guest-edited by Jeffery Renard Allen
I am tired of waiting for Heaven. Today I will do it. I will step into the ocean and let its undertow grab me. The cold water will close above my head and Serafina will be no more.
The ocean has called me for as long as I can remember. Papa used to say I had salt water in my veins. I imagine I was born there, that Maame Aba squatted in the water and pushed me out and away from her. I imagine that the salty water filled my nose upon my first breath. It is only right for me to give my life back to it.
Papa said drowning is the worst way to die. He hated when I spent time at the beach. He always told me, “Serafina, our name contains sand, but that does not mean you should wallow in it.” But he would be staring at the water and not the sand. He kept recalling the time he almost drowned when he was a young boy in Holland. His father rescued him then. There was no one to save Papa a few years ago when his ship sank days away from Edina. The water finally claimed him, just as it wants to do to me.
The waves crash and foam at my feet. I watch until I grow dizzy and my toes become numb from the water’s chill. I am wanting to walk toward the edge of the sand but something stops me. It is that thing I hate to hear: the Guinea slaves aboard a ship leaving Edina.
The only ones I ever understand are those who speak Mfantse or Twi. They are shouting, “Nyame na Nyankopon, mesrε wo!” Begging the Supreme Mother and Father—the Creators—to take them back home.
If I were on those ships, I would not wish to return home, even though I’ve heard the slaves are chained in dungeons worse than the castle’s. I would rather suffer that than continue in Edina here. Here, the people hate me for many reasons: because I don’t speak, because I don’t expose my yam mounds like any other young woman, because I don’t yet have a husband, because I have done that thing Maame Aba forbids me to repeat.
And now Papa Karel has dashed my hopes of ever going to Holland. He sent his son Hendrik there at eighteen to further his studies in Christianity. Today my tongue loosened enough to ask Papa Karel to send me too. I am a girl and only thirteen, but my catechism teacher says I am his best student even though I do not speak. But Papa Karel said he can’t send me to Holland because he has not married Maame Aba, and that he cannot do that because she doesn’t read or write and refuses to learn. I wanted to tell him he didn’t marry Hendrik’s mother. But Hendrik shares his blood.
The only way for me to leave Edina, I have realized, is to walk into the ocean.
I am near to the water when a slave on the ship manages to jump overboard. I cringe as he screams. I hear him long after the ocean has swallowed him. His shriek rolls across the waves. Like a shark it leaps from the surf, baring pointed teeth. It hisses, “Stay, Serafina! Sister, sister, sister!” I frown and am about to ask what it means, when its face transforms. It has His eyes. His laugh. Reminding me that He is in Holland. I am not safe there either.
Before I can think too much, I see the rainbow lights that make everything the wrong color. Pink ocean, green sky, orange sand. The sun bears down on my nose and my neck and toes but I cannot move.
Then the sand is no longer burning my feet. The crows have come. Their wings prickle my scalp. They move round and round in my stomach and breeze up to my chest, as when the sky sucks up tunnels of dirt during the dry season. Their squawking drowns sound. They fill me so with their flapping that I can no longer see. Black and white feathers in my nose and mouth, and I cannot taste or smell. They sweep me into the sky.
Mostly, I like when the crows come. They have never carried me across the ocean to Holland, but at least they fly me away from Edina. Today I see myself floating facedown on the ocean again. My white dress swells. My blood turns the water around me into wine. There is always blood. It comes from the cuts on my palms, like Christus’s. Or from the noose around my neck.
My catechism teacher says that suicide is a sin, that it is a sure way to Hell. Maame Aba calls both suicide and murder a dirty death and says one cannot become an ancestor or reincarnate that way. If I had my voice, I would ask her what does it matter, if your children do not know you, or if they forget your name? But this is something Maame Aba has forbidden me to think about.
I feel myself falling, but when I reach inside my dress for my looking glass, I realize I am already lying on the beach. A crow lands nearby and cleans its white breast. It is joined by others. They are laughing, as crows do, but they sound like my schoolmates who tease me because I do not speak.
I roll away from them, prepared to stand and walk toward the water again, when I see three pairs of clogs. There are two black legs and four that are brown like me. My schoolmates: Kweku, Pieter, and Anika.
We used to be friends. Two years ago, when our catechism teacher Predikant Capitein came to Edina and started his school at the castle. Before the crows and my silence came. Before the ocean started speaking to me.
In those days, Kweku, Pieter, Anika, and I chased crabs on the beach and swam whenever we could. And I smiled-o, even though not at Maame Aba’s house. We were excited about our catechism classes and we liked wearing the wooden crucifix like Predikant’s. After school, we would sneak to the back castle yard to spy on the brick makers and glimpse the civet cats in their cages. On the weekend, we walked far down to where they are boiling seawater, and stole pinches of salt from the workers’ piles. We would sit by the river Benya for hours watching the fishermen mend their nets and giggling at their rough voices. We used to say that fishermen eat sand—dzi zandt—before we knew the other meaning for “to eat.”
My hearing is fuzzy from when the crows lifted me, but I think I hear Anika using that other meaning.
“You are lying-o,” Pieter responds to her.
“Look at her face,” Anika says. “She is still feeling it.” She moans, sounding like Maame Aba on nights when Papa Karel sleeps in her room.
Pieter shoves Anika. “What can the sand give her?” he shouts. “It isn’t a man-o.”
I reach down into my skirt, searching for my looking glass.
“Hwε, Pieter,” Kweku cries. “She is touching herself!”
Pieter storms off but Kweku lingers. When he notices me watching him, he slides his hand into his breeches. Anika screams at him. His hand flies out and he grabs his crucifix. I cover my face with my looking glass as Anika kicks sand at me.
“Dirty sand girl,” she mutters, walking away.
I can see my mouth moving in the looking glass: “Serafina is okay, okay, okay.”
Kweku kicks sand onto my crotch, saying, “Ugly girl who eats sand,” before running off.
Anika has started calling me Serafina dzi Zandt in class. Predikant punishes her for mocking my father’s name, Van Zandt, and for saying I eat sand. Predikant understands enough of our Mfantse to know “dzi” since he likes our food so much. Especially fufu, which he eats with a spoon and not his hand. When I wrote for him one day after class on my slate, “dzi means fuck,” he punished me more than he did Anika for what he called my ungodly language. We all learned it from the castle soldiers, who wiggle their tongues like the he-goat in heat and whisper with rum-smelling breath to we girls as we leave class: “Mepε de medzi hom”—I want to fuck you. It is the only Mfantse they seem to know.
As I roll over in the sand and push myself to my knees, I wish it was only fucking that the sand does to me. What would Anika say if she knew that every time I go to the beach, I am wanting to end this life? Or that the ocean speaks to me, urging me to walk into it. Or that the sand forces me to draw strange symbols so I distract myself.
Even now, my hand is digging beneath the hot sand, drawing a large circle. I complete it, not knowing where to go next. I stare into my looking glass for inspiration, but it reflects back the blinding noontime sun.
I am sitting there with the sand burning me when the ocean whispers my name in its grumbling old-man voice. I sit up, staring at the surf. The ocean has not spoken to me in a long time.
“Your sister is coming,” it says. “Serafina, she is coming to save you.”
My heart beats faster. Never has it told me anything so hopeful before. And I have always wanted a brother or sister—someone who could stop Maame Aba from beating me. Does this mean that she still has her womb? People in Edina here say my birth made her lose it. She mutters the same to me when she drinks. And she remains barren even though she and Papa Karel lie together. Maybe she will consult with that witch who lives at the edge of Edina. People say Maame Aba got magic from him to make Papa marry her, and then to fill her stomach with me.
A white crab sneaks from the sand and makes a line from the circle I’ve drawn. I follow its path with my hand until I’ve made an arc. I keep drawing until there are two joined circles.
The ocean whispers: “Saa, she’s coming-o. Arriving at the end of the north winds.”
The north winds of the dry season end in about a month, so this sister will not come from Maame Aba’s belly. No witch’s magic is that strong. Maybe I will walk into the forest and find a baby girl abandoned by the mmoetia dwarves.
Or perhaps this sister won’t come to me alive. She might wash ashore, bloated and grey like the slaves who jump overboard.
Kim Coleman Foote is a writer originally from New Jersey. Writing honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, Hambidge Center NEA Fellowship, Rona Jaffe Foundation/Vermont Studio Center Fellowship, Pan African Literary Forum Africana Creative Nonfiction Award, and Illinois Arts Council Fellowship for creative nonfiction. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Potomac Review, The Literary Review, Black Renaissance Noire, Homelands (Seal Press), and elsewhere. She was also a Fulbright Fellow to Ghana, where she conducted research for a novel. She currently lives in Brooklyn. For more information, see www.kimcolemanfoote.com.