Cincinnati was spiteful. Full of ghostly clamours, from hospital to jail and back. Bloody hands turned to smoke and joining grimy sidewalk scars. Wooden planks nailed on her dirt road winded toward the future. Nia’s feet were bleeding.
The past didn’t bother her much. Ghosts were everywhere, that was life. But her family seemed to be full of them.
“She ain’t here, Ma, it’s me, Nia.”
“Great-Aunt Denver say she visit today, ’member? She bring stories, ’member her fav’rite? ’Bout the boat and the white girl done help her in’a the world?”
“I’ll close the windows, keep out ’em sirens, how’s that?”
“’Member the long reeds, don’tcha? How Sethe water mix wit the river water, and baby born like a river folk? That was Great-Aunt Denver, live wit ghosts and come from the water.”
It was easier to listen than to insist that the world made sense.
“What the hell you run for?”
“Knew I’d get done anyhow.”
“It made you look guilty.”
“Already look guilty.” He held up his hands. Pointed to the reddening bandage round his waist.
“I didn’t tell Ma you were on the ward below.”
“Best keep it that way, then.”
“She knew there were cops downstairs. Heard the sirens and all.”
“She doing good. Don’t break her now, girl.”
“And if she never sees you again?”
“She won’t remember nothing. Don’t matter.”
“Ain’t too long. Ninety days ’til trial, they reckon.”
“And what about me?”
His hands were curled on the metal desk, more lined than Nia remembered. Networks of veins crawled under his dry coal skin. In the tiny box of sunlight coming from the wall behind her, making him forget her face, his eyes looked like dry lagoons. Deep and sad, lined with red, specks of gold bobbing around the tired black.
It ran through her mind like muck water over rocks. How his eyes shrank from hers. How the red ebbed from his shirt like rotting chokecherry in a white stream.
Her cheery rambles and his bloody screams dimmed in Nia’s memory. The ghosts always clawed their way to the top. The first blinding white of the hospital in 1973 melted into the Ohio sun of 1873, when Great-Aunt Denver sat on the steps of 124 Bluestone Road, peeling lychees with great-great-grandma. It was a memory box passed down mother-to-daughter. To Nia, it was a world she’d never visited, yet she could trace the plait down Denver’s back with her finger.
She could smell the peeling paint of 124, the dried blood under the floorboards, the ghostly fingers popping lychees into her mouth like an absent-minded child, spilling sticky juice down her front, the smoke of her skin whispering to the long, thirsty reeds lining the dirt.
In the station lobby, the scraping of shoes and guns and metal against flesh had been peaceful. She couldn’t hear the ghosts. A soft murmur, that was all. Like they were knocking at her skull but were too tired to climb in.
Walking into the sunlight felt selfish. Nia’s unchained feet could stand on free ground and turn whichever way they wanted, but they still felt heavy. She was standing on the edge of the world, looking at the infinite blue-black, wondering how it would feel, knowing it was foolish, but feeling the weight of a thousand hands on her spine.
Into the sunlight outside 124 sprawled free ground, too. Freer than ever before, at least. Moist and hot and earthy under Denver’s bloodied feet – Nia’s feet. Their family tree had blood on its leaves, but its roots were firm. Smoky from its ghost branches, like someone had lit a fire at the trunk. Sprawling, scarred and desperate, like –
“’Member the chokecherry tree? Done live on her back her whole life, painted by the gods?”
Whipped by the gods. “Yes, Ma.”
“And them ghost branches, heal when your great-great-grandma come‘a visit. Her sister!”
“Her sister.” I swallowed her blood right along with my mother’s milk. My memory is Denver’s. Denver is me, and I am the bloody leaf that falls through smoky coils to meet its roots.
“If only we’d a-met Beloved, Nia.”
Nia was quiet. When was the last time her Ma’s lips had remembered those names? It felt real but painfully not, like a ghost’s voice. Like being swallowed by the 1873 sun, like handing lychees to nobody.
“Yes, I remember.” And I do. It’s written in her ancient fading eyes. With all my mothers, I am nobody’s daughter.
In the deep blue southern sun, her hands looked so young. But when she held them up to the dry horizon, they looked just like his.
Goldrush Magazine is grateful to talented young writer, Silvia Nadile, for sharing with us her world in this beautiful story. See other posts for Silvia's poetry
Editor of Gold Rush Magazine