Book Excerpt – One Blood
Copyright © 2023 Macmillan Publishers/Denene Millner No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher or author. The format of this excerpt has been modified for presentation here.
The blood never much bothered Grace. Maw Maw Rubelle got her used to it early on, when she was little ol’, way before she let her only granddaughter, her apprentice, tend the stove at her first baby catching—before, even, Grace’s first blood trickled down her thigh. There it was, her monthly making a dark red liquid trail past her calf and ankle, dripping into the thick, fertile Virginia dirt she’d planted her feet in as she reached for the pins on the laundry line. Grace cocked her head and stared at it in wonder for just a moment, then went on in the outhouse and made her sanitary pad, just like Maw Maw Rubelle had taught her to do with the pins and ripped pieces of feed sack. Just as natural and nasty as slopping hogs, Grace thought.
Now her best friend, Cheryl, she didn’t see it that way. She cried holy hell when her blood came in. Nobody—not her mama, not her big sissy, not nan auntie—bothered to tell her what was inevitable. They held it to their chests like a big secret Cheryl had no right to know. She near killed her fool self when she saw the red puddle on her little piece of school bench and realized it was oozing from her poom-poom—knocked over the desk, tripped down the rickety schoolhouse steps, and just took off running down toward Harley pasture, hollering and screaming like a stuck pig, the laughter of the boys and the screams of Ms. Garvey, their school teacher, chasing behind her.
But Grace, she understood the power of the blood. Maw Maw Rubelle saw to that—made her look straight at it for sport and for practicality’s sake.
Maw Maw knew, after all, that her grandbaby would have the calling—saw it in a vision just as plain as day one afternoon as she pulled poke sallet roots from the ground deep in the woods down by the river, where she had gone to forage and be still and make offerings to the spirits of her mother and her mother before that. In the vision, there’d been Grace’s hands—small, delicate, strong—gently twisting, pulling a baby’s head as it emerged between its mother’s legs. The movements, the way Grace’s fingers fluttered about the infant’s curls, had made Maw Maw’s heart beat fast. She could feel her granddaughter’s happy in the tingle of her own fingertips, in each of her own palms. Maw Maw had slowly fallen to her knees, sticks and pebbles digging into the thick of her skirt; she’d kissed those palms, and pressed them— warm, pulsing with energy—to her cheeks. Love was there. Grace would continue in the tradition of the Adams women. Maw Maw’s dead did not lie. Show her the blood, they’d whispered in the breeze, in the beams of light rushing through the leaves. Show her what she already knows.
Maw Maw had pulled a hand towel from her bosom, wrapped the root,
leaves, and berries from the small weed stalk in it, and, with a heave, leaned all her weight against her walking stick as she struggled to stand. As quick as her thick legs could take her, she’d hobbled through the brush, across dirt and grass, past the great pear tree and the bumbleberry bush, back to the clapboard shotgun house she’d called home since she was a little girl being taught the ways of a midwife by her own grandmother.
Maw Maw pushed through the back door, squint-searching the tiny, two-room house, her eyes traveling from the bed and small bureau to the kitchen table and three wooden stools Mr. Aaron had fashioned from a fallen oak tree in exchange for two months’ worth of Maw Maw’s Sunday dinner plates, past the fat-bellied wood-burning stove and huge iron kettle standing sentry atop it, over to the corner beneath the window she’d opened to let the breeze carry in the scent of the gardenia bush planted on the side of the house. There was Grace, splayed like one of the little rag dolls her mama had sewn for her last Christmas, stitching baby clothes Maw Maw had commissioned her to make for a client due to have a baby any day now.
“Come here, baby,“ Maw Maw had said as she placed the pregnant dish towel on the kitchen sideboard. She’d carefully unfolded it and separated the leaves from the roots from the berries as Grace scrambled to her feet. “Bring Maw Maw Ruby her bag.“
Grace, then eight years old and therefore eager, had practically flown to the chest where Maw Maw kept her special bag. Somebody was having a baby and Maw Maw had to hop to, Grace knew, because that’s what her grandmother did—she waited on babies and when they came, somebody would call on Maw Maw and she would get her bag and her walking shoes and play with the baby until the mama was ready to play with the baby herself. Or something like that.
“Who baby coming today, Maw Maw?“ Grace had asked excitedly as she struggled to gently place the weighty black bag on the table next to her grandmother.
“Nobody, chile,“ Maw Maw had said. The chair she dropped into creaked as she settled herself onto its frame. She’d torn off a small piece of a newspaper she had tucked in the bag and gently placed a few berries in it before stashing it in a small pocket she’d sewn in the seam of the leather tote. She’d planned to run them by Belinda’s place on the way to the icehouse the coming Saturday, as the young mother-to-be was due sometime in the next couple weeks, and a woman with a stomach stretching out as far and wide as she was practically tall needed a little pick-me-up to remind her that she was still a lady, worthy of affection. Worthy of touch. Pretty. A smudge of those berries across her lips would have Belinda remembering her fine—Belinda and her man, who Maw Maw had heard was down there at The Quarters, drinking and smoking and grinding and forgetting he had a beautiful pregnant wife back home. “Come here, baby,“ Maw Maw had said, signaling to Grace. “Stand right here.“
Grace inched between Maw Maw’s knees and melted her face into her grandmother’s fingers.
“One of these days, this here bag and everything in it gon’ be yourn,“ Maw Maw had said, looking into Grace’s piercing brown eyes. She let her thumb rest in the one dimple Grace had, a subtle dent in her right cheek.
“You mean like in my picture show, Maw Maw?“ Grace had asked. Maw Maw pulled her face back from Grace’s and wrinkled her brow. Always, Grace woke up next to her grandmother, snuggled up under her arm, and recounted her dreams—she called them “picture shows“ on account she imagined that’s what it would be like to watch a film in a theater, something she hadn’t yet had the pleasure, money, or right skin color to do—before the two of them put their feet on the floor, fell to their knees, said their morning prayers, and set out water and bread for their dead. Maw Maw always listened intently, as she knew the power of dreams—understood they were not at all dreams but a nod of things to come. Messages. Sometimes warnings. Surely, Maw Maw had thought, she would have remembered Grace telling her about a dream that involved her midwifery bag. “What dream you had, chile, you ain’t tell me ’bout?“
“I was ’bout to tell you, Maw Maw,“ Grace had said sweetly. “I was playing with a baby, but she had blood on her face. I was scared.“
“When you had this dream, baby?“
“Just now, Maw Maw, while you was down by the river.“
Maw Maw should have been surprised by her granddaughter’s vision and the synching of their connection to what was to be, but she knew better than to question what was natural, true. It was time. “Blood ain’t nothin’ to fear, chile,“ Maw Maw said simply. “It got your mama and daddy in it, me and my mama, too. Being scared of blood is like being scared of yo’self.“
Grace felt something in her stomach, though it was far from her idea of joy. It felt more like what she imagined the hatchet felt like on the neck of a freshly rung cock headed for the pot. She wanted to let Maw Maw know right away that she got her monthly—wanted to know what was to come next. She could count on her grandmother only to tell her the truth. Her mama, Bassey, had long ago traded in what Rubelle taught her about menstruation for what the Bible, the pastor, and the rest of the men had to say about it, so she was tight-lipped on the subject. The most Grace got out of her was that this was a woman’s lot—the curse of Eve. But Maw Maw, she knew nothing of temptation, disobedience, and atonement—of apples and talking serpents with tricky tongues. What she was sure of was what the women who spanned the generations before her were sure of, too: menstruation was a gift. The blood carried the ingredients of life: purification. Intuition. Syncopation between the rhythms of body, nature, God. Her talking to her granddaughter about it became more urgent as Grace’s hips began to stretch the fabric of her flour-sack dress and her buds got round and full. “Mama told me, she say, ‘When you become a woman, the moon will make the waters crash the shores in your honor,’“ Maw Maw had told Grace on more than one occasion. “She say Simbi will make a dance in your womb.” Maw Maw was heading for the clothesline with a freshly washed sheet when she saw her granddaughter walking slowly through the outhouse door, practically doubled over; instinctively, she knew why Grace looked pained, but she asked the child anyway. “What ails you, gal?“ Grace’s answer made Maw Maw toss her head back and laugh from her gut. “Come here,“ she said, extending her arms and folding Grace into her bosom. “Oh, Simbi gone dance tonight! Go down there in them woods and scrape up some cramp bark—let Maw Maw make you a little something to ease that pain.“
Grace did as she was told, only to emerge from the brush to see a white man riding bareback on a horse, rushing the animal practically up to her grandmother’s nose. He didn’t bother hopping down; just tipped his hat and got to it: “Granny, I need you over to the house. Looks like Ginny getting ready to have that little one.“
“Good day, Mr. Brodersen,“ Maw Maw said calmly. She was not in the least fazed by the man’s gruffness; indeed, she was used to—and slightly amused by—how direct and bossy the white folk tended to be with her when they were procuring her services. Like she was beneath them, even though they were standing in her yard, always in a huff, always desperate, looking for her to step into the middle of a miracle. Hell, most of them were in the same predicament as the colored folk they looked down on: not a pot to piss in, and barely a window to throw it out of. They paid with chickens and promises just like everybody else, except they did it with expectation rather than gratitude. Maw Maw didn’t concern herself with the particulars of it all, though. The only thing that mattered to her was her divine mission: assisting in the safe arrival of new life into the world. Color was not specified in her soul contract. “’Bout what time her water broke?“ Maw Maw asked politely, shielding the sun from her eye as she looked up at Brodersen.
“Water came about thirty minutes ago,“ he said. “And her pains? ’Bout how far apart are they?“
“She got to hollerin’ straight off, but she only had the one pain before I left.“
“Well, this ain’t her first baby, so ain’t no telling if this one here gonna take its time or come on out and see the world, is it, Mr. Brodersen?“
“I reckon not, Granny,“ he said, using the nickname the white folk called Black midwives.
“Well, let me go on ahead and get my bag. Shouldn’t take me no more than about an hour to get over, lessen ol’ Aaron is here and he agree to drive me to yo’ place. In the meantime, you know what to do, and that’s exactly what you did the last time I came over there to catch those sweet babies a yourn. Put the water on the stove, get your bottles and sheets in place, and make your lovely wife as comfortable as possible.“
“Yes, ma’am,“ Brodersen said, tipping his hat. And with that, he rode off into the direction of the Piney Tree Mill—the largest employer of the town of Rose. To get to it, his horse would have to cross Piney River by way of the Piney River Bridge, and to get to his home, he’d have to circle around the huge wooden and steel building, where freshly cut trees went to be shaved, chopped, ground, and pulped and white men worked hard and Black men worked equally hard but got 60 percent less money pressed into their palms come Friday evening. White men used that extra money they made to live in the tiny town behind the mill, where Black folk found themselves only if they were there to work for the white families who lived segregated lives in their segregated community with segregated ideals— and even then, Black folk didn’t find themselves there after sundown. The only somebody who was safe there was one Rubelle Adams—the granny whose hands were the first to touch practically three generations of white Rose’s residents. Ruby was neither proud of nor ashamed of this fact. It was what it was.
And now her granddaughter would join her in being the Negro who could visit white Rose in the dark. “Come on in here, baby,“ Maw Maw said to Grace, signaling to her granddaughter, who’d stood immobile by the wash line, waiting for the white man to get on. “Let me make you some tea and talk to you a bit. It’s time.“
From the moment Maw Maw had seen the vision of Grace catching babies, she dutifully set about teaching her granddaughter the ways of the women who wait on miracles—the ways of her own self. And now, on this day that the spirits saw fit to make her capable of producing her own miracles, Maw Maw would bring Grace along to her first birth.
She quickly prepared Grace’s tea, and then sat the child down to once again go over what was tucked in her midwife’s bag—what was supposed to be there according to the Board of Health, from where she’d gotten her license almost twenty years earlier, and what was supposed to be there according to her visions, experience, and the natural order of things among women whose hands were sacred, ordained. This is so-and-so paper for this and such, this herb here gets the mama calm, that root you need to ease her pain. Maw Maw had gone over the bag’s contents enough times for Grace to know what was what; she never tired of looking at all the equipment in that bag—and especially appreciated that she no longer had to sneak and peek when her grandmother wasn’t around. But she could hardly contain herself with the thought of finally getting to see firsthand how bodies and God helped mamas push chi’ren from “a woman’s sacred place.“
Just as Maw Maw twirled the bottle of iodine drops in Grace’s face, Grace’s mother—tall, lithe, and as fancy as one could be for a country gal with not much more than what she was wearing and carrying in a small sack on her back—meandered through the front door, lost in the thought of how she was going to wash out her clothes, press her hair, and hightail it back over to Willis Cunningham’s place before the sun made its slow dance across the sky. It was Maw Maw’s voice that snapped her out of her trance. Her eyes got good and narrow when she caught sight of the jar in her mother’s hands.
“Mama, don’t you start that mess with my baby,“ Bassey said, her voice firm. “She don’t need to know about this here.“
“And what do you know about what this baby needs?“ Maw Maw snapped. “Ain’t like you been ’round here to take an accounting.“
“Now, Rubelle Adams, don’t you worry none about whether I been here or not. What I know is you stay trying to get somebody to run all around town, spending they days catching babies in exchange for a couple dollars or a chicken or two if they lucky. I told you I’m not about to spend the rest of my life walking up and down these dirt roads, listening to all these po’ folk hootin’ and hollerin’ while they pushing out babies they can’t even afford, and I sure don’t want that for Gracie.“
Maw Maw carefully placed the iodine back in the bag, followed by the red belly bands, the newspaper, her sack of herbs, the berries, and the stack of tiny pieces of cotton sheets and then she kissed her teeth. “And what would you have her do?“ Maw Maw asked as she pushed herself out of the creaky chair. “You want her running around town after some man don’t want her none? Let him black her eye as a thank-you for her pleasure?“
Bassey instinctively grabbed her cheek and winced at the tenderness the thoughtless action announced. Willis had been in a mood the night before. Bassey had calmed him the best she knew how, but not before he taught her one of his “lessons“ for getting smart in the mouth. “Better she learn how to make peace with a man who can take good care a her than run behind these white folk, scrubbing they dirty draws for a few pennies here and there while you wait on these niggers to have babies that’ll grow up to wash dirty draws, too. That’s not my wish for my daughter.“
“Your wishes for her can’t ever be bigger than what the ancestors got in store.“
Bassey knew the argument was futile; while she’d shunned the profession passed down from the hands of her mother and her mother before her and so many more women in the Adams line, stretching all the way back to before the ships spilled their family’s blood on Virginia’s shores, she could lay no claims to how Maw Maw chose to raise Grace. After all, Bassey was not of their world. Not anymore. She’d long ago pushed her visions and the ones Maw Maw saw, too, down deep, where darkness blotted out the ghosts and their prophecies. She wanted no part of them—saw no value in listening to their whispers, paying attention to the messages they left for her in her dreams. They simply did not serve her. She chose, instead, to serve herself. Bassey believed she alone was responsible for her destiny, and her destiny resided in the arms of Willis Cunningham, assistant pastor at the Church of the Nazarene, where Bassey was a faithful and dutiful member of the flock and a first lady-in-waiting, holding tight to the notion that if she just kept a firm grasp, if she just did what he said, if she proved the depths of her love, Willis would do what was right, what was necessary, what was divined by Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit himself: make her his wife. She cared for Willis, sure, but she cared even more about what he could do to assure she’d never have to touch another washboard again—at least not to tend wash for ornery white ladies. The respect he commanded both at Nazarene and down at the High Plantation, where he worked as a foreman charged with overseeing a bunch of shiftless niggers chopping tobacco stalks, brought in enough money and prestige to assure her place on the front pew every early Sunday morning, in front of the deaconesses and their oversized hats and pursed lips, next to Lady Stewart, Reverend Stewart’s wife and the first lady of Nazarene, and directly in front of Willis, whose occasionally roving eyes needed a clear focus from the pulpit.
“Now, Mama, I don’t have time to get into this with you today,“ Bassey said, snapping. She twirled in three different directions, unsure of what to tackle first. “I have to get myself ready for Bible study at Mr. Cunningham’s place and I’m going to be late if I stand here and entertain this talk on the Good Lord’s Thursday.“ She turned her attention to Grace and softened her tone just a bit: “Daughter, put some water on the stove for me to wash up.“
Yet again, there stood Bassey and Rubelle, like two prizefighters— angry, anxious, silently stalking their opponent from their respective corners, blood and sweat and snot betraying the brutality of their rage. The only thing unbroken between mother, daughter, were the bones.
This is just the way it was. How it would always be. Neither’s spine was pliable and so there would be no bending. Each was rooted in exactly who she was. Rubelle received from her daughter the same restrained respect she got from the community she served. Bassey appreciated her mother’s skill as a midwife and healer, but for a woman who craved both modernity and roots in God’s word, accepting her mother’s unusual ways was no easy feat. It shook Bassey to her core that her mother would never allow so much as her shadow to darken the doorway of the Church of the Nazarene, the place where Bassey was convinced her new life—spiritual, physical—began. Frankly, she was embarrassed by Rubelle—this woman who trafficked in haints, worshiped the rush of the river waters, and believed a sack full of leaves and dirty roots could heal better than the hand of a doctor with school learning. The community put up with her behavior because options were few: segregated hospitals and white country doctors would just as soon heal a sow than a nigger, and most of the people in the tiny colored section of Rose were too poor to pay for professional care anyway. Rubelle was all they had.
Rubelle knew that she was all her daughter had and it angered her that her daughter refused to see it as such. Bassey was so blinded by her ambition—so busy turning her back on her destiny—she couldn’t see that truth, much less the trinity of dangers that stood at the ready to end her: the church mothers of Nazarene, who thought she was nothing more than a trollop angling to lure their beloved pastor into the Adams family’s web of evil and sin; the men who smelled Bassey’s desperation and dabbed it on their bodies for sport; and that Willis, the darkest of them all, draping his lies in forever and dangling it before Bassey’s eyes. None of them meant Bassey well. Rubelle warned her, but to no avail. Bassey was Bassey and that was all she had in her.
The two had remained silent as Grace tended Bassey’s water; she treated it as if it were a precious perfume being prepared for royalty. Just like Maw Maw had taught her, Grace took a flower from the gardenia tree and pounded the tender leaves into a handful of Epsom salt. When she was sufficiently satisfied with its scent, she pinched the salt between her slender fingers and sprinkled it at the bottom of the large iron washtub that sat in the corner between the kitchen and sitting room, and when the water was warm enough, she poured that into the tub, too. Three more trips to the tub with warm water, and a few gardenias sprinkled on top, and it was done. “Mama, your bath is ready,“ Grace said proudly, standing back from the vessel.
Bassey nodded, tossed her sponge into the water, and let her dress drop to the floor. Her back was turned to her mother and daughter, so she hadn’t seen the shadow of horror that darkened their eyes. The bruises on her back and thighs were shocking to all but Bassey; she’d been too preoccu pied with getting herself ready for Willis to let the pain or evidence of it slow her down, and she sure wasn’t about to harp on details of how it all happened to her mother and daughter. No, this was business between her and Willis and that was that.
Grace stared in her mother’s direction, but she wasn’t watching Bassey wash. Instead, she stared at the picture show—in technicolor, grotesque— flashing before her. In it, Bassey was laid out on a slab of wood stretched between two chairs, her hands resting at the sides of her smoothed-out dress—the one with the yellow flowers, her favorite. Maw Maw was putting coins on her eyelids and painting her lips with berries. Mama was perfectly still, but she was not at peace.
Grace wasn’t quite sure what was unfolding in her picture show—or even why she was seeing one while she stood, rested and wide awake. But Maw Maw knew. She knew because she was watching the picture show, too.
“We have to get on down the road,“ Maw Maw said, finally breaking the silence. Her voice cracked, but neither her daughter nor granddaughter saw the water welling in her eyes. “Miss Ginny’s baby ain’t fittin’ ta wait.“