Keenan Norris’s novel Brother and the Dancer was published in 2013, winning the James D. Houston Award. He also served as editor for the critical volume Street Lit: Representing the Urban Landscape. His second novel The Confession of Copeland Cane will be published in June 2021.
THE BLESSÈD OF THE EARTH
The young man enters alone and registers himself, voice muffled and catching with anxiety, body rigid with fear, breath coming in short tight bursts. He is six feet tall, one hundred seventy-five pounds, fit-looking, not a tobacco mouth, claims no history of cocaine use and I believe him because he’s too nerdy and terrified to do coke. Takes one nerd to know another, and I have him pegged. It’s all of 8AM and he is in the grip of acute cardiac arrest, by the way.
The new nurse takes his vitals, runs an EKG. Everything looks fine. But he’s certain he’s having a heart attack. He seems on the verge of something explosive. The nurse and I observe him laid out on the stretcher he’s somehow procured and placed himself upon. This is not the ER, by the way, it’s Adult Medicine, and I’m a family physician, not an Emergency Room surgeon. But we’re a private hospital so everything is expensive, which means everything is emergent, even when it doesn’t actually exist. Back when I was in residency I did real E.R. rounds in South Los Angeles and was introduced to the American Fourth World. This is not like that. It’s slow, for one, because I now work in an exurb well outside of Los Angeles and few here have the money for our private facility. I’m surprised this place is still financially solvent, to tell the truth.
The nurse and I have the time and leisure for an extended Q & A with the young man, after which I ascertain that he will benefit more from meditation, maybe some sort of trendy mantra, than from open heart surgery. Definitely no more WebMD self-diagnosis: I ban him from the website for life and declare “If thou be the Christ, arise,” and send him on his way. I have to hurry out to Hollywood.
“You can always go to County, deal with the real thing,” the nurse tells me. He nods at Christ departing.
“No, thank you,” I respond. “I’m good; more than good, in fact.”
Yes, I’m good here, I guess, more or less. Here, at this place of work, I’m a solid, boring family doc, which isn’t a bad thing at all except for the fact that I find myself constantly having to imagine that my patients are more attractive and thought-provoking than they actually are. That they are the kind of women I’d risk my career to sleep with; or bad, crazy, hallucinating artists. That they are not the owners of bachelor’s degrees and sensible two-story homes and Nissans and inflatable bouncy-houses or whatever people with children drive around and do.
Beyond the world of family care, I’d started a plastic surgery outfit in Hollywood: number one, for the money, number two, for the money, but also because being a family doc wasn’t enough. I needed to fill the space in my thoughts that my regular patients were supposed to more vividly occupy. It wasn’t the title of plastic surgeon that I wanted. It was a certain poetry in life.
V, my little sister, claims she’s never taught me anything. But she’s wrong. She taught me how to read, poetry specifically. I was away at college, fulfilling my general education requirement.
She was in middle school. The middle schooler, somehow, was the one between us who knew the difference between a “winged” and “wingèd” chariot. Until then, my whole focus at Stanford had been on surviving Organic Chemistry so that I could one day get into an accredited medical school and be whoever I now am. But when V taught me how Marvell was supposed to sound, I came open just a little.
I eventually conquered O-Chem and went to medical school, University of Michigan, and residency, USC, and the poetic part of me closed up and retreated to whatever dim corner of my mind it had originally hidden within. But one thing I do know beyond the hospital and my Hollywood practice: V’s the most gorgeous girl in creation. Not being poetic anymore, I’m not good with descriptions so it’s left to you: See this girl, twenty-one years old, from Sierra Leone. She has high-set cheekbones and eyes so doe-like you would be forgiven for thinking her younger than that, and wide mothering hips that would have you believe her older than those two numbers placed against each other, 21. She is Krio, her complexion colored like dusk on the horizon when the sun goes down, the equivalent of eyes closing under twilight sedation, dimming and dimming but never quite losing all luster; the final vestiges of her ancestor’s American genetics.
I’ve envied her these looks ever since my parents adopted her in 2000 and she became the West African sister I never had. Unlike V, which is short for Valentine, a name that would fit her a bit too well if every hopeful man knew she was literally conceived in the name of love, I’ve got typically African features. My parents immigrated to Los Angeles before I was born, but they were the first Olusesans to set foot outside Africa. (Actually, my father had been off the continent even before that, to attend medical school in London.) I am not curvaceous in all the right places. My eyes and lips do not pout of their own accord. And I do not have the manmade cleft in my lip that V does.
It sits there on her otherwise unspoiled face, an upward ridge of black skin like a sudden violent mountain peak in the gentle plane of her upper lip. The cleft is on the far right side of the lip, where it is relatively easy to miss, or forget. Still, it is the kind of imperfection that a Hollywood woman would pay me a year’s income to perfect. It would be a coup, in fact: One of these tall, ostrich-bodied, bleach blondes comes sauntering in to my waiting room not with an asymmetrical Cindy Crawford mole to remove or the age wrinkles of her forties to repair, not with the idea that my bottled botulin toxins and scalpel will turn her horse face into a solicitous masterwork, Alexa Ren or Natalie Portman, or whomever, women who not only don’t need to have their skin cut up but whose God-given good looks the Lord might not relinquish even after a knife fight. Instead, this girl will want me to work on her because hers is a problem out of another time and place: How a white girl raised in Malibu or Manhattan Beach came up with an Appalachian lip contusion will be beyond me, of course. Maybe I’ll even have to look up some surgeons out there in Tennessee or Kentucky hill country to learn me how to fix this girl up. Maybe I’ll find that her parents died in a terrible clannish hillbilly brawl waged with pick axes and shovels and scythes and that one of the scythes caught her sideways, rendering her slightly left of supermodel stardom. And somehow now, on a wing and a prayer, and with money in her pocket, she is at the doors of my office.
“It costs what!?” she’ll ask, her face going paler than it knew it could get.
I will quote her my fee again for experimental cleft-palette alteration without physician liability.
I woke up one morning on the bed pallet I had lain for myself in the small break room two stations removed from the patient waiting area (a hallway corridor and my office being the intermediaries) and just knew I had to get out of town. It was that simple: I told myself that within the week, I absolutely had to not only book a flight but set foot onto it and leave for somewhere very different from Hollywood. Botoxing thirty-year-old women, surgically planing their mothers’ wrinkles and removing their moles and warts was getting to me. It was harder than I’d expected to deal so totally in the world of superficial solutions; not only was it kind of soul-crushing, but even worse, it felt like a silent pact between doctor and patient to ignore the obvious: Every day the expected age of my clientele both rose and fell, seventy-five, eighty year olds asking for the scalpel, twenty-five, twenty, maybe next up a sweet sixteen tummy tuck; it became depressingly obvious that each girl needed, in no particular order, a loving girlfriend and spouse, a ban on Nicholas Sparks-related activities, a working vacation in a Third World village, and possibly a blender much more than they needed me.
What was good about the plastic surgery business was now that I was gainfully self-employed, I could simply decide it was a good time to shut up the shop for a little while and undertake an extensive vacation to Asia, the Caribbean; even Scandinavia, where my pesos weren’t worth much but now that I had a lot more of them the exchange rate was no longer a point of worry.
Relegated to family medicine, I hadn’t had the time or the disposable income to maintain, all at once, my home, my Navigator, my student loans and spontaneous vacations.
I ended up in New York. I usually like to get out of the city and visit the outer boroughs, but this time I got caught up with a Peruvian girl I’d met at an uptown bar and I barely got back past Lennox, let alone across the bridge. It was the purest waste of a mid-town hotel I could think of, but that girl was amazing. Our first night meeting, she asked me to come outside with her while she smoked a cigarette and I found myself thinking “Well, that’s the latest reason I’ll never come out. The prettiest woman I’ve met turns out to be a tobacco mouth.” I don’t kiss tobacco mouths, no matter how pretty; I am still a legitimate fucking family physician, last I checked.
“I lied,” she said abruptly.
I looked down at her, gangly and awkward. Her face was golden with mischief. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t smoke. I just wanted you to come outside and see something. I live close.”
She led me half a block away, down one of those stairwells exposed to the street that lead to apartments below ground. There, in the narrow stairwell, just below the teeming foot traffic, she made out with me like I was the last rations in the refugee camp. Looking back, it was crazy. Anybody could’ve walked past and taken video and exposed us to the world via YouTube or WorldStar, sentencing me to a lifetime of plastic surgery upon disgraced celebrities. But no girl had ever ravished me quite like she did, with fevered desire and surprising subtlety and something else I can’t even put words to.
After a few days uptown, I decided to extend my leave and flew out of JFK to Jamaica. I didn’t want to go back to work just yet; not in Hollywood, not in the exurbs. I was checking my private practice voicemail: The clients were restless, which was fine. All it meant was that they would pay more for my services upon my return; for me to wield my scalpel like a wand that, dug into their skin, would magically make them movie stars, cover girls, cover guys. The field was a waste of fucking time. I’d done more good in the USC ER as a resident doctor who barely knew how to stitch a surface wound than I was doing now. I was making ten times my salary as a resident, triple my salary as a family physician, but I felt fraudulent.
In Jamaica, I stayed at the one nudist, gay-friendly resort in Negril. I wanted to hook up, but everybody there was old and wrinkled, pasty and flabby. It reminded me of why a liposuction license might make for good business, and why I’d never fantasized about a single one of my patients in Hollywood. No sex with patients in Hollywood, no sex with anyone in Jamaica. You might think my celibacy was a good thing, given the island’s reputation for chasing people like me off bridges and whatnot. The travel guides you find online will warn you to avoid all open demonstrations of same-sex affection.
I was careful, no doubt, but when it came to my real on-the-ground days there, I was more scared of the drivers and the blind passes along two-lane mountain roads than of ending up lynched. Biblical literalism is bad for us queer sistren and bredren, true, but I would keep coming back here, probably because some unreconstructed part of me loved that it’s just a beautiful fucking place, even if I couldn’t fuck around like I wanted to.
I left Negril the night prior to my flight back to California. I kept to the hotel at night, wary of Kingston once the sun was down. But in the morning, I had hours to kill and ended up wandering about until the hotel called and reminded me that the taxi would be round shortly to take me to the airport. As I took the call, a man who was lean as a bone skimmed clean by strays, with four teeth in his mouth and an eye-patch for his left eye, shouldered past me with a mess of scrap metal lashed by a thin rope to his back. Prime sufferer, I thought. I finished the call and reached under my shirt and took a hundred dollars American out of my money belt. I called after the man, but he did not hear me. He was moving fast for such a broken figure.
Seeing the fat wad of cash, children, then adults started to crowd round me. Their begging became insistent. I gave away the first twenty dollar bill to a little boy with oil smudged on his face, his hair an unkempt mess of dreadlocks and refuse. Then I handed out another twenty to the next closest outstretched hand. And still there were more hands, more requests, more injunctions to bless the poor, the ill, the suffering, wit just a few dollah, praise be His name. I had chosen a hotel in Old Kingston, having consulted Google only to find myself bored with what was on offer. Finally, I’d selected the first thing without an American corporate brand. That strategy was coiling back against me now. I imagined myself enveloped by the masses, deafened by their pleas, trod under their feet, devoured by their hunger. Part of me wanted to become one with them in all their desperation. I surrendered my money belt and just stood there for a second, waiting to be raptured.
But I was not. Old Kingston let me be. Lagos let me be. Freetown let me be. All in that instant, I went poor and, crushingly, was exiled by their disregard to America.
Back in the States, I rotated between my family care position and my Hollywood plastic surgery practice. I paid off a student loan. I had my kitchen retiled and had a cottage built in my backyard. V graduated from UCLA and was accepted into law school at NYU. Dad opened a new practice somewhere outside San Diego; I’m not sure exactly where, I’ve yet to visit. I am, as an aside, sort of over hospitals these days. Anyway, someone in Los Angeles got wind of the Olusesan family exploits and put the Nigerian Orient News on our trail. I didn’t want a feature written on me and I doubt V or my dad did either. Lord, V isn’t even Nigerian to begin with, not that Nigerians will particularly care if they can claim her exploits on the grand scorecard of immigrant success. We will catch the bloody Chinese any day now. But, of course the journalist knew to contact our mother, Mrs. Olusesan. That was the route in. The rest of our star-turn was inevitable.
We were featured on Page 2 of the news on October 10th last year, a couple months after the journalist and my mother colluded to force my father, myself and my sister to speak about our shining successes. I kept my commentary short and to the point: I was a physician. I performed plastic surgery on the side. I practiced in Greater Los Angeles and in Hollywood. I was grateful for the sacrifices of my parents and my generous clientele, without whom I would not have my Culver City home, my 2019 Navigator, my handbags and high heels courtesy of Burberry and Gucci Sofia, respectively. Somewhere in Nigeria, two days later, the print version of this story was serving as a table cloth in an open-air market. Between mouthfuls of okra a man read the sentence about my handbag that the journalist, unpermitted, took it upon himself to include and that man in Lagos concluded that the Nigerian-American God had become much like the standard American God, a dollar bill held higher than Christ on the cross. For the moneyed within Nigeria itself, and they were many, he had never felt anything but disdain. But he had held out hope for those who’d left the homeland. Perhaps he would have to look to the Londoners to find people yet to lose their rabbits.
I can see it clear as daybreak—I was sitting at home, participating in my guiltiest pastime, BET. It doesn’t matter the specific program, BET is generally guilty of whatever one might accuse. But, specifically: I was watching video of one of those concerts Jay-Z performed with The Roots. I know I’m not as African-American as the average Black American, but I fail to see the soulfulness in Jay-Z. Perhaps that was why The Roots was there. Mr. Z had wrapped around his stomach and lower back what I think was supposed to resemble a bullet-proof vest, but that I’m quite sure was actually a back support. Obviously, in my line of work, I’m more familiar with back supports than bullet-proof vests and perhaps that prejudices me. It was then, in this reverie, that I received V’s text:
CAN U FIX ME?
It was only days after the publication of the Nigerian newspaper article about us. She was already 1L at NYU by then. We’d been emailing back and forth and talking on the phone each day, sometimes multiple times per day, just so she could get comfortable off in New York so far from mom and dad and me.
Then that text came and I felt surrendered to all that was terrible in the world. I tell you, I have never been so undone in all my experience as a physician. I have seen a man’s stomach, gutted by a flailing chainsaw, stitched closed, while aboard a helicopter tossing eight-thousand feet above the San Bernardino Mountains. I cut away the skin of a boy’s forehead, the bullet having stopped before the skull and nested there, dropping harmlessly upon the hospital floor under my scissors. I have given a sixty year old girl dimples and I have solved the great mystery of her daughter’s belly fat—sloth.
I thought about V, her beauty, her torture, how these seemingly opposite realities were interlaced within her and how only my scalpel could de-tangle them. I thought about her adoption and her history and her life before us. I thought about her lip, the precise turn of its deformity.
The wound, of course, was administered before we ever knew her, before she came to us in America. In Freetown, one of Charles Taylor’s children had his way with her. The boy soldiers were looting the city clean and killing everybody they could find, young, old, man, woman, child, doing it not with guns, but personally, hotly, hand to hand, limb slashed from limb. They came to V’s house, or they found her and her family in the streets trying to escape. I have always, always, to this day, been afraid to ask the specifics of her torture. But I have imagined it in vivid detail. Eventually, the family was forced inside a home. Maybe it was their home, maybe someone else’s. It did not matter. They would be dead soon enough. They would own this place insofar as one owns one’s grave. They scattered down passageways trying to flee and hide. One by one they were slain in the most ghastly manner possible. But the small quick girl had somehow eluded them.
In my mind, the boys traversed the rooms. One made his way to the furthest room of the home. I imagine his surprise at finding, before him—amidst the devastation he had wrought; in a home like many others he had ransacked, in a bedroom like so many others where he had forced himself upon—some other desperate child like himself, this girl. She was like all the rest that he had raped and mutilated, except that she was so very beautiful, so stunningly beautiful that her existence defied his entire experience of the world, ruled as that experience was by methamphetamine and blood and terror.
It is 1999. It is Freetown. The massacre is in its death throes. He knows this. He is counting his own days in minutes and hours. The Nigerian military is approaching. Taylor himself will soon have to flee the country or be captured by men unimpressed by his brutality. And here she is, this girl whose name he does not even know or care to know. She is more than a girl, more than human meat chased to slaughter, even as he corners her helplessly. Who is the more helpless? She, balled about herself trying to sink beneath the floorboards? Or he, having cornered her, now realizing that there is something about her that he cannot kill and something within him that he wants dead. The boy knows that there is nothing that he can do to her that will erase the ineffable difference between the two of them; like an accident imposed upon things, something in her appearance is unwavering and perfect. He knows she is more likely to escape Freetown and that it is he who is doomed to the dictate of a warlord who wants the world the way that it is, gripped by hunger and poverty and violence and death. She has about her something he has never had, has never known, and cannot take. That something will survive this moment in a memory or a photograph or a story told years later about a girl too gorgeous to be removed from the mind. He will not kill her. Her death will not nullify her, nor save him. So he takes the machete and kneels to where he can hold her gaze at eye-level. She will see him extract some bit of her and replace it with his scar, his testament. He scars her, raking the blade with surgical intimacy and force, deeper and deeper into the lip, deeper and deeper until she is marked.
Marked, I realize now, not for Freetown, but for America.
He stands back from his design. He looks at her: maimed, cratered and broken, she is dismissed in his eyes. The evil that is in the world is engraved on her now.
“Why?” I asked her.
“I met this guy, Tom—in line for ice cream in Soho. He asked for my number and later he asked me out and we went out. I gave him my number because, well, he looks like a straight Matt Bomer—and because I’ve been so lonely. Law school really is nothing like undergrad, you were right about that, Aya.”
V can sound like the quintessential Valley Girl when she gets a mind to. Do you remember the movie Clueless? She’d be Stacey Dash. In fact, I think Stacey Dash has continued to star in Clueless ever since that film first aired—I told you, I love television; I’m also awash in Netflix. But I digress. When V visits me, for example, the first thing she invariably does is look to my windows, insult my drapes, and then say “Jesus, Aya, we aren’t beasts of the field! Let’s buy you some new drapes.”
We buy and hang the new drapes. I take them down as soon as her car turns off of my cul-de-sac and leaves my sight.
She’s a sweet girl and a smart girl, and a very poetic, romantic girl, which allows a conventionality into her dreams. V wants her law degree and her dream-man and her row house in New York or something coastal in California. Putting practicality aside for a moment, is there anything wrong with that?
“Is there anything wrong with that?” she asked me then, and I didn’t know how to answer. “I want him. And I think he likes me. But I see that hesitation when he looks at me—or maybe it’s not anything about the way he looks at me. Maybe it’s a hesitation within myself, when I am regarded, that is what I need fixed. Put like that, it sounds internal, and maybe it is, but I’ve tried to fix myself internally. You do remember when they took me to the psychiatrist? The only Nigerians ever to trust such a profession. It did nothing. Africans are right to ignore that whole field of practice, couch-sitting and talking about our problems as if it will change anything. In the end, isn’t that why you became a real doctor and why your father became a real surgeon, in order to actually heal people? I sense your hesitation.”
I did not know how to respond. I picked obsessively at my extensions, like maybe the meaning of life was hiding in there. Like the act of unraveling them would reveal something truer than V’s pleas.
“What’s wrong with you, doctor?” she asked cattily.
“What do you mean, ‘What’s wrong with me’?”
“What I mean is, what’s so wrong about offering me what you offer other women, other girls? What’s so wrong about what you sell?”
I suppressed numerous invectives and steadied my mind. “Well, let’s take a look. What is wrong: Doctor takes up plastic surgery figuring it will be a fine way to profit off the preciously superficial, vainly vulnerable locals. Doctor plies her new trade, learned over a few weekends in what can be called, charitably, a minimalist certification process. Doctor finds that it is exactly the vanity and the vulnerability, the preciousness of their surfaces and the shattering, shattering gullibility in the depths of their nature that she must confront. When these geniuses wretch forth their diaries of facial woe, of the horror of crow’s feet, and tug in their breath, they obviously expect doctor to live or die upon their next revelation. Doctor reminds herself it is socially appropriate to raise an eyebrow, maybe even to feel something, at least not fall straightaway to sleep. Doctor learns gradually, like a patient emerging from sedatives, that these innocents are not to be tampered with, that they are simple children in an old and deep-vicious world and that it is unacceptable to let them have whatever they want.”
All this passed over V. She hammered away at me more doggedly. “Why not do it for me now and fix me for real, like you’ve done for all those white women?” she argued.
“Well, when you put it like that, you versus the white women, how can I refuse?”
She has the instincts to be an excellent lawyer: Become petty, then scatter straw men to the four winds.
“Jesus, V, do you have to be so racially crude?” I kind of lamented.
“Only when I can’t get what I want,” she retorted.
See what I mean?
“And I suppose you’d expect me to do this procedure pro bono?” I predicted.
“Absolutely. I’m the adopted sister, after all. I washed up on your shores and now I’m your responsibility.” She laughed a little, but it was tinged with something urgent. “You know, sis, I never asked to be saved. I never asked to be brought here.”
Later, I would think about those words. When we spoke, they were only a couple stray statements whipped within a whirlwind of other words. But in the next day or so they took on a dark shimmering significance: It was not a matter of a beautiful girl, slightly imperfected by a madman, grasping after a beauty ideal that only airbrushed magazine covers and European blood could make real, but rather a girl =promoted without request from a hell she did not know was hell insofar as she knew of nothing else, no Manichean counter-weight. Placed in our care, she only wanted what was logical—plastic surgery, for V, was of a piece with her law school and her American manners and, yes, with her countless crushes on impossibly rich, fit, handsome white men. She might have been as happy in Freetown, adopted into some community of survivors there, as she was in America’s sliver of the world. In Freetown, she would’ve lived a fast life, fast to look after herself without family, fast to find a man, fast to make a family. Here, in all the ways that really matter, our lives move so much slower. We are at slow play with books, calculations, diagrams: I am thirty years old and have known nothing but school and work and sex.
I’ve had a man die under the press of my fingers, felt the life literally go from his yawning chest cavity in the middle of the University of Southern California Emergency Room.
But I have not considered life as more than vital signs rolling like stock market tickertape along a screen, the consequence of certain indices. I have not had to venture wherever the mind goes when one’s family is taken by something so violent and sudden that our deep total human mystery is reiterated and life returns as simple exposure, birth our first and final sentence.
She was not there. She was here. And she was playing because that’s what we do: We play. And what’s actually wrong with that?
So I flew V home, pro bono, and operated on her, gratis— “Local anesthetic or twilight?” I asked as my assistant Rosalinda did the prep work. Which one, V wanted to know, would put her furthest under? “General, but we do not do that. It’s a selling point of my practice that patients are not subjected to general anesthesia. It’s in the brochures and online literature. Didn’t you read it? I wrote it up myself. Anyway, lovely sister, twilight will do.”
“I want no memories,” she said then, looking at me with eyes eager to be vacated, eyes filled and heavy as rain clouds. “I want to sleep fast.”
Rosalinda registered V’s vitals and I signaled that she was to keep watch on them throughout the entire operation, our standard protocol when the patient is to be put under. This was the simplest procedure by far wherein the patient had asked to be put to sleep. I didn’t have time to think about what that might mean. I’ve kept it from my thoughts since.
It was done quickly.
Valentine Thomas-Olusesan Surgery Completed
Waiting with her, now, until she’s fit to drive may end up taking longer than what proved a simple procedure.
I process some miscellaneous paperwork and tell Rosalinda she can go home a little early. It’s not a regular workday, after all. There’s no way I could have driven over from the exurbs and attended to multiple people with my sister waiting in the wings to be worked on. I prepared my schedule so that V would be the sole private client for the day. Rosalinda hesitates a moment, so I practically have to shoo her on. It’s my sister, for God’s sake; if I can’t be trusted alone with her, there’s not much hope for humanity.
V has come to by now, but is still groggy when I bring her to standing. When she’s steadied and coherent enough to answer questions, I ask her if she’d like to take a walk with me. She nods and I take her hand in mine, my other hand steadying her at her shoulder. I lock the doors to The Wretchèd of the Earth: Beautiful Revisions—yes, that’s the company name, don’t judge me: This is capitalism, after all. The point is to name your business in the most politically illiterate and stupefying fashion possible so that people will look and look again and then listen to your advertisement. The fact that you yourself, doctor, have not actually read that Franz Fanon book will not discourage others who do not even know who Fanon was from thinking that it’s cool because it sounds cool, and sinister; or something like that. Just have a mural made of regal, angular, pouty-lipped goddesses, preferably blonde as snow, and place it on every billboard you can to heighten the contradiction and you might make a mint out here.
The sky is overcast for no good reason. V looks up at the dark clouds and the elaborate signage and tries to place my reference to a Third World revolutionary intellect at the absurd heart of Hollywood, but all her reading is no match for my drugs. She is steady enough on her feet, but might walk into traffic absent my hand on her shoulder as a guide. There is one question I’ve longed to ask her, but have always been afraid to chance. In lieu of an answer, I’ve placed my imagination in the breach. There was a way things were before the massacre, which she has never evinced the slightest difficulty talking about, and there is the way things turned afterward, her orphaning and America, her adoption and assimilation. But of the massacre and the moment itself, of her injury, she has said nothing. Perhaps now that I’ve erased the visible sign, she will speak.
I ask, “What happened? Back in Freetown, what did he, or they, whomever, what was done to you, Valentine?”
Her eyes are as vast as the oceans when she looks at me. She is, I realize too suddenly, my last surgery, my very last surgery; after twilight and night does come the lucid dawn. “I only want my future, Aya,” she says without inflection. “My dead are buried.”
Clear bright tears pour down upon us, stripping the last of the sedative effect not only from my sister but from me, too, and we stand staring into each other in the rain. We are not just girls in any simple way, but rather prefer our weather than warmth.