Something out of the Nothing: An Excerpt from ‘Dream Country

Fiction by Shannon Gibney


Mama! Mama!” Little George and Nolan came screaming into the communal house. The society had supplied a small space for them there, in a cavernous room that they shared with fifteen other families.

Yasmine turned around, weary from the endless nursing that Lani required. “What is it, boys?”

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Nolan’s eyes were as big as work coat buttons, and his face was flushed. “We ran down by the river, and we saw a hippo drinking! Just like the picture in Mrs. Medger’s book, Mama!”

Little George pushed in front of him and began gesticulating widely, punctuating his story. “And then there was this elephant swinging to and fro, to and fro, like this.” He put his elbow to his nose and threw his weight side to side. “He was following something, we thought another animal he wanted to eat, we thought, but then he ended up finding his babies again.”

Yasmine smiled, in spite of herself. She put her hands on her hips. “And just how did this elephant lose his babies in the first place?”

Nolan shoved his brother aside, so he could corner his mother. “We don’t know, Ma. We only followed him a few miles, and — ”

“A few miles?” Yasmine gasped. Sometimes she forgot how big her children were getting and how they grew more and more independent each day. It made her proud, but also scared her. There was so much that they still did not understand about this dangerous place. So much that she didn’t understand. “I don’t want you boys traveling that far alone, you hear?” She leaned into both of them, so they couldn’t escape the threat embedded in her tone. “These woods just filled with things we ain’t never seen, heard, or even dreamed of in Virginia. No telling what could get you when you ain’t looking.”

“But, Mama,” said Little George. “We weren’t alone.”

Yasmine frowned. “What you mean?”

Little George sighed, as if he was explaining something elementary to Nolan. That boy gonna be a whole pack of trouble, once he grown.

“Right after we saw the hippo, we happened on a village with the black-black people.”

“The black-black people,” said Yasmine.

“Yes,” said Little George.

“But not the ones with the blue faces,” said Nolan.

“No, it was other ones,” said Little George, as if that meant something. “They looked more normal, though the women walk around with nothing on.”

“Do so! They got a cloth or something round their privates!” said Nolan. “But nothing on top, so that don’t really count, do it, Mama?”

Yasmine’s face grew hot and she shushed them, worried that some of the other families might hear. What kind of mother let her children be exposed to this kind of depravity at such a young age? She rubbed her temples. “They didn’t see you, did they?” she asked fearfully.

Nolan looked confused. “Well, of course they did, Ma. They knew we were in their town before we did.”

Little George crossed his arms over his chest. “Ain’t no such thing as a town way out here, stupid. We in blackest Africa, where they only got huts and dirt paths — and that’s if you’re lucky. Otherwise, they just got trees and animals for you.” He harrumphed.

Yasmine felt the same way she did when her father had come home from the fields two weeks after her sixteenth birthday and said that she was to be betrothed in a fortnight to a man she had never met: As if she were falling headfirst down a well with no bottom. She had to get control of this now. “That ain’t true,” she said, sharply enough that both boys stopped talking or trying to best each other momentarily. “We living in a town right now, if you ain’t already noticed.”

Little George looked at her incredulously, then flopped down on their worn sleeping pallet. “If this a town, we in more trouble than I thought.”

Yasmine knelt down so she was eye to eye with him, fire in her throat. “What you mean, boy?” she asked.

Little George recoiled — just a little, not much — and then met her gaze, steady. “I mean, look around. You see any schools? How ’bout churches, general stores, real roads, a post office, munitions store — anything the civilized world we left got? How ’bout some people, either? What is there, ’bout eighty people living here or something? Them’s that’s survived the tropical death, anyway.”

The anger welling up in Yasmine’s belly could have burned a hole through her.

Nolan could see it, and he took a good two steps away from her.

But Little George just kept staring her straight in the eyes, fearless. Just like his father.

“That so?” she said. “You the expert on civilization now, is it?”

Little George broke away from her grasp and looked down. “No.”

Yasmine grabbed his chin and spit each word into his face. Families were starting to stare, but she didn’t care. “What was that, boy? I didn’t hear you.”

“I said no,” Little George said, a little bit louder this time. Yasmine stood up. At least he was still a little bit scared of her; she would need to use that to her advantage.

“This town got one school, one church, and one munitions locker. And there be four hundred thirty-two colonists here, for your information,” she said, reciting the information that officials had imparted on each family at the meetings in Norfolk before their departure. “Every one of them working their tail off to feed their families, which is what we got to see about doing soon enough. They ain’t complaining about how bad they got it, how hard it is, ’cause they too busy making something out of the nothing we all found here.”

Little George hung his head, clearly chastised and embarrassed by the attention her voice was garnering.

“You ain’t noticed by now, we not just fixing to make our own home here, we trying to save these heathens from themselves — to save the race, and by doing so, prove to those crackers that the children of Ham ain’t just base animals after all,” she said. She took a breath. “Oh, and by the way, anything you want that you don’t see, you have to build with your own two hands,” she said. “It’s what it means to start from scratch, to carve a country out of its own wildness. That’s God’s work, and I’m here to tell you that that’s what we getting ready to do.” Yasmine stopped then, her words having come to a momentary halt. She sensed the room’s eyes were all on her. Little George held his head in his hands.

Nolan pulled at her skirts. “Don’t be angry, Mama. Your George be doing his part. He met a girl in the village — a black-black girl — and they made friends.”

Little George eyed Nolan hatefully.

Yasmine looked from one boy to the other.

Nolan sighed, afraid to continue, but afraid not to. “Your George met a black-black girl on the way to the village. Actually, it was her who brought us there in the first place. They made friends and even taught us a few of their words.” Nolan smiled triumphantly. “So you see, once we learn their tongue, we can ask them here to help make the town. Maybe then they even wanna start coming to church with us — ”

Little George sucked his teeth. “That wasn’t the way of it at all, you little tattletale.”

Nolan stuck out his upper lip, pouting.

The other families around them were starting to look away, as the volume and intensity of their voices died down. They began folding their blankets and gnawing on the dried sausage that the colonial officer had distributed the night before. Yasmine did not want to draw their attention again, and her throat felt suddenly constricted besides, so she simply whispered to Little George, “Tell me. Tell me what happened, boy.”

Little George glared at her. “Ain’t nothing to tell, Ma.” He smiled unexpectedly then, which worried her more than if he were recalling a story of one of the heathen men who had approached him with a machete. This small girl, greeting them with a dangerous kind of innocence, was trouble. “She was sweet, real sweet,” said Little George. “Reminded me of Penny, actually.”

“He’s right,” Nolan chimed in. “She wasn’t scared of us at all.”

“Shut up,” said Little George. He turned back to his mother. “She try to talk to us in her language, but when she see we obviously can’t hear her, she bring us back to her village, for everyone to greet us.”

“That so?” Yasmine asked, still whispering.

Little George nodded. “Because she be so kind, I think the rest of them just accepted us as brothers too. And before we left, she gave me this.” He pulled at a bit of twine she hadn’t noticed before, that hung from his neck, and out popped a small bag at the end.

“What is it?” asked Yasmine.

“I don’t know,” said Little George, obviously half with them in the communal house, telling the story, but also halfway back at the wretched little village with the girl, who Yasmine feared had already left an indelible stain on his memory and whatever it was inside him that created longing.

Yasmine could contain herself no longer. She reached down and snatched the pouch from her son’s neck. It came off in her hand more easily than she anticipated, and the twine snapped up, whipping Little George’s cheek. He looked at her hatefully, but said nothing.

“This. Is poison,” she said simply. “I don’t want to ever see nothing like this around you never again, understand?”

Little George nodded, the hate still spewing from his eyes.

“Black magic is what it is,” Yasmine said. “It comes from the bush, and it belongs in the bush.”

“But, Mama, you said that we need to teach — ” Nolan began.

“I know what I said,” she said icily, ending all possibility of continuing the conversation. “And I’m telling you both now you better stay away from that village, you hear?”

Her look demanded an answer, and both boys nodded, mostly out of fear.

“Where is your brother?” she asked them.

Little George shrugged. “Ain’t seen him for hours now. He run off, down the road with some of the menfolk.”

Yasmine sighed deeply in exasperation. Was there no way to keep track of her children in this forsaken land? “Well, go find him then,” she told them.

They blinked at her slowly, as if not comprehending her words fully.

She lost her patience, and gestured out the door. “Get to it! Bring him back now.”

Both boys ran off then, happy to finally be free from the increasingly constricting presence of their mother.

She sighed after they were gone and looked down at Lani, still sleeping. That child could sleep through anything. What am I going to do? What am I going to do? The question echoed into the wide open of her mind.

SHANNON GIBNEY is a writer, educator, activist, and author of See No Color (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015), a young adult novel that won the 2016 Minnesota Book Award in Young Peoples’ Literature. Her novel, Dream Country, is about more than five generations of an African descended family, crisscrossing the Atlantic both voluntarily and involuntarily (Dutton, 2018). Gibney teaches English at Minneapolis College.