While my mama had weapons for hands, could coax or demand, Safi is all tenderness. She fusses over her mama when we return to my sire’s house every morning, smoothing her mother’s hair, pushing her to eat, bringing her more water than she needs. Me and Safi clean the house together, walk side by side through the rooms, the doorways, so closely our arms bump, and I get used to the feel of her long, slender, hairless arms, her wrists thin as a bird’s bones. She is a comfort, but she cannot soothe all.
I know I’m not meeting Safi right, not rising to her tenderness, so when the rice grows tall and rigid in the fields and the moonlight shines through the cabin’s cracks, I grab Safi’s wrist.
“Come,” I say.
In the chalky light of the moon, Safi is beautiful: her cheeks like plums, her mouth full as purple figs. A hot flower blooms in my chest, and I squeeze Safi’s hand, but it is so much smaller than my mother’s. The flower folds. I shrug against it.
“I want to show you something,” I say.
Safi follows me as I lead her out of the shallow valley and into the low hills where my mother taught me to forage for mushrooms, for greens and roots and herbs, to our clearing, our tree. I wrap gauze I filched from my sire’s house around her puzzled face, her long, lean arms and legs, until she is shrouded, protected from the sting of the bees. A wolf yips, and I turn, swear I see a mirage of another white-shrouded woman in the clearing, but there is no one there but me and Safi and my bees. The tutor said bees are still at night, but my bees are alive, humming and flying from their amber pyramid, riveted between the bones of the tree. The bees, my bees, are awake. Safi and I stand in the moonlit night, pinkies hooked, while my bees greet us, flush with summer. They land in kisses, busking touches, on our shoulders, the crowns of our heads, our palms. Her finger: a living link. I could weep with the sweetness of it, of knowing that there are others in this terrible world who will touch me with kindness. But all the while I know that the carved spears lie buried at the edge of the clearing charging the air as before a lightning strike. My mother. I step behind Safi’s smaller frame, drape my arms over her shoulders, and stand like that, back to front. I try to blink away the missing of my mama. Feel what it might be to feel, to love again.
I let that ribbon of feeling carry me beyond the sunrise of the next day. Let it buoy me up so that after me and Safi scrubbed and rinsed and hung laundry, after we dusted and mended and bent together, I linger outside the schoolroom door. The tutor’s voice, the same; my sisters’ reading, still as slow and halting. The tutor is telling a story of a man, an ancient Italian, who is walking down into hell. The hell he travels has levels like my father’s house. The tutor says: “‘Let us descend,’ the poet now began, ‘and enter this blind world,’” and his words echo through me. I hear the sighs: the summer wind pushing slant at the house, the wood groaning, but instead of the Italian poet descending into hell, I see my mother toiling in the hell of this house. Walking down from a hot, crate-choked attic to a second floor clustered with bedrooms where my sire’s children cried through keyholes after their mother died, after my mother became their nursemaid and pulled them from her breast, down to the first floor, where my mother grew sere over a burning stove, to the potato-and-onion-rank basement, cool and rat infested, down and down, to deeper basements, root cellar opening to root cellar. More hell. “‘I shall go first. Then you come close behind,’ ” the tutor says. “‘Through me you go to the grief-racked city,’ ” he says, his voice like the soft buzz of velvet.
“Grief-racked city,” I whisper, wondering what the spirits might look like in that place. I asked my mother about spirit once, after we were done practicing in the clearing. The sweat cooling on us under the drench of the far starlight, while mosquitoes shredded my feet.
“They don’t know,” my mama said. “Them got to open a door, walk through a cave, go down into a valley or up a mountain to find spirit.” My mama looked up to the wind tossing the trees. “This world seething with it.”
“Seething?” I asked.
“It’s everywhere.” Mama hummed and rolled her eyes, and then frowned, serious. “When you ask, spirit answer, Arese,” she said.
I am still thinking about spirit, about hell, when I meet up with Safi in my sire’s room to dust and change his bedding. I want that ribbon, that buoy. My sire is never here during the day, always out, supervising the bent in the fields, visiting neighbors. I think my dirt, my grime I wore through the summer and into the winter, drove him away. For once, I am glad for my grief, but I want more than that now.
I step near to Safi when she rises from smoothing a bedspread and put my palm under her elbow, my lips to her downy neck, long and elegant as a crane’s. She does not step away. This spirit, here, I think, in this blind world. She turns to me, kisses my forehead, and I hum until a thump sounds at the doorway, and Safi and I lurch away from each other, lips still wet and warm, to see my sire, his mouth wide and pink, his red hair splaying away from his head like a fan. Panic beats through me, and it rises up and out of me in a laugh, high and jagged. Safi folds her hands, looks down at her feet, bows. My laugh saws away. This hell.
Let us descend, I think, and follow Safi out of the room.
From Let Us Descend: A Novel. Copyright 2023 by Jesmyn Ward. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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