“New Names” – Fiction by Khaholi Bailey

Madonna – Salvador Dali, 1943

A young girl approaches Catholic confirmation while remembering her Haitian roots in “New Names,” Khaholi Bailey‘s haunting & spiritual short story from our Fall 2018 issue.

{ X }

“WAKE UP, GIRL!” Lilith screeched. “Time to make the doughnuts!”

The Girl opened her eyes to a crescendo of light peeking between the pink comforter and the twin mattress, both soft with overuse.

With no response from her cousin, Lilith continued: “What did you say back home? ‘Time to plant the cassava?’ ‘Time to put on an Eagles Super Bowl Champion shirt and sandals made out of an old tire?’”

Lilith half smiled and folded her arms across her body.

“You know, time to get up, or something like that.” Lilith sighed loudly. “You Haitians have no sense of humor.”

The Girl prepared to leave the bed. She moved her head forward, closed her eyes, and slowly moved her knees away from her chest. The warmth that encased her was malleable and comforting, and for a few more seconds she luxuriated in this dreamy state between the world and her barely conscious mind. She likes this twilight of wakefulness more than any other state because it is before she realizes where she is and all that has happened. She felt for a second that she was once again on her mother’s lap where she used to lie. Before she could remember that that part of her life had gone away, she felt a gathering of wiry fingers pulling at the top of her head.

Lilith guided her up to a sitting position, first by lifting the top of her head then grabbing her shoulders. The Girl looked up at Lilith and was startled by the layer of makeup between Lilith’s face and the rest of the room. The Girl did her best to stifle a yawn, as to not inspire her cousin into another quip about foreigners and their odors.

The Girl placed her feet into slippers that were indented with Lilith’s footprints and headed to the bathroom. Without asking, Lilith followed and stood right behind her as she faced the mirror. Lilith took a handful of water from the faucet and poured it over The Girl’s hair. The Girl didn’t stop her. Lilith’s studious glare made her feel like she probably needed whatever help she was going to offer. She took a comb and secured it on The Girl’s hairline and pulled; the comb didn’t budge. Lilith leveraged her right foot on the toilet and leaned back with the left. The Girl’s head was pulled back, farther and farther until the plastic comb snapped.  She raked The Girl’s hair with her nails until she could gather enough hair into her fist. Lilith bent to look at her work. Sweat beaded on her nose, which wrinkled with dissatisfaction. She spat on her palm and smoothed it over The Girl’s rough hair. She took a rubber band and twisted her hair into a ball behind her head. She stepped back to look at her hard work, sighed and smiled at The Girl’s face. “All better,” she said, counting this as one of her good deeds for her otherwise hopeless immigrant cousin. “Maybe we break out the hot comb tomorrow.” She scanned The Girl’s hair triumphantly. “We’ll have to wake up extra early.”

The Girl’s hairline throbbed as she walked to Saint Angela Merici School for Girls, repeating in her mind a list of saints. She would have to choose one as her namesake for tomorrow’s Confirmation, but she still had no idea what she wanted to be called. So, she silently asked Saint Anthony for help: Help in remembering the names of the other saints; remembering why any of this was important; remembering which memories were real. She named her loa, her father, before Saint Diana and reminded herself that Catholic schools here did not honor her deceased father as her personal deity as they did in Haiti. She found herself closing her eyes and trying to picture his face more often lately, though the only reference she had was through pictures, stories from her mother, and her dreams. She was grateful that her loa kept her close by showing up in her mind as she slept, as she was too embarrassed to give him offerings once she moved to the States. She felt disconnected from him, but connecting to him through offerings isolated her from Lilith and her classmates. She figured it more practical to try and fit in here with the living and not with a man who has been dead for most of her life.

As soon as she approached the school, the warm sunlight on her back was extinguished by the coolness of stone barrel vaulted ceilings that amplified every sound. She stopped naming saints in her mind as she feared someone would overhear her somehow. She moved past pairs and groups of the girls, in their identical high white nylon socks and pressed yellow collars. A few of them started to wear tinted lip balm, a cotton candy flavored Bonne Bell tube which they shared. The Girl was nearly entranced by the pearlescent pink sheen that stood out like ashes against their mostly dark brown faces. She caught the eye of another girl, Erica she thinks, who responded with a rabid scowl. The Girl took a seat in a wooden chair, which was much too small and much too hard, and traced her fingers along the scratches of the attached desk. She felt Erica staring into the side of her face, and suddenly remembered the cassette player Lilith gave her. It looked new, but she knew it wasn’t; otherwise Lilith would not have given it to her. She opened the cassette player and input the only tape she had: MADONNA – LIKE A VIRGIN.

As The Girl wrapped the headphones around her head and tried her best to work the device, Erica was already educating her friends on their newest classmate.
“It’s true! They dig up a fresh corpse, dust them off and pour like, some potion or whatever down its throat. They say some voodoo mumbo jumbo, and before you know it the corpse is walking around town, doing chores for the person who dug him up. It has mush for brains, and just does whatever it’s told to do.”

“I don’t believe you!” A piece of pastry dropped out of the mouth of her companion and onto her stomach, which protruded like an old-fashioned cash register.

“’Course it’s true!” Erica lowered her voice. “I mean, of course they think it’s true. Look at her mouth; drippy at the corners like she wants to cook us up. They eat each other for crying out loud. We know that there is only one man who resurrected, ‘kay? But they think every Tom, Dick and Motumbo can just pop right out of the ground, ready for action? How stupid.”

Erica’s story gave The Girl the hot tinge of shame in her chest. She wanted to tell Erica that they don’t eat each other in Haiti. She wanted to tell her that everything else she said wasn’t true, but she couldn’t ignore the fact that she may have seen a Zonbi once before.

She remembered being a smaller child and watching one of her neighbors, Mrs. Pierre, crying in the middle of the road. Mrs. Pierre’s shaky weeping turned into a crawl, which evolved into her rolling in the dusty sand that covered the ground. When The Girl came close enough, she saw a paste of tears and snot and saliva smeared across Mrs. Pierre’s face, which was wrinkled in every direction. Mrs. Pierre was lamenting that her husband must have been killed while protesting President Duvalier. She said she hadn’t seen him all day long, and last she saw he was going to board a bus for Port-au-Prince, where the radio broadcasted that the protest would be held. She said she felt in her bones that he had been killed by Duvalier’s men during a small massacre, which the same radio station reported a mere few hours later.

“Duvalier has more than a loa or two,” Mrs. Pierre began in what The Girl remembered as a very clear tone, despite her crying. “He’s full on Voodou. Snatch up the body without a soul. Why do you think his army is so vicious? I pray my husband’s body is left to the flies, and his soul is resting with Jesus.”

But The Girl knew he wasn’t dead. She knew because it was a Tuesday, and on Tuesdays he went to the far away market to pick up candy, and then give it to her and Mrs. Baptiste for being “good girls”.

Several Tuesdays before, The Girl saw him climbing out of Mrs. Baptiste’s back window, which faced the home she shared with her mother. The Girl spotted the big toe of his right foot touching the ground, and most of his left leg still hinged on the window sill. They locked eyes and he froze, like a spider trying to remain unnoticed by a looming slipper. He eventually pulled the rest of his angular body out of the window and walked over to The Girl with a purposeful gait.

He asked The Girl about her studies but as she replied, he was looking behind her, over both his shoulders, and placed his hand over his brow to see farther into the distance. Satisfied with whatever he didn’t see, he pulled a piece of caramel from his pocket and gave it to her.

“Now, we both know it’s no good for you to eat that, but I know you need to have something sweet once in a while. You shouldn’t be doing all that school work with no reward.”

She chewed the candy and did her best to contain the sugary saliva from bursting out of her mouth.

“So, I will do you a favor and come back every Tuesday to give you a piece of candy. But you have to keep it a secret, or I won’t be able to come back here. Can I count on you?”

The Girl nodded, and thought that she never knew how nice he was before that day. She never really spoke with him until then, but she knew her mother didn’t like him, that the women at the market wouldn’t let him touch the food before he bought it, and that the men wouldn’t let him buy into their card games.

“Good girl.” He patted his un-calloused hand on her braids, and turned back to see Mrs. Baptiste. Her bare, golden, meaty shoulders rested on her window pane as she bit her lip and dug her nails into her forearm. Mr. Pierre put his thumb up in the air for her to see.

The Girl looked up at him when he turned around.

“Oh… Mrs. Baptiste also works hard, and needs some candy too. I asked her to keep it a secret too, because if everyone found out, they’d all want candy, or say I shouldn’t be giving it out in the first place. So remember, our secret.”

The Girl wanted to tell someone this story and stop his wife from flopping and gurgling with grief, but she worried about breaking her promise to Mr. Pierre. She also wondered to herself if Mrs. Pierre would think she wasn’t a “good girl” for keeping this secret from her. She was stuck deciding on who she should be to whom, as she stood in the road looking down on Mrs. Pierre. A handful of others appeared behind her to watch Mrs. Pierre violate the ground with the drippings of her eyes and nose.

Just then, Mr. Pierre appeared on the road doing a gleeful strut that seemed almost like a dance. The Girl noticed his closed fist, imagined the sticky candy melting inside of it, and licked her lips. That was when his wife started screaming:

“Zonbi!!”

Everyone turned and paused. Mr. Pierre stopped to look at the faces of his neighbors, and then looked behind himself to see if there was in fact a Zonbi around.  Someone else in the group shouted “Zonbi!” Soon everyone started screaming. Rocks were thrown. Sticks the size of Mrs. Baptiste’s thighs were grabbed and raised into the sticky air. Other people joined the few. The few turned into a bunch. The bunch turned into a mob around Mr. Pierre. His hands were held behind his back, the caramel was ground into the dirt and the shouting mob moved as one entity to devour Mr. Pierre. He wasn’t Mrs. Pierre’s husband any more. He wasn’t the man that couldn’t touch the produce before buying it. He wasn’t the man who gave The Girl caramel on Tuesday evenings. Everyone decided he was now a Zonbi, and that Zonbis should not be walking among the living.

                                                { X }

When The Girl opened the door to Lilith’s apartment that afternoon, Lilith was sitting at the table eating a microwaved bowl of macaroni and cheese and tapping her foot to the radio. The Girl was not yet accustomed to the plastic-y smell that hummed out of the food in her new home.

“How was school?” Lilith asked, her eyes still fixed on her meal.

She opened her mouth to tell her about Erica, but didn’t want to relive the violence of hearing about who she is from someone else, and the embarrassment of not being sure whether to believe it.

“What is it?” Lilith said, reacting to The Girl’s silence. “Confirmation? Don’t worry. It’s just a few words from the bishop, then maybe he does a little air-crucifix, and you choose your saint name. Nothin’ to it. Plus, you’ll be doing it with most of your classmates, so trust me, no one will notice you.”

Lilith laughed to herself and got up from the table. Her thighs made a sound like a two strips of Velcro as they released from the pleather seat cushion. She headed toward the cabinets.

“If you’re nervous, a bit of Holy Communion should calm you right down,” said Lilith, turning around to reveal a half empty bottle of black Muscat. She twisted off the aluminum cap and poured some into a clear plastic tumbler. She handed the cup to The Girl and held up the bottle between the two of them.

“You have to look me in the eye,” Lilith demanded. The Girl raised her eyes to meet Lilith’s but did not lift her chin.

“To your pending Confirmation. May you be blessed with wisdom, piety, and an acne-free adolescence.”

Lilith touched the bottle’s mouth to the tumbler, then brought it up to her lips. She took deep gulps as a drop of wine made a serpentine path from the corner of her mouth to the curve of her chin. She brought the now-empty bottle down and presented a smile so steeped in self-satisfaction that it bordered on vulgarity.

“Well?! You’re not rejecting communion are you? Drink up!”

The Girl bought the tumbler to her face, and the rancorous alcohol of Long Island’s finest red burned her eyes. She closed her eyes and let it roll confidently down her throat, then along her limbs. The sudden ease of her muscles and dizziness of her mind made her nervous.

“Atta girl!” Lilith said through her Cheshire cat smile.

The Girl took another sip, and another. Her worries about her school, her family and her losses shifted around her mind until they seemed to funnel into a single sentiment of vagrancy. She sat beneath the unforgiving and uncovered white light bulb. Slouching atop the cracked upholstery, she lowered her gaze to her glass and watched her silhouette alter in the purple-black fluid. She recognized the outline of her heart-shaped face, and thought about how her round cheeks were slowly deflating with each passing year. As the wine swirled she saw her image being stretched and pulled into what looked like the sharp nose and spiral horns of the gargoyle that fixed itself on the roof of her school. She grew dizzier and placed her left cheek on the cool glass table for comfort. She wished to go to bed, but the heat of her thighs made her stick to the seat. In her sideways vision, she watched Lilith glide over to the chair next to her.  A trickle of nausea brewed in her stomach.

Lilith began speaking swiftly. The table repelled the tinny vibrations of her lecture and echoed into The Girl’s ear. Soon Lilith’s voice seemed to duet with itself, surrounding The Girl in a melodic, meandering tune about coming of age:

Make sure the hair is totally dry, or the evaporating water will burn your scalp. Hand-wash the pleated uniform skirt to keep it looking like it wasn’t bought at the seminary’s thrift shop. Don’t use tampons; Jesus or her future husband might be disappointed. Forget about her loa; that’s not even a word in this country.

In the middle of explaining why The Girl was lucky that the knee-high uniform socks covered her blackened knees, Lilith succumbed to the music. Swirling her hips, she started singing along:

“I was bad,

I was sand and blue but ‘chu made me feeeeeeeel,

yes Jermaaaaaine me feel

shiny and neeeeeew,

like a virgin, hey!”

The Girl watched Lilith dance until she began to move in unison. The Girl’s body swayed involuntarily, as though she was sitting waist deep on the shore of a violent ocean.  She rocked herself until sleep conquered her eyes.

The Girl’s consciousness faded, but in her mind she was back in the hallway outside of Lilith’s apartment. As she opened the door her own father was sitting alone at the table with a knife and cutting board. He saw The Girl and examined her new look.

“I’m making joumou tonight. Is that still suitable for you?”

The Girl inhaled the cutting aroma of vinegar and lime, and let it burn through her tangled mind. The simmering pumpkin and beef smelled the way wool feels on shivering skin. She thought for a moment to tell her father that whiffs of the joumou could be used in mass should the bishop run out of frankincense. But she didn’t answer. She instead placed her hand on her hair, which held her father’s gaze. She swallowed the growing lump in her throat.

“Come here, Jeanne.” He pointed the knife toward her. She obeyed and walked toward him, though his eyes made her feel like they were pulling her toward him. He pulled out the chair next to him and presented the rest of the beef on the table. He turned to grab the knife and swung back, slicing her linen shirt. They both stood still and volleyed glances from her torso to each other, waiting for a reason to panic. She was afraid to breathe, until she saw her father’s shoulders relax and his eyes move to the floor. “It’s fine,” he said, and sat at the table. As she bent forward to sit, she felt a warm, slimy object move down her body. It landed on the floor with the heavy wetness of a boiled and plucked hen. She looked beneath the table and saw her intestine, a long, vascular grey tube which stretched from her abdomen to the wooden floor.
She looked up at her father, when a dim light arose from behind his head. She realized she was now outside, and was sitting in her father’s lap, her head resting in the crease of his arm. The wind funneled around them as dust and dirt clouded the setting sun. Maybe it was the wind whipping in her ears, but her father’s words began to meld together in a melody. She couldn’t hear very well, but his voice vibrated inside her chest. His eyes were red and watery, but unblinking. The vibrations in her chest competed with her heartbeat. The chant permeated her skin, then her lungs, through each artery of her heart, and lifted her being up and into the wind.  She saw her body and her father sitting on the ground before her, his open eyes spilling water down his sharp cheekbones. The ground around them was saturated in her thick blood and its metallic smell weaved through the air, yet her expressionless face, she saw, was so much like his. She would have wondered if she never noticed their resemblance before, or if it happened so quickly or so gradually she hadn’t had the chance to notice. She would have wondered who that girl really was and who her life belonged to, but her thought mechanisms were almost gone. Maybe it was the work of his words, maybe it was the natural course after leaving one’s body behind, but the part of herself she was still aware of was being pinched apart, atom by atom, painfully and wistfully, like the final release of a child from its mother. Soon she was no more, and left her body and her father outside in the dark talking or singing or chanting to the open air.

The Girl eventually landed back in her body, her face still on the glass table and her butt on the pleather chair.  She heard that nearly inaudible, ever-present, high-pitched buzz that can only be heard in complete silence. She tried to open her eyes, but her lids were too heavy. She felt as though her skin was replaced with an oppressive metal mesh. She focused on the blackness behind her eyelids. The blackness eventually revealed streaks of colors: electric streams of purple and pink that she sometimes noticed when she was focused on herself and nothing else.

The buzz of silence was replaced with the switch of the light. The back of The Girl’s eyelids changed from black to red as the light shone through. She heard the pa-plat pa-plat pa-plat of bare feet moving toward her on the tiled floor, louder and louder until it stopped right next to her. She felt vision upon her, but was too weak to challenge it. She heard the glug of liquid being poured from a bottle, and the immaculate sound of it swirling around the bottom of a receiving vessel. She then felt the slap of cold water on her face, and her heavy body sprung into an erect posture.

“Wake up, girl! Conformation’s in two hours, and those naps ain’t gonna straighten themselves!”

{ X }

They arrived at Saint Angela’s in time for mass. They sat beside the other girls and their guardians in the back pew. All of them shifted uncomfortably in the polyester dresses they would likely wear once.  Lilith handed The Girl one of two aspirin tablets she found among the quarters and lint of her small purse. The Girl swallowed the pill dry. She had a headache that constricted her spine like a brace. Though still tired, nauseous and hauling a very full bladder, she sat with her back straight and her palms on her thighs. She closed her eyes to the brightly lit church and only seemed to move when told to sing along to a hymn. The scent of joumou that lingered in her mind dissipated until all she smelled was the odor of sweat trapped beneath manmade fabric.

After sitting, kneeling and standing for ages, it was time for the girls to line up and become accountable in the eyes of the Lord. Every move was preplanned and practiced in preparation for an orderly confirmation: Stand up. Walk toward the center aisle. Follow the bits of masking tape that form a path from the aisle to the altar. Give the bishop your confirmation name. Present your forehead to him to receive the holy chrism. Turn right. Walk along the wall until you hit the crucifix. Follow the marked path back to the pews.

The Girl made her way to the bishop, who was vested in red. His calm, depleted eyes looked upon her with all the empathy he could muster, like a haggard father staring at his child. He asked for her new name.

The Girl looked to her cousin. Lilith opened her mouth wide and let out a burp that surprised her as much as it did the bishop. Lilith waved away the smell of fried eggs and vomit before touching her fingertips to her lips and mouthing ‘sorry’.

The Girl looked to the bishop’s impatient eyes, cleared her throat and said the first name that came to mind: “Mmm…Madonna?”

The bishop leaned in and whispered, “Did you mean, ‘Mary’?”

“Sure.”

“Jeanne Mary Deaux, may you be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

The Girl bowed her head to receive the oil on her forehead. She looked back up to the bishop, whose eyes were already fixed upon the next girl in line.

The Girl and Lilith moved up behind the altar and turned right to walk back along the eastern wall, as per instructions.

Lilith placed her hand on her shoulder. “So that’s it! You’re one of us, the kingdom is yours. How’s that feel?”

“I feel like…I made it…I made it through the wilderness. Somehow, I made it through. Didn’t know how lost I was until I found you,” The Girl said as she stroked the foot of the crucifix hanging on the wall. It featured a sunken stomach and conspicuous ribs, and marbled skin tattooed with the markings of whips and thorns. The Girl remembered reading about how the Romans poured the entire hatred of humanity onto the frail body of Christ, all because he was identified as the King of Kings, God incarnate. She remembered wondering to herself how much easier Jesus may have had it if he just said aloud that he was a simple mortal, a confused and apologetic man, and that they could call him whatever the hell they wanted to. The Girl looked toward the light of the open doors of the school, and followed the path that was laid out before her, tiny strips of masking tape that showed all the newly confirmed exactly where to place their feet.

{ X }

KHAHOLI BAILEY is a writer of fiction and memoir. She holds a BA in creative writing from Hunter College and lives in New York City.

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