And as I parted my lips and then, later, my legs, watching the last clouds of smoke slip upward, I kept hearing my mother’s voice say, “Jesus is a fire.”
Ranee Henderson, Thomas Baker, 2014. Oil on Canvas. © Ranee Henderson.
In the final days of her life, my mother began telling everyone that she was a disciple who had been called upon to write two books for the next testament of the Bible: The Future Testament. The retirement home called me when they found her scrawling on the walls of her apartment, twice in her own excrement, once in the blood of her old dog, Peace.
“It’s just that she’s scaring people,” the Cherry Grove Homes director said in his thin, nasally voice. I could picture him on the other end, a white button-down, a red tie, perpetually smiling. “And we aren’t a nursing home, you know; we’re an independent living facility. I’m afraid we have to ask her to leave.” I flew to Alabama immediately, boxed up all of my mother’s possessions, and flew her away to live with me in California.
She had not spoken more than one sentence since seeing me, standing helpless and frightened on the welcome mat of her apartment. Now, walking around my two-bedroom house in Menlo Park, she began whispering to herself in Twi.
“Why did you kill Peace?” I asked. The retirement home director told me they had found the dog in the backyard with his neck slit, his front paws folded and touching as though he were praying.
She turned sharply toward me. “Sacrifice,” she said, before continuing to pace the house. Her English was deteriorating and, though my comprehension was still good, I hadn’t spoken Twi since childhood. I crushed an Ambien into the tea that I made for her, and when she began to nod off, I tucked her into the guest bed, went into my own room, and cried until morning.
When I was eight I asked Jesus to come into my heart and be my Lord and Savior. My mother walked me down to the altar herself, and she held my hand as our pastor whispered his prayer into my ear, inviting me to repeat after him. I remember how warm his breath felt against my ear, this part of my body that I so rarely noticed. I remember thinking how that warmth would travel a line through the ear and to my heart, that it would burn away the floor of it so that Jesus might find space there. This was how I explained it to my mother that night when we were back in our one-bedroom apartment in Huntsville, Alabama.
She made kissing faces at herself after she had finished the lipstick, and I would imitate that face for hours after she left.
“Jesus is a fire,” she said. She was getting ready for her job as the night custodian at the local hospital, and I was watching her apply makeup in the mirror. She made kissing faces at herself after she had finished the lipstick, and I would imitate that face for hours after she left. “He consumes us.”
I nodded, not to humor her, but because I believed, because I was alone with my mother in our bathroom, and I was alone again that night after she left me kissing my own reflection in the mirror, and yet I had never felt so full.
She was already in the kitchen when I finally got out of bed. The kettle was on, and the smell of koko, one of the many Ghanaian dishes I had never learned to cook for myself, filled the air.
“You shouldn’t use the stove, Mama,” I said.
“Have you been eating?” she asked.
The top of my pajamas had pulled up and the soft flesh of my stomach was exposed. I pulled a chunk and wiggled it at her. “Doesn’t it look like I’m eating?”
She swatted me. “That’s nasty, Gifty.” And just when I had decided that there was nothing wrong with her, that the whole thing had been a bad dream, she stared into the blue and orange glow of the stove’s fire and said, “Revelations was not the end. I have been called.”
I pulled her away to sit at the table. I poured a bowl of koko for her, but within seconds, her finger was in it, and she was using the thick porridge to write on my oak table.
“Stop it,” I said, snatching her hand away, but then her left hand flew up and began where the right had left off.
The doorbell rang, and I shouted, “Come in,” afraid to leave my mother alone for so much as a second. I had made an appointment for her with a geriatric psychiatrist for later in the month, but from what the retirement home’s therapist had told me, there wasn’t much that could be done. She needed constant care because a demented mind could turn. Moments of lucidity could bring about feelings of shame and hopelessness worse than living in the dementia. Because of this, I had arranged for a home health nurse to come watch her during the day so that I could go teach. The nurse was a round Bajan woman with a stern voice. I had already given her instructions and a tour of the house before my mother arrived, and so I let the two of them get to know each other while I showered. They seemed well acquainted by the time I left.
I taught English at Stanford. The Modernist poets mostly, though Gerard Manley Hopkins was my area of expertise. This quarter I was teaching a senior seminar of his work to students who were likely only taking the course to fulfill their British Literature 1750-1900 requirement. I didn’t mind. I had once been like them, skeptical of anything that wasn’t flashy and contemporary, wary of anything that smacked of nature writing, but I had been wooed by Hopkins in college, seduced by the tension of his work, a tension that I had felt my whole life: flesh versus God.
My students strolled in, some hungover, others stinking of cigarette smoke. They sat at our large, round table and stared at me expectantly, but that day I simply stared back.
What I wanted to ask was, what had any of us ever sacrificed? If it came to it, would we lay our Isaacs down?
Melissa, the class know-it-all, whipped her hand into the air. “Professor Asare, are you all right?” she asked. She had colored her hair over the weekend. Blond and whiter blond highlights ran through the thick section that always seemed to cover her left eye.
I shook my head, tried to shake myself out of my stupor. “Yes, I’m fine. Where did we leave off?”
“We were talking about how Hopkins destroyed a bunch of his undergraduate poetry,” Melissa said.
“Right,” I said, but then I stopped. The rest of my words dissolved in my mouth as I looked at their young, confused faces. What I wanted to say was that Hopkins had written the ultimate poem in that destruction. The burning of his earlier works was his rebirth as a man of God, a symbol of his devotion to the Jesuit priesthood. What I wanted to ask was, what had any of us ever sacrificed? If it came to it, would we lay our Isaacs down?
The class stared at me, and as I stared back the room began to get hazy at the edges, as though I were looking at an old photograph of my class instead of my class itself.
“I’m not feeling well,” I said. “You can take the rest of the day off.”
Some lingered, asked if I needed anything, but most bounded away, trying to mask their happiness in sympathetic frowns. When they were all gone, I slumped down in my seat and rested my head against my class notes. I couldn’t sleep. All I could do was think.
What I kept coming back to was fire. By high school I had abandoned God. When my mother asked if I wanted to go to church with her I would make up an excuse. Homework or babysitting were usually enough, but sometimes I needed something more elaborate.
“I’m going on a school field trip this weekend,” I said to her one Friday morning, and because I was not the kind of child who lied, and because she was not the kind of parent who checked up on me, I ended up driving down to Gulf Shores with my friend Ellie.
We met up with a couple of boys Ellie knew from her church, an Episcopalian church my mother had deemed “too stuffy” the day she’d met Ellie and grilled her about her beliefs. The boys were named Steven and Tony. Tony was Ellie’s boyfriend, and Steven was obviously some kind of offering for me. He was tall, with the perfectly straight teeth of upper-middle class, white America. That night, while we were on the beach, Steven and I held back while Tony and Ellie walked ahead of us.
“What are you into?” Steven asked. He was a private school kid, the kind who had a hard time relating to people without money. His question sounded like a line from an anthropological study titled “Black, Poor, Immigrant.”
“Books, I guess,” I answered. I had just gotten my acceptance letter from Princeton two weeks before, and I had hidden it in the underwear drawer of my dresser. Whenever my mother asked if it had come yet, I would say no, and she would pat my back and say, “You are going. Believe it and receive it, Gifty. God is good.” I didn’t want to give God any credit for how hard I had worked.
“That’s cool. I think I’ll probably major in computer science or something,” Steven said. We stopped next to a shell that had washed ashore, and Steven bent down to grab it. He fingered the shallow ridges, put it against his ear, and then against mine.
“I hear your mom’s kind of crazy,” he said. I was listening to the ocean inside the shell, ignoring the ocean at my feet.
“She’s just strict,” I said, and he put the shell down. “She’s religious.”
Steven nodded. That night, he and Tony started a bonfire in the backyard of Tony’s parents’ beach house. There weren’t many people our age around, but we’d found a few and invited them over, drinking the booze that was stashed in various spots around the house, but before long, everyone had gone, and Tony and Ellie made a big show of going back into the house together.
The fire was dying down. I didn’t know how to build a fire, how to keep one going if I wanted it to keep going. Steven was an Eagle Scout, but he simply looked on as the fire went, little by little, into the night.
He leaned in closer to me. It was inevitable, really. It was what we had come for. And as I parted my lips and then, later, my legs, watching the last clouds of smoke slip upward, I kept hearing my mother’s voice say, “Jesus is a fire.”
At the house, my mother was napping. The nurse gave me a rundown of all that had happened that day, from what she had eaten to what she had done and said.
“She pray for me,” the nurse said.
I put my hand to my mouth. “Oh, God, I’m so sorry.” It was a Californian reaction. I had once been chastised by a woman for offering her daughter a balloon at a friend’s son’s birthday party. The woman had touched my hand and whispered, “We’re trying to avoid giving Helen things that are red because we’ve found that the color makes her anxious.” I’d nodded. I’d even apologized.
Now, the nurse shook her head at me. “Why you sorry? It was nice. What it hurt to have somebody pray for you?”
It wasn’t really a question, but I kept thinking about it as though it were. What would it hurt to be prayed for, to pray? Knees were the only thing I could think of, remembering how my mother had made me kneel down on them, every night, once for an entire day.
“You can’t pray for a whole day,” I had argued. “Your mind will wander.” Still, she knelt, and so I did too.
Restless after ten minutes, I’d asked, “What are you even saying?”
She looked over at me. “First, I say thank you,” she said, her Twi fast and thick. “I say thank you for my daughter, that she has good health and strong teeth. I say thank you that you have watched over us so that we can be here in America, together. I say thank you for my job. Thank you for my life. Thank you that I am not alone.”
I had long ago learned not to make mention, even indirectly, of my father, a man who had been trying to find his way to meet us in America for most of my childhood.
“You are alone,” I said. It was a whisper, more air than words really, and I regretted it almost immediately. I had long ago learned not to make mention, even indirectly, of my father, a man who had been trying to find his way to meet us in America for most of my childhood. And, upon discovering that there was no way, had married again, started over.
My mother bowed her head and said, “No, Gifty. I am not alone.”
After the nurse had gone, I started dinner. Jollof rice was one of the few dishes I had mastered. I always used brown rice instead of white, which seemed to offend my mother, and so tonight, for her, I’d stopped at an Asian market and picked up the kind she approved of. I heated oil to fry plantains, and as the first slices hit the pan, the sound and smell of sizzling palm oil brought my mother out of the room and down the stairs.
As we sat down to eat, I watched her. She kept her hair short and neat. She bathed twice a day. She was still my mother.
“What will the Future Testament be about?” I asked timidly.
“It is just stories,” she said in English. “Things God tell me about.”
“Can I read it?” I asked. She looked at me, surprised, but then she smiled and nodded. For years, my mother had been baffled by my love of reading. The only book she owned was her Bible, and I was never convinced that she actually read it. I wasn’t sure if I would ever see the Future Testament, if it was written in pen on paper and not just porridge or blood, things that could wash away.
After she finished eating, my mother insisted on washing the dishes. I let her, standing a few paces away to make sure she didn’t hurt herself. When she finished, I took her to the bedroom and tucked her in, something she had never done for me, the act being too American for her to understand, even on those nights when I had asked for it, explaining to her how Ellie’s parents read her books before sleep. On those nights my mother just tapped my Bible, ragged and worn on my nightstand. “You know how to read.”
I went back downstairs and started to rewash the dishes. There were little bits of hardened food fused to each plate, and I scrubbed so hard the palms of my hands started to hurt. Since retrieving my mother, I had been feeling an overwhelming guilt for having left her in a retirement home at all, even though she had insisted that after leaving Ghana she would never move again. California, she said, though not separated from Alabama by an ocean, was simply too far.
After I had finished the dishes, I went to the couch to read from some of Hopkins’s letters and soon found the one I was looking for, one he had written to his mother in the spring of 1877 to tell her about “God’s Grandeur” and “The Starlight Night.” He wrote:
I think I must send you two sonnets I wrote in a freak the other day; they will
make a little gift. They are not so very queer, but have a few metrical effects,
mostly after Milton…. These rhythms are not commonly understood but do
what nothing else can in their contexts.
My junior year of college I had taken a class on Wordsworth and Hopkins where we had worried the lines of this letter for an entire day’s lecture.
My classmates had all given me strange looks, and I felt as though I could read in those looks an indictment. The Alabama mute, a Bible thumper, a Jesus freak.
“He’s so obviously gay,” a girl named Anne had said. She had cascading red curls that formed a curtain over her face. She would shake the red curtain from time to time to reveal the most piercing green eyes I had ever seen.
“What makes it obvious?” our professor asked.
“‘Queer?’” Anne said. “‘Not commonly understood?’ I mean, I know it’s not the same as it is today, but it’s just so euphemistic. He wants to come out to his mother, who we know he’s super close to, but he’s so repressed that all he can talk about is his work, how he’s experimenting with rhythm. And why is he experimenting with rhythm? Because he can’t experiment with the things that he really wants to. With love. He accepts a love of language and of God as a substitute for a real-life love.”
“A love of God is a real-life love,” I said. I don’t know why I said it. I was so shy that I never spoke in class. When my papers came back to me, the As, written in urgent red, would always be accompanied by a plea for me to contribute to discussion. My classmates all gave me strange looks, and I felt as though I could read in those looks an indictment. The Alabama mute, a Bible thumper, a Jesus freak.
I spent the rest of that week locked in my dorm room with Hopkins’s poetry. I didn’t know if I believed what I had said in class, but when I read Hopkins I felt so strongly that he believed it. Here was a delight in language that I would never be able to feel, except through him. Each sibilant “s,” each river-rounded “r,” announced itself as a jubilation. Hopkins had found a way to rejoice in God when I no longer could. His God came from a world my mother would have deemed too stuffy, but reading his poetry helped me understand what I had felt as a child, that warmth that traveled the ear and arrived at the heart.
I skipped the next lecture and the one after that. The day before the third class, Anne knocked on my door.
“I wanted to say that I’m sorry if I offended you.” She wore a long, thin black dress that floated around her ankles. She ran her fingers through her hair, and for a moment I saw her face.
“You didn’t offend me. Maybe I offended you.”
“It’s just that… I still think you’re wrong.” She was inside my room before I could register her movement. She leaned against my bed. “I mean, he wrote that letter to his mother because he wanted to tell her something.”
“That he had written two new poems.”
She shook her head. “God isn’t enough, I’m sorry.”
“He is for some people,” I said. “He is for my mother.” I must have whispered this last part because Anne asked me to repeat myself, and I said it again, louder, more confidently, like I believed it.
Anne moved off the bed, the dress trailing behind her. She came so close to me that I felt I was breathing in her breath. “What about you?” she asked. “Could you stand to live with nothing but a bunch of books? Could you stand not being touched?”
The next morning, I was up before my mother. I had fallen asleep on the couch, the book of letters resting on my stomach. I got up and brushed my teeth. I made pancakes and coffee and waited for my mother to come down.
When she did, I fixed her a plate and watched her rub the sleep out of her eyes. She smiled at me. “You look nice today, Gifty.”
I looked down and laughed. She used to notice if my skirt was unironed. I was still wearing yesterday’s dress.
“Let’s get out of the house, Mama. Would you like that? Would you like to go out today?”
She stared suspiciously at the pancakes before taking a bite. She nodded.
We went to Bedwell Bayfront Park. It was a nice day, with a gentle wind to keep us cool while we walked. Soon, my mother started to slow down, and I knew she was tired even though she wouldn’t say it when I asked. We sat on the first bench we saw.
I pulled out a bag of grapes and handed some to her, and she started to eat them. A bird landed a few paces in front of us and my mother threw a grape to it. The bird poked at the grape with its beak, but didn’t eat. Instead, it flew away against the wind.
My mother shrugged. She had never particularly liked animals, but when she moved into Cherry Grove, she’d said she wanted a dog. I helped her pick one out, a Chow/Westie mix, an ugly, small dog that could live comfortably in her small apartment. When I’d asked her why she wanted to name it Peace, she’d said it was because she wanted to have peace in her home. I wondered now if some small seed of dementia had set in, even then. If she had gotten peace only to disrupt it.
I started fishing through my bag. It had occurred to me the night before that instead of trying to stop my mother from writing, I should encourage her to do it constructively. I found a notepad and pen and handed them to her. “Mama,” I said. “Would you like to write something today?”
I had chosen Oxford because it made the most sense. I could walk the grounds Hopkins had walked, visit the places he had loved.
She took the paper and pen from me and looked ahead of her. In the distance the Bay stretched and wound, wrapped itself around boggy land. She started to write slowly, so slowly, and I had to fight the urge to look over her shoulder and read.
She used to write me letters in graduate school. I had chosen Oxford because it made the most sense. I could walk the grounds Hopkins had walked, visit the places he had loved. But, it was the furthest away I had ever been from my mother, and I missed her more than I could admit to her. I spent so much of my time at Oxford thinking about how my mother had done such an impossible thing, moving continents with a young child in tow. She had never complained. She had learned to live far away from home, and so I tried to do the same.
Her letters to me were always short and filled with questions. “Have you been eating? Have you found a church? Have you met anyone?”
“You and your mother have such a strange relationship,” Anne would say to me often. We were living with four other people in a little blue house on High Street because it was all we could afford. She was finishing up her MPhil when I started applying to schools, and as much as I had wanted to be at Oxford for Hopkins, I knew I wanted to be there for her, too.
“It’s not strange.”
“You talk all the time, but she doesn’t know anything about you,” Anne said. She had cut her hair into a chin-length bob that gave her a very severe look. The haircut made her sound mean even when she wasn’t trying to be.
I couldn’t explain our closeness to Anne. How I had spent every single day for eighteen years with no one but my mother, how she was so firmly inside me that I couldn’t shake her out even if I wanted to. How I didn’t want to. Anne thought that because I no longer believed in God, I must have no longer believed in my mother. When I told her about the time we’d spent all day praying, Anne had called it abuse. She had two parents and a brother, all doctors. She felt her desire to study English was some kind of subversive act, even though she would end up just like them, a doctor, but different.
In my letters to my mother I would tell her all about what I was studying. I would include whole paragraphs from the papers I was writing, and sometimes, I would send her Hopkins poems.
“It is good for you to study a man of God. I like the poem about the fish,” she would write back, and I would want to correct her, tell her that a kingfisher was a bird, but I knew it wouldn’t make a difference.
“You never talk about personal stuff. Does she even know you live with me?” Anne asked, and I ignored her. “You know Hopkins kept secrets, and it killed him,” she said, directing her sharp gaze toward me.
“She knows me, Anne,” I’d said, setting my book down. “And Hopkins would have died either way. Everyone does.”
Above the Bay, a bird flew by, its wings elegantly spread as it called out to us or to something else. My mother was nearing the bottom of the notepad. She stopped writing and looked up at me. “Let’s go home now, Gifty,” she said. I helped her stand, and we slowly made our way back to where I had parked the car. When I got her into the passenger seat, she was still tightly clutching the notepad. She lowered it to her lap, and I finally let my eyes roam the page. I couldn’t make out most of the Twi words, but part of the way down the gibberish turned clear, “the world…lit on fire.”
When I first started teaching at Stanford I was thirty-five and single. Colleagues of mine would invite me out to dinner parties and birthday drinks. I took more trips to Napa than I could keep track of. A gorgeous dreadlocked sociology professor named Raymond had pursued me, hopelessly, for four months. I’d slept with him one night in the third month, crying the entire time. “What?” he asked. “What am I doing wrong?”
I had phoned my mother while I watched his car drive away for what ended up being the last time. “There’s something wrong with me,” I said.
I could hear her shuffling around her garden on the other end of the line. She had just moved into Cherry Grove Homes after suffering a small stroke. “You miss that woman,” my mother said softly.
“Anne?” I asked, and my whole body ached at the mention of her name. So ubiquitous in America that a trip to Starbucks or the post office or a walk around a park could leave me knock-kneed and collapsing, gasping for breath. Anne, loosen the kite strings. Anne, your drink is ready. Anne. Anne. Anne?
We had broken up only a year before, but I could count the number of times my mother and I had talked about her on one hand.
I wondered what else of hers didn’t belong to me, what parts of me she would never see.
“You are sad, but it will pass,” my mother said in Twi. “The first few years are very hard, but then time softens the pain.” She paused and I could hear the sound of water hitting earth, the dull thud of a dropped hose. “Your father would be seventy years old now. I would have been with him for forty years.”
I stayed on the line, but I didn’t speak. By that point, my father took up almost no space in my mind, but I realized then that my mother had been able to carry something of him with her. Her private world, where she counted the years with him, was it enough for her? I wondered what else of hers didn’t belong to me, what parts of me she would never see.
My mother seemed better the rest of that week. The nurse said she enjoyed writing in the notepad during the day and had filled almost half of it. She didn’t talk about the Future Testament as much anymore, content, it seemed, to write it instead.
I spent more and more of my time reading Hopkins. I told myself it was because I wanted to be fresh for my class, but really it was because my mother’s presence had sparked something in me and Hopkins had always been a way for me to understand her. I used to have a hard time justifying to others why I wanted to study him at all. Wasn’t I better suited to African literature, to works by women, anything else, really? In classrooms at Oxford, I had often felt like the lone delegate from some tiny country, hopelessly aware of the fact that I was the only person who looked like me.
When I finished graduate school and started teaching, I realized that my scholarship came from kinship. Scholars don’t call their obsessions love, but what else could they be? I loved Hopkins. I spent hours thinking about him, about what he would have been thinking when he wrote this or that line, started this or that stanza.
Every time I put my mother to bed that week, I quelled a little bit of my worry. Her doctor’s appointment was finally coming up, and I hoped for good news or, at the very least, suggestions. I planned to take the notepad to the doctor, ask if he knew what to make of any of it, but I wasn’t sure he would. I was the one who had been trained to find meaning in words, yet, for now, all I could see when I read my mother’s script was a confused and sick old woman. I took up my spot on the couch and opened another book of Hopkins’s letters.
Before he died, Hopkins had been very ill. Unlike my mother, his illness had shown itself on his body. He wrote to his friends and family about sores and fevers, horrible diarrhea. Some scholars said he was depressed, others that he was bipolar. I had never come around to trying to diagnose him. It didn’t much matter what he was. It didn’t change what his poems meant to me.
I fell asleep with his book on the tips of my fingers again, but soon woke up to the shrill beeping of an alarm. I raced upstairs, and at first, I couldn’t see her. On the desk, smoke rose from the notepad. It roamed the room so that I had to cover my mouth to move in. I lifted a blanket from off the bed and started to beat out the small fire, save what I could of the notepad. When I had gotten it all, I finally found my mother kneeling on the ground.
“Did you fall?” I asked. I was practically screaming the words as I tried to lift her up, but she was too heavy for me.
“Awurade gye me. Awurade gye me. Awurade gye me.”
She kept chanting it. Lord take me. Lord take me. Lord take me. She told me once that her own grandmother had said this phrase every time she stood up from the ground, the effort of getting all of her limbs to work in unison being so great that it required divine intervention. But, hearing my mother say it now, I sensed a greater urgency. It was a plea, a prayer.
I started to cry. I hooked my arms under her armpits and tried again to lift, but I couldn’t, and so I crumpled down on the floor beside her and held her in my arms as though she were my child.
She stopped chanting and, suddenly, it was like she noticed me there. “Don’t cry, Gifty. The floor doesn’t deserve your tears,” she said in Twi.
“You can’t die,” I said to her now. “I’m all alone here. You’re it for me, Mama. You’re it.”
Her breathing was shallow. I could feel her back press into me as her lungs worked to fill. In then out. In then out.
“We are never alone,” she said, and I started crying even harder. My forty-first birthday was in two months. I had written three books, countless papers. I was the smart, respectable woman my mother had raised me to be, and yet she still had the power to reduce me to my smallest self, to turn me into the confused and frightened child who had gripped her hand as we stepped off the plane from one country, into the next. “God is in everything,” she said. “He is in everything.”
She stopped speaking and finally gathered her breath into a deep and even rhythm, and I clutched her so tightly my knuckles started to hurt. I couldn’t tell her that God was little reassurance to me. I couldn’t argue with her, not now. For as long as I could remember my mother had been the crazy one, the zealot. So, tonight, she was a disciple. Tonight, we weren’t alone. Tomorrow the sun would come up. The birds would start chirping. And what else was there to do but wait for it to all flame out, like shining from shook foil?
Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama. She is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she held a Dean’s Graduate Research Fellowship. Her short stories have appeared in African American Review and Callaloo. Her debut novel, Homegoing, is forthcoming from Knopf in 2016.
Ranee Henderson (feature image) received her BFA from Art Center College of Design. She has built up a diverse body of work in painting, photography, drawing, and ceramics. Her art has been exhibited in Canada and the United States.