When Black Women Die (a short)
A year ago in June, my older sister Miracle had woken me up in the middle of the night and told me it was her time to die.
I woke up to her shaking me lightly and my scarf halfway down my bed.
“Patience, I’m going,” she whispered, moving back so I could sit and wake up properly.
“Going?” I rubbed my eyes and frowned under the sharp moonlight trailing into our room. “Going where?”
“I’m leaving. I’m going to the creek and leaving.”
“Wait,” I said, fully awake now, “you can’t leave. You don’t just choose to go, that’s not how it works.” She sat on the edge of my bed, her dark brown freckled skin looking like a midnight blue. She was ready, dressed in a lilac cotton dress I’d seen her make. Her hair was braided into two cornrows and tied back with a silk scarf.
“I’m not choosing anything, Patience. I just know it’s my time, and I’m letting you know so you don’t wonder.”
My body started to warm up and I wiped my eyes. “But you’re the miracle, Mirry. Miracles last.”
“No,” she said, taking my face in her hands. “Miracles remind you to have faith.”
She wiped my tears. “We are loud and fleeting and leave a warm space for people like you to stay. You’re Patience, the long-lasting, enduring one. We were given these names for a reason.”
I nodded and she took me up in a hug. She was twenty-seven. Seven years older than me. She came when our mother was told she couldn’t conceive, and I came seven years later to teach my mother, and the entire house, contentment. At least that’s what our mother, aunts, grandmother and elders would say.
“Take this,” she said and took off her star necklace and pressed it into my hands. “Remember, when we die, we sleep. We go to a place that was made for us, a place where we are loved.” She hugged me again and let me cry quietly in her chest for a while longer, then kissed my head and let go.
“Goodbye, my love.” She went to the door and blew me a kiss. I waved and she left.
Quickly, I went to my window and waited to see her leave the house. Soon, she appeared, black and inhuman, as if her flesh had already lifted and what was inside had taken over her body and I was seeing her spirit with my naked eyes for the first time. She floated across the land, into the field, and became a lilac glimmer, disappearing into the dark woods and out of sight.
A year later, I decided it was my time to leave too. I was sitting in the kitchen that opened into the back garden, watching my younger cousins play outside, hearing soft piano and afternoon prayers drift from the living room and down the stairs. I wasn’t too sure about it, whether leaving was right at this moment, but we’d seen too many losses that year for my heart to handle. So I wanted to leave and rest like Miracle, and all the other women who had passed through this house.
“Patience, you okay?”
I looked up and saw my mother leaning against the worktop looking at me, her head slightly tilted.
“Yeah,” I said, “yes, I am.”
“Okay,” she said slowly, then cut a slice of fresh sponge cake for me and poured some sweetened hibiscus. “You gonna join us outside later?”
“Maybe,” I said and nodded in thanks, “I’m not sure.”
“Okay,” she said smiling. She kissed my head and picked at my loose fro. “You better braid that up, you know your hair likes staying stretched.”
“I know,” I said, “can you help me with it?” She nodded and walked over, taking a bowl and some coconut oil and then started working on my hair.
“You know,” she said once half of my hair was braided, “Esther bathed in perfume for months, Oshun danced, and all the women who were raised in this house always took the time to honour their bodies.”
“And I don’t honour mine?” I asked as I sipped my drink.
“No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying despite everything, those that are meant to live long find a way to do so with some love and light in their lives. You’ve gotta find your way, before you move on to rest.” I let her words settle for just a bit in me, but then, like a bee, they flew away to some other place that was sweeter.
“Done. Finish up and join us before the sun starts to set.” I did just that. I finished my cake and brought my drink into the garden, and sat with the women who raised me 'till nightfall, then went to the creek to rest.
When Black women die, they sleep. They are carried into the earth and sleep in a world of water and purple blackness. All souls in solitude, floating in cold, dark waters. At peace, at last. At least that’s what I was told. When we die we sleep, we finally sleep. Yet I am awake. I watched my dark body rise from above the water. My dress billowed, filling in the creek. Bugs wrote lunar incantations in the air and whispers from planets trickled down in the sky, hanging silver threads with messages from those swimming in the water. All at once, I saw traces of the night air flowing between the trees, leaves flinching as it moved. Light sprays of water sprinkled on my face. The shrubs, the moss - everything green smelt sweet, but I didn’t understand how I could smell so clearly when my lungs were full of water.
I looked down and saw my feet touching the damp ground. Then I looked up and I was staring over my body, but I could also see over the tops of trees. How tall was I now? I crouched down by the bank and went onto my hands and knees. I felt the mud in my fingers but I didn’t. Water seeped through my dress but it didn't. As I tried to grasp these new sensations I heard a rustling and watched a dark green snake glide towards me. It felt like the spirit of a woman and she came over to me, her neck raised, mouth open.
We held each other. I waited and waited. Her mouth snapped and she jumped into the water and disappeared, barely making a splash.
I watched the water around my body, waiting for it to stir and the snake to appear, but she didn’t, so I slipped in headfirst down the smooth bank and under my body in the water. It was strange. It was as if I wasn’t Patience anymore. That wasn’t my name. Patience was who I was staring at. A dark face with clear bubbles tagged on her skin. Dark eyes open, arms spread out and still in the water. We floated with each other. Myself, my soul, I think? Or maybe my spirit and my body looking at each other. How could they get it so wrong? All of us women in that house would sit entranced by the stories of sleep and rest that we would get when our heart stopped and here I was, more awake and alive than I’ve ever been, watching my body float. Or maybe, it was the body they meant. The flesh will finally rest, but the spirit never sleeps. If so, they left that part out.
We floated together. I touched my fingers and they felt firm, a little swollen, and I was almost fully taken up by the sight of my dead self when something clamped onto my back and dragged me down into the deeper water. The sight of my body got smaller and smaller. Screeching filled my ears. It felt as if more water was poured into the creek, too much, and I was being pushed down by the pressure and pulled further into the dark, so fast that what was cold was hot and what was dark was light. Then it stopped. I hung in the biting darkness. Suspended. Waiting, as if someone somewhere was deciding whether to take me.
Then suddenly I felt a surge from below forcing me back up. Rejected from whatever world I was being dragged to. Moving up and up. Mouth forced open, gaping and swallowing water. My body was back in sight. Faster and faster, screeching, then I smashed into my flesh and we rose up, made one again, hands gripped into my arms, my back, me. I heard someone wailing “Patience,” and I was dragged onto the bank, dress soaked and lungs heaving water onto the moss. The water smudged my sight, but it cleared soon and I saw my sisters and aunts wading in the water, some at my side, and my mother’s eyes in mine. “Patience,” she said, “what are you doing drowning yourself for?”
I couldn’t speak.
“Oya, give her space,” said my eldest aunt as she appeared in my line of vision and smiled. “You chi’dren, take her inside and get her fed.” I was raised and lifted. Arms and bodies supported mine. Us women, looking like a warm spec on the earth, dressed in lilac and white, moved from the trees and the creek across the field and back to the large house with yellow windows glowing in the misty dark.
The heat woke me up. My muscles sank into the soft chair in the living room, and my bones relaxed as I chewed on some warm chicken pie, silent and grateful. Some of my sisters had gone to bed, which was fine. It was late. My mother and some of my aunts, including the eldest, sat around me, eating their own pie, sipping on tea and watching me. “Patience,” my mother said and I looked at her, then at all of them. “Why did you try to drown yourself?”
“I wanted to sleep.”
“Before your time?”
They all laughed gently, shaking their heads in a way that made me realise I had missed something in all the stories they had told us about our final rest.