“The main difference is her head. Or the lack of it; her head is not there. In its place are rays of shimmering light that stream down from a luminous ball floating nearly a foot above the stem of her graceful neck.”
THEY ALL KEEP CALLING her a “two-headed woman.” Loanna wants to know why, so after the morning callers leave, she decides on asking her Iya. When she was little, the other kids used to call her “four-eyes.” But this is different, said with respect by grown adults.
She finds the comb and hair-grease on the bureau in the room where she’s been sleeping. When she left Cleveland three days ago, it was winter. Now she steps out onto the wrought-iron balcony, and it’s spring. Her first visit, on her own, to the Crescent City, New Orleans, drowning home of her mother’s kin.
Iya sits in her wicker chair, waiting. She is a tall woman, even seated, and she’s dressed all in white: white headscarf, white blouse, white skirt with matching belt, white stockings and tennis shoes, and a white cardigan, too, which she removes now that the day has warmed. She shifts her feet apart, and Loanna drops to sit between them.
Certainly Loanna is old enough to do her own hair, but Iya knows different ways of braiding, French rolls and corn rows, special styles suitable for the special occasion of a visit to Mam’zelle La Veau’s grave. Besides, it’s nice to feel Iya’s hands, her long brown fingers gently nimble, swiftly touching, rising along the length of Loanna’s wiry tresses and transforming them into neat, uniformly bumpy braids. Relaxed by the rhythm and intimacy, she asks, “Why all your friends call me that?”
“Call you what, baby?” Iya’s voice is rough but soft, like a terrycloth towel. “Hand me up a bobby-pin.”
“Two-headed,” says Loanna. She lifts the whole card full of pins and feels the pressure as her Iya chooses one and pulls it free.
“Two-headed? It means like you got the second sight, sorta. Like Indian mystics be talkin about openin they third eye. Only more so.”
“But why say it like that?” Loanna asks, persisting. Some odd things have gone on since she got here: folks dropping on one knee, saying prayers in African to the dry, exacting sound of rattling gourds. Tearful entrances and laughing retreats, gifts of honey, candles, and coconuts. Not every question gets her an answer, but she’s here to learn, so she always tries again. “Why call it two-headed, and why say that about me?”
“Oooh, now that’s a story.” Iya pauses for a moment, finishing off a row, and the murmur of a neighbor’s voice rises through slow rustling trees and over the courtyard wall, light and indistinct. Iya sections off another braid, and repeats herself. “That is truly a story, baby. You wanna hear it now?”
Loanna nods, then winces from the pain of pulling her own hair. “Ow! I mean, yeah,” she says.
“Try to sit still, then, so I can concentrate. Lessee. This story started before you were born, Loanna, ’bout fifteen years ago. The night before you were born, actually, to be exact. You remember that night?”
“Naww,” says Loanna, giggling.
“Your mama sure do. But she ain’t the only one. I was there, and what I can’t tell you ain’t nobody can. Here, shift yourself this way so I can reach the back. You comfortable?”
Loanna scoots the pillow forward. “Mmm-hmm.” She faces a peach stucco wall now, not so interesting as the view she had had of the garden. So Loanna closes her eyes, lets her Iya’s words form pictures in her mind. This is what she sees.
SHE SEES HERSELF. She sees Loanna-that-was, Loanna-to-come, Loanna-she-who-will-always-be. She can tell by her feet, large like her mama’s, by her strong, long, legs. She can tell by her milk-and-honey skin. (How’d she get to be so fair? No white folks, counting back for five generations…but that’s another story.) She recognizes her flat butt that reminds her daddy of Aunt Fiona, and there’s the mark like two lips above it; Aunt Nono calls that an Angel’s Kiss. Her back looks funny; maybe that’s because she never really gets to see it. Her breasts look bigger. She can see them swaying in and out of sight as she walks away from her own disembodied point of view, down some sort of path.
But her breasts aren’t the main difference. The main difference is her head. Or the lack of it; her head is not there. In its place are rays of shimmering light that stream down from a luminous ball floating nearly a foot above the stem of her graceful neck. The ball of light itself is colorless, but as Loanna’s viewpoint follows it she sees it sending flares of color in all directions. She understands from her Iya that this is her ori, which contains instructions and wisdom from the ancestors. With the guidance of her ori she has left the heavenly city, on her way to choose a head. It is a very important decision.
Coming too quickly around a turn in the path, she catches up with herself, suddenly merging with the ball of light. All at once, it is as if she has a thousand eyes. Each beam of light absorbs the significance of what it touches, in a depth and detail Loanna has difficulty handling. Images spin into her out of the formerly indistinguishable darkness: the stern trunks of trees stand in meaningful positions; their beckoning branches droop with leaves, each leaf a poem, waiting to fall with a sigh, reciting itself as it drifts free. But the piercing rays need not wait as they caress each layer of cellular structure, reading the secrets of greenness and sugar, tasting chlorophyll and acknowledging Loanna’s part in its manufacture, her gaseous contribution to its growth. Then there is the throb and rustle of waves of wind, then the shift to shooting through the soil beneath her feet, which is alive: warm and changing with worms, and damp and seething with nameless hungers that are hers, it’s all hers, all herself.
Somehow, she adjusts. She swims in the sea of the knowledge of everything around her. She wears an apron of fine cowrie shells ~caressing tides of food; soft, sucking feet~ a skirt of grass ~dry whispers of a burning sun~ a leather pouch—she tries to absorb it all. Directed by her ori, she even manages to move forward, toward her destiny. Wonders around her part and let her pass.
There is sand beneath her feet ~silica, each grain a window in a castle on another world~ and a curtain of vines before her ~twisting, the eternal spiral up, and drinking from a hidden well~ when she reaches the place to which she has been led. She peers through the leaves and sees a firelit clearing ~the shape of a spicy scent in the wood burning, a curl of smoke—the eternal spiral up~. Over the fire hangs a kettle ~the song of its making rings like a silent gong in the play of her vision~ filled with bubbling stew ~reluctant roots dug and diced apart, farewells from the nervous forager which gave its body, its blood~.
Ajala, the maker of heads, enters the clearing. He is like a man. A drunk man, Loanna perceives. A mean drunk. He has lost, gambling. Lost to the King, a spirit of swords and justice. The cowries clicked and fell, clicked and fell, all day, till he was without a shell to pay. This is all Loanna can tell from a single “glance.” Another ray streams out in his direction—and Ajala seizes it as it lands! He is no man, but a god! He pulls her forward by the ray of her perception.
She stands in front of Ajala. He is dark and crooked (the better to become lost in) and not at all in a happy mood ~a woman wrapped her goods in white cloth and walked away~. He speaks to her, laying heavy slabs of speech upon her mind. He gives her anger, wet and cynically cold, which would mean this in words: “Ha, you come too late! You seek a head? I have ceased to make heads. What is the use, when they will all eventually belong to the King? Not even those already made will I sell to you, for with the rise of the sun all will belong to him, to Kabio Sile. And I am too drunk to bring you to them now. Besides, I want my stew. You are welcome to join me—except, of course, you have no mouth!”
Unkind laughter fills the clearing. Loanna turns to go, switching her hips angrily, which causes her cowrie shell apron to clatter. Ajala stops her with one hand on her shoulder and swings her back around.
“But what is this?” says Ajala. “You are very rich! With these beautiful shells I could cancel my debt! Very well, I will take you. But just to the F hut, no further.”
The F hut…this is where he stores those heads barely worthy of the name. Loanna is sure the ancestors have provided her with enough goods for a C, the next grade up. But even an F is better than nothing, she figures. So she removes the apron, and he receives it, and they are off.
Stars have appeared above them. The ori touches their colors with its own and brings to Loanna their distance, their magnificently pure combustion and their blazing bravery of the void. Then she is at the F hut, and it is time to choose.
These heads are made of mud, and they are really pretty bad. Some of them aren’t even dry yet. The features are all rough and mostly irregular in size and shape. As she squats to turn the mud heads over and pick the best, the leather pouch swings out on its cord, then bangs against her belly. It sobs of lost herdmates, of running open-nosed, into the wind—but what’s within?
Curious, she pulls it open, puts in her fingers and draws out a pinch of salt ~longing for the cresting waves, shh, the hissing of the sea, exposed before the sun now, but once, what is it that lies at the bottom of the ocean?~. Ah, here is the rest of her fortune! Perhaps she can obtain a C head after all.
Ajala waits impatiently for her decision—too impatiently, it seems to Loanna. She picks an F at random, lifts it, makes as though to put it on. There is an angle, a hidden aspect to Ajala’s waiting that is somehow wrong. His eyes are growing strangely larger as he watches her lower the head. They are almost all he has now for a face: huge eyes watching as she lowers the head over her ori. But what is this terrible blankness descending upon her mind? The telling colors cannot penetrate the thick mud of her head—it is a trap! Quickly she raises the F back up and sets it to the side. Ajala leans over her, silent yet threatening. She throws her hands up in defense, and two grains of salt fly from her fingers to his face. Of course they land in his enormous eyes. Tears spill from them and fall upon the ground. Ajala cries (no love, alone, alone, no one, no love). When he is finished he sighs wistfully. His sigh says, “It is too long since I’ve had the salt to spare for tears. Is there more?”
Loanna shows him the pouchful. Good. In exchange for the salt, he will take her to choose a C head. Through the songs of insects ~brief, brief, but sharp and fleet is our short leap, bright, sweet, the glittering of our span~ and the heavy dew they go, to come at last to the C hut.
These heads are made of woven wood. There is a certain uniformity of feature. They’re better than the F heads, but there’s nothing spectacularly exciting about any of them. Because she sees no real differences, Loanna chooses quickly. Before putting on her C head she checks out Ajala. He is withdrawn, brooding over his many ancient wrongs and sorrows. No trick this time, it seems. The head fits smoothly into place.
She can’t see. It is dark. She can smell the soil, hear the crickets, but it is all filtered, lessened to the trickle of experience that she used to be used to. The rays of her ori tease her with flickering glimpses of the essence. She turns, blinks her eyelids, parts her lips experimentally. “I—” she says, a creaking in the night. The crickets silence themselves. “I want—” She wants an A head. An A. But she doubts this bitter god will grant her wish for the asking. And she has used up all the trade goods the ancestors gave her, just to reach the point where she realizes that what she wants is more.
She’ll have to use what she’s been given to get what must be gotten, then.
There. That darker darkness must be he. She addresses it. “I want—to thank you from the bottom of my heart. I mean like, this is so completely swollen! I thought you said you were only gonna give me a C head. But this A is—is—it’s—”
The god appears clearly before her, shining with anger. It lights him as though it were a fire, and he glows like a maddened furnace. “IT IS A C! A C HEAD IS WHAT YOU HAVE AND NOTHING BUT A C!!”
Loanna fears the heat of Ajala’s anger will ignite her poor wooden head. Also she feels something she’s never felt before, a sort of…tugging…at the top. But she persists. “Oh, chill, it’s all right,” she says. “I’ll let everybody know what a deal I got. Unless—” holding up a hand to forestall further wrath, “unless you don’t want me to. No, okay, I won’t tell. You made some kinda mistake, dincha?”
Ajala strives to control his anger. He succeeds in subduing himself to a dull red glow. “This is the C hut. It contains nothing but C heads!”
“Uhh, yeah. Sure. I understand. I won’t tell anybody. Except if they notice and ask me how I got it, okay?”
“AARRGH!” bellows Ajala. “COME!” He grabs her with one hot hand and drags her into the forest.
There is no path; at least none that Loanna can detect. The way is a lot more difficult and a lot less interesting than the last two trips. Just stumbling through the dark, her hand sweating in the hot grip of the god’s. She’d probably be a little steadier on her feet if it wasn’t for the insistent tugging at her scalp, pulling her constantly off course.
After a while, the darkness lessens. This seems to increase Ajala’s fury. Without warning he stops, picks Loanna up by the waist, and flings her over his shoulder. Then he’s off again, at an uncomfortable trot.
“What’s…the big…hurry?” she manages to whuff out between the god’s jolting strides.
“Dawn,” he explains. Between panting breaths he adds “I must…return soon…to pay my debt…to the King…or lose my heads. But first…you will see…you are wrong. Not far now,” he ends.
By the time they reach the A hut, Loanna’s neck is sore from the odd tugging, which has for the most part been perpendicular to their path. The rest of her feels a little rough as well. And she feels even worse when she sees the A heads.
These heads are made of jewels.
Amethyst, rose quartz, aventurine, and other stones she cannot name, they glow with living light. Each is perfect, each unique. There is no way to pretend that what she wears is one of these. So much for deceit.
What else does she have? She has spent her inheritance. She has used her head, such as it is. She kneels before the luminous beauty of the A’s, but she’s being pulled away by this unaccountable vacuum. What is it?
“Mama!” she screams in fear and frustration. “Maa-maa!” And that’s when she gets it: the answer to her question and the solution to her problem, too, all at once, all in one. Where she’s going, where she’ll soon be coming from. The door, the gate, the entranceway for everything that ever was in the world.
“Wait,” she pleads to the unseen force. “Mama, wait just a minute. I got a idea.” Her mother must hear her, or somebody must, for the compelling pressure to be born lessens just a little.
“Ajala,” she says. “You got the cowries. You got the salt. But you’d like more, right? ’Course you would. For an A head I—”
“You admit you have only a C head?”
“Yeah, well, I guess I did try to jack you around a little. Sorry. But now, if you let me choose an A head I can lead you to the source. Where I got the shells and cowries from. Take away as much as you can carry!”
“Is it far? I don’t have much time….”
“No, no, it’s really close. It’ll only take a few minutes, okay? Can I pick one?
Ajala nods. Breathlessly, she selects a large, round head of pale blue celestite. There is a moment of disorientation as she removes her C and is flooded by the universe ~the turning, rising rightly, the eternal helix up~. But then the celestite is over her ori, focusing and altering her perceptions, directing and filtering the rays of light that connect her to the world: her awareness of that connection. Plus she has her other senses: eyes, ears, nose; all working very well. Is that faint odor fish?
Ajala looks different through these eyes. Loanna decides that she now finds him cooler. She stands and beckons him to come and kneel before her. Parting her skirt, she brings him gently to the source.
The god is reverent. He prays to the source, mouthing soundless words. He speaks skillfully, with a silver tongue.
Loanna sags against him, pliable with pleasure. She is pulled taut again, stretched between these two irresistible forces: one between her legs, the other somewhere over her shoulders.
At last she can stand no more. “I like your approach,” she says softly. “Now let’s see your retreat.” To her surprise he backs away without protest. He looks up at her, smiling happily. A huge pearl falls from his lips; his reward.
She has to go. She really must. But as she is drawn away from the A hut, out into her life, Ajala places the C head into her hands (long fingers like her grandfather’s, but they don’t look a bit artistic on top of Uncle Donald’s square palms).
She is confused by the god’s offering. “Put it on,” he says in a receding shout. “Put it on, wear it over your A. You can always take it off again. And you may find it necessary, sometimes, to be less than you are capable of being. I know—” His last words are lost as she is born.
LOANNA OPENS HER EYES. Shadows sway on the stucco wall, struck by the lowering sun. The lingering sweetness of the god’s homage spreads like syrup through the afternoon air, mingling with the golden light. Her dream of the story is over, though Iya’s voice continues, twisting its ends together, pulling them up and into the eternal spiral.
“Yeah, we finally got you to make up your mind to honor us with your presence, and you came all in a rush into this world,” Iya finishes. “I was hot and dizzy from all that bendin up and down, all that runnin back and forth. Didn’t nobody offer me no ice chips. But I got to see you first, and right away, and I knew you were special. A caul, yeah, but that don’t automatically mean that much.” Iya pauses. Her swift fingers lie still in her lap, their task long done. “It was your eyes told me. Told me everything I just told you—and then some. I can’t remember everything your eyes told me on the day that you was born.”
“So then was when you decided you were gonna teach me?”
“When you was old enough, right,” Iya says. “So let’s get on off this balcony and go visit Mam’zelle La Veau. You got the coins? Your gele’s on the bed, with the rest of your outfit. We’ll pick us up some flowers for the gravesite on the way. Anything else your ori’s tellin you to bring, baby?”
Loanna’s eyes close again, enabling her to focus on the resonance within, the quiet bell of her consciousness. “A—a egg? A blue egg?! Iya, how we supposed to get that?”
Iya rolls her eyes. “Honey, I don know. But if the ancestors tellin you Mam’zelle need a blue egg, we gone get her a blue egg.”
“But, Iya, don’t you think it might—”
“Loanna!” Iya’s voice is sharp and stern. “Here’s the first thing you gotta learn: when your head tells you somethin, listen. ’Specially if you askin a question. You get an answer, accept that answer.” She rises and holds out her hands to help her student stand.
“Today you prayin for the help and guidance of a woman who was famous for not takin nothin off nobody, the original Voodoo Queen. So you gotta be sincere, and you gotta stand firm for yourself. Like when we buy our flowers and you give the man a twenty dollar bill, and if he only give you change back for a ten, what you gonna do?”
Loanna’s fingers trace the braids curving above her ears. “Ask him where’s the rest. ’Cause I know I’m not stupid. I can count.”
“That’s right. Same way with this. You know. You not stupid. That’s what you gotta learn to believe, honey, you wanna live up to your potential. After all,” Iya concludes as Loanna follows her inside, “what’s the good of havin two heads unless you use ’em?”
Nisi Shawl is coauthor of Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, a founder of the Carl Brandon Society, and a member of Clarion West’s Board of Directors. Her story collection Filter House, in which “At the Huts of Ajala” appeared, won the Tiptree Award. She edits reviews for The Cascadia Subduction Zone. Books she has edited or co-edited include Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars; WisCon Chronicles 5: Writing and Racial Identity; Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler; and Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany.
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