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Remembrance by Rita Woods Excerpt: Gaelle

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Remembrance…It’s a rumor, a whisper passed in the fields and veiled behind sheets of laundry. A hidden stop on the underground road to freedom, a safe haven protected by more than secrecy…if you can make it there.

Ohio, present day. An elderly woman who is more than she seems warns against rising racism as a young woman grapples with her life.

Haiti, 1791, on the brink of revolution. When the slave Abigail is forced from her children to take her mistress to safety, she discovers New Orleans has its own powers.

1857 New Orleans—a city of unrest: Following tragedy, house girl Margot is sold just before her 18th birthday and her promised freedom. Desperate, she escapes and chases a whisper…. Remembrance.

Remembrance by Rita Woods will be available on January 21. Please enjoy the following excerpt!

Gaelle

Current Day

“How do I look?”

Gaelle glanced up from the mayi moulen she was spooning into Rose’s mouth. Her grandmother stood fidgeting in the kitchen doorway. Grann always looked beautiful, but this morning she looked especially stunning, the emerald green of her suit shimmering against her dark skin. She pulled at the buttons that ran down the front of the jacket.

“Grann, yo sispann,” cried Gaelle. “You look lovely. You will get the job.”

Her grandmother gave her jacket another tug. “I don’t know. Maybe I am too old, wi?”

Gaelle sucked her teeth. “You? Old? Don’t be silly.” She swatted her sister’s hand. “Rose, stop. You’re making a mess.”

There was the faint rumble of thunder.

Grann looked up and sighed. “I’m going then.”

Another rumble, this one much louder, rattled the tiny house. Gaelle felt it in her teeth. A teacup crashed to the floor. She felt the chair vibrate beneath her. And then a roar cracked the morning into a million pieces, drowning out all other sound. Gaelle leaped to her feet, reaching across the table for her sister.

“Grann?”

But her grandmother was staring up at the pale blue sky where just moments before there’d been ceiling.

“Grann,” she screamed.

They locked eyes, and then her grandmother vanished beneath a mountain of wood and plaster and dust as the world ripped itself apart.

Gaelle jerked awake, gasping for breath, arms flailing, reaching for Grann.

A dream.

The same dream she’d had countless times in the more than ten years since the earthquake had destroyed her family, her island. She lay rigid under the covers, waiting for the shaking to stop, the tears rolling unheeded into her ears.

Taking a quivery breath, she turned her head and glanced at the clock: 5 a.m. The terror, the devastation of Haiti was a long time ago. A lifetime. And she had to get to work.

She moved mechanically around her apartment, turning on the coffee, ironing her scrubs. The apartment was small. The owner called it a carriage house, but it was really little more than a converted garage at the back of a decaying mansion in the middle of a long block of decaying mansions, most of which sat empty, or were occupied by squatters. She grabbed her travel mug and headed for the car, her mind thankfully blank. There was nothing in her past except pain.

It took barely a quarter of an hour to reach the Stillwater Care Facility where she worked, the streets nearly empty in the winter predawn. Stepping from her car, she stood for a moment, breathing deeply. She imagined the cold air traveling down to her lungs, layering her insides with a glaze of ice crystals, shimmering in the darkness, purifying her.

Everyone thought she was crazy. Her sister thought she was crazy; Rose said she would never live in a cold place again. But the dead of winter was Gaelle’s favorite time of year. The world seemed to slow down, to grow quieter, coating everything in a layer of snow and ice, so that even the ugliest parts of Cleveland acquired a certain beauty. She held her face to the sky and felt the snowflakes melt on her lips. Smiling, she walked into work.

“You lose somethin’ in there?”

Gaelle started. She turned to find Toya peeling off her thick bubble coat and stuffing it into her locker. Toya Fairfield was another nurse’s aide who worked the same shift. She’d been at Stillwater even longer than Gaelle. They’d become good friends.

“You standin’ there starin’ in that locker like you expectin’ a genie to come poppin’ out.”

“No.” she smiled. “No genie.”

“Well, if one does, then I got dibs on at least one wish. You feel me?”

“And what would you do with your one wish?”

“Girl, I’d wish for three more wishes, that’s what.”

Gaelle laughed lightly. It was what Toya always wished for.

“And what about you, Miss Thang? What would you wish for?”

She shrugged and closed her locker. She would wish for Grann. She would wish for her and Rose to be together again. She would wish for Haiti to be made whole. But wishes were for children. They held no real power.

“A million dollars,” she said. “I would wish for a million dollars.”

“I heard that. Holy Christ! It’s cold as a polar bear’s butt out there,” cried Toya, kicking off her boots. “I’m freakin’ freezing. Quick. Do that thing you do.”

She thrust her hands into Gaelle’s.

Gaelle gripped her fingers and squeezed. She closed her eyes and felt a prickle of heat start in her elbows and flow down her arms into her hands, felt the hard coldness of her friend’s hands lessen, then disappear. She opened her eyes as Toya sighed contentedly.

“Damn, girl! You’re just a little walking furnace.” She slipped her badge over her head. “Should probably get your thyroid checked out or something, but appreciate if you’d wait until this weather’s over. You better than a space heater.”

Gaelle held up her hands. “No thyroid, just my superpower.”

“Well, it ain’t a bad superpower to have in the middle of December, that’s for darn sure.” Toya opened the lounge door into the hallway. “By the way, you get the old lady again today.”

“I do not mind.”

“Yeah, I know you don’t. You and her got some weird kinda thing going on.”

Gaelle grinned and stepped into the still-quiet nursing home hall.

* * *

From where she stood in the doorway, the old woman was barely visible, the barest suggestion of a person-shaped lump tangled in the blankets on the bed in the darkened room. The television was on and shadows flickered across the ceiling and walls.

Twice, the director of nursing had tried to switch from the twenty-four-hour news station to something she deemed more suitable, something more cheerful for a geriatric nursing home resident: Dancing with the Stars, or one of those Real Housewives shows, but both times, the old woman had bolted upright in her chair as if suddenly electrified, eyes blazing in her cadaverous face, shrieking and cursing until the windows rattled and the terrified assistant had gone running from the room. After the second time, the DON decided to leave her alone. Now, solemn voices intoned from the television speakers all through the day and all through the night about earthquakes and fires and drought, about the opioid crisis and far-flung wars.

From the corner of her eye, Gaelle saw Toya coming down the hall toward her, pushing the med cart ahead of her.

“Seriously, Guy, what is with you and that old lady?” she asked, stopping beside her.

“I do not know. I just feel . . .” She shrugged and pointed to her heart. “I feel a connection.”

She turned and looked at her friend. “Do you not ever look at her and think: There is something . . . ?”

“Yeah,” responded the other aide. She tugged at her straining scrub top. “There’s somethin’ alright. Somethin’ freaky. All this time and still don’t nobody know nothin’ about her. Where she came from. Who she is. Nothin’. She just sits in that chair not sayin’ a word, news playin’ twenty-four/seven. She gives me the heebie-jeebies for real, girl. Like she came back from the dead or somethin’.”

“Not well is not dead,” said Gaelle, something she’d heard her grandmother say.

“What? What does that even mean?” Toya rolled her eyes. “Girl, you as peculiar as she is. Why’n’t you go on now and hang out with your weird, not-dead friend. I got meds to pass.”

Gaelle chuckled and turned back to the darkened room as the aide rolled her cart down the brightly lit hallway. Toya wasn’t the only one who thought her attachment to the old woman was odd. Everybody did. The rest of the aides did the bare minimum required: changed her sheets, gave her the pill at night to help her sleep, cut the food on her tray into the tiny pieces she barely touched. Gaelle was the only one who lingered. She massaged the old gnarled hands, rubbed oil into her cracked feet. Even she didn’t understand it, her affinity for this mysterious elder, but she understood that some questions had no answers. Their spirits were linked in some way, and so she accepted that as the beginning of it, and the end.

Plus, it gave her an odd measure of comfort to offer the old woman this bit of extra care. She was most likely someone’s grandmother, someone’s great-grandmother, yes? Maybe out there, somewhere, there were people who loved her, missed her.

She stepped into the room.

Bonjou, Manman.”

She often spoke to the old woman in her native Creole. Except when Rose was home from school, she almost never spoke it any other time. It felt too personal, a thing she wanted to keep just for herself. But here, in this room, there were no odd looks, no personal questions she didn’t want to answer.

She glanced at the television. Onscreen, something was burning. People were marching in the streets. People that looked like her, like the old woman, in every shade of brown. Their mouths were open. They were shouting, their eyes wild, and she was thankful the sound was muted. A swastika flashed on the screen. A line of white men marched side by side, their arms locked, except for the one on the end who waved a Confederate flag high overhead. Something curdled in the pit of her stomach—so much evil in the world. She turned away, blocking the images with her body.

“Come now, Manman. That is not something to watch on an empty stomach, wi?” She pulled a chair close to the bed and began spooning applesauce into the woman’s mouth, softly humming a lullaby. When she couldn’t cajole the woman to take another bite, she pushed the tray aside and pulled a fresh nightgown from the drawer and gently eased her into it. She took her time. It was like dressing a kitten: tiny bones under soft, loose skin. There were rumors that the woman was well over a hundred, and that wasn’t hard to believe. She looked every bit of it. She had simply appeared one day in their lobby two years before, bald, skinny, her clothes in rags, pale healed burn scars crisscrossing her arms.

Gaelle glanced at the clock above the door. As much as Toya fussed at her about all the time she spent in here, Gaelle knew her friend would cover for her until she was through. Carefully, she rolled the nearly weightless old woman from the bed into the chair.

“What will you do today then, Manman?” she asked.

She didn’t expect an answer and she didn’t get one, but deep down she was sure the woman could hear her.

“Perhaps you go to the activity room later, wi? It is movie day. You get out. You meet your neighbors. Watch something nice. Not these bagay led?” She jerked her head toward the screen.

The old woman’s eyes never left the television.

Sighing, Gaelle shook her head and began stripping the bed. Fresh linen sat neatly folded on the bedside table. As she yanked back the blanket, something clattered to the floor and she bent to retrieve it.

“Ki sa nan syel la?”

What in the heavens? It was the remote. Or what was left of it. The entire controller was flattened, misshapen, the buttons fused into a single white mess in the center, as if the whole thing had somehow been melted, then put back together badly. She stared at, turning it over and over in her hands.

“What happened here?” She looked up and inhaled sharply. The old woman was staring at her, her red-rimmed eyes glittering under the fluorescent lights.

The hair on Gaelle’s neck stood on end. She felt a surge of fear, an inexplicable sense that this frail, ancient woman was dangerous. They stared at each other for a long moment and she felt her heart pounding in her ears.

“Well,” she said, finally. She bit her bottom lip. “You know you’re going to have to pay for this now, wi?”

She gave a shaky laugh and dropped the remote into the pocket of her scrubs. The director of nursing was not going to be happy. She reached to straighten the old woman’s collar.

“Okay, Manman . . .”

She never saw the old woman move. The clawlike hand clamped around her wrist and Gaelle was yanked forward and off her feet before she even realized what was happening, only barely managing to not fall directly on top of the woman. She blinked, stunned. Their faces were mere inches from each other’s, and this close, the sense of danger seemed even greater. She felt a roiling in her gut, as if she might throw up.

“Manman, bondye,” she hissed and leaped to her feet. She tried to pull free, but the woman’s hand held her like a vice clamp, belying both her size and her age.

The old woman held fast, her eyes locked onto hers. Gaelle felt a sudden pain in her head and once again she fought the urge to vomit.

“Kite’m ale!”

Something changed in the room. The air suddenly smelled of rain, of freshly mowed grass. As if someone had left a window open somewhere. Except that it was winter and a hard crust of ice covered any grass for miles. The pain in her head grew worse.

“Let go, Manman; I do not want to hurt you.” The bones in her wrist felt like they might break.

She felt something shift deep inside her and cried out in pain, instinctively grabbing the woman’s hand with her free hand. There was a sharp, whitehot pulse in her shoulder, then heat, but not the gentle prickle she’d felt earlier in the lounge with Toya. This was a blowtorch firing up, igniting her arm, her hand. The old woman’s eyes widened, first in surprise and then in pain.

And then Gaelle was free.

Gripping her wrist, she staggered backward until she touched the wall behind her. She stared down at her hand. It looked unchanged, yet she still felt the hard thrum of heat echoing in her fingertips. She locked eyes with the old woman. Next to her, police cars rolled across the television screen, sirens blaring.

“What are you?” she whispered.

The old woman opened her mouth in a silent, toothless laugh, and then the world went black.

Copyright © 2020 by Rita Woods

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