“The River” (Prose)

by Katherine Agyeman-Agard

I came to Oshun through a Romani witch in New York. She taught me how to make love spells. I am good at them, although a good love spells always yield surprising results. It is manipulating the materials that soothes me, the non-rational logic that a beautiful thing and a sweet thing and a wish can produce exactly what you would imagine. That witch would bathes herself in milk and honey and rose petals at night. She’d take pictures. When I went home to Trinidad the summer I was thinking about dropping out of college, and trying to think about how I could hide it. I went around on the moon phase looking for plants that I had learned from the witch. I showed Boyo, a man who had known me from before I was born, who planted bay leaf before our door, who taught me how to drive, a drawing of a plant I had seen before in a New York botanica. He looked at me and said ‘What obeah you doing girl?” And I felt then, as he curled his lips and sucked his teeth, suddenly angry at this white witch, lounging slightly flushed and naked in her bathtub of milk for showing me back to myself. I realized I had been praying that way, to the river, without it being told to me, or named.

My aunt, a Shouter Baptist, had just passed away and my mother hadn’t been allowed into the service. The last time she had gotten into a service she had come away dreaming of everyone present. My mother was warned to be careful, to cross herself with salt and to draw on her own guardians, lest other people got jealous. I remember her, as a child, rising awake at 2 am from the bed we shared then, rising at night, writing notes. “I dreamed of a woman giving you a key,” she told me once. “Don’t trust her.”

Saying that I was going on a “leave of absence” was the polite way to tell parts of my family that I wasn’t dropping out, I just didn’t know when I would be returning precisely. I had been having sex with a white boy, a gay one that I knew was gay. I would sleep with him on the bottom bunk naked, pressed into him. I hated the smell of his sweat but I hated being lonely even more. I liked mostly, that he liked me. That he was lonely too. It took me a long time to even be able to say that out loud. I had written a letter to a farm in California, asking, madly, if I could stay with them, telling them about the inadequacies of ceaseless striving, of grades, of tests, wondering what anything was for. This was how I went to California, when I received an email at two in the morning saying they were willing to house me and were excited about a young woman willing to consider a life of devotion to God. It was only then that I looked at where I had written to – a Catholic farm. I had never mentioned God in the letter.

Most Catholic children take their confirmation around the age of fourteen or fifteen. My sister and brother did theirs at twelve. But I took confirmation at seventeen, surrounded by people younger than me. My parents told me that I was difficult.

I had grown up on vampire novels. I imagined dandies crawling through my windows at night and asking me to invite me inside. Men with pale faces and long hair and thin waists, ones who whispered for me to come. I was convinced that the act of taking communion was an act of vampirism, that the calls to eternal life were an invocation of an ancient spirit, that Jesus, blood let and bearing perfumed hands, had been going through his resurrection into a vampire.

There is a scene in an Anne Rice novel which, the vampire Lestat, unbearably hungry but not wanting to kill, searched for a menstruating friend, and broke through the cotton with his teeth and drank till he was full.

Our priest at the time was a gifted healer. He had come to my church, in St Ann’s, from the east (of the East-West corridor) with a full choir. For the first time, church was full every day, Father Stout invoking Jesus on the cross, freeing people. Everyone sweated and swayed and sang. I refused to take communion at church after Father Stout left.

I went to work on the farm, entering the US on a tourist visa. The farm turned out to be Catholic. Each morning at dawn we would pray and then go tend to the soil. Each night after dinner we would do the same. I prayed with them sometimes, saying Our Father, still thinking of how sexual it all was, covered in dirt. There were four of us on the land: me, a volunteer, and the couple who ran it, and a former pastor who lived in a trailer up the hill. I was lonely and nursed a single cigarette off the back porch underneath a crucifix. They would go to church on Sunday, and sometimes I would go with them because it was somewhere to go. Sometimes, left alone on a big patch of land shaded by trees, I would go lie in the dirt and touch myself until I moaned, look at the sky and say God, our father, Hail Mary, just to see how it sounded.

When I was in Trinidad, waiting for my visa to be processed, I refused to go to church. One day my mother saw me nursing some honey, some rose petals and some salt on a table, writing morosely. She said come, and got in the car. We drove to the beach, which Americans would always ask me if I went to all the time, and I would say no. I didn’t have a car and it was up a twisted mountain path, one 17 year olds with new licenses always died on. My mother drove me there on a Sunday and when I asked her, seeing how steep the path was, and how the air changed, where we were going, she said to church, her mouth set in a straight line. I went to the sea and plunged myself in the water while my mother stayed in the car. Will you come in? I asked her. and she said nothing, leaning back the driver’s seat to nap. We never said anything else about it, but my mother never mentioned dreaming of me again.

A woman turned up at the farm one night, from Arizona. I had, by then, come into a sort of routine. I would come to the cabin after dinner, taking a long languorous walk around the property, I’d look at the brush, the blackberry brambles, water the evening plants. And then I’d smoke one third of a cigarette and sit at my desk and try to write poems. There was really nothing else to do. My mind was being slowly emptied and this woman interrupted it. Sharing a space with her, an extrovert, she’d perch at my desk and ask we what I was writing. And I’d tell her I was trying to write about my gay ex-boyfriend, and why things hurt so much when I never even liked him. How I wasn’t in school and was here until I could go to the convent. I’d put my headphones on and she asked me what I was listening to. I pretended not to listen, but she was there, looking slightly hurt. I took off the headphones and said Nas, and she laughed and said, oh you’re trynna be black and laughed.

This was a frequent question, my blackness. But very few people ever remarked on it. My parents had wanted me to escape from the question of whether I was black or not, whether I was colored at all, whatever these words were. My mother and father were both the lightest of their siblings, and then they made me. I was a child who was fussed over my grandmothers, shown how to use and buy hydroquinone for bruises. When I got into university in the US, my grandmother started, un-ironically, openly, calling me her white granddaughter. As a child I would sometimes bruise myself more and show them the red and purple bruises. They never got that dark, but I kept trying.

It was part of the reason I was so sad about my boyfriend, about his whiteness and my not, even though I couldn’t name it. Working on the farm, even at the cool hours, had made me brown again, gleaming and sweating. The first Christmas I had come home from college my little sister had looked at my face and said ‘my bottom is darker than your face’. I stayed in the room, tucked into bed, thinking of people with pink skin and white coats disappearing into the snow. I looked outside my house, at the canopy of bamboo that surrounded it and the river outside, the paw-paws falling. But I was too scared to go outside, and instead remained inside, remaining pale, festering.

We’d make compost at the farm and the woman and I would go back to the cabin and I would allow her to let me abandon my writing schedule. On the last night I was at the farm, before I was set to go to the convent, she pushed two single beds together and said she didn’t want to speak alone. I registered, at that moment, how much I did not feel. That I did not feel or hear my heart in my chest, that I was not aware of my fingers or hands, of my thoughts. We lay next to the other in the darkness, she also, stock still for hours, each of us still awake, barely breathing. I was the first to kiss her. I’m bleeding, I said. It doesn’t matter, she said and reached between my legs.

Sometime around 2005, a little boy was buggered and killed near the river. I remember the police tape around the scene, and how, every time after I tried to leave the gates of the house my parents would ask me where I was going. Tell me not to take a walk. The houses on my street paid to install an electronic fence with sharp points and to hire a night watchman. The night watchman was robbed at gunpoint. But before then, instead of going to church, after Father Stout had left the church, when the convulsions were finished and it was back to call and response of prayer, when I was at my most difficult, I would walk to the church once my parents and siblings had gone away. I would go to the river and sit at the edge of it and breathe in.

Have you ever been with a girl? she asked. I didn’t answer because I didn’t know. I didn’t think like that. My first kiss had been a girl, at 8, an unserious thing that I had filed away as a novelty. Maybe I had kissed, or wanted to kiss, my closest friends in primary and secondary school. It felt natural, even when it fell apart. Sometimes, when I kissed boys, I imagined them like vampires with my eyes closed, sexless, with long waists and curved hips. It wasn’t a question.

Katherine Agard is a writer from Trinidad and Tobago currently based in California. Her writing has been supported by fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Kimbilio, Callaloo and VONA/Voices. She has studied at the University of California – San Diego and Harvard University. She performs her relationship to color – material, socio-cultural, spiritual – and the language which allows us to perceive it through writing and painting.