To Julia Sattler
And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew
near unto the thick darkness where God was.
“Draw me a story,” his little sister would ask him almost every evening, and shadowy contours of a human figure would begin to appear under the brisk but confident movements of the charcoal. “You forgot the rod, Mo. You always forget the rod,” she would remind him and the charcoal would fly along a crack in the wooden floor, apologetically adding the essential detail, and then suddenly becoming hectic, twitching and spasming around the hovering figure, caressing the floor one moment and attacking it almost aggressively the next. Miriam would always be enchanted by how he did it, and lurching forward, the candlelight twinkling under her breath, she could see the waters part under the hand of her brother as the children of Israel would march toward their long-aspired-for freedom.
“And then? What happens then?” she would ask and fiddle nervously with her hair, and its curls would remind him of tiny tamed snakes, and he would smile widely, his teeth shining like crystals in the hidden cavern near the Congo river, because his little sister was a water spirit and she was sitting right in front of him under the kitchen table. And that was the only reason (and did he need another one?) he couldn’t stop the charcoal from furnishing the figure with a fishtail and giving birth to a beautiful gap-toothed creature, whose long woolly hair spread in black waves across the floor taking possession of the table’s legs, reaching toward the stove. “Do you think there are mermaids in the North, Mo? I don’t believe you.” Yes, white spirits as free as the ocean, and their constant defenders, black boys with charcoal rods. But before he could tell her that there would be anything she wanted in the North, the wind blew out the candle, and the sea, and the figure, and the fishtail dissipated in the enveloping darkness.
Miriam jumped up clumsily (too clumsily for a water spirit, who was supposed to be graceful and agile, he thought) and puffed out an “oh” when she hit her head on the table board, and he laughed, because water spirits didn’t say “oh” and they didn’t hit their head on table boards, and she laughed, too, because the beads of his laughter fell down like droplets of the morning rain. So when their mother returned from work, they didn’t notice a bag with groceries tremble in her hands. Two unblinking eyes were staring at Mo from the bag and he thought that it was a very special day, because they rarely had fish for dinner. Miriam rushed to boil milk and Mo prepared to scale the fish when their mother finally spoke, so quietly that Mo wondered if it was a voice in his head: “We are leaving tomorrow.” Miriam asked “Where?” and she answered “Someplace safe”, and he thought of the mermaid lurking under the kitchen table. “Will father come home for dinner, will there be honey rivers there?” Miriam always asked several questions at the same time, because she wanted to know everything at once, and he thought about that one time when he had been stung by a honeybee and Miriam laughed and laughed at his swollen nose; but the sound of shattering glass startled him and he looked down before looking up.
The floor was white with milk dripping from the pieces of a broken jar, and Miriam’s figure was frozen in the doorway, her eyes fixed on something in the garden, and the fish in his hands was gaping at him with hate and disgust.
“Who the hell names their kid Mo? Why hasn’t your mommy named you Moo, ’cause that’s all ya do, you never say a word, you only moo! Ha-ha-ha!” They used to tease him back in the South thinking it was funny, and he used to smile his ivory smile instead of making them angry by saying that no, it wasn’t.
That’s why he liked the “no-talk” rule at the foundry, because black and white people worked side by side in silence, and he could think about whatever he wanted, and he felt safe. One hundred twenty-five, he counted as he poured molten steel into a mold. One hundred twenty-six, he wiped the sweat away from the forehead with the back of his hand. One hundred twenty-seven, nobody had ever been closer to the heat of the sun than he had. One hundred twenty-eight, this was like making jam: boil the fruit, add some sugar and let it simmer some more, ladle the jam into prepared jars and seal them.
It seemed unbelievable how this formless mixture would become that thing, but he had seen it, the latest Ford model; and it was born right in his hands – hands that used to draw Jengu spirits and other nonsense on the wooden floor under the kitchen table, hands of an eighteen-year-old African American man.
And whenever he walked along the streets of Detroit, the sounds of honks and shouts of newspaper boys and “Watch out where you going!” merged into one endless tune, which picked him up with a long hook and flung him into the hopper of civilization. And the exciting feeling of importance and belonging to the “community of tomorrow” was bubbling in his chest, and he wanted to jump in front of the first car that he would see and shout: “I made it! You’re driving the car that I made with these very hands!”, and when he closed his eyes on a tram on his ride home, he saw himself behind the wheel of an automobile, which carried him far, far away above the skyscrapers and oceans and jungles, towards the sun; but then he woke up from the loud “Terminal stop, pal.”
When he approached their house, he ran up the stairs two at a time and flung the door open, not able to control his huge smile, because he was covered in snow from top to toe and he wanted Miriam to see him like this, white and happy, and he wanted to tell her how many molds he had filled today and how many cars they would make thanks to him; but why was it so quiet in the apartment?
He tiptoed toward the stripe of dim light coming from behind the half-open door. He thought that he heard whispers – “Please” and “Don’t leave us” – but Miriam must have been talking to someone else, because their mother wasn’t going anywhere, and he wanted to tell his sister just that, when she suddenly appeared in the doorway and froze in front of him. He opened his mouth, but she said: “Mom is sleeping” and shut the door briskly (too briskly for their mother not to wake up, he thought). She appeared to look darker in the darkness of the corridor, and he wondered how it was even possible, and he wanted to laugh, but for some reason he didn’t. He felt empty and as if he was missing something behind Miriam’s gleaming eyes and behind that closed door.
His feet carried him to the street, where the snowstorm dispersed his worries. Duke Ellington’s “Blues of the Vagabond” lifted him up and whirled like a snowflake, and he felt light and content again. He entered his favorite bar – “Glad to see you again, buddy” – and occupied his usual seat in the deepest corner, a bottle of Stroh’s in one hand and a pencil stump in another.
Sometimes he drew automobiles, mighty steel carriages of the Gods of the twentieth century; sometimes he drew skyscrapers, strong giants that touched the skies; and sometimes he drew people in the bar, their merry flushed faces surrounded by the foggy smoke of unrealized dreams. But today the pencil broke into its own dance, executing tuck turns and fishtails of jitterbug. Some lines were elegant and refined, others cheeky and daring; some were self-confident and thick, others modest and barely visible. So engrossed in the little magical world on the paper, he didn’t notice that he wasn’t alone anymore.
“Swell picture you got there.”
Mo jerked up his head so fast that the room was sent swirling around him, and the face of the stranger swirled together with it. The face of a white man.
Slurring out his name, the man offered his hand. In the shimmering darkness of the secluded corner he was almost as black as Mo, but not black enough. Mo stared at the hand, which screamed “Welcome” and “No colored allowed” at the same time, but before he could decide which voice was louder, the white man shrugged his shoulders, took a sip from his bottle of beer, and spoke. His voice flowing through Mo’s mind like milky rivers, the white man spoke about persecution and inequality, tyranny and injustice, industrial unions, actions “for the benefit of our American society”, in-te-gra-tion and e-ga-li-ta-ri-a-nism. The words, so frail and incoherent in his mind, sprung up like majestic skyscrapers when uttered by the white man. The white man was an art dealer and painted a tad himself. Would Mo like to show him more of his pictures? Because the white man knew some highbrows, some real “big shots”, who were mighty interested in works by fellows like him. Fellows like him? Did he mean fellows who liked drawing? The white man laughed, and his laugh reverberated in Mo’s head like the humming engine of the automobile that he would buy for Miriam, like the chink of coins that he would toss on the cash desk, buying rings, necklaces, candies, chocolate cakes – “So what do you say, pal?” – and he nodded and nodded and wanted to shout “Yes!” from Detroit’s First National Building and he looked up before looking down.
His mother’s eyes were gazing at him through pencil doodles, and he felt a wave of nausea as the fish that had been gaping at its prey for eight years finally swallowed him.
“You can hold her, she ain’t gonna bite you!” When the white man gave him a paintbrush for Christmas, Mo took it between his trembling fingers with as much care and seriousness as this “symbol of friendship” implied.
Only once in his life had he held anything with the same curiosity and amazement: when he was five years old and when he became the happiest black boy in the South – no, in the whole world. “You can hold your little sister, she ain’t gonna bite you!” Light as a pebble, the tiny creature wrapped up in a bundle of blankets smelled like ocean, and he would always see her like this: floating between this world and the next. And he was happy, because he would never be alone anymore. He drew a bird and brought the drawing to her honey-colored eyes. “She understands nothing yet,” they told him, but she gripped his hand with her tiny fingers with such strength, that he knew that she did, she did understand everything, and he promised that he would never ever stop drawing for his little water spirit.
And when the white man asked him to paint something special, something au-then-tic, Mo lifted up his eyes and saw Miriam swaying in front of the stove to the tantalizing melody coming from the street. She helped him turn their mother’s corner of the room into a studio (because every artist needed to have his own studio, the white man said), and she gave him a glass jar when he made his tenth trip to the washbowl to clean his brush. Plunging the brush – the natural extension of his hand – into the jar, he would stir it slowly, watching attentively how the paint would gradually leave the brush, dispersing in the still water, a tiny rainbow of all the myths and folktales that he had ever been told by his mother sparkling in the sunlight before turning into foggy greyness of a rainy afternoon in Detroit; and then he would start painting.
The queer state of creative delirium swaddled him tightly, and he felt reborn on the tip of his brush. Letting his mind float down the river of his memories, he didn’t pause to contemplate his work. A giant many-sided eye, suspended between the earth and the skies, it could glimpse into the past and into the future, and it told the truest of all the stories ever told.
He didn’t notice the Saturday evening pass by, and then Miriam told him it was Sunday, and then Monday, and then Tuesday. When he came to the foundry on Wednesday, his job had already been assigned to another man. But he had finished his painting, and nothing was more important than that. The white man would pay for it, and he would see Miriam’s eyes sparkle again.
Standing on the white man’s porch on Michigan Ave, all the particles of his body (tiny black snowflakes) crunched under the blinding gaze of a street-lamp. His treasure was wrapped in a bed sheet to protect it from the biting frost, and he smiled when his stomach growled being outraged by the fourth cup of coffee, the only thing he had since yesterday’s morning when Miriam told him that they had run out of money; because he thought about the chicken, big and greasy, that he would buy on his way home. A knock on the door and a moment later he was encompassed by heavenly warmth, the white man’s hand falling heavily on his shoulder, and then gesturing him inside. Would he like some coffee? No? It was rude to refuse. Sure thing he was joking, ha-ha-ha, Mo could relax. So what did his pal bring him? A painting, huh?
Mo’s fingers started to tremble (but it must have been the cold, he thought) when he was unwrapping his newborn. He looked down, tracing the edge of the carpet with his foot but not daring to step on it with his dirty boots as the white man examined the canvas silently, and waited – waited for the white man to call him “pal”, and to say that his picture was “swell”, and to put the heavy white hand on his shoulder – but then he was slapped across the face, losing the balance and falling on his knees, and coffee gurgling in his stomach.
“What the hell is this?” Blood in his mouth felt warm like the chicken soup Miriam would make him. “You think that’s swell, pal?” Mo grinned, because he said “swell” and he said “pal”. “Funny, you find it funny?” Another blow to his head and Mo understood how flying on a merry-go-round must feel like. “And you dare come into my house to make fun of me? You think you are better than us? Look! Look!”
Sharper than any knife, the sound of the torn paper pierced Mo’s heart, and stupefied, numb – why, why, why – he watched the remnants of his painting – the fraction of his soul, his stillborn – fall to his feet. Miriam’s smile, which he hadn’t seen in real life for such a long time, and his grip on the wheel of an automobile, together they were soaring in the bluest of skies above the skyscrapers of Detroit; and he should have told the white man about the molten steel, and how he made automobiles, and about his dream on a tram, and then the white man would have liked the painting.
Was that a dream, albeit a very bad one, because he hadn’t eaten anything since yesterday’s morning? Was that a dream when the white man threw him out on the street and he stumbled and was falling, falling, falling infinitely into the snow, and hit his elbow, because the snow was not as soft as he had thought?
It must have been a dream, because when he returned home, Miriam told him that it was time for him to wake up. Didn’t he remember their father? Didn’t he remember his god-damn black body swinging on the tree? But it was in the South, right? In the South, where they were hated, and hungry, and black. So, what? Did he think that in the North they would suddenly become loved, and happy, and white? Didn’t he see their mother fading away, dying of tuberculosis, or, perhaps, of pneumonia, or hunger, or the cold – they would never know, because they barely had money for her funeral, didn’t they? They had always been black and they would always be, either in the South or in the North. She was pregnant, Miriam said. She loathed white people and she loathed black people, she loathed their father and mother, she loathed Mo and she loathed herself, but she wouldn’t let her child loathe itself.
The flutter of green leaves in the moonlight, and the whistle of the wind, and the black shadow soaring between the branches of a pine tree. The charcoal mermaid drowning in a milky river. He had fallen asleep nine years ago. Brown soil stuck under his fingernails and methodical movements of a heavy spade, digging a grave for his father, his mother, Miriam and himself. There was no world to wake up to.
How did he end up behind the wheel of a Ford? Perhaps, it was left with its doors open for any thief by its careless driver, or, perhaps, it was conjured by his imagination. The next moment he remembered, he was driving fast, people stopping in their tracks, gaping at him silently. But he had as much right to this car as they did. He had forgotten who he was. The boy who believed there were mermaids in the North (but there weren’t). The boy who believed there was no white and black in the North (but there was). The boy who remembered it now and who screamed: “I’m free!”
The car rolled off the road and onto the rails. The train – steaming and shrieking, and, perhaps, the same train that had brought him to the central station of the Land of Deception nine years ago – grew larger in the rear window, and he gripped the wheel and looked straight ahead.
The fish spit out its prey and the comfort of darkness enveloped him: his one-way ticket to freedom.