A reedy shrill doused the morning in a cold remembrance, a naked fear. A sharp trill followed close behind, and the woman sat stiffly in her bed, rubbing from her eyes sleep. She would remember later the shrill sound piercing the dawn after her waking, not before. She would not forget the source of the sound.
Butterflies awakened in her heart as fog lifted from her brain.
She would always remember a succession of three knocks, knocks she imagined as rounded and perfect. They were hollywood knocks, the knocks that precede the exclamation, “we’re from (blank television show) and you’ve won (blank life changing reward)!” Later she isn’t certain why she only imagined a game show and not the more likely occurrence. She would wonder if she did not create the scenario by not acknowledging it as possible.
She nudged her husband from groggy sleep and yawned her way to the front door of the comfortable ranch, patting lightly at her satin bonnet. Over her shoulder she yelled for the boys to get up and to wake up their sister.
Brilliant luminescence greeted her, and she shielded her eyes to it. She often imagined that moment, too, wondering why she opened the door at all, wondering what her life could have been if she had let the knocks move into the ether unanswered.
They asked for the identification of the residence first, but they used her ex-husband’s last name. She opened her mouth to respond, swallowed past the cotton, and attempted again.
Her silent “yes” was muffled by the long, low wail of a bird. She ushered, when prompted, the uniformed officers into the living room, closing the door to the brilliant morning and the lone bird.
The couch in the living room sank low under her weight, and she offered the seat opposite to the officers, but they declined. The taller one—a man, she remembered, with a blurry face and uncomfortable gait—began speaking in a language that she was certain she understood, but with words she could not make out.
In her memory in the after she pieced it together:
At 4:30 this morning we received a call of suspicious activity near Capital Avenue. Three black males were seen scoping the neighborhood and idling in front of a residence. A plainclothes officer near the scene took the call. While awaiting backup the officer requested that the males exit the vehicle slowly. The first two suspects exited the vehicle without incident. The third yelled obscenities at the officer and exited the vehicle with an object in his hand. The officer, fearing for his safety and the safety of citizens immobilized the suspect. The suspect was id’d at the scene and again at the hospital as your son.
More words that she could not comprehend followed. Her husband was there beside her, gripping her hand, though she could not feel him. The other children entered the living room, fear scratched into their faces, chasing away the remnants of sleep.
Her wail began with a shudder. The shudder began in the marrow in her bones and traveled through her blood and out. The low hum of agony wrenched its way from her throat, and once escaped, she could not contain it. The children left behind pieced together the words that she could not carry, and with shaking hands the oldest called the family forth, dialing the numbers with feigned ease.
Her memory is clipped, and she moves swiftly from the sound of her own cry echoing through the universe and the shredding of her heart as it halted in her chest to the small screen in the morgue, the blue sheet placed between before and after.
Clutching the hand of her husband she nodded once, a jerky movement of one who has forgotten how to be.
He is there, as they said he would be. His face is ashen and black, the blood already settled at the base of his body, but he could be sleeping, were he not dead.
The cry begins again, and she breaks against the screen, demanding to see him. She rips from her scalp the bonnet, gripping her hair in anguish. She repeats this again and again, “let me see him. Let me see him. Let me see him!” even after they have gone from the place.
Her next memory is of her son as a hashtag. She is forced to buy a suit for him—he was tall for 14 and had recently outgrown his first—and she is in the store staring into dark suits already perfumed by the smell of death when she feels eyes boring into her. She meets the face but can not remember the owner later, and she hears the words whispered to her—“you are in our prayers, Sister. To be absent from the body is to be present with the lord, hallelujah.” And she becomes angry—at the faceless woman, and the lord.
She leaves without the suit.
In her car she grips her phone and dials his number. After five rings it moves to voicemail. She calls twenty-eight more times. Vaguely she remembers that his phone was collected as evidence, as was his inhaler. He gripped it so tightly in his hand that it cut him, though he would not bleed. She learned this much later.
Sitting immobile in the car she feels the vibration of her own phone in her hand, and she brings it to her face. She reads the apology and the hashtag. She would not know what a hashtag was were it not for him.
She drops the phone into the passenger seat and returns home. In the drive she hears the long, low wail again, and she climbs from her car to greet its owner.
She does not recognize it as a bird at first. She is not a bird person—and she does believe in the distinction between “bird people” and “non-bird people,”—so she stands before it suspiciously. It is perched on a naked branch hanging over the roof of the house, plump with chestnut feathers cradling a soft underbelly. She is drawn to its long tail and black eyes, and she imagines that it stares at her. She turns away to close the door of her car when the bird calls to her again. Its sound is long and low, a funerary whistle and she is drawn to it.
The cry ceases only when she enters the house.
She is met there with her pastor, her sisters, her mother, her husband, two friends, and an unfamiliar woman with a steno pad. Her pastor rushes forward to greet her, and offers her “Christ’s love and mercy through this difficult time.” He leads the prayer, and his mouth lovingly places forgiveness in her arms. He tells her that he will assist the family in any way he can, and that the family is wrapped in prayer and covered in the blood. He does not say whose blood, and so she must wonder. She recalls, later, thinking bitterly that the blood covering her could not belong to Christ. It burned and she was angry in its presence.
Her sisters and her mother have offered to take care of the funeral, her two friends the media. This brings a small cough from the unfamiliar woman with the steno pad. She introduces herself quickly as though embarrassed. The other occupants of the room stare at the unfamiliar woman as though seeing her for the first time. She states her position with the local paper, and she is encouraged—abruptly—to see her way out.
Her son becomes a movement before he is buried.
The children who are left watch television silently, not fighting over the remote. They are hungry for the news, having heard that their brother will be featured.
He is, but not in the way they might think.
The byline reads, “Young Man Killed By Police No Angel.” They know him—for he was theirs—and they still choke back the wonder. What kind of devil was he?
The reporters have received word from sources close to the family that the young man had recent run-ins with the law. The sources suggest that drugs may have been a factor, and they cite the recent layoff of the mother as a cause for violence.
She is not quite certain how many bullets found her son, but they seem to know. They demonstrate the possible trajectory on a diagram, and she is sick. She scratches her way down the hall and collapses into her bedroom. Her husband is there, in the dark. He does not speak to her; the shadows that surround them and place themselves between them are welcome.
Her head, sans bonnet, has only just reached the pillow when the youngest of the children who are left runs into the bedroom. He beckons for her to come, quickly, to see. Heart racing she reacts without thinking, running past him into the living room.
There are signs with hashtags and quotes and anger. There are tears and shouts and the group of protestors swarming the precinct responsible for the officers—on paid leave, according to the reporter—demanding justice.
The reporter brings to the audience a live interview with the pastor, who also acts as close friend of the family. He asks for prayer at this difficult time, and begs forgiveness, though he does not say from whom.
The morning of the funeral is bone dry. She almost expects rain because it would be fitting, but it is dry and hot. She sweats as she dresses, moving in slow motion as the family is engulfed in unnatural silence. Just beyond her window she hears the familiar trill of the bird; she imagines it is the same one.
“What is that?” she inquires of her husband.
“What is what,” he responds. These are the first words they have exchanged in many days.
“That bird,” is all she has energy for. She knows that he will have the answer—he used to have so many answers.
“Mourning dove,” he responds. At first she believes he has said “morning dove,” and she wants to remark that she has heard the bird in the night before, though never before this week.
She stumbles over a small nest on her way to the limo that will carry the family to the church. She wonders if it belongs to the bird, but the thought is lost in the weight of the day.
She is awakened again the morning after he is buried by the bird. She researches it this time, and finds that it is a mourning dove. Grimly she considers the name, but is disappointed to discover that the name belongs to the sound and not the state of being.
She wanders into his room and lays in his bed. She covers her face with his pillow and screams. She moves through the “if only’s.” There is an abundance of them, and her tongue feels swollen after repeating them.
If only I had told him no, you can’t go with your friends.
If only they had stayed in the house instead of going outside to hang in the car.
If only the neighbor had revealed that one of the young men lived in the house.
If only the officer didn’t see darkness as a threat.
If only she had not told him take his inhaler everywhere he went.
If only she had held him closer.
Her oldest son reveals later that a fund has been set up for the officers involved in the shooting. It has raised over $200,000. The “protect blue” movement is supported by everyone, it seems. Supporters thank the officers for their service, for ridding the streets of thugs.
She wonders what “thug” means. She looks at his photos on his social media account. His phone is returned to her, dented and bloody. One of the photos—his eyes are partially closed and he makes a peace sign—was on the news. She was cropped out of it, but on his phone she can see it whole. Taken only a few months before his death, he was excited to tour the school of his dreams. He would have received a full academic scholarship, had he not died.
She cannot breathe. She stumbles down the hall and through the front door, stopping only when she reaches the bird’s nest. It is dusted in a light dew, and she makes out a small crushed egg. Behind her the trill of the mourning dove signals morning.
She brushes the grass but cannot find the baby bird. She is certain it fell here. She is positive the bird is in mourning.
When the lawyer contacts the family to offer his services pro bono, she is not relieved. Instead she feels dread, knowing that her son will soon be resurrected. The lawyer speaks to her as though her son was convicted of a crime. She is confused—why does he need to know about school and home? He is dead. Isn’t that enough? But it is not enough. For as much as she remembers her son as complex—he was not always happy but he was rarely sad, and he was not always good but he was rarely bad—they present him as words on a page.
He was a victim or he was a thug. He was never a boy, though, seeming to have sprung fully formed from the dark place that Black is made. She says this part aloud, and it makes the lawyer uncomfortable. A representative for the local social justice chapter has started coming into the house, insinuating himself as a part of the family. His attempts are genuine, at first, but he speaks of her son in terms of “movement” and thinks of her and her family as faces of “The Movement.”
He and the lawyer are surprised when she reveals his records and his photographs clean. The lawyer is puzzled and asks directly for photos that “they” take. When she inquires he insists that he was referring to youths. The leader of the movement rubs his hands together (at least this is how she remembers it) and comments on how good he will be for the movement.
They ask her to prepare remarks for a rally. The rally will encourage young people to vote against the district attorney. This will help win this case, the lawyer assures her.
The pastor speaks first. His words are generous and sweeping, calling for an end to “black on black violence” and demanding that black america “return to Jesus!” People are moved by his words. She is not. He claims that “we must forgive” those who have come against us, to rest easy in the knowledge that “the lord’s work is far from finished.” She wonders what kind of work the lord was doing that required to use of bullets against her son.
The social justice leader demands justice for him and justice for all like him. He means well, she is certain, but she is not comforted. He knows nothing about her son and he does not ask.
When it is her turn to speak she is met with whistles and cheers. She pastes a smile to her face, so fragile that she is certain she will break. When she begins to speak words escape her, at first. She is met, unnaturally, with the sound of the mourning dove. Longer and lower this time. She thinks that the mourning dove must have found her baby bird. At length she begins.
“My son was not perfect but he was mine. When he was born he was jaundiced and I was so afraid we would never get him out of that hospital. Then I was afraid he would never eat a green vegetable. That he wouldn’t walk. That he would learn his abcs slower than his brothers. I was afraid that he would forget his inhaler.
When he was five he stole a bag of skittles from the store. I made him take it back and I was afraid he would be a thief. He never stole again–the fear of disappointment was enough. When his front teeth came out I was afraid we’d need braces. It was only after his white friend laughed, in passing, you know why black people’s lips are so big and he laughed too that I was afraid he would be too black and yet not quite black enough. I was afraid that he would forget his heritage, but also that he would wear it as an albatross.
His nose was wide, his lips were big, his voice was deep, his hair was tightly coiled. He was 6’2, 180 pounds. I wished he could be smaller, but he could not.
I told him to smile more, and I felt the weight of the ancestors when I said it. It felt wrong–a lot like saying move to the side when they pass–but I would have said anything to keep him safe. His Father’s English was accented–his was not. His father’s name may have been too multi syllabic for certain tongues, but his was not. His was a hire-able name. His pants rested perfectly on his waist. He was never once suspended. He had no juvenile record. He made A’s at the right kind of school.
We did everything that they say will keep a black child safe, and so, for all of my other fears, I never said I was afraid of him dying. I didn’t think it could happen to me. I didn’t think I could lose my son. That I could reach across time and touch Mamie Till’s hand and she would know me.
One moment he was my son and a brother and a friend. Now he is a hashtag. I have new fears. I am afraid that God created us in his image, and there is no room in white heaven for my son. I am afraid that he will be killed again, over and over, because he was not perfect. I am afraid to let the anger go. I am afraid of who I might become without it. I am afraid that we will never know peace.
He is not a hashtag. He is not a thug. A suspect. He is a boy who had asthma hanging out at the house of a friend. He is a boy who will never become a man, a boy whose humanity you keep robbing him of. He is human and his memory is the only thing I have left.
My son was not perfect but he was mine.” She does not remember the immediate reaction, only later.
Hers were not the words the movements wanted. When her words are reprinted later they remove all but his height and his theft. On the internet he is crucified as a thug who met his just reward. Some forgive for her, moving her son aside to make room for a new injustice.
His hashtag continues, but the streets are empty save for her. When the grand jury moves to dismiss the charges—the officers had reasonable suspicion based on the threat to their safety—she weeps wholly and uncontrollably. The image of her grief is shared and liked, but the crippling weight of grief itself is hers.
She cries in the dark and only holds him in her dreams. In the day the mourning dove weeps.