Beyond the fence was a gravel walkway and a field of overgrown grass and wildflowers. Further along, though I couldn’t see it from where I stood, Benders Bayou dropped off past the field. I stood there while thinking back on the days I’d spent here as a child. My grandmother’s home had changed little, and neither had the neighborhood, developed and yet with the easy cadence of the countryside surrounding it. So many of my memories from that time were faded and curled around the edges, like they’d been left out in the sun too long.
A dog barked in the distance and I saw a figure in a red and blue jersey several yards away, partly around the bend of the gravel walk. The person stood there, still and watchful, alert as a stalking creature. They waved and I ducked back out of sight. Chill bumps sprouted on my scalp and along my arms like I’d been doused with freezing water.
I felt I should remember, and knew that this is why so many years had passed since I had returned. There were reasons to forget. There was safety in forgetting. There was forgetting in the clouds.
I chose my watermelon and headed back for the house, not noticing until I reached the porch that sooty clouds now partly obscured the sun. Grandma May was no longer on the porch, but my friend, Sameha, was.
Seems odd, but I hadn’t thought of Reef all morning. Grandma May had kept me busy enough and truth be told, I wasn’t ready to think on any of it. When Sameha pressed her fingers to my bruised face and shoulder and ribs, inspecting with her nurse’s eye and friend’s heart, the aches came back just as if the sun had never warmed them away.
Now, there were other aches too. Deeper, right into my bones.
“He just keeps doing this to you.”
I gently pushed her hand away from my jaw. I sat in the chair and she sat on the top step.
“It’s going to stop.”
“You know it’s because he loves you, right?”
I winced with the pain that spiked through my left cheek, the orbit of that eye, where Reef had cracked it the previous night with his fist. It radiated like a tuning fork.
“The fuck you mean, love, Sameha?”
I tried to shoot a glare at her but the rain behind my left eye clouded my vision. I cupped a hand over it and tears slipped through my evaporating fingers. I fisted my hand to pull my flesh back together again.
Sameha closed her eyes as if gathering her strength, her words. She did not see me atomizing into my constituent parts. “Aisha reported that the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him said: None has more self-respect than Allah, so he made obscenities unlawful.”
The quote sounded so familiar I practically heard it in Reef’s voice. My mouth watered.
“Don’t you quote hadith to me,” I said through my teeth. I swallowed the wash of ozone-tinged saliva and my stomach groaned. I looked heavenward for strength.
The sky was the color of iron and the air tasted like iron filings, like blood. It reminded me of Reef’s belt buckle, which made me think about the things he would say and how they never matched the things he did. And how, despite the way he always used God to prop up his reasoning, it still crumbled like a mountain beneath God’s wrath.
Sameha was doing the same thing, using God to chain me. Telling lies on God to extract a debt Reef was not owed. Sameha held up a hand, patted the air as if calming a skittish animal.
“He’s sorry, Bahiyaa. He wants you to come home. He asked me to tell you this.”
A chill wind whipped around the yard kicking up a cloud of dust. Tiny shocks of pain climbed the stairsteps of my vertebrae and my body ticked and jerked in the throes of spasms as they tried to unhinged themselves.
I stood too quickly and stumbled on the watermelon at my feet. It rolled off the porch and split open at the bottom of the steps. Sameha stood too, and reached for me, but I jerked away from her.
“Shareef gets jealous sometimes and he just loses it. Beautiful women make men do …”
That’s what Shareef called me the first day we met, as he leaned out of the driver’s side window of his red truck, hungry eyes on my mouth, the swell of my breasts, my thick, brown legs. Later Reef taught me about a chaste god while undressing me and searching the terrain of my body, running hungry hands through my cool cirrus coils. He taught me that God wished for my modesty, not for His sake, but to satisfy Reef’s own insecure fear that another might learn the secrets of my storm, might also know that I am—
“Beautiful?” My grandmother’s laughter had the resonant quality of a wooden wind chime. “Now that’s something I once wanted to be, but only for a time.” Grandma May was barely visible in the shadows of the kitchen, behind the screen door, but her voice cleared the fog and the throbbing that had started behind my eyes. “But you know what I learned?”
“Ma’am?” said Sameha.
“Sometimes it’s more trouble than it's worth. Everyone thinks they can own and control beauty that ain’t theirs. Especially men. It’s a strange thing.” My grandmother stepped onto the porch and took hold of my arm. She seemed so strong and sure. “Imagine trying to rope a cloud and keep it for your own. It’s just not possible, is it?”
Sameha shook her head, eyes going from my grandmother to me, finally seeing. Suddenly afraid.
“Besides, I believe most folk really don’t know beauty when they see it. So, I decided I could do without. The same way I could do without bad friends.” Grandma May winked, smiled wide, like a snake opening its mouth to accommodate too-large prey. “You get my meaning, bad friend?”
When Sameha was gone, my grandmother led me into the house and once we were seated at the kitchen table, she placed a knotty-knuckled hand on mine, the fingertips cool against my fevered joints.
“Decide what you’re going to do.”
I chose to hold back the storm, with will and difficulty. I hurt all over but this was more than the effect of Reef’s fists. My bones ached right down into the marrow, like a magnet was drawing out the iron of my blood one molecule at a time through the hard white matter. I could feel the sun pull the water from me too, right up into the atmosphere. I channeled a lightning strike inward and it bounced around my insides, lighting me up like a bulb.
I lifted my head to meet my grandmother’s rheumy blue-rimmed brown irises. “I only ever hurt like this when a storm is coming.”
My grandmother brought lunch to the front porch. Flies lit upon my untouched tuna fish sandwich. I could only manage the soothing tart lemonade and the handful of arthritis pills my grandmother gave me.
We listened to the same Panasonic radio my grandmother had since I was a kid. It took DD batteries and was stuck on the local station that played country music during the day and R&B at night. But now we listened to the news.
They named the hurricane Helene. She sprang up in the gulf without warning.
“Look at that,” said Grandma May. “They named the storm after you.”
“My name is Bahiyaa, now. You know that.”
Bahiyaa is the name Reef gave me when I converted, when I married him. Two intertwined events that should not have been connected, but he had wanted it that way. My god and my man. Not one but two. Not the same, not alike, not resembling in any way.
“What that name mean?” she asked, as if I hadn’t told her many times before.
“It means beautiful, remember?”
“The sun is beautiful too.”
I had never wanted to be a beautiful thing. Never beautiful alone. I had wanted the name Zikra. It is the thing you do to remember God. Repetition. Counting. Savoring. A beloved remembrance.
I swatted at a mosquito, leaving a black and red smear on my arm. Dusky clouds rolled inland from the gulf with a fine mist. I glanced up when I felt my grandmother stiffen. Her thin brown shape blurred momentarily to gray mist around the edges. The man I’d seen earlier, in the red and blue jersey, stood by the fence. His dog, a big, dark, brutish animal with a dripping muzzle, stood next to him, front paws propped up on the fence, long muscular body stretched out like a bolt.
“Hey Queen May,” he said waving over the fence.
My grandmother nodded icily.
Jeremiah had hardly changed in the last several years, thin as a curl of smoke, honey colored skin and eyes and hair ... and voice. It didn’t seem particularly odd when I was ten and he was seventeen that he liked playing with me. I was his favorite friend for years, although it was to be kept a secret. And now just the sight of him made something in me recoil. I tried to remember something … I tried to forget it too.
He propped his elbows up on the fence and leaned there. Jeremiah squinted at me, eyes scrutinizing my face and the scarf wrapped around my hair. I felt bare beneath his probing and rose to leave, but Grandma May clamped a hand on my arm and anchored me in place.
He smiled, teeth a perfect straight line in his perfect, pretty face. The wind kicked up dust and dandelion fluff, pinging off car doors in a restless melody. I sucked in a breath and caught the sweet yellow scent of banana Now & Laters, a scrap of latent memory.
A tangerine and lime kite riding pre-storm winds like a jet.
Running and running until my lungs were about to burst. The itchy, ticklish, sticky feel of the overgrown grasses against my bare arms and legs down by Benders Bayou in the summertime.
Slipping in the mud. No. Almost slipping in the mud.
I’ve got you, pretty girl. Ain’t gonna let nothing bad happen to you.
I lay in the overgrown grass, listening to grasshopper song, confused if what was happening to me was bad. Part of me knew, so I unraveled myself and drifted skyward. I created clouds in the shapes of creatures I’d imagined only in my dreams.
I lost the memories.
“That you, Helene?” called Jeremiah at me over the fence.
I was a cloud shaped like a giraffe with wings made of peacock feathers. I felt nothing. I heard nothing. My mother had been looking for me and could not find me. She’d started calling around to the homes of my friends. She was about to set out in search of me, not too worried, until she saw my wild magical shapes twisting in the sky. I’d never cast myself into the clouds before then, but she knew me when she saw me there.
My mother threw herself into the sky, a cold storm, strong and precise. She intertwined with me, wrapped me up in her fury, a dark and mighty storm cloud, dropping hailstone daggers all around me and Jeremiah. They steamed when they pierced the soft earth around us.
Jeremiah lived now only because on that day part of me remained anchored to the earth and she would not risk hurting me.
Al Waliyy. The Protector. Ash Shahid. The Witness. Al Haqq. The Truth.
I knew Reef would call, eventually. His apologies always sounded sincere, even when the fights were his fault, but we were pretending they were mine.
“What he want?” asked Grandma May, not bothering if Reef heard her. She watched me flinty-eyed from where she sat on the opposite end of the couch.
Outside the early evening sky was a pitch void. That was my fault. All I could think of was my mother and how that day long ago, she had spent her whole self so completely she could not reassemble her flesh and return to me.
“I want you to come home,” said Reef in answer to my grandmother as well as to me. He sounded as if he had been crying. “A good woman would go back to her husband, work out their problems.”
“Would she?” I asked, not giving a shit about the answer.
“Yes. A good woman would. And God would want it too.”
“Did God tell you that?”
My teeth were sharp icicles and I worried at my bottom lip until it bled. I trembled from the inside out, as I struggled against unspooling.
Zikra would have recited the ninety-nine names of God, savoring each one of them on the tip of her tongue. Al Wadud. The Loving One.
Zikra would have counted a dozen wise ways to encourage Reef to seek his own redemption while she sought her own. Al Wajid. The Self-Sufficient.
Zikra would have known who Reef was all along. Al Hakim. The Wise.
Zikra would have hung up the phone. Al Hakim. The Wise.
Zikra would never have accepted the call. Al Hakim. The Wise.
“Bahiyaa? You coming home?” It wasn’t a question. Not really.
I imagined that even through the phone I could feel his warm breath on my left cheek. Pain shocked me and shot through that eye. In my mind I saw his face and Jeremiah’s and my mother’s retreating storm cloud. One by one my fingers faded into fine mist and the phone slipped to the floor.
Grandma May laughed, pink and brown gums showing in the back of her mouth where the teeth had long been pulled. She knelt unsteadily on one knee and retrieved my phone. Then I realized she wasn’t laughing at all. A gale of warm wind had wheezed past her aged vocal cords, echoing like it had passed through a narrow mountain cavern.
“You come on and get her,” she said into the phone, as she pulled herself up onto weak bowed legs, “but it ain’t safe out there.”
Helene spun inland that night, arms heavy with gulf water and gulf trouble. The fig tree in front of Grandma May’s house toppled, ropey roots reaching for the sky. The water rose fast, as if in a hurry to greet the sky, taking with it my grandmother’s garden. The street was a living black river. Eventually the water bubbled up under the front and back doors, creeping inside like it had been invited.
I watched the storm from a second floor window throughout the night. The hungry winds tugged and twisted at my spirit and bones and the pain persisted and intensified.
Near midnight, I saw Reef’s truck in the distance, submerged up to its red roof. He stood on top, clothes clinging to him like a second skin. I backed away from the window.
“He came,” I said, grappling with a funnel of emotions.
My grandmother touched her fingers to my elbow but they slipped right through flesh and bone. Her fingertips were gray with frost.
“Don’t be afraid,” she cooed.
Al Mu’min. Granter of Security. Al Muhaymin. The Protector. Ar Rahim. The Merciful.
“I’m not.” I stepped back to the window so that I could be seen.
Reef saw me and waved. I lifted my hand to wave back then realized he was not waving at me. A blue and green utility boat motored in his direction. The occupant who wore a yellow rain slicker and a black dog sat next to them. We watched as Reef was rescued and the boat headed in our direction.
“He can come to this house, but we ain’t got to let him in.”
I looked down into her face. Her dark, brown eyes were now grey like clouds heavy with rain. I saw a beautiful lightning storm flash beneath the parchment thin skin of her broad, lined face. She smiled and her breath was frost.
“As long as I am with you, they will cause no harm.” She shifted her weight, stood straighter, taller. Seemed stronger. She pushed open the window, letting in the rushing rain and wild whistling whining wind.
My flesh recoiled from the cold and wet, but when I heard my name on the air, HeleneHeleneHelene, HeleneHelene, Helene, Helene, Helene … spoken like a zikr, a most beloved remembrance, it set me unspooling.
“She’s coming, baby. Just hold on.”
“Who are you talking to, Grandma May?” I asked with my zephyr voice.
“Your ma,” answered the gale. The walls tremored. My grandmother shimmered and dissolved, the mild mist of her like kisses upon my face.
“You don’t have to hold back your storm,” said May, said Mercine, said Helene and Zikra.
My grandmother was strong, a proper tempest possessing her place in the heavens. She was beautiful, lightning and eclipse, drawing me out with her into the sky. I unfolded, floated and glided, allowed myself to be carried, eased. Loved. The cold storm, strong and precise, embraced me, and interlaced her currents with mine.
For a time I left my grandmother’s home far below, as well as the indecision and uncertainty. I left behind the jittering bone-deep ache of the coming storm. Then I became the storm. I shed the tempting brown flesh in favor of that which cannot be possessed and obscured.
One cannot rope a cloud and keep it for their own. Can they?
I felt nothing. I heard nothing. I lost the memories. I searched for God.