I been wid dis woman since she was small, and now is like we shell casing break in two, in three.
First ting I remember from being wid she is hearing she little girl voice. So close it make me vibrate.
“Wait, Mommy, wait. Please.”
She mother busy clearing up de table after dey had just finish eating canned chicken soup wid toasted bread and butter and a couple few spoons of tamarind stew for sweet. I tell you I just reach to she; I ain’t tell you I schupid. I could tell canned from fresh.
“Wait for what, Junisa? You finish eating, right? Go wash you face and hands and put on you shoes. We leaving soon.”
Junisa went. What she had want to tell she mother was dat she still had a tamarind seed in she mouth. She slide down off de hard wood chair and drag she feet across de cool ceramic tile floor, and I could tell she willful and stubborn. She reach de bathroom and even doh she ain’t need de little stool to reach de sink, she pull it out so she could see in de high mirror.
De last tamarind seed, me, wedge up between one of she missing front teeth. She laugh and tell sheself in de mirror dat I is she lucky mouth jewelry. She just finish washing she face and hands when she mother call for she again.
De closet Junisa share wid she brother jumble down wid shoes on de floor and smell of feet. She jam she two foot dem in a pair a sneakers and stuff we, me and Seed Sheself—both in de one shell casing, bound together, yes, but wid different duties—in under she left foot arch.
De sneaker get warm and moist fast fast, and is den we decide we like it here and gon’ stay wid she, Junisa, for a while. See what we could learn.
• • •
“A little while” been twenty-six years now. I know ’cause when we driving down de hill to she job at de jewelry and perfume shop in town, we does pass we origin tree. De part of me dat is all tamarind seed wid no womanness, like Seed Sheself, does give me a growing and shrinking, twisty-turny feeling.
Together we does take good care of Junisa.
I does whisper in she mind and she ear. Call you mother, see if she need anyting from de store. Watch dat woman who work at de jewelry counter next to you; when de display case open she hands faster dan cat flash he tail. Turn off de road here; a big truck coming down de hill. Don’t sit dere; de chair leg gon’ break. Answer de phone even doh you don’ recognize de number. And don’t mind Elrod look good and on de dance floor he make promises he done prove he could keep. Dem kinda ting.
• • •
Seed Sheself does help Junisa care for she body. Seed Sheself fascinate by how it work and what it could do. She tell me to make Junisa know she must space out she liquor wid water, go to sleep, get up, move she muscles, eat some green food, eat some yellow food. Don’t eat dat, it smell funny. Oil she skin ’fore it peel off. Dat kinda ting. And she does harass me to remind Junisa dat de twinge behind she abdomen every month mean she could grow someone. But we both know Junisa ain’t interested in making no baby. Not wid Elrod or nobody else. She tell she mother and all she boyfriends: just ’cause she have a womb don’t mean she must use it. De world don’t need for people. She been saying so since she had de choice, and we never see no doubt in she mind, doh we does keep on wid de hope.
We take good care of Junisa and Junisa know it.
But Junisa take good care of us, too.
So when we get separate t’was a shock and big change for alla we.
Was a timing ting.
• • •
Me, me and Seed Sheself both was having a bad day.
By now we encased in a glass bubble ’bout de size of a grape, criss-crossed wid a lattice of thin gold, and suspend from a chain Junisa does wear ’round she neck and never take off. Sometimes it have a moisture dat does collect inside wid us, and when it do, I does feel like I trap in a hot angry cloud. It happen dat day, and Seed Sheself, too, complain of a itching on we shell casing, like mold forming, and even doh Junisa head pounding wid headache, we at de beach.
“Hey, Junisa, come over here and get you souse and potato salad.” Elrod have a big, loud voice, and it shut up all de birds in de trees. “My mother made you a plate, and I been holding it back for you. Where you been so long? You know these people too ravenous, and they trying to steal it from me.”
I had notice Elrod, yes, dat Elrod, wid de symmetrical lips, shoulders wide enough to sit on, and dark brown eyes dat crinkle up when he laugh but not when he smile, track Junisa noisy red car as she park it under de coconut trees.
“I’ll be right over,” she call to him soon as she slam de car door, but she was ’bout ’nother hour before she reach to collect she food after talking to four bunch a girlfriends, de tableful of old folks playing gin rummy, and de tableful of teenagers playing like dey ain’t circling each other for later.
“How’s you mother, Elrod?” Junisa ask.
“She not feeling so good today, so she not coming out. She was up late last night cooking and she still tired.” He turn ’round to get Junisa’s double-stacked paper plates covered in tinfoil from de table behind him. “How’s your mother?”
Elrod had always like Junisa’s mother, mostly ’cause she like him.
“My Mom’s fine. Daddy and Baxter, too. Thanks for asking.” Junisa’s father and brother didn’t like Elrod, but Seed Sheself and I know Junisa didn’t care enough to find out why. “How are you?” she ask, because even doh she like he song, she ain’t want to dance wid him again. She know she would be too tempted to do anyting he want. But she was raised to have manners.
“I getting sadder and sadder, Junisa,” Elrod say. He put down de spatula he was using to harass de overcooked dried-out hamburgers in de aluminum tray. She could smell he bottle-beer breath wid he dramatic sigh.
“Why? What happen?”
“I waiting on me true true love to acknowledge me. Know what I mean? I want to make a legacy wid you. A lineage. A posse of our very own. Ain’t you tired of pretending we don’t belong together?” He flash he smile and laugh, but he eyes look serious, and she see a line ’round he mouth dat she never notice before.
Junisa suck she teeth and roll she eyes. But she know he watching she backside as she walk away.
• • •
She settle sheself at an empty spot on de bench at de old folks’ table and devour she food, watching a heated trash-talking couple of rounds of gin rummy and de volleyball game de teenagers playing.
She finish she food. Delicious as always. De souse broth clear and spicy wid red, yellow, and green scotch bonnet peppers making de pig feet, ears, and snout taste even better dan it look. De potato salad perfect, like always, not too soft and crumbly, de pickles and bell peppers cut to de same size, just de right amount a mayonnaise.
She took she empty plate to de garbage, got a beer from de cooler under de speaker, and drank it down quick fast. Seed Sheself wasn’t happy ’bout dat, but was nothing she could do. We is instinct and information, but we can’t make she obey. Junisa went down to de water, adjusting she bathing suit bottom down and she top up.
De sand hot, so bright white it blinding to Junisa eye, but de water feel cool and nice to me and Seed Sheself after de first shock of cold. I like de beach. Laying dere on she chest while she float in de calm sea.
She raise she arm slowly and bring she fingers up to clasp we in de charm bubble, den turn over and stroke she way out to de deep.
Me never know Seed Sheself could be so loud. She clamoring to tell Junisa take care she body. I doing de same. Junisa head pounding, she stomach churning, but she pushing she muscles to take she somewhere we ain’t no need to go.
Junisa hearing, feeling, but she ain’t studying neither of we. She go on. Beyond where she could stand up in de water. Beyond de warning buoy. She does take risks wid she body, she life, but one risk does frighten she bad bad: birth. Six of she friends had die already bringing new life into de world. So she does challenge sheself wid someting she tink she could control.
Junisa make it back to where de water up to she knees before she pass out. She fall face down in de water, heaving and throwing up, blood coming out she nose. She yellow bathing suit bottom turning to brown.
De children digging holes and burying each other in de sand by de small waves notice she first and start de commotion. Some run up to de tables, yelling for big people, while other tiny hands grab at Junisa, tryna turn she over, hold she head and neck above de water, all de while screaming and tryna stay clear of de blood, vomit, and shit.
Elrod come running.
• • •
Junisa grown but she not big atall, coming up to almost five feet. She does brag to she friends dat even doh she don’t have no child, she now weigh ten pounds over a hundred and so she too is big woman. Dey laugh and say is so ’cause Junisa does be dere wid dem for all dey children. And not just de birthday parties, but de hard stuff, too. She good where she is, she say, being Auntie Junie to all and Mommy to none.
Elrod lay she tininess out in de back a he car and was gon’ take she to de hospital. She wake up doh and ask he take she home. Reaching for we ’round she neck all de while. Is a habit. From small, I, we, is she tinking piece, she worry-bead, and where she send she thanks.
I, we, dere, laying in de hot sand. De chain break in de children frantic hands, de glass bubble scratch, de crisscross lattice gold in front a we glinting in de sun. We feel Junisa getting farther and farther away. De stench of she distress mix wid de new-leather smell of Elrod sleek car. She wet, sweaty back and legs sticking to de seat, she head tossing wid each wild turn Elrod make he car do.
• • •
Seed Sheself gon’ quiet. De hot sun and even hotter sand condensing she earlier fear into panic and desolation.
Me, I, too, in turmoil. I been whispering to Junisa for so long, is like she me own child. What she gon’ do widout me? What I gon’ do widout she?
• • •
We feel when Elrod lift Junisa from he car and carry she into he own house. He had arrange he house key in he hand before he pick she up so he could open de door widout putting she down. He ain’t kick de door, no matter de hurry, but push it quietly wid he foot, talking to she all de while.
“You gon’ be all right, Junisa. You ain’t throwin’ up no more. You breathing better. You ain’t sweating. You gon’ be all right,” we hear him saying. Between time and distance I, we, gon’ soon lose we Junisa.
Junisa move she mouth, and I know de words she want to breathe.
Elrod figure dem. “I couldn’t take you to your house because I don’t have the key.” He lay Junisa on he bed, de green-and-beige-striped sheets rumple up but don’t smell bad. Only smell of Elrod. “I gon’ set you right, girl. Don’t worry.”
He straighten up, and we could tell he ain’t know what to do to keep dat promise.
• • •
Junisa’s two friends come den, one a dem driving Junisa car from de beach. Dey take over caring for she wid Elrod hovering and doing what dey ask. Start de bath water, not too hot. Steep some ginger for tea. You have any? Peppermint? Lemongrass? After you lay she in de tub, change de bedsheets. You have a clean T-shirt? Clean pajama pants? Where de towels? Call Junisa mother. Chip up some ice.
We could feel Junisa crying all de while. Tears leaking out she eyes so fast, de women-friend dem wearing holes in she cheeks, tryna keep she face dry. Junisa try talk sometimes, but she empty stomach still roiling and lurching up she throat. Plus she not making sense. Not to dem. ’Cause she callin for me. Seed Sheself and me. Tamarind? Tamarind? Tamarind seed? She can’t keep still. She arms thrashing, fingers scrabbling ’round she neck, searching for she chain.
• • •
When I calm meself some, I try rouse Seed Sheself, but she gon’ quiet.
De sky darkening and de sand starting to cool. I feel de waves coming closer, and I wondering if we gon’ be haul out to sea to start a new way of being. Even if dat way is dormant.
• • •
After dey had get Junisa clean and put she back in Elrod bed, dey get she to take little plain ginger tea and little water. She still turning in de bed like leaf in storm wind. Junisa mother come check for she, but dey all agree is best to leave she stay right where she is for de night.
“Rest is de best ting after clearing food poisoning out you system,” Junisa mother say, staring at de floor in front of Elrod feet.
Dey all standing ’round de bed, watching Junisa breathe and clutch at she neck.
“You tink is food poisoning, Mrs. Backburn? For true?” Elrod sound shock, like he ain’t know food could make you well and food could make you sick.
“From what allyou telling me, I tink so, yes.” She ain’t raise she voice, but when she catch Elrod eye, he find a flintiness dere he never see before. “She had eat what? You mother’s souse?” Mrs. Backburn say, still staring at de ill-swept floor in front of Elrod feet.
Mrs. Backburn like Elrod, is true, but he mother, Ginny Masterfelt, had get on she nerves from when dey was small, wid she high talk and she low manners.
Junisa mother jut out she chin, but she try put some space ’round she accusation. “And drinking beers.”
Elrod put he hands behind he back and push out he chest: “I only saw her have one beer, Mrs. Backburn, and everybody else ate my mother’s food, too. No one else got sick.”
“How you know?” De question was quick on she tongue. “You keep track a how many people excuse deyself to go to de bathroom? How many people left de party early?”
Mrs. Backburn step closer. Junisa women-friend dem move back.
“And you serve she from de same pot as everybody else?”
Dere was a change in de tone of he voice when he answer. He words come out more slowly. “Of course. Mommy stay up all night cooking. She made one pot of souse and one bowl of potato salad. She said she was tired and dat’s why she didn’t come today.”
“Umm-humm, and she make up a plate for Junisa like she usually do, or no?”
A add-on reason why de grown-up Mrs. Backburn ain’t like Ginny Masterfelt is ’cause Junisa had praise Mrs. Masterfelt’s cooking more dan once. Junisa always quick to buy or beg a plate at food fairs and church sales. Junisa’s mother not a bad cook, but she not no show-off cook neither.
“Yes, my mother made up a plate for Junisa,” Elrod say, and now he eyes watching de floor in front he feet. “I put it aside for her until she got there. Behind me, on de table. Maybe de souse wasn’t hot enough and de potato salad not cool enough. It’s my fault.”
De last ting me and Seed Sheself feel clearly is Junisa mother joy dat both Elrod and he mother gon’ have to accept responsibility for sickening she child, but she even more happy dat Junisa gon’ be all right.
• • •
I getting more and more concern ’bout dat part. I know Junisa gon’ live; she ain’t gon’ die. But she gon’ have to make she life widout me and Seed Sheself to nudge she toward and away.
• • •
Seed Sheself, when de moon almost gon’ from de sky and de sun moving to take its place, tell me she content to stay right here in de sand. She a seed what can’t grow, trap in a glass bubble. We can’t feel de air, burrow in de dirt, feel de rain on we shell casing, de mud water cradling we tiny roots. She want out, but if we can’t get out right now, she know she don’t want to hang ’round de neck of a tree what don’t want fruit.
I never know Seed Sheself had feel dis way.
“I ain’t want to say,” she tell me. “I couldn’t do nothing ’bout it noways. And ain’t like I ain’t do good. You know how many times I save Junisa from belly problems? Me ain’t self know how many. A lot. Dat’s my specialty. All ’round de middle, de stomach, de liver, de intestines, de womb. Alla dat. I know what I doin’. Been knowing.”
“I sorry. I sorry. Don’t upset youself. I know you. We been soul to soul from long before we reach Junisa.”
“But we never been in a woman before . . . .” Seed Sheself say. Den she start up again before I could ask she to go on. “Junisa a fine human woman, a good, loving, and kind woman.” Seed Sheself filling up de space between we two wid words. “But we is a seed. A seed. We made to reproduce, and she ain’t want dat. We work so hard to preserve she, and she ain’t gon’ teach we nothing.
“Besides,” Seed Sheself continue, “you was having such a good time. Having a life. Sort of.” Seed Sheself talking nice, but I could feel de sadness in she words. “But is time for we to move on, you don’t tink?”
And I surprise to hear she been feeling de same ting as me.
We do good. We keep Junisa safe and healthy. We learn. We learn de difference between tamarind tree bodies and human bodies. Women bodies. But maybe is time to learn ’bout fish bodies, or crab bodies, or whosoever we find weself wid next. Whenever we get outta dis glass bubble jewelry. ’Til den we gon’ lie dormant. In de sand or de sea. I look at Seed Sheself, and she look at me. De sun rise in de sky.