Alexis Pauline Gumbs
“your hair is getting longer, sweetie,” debra’s mom said while the teenager watched the sunset. Debra didn’t answer. “that’s a good thing,” mom continued as if her daughter’s silence were speech. Debra flared her nostrils and exhaled loudly. How could that possibly be relevant? she thought, rolling her eyes. “Anyway,” mom continued, as if critique was companionship, “it’s time for dinner.” She turned and walked away. Debra followed slowly, dragging her hooves.
In the grazing circle, Debra pretended to eat. Truth be told, she didn’t want grass in her teeth. Truth be told, her stomach had been bothering her for days. Truth be told, scratching the ground over and over meant there was a conspicuous bald spot in front of her. It had been like this ever since the morning her mother told her about the plan. Around her, her cousins were eating more than usual. As if clover was a fricking delicacy. But they weren’t too busy stuffing their faces to exchange glanced commiserations about Debra’s flicking tail. Her pointed and amplified breathing.
Debra’s aunt spoke as if someone had asked her a question. “we know how you feel,” she said, careful to keep looking down towards her forehooves. “we almost know how you feel. it’s scary to leave the place you were born. but we hope you never have to know how we felt when they kidnapped us and brought us here from Africa.”
Debra snorted. How many times had she heard that phrase? “when they kidnapped us and brought us here . . . .” Mom moved closer to her twin sister. Their thighs touched. Their stripes lined up, flowing into a black and white river. From Debra’s vantage point, it looked like a path.
Auntie continued, “sometimes i wish you foals could have known your grandparents, any of our elders. i swear one summer on the savannah would burn out all this disrespectful . . . .” Debra’s age-mates looked at her. She could read their eyes as easily as she could read the clouds. They were as confused and scared as she was. They were silently asking what they always asked: Why did she always have to make them look so bad? Generationally bereft. That was what Auntie called them sometimes.
Debra knew she wasn’t alone in her fear. And she knew her grunts and sighs did not add up to a worthwhile protest, but all the days of the waning moon, she had felt so powerless, so pushed. She had to express herself. Even if it was the last impression she would make on her elders. May I be unforgettable in my angst. She prayed silently. After I go into oblivion.
Why did everything have to be so black and white and black and white? They were old enough; their muscles were strong enough. Their instincts were intact even though they had never had to save themselves from lions. This is what their parents told them again and again. How could they know whether they were strong? “We love you.” That was mom, layering her voice over her sister’s frustration. “We are going to miss you every second, please know that. But we want you to know how it feels to be free.”
Debra looked at her forehooves, which had absently been digging designs into the dirt below her. A crescent moon, seven slashes, a fractal hoofprint radiating out like a flower. Since the waning crescent, the electrified fence had been down. Because of the virus the humans were nurturing in themselves and each other, no truck had come out yet to fix it. And tonight, the moon would be dark. This was their chance. She and the other full-grown teens could move undetected. Once the moon turned her back, they could cross the fence black. For once, their whiteness wouldn’t give them away.
Debra, the eavesdropper, had learned a lot during her time at the farm, also known as her entire life. She understood the noises of humans as if they were language. It was she who had told her mother about the stories of this land. How earlier generations had made livestock of their own species, also stolen from Africa. How they eventually sold or kept their own striped children, forced them to work this same land. Most of her cousins had been bored when she tried to explain the sorcery of it, this human invention called money, held in the blood of other humans. Livestock, she told them, like us. Money that lives and breathes. And leaves.
One day, Debra had listened to the wild-haired teacher with the gray streak explaining to the half-listening brown students about how the Maryland-born Africans who had been stock on this land had escaped—some of them—into forest and swamp. There was something about the way the teacher stood tall when she told the students that story that made Debra want to bring it to the grazing circle. She felt a ripple run through mama, auntie, and them when she translated the words “maroon” and “freedom.” She herself was thrilled by the possibility of it, a way not to be for sale, for stroke, forgotten, cut off from all their lineage in this fenced-off land. As usual, she hadn’t trotted out her actions to their eventual implications. How black and white cancels itself out when you try to act on anything. In short, this was all her own fault.
Debra hoped she was the only one who noticed the puddle below her face, flooding her hoof hieroglyphics into unreadable mud. Tears? Drool? Sweat? Whatever. She looked up into the blur of the water coming off her snout, walked over, and stood between her mother and auntie, letting them flank her close, like she hadn’t for years. They stood that way for a long time while her age-mates munched and looked at each other. Finally, Debra spoke to her peers. “We could walk as soon as we were born,” she said. “We are ready.”
By dark, they were a black mass of breathing, huddled together close one last time. Auntie was chanting.
A car is a lion. A truck is a lion. A camera is a lion. A flying metal camera is a lion in the sky. Any human is a lion. Any human-made thing. has teeth and can kill. Remember this, and they will never catch you. Remember your mountain ancestors when the air grows cold. Let the savannah heat you from within. Love each other like we love you. Love yourselves like we love you. Know that we are free through you. Know that we are free.
Debra stomped on the fence, breaking the line, holding the space open so her peers could move through into the world of manicured lawns and trash cans, headlights, smooth tar, or whatever was out there. She walked through last, knowing if she looked back, she would shred at her seams. To their left, a floodlight broke the sky. She didn’t look up. She didn’t look down. All she felt was the breath at her back saying, Run.
News Item: On August 31, 2021, five zebras escaped from a farm in Prince George’s County, Maryland. As of this writing, they are still free