Home > Transcendent Kingdom

Transcendent Kingdom
Author: Yaa Gyasi

1

 

 

Whenever I think of my mother, I picture a queen-sized bed with her lying in it, a practiced stillness filling the room. For months on end, she colonized that bed like a virus, the first time when I was a child and then again when I was a graduate student. The first time, I was sent to Ghana to wait her out. While there, I was walking through Kejetia Market with my aunt when she grabbed my arm and pointed. “Look, a crazy person,” she said in Twi. “Do you see? A crazy person.”

   I was mortified. My aunt was speaking so loudly, and the man, tall with dust caked into his dreadlocks, was within earshot. “I see. I see,” I answered in a low hiss. The man continued past us, mumbling to himself as he waved his hands about in gestures that only he could understand. My aunt nodded, satisfied, and we kept walking past the hordes of people gathered in that agoraphobia-inducing market until we reached the stall where we would spend the rest of the morning attempting to sell knockoff handbags. In my three months there, we sold only four bags.

   Even now, I don’t completely understand why my aunt singled the man out to me. Maybe she thought there were no crazy people in America, that I had never seen one before. Or maybe she was thinking about my mother, about the real reason I was stuck in Ghana that summer, sweating in a stall with an aunt I hardly knew while my mother healed at home in Alabama. I was eleven, and I could see that my mother wasn’t sick, not in the ways that I was used to. I didn’t understand what my mother needed healing from. I didn’t understand, but I did. And my embarrassment at my aunt’s loud gesture had as much to do with my understanding as it did with the man who had passed us by. My aunt was saying, “That. That is what crazy looks like.” But instead what I heard was my mother’s name. What I saw was my mother’s face, still as lake water, the pastor’s hand resting gently on her forehead, his prayer a light hum that made the room buzz. I’m not sure I know what crazy looks like, but even today when I hear the word I picture a split screen, the dreadlocked man in Kejetia on one side, my mother lying in bed on the other. I think about how no one at all reacted to that man in the market, not in fear or disgust, nothing, save my aunt, who wanted me to look. He was, it seemed to me, at perfect peace, even as he gesticulated wildly, even as he mumbled.

       But my mother, in her bed, infinitely still, was wild inside.

 

 

2

 

 

The second time it happened, I got a phone call while I was working in my lab at Stanford. I’d had to separate two of my mice because they were ripping each other to bits in that shoebox of a home we kept them in. I found a piece of flesh in one corner of the box, but I couldn’t tell which mouse it came from at first. Both were bleeding and frenzied, scurrying away from me when I tried to grab them even though there was nowhere to run.

   “Look, Gifty, she hasn’t been to church in nearly a month. I’ve been calling the house but she won’t pick up. I go by sometimes and make sure she’s got food and everything, but I think…I think it’s happening again.”

   I didn’t say anything. The mice had calmed down considerably, but I was still shaken by the sight of them and worried about my research. Worried about everything.

   “Gifty?” Pastor John said.

   “She should come stay with me.”

   I’m not sure how the pastor got my mother on the plane. When I picked her up at SFO she looked completely vacant, her body limp. I imagined Pastor John folding her up the way you would a jumpsuit, arms crossed about the chest in an X, legs pulled up to meet them, then tucking her safely into a suitcase complete with a HANDLE WITH CARE sticker before passing her off to the flight attendant.

       I gave her a stiff hug and she shrank from my touch. I took a deep breath. “Did you check a bag?” I asked.

   “Daabi,” she said.

   “Okay, no bags. Great, we can go straight to the car.” The saccharine cheeriness of my voice annoyed me so much I bit my tongue in an attempt to bite it back. I felt a prick of blood and sucked it away.

   She followed me to my Prius. Under better circumstances she would have made fun of my car, an oddity to her after years of Alabama pickup trucks and SUVs. “Gifty, my bleeding heart,” she sometimes called me. I don’t know where she’d picked up the phrase, but I figured it was probably used derogatorily by Pastor John and the various TV preachers she liked to watch while she cooked to describe people who, like me, had defected from Alabama to live among the sinners of the world, presumably because the excessive bleeding of our hearts made us too weak to tough it out among the hardy, the chosen of Christ in the Bible Belt. She loved Billy Graham, who said things like “A real Christian is the one who can give his pet parrot to the town gossip.”

   Cruel, I thought when I was a child, to give away your pet parrot.

   The funny thing about the phrases that my mom picked up is that she always got them a little wrong. I was her bleeding heart, not a bleeding heart. It’s a crime shame, not a crying shame. She had a little southern accent that tinted her Ghanaian one. It made me think of my friend Anne, whose hair was brown, except on some days, when the sunlight touched her just so and, suddenly, you saw red.

   In the car, my mother stared out of the passenger-side window, quiet as a church mouse. I tried to imagine the scenery the way she might be seeing it. When I’d first arrived in California, everything had looked so beautiful to me. Even the grass, yellowed, scorched from the sun and the seemingly endless drought, had looked otherworldly. This must be Mars, I thought, because how could this be America too? I pictured the drab green pastures of my childhood, the small hills we called mountains. The vastness of this western landscape overwhelmed me. I’d come to California because I wanted to get lost, to find. In college, I’d read Walden because a boy I found beautiful found the book beautiful. I understood nothing but highlighted everything, including this: Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.

       If my mother was moved by the landscape, too, I couldn’t tell. We lurched forward in traffic and I caught the eye of the man in the car next to ours. He quickly looked away, then looked back, then away again. I wanted to make him uncomfortable, or maybe just to transfer my own discomfort to him, and so I kept staring. I could see in the way that he gripped the steering wheel that he was trying not to look at me again. His knuckles were pale, veiny, rimmed with red. He gave up, shot me an exasperated look, mouthed, “What?” I’ve always found that traffic on a bridge brings everyone closer to their own personal edge. Inside each car, a snapshot of a breaking point, drivers looking out toward the water and wondering What if? Could there be another way out? We scooted forward again. In the scrum of cars, the man seemed almost close enough to touch. What would he do if he could touch me? If he didn’t have to contain all of that rage inside his Honda Accord, where would it go?

   “Are you hungry?” I asked my mother, finally turning away.

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