Blackness was all encompassing, path where there was dark, light where there were brick walls, solace in turmoil, turmoil in silence. She sat separate, determined to forage for a particular kind of sustenance.
She took a breath because she was, moved because she could, but she was forever confined to life without body, without grounding. She lived with vision, seeing the world yet being unable to be seen as whole within it. Even in places where she could stream through, effervescent joy, delighting in the common beats and weaves of the sisters from afar because she had not been granted permission to stay.
She looked for her own face in every reflective surface the elements gave her, a curly tendril in gleaming copper, the curve of lips in dew, cut of body in shadow, eyelash in a puff of air. Blackness was more air than earth, more loose than grounding. Sometimes she lived in abandoned bird’s nests, massive eagles stopping to drop small sticks, some covered with joy, others expectation, still others the fiery tips of resentment.
There are five brick houses facing inwards. Inside live five sisters named Sorrow, Spirit, Displacement, Expectation and Self.
They live lonely and together, separate but connected to the cities determined to eat them alive. Some of the windows on their houses have been boarded up; others are made of stained glass. There are invisible hands, feet, heart and breaths that dictate their lives and occasionally send wind to rip through windows, silently pack up belongings, leaving some empty while others remain too full.
The chronology of time is different here. Ages, eras and narratives change depending on need. Some days their bones are frail, and others there are moments of dance, song, movement and youth, starry eyed wonder.
The sisters face into a shared courtyard filled with ashes, brick, tree limbs, flowers and bees, train tracks at their back. God is the train tracks and the trains passing through, above, around and present. Every rumble, every car, every honk, every beep, every blink of lights is a reminder of the Divine.
The Sages live on the moon. They move between the faces of Black women past and present. Their curse is to sit shrouded in kafan constantly awaiting a janazah so they can be moved back against the deep darkness of the stars. They would have never left Blackness but by necessity, honor bound to collect their sisters under the gaze of the night sky. Their blessing is to watch over the sisters: Sorrow, Spirit, Displacement, Expectation and Self. To negotiate with wind, earth, water and fire to tread carefully and gently upon the backs that are littered with Transatlantic trades. To make peace with the souls that still churned deep in the ocean’s belly, to carry their voices as wind, to pull up bones and lay them at the root of elder trees, to set aflame stories that live in whiteness, burn them Black again.
They are observers, sometimes interceders on behalf of those that are them. Watch time fluidly twisting the strings of fate here and there, sniping ends, laying bricks, replacing flowers, whispering songs. They are not healers but are engaged in the work of healing. They are not saviors yet are wretchedly inconsolable when unable to save, throwing themselves between the Earth and Sun in eclipse, desperate to get back home. They are not nurturers yet tend the soils as far as their hearts love, leaving one to guard during wispy moon as the rest descend upon the forests and lay fingertips into the deepest of roots, braiding strands of hair into rakes to till the gentled soil.
They are called by some the mules of the earth, little is known about the brimming cups of potential that they balance inside of the moon. That is their legacy, to be shunned by the very whiteness that they shine upon the seas, to be stripped of their stories even while trembling with sacredness. And when the rains run red with the blood of Blackness, they ask the oceans to gather to weep, pulling tides from every inch of the world together so that no one sits alone in sorrow.
They sit just above the starlit trapdoors in the sky and murmur in unison, There there, cool your burning eyes. And when the rains relent, they drop their hands from beyond the sky, rest them upon fevered brows and whisper, To us, you belong, to us you belong.
Her name was Celeste, named by the Sages for her myth making. She had always been finger deep in fairytales, watching as people loved, painstakingly weaving the threads that attached them.
She dreamed one day of the sisters she watched over finding the kind of love she had only ever imagined because Sages didn’t fall in love. They weathered, and expanded and radiated all that the sisters were instead. She slept with her arms wrapped around her waist imagining fingers that weren’t hers clasping the ones on her hands. Whenever she grew desperately lonely, she tilted the moon just slightly so the others didn’t notice, turning it a light yellow. Lovers in the distance would look up at her and for a moment believe she was the sun.
And when lovers fought, she spun stories, tapestry lined with happy endings. She would drop into lovers’ dreams and whisper away their resentments, fill their minds with all the joy she could muster and in sleep, tangle together their arms and legs so they awoke wrapped in one another. There she would perch until morning, just above the warmth of their slumbering breath.
Her face is wrinkled some days, other days smooth except for the hint of a pimple under her right cheek. It’s the same place where her tongue is often held. She sits outside her home, building fire after fire so all gather round. She shares Womb stories, legacies that filter through the placenta of motherhood, the creation myths of fathers, her stories spurring on the seeds of blossoming life, children whose stories have yet to come to pass.
Slow and unforgiving hands outstretched to fire. She shares one haunting Womb story, recounts her mother, her voice sharpening with age before she is through.
Hooyo told me about a new place where I would have a becoming.
She rubbed the bottom of her belly her fingers touching the crown of my head.
Her heart warned that I wouldn’t be beautiful here, that darkness and big eyes
would only mean boys wanted to fuck you, not marry you. That my thighs would be
too large, my hips too wide. She told me there were places in the world that would still
love me as I was, that she would still want me but she would be cautious of how different I
could become. She wanted me to live with the illusion of belonging,
to not grow too large outside of my skin. She wanted me to be happy,
because a sign of the end of the world were babies that didn’t want to
come out of the womb and she so desperately wanted to greet me.
I was birthed grasping a broken heart completely in love with sadness.
I opened my eyes to a world that was already in mourning.
Hooyo named me Sorrow.
She was woman in feeling, but in body, thread. Her head was mismatched purse strings, her guts laid out for the world to see. Her heart burned about her like sweet smelling incense whose names are too complicated to pronounce. She wasn’t only earth, but air, water and fire. She wasn’t just the elements, but they were bound to her sense of gut weary purpose, carried threads that sparked when she spoke.
She hosted kite making events on the eve of Jummah, celebrating the tendrils of surahs uttered by the faithful. Starry eyed children would spend hours building kites with her, braiding her threads in rows of six and nine, laying down the recitation of Al-Fatiha along the sharp edges.
She would often sit at the uppermost angle of a finished kite, looking down into the houses of her sisters. There, she would sing song after song, about pain, rebirth, strength, love. She would sing always of the kind of love that survived even when she wasn’t there to coax it to life. The wisps of her song would find the tiny parts that were unable to bloom, earth’s threads would spark and they soon would begin to grow.
She didn’t have a mother but she held mothers in her grasp, their longing only amplified by her songs of Spirit.
Displacement spoke in rough syllables, her English only as lyrical as broken stones. She had learned Somali was the language most like water, rippling and wet. It moistened lips too dry to live without the balm of home.
She spent the day taking apart the cartilage of live children, tearing away riddled and scarred flesh, building entire worlds into the grains of their bones. Her favorite part was erasing the borders embedded in their cells and designing new maps, whole systems of cartography that plotted the places of Ayeeyo’s first love, Hooyo’s first kiss, the first time Aabo watched a parent die.
They cried at first the children, they always did, being ripped from home was a grueling process. But coming back to it was like holding fingertips to icy snow, the pain not as bad as the numbing. The silence would ricochet inside their heads whimpering enough enough but there could never be enough. She would reassure them in Somali, the cadences enough to quell misgivings, bringing light to shadow. The cells would knit, broken bones would heal together in maps of the world held by sinew and muscle and joints so filled with stories children would come back to life, full of grace and grounding.
Displacement would weep, there was nothing more to fix. Children would go back to their parents and lament.
Have you ever asked us how we hold both feet in different lands and still stay balanced? Taking step after step carrying you on our backs?
Eedo, it’s hard to belong, sometimes cigarettes and alcohol are the only things that let you in. Frayed pants and sleeveless shirts paired with bare skin is all you need to laugh. Eedo, she still loves you, but this land has stolen something from us too. Can you hear her liver reciting the Quran as it purifies her blood? It is tired too.
Aabo, hear her when she says she doesn’t want to be lawyer. I know this country is hard, you want her to be safe, safer than you could have ever been, but none of the ways you believe will protect her. Let her breathe. Can’t you hear her ears shedding the extra tears her eyes are too tired to cry? Every droplet is formed in God’s name, she whispers Ya Allah every time you threaten to curse her for not loving you enough to let you live through her.
Hooyo, your daughter does not want to be a nurse. She is a mother now and even that reality is too much for her to bear. You wrapped her up in medicine and she is wrung out from your expectations. Her hands and feet still trapped in sheets. She cries when her son bleeds, thinking what he would become, how happy she would be, knowing he isn’t drowning in her pain the way she drowned in yours.
Leave your children to God, the way our grandparents left you. You survived the only way you knew how, you survived. You survived because it was meant. Leave your children to God. We’ve left you to Him.
Expectation squinted and the lights of the oncoming traffic blurred together and danced across her eyelids. Searing reds and blues, light colors she didn’t have words for. Crosses between turquoise and sea green, mixed with tinges of yellow. A rainbow against her skin. She stood there a moment longer, the cars whistling by, the shouts and screams. Her eyes tight against one another, she cracked them slightly open. Her insides, petroleum jelly held together by crocheted yarn, streaming into the wind.
She used invisible gills to breathe whenever the air got too damp for her liking. All kinds of things dampened her air, other people’s tears, fears, expectations, regrets and shame, loves, lusts, giddiness and buoyancy. She wasn’t young by the measures of time, but by the stroke of a pen to page, and since people wrote less than they typed these days, she never aged unless she wished it. She spent her days walking down street after sidewalk, library after shop, path filled with people, breathing in air laden with emotions she could reach out and grab fistfuls of.
She would sit inside a coffee shop without ordering a thing, right up against the foggy windows, wiping a hole just big enough for both her eyes to see through. She would people-watch through the glass. Teenagers at midday, running free through the streets instead of trapped behind steel doors covered in newspaper parchment. A small business man in tapered slacks and an extra few inches on the back of his loafers puffing on a cigarette, then another, and finally another, staring at the rings his breath formed in the smoke. Two small brown children running and shrieking, their mother balancing bags of groceries, a cell phone at her ear. A busker, pimple faced young person poised on the edge of gender, crooning a tune with enough sadness to crack the glass she was sitting behind. And him, him, walking the same path day after day to sit on the bench in a small park across the coffee shop, pulling out a journal from his front pocket, long and ripped on the edges, a dark wooden pencil and a lip balm stick he would roll around his fingers in between the shuffling of pages. She came most especially to see him.
Well, not him exactly, but the dreaming in his eyes that reminded her of the one who had helped her make her gills. The one who had sat her down one day, when she had been younger than she was now, but not by much, and told her everyone loves what they cannot have, and you cannot have me. I’m broken, you know, broken by other loves, other lovers. I’m not fixed enough for you. Maybe no one is fixed enough for you. And she had asked him how he could be so hard, love is supposed to be simple, easy, warm rain and royal colored clothing, bright yellow bananas, cicadas and balm. He laughed then, raised his palms to rub away the faint lines of fear crinkling on the side of his neck, shook his head, listen, you want me to show you how you can stop breathing in this toxic air? Never be hurt again? I mean, look at you, you want me even when I don’t want you.
So she let him, she let him show her how to carefully tweeze apart layers of skin, sharpen the tip of a calligraphy pen. It had to be the calligraphy pens for they were the only ones fluid enough. They were the only ones filled with the ink of resolve, the type of ink that helped one never for-get the pain and terror of vulnerability. She let him show her how to tear through ligaments and bone, slice and stitch together the scales hidden just under her chin.
She came to see men like him to remind her not to forget about women like her. To look at him shuffling, struggling, yearning to be something he wasn’t. She didn’t have that problem, she could sit and watch him all day through, breathe through her invisible gills and avoid the damp emotional air, his damp emotional air.
She was finally free.
Self was the most fractured, the one holding dichotomies like playing cards, inexhaustible in contradiction, shallow and mountainous. She was rigid and soft, breathing thunder and liquid clouds. She loved fire, searching for volcanoes within the deepest parts of earth, building caves using only her palms, putting together small alcoves where she would sit for hours, her feet just above molten rock.
She would call every leap of flame by name, catching them in her lap as they leapt. They would pile, still sizzling, encase her in stone. She would sit in nothing but blessed silence. That was the only place she could be alone. The Sages would look frantically for her, unable to reach her from beyond the rock, sobbing in grief, thinking her dead. She would make herself small holes for her fingertips, palms facing one another towards the sky.
Ya Allah, I let myself shrink because being big meant being alone. I was getting lonely. I was ashamed to carry candles instead of fingers, scared to light anything that had my face.
Ya Allah, my soul is made of lead, it’s what puts grit in my eye, scratches them the murky grey of overcast sky. There is no sun. I thought of you as flames licked away the shame that had pooled in the crease of my thighs, thought about devastation and prayer, wished the ceiling away so I could melt into the stars.
Ya Allah, I thought change wouldn’t hurt, but the moon kept reflecting my light and my dark. Forgive me, I am only trying to breathe without thinking, love without effort, dream without fear, live without expectation.
Ya Allah, protect me from myself, the parts that believe I do not deserve love, I do not deserve peace, I do not deserve to have a full heart. Protect those parts, light those parts, love those parts.
Do you love me?
Should I love myself?
Hawa Y. Mire (@HYMire) is a diasporic Somali storyteller, writer, and strategist who focuses on themes of Blackness, (dis)connection and (un)belonging. Her writing is seated somewhere between oral tradition and the written word, celestial and myth, past and present, ancestry and spirit. Currently living in Toronto, Canada, Hawa is a MES graduate student at York University, exploring the implications of indigenity, oral history, resistance, archival and curation. Her research looks to incorporate traditional Somali stories with discourses of constructed identity: storiesbyxaawo.com