By Sumiko Saulson
We have a special treat for Black Speculative Fiction Month! Award Winning Author, Sumiko Saulson, has generously offered to let us re-post her winning story from the 2018 Afrosurrealist Writer Award.
My feet soaked at the edge of the lake in a balm of brackish water. Lake Merritt is polluted by dumpers, but teeming with life. Home to a rare mud-skipping crustacean called Transorchestia Enigmatica; thirty species of fish and over one hundred kinds of bird, and North America’s oldest wildlife refuge. I wish Courtland Creek, which runs alongside my home, was as fertile. Thanks to pollution and re-routing of the waterway, frogs, fish and most birds have vanished from Courtland Creek.
Pollution and gentrification are natural, but they aren’t. They come from the darker spirits generated by the passing through and the wrongdoings of mankind. We cast our own dark magic over life as it stood before we trampled through here, destroying everything. It creates dark pockets of sterile death, paving over everything in its wake. But life struggles to break through anyway. You will find a bit of grass splitting the sidewalk here, a tree that refuses to placidly stay in its lane and takes over a driveway elsewhere. But men are always arriving with our heavy machinery to tear it down, to domesticate it.
But the earth spirits live on despite our efforts to tame them. By my home, at Courtland Creek, there are wild groves of flowers, and among them, many butterflies. That is how life strives to resurface.
I quietly fill a flask in my pocket with the cool waters of Lake Merritt, and stick it into my pocket so I can bring it home with me. The foul spirit Mathalaki that dwells near Courtland Creek fears brackish water. That’s why his evil moves men to dump garbage in the water and all through the trees I look down on from my bedroom window.
Once, waters flowed freely from estuaries spreading like lifelines across the open palm of historical Oakland. Sausal Creek, the Lyon watershed and Courtland Creek used to flow over luscious hill and lulling dale before emptying out into the San Leandro Bay. That was before the Oakland Alameda Coliseum opened September 18, 1966, two years before I was even born. Now, part of the watershed flows underground, through dank, musty tunnels that smell of clean mold just after fresh rainfall, but rotting debris and chemicals most of the year.
Bracken, mold, and pond scum aren’t death scents, you know? Like the decay of moist eucalyptus, the decomposition of oak leaves, they breathe renewed life into the cycle of birth-death-rebirth that includes all of the living, even we, humanity. But the smell of chemicals, sterile bleach, cold disinfectants, and factories are the harbingers of death. Thick, cloying motor oil, a rainbow slick across the watershed from gasoline, all of these are dead smells. As dead as the bodies in Hope of the Peace Cemetery, about six blocks away from where we stand, over on Fairfax Avenue. It’s the oldest Jewish Cemetery in Oakland. The dates of the most recent burials are around 1966. The year the Oakland Alameda Coliseum was built. Apparently, this was still a Jewish neighborhood back then.
Now, all of the Jewish people live up the hill in Maxwell Park. Even there, they’re mostly older. The new white folk in Maxwell Park aren’t particularly Jewish. And down around Courtland Creek Park, and the Hope of the Peace Cemetery, is a smallish enclave of renters. To the east of us is the Fairfax District, one of those black and Latino neighborhoods where the poor are proud homeowners. The Fairfax Business District is the home of a lot of businesses owned by the same demographic. Back in the seventies it was an up and coming Black Business District. My parents thought it was going to become the Fillmore of Oakland. That’s why they bought this tiny property off of Courtland Creek Avenue.
My house is a good half-mile from the cemetery, but I’m more afraid to walk around it than I would be to walk through the gravestones at night. At least over there, you know where the bodies are buried. I take out my flash of brackish water from Lake Merritt and pour some over the threshold as I enter the door. I utter the incantation under my breath.
Most people don’t know Courtland Creek is haunted. That’s why, when those kids from Fremont High found the bones of a dead dog during their Earth Day clean-up, they didn’t think nothing of it. Neighbors said the dog was probably dumped by an unscrupulous dog fighter. It was a pit bull, after all. You know how they do, with pit bulls. Others said it was poisoned by the same fecal matter that killed off all the fish and frogs. You know, they tried to blame the homeless for that, but it turned out to be a busted sewage pipe.
Figures. It’s always the lowly that get fingered as a problem. But that sewage line burst up in the Oakland Hills somewhere above Mills, where the Creek never smells like urine, human or canine. Up where money makes a safe, warm bed for them at night. Over there, where the only thing they have to fear are fire elementals. Elemental creatures that reside in polluted waters never assail their sense, as shit literally rolls downhill.
All of the local shootings and stabbings and other insanity come from that spirit, and by spirit I do not mean ghost, as it never was a human being. It is something insidious, something elemental, and something born of miscreant magic and polluted creek water. It was a malevolent spirit that caught hold of a neighbor lady and made her go all out of her mind, shooting BBs at people’s windows. That lady hung out on the porch some days, aiming at stray cats and occasionally, she got hot at someone or the other about real or imagined slights.
It was the villainous spirit that caused two young black men barely out of high school to shoot Jewish senior lady from the neighborhood watch, against the fence of Hope of the Peace Cemetery, because that’s how these malicious demons work.
And it is important that you know it is a demon. This is no spirit of a wayward child gone missing, or anything that has ever been human, but a phantasm that rose out of the muck the very day they decide to well up Courtland Creek and the other waterways and let them wallow in pollution so they could build up that Coliseum.
Sometimes when I drive past Walgreen’s on High Street next to the I-580 onramp, I see my white neighbors standing there with Black Lives Matter protest signs, waving at the passing cars, and I honk at them to show my support. I know what they’re doing. They’re doing their best to chase off that demon.
His name Mathalaki, son Mammon, and as surely as the love of money is the root of all evil, he rose up over Oakland the very day he was born, on September 18, 1966. Mathalaki lives here now, attracting those who love money above all. He sings a song that cries to the blood of every illegal dumper who receives money to haul garbage away from some business in San Leandro or Hayward for a reasonable fee, and then dump into onto our sidewalks, into our yards, and down into the creek. He hums a melody that roils the blood of those greedy little thugs who broke into houses and killed an old lady to steal her iPhone. To all of the predatory lenders who closed down local black businesses and price gouged.
The teenagers are down at the creek again, fighting Mathalaki. There is nothing he fears more than the smell of brackish water. He hates the clean, crystal stream of fresh water pouring out into San Leandro Bay, mixing with the salty waters that drift in from San Francisco Bay, in from the Pacific Ocean. The children whisper Mathalaki loathes the Oakness Monster, a sea-creature that lives in Oakland’s Lake Merritt. Legend has it that the creature has been seen more frequently over the past five years, due to clean-up efforts.
I am intimately familiar with the Oakness Monster. I remember the very first day he came to reside here. I recall seeing other fanciful creatures that still resided within Oakland’s watershed when I was a child. Creatures that loved the scent of clean, brackish water and I suspect, were responsible for keeping the creek clean. Like Plecostomus catfish, the suckermouth fish that ate feces and algae and kept aquariums clean, only large and ancient. Some believed the Oakness monster might be some ancient ancestor of the Plecostomus that thrived in brackish waters. I heard from a coworker thought he was an ancient amphibian of some sort.
Now, I know they have sea-hares there. I have seen them before, giant purple sea-slugs. The so-called monster is like that – natural. I have good reason to believe my coworker is correct.
Mathalaki is unnatural and greedy.
Oral tradition has it that Mathalaki’s father, Mammon, arrived in Oakland during the Gold Rush. My ancestors arrived with him – eager to shove off their chains. He offered them freedom in exchange for their hard work panning, or in gold mines, and so, California entered the union a free state. Oakland was born during the Gold Rush. The minute land became too pricey in San Francisco, it was born. Incorporated on March 25, 1854, but there were few African Americans here until the Great Migration from the South in the 1940s bought still more ancestors of mine, escaping Jim Crow. And so we built, and we made for ourselves a home. I was a little boy when the Black Panthers rose up in the seventies. They formed in 1966, the same year that the Coliseum was erected.
We were already fighting Mathalaki back then.
Mathalaki rose in strength and prominence during the crack cocaine gang wars of the 1980s. The government fueled crack addiction and the worship of money, and death filled the air, heavy iron, gun smoke, cocaine hydrochloride and baking soda. It was Mammon feeding his wicked son Mathalaki, cleaving greedily to his breast.
Tonight, I soak my front porch steps in brackish water, eager to ward off the wicked one. Tomorrow, though… I swear I will do what must be done.
What Must Be Done
“Davey, it would be so much easier if we could just exchange the water,” father told me when I was a child. “We could get a big semi, the kind that carries water or gasoline, and fill it with brackish water from Lake Merritt. Bring it down here, and then pour it into the creek until it went to overflowing. Then, we might get rid of Mathalaki.”
But it would only be temporary, he warned. The water would back up and get filthy, unable to escape down into the bay. You see, once there was a marsh there, where the Coliseum. Rich with life, aromatic at low-tide with the same strong, swampy aroma present around other places such as Emeryville, Vallejo, and Novato. Some people hate that smell. They say it smells like someone farted. But that’s a life-smell. Not a death smell, like the stink of the Chevron Richmond Refinery.
Now, the East Creek Watershed, which combines all of Oakland’s many creeks, flows out through two flood channels – the Damon Creek Slough, and the one Courland Creek flows out of, East Creek Slough. But my father said they were not wide enough to let the poison flow out when the curative rain waters flow in. That’s why my father had a plan. Make it so the water can get back out to San Leandro Bay again, where it could be cleansed by the magical mixture of salt water and freshwater that existed there. Water needed motion. It needed to drift in and out of the creek, not pile up due to the traffic jam at East Creek Watershed.
Now, the jam up was notably made worse by all of the things people threw into the creek whenever they dumped into them. Old couches, shopping carts, mattresses, and dead critters backed everything up into a stinking mess.
A spell was required to remove them all. A spell made of fruitful rich earth and brackish water. So my father had begun to dig a tunnel in my backyard, one that was hidden under a well. This well required years of excavations and more than a few detonated explosives. Over time, my father and I cleared out the space in order to make a large enough space for the magical infusions of water that were required to flush out Mathalaki.
But now, I knew it wouldn’t be enough, at least not alone.
That is why I began the spell. I ran my fingers over my walnut brown arms as I said them, waiting for my transformation to be complete. Once it was done, would I have fingers at all?
Rocking back and forth on the dirt floor, I ran a pinky over the dust and scrawled upon it runes. Again, I chanted, running my fingers along my changing skin. Bumps rose up on the surface of my forearms. Webbing sprouted between my fingers. I nodded, inhaling cool breath and hissing it out between clinched teeth. Warm air condensed into incensed fog. Sweet and sallow, it rose to the ceiling. I ran a finger over my gritted teeth, and felt them sharpen into tines. Hands cupped my eyes, stroking them as the eyelids receded and they rose, bulging and aquatic, as my body reverted to an the earlier evolutionary condition of amphibians.
I looked at legs stretched, lean and muscular as a frog, webbed toes curling under the newly moisty soles of my feet. Then, I stood and removed my clothing. Nude, I leapt into the well, swimming far away into the muck of Courtland Creek.
The transformation… easy to do, wasn’t as easily undone. How would I live, as a merman, or a creature, like the Creature of the Black Lagoon? How would I buy groceries, and tend to my needs in this new form, the Creature of Courtland Creek? Spells could be cast to undo it, but not until my missions were over. And even then, they might not succeed.
But I did what I was meant to do, as my father had done before me. I joined the Earth’s fighting force to defeat Mathalaki. I swam through the rivers, filtering out garbage with my catfish muckraker jaws. The filthy I removed with my hands, the dirt in and out of my gills.
I have finally done it. I have finally joined my father, the Oakness monster.
I will be forever known as the Creature of Courtland Creek.