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When you fall for the second time, you expect to die.

As you close your eyes and hang suspended between living and unliving, you imagine the crack and pop of your skull scattering crimson regret across the checkered kitchen tiles. You’ll never see your children fly back from foreign, you think. Never gyaff with the Mothers’ Guild ladies on Sunday afternoons over cups of Ovaltine and coconut buns. Never steal awed glances at Sister Lavern throwing her head back in she big dutty laugh as the sunset gilds her silver afro.

That final thought makes you ketch yourself, open your eyes, feel the looseness of your being. Your head is intact, of course, but I am not. While you hovered between life and unlife, I detached from you. Caught you. Now you stare at me, your skin, while I slowly guide you down to the floor.

I feel the questions roiling in your head. You want to holler, cry, laugh at the impossibility of me. I want to reach out to assure you and comfort you. Before either of us can act, I stagger back and start choking. I hawk and cough silent puffs of air, struggling as a bag of skin with neither lungs nor throat to help. You reach out to me instead, belching your first plumes of worried smoke as concern kindles the fire in your belly. At last, I huff the obstruction out of me. It clinks and rolls between us, bouncing off your thigh and settling in the middle of a white tile.

We both stare at it, this regret that lurked beneath me and inside of you. It is the hard knot you feel moving from your belly, through your lungs and under your cheeks every time you see Sister Lavern. Especially when she tosses you a sneaky wicked grin during serious moments. Or when she grabs your waist and pulls you to a window to peep a cuss out on the side-dam. Or when she takes the time to adjust your hat and blouse at the church door before morning service, then strides up the aisle with you, hip to fragile hip. It lays there, glistening crimson on the title—solid as a marble, oozing like a wound: a concentration of your longing and denial.

I push it closer to you.

“Take it,” I whisper. “Break it,” I insist.

But you snatch it away and swallow it, feeding it to the fire in your belly. Before I can even flap in protest, you grab me and wrestle me onto yourself, clothing your flesh and bones once more.

So, I fight you.

Next time Sister Lavern takes you shopping, I make you buss open bags of rice and try to count every grain before the guards wrestle you off the ground. I make you shun salt and love oil so bad, you start washing your salt fish and pouring coconut oil over your bakes like syrup. I make you run from anybody with a broom, make you dance ’round the children’s hopscotch and sal-out marks chalked all along the side-dam road. At night, when you think you’ll find peace in sleep, I slip off of you, fly to the church graveyard, and smear myself with dirt and withered wreath flowers. It don’t take long for you to fly after me, belching smoke and sparking like a dying transformer as your flames struggle to burn around the regret in your belly. You catch me again, and you and I, we hurt all the way back home.

There are moments when you want to spit it out. Like when Sister Lavern tenderly rubbed your forehead and temples with soothing Limacol after that episode with the rice. Or when you watched her gleefully nyam out your bland fish and oil-slick bakes while the other Mothers’ Guild ladies screwed up their noses. Or when she ketch you jumping chalk lines and laugh she big dutty laugh at you before joining you in the silly game.

Still, you keep it down, even though it grows and starts crawling beneath me and inside of you. It rattles against your ribs and clinks against your teeth, leaving us with new trails of bruises and fresh pain. At night, we stare into the mirror as you rub Vicks on all your aching parts.

I point to your belly and beg, “Take it! Break it!”

But you just shake your greying head.

“Too dangerous,” you say, as you screw the cover back on the Vicks jar. “Sometimes, is easier to hurt.”

I am tired of hurting.

Tonight, I fly away from you one last time. I pass the graveyard and the trench choked with wild eddo and lotus leaves. Pass the back-dam farms and housing schemes. Until, at last, I settle in a ray of luminescence on the fallow sugarcane field where flames once bloomed.

You catch up eventually with your broken transformer flame, scattering your sooty anger over the soft carpet of grass. You know this place well. A long time ago, the burning cane fields meant work for you, meant feeding your children and sending them to school. Now, it means watching me pressed against Sister Lavern’s soft skin as we twirl and float under the full moon’s light.

She watches you, too, her skinless body draped in brilliant blue flames so unlike your half-suffocated embers. The fire around her skull licks into a smirk, and the thing inside you shifts, spreading warmth through your lungs, up your breasts and to your cheeks.

“Sister Patricia,” she says, her voice warm with amusement as she strides toward you, “you mean fuh tell me is your skin that had to bring you? Couldn’t come by youself?”

Your fire jumps in turn, pushing the thing fully aside as your flames rise, almost turning blue. You open your mouth to say something—

Then the regret rolls back into place, dampening your flames to a muted orange.

Sister Lavern pauses her advance, the blue flames on her face flashing orange before she falls silent, nods, and turns away from you. I feel her skin pulling away from me. I cling to it, but it flicks my hand away. I watch it walk beside her, ready to retreat deep into the night.

It’s your turn to start hawking and coughing. You retch coals and smoke as you push against the regret in your belly. Lavern and her skin pause and turn to look at you. I rush to your side and smack your back as you heave and spit and sputter. Until you get it out of you at last. It thuds on the grass and rolls away from us.

We stare at it for a while, this regret that hurt us both. But this time, you do not swallow it. You pick it up and slam it on the ground. It shatters with a scream like a Whistling Thunder, surrounding us with its acrid smoky truths.

When you fell in love for the second time, you’d expected to die.

You’d hung suspended between living and unliving when the pastor spewed vitriol off the pulpit against people like you. You’d cringe when your children made cruel comments about people who loved the way you do. You’d freeze with fear and anger when you watched Sister Lavern laugh she big dutty laugh in the faces of those who questioned or threatened her, scaring them off with her hot mouth and shameless joy. You’d regret not going to her, when she gritted her teeth and balled her fists behind their backs.

This final thought makes you look up at her now. She and her skin are looking at you, at me, at us—all through the fading haze of regret smoke. The flame in your belly shifts from dull orange to bright blue, then brilliant white. It spreads to your chest and cheeks, down your arms and legs until you throw your head back and exhale a plume of pure vapour instead of sticky clogging soot.

Sister Lavern returns to you, laughing she big dutty laugh as she cups your face in her hands. Your flames tamp back down to blue as you wrap your arms around her waist and press your forehead against hers. Her skin and I, arm in arm, watch you as you fall into each other, blending your flames into a new bloom on that fallow sugarcane field bathed in full moon light, before we fall into each other, too.

N. A. Blair is a Guyanese writer and book review columnist at the Stabroek News. She is a Voodoonauts Fellow (’21/’22) and Commonwealth Writers Workshop alum. When she isn’t writing, she can be found in her home garden, fussing over baby succulents. Website: Twitter/X: @BlairNecessitys
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