Temple Folk

Temple Folk

by Aaliyah Bilal
Temple Folk

Temple Folk

by Aaliyah Bilal


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Notes From Your Bookseller

Aaliyah Bilal taught herself to write fiction by reading and re-reading the stories and novels of Pulitzer winner Edward P. Jones, and the result is a sublime and incredibly assured debut story collection that is a stunning read.

Finalist for the 2023 National Book Award for Fiction

A “splendid and grand collection” (Edward P. Jones, Pulitzer Prize­–winning author of The Known World) portraying the lived experiences of Black Muslims grappling with faith, family, and freedom in America.

In Temple Folk, Black Muslims contemplate the convictions of their race, religion, economics, politics, and sexuality in America. The ten “beautiful and vivid” (Jacqueline Woodson, National Book Award­–winning and New York Times bestselling author) stories in this collection contribute to the bounty of diverse narratives about Black life by intimately portraying the experiences of a community that resists the mainstream culture to which they are expected to accept and aspire to while functioning within the country in which they are born.

In “Due North,” an obedient daughter struggles to understand why she’s haunted by the spirit of her recently deceased father. In “Who’s Down?” a father, after a brief affair with vegetarianism, conspires with his daughter to order him a double cheeseburger. In “Candy for Hanif” a mother’s routine trip to the store for her disabled son takes an unlikely turn when she reflects on a near-death experience. In “Woman in Niqab,” a daughter’s suspicion of her father’s infidelity prompts her to wear her hair in public. In “New Mexico,” a federal agent tasked with spying on a high-ranking member of the Nation of Islam grapples with his responsibilities closer to home.

With an unflinching eye for the contradictions between what these characters profess to believe and what they do, Temple Folk accomplishes the rare feat of presenting moral failures with compassion, nuance, and humor to remind us that while perfection is what many of us strive for, it’s the errors that make us human.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982191825
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 07/02/2024
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 80,095
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Aaliyah Bilal was born and raised in Prince George’s County, Maryland. She has degrees from Oberlin College and the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies. She’s published stories and essays with The Michigan Quarterly Review and The Rumpus. Temple Folk is her first short story collection.

Read an Excerpt

1. Blue BLUE
In the early hours before the dawn, the women of the Muslim Girls Training class stood single file on the sidewalk, waiting to board the Trailways charter bus headed to Chicago. A pair of streetlamps at the corner of Prospect and Main funneled soft light onto their frames—dressed in peacoats with long white skirts and headscarves that matched the light drift of snow. They inched along, moving toward the yellow-orange light that filtered a halo from the top half of the coach. Slowly, they ascended the steps and filed down the aisle to their seats. The others shivered, waiting outside, eager to get out of the cold, eager in the awareness that soon they were headed to the Saviours’ Day celebration where they would behold the Messenger of the Lost-Found Nation—the maker of men and reformer of women—the seal of the prophets, up close and in person.

They were greeted at the top of the steps by the captain, Sister Lucinda. She was tall and handsome with café-au-lait skin, a commanding air, and bright, green eyes that looked softly upon the women as they passed. In the singsong voice of a grade-school teacher, she offered each one a greeting of “Salaam,” checked her name from the list, and pointed to her assigned seat.

Where Sister Lucinda managed the entrance, Sister Memphis—her lieutenant—was positioned at the rear of the line. She had her hands folded behind her back and paced slow, observing the women. The MGT had their thoughts about her, but fearful of the consequences of exposing them in their rawest form—lest word travel back to Sister Memphis—they were careful to hide their gossip behind half-hearted concern, mostly about her appearance.

They couldn’t be all the way sure but said that, from the look of her eyes, something had to be out of sorts with her health. Standing before them that early morning, they bulged uncomfortably as she scanned the women, examining them for undone shoelaces, strange odors, and buttons fastened in the wrong places. Sister Guadeloupe, a twenty-five-year-old nurse in training, said it must have been a problem with her thyroid that set her eyes to protruding that way.

“Nothing that daily glasses of beet juice and a little bit of iodine couldn’t help,” she said.

Sister Memphis had skin like charcoal, with prominent lips always pursed tight until the moment she started in on some poor MGT. Then she’d expose her brilliant teeth—the canines like little daggers—and her mouth would open wide as a Venus flytrap, ready to snap off their heads at the slightest offense.

The women’s anxieties had only multiplied over the last two months since Sister Memphis’s husband, James 17X, had gone away. Out on a walk, some of the MGT saw him at the entrance of the high-rise where they lived, loading a Chevy pickup truck with all of his belongings. He caught eyes with them, then shook his head like he’d seen something foul, and that’s how they knew his Nation days were over. They couldn’t have known the challenges—how over the past months, James had grown more vocal with Sister Memphis in his private denunciations of the Messenger. He said he was ready to leave the Nation for good and asked her if she would leave with him.

“It would just be me and you,” he said. “We can go somewhere and build a little house, make us a family. Me, you, and our children, with a clean slate and the whole world open to us.”

He was a decent man who liked peace in the home, who sometimes picked wildflowers that grew near the construction site where he earned a living and brought the prettiest blossoms to her. Despite it all, she dismissed his invitation and, quick as mercury, sent him on his way. His going had pained her, though she was not in the least conflicted about her decision to stay.

When Brother James didn’t show up at the Temple the following week, the sisters were certain that her husband’s departure would turn Sister Memphis’s half-beating heart all the way to stone. The theories of the MGT were as ornate as they were plenty, but none garnered enough sympathy to lessen their fear of her, so that standing there in the icy snow, they trembled from her nearness as much as from the bitter cold.

Sister Carol, a twenty-two-year-old new recruit—no more than eight months in the Nation—froze the instant she felt Sister Memphis fixate on her. Eight months was long enough to have heard all the stories and to have witnessed the unfolding of the lieutenant’s quick temper. She’d grown so accustomed to the rhythm of Sister Memphis’s barking at the women—of having them repeat tasks that they hadn’t completed to her standard—that she saw it as a painful inevitability that soon it would be her on the receiving end of the lieutenant’s tirades, and there she was, with those strange eyes, gathering her entire person like simple math.

Sister Memphis sensed Sister Carol’s nervousness, feeling it pass from the new recruit and filter through the other MGT standing at the tail end of the line. Slowly, she reached for the edge of Sister Carol’s headdress, and when the young woman flinched, she stopped mid-gesture.

“Not to worry,” a rare, softening lilt rode Sister Memphis’s words. “It’s nothing serious. Got a bulge in your scarf, that’s all. Just doing my job. Everything clean and neat under there, just like the Messenger taught.”

Sister Memphis felt a cramp in her abdomen but moved on, applying a moment’s pressure to her side. The women turned, peering at her and each other as best they could, trying to understand who this new woman could be and what she’d done with the old lieutenant—looks that Sister Memphis noticed and let slide.

One week earlier, she’d overheard a conversation between the minister and his men about a lieutenant at one of the newer Temples by the name of Morgan 4X. Angry over the poor sales of trout that the brothers were made to cart through the neighborhood, he went upside the head of some lazy, fresh-out-the-joint FOI who refused to purchase the surplus with his own money. No more than a few days had passed between this rather mundane circumstance in the ordinary business of the Nation and the scene that had captured all of their attention—someone had repaid Morgan 4X for his brutality, going so far as to take his life. He was headed home late one night when an unidentified man came upon him and settled the score with the blast of a Model 36 Smith & Wesson straight to his cranium.

The incident sat heavily with Sister Memphis and mediated her actions toward the women. It made her wonder if they might have thought of her, not as keeping order but overstepping bounds, and what kind of revenge they might enact in the instance the sisters deemed she had gone too far.

With the women all on board and no FOI around to secure the bus, as they were already en route, Sister Memphis helped the driver close the under-coach panels where the luggage was stored, then scanned the sidewalk for stragglers. There was a rustling at the side of the Temple that shifted her gaze from the road to the alleyway. With the aid of the faint light she peered in the direction of the sound, trying to make out the figure that, from its raspy crescendo, was clearly approaching. She braced herself, fearing it might be a vagrant or some criminal element, and was relieved to see it was Sister Saundra, a new recruit—a tall, honey-toned wire of a woman, who’d been a student in the MGT class for less than a month.

In the short time since Sister Saundra had come into the fold, Sister Memphis had worked closely with the woman, trying to help her acclimate to the demands of life at the Temple. Despite her greatest efforts, there was little she could do to help motivate Sister Saundra to whatever task was at hand. Whether it was sewing, or learning how to make a whole-wheat piecrust, Sister Saundra seemed incapable of absorbing any new knowledge. She performed her duties with lackluster energy and was immune to any disciplinary measures—the scolding passing through her ears like words uttered in a foreign language. She impressed Sister Memphis as one of the types she’d seen come into the Nation over the years—the sort of people who were moved by the Messenger’s words but uninterested in living out their substance. Sister Memphis figured that it was just a matter of time before Sister Saundra, like James before her, would resume her place in the murky stew that was life on the outside, abandoning the Nation like it was nothing more than a child’s amusement—a masquerade of votaries.

It took a solid minute before she made her way through the snowfall, at which point it became clear that Sister Saundra was not alone. Sister Memphis had presumed that Saundra was struggling with a large sack of luggage, though she soon realized that the new recruit was tugging at the arm of a girl as tall as her shoulders, who could have been no older than thirteen.

“Sister Memphis.” Saundra’s voice was filled with syrupy angst. “I tried to make it on time. Swear to God, I did. Would have been the first in the line if I hadn’t been weighed down by this little demon. You should honor your mother!” She spoke with more fervor than Sister Memphis sensed she was capable of, yanking at the hand of the child who was trying to free herself from Sister Saundra’s grip. The girl would occasionally pause from her tugging and then, hoping to catch Sister Saundra off guard, start tugging yet again. She was poised to run down the street, alone into the dark—willing to contend with the miscreants and users who lurked in the shadows of the Eastside rather than stay with Sister Saundra—as if the woman were not her mother but a miscreant herself.

“This here is Sister Memphis,” Saundra said, bending toward the girl. “She the lieutenant of this whole operation and she don’t take no mess from nobody, especially not no snot-nosed children! Go ’head, tell the sister your name.”

Sister Saundra nudged the girl over and over, and each time the girl resisted, her eyes cutting from one woman to the other like a spirit level trying to find its center.

Sister Memphis stared at the girl, a strange awareness rising within her that she was not going to like this child.

The girl had skin like French Vanilla ice cream, heavy on the egg, with an abundance of freckles that ran across the bridge of her nose—a face as instantly familiar and threatening as a schoolyard bully’s. She wore her headscarf and skirt lopsided so that tufts of reddish, knotted hair showed from the edges—like someone who had gotten out of bed and not dressed herself, but instead decided to roll the linen around her body before venturing outside. She puzzled at the way the child’s eyes seemed to open no more than the width of a silver dollar, giving her the look of someone who would always be limited by her own cunning, no hope of ever growing wise.

Sister Lucinda called to them from the door, and then marched through the snow to where the group of them stood.

“Is there something the matter?” she said, half-bright, half-concerned. “We mustn’t delay any longer. Everyone is here now, and it is time for us to go.”

Sister Memphis opened her mouth to explain, but Saundra spoke first.

“Excuse me, Sister Lucinda. This here is my daughter, Danielle. She’s going to be spending some time with me and I was hoping that ya’ll wouldn’t mind if I brought her along to the Saviours’ Day.”

“But the child won’t cooperate,” Sister Memphis cut in, her voice heavy with disapproval. “Every time you ask her to do something, she just stands there like she doesn’t understand English.”

Sister Lucinda looked at all the women and pursed her lips, nodding.

“Go ahead and find yourself a seat on the bus, Sister Saundra,” she said. “As for little Miss Danielle, you can sit with Sister Memphis. Keep her in line however you must,” Sister Lucinda said to Memphis. “But try not to go too far.”

Then she turned to the girl. “Beware, Miss Danielle,” Sister Lucinda intoned seriously. “The Temple folk don’t play games.”

A look passed between Sister Memphis and Sister Lucinda that rehearsed the news of Morgan 4X, though the girl noticed and assumed something menacing. Her eyes widened slightly to regard Sister Memphis, noting her height, her broad shoulders, and the permanent alarm in her eyes, gathering she had the power to take her tiny frame and snap it into pieces, quick and effortless as a twig.

And with that, the women boarded the bus and after a long hydraulic hiss, it pulled off into the darkness, inching down the quiet streets with the Temple receding into nothing.

THE BUS MADE a low hum as it ventured west, driving along a two-lane highway cut through endless farmlands that were fallow and snowy in the February cold. There were occasional bumps in the road—clumps of frozen earth the hawk had blown there; bumps that the shocks absorbed, so that the women felt they were being cradled, the gentle rocking motion lulling most of them to sleep.

They were thirty women in total, filling the cabin with the sounds of their snores and the occasional utterances of minds loosed in dreams, all except for Sister Memphis. It was still dark outside, and equally dark inside the coach, save the reading light she had illuminated above her seat. She brought the previous day’s newspaper along and had it spread neatly in front of her, silently mouthing the words as her eyes scanned the print. As quietly as she could, she folded the pages once she finished a panel, determined to read every single word and learn what the white man said were the most important happenings going on in the world. She read about the recession, about Richard Newhouse and his crusade to unseat Mayor Daley, how Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League had just turned Bangladesh into a one-party state. She made a habit of avoiding news out of Indochina, though she was drawn to a story that she read and reread about events unfolding in Cambodia. The Lon Nol regime, with the faltering support of the U.S. forces, was losing its grip on power as the Khmer Rouge blazed a path through the countryside and surrounded Phnom Penh. The Americans had a hand in the devastation—opposing the king for supporting North Vietnam—strengthening the guerilla forces of the Khmer Rouge. So much of the present devastation, as read the report, was at the hands of Saloth Sar and his band of revolutionaries. They were the ones pushing the people from the capital into the countryside, making farmhands of doctors and intellectuals. She read on. Wherever in the world you went, Sister Memphis considered, you could always count on the white man to act against the interests of the native people. That was to be expected. However, it was the leaders among them who had extended the suffering of the ordinary Cambodians. They were fanning air against the house of cards that was the remains of their country, and whatever followed, she knew, would send the entire edifice of their nationhood tumbling to ruin.

She was reading a passage about the thousands of families lining the roadsides headed to Neak Loeung—the tearful and desperate masses with distended bellies, their hands perpetually outstretched for food, when she felt Danielle’s eyes on her. She tried to continue with her reading, but after another minute, Sister Memphis lowered the paper and turned to the child who was scanning her up and down.

Sister Memphis peered at Danielle, who was looking dead set into her eyes, and then she began to speak, her words unusually soft.

“I know Sister Lucinda made it look some kind of way, but I’m a nice lady—it’s just that if our people gonna get out of the condition we’re in, we need structure. Rules! Order! That’s all I do. I don’t bite none. Now tell me, what’s the matter? Didn’t your mother—”

“Saundra is not my mother,” Danielle interrupted Sister Memphis, her eyes cutting into her like razors.

Sister Memphis had, by that point, spent enough time in the child’s presence to know the two were related. They had the same turned-up noses and the same jolty mannerisms that could only be explained by shared blood.

Sister Memphis resumed, “The lady, Ms. Saundra? Didn’t she give you anything to do for the ride?”

Just then the girl looked from Sister Memphis and down at herself. Sister Memphis had not gotten over the child’s disheveled appearance, though she hadn’t enumerated all the out-of-place details that were, then and there, overwhelmingly apparent. The headdress looked like it was made with used dinner napkins—it was wrinkled, stiff, and too small to accommodate the child’s unruly, reddish hair. The toga-like skirt had large, yellow splotches as if it had been used the previous night as a tablecloth, before it was hastily removed and wrapped around the child’s waist.

“Saundra doesn’t care,” Danielle said. “Not about me and not even about my little sister.”

“You have a sister?” Sister Memphis intoned seriously.

“Yes,” Danielle replied, “but she stayed with Nana. I’m the only one that had to go with her. Then she just yanked me off the pallet where I was sleeping and had me put on these clothes.”

From the moment Sister Memphis had seen her face through the snowfall, she began to forge an image of Danielle that compelled her to strong memories of her own past. Danielle was a child—innocent and good at her core—who bore the hurt of a no-good family—a feeling she had known all too well.

“That’s why I say Saundra is not my mother,” Danielle continued. “Nana is my mother, and I’m halfway mad at her right now for making me spend the week with Saundra and her crazy self.”

The crashing, raspy sound of their talking stirred Sister Almina from across the aisle. She was still asleep but had turned her head in the direction of Sister Memphis and Danielle, most likely blending the sound of their chatter into her dream.

Sister Memphis switched off the reading lamp and let go of the paper, folding her hands onto her lap so it wouldn’t fall. She turned back to Danielle and looked at her in the new light—it was still not quite dawn, though the sky had turned the ultramarine of morning on Neptune.

“She’s nasty and sneaky,” Danielle went on, “and don’t care about nobody but herself.”

“Careful,” Sister Memphis said, “lest you turn out just like her.” Her eyes were soft, reflecting the growing warmth she felt toward the child—this little girl who was midstream through a river she herself had crossed.

“That’s how I know this is not going to last,” Danielle said finally. “This whole thing with her and these white dresses, it’s just a matter of time. One day she’ll get tired of all of it and then she will be back on Nana’s porch, crying to be let inside. She will leave again when she meets a shiny new man, but in the meanwhile she will eat up all the food and only spend a little bit of time with my sister, and not me, like I ain’t even there.”

Sister Memphis wanted to hold the child but knew better than to show too much affection. Trying to be helpful, she grabbed a carry-on from beneath her seat and removed from it a brush, a few bobby pins, and a nail file.

“Would you let me fix your hair? I’ll just pull it back into a neat little bun so it will lay flat under the headdress if that’s alright.” She said this, and the child’s eyes widened not so much from the offer, but because she was dazzled at the glittery, metal file with the pointed tip and the marbleized plastic handle.

“That’s to clean under your nails. You can do that while I get your hair together.”

Sister Memphis said this, and the child nodded. With the sun rising at their backs, she grabbed the brush and, with firm strokes, tugged the kinks from Danielle’s hair, pulling the mass of her reddish curls into a tidy, braided knot at the nape of her neck.

IT WAS IN the fall of ’58 that Mr. Chesterfield—the man in the fedora, with the grease-slick face and Perma-Strate roller curls—started visiting 121 Bradley Street. Edith met him some weeks earlier at the Oldsmobile dealership where he had sold her a brand-new Super 88. He told her that a Fiesta Hardtop Wagon was the only car that a woman of her style and taste should ever be seen driving. This prompted her invitations and over a string of Friday evenings he would come over for dinner. Each time he came, she grew more and more certain that, of all the men she knew, who claimed to love her, this was the one who was destined to be her husband.

Mr. Chesterfield lived twenty miles outside of town in a tiny hamlet called Mason with a woman named Vernelle—his actual wife and mother to five of his nine children—though this fact didn’t keep him from accepting Edith’s invitations. He came over every Friday night and sat at the head of her twin pedestal mahogany dining table, eating oversized helpings of fried chicken, creamed rice, and lima beans while Edith filled his ears with stories. Edith went on about her marriage to her daughter Tiffany’s father—a traveling salesman. Tiffany, who sat at Edith’s right side, gnawing on a drumstick, listened as her mother went on, telling Mr. Chesterfield that she was but a month old when the salesman died, leaving her alone with her one and only daughter. It was just one year later, after Edith’s grandmother Bertha died, that she acquired the house. According to the last will and testament, the home would be hers as long as she agreed to take in Martha—a girl several years older than Tiffany, who Bertha had found on her doorstep one morning, thus explaining how she’d come into the care of an additional child.

“I’ve been through trials and tribulations,” Edith said, “but we do our best to get by.”

Mr. Chesterfield laughed and nodded at the stories Edith told, knowing good and well that barely a word of what she said was true.

MARTHA SAT ON the far side of the table and neither smiled nor spoke a word other than “yes” or “no, ma’am,” as she was frequently on her feet, refreshing everyone’s drinks at Edith’s request and cleaning the place settings whenever crumbs found their way onto the white linen.

One evening, when the dinner was over, the group of them migrated to the parlor where Tiffany put on a show, singing and dancing for Mr. Chesterfield’s pleasure. Martha played a piano accompaniment, trying to keep pace with Tiffany as she sang off-rhythm and off-key.

Picture you upon my knee,

Just tea for two and two for tea,

Just me for you

And you for me alone...

Her voice had an affected sultriness that was uncomfortable to Martha’s ears—singing the lyrics as she dragged a white feather boa along the length of her left arm.

Tiffany hadn’t bothered to learn the song beyond the first verse, and so she repeated the chorus, but Martha carried the tune further than Tiffany could go. When she sensed a change in melody, Tiffany banged her kitten-heeled foot on the threadbare rug.

“I’d a sang the song half-right if Martha hadn’t messed me up!” Tiffany balled her fists at her sides and looked over her shoulder toward the piano.

“Do it again, Martha, and this time try a little harder to follow your cousin,” Edith said.

Martha looked back and met Edith’s eyes for a prolonged instant—her expression half accusation, half question—why would you say that she is my cousin, thereby denying that I, too, am your daughter?

Martha turned back to the keys as Tiffany counted backward for the downbeat.

When the playing was through and Mr. Chesterfield had finished his dessert and left to go back home to Vernelle, the house came undone—a dissonance returned to the air of every room—as it did whenever he was away. Martha stood over the sink scraping food waste from the dinner plates when Edith walked over and slapped her hard across the face.

“Don’t you dare think about sassing me in front of company, looking all sideways while I’m talking like you don’t know who’s who in this house! Can’t make no claims over what goes on in the rest of the world, but in this place, if I say the sky is green, it is; and if I say you ain’t mines, you ain’t.”

Edith raised her hand to Martha yet again, but noticing a hardness in the teenaged girl that threatened to hit back, she restrained herself.

“I want this kitchen and the whole of the downstairs clean ’til it shine, else I got something for you that’ll wipe the smirk off your face.”

And with that she left the room and went up the stairs.

Tiffany had been in their midst all the while, sitting at the kitchen table, her face hovering over a bowl of cherries, the juice, like blood, dripping from her lips and down to her chin.

“Mama wouldn’t be so hard on you if you hadn’t turn so contrary all a sudden. Ain’t saying she right, but you gone and make life hard for yourself not playing along. I don’t know no other colored folks nowhere near this place live as good as you. Ought to get your head out the clouds and stop thinking ’bout what you wish you had and be grateful for what you got.”

Martha snarled at this, noting the way Tiffany used the word “colored,” pointing it away from herself as if the term did not include her. Tiffany smiled at her sister’s frustration, the stain of the scarlet nectar discoloring her teeth. She dabbed a cloth napkin at the wetness that pooled under her chin, then took a single cherry and tried to throw it from an arm’s-length distance into her mouth. She missed by several inches and laughed at her own foolish game, and the whole of the house, now settled and quiet, agreeing or indifferent to her delusion.

THE DRIVER MADE it as far as Angola, Indiana, before pulling into a gas station. He parked at the pump as Sister Lucinda stood to speak into the PA system microphone.

“Only twenty minutes to make your ablutions or grab a bite to eat. Then—and I’m serious when I say this—I need you right back on this bus because we will be taking off no later than eight thirty a.m., understood?”

The women stretched, standing from their seats, and slowly filed out of the bus.

After they descended, Danielle nodded at Sister Memphis, then walked in the direction of the bathrooms where a significant line of women had already formed, while the lieutenant remained near the bus to keep the time.

The driver was Mr. Wilson, an older gentleman who was not a Temple goer, though from his formal appearance, dressed in a suit and tie, he could have been mistaken for one. He ambled off the bus and started his way around the frame, checking the pressure of the tires.

A middle-aged white man in a trucker hat and navy-blue overalls stood several feet away from Sister Memphis, where he began pumping gasoline into the tank. He wobbled on his feet and despite the distance between the two of them, Sister Memphis could smell the stench of Jack Daniel’s emanating from his body. He tried steadying himself as he pumped the gas, and every few moments his eyes would close as if he were about to fall asleep.

The driver came around to the tires that were nearest to the tank where the white man stood, and the gas attendant issued the comment, “Looking at the tires, Old Sammie? Causn’ they look mighty... mighty fine to me.” He paused to hiccup, then kicked the tire treads as hard as he could, sending a red trail of the gasoline trickling into the brown slush of melting snow.

Immediately Mr. Wilson stood and walked away, headed back into the coach. The gas attendant turned to watch him go, a look of sadistic ecstasy plastered all over his face.

Martha watched, incensed at the gas attendant’s disrespect of the driver. She balled her fists as the attendant removed the pump from the receptacle. When he caught Sister Memphis scowling in his direction, he stopped moving and tried to steady himself.

“S the matter with you?” He slurred his words. “Look to me like you’re... like you’re fixin’ to do something with them hands. Now don’t you go studyin’ me!” He stumbled yet again, the gas pump wobbling in his hands. “I tell you one thing for sure! I can cause a whole lot more trouble for the likes of... for the likes of you than you can cause for me!”

Not wanting to pursue a full-on argument with a drunken man, she refocused on the women who had started their way back to the bus. Danielle was among the last to board, returning not from the bathroom, as Sister Memphis had anticipated, but from the far side of the parking lot, her movements fast and her face pointed toward the ground. Sister Memphis wondered for a brief instant where she had run off to and what she had been doing wherever she went, but settled on feeling relieved, happy that Danielle had returned before time.

With most of the MGT already aboard, Sister Memphis walked to her own seat, where she saw Danielle looking out the window toward the lot.

“What were you doing over there?” Sister Memphis’s voice was almost playful.

Danielle shrugged, twirling the nail file in her hand.

“As for me, I just had one of the strangest encounters I’ve ever experienced with a white man. I swear, it doesn’t matter how poor, or how down and out they get, they always trying to show you they’re the boss. It’s just a shame the brothers aren’t here.”

Sister Memphis tried not to notice the smirk that crept up the side of Danielle’s mouth, as she was merely grateful that the child had mellowed somewhat over the last few hours of their journey. A bit of distance from Saundra and a firm but gentle hand was all it had taken, she thought, to lower the child’s defenses and set her on the right path.

Sister Lucinda was last to get on the bus. She climbed the stairs into the coach and took the microphone, which distorted in the moment that she stood there staring straight ahead, looking at nothing in particular. It was a long, awkward pause and made the sisters turn to each other, wondering what was the matter.

Finally, she raised the microphone to her mouth, “Salaam Alaikum, sisters,” she began. “I just got off the telephone with Sister Ophelia out of Chicago.”

Another pause.

“She just let me know... and I’m standing here to tell you that the Messenger made his flight.”

In the ensuing years, the sisters would refer to this as the moment when they began to notice the early signs of Sister Lucinda’s cognitive decline. First there were the momentary blackouts, which quickly devolved into the complete unraveling of her personality, leading to her untimely death five years later at the age of fifty-one.

The women inhaled at once and a breathless stillness came over them after the captain uttered the words. They made stunned, confused expressions as they tried piecing together the precise meaning of a phrase as vague and shadowy as “the Messenger made his flight.” Conferencing with their seatmates, they searched for answers, until the entire bus was animated with chatter; all of this happening as the captain remained standing, completely stone-faced, too consumed with the new voices assembling in her mind to be overly concerned with the noise.

It was only when Sister Loraine—a woman sixty years of age who had been in the Nation since the Messenger was released from prison—let out a guttural scream as loud as a siren, that the captain came back to herself.

“We are not going to have none of that, you hear me? Now get control of yourselves!” Sister Lucinda’s eyes flashed with a furor the younger members had never seen in her. The young recruits were so stunned by this deviation from her ordinary grace that it silenced all their talking and made them regard her as she came fully into her command.

“We are still the Nation, after all—united and strong. Everything is moving in the right direction. The Messenger is merely, away,” she said, though the women could hear the strain in her voice, “having joined the Master where they preside over us all. So we will keep decorum and keep heading on our way.”

Sister Lucinda’s expression was hard as stone as she turned to sit in her chair, and within a minute, the bus rolled out of the parking lot and onto the open road.

Sister Memphis stared out the window, counting the logs that held the power lines in high, parabolic arcs across the endless fields. She had been so blank, so oblivious to all happenings on the bus and Lucinda’s momentary reversion to her old ways in her lieutenant days, as she tried puzzling through it all. The Messenger had taken his flight, she considered. Her mind arranged and rearranged the words, trying to find a way for them to mean that the Messenger had merely packed his bags and journeyed someplace far but reachable. She imagined him on a beach somewhere in Polynesia, sitting under an umbrella on a hot, sunny day, sipping on a cold glass of lemonade. She tried to see him this way but the visions would not hold, each conjuring instantly giving way to leagues and leagues of ocean.

THEY HAD MADE it twenty miles farther down the road when the whooping of sirens and red flashing lights of two cop cars appeared from behind the bus.

As soon as the driver realized it was his vehicle that the police were after, he pulled over. He immediately opened the side door to let two Indiana state troopers in their khaki-brown overcoats onto the bus. Sister Lucinda stood to greet them, and the larger man stayed near the door as his taller, lankier colleague walked down the aisle. The taller man looked menacingly at the women as the larger man, who was clearly in charge, took the microphone.

“Morning ladies,” he said, his voice burdened with a heavy twang. “Got a call from a gas station a few miles back saying it was some illegal activity happening on the premises. Man said it was a bus of women just come and gone and to see if they might’a had something to do with it. So if y’all don’t mind, we’re just going to perform us a little search and get you on your way quick as can be.”

The stout officer remained at the front listening to Sister Lucinda’s plea that his claims were unfounded, that they were all holy and upstanding women of God, trained to respect the laws of the land. He looked as dispassionate as his partner was eager. One after the other, the deputy yanked the women up by the arm and used his hands to trace the outline of their bodies, looking for evidence of thievery in their eyes though most of the women looked away, their minds too overwhelmed with the news of the Messenger and his unexpected flight to muster a great fury at the officer.

“You!” the deputy said abruptly, pointing at Sister Memphis once he reached the back of the bus. “What’s that that you got in your hand there?” he asked, pointing at the nail file which Danielle was handing back to her, raising his voice, eliciting the attention of all the other sisters in the vicinity.

Sister Memphis looked down at the nail file, half in her hand, half in Danielle’s. She wanted to respond but didn’t, her eyes suddenly focused on the MGT, the ones that were nearby having turned around to see what was going on.

“But she didn’t do nothing wrong,” Sister Barbara said in her mousy voice, seated in the chair directly in front of Sister Memphis. “She ain’t even go in the store like the rest of us.”

“I didn’t say a god-damned word about going in no store,” the deputy barked at the woman. “Station manager said illegal activity! Breaking into old cars! Now show me what it is you got there in your hands!”

Sister Memphis was about to hand over the file, but the boss man called out to the deputy.

“O’Malley!” The officer spoke into the microphone. “It’s time for us to move along. I should have known that old drunk fool’s always calling about some such nonsense. I’m not trying to raise hell with no whole bunch of ladies clearly on their way to a prayer meeting. We’re moving out.”

The deputy turned his head, scanning the lot of women. He focused his attentions one final time on Sister Memphis, as if he were considering breaking orders, but he finally relented and turned to leave.

“Y’all be on your best behavior,” the deputy said on his way back down the aisle, “lest the law come find you again.”

It was only fitting, given the strangeness enveloping their day, that there were no FOI present. They would have stood up for the MGT and at the very least prevented the deputy from manhandling the women like packaged meat. In that moment Sister Memphis felt the first real pangs of grief as she contemplated a world where the MGT would have to move without the Messenger’s guarantee that they would always be protected.

A low whimper from across the aisle distracted both Sister Memphis and Danielle and they looked over to regard thirty-year-old Sister Rochelle. In two years’ time, she would stand before the congregation of the Mount Zion Baptist Church and offer a testimony:

“I used to sit up there listening to all that yapping, but I didn’t believe not a word of what that old man said. Kept the love of Christ burning in my heart like always,” she would tell the church folks, but in that moment, still among the sisters, she sat in her own embrace, rocking back and forth to calm herself. Sister Almina tried rubbing her back, but Rochelle flinched from her touch.

The driving resumed, and Danielle started laughing, crossing her arms and shaking her head, and that’s when Sister Memphis knew something had happened with her in the parking lot and that, whatever it was, none of it could have been any good. She wondered why the cop hadn’t suspected the child and pointed the finger at her instead, but dismissed the thought as quickly as it had formed. What average person would bother a girl like Danielle—her skin like whipping cream—with accusations of wrongdoing? When in the experiences of fair women, she considered, had such accusations ever amounted to anything in the way of hard consequences?

IN THAT DUSTY southern town passing itself off as a city, there were only so many pleasures a Negro woman could enjoy out in the open. One that Edith didn’t try to keep secret from her daughters was the elaborate daily ritual of her toilette. She collected potions and perfumes in frosted glass diffusers, arranged neatly on her bedroom vanity. After her nightly baths she’d spend an hour or so dousing herself in fragrance, then blotting her skin with cottony poofs of Tabu Dusting Powder, regular and reliable, like a prayer to God that he would always keep her young and beautiful.

It was this devotion to the maintenance of her body that sent her into a rage on the evening, just an hour before Mr. Chesterfield’s next arrival, that Edith found one of the perfume bottles shattered on the floor—the fragrance having already seeped through the faulty wooden planks. She screamed at the sight of the broken glass and immediately set her rage on Martha.

“I was a fool not to lock the door when I left the house! I was thinking it would only be a few minutes, what could go wrong? But I shoulda known you would plant your grubby hands on my nice things. That was L’Air du Temps! Do you even know what that means or how long I had to work to get it?”

Martha stood at the foot of Edith’s big brass bed, reflecting. She’d known exactly what her mother had done to get these things, to afford all the trappings of their seemingly gilded life. She thought, finally, that if her mother wanted more L’Air du Temps, she ought to go back to one of the men that bought it for her, then ask him for another.

As if sensing the thought passing through her mind, Edith slapped Martha so hard she tasted blood.

“You gotta get out of my house. When Mr. Chesterfield get here tonight, I want you in the yard and you can stay there ’til he leave.”

Edith seethed, speaking the words to Martha while Tiffany—the real offender—stood in the doorway, watching her sister take blows that were meant for her. Martha turned to leave and met eyes with her little sister; they were guilty but furious eyes—eyes that didn’t bother to plead for Martha’s silence, but that dared her to tell the truth. But what, in this house, was the value of the truth? Martha knew her mother well enough to understand that there was no argument she could make that would relieve the guilt and pain that a lifetime of her mother’s cruelty had proved was her birthright.

She sat all night on the back porch, hearing their strange laughter through the paned glass windows, and Tiffany’s awful singing once their dinner was through. Martha entertained herself with the night sounds and by looking up at the stars, unaware of constellations, but assigning to them meanings of her own design. She was brought back to earthly concerns when a sense of indignation reemerged and turned her peaceful contemplation back to anger. She wondered what it was that she had done to deserve her mother’s wrath and—by natural extension—the wrath of God, to be so despised in the place that was home, by the people who were her blood relations.

When the lights had gone out and her mother had failed to unlock the back door to let her inside, Martha made her way to the front porch. Up there, there was a two-person swing where she could sit comfortably, stretch her legs, and watch the orange streetlight filtering through what leaves remained on the trees. She sat holding herself in the chilly fall air, looking up at the sky, and imagined herself dancing on the farthest star, far enough away that the very memory of her family—of this dreadful place she called home—would be rendered void. Up there she had the power to jump from star to star, each one flashing bright on her landing. She imagined this twinkling effect and the thought lulled her into a light sleep.

Martha was awakened only half an hour later. She didn’t hear the goodnight kisses Mr. Chesterfield and her mother exchanged just feet away from where she laid, nor their syrupy “I love yous.” It was only the sound of her mother’s shrieking that roused her from dozing.

“Why in God’s name are you out here?” her mother screamed. “Nearly scared me half to death. Coulda swore you was a homeless come to take me for all I got!”

Mr. Chesterfield looked on—a shadow of a man with the orange streetlight at his back. She only made out a glimmer of his face and saw it etched with disgust as he turned toward the light, headed to his car.

“I don’t know how you saw her there,” Martha heard Mr. Chesterfield speaking the words to Edith as the two descended the front steps. “I wouldn’t have guessed it was anyone there if you hadn’t scared me so.”

“Who you telling?” her mother said. “The child so black, she blue. Half the time, even in normal hours, I can’t tell her from cast iron.”

Edith tried to embrace Mr. Chesterfield on the street, but he raised his hat as a gesture of goodbye. She then returned to the house and took a wordless, snarling glance at Martha. The child knew what would happen next. Edith entered the house, closed the door, and fastened the locks behind her.

Martha turned her face and watched the street. Mr. Chesterfield had already climbed into his car and drove to the end of the block, his break lights flashing red like devil’s eyes. He made an immediate turn on Hadley Street and Martha listened to the vrooming of his engine, following the sound as it faded.

It was in that moment that she realized she didn’t have to visit a distant star to be free of Edith. There were roads and highways, cars and trains that could carry her from this dusty, worthless town to someplace better, and in that moment, she began forming a plan to leave. With the money she saved doing day work after school, she would find her way up north, where no one would have to know from whence she came or the sad life she led there, save the fact that the Temple folk would eventually uncover her place of birth and give it back to her as a name.

“WHAT WERE YOU doing in the parking lot?” Sister Memphis snapped, the previous hours’ work of trying to ally herself to the child having dissolved into a memory. “Were you doing what the cop said? Breaking into cars with a nail file of all things!? I swear to God, if it turns out you were doing something illegal, you’re going to really have it coming, because I’m going to tell the minister!”

When Sister Memphis was through, Danielle could not help but laugh.

“Ha!” the girl said. “That’s some threat! Look at me! I’m scared!” Her eyes were wild with mockery. “Anyway, what’s it matter to you? What does any of this matter to you or your minister now that your leader is dead?”

And that was the first time Sister Memphis heard it spoken aloud—that the Messenger of the Lost-Found Nation had not made his flight, but was merely dead, returned to nature like the mortal man the Temple folk were always told to believe that he was not.

“That’s exactly what I thought!” Sister Memphis continued. “That’s just what I thought! Guilty as all get out! I can see it in your itty-bitty eyes. Now hand over whatever it is you stole!” Sister Memphis stuck out her hand with the palm facing upward, waiting for the girl to comply.

“Hand what over?” Danielle’s voice was newly serious. Immediately she grabbed the side seam of her peacoat and pulled the garment tight around her body. “I ain’t got nothing to be handing over in the first place. Ain’t like I’m the only one on this bus could of done something. There’s a whole lot of women on this bus you could be interrogating, but you’re here picking on me.”

These words made Sister Memphis reflect that maybe the girl was right. Her mind began to follow the possibility that perhaps it was someone else among them who had broken into a car that morning, but Danielle kept talking.

“I know my momma ain’t worth a damn, but I got people. They bigger and badder than you could ever dream with your monkey-lookin’ a—”

Before Danielle could finish the word, Sister Memphis took both of her hands and—defying the barrier posed by the child’s white polyester skirt—grabbed twin patches of flesh from her underlying thighs, twisting fast and hard in an almost complete revolution like burners on a gas stove turned high. The blood came quickly, racing through the fabric like ink on a Rorschach test, stretching outward into the symmetrical pattern of a big red butterfly—a Siderone galanthis.

Danielle sat in great pain but was silent for the stunning abruptness of the offense, and what seemed like the crazed delight that was apparent on Sister Memphis’s face. Within a moment, she leapt from her seat and ran to the front of the bus, tapping Sister Lucinda on the shoulder. Sister Memphis leaned over the child’s empty seat, watching Danielle gesticulate to the captain, then point back in her direction. She watched Sister Lucinda turn, displaying a furrowed brow that broadcast her clear sympathy with the girl, like she was an angel, as if it were not possible that she might deserve some reprimand.

They stayed there talking for some time, drawing the attention of the other sisters who crowded into the aisle to hear the story and examine the girl’s wounds. It wouldn’t be long, Sister Memphis knew, before Sister Lucinda would come stomping back to where she was sitting. She would wag a finger in her face and mouth on about the justice awaiting her as soon as they arrived in Chicago. Sister Memphis contemplated this and allowed a fear to come forward, though it never surfaced, not as it would have just a few hours ago, for without the Messenger, what did any of it matter? Perhaps very little, or perhaps it didn’t matter at all.

Sister Memphis sighed, looking out the window, a vague suggestion of the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Center visible in the distance through a sea of white. A blinding white; white as the sun beating down on the sidewalk in the summer of 1960.

SHE HAD BEEN in the city for just over a year and already had the hollow feeling of the people she’d come to know there—who spent all their days on concrete, who never ventured past the tenements to see the trees and the lakes beyond.

She dreamed of arriving there and making her way into school where she would study to become a designer, but like so many of the women she’d met who’d made a similar trek from south to north, the most reliable employment was domestic in nature. She was leaving one job, where she cleaned a suite of downtown offices, headed to the next—cooking dinners for the Smith family. The sun beat down on her brow and she could feel its rays pulsating like the rhythm of her heart. It was days like this that made her reconsider her choice to leave home. Back there was hotter still, and unless she wanted to live as her mother did, the work was no more rewarding and no better paid, though there was the land—fields dotted with oaks and pecan trees, the ponds and the streams. She considered it every now and again, going back with her bags in hand and contrite, downcast eyes as her mother let her back inside her childhood home. It was only imagining Edith’s face, haughty and disapproving, that kept her in the city, resolved to never give her the satisfaction of knowing her northward ventures had failed.

She walked farther along the street, wanting to sit on a nearby park bench to rest her ankles, though she knew it would make her late. The Smiths were decent—aloof and distrusting (the matriarch always watching her as she performed her duties)—but reliable with their pay, and she didn’t want to alter this circumstance by upsetting them with her tardiness. She only paused before what seemed to her an impromptu gathering at the corner of Fifth and Prospect Street. It was a large crowd of regular folks surrounding a small group of men who she saw through the weaving masses of pedestrians. One man stood before the others, and Martha had to move to see him clearly. He was tall and slender, with skin that shimmered like polished bronze. He spoke a flurry of words that captivated the crowd enough to make the people stand and listen.

Walking through the dense crowd, Martha drew the ire of two women whom she’d accidentally bumped on her way into a clearing. They had skin like Tupelo honey and wore cigarette pants with sleeveless button-up shirts and sunglasses—so out of place in that part of the city. The women looked her up and down—showing only slightly more disdain toward her than the speaker. They scowled as he went on, shaking their heads and even laughing out loud as he made his point. The sight of them, imperious and important-looking, reminded Martha of her sweatiness and generally haggard appearance, and so she stepped away, leaning in closer to hear the suited man speak, when he noticed her. His eyes went wide at the sight of her face, and instantly she was afraid, growing even more so when he pointed in her direction and all the onlookers turned their necks to see.

“This! This right here is the point and the reason I’m speaking. We are living in the wilderness of North America, this land of misfits and misanthropes, got you thinking day is night and night is day. Thinking right is wrong and wrong is A-OK.” Some people in the crowd chuckled, entertained by the cadence. “Got you all confused about yourself, making you wish you were something you are not. Walking around, knowing your mother looks like midnight, and won’t dare to be seen arm in arm with a woman darker than a rubber band.

“You can follow what the white man tells you to think if you want to, but for me, I’m looking for the real thing,” he said, his eyes fixed on Martha. “A real original woman, with none of the stain of ol’ master’s blood running in her veins. An original woman! Preserved and clean, a taste of chocolate sweetness out of a dream.

“An original woman! I want her hand. The good fruit grows in the darkest soil and not in the sand.”

“I know that’s the truth!” a woman on the far side of the crowd yelled, and tentative laughter followed, but Martha was drawn in, mesmerized by the bronze man who was still looking into her eyes.

“I need an original woman! Blueberry, dark cherry! That’s the only kind of woman who’s sweet enough to marry.

“A woman held high—righteous, battle ready, sweet to the bone. That’s the only kind of woman I plan to take home.”

The bronze-colored man went on with his oration, a sonnet of lovely words falling off his tongue, and for a moment, Martha felt she was floating just an inch above the earth, the pain in her ankles gone away. It was not so much that he was speaking the words to her, but the words themselves. Words like keys, unlocking closed-off, hungry, and hidden places, letting in the brilliant day.

She again met eyes with the women who stared her down, their looks now softened, curious, equalized. Perhaps they had noticed how, in those few moments, Martha had turned her face up to the sky, inviting the sun onto her skin. Perhaps they had seen the glint in her eyes of children acquiring new skills like learning to crawl or uttering first words. She was indeed filled with a new haughtiness—the kind that she had always assumed was the sole province of the Ediths and Tiffanys of the world—and it felt healthy and good and right. She would not continue on to the Smith family home. There, they expected the old Martha, and the person walking down the street (headed to this place a man in front of the Laundromat pointed out as the Temple) was someone completely new.

And so she sat toward the back of the bus with her face turned toward the white fog on the window but tilted upward to catch the diffuse gray light, trying to revisit the feeling of that day—a feeling that she would not recapture until six months hence. She did not know it then, though the doctors would soon inform her that she was already three months pregnant with a little girl—a wide-eyed chocolate drop of a baby whom she would name Jamilah, the beautiful.

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