Mama says I don't have to talk. She says I can take all the words I know out of my mouth and hide them anywhere I want. Somewhere where nobody even god won't steal them.
I have these words because it ain't right to have a secret after you've done died and gone to the place mama calls the Unpromised Land. I guess she calls it the Unpromised Land because she says prayer ain't a ticket. I know prayer just to be another reason to hang onto a memory.
I remember when Tete So'Betta had died. Mama says she got her name because ". . . so betta, I feel so betta," was the first phrase to spill out of her sisters mouth after Tete So'Betta flopped from her womb. She says the babies didn't respond to them bible names like Ruth, Esther, Tamar, Elizabeth, or Daphne they kept shouting at her. Tete So'Betta had died the next morning. Mama says that's the best way to go because that's the time the devil is the least busy. She had died from tiredness and weakness from trying to give birth to twin girls. They ended up passing away to because they weren't supposed to be born on that day. The doctor said they were too early and they would only have enough strength to keep breathing until they couldn't breathe anymore.
At the wake, all I heard was soft voices beating against the funeral parlor walls, trying to escape because something like this was unheard of—death at birth? I was watching everybody offer hugs to shoo away the collected sadness flooding in everybody's tears. I wanted to ask why everybody was crying, but I know I would be setting myself up for a whipping. So I went to witness the lurid sky turn from jubilation to melancholy. I can't say that word, its too big. I heard mama say it once because she felt that way. Depressed and stuff because she hadn't received any letters from daddy in the mail. I haven't felt that way yet. I think its because Tete So'Betta had told me her secret about why she had to go, about why this was the right and perfect time, about how it was suppose to happen, and about what it meant for me.
That was a few nights before when I learned I was a sleepwalker. The professionals—mama says the affliction that's slowly taking and winning over me is insomnia. I just be up all night leering into the darkness; the darkness leering back at me as if it were my chimera in shadowplay flitting like hope. I thought the dancing shadows were demons but nothing perilous ever intruded except the occasional thunderstorm, news of a hurricane. And nightmares I, now, understand like shadows are god's tracking devices. But mama says nightmares is god's way of trying to get your attention, to make you believe in him even harder. I only believe because I saw god in a daymare where he surely told me everything was going to be okay and what I should do when daddy would come home knowing, finally, I would be home alone all by myself. Its funny; the dancing shadows followed me where ever I went, even to Tete So'Betta's house that night. But they stayed outside on her front lawn chasing after the nymphet fireflies. It was pretty, but it got all empty out there, and too soon. I couldn't even find myself with what mama reminds me is the devils disguise. I know the devil doesn't have a disguise because I see him all the time; he walks into my bedroom acting and smiling and complaining like my daddy.
When I tiptoed into Tete So'Betta's bedroom, I wanted to pivot, run away nonplussed because I ain't never met so much defeat in one space.
All the other kids in this neighborhood think I am special because I don't speak to them, don't play with them, and don't attend any of their birthday parties. I have friends but only I can see them. They imaganary ones. cloud, cloud is the fat one and he knows how to disappear and reappear. He's tried to teach me but I know I could achieve it if I was a ghost. I hate when he gets upset because everything around me ashens into grayness and it rains long enough for night to come bustling through and then I'd have to stay inside because it was dark. cloud says he likes to be alone but I know he doesn't like to mention how lonely he is. The proof is in all the rain we get whenever he's around.
I met angel when I climbed onto the roof of the house. He was lying there asleep and unhurt with no puddle of silver blood leaking from his back. He was sprawled, supine, the tips of his wings curled as if they were decomposing and couldn't make him sail on the air anymore. He said he got exiled from heaven because he was in love with one of us people who was a man he was guarding. I don't know what love is. I used to say it to mama but I keep my love for her behind my heart right where I can feel my lungs bump up against its cage. And when my lungs feel like they about to burst, I say it to her. I've never said, "I you" to my daddy because he doesn't deserve it: a devil needs prayer! I say prayers in my head for him every night because I know this is the only way to forgive him since he's been gone. Mama says her love is somber. angel doesn't talk about it, but I can see the disappointment and shame on his formless face.
In the middle of the night a couple months ago, when I drank too much water before I went to bed, I did it. After I peed, I reached into my mouth and picked the word from beneath the flap of my tongue. I studied the slippery letters: L like a bracket, a hinge; O like an orifice, a lasso; V like an arrowhead, an upturned mountaintop; and E like a three-toothed comb, a rake. I smashed the letters with a soundless clap of my hands. It didn't hurt because I know love doesn't hurt. And I let L O V E sink into the toilets water, and drown. I waved goodbye to love and flushed the toilet twice to make sure she wouldn't find her way back into my mouth. I know that's one word I'll never say again.
angel needs help but I don't know how to give it to him. For the most part, he tells me how beautiful and immaculate and glorious heaven is. He lets me fly with him sometimes. I think it's dangerous but it is worth it because being at home is worse. angel tried to show me where heaven was but he couldn't find it. I guess that's what happens when you get kicked out of heaven—you lose knowledge of its place in the universe.
And then there's river who's lost. I've found him when I was lost myself. I wanted to take angel swimming with me and the only place to do so is at the lake over there behind Miss Bobcat's house in the threshold of all them fir and pine tress. I asked river how he got here and he said he didn't know. angel said it was a miracle, but I knew that was a fallacy to cheer river up. He said it was all right to leave him there. So when we came back to show river how to get to where he was going, he had already gone.
angel and I never went swimming.
Sometimes all I can think about is being alone like cloud even though I have these imaganary friends. I think its because I haven't told them my secret. Aren't we suppose to tell our friends our secrets? Someone? I don't know. Some days cloud completely forgets who I am. I think it's because he's trying to perfect his illusion—a petty trick where if not performed correctly, he could get stuck somewhere between losing his soul and discovering clarity. Luckily that's not really a terrible misfortune considering he can transfigure like Jesus did after he died on the cross.
Poor angel is as paltry as a chipped tooth. I keep finding him on the roof. I know the brevity and truancy that comes with accidents will beat me to him because I know I'll peek over the edge of the house where the shingles are dangling like petrified moss in desperation from plummeting to the ground like angel will to his deaths; I know it'll be an afternoon where we've all shied away from the comfort of one another. And there in the shade of the house, they'll be nothing but angel and shingles tessellated in a disturbing mosaic of self-immolation.
Mama says there's nothing wrong with being alone; she says it's the best way to dislocate yourself from the world to reflect. She says when Jesus was alone in that desert, he willed the power not to complain or question fate. I know if I dislocate myself from the world, I won't come back. I don't complain because I have too many words clogged in my mouth and I know not to question fate because I already know what mine is. And what's the point of reflection when a mirror can only do that?
Mama says she's sorry. I don't know how many more times she'll tell me, but she says she's sorry. I think when she tries to form other sentences with her mouth, it always comes out; she's sorry. The alphabet cereal I eat in the morning for breakfast was full of S's and O's and R's and Y's; I don't know if she's sorry. Even when she scribbles her illegible signature on permission slips for school, it spells out she's sorry. In prayer service at church, I heard her say she was sorry to god before she surrendered her amens and hallelujahs. At breakfast this morning, the song she was humming carried a haunting drone of she's sorry. The car door slamming as she pursued to put gas in the tank seem to acknowledge with its old age thrust how sorry she was. She couldn't have befriended cloud because when I was lying in the dirt where the weeds are asphyxiating the azalea hedge guessing what animal cloud would pillow into next, a flurry of fluffy calligraphy strikes though the blueness reading mama says she's sorry? angel whispered it in my ear: mama says she's sorry. Her tiptoeing into the living room clanked echoing how sorry she was. Last night, when she did some art with me, I discerned its abstractedness; it meant to say she's sorry. I drew two people killing each other. I wasn't sorry for telling her it was she and daddy. I just know she keeps telling me she's sorry like it's suppose to be a nepenthe. I don't believe she's sorry because she wouldn't have sequestered daddy's alibi in the wrong vocal chamber. Or it will never burp up into the wind of memory declaring in shards of dust how sorry she was. Now and again, as she confesses to god, I can hear a faint chant of her repeating, "I'm sorry."
I hesitantly creaked back into Tete So'Betta's room, unafraid: that's what happens to you when insomnia really assaults you; you become fearless. angel was at her bedside with one of his hands brushing her sweating forehead and the other furled in the grip of her resting hand like she knew somebody was here to escort her to the Unpromised Land. At her window, the dancing shadows had finally caught the nymphet fireflies. They were hovering in what seemed to be a balancing act of faith and survival. I wasn't aware of how cold it was in there until I touched her myself. It was a burning coldness. I think my handprint might have been singed onto her skin, an encrypted tattoo. I stood there shivering for the longest moments. I couldn't remember breathing. She didn't notice me crawling into bed with her but her petite body did shudder. I guess even the slightest of closeness could make your body shudder even when comatose'd. I laid there all night just gazing into the emptiness, in wanderlust.
angel had dybbuked into the predawn twilight without ever mentioning if I'd see him again or not. I got that same abeyant feeling after a ghost had stumbled through me. I know this would be the day angel would give his wings to the trees and choke on that unpleasant taste of dirt and blood. Even if I ran fast enough, I still wouldn't make it. I'd be sitting there hearing mama say she was sorry all over again, but I stayed with Tete So'Betta because I know angel ain't going to feel anything when he kills himself because he gave me his heart after explaining to me how the hurt love comes with is too much.
I don't know where angels go when they die but it has to be better than where Tete So'Betta is about to go. Mama says angels are what make up the air we can't see in front and all around us. I want to believe her but I know there are demons, ghosts, and other lesser gods rummaging around in invisibility to. She says you can't see them because they fighting a war us humans know we can't win.
I can hear Tete So'Betta inhale and exhale. It sounds like she kissing herself. I only know what a kiss is because mama kisses me every time she says she's sorry, and she kissed me that one time when I bruised my elbow from climbing up the oak tree in our backyard because I was trying to go where cloud was. He didn't want to come down to earth that day. I don't know why he didn't catch me. I sobbed and whined that I hated him because he wasn't suppose to let me injure myself like that. If angel was around, he would've rescued me with his longer-than-my-body wings. Her pants are so small that my footsteps are louder than them. I know if I kiss her, she won't get better; she might get worse because I know I'm cursed. And curses kill people!
I don't know what's going to happen when I die, but I think the world might stop because a child shouldn't kill himself. Mama says the world stopped to acknowledge Jesus being born, but I know this is different because I know everybody ain't going to be happy or relieved when I leave. They're going to be asking everybody, "why?" And how they should've listened to Tete So'Betta when she tried to explain to them I had a problem, which I promised not to share with anyone. This is why I hoard all of these words in my mouth.
Tete So'Betta finally awakens to me staring into her sweating face. Unbothered and unsurprised, she leans herself towards and into me.
"What you doing here at this time of night," rolls off her tongue like her sweat does snaillike and weary.
I continue to stare at her because my mouth is too full to say anything but I shed a tear to let her know it's awful feeling like this and not being able to do anything about it. Mama says that's suffering; she says suffering requires a sacrifice. I know I've sacrificed myself because this is painful—all of me about to bust and erupt and spout like a fire flower. But I stare and cry and stare until Tete So'Betta hugs me with her welcoming and understanding arms. I know what happened when she spent the night over her best friends house when she was a teenager. Her bestfriend's father had sneaked up behind her in the kitchen awhile she was searching for some leftover cake her bestfriend's mother baked for them before she went to work that evening.
I know she didn't scream, yell, or holler because I know she couldn't believe it was happening. I know she thought somebody was going to save her. I know she thought god would intervene but he was prolly up in the Unpromised Land laughing and snickering because he forgot how sly the devil was.
Tete So'Betta squeezed me so tight with all the strength and muscle she had. I couldn't summon any tears because I didn't have any to summon. They desiccated on my face like winter salt and when I thought that was it, she squeezed a little more, constricting me until all the words I've been hiding in my mouth vomited all over everything in her room including me and her. I wanted to writhe and slither from her arms but she wouldn't let me go. I wanted to gather my words because I know they would do what cloud does best—evanesce. I know you can't see words unless you write them down on a sheet of paper, but the words looked like red papier-mâché snowflakes because they got blood on them somehow. Maybe it was when I leapt into the sky and busted my elbow slamming into the concrete, and they got tainted then. But the words was red and caught fire even before they glittered to the floor. I don't know why they ignited into whorllike flames. I know when I saw god that time when he told me everything was going to okay. His eyes were embering frenetically. Maybe God's eyes are erasing them from belief because he doesn't want to hear what I have to say when I confront him for blessing me with this ugly/beautiful surrealism.
"Go ahead," Tete So'Betta says faintly, "I had a mouth fulla words too that I kept to myself, but some kinda courage came along and slapped them right from between my lips." She admits, putting a hand to her cheek.
I wanted to ask her what kind of courage but it remained a headache of a thought in my head. I kept looking at her the way mama does at me after she tries to make me understand her paradoxes, paradigms, whatever them proclamations of wisdom be. She releases me from her compassionate grip because we both know she will be departing soon.
"When I was ready, I didn't know what to say. I just started recognizing the words that matched things like light bulb, dandelions, bumble bee, book, vagina, puppy, moon, Sunday dress . . . everybody was glad I was coming back to being naïve and mischievous again. They kept asking me who did it but every time I tried to say his name, it mushed together and came out as if I was humming a gospel.
" . . . curtain . . . desk . . . doorknob . . . lamp . . . candle . . . oval rug—is what I started with naming, naming all the things that could be my imaganary friends; they never moved or shot to life!
"Don't rush it; it'll happen," she murmured knowing one of her souls separated from her archetype already, "—then one day when I was helping my mama prepare dinner. I had to turn to her because I could barely hear what she asking me to do. When I turned back to the sink cutting up the all the vegetables with they only knife we had. A bird had sneaked and nestled in the acorn bush obstructing the window and my view of the street so I couldn't see my daddy swerve into the driveway to meet him at the front door for our I-miss-you-welcome-back-home kiss and embrace—" her eyes in an indescribable slow motion began to shut for foreverness.
" . . . envelope . . . glass . . . hairbrush . . . socks . . . pictures . . . peppermint . . . hamper . . . perfume . . . pocketbook . . . death—" I scooted in closer to Tete So'betta to share my warmth with her. Mama says people get cold before they die because during the transmigrating all the heat in your body could crystallize you into a star. I wouldn't mind being a star in the lustrous gloaming because I know children like me would count on me to grant them their wishes.
"A cardinal," she struggled to protest. "The red bird perched there in all his unexpected holyfication. I know the bird had come here to coax me into saying the name of the man who raped me: Cardinal. The red bird flew away after this pertinacious punctuating this moment. Leaves from the acorn bush fell because that was the only thing they could do. There was a delicate silence because my mama froze from pounding the thick pork chops she got from the butcher. The stool she was sitting in crashed to the floor to its own disablement. As she sprang to her feet rushing to me, she tried to stuff Mr. Cardinal name back down into my mouth. She grabbed my jaws so forcibly that I thought my teeth and tongue was going to pop out of my face onto the floor and disintegrate from all the bacteria because I dropped the pork chops before my mama returned from the pantry." Her recollected consternation jabs my ribs into my full lungs.
"Tete you hurting me!" I yelped as she loosened the clinch she had on my torso.
"Cardinal. Mr. Cardinal slipped out of my vocal chords as if I was a coloratura soprano. That's when I knew I could sing. Mama let me go and didn't do anything besides determine how she could fix the stool. From that day forward, I know my mama didn't love me because she was suppose to tell my daddy. I can only think she didn't tell him because she knew he would've ran over to Mr. Cardinal's house and shoot him dead between the eyes without even pleading with god."
"Only silence me," I said looking away from her knowing I would've made my mama speak up.
"And I know it loves you too, but in order to love it back, you have to give him your words." She distraughtly stammers with death so close to stepping in through her chest and stealing her heart.
Tete So'Betta abdicated her last breath with the last thing she meant to say: don't blame yourself. It got even colder in her bedroom. Fever cold. My insomnia still had me awake fidgeting like a dying heart. The unaware sun was sauntering on the slick horizon. I thought I saw Tete So'Betta roving there but it was just a bird, a cardinal maybe? I took one more look at Tete So'Betta's irenic napping body to figure out how I would tell everybody with limited words that she was on her way.
"Good—" wasn't the difficult part of the word to utter but I knew I had to end it in the syllable mama says could damage anyone's feelings, "bye . . . "
I know Tete So'Betta ain't the only one to surrender to nonexistence to become a memory.
When I returned home, I knew something terrible had befallen because the vicinity that was my family's property was the only enclave not exposed to the morning's sweet benevolence.
I stumbled around the house seeking angel's attempts of killing himself. Mama says suicide is gods test of measurement to how much one of his children can bear. I know it's not much because weight can kill you before freedom does. When a drop of metallic blood blotched my face like a deliquescent tear, I tilted my upper body upward and there angel was. Evidently he had jumped off the roof, forgetting he could fly, and self-harpooned hisself among the nude branches of the oak tree. I didn't know what to do because it was raining. And I know I'd fall again shattering my bones if I tried going up there to bring him down for dignity. I asked cloud to do something. He relieved the downpour and collected hisself around the oak tree to conceal angel from any nosey onlookers who might think god was coming back. angel told me about how when they die, that's the moment they become human and they die again because their humans selves have to die twice. I don't want to die too. I want to die in the forbiddingness of her arms so I can wink into her face and tell her why I flushed her down the toilet.
I know angel is dwindling from the oak tree like a piñata decaying and wasting away because cloud hasn't budged yet. It's as if Halloween came too early. I ain't scared though because death ain't nothing but a coward. That's why he always ends up winning because he cheats the souls he knows that they can't beat him. I know I can't beat him because I'm too young and all my power was stolen from me. My insomnia had me up so early one morning one day, I thought the sun and moon was fucking. I went to sit under the oak tree to converse with cloud. I asked him if he has ever lost his powers. He said, "how do you think I go like this?" I wanted to ask him what happened but I know he wouldn't answer because he's just like me: too ashamed to tell anybody.
cloud says we prolly won't see angel again but I know I'll be able to glance into the night sky and he'll be there as one of those preeminent stars I can count on.
This is the second time I've locked myself in my bedroom. I don't want to be downstairs because mama and the devil are arguing about me. I think they want to get rid of me, put me in some place that couldn't be more horrible than this. If I could trust my feet and the steps they might take, I would run away but it ain't worth it because I know I'd be found, un-lost.
The first time, it was after the devil rammed hisself inside of me. I thought he was trying to possess me and abuse my innocence for his own discretion. It hurt so bad but he kept going and stuffed my mouth with his fist so I wouldn't scream, cuss out my words. I know he had broken my wings because all that blood was dripping from my behind. I wanted to shit but I held it in because I know my soul would have slipped out. I saw god again, unmoved. I could only cry and let the tears stream down my face until I knew he was finished and gone to let his white pillagers invade me.
Mama found me in the bathroom on the floor all silentlike and too heavy to pick up. Mama said to tell her what happened but I know she knew because the devil did it to get revenge on her for two timing him with my half sister I will never meet. Mama said I should've been a big boy and fought back but I know if I would've did that, I'd be dead already. Mama picked me up somehow, carried me to my room, and laid me on my bed. I know she didn't feel sorry because a disgusting hate of me twittered in her eyes. When mama leaves, I know I had lost the last bit of magic I needed to get up and lock my door again.
Mama and the devil are still arguing like avatars, fighting like the way cloud gets mad where thunder and lightning expels inorganically from his darken mass. I'm standing at the window guessing where cloud is going to make his lightning scratch the ground. I can see him simpering at me until he disappears because I know he doesn't want to witness me crashing through the window. All that noise and glass could terrify the bravest person. Now I'm glad the devil broke my wings because I know I'd fly instead of letting gravity do what it does best. Mama says, and then calls, my name. I can hear the static in her voice trying to rebuke the devil. And in between the woeful static, I can hear her choking on my name.
Their enraged footsteps clobbered up the stairwell as if under siege. Frantically, I gain as much speed as I can within eight feet of distance. I extend my arms as far as my joints would allow. I began to wonder whatever happened to lost river and how he might have hidden himself like I do my words. Or if it's him that's coursing down my unworried face now? And before I could feel the impact of clattering through the window, I spat up all the words onto the floor because I know they would rot before mama and the devil could figure out what it was I left to say. CLANG! I only remember the swiftness in falling.
Mama says how safe I must be now that I'm with god.
And I have an indubitable suspicion that cloud has become the moon.