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We didn’t want your nail clippings or your blood. Your laughter, or tears, would do. That strange light you saw drifting where a shadow should be, was the promise mother made when she bore us. Where we lived, there would always be sun. Where we go, there would always be light. That star never scarred or scared us. Even in the face of our father, the sun’s blistering gaze, we were the daughters of night.

On that first journey across the waters, we held each other close. When we shut our eyes we floated on azure sleep, lifted by wave upon wave, until the darkness behind our golden lids became lonelier still. Before they trapped us, we bathed in leaves, bark, stones, and spice. We sang no fear. We knew. Ancestors descend when needed. Spirits rise when called. It was the way of the world, the way day follows night and moon, mother said, it was moon who follows ocean’s call. For it was the water that carried us in the womb and water that reigns supreme.

When they chased us from the village into the forest, when we fell into the arms of ghosts, we knew we would have to feed, our worries and our appetites, replanted in strange, disordered lands. With lowered eyes we watched the traders, whose skin was the color of clay, the wet earth that came from waters, the moon clay our mother and her sisters used to mark their territory. From the way the ghosts moved, the way they stared through us, barking out words that sounded like insanity falling, we knew. The clay moon ghosts believed wherever they walked, wherever their square toes landed, was their territory. We sang the song of our mother, sang the songs that came before. Force marched through a door of no return, we wore our chains like an elder’s gold, carried our song inside, still waters flecked with shards of moonlight. Three days later we entered the dark maw of what the ghosts called ship. We lay in the bottom of the belly with the others. We lay in the noise and the filth with the mothers, and the sisters, and the daughters, listened to their dirge song of shrieks, moans, the twisting of tongues, the deaths of worlds yet born. We did not speak with words but with feelings. Ours was the language of survival, flight.

Mistress Godwin was a laughing girl, a mere child, barely a woman when we joined her. Her cheeks and eyes still flushed with the sounds of mirth. Disappointment had not yet clawed its way into her heart. Her breasts were hard blossoms yet to break earth. Mistress, we sang, Mistress Godwin, but she did not speak or smile. In this strange land, dead tongues no longer answered us. God wins, we laughed, god wins, we cried. The sound of our pleasure frightened the blackbirds in the trees.

When they found her, her skin had grown pale, her temples the color of sour milk. We only meant to take a little, but the hunger had long since overtaken us. We wanted to taste the sound of her laughter, to let the womanchild’s joy fill the hollows that hid deep inside. Like the ghosts, we took too much, and just like them, we were not ashamed.

Thirst is thirst.

When the good mistress grew still and joined whatever cold ancestors that claimed her, we dropped the slop bucket in the field, left the dough rising in the wooden bowl, abandoned our chores. We drained the others and fled, taking their laughter with us. Into the wild forest, we ran, cousin to the bush that once betrayed us. We hid in wildness. We hid in plain sight. In hickory and peepaw and loblolly pine, in the light that has always claimed us.

We waited. Sparkling light where shadows should be. The blackbirds visited, kept us company in the silent years when even the first ones marked our hunting ground in the language of their fear. Croatoan, they later said, croatoan carved into the heart of a tree. But no tongue has found the right tones to name us. Twenty years later, finally, the blackbirds crowed good news. When the new beast arrived, it bore one hundred and twenty souls, but none like us were in its belly. We took what sustenance we could from the joyless ones who struggled to make the dry-bone land home. In time, their parched throats would rival our own, for the old gods of this land refused to send rain. And thirst is thirst.

Leaf, ghosts, earth, light. We suffered together. Finally, when we had grown so weak, our light only the spark of fireflies, twenty and odd men joined the colony. A few suns later, a woman appeared. Angelo. Angela. Their ebon skin and eyes stirred memory, the ghost of their laughter refracted light of our own. The sound, infrequent as it was, reminded us of home. And because we are our mother’s daughters, we left the men and the lone woman who could be kin. After the journey across the big water, their bodies held such little joy, we were ashamed to drain them. We knew. Even in strange lands, old seeds release fresh roots. Eyes stinging with memory, we fled again, taking the silver shards of light with us.

We left temptation and the shadows and something close to sorrow. We buried thirst and the seed of ourselves deep within the forests. And the years passed through us. Past the cypress and the oaks. The memory of laughter floating around, dust motes in sunlight. With time, memory became our only home.

The old home was a memory time would not let us forget.

Some night-days we dream. Our thoughts are upside down.

We hang from our feet in the limbs of thick-boned trees.

The blackbirds come and sing to us. They say we have become the language of fear, the hushed gasps and breath around open fires. But the stories they teach are wrong. Darkness is not the only thing to fear. Sometimes the dark is hidden in light. Once girls, we have grown old here. Once girls, our hearts have become hard like the mottled bark of the strange trees that grow here. There are layers to this loneliness. We feel its bite. Its teeth are sharp. Hard things hold beauty, too. The world we live in is a fire. The people we love all burn. Ever hungry, our red gum smiles hide the empty pit within. We know. Legends rise from all the broken places, emerge from the stories and the memories, the half-remembered and the ill-formed, all melded together, united in one. In this land we are like moons who have lost their water. We no longer hear the ocean’s call. If water no longer speaks to us, are we still our mother’s daughters?

The parts that make us monsters are not the teeth or the heart but the mind.

The part that makes us monsters is bone and sinew, spirit and flesh.

We have not been ourselves here. We will not be ourselves here.

We are always ourselves here.

We are always

here.

(First published in Nine Bar Blues: Stories from an Ancient Future, 2020.)



Sheree Renée Thomas creates art inspired by myth and folklore, natural science and the genius culture of the Mississippi Delta. Nine Bar Blues: Stories from an Ancient Future (Third Man Books, May 26, 2020) is her first fiction collection. Two multigenre/hybrid fiction and poetry collections, Sleeping Under the Tree of Life, longlisted for the 2016 Otherwise Award and Shotgun Lullabies were published by Aqueduct Press. She edited the Dark Matter volumes (World Fantasy Award 2001, 2005) that first introduced W.E.B. Du Bois’s work as science fiction, and she was the first black author to be honored with the World Fantasy Award since its inception in 1975. Her work is widely anthologized and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and received honorable mention in the Year's Best volumes. A Cave Canem Fellow, her poems and essays have appeared in the New York Times and other publications. She serves as the Associate Editor of Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora (Illinois State University, Normal). She lives in Memphis, Tennessee. Find her on Instagram/Facebook @shereereneethomas and on Twitter @blackpotmojo.
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