After marrying, everyone thought she’d settle into the regular-ness of life with her blacksmithing husband and household. She did not. In grown womanhood, Lil’ Lizzie still “acted a fool,” performing what the other wives of her community signified as her “peculiars.” Born the colors of raw umber wheat and sage, the kind that grew across the fields that surrounded her home, she willed herself into an eccentric personality of applied gilt decorations in the wearing of pine cones embellished with holly berries for earrings, raw quartz stone and amethyst necklaces and ankle bracelets. It had taken days, but she’d blown small, bitty holes into the stones then slipped them onto thin strips of cow’s leather that a sloppy tannery worker had mislaid.
Had she come of age in the 1980s, she’d have been a “sista” who defined her Afrocentric aspirations with gele headwraps, Kente cloth bags, patchouli oil and custom-tailored coats made from mud-cloth. Instead, she was the first child on the plantation born of the haziness of Emancipation to Dill and Pine-Grover, so they named her Pine-Grover Elizabeth, the first daughter in the Lizzie line. Where others wore bitterness or promise on their sleeve, Lil’ Lizzie displayed the sullen look of a Hush-Puppy hound dog on her young face with all of her future happiness or disdain surfacing only when needed.
Her outbursts could be especially vulgar when scrubbing shit stains from her husband’s drawers or hollering on full moon nights for “all the matters that escaped my reach,” as she’d exclaim. Neighbors were entirely stumped when she screamed from her windowsill one morning, “Today, I’m reclaiming my time!”
A neighbor passing the house shouted, “Go ‘head and do it then, Lizzie, and stop all that ruckus!”
“Know-it-all-witch,” Lil’ Lizzie hissed back under her breath, grinning and waving feverishly at the woman. All of which suggested that while she appreciated her neighbor’s attention, she resisted the trivializing of her ambition. Though recognized for her exceptional intellect, droll wit and ability to thrive with such vigor in the years following Emancipation and Jim-Crow lawlessness, she was terribly unhappy, having never been shown how to get things of value done in her life. She resented not being expected to in a world that appeared unmoved by her hollers, opinions, and language; a woman who’d only known freedom through skewed parallels and right angles. In the way that subsistence can be long-suffering and distant, close but small and incrementally rewarding, she craved evidence, omens, for how to salvage anything satisfying about living—until the day she walked inside her husband’s grimy shed.
She stood with both hands on her lower back and closely eye-balled the jumbled world that Nelson worshipped in as his “little piece of heaven.” He’d fussily crafted every shelf, nook and container and then aggressively filled them with the assorted complement of farming tools, nails, hinges, sickles, machetes, Bowie knives, horseshoes and more horseshoes of all sizes and makes, along with decorative wrought iron gate parts and damaged gaslight fixtures, which left such little room for air. Now, they all lay flumped and neglected.
Charmed by the physique and swing of the roughly cut iron hammers that she came upon in his collection, she approached them with curiosity. They pretty much all looked the same to her until she snatched up one then the other, rolling each chisel and tong from one hand to palm, pivoting for weight and ease. Pick one up, drop it, pick up the next, until finally, a hammer with the firmest grip proved satisfying. A delicious lucidity spooled through her body…..
Nelson’s esteemed status as the town’s most skillful and trusted Black blacksmith helped them to navigate or bypass at times the life-threatening conflicts usually experienced by freed Black or indentured peoples in their town. There again, maybe not so much “bypass” conflicts, but that his skills granted them degrees of tolerance—though also not to be confused with fairness—from the local white businessmen and farmers. Mostly, they remained averse to the legislated promises given to “coloreds” in the Mason-Dixon counties where they resided. Yet Nelson chiseled an autonomy for himself based on the mutual goodwill and need they shared for the proper shoe-sizing of horses, repairs for plows and hoes, and of course, their guns. “White folks only civilized when it comes to they guns and they animals,” Nelson frequently declared, chomping on his dinner, followed by a stifling silence.
He wasn’t lying, Lil’ Lizzie mused, scrutinizing the dents and blisters of his battered anvils scattered about the shed. Some were upright, others overturned on sides that bore the strikes of his guzzled rage. On badly favored days, life could be a hostile discipline. Increasingly, hers too were turning into a succession of bad days with lots of ugly rushing up.
Noonday’s waning light glided across the carpet of violets that aligned the gravelly path to the front porch. The house’s main entryway faced the east side of the property. Gossamer sun rays slipped between the wall’s clefts and splits, adding much-needed warmth to the shadows. On the right side of the room was a window beveled into the mounting structure. Curtains dangled from either side. They’d been a house gift from her mother and were yellowing or maybe were never white. Perhaps she’d wash them, Lil’ Lizzie supposed, releasing bitty sighs sprung from the fatigue and square footage of her domestic trimmings.
A striking set of mirrors, ten to be exact, hung silently in the living room. She floated over and propped herself in front of them. With all the audacity she could summon from the depths of her belly, she crooned—“Mirrors, oh mirrors hanging on my walls, who is the most beautiful of all?”
Firmly clutching the hammer that she’d brought with her from the shed, she studied it scrupulously, picturing it a wishbone to break for the recovery of her heart’s desire. The words, “I wish…I wish” tumbled from her mouth. A flummoxed leer reflected back. Mirrors, long thought inanimate objects, are actually living portals, prone to mimic, to echo, the very same emotions cast into them.
“If only you could see yourself, really see yourself,” the mirrors whispered. “You are Masai-infused exquisite and tall like your mother, sturdy and defiant like your father. Your vastness, if measured, would be immense, nothing short of 12 feet high and 3 feet wide.”
Lil’ Lizzie shook her head. Was she being mocked by her own reflection? She squinted, was that even possible? Then too, she needed all the reassurances that flowed her way, for her spirit was no longer soaring. If she couldn’t be soul-soaring, then she’d have to find another way. But to do what?
The ancient Egyptian bronze hand-mirror caught her eye. It dangled from the nearest interior wall, though away from the others as a separate collection that she was building for her baby daughter, Queenie. She fingered it with an intense rush of affection and pleasure. Despite her intense physical rebuffs since the baby girl’s birth, Nelson gratified himself in that musty shed by reproducing a mirror. Shaped in the head of Hathor, one of the Ancient’s most revered goddesses, said to personify the Milky Way, the mirror’s poetically cut beveled silver glass and metal frame illumined Lil’ Lizzie’s mind, reawakened her most arcane desires.
“You…you like them,” Nelson had confessed when she at last permitted him to be intimate with her. “I heard from a salesman passing through town once, his buggy needed new wheels, that, that Egyptians was beautiful women, said to be African women, too. They spent time takin’ care of themselves, bathing, rubbing oils and sweet smelling salves on they skin.”
Lil’ Lizzie softened in recalling his boyish kindness, how he reeked of mousey breath. She sniffed at the air and dabbed spots of cardamom and rose-hips on the dark surfaces of her heart. How does a woman reconcile life with a mate who exalts her but that she treats with abject indifference? She craved another smell, another set of skin cells to rub. Her husband was someone who could be present but not there. He consumed space, made things, ate, but rarely shared with her the meaningful occurrences of his day. Occasionally, he thought to gift her with flowers pulled from their backyard.
Her loose-fitting dress collar slipped from her shoulder. The gesture of smoothing it back into place helped open her already widened eyes to a vision she sought based on procuring something new, something beautiful and glorious in her life. Horizons, anything rising, newborn, and hued by the miraculous. On the lost continent of her mind, she was Hathor, a celebrated goddess. Each sunset promised as much, but by the close of the day for ensuing years, nothing changed. Today must be different, she decided, levitating her body with the might of bat wings as she oh so judiciously picked up the hammer and commenced swinging at the mirrors, one by one with steady strikes, not unlike her Black blacksmithing husband’s, until she’d reduced them to tiny bits and pieces.
When she was done, piles of sparkling silver particles danced about her feet. Some landed in her hair, giving her the appearance of a luminous Empress. All she could hear were the loud, sharp cries of birds outside her window intermingled with the massive gulps of air and exhalations that escaped her heaving chest. Thankful that she’d sent her baby girl to her aunt Trixie’s. Sweat beads popped across her brow and drizzled from the pockets of her underarms. Blood trickled from her fingertips as she coarsely rubbed them back and forth, scratching at the mirror’s cracked surfaces. With each sobbing stroke she tore at her bones and inflamed skin, until, to her astonishment, she heard a nearby voice, causing her to drop to her knees.
The forms appeared to her not as saints or demons, rather a commingling of distorted wavelengths and body rays, a mixture of red, orange, blue and golden dynamic orbs percolating from steam and vapors.
Lil’ Lizzie hastily wiped her swollen face with bleeding fingers before shoving them into her arm pits. “Is transformation possible for someone like me? Is it?” she screamed, not sure to whom, since she was unable to make out the tottering forms that emerged from the mirrors’ fragments.
One dashed forward. “Depends,” it replied. Then: “Are you moving on from this world or intending to stay?”
“Yes!” she screeched, scaring herself with a conviction she rarely heard voiced in her own ears.
“Yes!” parroted the orb. “But what is it that you want?”
“I—want—enchantment. I want beauty in my life!” Lil’ Lizzie cackled, through hefts of laughter and tears. “I want something glorious to happen in my life! Is it even possible?”….
Dill’s Mirrors & the Lizzies is a collection of braided speculative short stories that offer portraits of an Emancipated woman’s matrilineal line of first-born daughters over five generations and a set of ten mirrors that Dill uncannily secures as reparations for damages incurred while enslaved. On the night of her departure, “sparkling” stellar forces or “Couriers” return (African souls that escaped bondage by choosing to fly beyond enslavement when their ships arrived on American shores)—to protect the mirrors and the women as their carriers. Each future daughter grapples with her needs relative to the “inheritance,” which requires balancing the burden of legacy against honoring the mirrors as divine instruments.
Lil’ Lizzie is the first of the Lizzie daughters we meet, following her mother Dill’s clever exodus plan to free her family once word of Emancipation spreads. In telling her story, Go Let Yourself Learn How to Live (the fifth in the collection), I was interested in the internalized dysphoria that drives Lizzie’s personal ecosystem as a young wife and mother whose life feels alien and refracted. Is it enchantment or psychosis when visitations from supernatural ancestral forces endow her with what she calls “superpowers for troubled people?” We sense that the upheaval that consumes Lizzie requires sacrifice that she feels incapable of. Hers is the portrait of a daughter coming of age during the Post-Reconstruction period, initially praised as the “less constraining” era of Black American promise. Yet respectability and risk are competing for summons. The title borrows from the song 1863, written by the extraordinary vocalist Dianne Reeves, and speaks to Emancipated peoples’ eager enthusiasm and inexorable anxiety. The refrain, a powerful one, reminds them that authentic joy is “owed them” and, like freedom, requires tenacity and practice:
There come a day when I found I had climbed up a hill
High, yes so high
Left way behind me my home that was never a home
Below they see love as a luxury
Something that’s not allowed to me
And though I treat the others well
You can never un-ring the bell
…We are moving steady onward
Clear in this moment
I wake up and into a new day
Souls voice inside me says
Go let yourself learn how to live.
Like her antecedents, Lizzie is restless to leave the “home that was never a home,” until enticed by a more vital primal calling that is foreboding and forbidden. Unregulated, “unpoliced” freedom has always been an oxymoron for Black folks in this country, even when legislated and affixed to Constitutional amendments. On the one hand, antebellum inheritances, the epigenetics experienced by these matrilineal figures, could have been illuminating in their validation. Understanding the origin of one’s pain is a gift. To be guided by the ancestors on how to use it artfully is a victory. Yet these “endowments” were also frustrating for this generation of post-Emancipation young women who, like Lil’ Lizzie, imagined new pathways for how to be in the world with boldness. In formidable ways, her originality and courage and emotionally crippling behavior, too, serve as a prescient shout-out to #BlackGirlMagic” – a contemporary “movement” or “concept” premised on Black women getting about the business of loving themselves “fiercely” while in service to larger societal ideals.
This exploration provides the reader an opportunity to “sense” what was rich and vast and expansive about Lizzie’s worldly touchstones. Like her mother before her, she would be studied in, as I’ve previously written, “the complex offerings of forests that hid and protected them, the plants that nourished them, and supplied balms for wounds and fevers.” At the same time, we understand how a Black person can still feel oppressed and trapped even in vast open spaces and with the promise of freedom. In this regard, Lizzie is a woman whose spirit suffers under domestic arrest—rooted in irrational social, racial, gender, and identity-bound-detentions—which have plagued iconic fabulist femmes from Rapunzel and Cinderella to such distinct historical figures as Sojourner Truth, Josephine Baker, and Lorraine Hansberry.
Lizzie is a woman born resembling “the colors of raw umber, wheat, and Sage”—constituent elements that grow in the fields that surround her home. All of them inform and define her earthy, root woman beginnings within natural habitats and with a strong sense of place. And at the same time, these elements speak to her eccentricities: shouting to neighbors about whatever agitates or inspires her on a given day and not caring if her willfulness baffles or offends them.
When overly cultivated and harvested, raw wheat grasses eventually create “domestic” strains. When over-dried, they can become fragile and bitter. Lizzie is both of her time and a modern woman who seeks big ‘H’ Happiness at the story’s start even as it escapes her. Entrapment and constraints are represented in an unhappy marriage to a man who though entirely devoted to her, is also an emotional succubus.
As the “first daughter” in her family, Lizzie feels a profound responsibility to a matrilineal legacy, even as she risks losing her agency, living forever in the shadow of Dill, her audacious mother. When the Energetics ask Lizzie what she wants from them, she confesses, “I want enchantment. I want beauty in my life! […] I want something glorious to happen in my life! Is it even possible?”
To which the ancestors respond: “You are the first daughter, a Black Gold descendent and we are the system’s paradox species….Blessed across more lifetimes than you can count in numbers. Find another way to be brave, Lizzie. To claim your Superpower. To live!”
Post-colonial scholar Homi Bhabha wrote, interestingly enough, in an introduction to Franz Fanon’s White Face/Black Masks, “the site of an emergency is almost always the site of an emergence.” This equation is critical to Lizzie’s struggles when a stranger from her past returns and sets off in her a deeply buried yearning. To declare it may cost her dearly. But she’s finally ready to “learn how to live,” to know “authentic joy”—both exhaustive and exhilarating.
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