Hi, I’m Tonia Thompson, horror writer and creator of NIGHTLIGHT, a podcast featuring horror written by Black authors.
This week, we have a story from the amazing Sheree Renée Thomas. I’ve been a fan of her work for years now, but when I met her at Blacktasticon back in June of this year, I became a fan of her. Sheree’s work has always spoken to my heart, and she is such a kind, giving figure in the Black horror community, I knew I wanted a story of hers on the podcast one day.
This story, Malaika Descending deserves every bit of the amazing performance Cherrae Stuart put into it, and I hope you’ll love it as much as I do.
And now, Malaika Descending, by Sheree Renée Thomas.
Sheree Renée Thomas
I went to visit my Aunt Malaika, in Hell. The bus took so long to get there, I started to give up, tell them to let me off so I could go home. Seem like we wasn’t doing nothing but driving around in circles no way, and all I could think about was Aunt Malaika gone, Aunt Malaika gone. She had died about six weeks earlier, slipping on the wet pavement on her back porch and breaking her hip. They say she lay there, her wispy braids resting in her white rose bush, the thorns pushing up in her eye, until her half-blind neighbor, Miss B., looked over the fence that separated their backyards and called an ambulance.
Of course, they were late.
It took them two hours to come. “Ain’t no hurry,” somebody heard them say. “The old heffa already dead.” I guess there was no secret about folk not liking my Aunt Laika. I can call her that now, since she gone. She can’t do nothing to me no way—not with her being in Hell and all. Because if she could, Aunt Malaika would have slapped the taste from my mouth, would have had me reciting Scriptures until I was hoarse and the black ran down my face.
Because everybody know that Aunt Ma-la-i-ka don’t like nobody ‘skimping on her God-given syllables,’ messing up her melodious name. You got to say four—Ma-la-i-ka—or don’t say it at all.
Everybody know that—at least most everybody.
The last time somebody messed up and called my aunt, ‘Miz Laika,’ instead of her navel name, Ma-la-i-ka, she killed them. Actually, she let their daddy die, but that’s killing all the same, now isn’t it? That was one of the last times somebody had to call the ambulance to Alma Street, too, and it was poor Raybone who ended up knocking on the wrong neighbor’s door.
His daddy, Mr. Wilder, lived two shotguns down from my Aunt Malaika’s house, on the other side of the street, and apparently, Mr. Wilder had messed around and choked on a fish bone, sitting up on the back step by the kitchen. His son, Raymond “Raybone” Wilder, Jr., was staying with him again—he and his daddy had “an understanding,” you see—and Raybone was so stressed out that he ran over to Aunt Malaika’s house instead of calling Ms. B, or Ms. Perez, or anybody, like he knew he should.
I don’t know why he did this. When I think about it, it don’t make no sense. He knew Aunt Malaika never liked him. Whenever she’d see him, she’d screw up her face, jaws sagging, and say, “A 35-year-old man too grown to be sitting up in his daddy’s house not working,” but then she’d catch Mr. Wilder, Sr. huffing down the street again, his arms filled with a grease-stained paper bag full of whatever he’d scraped up from the church kitchen, and she’d just suck her teeth and stomp back into her dusty old house.
And even her house was hateful. The high porch steps sagged and sunk like they were ready to trip any fool crazy enough to want to walk up them. The back door didn’t hardly stay shut if you closed it, and that front door would mangle any key in its lock. Most days she kept her door open. No need to lock it. Nobody was desperate enough to steal from Aunt Malaika.
Later, when they asked Raybone why he didn’t just call 911 from his own home, he said his daddy’s phone had got cut off. I don’t know about all that. First of all, by the time the ambulance came to North Memphis, he probably would’ve been dead anyway, and second, of all the souls on the street, Aunt Malaika would have been the last last one I would have tried to borrow anything from. So I don’t know what Raybone was thinking, but I do know, that when he woke Aunt Malaika up, beating on the door like he crazy, she cussed him out thinking he was the po po, and then charged him twenty-five cents for the phone call. If I’m lyin’, I’m dying. Said that Raybone was as shiftless as his daddy, “didn’t never work but always sitting somewhere, eating.” Said his daddy was too big and greasy to be eating all that chicken and fried fish, anyway. And when Raybone said, “But Ms. Laika, if you don’t let me make this call, he gon’ be dead . . . .” Aunt Malaika started stuttering and sputtering so, that she snatched back the phone and slammed the door in poor Raybone’s face.
The ambulance came on by when Mr. Wilder died—about twenty minutes after they got the call . . . and that was a good ten minutes after Aunt Malaika turned Raybone away. Raybone had sprained his ankle running down her evil porch steps—his big old size fifteens fell right through the floor—and he had to limp down past old Newborn’s empty lot on to Mr. Denton’s place to make the call. But when Aunt Malaika hit that floor on 875 Alma, on the hottest day in July, she might as well have been laying dead in the street, because by the time that ambulance come, Aunt Malaika was long gone.
Reverend Preacher say in his sermon that Mrs. Malaika Hamilton had been a fine, upstanding woman, steadfast in the Church and didn’t nobody sitting on those hard mourner’s pews dare say nary a contrary word.
Aunt Malaika never missed a meeting of the usher board, and her white gloves and uniform were always pristine (a fine feat, given the dust she let accumulate in the house she’d been living). Aunt Malaika had been a member of the Church, longer than even the oldest deacon, and she had the dirt on damn near everyone. Still, she never would tell a soul, or at least, I don’t think she would. Not many saint points in that. To Aunt Malaika, gossip was a sin. Even so, that didn’t stop her from staring you down with that old knowing look in her eye that let you know, that she know that you know that she could tell if she wanted to tell and you know if you keep on backsliding, you know someday she would.
So when Reverend Preacher peered under his glasses, meeting the gaze of every one of us, we didn’t do nothing but listen. “Mrs. Hamilton,” Reverend Preacher say, revving up. “I said, Mrs. Ma-la-i-ka Hamilton. . .”
“Yes,” we replied in unison.
“You know you had to get it right,” Reverend Preacher say, laughing. “Sister Hamilton didn’t tolerate you de-se-crat-ing her name. Sister Hamilton was a fine example to you younger folk on how to live in the fullness of the Word.”
“I say, the fullness.”
“And Mrs. Hamilton was born and raised in the Church,” he said, clutching his bible, “part of that noble congregation called Old School,” we raised our heads and said, “Amen,” praying he would soon hush up as the ushers scurried in their white padded shoes.
The doors of the church were open, but who would have thought that Aunt Malaika’s soul didn’t float through them.
It was true that Aunt Malaika’s ‘steadfastness’ had made her a hard soul to live with. At one point or another, everybody in the church had had some narrow dealing with her. Still, I was a little hurt, though not exactly surprised when I got her call. Whatever happened, I never expected to see Aunt Malaika in Hell.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but Hell is really small. I can hardly get my hips up in here. Despite all the fire and brimstone—you know how they say we like the heat—you can tell that Hell wasn’t made for no black folk. The hallways are too narrow, and the ceiling is much too low. It keeps pressing down every time you take a step. I nearly cracked my skull trying to make my way to Aunt Malaika’s raggedy room.
And the woman at the front desk just as mean and nasty—had the nerve to cut her eyes at me, like I was going to steal something.
I walked down the hall, the sulphur so thick, I knew I’d be smelling it in my sleep.
Aunt Malaika shares a room with two other old women. I know this must be Hell because Aunt Malaika didn’t like to share much of anything without making you feel guilty about it.
But if anyone could make a soul feel more weary in Hell, that would be Aunt Malaika. When I come in, she’s sitting up on the top bunk, her fingers knotted and working in her lap, staring out a dingy window that somebody tried to cheer up with a yellow, faded crazy quilt. The stitches are all ragged and crooked, like somebody blind and shook-with-seizures sewed them. I can hardly see the pattern. I want to clear my throat, say hello, but it seems like I still can’t speak in that woman’s presence.
“Laika, baby, look like you got you some company.” The woman turns to me, her piercing grey eyes look as if she could see all up in my heart and soul. I smile and turn my head away real fast, no telling what she might see.
Another woman clutching a photo, turns to stare at me. She wraps a tattered, navy blue sweater around her thin shoulders and smiles. Her teeth are blue and stained. She smiles up at me kindly, as if she don’t know it.
“Who is it, Gladys? Can’t be nobody I want to see,” Aunt Malaika says. “Jim-bo? Karen? Hollis?”
“No, it’s me, Aunt Malaika.” I nearly choke on the words, voice so quiet, she can hardly hear me. I see her turn from the window and squint.
“Who the hell is ‘me’?” she asks, squinting. “Ah, don’t say nothing,” she says before I can answer, recognition widening her eyes. “Got to be mealy-mouthed Mildred. You the only one that bother to keep my name straight.”
I nearly fall back with the force of these words. The only one…? Damn. All that struggle for nothing.
“What you bring me, girl, ‘cause the food up in here ain’t fit to feed a snake.”
I hold out my palms, sweating.
She looks disgusted.
I could have kicked my own butt for coming empty-handed, but hell, what a body supposed to bring to a woman that swear she don’t need anything? I’d been trying to figure out how to please this woman since before I was born, and from the frown on her face, I guess she was going to keep me trying now that she done worried herself straight into Hell.
She brushed back her braids with the back of her hand and pulled a yellow cardigan over her ample breasts.
“Don’t mind this,” she said when she caught me staring. She tugged the I’m Retired, What’s Your Excuse? T-shirt self-consciously. The long-sleeved shirt was a size too small and kept sitting up on her belly. “It’s too hot to be walking round here in all that mess. I don’t know what made your Cousin Hollis dress me in that awful, gaudy red dress. Knowing full well I wouldn’t be caught out in no hussy slip like that.”
“It was pink, not red,” I said, “and I thought you looked nice, Aunt Lai . . . Malaika.” Better than what she was wearing now.
“You would,” she said, narrowing her eyes at my flouncy sundress.
I was never her favorite niece.
She leaned forward, grabbing my wrist, and hissed in my ear.
“What you say, Aunt Malaika?” I could barely understand her. Her breath smelled like Juicy Fruit and minty fresh toothpaste.
“I said, don’t you eat nothing up in here,” she whispered loudly. “Don’t eat a crumb or a cracker, and watch out for that heffa at the front desk. She sneaky. She’ll mess around and have you singing a blues for every season.”
“Okay, Aunt Malaika,” I said slowly, like I understood. This heat and sulphur must have fried up her poor brain.
“You best to listen to your Grandmama,” Gladys says. She was sitting in one of those green plastic deck chairs, her flowery duster spread out across her thick thighs. She’d been staring at a muted TV screen that was mounted in a corner of the wall. A skein of orange tangled yarn rested in her lap. I watched her pale grey eyes return to the black and white stories on the tube. The other one sat beside a faded chiffarobe, the vanity table cluttered with warped and peeling photos of children, smiling and gap-toothed. They stared back at me, making me think of ice cream and pulpy lemonade, the kind the other ‘wayward’ kids used to get when I was sweating in Sunday school.
“That your grandbaby?” she asked.
“I told you she ain’t,” Aunt Malaika barked, gritting her teeth. “I ain’t never had no children and ain’t never wished I could.”
I clasped my hand, nails biting into the palm flesh. Before I came, I said I was going to be nice to Aunt Malaika, like I always have, but she was testing me. Though nobody could ever say I wasn’t grateful for how she took me in and raised me like her own, I never much cared for the way she had of not claiming me. No, I wasn’t her natural born, but she was the closest thing to a mama I’d ever known. And if I wasn’t her daughter, I might as well be, because all the other kids, Cousin Hollis included, was scared of her and wouldn’t have nothing to do with her.
That’s probably why Hollis buried her in that red dress.
I decided to change the subject.
“So how you settling in, Aunt Malaika?”
She looked at me like I had lost my mind. “Well what you think?” she asked. “One minute I’m minding my business, watering my rose bush—you know how they get during the summer—and the next, I’m trying to raise my head to meet My Maker. I look up and find myself in this Hell Hole, and ain’t a real rose bush the first or a drop of air conditioning.”
I look at her in disbelief.
“That’s why I ain’t never wanted no public assistance,” she continued. “They’ll welfare you right out of a good house and into the state penitentiary. Mark my words. Soon they gon’ be roundin’ up Negroes left and right just cuz they hard up and hungry. Gon’ make it illegal to even have yo’ own garden so you can feed yourself.” She fanned herself. “But let me stop. You see what they got me in.” She shook her head. “It’s too hot up in here. I been trying to tell that old battle axe up at the front desk, but she don’t listen. Talking ‘bout ‘take it to Jesus . . .’”
“I’m so sorry,” I say, a little breathless. I’m starting to see what she means. I can hardly breathe myself, and I feel my sundress clinging to me, hot and sticky against my skin. “Why don’t I open this window for you,” I say, pulling back the curtain.
“It’s stuck,” she says, rolling her eyes.
No, she never liked me, but I was the only one who bothered to see about her. But I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to fight it off, but here I was again, trying to prove my worthiness. I tugged harder on the window pane, trying to force it up with the tips of my fingers. It didn’t budge, but I did see a sight that made me still and queasy.
The window was nailed shut, big red rusting nails driven deep into the window sill. But just beyond it was a rose bush, so big and beautiful, perfectly rounded with its soft petals and luscious leaves gleaming like God’s Great Own, like something straight out of Eden.
No wonder Aunt Malaika stayed glued to that window.
That’s when I started wondering what Old Grey Eyes was missing in that TV she was watching so hard, and Miss Thin—what kind of a sad story was hidden behind those children’s gap-toothed smiles and eyes?
I keep staring at the rose bush until it moves. I think it moves, or maybe that was just——
A thorny branch snakes up and hisses at me, then slams hard into the window pane, cracking the glass. An odor so foul and thick begins to fill the room that Miss Thin begins to wail.
“Baby, just shut it,” Aunt Malaika says, waving at the curtains. “Shut it quick before I have to listen to Velma all day.” Her voice is tired, almost resigned. I have never heard Aunt Laika sound this way.
I yank back the tattered curtains, listening for the next assault, but the rose bush soon tires and slinks back into itself. The room is quiet, silence falls around us like a heavy shawl. Below the ragged calm of Miss Thin’s breathing, I hear the low voiced hum of distant climate control. Perhaps a heater.
Miss Thin slumps in her vanity chair, the pictures tumbling over in their gilded frames. Grey Eyes falls back into the rhythm of her voiceless stars, their movements a slow pantomime against the colorless screen.
I sit next to Aunt Malaika, my knee pressed against her thigh, and stare at the hidden window. Aunt Malaika loved her rose bush. She prized its roots more than any sour fruit on her swaybacked peach trees. Before the sun rose, she was out with her rusty watering can in hand. And three times each day, before it set, she would water it again, sprinkling it from her cupped hands, as if it was her own back porch baptism.
When I was a child, I used to watch her from my bedroom window. These quiet times, when dayclean was just bending into daydone, she chose to be alone. She never let me help her, afraid that I might pour too much or crush the delicate petals and leaves with my eager hands. But she let me watch, and for that I was grateful. Her rose bush was the only thing of beauty she allowed in her yard.
“Remember how you used to wipe my eyes with rose petals, after you bathed me and put me to bed?” I say suddenly. “Your rose bush had a special scent. I ain’t smelled it in years, but look like I woke up the other day and heard you call my name.”
“How you remember a thing like that?” she says.
She gives me another look, not so long, not so knowing, then scratches her scalp, flicking dandruff from a white braid. I imagine the young girl in her, what she must have looked like when she was close to my age. She never had any pictures nowhere in the house, and anytime I asked her about her youth, she would just look off and suck her teeth. She still has that head of hair all the other usher mothers envied, and she still has her ways. I look around. I don’t see any mirrors. I guess you don’t need none in Hell. I wonder if she knows.
“When I was a youngun, not such a slip as you, but young enough,” she begins, “them old mothers used to say a night bath in rosewater kept a girl’s future soft and sweet. Something ‘bout sealing a woman’s ways.”
I laugh. “That is sweet.”
She grunts. “Oh, that ain’t nothing but some hoodoo mess, them old ways from folk that don’t know no better. You feeling mighty ‘soft and sweet’ now?”
I was, I want to say, ‘til you got ugly.
“That your grandbaby?” Miss Thin asks again. It’s like her mind is one of those old phonographs, and she’s stuck on the same groove. She’s fondling her framed pictures, smiling, spittle hanging from her lip. Aunt Malaika frowns and shifts on the bed. “No, Velma, that’s my daughter. How old you think I is, anyway?”
I don’t say nothing, just look at Aunt Malaika.
“Well, what her name? You been sitting over there whispering and ain’t introduced nobody.”
“Her name Hollis . . .”
“—Mildred,” I mutter.
“Mildred,” she continues, not missing a beat, “has come to visit me, and we was talking, minding our business,” she adds with emphasis. It occurs to me that Aunt Malaika is possessive of a visitor, even me. This is gratifying, and I can hardly contain my smile.
“Well, Mildred, welcome to Hell, child,” Miss Thin says, brightly. “I know it ain’t what you thought it was, but we gone do our best to make you enjoy your stay. You must have done something mighty bad, though, something sinful to come down here, but I can’t tell what it is, sweet as you seem to be. But you never know…they don’t tell you nothing. Just sign you in and lock you up.”
“Never know?” Grey Eyes snapped to attention, her head pivoting away from the TV screen. “What you mean ‘you never know?’ What somebody got to tell you ‘bout yourself that you don’t already know? You here the same reason why we all here.”
“And what’s that?” Miss Thin say, her eyes darting round the room.
“’Cuz you triflin’. You was triflin’ when you was living and now you triflin’ in death.”
“I ain’t triflin’!” Miss Thin yell, banging her tiny fists on her gilded keepsake chest. “Is it wrong to want a little bit of loving for yourself? Is it wrong to want somebody just for you?”
“That’s the problem. He wasn’t for you. He was married, and all them children you doting on, sitting on that desk, ain’t got no part of you in them. They his—his alone.” She paused, doubled back. “Naw, that ain’t right. They his—and his wife’s.”
“It ain’t true,” Miss Thin says, her eyes pleading with me. I knot the hem of my dress, fingers working, nervous—same thing I did when I was child. I don’t want to hear this. In fact, I want to go.
“And if you had the backbone enough to love a married man, you should have had backbone enough to love your ownself!”
“Listen, I ain’t the one who made them vows. When we met, I didn’t know nothing about them! Why ain’t you fussing at him?”
Grey Eyes looked incredulous. “Cuz you the one in hell, not him!”
“Stop it, Gladys,” Aunt Malaika hisses. Her face looks strained, sweat running all around her eyes. She pulls the hem of her too-little shirt down and smooths it, wipes her brow with the sleeve. “That’s enough from you. It’s way too musty up in here without all your hot air, too.”
Grey Eyes pursed her lips and closed her eyes, her whole neck and face frowned up with disapproval.
“Yeah,” Miss Thin says, between sobs. “We not gon’ talk about why you here, now are we?”
“No, we’re not,” Aunt Malaika says, cutting Grey Eyes off before she even got started again. “Seem like you two would get tired of fussing and fighting. Even the devil tired of hearing all y’all’s mess. Ain’t none of us going nowhere.”
The three women sat with this in silence. Finally, Miss Thin wiped her eyes.
“Well, at least we have this nice young thing to keep us company,” she said, perking up.
“Velma, she ain’t here to stay. She just visiting, and in fact, she ‘bout to go,” Aunt Malaika says, struggling to stand up. Baffled, I hold her by her elbow, and let her lean on my shoulder as she gets to her feet. She’s reaching a bare toe across the floor, looking for her slippers.
“Come on child,” she said, hurried. “Wouldn’t want you to miss your bus.”
“But Aunt Malaika, I just got here, and we ain’t hardly talked,” I say as she dusts me off and straightens my loose shoulder strap. Suddenly, I feel like the floor been swept from underneath me. Why she rushing me out now?
“Mildred, we done said all that we need to say. You look good, so I guess, hard as it was, I done good,” she says, brushing her hard knuckles against my cheek. She looks at me with something I’ve never seen from her before: satisfaction.
“You always was a good child, but so scared of stepping on your own shadow, I couldn’t hardly get you to stand on your own feet.” She stared up into my face, searching. “But you standing now, ain’t you? And now you must go. Visiting hours should be just about up.”
“Well, if you don’t want her to stay, you better get her out of here,” Miss Grey Eyes Gladys says. “’Cause when that heffa come with those pills . . .”
Aunt Malaika sighs. “I know.” She turns to me. “Come on, Mildred, give your mama a kiss.”
I look at her, feeling both guilt and relief. I move to the door, hurriedly, before her mood changes—or she changes her mind. I’m her daughter. That’s what she said. In fact, she said it twice. No turning back from that. She satisfied.
“Should I come back, sometime next week? Next Sunday?”
She pats a loose braid and places it smoothly behind her ear. Her fingers have a marked tremor. We have the exact same ears, shaped like little rose petals. Why didn’t I notice that before?
She looks troubled. “Baby, if you like. But you got to go now. And Mildred . . .”
“Yes?” I say, standing at the door. She reaches out, and for a moment, I think she will hug me, but she grasps my wrists. Her hands are cold—deadly cold. The shock of it makes me pull away, but she holds on. “Don’t look behind you,” she says, staring at me until I understand. “Remember.”
Forget what they tell you. Hell is very small, and crowded. The ceilings are low and the hallways are narrow. A full-bodied soul like me can’t hardly make no elbow room. And the air, the air smells like pot liquor and cooking grease, like something holed up in a smoky kitchen, while my Aunt Malaika sits on her bunk bed by a wavering window, staring at a strip of green, receding.
I walk quickly through the winding corridors, my eyes averted, my hands resting at my sides as I pass through the gates. I am holding my breath. I am not holding back tears. I am concentrating on white roses, sharp elbows resting in a dusty windowsill, I am thinking of my mother and I don’t look back.
October is halfway over, and that means Season 1 of NIGHTLIGHT will be coming to and end soon. We’ve got 2 more episodes, plus a special full cast production bonus episode on Halloween. But thanks to members of the NIGHTLIGHT Legion, we’ll continue living on in Season 2. Join horror lovers, like our newest member Adnan, in supporting our mission to #PayBlackWriters and you’ll also get access to bonus episodes throughout the year. Real horror stories, reimagined legends, and Black horror chats with some of the most amazing voices in the genre are all perks of your membership. Plus, you know you won’t end up as Malaika’s roommate in the afterlife. Just go to patreon.com/nightlightpod to join us.
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