[About a month ago, I went on a writer’s retreat with the Greensboro Scribe Order. One of our exercises was to write a short story in a very brief timespan with the title/prompt “Afternoon’s Gold.” This is my story, which was inspired by Caster Semenya and the ludicrous way that the IAAF has treated her.]
What she noticed first was the quality of the light. The way it splashed across the blacktop, the little black beads of rubber all melted together through some kind of strange osmosis. The way the light splayed out like an ocean, each ray like a drop of water, individual yet part of the whole.
The second thing she noticed was the gun. Like most of these events, the trackmaster had a gun with which he (and it was practically always a he) signaled the start of the race. The gun was loaded with blanks, and oafish like a flare gun, its barrel jutting out on the end like a cartoon prop. She thought about her mother in the stands, part of the faceless, cheering mass, and she felt like laughing. The absurdity of it. The absurdity of her, being here, against all odds, ready to set a record she knew the world would never recognize. Maybe could never recognize.
The voice in her head was her mother’s, oddly enough. Strong and confident, never showing fear. A black woman in today’s world had to be that way. No cracks in the exterior. Present always the fangs first, the lioness gaze.
No. They will recognize you. They will see and learn. You be the best you can be, Fish.
She inhaled slowly, the world slowing down with her breaths. This was her moment, her day. The light splayed out like an ocean across the blacktop where she would run at the gun’s urging. This was her sea. She could be its Fish.
A gunshot snapped across the air like a whip, but for her it was all in slow motion. She could feel her heart beat, feel the air swirling in her lungs, giving oxygen to the blood cells that flowed down into her calves with each passing second. FWOOSH. The sound of air streaming through the trees. FWOOSH. The sound of fire sparking in a frigid hearth. FWOOSH. The sound of a wave crashing against the shore.
Her legs kicked out from under her, the muscles reacting to instinct more than any command. The gunshot snaps, the legs kick. That is the focal point of existence. That is when the world makes sense. She began to run, each stride as smooth as a backstroke, her movements cutting through the air with the elegance of a school of fish: each muscle, each ligament, each cell an individual yet inexplicably a cohesive whole. Not even sex felt this good, this purposeful. No other instinct or drive could be whittled down to one, single verb: run.
They watched her from the crowd, eyes hawkish. She could feel their gazes in the space between her shoulder blades. Cutting, slicing, dissecting her. She could feel the eyes of her mother, trying to somehow salve the pain, trying to deflect the questions that every reporter asked after every single race. Hormone levels. Birth certificate. DNA testing. Gene sequencing. Everything but the question that mattered. Every dissection except the one that would take.
The feeling of wind through the shaved stubs of hair all over her body. The sound of time as it rushed past her. The smell of, somehow, metal. Bubbling up and being smelted, its edges condensing and finally falling into the magma floe of liquid. The knowledge was there, always, from the snap of the gun. She would get that gold. That medal was hers, and hers alone. Inevitable. Like a fish to water.
A flurry of sound rushed into her like a tide as she let her body collapse across the painted white finish line. White as always, my baby Fish. You gotta chase that whiteness, but don’t let it own you. She thrust her body forward, let herself condense as the moment grew larger, time speeding up as she heard the cheers and jeers, saw the stopwatches click in the palms of these distant men with bloodshot eyes, these judges. She could no longer hear the wind.
Panting, hands on her knees, she heard the announcement of the times. She paced for several meters, shaking the lactic acid already starting to build in her thighs. Her name rang out hollowly across the stadium, the announcement solidifying what she already knew, what she could feel in the fibers of her calves, the tendons of her feet: a world record.
Not just that top spot; not just the prize of the day, the plinth at the end of the ceremonies. A world-ass record. The Fish had done it. She had been the best she could be. No, the best anyone could be, had ever been.
The two men in grayish overcoats took her, one hand on either side. They led her down the track for the tests she knew were coming: the reporters have to get their questions answered, after all. One hand on either arm, but those arms extended into the sky.
Her mother was watching, she knew. Her mother saw. No matter what else happened that day, her mother would see the victory in this. You gotta chase that whiteness, Fish. But don’t let it own you.
She raised her arms into the sky, two antennae, two feelers lifted into the air as the sun slid golden beneath the afternoon clouds.