The mind works like a solar system, an interplanetary medium to keep things running smoothly. Moses speaks in a memorized whisper, his voice soft, like the warm towel he places on her forehead.
Hawa closes her eyes, drifts with the sensation of rocks pounding palm nuts open, small fingers reaching inside for kernels. They are teenagers again, and he is her caring boyfriend who brings her palm kernels for snacks when she lies sick with malaria. She heals and they celebrate with dance: the small of her back supported by his palms as she melts into a ballet fondu. They dance under the palm tree, pretend they are ballet partners at school, performers onstage. If only things were that simple again.
“When you start to remember the painful things of the past, one of the planets in your solar system starts to dance and your medium is obstructed temporarily. Only temporary, yeh?” Moses sounds sure, confident, like the doctor he will never become.
She stares at the only painting on the wall, next to the bed: a black-and-white portrait of Jesus. He has no color, except for the red splotches of blood running from His outstretched palms, from the nails in His feet, from His side. His eyes measure disbelief, but a faint smile rests on His lips. The artist chose to paint Him alive. Alive, His pain lucid as it courses her veins.
Moses places her worn ballet shoes next to her on the bed. He takes her hand in his and gently massages her palm. He gazes at her and she feels drums beat; rhythm motions from a crevice within her consciousness. “You will try to eat if I go make food?” he asks.
Moses wheels into the kitchen to whip eggs, and she turns her Pandora station to Billie Holiday. Sultry, somber lyrics fill the space in the small house. Music floats outside of her body, seeps in, pulls at her muscles, reaches between her thighs, lifts her into an imagined relevé: heels and inner thighs together, back straight. Endorphins release and she is in a dance trance. She is fourteen years old again, studying ballet at Musu’s School of Ballet in Monrovia. Every day after school they dance to the tunes of Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Zack & Gebah. Auntay Musu, like they call her, tells them the rhythm of jazz, blues, and African drums originated from the soul of Africa. A ballet dancer must lift and extend through her soul, she says.
But a voice reaches Hawa from the kitchen, brings her back here to her bed, to her home in the American Appalachian Mountains. “Keep telling you, Billie Holiday was crazy,” Willy says to Moses. “Crazy enough to want to lose her body parts for a man. Talkin’ ’bout he should take her arms cuz she ain’t using her arms and shit. One nutty woman.” He chuckles, and even from the distance, she hears the bottle reach his lips. Willy doesn’t drink to be happy, doesn’t drink to celebrate, like the Liberian men she grew up with. He drinks when he is sad, drinks to stitch the hole of his sorrow.
The pale yellow of the room swirls around her. Outside the window, the sun dances around mountain peaks, colors the sky a white kind of blue. A bird calls out from its perch on the front window and Billie Holiday sings: Can’t you see I’m no good without you…
“Where the toast at, man?” she hears Willy ask Moses. Willy lives in the dilapidated house across from theirs, and every now and then he stumbles in for breakfast, smelling like wet socks and moonshine. Willy’s house is a faded pink color with a touch of green from the vines that crawl around the house and through the doorway; his house has half a roof and no running water, but Willy says he’d rather live there and save his monthly check from the VA to buy a house he can call his own.
Moses tells him, “We like our breakfast just like this. Eggs, scrambled hard. Cornbread. Some kind of meat.”
“Well, I like toast.”
“So toast some slices, my man. It’s right there.” Annoyance drips like butter from Moses’s voice.
Hawa pauses the music. There is silence, except for the clip clap of the toaster and the sizzle of hot bacon grease. The scent of burnt toast fills the house. Willy’s body falls like a lump onto the kitchen stool. His mason jar moves across the kitchen counter, scrapes noises into the laminate. She pictures him big and bent over, a slump of despair.
Minutes later, Moses wheels in, a tray on his lap. Eggs from the farm next door, scrambled hard, jelly on the side. Two slices of cornbread. Three strips of bacon. Coffee roasted dark and sweet. “Eat. Rest. And don’t you dare come out here,” he tells her.
She nods, shoves a handful of the eggs into her mouth. Washes it down with coffee. She presses play on her phone. Music fills her soul, brings movement to her body. She sits on the edge of the bed, puts on her ballet shoes. Stands and stretches, arms wrapped around her chest, arms wrapped around her knees, back bent and extended.
Between mouthfuls, Willy calls from the kitchen, “Woman, you feel better now? All that mumbo jumbo ’bout some breakdown. What that mean? Ain’t nothin’ broke.” She hears the sound the liquor makes as it drains into his psyche. Willy awaits a decision, but the moment she gets closer to letting him know, her mind melts and, like jelly, her thoughts slither aimlessly in her head.
Bracing herself against the wall, she glides across the room in a glissade, her small feet pointed, hips straight, legs extended. The room fades into a ballet stage. All is calm again.
Moses had seen their house in his dream. One morning, shivering and wet, he awoke with a start, as if he were having one of his nightmares. It was 3:30 a.m. in the Appalachian Mountains. Nothing but the noise of coal trucks hugging mountain roads. She had just gotten home from work. Her legs were numb, her hands blistered from gripping the pole all night. She sat on the only chair in the motel room, legs opened and lifted slightly at stilettoed ankles as she peeled away the tape she used five nights a week to keep the thong sealed tightly around a hairless crotch. She noticed Moses’s luminous eyes when they lit up the dark room. If he’d had legs, he would have danced. “Hawa, I dreamed it. I saw it oh! Our house. We coming get it soon.”
She danced for him that night. His was a special dance of thought and technique, her head, shoulders, and hips vertically aligned, her legs spread open, muscled body supported on the toes of fully extended feet, a graceful move across the room, just as the moon moved across a fleeting-night sky. She touched herself for him and then moved closer so that he could touch her in places no one at the strip club was allowed. They made love every night for three months, and she promised him then that he could have her to himself, that she would try to see herself like he saw her: a beautiful woman who did not need to sleep with people in order to pay the rent.
“But we could be homeless nah. You won’t be able to find a job. They’re not hiring disabled immigrants,” she told him.
“I will be homeless knowing you are safe,” he said. He was referring to an incident at the club, months prior. Mark, a bouncer at the club, had carried her to the door of the motel room she shared with Moses. Mark had pulled her stiff body off his shoulders, dropped her with a thump like a sack of unwanted rice, banged on the door, and headed to his car. Moses found her unconscious, hair matted against foundation caked on sweaty skin. Her dress was torn in places, her underwear and stilettos missing, a bruise the size of a fist on her right inner thigh. Eh menh, no more-o, Hawa, please, no more, Moses whispered next to her face as he inhaled the stale fumes of her breath. His voice woke her, and she looked over at him sitting next to her in the open doorway, tears streaming down his face. She took the cup of coffee he handed her, went to bed, did not emerge for a week.
Months later, Moses was invited to give a motivational speech to a group of war refugees at a nearby boarding school. The school resembled the mission school he had attended as a boy. In a buttoned-down dress shirt, he spoke about survival and courage after losing his legs to war. He received a conditional offer to teach that day. The check was enough for a down payment to rent the one-bedroom house they toured. “This the house I saw in my dream,” he said.
Outfitted for the former owner who had been disabled, the house has bright yellow siding, an oversized bay window, a tiny garden in the front, and a handicap ramp that extends from the side and through the back door. The bedroom opens onto the backyard, which pours into the mountainside—rough, rugged, romantic.
They returned to the temporary-stay motel, collected their belongings from the sidewalk where the motel manager had thrown them because Hawa had refused to continue his private dances. No more, she’d heard Moses’s voice in her head when she told the manager she was canceling their weekly rendezvous. They drove here, to their new home.
Moses taught chemistry and physics, and she taught ballet at a local school. He enjoyed the sciences, the feeling of always trying to solve a problem, always finding a solution. She relished feeling transported, her body lifted through her toes, into the air, and around the world. The students they taught at the boarding school were scholarship recipients who had escaped turmoil from different parts of the world. Like them, these children were rebuilding their lives after trauma. The students’ adopted parents sought advice from Hawa and Moses because of their lived experiences. The community wrote them monthly letters, some referring to them as “pillars of resilience.” But, a year later, the school was forced to shut down—lack of funding.
The day the landlord’s daughter came to collect late rent, Moses was sick. The pain he felt in his legs—even though they were no longer there—weakened him. Hawa had used their last dollars to buy his medication. Jobless, without health insurance, a bottle of thirty oxycodone cost 330 dollars—half the rent. She handed the other half of the rent to the landlord’s daughter, who stared at the crumpled bills in Hawa’s palm, glared over her shoulder at Moses sitting slumped in his wheelchair, smirked, and laughed. A rude, crude laugh. A sound that pierced the air, pierced Hawa’s heart. When the woman turned and left, dirt kicking up at her heels as she walked up the path toward the house her family owned, Hawa promised herself she would never hear that laugh from anyone again.
When she wakes next, Billie Holiday is off and Willy is gone. The room is silent, curtains drawn. She searches the wall for the painting, but it is gone. The wall is yellow and bare; old paint scars make trails from ceiling to floor. She knows without looking that all sharp objects have been removed from the room. Moses does this during each of her episodes. The faint scent of cigarettes fills the evening air, and she knows he is in the backyard having his evening Guinness and reading one of the many books he borrows from the library weekly.
Next to the bed is a tray of fufu and ground pea soup in plastic bowls. A note from Moses rests neatly between the bowls: You are loved. You are worthy. I’nt want lose you-o, my jue. She loves when he calls her his jue.
She reaches for the bowl, cuts into the fufu with her fingers, dips a piece into the soup, swallows it whole. The softness of it settles around the insides of her throat, slides smoothly down, and heats her core. And the familiarity of it sends her mind adrift.
She was cooking fufu and pepper soup with goat meat when Moses visited her family’s home during the war. He had brought a flask of her Pa’s favorite palm wine and a bag of cassava for her Ma. Her little sisters eagerly surrounded him for their share of the coconut candy he always brought for them.
She asked him to walk to the beach, because she needed more time alone with him. Their weekly rendezvous was now monthly, since war checkpoints had erupted all along the countryside. On the beach, hand in hand, they heard the shots. And then the screams. They smelled the burn of human flesh before they saw the fire. The village, her family, had been set aflame. Screaming men and women ran toward them, headed for the boats anchored in the distance.
She ran toward her village, screaming for her parents. Moses chased her, yelled for her to stop. She fell and was trampled in the rush. It took Moses some time to pull her from the crowd of fleeing people. But the rebels with machetes had caught up to him. It was her fault. They should have swum to the safety of the sea. She needed to pay susu, her body for his.
Outside, the sea sings to her. But there is no sea in the mountains. Yet waves rush to meet her feet in cold, bubbled foams. She cries out in despair.
When Moses wheels into the bathroom, she realizes she is in the bathtub, warm bubbles all around her. Time has eluded her. “Breathe in the eucalyptus, Hawa. Inhale. Stay with me in the present, dear. Just breathe.” For a moment she pictures him in a white coat. He had dreams to attend medical school after college. He wanted to become a psychiatrist before he lost his legs to war.
She thinks of his legs, and blood rushes into her eardrums. Blood on the tips of too many machetes. Blood in the ocean, red infused with blue-green, dead bodies floating on waves. Blood buried in wet soil, buried into her skull. Blood on the bandages around Moses’s legs as he lies unconscious while the doctors without borders stitch him.
He remembers nothing. It is as if his mind exists to protect him. But she sees everything, and she does not want to remember anymore. She will not remember more. She starts to scream. Moses wheels next to the bathtub and takes her hand in his. His hand is the color of roasted cocoa beans. “Shhhshhhshhh,” he blows in a singsong. “Find your dance, Hawa. Find your dance.” His fingertips trace the insides of her hand and arm, massage her veins.
Seconds later she is flushed but quiet, the bathwater hot against her skin. She closes her eyes and she is a ballerina on ice, representing Liberia at an international competition, just like Auntay Musu had planned. Her legs are perched, body pointed into a pirouette. She moves her lips to the music playing zamina mina eh eh waka waka eh eh zamina mina zangalewa. She marches in gracefully, balanced on her toes. The room is the color of peace. She spins. The audience smiles. The room is the sound of a thousand grins.
When Willy returns the next morning, Hawa has made her decision. They all sit at the breakfast table. She pours the coffee; Moses plates the eggs; Willy fries some bacon. Willy, all red from the sun, his brown hair a mop across a cream-colored face. His left hand trembles, right leg shakes uncontrollably. Willy is American, an Iraq veteran; his father a Black Vietnam veteran, his mother a white prostitute.
Willy says his country has forgotten him. Moses tells him they had to forget their country. They sit in silence and consider this, with only the sound of forks scraping eggs across plates.
“One night a week, Willy,” she hears herself say. Willy reaches across the table for her hand, she removes it. Moses looks away.
“Two in one night then?” Willy asks.
“No. One private party. Eight weeks. No nude.”
“And no touching,” Moses adds.
Willy grimaces, reaches for her face with his eyes. She stands and paces. “I’ll be there. Ain’t nothin’ crazy will happen,” Willy almost whispers.
“Know how many times I’ve heard that?” she asks. She remembers the promise Mark, the bouncer, had made her.
The air is thick with fried grease. Sweat forms on Moses’s forehead. Hawa knows what he is thinking: Willy’s friends are men with guns, men who just returned from war. Hawa and Moses left their country to escape similar men.
Hawa knots her braided hair into a bun. “I’ll do the tricks and bring the toys. They’ll be fine with that,” she tells Willy. Willy’s gaze lingers at the sound of toys. He quietly stews and salivates as Moses does his best to ignore the sexual tension in the room. Moses leaves the room, heads out for a smoke.
“Leave. We’ll talk about this later,” Hawa tells Willy.
“I miss us,” Willy says.
“Leave,” she repeats.
At dusk Hawa and Moses sit facing the mountains. Moses calculates the number of students they will need in order to maintain the ballet school they plan to open. She sketches the layout and marketing plan, lists the homes she will visit with a flyer, her former dance students she will contact. They work on their dream until the sky turns a dark gray. Under the fog, the dew of a wet mountain night resting on their skin, she sits on him and dances to the sound of drums beating in a faraway land. “Only eight weeks. Everything will be alright,” she whispers right before his body convulses in pleasure.
She watches him sleep and remembers when they roasted plantains under an African midnight sky and dreamed about owning their own market store. He snores, and she thinks up the name for their ballet school: Spin.
Two months later, she is counting bills at the kitchen table when Willy enters. She enjoys evenings in the mountains when the crisp breeze is fragranced with redbuds. The kitchen door is open and Cardi B’s “Money” plays while Moses sleeps.
“Sup,” Willy says and walks to the coffeepot. He pours himself a mug: black, no sugar. He sits heavy and stiff, lets his gaze rest idly on the steam rising from the mug. The first time he approached her at the club, in a monotone, a beer in his hand, wearing a plain T-shirt and dirty jeans, she thought he was one of those monolithic strip club frequenters. But she watched him dance with one of the girls while engaging in a political debate with an irate drunk and she knew there was more to him.
When he is sober, Willy is not much of a talker. He speaks in dancer language: when there is nothing on his mind, he is limber and silent, but when his thoughts are weighted, his steps become stilted, noisy.
“Everything alright?” she asks when he sits.
“I can’t do this anymore.”
“This. I have feelings too.”
She sighs. Moves her hair away from her face. “You already knew the situation.”
“But why?” he asks. “We can do this. I think you feel the same way.”
“What he and I have is different. Special.”
“You wasn’t saying that last night.”
Her insides turn to pudding, and she wants to jump up and do stretches, prepare to dance. Willy places a rough palm on her hand, looks deep into her soul. She feels herself start to unravel. She peers into the darkness of his eyes and realizes he would never be able to see beyond her flaws. Only Moses can see her, all of her, the woman buried beneath tragedy and pain.
As if on cue, Moses enters the kitchen. For a minute he seems confused to see Willy. He glances from one to the other, pats Willy on the back, and wheels outside for a smoke. Willy fills a mug, takes it out to Moses. They sit and Hawa watches the forms the smalls of their backs make, their profiles a silhouette against a changing sky.
She listens to them talk about the success of last week’s private party. Willy wants to plan another series for Hawa, but Moses is adamant that this is the last time.
“Like we said man, eight weeks only,” Moses tells him.
“Bruh, she can make so much more. She’s beautiful and fit,” Willy insists.
Moses chuckles. “When men dem see fine fine woman they forget home training.”
“My dude, you missing the point,” Willy says. “You leaving cash on the table.”
“No. I’m helping her get off the table. It’s too much for her,” Moses says.
“Too much?” Willy’s question lingers with the cool air, floats into the kitchen and sends some of the bills to the floor. Willy does not understand her trauma. She will never tell him.
She watches him run his hands through his hair in the nervous way he does, and she remembers those hands moving along her body as he stood and lifted her in the way Moses will never be able to, remembers her legs curled around his frame in ways they never could with Moses. Willy is what happens when that planet in her solar system is obstructed: he is the temporary fix she thinks she needs in those moments. Now she knows this to be untrue. She makes a silent vow to stop.
When Willy leaves, she turns on “If” by Davido, works on her form, extends her body, moves into the croon of the song: no do, no do, no do gararara for me oh. She puts everything she feels into a basic jeté, moves the energy through her body, into her feet, and out into the dark night.
They pay moonlighting contractors to clear overgrown bushes, lay crushed rock and concrete over the dirt floor of the shack that will become the ballet school. Hawa scrubs mildew off the old windows, and Moses paints. He hums as he paints, and she views his reflection, watches the muscles in his arms flex with each stroke of sky blue laid across a white wall.
The one-room shack Hawa and Moses purchased for the ballet school is a century old. Five thousand dollars was the going rate, but Moses negotiated and they paid thirty-eight hundred. Like its slave owners, the shack has been beaten and dismembered, the once-missing roof now a thick layer of zinc the contractors spent days working to complete. When it rains, the roof plays musical notes and she dances a bourrée across the uneven floor. Every night they toast to owning something in this new place they call home.
The ballet school has no phone, so every day parents of future students stop by to inquire about the start of classes. They try to negotiate time with Hawa: Could classes end right before parents return from their day jobs to pick up their children? Two white male construction workers drop off dirt-strewn applications with crumpled bills at the door of the unfinished shack. We have eight-year-old girls, they say, best friends, you know, and they drive us nuts dancing in front of the mirror to Justin Bieber. They take one look at the dirt walkway at the front of the school, grab bags from their trucks, and start creating a walkway of pavers that lead up the front path. When Hawa protests, they tell her not to worry—this is easy stuff they do every day. A white woman brings in flowers and mulch, gets on her knees, and starts digging a front garden. Her five-year-old wants to be a professional ballerina one day, she tells Hawa as she reaches into the earth with gloved hands. A Black grandmother of three girls enters with a measuring tape for the windows: Would Hawa prefer drapes or blinds? the woman wonders aloud. A retired schoolteacher and grandfather of two brings wood for the barre, tells her that he, too, is an immigrant. He is from Togo. His granddaughter struggles with ADHD and loves to dance. They exchange stories as he shapes the barre, polishes it, and installs it horizontally, against the wall. A local sculptor donates the sign for the school. It reads, Spin: School for Ballet. The sign is a metal ballerina, and she spins with the wind.
They open the school three months later with fifteen students enrolled. Moses handles bookkeeping and operations. Hawa teaches and takes care of admissions and marketing. On Fridays, after their weekly cleanup, they have a family dinner at the school. She spreads a lappa across the floor, places two pans of cassava leaf and rice on top, two bottles of Guinness. “I Need You,” a 1988 Liberian hit from the singer Dave, plays on the studio’s stereo. Moses unlocks the wheelchair, pulls himself forward with his upper body, lowers himself to the floor. They click on WhatsApp and call family and friends back home, show them their new school on video. And then their dinners are quiet, pensive; no one knows what the other thinks, because they choose not to ask.
After dinner, Moses clears the bottles and she plugs her iPhone into the speaker, turns on Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, moves into a pirouette. He sits and watches, eyes bright with tears. He now knows the song by heart, so he hums as she spins: Stars fading but I linger on, dear … Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you … Keep dreaming, leave the worries behind you … Dream a little dream of me.
Cheryl Collins Isaac immigrated to the United States in 1996 from Liberia, West Africa. She is a 2022 Edith Wharton Straw Dog Writer-in-Residence and the recipient of the 2020 James Baldwin Fellowship at MacDowell. She has had fiction, nonfiction, and poetry published in Chicago Quarterly Review, The Ocean State Review, Hawai`i Pacific Review, South Writ Large, Prime Number Magazine, and more. She earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Tampa.