Momi Watu

By Nisi Shawl

I was just tired, that's all. That gritty feeling in my eyes, as if the lids were encrusted with sand; it would pass. Blinking helped, though not much. Maybe a really long blink. . . . No. Only two more braids to go. Then the laundry to bag and unbag. Then a bath for both of us. Then I could sleep.

I bent back to my work. Individual strands of hair feathered beneath my comb, and I examined them all closely. Too bad she was so fair. Took after her Dad. Too bad I spoiled her so. It really should all come off. But even with school coming up next week, I just couldn't. Every strand of heavy, golden brown was a link to Steve. Like dripping syrup, like the sweetness we had shared, making this child. Steve was gone, captured, disappeared. I just couldn't stand the thought of cutting these ties between us. That was probably why Lily threw a shit-fit every time I mentioned the idea.

Eleven p.m. and one braid left. Time for the news. I switched on the TV, just the picture, as accompaniment for the radio. That was where I got all my actual information. The pictures on the screen, when I glanced up at them, never exactly matched the stories I was listening to. But they acted as a sort of disjointed commentary, on the level of my lizard brain.

The Tigers were moving up into third place. They'd never make it past that, though, everybody knew. Not since they tore down the old stadium. They'd been hexed, punished for their aesthetic crime. Over on the TV, the image of Tyree Guyton appeared, as if in opposition to the radio announcer's optimism. The artist stood before one of his "hoodoo houses," talking to an off-camera interviewer. Mannequin legs and bicycles sprouted from the shingled wall at his back. The spirit of Old Detroit lived.

Nina Totenberg did a thing on the "Cold Water Wars," part of a series. They weren't really wars, of course; no states had seceded from the Union, no officials openly supported the "terrorist tactics" that groups like Steve's engaged in (though they were only trying to enforce the law and keep Chicago's Water Authority from selling off half the Lakes). Canada complained, but not as if they were thinking of taking any kind of action. Still, insurance rates had risen, and security on dams and pumping stations soared sky-high, underwritten by our taxes.

The TV showed beer commercials, several minutes of tanned, beefy men pouring glowing, golden liquids for one another. The condensation on their glasses looked real good.

Back to local and the weather. Clear and in the 90s; no surprises there. But what was this? Adrenaline kicked in as I isolated a strand of Lily's hair. A small, white fleck seemed to be attached to it, about an inch from the scalp.

With trembling hands I took up my scissors and severed the hair, carefully laying it on a scrap of black cloth. Dread burned like a fever, just below the surface of my skin. But when I rubbed the hair back and forth, the little speck of white detached itself from the strand. It lay there innocently, a mere flake of dandruff or dead scalp.

For a moment I let myself enjoy the cool ripples of relief spreading over me. It was always like this -- the crisis, forcing me to focus all my senses on the narrow circle of immediate threat. Then the resolution, and the corresponding sensation of floating, of release.

So far, anyway.

I finished the last braid without further incident, left Lily curled up on the floor, and went to bring in the laundry.

Light from the kitchen window spilled yellow out into the yard and let me see enough to avoid the lopsided picnic table, the borrowed grill. The clothesline was a flapping shadow towards the back. I unpegged the clothes, mostly by feel. Into the wicker-creaking, plastic-rustling basket by layers: first underwear, then T-shirts, then socks, shorts, and scarves. The shaker pegs went into a separate bag. I carried them in, swung through the living room to check on Lily. Still sleeping. Her long braids swirled out in esses over the floorboards. Her lashes fluttered over her plump brown cheeks, then settled into stillness.

I hurried into the former study, sealed the laundry bag and labeled it. Lifted it out of the basket, into the space awaiting it on my makeshift shelves. Pegs on top. I scanned the labels of the bags already in place. Entomologists say two weeks is long enough. They've studied the life cycle; they should know. But it was researchers that got us in this fix in the first place, so I wait three, just to be sure. I found the bag labeled August 5th, 2009, and carried it to our bedroom.

Back to the living room. "Wake up, pumpkin, time to get ready for bed." I had the herbs all set out on the mat: sage, rosemary, lavender, artemisia. Lily scowled as I scrubbed her with them. I was as gentle as I could be, turning her with one hand while the other rubbed her up and down with the scratchy leaves. Poor pumpkin. She used to love it back when she was a baby and we used water. Bath night was tough on her now, but I insisted. Better a tired and grumpy little girl than a sick or dying one. We usually slept in Sunday mornings, waking just in time for her favorite cartoons.

The bruised herbs released their piercing scents into the air. They left trails of green on Lily's smooth, dry skin. I finished by massaging a little oil into her scalp. "There. Now go dust yourself off and hop in bed."

I stripped off my house dress and grabbed another bundle of herbs for myself. "Got your pajamas on, amazon?"

A giggle floated through the bedroom door. "Ye-es." Good kid, I thought, beginning my rubdown. She's definitely worth it. Definitely worth the work.


I had Saturday afternoons off so we could do laundry and go to the beach. A full day would have been more convenient, but that's retail. The clothing and bed linens we used during the week went into the dirty laundry right away. I kept it well-sealed, in triple-thick plastic bags. As the days passed, the black bags swelled threateningly. I stared at them and imagined I could hear eggs hatching inside. It was always a relief when Saturday rolled around again.

After running three loads through the washing machine, we waited for the bus for what seemed like an hour. Probably twenty minutes objective time; must have been several weeks for Lily. She squiggled around on the easement, scuffing her new green sandals in the gravel. People waiting with us mostly smiled, though a few of the careful ones looked a little bothered by the braids sticking out from under Lily's scarf. I'd have to get her a larger one; maybe one of mine would do. I didn't really need a scarf, short as I kept my hair.

Lily balanced on the curb now and swung her white patent leather purse in big arcs, seeing how far she could go before she pissed someone off.

"Ow!" Not very far.

"Lily, come here." She obeyed reluctantly, dragging out each step into a long, stone-slithering slide. "Do you still have the tokens? Check and see." She dug into her purse, her expression cute and serious. The tokens were still there (I had backups, of course). So was a Garuda Guy finger-puppet, which she put on her thumb and waggled back and forth. Within seconds they were deep into a private conversation.

The man she'd whacked came up to complain. I pulled her closer and ignored him. He looked HIV to me. Suspicious spots sprinkled his neck and forehead.

"Did you know," I announced to the air, "that the common louse is capable of leaps up to 15 feet in length?" That shut him up for a moment. Long enough for the bus to round the corner. The HIVer got in first. I let him. I considered waiting for a later bus, but decided against it. I told myself that a few red spots do not an infestation make. Even if they did, who knew what'd be waiting for us on the next one that stopped? I spread black towels for Lily and me, and we sat in our seats.


Benton Harbor used to be practically a ghost town. It started turning around about the middle of the decade, with Mayor Todd's administration. Gil made a big dent in the drug gangs and muggers, the petty crime. Then he tackled the economy. He had a little help from the Feds there, no question. Three divisions of the National Guard stationed nearby perked things up a bit for most businesses. Smugglers switched to Muskegon and Grand Haven, routes where things were under a little less scrupulous observation.

But Gil's dream of bringing back the big tourist trade that flourished here forty, fifty years ago? That was still a dream, and nothing more. True, the Lakes' shores lacked the sand fleas that infested ocean beaches and scared off those who couldn't tell them apart from lice. And water pirates sound romantic -- but getting personally killed by one does not appeal to most. Rich resort-heads stuck to Traverse and the Upper Peninsula. Rents stayed low in Benton Harbor, and Lily and I stayed as close to the Lake as we liked. We got off the bus after twelve roundabout blocks.

Silver Beach.

A giant, rusting iron wheel, half-buried in pale sand. The time-eaten girders of the old roller-coaster. Further down, the Guard's gun emplacements, seldom used. The shell of Cook Nuclear Facility in the distance, a dead-white mosque. No chance of contaminating leaks there; it had been one of the first to be shut down.

Steve must be somewhere beyond that. He had to be. He had to be alive.

On clear days you could see the glittering towers of the greedy city that had swallowed him. Today there was a haze, melting at the horizon into the enormously blue water. "Momi Watu," he used to call the Lake, after some African goddess he studied in college. "Precious mother of us all; I would defend you with my life." That's what he said. So of course, that's what he did.

There were warning signs at the place where the crumbling asphalt ended. No soap, no shampoo within 400 feet of the water. No containers more than five gallons in capacity. And of course the government could not be responsible for our safety from this point on.

If there'd been any real chance of trouble today, the Guard would have been there to turn us away. That particular sign was more like a notice to liability lawyers and insurance companies. We ignored it.

"Race you!" I cried. I gave Lily a head start, then pretended to struggle to catch up. The soft sand sank beneath my feet and I staggered playfully. She turned her head and whipped off her scarf, laughed gleefully at my clowning. "Wait! Wait!" She shook her head, being naughty. Her scarf and purse fell to the sand and she was off again, running harder, braids flying straight out over her back.

I dropped the beach bag next to her things, then really ran. I timed it so we hit the water together. Smack! Splash! Slosh, slosh, slosh. We kept trying to run, but a big wave knocked Lily on her bottom, and my wet skirts dragged me down next to her.

Lily stood up, defying the waves. I leaned back on my hands while she poured water on my hair, tiny little cupped palmfuls trickling down over my scalp.

Lovely, lovely, cool, cool water. We may not be able to pump much more of it into our homes than they do in Arizona. That's the law. But that's all right. It's better than an actual, true-to-life, all-out war. The water stays in the Lakes, where it belongs. And we stay near the Lakes, where we belong. A place for everything, and everything in its place, I've always liked to say.

Steve used to tease me about that -- called me compulsive. Maybe I am, I told him one time, but you can't be too neurotic these days.

"Close your eyes, Mommy, I gotta do the front."

"OK." It was easier with my eyes shut to imagine him there. The sun would glow golden through his flyaway halo of hair, finer than Lily's, but braided exactly the same. He probably wouldn't like my buzz cut; he had always been envious of the dreadlocks I wore, always hated fear and compromise. Which is how he would see it. Which is why he left us, looking for a way to stop Chicago's thieving, because he loved bravery, and commitment. And I loved that he loved them. But . . . but it would have been better, especially for Lily, if he had not.

I opened my eyes. The little splashes of water had stopped. Lily was headed for the shore. I got up and waded after her. I tried to hold her hand and help her walk, but she was too busy tugging at her wet, clingy clothes. "You want to get rid of those, honey?"

She nodded, wrinkling up her nose. "Yeah, they won't stop grabbin' at me. And they make me feel very cold." I stripped us both down to our suits, then rummaged through the beach bag for one of the empty plastic sacks I always carried. Probably at the bottom, underneath the lunch box. I sighed and started to unpack. There they were. I made a mental note never to organize things that way again.

I didn't want to put the lunch box back where it was before, so I held it out for Lily. "Hang on to this for me, would you, pumpkin?" No answer.

I looked up. No Lily.

Back in the water? I ran quickly. She was just learning how to swim. No Lily. No pathetic, limp, bobbing remains, either. I spun around; fast, b-ball pivots. No golden brown braids, anywhere in sight. A gull whimpered.

I headed down the beach in a power walk, scanning, trying to look in all directions at once. Fighting back the tears; they wouldn't help me see her. How long had she been gone? Minutes. Endless minutes now, and where on Earth could she be?

The latrines? Yes! She'd probably had to pee since we left home, hence the squirm-dance routine while waiting for the bus. I'd always told her how rude it was to "go" in the Lake. I hotfooted it across the warming sand, lunch-box rattling. A little girl alone on a beach -- anything could happen. My imagination busied itself with the details as I called her. "Lily? Lily Beatrice, you answer me! Don't you go talking to any strangers, Lily--"

Then I saw her. I saw it was too late for that particular admonishment. An older woman had her and was toweling her hair for her. Toweling it! Lily looked up from under the pink-striped terry-cloth with her "I-know-I've-done-something-wrong-again-but-would-you-please-tell-me-what-before-you-start-yelling-Mommy" face. I fell to my knees and hugged her fiercely, angrily. I pulled back to give her a piece of my mind.

Children are cute because otherwise they would die. It's a miracle of genetic engineering that any of us makes it to puberty. The dimples, the big eyes, the extra-long lashes -- they worked. Once again. But I thought -- yes, she is worth it, the heartbreak, the trouble. And yes, she is the link, maybe the only link now, between me and her father. Her hair, however, is not. Not the connection. And not worth the trouble. Not worth the danger. Nothing is.

"Thank you," I told the strange woman, fighting down the urge to pick like a baboon at her whitened head. "Most people wouldn't take a chance like that. Children are so prone, you know. . . ." I let my voice trail off.

The woman blanched. "Oh, I . . . I never thought." No, she obviously never did. Probably went into Jake's and actually, physically tried on hats. Some people were never going to adjust, and it was useless pointing out their mistakes.

"That's all right." I stood and carefully folded up her towel.

"I'm sorry. It's so hard to get used to, especially with all these diseases. When I was a girl, it was only a few people, the very poor."

I nodded, even though I knew that wasn't true. Head lice don't discriminate; they never did, not even before the experimental ones escaped. They've always liked children, but they've never cared about rich or poor. Water discourages them a little. But you could be perfectly clean, even by pre-"Wars" standards, and still become infested. And these days that might mean infected with one of the two diseases they were supposed to be inoculating us against. HIVed, or HEPped.

Like poor little Amy, who used to live next door. Her parents actually sent her to a salon to have her hair done. Regularly.

All it took was common sense.

I gave the woman her towel. "Come on, Lily. Let's go." I held out my hand.

"Do we gotta? I don't wanna go home yet." She pouted.

"Child, I could walk downtown on your lower lip." A twisted smile emerged from her sorrow. "We're not going home yet, anyway. Even though you've been a very bad girl. We'll talk about that later." Her little hand slipped into mine and we went back to retrieve the beach bag.

"Where we goin', Mommy?"

"We're going to Aunty Senta's."

"Yayy!" I lost the hand again as she spun around, clapping. I waited, then took it back.

"And you know why? Because we're gonna get you a brand-new big girl haircut like Mommy's." There were no shrieks of protest; just a sidelong, questioning glance. Lily knew she had pushed the envelope far enough for today, even if she didn't understand how, or why. She trusted me to tell her things like that. And I had to trust myself to figure them out. To figure out what was right.

We walked back up the dunes. We could save her hair, come to think of it. If it was all that precious. Tie it up in ribbons and silk and seal it away for safekeeping. Store it in the study, the attic. Anywhere at all was fine, so long as it wasn't on her head.

We got to the stop. A bus was coming down the street, about a block away. Say, ten, twenty minutes' ride to Senta's house. If she was home, less than an hour till Lily's new do was done. A short time; nothing bad could happen before then. And afterwards, things would be easier. So much easier. I felt the waters of relief pool up and over me.

 

Copyright © 2003 Nisi Shawl

Reader Comments


Nisi Shawl writes almost as much as she reads. You can find more of her work in Mojo: Conjure Stories, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, and Wet: More Aqua Erotica. The Seattle Times and alternative newsweekly The Stranger carry her book reviews online. With fellow Clarion West grad Cindy Ward, she has expanded her thought-provoking essay "Transracial Writing for the Sincere" into an experiential workshop, "Writing the Other." Nisi lives in Seattle, Washington, on a direct bus route to the beach. For more on her work, see her website.