WORDS: DJIBRIL SALL
ART: BEKAH FLY
As a child, I remember the wind blowing sand against my ankles, each grain imprinting cracking white onto my skin. Coming back into the house, my feet are ivory—the price of playing outside is the moisture in my skin, coating my toes in ash. I have been marked. Bare feet grown intimate with the shifting of the sand underneath, I know how to balance myself in the desert. I remember trepidation as naked soles dipped holes into the ground and quickly withdrawing from sand too sun-baked to walk on. This too is a marking, a give and take, a negotiation of when and where. The desert becomes a storyboard of history and old tales. Of sleep during the midday because demons stalk the sands looking for wayward children to carry away. Of culture and lunch at 1 or 2pm to discourage us from work and play when the heat is unforgiving.
I once dreamt that my father built a mud statue to protect me. All the holy waters I bathed in since I was born washed away the impurities on top of my skin and swept away salt from my pores into a tough sediment blessed by duas and Fulfulde magic. His fingers dipping into the mush of my dirt and molding a face in my likeness to accompany me in fantasy, to strike demons, to remind me to get on my knees and pray. My father and I don’t talk anymore. Maybe he thinks his protective charms weren’t enough—that I got on my knees for the wrong reasons, mistook being led astray for walking my own path. The statue is still there.
I don’t know how to swim but that’s never stopped me from wading deep into the ocean, till the currents underneath threaten to knock me off my feet and send me headfirst into the sea. Soon only the bobbing of my head on top of the waves are visible. I debate the next step—do I move in and send my nose under? Let my feet untether from the sand? It’s high noon, I am a nineteen and I remember the field trips I would take with my class to the beach. Remember this exact position, this exact question except I was five. Just like then I still don’t take risks, I am invited along and I politely decline just as I was raised.
I curl up as a fetus, pretend I am becoming liquid. Think about being unbound so I can separate from me—an infinity of streams swallowing myself, tossing and reuniting, becoming vast. Breaking the barrier of fear before becoming unfathomable, unknowable and vast, vast, vast. My heart clenches at no longer being able to conceptualize myself.
I wade back out of the sea, shake off the seaweed clinging to my ankles as I walk. Some mythical creature. I lick the crook of my elbows and taste the salt, savor it, look back at the Atlantic and suck my lips into my mouth. It’s high noon in Dakar, the perfect time for a crisp dip in the sea. This city is surrounded by water on three sides and I wonder why I don’t know how to swim, but then I might never return to the shore.
My aunt always told me to stay clear of the ocean when the sun is at its peak. Told me of the bull headed demons stalking the tides, the people they kidnapped into their watery homes and how they would feed me pig urine as milk if I was ever caught. The stories she told me of the lakes and rivers in Futa, filled with crocodiles. I’m not sure if they were crocodiles but the word she used translates into English as predators. The waters truly are unfathomable.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about water. As redemption. As baptism. I fill the bathtub to the brim with seething water, watch the steam rise as beads of sweat form on my forehead. Pour in a a cup and a half of apple cider vinegar, three drops of caster oil. I close the windows to trap heat—my body shivers from the scalding as I submerge. I turn on the music, light a spliff and sit in the tub for thirty minutes. Today is a day of self care. I can feel the acidity of the water digging into my pores freeing sweat, bacteria, and built up stress. The high hits my brain and compounds the heat so that I feel as though I am melting. The only thing I hear is the bass of the music and the rushing of the blood to my ears. In my lightheadedness, I recall rapture. My skin grows smoother, the heels of my feet shedding the months of being in a dance studio—supple and new or maybe just a ritual of forgetting.
I am saving this space for my mother, who I grew so close to that I would call her by first name. Who I watched so carefully that I would stick out my tongue when in deep contemplation just as she does.
Who gave me everything and spoke the truth when she said she can take back everything. It’s time to start back from the beginning, collect the dust from the demolition of everything and rebuild everything.
My obsession has been monochrome. Head to toe in one color and if I have the spoons maybe a dash of red. Lately, I’ve built up an impressive collection of white, off white, and cream. I open my suitcase and white stares back at me. White hats, white shirts, white pants, white shoes. I think about how I need to find a white jacket for the Fall. Think about my off white fur coat that I got for the winter. I work at a cheese shop in all white, walk to the subway in all white, do the dishes in white. I wipe soap spuds over white plates, wash them in warm water and make sure nothing sticks to my white. It’s a miracle I am never defiled but I am meticulous and thorough—giving myself a wide birth between the dirt and me. I regularly wipe myself off and dust away real and imagined filth. Before leaving for the day, I stare at my clothes in the mirror to make sure that I am as white as possible, double check to find wayward wrinkles, worry that someone will find some discoloration and I check myself again. I walk carefully so that I make no sound, touch little dirt to be as pure as possible.
At our funerals, we wear white. I walk into the shop and my boss says that I look like I am a part of a religious order in the bayous of Louisiana. Maybe I am mourning again or this is a ritual of forgetting. I throw myself into my work, become a ghost floating through a little shop in Park Slope. In my absent mindedness I cut my finger but remember to wipe the blood on a piece of tissue and the grease on my apron. I am immaculate. Someone remarks about me wearing white after labor day and I say the rules of this country don’t bind me. I was raised in Senegal and we wear white at funerals. Walking to the subway, I smoke a white cigarette. As the day grows darker, a weariness creeps into my bones. My eyes glaze over and I think of home. Think of the sand and the water. I wanted to sit but I was wearing white so I kept moving.