STORIES | WINTER ’20
WORDS by JOSH RIVERS
ARTWORK by MICHAEL ROSS
Dad was always muttering to himself about Little Niglet’s ashy knees and nappy hair. Always complained he was runnin’ around Atlanta looking like Jackass-motherfucking-Jones. Little Niglet ran fast. He knew you were trying to keep him. He knew his place wasn’t here, even then. He was rambunctious, and sassy, and put his hand on his hip when he was talking to you, and he was smart. Dad used to tell him to stop looking at him with the eyes he gave him. Dad thought he invented the cut eye, but Little Niglet would remind him that nobody cut an eye like he could—never before, never after.
The only time Little Niglet would stop running was when he reached the end of something or when he ran into something, but never because he was out of breath. I’d watch him run and think he’d be running forever if we let him. And even when I caught him, he would scratch and claw at me like a badger. Damn near gouged my eye out once. It was the way he looked at me when I caught him. His big brown eyes, so full of wonder, so sparkling and luminous, could turn black with hatred. When I couldn’t catch him, I caught him with words. If I insulted his intelligence, he would bite back so hard he’d draw blood. He loved the smell of blood. He’d lick the tears from your face if he was close enough. And so we learned to keep him at arm’s length. To let him run around looking like he looked. In hindsight, I wish I would have tried harder to catch him. Maybe he’d still be here.
Dad was quiet. He liked being alone. He was hulking. Regal in stature but pauper in dress, when he was upright, he moved through the world as if he owned it. A cigarette always dangled from the side of his mouth as he tapped on the newest handheld, and his black lips were always stained red with wine. He was, by all accounts, a drunk, though we’d adopt more affectionate turns of phrase and often shrug our shoulders when he passed out in the driver’s seat of the car. Mom left him there when he did that. Didn’t think it was her responsibility to be “lugging no old drunk Negro around.” Little Niglet would stalk around the car when Dad was passed out in it. I’d watch from the window. He’d pace ’round and ’round, like he was thinking as if one more disappointment might make him snap. He hated seeing Dad like that. Thought he was checking out, being lazy, being mean. Little Niglet made no secret of his dislike for Dad and his drinking. He would pour all of Dad’s beers and wine out into the sink, discarding the bottles in fits and smashes on the back patio. Never did it when Dad was home, though. The one thing Little Niglet was scared of was dad’s big rough hands across his face. Little Niglet went to great lengths to make sure nobody but Mom ever touched him. Not hugs, not kisses, not nothin’, and especially not a beating. When Dad came home, boots crunching across the glass as he surveyed the damage to his arsenal, Little Niglet was nowhere to be found. He was up in a tree, down at the creek, wedged into some hole we-didn’t-know-where and wherever he was he’d stay until Dad, like clockwork, passed out again.
Mom was feisty. Little Niglet loved her more than anybody else and made sure everybody knew. If he wrote something down, only she could see it. If he was having a tantrum, only she could calm him. If he wanted to fight, only she could make him back down. It was like the umbilical cord had never been cut. They were connected and that connection was unassailable. He was savage in his love for her and in her defense and none of us were welcome or safe. If we even thought about saying something to her, he’d leap up on the table, word-knives shooting from his mouth, and cut us all to pieces. One time I saw fear in her eyes when he spoke. Once. Other than that, I think she was happy to have him as her little assassin. Dad ignored her, my sister was always nagging at her, and Little Niglet was the only person who saw her, made her feel special and needed. We learned to keep her at arm’s length too, to let them two revolve around the other’s existence. It just wasn’t worth the blood loss.
A few years later, when Little Niglet came limping home, stinking of alcohol, with a bruised eye and a face red-fresh from crying, we couldn’t get through to him. “What happened?! Little Niglet, talk to me!” Mom begged him to speak, but he refused. He bit his tongue until he started bleeding. He wouldn’t even open his eyes. He was shaking like a caught fox. “If he shake any harder he gon’ scramble his brain!” my sister yelled. He climbed into the deepest recesses of the couch and wept for what felt like hours. As each of us approached and then retreated, he wept. He wept so consistently and for so long that I thought for sure we’d wake up in the morning and he’d be dust. His trousers had been torn, half his shirt was missing and he wasn’t wearing any underwear. The thing we didn’t want to be true was the only thing that could be. I said a prayer for him. I said, “God. Don’t let him run.”
Little Niglet ran. I knew when I woke up in the morning he was gone. Little Niglet had an energy and it was thick as the high-noon heat of Sunday. He pulsed. As I wiped my eyes, I nudged my sister.
“Little Niglet’s gone.”
“How you know, nigga? You even been in to see him?”
“Bitch, he gone. I can feel it.”
Mom was distraught. She hit all of us like we had something to do with it. She smashed a glass against the wall in the kitchen, threw a frying pan at my head and slammed my sister into a wall. I had never seen Mom with that type of rage, and all of a sudden I knew where Little Niglet got it. She was showing her teeth, hissing, enraged. It was Discovery Channel shit. The moment Dad walked in, we ducked out and the orchestra of smashing dishes and screaming became too loud to bear. Through covered ears from under the dining room table, we heard her blame him. She said it was his fault. Said he better go find Little Niglet, that Dad could zip himself up into a body bag if he thought he could return home empty-handed. Dad laughed that kind of half-laugh you laugh when someone says something so insane that you know they ain’t lying. The type of shit you say when you’re daring somebody to test you. So she popped him square in the mouth and knocked his front teeth out. I heard him spit out his teeth through the wall.
It was the one time I ever felt bad for Dad. The one time I knew he wasn’t to blame. He wasn’t there when Little Niglet limped in, and he sure wasn’t awake when Little Niglet left. He knew if he couldn’t find Little Niglet that he had no home to come back to. Mom had drawn a line in the sand, pissed all over the house. Find Little Niglet or don’t come home. Knowing Dad knew only the routes he had travelled, knew solely the roads to annihilation, me and my sister followed him to the car. He slumped into the driver’s seat, the rush of stale wine fogging up the windshield. That’s when I saw what resignation looks like, how it hollows out the eyes and discards whoever was there into the shadow where he once stood. “Thee ya round,” he whistled. He knew he was never going to find Little Niglet.
Josh Rivers is a London based writer who delves into cultural and social issues related to queerness within the African diaspora. Based in the United Kingdom, Rivers is the Head of Communications for UK Black Pride and creator + host of the podcast Busy Being Black.
is a multidisciplinary artist who currently lives in, and is a native of Mississippi. Ross uses mediums such as collage, textile, pencil drawings and paint to reflect on many years spent in San Francisco and his American southern heritage.