guest-edited by Jeffery Renard Allen
The Carolina Twin
We have many names. Our Ma gave us one. We: the Two-Headed Nightingale, the Eighth Wonder of the World. None like us since the days of Eve. Adjacent souls with four arms, four legs. Two sets of hands and feet. Our eyes are warm like Daddy’s, our smiles handsome just like Ma’s. They say the news of our birth spread quick like fire in brittle grass. Physicians and their wide-eyed wives traveled to Columbus to document us in measurements and photographs, analyzing inches to assess our anatomic worth. We learned to crawl. We learned to stumble, to walk without dragging our feet. With our two mouths and doubled diction we learned to emit harmony. A doubled singular, incubating duet and dance while adorned in taffeta and silk. We walked the length of the stage in Washington, in Philadelphia, in Florida, and across the sea where monarchs greeted us as exhibit, as royal guest. With gloved hands, dignitaries affixed brooches to our mirrored chests, applauding us as an exceptional specimen of form and race. We are praised for the gait of our steps. We: the dual peculiar, one body fated to two deaths and one grave. Famed for physiognomy, we, the Carolina Twin.
You Are My Father
You are a young boy. You were born in a familiar place. This is where you live. You are not rich. You are on welfare, fed by food stamps. You are on a crowded bus. You are sitting. You are my father. The laces of your sneakers are worn. The tips of your shirt’s collar are slightly turned upwards. Sitting next to Mother, you swing your feet. She adjusts her wig, her bracelets clank with the movement of her arm.
It is the Age of Aquarius. Kennedy is dead. Malcolm X is dead. Coretta buried her King. You still have your milk teeth. You are seated, swinging your feet. You are going to the hospital to visit Little Brother. He burned his leg on the iron Mother forgot to turn off. When he burned his leg, she was sleeping. When he burned his leg, Father was awake. Father was awake in another house with a needle in his arm. You and he share the same name. Your name is the name of your father. It is the name of his father’s father. It is the name of the man who owned them.
The name is a name of purchase. It is the same with the name of your mother. The name before the name of purchase, it has been lost. The name before the name is no name. You grab Mother’s hand. You swing your feet and stare at the man sitting across from you. The man’s beard is unkempt. His jacket is thick. It is heavy. He talks to himself. His name like your name is a name of purchase. His name is talking. He is talking to you.
Now you are twelve. You are my father. You have a paper route. You have a bike. You save the money from your paper route. You buy a chemistry set. There is a man who wears rings on his left hand. You call him “Uncle.” “Uncle” is not his name. Mother and “Uncle” heat liquids in beakers with bright flames. It makes the house smell acidic, strange.
The smell makes your lids heavy. You are in bed, the one you shared with Little Brother before he left to live with Grandma. You are in the bed you shared before “Uncle” broke Little Brother’s arm. It happened while you were sleeping. “Uncle” smelled like he did when he hit Mother. It made Little Brother cry. You remember the sound. The sound. You were sleeping. You are sleeping because of the smell. The smell is the same. It has a name. The name, you’ll learn. It can be sold. A price. A name. The name of your mother. The name of your father. Your father’s father. My father. You.
I. Remember the ship, remember the sea. Remember the slip of iron around my wrists. Here in the dark, flat on my back, I feel the tide like a heartbeat fading, lost in the space between home and nowhere. There are men who look like sand. Their flesh is cold. They bring us food and dirty water. They place cold their hands on our thighs and touch us like they are our husbands. We do not know their names. I can still hear the music of my mother’s voice as she talks with the wives of my father. I close my eyes, trying to feel the warmth of a sun I no longer see. The women who lie beside me tell me we have been stolen from the land of the living. They say the men of sand are Death. When they touch us our souls leak, like water being poured from a gourd. In the dark, far from my mother and the ashes of my elders, I stop my breath while the men of sand trace the length of my back with their fingers. They pinch my cheeks and speak in words that resonate with a dull hum. Linked to the wrist of a woman the age of my brother’s wife, I watch as the men of sand cup her breasts. They slip their hands inside her while kissing her neck. Bright like the sun, like the moon during harvest, it vanishes into their throats. Here in the dark we are linked while the men of sand plunge their hands into our bellies and gut us like fish.
II. They cast me into pieces and arrange my bones for display. Little girl to none, I was placed on a pedestal where doctors, open mouthed and sanguine, stared at my breasts hanging, their pulses measuring the curve of my back. Every morning it is like this: I wake from a dream where I am home, adorned in fine linens dyed by my mother, listening to my sisters quarrel. I rise from my seat to scold them for their temper and find myself alone accompanied by cold meal in a chipped bowl, a mug of water, bruised fruit, and a shift I wear in brief. I dress myself, limb by limb, stepping into skirts soon to be lifted by the chalky hands of healers who explore the topography of my body. They chart the length of my spine in attempts to define my origin, to determine if I am woman or beast. I am their conquest. At their request, I unlace my corset for their clinical cause. In Piccadilly, I am primitive Venus. I am dark object, beloved of none. I am the body Afric and like her I am plundered. My parts, cataloged exotic, are preserved in jars. My skeleton hangs for a century while my sex, cast in plaster, is archived and labeled grotesque. I have been told my skull has been stolen. Christened after Isaac's mother, I am a daughter of unknown, caught in a loop of waking, dressing, and undressing. My parts scattered, missing. In this waking I am omniscient. Since my last breath, I have not slept.
III. My boy died in the winter. He crossed over like a shadow on a sunlit floor. Since his passing, I have felt him near me. I hear his voice, his laughs. They sound like distorted music in an empty parlor. I know it is him because there are footprints on my dirt floor and hot breath on my windowpanes. In the morning when I pray to Jehovah, I clasp the hands that tried to save him with words in print. I reach across the great divide. Since his last breath, I have heard the voices of women whose tribes have gone missing, the voices of children who are far from home. On my knees I bear witness to the lives of others, to the lives of those whose bodies sleep in the rot of the earth. Beneath marble and wooden crosses, my sisters and brothers reach out and touch me. My hands quake like Eli’s. I am sanctified by the dead. Through their eyes I see their daughters. I see their sons, who look like mine. When I rise, I am drawn to my kitchen where their hands guide mine, making meaning in the form of elixirs and script scrawled into recipe cards. Cast iron pots filled with boiling water marry roots with the herbs my dead son planted the summer before he faded. The herbs he planted with me seep in a kettle. His chair scrapes against the floor. The wind blows his favorite hymn. The Old Book says to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, that the living cannot commune with the dead. But my son’s spirit is in my kitchen. These voices cured Mable’s blindness. These elixirs make stillborns cry.
IV. When you slipped out of me, I was altered. I became Mother Mary kissed brown by a Mississippi sun. A daughter of the Delta, Holy Mother of one. I watched you sleep on your back. At my breast, I nursed you from tiny something into little man then Summer swallowed you, gulping you down with the Tallahatchie. You were fed to her by men brimming with something darker than hate. Little man, they say you made eyes at the grocer’s daughter, that you brushed the hem of her skirt with your fingertips. An officer told me your eyes were like a dog’s in heat, starved, so they were taken. Extracting the left and right from their orbits, they made a mess of you in the woods. Were you still breathing when they dragged you to the river and baptized you in blood? Wearing Christ’s crown around your neck, you were anchored to the Tallahatchie with a cotton gin. You slept in that river for three days then returned to me and in the wake of your passing your apostles have spread the gospel in your holy name. I am Mamie, Holy Mother. I praise the glory of your slumber and await the resurrection of the body you left behind, the body that now bears witness in your best suit, in a box of pine. I’ve got a testimony, Little Man. Hallowed be your name.
I met you in the summer. August, ‘49. Remember them Black-Eyed Susans? I bought them special just for you after watching you dance. I had that woman with the cart on the corner add some baby’s breath, even though it cost extra. She said you’d love it and I told her, yes ma’am, that’s what I want, my girl gets the best. That day felt slow, suspended, like I was underwater in one of them tanks where they toss the ball and then boom, you’re in over your head and soaked to the bone. That’s what it felt like, wandering through them crowds. Then something changed. like a magnet, pushing me along that boardwalk through families with red-cheeked babies and cow-eyed couples holding hands. I’m not superstitious. Maybe it was the hand of the Almighty. All I know is I was walking and then something said, “Stop.” I looked up and I saw your name. The air was sweet and still, smelling like the Atlantic and kettle corn and I stood there craning my neck back so far my hat nearly slipped off my head. There you were, at the Lido Hotel, banners saying “ALIVE.” I dug into my pockets, paid the admission fee, and strolled inside. I took my seat five rows from the front. A man in a striped suit walked onto the stage. This is the first time I heard you name. He called you Georgia Peach. He called you Betty Lou. “More of a woman than most!” “Beautiful!” “Rare!” I leaned forward in my seat. People next to me started murmuring. A woman to my left covered her face with her hands. Red velvet curtains peeled back and there you were, wearing white, with a string of pearls around your neck, a matching bracelet around your wrist. Your left hand was holding your left hand while you waved your right in the air. You winked at the piano player. He started to play. You sang “A-Tisket, A Tasket.” You did the jitterbug. You jived and my heart thumped something hard watching you strut across that stage, bearing the weight of your third and fourth leg with your hip. You were singing to me. I leaned into my seat, wishing I could kiss the back of your knees and rest my head on what you called your Little Sister. I’d meet your folks and slip a ring on your finger. Make you my Betty Lou. I’d treat you real good, both of you. So when you finished your song, I snuck out the back door, walked right up to that woman’s flower cart and spent the last of my bread on Black Eyed Susans, for my girl, Betty Lou.
Dianca London Potts is a writer, music blogger, and follower of the fictive craft. She is currently earning her MFA in Fiction from the New School. She is a Kimbilio Fellow and VONA / Voices alumna. Her work has been featured in Hyphen Literary & Arts Magazine, APIARY, Bedfellows, theNewerYork, and xoJane. She currently resides in Brooklyn.