Fairy tales terrified me when I believed in things. On my fifth birthday, one of Mama’s lady friends, Miss Janice, came over for dinner. We weren’t having a party or anything that year, just a quiet meal at the kitchen table with huck-a-bucks for dessert. Miss Janice taught at a university. I remember her as the kind of lady Mama liked: smart, well educated, not the type to wear makeup. She was the first black woman I’d ever seen with short hair. Over dinner, Miss Janice told us about her travels up and down back roads, through abandoned farms, into the backwoods and hollers of the South. She’d been looking for old people to tell her stories, but not just anyone or any story. Her stories had to be particular.
“All your stories come from one town?” Mama asked.
“That’s the thing baby,” Miss Janice said, “There’s more than one Okahika.”
Before I could open my mouth, Mama pressed her foot into mine. Okahika was where granmè and granddaddy lived. I’d been to Okahika before, plenty of times.
“What are you talking about?” Mama asked.
“Hard to explain,” Miss Janice said. “At first, I found all these references to a town called Okahika, but they were in different states: Georgia, Florida, Texas, Arkansas and so on. I found about a dozen, all through the South. But the stories were so similar that they must have come from the same place.”
“So is there one Okahika or a bunch?”
“That’s what I tried to find out.” Miss Janice rested her hand on Mama’s. “I drove all over the place looking for people who’d talk about Okahika. Most just repeated stories they’d heard themselves.”
A question just popped out of me. “Miss Janice, did you ever find Okahika?”
“Adrian! What have I told you about interrupting grown folk?” Mama snapped.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Miss Janice squeezed Mama’s hand and gave me a smile. “Baby, if Okahika ever existed, it’s long gone now. But you can read what I found out. Here.” Miss Janice handed me a wrapped present. “Althea tells me you’re a good reader.”
I looked at Mama. She nodded, so I opened the present right at the table. It was Miss Janice’s book, The Mythic Southern: Folktales of Okahika.
I remember the book more than Miss Janice. It had a yellow and white checkerboard cover with a picture of a red frog on it. My birthday dress was the same color. e stories had crazy titles like “Bell and Cut Mary Somewhere in the Sugarcane,” “Immamou,” or “Reverend Overtime Gets Himself Together.” “The Queen of the Cats” still scares me. Not the ending of that story, but the moment. I’m sure there’s a better word for the moment. If I asked Ben, he would mansplain at me, then point me to a book on narrative theory or some bullshit. But I’ve called it the moment since I was a girl.
The moment is the jump off. It’s that one little thing that puts everything else into motion. Little Red Riding Hood takes a basket to her grandmother. The Prince’s invitation gets to Cinderella’s house. Once the moment happens, the story starts and there’s no going back. My problem is that the people in the story never know when the moment happens. By the time they realize the story has started, it’s too late. They can look back and say oh that’s when that happened but by then they’re hanging off a cliff. I can handle hanging off a cliff, but not knowing why I’m hanging off a cli until I’m hanging off just bothers me. If I’m in a story, it’s my story. I want to know when it starts.
Miss Janice didn’t know how to eat a huck-a-buck, so I showed her how to loosen the Dixie cup from the frozen Kool- Aid and slurp from the bottom. Mama and her friend visited while I finished mine and opened the book. “The Queen of the Cats” jumped off the page and infected me. I never got loose of that story. When Mama tried to read the story to me before bed, I told her I already knew what happened and didn’t want to hear it again. She kissed me on the forehead and tucked me in, but I stared at the tin ceiling all night as the story ran across the room, up the walls, and out into the night before it came back and curled itself up under my pillow at sunrise.
A long time ago on a cold night, an elderly nun sat in the warm kitchen of the rectory, waiting for the old priest to come home for dinner after performing funeral rites. Their cat Cady curled up next to the stove, half-asleep and half-waiting for the priest to arrive, in hopes of getting a treat. They waited and waited and waited for hours and began to worry, until at last the priest ran into the rectory, disheveled and dirty, shouting, “Arcadia Forsyth? Who’s Arcadia Forsyth?” All the nun and the cat could do was stare and wonder what was the matter.
“Father,” the nun said, “What’s happened to you? And why are you looking for this Arcadia Forsyth?”
“Mother, you would not believe me if I told you,” the priest said. “I can hardly believe it my own self.” The priest sank into a kitchen chair and began to shiver. The nun began to bring the priest his dinner, but then thought better of it and poured him a glass of whiskey.
“Here,” she said, “Warm your bones.”
The priest drank the entire glass in one gulp, then refilled his glass. “What a day,” he said. “I had just performed the last rites and counseled the family. I left through the back entrance of the cemetery to catch the streetcar. It was already dark and I sat down. I must have been tired, because I fell asleep and only woke when I heard a cat’s meow.”
“Meow,” answered Cady.
“Yes, exactly like that,” said the old priest. “So I opened my eyes and guess what I saw?”
“I can’t even imagine,” the nun said.
“Cats of different types: Siamese, calicos, black cats, and so on. And guess what they carried?”
“Carried?” the nun asked.
The old priest lowered his voice. “A small coffin covered in purple velvet pall, and on the pall was a tiny crown of gold, and at every fourth step they all meowed together.”
“Meow,” said Cady.
“Yes, exactly like that!” said the old priest. “And as they came closer, I could see them more clearly. You know how cat’s eyes reflect the tiniest light. Well they came closer, six carrying the coffin, the seventh walking in front like—well look at Cady staring at me. You’d think she understood me.”
“Never mind,” said the nun, “What happened next?”
“Well, as I was saying, the seven cats came towards me solemnly, and at every fourth step they said together, ’meow.’”
“Meow,” said Cady again.
“Yes, just like that, over and over until they stood at the entrance to the cemetery, right next to me, and then they stopped and stared straight at me. I felt a strangeness inside me, I admit. Now look here at Cady! She’s staring at me the way they did.”
“Never mind Cady!” the nun said. “Go on.”
“Now, this is the part. They stared and I stared back until the seventh cat, the one that wasn’t carrying the coffin, said to me, yes, said aloud in a voice, ‘Tell Arcadia Forsyth that Arcadio Fearsithe is dead’ and that’s why I asked you who Arcadia Forsyth was. But how can I tell Arcadia Forsyth that Arcadio Fearsithe is dead if I don’t know who Arcadia Forsyth is?”
“Saints preserve us!” screamed the nun. “Cady, look at Cady!”
And to their shock, Cady stared and Cady swelled and at last Cady shrieked, “What? Arcadio is dead? Then I’m the Queen of the Cats!” Cady ran out of the rectory and was never seen again.
While Ben fixed the sink, I tried to fix my hand. It hurt, itched, burned, tingled, tickled, and ached all at once. I used every ointment we had, but nothing in the bathroom relieved my symptoms. I got frantic. I started crying. My hand felt oversized, like all the blood was going in but none could get out. I suppose I had some idea of relieving the pressure, but I honestly couldn’t think all the way straight. I don’t know why I did what I did. I grabbed a pair of nail scissors, opened them up, and slashed my palm the opposite way, from thumb to pinky, over and over again until a bloody X marked my left palm. e showerhead exploded and rusty-red water splashed into the tub. I felt amazing. Calm, relaxed. Fucking giddy. I giggled again and started laughing, just a little at first, and then louder and louder until I collapsed on the toilet, which shattered into sharp ceramic shards, hurting nothing I cared about.
If Ben understood me, he would leave. My co-workers and clients would run. And this thing, this insect squirming inside me, would have chosen someplace else to hatch. Some place beautiful, full of life and joy and hope and happiness. Not me. I walk, speak, eat when Ben shoves food in my face, fuck when Ben feels like fucking, but that just shows how stupid he is. Only a fool feeds a co n. Only a fool makes love to a dead woman. Only a fool plants seeds in the desert. Whatever’s growing inside me can’t live. It had to die, it had to die.
“Adrian!” Ben stood in the doorway. I didn’t see him come in. “Holy crap, what happened?”
“It’s nothing,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“The toilet. The shower.” His mouth hung open. “You punched a hole in the mirror.”
“No I—” I looked up. We’d hung a large framed mirror next to the sink when we moved in so I could see myself before work. e heavy mirror had cracked in the center, creating long, straight lines extending to the edges and shorter connecting lines between the long ones, like a spiderweb cast in glass.
“I didn’t,” I said as Ben helped me up, “I didn’t do that.” You have to believe me.
“Let’s just get you cleaned up,” Ben said. “You’ve got blood all over your dress.”
I looked down. A ragged, bloody X crossed me just below the navel. I didn’t remember doing that either.
The bathroom sink still worked. I turned on the water with my right hand and let cool water run over my bloody left. Seemed like a waste with the broken shower running nonstop. Ben kept talking. I didn’t pay attention. I stopped enjoying water long ago, but this felt too good, like all the bile inside me got carried off in a flood. I’m not gonna cry. The water felt like every bath before I got dirty, like baptism, like a sudden rain, like a fire hydrant sprinkler on the hottest day of the summer. I felt something else stir inside me, and I let the water carry it off with the rest.
“Oh good,” Ben said. How long had I been standing there? A minute, an hour?
“I thought you got cut up pretty bad.” He kissed me on the forehead. “Glad you’re okay. I’m gonna find the main and turn the water off , and then we can start fixing things.”
I was not okay, but when I took my hand out of the water, my palm looked like it always had, slightly red with curving fortuneteller lines. No cuts, no scars. A large cicada flew past my face and landed in the center of the shattered mirror. Then the water shut off, and all the water on the floor drained away through the floorboards until there was nothing left but dust and broken porcelain and blood on my yellow dress.
“Did I get it?” Ben yelled from the lawn.
Yeah, Ben. You got it.
Ben took the car to buy another toilet, mirror, and showerhead. I swept up the broken toilet. I didn’t know what else to do. Once I finished sweeping, I wondered if I could take the mirror down without cutting myself again. I wasn’t afraid of cutting myself, I was afraid of cutting without consequence. Damaging myself left me a problem I could manage. I caused the pain and I could x it. But this get-out-of-pain-free card scared the shit out of me. I didn’t know who I was without pain.
Whatever broke the mirror left the wooden frame intact. I carefully lifted the mirror off of the wall and carried it to the dining room table. I remembered the mirror being so heavy we had to slide it across the floor, but it lifted easily. The mirror took up the whole surface of the table. Sitting horizontally, the frame blended into the hardwood floor and the spiderweb mirror seemed to float above it, untethered. It drew the eye and held light in a way I’d never seen before. Each piece reflected a different part of me. I looked to one side and saw the hem of my dress. Another facet showed my shoe. I saw my ear sideways, a knee, the back of my neck. I pointed in every direction. I looked to one side and saw cracked sidewalks, a wrought iron fence, filthy floodwater, people laughing on a street corner, a little girl, Marcel on top of me, my mother the moment her water broke, a wooden ship, a broom sweeping, me lying in bed looking at a pressed tin ceiling, a frozen glacier, Free Cookie laying in the sun, a pool of cold water. A flying bird stopped in mid-air, turned its head, and said CHEEPER- CHEEPER TAPE!
I spun around and knocked the mirror o the table. Glass flew across the room. Nothing else moved, nothing else made a sound. I scanned the ceiling and the corners. Nothing. There wasn’t any bird in the house.
A chill ran up the entire length of my body. I ran onto the porch. I wiped sweat from my arms and took a few deep breaths. I didn’t remember those places or people. I’d never seen a glacier in real life. But some deep part of me had gone there, known those people. No birds in my house.
Adrian, would you like some water with ice?
No, no, I don’t belong here. It doesn’t matter.
I swept the floors again. I ran my fingers along my palm, looking for something that wasn’t there. I looked in the shards of the mirror, wondering if I would see something else. I changed into shorts and an old t-shirt, and sprayed my dress with stain remover. I sat down and did nothing in particular. I wasn’t thirsty. I stood up and went to the kitchen. Ben had left the cabinet under the sink open, with all the still-wet contents on the floor. From the looks of it, he’d finished the repair but came to my rescue before the cabinet dried. Kitty litter would soak up all the spilled water. I got the bag of litter and the scoop from the laundry room. I bent down to spread out the litter, and then I had an idea. I placed my hands on the wet cabinet wood. Drain, I thought. Seep, soak, swirl, go away, dry up. Follow your path back into the earth.
Nothing happened. I mean my hands got wet, but nothing else happened. I spread out the kitty litter and put the bag back in the laundry room. Just then, I noticed Free Cookie’s food bowl. It was full. It had been full that morning, I knew. I’d filled it. No, I filled it the night before. Had Free Cookie not eaten in a day? In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d even seen her. Yesterday? The day before? Maybe the noise scared her off.
“Cookie?” I called.
Cookie didn’t answer.
“Cookie?” I called again. Cats don’t come when people call them. I poured her food back into the bag, and then refilled it, dropping the food as slowly and loudly as possible. Normally she came running when I filled her food bowl. Nothing.
I looked in all of her favorite napping spots: the porch swing, the living room window, the laundry. She wasn’t there. I checked outside. I wish Ben would just let us hire a lawn service. The backyard looked a complete mess of fallen trees branches, tall grass, and overgrown vines. The front yard looked raggedy, but at least he cuts it once in a while. Last year, he planted a peach tree sapling in the front yard. Never grew an inch. I told him that he needed to cut the grass short so the tree would absorb enough nutrients, but he never does. Free Cookie wasn’t under the tree, not that it provided enough shade for a cat. I looked around the azaleas and hydrangea bushes, along the line of scrub trees that separates our property from the start of e rough at the end of town, and across our tiny, overgrown back yard. Nothing, nothing, nothing.
“Now ain’t she sweet—sweet as a peach—lemme get a look at’cha.”
Pats and the Strickland brothers leered at me from the porch of their dilapidated mansion next door. Mending and Wending Strickland grew up in the house Ben and I rent now. Their family built several more houses and most of this end of town. They came into some serious money, everyone knows. What no one says is how they came into money: the old-fashioned land grab. at vacant lot at the end of town, what Ben calls The Through, used to be an all-black town. The Strickland family chased all the residents out, then claimed their land and sold the entire parcel to the railroads. Yet, when my friends and I formed a charitable investment firm, the Stricklands invested right away, and their old money led to new clients.
As a favor, they rent our house to us for next to nothing. At least I thought it was a favor. e house is a small, craftsman- style bungalow with a small porch leading into the living room. We have a fireplace, but it’s so old and unsafe we can’t use it. Behind the living room is the dining room, and behind that is the kitchen and laundry room. The living room also branches off into a sort of square hallway that leads to our bedroom, Ben’s office, and the bathroom. The house is fine. Small, but there’s just two of us. The house is not the issue. Pats and the Stricklands are the issue.
When we first moved in, couples rented the lower floor of the Strickland mansion for weddings and anniversary parties. Business tapered off, maybe due to how Mending, pasty white and potbellied, would dress up in an old suit two sizes too small and insist on playing host, while his twin brother Wending, tall and scrawny, ate reception food and drank wine in a pair of dirty boxers and slippers. Their friend, roommate, third wheel, Pats would corner guests and rant about ‘them liberals’ until his face turned red. Word got around and people stopped booking. Then the trio decided to remodel the place. To make space, they cleaned out antiques, junk, family heirlooms, and just left them on the veranda. A year ago. Remodeling crews came in and out, but they quit coming months ago. The junk’s still on the porch, getting mildewy. These days, the three of them sit on the porch getting drunk, especially Pats.
Everyone around here calls him Pats, but no one remembers why. I can’t recall anyone ever accusing Pats of having a job, but he always has a bottle of cheap bourbon in a brown paper bag. Every day, he eats breakfast at the cafe up the street by himself, flirts with the waitresses, then ambles down back the to the mansion. In private, women call him Pats the Perv. He hits on every woman he sees, young or old, black or white, single or married. Women come around trying to get people to go to their church and Pats hits on them. Women taking their kids for a walk and Pats hits on them. He’s not one of those men who thinks he’s God’s gift or something. He’s sweaty with bad teeth. Pats is just persistent. He’s the guy who shows up at a bar just before last call, playing the odds. If he just keeps talking, someone will put something in his mouth to make him stop.
The three of them—Pats, Mending, and Wending—came up right here in Northport, went to school together, ate together, chased girls together, grew old together. They spoke in a duet of three people, each finishing the thought of the other.
“Smile for me—ain’t you pretty—come on over.”
I smiled and hated myself. “Morning,” I said. My body became a disconnected collection of parts under someone else’s control. The legs and feet walked past the magnolia that separates their yard from ours. The spine stretched up and forward to push the breasts towards them. The right hand waved, then stuck itself out so the men could paw and kiss its fingers. The feet walked up their stairs and took the body between the men, then froze in place. The eyes saw their dilapidated house and the leer in their grins, the nose smelled cheap bourbon and mildew, the ears heard lust, but none of the senses agreed to share any information, instead locking down, as if each moment in their midst was precious. The thighs and ass felt their thick fingers. The mouth opened into a wide smile and the throat affected a soft, pleasing tone. Only the stomach stayed true to itself, snarling, coiled, furious at them and me.
I am my haint. I haunt my own body.
The men touched my hands, my waist, my cheek, my back. “Ain’t seen you lately—just talking about you—sit a spell.”
“I wish I could, but I’m looking for my cat.”
“Your pussy ran off —gotta be good to the pussy—here pussy, pussy.”
The stomach tied hard knots.
“Have you seen her? She’s gray, with a white stripe on her face.”
“Sounds like some old, wrinkly pussy.” They laughed. My left hand balled into a fist, but the right hand, Jezebel, went behind the back and held the left arm above the elbow.
“Well,” the mouth said. “I’ll check across the street.”
Move, feet! Don’t just stand there.
“Look at the—hair place they got all kinds of—old pussy up in there.”
“Yes well, good talking to you.” They touched the body again, here and there. The feet just stood there. A shadow passed over the lawn. The eyes looked up and saw a long prow, a curving hull, a rudder, an old wooden ship, passing over the treetops, trailing a thick rope that fell into the street. The magnolia tree budded and bloomed. A breeze, warm and salty, blew through the tree. Fragrant white petals fell onto the porch, erasing the stink of old men and old bourbon. Cicadas sang. I ran down the steps and across the yard calling, “Hello! Hello!” as if whoever sailed a flying ship would stop and drink sweet tea. I wanted to ask someone if they’d seen it too, but the only other people around were Pats and the Stricklands. I wasn’t asking them.
Looking up, the ship sat still while the earth and sky moved past. I ran to the trailing rope and grabbed it. The rope felt rough, but a necessary roughness, as if the rope had work to do and couldn’t be bothered to smooth itself out just for me. This was not a rope that would accommodate my needs. I could adapt or let go.
I didn’t have any sort of plan. The ship sailed down Main Street and turned left at the river. I held on and followed, listening to the rhythmic wood creaking overhead. Nothing sounds like a wooden ship. I’d never set foot on a sailing ship and I knew it instantly. The ship stopped just before the fence. I closed my eyes and listened. I heard the wheel squeak and the rudder groan in reply. Wind whistled past the mast. Pictures formed in my mind: dark holds beneath the deck, lined with shelves, chains, and manacles, and a large burn mark on the deck. A shudder began on the tip of the mast, ran along the length of the ship, down the rope, and through my left hand.
A cat meowed. I opened my eyes and Free Cookie stood no more than a dozen feet away. “Hey!” I said, but in my surprise, I let go of the rope. The ship bobbed away like a balloon in a parking lot, upwards, upwards, until I could see nothing of her but a tiny dot in a blue sky.
A. RAFAEL JOHNSON was born in upstate New York to parents from the Deep South. He grew up in New York, Arkansas, and Texas. He studied drama at The University of Texas at Austin, then lived in Austin for over 20 years. He studied fiction at The University of Alabama, and then became an aid worker in Liberia. After returning and teaching at Alabama, he became a consultant in arts-based evaluation for TerraLuna Collaborative, based in Minneapolis. Johnson became a Kimbilio Fellow in 2014. The Through is his first novel.
Adapted from The Through, by A. Rafael Johnson, Copyright © 2017 by A. Rafael Johnson. With the permission of the publisher, Jaded Ibis Press.