Isma woke me up at four that morning: “The horse is gone.” I scrambled out of bed and looked: sure enough, she had vanished like a ghost from where he had tied her to a tree in the back yard. He took a head lamp and the dogs and traced her prints in the dirt road to the footpath that eventually leads to the hill where we’re building our house, a few kilometers away. That’s where she normally stays, but Isma had ridden her to the little cottage we have on his parents’ property the evening before.
“Did she decide to go back home?” I asked.
He shrugged, his eyes distant, worried.
He took the ATV while his dad followed the horse’s trail up the path. I crawled back into bed, though I couldn’t really sleep. My thoughts turned, as they often do, to what I should write. I’ve been playing with two ideas, lately: one science fiction, the other fantasy. One young adult, the other adult. Both complex, confrontational works dealing with the legacy of sexual trauma. There doesn’t seem to be anything else I can write at the moment, and that has made me wonder, a spinning rumination, about what we keep hidden and what we reveal, about those scrabbling years when writing can be at once revelatory and opaque, and at what imperceptible moment that well-worn device becomes not merely tired, but complicit. I am going to have to write something with this self-knowledge, this new sense of place. Anything else, apparently, my heart would know for a lie.
Isma texted me: we found her. I sighed and slid into perturbed dreaming. I was tired. I’d gotten back the day before from the hospital two hours away, where I’d waited with my mother-in-law during her wrist surgery. There were complicated reasons why I had done this. I had thought I was showing up, but I was also trying to prove something to myself, about the kind of person I could be when the situation called for it, about wanting to help a parent who could not be helped. It occurred to me, as dawn came and the turkeys gobbled me awake again, that it probably had something to do with not having set foot in the United States for a year. That anniversary had slipped past me alongside the pandemic and left me feeling badly-angled, half-naked. I have decided to bury my umbilical in the earth of my adopted home, because it feels right here, and there is nowhere for it where I was born. We have inherited a mountain/hill (cerro) from his family where we are building a house for ourselves. But it hits me sometimes, especially this March when I don’t know when I will be able to go back—I am so, so far from where I started.
That’s a—complicated—strength. We bought the horse four months ago (her name is Tamarindo, named by one of his nieces, but we still haven’t got the habit of it and mostly call her la yegua). She wasn’t born on the hill, but she knows it’s her home. She carefully undid each of her knots in the middle of the night outside our door, clopped calmly up the stairs to his parents’ part of the property and out the front gate, down the street, and up the footpath. She had almost made it to the hill by the time Isma and his dad caught her. So they took her the rest of the way there and let her off the lead, so she could roam again, nibbling on the sweet emerald shoots that have sprung from the charred clumps of wind-blown grass that went up like kindling in a brush fire a few weeks ago. The horse knows what she has: a home, wild, wind-swept, haunted.
I will write the adult novel next. The fantasy. The first confrontation. It doesn’t have to be a terror—surely, my life has proven that? It can be a joy, and sacred, like the cerro. The earth is red and rock-strewn; it will spring to life when the rains come. It is so quiet up here. Just the wind, the distant cry of the vultures, the murmur of the river below and, perhaps, from the farthest point on the horizon, the gray rumbling of the sea.
Thank you for subscribing to my newsletter! (I have promised this newsletter for years, so you are receiving this email because at some point during that…uh…decade you indicated you’d like to see it. I’m sorry if that’s no longer true! You can unsubscribe!) If you like A stranger comes home, please share the word. I plan to have at least one essay (if things are going well, two) and one writing-focused Q&A a month, plus any assorted announcements of new books or projects. Eventually, I might publish snippets of fiction as well.
Do you have a writing-related question (it doesn’t have to be craft-focused—existential questions welcome)? Leave a comment below or drop me a line at alaya [A T] alayadawnjohnson [D O T] com and I’ll try to answer it in an upcoming newsletter.
Please check out my very first short story collection, Reconstruction, which came out this past January from Small Beer Press and contains short stories spanning the last decade. I am really proud of the title story, which is original to the collection. It received a tremendous review from the Chicago Review of Books, if you’re interested in learning more. If you purchase it from Book Moon (link above) they also have a limited supply of signed bookplates they can ship with it.
Finally, my first novel in six years, Trouble the Saints, came out last July, with the pandemic in full swing. Which is to say, any love you can spare for this work of my heart will be greatly appreciated. I myself don’t have a lot of money to spend on any extra goodies, so if you can’t buy, recommend it to your local library or check it out if they have a copy! It’s also periodically on sale, so I’ll send a note if that happens again.
In the meantime, take care of yourselves! Thank you for reading!
Dear Alayah Dawn Johnson,
I am a 69 year old dedicated reader of novels and have followed many Afro-American writers' careers. Having just finished Colson Whitehead's "HARLEM SHUFFLE" last night with some degree of satisfaction I dove into a waiting copy of your "TROUBLE THE SAINTS" and got immediately taken to that world. I am on page 39 and can tell it has the earmarks of the kind of immersive, magical book that I really love. So far, you are giving Pulitzer Prize winning Colson a good run for his money. I got interested to learn more about you which brought me to this site. Turns out I have made 4 trips to OAXACA and Love Mexico with a passion. My wife and I have friends that have a house in HUAYAPAM outside the city in the hills. They are friends with the Mexican family that runs a high level guide business called ACADEMIC TOURS and my wife and I have had the best times in Oaxaca. Florencio Moreno operates ACADEMIC TOURS. He is a remarkable man.
It is so nice, thanks to the INTERNET to be able to directly interact w/authors, artists and musicians that i admire. I like the restraint that you exhibit in the opening of "Trouble The Saints" in introducing the Occult/Supernatural element of the plot. All the characters you have created so well are coming off the page so beguilingly and visiting The Pelican was reliving many a nightclub experience I have had as a life long denizen of NYC/E.Village myself.
In Closing i wish you fulfillment of your dreams and
the continued ability to share them w/readers
insta- #jake_bialos Fbook- Jake Bialos email- firstname.lastname@example.org