African Immortals Series
Atria Books; ISBN: 0743287355
Gramma Bea was the first to rise in the Big House.
Each morning, Fana Wolde found her grandmother in the kitchen with Mahalia Jackson’s soaring voice consoling her from the old CD player while Gramma Bea patted balls of dough between her palms, measuring drop biscuits. Gramma Bea cooked with care, hour after hour, as if the fate of the world depended on her getting the ingredients and temperature just right.
Beatrice Jacobs was eighty-four, but she looked youthful in the black silk kimono she wore all day sometimes, when she didn’t have the energy to get dressed. By lunchtime, she would be sweating from the heat, but she never left her kitchen. When she wasn’t cooking, she was sitting at the kitchen table, either dozing or reading her Bible. Sleeping and praying took up the time left after cooking. She spent more time doing all three since her heart attack.
Like most people, Gramma Bea wore her thoughts like clothing, so Fana didn’t have to peek inside her grandmother’s head to understand her. Fana could see it plainly: Gramma Bea stored her grief in her baking breads and stewing pots. Cooking was her meditation.
Fana’s grandfather had died five years ago, when his car had overturned in a ditch in the woods a half-mile from his kitchen table, during a rainstorm. The accident had happened at three-thirty in the afternoon, snapping Fana out of meditation. Fana, the first to know he was dead, had shared her grandfather’s last, startled gasp.
Grandpa Gaines was dead before anyone could bring blood to him, where a drop might have saved him—or Dad might have been able to perform the Ceremony at the instant his heart stopped, in the ancient way. It was so unfair: Gramma Bea had lost her first husband to a car accident, too. And to lose someone here must feel worse, Fana thought. No one died here. Fana knew why Gramma Bea always kept his chair at the breakfast table empty, as if she expected him to come downstairs to eat, too. His absence was inconceivable.
“Don’t just stand there, baby,” Gramma Bea said. “Start squeezing the juice.”
The kitchen smelled like oranges in the mornings because Gramma Bea was from Florida and insisted on squeezing her orange juice fresh. The oranges were already chopped and waiting, so Fana only had to pick up her dripping fruit, hold half an orange in her palm, and scrape off the pulp in the white plastic juicer with the methodical turns of her wrist Gramma Bea had taught her to perfection; one of the few things Fana believed she did well.
Mom had bought a mechanical juicer years ago, but Gramma Bea wasn’t interested in technology except to listen to Mahalia and the Mississippi Mass Choir and the other gospel she filled her silences with. Gramma Bea thought machines were a distraction, and the music brought her closer to God. And closer to Grandpa Gaines, of course.
Gramma Bea thought about dying for a long while every day, working her way up to the idea. Sometimes, she didn’t mind. Day by day, she minded less. She had begun to think of it as an appointment she had to keep, one she’d put off long enough. Fana wondered what else her grandmother would do with her time if she didn’t have to think about dying.
But she doesn’t have to die, Fana reminded herself. She knows she has a choice.
“You’ve got some nice little hips now,” Gramma Bea said, dropping her dough into neat rows on the cookie sheet. “Nice legs, too. My legs.” Gramma Bea’s kimono was cut high the way a younger woman would wear it, to show off her legs. Her calves were veined blue, but her smooth shins had resisted wrinkles. “You should wear a dress when you go driving tomorrow.”
Fana felt alien enough outside without Gramma Bea’s criticisms! Mom and Aunt Alex never wore anything except T-shirts and jeans either. Sometimes it was hard for Fana to believe that Mom and Gramma Bea were the same blood: Mom never had casual conversations with her about going outside, especially not about clothes. Mom only filled Fana’s head with warnings.
“Why do I need a dress?” Fana said. “It’s just a driving lesson.”
“And lunch,” Gramma Bea said. “At a nice restaurant.”
“Pass. I’ll pack some food from home.”
Gramma Bea tsssked, a click against her teeth. “Go to a restaurant, Fana. Sit with the people for a while. It’ll be good for you.”
Fana hated restaurants. They always smelled like meat, and the tension was thick behind servers’ smiles and the kitchens' closed doors. Restaurants never felt at peace.
“Don’t you want to feel more comfortable around people, Pumpkin?” Gramma Bea said.
Fana felt stung. Now Gramma Bea sounded like Mom. “What do you mean?”
“I knew a young man from Midway, Florida...a trumpet player,” Gramma Bea said, speaking in a story, as she often did, never going forward until she remembered all the details. She wanted to make sure her life’s adventures would be remembered, even in passing. “He swore up and down he loved me, but I came to find out he didn’t invite me to his sister’s wedding. He said he was worried I wouldn’t know which fork to use and what-not. So seditty! And I told him, ‘Billy Taylor, what kind of love is that?’”
Fana waited. Sooner or later, Gramma Bea always remembered her point again. Gramma Bea went on: “Baby, liking from a distance isn’t the same as liking up close. You can’t like people if you won’t let them close to you.”
Fana felt her teeth grind. How many times did she have to tell Gramma Bea that crowds gave her headaches? Her family tried to understand, but they couldn’t. Not really. And what good would it do to go out and meet people? She would only lie to them, too.
I care about people in the way that matters, Fana thought. I heal them.
“I have friends,” Fana said instead. When she wasn’t reading or meditating, Fana was posting on ShoutOut, where she had hundreds of friends around the world who knew her as Aliyah Martin, an American student and Phoenix music fan living in Tokyo.
But Gramma Bea was wrong if she thought she spent her days role-playing and gossiping. Fana never used her webcam, and only three people outside of the colony knew her real name. One person alone knew who she really was, and Fana hadn’t seen her best friend in three years. She and Caitlin saved their real communications for an encrypted site, at least once a week. They deleted and scrubbed each other’s messages immediately.
Fana hadn’t gotten any messages from Caitlin in two weeks. Something was wrong.
Anxiety nested in Fana’s stomach, and she knew the chewing sensation would follow her until she tried to go to sleep, just like last night. She dreamed in nightmares, and always about Caitlin. Was Caitlin dead like Maritza? She can’t be, Fana thought. I would have felt her die.
Was Caitlin on the run, then? She had to be. But where?
“Typing on a screen isn’t the same as talking face to face,” Gramma Bea said, prying Fana’s worries wide open. “Life is something you touch. Typing is easy. Touching is hard.”
Gramma Bea was right: Fana needed to see Caitlin in person. But Caitlin couldn’t come here, the one place she might be safest. One of the Brothers would know Caitlin’s thoughts as soon as she arrived, and Fana couldn’t count on masking her. If I were a normal person, I could just drive out of here and go find Caitlin myself.
It was the worst quandary of Fana’s life, and not talking about it consumed her. Was it time to tell her family the truth?
Fana almost told Gramma Bea everything, right there in the kitchen on Friday morning.
“...that dress I got you for Easter is casual enough to wear as a tea dress,” Gramma Bea was saying, and Fana enjoyed remembering how much her grandmother had loved buying her clothes, even if she never wore them. Gramma Bea hadn’t been on a shopping trip in a year, and her catalogues were piling up in the coat closet. “You’re such a pretty girl, Fana. Why won’t you let anyone see you? It’s like you want to bury yourself in the ground and disappear.”
Did Gramma Bea know? Fana had started trancing again, too.
Sometimes when Fana meditated, she let herself get lost, hiding from herself the way she first learned when she was three and the world had gone badly wrong, when she stayed lost for years. Life was hard again, and Fana wanted to step out of it.
Fana felt her grandmother’s fingers beneath her chin, and the kitchen came into sharp focus: rows of cookbooks, watermelon knick-knacks and a polished floor. Did I trance that fast? Gramma Bea looked her in the eye, knowing. “Try to get used to things on this side, too. Not just the universe in your head, Pumpkin,” Gramma Bea said patiently. “Start with this.”
Gramma Bea held up a tube of lipstick the color of ripe mango pulp.
“It’ll do wonders for your smile,” she said. “You just put some on and stare at yourself in the mirror. It’ll make you feel good. Sit in your skin a while, child. Now, pucker.”
Fana pouted her lips, and her grandmother painstakingly guided the tube while Fana smelled perspiration, talcum powder and sweet, familiar Giorgio on her skin. Fana would know her grandmother’s scent with her eyes closed.
“Look at that!” Gramma Bea said, glowing as if she and Fana shared a face. She held up the shiny aluminum toaster for Fana to see her reflection: blurred brown features and a shimmer of orange-yellow light. “A little color works miracles. See how it brings out your lips? I still feel naked if I go outside without my lipstick, and nobody’s noticed my face for years. But, once?”
She laughed, her eyes twinkling with memories both joyful and sad. Gramma Bea rarely saw how beautiful she was; she only noticed what had changed since she was seventeen, too.
“Don’t worry, Gramma Bea,” Fana said. “Nobody’s noticing me either. Ever.”
Everyone else who lived at the colony was either related to her by blood or marriage, just a kid, or old enough to be her ancestor. Not to mention that she was also a freak.
“Somebody will notice you when you’re driving,” Gramma Bea said, certain.
“You never know who, Pumpkin,” she said. “That’s the fun part—finding out. Twice in one lifetime, I was blessed with a good man. Twice. True love is an experience everyone should have, but you can’t find anyone when you’re hiding.”
Gramma Bea was from a generation when girls got married right out of high school, Fana remembered. They couldn’t be more different, in that way. Fana had known since she was three that she would always be alone.
“Men have the curse of their eyes, Pumpkin,” Gramma Be said. “Their eyes catch on to things first. It never seems right or fair, but it’s in their makeup. Until a man sees you with his eyes, it’s like he can’t see you at all. And if a man’s eyes take hold of his heart? He’ll move a mountain for you.”
“That just sounds shallow,” Fana said. “Why would I want anyone like that?”
Gramma Bea shrugged. “We didn’t make this world. The Lord did. We just visit here.” Fana sighed and picked up the toaster again, adjusting its angles in the light from the window to try to see her face through a stranger’s eyes.
“Do you see what I see now?” Gramma Bea said.
Fana nodded, forcing a smile.
The lipstick’s color was a promising speck, but Fana still couldn’t see her face at all.