I called it "yearning" at first, but by the time word had spread to all twenty-two of us croppers, a divide had resulted: half called it firesouling, and half called it firesailing. All thought it was vodun, but still, all followed my lead to the campfire where I held the weekly ceremony. I took my place on a petrified wood stump and stirred the baby flames with an oak branch twice my age. Silent for the while, I listened to the others chat and let them settle down at their own pace. Their tired bodies were coming alive before my very eyes with anticipation of tonight’s trip. And now was the time where I felt most welcomed and needed, outsider though I was.
Betty and Caesar had been recently reunited, two years after the war had ended. They were laughing, ready to firesail a sneak peek of the future they were no doubt creating with those shining smiles of theirs. Galatea was ready too, sitting alert with folded legs and a dreamy smile. It’s as if she’s still satisfied by her last firesail to The West, where we walked in paradise lands with mile-long beaches and an ocean that missed her and her people. Mima was quiet like me, staring my way as her co-wives sat with children in their laps and chatted about books, how to get them, how to read them. Their children would be literate, they swore on it! Kwasi was there with his father, Elder Sunday, who was too old to work the fields but still put in a good twelve hours. Even as the crowd hushed and turned to me like some trusted leader, Elder Sunday continued to rant about being cheated by the merchants again today. He would be overwater soon, he knew it, one day he would pay off all his loans and own his land for real!
Do you want to see when? I asked him, although I knew better than to promise anything, least of all something good. But this quieted him. He set his rheumy eyes on me, and with that, it was decided that Elder Sunday’s soul would choose the destination. They regarded me with such respect that I felt all the more that they were looking through me. I was merely a conduit in the body of a man, a glass through which to peer at something we all needed, an entrance to things greater than my mere twenty-five years.
Face the flames, I guided them all. Soften your gaze. Feel the heat upon you. Watch it. Match it. This fire comes from the source of it all, from our breath, from the sun, from the beginning. After I was sure that they were already entranced, I closed my eyes to lead the way.
My original chant was more factual: I call upon your son’s daughter’s daughter’s son’s daughter, or so on until we reached the right future. We could also travel back, calling upon our mother’s mother’s mother’s father’s father’s mother’s father and so on until we reached the right past. But as they sang with me, voices dulled by the trance, it became beat and rhythm instead of word: sun-dada-dada, dada-sun, dada-sun or mamas-mamas-pops-pops, pops-mama-poppa. We were all in sync, all kept time, no dragging heels as our souls picked up and sailed forwards through the fire. The song for Elder Sunday’s future was a deep and ominous son-son-son-son-dada-son-son-son.
We saw flashes of things—I saw them a split second faster than most and had to decide that second whether to let the rest see. We saw cabins torn down and cottages rise up, trees razed and fields plowed and flattening roads cutting through them. Everyone raced with me through their family lines. I tried to keep the visions focused on Elder Sunday, but the more children each soul had, the more they could wander.
Mima and her cowives always had a multitude of perspectives to jump among no matter what era we landed in. My goal as facilitator was to keep them away from the dead ends. I didn’t want them to wander off and see some grandchild’s death or learn what we should not yet know. It was hard to corral twenty curious souls who were growing too accustomed to immaterial travel.
My mind strained enough to keep Elder Sunday’s faltering spirit on track. There were futures where the night riders cut down his children for simply inheriting his prideful nature. We had to sail further than that. There were futures where even the law cut down his children without issue, still because of his hardheadedness. I lead them back from there, and then sideways through another family branch. Finally, I saw a future to land in—the best I could find at this quick pace we kept—and I let our souls settle down. The others landed around me, still light as fire, as the world solidified around us.
We were still in the South, with the air still swampy and possibly even hotter. We had barely moved, in fact. Our souls had traveled mere miles to Elder Sunday’s 40 acres, in spitting distance of the fire on my plot back home in our time. The farmland was trimmed and gardened, however, filled with rows of peach trees that the landowners would never let us grow. Someone had set a stately building in the middle of Elder Sunday’s land. He froze in awe to look upon it, but he could no doubt feel what it was.
Here you go, I told Elder Sunday. Here is the land you own.
I had never before seen the grown man cry, but the Elder teared up without shame or restraint. He made no sound but the soft shaking of muffled sobs. Some of the women’s souls surrounded him to comfort him. From the distance, or through teary eyes, they looked like congregating willowisps.
I left them to their moment, drifting off alone to examine the stately building. Despite the many trips I had taken as I honed this power, each trip revealed new things I could not name. The building, I learned from the memories clinging to its surfaces, was a museum. Some son with a bulldog face like Elder Sunday himself had purchased the merchant’s store, polished it up with glass and metal, and showcased his history.
In one room of the museum was a display of the family’s crime records, of disputing transactions and escaping masters, recovering stolen children or eloping as couples. Some descendants had retained and reused the name Sunday. How wonderful to think that all his righteous hellraising would get him immortalized. I was proud, too. Some descendants were mixed with my blood, so I could jump into them no matter the distance, see with their eyes and taste with their mouths this future world.
I let my soul follow Mima’s for a while, and we walked the halls of the museum together. The footsteps of the embodied around us rang out beautifully against a checkered marble floor, while our movement made no sound at all. Mima confessed to me she had access to both a rich daughter and a poor daughter with which to see the world. She indicated them to me as they looked over their joined histories, one humbly veiled girl tagging behind a large family and one confidently uncovered woman who strode alone. Maymuna and Maria; they were strangers to each other, but not to us.
Each sees something the other does not, I told her.
Today as well, Mima persisted in trying to convert me. Both follow the faith and know it better than I do. Surely, this is a sign that all shall find their way to Islam in due time. It is God’s final word.
I can’t say much to that, I commented and removed myself from the scene. Here is a secret, dear reader: there are many futures where Mima’s and my bloodlines mingle, but I do not know whose compromise it took. Was it her sons or my daughters and how far from now? I do know that we share the same motherland, although her people carried surahs on their tongues as hafizes and hafizas, while mine smuggled vodun across the middle passage. To mingle in this generation seems too much like water and oil for my liking. If love does not bloom in these bodies, I will leave it for our descendants to create.
As I left her, Mima was possessing the body of the veiled girl, trying to move her limbs to acknowledge the other. They all do this, despite my warning that they can only watch. They refuse my words and try to turn their children’s heads, have their children’s eyes meet, so that they can see each other, love each other more. But Maria vanished into a room that housed a mimicry of Elder Sunday’s cabin, while Maymuna heeded her father’s call to catch up.
As facilitator, I kept time. An hour here would be an hour taken away from our sleep and an hour taken away from our labor. I had to corral the souls together to get them back in time. I gathered them all around Elder Sunday’s future son as he rode in a horseless carriage. The delight of the ride was an attraction to everyone, and as soon as we were all present—indeed, in the middle of a spat of laughter—I ended the trip. Our souls sailed back, and we were watching the fire again on my humble plot.
The reactions to our return always cut me deeply, but I was growing used to them as they couldn’t be helped. Some would hike over to their cabins before I could see their faces. Others would trudge, resenting the reality I returned them to. Some would nod a sad thank you and carry back sleeping children on hips or on shoulders. Always, someone would remain at the fire to cry. Elder Sunday, who had been so joyful on the carriage ride, was now tearful again. Those who gathered around to calm him seemed to catch his sorrow and cry along. I rose to snuff the fire for bedtime, but they gasped as soon as I stood, every body silent with their eyes wide in the moonlight as they looked my way.
No, they looked behind me. I turned as well and saw the landowner’s son approaching.
Don’t y’all have to sleep? he called out, chuckling. Kwasi and the others surrounded Elder Sunday, practically lifting him up and carrying him home. I did not move, and the landowner’s son took a seat next to me on my petrified stump. The wooden leg the war had given him clunked against the stump as he sat, strangers to each other but not to Mother Earth.
We have the same face, and everyone knows why. We all know never to discuss it.
When I worked in their house, they called me his Shadow. Now that I’ve got a plot of my own, and we are all scrabbling in the dust, I call him my Ghost. I persuaded the other croppers to adopt this term, and I will admit that I swell up with pleasure to know that we outvoted him. I beat him. There are more of us who call him Ghost than there are who call me Shadow. I forget his true name sometimes—I know it’s something solid but common like George or James, but it suffices to call him The Landowner’s Son, The Young Tyrant, the Ghost to my Shadow, an interloper or enemy.
What are you doing out here every week? he asks me, as he has before. Praying? In some kind of trance? Just sitting around a fire with your eyes closed?
We’re yearning, I told him.
For what? You already got your freedom.
I made a show of laughing and stirred the embers with my gnarled oak branch.
It’s like you’re dreaming in sync. I knew you were a voodoo worker from the start, you know. Everyone’s afraid of you.
I know. I didn’t face him.
The landowner’s son rose, and took a seat across from me. His face looked ominous with the underhead lighting of the dying fire, but his voice was earnest.
Do you know what did my mother in, mister black magic?
Her demons. Everybody’s got demons, you don’t need vodun to know that.
But I feel like … He released a heavy sigh that sounded just like mine. Sometimes I feel like my family is haunted. Followed by something deep and evil.
I still didn’t face him.
I think my dad is evil. He rubbed the cheek his father had struck more times than I had seen.
I think he wanted some comfort, but I only said, I think so, too.
You can’t help me with it, huh? He realized on his own that I will not save him. As much as he wants to be served, the law necessitates he learn to help himself.
I could see without facing him as he leaned back on his hands and looked up at the stars. Huh …
There was quiet until I rose, and then he spoke quickly. Teach me how to do that firedreaming y’all do.
I almost laughed to myself. Yet another name! I don’t know why I sat down to try it. Maybe I was curious to see if I even could. I had never seen the past or future of any white person, and maybe some part of me didn’t want to.
I sat down, emboldened. Sure! And I blew on the flames to get them going again. It would be a quick fifteen minute trip into the world of tyrants. The fire grounds us, I explained to him, so we have to be careful to keep it going strong or we might be stranded in the wrong time or place. I enjoyed how his face blanched, perhaps a little too much.
Face the flames, I began. Soften your gaze. He was stiff and scared, however, and his expression showed it. I continued, Feel the heat upon you. Watch it. Match it. This fire comes from the source of it all, from our breath, from the sun, from the beginning. His soul wasn’t entirely focused in the fire, but that was fine. I wanted a head start before I showed him anything.
I dove into the past of the landowner’s son and saw nothing at first. Maybe he wasn’t with me—or no, I could feel him limping along at a distance. Maybe he didn’t carry his past in the same way. Maybe I really couldn’t facilitate travel with a white man’s soul.
But the deeper I dove, the more came to me: images, scents, memories that weren’t mine but could be. I went back too far and discovered we once came from the same dark god. The landowner’s son couldn’t come with me to the origin, but once I reached it, I could find my way anywhere throughout his lineage. Hell, so long as I was wandering his history alone, I wanted to explore a little.
I could travel back to the man who took my mother against her wishes, but I couldn’t raise a finger while possessing either body. I could travel to that same man as he took his wife just as violently, and a sadness entered her, never to leave. Maybe my Ghost knew, deep down, that his very birth had struck her with the sadness that had ended her.
I found that I could not easily explore his cousins who were too distant to be mine as well. But his future was bound with mine and easy to track. I sought out why. Here I saw visions of a day most soon to come: that I shall restrain our father as my Ghost slits his throat. We would become indelibly linked by another layer of violence. So be it. But I wouldn’t show him that, no. I wanted my brother to trust me now.
It’s not working, the landowner’s son called, still at the fire where I left him. I felt a blush of shame for abandoning him like that. So I sang the song of sons and daughters, even though he didn’t think to join the chant. We saw decades, centuries, millennia into the future, where my daughter's son’s daughter’s (and so on and so on) and his son’s daughter’s son (and so on and so on) knew each other in willing joy, and thus begat a distant daughter, our daughter, who is darker than either of us. She was covered by a second skin, digging her hands into a powdery dirt, jumping high and light, just because. She was laughing in a land with no air, with no sky or clouds, with starful black instead of blue horizon. She has worked yesterday and will work tomorrow, but we watch her day of leisure. She is sightseeing an untouched land unlike her lush home, and its emptiness delights her.
Look, I said, our daughter is on the moon.