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Resurrection of the Daughter
By Ntozake Shange
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1994 Ntozake Shange
All rights reserved.
Room in the Dark I
---- Maybe it's not the silences.
---- Not the silences that bother me.
---- It's just the noise like a roar inside my head takes over when it's silent.
---- It's not quiet that I avoid. I never really talk out loud, en pleine aire, when I walk and I walk everywhere I can. I even prefer men who like to walk cause then we can talk with our eyes or our bodies or some strange sign'll bring us together. No. It's not quiet that I avoid. I'm quiet when I can hear music.
---- What music?
---- Oh, Bartók and B.B. King, Celia Cruz or Gloria Lynne. I don't like listenin' to ex-lovers very much, but I won't turn them off. Down maybe, but not off.
---- Are ex-lovers part of the noise in your head?
---- Or more in the silence?
---- You are interfering with my paradigm here. The music was part of a quiet that's quite appropriate and tangible, some pleasing part of my own body, my smile, my breath.
---- But you turn ex-lovers down.
---- Yes, down, not off. If I turned them off, they'd be part of the silence and then I wouldn't be able to hear anything palpable. It's like going to the moon.
---- The moon?
---- Sí, la luna, la lune, the moon in quiet with Machito or Turrentine is a sultry wanton giggle in my eye, but in silence the moon is just another dry, cracking surface like talkin' to white people all the time makes me choke, I can't breathe in silence.
---- Why is that?
---- Cause it presses down on me like a man who doesn't know his own weight can fuck me to death cause literally he's also blocking my esophagus, or like a wrong turn in the middle of the night in South Boston can take my breath away. What difference does it make? It's quiet. It's silent. So what? You know, that's not my biggest problem right now.
---- What is your biggest problem?
---- Damn it. I told you, Jesus Christ, I musta told you a thousand times, I can't breathe.
---- When it's silent?
---- That's why my silences, here with you, are troubling, then?
---- Oh ...
---- How're you gonna help me in silence?
---- Well, then we can get to hear the noises in your head that are choking you.
---- It wasn't always true.
---- Uhmn. I didn't always need to hear anything or not hear anything. I have never had asthma, but now when somebody, even a soap starlet's voice isn't audible, if there's no music or chatter, or the phone's not ringing, I mean, not answered, I start gaspin' and next thing I know I'm holdin' my throat like my hands are healin' hands and I can't find any air. I forget where I am. My feet aren't really on the ground. Oh hell, I don't know where my feet are when there's that kinda force, my God, all I can imagine is being caught inside a roll of thunder. Now, could you get a holda yourself in a roll of thunder?
---- Why not lightning?
---- Cause I'm not burnin' up, I'm chokin' to death.
---- I told you I can't take this. I cannot survive in silence.
---- It's not really the silence you believe you can't survive. It's the noise in your head that you only hear in silence.
---- I've only mastered Quiet Time, how's that?
---- A start.
---- When it's really silent, I can't feel anything. I mean, I start to lose where the floor is. Why a flower is different from a rug, you know to feel, or even that walls don't curve under themselves like cats. I just know that I've gotta go to sleep right now or get outta here. I've gotta find somebody to talk to me. Somebody who knows me.
---- Somebody who loves you.
---- Doesn't matter long as he won't hurt me.
---- Oh. Don't put on so. ... You know, the bastard tried to choke me right at Sheridan Square the night my show opened. He spit on the sidewalk, turned round, and wrapped his fingers bout my neck like I was a magnum of Perrier & Jouët.
---- I thought ...
---- We were lovers.
---- We usedta walk all the time and hear the most beautiful music.
---- Now, whenever a melody ends, I feel his fingers on my throat. Some of my hair in the back is caught in his fingers and he's shakin' me down from the Riviera as if nobody was around. People walked past, went across the street to the park. And nobody said anything. Did anything. The traffic kept comin', cars to New Jersey and cabs with medallions kept movin'. I heard the downtown IRT and all. Outta nowhere but he was right there. Outta nowhere I heard him screamin', "Who do you think you are?" and ... I couldn't breathe. So I couldn't answer ... I couldn't answer ...
---- It's me, Lili ... it's just me....
---- This is very important.
---- Yeah. How's that?
---- Well. You turn down ex-lovers in quiet.
---- Yeah, I'm not afraid in music.
---- Or language.
---- It's these silences.
---- Where lovers become assassins without warning. It's the noise. A horrible throbbin' roar ... and ...
---- You can't hear yourself.
---- Or protect yourself.
---- I can't even say my name. I cannot breathe.
---- But why, why would he hurt me like that?
---- Maybe, he couldn't stand to hear the music in you.
---- Music? Oh God. He even shouted when he talked about music he loved, like a delicacy in the tone of his voice would actually impugn the virility of a note.... I like to caress sounds and images I care for with my fingers, my tongue, my lips. He was always shouting, shouting til my ears hurt.
---- Noise, again. A noise that hurts, yes?
---- Why am I lowering my eyes, when you say that? "A noise that hurts."
---- It's the silence.
---- How can hurtin' be associated with shame? Lowering my eyes cause somebody's hurt me, then, I'm guilty of ... feelin'? That's crazy.
---- Maybe. Maybe not. Could be protecting yourself from the Gorgon or Medusa. So you don't turn to stone and stop feeling.
---- You're not helpin' me when you don't respond.
---- I'm gettin' a knot in my throat. I'm frightened and my heart's beatin' up and out that window.
---- Don't you hear me talkin' to you, dammit?
---- Yes, I'm here. You are doing impressive work, Liliane.
---- We are starting to decipher the noise.
---- Oh, oh. My ears ache.
---- The noise.
---- Yes. Yes. He's screamin' and chucklin'. Please ... I don't want to cry. I don't want to start cryin', talk to me, please.
---- He's always talking to you, even in the silence. Before I can really talk to you, we've got to hear what he is screaming at you. Then we can end this conversation with this man who can't caress words or images he cares about like you do.
---- There's a cave in my chest.
---- That's where his voice can boom and steal the air from you, so you can't breathe, Liliane.
---- Yes, I know.
---- Take those noises he makes of words and make them small enough for your mouth to say.
---- But it's so mean. Why say such mean things?
---- That's how he makes the silence into such a racket. When there is nothing, he's still there screaming, he's right there making sure it hurts.
---- I can't take this.
---- Then he's pretty well succeeded.
---- I could just keep talkin' ... I could ...
---- Lili, you don't have to keep hearing him, resounding when you are being still.
---- I do. I do, if there's no music.
---- But you said I had the music.
---- You know it was sucha lovely night we went walkin' in Noe Valley. All the harbor, two of those bridges that hang in the night, glowin', like magic. I was feelin' pretty good. I'd made these labia outta different kinds of soil, you know, fertile, infertile, sandy, black, clay. Was feelin' sorta sexy and stretched in a good way. We're goin' down this hill and lights are twinklin', ordinary houses glistened like FAO Schwarz, lovely, you know. I'm plannin' this party, you know, to show my labia boxes ... He starts laughin'.
---- What was so funny?
---- Well, he thought it was just hilarious that my artist friends, alla my artsy friends, had girlfriends who weren't black. Mingo's girl was Chinese. Jose-Albero had Myo who was Vietnamese. Joe Scahenger had a white woman and, lemme see, I think, maybe it was Adam was with a Chicana from East Oakland.
---- What was so funny about that?
---- Well ...
---- Uh. He thought it was so funny. For all the labia boxes I made it didn't look like there were many men sniffin' after a colored woman. Thought niggahs weren't so revved up bout white women no more, they sure weren't comin' home to get none. "Looks like don't nobody want you all, English-speakin' Negresses." He kept laughin' ... and I am havin' trouble breathin', now. See what you've done?
---- Well, what is that?
---- We broke the silence.
Fawns of the Diaspora Court Liliane in Paris, While Tabou Combo Whispers "Coq Qualité" in Her Ears
The sunlight hit Jean-René. The sepia half-moon of a mole by his right cheekbone glistened, steaming coal in a fast car gliding through the hills of Morocco. We stopped to have a very French picnic: kisses. Shadows of lips and teeth against luxurious auburn soil. The sun always slipping in and out of the bends of limbs, wine from Lisbon dancing mouth to mouth, tongues tracing patterns of clouds, scents of goats, sheep, and the last of my Opium, somewhere near Meknes. I wanted to stay in Paris I'd thought, but no. He said he'd have to have me somewhere I'd never been. I'd laughed. I woke in Casablanca to morning prayers and croissants.
If only my mother could see me now: Jean-René meticulously placing strawberries, blueberries, kiwi, grapes, melon balls in a crescent round my vulva. Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear. My cat has yellow eyes. Now my pussy has lime-green ones, amber pupils, slits.
Casablanca was hot, noisy, trashy, roadblocks everywhere, the war in Spanish Sahara. We retreated like Anaïs to the countryside. This Guadaloupean velvet spur of a man and me, Liliane. I travel a lot. I look at men and take some home or leave the country, borders have never intimidated me. My passport is in order and I carry letters of credit, perfume, four fancy dresses and six nightgowns. I always sleep naked alone at least once a week. I pray and say hail marys by some window at dusk. It's always best for me to deal with the sacred when I'm naked. For me it has something to do with humility.
I found Jean-René eating souvlaki at the fast-food place next to the Moulin Rouge. I was flirting with some Brazilians from the Folies Bergères. I'd just left Lisbon, and Angola was on all our minds.
In my last paintings, before I left New York, I superimposed AK-47s over fetal transparencies under Frelimo banners. La Luta Continua was the name of the show. There was no way to stop my fingers, my arms, I was jumping up and down ladders to get the touches of blood and fresh corpses finely detailed so there'd be no doubt that the Portuguese left a country the way vampires leave blond white women: drained of life and scarred. I paint. I don't talk too much. The world overwhelms me. I can give up what I see. I see a lot. I believe in honor, color, and good sex.
Machado and Axel from the Folies were doing their best to entice me to La Plantation, an Antillean discotheque near St.-Germain-des-Près. I looked Jean-René in the eyes once and knew that would never happen. Why would I want to dance in a plantation anyway? Even in the presence of the singularly defined muscles of Latin dancers, one on either side, the man I was slowly seducing across the room just kept looking at me, knowing where I'd be going. I like that. I like a man to know what the deal is going to be in an instinctive, absolute, lyrically facile manner. I like a man with confidence. Take me from these two sweet muthafuckahs simply by looking. Do that and I'll be gone. Wherever we are going. I mean, if a man's up to that. I love double entendres, double negatives, duels. Some cocks have triggers; others are freckled or uncircumcised.
I decided I wanted some baklava. Right over there where the man with eyes was sucking me up. Imagine that, disappearing into a stranger's eyes in Paris. How would they find me? Who would know to look? I don't leave any tracks, am quick to burn bridges. My friends, well my friends, the real ones, wouldn't think twice. Liliane, she's having dessert. They'd smile, unless no drawings arrived in say a month or two. That is my signature, after all, an image. I forget what I was wearing that night. Probably the floor-length azure crepe with lace triangles up to my hips and no back at all. I like that dress, but I'm going to dye it grise: ma robe grise. Oh, Jean-René slid his eyes into my mouth and asked me if I had plans for the evening. "Mais non, monsieur, j'ai pensé que tu voudrais faire des arrangements." I told him my name several hours later. By then he could barely speak.
Jean-René with the black nipples that grew. Each tongue flick drawing black licorice sticks tiptoeing over my teeth and tongue. Third World delicacies. Cascades of caviar round my neck. Noire et blanche. He played the piano, when he wasn't near me. Actually he was a concert pianist. He played Bach and Stravinsky, when he wasn't near me. He sometimes played scales, but anybody can do that.
Coming down the Champs-Élysées all the record stores blasted Stevie Wonder's newest release, Songs in the Key of Life. "Isn't She Lovely" chased me from corner to corner. I didn't know if I should hide near the grated windows or fly through the night like some paradisiacal bird of color: many colors. Any color, everything matches: spirit; free spirits; about to be in love a lot. Stevie Wonder pushing us closer together. Eventually, I stopped running. I walked fast. Waited by the curb. At some point he put his arm over my bare shoulder. His fingers grasped my skin so there were five imprints. A woman with three sets of fingerprints. That would drive Interpol crazy. I was already grazing the edges. I didn't leave his side til we got to where we began. Remember, the hillside outside Meknes? You won't believe me, but I heard Charlie Palmieri in Paris on our way to heaven. Those fingers again. I'll have to draw it for you, okay?
Such character you'd expect from Cecil Taylor's fingers, or my grandfather's, Frank, who was a master carpenter. My fingers still smack of perfumed talcum, white gloves, and honeyed lotions. My calluses are elusive, if ever present, closer to my heart than my wrists which are deceitfully delicate. Veins, blue-black pulsing, rise eloquently from Jean- René's hands, small muscles throb over the white and black keyboard, eliciting the reveries of Bartók, Monk, Abrams, and Joplin. My back refused to sound anyone but Satie, Bobby Timmons, and John Hicks. This frustrates Jean-René. When he smacks my cheek with the back of his hand, only Andrew Cyrille comes to mind. The Frenchman is unnerved. The music of my body is deliberate. There's nothing I can do about how I sound. When I open my mouth, Shirley Cesaire and Jeanne Lee scramble for the skies, my tongue finds his somewhere high above the treble clef. We're pulled back, flat to the soil. Sun running us pianissimo while our sweat moistens the virginal African grass. Our bodies lay claim to the earth, silhouettes of lovers, smooth unbroken lines, enveloped by tall brush, quivering in the wind, as tongues would wag in whatever language were our license with each other known beyond this side of the road. Meknes.
I want to paint now. Throw Jean-René's swarthy limbs over the pillows I laced with scents of raspberry, bay leaves, cinnamon. He'll rest in soft fragrances: me and my spices. I pull out my brushes and pastels. Sequester myself on a rocky cliff before the walled village. Women wrapped in blue-black swishes of spun cotton float through the streets. The men in white and tanned robes saunter with a holy gait toward a precipice. It is dusk. I am using wine as water to moisten my paints. The air is too light for oils. Watercolors, moistened pastels alone, capture the haunting prayers of these disciples of Allah. I am allowing my fingers to float as the women do, over the cobblestones, reddened dirt paths, billows of dust following donkeys, mules, bicycles. My brush strokes unevenly. The abyss around which we assemble in honor of Allah. The evening prayers begin. The sun splits open, cries for atonement and adoration pierce the clouds, hovering weights above our heads. I feel a sharp pain in my groin, my heart is racing, I am losing my breath. I see Jean-René. His eyes are glazed over as if in a trance. I swoon. My blood has come. The forces of this sacred earth have drawn menses from my body. The sun sets. I use this last scarlet liquid to highlight the figures in my painting. Hundreds of women, floating blue-black apparitions etched rouge, the soil rouge, the brush-colored caftans of the men dragging in blood. The Jihad has simple implications. Holy war. Where is there war without blood. Blood falling to the ground. I am weak now. I leave my paints and brushes alone, slide over to Jean-René, who holds me close to him as if we'd been in danger, as if communion with God was a travesty. We can't kiss, not now. Fierce angels are everywhere, sneering and eager to mock our frailties. Mortals, flesh, driven souls, seeking wholeness with mouths, fingers, wrapping limb over limb to become one. Music issuing forth from their depths, entering one another, desperately seeking that one song, one melody of peace. The angels gather above the rushes, snide, shaking their heads, wagging their fingers through the air, lighting up the sky and calling thunderous rhythms to startle us, to insist we acknowledge our nakedness. I pull my paintings to me. The colors pour onto my skin. I am now streaked blue-black, reds, yellow, luminous blue. Jean-René grabs my hand. I hold my paintings, soaking in the downpour. Scarlet drops fall from my bosom to my toes, to the soil, blue-black smudges crowd off my own sepia tones. Lurching toward the car, I turn. Drop the paintings. Fall on my knees, bleeding. Pleading with Allah to bless me, to accept me as an instrument of the holy spirit. Jean-René whispers hail marys in my ears. I am digging for the scent of my god. My hands are covered with small rocks, brown mud and slivers of brush up to my wrists where the clay has dried like bracelets. Jean-René lifts me in one moment, holding me a statue over the ruins of my art.
Excerpted from Liliane by Ntozake Shange. Copyright © 1994 Ntozake Shange. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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