Trust your true self, not who you wish you were.
My grandma used to tell me of the dangers that lurk in the Manistee National Forest, but I never believed her. She’d tell me stories of monsters and fairies and a beautiful bridge that connected their world to ours. She said that our family was cursed, and that if I ever dared to go inside, I’d never come out. I didn’t take her seriously, she was old and had dementia, but I wish I would have. Maybe it would have prepared me, or maybe it would have stopped me from going on that trip altogether.
“Maybe we should call for help,” I suggested after hearing my grandmother’s voice in my head. “You’ll never make it out, baby, just best to stay away.”
“Already? We’ve only been lost for an hour, I thought you’d be the last one to give in,” Noah huffed, stopping and leaning against a tree.
“She’s afraid of grandma Ruby’s stories,” Charlie informed the rest of the group. “Don’t you remember? The Brookfield family curse. She’s probably gonna die in here.”
“Charlie the optimist,” Gabe clapped. She rolled her eyes and flipped him off.
“I forgot about those stories… there are like, supernatural creatures in here, right?” Frankie asked. “Maybe we’ll meet a werewolf.”
“Here we go,” the rest of us mumbled. Frankie was obsessed with werewolves and had memorized all the accounts of sightings in the area. I laughed, trying to allow my friends’ witty banter to distract me from the gnawing feeling in my heart. Twelve hours prior, I made the decision to break up with my boyfriend, who I knew was going to propose to me on this trip. It’s not that I didn’t want to say yes, that I didn’t love him. I didn’t really understand the problem, I just didn’t feel like I could marry him. So, he told me to have fun and stay safe on the trip, and he’d stay home and practice his free-throw for the game next week.
“Why don’t we just make camp here? Frankie and Noah, you two can go get wood, Gabe and I can set up a tent, and Zoe you can just make sure not to let the curse get you,” Charlie winked.
“I can stay with Zoe,” Frankie offered, dropping the ten-pound backpack. It’d been six months since Frankie told us they didn’t feel like a girl anymore, and Noah was the first to offer a hug. But Frankie feared that he liked the pretty girl he grew up with, and not the beautiful person underneath.
“No, you go with Noah; the more wood we get now, the less we’ll have to get later,” I protested, smirking at Noah when Frankie turned around. He gave me a thumbs up and told Frankie to lead the way; his admiration for our friend was clear on his face.
“Alright Gabers, let’s pitch this tent.” Charlie was the leader of the pack. She was beautiful, with her long, straight hair and wide blue eyes; she was fierce, confident, and if we hadn’t grown up together then I probably would have hated her out of jealousy. “Zoe, I think I saw a river back there, maybe two miles that way. Wanna see if you can fill a jug for us to cook dinner tonight?”
“Shouldn’t we stick together, or maybe just find our way back to the main trail? We’ve probably got a little daylight left and we can’t be that far off,” Gabe suggested.
“Roughing it out here is exactly what we all need, trust me.” Charlie had a way of charming people, so we did trust her. I sprayed myself with bug spray, grabbed the empty jug, and started walking back the way we’d come, Charlie’s orders for Gabe fading with each step. I loved the sound of the dense green wood around me, the peaceful chirping of birds and the distant flow of a river. There was no pollution, nothing to disturb this natural oasis; I was mesmerized by its perfection. I’m not sure how long I walked, following the current’s call, but when I finally found it, I couldn’t see the sun anymore. An icy chill seeped into my bones and the Eden I’d been drawn to transformed into a dark thicket of ominous shadows. My grandma’s voice entered my head, “The bridge is close, Zoe, you must keep looking up.” I looked up with her warning as something darted behind me. Now, I’m not even sure if there really was anything there, but I could have sworn I saw a pair of glowing eyes with it. I screamed, taking a step back onto the riverbank and sliding in.
The water was cold, but it was comforting at the same time. I kept sinking, despite my efforts to swim up; it felt like I was trapped, being pulled deeper and deeper into the black abyss. The water soothed me, and my urge to keep fighting. Just as suddenly as the water pulled me under, a strong, dark pair of hands pulled me back out. I gasped, clutching to my rescuer and shivering; my lungs burned and water spewed from my mouth, soaking their shirt. They carried me up the beach and set me on the hot, pink sand; I lay down, letting it bring feeling back to my fingers. I should have noticed that I was somewhere different, Michigan rivers didn’t have banks of pink sand. Instead, I focused on my grandma’s voice as it sounded again in my head. “You made it, child. Trust your true self, not who you wish you were.” My teeth chattered and my breaths came in bursts, and I finally looked up at my rescuer.
“Will?” I gasped. My throat was raw, and the sound came out not much louder that a whisper, but he smiled and his brown eyes lit up in my favorite way.
“I thought I told you to stay safe,” he chuckled lightly, sticking out his hand. It was only after I stood that I noticed our surroundings. The pond that I’d fallen into was now an endless body of water, its waves blending in with the horizon. The water was bright and clear, and I could see all the living creatures beneath its surface. Behind us sat miles and miles of soft pink sand. It shimmered in the hot sun like a trillion morganite stones. Beyond the sand rested the forest, dark and dense and seemingly impenetrable.
“Where are we?” I asked, spinning in a circle. Geography wasn’t my best subject in school, but I was pretty sure Michigan didn’t border an ocean.
“You tell me,” he grinned, sliding a piece of wet hair out of my face. My heart clenched and I lifted my hands up to feel the rough texture of my natural curls instead of soft, smooth strands I’d spent three hours producing that morning. I knew it was only a matter of time before it became a tangled and frizzy nest. I quickly pulled it up into a bun to hide the mess. “Where are we, Zoe?” Before I could ask what he meant, tell him that I had no idea what was going on, a gust of wind swirled around us, and everything disappeared. I called out to him, reaching for him blindly, but he was gone. When the sand settled, there were two different people that stood before me. It was then that I was sure I was dead. I’d drowned in the river in the middle of Manistee National forest. I’d never make it out just like my grandma warned me.
I recognized the two people in front of me. On the left was Levi, the handsome boy I’d met at a party when I turned seventeen. He told me that I was pretty for a mixed girl, and it felt like the best compliment in the world. He made me feel beautiful. On the right was a black man who looked vaguely like my father, though I’d only met him a few times in my life, so I couldn’t be sure. They were both staring at me, though only one of them looked concerned.
“Come with me, I can help you,” Levi promised, sticking out his hand and looking at me with soothing eyes.
“I wouldn’t trust him if I were you,” the black man shook his head. “I know I haven’t shown it much in the past, but if you come with me, I’ll get you through it.”
“Don’t listen to him, he was never there for you like I was,” Levi argued. I met him on my birthday. I was supposed to go to dinner with my dad, but he never showed up. My mom was working, and I didn’t want to go home alone, so I decided to branch out and go to a party. He sang me happy birthday, consoled me about my dad, and convinced me that everyone deserves a kiss on their birthday.
“Do you really think that boy cares about you, Zoe?”
“Do you really think that man does?” Levi countered. My head started pounding, and I knew my time was running out. Though there was no countdown or hourglass, somehow, I knew that I needed to make a decision fast. I thought about my options. I could ignore them both and try wake up on my own, or I could go with one of them and play into my own insanity and inevitable death. The only thing I knew for sure, if I was dying, I didn’t want to spend eternity with my dad. I hurried to Levi. “Good choice, my mocha beauty,” he whispered with a smile. The other man’s face fell, his eyes looking down, and he nodded. Levi took my hand and pulled me away from the man. After a moment of walking, I turned back to get one last look at my father, if that’s who he really was, but he was gone.
“Where are we?” I asked, turning back to Levi; but he was gone too. In his place, holding my hand, was a younger version of me, maybe ten or eleven years old; I had braids in my hair. I stopped. It seemed as if my life was flashing before my eyes, like they say it does right before you die. I tried not to panic at the thought of never seeing my family again, my friends. Will.
“He was handsome, we always dreamed of someone like him,” Young me smiled, looking up into my eyes. “He’s better than the other boy.”
“Where are we?” I asked, putting my hands on my head. “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.” I could feel my mind spiraling, the hopelessness approaching.
“We’re not dead yet,” little me shook her head. “We have to make it through the forest first.” As the words left her mouth, a path appeared, forming an entrance to the forest, now only a few feet in front of us. I turned around, hoping another route had appeared behind us; there was nothing but sand and water. “Why didn’t you want to keep braids?”
“What?” I spun back to my childhood self, looking down at her like she was a stranger. She repeated her question, and faced with no other options, I thought about my answer. I remembered getting those braids, it was the only time in my childhood that I had them. I’d made a friend during the school year, Ki, and she had braids in her hair. She said it helped keep her hair safe, so I asked my mom if I could get them. The next day, my other friends made fun of me. They called me broom-head, mop-hair, Medusa, and more.
“Our hair grew long, remember? And we could go swimming without it getting ruined.”
“We got teased,” I answered, patting the tangled mess on top of my head. “It wasn’t a good look on us.”
“Will liked it.” My small shoulders shrugged, tugging at a memory that I hadn’t thought of in a long time. We were in seventh grade, and the cutest boy in class, DJ Hammond, told me that it made me look more like a word that I’d never heard before. We were surrounded by a group of our peers, and some of them snickered. I asked him what it meant, and he told me it was a word his dad taught him to describe people like me. Will walked over to the group, asking what was going on, and I told him what DJ had said. Will’s eyes filled with anger and he turned and pushed DJ away from me, telling him to never to say what word again. Then he looked at me, tugged gently on one of my braids, and said that I looked pretty. My heart clenched, and in that moment, I wanted nothing more than to have Will’s arms around me again. He thought I was pretty, not just for a mixed girl, and he stood up for me.
“Will is good,” I nodded, pushing back the sob that threatened to burst out. “I don’t want to die.”
“Grandma says we have to trust our trust selves, not who we wish we were. That’s how we make it out.”
“You heard that too?” I asked, looking down at myself. “Do you know what that means?” Young me shook her head. I cleared my throat, facing the trees head-on. There were two paths, the one on the right lit up by the bright sun with an even trail, and the other in shadow with roots and branches suffocating the path. I started down the right path, but ice filled my veins and my stomach turned to knots before I could even breath through the tree-line. It felt wrong, and Grandma Ruby said to trust myself. After a glance down at my smaller self, I squared my shoulders and pushed through the dark, prickly opening. Almost immediately, the ground underfoot began to tremble and we lost our balance, tumbling to the ground with screams. It felt like the earth flipped on its side, and I couldn’t stop myself from rolling through the sharp branches. My surroundings blurred in circles, and it felt like hours before I finally flew out into a field of yellow wildflowers bordered by the dense forest. I flipped to my back, coughing and trying to force air back into my lungs. I looked up at the sky, and it was so beautiful and still and blue. There were no clouds, and it was so peaceful that I thought about closing my eyes and letting that be the end.
“She went this way!” Someone shouted, snapping me out of my daze. I didn’t recognize their voice, but they didn’t sound friendly, so I stayed low and peered through the flowers. There was a group of people all dressed in white, scoping the area. “That abomination is gonna pay.”
“What’d she do again?” Another unfamiliar voice asked.
“Does it matter? We don’t want people like her here.” This voice sounded familiar, and I looked in the direction it came from, staring into my own eyes, though the rest of me looked slightly different. My hair was as straight as a pin, straighter than I could get it even with my straightener on the hottest setting. My nose was small and thin, my teeth were long and sharp, like fangs, and my skin was smooth and pale. “There she is!” With her call, the group charged toward me.
“This way!” Another voice called from behind me. I spun, searching for an escape from myself. An arm waved from within the trees a few yards away; it was attached to another version of myself. This one had a beautiful afro of curls on her head. Her smile was confident, safe. “Hurry!” She called to me, and I took off running toward her, the other me and her gang chasing close behind.
“What’s happening?” I asked, trying to keep up with myself. She swerved quickly, then again, and pulled me into a small door hidden in the trunk of a tree. She put her hand over my mouth and we waited. The group that had been chasing us ran past, calling out for me and threatening my execution. Tears filled my eyes, and I slid to the floor, covering my face. “What’s happening?” I asked again.
“Your soul is at war with itself,” the other me answered calmly. Her voice was similar, but there was something fierce about it.
“My soul?” I huffed. “So I am dead!”
“Stay quiet,” she snapped, peeking out of the door then squatting in front of me. “You are not dead, you are lost.”
“I want to go home.”
“So do I. So, you must help me end the war. My name is Daraja.” I looked up with furrowed brows, but she looked different. She was wearing a beautiful yellow robe with jewels in her hair and on her skin. She was glowing, and light reflected off her like a mirror. We shared a face, but she was much more radiant that I.
“Where are we, if I’m not dead?”
“We are in the soul realm. Yours is in control at the moment, but dark forces are moving in, and the darkness inside you is fueling it.” Her explanation only brought me more questions, and her accusation of felt like a slap in the face.
“What darkness?” I snapped. The voices outside returned, and she grabbed my hand, pulling me deeper into the tree. I didn’t have a choice but to trust her. “Where are we going?”
“To the core,” she answered, and then her hand disappeared and I was alone, surrounded by complete and absolute darkness, and it felt more suffocating than when I’d been sinking in the water.
“Hello?” I called. It stayed silent. “Somebody help me!”
“Zoe?” I recognized Will’s voice; it was the most beautiful sound that I had ever heard. I was sure that my heart was had exploded out of my chest with joy, but I couldn’t see anything to prove it.
“Will! Will help me!” I cried, reaching out into nothing.
“Why won’t you let me save you?” He asked, his voice sounding farther away.
“I’m trying!” I yelled back, sobbing.
“Zoe,” my grandmother commanded. A light flashed on and I could see her yards away, walking toward me. “It’s time to reconcile with yourself, child.”
“I don’t know what that means!”
“Look.” She pointed, and I turned to look in the mirror that had suddenly appeared behind me. Next to my reflection, on the left, stood the vampire-me who’d led the mob in my pursuit. On the right stood someone who resembled us, but her hair was thick and braided and her skin was two shades darker.
“I don’t understand,” I shook my head, turning back to my grandma.
“What is the reason you did not want to marry Will?” She asked.
“I don’t know,” I shook my head.
“Zoe, I always taught you to tell the truth. So tell it now,” she encouraged me. I looked back in the mirror. The two versions of myself had transformed into children, and the one on the left was making fun of the one on the right. I looked back at my grandma.
“I am, I don’t know why I can’t marry him.”
“What is the mirror telling you child, it can’t lie to you like you’re lying to me,” she spat. I turned back to the mirror, and watched the girls grow like a movie in the glass. The one on the left always had it easier, better; she got more attention and opportunities. The girl on the right got better grades, but had to work harder. She spent more time alone, and only had a few decent friends. The mirror shattered, and with it, the façade that my true feelings had been trapped behind. The light disappeared. “It’s time to reconcile, child,” my grandmother said.
I loved Will, but the first time I thought about a future with him was the night Charlie went to help him wrap his wrist after a game and came back telling me she saw the ring. I went for a walk and thought about what my life would look like with William Harper. I thought about all the amazing times we’d have, like going to basketball games and family barbecues in the summer. It seemed happy. Then I thought about the struggles we’d face as a black and biracial couple. I hated the stares we got when we’d go to nice restaurants, the way people would move their purses and their children like we were diseased. I hated the texts I’d receive at five in the morning informing me that someone had called the cops again reporting a large black man running suspiciously through the rich neighborhood where our campus was located. He was dark, so our children would probably be dark too; I didn’t want them to have those experiences.
“It was because he’s black.” My voice was barely above a whisper, but it still sounded too loud to me. My friends and I had organized protests, I’d spent hours debating with people and arguing about justice. I was so focused on making sure other people were doing the work that I never took the time to do my own. For twenty-three years, I allowed myself to believe that I was lesser because society told me that I was. I preached to other people that being black makes them beautiful, that being black in this country makes them strong, but I never let those statements apply to myself. I dropped to my knees. My chest was heavy and my eyes were stinging and I looked down to see my own reflection staring back at me. My hair was a nest on my head, frizzy and full of knots. I took the scrunchie out and shook my head, letting the curls bounce around my head like a halo. Everyone always told me that my hair looked great that way, but I never saw it. It was hard to manage, and it was never as sleek as Charlie and Frankie’s hair.
“You are not beautiful for a mixed girl, my dear. You are just beautiful.” My grandma’s voice was close and she caught me in her strong arms as I spun. I let out a sob and she held me tighter as my tears flooded the floor around us. We stood there for a long time, her arms healing me and the unrest in my soul. I didn’t realize that the water was rising until that’s all that I could feel, my grandmother’s arms slipping away and the cold seeping in. I swam up and broke through the surface of the water, gasping. My lungs felt raw and I coughed, water spewing from my mouth.
“Zoe!” I heard someone call, but the river dragged me back under.
“Keep fighting it,” my grandma ordered and I thrashed against the water, my lips breaking the surface again. A warm hand grabbed mine, then another grabbed my arm, and the rest of the water in my lungs returned to the lake as they helped me to shore. The ground was hard, but the sun was warm, I rolled to my side and forced air down my throat. Noah and Frankie sat beside me, huffing and staring at me with wide eyes.
They wanted to call the park rangers to come check me out, but I convinced them it wasn’t necessary, and they helped me back to camp so I could change. Gabe started a fire, and he and Frankie warmed some water for us to have hot chocolate, which helped me thaw. But I still felt cold, and the only person I really wanted was Will. He deserved better from me, I deserved better from myself. My friends asked me what happened, and I didn’t know how I could possibly explain my experience.
“I was lost, drowning, and Will saved me,” I answered instead.
“Will?” Charlie raised her eyebrows, a devious grin playing at the edges of her mouth.
“Does that mean you changed your mind about him?” Noah asked.
“No,” I shake my head. “I changed my mind about me.”