…well, I run to the rock, please hide me I run to the rock, please hide me… But the rock cried out, “I can’t hide you” So I run to the river, it was bleeding I run to the sea, it was boiling… So I run to the Lord, please hide me Lord… But the Lord said, “Go to the devil” So I ran to the devil, he was waiting I ran to the devil, he was waiting Ran to the devil, he was waiting… - Nina Simone, Sinnerman
There’s a girl running. Chasing something or something chasing her. She’s following a tune. Or an indistinct memory. Or the color of her grandfather’s skin. She swears there’s something. She can’t quite place her finger on it.
“See, it’s hiding. I stand in front of the mirror for hours, just waiting to see if it’ll show up. It’s there, jumping behind my eyes.”
I tell her no one should stand in front of a mirror for hours. Maybe she should get a stool?
She’s in the front row Sunday morning singing Fix me, Jesus, fix me. But she put a paint brush in her vagina the night before, so maybe the lord has no business with a girl holding a paint brush to her pussy. She dozes to the solo.
There’s trouble brewing at the end of her dreams. The trouble is different every dream. She’s talking to a boy from primary school, then suddenly there’s two of him and somehow these two of him are lovers, and she feels the police coming for them with guns, so she wakes up. She’s leading cows on the freeway. Out of nowhere, a bus appears, speeding towards her and honking incessantly, it agitates the cows. The cows are scattering and she’s trying to secure them by their tails. Maybe fifty cows, and all the tails are in her hand. The bus is getting closer now and she loses grip of the tails. The cows begin to float up into the sky and she’s floating up after them, trying to grab the tails. But the cows are kites now and she’s falling from the sky, so she wakes up. Sometimes, it’s not the cows. She’s just walking in a marketplace. Then she starts to hasten her steps like she’s trying to walk out of the dream, ‘cause she knows there’s trouble coming.
The sun paints something wild in her hair, I fear it will burn. Singed by all that fire, this hair like night. It parts in the middle, the burning bush and God moving through it. If her eyes were open, I know what they would be: something distant; paths branching to all the corners of the earth and drawing the currents of the sea towards them. What hides under her closed eyes appears on the lines of her forehead. My eyes trace the lines, follow where they lead. I’m learning the shape of her, committing her to memory. Her upper lip is a bird in flight, lifting to the sculpt of her nose. There is a scar under her lower lip, trailing down the middle of her chin. A sign of her rebellion. Something forbidden. A child who would not stay. They’ve been chasing her all her life, begging her to stay. Stay. Stay with me. Durotimi. A name for a boy.
I tug gently on a wave of her hair, stretch it over her lips. She smiles. Her smile reveals dimples on both cheeks, hollow enough to bury half of a pinky finger. I’ve been trying to hold her eyes, make them stop running for a minute. We’re standing above water. The brown water carries pieces of dirt ashore. Twigs. A bloated rag. A slipper. Delivers them on the shore and leaves them there as if it were their home. I pray the water brings her to me.
I’ve known her a long time, this girl. When we were little, we held pillows to our bosoms and pretended they were babies. Raised our shirts the way Mama did and fed the soft edges of the pillows our nipples. Then we smiled over the pillows because our babies were sucking fine, falling asleep over our hearts. We patted their fluffy butts, Nice baby. Good baby. We cooed for them. And when one or both of them cried, we exchanged them and put them on our breasts again. He likes my milk better. See how she’s quiet now, we boasted to the other. And when we became bored, we got up, the baby is grown now, stop feeding him breast milk. Then we put them away because the pillows were bigger than us anyway.
She had a baby once. Out of curiosity or something. She wouldn’t stop laughing as soon as she saw It, the day It came out of her. First, because she couldn’t believe how tiny It was, then because Its cry just stunned her out. But she held Its little feet and kissed them and kissed them again. Not much of a bully anymore, eh? When she took the baby home and the novelty of having It had passed, she decided that babies were so unnecessary. Made her want to tear her hair out. I’ve thought about holding It under a running tap, you know? She said to me. Wouldn’t name the poor thing too. The day they took the baby away, we found It lying still beside her, wrapped up to Its face in a blue towel. She sat on the bathroom floor singing and crying a song, her legs folded underneath her and her hands wrapped around her body, rocking herself back and forth. Wade in the water, wade in the water, wade in the water. God’s gonna trouble the water.
God leads her in a storm. She’s waist deep in the roaring water and God’s on the other side of the storm, stretching his hands to her. From where she’s sinking, he looks like Michael Ealy. Michael Ealy in a white robe with a halo. No long, silky hair because, well, it’s Michael Ealy. She can feel the fishes swarming around her feet, cold and slimy. God is moving towards her, hands still stretched out, gliding on the water. It’s a majestic sight to behold, all that white robe billowing in the wind. He commands her to come and it’s like the fishes are carrying her to the surface of the water. She’s floating towards him; salvation is near and she’s holding out her hands. They are standing face to face now, water thrashing about them, and she’s staring into the bluest eyes she’s ever seen. He opens his mouth and begins to speak, but it’s her grandfather’s voice that comes out and he’s singing a song that sounds like a muezzin’s prayer call. She wakes up.
The first time she was born, her father walked into the labor room, stopped dead in the middle of the room and exclaimed, “Bii, you gave birth to a white baby.” Her mother tells her that she has her grandfather’s color. Fair as an albino, she says. There is a way her mother talks about the grandfather, as though she is trying to unravel him. A father whom she did not know. She tells three things from what she remembers of him: he was fair as an albino, he sang like a bird, he was elusive as the wind. She pauses and raises her eyes when she tells these stories because she is telling herself too, picking apart the memories of a father who stood up and abandoned his family one day, then another day, announced his return by the soprano of his voice rising from the verandah.
The second time she was born, this girl, she brings more than her grandfather’s color. She brings a birth scar inside her thigh. And the mother remembers one more thing about the grandfather: the day she found him stretched out on a bench. The wrapper which he had tied around his waist had come undone and the ends had fallen to his sides to reveal the leanness of his body, and the scar, inside the yellowness of his thigh, a shade darker, just below his manhood, the shape of a flying bird.
The next time she was born, she brings her grandfather’s color, a birth scar, and a sixth finger on her left hand. This time, her mother is certain that she is returning with pieces of a lost father. But her heart is weak from the grief of birth and loss, so she draws the tip of a knife down the girl’s chin. A scar to bind her to this world, lest she brings something stranger from the other side, like an evil twin attached to her body, forced onto her by a spirit determined to enter this world. The girl’s been running since then. Bound to this world, but she won’t stop for a minute. Recalcitrant. Heedless to her mother’s plea, stay with me. Durotimi. A name for a boy.
She sings Nina Simone at a literary event and falls in love with a girl named Temple.
She’s standing outside the theatre when Temple walks up to her.
“I’ve seen you around…book clubs, art events… we have mutual friends or something.” There’s no eagerness in Temple’s tone.
“Oh okay. Hi then…?”
“That was a good performance. Your voice is heavy. Not quite like Nina’s but there’s the sorrow.”
The girl scoffs.
Temple raises a brow. “You have something to say?”
She makes to speak, then hesitates. “Okay. It’s Nina Simone. You can’t just say her voice is heavy or sorrowful and leave it at that. That’s oversimplifying the whole experience.”
“I was only commenting on the quality of her voice.”
“Yeah—but you can’t just stop at heavy. Say her voice is—powerful—important. Almost as important as the message she’s preaching. Mississippi Goddamn? The rebellion in that voice—the revolt. She’ll tell you anything with that voice and you’ll believe it. Her voice is the gospel, I’m telling you.”
“Ooohh easy tiger.”
The girl laughs.
“What’s your favorite Nina Simone?” Temple asks.
“Ugh. That’s not fair.”
Temple laughs. “Okay.”
“Why is your name Temple tho’? It’s a weird name.”
“Yeah…” The girl crinkles her nose. “Shorry.”
“My mother, she says my body is holy—temple for the holy spirit—should be worshipped blah blah blah.”
She wants to make a joke about Christians and sex innuendos. “But how is a body worshipped?” she asks instead.
Temple makes a point at being dramatic. “Love. By giving it love.”
The first time they kiss, it is to Nina Simone’s Feeling Good. She is lying on the single bed in Temple’s room. Temple slides down her body and buries her head between her thighs. It makes the girl’s legs tremble, so she pushes her tongue in deeper. Her left hand moves up and finds the tautness of her nipples. The girl’s moans are soft, almost a whimper. Temple pulls her by the waist towards herself, so that her knees are bent up to her breasts. Then she slides her fingers into her wetness, in, out, a slow dance, like she’s teasing her. Then, faster and the girl is floating and flying and falling and exploding.
“I love how you have goosebumps when you cum,” Temple breathes into her ear, “it’s like joy running over.”
“It’s Nina. She commands you to feel.”
They lie in bed naked, just fiddling with each other’s hair and dozing off. They read Toni Morrison’s Jazz to each other and the girl swears that she can hear the words moving to the music. Then Temple shows her how to roll a joint, and drink rum and coke.
“You know, for a body which is supposed to be a temple for the holy spirit, a lot of shit goes into it.”
“Well, the spirit fills all things. Me, you, Nina, a bottle of Rum.”
She loved a boy once. He carved her name on his wrist. Foolish boy, if you ask me, hoping he could keep her with ink. Fooled her into believing she could stay too. The week she broke up with him, we sat beside each other on the ledge outside her house, our knees touching and our feet swinging above the ground.
“You can’t stay with him.”
“Why?” she asked almost immediately like she had been waiting for me to say this. But she knew why.
“His favorite song in the world is Wizkid’s Ojuelegba.”
She laughed. “Don’t be such an elitist.”
She broke up with him that weekend. I asked her why.
“I don’t know. Something about his shoulders, they’re too high. Not enough neck.” The expression on her face, serious. I wanted to laugh.
There are times she returns home. I know when she’s coming, so I sit in front of the catholic church at the beginning of the street, waiting for her. When she appears around the bend and sees me waiting, she is grinning silly and prancing towards me. She stops in front of me, takes an exaggerated bow and plops beside me, sighs and rests her head on my shoulder. I hold her away for a second to look her over. There’s always still that mischievous smile on her face. Sometimes, I comment on how thin she looks, shake my head and click-click my tongue. She laughs and her laughter is like many merry hiccups. Almost hides the exhaustion in her eyes. That she’s sitting here in front of me, stupid grin and all, with nothing but the clothes on her back like she left the door of her house open and got on a bus, like she had to leave before they got to her, dragging her soul behind her like home is a cross; it is something. I put her head back on my shoulder and we sit there and listen to the music from the church saying, Bread of heaven, fill me till I want no more.
It’s raining in her dream, and there’s a couch sitting in the rain. A lone couch in the middle of an empty street. She’s looking down from a window in the top floor of a building and it’s the saddest scene in the world.
See, if you see a person standing in the rain in the middle of an empty street. If you’re looking down from your window on the top floor of a building. If the person is just standing, not trying to shield himself from the rain. Or if the person is a girl. Not waiting in the rain. Just staying. It makes you curious. Not just why she’s standing there. About her. You may start to imagine what her life is. Maybe just before the rain began, she got a phone call from someone saying someone she loves is dead. Maybe she couldn’t move after then. Or maybe a lover broke her heart. Is that enough for a cold? You may imagine her childhood. If the rain lingers long enough, you may have a tomorrow with her in it. But if it’s not a human in the rain. If it’s a couch. A lone couch in the rain. Just sitting there. Maybe white. Nothing dark. Because you have to let the rain bring all the gloom. A couch in the middle of an empty street on a rainy day. It’s the saddest thing in the world. There’s no phone call to say someone died. No childhood. No lover. Just a couch. If it’s the girl, you may turn away from the window, draw your curtains because the air in your room is getting cold. Or you may get bored because you have known her too much, just standing in that window. But if it’s a couch. Just sitting. You want to open your windows and step out and hope the rain holds you up and sets you down in front of it. You want to sit on its edge first, see if it welcomes you. When you’re sure that it can hold you, you want to curl up inside it with your knees up to your chin. Just you and a bloody couch sitting in the middle of an empty street on a rainy day.
She tells Temple about the dream.
“Why did you sit on the couch?” Temple asks her.
They are lying naked in bed. The girl is lying across and drawing circles around Temple’s navel.
“You know it’s a dream, right? I don’t think you can decide what happens in your dream.”
“Yeah right. I didn’t choose the couch, the couch chose me.”
“You’re an ass.”
“I don’t know—it just looked so sad sitting there in the rain. I wanted to hug it or something.”
“Aww. Poor, homeless couch.” Temple teases. “Or maybe you’re the couch? Maybe you feel like it?”
“Fool, I’m not poor homeless anything.”
“So, what are you looking for in my house ehn? Really, maybe you were projecting onto the couch. Dreams are just all your shit following to bed.”
“Oh, so we’re psychoanalyzing me now, are we?” She wears a bored expression.
“See what I’ve learnt, my love, this whole fucking life is just a single journey of sorting our shit out. Whether you’re asleep or awake, it’s all just fucking conflict resolution is all I’m saying.”
“Yeah, whatever. It’s just a stupid couch.”
“Okay.” Temple shrugs.
“So, you—what conflict are you trying to resolve by being with me?”
“Me?” Temple raises her head from the pillow. “Nothing. I’m the sanest of you lot.”
“I’m serious. Why?”
“Why what?” Temple’s tone is tinted with exasperation.
“Why are you with me?” She stares into Temple eyes.
“Okay—let’s see. Because you were sitting on that stage, singing I put a spell on you ‘coz you’re mine mine mine and your hair was wrapped in a turban like an upside-down ice cream cone. You could’ve been a painting on a wall. I knew I had to have you.”
The girl laughs. “You’re serious.”
“Kid you not.”
“A deception,” she whispers into her belly and kisses it.
“What?” Temple raises her body onto an elbow.
“A deception. It’s what Toni Morrison calls it in her book. You’d think it was me you wanted, and not a combination of—dim lights, bar stool, ice cream turban—and Jazz. It’s the trick of arrangement.”
“Oh. Maybe I dozed off while you read that part.”
“You read that part.”
“Yeah? It’s bullshit anyway.”
“Yeah.” She sits up.
Temple studies her face. “You know it’s bullshit, right? ‘Cause I see you. It’s not just the aesthetics. I see you.”
“Yeah. Me, poor homeless couch.” She holds Temple’s stare.
“Really?” Temple sits up. They sit staring into each other’s eyes.
“Fuck this.” She reaches for a roll of blunt on the side table.
I tell you, the girl, she couldn’t decide which was worse: to be seen or to not be seen. She sat in the darkness of her room, cradling her phone in her hands, typing, erasing, and sending messages: You think I’m fucked up, right? You think my head is a mess. That’s all you see. Wtf are you doing with me then? Is this some kind of rescue mission for you? Is that what this is? I don’t need you to save me, T. I don’t need anybody to save me, I’m sorting my shit out. I’m sorting out my shit.
And because those who seek deliverance walk the lonely path, when the light of her phone flickered with Temple’s reply saying: Wtf are you talking about? Where the hell are you? Come to the house, let’s talk about this. You know I love you, babe. Wtf are you talking about? she switched off her phone and curled herself into a ball. She wrapped her hands about her and pressed her body to the floor. Then she cried a breathless cry. First, because someone in this insanely twisted world loved her something crazy. Then, because what do you do with love that threatens to unravel you?
Now she’s standing naked in front of the mirror and I’m on the other side of the glass. Her hair is packed up in a bun. It draws back her forehead into a smoothness, exposing the small roundness of her face. Her skin is clear and radiant like she had oiled it for the occasion. A song floats from her lips. It’s the song her grandfather sings on the water. A prayer call. She holds out her left hand. Her right hand wields a blade. There’s a memory that comes to her. Like it’s nothing. In the memory, she’s four years old, and she’s climbing into a tank of water in her mother’s backyard. She remembers the voices of the other children playing in the background, she remembers her body hitting the cool water, the serenity of the water and her lying down at the bottom of the tank. Then she is waking up to her mother shaking her and crying her name, and she, so shocked by all the fuss, begins to cry. She wonders why this memory comes back to her. Like it’s something. She wonders if she should call her mother to tell her that she really was only trying to sleep. The song is hardly a whisper now, there’s a rasp in her voice and her eyes are burning with tears. If I could hold them for a minute, make them stop running.
See here, I say, See here. From somewhere faraway, her phone begins to ring. It’s a song from a TV show: Nobody knows where they might end up, nobody knows. Then a knock on the door. Then a voice calling her name. It’s Temple, she says to me. Her cheeks are wet now. She smiles and looks at me as if to ask, Are you ready? It’s almost glorious. I don’t know if she’s listening, if she’s seeing. But she stretches her hand through the glass and she touches my face. And this is the first time she touches me. Poor baby, she says, poor baby. This girl, she’ll bother me all my life.
About the Author:
Ngozi John is a storyteller, an amateur photographer, and an aspiring filmmaker. She is an alumna of the Purple Hibiscus Writing Workshop. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly, Transition Magazine, and Lolwe Magazine. To unwind, she binges on ASMR videos. Find her on Twitter: @NgoBabeeeeee, and Instagram: @enjeanie.