I need saving is what I tell myself as I slip out the door and stumble away from Addie’s house. I need a holy ghost revival, a tent and wailing, I need to shiver and throw my head back and feel the spirit come down on me so hard I can hardly stand, so that I can go home to something else besides an empty house, rose bushes overtaken by weeds, shadows in the corners of rooms, and me so light, so light I could lift up off the ground and float away.
I open the door to my car, get in and start the engine. It heaves and turns, heaves and turns, and on the third heave catches. I need saving and what it feels like is heat and a rash across my chest and a bush fire in my belly, the kind that sprawls across pine barrens for days and no one bothers to put it out because that is just the way it is on an island too small to notice if you are looking down from bigger places.
The first time I went to Addie’s house I noticed the weeds. It was hard not to notice them; they lined the path leading to Addie’s front door, giant amaranths she called callaloo, a leaf of which she broke off and handed to me: it’s something like wild spinach, she had said, amused by my hesitation: go ahead, taste, it won’t poison you. She had names for the weeds that grew up in the limestone soil in her front yard, and round the back where grass swayed knee high, and she knew what they were good for too: cerasee toned the blood, blue flower for fevers, and for an upset stomach, shepherd’s needle–tiny yellow and white flowers I had seen and ignored all my life; staples of the unkempt corners of yards, of the edges of streets that bordered onto bush, vacant lots, poor soil that seemed not to want to grow anything else of value. Addie left them to flower and seed. She minded them like wild children, watched them grow with affection, but without intrusion. She let them be.
That night, I smelled limestone soil in the crease of her belly, tasted it where my tongue found the back of her right knee, the hollow of her left arm pit; I surrendered then to something impossible, or to an unfamiliar sense of possibility and felt the shadow of callaloo darkening my skin, like a tattoo. I had the sensation I had been a shadow myself, till this moment. I thought, we are impossibly real in a place that is impossibly real. I was afraid to leave her bed, the weighty tangle of her arms and legs round mine, in case I forgot what it felt like to be flesh. I lay awake listening to the syncopated thrumming of our hearts; I watched her eyes flutter side to side under closed lids. I heard myself sigh.
In the days that came after, it was me and Addie, Addie and me. Addie drawing the curtains in daytime, against the watchful eyes of neighbors. Addie drawing me back from the front door to kiss me before leaving the house. In the car I threw a grey sweatshirt across the space between us where fingers might mingle. Together, we were vigilant in parking lots, in grocery stores and pharmacies, in front of Mrs. Taylor’s fruit stand. At a red light I watched as the song between us shimmered and evaporated on the stretch of road ahead. But when night came, in the sanctuary of Addie’s bed, that song surged again and we hung on to each other desperate for fingers and shoulder bones, the soft skin between toes and an ankle and heel, the certainty of a broad shin gleaming in the dark, the generous solidity of thighs, and finally, gratefully, that place between them where inside and outside came together.
Selfish, Addie had called me, when I first told her I preferred living alone. I liked my solitude, I had insisted, months ago, inside my homemade church, watching her pick up a rock and rub its smooth grey surface between brown fingers. She smelled of sweat and coconut oil, and I had wanted to reach over, take her fingers and pull them to my mouth. I didn’t, instead I said she could keep the rock, that it was a present to remember me by. She had looked up mischievously, as if she wanted to laugh, but stopped herself, and I knew my cherished solitude was in danger.
I let her go that night, leaving with the women who had come for ceremony, the kind that was secret, the kind we worked in the dark in candlelight, against the tide of church sermons and meetings, against the grain of wooden pews and pulpits, I watched her leave, her long purple skirt brushing the ground, her right hand holding the rock I gave her.
Then I dreamed her against my will. She appeared to me the way spirits do, her face as close to me as my breath. I dreamed her a presence behind the story of my dreams. I woke with her breath on mine, I myself breathless, awake, pressing myself into the sheets, the pillow, the rock against her fingers, rubbing.
Now the bush fire sprawling out inside me sparks and flares as the sun’s glare accosts the windshield of my car. There are horns blowing and police waving cars over, pulling them on the side, giving tickets to drivers because it’s the first week of July and their registrations are past due.
A woman on the sidewalk cusses at no one I can see. I frown and she catches my eye. What you looking at?
Addie had kissed me. She had never kissed a woman before, but she had leaned over while I was talking about wetlands and how they were disappearing, and kissed me. At first she tasted like Bermuda cherries. Then, behind the sweet, like Shiraz, red and smoky, so that I gasped and said, Oh, God. She had slipped her hand under my favorite tee shirt, the black one with the spiraling white snake, pressed it warm against my naked breast. I had circled her wrist with my hand, wanting to pull her back and pull her to me at the same time.
“You talk too much.”
She was closer to me than my breath. Thick warm fingers of hair grazed my cheeks, my neck; the current between us hummed like a song. That had been April, when woman tongue and silk cotton trees flowered and their downy blossoms drifted in the breeze. By June the weather had changed. Addie became quiet, introspective and didn’t want to be touched. She said she was hot. She needed space. To breathe. She said it wasn’t me, it was the heat. The smallness of the island. There was too much noise, in her head. She felt hurricanes brewing. There was tension in the air. Something that had not been here before. She didn’t know what. She said it would pass. She said God was trying to tell her something. She had looked at me with some accusation. A Nina Simone CD I had been playing skipped, got stuck like a record and played the same stuttering note till I went to the stereo and stopped it. By then Addie was up and walking to the door. She paused in the room I called my church, said, “Don’t you ever think, maybe it’s wrong?”
I looked around at the rocks and shells and bottles crusted with colored wax, a wooden statuette of a woman’s torso in the centre of my altar, the painted face of a woman on a square of canvas behind it.
“No,” I lied.
Hands gripping the steering wheel I swallow, the noise loud, the sun too hot, the roads too congested, the air too wet to breathe. In my belly the sprawling bush fire has spread; pine needles crackle, insects scatter in hot, sandy dirt. And what I feel is there’s nowhere I can drive to where there won’t be horns blowing, the people I want to call my own waving me on the side, pulling me over, giving me a ticket for having the wrong name, the name I haven’t even allowed myself to speak.
I drive anxiously through these same streets, named after colonial governors, west on Shirley, stopping at a light on Mackey. There to my right, I see a man with a disfigured face leaning on a mustard yellow cement wall. I’ve seen him in that same spot day in and day out, and I think about the story I’ve heard, how his girlfriend caught him cheating and assaulted him with a bucket of lye. Above him on a white billboard is a single word: Repent.
Addie had said her mother knew something. She had been asking questions about her new friend. What was my name, and who were my people, she wanted to know. Addie had laughed it off, but her laughter was tinny, the corners of her mouth strained. Perhaps we had been careless, Addie mused. Perhaps people had seen us sitting on the same bench at the fish fry, our shoulders leaning towards each other, my left hand pausing on her thigh under the table before I withdrew it to a place of less consequence – a green beer bottle, my lap.
“Remember that day in the grocery store I introduced you to my cousin and she mistook you for a man? And the time in the car when we missed and held hands at the red light and my mother’s sister, Auntie Joan, was in the car next to us? What about the time you were leaving my house and Dante drove up at the exact moment we kissed goodbye – did we have the door open, or was it still closed? I don’t remember. Damn it, I don’t remember.”
“But he was still in his car, babe, and I don’t think he could have seen us from there with all those weeds blocking the view; it was so fast, I’m sure he didn’t see.”
That night, Addie made me park my car on the opposite side of the street and a few houses down. She said she felt transparent, pulling the curtains to. She said, “I feel as if the walls of this house are made of Perspex,” and drew her robe closer around her shoulders. I offered her a hiding place between my two arms, but she slapped them away: “Everyone can see us.”
Now I drive purposefully, inching east to west, passing the Nassau Public Library, which used to be a jail. Traffic is bumper to rusty bumper, jitneys forcing their way into non-existing third lanes, and I sit biting the nail of my right thumb, staring grudgingly out the window. There, behind a shiny black gate and up some white steps, is a larger than life statue of Christopher Columbus, pristine white, and I decide, not for the first time, that I hate white statues of discoverers.
I turn on the radio and recognize the voice of a prominent religious leader just as I am passing Columbus and the pink walls of Government House. Addie used to say pink was the color strategically used to lull slaves into obedience. I decide, not for the first time, that I hate the color pink. I hear the Bishop tell the host “We love them, because they are children of God. But we cannot condone the lifestyle. What will be next? A man wanting to marry his dog?”
“You’re suffocating me,” Addie had said moments before her mother knocked on the front door Sunday morning. I withdrew my hand from her cheek as if I had been stung. At the sound of her mother’s voice calling, Addie lurched out of bed, threw on her terry cloth robe and hurried to let her mother in. I considered climbing out the window, but the windows were obstructed by white wrought iron, crafted to look like birds in flight instead of burglar bars. Their voices sank dully in the humid air as winged shadows played across our tangled bed clothes.
“Your father wants to know what’s keeping you from praising the Lord.”
“I can praise Him anywhere, Mama; I don’t have to come to church to do it.”
I’m worried about you.”
“I’m a grown woman.”
“That’s what I’m worried about. What a grown woman like you doing with that mannish woman who I hear don’t even have a job?”
“She’s a writer. I can have friends.”
“What you have in common with her, your friend?”
“Books. We talk about books.”
“I see. You always been a book lover.”
“You always encouraged us to read.”
“I don’t want the things people saying to be true, baby, that’s all. Make me rest easy and tell me I don’t have anything to worry about. Tell me your soul still belongs to the Lord.”
“Mama, my soul… she’s not anyone… you don’t have to worry.”
After I heard the door open and shut, Addie didn’t return to the bedroom. I didn’t know whether to wait in there or come out. I fingered my keys. I sat on the edge of the bed, making patterns in the carpet with my white high tops. I wondered if it had been the other way around, my mother come to visit on a Sunday morning, Addie naked in my bed, feet away from the kitchen table, if I would have said anything different.
I sighed and got up. I crossed the hallway into the living room. Addie glanced at me, our eyes met, and for seconds I imagined this could be our home, our paintings on the walls, our books on shelves arranged in order of most beloved authors; I imagined my guitar leaning against the white wicker armchair, photographs of my nieces next to the ones of her nephews on the round table by the sliding door that looked out on weeds we knew by name. But we couldn’t hold our gaze; I looked away first, and then, so did Addie.
“I’ll call you,” I said.
I did call, but for two weeks her phone rang and rang, unanswered.
I imagined the phone ringing inside Addie’s house, and Addie ignoring the ring as she brushed her teeth, poured herself a glass of water, set it by the bed, turned down the sheets, turned out the lights, lay in bed frowning at the too warm air and the sliver of persistent light reaching its way in through the crack in the curtains from the street outside. I imagined hearing her suck her teeth as she rolled onto her right side, away from the street, the light, pulling her knees up to her breasts and hugging them, child like. Only when the phone rang for the last time, its dull clamor dissipating into the darkness and into the solidity of walls and ceiling and floor would she allow herself the luxury of stretching her legs out to the full length of the bed, the silhouette of wings stuck, suspended in the absence of any breeze.
Finally, at ten thirty this morning I gave up calling and drove over to see her instead. I parked my car alongside the white gate out front and slipped through it into Addie’s yard. Something was different, and at first I did not see what that difference was. Then it occurred to me, on either side of the walkway leading to the front door, the soil had been freshly turned and was bare; the callaloo had been uprooted and cleared, the grass had been cut, cerassee vines stripped away from the garden fence, blue flower and shepherd’s needle disappeared. I felt their absence like a drift of cooler air against my skin, like the coming on of the cold season.
“Addie?” I tapped the door three times. I heard stillness, then movement and clatter, and when the door opened it was Addie’s face, softly round, her brown eyes bright as sand stone washed clean after a rain squall. She didn’t speak to me as I walked inside. Instead she padded towards the kitchen listlessly, to stir the pot boiling on the gas stove.
“I’ve been calling,” I said, unsure of whether to stand or to sit.
The yellow walls of Addie’s house, once covered in photographs, paintings and books, were bare. Black and white pictures of Addie and her siblings, Dante and Grace, were stacked instead in piles on the floor. A single framed picture of Addie in a green and white striped uniform leaned against a 5 gallon bucket of white primer. White shelves that had been arranged neatly with books, The Haitian Revolution, The Colonized Mind, Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of The Earth, a burgundy King James Version of the Bible and The Bahamas Between Two Worlds, had been emptied of their contents, which now sat in orderly columns beside the photographs, and a small color portrait of her father in his cassock, benignly looking on.
“You painting the house?”
“I’m selling it.”
I sucked in my breath and concentrated on the only object left on the wall facing the door: a large acrylic painting of an old woman smoking a tobacco pipe. She sat barefoot on the steps of a blue wooden porch, her eyes, like crows’, staring back at me, her legs wide, her skirt an orange valley between them. Behind her an open door led into a darkened room. I wanted to disappear into that room, to sit with the old woman, rest my head on her breast.
I exhaled. The old woman was watching me. And I was watching Addie. Addie holding onto a wooden spoon and stirring. Addie staring at her own hand holding the spoon. Addie breathing in deep, and then turning to face me.
“I’m moving to Canada,” she said, as if that answered everything.
“What’s in Canada?” I asked, feeling the drift of my hands and legs away from my body.
I wanted to talk about love, but the word seemed made of airy stuff, the word seemed to come from a long way off, from a foreign place where other people lived. Maybe Canada.
“But this is your home,” I waved an arm in the direction of the books, the walls, the wild children scattered now, and homeless.
Addie turned from me back to the stove and the pot. Her figure was weary and small under the orange house robe. I watched her shoulders rise, then fall. I watched her bow her head, concentrating on the spoon and the stirring. Under the terry cloth I imagined her breasts were tender and full; I had listened to the ocean moving beneath them, sometimes so swollen it spilled out over her skin, wetting my cheeks, stinging my eyes. My heart was full and aching, my hands loose and empty and aching, and I was about to go to her when she said “There’s nothing for me here.”
It had been four months and four days and everything I had been yearning to touch and smell and hear was in this room. “Baby,” I said, lamely, my spirit caught at the base of my throat, tap-tapping and I swallowed so I wouldn’t cry.
“God wants me to change my life.” Addie put the spoon down and wiped her hands on a green dish cloth. She folded her arms against her breast. She looked at me then down at the tiled floor. We were both breathing slow into the silence; outside a dog barked as a car reversed and drove away.
“Your father isn’t God,” I said.
“What do you know about God?” she asked, sharply, as if we had never breathed prayers through parted lips, found church in the place where inside and outside came together. “You don’t even believe in him.”
“Look at me,” I said.
Addie shook her head, no, and traced the square tile with a slippered foot.
In the silence I heard a clock ticking, the gurgle of okra soup simmering on the stove.
“You should go,” she said.
“There is no place else to go,” I said, feeling my legs become hollow stalks, my body hollow and trembling.
The clock ticked. Okra soup simmered and its scent crept along the walls, wistful.
“This isn’t something that’s,” she paused, she searched for the word, “possible.”
I touched my throat; the tap-tapping had become a throb. I shivered and stepped away from Addie, away from the photographs, books, old woman in the acrylic painting on the wall facing the door. I turned, walked out the door, past the ghosts of callaloo, out through the white gate, unlocked the door of my car, got in, and started the engine.
I switch off the radio. The sprawling bush fire has quickened, leaps and lunges in all directions. The heat of it singes my fingers, my lips; my breath is shallow as if I am trying not to breathe in the smoke that fans out across my insides like lies. The palms of my hands are sweaty and I wish my car horn was a spear I could blast into the car in front, the one with the bumper sticker that reads “Jesus saves”.
When I was 18 they tried to save me. Mid semester, holed up in a motel room outside a New England college town, my parents in one bed, me in another, I was wakened by staccato shouts; my father pitching up from a nightmare that he was battling the devil. I heard my mother reading: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” I heard them whispering: “Maybe she’s possessed.” I eased the pillow over my head and pretended to be asleep. I pressed my face so hard against my fists, the white sheets, I could scarcely breathe. Bone against bone, I prayed I wasn’t crazy. The next day they drove me through Connecticut suburbs looking for a Greek Church. The priest wasn’t in. So they brought me home. College wasn’t as important as my soul.
I arrive at the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, the church I grew up in. I park my car, get out and stand looking up at the blue and white domed ceiling. Cumulous clouds have gathered, and the sun is distant, a sheen behind great swathes of grey and white. I walk up to the double wooden doors, try the handle, but it doesn’t budge; it is locked. In the gloom, I don’t know why I have come. Maybe I want a funeral. Maybe I want permission. Maybe I want to scrawl letters on the white walls so the words I can’t say might become visible. Maybe I want a show down. I walk around the periphery of the church. I let my fingers graze the petals of white tea roses and orange lilies and pink geraniums growing thickly in the narrow space between the church walls and cement courtyard. I bend my head to their perfumes. I finger stamens and rub yellow pollen between my forefinger and thumb. I blow the pollen off my fingers and watch it disappear. At the back of the church is a shovel leaning against the wall. I pick up the shovel and feel its weight in my hands. I remember what it was like digging in the earth as a child. The feeling I had of working in the place where inside and outside came together.
I work now thrusting the shovel into the dirt with my foot, and hoisting up roots. I stop now and then to admire my progress. A light drizzle has begun and I wipe wetness from my eyes with my dirt- smudged forearm. When I am done there is a slick mound of flowering plants—roses, lilies, geraniums—that I stack by the dumpster on the street. My tee shirt and jeans are soaked. My arms and legs feel light and heavy at the same time. And, through the rain, I see in the dirt along the white walls of the church, irregular rows of small green things: shepherd’s needle, cerassee, salve bush, and, I can tell by their arrow shaped leaves, the new beginnings of callaloo.
I listen to the hiss of steam as it rises.
•••Helen Klonaris is a fiction writer born in America who has lived and written in The Bahamas most of her life. She is the co-founder and co-director of The Bahamas Writers Summer Institute and spends summers teaching memoir and fiction in The Bahamas, and the rest of her time teaching creative writing at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Her stories have been published in Calyx, So To Speak, HLFQ, The Caribbean Writer, Poui, Small Axe Salon, Anthurium, tongues of the ocean, Yinna, The Journal of The Bahamas Association for Cultural Studies and Lucayos, the literary journal of the College of The Bahamas. Her work also appears in three anthologies: Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writings (editor, Thomas Glave), Caribbean Erotic, (editors, Opal Palmer Adisa and Donna Weir) and A Sudden and Violent Change (editor, Sonia Farmer). Her first collection of short stories, The Lovers, will be published in 2012 by Calyx Press.
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