It was a secret. Much like any other thing that happened strictly under the veil of moonlight. Well, maybe secret isn’t the right word, because several people knew about it. My mother, for one, who strongly discouraged it; and I mean strongly. My friend Shai, who encouraged it, but reminded me of the dangers in it. But Alice was always there every night, waiting at the bridge for me. It was the only place we could go, but I hated it. The bridge was abandoned, with thick grassy vines growing up the sides. The concrete was cracked every third step I took and it smelled of faded motor oil and frogs.
It was always the heat of the night that got to me. Whether it was from the hot, probably toxic water below or the suspicious, angered eyes watching us from the woods a little bit away from us, I was never sure.
“There’s no one watching us. Just relax and trust me. Come closer,” she would say.
Then she’d place her hands on my shoulders and we’d begin. But I was never completely comfortable with it. Coming to see her in the middle of the night like this. I loved Alice. She had blonde hair that reached her belly button and green eyes. The moonlight would sparkle against her teeth every time she’d see me hopping over the fallen tree to reach the bridge.
“You made it,” she would say. As if she was shocked to see me; and she probably was. Every time we met was another chance that something could happen to me. I’d be beaten for walking alone, or for looking differently than they did. There was a reason my mother said to be home before the street light came on.
The first time I met Alice was nowhere near the bridge. I’d never been caught before, sneaking into the dance studio a few blocks from where my mother worked. I picked my feet up further off the ground so no one would hear the swishing of my heels against the floor. There’s only one room with the hallways as dark as my skin to be hidden.
The teacher, Mrs. Eltson, was slapping one of the girl’s legs with her long ruler. I looked at the dancer’s face, scrunched and trying so hard to remain emphatic. She corrected her stance, raising slowly on to the tips of her toes. My brown shoes flexed and bent under the pressure as I did the same, holding tight to the ledge of the window so I wouldn’t fall.
“Sandra,” Mrs. Eltson screamed startling me back down to the flat of my feet. I peered in still, tracing her light steps as she walked over to another girl pointing toward the ground. “Why can’t you be more like Alice? Legs straight. Feet pointed…Do it again.”
Alice was never one to take compliments. I could tell from the way her shoulders rolled forward and her eyes shifted to everyone else’s that she was uncomfortable with the attention. But she was the best, and Mrs. Eltson wasn’t the only one who knew it.
I looked down again, gauging if my pointe would ever be that good, when the door suddenly opened. It knocked me on my ass that was still sore from not doing my house chores last night.
She didn’t say anything at first. Just stood at the door with her hand still gripping it. “Alice, I said two minutes. If you’re not back from the bathroom by then—”
“Yes, ma’am. I just…” She was looking down at me and I’m not even sure I was breathing until she smiled. “Two minutes. Yes, ma’am.”
“What’s your name,” she asked, closing the door and ducking out of view of the window. I was still too afraid to say anything; scared that somehow even my breath would alert the teacher of my presence. “I’m Alice,” she whispered reaching her hand out as if I was some kind of wild animal. “Do you dance?” she asked stretching her lips apart into a smile I would never forget.
My mother found out three weeks after we’d started at the bridge. I was in the house barely a minute when I heard my name bellow from the kitchen not far behind the scent of her chicken noodle soup.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said peeking around the corner still not quite sure of what I was walking into. She turned her head just enough for her chin to touch her shoulder and I could tell it had nothing to do with forgetting my bike in the street last night.
“You got something to tell me?” I didn’t say anything, although I knew at this point exactly what she was talking about. I was worried, because even though Alice said it was nothing, I heard a rustling in the woods the last time we met. She said I was just being paranoid and I pretended like I knew what the word meant. “You hear me talking to you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said scooting my feet back and forth and feeling the flakes of mud and dirt roll along the floor.
“Then, answer,” she said roughly as she put her stirring spoon down and turned to me. She leaned her back onto the edge of the stove, and I was worried her shirt would catch on fire. “Imani—”
“No, ma’am.” My mother just stood watching and I could hear the other kids playing outside and the grease popping on the stove from the chicken in the iron skillet.
“So, you ain’t got nothing to tell me?” I shook my head no. Her nostrils flared and she reached over to drag the limp dish rag across the counter. She wiped ever single finger still focused on me. I could feel the heat of her eyes making my mouth dry and tongue heavy and lodging spit in my throat too thick to swallow. “Mrs. Cooper was walking home from work the other night and said she saw you.”
“Where?” I asked trying to buy time to come up with a lie. We were only talking about school or someone stole the girl’s purse and I was just giving it back to her.
“You know where.”
“Oh, ma,” I laughed, “that was just—”
“Don’t, oh ma me. What the hell was you doing on that bridge, Imani?” Really, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes under the guise of looking away. Whatever my answer would be, wouldn’t be enough. Wouldn’t be what she wanted to hear.
“I don’t know,” I decided on.
“So, you been sneaking out of my house in the middle of the night and you don’t know why?” She walked around the counter, her stomach fat hanging over the strings of her apron jiggling with every stomp. “You don’t know why you was on the bridge in the dark with a little white girl.”
“She was helping me mama,” I cringed sinking back toward the wall as her hand crept over to the wooden spoon against the wall.
“I don’t care if she was teaching you your damn ABC! You know better than that.” The kitchen was silent then and all of the excited after-school shrieks of the kids in my neighborhood got closer to the park and further from me. Traitors. “Come here, Imani,” she said too calmly. I knew what it meant when her voice got all straight like that and she slapped the spoon against her thigh. I had two choices, but I knew both would end badly.
I dropped the books I was carrying to the floor and almost made it to the kitchen door when her rough hand grabbed my shoulder and the spoon made contact with the back of my neck.
So, we switched locations. It was closer to her and when I asked Alice why another bridge she just shrugged and said, “I like bridges.” I could barely focus sometimes. I was so anxious that someone would see us. It was bad enough to be sneaking around, but now we were on her side of town.
“This doesn’t make you nervous?” I wondered one night as she was leaning down to fix my feet.
“A little, but not really. Are you nervous?”
“Seriously?” I asked dropping to the pose. “I’m black, you’re white. We’re out here in the middle of the night on damn bridge in Mississippi.”
She smiled at me, this time without showing her teeth. “Maybe,” she walked closer grabbing me around my waist silently asking for me to raise up again. “But don’t you love dance?”
“Guess so,” I mumbled, looking at my feet. She tisked and I straighten my head to stare straight like she taught me.
“Then why let your fear overcome that?” She still didn’t get it and I’m not sure she ever did. Alice lived on the west side with her picket fence and her fluffy dog with her doctor father and her president of the Cookie Ladies mother. How they didn’t realize she was sneaking out three times a week, I would never know. “Honestly, we’re fine. You said your ma laid off you right? So, we’re good…now fix your back,” she said placing her soft hand on my arm. I smiled pushed my shoulders back.
Alice was nice. And friendly. Too much of both, really. That’s why my friend Shai found out. I was walking to the store for my mother. It was the closest one to the house that allowed black people and Shai was with me. I was looking at the broths on aisle seven as if I didn’t know which one to get when she nudged my shoulder.
“What’s that white girl staring at?”
I looked to the side and laughed. “Gee, you’re going to have to be a little more specific,” I nodded to all of the white people looking down at our worn school clothes pretending to take equally as long picking out their food.
“Jackass,” she said giving me a shove. “That one. Over there.”
It was Alice walking toward us with a hop in her step smiling that smile. But there was no moonlight. The only thing that was dark in the entire place was me and Shai. “Hi, Imani. Are we still meeting tonight?” I could tell that Shai’s entire body was confused.
Depending on what they said Shai was always ready to cower or jump on any white kid who dared to speak to us. The question threw her off and so she didn’t say anything at all, but I knew the questions would come.
“Um,” I looked around, now. Every pair of blue or green eyes looking on us and every ear perked to hear my response. “Yeah. Sure.”
“Great,” she said. She reached up to pat my shoulder, but I jumped so hard that I dropped the carton onto the floor. At this point she had seemed to understand, because she looked around too and took a step back. Her ears were as red as her blouse and her eyes as wide as the moon, but she still smiled as she turned to walk away. “See, ya.”
To my surprise, Shai waited until we were completely back on our side of town before she said anything. “So, you gonna tell me what kind of trouble you in or not?”
Trouble. That was what it was. I was asking, begging for it. And it finally delivered. It was two weeks after the store incident that we met on the bridge. It was Sunday and I was still in my church clothes stretching and waiting for her to come. But she didn’t or she did. I’m not positive. I heard her scream from the woods. I’d never heard so much as a whisper from her, but this was something else.
My name ripped from her throat from somewhere I couldn’t see. I turned in the direction I thought it was coming from and one by one, small balls of fire from hoisted sticks were lit. Seven or eight; I’m not sure, because then I heard her again. One final Run!
Before my legs started to move. By the time I stopped I wasn’t sure where I was. I was in the woods somewhere and the sleeve of my shirt was torn.
I looked down to the prickle of blood on my shoulder and that’s when I noticed it. It was so overwhelmingly silent that my ears hurt. It was like someone had taken two cups of hot water and placed them on either side of my head, flooding my eardrums. There wasn’t a leaf blowing in the wind or a single bird jumping from one branch to another. Fear took its place in the nape
of my neck as beads of sweat. Though it was the dead of night, the sort of heat sweeping my entire body was one reminiscent of noon at the end of July.
Maybe it was the thick forest around me, the plants and trees sucking the air out of my body faster than I could expel it from my mouth. It could have been that I stopped running for too long, turning in circles to ensure that they wouldn’t surprise me. And I knew who they were. The people watching from the woods when we practiced. The people in the grocery store that day. It was probably the flames from their torches that were desperate to lick at my dark skin.
The cut on my shoulder bled steadily. Drip by drip, it spilled out dark red, saturating my church clothes before dropping to the ground. Then, I thought, I could show them that it was red just like theirs. That the flesh inside of my body was just as white as theirs. Not inky and evil like they preach. But still they wouldn’t stop, greedily taking more and more as proof until I had none left to offer.
I told Alice. I told her this would happen, but she didn’t believe me. She’d just shake her head and smile that stupid, naive smile.
It seemed impossible that my small ears could perk up even higher than they have, already captured by the wrenching crunch of their mud crusted boots. But a hiss beside me pulls at the front of my brain. A snake with eyes as yellow as the venom it promises to inject, is approaching slowly with grace that is frighteningly calming. It hisses its tongue again slithering with its head low to the ground. It reminds me of the third time I’d fallen trying to get my turns-outs right.
“You’ll get,” Alice had said. “You just have to start lower to the ground.”
I thought about walking closer, sticking out my toe, the skin rough and blistered, and ending it now.
But I don’t, because the poison would take too long to float through my blood stream. And who’s to say my blood would be enough for this demon that God sentenced to a life wallowing in the filth of the earth. Its counterparts are lucky with legs and fists and milky skin. Their voices are still intact to spew their hatred.
All the snake has is a silly tongue and silly fangs, but I can tell it wishes it had more as it rears back and jolts forward. It misses, but the message is clear. So, with an ache setting into my tired legs, I ran again.
The clearing I came to was peaceful. The light blue paint of the abandoned farm house was chipping, and a lone cow grazed obliviously, without someone watching and waiting from the woods for the day to slaughter it.
There was a cross. White, but dirty, with a gate rusted between two planks underneath it. It made me think of church and how mama nearly put my eye out when I fell asleep. I wondered what the gate was for. It stands alone with only thin chicken wire planking it. It surely won’t stop anyone from coming in and there was only grass behind it stretching out of sight. But the white devils were behind me and the sinful snake too. The door under the cross must’ve meant something.
I closed my eyes for a moment and focused on the faint sweet voice of my mother before my father died.
Father, alone, he knows all about me. Father, alone, he understands why.
They could see me now. I knew that my skin is too dark to be seen even under the moon in the heavens. I could tell they were coming by the bullets flying past me penetrating the cross.
I squeezed my eyes tighter and strained to hear her voice.
So, hold on my brother. Live in the sunshine.
I took one step forward, then another reaching the cross with patient movements. I could’ve ran for the barn, but they had torches and there was nowhere to go. The words, the gospel forced truthfully from their mouth gets closer. They ring like church bells and beat on the tired muscles of my back.
When I reached up to the cross to lay my hands along the wood underneath it, I decided that, no. This is not what God wanted. The wood was moist. Its droplets rolling past the splinters like it was weeping. I touched the hole in the plank from one of their guns. It was deep and the inside was brown; the outside white. But it did not bleed.
We’ll understand it. Oh by and by.