Children of the Waters
“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” – James Baldwin
“You didn’t come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here.” – Alan Watts
Nineteen years ago
Time was short. Maxine Kuepper was starting to say things she didn’t mean. Yesterday, she told her granddaughter to Move my dish, when she wanted to ask her to bend her leg. Trish stared, stumped and afraid, yet all Maxine could do was yell the word “dish” over and over knowing that she wasn’t making any sense.
Cell by cell, bone by bone, Maxine was floating away. She didn’t know if it was the cancer or the medication that made her say such things. She was wearing a patch that released heavy doses of relief into her bloodstream, and still the littlest weight on her, like a sheet or the cotton nightgowns they dressed her in, hurt. The nurse promised that when the time came Maxine wouldn’t have any pain. “We’ll snow you out,” the nurse assured her. “Don’t worry.”
Maxine would die the way her daughter did: like a mermaid swimming at the bottom of an ocean of drugs. It was small comfort after all these years to believe that Jocelyn hadn’t been in any pain when she died. Jocelyn. Such a cultivated name for a daughter who would not be tamed.
They were coming for her, Jocelyn and John, her husband, both dead. She dreamed of them so much now that sometimes she could swear they were really here in this room, whispering their secrets to her. They were coming for her. If they weren’t already here, she knew they were just over the other side waiting. And even though she was only sixty years old and her granddaughter Trish was only seventeen, she was ready to join them. But she had one last thing she had to do. She had secrets of her own to tell.
She looked at the Polaroid picture she’d kept hidden for thirteen years. Not even John knew she had proof of this moment. There was Jocelyn, blond and movie-star gorgeous even after just giving birth, holding the baby, only hours old with a cap of thick dark hair. And Trish, smiling wide, skin, teeth and hair white as cream, on the hospital bed next to them. Both girls marked with a stain that couldn’t be washed away.
Maxine wished she had done things differently. But wishes are for the living. She sighed and pain rippled through her as her lungs pushed up against the battlefield of her ribs and the space where her left breast used to be. She raised the pen with the same amount of exertion that it used to take to lift a gallon of milk and began to write.
The nurse said don’t worry. But how could she not? What would they think of her? Would they hate her or would they be glad to know the truth? Probably both. But she would do this one last thing for them. She would make things right. As soon as Trish came home, Maxine would give her the letter.
I should have told you this a long time ago, she wrote to her granddaughter, putting everything that was in her battered heart onto the page so that when the time came cowardice wouldn’t seal her lips. Each word, a lifetime.
Just as she finished, she heard the front door open and close. Or she thought she did. Lately it was hard to tell what sounds were real and what sounds were memories sweeping over her like ocean waves. But if it was Trish coming in, Maxine knew she did not have the strength to see the look on her granddaughter’s face after she read this letter. She didn’t have the strength to answer the question she knew would come no matter how hard she tried to explain: How could you?
She opened the box, put the letter and photo inside, and replaced the lid. After she was gone, Trish would find everything she needed to know. When Maxine was buried, her lies would be unearthed. It wouldn’t be long now. She was sipping life from a glass that was neither half empty, nor half full, a glass emptying so rapidly she could see it in the eyes of the hospice nurses and the few friends who came to visit her at home.
The bedroom door opened, and Trish poked her head in. “Nana, you awake?”
Maxine nodded, thinking For now, and, Please God let them forgive me.
Since Trish Taylor came back home to Aurora, Colorado she had found ten jigsaw puzzle pieces. They seemed to be everywhere: on the sidewalk near her house, in the parking lot at the grocery store, in the park where she walked her dogs.
Trish’s grandmother used to put jigsaws together. Now, a different type of woman would have started to think something funny was going on, that all these puzzle pieces were some kind of sign. But Trish wasn’t the kind who believed in symbols or signs from above. No gods, ghosts, afterlives, religion, or anything that couldn’t be studied and quantified.
She believed in a life force. She had felt it when she was pregnant, and had seen it in animals in the different clinics she had worked at. So natural? Yes. But supernatural? No way José. She’d known there wasn’t a god since she was four years old, when her mother and baby sister were killed in a car accident.
She was on her way to work this morning at Friendly’s Animal Hospital when she found the eleventh puzzle piece on the sidewalk right in front of the doors. She picked it up and bounced it in her left hand—the small pasteboard piece making a soft clicking sound against the peridot mother’s ring she wore where her wedding ring used to be. The question that came to her when she found the first puzzle piece tickled the back of her mind, but again she dismissed it. One of her coworkers must have dropped it on the way in. Or maybe a client’s child lost it yesterday.
“Don’t be silly,” she said to herself, blowing blond bangs out of her eyes. She slid the jigsaw piece into the pocket of her scrubs and went inside to stock the treatment rooms with supplies before the first clients arrived. She set the puzzle piece on the front counter while she reached for her key to the supply room and pharmacy.
“Que es?” Alicia Alemán asked.
Alicia, the practice manager, was the closest thing to a friend Trish had since she returned to Colorado. Friendly’s was a three-doctor practice. All the vets were male and over forty. The rest of the staff was female, and most were so young Trish and Alicia secretly called them fetuses. Half-Mexican and half-Cuban, Alicia was even shorter than Trish (who was only five foot one) and reminded her of a beautiful tabby cat. Fat and sleek at the same time, caramel-skinned, with lush black hair. The definition of the word feminine. No matter the weather, she was always in heels and a skirt. One evening they went for drinks after work and Trish watched a man jab his chin with a fork full of food, missing his own mouth, because he was staring at Alicia.
“Nothing. I found it. I keep finding pieces of puzzles.”
“I’ve found eleven puzzle pieces in the last month.”
“All over town.”
Alicia scrunched up her face creating charming little wrinkles around her eyes. “To the same puzzle?”
“No. Different parts of different puzzles.”
“Why would you be finding puzzle pieces?”
“I have no idea.”
“Do you do puzzles?”
“No.” Trish hesitated. If she said the ridiculous idea she couldn’t seem to shake, the conversation was going to veer in a direction she was pretty sure she didn’t want it to go. “My grandmother liked to do puzzles.”
“Your abeula who’s dead?”
Alicia was very close to her family. A semi-lapsed Catholic, she was divorced and only went to mass on Easter and Christmas Eve, but she still crossed herself before she ate and lit a candle to St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals, every time they lost a patient.
“Don’t get all weird on me,” Trish said. “It’s just a coincidence.”
“Believing in ghosts isn’t weird.”
“Uh, I don’t know about on your planet, but on my planet it is.”
“Hey, my people invented a whole day to celebrate those who have passed on. On El Dia de los Muertos we decorate and play music and put out food as offerings for our dead relatives.”
“But that’s totally symbolic. You don’t really think they come back to eat the food.”
“Mira, your abuela could be trying to talk to you.”
Though she wasn’t ready to admit it, this was the question that was swirling around in her mind: Were the puzzle pieces from Nana? “To say what? The woman barely spoke to me when she was alive. Why would she start talking to me now?”
“Se las da de sabihonda.” Alicia said to herself, with frustration, tucking a few strands of hair that had the audacity to go astray behind her ear.
The rest of the female staff wore jewelry with little dogs or cats on it. No critter earrings for Alicia though. Today, she had small gold hoops in her ears. Trish would have bet money that Alicia slid out of her mother’s womb wearing pearls. Simple. Elegant.
“She’s not my grandmother. How should I know?”
“The only advice she ever gave me was ‘Keep your legs crossed until you graduate.’”
Alicia laughed. “That’s not the worst advice I ever heard.”
“And why is it that when the dead ‘speak’ they don’t come out and say what they mean? Why do they always use mysterious hints and clues? I mean really, fuck. Nana, if you’ve got something to say, just say it already.”
“This is how you speak to your grandma?”
Trish rolled her eyes. “That’s my point: She can’t hear me.”
“That’s my point. You’re so fresca, cynical. You think life is supposed to always make sense. Not everything about life and death is so reasonable and rational. You watch, once you figure out what she’s trying to tell you, you’ll stop finding puzzles.”
She got a fun-size Hershey bar out of the bowl on the counter. “Here. I know you think chocolate makes sense.”
“Sadly, this is true,” Trish said, opening the foil and popping the candy in her mouth. Chocolate, donuts, cookies, and pizza were Trish’s four food groups. The sweetness melting on her tongue now was almost enough to make her forget the fact that she had gone up another dress size since her separation and divorce. She’d always been chunky, but now about the only thing she felt comfortable in were her drawstring scrubs.
Back when things were good, Tommy, her ex, who was black, used to tease her about her curves saying things like, “How’d a white girl end up with a big juicy booty like this?” But a few years after having Will she went from having a luscious ass to being fat and boring, and by the time Will was four, Tommy was cheating on her.
“I totally have to go on a diet,” she said.
Alicia rubbed her chin theatrically. “Hmmm, where have I heard that one before?”
Trish frowned. It was all Tommy’s fault. So she gained a little weight after getting married and having a baby. Who didn’t? But the real weight didn’t start to pile on until after she started finding condoms in his pocket and strange phone numbers on his cell.
“I mean it this time. I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to change something.” And not only her weight. Trish had come back to Colorado from North Carolina ostensibly to escape the heat and humidity, but there was more to it than that. She was also hoping she’d be able to figure some things out. She was thirty-six, divorced, and her only son would leave the nest in a couple of years. If she wasn’t going to be a wife and a mom, who was she? Somehow she thought if she came back to the place where she and Tommy started, and where her family started and disintegrated, she’d be able to figure out who she was again. If there was anything left for her, it had to be here.
But the last eight months had been taken up finding a house, a job, enrolling Will in school. She worked four days a week for at least ten hours, often eleven or twelve. And between her job, Will, and her dogs, she found herself just as lost here as she had been back in North Carolina.
“Maybe your abeula is trying to give you some clues about how to change?”
Trish nearly choked on her candy. Nana giving anybody clues about changing their life was totally crazy.... [More is included in Chapter 1]
Billie Cousins shook exactly seven drops of sunflower oil mixed with lavender and rose essential oils into the palms of her hands. Then she bowed her head.
“Grandmothers and grandfathers, Please watch over me. Please watch over my man. Please watch over the child growing inside me, who is of him and of me. Thank you for your wisdom. Thank you for your strength. Thank you for your protection. Ase!”
We’ll name our baby Ambata, she thought. To connect in Kiswahili. She said it out loud, “Ambata,” and anointed a pink candle with the blessing oil. Pink, the color of health and spiritual and familial love. She lit the candle and placed it on the low white-cloth-covered table next to the stick that showed the word “pregnant” in its little window. Also on the makeshift altar were a glass of fresh water (purification), a cobalt blue bowl filled with cornmeal (to feed the ancestors’ spirits), a scallop shell (representing the Great Mother from which we all come), a few copper pennies (an offering to the ancestors) and photos of her deceased grandparents and great aunts and uncles. Because Billie didn’t have an actual photo of her great-grandmother—the Cheyenne Indian who had passed down her long nose, narrow eyes, and wide cheekbones to her—she had framed a picture of a Cheyenne girl taken by the famous western photographer Edward S. Curtis.
She lit a smudge stick, then left the bedroom and went to the living room. Starting at the front door, she waved the bundle of sage in the air. Even with the windows opened, the pungent aroma—reminiscent of marijuana, only sweeter—filled her nose. She was clearing the house with smoke, opening windows for any negative energy to escape, just as she had done five weeks ago, the night this baby was conceived.
She knew now what she was doing that night was opening the way for conception. Deep inside her there had been a secret wish to have a baby. After she was diagnosed with lupus nine years ago, she had stopped taking birth control pills (she no longer wanted to put hormones and chemicals into her body) and switched to a diaphragm, closely tracking her cycle. The night with the sage was far enough after she ovulated that she should have been safe so she left her diaphragm in the medicine cabinet. At least that’s what she had told herself then. But now she had to admit that she had been hoping to tilt her world toward a change. A change she had once thought she’d never want to make.
Her sweetie Nick didn’t want kids and Billie wanted Nick. So when they got together she told herself that teaching Head Start, spending four long days a week with preschoolers, would fill any need for children. But she had been only twenty-six then, and had no idea that only six years later a wind would sweep through her empty womb and set off so many bells inside her it would seem as if every wind chime in the neighborhood was ringing.
She wafted smoke over Nick’s baby grand piano, the most expensive thing they owned. She kept it polished to a high sheen, and she could see her reflection in the dark wood.
Nick was in Oakland at his father’s funeral. Billie had wanted to go with him, but he wouldn’t let her. He never told her why he left California or why he didn’t stay in touch with his family. He hadn’t seen his father in fifteen years. The only thing he would say was that they put the funk in dysfunctional. Then he’d try to laugh it off, but she could tell he was hurt in some profound way.
She smiled wanly at herself and brushed a bit of cat hair off the piano. Even though most of their stuff came from flea markets, garage sales, and thrift stores, their home pleased her. She had selected every stick of furniture, rug, plate, dishtowel, woven basket, and piece of art with great care. She felt happy whenever she opened a drawer and everything was in its place. Sure, she was a little OCD (she and Nick had their first fight when he set the table with mismatched napkins), but she didn’t understand people who didn’t care about their living space. You could tell a lot about people by the way they lived. For example, if she went into someone’s house and they didn’t have any real art, not even one small piece by a local artist, if they had only framed posters or stuff that looked like it had come from cheap motels, she knew these were people she didn’t want to associate with. Bourgie-boho, Nick called her.
And proud of it, she thought, moving one of the sofa pillows over just an inch, before she went through the dining room, and kitchen and to the small second bedroom.
Though there was an extra bed, they mostly used this room for storage. It was filled with their out-of-season clothes, the vacuum cleaner, bookcases with her old textbooks and books she’d read as a girl, and miscellaneous boxes of stuff. They’d have to move all the junk to the basement to make space for a crib. She’d make new curtains, sea-foam green for Ambata.
She returned to their bedroom and opened a window.
She was starting to feel light-headed, as if the sage really was weed. She smiled at the ways in which her body was already changing. She looked up at the full moon, the Frog Moon some Native American tribes called April’s moon. Then she waved the burning herbs over the bed, remembering Nick’s long brown body underneath hers, the desire for her in his eyes, how he smelled like almond oil from the massage she had given him, how he called out her name, his voice so deep, so hoarse, it made her honey-colored skin flush now to think of it.
She extinguished the smudge stick, pulled her hair into a ponytail—Billie had what her mother called “Indian hair,” meaning compared to most black folks, the texture was fine and since it curled more than it kinked, it was considered straight—and knelt before her altar, excitement and anxiety rising up in her.
She had started speaking to the ancestors when she was twenty-one and her body turned on itself — her immune system attacking her own body’s cells — causing fevers and unbelievable fatigue and making her joints ache like those of an elderly woman. At first she thought she had a terrible flu, but the symptoms hung on longer than any flu. When a strange rash broke out on her face so her nose and her right cheek were almost as red as the port-wine stain on her left cheek, she went to the doctor.
Her parents had taken her to church every Sunday until she was seventeen, but religion never meant to her what it did to them. However, when the doctor told her she had an incurable disease, she felt so scared and alone she needed someone, something, outside of herself and fast. Getting dressed in the exam room after the doctor left, the only thought that made her feel even a little better was Mommy and Daddy. Knowing they were in the waiting room comforted her so deeply that she started to imagine everyone in her family surrounding her with love until they became as present as her own heartbeat. She could feel their energy in the room, feel them connected to her by a thick red cord unbroken by death, space, or time. And the more folks she added, the stronger she felt.
Just as she was about to leave the exam room and go out to her parents, she felt a warmth swell through her up from her feet as if coming through the floor, flowing up through her body all the way through her head. Then she felt a voice—felt was the only way to describe it—say Fear not, daughter of our daughters. We are with you. And she knew that her ancestors were there.
Over the years, she imagined a chain that stretched all the way back to Africa to the first mother. She pictured a veritable world of strong, proud black people behind her who were loving and wise. And she found that if she spoke to them and listened very carefully, they offered guidance and direction.
Right now, she wanted comfort, assurance the ancestors would be with her during this pregnancy, but she was far from sure they were going to give it. They would have something to say about Nick.
She couldn’t imagine that Nick would be unhappy about the baby once the reality set in, but at first, well at first it was going to be rough. He’d been in such a funk after losing his only regular gig. The Nick Campbell Quartet had been playing every Friday and Saturday night at Bronco Bill’s for a year. It was a dive and didn’t pay a whole lot, but it was a steady gig when steady gigs were hard to come by. But two weeks ago the band showed up and the place was closed. No warning, just a note on the door for the bartenders, wait staff, kitchen workers, and Nick’s band. He was still absorbing that blow when his father died. He would be doubly likely to take the news about the baby badly.
Hopefully, he was wearing the silver and turquoise ring she’d given him. It would protect him, as would the burdock root she’d hidden in his bag.
She took a small bottle and spritzed herself with lavender water to sooth her nerves. She tried to concentrate on praising and honoring her ancestors, feeling the connection between them and her and between them and her baby, but the more she thought about how moody Nick had been lately, the harder it was to keep calm. She could sense the ancestors were telling her not to wait to tell him about the baby. Sooner was better than later for this kind of news, but she was starting to think now wasn’t the right time.
She tried to exhale negativity, fear, and doubt, and inhale peace and love, tried to let divine energy flow through her. For double good luck, she crossed her eyes and snapped her fingers three times. Then laughed at her silliness. Her older brother had taught her to do that when she was little. It had never brought her any luck, but it never failed to make her smile. Which was its own kind of luck.
Her condition increased her risk of miscarrying. But she hadn’t had a lupus flare-up in three years, and all without western drugs, thank you very much. The acupuncture, herbs, diet, exercise, and meditation the ancestors had guided her toward were working. She was healthy. This baby was healthy. Nick loved her, and once he got used to the idea, he would love their child too. And the ancestors would be with her through this pregnancy just as they had been since that dark day in the exam room nine years ago.
She sat on the floor cross-legged—limber from yoga and African dance, her joints loose in remission—closed her eyes, and breathed, inhaling and exhaling loudly through her nose in deep ocean breaths. Juju, her cat, rubbed against her legs and purred.
They say when ghosts come around the room goes cold. It was the opposite with the ancestors. When they were near, Billie felt the air around her and the blood in her veins warm. Then she would get a message. The ancestors would speak in one voice, neither male nor female. It was a voice without sound, more like a thought that entered her mind, but wasn’t her own.
Today she felt the familiar warmth spread through her. Trying to control life is like trying to hold water in your hands, was the message she received today. Daughter, tell your man the truth and the healing will continue. Wait too long and healing will slip through your fingers.
She knew they were right, but still she worried what would happen when she told Nick. She prayed for his ancestors, including his father, to help him through his depression, help him see that building a family with her would be a wonderful adventure. When he came home she would run a warm bath with sandalwood oil and rose petals and they would bathe by candlelight and make love under the fat moon. Then, the next morning she would tell him. After a breakfast of eggs, turkey bacon, strawberries, and wheat toast.
In the meantime, she ignored her fears, ignored the ancestors’ urgings and gave attention only to the knowledge that the thick red cord that ran through her would continue. She stood, turned in a circle, lifting her arms and legs, waving her hands in the air in a West African dance. The only drumming she needed was that of Ambata’s heart.
Copyright 2009 Carleen Brice