by Niveah Glover
If you ever wanted to paint something a deep black, you had to start with black lilies, roses, and charcoal. That’s how Anne was taught. One cup of water, a black lily, a rose, and two pieces of coal. Anne watched intently as her mother, Rosalee, grinded all the ingredients together in a worn mortar and pestle. She added a touch of red liquid—it was thick enough that when it was softly shaken it slushed like a mud puddle.
“A touch of lamb’s blood is what you need for this recipe.” Rosalee held a large smile as she mixed the abundance of materials; they mended together to create the thick black paint that would soon cover large papier mache rectangles. These rectangles will transform themselves into a singular card—fifty-two to be exact.
“Mama? Why do we have to make only black paint? Why can’t our project have pretty colors?” There was silence, then a long laugh. Rosalee shook her head and went to an old junk drawer in their kitchen.
“The color black—issa’ a symbol—it represents spiritual energy and ritual. And baby, this isn’t no project. We makin’ something special.” Her long deep brown arm reached far into the back and pulled out a pitch-black box: no letters, symbols, or carvings, just a smooth black wooden box.
“You remember what I told you about Mama Sofia?” Rosalee sat next to her daughter on a small stool and handed her the box. There was weight on it, but a different kind. It wasn’t heavy, but it did feel important.
“Yes Mama. You said Mama Sofia liked to help people. So sometimes she made things for them to get better.”
“Well Anne, this is it—this is what I was going on about. Open it.”
Slowly, seven-year-old Anne put her right hand on top of the box, placing her thumb right at the center of the opening. With a small subtle tug, she lifted its top and was blinded by gold. The shining color seeped deep into the large cards, creating the perfect background for the black figures, lettering, and small symbols marking them.
“Now you listen to me Anne. This is your grandmother’s life work. So, we gonna’ honor her by recreating her cards. We was put on this earth by Oshun to guide the people who may be astray. So this what we gonna’ do. Hear me now. These cards are special and they ain’t nobody’s toy. Ya’ hear me?” Rosalee grabbed Anne’s attention and watched as she nodded her head to her mother’s words. Her mother’s long hair was wrapped in a white scarf, the simple color brought shine to her dramatic features like her big doll like eyes.
“I understand Mama.”
“Good.” Rosalee began, “All that you learn today can never be shared under no circumstances you understand?”
“Alright. First, Imma’ teach you how to make the cards and then Imma’ going to teach you how to play.”
“How to play what?” Anne inquired as she closed the box and began to pick up a paintbrush.
“Aschnakä, the game of lineage, purpose and faith. Oshun always guides those who know how to guide themselves.”
Surrounded by the blossoming spring color of soft-shell pink, Anne looked up to her bedroom ceiling. Her record player was playing some new Otis Redding single her mother just bought, but her mind couldn’t stay in the song. One ear was listening, but the other was being tortured with her cousin Mae’s constant nagging.
“How will I ever find me a beau Anne? This Mississippi wardrobe I trotted with is so last summa’. And look at you wallow. Just because Frankie is leaving for Fisk Institute doesn’t mean the world is coming to an end. Ya’ hear me? Sugar ya’ making yourself look desperate.” Mae laughed, her thick honey-like voice held strong to her southern accent.
Anne rolled her eyes, “I am not, Mae. I’m just a little sad is all. What if I never see him again or he forgets about me?”
“Well, that would take lots of forgetting.” Mae exclaimed as she started to rummage through Anne’s closet, “If I was you, I would get up and fix myself, so the last meeting is the most memorable. Go make ya’ self some type of presentable. You look like you been tackling racoons all night.”
Anne just turned her head to the side in laughter, before slugging herself off the bed to go get ready for Frankie’s going away party.
Mae continued to dig deeper into the closet until she found a wooden box and held it up. “Hey, how come you been holdin’ out on me? You have a jewelry box, and yours truly didn’t even know about it.” She sneakered, shaking the box.
“Jewelry box? I don’t have a—No Mae, don’t open that!”
“Oh, you really don’t want me in here. What is it then? Love letters from Frankie!? Ooh you little devil, you have another fella’ on the side.” Mae kept shaking the box until Anne came back into the room with a queasy expression, almost afraid.
Mae opened the box and looked completely stunned. “You made them?” She screamed. Anne couldn’t tell whether the expression was a good thing or not.
“Just let me explain, Mae.” Anne started, “The last set hasn’t been made for almost ten years. I thought it was time we had some more. I wasn’t going to use them, I just wanted to have my own set. I made them just like I was taught, I even said the incantation in an enclosed space. No one has to know there is another set. Mae—say something.”
Mae looked up at her cousin before showing the biggest smile she could. “Are ya’ kidding? We have to bring these to the party. You’ll be the talk of school for the rest of ya’ natural life. What if someone wins a million dollars or something? It will be because of you.”
“Mae, no! You know the cards don’t work like that. And what if someone doesn’t follow the rules? I’ll be the crazy girl who created a natural disaster with her cards. Mama doesn’t even know I made them. She’ll be upset with me.” Anne looked at the ground.
“Anne, it doesn’t even matter—just bring them. What’s the harm in it?”
“Oshun is the harm in it. I don’t feel good about it.”
Mae took the box and tucked it in her bag. She pulled Anne by the hand and out of the door. Two blocks away, the grey house on the right was Frankie’s. Cars littered the sidewalk, glowing under the streetlights. Side by side, Anne and Mae walked next to each other up to his front door. They knocked, once, twice, right before the third knock, the door opened wide. Frankie’s face lit up at the sight of Anne.
“I’ve been waiting for you, Anne.” Anne grabbed his hand as they made their way into his home. It was jammed with kids she knew from everywhere. Some from class, the neighborhood, and others that just hung around. Even with all the teens packed together, it didn’t feel like quite a party until Mae and Anne entered. The energy shifted quickly, almost in a daunting way.
"Just when everyone was dancing and talking amongst themselves the music stopped."
Falling into the arms of Frankie, Anne sat on the couch and enjoyed his laughter and company. All while Mae was becoming the center of attention, she always liked to keep it that way. Just when everyone was dancing and talking amongst themselves the music stopped. The record was scratching, all the teenagers erupted into groans until Mae stood on top of the coffee table.
“Hey y’all the party ain’t over. Me and Anne got a game we can play. Anne is the best teacher, come over here Anne.”
Mae smiled brightly, waving Anne to the middle of the room in all her embarrassment and dread.
Standing up she pulled Mae close to her. “Why would you do that? I told you that I couldn’t share it.”
Mae smiled. “Y’all ready to play? Teach us how Anne.”
The group erupted into chants to have Anne teach them the game and against her better judgement, she caved. Anne set the game up. Only four people could play, Mae, Frankie, her, and Frankie’s best friend James. At a small rectangular table, they sat facing each other.
“We are given gifts by the deities of our people in the form of divine destiny. These cards and this game will allow one of us to receive one of the many blessings in store for us right now. Because we respect the deities, we honor them by giving our full devotion to the game and leaving out our greediness. No one can cheat—ever. I ordain this round with the power of Oshun. Aschnakä.”
The four of them played and played, until the game was almost over. The first person to have no cards was Mae. “Aschnakä!” She screamed with a smile, causing everyone to cheer.
Mae grabbed Anne’s arm, whispering, “I slipped a card under the seat. I didn’t know that would work.”
Anne’s eyes widened. “Mae! How could you? You know what mama said.”
“I’ll be fine. You worry too much!”
Mae swayed away from Anne and back into the group, leaving her stunned and heartbroken.
In the kitchen Anne chopped vegetables at the speed of her irritation. Her mother was picking another fight about the game, after countless discussions and many agree to disagree moments.
“You have ta’ teach her Anne. Teach her to be better than you were. This is our family lineage. What did I tell you when I first taught you?”
“We do to it to remember Mama Sofia. I know, I know. But Oya doesn’t need that weight on her Mama. It’s a responsibility she don’t need added to her plate.”
Anne washed more vegetables and continued to cut. Putting on a pot of rice, she tried to ignore the silence forming in the kitchen. “And don’t try to make me feel worse for not teaching her. Of course, I want her to learn. But do you remember what happened to Mae? I do.”
Looking across the room, out the living room window she examined the big palm tree by the front steps of their home. The biggest and oldest tree in their yard. Twenty-seven years old.
“What happened to Mae was not your fault Anne. She shouldn’t have cheated. She knew the rules.”
“That doesn't make it hurt any less Mama.” Anne shuffled in the kitchen, searching for the piece of roast she sat aside for tonight’s dinner.
“Well--you made up your mind.” Her mother said solemnly. Amid a cloud of silence that was starting to take over the air, small footsteps broke through.
“Mommy!” Oya, the three-year-old product of Anne and Frank’s marriage of five years.
“My baby, my baby. Go sit on the couch, while I finish dinner. Daddy will be home soon.” Anne smiled largely, but flakily.
“This gonna’ be a secret you can’t keep forever.” Anne’s mother whispered.
“As long as I’m alive, she will never have to see the pain those cards bring.”
The door locked behind Oya with a slight click. With one book bag strap over her shoulder, she happily carried her math textbook in the crook of her right arm and a notebook in her left. The house was settled into a solemn quiet atmosphere. The most Oya could hear was faint whispers from her mother and father.
“They cut her.” Her mother said in distress.
“I told them not to, I did, I promise. They said they wouldn’t.” Her father answered.
Oya put her right ear to the center of their door. She listened intently to the strained silence, until the door opened. She was caught in the headlights of her parents' stare.
“Follow me, Oya.” Anne looked her in the eye, tear streaks dried down her cheek. One step after the other, thirteen-year-old Oya followed her mother outside of the house to the front yard and kneeled in front of a stump that used to be a full-grown tree. Human blood was slowly and steadily coming from the stumps many rings. It was pulsing and bleeding.
“Mama, w-what's wrong with the tree?”
Anne closed her eyes and mumbled, “Oshun, we thank you for the blessings and the curses. Asumanala.”
Oya watched her mother as she put her right hand on the stomp’s center. Her hand covered in red. “It’s time I taught you Oya.” Anne started, “We were put on this earth by Oshun to guide the people who may be astray. Your great grandma created a game—.”
“What game Mama?”
“Aschnakä. The game of faith.”