From the Archive: Rumpus Original Fiction: On the Last Day, the Ancestors Came
This short story was first published in The Rumpus on October 16, 2019.
Third of July, Virginia Beach. Their skin hot from the burning sun, and now the wind throwing shovels, tossing red and blue plastic buckets around as if toys in the hands of children. A towel whipped Yvette’s ankle, smacking coarse and wet against her inner calf. Sand grit her eyes. May squeezed her neck. Unlike the child she was a mere hour ago, the four-year-old didn’t speak, built no sand castles that could stand. The ground shook, and Yvette lifted May into her arms. She hoped her daughter’s added weight could keep her anchored to the world she’d known for the last thirty-two years.
A shimmering gray ship emerged from the sea. Water fell away from it as if it were being pulled from beneath the sea by an invisible hook in the sky. Yvette couldn’t determine the kind of ship, but knew it was ancient. Its silhouette solidified the higher it rose. A white man next to her, his shoulders red, his stomach a round, thick beach ball, held out a phone, recording the sight as if this weren’t the end of the world, as if when this were said and done there would be anyone around to retweet it.
They’d lived their whole lives at this beach; Yvette was raised down a dirt road merely two miles away. A rare midday when she wasn’t with Grandma May or Uncle Ted or Cousin Murray or Red Ned or Little Keisha, when she wasn’t caring for someone in her extended family, who had been burying toes in the yellow Virginia Beach sand since this land was unnamed and her people were dragged onto its shore. That morning she had rubbed menthol salve across her grandmother’s feet and covered them with hospital socks before grabbing May and saying, “Fuck it, I’m off today,” and packing up the Taurus with a folding chair and a beach bag, her first moment of peace all summer.
More ships rose. They floated a few feet off the water toward the shore. Water lapped her toes, then deepened with each wave. Figures appeared. The white man beside her belatedly screamed, “Holy shit!” The earth rumbled harder and Yvette fell backward onto her butt, May in her lap. The little girl buried her head into her mother’s neck. If this were the end, May needed to see. “Turn around, Sweetheart,” Yvette whispered, and pulled the child’s arms away. Yvette placed her hand over May’s little heart, willed it to slow down. She wasn’t religious, having gone to church more as a child than an adult, but she recalled the world was supposed to end in fire and brimstone. Would that be next? Her stomach knotted at the thought that she had not prayed since her brother died. She swallowed the urge to close her eyes, say some words of comfort to herself but praying now would be insincere, and she didn’t want to die pretending to be someone she wasn’t.
A ship moved steadily toward shore. Hundreds of figures on board glittered bright against the noonday sunlight, momentarily blinding Yvette and May. The ghosts solidified, turned from a bright golden yellow to the shades of her ancestors, rich brown tones blazing from inside with an eternal fire. Some of the men and women and children and babies were dressed in robes and sandals, some were naked, others with missing limbs or hands or feet; they wore dreads, afros, braids; they had long hair down their backs, bald heads shining brilliant in the sun, babies on their backs, baskets on their heads. She saw faces like her own, and Big and Little May.
A man—her brother—walked toward her. Yvette stood, holding May. Water rolled against her knees. She took her brother’s hand, noticing a scar where he had been stabbed. It was not lost on her that blood gushing from an open wound is as rough and loud and fast as waves from the sea.
His name was Donte. Earlier in the day on the day he died, they’d talked of leaving Virginia Beach and of moving to a place less violent, more upwardly mobile, gentrified, with fewer people who looked like them and lived like them and had been there all their lives and didn’t respect that life because they’d been there so long that life didn’t feel like it could be lived. She wondered whether boats were rising in Baltimore, in Detroit, in Chicago, and Los Angeles.
She’d left the house in a hurry that morning. Grandma slept on the couch, mouth open, her stories on the television undisturbed. May sat at her grandmother’s feet, held on to her scaled calves dry from diabetes, and Yvette felt she couldn’t look at them anymore. She’d walked out of the house, thinking that maybe she would just keep on walking, leave them all behind to find that land where people lived until they died and weren’t waiting for death like it was the next bus, even Big and Little May but especially her brother. Disappearing gave her an achy thrill, like she’d touched the tip of her tongue to an ice cube.
On the beach, Donte’s hand burned pleasantly in her own, like warm butter gliding around her palm. They’d expected that he’d be shot since—well, because that’s the way it was. The knife was unexpected—the shock of it sticking from out of his body, his open mouth, a slight smile, almost comical, confused, as if saying, “Really? Can you believe this shit?”
A piercing longing for Big May, for her grandma, overwhelmed her. And now, another memory: May, both of them, asking for Donte, and Yvette, always being the one to take care, told them what happened at the basketball court. Big and Little May lying on his bed in his immaculate room, Jordans lined against the wall, his work uniform pressed and clean and hanging from the trim above the closet, his giant poster of Tyra Banks in a bikini he’d inherited from himself as a teenager. Big May lay with Little May, a white sheet over them; they were like moths inside a cocoon. Shrouded like prayer itself. Yvette closed her eyes, asked God to make her dreams come true.
They walked past the white man, who appeared to not see her brother or any of the other ghosts, but maybe he saw his own ancestors, men in red coats, carrying ropes, or briefcases, or guns. He tried to gather his blanket, his wallet, his shoes, protect them from the rising tide. He talked to himself, scrambling to escape the rising water, the sinking sand, yet each step he took, he fell deeper until covered with sea, until he fell backward and only his head bobbed above the tide, then disappeared.
The water came waist high. She lifted May onto her shoulders, and the water cupped her chest. Donte led her toward a group of people. In the middle stood Big May and her mama, dead some thirteen years now. The water lapped at their cheeks. She didn’t worry about breathing. Beneath the waves, she pressed her body against her mama, against her grandma, felt Donte’s hold filling her with heat. Let Little May fall from her shoulders so she could be embraced and watched as her daughter fell beneath the sea before it inevitably covered her own head. In the deep, her ancestors took her. Yvette’s last desire: she wanted to go home. Was that where the white man had gone when the tide pushed him under? Is that where we all are heading?
Rumpus original art by Mike Tré.