The river was young and small: at its start it seeped from the red clay earth in the piney woods of southern Mississippi, and then wound its way, brown and slow, over a bed of tiny gray and ochre pebbles through the pines, shallow as a hand, deep as three men standing, to the sandy, green lowlands of the gulf of Mexico. It slithered along, wide and narrow, crossed by small wood and concrete bridges, lined by thin slivers of white beach, in and out of the trees, before it divided itself into the bayou and emptied itself into the bay. Near the river’s end, at one such bridge, two teenage boys, twins, stood at the apex. Legs over the side, they gripped the warm, sweaty steel at their backs. Underneath them, the water of the Wolf River lay dark and deep, feathered by the current. They were preparing to jump.
The sun had only risen a few hours ago, but it was hot even for late May. Christophe, the thinner of the two, let his arms loosen and leaned out, testing the height. His muscles showed ropy and long over his shoulders and down his back. Christophe wondered how cold the water would be. Joshua, taller, softer, on account of the thin layer of fat across his stomach and chest, and bigger in the arms, rested his rear lightly on the steel of the railing, shying from its heat. Christophe looked at his brother, and thought the air around him seemed to waver. Joshua kicked, spewing sand and gravel from the edge. He laughed. Christophe felt his hands slip and grabbed at the rail. He looked over at his brother and smiled, the side of his mouth curving into a fishhook. Christophe knew he was sweating more than normal in the heat, and it was making his hands slippery. He and his twin were still drunk from the night before. They were graduating from high school in three hours.
“What the hell y’all doing?”
Dunny, their cousin, stood below them on the sand at the edge of the water with a beer in his hand. He’d parked the car and walked to the bank while they’d taken off their shirts and shoes. His t-shirt hung long and loose on him except where it pulled tight over his beer belly, and his jean shorts sagged low. This was one of the tallest bridges on the coast. When they were younger, all the kids from Bois Sauvage would ride their bikes there and spend all day in a circuit: plummeting from the bridge, swimming to the shore, and then running on their toes over the scalding concrete to fall to the water again. Now, the twins were almost too old to jump. Christophe thought he and Joshua had jumped once the previous summer, but he was not sure. While Dunny had egged Christophe on when he thought of the bridge at 4:00 AM after he and Joshua finished off a case, Dunny had refused to jump. He was 25, he had said, and while the twins could still balance on the iron railing like squirrels on a power line, he couldn’t.
“Y’all niggas gonna jump or what?” Dunny asked.
Christophe squinted at Joshua, at the face that was his own, but not: full lips, a jutting round nose, and skin the color of the shallows of the water below that named them twins. If he leaned in close he could see that which was different: freckles over Joshua’s cheeks and ears where Christophe’s skin was clear, Joshua’s eyes that turned hazel when the sun hit them while Christophe’s eyes remained so dark brown they looked black, and Joshua’s hair that was so fine at the neck it was hard to braid. Christophe moved closer to his brother, and when his arm slid along the length of Joshua’s forearm, for a second it was as if Christophe had touched himself, crossed his own forearms, toucher and touched. Christophe was ready to leap. His stomach roiled with a combination of beer and anxiety, but he’d wait. Christophe knew that while he liked to do things quickly, Joshua was slower about some things. His brother was looking across the water, eyeing the river winding away into the distance, the houses like small toys along the shoreline that were half hidden by the oak, pine, and underbrush rustling at the water’s edge.
“That one up there on the right—that white one. Looks like the one Ma-mee used to work at, huh?”
What Christophe could see of the house through the trees was large and white and glazed with windows. He nodded, feeling his balance.
“Yeah,” Christophe said. “I always wanted to have a house like that one day. Big like that. Nice.”
Christophe loved to look at those houses, but then hated it, too. They made him feel poor. They made him think of Ma-mee, his grandmother, back when she was healthy and could still see, scrubbing the dirt out of white people’s floors for 40 years. He knew she was waiting for them now at the house, regardless of her blindness and her diabetes, with their gowns laid out on the sofa, pressed. He swallowed, tasting warm beer. Those stupid houses were ruining the jump.
“Well, the house is going to rot into the ground before we can buy it, Jay.” Christophe laughed and spit a white glob out over the river. It arced and fell quickly. “Can we jump so we can graduate and make some money?”
Sweat stung Christophe’s eyes. Joshua was staring at the water, blinking hard. Christophe saw Joshua swallow; his brother was nervous about the drop. His own throat was clenching with the idea of the fall. It was so early in the summer that Christophe knew the water would be cold.
“Come on then, Chris.”
Joshua grabbed Christophe by the arm and pulled. He threw his other arm into the air, and leaned out into space. Christophe let go and leaped into Joshua, hugging him around his chest, and felt him burning and sweaty in his arms, squirming like a caught fish. They seemed to hang in the air for a moment, held in place by the heavy, humid blue sky, the pullulating green, the brown water below. In the distance, a car sounded as it approached on the road. Christophe heard Joshua exhale deeply, and he clenched his fingers around Joshua’s arms. The moment passed, and they began to fall. They dropped and hit the water and an eruption of tepid water burned up their noses. Their mouths opening by instinct; the water was silty on their tongues and tasted like unsweetened tea. In the middle of the surging murky river, both brothers felt for the bottom with their feet even as they let go of each other and struggled to swim upward. They surfaced. The day exploded in color and light and sound around them. They blew snot and water out their nostrils; Christophe tossed his head and grinned while Joshua screwed a pinky finger into one ear.
On the bank, Dunny was rolling a blunt from his selling sack. He licked the cigar shut, blew on the paper, and lit it. White smoke drifted from his mouth in tufts. He stood at the water’s edge, the river lapping at the tips of his basketball shoes. Dunny hopped away from the water and held the blunt towards them. Christophe’s lungs burned, and his stomach fluttered with nausea.
“Y’all want to smoke?”
Joshua immediately shook his head no, and spit water in a sparkling brown stream. Christophe thrust himself toward his brother and grabbed him around his shoulders, trying to shove him below the surface. Joshua squirmed and kicked, flipping them over. Christophe slid below the water, the current gripping him, sure as his brother’s fingers. He could hear Joshua laughing above him, muted and deep beyond the bronze wash of the river. Everything was dim and soft. Christophe exhaled crystal bubbles of air, grabbed his brother’s soft, squirming sides, and pulled him to the quiet below.
In the car, Joshua plucked a waterlogged twig, limp as a shoestring, from Christophe’s wet hair. Dunny drove slowly on the pebbled gray asphalt back roads to Bois Sauvage, encountering a house, a trailer, another car once every mile in the wilderness of woods, red dirt ditches, and stretches of swampy undergrowth. Joshua watched Dunny blow smoke from his mouth and attempt to pass the blunt he’d rolled on the river beach to Christophe. Christophe shook his head no. Shrugging and sucking on the blunt, Dunny turned the music up so Pastor Troy’s voice rasped from the speakers, calling God and the Devil, conjuring angels and demons, and blasting them out. Christophe had taken off his shirt and lumped it into a wet ball in his lap. His bare feet, like Joshua’s, were caked with sand.
Joshua stretched across the backseat, shirtless also. He lay with his cheek on the upholstery of the door, his head halfway out the window. Joshua loved the country; he loved the undulating land they moved through, the trees that overhung the back roads to create green tunnels that fractured sunlight. He and Christophe had played basketball through junior high and high school, and after traveling on basketball trips to Jackson, to Hattiesburg, to Greenwood, and to New Orleans for tournaments, he knew that most of the south looked like this: pines and dirt interrupted by small towns. He knew that there shouldn’t be anything special about Bois Sauvage, but there was: he knew every copse of trees, every stray dog, every bend of every half-paved road, every uneven plane of each warped, dilapidated house, every hidden swimming hole. While the other towns of the coast shared boundaries and melted into each other so that he could only tell he was leaving one and arriving in the other by some landmark, like a Circle K or a Catholic church, Bois Sauvage dug in small on the back of the Bay, isolated. Natural boundaries surrounded it on three sides. To the south, east, and west, a bayou bordered it, the same bayou that the Wolf River emptied into before it pooled into the Bay of Angels and then out to the Gulf of Mexico. There were only two roads that crossed the bayou and led out of Bois Sauvage to St. Catherine, the next town over. To the north, the interstate capped the small town like a ruler, beyond which a thick bristle of pine forest stretched off and away into the horizon. It was beautiful.
Joshua could understand why Ma-mee’s and Papa’s families had migrated here from New Orleans, had struggled to domesticate the low-lying, sandy earth that reeked of rotten eggs in a dry summer and washed away easily in a wet one. Land had been cheaper along the Mississippi gulf, and black Creoles had spread along the coastline. They’d bargained in broken English and French to buy tens of acres of land. Still, they and their poor white neighbors were dependent on the rich as they had been in New Orleans for their livelihood: they built weekend mansions along the beach for wealthy New Orleans expatriates, cleaned them, did their yardwork, and fished, shrimped, and harvested oysters. Yet here, they had space and earth.
They developed their own small, self-contained communities: they intermarried with others like themselves, raised small, uneven houses from the red mud. They planted and harvested small crops. They kept horses and chickens and pigs. They built tiny stills in the wood behind their houses that were renowned for the clarity and strong oily consistency of the liquor, the way it bore a hole down the throat raw. They parceled out their acres to their children, to their passels of seven and 12. They taught their children to shoot and to drive young, and sent them to one-room schoolhouses that only advanced to the seventh grade. Their children built small, uneven houses, married at 17 and 14, and started families. They called Bois Sauvage God’s country.
Their children’s children grew, the government desegregated the schools, and they sent them to the public schools in St. Catherine to sit for the first time next to white people. Their children’s children could walk along the beaches, could walk through the park in St. Catherine without the caretakers chasing them away, hollering nigger. Their children’s children graduated from high school and got jobs at the docks, at convenience stores, at restaurants, as maids and carpenters and landscapers like their mothers and fathers, and they stayed. Like the oyster shell foundation upon which the county workers packed sand to pave the roads, the communities of Bois Sauvage, both black and white, embedded themselves in the red clay and remained. Every time Joshua returned from a school trip and the bus crossed the bayou or took the exit for Bois Sauvage from the highway, he felt that he could breathe again. Even seeing the small, green metal exit sign made something ease in his chest. Joshua rubbed his feet together and the sand slid away from his skin in small, wet clumps that reminded him of lukewarm grits.
When Joshua and Christophe talked about what they wanted to do with their lives, it never included leaving Bois Sauvage, even though they could have joined their mother, Cille, who lived in Atlanta. She sent Ma-mee money by Western Union once a month to help with groceries and clothing. Cille had still been living with Ma-mee when she had the twins, and when she decided to go to Atlanta to make something of herself when the boys were five, she left them. She told Ma-mee she was tired of accompanying her on jobs, of cleaning messes she didn’t make, of dusting the underside of tabletops, of mopping wooden living room floors that stretched the entire length of Ma-mee’s house, of feeling invisible when in the same room with women who always smelled of refined roses. She told Ma-mee she’d send for the twins once she found an apartment and a job, but she didn’t. Ma-mee said that one day after Cille had been gone for 11 months, she stood in the doorway of their room and watched them sleep in their twin beds. She gazed at their curly, rough red-brown hair, their small bunched limbs, their skin the color of amber, and decided to never ask Cille if she was ready to take them again. That was the summer their hair had turned deep red, the same color as Cille’s, before it turned to brown, like a flame fading to ash, Ma-mee said.
Three weeks after that morning, Cille visited. She didn’t broach the subject of them coming back to Atlanta with her. She and Ma-mee had sat on the porch, and Ma-mee told her to send $200 a month: the boys would remain in Bois Sauvage, with her. Cille had assented as the sound of the twins chasing Ma-mee’s chickens, whooping and squealing, drifted onto the screened porch from the yard. Ma-mee said it was common to apportion the raising of children to different family members in Bois Sauvage. It was the rule when she was a little girl; in the ’40s, medicine and food had been scarce, and it was normal for those with 11 or 12 children to give one or two away to childless couples, and even more normal for children to be shuffled around within the family, she said. Joshua knew plenty of people at school that had been raised by grandparents, an aunt, or a cousin. Even so, he wished he hadn’t been torturing the chickens but instead been able to see them talking, to see Cille’s face, to see if it hurt her to leave them.
Now Cille was working as a manager at a beauty supply store. She had green eyes she’d inherited from Papa and long, kinky hair, and Joshua didn’t know how he felt about her. He thought he had the kind of feelings for her that he had for his aunts, but sometimes he thought he loved her the most, and other times not at all. When she visited them twice a year, she went out to nightclubs and restaurants, and shopped with her friends. Joshua and Christophe talked about it, and Joshua thought they shared a distanced affection for her, but he wasn’t sure. Christophe never stayed on the phone with Cille longer than five minutes, while Joshua would drag the conversation out, ask her questions until she would beg off the phone.
Joshua felt the wind flatten his eyelids, and wondered if Cille would be at the school. He knew she knew they were graduating: he’d addressed the graduation invitations himself, and hers was the first he’d done. He thought of her last visit. She’d come down for a week at Christmas, had given him and Christophe money and two gold rope chains. He and Christophe had drunk moonshine and eaten fried turkey with the uncles Christmas night in Uncle Paul’s yard, and he’d listened as they talked about Cille as she left the house after midnight. She’d sparkled in the dark when the light caught her jewelry and lit it like a cool, clean metal chain.
“Where you going, girl?” Uncle Paul had yelled at her outline.
“None of your damn business!” she’d yelled back.
“That’s Cille,” Paul had said. “Never could stay still.”
“That’s ’cause she spoiled.” Uncle Julian, short and dark with baby-fine black hair, had said over the mouth of his bottle. “She the baby girl: Papa’s favorite. Plus, she look just like Mama.”
“Stop hogging the bottle, Jule,” Uncle Paul had said.
Joshua and Christophe had come in later that night to find Cille back in the house. She was asleep at the kitchen table, breathing softly into the tablecloth. When they carried her to bed, she smelled sweetly, of alcohol and perfume. The last Joshua remembered seeing of her was on New Year’s morning; she’d been bleary and puffy-eyed from driving an hour and a half to New Orleans the night before and partying on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. He and Christophe had walked into the kitchen in the same clothes from the previous day, fresh from the party up on the Hill at Remy’s house that had ended when the sun rose, to see Cille eating greens and cornbread and black-eyed peas with Ma-mee. Ma-mee had wished them a happy new year and told them they stank and needed a bath. They had stopped to kiss and hug her, and after he embraced Ma-mee, Joshua had moved to hug Cille. She stopped him with a raised arm, and spoke words he could still hear.
“What a way to start off the new year.”
He had known she was talking about his smell, his hangover, his dirt. He had given her a small, thin smile and backed away. Christophe left the room without trying to hug her, and Joshua followed. After they both took showers, Cille came to their room and embraced them both. Joshua had followed her back to the kitchen, wistfully, and saw her hand a small bank envelope filled with money to Ma-mee. She left. Joshua thought that on average now, she talked to them less and gave them more. He couldn’t help it, but a small part of him wished she would be there when they got home, that she had come in late last night while he and Christophe were out celebrating with Dunny at a pre-graduation party in the middle of a field up further in the country in a smattering of cars and music under the full stars. Wrapped in the somnolent thump of the bass, Joshua closed his eyes, the sun through the leaves of the trees hot on his face, and fell asleep. When he woke up, they were pulling into the yard, Dunny was turning down the music, and there was no rental car in the dirt driveway of the small gray house surrounded by azalea bushes and old reaching oaks. Something dropped in his chest, and he decided not to think about it.
Ma-mee heard the car pull into the yard: a loud, rough motor and the whine of an old steel body. Rap music: muffled men yelling and thumping bass. That was Dunny’s car. The twins were home, and judging by the warmth of the air on her skin that made her housedress stick, the rising drone of the crickets, and the absence of what little traffic there was along the road in front of her house, they were late. She’d pressed their gowns and hung them with wire hangers over the front door. She thought to fuss, but didn’t. They were boys, and they were grown; they took her to her doctor’s appointments, cooked for her, spoke to her with respect. They kept her company sometimes in the evenings, and over the wooing of the cicadas coming through the open windows in the summer or the buzzing of the electric space heater in the winter in the living room, described the action on TV shows for her: Oprah and reruns of The Cosby Show and nature shows about crocodiles and snakes, which she loved. They called her ma’am, like they were children still, and never talked back. They were good boys. She spoke over the tiny sound of the old radio in the window of the kitchen that was playing midday blues: Clarence Carter.
“Y’all been swimming, huh?”
Christophe bent to kiss her.
“And drinking, huh? You smell like a still.”
Joshua laughed and brushed her other cheek.
“You, too!” She swatted him with her hand. “Y’all stink like all outside! We going to be late. Go take a shower. Laila came over here to braid y’all hair, but left ’cause y’all wasn’t here, your Uncle Paul coming in an hour to take us to the ceremony, and y’all know y’all worse than women—take forever to take a bath. Go on!” Under the smell of the worn sofa upholstery, mothballs, pine sol, and potpourri, she smelled something harsh and heavy. Something that caressed the back of her throat. “That Dunny on the porch smoking?”
“Hey, Grandma Ma-mee,” Dunny said.
“Don’t hey Grandma Ma-mee me. You dressed for the service?”
“I ain’t going.” His voice echoed from the porch. The sweet, warm smell of his cigarillo grew stronger.
“Yeah, right, you ain’t going. You better get off my porch smoking . . .”
“And take your ass down the street and get cleaned up. You going to watch my boys graduate. And tell your Mama that I told Marianne and Lilly and them to be over at her house at around six for the cookout, so I hope she got everything ready.” His feet hit the grass with a wet crunch. “And don’t you throw that butt in my yard. Them boys’ll have to clean it up.”
“Hurry up, Dunny.”
From a bedroom deep in the house, she heard Joshua laughing, high and full, more soprano for a boy than she expected, and as usual, it reminded her vaguely of the cartoon with the singing chipmunks in it. It made her smile.
“I don’t know what you laughing for,” she yelled.
In the shower, Christophe soaped the rag, stood with the slimy, shimmering cloth in his hand and let the water, so cold it made his nipples pebble, hit him across the face. In the bottom of the tub, he saw sand, tiny brown grains, traced in thin rivulets on the porcelain. He washed his stomach first, as he had done since he was small: it was the way Ma-mee had taught him when they’d first started bathing themselves when they were seven. That was when she had first learned that she had diabetes.
It wasn’t until Christophe was 15 that her vision really started going: that he noticed that she was reaching for pots and pillows and papers without turning her face to look for them, and that sometimes when he was talking to her, she wouldn’t focus on his face. She scaled back on the housekeeping jobs she’d been doing. She said that some of her clients had started complaining that she was missing spots, which she’d denied: she said the richer they got, the lazier and pickier they became. She hated going to the doctor, and so she had hidden it from them until he’d noticed these things. Late one night after they’d come back from riding with Dunny, he lay in the twin bed across the room from Joshua, and told him what he suspected. He’d heard of people with diabetes going blind, but he never thought it would happen to Ma-mee.
He dried himself off, wiped the mirror clear, and tried not to, but thought of his father. Their father: the one that gave them these noses and these bodies quick to muscle. Before their mother left them, he was someone the twins saw twice or three times a month. They were happiest when he would stay over for days at Ma-mee’s house: the twins would stay awake and listen to him and Cille talk in the kitchen, and later the muffled laughter that came from Cille’s room. Inevitably, he and Cille would fight, and he would leave, only to come back a week or two later. Ma-mee had told them that their father refused to go to Atlanta with Cille, and that he liked living in Bois Sauvage just fine; that had caused the final break between them. After Cille went to Atlanta, he became scarce. His visits tapered off until a day came when Christophe saw him from the school bus on the way home and realized his father hadn’t visited them in months. His father was filling the tank of his car with gas at a corner store, and Christophe jumped. Christophe had nudged his brother, and Joshua had joined him in looking out the window, in watching their father shrink until he was small and unreal looking as a plastic toy soldier stuck in one position: right hand on the roof of the car, the left on the hose, his head down. Suddenly trees obscured their view, and Christophe had turned around in his seat to face the front of the bus, and Joshua, who had been leaning over him in his seat, straightened up and faced forward, and both of them stared at the sweating green plastic upholstery of the seat before them: they were so short they could not see over it.
—Jesmyn Ward’s first published short story appeared earlier this year in A Public Space. She is on a Stegner fellowship at Stanford University.