In the beginning, there was the Sun and Africa and there were those put here to remember and record. Oral scribes—griots—whose jobs were to act as a collective memory for an entire nation. But to forget is to cause injury to one’s self and one’s people. To forget is to be lost in thoughts of nothing. To forget knowledge is a sin.
The girl writhed in pain, lost to all around her. Her thoughts and actions had long been taken over by something she could not control. Her body, a lump of dead mass, her arms and legs moving to the beat of their own drum—that drum, pain. The aches took over not long before and it didn’t matter any longer that she could not move, could not talk. She learned a long time ago that being lost in her own mind was simply the way things were, at least for her. Those outside noises and voices—many of them she thought she could remember if she just tried hard enough—were still simply on the periphery, speaking to a body that did not respond. One that could not respond, even if it wanted to—and it certainly did not want to.
Her name was Jeli. She knew this not because of those voices outside her head, but because of the ones inside, the ones speaking to her. She knew this because it was told to her. She was told she’d been put here to suffer—and suffer, she did.
Jeli’s black body twisted and contorted in a way that would not have been possible if she’d had full control over her limbs. Her mother knew this, but all she could do was hold the girl in her arms. Nosipha, the girl’s mother, said a silent prayer to whomever might be listening at the time. A sin, of course—one should pray to God and God alone—but it seemed as if the Lord himself had stopped answering her prayers a long time ago, so she supposed it would not hurt to ask all those with knowledge of her daughter’s pain to aid her.
Something in her daughter’s head broke and the girl stretched out, stiff as a board and screamed with such fury the woman jumped despite herself. As she gathered her senses, she noticed what caused the girl’s anguish. A thin, circular ring of blood appeared around her daughter’s head, slowly tracing the girl’s skull, as if a line were being drawn with an invisible razor right before Nosipha’s eyes. Droplets of blood flowed freely and Jeli screamed from the pain. Nosipha cried.
The kingdom of the Snake. Black as those charred by the sun, hair of wool. His kingdom. In years to come, he would go on to unite both upper and lower Egypt. His name is Narmer Menes. His rule marked the first of written history. But he could not dismiss the roles of his griots. Everything has its place, and so, too, is that of the oral scribes. They must know the history and remember. Remember. It is a difficult and thankless job, but it must be done, as there are things said with the tongue that cannot be contained by writing, and there are things written that can never be spoken. So the griots held both the pen and the memory of an entire people.
Menes went on to rule for more than twenty years. He was a handsome man with thick lips and a wide, flat nose. He ruled with an iron fist but a soft heart. King Narmer was the first king to wear both the White Crown of Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt’s Red Crown. The headdress was heavy and shaped like a round golden bowel. The king often bore scars from the crown.
He is your father; remember him, girl. Remember him.
Nosipha rushed her daughter to the hospital. Doctor Davidson arrived about a half hour after they did, because Nosipha had learned, in the many years she’d run back and forth to the emergency room, to call him on the way. Jeli’s head had not stopped bleeding as the nurse unwrapped the makeshift bandage Nosipha had put on her daughter’s head to soak up the drainage. The older woman, whose hands shook as she worked, commented that it looked like someone had placed an upside-down bowl around the girl’s head and then tried to rip it off, skin and all. Doctor Davidson examined Jeli, looking over her very thoroughly as he always did. But before he arrived, Jeli was examined by another doctor. The new man, Doctor Sanders, suspect Nosipha of wrong doing. Nosipha had seen it before. Her daughter was prone to cuts and bruises in her condition, and over the years she’d been questioned on many occasions. The doctor questioned Nosipha about what had happened to the girl’s head. Nosipha admitted, through tears, that she did not know. She told the man the wounds had simply appeared. The doctor looked at her suspiciously, and she expected at any moment for him to call the authorities. Nosipha couldn’t blame him for suspecting her of doing something to Jeli. Hell, if she didn’t know better, she probably would have suspected herself too.
But what could she have done that would have caused this? So she explained that to this doctor, hoping he would understand that she was innocent.
“I’m not sure what you could have done. I understand things happen,” the doctor responded. “Did you maybe wrap her head too tightly or something?”
“Something,” she mocked him, “like what?” She realized he was trying to bait her. He wanted to catch her in a lie. “Why would I wrap her head up when it wasn’t even bleeding in the first place? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Well, you’re the one telling us what happened, and I assure you it doesn’t make any sense that the wound just appeared on her all of a sudden.”
Nosipha was upset at the insinuation she’d done something to her daughter, even though she understood it. She’d done nothing but take care of Jeli night and day since the girl had been born. “Listen to me. I have bathed my daughter, cleaned her, fed her—many times through a tube when her sickness got too bad—and I have changed her diaper since the day she was born. I have never done anything to hurt her, and I will never harm my child. Do you understand me?” Tears began to stream from her eyes just as Doctor Davidson walked into the room.
Davidson took the other doctor out into the hall, and the two stayed outside talking for a long time. Nosipha was beginning to get worried; she knew this might not be a good sign. If they really thought she’d harmed her daughter, they would call the police on her and Jeli would be taken away and she could go to jail. If this happened, who would take care of Jeli? This was a nightmare. She thought back to what had happened. Yes, she was sure the girl had been lying in the bed, and as she convulsed, her body went stiff—and the marks appeared. That was it. She knew it didn’t make any sense and she probably wouldn’t believe it if she hadn’t been there herself. But it was the truth and it was all she had.
She thought back to the day the girl had been born. Nosipha was the happiest woman alive. She had wanted a baby for as long as she could remember. Nosipha hadn’t been a young woman when the girl was born. The truth was, she’d been far past the recommended age to give birth at forty-two years old. But she could not have loved the girl any more if she’d been a young woman of twenty years old, and that was what mattered.
As Jeli grew, Nosipha noticed she did not cry often. But she just assumed the girl was a good baby and she thanked God for this. Then Jeli would not crawl and the girl didn’t begin spouting those cute little baby mumblings as most babies do. It was obvious by the girl’s first birthday, when the other children were smothering cake all over their faces and crawling around and getting into trouble, that something was very wrong. Jeli simply sat in her mother’s arms pretending she didn’t even notice the other children. There was something very different about her daughter, and at that point Nosipha had to stop pretending she didn’t notice it.
Nosipha’s grandmother told her to talk to the girl, telling her stories to make her feel as if she was a part of this world. But this was ridiculous; she spoke to her daughter all of the time. She sang to her and tried to teach her colors and numbers, but it just hadn’t worked. This, her grandmother assured her, was not the same. Jeli had to learn things that had been lost to her, the old woman assured her. In fact, it had been lost to them both, her grandmother said, since Nosipha’s mother had died when she was two and she’d been raised by her father. She never even met her grandmother until she was almost twenty. Already in her declining years, Nosipha’s grandmother alleged that she didn’t remember what she had forgotten herself. In the end, the old woman died after Jeli was diagnosed, still forgetting what she could not remember, or at least forgetting to tell her granddaughter. Nosipha always regretted this; she always felt as if there was something she should have known, something she should, as her grandmother suggested, have taught her daughter.
After Nosipha noticed the problems with her daughter, she took the girl to the doctor. The doctor told her Jeli had a severe case of autism. He said Jeli had a “complete inability to communicate or interact with other people,” and she would only get worse as the years passed.
It was true. The girl no longer even recognized Nosipha, her own mother, and she couldn’t eat on her own; she had never used the toilet and she still couldn’t walk or talk. Nosipha ran her fingers through her short kinky hair and sighed. Would things ever actually get better or would they just continue getting worse? And worse and worse?
Doctor Davidson walked back into the room. He looked tired and Nosipha knew if the man went through what he did with her for each of his patients, he should be ready to take a permanent nap. She knew she was.
“Everything’s okay,” the doctor said. “Doctor Sanders is just anxious and young. He doesn’t understand this sickness.”
“He thinks I did this, doesn’t he? Is he calling the police?”
“No, no. He just didn’t…I cleared everything up.”
Nosipha stared at the doctor for a long time. Did he think she had done it?
He seemed to read her face. “Nosipha, I know you love Jeli. I know you couldn’t hurt her. I am not going to pretend I know what happened here, but I’m confident you didn’t do it.” The man walked quietly out of the room, not looking back.
Movement behind the drawn white curtain caught her eye as the drape swung open. A woman with heavy dark circles around her eyes stared at Nosipha. Neither of the women spoke for a moment, letting the silence envelop the room. Finally, the woman whispered, her voice soft and fearful, “I couldn’t help but hear. These damn sheets don’t give you any privacy.”
Nosipha nodded. “I’m sorry, I didn’t even notice you were here.” She glanced at her daughter sleeping quietly in her sterile white sheets, her skin ashen and dark. “I was just so…preoccupied, I guess.”
The woman shrugged, “I can’t blame you; I certainly understand.” She pulled the sheet back to reveal a small, frail little boy swallowed within the covers. “Leukemia.”
“Not your fault. Not anyone’s fault, I guess. It’s just, how it is.” The women held out her hand so suddenly Nosipha almost jumped from the motion. “I’m Julia.”
“I’m Nosipha.” She shook the other woman’s hand. “Nice to meet you. Maybe we can keep each other company in this dreadful place, huh?”
Just then the girl began to convulse in her bed. Her body contorted again into unimaginable angles, her fingers and toes crooked and stiff. She didn’t scream out, however, as her body threw itself from the bed and landed on the floor. Several nurses entered the room with the doctor, and they all helped get the girl back into bed. It wasn’t an easy task; Jeli’s body had become unbendable, like iron.
Girl, I am son of Sogolon and the Sun herself. I am Sundiata. I united the twelve kingdoms of Ancient Mali by my iron sword. Those who knew me in life are all gone, as all people are subject to the laws of Heaven and Earth. And alas, kings are no different. I, however, get to take my place up in sky with those who have come before me. We all know and remember. I remember the kingdoms; the wealth I acquired. I know the children of kings who served in my court. I remember the beautiful golden beads and silken treasures of wealth that I traded for slaves and concubines. Those of us who remember, do so because we must. Those who remember, remember because others have forgotten, and still others would steal our past. My dark skin. My memories. Those have been lost to history. They had been twisted to fit within an idea that does not represent what we truly were and who we have become. They…we must be remembered. You, my dear, must carry on. You must remember.
The girl awoke. As she lay in her bed, her head wrapped, blood seeping through the bandages, she screamed. Her mother thought she’d heard words within the scream. She’d said: Son of…song…something. But how could that be? Her daughter had not spoken a word in her entire twelve years of life. Nosipha didn’t know if her daughter was even capable of speech after this much time. But there Jeli was, staring directly at her, her mouth forming as if she wanted to communicate with her mother for the first time ever. Nosipha desperately wished she knew what was happening to Jeli. What was happening to her daughter?
“What? What words?” The doctor stared at Nosipha as if he thought she was losing her mind. And now that she thought about it, Nosipha wasn’t so sure that was not the case.
“I don’t know. I just…thought maybe I heard her say something.” Nosipha looked around for someone, anyone, to back her up, but Julia had gone out to get something to eat about a half hour before.
“Perhaps,” Doctor Davidson placed his hands on her shoulders and squeezed, “maybe, it’s simply wishful thinking on your part? Do you think this could be the case? Maybe?” He spoke to her as if she were a child.
She pulled away from him. “I know my daughter said something. I just don’t…” her voice trailed off and she stared at the floor almost ashamed to say anything further.
The doctor sighed, “What do you think she said?”
“Something like, ‘Son ofsonlay’ or something like that. I’m not sure.”
“And what does that mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, my dear, if you don’t understand them then they’re not words.”
Nosipha walked back into her hospital room and slammed the door behind her. The doctor did not believe her daughter could possibly say anything. He, like everyone else, believed Jeli was just skin and bone; a lump of flesh incapable of human thought or emotion. But Nosipha knew better. She was sure she’d heard the girl. Doctor Davidson had said it might be time to consider putting Jeli in a home. He thought perhaps it was becoming too much for Nosipha to handle. He said he thought she was beginning to come apart and that he’d seen these signs many times before in parents in her situation. Nosipha simply stared at him wondering if the doctor himself ever really saw his patients and their families at all. She thought perhaps the man only saw what he wanted to see. An autistic child who would never get better.
She turned to look at her daughter. Her child’s eyes were moving rapidly under their lids, like she watched an invisible television screen within her sleep. The girl’s frail body began to thrash and convulse again, and the tired woman who felt as if she’d grown older within the last two days whispered a silent prayer, Please, God, not again.
As the woman prayed, Jeli threw her legs over the rails of the bed, put there to protect the girl from herself. Then she sat up effortlessly, her back straight, erect. Julia walked over and placed her hand on Nosipha’s shoulder and the two watched in amazement, not sure what to do. Jeli had never sat up by herself before. Not on purpose, not like now. The girl opened her eyes and scanned the room again, this time focusing on her mother. This was impossible; Jeli couldn’t see—not that well. Since the day she was born she couldn’t focus on objects close to her face, certainly not anything across the room. The girl grabbed the rails of the bed—again on purpose—and swung herself over the edge. She landed on two very wobbly legs, her bare toes gripping the floor as they clenched tightly. Using the bedrails, and pure will power, Jeli headed for her mother. Her legs were so unsteady she almost fell, but she held on tightly just before her face smashed into the floor.
Nosipha realized what was happening before the girl fell again, and she caught her daughter just as she got to the end of the bed. The mother and daughter fell into each other, Nosipha crying loudly just as the doctor and nurse ran into the room.
Moments before, the girl had remembered:
He traveled from Mali to Egypt on his bare feet. When he grew tired, he rode on the backs of his many horses. But mostly he used the horses as mules to carry his great load. He brought gifts, as no king before him had. They say many years after his journey the effects of his gifts of gold could still be felt. His face was so clear to the girl this time. She saw… His words loud and clear in her head. She knew… He spoke to her; he was of her…her blood, her body, her spirit. Her very essence belonged to him and his people. She belonged to his story, which she realized was her story, too. Her mother’s story, her mother’s mother’s story. They were the unremembered. And, he warned her, she could not forget. To forget would be to kill them all. To forget would be the death of a great people.
“Why are you crying?” Nosipha asked Julia. “Is he okay? Is he doing poorly?”
The woman shook her head; her son had not gotten worse. She looked up at Nosipha, who slowly bent to hold her hand. “I’m mad at myself. I’m so jealous of you and your daughter. Jeli’s getting better and Mario can’t seem to keep food down. He’s dying; I know it and the only thing I can think is why the hell can’t it be my boy getting better. Why does my son have to die? I don’t want to feel this way, but I can’t help it. God, what a shitty person I must be, huh?”
Nosipha stared at the dying light piercing the window. “Jeli’s not getting better; she’s dying.”
Father David came several days later. Nosipha felt a little ashamed to see him there. She had not been to church or paid her tithes in a long time. Hell, she couldn’t even remember the last time she’d gone to church. She was surprised the priest even remembered her and her daughter. Then a thought came to her: maybe the man thought the girl was dying, so he had come to give her last rites. The thought scared Nosipha but surprisingly, it relieved her more than she wanted to admit. Nosipha loved her daughter, but a person could only take so much. The man entered the room, looking around nervously as if he thought something waited in the shadows to grab him. The sight of Father David eased her mind a bit. She didn’t pray often anymore and she wasn’t even sure she believed God cared about her or Jeli anymore. Maybe if this holly man was here supporting her, though, God wouldn’t ignore her. He could not abandon her now.
“How is she?” the priest asked.
“They don’t know. She took a step…but they don’t know.” Tears welled in the woman’s eyes and she wiped them away quickly.
The priest nodded.
The room fell silent and Nosipha felt as if the man wanted more. “I haven’t been to church in a while, I know. But it hasn’t been easy. I…I’ve had a lot…”
“We understand. It has to be hard taking care of a child like this by yourself. Expensive. The church sympathizes.” He walked over to the girl and touched the bandages around her head. “They tell me she bled around the crown of her head? What happened?”
“I don’t know. One minute she was fine and the next, she was bleeding.”
“Did you see it appear?”
“Yeah, it just…happened. I didn’t do anything to her.”
“Have you been praying, Sister? Prayed with Jeli?”
Nosipha shrugged her shoulders, hung her head in shame. “Maybe not as much as I should. I know…I…I should have done more. Maybe…”
“Maybe, my dear, He still listens and understands your suffering and pain.”
This revelation made the woman cry even more. He heard and understood her pain. Father David put his arms around her. She felt better, comforted. “What are the doctors saying, my dear?”
She wiped her face. “They don’t know. They think it may be her last hurrah, or something, I don’t know. They said her muscles can’t just get stronger so they may actually be…fading. I think they think she’s dying.”
He lifted her face toward him. “And what do you think?”
“I don’t know what to think.”
“You want to know what I think?” She nodded; she did want to know what he thought, she desperately wanted to know. “I think God has chosen this child. And now I think the church could help her to bring a lot of people to Him.”
While Father David discussed important matters with Nosipha, the nurses checked Mario, Julia’s son. The boy stopped breathing and the doctors revived him after a very dramatic couple of seconds. Nosipha stood by the woman, holding her hand, trying to ease her a bit. But Nosipha knew there was no way to ease this pain. Just to think about the loss of a child was unbearable, and to actually watch one die was inconceivable. The woman held on to her as if the two had been the best of friends all their lives—they shared secrets. Luckily, the doctors revived Mario and the boy’s vitals were close to normal again. Julia didn’t seem to trust this, though, as she kept checking the boy to make sure he was okay. Nosipha heard the doctors tell Julia she might want to consider a Do Not Resuscitate order since it had happened several times now. Julia yelled for the men to get out, not wanting to accept it.
The priest held Nosipha’s hand, assuring her everything would be all right.
In the bed beside them, Jeli slowly raised up and turned her head to face her mother and the priest. Nosipha, her back to the bed, followed the man’s gaze until she saw her daughter sitting upright, staring into the distance. Jeli did not see her mother because her eyes were as black as coal, blacker than the girl’s skin. They looked like tiny jewels stuck into her head. Jeli opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. She moved her lips as if she were holding a conversation the others were not privy to. Then she let out a long, low moan. Nosipha rose to her feet, getting ready to go to her daughter, and the priest stopped her. “Just wait,” the man said.
But Jeli did not wait. She threw her head back and let out the loudest scream she could muster. She had not spoken in over a decade and her vocal cords seemed to be developing in her throat. Her cry was mangled and strange, the octaves wavering up and down like a person with laryngitis. Nosipha could not believe it; she didn’t know what to do. She wanted to run out to get a doctor, but she didn’t want to leave her daughter. So she stayed and watched.
The girl’s black eyes seemed to look straight through everyone. She felt a strange sensation take over her body without knowing fully that this indeed was her body. She wasn’t even sure what part of her feelings were directly related, or what parts she simply imagined as she had for the past twelve years. Her head whirled and spun with images she knew to be real, but that she could not distinguish from past or present. On some level she knew who she was; she had known it, she believed, all along. But now she knew other things, important things, powerful things. And, as she knew now, knowledge is power.
The knowledge she saw was telling. Images darted in and out of her head so fast she could no longer keep up with them. But she no longer tried. She let them run over her like a waterfall. This, too, had the same effect: it was calming, cooling. Now she simply accepted what she saw and knew to be truth.
Tall white men on tall white horses come to trade, they say, to learn…they create powerful Gods in their honor…pain, darkness, suffering…people being ripped from their homes, their masters…Remember…long voyages, desolate damp deathful spaces…the…church…acceptance…condoning…facilitating… Remember…dark babies dying by their own mothers hands to protect them from barring the bonds of… Remember…money… power …Remember…them…Remember us all. The slavery, my dear, was not the most difficult part; no, the hard part was the loss. The loss of everything past, present and future. To take away one’s past is to deny them a future.
The girl shook her head, not sure she could take any more. It was overpowering. How could anyone carry this much on her shoulders? She’d been in the dark for so long, her mind cluttered, not remembering her name, much less where she came from or what she had been meant to do. Her great grandmother… That’s right. She remembered the old woman had spoken to her also, telling her what her mother, Nosipha, had forgotten. Her great grandmother remembered until she’d gotten too old to pass it on, and then she died. But she died before she could teach the knowledge. Jeli’s mother was too old then, and by the time Jeli was born it was too late, the knowledge was lost, leaving her a shell of who she should have been.
But not anymore.
Jeli’s body buckled, a spasm taking over again. Her arms flailed, throwing her body all over the bed. When she reached the edge, the girl threw herself over the side and hit the floor with a loud bang.
Julia gasped and ran over to the girl’s side. Nosipha and Father David joined her, and the two women knelt down by the girl’s side checking for any sign of life. Beside Nosipha, the priest crossed himself and said a silent prayer. At that moment, Jeli’s eyes flew open, the whites clearly visible now.
Everyone in the room jumped, giving the girl a wide berth. Slowly, as if being pulled by a rope connected to a plank, Jeli rose to her feet in one fluid motion. The girl’s eyes were clear; so was her mind. She could see and think clearly for the first time in her short life. As she stared around the room, she focused on each person, one at a time. Finally, she stepped forward on two wobbly legs. At first her mother didn’t think she would make it, but with each step, the girl’s legs got stronger. Her face had changed, too. She looked older, as if she’d aged with years of wisdom of a woman many years her senior.
The girl walked toward Father David and he smiled, his arms out-stretched, waiting to embrace her. The man was proud, as if he not only had witnessed this miracle; but as if he owned it. Slowly, assured, Jeli walked past him, toward the child sleeping quietly in the next bed. She placed her hand on Mario. Fingers that once could not uncurl themselves to hold a fork now moved gracefully over Mario’s flesh. The boy opened his eyes, smiled up at Jeli. She leaned down and whispered something to him the others could not hear. Slowly, the boy’s color seemed to darken a bit. His ashen brown face began clear into a deep, dark tone. Julia jumped to her feet and ran to her son.
When she was finished, Jeli turned to her mother and the other man. She looked at him, her eyes fixed. The man stared, as if a child waiting for recognition from a parent.
“What you want from me, I cannot give. I’ve been shown the knowledge of the past. And since you can’t use me, you will seek to discredit me. Much like your Savior. But I know the truth.” The priest suddenly averted his eyes, as if lost or afraid of the girl’s glare. Jeli tilted her head, faced the priest, and whispered so softly her mother was not sure she heard the girl properly. Then she said simply: “Because I remember.”
The man got to his feet, straightened his suit coat and quietly walked out of the room, knowing, if nothing else, that he would not be adding this soul to his flock.