In the dream my mother said
In the dream, my mother said we are going to do big things this year. This will be the year when we will at last move past the fences laid before us, through and over them into fields of green. She said she will get her forty acres and a single mule, though she’ll have no use for it beyond its beauty. A white mule with a shiny coat bleating hopefully before a factory. Olfactory nerves tingle. A field of flowers, my mother said, where we can play and no one will worry about the men who come to take us all away. The men in their suits of black, shining leather. No, here, there will be green and the hope of greenery. I scratched my scalp. Cotton fell out. My mother used to wash my hair for me, grinding wet and hot fabric against it. She said, you will learn one day to take care of yourself, but until then, RJ, I must handle all this dandruff in your mind. Honey, you will learn more than you think in time. Hair grows like grass does. Wash it till the flowers bloom. I dreamed a factory of light fell from my mother’s eyes and made a new beginning for us in a field where we were two of five. Djinn is not a word I often use, I’m more inclined to spirit, haint, ancestor, root-urge skinless but present. In the present the cold breaks against me. A crackle. Two crackles. I’m a child again, laughing at smoothly drawn cats singing their racist song: we are siamese if you please, we are siamese if you don’t please and in the dream it’s become a rallying cry, like we’re queer, we’re here, get used to it.
Today my mother sent me a text message. It read, in short: i was cornered. Her job wants her to move to Brazil for a year. I think of the messages she sends every morning. They’ve increased in frequency as of late: this year will be our year, she types. Good morning family, she writes. I crack my knuckles. The teeth crack the nuts. My mother in the backyard chewing seeds, clicking her red fingernails against the glass tabletop. Me inside a cold building. Snow on the street and the horns. Nothing here is promised except what sits before you. What sits before you is nothing more than a dream. One day you’ll know it better than you think. In 1990 my mother sat in a chair in Montgomery Alabama and let what was left of her girlhood die. I turned six years old later that year. One day, on the way to school, I heard the radio play “It never rains in Southern California.” The earth gurgled its red vulva. The sun fell wide and orange across our faces.
When I was four years old my next door neighbor, an African girl,
jumped into a swimming pool and was pulled out dead. The first funeral
came six years later. A boy who had called me nigger was playing
with another boy in a silo of cotton. Digging tunnels. His collapsed
and suffocated him. Can a boy breathe cotton? It rained the day we went
to his gravesite. Can a girl breathe water? Chlorine? Her name was Tuti
or something like it. I imagined in my dream some night between her death
and the boy’s what it must have been like to lose the air to water,
to white tuft, to rain.
When we lived in Macon the hills flooded and we ran out of water.
We had to get big jugs from the grocery store and dump them in our toilets
so we didn’t die of shitsmell. Sometimes our hot water would run out
and we would boil it on the stove before pouring it in the tub. On TV
a white lady drowned her children in the tub. It happened so fast.
I used to take baths with my sister but my first shower was with
my father. I was little and surprised and we were both so quiet
because we held our breath. Sometimes when a baby is firstborn it doesn’t know it’s supposed to breathe air. Put it in a tub filled with water
and it comes out swimming. In its mother’s womb, the fetus is gilled
like a fish. I read about life’s origins and learn that we too began in the sea.
I don’t drink enough water and in Chicago winter my radiator gets so hot
it dries me out like a lizard on a Land o’ Lakes sidewalk. In my old apartment
I put a glass pot on the radiator and thought it a ghetto humidifier,
though I didn’t live in the ghetto. The humidifier worked fine
until it cracked from the heat.
Once, my little brother jumped into the nine foot end of a public pool
and started drowning. He flapped around like a fish out of water
or a boy in the sea until someone came to pull him out. When water
gets into your nose it burns in a way not even a punch can burn. Is there
a word for that? Once, I dreamed my father drowned. I walked out
to the living room and saw through the patio doors his face-down body
on the silent surface of the water. I woke up gasping.
The first time God wanted to kill everybody all he used was water.
I learned this in church. When I thought of that first Apocalypse,
I used to imagine all the sinners’ noses, filling. I used to think,
Can a sinner breathe water? Does sin always precede the drowning?
But I remember: the jambalaya heat. I saw the condemned houses.
Blackfish in the street. And my tongue swelled in my mouth.
I don’t drink enough water. I am not enough water.
I used to get alkaline water from the shop in my neighborhood
until the Devil cursed it and me. I saw a photograph of a small face
that looked like mine. It loomed from a black bath. The water never broke.
Men are less water. Can a man breathe? Can a woman? Can a child
birth the air? Distance is a glass breaking. Water spreading. Sound
numbed by its own thickness. I should have been a pair of ragged claws,
scuttling. A red boy crab, stringline eyes searching and winding.
Maybe everyone will die and then I’ll know what it means
to be alone for real. Maybe it will rain at my funeral. Maybe my mother
will cry as I enter her clay womb.
RJ Eldridge is a writer, emergent multidisciplinary artist, curator, educator and thinker whose current projects inquire about the politics of millennial identity, contemporary racial literacy, and the power of the image to shape and be shaped by both. He currently lives in Chicago. For more information, visit and follow at whoisrjel.com
Photo courtesy of Ladan Osman