Cynthia Gómez


Cynthia Gómez is a researcher and writer and a native of the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a 2019 Tin House summer workshop attendee and her work has appeared in The Acentos Review and From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across America

Someone Else’s To Destroy

There's a box in my closet for the things I never touch. Presents from my father, twice a year, more extravagant each year as his guilt grew bigger and I grew older without him. His mother's costume jewelry that I've tried to give away but that always ends up back where I keep it. The last thing to go in there was a set of hats for my cousin Imani's twin boys, both Warriors fans though in every other way as different as could be. I'd missed their tenth birthday that year and they missed Christmas, and the hats have been in the box since I finally made myself accept that there wouldn't be any more birthdays for them at all. 

How do I describe my cousin Imani? Words like "brilliant" and "confident" are just words. She had asthma and she named the inhaler Vlad. She set the Darth Vader theme as her ring tone. She adopted dying plants and coaxed them into life. She kept her hair natural and curly. She could dance to anything. She grew up split between many worlds and they embraced her and chewed her up in equal measure. Her mother Sandra's family — my family  — could never forgive Sandra for daring to have a baby out of wedlock, and worse, with a black man. They were too polite to close the door when Sandra came to gatherings with her adorable baby and her eternal-fiancè Carson, Imani's dad, but they couldn't bring themselves to remember Carson's name or to resist carrying on whole conversations in Spanish around him. Of course, it meant that little baby Imani learned it too, and even Carson understood more than he would ever let on. His family was different: warm hugs all around and cousins playing tag and their parents happy to play Los Ángeles Azules at family reunions. Even after Sandra finally split from Carson, the family kept on including everyone as if nothing had ever happened. Same ribs and homemade salsa on the plate.

Our grandmother Maria Inés was a wonderful cook and a truly mean grandma. She was full of snide remarks about why Imani didn't straighten her hair, about how black men never stuck around to raise their kids. When Imani was 15, she'd had enough. She told her grandmother, my grandmother, at Christmas: "Abuela, I love you, but I'm not going to put up with you disrespecting my heritage. I'm not going to put up with you talking like this to my mother or me. If you can't be nice to us, you won't be seeing much of me." She ignored the shocked looks all around the table, my mother nearly dropping the tamales on the floor. Imani kept her word: when she had to show up to family events, she simply refused to speak a single word to our grandmother. It took four months for Abuela to understand that her grandbaby was serious. She gave a half-hearted apology and from then on kept her comments far under her breath. 

Carson was brilliant and confident too, but he was forever starting projects and leaving them half-finished, just like he'd done with Sandra. They'd been engaged for seven years but instead of getting married they split up. Sandra was so different from him that I never understood how they got together to make Imani in the first place. She never made waves, never sought attention, didn't speak much -- but when she made up her mind, that was it. She'd let all the family complain about Imani's attitude, but a smile would be creeping at the corner of her mouth.

Imani went to Catholic schools growing up, and she was used to being the only black girl in whatever she did. She started a Star Wars club in high school. She learned French. She rode a bike everywhere and was a vegetarian starting at age 13. (She told me she'd wanted to be one earlier, but it took her that long to learn to do all her own cooking, since that's what Sandra told her: you eat what I cook, and I don't want rabbit food.)

My aunties and uncle -- Imani's mother Sandra, my mother Ana, our Tía Marta and Tío Jesús -- grew up with linoleum floors and plastic covers on the couches. We lived in bad neighborhoods and the kids went to Catholic schools. College was a dream that only grandbaby Imani could reach. I went to vet tech school, which doesn't quite count, but Imani went to Harvard because of course she did. And she came right back to Oakland and let everybody praise her up and down.

When she was 19, she withdrew from Harvard for a semester and came back home. Nobody really talked about why. She came to a baby shower for our cousin Carolina, Tía Marta's daughter, but came empty-handed and spent the afternoon barely left Tía Marta's easy chair all afternoon, and she didn't bring a gift. She wanted everyone to watch this movie about a Brazilian slum. She wouldn't stop talking about the kids in slums, the rainforest disappearing, the oil companies "raping the earth while we're sitting here partying."

She didn't look like she was trying to guilt-trip anyone. She was serious. She was crying. I was 16 and I didn't understand her. Nobody talked to me about things anyway. 

She invited me outside; I guess even back then I was the only one who didn't think she was crazy or just want to ask her questions about Harvard all day long. I admired her. I wanted to be like her. But this Imani was a mumbling wraith.

"Mari. How can you stand it?"

"Stand what?

"My mom's upset because the landlord won't fix the hot water. If she were in most of the world she wouldn't even have water. Or it wouldn't be clean.

"Come on, cuz; this isn't like you.

That was the wrong thing to say.

"Right, because you know so well what it's like to be me. Everyone wants to brag about how smart I am. They're all happy I'm going to go into environmental law. That way they can keep driving their cars and buying their plastic and they don't feel guilty. Do you have any idea what it's like, carrying everybody's hopes on my shoulders? And then those snide little white girls going off to France to go skiing and 'oh, you don't summer on Martha's Vineyard' and they treat the dining hall workers like shit and won't even sign a petition for them to get a raise. I'm not even going back to school. I'm moving to Brazil. I'm joining the landless workers' movement there and I'm never coming back."

She kept talking, as if something terrible would happen the second she stopped. Human rights and reparations and she was going to learn Portuguese and there were plants in Brazil that had powers everyone else dismissed as magical, but that was just because people were superstitious about anything they didn't understand, and did I know it was possible to power all the planet's cars on algae?

My mother rescued me just then: "Maricela. I need you to help me wash up."

I'd never been so glad to be asked to wash dishes. Sandra and Imani left soon after, and I avoided Imani the next time I saw her, something I'd never done before. When I saw her at a barbecue that summer she was calmer, more herself. I never asked what had gone wrong with her and she never told me, but she did graduate from Harvard and she did go to law school at Columbia, specializing in environmental law just like she said she would.

She dated a lot in her 20s, but none of them stuck around. I'd see her at family gatherings (we had nine cousins), with a different man each year. The men were all brilliant at something, always intellectual: music, science, writing. They were always black, but Imani had made sure our family knew how to behave. No matter how brilliant, though, none of them seemed to measure up.

When she was 32, she showed up at our Tío Jesús' 75th birthday; nobody had seen her in a few months, since she'd finally bought a tiny little house, way out by Sobrante Park. She got there late, after everyone had sat down, and later I thought this was why she'd done it that way. She was pregnant. She'd got tired of waiting for the right man, or any man at all.

I was shocked but happy for her too. The whole time I knew her, she was the bravest one of all of us. She'd stood up to a Mexican grandmother and lived to tell about it. I think even Abuela was proud of her for that, and my mother too, though neither of them would ever say it out loud. I never understood how she could be so brave. I was 29 that year and I still had to endure my mother asking me when was I going to marry my boyfriend Adrian, and Abuela and Tía Marta commenting on my weight, and the one time I showed up without straightening my curly hair they never let me hear the end of it. Pelo malo, they called it. Bad hair. They never said it in front of Imani though. They knew better.


Imani got four baby showers. Four. One from her yoga friends. One from her job. One from her dad's family, where they acted like Imani was the first woman in the world to ever have a baby. And my family's, where Imani was just glowing in a green dress, loving all the attention. That's the thing about her: even though she acted like she didn't give a shit what you thought, everyone loved her anyway. Maybe because of it.

She loved to travel. She'd always bring back plants, and I don't know how the hell she got away with it. Oh, she got caught a few times, but just as often she'd show me some crazy African climber plant that took over her whole living room, or something that looked like it would eat you alive if it just grew big enough. Every room in her house had some green growing thing, and you never asked her about them unless you wanted to hear the story about the one she'd rescued from work and that one that came from Brazil and the other one that she was afraid would never bloom and then one day it did and on and on. We all grew up with the stories of our great-grandmother who used to be some kind of curandera back in Jalisco. If you got a headache, Imani would get some kind of stinking oil and rub it all over your head, or make you a cup of tea that would rot your breath. I'd rather have a headache, so I'd smile and tell her I didn't drink tea.


I house-sat for her a lot, and I tried to see how she made her house so warm and inviting so I could copy it for my own tiny apartment. Her place was full of masks and plants and I swear she had like five stuffed pillows for every chair. I'd lie in one of her big puffy chairs, drowning in the pillows, and imagine what it would be like to be this solid, this rooted somewhere. 

Most of her plants were beautiful — she had a whole shelf of orchids — but there was one that creeped me out. It was a mess of shiny, waxy roots that I swear made me think of a baby's hand reaching from the grave. A shrunken purple baby's hand. It was the only plant she kept by itself, and I couldn't stand sitting next to it when I drank my coffee. Finally I put a big philodendron in front of it. When I came home at the end of the day the philodendron leaves were curled up, like they'd gone without water for weeks. I moved it back but it never recovered.

I loved playing with her boys. They were twins, but like twins everywhere it was like they were seeing just how different they could be. Justus was thoughtful, which was a weird thing to say about a toddler. He was quiet, happy to give the limelight over to his brother. As he grew older, he never spoke much, but when he did, it was like he'd been turning his words in his mind over and over before saying them. He reminded me of his grandma Sandra. David was much more like Imani. He was a happy, cheerful kid, charming as hell, constantly getting in one scrape or another and getting out of it on the sheer strength of his charm or his brains, or his brother Justus. You'd turn around and David would have taken apart some gadget of his mom's, grinning at you and holding up some little piece, and Justus would be patiently putting the whole thing back together.


When they were three, I got a call one day from the boys' preschool. Imani was in court and her mother was stuck home with a migraine, so the school called to ask if I could please pick up my nephews (I didn't correct them.) It was a pretty place: lots of beautiful wooden toys and blocks and climbing spaces everywhere, and cozy areas to read stories and outside an enormous sand table and a playground with lots of kids shrieking their little heads off. But the children were white, nearly every one of them, with a few Asian children, and three teachers, all earnest-looking white ladies in their 20s. And two black boys sitting at a table, guarded by a young white woman who looked both relieved and nervous when she saw me.

"Thank you for coming. I'm afraid Justus threw a chair. David is refusing to leave his brother, and saying he's bad and we should punish him too."

"I'm sorry — did you say Justus is the one in trouble?"

Apparently David had got in some kind of fight with another little boy, and Justus didn't like that both David and the little boy both got put in time-out, so he threw a chair.

"That's it?"

She looked deeply uncomfortable.

"We find that these boys have so many problems with aggression, and this is just the latest incident."

Was this lady serious? I was so shocked I took them home with barely another word.


I have to admit, I stuck around Imani's house that afternoon after I brought her kids home, just so I could hear her conversation with the teacher, which she put on speakerphone.

"My child threw a chair. Now, believe me, that will be handled here. But you're saying you can't handle that in your school?

"We really need to have a zero-tolerance policy on violence. I thought you would understand.

"And why would I be the one in particular to understand?


"I also need to ask: are you really telling me that you never have little white boys throwing chairs in your room?"

The woman's voice got so high that Imani whispered to me: someone must have just kicked her in the balls.

"I really don't see a need to bring race into this. I see children; I don't see color."

"Of course you don't."

Imani put the boys in another school.


I didn't end up seeing the boys that much for a while. Adrian and I got married a month before my 30th birthday —  "thank God," my mother actually said in front of me — but we were in trouble by our first anniversary. I had three miscarriages in two years; two were early, before I even told anybody, but the last was at thirteen weeks. I didn't like what I was learning about my husband, who responded to my grief by telling me to just not feel it.


The year the boys were five was the year of Octavius Brown. He was a large, sweet, severely autistic child of 17, and he was shot by Oakland police for not obeying their commands. The fact that Octavius wouldn't hurt a fly didn't matter. He was still dead. We were all at my abuela's house for Easter watching Octavius' face on the screen, his mother collapsing in front of the world. She looked exactly like her spine had turned to paper. Our auntie Marta, setting the table, made the mistake of saying that if Octavius had just followed instructions he'd be alive.

"So the penalty for not complying is death, is your argument?" Imani reverted to lawyer-speak when she was angry.

"No, I'm just saying that -- "

"Yes. You're saying that if in ten years, these boys" — she gestured to her sons, and I wished she'd asked them to step out of the room first — "these boys, if they fail to obey an officer's commands, they should get shot?" Imani's voice was quavering in a way she only got when she'd shot right past anger entirely. I don't think anyone else but me knew it. Her mother Sandra tried to intervene.

"Mi'ija, this is family time. Not a time to argue with your auntie."

"When she is postulating that the punishment for not obeying commands should be summary execution, for black boys, for my boys — that's a time that demands argument. I'm sorry you don't agree, especially when we're discussing your grandsons. Mamá."

Nobody said much at dinnertime. Imani started spending less and less time with our family. I didn't blame her.


The year the boys turned seven, there was another police shooting. Oh, there had been plenty on the news: Texas, Missouri, New York, Florida, North Carolina. We'd seen plenty of black mothers, and a few brown, shedding their tears on national television. But this one hit closer to home, and it hurt. Raymond King worked in the after-school program at the boys' school. He'd had a hard life, and he'd nearly given up when he heard about a program that trained men of color for support positions in elementary schools. He'd aced the program, earning wonderful recommendations from everyone he worked with, and he was one of the most beloved people at that school.

The news was cruel and incomprehensible and predictable all the same. He'd been pulled over, his three-year-old asleep in the back seat. As soon as he pulled over his car, he'd started filming on his phone. The camera caught the officer leaning into Raymond's window, and asking for his ID, and it caught the moment not two seconds later when the cop fired six rounds into Raymond's chest, spattering his wallet with blood. He looked "furtive," the cop said, like he was reaching for a gun. No charges were filed.

The night they announced this, I went with Imani on the march to the police station. She'd made a sign: Justus and David, their arms around each other, each with his particular smile. David's was wide and goofy and unmistakable, while Justus looked almost secretive, almost shy. Dark red ink scrawled a single phrase above their little faces: "ARE THEY NEXT?"


That was the year I finally managed to divorce Adrian, and already my mother was asking me when I was going to get married again. I was the only woman in the family without children, and it's like my mother took it as a personal failure. Imani always went to her father's family for Thanksgiving, and that year I actually said yes when she invited me. I was the only cousin she ever invited to those things. I told my mother I had to work, and she must have known it was a lie but she didn't ask. After dinner, while the women washed the dishes, I finally got up the nerve to ask Imani who that young man was in the picture, the one lit up with a glowing frame in the prime spot on their grandma's sideboard. He was no more than 20 or 22, and his enormous smile reminded me of my little cousin David.

"That's my half-brother, from my dad and his second wife." And she turned back to the dishes as if there was nothing else to say. From outside came the sounds of Imani's boys: David, playing tag with his cousins, and Justus, patiently explaining to one of his "auntie-cousins," as he called them, about the life cycle of the butterfly.

"Have I ever met him?"


"Where is he now?" I knew I shouldn't ask, but the terrible words were already coiled in my throat.

"He was shot. He had on the wrong color shoes."

And now I knew why, with the exception of course of Warriors gear, Imani never let her boys wear red or blue.

"What was his name?"


The year the boys turned eight, Imani got pulled over one night with her boys in the car. I had to hear about it the way everyone else did, from the grainy video she posted on Twitter. She must have fumbled with the phone, because the video didn't show anything but the passenger window and a chain-link fence. It caught the cop's tone, hesitant, rough, like she was dangerous. It caught his shouting voice to "stay in your seat, stay the fuck in your seat," but it didn't catch what Imani filled in later: that the one getting out of his seat was David, wanting to defend his mommy. It caught her voice, high and thin and close to breaking, screaming again and again: "Please don't hurt my boys. Please don't hurt my boys."


I dropped by unannounced the day after I saw that, after she didn't answer any of my texts. I'd met someone new and I'd missed lots of events that year, including the boys' eighth birthday party, and I thought she might still be mad at me. I came to her house straight from work, exhausted from a double shift, the street quiet and chilly at just before eight in the morning. 

When she answered the door, she barely acknowledged me and instead just started talking, as if we'd been in the middle of a conversation that had been interrupted. She stood on the stoop, and I shivered, waiting for her to invite me in.

"There's no place, is there?"

"No place for ... for what?"

She lifted her chin to the boys, and I actually started: they were watching TV, some kind of terrible kids' show with bad animation. TV in Imani's house was a rare treat, and it was always pre-screened, because she hated her kids to watch the commercials. They'll get plenty of opportunities to hate themselves, she always said. I'm not paying for them to get any more.

"Do you know how hard I work to keep them believing that they are beautiful, special? That they need to contribute to society because they're part of it? And then all these reminders that they're not really part of it at all." 

This was not the Imani I knew. It was as if the ghost of herself she'd been at 19 had been waiting all this time, waiting for a quiet moment to slip back into her skin.

A sound of something shattering broke our silence. That creepy plant, still sitting by itself in a little table by the window, lay in a pile of twisted roots and cracked pottery on the floor. The boys had begged their mother for a dog, and that year she'd finally given in and got a yippy little white terrier she'd named Clarence Thomas. The dog  was growling at the plant, so hard I expected millipedes or tarantulas to be slithering from its roots. He started chewing at them, and before Imani swatted him away he'd bit off half a root and dashed into the backyard, where he hid under the porch, chewing away furiously.

Clarence Thomas actually provided Imani with just what she needed: a crisis to focus on. She swept up the broken ceramics and repotted the plant, which I would have been happy to see get tossed into her compost bin. It was sure to die after that trauma, she told me, but still she gently coaxed its roots back into the rich soil and nested it where it could soak up the morning sun.

It didn't die, though, and Imani went back to work and the boys back to school. The year they turned ten, they grew to be almost as big as Imani herself. And it happened again.

They went to a play date for one of Justus' little friends from karate; he lived in Glenview. The boys had decided to walk to the corner store and on their way back they passed by a house that their little friend swore was haunted. He dared them to go up to the porch and knock on the door. He didn't know. How would he?

Imani didn't know anything was wrong until she saw the cop car slide past the window, where she was drinking tea. A neighbor had called; she'd seen "two big teenaged boys" peering into windows and trying the door. (Apparently the third boy, with his ginger hair and pale skin, was invisible to her.) The cops kept the boys in the back of their car while they waited for a social worker to come and decide if Imani had endangered her boys by letting them walk three blocks to the store.

She wrote all of this in a piece published online, and I was struck by how good Imani was at everything, writing included. "I watched them. Bulletproof glass between me and what I love most in the world. Their bodies were someone else's to control, and maybe, in a few years, to destroy."

You know the saying, "don't read the comments?" Well, that's true for the way my family talked too. Sandra threw a retirement party for herself, maybe a month after the incident with the paranoid neighbor, and Imani was absent. You'd have thought she wrote an essay about slapping her mother and posted that online, the way my tíos were talking about her. She'd overreacted, my Tía Marta said, as usual. Trying to make everything about race. My Tío Jesús was 86, and everyone acted like age made him wise, instead of senile. He just said: that's always been their problem, those people. If they stopped blaming everyone else for their own failures, they'd be further ahead by now. He said this from his chair in the corner, where everyone had been catering to him all night even though it wasn't even his party. It might have made sense for his age, but he was the only boy in the family and they'd been doing this all his life. And Sandra, the one who'd fallen in love with a black man, who had a half-black daughter and two black grandsons, sat there saying nothing. Of all of them, I was angriest at her.


Imani always made a big production over the boy's birthdays, but their eleventh came and went with nothing at all. I was busy enough myself; that was the year I moved to Antioch with my boyfriend and was trying to start a family even though I was almost 40 and I was pretty sure it was too late. When I try to remember that time I can't even remember when I saw her or the boys. I know I saw them for Thanksgiving weekend, because I agreed to watch Clarence Thomas even though I've never really liked dogs. I went by the house to pick him up, and the boys were sitting at the dining table, heads bent over their comic books.

Justus was painstakingly filling in the color on a comic book figure surrounded by medical equipment and snaking, creeping purple roots. 

"Ooh, what's in that beaker?"

"That's an Erlenmeyer flask, Auntie-Cousin Maricela."
"Okay, what's in that Erlenmeyer flask?"
"It's the secret to eternal life. And that's Dr. Severely who's inventing it."

Dr. Severely, clad in a billowing medical coat and enormous glasses, looked like a taller, more sinister version of Imani.

"That's Luke Cage," David told me before I could even ask him about the comic he was reading. "He's black and he's indestructible. Mama told me it would help me understand.

"Understand what?

But Imani pulled me into the kitchen just then, and I caught her casting a glance at David and shaking her head, almost imperceptibly, in his direction.

 While she was gathering the dog bed and the flea collar for Clarence Thomas, I noticed something. Actually, two things, almost at once. The first was that Justus was wearing a Warriors t-shirt I'd given him for his 10th birthday. The very same shirt: I recognized the tiny triangle-shaped stain near the collar that had given the shirt a discount when I'd bought it. The bright colors were faded, but it fit him just fine, more than a year and a half after he'd got it. In fact, both of the boys looked the same size as when I'd seen them last, but how could I be sure, when I didn't know when I'd seen them last? I stared at them both while they popped edamame pods and nibbled string cheese.

 On the kitchen doorframe were two rows of pencil lines marking the boys' heights, every six months, from the time they first stood up at all. The dates climbed higher and higher, every six months, until they stopped altogether. The last date was the boys' 10th birthday. As Justus brought the bowl of empty edamame pods into the kitchen, he passed right by the forest of pencil lines, and his head was no taller than the last mark. The one that was already a year and a half old. 

I looked up "failure to thrive" the next time I was back at work. None of the possibilities fit: "overconsumption of high-caloric, low-nutrient foods," "insufficient offering of nutritious foods," or, my favorite, "caregiver neglect." This when Imani called the boys' pediatrician by her first name.  There were rare diseases, but none of them set in suddenly when a boy turned ten years old. I thought of those lines, climbing up and up until they stopped altogether. The same year the boys had spent three hours in a cop car while Imani watched.

After that, I tried again and again to find reasons to see them. The family skipped Christmas, heading off to some cabin in the woods her boss let them use. She wouldn't respond to my texts. But I finally had an excuse: I'd made it past fourteen weeks of pregnancy, farther than I ever had before, and I hadn't even told my mother yet. Imani was the one I wanted to tell. I showed up at her house on a Saturday morning in January. There was a For Sale sign on the lawn. Imani looked awful. Big circles under her eyes, her clothes loose and baggy. Her locks were frizzy and her beautiful nails were bitten all the way down. She stood in the doorway a long time before letting me in, her body sagging like she'd wanted to keep me out and just given up.

"I didn't know you guys were moving. I thought you loved this house."

 "Do you want anything to drink, Mari?"

 The boys bounded into the kitchen, wrapping themselves around their mother and reminding her she'd promised to take them on a quick hike if they labeled all their boxes, and could Auntie-Cousin Maricela come too, please? She nodded, slowly, eyes locked on mine.

The day was overcast and chilly, and I felt slowed down by the weight of so many questions I had as I watched the boys scampering along, still no bigger than they'd been on their tenth birthday, almost nineteen months before.

 We were walking on a series of switchbacks, and Imani kept warning the boys away from trying to climb a redwood tree whose branches were dangling close to us on the trail. It was tempting, but it was also about thirty feet down to the ground. The boys were lagging behind us, amusing Clarence Thomas with a filthy, stinking tennis ball that he loved to chew.

 Imani stared at the little dog for a long time, saying nothing. I swear she could tell I was gearing up to ask her something, and just then she spoke.

"Do you remember that time he knocked over my plant and was eating the roots?"
She didn't wait for an answer, just kept on talking.

"Well, right after you left that day, he got hit by a car. He slipped right past me to chase some kid on a skateboard. I was really glad then that the boys didn't see it, but now ... “ 

I waited. There was something about her voice that made me wonder if she was answering my question anyway.

"It was an SUV. A big one, and turns out it was completely full -- they were helping somebody move. I saw it. I can't unsee it. So many things I can't unsee."

Clarence Thomas dashed ahead of us on the trail to chase a squirrel, legs working just fine, no hint of a limp.

"The tires went right over him, Mari.

I stopped. The boys' voices behind us had quieted, and we heard nothing but rustling leaves and the wind in the trees. Imani's voice was very low and very gentle, like it was about to break.

"The tires went right over him. Twice. I saw it. The driver couldn't understand it. But the dog was fine. Not a bruise, not a scratch. He just looked scared and confused. I took him to the vet and they didn't find anything. No internal bleeding, nothing. I remember coming back and staring and staring and staring at that plant. I actually leaned right over it and said, 'I know your secret.'"

"Imani, I don't think --"

That's when we both heard the boys' screams. I swear Imani was off running even before their bodies began tumbling to the ground. I saw the ferns shudder as she passed, the redwood branches snapped and dangling where she’d pulled them aside.  I made myself hike carefully down, both my hands free to catch myself if I tripped, slow on the switchbacks. My hand clutched my own belly. Over and over again in my mind I saw them falling, their feet still and pointed to the ground, their arms spread wide like an angel’s.

When I caught up to Imani she was sprawled on the ground, both boys’ bodies in her lap. She looked like a painting I'd studied in high school, whose name I couldn't remember. I called her name and all three heads snapped over to me, andthen my feet wouldn’t bring me any closer.

All over, right below the branch where they fell, the ground was covered with rocks and roots the size of Amazonian snakes, and a pair of stumps right below the branch, like a pair of open jaws. 

The boys were wailing, and she was rocking them both, though she should have left them still on the ground, in case they’d injured their necks. Imani knew that, but who can leave their children crying on the ground and not hold them? The rocks and ground underneath their bodies were clean, no blood, and their arms and legs were curled up around their mother, their arms and legs in shorts and not a scratch, no skin welling up red to form a bruise under their close-cut hair. Not a single swollen patch. The boys looked like they’d just stumbled while picking flowers. She was so calm. She was stroking their hair, singing a lullaby I knew myself:


One of these mornings

You’re going to rise up singing

Spread your wings

And fly straight to the sky

But til that mornin’

Aint’ nothing gon’ harm you

So hush little baby

Don’t you cry ...


The Pietá, that was its name, except it wasn't a painting at all but a statue. Mary holding Jesus' dead body in her arms.


Two other hikers had gathered around them, one with a phone in her hand, walking up and down the trail looking for service. Behind Imani, the hiker's voice cut in through the lullaby: “Hello, I need an ambulance at Joaquin Miller park, Redwood trail, about a half mile -- ” and then Imani’s calm demeanor snapped: “No, please, I’ll take them.” I could hear her trying to keep down the panic in her voice.

“Ma'am, these boys need to get to a doctor. They could have internal bleeding, they could have a concussion. I know you’re freaked out, you’re not thinking straight.”

“I said I'm taking them.“

You could tell the woman wanted to argue further, but what could she do -- call the cops instead of an ambulance? We all waited to see if that's what she would do. Instead, she shoved the phone into her pocket as she watched the boys stand up, quiet now, even the dog waiting to see. The dog who should have been dead, if you could believe Imani's story.

The car ride back home was completely silent. What I'd seen was hanging from the windows, it was billowing out into the air, it was streaming from the exhaust pipe. It jogged alongside us at every red light. As we passed right by Highland Hospital, Imani looked at me, and her sons, and kept right on driving. The boys were playing with some puzzle thing, absorbed as anything.


"How about some ice cream when we get home, guys?"

"Rocky Road, Mama?


They should have been entering the age where they couldn't stand their mother, and definitely wouldn't be calling her "Mama." Her face softened when she heard that: blurred, then hardened again, then blurred as she turned off the freeway to home.

"Auntie-cousin Maricela, what kind of ice cream do you like?"

I hated ice cream. But the car was slowing down and pulling toward home, and I was putting together everything I knew from the boxes piled up and those lines that went nowhere and the boys walking away without a scratch from a fall that should have broken them into half a dozen pieces. And Dr. Severely and Luke Cage. And Raymond King and Octavius Brown. And so I smiled and said, "Strawberry and Rocky Road and whatever your mother's having. All in a big bowl."

Justus rushed into the house when we arrived, followed closely by David, running for the bathroom. Imani stood at the front door for a long time, and her body looked like it was fighting to bar me from the door and let me in and collapse on the sofa and sleep for a week. All of them together. My question tumbled out of me before I got inside the door. 

“Imani, are the boys … okay?”

“They’re going to be okay forever. I made sure of that.”

"What did you do?"

"You don't want to know."

And that was that. She held my gaze with hers, those eyes that shimmered with tears and dared me to challenge her, all in the same stare. She headed for the kitchen to serve the ice cream.

"Are they ever going to get older?

"No. They'll never get shot for reaching for their wallet either. Or wearing the wrong color shoes."

"They'll never fall in love. They'll never give you any grandchildren."

"What do I want with grandchildren I can't protect?"

"Who's going to take care of them when you're gone?"

"I'll figure it out.

"How could you do this?

"Think about the child you're growing. Might be the only child you'll ever have. Wouldn't you?"

This part of the conversation didn't even happen at all. Well, it did, but in my head. Like if I just didn't say it out loud it wouldn't be real. The little marks on the wall would climb higher and higher and someday the wall would get new lines and the names of grandbabies that Justus or David would lay in Imani's arms.

I came back the next week and they were gone. Emails bounced back, phone number disconnected, all social media deleted. I didn't know any of her father's family, not really, and anyway what would I say?

She sent her mother a postcard that year at Christmas. No message, no pictures of course: just their names. The boys' signatures look just like a ten-year-old's should. No return address.

I've never seen them since, not anywhere. Never heard from any of them. None of the family has. Sandra's memory has been fading, just a little; whenever she talked about the boys, they were always still ten years old. I like to think this was how her mind protected itself against what it knew -- or maybe she never knew at all. I've wondered so often why I'm the one who knows, why Imani let me come with them  that day, why she let me see anything of what she'd done. All I've come up with is this: I was the only one who might understand.

That day we went to Joaquin Miller was the last time I saw any of them. After awkward conversation over ice cream, they all three walked me to the door, polite as always. Imani had a hand around each boy's shoulders, and their heads reached almost to their mother's, the highest they would ever get to be.




© The Acentos Review 2019