Brown Girl in the Ring

Brown Girl in the Ring

by Nalo Hopkinson


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In this "impressive debut" from award-winning speculative fiction author Nalo Hopkinson, a young woman must solve the tragic mystery surrounding her family and bargain with the gods to save her city and herself. (The Washington Post)

The rich and privileged have fled the city, barricaded it behind roadblocks, and left it to crumble. The inner city has had to rediscover old ways — farming, barter, herb lore. But now the monied need a harvest of bodies, and so they prey upon the helpless of the streets. With nowhere to turn, a young woman must open herself to ancient truths, eternal powers, and the tragic mystery surrounding her mother and grandmother. She must bargain with gods, and give birth to new legends.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780446674331
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: 03/18/2010
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 169,196
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.12(h) x 0.75(d)
Lexile: 690L (what's this?)

About the Author

Nalo Hopkinson was born in Jamaica and has lived in Guyana, Trinidad, and Canada. The daughter of a poet/playwright and a library technician, she has won numerous awards including the John W. Campbell Award, the World Fantasy Award, and Canada's Sunburst Award for literature of the fantastic. Her award-winning short fiction collection Skin Folk was selected for the 2002 New York Times Summer Reading List and was one of the New York Times Best Books of the Year.

Hopkinson is also the author of The New Moon's Arms, The Salt Roads, Midnight Robber, and Brown Girl in the Ring. She is a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, and splits her time between California, USA, and Toronto, Canada.

Read an Excerpt


Mami closed her eyes and whispered a prayer. The lamplight danced on her face, filling it with shadows. She looked at the cement head.

"Eshu, is we here tonight; me, Gros-Jeanne, and my granddaughter Ti-Jeanne, and she baby with no name, and she baby father, Tony."

Tony started; looked over at Ti-Jeanne, who ignored the surprised question in his eyes. It made Ti-Jeanne mad. What Mami have to go and tell her business for?

Mami kept talking: "Eshu, we ask you to open the doors for we, let down the gates. Let the spirits come and talk to we. Look, we bring food for you, rum and sweet candy."

She took one of the candies out of the bowl, crunched it, and swallowed.

"We bring a cigar to light for you, Eshu, to sweeten the air with the smoke."

She picked up the cigar and put it to her mouth. She lit it, cheeks sucking in to draw it to life. She took a deep drag of the cigar and gently blew the smoke in Eshu's face.

"Eshu, we ask you to bring down the doors so the spirits could be here with we tonight. Spirits, please don't do no harm while you here; is we, your sons and daughters."

Mami balanced the still-burning cigar on the candy bowl. She got creakily to her feet, hooked the chicken down from the ceiling. She put the chicken on the floor in front of Eshu, and motioned to Tony to hold its wings and body. She stretched its neck out long, so that the pinny neck feathers stood up, revealing the pink pimpled flesh beneath. Then she took her kitchen knife out of the basket, and sliced clean through the sensé fowl's neck. Blood spurted in gouts fromthe headless body. Its legs kicked. It was no worse than they way they killed the fowls for their supper table, but Tony made a sick noise in the back of his throat and looked away.

"Hold, it, Tony," Mami hissed, "Don't make it run 'way! Here, give it to me."

Tony watched the grisly rite, curling his lips away from his teeth in disgust and fear. He seemed quite happy to relinquish the twitching, gushing body into Mami's hands. Mami directed the blood over the stone head. "We give you life to drink, Eshu, but is Ogun wield the knife, not we."

She laid the chicken and its head in front of Eshu. The hen's body jerked again feebly, once, then was still. The air was heavy with the stench of chicken flesh and blood.

Mami took her place on the stool, put the drum between her knees. With her fingertips and the heels of her hands, she began to beat out a rhythm. Ti-Jeanne recognised the pattern of sounds. She'd often heard that rhythm in the loud drumming coming from the chapel at nights. She hated it; it tugged at her blood, filled her head with sound until she thought it would burst from within, her skull cracking apart like an overripe pumpkin to reveal the soft, wet interior. Although Mami was rapping out the rhythm softly, the sound beat at Ti-Jeanne as loud as drums. It made her bones vibrate, her teeth ache. The small chapel was saturated with the rhythm, dripping with it. And still Mami kept drumming. Ti-Jeanne felt as though the chapel bell was chiming and gonging in time, her heart pounding to the drum, the shadows in the chapel leaping to it. Mami was rocking from side to side. So was Tony, not even seeming aware that he was doing so. He rolled up his sleeves to his forearms. Yes, it was hot now in the chapel. Ti-Jeanne could see the bufo drug slashes on his arms. Two of them looked hardly healed. She sighed, sadly. Tony was still using. Same thing they'd fired him from the hospital for.

In Ti-Jeanne's arms Baby was wide awake, his eyes alert. He looked as if he was listening, hard, with his whole self. Ti- Jeanne realised that she was swaying to the drumming too. She tried to stop herself, but her attention would waver and she'd find her body moving again.

Ti-Jeanne's focus shrunk until all she could perceive was the sound of the drumming, the sight of Mami's water-chapped fingers beating and beating their rhythm. The cadence caught her mind in a loop, spun it in on itself, smaller and smaller until she was no longer aware of her body, of her arms cradling her child. She barely knew when she stood up.


Trying not to retch from the thick stench of raw chicken and fresh blood, Tony sat hunched between Ti-Jeanne and her crazy grandmother. He was terrified. He could still feel the warmth of the chicken's body on his hands. He wanted to run out of there and never come back. But if he did, he'd probably run straight into the arms of the posse. His time was up. And Rudy was even crazier than Mami Gros-Jeanne. If Tony didn't get out of Toronto, Rudy's vengeance would probably make Tony wish for a death as quick as that of the throat-slit hen. Mami was his only chance. So he stayed, wrapping his arms around himself. He began rocking, rocking, praying this would be over soon.

Beside him, Ti-Jeanne giggled, a manic, breathy sound that made Tony's scalp prickle. She rose smoothly to her feet and began to dance with an eerie, stalking motion that made her legs seem longer than they were, thin and bony. Shadows clung to the hollows of her eyes and cheekbones, turning her face into a cruel mask. She laughed again. Her voice was deep, too deep for her woman's body. Her lips skinned back from her teeth in a death's head grin.

"Prince of Cemetery!" Mami hissed, her eyes wide. She kept her rhythm going, but even softer.

"You know so, old lady," Ti-Jeanne rumbled. She pranced on long legs over to Mami, bent down, down, down; ran a bony forefinger over the old woman's cheek. "Good and old, yes? Like you nearly ready to come to me soon, daughter!"

To Tony's surprise, Mami Gros-Jeanne spoke sternly, drumming all the while, to the spirit that was riding her granddaughter. "I ain't no daughter of yours. Stop the foolishness and tell me what you doing with Ti-Jeanne. You know she head ain't ready to hold no spirits yet."

Ti-Jeanne/Prince of Cemetery chuckled, a hollow sound like bones falling into a pit. He danced over to Eshu's stone head and used a long, long finger to scoop up some of the chicken blood thickening there. Slowly he licked and sucked it off his finger, smiling like a child scraping out the batter bowl. Tony's stomach roiled. "But doux-doux," Prince of Cemetery said, "Your granddaughter head full of spirits already; she ain't tell you? All kind of duppy and thing. When she close she eyes, she does see death. She belong to me. She is my daughter. You should 'fraid of she."

The old woman sucked her teeth in disgust. "Man, don't try to mamaguy me, oui? You only telling half the story. Prince of Cemetery does watch over death, yes, but he control life too, when he come as Eshu. So why I should be frighten?"

The spirit grinned wide, did a pirouette. "Well, if you know that, old lady, tell Ti-Jeanne. Tell my horse to open she eyes good and see the whole thing; death..." he stopped, seemed for the first time to notice Baby strapped to his chest. Baby stared up at him, no fear in his face. Prince of Cemetery chortled. He pulled open the velcro, took Baby out of the Snugli and held him up in the air, grinning and cooing at him. Baby cooed back.

"...and life," Prince of Cemetery continued. The words were now coming from Baby's lips. The booming deep man-voice lisped with the effort of forming words through the baby's underdeveloped vocal apparatus. "Tell she when she go out tonight, she must carry something she man give she. She must conceal it somewhere on she body. I go hide she halfway in Guinea land, where flesh people can't see she. So long as she carrying Tony gift on she, nobody go see he either. But only till sunup. Tell she that," the baby cooed, then laughed, a sound too deep and knowing for its young body.

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