Inland, a short story
They danced in silence: rocking and swaying, building a comfort with one another.
by Vernon Jordan, III
She sat in the back of the joint, eyeing him. From over the shoulder of his bass, he noticed her fingers around the rim of a glass, miming the bass notes. He was the player, but so was she. Rooted, was their first glance, she minded him the way trees mind the ground.
“Lady of the evening”, he bowed his head, standing tall and ‘bout as upright as his bass instrument with heavy, pitch black dreadlocks behind him.
“Lady of every evening,” she corrected.
“Of course. Your home.”
The band up front played a slow count-in, buying time, waiting for their bassist to return. She waved her hands and one of the men quickly settled the matter: they would play the next song, the song after that, or the song after that with one less member — without Nuri. No one came to The Midnight Cocoon to protest or have things their way, they came to surrender under The Empress’ patronage. Her protection provided poor negro artists with the space to play and experiment. She always said, get your scraps here, find your family in my family, relax into luxurious play; but make all that noise of the record somewhere else – I hate hearing niggers practice perfection.
“Sit, player,” she gestured toward a chair with her infamous nail polish: a red so deep it could be blood. Some said she liked it that way, to remind folks not to cross her.
He pulled out the chair, coming down to meet her eyes, and she waited for him to say:
“ I’ve been summoned…”
“You think you’ve been summoned?” She chuckled, taking up a small glass of brown liquor on ice. She threw her head back, taking time to enjoy the drink as it settled warm in her belly, while the rising horn section of the band rang in a beautiful kind of blues. She met his gaze again.
“What gives you that impression, Mr…?”
“Nuri,” he introduced himself.
“Nuri? It has a ring to it, I’ll give you that – a name you could sing.”
“So the rumors are true?”
Nuri sat back, putting his hands in his pockets: it was his turn to wait. But she wouldn’t have it.
“Hands above the table, kindly. You get to see my hands, so why shouldn’t I see yours?”
He obeyed, nodding. “Your call, Empress.”
“Would you like a drink?”
“Oh no, I’m fine. I have drinks waiting for me at home.”
She sat stunned and then said:
“I have a beautiful private collection. I won’t ask again.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll have to refuse this time.”
“You see, tonight’s a special night for me. I don’t want to taint it with a drink.”
“Taint? Baby, there’s not a thing in here, and I mean not a single, solitary thing, that would taint you. I can’t speak for outside these doors, but in here the drinks are fashioned to put you closer to Heaven.”
Nuri leaned in, “Heaven — in these walls you say?”
“I do. And the people come here, don’t they?” She gestured out to the crowded, bumping room.
The room, sweaty and Black as midnight, clapped for the band as they exited the stage. People clapped at Nuri from a distance, knowing not to touch The Empress’ table. He stood and took a small bow, then gave his thanks to his bandmates. Nuri turned back to The Empress, “I should go. Pack my things. It was a pleasure –”
“No one’s gonna put a finger on your bass, player. Let it be.” She promised him with her eyes.
Nuri sat back down, “So, Miss…”
“Empress Eluma… Now that is singable.”
“Don’t I know it…” She looked off into the distance, losing herself in the joy of the crowd, smiling at guests and musicians alike — “thank you. Thank you for coming. Muah!” at this person or that. A select few were allowed to come and give their goodbye hugs and see-you-laters. Soon, the room was emptied. Just Lady Eluma, Nuri, the bartender, and a couple of her men at the door — the smoke, of course, would hardly clear itself. She began to fidget with her fingers, and then remembered the personal guest at her table. She said: “The rumors, Nuri… What are they?”
“That you have, and have always had, the greatest voice in the room. That you used to sing, wanted to be a jazz starlet yourself… and one day, you just stopped singing. No one that I know and no one that they know has heard you sing for fact, but that’s the word.”
“Is that what they say?”
Then, she got up, put her hand out to Nuri: “Would you like a dance, bass player?”
“One dance, Lady Eluma, and then I’ve got to end my night here.”
He took her hand and she led the way out to the middle of the dancefloor.
“Your hands are quite cold.”
“I was only just getting warmed up when you snatched me from the stage,” he chuckled.
“Please. You’ll be back.”
“Of course I will.”
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They danced in silence: rocking and swaying, building a comfort with one another. Nuri knew that The Empress only danced once a week in the club, and that it was never with men. She preferred the joys of womanly and woman-like folks – they could slap and tease and smile and laugh all they wanted and then return to their public lives surrounded by boring men.
Nuri was surprised when the Empress laid her head on his shoulder and hummed.
When the sound hit her hips it was like time froze, and he could feel himself being stopped – no longer a being of and within time. Her sound wasn’t enough for him to lose himself completely, but she sounded like summer rain and the joyous shimmer of sunlight after battles of thunder. There could be no rumors, when that was fact:The Empress was also a Songstress.
Lady Eluma came away from him, a smile across her face as they clasped hands. She sighed, “It is nice to have a new friend.”
“Are we friends?”
She twirled, “We could be.” They glided across the room like sparkling sand over feet. They blushed over each other, daring to press closer. And then, “You want to understand why I called to meet you tonight?…” He spun her again, his way of answering Yes.
“I want you to help me record my very first album. Right here, live in the club, late like this when everyone’s gone on home -”
“Or you’ve sent them home -”
“Will you stop? My god.” She released her hands from his, coming apart just as fast as they’d come together, and walked towards the bar. She called back: “Scared of a woman in power?”
“No,” he said, turning to approach the bar himself. “I’m just interested in what makes you tick, same as you are me. I’m interested in playing the game of tonight.”
“No, darling,” she took off her shoes, “I know what makes people tick – I watch them every night. I’m interested in hearing people talk. I like conversation. I prefer the sounds people make rather than the things that people do. Gives me a small hope.” She took a quick shot. “Thank you,” she tapped the bar counter.
“I’ve had so much of that in my life – conversation. Lifetimes worth.”
“Lifetimes? You a trip. Said that like you’ve had more than one.”
Lady Eluma steadied herself, putting both heels in one hand. “Well, consider this a lifetime to absolutely remember, hhhm?” She reached her hand out to the bartender, and he slapped an envelope into her palm. She passed it along the counter.
He looked at her, then down at the envelope, you for real? She nodded. When he took it, Lady Eluma shrieked: “Ow!”
“What?” She took up her hand, blood dripping from her pinky – the polish now indistinguishable from the real thing. With big eyes: “I’ve never met a man with nails sharp as that – cut them please!” She waved him away, putting her hand to her lips. Lady Eluma started toward the door: “Don’t bother to pack up that bass. You’ll be back. Enjoy your special night.” She was so quick, he couldn’t get a word out. Nuri watched her, elegant even in a tipsy stomp.
And then it was only him on the floor. He’s sure a fella or two would lock up behind him, like some form of unseen but known magic: that’s how the place was run. He rubbed his hands together — she was right, they were cold.
Nuri stepped out of The Midnight Cocoon, and into the low street lights and late night hum of the city. Looked toward the envelope, and on it was a drop of The Empress’ smeared blood. Nuri caressed the blood stain, and began to hum the tune The Empress started. He paused, considered it all. He didn’t want to — for tonight was his night of return — but he found himself needing the energy to return.
Then, he gave in. He took one lick of the blood, savoring how warm it was in his mouth. His eyes were the color of a midnight blue moon. They burned so heavy a life-giving light, that the dried blood began to prickle and bubble again, turning red and moist as it had been from The Empress’ fingertip. Gone from her flesh, but just as new again. Nuri took pleasure in the sight: lapping and licking the fresh fluid.
A stream poured from his hand, the droplets multiplying. This small recreation of her blood, the memory of her, the smell, the essence, the soul in liquid form, raced down toward his wrist. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath of ecstasy, and then relaxed into a dream. At once, with her blood in his mouth, he began to remember: he lived a little inland.
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He was 12 or 13 when Union Soldiers had come down to “set them free”, as if they weren’t already daydreaming of themselves elsewhere, as if they didn’t laugh sometimes and catch freedom then. Nuri’s so-called Master wouldn’t give up his claim to ownership, however, and stole them away to Chester County, just south of Philadelphia, to the London Grove Friends Meeting House for Quakers. There lived one of the biggest trees Nuri had ever seen: the Great White Oak Tree. When they arrived, Nuri spotted two white boys younger than him, playing on a swing tied to a low, humble branch of the tree. One of the boys stopped his turn to swing short, curious, getting a good look.
Nuri suspected, they ain’t never seen negros before? He guessed not. The so-called Master had pretended for one night and one night only to be a kind, loving Friend before being sniffed out by another ghost. This ghosting was not by the complexion, but lied deep below the bones of a strange Negro man, who had slaughtered through white towns until he reached the Meeting House itself.
Working rice plantations meant Nuri understood 3 things from a very young age: 1. all of the hurt and pain he and people like he endured, his South Carolina — including every delicate flower, every tree and swamp — would have to swallow, 2. the wider, larger Earth housed all suffering, and thus, 3. the planet would, one day, find and release its own small revenge. He could hear it in the rustle of the leaves.
So when he saw the strange, blood-hungry man, he had no doubt: he was the Earth’s revenge in flesh. The man wanted to gnaw into the World, and spit it back out at itself, as vengeance for his African kin.
Righteous, was the pursuit, and yet oh so very foolish, as he was outnumbered by human might. White men, slave catchers, poor, and rich alike came out to hunt. Nuri’s human mother, his only true guardian, died that night as an innocent bystander, and the strange man was so desperate for companionship, for any kind of help, blooded Nuri by the White Oak Tree. That night, Nuri became a child of darker gifts.
But that was not enough to save them. Nuri was wild and free with new power, but uncoordinated, unsure, and in mourning.
At the swing, rocked another strange being. She blended in with the darkness, wearing a hat and a dark dress without a corset. She took her time making her presence known. Standing up, crunching the fall leaves below her, she lit a single oil lamp, interrupting the scene that should have ended Nuri and his blood master. The army of white lynchers froze, and someone demanded: “Who the hell are you? Answer me!” Before the word Negress could exit his mouth, the lamp had shattered to the ground, starting a new fire. One of the lyncher’s heads flung to the ground. She was so fast, cutting the shadows of white men down like quiet and insignificant trees. She saved them both; and when she was done, her hat was gone, her days old pressed hair still, somehow, full as it floated near her shoulders. The strange woman helped patch up their wounds and saw to it that Nuri became a proper fledgling, a vampire in full, and it was her that made him acutely aware that his special gift was to commune with the living planet.
That was many years ago, a lifetime or two. From that moment on, Nuri would remember his role in the new world of night dwellers. He never saw his bloody guardian nor the blood creature woman again.
When he came back to the world around him, everything was louder — his senses heightened, his hunger strong. Ignoring the impulse, Nuri looked ahead towards the road to The Great London Grove Oak tree.
In the southern county, Nuri put his hand on the trunk and trembled. “Hello, old friend.”
“You must remember me.” Nuri turned around, surrendering his back to the body of the tree. He slid down, letting the rough edges pierce through his shirt, scratch his back. Nuri chuckled, as the grass blades whispered.
“You were at my beginning, and now I am at your end… Tell me. Tell me everything…” Nuri relaxed his head, allowing his body to go limp and light. The heavy roots forged into the ground sent smaller, prickling branches up to greet him; there, they injected themselves into his arms, his back, his legs, drawing blood. And he was buried. This was part of his duty.
Everything must return to the dirt. This was a kind of debt; and blood was not his anchor to the world. Nuri, a conduit for some of Earth’s eldest children, gave them the opportunity to pass to the other side. The last, dying story of the Great London Oak would work through Nuri, and transform him into something else, into something dreaming. The story, the true darkness of death – differently un/tethered – worked past his human image, to the center of his bloody curse, somewhere in the ethers of his body.
He thought of The Empress one last time, wondering: how can I play differently for you? How can I make you smile?
Vernon Jordan, III is a Philly-born ‘n raised writer, filmmaker, musician-poet, and teaching artist. His work prioritizes the merging of the musical and the visual — a Visual Lyricist. As an afrofuturist, he reflects and expands upon African American memories, dreams, hauntings, queer kinship, and intimate fluidity. Vernon is a professional Script Reader and Creative Consultant. His film See My Dreams Come True has played at over five US and international festivals. As a Screenwriting MFA (’19), Vernon has been a script reader for Sesame Street, shortlisted at Sundance New Voices Youtube Episodic Lab 2019, and earned a Semi-Finalist Award at Screencraft Sci-Fi and Fantasy Screenplay competition 2020. His latest film, DEEP CUTS, is forthcoming, and he is currently in pre-production for a short, afroqueer fashion narrative.