blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Three Missives

In Your Oshe Shango Dream

You are in a house, but it is not your home. Different curtains, wrong colors, plates hung where pictures should be. The wood floors are scrubbed clean, but bristle strokes have worn a grain in the waxhaze skin of the maple flooring. The windows bow inward, toward you. You can’t be sure if they are drawn to you or primed to strike. You remain seated in your chair, which you’ve just discovered. Then you discover the rug, the plastic-coated couch to your left, a table to your right. Each item in the room—the rest of the room itself—comes into view as if for the first time. Each item a new word to remember, and yet you remember some time, before now, when a memory makes that chair familiar to you. Many things come together. The plastic cushion covers on the couch makes sense. The shag of the rug. The wallpaper, bold striped, two-tone velour-over-satin, brown on gold. You remember these as glimpses from years back, maybe early teens, or when you were older, but acted just the same. Glimpses like random Viewmaster visions flashing you into the now: there was a phone call ending abruptly, an argument at the front door, tussle down the stairs, take-down on the front lawn. When you rose, you were ready for fists. You gave him two to the ribs before you backed off. He coughed, spit, staggered to one knee. You never caught a full look at his face—just his back, turning away, and then he was gone. Someone in the crowd that’s gathered says you know it ain’t the end of that shit. He went for his car. That’s the problem: they don’t stay down anymore. Time was a man took his beat down, moved on. Sometime later, he buys you a drink and both of you laugh on that day years back. These days, the man doesn’t leave after he’s beat; man has to go to the trunk of his car. It’s always back to the car. In the car is a bat, a pipe, thick rope of chain link, a flail of engine parts, bound by duct tape speaker wire. Or a gun. Most times, it’s a gun. When all of that got clear in your head, you cut out. First you walked. When you were out of sight, around the corner, you ran. Time turned inward, bending the buildings on both sides of the avenue toward you. A tunnel grew behind you and your view ahead kept closing to a small hole. No matter how you ran, soon all of it was underground. You made it back to the house—the one that is not your home, but felt as if it had been some time before now. The moment you entered, the windows bent in your direction. Outside, swirling waves of snow rushed from the bowels of the tunnel. The world around you was full with thick snowflakes, sparking in the ray of a lamppost just outside the living room window. Snowdrifts grew around everything but the front door. For hours you watched from the window, waiting for his car to come cruising up the tunnel, turn the corner of your block and pull up in front of the house. After a while, you figured it was better to sit. He is coming, you say. Rest now while you can. He is coming, you say again, and it is then that you hear in your voice the echo of invocation more so than warning.

Soon he will be coming with that tire iron, sock stuffed with bolts, the gun. You sit in your chair, waiting, and soon the gun on the table next to you makes sense.  You must meet him in kind, gun for gun, face for face. When you square off, he will devour you. You will consume him. Your soul will become his. He is like the spirit that has been waiting for you all this time, the brother just freed from solitary, calmed after years in the shadows of cages, all the while a slow burning, sickle-shaped rage growing in the curve of his spine, waiting to heave forward the wail of forgotten elders who now live through his hand. He is ready to take you to the river, the lake, the big sea where your ancestors live. He is a man who will rise from the beat down, go to the car, bring the end of your days to the front door. He is last thing you will see. He is coming.


In Your Purgatory Dream

Walking down the street, you notice two girls. You’re on the way to catch the bus. Here they call it a jitney. The girls are at the bus stop. There is no sign, no route marker, but that is where folks get on. You are across the street. The girls are on the corner, waiting on that bus, relaxed as if they have spent the whole day on that corner, two beacons for cars to cruise past: whistles from the men and frantic, inventive flows of horn blasts from the boys. No one lives on this street anymore. Empty lots run on both sides, overgrown with wild sage and poppy thistle. Graying palm fronds lean into the street. Some lay low enough to drop shade on the bench at the bus stop, a slab of molded concrete curved in line with where the street doglegs off to the right.

You know this street. It is close to where you live. But you have never seen these two girls before. They are sisters—of this you are certain—one older than the other by a year. Both in white Bermudas. The one nearest is the youngest. Both have been raised not to take notice, but she can’t help but look as you approach. She is young, you tell yourself. You believe this thought makes you morally sound. She kicks her legs out from the bench, one at a time, arching one foot for a beat before kicking out the other. She has rolled down the waist of her shorts—must have taken much time in the mirror, rearranging so that the rolled waist of the shorts would rest just above where her hips begin to flare.

Her sister’s shorts have been fiercely pressed. Their hem extends crisply over her folded knee. She knows you are there, can sense you are approaching, but does not make a show of it. She looks to up into the poncianas. It is early summer and their bright red blooms flash like embers along the side of the street you have just left. The closer you get, higher the younger sister kicks her legs, and as you pass she kicks both up at the same time, leaning back, so that you can see the taut run of the backsides of her calves and thighs. She holds it like that for a long moment, and then wheels her feet away from you, back down the street. You can imagine her taught muscles softening into the curves that she will have in her twenties. A step more and it looks as though the older sister is just taking notice; you can see a smirk on her face. She’s lowered her head now and all you can see under her hat is that grin.

Just then you are smacked in the face by something both soft and solid and as your head springs back and you see it’s the open hand of a large man. He is ready to strike again. Watch yourself. At first you think it is you who has said this, but after a moment you realize it has come from him. He has said this in some language you don’t know, but the message is clear. His left fist is primed. He is a big man, a man who looks like bruising is an answer that works for him. He is the father: he wears well-pressed, long, baggy white shorts, just like the girls. His left fist looks more dangerous than the right slap you just took. You step back into the street. You don’t speak the language, but mumble, I meant no disrespect, and turn to hurry your ass back the way you came.

Moments from now, when you look back on this, you will tell yourself that it makes sense, you crossing the street as you walked toward the corner: the brush grew into the street on your side and it was easier to cross to the other corner where folks get on the bus. You will consider going back to the corner so that you might face these girls’ father and explain how you had to cross the street as you walked their way. You will bring your friend, Riley, who grew up around here. He will vouch for you, explain to the ham-fisted father how good of a man you are. But a block later you know it is of no use thinking any longer on this. You will never go back to that corner.

In Your Jackie Robinson Dream

Your size frightens fans, but you have been told to smile. Always. It’s only supposed to be two years before you can strike back to any taunt, upturned cleat, black cat thrown. Two years, and you’ll get over or somebody will get theirs. Until then you hit what they pitch. It gets to be that hit more than they planned on. Now they walk you to first base. The pitcher allows this, since you’re still wearing shackles at this stage of the game. He wears a suit and rep tie, which seems strange until you realize everyone on the field is wearing the same thing, even you. But when you look back to the man, you see hood where others see white collar. You want to say throw me a good ball, I’ll clear the yard. But no one can guess what you might be thinking. You could do worse than clear the yard. He pitches high, wide and away, out of reach. You ease on to first base. You take your time, not slow enough to shuffle, but you glide like you belong here, the game waiting on you. When you make it to first, your head is full with music. Somehow James Brown is in the stadium, doing it to death on stage. That groove belongs someplace else, twenty years from now, but it’s here, having a funky good time in your head. I don’t want nobody to give me nuthin . . . open up the door, I’ll get it myself. When you steal second, you run with the ancestors, crossing winter-bare riverbeds in the snow-bright of day. Fenway, Ebbetts, Wrigley: all grander than any South Georgia cotton field, but just as tough as that husk. Everyone knows why you are running. The destination is clear. It’s more interesting to watch you run than watch you rest.

From second, you study the third baseman, already nervous, playing your next steal more than covering the field. He knows you’re coming and can do nothing about it. When you make it to third, you are already standing up and dusting off before the ball smacks into his glove. Homeplate: what we’re all waiting for. The crowd has put away its teeth for the moment. The pitcher has run out of pitches that strike, but he’s landed one on the cheek of the next hitter. He turns with a sneer in your direction. It does not matter that Pee Wee Reese pat you on the back at the steps of the dugout—the South rising—for all to see. It doesn’t matter that Josh Gibson’s spirit will someday guide Henry Aaron’s bat. It doesn’t matter that Tulsa burned in ‘21 and nobody who reads a paper in Brooklyn would know much about that. All it’s ever been coming down to is that pitcher doesn’t want to see you make it home. But we all want you to try, for there’s money to be made in watching you try. A glance to the stands will tell you that. They came from Carroll Gardens, Redhook, and Crown Heights, paying their laborer’s wages to watch for your failure and cheer when you don’t. They have hated you, soon they will love you, and after a while, decades from now, a small part of you will be forgotten every time someone utters your name. Soon you will be legend. When you make your move, you are faster than anyone will remember. You’re off third, your stride long but double-time. You score as if the steps were few, as if there were none at all, as if you never had to slide into spikes, step away from fists, run from flames. This is what you always wanted: rising after stealing home, dusting dirt with your cap from your Come Sunday slide. You look up, past grandstands and Gotham blues, out to where chest-high grass whispers back to Wolof cattle callers and children run from play in the fields when their mothers call them home. This would be something, you think, and a feeling comes over you, one that you remember well but can’t describe. It feels like a memory, but is more like a vision: you are running across land you own. It is not clear how long you have been running. At first you look to be fleeing some terror or fury, running you off your land. But the light changes and your face is relaxed as you run. Your left and right foot fall soundlessly, one after the other, forever, for your land knows no border.  

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