THE DRESS

It was a neighborhood store she had passed by for years without going in, why, she didnít know. It looked so much like something on the side of life. But now, she had no reason not to go in. She was dying.

The doctor had said as much, giving her only the terrible option of massive doses of chemotherapy and radiation, all for less than a year more of life; otherwise four to six months, half of that time filled with excruciating pain: just time enough to tie up loose ends, to settle accounts, to make peace with oneís demons, and to ready oneself for the low-swinging chariot of the angels, or else to simply cease to be. Oh yes, there was some experimental European treatment, but that was too expensive; and then, there were the oases of miracles, healing waters and sacred pilgrimages, but they would only get in the way.

She thought it was unfair to be ripped from life in this way, she should have had at least twenty more years. Imagine everything you could do in twenty more years! But she thought if she had had them, if she hadnít been sick, she would have wasted them just as surely as she had wasted the years that were already behind her that she could never have back again. And this was better than dying in a car crash, wasnít it? To just fly through the windshield onto the hard road without any preparation, to die in a sudden moment of glass and blood without the opportunity to say good-bye or thank-you, or to kneel down and make a prayer? Or was Caesar right in the end? The best way to die is always sudden. Was it better not to know? Like when the nurse who had given her her first tetanus shot said: "Iíll poke you on the count of 3," then jabbed her with the needle on the count of 2. Wow, if that hadnít been the worst shot of her life! A sore arm for three weeks, just like Hell, flames burning underneath the skin and a devil stabbing her with a pitchfork. Maybe it was better if there was no life after deathÖ

After she got the news - after two days of calling in sick and a weekend of weeping - she had tried to adjust, to show up for work as though she were still one of them. But it was hard to get back on her feet, to step out into the world again, to smile, to put up with the anxiety of the boss and the character assassinations over cups of coffee, to type trivia into a computer. It was as though the light switch of life had suddenly been turned on by the fact that life was almost over, and she suddenly saw the world she was living in for the first time, discovered that she was standing in a room filled with amazing books to read, precious objects of art to cherish, wonderful bottles of wine to taste, a whole paradise left behind by youthís wasteful cataracts, by the Niagara Falls of living without consciousness, by rushing through gardens without carrying off a single flower; then by middle ageís grim routines and cult of suppressed suffering, and regret. Over the grave of all those sacrificed years she had laid wreaths of lottery tickets, and on the tombstone marking her surrender to practicality she had inscribed the cynical jokes that she and her coworkers shared, like dogs on leashes urinating in the gutter to lay claim to imaginary kingdoms before mastersí hands pulled them away. Dreams, what were they? Another geological age; things to be ashamed of, or just stashed away like a high school yearbook thatís better kept out of reach, like a sharp knife in the kitchen. Donít look at that bright-eyed granddaughter of Georgia farmhands in her graduation cap, continuing to fly through the air like a stone thrown by Abe Lincoln that hasnít come down yet, flying towards the day when the last scar will be gone; donít look at that girlís shining, hope-filled eyes, they will turn you into a stone like Medusaís!

But now, the light in the room had been turned on! There were so many things to do. There was so much to see and so much to feel, if you could just take the armor off, the dented armor that had been the easy way out, and let your skin be touched by the sun. She bought a whole new slue of spirituals, and kept listening over and over again to the line that went The river of Jordan is muddy and cold, it chills the body but not the soul. She looked at pictures of her dead son, and wondered if she would see him waiting for her at the end of the tunnel as she raised her arms and flew upwards into the light. But then she thought, not yet, donít let go just yet, get yourself a last dose of the earth. And the fear that dying was just like sinking into quicksand and being swallowed up by nothing battled against the angels who were putting up the WELCOME sign in her head.

She grabbed up greedy stacks of books from the library, and in the ancient Roman words of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who she had first learned about from the book Stoicism, Christianity, And The Individual Conscience long before the movie "Gladiator" ever came out, she read: "Think of your many years of procrastination; how the gods have repeatedly granted you further periods of grace, of which you have taken no advantage. It is time now to realize the nature of the universe to which you belong, and of that controlling Power whose offspring you are; and to understand that your time has a limit set to it. Use it, then, to advance your enlightenment; or it will be gone and never in your power again." [1] But as she read those words, she was filled with rage that she had not read them earlier. How could you cram a whole unlived life into six months, both a squandered past and a stolen future? She remembered the time that Mathias, her sweet but slow cousin, had tried to fit a box full of cookies they had just got from the store into the little cookie jar at her auntís house, and ended up breaking them all into crumbs.

She started the novel War And Peace, but quit after a couple of chapters, because in the pile next to it was sitting Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, Germinal, The Red and the Black, The Autumn of the Patriarch, and Don Quixote. She leafed through the pages of a book on global warming, and one on neocolonialism, but thought, what can I do in six months? If I was an Islamic militant in Iraq, with that framework of right and wrong, I could be a suicide bomber; here, as me, I only have time to carry one more sign in another ignored demonstration, to caress the war with the illusion that itís our choice, because we are allowed to say no. She took out books of poems, searching for a shorter path to the gold. But then she read a poem in a collection of Japanese literature:

You say, "I will come,"

And you do not come.

Now you say, "I will not come."

So I shall expect you.

Have I learned to understand you? [2]

She had to stop reading. Life was ending. Why stab herself in the heart all over again?

Then there was the day that she went to the botanical gardens. How beautiful the flowers were that day, the blossoming cherry trees! No wonder the Japanese had invented the Shinto religion and imagined that the flowers were fairies, and the ocean was a god. Lords who had scattered peasants like flocks of birds before them as they rode their horses recklessly down roads they felt belonged only to them, fell to their knees, helpless supplicants beneath the cherry treesí delicate threat of beauty leaving; the mightiest of the samurai feared to die without first branding their souls with the flowers, without drinking in their momentary perfume and letting the pink and white light of the all-powerful blossoms pour into the empty cup of their eyes to fill their parched hearts. But the garden could not reach her that day. What even the great lords could not resist could not touch her, she did not even feel a faint breeze of what the blossoms were. The cherry trees sang for all the world but her; she saw them on the other side of a thick glass window of pain inside her soul, a dirty window that she could not wash, she saw them through smudges. Fiercely, she gripped at the trees with her senses, she tried to drag their beauty into her, to squeeze them like sponges for every last drop of life they contained, to fashion them into a weapon of intensity with which to combat the brevity of the time left to her; but the trees simply waved their branches in the breeze, like dancers who are complete amateurs, their flowery glory made no poem for her, they did not even speak to her in broken English, not even to say good-bye; they treated her as though she were already gone, no longer worth talking to. They were only blossoming for those who were going to live.

It maddened her, this effort to dig up the treasure she had left buried under the ground until now; it maddened her, how the soft earth that had once been there above the treasure had turned to stone, and she could not break through to it. The sound of the shovel hitting stone, the ticking clock! Now, when she needed most to taste and to feel, the world had become expressionless. She could not tease a smile out of it, no matter how she tried. It was as though her head were already on the chopping block, and she must spent the rest of her days bracing for the fall of the axe; no beautiful singing, no flower on a tree, no bird flying through the sky, could overcome the vulnerability of her exposed neck.

When she walked down the street she felt polluted, unclean, like there was a rotting animal inside her belly; she had read those stories of insane crack-addict mothers whose apartments are filled with feces, and dirty dishes covered with cockroaches and prowling rats, with her children neglected and abused, and she felt that her body was just like that, a terrible, dark apartment inside of her that no one else must open the door to. She hung her head in shame, her shoulders stooped with a terrible sense of inferiority. She felt like she had betrayed the human race by becoming sick, like she was Judas or Hitler: a Nazi with an internal gas chamber, destroying every person in the world by reminding them that human beings died. She must not let the fact that she was dying leak out of her, it would be like invading the world, turning herself into a dark cloud, blotting out the sun. Leper! Leper! Flee from the leper! Surround me with a ring of seismographs, evacuate everyone who is happy before I erupt with a fit of crying!

She tried to defend herself with philosophy. Everyone is dying from the minute they are born, she told herself. These healthy people walking by me on the street are terminally ill, all of them, they just donít know it, they just donít think in those terms. But every one of them who is not killed in a car crash or shot or stabbed, or drowned in some kind of foolish accident, is going to succumb to some illness down the road. They are going to have a heart attack or stroke or hear the doctor say the terrible world "cancer." And yet, here they are, laughing, smiling, sitting in restaurants, going to movies, holding hands, kissing, talking to themselves with the innocence of mad scientists. Why canít I still enjoy my life if they can enjoy theirs? Itís all in the mind. All because I know I am going to die, and they donít. I see Anubis standing in the doorway, they are plowing the fields by the Nile, and waiting for the golden crops to come. They can still share their bodies which are not rotting, their bodies like jungles growing exuberantly towards each other, they do not feel that they are corpses trying to impose themselves upon the living. Sweat and semen and gold hypnotize them, like swaying flutes that put the cobra to sleep. Dying is the last thing on their minds. They havenít climbed high enough yet to be afraid of heights.

But philosophy could not restore the fragment to the whole, the intellectual bridge over the rift could not bear her dark weight; even birds that had wings would not land on it; nothing likes to fall, even things that can fly. She felt lost, alone, like Emmet Till. Only it was she who was lynching herself on behalf of the world, because she was no longer like everyone else, and they must be purified from her difference. Oedipus has sinned! Oedipus has sinned! He has killed the king, his father, and slept with his mother, Queen Jocasta, the last falling leaf of autumn! He must be driven from the city! I must drive myself from everything green, wear black to make a wall between myself and the dancers. Joy survives only in a box of lead. I am twisted, a failure, a demonic succubus, stay out of their dreams! Stay out of their dreams! Stop fighting against the gray hair with a laugh, be somber, like ashes, be serious, severe, silent, do not crash the party with a tear, do not show up like a skeleton at the ball. Know your place! From now on, it is the clinic or the hospital. The world belongs to stupid, silly things until you fall off the cliff. Donít scream as youíre falling, donít ruin it for them. Lemmings must be brave.

Now there was only work, coasting through the last days of self-destruction for a paycheck, and her morbid, death-filled room, citadel of her invisible breakdowns, and the outside world which she tried to taste, savor, and digest, but could not; she was like a lioness in a world without prey, sniffing stones, and starving amidst the tall grass.

She wasnít sure why she hadnít come into the store before; perhaps because she felt that the past was far behind her, that her roots didnít go that deep, that far back. Why pretend? When something was lost, why go back and learn it all over again? Just start from where you are, and take it from there. Who needs to waste time trying to be what you never were? A man was eaten by a bear, forget about the man; the man was yesterday, the bear is now, the man isnít, the bear is. The man is bear flesh; the power of the bear is the manís new form. Accept the fact that the bear won. I am the bear cub, so my roots are the bear; why take it back to the man who was eaten by the bear? She also stayed away because there was too much theater in the recovery, it was like actors and actresses, it didnít seem real. The drums and robes and hats, alongside the playoffs and the Big Macs, it was like some weird animal that didnít work out, like the okapi which couldnít decide if it wanted to be a zebra or a giraffe. Of course, she had had friends who chided her for accepting the separation, but she was sensitive enough; she didnít need to have the nails of history driven through her hands again by remembering things she couldnít change, she didnít need to have ideas put into her head that could make her pull back from people she needed, for she was the kind to bear grudges, and didnít want to sabotage herself by knowing too well the sins of others. She was the kind who could kill herself with aloofness. Because forgiveness was so hard for her, her personality depended on forgetfulness to get by.

As she entered the store, she felt amused by the chiming bells that signaled her arrival, it sounded like a herd of goats had just entered the store with her; but then she remembered that nothing in her life was funny anymore. On the wall, a series of silent wooden masks observed her, one laughing, mocking someone or something, one threatening, one apparently self-absorbed, strange and utterly lost in a world of its own. She passed by some intricately woven baskets, and rustic instruments on shelves Ė flutes drums, and something that looked like a fruit with strings - and came, at last, to the glass case counter and the wall behind it, draped with colorful cloths and dresses. The woman who she had sometimes seen through the window of the store, arranging things in the display cases, and flipping over the sign that said "Closed" to "Open" on the inside of the door, was there behind the counter.

"Morning, sister," said the woman behind the counter, who had also seen the ill woman passing by the store for years on her way to and from work, dressed in conservative business attire. She had the accent of some place far away.

"Good morning," the dying woman replied.

"So glad to see you. You know, no mambas in our store. No hyenas. Glad you finally stopped in."

"Nice store."

"Thank you. It looks nicer from in here than through the window, donít it?"

The woman nodded. She was embarrassed, her hands were sweating. The woman behind the counter noticed without stirring, but her face brightened. "Is there something in particular you came looking for?" she asked. "Iíll give you a bargain on anything you choose. Maybe that way youíll come back before ten more years."

The dying woman smiled to herself, she didnít have anything like ten years left, and was glad the owner of the store didnít know it. "Yes," she said. "Iím not sure if Iíll actually buy anything, but for some reason, I got an urge to come in and look at the dresses."

The smile of the woman behind the counter grew. "Well, then, sister, you come to the right place. This is where the dresses are the best. This is the best youíre gonna find in Brooklyn, and in Manhattan, too, and not just because itís my store." And she laughed. "Blow your own horn, I got the skill now. Before I was so quiet like a mouse, had good stuff, just quiet little girl, me. Now I learned!" And she grabbed up some little instrument from underneath the counter and blew some whistles on it that sounded like bird calls, then laughed again. "Birds in the Congo is just like that. I am your nature earth pure Africa woman, play the part well!" And she laughed again, "But really, I am from La Cote díIvoire, I speak French, too. How about you?"

"Oh no," the woman replied, feeling looser, "I speak a little Spanish besides English, for the job. Not very well, though."

"Well, thatís good. Some people speak seven or eight languages, and donít make sense in any one of them! I know just what you need," she added.

"Oh?" the woman asked, temporarily overwhelmed by the stereotype of the wise woman from anywhere but America, by the strange, exotic spiritual artifacts lying all around, and by her medical plight, to expect the store owner to offer some sort of miraculous, healing African herb to her. Then she would have to ask: "How did you know?"

But instead, the woman from the Ivory Coast told her: "Iíve got the perfect dress for you!"

"Oh? Show me!" said the woman, relieved that no false hope was being shoved in her direction, no illusion that might unbalance her, and make her spoil her dying by clutching at straws.

"Right here," said the woman, taking down a large, beautiful cloth from the wall. "You know kente, right?" she asked.

The dying woman nodded, but added, as a way of asking for an explanation: "I know itís some kind of fabric which they weave in Africa."

"In Ghana and Ivory Coast," the woman said. "This hereís all cotton, and hand-woven. See here," she said, sharing it, "you got these strips sewn together. We got beautiful colors in our minds, and the dyes to bring them into the world, and all these designs are like visions that we turn into geometry. Here you got snail shells, and here you got lightning, zig Ėand-zagging through the sky. Here you got a shield."

"Itís like abstract art," said the dying woman. "Like drawing anger, or love. How do you do that? You just let a feeling take over. But this is very precise. About the opposite of Jackson Pollock."

"This is weaving," the store owner agreed. "It needs form. Look at this square, itís like a lamp to hold the color, which is fire. Imagine wearing this."

"But itís not a dress," the dying woman protested. "Itís a cloth. Do you cut it here, in the back of the store, and fit the dress here, or send it out to a tailor?"

"No, no," the woman laughed, not in a way to put her customer down, just because she wasnít the type to repress herself. "This is kente, sister, look, they cut it up and make all kinds of things out of it, but this is your dress right here." In front of her startled customerís eyes, she lifted the dress she was wearing over her head and off, leaving herself in nothing but a slip. "Donít worry, Iím not a lesbian," she said, "though you look so fine you could make a woman become one, but I just got to show you." And stepping back to give herself room, she lifted the great kente mantle up behind her outstretched arms, looking as though she meant to crucify herself on its splendid colors. "Center it," she said. "Get all the patterns lined up right. Then drape it like this, over your left arm. See what a nice right shoulder I got, leave it for the people to see!" And she laughed again, adding something in French that the dying woman didnít understand. "Now I wrap it around like this, see? Ooo, nice hip there I got, and up and over, like this Ė and now, I gather up this and lay it over me like this." And there it was Ė a stunning dress, brilliant with someoneís imagination and color-loving heart, someoneís hand that flew like a butterfly into yellow flowers, and cut down green stalks like army ants, and drew arrows covered with red blood out of lions, and scraped off chips of the black night, and stole pieces of the orange sun, and put them all on the dress. It was like the woman from la coite díivoire was wearing the entire universe! All that she needed was to have the moon and Venus as earrings, and a necklace made of the stars.

"Itís an African toga!" the woman exclaimed.

"Itís kente," repeated the store owner. "Julius Caesar never had nothing this good!"

"Itís beautiful," said the dying woman, truly impressed, not only by the kente mantle, but by the manner in which the Ivory Coaster had turned it into a dress. She was like God, who filled the empty earth with fish and birds. "What about that one? That one up there?" The dying woman thought she might be interested in different colors, different designs.

" Meso annini mentumi a, wose menkofa nanka tire mmo kahyire," the Ivory Coaster said.

"What?"

"Made in Ghana," she said. "What I just told you is a proverb from there, what the people say. Do you know that every kente has designs that they put together to make a proverb, or something that the people say? So that way, you are not only wearing colors, you are wearing a statement. You are putting an idea on your body, you are wearing the clothes of a thought."

"I didnít know," the dying woman admitted. "And what was the one you just said? I like this design." The elongated quadrilaterals like two stretched-out triangles placed together, the brilliant contrast of the red and yellow colors.

"This one is the puff adder. You know, the nasty poison snake you donít want to mess with? Big head like a triangle," she said, pointing. "The saying is: I canít carry the python, but now, you not only want me to carry the python but you give me the head of the puff adder to be my carrying pad. Ė You know, the pad you put on your head to carry things? We women of Africa do love to carry things on our head," she said, picking up a basket from behind the counter and placing it on her head. "See?" And she walked around, loving to be the clown. Because she also knew how to withdraw from disrespectful people and to be as cold as a stone, she could enjoy these moments of comfort with people whose energy she trusted.

"It sounds like a bad deal," the dying woman said.

"To carry a python on top of a puff adderís head? No kidding! So, you get the point of the dress? Stand up for the rights of the people. Donít exploit! Think about it before you make me be your beast of burden, mister, think about your soul."

The dying woman, as she handled the cloth which the store owner put into her hands, thought of work, she thought of the lawsuit so many years ago that had taken so much out of her, the lies and the unjust firing, the unbelievable realization that racism was not only real but that it went beyond the frightening roads through goon towns which you could avoid by taking another route. Then there was this job, the current one, and the neurosis of her boss, a man who seemed to imagine that some monstrous God was standing over his shoulder with a lightning bolt to strike him down if he did not shit fast enough. And since his workers were his intestines, he passed his sickness onto them, and buzzed around them each and every day, like a giant mosquito who wonít let you sleep and wants to suck your last drop of blood. This job should have been as easy as throwing paper airplanes across the room, but he had turned the airplanes into shot-puts, and he spent his day walking around the office with a measuring tape. Mildred had chronic diarrhea, Keisha had ulcers, Jacob had some sort of nervous tick, Ada just ate and ate and they joked that she would have "Entenmans" written on her tombstone, and now look at her, the dying woman, and her fatal disease. They were all a bunch of twisted Pavlovís dogs, and she, it seems, was to be the first murder victim.

Many weekends, fleeting respites between the clashing rocks of unsparing work weeks, which pushed her soul like a coalminer though her body sat in a chair, the dying woman had tried to do something with the pieces of life that were left to her; but nothing had come of any of it. She was literate, knowledgeable about art, reasonably well-informed about politics, with some understanding of history, though she protected herself by focusing on what was most irrelevant to her, seeking fairy tales, not crusades. Enough of her was left at night to make herself interesting Ė an interesting, paralyzed soul, dabbling, but never immersed. As she got older, TV became her nurse, she plugged the IV of its effortless programs, the background music to emptiness, into her veins, and started her long journey towards sleep.

She handed the kente back to the store owner, saddened by the beautiful dress. "What about that one?" she asked, pointing to another cloth hanging on the wall.

"Money attracts blood," said the store owner, bringing it down for her to examine.

"You mean wars, or crime? Like, money is the root of all evil?"

"Oh no," said the Ivory Coaster. "The other meaning. If you got money, all your family will come around you. Doesnít mean like pests, though that could be, too! What it means is you become big in your family, the center, like a mighty tree, the people come to you because we are generous and we share what we have. You have their respect. You help them and they stand by you."

The dying woman smiled, yes, thatís what the work was supposed to lead to, to love, to family, to building something, pain should always build something, something worthwhile, something besides a disease. She had had a family once, long ago, before age and failure had stranded her alone in an apartment that had become her hiding place and the motherland of her depression, with its memories and poison photo albums, its arsenic images of happiness. With money, her daughter Doreen, by a man who didnít stick around long enough to see her through the fourth grade, might have stayed close. But the salary, broken by the madness of living above oneís means because one wanted to spare others the suffering that was their lot, had failed to keep the family afloat. The dying woman, long before she knew she was dying, had become bitter, and when Doreen met a nice but brutally independent man from England, that bitterness caused him to erect a wall between mother and daughter, behind which he disseminated endless propaganda against her, so that she was lucky now if she could break through with an occasional telephone call.

And then there was her son, Kendrick. Such a beautiful, inward-living boy. He had spent all his days drawing, afraid to play ball with the other boys. She should have driven him out of the house, let him get beaten up in the streets, never let that gentleness inside him win. At the age of five in school he picked up a trumpet and began to play. By the age of ten, he was pronounced a virtuoso. In high school, he wrote a symphony for brass, entitled, Angelsí Manifesto. He went off to Oberlin, fell in love with a white girl who left him, then an Asian girl, making his mother wonder if something she had done had turned him against his face; maybe her own insistence on living as though color didnít matter, because it shouldnít. Maybe heíd interpreted that as self-rejection, and was following in her footsteps? The Asian girl turned him on to heroin then left him. Rehab saved him for a month. Then she got the news. A cop had found ID in his wallet, otherwise, they couldnít have identified him. Heíd jumped off the Empire State Building. Imagine that! The Empire State Building! Even in those days, it wasnít an easy feat to climb up over the barrier and take the fatal leap. Days later, she went up to the top of the building to look all the way down at the traffic below and marvel at how anyone could be so desperate as to hurl themselves off of it. Did I make these terrible heights less frightening than going on living? she asked herself. Did I do this to him, did I make him jump? Was I that useless as a mother? Did I drive him into the arms of girls who didnít love him? After the fruit trees died, what was I, nothing but a desert, a place he could not return to? And he didnít even leave a note! Just a page of music in his book.

For years afterwards, whenever she went to parties, people in the corners would whisper: "Thereís the woman whose son jumped off the Empire State Building." There was a hideous glamour in it, she was, in fact, a kind of celebrity of darkness, the tragedy was like a golden ring she wore on her finger which everyone admired or despised. The attitudes of others towards her loss played a major role in driving her from the world, she withdrew to avoid the asphyxiating sympathy and the pulverizing, unspoken judgments.

One day, many years later, she finally brought her sonís last piece of music to an old friend, and had him play it for her on his piano. "Sounds sad," the man said, at last. "Seems like thereís some happiness or gratitude - hear that? Ė trying to come out, but it canít make it. Itís like those carnival games, when you hit the lever with a hammer and a ball goes up the shaft flying towards the bell at the top, but most of the time, the ball just goes up and comes back down without reaching the bell. Thatís this piece of music. Life is there Ė trying Ė but it donít make it to the top Ė the bell donít ring." And the boyís mother just hung her tear-filled head, and tried not to fall into her old friendís arms, because they werenít good for each other and she couldnít give him the wrong idea. "No, please donít," she said as he stood and tried to embrace her.

Slowly, her eyes moist, she returned the cloth to the store owner, and asked about one more hanging on the wall, a beautiful garment of green, yellow, red, and orange, with striking green and orange zig-zags inside black squares, and a predominance of green in the alternating squares bordering these; then down below, towards the bottom of the cloth, a plethora of orange and red in the patterns. "This is a nice one," the woman from the Ivory Coast told her, noticing her eyes, but making no comment, because she had no idea what was going on, and did not want to step between the woman and a ghost. But, without violating her privacy, she still hoped to cheer her up. "If you donít like this one, sister," she said, handing her the new kente, "then you go naked. Just like in National Geographic." And once more, the dying woman smiled, a ray of sun trickled through the clouds.

"Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful!" she said, holding the garment up in front of her eyes, pushing it away from herself, then drawing it in, then changing the angle of her head. She lowered it so she could see the woman from the Ivory Coast again. "Please tell me that this has a pleasing proverb associated with it."

The woman from the Ivory Coast laughed. "Yes, this one says you will win the Lotto, find a handsome, rich man, and live forever!"

"No, really! What does it say?" implored the dying woman.

The woman from the Ivory Coast said: "This is the epie akyi Ė the leopardís back. The proverb that goes with these designs is: kurotwamansa to nsuo mu a, ne ho na efo; ne ho nsensanee no de ewo ho daa."

"Which means?"

"When the leopard falls in the water, it only gets wet; the water doesnít wash off its spots."

The dying woman smiled, a bigger smile than she had smiled in a very long time. "I love it!" she said, at last. "I donít know why. But I love it! I know Iíve come to the right place! I know this is the right dress!"

"I know it, too," the woman from the Ivory Coast told her. "Itís all over your face. This is your dress, sister."

"How much?" the dying woman asked her.

"Hand-made, and imported from Ghana," the store owner warned her.

"Name the price. Lifeís too short to count pennies." There was nothing to save for now. No retirement home in Florida, no share in the beach house in Maryland, no bungalow in the islands. She already had the funeral and burial expenses set aside, and Doreen was well taken care of: the Nefertiti of London. It was time to buy the dress.

The woman from the Ivory Coast told her the price, after telling her that she was marking it down 20% just for her because it was her store and she could do as she pleased, and the dying woman handed her the absurd plastic credit card, so beneath the dress, to finalize the transaction. How terrible Ė to use the symbol of global gluttony, the dirty hands of the world that had killed her, to take hold of the spirit in cloth that would escort her from the world, that would make the falling light.

Before they parted - the dying woman with the kente cloth carefully wrapped up for her and placed in a bag, the woman from the Ivory Coast sweating from the effort of making such a significant sale - the two women hugged each other: something that was genuine, a small piece of the world recovered. "I hope to see you again, soon," the woman from the Ivory Coast told her.

"Maybe looking down from a star," the dying woman told her.

Another week passed. Then, finally, on one sunny afternoon, she removed the clothes from her poison body, stood before the mirror and spread the kente cloth out behind her, like a huge cape. Slowly, carefully, she wrapped herself in it, as though covering a gaping wound with a bandage. "There is not enough time left to worry about what people think," she told herself. "Now, for these last few weeks of life before the pain comes and smashes my will to live like a wrecking ball, I will be myself. I will be free. I will put one drop of freedom on my tongue. I will walk one day like the mother before my mother before her mother, before her mother, before her mother, before a chain closed shut for the first time around her flesh." Somewhat fearfully, but with pride pounding in her heart, she went out into the sun which kissed her on the face, she went walking down the street, up past the lovely brownstones to the park filled with green trees and families that were still together.

As she walked people looked at her, they did not imagine, they would not have imagined in a hundred years, that her flesh was corrupted by disease, that her insides were a mess, that she was deathly ill and did not have long to live, to be among them. For them, she was mysterious and timeless, she was eternal, she was like the Nile flowing by, she was a queen.

As for herself, although she basked in the new way their eyes looked at her, she felt redeemed from within, she felt as though she had recovered the life that had been stolen from her by the forces of history, and the out-of-shape form the world had been hammered into, and by her own submission, which sometimes caused her to run away from herself with her tail between her legs, and which sometimes hid from itself by roaring, so that she thought she was strong as she knelt. What the poems and novels from the library, and the paintings in the museum, and the cherry trees of the botanical gardens had not been able to do for her, the kente dress had finally accomplished.

Most people live their whole lives never being themselves, never daring to, never going deep enough to. For them, death is an unbearable thing. They have nothing to face it with. Those who have courage realize that the spirit they bring into the world will accompany them out of it. The leopard will fall into the water, but not lose its spots.

How beautiful to be held by the sun again, to feel its warm golden breath on her skin! The sun was like the saint who kisses the lepers, who loves you back to loving yourself; and the sky, so blue, not even the city coughing smoke and venting wasted lives could kill it. The sky! Look up, you wonít find it on the ground! So vast, even above this organized wreckage; vast and filled with clouds, the blue and white kente of God. And the light sparkled on her dark skin like diamonds, and she was taller than the fate that awaited her, and more graceful than the beast that stalked her, and more beautiful than the part of the world that would not miss her, and more than what could be destroyed .

"Who is that woman?" people asked, as they saw her pass. Was she the wife of some ambassador, some famous musician?

"Sheís a queen!" a little girl told her parents.

"What did she tell you?" they asked their daughter, who they had seen talking to her for a moment.

"She said, ĎWhen the leopard falls into the water it just gets wet; it donít lose its spots."

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NOTES:

[1] Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. (Translated by Maxwell Staniforth.) Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1964. Page 46 (2:4)

[2] Rexroth, Kenneth. One Hundred Poems From The Japanese. NY: New Directions, 1955. Page 65 (Lady Otomo No Sakanoe)

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