Evening in the Great Smoky Mountains can look like portals to heaven as the setting sun breaks through layers of purpling clouds. As romantic a place as any. There’s a man there setting up a Dob. He’s got a Sky Watcher at home, but the Dob is the first telescope he ever bought. He enjoys its compressed optics. It’s harder to tote around, but handling it is like handling his husband, Kadeem: familiar, tranquil, with a complete understanding of how each part will react to his complicated hands—all glittery nail polish and hard calluses. Maybe Kadeem has made sandwiches: grilled tomato and chèvre.
“Kofi,” calls Kadeem. “I think I forgot the hot chocolate.”
When Kofi pauses because he doesn’t think of jokes on the fly, Kadeem stops him.
“Don’t,” he says, flashing a grin of white teeth evening light fuses with as if he’s biting on lightning. “Don’t make a stupid chocolate sex joke.”
“Why? There’s no one here to hear it except us.”
“I don’t want to hear it,” Kadeem says, but laughs. Both men know they want to hear almost anything from either.
“We’ll have tea,” Kofi says. “There’s always some guayusa in my messenger bag.”
The G Wagon is parked less than a mile away at the visitor center, and both men could walk these trails forever without complaint.
The spot is Watterock Knob. It’s nice and high. The stargazing here is unrivaled. By the time the Dob is ready, Kadeem has set up the folding table and chairs with all the food.
Kadeem and Kofi do this every Thursday they can. These are busy men—one works as a classical guitarist in recording sessions for artists interested in using real musicians and not AI. The other is a professor of mathematics by day and a photographer by night, styling every subject no matter their race or gender in geles.
“Why geles? Why an object associated with women instead of men? Regular crowns might be more interesting—and rational,” someone once told Kadeem. He’d had to pause for a moment. When he began planning a photo, he didn’t plan for geles but folks ended up in them anyway. He didn’t want to be a woman. Didn’t want to fuck one. Didn’t find them aspirational. He just styled people in African women’s scarves. Kadeem knows a fundamental truth about the world: Not everything is for a reason nor can a reason define the behaviors of others. At the time he’d thought: I’ll no longer bother with such questions of ‘why’ this or ‘why’ that.
However, Kadeem is wrong.
As they eat their sandwiches with care—slow, savoring bites because both know how to live—they take turns looking through that Dob. Right away, they both see it.
“Kofi, take a look,” Kadeem says, turning from the telescope with eyes full of light glitter.
“Are you crying?” Kofi says, and Kadeem riffles away his tears. He’s so used to fighting them, flicking them before no one can see them that he forgets they exist.
“There’s a woman,” Kadeem says. “Look.”
Though they’ve been together almost three months, Kofi knows Kadeem loves him, discerns it when Kadeem puts passionate hands in his dreads, their faces resting together as if they will meld into one. However, Kofi takes care to keep his painted nails out of sight. The men only fight in rare instances, and there tends to be a pattern: masculinity vs. femininity.
“Black men are feminized in a way that’s meant to degrade them,” Kadeem said once as they shared a flan after attending a film premiere. The world outside the café didn’t reflect either man—Kadeem in a gray silk scarf and Kofi dressed in a jacket with huge gold buttons and 24-carat gold barrettes in his shoulder-length dreads. Perhaps he was thinking of bleaching them. Might be interesting. No one knows, but he was born red-headed despite being the darkest member of the family. Baffled, his mother had repeatedly shaved his head and kept it short until he’d settled into the deep dark tones considered normal.
“What?” Kofi had said, hoping this wouldn’t turn into a critique of him. He’s a huge man, but when he sings, he sings falsetto. He’d held a blue sodalite palm stone because of nervousness, and he squeezed it so hard examining Kadeem’s subtle annoyed expression that it slipped from his sweaty hand and fell to the floor where he left it because it landed in the filthiest corner of the café. A bad omen? Kofi had wondered.
Kadeem had sighed as if his lungs were five feet high. “This is not to say being a woman is degrading. It isn’t. Think of it like this, there’s nothing wrong with being a squirrel. But what if birds are forced to act like squirrels? Never able to use their wings. Expected to climb trees without them. Expected to scrabble about the ground on those little spindly legs trying to run from cats. I suppose there wouldn’t be birds for long.”
“Birds and squirrels are different species,” Kofi had replied, unsure of what else to say. He’d been watching the sidewalk from the corner of his eye and fixated on a woman in a red sweater staring into the jewelry store window across the street. He didn’t know who she was, but he wanted her to save him. His belly felt peeled. His chest twinged as if he’d been punched. It seemed another relationship that wouldn’t happen because he, Kofi, didn’t commit to a binary.
Kadeem had continued because he didn’t hear Kofi. “I don’t mean it aesthetically. Any style goes for me. You’ll never see me in a dress or anything, but dresses being exclusively female clothing items is a relatively new concept. I don’t think the guy in the movie was styled wrong. Rather, I think his character was neutered. I think Black guys are neutered on screen because people are afraid of us. I find myself lost in the question of whether it is fair. Does that make sense? For me, it’s a question of honesty and fairness. People who neuter Black men are disingenuous. It’s just so committed.”
“And what do you think?” Kofi had said, relieved, and therefore able to speak louder.
“I think people do what they can get away with. I’m not mad at folks in other communities. I’m mad at the ones in ours. The ones who dress up like Black women when they want a quick and easy laugh. Why wouldn’t everyone else put us in a dress when we put one on ourselves?”
“I thought that’s what you didn’t care about?” Kofi had said, alarmed.
“I don’t. But that’s where it starts right?”
Unable to contain himself, Kofi rose. “I’ll see you around.”
Scrambling up, Kadeem said, “What? You’re leaving? Why?”
“I thought you wanted me to?”
“Man, I’d sew us together if I could.” But then Kadeem paused, realizing he’d said too much. But Kofi had smiled, showcasing deep dimples and sat down hard enough to make the chair protest.
“I figured you weren’t feeling me.”
“Come on man. Who couldn’t feel a face like that?”
But still, Kofi has heard Kadeem’s complaints. Perhaps a Black man wears a kilt, eyeliner, or lip gloss, or two earrings that dangle, or too many rings, or too big a necklace, or high-heeled boots, or leggings, or too-short shorts, or has a blowout, or too-big lips. Feminine. Kofi embodies many of these characteristics without trying. It’s been the kiss of death for his dating life, and he’s seen the messages: no fats, no fems enough times to clench up inside when he sees it. He may not be fat, but fem has always been enough. Feminine.
The worst damn thing ever.
Kofi thinks untrained police are worse. He thinks the people pulling their bags closer when he passes are worse. He thinks of the teachers who backed away from him when he only wanted to discuss the lecture in more detail, the artists surprised he plays like Paco de Lucía, and the strangers who touch his dreads with their dirty hands are worse. Try as he might, Kofi doesn’t see the darkness in the depths of his femininity. He’s nurtured baby birds back to life in his big hands, and once, when he was only sixteen, held a cancer patient as he died. Kofi was not bothered by the gentle Black man they’d seen in the film. If anything, he’d been inspired by him. Yet, Kadeem’s spirit was burnt and Kofi ruminated on his disquiet.
As Kofi rises to put his eye to the telescope’s lens, his hands are behind him as if hiding a present, and though Kadeem notices, his mood is too foreign to react. Kofi has never seen this expression on Kadeem—or anyone. He puts his eye to the lens. He’s lost in his thoughts of hiding his hands, hiding whatever could annoy Kadeem, when he sees her. A female form indeed. She’s close. Even as he watches, she grows closer. Then closer. Kofi steps away. He cannot see because his eyes are hazy with tears. A statue. Even as he realizes it, he begins struggling to breathe. She must be seven times the size of Jupiter. In the back of his mind, he wonders: what the fuck type of creature could build this? And, for fuck’s sake, why does it look human? And its humanness is unmistakable. The eyes, nose, and mouth. The neck is a little long, and the arms and legs are a little long, but they are in the proper shape and position. She holds what could be a staff. Her hair is only in the middle of her head as if she’s African or Indigenous; it narrows to a braid over her shoulder. Before long, she’ll block out the sky. Kofi wonders about sunlight.
He means to cry, but he laughs. “We’re doomed.”
“I’d say so.”
“The size alone is going to mess up the gravitational pull of anything near it. This isn’t Oumuamua.”
“No,” Kadeem agrees, his voice gentle. “She isn’t Oumuamua.”
They are silent beneath a heavy carnivorous sky as beautiful as any bioluminescent predator.
“Why is this happening?” Kadeem wonders.
“Why is anything happening?” Kofi answers, and realizes with a start that the ending of anything is always a gift. To end is to have been.
“Maybe we’ll live through it? Nasa will blow it up?”
“And where will the pieces go? Not even close to enough time for that or building a machine that could do it.”
It was a ridiculous notion. Both men couldn’t think of a single metal-like material that could withstand the intensity of space and retain its shape amid all the statue must’ve encountered.
“They are far more advanced. It might take us fifteen hundred years to build anything that size. Plus, we’d have to do it off-planet,” Kadeem ponders, and he’s staring up at the sky as if he’s looking at a goddess.
“And they look like us.”
“That part,” Kadeem mutters still staring up. “They look like us.” Then he stares forward and speaks as if talking to everyone and no one. “But they treat their women better. If we could build a sculpture that big, would it be of a woman?” He speaks slow and low. Kofi cannot read his mind, but he realizes that Kadeem has had a mysterious epiphany.
“Maybe Ruth Bader Ginsburg?”
“Stop. You know damned well that’d be some white dude.”
“Well, the largest statue in the world is of a South Asian man named Vallabhbhai Patel. You judge us too harshly. You’re an artist. You oughta know better.”
“Don’t say ‘oughta.’ This isn’t the hood.”
Both men laugh and wipe their eyes. Already, they can feel the bite of insects panicking. They run to shake off bugs, giggling like children as a cacophony of crickets rise and swell, wild katydid melodies, elk offer resonant bugling between bear roars, raccoon squeaks, bird calls, and bobcat screeches. The earth is awash with their cries of horror. Beneath it all, the wind stirs the leaves reminiscent of hushed conversations as if the ground whispers to herself. Fireflies have come now. They look like tiny specs of magic, and the men take turns catching them in their palms to show the other. After they hike to get the G Wagon, the statue is close enough to be moon-sized. In the morning, she will block out the sky. People will die of megalophobia heart attacks. Perhaps, amidst the death and terror, there’ll be just enough time to name her: The Cathedralis after Catherine of Alexandria.
Soon, parts of the planet will freeze. Perhaps governments will usher people below ground. Maybe this great statue won’t stay too long buoyed forward by sheer momentum, if that’s even possible. Maybe, just maybe, the men think, she barrels past our solar system and is out of sight within three months after crushing us down to our strongest.
Maybe they look to an evening sky in the wreckage of her visit and think of heaven. Could this evening sky retain its blue, purple, red, and gold bejeweled expanse above a tortured world? We’ll say yes.
Kadeem and Kofi will wonder, just as the whole of humanity, as they tiptoe towards healing: What would it take to build a statue that vast?
And maybe, just maybe, they decide to try.
Erika Lauren Sullivan is from the rural south. She holds degrees from University of Texas at East Texas (BFA), where she won the creative writing Ferguson Award, and Northern Arizona University (MFA). She places her fiction in conversation with other mixed race, southern, and Black artists who celebrate the mystic depths of the south and describes her work as literary horror-laced fabulism with elements borrowed from all corners of speculative work. She believes that the story dictates its own needs and if it pulls from multiple genres, so be it. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Barely South Review, Red Earth Review, Typehouse Magazine, The Southern Poetry Anthology, and others.