Mikala and utter chaos are waiting at home. Both fit into Aisha’s arms easily. She had scarcely begun her grocery shopping before her own mother texted that Mikala was having a fit—Grandma’s word for her granddaughter’s meltdowns. When Aisha returns home, the scene before her is both familiar and not. Mikala curled into a ball, arms covering her head, knees tucked under a cut and bloodied lip: the little girl has moved from meltdown to shutdown. Tiny splinters of glass are sprinkled like glitter in Mikala’s braids. Dark blood pools across her golden skin from a cut on her face. A broken window casts rays of fractured sunlight on the floor behind her.
Aisha whispers nonsense words of comfort as she holds her daughter against her chest and attempts to soothe her, raw with overstimulation. She notices one of the small hands is stained with blood. From upstairs, a different child cries for her mother as Aisha works to quiet the one tucked under her arms. It is her eldest, Jamila, who calls for her, but Aisha only has two hands.
Another pair of hands emerges from her periphery. They are thinner, paler in their mahogany color and gnarled from age like tree bark. Their owner speaks.
“Go, go. I’ll see to the girl.”
“Miki needs me,” Aisha counters, rubbing slow circles on Mikala’s back. The small body responds with a circuitous sway that matches the mother’s touch.
“Any mama will do for what Miki needs. That other babe needs you.”
The movement of Aisha’s hand stutters and a protective challenge flashes across her face, settling in the grove between her brows. Brought in for support, Grandmother Pearla has instead claimed the role of commander. When the old woman speaks, it’s a statement of fact and an order.
The smell of sick hits her nose the moment the door opens. Jamila curls under thin and twisted sheets made translucent with sweat. She moans between breathy calls for her mother. Aisha moves into the room and takes a seat on the bed near her daughter’s head. The moaning pauses as the weight registers. Tired eyes look up. They are bloodshot, red down to the rim and around the sclera. Aisha traces a light line from the girl’s hairline down to one ear. She gives a gentle tug to the lobe under her fingers. She is answered with a groan, a one-eyed glare, and a grumble that sounds suspiciously like a line from a Tarantino film, full of heat and four-letter words. Aisha sighs, leans forward, and leaves a kiss on the forehead of the lost child come home.
Jamila is finally asleep. She no longer needs Aisha’s hand to anchor her to reality and lead her through the misery of withdrawal.
It’s time for the next challenge. Aisha’s knees pop as she pushes up from her position on Jamila’s bed. Her body is more vocal these days. The increased weight of exhaustion pulls on her shoulders like the gravity. She wants to rest, to breathe, to be.
But there’s more to do.
It’s been hours spent with Jamila when Aisha comes out of the room, closing the door behind her. She goes back to the den. It’s cleaner than when she left. There’s cardboard and tape covering the missing window panel. The thinly dripped lines of blood are gone. The TV tables are clear. The sofa is righted, and one large shadow sits upon it rocking back and forth. Aisha calls out.
“She fell asleep?”
Aisha sits down on the ottoman, a single eyebrow raised and directed at the conscious member of the pair on the sofa.
“Has she eaten?”
“I fed her.”
“What did you feed her?”
“A bowl of poisoned yams.” The answer is followed by a passive aggressive sucking of teeth. Aisha’s eye roll is quieter. She holds her arms out.
“Give her here. I’ll put her to bed.”
“She just fell asleep.”
“I don’t care.” Aisha steps in and lifts the small body from her mother’s lap. The weight is heavy, and she is forced to reposition the body more securely over a hip. There are mumbles in her ear and thin arms tighten around her neck, but sleep maintains its hold. There’s treachery afoot.
“Mama, did you drug her?” Knowing the answer, she considers spaces that could discreetly house bottles of cough syrup.
“She’s sleep ain’t she?”
“Put her to bed, then put yourself to bed or you won’t be worth a good goddamn in the morning.”
“Yes, Mama.” It’s the only answer to give, so it’s the only one given. There is no defense to counter the guilt-infused artillery of a mother. Aisha knows this though she is a mother herself.
Aisha carries the babe into the room, the usually bright colors muted and distorted by the dull glow-worm-shaped night light. The twin bed is raised, and Aisha’s knees are thankful. There’s gratitude in the lower curve of her spine, too. As she lays her youngest out on the bed, releasing the child from the cradle of her arms, there are grumbles at the separation. Eventually, the complaints end as Mikala slides into deeper sleep, burrowing under the covers. Aisha pads out of the room, closing the door with care. She moves through the den, enters the kitchen, and finds it in a state of unauthorized reorganization.
“I was looking for the Band-Aids.”
“We don’t keep the Band-Aids in the kitchen.”
The elder woman sucks her teeth again. It’s louder this time.
Aisha wakes to a pair of wide, coffee-colored eyes staring directly into hers. Mikala stands there, silent as stone and reeking of castor oil. There is a stain on her pajama top, and her chin and cheeks are wet. One word comes to mind.
She had hoped for a shower. Instead, Aisha grabs her robe, a tired royal-purple-now-faded- lavender thing that’s as much a coverup as it is plush personal armor. Armor is needed for battle. The older warrior holds the high rank and the high ground and is full of tricks. Her strategy is guerrilla in nature—sneak attacks and battlegrounds chosen with care.
This morning Aisha has a little soldier at her side. The numbers have shifted. Loyalties are liquid, flowing back and forth across familial lines. They enter the kitchen together. A team. Aisha is confident that youth and pluck will defeat the tyranny of the previous generation. But the united front is abandoned when the instigator of this morning’s mess drops a massive dollop of batter into a hot cast iron skillet. Mikala darts into the kitchen and is snatched up by hands brown and knotted, deceptive in their strength. Grandma Pearla sits her on the counter and hands her a peeler and a potato.
Mikala turns from her grandmother’s offering and looks at her mother. Aisha notes that Mikala hasn’t spoken a single word this morning. It’s going to be one of those days.
“Mama . . .” she starts, attempting to bring the discussion back to the slick grounds of unwanted castor oil treatments, the reason behind their early morning skirmish.
“And you,” Grandma Pearla hands Aisha a spatula. “Watch that hotcake. Bubbles mean flip it.” Under subtle protest, Aisha assumes her position. Mikala’s wide eyes follow her mother’s hand before focusing on the yellow substance just beginning to bubble. One bubble grows larger than the rest before popping in a tiny splatter of batter. Grandmother notes the interest.
“You can flip the next one, baby. Now, peel. Go on now.”
A small frown forms, but reluctant peeling begins. The old woman chuckles.
“Be good with that now, and I’ll put something special in your cake, baby. There’s a story about what happens to children that find a gift in their breakfast cakes. I learned it when I was a little girl. Would you like to hear it?”
Pink lips crack open wide revealing a grin with a dark window of a missing tooth. Mikala even extends her hands towards the old woman, her chubby fingers stretching and closing like a cat kneading a blanket.
Aisha doesn’t say anything. She flips a hotcake and listens to the story too, though she knows it well. She heard the same tale from the same tongue when she was but a slip of a child herself. At that age, she marveled at the traditional stories, tales of quiet adventures and child bravery. The stories were a touchstone, a torch passed from one generation to the next reaching as far back as the traveling griots of a forgotten homeland.
At breakfast, Mikala finds a purple bead in her hotcake which she demands be promptly braided into her hair. A wistful beat of memory thumps in Aisha’s chest at the sight of granddaughter and grandmother. A scene like so many in her youth. It takes longer for Aisha to finish her meal. As she does, she finds a single purple bead poking out of a small cut of her cake. Her grin is almost as bright as Mikala’s at the discovery.
Jamila is awake when Aisha checks on her in the late morning. She’s more still. More present. The room reeks of sweat and past illness. Aisha opens a window, and the room lets out a collective breath. The two women look at each other. Neither speaks, but each eyes the other warily as if expecting a sudden, but inevitable betrayal.
A beat passes.
It isn’t the first time Aisha has worn her eldest daughter’s sick or held her hair during a bout of retching. But that was before the divorce, before Jamila’s attempts at teenage mutiny, before the aged-out-of-school boyfriend and the cigarettes, joints, and other drugs. Before the time Jamila forgets she can ask for help. But she has asked now, and Aisha will help even if that just means keeping her daughter’s braids out of the toilet.
The creak of the rocker breaks the quiet of the living room with the staccato regularity of a metronome. Nimble, bone thin fingers lead crochet hooks in and out of colored loops with a masterful ease.
Aisha takes a seat in the opposing armchair. Under the coffee table, Mikala studiously ignores the adults in the room as she attacks her coloring book with a single-minded aggressiveness. But the storm is, so far, contained to the page, so Aisha does not interfere.
“What are you working on, Mama?” Aisha asks.
“A scarf. Or maybe a shawl. This house is drafty. These babies will catch their death.”
It’s summer. In Chicago. And she is making scarves.
“Mama, could you not force feed the girls? They’ll eat when they are hungry.” She knows what the response will be. And she knows it will likely not stop the stacks of hot cakes or buffet style dinners, the between meal snacks of watermelon, PB&J sandwiches, fudgepops, and oatmeal cookies, the unlimited refilling of juice and soda cups.
“Too skinny. Both girls are too skinny. How will they get husbands with no meat on the bone.”
“Miki is nine, Mama.”
“Won’t be forever. Children grow.”
“Weeds or flowers? What do you plan to grow, Isha?”
Mikala should be doing her schoolwork. She’s not ready to go back to school yet. Her psychologist is optimistic, since her more disruptive behavior began after the divorce. They have to establish a “new normal,” Aisha was told, though she wonders if they ever had a normal to begin with. But for now, Miki has to be homeschooled. At Davison Elementary, there are too many adults. Too many children. Just too many. So, Aisha works from home and fills the role of teacher, tag-teaming with Grandma to keep up routines. This is why Aisha feels comfortable running to the post office while Miki works on her spelling words. But instead of a homework session in progress, Aisha is greeted by an elder with gray braids and a younger in colorfully beaded braids. Both look guilty. It doesn’t bode well.
“Mama, you were supposed to make sure Miki did her homework.”
“I cleaned up for you.”
“You had one job.”
“Your house was filthy.”
“Literally, one job, Mama.”
“Babies can’t learn nothing in a messy home.”
Jamila feels well enough to sometimes join the family for meals or TV. Mikala decides that she doesn’t like her older sister, proclaiming that she smells funny, communicating her distaste with emphatic gestures and a scrunched nose. It derails her older sister’s attempts at story time. Jamila forces a smile and laughs off the declaration, but soon starts “borrowing” Aisha’s perfume after her showers.
Jamila, armored with a more familiar scent, reaches a tentative truce. Mikala’s bedroom door cracks open. Jamila tucks her slight form behind it, moving as it opens ever wider to the room. Mikala’s face peeks out looking for her sister’s hidden figure. Aisha looks up from her bill paying at the small desk near the front door as an accusatory frown is thrown her way. It seems Mikala has included her as part of the conspiracy.
A jolted jump.
Aisha turns in her chair, poised to intervene. Her lips part, a warning for Jamila not to scare or distress her little sister sits on her tongue ready to leap. But there will be no blood on the walls or carpets tonight as, to Aisha’s astonishment, Mikala jumps behind the door and directs an “aha” finger at Jamila who flees the scene, floral dress fluttering in her escape. Jamila sprints through the den and Mikala chases her, staying right on her slippered heels. The pursuit winds through the kitchen, up and over Grandma’s shoulders and the counter, under the table and Aisha’s gaze. Suddenly, it’s over. Jamila spins around and reverses the pursuit. She snags slender, tawny elbows and, with the invisible strength of all women, throws the squirming bundle over a shoulder.
“I’ve got the mouse!”
Mikala’s shrieks and peals of laughter warm the room. It’s the happiest Aisha has seen her. She has not been able to coax this laughter out of her daughter in six months. Aisha is happy to see it. She’s also bitter. She has failed to elicit such peals and squeals from her youngest child. It always seems easier for others—those who don’t impose bedtimes, but instead have time for games of hide and seek, or who ply growing tummies with hotcakes and sweets. It would be nice to be the source of a giggle or two.
Aisha’s not sure how she’s going to handle all the bodies in her house. But the rising pressure growing between its walls begins to subside with the added hands. There’s no emergency calling, and Aisha doesn’t know how to operate within the calm. Choices are harder without an ax at your neck.
Mikala is her choice. The shy, quiet, easily overwhelmed little girl that hides under tables or burrows under blankets to shut out the noise and bother of other people. Her epilepsy is barely controlled. Her medications are constantly changing and upsetting her stomach. Aisha’s daily goals have morphed into the simplistic. If she can keep her from drowning, choking, or getting a concussion, it’s a pretty good day. If Mikala doesn’t hide in closets or under the kitchen table, it’s a very good day. If schoolwork is done at the time schoolwork is done, well those days are nearly perfect, and Aisha can go to sleep with a seed of hope blossoming between her breasts.
For all that she birthed her, Jamila is an adult. She hasn’t been a part of the family for most of Mikala’s life. Aisha wants to help her eldest daughter. She wants to help Jamila find the part of her that used to greet people with energetic hugs and brilliant white teeth. She wants to help her find her joy in life, the return of her humor, and all the other things she let be stripped away by temporary euphoria.
Aisha takes a deep breath and runs her fingers through her braids. The roots are fuzzy and beginning to tangle. She thinks, not for the first time, that good sex or a good joint is needed before hard days are engaged.
On-again, off-again boyfriend, Jason obliges her in both.
The Elderly and The Youngest are conspiring again. The latest assault reorganizes Aisha’s kitchen, and now she can’t find anything.
Jamila has been involved in the day-to-day routines of home, but some days her body is unwilling. Today she is feeling unwell and faints right before lunch. Thankfully, Aisha has gotten adept at catching falling heads.
Jamila is pained and nauseated and stays in bed for the next few days. Her growing depression hangs over her bed like a weighted shadow. It’s a full-time job to make sure she eats and bathes, one that Aisha has trouble managing, so Grandmother has taken the lead. Of course, such help comes with critical commentary. To make matters worse, the change has made Mikala afraid of her older sister. Grandmother has told one too many of her old superstitious stories from the old country. She tells tales of mami watas battling the ninki nanka, of gremlins and shadows. Now the youngest is convinced that Jamila is possessed by a demon. Mikala follows Jamila around inside the house, eyes appearing from under tables and behind doors. Jamila ignores the scrutiny, but her brow still wrinkles when the little spy is spotted. Mikala takes her demon monitoring seriously. She believes in the old stories she is told despite Aisha’s attempt to redirect her interests. She will not be persuaded otherwise. No argument can win against the defense of “Grandma says.”
Jamila wakes up staring into brown eyes set in a face that wears lipstick as war paint. Her face is splashed with water like she is being baptized or exorcized. She screams. It wakes up Aisha, the in-house referee, and also sends the would-be shaman into a panic attack. A picture frame is broken in the chaos. Grandmother sees it all but rocks in her chair, regally ignoring the scene before her in favor of a skein of yarn. Aisha’s glares go unnoticed.
Aisha wakes up with a weight on her. She looks down and sees the winding maze of fuzzy cornrows adorning the head laying on her chest. A small face is pressed hard against her sternum. This is new. Something has happened.
“Mama, I don’t feel so good.” The assertion is verified with splotchy skin and a mild fever. One trip to the doctor, two shots, and too many tears later it is determined that Mikala is allergic to her new meds.
Three months later and a routine has been established. Sort of. It is a constantly renewing temporary cessation of hostilities. Or like introducing a new puppy to an old cat. The nuances of the arrangement elude Aisha. But the quiet is nice, so she leaves the internal politics to the parties involved.
It’s about this time that Mikala realizes that her older sister will not in fact trade her in for a newer sister-model no matter the repeated threats to do just that. But once that danger was removed from the list of potential consequences, a new campaign of annoyance launches. There’s poking and stealing and hiding. No one has slippers anymore.
Jamila sees Mikala dripping drops of water from a carefully punctured water balloon off the steps of their front stoop. Mikala is surprised when Jamila joins her and drops the balloon. It bursts into a dark stain on the overheated concrete, scraps of green plastic framing the destruction like a chalk outline of a corpse.
An unsanctioned MMA fight bursts in the living room. Mikala is fighting a losing battle against an older, stronger, and wiry older sibling. Jamila waits for her sister to give up and surrender to her hold. Mikala won’t give her the satisfaction and punches Jamila in the nose. It’s not broken, thankfully. There is no blood or broken glass, so that’s a win. But the truce has ended.
The household calm is tested again when Aisha has an overnight shift at the hospital. Grandmother is suddenly “tired,” so Jamila is left in charge. Aisha opens the door to their apartment brownstone and waits for the iron-heavy smell of sibling shenanigans to hit her nose, but it doesn’t. Instead, she sees her oldest laid out on her stomach in front of a wad of discarded blankets and pillows.
“Welcome home, Mama.”
Jamila pushes off the floor a little and pokes the bundle of laundry. A suspiciously familiar honey-colored arm reaches out and slashes blindly at the intruder before retreating under cover once more. Jamila goes back to her reading. Aisha watches the scene for a moment before slipping off her crocs and heading toward her bedroom. She needs a shower. And a nap. And a drink. The order is not important.
Aisha is happy. Mikala went to bed without a fuss and there is quiet in the house. Then Jamila knocks on her door. She comes in and sits on the edge of the bed. Aisha puts down her book. The bookmark doesn’t need to be moved.
“You have more patience than I do.”
“I’ve had more practice.”
“I wish I knew Miki better.”
“You have time now. Use it.”
“She’s made you look old. You’ve got gray now.”
“Hey now. Insults are not required.”
There’s a quiet knock at the door. It creaks open and a brown eye appears in the sliver of opening.
“Grandma snoring again?” The sliver of eye becomes a head that bobs in affirmation.
“Come on in, Miki. We’ll have a sleepover.”
Invitation offered and accepted. A tangle of gold, tan, and brown cocoa butter-soft limbs cover the bed. Squeaks of laughter burst from tickle assaults. The book falls to the floor unopened and unnoticed.