Today, I got off the train and passed a ghost.
He was in my periphery, the way ghosts tend to be. How often do you run smack into one? I don’t think they would be able to stay, that way.
We were walking in opposite directions. I, heading toward the stairs; he, heading further down the platform.
Step, step, step.
I recognized his long, brown, loosely curled hair. We used to tell him that he looked like Jesus, with hair like that.
I recognized the light, scruffy shading on his upper lip. The height: not tall, but not really short, either. The concentration of his eyes and eyebrows working together to marshal his thoughts and shuttle them out of his mind as he spoke.
All this happened so quickly, in passing. He was there, and then I was gone.
Step, step, step.
As I hustled up the stairs, I remembered our cousin telling me that when his mother found his body, she lay down next to it for a long time. She came into his home, and found him dead on the floor. She found him on the floor, and lay down, next to his body. She lay there for a long time, and then she told him to go look after Edward, keep him safe.
Step, step, step.
I always found that funny, her asking him to continue his role as big brother after death, when, from my standpoint, it should have been reversed. Wouldn’t he be younger, then, needing guidance through death? She must have meant it more as a sticking together thing. She didn’t want her sons to be alone. That happened enough when they were alive.
Step, step, step.
Once, his brother was in the background of my dream. Only, stupid me, I didn’t realize what was going on until I’d already woken up. This time, I was awake, and I knew, but I was striding away.
Hustle, hustle, hustle!
The whole dash to my connecting train, I thought about his mother, and his brother, more than I thought about him. William.
Step, step, step.
I could turn around and go back to him. Find him, talk to him, and say – what? We didn’t even talk that much when he was alive. The last thing I remember him saying to me was, “You clean up nice” at his brother’s funeral. Still, this could have been a chance for something more. A connection.
Hustle, hustle, hustle!
When his mother lay down next to him, I got up and cleaned the entire house in a bandeau and shorts. I’m wearing them under my clothes, now, planning to take off my dress during lunch, and soak in the sun. A meaningless coincidence. An observation without the attachment of grave significance.
Step, turn, balance.
The thing that most bothers me is how unbothered I am. I should be rocked to my core. I should be turning around and sprinting to find him again. After the dream about his brother, I was a wreck. Now, I’m still going to work. I don’t even feel guilty for being less hurt by this, although I think that I should.
Wait, wait, board.
The thing is, I can’t go back. I don’t want to go back, search, find him, and look on a face that is not my cousin’s. I have a very strong feeling that, so long as I don’t go back, his ghost will be out there, but as soon as I do, it will cease to exist. Become replaced by the body of a stranger.
It’s like how once, when walking over a bridge, I was overcome with the knowledge that if I made the leap, I would soar into the sky. Only, it was not a thing to attempt in front of so many onlookers.
Or how once, a walk with the angry man of color turned sour, and our voices muted. While I watched him sit and stew, I was filled with the understanding that if I spoke, he would kill me for not being a person. My friend believed this, too, when I told her about it afterward. Only, when in a peaceful time I finally explained my knowledge to him, he reacted with the incredulity and hurt that such a statement deserved.
Sometimes you can know things and have them be so, even when they aren’t, actually.
Stand clear of the closing doors, please.
I don’t go back because I want him to be around. I want us to have passed by, and exchanged energies. Even if we didn’t, really. This nonexistence is the best sort of connection I could hope for, right now. It’s the best way I know to hold him to the light.
Everyone said that Kaku was a witch. They said it primarily because she was old, so old that she had outlived her husband by over twenty years. He died when I was a baby, before I could build any memories with him. His death by itself wouldn’t have been enough to condemn her; there are many widows. However, few widows have also outlived children, and after my grandfather died, Kaku lost three kids.
That was wrong, people said. It started as community gossip, and eventually, other members of the family started to believe it, too. Nieces and great-grandchildren began to look at her differently. Kaku must have done something, they whispered, made a twisted deal to be here for so long, they said. When she walked through the neighborhood, children pointed at her. Sometimes, they even threw stones. Eventually, she gave up leaving the family compound for anything but church. The congregation always stared.
“Ah! Don’t worry, hein,” Kebedi, my cousin, told her. He interacted with Kaku the most in the compound, after myself. She often sent us out on errands. We would pick up things for her at the market, or deliver messages to her few remaining friends. Lately, though, he hadn’t been running as many errands, and could rarely be found in the compound. He had taken to spending his days exploring the nearby forest, searching for stones and interesting natural artifacts. As a result, I had been bumping into Kebedi most often at the market while on my errands for Kaku, only to find him hawking items for himself. Today, though, the two of us were home, and Kaku was having a moment of melancholy over her negative reputation.
“People,” Kebedi continued, “Are stupid. Witches, elles n’existent pas.”
She wasn’t soothed.
“Kebedi,” I began. I wanted to laugh, but knew it would only upset Kaku more. “It doesn’t matter if they’re real or not. People think they are, and they think she’s one of them. Her problems won’t stop, just because of logic.”
“Bof,” was his only reply.
What I never told either of them was that, secretly, I agreed with the others. Somewhat. I didn’t think that Kaku was bad, or to be feared. To survive for so long, to create such a large family and keep the majority of it running – I thought there was power in that! I revered Kaku, for whatever she was. It was why I spent so much time with her in the compound, when I wasn’t running her errands. I learned the daily songs she crooned to her chickens, memorized the ingredients she mixed up in her lotions and salves, and wrote down every story she told. Stories, and Kaku, were my greatest sources of knowledge as I grew up.
“What!” I turned to Kebedi. “Where did she go?”
“Who cares what he does?” Kebedi replied. “If he’s gone, I won’t complain.”
“I’m still here, actually,” came Baraka’s voice, from the place she’d been standing before she vanished. “You asked me how I view myself, but I never saw the point in that, so I don’t!”
“Oh,” was all I could say.
“Would you mind if I changed, though? I like to see where I’m going, and I like to see myself as I go.”
“S-sure,” I managed.
I could see her again. At this point, though, I wasn’t entirely sure if I could call her a she or not. I didn’t think Kebedi’s decision to label Baraka a man was correct, either – there was an altogether androgynous, amorphous feel to the creature in front of me. The face was hazier, and the freckles seemed to float. No features were defined, other than the flashing grey eyes. The locs shimmered about in the air, and the body was lost in the robes. I wondered if I was witnessing a water god and air deity, about to split apart. A strange sound escaped Baraka’s mouth, and I realized this person was laughing at me.
“What’s so funny?” I demanded.
“The expression on your face,” was the reply. “It’s the look of someone who just realized they had expectations, and is now trying to reconfigure them.”
“Well, uh – ” I wasn’t sure what to say.
Just then, I heard a light zzzzzing! sound, and something pierced the back of my knee.
“What!”I cried out, and with another faint zzzzzzing! I felt a prick in my side. I looked down and saw red welts forming where I’d felt the pain.
“Ow” I exclaimed. “What was that? What just happened?”
“Doubt,” replied Baraka. “I already told you.”
“What are you talking about? Ow!” I cried again. This time, it was because Baraka had suddenly shoved me roughly to the ground. I looked up and saw a dart clasped in the pale left hand. An indignant noise came hooting out of the trees, and I saw that there was a small, ape-like creature jumping around angrily on an upper branch. Baraka’s gaze fastened onto its yellow, filmy eyes. As if the eye contact had been a switch, the creature immediately went silent, glaring furiously into the steely grey.
“Go away, please,” Baraka said firmly to the creature. “This is one of the more satisfying conversations I’ve had; please do not interrupt.” The thing stuck out its tongue in response, and scampered away.
“Why did you do that? Where did that come from?” I was annoyed to be asking so many questions.
“What did you think Doubt was using to hit people?” was the question I got in return, as the grey eyes turned in my direction. “He likes to shoot them at people when they’re confused, to add to their disorientation. He thrives on chaos, so he follows me a lot.” Baraka threw the dart onto the ground, where it dematerialized on impact.
“You weren’t hit, though,” I noticed.
“People don’t like Doubt. Doubt doesn’t like me. Anyway, what are you looking for near the red ficus?” I felt annoyed again. It was off-putting to have the subject changed so abruptly, and I resented that they should be the one to return to the original conversation.
“Um,” I said warily, sitting down and rubbing the spots where Doubt had hit me. “Why do you assume we aren’t just trying to find a strange tree, instead of a landmark?”
“That’s a good question!” Baraka said, enthused. “Are you only looking for the tree to find it, and leave it at that?” The grey deepened as the eyes widened, taking me in.
“No,” I admitted. “It is a landmark.” I could understand some of why Kebedi disliked talking to Baraka. It wasn’t fair that this person seemed to see so much of me, while I could only see of them what they allowed me to choose. When Baraka looked at me, I felt as though my entire self was being read. Meanwhile, by allowing me to place them into my own categories, they got away with vastly limiting my understanding of them. Feeling disadvantaged, I didn’t want them to know any more about me, or Kebedi’s and my plans. None of this changed the fact that we were lost, though, and in need of help they could possibly provide.
We’d been staring into each other’s eyes the entire time I was thinking. As I pondered what to say next, I noticed Baraka’s eyes flit, just for a second, into the trees to the left above me. I whipped around to see the miniature ape crouched in the branches, bringing what appeared to be a dart-blowing gun to its lips.
“Oh, no you don’t!” I reached down to grab the nearest stone, and hurled it in the creature’s direction. Doubt disappeared, laughing wildly and scurrying up into higher branches. A shower of leaves fell onto Kebedi’s head in the wake of Doubt’s departure. He sighed resignedly, and looked over at us.
“Hmmm,” Baraka said thoughtfully, firming their facial features into something that appeared mostly feminine. She was now looking at me appraisingly. “No one’s ever driven Doubt away before.”
“That’s different. I don’t worry about the things that make me unsure,” Baraka explained, “And the way people see me is always changing, so the way I am presented is constantly reinvented, which makes it harder for Doubt to hit me. You can never find me alone with him, but he’ll pop up at some point if there are others around.You’re the first person to face Doubt. What are you looking for near the red ficus?”
I still didn’t want to share.
“Kaku told me a story, once,” I said slowly. Baraka’s eyes widened expectantly. “There was a village that was so poor, all of the adults had to spend their days in the mines. They left their children at home, so older children looked after the younger children until they, too, were of laboring age.
“One day, there was an accident in the mines. A shaft collapsed. Many adults were injured, and all of them were trapped. The children immediately began trying to dig them out, but they quickly realized they were not strong enough to rescue the adults on their own. They decided that the fastest among them should run into the city for help. That was an eleven year old girl who had never ventured beyond the fields.
“She ran off anyway, hurtling down the hills. As the village fields disappeared from view, she came to a divergence in the path. An older child had told her about this point: one path led to the city, where she would find help; and the other led to the sea, which would be of no use. She had been warned, also, that the paths were guarded by nkisi. One housed a spirit that only told lies, and the other was home to a spirit that always told the truth.
“The girl went up to the first nkisi. ‘Excuse me,’ she asked politely, ‘But is your path the path that leads to the city?’
‘Yes,’ was the answer.
‘Good!’ she said, and was getting ready to run down the path when she realized that she didn’t know which spirit she was talking to. ‘Are you the truth-teller, or the liar?’ she asked to check.
‘The truth-teller,’ said the spirit in the nkisi, but the girl realized that either one could have answered this way, and stayed true to their nature.
‘Is that the truth-teller?’ she asked the other nkisi.
‘No,’ came the reply – but that was no more helpful than the other response.
The girl was stuck. She did not have time to waste following the wrong path, and she could not ask just any question to the nkisi. She had to figure out a question to ask that would tell her the right path to take, regardless of who answered. She sat and sat, and thought and thought. Finally, she stood up, and whispered a question to one of the nkisi.
‘No,’ it told her. The girl thanked it, ran down its path, and came back later with help from the city.”
“That was wonderful!” Baraka beamed. “What was the question the girl asked?”
“Did you think the point of the story was to be given an answer?” I asked, smiling back with confidence, teasing. “It’s to look at a seemingly impossible situation, and solve it by figuring out the best question to make sense of it.
“For example, if I asked Doubt how to find the red ficus, without saying exactly what I wanted to find, there. Would he recommend you to show me the way?”
“Ah!” Baraka was pleased. Grey turned from sharp to soft as our eyes recognized each other. “Your Kaku, did she give you more stories like this?”
“Fine. You don’t need to tell me what you’re looking for near the tree. I’ll take you. But, once I’ve solved the question in this story, you’ll need to give me another.” With that, she turned down the rightmost path and began to walk away.
“Look at that, Kebedi!” I cried, springing up. “We’ve got someone to follow!”
After another hour, I was too tired to continue.
“Kebedi,” I called out as we entered a clearing in the forest, “Please, let’s take a rest. Neither of us knows where we’re going, so we may as well sit down, and come up with some sort of plan.”
Behind us was the way we’d come, and in front of us were three potential new routes, all looking more or less the same. The middle of the clearing was lit up in various pockets by the sun’s rays, shining down through a hazy mist like so many spotlights. As I sat wearily on a boulder, Kebedi stepped into one spotlight and looked at me in contempt.
“A plan,” he repeated. “How do you propose we make a plan, if the both of us are lost, and neither of us seems to have any remote sense of direction?” He looked at the three paths in front of us, and slowly blew the air out of his mouth, swiveling his head up toward the sky.
“I read a story about a detective,” I said, “Who got to wherever he needed to be, by following people who looked like they knew where they were going.”
“Great,” Kebedi said scornfully. “Then we’ll just do that, and follow who, exactly?”
“Well,” I said, “There’s someone.”
A figure was approaching in the distance, meandering up the middle path. They were dressed in long white robes that seemed to dance in the waves created by the haze. A magnificent blue headdress topped their ensemble, giving them what seemed to be an extra half a foot of height.
Kaku used to tell a story about a water god who fell in love with a daughter of the air. Every day he would wait for her to drift over him, then rise out of the sea in waves to sing to her. With time, she grew to love him back, deeply. Though consumed by desire, the two were unable to physically hold on to each other, and could only make themselves as near to each other as possible. She would dive toward his arms, but he would always separate on impact. That caused the waves, Kaku said. The god would break himself into many tiny water droplets to float through her, before eventually falling back down. That was the rain. Sometimes, overcome with passion, the god would leap out of the sea, and she would swirl around him, holding him out of the water for as long as she could. Using the gusts of wind in her power, she kept the two of them up in a tornadic waterspout.
Watching the slow movements of their advancement, and the robes swirling underneath the blue, I was reminded of that last natural occurrence. It was mesmerizing. Kebedi sucked his teeth.
“Christ,” he muttered. “Not this fucking guy.”
I looked up at him, then back toward the figure, and blinked. Although they had not changed their gait in any discernible way, they were quite a bit closer now than they had been a moment ago. What I’d previously taken to be a head wrap was actually hair. Blue locs were piled high on top of their head into a bun, reinforcing my impression of swirling water.
“I seriously hate this dude,” Kebedi was saying.
“Why?” I wanted to know.
“It’s just – the vibes, man. He ain’t straight. Being near him is unsettling. Come on; let’s leave.”
“How can we, when we don’t know which way to go?”
“Back the way we came. I don’t care. Let’s just get out of here!”
It was too late, though. The stranger had already reached us. The sun illuminated grey eyes shining out of a face dusted with freckles, as the dancing robes came to a rest in their own spotlight, and our newcomer held up a long, light hand.
“Malukayi, Kebedi?” The voice was much higher than I’d expected it to be. “How are you?” Kebedi scowled.
“Bimpa,” he replied gruffly. Then, apparently deciding that his “good” needed a modifier, he added, “Kakese. Look, guy, I don’t know what you’re up to today, but whatever it is, I don’t have time for it. Just keep it pushing, please.”
“Hmmm,” came the voice that was too high and also, I realized, too soft. “Why would you assume I am ‘up to something,’ and that it would seem to be bad for you?”
“I’m sure it couldn’t be good,” Kebedi retorted. A frown passed over the freckled face. The brow creased slightly, and the grey eyes looked almost pitying as the head cocked to the side, into a new shaft of light.
“What would you consider good? Is that limited to what you’d expect to hear, or what accords with your plans? Or do you have room for exceptions?” The change in light brought out a different view of the stranger’s face, softening it to match the voice. They were incredibly beautiful. Kebedi was uncharmed.
“Yo,” he said, as if he was shooing away someone on the street, “Keba. I already said that I don’t have time for you, pale-face, and this thing you do, twisting words around and wasting time, is why.”
“Excuse me,” I said, cutting into what I realized was not even a conversation, “But we’re lost. We want to find the red ficus. Is it possible for you to direct us?”
“What are you looking for near the red ficus?” The stranger wanted to know. They didn’t question the existence of the tree, which I took to be a hopeful sign.
“Well, you see – ” I began, but Kebedi cut me off.
“Don’t tell this asshole anything,” he growled. “It’s not like you’ll get a straight answer out of him, anyway. But even if you could, I do not trust white people, and I do not listen to white men.”
“But, Kebedi, she’s black.” Freckles notwithstanding, this was obvious to me from looking at the rest of the facial features. Then I realized I had used the pronoun without thinking about it, and something clicked. “Also, she’s…a woman? I’m sorry – are you a woman?”
“Does it make sense for you to call me that?” she asked in reply.
“Well, I think so. But okay, like, what’s your name?”
“Djina djani…You may call me Baraka,” she said.
“I thought that was a man’s name, though?” I was confused.
“Why? Don’t you know what it means? Baraka is ‘the quintessential element of nature’. You can choose to see that as masculine if you wish, although I wonder why you would?”
“Well,” I stumbled, “Maybe the meaning is not necessarily masculine, but – ”
“He’s a fucking weirdo, is what he is!” Kebedi was exasperated. “And you’ve gotten so caught up in figuring him out, you’ve forgotten all about getting to where we need to go!
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked, turning on her. “Why can’t you be straight? Every single time I have the misfortune of running into you, I always end up confused. You never give a direct answer to anything, no conversation is ever clear-cut, you question all my questions until I don’t know what I wanted to know or wanted to do or even thought originally, and then – ow! Ow!” He jumped, interrupting his vituperation to wince and swat at his leg.
“Ow!” Kebedi said, one more time, flinching. “That happens! I end up getting hurt!” He sat down stormily, turning his back to us and massaging his leg. Baraka sighed and shook her head, allowing different expressions to flit across her face. Mild annoyance was chased by disappointment, followed by understanding and settling in acceptance.
“The day Kebedi gives up his need for absolutes,” she said, “Will be the day his life becomes infinitely less frustrating.”
“What just happened?” I asked.
“He can’t stand Doubt,” she answered.
“No one likes to doubt things. What does that have to do with absolutes? Or how he just got hurt? Or why he blames you?”
“Your cousin prefers to have things just so,” she stated, swaying and using her body movements to accentuate her points. “Once he believes something to be one way, that should be it – comme ci!” She leaned onto her right hip. “When he wants to know something, it should come to him quickly – comme ca!” She moved onto her left. “What happens when someone like that, who does not appreciate having his perception of the world questioned in any way, is thrown into one of only nuance?”
The swaying turned into twirling. Light caught the robes that billowed out, making new waves and obscuring Baraka’s feet. It occured to me that tornadoes upended anything not at their centers. Kaku’s story never mentioned anything beyond the elemental lovers. I wondered what happened to the creatures caught on the outskirts of their eye.
“Is that all you do?” I wanted to know. “Force nuance onto people?”
“How could I know the entire effect I have on others?” Baraka twirled faster, seeming to float. “I embrace ambiguity. I accept that people will read me differently when it comes to my race, or gender, or even personality, but it does not matter. Of course, it unfortunately can be annoying to people who only want to view me one way, especially when they encounter others who will view me another. Most people who interact with me are also hit by Doubt. That is unpleasant for them.”
“Well, how do you view yourself?” I asked. I felt dizzy.
“How do I view myself?” she repeated.
“Like this.” She vanished.