Sunjai’s favorite spot in New Orleans was once by the lake for Sunday cookouts. Her family and dozens of other families would hide from the blazing sun, tucked under pavilions, where they’d look across at the grey water that stretched wide as an ocean’s bay. Smoke billowed from grills and music streamed from open windows of cars as the owners buffed them with turtle wax until they glistened.
Since Sunjai’s family has left home, there are no more Sunday cookouts to look forward to. Underneath the live oaks in City Park is now her favorite spot, and still she loves the trees, even after the massive pecan tree in her Grandmother’s backyard came crashing through the roof during Hurricane Katrina, destroying nearly everything her family possessed. With the stoic strength embodied by those blessed to survive the curse of tremendous loss, Sunjai pushes down the memory, and invites Natasha to a picnic under the live oaks, to celebrate their third anniversary.
Soulful ballads by Maxwell and Sade play from Sunjai’s cell phone, while they sit on a blanket and twist the heads off of boiled crawfish, devouring the tails. Cayenne pepper burns their lips, which they sooth with crisp-cold Coronas.
Between fistfuls of crawfish tails, Natasha squeezes cloves of buttery garlic out of their skin and onto her tongue. She shreds juicy smoked sausage between her teeth, and cleans a turkey neck down to its bone. Red potatoes, dripping with the rich flavor of the boil, fall apart in her mouth.
Exhausted and filled to the brim, Natasha falls onto her back, her nose stuffed with the scent of lemon, beer and spice. They are in the company of another couple who hug in the sunlight, and a trio of young women dribbling basketballs. The thunk of their balls bounce up and down the walking path in sync, like a beat. A toddler squeals as he flies in a woman’s arms.
Sunjai leans back onto her elbows, and stretches her neck towards the sun. Silver-grey strings of Spanish moss dangle from the oak branches like garland.
Spanish moss are ancestors, she says.
Natasha reaches her arm across the blanket to the grass, plucks a pile of fallen wispy moss between her fingers and gently brushes it against her cheek. It is softer than it looks.
Don’t do that, Sunjai tells her, grabbing the moss from Natasha’s hand and tossing it.
Chiggers hide in Spanish moss.
Chiggers? asks Natasha, wiping the back of her hand against the spot on her cheek where the moss had touched.
You remember Red Hots? asks Sunjai.
Those round, red candies?
That’s what chiggers look like, except you can’t really see them. I saw some under a microscope in high school. They eat your skin cells.
Natasha sticks out her tongue, her face sour. Sunjai smirks and returns to resting on her elbows.
Don’t the moss look like spirits, Natasha?
I never saw them in that way before, Natasha replies.
Below the long, graceful streams of moss, the trees’ roots erupt from the dirt, the way blood veins protrude in lumps under old people’s skin, and run like rivers to their hearts.
Some of these trees are nine-hundred years old, says Sunjai. That means they’ve seen the entire bloodline of my family since we’ve been in Louisiana.
She plucks a finger for each generation, her lips silently counting her great, great, great, great, great grandparents.
The first person in our family that was born here, at least that we know of, was our grandfather from eight generations ago. He was born in 1811, a month after the Insurrection, and he was named Jessamin after one of the men who revolted.
Jessamin, echoes Natasha. What else do you know about him?
Nothing, replies Sunjai. But I know these trees were here before they used this land as a plantation. These trees were here before the U.S., before Spain, before France. These trees been here since this was home to Chitimacha, Houma and Choctaw people. And they’re still here.
Sunjai smooths the corners of the blanket, and lays flat on her back like Natasha. They watch cotton balls of clouds peek through the lace of intertwined branches and coiled moss.
Sometimes, my mom and my aunts would get snowballs for me, my brothers and sisters and cousins and we’d come here. All eleven of us. She twists her neck to face Natasha. That’s a lot of kids.
Was your favorite flavor always Wedding Cake? asks Natasha, who fell in love with the icy, sweet dessert the first time Sunjai introduced her to it.
Always, replies Sunjai. They didn’t let us play hide and seek because they were scared to let us out their sight, so we played Mother May I and since AJ was too little to talk, he’d just follow behind whoever was It. That’s why we call him Shadow.
Sunjai swigs her beer.
With so many of us kids in my family, I didn’t need friends. I was cool with people at school, but I never hung out with them after class. I never had people over to my house. I only saw the kids from church on Sundays. The only people I ever really got to know, and the only ones who really, truly know me, are my family.
Family. A breeze sweeps over their bodies and the hairs on Natasha’s arms stiffen. Family was different for Natasha. When the ice cream truck chimed around the corner of Clementine Avenue, the dead-end street in Boston where Natasha was from, all the kids ran to where Uncle Edwin sat in his wheelchair, in the same corner of the porch that Titi G propped him into every morning so that he could watch the street.
Natasha and her twin August, her other brother Caleb, her cousins- by blood and the ones bonded by the block they were born to, gathered around Uncle Edwin. The crow’s feet in the corners of his pale, green eyes would appear and disappear each time he winked at the kids. The brown of his hand was wrinkly as the dollars he doled out for push pops.
Uncle Edwin and Titi G weren’t blood to any of the kids, but Titi G was best friends with Natasha’s mother. Their house sat across from where Natasha’s other brother, Caleb had once lived with his parents. Before Caleb’s father disappeared and his mother got locked up for drugs. Before Natasha’s mother became Caleb’s guardian, and at the age of seven he became Natasha and August’s other brother. Family.
The kids would pile on Uncle Edwin’s porch- lanky legs squatting on steps and dangling ankles over the bannister. Their tongues flicked fast, competing with the humidity to suck up the creamy vanilla and fudge- before it dripped sticky down their fingers. Bewilderment grew in their eyes as Uncle Edwin told stories of running through jungles in Vietnam blinded by sweat, his stomach rumbling empty, and an M-16 strapped across his shoulders.
You ever kill someone? The kids would ask, with excitement.
Metidos, chacho! Uncle Edwin scoffed. Let people tell you what they want you to know. Nosy little bodies, he’d add.
The kids swapped their own stories about a gun one of them had seen propped in the waistband of some kid at school, or the time a policeman held one to the head of their friend’s father, on the sidewalk outside of his house. Uncle Edwin would shake his head and look out past them.
Natasha imagined how heavy the M-16 must have been, strapped across his body. She wondered if it made him feel protected or if its weight had been a burden, if he had been terrified for his life. She wondered if the kids had been afraid of the guns they saw, underneath the boastful voices telling the stories, the way she felt afraid knowing that their stories were true. Did Uncle Edwin feel safer now, away from the jungle, no longer strapped with an M-16, bound in one corner of their dead end street where guns were also drawn? Natasha’s love for where she was from had always been laced with a desperation to escape.
With my family away in Atlanta now and me being here alone… Sunjai stops short.
Natasha knows without looking that Sunjai’s eyes are shut, her lips tightened. She recognizes the treble in Sunjai’s voice when she said, alone; signifying a bruise that is still too tender to be poked. Natasha knows that Sunjai will struggle to draw several breaths before she’s able to continue.
Everybody from everywhere else loves New Orleans so much, Sunjai finally manages. It’s the twilight zone for me since the storm. Home is a shell of home.
August was Natasha’s twin, the soul that had been woven together with hers since before her memory began. The one who she had shared a womb with and then a home for nineteen years. Ever since the day she watched August bleed out on the floor of their mother’s kitchen- a knife in his chest, her other brother, Caleb standing over her twin’s body, possessed by the shock of his drug induced mistake, home had become a place of void. The dead end of Clementine Avenue had swallowed both of Natasha’s brothers.
A slight shrill of grief shoots out from Natasha’s closed mouth. She aligns the curve of her body with the edges of Sunjai’s. Sunjai knows to wrap her arm around Natasha’s shoulder. She knows to hold her tight.
Near them is an empty picnic table, next to a thick branch that hangs so low, it serves as a bench. For a moment, Natasha sees each of Sunjai’s brothers, her sister and mother sitting at the table, and her nephews- who are now being raised in Atlanta- balancing their feet on the low-hanging branch as they pretend to be tight rope walkers. Natasha imagines the children of Sunjai’s family who are yet to be born, the ninth generation who should be able to be there one day, slurping sweet flavor from shaved ice, and smelling the lemony vanilla of freshly bloomed magnolias, carried through the breeze from across the field.
Let’s have a baby, whispers Sunjai.
Natasha cracks into laughter. The joy is sudden, unsuspected and hard to contain. Surprised, Sunjai giggles, and the precious rarity of them feeling free builds upon itself. With a jolt of energy, Natasha jumps up and straddles Sunjai, her burgundy waves dangle in a frame around Sunjai’s face. Sunjai purses her plump lips and Natasha presses into them in the gentle smack of a kiss.
You’re ready to have a baby with me, Sunjai?
Natasha looks into the earnest gleam of Sunjai’s eyes, her lashes unbearably long. She traces her peach fingers across Sunjai’s strongly defined cheekbones, along the edges of her broad nose gently stroking the sharp dip in its middle.
I’m ready to have a baby with you, Sunjai replies, as she pulls Natasha down to lay against her chest.
Sunjai’s heart beats into Natasha’s eardrum.
A chaotic melody of flapping wings cut the wind as a flock of birds take flight.
You think they’re migrating home for the summer? asks Natasha.
Maybe so, answers Sunjai. Or maybe this is home.
Silently, they watch the ancestors swirl their silver-grey threads around the ancient limbs of trees that have seen it all.
Shana Turner ’s definition of womanhood comes from the influence of the women who raised her; a mix of straight and gay, multi-racial, working-class, street-smart, radical feminist/womanist community activists. They are warm and rough women, who laugh loud, cuss often and teach Shana to challenge authority when it harms people. Shana’s work has been featured by the Bridge the Gulf Project, The Foundation Movement, and the Boston Center for the Arts. She was a resident of the ‘Emerging Leaders Spiritual Retreat’ through The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society and has worked as a Genre Editor for the Pitkin Review. ‘Spanish Moss’ is an excerpt from her novel-in-progress, ‘We Are Not Angels.’