*Image: “The Amygdala Project XXXVII” by Abigail Nelson, 22 x 30 Acrylic and Gel on W/C Paper
By Sandra Hunter
He is walking. He is about to turn the corner.
She is at the window waiting since noon, since last year’s announcement on the church noticeboard, last month’s update, last week’s email, waiting for her temporary Sudanese, temporarily in her living room, her kitchen, her guest room, temporarily so grateful to her American family, for this American refuge from the dark nights of pangas and bullet mania and shouting, shoveled from plane to bus to this calm street where he will walk: tentative, neatly shorn head bowed, hardly daring to look at the numbers on doors, belongings in a cardboard case with only one clasp, limping from injuries, bandages beneath clothing, single photograph of family, bible with pressed flower from graveside.
She looks toward the street corner. Her window is angled elegantly for viewing the street corner, her window well shaded but view unobscured.
It’s overcast, just when Los Angeles should have looked welcoming to this new resident.
And is this him? But where is the pastor who is meant to accompany him, to make the introductions and—
This is the boy she was promised? But he is a man.
Smooth swinging chocolate lines, legs just ahead of that torso and those arms swinging, sinew to sinew.
White suit, white fedora tilted forward, blue shirt, blue and white tie. No one wears a tie. He is wearing a tie. Cuffs just ahead of the white jacket sleeves. Head up. Boldly looking at each house.
Tilts his head. She is there. He can feel her watching him from the house.
He is walking in thirty dollars. The hat, shirt and shoes are from the Goodwill bales delivered to the church. The suit and tie are from Van Nuys Suits You in the mini mall. He followed the sale sign to the one white suit behind a rack of brown suits. It is too big in the shoulders. The two assistants let him have it for twenty-eight dollars (You look like a movie star) and threw in the tie for two.
He looks carefully at the house. It is the right number.
What can he say to these Americans? What of his country can he explain so they can understand? How to divide the journey into language of this, after, then.
He sat in darkness waiting for light, and in light counting through the minutes until darkness. He faced blank tent canvas walls and longed for a few moments alone with a hand’s width opening to the sky. He faced color, too much color, in the kind of geography he never wishes to see again, and longed for blank walls.
There is no this and after and then. It is all now. The rest stays hunkered, nailed shut in a blind box.
He wants this American family to admire him. He knows how they will look at him, this refugee.
The box cracks open.
His family is South Kordofan. They have lived in Laqawa for many generations, many families, many children. His father was a great man. His mother was… His sister. His brother.
What would his mother, his father say to see him in such a suit? His mother’s smile, his sister’s big eyes, his brother’s shout of laughter.
But, of course, they can say nothing: his parents are gone, his sister’s eyes are closed and his brother is in the past.
Lock the box.
Does he look Sudanese enough? Perhaps they are expecting a dirty blanket and bare feet. He, too, was surprised when he first arrived in LA. Where were the ropes of chains and plate-size medallions? Where were the gold teeth grills? Now he knows that those were YouTube stories.
The thick cover of grey-white clouds, curls and froths above him: anything is possible.
She steps back. Does he spy her at her lookout?
He moves. He could be dancing. But he’s here, at her door, inside her hallway. He’s taking his white hat off and he’s bowing to her, extending his hand. She looks at his long chocolate fingers. If she could, she would walk into that hand. She would snap off a chocolate finger and swallow it, feel it finger its way down her long throat.
Her breathing becomes separated: Howcan/hestandhere/likethis?
—Welcome to Woodland Grange. I was expecting Pastor James. To make the introductions.
—He could not come. There is a new group. Some are injured. He sends his sorries.
—Well. That’s all right. We’ll manage. Good trip?
—Thank you, yes. It is very kind of you to let me stay, Madam Fields.
—No trouble. No trouble at all. It’s no trouble. And how was your journey? Oh, I already asked. You must be tired. You must want to lie down. I mean would you like to see your room?
—That would be very kind. Thank you Madam Fields.
—Oh no. I’m not any kind of madam. You can call me Indira. It’s a funny name.
—A very nice name.
—My mother liked exotic things. Follow me, Elijah. Can I call you Elijah? I feel like I know you already. I’ve read all about you in the conference letters.
He inclines his head. His head is the shape of an almond. She could take his head in her hands, press her palms against the cheeks. His cheekbones are sharp. Such beauty.
Elijah, the bold prophet.
—Elijah. It’s from the Bible.
—Well, I’ll show you your room.
She has to walk ahead of him. She would prefer to follow, would like to see him swing himself through her house. See him take up the space with his long chocolate limbs. See him paint the space in front of him, behind him, leave his wild streaks in the air.
—Here it is.
—How kind. It is a very nice room.
His soft smile comes from the wide black eyes and fades into his soft lips.
His eyes are hypnotic. That smile could dangle her off a cliff.
Indeera. He puts so much emphasis on the second syllable. Is that how they say it in the Sudan? He stands there with his soft fading smile.
There is a shuffling-giggling-shushing. The two children come in.
They speak almost together.
She feels her mother-bright smile coming on.
—Kids, this is Elijah.
Smile fixed against her teeth.
—These are my girls, Blake and Edwina. Eddie.
Edwina, the smaller one, sucks the ear of a stuffed bear.
—Elijah, like in the Bible?
—Yes. And no.
Blake frowns. She is 11, the age where imprecise answers are irritating.
—Well, girls, let’s leave Elijah to unpack. Dinner is in half an hour. Is that okay?
—Yes. Thank you, Indira.
Edwina looks up at Elijah as she passes. Reaches out one fat finger to touch his hand.
He waits as she touches his skin.
The girls leave. Indira smiles.
—Your bathroom is just through there. You can shower, freshen up, or wash your face, unpack—uh, how old are you, exactly? The church said that…
He is still staring at the bathroom door.
—Thank you, Indira.
He is used to recognizing the injured, the broken. The poor wear their wounds in the open. Those who can afford it use camouflage. Indira wears the flowing dress, the sensible ugly shoes, the makeup to cover the pale, brittle-looking skin. She has perfected her clean smile, her just-a-touch of condescension. But inside he can hear her need and pain rattling around and bruising her from the inside.
He can smile, too. His smooth skin. His clear eyes. His firm handshake.
And he sees that she recognizes him. She has smelled him out. She is the garbage picker, sifting over his body, picking out what she can keep, what she can discard.
There goes his white suit and fedora hat, his super-shined Goodwill shoes. And when he is finally naked in front of her, what will she want then?
She is the gatekeeper of his American life: his job interview, his driver’s license application.
Has he ever had his own bathroom? She imagines him in there, leaning over the small sink, his dark swinging self silent to the mirror. She sees the muscles in his arms flex as he leans over the small sink, his almond head tilting back.
He has thrown his hat on the bed. He has claimed the bed with that white hat sitting so jauntily on the pillow. Now he looks younger.
She backs away.
—See you in a while.
She walks to the kitchen and runs the water in the sink. The flowing loose water. Holds her hands under. Holds them down. Drowns her hands. You will not. Her hands dry themselves on the towel. But there are dried crumbs on the towel that scrape. She pushes the towel hard along her skin until it is reddened.
Her children come to the kitchen.
—So that’s Elijah?
—We’re sharing our home. Isn’t that nice? And we got him through the church, so.
—I know all about that. He looks funny.
—He does not look funny. He is just a boy. An everyday young man from South Sudan. And he’s a refugee. How sad! He’s had to leave his country.
—Why did he leave?
—We talked about this, remember? There’s fighting and bad things going on. We’re not the only people with a refugee. Aunt Madge and Cousin Poppy have one, too.
—Is South Sudan a poor country? Is Elijah poor?
Despite the beatings he had refused to carry a gun. They’d humiliated him in ways that crippled language. He carried their night soil. He cleaned their clothes like a woman. And they had other uses for him. At night they tethered him to a tree, like a goat.
But eventually, they looked the other way. At some point they assumed he was too scared, that he could only lie shaking under the small frayed blanket that didn’t cover the back-bruising and rib-cuts and the dead meat that hung between his legs.
Praying that his brother was safe with uncle. Praying that his mother and father were watching over him. Praying for forgiveness for what they were forced to see.
And then there was a party after an important raid where they killed many. Everyone went to celebrate. And because he was too young, too afraid, they forgot to tie him like a goat.
How much did it take to step away, waiting for the body blows to arrive? What is this dish-cleaning boy trying to do? What did it take to back away from the tents, not daring to look at the huts shaking with their shouts and laughter, to scrape and bleed across the barbed wire fencing?
And when it was finally safe: walk. And walk until his feet bled and to continue walking.
Until he found another place, a city with cars and buildings and lights for crossing the road. And finally luck caught his hand: a family took him in.
He wanted to go back and look for his brother but they told him that the invaders were burning and destroying everything. It is a miracle you got out alive.
After some time, they brought news: the church would help them apply for asylum, and then they could fly away. Just like that.
Indira is a little put out that he isn’t as poor as she expected. She cancels the plans to visit all those lovely thrift stores on Melrose, the Macy’s outlet.
Her bright laugh,
—He’s not poor. Do you think he looks poor?
—Poor Elijah. He’s missing his mommy.
—He’s a young man. He doesn’t miss his mother. He’s going to make a good life for himself in America. This is a great place for him to start.
—Does he leave black in the shower?
—That is not how I brought you up. We do not talk about people that way. You apologize this minute.
—All right, I’m sorry.
Eddie hugs her bear.
—Oh darling, you didn’t say anything. It was Blake.
—It’s always me.
—Blake, you calm down. Let’s talk this out.
—I don’t want to talk anything out. I just want to know—
Children ask questions. Adults tell lies. He cannot hear what they’re asking but their voices lilt upward. Like his brother’s used to. Did you bring me bananas? Is Ma coming home? Who are those men over there?
He picked up his brother and ran to the back of the house. Pushed him through the small window. Run. Now. His brother’s astonished face.
—Go to Uncle Jospat. He will take care of you.
—Those men are coming here. They want to hurt us.
—You must do as I say. Please.
—I want to stay with you, Elijah.
The front door being pummeled. Beaten. Broken.
—Run through the long grasses. They will not see you.
His brother’s scared face.
Elijah hears Blake’s voice, louder. Defiant. Indira’s voice hushing her. There’s no point staying in the bedroom.
Elijah breathes in, pushes the kitchen door open.
Blake is silent. Eddie stares.
Indira reaches for her good hostess voice.
—You didn’t want to rest a little? I’m sorry. Dinner isn’t ready—
—I will make dinner.
Indira’s hostess laugh.
—Oh no. I can’t possibly let you tire yourself—
—I am not tired. This thing I like to do.
He looks around the kitchen, her silver fridge, her silver toaster oven and microwave, her black countertops, black drawers, black cupboard doors, the black pots hanging from the rack above the silver stove.
His almond head turns back and forth.
How will he make dinner in this kitchen? Is he used to western kitchens? Will he want a charcoal burner instead of a stove?
And what about the careful pasta salad she made, using okra instead of asparagus?
He turns to Blake.
—You can help me?
Blake steps forward like she’s been chosen for the volleyball team.
Indira shakes her hair back, shakes off the idea of Elijah in the shower, his color dripping off him, melting under the hot water, his outline softening.
She hates cooking but this is her kitchen, and there’s a perfectly good pasta salad in the fridge,
–—I’m sorry, this isn’t—
–—Please. Let me do this.
–—This is where the pans are, and the cooking spoons, and these are the knives. Be very careful with those.
–—Blake, I don’t think Elijah—
But Elijah has removed his jacket and draped it over a chair. He has rolled up his sleeves. The neat forearms and delicate looking wrists. His blue shirt moves in soft waves as he swings the long arms, those black eyes lowered to the gleaming knives, lifted to the pot rack where his long fingers grasp pots, one, two, three, each of them arriving with a soft clang on the range.
Blake moving purposefully now: opening the fridge, fetching sundried tomatoes, flour, potatoes, from the pantry. Blake pointing up to the colander. He hands it down so she can wash the vegetables in the sink.
Everything moving and swinging and flowing between Elijah’s black hands and Blake’s sun-tanned ones.
–—I want to do it too.
Indira feels herself outnumbered, out-gunned. Out.
–—Well, you kids enjoy yourselves.
She steps out of the kitchen, light tread, light hair bobbing behind her. Full of light and fear.
A familiar feeling, a small shift: is this really her life? There must be some other home waiting for her. This house, these children: she must take care of them. No one else will and, left to themselves, they will only torment each other. This is her duty to her country. Her country is motherhood. She must bear its flag.
The guilt floods down her cheeks, finger ends, elbows, backs of her knees.
How did all of this come into her head?
Those people who mutter about her, are they right?
Elijah unfurls. Movement puts the body back into the moment where everyone else’s body is: the moment that is magnified when the body listens intently: the hairs just above the ears, the sense that the right eyebrow will twitch, the itch above the elbow.
The pots, the bowls, fly to him, the wooden spoons clatter. The kitchen sings its simple one strand one purpose song. And the children run to fetch and lift and stir. Elijah teaches them a song. They laugh. They steal shreds of cheese. He dots their noses with flour: an Instagram moment.
The dinner is good. Indira nods,
—So delicious. Is this one of your own recipes? Maybe from your mother?
Blake rolls her eyes,
—It’s pot pie, Mom.
—Pot pie pot pie pot pie.
Elijah passes the green beans to Indira and serves mashed potatoes to Eddie.
Is he already so comfortable with her children, in her house?
She puts down her fork.
—You know, I must, there are some things, email, I need to—this is just lovely Elijah, so wonderful of you to cook for all of us and on your first day, too.
Grates chair back, catches shoe on chair leg, clunks free and slams chair against table, laughing laughing, oh clumsy me oh clumsy me. It could be an aria.
Oh why did those words come? Pie like mother used to make in the old desert tent while we were running from the rebels. He will never speak of his terrible burning past so she can soothe him with her sweet support, read him cleansing passages from the Bible, sing old swinging-on-the-porch gospel songs together so he can hold her between his chocolate sinews.
A shocking image of his hard thighs and hips and his chest moving over her. How can she think that, he’s just a young guy in a suit, just a young, how can she, can she…
After dinner, Elijah and Blake clear the table. Eddie folds the napkins.
—Don’t worry about her. She gets this way sometimes. She has her medication and then she’s fine.
Such grown-up language. He says,
—I’ll do the dishes. You help your sister with the placemats.
Eddie folds the napkins.
Outside the window a black bird chases a bigger brown bird, snapping at its wings. The black bird swoops and flutters, like an old oil rag.
Elijah, dish-washing, muscled white t-shirt, dark jeans, small neat head bobbing to some internal reggae rap rock, same languid movement: behold I show you a mystery.
Indira at the door, unable to walk forward into her kitchen, the shape of the air shifting and flowing between the sink and Elijah.
Elijah’s hands rinsing, stacking bowls, perching plates, jeans pressed up against the sink.
What it must feel like to be pressed, to be held, hands lifting rinsing, perching her on the sink edge.
How not to think of Elijah’s groin.
—Indeera! There you are.
They you ah.
Who is she in this skin, that would go so well against that skin, would go so well against the side of him, so well against the back of him, so well against his white teeth against her, against her, his—
Elijah’s teeth bared in the smile that points his cheekbones anywhere but at her cheekbones, lifted so high cheekbones.
And the hot sauce dowsing her from up to down to up.
Since the attack on his village, he has become used to sleeping for two or three hours at a time. Once he arrived in America he thought that would change. He imagined a feeling of calm with this family. But the calm has not come. He still sleeps and wakes, still listens for the small sounds that move through the house.
In the night, he hears her tap at his door. The door becomes a tent flap. Any minute now the intruder will come and take him. The tapping drips against the door, soft, insistent as though it doesn’t want to be there at all. He holds his breath.
The girls’ knocks are much louder. Blake is one single bam. Eddie slaps the door with her hands Elijah, I want to come in.
They sit on his bed and ask questions,
—Did you have your own camel?
—Do African people like Kanye West?
They tell him secrets,
—Blake hits a lot of boys.
—I can hit harder than most of the boys in my class.
—Mom hates Christmas. She says she’s all alone now.
If it were possible, he would cast a spell on Blake and Eddie, turn them into something new and strong—like his mother, like his aunts who taught him respect and laughter and how to slaughter a goat humanely.
In Laqawa everyone would know about Blake and her fighting. It would be stopped.
Indira or her sisters need to do this job, but since he’s been here not one of her relatives has come to visit. Where is the family?
Elijah is a rising bubble of joy as he clicks around Indira’s laptop. There are pictures of South Kordofan. At the small table in his room, Eddie stands next to him as his fingers fly. He talks to her. The shapes of his land flow from him: how far you can see, how you can walk and walk. He misses the green smell of his land. He explains what it is like in the early morning when he stands on the verandah and looks over the dark wet earth. He describes the tang and crunch and cream of his mother’s strange and beautiful French pastries.
He wears his white suit, walks into Sweet La-La Bakery on Melrose, tells them about working in a hotel in Kampala. (Uganda, Sudan, it is all the same.) They watch him make chocolate spice cupcakes; hire him as an assistant patisserie chef.
Indira backs away from the money he holds out.
He stuffs the grey-green money into envelopes that he cannot send. What address can he use: My uncle, my brother, South Kordofan.
He’s been here two months. He has a job. He has money. How did he find his way, so quickly this young man? Is he going to move out?
In the long evenings she can hear them, Elijah, Eddie and Blake, talking, laughing. Children steal so much.
Rattling footfalls on the stairs and Blake comes into the kitchen,
The bright mother laugh,
—You can have some fruit.
—I want to make basbousa. Elijah says—
—Blake, it’s time for your bath.
Blake’s mouth chews itself.
He wakes to a sense of weight. Something is there. One of the girls must have come in. Perhaps Eddie has had a bad dream. Something touches his hair, his forehead. A breath: Indira. He tries to sit up, but she pushes against his shoulders.
—Hush. Hush now.
—Indira, is something—
— You’re sad, I know. Your family is passed on but now you are here. We are your family. We are here to help you.
—Indira. It is late. The children—
—Oh the children. They’re asleep. Let me make you comfortable. Now, Elijah. I want to tell you a story.
Her hand on his forehead. His hands gripping the cover. Her hand on his forehead. What is she doing? What will she do with the other hand?
—Once upon a time, there were two little boys.
—See? Not two little girls. Let’s leave the girls out of it, shall we? And they loved each other very much. And one day they were playing and they walked into the woods. And then one of them saw a big, scary monster. So he screamed. Not the monster, the little boy. And then the other little boy said, hey you don’t need to be scared. I’ll kill him for you. So he did. Isn’t that a great story? I made it up for you.
Her hand smooths his forehead. Her fingers touch his hair, his scalp, drift down to his cheek.
- Smack the hand away, push her off the bed, run out of the house.
- Smack the hand away, push her off the bed, tie her up, run out of the house.
- Smack the hand away, push her off the bed, tie her up, stab her in the ribs, hide her under the bed—
Smacks her hand away, sits up.
—I will tell you a story.
—Elijah, there’s no need to hit me. I’m here for you. We’re all here for you. We’re so lucky to have you here. I hope you’re not shutting me out. That’s what happens when you go through trauma. You shut people out. That’s what happens.
He unclenches his fingers,
—Once upon a time there were two little boys. They were very happy. The whole family was very happy. And then one day the monster came to their house. You see? The monster doesn’t come to you when you are in the woods. It comes to your house.
A sharp in-breath. She is scrabbling at him, kneeling next to the bed,
—I was only telling you a story. I was only comforting you because you’re here and alone and I—
His brother’s big eyes his brother’s small hands his brother dropping into the long grass running and running.
The truth comes rushing at him with a flaming axe: how can he be sure that his brother is safe with uncle?
—Elijah. Hush now. I’ll stay with you while you sleep. Let me stay with you. Let me just—
He turns his back to her.
Her voice is different. Not sickly mother-sweet, not the welcoming hostess. It is bare, as though the wind has been hollowing her throat.
—You think I’m crazy, right? Crazy lady? I am not. And I didn’t do anything. You can’t prove I did anything.
She slams the door shut behind her.
In the dark, he goes to the table with the small drawer. Opens it. Pulls out the useless envelopes stuffed with money that he can’t send.
He can stay and endure the woman’s attentions. He can leave and be accused as ungrateful.
None of that is important anymore.
Driven downstairs after the night that has no corner to sleep in, downstairs to the sounds of the normal life that has no place for her, Indira comes into the kitchen while the girls are finishing breakfast.
Eddie swings her legs,
—I liked my poo smell. Did you have a nice poo smell?
—That’s because we had garlic chicken. I bet Elijah had a nice poo smell, too.
Bag packed: the money stuffed into his shoes, a pouch in his underwear.
Three loud knocks and Eddie comes in,
—What are you doing?
Children ask questions.
Indira calls from downstairs,
—Let’s go! We’re going to be late.
Eddie runs to him, tugs on his arm. This is the signal for him to swing her into the air.
She looks up at him, her mouth ready to smile.
—Eddie? Let’s go. Right now, missy!
He knows Eddie is waiting for him to say the grown-up things: Better go now. Your mom’s calling you. See you later. He reaches down and hugs her.
She stares up at him, eyes huge.
She doesn’t turn at the door.
She clatters downstairs. The front door opens and shuts. The car starts up. They are gone.
He carefully folds the white suit and blue shirt and tie. They can be sold. He will remove himself from the room. He will remove his tread from the stairs. He will walk backward out of the house.
He is a shape-changer: watch him turn the stern grey-green men into the bright giraffes, elephants, zebras, oil derricks, pottery and drums. They will carry him over frontiers, barriers, through dust and thirst. And when they are gone he knows how to make do, to allow fatigue to overcome hunger, to wait, listen for his brother’s voice.
There are more things to worry about than a sulky boy who won’t come down and greet the family in the proper way, in the limber two steps at a time jumping three from the bottom way, in the way he floats around the newel post, his eyes half-closed, laughing into the morning. If he would just let her, if she could just reach… There’s no point thinking about it, the heat of him, the thick of his breathing, the pulsing almost in her hand.
Blake is whispering,
—It’s okay. Don’t cry, Eddie.
In the rearview mirror the girls are hugging. There’s a smudge on the mirror. The smudge is a crow sitting on the mailbox. It bobs its head, opens its wings, cranks itself up into the air.
Illustrative Imagery by Abigail Nelson
For the past three years I have worked on a series of paintings called The Amygdala Project, which employs paint to express the paradoxical nature of the dense, minimalist music of composer, Phill Niblock. Brush and palette knife create swaths of intense color and texture. Creating intimacy and grandeur, deep space and materiality are my goals.