The fumes from the super limousine dirtied the snow. The vehicle stretched a full block. She could see her father’s kufi hat duck under the roof as he got inside where ninety-nine other members of his delegation sat looking like packaged food waiting to be microwaved.
The limo drove off in a cloud of white smoke, dragging winter behind it. It came to a stop three blocks later before turning the corner and curving out of her vision. What could she do but watch? What was he leaving behind for her other than his shoeprints smeared black mush against the snow?
She felt snowflakes touch her cheeks and melt. Her bones rattling in the cold. Now that her father and his contingent had left for their mission on the moon, winter birds again acquainted themselves with leaves. (One bird deserves another.)
A voice said something in her ear. Spoke her name along with other words. Miss Shabazz. Security protocol. Having spoken, West waited for her to about-face and go back inside the mansion, him trailing protection behind her. Rising as she came in, the other three guards—East, North, and South—greeted her mildly then left for their respective posts. Despite the plush white carpeting, she heard their footsteps echoing almost as if the house were talking, apologizing to her, ashamed of its barrenness. The cold had taken up residence inside her. What to do with herself now that her father was gone? She wanted to believe that he had secrets to be discovered. She set off to explore the mansion. Went breathing through the warm darkness of the halls. What might her father be hiding? Any locked chambers or compartments? Dungeons or attics? In this house space tended to hide from itself, dark empty rooms. Portraits of her father everywhere as if it was his gaze that held up the walls.
She installed herself inside her airy room, as spacious as a museum gallery, and situated on the second floor at the front of the house, comfortable and convenient with downy sofas, two full-length couches, a full workstation, and a home theater. What to do now? This: she rang for the moon woman and had a fire lit in the raised brick fireplace, a cascade of red flame. Task done, the moon woman communicated with her telepathically to see if she needed anything else. She could feel the question arc like a basketball from the four-foot-tall moon woman’s brain and fall into her own brain. No, she did not need anything else. Alone now. Oddly quiet, the hearth crackling in silence and flashing gold light.
She turned on the television and settled into a historical drama set in ancient Greece, all the actors speaking in British accents. Two armies settling for battle. Shuffling of many feet, cursing, neighing horses, clinking of harnesses, of stirrups against the sheath, creaking of wooden chariot wheels, rattling of steel armor, leather, a thicket of spears, a forest of arrows, helmets shining. The clangor, the smashing and crashing, the gore, beheadings, bodies crushed, torn apart. She thought about her father’s words, The survival of our race is at stake. Hence, the need for her father and the other men to journey to the moon only a few days before her sixteenth birthday.
Put herself before the bay windows. Evening came on, casting red bands of light against the snow. Shadows closed on the colors of the street, robbed it of width and dimension. She gazed through the window into a dusky otherworld. The Champ’s estate took up the full block across the street, the house a thousand feet away faintly luminous, stiff and white as if covered in starch. How were they passing the evening? If only she could communicate telepathically like the moon people. Save me! The dreaded Hawk rose off Lake Michigan from the east and flew talons first into the windowpane, rattling the glass. What she saw. What she heard.
She heard some commotion downstairs, voices and movement, and went to have a look. A dash of suits and bow ties: the night security detail had arrived, Ground Floor, Upstairs, West Wing, Right Wing. North, South, East, and West faded from her presence. The new men were wordless and busy with security concerns, grim and determined. Their task the same every evening: sleep this night with their ears to the ground. Four men who bore the assignment of guarding the mansion of the Nation’s leader, the Honorable Isaiah Shabazz. In their excitement they glanced in her direction and their apprehensions became alloyed with care. Each man in turn nodded courteously toward her.
Upstairs was the only one of the four men she’d made conversation with. He’d walked in freezing weather all the way from another neighborhood. He had been recruited in prison. (As Brother Malcolm said, America is our prison.) This security detail was a step up.
He came cautiously up to stand in front of her and said, Miss Shabazz, let me know if you need anything. Spoken in a voice grown hoarse from smoking and hawking the Nation’s newspapers on street corners. His hair was so close-cropped that from a distance he looked bald. She averted her eyes and went back upstairs.
The moon woman crossed her field of vision, two curved tortoiseshell combs in her hair. She—all the moon people—usually wore no adornments, just a plain black jumpsuit and black Nike sneakers. Somehow, they managed the earth’s atmosphere without any special equipment that she was aware of. Day and night in the big house she heard their labored breathing rising and falling as they went about tidying with a machine that resembled a Phillips-head screwdriver. The machine spasmed, sparkled, groaned, whistled. The moon people worked in silence.
The fire was now a shapeshifting animal, her room cozy with heat. She felt her face ripple beneath her fingers as if she were transforming. Some craving within. Painted images of her father in her white memory fields. The survival of our race. She had full confidence in his abilities, this soft-spoken man followed by, worshipped by millions worldwide.
Surrounded by high trees, the Champ’s mansion stood glacial white in the moonlight. Straining, she thought she could dimly see the Champ out behind the house dancing and shadowboxing, lightning-fast punches. He still had his fast hands. (May Allah bless her with such a fine and talented man for a husband.) Something beautiful and alive in his movements. Be that as it may, she had an intimation of true foreboding. At year’s end after a two-year hiatus from the ring, he was scheduled to fight the current champion Holmes for a five-million-dollar purse. Everyone knew that he needed the money. Could he win?
She breathed out noisily as if breathing for the Champ, hoping he would catch a second wind. He did not, only went into his house, making it possible for her to lie in bed. Falling asleep she heard from a distance birds out on the street, Your father is gone! Oh, your father is gone! Whetting their beaks, passing a verdict, mocking her, Your father is gone but you’re such a Goody Two Shoes. Goody Two Shoes. Goody Two Shoes. What was she meant to be doing?
She slept badly in her huge bed and felt like some beetle or other strange creature until darkness lifted, spreading dawn, and she could rise and decide what to do with her Saturday.
Then, before breakfast was served, her uncle Daoud arrived under a coat of frost. Instinctively, she knew why he had come. He was there to manage things, meaning her, while her father was away on the mission. He would be around day and night, night and day, until her father returned.
Her long eyelashes (false) fluttering, the moon woman took his skullcap, coat, and scarf.
One hand on the banister, he began a prayerful journey up the thirty-three steps to the top of the landing. Laila looked down at him as he climbed, but he never looked up at her. He was sturdy but short with perfect little sideburns like shoe-boots. His cravat plump like a baby’s diaper. Lathered against his scalp, his black hair (dyed) rose to a peak on one side (left) like a wave splashing up against a boulder. At the top of the landing he looked up at her—she was slightly taller than him—smiled, just the slightest bit. Unlike her father’s lined face, her uncle’s face showed complete mastery over age, not a single wrinkle. The floor-length oval mirror held him and doubled his features. One uncle was more than enough for her to bear.
Sorry I couldn’t come last night, he said. There was an emergency at the clinic.
In the manner of his own telling he explained how he had performed a routine amputation, cut off the tail of a white devil in her fifties. What was not so routine was that he could not stop the bleeding. Such thin veins and such thick arteries. The woman almost died.
He asked, Do you know what color these devils turn when they die? Green. He spoke the words half in anger.
What was she to say to that? He looked into her face expectant.
Who’s minding the store now? she asked.
He took her hand, My dear niece, don’t worry about that.
She held onto his blank hand while he questioned her about school. As she began to speak, he let go her hand, seemed disappointed. Why? Her grades were stellar. She asked him about his practice.
One must not sleep, he said.
Indeed, despite his smooth skin, he looked old and tired, in need of a rest.
We must remain diligent, he said.
Her uncle made a killing off these white devils who for some reason wanted to be separated from their birthright and have their tails amputated. And now he was making a killing on the amputated appendages, sewing them onto brothers and sisters who felt lacking, who wanted a pink and functioning tail, one they could move from side to side and up and down, one they could twerk, drop low to the floor. Her father condoned the procedure since it boosted the self-esteem of their fallen race that was badly in need of uplift.
Her uncle owned a car but preferred public transportation, buses, and the El, places where he could solicit potential clients firsthand, even offer them free procedures.
We know what we are, her uncle said, but not what we may be. Like this woman last night. Again his distaste showed, ill disguised.
She smelled cologne and aftershave coming off his skin and clothes. Thought about her father slapping aftershave lotion on his face like shoveled dirt flung on a coffin.
She tried to tease out information about the mission. Her uncle laughed, his hands trembling as if from electric shock.
He said, On the moon much of the old way still goes on.
She knew that there was something he wasn’t telling her.
I know you miss your father, but he has to fulfill this important undertaking. The Honorable Isaiah Shabazz sees everything as it was in the beginning.
She studied his masculine jawbone. He’s your brother.
Again he laughed, body gone jelly. She felt his warm hand on her shoulder. Yes, my brother.
He needed to collect some blood samples. Might she accompany him? Stumbling, wheezing in sorrow and weariness, he made his way through the mansion and into the remote wing that housed the hog pen. She fell in beside him. Before they entered they slipped on gas masks and snapped on surgical gloves. A moon man worked in silence, performing his chores. He greeted them with a Black Power salute. Her uncle returned the salute, but she did not, only nodded. Hog noise echoed in the morning light, no sound stealing past the squawking and squealing. Her uncle climbed over the railing setting off a stampede, each shape and form becoming vague. He produced a collection kit from a blazer pocket. She wanted to turn away and hurry off. He was one among a team of Nation medical professionals and scientists working on a process to reverse the effects of eating pork, the porcine curse that had, centuries ago, turned some Black people into pigs. Could he undo what had been done? Her uncle told her that her father’s contingent would be bringing back volumes of a special elixir from the moon, which they hoped would be the cure.
After he was done, her uncle slipped the test tubes into the side pocket of his blazer then climbed back over the railing. They thoroughly cleaned and sanitized their hands before they sat down to breakfast in the main dining room. The moon woman had prepared pancakes, scrambled eggs, and turkey sausages. The moon people had mouths and ears like humans but communicated only by telekinesis. The woman’s utterances popped up in Laila’s brain like cartoon bubbles. She could actually see each question inside her skull, had to take time to read it, every word opalescent: Is the maple syrup warm enough? Care for some more milk? Care for another flapjack? The moon people looked human but for the strange greenish tint to their skin that made them appear to be made from terra-cotta.
Snow fell blotting out the sky. They spent the remainder of the morning in the game room playing chess—You got me again! his small sharp teeth shining in the light—sat down to lunch, then returned to the game room to play cards (tunk, hearts, and gin rummy). She won every hand easily. A hollow enactment of family time since she could tell that her uncle didn’t like losing. He suggested they enjoy late-afternoon tea squared off at Monopoly (The Sopranos edition). She seated herself half-heartedly at the board. Long before her fingers touched her token, she had lost interest in her uncle and the game. Still, she won.
It serves me right, he said. That’s what I get for pitting my wits against yours, dear niece.
She spent a few minutes reviewing strategy with him. That seemed to comfort him.
How will we occupy ourselves until dinner?
She had no answer.
Well, perhaps something will come to mind. He excused himself for the lab where he would run some tests on the blood samples.
From the chair her uncle’s scent lingered, a sticky fog that kept her pinned in place. His presence had embittered her. All his talk about labs and pigs. His constantly quoting her father’s teachings—The Honorable Isaiah Shabazz teaches that we have been robbed of our name, robbed of our religion, our culture, our God. And many of us, by the way we act, we have even lost our minds—words she’d heard a thousand times. How would she endure him for a week or more? Rousing herself, she went up to her room, sat down before a window. The late afternoon snow gleamed. She had made up her mind: she would not leave her room again today. She contemplated an excuse she could make for dinner when a text pinged on her phone: Come over. The Champ.
Word was delivered to her uncle not to expect her. (The Champ could not be denied.) She did not waste time putting on a hat. Upstairs accompanied her across the street, making small talk. Winter wind riffled through her hair. Once inside the mansion, she saw the Champ sitting at his dining room table busy with a portion of smoked turkey much too big for any man or two men, his fork clinking against the china. Looking casual and relaxed in dress slacks and a short-sleeve shirt. (Apparently, the cold weather did not seem to bother him.) His body gone a bit round now, his rectangular muscles swimming inside a layer of baby fat. Gray stubble salted his chin. Life after the ring.
He was more than twice her age, old for a boxer. More so since the white devils took away his belt and barred him from the ring for almost four years because he refused to sign up for Selective Service and possible military deployment. Her father and the Nation had kept the Champ from starving by giving him a home and allotting him a monthly stipend. Then the Supreme Court ruled in his favor and he made a comeback, recaptured his title with an eighth-round knockout in the Congo. He’d had a few more fights, all tough, brutal, then gone into retirement. She wouldn’t understand until later that his best years were behind him. He will lose the fight against Holmes in December, unable to answer the bell for the eleventh round, never having thrown a single punch but showing the world once again his ability to take one, absorb punishment. Six months after that he will have his final fight and lose. He will continue to live high on the hog for a few years, until his money runs out, then her father and the Nation will once again have to intervene and put him on their dole. By then he and Belinda will have gone their separate ways.
Both she and Upstairs walked across the gleaming parquet floor to stand by the Champ.
The Champ finished his food and pushed his plates aside. He turned his attention to Upstairs. Took a deck of cards from his shirt pocket and passed it to the other man.
Shuffle the cards. Cut the deck. Deal yourself a hand. Now place the cards against your forehead. Yes, like that.
The Champ placed his hands before his torso like a squirrel holding a nut, peering down into the hollow created by his palms. One by one he guessed each card.
After a stunned pause, Upstairs asked, Champ, how do you do it?
The Champ stood up, took a bow, rejoicing in his spectacle, the Greatest of All Time, for good measure firing off two quick punches at Upstairs’s face. The other man had no time to react. He put his hand on Upstairs’s back. A person can be made to believe things, he said. Then again, all matter is insubstantial around me. He winked.
Upstairs turned to look over his shoulder as if not really believing the Champ’s hand was there.
The Champ asked, Have you ever seen a match burn twice?
Next time. You’re done here. The Champ gave Upstairs two light taps on the back and guided the bodyguard toward the door. Soon he was back with Laila at the table. Laila alone in the commanding presence of this tall handsome man who had taught her how to jump rope as a little girl. Bending, he kissed her on the forehead. Despite a nagging awareness of disloyalty to her uncle, she felt a measure of excitement.
He explained that he needed her to babysit tonight. Apologies for the short notice.
He did not sound sorry.
Laila felt deflated. Not sure what she was expecting from the Champ after he had summoned her. Not sure but not this, babysitting.
At once the Champ’s wife, Belinda, was in the room already thanking her and passing on instructions. It was as if Laila’s future self had manifested, who she would be as a fully grown woman: Belinda. (Her Christian name had been Mable.) Pretty skin, freckles, reddish Afro, firm bosom, thick thighs, and big butt. Belinda went quickly about the house with last-minute tasks—alarm disarmed, emergency phone numbers, car keys, bedtime snack for the toddlers—beauty spinning from her body. And then they were gone.
Liberated from their parents, the two chubby toddlers worked out an impromptu itinerary for Laila that included Hide ’n’ Seek, Giggles, Llama, Getting Light, and squealing like pigs. She floored them with her impression of Patrick Star. Chasing was the best part since they knew they were quicker than her.
Come on, Aunt Laila. Run faster.
They even afforded her a head start.
What activity might tire them out? She stripped them down to their disposable diapers, getting them relaxed, comfortable, to better tire them into exhaustion, but they would not be stymied. Affection seemed to help, tickling and huggy kissy poo. Energy ebbed, she managed to put them to bed at nine.
The Champ and Belinda returned after midnight. The flick had been so-so. Belinda did not care for CGI, which she deemed phony, while the Champ thought the movie was cool. The zombies killed and ate people almost at will. But the filmmakers introduced a plot twist. The ghouls were hunted down and eaten in return.
How were they? Belinda asked.
Laila threw up her hands in silence.
The savage mind, the Champ said.
Belinda gave him a love tap. Those are our children. She tilted her mouth up toward his. After the kiss she left her husband and Laila alone. The Champ rubbed his stomach through his summer dress shirt, indicating how hungry he was. It seemed to him that he had not stopped being hungry since the first zombie was boiled with rutabagas. Laila offered to warm up some leftovers. No, she’d done enough. He would walk her home.
You know, only a fool does something for free, the Champ said. I’ve been thinking about how to repay you. A word stalled on his tongue. It sounded like farty. She had seen it in him before, the blur while thinking. Wait, he said.
With evident excitement, he retrieved his top hat from the coat rack, pulled his retractable magician’s rod from the side pocket of his cashmere great coat, and extended it like a blind man’s cane. Then, employing grand stylized gestures that were as antiquated as they were timeless, he tapped the cane against the topper one two three, causing a cloud of smoke to explode canon-like from inside the hat, which shrouded out into white filaments that dissipated into a wondrous sight: a colorful parrot that fluttered up and perched on the Champ’s forearm. The Champ smiled at her and she smiled.
Then the parrot spoke: Let me throw you a birthday party. Sweet sixteen.
You want to throw me a party?
Yes. Me and the Champ. Clowns, camels, corndogs, cotton candy, canapés, cannoli, Crush, and cable cars.
Was it a real parrot or some sort of ventriloquist dummy? She could see the Champ’s lips move with the bird’s mouth. Her question was answered when the bird took to the air and started flying about the room. She watched as it gained more and more height, rising above all the furniture until it reached the high ceiling. The Champ could not catch it. At one point it winged toward her. She ducked. Finally it settled on top of the coatrack.
The Champ looked at her. I’ll get it later, he said.
The next morning at breakfast, her uncle asked her, What happened to you? His voice seemed oddly hard. He had seated himself opposite her.
She explained about the babysitting. Then she tried to smile but failed.
Her uncle saw her effort.
The moon woman—lip gloss today and rouge—brought her three slices of French toast then dusted them with cinnamon. She glanced at Laila; a flicker of communication passed between them. Just as quickly, Laila turned her thoughts away from the little woman serving them breakfast.
And what about today? Her uncle’s cravat looked like a slug fastened onto his throat.
Would he want to sit quietly for most of the day? She lied: Belinda wants me to cornrow her hair.
I was thinking we could—he explained what he had in mind. Waited, but she did not answer.
She was talking to herself, trying to bolster her confidence. She had already decided not to tell him about the party. How could she?
First, he needed to do some work in the lab. The Original Asiatic Man had billions to be added to their numbers once the Nation could reverse the effects of the bovine curse. He had uncovered DNA evidence that the Original Asiatic Man descended from the moon people or vice versa. Her uncle’s eyes flashed. It was possible that—so he now believed—the moon people had sent an exploratory team to the earth a trillion years ago. Unfortunately, they kept no written records. Further tests were required.
Laila found her thoughts reaching into the brown strands of her hash browns that resembled upturned leaves on the ground. She looked around for the moon lady but did not see her. A portrait of her father watched over their conversation, her father a resplendent figure against an unwonted background, the stars and planets that populated the dining room wallpaper.
The past belongs to our great race, her uncle said. The future is another story.
She regarded him calmly.
Not only the strong but the weak have a legacy, he said.
How would the party take place without her uncle’s knowledge? How would the Champ pull that off?
Other things were said that she didn’t catch. Then something about a missed call.
You were away, but I spoke to him. Her uncle glanced at her father’s portrait. It has never been any man’s total destiny to be both a father and a mother. To this, Allah may be the only exception. Looking forlorn, he started to say something else, perhaps repeat what he’d said. Then he covered his plate with his used napkin. I better see to my work. In his eagerness to leave the dining room he rose to his feet, forgetting that she was still eating breakfast.
On this Sunday, the day that God rested, the pictures were straightened, the curtains washed, the furniture polished anew, the entire mansion dusted and swept, the lush white carpeting shampooed. During this time the weather cleared, white mists of snow barely infiltrating the trees. Birds beyond the windows.
It came to pass that she found herself standing close to the moon woman, taking in her power, energy. No longer remembered when she’d first felt it, but now that she had she couldn’t live without it. She saw but also sensed with her skin the steady stare of the pearl-gray eyes. Took in the girth of the thick torso. Although the moon woman was small, to touch her would be to touch a truly astronomical sum of cells.
She asked the moon woman about her planet. Certain things she thought she needed to glean.
The moon woman answered in her calm solemn way. What would you like to know?
A press of questions tumbled about her disordered mind. One passed through her mouth more random than selected.
I would like to tell you, the moon woman said, but it would be hard on you, finding the right words. It would take some time.
The doorbell rang, and it continued to ring, over and over, without pause like an alarm set off. Jarred, Laila went to answer it. Even before her eyes saw, she heard the voices of the men on the security detail.
How many rounds, Champ? How many rounds?
He ain’t nothing to me, so he’ll go in three. But should he refuse to go to the floor and want some more, he’ll go in four. But if he’s somehow still alive and full of jive, he’ll go in five. If I had time for tricks, I’d take my time and clobber him in six. He snapped some punches into the air.
With eager eyes they noted the Champ’s speed and his footwork (famous shuffle) in polished leather shoes. The Champ, always on display, his way of putting himself all out in front of himself. More so since there was no particular reason for him to put all his energy on. The fight wasn’t until the end of the year.
The Champ asked them, How come you Negroes aren’t wearing ties?
Each man brought his hands to his throat. Their bowties had vanished.
Here, why don’t you try these? The Champ pulled one tie from his pocket, then the second, and the third, finally the fourth.
They blew and sucked their faces into different shapes, flabbergasted at the Champ’s sleight of hand, seemingly so easy for him. Her uncle entered the room, expressing surprise. Champ. They made some small talk, her uncle speaking in the breathless emotion-saturated voice of an admirer, another fan thankful to be afforded the opportunity to rub shoulders with the Champ, while the security detail made their way back to their respective posts.
Finding an opportune moment, the Champ said, We need to borrow your niece. Belinda wants her hair braided.
How had she and the Champ arrived at the same lie?
Watching, Laila could tell that the Champ’s words and demeanor almost persuaded her uncle. But not quite. Seeing the expression on her uncle’s face, the Champ leaned toward him.
Well, let me not detain you two. Then and there he decided he would go for evening prayers at the dutiful mosque.
Once her uncle had departed, Laila thanked the Champ for coming, and she meant it.
He said nothing in response, only roamed about the main parlor, with his hands in his pockets, looking at portraits of her father, taking his time before each one. Then: they needed to plan, the day was right around the corner (Saturday), certain details needed to be worked out, guests invited, arrangements made.
It took them some time to cross the street to his estate, moonlight volleying down the black air. Belinda and the toddlers were away. What opportunities were now afforded her? Decidedly, time was on their side, to plan for the party, yes, which they did, seated next to one another on a white couch made from soft Italian leather. She perceived that now was the moment to find out if the Champ would reveal what her father, her uncle, and other higher-ups in the Nation wouldn’t with their strict, deeply embedded mores and their code of silence about the moon. The little she knew about her mother had come from the Champ. (Her poor mother, her lifetime ended by a strike of the sun. The Champ’s exact words.)
The Champ heard her out.
Honoring her request, he spoke to her about the moon. First, he spoke of their ocean, then of the chain of floating islands inside the moon, then of the people on the islands, lastly of their ideas. As he talked, she visualized the interior of the moon—a live map unfolding in her mind—where the people lived, average lifespan one hundred and twenty years of age. The ocean, an elixir, helped keep them young.
Would you like to try some? His face was turned toward hers.
You’ve been there?
Once. I went there to relax after a fight.
She knew what that meant; he had gone there to heal.
You ain’t missing much, he said.
Floating around on my own island all day sounds like fun to me. What’s so bad about that?
The Champ thought about it. It’s stuffy. The humidity. The sky is ugly. The clouds are black.
She said nothing.
And you wouldn’t like the food.
He said the words half to himself as if he’d grown meditative, no longer conscious of her presence. She had to get him to continue.
All the butterflies were black. Like floating silhouettes. As on earth, many people disposed of their used sneakers by tossing them over a telephone or cable line, but on the moon, birds (all black) nested inside with their young.
Then the Champ said, I’m sure your father will bring you back a special birthday gift.
She expressed no surprise at the Champ’s promise of a gift from the moon. Instead, she pushed the Champ for more, asked him about her father’s mission. Her father had said it was an urgent calling with the survival of the race at stake, while her uncle had told her something different.
The Champ had not been made privy to the purpose of the mission. What he knew: Contact dated back until at least the turn of the twentieth century when the moon people had communicated with H.G. Wells to have him record the history of one of their failed conquests. A few years later they became concerned after the appearance of George Méliès’s film A Trip to the Moon. The white devils were starting to get ideas. It took the moon people more than three decades—these things take time—to develop a plan of intervention and put it in motion. They made contact with Orson Welles, whose 1938 radio play of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds was a smoke screen for their first expedition to Earth. Welles was a light-skinned Original Asiatic, which was why he was so good at playing Othello. Through Welles they reached out to the Nation.
It was more than she’d had.
Back home, she overheard the four bodyguards—West, East, North, and South—engaging in conversation, shit-talking while they waited for the night detail to arrive and relieve them.
You ain’t never seen The Leather Lady perform? Man, she can make her pussy burp.
You like them nasty women.
I’m just saying.
Now, the Champ’s wife, that’s my kind of woman.
Yeah. High butt pleasure.
You think you can handle that?
He can’t handle nothing but his hand.
Yeah. The only sisters he dates are the Hand Sisters.
The men laughed.
To Laila, it was normal; she had lived like this always; she did not know any other existence. Like Upstairs and his security team, the four directions were more and more indistinguishable from one another, getting jumbled in her mind.
Quietly, she made her way to her room, the bay windows luminous with moonlight, her father reaching out to her, keeping tabs. Who knew all the things in the world that could get her in trouble with Allah? She dropped to her knees in prayer on her embroidered mat. Rather a slave of Allah than a free friend of Satan. Underneath her she felt gravity push away. Soon she was hovering a few inches about the floor, an outgrowth of her faith. She had the Champ to credit for this phenomenon: on her birthday last year, he had shown her how to make a prayer mat levitate.
That night she had a dream that involved her father, but the memory of it disappeared with the sun.
Seated on two thick books—encyclopedias? Holy Bibles?—the moon man drove her to school. The brim of the hat he wore was broader than his shoulders, lending the impression of an upturned bowl. Now a measure of curiosity about the little man overcame her. She had tried to learn the names of the dozen who worked in the house, names which were all long, full of clicking sounds, and difficult to pronounce. In the rearview mirror he smiled at her, his eyes gray intelligent, and penetrating. She smiled back.
She blinked as a dazzle of white illumination hurt her. Through the window she saw fleecy clouds specking the sky. A lasso of light circled the glass; the same light circled her head then her body. Wind rushing about gathered up a quantity of snow, swirled it into new flakes, blew them wet against trees that all looked to be under pressure, waiting to explode.
In the classroom, Mr. Levine revived his usual themes. On the anvils of experience, the structure of Greek society was hammered out. Their world was different from ours. Some might say better. Around the hero, everything becomes a tragedy. Around God, everything becomes what? A world?
Short (slightly taller than a moon person) with a long flat head, he looked like a walking hammer. Something tool-like about his hands as well, which he kept encased in purple surgical gloves, a color that clashed with the seersucker suit he wore every day over a white shirt and his brown shoes that curved up like tubers from the floor. He seemed to blend into this world not unlike the designs on the wall—roses, violets, and fleurs-de-lis.
Dante raised his hand to answer. The Greeks were right. At least about that. He sat in front of Laila, his eyes looking two ways at once, his body spilling over his seat like a weed searching for further places to grow.
Seated next to Laila, Erika listened, grunted, sighed, whispered. She was not short of admirers and made the most of her intelligent eyebrows, her small flat nose (cute), and her large friendly mouth kept half-open in a half smile.
Girl, what are you going to do for your birthday?
Probably not much, Laila said.
Isn’t your pops away?
So why can’t the cat play? Erika asked.
Laila thought about it. I wish, she said. But I’m not like you.
Hurrying to leave her home for the Champ’s, she lost her footing on the carpeted stairs and slid down on her bottom to the bottom of the staircase as if being released from the birth canal. Outside, moonlight floated in the air. She looked right through the night into nothing.
A few minutes later, Belinda bit down on a little wheel of red cheese, she and the Champ tense. Laila had come in the middle of an argument.
I have my own opinions, she said. She finished the cheese, her eyes cold and alert on her husband.
Could have fooled me.
So now you got jokes?
I know my business, the Champ said.
For a minute or more they faced each other under the chandelier, neither speaking.
I’m not worried about that chump. He used to be my sparring partner.
But he’s the champion now.
Only because of the tomfoolery of these white devils.
And he’s younger than you.
Time measures nothing but itself. He shook his head as if nullifying the effects of a punch. You know, you’re starting to sound like—just forget it.
Belinda cleaned her hands on a towel, her floor-length skirt hugging the ample portions of her lower body, a cocoon trying to break open. She turned away from him and the Champ watched her leave the room.
Laila: it amazed her, the power of one argument.
At last, the Champ spun around her way and smiled, then smacked his abdomen with both hands, indicating that she should cross the room, stand under the lights of the chandelier, and punch him as hard as she could in the stomach. Not a boxer’s thing but something he’d picked up in his reading about Houdini. She had it in her to do what he wanted.
He cheered himself on. Rumble, young man, rumble.
The next morning, Mr. Levine dove right back in. One wonders about incubation. How long? And under what circumstances?
Her thoughts were still packed down. A dream lingered that waking should have erased. She caught the key phrases of the lecture and jotted them inside her notebook. Eurydice who guides . . . The Greeks are forever stepping on snakes . . . Orpheus who looks back . . . How can we have eyes to see? . . . Torn apart by women . . . Why can there only be reunification in death? . . . Or was that absolutely impossible after all? . . . Don’t dance with naiads on your wedding day.
Dante said, Consider this: if X is true, then Y must be true. Or are we back to the original problem?
Everyone glanced at him. Was he mocking Mr. Levine or taking a serious shot at the propositions? After all, he had won the school’s science fair competition with his anti-nigger machine.
Mr. Levine kept his voice deliberately patient. Go on, Mr. Michaux.
Dante could not go on.
Light orbited the lens of Mr. Levine’s spectacles. You get extra credit for trying, he said. He picked up where he’d left off. The first myths are usually the worst. Not so for the Greeks . . . In this sense we are all, each and every one of us, storybook heroes. Every Greek myth contains all of human history.
Dante offered another idea, his voice inching out, word after slow word. There is another world inside this one.
Laila felt lucid now.
When the little moon lady came out from behind the curtain she seemed no longer a person. The evening light had disguised her as a basketball. Looking at her, Laila sensed the enormity of her own body.
She wanted to borrow one of Laila’s head coverings. Was it an unusual request? No need to bite her tongue. Please say so. Together they searched through Laila’s closet, the mundane noise of her trying one cloth after another before the full-length mirror until they agreed that a lavender shawl seemed to be the perfect match for her complexion. She took in the moon woman’s scent. Could almost feel the enveloping presence of that other world.
After supper, she and her uncle sat in separate armchairs reading, his feet crossed. There had been a change in the condition of his patient, all he would say. She had a strange lingering intuition that they would not finish the evening this way.
The doorbell rang, over and over. Her uncle took a deep unsteady breath.
A few moments later the Champ appeared in the room wearing a fashionable brown leather jacket. (Did he ever dress for winter?) Her uncle stiffened up in his chair and eyed the Champ. What words would be spoken? He was afforded no time to get to his feet, the Champ bending down and embracing him, tight. Then putting himself straight again and giving Laila a playful slap on the chin.
What excuse would he use this time? Her uncle saved him from the need for one. The Champ’s timing was perfect. Truth to tell, he needed to look in on a patient. Laila could explain. The Champ would be doing him a favor in seeing after his niece. Just for a few hours. Was it too much to ask?
The book that she was reading did not escape the Champ’s notice. She knew the illusion that he wanted to perform so she took to her feet, crossed the room, and turned her back to him. Opened to a random passage in the book, selected a random sentence, then she closed the book, turned and faced the Champ. Warming up, he shook the kinks out of his body before bringing all ten fingers to both sides of his temple in concentration. He recited the sentence: “Dim light from the hall; fell pale and splintered on Regan’s paintings; on Regan’s sculptures; on more stuffed animals.”
From the backseat she watched a flock of birds soaring in flight black against the white sky. Thinking that she had not fully appreciated the advantages of being the Champ’s friend until now. Of course, the Champ had his own problems. Was everything fine with Belinda? She had not been able to tell last night during the preparations for her party. Belinda—
She made a thermos of coffee for you, the driver said telepathically. He was watching her in the rearview mirror, his eyes glinting as if polished, stone. She had been dimly conscious of him. He held up the thermos for her to see.
She did not drink coffee.
Don’t think of it that way, the moon man said. It’s perfectly acceptable. I drink it every morning. In fact, seven cups each day.
With some reluctance she accepted the thermos. To show the driver that she trusted him—his people, his kind—she unscrewed the lid, causing steam to erupt volcano-like, and took a sip. The coffee was already sweetened to taste just the way she imagined she would have prepared it. She poured a cup, already feeling a growing pleasure. Her mind deepened during the drive.
This statement by Zeus, taken in isolation from all the others, and from the rest of Greek reality, is wonderful and touching to think about.
But Zeus was a long time ago, someone said.
Yeah, he dead.
Zeus is not dead, Mr. Levine said.
What’s it got to do with now?
Erika looked like some strange bird nested in the plumage of her brown wool sweater. She wanted to whisper to Laila about cute guys. Laila corrected her own visual assessment of Mr. Levine. She no longer felt that he looked like a tool; instead, his body came off as insubstantial, only so much batting for his clothing.
Loaves and fishes all over again? He gestured with his purple-gloved hands.
Yes, Laila said, loaves and fishes.
Mr. Levine sat down on his desk. Would you care to extrapolate?
She extrapolated. He nodded his approval. Resumed his lecture. For the remainder of the period she answered every question. She didn’t want anyone else getting a word in before her, not in the least. What had taken her over? She could not say.
Mr. Levine gave her a long look, without expression, looked right through her. Miss Shabazz, I hope you don’t mind my saying this. Please don’t dominate class discussion. Give someone else a chance.
It was not lost on Laila that although her father believed white people were devils, he did not mind sending her to a school where she would be taught by devils.
Class over, Dante followed her down the hall. What a strange destiny it is to be followed. He followed her into her college-prep calculus class, a light and airy room, and took a seat quietly in the back row.
At the end of the period she sauntered forth, affording him the opportunity to talk to her. What class do you have next? Future studies. Hmmm. His eyes were as quick as pinballs, looking (pinging) here, there.
She wanted so badly to tell him about the moon people. Didn’t know why. Took everything to keep from blurting out all she’d learned.
He started questioning the validity of Mr. Levine’s class. What was it worth beyond the credits? Anything? Personally, he doubted it.
A fur-coat embrace, her birthday gift from Belinda and the Champ.
The snow melted for part of the next day and started to form into new shapes, bright visions in all the windows. Wet strange cars passed. She saw a river, the sky. Then it started to snow again. Was it to be cold forever? Her mind was full, every emotion, idea, sensation, all color, line, and shading, no blank spaces at all.
Myth is continuous, Mr. Levine said. Only daily life is intermittent.
Erika said, I wish he would rest his mouth. She was looking her best today, each strand of hair a black river. Full-length black boots emphasizing her long legs.
Think it through. Myth is like a finger pointing at the moon. Don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.
Dante said, Mr. Levine, I got one for you.
The Champ carried his toddlers on his shoulders.
Look at us, Aunt Laila. We’re flying.
He bent his knees as if doing squats, heaved and launched them six feet into the air, spun his body one hundred and eighty degrees, his back now to Laila, and caught them on his shoulders again, their positions reversed, each toddler now on the opposite shoulder, smiling at her. (Who doesn’t love flying?) He performed the feat again and again.
Magic (illusion) notwithstanding, around the Champ Laila carefully guarded her thoughts. Should she tell the Champ her fear? No reason to because her curiosity had become greater than her fear, yes? After all, the Champ had supplied an answer. Magic was like his bread and butter, boxing. How had he put it? Training is not just skipping rope and running roadwork and studying film. It’s learning how to get into the mind of your opponent, think the way he thinks, become him. You start to feel him, anticipate how he thinks. By the time I’m in the ring I know when a punch is coming. Like I’m throwing a punch against myself. The art of defense.
Stop, husband, you’ll give them gas. Now in the room, Belinda looked at Laila and said, The savage mind.
The Champ extended both arms and let the toddlers slide triumphant down his biceps and bounce to the floor. We can fly! Belinda had her own plans for them. She asked Laila to excuse her. Once she left the room with the subdued toddlers, the Champ made a motion so rapid toward Laila’s face she might have easily overlooked it. Then he opened his hand. Inside, gold earrings in the form of the star and crescent, also a birthday gift, to be worn at the party on Saturday. How sweet, how thoughtful, but she failed to put forth the appropriate expression of heightened enthusiasm and gratitude since the pressing thing she wanted from the Champ cropped into her mind and deflected her attention.
The Champ said, Belinda picked them out. He looked at her in such a way as if he were making quick mental notations, taking inventory.
They are just the right thing, she said.
That is good to know, he said, seeing her expression.
Why her reluctance to just come out with it? Why these feelings of embarrassment? If only she could communicate with him telepathically.
The Champ had an idea for the party. RAN should perform.
Not a bad idea. RAN (Real Ass Nigguhs) were popular, all of her guests would be impressed, floored, but she didn’t care for that kind (political) of hip hop. Would he be offended? Was he already offended? Perhaps she should put on the earrings now.
Then the words just came out of her: I’ve changed my mind. I would like to try some, the elixir.
Their gazes met. The Champ appeared to be rigidly attentive. She felt her heart vibrating in tension, alarm. Ill-concealed? In any case, she had said it.
Without a word, he walked over to an accent cabinet, stooped down before it, and getting out a common milk jug, brought the plastic container to the dining table. With care he unscrewed the lid, a swoosh of released pressure, vapors clouding the air.
In the car the next morning, the moon man said, Too many bad drivers today. Alert to his task, he glanced at her in the rearview mirror then turned his gaze back to the windshield. The moon man kept both hands on the steering wheel, his nine knuckles like a mountain range.
Who was she to agree or disagree? She had not noticed. Light angled through the windshield and struck his enormous hat, and for a moment he seeped out of focus.
How is the Champ?
She knew that the moon man was only being himself, courteous, trying to make conversation, not prying into her business or scratching around for scandal. Be that as it may, she had to keep silent because he’d asked a question that she could not answer. Could not tell him that last night she’d witnessed the Champ perform his greatest illusion. One where his art of diversion had fooled her into believing that he’d actually removed his head from his body and held it up on one palm before sliding it back into position on his neck.
Did you manage to ask about his coffee?
At last a question she could answer. No, she had not.
The presence of her classmates was comforting. Even Mr. Levine’s voice. She told Erika about her birthday party on Saturday, which she supposed was a way of inviting her without inviting her. Withheld that the Champ was throwing it for her. None of her classmates knew that the Honorable Isaiah Shabazz was her father, and no one here knew anything about her friendship with the Champ, her secrets to keep. Erika asked her what cute guys she planned to invite, not an unimportant question. Before answering she took a deep shaky breath.
Dante voiced a certitude, agreeing with Mr. Levine. Yes, he too believed that this was so.
It’s not enough to agree, Mr. Levine said. Do it backward.
She and Dante met outside the building after her last period for him to accompany her to her car. Bright sun, bright snow. The winter trees offered no shade, no shelter, Dante no longer wearing a coat but flickering pieces of sun. The wind pulled words from his mouth, nonstop chatter that she was not trying to hear. He only stopped talking to put his cupped hands together in front of his mouth and blow on them.
Your pops is Isaiah Shabazz, he said.
She turned away embarrassed.
When she came home, the moon lady threw herself everywhere, fluffed the curtains, scrubbed the bathrooms, dusted, vacuumed, made the beds (including her father’s Dutch bed with curtains), cooked dinner, did the dishes, ate the cobwebs, ate the moonlight.
Her uncle decided he would her help with her homework: identifying the Greek elements in Ancestors—the limited series streaming on Remote—and Hitler’s Minions—the limited series streaming on Woke. She said as little as possible; she did not want to talk but to hear. He was as certain as she was unassured, all his suggestions on the money. Both shows were committed to the idea that the thing you love the most is also the thing that will kill you. (Which Greek myth was that?)
The doorbell rang. Her uncle raised his head, studied her with large moon-darkened eyes. He did not move, leaving it to the security detail to respond, but something in her would not let her remain immobile. Feeling as if she were in a trance, she crossed the carpeted living room to answer the door. Upon arrival she found that the moon lady was already there.
The Champ had dropped off a package for her, a box not much larger than a mobile phone. Greeting cards? No. The opened box revealed ornate party invitations printed on hand-cut paper. The moon lady smiled up at Laila, lashes long, her gaze warm, inviting. Lending the sense that she thought Laila knew something or could do something. What? What was she after?
Now it was necessary to hide the box from her uncle.
The next morning, the driver carried Laila silently to school, every living and mechanical thing blasting into her awareness.
She thought she’d have to listen hard to take in Mr. Levine’s analysis of the two TV shows. But it was as her uncle had said. At least in part. The love of bigotry bringing about the destruction of two societies, the slaveholding South and Hitler’s Germany. She was beginning to regain her poise; she felt it seeping back, a little at first, then with a rush.
Erika had an opinion: Hitler was a pretty good painter.
You think so? Mr. Levine asked.
Some would beg to differ.
Art is subjective.
A hand shot up. Teacher, why do we have to write a paper about the African Holocaust? I don’t see why we have to write about something that happened hundreds of years ago.
Yeah. Let’s write about something going on today.
Dismantling the forces that police our communities.
The New Jim Crow.
African Lives Matter.
The lack of cohesion among Black people.
Mr. Levine, our opinion has never at any time been asked.
I enjoyed watching the TV shows, Dante said. The horror. Did you see the way they killed that fat dude in the concentration camp? Today he wore an old-fashioned double-breasted pinstriped suit and pointed black shoes. Something spider-like in the lines and colors and his web of Afro.
Through his spectacles Mr. Levine eyed Dante with hard criticism. Be respectful, Mr. Michaux.
What do you mean?
How would you like it if I said, Did you see the way they whipped that fat dude in Africa?
Dante popped up out of his seat, hands tightened into fists. A noise started up in Laila’s ears, went off inside her head. Mr. Levine looked Dante over carefully then inched toward him, slow, grim, and determined. Some of last night’s chill returned, the moon lady bearing the box of invitations. Her teacher craned his head back looking up at Dante, his hair stiff as feathers, face to chest, Dante a foot taller and husky, fifty pounds heavier. The two studied each other with such intensity that Laila, sluggish, inept, and dizzy, felt compelled to get up out of her seat, put herself between the two combatants, and put an end to the conflict by the simple means of placing her hand on Dante’s chest.
No, let him go, Mr. Levine said, his voice tight. Let him go. I’m not afraid. He seemed to mean it.
Still rocking the lavender headwrap, the moon lady went about her Saturday-morning chores with her little tool, looking vacant and bored. Sadness drawn across her mouth, no mistaking it. She peered into Laila’s face, something there. Laila heard her attempting speech, the bubbles pinging inside her head but hollow, empty of words.
What was wrong? What could Laila do? Other than ask questions that were received with silence, only some tingling kinetic sensations.
For the whole day unmarked trucks arrived on the snow-wet street outside the Champ’s house, uniformed men and women jumping out of them with bundles and packages or unloading boxes and crates, the tallest crates Laila had ever seen, towering in the icy air. The vehicles glimmered in the sun, a brilliance of the light she found pleasing.
The activity was not lost on her uncle. What in Allah’s name was going on? What did she know about it? His eyes blazed, questioningly.
Laila took a deep expectant breath. Beats me, she said. Her uncle knew nothing about her party and she must keep it that way. Wait, she said, the Champ and Belinda mentioned something about a birthday party, for the toddlers. I had forgotten until now. I hope it’s okay: they have requested my presence.
The first guest to appear, Erika arrived in a dress of stunning colors, nothing dim about it. For her part, Laila wore her new fur coat over a taffeta party dress that Belinda had purchased for her. A gloved attendant came to collect their coats, Laila careful in removing hers. She stood tautly waiting for Erika to praise her dress.
Girl, go ahead and pose.
Laila struck a pose. Then it was Erika’s turn.
Pleasing expectation. They exclaimed in wonder at each new arrival. Jacinda! Jericho! Tashawn! Kenya! Bill! Buckley! Laquanda! Mandela! Gabrielle! Lumumba! Shaquira! Dante! Brown black yellow boys and girls striding past light-wrapped trees, down the red carpet into the basement of the mansion to a smiling Champ and Belinda, who greeted each guest, their hands out. Welcome to our home.
Soon a throng of hyperactive partygoers filled the basement served by a catering team who graciously held trays with ice-cold drinks (soda, juice, Gatorade, and punch) and hors d’oeuvres. The lights dimmed, and the DJ busted down on the turntable, throwing the room into dance.
Dante sought her out. Sorry about yesterday, he said. But Mr. Levine was out of pocket.
You know me, he said. I’m not a violent person.
Don’t sweat it, she said. You may have done yourself a favor. He’ll probably give you an A for the class. Aren’t you glad about that?
He nodded slightly in the darkness. I earned it.
She said, Forget everything else. At least for tonight.
He forgot, sucked—whoosh!—into the whirlwind of dance. Possessing boundless energy, he was swiftly active, dancing with one girl after another, then even some of the boys, living it up.
Erika remained next to Laila, the two eyeing each other in the murky light. Talking about all the cute guys at the party, her arms got pulled out into incomprehensible shapes. It would be interesting to see what change, if any, overcame her tonight.
Girl, you got secrets. The Champ. He’s fine.
He’s my friend. I’ve known him all my life.
Dante moved toward her. He praised her clothing, her earrings, and her smile. Dance? Clopping up and down, his shoes looked like horse’s hooves.
She staggered back, arms raised. (The following year, their final year of high school, she would come to think differently about him. And on the graduation trip to Europe—a trip that both her father and her uncle will welcome since it would afford her the opportunity to see and study the white devil in its place of origin—she and he will kiss.) He moved hurriedly away. The next song someone else asked her to dance and she accepted. Her feet felt easy moving in their shoes. Then with Erika again. Now in the dimness ninety-nine people eating catered food, ninety-nine people drinking Orangina and frappé that Belinda had made and served from a punch bowl. Vibrant knots of conversation beneath the booming music. So much energy in and around her.
The Champ gave a short speech, welcoming everyone to Laila Shabazz’s sixteenth birthday celebration. He spoke glowing words about her, then he began to perform magic tricks.
I’ve been all over the world, he said. Boxing has taken me all over the world. I’m like a ball that bounces. Never bounces in the same place twice.
The Champ performed impersonations. Frederick Douglass, Brother Malcolm, Beyoncé,
Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Oprah, Barack Obama, Future, Nikki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Snoop, Jay Z, Cardi B.
The partygoers screamed, More!
The Champ floated like a butterfly. Threw the fast punches that had made him the most famous man in the world. He said, People must not turn into bees who kill themselves in stinging others.
The Champ moved through curtains of light. Disappeared.
Then his voice coming through the ceiling, announcing that RAN would now perform. All ten members of the group exploded into view and started prowling about the stage in desert camouflage and bulletproof vests, rapping one hit song after the next, the unfolding flow of their reality. Soon everyone was swinging the new dance the Orbit, spinning about and clashing into each other’s arms and shoulders, Laila swirling among the shoulders bare and proud (the women), angular and defiant (the men). Bodies now colliding into each other, bouncing off each other like bumper cars before forming into a circle, moving clockwise, then counterclockwise.
After the performance, the rapper with the best flow, B.C.E.—Before the Caucasian Era—hopped off the stage and introduced himself to Laila. Beside her Erika stirred restlessly, her ample shoulders tanned and freckled in the light of the room. Laila the center of attention—blown kisses, good wishes, shout-outs—but B.C.E. held an audience with her, his voice low and careful. She’d rather read his eyes than dance or talk to anybody else. He dreamily talked to her, much to say, while she stood next to him, quiet, feeling the silky texture of her dress, talking by listening, nodding agreement from time to time. Then he turned toward her, and she waited, her breath tightening around her. Would he try to kiss her? (Touch was too much.) Perhaps he was one of those people in the world you don’t want to let go of, like the Champ. Soon breathing again. Many years later she can still remember the way his clothes smelled in the dark.
Some song playing, only five notes, slowly over and over, a little phrase, changing the air. Erika dancing with another rapper from RAN, getting to the music, hysterical gesticulation, shaking the air around her head, a lighted strangle of hair. Then several cute guys all wanting to dance with her, frantic in their urge. Erika like a bird fluttering in retreat from cats. Now the energy in the room flowed in another direction, to Dante. All at once lights flashed on and some huge blanket (or the Champ’s magician’s cape) came stifling down, cutting off Laila’s chance to breathe.
Time for Laila to take the stage and unwrap her presents: jewelry (bracelets, earrings, necklaces, anklets), books, a year’s subscription to her favorite video game, an empathy box, fur-lined house slippers, The Wire: The Board Game, scented scrunchies, a kimono, a jewel (cosmetic)-encrusted pimp cup (Bitches Are Pimps Too), vitamin C-infused face peel masks (avocado, charcoal, and lemon), RAN merchandise, and two tickets to the smash musical Girl, Do You Know What that Negro Said to Me? Rivers of discarded gift paper on the stage.
Drop the lights and drop the music. New cadences rippled from the speakers, releasing a burst of emotion from the partygoers. That’s my shit!
Laila stood and contemplated the splendor of this moment. Huge sounds in the dark. Tactile joy. People breathing hard from dance. One dynamic group blending into another. A word in everyone’s mouth. None of it escaped her notice. Recognized. Laila breathing in all the life breathing around her. She felt all the doors inside her body fall down.
The first whisper of departure started in someone’s nostrils, in someone else’s groan, a sigh, a grunt, a flutter of the lips like an engine trying to turn over. A person left. Followed by another. Soon the party was over. No other way it could be.
The aftermath: Certain objects harden in the state they were left in. Other objects piled up in pleated shadows. Nothing left to do but thank Belinda and the Champ. She wanted to say something to the couple, tried to bring forth words from the enormous mass of verbiage lighting her mind, could not. Belinda hugged her, lay in her arms. And with her thoughts and emotions came sounds but no utterances. Already the Champ had set about to entertain the four bodyguards who were waiting to escort Laila back home. He demanded their bowties, accepted each one by one, then—Abracadabra—he transformed the bowties into a single length of colorful metal chain. Abracadabra changed then back. Astonished. Flabbergasted. Rattled. Nervous laughter the only suitable emotion. And Laila also laughed, moisture shining in her eyes.
Winter light and snow. Trees popping and creaking overhead. Everything looked like it was made of porcelain. The men in the contingent packed in wool and cashmere. Bedredged with blue of snow-glow, they seemed to be sporting robes of snow and ice. Nostrils pluming out different lengths of breath.
Unhurriedly, her father stood. He nodded at his brother, but they did not embrace. Earlier she’d revealed to her uncle that she now drank coffee so he’d prepared them some, spooned instant grinds into two identical mugs, sugar and milk spiraling in the boiling center of each, and as they sat across from one another she’d felt the dwindling of tension between them. What did it mean? Now he told her he felt cheated. Felt they had only just begun to talk, and here it was, time for him to go.
After a meditative pause, she said, I’m here, not going anywhere. Her breath crumbled like bread in the cold.
Her father was back. Still high from the party, questions speared what to why to who, her voice thickening in thinning air.
I will tell you, her father said, but not here. Let us talk inside.
The who involved a distinguished guest. She would be staying with them in their home for an extended period of time. He made the introduction to a portly moon woman bundled up in a patchwork coat of many colors and materials. (Furs were not an issue.) She looked up at Laila and smiled a nice smile, a questioning glow of wonder and concern in her large attractive eyes that gleamed with sudden light. Laila returned the smile.
The street moved with men from in the bounded-togetherness of the Nation, their own dance groove, the snow recording their footprints black. Each man adding something to the other in the exhausted air, giving him what he lacked, completing him. One vision. The distinguished moon woman had her own concerns, glowed and smoldered darkly, bringing her hands to her ears. Apparently, she didn’t like the sound of the car. Or was it the smoke coming from the muffler that she found bothersome? Now waving her hand in front of her face. She touched the fender and the engine stalled. Gazed at Laila’s father with disappointment as if he had let her down, had failed her.
It seemed that the commotion in the street had drawn the Champ from inside his home. Laila saw him waving at her from a distance. She waved back, signaling him to come. Nothing slow about him, he hurried over. Her father embraced him. Champ. Introduced him to the distinguished moon woman although even he found her name too difficult to pronounce. For a few moments the two stood across from each other communicating telepathically while Laila, her uncle, and her father looked on.
He kissed Laila on the forehead. The moon woman eyed her impassively.
The Champ said, I kept my eye on her while you were away. She spent her birthday here with Belinda and the kids.
Okay, Champ, her father said. Many thanks. You always go out of your way to set an example for our youth.
The moon lady came from inside the mansion to welcome her father. Something less about her today, a kind of resigned inertia, not the usual energy. She did not acknowledge the dignitary. In fact, the two moon women gave no indication that they knew one another or had any interest in communicating with one another. The greater figure followed the lesser figure into her house.
Lingering behind, Laila took a moment to speak to her father. How was your trip?
We are making bold strides, he said, although we endure a peculiar dilemma. His aged face sat atop a web of wrinkles like a cat’s cradle. To be ahead of everything and still to be behind. That is the condition of our great race. I have never found a solution. So other people’s troubles are easy to bear.
She wished for more, but knew that was all; many years ago, she realized that she did not belong to him; he did not exist for her, only for the Nation, his millions of followers, and the moon people. She was herself.
Her father said, I hope you like the gift that I brought you for your birthday. I put a lot of thought into it. For you are now sixteen years of age, a milestone. He smiled at her.
She tried her best to return his smile.
In fact, now that you are a woman, I was thinking that we might send you on an important diplomatic mission. To the moon. We need to strengthen relations. The survival of the race is at stake.
They continued on inside the mansion where the two moon women waited in the great hall. Within moments one light bulb blazed bright and burned out. Too much light for the moon dignitary. Laila had to keep her face composed, show no signs of fear or anger or concern, only skin. In the darkness already a plan was shining on the surface of her brain.
Once she was alone in her room, she sent the Champ a text. Surely he would help her.
Jeffery Renard Allen is the award-winning author of six books of fiction and poetry, including his most recent book, Fat Time and Other Stories, and the celebrated novel Song of the Shank. Allen’s accolades include the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize for Fiction, the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, a grant from Creative Capital, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, residencies at the Bellagio Center and Jentel Foundation, and fellowships at the Center for Scholars and Writers, the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Studies, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He makes his home in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he is at work on the memoir Mother-Wit. Find out more about him at www.authorjefferyrenardallen.