My mother and I are on a chlorinated river that’s somehow simultaneously the Amazon, Congo, and Nile, floating languidly so we don’t run into the boat in front of us and “don’t scare the wildlife”: the kind of joke the Disney guide, in his safari hat and over-pocketed explorer outfit, keeps making.
When you touch me I light up into funereal pyre. In the consummation, by char and carbon, brittle is not my name. I tongue flame and soot and singe. Fire to our forests, fuel for restless fires. Fantastical firebrands undergoing scorching metamorphoses. Oh, love, ether.
We called him Ísjaki. Few knew his real name. I certainly didn’t when I was charged with being his caretaker during his first visit to New York. Ísjaki meant “iceberg” in Iceland, where this man came from.
I could tell you, If I wanted to, What makes me What I am.
But I don’t Really want to— And you don’t Give a damn.
—Langston Hughes, “Impasse”
There are two cops from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department standing in my grandmother’s kitchen. We are all gathered around the kitchen island silently negotiating the power dynamics. Two Black women, two White cops. The cops have come to collect the details for the report, but I’m doing most of the talking. Grammy bears witness.
I walk slowly, each step sinking a little into the ground. With every footfall, a puff of ash curls upward, dusting the top of my boot and disappearing into the soft stillness of the day. It is a clear day with no clouds, but the air around me has a gentle haze, a film that sometimes resolves into particles, pinpoints of ash in a slanting ray of sunlight. It has been two months since the fire, but the rising ash and the smell of smoke are strong, stinging the back of my throat and settling into a familiar ache in my temples.
From my row house mailbox, I fished
an envelope: no address, just “David.”
scrawled. In my room, I read: e-mails
bounced back,calls orphaned. If you’re alive and don’twant to talk I get it.
Though six hours acrossthe Atlantic is much farther than six along it. If need be, I will kneel before your grave. here’s my number. just in case.