Campbell Corner Essay Prize
Kate Small: Winner, 2001
I hear the pills scraping the space below your
tongue. Until now you have thought I am deaf because
I kept words to myself. I pushed them around in
my mouth, hid them in my tonsils, and listened.
My mother used to lay her hands over my ears,
to keep out the sharp-edged ones: cretin, mute.
I'd tuck my face down into the phone-book, my
cheek resting on its humming names. Now, like
then, my tongue often fizzes but stays in my mouth.
sponge the sweat from your lips and eyelids. I
cool your shoulder with the damp cloth. My mother
used to put her hand on my neck and tap my throat.
Words rested on her face like bees. I sipped them
off the air near her chin. She traced my brows
with fingertips, she pulled my lips apart looking
for my questions. She put my head right next to
the radio where it church-sang red, a huge, rolling,
under-the-stove-and-out-the-door red, a big black
red curling in a flood around the garbage cans.
I stay with you twenty hours at a time, I feed
you thin foods and clean your bed. You stare at
my face, and my mouth. I have cleaned your house
for twelve years, and for twelve years, I have
never said more than yes or no.
You have not known how I push a whole tornado
down, of alphabet. How I must keep and control
the green parts, and get the yellow letters to
march in the same direction. You don't know that
I have managed a giant blue storm of language
that would break you, that there are whole minds
hidden in school hallways, there are spiritual
struggles and vast inner lives which remain invisible
because some of us don't assimilate as achieving
Americans. I have remembered many parts of speech,
ways of speaking and kinds of language. I can
choose how I address you, because I have been
collecting words, phrases and intonations all
You don't see me, so you think I don't see you,
but I knew before you did. The nurse grasped your
breast and propped it on a block of Lucite. "Say
cheese," she said and clamped your flesh
between cold squares. Your nipple looked surprised,
flash frozen in a slab of ice. "Put your
hand on your head," the nurse said to you.
The machine hummed. She squeezed you into a tube
like ungreased dough. "Hold that thought,
honey." She gave you a breast self-exam card
to hang in the shower. You didn't ask to see your
x-rays, full of webs and branches.
knew the day you carried the fish I cooked, kitchen
tools strange in your hands, your two children
considering whether to eat it. You held two platters,
and beneath your cashmere one breast coned the
wrong way. I swept the porch - ornamental lemons
tapped the screen, inverting themselves, more
inside-out than the year before.
know, I know," the eleven-year-old
daughter says whenever she opens her mouth. Her
idea of servant is total, her reckoning sure.
She watched when you gave me your last year's
bony dresses, when I was on my knees. Little shiny
dresses when I am a tall, grown black woman, my
arms too big and hard for the starved slits in
the fabric. I washed the Christmas drinks off
your floor, the floor I washed for you the week
before that. Even now, with your hair burned away
and half your chest carved out, you never look
at me standing up. She won't either. She carries
her little breasts like deeds of title, she leaves
things places, and your husband buys more of them.
She will throw plates off fire escapes after you
are gone. She will wreck cars, she will walk away
from messes like they are forgotten tracts of
little son weeps behind the couch.
"The goal is comfort," the doctor says
to me. "Do you understand? We ease the way,
do you understand?" Pills slip down your
throat. He leans too close to me. "That's
all there is. Do you understand?"
used to look down my throat too, doctors peered
into my ears. I was small when they put headphones
around my skull. I heard bright pinpricks, a pollen
explosion, a broken thermometer, a burned finger,
a marble hitting the bottom of a pool, blood cells
with gold comet tails. I didn't say, on the left
there is always an earache, figure-eight shaped,
dark blue, it follows where I walk. I didn't say
that I have access to extra color, that each letter
has a hue, that sounds taste pigmented. Once on
the tongue, some foods are vermilion, ochre, or
Where do you think I went all those years when
you closed the door behind me? You have only seen
me as dark, without bones, nothing inside,
or below. The first word I spelled is brown.
That is your only word for me, but it is long
and low. I found a teacher. I went to school.
I went to the library. "Fragile X" the
caseworker said to me about myself. I have looked
this up. The syndrome is so named because a small
area of the X chromosome has a tendency to break.
X linked disorders manifest more clearly in boys
because they have only one X chromosome. Girls
have two X chromosomes, but even though the "good"
one might override the "bad" one, in
every cell one of the two X chromosomes is inactivated.
In these females, the books say, Fragile X causes
a language disorder called cluttering:
congenital word blindness, twisted reading, left
and mis-handedness, malorientation of letters,
stammering, headaches, eye-pain, and defects of
the sense organs.
gaze blooms open then shut, peaceful and liquid,
you are out cold.
When I come back your skin is a little brighter.
I make your husband uncomfortable so he talks
too loud. "She's pinking up," he says.
He forces himself to make eye contact. It makes
my face heavy. I let out my breath and push away
the smell of disinfectant and twisted lemons.
A year ago, I came into your kitchen from the
blood bank, gauze taped to my arm.
is your blood-type?" you asked surprised.
I thought of saying.
negative, that's rare," you said three times,
as though I might forget those two letters which
launch the alphabet.
abdicate, abdominal, I think, abrasion,
abyss. All brown: it attaches itself to your
ankle and trails behind you into your taxis across
town to white spaces, it follows behind you up
the stairs I sweep, it trails into the kitchen
where I cook and the bath I clean, down the drain
and back up again. I am here. Your house is half
of where I live.
I wonder how you think I cooked for you. How did
I find Creole halibut and pan-fried catfish, where
did I get cream-of-squash-soup, did I just know
pickled onions and corn relish? I don't just have
steamed persimmon pudding and sweet peach pie
in me, I learned sea-bass with celery root and
lemon bread, I learned hot slaw. I learned gravlax
and liptauer cheese and mashed rutabagas and wild
rice with Indian nuts. These are not in the blood,
the food of my charming patois. Are you
able to imagine that I wanted something more than
my own name to write? I wanted to know what it
says on the back of the aspirin bottle, what it
says on boxes and jars. I wanted to know why I
couldn't learn these things, and what it is that
spins and twists the letters into rotten-fruit
colors and split cans of paint.
Your fingers are purple. I remove your socks,
your toes are black, your face is raisin-colored.
Your hand moves to your belly and grips the folds
of your abdomen. One arm flutters up and makes
a circle back to the bed. Your husband flickers
past, his hands in his pockets.
ask me to sing. "A hymn," you whisper.
For the first time in twenty years I am filled
with my mother's voice, the call and response
of spiritual ecstasy. Whosoever Baptist Church
did feel the Holy Ghost. The happy big mamas clapped
and cried, the Lord climbed into their bones and
lifted them up toward Sweet Liberty.
YES!" they shouted, shuddering. Their purses
flew, their hats flung. "JESUS JESUS YES!"
fired across the room like bullets. They pierced
me, the wrong way. I was not filled.
mute," the case-worker said about me when
I was seven. I didn't know what these two words
meant, but I chanted them in my pew, in my coat
and dress. I could not receive the Holy Word,
the Good News. I could not speak in Tongues. Mine
was tied another way. The limits of the printed
Gospel gave me a head-ache, a crime-tape yellow
migraine that wouldn't leave me. Sunday School
was that color. Like I was wearing jaundiced sun-glasses
that wouldn't come off my face. Or, I was swimming
in that sulfured hue and there was no air to come
up to. I shut my eyes. I stayed near walls. Because
the truths put down in prayer before me fell too
far short of the richness of life. I couldn't
get the letters to settle. Only the music was
enough. The singing made my faint. The chorus
filled my body with silver.
How you look at me now, as though I have come
from the depths of the ancient earth to bring
to you a crucial message. I think you have made
me your anima, your minstrel - the excited
preacher who sets the congregation to yelling.
You see the colored thousands assemble under the
stars amid the blazes of campfires. You think
we are more receptive to the irrational. You see
me as an embodiment of a truly unconscious, collective
dark mass. I am the unknown continent, natural,
not carved, not marked by culture. The Africa
you crave grew dark as your Victorian explorers
flooded it with artificial light. Florescence
refracted through the colonial imagination. Here
at the last moment you call me up from unknowability
and blackness. For you I am primitive, remote
in time, moving among the lower races, to penetrate
the secrets of nature. How can I give you the
heathen customs you want, the songs, rhythms,
and movements, when I do not believe in their
magic? I see what you grasp for in your fever:
the curative power of roots, the efficacy of a
world of spirits, Vaudou, Santeria, Candomble.
You want me to distract you from your own empty
ending with stories of revival and awakening,
of meetings full of spirit possession. But I do
not have the devotional passion of my mother's
voice, or a man's bright holy-day drunkenness
and persimmon beer. You want to enter where I
myself do not belong - I cannot call you to a
secret hush harbor. I have no Zion to offer, nor
conjuration transported from the West Coast of
Africa. You and I: foreground and background,
presence and absence. I am the background for
the unfolding of your white drama. I am Africa
and Anima. I am one single idea.
"K these are for you," your daughter
says in the hall where I am sweating. She's holding
up the cast-off clothes because I didn't take
them home. You have replaced yourself. That muscle
in her chest has dried up into something like
your ankles in a bleached tennis dress. She grind
her teeth at night, she smells like toothpaste
and cancer. "Don't sell them," she says.
Eleven years old and she looks at me like a bitchy
I go back in to you. I take your hand. I know
why you want those myths, I say, but you are dying
in confusion, suffering from a life that was not
lived. As though you were never completely born,
so much of you suppressed and compacted beneath
the surface. So much postponed. You have not fully
touched the ground of being. You have lived in
drowsy blindness. You have been a woman waiting
at home, you have been a woman standing by a window,
caught in a world of objects. You have invested
your life in decor. The clutter of things has
made you sick. The intuitive knowledge and maternal
power you credit to is what you yourself have
lost. Your claustrophobia made this. Look at it
in the mirror: your scar a clue, something come
to the surface. Do you have any place to point
within, and say, this: this gathers me?
Did you ever watch what swims below? Things pool
and clot to poison. I learned early on, how to
locate the bad part within and squeeze down on
it hard, I made the contagion out. I pressed
down on it like bowels on a bone, a whole pelvis
on a kidney stone. You were slacked to sleep when
each of your children were born, your head so
far away from the rest of you, and now it is too
late to muscle up some dignity and bite back at
that thing, you have no respect for the river
underneath. Skin is a mask, I say, and I am more
than an icon.
put on my coat and go home.
For three days we cannot face each other. Time
is you who reaches across the abyss. "Library,"
you say. "You. Synesthesia. Go, look,
now." You look at me - you see me - standing
S Y N E S T H E S I A. I find it. It means, "extra
sense." It is a name for my sense-crossing.
All infants have it, I read, but as the brain
develops, multisensory linkages die, and sense
responses become segregated. That, I read, is
what's supposed to happen. In the brain of a normal
person, input goes from single-sense modules along
a pathway into a multisensory region. There are
pathways leading back again, but for most of us
those backward routes are inhibited. I read this
and I feel a soft brushing of violet at the backs
of my ankles. Relief. I know what I am. What I
am is not "most of us." In my head a
hear the Good News chorus. The bus exhaust behind
me is mustard hued. The driver's voice sounds
pointed. The turkey sandwich in my purse will
be round-flavored. The library book page is shedding
You ask for a story. I want to give you something
back. I will be the mother-myth for you. I will
tell you All God's Chillen Got Wings as
my grandmother did, when she wanted to comfort
were brought here and forget how to fly. There
was a cruel master who worked his people until
they died. He bought a company of native Africans.
He drove them hard. They grew weak with heat and
thirst. One young woman had just born a baby.
It cried and she spoke to quiet it. The driver
could not understand her words so he struck her.
She spoke to an old bearded man near her. Not
yet, that man said. She returned to work. She
fell again. Again the driver lashed her. Again
she spoke to the old man. Not yet, he said. She
stumbled, was beaten, and asked: is it time yet
daddy? Yes daughter, he said. He stretched out
his arms. She leapt up and was gone like a bird.
Another man fell and the overseer lashed him to
stand. The old bearded man called to him in an
unknown tongue. The man smiled and was gone like
a gull. Another fell. The driver lashed. The fallen
one turned to the old man, who cried out to him
and stretch out his arms. The man was gone over
field and wood. Beat the old devil! the master
said. The old man said something to all the Negroes,
and they remembered what they had forgotten. They
leapt with a great shout and were gone, flying
like a flock of crows over the fence, clapping
Kuli-ba! the old man cried, but I don't know
what that means.
Your throat is closing. The doctor says you are
dying of thirst. He sets an IV. I put a straw
to my mouth and suck some water in. I place my
finger over the top of the straw to keep the vacuum,
then insert the straw into your mouth. I am feeding
a hurt bird with an eyedropper. Your son walks
from room to room.
doctor comes, surprised to find you hydrated,
annoyed, you have not died.
you think the slaves flew away?" I ask.
you say. And in this moment we see each other.
You are right. You will not leave your body and
fly about the universe as a bird. Bird's lack
of similarity to woman is the subject at hand.
Bird is the symbol of the soul in ancient Egypt,
it is held in the hand of the infant Christ, it
is the attribute of Juno when personifying Air.
Birds were made on the fifth day of creation,
they nest in a tree at the angel's annunciation
to Anne, Francis of Assisi preached to them, but
the are always tied to a string, caged, or snared.
Hercules shot down the great Stymphalian birds.
You will not become wild duck or swan, winged
horse, jet-plane, or rocket, freeing yourself
look at each other. There it is; you and I, we
do not believe in the miracle of the Christian
Resurrection, a final means by which woman may
be granted the gift of eternal life, in a world
beyond this finite one.
don't believe in heaven. Thus have I left the
church. I have no words to offer you. God does
not exude out of my pores like sweat. Gods do
not well up from the inside, of me. He has erased
my soul, silenced my colors, trampled my secret
language. My mother accepted that Christians are
equal in the sight of God, a message that provided
hope and sustenance. I don't believe this. I believe
God is white. And even so, he has left you with
nothing to call your own.
Mother of Heaven," my mother said as she
died. Her death was a soft passage into the light.
How many people are so connected to some essential
part of themselves that even death does not distract
them? I am not one of them.
and I have no polis, I say. Your white
suburbia and bleached secular condo have no rituals
to sift and consider. You have no access to the
connectedness of your humanity to the rest of
nature with its cycles. No terms with which to
savor the awe-full grace.
you do," you say. "Try to remember."
You reach for my hand. And in your touch I know
I need to sense something ongoing and untouched
by the demise of the body. I have lost the Koinonia
of fellowship that sisters and brothers have for
one-another because of Christ, a God I do not
believe in. But I at it's core, we were sustained
by a theology that holds community rather than
God as the center of life altering questions.
you say, like the holy women in the church. "YES."
I blaspheme, though I owe my life to the stubborn
insistence of the slaves on their right to touch
God. And to you, who have reminded me to linger
with the spirit of divine discontent, which forces
everyone to face some new discovery or to live
their lives in a new way. This pain which hurts
so well, balanced and thrilled by the pure body
joy of Gospel singing, of color beyond the visible.
Sometimes we grope our way by a kind of song and
Braille into a spacious feeling, an innate momentum,
toward a homesickness for God. Savor not God but
the homesickness itself. This is a better adventure.
Your body is darkening from the toes up. I show
your husband your hands, purple all the way down
to the palm, darker at the tips. I drag your watery
children to your bed. They are gone. There is
one thing left to tell you. When he was smaller,
your son asked to look at my hand, his own still
a starfish, warm, not the ice on the curves of
his sister. His fingers soft as beeswax over my
creases, trying to get it, past it, to difference.
I touch your arm now and ask you. Did you savor
him when he was still sweet, when there was the
possibility of keeping something tender in him,
and safe? Because his fingers were like the voice
of a boy soprano rising to the bright upper vault
of a cathedral, pale steam on the high rose window.
If I had said one word it would have been too
much, though he traced the moons of my cuticles,
our blood almost meeting in the lines of our palms.
I watched his large eyes move without a particle
of distrust, he tested the veins in the back of
my hand for their give, the secret pink of an
African's fist. I kept all the way down a million
swallows trapped on the branches of my lungs.
He looked from my hand to my eye to my hand, measuring
something. I wonder where it is stored in him,
the sameness of us, the bone and knuckle, of we.
"Anima," you say. And I think,
perhaps there can be release, renunciation and
atonement, presided over and fostered by some
spirit of compassion - a Sapentia, a wisdom
presence. Shulamite in the Song of Solomon, her
sublime aspect fused with the Virgin, and Kwan-Yin.
The mediator of the elements. A dark-skinned naked
woman, the soul of instinct. I will tell your
daughter that without a sense of pattern in life,
woman will always feel like a lonely child, lost
in a vast forest with night coming on.
Your breath moves to a deeper place.
is the hour, the day, the time, I say. I am close
to your ear. In the beginning was the black church,
and the black church was with the black community,
and the black church was the black community.
The black church was in the beginning with the
black people, all things were made through the
black church, and without the black church was
not anything made that was made. In the black
church was life, and the life was the light of
the black people. We will hold you, pale woman
with a good heart - I hold you like a child. I
give this to you. This is what else blessing might
mean. You smile. You have baptized me. You have
anointed me. You have listened me into existence,
you have completed an arc of grace. You stand
at the doorway of being. We are midwives for arrival,
we need midwives for leaving. Kuli-ba, Kuli-ba,
I sing, rocking you.