First, the Fire

“Eva looked into Hannah’s eyes. “Is? My baby? Burning?” “

“…Eva said yes, but inside she disagreed and remained convinced that Sula had watched Hannah burn not because she was paralyzed, but because she was interested.”

-from Sula by Toni Morrison

***

So, I’m writing.

I’ve been giving myself writing exercises in an attempt to free myself for this frustrating halt that I’ve been feeling each time I’ve tried to resume working on my thesis project recently. The way I see it, if I keep writing around and around, I will eventually write towards my actual work, as long as I’m always writing pieces that exist in the same universe as the one that I’ve created for my novel. With that in mind, I’ve invented a series of plagues that are sort of “biblical” in the sense that Christianity and a lot of its symbols and imagery have been fused or absorbed into Ewe and Haitian vodou (This is related to the research I’ve done for most of my time in my MFA program, and I wrote about it briefly here).

I didn’t grow up with the ritual of burning fallen hair after braiding or combing, but I’ve grown fixated on that image after encountering it repeatedly in Black women’s writing across the diaspora. Someone is always burning shed hair immediately before some sort of tragedy, or before the next “strange thing,” as Toni Morrison puts it in Sula.

I re-read Sula a few weeks ago, and it was not the more spectacular instances of burning that stayed with me, not Eva setting fire to Plum in his bed, or even Hannah going up in flames in the yard and Eva leaping out of the window to try and save her.

Rather, it was the smaller, the seemingly more ordinary; Nel’s grandmother using a burnt out match to darken her eyebrows, or Sula’s return, marked by birds, and by Eva burning her shed hair with her back to the same window she once leapt out of. In Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, we are to believe that it is Cocoa’s fallen hairs, those that didn’t get burnt, those that end up in the jealous Ruby’s pocket, that lead to her painful deterioration. (There’s something I think Sula and Mama Day are saying to each other, and I wrote about that here.)

My first plague is fire.

***

There is oil hissing and spitting inside. It’s possible that it is frying on too high heat until whatever you had wanted to eat is shriveled and burnt, stuck to the pan’s deep rusty belly, forevermore resistant to any scrub. It could be that the stove’s heat is too great, or, that the whole house is burning, and I am going with it.

Don’t you want to see what you can salvage

 There is something frying inside, but you are still and always slim legs, not crossed, but rather arranged one next to the other, grey dusting where your ankles meet from too many dry afternoon hours exposed to the air. Something is on fire, and your skirt is bunched up in messy fistfuls high on your thighs. Your feet are in the dust next to mine on the lower step and something is on fire. Yet, you just sit.

You have gathered the fallen hair from my head into a feathery ball and set it alight, three clicks of a lighter and a curse. There is something burning inside–I am sure– and yet, you sit, with my shed strands flaming first between your pointer and your thumb, and now in the palm of your hand.

Maybe the whole house is burning, or maybe it is just my scalp is scorching sweet mercy. I told you not to make the parts so small this time,

I told you I am something tender–

(Image by Hannah Firmin, from the cover art of the Grafton Books 1982 edition of Sula)

 

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?

 

 

 

My Gift to You

Burning out; also associated with the fear of having absolutely nothing left of yourself to give. 

*****

All that I had, I massaged into your scalp. It flowed from my fingertips past your follicles and through your temples, coating your thoughts with the sheen of guaranteed futures. All that I had, I gave to you in an enamel pot with faded drawings of flowers on the side, and lines of rust running back and forth over the lid like desperation leaving tracks on the inside of my wrist. All of that has long since ceased to be. It lay rotting at the foot of a tree trunk, malicious flies buzzing and sucking until all that remained were bare seeds and a trail of ants too late for the feast.

All that I had is buried under mounds of doubt and smelling salts, like a relic from the days when hysteria was believed to exist only in the minds of bored housewives. Everything I had is exhausted, an empty jar left rolling on cracked tile, an almost imperceptible trace of grease lingering behind. One, two broken teeth from a comb- that hair- I spent all that I had trying to make it bend and curl the way it should.

You are carrying all that I had on your shoulders. It is sitting on your clavicles, their sharpness threatening to tear a hole in your chest. It is coating the roof of your mouth and making your teeth feel sticky. It is trapped in the back of your throat, wrestling with your tonsils for space. All that I had, I poured into the never-ending depth of your greed, and I am left with faded paths in the sand were mighty termite kingdoms once stood, running back and forth like imminent death tracing its way along the flimsy covering of skin just above my veins. I have given you all that I had, the very best from my reserves. Now you have moved on elsewhere, and I am left clawing at the walls of my imagination, hoping to recover my wealth.

Yawning Wide Nothing

This is something I wrote for my poetry seminar yesterday. We had a day off from school because there was this insane thing happening where actual ice falls from the sky and just lies in wait for you to slip and fall on it the moment you step outside…Anyway, we only had two hours to write a poem or a piece of flash fiction including ten words from a list of forty somewhere in our work. The instructions were more complicated than that, but I’ll spare you the details. I can’t say that I’ve always been a believer in organized creativity, if I was I would probably post on this blog a lot more regularly than I do. BUT, I must say this came out better than I expected. It’s actually the only thing I’ve written for this class so far that I am not horribly ashamed of. Yes to giving myself time limits and writing by numbers?

******

She stood at the edge of memory, calloused toes gripping the edges of her too small sandals, cracked palm open and upward. Open. Yawning like the harsh white sky, empty of rain clouds and compassion. Her skinny brown legs were planted to the ground, on a strip of red earth somewhere between despair and peaceful expiration, open mouth yawning like the cavernous nothing at the bottom of her stomach. Give us something to eat please, it’s been a few lifetimes since we were last satisfied. She strained her eyes, hoping to see past the border of beyond, looking for- what? Manna from heaven, smoke from the last coal pot, grains of salt falling like hail, a tornado- whisking across the thirsty soil and gathering her up into its empty center. A passage toward safety, the road away from Sodom and Gomorrah- don’t you know light cannot escape from a black hole? She clutched a fist to her thin chest, flimsy membrane barely containing the barren soul beneath it and the ancestral ruins constructed there, and orange seeds, and chicken feathers. She yawned and picked her teeth with a shard of bone.