The 31 Days of Hallowe'en - Dreads
- D r e a d s
by D.S. Foxx
I always have a comb in my pocket. There's at least one in every room of
my house. Spares in the trunk of my car, in purses, stuck into the
bookshelf, in drawers. My friends call me vain, a peacock. I just smile.
My family says nothing; they understand. They _know_.
I grew up in a vanilla town, the darkest child in my school. It
didn't matter much; I had friends. A few of the parents might have been
un-comfortable with me, but the kids judged me on who I was, not what,
like I did them. My best friend, Mary, had the greatest hair - blond and
shiny, it curled around the top of her ears like a cap.
My hair fell to my knees, black as night, always in braids, never
loose except to be washed. Every Sunday afternoon, when all my friends
were playing, I'd be trapped between Mama's knees while she pulled and
wove. Hours and hours, and I had to sit still, and wait.
Mama'd bead them, too, some braids tipped with one, others with
three, some pattern only she understood, hundreds of carved and stained
and painted wooden bits for me to roll on in my sleep. The only part I
liked was the singing. For each braid a different line, a hundred in all.
The words meant nothing to me, but I liked the sound. She spoke in that
tongue sometimes, to Grandma, to visitors, but I never thought to learn
it, and Mama let it be. But even if I didn't know what they meant, I
learned the songs, could sing them myself if I wanted, brush-ing my
fingers along the beads. Feeling the pattern she had made.
Mary and a few other close friends learned to eat curry and haystacks
and drink sorrel, but mostly we'd go to their houses, watch TV. Have
slumber parties with little footie pajamas, giggle about kissing boys,
pretend to drink tea. Normal stuff, for normal children. Normal white
kids, and me.
Mary had a brother, and I thought he was fine. Hair as blond as his
sister's, curled over his collar most times. Sometimes cut short, so his
neck would show paler than the rest. The family all went to the salon
every six weeks. It was like a ritual. I wanted to be a part of it. But
Mama wouldn't let me do anything with my hair. It was braided always,
tipped in wooden beads. Never loose except when under her hands.
"No, chile," she'd say in her voice like the ocean, "yo' hair too
good fo' dat." _Good_. A word the white folks don't understand. Neither
did I then; not really. But Mama'd spoken; arguing would do no good. I
grew, as did my hair, and Mama kept braiding, and singing as she slid the
Sometimes, if I was very still, I could hear drumbeats in the air,
faint echoes of Mama's fingers on the wood. And sometimes I'd fall asleep
still sitting upright, held between her knees, and dream I could hear the
meaning of her songs. Mostly, though, I fidgeted and whim-pered, begged to
be let loose, to go and play.
"No, chile," I'd hear, soft and warm but unyielding. "Yo' hair not
did yet. Sit yo'self down, now. Listen." She never told me what she
thought I might hear. And I never asked, too busy wishing to be someplace
else. Wishing for hair short as Mary's, which wouldn't hold a braid. Hair
that fluttered in every passing breeze, light as a cloud.
I had just turned twelve the day Mary bet I wouldn't undo my braids.
Seems funny now, that it took so long. She dared me, and I shook my head,
beads clattering, and then she bet me, in money. What's more, she told me
she'd tell her brother I was chicken if I refused. I couldn't have that,
so I shook my braids forward, over my shoulder, where I could reach. The
beads felt hot beneath my fingers - rough, catching my skin.
_Mama_? But she wasn't near. She was at work, wouldn't be home for
hours. I'd have to deal with this, whatever it was, alone. I told myself I
was imagining things, sucked my fingertips to soothe them, took a deep
breath. Chose a braid near the back, thinking I could hide my crime.
Knowing I wasn't allowed, choosing to do it anyway. I slid the beads off -
one, two, three - clutched them in my fist. Tried to pretend I wasn't
shaking, and began to unweave. Unravel. Unbraid. Undo. Hummed be-neath my
breath, the song to go with the braid. It reversed itself in my mind.
"What are you saying? God, are you in pain?" Mary was almost sneering
as she heard the song. It wasn't much like the boy-band stuff she - we -
listened to; probably didn't sound like music to her at all. But to me it
sounded like a sudden storm, power and motion with no control. I liked it
a lot, the way it sounded, the way it felt, song running through my blood,
making my hair stand on end. My eyes went wide, looking for something I
was sure I'd know when I saw, and I sang louder as I reached the end of
A storm came to my song. To my call. My spell. One second the sun was
bright in the sky; the next it might have been night, clouds so low and
thick you couldn't see. Wind whipping, not moving the darkness away so
much as stirring it. An odor like nothing I had ever smelled. Salt, and
sweet. Almost metallic, as much taste as scent. Mary made some _ew_ sound
and ran inside. I stood in the street, in the crossroads, and tossed back
my head, braids lighter than they'd ever been in this wild wind,
deliciously different. It rubbed against me, smooth and warm; I threw my
hands wide to hug it tight.
Three small wooden beads bounced free.
There were drumbeats in the air, loud enough for me to hear them, and
voices like Mama's songs sung in reverse. The bit of my hair I'd freed
flew wild, dancing, and I felt like I could fly, if I just knew the right
words. Still coiled from its long braiding, it was like three soft ropes
as it brushed my face, tugged by the unnatural, welcoming, singing
weather. First one bit and then another ran over my lips, and words came
to me, and I sang them, words I didn't know but under-stood. Names. Kin
names. And then each strand fell away behind me, wrapped around something,
gripped it tight, and I felt ... I felt like I'd just been given a gift.
Three gifts. One each for the beads I'd tossed away, for the strands
of the braid. To the salt and the sweet in the air came another scent,
tart, like citrus, only not lemon, not orange - no fruit I knew. Three
scents for three names? I tried to touch the fruit-wind, sang a name.
_No_, not that one. I tried the second, but that didn't feel right,
either. Smiling, I took a deep breath, prepared to sing the third, the
right name for the wind. Wondered what would happen, what new gift would
come, what reward. The winds ceased to blow, still there, but waiting. For
me, I knew.
And then Grandma came. From wherever she had been. Smell like hot
peppers and wrinkles and kinky hair. Age-creaked voice, raised to outshout
the wind. "No, chile. Dis one not fo' you." Her accent was thicker than
usual, almost too much to understand. I frowned, con-fused, as she turned
away from me, looked up at the lowering sky.
I had thought she was talking to me, you see. But then came other
words, in a language I didn't speak, and a laugh with no throat to come
from, and the wind whipped up, and keened, and stilled. Grandma shook out
a piece of fabric she took from her pocket, told me to look at the
patterns. Kente cloth. It was pretty enough, I guessed, in its way, but
that's not what she wanted me to see. I got it after a moment: The
patterns were like my beads. "Protection," she told me, speaking care-ful,
proper English to be sure I'd understand, "to keep you safe."
"Safe from what?" I asked her, my mind still with the winds. I
thought they were still near, waiting for me to call them. I could almost
hear them, almost feel them, but not quite. Grandma was in my way. My head
was heavy, pulled down by the beads, bound by the braids. The names were
solid in my mouth, pebbles, jewels. It was hard to speak around them.
"Chile," she sighed, then frowned. Slowly, carefully, as if to an
idiot, she formed her words, set them out into the air. "Haven't you ever
thought? Do you wonder why we live so far from our kin? You must know it's
not natural to be alone." Her face sagged like she was tired, and I felt a
vague flush of guilt. I hadn't ever wondered, really. Kids don't. But
Grandma was never so happy as come reunion time.
"Why?" The word had to creep around the names, slither like a snake.
My head bent back, pulled by the braids, the three tangles burn-ing
against my back. I was beginning to be scared, not by the winds - my
friends, my kin - but by my grandmother as she looked at me,
disappointment plain in her eyes. I didn't want to be punished, but it was
more than that. I didn't want her to be displeased with me. The words
seemed to grow; I thought I might choke on them, longed to spit them out,
but she was speaking. I couldn't interrupt.
"To keep you safe, and them. They don't belong here, but they don't
understand that. They can't. It's our task to keep them safe, at home.
They'll only do harm here, and be harmed, and bring harm to us and all of
ours. Send them back now, child. It's not the right time, or place." She
put her hand on my shoulder, gathered up my hair, all the braids
surrounding the loose section, tied the kente cloth in a bow. A ponytail,
a makeshift binding.
I felt the winds sigh, like a sob, and I joined them, and the words
dissolved on my tongue, their bitter taste making me gag. I'd never felt
so alone before, and part of me longed to call them back. But Grandma was
in charge, so I sent them away, and if her smile was sad, at least it
wasn't disapproving. We went inside as the sky cleared, to drink sorrel
and talk. Grandma cried as she undid my braids. It only works for the
innocent, you see, to bind them safe from harm. And I wasn't a child
anymore. I'd made my choice.
I cried a little, too, as she cut out the tangled parts and showed
them to me. The hair looked different: paler, thicker. Like the dreadlocks
my cousins wore. I wanted to touch them, to feel the textures, to see what
was inside, the gifts I'd been given by my winds, but Grandma said no, and
I cried over that, too. More when she burned them and made me watch, and
sing to drown out the drumbeats in the air. But it wasn't all bad; she
started teaching me that day. Herbs and potions and stories, songs and
spells and rituals, all the parts of my heritage I'd never known. Gods and
spirits and kin who were never flesh, and those gone beyond the grave, who
still heed our call.
I'm grown now, and living in a chocolate city; my kids are surrounded by
all their kin. They speak with the islands in their voice, grammar as
different from mine as my mama's and grandma's, much the same as the
tongue I speak sometimes now. I hear drumbeats in their footsteps, and my
heart lifts. I hope it will be some protection when the winds come to
their call, when other things try to answer, misguided spirits come to
visit, knowing ones to join them or bind them or steal their souls. And,
yes, I do braid their hair, the boys and the girls, and I bead it, and
sing the songs as I do. But for myself, I keep a comb in every room, and
one in my pocket, and spares stuck every-where, inside and out.
I have a horror of catching something in a tangle. An absolute dread.
"Dreads" copyright © 2004 by D.S. Foxx
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