“Hussy Strutt a cold-blooded bitch, wouldn’t pee on you if your heart was on fire. She love to fight, an’ rage taste better in her mouth than food. She big, too. Hussy Strutt use the East River for a bathtub and be mad ’cos it don’t cover her butt.”
Ayo giggles in spite of herself, and things seem a little closer to natural, at least by sound: Zinger weaving another tale, embroidered by Ayo’s laughter. Zinger’s been at it all night, picking up a new thread when hour upon hour of darkness pulled tighter than their bonds or a noise from the street brought new terror. Zinger tells the best stories, and right now, that’s the only escape there is.
“Hussy Strutt’s tar-black like the river, but her skin’s smooth like Silkience, ’cos all the fights she been in, nobody’s ever put a mark on her, not one time. And she never talks, at least not in words. Just kinda hiss and cackle and growl when she’s mad. Which is most of the time.” Zinger pauses. “Kinda like Maysie.” This time everybody laughs, Ayo the loudest, as usual. Even Dream’s continuous sighs sound like mirth. Elisse is half asleep, exhausted by hours of darkness too deep to close her eyes on. All the nighttime in the world is stuffed into this little rectangular box of a basement, but through the two grimy, street-level windows at her right Zinger sees strips of paling sky. Silhouettes emerge against the concrete walls: Ayo and Elisse in profile, back to back; the determined arc of Maysie’s bent neck; Dream’s restless crouch.
“Hmmph,” says Maysie, but by the tone Zinger can tell she’s tickled, too. Maysie keeps working the thick wire binding her wrists to the heavy iron pipes of an ancient, cast-off steam radiator, but purposefully, not wild and frantic like before.
“Reason why she don’t speak words is, the only one she ever really talks to is Carnival. Carnival is the first fire. First time a sun burst, first time lightning hit an old dead tree, first time monkeys figured out which rocks you bang together to make a spark—that was Carnival. ’Cos fire’s very old, but new every time. So of course Carnival’s seen it all and knows just about everything, but she’s still flighty and vain and likes to play. She know better than to play with Hussy Strutt, though. Hussy Strutt wear Carnival like a scarf, twisted double ’round her neck and flyin’ in the breeze.”
“Huh!” Maysie holds up scraped, bleeding hands in the struggling, predawn light and softly claps them in triumph. The wire coils harmlessly in the radiator pipes. Maybe now they all have a chance.
“Do Elisse,” Zinger whispers, watching Maysie pick her way through the dusty clutter. Ayo and Elisse sit a few feet away, tied with clothesline to a cracked wrought-iron garden bench. Elisse has dozed off again, chin on her chest, long pigtails falling in disarray, but Ayo’s eyes are watchful and bright with hope.
“. . . couldn’t get out . . .” Hugging herself against some internal chill, Dream singsongs, rocking in time with her words. “. . . they all came to stare and i couldn’t get out . . .”
Zinger holds her breath. Sometimes Dream would keep talking and it would make sense if you thought about it. Other times . . . well, it made sense, but maybe you wished it didn’t.
“. . . a mustache the color of ginger . . . he put me in a cage . . . he called me Saartjie . . . that wasn’t my name . . . they called me Venus . . .” Dream shakes her head. “. . . that wasn’t my name . . . they knew i was beautiful . . .” Dream’s smile twists with the memory “. . . the curve of the earth, the image of my . . . it made them mad . . . on a stage . . . in a cage so they could look . . . cold in my bones . . . naked in a cage . . . they don’t even . . . know . . . my . . . NAME!!! . . .” Her voice rises to a sudden shriek. “. . . LET ME OUT!!! . . .”
Maysie jerks the knot she’s working, and Elisse, startled, wakes with a wail.
“Shhh . . . shhh,” Ayo hisses frantically. “Shhh. It’s okay, sweetie. C’mon, crybaby. Shhh.”
“I want Aunt Zora!” Elisse cries louder, big wet gulping sobs, like Aunt Chloe’s last asthma attack: dark and final. Maysie sighs like she’s been holding her breath awhile, and the clothesline around Ayo and Elisse goes slack. Ayo doesn’t even tear it all away, just enough to turn around and gather Elisse into her arms. Elisse is half Ayo’s age—only four—but her arms and legs are almost as long. Ayo just grabs her and holds on tight. They slide to the grimy floor together, pale and dark arms interlocked. Ayo murmurs comfort; her voice shimmies on the edge of breaking. Maysie sighs again, turns to help Zinger.
From across the room Zinger pitches her body in the direction of Elisse’s voice, strains against the thick cable binding her to the boiler at wrists, ankles, and throat, trying to hug with no hands, with just the sound of her voice. They all want Aunt Zora.
“All right, Elli; it’s okay.”
Elisse calls again, voice muffled in Ayo’s sleeve: “Aunt Zora . . .”
“Aunt Zora isn’t here, honey.” Zinger has to swallow to make her voice bright. “We’re going to Aunt Gwen’s, okay?”
“We’re going upstate,” Ayo says excitedly. “Elisse, we’re going upstate!”
“And when we get there, you can sleep in the big bed, and Aunt Gwen will make you pancakes,” Zinger continues. “All you can eat. And you can pick out a babydoll, so Brandon can have a friend.”
Elisse sniffs. “Brandon’s my friend.”
“Well, we’ll bring him with us.” Zinger crosses her fingers.
“Brandon go, too?”
“Yes.” Zinger prays they can find the doll—if they all get loose and past Aunt Alice. There’s been no sound from upstairs for hours.
“When we goin’ t’see Aunt Gwen?”
“In a little while, honey. Sing Ayo a song while we wait.” Going upstate. That’s what Aunt Zora called their rare day trips to Aunt Gwen’s. Zinger knows this is because Highland is north of Brooklyn, but the words feel like ascension. Upstate. Highland. Feels better than down here.
Elisse’s voice is high, and rough from crying. “This little light of mine . . . I’m gonna let it shine . . .”
Maysie is behind Zinger now, sawing at the cable around her neck with the serrated blade of a broken knife, exhaling frustration. Aunt Alice melted the cable ends together, fusing the metal filaments and black rubbery casing, knowing that Zinger was, out of all of them, the one to chain.
“. . . let it shine, let it shine, let it . . .”
“i was only twenty-five . . . i got sick . . . monsieur cuvier put my cunt in the musee de l’homme . . . it’s preserved . . .” Dream giggles softly. “. . . i was dead yet do i live . . . if Desiree is here, too, i’ll find her . . . maybe i can bring her home . . .” Zinger freezes, waiting for Elisse, and maybe even Ayo, to cry, then sags with relief when it seems they haven’t heard. No one had mentioned Desiree. Only Zinger had seen:
Desiree on the floor, looking drugged, wasted, ravaged. Stench of blood and chemicals in the room. Blood and piss-soaked blankets. Aunt Alice said Desiree would sin no more, she was healed, she was recovering, she needed rest. The towel fell away from Desiree’s waist when they lifted her. Hacked flesh between her parted thighs. Red smears on Aunt Alice’s shirt.
“Jesus, Dream. Jeeesus . . .” Zinger stares at her searchingly. Dream is rocking again, humming, hiding beneath layers of clothing and an inky tangle of wavy hair. Seems like Zinger woke up one day and instead of her Deena, her fearless, proud-walking bigga sista who took her everywhere, fed her first, and gave her words for everything, there was this hunched, mad-eyed Dreamstranger. Soothsayer. Oracle of sorrows. Dressed up in a suit of Deena skin.
Just one more thing. . . .
Maysie pulls away the cable around Zinger’s neck, works the knife against the ones on her wrists. Zinger clamps her lips against the bite of the blade, inwardly reciting her litany of all that has vanished from her life.
First the cabs, then the lights, then the water in the pipes. . . .
The way Daddy explained it, the cities and states ran out of money and stopped taking care of things. It still makes no sense to Zinger. She knows lots of folks who get by with no money at all.
Then the doctors, then the schools, then the cops, then the rules . . .
Aunt Zora said it was the disasters. Earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, you name it, all in one year, all around the world. Folks left homeless, hungry. Some places with everything destroyed, and nothing to rebuild with.
The stores, the networks, the phones . . .
Zinger knew the Aunts a little bit, from when Daddy did repairs around their house. They weren’t really sisters, Daddy said, just friends from back in the day that decided to share a house. Three girls lived with them already, girls with no place else to be. Maysie, who couldn’t or maybe just wouldn’t speak, tall, thickset, the same age as Zinger, but with hard, old-lady eyes and an angry, clenched jaw. Ayo, tiny and dark-skinned, soft-spoken but quick to smile. Elisse, a diapered butterball baby waddling after Ayo, dragging an oversized yarn-haired cloth boydoll.
Aunt Zora took one look at the pair on her doorstep and opened the door wide. Deena, twitching and shuffling inside nine layers of clothing, stood blank-eyed and silent until Aunt Alice ushered her upstairs. Aunt Alice returned moments later grim-faced. The Aunts held a whispered conference at Aunt Chloe’s armchair by the living room window as Deena’s voice echoed from upstairs.
“. . . no, no, no, no, no, no, noooo . . .”
Aunt Alice and Aunt Zora hurried from the room.
“She did that when I tried to make her take off some ’a them clothes,” Zinger mumbled, sitting small on the rose-colored sofa, not meeting Aunt Chloe’s kind, gray eyes.
“Tell me.” With a heavy quilt around her slight shoulders, Aunt Chloe all but vanished into the chair’s depths, but her voice was rich and fluid, her wavy hair made a silver halo in the sunlight, and her whole body seemed to listen. Zinger told her everything. A simple story, really. Daddy never came back from his last job. Deena went out to look for him. Dream came back instead.
“Just one more thing that is no longer as it was.” Aunt Zora briskly returned to the room, Dream’s bloodstained clothing bundled under her arm. She smiled at Zinger: sorrow, irony, and endurance. Amazingly, Zinger found herself smiling back. Aunt Chloe’s patient attention and Aunt Zora’s matter-of-fact calm were the most comfort Zinger had known in days.
Just one more thing . . . It became the joke Zinger and Aunt Zora shared during those moments when things were so bad, they might as well be funny.
Aunt Alice never laughed with them, smiled less and less, cried more, and more violently, desperate hands raking over her ragged locks. News of Patroller actions was as likely to set her off as a neighbor’s offhand comment, or seeing another pack of wild dogs on the block, “Patrollers. That’s the name for them. They act like it’s seventeen-something, and we’re all fugitive slaves if we step outside our homes—”
“Well, bless ’em, they’re only off by three hundred years, give or take a few decades,” Aunt Zora responded lightly. “They’ve never been accused of excessive intelligence.” She and the girls were folding mended sheets and raveling towels stiff from the clothesline. “And if we’re all slaves, how come you ain’t working?” She tossed a towel and a sidelong smile to Aunt Alice. The girls laughed. Aunt Alice didn’t.
The Aunts were a trio for cello, flute, and piano—snapped strings, bent metal, and chipped keys: the sonorous rise and fall of Aunt Alice’s raging laments; Aunt Zora quick but calm, trying to soothe; Aunt Chloe telling stories of such fullness and wonder that it almost covered the chaos. Almost.
“How come the princess had to stay there?” Ayo suddenly frowned in the middle of one favorite tale. “How come she didn’t just run away?”
“Nowhere to go, lovey.” Aunt Chloe shook her head. “You gonna let me finish?”
Aunt Chloe had died, was it three weeks ago? Zinger aches for her musical voice and gentle ways, for just one more story.
Just one more thing . . .
Blinking back hot tears, flexing chafed, singed wrists, Zinger takes the blade from Maysie, bends to work on the last cable around her legs.
“. . . the traditions . . .” hums Dream.
It’s almost soothing.
“THE TRADITIONS!”—and it’s not the volume that rips an answering sob from Elisse, but the fact that it’s unmistakably Aunt Alice’s voice bellowing righteous fire through Dream’s barely parted lips.
Zinger covers her own mouth, the knife blade falling, forgotten. If I look into her eyes right now, who would I see?
“THE TRADITIONS ARE WHAT SUSTAIN US AND KEEP US PURE THROUGH ALL ADVERSITY. WITHOUT THEM YOU ARE WORSE THAN THOSE WHO WOULD DEFILE YOU—”
“Shutup shutup shut up SHUT UP!” From the floor with Elisse on her lap, Ayo claps both hands over her ears and screeches louder than both of them. Dream and Elisse fall silent. Zinger retrieves the knife, returns to her task, and to uninvited memories:
Desiree was sneaking out or in when Aunt Alice caught her. It was inevitable. She was fifteen or sixteen, maybe, the oldest except for Dream, the last to come stay at the brownstone, and she had complained ceaselessly about having to live like a nun in a damn convent. Zinger had seen her with Mr. Miles when he brought the water. Once Zinger came out through the side door in time to see Desiree and Mr. Miles tumble, half undressed, from the back of his truck. Later, Desiree showed Zinger the gifts he’d brought her. Half a bottle of whiskey and crumbly chocolates in a gold cardboard box.
“. . . they think we’re all liars . . .” Dream speaks more quietly now. A different voice: pedantic, perfunctory, drained of passion. “. . . my education my professionalism my competence my achievements didn’t matter . . . our violation is not an offense . . . it is impossible to rape or abuse black women because we are . . . wanton . . . perverse . . . animalistic . . . we . . .”
Maysie lets loose an exultant hiss as Zinger steps free of her bonds.
The basement door is locked. Maysie springs it with a practiced gesture, yet they all stand listening for long moments before Zinger turns the knob.
The kitchen: every dish, pot, pan, and utensil on the floor, dented, cracked or bent, mired in spilled food, a feast for roaches; the table dead on its back, legs in the air beneath splintered chairs.
The living room: upholstery bleeding stuffing, pictures torn and charred, books gutted, their spines cracked, loose pages drifting amid broken glass from electric lamps that hadn’t shed light in years.
Maysie and Zinger exchange looks; Maysie nods, begins looking for Elisse’s rag doll. Ayo takes Elisse’s hand, leads her to their prearranged hiding place: the armoire in the foyer, the one piece of furniture still intact.
Only Dream is smiling. “. . . pure in fire . . . made pure . . .”
Upstairs: Smoke smell, and silence.
Aunt Zora’s room is a shrine, holy and hushed; the bed quilt as immaculate as an altar cloth. Zinger wants to curl up on it and sleep in its peace and illusion of order, but there’s no time. Next room.
Eight blocks over, five blocks up, Aunt Zora had told them. Corey James had come over from Red Hook; Arnetta was sick again, asthma, bad like Aunt Chloe’s. Aunt Zora on a healing mission, a personal redemption, hoping to do for Arnetta what she couldn’t do for Aunt Chloe. Herbs and tinctures in a bag, boots on her feet. The gun she’d told Alice she’d sold hidden inside her coat.
Aunt Zora never came back.
The smell is unspeakable: ashes, damp, death. In the blackened metal frame of Desiree’s bed is a vaguely human shape beneath the charred and sodden quilts. Aunt Alice slumps in the chair beside the bed, dead eyes staring fiercely, tongue protruding between lips parted as if she would speak or scream. Brown skin and dull green upholstery caked with drying blood.
Aunt Alice had caught them all by surprise. She had barely spoken since Aunt Chloe died, hadn’t emerged from her room since Aunt Zora disappeared. Zinger tried to escape when she saw Desiree, fought past Aunt Alice, raced down the stairs. Then she heard Elisse’s and Ayo’s cries from the basement.
Not relief. Not shock. Not disgust. Not sorrow.
Just one more thing.
“Hussy Strutt got bored one day, so she found a piece of chalk and on the black sky she drew a man. Nothing fancy. Stick body. Stick arms and legs. Short little sticks for hair on a round head, and that was Stick Man.” Zinger deliberately keeps her body still as she speaks. Aunt Zora was like that: no wasted motion. Maysie scrapes a splinter of furniture against the concrete sill of the side door where the girls sit, hidden from the street.
“. . . that’s bad enough . . .” Dream murmurs. “. . . all that’s bad enough . . .” Zinger looks at her sharply, but Dream is deep in some alternate tragedy. At least she’s quiet. Right now, anyway.
The truck comes bumping over potholes and broken asphalt, moving slowly to avoid junked cars or just junk in the street.
“Hussy Strutt made him, but you couldn’t tell Stick Man that,” Zinger resumes. “Couldn’t tell him nothin’. He up in the sky lookin’ at the whole world, and he thinks it’s all for him. He greedy, so Hussy Strutt breaks him off a little piece of chalk, just to shut him up. Right away, Stick Man starts makin’ his own people. More stick men, stick women, stick children.”
Anyone who could bought water from Mr. Miles. Real rich people’s water was cleaner and came from farther away. Poland. Naya. Folks with no money at all collected rainwater in pans set on roofs and windowsills.
“None of ’em ever did anything new, though, so after a while Hussy Strutt got tired of watching them. Stick Man always trying to get Hussy Strutt to pay him some mind, and she just walk on past. Hips swingin’ from dawn to dusk and back. Stick Man jonesin’ hard just watching her walk.”
“. . . but when it’s one of your own does you ill . . .” Dream groans softly. “. . . one of your OWN . . .”
Ayo looks up from watching Elisse comb knots into Brandon’s matted yarn hair. “Hussy Strutt ever do it with Stick Man?”
“I’ll tell you later.” Zinger is already walking toward the street. Mr. Miles sets the big plastic water bottles down on the sidewalk. Aunt Alice had never let him come into the house. “Can you give us a ride up to Highland? Up to the water station?”
“You know I ain’t supposed t’ do that.” Mr. Miles’s round, pecan-colored face is sly, expectant; he barely glances at Zinger or the others.
“We could ride in the back. Nobody would see us.”
“Yeah? I thought you-all didn’t go out. ’Gainst your religion or somethin’.” Mr. Miles scratches the back of his head impatiently.
“We go out. We’re out now.”
Mr. Miles grunts in assent to the obvious. “Where’s your other sister?”
“Out.” Zinger takes a deep breath, pitches her voice low. “Give us a ride and I’ll do anything you want. Just like Desiree.”
He finally looks at her.
Zinger has never thought much about it but is suddenly defiantly glad of her thirteen-year-old skinny body: hard breasts budding under the bib of her overalls, yet wishes she had Desiree’s curvy butt and graceful, lazy stroll. Mr. Miles looks her up and down, eyes like hot breath.
“. . . i’m not a liar, and i’m not crazy . . .” Dream croons. “. . . i’m not a liar, and i’m not crazy . . .”
Maysie leads Ayo by the hand. Elisse’s legs dangle as Ayo carries her piggyback. Zinger walks painfully, one hand reflexively clamped to Dream’s elbow, eyes down, silent since they had left Mr. Miles at the water station just after dusk. Dream’s soft singsong mantra drifts in the space that Zinger’s stories would have filled. They move carefully, balancing outright stealth with feigned nonchalance, trying to keep within the tree line without losing the highway. They’ve only seen one vehicle, a truck hauling wood. Aunt Gwen’s is not too far; just two more exits, but Patrollers cruise the routes out of the city. The Patrollers are supposed to just watch their own neighborhoods since there’s no more police, but everybody knows they go hunting for folks when things get slow. The side roads will be safer.
Dream giggles, a light sound in the darkness. “. . . they bagged me . . . black plastic . . . the only thing they got right was my name . . .” Her laugh slows, crumbles to a sob. “. . . they don’t know . . . they DON’T . . .”
Too loud. Maysie stops, shaking her head. Elisse slides, trembling, from Ayo’s shoulders, trying to hide in plain sight. Jolted from her own thoughts, Zinger grabs Dream’s shoulders. Too late. Dream slips to her knees, waiting.
“. . . nasty . . . nasty . . . shitsmell . . . mommy . . . it hurts . . . mommy . . . my back, my tits . . . they hurt me . . . they HURT ME . . . !!!”
Clustered around Dream, the girls don’t hear the car rolling toward them, engine dead, lights off; don’t see the men, some carrying ropes or basketball bats, silently surrounding them. A shout. Swift, heavy footsteps. Patrollers. In the moonlight their faces are greedy and ghostly pale. Ayo screams, backs away from the first attacker. Another swings her off her feet, laughing cruelly. Maysie shoves Elisse out of reach, lands one punch, then another. A bat slams into Maysie’s ribs. She goes down hard. Elisse, running, is snatched up by her hair and dangles, shrieking, to more laughter. Zinger hauls Dream to her feet. Dream screams as many hands seize her, ripping her clothes. “. . . no no no not again don’t touch me don’t touch me don’t touch me DON’T TOUCH ME!!! . . .” and—
Hussy Strutt comes striding over the curve of the earth with clear, cold fire snappin’ in her eyes, and Carnival dancin’ toi-toi ’round her head like raging laurels. The thunder of her footfall cracks the ground and the rock beneath; the men scramble, plead for sanctuary, but the rock cries out . . . no hiding place. . . .
Hussy Strutt scoops the girls up in the crook of one arm, cradles them close; loops a glowing shaft of moonlight ’round her free hand. Carnival roars down the length of her arm, twinin’ ’round the column of light and splitting into nine barbed tongues of flame as Hussy Strutt pops the whip, a lash for every lie, every evil deed, every ill intention. Raped by cold light, rent by fire, the men scream, their skin flays to charred strips, scream louder than the hiss of their blood in the flames, scream till the whip cords wind ’round their straining throats and Hussy Strutt, smiling, jerks them silent.
• • • •
Crouched, trembling, eyes squeezed tight, Zinger pictures Aunt Gwen, the big house, the dogs, the shotgun behind the kitchen door. Safety. Please.
“. . . Nzingha . . .”
Zinger opens her eyes; tries to shake clear of dreams that call her by name, her real name. She hasn’t heard it in so long.
“Nzingha.” The voice is calm, insistent, and real. Dream kneels beside her in the grass, smoothing the disheveled braids away from Zinger’s face. Most of Dream’s clothing is gone. She wears only tights and shoes, but doesn’t seem to notice. The night air is still and smells of apples. Zinger rises slowly, seeing Maysie bracing herself between Ayo and Elisse. Elisse holds Brandon in one hand and one of Dream’s shirts in the other.
“Aunt Gwen’s is this way,” says Dream. “The big lady told me. . . .” Zinger stares at Dream, beyond stories, beyond words. Dream’s eyes shift and flicker, but she stands to her full height. “. . . i did not . . .” she says proudly, “. . . deceive my family . . . my advisors . . . or my people . . .” She turns, takes three deliberate, unhurried strides between the trees, then waits for Zinger and the others to follow.
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