Shadow and Fact I imagined my mother dying on a night when sidewalks were shadowed with spring petals. I would cradle her head against my breasts, bathe her in water scented with chamomile blossoms, perfume her nutmeg skin with gardenias. A Friday in January, the rail of the hospital bed warmed in my fists as I listened for her breath. I exhaled with her and left her side. Riding home under a starless sky, I hoped for two hours of sleep and a bath. I dreamed of her hands, the fingernails she trimmed with her teeth. Silhouettes of avocado leaves frolicked on my torso as I sat almost naked between her knees. She waited for the iron combs to heat on the coals, then pulled them through the bush on my head. Air from her lips cooled a forefinger singed when I reached up to touch my new straight hair. Sunlight on my ankles woke me. I called the hospice, then stumbled to the door, shouting my destination to the taxi driver who finally stopped for me on Main Street. My mother lay the way she always slept, on her side, a palm curved near her face, her rounded chin arched toward the window. Her unlined forehead, her cheeks, still warm under my kisses. I washed her feet with unscented soap, recited the psalms she taught me and closed her eyes. The color of the sky was true, clear and pale as the dress she wore to her grave. Preparations for the Afterlife In the doorway of an attic, a daughter stood between guilt and uncertainty. How could she exit, eliminate rent income to an uncle, multiply distance from few living blood relations? Her mother had not been prone to doubt. She had packed for diaspora in one suitcase and left Port-au-Prince with warning to none. Sirens drowned creaking eaves, but she heard her mother’s voice giving precise direction. Cotton on Main Street should handle the arrangements. Red petals are for the joyful, unprepared to leave. No reception after the funeral. The bedroom set should go to someone in need. Keep the white sheets I bought for last days in Haiti. Mandates were delivered with panorama of slights and rivalries. Her mother tallied debts owed, resolving, For any good I did, for being caretaker, no regrets. Her exhausted eyes mirrored the future like a sage reading bones. Mwen pa vlé kité ou pou kont ou. Yo pap aidé ou. The daughter did not accept this prediction of aloneness until divisions solidified, until some became angry when nothing was left in their names, until she embraced legal threats for unpaid medicals, until she listed what was worth selling, until visitor passes to her sick room idled at a front desk while staples burned a horizontal scar on her uterus. You have been present and useful, so love for you will be measured by conditions. Viv tankou moun ki pa gen fenmi. She played her mother’s last instruction like a favorite ballad. She parceled clothing, unworn shoes to a Miami ministry and hauled mattress and box spring to a friend in Brooklyn. The daughter sealed embroidered linen in plastic as if afraid they would dissipate like clouds. Movers loaded belongings unto a truck and as the October wind rattled oak leaves to the path at her heel, she began saving her own life. Mwen pa vlé kité ou pou kont ou. Yo pap aidé ou. - “I don’t want to leave you alone. They will not help you. Viv tankou moun ki pa gen fenmi. – Live like someone without a family. Incident at Rider’s Lake Behind me is home, a city of asphalt tinted crimson with wounds. Kompas and bachatta rhythms rain down from bedrooms above storefronts and on the first of each month, single mothers budget state allotments for laundry, milk and canned corn. Here, under a harvest moon and muted lanterns, I languish with the narcissistic willow watching itself in a mirror of water. Duck matrons gaggle lullabies to their children among stray dandelions, and Nova Scotia geese gorge on night-crawlers as they resettle campus grasslands. The lake, abundant with catfish gray as clay, trickles to nowhere as I walk, considering language and economics, believing I could be safe, free to roam whatever ocean. Rumblings of a two-seater muscle car and the question, “Is a nigger chick pink inside?” slice open the calm sky. Did Emmett Till wither too with sudden hummingbird heart, with this wildfire consuming viscera, before they deafened him with a .45 bullet, barb-wired that gin fan to his neck and capsized his battered vessel? I bite down retort as one blonde head, a mouth tense with sneer, leans out of the passenger side. Steel-belted tires halt before skid marks on tar inform that journeys for equal chances and degrees would not secure protection within, without collegiate grounds because white men can claim history’s proclivities, make this lakeside acre a plantation, my body, chattel and aroused with violent curiosity satisfy desire to cavern me from vulva to psyche. Meeting the Last Mistress When my parents dated again in their middle ages, I saw my mother happy, smoothing her hand-made dress, a floral tapestry against a black background, laughing often with my father at her table. I allowed myself to wish for the mending, the reclamation of moments before I began storing secrets for my father. On a weekend when he did not travel to East Orange, the pear trees, cherry blossoms reaching toward the sun left me restless with their fragrance. I went to Dean Street where he welcomed me with ease and introduced me to a stranger leaving his bed in a black peignoir. “Why so angry? Never seen you like this,” he wondered, smiling. Summers between college semesters, he paraded me in front of one girlfriend in early afternoon, then warned, “Keep your mouth shut. This is none of your business.” before he took me to the best of them at dusk, the one who got him union work after immigration to Brooklyn and treated me like blood relation. One more mistress completed intimate cleanup in his bathroom. Obligatory Haitian girl politeness incinerated with thoughts of him seven days before, exalting rapture, my mother below him, believing in bliss. I closed his door behind me as the last mistress I would meet began her small talk. Rumor The trouble started on New Year's Eve when the short aunt reported what the tall one said, "Your mother's got $100,000 in the bank," and cautioned "Pran têt out pitit. Pran têt ou!" My mother was in ICU pumping morphine for the pain. They took my silence for confirmation. When the time came, one aunt translated the eulogy, the other admired my black suit before asking for all of my mother's coats. One invited, "Vin viv lakay mwen!" Both watched me pay for limousines, vault, a double-deep plot. No garnish or dandelion offered for the coffin. They raised my bounty by $20,000. If my relatives have a barbecue, they invite me to bring the Idahos, mayonnaise, buns, something vital besides myself. They shouted, "Li sé gran nègès kounyea!" from East Orange to Port-au-Prince when I left my uncle's attic for a one-bedroom with no addicts on the stoop. Interest on my worth continued to multiply. The tall aunt claimed, "My little sister told me she would recover, work again to help me live," then waited for a response worthy of her praise. Mornings after the night shift, my mother whispered in God's ear, crafted her dresses, her slips, bedspreads from discounted cloth so that she could give whenever family needed. Someone else will be responsible for back rent, tuition, or bail. I will show up well dressed for weddings or funerals and sleep undisturbed on pieces of my fortune, a pillowcase with scalloped edges, an unfinished afghan, satisfied that I owe fenmi nothing. Serpentine Incidents after Wallace Stevens 1. Eve, breathless with novel sensation. Lips, tongue teasing Adam’s erection. Later, she saw the serpent’s slanted daffodil eyes, The ever-smiling mouth. She woke Crying, spelling desire as shame. 2. Confounded by the late, late movie, Cleopatra’s insomniac spirit muttered, “What the hell is this? After suicide with asps, my last resistance. Did I come back white and forget? Damn!” How else could she explain her saga played out By an epidermal stranger with violet eyes. 3. In the hills where Taino danced, A single woman wanted peace from three vicious sisters And bought a secluded acre with wild shadows. An albino Serpent languished on her avocado branch. 4. Serpent jaw creaked open and consumed Whole prey wider than its body. Not tall as the cherry hibiscus, The daughter wanted her father in battle stance. “Your namesake was slayer of the dragon Python,” he reminded as he placed a machète in her hand. 5. The water sang refrain of washwomen at daybreak. The serpent bathed Searching for inattentive creatures, Belly beating tempo on wet stones. 6. A husband writhed atop his mistress As his wife hung the wash. The serpent Paused at her feet, shook its head at her circumstance And continued to travel. 7. A stealth cat wanted to claw crevices on a spiraled white layer. The marquis head rose, bared fangs and shattered curious bravery. 8. Skin merchants coveted capture in the distance. Forked tongue smelled fear and envy. Muscled body undulated high in leaves, scales gleaming like platinum. 9. Electric summer on MLK Boulevard. Pet serpent explored pea green deli counter. Favorite eatery abandoned, a woman dreamed Of armor, Excalibur as man and perfect against demons.