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"An amiable family saga — fascinating, full of personality and a portrait of life across five generations, told with genuine vigor."
— Kirkus Reviews
"Employing simple prose that possesses a rhythmic, repetitive, almost Biblical cadence, Peacock retells and revises these multigenerational stories in a fascinating palimpsest."
— The New York Times Book Review
Praise for Nancy Peacock's Life Without Water:
A New York Times Notable Book, 1996
"Nancy Peacock takes on — and succeeds at — the daunting task of re-creating an era that's extremely tricky to get right."
— The New York Times Book Review
"An auspicious debut by a brilliantly original artist."
— Lee Smith, author of Fair and Tender Ladies and Saving Grace
"Nancy Peacock performs quiet wonders."
— The Washington Post Book World
"Both wise and forgiving."
— Kirkus Reviews
"Clear, direct, and emotion-packed, a book of narrative brilliance and visual poetry."
— Clyde Edgerton, author of Raney and Where Trouble Sleeps
"Tender, evocative debut novel ... a rich narrative."
— Publishers Weekly
In 1971, China Redd was waiting to die. She was sixty-one years old and her eyes were rheumy and clouded and her back was bent and frail. Her hands shook and her breath felt shallow, like it wasn't getting down into her body, like it wasn't going to all the places that a breath is supposed to go.
Her granddaughter, Abolene, told her that she wasn't sick. The doctor put the cold round disc of the stethoscope against the bones of China's thin, brown chest and declared her healthy as a hog.
Young, both of them. What would they know about dying or about the tiredness she felt in her bones and her soul?
Only China Redd knew how it felt to be inside her body and she had spent sixty-one years inside that body, forty-seven of them asking hardly anything but work out of it, asking nothing but work from her hands and her bones and her back and her arms.
The work began in 1926, on the day she turned fourteen, when China Redd followed her mother down the narrow dirt-packed track leading from their home and into the oak-lined driveway of the home across the road.
China Redd was tall enough, even then, to reach the key that hung off a string from the new light fixture on the back porch of the big house called Roseberry. She slipped the key into the lock, turned the knob and stepped into the dark kitchen. China could feel its space all around her and her mother picked up her hand and guided it along the wall, showing her the push-button switch that flooded the kitchenwith modern electric light.
At age fourteen China started working for the white Redds in the big old house called Roseberry. At age fourteen China Redd began a lifetime of mornings spent cracking eggs into a bowl and brewing coffee and spreading softened butter across bread that was toasted the color of her skin.
For forty-seven years China slid a key into a lock and let herself into a back door. She scrubbed Roseberry's floors and polished its silver and watched its babies grow up and leave home. She rinsed out washtubs and bathtubs and cooked and folded laundry and swept and vacuumed. She had seen its weddings and its showers, its wakes and its funerals. She had seen its bridge games and Christmas parties and Easter dinners. She had fed and bathed and wiped the noses of children that were never her own and now, as China Redd waited to die, the big old house called Roseberry stood as empty as she felt herself to be.
Windows were broken out and doors left ajar. Floors that China had shined were now scuffed and dulled with films of dust and dirt. Names of teenagers were spray painted across cracked plaster walls. Dishes were broken and scattered across the cracked gray linoleum of the kitchen floor, and sitting in an open cabinet was a fluted, white bowl with a bird's nest cupped inside.
In the dining room of Roseberry, a wisteria vine had broken through the window and twined itself around the very table legs that China had crawled on her hands and knees to polish. It wound itself around chairs and crawled across the mahogany table, and trapped inside its jungle were the dishes of Coyle Redd's last meal, still crusted with food that China had cooked.
It seemed to China that nothing she had ever done mattered anymore, if it had ever mattered at all. Not one pan that had been carefully washed, not one stain gotten out of a white linen shirt, not one wrinkle ironed out of slacks or sheets—none of it mattered now.
Children grew up and went away, sometimes forever, sometimes to places unknown, sometimes for reasons that could never be understood. No doubt Abolene would be leaving soon, leaving and taking China's great-grandbaby and all the life of the house with her. Soon China's house would be left as empty as Roseberry was left on the day that Coyle Redd died.
Coyle Redd was the last of the white Redds and he was gone forever now. He was gone and China's own son, Earnest, had vanished one day sixteen years earlier and there wasn't any reason to hope any more that he would come home. China was tired of waiting for him but she didn't know anything else.
China didn't know anything else but waiting. All her life she had waited on the needs of the white Redds. When Earnest was a child she had waited on his stuttering words to form a sentence. When he had disappeared she had waited for him to come home but there was no point in that now, so instead she waited to die.
She would wake up in the mornings and creak her legs over the edge of the bed, testing the floor with her feet. If the soles of China's feet felt the hard braid of the rug, then China knew it was another day and she asked God how much longer.
"How much longer?" she would say as she crept down the hallway and into the bathroom and eased herself down onto the toilet. "How much longer?" she would say as she sat in a rickety white chair at the kitchen table and nibbled a few bites of the breakfast that Abolene cooked for her. "How much longer?" China would ask as she pushed the plate away.
In 1971, Abolene was seventeen years old and the spitting image of her father. She was tall and strong with thick, heavy veins roping across the backs of her hands. She had Earnest's almond-colored skin. She had his deep-set eyes. She had thin, elegant fingers, the same as China remembered Earnest's to be. Abolene even had the same cocky walk as Earnest, the same prideful stride that had so often gotten him into trouble with the white men in town. China couldn't help but think of Earnest when she looked at Abolene.
Every morning Abolene set a cup of hot black coffee in front of her grandmother and asked, "Is today the day?"
"I don't think so," China would say. "I don't think He's going to take me today. Maybe tomorrow."
Waiting to die was slow work. There was nothing to do to speed up the process. Nothing that China wanted to do, anyway. So she waited and she thought and she remembered.
After breakfast China Redd would move from the kitchen to the front room where she would slowly sink into the couch. She would shift from side to side, trying to get away from the broken spring that poked its way through the scratchy blue upholstery. If she could see through the window that the weather was nice, China would pull herself up from the couch and shuffle to the porch. She would sit in the old La-Z-Boy recliner and tug at her housedress, lifting first one cheek and then the other, finally nodding to Abolene who would raise the lever that kicked out the little shelf for China's feet. Abolene would drape an old yellow blanket across her grandmother. She would tuck the edges in around China's spindly legs. She would ask, "Is it okay?"
A few minutes later Abolene would come out on the porch again, wearing her brown K&W Cafeteria uniform and her white nurse's shoes.
"Okay?" she would ask again
China would nod.
"Give Great-granny a kiss," Abolene would say to her ten-month-old daughter, and China would feel the infant's sticky lips against her too-soft cheek. She would watch them drive away together in the old dented Valiant that Abolene had bought with her own money.
The car would dust along the driveway and then turn onto the road. The tires would swoosh along the pavement and soon even the engine couldn't be heard and it was quiet and it was just China sitting on the porch in the old La-Z-Boy recliner.
She gazed across the field in front of her. China stared beyond the cows that were grazing there. Her eyes went past the dew-covered spiderwebs that were spread across the grass every morning, like a thousand tossed handkerchiefs gleaming in the bright, early light. Her gaze went over the two-lane blacktop, past the chain that blocked the entrance, along the oak trees and the rutted driveway and the weed-choked walkway and up the old gray steps to the porch of Roseberry.
There was no one left alive that knew Roseberry like China Redd. She could recall seeing that house painted white with gray shutters one year and gray with white shutters another. China could recall seeing that house painted in just about every kind of way and she could recall seeing that house with no paint at all when she was a little girl and Roseberry stood across the road, rustic and brown and weather-worn, just like her own little house, just as rustic and brown and weather worn as it was now.
There were lots of stories about Roseberry, none of them true as far as China could tell. Those stories circulated the town and the county like the ghosts that they were. Those stories were published, published like they were real, published in a book called The Legends of Roseberry, written by a woman named Lydia Redd, one of the white women that China had worked for during her life.
When the book was published, it had been China who had served at the party Lydia Redd threw for herself. It was 1965, the year before Abolene's mother died. The year before twelve-year-old Abolene left her home in Wake County to come and live with China in Chatham.
China remembers clearly standing in the kitchen of Roseberry, arranging celery sticks and slices of cheese and carrot strips across a glass platter. She remembers clearly hearing the squeak of the swinging door behind her as one of the guests pushed his way through. She remembers the footsteps and the soft pad of shoe leather on linoleum and the way that he came to lean against the counter beside her.
"Mrs. Redd tells me that you're descended from the slaves that worked this plantation," he said. He picked up a piece of celery and crunched down on it. "Is that true?"
"That's true," China said but that was all she would say. In 1965, China Redd didn't want to talk and even if she had wanted to talk she wouldn't have expected to be heard.
China Redd had stories inside of her, stories that clawed at her throat like an untreated virus, stories that would probably never see the pages of a book, but books were not what made things true.
China Redd knew that her stories were true. She knew it from the earrings that she had in her own possession, and if that wasn't enough, there was a picture inside of Lydia Redd's book of those very same earrings, earrings that China's great-grandmother had stolen from the white Redds.
China's great-grandmother was born in a small cabin behind the big house called Roseberry. China's great-grandmother was a woman named Cally, born with brown skin and blue eyes. But those eyes were not blue on the day that she was buried.
If someone had asked how such a thing was possible, China would have told the truth. She would have said it is only grief that can change the color of a woman's eyes.
Cally was born with blue eyes, daughter of both black and white, but white didn't claim her, except as property. Born a slave to a slave mother, Cally became a slave herself and when she was big enough she hauled water to the big house for cooking and cleaning. She hauled water to the laundress where a fire was roaring and spitting and clothes were bubbling in a big iron pot. She hauled water to the stables and filled the troughs. She hauled water to the overseer in the field and finally she was allowed to carry a bucket down the rows of cotton and give a dipperful to each field hand, her momma being one of them and the man her momma was married to.
When Cally was big enough she lined up before sunrise with the rest of them and she took the hoe in her hand and followed them out into the fields where she chopped cotton and trailed behind the plow, picking up rocks. There were never more rocks than in Chatham County and the field hands wondered that there were fields at all in such a place.
But there were fields and they were created by them and those that went before them and Cally spent all her life in one, except for Sundays and a few days around the time her babies were born.
She got married to a man named Tom. He said he was her husband and she believed him, even though they both knew either of them might be sold away and then there might be another wife or another husband. There was nothing to be done for that but pray.
And pray Cally did. Every night and every day. Every rock picked up and tossed into the back of a wagon was a prayer. Every weed pulled was a prayer. The feel of the rough wooden-handled hoe was a prayer that got offered down every row, in every field, beside every well-tended plant. Cally prayed the hardest after Tom moved into the cabin with her. She prayed that Master Redd would stop his visiting but he didn't.
He still came around, knocking on the door and sending Tom away for something and stepping inside with a cold smirk on his face. Cally would close her own blue eyes and pray to make it quick and when Tom came back to the cabin, there wouldn't be a word said between them. He would pull the old hickory stump up close to the fire and poke at a log with his foot and sparks would go flying up the chimney.
This alone could have been enough to change the color of a woman's eyes, but Cally's eyes didn't turn until after her first live child was born.
There was no telling whose babies the first two were. They both miscarried early on but it was easy to tell that the third one wasn't Tom's. All the same Tom took it up in his arms and said, "You're more mine than his."
They named the baby Cleavis, after Tom's granddaddy, a man who got too old to work and was said by the white folks to be staying alive just for spite.
Cally was hurting from childbirth. Her insides felt like they had been ripped out, but it was spring and there was work to do. Cally wrapped the cloths between her legs to catch the blood. She got up early in the morning and followed her husband out into the fields and the second most beautiful thing she saw that day was the sunrise splaying its pink fingers across the sky.
The first most beautiful thing she saw was her baby and come noontime Cally rushed back to the hut where Miss Liza kept the children and she nursed Cleavis as long as she could and the white man recorded the name of the newborn in a leather-bound journal. "Cleavis. Born to Cally. April, 1855."
The white man was named Jennis Redd and he had a wife and a baby too. The wife's name was Lula Anne and the baby's name was William Lars Redd and he and Cleavis grew up playing together. In 1861, they were both six years old and it had been Cleavis's job to haul water for over a year now, just like it had been Cally's when she was his age.
One day Cleavis was drawing the bucket up from the well. He was trying to hurry because this was the trip to the fields for the hands and his momma was pregnant and Cleavis wanted to bring her water. It was hot for May and his momma needed water. He was pulling on the ropes and trying to blow a fly out of his face when he heard William Lars Redd saying, "I got something to show you."
Cleavis set the bucket on the edge of the well and watched as William opened his palm to show his friend the earrings that he had stolen from his momma. They were not like anything that Cleavis had ever seen. They had swirls of color in them, blues and greens and grays, and William Lars Redd said, "It's a shell called abolene. Here, you can hold them."
Cleavis wiped his hands on his pants and held out one palm and William laid the earrings there like they were tiny robin's eggs and might break at the slightest pressure. Cleavis ran his finger along the teardrops of swirls and they were as slick and smooth as the glass in the windows of the big house that he had snuck up one time and touched. Cleavis pinched the earrings and let them dangle in the sunlight. "Abolene," he repeated.
It was right then that Lula Anne stepped out the back door and saw her son playing with the little black boy again and saw her own earrings in the hands of that boy and saw for the thousandth time that the features of that boy resembled those of her own husband. That thieving boy. Lula Anne had him sold and William Lars Redd didn't say a thing.
Jennis Redd wasn't there. He was gone to Wake County. Gone to talk to important men about a new government for the South, gone so far away that he couldn't argue that Cleavis was going to grow up to be a strong field hand and it didn't make sense to go selling him now.
Jennis Redd was gone for a week and the slave trader came by the very next day and hauled Cleavis off in a wagon and it was the last that Cally ever saw of her boy.
When he didn't bring the water that day she knew that something was wrong and she prayed and kept on pounding her hoe against the dusty Chatham County dirt. The only sounds were the hard thumping of fifty hoes against the earth and the whinny of the overseer's horse and Cally knew and Tom knew that something had happened to their boy.
He was locked in the barn and she was allowed to visit him that night and he cried and leaned against her. He knew the word "sold." He'd seen the slave trader come through with a wagon-load of black people, shackled and chained and wondering where they were going and would they see their families again.
Cleavis told his momma about the earrings called abolene. "I didn't steal them," he said. "I didn't steal them. How could I? I'm not allowed inside the big house."
Cally held her boy's head against the round of her belly. She didn't lie to him. She said it plain as day and then choked down crying. "I may never see you again," she said.
There were no words of comfort, nothing in a mother's heart to prepare her for this, even though all her life she knew that this might be the very thing that could happen.
"Pray," was all that Cally could tell him. "You got to pray every day," she said. "You got to pray with all your heart. Promise me you will."
Cleavis nodded, tears running down his cheeks, and there was a knock on the door and the overseer stepped in and dragged Cally out of the barn and, working in the fields the next day, she sobbed and chopped and listened for the rattle of the wagon that would take her boy away.
After three weeks of crying and hoeing Cally felt like she couldn't cry anymore and she got quiet. Tom begged her, "Talk to me, Honey. Just talk to me."
But Cally wouldn't talk. She lay her hands on her belly, five months along now, and she shook her head from side to side and she hated white folks so bad right then that she willed the white blood right out of her and changed the color of her eyes from blue to slate gray.
Tom saw it and by the firelight he rubbed his thumbs across her eyelids and then held her close to him and said, "You talk when you're ready, Cally. I ain't going nowhere."
Cally wasn't ready for another month, and the cabin was quiet every night. The only light was by the moon and the stars because it was summer now and there was no need of a fire. Lying beside her husband in their dark cabin one night, a whippoorwill calling at the edge of the fields they worked by day, Cally suddenly broke her quiet and said, "I want those earrings."
Tom sighed. He reached over and grabbed his wife's hand and said, "I can't get you those earrings, Darling."
Cally stayed on her back, looking up at the moon shining through a crack in the ceiling and she said, "If I'm going to lose my boy to a pair of earrings, then I am damn well going to have those earrings."
Cally lay her hand on her husband's chest and felt his breath. She felt him sigh again and Tom sighed so big and so heavy this time that his breath leaked out of the drafty cabin and crossed the fields of cotton and circled Roseberry like wind. Tom's sigh caused a chill all across Chatham County and the white folks inside the big house rubbed their hands across their arms and called for the servants to close the shutters. And even so, Tom's sigh was a bitter wind that they could not keep out. Tom's sigh was a coldness that crept inside their bones.
1. What role do the family stories serve for both Redd families? Whose stories are closer to the truth -- and why?
2. When Earnest and Julia move to another city, why doesn't China go with them? Couldn't she find a job and a home closer to her family? What keeps her at the old home?
3. Why is it so hard for China to let go of Earnest? What does he represent to her?
4. When black laborers are assigned to cut back the wisteria growing along Roseberry, a legend emerges that the wisteria has simply stopped growing. What does this say about the regard of the white Redds for the black Redds' work around the plantation?
5. What is the significance of the Roseberry estate to China? Why does she stay on after the rest of her family has left?
6. What finally makes Coyle distance himself from Jenny Wolfe? What is he trying to keep himself from experiencing?
7. China was a major figure in Coyle's life. What prevented him from treating China better than his parents had?
8. Why didn't Lydia or Coyle tell China or Abolene about Martin Luther King's assassination? What do you think they were afraid of?
9. What does Home Across the Road say about ownership -- of possessions, of land, and of people? What makes the characters in this story feel attached to the land? To the possessions at Roseberry? How does this motivate their behavior throughout the years?
10. Why do you think China is ready to die once Abolene's daughter is born? Why is that the turning point for China?
11. What keeps China from telling her story, since it's been nagging at her for so long? It's a story few people know. Why doesn't she write it down or talk to areporter about it?
12. Why is Coyle so eager to get rid of all of those possessions at the end of the story?