RE!DIMG THE B MES
EDITED BY SHEREE
If you purchase this book without a cover you should be aware that this book may have been
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Copyright © 2004 by Sheree R. Thomas
All rights reserved.
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Printed in the United States of America
Originally published in hardcover by Warner Books
First Trade Edition: February 2005
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition as follows:
Dark matter : reading the bones / edited by Sheree R. Thomas.
Sequel to: Dark matter: a century of speculative fiction from the African diaspora.
1. Science fiction, American. 2. Fantasy fiction, American. 3. American
fiction-African American authors. I. Thomas, Sheree R.
ISBN: 0-446-69377-4 (pbk.)
Cover design by Don Puckey
Cover illustration by Daniel Minter
Since ancient times, oracles and diviners have combined their collected wisdom with close observation of the world. Occupying a
unique position in society and often living in the margins, these diviners attempted to gain insight into their personal circumstances
and improve the lives of their communities. Whether they chose to
cast bones and shells, palm nuts gathered in gourd and calabash,
footprints in the dust, or rely upon a complex system of calculations
rooted in sacred ,vorks such as the Path of Odu or the I Ching, they
drew upon cultural traditions handed down through generations.
And these seemingly disparate practices of ancient cultures that
spanned throughout Africa, Greece, Etruria, China, Tibet, and India
shared one thing in common: the desire to change and impact the future.
This.desire to alter one's path. to understand how thing~,.~e
come to pass, is one of our most basic human impulsesi andoverthe
centuries it has inspired and informed much ofourcreative an forms,
including our literature. Speculative fiction writers share this in common with diviners, attempting to gain insight by examining the
unique circumstances of our world and questioning it in ways that
challenge and critique our fundamental beliefs, social conventions,
and assumptions. Their work shares an affinity with these ancient
traditions of divination in their desire to gaze into the future in order
to anticipate developments, whether social, environmental, or tech-
DARK MUHR: RtAOIN6 THf BONB
nological in nature, to caution or offer counsel and direction, to
identify and expose injustice, to heal, to protect. These various impulses are embodied and expressed in stories that often cut to the
quick, through our assumptions to reveal deeper truths, borne in
blood and carved in bone.
Dark Matter: Reading the Bones presents works of speculative fiction and nonfiction by twenty-eight writers of the African diaspora.
In compiling this collection, l chose not to force the work into a preconceived political, social, or moral framework. Rather, I was interested in providing a more open structure to allow for the
juxtaposition of unique and individual voices, ideas, styles, themes,
and aesthetics from new and emerging black writers as well as acclaimed writers whose work offers bold and fresh insights for readers.
Like the diverse communities and personal histories from which they
hatl, black writers are not a monolithic communtty. Their interests
are manifold, their expressions and personal rhythms as wide and
varied as the land in which their ancestors first gave voice. Their
work reflects a vision that is two-headed in view and intent, looking
forward as much as looking back, like the diviners of old-and those
still among us-to cast a reading, a new vision that illuminates as it
engages. I hope that this work acts as a catalyst for discussion and inspires others to explore black contributions to speculative fiction.
The oral tradition is central to Afrodiasporic writing and storytelling, and so I chose to begin with ihsan bracy's retelling of an old
African-American folktale, "ibo landing," a work that is as much a
testimony of the courage and sacrifice of a people as it is a praisesong
to those who did not "fly away" and walk back across the waters to
the land of their ancestors. This work, like Charles R. Saunders's
"Yahimba's Choice," is an original exploration of the complexity of
challenging and questioning ancient traditions such as the practice
of female "modification"; it is also historically linked to a legacy of
conscious resistance and the African tradition of call-and-response.
The new voices of this collection, notably emerging speculative fiction writers such as Cherene Sherrard, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, and
lbi Aanu Zoboi, as well as the acclaimed author Nalo Hopkinson,
draw upon African and Afro-Caribbean legend and lore to craft tales
that are as instructive as they are evocative, even as they de:l:wer
P9werfulcritiques,. but the tall 11-les of Douglas Kearney and Tyehimba Jess, that evoke the folkloric trickster Kwaku Anansi, "the
Keeper of the Stories," Peter Parker, and a legendary soothsayer from
ChiTown called Voodoo Vincent, remind us that the ability to laugh,
to "signify," is an ancient skill, a vital strategy for black survival.
Black writ~ are now, as ever, it seems, struggling as all artists betweenthe political and personal landscapes in their work, and this
in,dividual, creative struggle is a strong and recurring theme throughout Dark Matter: Reading the Bones: Three stories, "Whispers in the
Dark" by Walter Mosley, "Whipping Boy" by Pam Noles,
''Aftermoon" by Tananarive Due, are strong, literal interpretations of
this contemporary and historic struggle, both questioning how individuals-indeed, black communities, whether rural or urban-can
hold on to self and their intellectual integrity in a world that.i3often
intensely judgmental, hostile, and threatening, while W. E. B. Du
Bois's "Jesus Christ in Texas" and Henry Dumas's "\X/ill the Circle Be
Unbroken?" offer a dark and haunting meditation on the spiritual and
social implications for American society in particular. Historically,
"new world" Afrodiasporic writing generally has been overtly political, with little reference to the erotic. Kiini Ibura Salaam's "Desire"
and David Findlay's "Recovery from a Fall" draw the African aesthetic through an experimental fabric, creating a new veil of lust
and lore and longing, while Kevin Brockenbrough's "Cause
Harlem Needs Heroes" and John Cooley's "The Binary" offer
tough, hard-edged characters who give as much as they get from
In Jill Robinson's "BLACKout" reparations move from contested
theory to a complex reality as Charles Johnson's "Sweet Dreams" and
Wanda Coleman's "Buying Primo Time" cast us into a future where
even our dreams have become commodities and the cost of living is
a price few c:an afford to pay, while N isi Shawl's "Maggies" and
Samuel R. Delany's "Corona" are two compelling works that reveal
that navigating childhood can be a difficult journey, no matter where
in the universe the young traveler calls home. Andrea Hairston's
"Mindscape" contemplates a future where a spiritual outcast and an
DARK MAlHR: RHDIN6 lHf BOW
"ethnic throwback" must help rechart a world thrown off its course,
while Kalamu ya Salaam brings us full circle in his exploration of
how a group of black scientists and revolutionaries might use time
travel in his story, "Trance."
In addition to these stories, Jewelle Gomez offers a transcript of a
historic meeting of some of our most influential black speculative fiction writers, and Carol Cooper and Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu discuss
the works of Andre Norton and the late Virginia Hamilton, who
made significant contributions to speculative fiction and young adult
literature, respectively, in the course of their careers.
In Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, these innovative writers present speculative fiction that reaches deep into Afrodiasporic traditions and push through to new forms. Their words and stories explore
the languages of love and lore, oppression and abuse, identity and
community, revelations and new frontiers. By bringing together this
shared history and the rich diversity of these writers and their visions, I hope Reading the Bones captures your imagination and offers
a memorable window into a vital period in the evolution of speculative fiction.
Sheree Renee Thomas
New York City, 2003
June told Dexter to take his cousin to the top floor of the
tower and stuff him into a closet.
The tower was the tallest building in Citrus Groves. Its nine floors
were the last Section 8 in the city to be sent up to the sky that year
before a quirky electorate swept new thinking into the administration. The Groves were renewed then, blossoming around the tower
in clusters of concrete and stucco, with a patch of green next to each
stoop and walls glazed lightly with peach or cerulean, to match the
sunset. But the tower and the city's promises were slowly abandoned
over the years as residents were shifted from above to below the city's
priority list with big promises made for something special to come
when its walls were finally brought down.
Instead, the tower hulked and crumbled for decades, its crisp gray
walls wearing away with the fading sunset stain of the village surrounding it, its lower windows marked with plywood and wire. The
city planned to demolish the building soon and turn it into a parking lot, but when mention was made now and again of the promised
park, the concern was noted and an apologia delivered. Attention
moved on, as it must, to the next agenda item.
Dexter waited until the substation closed and the cops had left for
the night. He saw only four people as he made his way to the tower
with his burden. All of them crossed to the opposite sidewalk when
he drew near. He was prepared for trouble as he entered the tower
through a boarded window, but when the pipeheads saw him pulling
the bag in behind him, they fled. He heard them scurrying on all
sides as he tripped and stumbled his way to the stairwell.
Inside, Dexter was stopped only once by someone sitting on the
stairwell between the second and third floors. The man reeked of
curdled milk and stale grape MadDog, laced with the acrid bite of
urine. The drunk spoke with a rough wheeze.
"Hey boy." He grabbed Dexter's ankle as he tried to climb past.
"The voodoo man dead, huh," he said, clutching with a thin, shaking hand.
"You never know. Better lemme go 'fore he come out the bag."
Dexter breathed through his mouth as he squinted down at the
drunk, but he couldn't see anything, save a dark blob against black.
"He ain't comin' out. I know." The drunk coughed hard, squeezing Dexter's ankle with each hack. He spat. "I seen others make this
trip. I seen him make this trip, long time ago. Now I'm seein' you
make this trip."
"Lem1ne go, man."
The drunk loosened his grip and Dexter pulled away. "Next time
you make this trip it be you in the bag," the drunk said as Dexter continued up the stairs. "I prob'ly won't see that, though. I prob'ly be
dead myself by then."
Dexter failed to tune the drunk out, but he managed to hold it in
check for a few steps. He broke down when he reached the third
floor, sobbed all the way to the ninth. Nineteen years old and bawling like a baby.
By the time Dexter reached the top floor, he had dropped the bag
three times because he was so tired and had fallen twice because it
was dark. His thick leather work gloves protected him from the broken crack pipes and needles that littered the stairway, but he couldn't
use the gloves, covered with filth and slick with the blood leaking
from the bag, to wipe his eyes.
God, how he needed to wipe his eyes.
He didn't want to be anybody's whipping boy.
Dexter had to force the stairwell door open once he reached the
top of the tower. Hauling the bag down the silent hallway, he Hs-
DHK NAfHR: RfADl~G lHf BOm
tened to his steps echo and bounce back from the empty apartments.
He picked one, entered, and used the dim streetlight filtering
through tattered window shades to find a closet. He stuffed the bag
inside and left quickly.
Aunt June had told him that he would leave no prints in the dust,
but he had forgotten to bring a flashlight to check. He headed back
down the stairs. The drunk was still sitting in the same spot, but he
said nothing as Dexter passed.
Dexter got home at around 2 A.M. and spent an hour in the bathroom scrubbing his face and standing motionless beneath the hot,
weak streams of the shower. Then he rubbed cajeput and caraway oils
on his arms and shoulders to soothe the deep ache in his muscles.
When he climbed into bed, he fell immediately into a fitful sleep.
He dreamed he stood at the intersection of two wide and dusty
roads yelling at an old, old man. Dexter was hungry and very hot. He
couldn't make the man understand that he wanted a burger and a
cola, not the water and hog maws the man offered. And he wanted
rain to cool his skin and thin the thick and humid air. But the heavy,
black clouds above refused to burst.
Dexter awoke just before dawn, surprised to feel tears still streaking down his face.
One month later, during a final sweep of the tower to clear it of transients, the substation cops found the body. Neither of them was
"Overtime," Don Terry, balding and loud, said to his partner. "I
want overtime and I want several aspirin. And I want somebody to
do something about that smell up there because I am not going back
up there until that smell is gone."
Dexter, standing among the crowd of several dozen residents gathered to watch the action, saw Terry's white partner, Philip Cade, continue his conversation into a cellular telephone.
"And I want all of you people to go home," Terry said, glaring at
the crowd milling behind the lines of yellow-and-black CRIME SCENE
DO NOT ENTER tape. Dexter did not duck when Terry's gaze swept past
him. "Unless, of course, one of you happened to see something. Then
by all means do step forward."
The residents ignored him, chatting among themselves as they
watched the teams of crime scene technicians, clad in black jumpsuits and thin rubber gloves, move in and out of the tower with their
tape measures and camera equipment. Terry gave a snort and turned
his attention back to the clipboard he carried, placing his broad, flat
nose inches from the legal pad.
It was a late afternoon in March and the sun, though bright in the
sky, did little to warm the air. Dexter pulled his thin jacket tighter
around his body and, with a shiver that had nothing to do with the
weather, began shouldering his way through the crowd, heading
home. A sharp laugh from Cade made him pause.
"What?" Dexter heard Terry ask his partner.
Cade pulled the mouthpiece of the phone down below his chin.
"He said he loves it when people bury bodies in garbage bags. All the
pieces are still there and the body decomposes at a significantly reduced rate. He said he can't wait to get his hands on it."
"Tell him about the gooey shit all over it. That's not even blood.
I don't know what it is," Terry said. "Tell him about it all looking like
"I did," Cade said. "He said 'Hummmm ... eeen-ter-est-ing.'"
"When they finally get me, Cade, promise you won't let that medical examiner within ten feet of my weary, dead bones."
Dexter slipped through the familiar hues of blackness around him
and headed toward home. He moved briskly at first, but then a scent
running deep and mellow through the cold air caught him, and he
slowed so she could catch up.
He had lost his mind the first time that smell brought her to his
attention, that night at the strip mall. Tamika had set herself aside
from everyone else. Balanced by butt heels on a rusted engine block,
she hunched over her arms and hugged her knees, a blunt burning
down to her knuckles. Dexter couldn't figure out exactly who she was
talking to. Her eyes were half closed and looked to be rolled up in her
head, showing a damp slit of eyeball turned pale orange by the streetlight, shot through with tiny red lines. He slid a little closer to catch
DARK MAlHR: RtADIN6 lH[ BO~U
snatches of her mumbled stream, but all he could get was the whiff
from her skin rumbling beneath the sweet tang of her smoke. For no
reason he could tell, she abruptly stood, flicked her spliff at his feet,
and walked off without a wobble or a missed step. He followed.
And every night after, he followed. He'd sometimes try to catch
the edge of her eye, but she'd keep about her business, often with
Peek, that weird girlfriend of hers, as if he were just another fool. His
crowd was beginning to talk and, as he had no defense, he'd shuck
and smile it off and keep on staring her way. He pulled his shifts at
the five-and-dime, but his mind was everywhere but on the deals that
rolled up, one after the other, with windows rolled down just low
enough for the money and product to pass through. But that day
Tamika's mother walked up to his spot bold as day, in the middle of
everything, having decided it was time to negotiate a wholesale rate
considering her longtime customer loyalty and all, Dexter knew he
was lost. He didn't even ask her to put in a good word after surviving
her intense haggling, which she at least had the decency to do away
from the corner.
His cousin would have known what to do. Just talking to him
about it, talk and nothing else, would have helped Dexter cut
through this fog of woman. But he just couldn't bring himself to pull
back the beads and hear them click click click behind him as he entered the dark room, telegraphing confusion and sending out his
pain. Instead, he tossed Tamika in his head every waking moment,
looking for a way out. So he wasn't paying attention that night he
was trailed and circled.
A cough ahead startled him. She stood in a waning pool of yellow
streetlight, its haze shading all but her shape and the glint of gold at
her ear and throat.
"How you end up wit' that Poindexter name, anyway?"
"You gonna be a mouse, or you gonna say what you want?" Dexter did not tum toward her.
She moved beside him, the light, sweet scent of hair oil mingled
with too much perfume masking what she wanted. Thick gold bangles on her wrist tinkled as she reached to take his hand, but when
she suddenly folded her arms across her chest instead, the bangles
"Hard to tell when you want to be alone," Tamika said.
"Maybe I do," Dexter said.
"You probably don't," she said.
Old routine. It took some of the edge off Dexter's hostility. They
strolled through the complex, past the rows of one-story buildings
laid out like barracks in a concentration camp. They stepped on
shredded diapers and chunks of brown malt liquor bottles. They
passed green Dumpsters and junked cars in the asphalt parking lot.
They ignored it all. Each had been born and raised in Citrus Groves
and they knew the rules. There were four apartments to a building
and you lived in one. You were allotted a tiny, grassless patch of
yard and one crumbling concrete stoop. And when a trainee social
worker stopped by and "tisked" at how you could live surrounded by
such a state of decay, you looked at her. Because she was white and
from the southside-they were always white and from the southside-she didn't understand that loathing a life was no excuse not to
live it. And when she said so sorry, but the state was cutting back the
welfare check because you got a part-time job in a burger joint, you
looked at her with a brown-eyed, blank stare. ...
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