Dawn Colored Night
by Donyae Coles
Issue 5: Occult | 2587 words
Spirits are everywhere in the City but you need silence, stillness, to call the right one. If you don’t have that, there’s no telling what’s going to come down that wide street and through your door. Lataya knew this, remembered the tales of her grandma whose words tasted like the sticky, muddy heat of summer as they slid through Lataya’s ears and down her throat. She knew as well as anybody—better than anybody—and she called anyway, bless her. Called out and up, hoping her voice, her ritual, could be heard through all that neon noise, that electric sound of the City. And well, she got what she got.
Something heard, and it came.
This is how it happened.
Lataya did exactly what her grandma told her. She learned at five years old, long before she needed the lesson. The old woman, laughing the whole time, told the story about what she had done when she needed a man fixed. Lataya had laughed then too, while her grandma braided her hair, stringing the braids round with plastic ballies and securing the ends with barrettes so she clicked and sounded as she ran and jumped. But now she needed to remember that lesson badly, as badly as she remembered the taste of blood from her split lip. As she recalled, sure that parts of it lay forgotten in the murk of memory, she lit a white candle and set out a cup of whiskey.
The whiskey had been easy to find, a quick trip to the corner, and she figured dead wouldn’t know the difference between corn grown from the ground or grown in a lab. Any old drunk will tell you it doesn’t matter, and whether or not spirit is different is something you’d have to ask them. She set the food replicator to make a whole bottle, paying slightly less because she took a used one from the bin next to the machine. Enough for however many nights it would take.
The candle had been harder. Who used wax and fire for light in a world that was never really dark anymore? But she had finally found someone. She had to go way out, to the broken parts of the City where the power grid blacked out more and the solar panels were only half installed after decades. Her mama said they used to live there but she didn‘t remember. A girl, like herself, met her on a broken-down stoop, took one look at her, and said, “My tia, she says this helps too,” and handed her a baggie of herbs.
Lataya didn’t need it explained; she knew because all brown girls like Lataya knew, whether their grandmas or tias or strange old stoop ladies told them. They all carried that memory.
She didn’t remember the hours, what time was best for calling spirits, but figured it was always the right hour somewhere—always five o’clock, as the old drunk said. Why would the dead care about time? When the sky got as dark as it would get, when he slept wrapped in her blankets and sheets, the smell of him still on her skin, heavy breaths echoing in her small apartment, she did what she remembered her grandma telling her.
Light from the City, the night sky orange with it, flowed in through the window and illuminated the room. The work called for dark and she did her best. She sat under the window where the shadow pooled and the world looked hidden.
Calling the spirit down to rid herself of him would work. It had to; it worked for her grandma’s grandma. It had to work for her.
She poured the whiskey into a little teacup that matched nothing else in the cabinet; she didn’t think spirit would like stainless steel drinkware. Her grandma had never told her what to pour it into, either way. She rolled the candle in the herbs, and when they didn’t stick, she remembered that she was supposed to rub oil on the candle first. She lit the white stick, slippery with oil and herbs, and dripped wax onto the plate to hold it before setting it down. Then she called.
She didn’t know the right words or if there had been right words. Lataya’s memory had become a dark place, darker than the night sky she worked under, where things had gotten lost; only those bold moments—her grandma braiding her hair, stringing it with bright plastic, and her laughter—only those things stayed and reminded her there was a time before him. She spoke what she could.
Naked on her knees in her box of a living room she whispered urgent prayers to whomever would listen hoping they could hear over the bump and shouts of her neighbors, over halo screens and cars. She called out for help, for the spirit that could come and chase him out of her life. She didn’t pray to God, that’s not what her grandma taught her, she taught her something older, deeper. She called out to the spirits, the dead that slid along the concrete walls and through the glass, danced on wires and knew they were dead but weren’t done with the living.
And they heard, and they came. She felt it in the air, that subtle change in pressure. The hairs on her rose; a tingling, a hum different from the constant electric song of the City, crept all along her spine.
She held her open hands palm up on her knees and stared at the flickering candle. “Please,” she said. “Please. Please. Please.” Over and over again.
“What are you doing?” he had asked standing in the doorway of her bedroom.
“Nothing,” she blurted. “Just a prayer for my grandma,” she lied quicker. She didn’t want her grandma to be the one. She didn’t want her to see her like this, nearly broken and begging.
He made a sound in his throat, and she looked at his phone, the screen brighter than the flickering of the candle. “I gotta go soon, come back to bed.”
She left the candle and followed him; the heavy press of the air, wet and hot, followed her.
In the morning, a melted puddle of wax she couldn’t read and an empty teacup greeted her. Whether he had drunk it after he slipped out of her and left the apartment, or something else had, she couldn’t be sure. He had rushed out past the middle of the night, hurried and jumpy, as if something nipped at his heels. It didn’t matter because inside of a week, he was gone completely.
She didn’t notice at first. Her sadness clung to her, the knifeedge anxiety of waiting for him to call or just show up on her steps needled at her. But no call came. No visitor showed up. And then she looked and found herself blocked everywhere online, and when she found the courage to call, the number came back inactive.
The spirits had removed him. The whiskey and the candle had worked. Free, she danced in her living room, stripped the sheets and blankets, washed them in hot water sprinkled with salt and thyme, and redressed her bed, fresh. She sang back with the music that came through her walls. She skipped through neon bright shadows on the streets, the City staring back at her as if she had gone funny in the head.
The spirits stayed.
She saw them just out of the corner of her eye, a streak of darkness, like the night sky in the place beyond the City where the sky still turned black. When she watched the halo screens on her couch, she could see them just beyond and off to the side—a personshaped void at the edge of the light.
When she walked down the street, she saw them creeping along the corners, jumping from shadow to shadow of each person she passed. They were a phantom in what her mother called the “driver’s seat” of the autocars as she looked out the window on the way to and from work. They were everywhere until she looked, and then they were nowhere at all.
After a week had tripped into two, and two into a month, she could hear them. A scraping whispered breath at the base of her skull. It followed her through the City. When she went out with her friends, the pounding bass of the music hid it until she wandered into the orange-colored night where the noise dropped, leaving just her and the spirits. She tried to grab at the words, but the sound of cars and life drowned them out.
In her apartment, they tried more, whispering after she showered. But her neighbors shouted and laughed, the sound carried through the walls, and she couldn’t focus on the whispers that ran like water from her ears. The sound itched at her, keeping her awake at night.
A month ran into two, and she realized they wouldn’t leave. Whatever she had called she would have to send back.
She tried the ritual again—the whiskey, the candle. The Brown girl who had given her the herbs before asked, “Is it better at least?” when she passed over a bundle of candles this time.
Lataya frowned, thinking of her dance and then the wet heat that followed her everywhere now. “I don’t know,” she answered. “It’s different, you know?”
The Brown girl who sold her candles nodded. “Yeah, my tia said that afterwards too.”
Lataya tried to remember what her grandma had said, if there had been more story, but memory is a dark thing.
She tried every night, hidden beneath her window, when the sky was as dark as it would get. The whiskey, the candle. “Please and thank you,” she said to the flickering flame. She watched the candles burn down and went to bed when the glowing darkness of the City had returned to her living room. The whiskey always waited in the teacup in the morning. She dumped it down the sink. Later, in the autocar on her way to work, she could see them in the empty driver’s seat.
She threw salt and herbs all over her house before bed every night, a trick she had read online. In the morning after she left, the vacuum would come round and sweep it all up. They were still there, still following her, pressing against her skin with the wet heat of summers she’d only half remembered. Summers in the City were dry.
“You gotta trap them,” her mama finally said over dinner. They met at a restaurant and ate outside. It had just rained, the air smelled like wetness, and the breeze left cool kisses on their faces. A rare night.
“What?” Lataya asked, distracted by the dark specter that danced just outside her vision, dodging out of the way of the street sweeper bot, disappearing like smoke when a couple passed.
“That thing that’s following you. I can smell it. Like mud. You have to trap it in a mirror. Get it to look. And then take it somewhere far and dump it.”
“The spirits?” she asked, confused. There was no mud in this city. Not enough dirt and not enough rain.
“That what that thing is? Use the mirror.”
“Where’d you learn that?” She dragged her focus back to her mother’s brown face and eyes, framed by hair just starting to show gray. She wondered if she had once called spirit to fix a man too.
“My mother told me. After Uncle Lenny died but we kept hearing footsteps in the house. You were little, but do you remember? Just all day and night, these heavy steps. I trapped him in that mirror, drove him way out of the City and left him there. Never had a problem again. You remember?”
Lataya reached into the dark of her memory and tried to remember an Uncle Lenny or their house, but all she remembered were apartments. She shook her head. “No, but I’ll try it.”
The mirror hadn’t been hard to find, unlike with the candle. It was just a dollar store piece of pink plastic that came with a matching brush—nothing smart about it; it didn’t tell the time or come ringed with lights.
The City fell into its version of darkness, the world slowed, and the hour came. She sat under her window and lit a candle, propping it among the others that had burnt down already. She filled the little teacup with whiskey and prayed. She prayed just like she had the night she called the spirit. She begged. “Please. Please. Please.”
She felt the air change, the pressure drop. The hot wet press of spirit surrounded her, answering her call.
She breathed out a long breath, her body relaxing as it surrounded her, the whisper rising at the base of her skull, the scratching so close to words that she could taste it on the back of her tongue like a kiss.
She held up the mirror, angling the reflection just over her shoulder, outside her vision. The room breathed, and it all stopped. “Thank god,” she muttered to herself. Hollow words, god had nothing to do with it.
Carefully, she wrapped the mirror in a black t-shirt and shoved it into her purse. She pulled on her shoes and left the apartment. No form stalked her from the shadows. She called an autocar on the line and the driver’s seat sat empty for the whole ride as she watched the City fall apart, moving from apartments to slums. The car slowed as they entered the abandoned streets, which had cleared out after the quake of ’87. She didn’t remember it, but she had heard, and that was a lot like remembering, she realized. Bless her.
The buildings sat slanted and broken in the orange night of the City, perverted by the light that spilled endlessly from the living part of it.
She set the car to wait and slid out, walking to the closest building, a high-rise that leaned backward as if it were trying to yell at the poor excuse for night.
“I’ll leave it in the doorway, a new home, a thank you for helping me,” she said as she took the t-shirt wrapped bundle from the bag.
“It’s so quiet,” she said to the air, pausing with the wrapped mirror clasped to her chest, and breathed. The empty air, free from the press of people, kissed her skin. “It’s time for you to go,” she said softly, pulling the t-shirt free.
The mirror stared up at her, reflecting her face. High cheeks, wide nose, braids tumbling and falling like water around her. The world sighed and the whispers returned, but she understood them now in that quiet space. Full words that dipped and sang.
Not just one voice, but many—hundreds, thousands—a beautiful song, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” For remembering, for calling, for living through it.
“Oh,” she said, tears falling, as she finally understood what those who had come to help her had been saying all along. “Not spirit. Ancestor. Me.”
She smiled at herself as the spirits danced and sang. Hers because she called; hers because she had remembered; hers because they had made her, and one day she would be them. In the mirror she only saw herself, and above her, the sky looked down, true black and full of wonder.
Donyae Coles is just trying to survive the America. Stories help. You can follow her on Twitter @okokno.