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My mother was always running away. I suppose it’s only natural because she came from a long line of runners. Her grandmother ran away from Virginia to Connecticut, where she worked as a cleaning woman in a hotel. Her mother, my grandmother, ran away from Connecticut to Philadelphia, where she settled on the southwest side, long before the airport was built. My mother ran away, but not as far as her foremothers had run, for she had too much baggage to carry, and this was no easy task for a solitary woman. She simply got on the trolley one day, and when she looked out the window, she saw a kite the color of water dancing in the sky. She gathered up her things and bustled off the trolley, trying to follow the kite that was free. She walked and she walked and she walked, struggling with her load, chasing the liberated kite, which she never could catch. Eventually, she got tired and sat on a step to catch her breath. That was where she planted herself. There in the section of North Philly teeming with golden, tan, cream, and bronze people. She heard the cadence of their tongue and decided that she loved them, for they, too, were travelers. They, too, felt that they didn’t belong in one place, so they packed up their things and ventured to a new place. My mother never could understand why they would leave the place that God had kissed with sun long before the conquistadors came, but she respected their bravery, so there she stayed, waiting for the kite the color of water to remember her and come back.
My Inner Self
My eyes are like burnt coal. They are so black that they match the night sky, the same one that the slaves must have seen through the cracks from the belly of the drifting beast. They say that the eyes reveal the soul, but nobody ever bothered to look into my eyes, so they never saw me or my inner self.
My inner self is beautiful. My inner self dances like Dagoberta. It sings like Sylvia. It leaps like Lydia. It moves like Maria. It somersaults like Selena. My inner self is so beautiful that I go there to stay when no one else wants me. I feel like the glorious beauty of my inner self should radiate outwards so that the world can see. But it doesn’t, so they don’t.
My Outer Self
The skin I’m in is dark brown like a coffee bean. My face is so shiny that I’m ashamed because I unwittingly defy conventions of beauty. I’m really not that bad-looking, but people don’t see that. They simply look at this shiny-faced black girl, and they wish they don’t see me. But sometimes they do.
They see my crinkly, kinky, unruly hair. The hair that laughs at neat ribbons and tidy barrettes. They see my long, skinny legs, interrupted only by a knobby, ashy knee, not unlike a giraffe, on each leg.
I remember sitting on the steps one day after Zelda had just called me an ugly, black spider. I remember everybody laughing and pointing at my ever-growing legs. I wouldn’t let them see me cry, but my soul was paining me. I looked down at my legs and dreamed of all the places they would carry me some day. I dreamed and I dreamed until I dreamed the hurt away.
Miss Olga’s Kitchen
Wisdom sits at the tables of Black women. It also occupies a seat at the tables of Latinas as well. Miss Olga, who battles her own demons, watched from the window as Zelda and the others took aim at me again.
“Venga aquí,” she said to me as she started down her from steps. “Go inside,” she ordered, pointing at her door.
Before I reached the door, I heard Zelda yelp in pain. When I turned to look, I saw Miss Olga dragging her down the street by the ear. The sight of loudmouthed Zelda being humbled by someone she had written off set me off in gales of laughter.
Inside Miss Olga’s, I examined the pictures that lined the fake fireplace. I recognized a few as a young Miss Olga. In one black-and-white shot, she stood next to a white man who gazed lovingly at her while she held a large rose to her nose. In another shot, she sat with her back to his chest. Her hands were folded over her protruding belly, and his hands were over hers. With each photo, I traced Miss Olga’s life with her husband, right up until his funeral. As I stared at a picture of Miss Olga standing in front of a closed casket, I thought of the saying that I had heard, about it being bad luck to take a picture with a dead person because it doesn’t allow their spirit to rest. When Miss Olga entered the house behind me, I was wondering if that applies if the casket is closed.
“Stop being nosy and come in the kitchen,” she ordered.
I sat in the chair that Miss Olga pulled next to the stove while she rummaged through a drawer. The flame on the stove danced blue and flared up when Miss Olga slammed a straightening comb down on the eye. Wordlessly, she parted my hair and rubbed grease into my scalp. The searing heat of the comb nearing my scalp unnerved me, but I sat still for fear of being burned. Once she finished straightening, she began curling, her long, agile fingers moving the handles so that the barrels clicked.
When she finished, Miss Olga stood in front of me with a mirror. I couldn’t believe how my hair looked. Where small, tight curls once reigned, straight hair with delightfully curled ends now resided. I didn’t think my hair could ever look like this. I never took the time to try it, and certainly no one else ever did.
I looked at Miss Olga through a watery haze. Silently I stood and walked to the door. From the step I quietly said thank you to the first person to ever do an unconditional deed for me.
A Little Piece of Sky
I never have the heart to look up when I’m outside, but when I’m locked in the bathroom, that’s what I do. Above the roaches, above the water spots, above the peeling paint, I can see a little piece of sky.
One evening while I was looking up, I heard it all unfold downstairs beneath my feet. My mother rushed in and scurried across the floor. She didn’t close the door behind her, but rushed into the dining room and opened the breakfront. I could hear her jangling the dishes. I heard her curse and mumble, and then I realized that she was looking for the gun that she had kept hidden away in the soup tureen. But it wasn’t there. I knew because I had taken it to my room to examine it one afternoon while my mother was sleeping. Then Caramia had come, looking for something to take to the altar. I didn’t want her to wake my mother and upset her, so I had given the gun to her so that she could sell it. So that she could ease her pain.
Now, downstairs I heard a second voice. It shouted, “Didn’t I warn you to keep your black ass away from him? You couldn’t stay away. Now you will.”
Then I heard a pop. Then a thud. Then feet calmly walking away.
I stood in the bathroom, screaming up at the sky. The sky that had betrayed me and my mother by giving us a false sense of hope. I screamed even after I heard the sirens outside, even after I heard the voices downstairs, even after Miss Olga shushed me from the other side of the door, until she kicked it in.
She looked at me with sadness in her eyes before reaching out to me. I resisted her arms because I needed confirmation. I needed to hear it.
With eyes as melancholy as a drooping African violet, she told me. She said, “Esta muerta, niña. Esta muerta.”
And on that day, I vowed never to look up at the sky again because I do not deserve hope. I killed my mother.
It’s the color of the deepest part of the ocean. The part where dreams sink and huddle together like skeletons from the Middle Passage.
It’s the color of Billie’s voice. She had no choice. It just filled her body like a deadly gas.
It’s the color of a winter day when it’s too cold to grow anything but stems of sadness, which are perennials.
It’s the color of the gumball that stains your tongue. It stains it so dark that people laugh, and you don’t know why they are laughing at you. Then you think of the gumball and remember its deep shade.
It’s the color of poor Maria’s lips as they pulled her from the pool where she dove in search of her father.
It’s the color of the vein that Caramia searches for.
It’s the color of loneliness.
It’s color of the bruise on your back when you thought that you were too dark for the beating to cause a mark.
My Greek Ancestor
In school I read the story of Oedipus. Had I been Greek, he might have been one of my ancestors. Those deformed feet carried him far, but not far enough to be free. Just like my mother, and come to think of it, just like Sojourn.
The truth, or suspected truth as was the case, was too much for Oedipus to face. So he consulted the oracle for answers, just as my mother consulted the Ninth Street fortune-teller and Sojourn asked some chick on the psychic phone line. None of them got satisfactory answers, but the prediction made for Oedipus was even more tragic. He was told that he would marry his mother after killing his father. Boy, I sure hope that it’s not fated for me to marry my father. I’ve already fulfilled the first part of the prophecy. Maybe I should start running, too. But what would be the point? The story of Oedipus tells us that we can never escape who we are. We can never outrun our fate. Does that mean that we never try?
These Feet Attached to Skinny Legs
These feet attached to skinny legs have slapped barefooted on a dirty wooden floor. They have stepped over used syringes. They have scampered into the house away from would-be bullies. They have scurried away from bad places that threatened to suck me in.
They have stumbled up marble stairs in my father’s house. They have soared over hurdles on the track. They have skidded through the sand at the end of the long jump. They have strutted down the aisle at my high school graduation. They have sauntered across the stage to accept my diploma as the first Byrd woman to graduate.
Now these feet attached to skinny legs will stride through the halls of Spelman College. They will be shaped by the steps of those sisters who came before me. They will set me on the path to a promising tomorrow.