(HOME IS THE PROUDEST of all INSTITUTIONS)

This  is my  Big Momma's  garden. She  was the  daughter of  Mary Hairston  Pannill who  was  the daughter   of   America   Hairston  Calloway  of  the  Hairston's  Beaver  Creek  plantation  in  Henry  Co. Virginia. It is her handwriting on the photograph with Home is the Proudest of all Institutions. She walked with a  cane. Her  cane was  a broomstick.  She called  the broomstick  her horse.  She died before I was born,  but she  lived in  Stuart,  VA and  her  house is  now  the fire  station.  At her death,  she asked  that her boxwoods be  moved to the grounds  of the new hospital  on the other side of town.  They are still there, lining the circle drive.

CROSSING THE OCEAN

This ocean is such a burial ground.  I read once that it can take months for a dead body to reach  the bottom  and  by. the  time  it  gets there,  it  is  mostly  gone,  having  been  eaten  by  all  kinds  all  the  way down. Connecting in London Heathrow, we had free and unlimited beer and wine through British Airways.  We  landed  in  Accra  in  the  dark  on  Bob  Marley’s  birthday  a  little  drunk.  As  such, everywhere was a party. The thumping bass at our hostel in Jamestown, the old British part, shook everything.  I  hung  Mimi’s  silk  shirt  on  the  door  knob.  I  had  brought  it  with  me  as  part  of  my ancestral  past.  Everything  was so  hot.  Phil  and  I  didn’t  fall  asleep  until  the  music  stopped  and  the music stopped when it was light.  Earlier that night I'd chipped my front tooth on a beer bottle and thought  about  swimming  in  the  ocean.  We  didn’t  know  when  we  set  out  for  Africa  that  I  was pregnant.

DAUGHTERS

The day we found out I was wearing  a T-shirt  for a family reunion.  The  reunion  had  happened  five years before I was born.  There's a box of them in the laundry room at my parent’s house.   Nearly full term, the large  fit  over  my  belly - the  extra  rubber-banded  in  a  ponytail  at  the  small  of my back. I was on  a  gurney.  Belly  mooned  on my legs.  On  the  ultrasound,  they  showed  me  the  four-square  of  my child’s  heart no longer moving.  I screamed and screamed and screamed.  I had to be restrained.  Your Mom-mom  talks  to ghosts — her  mother,  Bernice,  in particular,  but  after we lost  you,  Bea,  to  the next  she  stopped  talking  to  her  mom,  your  great  grandmother,  because  she  was  angry  she  hadn't warned  her  about  your  death.  I   guess  her  mom  had  told  her  after  the  fact  that  she'd  known  the outcome all along, and Mom-mom was pissed.

RIGHTEOUS AND THE OWL

Righetous  was  the Hairston  family's  ferryman.  Based  out  of  Cooleemee,  he took  them  across  the Yadkin  to the  small community  and mercantile  there,  or  down  the  river to  other  Hairston  plantations - poling.  The  forest  is deciduous,  thick  and  hiding even  in winter.  At  Cooleemee  Plantation  I  am walking down the slave-dug terraces; after two, I turn left. With my dog sniffing, nosing ahead of me. Parallel the river.  Climbing under and over branches and logs.  Getting caught.  I can't see her anymore, but I can  hear  her snaggling  through the undergrowth.  Everything wet.  The sky grey.  My  feet into the soft ground. Leaves.

RIGHTEOUS AND THE OWL

A small hill over-looking the river, I heard something and turned right. Righteous ferrying the boat to shore.  Poling  it.  He  had  a big hat.  A  big  beard  tipped  grey.  I  sort  of  saw  my  Mimi,  but I didn’t.  No one was  on the  ferry.  He  reached the  bank.  Tied  it  to a tree.  A beautiful knot.  A loop  that  looked as if he could just pull it and be away.

RIGHTEOUS AND THE OWL

Righteous  arranged  a log  as  a  seat.  Vertical  like  a tree  again.   He  didn’t  appear  to  be  doing  anything  out of  his normal.  I tried  to introduce  myself,  but he couldn’t see me.  He  took  a  pouch  of tobacco out of his shirt pocket.  Started smoking.  I’m not sure if it was pipe or papers.

RIGHTEOUS AND THE OWL

I  asked  for Chrillis  and  she  appeared  in  white  and  as  a  child.  A night dress.  Very slight.  Angular  face. Light skinned. She couldn’t see me. I looked right again. Over my shoulder.  There was an Owl with dinner-plate eyes on a branch in a tree just behind Righteous. The Owl could see each of us when we couldn’t see each other.  The Owl grabbed Chrillis on her shoulders.  Lifted.

RIGHTEOUS AND THE OWL

His talons over her night dress. There didn’t seem to be blood. Or I couldn’t see the blood. I grabbed Chrillis  from the Owl.  Around  her  waist.  Kept  her  on the ground.  This  seemed  important.  And  then we,  Chrillis  and I,  could  sort  of see each other,  but  we were  more  forces than  bodies.  The Owl  landed on  Righteous’  shoulder.  Righteous  didn’t  make  notice,  just kept  smoking,  but I  was  sure  Righteous could see the Owl.  Was sure Righteous knew the Owl and the Owl knew Righteous.

RIGHTEOUS AND THE OWL

On  shore,  Righteous  didn’t  worry  over the scuffle.  He undid the knot.  He got back on the raft.  Poled it  from  the  bank.  Then,  I was  with him.  It  was  unstable in  the river.  Trouble standing.  Spreading wings,  the Owl  hit  me overboard,  held me  under.  It  felt  right.  One  of the  candles  was put out.  The other spoke of the past, its dead.

RIGHTEOUS AND THE OWL

We  have  a  large white  hoop hanging  from a  limb  in  our backyard.  Phil  found  it  in  an alley.  I  think  it must  have  been the  thing  that  held  the  glass in  on  an outdoor  table.  For  a  bit,  it  was  low enough  to the ground that I tried to teach Oyster to jump through it, but she would have none of it. My eldest daughter had died two weeks earlier and I’d been crying since lunch.  On  the  phone,  Mom-mom  asked who George was.  I  told  her  there  were  many  Georges  in  my  past   including  the  George  who'd  made my  coffee  that  morning.  She  said  it was  very  important,  that  this  George  had  told  her  the  Owl  was also  Chrillis  and  that  Chrillis  was  all  of  it.  I  asked what  is  it  to  be  from  the  oppressor, to know they are your people whipping up money through blood.

At the confluence,

 

a river and the ocean

 

in Ghana Phil was poisoned

 

for two days & I had a waking

 

dream I saw Righteous

 

placing an obol

 

my daughter behind the fire,

 

a silhouette, his beard.

 

pointing toward the salt   

 

the pregnant street

 

dog at my feet inching

 

  in the warm night. I climbed

 

into the ocean like a bed.

 

My eldest would be received

 

fresh from her life. I would ask

 

Righteous if he knew.

return to ISSUE ONE