Rachel Eliza Griffiths

July 11, 2023 
The following is from Rachel Eliza Griffiths's Promise. Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a poet, visual artist, and novelist. She is a recipient of the Hurston/Wright Foundation Legacy Award and the Paterson Poetry Prize. Griffiths is also a recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem Foundation, Kimbilio, the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and Yaddo. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Tin House, and other publications.

The day before our first day of school always signaled the end of the time Ezra and I loved most. Not time like the clocks that ticked and rang their alarms every morning; we knew that time didn’t really begin or end. What we meant by time was happiness, a careless joy that sprawled its warm, sun-stained arms through our days and dreams for eight glorious weeks until our teachers arrived back in our lives, and our parents remembered their rules about shoes, bathing, vocabulary quizzes, and home training.

More than anything, we prayed that the air would remain mild for as long as possible, mid-October even, so that we could retain some of our summer independence, free to roam the land we knew and loved. We weren’t yet grown, but even the adults could pinpoint when time would tell us we would no longer be young.

We mourned summertime’s ending and made predictions about autumn and ourselves. Mostly we repeated all the different ways that summer was more honest than the rest of the year. It was the only time we could wear shorts and cropped tops with little comment from our mother. Ezra and I were allowed to walk nearly anywhere we wanted—in the other seasons, we needed permission even to walk to the village docks. And the eating! How we could eat! Mama loosened her apron strings about salt and sugar. Each day, it felt like we were eating from the menu of our dreams—fresh corn, ice cream, sliced tomatoes with coarse salt and pepper, chilled lobster, root beer floats, watermelon, oysters, crab and shrimp salads, fried chicken, homemade lemon or raspberry sorbet, grilled peaches, potato salad, and red ice pops.

In the summer, the wildflowers returned, even in the village square. Some dead local official once believed the square, arranged around a small pond with a handful of benches, was a civil idea. Indeed, it would have been charming except there was the sea. Steps away from the square, down the narrow central passage of our village, the main street opened into a slender, shining pier where everything happened.

God faced the water.

A lone church, St. Mary Star of the Sea, stood high enough to tempt staffs of lightning that flashed during wonderful summer heat storms. Its coarse doors were carved with fishes, dolphins, angels, pilgrims, and afflicted saints. The sea mocked the salt-stained bells that rang each hour, while villagers prayed against the clapping of waves.

The church kept a well-tended public garden with flecked benches and a stone statue of the Virgin that was painted each year after winter ended. Winters pulled the paint away from the Madonna’s profile, leaving a flaked heap of aging stone that resembled something primitive. The villagers never thought to cover the statue when the ice and snow began. Instead, they seemed to feel an odd pride at what the elements had done to the mother of God.

Our mother and father had little faith when it came to the village. We’d never prayed or celebrated holidays at St. Mary Star of the Sea. For years, Mama and Daddy had repeated that they’d only settled in Salt Point, Maine, because of my father’s good job. He was a teacher. Our parents had been able to purchase a few acres that nobody else wanted, set farther inland, away from the sea.

But I knew there were other reasons too. After my older sister Ezra’s birth, my parents wanted to leave Damascus for a place that knew nothing of the Kindred tragedy.

In Salt Point, no one would remind my father of his grandparents’ ambitions. They would not bother to question the loss of Daddy’s left arm, because there were fishermen in the village who were also missing legs, arms, faith, and eyes. My father’s headstrong youth somewhere in the South would be of no interest to anyone in New England, nor would they connect it to his lack of capacity for rage or trouble of any kind.

My father believed that grace and dignity must be earned by the life a man lived. He scorned the idea of an unknown father whose face he had never glimpsed except in fire and brimstone. Perhaps my father didn’t know how to look for such a father since he’d never met his own. Daddy had to recognize his own face. Still, he couldn’t make up his mind about heaven or resurrections. We lived in a place where our faces wouldn’t have been welcomed by the villagers at Mass on Sunday mornings.

There were whole years when my father refused to kneel to a god who’d taken his arm and the life of his young brother, whom he refused to speak about. We’d only heard our uncle’s name spoken when my father shouted himself awake from his nightmares. Our mother said Daddy blamed himself, even though anyone would’ve chalked up the tragedy to foolishness. The only place my father was not fearful was inside the pages of the books he loved and taught.

Beyond the church, the village consisted of incomplete, asymmetric rows of houses, most of which shared small yards filled with wild chickens, iridescent cocks, goats tied to posts, sagging clothes-lines, and stingy vegetable patches.

At the farthest end of the main street, away from St. Mary Star of the Sea, was another cluster of essential buildings—the bar, the beauty parlor, and a small plaza of rented offices. These blanched buildings faced a lot that was transformed into a fresh air market on Saturdays. During the summers, the lot was sometimes used for carnivals, antiques fairs, and a traveling circus that featured a marvelous freak show. When the lot wasn’t being rented, it was a place where teenagers raced cars and scowled, aware that more than likely they’d all eventually marry one another.

Beyond the empty lot, the land curved like a bony finger towards the sea. This wild ground was ash and gravel. Away from the main street and church, it was where villagers yielded their true selves to the raw air. It was the ideal place for picnics, lovers, children’s games, arguments, and solitary hours of determined fishing and drinking. At the very end of the point was a squat, cement lighthouse that no longer functioned. Rheumatic trees, blown backwards by sea winds, marked the length of the bluffs. The physical meanness of the land gave no warning of its steep cliffs, which was something my parents were always nervous about.

We lived where the land was only slightly softer but more abandoned. Nestled in the woods that led up towards the highest bluffs, our home on Clove Road was nearly an anomaly with its pond and sloping curves. Beyond our house, higher still, was the stingy campus of our school, where my father taught and where Ezra and I went, which was founded by a man named Benedict Hobart.

Previous incarnations of this property included an opulent private residence, a monastery, a convent, an asylum, an orphanage, and a soldiers’ hospital. All of the village children who could be spared from domestic work attended for free.


When my father was hired at Hobart, many of the villagers had objected. They disliked the idea of a Negro man living amongst their families and teaching their children. When the townspeople finally understood that my father would keep to himself, and that he would not force any integration beyond a curt nod from the wheel of his car, they let us be.

By 1957, our family was one of the only two Black families that lived on the outskirts of the village. The other Black family, the Junketts, were our only true neighbors and friends.

Caesar and Irene Junkett, and their four children, Ernest, Lindy, and the twins Rosemary and Empire, had arrived in Salt Point when I was nine years old. Our families befriended each other with a southern and warm familiarity. My parents were born in Damascus, a barely incorporated community buried inside Sussex County, Delaware. The Junketts hailed from a place called Royal, nestled in deep rural Virginia. Each of these towns boasted a soulfulness that we children only understood from what was and was not said about what it meant to leave those lush, hand-carved cradles. Mr. Junkett, whom we called Mr. Caesar, had taken a job at Hobart as the chief custodian of the school. Mr. Caesar spoke often about his decision to relocate far north, explaining that it would’ve been unlikely for him to earn as much if he had remained, as his father had, in the South. The other issue, Mr. Caesar said, was that the northern white men he’d encountered were mostly far more agreeable than southern white men when it came to leaving him and his family to themselves.

Some villagers speculated that the hiring of my father and Mr. Junkett was related to Mr. Benedict Hobart’s well-known reputation for crookedness and his shunning of unions. Because we lived in the most northern part of the country, there were no nearby organizations for Negroes to resolve issues regarding wages or labor. Had those spaces even existed, it was unlikely that my father would have joined. He tended to avoid anything that endangered his need for silence, logic, and order. It was ironic to me that he’d believed that Salt Point was a home that could provide these things for us.

As it was, my father and Mr. Caesar took care to stay away from anything that could attract attention. When he was angry, Mr. Caesar called Salt Point a sundown town, and though I never asked any of the adults what that was, I knew that it wasn’t good. The tendency for individuals to enforce their own sense of justice menaced the most innocent misunderstandings, helped along by the visible ammunition that was part of ordinary life. Mr. Caesar laughed a booming laugh about the way the fishermen in our village carried a fishing rod in one hand and a shotgun in the other. And Miss Irene, Mr. Caesar’s wife, rolled her eyes at the village women who carried their grandmothers’ guns to the bakery; then she spoke to us kids of how white people needed to constantly perceive themselves to be under threat in order to value their lives. Ain’t nothing but birds and bears and rocks up here to harm them, she once said, sucking her teeth. They never got to think of what the trees must feel like down home when our bodies be swinging from their branches.

The people of Salt Point could indeed be fearsome about the world beyond themselves; most of them would be born and die without ever having gone more than twenty or thirty miles from houses that were crammed with generations of their families.

This is how things had been for a very long time in Salt Point. But something was shifting at the end of summer 1957. As news from other corners of America began to cover conflicts over freedom, equality, and justice for Negroes, our presence started to agitate the villagers more and more. At the same time, grown men began pausing silently to take in the sight of Ezra, barely fifteen, and me, thirteen, in our cutoffs. At nightfall, both Mr. Caesar and my father made sure our families were locked inside our homes.


From Promise by Rachel Eliza Griffiths. © 2023 Rachel Eliza Griffiths, reprinted with permission of Random HouseCopyright © 2023

More Story
Tessa Hadley on the Unapologetic Joys of Rereading After the Funeral and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley is available now from Knopf. * What was the first book you fell...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.