An exploration of NYC and America in the burgeoning moments before the start of the Civil War through the eyes of a young, biracial girl—the highly anticipated new novel from the winner of the Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize.
"Corthron, a true heir to James Baldwin, presents a startlingly original exposure of the complex roots of American racism." —Naomi Wallace, MacArthur "Genius" Playwriting Fellow and author of One Flea Spare
In Moon and the Mars, set in the impoverished Five Points district of New York City in the years 1857-1863, we experience neighborhood life through the eyes of Theo from childhood to adolescence, an orphan living between the homes of her Black and Irish grandmothers. Throughout her formative years, Theo witnesses everything from the creation of tap dance to P.T. Barnum's sensationalist museum to the draft riots that tear NYC asunder, amidst the daily maelstrom of Five Points work, hardship, and camaraderie. Meanwhile, white America's attitudes towards people of color and slavery are shifting—painfully, transformationally—as the nation divides and marches to war.
As with her first novel, The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter, which was praised by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Angela Y. Davis, among many others, Corthron's use of dialogue brings her characters to life in a way that only an award-winning playwright and scriptwriter can do. As Theo grows and attends school, her language and grammar change, as does her own vocabulary when she's with her Black or Irish families. It's an extraordinary feat and a revelation for the reader.
"Moon and the Mars, [Corthron's] latest masterpiece, is an absorbing story of family and community, of Africans and Irish, of settler and native, of slavery and abolition, of a city and a nation wracked by Civil War and racist violence, of love won and lost." —Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
Release date: September 7, 2021
Publisher: Seven Stories Press
Print pages: 592
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Moon and the Mars
Mutt I am.
Irish and the black, black and the Irish, colored, Celtic, County Kerry, Afri-can!
What you sayin in there? call Grammy Brook from the front-room.
Talkin to yourself again, mutter Grammy Brook to herself.
Throw the cover off, jump outa bed, brrrrr! Woke up alone in the bed I share, alone in the bed in the bed-closet in the apartment in the tenement a Grammy Brook. Come out to the front-room grinnin.
Whatchu grinnin for? she ask, smilin. Then hold out somethin warm, somethin sweet: johnnycake! Happy birthday, birthday girl.
Thank you, Grammy!
How old’s Miss Theo today? ask Mr. Freeman.
Seven. That’s a good one. Mr. Freeman nod, Mr. Freeman our boarder sit in the chair havin his bread n coffee breakfast, his bedroll rolled up, rolled to the corner. Our apartment have two rooms: front-room and bed-closet. Our apartment have two rooms, two windas—both windas in the livin room facin the street, none in the bed-closet. Gran-Gran sit in her chair nex to the front winda near the door, Gran-Gran always at her winda lookin down on Park street. Gran-Gran is Grammy’s mammy.
So whatchu gonna do today, Miss Seven? Grammy ask, ironin her whites for the whites. The wet ones hung all over our apartment.
Door fling open, in come Hen. My cousin Hen, carryin in the pail.
Three, Hen say, then dump the water into Grammy’s pot on the stove. Hen strong! Hen only nine years of age, carryin the full water bucket: heavy! Soon as Hen empty it, she turn back around, head out our apartment, down the stairs for more.
I’d better be getting on to work, say Mr. Freeman.
All right, say Grammy.
I just want to say again how much I appreciate it, Mrs. Brook—you not raising the rent.
Didn’t get mine raised, no call to raise yours.
The barbering business not what it used to be, Mr. Freeman say, more to hisself. Then put his tin cup on the shelf and our barber boarder out the door.
I’ll sing a song for you, Grammy, that what I wanna do for my birthday!
Good girl. Grammy switch irons. Grammy tole me why ironin need two irons: one to use hot till it cool while the other gettin hot on the coals.
Hark! the herald angels sing!
Oh, that’s that new pretty one.
That song old, Grammy! Two years old, that song come to be when I was five!
New to old me.
Glory to the newborn King!
Your papa woulda been proud a you.
I knew she say that! Every time I have a birthday Grammy Brook smile teary and say my dead father her dead son Ezekiel woulda been proud a me.
In come Hen. Four, she say, emptyin the water into the pot. After five, I gotta get to work myself, Hen say and gone. When the water come to boilin, Grammy’ll dump it in the washtub and put in more a the white sheets and white towels for the white folks.
I gotta go to the necessary!
Bring me back a paper. Then Grammy careful count out her coin, sigh. I remember when it was the penny press. Now hard to find it under two.
But you gimme two cent and a half, Grammy.
The half-cent for you, birthday girl.
Thank you, Grammy!
Mijn gelukwenschen met uw verjaardag, say Gran-Gran, still lookin out the winda. Gran-Gran and Grammy useta be slaves with Dutch masters. I look at Grammy.
She wishin you good wishes.
Thank you, Gran-Gran! I’m seven!
Gran-Gran blink, not turnin her head from whatever’s happenin out on the street.
We live on the fourth floor: top! I skip down the steps, out to the back courtyard water-closets to wait in line, one two three four five six seven eight nine in front a me! Nine colored, our tenement all colored, nine in front a me, I gotta go! There’s Hen at the pump, Hen! I wave but she act like she don’t see me. Eight in front a me, I gotta go! Hen finish fillin the bucket and start luggin it back up to our apartment, seven in front a me, I gotta go! gotta go!
The little Brook girl hoppin, she gotta go bad, say Miss Lottie who live crost the hall from us. Then everybody let me go! Then I run out to see whatever’s happenin out on the street. The mornin boys hollerin.
New intelligence on the Bond street murder!
Bill passed for wagon road to the Pacific!
Latest on President-elect Buchanan’s picks for his cabinet! Read all about it!
I buy a two-penny press for Grammy Brook, run it up to her, run back to the street back to Park street, right on Baxter street. Five-story tenement and on the third floor: Grammy Cahill.
Maidin mhaith, Grammy!
Maidin mhaith, Theodora Brigid, say Grammy, smilin because she pleased I’m practicin my Good mornin in Irish.
It’s my birthday!
I know, little sprout. Seven is it?
I’m grinnin, noddin.
Lá breithe shona duit.
What’s that, Grammy!
Lá breithe shona duit, Theo! say Maureen and Cathleen.
May the saints be with ye, say Cousin Aileen, who’s my cousin Mau-reen and my cousin Cathleen’s ma.
Go raibh maith agat!
That’s how ye be thankin one person, Grammy correct me. More than one, ye say Go raibh maith agaibh.
Go raibh maith agaibh!
No, thank you for bein the livin spirit of herself, your dear mammy.
(I knew she’d say that! Every time I have a birthday Grammy Cahill smile teary and say I’m the livin spirit a my dead mother her dead daughter Brigid.)
Ye’re after catchin me in the nick, mo leanbh, headin out to work. But I’m ready for ye. And she hand me a bite a cake.
Barmbrack! I chew it—still warm. Now Cathleen hold out her hand.
A little something for the birthday girl, say Cathleen.
Ah! say everybody. Cathleen made me a doll! Little doll, jus tall as my wrist to my fingertip. My cousin Cathleen and her sister Maureen and their mammy Cousin Aileen is seamstresses, Cathleen musta made my doll outa scraps from her work. Cathleen make pretty sewn things! Her mammy and sister work at the workshop but Cathleen gotta work the piecemeal at home: Cathleen’s fifteen years of age, and when she was six, she climbed a tree and fell and her legs stopped workin.
Go raibh maith agat, Cathleen!
Grammy Cahill headin out to work carryin her wares table, me skippin nex to her. Out to Baxter, then block and a half back to Park, set up her table, then send me to the grocer on Mott to pick her up a little flour. Crunch crunch through the Febooary sleet. Cross the road, I can do it! Look right and left for the carriages and carts. Look down for the horse manure and tenement manure. Look everywhere for the people rushin, pushin—hog runnin loose, everybody jump out the way! Buy the flour, back to Park, give it to Grammy. Then head six doors down the street: o’shea’s board & publick.
Mornin, Auntie Siobhan!
Well, good mornin to you, Miss Theo. Wonderin when you wander by, it bein the ninth of Feb.
I come near every day! Look what Cathleen gimme!
Aw, what a pretty doll baby. Care for a little birthday nog?
Yes! I can pay for it! Grammy Brook gimme a half-cent for my birthday!
You save that for candy.
Better spend it today. Government claimin they’ll be endin the halfpenny later this month.
Spend it today.
I sit in my auntie’s tavern sippin my nog. Nutmeg! And a birthday apple! I’ll save it till later.
Tell me a story, Auntie Siobhan!
Em . . . Let me think.
(My colored family says um, my Irish family says em!)
A birthday story.
Right. Your mother’s birthday was—
May the twenty-fourth!
May the twenty-fourth. Woke up to a glory of a Wednesday and I said to my sister, Whyn’t you take off from that tyrant, we make a day of it in the park? The tyrant was—
Told ye this one before, have I?
Brigid was a day-maid, another girl lived there but your mother-to-be came home nights. Like all the fancy folks, Mrs. Bradley lived uptown—
Forty-first and Fifth!
And if your mother’d been older she’d never a done it, played hooky from her place of employ. If I’d been older I’d never a suggested it, but her newly sixteen and me two years behind so there we were, plannin the mischief. Walkin down to City Hall—
To the park!
And who we run into goin the other direction but Lily the cook! Brigid begged her to tell Mistress Scowlface she fell ill, promisin to return the favor one day. Your mother’d been workin for the beast a year, screamed at near daily, her face slapped for a vocal tone not pleasin to the lady or for disturbin the library’s alphabetical, placin a Charlotte Brontë before an Anne. Lily’d had her own troubles with the witch, don’t the Irish and the black always suffer it all? So Lily wished your ma a happy birthday and went on her way, and there we be: your mother and I and soft grass and crackers and whiskey. Laughin at some rough n tumble we’d seen at Mott street and Pell that mornin or at the people walkin by or at Brigid scrunchin up her face and makin her boss lady’s voice and thatshe just happened to be at when we look up to see none other than you know who!
Mrs. Bradley yell at my mother?
Herself was takin an afternoon stroll with her aul chum Mrs. Hyde, another one. Everything stops still, them starin at Brigid, the one supposedly home runnin a bout of fever. Then the old mistress heads straight toward my sister, chargin, her hand ready aimed to slap your poor mother’s cheek! Gets within three feet of her—and falls! Flat on her face, Lady Bradley is sherry-drunk middle of the afternoon—she of the Temperance Society! Then her companion comes to her aid, but appears aul Mrs. Hyde’s not exactly treadin steady ground neither! Finally Brigid helps her employer to her feet, and Mrs. Bradley yanks herself away, stumblin again with that, and the ladies depart. When they’re beyond hearin, we’re rollin, our stomachs torn up with the laughter! But next day, your mother trembles to show up for work, fearin she’ll be given her walkin papers.
My mother get sacked?
Auntie Siobhan shake her head, smilin.
The she-devil musta worried Brigid might someday have a mind to reveal that peculiar episode in the wrong company, so not only was your mother’s position secure but thereafter her tenure on Forty-first and Fifth proceeded appreciably more agreeable.
We turn to the man just entered the tavern from upstairs, tenant a the boarding-house.
Ye can’t just raise the rent every February the first, Siobhan!
The law says otherwise, my auntie answer him. Don’t go into effect till May, ye make your decision. ’Tis a wee increase, be no effort ye’d just re-budget your monthly liquor allowance.
Here I slip off the stool, out the door, leavin em to their shoutin.
How do ye, Theo!
Round the corner in the alley I see Nancy, smaller n me, standin with her brother, Elijah, smaller n her. They sleep in the alley crates since their mammy caught the influenza from the white folks she worked for and died. Nancy and Elijah skinny like sticks, eyes on my birthday apple. Now my eyes on my birthday apple. I take a nibble: sweet! Then give the rest to Nancy and Elijah who attack it, hungry-greedy. In my head I see Saint Peter in heaven markin this good deed on my list.
Your rich auntie give it to ya? ask Nancy, crunch.
One of em, I say. Now off to see the other.
Uptown I head: twenty blocks north, forty blocks and more, up to the country. At Fifty-ninth, Broadway change its name to Bloomingdale, still I keep goin. Eighty-sixth and Seventh, knock knock! Nothin. Knock knock! Then I remember: today’s Monday—my auntie at school!
Good mornink, Theo!
I turn around.
Good morning, Mr. Schmidt! It’s afternoon now!
Ah, you’re right! he smile. Tell your aunt sank you again. She’s a nice landlady.
Seneca Village where my Auntie Eunice lives where her tenant Mr. Schmidt lives is Seventh avenue to Eighth, Eighty-second street to Eighty-ninth and some say higher. Mr. Schmidt lives in the house my auntie and uncle used to live in before they built the new one. Crost the field, I see Mr. O’Kelleher drivin a hog home. I wave. He wave back.
I run over to Colored School No. 3. My auntie at the front a the class nod her head to the back for me to sit, then she ask everybody, What’s one over two times five over six?
Everybody click click scratch their slates.
When dismission time come, my teacher-auntie and me walk back to her house hand-holdin. I tell her what Mr. Schmidt said to tell her he said.
It’s because I didn’t raise the rent. February first is Rent Day, to warn the tenants if the rent’s to be raised in May. If it’s too much, May first is Moving Day, but Mr. Schmidt won’t have to worry about that. Now why in the world would you be paying me a call on February ninth?
I grin. Look what Cathleen gimme!
What a pretty doll. You should leave it at home to play with so you don’t lose it.
I won’t! I can carry it around, not lose it!
All right, stubborn, don’t cry when it’s gone.
Won’t be gone!
Auntie Eunice cookin. We got her house all to ourself because Uncle Ambrose a seaman, more months away than home. Teachers ain’t sposed to be married but Auntie Eunice say she The Exception Proves The Rule and somethin else about bein a good convincer and childless. I look out the winda.
We in Seneca Village, Dolly, I tell my dolly. How the colored people come again? I ask my auntie.
Seneca Village as we know it began when land here was sold to a col-ored, then another colored, then another. In Seneca Village, the negroes are the landowners. But we get along fine with our tenants, those Johnny-come-latelys from across the Atlantic: the Irish and the German searching for America. Why don’t you read me some Thoreau.
I read Resistance to Civil Government while she stir the stew, then she wipe a tear and say, Your papa loved that book. Then she tell me read a little Winter’s Tale. I do, then: When you plan on going to school, Theo?
Which is a very often disagreement between me and my auntie. I say nothin. Auntie Eunice been teachin me to read since I was three. I tried school once for a week and didn’t care for it so didn’t go back. I know she know but I say nothin because impolite to insult somebody’s livelihood.
After supper, Auntie Eunice step outside with a bowl and no coat, come back in with a mound a freshly fell snow. Open a cupboard. Vanilla, sugar: vanilly snow!
For the birthday girl, she say and hand me a spoon.
I snuggle up with Auntie Eunice for the night. In the morn, she go to school, and I turn south, walkin ninety-six blocks back downtown to below First street. In the Thirties, a nativist man gawk at me: that look I sometime get from them ones claimin they the First Americans, descended from the original white people. Then he bark: Mongrel!
No! Mutt! I giggle and run.
Don’t let the ignorants worry you! my grammies and aunties always say. And between Seneca Village and my downtown home’s a whole lot a blocks a ignorance. Plenty a mutts where I live, home is black and Irish every day every minute crossin all kinds a paths, don’t the rest a the world only wish they got our harmony?
Near dinnertime, Park street bustlin in the pre-noon winter sun. Newsboys callin the afternoon editions—and there my grammies talkin together! Grammy Brook makin laundry deliveries, Grammy Cahill with her table set up peddlin anything she find to sell. Right now appears they dickerin on a shirt.
They see me, drop their haggle-faces to smile.
I take a hand a each one. Green eyes and flowy light-brown hair the Irish gimme, but my nose and lips took a bit a thickness from the colored. High yella, my skin betwixt: not rich dark like my father’s people nor rosy fair like my mother’s.
Long lashes just like your mammy, Grammy Cahill say.
Dimple-smile just like your papa, Grammy Brook say.
These I collect to make a picture, otherwise I don’t know what they looked like. My mother dies three days after I’m born, father two years after her. Last summer, couple nights I stayed with Nancy and Elijah the back alley. Their mother passed not long before and no rent money, now they sleep the street. I try cheerin em up: Look at the Milky Way! But I don’t speak a weather, rain and the comin snow. I don’t remind em beddin under the stars is fun n rare for me because any night a the week I got a choice of roofs: my colored grammy’s tenement or my Irish auntie’s boarding-house or my colored auntie’s uptown house or my Irish grammy’s tenement. Mutt I am: orphan lucky.
The grammies start up the bargainin again so I move on. Adventures await! And them bounteous in Five Points, Manhattan, New York City, when a birthday girl got a whole half-cent to squander on em.
Late to work!
Grammy Cahill runnin around, puttin her wares in her bag.
My dearest friend and fiercest competitor Maeve better not’ve taken my spot!
I’m never late to work! Cathleen smile. She say that because her legs don’t work so her work is here, home. Her needle nimble attachin collar to shirt: skill. Cathleen on the couch like usual, me under the couch playin with Dolly doll: four days past my birthday, I ain’t lost her yet!
Now who could that be? say Grammy, headin to answer. She ask that because nobody livin here would knock, and the landlord a just barged in, and the sub-landlord a just barged in specially with the doors in the tenement apartments broken off their hinges not lockin anyway, so who rappin the other side?
Maidin mhaith—Good morning? Cahill?
He pronounce it perfect! Cah-hill, rolled over the tongue fast! Head taller n me, his hair black and wavy, skin fair and rosy, eyes shinin bright blue but tired. And accent straight off the Isle. Grammy frownin, starin the suspicion. Then her face sudden soften altogether.
The boy nod.
The boy nod.
Ciaran? Cathleen’s mouth a O.
Ah! And Grammy grab him, hug him.
The spittin of your sister, ye are! Oh, so cold! Let’s warm ye!
Grammy hold him tight, rubbin his arms. His arms hang straight down his sides, boards. Now Grammy lean back, her hands still graspin above his elbows.
Look at this lad! How old ye be?
Eight years of age!
Eight and a half years of age! Girls! Come meet your cousin Ciaran! Ciaran, this is Cathleen and Theo—Theodora Brigid.
Fáilte, Ciaran! welcome Cathleen, smilin bright.
My cousin how?
Not by blood, Grammy answer me. By love. Meara’s brother.
And Grammy tell me the story I already know, not takin her eyes off Ciaran.
His poor parents near dead with the hunger, their three little ones they’re after buryin, all those little girls. And me settin sail for America, the landlord offerin us escape from the Famine, but his mother and father too far gone, his mammy askin mightn’t I bring Meara her eldest with us, sole survivor of her babies? Thirteen years of age his sister Meara was, year younger than Brigid year older than Siobhan, those girls all close just like his mother and me, We’ll take her, sure we’ll take her! All us wailin the farewells, and I’m thinkin next time I see Meara’s mother’s in heaven. Meara writin monthly hopeful and hearin nothin back, oh her poor parents sure be buried. Then one day comes the letter: Caoimhe and Riordan still in the land of the livin—and expectin another! And here he stands! Miracle baby, we called him! Baby Ciaran, born durin the Hunger. Shoutin the gratitude from their knees they were, his dear mother and father!
Dead, say Ciaran, and his eyes look dead when he say it.
Your poor aul fella, Grammy say, shakin her head. Didn’t quite make it. Ah, in our families, the Famine was a widow-maker! Your mammy after losin your da, I’m after losin my Seamus, my niece Aileen her Malachi. That was Cathleen’s poor father, Malachi. But somehow amongst us the mothers survived—
Grammy stares. Your mammy?
Bump in her belly. Lump in her belly, hard. And bleedin.
Year ago! I remember, then she came bouncin back strong! Fearin she’s not long for the world, she’s after writin to Meara, askin her to take you. Meara scrape together the money for your passage, send to your mother, Meara cryin for her mammy but long to meet her baby brother who never arrived. Then your mammy’s after writin she’s feelin better!
Better. Then worse. Then dead.
Two days before Christmas. Two days after New Year’s uncle put me on a boat. Five weeks, six days.
Cathleen say, Crossing the Atlantic?
Five weeks, six days, Ciaran repeat.
Docked on Staten Island, were ye? Grammy ask. Early this mornin?
And found your way to us, say Cathleen. What a clever boy!
So clever! Grammy’s eyes shine.
Ciaran pull out a piece a paper, show to Grammy. Grammy read it, show to Cathleen.
Letter’s a year old, Grammy say soft.
From my sister, say Ciaran. Her whereabouts, your whereabouts.
I’m after goin to her house. Fire, people on the street is after sayin. Her house burnt to the ground, they’re after sayin.
Grammy nods. Seven months ago. Ah, these wood tenements is nothin but kindlin! Just after the Fourth of July, ’twas. I wrote. Ye didn’t get the letter?
I wrote! Ye didn’t get the letter?
Ciaran shake his head.
Well, ye’re not to fret, Grammy swallow. You’ll be stayin with us.
Now my mouth the same O Cathleen’s was! Our apartment is one front-room and one bed-closet that’s it now here’s what we got:
- Grammy Cahill
- her niece Cousin Aileen
- Maureen, Cousin Aileen’s daughter who’s eighteen
- Cathleen, Cousin Aileen’s daughter who’s fifteen
- Great-Uncle Fergus who’s Grammy’s brother
- me (when I’m not at Grammy Brook’s)
- now Ciaran
You must be starving! say Cathleen.
Grammy catch her breath. Starve is a word she don’t throw around devil-may-care. She look in the stove.
Lump of coal left! I’ll make the porridge, ye must be achin for a bite.
Do you need a nap? ask Cathleen. Bed-closet’s right through the doorway.
Is it a bath ye first be needin? ask Grammy. Theo, would ye fill the pail?
Seein my sister I first be needin.
Everybody stop. Seem like Ciaran missed Grammy’s meanin: ’tweren’t only Meara’s buildin come to ashes.
Ciaran, say Grammy, a tear startin to fall. Oh, Ciaran . . .
Out the door! Down the stairs, through the other door to the street. Walk down Baxter, cross at Park street, busy Park! Crunch, crunch, light snow lass night. Mary Bree on the corner a Park and Mission place, barefoot with her broom. I wave.
How do ye, Mary Bree!
She don’t see me. Talkin to a gentleman, hopeful customer, but the customer walk on. I get closer.
How do ye, Mary Bree!
How do ye, Theo! Dia duit!
Dia duit! I say. I taught Mary Bree that greetin, she oughta know some Irish since her name’s Mary Briana O’Doolin. I like your gray shawl, Mary Bree!
Thanks! I found it!
Mary Bree only six and that shawl still a little small for her, fulla holes, lookin like a part a somethin bigger got ript up. Still, before she didn’t have no cover over her dress, and Mary Bree work in the outdoors, street-sweeper, tidyin away the weather and the debris for the gentry steppin at the corners. Mary Bree rub her right foot gainst her left leg, then left foot gainst right leg, warmin em, hopin they change blue to red.
Where your Grammaw Cahill be? She not in her spot.
Late, gatherin her wares. Then company come.
Little brother of Meara—the one died in the fire lass year with her husband and girl.
I remember that story!
Grammy wrote to Ciaran and his mammy bout the fire and bout everybody dyin but they didn’t get the letter.
What his name?
Ciaran. Kee-er-un, that got three beats but fast it almost sound like two: Keer-un.
Sweep your walk for ya, ma’am?
Yes, thank you.
And Mary Bree get to work, grinnin, sweepin the corner so the lady can cross, not get dirty snow on her fine boots. Coal! A big lump right there in the street, no one else see it. I grab it quick! Give it to Grammy! Sometime hard to pick which grammy, but not now: don’t wanna go back to Cahill’s, the Meara tears! Like lass summer, everybody sad! I never much knew Meara. When I was toddlin, she met a sailor passin through town, marry and back to Boston with him. Then she miss New York so here they are again, her and him and a girl two years of age, and year later fire took em all. Most I remember about Meara is she come back to die and leave my family sad. I liked her little girl though, Regan. I taught Regan Pat-a-Cake!
Grammy! Grammy! I can’t wait, hollerin, runnin up Grammy Brook’s tenement steps, Grammy! Fly through the door, Looky what I got! I hold up the coal, knowin she be pleased because coal’s gold.
Everybody standin quiet. Grammy Brook and Auntie Eunice and Hen and Mr. Freeman and a new one.
Come in, chatty girl, say Grammy, and close the door behind ya. I smell Grammy’s hog fat n string beans on the boil. My belly growl.
The new one got skin night-dark, smooth. Tree-tall—I see the washtub out, she musta pulled her legs in tight to fit in that bath. Eyes shine like black pearls, and though the torn dress and bloody scratches speak a hardship, her thick lips open soft to smile.
Maryam, this is my granddaughter Theodora. Theo, this is Miss Maryam.
We are sisters, say Auntie Eunice.
Auntie Maryam, Grammy correct herself.
My father’s sister? I ask, suspectin not.
Yes, say Auntie Eunice, you can say that. We shall say that.
You my father’s sister, Miss Maryam?
Ain’t that what you just heard, say Hen.
She’ll say that, say Grammy, if anybody ask, but nobody likely to, and don’t you go voicin it out in the street.
And not to your Irish kin neither, Hen just gotta add.
I know she won’t, say Grammy. She’s a good girl.
We don’t need a good girl, say Hen, we need a quiet girl.
I, start Miss Maryam. Everyone look to her but she stop. Hen scratch her head and soot fall off. Soot most a her body, Hen musta just come from work, she oughta get in the tub. Chimney sweep, the customers take her for a boy.
Auntie Maryam will be staying with us, say Grammy, and I look at our front-room and bed-closet, which is the whole a our estate.
- Grammy Brook
- her mother, Gran-Gran, at the winda
- my cousin Hen who’s ten
- Mr. Freeman our barber boarder
- me (when I’m not at Grammy Cahill’s)
- now Miss Maryam
Grammy take her string beans and seasonin off the stove.
Everybody suppin. Grammy say, What were ya? Before?
Miss Maryam take a pause, then: Lizzie Hathaway. Hathaway Plantation, South Carolina. I work the fields. I’s twenty-five. Or -six. Or -seven.
In the street a driver hollerin at his horses. Every time he crack the whip Miss Maryam jump.
Lizzie they names me but my mammy secret names me Maryam, Maryam I is.
Grammy take a think.
Let’s make you New York born. Been workin a upstate farm, just come back home to be with your family. Us. Let’s make you a washerwoman. Let’s make you twenty-six.
Year younger than I, my baby sister! say Auntie Eunice. Do you know when your birthday is?
Spring. My mammy say I comes with spring.
March twentieth then! say Auntie Eunice. The first day of spring.
Your family name, say Grammy, will be Brook, our family name. My mother, husband, and me given the master’s name, Broek—Broek with an e that the master shortened from ten Broek. When emancipation come to New York State thirty years back, we made it plain old Brook.
Mancipation thirty year back? say Miss Maryam, makin the third O-mouth a the day.
What’s that? I point. Somethin hangin from her neck.
Miss Maryam finger the little leather pouch, square and somethin surely inside it.
From my mother, she say. From Africa.
Africa? say Grammy, smilin like wondrous. And passed down all these generations!
One generation. My mother born Africa.
But? Grammy start, eyes to the ceilin, figurin somethin.
They made the trans-Atlantic trade illegal in aught-eight, Auntie Eunice say, voicin whatever Grammy was tryin to solve. Which only means the traﬃcking continued covertly. Illegally.
Where’s your mother now? Hen ask.
Miss Maryam look to Hen, eyes full a water, and when a tear from each eye start to fall, she quick wipe em away.
Auntie Eunice change the subject, start talkin bout makin a new dress for Miss Maryam so she don’t gotta wear the dress she come in, start talkin bout city livin, love your neighbor but don’t let em swindle ya. Auntie Eunice stay with us tonight, which I’m happy about! Even if the apartment now got too many. When Hen take Miss Maryam down to the w.c., I ask, Where Miss Maryam come from?
You heard, say Auntie Eunice. South Carolina.
I mean how she come to us?
It’s organized, say Grammy. There’s volunteers. Hosts. We volunteered to host. Didn’t know when our guest would come, or if. All that’s a secret.
Where’s Miss Maryam’s mother?
Must be sold or dead, say Auntie Eunice, don’t bring it up.
I think about Miss Maryam’s teary eye to talk about her ma, about Cia-ran’s eyes dry like the desert to talk about his ma and pa. Orphan lucky: I not known mother nor father so my eyes never too wet, never too dry, just right! Hearin stories bout my mother from Auntie Siobhan is fun! And I like when Auntie Eunice have me read the book my papa loved, but none a that ever make me long for the dearly departed. It jus give my eyes the twinkle, the only thing waterin bein my mouth, ponderin what kinda special treat a grammy or auntie might have in store for somebody happen to be the spittin image of the beloved dead that begat em.
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