Frankie’s fingers ran the length of the colonial style piano. There was not a speck of dust on the Honduran mahogany. The picture frames and artifacts resting atop its surface reflected across the gleaming wood, which despite its cleanliness, Frankie would polish again later that evening. Grandmother Lewis had asked Frankie to move in with her and help her around the house, yet this was inexplicably the only chore Frankie had been assigned. She picked up a red-handled cutlass and balanced it across her palms. A tingling sensation ran through her hands.
“That right there belonged to your great-great-great auntie,” Grandmother Lewis called from the kitchen. Oil popped and sizzled from the frying pan on the stove. She raised her voice to be heard over the racket. “She was known as The Great Geraldine in her day. Lord, what a woman!”
Frankie’s grandmother turned down the fire on the stove and, wiping her hands on her apron, she walked over to Frankie in the living room. She picked up the picture frame that had been sitting behind the cutlass on the piano top. The frame was made from leather, now fraying with age, and gold studs held it together at the corners. The Great Geraldine leaned against the side of a horse-drawn carriage and smiled up at Frankie and Grandmother Lewis. Dressed in a long-sleeved button-up, Geraldine held a wide-brimmed hat against her trouser pant legs as she posed. Her hair was styled in two thick plaits that fell on either side of her face. The cutlass hanged from a thick leather belt around her waist.
“What did she do?” Frankie asked.
“She was into liberation. Or, whatever it is she called herself doing. If Black folks needed freeing, she’d free ’em. If the innocent were wrongly accused, which happened often, she was her own judge and jury. Executioner too ’cause, as I’ve heard it, her blade tasted a lot of blood. Your auntie here was a wanted woman but couldn’t nobody catch her.”
The older woman replaced the frame on the piano and gently took the cutlass from Frankie’s hands. The smell of cinnamon wafted from the kitchen. Grandmother Lewis squeezed Frankie’s shoulder as she hurried to the stove. “Most of all, Geraldine saw a future where Black folks inhabited their birthright. A future this world is content on quelling.” Grandmother Lewis sighed and shook her head. “Geraldine was determined to see that through by any means necessary, and since our family is cut from a strange cloth that was not hard to do. Our blood don’t die so easily, as you’ll find out. And if my dreams tell it right, that’ll be happening soon.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Frankie asked.
“Now, you know I don’t tolerate foul language in my house, grandbaby!” Grandmother Lewis raised the wooden spoon from the pot of beans to her mouth. She smacked her lips in satisfaction then turned off the fire.
“Sorry, Grandmother. I didn’t mean it like that.”
“Well, what it means is that you have much to learn about who you are.”
“I don’t understand—”
Grandmother Lewis switched pans around on the burner and cracked the oven door open to check in on the roast. Frankie watched the woman work for a minute. She cocked her head forward. Did she not hear me? Clearing her throat, she repeated herself, louder this time.
“I don’t understand what any of that means, grandmama.”
“Dinner won’t fix itself if I’m busy talking.” Her grandmother tossed a coy smile over her shoulder. She had an answer but would not give it.
Frankie turned back to the piano and rolled her eyes. She listened to the elder woman alternate between crooning gospel hymns and making songs out of her own actions as she cooked. Frankie moved to the curio cabinet and studied the frames on its shelves. Like the ones on the piano, most were black and white, but some were in full color. In front of each frame was also a memento from the life of the person in the photo. Of the more interesting items was a pocket watch and a jeweled hair comb, a pistol with an opal grip, an onyx dagger, a letter sealed with gold wax, and two ornate necklaces that resembled amulets. All these keepsakes, she thought. It occurred to Frankie that these were more than just tokens of remembrance, that maybe there was a lot more her grandmother wasn’t telling her. I’m missing something, Frankie thought. What’s really going on here?
When evening waned long after they had eaten and her grandmother had shuffled off for bed, Frankie tidied the living room. An idle thought crept across her mind as she stared at the photos of her long-deceased ancestors. Who would serve as caretaker for these artifacts once Grandmother Lewis passed on? Before she had a chance to hold firmly onto the thought, another replaced it: what memento would her own future relatives hold in their hands to remember her by? Frankie did not let this thought go, and an hour later, as she slipped into bed, she was still thinking about what would symbolize her legacy.
Cocooned in the quiet of her room, Frankie drifted off to sleep. For a while, there was nothing. Just the twilight space between being awake and deep sleep. The last thoughts of the day tumbled in a soft haze before they dripped into an abyss. Then she dreamed she was standing in the middle of a forest. Trees groaned around her in the dark; it was just light enough for her to see a few feet ahead. Frankie shivered against the cold, which lingered in her right hand. Looking down, she found she was wearing her pajamas. Her feet were bare and she was holding the metal handle of an empty lantern. This dream was too lucid, too solid beneath her to be anything except real.
“Hello?” she called out.
Frankie shuffled her right foot forward, searching for holes or dips in the ground and sharp objects that might scrape against her feet. When she found it free of obstacles, she stepped forward and repeated the process with her left foot. She picked her way through the forest like this until the darkness eased and she saw light flickering ahead. Rushing forward, she entered a moonlit glade covered in soft grass.
The canopy opened up to a velvet sky streaked with starlight. An enormous moon, too big to be natural, filled it like one bright eye. It bathed everything it gazed upon in pearlescent light. Metal hooks gleamed on a series of wood poles arranged around the glade. One of the poles held a lantern filled with a flame that swirled and grew though there was no wick for the fire. Walking toward it, Frankie identified the thick red cedars and junipers around her. But peering closer, she noticed that the forest was a menagerie of trees. Elms, pines, oak, and strangely, palms, also surrounded her. Where the moonlight did not reach underneath the trees, shadows gathered. And in this hazy black, a faint voice whispered Frankie’s name.
“Who’s there?” Frankie called out. “Who’s talking to me?”
An oval face appeared from the dark to her right. The face had deep brown skin the color of earth after a rain, a wide rounded nose, and sparkling black eyes. A pair of full lips were set in a tight smile that widened the longer Frankie stared. Soon an entire body withdrew from the shadows and a woman stood before her. She wore a navy collared shirt with gold buttons and hickory-colored trousers. Her feet, like Frankie’s, were bare. Long flowing braids fell across the woman’s shoulders and down her back.
The woman laughed, deep and husky. “Well, Frankie. Seems like it’s your time now.”
“My time for what?” Frankie asked.
The woman stared hard at her. “No one’s told you what we’ve been put on this earth for? No one’s told you about the power in your blood?”
Frankie shook her head. “My grandmama said something today about us not being easily killed. Or something like that. But that’s all.”
The woman’s laughter shook the leaves overhead. “Such a simplistic understanding of oneself, but it’s a first step. There’s much going on in our world.”
Frankie raised an eyebrow.
“What? You thought this was just a dream. A thing your mind came up with?” She laughed again. “This is a sacred space. My body may be dead, but I’m still alive here. And there is still work I must do. We must do. The blood of the fallen cries out to us. Don’t you hear it? Their sorrow, their unharnessed power? And we must restore it all.” The woman smiled and gestured toward a pole beside her. “Will you join me?”
Frankie nodded and as she placed her cold lantern on the hook, a name burst onto her tongue. “Geraldine!”
“The one and only. Usually folks preface my name with ‘The Great,’ but for you, niece, I’ll let it slide. And it’s about time you figured out who I am. You’re going to have to be a lot sharper to do what needs to be done, honey.”
Twigs snapped in the brush behind them and light parted the shadows. Soon, more people entered the glade with lit lanterns in hand. Each placed them on a pole and then joined hands with the person beside them to form a circle. Grandmother Lewis stood across the circle from Frankie and nodded when their eyes met. Elsewhere she saw a handful of extended family members, uncles, aunts, and cousins, that she saw at the occasional family gathering. It did not take Frankie long to place the other faces with the ones that filled the picture frames in Grandmother Lewis’ living room. To her left, a bejeweled hair comb glittered in her great-grandmother’s hair.
Geraldine cleared her throat and began a low-pitched hum that the others picked up. The tone rose higher, and a baritone voice began to sing. The earth quaked beneath their feet and inside the circle, the ground cracked. Arms reached up from the split earth like wayward roots. Hands clawed at the ground around them until they found a hold. Frankie gasped and squeezed Geraldine’s hand tighter. Confusion roiled inside her, but she clenched her teeth against it and steadied her gaze toward the center of the circle. A young Black boy dragged himself up from the ground first. Powdered soil and loam fell away from him. Next came a Black woman and a man. More people climbed up, some turned to tug on the arms reaching up from the ground beneath them.
Frankie recognized one of the little girls wandering the circle. She was Marika Drew, a Black girl that had been killed when a white supremacist shot up a church in Virginia last summer. Some of the others who died that day were there too. Remembrance tugged her in a different direction. At the far side of the group was Nate Brown, killed by police last winter. And near him was a mother run down while begging for help at the gas station. The names of the dead piled up in her mind as they appeared before her. Fear and panic twisted up inside Frankie. Her heart pounded in her chest. It coalesced in a single throbbing knot that brought her to her knees. She broke the circle and crouched down, putting her head between her legs. The panic attack rising up inside her abated, but it was near enough that it could overtake her at any moment. She felt as if she were drifting until a hand pressed down on her left shoulder. Another held onto her right.
“Now you see,” Geraldine whispered in her ear. Frankie looked up at her aunt kneeling beside her. “Now you understand. They are as much a part of you as I am.”
A small amber flame formed in Frankie’s lantern, drawing her attention away from Geraldine. Frankie focused on what she was feeling. It was more than fear, but also despair. A paralyzing sorrow. The tongue of fire grew and shrank as she searched inside herself. Finally, it burst into a fiery lotus and held its shape.
The Great Geraldine grabbed Frankie’s hands in her own. “You will feel what they feel too. And for a time, it will overtake you. But just until you are ready.” As Geraldine kissed the backs of Frankie’s hands, Frankie awoke.
Mockingbirds rasped and trilled outside in the tree near her window. The hard orange of the sun softened to a dull yellow as the sun climbed higher in the sky. Frankie followed the sun’s rays across her room and they landed on her mirror in a flash of light. Like an ill-conceived echo, pain also erupted in Frankie’s chest and pierced down into her back.
She bucked and arched to get away from her own body. In the moment when the pain seemed to smash against her ribs and threatened to break her open, Frankie understood that it wasn’t just physical pain slicing through her. Deep inside, she felt uncontrollable grief. In her was the death of generations. There was also rage and hate stewing beneath her skin.
Frankie lay still until the stabbing ache dulled enough for her to get up from the bed. Her feet hanged inches above the floor before she pushed her weight all the way forward. When she was sure the pain would not trigger a sudden spike inside her chest again, she straightened her back and strode across the room. She clicked on the ancient TV set on her dresser top and cranked the volume so she could hear the news as she sat in the shower. Twenty minutes later, she emerged in a cloud of steam to see camera footage of a vigilante shooting playing out on the television.
“Yesterday, almost a week before our nation gathers together to give thanks, tragedy struck one local family,” an emotionless news anchor stated. “Details are still new, but what we know so far is this: a young African American boy has been shot and killed. On Wednesday afternoon, Jeremiah Morrison and his father were playing with guns, fake guns, in their front yard when a vigilante approached them. An argument ensued and in the heat of the moment, the vigilante opened fire.”
Pre-recorded footage played of a reporter interviewing witnesses and law enforcement at the scene. Jeremiah’s father operated a business making props for movie production companies. He often brought his projects home to work on in their garage. He and Jeremiah were playing with his latest props when a White man driving by saw them and felt threatened. A permit-holding gun owner himself, he pulled over and confronted them. It quickly devolved into a deadly shooting. The vigilante maintained that he was acting out of perceived defense of the neighborhood. But a child was killed in the process. A photo of a gap-toothed smiling kid expanded across the screen. It was captioned, “JEREMIAH MORRISON, 11.”
This boy had been robbed of a full life. His parents would flounder in the yawning void left behind in his absence. Every toy and book left behind was a shard slicing into them. Everything that his hands would create, every sliver of life that he would strum into existence, was now blown like ash in the wind.
Frankie refused to wipe the tears streaming down her face. A familiar tugging manifested in her gut. One she hadn’t felt in well over a decade. As a teen, when someone around her wept, Frankie wept with them. The enormity of their grief was hers. If it left them in a morass of depression, Frankie found herself there too. She expressed the wide swings of sadness without any control over them. It was the same for fear and anger, righteous or not. Happiness and joy were emotions she had to create on her own. There were moments when she locked herself in her room to mourn events that had not affected her directly. Her emotions confounded her relatives and folks who couldn’t understand why someone else’s misfortunes seemed like an injury to her own body. Why should she care so much?
But Frankie could not extricate herself from others’ pain. It was more than empathy. At the time, she could not understand what was happening to her. It was like suffering and grief were drawn inside her and bonded to her. The more people chastised her for her feelings, the more she worked to close herself off. She taught herself not to care by emulating the desensitization of those around her. But joining Geraldine and her other ancestors in the glade had broken that stronghold in a peculiar baptism.
Footage played of a reporter interviewing Jeremiah’s mother. Her clothes were wrinkled and bloodstained. Her eyes exuded a magnetism that Frankie could not shake. This woman had been hollowed. Pain rattled in Frankie’s chest again and folded her over her knees. Geraldine’s last comment drifted up from her memory.
And for a time, you will feel what they feel too.
The sharpness of the emotions violently rippled through her body. Frankie dropped to the floor and curled in a ball. The pain exploded under her sternum then widened until it was a searing heat banding across her chest. She inhaled until her lungs ached then blew out the air. She did this again and again, becoming near manic in hopes that this would stretch out the cramping muscle and soften the pain.
When that didn’t work, she clawed her chest as if trying to dig it out. But it would not ease. Every part of her screamed to be free of whatever was happening inside her. She needed to talk to her grandmother. Frankie stumbled from the bedroom to the front of the house. Grandmother Lewis, per usual, was in the kitchen. She was turning off the stove burner for the kettle when Frankie collapsed into the nearest chair.
“Missed ya at breakfast this mornin,” Grandmother Lewis said.
She turned around and gasped when she saw her granddaughter. Sweat poured down Frankie’s forehead. Her t-shirt was stained under the armpits and around the collar. Her skin held a grey pallor beneath the sheen of glistening sweat. “Lord God, help us! You ailin? What’s going on?”
“Grandmama, there’s pain,” Frankie swallowed and held onto the table for support. She was coming undone all at once. She took a deep breath and started again. “In my chest. Not a heart attack, I don’t think.” She coughed to hide the whimper scrambling up inside her.
Grandmother Lewis pushed a glass of cool water into Frankie’s hands before rushing back to the kettle. She poured water into a waiting teacup on the counter then turned her attention to a cabinet overhead. Bottles rattled and clinked as she tipped them aside in her search. She took out a square tin, shook it by her ear. “No, this ain’t the one.” She eyeballed a bottle missing a label and decided she couldn’t trust it. Finally she settled on a small green jar of herbs. She twisted off the cap and sprinkled its contents into the teacup. Steam curled up as she stirred.
“I think it has to do with last night,” Frankie paused and stared at her grandmother’s back. “That wasn’t a dream, right? You … you were there … in the glade?”
Grandmother Lewis chuckled. “Here, drink this tea.” The cup clinked against the saucer as she set it in front of Frankie then she slid into the chair across from her. “Yes, chile. I was there. What happened was as real as this table. You’ve been invited to take your birthright, to do a great work. That I can say for sure. As for the pain, we all feel it. It’s inexplicable beyond reason at times, especially for those just starting out like you.” She rapped her knuckles on the table twice. “It’s hard to hear, and hard enough for me to say, but I wouldn’t worry about that. The pain will leave soon enough. In its own time.”
“It’s not just that. I saw the news, that boy that was shot and killed, and something just broke inside me. I felt everything. His absence. His mother’s grief.”
“Funny thing that. Death affects our family in ways that it doesn’t others. It changes us.”
“You sound like—” Frankie swallowed. She was afraid to say the name out loud. It was improbable, speaking to a dead woman.
“Who do I sound like? Geraldine? She ain’t the boogeyman, though she has an attitude like one.”
Frankie sputtered. Tea dribbled down the side of her mouth. Grandmother Lewis handed her a napkin to wipe it up.
“Chile, do you think I just keep all these knickknacks around here because I need more things to clean? No, this is history. Life and death. This is power.” Grandmother Lewis turned to stare out the window of the rear door. Ash trees swayed in the backyard. Wind chimes tinkled gently. She turned back to Frankie.
“If I remember right, this ain’t the first time. You taking on other people’s emotions, that is.”
“Yeah, when I was younger. Used to happen all the time.”
“And then what happened?”
“I just stuffed it down. Folks like Uncle Lenny were always going on about respectability this, that, or the other. It was like I was embarrassing him or something.”
“Lenny’s always been a fool.”
Frankie snorted. “Yeah, well, it was happening at school too and kids were teasing me, said I was too sensitive. So I just thought something was wrong with me. Tried to fix it. Ignore it.”
“Now is not the time to ignore it.” Grandmother Lewis held up a hand as Frankie opened her mouth to speak. “It’s not my place to tell you much more. At least not right now. Geraldine will be the one to ease you through the initial transition. I’ll be here afterward.”
Frankie picked up her cup to drink the last sip of tea then put it down again. “Is this the real reason you wanted me to come stay with you?”
Grandmother Lewis smiled, reached over the table, and clasped Frankie’s hand. “Grandbaby, I’m so proud of you. Whatever happens next, just know that.”
The tender moment broke as a siren shrieked on the street outside. It faded as the wailing moved away from the house. Grandmother Lewis returned to the stove to prepare the day’s meals. Frankie shuffled back to her room, carried along by the meager understanding of what was yet to come. But any semblance of acceptance was dashed by the siren and the tension it had left lingering in the air.
As the days progressed, Jeremiah Morrison’s murder left a meteoric impact on the city. Frankie only left the house to pick up groceries for her grandmother. As she walked, an uneasy hurriedness coursed through her legs. Images of Jeremiah plastered the sides of storefronts and alley walls. His face haunted her. His eyes begged for help, for an explanation. The further she walked, his eyes changed. They were enraged or empty. Sometimes they seemed to beg for an apology. Local graffiti artists spray-painted murals and tagged whatever surface they could with stickers of Jeremiah’s name and face. In stenciled shadows, his expression seemed to ask for what Frankie was unable to give. The shockwaves from his murder disrupted daily civility. Radio personalities critiqued inaction by law enforcement and decried the equivocations of politicians. Community activists led protests across the city. They berated customers exiting shops and accused them of complacency.
“There will never be a time for peace again,” the protestors proclaimed, “until justice is served for Jeremiah and others like him!”
Protests tore through the city. People looted and burned down commercial buildings and big box stores. Police sirens screamed through neighborhoods. Most pedestrians either kept their head swiveling around searching for danger or fixed their eyes on a point in the distance, careful not to catch the gaze of a stranger looking to release their own frustrations. But the unrest coalesced in an uprising that destroyed several city blocks.
The discord found a way inside Frankie as she ran her errands or watched the news. Every hiss and snort, every scream and grunt nestled in her. They wormed into her chest and fueled the pain growing there until she went to bed.
At night, while protestors gathered on street corners to unleash their outrage by lighting M-80s and other illegal firecrackers that rocked people from their sleep, Frankie strolled through the moonlit glade. Vestiges from her waking life infiltrated her dreams. As tensions heightened in the city, the darkness at the base of the trees thickened and became viscous. It became more difficult to walk through the forest. Burned out and rotting buildings cluttered the base of the trees. But the trees still grew through them, mighty and unharmed.
Frankie watched her ancestors materialize from the thick shadows, parting them like heavy stage curtains. They joined hands in a circle where they raised the dead to everlasting life. It began as Geraldine hummed a tone that the others mimicked. It started low in their throats then undulated in pitch until Frankie felt as if her head were swimming with rhythm.
As they hummed, and later sang, men, women, and children who had been killed, their lives long-forgotten news fodder, appeared in the circle. They dug their way out of the ground and stood, covered in dirt but healed of their fatal injuries.
“Come to us!” Geraldine cried out. “Spirits, rise and gather. Those whose time has come, join us anew!”
Frankie searched for Jeremiah. And though he remained a constant in her waking moments, he did not yet appear in the glade. Instead, others crawled up from the earth. She did not know them intimately either, but they too were familiar. In the ways in which Black folks could pass each other on the street, two complete strangers and yet nod to each other, these people were kin to her. A community. Their suffering was hers. And now there were too many dead. Too many families shattered by violence and hate. It was time to take their suffering and restore them. The people inside the circle sang with Frankie and her ancestors. Their voices were loud and melodic.
“Rise, come on, rise!”
“Death don’t stand a chance!”
They bent over the cracked earth and pulled up others tearing away at the ground beneath their feet. A great crowd grew inside the circle. The people shuffled around until a select few stood in the center. In this chosen group, children played and danced as their bodies lengthened and they grew up to be adults. Joy sparkled in their eyes and tumbled from their mouths in great bouts of laughter. And those who had died in adulthood bowed over. Their skin wrinkled and thinned, but still they did not die. And they did not lose the joy trembling within them either. The dead, who were beyond death in the glade, all lived until the very edge of what should have been due to them in life. Night after night, the ritual was the same. And each night that passed, a few more people joined the center.
When she awoke in the morning, Frankie felt slightly emptied, as if part of herself had been exorcised. Grandmother Lewis waited for her at the kitchen with a steaming cup of tea to soothe her mind and a plate of sausages in biscuits to fill her belly. The pain in her chest lay still until awakened once all the world’s grief clung to her again.
On the eve of Thanksgiving, a week after Jeremiah’s murder, Frankie stood with her ancestors in the glade. All around them the lanterns glowed so bright, it hurt to look directly at them for too long. A powerful energy flowed through the circle as rage, sorrow, and death moved from the people inside the circle into Frankie and her ancestors. They bowed and swayed under the weight of the energy as more and more people burst forth from the ground with greater urgency. Once steadied, they tore at the earth and grass to make way for others below. The people in the center shuffled and arranged themselves until fifteen of them stood in the epicenter and would not be moved.
“These are the ones,” Geraldine called. “As we take the pain into ourselves, we will give them life in return. We will take it all and give them back to life.”
The swaying stopped. Frankie’s shirt stuck to her sweat-slick back, and she gasped for breath. The glade fell silent and everyone stood still. Then she and her ancestors raised their arms in unison. They cocked their heads back. Frankie’s mouth hanged open, and the twinkling stars were so clear they looked like ripe fruit ready to plop into her gaping mouth.
A keening punctuated the air, and the pain gathering in Frankie’s chest radiated outward until it filled her entirely. Around her, others grimaced and strained, but no one would let go of each other’s hands. The upswelling ignited Frankie and her ancestors. Flames licked up from their feet and covered their bodies, but they were not consumed, neither was the glade. A note floated up from somewhere, and a thin voice began singing:
“No more weeping, no more weeping, no more weeping over me….”*
“There’ll be singin’, there’ll be singin’, there’ll be singin’ over me….”
As sure as she had spent her life in Baptist churches, the spiritual’s refrains were familiar to Frankie. She took up the song along with those in the circle. The throng of voices became one, a singular command. The crowd inside the circle parted so that the chosen could make their way toward the flaming outer ring.
“There’ll be glory, there’ll be glory, there’ll be glory over me!”
The chosen passed into the flame, which spit and cast sparks in their wake. After each of the fifteen people were gone, the rest of the inner circle sank into the ground. Awaiting the day when they would be called upon.
The smell of smoke arrested Frankie’s nose and dragged her from her dream. Her heavy-lidded eyes wrestled between wakefulness and the lull of sleep as she struggled to take in the bedroom. The night sky twinkled behind her fluttering curtains caught on the breeze from the open window. Her face followed the lead of her nose, drawn away from the window and hooking on the sharp smoke that hanged in the air above her. But it was the heat tickling Frankie’s arms that sharpened her awakening and shocked her upright.
She rolled out of the bed just as the last of the flames were dying. The sheets and mattress were scorched where she had lain. From the twilight sleep lingering on her came a calm. Frankie sat cross-legged on the floor.
A new sensation bloomed in her chest. The gentle warmth seemed natural to her—a dormant extension of herself that she had finally remembered how to use. Frankie hugged her legs and let the breeze cool off the room. She sat there at peace, like a seed excoriated in a cleansing fire.
*lyrics from the spiritual “Oh, Freedom!”