by Roni Brown
I drove up the long unpaved driveway slowly, the sound of the small pebbles crunching under my overinflated tires. At that moment I missed him. My husband. He made sure things like that were done properly. It had been over a year since I saw him laid to rest; an honorable ceremony for an honorable veteran. His comrades stood stiff, their guns pointing towards the sky. The gunshots ran in the air and lingered, a bitter reminder of his sacrifice. On that day I waited until everyone finished their failed attempts to make me feel better about losing my husband. I waited until I was alone with his memory. The gray headstone I selected glistened, the polished slate catching the sunlight... and for a moment I swore I saw his reflection standing behind mine.
Tall and regal, towering over my small frame, yet a gentle presence. It bought me comfort instead of fear or anger. I still don't know if that moment was reality or my subconscious attempt at self redemption. I resented him for leaving me to fight. I despised the way people adored his valor and bragged about his contribution to this country as if he were their own husband. He never belonged to me. From that first smile he gave to me. Not me; to the general direction I was standing in. That smile might have been meant for the woman standing next to me by the jukebox. Or the one behind me. Or the one adjusting her breast to get attention. When his cousin introduced me, that smile found it's home by default. Our five years together were a mixture of false bliss and loneliness for me when he was away. The General, the people‘s husband. My envy embodied in a six foot three inch heart throb. I was lucky to have landed him, people said when I was not around. If only they knew. He was merely a man to me. At that moment I missed his practicality.
The way he made sure the car was tuned for my safety and the spiders in the house squashed. And at that moment I despised my lack of love for my late husband.
The house stood tall and graying. Houses seem to age just like people do. This house once stood tall and youthful, proud and strong. Its paint bright and shingles neatly groomed. Now it was dull, sagging and gray... one foot in the grave. I stopped in front of the large porch, my overinflated tires kicking up dust. I suspected in the morning I'd come out to one of them being completely flat, the General's fault. The house was colonial built. That‘s what I was told when I was twelve. Mama died a painful death of a stranger's wrath one cold day in Chicago and left me by my lonesome. I never found out who my father was; that was Mama's secret she took with her to my unmarked grave, and when she was alive I dared not ask for fear of a lashing. I didn‘t find out until years later just how many secrets that mousey faced woman that bounced me around from state to state had. My grandmother reluctantly took me in when it was discovered no one wanted a twelve year old bastard child. A cursed girl born out of a lustful whore and an unknown brute. Perhaps it was God that made that proverbial curse a reality. I found out early on I could not bear children. Discovering at 21 that my worth as a proper woman was nothing. I'd never be able to find a husband that wanted a barren wife. The General never knew. I let him believe my loneliness affected my ability to bear children.
I entered the house. The dust made me want to sneeze but I held it in. My grandmother didn't like noise. Nana was a mean, impatient woman with a strong cold hand worse than any belt or switch from the looming willow tree in the back yard. She kept me in a room, a mattress on the floor, and this is where I spent my teenage years. Out of her way, quiet unseen. I lost myself in the tangles stories I allowed myself to imagine. I escaped mentally, sorting through sordid stories of love and murder. Twisted jilted lovers and lonely souls making their way through life. I never wrote them down. I simply told them to myself, an inside joke me, myself, and I shared. I made myself laugh and cry and sympathize with the characters that danced in my head.
I reached that room, my cell, and shuttered. I opened the door and spotted the mattress lying in the same position. It reminded me of a discarded body. I entered the room slowly as if my younger self might still be present. Daydreaming. I didn‘t want to disturb her. I peered out of the dingy window to the overgrown yard below. The willow tree's wispy branches danced in the gentle Georgia breeze. The calm before the storm. They reminded me of my grandmother's long hair. Stringy and rough, she let it fly free all around her head and face. The only time she tamed it was when she conjured. The roots she placed on people ran deep. Stories of their horrific demises, suffering strife caused by Nana Sherif Jones. She lit her black candle and rubbed her calloused fingertips over the glowing flame. I heard from Tom Tom, the general store owner, that Nana Sherif used to be the one everyone went to for spiritual help. She used to help people find happiness and fortune. They came to her with their problems and she solved them with her potent juju. They left with things to place under their pillows, or drink to make the darkness disappear.
Then something happened. Nana Sherif changed. Her spirit turned black and you could see it in her eyes. Once they were hazel with beams of light shooting through the different shades of brown. By the time I came to be with her they were darker than your worst thought. Cool black circles laden within sunken sockets. She died in this house. Alone. I imagined it was dark and the pits of hell opened to welcome her home. But instead it was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. The day was so clear and beautiful angels could be seen above. Or so I was told.
I opened her bedroom door, the strong smell of jasmine drifted from the room. It lingered in my nostrils and stuck to my consciousness. She always smelled of jasmine. Her pride the jasmine garden below the dancing willow tree. The flowers flourished year round, no matter how much frost or snow, or smoldering heat graced Savannah. Their smell filled the summer air and drifted pleasant dreams to me through my open bedroom window. The smell was my solace and my dissension. Her bed was neatly made, a teddy bear sitting in the middle of the pillows, propped up, staring. On her dresser White Diamonds and dollar store perfumes sat on a mirrored tray. None of them ever masked the smell of Jasmine on her body. I opened her closet door. Her large clothing hung neatly, like an army of flower printed ghosts. The outfits swayed when I opened the door. Below the clothing her alter sat. the burned candle‘s melted black wax lie in still pools. No images of Jesus or Mother Mary. In this closet lay images of idols I'd never seen. Skeletons holding rose filled skulls and dancing on beds of coiled snakes. I dared not touch the altar. I closed the door and felt a wave of relief. The first time I saw the altar I was thirteen and curious.
And dumb. I felt the wrath of Nan's Sherif's rough leathery hands across my coffee colored face. The next day in the mirror a rainbow formed on my cheek. A fleshy spectrum of colors; blue, red, pink. It rapidly settled into a solid dark gray mass later. I stood in Nana Sherif's bathroom mirror and touched the spot on my cheek. At times I could still feel its sting.
My decision to sleep in the house was made for me by the sudden flash flood that blanketed the country side with its fury. A bridge threatened to give way and stopped people from crossing to safety, or to danger, whichever way you want to look at it all.
It's best to stay still and pray. Life wants you to listen, girl. Nana Sherif would say. She'd turn off all the lights in the house and listen to what the wind and rain pounding outside had to say. She agreed with a nod to the lightning and thunderclaps. I would sit in the shadows and watch the invisible creatures flash on the walls with each bold of lightning outside the spider web laden window pane. During these storms jasmine was at its strongest. Wafting through the house with Nana Sherif pacing the rooms. The wind and rain soaked flowers under the willow came alive and rejoiced for the moisture. The drifted their aroma through the yard in through the kitchen window. After the storms, the calm that bought peace was only interrupted by the passing of time. I prayed for rain daily.
I made myself comfortable on the plastic covered couch. As comfortable as one could get on covered furniture. The jasmine scent awakened me. It dismissed my desire for rest and caused me to sit up. All that night I sat at attention smelling the deep aroma and letting it sink me into the past. A chill engulfed my bones, sending goosebumps to my skin. The hair on the back of my neck stood at military attention. A fear manifested from deep within me and my irrational thoughts raced.
The smell. Strong and almost human filled the air and appeared to me as a white thin gust of air. The jasmine. I walked through the house and checked the windows confirming my task I performed before I lay down to sleep. All the windows were closed, the doors locked and the house secure. Footsteps. Above my head the heavy steps echoed on the thinning termite ridden floorboards. Slowly and confident the steps reached the end of the hall and closed the door. From my memory, and the direction of the sound I determined it was my bedroom door the apparition entered. My childhood dungeon it invaded. Silence. Jasmine.
The scent made me shudder. I listened to the deafening emptiness. The silence overwhelmed me. Dare I enter the room to see if my ears had simply played a fool to my fears? I chose to return to my perch on the covered couch and engulf myself in the warmth and comfort of my blanket. The general was good for this too. The fears the darkness brings always subsided when he lay next to me.
Another wave of the heavy fragrance filled the air. It hovered over my body and threatened to reach out through ghostly physical barriers and make contact with me. It boiled buried anger inside of me and jolted me to my feet. The smell invaded my space for the last time. It flashed memories of pain and abuse before my eyes and fogged my vision with a hazy red. My decision to face the monster that enslaved my confidence and drowned my childhood possessed me. I ran through the house looking for her. Nana Sherif. She's dead, but she's here. Walking above my head entering MY space, clogging my senses with her smell.
Room after room I eliminated the possibility of finding her standing there, waiting for me. Her stone hand lifted ready to knock me down. Not this time. I'm not that child sitting alone on the thin stained mattress in the bare cold room, lost in my own haven of imaginative normalcy. She's dead. The room's empty, but I'm alone with the jasmine. I knew how to get rid of her once and for all. I rushed out of the aging house. A garden tool made its way into my hands, and before my thoughts could catch up with my determined mind, I dug up the jasmine flowers that lay below the weeping willow tree. The wispy branches thrashed my arms and back forced by the hand of the wind. The rain blinded my eyes. But my mission was guided by fate.
I dug beyond their roots. I ensured myself the flowers would never return. Their scent would never fill my nostrils with nostalgic disdain. There he lay. The bones covered with dirt and worms of the earth. The rain washed the uncovered bones and cleaned them before my very eyes. They glistened white like a pair of brand new teeth. The skull reminiscent of Nana Sherif's conjuring idol. All that was missing was a rose adorning the skull, which smiled a strange smile at me. A knowing smile. The chill was gone from my body. A calm beyond understanding swelled within me. The bones and I communicated silently. Suddenly... my heart pounded with the sudden clash of thunder. The heavens parted and tossed lightening down a power-line. Darkness fell.
My curiosity consumed me. I ran into the house and ravaged through the private belongings of Nana Sherif. Laying my eyes on things I was never permitted to touch. Photos, and postcards, and dated letters. Images of a life and a woman I never knew. A smiling face of a beautiful young woman that resembled me. Vacations and trips and lounging on the southern porch with cousins. She'd lived. An interesting life I never knew of. She wore beautiful dresses and adorned her hair with expensive clasp. She attended parties and posed.
The letters written from a man out of love and lust. Explaining the longing to once again be in her presence. Apologizing for being gone so long. He served over seas and thought of her every moment through the violence and bombing. She gave him a reason to survive and return to her. He came back, they lived and she bore him a daughter. Letters of regret and sorrow. The shadows of war looming within him, consoled by strong drink biblically forbidden. He lashed out at her, blaming her for letting him go. Blaming the country for fucking up his mind. The perfectly imperfect life they lead disappeared one faithful night when in his haze he mistook his daughter for an object of desire. Lust and love tangled the home and thrust the family into despair.
She ran. The baby growing within her everyday. An expanding reminder of the incestial secret.
She killed him.
Buried his shell beneath the jasmines and the dancing weeping willow tree. Cursing herself with his scent. The secrets exposed unearth and bathing in the fresh rain. I buried them again, covering the grave with a mixture of jasmine pedals and thick muddy Georgia earth. Cursing myself with its scent.