Campbell Corner Essay Prize

Kate Small: Winner, 2001

Getting Word

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.
          I 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 my life.

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.
          I 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.
          "I 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 land.
          Your 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?"
          Doctors 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 moss.

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.
          Your 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.
          "What is your blood-type?" you asked surprised.
          Red, I thought of saying.
          "AB negative, that's rare," you said three times, as though I might forget those two letters which launch the alphabet.
          Absolve, 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.
          You 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.
          "Oh YES!" they shouted, shuddering. Their purses flew, their hats flung. "JESUS JESUS YES!"
          Amens fired across the room like bullets. They pierced me, the wrong way. I was not filled.
          "Cretin, 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 pilgrim.

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.
          I put on my coat and go home.

For three days we cannot face each other. Time is wasting.
          It is you who reaches across the abyss. "Library," you say. "You. Synesthesia. Go, look, now." You look at me - you see me - standing up.

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 light, up.

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 me.
          Africans 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 and singing.
          Kuli-ba! 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.
          The doctor comes, surprised to find you hydrated, annoyed, you have not died.
          "Do you think the slaves flew away?" I ask.
          "No," 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 from gravity.
          We 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.
          I 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.
          "Sweet 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.
          You 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.
          "But 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.
          "Yes!" you say, like the holy women in the church. "YES."
          We laugh.
          Thus 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.
          This 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.