There are some things the body remembers. How to ride a bike, the way home, and the feeling of shame. The tricky thing about the body is; it may heal from the scar left by a rabid dog, but it may never heal from the terror of its bite. I still hear barking in my dreams. The snicker of the man and the laughter of the hyena are taunting me. Are haunting me. Since that wild dog bit me, My Body somehow has found a way to heal itself. But the thing that broke was inside me.
The shame I have carried in My Body for all these years of shrinking and shimmering, and flinching has bloomed, and it is now an ugly weed inside of me. It was planted in this house, by my kind mother, and nurturing father. They did not know to remove this weed when they were gardening. This shame is the only thing that now lives in me. It was this shame that forced me to seek solace in liquor and meet the touch of a stranger. The shame that caused me to kill myself. For all I know, I should have died.
I was attacked by a monster and woke up on my bed. Monsters are real. The Douen is real, the Popobowa is real. And they all want me. Why? Today I am alive, and for this I give thanks. Soon enough the knocks on the door will begin, “Akeelah how are you doing, Akeelah is there anything we can get you, Akeelah how could you do this to our family?”. I could not brush my teeth without Aunty J’s watchful eyes, or bathe without reminding me to wash the drool out of my hair. I could not stand her constant nagging of what a girl should or should not do, where she should be, and what she should wear and Dad’s “Akeelah, how could you, I am disappointed in you.” Is it safer in my home, or outside? The shapeshifter can always come back. Where am I safe?
I hear footsteps splatter across the house, and I feel Saturday in the air. There is only one thing to do. The thing I have done every Saturday morning since I was twelve. I prayed to My Body for strength, I heard it respond with an “amen”. I see my necklace rising and falling on my chest. I ready it for the task. I tiptoe to my shoes, slide them on my feet, zip my bag on with only the essentials. My hair free, teeth unbrushed, body unbathed. I make a run for it. Zip down the stairs, I kissed Grandma good morning and grabbed a loaf off mom’s plate with my right hand and Papa’s Saturday shopping list with my left. “Good morning family,” I yelled out, one greeting to save them all, and dash out. A risk I was willing to take. Consequences I will surely have to live with for the rest of my life.
An echo of “let her be” guides me through the door, and the footsteps that would have come crashing after me, and the engine that would have chased me down are halted, albeit momentarily. The morning was cool, crisp, kind. Now on my bicycle, I pray My Body remembers its way home and carries me far away from my shame.
The city glides by me, as muscle memory pushes me to Kareem’s Corner Store. Papa says “ this is where you should pick up everything that does not grow from the ground.” Mr. Kareem and Papa have struck the oddest of friendships. They can barely make out each other’s sentences, still, they love talking to each other. He sees me walking towards him and waves and points to his ear, which is awkwardly sandwiching his trusted 2005 Samsung against his shoulder, as his hands continue multitasking. I nod and smile politely as I walk by him and begin to scan the aisles. The shop can fit five, maybe six of me at the same time. It is hard enough to deal with myself. Six of me? Too much. Today I’m the only other person in here besides Kareem. The walls are a muted mint green, I catch a swift breeze of the fan as it warps the air around itself and strolls through the aisles. I feel the tremor rise in My Body. As checkmarks jump off the list and into my hands, I try hard not to drop myself, and everything I carry.
“Well tell him that’ it. How ya gon teef da man’s ting and expect no consequence? Igh I gotta go. Talk to you, bye.” Kareem finishes his conversation as I try to gracefully unload my arms, but spill myself all over the counter.
“ What’s de matter, matter?” Kareem says.
“Rough, rough uncle, rough rough, you want give me bad day discount ?”
“You wan give me bad life tip?” He chirps.
“Your Papa say tek yuh time coming up!”
“Thanks Uncle Kareem!”
My Body climbs back on my bicycle and takes me up the hill and to Papa’s farm. It’s the same route I have travelled since I was twelve – It’s the safest place in the city. I had craved the challenge of the cycle up the hill, the little victory that came with every climb. As the years passed us by, this time we spent together had become ritual. His silence was safe. His presence was penance. When he heard my stories and misadventures, his judgment was fair, and discipline was even. With him, there was never shame or persecution. Today I would need his peace more than I have ever in the years I have known him.
Papa’s house is built on the family farm. When I say family farm, I mean: the farm is a member of the family. Dad inherited it from mom’s dad before he passed and now runs it with grandma. Sometimes we stayed in the house, other days we stayed on the farm. The farm has been in our family for five generations, and I intend to keep it this way for five more. After Grandad died, there were those that wanted to take the farm from us. But the land refused to grow anything for anyone that was not an Adinkra or Greaves. The animals refused to give birth, or hatch eggs, or even give milk. Chickens roamed headless for days, and the cow meat refused to cook.
I learned much of who I am on this farm. I buried my first best friend, Kapok- a silk cotton tree, on this farm. The day she died, I wore a green dress and cried for days. This farm, for better or for worse has always been my second home. And for years now I have shared it with Papa. I remember when he moved in, there was a little ant hill growing on the side of his house. Dad had threatened to tear it down, but Papa protested saying the ants were perfect neighbors, “how would he feel if a stranger walked into his house, and ruined your peace!” He protested. He is that kind of man, thoughtful, considerate, peaceful, and kind.
“Child, why your face look like you be thinking so hard? You forget yourself somewhere?”
“Oh Papa, rough couple of days, you not going to the farm today?”
“ Kareem nuh tell you, just taking some time to cool off, the day hot hot, but you go ahead.”
I hop off my bike, placing his groceries on his feet, I give him a kiss.
“I’ll see you at the back!”
Papa had a small garden of groundnuts, tomatoes and peppers. Papa loves groundnuts! If you ever need to find him, just look at the ground for traces of empty groundnut shells. It will always lead you right to him. From the porch, I trace the crumbs of groundnut shells he leaves in his wake to the middle of the garden. On my way, I grab a hoe, a shovel, some gloves and a small wheelbarrow.
I take to the ground, clasp the hoe in my hand, and it slips through my fingers. I grabbed the shovel, and my fingers refused to wrap around it. The tremors from the bite still haunt me. I taste the man on my lips, I smell him on my hands, feel his hand rough on my thigh. The hound chasing me in the dead of night, his snarl, the saliva from his teeth. He hunted me down like prey. I thought I was in charge, but it was all a lie. He didn’t even try. And I walked right into his jaws. My nose catches a memory of sulphur in the air, I remember how my voice has never been the same since the day of my scream. I hear it call on me from beyond Akeelah! Akeelah! Like a Douen taunting me to my death.
Give me a shovel and all I know to do is dig a grave. The ground jumps to my face, and my tears flood the nursery. I kneel in this bed of weeds, knowing I am the weed that needs to be uprooted, slashed and burned.
After years of turning through soil, the only things I have learnt to nurture in My Body are fear and shame. My Body is a cemetery for myself. What do I know of planting, roots and growth? Since I was a babe in the nursery I was taught to run away from myself, to shrink so others feel more comfortable walking over me. I’ve been groomed to be the best example of Proper. To be the polite kind of angry, the respectable kind of radical. I’ve been called soft, a coconut, a white girl with Black skin, too Black, not Black enough, burnt, dirty. I have been mauled by a dog, I lost my brother to a demon, twice! My list is deep enough to be a grave.
I try to wipe the tears out of my eyes, but tears keep pouring. I plant my hands in the weeds and force them out of the ground but they taunt me. My Body trembles with rage. I remember all the outbursts I swallowed. I learned to hide anything that could construe me into an aggressive, angry, unruly, girl. I swallow a bottle of rum to make me numb from all of the times that I was reduced to my skin. My throat is a graveyard for words I keep inside. The weeds planted in between my finger palms, now mocking me, now pulling me into the ground.
As a kid, I’d eat all of my lunch, not leave a mess, always ask permission, never talk back. I make sure to listen and be respectful and peaceful and quiet. Even when harm was being done to me. As an adult, I can’t afford to rest my eyes for a second or take a risk, not even for one night. I can’t afford to do or be anything less than perfect. Mother says my education depends on it, grandma says my future depends on it, now I know my life depends on it. Everything I ever wanted, runs away or is stolen from me. How does My Body know how to hold this much grief. I wonder how much of it belongs to me, and how much is in my bloodline.
That is not Papa’s voice. I look around to find who was talking to me.
The groundnut shells are talking?
“Papa!! Papa!!! Are you there?”
The silence that responds cuts deep. Papa is infamous for his deep sleeps, and now I am all alone with a talking groundnut!
My ears collect fragments of sound from the echo of an echo. And I know these words from my father’s lullaby. Dad would sing,
Baby dieɛ, ompe su,
Sɛ ɔresua na ɛkɔm ne ɛdi no.
Mo ma ne koko, mo ma ne nufoɔ
Mo ns3 k3t3 ma nenda wa daa
The groundnut stands up on two feet. I see what looks like a head, it opens its eyes, and walks towards me. I want to run to Papa to get help. I’ll tell them I was tending his garden when a talking groundnut asked me to stop crying.
What is Papa growing in his garden? Did I smoke it somehow? Am I losing my mind?
The groundnut looks at me with equal surprise and equal confusion. I feel my necklace leap with joy, like it was reunited with an old friend. The sun now at its highest peak, the sweat on My Body coats me in melanin.
There is something about this fairy that is so familiar. I dig through what feels like centuries of memories trying to recall. I conclude; anything that is not a shapeshifter, or hyena seems safe. Whatever happens next will be my choice to make.
With an echo of a voice, it responds, “Medase.”
The look on its face turns from confusion to curiosity. I take off my gardening gloves and, with my silence, ask it to climb my hands. And it does. I pull it closer to me. With a fog in my throat I say;
“My name is Akeelah, and it is really nice to meet you.
What is your name, who is your family?
Are you hungry?
Why are you all alone and where will you spend the night?
My Papa is sleeping, but you can stay with us if you would like.”
“Is Aziza my name?” It responds.
“Am I hungry?”
“Well I don’t know, you tell me?” Strange to answer a question with a question.
“ Well yes, I think that is your name, and I don’t know if you are hungry, but I am”
I ask Aziza to shuffle to my left hand. And with my right, I pluck a small ripened tomato, dip it in water, take a tiny bite out of it, and invite her to eat with me. Aziza settles on the cracks of my palms. Her silence reminds me of Papa’s. She eats like eating is an event. Her shoulder settled back, her peanut shell falls off her back. Her skin breaks out of the brown husk to the darkest, glossiest black that was painted from the depths of space. Moth-like wings bloom from her back. They are black blue, blue and orange, with tips that were painted by a rainbow. She smiles like a child learning of laughter for the first time, and, leaving my hand, now high up in the sky, she points at the anthill beside Papa’s house and says, “Do you know what a family is? ”
Out of the anthill emerges a swarm of Aziza. When they rise, there is a partial eclipse of the sun. They look like a swarm of moths painted by a rainbow. I hear the flap of the wings, the drag in the air, and now I remember how I was rescued that night.
The Aziza echo, “Would you follow if we teach?”
“Yes! Yes, I will!”
They take flight, and I follow in hot pursuit.
I run up to the yard, all this noise does not wake Papa deep in sleep. I hop on my bicycle and chase after the Aziza. I dash through the orchid, maze through the cornfield, I drift through a drift of pigs. I heard the cows moo me on. I ring a field of bell peppers and outrun all the trees until I am under the shade of the Aziza who now hovers over me.
Under my feet lies the grave of Kapok, my first best friend – the silk cotton tree. Dad said these trees should be in the forest and not farms. It was too large, it was “an invasive species.” Aren’t we all invasive species? Did we all not come from somewhere and grow somewhere we were not built for? That did not matter to him. He cut it down. He said it had to die, for other plants to live. Watching this tree fall was my first memory of death. Its bare existence was a nuisance, and it had to be removed, to be destroyed so violently by a man I love. It was here I learned how violence can be done to living breathing things. It was my first memory of grief and the genesis of my shrinking. I now stand on the ground where it was buried.
The Aziza continue to hover. They holler.
“Are you waiting for yourself ?”
“Waiting for myself ?”
There are some things the body remembers. Like how to ride a bike, the way home, and the feeling of shame. I think to call out to Papa one last time, but the thought evaporates as it rises. I feel the necklace rise and fall with confidence in my chest. Here lay a hole in the ground where my best friend used to live. It was a graveyard now covered by a legion of weeds. Papa tells me to garden, you must be able to dig deep into what has been dead and buried and provide warmth until it becomes whole again. You must get down to earth and bare yourself. So I get on my knees, and with my bare hands, I begin to garden. Maybe truly for the first time. Plucking the weeds that have infested My Body.
Grandmother asks me to believe I am powerful, and a village of ancestors walk with me. As I garden, I pray to My Body to believe. I know I have to. My Body begs me to remember the way back to myself. This is the only way. I fear this is a road I have never known. As I weed, I hear a knowing call out from a seed inside of me. I feel the weeds in My Body shift, and the faint voice grows louder. I dig deeper and pull out as many weeds as I could reach. For me to come back, there must be an unrooting and a replanting. There must be an unrooting and a replanting. I must weed out my shame, and my guilt, and my fear, and allow myself to believe in myself.
I believe that I am powerful.
I know I must be powerful enough to believe I am powerful.
I believe I have a family who loves me.
I believe a village of ancestors walk with me.
I welcome myself home to My Body.
I feel my necklace grow warm, on my chest. The Melanin on my skin glows thick. The pin under my skin falls. I feel my skin peel off and fall dead to the ground. My feet sink into the earth until it is rooted.
The Aziza sing:
They hover in position, but their wings get louder and their chants stronger.
A ray of brown and gold shoots out from my necklace. My feet, firmly rooted, in the ground, my brown body now a trunk. My locks lock into branches. I stretch my hands to hold the clouds. The Aziza wings now fluttering beside my ears, they make haste to build their nests on my branches. My necklace forms a crest on my trunk.
All the girls who this body is also for and ask them to come out and see how powerful we are. A fruit explodes and its silk weaves into the seven-year-old girl in a green dress haunted by her first encounter with death, unsure if God thought her worthy to heal. She is learning in her own way, how not to bury herself when she buries a friend, learning how to say goodbye. A fruit puffs from my right and there is a ten-year-old girl and she is pure and wrapped in the faith that would save her family, heal her soul, and birth light. They lay in the grass together, basking in the sunshine, holding hands, knowing that they are living in all its beauty and gore. Another puffs, and she is a 20-year-old, bitten for the first time and unsure how to mend herself. She sits at my trunk with a needle and ink, etching a circle in her trunk, a reminder that all pain, healing, love and life moves in cycles, that no harm will ever stop her evolution, and she is tough and indestructible as the Wawa tree.
I tell them we can meet each other where we began, but stronger, truer, and freer. We owe this to ourselves. I ask all these memories if we can forgive each other. I promise to never lock them inside again. I promise to never run towards, or away from monsters. I watch my selves play together under the blazing sun, we rejoice at how dark it will make our skin. I see a girl who is me, and not me at the same time, the girl from the door, Kwesa playing, singing, she is holding hands with my other memories dancing in a circle around our trunk. I make a promise to her as well, that wherever she is in this world, love will always find its way home. The Aziza, the Darkest of us all bathe under the glory of the sun, and I revel in the freedom of my new found body. And this is what I know now of remembering, gardening and roots.