Two coins. Gold glints from each of Toni Morrison’s eyelids. One nugget. A small treasure rests inside the cave of her mouth. Gray gleams. Evidence of a metal-lid tin of Royal Crown Hair Dressing. In the dark, her locks shine like stars ordered in single-file lines. August of 2019, the summer Morrison passed, I made a different type of transition. My partner and I drove midway across the country in his silver Toyota Camry. We left the Midwest, with the spirit of Morrison flying down the highway alongside us. Her presence could be heard in the breeze, its whistle cutting through the Nebraska corn fields. The boat trailed braids of water as Morrison was guided across the River Styx. As she crossed over, I let go of the muddy Mississippi, bid farewell to Lake Michigan. I exchanged the murky brown and icy blue of those currents for purple mountain majesty. I departed from the vibrant South Side of Chicago to live as far West as I ever had before.
My partner, Nate Marshall, and I were relocating to the same state as another Nate Marshall, although they bore no relation. In fact, the Colorado Nate Marshall couldn’t have been more different. Years prior, DNA Info ran an article titled “Chicago’s Nate Marshall Finds His Namesake and All That Divides Them.” My Black Nate and this white Nate would learn of each other via a scuffle on Twitter where white Nate accused Black Nate of being a Black supremacist. In March 2014, The Denver Post ran an article titled “GOP candidate with ties to white supremacy group dropping out of race.” There was a picture of Nate Marshall, a white man with brown eyes, grey beard, and baseball cap. I pictured my Black Nate behind the wheel of his four-door sedan, with his dark chocolate eyes, full beard, a black White Sox fitted above his tortoiseshell eyeglasses. The news report ended with a statement from the Rocky Mountain Antifascists, a group who track neo- Nazi and white supremacist activity, noting that Marshall had formed an online political organization called The Aryan Storm and was actively recruiting members.
I am writing to you from the white porch of a royal blue house in Colorado. The Gullah of Georgia and South Carolina started the tradition of painting one’s porch ceiling a shade called “haint blue.” This ritual was done to ward off “haints” or evil spirits who might want to harm the house or the family of folks inside. Rich blue paint frames the flimsy, sun-stained curtains; from the window of our home, my partner and I can see it—“America’s mountain”—Pikes Peak. But before we can talk of mountains, I must first speak of water.
I gave up my daily bus commute in Chicago, along the shoreline of Lake Michigan, to walk to the campus of Colorado College on foot; Koko Taylor’s “Voodoo Woman” blasting through my headphones. I surrendered all those beloved Black bodies, packed like sardines on the J14 Jeffery Jump. Before and after work, we would bob down Lake Shore Drive, frothy waves just outside the bus window. Dear reader, I don’t know that I would ever trade a view of water for mountains again.
A year after relocating to Colorado Springs, I could not have predicted that the world would be facing a global health crisis. More predictable were the protest songs that would bloom across the country in response to continued police brutality. I could not have known I would intimately learn words like pandemic, quarantine, and shelter-in-place as two viruses spread with ferocity. One, Covid-19, which traveled through the air via droplets. The other, unnatural Black death, which came to a head in the murder of George Floyd. Amidst disproportionate brown and Black death rates at the hands of an airborne virus, a white police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for approximately nine minutes. The angle: a white-capped mountain looming above a shadowed valley. In a 1993 PBS interview, Morrison states in response to racism: “. . . if you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is that white people have a very, very serious problem and they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.” A native of the heartland of America, I have not gone a single day without my organs being exposed to the insidious virus of white supremacy. I have not gone more than twenty-four hours without fiddling with the lock that cages me in my own Black body. If you can, reader, find a way to “take me out of it.”
In his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Langston Hughes posits that there is a “mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America.” He defines the mountain as: “this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.” As a writer geographically located in the Southwest, I was provided with a new context to confront this negative inverse relationship between being Black and American. In the mountains of Colorado, I was faced with a natural landscape that mimicked the fraught terrain of artistic production. In June Jordan’s “The Mountain and the Man Who Was Not God: An Essay on the Life and Ideas of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” she states, “Anytime you decide to take on a mountain you just better take good care.” It is the echo of Jordan’s phrasing “take good care” that ricochets through my blood, continuously ringing in my mouth and ears.
Boasting “300 days of sunshine,” Colorado is known as one of the sunniest places in America. Having moved to Colorado Springs from the Windy City of Chicago, you can imagine the allure this location held for me. However, I try to subscribe to the poet Terrance Hayes’s line: “Never mistake what it is for what it looks like.” As a Black queer woman, I am wary of America’s claims of illumination. I have witnessed ghastly imaginings violently taking shape at the expense of darkness; but only things kept in the dark know the true weight of light. As Nikola Tesla professed, “If your hate could be turned into electricity, it would light up the whole world.” I have seen the dark underbelly of white’s blinding glare. From the depths of a basement lit with 1,369 filament bulbs, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man asserts, “The truth is the light and the light is the truth.” Growing up, telling a story and telling a lie were synonymous. In many Black households, the two words are interchangeable. I seek now to tell you a story. Within this story are only truths—bright as the magic of fire.
Cold is a trickster. When I was a child, adults’ warnings forecasted that if we weren’t careful about how we dressed, a cold was something we would surely catch. I learned early on, with my zipper biting my chin, that if you weren’t cautious about what you wore and how you wore it; if you weren’t intentional in your layering, thoughtful about how your body would be read once outside, then the cold would have its way with you. The cold would make its home inside your chest.
After sundown, the temperature drops precipitously in Colorado Springs. Too hurried to button my winter coat, I breezed through the brisk December night air of the grocery store parking lot. Once inside, the chill was mirrored by rows of heavily refrigerated aisles. I rushed through the store collecting various items, stopping in the dairy aisle last. I reached for the final thing I needed—PHILADELPHIA whipped cream cheese. Suddenly, a white man donned in a cowboy hat appeared at my side. Beneath his hat were pointed eyes. His chest hairs stood at attention, peeking out from a blue plaid shirt with milky-colored snaps. His denim Levi’s were not nearly as worn as his brown boots.
“Did you make that dress?” he asked, as I placed the silver tub beside the plastic sleeve of cinnamon raisin bagels in my shopping basket. Under my black coat, I was wearing a long burgundy dress with a border of embroidered turquoise flowers.
“No,” I replied, “I didn’t.”
“Where did you get it?” he shot back.
“I bought it.” I said.
“From where?” he returned.
“I bought it in Chicago,” I replied, “from a store called Free People.”
Before me was a man in seemingly authentic Western garb. There I was in a bohemian clothing brand, its company headquarters located in Philadelphia. As a Black woman, it felt strange to utter the name “Free People,” a chain that sells apparel alongside its sister company Anthropologie under the umbrella of Urban Outfitters, Inc. Here, in Colorado, the made-in-India dress took on a new life, a different meaning in the register of the ever-present white male gaze.
“Are you Native American?” the man inquired.
“No, I’m not.”
“What is your ethnicity?” he asked.
“I’m Black,” I responded, “I’m African American.”
“No, you’re not. You’re Native American! I can tell you are definitely Native American.”
I shifted the basket of breakfast items against my hip, unsure of how to respond to his racial proclamation. I had strategically picked the nearest grocery store and planned to run in and out. Now, frozen in time, I stood face-to-face with a white man in a neighborhood Safeway as sticks of string cheese and strawberry yogurts looked on. I mentally let out an exasperated sigh as the man reached into his jean jacket pocket. He pulled out a business card and handed it to me. “I do energy work,” he said, presenting me with an ombré rainbow business card, its colors swirling from deep pink to blue-green to yellow-orange. At the top of the card was a small image of an eagle in flight, beneath the bird was the phrase “Gifted Cowboy” in cursive script. The card advertised a “Reading of Voice & Eyes” and touted “Energy Work Since 1981.” The name “Gerald D. Ochs” was listed as a “Radio & TV Personality.” The back of the card detailed Gerald’s ability to work with both people and animals and his price of twenty dollars per fifteen minutes. Murmuring “thank you,” I slipped the card into my coat pocket and walked past the man to the checkout lanes.
Earlier, one of the students in my Advanced Poetry Workshop course asked if we could have breakfast on our last day of class. I had quickly driven in the biting cold to buy a few things for the next morning. While swiping my items in self-checkout, I thought of the fact that the student who made the request, CooXooEii, was half-Black, half-Arapaho, and was raised by his mother on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. A talented aspiring poet, his quiet and kind demeanor was harbored in a 6’7” frame. He was a forward on the Colorado College basketball team who I had the pleasure of watching dunk on opponents. I slid him the work of former college basketball players turned poets such as Natalie Diaz and Terrance Hayes. In his MFA application materials and in his very personhood, he embodied one of the lines he cherished from Joy Harjo’s poem “A Postcolonial Time”: “I believe the word poet is synonymous with truth-teller.”
CooXooEii loved the work of Hanif Abdurraqib, particularly his poetry collection, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much. In my class titled: “‘This is the Remix’: Sampling as Subversion in Contemporary Poetics,” Hanif ’s latest book A Fortune for Your Disaster was last on our syllabus. The book contains a sequence titled “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This,” named after a comment Hanif overheard a white woman utter at a Black poet’s reading, shortly after Donald Trump’s election. We spent the final days of the course watching the 2006 psychological thriller The Prestige, which Hanif draws from for the structure of his book. As described in the film, Hanif uses the three parts of a magic trick as the collection’s organizing principle. These three parts are explained in The Prestige as follows: the pledge—where a magician shows a participant something that appears normal; the turn—where the ordinary thing becomes extraordinary; and the prestige—where the ordinary thing returns to its normal state, with the new understanding that it could easily become something else. Had my Blackness entered into a metamorphosis since moving to Colorado Springs? Was I a magic trick’s “turn”? Was my body now presenting as something else entirely? Was I intimately discovering what a 2017 Huffington Post article concluded—that Colorado is the “Most Magical State in America”?
The Prestige details rival stage magicians in late nineteenth century London and coincidently highlights Colorado Springs, where one of the magicians travels to meet with the scientist Nikola Tesla. When Tesla, played by David Bowie, appeared on screen, beneath a carved wooden sign marking Colorado Springs, my poetry students’ eyes lit up. Never imagining that I would one day live in Colorado Springs, my interest in Tesla had been sparked summers before in Vermont. Accepted into the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference as a participant in the genre of poetry, I rebelliously chose to attend all of the fiction craft talks. One such talk was led by author Samantha Hunt, whose publications include a book about Tesla titled The Invention of Everything Else. I was enthralled with how Hunt, her long blonde hair dangling at her side, wove truth from the holes of a story. In a Middlebury College classroom, the likes of a large white barn, she recounted to us how she had been invited to the house and laboratory of a man who had an interest in reproducing Tesla’s work; most recently, Tesla’s ideas about healing the body with electricity. Hunt told us how when her children were still babies she had driven to this “mad scientist’s house” accented with sleet and old snow. Once there, she undressed and descended into a basement where she intentionally exposed herself to 200,000-300,000 volts of electricity. She told us, as she recounts in “Queer Theorem,” the volts did not kill her. Surrounded by the staggering beauty of endless fields of goldenrods, I was left with more questions than answers: When had I been closest to death? Beckoned a near-death experience? How many times had I played with fire? Almost died?
In the fall of 2019, I gave a poetry reading as part of the Colorado College Visiting Writers Series. Forty-four years before, one of my idols, the poet Robert Hayden, had read on a Friday night at Colorado College, with plans to meet with an admiring Yusef Komunyakaa the next day. Saturday afternoon, they visited Garden of the Gods, an area of sandstone formations in Colorado Springs. I would take everyone that came to visit me, from family to friends, to Garden of the Gods. In exchange for the Chicago Bean this was our go-to tourist attraction—the most visited site in the Pikes Peak region. In his essay “Journey into ‘[American Journal]’”, Komunyakaa recounts Michael S. Harper gifting him with a copy of Hayden’s American Journal years after their visit to Garden of the Gods. He states that he was surprised by the title poem and how its contents rekindled “sensation and images” of their Colorado afternoon together. Rather than write a realistic narrative to describe the rock formations, Hayden instead chose to take on a futurist fantasy. Commenting on the speaker of the poem, Komunyakaa states: “It seems as if the narrator is on a spiritual quest, that this voyage into the brutal frontier of the American experience is a confrontation with his own alienation.”
In addition to Hayden’s title poem “American Journal,” his poem the “Tattooed Man” contains some of my most favorite lines; one of which is: “All art is pain suffered and outlived.” While dating, I learned that one of Nate’s favorite movies is The Five Heartbeats, a film he watches multiple times per year. A fun fact we share is that my cousin (maternal grandmother’s sister’s son), John Canada Terrell, plays the character Michael “Flash” Turner. In the film, one of the Five Heartbeats states to an audience upon receiving an award: “I was at a party once and a critic said, ‘Donald Matthews will be a great writer when he suffers more.’ And I thought to myself, what does that mean—suffers more?” This scene of the movie has always resonated with me, this notion that I, too, would be a better writer when I suffered more. For better or worse, I developed a belief that any potential pain, trauma, or suffering would only function to contribute to my becoming a stronger writer.
Bottles of Martinelli’s sparkling cider clinked together in the back seat of my Chevy as I drove home. I sifted through the man in the grocery store’s exchange with me, trying to put my finger on what I found to be the most troubling. What I found highly disturbing was his level of certainty, his insistence on assigning my race to me in spite of what I told him and what I furthermore know to be true. I could have more easily just agreed with his assertion. The initial fear at his approach I had confined to my right hand as it clutched the bagel spread. As a Black woman, I have been trained to mentally calculate and evaluate the levels of threat surrounding me at all times. I have learned to fear both the limits and limitlessness of the white imagination. I have practiced how to quickly make mental jumps to anticipate potential danger and preemptively deescalate a situation. I have learned how to play dead, play “stupid,” play submissive, feign ignorance, all in the name of avoiding a 911 call, evading being deemed a challenge to authority, or a threat to the delicate racial power balance. A tinge of guilt flavored with shame sat on my tongue. The shame at not knowing whether his viewing me as Native American would be perceived as positive or negative, as friend or foe. In the uniquely constructed racial hierarchy of the United States, and now as a resident of the Southwest, was it more “safe” to be read as Native American than Black? Beside the shame was a hint of sadness. A knowledge that Black or African American was a somewhat vast, fluid, and ambiguous descriptor.
Growing up in St. Louis, I often found the complexity of race’s mythology reduced to Black and white. In many ways, from pop culture to lived experience, the farther away from Blackness you could visually demonstrate or the more diluted the Blackness, the better. Being anything but Black or to have Blackness watered down to any degree, was a mark of beauty and affluence. Long hair or wavy tresses were ideal. Lighter skin, hazel eyes, and narrow noses were prized. Of course, there were a few exceptions, full lips and tan skin being examples of the features that the white students in my all-girls high school desired. As a kid, it appeared a special bonus to be biracial, to be able to assign your caramel skin to a white mother or your long hair to a Cherokee grandmother.
After undergrad, I would begin to travel the world, where the complexities of race would continue to unfold. While riding the train in Barcelona, a man nearby tries to speak to me in French and then Spanish, before he asks me if I am from Brazil. He never tries English. Because of my skin color I couldn’t possibly be American. In downtown Chicago, while waiting to grab a to-go lunch order, the brown bag is paired with the question, “Are you mixed?” or “Your hair is so beautiful, what are you?” While waiting in line at Chipotle, a Nigerian woman tells me my hair is a “blessing from God.” When I lived in DC, I would sometimes be greeted in Amharic; in certain neighborhoods, I could pass for Ethiopian or Eritrean. In Brooklyn, when I visit my sister, I pass as Dominican.
As a professionally trained librarian, I am intrigued by the mythologies we both inherit and personally build in order to shape our identities. As fellow poet- librarian Audre Lorde proposes in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (a work of “Biomythography”), we are woven from myths, dreams, and multilayered histories. I am continuously fascinated by the ways we choose to curate who we are for the external world. During one of the many days of Covid-related shelter-in-place orders, I learned of the passing of writer Herman “H.G.” Carrillo. On May 22, 2020, The Washington Post ran an article titled “Novelist H.G. Carrillo, who explored themes of cultural alienation, dies after developing Covid-19.” More complicated and perhaps heartbreaking is the “Editor’s note” that ran a day later, stating: “After initial publication of this article on May 22, The Washington Post learned that key elements of H.G. Carrillo’s biography had been fabricated over many years, by Carrillo himself.” Carrillo’s sister and niece had contacted the newspaper to correct the record and share that their family had not in fact fled Fidel Castro’s island in 1967. Carrillo was born in Detroit to parents who were native Michiganders, and no one in their family is Latino.
In the midst of Carrillo’s husband’s grief, he learned that his spouse’s true name was Herman Glenn Carroll and that he was not the childhood Cuban immigrant he claimed to be. His husband, Dennis VanEngelsdorp, states for the article, “It was a story he told me . . . I mean, he was a storyteller.” He goes on to say that he has “come to peace” with these posthumous discoveries, observing that “in any other century, there were storytellers, like jesters, and in African culture, and in First Nations cultures, and when they told stories, people never expected the truth to be the reality . . .” The article ends with VanEngelsdorp, a professor of entomology, strolling through the garden of roses, peonies, milkweed, and goldenrod he shared with his late husband, remarking, “We have over 70 species of bees on the property . . . There are indeed flowers every day of the year . . . I’ve seen 12 species of butterflies.”
As a librarian, I take research very seriously. Using newspaper archives, I looked up “Gerald D. Ochs” across multiple local outlets. In December 2008, he was featured in The Gazette in a profile piece titled, “Area psychics share visions for America.” In an effort not to be irresponsible or negligent, I collected a slim file of documentation on Ochs before scheduling an appointment with him. From between a rock and a hard place, from the sentiment of damned if you do and damned if you don’t, I found Gerald’s rainbow business card and gave him a call. We nailed down a date and time and Gerald told me that he appreciated I was from Missouri, that kind people come from Missouri, unlike his home state of Iowa. I was instructed to bring pictures of Nate and my mother to our appointment. “Good Lord ride with you,” he said, before I hung up.
It was spring when I would again put on my Free People dress, this time to drive to the house of a psychic. On May 19, 2020, I went to meet with Gerald. I imagined I was an anthropologist, an understudy. Just as Zora Neale Hurston traveled to Plateau, Alabama to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis, I drove less than ten minutes to Gerald’s home to have him explain my past, present, and future. A pale-yellow Thunderbird sat perched in front of the Taylor Apartments. Gerald had given me directions to go to the second floor of the complex and knock on door number seven. In the midst of a raging pandemic, with Black and brown folks being killed at disproportionate rates, I performed “Black Indian” so Gerald could play “Gifted Cowboy.” In lieu of horses, the center courtyard of the apartments was filled with plastic deer.
Immediately inside Gerald’s apartment was a desk loaded with at least a dozen carabiners and an assortment of what appeared to be hundreds of keys. I was offered a seat at his kitchen table, a dish of brownies and a bushel of tomatoes oddly paired on the stovetop behind me. Gerald pulled out a white binder with sheets of loose leaf paper and asked if I had brought photographs as directed. I pushed my cloth face mask deeper into my bag as I pulled out three photographs of my mother. Gerald was drawn towards one of the pictures of my mother on a recent trip to Colorado to visit me. In the picture, she holds a hawk on her hand covered with a falconer’s glove.
“See the face right there?” Gerald asked, pointing to the trees behind my mother and the hawk.
“No, I don’t see it.”
“There’s a face. There’s a face. There’s a face. There’s another face,” Gerald exclaimed, pointing to different areas of the trees and sky. “This thing is loaded down with faces. Some of these are protective spirits. There’s another face in the bird.” he said, pointing to the feathers on the hawk’s chest. “See the two eyes and the nose?”
“Yes.” I lied.
“Is she married, single, or divorced?”
“She’s divorced and single.” I responded.
“She intimidates both men and women. She’s too damn strong and somewhat stubborn and overly demanding. Are you married or single?”
“I’m single,” I lied, given the two options.
“Are you dating anybody?”
“Is she looking for anybody, your mom?”
“I think so.”
“Ok, now, are all these three pictures of her?” he asked, tracing his finger across each photo.
“Oh, that’s very interesting, because your mother is what we call a ‘changeling,’ what Native Americans call ‘shapeshifters.’ Each one of these pictures is different. In this one, she looks like a much older person. See how low her forehead is? See how high it is in this photo? Here, it is lower. She changes the form of her body. Her breasts can be bigger or smaller. Her arms can be longer or shorter. Once she makes her mind up, it’s made up. You aren’t anything like her. I’ll tell you that! You have an ability to see and know things, but as far as changing in forms I don’t see you doing that. I would almost bet you that in one of her lives she was a man. When she gets mad she is kicking out more male energy than female. Nobody wants to mess with her.”
Shifting from the specificity of reading my mother’s eyes, Gerald went on to give me more “universal information.” Leaning forward in his chair, he continued: “What I am going to tell you, this affects everybody on the planet. There’s two things. One is, we are going to die—that’s a given. The second one is, your path—whatever is on your path is on your path. You will not die until your path is completed, unless you have a death experience and that changes everything. After I had my death experience in ’84, I wasn’t even close to being the same person.”
“So, the death experience was positive?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah. You don’t have no fear of anything. You know when you’re in a situation that’s not the best situation to be in, but there’s not a fear, it just tells you ‘wake up.’ My death experience happened when I was in the sleeper of my semi-truck.”
“Does everyone have a death experience?” I asked.
“No, there are very few people that have death experiences and I don’t know why. Everybody that I’ve had the privilege of talking to that has had a death experience, none of them have had the same experience. Everybody pretty much sees the bright light though. You can look at it for maybe two seconds. It is so intense, it’s too bright. It gives you an opportunity to appreciate life. We have to remember everything on this planet is pre-set up.”
As Gerald swiveled his chair towards me, I peered at his two large earth stone rings. He looked closely at me, stating: “You have an extremely old mind. Where you have to be careful is you are just like me, you are a caretaker. I got a feeling. Is your mom still alive?” Gerald asked.
“Yes.” I said. “I brought recent pictures of her.”
“Well I’m trying to figure out why it seems like somebody kind of pushed you in my direction.”
“As I told you on the phone, I was intrigued by the bird of prey on your business card,” I said.
“I once experienced being a female eagle from the waist up and a human from the waist down,” Gerald responded, gesturing to the lower and upper halves of his body. “I actually flew; and when this happened it was at night in Wyoming with a storm blowing, but what I experienced was sunshine and heat. I could see for miles. The wingspread was ungodly, unreal. A Native American touched my head and I had the death experience. He told me, ‘No white man should have these abilities,’ but it was because I have an open mind, no fear factor, and I was in the right place at the right time. I don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs.”
Pointing towards the floor, Gerald transitioned to the story of an energy reading he had done for a woman’s pet cat. “I know a woman that has got this cat and I told her when I met the cat, ‘that’s not a cat.’ His eyes were way too big for a cat and that cat looked at me like, ‘Well, you weren’t supposed to figure that out.’” I wondered if this cat was black. Returning to Gerald’s kitchen and unsure of what to make of his anecdote about the cat I continued, “And also, when I met you in the grocery store you said that you believed I was Native American.”
“You are.” he replied.
“But being Black I don’t really have . . .” I began. Gerald cut me off, saying, “Your eyes, it comes in, you’ve got Native American in you somewhere, and it may be a carry-over from another life. Oh, yeah, you could pass off for Native American just like boom, boom, boom. But you need to be carrying a Taser or a gun because you’ve got a hell of a high speed of energy.”
“Does that attract bad things?” I asked.
“It attracts males that are on the dark side that want to rape you because they want your energy. They don’t want you. They want your body. They want the energy.’”
“A high energy attracts dark energy?” I asked.
“It attracts anybody and everybody, but the negative will be drawn to you in a heartbeat to get recharged because they’re non-humans. In another life, you very much could have been a medicine woman, and there’s a very good chance you may be one in this life because you are so sensitive, so emotional, and so caring. Now, make damn sure you get you a Taser. Not pepper spray! A Taser or a gun. Because if somebody comes at you, you need something to stop ‘em dead in their tracks. How old are you right now?”
“I’m thirty-two, but my birthday is July third so I will be thirty-three soon.”
Gerald paused to calculate something with the information I had given. He used a blue pen to scribble some figures on a sheet of paper in his binder. “Fourteen and eighteen come in on you really super strong. If you didn’t get raped at fourteen or eighteen you came close and it’s all about your energy. Plus, you have bedroom eyes. And women, I said women and men both will be drawn to you. And you wanna know why?”
“Why?” I responded.
“Because you got the same problem I got. We’re kickin’ both energies out. We’re kickin’ both male and female. Females will be drawn to you as much as the male. But it will be a male-female because you’re the female. Even though they are females, they will play the male part. They will see you as an easy prey, because you are fragile and somewhat naïve.”
I silently nodded my head.
“I hope you’re not offended. I’ve read thousands and thousands and thousands of people. I may never see you again and I have nothing to gain here. It’s just your reading. Do you understand? Do you say prayers at night?”
“Sometimes, not every night.”
“It’s very important you do this and I’m gonna tell you why. Whoever is guiding you, if you don’t ask for anything in your prayers they don’t have a hell of a lot to do. When I say a prayer, I say a prayer to God and ‘my people’ because I know I’m not from this planet I’m from the Plateians.”
“The ‘Pla-te-ians’? How do you spell that?”
“I don’t know how to spell it. I would have to get back to you on that. It’s another planet. But if you want a different job, a different location, if you want to travel, whatever you want, say, ‘give me some help, give me an idea of what direction I need to go.’ It’s a good idea to pray. You are going to probably see yourself as being freer to be your own self. In the spirit realm, time doesn’t exist. It stands still. Just like there are doorways all the way up into Cripple Creek that take you inside the mountain, take you inside the planet that has been there for thousands of years. We’re living on the outer edge and inside the planet is an inner world, and then there’s outer space; they all three connect. You understand?”
“I say the nightly prayers and ask for guidance?”
“Ask to be shown in a dream or another way ‘what is in store for me?’ See, if you don’t pray, like I said, you’re kind of not knowing what the hell to do with yourself. But certain spirits in other dimensions are assigned to help you. Ask for help. Don’t be afraid to ask. Don’t be afraid to pray. What is going on right now is a major war between the good and the bad. The dark side is trying to take this planet over for all the wrong reasons. You understand? You have to be so cautious, especially you, because your field is high, you’re a giver, and caretaker, and you have to learn how to say ‘no’ and mean no because your body is your body.”
With every passing moment in Gerald’s kitchen, my fear and anxiety increased. We stared into each other’s eyes across an avocado and mustard colored retro tablecloth. Neither of us wore face masks as advised by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. I mentioned to Gerald that many people had died as a result of Covid. His response: “The ones that are scared are lost. They will probably never find themselves. Because they’ve been programmed through the computer, through the TV, through their phone. Once you get into fear you are screwed because there is no cure for fear.”
“But a lot of people are scared right now,” I responded.
“After I had my death experience, I’m not afraid of anything,” he explained, with a shrug.
“But you said that a lot of people have not had a death experience,” I reminded him.
“Oh, that’s right. Probably might be one out of a thousand people have had a death experience. When you are in a place where you feel vulnerable say, ‘I need some help’ and ask for the white light to be put around you which is God’s protection. It don’t matter what religion you are. God is God. See a lot of people will say they are religious but they are anything but religious. If you feel that too many people are into the fear factor, try to find a location that you feel comfortable in.”
“Okay,” I responded.
“I don’t wear the mask. I think it’s stupid because a doctor came on a couple days ago and he said these people wearing these masks are going to die before everybody else because they’re not breathing in fresh air. They’re just getting carbon monoxide and that’s all they’re getting and its killing their lungs but they’re programmed to believe they have to wear the mask. It’s all demonic. You understand?”
I nodded. I thought, then, of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” with the opening line: We wear the mask that grins and lies. I thought of the hooded night riders of the KKK, as this barefaced man before me explained how wearing a mask in the middle of a public health crisis was demonic.
“Got any questions?” Gerald asked, but before I could reply he remarked, “well, I gave you an extra fifteen minutes.” I had stayed with Gerald an hour, yet he charged me only forty dollars—his rate for thirty minutes. I placed two twenty dollar bills on his kitchen table as he imparted more insights for free. His last words informed me that there are eighty-seven different life forms on earth. He warned me of reptilian lizards who masquerade as humans. He cautioned that not everyone that looks to be human is human. He informed me that he had recently confirmed these findings while shopping in Walmart, where he struck up a conversation with an eighty-year-old man who had retired from NASA. “Eventually the hologram will stop working,” Gerald said, throwing up his hands, “they have to use human energy and drink human blood to maintain a human appearance.” He went on to explain that, “the lizards have engaged in crossbreeding” and are “responsible for the millions of missing babies” worldwide. He closed by informing me that this information was carefully removed from the Bible.
As advised by Gerald, I began to pray nightly to “God” and “my people.” Like magic, brown bodies began to descend and fill the rooms of our blue house. As though taking a cue from Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly, winged beings began to appear out of thin air. While watching television on Sunday night, a form would flutter across the screen. Then, another would appear, this one headed toward the breast-shaped orb of the ceiling’s light fixture. Another, while eating dinner in the dining room. A shape would flit atop a bookcase only to be joined with two more shadows dancing close by on the wall. In the kitchen, in the bedroom, in the living room, in our home offices, colored figures began to arrive. Acronicta leporina. Miller moths. Nate swats at the moths with great delight. He takes pride in hunting them, until they fall on him, at which point he shrieks in disgust. I like him in this role as protector—annihilator of insect invaders. But these moths could be our reincarnated ancestors, another lifeform that simply refuses to take the shape of a human body. I don’t say these thoughts aloud. I am silent. I sit and watch as they are killed.
I began to look for information on the cultural meaning of moths as omens. I found a 2011 article titled “Insects and Death” in American Entomologist, which illustrates the vast mythology relating insects to the forecasting of death. For example, three species of moths in the genus Acherontia are called “death’s-head hawkmoths” because of dorsal markings which resemble a human skull. Ultimately, I discovered that insects symbolize not only death but also rebirth.
Taken to researching the sudden abundance of Miller moths in Colorado Springs, I learned that their migration is a spring tradition. The moths’ rapid population increase, the result of a lack of moisture across Colorado and states along its eastern border. I visited the May Natural History Museum, located in Colorado Springs’ Rock Creek Park, which contains the world’s largest private insect collection. Once inside the fairly compact museum, I trailed a small boy who every few seconds shouted the word “grasshopper” with exuberant glee. With the repetitive sound of this child’s one-word exclamations, I viewed displays containing only a small fraction of the collection’s over 100,000 specimens. Through iridescent wings of every hue, I learned of the museum founder James May’s worldwide travels and “near death experiences,” collecting specimens through various means such as luring butterflies in Central and South America with a sticky mixture of ingredients including: “beer, fermented fruit, pineapple essence, whiskey . . . and molasses.” The museum placard for the “Agrias Butterflies” explains the function of this mixture, stating: “Naturally (as it would a person), this makes the butterfly drunk and unable to fly so the collector can carefully pick him off the tree trunk.”
My first tattoo, obtained while an undergrad at Howard University, is a butterfly. My lower back exists as a block of amber, my skin preserving the butterfly in permanent ink. Library of Small Catastrophes, my debut poetry collection, contains the poem: “Elephants Born Without Tusks.” In it, I describe the use of peppered moths as a teaching tool for natural selection. Birds unable to see dark moths on soot-covered trees, a byproduct of rising industry, ate lighter colored moths instead. Thus, the darker moths were able to survive. How have my ancestors adapted in an effort to survive? How does the dark keep me safe?
While hiking in Colorado, I want to hear the refrain of Martin Luther King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. On Monday mornings, when my colleagues compare notes, and suggest trails from their weekend adventures, I want to join in, rather than look away, too tired to mention the latest instances of police brutality. The American Dream is to “move on up,” to ascend, to advance, to climb. Instead, what I long for is flat land, rivers, and lakes; for the running water that Sam Cooke sings of in, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Born in the gateway to the West, when I look out at the Colorado mountains, I am presented with a longing to go home. In bed, I repeat, “I want to go home, I want to go home, I want to go home . . .” The trouble is, I’m not sure where home is anymore. Whether near or far from “home,” Black death seems to find me. Still, I would trade the mountain peaks for the fried catfish of Missouri’s Mississippi River. I would exchange the warm sunshine of Colorado Springs for Lake Michigan’s wind, for a view of the foamy waves from the window of the Jeffrey Jump making its way down Lake Shore Drive; the bus filled with Black folks that look like my aunties, uncles, cousins and ‘nem.
Dear reader, if you can hear me, I am afraid to die on this mountain. First thing this morning, cold was there to kiss my feet, my soles gently pressed against the bathroom floor tiles. As the sun shone its face, I found a moth floating in the toilet. There it was; waiting for me. A sign? A magic act? An omen? I do not know who it came in the name of or what it was trying to communicate. I do not know what anything means. I remember its wings, a breaststroke of stillness on the water. On its dark abdomen, a poem about flowers.