My father has a display of the three wise monkeys in his garden. It is his place of peace. In the garden, there is a fountain — water flows rhythmically from the fountain’s mouth. A gush of purity envelops its passersby. My father is meticulous in his efforts to instill a sense of calm and undying appreciation for nature in us — me and my siblings. We gather at his feet, adorned in the mellifluous breeze from the flowers, captured by his tales of the dark & weary.
He looks much older than his age. His wiry gray hair stands on his head. He shuffle-kick walks — his whole body shakes. A dance of convulsion springs forth. He is a quiet man. A man who doesn’t mind letting the air speak for him.
We listen. We want to become pure, like the surrounding air.
My father was a letters man — he delivered letters to widows. Letters their loves left behind but never shared. He had been their “Go-to Guy” for giving them one last moment of happiness. Thirty years of this and one day, he stopped.
He had been ordered by the City of Hernadin to cease and desist. Love was no longer in. No one could receive it. No one could give it. My father, the hopeless romantic, hard-loving man, could not grasp this concept. He continued his efforts in secret.
On a quiet, black-sky day, a hired hand attacked my father. The Mayor had enough of his deviance. They cut out my father’s tongue, cut off my father’s ears, and gouged out his eyes.
He didn’t fight back. No, he remained genteel, my father. If he had eyes, he’d cry. If he had a tongue, he’d wail. If he had ears, he’d tune in to the assailant’s actions during this stripping of himself. Instead, he’d laid alone in his own blood on the cold concrete and waited for the pain to end.
You may think how do I know all of this if my father cannot verbally tell me. He’s an artist. He sits in the solace of his garden and creates. He sketched every account — every gruesome detail and bid us utter silence. We were to never speak of it again. And I haven’t until now.
You see, my father is dying. His last request is that we bury him under the three wise monkeys, the cold of the sooty dirt piled upon his pine-boxed coffin drenching his spirit. He has written every detailed order of action and has labeled each with one of our names.
I have the spirited task of bathing his body. A ceremonial bath with the heads of tulips, roses, and lilies followed by the lighting of incense and sage is first on the list. We will sing his favorite songs and eat his favorite fruits.
My sister is tasked with praying over his body as he’s lowered into the unforgiving ground. She will chant as we throw gritty handfuls of clay onto his coffin.
My brother is tasked with singing a hymn, one of his choosing, while he plays the harp. It can be the harp only. No other music will accompany this ensemble.
When all of this is complete, we will lead the guests away from the burial site and find our way back to my father’s garden.
We will share his stories. We will cry. We will remember the man he was and be thankful for his blood.
Three weeks from his funeral, I am also tasked with lapidifying the flower garden. Per my father, “When my last breath meets the sky, I will turn flowers to stone.”
Today I thought about your dimpled cheeks, the swollen paunch of a full belly from too much milk, and the midnight coos that morph into wailing demands to be held. I yearn for you sometimes. This . . . this right now moment, is one of those times.
I want to hold you, to feel your tiny fingers sweep over my eyelids, and search for the peace that lives just behind my eyes. I carry you in my dreams — to term — you are brought into this world smiling instead of crying.
“Such a happy baby. It’s a girl!” The doctor shouts. His nursing team whisks you away in the middle of my trying to digest I managed to bring another Black girl into a world that hates her before it even knows her.
I hear hurried voices stretched to their highest octaves as they seek out your weight. You are tossed and turned under luminescence and bound in cloths, swaddled to perfection. They lay you over my lactating breasts.
I am expected to feed you, to pour sustenance into your minutes-old body from a worn-out one and as hard as I try, I cannot.
I wake up from this dream. I lift my shaking body from my bed. I pat my way to the bathroom in the pitch darkness of my room. I find solace in a place that echoes and I cry. I leave my memories of you there.
To my unborn daughter: I am glad you are not here to see the shrinking in parts of this world — to feel constant pain when you don’t want to. I am relieved I did not lay claim to terror for you; an inheritance of depression — a gift you shouldn’t have to unwrap. I know you wouldn’t have liked it here. In fact, you would have hated it.
And I would layer myself in guilt.
Why would I give you red-inked skies, viruses that mutate into unstoppable killers, bigotry at every corner of the world, and poverty nestled under the beds of Have-not families waiting for their moments to have? I knew better. I know better.
But, I still want you.
I am not strong enough to settle into the reality of what this world would have done to you. I am not brave enough to say, “I did it! I gave birth during a pandemic!” or “I’m raising my child in the middle of the apocalypse!” I would steep in blame — fully saturated; bitter to the taste. No one would want me then.
So, did I do this for you or for me? I had a choice. I could have taken the chance of getting pregnant and not succeeding, at least, not naturally or I could have allowed fate to bring you here through tools of misuse sharper than the Devil’s tongue.
They said my body would fight me and I believed them.
It is normal for me to harbor some form of regret — natural to be reflective, but I will admit, I feel this deeply: I did what I thought I needed to and I ignored all urges to try for you. I ignored giving you a chance at life and seeing what my body could really do.
But when I watch the screaming mothers of murdered boys, men, women — all of them wrapped in our skin or hear the violent cries of sisters and brothers demanding justice or smell the lies that drip from the slits of our leaders’ mouths or learn of those believing a price is sufficient for a life, I am thankful I was too scared to take a chance on you.
You deserve better, much better. And this place . . . this world I call home would wolf you down in its fanged mouth and tear your flesh from your bones in five bites. Morsel-of-a-human-little thing: you’d be the perfect dinner. No one’s serving you up on a platter. No one.
My beautiful, unborn daughter. I love you and I am sorry I was too afraid to try.
Fatima Mohammed is an exceptional young one. She never backs down from a challenge and truly tests the limits of her writing. She’s versatile, expressive, candid, and doesn’t publish with us often, but when she does–it’s always something to look forward to. This quarter’s Young Minds of Medium Challenge was: “Tell Me About Your Neighborhood/City/Country”and Fatima not only tackled the challenge brilliantly as I knew she would–she did so uniquely. She is our Young Mind of the Week. And now, her featured work . . .
Young Minds of Medium My Home
The sound of her friends from the next compound playing a game of ten-ten, stamping their feet in drawn up chalk squares on the dusty ground, drifted up to Ebi’s ears like the aroma of the spicy Suya from across the street often drifted up to her nose and made her mouth water. The urge to defy her mother’s rules and run out to play with them spread slowly to every inch of her body like spilled water meandering into the cracks of the kitchen tiles.
But Ebi knew she couldn’t give in, so she watched from her room. The criss-cross of the mosquito netting depicting tiny cage bars and obstructing the full view of the fast-paced movements of her friends’ hands and feet.
She imagined she was there. She was the one playing a game of tinko with Blessing, her hands moving swiftly, and every slap of their hands together caused a resounding clap that put a smile on both their faces.
Next, she saw herself playing “African bend down” as the other children, after finishing their extra lessons, joined in and the group got larger. They chanted, “sugar!” “pepper!” and clapped their hands over one another’s heads as each person ducked at their turn.
Ebi saw herself roaring in laughter as her hands collided with Amaka’s head when she failed to bend. She saw herself vehemently disagreeing when Amaka begged for another chance and explained to her that the whole point of the game was bending and if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be called African “bend down.”
Ebi felt the pain in her legs from running around after a long game of fire on the mountain. She also saw herself sitting breathlessly with the others as they each sipped a bottle of fifty Naira zobo from the vendor under the pawpaw tree. She saw herself, cheeks bulging with the red, almost blood-like colour of the sweet drink, threatening to ruin both Blessing and Amaka’s white school uniform shirts with a single drop from her mouth just because she had worn her sweater over her own shirt that day.
She saw the three of them roam the streets, stealing mangoes from Mr. Chubi’s tree, which seemed to produce long after its season. Then she saw them walking all the way to Blessing’s house just to sneak into the cinema close by and watch R-rated movies.
She saw them as they would sing “I’m not okay,” by My Chemical Romance on their way back, louder than their voices allowed them, every note cracked by their unpleasant singing as they affirmed themselves that they weren’t going through a phase like their mothers had said but they really loved everything about classic rock, metal music and screamo.
She was about to see herself under the pawpaw tree after the vendor had left; the stars illuminating the very spot she was sharing a late-night kiss with Dele, the senior boy who had taken an interest in her. But her mother shouting about the spike in Coronavirus cases in Nigeria aggressively flung her from her daydream and back into reality.
It reminded her that no one was outside. Not her friends in the next compound playing, nor the mallam selling Suya across the street orthe vendor under the pawpaw tree with chilled bottles of zobo, and the cinema hadn’t been open in months.
The sounds she thought she heard were a simulation her brain had created to survive the isolation from everything she loved. It had been happening a lot lately, but Ebi couldn’t deny that it made it all easier.
So she lay back down, ignoring her mother’s rant, and continued her conversation with Dele, standing in the spotlight from the stars, under the pawpaw tree.
“No time to dillydally. We’ve got to keep moving!” The conductor takes out his compass — a shiny, gold contraption that ticked as it moved. He treasured it. His eyes focus on the direction points, he blinks quickly as the needle lands on “N.” He is beside himself with glee. The next stop is just four miles ahead, north. “Due North!”
Tyson kneels down to eye-level with the conductor and smiles at him. He is intrigued by this man who is engulfed in his role, so much so it seeps into everything he does. He spies the compass and satisfies his curiosity.
“Whatcha got there, Mr. Conductor?” He leans his gigantic head closer to the windows of the toy locomotive and awaits an answer.
“Why it’s my compass, my dear boy! I never leave home without it. I’ve been railroading for twenty-three years now and this baby has been by my side. It has never once steered us wrong.”
Tyson flops his body down on the hardwood floors, lowers his head onto his hands, and props up his elbows. He can feel a story coming on.
“My pop gave me this compass when I was about your age. He was a conductor too. He’d seen so many beautiful, interesting, and unbelievable places. I’d see him two, maybe three days per month, but upon every visit, he had something for me — some new thing I couldn’t wait to get my hands on.”
Tyson could feel himself smiling, but getting sad too. Two or three days out of each month? He knew he couldn’t go that long without seeing his dad. He felt encouraged to ask the conductor how this made him feel.
“How’d you feel growing up not seeing your daddy a lot?”
“Oh, I don’t think I minded as much. They kept me pretty busy. My mom had me in so many activities after school, I barely had time to miss him. Plus, it was like a special occasion — this grand adventure whenever he came home. We all filled to the brims of our hearts with delight and anticipation.”
The conductor flips open the compass, smiles earnestly, bats a few tears from his eyes, and continues with his story.
“My pop conducted his train like no one else. The passengers loved him and the engineers depended on him. That train ran like clockwork — dependable and on time. Folks used to say, ‘You can bet on Smitty’s train. It’s one thing that’s sure in life.’ And they were right.”
Tyson watches the conductor. He feels himself shedding a few tears and wipes them quickly before anyone can see. The train slows down, approaching what Tyson thinks is the next stop. The conductor slaps his compass shut, twists his mustache by the ends, and hurries to the front of the train. Tyson looks on, enraptured by the magic.
I don’t know the woman who walks past me in the grocery store at 07:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. She’s wearing blue jeans, a cropped top, and sensible slides on her feet. She brushes against me lightly. I’ve forgotten what that feels like. Her hair is everywhere — neatly. It’s organized chaos — a private dancer for the wind.
She excuses herself.
She’s not wearing a mask and upon seeing that I have on mine, she panics. She cannot believe she stepped out of her car, walked into the store, brushed against another human being, and spoke to her — all without the proper face covering.
I deal with this sort of thing daily. I feel like a soldier, manning a station from a deadly enemy as his allies try to trickle in without one of the things combating it — a face mask. She has forgotten hers and I feel the need to reclaim safety for myself and those around me.
I calmly advise her that anyone can make this mistake, anyone. She is a fit of tears and apologetic to the point that I’ve now stepped closer to her with my hands slightly raised indicating that I mean no harm and I motion for her to follow me to the automatic doors.
We locate her car. We locate her mask. She’s still apologizing — telling me all the ways she’s done stupid things in life but this is now the stupidest. I don’t think silence is the best response. That would mean, I agree. I don’t. There are a ton of things far more stupid than what we found ourselves rectifying and I tell her this.
The tears pool deeply in the beds of her eyes. She blinks and two tears plop to the ground with a loud thud. I wait with her while she covers her face. We walk back to the store and I spot my cart and the unattended bananas, apples, spinach, and yogurt. I retrieve it. I am eager to finish my shopping and get back home.
She’s still beside herself with intense emotion but there are no more tears — only the puffiness of her eyes and reddened cheeks. And freckles. Freckles I didn’t notice before. She tells me — sweet onions are on sale as well as all-purpose flour and at this early in the morning, pre-breakfast and coffee, I’m struggling not to morph into an Addams Family character and spook her.
I want to move on.
This is my war. The store is my battlefield. She has fought her battle in the middle of a war and I want to move on from it. I let her know the morning is incredibly young and she is in the store early enough to catch all the sales. I wish her well. I mean it.
These days, I always mean it.
She grips the handlebar of her cart, pops it twice, and removes two pieces of tissue from her handbag. She splashes hand sanitizer on the tissue and smooths it over the bar and the sides of the cart. I nod to her and move toward the “No Pulp” orange juice and mouth a goodbye (out of habit).
Her glasses fog up and I miss her freckles. I wonder, what will be on the menu if there are sweet onions and all-purpose flour, both on sale. She follows me. She is talking to my back, luring a conversation.
The gods must dislike me this morning because my energy was zapped the night before at work and as much as I love to empathize, listen, and give my all to someone in need, my body nor mind can take it this morning.
“You like the ‘no pulp’ kind too, huh?”
Oh, this is about the orange juice. While I would love to skip meaningless chit chat, I do love talking about interests with another person. “Yes, I prefer it.”
She smiles. I can’t see her beautiful mouth anymore — her full lips, but I notice the eyes — they light up. She remains six feet away from me but leans in toward my cart and slaps an orange juice in her hands. It lands across her cropped top. I move along to the dairy section. I need cheese and milk. She comes along as well.
*What is going on here? Why does she keep following me*
“I have to get cheese, milk, biscuits, and creamer. They’re on my list.”
“Oh. I need cheese and milk as well. Please, after you.” I move to the side, allowing her to brisk by, and I walk slowly behind her. She glides — it’s not a stutter-step. She is floating toward the dairy section and her everywhere hair bounces as she moves.
*Am I smiling? I am. I am smiling. Why?*
I wait until it is my turn to retrieve cheese and milk. She stands idly by — watching as I retrieve said items, patting her feet while coating her hands with sanitizer. “I’m sorry. Is there a reason you keep waiting for me? Is there anything you need?”
I didn’t want to seem crass, but I am not used to people accompanying me as I shop. It’s a self-sufficiency thing. I’d much rather get in, get what I need, get out, and keep it moving. But this woman, the one whose eyes pool tears quicker than I keep breaths . . . the one with the organized chaos for hair . . . the one with freckles right under her eyes, just above her cheeks — freckles that come alive when she smiles — wants something from me and I have to know. What is it?
“Oh. Um. Well. I like your shirt. I also like your mask. I don’t know what half of your face looks like, but I’m willing to bet it’s likable too. I’m Rain.”
She extends her hand, and immediately, I tense up. Am I supposed to touch her? This is my battlefield. This is a war. A war between doing what I would normally do in the past without hesitation versus not doing it because it could well, kill me . . . And of course, her name is ‘Rain,’ of course, it is.
“Oh. um. Is it okay for me to shake your hand? You are okay with this?”
“Sure. You’ve already seen me without a mask. You helped me get it. I doubt my shaking your hand would do us any harm. But if you’re opposed, that’s okay too. Is it all right for me to give you my number? I don’t have many friends here — moved three weeks ago from Van Nuys, in Cali.”
“Get out! As in Los Angeles? A good friend of mine lived there for years before moving back east. What are the odds?”
Her eyes light up again. Her freckles dance. I watch her patting feet. I don’t know what this is, but I welcome it for a few moments. It feels nice — something I remember doing before — communicating with others outside of work and in person.
“So, is that a yes, me giving you my number. What’s your name?”
“Oh, okay. Sure. That’d be cool. It’s Tremaine, Tre for short. That’s ‘Tree-Maine.” I pull out my phone, hit contacts, and add her name, then her number.
“You live on this side of town, ‘That’s Tree-Maine.?’”
“Haha. You got jokes. Nice. Yeah, I’m about three miles away, right off the highway.” She smiles again. I smile. I give her my number and watch her sway back and forth on the balls of her feet. That’s odd. She must’ve danced in the past or maybe she still does.
“I know it ain’t the right time to be dating. Social distancing is a motherfucker, but I’ve been holed up in my new apartment for the last three weeks and you’re the first person to make me smile since I moved here. You wanna grab dinner one day next week — my treat?”
“Dating? Oh. Is this a date? Are you asking me out? You’ll have to excuse me, I am out of practice on this bit.”
She smiles again and I find myself loving the sight of dancing freckles and everywhere hair.
“Let’s just call it a thing until it becomes whatever it needs to be. But for now, it’s dinner, my treat.”
I tell her I must finish shopping. I have work waiting for me at home and a dog who likes to boss me around. She laughs and a few customers look at us. I shrink into myself — hating to be stared at, but okay with it too. That’s odd. Everything is odd around this woman — this Rain whose eyes pool tears and freckles that dance, and hair that does its own thing without any regard for the goings-on around it. I look back, she’s watching me. Eyes curved — lit up. She’s smiling.
This is my battlefield. The war rages on.
*Author’s Note: This is part fiction/nonfiction/fantasy. Originally published on Medium.
Creative content straight from the mind of an innovator trying to shift the world with her writing.