Lest They Drink and Forget the Law
"How is your sister these days?" Gideon closes the door behind him.
The cracks where the door and wall meet disappear and the gray, sick, dying bioluminescent stem cells lining the walls and ceiling of my room glow faintly again.
"I wouldn't know. I've been locked up in here the past six months." I refuse to sit up in bed and greet him like a good prisoner would do. I'm not looking to get time off for good behavior.
"She doesn't write you?" Gideon sits in the lone rickety chair, the only furniture in the room besides the chipped wooden desk and twin-sized bed I lie on. Both are covered with necrotic bioluminescence. "She doesn't send you pictures of her and What's-His-Name and their adorable twins?"
I raise my head with deliberate laziness and look at Gideon's high-collared, black military-cut uniform in the gloom. "You're the Inquisitor General. You tell me."
He smiles, shrugs. "If I remember correctly, she has fraternal twins, right? A boy and a girl." His voice is muffled by the small mask covering his nose and mouth to filter out the smell.
I turn and face the rank wall. We've done this before. I know where this is going. It ends with me being insulted.
"Twins are genetic, you know. They run in the family."
I say nothing.
"I'm not surprised Zahirah got married and had children so young, though. She was always the beautiful twin." Gideon sighs, wistful. "I loved me some Zahirah."
I allow the insult to flow through me, purging the sudden anger it brings.
"You're going to be thirty next month, Nadirah. You've got some catching up to do."
I let the silence hang. One minute. Two minutes. Five minutes. But the game of stoic prisoner is too much for me this morning, especially with the fever and the shakes and the sweats brought on from the defiled room.
Slowly, without turning my face from the wall, I extend my right arm toward Gideon and raise my middle finger. I can't help myself. Zahirah was always the beautiful twin.
Gideon was the boy you didn't want to catch you when playing Catch-A-Girl-Kiss-A-Girl because he always had yellow-green snot sliding out of his nose onto his upper lip. Zahirah didn't seem to mind, though.
First thing she did when the game started was run to the narrow space between our garage and Gideon's garage. Gideon would follow her like a lovesick puppy. They'd kiss in the scraggly weeds until the streetlights came on. Zahirah couldn't get enough of his fair skin, hazel eyes and curly hair, even if she was two years older and towered over him.
To this day, I still don't understand her infatuation with him. But then, I don't really understand Zahirah. Even though we're identical twins we never finished each other's sentences. We didn't develop our own twin language. We don't even pine for one another over the hundreds of miles between us in that special twin way, though we've been apart more than ten years.
And I'm sure if you asked Zahirah, she'd say she doesn't get me, either. I was always the smart twin. I was the voice of reason. I was the conscience for both of us. I thought I knew everything, and what Zahirah didn't know I made certain to enlighten her on
So I'm not surprised the letters Zahirah sent Mama Joe from Canada didn't mention me. I am the doppelganger she never wants to see again.
"I heard you went to Canada for a few weeks."
I close my eyes and slow my breathing. In thirty breaths, Gideon's voice will sound small and far away. In sixty breaths, he will cease to exist.
"I heard they still have water in Hudson Bay. I've requested the Prime Minister donate it to our Ministry's reservoir, for the good of the continent." Gideon waves his hand as if swatting at a fly. "But these matters don't concern you. Did you find Zahirah there?"
For the Inquisitor General, a request is a demand, and a demand is not needed because if diplomatic relations ever get to that point, people die. Including prime ministers of Canada. But I refuse to answer him, still.
The longest I've gone without talking to Gideon since he put me in this awful room is six weeks. Six weeks without opening my mouth. Six weeks without uttering a single word.
I hear him shift. I imagine he's folded his arms, ready to try a different tactic.
"While you were gone," Gideon says, "I destroyed your grandmother's house. My Inquisitors knocked out her walls, dug up her basement and tore off her roof." He pauses, waiting for a reaction. I give him nothing and shiver with a wave of chills from the fever. "Guess what they found?"
Nine more days of silence and I set a PB - personal best. Easy enough. Just like running the 200 meter dash when I was in high school at Morgan Park. My breathing slows even more and so do my shakes.
"You really should take a look at this."
Again, I can't help myself. I try to wait Gideon out, hoping the silence and boredom of looking at my back gets to him, but I've never been patient. I turn from the wall and peer through the semi-darkness at what he's holding. It's dirty and misshapen, but I recognize it straight away. It's one of Zahirah's plastic barrettes.
"It's not the unsanctioned dew catcher I was looking for, but it's the next best thing." Gideon takes off his masks, puts the barrette in his mouth and chews. He smiles, his teeth white and perfect. "I still dream of these in her hair, sometimes."
I shudder. I'm not sure if it is because of the twenty-year-old barrette in his mouth, or his awful, sibilant whisper.
Zahirah and I used to take taekwondo in the field house at Cole Park when we were little. Every day after school, we would walk three blocks to the park, practice front snap kicks and low blocks for an hour at the Praying Hands Dojo, and then take the CTA bus home.
The day I destroyed my face had been a rainy one. A nasty flash freeze had set in by the time Zahirah and I got out of school, so we skate-shuffled in our rain boots the three blocks to Cole Park. When we got there the field and parking lot was a slick sheet of ice.
It was Zahirah's idea to skate on the ice until Sensei opened the dojo. At first, I watched her, shivering, miserable, hating taekwondo. But after half an hour I joined in. It was too cold to just watch.
We must have skated like that for an hour. We didn't know taekwondo had been cancelled; we were latch-key kids and Mama Joe cleaned other people's houses well into the evening. She didn't have time to answer a cell phone even if she could afford one because she worked so hard. Our mother was on crack and our father could be found at your best guess, so we didn't have an emergency contact to call.
I'd fallen just as I was starting to get tired, trying to catch up to Zahirah. I never saw the grapefruit-sized rock I tripped over. The ice tore open the skin under my left eye. Zahirah said she could see white meat for a long time before my cheek started bleeding.
We rode the 14 Express bus and then the Jeffrey 6 back to our house in the Manor with my dirty green cotton glove pressed to my face to stop the blood from dripping onto my coat and jeans. When we got home, Zahirah put the biggest Band-Aid she could find on my face, pressing it with the flat of her palm. She said she did that to make sure the Band-Aid stuck, but I know she did it on purpose, just to make the wound hurt more.
Mama Joe got home late that night as usual, and the first thing she did after seeing my face was give Zahirah a big hug for being such a good big sister. Mama Joe did bandage me up properly, though, with a more gentle hand than Zahirah, and slathered cocoa butter on my left cocoa-hued cheek a few days later.
But the damage had been done. I still have the scar. It's shaped like an elephant trumpeting. Mama Joe said it makes me beautiful. Zahirah said it makes me ugly.
It hasn't rained or been that cold since.
"My Inquisitors dragged your grandmother kicking and screaming out of her house before they demolished it." Gideon leans forward in his chair. "She wasn't water-fat, like you, though. Now, why is that?"
Finally, a question. A real question. I still refuse to answer him, though, and turn to face the wall again, my nose flaring at its pungent smell.
Gideon smirks. "Nadirah, ever the sly. Always trying to play the role. I saw that look in your eyes. You want to know if Mama Joe is here."
Extended pause. Silence so long it screams at me to speak, but I will myself not to look at Gideon this time. I clench my jaw so that I cannot open my mouth.
"Well, she was."
My body reacts to the past tense of his statement before I realize I'm sitting on the edge of the bed, leaning toward him, inches away, waiting for more, sweat now streaming down my face.
Gideon chuckles. I have enough discipline to keep the words fighting to come out of my mouth in the back of my throat, though.
"So stubborn. But I'm enjoying our conversation." Gideon takes the barrette from his mouth and looks at it for a long moment. It's twisted with his chew-marks. "Almost as much as I'm enjoying this."
With deliberate care, he places the barrette on his tongue, but he does not smile.
Zahirah and I were born on the floor of a crack house. For all I know, our mother, Nola (for Magnolia), is still there, left by her mother, Mama Joe. Our father had a name we never knew.
We're not crack-baby special. That's not to say we aren't special, because we are. Or at least I am. Just not in the crack-baby kind of way.
Mama Joe had always said that we're blessings from God, that the good Lord didn't just give His Son gifts. And then in the next breath, she would say the crack dulled our mother's third eye and left her deaf to the Voice of Nature. But not us.
It took years for Zahirah and me to figure out what she meant, but clarity came as we got older. Mama Joe taught us to see water in everything, everywhere, even though no one else could. She taught us to use our gifts to commune with the children of Gaia. We could speak to the few flowers, trees and blades of grass. We could be sanctified by their transpiration. We could hear their greensong. We were ghetto druidesses of the Jeffrey Manor. We were priestesses of Aqua Pura. We were water fat.
And the Ministry of Water Reclamation, Conservation and Limitation wanted us dead for it. We were a threat to its vast hoard of water.
"The first three days I had your grandmother, I took forty thousand milliliters of sweat from her to replace the water she stole from us." Gideon cocks a thumb behind him to where the door was. "We were in a room just down the hall."
I can feel the tears start in my eyes, but I refuse to turn my face to the wall again. I will not show emotional weakness; I will not show my pain. But I cannot be this close to Gideon right now. I push back onto the far side of the bed until the slimy, putrid wall is against my back.
"I wanted to take more, but I wasn't ready to kill her. Yet." He stands, puts his hands in his pockets, looks down at me. "Besides, how could I kill the woman who gave me freezee pops when I was little?"
I take my ponytail off my shoulder and chew the split ends. Gideon sits on the bed next to me and leans forward, his face so close I can smell Chicken Caesar salad on his breath. I wrinkle my nose.
He laughs. "Your grandmother must have known I had her house under surveillance. She must have known that I put cameras everywhere, even inside, capturing undeniable evidence of her selling Kool-Aid."
Gideon works Zahirah's barrette faster in his mouth now, and his jaw clenches with each chew. "There were kids lined up at her back door down the block. Kids jumping the fence from their backyards on Crandon to cut in line. Didn't she know I saw all of that?"
She knew. But she didn't care. She had cups to fill.
His eyes are now hard. "But what I didn't see was an unsanctioned dew catcher to sell water as an illegal side gig. Or a secret hoard of water hidden under her bathing dust bowl. Or midnight meetings with water scalpers from Lake Shore Drive.
"Yet, day in and day out, she somehow used liters and liters of water far beyond her mandated daily ration to slake the thirst of what seemed to be the entire youth population on South Side Chicago. I've been asking myself for months on end how she did it. But there's really only one answer: Witch."
I don't breathe. I don't even blink.
"'Thou shall not suffer a witch to live'. Isn't that what the WRCL Bible says?" Gideon holds my gaze with his eyes, waiting for me to admit my crime of witchcraft by looking away. "There's just no other way to explain scores and scores of kids leaving your grandmother's house with cups and cups of Kool-Aid from sunup to sundown every day since I was a little boy."
Gideon chuckles again, but there is no mirth in his laugh this time. "Your grandmother had some big balls, though. Bigger balls than most of my Inquisitors. She could care less about water rations and government laws. I can hear her now: 'I'm eighty-seven years old! Ain't nobody gon' tell me what I can and cannot do with my water!'"
His voice drops, its tone cold and dangerous. "But I told her, didn't I?"
Mama Joe had told Zahirah and me that the Ministry would call us witches. She'd said they would persecute us, they'd burn us, that it would be Salem all over again.
Mama Joe remembers Salem. I remember when American government agencies called themselves departments instead of ministries. I remember when you could turn on a faucet in your bathroom or kitchen and water flowed out of it.
I remember the King James Bible on every seat in First New Mount Olive Baptist Church. I remember Mama Joe telling me, "Chile , you an' me both know it was the Almighty Himself who first said, 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.' I might be older than dirt an' black pepper, but I know His Word. Jus' like it was Him who said 'Our witchcrafts are many.'"
I remember Mama Joe kissing her teeth while watching the WRCL Power Hour Sunday mornings on Channel 66. I remember her disgust as she cleaned collard greens in the kitchen sink. I remember her saying, "Now we got the Ministry tryin' to take over religion. Printin' they own Bible."
I remember the weariness in her voice. I remember her resignation. "I shouldn't be surprised, though. After all, this is America," she'd said. "We might not have no water, but we still got our Christian values."
She was wrong.
"Forty thousand milliliters of sweat may sound hard as hell to extract, but it's not." Gideon sits back down in the rickety chair and crosses his legs. "Which is good, considering its market value."
This is new. Our previous conversations had not gone in this direction.
"I have rooms that slow bake people, like enormous ovens. The more stubborn someone is, the more they cook, the more sweat I take, and the more revenue in the Ministry coffers." Gideon smiles with every part of his face, except his eyes. "Mama Joe got nice and crispy."
My tears are sudden, hot and large. Two skid down the trumpeting elephant scar on my left cheek and plop onto the leg of my white prison jumpsuit. But I still refuse to make a sound.
Zahirah had never been an adept supplicant. She was always uninterested or distracted when Mama Joe showed us how to invoke the blessings of Gaia, gifted by God. Eventually, she'd stopped going to church, too. I don't know how she resisted the tug and pull of supplication, the seduction of His gifts.
Maybe it was because she found the far[-]less[-]divine seduction of boys more appealing. On her eighteenth birthday, she ran away to Canada with a light-skinned Jamaican boy from Washington Park. Without a note. Without a kiss. Without a good-bye.
That's what did Mama Joe in, no matter what Gideon says. She was far too powerful for him. He didn't kill Mama Joe when he took her into that room down the hall. Zahirah had already done that when she ripped out Mama Joe's heart six months before.
"After I took back my water from your grandmother, I took out her sweat glands." Gideon lifts his chin, daring me to say something, do something. "She might have sat me on her knee when I was little, but I am the Inquisitor General." He grins. "I have a reputation to uphold."
The tip of Zahirah's barrette flicks between his lips and then disappears just as quickly. "That tough old bitch lasted three days in my oven. Her lips got all dry and leathery like beef jerky."
My nostrils flare and the tears well again, but I'll be damned if I cry this time.
"Yet, she was able to utter one last word before she gave up the ghost. Guess what that word was?"
Gideon pauses for dramatic effect, but for no more than a few seconds. He's bursting to tell me.
"Her very last word was 'Zahirah'."
If I regret anything in my life, it's that I was in Canada looking for Zahirah the day Gideon's Inquisitors came for Mama Joe. I'd tracked Zahirah all the way to the thin backwoods bordering Michigan and south-western Ontario. It was quite easy to follow her sloppy, clumsy supplications. Her discordant voice still lingered in the Aether.
I cringed when I came upon her screeching attempts to find sustenance from the land for herself and the Jamaican boy. I smirked when the wind whispered her gibbered murmurs to avoid the border officials by blending into the skeletal woodlands.
But just outside of Cambridge, Ontario, hundreds of miles from the border, Zahirah's voice in the commune with the Mother fell silent. It was then I realized she was truly gone. I had lost the twin I never wanted. Gone was the twin I never liked.
For most of my childhood, I had wished the bed beside me was empty. Now, I wish I wasn't so alone.
"In case you're wondering where Mama Joe's body is, I fed her to a pack of wild dogs roaming 79th Street."
Gideon watches me carefully. He expects me to lash out at him, to rage. Instead, I revert back to my stoicism.
"But don't worry. It was a large pack. I don't believe all of the dogs ate their fill. I'm sure you'll satiate them."
The vertical and horizontal cracks reappear in the necrotic bioluminescent wall behind Gideon and the door opens. He stands. Six men in black high-collared uniforms with sleek, visored helmets, breathing masks, and sub-machine guns step into the room and flank him.
I'm not bothered by what Gideon did to Mama Joe. Honestly, I'm not. Her death is the final stage of her cycle of life. It was meant to be, even in such a horrible way.
What irks me, though, is his hypocrisy.
When Zahirah and I were eight years old, and Gideon six, an asteroid slammed into Lake Ontario and ignited the skies over Chicago. Fire rained down on buildings, trees burst into flame and the Great Lakes were sizzled cracked-earth dry. As the superheated steam rose, and the firestorms swept across the Great Lakes region, the End-of-the-Worlders came out in droves and told everyone to repent because Jesus was coming back.
Years before, Mama Joe told Zahirah and me the day and time the asteroid would strike - July 24th, 12:46 a.m. We had been communing with the Mother in the Beaubien Woods when it hit, enveloped in a carapace of Her Aether. That was the first time I'd heard Her lovely voice, the one and only time I fell in love.
We emerged from the protection of the Mother six hours after the asteroid struck. One-third of the population from Maine to Minnesota was wiped out in an instant. The President of the United States went on television and said we would endure with God's grace. The next day, he formed the Ministry of Water Reclamation, Conservation, and Limitation.
Two days later, Mama Joe started selling Solo cups of Kool-Aid out of her kitchen for a nickel to kids as far away as Hoxie and Torrence. It was 127 degrees Fahrenheit at night, and yet the Ministry only rationed 1 liter a day per household. They were implementing population control measures in the most brutal of ways, but Mama Joe made sure Jeffrey Manor children endured.
And every day, Gideon was first in line.
I don't give the Inquisitors a chance. Before they come for me, I open my hands, palms up. A sudden strength flows into me. I push aside my fever, my sweats, my shakes.
I can feelsmelltasteseehear the water in the air, though it's faint because of the defilement Gideon placed on the room to neutralize my abilities. I can also feelsmelltasteseehear the last bit of water within the dying walls and the powerful water-breath within the masks of Gideon and his peons.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath through my nose, my mouth. Water is stripped from the Inquisitors - masks and bodies - sucked from the walls, sluiced from the air. Their parched skin dries, withers, wizens. In seconds, they age years, decades, a century as two growing orbs of water coalesce and hover above my open palms.
I don't cry for Mama Joe as Gideon dies a desiccated death. I don't scream or cuss at him, either. But as Gideon gasps his last breath, Zahirah's barrette lodges in his shrivelled throat, and I can't help but think God is good.
Now that I look back, I knew Mama Joe was dead when I was in Canada looking for Zahirah. I just didn't want to believe it.
I also realize it was Mama Joe's plan to send me after Zahirah, and to die at the hands of Gideon, broken heart and all.
Gideon had said Mama Joe wasn't water-fat when his Inquisitors came for her that day. She'd always been a big-boned woman. But that morning before they came, she'd given her water back to Aqua Pura. So I could take it now and add her strength to mine. So I could do what only she and I can do as one. So I could do what she had been preparing me for all my life.
The night Zahirah's voice went quiet in Cambridge, I dreamed Mother Gaia embraced Mama Joe as a final blessing for her unwavering devotion. I dreamed I heard Mama Joe's voice join the chorus of the new greensong - that never-ending, decades-old lay sung by the adepts to heal the asteroid-scorched Dry Lakes region. In that dream-moment, loneliness struck me hard - and I awoke.
Now, as I make my way out of the defiled room and the Ministry building, I know that loneliness to be absolute in the task Mama Joe has set before me.
But I can't dwell on that right now. I must listen to the greensong because I've got the Dry Lakes to fill.