The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky)
Come Out the Wilderness: Memoir of a Black Woman Artistby Estella Conwill Majozo, Estella Conwill Mc!Jozo, Estella Conwill Mjozo
Estella Conwill Majozo has lead a life of creativity and leadership in the arts. A respected poet, teacher, and performance artist, Majozo writes eloquently about both the deep roots in family and community that have sustained her, and the conflicts and challenges that have confronted her, as they have many creative and self-aware African American women over the
Estella Conwill Majozo has lead a life of creativity and leadership in the arts. A respected poet, teacher, and performance artist, Majozo writes eloquently about both the deep roots in family and community that have sustained her, and the conflicts and challenges that have confronted her, as they have many creative and self-aware African American women over the last half-century.
This memoir traces the paths Majozo has taken from the "Little Africa" section of segregated Louisville, through a difficult marriage and a Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, to New York, where Majozo has become a member of the hardy cultural community of Harlem. It is a testament to the importance of a life lived in pursuit of cultural heritage, spiritual growth, and personal integrity.
The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky)
Read an Excerpt
WALK TOGETHER CHILDREN
I had climbed the walnut tree and swung my legs over the thick branch so I could see both gangs clearly. The Kirbys came unarmed into the jungle, the large weeded area that lay behind the sprawling yard that joined Momma's and Grandma's houses. The Conwills--my five brothers, Adolph, William, Houston, Spivey, and Joe--gathered into a crude semicircle, and the Kirby gang--Emerson, Mike, and Marcus Manning, Bony and Raven--positioned themselves likewise to make the circle complete. I could see that Squeaks was missing. He was deaf and may not have heard the call. The Kirbys had not missed him any more than my brothers had missed me. From where I sat, I could see Constance, whom the boys called Redbone, stretching to watch from her porch across the street. She was the only other girl who dared come to our yard that summer.
Adolph and Raven moved to the center, each staring hard at the other. William removed a pocket knife from his pants and opened it. Marcus Manning struck a wood-stem kitchen match and held it to the edge of the blade. Then, together, William and Marcus held the knife to the extended index finger of Adolph and then Raven. I did not see the blood, but I knew it was there because Bony swallowed hard and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. I did not see the blood even when the two pressed their fingers together high above their heads.
As Adolph and Raven turned in a small circle, they chanted, "Blood brothers, blood brothers" and the rest of them joined in. I said nothing butfelt something strange happening in my own body, something gathering like rain--clouds. It wasn't the blood that was now visible on both their fingers. And it wasn't even that fact that nobody would ever call me "blood brother" that caused my anxiety. It was, I know, that between those pressed fingers I saw myself, and the canary that had fueled the war in the first place.
Nobody remembered how the seven-week war got started that summer of 1958, when I was nine years old. But we all knew that when Adolph strangled the Mannings' canary, the war intensified. From then on, both gangs were fighting about the bird. Even I, throwing rocks, apples, clumps of dirt, or whatever was at hand, thought only of the bird.
There remains a sort of confusion about that time. It seems that after Daddy died, the impulse toward violence heightened in all of us. His death was an accident. He fell from a third-story fire escape while trying to help a friend who had locked his key inside his apartment. He fell through the air as helpless as a feather. I was with him when it happened. Actually, I was waiting at the front of the house for him, so I didn't see it exactly. A woman who lived in the building came out and ushered me inside to protect me from the horror. But that didn't stop me from hearing whispers and then sirens. It didn't stop me from running to look through her bedroom window and seeing the medics bring out a covered body to the ambulance. Daddy, my daddy, was under that blanket. Daddy, who could stand six foot six inches high and ride me on his shoulders into the sky, was there. Daddy, who called me "princess" and never came home without something in his pockets for me, who played Bessie Smith albums at night and laughed when I tried to sing along, who always let me have a taste of his brown beans drenched in hot sauce knowing I'd have to hide the tears, who always told my brothers "take care of your sister, now, because she is your sister," was under that dark green blanket.
I felt powerless. I didn't even scream then. But the canary's death was different. I saw the canary in Adolph's grip. I could have pleaded for its life, even at the risk of being called a traitor, but I didn't. I felt like an accomplice.
Now, as Adolph and Raven moved within that circle, the others joining the chant and marking time, I could not control the flashing lights and shadows before my eyes. I clung to the branch beneath me with the backs of my knees and reached above for the security of a smaller branch. As I held on, I saw the bird in Adolph's hands again. He was vengeful, he said, because the Mannings had caught him outside the jungle, bloodied his nose, and smeared the purple clots into his eyes; because the Mannings had chased Houston, Spivey, and Joe, calling them "sissy-punk-Catholic-tiddy-teacher-sonsofabitch," through the park and all the way home; because they had come to make war on the Conwills after the gang of white boys stole the Kirbys' basketball and ran them out of Shawnee, the white folks' park, in the west end.
Shawnee had all the best things, bigger courts, newer swings, and an entrance to the Ohio River that was more shallow than the dropoff we had in Chickasaw Park. My brothers had stolen into Shawnee a week earlier to go swimming in the river and had been confronted by that same gang of white boys who appeared at the edge of the water, their BB guns cocked and daring. Spivey was so frightened he almost drowned. They had to save him first, they said, and then save themselves, fighting off the flying pellets that could sear the skin, blind an eye. They fought them, even without ammunition. Crawling through the mud, they came up on them, making their way through the barrage of nigger names, BBs, and sticks cracking against defiant bones, Adolph and William telling the little ones to run to the top of the hill. They fought them, the weaklings, and they won. Never mind that the white boys had brothers who were even bigger white boys and that they had cousins, uncles, and fathers who were part of a system that stretched from the Ku Klux Klan to the high courts of Kentucky and that could act as cannon against them. Never mind the possibility of their utter destruction. Never mind any of that. My brothers had triumphed over the attackers and had bonded with one another in a whole new way. They took a vow of secrecy to keep Momma and Grandma from ever finding out. Walking home that day, confidently, proudly, they refashioned the tale for themselves and, when they got home, they refashioned it again for me. By the time I had lent my voice to the telling, they were Igbos rising out of the water and marching, literally marching, across the idiotic unbelieving liquid faces of their foes. They had faced the enemy, but the Kirby gang had not. Instead, the Kirbys had used their rage against the white boys to come and take vengeance on the Conwills over some no-bouncing useless basketball, and had washed Chief Adolph's face in his own Conwill blood.
When Adolph got hold of the Mannings' canary, he said the bird in his hands had to be sacrificed because of those recent transgressions. Sacrificed, he said--not killed, murdered, choked to death, or any other word that would have defined it more accurately, but sacrificed. He repeated it over and over again, the words coming at the end of a longer, almost chantlike explanation of his duty to carry out the act. There was not a crack in his voice, nothing that smacked of those unexpected, almost Tarzan-like breaks in tone that had marked him earlier that summer. His voice sounded strong. Those words stormed forth as if to control our reality.
The Mannings were holding my two older brothers, William and Houston, hostage for the bird. And Adolph was demanding that they be set free, never once letting up the pressure of his fingers on the bird's throat. I imagined the yellow puff of fear pulsating frantically in Adolph's hand, the little marble eyes bulging, begging for life. I bent down, my fingers clutching a fistful of weeds. Hearing Adolph repeat his vow to kill the bird, I knew that he meant for the bird to die. It didn't matter what the Kirby gang did--the bird would die. Their demand for the bird as ransom merely provided the occasion for Adolph to make the act a public one. Even William and Houston, the captives, demanded by their continued defiance that the bird die no matter what.
I wanted to summon a rush of energy and sweep the bird from Adolph's grip and set it free. But I didn't. I just sat there, saying nothing, feeling the power of Adolph's words and the tightening pressure in my own throat.
It was the same now, in the jungle. High above the ritual of blood brotherhood, I clung to the branches of the tree and could smell death, pitched back against the muscles of my throat, dripping hot and acrid into my lungs and stomach. I was dreaming of my father falling. I was the bird--alter ego and victim. The ritual of the blood brotherhood demanded my life. Below me, all my brothers danced and chanted and blended with the others. I could distinguish neither their forms nor their voices.
I found myself wishing that Grandma would call me in out of the jungle. Ever since the war between the Conwills and the Kirbys started, she had gotten into doing that more frequently. It was as if I was being banished from the activities out back. She and Momma believed, like my brothers, though surely for different reasons, that I should be seeking out my own separate territory that God had created for me. It didn't help that I grew breasts at age nine. "Mosquito bites," Spivey had called them. Spivey--who could not swim, who got everybody in even bigger trouble by having the nerve, after the water was coughed from his lungs, to mock the biggest white boy in the crowd with gorilla sounds that rivaled King Kong's--had begun riding me in offbeat moments by suddenly slapping himself across the chest as if swatting some worrisome insect. "Mosquito!" he'd yell, throwing up both his hands. No, it did not help that I grew breasts. Nor did it help that Squeaks, who could not talk, had begun just before the war to draw obscene pictures in the dust and scream wildly in a language only he understood whenever I showed up. Where I was concerned, my two oldest brothers became men overnight with no time or patience for girls. And even Houston, my third oldest brother and the one who always was on my side, took to offering me his slingshot or one of his june bugs to fly around instead of helping to defend me when Adolph or William said I had to go. Once it had gotten so bad that they had taken me by the arms and legs, screaming and kicking, back to the edge of the lawn, back to where it was mowed, trimmed, and whitewashed. It was only thirty yards away at most, but the very idea galled me. I begged Houston to come up front and play with me. We could play jacks, dodgeball, or racing like we always did. We could turn on the water and chase each other with the hose. We could play "close your eyes and read my mind." Anything at all. But the stakes had gotten too high for Houston, and despite what he said about why he couldn't come, I didn't want no slingshot and those green june bugs stunk when you kept them too long. That was their way of getting even. Who would want to have strings tied on their legs while they flew around in a circle? No, keep your june bugs and that little bug-eyed frog that looks just like all of you. "Mosquito bites!" I heard from somewhere deep in the weeds.
But, worse than all this, during the summer of the war Grandma and Momma conspired to just about do away with all the rest of the fun I had as a girl. Grandma would, out of the blue, call me into the house for piano lessons, to set the table, to crochet, or to have me sit down while she looked at me. Yes, simply looked at me. She said next to nothing directly. Rather, she told over and over the stories of her youth.
When she was three, her mother died. Her father, a preacher whose voice was thunder, died when she was a teenager and she had come to Louisville to live with Aunt Minnie. She worked two jobs for several years. Indeed, she would not work forever for folk who paid pennies for a day's labor, who demanded more bricks with no straw, who at five o'clock, just before the last bus was to leave, suddenly remembered one more thing that needed to be done. No, not forever for folk who thought you had nothing to celebrate or serve except their parties on Christmas Day and Easter, who demanded that you climb some rickety ladder, in your work dress, mind you, to wash the second-floor window "from the outside, girl! Junior, here, will be right underneath you helping to sturdy the ladder." Her father would have died again. No thank you, sir. I can do just fine. At twenty-one, not a day later, she opened her own storefront restaurant in the heart of the downtown Black community.
Her food was ambrosia. It could heal you. Make you fall in love. Make you remember parts you hadn't even learned yet. I'm talking about rolls that melted like manna in your mouth, mellow sauces that called you back long after dinner was over. She prayed and cooked and prayed again; then, in time, she converted to Catholicism, married my grandfather, and became Mrs. Estella Herndon.
Grandaddy was a loving, enterprising man, and together they worked out a scheme for selling pies. She baked them--apple, custard, lemon, and chocolate--and he distributed them every day to other restaurants and shops, and to folk throughout the city, especially those betting at Churchill Downs during Derby time. It worked, and over the years Grandma and, later, their four daughters--one of whom was Momma--baked, packaged, and had ready for delivery five hundred mini pies every morning before sunrise. They prospered and invested in real estate, renovating apartment houses and renting out the rooms. The houses that we helped paint each summer were gotten from that work. And from Grandaddy withstanding the scorching heat, Grandma said, for long hours hawking his wares with snatches of rhymes he created:
Pieman, Pieman, heah comes the Pieman.
Stuff's sweet as honey. Get out your money!
Eat my pies for goodness sakes.
They beat anything yo' momma can make!
The houses and land and even her own house that they had built together also came in part from his strategizing and straining over racing forms at night, studying the histories of the horses and then going to the stables early in the morning to talk to the horses themselves sometimes, so he could pass on tips to the big-time gamblers from around the country who sought him out--but who would have to buy one of his pies to get the tip.
Why you always askin' credit?
All you do with money's bet it!
Grandma told me that once in a while he'd have to dodge those who had taken one of his not so accurate tips. (It wasn't that the horses had taken to lying but that they had taken to double-talking, riffing on the truth, and you had to listen hard to catch it.)
Grandma's stories were filled with giving and loving and forgiving and selflessness, and the more I heard them, the more I was convinced that there must be some skills involved in being a girl. But my nine-year-old heart was not in it, especially when she'd call me in from the thick of whatever I was doing with my brothers.
Momma, who agreed with Grandma mostly all the time, had called me out of the jungle a few weeks before the war began to tell me, she said, something really special. Grandma got up from the porch to check on some rolls she had in the oven. Momma sat down in Grandma's chair and started telling me quite calmly about "periods" and woman's times. The only reason I was convinced that what she was saying was OK was because she kept smiling the whole time she was talking. No wonder Grandma got up to leave. She certainly wouldn't know anything about this. But Momma assured me that all women did it and every month, and that I would do it too when the time was right.
I wasn't sure what that meant. I was already feeling out of sync. Nobody in my class at school had breasts, not even my best friend, Betty Jo, and if my brothers ever knew that I had started my period they would probably try and banish me to the house. Momma assured me that it would be OK, that she would take care of my brothers. But, instead, she and Grandma started taking care of me.
The only time I remember being relieved to hear either of them call me was when Adolph was putting that final pressure on the canary's neck. Adolph had killed the canary at the count of ten, nine, eight ... but in reality I had not seen it. Grandma had called me in. With her almost perfect sense of timing, she for whatever reason had called me in. I was about to commit treason that would likely have lost me honor among my brothers. I wanted to save the bird--just let it go free. Killing it was taking a life, and I had wanted to shout that out in my clearest voice when Grandma called me in.
I was not so blessed on the day of the truce. Grandma did not sense my need of her. She was busy in her flower garden, bent low against weed seedlings. I had to let loose of my grip on my own, drop down to the ground, and lose my brothers, the Kirby gang, the chanting, and the dancing to the labyrinth of paths leading toward the front of the two houses.
I could see her in the distance, the shrubbery and flowers all around blending into the floral print of her dress, could almost hear her prodding the ground beneath the roses, and working her thoughts in prayer. Her soul was being tended. "Love is patient"--she would sometimes whisper--"Love is kind"--touching one of the roses. "Love is not jealous, it does not put on airs ... neither does it brood over injuries...." I knew she was probably deep in meditation, but I wanted to tell her clearly that there was a war going on behind her. That it was all dressed up to look like peace but I, for one, didn't trust it. That they had knives out back and had sliced into each other's fingers and that it could well be their guts next round. That Adolph had said to William and Houston and me that there was such a thing as justice, and it's almost as great as the love you sing about, Grandma. That Joe was back there crying because Adolph told him that he was too little to get his finger cut open and Spivey was crying because he knew that he was next.
"Grandma," I said, meaning to go on and tell. But when she lifted her head, I could not go through with it. "Did you call me, Grandma?"
"No, girl, I didn't. What's the matter? Did Adolph put you out of that weed patch again?"
"No, Grandma," I said, trying to keep my voice from edging into a falsetto. And she turned on me that cut of her eye that signaled she already knew.
"Well, I told you and I told your momma that you ought not be back out in all them weeds.... You feeling all right, girl? You look a little flushed. What they done to you this time, Stella Marie?"
I told her as much as I could without blowing it for them, knowing full well that she'd set her watery black eyes on me, listen as though in some kind of trance, and say, "But you're a little girl." That nervous feeling in my stomach returned. And instead of being feverish, now I was chilled. I didn't like this feeling that seemed never able to make up its mind. I still wanted answers: Why did my brothers and the Kirby gang carry almost everything to the point of blood? And why should I have wanted to save the canary even in the briar patch ritual? Grandma did not answer me right away. Instead, she turned her back and stooped to scoop soil up around the base of the tulip bed.
"In that back yard that your brothers are calling the jungle, they supposed to be coming up with something more to do than kill canaries," Grandma said. It had not occurred to me then that the jungle was something more than a male territory, a space that my brothers could claim for themselves. Neither I nor my brothers saw it as a space to recognize order or our own potential creativity. It was only later that I consciously realized that Grandma's own garden had come out of that jungle. My brothers, likewise failing to see this order, were imitating the disorder or wildness that they thought they saw.
"Adolph and William know how they supposed to act back there, and I done told them the consequences if they don't."
"He ain't said nothing about no consequences, Grandma."
"That's OK; he sure enough knows."
I wanted to ask about the consequences, but she had already put it behind her. Her turning at that moment has become a fixture in my mind and in my many dreams of her since. In her turning, I saw a smiling woman child in plaits and a floursack dress leaving Tennessee to come to Louisville. I had heard the story many times, but I saw it then for the first time. Then I focused in on her, wanting to see her face.
"I pruned the dogwoods today, see?" she said over her shoulder. "You remember, you helped me plant them. They about finished growing now." It was Grandma's voice, not a little girl's at all. But I knew the two were the same. The same plum-colored skin. The same dark mirror eyes. "See here," she said, looking at me. I sat next to her and could smell the earth. It was the same scent you pick up right before it rains, when only one or two drops have fallen but the earth is already rejoicing. It soothed me, calmed my stomach. And the lilacs, late roses, and petunias all lent their sweetness to the song.
"There was a time, though," Grandma continued, "when dogwood trees like these would have grown tall and would have spread their limbs near about the whole yard." The three dogwoods separated the lawn from the jungle. There were two white ones and a red one in the middle. They were small trees, their blossoms like butterflies. "Now, they won't grow much bigger than this. You know why?" she asked me, and before I could say anything she went on to answer herself. "Because it's the kind of tree they made the cross out of. This is the kind of tree Jesus was crucified on and its growth has been stunted ever since," she said. "Been stunted ever since."
I had known the answer. Grandma's whole yard was a garden, and she had stories about each of the varieties of plants--the roses, the tulips, the chrysanthemums; the catalpa, evergreen, and apple trees. The garden was a testament to her truths. To hear her stories, you'd believe that she let the briar patch grow for the contrast.
"I know," I said quietly. "The red one represents Jesus and the white ones are the two thieves." Grandma had impressed the catechism of her garden and I rendered the text. Each cluster of plants represented either the Ten Commandments, the Seven Sacraments, or the Eight Beatitudes. I knew them well and I recited them with the enunciation I knew would please her. The rose bush at the back entrance of the house I knew was the Blessed Mother. I had personally designated it so. She never appeared to me like Our Lady of Guadalupe did to Juan Diego in Mexico or the Immaculate Conception did to Bernadette in Lourdes, but I knew when I stood there that she was always with me. And I loved her as much as any child would a mother so tender.
"Who taught you so well about the dogwoods--Adolph?" Grandma asked proudly.
"No, Houston," I said.
"That's good," she told me, "that's good. And Adolph, he teaches them all." I tried to forget about what was going on behind us.
"And these right here, what are they?" she asked, pointing to some beautiful purple flowers surrounded by dark sturdy leaves.
"Oh, Grandma," I whispered, kneeling closer. "Where, I mean how did you get these?"
She laughed. "They're yours, Stella Marie. They're African violets. I planted them for you."
"African violets," I said, repeating after her, already feeling the other question rising up in me. "But what are they for us?" I asked.
"They're gifts of the Spirit, child," she said. "Gifts that the Lord gives to people called to do something really special."
"Like me, Grandma?"
"Of course, baby. I told you that a hundred times. Now looka here. There're seven in all, see. This one here is wisdom, and there's understanding, and fortitude, and knowledge, and counsel and piety, and fear of the Lord. They're all there. Gifts of the Spirit. Now, wisdom," she said, "means having real good sense about things--like knowing how to judge the earth. And understanding is what we're doing here, standing up underneath a thing and seeking its meaning. And fortitude, why that means being strong--having inside strength," she said lifting her head. "It ain't got nothing much to do with muscles or being able to wrestle somebody if they gang up on you or try to throw you out of a place." I know I must have begun folding my arms defensively and tilting into myself. "And counsel," she continued, "that means that you can give advice lovingly, that you can look at people who might look to you like snakes, rats, or even bug-eyed frogs, Stella Marie, and still tell them the best way for unbugging, if that's what we're talking. That you can find a way to tell them true. The gift of counsel can help change a person into something really special, if you've got it. It does more good for a person than a kiss can for any frog."
"But Grandma," I said, meaning to defend myself for the name-calling she referred to--but she shushed me.
"But Grandma," I insisted, and she covered my mouth.
"And piety," she said slowly, deliberately, "piety means being holy. And that's really all that you were sent here to be." She smiled. "Now what did you want to say?"
"Grandma, I'm not trying to be smart aleck, but what if that frog you talking about doesn't want to be kissed? Suppose he's just begging to be told how ugly he is?" A chuckle rose out of her and on into me.
"Listen, little girl," she said, "this last flower here, it's fear of the Lord. That means God don't take no mess so behave yourself, you hear?"
"Yes, Grandma, I will. But can I ask you something?"
"How come you don't ever answer whatever I ask you?"
Her face said, "Oh, child, please." But her words said, "Would it hurt your feelings if I told you I honestly don't know? Some things you don't say because you know the moment after you say them the meaning is already changed in your head, changed sometimes even before you say anything. You take that bird, now--you all talked about that canary bird so much you had your momma crying about that thing. I said at the time that it was a shame she let you all go on about it so. And the way you talking about the bird, honey, you better let it go out your mind or it's gonna mess with you every chance it gets. Now everybody else done stopped talking about that bird. You told me yourself that the boys done made up over the thing 'cause it don't have one ounce of meaning between them anymore."
"But it ought to, Grandma."
"Well they're making peace now, girl."
"But they didn't have to choke it to death!"
"But the bird is dead, girl, dead. And you oughta leave it alone. You hear me?"
It was precisely at moments like this that I wanted Momma. I wished right then that she could just come home from work. The blunt edge of Grandma's authority had nailed me into the soil among the dogwoods. And suddenly I felt weighted with the memory of my father and was suspicious that Grandma herself had conjured his image into my mind. She did that sort of thing after I had worn down her tolerance. I was with my Daddy riding his shoulders again. He was a moving oak. Tall, graceful, strong. We were laughing and he was pulling something, maybe a bracelet, out of his pocket for me.
"Your daddy wouldn't have wanted to see you carry on like this," she said.
"I'll leave it alone, Grandma," I said, and turned to the path that my brothers and I had worn between her house and ours. Walking the path, I remembered Daddy and I was stepping, deliberately stepping, just like him. Working that hump-a-dip bluesman's walk that marked him the moment he set foot outside the house, whether on his way to the waiter job at the Brown Hotel or to the corner drugstore for a smoke. It was his "jitter juju," and I was doing it, the thing that transformed him into the aroma of strength and cool and readiness. But it wasn't working for me, not really. It just made me miss him more. So I went on to the front of our house and waited for Momma. If I could sit down next to her, put my head on her lap, maybe I would feel better. I pinched a little peppermint from the patch that grew at the bottom of the steps and chewed its leaves.
No sooner had I gotten the flavor juicy in my mouth when I heard the blood brotherhood coming out of the jungle. They were ready to play now, siding up for a game of baseball. A spot near the curb was first base, the rock in the center of the yard was second, third was a spot on the opposite side, and home plate was some magic spot one ran to and declared oneself safe.
I could see Constance across the street but kept my eyes staring at the spaces where the blood brothers swung their bats, popped their fists into empty palms, and rooted for their teams. Constance was everything Grandma seemed to want me to be. She dressed like a lady, sat out her summer days on the front porch in the green and white porch swing, sucker in hand or thumb in mouth. I knew I would go to her before the day was out, but I didn't want to talk just now. Constance knew things, and when we did talk, she told me things that Momma and Grandma wrapped in parables, axioms, and life stories. She said to me one day, out of the blue, "Stella, I do believe your grandmother wants to turn all your brothers into priests." Perhaps she was just fishing for information. Perhaps she knew about the Mass we held in the basement.
At the start of that summer, in an attempt to be strengthened or maybe just to play church, Adolph had gathered Momma's white linen tablecloth, her long white candles, and even a couple of her white summer dresses for robes, and we all had gone to the basement to hold Mass, the ceremony that we had come to accept as the blood rite of blood rites, as he called it. Adolph acted as priest and William and Houston concelebrated with him. Spivey and Joe were altar boys. We all had Communion made from regular slices of bread that I had pressed and clipped into wafers. We set up the basement like a church with an altar, candles, crucifix, chalice, Bible, and chairs.
Our house was already somewhat of a sanctuary. Momma had consciously designed it so. The crucifix and the statue of our Blessed Mother had their own special places in the front room. And we had the family ritual of coming together in the evening to say the rosary. Ella Fitzgerald, Nat "King" Cole, and whoever was on the radio would be silenced. The playing, laughing, and fighting would be stilled. During the holy seasons of Advent and Lent, our rituals intensified. The preparing, or "making ready the way," was serious, and sometimes the sacrifices or mortifications were considered for weeks in advance. Whatever you decided upon you announced before the first day. If you were giving up candy for forty days, refraining from bad language or thoughts, or from slapping somebody "upside the head," the commitment was made aloud. If the commitment was carried through, it would strengthen the others who witnessed it, and if it wasn't, then that person would endure a certain amount of hassle from the others. At church the sacrifices were written down and burned as offerings. They were considered to be between you and God. But at home, we made new offerings, and they were considered to be between you, God, and the family. Most of these sacrifices had to do with relationships, no doubt encouraged by Momma's insistence that if you can't recognize God in one another, then you're not going to be able to recognize God in Spirit.
That the focus was on relationships was especially important that year. Perhaps as part of the process of mourning my father, my brothers often came to knock-down drag-out battles in the house. In an attempt to keep the jungle from infringing upon her order, Momma made the across-the-board rule that no fighting would be allowed in the house. She would not necessarily stop the fights. She would simply say, "Take that chaos out of this house!" On the other hand, if you were taking a pretty bad beating in the jungle, you could always retreat to the house. But to avoid the shame of it, you would generally chance dying on the battlefield rather than retreating.
When we decided to have our Mass in the basement, we had put curtains on the window to keep the snoopers away, especially the Kirby gang. It was nobody's business what went on there. Constance wasn't even supposed to know about the Mass. It was private. With our heads bowed, we struggled through the Latin responses to Adolph's prayers. He started with the sign of the cross. "In Nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen." We joined in and made up new responses if the real words failed us. "Hanna-hanna de hanna hanna," we mumbled the rhythm of the parts we didn't know.
When the consecration time came and all three of my older brothers extended their right hands over the bread, I joined in saying the sacred words with them. "Hoc Est Enim Corpus Meum": This Is My Body. You would have thought a sacrilege had been committed, that I had cursed heaven or strangled some precious belief so fiercely it left them all wasted. Houston's mouth fell agape. Adolph all but stopped the ceremony. William turned around as if to say, "Girl, you know you ain't supposed to be saying those words. You ain't hardly no man!" I bowed my head, retreated behind tear-filled eyelids, stayed there alone in the dark.
I had no problem knowing what I was supposed to do in a real church, but in the realm of play, especially play that was serious, something inside had been jolted. There they were, all five of my brothers at the altar playing priest, the representatives of God, each with a participant's role, and there I was on the other side, separated by a jump rope that they had strung to show the distinction, playing the congregation. All I understood then was that I was a girl and was being excluded from the ritual. Now I realize that what started happening there that summer had been happening in different ways all over the world for years. And that when we decide to stop playing church, we have a lot of coming out of the jungle to do.
As for Grandma, when she closed her eyes, I don't know if she saw what the future held for us at all, but heaven knows, we were anything but the royal priesthood she felt all people were called to be.
As for Constance, she probably didn't know everything about the Mass that day. She was probably following up on some tip. On the day of the truce, when I saw her get off her swing and start coming across the street, I got up to join her. I got up because Squeaks, who had no idea about the truce, come charging into the brotherhood. He leaped into the huddle and began clawing at my brothers. Everybody tried to stop him. I moved faster toward Constance because I knew that once they cleared it with Squeaks that the war was over, Adolph would want me to come join the Conwills in the game to make the teams even. I did not want to play. I almost made it across the diamond, but Squeaks saw me and let out a piercing holler, "Ah-ah-oh!" He rushed onto me, shimmying his haphazard hoodlum body across my backside. "Wa-a-ah!" he screamed. "Ah-o-o-oh!" he yelled again. I shoved him off and, at my back, heard my brothers yell in concert.
"Raven, you better tell that fool to be cool or I'll put a brick in his deaf skull!" Adolph shouted.
"Yeah," somebody else said, "you better get that no-talking devil before he start the whole damn war again."
Constance was on her feet, her hands balled into fists, the stem of a sucker twitching between her teeth. "Stella," she hissed in a voice that seemed sharp and guarded, "you get up here, girl. That dog'd attack his own mother. You hear that fool, honey. He's down there cussing. Tell me how a person who can't even hear learns to cuss. He can't even say two clear words of proper language and he's down there cussing blood up from the ground. Get him, Adolph, get him. Don't just stand there." Her voice carried only as far as the end of the porch, but I read her terror. My brothers had positioned themselves near Adolph, who stood with the bat cocked.
In front at the curb, Marcus held Squeaks in a full nelson, his fingers squeezed to knuckles at the back of Squeaks's head.
"He don't understand you, man. He don't know no better. He do what he see, man," Marcus said.
"Then somebody better teach the sucker some sense," William said, "or one day he gonna go picking his brains up off the sidewalk."
Then Constance started in. "If Adolph hauls off and hits him one, I bet he'll understand." I was almost crying. I knew the understanding she was talking about had nothing to do with anything except somebody getting hurt. Or maybe even killed like the bird. Or like my daddy, who said, "Wait right here, I'll be right back, this won't take but a minute, sweets." And Mr. Johnson taking me home and knocking at the door to face Momma's shock: "Where's my husband? Where is he? Boys, Adolph Junior, come and get your sister."
"Tell him the war is over," Adolph said. "Tell him we blood brothers now. Tell him no touch-feely on this street, least not my little sister. Or Adolph Conwill will pick his teeth with this baseball bat."
"Something terrible happened," I had said that day as Momma grabbed her coat to leave. My brothers stopped jumping from bed to bed long enough to look at me and ask, "What?" The stammering took too long, the search for how to say what never ended. "What is so terrible?" they asked. The discerning of things from their form. Knowing what was beneath the blanket by the contours of his face. Never finding the words to carry all that weight.
"Tell him the war is over," Adolph said. "Tell him and make him understand!" Marcus was restraining Squeaks, whose two arms were suspended like broken wings above the back of his head. One of his own gang, a voice I don't remember to name, declared that Squeaks wasn't even a member of the new brotherhood, having missed out on the ritual, and that he should be taught a lesson. I could not see Squeaks's face--but his body writhed under Marcus's hold.
"They oughta teach him a thing or two," Constance piped in, her voice edged with excitement.
"No," I said. "It won't do no good to hurt him. They should just let him go. Let him go on back home. Somebody can tell him that. Go home before he starts another war."
"He may be deaf and dumb, but he can't go around acting a fool all his life. I say he ought to have a lesson. That'll straighten him up," Constance insisted.
Squeaks was crying now. I could hear the chirping sounds from where I stood. Streaks of blood from the brotherhood's wounded fingers were all up and down his T-shirt. He began kicking, too, at first straight out at the air and then at my brothers and the members of his own gang. Bony caught one of his legs midair and held it. "Kick now, fool," he said. "Kick the other foot and gravity will have your ass."
Everybody was laughing; even Constance--and Squeaks's cries became louder. My own voice rose above his screams. "If y'all don't let him go, I'll call Grandma!" I yelled, knowing that it was treason and I'd suffer for it.
Contrary to the teasing I got for months afterward, I did not "like" Squeaks. I had just decided that I would not stand by and let them tease him to death. The new blood brotherhood had found a common victim, and I could see that they wouldn't stop until they had wrung out his last breath of air. Poor Squeaks would have hopped around on that one leg dragging Bony around with him until he dropped from exhaustion. Laughing all the while, the brotherhood would have then pounced upon him until there was blood.
The instant I said it, Bony dropped Squeaks's leg and Jimmy let go of his hold. Squeaks fell to the ground, drawing his knees up to his chest. It seemed that all eyes contorted toward me, and I felt unbelievably powerful. "Help him out of the street," I said to Adolph and Raven. And without hesitation, they did it, helped him to his feet, then stood there as if beaten. What was happening? Could mere words be that powerful? Could their very pronouncement command this kind of utter respect? Yes, indeed they could, if your very angry grandma suddenly appears at the screen door behind you exuding an almost stupefying rage.
"This. This don't make no sense," she seethed. "And you sure got pain to pay."
After staring for what seemed like hours at Adolph, William, Houston, and all of them and draining all the color from the summer sky, she turned like a sudden storm to sit down on the rocker.
"Grandma," Adolph tried to plead, but there was no need. We all knew that something vital had happened. That another war had been waged--though, for everybody except Adolph, it had not been named. And none of the rest of us dared to ask her what the consequences would be.
What I remember is that all of us, the Conwills, the Kirbys, and even Squeaks, were stretching to assume postures of normalcy. They were straightening out their clothes, then trying to pretend that there was no need at all to do so. They were stepping away (though surely not too far away) in pairs and bunches, whispering under stolen breaths about being sure enough in trouble this time. When William leaned in to ask Adolph what Grandma was going to do, Adolph shook his head as if in mourning.
"Get lost, Estella!" Adolph growled.
"Jerk!" William added.
"I can't believe she did that," Houston said.
"I wasn't trying to tell Grandma," I pleaded. "I was trying to tell you."
"Wasn't trying to tell Grandma, your butt," Spivey said.
"You done ruined everything now. How come you always gotta go tattling?" Adolph yelled.
"Me?" I said. "Me? How came you all always gotta carry things to the point of blood?" I yelled back.
"'Cause we ain't stupid like you!" he said, as if that made any sense. I walked away. There was no need to even try to explain. When Momma came home, Grandma's version could be all there was anyway.
Once I got back to the steps, it was Constance who answered the question: "Old folk say boys carry on to blood like that because they can't bleed like a woman." Wait a minute, Constance knew about women bleeding? Constance knew that? This opened a whole new terrain.
She looked hard at me. "You do know about women doing that, don't you?"
"Of course I know," I told her fast, knowing that she was probably already doing it--that she knew how it felt and what "when the time is right" meant.
"That's what they say," she said, ready to go on about men's blood rites. But I didn't want to talk about them anymore, not then anyway. I wanted to know everything she knew about women's times. Do you have to do anything to make it happen? Is it something you eat that'll help make it start? If it doesn't have anything to do with age, like Momma says, then does it have something to do with the size of your breasts? I looked at Constance's breasts, and even though she was three years older, mine were almost as big.
"I'm starting mine real soon," I said softly. She looked at me and tried to keep from laughing. "I am, Constance. I even dreamed it. It's true."
She reached over, plaited one of the ends of my hair. "I used to dream I'd get mine, too. That's why you got to stop going out back with them," she said, stretching to see what was in the street. "It's a good thing you didn't let them cut your finger, girl. Your period probably would never come." My eyes widened. I wanted to know more.
"Constance," I asked, swallowing hard, "did you feel kind of funny when it happened?"
"Yeah, a little bit, but I was glad to get it."
"I mean, did you feel a little something down in here?" I asked, touching just below my navel. She looked at me curiously and began shaking her head in denial.
"Naw, uh-uh. You don't feel nothing. Not no cramps, not nothing," she said. "It just comes."
"Not hot, I mean, or a little cold neither?" I asked.
"Nothing," she said with an air of finality.
"Nothing." I repeated behind her.
Then she leaned in a little closer. "And remember, it's like I was saying, they do it because they can't," and she nodded her head and swept her glance into the wind.
It sounded awfully strange, though even now, I cannot say it was not the answer my sense of things required. Had I not witnessed my brothers nurse a war wound like a badge of courage? Had they not pressed the edges to let the blood flow, as if the flow itself was the rite of passage? "It's because," Constance went on, "it's because they can't be like us." She tied her hair ribbon back into a tighter bow. "Just like we can't be like them."
Contrary to what Grandma said, I did not dislike Constance because she wore fine dresses and pretty colored ribbons; it was just that she always tied the knots too tight. So when William yelled, "Come on, let's play dodgeball," I didn't think twice about joining in. I went on out confident that Grandma would not call me back.
Dodgeball was my game, and though I could not play at full speed that day, I tried. But in all honesty, I was distracted. I guess everybody was. Constance's words were ringing in my ears and Adolph was still mad at me. My skin was wet, my shirt was clingy, and even my shorts felt strange. That earth smell that comes after rain was suddenly everywhere and there was not a cloud in the sky.
"Come on, Stella!" Houston yelled. "Pay attention or they gonna put you out!" Was that all the heck they knew?
"You already out when Grandma gets through with you, so pay your own attention!" I yelled back, dodging the ball as it whizzed by my legs.
"What she say?" Adolph asked butting in the conversation. "What's Grandma gonna do?"
"She gonna stare a hole in your behind from that porch!" I yelled. "She gonna stare at you like that forever!"
The ball almost caught Adolph right upside the head and he was getting an attitude. "I ain't playing, Stella. What's she saying!"
"I don't know," I answered. "She ain't saying nothing."
The ball handlers changed twice and I still hadn't been hit. The ball handler threw the ball at the easiest mark or to the one he wanted to absorb his frustrations. The two most likely targets were me and Squeaks. I had an advantage--I could hear the ball coming. And Squeaks, who had simmered down, also had an advantage. We all claimed he was good at the game because, not hearing, he could see better than any of us. No doubt now, Marcus was aiming strictly for the two of us. However, the ball struck Houston, and he rushed to the end to throw the ball before we had a chance to fully distance ourselves from his end.
Squeaks suddenly began taunting the ball handlers with screams, and I watched Bony wind up and go for him. "Ooo--eee-ah," Squeaks screamed out, dodging the ball. He screamed again and nobody had even thrown the ball. Squeaks wouldn't let up hollering, now pointing frantically at the seat of my pants. "Um mahee-fuhee!" he screamed. "Mahee--fuhee ha ha ha!" he laughed hilariously, grabbing members of his gang to join him.
"Ah, come on, man, cut it out!" Marcus said as he spit on the ground. Squeaks continued screaming.
"Come on, Houston! Throw the ball!" Adolph said. And that was when I felt it. A warm wetness between my thighs. I froze at first, then ran behind the house to check myself. And my whole body flushed from the recognition. I ran inside with my secret--a secret no one knew except for Squeaks and he, thank God, couldn't tell anybody.
"Man, cut it out," I heard Marcus say through the window. And Adolph added, "Man, we in enough trouble as it is."
I didn't know what else to do except wait for Momma. I looked at the clock, got a drink of water, then looked out the door at Grandma.
"You waiting for your momma?" she asked. I stood there half smiling. "She got plenty to know today."
She kept looking out toward the bus stop and I kept looking too.
Didn't I tell Constance I was going to start? Didn't I tell her I had dreamed it? And it was there just like it had appeared in the dream: the spread of a flower unfolding right there upon the cotton. As if someone had used watercolors to paint a little violet in that spot. I looked at Grandma and wondered if I looked any different or if I should put tissue in my pants. Then I worried that if I kept standing there, any moment now, there would be a labyrinth of trickles down my legs like the paths from the tree house throughout the jungle. I closed my eyes and tried not to think about it.
The screeching of Grandma's chair and the ticking of the clock on the mantel gave off a funny little rhythm. "Mary Luella gonna be tired when she gets home this evening, but she gonna want to know about this. And I ain't covering for them, either, not this time," she said. And while I waited for my momma, I could hear them playing outside. I could hear our dog Bronda barking in the back. I could hear birds nesting right on the magnolia tree in front, but I could not hear the bus coming with my momma standing at its back door. Suppose she missed it or decided to work overtime at that stupid post office? All year long she taught at Immaculate Heart of Mary, our school. Why did she have to work summers? When I grew up I would make all the money and she could stay home forever and nobody would have to be crying about where is she and what am I supposed to do and what if something horrible happened to her too on that stupid yellow canary bus. Then she was at the corner.
The playing outside quieted and Grandma's chair came to a halt. The breath I was holding inside raced out to the open air. I wiped my tears and waited, patiently.
My brothers greeted Momma, all but kissing her feet. "My finger didn't get cut," Joe said, and she lifted him up, unsuspecting, to kiss it. She moved past them and made her way to the porch and smiled into Grandma's eyes. "I'm exhausted. It's good to be home. Estella, come give Momma a kiss."
I was reluctant to come past Grandma so I stuck out my finger and curled it for her to come inside with me. "I'm beat, Estella," she said. "Come on and sit down with me a minute."
"She may be trying to plead their case before I tell you," Grandma said. "It ain't gonna do no good, Stella Marie," she called out over her shoulders.
I backed up farther into the house, and still within eyeshot of Momma I stretched both my arms out and pleaded with her to please come in.
Then I heard the back door open and I knew one of them was coming.
"What they saying?" Houston said, running up on me. "I want to know."
"They ain't saying nothing yet. She just got home."
"Stella, I know you didn't mean to tell," he said, moving too close for comfort.
"Just go away. I'll tell you what she says," I said, trying to keep myself at an angle so that the back of me wouldn't show.
"Naw, you won't. You still mad about what happened."
"Naw, I ain't, I'm just standing here, that's all. I ain't gonna tell on you."
"Well, I'm gonna stand here too," he said. "I'm gonna stand right here and see."
"You don't have to. Look, I'll let you have my jai alai bat if you just go on back outside," I said.
"What, you suddenly bearing gifts?"
"I ain't bearing no gifts, Houston," I said, straining not to intone in his voice. "Look, I just want to be by myself, that's all."
"Then why you standing here?"
"Because I want to be by myself standing here," I said--the same thing they had said to me that day I left the jungle but slipped back and found William and Houston with their pants down, seeing who could pee the farthest. "Pitiful," I said under my breath, but they heard me.
"I won't ever bother you again when you ask me to go," I pleaded.
"The heck if I believe you!" he said, looking at my jai alai bat. "You don't know the meaning of privacy."
"Yes, I do, Houston. I cross my heart," I said. "If you want to be alone, I will just let you be."
"I didn't say all the time," he said.
"I didn't say all the time neither."
"Let me see the jai alai bat."
I handed him my watch, too.
"Promise?" he asked, looking at me straight.
"Promise," I said, relieved. Then I watched him walk to the back door.
I heard Momma yell, "What?" and Grandma say, "They done gone too far." And I knew that I had now even less of a chance of capturing her attention; my timing was terrible.
"Momma," I signaled within her range, but she didn't want to hear it. "Momma," I signaled again. And Grandma, who maybe really did have eyes underneath the loose strand of hair, said, "Better go on and see what she wants. She been waiting long enough."
When I told Momma, she hugged me and held me there for a long, long time. Then she helped me with my necessities. For a few moments, it seemed none of what was happening outside even mattered. I had become a lady. And that was serious. I was even going to get a new dress. Momma was going to make it. And I could wear it every time I had a period and feel really pretty. She would start on it tomorrow, she said. But today she had to deal with my brothers.
She changed clothes and went outside and called out to them. "Adolph, William, Houston--come on," she said. "We gonna clear this out back here. The rest of you boys, good evening."
"We can't clear out the jungle, Momma!"
"Naw. Momma, uh-uh."
Momma's insistence became firmer against their defiant cries that surely they would be the laughingstock of the neighborhood, that they would be cursed as sissies the rest of their lives, that her demand that they love their rivals was as cold a command as death.
"How are we to grow into men of this house if we can't even demand respect?" William asked, and before Momma could answer, Adolph insisted, "Everybody listened to Daddy--even people who were bigger than him. They knew who he was!"
Momma stared unflinchingly into the eyes of her older sons, letting go a handful of weeds. "How many times," she asked, "did you ever see your father beat someone till he bled?" For a moment everything quieted. Adolph retreated, not out of submission but to recharge.
"He could, though," Adolph insisted. "He could have done it, he just didn't have to."
"He probably got it straight when he was growing up with all those dudes."
"He's not from here. You know your father was from Mississippi. When he came to this town, how'd he get all those people, those dudes, straight? Did he strangle all their canaries to get his bluff in?"
"I don't know," William said sternly, and Adolph backed him up: "He didn't tell us."
If Momma had been in mourning up to that point, she certainly wasn't crying now. She braced herself like a giant eagle having flipped her babes from the nest. "That's what you need to learn," she said "What you've got that you can use other than your fists." She handed the sickle to Adolph just as he began to speak. "Get to work," she told him. It was final. The rest of us chopped harder. I felt a mixture of horror and release. I knew Adolph was crying when he turned his back. We all cried a little that day. Bony rode by on his bike. "Hey, man, what y'all doing?" he asked, unable to believe what he was seeing. Nobody answered.
The Queen Anne's, ragweed, thistles, and twigs were all cut down and hauled to the back to burn--a public sacrifice. Of course the rabbits left, the robins scattered, and the fuzzy-tailed squirrels scurried away. But they did that, anyway, every time the "blood brotherhood" entered bringing their wildness into the jungle. Their presence was already disturbing and undermining its creative potential. Cutting down the jungle was an effort to help them to come out of the wilderness within.
Seeing the tiny snakes and salamanders and crickets and baby spiders scurry into the secret bosom of the earth was arresting. We stood there in the end in awed recognition of the order that had been there all along--of all that hidden life and possibility over which we had so recklessly trampled.
Meet the Author
ESTELLA CONWILL MÁJOZO is an associate professor of English at Hunter College, City University of New York, where she teaches creative writing and African-American literature. Her published books of poetry include Libation: A Literary Pilgrimage Through the African American Soul , Jiva Telling Rites , and Metamorphosis . She has developed her work into performances and, in a team collaboration, has created public art projects at venues ranging from the Brooklyn Museum to San Francisco's monument to Martin Luther King, Jr.
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