Leave by Night: an Into the Ashe and Fire short

by Steven Underwood

Support the full novel, Into the Ashe and Fire

“Damn these Jungle Witches and the whores that breed them,” the Blue Blood barely broke past the threshold into the café before he started at it. His jacket dripped a train of water across the linoleum floors.

Arrica Tre, the serving witch, flinched at the word as if he’d walked in and slapped her. She waited for someone to correct the man, but only heard the welcome ticking of the clock on the wall. Instead, she spent better time worrying about the cost to magick the water out of the floorbed.

There were dozens of other cafes in Antebellum, but only the Chalice on Heaven’s panel catered to government secretaries. They tipped well, but they were a nuisance, especially during the witching hours — when Adversary crept out of their hiding holes and Marshalls began their rounds.

The Blue Blood gestured for a coffee and claimed a seat at a long oak table occupied by a communal group. Their implements were on the table — racking up a hefty tab.

A cool financemage with a pointed nose and crescent spectacles arched his eyebrows. “That’s very strong language there, sir.”

To Arrica’s repulsion, he winked at her for the second time that night. It was off-putting, but by the Ancestors, he at least kept his hands to himself.

“What happened?”

“Some jungle w — slumrat employed whatever dark unsavory magicks travel their streets teach and almost bewitched my youngest niece into his bed.” The Blue snorted hideously as Arrica assembled her tray, her eyes fading toward the clock. Twelve minutes till shift rotation. Perfect, almost home for the night.

“Certainly, I’ve made sure that bastard won’t be doing it again. My employer has the number to a Marshall — a friendly lad, good breeding with fair prices. Dialed them upright, paid my worth and I haven’t seen the rat since!”

Arrica stifled a snort. As if a Blue Blood needed to be charmed to cross the Wall. She’d been to a lot of functions back home where their precious darlings were willfully engaged in the “dirtiness” of the Browns. Besides, who would waste the Presence or Power on enfeebling some Blue’s baby when there were bills to pay? Mouths to feed?

“Saviors! When was this? Imagine if it was my little girl getting mixed up in dark magick,” a curly-haired mage said. “I heard it causes, you know, Taint.”

The Blue Blood nodded sharply. “I’ve word from several high-ranking healers that there is a correlation. I mean, have you heard? Taint is practically in the air over there. It’s also the one place they practice the low magick.”

“See? That’s why I told my Lyanna that if I ever caught her dabbling over there with one of those, I’d throw her off the side of the Wall myself!”

A scowling sorcerer whom Arrica assumed he worked somewhere in construction, stirred the ice in his wine. “That sounds a little harsh, Vincent. Maybe she went over there looking for her dear dad! She wouldn’t be over there long if she knew to dip her head into a pleasure house.”

They laughed and the scowling warlock knocked over his glass, sending wine spilling across the table. Arrica quickly attended to the mess. It would’ve been faster with magick, but her employers didn’t cover her expenses while working. Any Power she had was gathered to get her home. She could offer her Presence instead, but the penance she had wouldn’t even get her half-way home to the Browns.

That’d all change soon though. Arrica pressed her hand to her belly absently and thought sweetly of the future she worked hard for. She aced the written exam — nearly a higher scorer than the DuBeau boy himself: he always scored high in class. She did perfectly on the personal interviews, and for extra measure, her background check was spotless. They didn’t even detect her pregnancy; and they definitely had no clue she could use the very dark magick they were bashing now: Ancestry.

Even now, they didn’t see the spectral orangutan sitting squat in the middle of the tabletop, weaving a juju of hospitality throughout the room. That was why her coffee was the best — how a neophyte was hired as a serving witch above qualified culinary mages.

It hadn’t been many years since the Fires. These days, people were just as afraid of dark magick and street shamans who worshipped it as they were of the Adversary creeping about the corners, tormenting Blue Bloods and Brownie alike. That was why she’d turn her life away from it all: the Browns, the Ancestry, all of it.

Just as soon as that Letter arrived. Papa could help take care of the baby for a bit. He already was excited to be a grandfather — he never said it out loud, but he always wanted a boy, and Graham says it was one: she saw it in her mind’s third eye, brown skin just like his mama.

Three minutes, Arrica counted. Her eyes upon the clock. She didn’t know if the letter would arrive before she got home. Some people said the faster you got it, the more they liked you. Ancestors, wouldn’t that be something?

The feathery feeling rose in her spirits again. A chill ran up and down her arms and, against Arrica’s pessimism, she shivered with joy.

Quinto used to come to their school and talk about this feeling: the sweet succulent of a dream. “Not a lot of Brownies can afford one,” he’d say, surrounded by his lieutenants and advisors of varying magical pedigree. “But when you find one, hold it close and love it. Love it like your child.”

Arrica came to hers earlier than most — maybe that was why it was so humble. To own a small place where she could cook and serve and smile. It was a delight close to that first time her son, Sango, smiled gummy and wide.

A tall, lithe mage whose dark hand fell down behind his back into a braid had been studying a glowing screen of light as letters danced across its display. He wore his Power, his wealth, better than any cloak. “Not all Brownies are problematic. Hell, most of their dark magick is downright necessary. I once knew a Hispanic to cure my wife’s mother’s sickness: saved me months of expenses. Didn’t even charge me much more than a few poultry charms I had in my pocket for it.”

“And we can’t afford to get rid of a lot of it. Takes less training and therefore costs less to ask a friendly neighborhood Slumborn to uncork their old ways on a worksite than it does to pay a whole accredited mage to do it.”

Arrica nodded in approval. It was a weird mechanic of magick that Ancestry could ensorcell things easier than anything else. Especially in strong families. Particularly, the Tres were known to work great with weather and Arrica’s Papa used to make most of his Power on the side by stirring storms for the Agriculture companies in the Blues.

That was until his employer was caught and flipped on him. He spent three years in the Wall, and when he came back out, Arrica never saw his ashe again.

At the time, she hoped her own Ancestry could compensate for the loss of income. However, Ghanda Aje, the orangutan ashe on the table, could only work mojo of Prosperity. Her Papa called it a peace-time mojo, way different than his own workings. When Papa saw it, he shrugged and said the Ancestors have different roles for every one of their children in the community. Mine was for fortune when his, in its time, sowed destruction.

The wet Blue blood shook his head. “It’s still unfair. How can it be fair that we’re expected by the Senate to give them a fair chance at our world we worked so hard to make safe, civil and peaceful when they are so…unruly!”

“They can’t even secure their own home from crime violence and destruction.”

Another mage held a hand up to the wet Blue Blood. “Now now. It wasn’t the senate who decided this. I’m a deputy secretary, I should know. It’s a clause of the Covenant! Everyone gets a fair shot.”

“But does everyone deserve a shot? How’re we to know if these Brownies walking across our property aren’t what’s attracting Adversary? Making the work of our Coven Marshalls all the more difficult,” the blue blood sniffed loudly. “I have to say. I truthfully think the old Senate had it right a decade ago with the Purification, except they weren’t thinking big enough. Burn the lot of them next time!”

The clock chimed loudly on the wall: three loud gongs back to back.

“Finally,” Arrica grunted, snatching off her apron and tossing it to the table.

The pointed nose mage spotted her and waved her down. “Excuse me, are you going? Because I’d love to close my tab as well — ”

“I’m so sorry sir,” Arrica said, desperately swapping her Brown accent for a Blue appropriate dialect. “I’m off-duty now. My replacement server will be happy to help.”

Confused, he looked about. “But, there’s no one — ”

“She’s running a bit late. Patience is key.” Arrica hurried out of the shop, grabbing her purse as she went. It jangled as she plucked it up from a keyring anointed with several magickal charms of stored spells and a turquoise gemstone that glistened in both the darkness and the light.

Arrica checked the gemstone, her implement, for Power as she darted out of the shop. It wasn’t much — she probably would have to walk a bit, but she could hitch a ride on the Rails. She tried not to think about how she’d get by when the baby was born if she was barely scraping by now.

Maybe I should reach out to his father, Arrica thought. But, then she thought against it. He wouldn’t be great for this. She didn’t want him to be great for this — it never should’ve happened. She knew he was too old for her at the time, and now… Why ruin his circumstances?

The Blues — all eight districts on the other side of the Wall belonging to the Blue Bloods — were beautiful at any time of the day when compared to the Browns, but she preferred it under the cold silver of night.

Lanterns of witchfire shone in the darkness, fending off the perils of the witching hours. In the distance, Arrica could hear six thunderous booms in rapid succession: the Coven Marshalls, likely responding to the sighting of an Adversary or some magickal crisis. On this street, chariots pulled by majestic simulacra of hoofed beasts and mighty jungle cats long-extinct since the Awakening swept the world — and humanity in its infinite power tossed an incomplete world into utter destruction.

Despite the activity of the night, Arrica kept her eyes upon the heavens. Waiting for that moment, even if it wouldn’t come now.

For a moment, she closed her brown eyes and breathed in the sweet smell of cinnamon and honey and imagined herself here. Despite the darkness, she felt a bright flash from behind closed lids.

When she parted them, a small square wafted through the air, falling angelically from the heavens. Arrica gestured at it, intent on waiting for it to fall. When her impatience got the better of her, she whispered a word, sending a jolt through her fingers and the paper zipped into her hand.

She cursed herself for wasting Power she’d need to get home, but caressing her belly, she forgave herself, this time.

Lavender binder wrapped in some kind of enchantment that beckoned her to open it. Her legs felt soft and flimsy beneath her. Like they’d melt if she weren’t too careful — and as an Abstract domain, she’d need to be careful about what she’d think could happen.

Hurriedly, Arrica looked around the area for a place to sit. Somewhere, she recalled coming across a park. The image was so clear in her head where to find it that her legs, by some miracle, dragged her away.

It was an inconvenient distance away, but she made it despite how her feet screamed. It was resting on green grass with a sandbox and a swing set. Arrica took a seat on the swings and pushed herself just a little.

The letter lay on her lap, the wind trickling it a bit, threatening to spirit the Letter away, along with her future.

Now or never, Arrica thought to herself. She grabbed the letter between thumbs and fingers before breaking the seal on the back. Four sheets fell open in front of her in gold, silver, nickel and brown. The topmost sheet of gold glew with burning letters:

Congratulations, Arrica Tre! We welcome you to the fold! The Covenant proudly presents you pledge sponsorship amongst these of the Seven Leagues, 1.) the Orthodoxy of Magic, Academy for the civics, servitude and the vanquisher’s arts and 2) the Coterie, Academy for Grace and Demeanor. Thank you for your diligence to the Savior’s wisdom and the Covenant which binds and unites us deeper than skin and blood.

The Senate 66

Arrica had no interest in being a Coven Marshall. Papa called Brown Bloods who went for such a role worse than traitors. He made it clear if she even so much as brought one home: she didn’t want to imagine the disappointment if she became one. However, thee Coterie? That was different.

Arrica’s smiled spread immediately. Her eyes welled with tears.

There might have been a word for her delight if she could think of finding one. If she could afford to float, she might’ve. If she could muster the might to leap up and dance, she would’ve. All she had the energy for at this moment now, was to get home and tell her Papa.

Krk!

Arrica leaped up off the swing and twirled around. “Hello?”

The air was stale and old around her. Shadows loomed off into the distance. Arrica lifted her hand. “Flicker!”

A bell of light blossomed in her hand, burning out another lump of her Power. Worse, she could feel what she had remaining dwarfing by the moment: light burned out a lot.

“I know I heard you out there,” Arrica shouted out loud. Her left leg began to tremble involuntarily. She listened carefully to a soft song of a thousand crickets, but even that might be a falsehood. Adversary was predators of the magickal and sophisticated: banes of humanity. Of course, they could obscure their being behind hallucination and other weirdness.

Focusing, Arrica reached out with her mind and Awareness. It was likely finally opening her eyes after years of living in shadow. There dozens of scents flowing beneath her eyes; pungencies of spellwork: both inactive and active. She wasn’t too good at this, but she was enough to know there were no Adversary in the area.

She was also talented enough to feel that shadow lurking but ten feet in front of her.

“I-I know you’re there,” Arrica said boldly. “Come out. Now.”

The air rippled for a moment, like a puddle under rainfall. A figure stepped out, tall and confident with a silver badge with a six-pointed star at his hip: a Coven Marshall. His eyes did not watch her, but saw her: like she was a granite wall, an obstacle in his way.

“Are you… Arrica Tre?” he asked, his voice like rusty stone.

She hugged the Letters to her chest and followed the protocol drilled into her since she was three: watching his feet and not his eyes, silencing her magicks until it was little more than a weak pathetic trickle.

“Y-yes? Am I in trouble? I just found this park and I-I didn’t know I couldn’t be here.”

The man shook his head. “No, no. It’s not that, you’re supposed to be here. I wanted you here.”

Arrica frowned. “I…don’t know what you mean by that?”

“A lure. I brought you here,” he said. “Congratulations on your scores. I’m sure you’re proud.”

“I am …I’m sorry, but –”

“Can you use Ancestry, Arrica?” the man asked brazenly.

No, Arrica tried to say, as was expected of her, but her lips did not comply. She tried again, but her lips were locked together, again. The man kept staring at her. No, not at: in.

His piercing black eyes were staying at her belly with a forlorn knowledge.

Arrica gasped audibly. “Y-yes…”

“I see,” the man folded his hands and glanced around the area mathematically. Something about the gesture made Arrica want to vomit, but even that function seemed to be failing. It was like her body was made of stone.

“I hope you’re all watching. I won’t be showing this twice.”

“W-who — ”

The man regarded Arrica with an eye. “Not you. The other students.” As if they were summoned, four figures flickered into view, each with six-pointed badges of varying metals.

“However, in regards to you. I’d like to apologize. Not because you have to go — that was brought unto you by your choice to practice dark magick. Sorry that your unborn beloved will have to suffer the consequences of your choices. For that, I’ll make it quick.”

Arrica’s rage burned inside her. Desperately, she flailed not for her Power, but her Presence and sharpened it to a lethal point set upon the man before her. “True str — ”

Her lips slammed shut against her volition. Wet tears and snot slid down her face. The man regarded her with an eye. Slowly, it dawned on Arrica what was happening.

Empyrean warlock, she thought.

“Correct. I don’t need incantations to harm you when I can just chant them telepathically.” The man tapped the third-eye chakra between his eyes as he spoke and then at the exposed air.

“And no,” he said, sliding his finger down the empty space as it slit open and unfurled like a rose bud. “No one can hear you. No one will help. I bewitched it all ahead of time to maximize stealth and secrecy, and I am quite good at those things. I am a Coven Marshall after all.”

Arrica could do nothing but watch. In the distance, she could hear a cruel laughter. Someone mocking her.

“We do not know if the person we actually want is you. We were just told to watch for someone with a specific set of skills and qualifiers that you happen to fit. We pray to the Saviors’ grace that it is you, but most likely, it isn’t.”

There was a long arm that stretched out of the pocket world. Covered in scars, dripping in darkness and everything about it — the frequency, the stench, the color — said that it was wrong. That it was wrong because it was everything she, and her unborn child, were not. It was an enemy of her humanity, an Adversary.

“More will likely have to die, but that is what you and yours do best: die. I don’t mean to say that to sound unsympathetic. I am, but I do this to keep the peace and to enforce the Covenant, which is nothing without the will of very specific persons. Those persons have decided the answer to your specific crimes will be death, rather than the condemnation of the Wall like the rest of the monsters of the Browns.”

One of the figures sniffed loudly. “Why did we have to waste this much Power to summon this for a Jungle Witch, sir?”

The man folded his hands “Because, my little bird. As bloody as the work we will have to do, we should do well to keep our work bloodless on paper.” the man said. “That’s our prerogative when in service to the Law.”

The arm firmly grasped hold of Arrica. Her body squirmed internally as a thousand electrical pulses demanded she move, scream, fight — all to be quelled by whatever psychic order was established by this man in black. Instead, she feebly prayed to the Ancestors.

But, in the end, this man was right. If they were so powerful, they wouldn’t be Ancestors. Now, would they?

***

Voodoo, My Kingdom

By Steven Underwood

Mama always told me to stay away from the Voodoo Queens out along Negro Knocks, where the black folk were loud, opinionated and troublesome.

“Them Devil Worshippers crawl across those pavements like ticks to an ass. Don’t come ‘round there lest you want your soul to be low.” And yet, as the church bells sung the work day sleep, my friends lured me out of bed after dinner.

The streets were lit with streetlights and sin. Four women in scant silks danced around us three, giggling and swearing promises of luster. Sarah cowered against my arm. Esther teased back at them like a long-lost sister. The girls approved of Esther’s wicked grin.

“Get on, Esther,” I said. “We ain’t gonna be out here all night. We got another mile to go before the clock chimes again and I ain’t getting caught out here too long. My mama will have both of our hides.”

Esther whipped her head around, her coarse curls tumbled rigidly against the motion, and though she was several shades darker — a distinction my mama always said made me beautiful — and a whole foot smaller, she met my gaze without waver.

“Ya mama wouldn’t touch me with a ten-foot cross, Carver. If no man could fell me, I certainly won’t be felled by some woman pretending to be one.”

Her parents would have Esther as my wife, as the Men-At-Large requested. It’d probably happen. One look at Esther from their dais and they decided they must obstruct the darker shade her litter would certainly have. They took one look at my size: my body built like a cinderblock wall, the grit of my glare, and they would see a future of reliable workers.

The two of us would owe a child by year’s end, or I would be arrested and sent to the Work-Gardens.

Sarah shushed us. “Y’all loud. Esther, keep it down. What if they hear you. Those words will get you lashed, or worse,” she hesitated. “The pyres.”

Esther smiled and looked Sarah up and down, a vicious glint beneath her lashes. “All this talk of what they’ll do to me, but what will they do to you, lilly?”

Sarah sucked her teeth and strutted off, but not too far: the night time was a dangerous world for a girl like her: so many men loved to ruin beautiful things just for the sake of devastating it.

“You shouldn’t be mean to her,” I said finally. It was the right thing to say, after all.

Esther shrugged. “She shouldn’t talk about things she ain’t got any idea of. I don’t know why you brought that white girl.”

Because maybe she can tell me that we are meant to be, rather than you and I…

“Because she got the money if we need it.”

Esther rolled her eyes and continued. I took a moment to re-center myself, to take the emotions and thoughts that Mama would call “Black Clout” and plunged it into a sea of bleached salt water within my heart. I ran up behind the girls a little less human.

The walk was clarifying. It was almost enough to forgive the fact we were all in this mess because of Esther’s rapacious nature. I caught her creeping out of the house while our parents slept side-by-side in their room. Negro traditions for betrothed dictated the bride’s family stay with the groom until the match can be finalized by the Men-At-Large, conserving funds under one roof, but Esther’s father had scruples.

“We ain’t lowdown fornicators in Negro Knocks!” He demanded a new room be built adjourning mine and distanced by a locked door. “Keep ya rooster away, boy, And if any harm befall my Esther: you ain’t gonna worry about the Men creeping for ya, I’ll swing you myself!”

It was no concern for me. Mama always said the new traditions would get people a fun night of sloppy wetness and a horrible dash into hell — along with Esther and the brick-hurling black-power extremists she was pretending to be: along with Negro Knocks.

She slid out the window and turned into me.

“Where do you think you’re going? It’s the dead of night! You finna get caught by one of the creepers out there!”

Esther scoffed. “Ain’t none getting caught by anyone, Carver.”

“You just got caught by me!”

“Because you were being nosey!”

“Because you’re loud!”

Esther rolled her eyes and stormed off. I followed behind her and hefting her into a bear-hug. She kicked and roared, but I was made of a stronger bulk. She went nowhere.

“Fine! I’m gonna go see the show.”

I lifted an eyebrow, a gesture my Mama said would give me nothing but terror and danger. “What show?”

Esther turned her head awkwardly towards me. “Put me down, and I’ll tell you all about it.”

I walked over to a rickety bench and set her down.

“Let me tell you about Mambo Lolita. She a bad woman — and not in the way ya mama calls people with a brain. She a bad woman. A bad woman without a man, a bad woman with every plan in her palms. Some say her kiss is poison, like the belladonna by the bayou. Some say she smells of cinnamon and others say she smell of hellfire. She the Mambo, the Queen of Voodoo. She rides the ocean’s waves. She is the first, and the only and she foresees all. The Voodoo’s Wife. She her own master, who can hold the world on a spider’s thread.”

Esther spoke all of it in a single breath. Her gaze becoming enchanted with glamour and her lips dry with vigor. It took me a moment to realize my own heart sped with all of the beat of the Congo.

“And why’s that matter?”

Esther smiled. “I’ma ask her to read fate.”

I raised my eyebrow again, and I could feel my mother shiver in her crib. “What can she tell you about your future that I don’t already know. You gone have a baby. You gone be married; and you gone die. There, done. And I ain’t even need a fancy title to do it.”

Esther rolled her eyes — something she had been brought before the Men-At-Large over time and time again. “Lincoln Alexander Carver! You really is simple. I ain’t asking about my fate — or not merely. I’ma ask about our fate…and how to avoid it.”

The thought excited me, and while protected only by the June crickets and firebugs searching for love, we ran a few blocks in the opposite direction to get Sarah, despite Esther’s protests which eventually subsided.

Sarah lived in the Convent, a large grey stone tower with glass panel windows of sapphire, indigo and yellow. Large iron bars segregated the two of them from the premises of the convent, obstructing view from the tall effigy of the Great Man of Jerusalem — a narrow nosed man with free-flowing hair and thin lips, staring down at them with a gaze of indignant judgement.

I took the time to look him over, and not for the first time, noticed how artificial he looked under the stern scrutiny of blackness.

Several chalky pebbles laid between the statue’s feet. I scooped them up and jogged around the convent towards the back, chucking each stone towards a greyed window panel. After three throws, the window opened to reveal her, Sarah. I looked down till I saw the cold silver of her rosary’s chain and the red bruise it left against her collar when the chain became caught on her hair and tugged. She smiled, and my world came alight. Sincere Sarah, my firebug.

“What are you doing out here?” She asked. Then, her soft brown eyes fell upon Esther’ venomous glare.

Sarah’s frowned; the world dimmed. “Oh.”

“Hey Stephanie.”

Sarah rolled her eyes. “It’s Sarah.”

“You said Susan?”

“You’re an ungodly witch, Esther. You know that?”

“Aw, you would be too if ya hair could knot.”

Like the Moon war with the Sun, they rivaled and spat as often as they could. One chased the other away and the other kept on fleeing until sensible and safe. One was a nurturing guardian against the wrong, and the other bathed in it.

“Enough! Sarah, come on.”

“Or don’t,” Esther taunted. “Freedom is yours if you so claim it, little girl.”

“For what?”

I smiled at her. “For an adventure. Trust me, it’ll be …it’ll be revolutionary.”

Sarah looked from me to Esther. I held my hand out to her, dramatically initially, but I found my heart carrying the intent and my resolution filled her. She nodded and was out of the house in minutes, and they were off.

Now, but a street away from Negro Knocks, where the trees have since withered their leaves on the stem and the streets smelled of cotton.

“Do you think they’re dangerous?” Sarah asked as we crossed the street, pulling her jacket comfortably across her chest. Despite being rendered small and mute by the obelisk-like buildings surrounding us, she still found it pivotal to shrink her voice and size. “I mean, people are afraid of them for a reason. Shouldn’t we be too?

I shrugged. “My mama says they’re bad, but — ”

“But ya mama thinks showering more than two times a week brings about the devil. I know men of a certain flavor love a god-fearing woman, but I find it hard to believe they enjoy one who’s that terrified.”

I frowned and blustered. “Hey, don’t talk about my Mama.”

“You’re right, why would I need to? Your Mama does so much talking for you that she minds as well speak for me as well!”

Sarah stomped her feet. “Can you two just stop?! Gosh, no wonder you two are arranged: you argue as if you’ve been married for a slave’s span!”

Esther simmered, squeezing her hands into fists, and marched forward. “You shouldn’t throw phrases ya barely understand.”

Sarah looked into my face, her loose curls dancing across her back. “What did I say?”

“That term.”

“What about it?” she asked, innocently enough.

“A slave span isn’t a… nice term to use.”

“Why not?” her eyes were doe-ful, perfect globes of purity.

“Back in the day, a slave span was a measurement of how long a slave lived — ”

“Okay?”

“By the decree of their masters — whether it ended by God’s natural hand, or the masters.”

Sarah slapped her hands over her mouth. “I — I didn’t. It’s just that’s what the Father would always… Gods, Esther must think I’m — Oh my…”

Sarah rushed forward, stealing the sight of her away from me. I frowned and hurried after her.

We both almost ran Esther into the ground. She was frozen in place, her eyes parted in wonder, her jaw hanging.

I looked up, and understood why she was so silent.

Negro Knocks sprawled from left to right in color. The buildings were colored vibrant shades of purple and green, towering over the block on either side, stretching as far back as I could see. Street lights dripped with windchimes and corked glass bottles filled with blue sand or rolls of parchment with numerous scribbles and scripture printed about them. Large cages were stacked at a street corner with the odd greymalkin nestled against the cage door, long milky pythons dipping the tip of their tails into small bins of cold water or a rooster nestled on top of a bed of straw.

The walls were covered in graffiti. Splotched, lengthy bodies and misaligned limbs connected to expressive black bodies. Girls and, shockingly, men danced along the waves before the fire, casting long, proud shades against the wallskin. A melody trickled constantly, beating against wind chimes, murmured by the many and praised by the trees bending outwards to listen in. The world was primal, yet civilized with a black face smiling on its every corner.

We took our first visual swig of the nectar of the savannah’s offspring and realized all our lives I might’ve been dehydrated, like drinking gasoline on winter nights and finally sipping my first tall glass of lemonade in the Summer heat. Yet, none of us dared approach the entry, as approaching might’ve been the difference between a sip and a drowning.

A firm hand rested itself onto my shoulder. “Kinfolk, approach, we don’t bite.”

We screamed, we couldn’t help it.

He wore a suit two-sizes too large for his body with a feathered cap. His skin was an ebony bronze, a texture of milk and honey.

I flinched, stepping back into the shadows shamefully. Esther turned up her lip and huffed her chest, “Who you be?”

He smiled, exactly how my mama described people like him would: with sin, but in person that sinful grin was illuminated with God’s fortune. As if he picked up this chosen son and kissed him seven times on either cheek, just to let the world know he must be loved.

“Apologies, kinfolk! I ain’t presume to insult. My name is Jamie Langston, but friends round this part don’t call me that.”

I turned up my nose. “Why? Do you not believe in ya God given name? Don’t you want God to know you?”

“Nah,” he said with an upturned glee. “Not the God these folk talkin’ to anyway. My friends and kinfolk call me Wicker.”

I rolled my eyes, but Sarah let out a low, involuntary giggle. A sourness stirred in my gut.

“Well, sorry to bother you, Mr. Wicker, but we was just leaving.” I reached out for Sarah’s wrist, but she moved.

“Actually, we were hoping of going in. We…never been to Negro Knocks before. We didn’t think we would be welcomed.”

Wicker laughed. “Now now, ain’t no such thing as an un-welcome kinfolk in Negro Knocks. If ya feel the need to come on in, just make a step.” he smiled, his teeth were sharp like a shark’s edged jawline. “In fact, Wicker know many faces among the Negro Knocks, cause you know us black folk: quick to talk, quick to know, quick to hop from place to place in search of ourselves and identity. Wicker do that better than most: us kinfolk love Wicker, they got inside them, and fire loves a good candle: he be knowing and greeting. He greets and knows most, like the Voodoo Queen.”

Esther gasped. Wicker smiled like a vixen in a caper.

“If you all want to meet her, follow me. I know the way.”

He waltzed, each step a rhythmic dance of fire and slithering ease.

“I don’t like him,” I said once I was sure he was far from my voice and passions. “He slithers like satan’s snake. My mama — ”

“Damn it, Carver, if you so fascinated with ya mama, go marry her instead!” Esther stormed off after Wicker. Sarah glanced at me, before turning to the voyaging duo and shrugged, “You did promise me an adventure. I-it will be fun: meeting Mambo Lolita.”

I frowned, and cursed my temptation. Mama always liked to say, the Blacker the boy, the greater the devil. Then, (should it be the first time in history?) I followed a black woman.

The alley was in uproar. I walked down the path as a collective of beautiful children danced around me, laughing sunshine and amazement, spinning around me with their teeth aglitter. One ran upon Sarah and hugged her around the waist, and she hugged them back, sharing a moment of light. Esther carried two in either arm, resting on her hip. They kissed her on either cheek and she whispered into their ears great joys. They ran off, a cluster of possibilities and my heart broke for the days those possibilities would end up shattered on the ground — like many black children who must become old in defense.

Mambo Lolita’s home was at the end of the alley. It was a large complex with scarlet bricks. A neon sign glew in the midnight, hissing against the night’s air with dozens of bulbs flickering all around it. Wicker knocked on the door, a rhythmic rap.

“Who it be?!” someone shouted from the other side of the door.

“It’s Wicker. I got some clients for ya, Mambo!”

There was a hesitation. “You got my gambo?”

Wicker swore under his breath and hit the door again. “I’ll get ya it tomorrow!”

“You gonna get that tonight, Wicker! I ain’t playing!”

“Fine! Just open the damn door, it’s freezing out here!”

I disagreed. The night was warm and passionate in Negro Knocks, a simmering comfort as if resting in the womb of a goddess. The city surrounding them was a morbid world of frigid nightmare, but here, in the dead heart of the town, was a place that felt motherly.

The door swung open. Her hair was dreaded down her back, soft twists of chocolate braids, accessorized with gold with dangling charms of scorpions and moths. Her face was brown and freckled six times on both cheeks. Around her strong biceps clung a golden armlet shaped like a vipress. She wore a suede dress that came down to her ankles, a shawl of victorian black beauties draped over her back and walked the ground barefoot.

“Y’all some beautiful ones.” she said. The complement seemed otherworldly.

Esther smiled. “You beautiful ya damn self.”

“Esther!” Sarah shouted. “That’s improper!”

Mambo Lolita scoffed. “Ain’t nothing too improper that a Voodoo Queen can’t hear none about it! Come on in out the cold.”

We stepped in altogether. Wicker tried to walk through the door, but Mambo Lolita stopped him at the entrance. “I ain’t trying to see you until you bring me my dish, boy! Get!”

“Fine!” he shouted after trying once more to force himself once again. “I’ll see y’all after.”

His eyes lingered. I stepped in front of Sarah and puffed my chest. He didn’t notice. He walked off.

“Now, now. Quit all that puffin’, boy. We got some work to do.”

They journeyed through the tight apartment: a narrow room of cluttered paperback books and beautiful porcelain pots. They followed her into a back room. It was dark with not a touch of dust to be seen. The floor was covered in chalky white pictographs, swirling and circling into a dizzying design all-around the surface.

“You like graffiti?” Sarah asked, ever the artist

Mambo Lolita smiled. “Nah, I like my faith. This be veves, girl. Invocations.”

Sarah shivered and grasped her rosary. “Satanism.”

Mambo Lolita raised an eyebrow and glanced over the girl. Her eyes had the heat of the jungle cats Mama showed me in the old books, before the church invited us to burn them, and she complied.

“Little girl, don’t you know your history?”

Sarah sputtered. “Y-yes, of course. I know about the buying and selling of the Blacks.”

Mambo Lolita threw her head back and laughed. The rumble from her throat could’ve shattered glass. “Sweet pea, ain’t you know Black folk are more than — than slaves and displaced sycophants?”

She danced past Sarah and took up her place at the center of the veve. She twirled once, sending her braid flowing through the air. The hit her shoulder on the opposite side of her frame. Candles exploded into light, their flames twirling on the wick.

“Okay, Sweet pea, you’re up first.”

Sarah looked around: from me, to Esther.

Esther rolled her eyes. “Little girl, she ain’t talking to me.”

Mambo Lolita waved her over. “Come on now, don’t be shy.”

Sarah took mousy, fragile steps towards the center. “B-but, I don’t have any money.”

Mambo Lolita smiled. “Sugah, Voodoo Queens don’t ask for you to give the money of that world. That world used that money to trade us: to corrupt generations of stories; to interrupt a history. That money don’t warrant anything for us, but to keep them other folks up out of our crowns of curls. What I ask for is a truth.”

Sarah parted her lips, to which Mambo Lolita raised her hand in opposition. “Nah, I don’t wanna hear ya truth right now? This truth you working on ain’t even the full picture. How you gone tell me bout yourself when you don’t even know yourself.”

Sarah frowned. “I get it. I am an orphan. No need to sugar coat it.”

Mambo Lolita smiled. “My, my y’all are truly entertaining me! Nah, I ain’t talking about loss parents. I’m talking cultural — ancestry.”

Mambo Lolita dropped her shawl from around her, revealing her bare back. I peeked down at her bare skin in amazement.

Her flesh was a maze of cryptic abrasions. She pulled Sarah down next to her.

“Watch,” she said as she reached into a pocket of her dress, grasped a pepper, placing it on her tongue.

Mambo Lolita lowered her head down at Sarah and stared through her.

Sarah long since started praying, but stopped when Lolita locked eyes with her. There was a moment that felt like thousands where electricity danced between them, before Sarah nodded in understanding.

“Who am I?” she asked with the reverence my mama would reserve for her secret speech with God himself.

“You think yourself a product of their society of stone castles and flimsy winters, but you’re wrong.” Mambo Lolita opened her mouth and blew. Orange smog streamed from her parted lips, swirling around the room, forming a thick screen of colored mist. Thunder crashed along the groove and arc of the clouds. A low drumming echoed in the distance, building with the moments, until a loud crash echoed and shadow men danced in the distance.

”You’re a daughter of a world unlike anything imaginable. Oh, you flinch. Did you expect us to call you a Queen? You’re mighty, child, but you’re far from royalty. In many lands, royalty has no meaning. In some world’s, lands far across the seas and summers, royalty is an idea laughed at: someone born into leadership? Power? Such things must be earned! We laugh at the notion!

“The Ororono are women, with arms like trees and a fragrance of the unweathered storm! All of them: women warriors standing at the top of the mountain, wailing against the injustices and violence. Did you expect our homeland to be perfect? Without strife and fire? We are human, girl. We are mortals born of clay and violence! But, we are prouder than those across the seas, and so we do war without the added displeasures of human injustices. A slave might exist on the savannah of clay and flower, but a slave does not exist within their minds as well, for the Oronoko will not allow it! Powerful in stride. Vicious in action. Their spears are shaped like the thunderbolt. They hurl them at the heart of the thundering opposer and dance on the nimbus until she cries in happiness, spreading her love about the wronged and desolate.”

The air went stale and silent.

Mambo Lolita pulled Sarah to her feet, showing her around the cloud. She gestured to swirling masses, where a woman in a thick poncho twirled a spear and struck a brutish man in his chest. Another man grabbed her and ran her down into the ground, slamming his fist down as she rose a leather shield in defense, before militia of women tackled him, yanking their sister free, before liberating the world surrounding them. That downtrodden women smirked and rose, joining her sister-warriors in triumph.

“Oh, We are sorry. We believe you were asking simply about your people, that tremendous tribe of amazons and riders-in-the-heavens. But, you want so much more than the forgotten whispers of the thunderers. Maybe I tell of your ancient gods, or perhaps not. Ours are teachers who gives, loves and structures in a fitting way to benefit survivors. Notice we did not mention fight and win, because winning is not why we fight, it is just an occasional symptom of the necessity. “

Mambo Lolita caressed Sarah’s sunny face. “Or perhaps, I should tell you of the homes and fortress which protect from weather and might! Their villages were round, circular, rooted in cycles distanced apart from one another with paths of rivers. Their huts, formed with shined stoned, polished like a cumulus. They tell stories before they laugh, about their motherly elders, those mighty spear-toting juggernauts, who presented warriors and nothing else unlike them, who cultivated legacies in all women, so nothing, no one and nobody shall have desire for royalty.”

Sarah was crying. She had been for minutes, her mouth covered in awe, turning about, looking into the mists that ordained the world forgotten. The women were her, and together they were an unstoppable whole.

Mambo Lolita wiped a tear free from her face.

“Our dear, we are wondering, as you peer into these honest clouds, who are you?”

Sarah turned towards Mambo Lolita, her lips trembling.

“I — I… all my life I had an image of what I could be laid before me. I prayed for what I thought I wanted: a mother, who could comb my hair and save me from the vicious people all around me who would refuse to call me: “sister,” and subjugate me in the pattern of the unfaithful that grabbed us. I know it’s wrong; you must bear with me. I am a girl, a singular one, but I am also two. I represent two halves of a whole that cannot always agree with one another.”

Sarah turned to me and Esther, stuck in her words. I looked her into those soft eyes and nodded for her to go on.

“My mama: I don’t know her, but the Priest tell tales, because god-fearing folk spread more fairy tales than a crucible. They say I got the smile of men who like to dabble with whores and fornicate with things so exotic that one might thing they are descended from the nemean lion that preys in a world so tiny that it is indestructible by their standards. I’m called many things, many lustful things, but what the people always call me when they think I’m not around is a slur that tickles their tongue and stings my ear to hear, one reserved for people born into a family with the worse of the fornicators at the helm, a wealthy one that calls half-breeds like me anathema, like in the bible. I am a daughter of someone who doesn’t want me, but desires women like me. So, if you ask me for truth, I can give you one. I won’t be long one hundred percent to anything, all my life, never in my life, I won’t and that’s why I dream of a mother who will hold me and protect me like that, because I always know though I sit in the shades of both night and day, I am only ever going to sort-of fit in one!”

Sarah’s face was as red as her face and her eyes were large, puffy and searing with a ravaging. She shuddered, her tears falling down her face and over her chin, dropping like rainlets down the hill. Mambo Lolita grabbed her and coveted Sarah deep into her own chest. Sarah wailed and screamed, but to my ears she sung a song of fiery rebirth.

Sarah needed assistance leaving that day, her entire being exhausted and taxxed. Mambo Lolita carried them to the door. “I thoroughly enjoyed our encounter here,” she said with a smile. “I’ma sleep good tonight.”

Esther whipped around. “W-wait, we can’t be done! I can’t be — I didn’t get a chance to ask you!”

“‘Lax child! We can meet tomorrow. Mambo Lolita never forgets or neglects a client, and that’s my honor!”

Esther seemed willing to argue more, but she simply nodded and stepped off. Together, they carried Sarah back in silence. They passed Wicker on their way out, who gave them a just, solemn nod.

The sky was creamy blue, just before the crack of dawn when they returned to the Church gates. Sarah stood in front, calmly pondering her return.

“So…” I said, violating the silence. “That’s some family history.”

Sarah frowned.

“I agree, girl. You come from power.”

“It’s happy to know I come from somewhere respectable,” she said. “You all have probably heard the rumors: I come from a woman, but not like a woman you would expect. She was a teenager, back in those days in the Black Light Districts.”

I nodded, attempting to veil my shock. The Black Light District was infamous: women standing in glass windows with a collar of thread and paper, marking a price tag. It was a despicable practice, and I told that to my father when I learned that was where he frequented when he thought my mother was too fixated on her bibles to worry about him.

But, I was unable to conceal my shock when Sarah looked up at us and boldly stated, “I am not ashamed of her.”

Esther tilted her head. “Oh?”

“No,” Sarah said. “I know the Convent expects me to be. I was for a little while, when they had a hook inside of me, but now? I don’t. It’s only the truth. To be ashamed of her means I am judging her for her choices, a if she had many options as a woman like she was: a black woman, without an orphanage. Eventually, such things cost, and she paid by leaving her daughter so early that she couldn’t even name her proper, but she had no choices…and to be ashamed of her for the work she finally had a choice in deciding would be disingenuous to the truth.” A shadow eclipsed her terrible mood. “We cannot be disingenuous.”

Sarah turned around and walked into her home. She stopped for a moment and turned to the two of us. “I — thank you for the night out,” she whispered. “I will see you tomorrow. “She entered the church, her home inside the temple of a foreign god.

That night, I laid. I found myself drowning in the mists conjured by the Voodoo Queen, Mambo Lolita. My exhaustion caught up to me and I fell into dreamspace. There, the image of the Amazon sisters, fighting as one, as a unit and team replayed on a loop in my my mind’s eye. A sour sting trickled across my heart, and I knew I was jealous for the first time of another’s union outside of love.

We moved with silence: it was a church night, and Mama was up. She kneeled in front of the beat up sofa on a long mahogany table, her knees squarely bent in salt grains, her fingers joint in vigorous worship. I pondered as I passed her, if she knew of the ancient gods we called our own, would she find favor with the one who aided in her ownership?

Sarah waited outside the Covent gates. Her hair was braided down the back like Mambo Lolita’s

We returned to Negro Knocks to find Wicker waiting outside again. “Sarah. You look far different.”

Sarah walked passed him. “I did it for me.”

Wicker nodded. “Straight to business, I like that in ya.”

I glared at him, but Sarah shoved me in the arm. “Calm down, Carver. You ain’t even really have the right to be jealous for me anyway. I am not yours!”

She strutted ahead. Esther laughed, but Wicker just stared. People got weird in Negro Knocks it seemed, particularly Black folk. Maybe Mama was right?

They arrived at Mambo Lolita’s home to find the door prematurely open. “Come on in children,” she said joyfully. We entered, and she escorted the group back. As she walked, she was kind and made offers. “Anything you need? I have it all.”

Esther rushed to the back room, interrupting Mambo Lolita’s rhythmic flow.

“Oh?” Mambo Lolita asked.

“I’m sorry Mambo, she’s just tired of waiting and wants it now.” I said.

“Questions?” she asked. I nodded. “Questions. She wants them answered. Now.”

She laughed skillfully and dragged us further down her hallways. We arrived at the end in the room. Esther sat criss-crossed in the middle of it. I joined her.

Mambo Lolita joined us with a glass of water. She downed it in seconds. “Okay, friends, you all know the set up by now, so,” She began, “ask your question.”

I opened my mouth, but Esther was faster.

“How do I avoid marrying Carver’s ignant ass?”

“Hey!” I exclaimed. Esther leaned into Mambo Lolita.

“How do I be like…like you?”

I frowned. That was not what we planned. “Esther!” I shouted. Mama was right, she is a devil tupping demon!

Mambo Lolita cackled. “Calm down, little sister. I’ma get to your answers, but you don’t need none of the ancestor workings to help you. The Mysteres don’t need to bother coming on down here to help you; you want assistance, you can help yourself. Now, you asking me how to avoid and how to do all these things, but do you mean it?”

Esther leaned in. “Are you going to tell me about my people now too?”

Mambo Lolita shook her head. “Your people story ain’t as prevalent in the past. You wanna take a gander at them, you can in your own time: they were farmers. You won’t find any defiant warriors,” Mambo Lolita patted Esther on the shoulder. “You the first one.”

I scoffed. “She ain’t no warrior.”

Mambo Lolita looked me up and down. “Oooooh, and you would know lil’ boy. You don’t e’en know ya self. You don’t e’en know ya desires. Sitting around here, talking bout somebody. Well tell me something, since you know every damn thing, who asked you to define what this woman is?”

“Ain’t nobody gotta ask me. My mama says the man of the house run the house, and if the world have its way, I’ma be hers man, so I run the house, and I run what she is.”

Lolita slapped me blind.

“I’ll tell you a story — not related to you, but of the past. Of a girl from an island, where the animals were decorated so their pelts radiated moonlight, capturing the clandestine rays in seven times their beauty. On that island, lived a people as black as us all, who slept in the shadows, who knew only the rules set by the god-shadows in the walls. They followed them like they followed their Chief appointed. His daughter was set to lead.”

“Sounds terrible,” I said.

Esther smiled, “I like it. Probably was a better world for it.”

Mambo Lolita laughed. “Oh? Just cause she got some girl bits don’t make the rule a better one. Sometimes, even women don’t got the good sense nature expects of all animals. She didn’t. She tried to rule like he ruled. Master the women, as told by the shadows, dominate the beasts, as she thought they ordained, never once following the credibility of her own instincts, of the shame harvested in her heart. She thought it fate what she did.”

“Why?” I asked, “Ain’t we supposed to do as gods say?”

“I believe it healthy to have some reverance to them on the clouds, but we can’t pretend they know what it means to be us. Them gods are just like the Men-At-Large: they rule us without know what it means to be us; they created the way we rotate their suns, but not our sunny feelings. They just direct, command and feel they are above sympathy.

“Don’t interrupt again. Now, the girl did bad things in the name of them shadows. That made her change not a thing, she knew she was doing bad, but ain’t care. One of the things she liked to do was fish up the stream. Because of that, a war arrived with a tribe from a culture in the water — turns out ain’t nobody ever think to look beneath the surface and find out they were depriving another’s baby’s tummy.

“They had her marry their prince to avoid more death. She got no say, and it was for the safety of everyone — that’s what the shadows said… She weren’t smitten with no other man… She just didn’t want to have this choice made for her. See, because the loss of choice is often a crime in the ugliest of ways. She hated it and ran away, turning from the shadows and dashing further than any man, woman or child ever did in their tribe. Want to know what she found?”

Esther nodded.

“The Sun. It was friendly and warm. And, unlike what the shadows said of it, it never burned them and cast them to the wind. Why would it? These islanders were not shadows. They were men and women who needed sunny things. She followed the sun down winding paths, stepping on vibrant colors she never knew she wanted to touch, until she found a waste. Here, where the dead were laid to rest. Everywhere lay bones and body.”

Sarah grimaced, “Yuck.”

Mambo Lolita nodded. “Indeed, but the girl wasn’t disgusted. She found herself overjoyed. She saw these bones and saw the past of her people and the future of herself. She kneeled and prayed for seven days and when she opened her eyes, she found her back scarred and an epiphany on her tongue. She dug her hands into the dirt, dirtying her pretty nails until she found a shiny stone. She rose and returned to her people, walking into the cave and when she did, the stone shined, and the shadows vanished. She smiled, and said to them, ‘Your people have something to say,’ and she told them a story.”

Esther frowned. “And, how does this help me with my fate?”

Mambo Lolita shrugged. “No one can help your fate, but you. No one can stop the wheel hurtling to you, but you. Yes, it will be hard to do, you got a lot of things on the wheel hurtling at you, but you have choices. Men-At-Large demand that a wheel spins at a black girl like you: to crush you and make you flat and manageable, but you can step out of its way; you can leap over it; you can destroy it before it gets to you, and at all times pay for it. Or…”

She turned to me, disarming me. “Or stop it.”

“B-but,” I stammered. “I’ll be flattened, my Mama — “

“Ya mama is a shadow, too, despite being one of the islanders as well, ignore her. Do you honestly believe that wheel would flatten a man? Lil boy, you gotta ask yourself who is pushing the wheel along in the first damn place!”

Mambo Lolita rose, “Now, I will eventually need a truth. You two owe that much for a story, but I ain’t gonna want it now. I’ma want it when you got something worth saying. And you can’t have something worth saying when you dancing about screaming about fate, fear and mamas.”

Esther jumped up, “But why do he matter? Nothing he say matter! He can’t choose to make me a mambo! I decide that, I do!”

“Nah, he can’t, that’s for you to decide. Like the women of my story, you gotta decide eventually when you had enough and run out on your own to hear the stories, but it’s beneficial if you can embark on your task without a wound,” Mambo Lolita said. “Sweet black girls shouldn’t need more wounds than they can bare, when their brothers are next to them to finally take a licking or two for their benefit. Plus, it’s his story too. Are you gonna help ya friend?”

Later, I found myself outside, exhausted.I nearly passed out on the street corner. I took another step and almost fell into a alley.

Wicker caught me.

“You okay, boyo?”

“Get off me,” I slurred at him. Wicker laughed.

“Pretty boys always angry about something. I overheard what was going on in there, you gonna do it?”

I paused and thought of my Mama, the danger seething from her anger, “Well who gone marry you then, what they gone say about me?”

“She would never forgive me embarassing her.”

“Kinfolk, parents will always get angry about someone trying to build utopia, not a cave full of wall shadows. They think the world is already as good as it gets.”

I frowned, and noticed I do that often. All I do is frown.

“I want to marry Sarah. It’s best.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Well, I don’t wanna marry Esther. She trouble!”

“Well, Esther don’t wanna marry you neither. She a Mambo if I ever seen one. She got stories in her just beneath that beautiful skin of hers.”

It dawned on me. “You smitten for Esther?!”

“I’m smitten for no girl, kinfolk.” He laughed.

“You looked at Sarah!”

“You caught me looking at you, not them. Ain’t my fault you step in front of her a lot.”

I frowned and blushed simultaneously. Things were confusing, but made sense: it wasn’t anything new, Mama talked about people like Wicker a lot, but pretended ain’t no black man was capable of that. She said that was white-boy-business, but Wicker was every bit of black man and so she was wrong, like she was about a lot of things. Like the Chief was about the shadows.

“I don’t know what to do”

Wicker shrugged. “The right thing.”

He got close.

“Do exactly what will make ya feel good for the right reasons.” he said, walking me up the alley. We stepped out of Negro Knocks into the cold of the city. A brick lay at my feet.

I picked it up.

It felt heavy in my hands.

“All it takes is action.” I smiled at him, and he smiled back. Wicker’s teeth were nice.

I threw the brick and shattered a window.

“Mama won’t be proud.”

Adidas Off-White

by Steven Underwood

Nothing worthwhile is found in the streets. Before this September, if I were to walk home from school, I’d assume to find the usual swaying my head low, scanning the ground to dodge the broken glass and eye contact: a used needle (Retail: $20 per pack of 100): tiny green ziplock baggies barely big enough to hold a raisin (Retail: $5.05 per pack of 100): black gum stains pressed into cement after years of tramples (Retail: brand varying, $0.75): shoestrings (Retail: $1.00).

Now, those were shockingly the most common, mostly browned with age, but always bound together with a shoe not too far off (Retail: $0.05). When I tilted my head just slightly, I could see clouds of cloth-stuffed sneakers of all colors. Some were cheap and others were expensive. I even recognized a few of them, mostly Brice’s Concords (Retail: $125), identified by a dried penny-sized stain on the black plastic toe that hydrogen peroxide couldn’t clean (New Retail: $70).

Mama used to say they belonged to boys like me, and when I asked what they were doing walking around barefoot, she simply looked at me with her soulful brown eyes. “They ain’t, baby.” she’d say and then I’d stop asking questions, before her fondness of my curiosity turned into frustration-and-anger.

There ain’t need to be explanations, neither. If they were found on the streets, they’d be picked up: whether by God or by the Devil. What use did they have for some shoes except to dangle them?

Today, I didn’t just find shoe strings. It was a whole damn shoe, brand-new, with the strings perfectly in tact if not a little strained from dangle-stress. The logo was a three-pronged weed leaf like it was plucked off one of those tacky Marijuana brand shirts — the kind Grove City kids wore over cargo pants when they came around the block to buy (Retail: $9.00) . They were hightops, with a velcro tongue dangling from the sides across from a plastic white buckle.

Retail Price: $450.

Last person to have a pair of off-white Adidas on the block was Yvone. Her mama was just as poor as the rest of us, but her step-dad had a trucker job on route from Columbus to all places south, one of the few fortunes of living in a warehouse plant like the 614. He didn’t spend his money on much that couldn’t be carried in-and-out of truck-stops, so she found it pertinent to guilt him into an early present. She wore them to the first day of Sophomore year into Mrs. Martin’s Remedial Englsh with an outfit she snatched after a raid at Eastland.

In fairness, Yvone looked cute. She bought a rainbow of ribbons from Target to tie into her ponytail (Retail Price: $2.00) and a pair of golden hoop earrings (Retail Price: $1.50 a pack). It didn’t entirely come together, but Yvone, like the rest, made due with what she had — a single luxury in a body of cheapness, made whole with personality alone.

Alex Little sucked her teeth at Yvone from across the crowded classroom as she snuck another selfie — one arm fully extended, both lips puckered, an unfamiliar joy in her eyes. It was an Obama phone (Retail Price: $50), flat and silver with a pink protective cover (Retail Price: $12.00).

“She swear she part Indian, but her Grandma blacker than a skillet bottom.” Alex said. My friend snickered, as did I, to my shame. It was just funny; she didn’t even get her shoes in her pic — just half a fit. It hadn’t occurred till after what happened that Yvone didn’t have any, not any real ones. Being friendless meant no full-body pics. Just lonely, close-up selfies down a long three-year digital archive.

They got Yvone across the street, in the alley behind the Walgreens. Alex and my friends made a game out of how many times they could knock her down or bloody her nose. Yvone’d been cursing first, then fighting her mightiest, before finally crying and then, silence. And by the time of the Silence, Alex and her friends already made the effort to snatch her her ribbons, her phone, her cover, both of her earrings and, obviously, both shoes.

She walked back home barefoot in a pair of cerulean-and-white ankle socks (Retail Price: $4.50). The last time anyone saw her, she’d turned down Brighton Rd., her tears dried into two shallow grey trains down her chin.

A month later, when the cops stopped caring to find her, Her mother dangled her shoes from the phone lines. They twisted there, with her name scribbled on the bottoms. I saw her daily in the Walgreens, a blurred picture of a colorful girl I recognized in a house I didn’t, beside an aged rendering that I never would’ve recognized even if she walked up on me on the streets. I wondered how long those strings would spin there before they’d snap.

These Adidas had no name on the bottoms. Just a blurred stain.

The clam shell color was hardened, but striking all the same.

I stuff the shoes into my all black satchel and make my way home with a dedication to my stride. The morning felt defeated with silver in the skyline of the City itself.