Miss Freda Pays a Visit

Since my last post, I’ve felt myself retreating further into myself, further into silence. I have been talking a lot, but I’m not saying anything of consequence, anything that matters, or saying anything I really want to say. I’ve typed and erased several messages and tweets, and felt the urge to call someone to relay some funny or frustrating or mundane subside as soon as I think to pick up the phone. It may seem odd that I feel so silent when most of my days involve interacting with other people, particularly when most of those people are eager high school students with a lot of fascinating insights to share. I had a really uncomfortable encounter with a stranger in public yesterday (I’m ok). I thought a good cry would help me feel less agitated, but I couldn’t get any tears out.*

But I’m still here, and still writing for myself, for this blog, and for you.

I submitted the following piece of flash fiction for the Afreada x Africa Writes contest judged by Warsan Shire (!!!) I made it to the penultimate round–15 out of 225 submissions– which is pretty encouraging. I’m so grateful to the Afreada editors for considering me and my work. I’ve had some other works published on Afreada, “Pain Control” and “Safe House.” I’m hoping to turn this into something longer, you know, as soon as I find more words.

***

On the third day she came to visit, all the sharp edges in my house fell to pieces. I discovered them hour by painful hour, as I moved from dusty corridor, to bath, to wood-floored bedroom dotted with several months’ worth of shed hair and fluff. Sewing scissors– their gold handle rusted over with neglect– sat scattered on my work table; screw, blades, and finger rests spread far from each other as though they had never been whole. The old-time straight razor I used to shave my head was also apart from itself, its cutting edge bent in half like it was made of paper and not steel. Even the keys jammed into my room’s locks were dull around their teeth.

“The keys too? Is that not a bit much?”

My voice scratched its way out of my mouth, hoarse from lack of use, but she behaved as though she hadn’t heard me.

“Miss Freda?”

She was still, just as she had been on her first two visits, careful not to make any forceful movements that would topple the unsteady kitchen stool she sat on. She usually stayed no more than three hours, sighing whisper-soft every few minutes, and rearranging her lean arms across her chest when she grew stiff.

“Girl. You are still mourning? Still trying to end yourself?”

Her voice lilted and chimed like a dinner bell, but there was some sort of distortion to the sound. It was almost as if my head was submerged in water, and I was listening to her through the muffle. I stood silent in front of her, watching the 4 o’clock sunlight spilling lazy orange warmth over the window sill and onto my feet, narrow and much-veined just like hers.

“Miss Freda, didn’t you die?”

She ignored me. We might as well have been taking part in two different conversations, running parallel and eventually away from one another.

“Anyway, I deadened the keys too, just in case. It would be torturous to go that way, but I thought you might still try.”

She laughed to herself like high heels kicking on concrete and added, “You this child of ours.”

“Of ours? I’m no one’s but my very own.”

Miss Freda kissed her teeth and rolled her eyes so far up and back I thought they would stick.

“Girl. You think you made yourself the way you stitch those clothes? You think you hold yourself together all on your own?

As she spoke, she adjusted the yellow film of fabric she wore for a dress. The way she called me Girl made me forget my real name. I knew she was the aunt that followed her sister, my distant and unloving mother into sickness and then death years ago, but I felt more lifeless before her brazen self. What did she want with me?

“Give the sharp edges a rest, girl. You are all of us. You are a wide sky inside too stifling a house. Let me show you–

***

*My current obsession, Alice Smith’s performance of “I Put a Spell on You” in Black Mary, the short film by Kahlil Joseph, helped me a little with the words and the tears this afternoon.

Black Mary
Still from Black Mary. Directed by Kahlil Joseph, 2017.

 

The Last of the Fires

I found a short story I abandoned last year for reasons I can’t quite remember! I think it may be worth revisiting, especially since a lot of the ideas I’ve been trying to put into writing for the past few weeks have been dead ends. Please enjoy the only paragraph I actually liked from the story, and wish me good luck as I attempt to turn this into something…

***

The only clouds left were grey smudges sagging against a moody background. This climate in grey scale had long been stripped of its great bright blue. It seemed as though God herself, after having inhaled all the ills of the earth had coughed and had left the ashy residue of this evil suspended up high as a reminder. A warning that came too late. Perhaps the smoke from the last fire had contaminated the pure sky air, corruption combining with ozone, a deadly compound that threatened to choke me with every lungful I inhaled. I couldn’t remember a time when my breath wasn’t labored, when I didn’t have to rub my eyeballs until they threatened to bleed in my constant attempts to remove the specks that had lodged themselves there. Today, a sheet of grey falls over my once-bright countenance, my perspective veiled by the memory of- what was there before it?

 

 

 

Original Simone

We got an assignment in fiction workshop a few weeks ago to write a plot outline based on this two-line story published by Thomas Bailey Aldrich in 1870: “A woman is sitting alone in a house. She knows she is alone in the whole world; every other living thing is dead. The doorbell rings.”  My attempt wasn’t exactly successful because I didn’t include the major conflict of the story, but it was still really fun to try this surreal post-apocalyptic style for this assignment! I may end up turning this into a full story, stay tuned 🙂

***

Simone heard a voice that sounded remarkably like her own coming from the other side of the door. “Let me in! I beg you!” It was disturbing enough that she was the only surviving human on the planet, at least she had thought so until now, but the fact that this impossible visitor echoed the sound of her own voice was even more terrifying. Her first instinct was not to duck below window level even as the knocking and begging increased in intensity. Instead, she was fixed to a spot in the center of her living room, halfway between the crooked hand-me-down armchair and the door, her anxious energy almost burning a hole on the green floral carpet on which she stood.

Perhaps she had missed conventional human interaction more than she had realized, and the lack of it had subsequently caused her to lose any sense of judgment, but for whatever reason her curiosity overwhelmed her fear and she walked towards the door and opened it. She nearly fell backwards into the room when she saw that she was standing before herself, a more worn and tattered Simone with a light film of ash over cracked brownness which must not have seen lotion in days, leaves and clumps of mud dispersed throughout the tangled mass of tight curls piled on top of her head, and smears of indeterminate substances all over a white shirt and navy trousers.

“Simone! I mean…I! Ugh this is too complicated. Let me in, please? They’re coming for me…us! Whatever, let me in!”

Simone could not distill her confused thoughts into speech, but then she recognized the twisted humor of the situation. Technically she had spoken, it was herself at the door after all. Her two selves sat down together, and beat-up Simone winced a little as she tried to get comfortable in her seat. Beat-up Simone went on to explain that she was alone in the world, but technically she wasn’t, because there were different versions of themselves scattered around their small town from different stages in her life leading up to the day the world ended for everyone else. There was blissfully happy Simone with her culinary school certificate displayed on the wall in an apartment much like this one, and frustrated Simone who could only get a job as a dishwasher in a French restaurant downtown because fresh trainees didn’t typically rise to executive chef right off the graduation dais.

Then there was her, beat-up Simone, who looked the way she did because all the other versions had tried to stop her from going to tell original Simone what was happening. They only stopped throwing punches when she caught her breath mid-attack to ask “Wait…what are you even scared of? What is going to happen if she finds out?” They realized they had been acting based on group hysteria and outrage, and had no real justification for why they felt as though original Simone should not know of their existence, so they let her go. Collectively, they didn’t really know much at all. Not about how they, or her, of all people had been saved from whatever unknown but deadly fate had befallen the rest of the world, and why this had caused them to separate out into these strange constituent parts. As beat-up Simone tried to explain all this to the baffled and slightly amused original, they both heard the doorbell proceeded by frantic knocking.

“Let me in!” they said in unison.

She has no name…

In this week’s episode of “Do you even blog anymore?” I present to you a character sketch I wrote as part of a homework assignment for my fiction workshop. The challenge was to create a composite character based on traits from two real people, pulling together traits that may be contradictory in order to create a complicated “three-dimensional”  portrait of a person. (So many workshop buzzwords…) I am also glad to announce that I will be posting every Monday evening. As in weekly. As in not when “the muse” falls over me and I feel compelled to post something here. Putting this in writing is the only way for me to hold myself accountable. New year, new me and what not…

***

She used a constant stream of chants and impassioned speeches denouncing “the toxic system” and all those who benefitted from it as the perfect disguise for the hollowness that was expanding inside her chest daily. It would have been almost impossible to know that her outward passion for one social cause after another was actually shallow because she never shared more than useless morsels of information about her personal life, especially when she suspected that her listener would handle her truth roughly and with disdain. The defiance she carried with her at all times fell to her feet and cracked when she realized she was pregnant by a husband she could tolerate only some of the time, not including the times when he would heave and grunt on top of her in the murky darkness of their room. She had been so preoccupied marching and drinking in overdoses of the sun during all-day protests on State Street or in front of Flagstaff house when she returned to what she thought to be the correct side of the Atlantic. So immersed in her activism was she that she didn’t realize when her life began to veer off down a broken track with mind-numbing scenery rushing repetitively past the window. She had been betrayed, by all the disapproving friends who squinted mistrusting eyes at her, “How can you be depressed? Abeg! People have been looking for babies since!” a statement that usually ended with snapping fingers to indicate just how long some women had to wait for the supposedly good fortune that had befallen her. She tried to train a pair of lips that had been more accustomed to political debates and rapid comebacks for baby talk and benign smiles, but found that the biggest betrayal of all was from inside of herself. She was staring in the face of her newborn child, but all that she could make out was imminent transformation into the kind of woman she had always scorned when she walked past them in the streets of Accra. Those women who seemed nothing more than empty shells click-clacking with the latest gossip of whose husband was in debt and whose child was heading towards an American college. There was no one with whom she could share these portions of fading self-recognition, so instead she smile emptily: “Oh don’t mind me! You’re right, I’m probably just tired.”

 

 

Méfiance

This isn’t the first time she has had to tell you this, but maybe you didn’t take her seriously on all those other occasions because she was looking at you only from the corner of her eye. That time the light was streaming through the blinds so perfectly and she had an idea that just could not wait, she was only half with you while her other half was busy trying to describe everyday phenomena in a way that you could never imagine. The next day you would look out of the window and say: “It’s funny, the sunlight looks a little brighter today.” She was only half warning, and the other half was fooling you into thinking that she was trying to be intense just to be interesting, to find ways for your lives to mimic her art, to make the air vibrate on still afternoons when it seemed like nothing important would ever happen in your small corner of the universe.

I hope this time you will listen when I say:

 This woman is a situation in which you do not wish to find yourself. She will dig to the bottom of your words –choose wisely– and will conjure up a storm around the fact that you called her by her government name instead of after your favorite flavor of ice cream. She will make sure minor disagreements turn into tragedies and temporary difficulties become epic tales of adversity from which you have no chance of escaping. You will look back on phone calls drenched in tears and wonder what you could have said or done to avoid the conversation ending in ultimatums and apologies you did not mean.

This woman is greedy. She has sensed the wealth of love you have hidden behind your sarcasm and will pick away at it tirelessly, using the lethal edge of her persistence as an axe. You do not stand a chance. You will emerge from any encounter with her standing alone on the pavement outside an apartment building you do not recognize, blinking in the sun’s unnecessary brilliance, your palm outstretched and empty, lined with faint scratches and cuts with your own blood threatening to rise to the surface.

This woman does not need you. You have planted yourself defiantly by her side, resolved to allow her to use your shoulder as a headrest. You will regret this soon enough. The moment she begins to feel that you have made yourself indispensable, that you have conquered a patch of land in the barren plains of her spirit and tried to nurture greenery, she will turn against you. You will not understand. You have only been half listening while the other half of you was trying to support the very thing that would destroy you. You have trained your own killer.

I have danger straining to escape from behind my perfectly clenched teeth. Beware.

 

Comfort Like Ashes

These days, she had taken to pondering the most insignificant things. Emptiness had a surprising way of expanding and filling a skull to bursting capacity when it was given the chance. Her latest obsession was dust. Or rather ashes. Before the last fire, she had never considered how resilient they were, how fiercely they clung to grooves and cracks in tiles.

How imposing they were, a solid black mass, dust particles coalesced into an immovable mound, leaving a permanent stain, a shadow, a reminder of their existence long after they had been swept away. How relentless, relentlessly useless– nothing more than waste, wasteful attempts to preserve memory. How nostalgic, painfully nostalgic– a constant reminder of decayed vivacity and the remnants of a stale life ground to nothing.

She carried these thoughts with her throughout her days; their omnipresence turned from disturbing to comforting. She sprayed the ashes over her mass of cotton hair, she brought them with her from room to room, she plaited them into the neatest, tightest rows of corn, she ground them up with dried flakes of skin, she rubbed them into her chest between the indentations left by her sharp ribs, she left some in front of her doorstep, for who?

The ancestors? To ward of Pharaoh’s soldiers on their destructive quest? She scratched at the stubborn ashes with the last traces of vigor left in her forearms. She stowed the broom away, and folded brown hands in her lap.

 

Light Show

The 8am lights danced through the window and onto her collarbone, down her chest and along each rib, retracing the same path that he had followed a few hours earlier. The sunlight played in the curves of her ears and along her cheekbones, lingering for a moment on the peaks of her upper lips. The jagged surface of the birthmark on her chin did not derail the beam of light as it wound its way down her face and pooled in the hollow of her shoulder. She rolled over and stretched as if to allow the light to disperse throughout her body. It lodged itself in the roughened soles of her feet and in her fingertips and bounced onto his face as she touched her forefinger lightly to his forehead, his cheek, the end of his nose, the tip of his tongue. The 8am lights danced a little harder this morning– a little more frenetically– deviating from their prescribed patterns because this morning, she wasn’t alone.