by Carole Avila
Second Place Winner of the 2018 International Art Tales Contest
Momma presented me with a djembe at a homecoming party during my first visit down south in five years. It wouldn’t have been such an odd gift if I were musically inclined, or if I wasn’t in my second chaotic year of residency at Johns Hopkins Memorial. Perhaps the gift was meant to inspire appreciation of my black culture or maybe a connection to my primal soul.
Since childhood, Momma consistently recited her family history to me and my siblings. Her mother never purchased bread because she couldn’t afford fifteen cents a loaf. My great-grandmother was fathered by a slave trader who owned her mother. Momma always found a way to rehash the horrific days of human chattel.
It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate black history. Slavery, an unfortunate occurrence, was now a memorable detail on a senile timeline. Segregation was over. We lived to see our first black president.
“Play this, baby.” Momma thrust the unwrapped present into my chest. The djembe, far from authentic, was marked by a ‘Made in China’ sticker adhered to the side of the chalice-shaped instrument. Instead of tribal images carved on African hardwood with animal skin tightly stretched over the top, the drum looked like resin made to resemble wood, topped by a piece of splotched beige canvas.
“Uh, thanks, Momma. This is quite a…gift.”
Grandpa Earl leaned on his cane. “Go on, now. Let’s hear you play it, then.”
The other relatives cheered and applauded as if anticipating a folk music concert, every eye expectant and locked upon me.
“Momma, I’ve never even—”
“Oh, don’t you worry none. It’ll come to you, Harlan. Now, sit down next to Cousin Vivian, and let’s hear you play.”
“Lordy,” Great-aunt Thelma said. “He look fresh outta high school, and like he ain’t never seen no drum before!”
My brother and sister laughed at me.
My cousins called out, “C’mon, Ringo!”
Inebriated Uncle Ray yelled, “Spank that baby!”
Cousin Vivian tugged on my arm, and I collapsed onto the sofa beside her, the djembe between my legs.
“If you wanna shut them up, you better play,” she whispered.
So, I played. First, tentative taps with surrendering fingertips, then I used the breadth of each hand to alternately pound the fake animal skin. In minutes, the beat shifted on its own accord as I unleased a bit of daring, matching my energy to that of the drum. Heads bobbed, hands clapped, and Uncle Milton delivered a flippant push on his wife’s backside.
“Show ‘em how it’s done, baby!”
Aunt Sarah swayed like a Jamaican breeze, and the drum followed her undulating arms, the rhythmic pattern of her steps, the percussion of her beaded braids in sync each time her skirt swirled in a vibrant kaleidoscope. Others joined her, everyone laughing as they danced in celebration of the pulsating and deep-spirited sound.
Momma sat down beside me as I thu-thumped the top of the Chinese drum.
“Now you understand,” she said. “That’s how you play the djembe.”
Inspired by: Tambor, 2000, Photograph, William Hendricks
Shadows of Oranges
by Carole Avila
First Place Winner of the 2016 International Art Tales Contest
Wisps of S-shaped smoke rose up from the engine. My bumper penetrated the stucco of someone’s home. Oil splattered across the windshield, black inkblots without symmetry. Viscous fluid crawled downward, too lazy to drip in a steady stream. Maybe too traumatized to move.
A slender tree, defenseless against the impact, fell forward over the hood. Her oranges hung from weeping branches, and wooden limbs bent at an odd angle, like my leg. My head drooped over my shoulder.
Juicy pulp bled from crushed victims. I inhaled the sour odor of citrus and gasoline. The tang of burnt rinds in my nostrils didn’t smell like the citrus shampoo I used on my baby boy’s golden hair. Far away sirens lost any sense of urgency, and the oranges hung without fear of falling off branches, as if the stillness could hold them.
The paramedic asked my name, but I couldn’t answer. He shouted, “Breathe!” but I didn’t like what I saw and closed my eyes. The next time they opened I lay in a hospital bed and my leg dangled in a sling strung up to a metal pole. My arms and hands hurt, as if I still clung to the steering wheel, a useless life preserver.
A midnight vista in the window reflected the headboard and smooth plastic edges of the bed with an automated blow-up mattress. Monitors winked at me, as if they had a secret. Two vases of flowers, one full and one anemic, sat on a rolling tray.
A basket held fruit—oranges—and their brilliant color washed out any of the other treats. The fluorescent fixture cast a shadow on the pitted skins. Orange waxing moons. Slivers of smiles, like my son’s just before he fell asleep in his car seat.
Weeks passed before the hospital released me with a stack of papers on my lap and a metallic heart-shaped balloon attached to a long curl ribbon tied to the wheelchair. A nurse pushed the chair and me and the balloon down the long cold aisle to the hospital lobby. People pretended not to stare. Their eyes felt sorry for my scars peeking out the bandages, but the plastic bracelet on my wrist reminded me of who I was.
My parents picked me up in their battered sedan. Mom apologized because there was only one route back to my apartment. For just a second my heart gave out like it did that orange day as their car neared the stucco house. Someone wrapped a sturdy mesh screen around the tree where my bumper had embraced it like a crushing bear hug.
I asked my dad to stop and pick the one remaining fruit, and at home my mom peeled and sliced it. The first bite squirted stinging nectar into my eyes, and it tasted sweet. Blood oranges. It smelled like gasoline.
Dad said to call if I needed anything. Mom would stay for a couple of weeks. She had already packed up the nursery.