small life

Dionne Brand
Illustration by Laura Padilla Castellanos

Some days the cops stop you and ask for identification. Because they can do that. You know this. They’re fuckers and they can fuck you up. Some days they just follow so you see that they’re there. Some days they shoot you. Simple. Then there’s a whole hypocritical blah blah blah and then it dies down. Because that’s the bullshit they have going on.

It was my childhood front yard, but it can’t have been. It can’t. Is that front yard a graph, a palimpsest? Every thought, every future move, prefigured in that front yard. In my childhood yard there was no tree. There was a parking lot, and I looked out on it from the third floor of 2955 Falconer Street, apartment 16. Anyway, I dug out a shallow place and a sentence kept going around in my head. This was the palace of the universe and the window of the soul looked out and in.*

The flood softened the doorways and the foundation, and before we could turn around, we were afloat in the living room. We took what we could. I took the kitchen knife and the bread and one of my rubber slippers. M. took the fingernail clippers and a book about electricity. Others took other things. Someone took a half-empty suitcase and when they opened it later there was a doll in it and a lottery ticket, the light bills, and three sets of underwear.

I confess. I confess, every day that I am going mad. At twenty-five I fell into a great depression. I couldn’t move my limbs. One day I sat against the door, and I couldn’t move. My neck couldn’t bear the weight of my head. Certain years take longer than others. That year was very long. Is this a great revelation?

H. was suspect from the start. She was high all the time. I got high but not all the time. And I don’t care about shit like that. But when she said to me, “Let’s not give all the money to G.,” I got wide awake. I thought what the fuck is this. And I didn’t call her out and that made it look like we had a conspiracy.

In late July, I couldn’t say for certain what would happen. I waited to see what was what. They were the kind of days when the sky is low to the street and the world is impenetrable. I was waiting to hear from P. I was supposed to cross when I got word, but I hadn’t heard anything. You can’t blame me, I was getting uneasy. I mean you want to go on with life, right?

A mop or a broom in your hand, they don’t see you. They see you, but they don’t look at you. They see you like some thing that leaves places clean or dirty or tells them which place to go—like a circuit in their brain or a finger on their hand. They treat you like that, like you’re part of them. A dirty part.

Guns and money. Is there a story without guns and money? Not that I’ve heard. Money we all want, guns we use to get it. That’s the only conclusion you’d come to if you live here on this planet. If you think about life as a long sentence, and if you were born in the ’80s like I was, you would see the story of your life turn from whatever long elegant sentence you have in mind into this short one—guns and money. So that’s why I started all this with guns.

one dozen eggs,
one can gasoline,
light bulb,

I found this list in the wallet of a woman named Hyacinth Barker. I’m sure she’s written another list by now. I put the wallet in the mail, but I kept the list. Everything on it seems okay except the can of gasoline and the matches. I could imagine the matches, right, maybe she smoked but the can of gasoline, that’s curious. If she had a car, she wouldn’t need to buy gasoline in a can, would she? She would go to the gas station and fill up. So to put a can of gasoline on the same list as matches means something else. Then she wrote 5pm. I make all my decisions at 5 p.m. So this synchronicity with Hyacinth Barker intrigued me. What decision was she making at 5 p.m.? I wonder if losing the wallet made her stop and think.

I said, N., what if the sea catches fire, who’s going to put that out? N. said, don’t be stupid the sea is water. I said, N., what happens to the hole they leave under the ocean? N. said they have the science for that. I said, N., I can hear the earth cracking from inside. N. said don’t talk stupid, that’s the hydraulic drill you hear. N. said I was a weak person. Out here I’ll get better.

I heard them pounding some metal over in the Alameda Car Shop, pounding and pounding. What more could they get out of that steel, I wondered. I crossed the bridge over the Magdalena River. Ruperta made me something to eat and I thanked her, and I left again. That was 5 o’clock that day. There were men working under the bridge. It was so hot, and the river that time of year and at that place was shallow, almost a ditch. I am a woman and I have no illusions about what will happen to me. It was obvious from the beginning. My last day at Bazurto Market, I said, I’m never coming back to this fucking place Ruperta, I love you and everything here but I’m never coming back to this fucking place.

I’m not about to listen to that shit. Democracy blah blah fucking blah. Police state. The cops, they’re not even the worst, they’re the obvious. The front of the whole frigging apparatus. They play a game with us. We’re the prey.

What I have lost in names, what I have missed in the weight of them. L. J. Last year I couldn’t bear the sound of birds. A brief exercise in dreaming made me miss them even more. Then I didn’t sleep for days in case they came back to me.

“Without the worship and religious practices, they have known since infancy, our children have been suffering and adrift.” I heard some jerk say this. He was yelling it into his phone. I was in the men’s bathroom cleaning a stall. Adrift! See how these people think? Whatever, asshole. He saw me but he didn’t even lower his voice. He said, “While we feel tremendous empathy for all parents and children who have been affected by the pandemic school lockdown, you can well imagine how much added disconnection…” He said ‘disconnection’ twice, looking at me! “…disconnection, and trauma our children feel when their intense religious life is wrenched away from them.” I wanted to laugh out loud. Brainwashing business gone dry. I shoved the trolley against the wall hard. These religious guys, they’re all the same assholes. He was on his phone dictating to someone. His voice was like a glove over my nose and mouth. It felt like he was killing somebody.

I held on to the left side hard. I took that spot and whenever they tried to move me, I pretended not to understand or to be out of my mind. The paint said ك. After a while I did not know why I was there.

If you’re going to Atlanta, or New York or Philadelphia or Dallas or Los Angeles or New Orleans, this is the only place where all those cities meet. They are in a straight line, and you enter a kiosk and you are in that city. You only have to turn your shoulder to the left or right and you are in that city. B. once sent me a picture of himself on the equator in Kayabwe, Uganda. He was happy then; he’s smiling in the photo. His hair is flat on one side, and he has a comb stuck on the other side. He was combing his hair on the equator and asked someone to take a photo of him.>

You think Hyacinth Barker burned something down with gasoline?

It’ll take me ten minutes now from Lavapiés to Sol, and G.’s going to know just from my face how it wasn’t me. I’ll show up. H. left with the sheet and all the bags in it. I didn’t see. I don’t even know when. G. won’t blame me. G. is a human. I’ll work it off.

The lottery ticket was useless. Q. kept it just in case. We used the suitcase for the baby we found whom we named Cythere.

I feel nauseous every day on Aquaterra. They going to let me go for sure because I can’t even do what I came to do. N. said he’d keep my place if I stuck it out. Sometimes I’m seeing sky some- times sea but no horizon. Short time, big money. All I got to do is maintenance. Anything hard in that, N. asked me, when I looked like I didn’t want to do it. No. But my belly just keeps giving up. Cannonball, Savonette, Serrette, Cashima, Immortelle, Juniper. N. knows all the names. Worked all the oil. Can’t anymore.

I knew from the beginning that it was impossible to carry the bag I thought to bring. Whatever they said about me being not practical was true. And I thought that I could take the dog with me too, but anyway I couldn’t. All the shit burst on the road and there I was. Like naked. No illusions, none.

I tell myself that I’m looking for J. I’m not. I tell people I don’t know where they are, I don’t know what has become of her, but I do know. First it was a crisis of conscience and then one day that disappeared. I gave up. It was too much to hold.

There were two wars and between them was the mineral we dug up and sent away. I only know I felt more and more breathless and more and more like my skin was on too tight. I suddenly couldn’t tell the weather; I didn’t know what clothes to wear. It rained more than usual, and the roads were gouged out by big trucks going back and forth.

I told this to S. once and she said it is always the perpetrators who tell you a story of their despair and depression. There is a whole literature devoted to this look at events, she said.

My mother always loads me up with fried fish to take across a continent. What does she think that will do? I hate to tell her to stop but I do, and yet every time I have to leave, she’s there at the door putting it in my bag again, saying you never know. The problem is, I have to live in this world now. And everybody on the plane is watching me, I’m sure. They’re smelling it, I’m sure. And they’re thinking things about me.

Forty of us were below the water and sixty-two were above the water and I still held on to the letter ك.

I don’t know why she’s back. T. came on Wednesday. Showed up. It’s hard enough to take Aunty on her own. I haven’t closed my eyes since she got here. And I won’t close my eyes until she’s gone. She never put a cent to the wheelchair. Or the blood pressure kit. She’s always talking about her good life and when I ask for help, I get zero, nothing. But she has advice on ginkgo and acupressure and vitamin B. She looks good. Dressed up in fake Gucci. Big eyelashes like an ostrich. Glassy look to her. Not one eye closed.

There’s security at the aperture. There’s a red line and ten maybe fifteen kiosks. You can’t laugh here. You can’t say something about even a birthmark on one of their hands. This would make you suspicious and dead to them. The meteorological forecast on this line is violence. This is the equator. No one is happy here. You have to walk straight, not too straight, else they’ll suspect you, but you can’t try to be friendly. They take your eye print and your fingerprint.

As long as Lauryn Hill don’t think it’s bullshit, I’m happy with that.

I couldn’t understand it. He had a flag on his back. And one on his thigh. He worked in the milk processing plant. He checked the temperature gauges; I checked the chemicals. We were in the showers, they have showers there, and uniforms. He had a flag on his calf.

In spite of it all, I hope you came into the day well, she said. Cheups. I didn’t know what to make of that. People just throw this kind of shit out. But this week, this moment, this life, it’s turning you into a shape you barely have control of.

I hid the guns in the front yard near the place I used to play as a child. It was at night and tree roots made the grave shallow. I wrapped them in a skirt and a rain jacket. The place I used to play as a child. I wonder why I said that, why I relate it that way. God, I hate people who give a long story trying to exonerate themselves with sentimental info. I don’t need exonerating. And not in that fucking singsong like I need your support. And I don’t know what I was thinking with the skirt and the rain jacket. That was weird as I think back. Was I leaving part of myself, part of M.?

Someone’s waiting for me. They said they would wear a Bob Marley T-shirt and that’s how I’ll know them, since I haven’t seen them in years.

Life kept going on somewhere—talk, construction, engines. Only here it was quiet. Only my thoughts. C. told me, K., when I come out of the subway two blocks away, I can feel your depression. I can’t bear to come home.

When I touched F. the last time, I didn’t know it would be the last time, and now I think, was I too rough, like, too matter of fact about it? I don’t think that my touch was even deliberate. Really, I don’t even remember touching F. Not in the way you call touching, like a special thing. We always held each other, we all lived at this level of friendship. I don’t want to sound regretful about it, we all knew what we were doing. We would say it was the most profound life we wanted and that we did what we did because of it. And the way we had to leave each other was hard.

No cell phone. None. There are two reasons for this. First, they track you. When I say this, people say, who wants to track you, you’re not important enough. It doesn’t matter who you are. They track you. If it’s not to sell you something, it’s to kill you. Second, that’s how the war started.

Before I married V., he was the ugliest man I’d met. Then, one day he was beautiful, and I married him. The ugliness is coming back. I can see it now and then. I can feel it too.

Thirty-five of us were still there waiting. I wanted to sleep.

I woke up yesterday to a room I didn’t know, then I woke up in a room I didn’t know. I did this several times, only to wake up in a cement factory near a railway with a long fence. I was on the train track, running.

You know, I’ve disappeared in this city. They say Italians this, and Arabs that, and Asians whatever, but I’ve disappeared. I’m nobody I recognize. It’s my fault. It’s me that doesn’t register.

Brother was diagnosed with heart disease. When R. said Brother should stop drinking so much, Brother said, how’s that going to help and anyway we’re all going to be diagnosed with something, sometime.

We knew we were lifeless because we felt lifeless going outside every day. We prepared shoes, clothes, face, whatever, but once we hit the door, we could tell we were done.

The woman across from me had a yellow skirt with red dots. She tied it around her because it kept floating like a raft.

*From Wilson Harris, Palace of the Peacock (1960).

Dionne Brand is a poet, novelist, and essayist. She has received numerous awards, including the Governor General’s Literary Award, The Pat Lowther Award, and the Griffin Poetry Prize. Theory, one of her five novels, won the Toronto Book Award. The Blue Clerk, one of her ten volumes of poetry, won the Trillium Book Award. Brand is a professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph, Canada.
Originally published:
December 1, 2021


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