The photo haunted Akeem. A slow churning chill in his gut. It looked beautiful—a kind of beautiful that robbed a man of his own beauty. He gazed at it and scowled. It was an image of Khalil Cain, one of America’s most renowned track athletes, a man of limber but defined limbs and a soft-featured face even after so many years. He made a name for himself twice, decades ago—once for getting Olympic medals in almost every metered event, and again for taking a mic from some politician near the end of his career and shaming him for some racist business Akeem didn’t know much about. Akeem wasn’t American, after all.
But it also wasn’t Khalil Cain. It was a kind of statue instead, laying on its back, detailed but not at all made of flesh. His skin wasn’t brown, or even a man’s skin any more, but instead glistening, polished alabaster. They’d even cast his inner ear in the stuff, and his fingernails; Akeem was willing to bet that Cain’s gums were white stone as well. The only parts that weren’t calcified were his eyes, replaced with clear diamonds of a dazzling cut that made them dance with light.
“You still looking at shit like that, Akeem?” a voice said behind him.
Akeem sighed, lifting his head over the computer monitor to a paper calendar hung over his desk. He took a red gel ink pen off the desk, uncapped it, and leaned forward, squinting at the date—March 11th, 2016. He made a small scribble on the soft sheet: Khalil Cain, runner, heart attack.
“This is, what, the fourth time somebody going to make a rumour like—”
“Third,” Akeem replied. “If it’s a manipulated photo, it’s a damn good one. And I ain’t know why someone would make up something like that.”
“Alright, but …” As Clifford continued, Akeem faced him to read his expression. “Why they go even want to go through all that madness, man? To rub off a man’s skin? Put him in marble? You think the Benefactors have time to waste? They could just take the geniuses and go. When they start dying more often, you feel they could sit down and pretty up six, seven geniuses a day like that?”
“I think that they think they could do what they damn well please with ‘their’ geniuses.” Akeem turned back to his monitor, sucking his teeth. “It’s bad enough that they say people belong to them. The geniuses aren’t their own men?”
A tall, slim man in a white shirt with vertical blue pinstripes entered the office, steaming mug of coffee in hand. “What’s going on here?” The thickness of his British accent stood out even more than usual, with a hint of grogginess—perhaps a side effect of late-night sessions finalizing new ad campaign details—alongside the eagerness with which he insisted copywriters like Akeem come to work early the next morning to tighten it up.
“Nothing, Mister Jacobs,” Clifford said. “Just Akeem have a theory ‘bout the geniuses, that’s all.”
“Not the whole ‘bleaching’ thing on the internet again …” Mister Jacobs took a long slurp of coffee.
Clifford nodded. “That self, boss.”
Mister Jacobs sighed. Akeem, too—a softer, more silent one. “I would’ve actually thought more people would be pleased by that, myself.” Another, shorter slurp. “To know that the Eihkaq think so highly of their genius class that they’d memorialise them like that …” He brought the mug to his lips, pausing to find the word. “To see them transcend their bodies, become the beloved instruments of the Benefactors like that. Isn’t that inspiring?”
“Not when no white man does get the same treatment,” Akeem muttered.
“Well, we can’t know that for sure, can we? It’s the internet. Lots of things happen on the internet.” He took a longer, slower sip before turning to leave the room. “Now, back to work.”
After a beat, just as Akeem sighed, his cell phone let out a ping. He tapped it awake idly to read the notification: come home asap, gran fall down again. He picked it up just then to reply—At work, can’t just leave.—then put it down. Just then another buzz. OK, but hurry up.
He took a long breath, idly opening a web browser tab to type list of confirmed geniuses in the search bar. Dozens of links came up, and none satisfied him. The first page didn’t include Khalil Cain, or the afropunk rocker Sugar Ray Lovelace before him, or the actress Sally Harris before him, or the poet Diane Emmanuel before her. The second included Harris but not Emmanuel; the third, Emmanuel and Harris but not Lovelace, only adding Cain that morning.
None of them had Edna Callender’s name at all.
At his studio desk, there were only scratches on paper. Akeem couldn’t even get shapes to find meaning right now. He felt liminal, like his questions earlier that morning still gripped him tightly. He stared at the paper and the marks looked vaguely like slabs of marble, like Khalil Cain’s faded stone skin.
Outside his door, he could hear shouting. “Akeem!” the elderly female voice called. “Get this pest away from me for-me-please!”
“But Gran!” His sister Danielle stepped into the room, sighed, and picked up an off-white coffee mug from a nearby bookstand. “Akeem! What I say ‘bout using the blasted coffee cups?”
“But it’s mine,” he replied, not turning to face her, still trying to fathom the sketchbook page. “I does use it fo—”
“I never ask you what you does use it for.” She stepped past his table to an open window to dump the murky remains of paint and water out into the grass outside. “It’s for coffee. Buy something for that, nah? A plastic cup or something.”
“But it’s mine. Why you have to make everything into a—”
“I have to talk to you just-now, eh.” Danielle stepped back out. “Gran, take your medicine, please? Stop fighting up, it’s for your own good …” And their argument faded out of the room and into nothing.
Akeem tried not to get lost in the page again, but it drew his eye regardless. He hadn’t painted or drawn a proper thing in weeks. Two days ago he would have been fine with procrastinating, but since seeing that photograph of an alabaster Khalil Cain, he was moved to make something. His heart just couldn’t discover what.
“Darryl?” an elderly voice called. “Where you, boy?”
Akeem swallowed. His father had passed away years now, a car accident on the highway headed to work one morning when Akeem was still in university. Gran made that mistake every so often. He still wasn’t sure how to reply to that particular confusion. Was it cruel to remind an aging woman of her son’s untimely passing, over and over, even if she was swift to forget it again?
He got up and poked his head out the doorway to see her wistfully glancing down the long hallway of her near-palatial home, as if lost in it. “Gran?” he half-whispered. “It’s me. Akeem.”
She turned to face him. “Oh, Akeem … your sister, eh.” Gran coughed. “Your damn sister. Remind me to make sure, when the time come—and you know the time coming soon!—to leave this house, and all my paints and paintings and thing to you, eh? All my sketches, the whole library, all of that. And throw ‘way the rest.”
“Come, nah, Gran, lewwe not talk ‘bout you like you going and die tomorrow, please—”
“No, I mean it!” She balled her left hand into a fist and smacked it against her hip. “Everything. Everything with any value is yours. And throw ‘way anything else.” She took the same fist and gently struck Akeem on his chest. “Including your blasted sister.” She grinned, one of the few times she had been able to muster a smile for days.
“Gran, look how long you living already, and you want to talk ‘bout leaving things for me? Better I put my will in order for you.”
She chuckled. “You mad or what? You have a whole life yet to live, and you not trying to make it long like me?” She patted him weakly on his shoulder, then turned back to the hallway. “Besides, I ain’t ready for no grave ‘til you have a painting in a gallery uptown. You have to earn this house, you know. When I did buy it, I was painting, writing, reading, all over—in every single room here I make something. Yes, painting money did buy it—that was hard to believe back then—but it’s the art itself that keep it standing up.”
“You tell me this story how many times already. Since we was babies.” In fact, she was so proud of it that she wouldn’t even let her children get their own—even if they wanted to, in his father’s case. Now, barely anyone spent their days here, and Akeem was the only one spending his nights with Gran.
“And I go tell it again. Every day, until …” Her voice trailed off, and whatever was mesmerising about the walkway had stolen her attention again. Akeem watched her, made still by something only she could notice. She seemed to be focusing on one of the windows into the expansive front lawn, frowning at the rusty frame, leaning downward and outward a little.
“… Gran? What’s on your mind, Gr—”
“Akeem!” Danielle’s voice, clear and harsh, even through the walls from whichever room she was in. Gran flinched, and Akeem put his hands on her shoulders to calm her. “Come into the drawing room, please!”
“See what I mean?” Gran whispered. “Damn pest.”
Akeem kissed his grandmother’s cheek and stepped down the hallway, turning right into the dining room and heading straight through it to the larger drawing room. A state of awe always caught him in this room. Every painting that Edna Callender ever did just for herself, and a few from her closest friends as well, tiled the walls. Forests full of earth-coloured barn owls, body portraits of handsome black or Chinese women in long dresses or tailored floral suits, an abstract piece of a compact lying on a table with a dark purple stain crawling out of its glass as if it had limbs. It was a museum to his grandmother’s legacy, one only her closest loves could see, and he cherished it like a devout Catholic would a cathedral that had been home to a miracle.
“Akeem.” In the centre of the room, Danielle stood, hands on her hips, frowning. “Why you always holed up in your studio while Granny shouting and carrying on in the hallway?”
“Is more like you was shouting,” Akeem whispered.
“Don’t talk back to me, eh. You feel ‘cause you making some money and could go where you want, you shouldn’t take care o’ yuh grandmother?”
“I ain’t say that. I making the money in the first place, reme—”
“And how much of it you does pay bills with, then?”
“Um?” Akeem glowered at her. “All. Since when you working to pitch in your own money?”
Danielle sighed, trying on her best attempt at a disarming tone. “I not trying to start a fight, you know. It’s just … you have to do more. Things hard for everybody, alright?”
“No. They hard for some. And you can’t just accuse me of not watching Gran when I is the one that does—”
“Listen, eh—” Her voice rose, but she came back down to her false comfort. “Okay. I not fighting. But groceries running low. It’s for Gran, alright?” She sucked her teeth and grimaced as she walked past him and left the room.
He wanted to protest. Danielle seemed to take joy in ambushing him. He understood why. Gran’s diagnosis came the same time as Danielle losing her job—clothing store sales rep, already not as much as Akeem’s salary, but it was her only income for so long. And she was right—Gran deserved more. He was trying his best, though. Why didn’t his sister notice that?
He ignored his frustration by gazing at the walls. His attention drew to his favourite painting, one of Gran’s oldest and largest pieces: The Capital of the Forest. A twenty-five-inch by thirty-five-inch landscape piece of the innards of a forest, coquí frogs along the mossy floor, bats and small owls dancing in the sky below the dim light of a visible half-moon. Every element of the composition was entrancing—its grass still wet, its frog-skin glistening, its night undisturbed. It was a forest at ease. He knew the painting’s story—she sketched the study while helping a former girlfriend with a biology project in their college days. That night, that girlfriend, this painting, were so special to Gran that on the many occasions when someone offered to buy it, she would come out as lucid as before her diagnosis, insisting she’d never part with it.
Akeem leaned to the picture, to glance the signature as best as he could make out—Callender 1974. Did the Eihkaq come to Earth in the seventies, sixties, fifties? Did they land in Trinidad, try to pick a few priceless persons to inspire?
Or was Gran just of a talent the Benefactors didn’t, couldn’t make?
The morning of Khalil Cain’s memorial, the internet was alight with commentary. One that stood out to Akeem was a ramble about the End of Days—about how Cain’s bleach-white skin was a sign of some sort, one of many portents of impending destruction. To the commenter’s credit, it wasn’t like the geniuses solved war or hunger, so there were plenty of examples to reach for. Akeem noticed someone ask them after if he could even cite which Bible quote told him turning a black man into a marble statue was a part of the apocalypse. That comment took only fourteen minutes to be deleted.
Akeem was still getting ready for work late enough to catch it on the TV before leaving, to hear the opening orchestra blare through expensive stereo speakers. He couldn’t avoid it. He wasn’t sure he even wanted to—on the one hand, he was curious about how the right would wave away Cain’s new skin, but on the other, Akeem hated funerals. He didn’t attend his own father’s, although that was due to his hatred for the man, compounded by an anxiety of death; he didn’t attend his mother’s, although that was due to his love for the woman leaving him run down on his bed the night before, unable to move, also compounded by that anxiety.
Maybe it becomes different, Akeem thought, when the man being taken away is not a man.
He glanced through his social media profiles on his phone, all of them consumed by #RIPKhalil. With another day came another reprise of the reap-year’s common cry: 2016 is a bloodthirsty year, and it needs to relax. As if shaming time would force the Benefactors to show any restraint. The geniuses were planted by them, and those seeds blossomed and gave Earth life, beauty, hope—more than all of them could stomach at once. They gave it to the masses already, and the masses ate their inspirations until they were full. But the seeds didn’t belong to Earth. The Eihkaq were just protecting their investment, one might even argue. Coming back for what was theirs. The End-of-Days rant inspired a solitary, silent thought in Akeem’s mind: There is a time to sow, and there is—
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice said calmly through the speakers. Akeem looked up from tying his shoes to see Ricardo Hall, Cain’s old coach, at a glass lectern before a wide cathedral altar, purple banners on either side of the space behind him like a large open curtain. “Today we gather to honour the legacy of a great man. Not merely great in the ways that we are quick to remember him—a champion athlete, a veteran of the track—but also a philanthropist, an activist, an ambassador, a dedicated husband and father. Today, we bid a fond farewell to one of our own, a friend or family member to some of us, but someone who considered each person on Earth potentially a friend, deserving of as much love as family.”
Hall glanced at someone in the audience, nodded, then turned from the microphone and let out a nervous cough. That was what did it for the rest of the festivities. For the rest of the week, in fact, news coverage of what proceeded would start with footage of this cough. The news camera turned to its right, to see who Hall could have noticed, to determine if it would be even a middlingly newsworthy appearance. A politician, perhaps? A top-tier actress?
It was far more outstanding than that. The leftmost aisle of pews noticed, and gasps erupted from throughout the church, followed by even a couple jeers, which seemed to cascade from the left to the right and grow louder, more insistent.
After a few beats, and Hall’s soft-spoken requests for peace in the audience, someone—can a Benefactor be called “someone”? Akeem thought—rose from the front, turned, and gave a weak genuflection to the crowd, as much as a creature like themself could. They towered over most men, at something like eight or nine feet from the looks of them, with maroon feathers all about their body. From the briefest of glances, they seemed like a large owl, with deep red eyes that appeared to glow.
Hall murmured something inaudible, coughed again, and started shaking his head to the alien, less stern and more awkward. The jeers grew, and the camera caught a kind of stir among the other congregants as the Benefactor stepped sideways, their large body stumbling past the others in the front row to come to the altar steps. The mic clearly picked up Hall sighing as he stepped away and gave the Benefactor the lectern.
“Citizens of all the lands of the body of Terra,” they began, ignoring the booing of the crowd. “My name is Istald. I know that the presence of my people, worst of all at a memorial of one of our chosen, must be emotionally troubling for you all. We have fielded many complaints from your representatives about this time you call the ‘reap-year’, our time of cultural harvest. But we have come to this planet merely to facilitate your growth, and I am here, as you all were, to pay my respects to a dear beloved companion, one who has contributed indelibly to the growth of Terra’s culture—”
What looked like a thick hardcover hymnal hurtled toward Istald, smacking them square in the beak. They barely flinched, didn’t even let out a sound. Muffled, but clearly and loudly, a deep voice shouted from the pews in a thick American accent, “Go back where you came from! Leave our planet alone!” Another shout came from the other aisle: “Stop erasing our people!”
The Benefactor let out a sigh that sounded more like the coo of a bird. They shifted again before speaking. “I know that many of you may have seen deceptions on your communication networks about us tampering with Cain’s body—” Another book flew at them, and they ducked without even showing any distress on their face. “I open by saying I am not here as anything so disrespectful as a public-facing interlocutor, but again, as one who considers Khalil Cain beloved. As such, I must confess …” Istald paused. It seemed as if the alien was frozen in thought, or else worry. “Khalil was a dear personal friend of mine, one who rose above the mere fragility of your mortal identities and truly became a vessel of inspiration. He sought my guidance on many issues that you would later recall as distinct moments of his legacy, and he has returned such guidance to me several times as well. To desecrate his body in the manner people have supposed … is cruel beyond words.”
“Prove it, then!” a woman cried out from the back of the cathedral, so close to the altar that it came through clearly in the station’s microphone. “We asked for an open-casket memorial and your people told us no! Show us the body!”
Istald looked down at her, their eyes blinking slowly. “I apologize. My people cannot surrender that which is our intellectual property. The chosen, the … ‘geniuses’ as you refer to them, agreed to our guidances with the knowledge that, come the time of the harvest, certain conditions would come into effect upon their passing. Their minds, their bodies, their wills … they belong to the Eihkaq people by document, by …” Istald seemed to search for the word. “By law. The inspirations are ours. We must reclaim Khalil, and he is already under our care—”
“Akeem!” Danielle finally stormed into the living room. “You don’t have work to go to?”
He didn’t even turn to face her as he got up from couch, whispering the previous thought to himself. There is a time to sow …
Some weeks later, after trying to squeeze his will over a blank page, finally Akeem had a halfway-worthy sketch. Several sheets had suffered to get to this point, nearly checkered with small doodles of random images that didn’t work for him. Now, he had an answer.
It was a perspective piece of a dark-skinned body—no one he’d seen before, but one that seemed to come to him idly as he worked—lying on a surface he hadn’t decided on, being observed as if someone stood above him. Akeem knew what he wanted to do already. He imagined a white fungal presence traveling up the body’s distant legs toward the viewer, long thin spores rising up from it. And a toe tag—but whose name would be on it? But he hadn’t gotten that far.
He tried to get further with the study first, know for sure before he even touched a canvas. But too many notions flooded his mind as soon as he looked at it.
“Akeem!” Danielle called from outside the studio window. “You know how long I looking for you?”
He got up and sighed. He didn’t even notice the time until then. The bright afternoon had already cast the sky orange, its clouds dark grey as if waiting to empty into rainfall, and beyond the window Danielle had thrown a hoodie over a plain white T-shirt and grey track pants. “Where you going?” Akeem asked.
“We short on groceries, so I wanted to pick up some things to cook lunch for the rest of the week. And you need to get out of this blasted room and check on Gran.” She folded her arms and glared. As if traveling across the lawn toward them, Akeem could hear the very faintest sound of drizzle grow louder. Danielle drew her hood over her head and jogged toward the gate. “Now! Please!”
He sighed again, squinting at his sketchbook. Taking a break would feel to him like leaving a child unsupervised. What if new inspiration struck him suddenly? He closed it and put it under his arm, grabbed a new sharp pencil, and left to find Gran.
Her bedroom was empty. Only lightly distressed, the bedsheets rumpled, some books on the floor near the bedside table.
“Gran? Where you?”
Akeem heard a muffled cry further up the hallway, from the drawing room. He skipped up to the room and peered inside. Gran was sitting at the centre table, bifocals resting on her nose, glancing down at a book. “Akeem? Something happen?”
“No, I was just looking for you.” He kissed her cheek and sat to her right at the table. “What you reading?”
Gran sucked her teeth. “That damn girl send you to check on me, ent?”
Akeem chuckled. “Yeah. But I was going to anyway.”
“But you was working on something! And she send you to supervise me like I is some kind o’ child.”
“Come, nah, Granny … you know she just want to make sure nothing happen to you.”
“And I done say nothing going an’ happen to me ‘til you done make something. And I see you, you know. In the studio scratching away. Ent?” The sketchbook caught her eye. “You working on something new?”
Akeem nodded meekly.
“I remember them days …” She let out a yawn, closing her book and putting her glasses down. “When inspiration would come to me and I couldn’t focus on anything ‘til I finish it. Me an’ a group o’ friends, some wine or puncheon or something, all the paint I have, just letting work pour out o’ we … Well? Lemme see, nah.”
Akeem glanced away. He didn’t think he had skin thick enough for critique of his unfinished ideas from someone who’d sold paintings to American tech billionaires and children of European royalty. A mild distraction was in order. “You first. You still ain’t tell me what you reading.”
She slid the book across the table—a slim paperback tome, essays on creative expression and theory from a painter and playwright from Belgium. Akeem recognised the name. Was it just one of Gran’s many international artist friends? Or did he remember writing it in his work calendar, one of the many geniuses taken?
He flipped through its pages. The first few essays were littered with pencilled underlines and scribbled margin notes that seemed to dwindle going further, until by the halfway point onward the pages were clean, even brand new. He turned back to a few pages earlier, trying to see what choice quotes Gran had found, reading the first one that stole his attention aloud. “The desire to make, to be motivated constantly to be our best creative selves, is the only thing the Benefactors gave us, I am convinced. This is a blessing in itself, but it is not new—merely a heavy push in the right direction by guiding angels from a future space. What we make, however—what messages we try to send, and how, and for what reasons, and to which audiences we try to communicate—is something they, or often even we the creators, have no control over. That part is more intriguing, to me, than whether the bird-men did or didn’t urge us. They cannot guide the stories that we tell. They can only insist we never put our pens down.”
“Mmhmm.” Gran was like a whisper to him right then, looking away, at a window in a far wall from their table, as if waiting for something.
“Granny?” Akeem exhaled. “You … you would know if you was a genius, ent? If the Benefactors did choose you?”
She didn’t reply, her gaze still fixed on the window. Akeem still didn’t know how to reply to these confusions. He repeated, softer: “Gran … you is genius?”
She turned slowly to face him. “A what?”
“A genius. You know … did the Benefactors come to you when you was young? Coach you, give you … whatever it is they does give people?”
A small smile slowly grew on her face. “Me ain’t know nothing ‘bout that. About no alien things coming to me and … I ain’t even know what they does do to them people in the news. So … I don’t think so. But …” She glanced back at the window for all of a moment. “I had somebody I would draw for.”
Akeem nodded, going back to all the stories she had already told of her reams of sketches dedicated to her many girlfriends. “Yeah, I know all the girls you—”
“No.” Not stern, merely abrupt, as she looked intensely into Akeem’s eyes. “I mean, yeah, it was for them, too. But I was drawing for Goldie. Because Goldie ask me to.”
That name rang no bells. “Goldie?”
Gran let out a long hacking cough, then straightened up. “In the earlies, when I didn’t even know what I wanted to do with my life yet … I was just in my room one night, being young and aimless. And then this little bird come and rest itself down by my window. Not making noise or nothing, I barely even notice she. But I just felt like making something. I don’t know.”
She put her hand to her mouth as if to cough again, but it didn’t come. “It did feel like I was making it for she. I start calling she Goldie—this lovely barn owl, wings like they was shimmering in water under full moonlight. She would come every night, watch me make something, see it when it finish, and then give a kind o’ bow and fly away. Eh, if you know how much I did love that bird! And I was telling my mammy then, ‘Lemme keep it, nah? Please?’, but she never even get to see it.
“And wherever I go, or whatever I was doing, it would know where I was, and come by a window and watch me work. So it was like I was drawing for she. Writing, too—the only poems I ever write was for Goldie. Even the ones no one ever get to see. And once Goldie like it, then I know it was good.”
Akeem frowned. Did dementia give birth to such a story? But Gran said it with an obvious confidence that gave him pause. “Really? A bird?”
“Why not? You say that like-if a bird untrustworthy or something. You think nature does lie?” She grinned, gently resting her hand on his. “Now, show me what you working on.”
“Nah. It not anywhere near finished.”
“So? I never ask if it finished. If it’s even just two parallel lines, I want to know what them two lines mean.”
“But … I can’t show you until I get everything right.”
She patted his hand before feebly rising from her chair. “Child, I don’t think they have any ‘right’ in art. Just ‘effective’. Sometimes you have to get lost down a couple streets before you find out where the real story is. And I want to see you find that story, when you ready to show me.” She yawned. “Alright?”
What convinced Akeem to finally take his grandmother’s offer was an afternoon silently killing time at work, when he glanced up at his calendar of geniuses and observed the pace that death had taken. That morning alone claimed six. The internet already had another picture: pop idol Yvonne Tate, barely thirty-five even, one of the youngest. The gossip sites already jumped to cruel conclusions. While some said “unforeseen heart complications,” others already traded rumours that she was just another drugged-up pop star overdosing on something only rich people use.
Those things didn’t matter. The black genius was iced in marble, gazing through gemstone eyes.
Maybe there were other pictures. How many had he seen already? He started scratching tiny asterisks near the names of the bleached ones, at least the ones he saw. By that day it was seven.
Gran’s words when she saw the first work were, “I could already feel it … frustration, ent?” Akeem nodded. “Well, let it out.”
One study became three drawings before month’s end. The frustration gained speed, though. By then the bleached bodies became thirteen. Istald had been to three memorials, giving the same meek reply each time: we wouldn’t do something so disrespectful, but the bodies are ours, so we could if we wanted, and don’t have to prove otherwise.
The next month, Akeem had a finished oil-on-canvas portrait, an overhead imagining of Khalil Cain, nearly fully bleached, his skin exposed under cracks of alabaster. A thin rivulet of blood trickled down his nosebridge from beneath one of the crystal eyes, a single red tear.
Gran grew weaker as time passed, more confused, but her hunger to see Akeem’s work never diminished. He brought this one to her bed to look at, and she grimaced. “Oh Lord, child! All o’ that you have to put on a canvas so? It so frightening!”
“Oh gosh, I sorry, Granny, I just—” As he made to put the easel away, she lifted her hand in protest.
“No. It have to be. This … geniuses business does crawl my blood too. But do something to make people calm once, nah? When you done letting the frustration out.”
She also encouraged him to start selling. She put the word out to her known circles of collectors, all more than excited to own work by Edna Callender’s protégé. One bought the portrait sight unseen, six figures American on a check already on its way. He even promised to buy every other protest piece as soon as they were finished.
Gran smiled that night before going to sleep. “See? You finally sell something. I could go up to Heaven now in peace.”
But other collectors wanted more comfortable work. “Something I could hang up in my living room,” one said in an email.
On that front, only rough impressions came. He tried returning to basics, a still life of a bowl of mangoes picked from an outside tree. It came out faithfully—as realistic as his style would allow, even. Akeem was still frustrated in his heart, though, and Gran could tell from a glance of it.
Akeem compromised. He visited the market some weeks later for an impression of the neighbourhood: people buying fruits, walking past to work or school, playing all fours on an overturned crate at the pavement’s corner. It felt like it was just as alive on the page as it was in the world. He was excited now. Something new to share with Gran. Something that still had the meaning he was aiming for.
When he came back home to show them, she was already gone. Peacefully in her sleep, Danielle said. She figured it best for them to make arrangements as soon as possible. He agreed.
The next morning, two men in light grey jackets stood outside the house’s front gate. “Is Miss Danielle Callender here?”
Akeem answered. He noticed one of the men wince. “Excuse me,” the other said, “is your sister home?”
“We’re from the Benefactor Assistance Committee of International Affairs,” he said, pulling out a card. “We’ve come to make arrangements for your grandmother?”
He froze. She was a genius after all. He was right. He was going to lose her. They were going to—
They claimed Gran’s body, left Danielle’s letter of invitation with a date and venue. Akeem considered asking for his own, but he didn’t actually want to go. The last sight of his grandmother, silent, still, being eaten by earth? He already couldn’t bear it. But wouldn’t she want him there?
The next evening, he came across photos of his work on the internet. “A radical exploration of race in the age of the Benefactors,” one caption read. It was followed by an angry comment: “niggers just want to be mad about everything these days, so pc.”
Frustration returned. It compelled dozens of studies. Triptychs and panoramas stormed out of him frantically. He was going to lose Gran twice: first to death, again to disgrace. He was trying to hold on.
On the evening of the memorial, he’d already finished five paintings. A Benefactor Committee car came to pick them up, and when Danielle insisted he join her, he asked her to take just one painting with her, to display something of their grandmother there. “We can’t let them forget what she look like, Dani,” he pleaded.
The Committee agent refused. He mumbled something about “security at the venue,” but nothing more.
Which left Akeem alone in the drawing room, surrounded by his grandmother’s faces, in various states, all of them authentic, eagerly waiting to be seen. He put the memorial up on the TV. He still didn’t want to see it, but … he wanted to cling to Gran for a while longer. Even through such a farce.
Istald was already at the lectern. “—another one of many chosen who, through their art and life, moved beyond mortal thoughts of race or nationality, truly bringing communities together …”
Akeem wept silently. She was gone. Twice. He would stop painting for a while after. Then, frustration would chase him some months later. He stopped keeping track on the calendar, or searching for images of the bleached.
But on memorial night, he didn’t even notice the open window to the room’s furthest end behind him. A solitary owl sat on its sill, head tilted to get a look at Akeem, seeming to reach a wing out to get his attention before deciding against it. It waited until he’d finally wiped his eye and straightened up, and then it left, back into the night, off to find someone else to give a tiny morsel of genius to.