Such a beautiful boy, Cornelius Clay. Pity no woman’ll marry him.
And to think it ain even his fault, sweet baby, born into money and beauty both, like the good Lord couldn’t part with his blessings fast enough. Lord, this boy. Skin so bright he looks anointed, hair straight as an Indian’s and black as molasses. There’s four generations of freedmen in that skin and hair, and he can name every single one of them. He got a body so fine, even the angels cryin out: silver screen silhouette in a tailored suit and two-toned wingtips, hat brim so crisp its shadow slices butter, so tall he don’t got to see nobody unless he wants to. He graduated summa cum laude from Howard and Harvard Law, and escorted Clara Cox Linwood herself at their cotillion. He steps into the street and every head turns, men suckin their teeth with want, women flattenin hands on bellies, on bosoms, relishin the way their thighs sweetly moisten. Lord, what that boy can do to a body in broad daylight, in a public street.
God never made nobody so perfect as Cornelius Clay and probably won’t ever again.
Ain for lack of tryin Cornelius cain’t get married. He got the looks, the education, the name; he got the money.
But he also got one other thing: me.
• • • •
Know this: that we were both born in this house, to the same woman on the same day in the same month of the same year. Ain nobody but me gon confess to it, but it’s God’s truth. You ask about that first child born to Mrs. Theodus Bethell Clay and you get two kinds of looks: confused and sidelong. The confused ones say, “The Clays only got the one son,” soundin so earnest you want to apologize for askin. The ones look at you sidelong, they purse their lips and flick their eyes and size you up. If you one of them, then maybe they heard somethin about that evil rumor sprung up twenty-odd years ago. If you ain, they don’t know nothin.
Nothin my ass. They didn’t know nothin twenty years back, and they don’t know nothin now. They get their stories from their housekeeper, who claimed she heard some ungodly hollerin the day Mrs. Theodus Bethell Clay give birth. They get their rumors from the sheets the servants burned out back, from the sight of Cornelius himself, so tiny and red he look like he came too early. How a baby that small come up out of a woman who got so big during pregnancy everyone swear she was carryin twins?
The midwife delivered us long gone, and she took the truth with her. Tales of somethin tar slick come shootin out from between the legs of Mrs. Theodus Bethell Clay, this thing the midwife take for the uterus, the afterbirth, a miscarriage, anything but what it is: a tight coiled lump of flesh and hair, eight legs uncurling and dripping through her fingers until she drops it, screaming, and the spider’s web, its thick, white strands wrapped around the neck of a baby still stuck in the birth canal. Miracle either of us came out alive.
How our mama hollered. Her own mama would have died of shame.
But nobody talk about that. All they got is speculation bout the two babies slid out of Mrs. Theodus Bethell Clay that day: one dead and one living, or one black and one white, or one marked by God and the other by the devil. Closest they get to guessin right is maybe one of them babies a girl. But don’t nobody know a damn thing about how my brother and I was born.
We children of the Black Four Hundred, Cornelius and me, one of the best families in Washington. Our daddy’s worth over sixty thousand and a trustee everywhere; our mama’s descended from New York’s upper crust and rules the society columns like Nefertiti. We up to our eyeballs in tradition: clubs and cotillions, summers on the Chesapeake. The eldest child marries first, the second child after. Been that way since our family got free. Hell if I’m ever gon let them forget.
I was born first. And don’t you let nobody tell you otherwise.
• • • •
I ate my brother’s first two brides, and I’ll eat his next one, too, he ever find her. A bride for me, brother, before a bride for you.
His first bride named Clara Cox Linwood, Washington debutante, finished up north in a school in Concord. Got a daddy in politics, and her mama’s a socialite. The Washington Post named Clara herself queen of the District Cotillion, printed a picture of her on my brother’s arm with her glossy hair piled high and her neck roped in pearls. She was known for her cheekbones years before Lena Horne, cheekbones like Trojan cliffs, men pounding their bodies against them for want of love. Skin like honeygold apples ripe off the bough, that melted like a tender cut of pork between my jaws. But we ain there yet. You got to wait for that bit.
They had an understanding between them, Clara and Cornelius, long before they stepped beneath those ballroom lights. They was each other’s future, promised to each other. Because that is how you do things, among Du Bois’ talented tenth: you promise your son to the daughter of a fellow Boulé man, who graduated Howard same year as you and got a family pew in St. Luke’s, who’s worth enough he don’t blink once at a wedding that’ll cost upward twenty thousand.
Clara’s dress came from Paris, Cornelius’s suit from London. The food and flowers arrived for days. Tulip and calla lily, bride’s cake dressed in gum-paste roses, groom’s cake soaked in liquor. The smell crept into my attic parlor, where I sat spinnin to keep the devil out my mind. But the devil up in there anyway, kickin up a fuss. My legs bristled with the stink of my brother’s wedding feast, and my spinnerets itched until I couldn’t stand to hunt, spin, or even sit still.
Where was my dress? My flowers? My groom? I found chinks in the wainscot, eight for eight eyes, and watched my brother and his fiancée go about their business. I nested in the walls and shook when my mama called Clara “daughter” and Clara called her “mother” right back, like either of them got any business sayin those words to each other. You got a daughter, I cried to my mama through the attic floorboards, you got a daughter, I howled to my daddy on the rare nights he sat in his office. You got a sister, I snarled to my brother as he slept. And the first wedding’s my right, not yours.
But they ain listenin. My voice was the groanin of this house’s old bones, the water in the pipes, the new help still learnin to clean so soft you forget they there. This body, this voice of mine was everything, and nothin at all.
Only Clara stopped, head cocked, eyes narrowed, Clara alone who stopped to wonder bout the creaks, the rustlin, the still small voice in the walls.
And that’s how I got her in the end. Girl listenin to things she got no business hearin. Girl so sharp she gon cut herself on what she don’ know. She walked through these halls like she got a right to ’em, switchin her hips and sashayin into rooms nobody never quite said not to go, sayin, oh! She thought she heard a footstep, oh! She thought she heard her name. Closin in, day by day, on the top of that windin stair and the dormer door at the end of it. That door we don’ open, that door we don’t know about. Sealed up these twenty-odd years, like walls was gon keep me out.
Clara thought this house, this family, belonged to her, like everythin always been hers since she took her first breath.
But she didn’ know half of what it means to be a Clay. And I was a long time in teachin her.
She weren’t lookin for me that night, weren’t lookin nowhere but at that dormer door, when she shoulda been lookin up. My stinger punched through cloth and slid into the whipped cream of her skin. How she gasped—soft and high, her full cry wedged in her throat, too big to get out. She clutched at me as she crumpled, stared up with her jaw hangin like an unlatched window, the kind I’m always crawlin through. She stared until the seizin started, and her eyes rolled back like she been possessed by the Holy Spirit.
I spun her a shroud while I waited, silk whiter than the whites of her eyes, whiter than her wedding dress. I laced her up when the venom had slackened her mouth, made lead of her limbs. I told her how my brother was born in a caul of spider’s web, told her how our mama swallowed seeds hopin one would give her the baby she couldn’t make and her husband wasn’t givin her, fistfuls when the conjure woman tole her to eat only one.
“She wanted that baby to take her back to New York,” I said, as Clara’s jerking slowed and her chest caved in. “She tole my daddy she couldn’t take this heat, this heavy wet air, couldn’t take these backwoods niggers and they four hundred families all up in her business, and why couldn’t she and him go home?”
She went to a conjure woman, said, “Tell me how to get with child,” because she thought a child would bring her husband out this southern sinkhole, that a child meant he’d take her home, back to her people. This close to the Mason-Dixon, she thought she was in Mississippi. She was tired of thunderstorms, mosquito bites ribbin her neck like a line of pennies. Washington society wasn’t New York society, and Mr. Theodus Bethell Clay wasn’t the man she’d gone south for. She was done.
The conjure woman told her to bathe in fresh rainwater on a full moon night, handed her a pouch of seeds and said, “Eat only one, ’cause they all carry the makings of a child.” But how my mama gon eat only one when the taste of that first seed so sweet and good saliva broke through her mouth like a woman’s water? Oh, how she hungered. Ain just men who hunger, who want, who leave a place to make somethin of theyselves. Women want just as much, and the world lets them down just as hard. Harder.
My mama dug every single one of them seeds out that pouch, not even botherin to blow off the soil, and she tossed them back, black seeds, black soil, and all.
She got her son. Red as wet Georgia clay, waxy skin stretched tight over soft ribs and spidery veins, eyes sealed up under a silken veil. He came out starved, thighs thin and long and knees like knuckles, neck roped like he been lynched, dragged out into that heavy, sour-smellin birthin room to the sound of our mama’s thin raw lowin and the midwife shoutin. She got her baby boy, and she got me, too: her burden, her sin, the wages of her greed.
They couldn’t even find me after Cornelius been born, after they cut the cord and peeled off the caul and saw he wasn’t gon die right then. They looked for me, but I’d dried off by then, limped off into the shadows lyin long beneath the bed, hid, until I found my way into the walls.
And maybe my mama hoped she free, when she and the midwife couldn’t find me, hoped that handful of seeds wouldn’t come back to haunt her.
But she knew. She heard me mewlin for her in the walls and knew.
I started with Clara’s head, long after she gon still. Hollowed her out, ate her down to the bone. The bones didn’t liquefy like her innards, and so I wound them in her wedding shroud, that dress of whitest silk, finer’n anything they ever gon make in Paris. I took her downstairs and laid her out in the parlor for my family to find, strange fruit cut down from the tree, this terrible, unspeakable thing.
I am here. I am here.
• • • •
For two years, Cornelius leave for Tulsa, to practice law on Negro Wall Street, and when he come back, he got hisself a second bride-to-be, one Josephine Ives, who say she won’t marry him until he take her home to Washington, to meet his family, to see how he lived. They must don’t got newspapers down that way. She didn’t know nothin about the first bride.
He accompanied her and her mama down, set them up at the Whitelaw Hotel and took a room on the floor below theirs. My mama cried, when she learned Cornelius been in town two days and ain been to see her. She begged him to come home, and when he wouldn’t, said at least come for Sunday dinner.
They came for Sunday dinner, because my brother could refuse her only so far. Cornelius sat in his old chair, with Josephine at his side, and you’d think they was master and mistress there in that house, to look at ’em, so young and bright. The electric light turned her hair to gold, and my brother’s to river water under moonlight. And when the women rose to go to the other room afterward, my mama squeezed Josephine’s hands and said, “What a charming young lady my son has found for himself.”
I was in the parlor walls, tremblin so hard my body started to seize. I raked my claws against the wall, deep enough to scar the lathe and plaster.
Josephine paused, tilted her head. “What was that?”
“Nothing.” My mama rose and started across the room.
“Mrs. Clay? Are you all right?”
But my mama had run out of polite words, and she took the winding stairs two at a time. I followed her, not even botherin to be quiet, thumpin and scrapin against the walls. One of my mama’s heels slipped off, clattered down the steps, and by the time she reached the dormer door, she was in her stockinged feet.
“Stop this.” Her voice was thin and shrill; she slammed a hand against the wall once, twice. “Leave us be, why can’t you leave us be?”
Twenty years I been waitin to hear her say a single word to me and this what she say.
“Do you hear me?” Whap whap whap went her hand. “We do not want you here. Get out of this house. Get out, get out, get out—”
She covered her mouth with first one shakin hand, then the other. Stood there, floorboards creakin under her as she rocked.
They heard her, downstairs. Cornelius didn’t even stop to see what was wrong, he just gathered up Josephine and her mother and hustled them out the house. By the time my mama went back downstairs, they was long gone.
But by the time they reached the Whitelaw, I was already there.
• • • •
I wrapped Josephine in a shroud of whitest silk, engagement band on a finger bone gone spongy and frail.
And now folks is sayin Cornelius Clay is cursed, and what woman gon marry him?
• • • •
This skin of mine hungry and hard as the devil’s smile, and it ain never been touched by love.
It don’t know what it is to sing under warm hands, don’t even remember the midwife’s clammy grip. I was born wearin this black shell of skin, born with all these legs and all these eyes, and I am tired, tired, and all I want is for this body to go away. There’s too much of me inside it.
I cain’t barely remember the last time I molted, the last time this hungry, pinchin skin let me loose. I was small then, and my skin split like a ripe peach. I dragged myself free, inch by inch, and sprawled and shivered on the floor when it was shed. I’d never hurt so much.
But all these years later, the pain is back, all the soft parts of me strainin to get out, body so ripe I could choke on my own sweet stink. But the skin won’t break.
I dream of hands on me, some nights. Warm hands, soft hands, hands lovin, hands needin. I want to be touched so much I cain’t breathe. How this want inside of me strains this hungry skin, this wanting skin, this skin I can’t escape.
• • • •
The day my brother don’t accompany the remains and grievin mother of Josephine Ives back to Tulsa, my mother disappears.
She walks out in her morning suit and is still gone by the evening. The help long gone by the time she leaves, my daddy at his office. I listen for her into the small, still hours.
It still dark enough to pass for night by the time she gets home. Her footsteps slow at the stairs, pause, and then she climbin, one careful step at a time. At the top of the flight, she keeps walkin, past first one bedroom, then the next. She stops at the dormer door. Stands there so long I wonder what’s happened to her.
And then the snick of a penknife unfoldin, the chunk and grind of steel on plaster.
I crouch at the back of my attic parlor, as far back as I can get, starin at the corner that holds the dormer door.
It takes my mama a long time to break through that door. Night turns to morning. The shutters gone blue by the time she starts on the door. Thunk thunk thunk, beatin at the lock. Outside, below my window, the alley’s wakin up. The help’s lettin theyselves in, the cook’s smokin a pipe. My legs itch with the sharp sweet scent of bright leaf tobacco.
The lock breaks, but the door’s swole up after all these years, and my mama got to shove it in.
She’s a shadow on the sloping wall, stoopin under the eaves. I cain’t tell if she’s lookin at me, cain’t tell if she knows I’m here.
She takes a step, then stops.
“I do this for Cornelius,” she says. “I do this for my son.”
She darts across the room, then, her breath wet and shakin. I crouch a moment too long. It been over twenty years since I been this close to the woman who gave birth to me, and I cain’t move. There is too much of her——the stiff rustle of her walking suit, the ticklish scent of her perfume, and under it, her salt smell. Her hands are on my back, plungin deep past the hair, her fingers skiddin, huntin for purchase under my bristles. But there is only the unbroken carapace.
She makes a breathless, angry sound and plunges her hand in a second time, and pain shoots down my abdomen and up into my eyes. My back splinters. I don’t know where the knife gone. I do this for Cornelius, she’d said. I do this for my son.
I rear back, thrashin against the wall, keening. My mama clings on, forcin the knife deeper into my back. I shake, but still she won’t let go. The knife clatters to the floor, but she’s found a handhold. She digs in both hands and pulls.
The pain is so hot and white I cain’t see, even as I fling myself, thrashin, across the room. Her hands are under my carapace, diggin into sinew and innards too soft for touchin. A piece of shell comes loose, a jagged, drippin splinter. And then all my skin is sloughin off, my mama’s hands tearing, peeling, wrenching.
“Where did you go?” she cries, as bigger and bigger pieces drop to the floor, “where did you go, where are you, where did you go?”
She is crying. Her tears sting.
“Where are you?” Relentless hands, pulling me apart. The carapace scatters across the floor and still she digs, shoutin where did you go? Her arms are full of my flesh, scoopin out chunks. There is a moment, before I stop knowin anything, a moment when I need her to find me.
My legs give. We both fall.
And still she tears at me, sobbing, calling, where are you and where did you go?
• • • •
I am here.
I always been here.
The daughter you lost, she always been here.
Reach. My two hands are lifted and open.
• • • •
“You got to split the skin,” says the conjure woman, “and dig dig dig. You got to dig through the skeleton, through the meat, you got to dig until you find her and pull her out.”
“You are telling me to kill her,” says the woman. “You are telling me to kill my baby.”
“No,” says the conjure woman. She hasn’t changed since the woman last stood before her, begging for a child; her braids are weighted in silver, her face deeply brown and unlined. “No, I am telling you how to find her.”
“But what if she isn’t there?” says the woman. “What if I dig, and she’s not there?”
Says the conjure woman, “She always been there.”