Fiction – “The Crate” by Daniel José Older
When you first stood up in that board meeting your long black and gray locks dropped like a waterfall all the way down to your ass and your stony serious face looked like it would forever refuse to smile. I liked that about you. Never had time to tell you, but it was that ferocity that got me. You were short and slender, but clearly a mountain. A lone black woman at the head of a table of comely white folks in a giant white marble castle. The only African thing around less than 400 years old, not counting my half-black ass.
You welcomed me and gave me a stunning introduction but you never let on that you were happy I was there. Never creased your mouth, didn’t even show your teeth. As I watched you I put the pieces together. I could sense a glint of excitement in your voice, a tiny, restrained pep in your step. Wasn’t a detective for nothing you know. It wasn’t the board’s idea to bring me in and it wasn’t my connections or my impressive list of scholarly work that sealed the deal. It was you. Working every angle, letting each party believe they were taking the initiative. Threading us all along like a master criminal.
I gave my presentation and wowed the shit out of them even though I was only half there. My mouth was rattling out the same old words I been saying to audiences for the past ten years since I retired from the Department, but my brain was back in investigation mode, working its way along each step of your crafty plan like a pilgrim along the stations of the cross.
At the cheesy reception after the meeting, we both played the part. By that time, I was already your co-conspirator without even so much as a whispered conversation. Perhaps you knew this would happen, but I’d like to imagine you were pleasantly surprised at how smooth I slid into my role. Or did you know I’d been waiting for more than two decades for you to come along and set everything into motion? I sure didn’t. Not till it happened anyway.
I shook hands and grinned. It’s a grin I’ve perfected over the years, makes white people very comfortable- a grin that says, we’re both in on the joke, and it’s okay. When the room cleared and you and I stood there all alone, silence was our friend. It was not the pregnant, obtrusive silence that pesters the vaguely acquainted but mutually attracted- it was the soothing quiet of a warm night shared between two satisfied lovers. I could almost feel the breeze, even through all those layers of marble.
Always the designated trickster, I mocked you lightly about such a bigdeal job-head of a museum and whatnot- and for a second thought I’d touched a nerve. You shot me the killer face- the face that if we’d have ever made it into the bedroom would’ve become a running joke between you and me, right up into our bedpan nursing home years. Then you finally smiled, perhaps for the first time ever, and it almost knocked me over. Knowing you, it was probably on purpose, getting me off guard with those angry eyes and then letting that shine loose on me.
We were both trying to ignore the Eshu. At that point, he was in a crate about three floors beneath us. Imagine putting Eshu in a crate- what a ridiculous and inadequate container for a vibrant child of God. The very idea is absurd. Almost as absurd as putting it on a pedestal for tourists to gawk at. But it is that very lack of irony that has again and again shaken the lofty halls of white culture, so there’s a certain charming inevitability to the whole thing.
Even after folks cleared out, we still made banal small talk as if there were inquiring ears nearby. Felt safer that way. I kept chuckling even though nothing was that funny, and you, surely against your better judgment, channeled the giddy school girl you’d long since left behind. Eshu’s long hands must’ve been reaching all the way up from his crate, past the glassy-eyed sarcophagi and foaming Chinese dragons, and right into our armpits for a long overdue tickle.
We settled into a comfortable rhythm, might as well have been two palm trees rustling back and forth to each other in the night. Both knew we were just passing time to let the building clear out. Laying in wait for a whole other kind of alone. Shifting your weight playfully from one foot to the other, you told me how you used to be a community organizer until the non-profit dependency dance drove you to museums; a similar dance with different steps. Maybe I told some dumb stories from my days walking the beat to get you juiced up, the way I used to with young ladies at parties. You didn’t seem all that impressed though.
When the security guard passed by and waved goodbye amiably (almost like he was in on the whole thing), we knew we were alone. Well, Doctor, you said with a sardonic grin and a slight bow, would you like to see the magnanimous stone that you have come to enlighten us about?
I would enjoy that, yes. Smooth. To my utter shock, you offered me the empty space between your elbow and your body. We walked arm in arm, like husband and bride, through the marble halls and down into the basement.
I almost wished we’da had the opportunity to put the thing on display, complete with big horror movie style subway ads and autographed copies of my glossy book. Imagine the shock. Eshu is, after all, just a big rock. This one was as strong and vibrant as any I’d ever seen- or would be when it finally woke up- but still: tourists prefer a smiley face on their exotic primitive art exhibits.
It was laughing inside us, louder and louder as we got closer to it. It probably didn’t know exactly what was going to happen, but it could smell freedom coming. I took out the rum and said a combination of prayers I’d learned over the course of my study. Prayers that slipped as easily from my lips now as casual conversation. Old old words that I infused with my own hopes and fears and whispered out into that dusty storage room.
First nothing at all happened. Not a damn thing. I don’t even think we were breathing. Then I felt, rather than saw or heard, the Eshu stirring from its three hundred-year slumber. Grudgingly at first, the crate began rocking back and forth. Then I heard it splinter and the wood planks cringed and then shattered. Your fingers wrapped around my arm. I could feel your smile on the back of my head. Could feel the Eshu’s smile rising like a sun, encompassing the whole room. I think that’s when the little piece of it lodged inside of me. The stone shimmied and tumbled forth as we jumped out of its way.
Immediately, the air felt staticy and crisp around us. You could taste the heat of all those electrons rubbing against each other. We ran lovingly after the old god, two little kids chasing an ice cream truck, and found ourselves in the first floor lobby- the one with all the towering dinosaurs, but our Eshu was nowhere to be found.
“He’s been here,” you said softly. “But he’s moved on.” A crash came from the Egypt Room and you grabbed my hand and yanked me along. Now we were thirteen, escaping to the roof of the PJs on Marcy Ave to stare at the sky and make out. The floor of the museum was rumbling and soon the alarms would go.
“Was there any plan for this part?” I asked when we paused to catch our breath at a stairwell.
“No plan,” you panted. “Eshu is the plan.”
We both laughed and hoped we had taken all our vitamins earlier.
We caught up to it bouncing against a wall in the Hall of Modern Art. Everything had been destroyed. Shattered glass oceans sparkled across the floor. “We have to let him out or he’ll tear apart the whole building.” But the police were already nearby; you could hear their furious yells and boot-stomps between Eshu’s thundering wall-smashes.
I wonder sometimes if this part was in your plan too. When the cops rounded the corner, all they found was me. They came on in a rage- that exasperated cop rage I remember so well from my years on the street. I let my body fall loose to the blows and grabs, gave in to the manhandling and tried to keep the smug grin off my face as I imagined you and the Eshu tumbling out the back fire exit. Truth is, I’d never felt so free in all my life.
From the clippings you’ve sent me, I see our little plan was a success. The Eshu is raining a solid supernatural ass whupping on most of our city’s corrupt institutions. And some of the non-corrupt ones too. I thought the take over of the school system was a nice touch- clearly they needed to start from scratch. And yes, you’ve proven your point about that Audre quote you always mention with the master’s tools. I can just see you trying to hold back that smug smile. Imagining you’ve gone underground. I also found the hidden message you put in the crossword puzzle clues and I’m flattered you plan to break me out of here, because after two and a half years, the excitement is definitely wearing off. That little piece of the Eshu stayed with me and every day I feel it growing and laughing inside me. Now I am its crate, a ridiculous, inadequate little container for a vibrant child of God. And this cell- this cell is my crate. It is ridiculous and inadequate too, and I am a vibrant child of God. Please come get me soon.
About the Author
Daniel José Older is an author and SCBWI member who has facilitated workshops on gender violence and racism at Ivy League universities, public schools, religious houses and prisons all over the east coast. His short stories have appeared in the anthology Sunshine/Noir (City Works Press, 2005), The Freezine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Tide Pool and as part of Sheree Renée Thomas’ Black Pot Mojo Reading Series and the New York Review of Science Fiction Reading Series in New York City. He has presented multimedia theater productions about New York history with his Brooklyn-based soul band, GHOST STAR, at venues around the city and regularly collaborate as a writer and composer with a number of nationally recognized choreographers, filmmakers, and puppeteers.