The house looked living. Mama squeezed my hand as the three of us gazed up at it, our bleary exhaustion no match for the animated brightness before us.
“Papa Myron selected and placed each stone of the house’s foundation himself,” she whispered to me and Mya. “With the patience and diligence of a man deep in love.”
The low house was a cat napping in the shade of plum trees, not at all like the three-story Victorian fortress we had just left. This house seemed somehow large and small at once—it sat on many different split levels that spanned out in all directions in a wild, Southern maze. A long driveway traversed the length of the yard, cut in half by a folding wooden barn gate. But what made the house breathe, what gave the house its lungs, was its front porch. Wide stone steps led to a front porch covered in heavy green ivy and honeysuckle and morning glory. Above the porch, my grandfather had erected a wooden pergola. Sunlight streaked through green vines and wooden planks that turned the porch into an unkempt greenhouse. The honeysuckle drew hummingbirds the size of baseballs; they fluttered atop the canopy in shades of indigo and emerald and burgundy. I could see cats on the porch—a dozen of them, maybe, an impossible number except for what a quick count told me. Some slept in heaps that looked softer than down, while others sat atop the green canopy, paws swiping at the birds. Bees as big as hands buzzed about, pollinating the morning glories, giving the yard a feeling that the green expanse itself was alive and humming and moving. The butterflies are what solidified my fascination. Small and periwinkle-blue, they danced within the canopy. The butterflies were African violets come alive. It was the finishing touch to a Southern symphony all conducted on a quarter-acre plot.
“Not now, Joan,” Mama said, sighing.
I had out my pocket sketchbook, was already fumbling for the piece of charcoal somewhere in the many pockets of my Levi overalls. My larger sketchbook, my blank canvases the size of teacups, my brushes and inks and oils were all packed tight in the car. But my smaller sketchbook, I kept on me. At all times. Everywhere I went.
I wanted to capture the life of the front porch, imprint it in my notebook and in my memory. A quick landscape. Should’ve only taken a few minutes, but Mama was right. We were all dog tired. Even Wolf, who had slept most of the journey. Mya’s face was drained of its usual spark, and as I slipped my sketchbook into my back jeans pocket, slightly defeated, her hand felt hot and limp as I took it in my own.
Mya, Mama, and I walked up the wide stone front steps hand in hand. My memories of staying here felt vague and far away—I’d been only three years old, and it felt like a lifetime ago—but now I remembered sitting on the porch and pouring milk for the cats. I remembered Mama cautioning me not to spill, though I usually did anyway. Her laughter, too—the sound of it like the seashell chimes coming from inside the house while I played with the cats echoed in my mind from years ago. And the door, I remembered that. It was a massive beast. A gilded lion’s head with a gold hoop in its snout was mounted on a wood door painted corn yellow. I had to paint a picture of this door, even if I had to spend months, years, finding the perfect hues. It was as magnificent as it was terrifying. By knocking, by opening the door, I knew we’d be letting out a whole host of ghosts.
Mama raised her arm, grabbed the lion’s hoop, and knocked three times.
A calico kitten wove in and out of Mya’s legs in a zigzag, mewing softly.
Mya let go of my hand in order to stroke the kitten’s mane, coo to her gently.
We’d left Wolf in the car. Mama explained she’d have to be let in through the backyard, so she wouldn’t be tempted to attack all the roaming wildlife in the front. She was in the passenger seat with the window down. She wouldn’t jump out; she was too big for that. More mammoth than dog. And even though she was friendlier than a church mouse to all dogs, she mistrusted all humans not family. The curl of her lip and the baring of teeth were enough to send most grown men running to the other side of the street. As a baby, Mya called her “Horse” instead of “Wolf.” Wolf would carry her, Mya tugging at her ears like reins, and Wolf never minding. Mya’s chubby toddler legs all akimbo in Wolf’s thick mane. Wolf grew to expect it, these pony rides. She would nudge Mya first with a face-covering, eye-closing lick, followed by a gentle nip on Mya’s button nose that let us know she was ready to be ridden.
Now Wolf stuck her thick head covered in gray fur out the van window and growled, low. She sensed the front door opening before we did. Just as Mama lifted a hand to knock again, the yellow door opened to reveal Auntie August. Her hair was pinned up in big pink rollers, the kind I’d seen in old pinup-girl photos, and she wore a long, cream-colored silk kimono. Embroidered along the front panels were sunset-colored cranes taking off from a green pool. The kimono appeared like it’d been tied in a rush: A beet-purple man’s necktie held the fabric haphazardly together, barely concealing the full breasts and hips aching to break from the folds. My auntie stood blinking at the bright morning light, an expression of resignation and exhaustion on her face that made her look just like Mama.
“What war y’all lost?” Auntie August asked.
My aunt looked like the taller, more regal version of Mama. Auntie August was nearly six feet tall. I had read Anansi stories. I knew that it was the women tall as trees and fiercer than God that ancient villages often sent into battle. If Mama was Helen of Troy, August was Asafo. She seemed to go on forever, seemed to be the height of the door itself. She had hips, the kind Grecian sculptors would spend months chiseling, big and bold and wide. Her skin was noticeably darker, darker than mine even, and I felt a welt of pride. I had always coveted darker-skinned women their color. There was a mystery to their beauty that I found hypnotizing, Siren-like. They were hardly ever in Jet or Ebony or Essence, the magazines we subscribed to, unless they themselves were famous—the mom from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Whoopi Goldberg, Jackie Joyner, Oprah. Most of the Black women the public pronounced beautiful looked like Mama. Black Barbies. Bright. Hair wavier than curly. Petite figures. So, when my Auntie August opened that door, and I saw that her skin was so dark it reflected all the other colors surrounding it—the yellow of the afternoon light, the yellow of the door, the peach tan of the calico cat weaving in and out of Mya’s short legs—I knew that the aunt I could barely remember was, in and of herself, a small, delicious miracle.
“Got any food in the fridge?” Mama asked.
August opened the door wider, taking in the spectacle before her. “Is the pope Catholic?”
I could hear Wolf growl again over the hum and buzz of the bees and the hummingbirds.
“My word,” August said in a whisper then. “Did it get that bad?”
“I’ll take my old room if I can have it,” Mama said.
Auntie August fumbled into the deep silk folds of her kimono, her face momentarily scrunched in mild annoyance. Like she had an itch she couldn’t quite reach. From out of her robe’s pocket came the unmistakable green-and-white packaging of a pack of Kools, and the relief was visible in Auntie August’s face. That pack of smokes. I felt a pang, sharp in my ribs, like one of them was missing. Daddy had smoked Kools. Would religiously pull out the green-and-white carton and smack it against his knee a few times before removing and lighting a cigarette and asking if Mya and I wanted to hear another ghost story.
In a series of deft movements, August removed a cigarette and positioned a lighter in her other hand, ready to strike. She motioned with her cigarette, first at Mya, then at me. “And them girls?” Her glance seemed to rest longer on me than on Mya.
“With me. In the quilting room,” Mama said, with a sharpness to her voice that almost sounded defensive, but with something else there I couldn’t place.
August, with the quickness of a serpent, reached out her hand and grasped Mama’s chin in her palm, turned her face this way and that.
“The foundation don’t match,” she said.
Auntie August lost her swagger then. A flash of rage quickly turned to tears, and her face broke down like Mya’s when she was told not to open her graham crackers directly in the grocery store. August reached for Mama, and all near six feet of August collapsed, leaned like a weary palm tree into her sister’s arms.
“What hell you been through, Meer?” August asked, sobbing into Mama’s hair.
“Mama, who them?”
The voice was male. Not adult, but on the crisp cusp of it, burgeoning with masculinity. It shocked us. We hadn’t heard a male voice in days except for Al Green’s voice over the radio and that white man at the gas station a half day’s drive back. It was like a predator had suddenly announced its presence in our new safe haven.