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A short story by novelist Wayétu Moore in response to Charles White

They call me dumb because I am mute and slow to follow direction. My body’s limbs resemble winter’s coldness – palsied, slow moving. Ira wakes me when the day is still an infant, shaking me roughly, as if I am the one who stopped her dreams. It takes some time for my own dreams to fade from my mind, those dreams in which I am in another body, with hands, good hands, that I could use to help Piti; those dreams in which I no longer search the garbage for those gowns Ira loves to wear around the apartment, moving in the way she did when she pretended she was someone else, dragging an imaginary cigarette, one she could finally afford, near and away from her lips.

Piti works on an aid worker’s farm. He is saving money to move us to Oyo Kingdom – what was once Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, before the Awakening. Piti says the Awakening was the culmination of a war of races, when most men on earth banded with those of the same skin colour and ran head first into the carnage that almost ruined the planet. At the end, there was a summit held by the leaders of all races, in Oyo, the kingdom most successful in the war.

After the Awakening, Piti says race stopped mattering. The rich carried on as if nothing had happened at all, building mansions in Oyo twice as vast as their former homes, marrying their children off to those of different races for property, while the rest of the incinerated world was left to pick up the pieces.

We live in a slum of White Kingdom, what was once a place called America. Those of only one race live here. Piti and my mother were too poor to mix. Moving is all Piti and Ira talk about. Piti knows a man who gets people to Oyo by hiding them on a ship; thereafter they work on farms. 

Because I cannot speak, they assume I am sick. There are many who are sick on this planet, but I suppose there are few like me. When I made an attempt at their language, a terrible stutter of incomprehensible sounds impeded my social graces. But I have dreams in which I speak, dreams with my good hands, dreams of Oyo Kingdom. In them, I am in a boat with Piti and Ira, and the boat is on fire. The Oyo Kingdom refuses refugees now because their farms are full; so, if they see a boat they suspect is carrying refugees, they bomb it. Still, Piti wants us to go on such a boat. But I have seen the fire and, if I could speak, I would tell Piti that we should not go, that sand is no place to build a house.

Tonight, we were to leave while our quarters were asleep. 

charles_white_harvest_talk_1953_charcoal_carbon_drawing_pencil_and_graphite_with_stumping_and_erasing_on_board_66_x_99_cm._courtesy_c_the_charles_white_archives_inc_and_the_art_institute_of_chicago

Charles White, Harvest Talk, 1953, charcoal, carbon drawing pencil and graphite with stumping and erasing on board, 66 × 99 cm. Courtesy: © The Charles White Archives Inc and the Art Institute of Chicago

But, today, something happened. While at school, I was being bothered again by the other boys. Ira says once there were separate classrooms for boys like me, but schools also changed during the Awakening. ‘All is equal, all is fair,’ she says, quoting the words on the money and buildings here. 

Today one of the boys, Monroe, shouted across the street at me and I nearly tripped over my own feet en route to the apartment. 

‘Yo, I hear your daddy’s a faggot!’ Monroe choked on his own laughter. 

I quickened my pace when I heard the word daddy. I do miss Piti when he is not around. He works too much for too little food. We run out before he is paid, and when he is paid, the bread is usually too hard or mouldy.  

Only a few short blocks from our apartment, I heard Monroe and his friends run across the street. I sprinted away and, at a narrow intersection, into an alley. Monroe and his friends followed me, one sweating as the roll of fat on his stomach danced over his pants with each foot he put forward. I felt myself weaken. I closed my eyes tightly and, when I opened them again, a tall chain-linked fence was only 30 yards away. Finally approaching it, I climbed, only to trip on the long strap of my oversized backpack. As Monroe and his friends approached, I sat against the gate, pressed my legs into my chest and covered my head with my trembling arms as the boys approached me. I screamed to stop the pain in my head but was then electrified by a piercing silence. 

That is when it happened. 

Everything had suddenly become still, and I felt the slightest waves of the sun and wind move against my skin. My body grew hot and the ground beneath me shook. Startled by the movement and the sudden absence of threats from Monroe and his crew, I lifted my head. When I saw what surrounded me, I yelled in amazement. I was somehow on an empty street, my bullies nowhere in sight. I saw my apartment building in the distance, and the block where I had just encountered the boys. I could hear them shrieking from afar. 

‘I’m dreaming,’ I thought. I had recently read a few pages over the shoulder of a classmate about ‘Super Men’ – those with magical powers like quantum teleportation and fire-breathing. I believed that what I read had found its way into my sleep.

I quickly stood and examined the street signs and, in the distance, noticed a busier intersection. In that moment, I wanted only to return to my apartment. At the intersection, two black cars were parked in front of a house. The cars sped away at the sound of a police siren that turned the corner. A man who had come outside of the house had disappeared, possibly into one of the cars. Seeing this, I squeezed the handles of my backpack and began jogging toward the intersection. The police, rather than following the black cars, had stopped. I approached their car and two men stared at me as I passed. 

‘Eh!’ the cop called and reversed his vehicle. ‘How you doing there?’ one policeman in the passenger seat asked. 

‘Good,’ I wanted to say, but stuttered only high-pitched sounds. 

‘You sick?’ he asked. ‘Show me your numbers.’ I held out my arm to expose my identification. 

‘Can hardly see it,’ he laughed while entering my numbers into his computer. 

‘Atticus your name?’ 

I nodded. 

‘Tell me, you was walking down the street and you saw somebody come out a house right?’ he asked. 

Those in that neighbourhood called people who talked to cops ‘deadies’. Deadies were beaten up. Skinned. I shook my head. 

‘What happened?’ Musa shouted. I looked at her, confused. Ira slapped my face and my eyes watered from the sting. ‘Don’t know why I try with you! Obie called from downstairs, said a police car bring you home.’ 

‘They ask anything?’ she pleaded. ‘They know?’ 

I shook my head. 

‘Police man offer you ride, next time shake no,’ she said.

‘You think they know?’ Musa asked Ira. 

‘Don’t know how,’ Ira said. ‘Piti haven’t said nothing to no one about quitting work. We just going to go.’ 

‘I will save us,’ I tried to say, but all that came forth was long, staggered wailing. ‘I can save us.’ This upset Ira and she grabbed my arm and led me to my room, throwing me inside and slamming the door. 

charles_white_gideon_1951_black_and_white_lithograph_on_paper_51_x_39_cm._courtesy_c_the_charles_white_archives_inc_and_the_art_institute_of_chicago

Charles White, Gideon, 1951, black and white lithograph on paper, 51 × 39 cm. Courtesy: © The Charles White Archives Inc and the Art Institute of Chicago

Later that day, I heard Piti and Ira whisper outside, heard them shuffle and could feel their fear a room away. I opened the door slowly, afraid I would upset Ira, and saw Piti stuff some papers into the backpack Ira had filled earlier that day. I was as happy to see him as he was startled by the slow croak of the door. I went to hug him but, before I arrived, there came a scratching sound from outside the front door of the apartment. Ira rushed out of her room and touched Piti’s shoulder. She gazed at him, desperate and confused, and covered her mouth to restrain her panicked breath. Piti shook his head at her, assuring her that he had taken all precautions to ensure a safe trip. 

‘Where is the deadie?’ a voice, low and unforgiving, mumbled outside. ‘Where is the deadie?’ the voice asked again amidst shuffling footsteps. He was not alone. Ira glanced at me in terror. 

‘It’s Atticus,’ I heard Ira whisper through her hysteria. ‘Cop bring him home today.’

Piti glanced at me with disappointment and pity. He thought he had anticipated everything. 

‘I will save us,’ I tried to say, but only my wailing began. Ira could have killed me in that moment for revealing that we were home, but I grabbed hold of her and Piti’s hands and closed my eyes as tightly as I could, until they ached, and I wished for my gifts to return, to save us, in that moment, from death, from running, from wanting an elsewhere far from that moment.

 I leaned my head against Piti’s shoulder, closed my eyes and there, along came the silence, as intense as it had been that day, hard against my ears. I squeezed them close and fell into it, into our disappearance. It was swift, frigid and as colourful as it was quiet. I was still holding them but was afraid to open my eyes to see that they were actually with me, for fear that I’d disrupt the escape. I then felt the wind cold against my skin, the sound of waves close. I opened my eyes and Piti and Ira were before me, amazed, touching their skin, and my face, to make sure it had all been real. We were on the quarter deck of a ship, full of luggage, torn cloth bags sloppily packed and bound with string, rank with the smell of waste. Piti held his finger up to his lips for Ira to remain quiet, her face painted with relief and tears. Piti crawled to a cluster of bags. I followed him and looked over his shoulder as he grabbed and read a tag, his hands still shaking. My body grew warm as I read along:

NUMBER: 89345 87345 80111 93745 08111 
DATE: August 2111
DESTINATION: OYO KINGDOM 

Piti beckoned for Ira. She read the tag and held her hand over her mouth to restrain her excitement. 

‘No, no,’ I tried saying, but I squealed again. The images of the fire returned. Piti shook his head and held my shoulders. My ability had worked again, but so far would only transport me to the near future. I could attempt it again, to hold them close, squeezing their fates between my fingers, but where would we end up now? In Oyo? In tomorrow? In Death? How would I tell Piti, who was smiling widely, in a way I had never seen, looking upward to thank a God he was never sure he believed in, that this was not his happy ending? That, on this planet, we would always have to run? 

I could not. So, I hugged them. And I was crying now as I closed my eyes, and the flames grew around us in the darkness. And my body shook. And, again, along came the silence.

Join frieze and Wayétu Moore for an event hosted by NYU Steinhardt (Einstein Auditorium) on September 17 at 7pm, where Moore will read from her new debut novel, She Would Be King, followed by a conversation about her work with frieze Senior US Editor Andrew Durbin. For more information click here.

‘Charles White: A Retrospective’ ran from 8 June – 3 September 3 at the Art Institute of Chicago. The show travels to New York's MoMA running 7 October, 2018 – 13 January, 2019.
 
Main image: Charles White, Sound of Silence, 1978, colour lithograph on paper, 64 × 90 cm. Courtesy: © The Charles White Archives Inc and the Art Institute of Chicago