We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Morowa Yejidé’s Creatures of Passage—publishing March 16th with Akashic Books.
Yejidé’s captivating novel shows us an unseen Washington, DC—filled with otherworldly landscapes, flawed super-humans, and reluctant ghosts, and brings together a community intent on saving one young boy in order to reclaim itself.
Nephthys Kinwell is a taxi driver of sorts in Washington, DC, ferrying passengers in a 1967 Plymouth Belvedere with a ghost in the trunk. Endless rides and alcohol help her manage her grief over the death of her twin brother, Osiris, who was murdered and dumped in the Anacostia River.
Unknown to Nephthys when the novel opens in 1977, her estranged great-nephew, ten-year-old Dash, is finding himself drawn to the banks of that very same river. It is there that Dash—reeling from having witnessed an act of molestation at his school, but still questioning what and who he saw—has charmed conversations with a mysterious figure he calls the “River Man.”
When Dash arrives unexpectedly at Nephthys’s door bearing a cryptic note about his unusual conversations with the River Man, Nephthys must face what frightens her most.
Morowa Yejidé’s deeply captivating novel shows us an unseen Washington filled with otherworldly landscapes, flawed super-humans, and reluctant ghosts, and brings together a community intent on saving one young boy in order to reclaim itself.
Nephthys set out over the longitudes and latitudes of the Great Mystery, the ironclad vessel her only means, the shifting fog her only guide…
In the archipelagic dawn, Nephthys sat at the steering wheel of her car parked under a broken streetlamp outside of her apartment building. For the past three days, she’d been in her living room letting time slip by, drinking and raging at memories, searching for missing bottles and finding them again. She fell into slumber and came to, and in between she thought about the visit from Dash, which was difficult because that meant she had to think about Amber. They hadn’t spoken in so long—she and her niece—and even though she lived just on the opposite side of Anacostia, it might as well have been the other side of the galaxy. Nephthys never had made up her mind about how to deal with the canyon between them, a divide that started with dreams and death. And she splashed and swam in what she’d been drinking to ease her feelings of guilt and the unbearable inertia of one.
Now she turned the key in the ignition and the steel beast sputtered to life. She opened a little container of Vaseline from her bag and dabbed a bit on her lips. She took out the flask from her pocket and looked at it, saying what she always said to herself before lifting it to her lips: Biddy taste. Just a biddy taste. She sipped and put the flask back in her pocket. Shouldn’t be drinkin’, she said to the dashboard as she’d said a thousand times before. She turned on the headlights, startling a rat in the street that quickly skittered back into the shadows. Someone turned on the light by a window in an apartment above and the silhouette stood frozen and then the light was turned out. She looked into the darkness and shrugged. Her services were needed. She charged what she wanted and people paid what they could. She never had to make what she was providing known, since anyone who required special transport knew who she was, what her car looked like, and what she did with it.
Nephthys watched a police cruiser speed by and turn into the mazes of the alleys and disappear. She took another drink from her flask and heard the familiar thump of the white girl in the trunk. Then she rolled the window down and waited for it to happen. And after a while, as always, the fog drifted into the car and Nephthys had that feeling once more. The feeling that made what she did with the Plymouth possible.
It started with the stillness, an arthritic feeling that had settled into her at the sight of her twin’s body at the morgue. She stiffened bit by bit from that day forward and she found it harder and harder to move, as if her joints were calcifying. There were mornings when she awoke and thought that she was paralyzed. Her body creaked as she went about, and she felt wooden and brittle. Her blood thickened and her cells flagged as she tried to live as one in the world and not two. And every time the image of her brother’s body flashed in her mind, she felt like she was slowly turning to stone, struck as she was by the unbearable inertia of one.
That was when the drinking started. She could find relief from the stillness; she could drift and float away. All the while she watched Amber grow and spread through the house on her own, without her, for the watery realm of the dwelling seemed keyed to the girl’s every want and whim, and she germinated like some unknown underwater species and did what she wanted of her own accord. Nephthys struggled through the affliction of stillness as the days went by. She fed Amber from the feral garden and sent her up the hill to school. But each time Nephthys looked at this strange child of her brother, she’d fought back the question of how the girl could know and yet not know of her own father’s demise. And she had stared out to the fearful unknown, wondering what they were going to do. They needed money. Her brother’s income was gone and she’d left one island without the skills to function on another. Gotta do, she’d thought. Gotta move.
That was when the wandering started. And it was on one of her long walks, excursions to cope with the unbearable inertia of one, that Nephthys ended up on the edge of the southeast quadrant at Earl’s Scrapyard. And in accordance with constellations, circumstances, and events, she roamed and rambled about the debris, until she came across a lanky man called Find Out.
He was tall—nearly seven feet—and grossly underweight. He was completely bald, and his dark and leathery skin wrapped about his skeleton like some bizarre jerky. The cartilage and joints in his body seemed fused as if by cement, and he walked unnaturally upright, his head bobbling atop his spinal cord. He wore black excrement-spattered rubber boots that came up to his knees, and in the firelight and shadows of the high stacks and spires all about, he looked like an embalmer, a great Anubis guarding some vast plain of pyramid graves. And it was said that he could find anything in the entire world. He brought Tahitian pearls to high-rolling poker games in basement bars on U Street. He delivered a blue boa constrictor to a blind woman living in the clock tower of the Old Post Office Pavilion (she wanted a pet to match the eyes she could no longer use).
As Nephthys approached, Find Out glared with the dark and sunken eyes of some creature drawn in a comic book. “What you want?”
Nephthys looked into the countless piles behind the tall man. There were massive stacks, tunnels of scrap that seemed to lead to other tunnels, and she wondered what it might be like to enter and move through yet more places and spaces. Gotta move, she thought. She looked back at the imposing man. “Somethin’, maybe.”
“Lady, if what you lookin’ for was here,” said Find Out, scowling, “I would know about it. I’m Find Out and I been knowing everything.” Because aside from the cause of the haunting image of his wife’s face in the raging bonfires of the night, he knew all that could be known about what was lost and what was found. He even kept a tin can hidden deep in one of the junk piles. It was filled with what he called “last things,” those final items that a lost soul possessed. Like the last Nacotchtank Indian’s leather cord and a runaway slave’s silver coin. Like the gold necklace he found in that trunk and the little pink hair barrettes he found in a creek. There were those last things and more. But no matter how desperate he was to relieve the pain of losing what he could never find by selling or trading what he collected, once he put something in his secret tin can, he never touched it again. Because for reasons that he could not explain, he felt responsible for the safekeeping of these last things in a kind of cosmic escrow, until those who lost them came looking in this life or the next.
“Just want to pass on through,” Nephthys said, looking into the skeins of the scrapyard. She was feeling the onset of the stiffness again, and she grew anxious as she stood talking to the stranger. “Gotta do. Gotta move.”
“Ain’t no way to pass through this place, lady. All’s you can do is move around in it.”
Nephthys shrugged, intrigued. “Long as I can keep going, I aim to move around forever.”
“Look, lady. Leaving is all you can do.” Find Out was getting aggravated by her being there, an interruption of his fixation, for the substance he needed to stay dead was calling him again. But then he saw a swirl of blue smoke form and rise behind her and gather about her head. It was an unusual sight—the smoke showing him someone he hadn’t been searching for—and he looked at the woman carefully. “What’s your name?”
“What you want, Nephthys?”
The blue smoke of his trade had trailed down a tunnel of flattened and stacked steel, and Find Out thought of the Plymouth he’d found by the Anacostia River and parked back there. It was just where he left it all those years ago. And now he wondered, as he watched the blue smoke curl above this woman’s head, if she was who the car and its occupant were waiting for. Like the last things in his tin. “You wanna see it?”
Nephthys shrugged again, eager to get moving. “All right.”
They walked deep into the metal cavern, each tunnel of refuse tunneling into another, one pathway dimmer than the one before it. On they went, until they came upon the car like the discovery of an eighth wonder of the world. A 1967 Plymouth Belvedere, blue like the sky.
Find Out pushed away the steel bumper of a truck that had fallen on the hood without leaving a single scratch. He stood by the trunk and waited, listening.
There was a low thump.
He looked at the blue smoke circling, thinking about how the car had once served one purpose but now might serve another. The key was still in the ignition. “Try it.”
Find Out watched the blue smoke swirl about the car. “You’ll know. All I know is that it’s yours.”
Nephthys looked sideways at Find Out. “Cyan’t drive. Never learned.”
“It won’t matter.”
The stiffness was getting worse but Nephthys hesitated.
“Go ahead. It’s your car.”
Nephthys looked at the Plymouth, incredulous. “Cyan’t be no car of mine.”
“But it is. Go on.”
Nephthys got into the car and sank down into the seat.
“Turn the ignition.”
“Turn it on.”
Nephthys fingered the key and turned it. The car roared to life.
“See, like I told you.”
Nephthys listened to the engine rumble, thinking of the places she could go, how she could keep moving with such a vessel. If only she could drive.
There was a loud thud from the trunk.
“One more thing,” said Find Out. And here he paused, thinking about that night when he passed out in the tall reeds of the Anacostia River, and awoke to two men pulling a body from the trunk of the Plymouth. Through the smog of the substance he’d been consuming so as not to feel alive, he watched the men carry the body to the banks and throw it into the current. He found what traces were to be found after they were gone, including a gold necklace he fished out of the trunk and put in his tin can. “The car is haunted,” he said. “But she won’t hurt you.”
“The white girl in the trunk.”
Nephthys blinked. “Oh.”
There was another loud thud.
Find Out watched the blue smoke swirl and dissipate slowly. “Look like she been waiting for you.”
Nephthys then felt an inexplicable comfort as she gripped the steering wheel. She looked at Find Out. They would later engage in another transaction—she and this man—the likes of which could not yet be imagined. But as she stared into the dashboard, she knew what was next. And without having to be taught any steps, she released the brake and put the car in drive, pressed her foot on the gas pedal, and maneuvered out of the tunnels of the scrapyard.
Nephthys took the haunted Plymouth wherever her wandering heart carried her, the ghost in the trunk a kind of charm it seemed, for she was never stopped by the police, nor did the car break down for any reason or ever run out of gas. The fuel gauge remained in the same position since its trunk dweller’s fateful night—three-quarters full—and never moved again. But one dawn, as she sat in the Plymouth near the banks of the Potomac River, a fog formed over the surface of the hood. It grew thicker and rose higher. Nephthys stared through the windshield as it moved toward her, and it snaked into the car and coiled around her thoughts, giving them voice and eyes and skin.
The truth was that Nephthys wasn’t the first, for there was one of her kind in each epoch. The last one was an enslaved woman who hailed from the Ashanti Empire. She once lived on the campus of Columbian College (which later became George Washington University) with the wealthy college steward who owned her. And she too looked into the fog and heard the cry of wandering hearts. For in that low visibility of the fog’s atmosphere, where the living felt around as if blind, the fog tried to help men realize that they were but creatures of passage, pointing the way from one destination to another. So that the enslaved woman snuck off the Columbian campus each dawn and moved in secret from one quadrant to another, helping those she heard in the fog to escape elsewhere.
But Nephthys had no way of knowing this as she sat in the Plymouth in Foggy Bottom, staring into sentient mist. What she knew was that every phosphorous dawn after that, the fog came to her, and she heard within it the eerie call of wandering hearts. And that was when her unbreakable bond with the fog began.
* * *
A dog barked in the dawn and Nephthys shifted in the driver’s seat, feeling stiff. She looked at the timepiece on the Plymouth’s dashboard. She’d been looking at it for years now, not because she needed to know the time, for she had her own sense of the passage of minutes and hours. She looked for the assurance of knowing exactly what the pointing arrows indicated. They read 5:35 a.m. She nodded, comforted by the surety of the hands. Because numbers were more certain to her than words. And in her decades of living, she had learned that she knew more than what letters and words and sentences could describe, and she saw and felt and spoke of things that such glyphs were too limited to convey. What the alphabet formed in little combinations had never held more importance to her than the happenings of those who lost their way. Or found it.
She peered into the dawn and waited. And after a while the fog came and thickened around her. Now she could feel it. The colonel’s wife, she thought. It’s the colonel’s wife today. She put her foot on the gas pedal and disembarked, coasting down the street.
Excerpted from Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé, copyright © 2021 by Morowa Yejidé, used with permission of the author and Akashic Books