In the old country when they massacred all my people, I survived because I was wife to a young man, one of theirs. I had taken his last name—the name of his forefathers who had enslaved and degraded mine, pronounced us untouchable. A name he had worn for less time than I had worn mine, for he was barely out of his teenage years, and I, older than the fallen temples; older than the blood that dried on the raw earth before it was civilized with concrete; as old as the screams of my foremothers as they were dragged away from their homes and torn open at night, invisible, mute, for no human hand had touched them, only fate, the shame of their sins. I was a dark thing, incurable by any skin-lightening cream, the savagery between my legs permanent.
But he and I were college sweethearts. On the day of our graduation, drunk deep on cheap sweet rum, we had ambled along to the lawyer’s office and signed the paperwork, for it was still a civilized country where such things could pass. Disapproved but not forbidden, and once I had imbibed his name, no one needed to know.
We were so skilled at imbibing, my foremothers and I. We, who were nameless, unseen, erasing ourselves as we made our way through life. We, who have no history, nothing to lose—what could they take from us that would make us unravel? We were spirits, poured ceaselessly into the vessels that would contain us, learning and holding their shapes.
Once I imbibed his name, I was a person. A person he made. In the old country, when the streets started taking on a permanent stench of charred tires and flesh; when I paced and paced within the walls of his house, safe and deranged as a princess, fancying myself in turn a crocodile, a severed limb, the fossil of a prehistoric bird perspired on stone; he decided enough was enough, and took me away to a different country—a newer country, half a world away from where we were born. We were young, bright, adaptable. We would slip smoothly into university campuses, to the oasis of words and mathematical equations, libraries, and trees. We would learn to drive cars like mirrors, make love under heated blankets, give our children difficult names in a land where both our names crumpled into clusters of syllables and no blood at all. Under the too-bright sky that sedimented a placid brown upon my skin just as it did on his, I would learn to channel the chaos underneath into acceptable shapes—human, scholar, woman, mother, wife.
History will remember him as a kind man. A just man, upright, one who stood up to his ancient, illustrious tribe for a woman who was, all said and done, no woman at all.
A sentience risen from the chaos, an untruth, rendered woman only in his gaze, sliding back into nothingness as soon as he turned away. He was a kind man, but young, curious, distracted, as men who are the heroes of stories are permitted to be. A man cannot spend a lifetime retelling a story he wrote once—not in a foreign land where there is no mob with spears and torches smoldering at every street corner; not in quiet affluent suburbs where you can hear the cicadas and smell honeysuckle at night; where there are other, calmer stories to be learned. A man cannot sleep each night next to a congealed spirit of nothingness and rage, reminding it to imitate muscle, bone, breast, curl of toe, the benign moisture of canals that sink him in their depth and bring him home. A man can be forgiven his exhaustion, for rising and walking away before the quicksand has swallowed him whole.
Nothing brought me home any more. There was no home. In the old country, severed from me by continents and oceans, the screams of my foremothers had silenced. No one, any longer, uttered the old word that passed for our name, for I was the last to survive, and I had taken the name of one of theirs.
I did not cut out and eat his heart, though nothing would have forbidden me. (I no longer have ancestors. I no longer have traditions. I am bound to no honor or laws. No child or younger sister will suffer the consequences of me.) I let him devour mine instead, in repayment for his kindness. My heart was a ghost too, non-existent, unwritten, felt only within my ribcage, and that too was an unreal thing. Was there ever a heart? You’ll never know.
After he walked away, sated with dinner, his mandibles still working on the remnants of the chargrilled meat I had served for our last meal together, I put the house we had shared to fire. It gave off such a beautiful smell—so familiar, almost comforting—just like the fumes that had kept me awake at night through my childhood, sprouting again from this alien soil, this country so distant and new.
I watched the flames eat through wood, brick, cracking glass, acrid wires that sizzled and spluttered, bed, clothes, papers in the closet that enclosed a person that was not me. By the time the fire trucks arrived, foreign men and women rushing in with their sirens and incomprehension and heartfelt concern, I had erased myself entirely from that story.
The firefighters did not see me. I could have rushed at them screaming, unleashed upon these strangers the fury of two hundred million people in a faraway old country broken, crashed, compressed until there was only one; but I was no vengeful goddess—that, too, was a story not given to me. If I felt any sadness, it would shore away from me, as does any feeling when its context has dissolved.
I arose and went then. There were no more stories to inhabit. I could be anybody now.