The Nappy-Headed Doll
Adrian developed too early. Men began to notice her when she turned ten and still played with dolls. Adrian took a pair of rounded school scissors and cut the curly hair off her black Barbie.
“You nappy headed,” she declared. “You so ugly.”
Adrian spent a week weaving straight blonde hair into the dolls short locks, but the plastic wouldn’t hold. The hair fell off. She tried to glue the hair straight onto the doll’s head, but dry glue drips made the doll even uglier, deformed from a hidden cancer bubbling to the surface. Adrian threw the doll into the back of her bedroom closet but couldn’t sleep, so she moved the doll under her bed and stayed up all night thinking about her, then finally buried the doll in her backyard under the shade of her mother’s banana leaf palm in lower New Orleans, dirty, crying, scratching the dirt of her mother’s garden with a cheap trowel. A man noticed her.
Adrian remembered this day as the day she met her ice twin, a frozen soul who orbited the same small brown body gasping under the man from behind the fence. One twin cried and sweat. She bled. She stank. She clutched. She hurt. She panted and drooled. The other, the ice twin, created a cool world of crystalline perfection in a high place full of majestic glaciers and frozen plains where nothing changed, nothing hurt, and nothing sweat. When the ugly twin ran into trouble, often, always, she begged her icy sister for advice and the twin always answered. The ice twin loved giving advice. Every time the man returned the ice twin told her sister how they had no one but each other, how their mother would never believe them, how to shut the fuck up, how to talk pretty, how to do things the man liked so she wouldn’t get in trouble, until her thoughts formed an unending floe spread through Adrian’s heart to the tips of her fingers and toes and hair. That’s it, she said, stand closer, you’re so dirty, don’t eat that, stupid, don’t cut where they can see, stupid, say I love you too Uncle Marcel, I’ll always be yours, say it, just say it.
Adrian, the twin Adrians, grew and did things twins do. They finished sixth grade with perfect attendance. They auditioned for low budget commercials and parade floats. They posed for swimsuit photos. They attended college, dropped out, and took jobs wherever they could find: restaurants, retail, even a job delivering donuts to senior citizen homes and drunken frat parties at 5 in the morning. They lived life in New Orleans: parties, men, women, parades, church, food, and very little money. The ice twin never gained an ounce, never changed her hair, never got over excited about a new dress or a cute boy at church. Adrian changed, and then noticed men noticing her more as her hips got larger.
Make them happy, the twin said.
But Marcel wouldn’t notice her, not anymore, no matter what Adrian promised or how she begged. She was too old, too mouthy, too fat, too much.
“You always want attention,” her mother said. “Stop lying.”
“Bitch it never happened, you hear me?” Marcel said.
Lying flew up Adrian’s fingers, up her arm. Bitch jumped into her ears and slid down frozen canals, fading into the deepest recess, the darkest crevice. Together, the words slid into her frozen chest wall, lightless, loveless, hopeless, forgotten but sharp and grating and hot every second of every minute of every hour of every day.
With encouragement from her icy sister, Adrian developed her anti-gravity stance. Her hips grew but weighed less. She floated across the broken sidewalks, barely touching the ground, up stoop stairs, across porches. Adrian preferred gliding along rails instead of riding streetcars. Boyfriends and girlfriends came and left. Ben held on longer than most but the twin knew everyone left her, just like Marcel. After one intense night, Ben lay panting and sweaty on the sheets. Adrian sat quietly, knees hugged to her chest.
“Did you?” Ben trailed off.
No, always no.
“You got ice water in your veins,” he said.
Ben complained: Adrian held back, Adrian hid things, Adrian gave him the cold shoulder. She’d heard it all before. Ben was right and wrong. Adrian gave everything, Adrian had no secrets, Adrian walked arm in arm with her twin every day and night, naked with her clothes on. The twin froze Adrian under a permafrost no one could thaw, keeping her sister, her doll, her blood, sweat, rage and pain buried under miles of thick ice, preserved, protected, untouchable, until memories become fossils left for future archeologists to unearth after a cataclysm, after the planet flew too close to the sun, after Adrian and her twin and her mother and Marcel, all dust for millennia, slipped the grip of gravity and floated into space—motes shedding the last warmth of the sun as they drifted apart.
On August 29, the day of howling wind, the day of bloody water, the day of trees detonating like bombs, the day of coffins busting from crypts to make space for the living, the day turned night, the day of a storm so monstrous and terrible that Adrian thought the world must end, the ice twin clamped down. She tried. Adrian screamed when unseen objects crashed into her mother’s house. The ice twin froze the floor beneath Adrian’s feet, but it was too much water, too much. Their shotgun house flooded. Adrian scrambled into the attic, panicked, until the twin said, there stupid. Right there! and Adrian found a gap-toothed saw.
On the roof, heat, and the sound of dripping water. Nothing else made a sound, not a bird, not a breath of wind. The city drowned. While the ugly twin wept in shocked silence, the ice twin grew colder. She drew the heat of the drowned city into her body and endured. She could freeze the entire Ward if she had to, the entire city. I shall remake in my image, the ice twin thought. Freeze the bones. No one will ever hurt us again. She imagined herself as the new New Orleans, with every house, every wrought-iron fence, every sycamore tree, every blade of grass, every drop of water from her sister’s tears to the Mississippi frozen and still.
The long-buried, nappy-headed doll floated up from under the uprooted banana palm tree. She wasn’t supposed to. Adrian heard a great glacier crack and crumble and saw her ice twin for the first time. Adrian knew of her twin since the day at the fence, had imagined her, listened to her, felt her cold presence, but until this moment had never seen her. She looked like Adrian imagined she would look if Adrian developed late, or on time. Her lips, skin, hair, teeth were translucent blue-black, as if she was cut from the heart of an iceberg far off the southern coast of Africa. Vapor steamed around her body, and water condensed on her cold skin. She stood in her element, fierce and confident.
The nappy-headed doll bobbed along the surface, carried along by a swift current. The twin embraced her sister. She leaned in and said something Adrian could not hear. Then the ice twin ran across the roof, dove into the rancid flood, and swam after the doll they buried all those years ago. Adrian heard another crack. Her sister’s foot fell off and dissolved. Another crack and her left arm was gone. Her sister floundered, melted, grew smaller. Could ice drown in water? Coated in filth, the ice twin gave one last lunge and captured the doll with a melting hand. Adrian cried out. Her sister grinned in triumph, then melted into a brief cold puddle. Adrian collapsed, screaming.
Days later, rescuers arrived and took her, still screaming, she couldn’t stop, to a place where Adrian could cool down and forget what happened. Adrian forgot herself instead. Adrian forgot her sister and her mother and her home. Forgot her pink shotgun house; forgot Fire on the Bayou warped under the window. Forgot her chain fence with the beads and her sign: Take One Have Fun. Take Two, Voodoo! Forgot her mother’s garden and her little dog peeing on the banana tree and the green parrots sleeping in the hibiscus. Forgot crack-a-lack sidewalks. Forgot her spot on the porch where she rubbed the paint off from sitting, saying “hey baby hey mama hey fine man hey playa naw Mister ain’t no Adrian at this number but if you leave your name I’m sure she come down and pay soon she get off work.” Forgot her church, her choir, her pew, her priest, her sick-and-shut-ins. Forgot Mrs. Emma with her bad legs and a hundred pictures of grandkids been dead for twenty years. Forgot St. Francis. Forgot Hubig’s. Forgot water. Forgot cutting herself. Forgot Lake Pontchartrain, forgot the Orleans Canal and the 17th St. Canal and the Mississippi and the Gulf. Forgot laughing, smiling, lemonade. Forgot giving directions to tourists. Forgot her job at the casino and her other job at the store and forgot paying rent late. Forgot her mother. Forgot mama say if the big one come get me out and forgot about mama and forgot about forgetting. Forgot smelling her shoes rot off her feet in the heat. Forgot hot black grit itching under her toenail. Forgot Marcel trapped between a car and a fence, water inching up over his chest and neck, over his face. Forgot Ray Nagin and Governor Landrieu and George W. Bush. Forgot the Coast Guard and FEMA and the Royal Mounted Canadian Police. Forgot Sean Penn in his boat and Fats in his house. Forgot reporters. Forgot rumors, looters, shooters. Forgot houses marked in red X paint after the Angel of Death already come and gone. Forgot the Dome, forgot going thirsty until thirsty bucked like a wild animal dying inside her chest. Forgot licking sweat off her hands and crying until the tears ran out and a man yelling “what the fuck you wasting water for?” Forgot the school bus to Houston, forgot the Harris County Psychiatric Center. Forgot them damn questions, forgot them damn pills. Forgot the intake form, forgot she ain’t got no address no more, forgot crying again and there still ain’t no tears coming out ain’t nothing down there but a dry well. Forgot singing in the kitchen before the sun came up, forgot making collards for family reunion, forgot old photos under wax paper.
Adrian felt like a piece of nothing left behind. Felt like a ghost, floating, like if she just let go a little the world would fly away and leave her behind in the sunlight. Might be nice to float, no water, no sound, just sunlight. No feelings. Adrian wasn’t numb. She just didn’t feel anything. She forgot. Like the time she got beaned by the Orpheus Krewe. Just a little kid then and the beads knocked her to the sidewalk. But Adrian forgot how to feel, so she remembered the blood dripping down her forehead like it was a show she’d seen on TV, remembered stich-itch, remembered the whooping for getting stains on her clothes even though it wasn’t her fault but didn’t she know not to stand so close? She remembered the scar across her temple but it never hurt anymore.
Adrian wondered about her twin. The doctors told her to forget her twin. The nurses gave her pills and more pills with water. The chipped ice in her cup was her sister’s body. The water was her blood. Disgusted, she threw the cup at the nurse. Blasphemer. Horrified, Adrian tried to scoop the ice from the floor with her bare hands.
“I forgot,” she wailed. “I forgot, I forgot.”
If ice could feel, would it feel like her? Nothing, just there, doing its thing, just getting its drink on, not even alive? Yes, exactly. No loyalty, no help thy mother and thy sister, no running, no charity, no floating cars. She wasn’t angry. Adrian was post-anger. She flowed past Bill O’Reilly and Geraldo on the TV and past the nurses asking her again if she needed apple juice or a blanket or felt like talking with the doctor. Even when Adrian said no thanks yes please fuck you bitch whatever she just said it. A dead thing with breath. Weightless. Adrian wasn’t even in the hospital. The real Adrian melted away during the flood. She would have gone anywhere but here. Her twin could travel to the bottom of the ocean, or to the polar cap where she would feel right at home. The ice twin would never mistake fucking for love and would never feel sorry for her sister for living in a hospital and drinking apple juice from a box.
A poster hung by the window next to her bed: a blonde woman stood on top of a snowy mountain, arms raised in celebration. Adrian could change into snow if she wanted, light and beautiful. She would fall over the city, scatter into the streets, the parks, into the bayou across the highway. Adrian felt an irresistible urge to break the window and leap, to dive down into those waters. Her sister lived in that bayou. Adrian knew it. She almost saw her face under the dark water and smiled for the first time in a long time, waved, and remembered other water, muddy hot water up to the roof, and remembering shook something aloose inside both Adrians, gurgling, choking, sputtering, sucking, shattering the calm waters.
A cold, dead voice yammered, ‘you mine little mama you mine you mine.’
Adrian fled through the building like a scared little ghost and stood on the roof, arms raised in celebration over the sprawling city and the small bayou. None of it was hers. Pain sealed her off. She almost liked it. She wanted to let it all go and fade into nothingness. No life and death and struggles, no broken city full of broken children. Just nothing. Simple nothing.
“No pearly fucking gates,” she thought. “I don’t need this shit. And no harps. And no blues. No beat. I don’t want nothing. I want to die and see nothing, hear nothing, feel, taste, smell, know nothing. Nothing.”
The low clouds parted and a ship, an old wooden sailing ship, flew down and docked next to the rooftop. The crescent moon shone dimly down, illuminating masts and spars with no sails, a scarred deck, and hatches leading below. A gangplank extended itself from the ship’s side to the rooftop, and a woman sang a song Adrian heard as a small child.
When she calls you better follow the sun
When she calls you better run, run, run
Adrian tried to board but her feet refused to move. She didn’t know the words to her song. She struggled to speak and even massaged her jaw, but only produced a humiliating stutter for her city drowned dead, for her house and her street and her people, for her sister, for blood red grooves dug into her palm, for drowned mothers who could not find their children even from Heaven, for thirst.
Available November 1 from Jaded Ibis Press. Pre-order your copy today.