The Midwest |


by Cole Nfonoyim Hara

One summer you came to stay with us for good. Your mom had up and left and you’d shown up at Abuela’s door with one of those Chinatown carts with a janky wheel and Salchichon, your piglet, half-asleep in a beat up caldero you’d tied up on top with a faded green scarf. Your mother used to wear that scarf wrapped around her head like a crown. The long silk strip had once been a bold and noble green circling the pitch black nebula of her hair. But it had long turned the muted color of an aguacate peel turned wrong side out. It was one of only two things of hers you’d bothered to take: the scarf and the fraying red high-tops, slung over the cart handle.

How you managed to get yourself on the ferry, three different cross-town trains and a transfer onto the Q all the way to us will stay a mystery. Abuela, she didn’t ask no questions, though. She took one look at you and that drowsy piglet suckling a baby bottle full of malta Goya and she just made up her mind right then and there to call you her own. To me you were a long-awaited playmate, a bedtime confidante whispering innocence beneath Disney-themed sheets, a reason to pull out my second Nintendo controller, to share my champagne cola, to brave the schoolyard, and the monstros behind every corner.

That very first summer, you and I spent every afternoon making sandcastles, ambitiously scooping wet sand into old tin cans. Your favorite was that round Danish cookie canister, purple with the gold flowers, still smelling of stale sugared dough. Once we’d laid the castle foundation and smoothed out the high walls, we busied ourselves building spires along the edges of the mound. You forming the sand into little sharp peaks with the technique of a master architect, eyes narrowed in deep concentration. We didn’t speak save for some careful negotiation on where best to place the moat, which we paved out of chipped clam shells and bottle caps. We both, builders of Babel, sticky with sea air, browning despite the sulfuric haze hiding the sun. Our little bellies full of fried platano and the day-old pizza we had begged Abuela to get despite the sancocho she’d spent all morning making. When we were finished I’d top the front wall with my winged Goliath action figure and you would position him just so where he could best guard our kingdom from all manner of evil.

After, we would sit in the tub pouring soapy water from repurposed plastic takeout containers onto our tangled and sand-dusted hair. I would watch the rivulets of wet, gathering like perfection along the naps kinked along your brow and the nape of your neck. We’d play a game of mirrors, you mimicking my every move. Ibeyis mios, Abuela would call us. She would come in once the water had grown tepid and our skin puckered and pruned. By turns, she would comb out our hair, collecting it all into twin trenzas trailing down our backs ending in a single thick curl. At night you never slept in your own bed, but wedged yourself in the space between me and the wall. You'd kiss my forehead beatifically and whisper que sueñes con los orishas.


Negra, I should have seen the signs like you did. But you know I was never one for the brujería and the mystical education. I would watch the disappointment flash across Abuela’s face and still I would lie, denying I ever saw any visions, always reasoning out the doomsday premonitions, chalking it all up to an imagination overloaded on a diet of far too much sci-fi manga laced with Tolkien. It was harder to explain away those times when I could see you when you weren’t even next to me, watching from way above in silent witness. Or, when it felt as if we were made of the very same bones, breathing and living through the same body.  

Between subway cars you and I would stand, the bestial roar of the rattling metal shaking up our marrow, the flash of lights and steel sparks illuminating the worlds that cracked open in that gap. And we would hold hands, sharing the same eyes we’d peek through portal after portal, dimensions in film stills like those old school View-Master reels. We’d push the doors into the next subway car just in time for the train to reemerge screeching to a halt on the lit up platform. But that primal thrill of what we became in the darkness and what we saw there, never followed me home. I could feel it evaporate just as soon as we would hit street level, burning off into the sour smog of the city, floating away from me like so much gaseous waste. And because I never let on, I was left alone. And my world gradually returned to a simple flatness I could map myself on, ground myself in.

You became Abuela’s greatest apprentice, her ingénue crushing egg shells into cascarilla, snacking on marigolds and romero, concocting baños and healing balms, reading cards, burning holy candles, deciphering cosmic dregs. As you puzzled out ancient vévés, tracing the lines and rerouting their axes, I saw how your kinetic hair would incline itself here and there of its own accord in absence of any perceivable wind or air. Moved, instead, by the violent ether of your thoughts, enveloping you in a stormy haze. Those nights when they all came dressed in white linen, strings of vivid beads ‘round their neck I stayed exiled in our room, preferring to play Street Fighter. You’d school me as Chun-Li game after game until Abuela called you out. And I never dared to ask, dared to look, dared to call you back to me. Only later would I hear you drift in long after I had fallen asleep. Smelling of agua florida, sweat, and blood you’d lay wedged against me as always, your body there but your spirit cut loose and wild over the streets scaling dizzying heights.

Maybe it was in one of those shady basement rituals that you first began to know, to piece together how it was all gonna go down. You started counting with tally marks along the walls of our bedroom like a prisoner. Even when we were all the way grown and you were living on your own in the Heights you’d return home to Abuela’s every day to update the countdown. The lines drawn with surgical precision, inching across a whole stretch of wall looking like some free-hand Matrix coding—apocalyptic wallpaper behind knock-off stuffed animals offered to you over the years by devout boys with too perfect teeth and fresh fades under immaculate Starter caps you seemed to always look right through.

Once, just the once, you stopped your tallying for three days. You can still see that space, that beat in the code all the way to the left of the wall tucked behind Santa Barbara votives and those surplus bundles of sage Abuela stockpiled from the botanica like a prepper would canned food. Up until her last days, Abuela never quite let it go—the fact that you’d lost count or simply the fact that for three whole days you didn’t come home to her to let her bathe you in manzanilla and efun before marking another day gone on the makeshift calendar. But you called me. And with that liquid voice of molten shea you said you’d left your heart somewhere between 96th and Amsterdam, for safekeeping.


From the start he hadn’t come at you with the usual foolishness: calling you a Nubian queen, or telling you to smile, beautiful or asking whether you were Ethiopian, no Dominican? No, Trini, surely? No. He, shameless, had sat right next to you, sipped his cup and said as if to no one in particular, Is it enough?–as if he had known, as if you were already old friends, maybe lovers, entitled by an unspoken understanding to the asking of short, loaded questions. He was all new york, electric blue, and beautiful. He told you his father was from Guyana by way of Ahmedabad and when he stepped closer to you, a cloud of cardamom and frankincense clung to the sliver of breath between you and all you could see were his eyes, ebony and ageless and you knew then—you’d be just fine forever cradled in the so excellent arc of his lower lip. Gap-toothed and dark he had the look of a mask you’d once seen in a class—from fabled Nineveh, one of the oldest sculptures known to man and you had been irrevocably drawn to that regal face, seduced already by the supple constellation of curls crowning his head and kissing his jawline. His hooded eyes had seen the ancients crossing through temple squares, had seen kingdoms fall and cities burn world without end, amin.  Then, he’d been displaced, seen worlds pass silently by. Exiled behind pressurized glass only to fall to dust and ash upon his homecoming in a now long forgotten desert war. Lost to the breath of an ungrateful history. And, yet, there he had been in front of you, carved out of the eons, reincarnate.

You two had floated up to your tiny walk-up. And you unfolded in his arms without haste, letting each piece of you fall away before him over hours until all that was left was you again. Blank and without context. It rained hard that night and the next and he rocked you through the deluge. When the skies broke through the clouds like a long sigh of the universe, you looked up, right through your yellowing popcorn ceiling, ecstasy having granted you x-ray vision and you thought you saw the Goddess wink. Or was it Big Brother— a zeppelin, taking a picture, watching you shameless as Eve lying in an Eden of sheets dripping leche condensada?

I was happy for you. Happy that for a time your world could be that simple, stripped bare so you could hold on to it with both hands, know its contours and edges just as plain as a blank sheet of paper. You came back home after those three days to continue the count but you brought Blue with you too. And while you and Abuela retreated into the basement, Blue and I talked videogames and politics and he’d always let Salchichon lay her head on his lap.


The last time I ever saw Blue we’d both fought with you, trying to stop you from what you mistook for destiny. We weathered the last hurricane, the fifth one this year, in your claustrophobic apartment. From the kitchen window we had watched the water creep up the street like a specter. And we could not still the primordial urge that carried you out into the storm while everyone else was boarded up against the storm’s reckoning. You called out to us from the doorway, Blue begging you to stay. But you had looked right past him and spoke only to me—to the me that had built epic sandcastles with you, and stood holding your hand as we peered through the portals between subway cars, to the me that helped you scrub bloodstains from your clothes in resigned silence.

Still, Negra, I denied you.

You turned away from us, your hand gripping the doorknob, and your back did that thing it does when the burden of things threatens to break the labyrinthine scaffolding within, when the frame creaks and the buttresses begin to develop soft, undetectable hairline cracks. You straighten out, overextending to brace against the weight. You, a flat-backed Atlas, standing rooted and tall and so the heaviness moves to your head. Atlas turned village woman, your pain in a basket the size of the world. And so you sit rigid and stand too tall, an impossible balancing act on invisible tightrope. You didn’t look back at us as you walked away. Out you went to meet the black water rising, already viscose, pregnant with the city’s sins, no longer mere water. But you knew it never had been. That storm like all the others hailed from the jagged coastlines of a place you felt deeply. You, a one-woman welcome party, pulling your jacket close around you, red high tops splashing holy water. Black curls wild, electrified by the thickening paranormal air.

I crawled up to the rooftop fire escape to watch you, willing you to return to the apartment wishing nothing more than to fly out to you, scooping you away into the safety of the skies like a giant eagle over Mordor. But flight did not carry me to you. I waited, fixed like stone to the spot. You pulled a gold bangle from your wrist and dropped the payment into the water, watching it fall through and disappear beneath the opaque liquid. There as you waded through the pitch, you stopped still and had closed your eyes, waiting. Waiting for words hushed through the rushing current of storm winds. Waiting for word of the woman who wore an emerald strip of silk around her head nestling a child in her elegant hands. Waiting for tell of the woman who swayed you into sleep with stories of when we were all sirenas combing our hair with starfish beneath a two-mooned sky. Waiting for a map, a compass, a divination star, a simple trail of tell-tale crumbs, anything to lead you on.

A sliver of wind caressed my left cheek, slinking its way into the canal maze of my ear. My eyes followed your figure as you walked back up the street. Dead silence at midday. Cloaked you were with purpose. You went straight for Abuela’s old china cabinet. You and I shared custody of the termite infested thing, full of dusty porcelain dolls, tarnished tea sets and silverware, old commemorative plates of Princess Di, Celia Cruz, and Nelson Mandela. I stepped up, helping you pull at the bottom drawer and there underneath the yellowing lace tablecloths painstakingly crocheted with birds of paradise and hibiscus blossoms, you felt it. Ron. Abuela’s rum. The real special kind she didn’t even use for her prized black cake. The kind she offered only to the one at the crossroads. Elegba. You held it up to the light, considering the warm amber glow it cast around the room and you gave me the saddest smile.


Today, those old buildings on First came crumbling down like the giant sandcastles we built that summer long ago—instantaneous, total. As I stand perched up here, blowing smoke rings absently into the abyss, all around pin-striped pterodactyls fly graceless through glass and steel. And the sky makes no show of sympathy feigned or otherwise. It is defiant, unbound and cloudless, pure blue like daybreak in paradise and the sun—that damn sun, ma, it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. Baptized in the canned glow of neon lights, buzzing like flies to fresh rot, those storefront evangelists had misread the prophecies. In the end, there was no nuclear destruction. Nature did not at long last exact a raging, feral vengeance. And no one was beamed mercifully back up to the muthaship. No. The world ended today, ever so quietly, like a choked whisper across the land.

And you are nowhere to be found.

But I know, you take Abuela’s machete and leave your crossbow. You run gloved hands through the thick bristle of Salchichon’s back, and that black sow kneels at your feet in reverence. Wrapped in amulets and charms you check the star charts again, knowing. Having studied them with your trained mago's eye with a monk's calm you step out into the unfolding armageddon. Red high-top armed feet, lasers aimed unmistakably toward downtown. You wear her shoes, scuffed and torn—stained still and blood spattered. You speak to no one, nor do you stop, rooted in disbelieving awe or collapse broken along the path in some sudden naked shame. No. You, nena, were always a doe-eyed heretic, a blaspheming seraph.

Red and glittered run the streets, shrapnelled soft, lit with screaming fires and still you walk on. That unmistakable quick step of thick-hipped city girl, street warrior, face hardened against the gritty air. That ancient, rusty, tetanus-hazard of a machete tapping its ordered metallic rhythm against your right thigh, soothing. Tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap. That tap is your heartbeat keeping time with your inner clockwork.