About the Author
Jesmyn Ward received her MFA from the University of Michigan and has received the MacArthur Genius Grant, a Stegner Fellowship, a John and Renee Grisham Writers Residency, and the Strauss Living Prize. She is the winner of two National Book Awards for Fiction for Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) and Salvage the Bones (2011). She is also the author of the novel Where the Line Bleeds and the memoir Men We Reaped, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize and the Media for a Just Society Award. She is currently an associate professor of creative writing at Tulane University and lives in Mississippi.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Where the Line Bleeds 1
IN THE CAR, JOSHUA PLUCKED a Waterlogged Twig, Limp as a Shoe-string, from Christophe’s wet hair. Dunny drove slowly on the pebbled gray asphalt back roads to Bois Sauvage, encountering a house, a trailer, another car once every mile in the wilderness of woods, red dirt ditches, and stretches of swampy undergrowth. Joshua watched Dunny blow smoke from his mouth and attempt to pass the blunt he’d rolled on the river beach to Christophe. Christophe shook his head no. Shrugging and sucking on the blunt, Dunny turned the music up so Pastor Troy’s voice rasped from the speakers, calling God and the Devil, conjuring angels and demons, and blasting them out. Christophe had taken off his shirt and lumped it into a wet ball in his lap. His bare feet, like Joshua’s, were caked with sand.
Joshua stretched across the backseat, shirtless also, and tossed the twig on the carpet. He lay with his cheek on the upholstery of the door, his head halfway out the window. Joshua loved the country; he loved the undulating land they moved through, the trees that overhung the back roads to create green tunnels that fractured sunlight. He and Christophe had played basketball through junior high and high school, and after traveling on basketball trips to Jackson, to Hattiesburg, to Greenwood, and to New Orleans for tournaments, he knew that most of the south looked like this: pines and dirt interrupted by small towns. He knew that there shouldn’t be anything special about Bois Sauvage, but there was: he knew every copse of trees, every stray dog, every bend of every half-paved road, every uneven plane of each warped, dilapidated house, every hidden swimming hole. While the other towns of the coast shared boundaries and melted into each other so that he could only tell he was leaving one and arriving in the other by some landmark, like a Circle K or a Catholic church, Bois Sauvage dug in small on the back of the bay, isolated. Natural boundaries surrounded it on three sides. To the south, east, and west, a bayou bordered it, the same bayou that the Wolf River emptied into before it pooled into the Bay of Angels and then out to the Gulf of Mexico. There were only two roads that crossed the bayou and led out of Bois Sauvage to St. Catherine, the next town over. To the north, the interstate capped the small town like a ruler, beyond which a thick bristle of pine forest stretched off and away into the horizon. It was beautiful.
Joshua could understand why Ma-mee’s and Papa’s families had migrated here from New Orleans, had struggled to domesticate the low-lying, sandy earth that reeked of rotten eggs in a dry summer and washed away easily in a wet one. Land had been cheaper along the Mississippi gulf, and black Creoles had spread along the coastline. They’d bargained in broken English and French to buy tens of acres of land. Still, they and their poor white neighbors were dependent on the rich for their livelihood, just as they had been in New Orleans: they built weekend mansions along the beach for wealthy New Orleans expatriates, cleaned them, did their yard work, and fished, shrimped, and harvested oysters. Yet here, they had space and earth.
They developed their own small, self-contained communities: they intermarried with others like themselves, raised small, uneven houses from the red mud. They planted and harvested small crops. They kept horses and chickens and pigs. They built tiny stills in the wood behind their houses that were renowned for the clarity of the liquor, the strong oily consistency of it, the way it bore a hole down the throat raw. They parceled out their acres to their children, to their passels of seven and twelve. They taught their children to shoot and to drive young, and sent them to one-room schoolhouses that only advanced to the seventh grade. Their children built small, uneven houses, married at seventeen and fourteen, and started families. They called Bois Sauvage God’s country.
Their children’s children grew, the government desegregated the schools, and they sent them to the public schools in St. Catherine to sit for the first time next to white people. Their children’s children could walk along the beaches, could walk through the park in St. Catherine without the caretakers chasing them away, hollering nigger. Their children’s children graduated from high school and got jobs at the docks, at convenience stores, at restaurants, as maids and carpenters and landscapers like their mothers and fathers, and they stayed. Like the oyster shell foundation upon which the county workers packed sand to pave the roads, the communities of Bois Sauvage, both black and white, embedded themselves in the red clay and remained. Every time Joshua returned from a school trip and the bus crossed the bayou or took the exit for Bois Sauvage from the highway, he felt that he could breathe again. Even seeing the small, green metal exit sign made something ease in his chest. Joshua rubbed his feet together and the sand slid away from his skin in small, wet clumps that reminded him of lukewarm grits.
When Joshua and Christophe talked about what they wanted to do with their lives, it never included leaving Bois Sauvage, even though they could have joined their mother, Cille, who lived in Atlanta. She sent Ma-mee money by Western Union once a month to help with groceries and clothing. Cille had still been living with Ma-mee when she had the twins, and when she decided to go to Atlanta to make something of herself when the boys were five, she left them. She told Ma-mee she was tired of accompanying her on jobs, of cleaning messes she didn’t make, of dusting the undersides of tabletops, of mopping wooden living room floors that stretched the entire length of Ma-mee’s house, of feeling invisible when she was in the same room with women who always smelled of refined roses. She told Ma-mee she’d send for the twins once she found an apartment and a job, but she didn’t. Ma-mee said that one day after Cille had been gone for eleven months, she stood in the doorway of their room and watched them sleep in their twin beds. She gazed at their curly, rough red-brown hair, their small bunched limbs, their skin the color of amber, and she decided to never ask Cille if she was ready to take them again. That was the summer their hair had turned deep red, the same color as Cille’s, before it turned to brown, like a flame fading to ash, Ma-mee said.
Three weeks after that morning, Cille visited. She didn’t broach the subject of them coming back to Atlanta with her. She and Ma-mee had sat on the porch, and Ma-mee told her to send $200 a month: the boys would remain in Bois Sauvage, with her. Cille had assented as the sound of the twins chasing Ma-mee’s chickens, whooping and squealing, drifted onto the screened porch from the yard. Ma-mee said it was common to apportion the raising of children to different family members in Bois Sauvage. It was the rule when she was a little girl; in the 1940s, medicine and food had been scarce, and it was normal for those with eleven or twelve children to give one or two away to childless couples, and even more normal for children to be shuffled around within the family, she said. Joshua knew plenty of people at school who had been raised by grandparents or an aunt or a cousin. Even so, he wished he hadn’t been torturing the chickens; he wished that he’d been able to see them talking, to see Cille’s face, to see if it hurt her to leave them.
Now Cille was working as a manager at a beauty supply store. She had green eyes she’d inherited from Papa and long, kinky hair, and Joshua didn’t know how he felt about her. He thought he had the kind of feelings for her that he had for her sisters, his aunts, but sometimes he thought he loved her most, and other times not at all. When she visited them twice a year, she went out to nightclubs and restaurants, and shopped with her friends. Joshua and Christophe talked about it, and Joshua thought they shared a distanced affection for her, but he wasn’t sure. Christophe never stayed on the phone with Cille longer than five minutes, while Joshua would drag the conversation out, ask her questions until she would beg off the phone.
But once when she’d come home during the summer of their sophomore year, a kid named Rook from St. Catherine’s had said something dirty about her at the basketball court down at the park while they were playing a game, something about how fine her ass was. Christophe had told Joshua later the particulars of what Rook had said, how the words had come out of Rook’s mouth all breathy and hot because he was panting, and to Christophe, it had sounded so dirty. Joshua hadn’t heard it because he was under the net, digging his elbow into Dunny’s ribs, because he was the bigger man of the two. Christophe was at the edge of the court with the ball, trying to shake Rook, because he was smaller and faster, when Rook said it. Christophe had turned red in the face, pushed Rook away, brought the ball up, and with the sudden violence of a piston had fired the ball straight at Rook’s face. It hit him squarely in the nose. There was blood everywhere and Christophe was yelling and calling Rook a bitch and Rook had his hand under his eyes and there was blood seeping through the cracks of his fingers, and Dunny was running to stand between them and laughing, telling Rook if he wouldn’t have said shit about his aunt Cille, then maybe he wouldn’t have gotten fucked up. Joshua was surprised because he felt his face burn and his hands twitch into fists and he realized he wanted to whip the shit out of dark little Rook, Rook with the nose that all the girls liked because it was fine and sharp as a crow’s beak but that now was swollen fat and gorged with blood. Even now Joshua swallowed at the thought, and realized he was digging his fingers into his sides. Rook, little bitch.
Joshua felt the wind flatten his eyelids and wondered if Cille would be at the school. He knew she knew they were graduating: he’d addressed the graduation invitations himself, and hers was the first he’d done. He thought of her last visit. She’d come down for a week at Christmas, had given him and Christophe money and two gold rope chains. He and Christophe had drunk moonshine and ate fried turkey with the uncles on Christmas night in Uncle Paul’s yard, and he’d listened as his uncles talked about Cille as she left the house after midnight. She’d sparkled in the dark when the light caught her jewelry and lit it like a cool, clean metal chain.
“Where you going, girl?” Uncle Paul had yelled at her outline.
“None of your damn business!” she’d yelled back.
“That’s Cille,” Paul had said. “Never could stay still.”
“That’s ’cause she spoiled,” Uncle Julian, short and dark with baby-fine black hair, had said over the mouth of his bottle. “She the baby girl: Papa’s favorite. Plus, she look just like Mama.”
“Stop hogging the bottle, Jule,” Uncle Paul had said.
Joshua and Christophe had come in later that night to find Cille back in the house. She was asleep at the kitchen table with her head on her arms, breathing softly into the tablecloth. When they carried her to bed, she smelled sweetly, of alcohol and perfume. The last Joshua remembered seeing of her was on New Year’s morning; she’d been bleary and puffy eyed from driving an hour and a half to New Orleans the night before and partying on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. He and Christophe had walked into the kitchen in the same clothes from the previous day, fresh from the party up on the Hill at Remy’s house that had ended when the sun rose, to see Cille eating greens and corn bread and black-eyed peas with Ma-mee. Ma-mee had wished them a Happy New Year and told them they stank and needed to take a bath. They had stopped to kiss and hug her, and after he embraced Ma-mee, Joshua had moved to hug Cille. She stopped him with a raised arm, and spoke words he could still hear.
“What a way to start off the New Year.”
He had known she was talking about his smell, his hangover, his dirt. He had given her a small, thin smile and backed away. Christophe left the room without trying to hug her, and Joshua followed. After they both took showers, Cille came to their room and embraced them both. Joshua had followed her back to the kitchen, wistfully, and saw her hand a small bank envelope filled with money to Ma-mee. She left. Joshua thought that on average now, she talked to them less and gave them more.
He couldn’t help it, but a small part of him wished she would be there when they got home, that she had come in late last night while he and Christophe were out celebrating with Dunny at a pre-graduation party in the middle of a field up further in the country in a smattering of cars and music under the full stars. Wrapped in the somnolent thump of the bass, Joshua closed his eyes, the sun through the leaves of the trees hot on his face, and fell asleep. When he woke up, they were pulling into the yard, Dunny was turning down the music, and there was no rental car in the dirt driveway of the small gray house surrounded by azalea bushes and old reaching oaks. Something dropped in his chest, and he decided not to think about it.
Ma-mee heard the car pull into the yard: a loud, rough motor and the whine of an old steel body. Rap music: muffled men yelling and thumping bass. That was Dunny’s car. The twins were home, and judging by the warmth of the air on her skin that made her housedress stick, the rising drone of the crickets, and the absence of what little traffic there was along the road in front of her house, they were late. She’d pressed their gowns and hung them with wire hangers over the front door. She thought to fuss, but didn’t. They were boys, and they were grown; they took her to her doctor’s appointments, cooked for her, spoke to her with respect. They kept her company sometimes in the evenings, and over the wooing of the cicadas coming through the open windows in the summer or the buzzing of the electric space heater in the winter in the living room, described the action on TV shows for her: Oprah and reruns of The Cosby Show and nature shows about crocodiles and snakes, which she loved. They called her ma’am, like they were children still, and never talked back. They were good boys.
The front screen door squealed open and she heard them walk across the porch. She heard Dunny step heavily behind them and the sound of wet jeans pant legs rubbing together. The twins’ light tread advanced from the front porch and through the door. The smell of outside: sun-baked skin and sweat and freshwater and the juice of green growing things bloomed in her nose. From her recliner seat, she saw their shadows dimly against the walls she’d had them paint blue, after she found out she was blind: the old whitewash that had coated the walls and the low, white ceiling had made her feel like she was lost in an indefinite space. She liked the idea of the blue mirroring the air outside, and the white ceiling like the clouds. When she walked down the narrow, dim hallway, she’d run her fingers over the pine paneling there and imagined she was in her own private grove of young pines, as most of Bois Sauvage had been when she was younger. She’d breathe in the hot piney smell and imagine herself slim-hipped and fierce, before she’d married and born her children, before she started cleaning for rich white folks, when she filled as many sacks as her brothers did with sweet potatoes, melons, and corn. She spoke over the tiny sound of the old radio in the window of the kitchen that was playing midday blues: Clarence Carter.
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