Before the leaving, there is the staying, there are the days of in-betweens, sheltered in the arms of our mother’s mothers.
There are the days when the floodwaters creep closer and closer, teasing, a dog lapping its tongue against our worn work boots.
August brings the big storms, days and weeks of long, sideways rains that overflow the town’s riverbeds and streams.
We stand on the porch of our tumbled-down homes, waiting, stranded in the middle of a newly- birthed sea.
The world narrows down to this: the drumbeat of water hitting the tin roof, the rattling of the windows as the winds come hard and frantic. Everywhere, everywhere, the sweet, heavy scent of rain.
In September, we migrate north.
When the leaving comes, there are things we forget to take: the sounds of the night awakening, our words whisking between the cypresses, the crickets and cicadas and bullfrogs sounding off like wild jazz under the moon.
The tenor of days spent on land that is more water than ground, more magic than science. How during late evenings, in the dying light, our breaths crackle like thunder, and our history moves in everything.
We forget the way we once slept in the trees, the live oaks sheltering us with their thick arms. How as children we planted wishes in the soil where the roots were tucked away. How our secrets pulled at our earlobes, teasing us from the edges of a sweaty sleep.
These are the nights made of our forgetting.
When the floodwaters come, we learn how to swim, paddling out with nothing but the clothes we wore on the Friday we left. Our bellies full of cornmeal and milk. We float past each other on the road turned river, and our faces are Carnival masks: socketless eyes and crooked smiles.
These are the things you remember to take with you: your mama’s laughter, the golden-shine of your daydreams, and the dark earth—the color of your skin.
What I remember is this: the winds came earlier that year, catching us as we walked through the overgrown yard, our short legs gone red with the swirl of Delta dust. In the jungle of leaves, we ate at the flesh of melons and apples, while the sun warmed the skin on our backs for hours.
It was a truth that would come to be understood: we were leaving home, we were not going back home. Home would no longer be a place where the leaves would bend to the sound of our names, but somewhere that would come to know our silences.
These were the days we spent looking at ourselves through mirrors. You pretended to smile, I pretended to laugh. But mostly I watched the way our reflections dangled there like a dream, and how your lips moved but no words sounded. This was the look of us leaving. This was the way we learned to part.
Listen, there was a sound that was only a sound in the oldest of stories. And in the oldest stories, there was always the river. There was the way the river ran its banks, and the way the new world flooded into being.
Our migration story was also an origin story.
The oldest story.
What I remember is this: we traveled the highways and the byways, to places where the world was more red than green, more desert than water. We lost our way more than once. We sacrificed something to the miles.
During the nights we conjured familiar stars against the moving blackness of a new canopy sky. Grandmama’s hair was still made from the grey moss from the oldest oak tree, flowing down a back made of red-brown roughened bark. Out here, in the desert lands, there was a toughness to our skin, but all our organs were still soft and water-logged, not made for a river too far from its source.
We’re not homeless, Mama said. She was a whisper in our ear in the dark of a new room, and because of her we were not afraid. At night we squeezed five to a bed in our cousin’s house where everyone lived when there was nowhere else to live. We had nowhere else to live, but it was summer, and we were a mass of sweaty skins pressed together, and somehow we could fall asleep against each other in the empty dark. We were children still, and we were unafraid.
In that new place, we became dark bodies twisting in the wind. Sometimes our mourning painted us in fluorescent hues, reminding us of southern nights, under star blankets, swimming through the humidity of our own breathing. In those moments our world was still so alive, full of the mosquito hum and the cricket call, the sound of dusk dancing at our feet. If we closed our eyes, we were still the children of fishermen and seamen, children of the water folk whose songs dwindled with the passing days.
Listen, there was the long black highway, and the bright foolish moon, and all the ways we became untethered.
We’re eating at a table that reminds us of the color of the muddy banks of the Mississippi. This new house is all white plaster and straight corners, and Mama is cooking dinner in the sharp fluorescent light of the kitchen. It washes her in yellow. We watch her, the way her hands stir the beans in the pot, the way her eyes seem to belong to someone else. She’s not humming a song like the old days. She’s holding back a whimper, she’s moaning out a regret. She’s becoming someone else.
When we eat we will pretend Mama’s food tastes the same. We will run around afterward, sliding our bare feet across bedroom floors that do not stay warm. We will settle into our beds and give prayers to the gods in the sky. Mama will wear her blue night-gown and sway in the kitchen light. She will stir her pot even after it is emptied, and she will whisper our names but not remember why.
There are so many things we’ve lost in the landing.
There is a jar Mama stores our memories in. A thick bottle that used to be for gathering water. I whisper into it some days, the tidbits of color I dream about, the pieces of song the wind carries to me, the words Mama speaks when she does not know I am listening.
Sometimes we go outside to feel the rain. To feel the cool drops that cut like knives as they slide into our flesh. We feel the miles we’ve traveled in our bones, our blood vessels filled with river-silt. We are memorizing our new land, and in the howling dark, we are wielding our teeth like swords.
The secret is:
the water holds
what we cannot.
Some say we were born on a ship in the belly of an ocean where we could not see ourselves. We were born with seal skins and flippered feet, and in the moonglow night, we slipped out of our chains to bury our dead in the darkest waters. We then looked up at the stars of our new world, and we carved maps into our skin so that our children could always know their way back home. In our bellies we carried the names of all those who have lived before us, and on our tongues the sounds of our old languages.
There is no place we will go that will not know of where we’ve been.
There is no place we will go that will not know our songs.
Because the land we come from has fallen into the sea, we are a lesson spoken of in a warning voice, in a warming world, a cautionary tale for a not-so-distant future. We are fables—our stories are scattered into hurricane gales, and our memories are plucked by a tornado spin. We are the children of mercury summers and flooding seasons.
In our new habitats, we are learning to code our words. We are learning to hide ourselves. It feels safer this way, as if we haven’t survived enough, as if we aren’t haunted by the disappeared.
We watch the skies and we wait in case the rains come again. We begin to collect things from each other: pictures, tickets, coins, rocks. We whisper our histories into the crowded corners of the couch cushions, and as a family, one by one, we carve our names into the foundation of a new home.
We are everywhere now, flung across a country that never understood us. We recognize each other in the different ways we move, in the way the sun blisters our undisciplined skins. Our insides are drought-flung, our words are parched.
In this new world, we will be forever thirsty.