Authors: Caryl Phillips
Tags: #Fiction, #General
His wife lays him out in their bedroom and she does her best to keep the fire roaring. She understands how important it is that Mr. Williams achieve some peace and quiet, so she will allow no visitors apart from the small bird that sits patiently on a branch outside his window and sings all day long with a strange quiver to its voice. Her husband does not appear to mind, but he has no strength to say much about anything these days. He is far too weak to read the newspaper or to take an interest in the world about him, but behind his closed eyes, and in his tired mind, he clearly sees the black sail slowly approaching across the bright water. Sunrise brings no respite, and each day the doctor visits twice, once in the morning and again in the evening, and Mother leaves this man alone in the bedroom with Mr. Williams. When the doctor emerges the man’s deportment seldom changes for, while he has no desire to alarm Mrs. Williams, he also has no intention of misleading her. The doctor always gathers his belongings and bids her farewell having said as little as possible to Mrs. Williams beyond confirming that the pneumonia still has her husband in its grip.
My husband asks without having to spend any words. With his eyes only he makes it clear to me what he desires and I cannot refuse him. First, I approach and help him to sit upright in the bed. The doctor insists that the fresh white sheets be changed every other day, but each evening, before he sleeps, I change the sheets and then I help him into a clean set of pajamas. I look forward to this intimate part of our day when I am able to do for him what nobody else can. I often find I have to deftly shave the portions of his face where I have forgotten to apply the blade, or take a damp handkerchief and clean the sleep from his eyes or the cold from his classic nose. On this bright March morning, as impatient spring tries once more to move with a quick, short stride and leave winter behind, I help my husband to sit upright for without resorting to any words he has made it clear what he desires. When I am sure that his back is properly supported with pillows, only then do I open the bottom drawer of the bureau. I offer him the mirror, which he holds by the handle, and I watch as he is shaken into panic by the puzzled face in the glass. He eventually absorbs the initial distress of recognition, and I stand patiently to one side, but I know that once the mirror is in his hands my husband is no longer with me. I know that my husband will spend the whole day staring into the mirror, at first tormenting himself, and then comforting his spirit with happier memories, but his well-disciplined countenance will betray little of this inner drama. I watch him carefully and listen closely for in the distance I can hear mortality, like dull thunder, continuing to rumble its merciless way toward him and I take this quaking as a signal that I should withdraw for my husband’s daily performances with the handheld mirror require no audience.
My sleeping wife lies next to me. When she opens her eyes she will discover that I have already left and entered the darkness
where I search now for my father. As I look all around I realize that I can see nothing. In fact, I can no longer even see myself, but I truly lost sight of myself many years ago when my tightly shod young feet touched the shore of the powerful country to the north. I followed my father, for he said that it would be all right, and I continued to follow him, but I lost him on that New York night when, freshly arrived from the west coast, he sat upstairs in nigger heaven and looked down on me. Father! I shout now in the darkness, but I hear only the echo of my own voice. Father! The truth is, once he left nigger heaven he never seemed to find a way back to me, or to himself. Father, are you there? Father? And now I am alone in the darkness and beyond my wife, who sleeps peacefully, unaware of the fact that she has been abandoned. Father, do you
understand what they want from us in this American world? Do you? We are being held hostage as performers, and those who imagine that they are engaged in something other than entertainment should ask my wife to pass them the handheld mirror. But I must not complain for my time has been spent, and I have no more time, and I wander in this darkness that makes human beings of us all.
(Father! Where are you?)
Here in the darkness, beyond my wife, my journey is over and I shall perform no more. I will no longer be tormented with the anxiety of being the sole representative in the room. Never again will I be the only one onstage, wondering what they see when they look at me. I will never again be frightened to look too closely at myself. Blackbird. It is unfair to ask a man to travel his one precious life bearing this burden, and I am tired, so please leave me alone in the darkness and let me search for my father, who is also lost. Others will come after me to entertain you, and they will happily change their name and put on whatever clownish costume you wish them to wear, and dance, and sing, and perform in a manner that will amuse you, and you
mimic them, and you
money, but know that at the darkest point of the night, when no eyes are upon them, these people’s souls will be heavy, and eventually some among them will say no, and you will see their sadness, and then you will turn from them and choose somebody else to place in the empty room, or nudge onto your empty stage, but it will not be me for I am tired, so please excuse me and let me wander here in the darkness and search for my father, who is also lost. That is all I ask, that you please just let me be.
cores of umbrellas raise their heads to greet the torrential rain. On this icy day the cold wind funnels down broad Harlem avenues, but this has not deterred fifteen thousand mourners from standing in silent tribute outside of St. Philip’s Church to acknowledge a forty-seven-year-old man who was, in his day, the most famous colored man in America. Mrs. Lottie Williams follows the bearers out of the church, and the crowd can now see that she has chosen to wear a somber hat and veil to match her elegant black gown. In her heart Lottie wishes that on this day she were able to stand before her husband bareheaded. She wishes to give everything, the whole truth, to her husband, but decorum demands otherwise. Lottie looks on as the men carefully transfer the metallic casket, which is covered with white roses, and orchids, and lilies, into the waiting hearse, and as they do so she remembers the tall, elegant young man that she met in a photographer’s studio who seemed to possess grace and breeding that came from another world. As she shields her eyes from the driv
ing rain, it comforts her to think that even as she looks on, her dear Bert is probably making his slow way back to the peace of his lost world.
He has heard that anything is possible in the big country to the north. His father has told him this, and he understands that this is the reason why they are leaving their beaches, and abandoning their island. His father is giving them both a chance to improve themselves in the land of opportunity to the north, but freedom comes with a price. He knows this now, but back then, as they stood together after a sudden downpour and watched ribbons of water fall from the palm fronds and groove trenches into their earth, he omitted to mention this fact. Back then, father and son stood together on the beach and waited patiently to welcome back the running tide, their dreams working in tandem, but now the son has paid the price and his journey is concluded. Somewhere in the darkness he will discover his father, and then he will discover George, who will once more be by his side, and together the two men will look back as far as the Barbary Coast and the corner of Market Street where two real coons determined that they would do something more than buck-dance and grin for America, and then, when George needs to rest, Bert alone can look back to the Bahamas of his birth, where a tall gangly eleven-year-old boy let the sand ease its way between his toes as he stood idly on a beach and wondered what would become of him in the country to the north that his beloved father seemed so determined to embrace.