Willa’s tiny feet rested in my hands like black wooden charms we wear around our necks. The kind of charms you find on bracelets and necklaces at home. Each charm is shaped like a part of the body that we wish to heal or make more beautiful. I squeezed my thumbs into her arch, looking up at her paper smooth face. Her thinned body sat nearly engulfed by the living room couch. She seemed to shrink more every day. Willa’s scalp was now sparse of the black thickness I adored braiding and combing in my childhood. The remaining fuzz stood up with static cling. Her modest breasts rose and fell as she inhaled and exhaled. The arches in those feet had fallen around the time I was born. She had walked herself into shin splints and hard calluses, crossing miles in the meters of other people’s kitchens. As I kneaded her bones the eyes, brain, and legs I wore for her beat against my chest.
The branch of the flamboyant tree, audaciously crimson-orange, choked with heady smelling petals, tapped the machete shaped seedpods against the shuttered storm window. Her life, my great-grandmother’s existence, was stockpiled in a single room since her house burned down. The heavy chest of drawers and matching dresser brought back from Korea by my great-grandfather long passed, and the more modern Lazyboy rocking chair sat crowded around her queen-sized bed. These were the things she demanded, in her ashen silences towards my aunts, be taken from the house back on the Keys. They were the only things not engulfed by the flames set by the crack pipe found in the backroom - a memento from my missing brother.
I had pulled her from bed around nine in the morning. Like a young girl, she still slept in a white cotton nightie. In the bathroom I sat her in those geriatric plastic chairs, removed her panties and nightie and washed her down with lavender soap. I perfumed her behind the ears with Coco Chanel. The doctor had said, “Try to imitate the routine she has most recently been following.” But I knew it was too late when I saw her, body jostling, sight failing, her mind loose and idling like a dislodged flower petal. I dressed her, gingerly slipped on her navy blue slacks and her ruffle front yellow blouse. I brushed the wig my auntie-mommy Beth had bought her. The doctor also said, “When she looks in the mirror, she should look familiar. The medicine has made her lose her hair.” The wig, a gaudy mess of short-cropped curls, would never resemble that waist-long ponytail of coarse, straight hair, like a rope.
I began to rub her tiny legs vigorously. She shivered, her chin shaking tenderly up and down, her knees buckling. She placed her hand on my shoulder when she was ready to stand. She muttered, “Come now chile.” I thought it may have been a good day, a day where she would remember my face and not call me that white gyal. Instead she signaled that it was an okay day and she said again, “Come now Francesca.”
“Get her off that couch before she pee!” My aunt’s shout popped like burning wood. I twisted up my brow and looked over my wide shoulder at her. Auntie Beth stood there, eyebrow raised, wearing a pink dress so tight it could have been painted on. The turquoise paisley on the dress swam like amoebae. Her green irises flickered from her henna dark face. Her naturally auburn hair was shaved close to her scalp and brushed smooth.
“Auntie-mommy Beth, she not goingta pee. If she do, I will clean it up. Swear.” She sucked her teeth and disappeared into the other room. I grinded my jaw so hard it could’ve turned to salt. I had been there two months already, helping to care for Great-grandma Willa during the summer months when I did not have school. Things were disappearing: insurance papers, ear bobbles and pearls from Japan that great-grandpa won while gambling in the war. Things she asked after on her good days. I looked back up to see what state of mind she was in. She was staring down at me - her milky brown irises with the crayon blue line around them soaking me up. “Francesca, how you so big? I so happy you come to care for me - I don’t like dat white gyal dey send here.” I smiled wide, flashing my straight teeth I inherited from my Mother’s side of the family. I had stopped arguing with her. You can’t argue with the weather. You can’t argue with getting old or forgetting. Sometimes I thought that it was better this way. If she knew - if she always understood that she had been reduced to a room with linoleum flooring ripping up beneath her, if she always knew that my eldest aunts were circling her desiccating body like vultures - I think she may have walked out. She would walk until she milled herself down to nothing. She had spent her whole life traveling, walking. She never learned to drive, she always walked - that was when she felt most free. I bit my bottom lip, used my thumb to clean away the grits that lingered from breakfast at the corner of her still perfect and supple mouth.
She leaned forward her hands the color of juiced plums framed my face, and she kissed my forehead. The water in her eyes pearled at the corners, her voice shifted, “We thought we would never, ever see you again, chile.” I understood why on her bad days she called me white gyal, I had my Father’s pale, freckled flesh, my Auntie-mommy Beth’s green eyes. Ever since I realized that I had a memory, ever since I looked at my palms and knew I had a self my great-grandmother had always said, “Chile - you look jus’ like dat white man.” At the same time, I was also Francesca - an infant child who died during hurricane season in Gulf Coast Florida. My Great-aunt Hattie Mae got pregnant by a landowner their family sharecropped for and his wife sent the family away. Hattie Mae died while I was small, maybe seven. My mother always said she died from a crushed heart. I imagined someone’s boot heel crushing into a bird’s ribs, sending the feathers scattering everywhere, bones splintering and squeaking. The sadness I felt when she died was for her bruised condition, swollen with sugar, broken from worry.
As I aged the women in the family began to die deaths floated to them by stopped hearts. Great-auntie-mommy Hattie Mae, Great-auntie-mommy Tina, Great-auntie-mommy Cat; all dead. Willa was the oldest and only surviving sister. Willa’s daughters Grandma Ernestine, her sister Becky, both left their children with Willa. Becky eventually had come back for Beth and Honey. Ernestine - lived right up the street from the old house without ever returning leaving my Mother Rose and Auntie-mommy Tula with Willa for good. My two Aunties Beth and Honey had taken control of the estate from Rose and Tula. The judge ruled that because Beth and Honey actually lived in Florida that they were better able to handle the money and Great-grandma Willa. But they lived crazy behind two men who were never home, the money and the men dissipated at about the same rate, but unlike the money new men always showed up. They treated their one story brick project houses like palaces they forgot they had to clean.
While visiting I made sure I was in the bed with great-grandma by a certain hour. My first week staying I was cornered in the kitchen. A so-called uncle pushed me against the wall, his hot breath on my face, “I always liked light-skinned girls,” he sprayed. I pretended to adjust my summer dress before slamming my foot into his. I took him by his collar and smashed his face into the cold stove after I kicked his ankles from under him. I reminded him I had four older brothers. He didn’t try again.
It was time for Willa’s walk. She braced herself by putting her hand on my shoulder and arising. “Good job grandma - that was real good.” I held her waist as she stepped into the loafers I had bought her, gold metallic things with thick soles. She loved them. Beth and Honey stood in the long hallway-like kitchen, smoking menthols. Honey raised her voice, “Chile! Where you going wit’ her!”
“Just for a walk, it is nice outside and I want to take her out before the kids get out of school.”
“Ah, shit.” Honey flicked her ashes to the linoleum, “She don’ remember nawtin’. If she fall, you payin’ the doctor’s bill.”
“Yes, ma’am.” That was all I could say to them, I was the youngest girl in the family. I was not supposed to argue back. I was not supposed to notice them heaping their hate for their mother on the woman that cared for them despite the circumstances. I was supposed to keep my mouth shut, be dutiful.
The cold war of Honey and Beth against Rose and Tula included holding great-grandma hostage. They threatened to put me out every other day for causing trouble. During my second night when I let my mother speak to great-grandma on my cell phone before she slept, I heaped on my concerns and incredulities.
“Why is she like this in the room all day locked up? Mommy and Tula could care for her - they could help.”
Honey fluttered her lashes, “Mind your business and tone.”
I continued - pushing forward, “Nah. You won’t let her talk to her other children. She said she wants to go home. Mommy and Tula live closer.”
Beth and Honey exchanged glances, I had assumed that great-grandma would be going home, that the house would be rebuilt. I watched their lips tighten, then continued,
“You two are rebuilding the house, right?”
Beth, exasperated, snatched the cellphone from my hand, pinching my fingers, “We sold it and you better watch your mouth - you are in my house now.”
We shuffled quietly and carefully from the side door. Honey huffed up her big body, heavy breasts and wide basket hips behind us to follow us out. We made it to the sidewalk, the breeze was cool, folding against the pair of us. Red buds and open-throated Birds-of-paradise dipped towards the wet soil - the rain had stopped just as eagerly as it had started. Honey’s black-brown eyes glared towards us. She flicked her cigarette into the tiny square of grass hemmed in by concrete. I just wanted to get her away from them. Their eyes ticked like timers rushing the seconds. How much money could a private chef have stashed secretly away for them to crave like mosquitoes needed to bite. We rounded the corner, I was surprised by how strong her legs were. I added a little speed to my step, but then slowed seeing the cadence of her walk falter. She gripped my forearm tightly and continued to muddle forward. I knew the trees by color, the fruit on them and their flowers, but not their names. Great-grandma knew the names like she remembered first cousins she bathed with, like she remembered the birthmarks on all of her children. When we walked together I always asked her to tell me the names of the trees. The neighborhood was one of squat clapboard houses painted in whatever color the owner thought would keep away bad spirits, an old superstition. Some of the men in the neighborhood, like their cars, sat perched on cinder blocks, the sticky sour scent of their smoke floating to us. Girls stood on the corner, eyeing me sharply. I was used to it, even my cousins sometimes cut their eyes at me. I did not know yet what jealously meant, I did not think I was worthy of it.
My great-grandmother suddenly paused, beginning to talk, “You know Ernestine didn’t know her ass from a hole in the ground.” I guffawed, my mouth falling open, eyes wide as I watched her expression, serious as a whetstone. She was sharpening her words against that expression. I fumbled in my pocket for my phone, she looked for it expectantly - I had been recording her memories since I arrived - she knew she had an audience.
“Just any man. She’d leave and come right back to da yard, pregnant. Five babies she gave away. FIVE!! Out of all my children, Sunflower’s Mammy, Rose, she is my favorite. Now - don’t you go tellin’.” I smirked and shook my head from side to side, my puffy explosion of light brown curls wavering, I was Sunflower. I reassured her, “No never, Grandma Willa. Never.”
“Rose was de’ happiest lil gyal I eva seen. She always smilin’. Fresh though. Fresh. Fresh mout’ she got. E’ry day we walk to de’ bus stop, she in her yellow ruffle knickers and dress, wit’ she bonnet on. I luh’ta dress she in yellow - Sunflower, we call she daughta’ Sunflower too, Franny. Tchssssssssssssssssst.” She sucked her teeth. Revving up for more. “Dees hea’ niggas t’ink dat de white man always hate us, nah true! At de bus stop, dey always gave me and she a seat. They didn’t like the law anymore than we did, but what can a regular person do? We all chat together a little to ignore de heat. I send she to the corner to buy lime drink for she and me. But when come de bus, we walk all the way to de back. She always sit on me lap, like Sunflower.”
I grinned hard, grinned until water squeezed from my eyes - I was too big for that now. “Sunflower, she yo’ cousin! She and you same - light, light, light, light. Like dem damn white men. Once on de bus we all separate tho. When she, Rose, was 12, tcsssssssssssssst, she tuhn wile’ on me!” She waved her hand in front of her dismissively. “I neva know why - until one night she come runnin’ home from Ernestine house. I used to make she and your auntie-mommy go. Mutha haveta’ know her chillen. She cryin’, wailin’, she and her sister linked hand in hand…” Her eyes lowered, she flexed her jaw, her head began to shake up and down, drool collecting at the corner of her mouth. I pulled my shirtsleeve and wiped it. Her eyes crested with the awareness that something was wrong in her body. Sometimes as she spoke she would cut in and out like fuzzy radio signals. Her stories would blare and quiet with static. I never knew when or if she would pick it back up again. I lifted her chin, her body jittery with the shakes, and I pulled her to a bench. We extended our gaze as long as we could and she whispered, “Dat man, dat nasty man she die wurkin’ for...he-he had hurt my gyals...” Her voice clipped to higher register, tears gorged in her eyes. “Neva! I neva let dem go back! What I know? I nah know how to speak about these things. Dats why Sunflower, she neva leave de gate! We must - we must protect our gyals. Hmphm.”
Her frail hands began to pat up and down on her thinning thighs. She nodded her head over and over. I stopped recording. My chest felt like those churning cold winds over the frozen lakes where I always returned to school, I could hear the whistling of it reaching my gut. There were always so many stories to tell. I asked myself why it had to be this. Our walks before produced stories about knife fights between uncles over domino games. Stories about how she had been in love with someone else when she met my great-grandfather and how he left another woman for her. How a decade later she slit his knuckles open with a razor when he came home drunk and ate the Thanksgiving turkey.
Our meager movement up and down the block seemed to jog her memories, clear out the rain and clouds from her frontal lobe. I always listened, I could not ask questions later. Even when the stories conflicted, I knew they were somehow the truth. Her hand felt like a hollow boned bird bouncing on my thigh as she patted my leg. She sucked her teeth again, hummed and began to cluck and scratch her throat at me. Her thin arms took me in, “Neva you chile...we watch you and Sunflower like a hawk do.”
At the house, I settled her onto the couch, took off her shoes, brought her some water in a glass with a straw. Honey and Beth were standing under the carport with their men who they called husbands, my cousins rampaged in their rooms and in the backyard. School was out now and car windows were full of music. I cut up a red pear and gave it to her to eat. The battle at this time of day was to keep her awake for dinner, she would be so tired she could sleep through the night. She gummed down her pear patiently and quietly, her eyes focused on the floor, her hands folded in her lap. Suddenly she looked up, the corners of her eyes pinching before she yelled, “White gyal! Who tole’ you come!”
I sighed, throwing my head back, this would last all night. That meant she wouldn’t let me bathe her, wouldn’t let me feed her. She would demand that Beth or Honey do it and I would have to watch them do it half-ass. There was often nothing I could do to change her mind at this point. I would be white gyal until the next morning, which brought no guarantee that I would be myself, be Sunflower. There was a subtle fear that whoever she remembered me as last would be who I was stuck with forever. She was the last root I could track myself by. I imagined myself like one of those 100 year old trees you see turned nearly upside down in an empty field, all of the roots facing up - choking on air. I sat in the armchair with rips down the fabric reminiscent of cat claws. I balanced my face on my palm, my eyes examining how Beth and Honey interacted with their grandmother, my great-grandmother. Willa eyeballed me suspiciously when I followed them down the hallway and she pinched her lips in protest when I came to the threshold of her room.
I tapped the gold loop on my finger against the doorframe, holding out a hand as Honey picked up a hard bristle brush, “No! I mean, Auntie - you should use the other one with the softer hairs, that one makes her scalp dry.” Honey waved the brush around in my direction as if casting a spell on me, “Hush yo’ mouth. We the ones who gwan’ care for she when you go back home, all high and my-tee in here.”
“Auntie, I-” I became frazzled, still unable to speak over the solidness of their personalities, “We should bathe her first, right?” I walked into the bedroom towards Willa, who immediately shirked away, her shoulders rising up towards her ears. “Grandma, please - it is Sunflower. Remember?” I tried a gentle smile, crouching down in front of her while Honey and Beth stared at her, waiting for a reaction. Willa’s eyes darkened over, becoming matte before she sucked her teeth hard, “How dis white woman know my Sunflower - GET SHE OUT-TA HEA!” Her shout definite, echoing along with the paper laughter of my two aunts who sometimes teased me about the misidentification. White gyal stayed with me all evening.
I sat in the living room, tucked into the corner of the couch, the light dimming to blue night. My cousin’s eyes aimlessly focused on the colors on the television screen. I squirmed, my uncle sitting at the other end. I could feel him glancing towards me. I was simply waiting for Willa to go to sleep so that I could tuck myself in beside her. That usually took me waiting for my aunts to go to sleep first. I don’t know why but I was always surprised when they did. I often confused them snatching up my words and questioning my time with great-grandma as an intentional interference. Perhaps it was an indigenous roughness, just who they are. They have serrated edges. I imagined myself having them too, maybe I would if I had lost so much before I knew that I had it. Willa’s words about protecting me, Sunflower, and about protecting Francesca because she couldn’t protect my mother and aunts had been like a rag with ammonia passing over a dingy glass. I glanced around the living room towards everyone, my uncle had dozed in his seat - his golden tooth glinting as he snored. Honey and Beth arrived from the back room, walking through and around my cousins as if moving through underbrush, no different. They were headed to bed. They lumbered quietly off to sleep, Honey to her house down the road and Beth to the room at the back of the house. I waited for the side door and the bedroom door to click before I stood up and went to Willa’s room. I locked the door behind me and removed my shoes, not bothering with pajamas, feeling safer in my clothes. I slid carefully underneath the covers, my much taller frame sliding to bend around Willa’s form, my arm cresting over her small waist. She was warm all over, not feverish, but hot with sleep. I sighed, my nose at the back of her balding head, my lashes touched, pushing out the water that blurred my vision. She stirred, she struggled around until she was facing me, the blue lines around her black irises made me think of solar eclipses, looking at things far away and beautiful through a telescope.
“You aight Sunflower?” My laugh crackled through my tears and the snot that had gathered from my now running nose. I grinned, “I am worried about you, I am disappearing.” Now her arm was over my torso, I lay on my back, we spoke softly like best friends conspiring at a sleepover, “Sometimes, you don’t remember me,” Her hand rose, she wiped the saltwater from my cheeks, “That is not my job Sunflower…”
“You call me Francesca after the dead baby, you call me white girl.” Her voice rumpled with chuckling, “Well - you look like Francesca. And ya’ll both some yella gyals.” Our giggling braided its different fingers together above us, filling the atmosphere of the room up to the roof.
“Is it true? That one of Grandma Ernestine’s boyfriends hurt mommy, Honey, Beth and Tula?” Her mouth, perfectly lined like a darker fruit on her face pinched together, the sigh that came through her nose, the heave that followed in her body.
“Do they blame you?” I asked.
“I sent them there, t’inking dat dere mutha would love dem. If I had not sent dem’gyals...”
“Do they remember anything?”
“Nightmares always remember - bettah den’ dreams, chile.” My chest lapped up and down, I did not have any more questions. I understood all that I was going to understand. She pulled my clothes and I snuggled into her, my head on her arm, her other arm and her chest sheltering my face like rafters. I was relieved to be so close to her breathing.
“Come Sunflower, sleep. I may not love you tomorrow’s time, you may be white gyal again.” Her voice lilted with tease, I snickered. Sleep came, sneaking strength from my eyes like a thief.
The morning was too bright and too fast. As I rocked onto my side I smelled the room immense with the scent of flamboyant, hibiscus, bougainvillea and Chanel #5. I looked over and above my head to find the window open, the old lace curtains flapped at the edges of the window. I did not recall anyone opening the window. I looked to the other side of the bed and there were the bunched up nightgown and bloomers laying cold atop the sheets, soaked through with perfume. The empty bottle lay on the floor. I left the bed, unlocking and opening the bedroom door, running down the hallway. My cousins gathered around Honey and Beth who were crumpled into the doorway, their bodies doubled like dirty clothes. The ambulance sat with sirens turned off in front of the house. My eyes traced the slight rises and falls of the shape of a body on its back on a stretcher hidden beneath a sheet pulled up over the bed. The EMTs stood quietly, their worried but disconnected expressions focused on my aunts. I placed a hand on each of their shoulders, shaking them, “What happened! What happened!”
“You!” Beth pointed her finger into my chest, “You wid dat window open!”
“I didn’t - I did not even know that window opened. She has Parkinson’s - she can’t get out of a window!”
Honey shrugged Beth away, “Nah blame de chile! She go out trew’ de window...no clothes, she jus’ walk and walk til she reach de highway...dey found her body in de sugarcane field...how she got dere so fast, we don’ know...Chile I’m sorry.”
Willa always loved to walk. Throughout my childhood it was the thing we did during the morning, the hours when it was still cool. We walked around the block of the old neighborhood, just as slow as we could, we spoke to all of the neighbors. We would knock on doors, sit on porches. I listened to her talk gossip and then we would move on around the corner and go see my great-aunts who lived on the next street. They would tell me stories about Willa walking when she got angry or was upset. Boy, boy yo great-grandma could walk a country mile like THAT when she was hot. I remembered them popping their fingers for emphasis, snapping them together - it sounded as crisp as fresh peas. I walked from Honey and Beth to the stretcher. I grabbed the sheet and pulled it back, Willa’s naked body was small, and cold, but her face was relaxed, unworried, and so dark it was pristine. I quaked from the bottom of myself out, my hand caressing the hair she had remaining, brushing away dirt and flower petals.