by John Murillo III
Blue-purple corn dough clings like film to sticky fingers. Stolen petrichor on these surgical digits, the earthen wetness smells like so much midnight rain on soil. Such rich loam, so fertile, the mash of nighttime sky, earth and water. A ceramic vessel sits atop scarred and weathered mahogany, pregnant with the faded cornflower-indigo clay, the product of a thief’s dual alchemy—the alchemy of the theft and reassembly of the shards of a process too grand to glean in the quick desperation of stealing away, and the incomplete alchemy of the conception, the gestation, and the inevitable birth of wholes from the fragments gotten. Maternal basin, periodically rocking back and forth, round and full with the litter of what must be born, wobble-waddles closer to the brink, the end, the fall at the end of the scarred and weathered mahogany only to be deliberately, but gently, guided back to center by dirty, thief hands, not yet done stealing space and time for what must be made.
Thief’s hands cup and scoop and pat and splat forth and back the blue-purple nixtamal’d ball of sky, earth, land, of night, soil, rainfall in the Fall, the glimmering staccato rhythm of which beats like drumsticks tick-clicking behind jazz riffs in the stick move of the mixture between palms, fraying fronds not bending to the looping whoops of desolate winds but to the song, moan, cry, ululation, and spit of creative will, hungry need, necessary desperation, impossible dreams and all that good, real, blues-hued and blood black-red shit.
Another cornflower nighttime rain world, scoop pat splat forth and back, lumpy and taking shape, and another, and another, pilfered or collected and molded for and from those, we, for whom water, and earth, and sky, are everything are everything are everything and more.
At the crossing of veins: ocean and earth, black water and red land, raised and lightly pulsing tidal tectonic rhythms on the backs of two too-big hands with fingers that can bend backward to wrists, right curled into half a fist to grip the pen touched to and tap-tap-rapping against the parted slit between lips whispering bloodied and salty cross-thoughts incanted below eyes closed, burgundy ink and inky sight in search of they and them and those and me I never knew, those I knew I loved, and those we lost; the narrow split of parted lips conjures the vexed hieroglyphic spellings about to spill onto dirty, splattered pages, while my consciousness teeters on the precipice between ages and spaces, between here and the dream where and when the dead, dying, and doomed might have moments and room to be, speak, and breathe—somewhere, somewhen, in the binding of the notebook, the uneven bluffs of unfinished maps, the margin’s sewn seams.
Unseemly. Blood loss. The way the seams of space, time, and self unravel when too much spills, the spillage or slippage into cold and hazy disarray.
Unseemly blood loss. Great granddad Lorrance Deaver was six-foot something with long, straight gray hair that was 4-foot something and a slow, pensive Texarkana accent that over the phone sounded like it was laced with hot, dark grease, cast-iron skillets, old-school long-lived dark-red pain, and ancient wisdom, or something. I can map on surgical digits the limits bracketing off the few and far between times I heard him say something with all those hidden somethings signaled from weathered lips across miles and phone lines. When he would call and ask, “How y’all doin’ over there?”, and on speaker phone my mom would say, “We good, granddaddy, how’s grandmamma?”, I’d wonder if he still looked like he did in the picture, that wrinkled and regal and wise and gentle question-mark pumping through nervous veins; so few and molasses thick those greetings and those genuine questions; so much dense and fluid matter being siphoned by my unready roots.
Unseemly blood loss, voided bloodlines, void in veins, in vain, it seems I seek the truth in black hole bubbles interrupting the whole flow, or what remains of the before of the knowing and being that I be.
Mom cookin country cookin’ lookin’ focused in front of the stove.
Hoe cakes sizzling in the slick, butter-licked skillet, billowing corn smoke out the back do’.
Cool black cat click-clack-scratches up the bricks, paces and sits, and licks its paw,
Wet loam of time on my mom’s hands, and me
Listening to the skillet for the language I need to read the lives caking her palms,
Hoping what’s in hand and in pot feed me
Hoping it feed me.
Old hunger, deep need, deep breaths. The smell and the scene are a trigger, are rememory, waiting out there for me, in here for me, for me, before me, on the wall purring, peering, preening, fizzle-sizzling in corn oil in the skillet, or in her hands; I wonder if I can hold or handle the stickiness or the heat, and into the cat’s eyes, I go.
When I was in the fourth grade, Ms. Kelly assigned my too-smart-to-be-that-lazy self and the rest of the overachieving-and-disinterested-in-equal-measure nine-year-olds a project: “Make a family tree that goes at least as far back as your great-great grandparents,” or something. For the first and last time in my life and his, I called him with questions. I learned of generations of unfamiliar names and places, conjuring in my imagination the reservations and the enslavement, placed names and images along the roots and the trunk. I turned the assignment in, remembering not much more than the sound of my great-granddad’s voice as he sifted through the funk and silt of time for the minerals of memory that might one day nourish me when I grew hungry for history, for orientation, for maps, for something—something else.
The hollowness of the clank and clunk of country cookin’ in mom’s pans and pots reminds me that I don’t remember the grade I got. Teacher never gave it back; I never got it back; or the tree—at least the trunk and roots—was lost. The molasses of the voice on the phone was slow, sweet, and saccharine, slowly dripping over two, stacked hoecake discs, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t reckon with the deliciousness of what’s there, of what remains, but there is pain the loss and the forgetting; cook, and cook, and eat, but I cannot get my fill from this.
Another bite, another bite, and the plate is empty, and the cat’s long gone, and my mom’s hands are clean, and the cool water washes the crumbs into oblivion, and my hands feel too, too dry—dessicated, like the cool sink water took the water I was able to bear with it into the void of the drain.
I can see the cracks in the flesh. I can feel the cracks in the palm lines, the breaks in time.
Up the stairs from Harvard Square Station, up and out into the crisp cool of Boston air, and Chinyere’s asking, digging, mining for the liquid black-red, the arterial and venous pipelines, and their source, which I know and can feel is there, just there, somewhere maybe, but I don’t know where.
And I don’t know where to begin an answer to,
“Why don’t you know your blood?”—in so many words—beyond
The rough-brick edifice, the hard construction of an “I don’t know,”
Built to house the stank of the shame of not knowing, of not knowing what I don’t know, of knowing that I knew, or at least felt, the necessity of all the unasked and now unaskable questions throbbing, now, like cavities in my mouth; all of this, the pain of aimless veins, rivers flowing to and from nowhere, or somewhere I can’t find.
Again, “How can you not know how to read
The peculiar arc of the curls on your head,
The calligraphy that signals the narratives of the before?” and the hardness
Of “I don’t know” is a bitter-brittle snap, now,
A fragile twig underfoot now,
Because in my mind we just stepped off some trains traveling red lines all day and I’m being confronted with the rememory of the fact that I can no longer imagine traveling mine.
Out of love, in love, with love, my beloved implores,
“Where your diamonds?”
And asunder I am torn, knowing only the location of shadows, and preciousness solely by way of breakings and losses.
He’d died in Texarkana. My mom cried over the phone. She couldn’t afford to, but wanted to go back home. The heaviness of the loss was too much and too lonely to bear, here, but for her sister and brothers, though she grieved as she cooked, with a molasses sweetness, a cast-iron well-seasoned resilience and black warmth, and wistful eyes. None in our home could know the sorrow of the phone call and the not going, only the not knowing that would grow and grow in place of known roots, and flow and flow in veins and arteries, a lifeline of so many lifelines lost—that is, without known sources, traceable tributaries, or defined routes.
She holds my hand, then, reads the pain of answerless answers in the dry, crackedness of the palm, remarking,
“Your hands are so cold.
Have you checked your circulation?
You probably have bad circulation.
You might be anemic.
You might need some iron, buddy.”
She was right. She is.
How important, our rivers, and what flows in them.
How important, to know, and to cherish, the life and the mineral,
The nature, of the currents,
How important to know the coolness of the water, of the water that is life
As blood is life.
These are the troubles of the waters that rippled more violently with the demands at Standing Rock to defend the sacredness of land and water. The redness of the demand. The oft unconsidered blackness of the redness of that demand. The oft unthought histories of antiblackness in the redness of the redness of the demand.
I shared and watched and demanded, too, but more than anything felt the immensity of the breaking in veins, more oceanic than fluvial now; breaking like waves; breaking like tidal forces, the force of which pulled me across time and space, split me between the density of the untimely absences, and
loss written illegibly in my blood,
all the gaps in the life and death sentences-become-fragments,
all the undecipherable entanglements where everything and nothing cross.
Standing Rock’s call was a summoning of the land and water in me, a conjuring channeling the vexed tectonic shifts, the global rifts and rips, and the saltwater riptides, all the unfinished geometries of rage, shame, joy, grief, wistfulness, wastefulness, loss and love—all the genocide, revolution, care, destruction, creation, enslavement; and the stories, the stories I know, the stories I missed; all of this, all of this and all that I cannot know, feel, or name, stirred up, “mixed.” Across miles, phone lines, campsites, rebellious and revolutionary cries, loss, and lost time, travelled the sense that something quaked, some kind of losing shook loose, so that of the sacred water and precious life I bear I might make use—make users of use, users of us.
This was an avatar’s reawakening, and so with surgical digits I sought to bend blood, water, and earth into something more, but not other, than unknown unknowns, the nastiest of oil, and the most arid and infertile of dirt.
This was an alchemist’s galvanization, and so out of the fragments of life and practice I’ve been able to collect, the pulverized blue of the kernels I’ve stolen in squirreled away, I teetered and twirled between nigredo and rubedo, overlapping transmutation circles cirqued over and over again, the unfurling of an attempt at transmuting small and large worlds out of the words and elements that I clap, slap, and grasp with cold and deft hands.
But most of all, this was a cook’s confirmation, and so with hands caked with blues and black-ink fingertips I struggled to make shame, ignorance and loss smell like tortillas a mano, shick-splat-pat the unwieldy and shapeless into usable and digestible form, and season the scorch of bitterness so that it taste good, tried to cook this fundamental vessel out of the ancient and fundamental plant so that it might hold all the things I continue to struggle to bear, hold them, enfold them, so that I, so that we, might share a meal, heal some hunger, and, maybe, if I make enough of something out of nothing, feel full.
So I guess, for want of molasses and iron, in the name of loss and hunger,
Scoop, pat, splat, forth and back,
Sizzle-fizzle in the skillet, cast-iron, Black,
A bite to eat,
Some words and worlds to read,
And the hope that it feeds.
The hope that it feeds.
Dr. John Murillo III is a conjurer. Often, that he practices Black magic with words, rife with nerdy references and citations—to/of Mass Effect, Doctor Who, Yasiin Bey, Umbrella Academy, Pokémon, Hortense Spillers, Steven Universe, Theoretical Physics and Afropessimism—infuriates misguided, uninformed, and petty nonbelievers of all kinds. He channels their dismissive and baseless hateration into inky spells, deathly cast into wordy, cinematic, weird, loving, enraged, and sorrowful sentences on comic book, essay, poetry, and novel pages. Unlike them, he believes in the “promise” and the practice “of the infinite,” tries his best like “Umi Says,” and imagines the unimaginable through, for, and with Black life and death everywhere. His curls have been described as “a portal into the boundless absurdity and wonder of the cosmos.” His favorite dish is mole negro. Find him on Facebook or Twitter.
 By himself and literally no one else.