A Case Against Blissful Ignorance
by Jennifer Lubin
Grandma, why I gotta see this?
So that you won’t forget.
But I didn’t know in the first place, so how was I supposed to forget? You showin’ it to me now, so now I know. But why you want me to see this? I don’t wanna see these pictures or read nothin’ ‘bout ‘em. They horrible.
Because it’s too important for you not to know.
But Grandma, these two men is hanging from a tree and they backs is bleedin’. They dead.
Yes, they are. They were killed.
Who killt ‘em?
Hateful white folks.
Why they did that? Why them white folks was hatin’ on ‘em so bad that they did that?
Because they was black.
Why they wanted to kill ‘em just ‘cause they was black?
Because they was newly freed slaves and the folks that killed ‘em didn’t like the color of they skin...thought the color was too dark. And ugly. Thought they noses was too big and they hair too nappy. They didn’t believe that blacks had the same beating hearts that was pumpin’ the same red blood. They didn’t like the way black folks looked, so they figured black folks weren’t full human beings fit enough to go ‘bout living free and unbothered lives like white folks was.
But what was so wrong with the color of they black skin? It look just fine to me. It look like it’s about the same color as mine and yours. Look kinda good, actually. Just need a little shea butter lotion on the elbows, like you put on me.
Nothin’. Wasn’t nothing wrong with the color of they skin. Or yours. Or mine. Shea butter lotion or not.
What’s a slave?
It’s somethin’ that wasn’t ever supposed to be, and ain't never supposed to be, baby. Slavin’ was and is somethin’ that was created by hateful people who never bothered consulting God on the matter.
Is all white folks hateful?
No, baby. Not all of them.
Is most of them hateful?
I don’t think so, baby. A lot of them just scared.
Just some of them is hateful, then?
Am I a human being?
Yes, you are.
Ain’t you one, too?
Yes, baby. I am.
Them boys was human beings too. I don’t wanna look at these pictures no more, Grandma.
You need to look.
You need to look.
Why? Do I gotta look because that’s gon’ happen to me?
No, baby. That’s not gon’ happen to you.
Then why I gotta look?
Because you need to know what happened to them...what happened to a lot of black folks just like them.
Why I gotta know what happened to them if the same thing ain't gon’ happen to me?
Because what happened to them is part of your history. It’s our history. You need to know what happened in your history so that no one’ll tell you lies ‘bout it.
Tell me lies ‘bout what?
These hangin’ dead boys is a part of my history?
Am I a part of theirs?
Because history has to do with things that done happened in the past. You came after they did so you ain’t a part of they history. But they a part of yours. You more a part of they future.
Am I gonna be a part of somebody else’s history?
Why would anybody lie to me ‘bout my history? Especially when they got pictures and stories ‘bout it.
‘Cause they just would.
Would they lie about everything?
No, not everything.
Just the things they did that was bad?
If you do a really bad thing, you gon’ wanna lie about it so people won’t find out you did it, right Grandma?
Yes, baby. Sometimes.
People ain't supposed to do that to other people. They ain’t got no business killin’ folks just ‘cause they black and they ain't got no business lying ‘bout it, neither.
No, baby. They don’t.
Does Mamma and Daddy know about this?
Does my teacher know?
Does the President know?
Does the King of England know?
Does Pastor know?
Does Coach Johnson know?
Does the mailman know?
Do the police know?
So, Grandma, everybody know this done happened?
How come didn’t nobody do nothin’ ‘bout it?
At the time when it happened, the only people who really wanted to do something ‘bout stoppin’ it was mostly black folks, just like them boys hangin’ from them trees, and they couldn’t do too much of anything at all ‘cause they was afraid that the same thing was gon’ happen to them. But people can’t go ‘round doing that to black folks no more, baby. Not like that. They’d go to jail for a long time if they did.
They’d go to jail? That’s all?
Did the hateful white folks who did this to them boys have mammas and daddies?
Did they mammas and daddies know what they did?
Did they get put on punishment?
Did they say sorry for what they did?
How come they didn’t say sorry for what they did, Grandma?
Because they didn’t think they needed to. They didn’t think they did anything wrong. They felt that those black boys deserved to die.
Do anybody deserve to die like that just for being black, Grandma?
Then why’d they do it, then? And how come they never said sorry?! Is something wrong with them? Is they sick in they heads? Is they sick in they hearts?
The government done said its version of sorry on behalf of them dead boys by way of making it so that, nowadays, if some angry white men decide that they wanna take a black man and hang him by his neck and kill him because they don’t like the way he looks or the way he talks or they just don’t like that he walkin’ ‘round livin’ his life and mindin’ his own business, then they’d go to jail for that.
Who took these pictures, Grandma?
Don’t know. Prob’ly somebody who had no problem taking a steady picture while watching those boys hang from them trees.
After this happened, did the people who did it go to jail?
What happened to ‘em?
You don’t know what happened to ‘em, Grandma?
Then how you know they didn’t go to jail?
Because I just do.
What if they do it again?
They dead now, baby. The people who did this long been dead. I don’t know what happened to ‘em before they died, but I know they dead now because this happened a long time ago.
Did the people who did this have children, Grandma?
Don’t know. Prob’ly.
If they had children, did they children know they did that?
If it happened a long time ago, why I gotta know about it now?
Like I said, so you know your history.
But it makes me sad, Grandma. And scared. And mad.
Well, then that’s what it does, baby. It makes you feel all them things.
Why you want me to feel all those things, Grandma? I wasn’t feeling them before you told me about this and showed me these pictures.
Neither were them dead boys’ great grandparents. Them dead boys’ great grandparents wasn’t feeling them things either before they got put on a ship to head out this way years ago. They was prob’ly worried for they own lives, but they had no idea what was gon’ end up happening to their great grandbabies.
Bend the Knee
by Nneoma Kenure
*Series Editors' Fiction Pick
The chimes from the kitchen clock nudged Ekeoma out of her food induced reverie as it announced it was five p.m. It was time to go home. It didn't matter that her curfew was at six and her home was only two blocks from Biola’s. She would have to leave fast because Biola’s father would be home soon. He was a director at the Federal Airport Authority and always left work at five o'clock. Since they all lived at the Airport staff quarters, he would be home in exactly eight minutes.
Ekeoma swallowed the last of her sugared doughnut in big gulps, then let bigger waves of the ginger spiced zobo drink push it all down.
“Kai! Ekeoma, why are you eating like it’s your first and only meal when your mother is the best cook in the quarters?” Biola asked with an indulgent smile.
As she walked away to the pantry, Ekeoma’s eyes followed her friend’s bare feet as they moved across the large kitchen. Biola’s feet slapped gently on the large beige tiles with the poise and oblivion of a life of comfort.
“I have to go help her wash some beans for tomorrow’s moi-moi.” The lie slid out of her mouth as smoothly as a ball of fufu enfolded in hot ogbono would glide down her throat.
“Your mum’s moi-moi is heavenly,” Biola said. “I’ve been meaning to ask if you know what she puts in it? And when will she make ofe akwu again?”
Their mothers both worked for the catering division of the Airport Authority. While Biola’s house seemed to always proffer lilting whiffs of hot baking dough and delicate hints of cinnamon, Ekeoma’s was always encased in dense puffs of ogiri or okporoko. Biola’s father was a level fourteen civil servant, so their family lived in a beautiful corner-piece bungalow. The living room was almost ethereal, with white curtains that billowed every time the glass doors that opened into the gardens were left open. It had luxurious white sofas that asked that you forget all your worries as they embraced you tenderly. Ekeoma loved the kitchen most of all; it was nothing like her mother’s with its soot stained walls and the chipped pestle in the large wooden mortar. The only furniture was the one wobbly stool on which her mother sat. It was so low, it became invisible when mother’s wide frame enveloped the stool and looked like she was performing a rather amazing feat of hovering over the floor.
Their family lived on the ground floor in the block of flats sometimes referred to as barracks by the kids in the estate. Ekeoma’s mother, a level four cook, had been lucky to be assigned living quarters only because it was imperative that the best cook the Airport Authority administration had ever hired could get to work earlier than others. Usually, accommodation was reserved for staff of level six and above. Their apartment faced the backyard of another building so that the only thing that ever caught a wind was their neighbours’ laundry on the clothesline. In Biola’s house, the kitchen wasn't just a place for pushing out meals. It featured an enormous hand-carved table with six chairs that always seemed to be encumbered by pies, cakes, and other exotic treats, and, as it had an air conditioner, it was no wonder the family spent a lot of time in there, laughing over sweet drinks and doughy pleasures.
Ekeoma loved Biola’s house. It felt like it could be her future. She would walk into her own home one day and turn on a gas cooker instead of a smoking kerosene stove. There would be a large piano, with loving pictures of her family in a corner. She would dare to have an all-white living room too, and it would stay white no matter the ages of her children because nobody had grubby soot-tinted hands. She would shuffle and do a jig barefoot in her own kitchen with the luxury of clean floors. Biola’s house was different from everything she'd ever known, and she loved spending the day here.
Why doesn't your friend ever come to your own house? She heard the held back disgruntle in her mother’s voice in her head and promptly dismissed it to ponder her immediate problem.
In a few minutes, when Biola’s father walked into his house, his daughters would say “welcome daddy” as they went down on their knees, and his son would prostrate flat on the floor in the traditional Yoruba way. This folding and unfolding of selves barely took all of five seconds, but it was always five seconds of awkwardness for Ekeoma. She had never enjoyed sticking out, but worse was knowing it could be interpreted as being rude, which added levels of anxiety that she was not sure the situation deserved. She did not want to be rude. At other times, when she gave in to the more casual slight bending of her knees, an acceptable Yoruba curtsy, she just felt stupid. In her very Igbo home, you said “good morning” to your parents and all adults standing up. She knew that this was impolite to some of her Yoruba friends, and she really didn't want them to think ill of her.
Her father was big on handshakes, which, to be fair, is not very Nigerian. When he came back home after a long day commuting from the Apapa ports where he was an office clerk, he responded to the “welcome daddy” from his children with a warm handshake and a twinkle in his eye as he called out for a glass of ice-cold water. He would tickle his wife as she warmed his soup on the sputtering stove, and her girlish squeals would reverberate through the cubicle they called home. Some Igbo girls knelt without skipping a beat, so why was it so difficult for her to do this? Did she think she was betraying her own self and perhaps her tribe?
Ekeoma actually enjoyed watching her Yoruba friends and siblings greet their parents; she thought it was a beautiful thing –this obeisance – but every time she'd tried it, it felt foreign and unnatural.
“She doesn’t use water, always beef stock,” Ekeoma said. Biola stuck her head out of the pantry so Ekeoma could see her questioning look. “That’s the secret to my mum’s moi-moi,” Ekeoma explained.
The clock ticked on as Ekeoma glared at it for a full minute. She let out a loud sigh and then called out, “I am sorry Biola, but I have to go now.”
“Then who will eat this cheesecake I was saving for last?” Biola asked as she finally emerged holding a large white cake with strawberries on it. Ekeoma had never seen real strawberries. It suddenly seemed excessively silly to give up the prospect of actually eating one for mere seconds of discomfiture.
“How about I help you with that cheesecake and I’ll bring you some ofe akwu later?” She glanced at the clock as she spoke. Four minutes had gone by already. She would have to make a decision quickly.
She had tried different ways to handle her dilemma. She made sure she was sitting when the father actually walked into the house; it always looked better if she stood up to greet him. It meant she had acknowledged his right to be deferred to. She didn't mind deferring; that was not her problem. Except, while she was going up, everyone else was going down. Once, she had pretended to drop something so that she was already on her knees when he walked in. While this was a good plan, she couldn't possibly start dropping things at the same time every day. Someone would notice, wouldn’t they? Her sisters had no problem genuflecting. She'd been surprised to find they had never even given it a thought; it was no big deal.
“You greet and move on. I don't understand you Ekeoma. Why do you have to complicate everything?” Ify had queried, her mouth upended by a sour pout. Her sister was right. It was really no big deal, but there was something about a physical lowering of one's self that was alien to her. “If you had to meet the queen of England, wouldn’t you curtsy?” Ekeoma eyed Ify, looking her up and down in rapid succession to show her irritation. Of course she would be okay with bending the knee to the queen of England, but she was sure she would be just as tired of it if she was running into her majesty every other day.
Had that clock always ticked so heavily? The hands seemed to be marching along with purpose. There were less than two minutes left, and Biola was still rummaging through the fridge. Ekeoma pushed away her chair reluctantly. “I really have to go now Biola.”
“Ahn ahn! What’s chasing you na?” Biola returned to the table with a bowl from the fridge and slowly poured on a strawberry glaze on the cheesecake. Ekeoma fell back in her chair in exasperation.
Chai! I really want to eat this cake. Maybe Biola’s dad would be late today. Maybe someone would bring in a file last minute that had to be attended to immediately. Maybe there was a car accident at the front of the Airport so that no one could go in or out. Maybe even a bomb threat. Those things pretty much happen at one airport or the other. Wasn't this airport due for one? If she wanted a part of this cake, she needed to make a decision fast. What are my options? She could either kneel or not. That was it. Was there any situation where she could explain to the adults: Look, I want to be respectful, but kneeling is not my thing? A tiny laugh escaped her lips as she scoffed at the mere thought. That was not an option.
“Just wait small. I can wrap this up for you to take home.” Biola walked back to the drawer and returned with a roll of aluminum foil and a can of whipped cream. “I had planned to make some fresh whipped cream but since you are suddenly in a hurry…” Ekeoma loved whipped cream. How could something so delicate and pleasing be food?
The sound of a car coming into the compound was unmistakable. There had been no unforeseen mishap to keep the civil servant away from home longer. A car door slammed shut, and the crunching on gravel grew louder as it got closer. Biola, unaware of her friend’s quandary, had decided the foil was inappropriate for the creamy cheesecake and foraged for an appropriate container in a large drawer. As the front door slid open all the way in the living room, Ekeoma realized that it was Friday.
You see, on Fridays, her father got to leave work early. Her mother’s bay-leaf-perfumed Jollof rice would fill the air so that neighbors, led by their noses, slinked towards her home under different pretexts, like zombies with brains on their own fetid brains. Ify would fry yellow ripe plantains until they were golden brown with crisp edges and mellow middles. The sounds of Sunny Okosun and Onyeka Onwenu singing idyllic songs of love from days long gone would float through the apartment from the small radio on the window sill as her mother, bent over the little stove, swung her wide hips from side to side. There would be mounds of pounded yam and a bowl of soup laden with strips of shaki and stewed snails as big as her fists for her dad. He would bite into succulent chunks of goat meat as the nutty palm-oil sauce threatened to drip past his fingers.
And so Ekeoma knew, as she made for the back door, that Biola would have to come visit her if she wanted some of her mother’s cooking. And she would not kneel.
The Only Flowers in El Komei Part One
by Celine Callow
It was a place without rivers and streams. Without movement. Where each bead of dirt was welded to another, trampled under the feet of the same kinds of people since humans first inhabited the earth. There were no vibrant-colored flowers, no blossoming fruit. There were only the purple weeds that sprouted in patches and had roots enough to weather wind or shine. They were the only flowers that could grow in the dry dirt. Flowers being a generous term. More thorn than petal, more dust than perfume. Nevertheless, Soraya collected swathes of them and pierced their stems with her thumbnail, linking them together in a fairy-chain. These small rituals set in time the mechanics of her life with her sisters in the desert. The necessary busying of hands. She was a child who loved beauty, and where she couldn’t find it, she imagined it.
The sun beat down on the back of her neck as she headed home along the dust path. Since her childhood, she had made many tracks in the yellow-orange dust under her hand-me-down shoes. Once one was well established, she moved on to another. She crossed over several ghostly tracks on her way back home. Imagined the old versions of herself, playing alone, translucent as a spirit. The trailers emerged up out of the horizon, white beetles clamped onto the earth. El Komei trailer park was a community of strangers. People who arrived one dawn and set down roots, went about their lives in the quiet, relieved to be alone with people. You didn’t ask questions in El Komei. You minded your business, and if someone came sniffing around, you said nothing, knew your neighbour would do the same for you.
Soraya only faintly remembered life before El Komei. A yellow house, canary-colored with dark wooden beams. Soraya knew she’d been sad to leave the yellow house; there’d been a wood across the path from it like something out of a fairytale. Her window looked down on a host of conifers, green arrows pointing up at a blue sky. She remembered going with her sisters to cut down a Christmas tree. Her older sisters took turns with the axe — they were sweat-soaked despite the chill and the denseness of their hand-knitted scarves. It took all of their eight hands on the broad tree trunk to guide it to the ground. Soraya felt proud to be included, and useful. It felt like the four of them were powerful together. They brought that broad, bark-wrapped giant to its knees.
Her sister, Jan, told her she’d got it all wrong; the yellow house was the one next door. Nevertheless, Soraya thought often of the yellow house. When her sisters were wistful and quiet, lost in thoughts of their old lives, Soraya thought of the house and the cragged edges of its dark beams. It was something sentimental that bound her to the past, to all of them. The yellow house was the medium through which she joined in their communion of longing. Though she wondered about her parents, she’d been too young to mourn their loss. To her, they were legends and not people. And besides, she never felt like she’d missed out on much, having grown up with three mothers of a kind. Soraya was sometimes ashamed of thinking this.
Soraya found herself longing for those trees now. She imagined tugging at their lush needles, sharp against her fingertips. She imagined the magic of light diffused through their branches, moss to cushion her steps.
Her sister, India, sat at the open mouth of the trailer, rocking onto the back legs of a plastic garden chair. She held a beer between her legs, clamped between strong thighs, tanned from desert sun. She was braless in a white vest; sweat pooled in the valley between her breasts and left crescent shaped smudges on the fabric beneath them. Her curly black hair was in a ponytail. India’s body held a mystery for Soraya. India’s body had had sex.
In the pitch dark of earliest morning, Soraya woke up to the sound of something scraping around in the dirt under her window. She pulled back the curtain from the bedroom window to see what it was. Soraya could make out the dim shape of two bodies intertwined. Moonlight picked up the white joints of their fingers, knees, and shoulders as they moved in the dark. India’s eyes swiveled up to the bedroom window, and the two sisters watched each other for a moment before Soraya tugged the curtain closed and went back to sleep. It didn’t make any sense to Soraya. Boys were forbidden, girls who had sex with them were sluts. Her sister knew this.
Now, India’s every look seemed to Soraya to be tinged with fear, with anxiety. Soraya wasn’t in the business of telling other people’s secrets, but India didn’t trust her. She sipped her beer and watched her. A steady look in India’s dark eyes, her round face studded with freckles.
“What’s for din?” Soraya asked her.
India shrugged. “Same as always.”
Soraya had hoped that keeping India’s secret would bring them closer together, but now they were little more than strangers with the same last name. Secrets were powerful things, this was clear to her.
“Another one?” India raised an eyebrow at the chain of purple weeds in Soraya’s grasp. “There’s so many of them just lying around wilting in there. They give off this stench when they die.” India threw her empty beer can onto the ground.
Soraya said nothing.
She found her two eldest sisters at the kitchenette. Tanya’s hair was wrapped with a kerchief; she used a wooden spoon to guide cream into a pan of potatoes, softened in a boil. A sugar container waited by the side. Janet sat on a kitchen chair at the table with a stack of papers and receipts. Her overgrown nails tapped against the calculator as she tapped on buttons and paused in-between to make notes in pencil on a yellow memo pad.
Jan looked up and smiled. “You’re back,” she said.
In the setting light she looked just like their father. Soraya didn’t remember his face, but there was a picture of him stuck to the refrigerator with a magnet. He had ashy brown hair, just like Janet, a heart-shaped face with round cheeks, straight eyebrows. The man in the picture had his arm around a woman, but her face had been scratched off with a pin or a coin. Soraya thought this was more aggressive than simply cutting her out with scissors. She thought her mom must have done something very bad to make someone scratch her face out, but no one would tell her what it was.
Soraya deposited the chain of weeds onto the table, and Jan picked it up, wrapped it around her ponytail.
“How do I look?” she asked Tanya, who glanced up from her steaming pot of potatoes and offered a watery smile.
Soraya sat down at the table. “Sugar-mash for dins again?”
Tanya started to mash the potatoes in silence.
“You don’t think we could have something different, sometime?” asked Soraya.
Janet ran her hand down the column of numbers she was writing. “When you make money and pay bills, then you can decide what we have for dins, okay honey-pie?”
Janet had a way of speaking that made Soraya feel stupid whenever she asked a question and despite this, she was glad to have Janet as a big sister. She wasn’t dreamy and distant like Tanya or brooding like India. Janet was a person with energy, a great well of power in her stomach, latent strength in her sinewy arms.
“You like sugar-mash,” said Tanya, her voice a whisper. “Sugar-mash and chicken dinosaurs, I got them special from the store.”
Soraya didn’t want to upset her eldest sister, who was fragile looking in her kerchief. Her wheat-colored eyebrows and eyelashes added to the feeling that the life was low in her, more water in her blood. Soraya never heard Tanya raise her voice. She didn’t know what her sister thought about things, what she liked or didn’t like, except that she sometimes stayed up late drinking from a hidden bottle of whiskey. She made things out of the empty whiskey bottles after; candle-holders, vases, kept M&M’s in them and no one ever asked her where she got them from.
“I’m seventeen on Friday,” said Soraya.
“I haven’t forgotten, buttercup,” said Janet.
“Seventeen’s almost an adult,” said Soraya.
“So it is.”
“So, you said when I got older you’d tell me why we left home, and…and how mom and dad died.” There was a tremor in Soraya’s voice as she spoke, she was frightened and didn’t know why.
Tanya stopped mashing potatoes and stared out of the tiny kitchenette window, her brow furrowed.
Janet dropped her pencil onto the memo pad and sighed. “I already told you Raya; it was cancer,” she said.
“But if it was cancer then why did we have to leave the yellow house?”
Janet smacked the table with her palm. “Damn it, Soraya! There was no yellow house.” The chair swung backwards onto the floor as she stood up. “How many times do I have to tell you? The yellow house was the one next-door.”
“I’m sorry,” said Soraya. “Don’t be angry please, Jan.”
Janet shook her head and stooped to pull the chair upright. “One more year,” she said. “When you’re eighteen I’ll tell you.”
She’d said the same thing last year, but Soraya didn’t mention this.
End of Part One
The Only Flowers in El Komei Part Two
by Celine Callow
He arrived in a beat up old truck, but Soraya only noticed the baby blue color of its paint against the yellow dust. She thought it was a beautiful color, like an oasis in the desert, like a stream. She wasn’t supposed to ask questions, but as she watched the handsome stranger pull up in a cloud of dust and radio music, a rosary swinging from the rear-view mirror, her mind was filled with them.
She watched from her window as he moved in with a single suitcase and a few cardboard boxes to the vacant trailer diagonally across from theirs on the plot. He was tall and broad-backed. When he came back out to the truck, Soraya noticed there was a dark Latin cast to his features, sensual lips and a sharp jaw.
The stranger’s presence next door changed the chemistry of the air. Soraya flushed as she imagined what intensely masculine activity he might be engaged with at that exact moment. It had been so long since she’d been in close proximity to an attractive man, and she’d been too young to care before. She promised herself she would find out something about him, even one thing would do. One small bit of trivia to muse on, like his favorite singer, or what he ate for breakfast. She didn’t feel too guilty; after all, these were only daydreams, but she knew Jan would be angry if she found out.
“Don’t you ever get a boyfriend, Raya. They only want one thing and it leads to nothin’ but trouble and violence. You hear me?”
The first time she was told this, Soraya was five-years-old. Soraya, who’d always been a light sleeper, woke before dawn to find her sister at work in the garden and wanted to help. She liked to help, remembering how much it had warmed her heart to fell their Christmas tree in the woods together. Her sister’s face was smeared with dirt. Her eyes were red, and her chest strained hard against her sweat-soaked blouse with each breath. Jan refused, snapped at Soraya to go back to bed, but not before she’d issued her ominous warning. Soraya felt uneasy at the sight of her sister, her wild-eyed expression as she tipped dirt onto the heap. Tendrils of her hair curled around her face like feathers. Not long after that night, the four sisters packed their things and left the yellow house for El Komei.
Wandering through the trailer-park, Soraya came across a cluster of rocks in the dust, scattered over a few square meters. She started a game of jumping from one to another. It was good fun until her foot slipped and she went over on her ankle. She sat down on her butt to inspect it.
“You alright there?”
It was him, the man, calling out of his trailer window.
Soraya knew she couldn’t be seen from her sisters’ trailer so called out in reply that she’d injured her ankle. She watched the stranger’s trailer door open. He was shirtless, and his skin gleamed in the sun. Soraya thought he looked like a dream. He wore his black jeans low on his hips. The suggestion of dark hair at the low-slung waistband of his boxers made her mouth go dry.
“Your ankle, you said?”
He crouched down beside her, close enough for Soraya to smell the tang of store-bought pizza sauce on his breath. She noticed his hands, so different from female hands, the size and shape of the fingers, the setting of the fingernail. His index-finger hovered over her ankle, less than an inch, but didn’t touch her.
“Is it broken?” she asked him. She didn’t know why, but she felt sure he was the kind of man who’d know a thing or two about broken bones.
He smirked. “Nah, you’d be in fuckin’ agony, and you’re not, are you princess?”
“Guess not,” she said.
“Can you stand up?” He offered her his hand.
She put her hand into the expanse of his palm. He helped her up. She took a few tentative steps on her injured ankle.
He smiled. “See? You’ll live, mija. You want a beer?”
Was he really inviting her inside? That would be too much, surely. Soraya felt sure that Jan would find out, she would just know. He was only supposed to be a daydream, not a thing that happened in real life. But if she didn’t go now, then she might never have the chance again.
“Come inside, you crazy child,” said the man, chuckling to himself as Soraya hovered in the doorway.
She took one glance backward before ducking inside. She thought his trailer was clean for a man’s. Specks of dust glittered in the light from the window, but the surfaces were spotless. He had an ancient television set up in the corner on top of an upturned crate. Soraya’s eyes were drawn to the colors on the screen, too rich and saturated to be realistic. They were better that way, she thought. She watched the actors in the movie as they argued. The woman’s mouth was blood-red and the man’s eyes were wide enough to show the whole of his violet-colored irises. Their posturing stirred something in her, an echo of a memory.
“You seen it?” He picked up a t-shirt from the couch and put it on.
Soraya shook her head.
“Damn, really?” He reached down for two cans of beer from the mini fridge.
“We don’t have a T.V,” said Soraya.
“You’re kidding me, you ain’t got a T.V? That’s child cruelty, ain’t it?” He opened the can of beer and handed it to her.
“So what do you do all day then? You go to high school?” he asked her.
They both knew the nearest high school was too far to reach in a day.
Soraya shook her head and pointed out of the east-facing window.
The man squinted. “I don’t see nothin’.”
“Those plants, the purple ones, I make chains out of them sometimes.” Soraya expected him to laugh at her, but he didn’t.
“The flowers?” he asked, and nodded like it made sense.
Soraya was pleased he called them flowers and not weeds. She took it as a sign they might have the same way of seeing things. She wanted to ask him where he came from, how long he was going to stay in El Komei, but she didn’t want to annoy him. He kept calling her a child, which bothered her. She pushed out her chest in her t-shirt.
“What’s your name?” she said.
“Raphael,” he said. “What’s yours?”
“Soraya,” he repeated it. Soraya liked the sound of her name on his tongue. “You wanna sit outside? I got some chairs.”
“No,” Soraya answered a beat too quickly. “Can we stay in here? I wanna watch T.V.”
“Sure,” he shrugged. They sat down on the couch.
“How long are you gonna be here?” she asked him. Too afraid to meet his gaze. She sipped on the can of beer, liked the feel of cool metal against her lips.
“Maybe a week,” said Raphael, “maybe a couple months.”
She was sad to hear this, a part of her had hoped they might be friends. It got lonely on the lot without any young people.
“Doesn’t feel real, does it?” said Soraya. “Yellow dust in every direction.”
“I kinda like it,” he said with a shrug.
“I grew up in a place with lots of trees. You could see them all from my window, like a forest. I liked it there.”
“How come you came here?”
“They won’t tell me.”
“My sisters,” Soraya blushed. She felt bad for telling this stranger their secrets, but he wasn’t just anyone. He’d come to El Komei, and that meant he had a secret of his own, something to escape.
“What happened to your folks?”
“They died,” she said.
“What? Both of them?”
“Yep.” Soraya felt sure she could develop a liking for beer. It was cold and sweet and bitter at once. She wasn’t allowed it at home.
“And what happened to your house?” Raphael made a circular gesture with his hand, “the place with all the trees. You didn’t inherit it?”
Soraya confessed she didn’t know.
“Weird, man,” said Raphael.
“And what about you?” Soraya felt she was owed some facts about Raphael.
“I gotta lay low for a while, just a while before I go back west.”
“Someone died but it weren’t me that killed them, gotta wait ‘till they figure it out.” He eyed her, nervous to see how she’d react.
Soraya believed him at once, she trusted him infinitely, Raphael was no killer. “Don’t worry,” she said, softly. “I won’t say anything to anybody.”
They passed the evening quietly. They laughed at the same things on T.V., which Soraya enjoyed. She didn’t often laugh, and it was nice to turn to Raphael and find his face a reflection of hers. They sat on opposite ends of the couch, and Soraya’s heartbeat quickened at the smallest of his movements as she imagined touching his hand again, or perhaps even his lips. He showed her how to set the station on the T.V by turning the knobs and tuning it in, and they ate Flamin’ Hot Cheetos from a sharing packet, passing them back and forth between them on the couch.
When Soraya saw the color of dusk out of the narrow trailer windows, she started to panic and knew she’d better go home.
“You leavin’ already, mija?” asked Raphael. “You don’t wanna eat?”
Soraya did want to but she couldn’t.
“Alright princess, how’s that ankle of yours?”
Soraya had forgotten all about her ankle, she got up slowly from the sofa. “Seems better,” she said.
Approaching her trailer, Soraya saw Tanya unpegging laundry from the washing line, a basket hitched up against her hip. Tanya stopped and watched Soraya, statue-like.
“Hi Tan,” she said.
“Janet’s been waiting for you.”
Soraya pushed open the trailer door which had been left ajar. She tried to think of an explanation, but her mind was blank, it was always blank when she needed to think quickly.
Janet stood against the kitchenette counter. India watched from the safety of the faded pink armchair in the far corner.
“So, are you gonna be honest?” asked Janet, her arms crossed.
Soraya lingered in the entrance, felt her cheeks burning.
“Come here,” said Janet.
Soraya took a few steps forward.
“Who is he?” she barked.
“Don’t you dare!” She struck Soraya across her face.
Soraya tasted blood.
“You know the rule about boyfriends,” said Janet. “We have these rules to protect you, Soraya. What do you think you’re doing spending all day in that grown man’s trailer? What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Soraya hadn’t seen Janet this flustered since that night in their old garden. She could even smell the fresh-dug earth, feel the icy dawn breeze as the memory played in her mind.
“It wasn’t like that,” Soraya stuttered. “I hurt my ankle and he gave me some water, we talked, that’s all.”
Janet wrapped her hand around Soraya’s jaw like a vice. The bones of her fingers dug hard into Soraya’s cheek. India didn’t move from her seat. She watched things unfold with expressionless dark eyes. Tanya didn’t come inside even though Soraya knew she’d finished with the laundry. She imagined her eldest sister hunched over, clutching tight to the basket of clothes like it was an anchor that might stop her from being washed away.
“But what did you talk about, Soraya? Huh? What did you tell that stranger about us?” Janet let her go. Soraya’s cheeks flushed with blood and feeling again. “We haven’t got this far only for you to ruin it all, run around acting like a slut. You don’t want everyone to think you’re a slut, do you Soraya? Huh?”
Soraya had a new memory then. She remembered holding tight to the wooden rungs of the bannister. The house shook with the bass of her father’s voice. Deep and booming, it vibrated her infant rib-bones and her mother’s pleading drew goose-bumps from her forearms. She felt the presence of her sister Tanya beside her.
“Why is daddy angry?”
Tanya said nothing.
She heard her father calling her mom a slut. He said it over and over until the word was a sound and not a word. She heard the metallic clanging of pots and pans falling onto the kitchen floor, a smashing plate, and then a scream. Her father called for Janet.
Soon after, Janet came out into the hallway and told Tanya to take Soraya to bed.
“I want mommy.”
Tanya told her that her mom was gone and wasn’t ever coming back.
“He killed her,” said Soraya. She felt as though she were alone in the trailer kitchen, alone in the world. It came back to her in small, undeveloped snapshots like bits of negative film. How Janet had choked up when she told them their father had left in the night, leaving only a bundle of twenty-dollar bills on the kitchen counter. And a photograph with their mother’s face scratched off of it. Soraya remembered being pinched hard on her thigh if she asked questions. Told of what would happen to her if she said anything to strangers. Janet had erased their past with sheer willfulness, with new traditions, silly food and comic books, songs they made up on the long coach journeys they took across the country.
Janet’s face was ashen, grey. She turned away to steady herself, her hands rested on either side of the sink. The vertebrae of her bony spine heaved with each breath. India leaned forward in her seat, listened with the intent of someone afraid to be interrupted by even her own breath. Tanya stood at the doorway, outside of the threshold. She was as she’d always been, present and absent at once.
“You buried her in the garden,” said Soraya. She was as sure of it as she was of her own existence.
Soraya turned and started for the door. She didn’t know much, but she knew she had to get out of the trailer. Tanya stepped aside to let her pass, something apologetic in the downward turn of her pale blue eyes.
“Take your crap with you, then!” Janet reached for the waste-basket full of the purple flowers under the sink. The long chains had been broken, and many of the plants were speckled with black death. She threw the contents of the basket out of the trailer door after Soraya. For a half-second the sky was filled with them, the air full of their fragrance. They were butterflies for just a moment before they fell onto the dirt to be covered with dust and forgotten.
Soraya rapped hard on the door of Raphael’s trailer.
“Back again so soon?” he smirked at her.
“I need to get out of here, will you come with me?” asked Soraya, feeling like her skin had begun to itch and the only cure would be to get as far away from El Komei as possible.
Raphael looked around his trailer, exhaling through pursed lips. He scratched the hair at the back of his head.
“Please,” said Soraya.
Raphael shrugged. “Well alright, we’ll leave. My god girl. Don’t suppose you actually got somewhere in mind?”
“Somewhere with trees,” she breathed. “Just anywhere with trees.”
End of Part Two