A novel of exhilarating range, magical realism, and history—a dazzling retelling of Liberia’s formation
Wayétu Moore’s powerful debut novel, She Would Be King, reimagines the dramatic story of Liberia’s early years through three unforgettable characters who share an uncommon bond. Gbessa, exiled from the West African village of Lai, is starved, bitten by a viper, and left for dead, but still she survives. June Dey, raised on a plantation in Virginia, hides his unusual strength until a confrontation with the overseer forces him to flee. Norman Aragon, the child of a white British colonizer and a Maroon slave from Jamaica, can fade from sight when the earth calls him. When the three meet in the settlement of Monrovia, their gifts help them salvage the tense relationship between the African American settlers and the indigenous tribes, as a new nation forms around them.
Moore’s intermingling of history and magical realism finds voice not just in these three characters but also in the fleeting spirit of the wind, who embodies an ancient wisdom. “If she was not a woman,” the wind says of Gbessa, “she would be king.” In this vibrant story of the African diaspora, Moore, a talented storyteller and a daring writer, illuminates with radiant and exacting prose the tumultuous roots of a country inextricably bound to the United States. She Would Be King is a novel of profound depth set against a vast canvas and a transcendent debut from a major new author.
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BOOK ONETHE THREE
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IF SHE WANTED TO CONTINUE, Gbessa first had to rid the road of a slow-moving snake. Greenish brown with golden eyes as difficult to gaze into as the sun, the snake's body was no different in color from the woods it had crawled from, and it seemed to Gbessa that the surrounding bushes were jealous of her departure, so they extended their toes to block her path. Orange dust stained the belly of the snake, which writhed as it hissed, and Gbessa pointed a five-foot stick in its direction. The snake was not afraid of her, or of the stick, and it raised its head and advanced.
The confrontation occurred several moonfalls after that searing hot day when she was banished from Lai for good. She had championed that path for weeks, stumbling over iron pebbles and timber branches departed from their roots, squeezed between sugarcane stalks, and still, refusing to look back. Strands of her hair left her for the veils of clay grains that also traveled the long and pitiless road. Gbessa could not return. Safua was in the other direction, hand in hand with her rejection, and also those deaths. Gbessa lightly poked the belly of the excitable creature, and at once it lunged at her. She took a step back, only barely avoiding a bite on her shin.
I was there that day, drawn to her, just as I was drawn to those gifted others who were present the day the ships came.
"Take care, my darling," I whispered in Gbessa's ear. "Take care, my friend."
She glanced over her shoulder, as if she had heard me, or as if she hoped the movement was Safua, and the snake lunged again, this time biting her ankle before fleeing into the stalks at the other end of the road. Gbessa fell to the ground, yelling. She cried, and it was clear that her leg was in pain, but also her heart, because she held the tears captive, clenching her jaw closed through the sobs. She rubbed her ankle as if digging for bones, then squeezed the reddened skin where the snake had bitten, squeezed hard to relieve herself of the poison. Perhaps nothing would happen beyond the sting. Perhaps she would faint from the pain. But eventually, she would wake up. Gbessa rubbed her wound, but she knew then, as she knew always, that this poison would remain with her forever. She knew then, as she knew always, that she, like her love for Safua, would not, could not, die.
THERE WERE NO VAI GIRLS LIKE GBESSA. The coastal village of Lai had seen only one woman as cursed — Ol' Ma Famatta — who they say is sitting in the corner of the moon after her hammock flung her there on her 193rd birthday. But even Ol' Ma Famatta's misfortune was nothing compared to that of Gbessa, whose curse was not only her inability to die, but also the way death mocked her.
Lai was hidden in the middle of forests when the Vai people found it. There was evidence of earlier townsmen there, as ends of stoneware and crushed diamonds were found scattered on hilltops in the unexpected company of domestic cats. But when the Vai people arrived from war-ravaged Arabia through the Mandingo inland in the early eighteenth century, they found no inhabitants and decided to occupy the province with their spirits.
On a plot of land one mile long and one half mile wide, they used smelted iron to build their village — a vast circle of houses constructed of palm wood from nearby trees, zinc roofs, and mud bricks to keep them cool during the dry season.
During the day the Ol' Pas sat together and drew lines and symbols in the dirt that represented how many moons it had been since the last rainfall, or the last eclipse or other wonders of the sky. They waited for the spirits to reveal themselves in nuances and uncover secrets of the land and its animals.
Among many things — like which Poro warrior would best lead upcoming defenses against local tribes so that the Vai army would return with cattle, harvest, and captives to help tend the village rice farms — the spirits also told the Ol' Pas to take care of the sensitive animals of the province — specifically, cats. The Ol' Pas then divulged to the villagers the news they gathered from the spirits.
Ol' Ma Nyanpoo never listened.
Before Gbessa was born, Ol' Ma Nyanpoo — old, bitter, widowed — was living only two houses down from Khati, Gbessa's pregnant mother. Ol' Ma Nyanpoo had a pudgy orange cat whom she beat regularly to numb her loneliness. The village elders warned Ol' Ma Nyanpoo of what the spirits had told them about beating cats, but she disregarded them — she was powerless to her pride, and she hoped she would make the spirits angry enough to reunite her with her deceased love.
When Kano, Cholly the fisherman's slave, knocked on Ol' Ma Nyanpoo's door to deliver to her the fish that her nets had caught, the pudgy cat stared hoggishly at the tin bucket. He hid behind the fire pit as Ol' Ma Nyanpoo closed the door in Kano's face and inspected the bucket for any sign of pilfering. When the cat's head peeked around the pit, she grabbed a fish from the bucket and waved it at him.
"You will not touch it!" she yelled, shaking the fish. Scales, saltwater, and blood flew, and the cat dodged Ol' Ma Nyanpoo's warning. That night when Kano finished his chore of cleaning fish for Cholly's wife, he blew the light from the last lantern away. The whistle his compressed lips made married the pungent smell of fish and journeyed through the village circle to Ol' Ma Nyanpoo's house, awakening the cat. The cat arose from the corner where he had been lying and probed the room. In the dark, his cold nose led a desperate search for Ol' Ma Nyanpoo's bucket of fish.
Ol' Ma Nyanpoo's leg twitched and she snored expletives into the night. Alarmed, the cat positioned himself to run in the event that she leaped from her sleep to beat him with the redwood handle of the porch broom. But she remained in abysmal slumber in the murky room. The cat proceeded toward Ol' Ma Nyanpoo's fish, disregarding the likely retribution on the following day, when she would discover that her fish were gone. When he finally reached it, he lifted himself up to the rim of the bucket, careful not to scrape the edge with his nails. His eyes were large, his mouth ready, when a hard blow threw him across the room.
"I told you, enneh-so?" Ol' Ma Nyanpoo asked, lighting her lantern. The cat tried picking himself up, only to meet another hard slap to his head. He stretched his claws and hissed at the old woman. She struck his head once more and the cat shrieked, this time waking a neighbor, whose inquiring voice and lantern moved slowly toward the village circle.
The cat, determined to escape her fury, scurried over to the fire pit.
"Oh no!" Ol' Ma Nyanpoo said. "You'n going nowhere." She dragged him out from behind the fire pit by his tail. In the village circle, neighbors gathered outside of Ol' Ma Nyanpoo's door, baffled at what had made the old woman so angry that she had beat the poor cat in the middle of the night.
"I will teach you! You will feel it!" she said. The cat screeched, unable to escape the bitter widow. The neighbors' tongues became sour, their ears warm, disgusted at the Ol' Ma's audacity in offending the spirits. Cholly knocked on Ol' Ma Nyanpoo's door, but she ignored him and continued beating the cat.
"She will kill the thing," said Cholly's son, Safua, an already-handsome five-year-old boy with skin the color of a coconut shell and eyes that were always asking a serious question.
Inside, the cat lay in the corner as Ol' Ma Nyanpoo's stout figure and broom became blurry. Tired of seeing her, he let his eyes close, and his heart stop, and his mouth open.
A frozen Ol' Ma Nyanpoo stared down at his body. She had killed the last living thing whom she could call hers and was now absolutely alone. She walked to her door, out of breath. When she opened it her neighbors stood in the village circle holding lanterns that illuminated their over-wrought faces. Cholly peeked into the house and noticed the dead cat lying against the wall.
"Ay-yah!" he said, astonished at Ol' Ma Nyanpoo's fearlessness. Upon seeing the dead animal, children scattered, returning to their houses. "The spirits coming for you," Safua said, the only remaining child in the circle.
"Bury it for me," Ol' Ma Nyanpoo said as Cholly looked inside of her house at the cat. He said nothing else to her and avoided looking her in the face; he called Kano to retrieve the cat, and Kano minced out of the village and into the woods, while a curious Safua followed, to bury the departed animal.
In the morning, Ol' Ma Nyanpoo's house fell down while she was still inside. She died immediately. When they dug up her remains from a pile of palm wood, straw, and debris, Ol' Ma Nyanpoo's fish were nowhere to be found. Ol' Pa Bondo, who woke up every morning to pray before the rooster crowed, who had slept through the night before and knew nothing of Ol' Ma Nyanpoo's wicked deed, said he saw the orange cat jump to the top of her house before it fell down.
"But the cat dead,' Cholly said, refuting Bondo's claim.
When the elders heard of it they pronounced the day cursed, convinced that spirits had possessed the dead cat into coming back, avenging itself, and stealing the bucket of fish to quench his desire.
Because of the edict, on that day the drums outside of Khati's window were amply pounded. Her husband was already fishing at the lake, and she lay moaning in pain on a rectangular pallet woven with large palm leaves and stuffed with straw. Khati would have her baby soon, so in recent weeks her husband had risen before the rooster's song, and spent his hours at Lake Piso in hopes of catching enough fish to eat and trade in the village market. Neither Khati's father nor her father's father nor her husband or husband's father were talented enough fishermen to afford his household any slaves, so Khati had inherited nothing.
At the moment she opened her eyes and heard the beating of drums, Khati pushed her aching body upward from where she lay. She was a dark brown woman with a slender nose and arms, whose breasts and hips had fully developed only in the later months of her pregnancy. She knew by the rhythm of the drums that either someone had died or someone had been cursed, both of which posed a gloomy birth for her unborn child. Khati's stomach bent in distress. The gray of morning crawled from the opened window toward her sitting body, and exposed thin streams of sweat that descended her brown face and arms. Khati rubbed and patted her stomach, pleading for her unborn child to tarry just a little longer in her womb. She extended her hand to the floor from the pallet to drag herself to the window, but the uneven weight of her body made her baby's fingers and toes flex inside of her.
"No, no," Khati whispered to her extended belly. "Wait, small small."
She pressed her hand on the floor beside her bed and tried again, this time successfully dragging her aching body off the pallet and across the room to the window, where she rested her back against the wall. Khati grabbed the frame, hoisting her body until her eyes uncovered the baroque drummers outside.
Salt and dust stained the drummers' palms. The Ol' Pas marched around the drummers as their necks sank into robed shoulders. Khati knew what it would mean to have her baby at that moment, and she crossed her legs. Frightened that she would be seen, Khati collapsed to the ground, her body simultaneously hot and cold, her thin lappa imbued with sweat. She rubbed her stomach in great panic as her eyes canvassed the room for a solution to her disaster. Her pursuit ended with the door closest to the bush garden that led to the entry to the woods.
Before Khati could move, a liquid stream of blood and water toddled down her thighs, chased by a more abundant outpouring that left her lappa and the floor around her drenched. To keep from screaming, Khati clamped her bottom lip with her teeth until she could taste her own blood. She could not risk them hearing her, could not bear the delivery of a child on this day, when she would be forbidden ever to offer another to her village. Khati finally resolved that she would crawl as far as she could into the woods behind her house. The baby kicked, ready to approach the dim light in the opening.
"No, no," Khati said again, as the floor beneath her continued to dampen. Her legs quivered. She clutched her lappa and squeezed. It was no use. The child would come.
Khati dragged herself toward the door leading out to the woods. She used both of her hands and pulled her quavering body sideways. The child pushed. She squeezed her legs until her thighs ached from the resistance.
"Please, my child," Khati repeated. "Wait, small small."
The drummers pummeled away outside, and Khati pushed open her wooden back door and crawled toward a huddle of shrubs. She panted, drained, as she tried to stop the baby, first with an intermittent tapping of her stomach, then she reached one hand underneath her lappa to impede the liquid from where her child pushed its way out. When only several yards away from her house, at the end of a train of blood, with no more power to ignore the pain that pushed underneath her wet and sticky fingers, Khati fell onto her back against the waiting leaves. Unable to squeeze her slippery thighs together any longer, unable to constrain the willful head of her baby, Khati howled into the wind and sun.
The drumbeats ceased.
That was the day that Gbessa was born.
The elders declared that she was cursed.
IN THE DRY SEASON OF 1831, there were no wars, and the fish and rice harvests were plenty. During the rainy seasons the children of the village sat with griots to learn the history of their people, as well as how to count and write, but in the dry season everyone older than five years worked. Vai boys went to Lake Piso to fish with their fathers, and Vai girls went to the rice farm.
The Ol' Mas sat together and spun cotton and goatskin into lappas for Vai women to cover themselves with, so that grain flies would not rest on their legs as they gathered rice on the farms. For their favorite Vai girls, those who would gift small portions of their harvest to the old women or send their slaves across the village to mind the pepper gardens surrounding their homes, the Ol' Mas soaked the goatskin in melted stone to change the colors to burgundy and sage. Although Khati was common, the Ol' Mas had once favored her for her meekness and the horizontal wrinkles across her neck, the latter a sign of great beauty among Vai people. The Ol' Mas never made Gbessa a lappa to cover herself with, and after Gbessa was born Khati no longer received burgundy cloths. Instead, Khati wrapped a wilted brown lappa made of rough pamkana cloth around her five-year-old daughter before taking her to the rice farm.
On the way to the farm, Khati and Gbessa passed through the village circle, where young children laughed wildly in a game of pebble throw.
"Gbessa the witch! Gbessa the fat cat witch!" the children sang as Gbessa passed them, several feet behind her mother. When she knew that she and her mother were passing Lake Piso, Gbessa searched past the breaks within the bushes in hopes that she would see her father. Gbessa's father, a fisherman whose reputation was destroyed by her birth, had never spoken to or seen her. He reasoned that since he would not receive any honor from his child, he could salvage what was left of his family's name by his hard work. He spent twenty-four hours a day at the lake fishing, cursing life under his breath, and nodding in and out of sleep.
"Come!" Khati called in front of Gbessa as she sensed her daughter stalling. When they reached the farm, Khati joined the women and instructed her daughter to sit on the outskirts of the field. Vai women, both wealthy and common, spent their mornings on the field closest to the village, collecting barely one sack of grain from the crops that grew on dry land, and gossiping among themselves, while their two dozen slave women and their daughters worked the outlying fields and swamps.
The women did not ask Gbessa to come into the field and chatter, unlike other young Vai girls who were invited to assist with farming and chores while eavesdropping on gossip about whose wolloh-and-rice dish was bitter. And since Gbessa was ignored by them, the sun took pleasure in having her all to itself, digging its impression into her pigment, making her skin the color of twilight. And since the sun did not have to share Gbessa with anyone or anything, her hair was also an object of its infatuation, and hung heavily down her back in a long and fiery red bush, further confirming the Vai ruling that she was cursed.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "She Would Be King"
Copyright © 2018 Wayétu Moore.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Book One: The Three,
June Dey, 39,
Norman Aragon, 91,
Book Two: She Would Be King,
The Ship, 159,
God of Cursed People, 175,
The Ball, 203,