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Common Grounds and Various Teas

This story was originally published at Cast of Wonders in September 2019 and has been reprinted here with the author's permission.

Mama's fingernails are mesmerizing. They’re black and shiny as volcanic glass but not polished. Her skin is a deeper shade than North Carolina red clay, and her hair is pulled up high in two top knots. Long dreadlocks cascade down over both her ears. If she’s older than thirty  no one can tell. Right now, I’m giving her serious side eye. She won’t stop blabbering and babbling and telling her grifter tales.

“I told that man, you cannot sell me this bucket on wheels. It’s beneath me,” she says in an accent as brown as her skin. “He didn’t like that. Now, rather than me convincing him, he’s convincing me to lower the price. ‘Til I have mercy, I take this car from him for $45 and I let him buy the beers.”

I huff and turn away from her. “Can you stop now?” I mumble.

"I could,” Mama says, like she’s sharing secrets, “but I could also be swallowed and spit back out as something flavorless.”

I stare out of the grimy passenger side window, ignoring her reflection and the miles that pass behind it. Ignoring her perennial smile.

She doesn’t stop. “We speak our own names because if you don't define yourself, you allow others to steal your shape.”

“Nice. Wish I had a name.” I grumble. “I guess my existence is futile.”

Not that she cares.

Her side eye is next level when she says, “Try harder.” Then she laughs, unbothered, making her dreadlocks bounce. Mama’s nails tap the steering wheel of her 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit. She says she bought it in 1983 with shiny words instead of coins… blah blah blabber blah blah…I’m not really listening. 

A notification PINGS on my Tattle App. My phone shows a dark skinned mermaid with flowing braids and a sea serpent’s tale. The avatar bounces for my attention. I click it and grin. “It’s Auntie Wah,” my words interrupt mama’s laughter.

“What she say?”

“Mah-ma,” I groan. “She didn’t say much. She’s checking in.”

My family has a coded system. Mama and her siblings live for words--written, word-of-mouth, word of each other. They use social media to let each other know they’re safely playing out one more chapter of their lives. For one more day. The covert ops annoy me but I get it.

Most of mama’s siblings have ceased to exist (that’s how the remaining ones phrase it). And none of them went quietly. I think it might be a family curse. A bad one. Born in American dirt. They don’t speak about it. So I’m not sure. Instead they fill up the spaces around whatever-it-is with nods and whispers and coded posts.

It’s weird because they talk about everything else. There are words tattooed beneath their skin, old wives tales, lore, and folk remedies that flutter to the surface when they speak of them. Everything reminds Mama, my Auntie Wah, my Uncle Johen, and our two cousins of: “That one time when…” and they don't stop talking until the memory gets told. If you see them at a bus stop, around the firepit at a cookout, or in an elevator put your earphones in and start singing. That's your only hope. That’s what I do.

Maybe the silence surrounding the curse (or whatever) is because my family believes silencing something kills it, but when you tell something’s story you give it power. That’s how internet influencers transform the energy of their followers into nearly impervious force fields…(according to Mama and her siblings)...the internet is indelible. More permanent than the matching ink on each of their forearms. Three dots in a row form their only shared tattoo. Although each version is distinct I’ve been taught to call the set The Ellipses of Legend. My family is weird. If you ask Uncle Johen what their tats represent he’ll laugh and say, “The lore must continue.”

So they stay on the road, in perpetual motion. I’ve never been able to sit still or spend two seconds alone. My entire life is cropped to fit the passenger side window of this Volkswagen Rabbit, with all fourteen birthdays smeared in road grime.

I’d be brainless if I didn’t absorb books when I touch them. I’ve heard people call it photographic or eidetic memory, but I don’t have to read the words. Books are drawn to me and once I hold written words in my hands they’re mine. More mine than anything I’ve ever done in the real world. Mama, and her two closest siblings, and their two favorite cousins are the ones on good terms with life. For them living is big trouble and they like it big—the living and the trouble. 

Another PING from the Tattle App. I click on the avatar of a grinning prairie wolf in a crochet spider hat. It’s the cousins.

“Spinner and Kai just posted a check-in too,” I say, scrolling through the latest tittles.

Our two cousins are shadow haired and smoke eyed, standing in front of their pickup truck. Their indigenous heritage is as much a part of their smiles as teeth. Spinner and Kai live on the road but the highways they travel are more interesting than mine, and their truck eats up a lot of miles without ever needing gas. They’ll jumpstart a bar brawl in Montana (without throwing a punch). Or drive through South Dakota to convince a typical tight-ass to give them...everything: clothes, pin numbers, even an old steamboat one time.

Uncle Johen lives on the go, too. He’s a passport junkie, but unlike Mama and the cousins he prefers hard work over scams. With Auntie Wah it could go either way. Although she stays put in a turquoise and coral striped lighthouse on the coast, the coast changes from day to day.

“Why go on-the-run?” she’d said two weeks ago and looked at me sideways. “The waves may change but the depths are immutable; the sea is my greatest escape.”

I wish she’d take me with her.

Anyway, my family has probably been ridiculous going back to the first trick of time. Right here, right now, Mama pulls off the road and into the parking lot of the roadside pitstop known as Common Grounds & Various Teas. She puts the car in park and looks at me. “So, they recommended this shop when we stopped for snacks a few miles back? What did the gas station attendant say? Exactly?

She’s rarely serious, so I wonder about her mood. “The attendant said their coffee machine ‘doesn’t do nothing but sputter.’ She told me to come here and, ‘They’ll have the tea you’re craving.’ I told her I want coffee. She said, ‘That too.’”

We get out of the car but Mama stops. Her gaze travels past Route 66. “My brother, the one we called Fox,” she sighs beneath the words, “his story ended on the side of this road. A mile away.” She thumps her fist against her thigh. “The last time I pranked him he got so mad he pushed me into the thicket. Briars as long as my fingernails and twice as sharp.” She clicks her nails together. “But I thrive among the prickly things.” She pauses on a smile so wicked I take a step back. “I might’ve done a backstroke in that briar patch and laughed at him.”

The serious expression comes back. I’m not used to it.

“I know he stopped speaking to us,” I say, “but doesn’t Uncle Fox have a children’s show now?”

Mama stares me down. “Fox was devoured. He didn’t come back.” Her fist bumps her thigh again. “That thing on TV…it’s…” It’s like she doesn’t know how to say it. “Imagine a collection of shadows that returns to the world when the truth has been sucked out. It’s a shade, a revenant. Not my brother.”

She exhales like it hurts, then jerks out of her reverie, “Where’s your uncle Johen?”

I try to hand her my phone but, rather than take it, Mama wraps her hands around mine. She pulls me and the phone in close while her thumb clicks on the avatar of the three colorful diamonds that form the American Steelmark logo.

“Uncle Johen checked in last night,” I say. “He’s building his latest roller coaster down in Orlando. It’s a monster. Goes on for like two miles. Next month, it’ll be a bigger one in Paris.”

The strained skin around Mama’s eyes softens but she keeps my hand trapped in hers. I pull away, leaving her with the phone. “I need coffee,” I shout back.

“Wait for me, bebe.” Mama takes one step and she’s instantly beside me.

The endearment aggravates me. “What’s my name?” I ask.

She clucks her tongue. “You’ll know it when you earn it.”

I don’t have a social security number or any friends who are closer to me than my Tattle App. She could at least give me a name.

“Who does that?” I snap.

Mama smiles, “We do. It makes a name worth having.”

“You earned Bunny?”

I grimace and shove the carved wooden doors leading into Common Grounds. Something electric tickles the tips of my fingers. I pause and look closer. The double doors resemble the pages of a book with illustrations of a huge hammer embedded in rock, forest animals playing beneath leaves, a grinning coyote caught in a spider’s web--all rising from the words. Mermaids, and talking skulls, and giant obsidian snakes.

The heaviness of Mama’s hand lands on my shoulder and the electricity flows through us both.

“Bunny is the nickname my sister gave me. It’s mine. But I have older names with more weight, names the first ones gave me so I could help them learn their lessons...”

She means Ehoro or Unogwaja and others--those are the names Mama rarely says out loud. Instead she says, “...and I’ve got newer names that mean as much.”

“Mah-ma,” I growl it low.

“That’s the one,” she laughs.

Inside the shop, the scents of dried herbs and roasted beans encircle us. Big glass jars full of shiny blacks and browns alongside silver tins stuffed with floral greens. I ooh and then jump. The shop owner is a duplicate for the gas station attendant. Her face is full of enough knowledge to be trouble.

“No coffee today. Only tea,” the shop owner says. Her voice is more memory than sound. The words echo after she vanishes.

Mama turns towards the entrance fast, pulling me behind the shield of her body. Her fingernails grow into black daggers. She tenses but her smile is pure mischief. All sound sucks out of the room. I can’t even hear myself breathe in the silence.

That’s when the first of the creatures floods through the doors. They are thick as paint and white as blank pages with wedge shaped heads and slashes for mouths. Those mouths snap open and inside them is an infinity of nothingness.

“What are those?”

“The Oblits,” Mama says. “They are devourers. They seek to silence and erase all the Lore who are black, and brown, and golden. Like us.”

“But you’re smiling,” I say.

She glances at me with an amused roll of her eyes, “They will never define me.”

Then she attacks.

Mama is magnificent. She shreds The Oblits into a rain of confetti. They keep coming. Their roiling colorless bodies trap her at the center of an onslaught. She keeps smiling, as though she lives for this. I bite my knuckles, more worried for her than she seems to be for herself. I have no doubt she’d die with a grin just to screw with The Oblits.

What can I do?

My Mama is the only altar I’ve ever worshipped. Who do I ask to save her? My Tattle App buzzes with an incoming video call. I don’t know why I answer but I do.

“Auntie Wah,” I whimper.

“Auntie Wata,” my aunt stresses the correction. “Did they end her?”

 Mama continues to fight but--even if I try to be optimistic--she’s losing. I shudder.

“Did they end her?” Auntie Wata demands. “Not yet,” I say. I’ve never felt fear but it has me now.

“Look at me,” her voice is harsh. “The steamboat doesn’t have the magic to get Coyote and Spider there in time. And John Henry’s hammer isn’t fast enough.” Her spectral image rises up and out of my phone. “You gwaan help your mama.”

“How?” I ask.

“The Oblits bind our tongues in order to erase us,” she says. “Tell her story so they cannot devour her.”

“I don’t know her story.”

 “Because you don’t listen, bebe.” Auntie Wata shakes her head, “You were raised in our light but you do not see our shine.” When I’m silent, she says, “Make something up! How can we--black, brown, and golden--go on if we are silenced?”

Am I allowed to make up my own stories, ones that are mine? I’ve never thought of that before. But if I can then…

I swipe to open a new story on Tattle. Using a sketch I drew of Mama, I tell my followers about a charming, legendary, wild-haired, badass, black rabbit from the South. The response is immediate.

11 likes and the sound rumbles back into the shop. 8 comments and Mama’s laugh bubbles up from beneath the pile of attackers.

1440 likes, 401 shares, 88 comments. Unwritten bodies smash into the walls. The tea goes flying.

As my story goes viral, Mama fights her way up from under The Oblits. Spinning, she shreds the last line of the onslaught. This time the confetti is a celebration.

She grins when she’s done.

That’s when I feel the prickle of thorns beneath my skin, like goosebumps inverted. It doesn’t exactly hurt but it scares me and it’s exciting and I like it. Pins and needles glide along my forearm in loops, blood forming red letters beneath the brown. Until a word splashes to the surface of my skin, followed by three dots, drying into an inky darkness. My fingers trace the letters and tap the dots… I have to touch them to make them mine. When I do, I know my name. I am the teller of tales. Mama calls out to me, “Griot”

...and the Lore goes on...

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