TWO DAYS AFTER Derek Chauvin murders George Floyd, two days after Thomas Lane and J Alexander Kueng help the murderer press him to the ground, two days after Tou Thao stands guard, looks away from the killing, protecting it from interruption, I carry a box to the post office. Inside the box is a Tunisian puppet protected with bubble wrap, layers of tissue paper, tape. I decide it is time to send the puppet to the friend for whom it is meant. No more time to procrastinate.
When he traveled to Prague, he’d seen a puppet he wanted to buy but didn’t. He told me about his regret. Mourned it, as he saw, in his apartment, the place where it would be. Where, when he looked there, it would delight. It would have made him remember Prague, that day in Prague, and himself, as a boy and now as a man writing in Canada.
The sky is overcast, gray on top of gray. I’m wearing gray pants, navy sneakers, a black T-shirt, a black baseball cap, a black mask over my mouth and nose.
I bought the puppet three years earlier in Tunis, in the old part of town. The main street was lined with tanks, barbed wire, and soldiers with guns. I was walking on that main street to the old part, the medina, loud with people shopping, bargaining, cooking. The old man who made the puppet wasn’t in the shop, but his son was. He told me that puppet making, puppet shows, those traditions were dying in Tunisia. “People are dying,” I said.
“What is tradition but people,” he said. There was a small photograph of his father on the wall. He looked preoccupied or sad, a preoccupation with sadness, a preoccupation with ending, a preoccupation with dissatisfaction, a preoccupation with obsolescence. I asked the son if he had learned how to make puppets. He said, “It takes too much time. I want to leave Tunisia.” I re-glanced at his father’s photograph.
The puppets dangled from the shop’s ceiling. I selected a Black one. The clothes on the puppet are yellow felt and brown leather. The son wrapped it in paper. I left the medina then sat at a café outside of it. In the almost dark, boys played soccer in the plaza. I drank sweet mint tea from a short glass. The old men there played checkers as they drank tea. The boys kicked the ball from one to the other, from one side of the plaza to the other. Tea and coffee drinkers watched. I watched swifts fly between crumbling edifices, the word tradition profuse in my mind.
At the airport, through security, as my bag rolled through the X-ray machine, the woman at the machine asked if I’m a puppeteer. I smiled and told her no. I thought of the tanks, the barbed wire. I thought of the soldier who walked slowly with his gun as if time with it and its weight had weakened him.
Back in Morocco where I lived, I didn’t unwrap the puppet. I kept it in my desk drawer for a year.
I'M WALKING PAST the bakery where I often buy biscuits, plum scones, ginger cookies. I’m walking past a shop that sells Black Lives Matter T-shirts. I’m carrying the box of the Tunisian puppet with both hands. There are protests in Minneapolis. The governor of Minnesota has activated the National Guard. Who will the National Guard, guard, in Minneapolis? In that city, Prince’s “Sign of the Times” must be blasting through someone’s headphones or windows.
The peaceful protests are spreading all over the country. The president of the United States is calling the protestors “thugs.” Yet he isn’t calling the murderer of Floyd a “thug.” He didn’t call the white supremacists in Charlottesville “thugs.” I’m thinking about tradition. How Floyd’s death is a tradition in this country. I’m asking myself if this generationally passed-on tradition will end. I’m pessimistic. I’m afraid of my pessimism. But there are protests. There are protestors. They shock me because in the past, protests were less seen, protests for the deaths of Black people were less seen despite this land’s wild litter of Black murdered bodies. I’m shocked by their spread, the spreading of protests especially due to the pandemic. The protestors are wearing masks over their mouths and noses as am I, on my way to the post office.
I’m sending this Black Tunisian puppet to Canada. I’m sending this Black Tunisian puppet to a Canadian poet. I’m walking to the post office passing a Chinese restaurant, an Italian restaurant, a Mexican restaurant.
I’m wondering if our president is Russia’s puppet. I’m wondering how, I will read later, in an article published in Newsweek that fifty percent of white people, if the election were held in the near future, would vote for our current president. I will later learn that seventy-four million Americans will vote for him. After what we know about this president is so public: racism, xenophobia; after his non-handling of the pandemic as we are violently infected, as we die. Nothing is hidden, yet he is supported in daylight and no light, a tradition, the American tradition. George Floyd’s death is supported, continues to be supported.
I can’t watch eight minutes, forty-six seconds of torture. I can’t watch the ending, the death. I just know that death, his death and months earlier, Breonna Taylor’s in Louisville, Kentucky. I know the deaths, the piles, the piles.
I push the post office’s door open and realize I’m not wearing surgical gloves. I don’t want to touch anything other than the box I’m holding. The walls of the post office are yellow and I’m the only customer. There is one woman in uniform behind the counter. She is reading something on her telephone. She isn’t wearing a mask but sits behind glass. There are gaps in the glass for packages. I say hello, pushing the box through one of the openings. She asks if I’ve filled out a custom’s form. I tell her no. She gives me the form and I fill it out on an island in the office’s center.
On the wall is a poster announcing their newly issued Harlem Renaissance stamps. Nella Larsen’s stamp is large on the poster. I remember reading her novel, Quicksand as an undergraduate. I remember, in graduate school, taking the 3 train to 135th street and walking into the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. I remember feeling safe there, inside that building, among those books.
I hand the postal worker the form. She examines it, “Oh, what is in the box?”
“A puppet,” I say.
She shakes her head both surprised and annoyed. Perhaps she knows a puppeteer, had loved one and the relationship was both strained and strange. Or the idea of a puppeteer or the idea of a puppet in a box is too much for that morning, too whimsical on this solemn day. She asks if there are hazardous things in the box as well, anything perishable, liquid.
“Only a puppet and packing materials,” I say.
“No lobsters?” Her pitch is high.
“No puppet lobsters,” I say.
“No real, dead ones either?”
“There’s nothing dead in that box,” I say. I’m now annoyed but try not to show it. “Can I also have a sheet of the Harlem Renaissance stamps?”
“Whatever you need,” she says. I wait for her to finish making a new label. I pay with my debit card. Through an opening in the glass, she pushes my receipt to me with the tracking number circled. “In most countries outside the United States, you can’t track the delivery. In Canada, you should be able to.”
“Does ‘should’ mean I can?”
“It means ‘should,’” she says. “Isn’t everything uncertain now?”
My exhale is audible as I turn and leave with only a sheet of stamps in one hand, nothing in my arms. Outside, it is still gray. I miss the cardboard thing that used to be in my hands, the puppet in the box. But I’m hopeful for it, for its last journey, its arrival.
At home, I remove the mask and immediately scour my hands with hot water and soap.
A Moroccan friend sends me a text asking if I’m okay. My response is no. He tells me there will be a protest in Paris in which he’ll participate. Another friend tells me of another planned in London. I read of protests in Atlanta, Washington, DC, Detroit, New York City.
The Black Tunisian puppet is on its way to Canada. What a journey: Tunis, Casablanca, Ifrane, Lewiston, Portland, and later, hopefully, Vancouver. I’m thinking about the word, tradition.
On Monday, protestors will be tear-gassed; rubber bullets will shoot from guns. Those peacefully protesting George Floyd’s death, anti-Blackness, will be forcefully removed from Lafayette Square so that the president of the United States can stand in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church for a photograph. He will hold a Bible. He will wear a blue suit and a blue tie. A red ribbon will dangle from the Bible. I will look for strings controlling his legs, arms. I will look for Russian strings, transparent, almost invisible, Putin’s strings, someone else’s strings. But then I’ll look for something frayed, something vital in him someone or something may have marred, displaced in his youth or non-youth, something he wants back; something painful making him impose so much pain on so many. I won’t find it. I will think of the word, fascism because of his posture, his pose. I will read that word on that man’s stone face.
The Black Tunisian puppet doesn’t have stings controlling its arms. The Black Tunisian puppet is on its way to Canada as protests thicken. That Black Tunisian puppet is on its way to a Black Canadian poet.
On Friday, Black Tunisians in Tunis will protest the death of George Floyd and that country’s marginalization of Black people.
I’m thinking of the word tradition. I’m thinking of Black people, Black American people and the word tradition. I’m thinking of Canada and the soon free Black puppet, unconfined from his box.
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MYRONN HARDY is the author of, most recently, Radioactive Starlings, published by Princeton University Press. His poems have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Ploughshares, the Baffler, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Maine.