big headed anna
By Stephanie E. Dickinson
New Orleans, Louisiana. 1913. Yearning.
Big-Headed Anna Imagines Herself as
a Strange, Beautiful Name
1913. If I cut my eyelashes there would be no feeling. I would have to move my ear lobe between the grist’s flint or the tip of my nose to understand about touch. To show you how orchids thrive in snow and spongy soil, an earthworm loses its head and grows another. Tallow, bone, flesh. My neck thinks of me as its lily. Wandering toward the French Quarter under a talon of moon, I sing in a beautiful whisper. Hush little brittlestar who lives underwater. My big head hides under my bigger hat. I shiver listening to the river, the cotton barges. The Mississippi ruts with Chouteau swamp. Decatur Street breeds surly pecan trees. Sweat drips from my eyelids. I walk the streets, strange beautiful names, Carondelet, Esplanade, Dumaine, Marigny, Bienville. Heat collects in the narrows of camellias, in the eaves and gutters. Everything’s in suspension. I’m an octoroon in pale blue. I’m a hoop-skirted belle emptying my chamber pot on the heads of Yankee soldiers, a Storyville sweet girl swathed in a silk kimono haunting gardenia-thickened parlors. My lonesomeness comforts me. Our Father who art in New Orleans hallowed be Thy name. Kingdom of the Fiery Throated Hummingbird and White Alligator Thy will be done. Sometimes I love water. I love standing tall. And then I grow small–a tree lying on its side. A dugout canoe floating off into the Egg Nebula. An old spirit inhabits me, a wise and tender being. I forget what place I came from. The deep swamp is my home. I was left in a nest of large sticks and placed in a mangrove tree. The birds are my friends, the pretty ones with long white feathers and red legs, the not so pretty ones. When I was a baby crying out in hunger a large graceful creature soaring over me heard. Was it a snowy egret that became my mother and fed me fish milk? What kind of thing is Big-Headed Anna? Answer me.
Bayou dularge. 1916. Singing Fragrance
Big Headed Anna Imagines Taking
the Bayou Missionary For a Husband
Bayou DuLarge. 1916. I know he sees me, Big-Headed Anna who sings in the choir, the one set in the back row with the baritones, so her pumpkin head doesn’t offend the town ladies. He’s founded a church in Sierra Leone, that needs whatever the congregation can give. I feel him struck by all the white, the pale flesh of the sanctuary air, the perfume of the peonies, heavy as a full pew. Riding his horse since dawn, his stomach rumbles through his robes, and he hopes the meal that will be his thanks proves ample. The people of the dark continent beckon him. The women, bare-breasted, the men, long-limbed. Beautiful people. Their obsidian skin. His eyes leave us. He’s watching an elephant cloud shape-change into a hyena with her cubs above the savannah; his gaze follows the purified cloud animals, how he might appear in the sky too—ashen-white and aimless, because the color in him has been banished. He’s pondering the first hymn taught to his converts, the bright orange of their feathers, and gold dust they daubed their features with. Harmonies like God himself. I rise with the choir, fat with mutton-leg-sleeves and lace collars. There’s a fly walking along the chalice of the Holy Communion. His arms rise and fall, his elbows are flints sparking the air; they try to bring our rasping into a hosanna. The fragrance of my soprano voice envelopes him. I solo. My voice no longer belongs to a girl whose face separates her from the rest, even her nose not sure where it belongs. My voice is a gazelle, running, its heart close to bursting. I prize the blackness inside me, I let its hot trickle shine.
New Orleans, Louisiana. 1917. Listening.
Big-Headed Anna Listens to the Barren Rich Woman
and her Creole Surrogate
1917. The child will be mine, the one my womb can’t carry. My neighbor’s maid from the Sugar Islands, Liliàne, I’ve paid to give me the baby in her stomach. She likes the food I bring her, food that fills her with happiness and sleep. She hates root vegetables, soft fruits, and chicken. Chicken is stewed lizard. After I sell you this baby, Miss D., I shall be rich and eat only egg pies. If I give you a son I shall demand more. Promise me more for a son? This is the first I’ve heard her promise me. Liliàne, what you are doing for me has no price. A very high price. Do not try to cheat. I am called a white cockroach at home. Maybe that is so but I’m not a stupid Island girl. Raped for the first time at age 7, little that she does not know. When she swims she starves for days. When she dances in the land of lava, she pitches a tent in the rain, sometimes in the sun. I shall buy golden shoes and fill them with butter. I shall always have butter. My bed will be off the ground so the lizards will not sleep with me, male or female. My insect net will be pale green. I will have many pillows. Many knives. I demand you fan me. Pay me now. I am an orphan too whose parents each disappeared into a shroud, the pointed shoe too narrow for its foot. She indolently picks over figs in a bowl. Her strange tropical eyes go deep, the exalted neck and chin, the intelligent forehead. He will be a fat son. He’ll suck from the breast and bottle. A slow smile curls her lips. Yet I fear he’ll scream for me in the night and morning. He knows his mother’s smell. The sun beats down. The air, too fat to inhale, is drenched in kerosene and train trestle tar and dung, not azaleas and sugar cane. In the stillness, the pent-up sky cries for all its old lives. Soon the boy will be born. Pay now for this figment, this wish with ten toes, ten fingers. Pay me now.
Money, OK. 1907. nightcrawling
Big-Headed Anna Speaks of
Her Orphan Childhood
1907. I am in a field and the moon is a cool bluish rabbit moon. The runty boy I help over the fence, let him dig the first potato and spit on the tight red bud for luck. His tiny hands are earth and blossom. I only have to brush the soil with my fingers to bring up nightcrawlers. Vines tangle over the potato furrows blooming yellow. They breathe easy as we gather them one by one until our burlap sack is full. We eat the potatoes raw like apples. Someone’s coming, the cicadas scream. Crawl, Big-Head, be a worm inching along, press your nose into the dirt. Everyone’s got to eat a pound of it before they’re through. Later we fry the locust with the spuds—green-brown husks you eat the same as meat. And so I grow tall and need more than potatoes and bugs to fill myself up. For my birthday the runt boy gives me a perfume decanter, which I finger for hours in the willow’s shade. The perfume dried—a film of bark and almond. Sandalwood. I touch the stopper behind each ear. “You’re a pretty thing,” I say, running my hand up and down my leg, ashamed at my delight, my smiling at the decanter—the thing he found in an alley’s trash. When the boy tosses in a 104 fever I stay by his side. Big-Head, I’m so hot. Bring me cold. I ask in the weather, the freezing noon and sun that melts nothing. I ask in the stones, the ice trees, until his eyes glitter like Easter snowstorms and he lies quiet. Boy mine, I can’t cry. I work mucking out pig sty’s for a week to make his funeral expenses.
money, ok. 1906. singing.
Big-Headed Anna Sings After Being Spit Upon
I bear no grudge. The street is crossed with lines of spiders, folks out of work. Small biting mouths live in the silken tunnels, and if it had not been for the stickiness of the webs I would have fallen into the street. While I sleep lizards climb the skin of my legs. The blank white sea presses against me. The moon rises the color of dead leaves. I am a click beetle. I lay my black eggs on leaves then the young ones cluster and spin a tent from my silk. I am the wild trees, a craving in their eyes. I am the day the deaf-mute learned to speak, the heat in the forenoon of a day, the hair unbraiding and curling to the neck, the leaves dripping from trees. I am the lacquer of animal musk playing in the noisy dirt, the silence. I am the weeds, the thorny stalks cutting your hand, my song is something to fill and taste. When you want belly food I am the bedclothes smoldering in a 104 degree fever—I am love bubbling like hog bone in pinto-white beans.
About the Author:
Stephanie Dickinson, an Iowa native, lives in New York City. Her novel Half Girl and novella Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil, as is her feminist noir Love Highway. Her other books include Port Authority Orchids, Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg, The Emily Fables and Flashlight Girls Run. Her work has been reprinted in Best American Nonrequired Reading, New Stories from the South, and 2016 New Stories from the Midwest. Her Girl Behind the Door: A Memoir of Delirium and Dementia has recently been released.