Dress shoes, a blazer, a watch. It seemed odd to be adorned in the attire of a normal day. As she walked out the back door to the car, the only hint of disarray she portrayed were the wrinkles in her shirt. Unavoidable with no electricity to heat the iron. Sitting in the car, she held her breath hoping the intense dampness that flooded the air would not inhibit the vehicle from starting. Three hiccups and the engine purred to life. The small SUV that sat high, keeping her out of danger of the puddles and shallow flooded streets, tenderly passed over fallen branches and rubbish. This route was the most likely to keep her out of flood waters but was not a busy road, she prayed there would be no fallen trees or power lines to block her way. Her tense hands gripped the wheel and squinted as sequestered light flooded her vision from the setting sun.
The purple flowers were beautiful. The blooming season was August to October, also smack dab in the middle of the dusty dry season. That never made sense to her except maybe it was God’s way of masking the dust and trash that collected in the crevices of the inhabited parts of the world, still waiting to be washed away by the rains yet to come. Beneath the yellow and purple flowers, bold statements amid a tangle of dark green foliage, hid the plastic bottles, foil wrappers, the smell of sewage and the other parts of life that people throw out. And for a few weeks, she could sit under her favorite tree and forget that those things were still there under the effervescent flora.
Pulling up to the River Center, she made her way to the back parking lot, where there were spaces reserved for employees and volunteers. She was in her second week of night shifts at the River Center and still new folks arrived every day. It was a different kind of hell she hadn’t expected. A hell she drove to and from like a normal day job. A hell she put on a blazer for. Each night there were new faces. Faces that carried with them the visions from their rooftops, the feel of the stadium seats in the Superdome, the uncomfortable and unloving taste of MREs. Their eyes carried many sleepless nights and on their frames hung dirty and ill fitting clothing.
There wasn’t much real work of any kind she could do. It was night time, those that could sleep did, and she was left to care for the ghosts.
Mama’s dresses were a bit like those flowers. They didn’t come out of the chest very often. They lay in the bottom inside out and folded in crisp neat rectangles, waiting for an occasion to be pulled out and worn, to be complimented and preened over. Today was going to be one of those days. She heard the sounds of her mother bathing inside the dirt floor house as she washed dishes outside. The water being lifted above her body and poured over her dark skin, the gasp that escaped her as the cold made first contact. The silence of fresh soap and the towel that hugged her dry. Then came the dress. She knew which one mama would choose because it was the only one that would fit with her stomach so large now. It was green, with little geometric stripes of pink and blue. It fell all the way to the floor in large deep folds of fabric.
Mama stepped outside with the confidence that even the trees quaked in front of. For today she did not have worries, she was wearing her flowers.
There were new folks arriving every day, and sometimes their stories rose after dark, a macabre dance that refused rest to those who silently carried them. Pacing bodies turned up in the lit hallways as they fled the ghosts that pursued them in the darkness. Indeed sometimes the ghosts were laid to rest.
Once she sat with a man all night. She had stolen him a cup of coffee from the staff room and together they ushered away those things that haunted him. The next night he had waited for her to return to tell her that he had located his family and would be reuniting with them in Houston. She also considered these days some of her best Social Work. No paper filing, no organizing, no denying of services because of lack of funding.
Tonight there was a particular feeling in the halls. She couldn’t quite place it but it was unsettling in her stomach. The paper cup of coffee in her hand bitter from boiling in the pot all day suddenly seemed undrinkable.
There was only one woman up tonight. She appeared to be in her fifties, and was wearing blue jeans and a hoodie, an outfit not quite fitting her demure form. Her pacing revealed the brown dirt that was collecting on her socked feet.
They lived not that far from the church but it didn’t feel that way with Mama having to stop every five minutes to pee in the bushes. Mama had told her she needed to start carrying the water, that she was old enough but she figured it was because it was too hard to lift the buckets on her head with the baby so close. She had an empty bucket with her today since the church had good clean rainwater that was healthiest for pregnant women. It didn’t seem like a great idea for Mama to be walking to the Church today, something was off, but she dared not suggest that. What did she know anyway, she had not had a baby, she didn’t know what the signs of health were. And the dress had been waiting to be worn. So they slowly made their way down the rutted path.
They arrived an hour later. Two large Safari vehicles were parked in the shade of the tree that sat next to the oddly shaped church building. It had six sides, she once heard the white pastor call it a “hexagon.” The sounds of singing and hand clapping greeted them first as they entered the room. They were not too late if they were still singing.
The woman with the hoodie had been pacing for over an hour. “How are you doing tonight Ma’am?”
The woman stopped and turned making eye contact with the her, seeming to take in all at once the blazer, the dress shoes, the cooling coffee in the paper cup, and the bags under the eyes. The whole look as ill fitting of such a place as her hoodie and jeans was of her slim frame. She took the several steps to the white plastic table and sat across from her, still not speaking.
“You look familiar,” said the Social Worker, “do I know you from somewhere?”
The woman stared still. “Do you know where I can get a cup of coffee?” The woman croaked in a voice that suggested she hadn’t spoken to anyone in a while.
“Give me a minute,” said the Social Worker, her sensible dress shoes connecting with the floor in brisk vibrations as she ducked into the small kitchenette with the sign on the door that read “EMPLOYEES ONLY”.
She emerged a few seconds later with a paper cup in one hand, and paper packets of cream and sugar in the other. She placed the cup in front of the woman who took up the sugar and cream packets and methodically poured them into the cup one by one till they were all empty, then stirred the light brown mixture with her index finger. She sat staring at the coffee for several minutes without lifting the cup to drink.
“Was your father a minister in New Orleans in the 1980’s,” the woman asked?
At the front of the church were several Wazungu. They always came in clothes that seemed to not quite fit. They came in dull colors, boring patterns, and loose cuts. She pitied their poor style, taking pride in the numerous crisp bright dresses her mother kept secreted away in the chest. “Jambo,” said each of the white women in turn to the crowd that was gathered. That was usually the only word white people seemed to know. It sounded strange coming from their mouths, slow and warped, “jumbow.” They were from a place called Tennessee, she wondered if that was close to New York.
Next to her, her mother was breathing hard. “Are you ok Mama,” she asked? The woman nodded but kept a firm hold around her belly which was poking out despite the great folds of the dress. The skinny bench on which she sat seemed unable to hold all of the exuberant color that came from Mama’s dress and the beads of sweat gathering like diamonds all over her skin.
Her teacher was translating the strange words the guests were speaking but she wasn’t listening to the Swahili, she wanted to hear the English. She tried willing it to make sense but it didn’t work. Next to her, her mother had sunk lower on the bench and was whispering to another Mama who was helping her to stay seated.
It turned out that they did know each other. The connection from way back had loosened the woman up a bit. “Oh your father was the best minister we ever had,” she said. She continued on to talk about her family and “what all the kids are into these days.”
After a long pause the woman put her coffee cup down once more and stared into it as she had done earlier. The ghost had been aroused again from the place she had buried it. She sighed at the question that was not asked, but that she had to answer.
“We stayed.” Words she had heard several times at this table. “We stayed until the mayor got on the news and said to leave, but it was too late by then. The roads were over crowded and there was no gas at any of the stations. So we stayed anyway.”
Mama and the other woman rose and left, in a quiet but frantic shuffle. Mama was grasping her belly. “Maybe she needed to pee again, it was hard for her to squat these days. The other woman was going with her to help her out,” the girl thought to herself.
The girl was lulled into a trance by the strange words of the Wazungu. She roused when the Pastor’s wife rose to lead some singing. Where was Mama? She glanced outside at the purple color that was spreading across the sky. She walked to the doorway of the church with six sides and peered out, her eyes adjusting to the dusty light. Far away in the field she saw the green dress with pink and blue shapes, they blended with the sky and the flowers that grew next to her favorite tree.
The quiet and sustained noise coming out of Mama drew her out of the church and into the field.
“Once the levees broke we could only pray,” her voice lowered, as if a whisper could slip out without disturbing the ghosts. “When the water started seeping into the house we prayed, but it kept rising,” a single tear squeezed itself out of the corners of her eye. “So we prayed it wouldn’t reach the second floor, but it did.”
“Run home and get the knife and some blankets,” the woman told the girl as she approached her panting mother. “Now.”
So she ran faster than she ever did before.
“Then we climbed into the attic and cut a hole in our roof.” Her voice cracked and rose in volume as she lost control of whatever had been residing inside of her. The wet tears muddying her words and dropping at her restless feet.
“We sat on the roof in the pitch black. I cannot recall another time in my life when New Orleans was that silent. No music, no talking, no animal sounds. And we had no idea how far the water had come up. How much time until we would be swallowed up too.”
The girl had it all wrapped in a Kanga as she tore out of the house. She had lost her shoes along the way. As she retraced her way back to the field, her toe connected with a rut and her body slid into the dust as the parcel went flying. Feeling a warm dampness amidst the stinging places on her body she rose and continued running, refusing to look down at the blood and dust that now covered her.
She arrived when the noise had passed, missing or perhaps shielding her, from her Mother’s cries as she delivered her new little sister into the world. With singing still coming from the church, the other Mama cut the cord with the knife she had brought. Mama’s dress was now stained the colors of labor, but as she held her new baby in the field, the sky painted her crisp vibrant dress above them, and the colors were reflected in the diamonds of sweat on her skin and the dampness in her eyes.
“I only was able to tell that the water had stopped climbing when the sun began to rise. The purple sun reflected on the muddy water not a foot from where we were trapped. My husband had fallen asleep. I think I was the only person awake in the whole city.” Her body had ceased trembling and was still. Her voice low once again.
“I was given one gift that morning. I saw all around me, close and far, the spirits of the city rising up out of the blackness to join the purple of the sky.” The spirits of the ones who didn’t make it to their roofs. The ones who chose to stay. And some who had been dwelling in the old city long before the floods came.
The Wazungu joined the three figures outside in the field. The secret of the child’s birth having been found out.
The woman sighed, expelling those things that had been resting within her.
“Tumaini, we shall name her Tumaini,” said Mama.
And the Social Worker gathered her things and left, driving home in the purple light of the morning.
**A Note: Thank you to my Mother and to the visitors from Northside UMC for the seeds to these stories. I hope you will forgive artistic license.