In the Past
They tried to kill us. They tried to murder our gods, tried to drag them through beautiful emerald green forest. Unentered pristine forest; the moist black soiled, bird-singing, dead body weight pulled through forest. The heavy-breathing, barely-able-to-capture-our-plumeria-scent forest. They called us witches, tried fire, earth, sky, and water on us.
But some of us did not die. This was their first mistake. When you attempt to annihilate a people, you have to make sure you get them all. You must erase the whole body in its entirety. There can be no foot, no finger, no nose or eye left. Lips cannot be discarded as benign. They were impolite, gave us no warning, not one utterance, a close your eyes for it is too unbearable. When we called what they did to us unbearable, they reached in, sticking fore and middle fingers into our sockets, and popped our eyes out. Blood-soaked tendrils dripping from desperately grasped oval malleable orbs in their bare hands. Some of us moaned the deep guttural sounds of life that is wounded, continued to scream that the pain was unbearable. But some of us said, maybe we should be grateful for this, this taking, for some of us had to admit that the pain was better than the looking. Yet we feared for those who claimed respite in not seeing, because the looking is what made us witness and witness is what we had to be to ensure your survival.
At first, they did not tell us that our bodies were not bodies, but still we felt it in the way they tore through our flesh, sought out the most tender parts of us, squeezed, detached, ripped from us only because they were tender. Chained us to one another, link by link so that the heavy iron covered some hands, some feet in their entirety. Finally flat after the pull, backs covered in vomit-piss-shit mixed with the scurrying slide of our bodies, could be mistaken for fine sand that sits an inch below the tide, if sand was horror and the stench wasn’t such a smothering companion. It never really left us. It is months or years or decades later when we realize what memory can hold. Breath becomes what is clamored for after denial of the body.
We denied the body to ensure your survival.
Those left with eyes were told that their tears held no water. They let them fall anyway, mixing with sweat on smooth faces, lining the creases of the mouths, settling between teeth to taste of what they knew was true, barely muted with the hint of dry saliva, unmistakably there. Our tears held the last glimpses of the forest, the cracking of the heavy wooden stick used to break Mama and Papa apart, the whistling the chains made as they gathered speed sliding from deck to deep blue. We stored the truth of the tears’ existence in silence. The purity of our tears was uncontested because no one could mistake the taste of tears for something else. We were now experts in the taste of saltwater.
Tears were kept to ensure your survival.
For those of us insisting we still had our lives, an excavation began. They dug into us, ripping out flesh, reminded us, you have no eyes. What do you think you see? Met with well-trained silence, they kept digging. They dug into us, ripping out bone, and told us, you have no feelings. They dug into us and watched the blood drain from our bodies they insisted were not there, not ours, and told us, you have nothing. Some of us were still confused. How can a body have nothing? But what do you do when an Achilles is slammed with a hammer, a hand lit afire, doused, and lit again, a throat partially sliced so that the blood pours back down the throat, so that the victim dies of what was once hers? What is still hers? Ask if you are lame? Hot? Thirsty?
Finally, we agreed that all of these things were true; we must not really be here. But our own disbeliefs were shrouded in living. Some of us said we were no longer living because of the what was taken. For some of us, these doubts led to what some called madness, a soft companion to the smothering stench. So, we stopped naming things aloud. When we did that, they called us dumb.
But our silence was to ensure your survival.
Daughter, you are tasked with so little. Feel. Dig. Speak. We are in you. We never left you.
In the Present
We look up herbs our great-great-grandmothers said were sacred. We build altars that enshrine the old and more recent dead. We work days that begin and end in the dark. We strive for stability because some of our mothers said we needed stability in order to make it through. Through what? We’re not yet sure, but through is better than not through. We write our dreams down on paper and sometimes we burn those dreams. We place the ashes of our dreams on the altars of the old and more recent dead. Our dreams are not just dreams; they are a response to commands given long ago. We cannot worry or fret over whether or not our dreams come true because the worry and fret spots are filled. There is no more space. We’ve given this space away or it has been taken or we’ve lost it. We can’t remember and it was not written down. We’ve checked recipes. Everyone used to compliment our space, always say how warm, how comfortable, how welcoming, and we were puzzled why there wasn’t reciprocity in this. Why could we not say this about their spaces? But we are no longer searching for an answer.
Because the worry and fret spots are filled, we sit cross legged, breathe deep, sleep in beds that often don’t support us, live in buildings on blocks in cities that often don’t want us. We sit in cars or on subways or in buses that operate as antechambers to the rest of the world. A rolled-up window can be a shield. A seat on a bus or a train can be the first seat of the day. Headphones or speakers can put the rest of the world on mute. A pinch of tobacco, freshly lit, can be a prayer. A song with a beat can save you from a precipice.
Our ancestors say god is always on time. Or gods? We can’t remember; we forgot to ask. God or gods feel like music to us sometimes. Like a beat encoded—if only we could figure it out. There is too much to remember.
When needed, we pull out castor oil, campho phenique, for good health or scrapes. We bathe our mouths in oil to pull out impurities. We eat to restore what was taken. We search for imphepho, sage, moringa oleifera.
Because we will always have to go out there, we part the hairs of children in our laps with a fine-tooth comb to make sure it is straight, to make sure they are seen, and moisten their scalps to protect against harshness. We soothe and sing and cry, sometimes all in the same day. We operate within walls tinged yellow from frying fish or pork chops or scrubbed-raw chicken dripping in beaten yellow egg and flour only after we have tested oil in the pan and heard the pop of a water droplet from our fingers. We gather flour and peaches ripe enough to smell through thick paper bags and watch them burst like life, like small exploding suns, through a finely worked dough as the crust of a cobbler turns the color of rubbed sandpaper in the oven. Dough that our hands have kneaded with two or three ingredients, with whatever was on the shelves. We work with what we have.
Our bookshelves moan and dip from the weight of texts passed down, dusty-beige and sacred, smelling almost as good as the peaches but whispering something different. Texts passed down with recipes: how to make biscuits that rise white before a sudden burst of buttered golden brown. Texts that instruct, in painstakingly uniform cursive, in lists and with detail, what you need to do to: keep a lover, ease a heartache, rid your house of bickering and unrest and unwanted guests.
In the Future
We left because they never gave us back our bodies.
Sometimes you could see brown skin draped in a museum for reference, an outlined torso withered, wrinkled just around the edges where the skin flayed. But it wasn’t the same. Everything was gone.
New world scientists searched the oceans because some of them said they could hear our songs, similar to that of whales. They picked them up by accident and then tried to pick them apart. A phoneme or grapheme placed over a linguist’s decryption. Note by note in a lab, testing range, vibration, resonance. All that research and no one could really tell whether it was us. Their ancestors had told them for so long that ours was not a song, so they could not be sure. There was no one left to confirm. Is this? What if? Who knew? Broken world scientists responding to commands given long ago.
Some of us live in A-frame houses, copied after the old-world style by seas that move or stop at our command—like with the touch of a button, but the button is our hand. The sea is such a lovely thing, smooth as a stepped-over looking glass. Or as rough and frantic as a demon loosed, frothing all the same. We are not small. We peer down at this new world and resist the urge to nudge it with our cheek. We sift through the stars often, the way our ancestors taught us to, looking for secrets missed, with the hopes of passing down fullness to our great-great-grandchildren. We sift through the stars like flour lightly shaken through an enormous sieve, like slicing a smile line across the top of the earth and flipping it back on itself, a cradle. It settles like a flipped top, pure, uncontested, seamless. Our new world is not broken like the old one.
We learned that the fire was only as hot as we said it was. We learned to breathe underwater because our kept tears held lessons. We learned the secrets of the earth because we’d dug till we hit bottom, through generations of toiling. We learned the sky was like the earth but got very little attention and so we gave it all of ours. And in return for minding it so closely, the sky taught our children to fly.
Stars left unsifted remain a clutter, more difficult for our children to decipher. So, we still pass on the lessons, note by note, letter by letter.
We will never be mistaken for lifeless again.
Rumpus original art by Eva Azenaro Acero.