Extract of CONJURE WOMEN by Afia Atakora

• Oct 23, 2019 •

FREEDOMTIME. 1867

The black baby’s crying wormed and bloomed. It woke Rue by halves from her sleep so that through the first few strains of the sound she could not be sure when or where she was, but soon the feeble cry strengthened, like a desperate knocking at her front door, and she came all the way awake, and knew that she was needed, again.

She unwound herself from her thin linen sheet. If there were dreams, she’d lost them now that she’d stood up. There was only the crying, not so loud as it was strange, unsettling. She smoothed her nightmare hair and made ready her face. Stepped out from her cabin, barefooted.

At the center of the town, between the gathering of low cabins that sat close and humble, Rue could make out the collection of folks, like herself, who’d been drawn from their sleep by the haunting cry. Anxious, bedraggled, they emerged to suppose at that unearthly sound. It was a moonless night, the clouds colluding to block out the stars, and the crowd knitted itself tightly in a weave of black whisperings.

“You hearin’ that, Miss Rue?” one of them said when she approached.

What little light there was streamed down from behind the crowd, hiding them, illuminating Rue. She couldn’t make out their faces for the darkness but replied just the same. “Can’t help but hearin’. That some poor sufferin’ somethin’?”

As she walked, already she was holding herself straighter, prouder. It’s what they were expecting. No matter how weary she was feeling on the inside, she knew she had to walk easy, like she were floating, same as her mama used to do. Rue’s magic ought to be absolute, she knew, not come to them sleepwalking and un- sure, or it wasn’t magic at all.

“Never heard nothin’ come close to that cry.” “Ain’t no creature.”

“That’s one a’ Jonah’s li’l ’uns.”

Rue knew they suspected already what child it was. That wrong child, born backward in a caul, a bath of black.

Jonah himself was opening the front door of his cabin and step- ping out of it, and Rue did hope that Jonah, calm and right-headed, had come to silence the rumors on his child. But there was no denying that beyond him was the origin of the crying. Even his tower-tall presence in the doorway couldn’t block out the menacing sound.

“Miss Rue,” he called, and his voice was thin like river silt. “You there, Miss Rue?”

Rue did ache for Jonah’s predicament. She answered, “I’m here.”

“Sarah’s thinkin’ the baby’s took sick. She’s wantin’ you to look him over.”

Rue stepped forward, took her time going up the few sunken- down steps to the little porch. She could feel all them eyes cling- ing to her back like hooks. At the top step Jonah, dark-skinned and strong and sure, reached down for her and took her elbow in his hand, guiding her. His calloused palms were hard against her bared skin, rough the way only a man’s hand had cause to be, and as he moved her through the door, he gave the point of her elbow a slow rub, a caress away from their fastened eyes.

“Thank you, Miss Rue,” he said and showed her in.

The home was made up of two rooms, more than most folks could boast, though the thatch roof wept from some long-ago storm. Rue followed Jonah to the front room’s far corner where Sarah was knee bent, washing the children.

The tub was large enough to fit all three of Sarah and Jonah’s little ones, but their elder boy and girl stood outside of it, naked but dry, waiting to be washed. Their faces were damp and ruddy beneath their high-yellow skin, like they’d been crying but had exhausted that sorrow, left it to the baby to do the weeping for them.

Inside the tub the baby was on his back looking like a white is- land. The steam rose up from his skin in waves. He was crying, Lord, was he crying. Rue heard in it a lost cry, and it was a call she felt compelled to answer, if not with comfort then with a mournful cry of her own. In the water beside the baby a chipped cup bobbed along the ripples created by his movements. It hit the walls of the tub out of time with the high, piercing whine that had snaked its way into Rue’s dreaming.

When she leaned forward, the baby stilled his squall. He opened his eyes as if to look upon her, revealed the oil-slick black irises that had heralded his strangeness, that had prompted the name Rue had given him at his birth: Black-Eyed Bean.

Rue said to Sarah of the baby’s eyes, “They ain’t changed.” She spoke it low enough to be out of Jonah’s hearing.

“No, they ain’t,” Sarah said, in just the same whisper. “He ain’t changed.”

There was no magic in birthing. No conjure, neither. The birth of Black-Eyed Bean had occurred one year back. Had begun no different than any other birth that Rue had known, and she had known many.

Rue just walked the women. That was it. All it took in the birth- ing room was good sense, the good sense that a thing hanging ought to fall, the way swollen apples brought their branches low before the apples plopped down to the ground. Shouldn’t it be the same with a baby? Let them hang low in the mama when it was time to fall, the mama being the branch near snapping.

Since the end of slaverytime, Rue had birthed every last child in that town. She knew their mamas and their daddies, too, for she was allowed into sickbeds for healing and into birthing beds alike, privy to the intimate corners of joy and suffering, and through that incidental intimacy she had come to know every whisper that was born from every lip, passed on to every ear. She knew what folks said about each other, and Lord, she knew what they said about her.

What folks said about Sarah, Jonah’s wife, Bean’s mama, was that she was beautiful, and it was so. She was a fiery woman, petite as an ember but just as dangerous, with skin light as wheat. Sarah was one of those who had sung when she walked the birth walk, had done so the two births before this, sung and moaned and sung right up to the moment that her bigger than big babies came on out to the world. Sarah had sung while she was heavy with Bean, a sonorous song with no words but so much soul. Her one hand gripped on too tight to Rue’s while the other hand beat out the tune she was singing against her sweat-slicked thigh. It was when Sarah’s squeezing got too tight, the veins standing up like blue riv- ers in her high-yellow hand, that Rue started her usual worrying.

Truth was Rue didn’t want nothing to do with any of that mess, the moan-singing mamas or the anxious daddies—when there were daddies—wringing their hats and their hands outside the door, or the wet and wailing babies, or, worst of all, the babies that came into the world just quiet, gone already before they ever lived, just lost promises with arms and legs and eyes for nothing. Why would she want to meddle in all of that?

As she laid Sarah down Rue had begun to think of how it all could go wrong, and if it did, what was she to do? Because just as easy as folks’ praise came, it could turn to hating. Magic and faith were fickle. Life and living were fickle. And didn’t Rue know that as well as anyone?

Still, when the time came for bearing down—the women pray- ing with their cussing and cussing with their praying—it was in the way they looked up at her, weepy eyes filled with worship, that kept her door open. Like apples, babies came in seasons, and Rue would always tell herself in the lull, Not next year. Next year I be done.

Bean had been born in one such lull, Sarah being the fertile kind. The “Her man gotta do no more than look at her” kind, like Rue’s mama used to say of the women who could show up twice in a year with their bellies making tents of their dresses.

It was easy going year after year with Sarah. She was still young, twenty-and-some, and already she’d made two babies who had been born after no more than the usual struggle. Still she stayed smooth and sweet, and her breasts remained like two fat fruits just shy of ripe.

“He’s a’comin’,” Rue had said, laying her open palm on Sarah’s restless belly. How Rue knew even before the crown of him started pushing through that Bean would be a boy she could not account for, not in words. There was just her knowing.

Rue had rolled her rough-hewn sleeves on up—just about everything she wore and ate and owned was a gift from those mamas who had no other way to pay—and she had knelt the way she had knelt near a hundred times now, though her knees did ache for it despite her youth. Rue was nearabouts twenty also if her old master’s accounting was to be believed, not much younger than Sarah, though every day Rue felt more worn, like she were living out each one of her years double, aging out of time.

They’d grown up together, true, through slaverytime, wartime, freedomtime, but Sarah had kept herself young, and even here, at her most vulnerable hour, the sweat sitting on her skin had the audacity to glisten. In every way they were opposites—that was clear enough as Rue laid her thick dark fingers on Sarah’s thin thighs and parted them.

“Lord. Miss Rue.” Sarah sighed, praying to them both.

Rue had to love and hate equally being called Miss. She was every time reminded that she’d earned the title—and the respect of it—only after her own mama’s dying.

Rue’s mama, called Miss May Belle, had gotten the kind of sickness that could not be seen and for that reason could not be cured. Its origins were in heartache for her man, Rue’s daddy, who some said ran himself crazy for lust of a white woman.

Well, let folks have their stories. The only truth was he’d been hanged, strung from a tree just outside the town, his dangling toes making circles in the dirt as his body spun on the rope. And Rue had hardly known him.

She’d been under Miss May Belle’s tutelage the whole of her life. From her Rue had learned one true thing, that all birthing was performance. Mamas were made to believe that a bit of pep- per by their bed would ward off evil spirits, but it was only meant to cause them to sneeze if what was required was a good last push to get the baby out. Rue learned to tell women to blow into a bottle or to chew on some chicory or to squat over a pot of boiling water to make their babies strong, to make the birthing easy, to protect them in that most crucial hour.

Bean’s mama was easy. Birthing came as natural to Sarah as it did to animals who need only to pause and squat and be off again. Rue knew that she ought to be glad of that, but she wasn’t.

Sarah was silk, free to slip from one type of wanting to another. Rue was rough, coarse linen, starched in her life. Freedom had come after the war for all black folks. All excepting Rue, she felt, for she was born to healing and stuck to it for life. And stuck to this place. Her own doing that, a secret curse of her own making.

“Lord Jesus,” Sarah had crooned as she’d labored. She’d gripped the bedsheets near to ripping. “Get me through this ’un. I swear, Miss Rue, this here’s my last.”

Rue knew sure as she knew the sun would rise that Sarah would come up pregnant again soon enough. Weren’t men drawn to her like flies to shit?

And it was on that thought, potent as a curse, that she realized something between Sarah’s legs was going wrong.

Rue nearly drew away in shock. A black mass came out, all in a forceful gush. The coal-dark sack squirmed in Rue’s hands. The blood that surrounded it was a red made more ominous by the darkness it covered. Through that black sheath Rue could make out the small surprise of a pale face, the mouth working sound- lessly, nothing like suckling but more like an old man chewing on the words of a curse.

It wasn’t unusual for babies to come still wearing the veil. “It means good luck,” Rue would be quick to tell the mamas when they saw the extra skin wrapped around their baby’s heads, looking as final as a shroud. In a moment she could wipe it away, and the healthy wail would fight back the unsaid fright in the mama’s eyes that from her womb had come something unexpected, something unnatural.

Bean made Rue’s heart jump in absolute horror of him. She felt then that she knew him for what he was, a secret retribution for a long-ago crime, the punishment she had been dreading.

He was fighting, his arms moving inside that black wrapping like he was swimming, or more like drowning. She had never seen a baby so fully encased in the caul.

Rue forced herself to draw up the scissors she’d heated in prep- aration to cut the cord; she held them near the baby’s mouth. Sarah had not moved at all from her position braced against the sheets.

“He come dead?” Sarah said, straining to hear the telltale cry.

Rue might’ve said yes. The black thing curling and quivering in her palms stayed gasping. It could not break through the veil with- out her intervention. She might’ve left it to struggle or smother in its own black sheet.

“Oh, Miss Rue,” Sarah started moaning, squinting her eyes hard to get a look at the bundle. “Don’t say he dead.”

A snip. That’s all it took, and Rue did it. A snip beneath the little nose and then slowly, like peeling back the skin of a strange fruit, she shucked Bean of his dark veil and revealed him to the world. He began, finally, to cry.

“He alright,” Rue heard herself saying. But was he? Was she?

Divested now of the veil that was like his second skin, his true coloring showed, lighter even than his mama was. There was no warmth to the color, only a pallid white. The baby’s skin was pecu- liar dry too, near scaled, dry as though no loving had ever touched him. Rue had the urge to do more than rub him the way she did to warm life into all the new babies. She had, instead, the urge to scrub the strange skin clean off.

The eyes were the next shock, for when they blinked open they were full black, edged thinly in egg-boil white. The baby’s eyes were the same glossy black as the veil-like husk that had held him.

He rolled them slow and looked up at Rue as if he could see clearly through to every thought she had in her head.

When she’d sucked the blood from his nose and had him clean as she could get him she tied off the cord. Her practiced hands shook with the force of her nerves as she hurried to lay this strange baby by his mama’s side and wipe off the stain he’d left on her hands.

Sarah looked at the child. She did not move to give him her breast. Instead she pulled the dirtied sheets around herself, and when Rue came to press on the stretched skin of her belly to check that nothing had been left in the womb, Sarah would not let her near. She wanted only to stare at her baby, not with that new- mama affection but in the very same way you’d stare at a snake you’d woken up to find coiled beside you in your bed.

“He’s a big ’un,” Rue said, to say something. “Them eyes?”

“Like little black-eyed beans, ain’t they?” Rue said. She wished she could snap back those words soon as they left her lips. She should have pretended that everything was as it ought to be. Her mama, Miss May Belle, had she been living, might have had the words of reassurance, might have made the baby a miracle, for she had that way about her that Rue had never learned or inherited.

Sarah still would not take the baby up. His crying grew more shrill in the silence, like an accusation, and Rue felt she had to go on talking.

“Folks says babies born under the veil got the gift a’ the Sight,” Rue said. It was meant to be a comfort. It came out sounding grim as a burden. Rue found that she pitied that babe if it were true, for here he was not a clock’s tick old and already he had to bear the whole knowledge of the world.

Rue had stripped the sheets, stepped out of the cabin without saying any more. There was Jonah, the daddy, waiting. He’d been keeping himself busy chopping more firewood than the hot summer day rightly called for, and when he saw Rue step out, he stopped mid-swing and smiled.

She studied him, taking in his sun-darkened skin and his eyes that were the same easy brown as the bark he was cutting. He bore no resemblance to his son. His son bore no resemblance to any living thing she had ever seen.

When Rue stepped forward, the bloodied birthing sheets bun- dled in her arms, Jonah looked up at her with trepidation. He could not lend voice to the question that needed asking.

Rue spoke to spare him the effort: “You got yo’self a thrivin’ baby boy.”

His sweat-shining face broke out into a grin and before he could ask her anything more, she handed him the bundle of sheets that contained the damning black caul, bloody and shapeless, in its center. She knew even if he got a look at it, he wouldn’t under- stand it. Men could not make sense of women’s work.

“What do I do with all a’ this?”

“Burn it,” she said, telling him what he was needing to hear. “Burn it for luck.”

CONJURE WOMEN is out on the 2nd April. Pre-order now.

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