The Half Dark Promise, by Malon Edwards


S
omething moves in the half dark two gas lamps ahead of me. I hold fast at the edge of a small circle of gaslight cast down from the street lamp above me.

I don’t breathe. I don’t move. I just hold my breath so long that I get lightheaded as I try to drop eaves hard into the half dark around the gas lamps ahead. But all I hear is my steam-clock heart going tanmiga tanmiga tanmiga in my chest.

As my breathing slows, I peer into the half dark. Zye mwen fè yanyan—my eyes search right and left and up and down. I can’t help but think about Bobby Brightsmith, about his little sister and his little brother. I can’t help but wonder if I’m about to join them.

Wherever they are.

Something moves again. I press my hands tight over my mouth. I try not to whimper too loud. Mwen pa vle kèlkeswa sa li a manje m. I don’t want whatever is out there to eat me. M pou kont mwen. I’m out here all alone. I can barely hear the laughter and shouts from timoun yo on Yates Avenue, the next street over.

Since Bobby went missing, Ollie Cobbler and the other children won’t walk home with me. They don’t like me. They’re scared of me. They give my harness the side eye. They think Bobby disappearing is my fault. They think Manmi did some vodou on him.

At lunch recess, them fast Covey Four girls who sit in the back of my class tease me about it out on the schoolyard. They sing:

Michaëlle-Isabelle, Michaëlle-Isabelle,
Don’t get close, or you will smell.
Michaëlle-Isabelle, Michaëlle-Isabelle,
Here she comes, go run and tell.
Michaëlle-Isabelle, Michaëlle-Isabelle,
Her mama casts them voodoo spells.
Michaëlle-Isabelle, Michaëlle-Isabelle,
Take your Haitian tail to Hell!

Don’t believe them. Mwen gent sant siwo. I smell sweet, like honey. The half dark thinks so, too. The voices come at me from everywhere—from the low rooftops above my head and the cobblestones beneath my feet. Tell us, little girl, it whispers to me, do you taste just as sweet?

Pye, sa’m te manje m’pat ba ou! I want to tell my feet. I want to run away like Bobby told me. I want to flee. I want to be gone from this place. Instead, mwen espere maybe whatever speaks with those voices can’t see me. Mwen espere, I hope, maybe their night vision has been ruined by the gaslight. Then I realize that they live and prowl in the half dark. Their eyes are used to it—that is, if they have eyes.

The first thing Bobby Brightsmith told me when I moved to the South Side of Chicago from La Petite Haïti with Manmi was to run like a scalded dog if I ever saw zonbi la in the half dark on the way home from school.

halfdarkpull1See, when Bobby was eight years old, a little girl and a little boy were snatched from the half dark not far from home. They were never seen again. Bobby said because of that little girl and that little boy, timoun yo in Chicago now walk home from school in groups, in the half dark just before nightfall. The half dark comes fast this time of year.

I was surprised on the first day of school when Bobby took my hand on our walk home. He was nervous. He flushed rose-red down to his neck. But he didn’t let go. He’d signed the half dark promise just like every other timoun in Chicago. Even lekòl segondè elèv yo with their teenage swagger and their foul mouths held hands on the walk home. Bobby’s hand was sweaty. Large. Callused. The hands of a smith’s son. But I didn’t mind. Vrèman vre—truth be told—I was just pleased Bobby wasn’t calling me names while speaking to me. That didn’t happen at my old school. Actually, that didn’t happen at my new school, either.

The second thing Bobby told me was, if I’m ever bab pou bab—face-to-face—with something nasty in the half dark, call it out, and make it Tell It Like It Is. He’d said if I do it right, I’ll take away its power and it will have to answer me with total honesty. Once it does, once it’s under my control, I could even tell it to go jump in the lake, if I want.

Kounye a, I don’t want to be face-to-face with it. But I do want to go home. I want to go home now.

So I take a deep breath, and say:

My name is Kaëlle
(tell it tell it)
and I’m on the line
(tell it tell it)
but I’m not scared
(tell it tell it)
because I’m so fine!
(tell it tell it)
And you know what?
(what)
And you know what?
(what)
You can. Kiss. My. Butt!

Just so you know, that wasn’t me answering. It was the half dark.

But just like Bobby says it will, the half dark does its part and Tells It Like It Is:

We are the Pogo
(tell it tell it)
and we are many
(tell it tell it)
we feast on girls
(tell it tell it)
both strong and skinny.
(tell it tell it)
And you know what?
(what)
And you know what?
(what)
We will. Eat. Your. Guts!

For three ticks of my steam-clock heart, the world goes quiet. I can’t hear timoun yo on Yates Avenue anymore. Never before have I been this scared in all my life. Not even when papa mwen disappeared. But I feel my hope grow some. I can’t help it. Bobby might not know what an equilateral triangle is, or how to do long division with remainders, but he knows how to throw down with the half dark.

And then, I remember he’s missing.

Maybe he didn’t Tell It Like It Is. Maybe he got too scared. Or maybe he just never got the chance to tell off the half dark. I won’t miss my chance, though. I pull up my britches, as Manmi says, lift my chin, and tell the half dark: Go jump in the lake.

"The Half-Dark Promise" by Malon EdwardsIn response, the shadows breathe, long and low.

And then, nothing.

For five whole minutes, four hundred ticks of my steam-clock heart, I stand in that circle of gaslight, trè trankil. Nice and quiet. My forehead tightens. A soft sigh tickles the back of my neck. It’s warm and damp. Something is out there in the half dark. So I begin to create my sanctuary.

First, I strip down to my leather chest harness bodice. I pull the skin from my face and my neck and my arms. I take my time. I want to remove the skin in one untorn sheet.

It comes off wet. Sa fè’m mal. It hurts. A lot.

M kontinye ale. But I keep doing it. M pa lage. I don’t stop. M se fin prèske. At heart-tick eight hundred and seventy-five, I’m almost done.

When all of the skin has been pulled off, I spread it open and I blow on it. It’s brown with translucence. It catches my breath, like a parachute. It dries with patience, like butterfly wings. As it hardens, I shape it around me, from head to foot.

This is my chrysalis. Sa bèl. It’s beautiful. The joy in its creation makes the world go slow. Ti Mari pa monte, ti Mari pa desann. All is dead and silent.

Until, far off, I hear somebody’s mama calling for them to come home. Pa manman mwen. But I wish it was my mama. Kounye a, right now, manman mwen is making her rounds in Back of the Yards, tending the miners and their families.

I don’t know whose mama is yelling, but I do know she will never see her child again. Bobby told me no one escapes the half dark without the chant.

Not even him.

One day on the walk home from school, I told Bobby the half dark promise was silly. He just looked at me. His eyes were all big and wet. Li t’a pral kriye. He was going to cry. I was sure of it. But instead he said, You know that little girl and that little boy who went missing? That little girl was my sister, and that little boy was my brother. He said nothing else on the walk home that day.

I wanted to brush his loose dark curls out of his eyes and kiss his tears before they fell. But I didn’t. He wouldn’t have wanted that. So I squeezed his sweaty hand instead.

Bow! The half dark tests my chrysalis. It tries to snatch a knot in my head, or eat me. I’m not sure which. Either way, li kanpe fèm—my chrysalis—stands firm against its assault. Mwen pa bridin kò l. I don’t even flinch. Ata pa yon ti kras. Not even a little bit. Tankou yon wòch, li kenbe fò. My chrysalis is as hard as a rock.

And the half dark knows it. So it tries a different tactic.

The half dark presses against all sides of my chrysalis, sending tentacles over its surface. I know what it’s trying to do. It’s looking for weak spots. I think it won’t find any, but then, my chrysalis starts to shiver and creak. The tentacles (I stopped counting at twenty) try to squish me all at once. Mwen pa pè. But I’m not scared, or so I tell myself.

The half dark chuffs a laughs. It sounds like stretched faces and eyeless sockets. M trè pè.

Now I’m scared.

In La Petite Haïti, zanmi lekòl mwen, my classmates, called me the Snake Girl.

At the slightest touch, my skin sloughs off, as scaly as you please. My classmates threw rocks at me to make my skin fall off. They thought if they held me down and pulled it off they would catch my disease.

It was Papa who told me I have epidermolysis bullosa, and he knew what he was talking about. Li te yon doktè. Manmi is a doctor too, a pulmonologist. She only knows about respiratory diseases. And polio. She developed the steam-clock heart, like the one I have ticking in the socket of my chest harness right now, during the polio epidemic ten years ago.

It was Papa who told me, Pran kè. Be strong. Don’t let estipid sa yo get to you.

So, whenever my classmates threw rocks, I pulled my skin off, stretched it tight, and then blew it dry, all while running from them, in preparation for my chrysalis. Sometimes, I did this two or three times a day. Before school, during lunch recess, after school. Back then, my hands were gwosomodo. Clumsy. Dousman. Slow. Forming my chrysalis hurt. And I don’t mean the three or four rocks that would split my forehead and cheek before I could finish.

When I got home from school, I used to just stand in the foyer, my arms bent and hanging away from my sides. I’d stand that way for as long as I could, completely still, because if I took one more step, or if the wet new skin on my arms touched the sides of my chest harness, I would faint with pain. Now, I’m trè vit—so fast—my hands blur when I make my chrysalis. I’ve learned to ignore the pain. I’ve learned to embrace it. But there’s only so much pain a girl can take.

Epoutan li te ye merite sa. But the pain of my new skin was worth it. The rocks hurt more. They always hurt more.

Papa made me feel better, though, once his last patient of the day left. He was gentle when he wrapped my new skin in gauze and tended my wounds in his office. As he did so, I would tell him how strong I had been at school that day, how I protected myself with my chrysalis. And he would kiss my afro puffs and call me his Butterfly Girl.

It was easy for me to be strong for Papa. I loved him so.

I feel the first crack of my chrysalis deep in my chest, the same way I feel the thoom! thoom! thoom! of the bass drums during the Back-to-School Bud Billiken Day Parade. Tout bagay byen. But everything is fine. My chrysalis is still strong. At least that’s what I tell myself. Until now, my chrysalis has never been smashed or broken. Not even by Number One Bully in Mob Three, Ollie Cobbler. And he has a steam piston in his left arm. But the half dark isn’t Ollie Cobbler.

I hear the second crack, much louder this time, behind my left ear. Golden brown splinters of my chrysalis sting my cheek. Cold air rushes into me. Three tentacles push through the jagged break. The tentacles have suckers, and beaks, and mouths with tiny sharp teeth.

I reach behind my head and slide Tonton Macoute out of the sheath in my backpack. Nan yon klendèy, just three quick Rising Butterfly strikes, and the tentacles fall to the smooth floor of my chrysalis, coiling and flopping like snakes with their heads cut off. The Pogo howls in surprise. Not a howl like a lougawou throws at the full moon. But a howl that says, You done just pissed me off.

Tonton Macoute does that sometimes.

Papa tried not to make a big show of giving me Tonton Macoute, but he couldn’t help himself. I’d just gotten home from school. I hadn’t needed to pull my skin off to make a chrysalis at all that day, so I was happy, and even more pleased when Papa allowed me in his office after his last patient of the day. He sat me on his knee in that big leather chair I liked, placed the machete across my thighs, kissed my afro puffs, and told me, Ti chouchou, I give you this so you will always remember, and I will never forget.

I was eight years old.

Manmi was standing in the doorway. Her last patient of the day had cancelled. Papa had thought Manmi would still be in her office. Manmi te fache avè Papa. I’d never seen her that angry with him before. Pissed off doesn’t even begin to describe the look on her face.

But all Manmi said was, Pa fè estipid. Don’t be a fool. And then she went back to her office on the other side of the house and stayed there all night.

I’d just looked at Papa. I hadn’t been sure if she’d been talking to him or me.

Even today, I’m still not sure.

There are too many tentacles. For a moment, I forget my training, and just hack and slash and chop. I scream as I do this. It doesn’t sound like my voice. And then, other screams join mine. Screams from the tentacles. The awful screams of children. They ask, Why are you killing us? What did we do to you? We just want to go home!

So do I.

Which is why I don’t stop hacking them to bits.

Tonton Macoute wasn’t new when Papa gave it to me. The handle was worn, and there were reddish-brown spots on the blade. Those spots could have been rust. Those spots could have been dried blood. I never asked. I wasn’t too scared to ask. Mwen te okipe. I’d just been busy. The day after Papa gave me Tonton Macoute and Manmi gave him the side eye he showed me how to use it. For two hours after school every day, he trained me with the machete.

I learned to float swift Rising Butterfly strikes, and drop vicious Iron Butterfly chops. I learned to flow with confidence into Form of the Monarch, and feint Papa out of his Preacher boots with Form of the Viceroy. I even learned to unleash brutal savagery through Form of Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing.

Like I’m doing to the tentacles in the half dark now.

The children’s screams have stopped. But I haven’t. I don’t realize that I am crying through my rage until the Pogo whispers to me in its many voices, Little girl, there is no need to cry. Do not worry; we shall gobble you up in just two bites. You will hardly feel a thing.

halfdarkpull2Silly half dark.

I’m not crying because I’m afraid of the Pogo.

And I’m not crying because I’m afraid of being eaten.

I’m crying because Bobby was my best friend.

I’m crying because I’d never had a best friend before.

I’m crying because I’ll never have a best friend again.

I’m crying because I’ll never see Papa again.

I’m crying because I know Papa is dead. I know he did some horrible things. Mwen pa estipid. I’m not a fool.

But I don’t tell the Pogo this. It doesn’t need to know.

All it needs to know is Tonton Macoute.

I can’t remember my last moment with Papa. I can’t remember where I was when Manmi told me he was missing. I can remember him widening my stance, dropping my elbow, bending my knees, lifting my chin, adjusting my overhand grip, and then, one day, he just wasn’t there. I asked Manmi, Poukisa lap kriye?

She never answered me.

So I hugged her and said, Pa kriye, Manmi. Don’t cry.

But she couldn’t stop. She’s never stopped.

More tentacles tear my chrysalis, my comfort, my leave-me-alone space, from around me. I’m done with this. M fin ak sa a. I’m tired of being bullied. I’m tired of being scared. Most of all, mwen bouke fatige tèt mwen. I’m tired of being tired. So I let the Pogo know. Each time a tentacle slithers into my broken chrysalis to rip away another piece, I hack with Tonton Macoute. The tentacles scream again. Black blood splatters my face. It burns. Ki mele’m. I don’t care. I lick it from my lips. Mwen pa pè. I’m not scared anymore. So I hack on.

But the tentacles keep coming out of the half dark.

As fast as I am in Form of the Malicious Skipper, I just can’t keep up. My chrysalis is soon gone. It doesn’t take long. I know I should run. Bobby said so. Two more blocks, and I’ll be home. But I don’t. Chunks of my chrysalis are at my feet. I’m exposed. Unprotected. Covered in blood and ick. Tired. Men pa trankil. But not quiet. No, not quiet at all.

M pa pè! I yell, jabbing Tonton Macoute. I’m not scared of you! Pa yon ti kras! Not even a little bit!

"The Half-Dark Promise," by Malon EdwardsHigh above the gas lamps, where the half dark is its darkest, something bends toward me. Li menm jan ak kay. It’s as big as a house. It blots out the world. It puts its huge, diamond-shaped scaly head with its small, squinched-up reptilian face smack dab in front of me. It smells of water rot. A mess of tentacles sticks every which way out of where its mouth should be. This is the Pogo.

The tentacles all have tiny mouths. The tentacles all have tiny teeth. The tentacles all wail in children’s voices. But one voice is louder than the others. Bobby’s voice. Run! he shouts to me. Go home, now!

I can’t run from you, I whisper to him.

And then I hack his tentacle off the Pogo’s face.

The Pogo flinches into the half dark sky and chuckles deep. Tomorrow, out on the schoolyard, timoun yo will tell each other thunder is when the half dark laughs after it has snatched a child. Bobby writhes and twists in pain, scattering pieces of my chrysalis, making the cobblestones slick with black blood. His wails have turned into terrible screams. So I pick him up, and wrap him around my middle. His screams stop.

That’s better, now isn’t it? I ask him.

In response, Bobby coils his bloody, clean-sliced end around my waist, slithers his tiny mouth full of tiny teeth up my chest, across my shoulder blades and to my neck, where he nestles just below my chin. My chest harness is smeared with a trail of red. I wrap my arms around myself, pressing Bobby tighter against me. This is the first time we’ve hugged. He’s warm. And soft. I like how he feels.

Now I can run. Now I can go home.

I probably won’t make it, though. The Pogo still blots out the world. Ki mele’m. I don’t care. I’ve found Bobby.

But I run, anyway. And I don’t look up.

fin

Malon Edwards was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, but now lives in the Greater Toronto Area, where he was lured by his beautiful Canadian wife. Many of his short stories are set in an alternate Chicago and feature people of color. Currently, he serves as Managing Director and Grants Administrator for the Speculative Literature Foundation, which provides a number of grants for writers of speculative literature.

Malon Edwards
Malon Edwards
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