FINALIST FOR THE 2014 CHAUTAUQUA PRIZE
One of Time Magazine’s "21 Female Authors You Should Be Reading"
Named a Best Book of 2013 by the Wall Street Journal
A New York Times Editors’ Choice
An O Magazine Top Ten Pick
In early 1800s Tennessee, two men find themselves locked in an intimate power struggle. Richardson, a troubled Revolutionary War veteran, has spent his life fighting not only for his country but also for wealth and status. When the pressures of westward expansion and debt threaten to destroy everything he’s built, he sets Washington, a young man he owns, to work as his breeding sire. Wash, the first member of his family to be born into slavery, struggles to hold onto his only solace: the spirituality inherited from his shamanic mother. As he navigates the treacherous currents of his position, despair and disease lead him to a potent healer named Pallas. Their tender love unfolds against this turbulent backdrop while she inspires him to forge a new understanding of his heritage and his place in it. Once Richardson and Wash find themselves at a crossroads, all three lives are pushed to the brink.
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Sunday, August 17, 1823 Two days' ride northeast of Nashville
It's well past suppertime and still the heat shimmers heavy without a breeze, even high on this bluff where Richardson's broad stone house sits facing east over the river bending below. After this long dry summer, his wagon creaks cresting his last hill as late light spikes through the clouds. Quinn brings Wash back from another weekend away.
Richardson strides out to meet them, moving easily through the empty quiet of this Sunday evening. One foot in front of the next. Battered handmade boots caked with dirt. Fawn britches worn to bagginess over bony knees. At seventy, his leanness has become extreme but he still appears fit and graceful as long as he moves in the service of a clear intention. Sharp brown eyes under hooded lids and a pronounced widow's peak. He had been handsome once but disappointment and disillusion, along with two harsh stints as a prisoner of war, have long since knocked the gloss off.
Sweat has darkened the collars of all three men and horseflies torment the sticky haunches of the team. They stomp the ground where Quinn has pulled them up to wait. Wash refuses to meet Richardson's eye as he slowly unfolds to his full height, standing in the wagon bed, swaying slightly to keep his balance amidst the jerking of the horses, looking older at twenty six than most men at forty.
Richardson has owned Wash since before he swam snug in Mena's belly but the young man has never once met his gaze. Even in full sun, Wash keeps his face hard to read. Holds his head a little tilted so eyes snag on the deep scar denting his temple instead. After stepping down from the wagon, Wash crosses the parched grass toward the biggest barn. Richardson, hawkish from years of vigilance, turns to watch him go then drags his attention back to Quinn who sits high on the wagon seat, holding the reins bunched in one hand and digging in his chest pocket with the other.
A lock of steel gray hair hangs over Quinn's low forehead as he hands Richardson the thin banknote folded around a small square of thick paper listing the names. Both documents are battered and grimy from the long ride in that sweaty pocket. Richardson takes the papers and heads for the house, leaning slightly forward as if this will help him cover the necessary ground more quickly. He can already feel the liquor loosening the perennial tightness in his chest as he scans down the list written in Quinn's rough letters.
Minerva, Phyllis, CeCe, Molly, Dice, Charity, Vesta.
A big operation to have so many at childbearing age. At least he hopes they are. He has long since left the details to Quinn and it worries him some. But not enough to go himself to make sure. Not anymore. He reminds himself to have Quinn get the ages of these women who, along with Wash, have been hauling them slowly out of debt for more than five years now.
It's not only the money, although that lies forever at the heart of the matter. Richardson's interest runs deeper. He wants to know what happens and how. Which woman holds onto her child and which does not, and not just because he will need to write a refund. He wants to know, how does a child of Wash and Molly's turn out? Or one of Wash and CeCe's?
Richardson wonders whether any of them will carry Mena's face. He can still see her standing on that block down in Charleston all those years ago, so clear and somehow unbroken, with Wash already on his way. That very first time he saw her, Mena had rested her eyes on him until he felt as pulled as a fish on a hook. Her unbidden image blooms so vividly up through the years that Richardson has to shake his head to knock it loose.
As he enters his house, he calls down the hall, "Emmaline, I am unavailable." Her yessir gets lost in the thunk of his boots on the stairs. Nine long strides carry him across the echoing ballroom to the small room off the far end where men gather after dinner to smoke and drink and talk politics. His office is downstairs by the back door but this tucked away place where his books line the walls has become his refuge.
He shuts the door behind him, steps straight to the low liquor cabinet to pour himself a slug of bourbon and then stands by the window, holding his drink cupped in his palm, watching the gray wood of his big barn start to silver in the coming twilight. As he listens to the thump and rustle of his large family settling in, he knows the high window under the eaves on the far side of the hayloft is falling dark as a fist, and he knows Wash is likely sitting there in it, watching the night draw near, just like he is.
After each of these times away, Wash heads for the barn, hoping Richardson's stableman Ben has already gone back to the quarters for the night. He slips into the first stall and sinks down against the wall in the one corner that can't be seen from the door, feeling nothing but thankful when this one horse turns to stand over him, dropping its head to breathe him in. A few bits of chaff from a mouthful of hay fall on Wash's bent head as a soft nicker warms the back of his neck.
The horse returns to its hay but Wash stays tucked into that corner until well past dark. Then he stands and brushes that horse over and over, each stroke smoothing away another jagged edge of his past few days. He slips from one stall to the next, one horse to another, moving through the darkened barn as easily as a blind man.
Sometimes he runs his hands over the horses without a brush, smoothing the wide flat muscles of their necks and shoulders, down the hard straight bones of their legs, across the fluttering softness of their noses. Their slow breathing soothes him and this use of his hands retrieves them from their earlier harshness. The easy grace with which the horses receive his tenderness allows the hammered down place inside of him to open back up before too long.
Over time, these horses have become a refuge because they know nothing of the rest of his life. Usually their obliviousness eases Wash's nerves but sometimes it enrages him. That one mare, Queenie's first and last filly, was turning out needy just like her mother. Forever coming after him with that soft whinny, so insistent with her nudge nudge. Wanting some attention, some kindness Wash might not have to give right then.
Until that one bad day when he wheeled around and slapped the soft side of her nose with the flat palm of his hand, just where the pale gray shades into dark dapples. The sharp hollow thwack against the velvet give of her skin, her startled squeal sounding so loud in the quiet barn, and Wash regretting it before his blow even landed.
All that had grown between himself and this mare was gone. As steady and calm as he can manage to be with her now, his slip will haunt him. Any quick move he makes near her will be met with a flinch and that flash of panic in her eye, forever echoing his mistake back to him. Nothing for him to do but put up with it. Hope it will ease more quickly this time, even when it never does. The mare's refusal to forget angers Wash more than anything else because it is a luxury he does not have.
While he has not yet learned to check his swing, over the years he has learned to direct it elsewhere. Into stacked feed bags or folded blankets or sometimes the wall. He startles the bright bay colt named Bolivar with his sudden outbursts but he has not hit him and that's all Wash cares about. He needs to be around some creature that is not and has never been afraid of him. The solace of this is worth learning to rein himself in.
It's good and dark by the time Wash closes the last stall door and makes his way carefully up the stairs then the ladders to the highest loft where he has hidden old blankets in the hay. He does not sleep in the quarters with everyone else. He stays in the barn whether Ben likes it or not.
With this work he's been put to, enemies come easy. Wash stays three stories up with loose hay slippery near the edges and the horses to warn him. Nobody coming up here after him, no matter how mad they get. Most stay too scared of falling and breaking something with no way to set it right.
Running his eyes across the inside of this high peaked roof calms him. Each plank cut smooth then laid in flush against the next one. Each peg where it needs to be, driven with just the right number of blows. Nothing wasted, nothing crowded.
Inside those cabins, it's like a hole or a nest. Smoke coating everything and sticky with nowhere to go. He has lain in plenty of cabins and he's finished with that. Feeling the endless stream of others who have been there before him and died or lived, as clear as if he can reach out and touch them.
Wash determined early on to make his home in this loft despite Ben's constant muttering about his horses, his harnesses, his liniment and his barn. That crotchety old stableman can't come up here after him and they both knew it from the start. Richardson stays out of it because he has learned to choose his battles and Wash lets people tell the story that suits them.
That they keep him off and separate. Make him stay in the barn with the animals. As if they are punishing him when they are giving him exactly what he wants.
He tries to make it work out like that whenever he can. Makes him feel big. Big enough to take all this in and still have a part of himself where he can find room enough to stand. Makes him feel like his insides are as wide and open as the swaybacked meadows running as far along the river as he can see under a full moon.
Makes him feel bigger every time he sees that most of them don't have even a dogpatch worth of room on the inside. All that money and all that carrying on and they don't have much more than a little patch to look around and see out from. This is one of the pictures that tugs the corner of Wash's mouth into Mena's slight downward grin.
Once nightfall has swallowed the big barn with Wash inside it, Richardson turns away from the window toward the business at hand. He hides this particular book in a surprising place. A place so unlikely that he does not need a key for it.
This liquor cabinet was a gift from his godfather Thompson. Hip high and lovely, with a honeyed walnut lid rising to reveal a clutch of glass bottles, each nestled snug in its own padded compartment. The whole of it lined in midnight blue velvet scattered with stars. Old man Thompson had bought this cabinet in England with sugar money his family made down in the islands before they'd been driven out by mass uprisings. He'd bequeathed the liquor cabinet to Richardson in his will. Told him he would need it and he was right.
Everybody knows Richardson uses Wash as his traveling negro but nobody knows all the details, nor should they, is what he thinks. The squared box holding the bottles lifts enough for him to draw his secret book by its spine from this hidden compartment between the liquor above and the shelves of glasses below. Each broad page holds a span of time, covered with Richardson's careful looping track. When, where, who and how much. Page after page, lying smooth and gilt edged inside their brick red leather binding. His eldest daughter Livia had given him this blank book several Christmases ago, back when she kept urging him to keep a daybook, but Richardson has found another use for it.
He sets his glass down on Miller's unfolded banknote and lays the book open. Dips his pen into thick black ink which will fade over the years to an amber matching his liquor and writes Sunday, August 17, 1823. The date makes a roof over the column of names.
Minerva, Phyllis, CeCe, Molly, Dice, Charity, Vesta.
Richardson leaves room for the information to come. In nine or ten months, he will return to this page, having sent for Miller's midwife Pallas to bring him word. He will call her to this small room, shut the door behind her and wait for the details. Pallas will stand by the window, resting her gray eyes on the horizon as she trades him name for name.
Each woman, each child. Who lived, who died and when.
Richardson will mark it all down. He likes to keep track. Whenever he rides out, whether on business or just visiting, he makes it a point to pass through the quarters. Says he wants to see how they turn out. And most every time, he shakes his head, thinking, damn if they don't all carry Wash, with those wide brows like wings over crisp dark eyes and lashes so thick and curled back that they look tangled.
Clear as day to Richardson, but it often seems he's the only white man who catches the resemblance. He has never understood those who cannot tell negroes apart, especially their own. He wants to tell them, every single body possesses some distinguishing characteristic. You simply hunt for it until you find it. After that, it's obvious.
As for the negroes, they are not sure what to make of Richardson. He catches some of the tricky bits but misses plenty of the easy ones. They know all about Quinn but they hear Richardson pulls his strings like a puppet, even if the two men are supposed to be partners.
How much, is what they want to know. And which is which? How much is Richardson, how much is Quinn and how much is Wash? That is the real question lying under everything like a high water table.
* * *
It is a golden day in early September and still hot as the drought drags into its third month. A trio of Richardson's neighbors have stopped by to take care of some business. Atkinson, Butler and Grange, ordering lots to be sent upriver from Richardson's store in New Orleans. A set of dining room chairs, a saddle, three crates of Madeira and two dictionaries. They are also here to get in Wash's book. Settle on some dates. The men walk together from the house to the barn to take a look even though they've used Wash before.
Richardson leads the way, half a head taller and older by thirty years than the other three but somehow the most vital of the group. The younger men turn to him continually for confirmation despite the fact that he rarely gives it. Richardson lets their chatter eddy around him as he scans his place, hunting for anything amiss.
The layout never fails to please him. The broad stone house built square on the highest point, well back from the rocky bluff over the river, with limestone-rich fields falling away from its flanks. Rows of cabins march off to the left while his garden sprawls toward the pond on the right with the biggest barn bridging the gap behind.
He had decided on stone for the house in 1792. Most of the early forts they built had been burned during Indian raids. After his brother David was ambushed and scalped by the Chickasaw, Richardson brought masons from Baltimore and had them build vertical slits into the thick stone walls on each side of the upper floors so he could lock his house up tight yet still lower a rifle barrel down through those deep narrow grooves.
He made room for two enormous underground cisterns close to the house while saving the biggest elms for shade. But he broke with custom by fitting all the necessaries inside the house itself. His initial reasoning had been for protection but he didn't like lots of little outbuildings crowded close around the house. Said it always looked to him like a hen with chicks.
So he built the kitchen inside and the smokehouse too. With a loft for Emmaline wedged between the kitchen ceiling and the floor of his drinking smoking room upstairs. Waist high is not room enough for her to sit up in, but he said she could do her sitting in the kitchen since she seems to do most of her sleeping in there anyway.
He heads now for his biggest barn. Only one of its tall double doors stands open so the four white men step into darkness, jostling one another in momentary blindness. As they walk through the dim aisle to gather in the doorway on the far side, curious horses swing their heads to look over stall doors. Wasps rise and fall, trailing a buzzing drone, and pigeons coo relentlessly no matter how many times Richardson has Wash destroy their nests.
Wash stands high in the bed of a hay wagon, breaking apart the enormous bale that Richardson ordered from Cincinnati to tide them through the drought. Wash feels the men behind him but he does not turn from his work, choosing to focus instead on the solid heft of the pitchfork in his grip. The smooth way the sharp tongs slide into the densely packed hay. His fingers wrap tighter around the worn wooden handle as he listens to the men talk about him, thinking to himself, these men like to stand around talking. Easiest thing for him to do is to stay busy. Keep his back to them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Wash"
Copyright © 2013 Margaret Wrinkle.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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.
What People are Saying About This
"[An] unflinching, stunningly imagined debut." Vanity Fair
"In this deeply researched, deeply felt debut novel, documentarian Wrinkle aims a sure pen at a crucial moment following America’s War of Independence. . . . The novel well evokes the tragedy not only of [its] lovers’ untenable positions, but also that of their master and his fragile country." Publishers Weekly
"Heart-rending . . . Wrinkle has written a remarkable first novel, one that will haunt readers with the questions it raises, and the disturbing glimpse it offers into an unfathomable world." Booklist
"Wrinkle bears witness to the inhumanity of slavery . . . A moving and heart-rending novel." Kirkus Reviews
"Wrinkle masterfully takes us on a powerful journey through the darkest past and present of this country, boldly addressing the chasm of racial divide with the scalpel of a gruesome truth. Wash is the epitome of courage and determination to heal the central wound of this culture." Malidoma Patrice Somé, author of The Healing Wisdom of Africa
"Wash is bold, unflinching, and when finished, certain to haunt the reader for a long, long time." Ron Rash, author of Serena and The Cove
"Boldly conceived and brilliantly written, Margaret Wrinkle's Wash reveals the horrible human predation of slavery and its nest of nightmares. With a truthfulness even beyond Faulkner, Wrinkle makes her novelistic debut in a monumental work of unflinching imagination." Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab’s Wife, Four Spirits, Abundance, and Adam and Eve
"Margaret Wrinkle’s Wash is a marvelous window into the world of nineteenth century American slaverya powerful fusion of knowledge and imagination." Madison Smartt Bell, author of All Souls Rising, Master of the Crossroads, and The Stone that the Builder Refused
"A significant and hugely troubling book." Pinckney Benedict, author of Miracle Boy, Town Smokes, The Wrecking Yard, and Dogs of God
"This majestic, beautifully-written novel will both break your heart and make it wiser." Charles Gaines, author of Stay Hungry, Pumping Iron, A Family Place, and The Next Valley Over
"This exquisite novel is a gift of healing. It exposes the dark and fearsome sin that stains our history, and confronts the guilt that lurks in our collective American soul. But in the genius of the telling we are led to the tenderness at the bone, the humanity at the core, and buoyed by joy." Beverly Swerling, author of Bristol House
"A unique and powerful story, Wash tells a chapter of our past that we would rather look away from. Margaret Wrinkle makes sure that we cannot. Her whole life has led up to this book, and she writes it in a sure and captivating voice, augmented by her remarkable pictures." Kevin Baker, author of Strivers Row, Dreamland, and Paradise Alley