Where the Line Bleeds is Jesmyn Ward’s gorgeous first novel and the first of three novels set in Bois Sauvage—followed by Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing—comprising a loose trilogy about small town sourthern family life. Described as “starkly beautiful” (Publishers Weekly, starred review), “fearless” (Essence), and “emotionally honest” (The Dallas Morning News), it was a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award.
Joshua and Christophe are twins, raised by a blind grandmother and a large extended family in rural Bois Sauvage, on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. They’ve just finished high school and need to find jobs, but after Katrina, it’s not easy. Joshua gets work on the docks, but Christophe’s not so lucky and starts to sell drugs. Christophe’s downward spiral is accelerated first by crack, then by the reappearance of the twins’ parents: Cille, who left for a better job, and Sandman, a dangerous addict. Sandman taunts Christophe, eventually provoking a shocking confrontation that will ultimately damn or save both twins.
Where the Line Bleeds takes place over the course of a single, life-changing summer. It is a delicate and closely observed portrait of fraternal love and strife, of the relentless grind of poverty, of the toll of addiction on a family, and of the bonds that can sustain or torment us. Bois Sauvage, based on Ward’s own hometown, is a character in its own right, as stiflingly hot and as rich with history as it is bereft of opportunity. Ward’s “lushly descriptive prose...and her prodigious talent and fearless portrayal of a world too often overlooked” (Essence) make this novel an essential addition to her incredible body of work.
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Where the Line Bleeds
IN THE CAR, JOSHUA PLUCKED a Waterlogged Twig, Limp as a Shoe-string, 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, and tossed the twig on the carpet. 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 for their livelihood, just as they had been in New Orleans: they built weekend mansions along the beach for wealthy New Orleans expatriates, cleaned them, did their yard work, 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 of the liquor, the strong oily consistency of it, the way it bore a hole down the throat raw. They parceled out their acres to their children, to their passels of seven and twelve. 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 seventeen and fourteen, 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 undersides of tabletops, of mopping wooden living room floors that stretched the entire length of Ma-mee’s house, of feeling invisible when she was 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 eleven 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 she 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 1940s, medicine and food had been scarce, and it was normal for those with eleven or twelve 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 who had been raised by grandparents or an aunt or a cousin. Even so, he wished he hadn’t been torturing the chickens; he wished that he’d 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 her sisters, his aunts, but sometimes he thought he loved her 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.
But once when she’d come home during the summer of their sophomore year, a kid named Rook from St. Catherine’s had said something dirty about her at the basketball court down at the park while they were playing a game, something about how fine her ass was. Christophe had told Joshua later the particulars of what Rook had said, how the words had come out of Rook’s mouth all breathy and hot because he was panting, and to Christophe, it had sounded so dirty. Joshua hadn’t heard it because he was under the net, digging his elbow into Dunny’s ribs, because he was the bigger man of the two. Christophe was at the edge of the court with the ball, trying to shake Rook, because he was smaller and faster, when Rook said it. Christophe had turned red in the face, pushed Rook away, brought the ball up, and with the sudden violence of a piston had fired the ball straight at Rook’s face. It hit him squarely in the nose. There was blood everywhere and Christophe was yelling and calling Rook a bitch and Rook had his hand under his eyes and there was blood seeping through the cracks of his fingers, and Dunny was running to stand between them and laughing, telling Rook if he wouldn’t have said shit about his aunt Cille, then maybe he wouldn’t have gotten fucked up. Joshua was surprised because he felt his face burn and his hands twitch into fists and he realized he wanted to whip the shit out of dark little Rook, Rook with the nose that all the girls liked because it was fine and sharp as a crow’s beak but that now was swollen fat and gorged with blood. Even now Joshua swallowed at the thought, and realized he was digging his fingers into his sides. Rook, little bitch.
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 ate fried turkey with the uncles on Christmas night in Uncle Paul’s yard, and he’d listened as his uncles 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 with her head on her arms, 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 corn bread and black-eyed peas with Ma-mee. Ma-mee had wished them a Happy New Year and told them they stank and needed to take 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.
The front screen door squealed open and she heard them walk across the porch. She heard Dunny step heavily behind them and the sound of wet jeans pant legs rubbing together. The twins’ light tread advanced from the front porch and through the door. The smell of outside: sun-baked skin and sweat and freshwater and the juice of green growing things bloomed in her nose. From her recliner seat, she saw their shadows dimly against the walls she’d had them paint blue, after she found out she was blind: the old whitewash that had coated the walls and the low, white ceiling had made her feel like she was lost in an indefinite space. She liked the idea of the blue mirroring the air outside, and the white ceiling like the clouds. When she walked down the narrow, dim hallway, she’d run her fingers over the pine paneling there and imagined she was in her own private grove of young pines, as most of Bois Sauvage had been when she was younger. She’d breathe in the hot piney smell and imagine herself slim-hipped and fierce, before she’d married and born her children, before she started cleaning for rich white folks, when she filled as many sacks as her brothers did with sweet potatoes, melons, and corn. 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’s 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.
Joshua’s laugh was joined by his brother’s muffled guffawing from the shower. One couldn’t laugh without the other. She pulled her dress away from her front so as to cool some of the sweat there: she wanted to be fresh and cool for the service. She’d bought a dress from Sears for Cille’s graduation; where this one was shapeless, the other had fit tighter, and had itched. It was polyester. Ma-mee had given Cille a bougainvillea flower to wear. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back into the sofa cushion, and she could see Cille at eighteen, her skin lovely and glowing as a ripe scopanine as she walked to collect her diploma. She had just fallen in love with the twins’ father then, and it showed. Cille bore the twins two years later, and by then her face had changed; it looked as if it had been glazed with a hard candy.
Joshua replied; it sounded as if he was speaking through clothing. Probably pulling a shirt over his head, she thought.
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 fifteen 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 and she looked at him, 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.
After Joshua had fallen asleep, Christophe had turned to the wall and cried: breathing through his mouth, swallowing the mucus brought up by the tears, his heart burned bitter and pulled small at the thought of her not being able to see them ever again, at the thought of her stumbling around the house. He’d talked to his aunt Rita, Dunny’s mother, and she’d forced Ma-mee to go to the doctor. He’d confirmed she was legally blind. While Rita sat in a chair next to Ma-mee holding her hand, Christophe and Joshua stood behind them, half-leaning against the wall, their heads empty with air and disbelief, as the doctor told them that if they had caught it earlier, they could have done laser surgery on her eyes to stop the blindness from progressing. So then, too late, she’d had the operation. Afterward, she sat pale and quiet in the living room that she’d had them empty of most of the porcelain knick-knacks and small, cheap plastic vases and shelves so she’d have less to clean and worry about breaking or banging into. The bandages were a blankness on her face. When the doctor took them off and proclaimed her healed, she said she could see blobs of color, nothing else, but Christophe felt a little better in knowing that at least she wouldn’t be closed in total darkness, that at least she could still see the color of his skin, the circle of his head.
He dried himself off, wiped the mirror clear, and tried not to, but thought of his father. Their father: the one who 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. 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.
Christophe wiped a rag over his face and bore down on his nose. Over the years, Christophe and Joshua would see their father around Bois Sauvage when they were riding their bikes and doing wheelies in and out of the ditches, or when they were stealing pears from Mudda Ma’am’s pear tree and carting them down the road in their red wagon, and later when they were older, walking with their friends and sneaking blunts. His name was Samuel, and while the boys grew up calling Cille by her name instead of calling her mother, they didn’t call Samuel by his name because he didn’t talk to them, and because they felt more abandoned by him than by their mother, who at least had the excuse of being “far away.” Whenever they saw Samuel, he was always with his friends, and had a red-and-white Budweiser can in his hands. When they talked about him, they called him “Him” and “He,” and any questions or comments about him from others they ignored, or stared hard at the asker, silently, until the question evaporated in the air. As they grew older, when he came up in conversation with others, they called him what everyone in the neighborhood called him: Sandman. When they were thirteen, they began to hear rumors filtered from the neighborhood drug dealers, who had just discovered crack cocaine, and were learning how to cook it from cousins who were visiting from New Orleans, from Chicago, from Florida: these rumors explained why he seemed to be skinnier each time they saw him, why he never drove a better car than his old beat-up, rust-laced Ford pickup, and why he hung out in his friends’ yards so much.
Sandman was an addict. Fresh told it to Christophe one day down at the park. While Christophe sat on the picnic table bench and watched Fresh count his money into neat piles of hundreds and twenties and re-bag his crumbs of crack and stash them according to size and price in different pockets on his carpenter’s pants, Fresh had said to him, “Boy, except for your nose, you look just like your mama.” He’d paused while he folded his wad of bills, had looked up and stared at Christophe, weighing him like a pit he was thinking about buying, and then said, “You know he on this shit, right?” And in that moment, Christophe knew by Fresh’s look who he was talking about. Everything had clicked into order in his head like a stack of dominoes falling in a line. “All of them older ones that used to snort powder when they was young for fun, all of them doing it now. This take them to that other level.” Fresh had glared at Christophe. “Don’t never do that shit. I keep my shit clean, still got all the hair in my nose.” Christophe had looked away from Fresh’s diamond-studded gold tooth gleaming in his mouth and had shrugged his small thirteen-year-old shoulders, bony and broad under his too-big jersey top, and looked away across the park to the basketball court, the baseball diamond, the trees bristling green and rising on all sides. Christophe watched a crow circle and land at the top of a pine and join about a dozen more so that they looked like dark flowers blooming in the blowsy needles, and thought of the last time he’d seen him. He hadn’t even so much as nodded at Christophe: Sandman was sitting on the tail of his pickup in Mr. Joe’s yard and was so drunk he hadn’t even known Christophe was the preteen walking past him.
Now, Christophe swiped his hand through his hair and curled it backward. According to what Fresh had told him about six months ago, Sandman was in Alabama, where he’d gone to stay with his brother and enter rehab. Christophe put on lotion and walked in a towel to the bedroom. He passed Joshua and punched him in his shoulder as Joshua brushed against him in the narrow hall on the way to the bathroom.
“Hope you left some cold water for me.”
Christophe shut the door and began to dress, pulling on jeans, a Polo shirt, his new Reeboks, and greased his hair with pink oil moisturizer so that it curled close to his scalp. He’d be clean, look nice for his aunt and uncles so they could watch him cross the stage, grab his diploma, and throw his tassel across the cap. He wanted to hug Ma-mee with his diploma in his hand and smell good for her, smell clean with soap and cologne. He sprayed a little on himself from the bottle he shared with Joshua, and then went out to the living room to sit next to Ma-mee on the sofa, to move as little as possible to guard himself from sweating unduly, to talk to her about the day, about the cookout at his aunt Rita’s, about whether she cared if he had a beer once they were there even though he knew he’d probably drink regardless of what she said: he’d just hide it. Christophe fleetingly thought that Sandman might show up, but then he told himself that he didn’t give a damn if he showed up or not. Crackheads were known for taking credit where none was due. Most of them were a little crazy. Christophe would rather that he didn’t show up. Christophe decided that if he did appear out of some misplaced sense of pride or because he was trying to fulfill some stupid rehab self-help shit, Joshua would have to stop him from punching Sandman in his face.
On the way to the graduation, Ma-mee sat in the front seat with one arm out the window. While her fingers felt at the seam of the glass, her unseeing eyes turned to blink watery and half-closed at the bayou as the wind pushed thick and heavy as a hand at her throat. Paul drove, his blue short-sleeved button-down shirt fastened to his neck, his hands careful on the steering wheel as he slowly followed the curves; his fists were positioned at ten and two. Already, he was sweating dark rings under his arms. Christophe and Joshua sat awkwardly in the backseat of the Oldsmobile with their legs open at the same angles as their uncle’s forearms and their arms akimbo at their sides. They leaned away from each other and watched the bright green marsh grass lining the side of the road, the water, interrupted by islands thick with pelicans and white cranes and brush, slide by. The bayou splayed out away from the gray asphalt on both sides, eclipsed the horizon, and sizzled with cicadas and crickets. The twins’ windows were rolled down as well.
Ma-mee hated air-conditioning. She never wanted it on in the car, and she refused to install an air-conditioning unit in the house. She said the cold air made her feel like she couldn’t breathe, and that it made her short of breath. So in the summer months, they sweated. The boys grew up accustomed to the wet heat, the droning indoor fans, the doors that swelled and stuck with the rise in temperature. In their shared room, they slept on top of their twin beds’ coverlets with their mouths open, their spindly limbs and knobby knees and elbows exposed, and wore only white briefs. As they grew older, they stripped their beds to the fitted and flat sheets, and took to sleeping in old gym shorts, or boxers.
Joshua propped one arm on the door, and rested his hand on his chin. He didn’t lean back because he didn’t want to crush his curls flat against the headrest. Outside, the edge of the road shimmered, and ahead the road wavered so that it looked as if snakes, tens of them, were crossing the road in the distance. When he was little he’d always been amazed when they disappeared the closer he got: but then again, back then he’d twisted around in his seat facing the rear window because he’d thought the moon and the sun followed the car, and he liked to watch them sail through the sky and chase him. He looked over to Christophe, who had arranged his head and arm similarly, and was looking intently out the other window. As they were walking to the car, Christophe whispered his warning about the possibility of seeing Sandman there. Joshua had started to laugh at the impossibility of it. Then Joshua had looked at Christophe’s mouth, and he’d stopped laughing and nodded: yes, he’d watch out for Sandman. The set of Christophe’s shoulders as they got in the car made him think of Cille: he wondered if Christophe was wondering if she was coming, if perhaps Ma-mee knew she was coming and was trying to keep it a secret so it would be a surprise. He let his hand fall out the window and drag in the current of the wind: she would wear red, her favorite color, he knew.
They arrived at the school ten minutes before the start of the program. With their gowns held gingerly in their hands, they climbed out of the car and walked across the small parking lot, past the sprawling redbrick buildings couched among the moss-strewn oaks and the football field stretching away to the left, to the gym directly behind the cluster of classrooms. The family entered the gym together and stood still for a moment; they were a small group in a milling confusion of parents and students and relatives.
Every other person led neon balloons that read “Congratulations Class of 2005” in yellow and sported tails of sparkling, curly streamers, and carried cards stuffed fat with money. The smell of perfume and cologne was thick in the air. The basketball court had been remade into an auditorium: folding metal chairs were lined in precise rows down the length of the floor. The more punctual family members claimed choice seats in the metal rows while the less punctual consigned themselves to the bleachers. While Uncle Paul led Ma-mee by the elbow to her seat next to Aunt Rita and the rest of the extended family at the front of the gym near the long dais that served as the stage, Joshua and Christophe skirted the crowd and found their way to the rows of graduating students. The graduating class had nearly two hundred students, but still, they filled only around ten rows: St. Catherine High was a small high school, even with all the students from the town of St. Catherine and its country neighbor, Bois Sauvage. About half the students were white, half were black, and there was a smattering of Vietnamese. While most of the Vietnamese kids’ parents had immigrated to the area after the Vietnam War to work in the shrimping and fishing industries, most of the black and white families had been living in the two towns since their foundings, and some of them even shared last names with each other, which was the result of little-acknowledged intermarriage. Their seating in the gym belied their social interactions: the two groups lived mostly segregated lives.
Joshua peered into the crowd and saw Laila; he waved. She had eyes that turned to slits when she laughed, a curvy waist, and lips he thought about kissing every time he saw her, but he’d never told her that. He and Christophe had lost their virginity to two sisters from St. Catherine when they were fifteen. Dunny had taken them along when he’d gone to their house to visit the oldest sister. While Dunny disappeared in the bedroom with his girl, Christophe and Joshua had sat sweating on the sofa. Lisa, the middle sister, had just walked over and sat on Christophe’s lap and flirted with him. She laughed at his jokes. Within minutes, they’d disappeared down the hallway. Nina, the youngest, had sat next to Joshua and told him she had seen him around school—and did he think she was cute for a ninth-grader? When he’d told her yes, she’d kissed him. The next thing he knew, she was partly naked and on top of him and the remote control was digging into his back and the TV went black and he didn’t care.
Afterward, Christophe had laughed when Dunny asked him about it, but Joshua had been quiet in the backseat. Since then, every time he had sex seemed a lucky accident, while Christophe grew more and more confident. He had just broken up with his latest girlfriend, he said, for being too clingy. Christophe tugged him toward their seats. Joshua and Christophe found their assigned chairs in the “D” row; Christy Desiree sat on their right, and Fabian Daniels on their left. Christy was busy pulling at her blond hair and reapplying lip gloss. Fabian curved into his seat with his arms crossed over his chest: he looked as if he were sinking. Joshua ignored Christy and perched at the edge of his chair, scanning the program.
“So what y’all going to be doing after this?”
Christophe turned to Fabian and adjusted his robe where it had bunched beneath his legs. He could hardly move. He knew it was going to be wrinkled when he walked across the stage, but he didn’t want it to be too wrinkled. He knew Aunt Rita would talk.
“Look for a job, I guess. You don’t know anybody trying to get rid of a old car for cheap, do you?”
“Naw.” Fabian pushed his cap up and back on his head since it had begun to slip down over his dark, broad forehead. “If I hear something, I’ll let you know. I probably won’t hear nothing before I leave—I’m going offshore. My uncle already got my application in. I start in two weeks.”
“I couldn’t be out there on that water all the time, cooped up. I’d go crazy.” Christophe shifted his robe again, resettling it flatly beneath him. “Who knows, though. They make good money. Maybe when I get older, I’d go offshore for that kind of money.” The only way he could ever consider leaving Bois Sauvage to work was if he was older, and only if Ma-mee was gone. She’d spent her entire life working for one rich white household or another to earn money to feed them, dressing them when they were younger in clothes her employers had given her to take to the Salvation Army, providing for them the best she could. Now it was their turn.
The hum of conversation in the gym was almost deafening, and already Christophe was growing tired of the rustling of programs, the shrieking of small children, the loud boasting of men, and the sense of interminable wait. He hated official shit like this. He just wanted to get his diploma and hear his name over the loudspeaker, the light patter of applause, and then get to the cookout, to the rest of the summer, to the rest of his life. He was ready to be done with school; he was tired of watching his principal, sweating at the neck, now barking orders at the first five rows, his teachers, dressed in long, loose dresses replete with maiden collars, darting around nervously, the secretaries, bored and severe, picking at the microphone and the fake flowers next to the podium. The gym was cold, and he felt the sweat dry on him and goose pimples rise on his arms under his gown as the satin, now cool like water, slid over them. The principal, Mr. Farbege, leaned into the row and barked, “Remember your cues!” and Christophe barely resisted the urge to flip him off. Joshua leaned over to Christophe, the program in his hand.
“Look at this,” he said.
Joshua thought she might do something like this. The only reason he was looking at the program was to look at the family advertisements in the back: he knew that he’d find at least a couple of choice photographs of his classmates in embarrassing ads that said things like “You’re a star! Follow your dreams” and “From Maw-maw and Paw-paw. We love you.” There, on the last page, was a small ad, measuring around three by five inches. In it was a small picture of him and Christophe; it had been taken when they were five. Cille had asked Aunt Rita to take it, a picture of all three of them, on the day she left for Atlanta. She was kneeling on the ground between them with her arms over both of their shoulders: her smile was wide, and she had sunglasses on, large dark ovals, because as Christophe remembered it, she had been crying. At her sides, the twins looked like small, young-faced old men: their T-shirts hung on them, their heads were cocked to the side, and neither of them was looking toward the camera. Joshua was looking off into the distance, his fists clutching the bottom of his shirt as he pulled it away from his small round stomach. Christophe’s eyes were squinted nearly shut, and the set of his mouth was curved downward and puckered: he looked as if he had just eaten something bitter, like he looked on the day they snuck the small, bitter grapes from Papa’s old grapevine that grew curled on crude posts behind the house and ate them.
Under the picture was printed in small, bold-faced print: Congratulations to Joshua and Christophe. Love, Cille. That was it. Joshua knew as soon as he saw the small picture, the minuscule line, that she wasn’t coming. He knew that she wasn’t already sitting in the audience with Aunt Rita, that she wasn’t just running late, that she wouldn’t appear at their cookout with the rest of the family, that she wasn’t just going to walk casually out of the kitchen with a pot in her arms to set on the long wax-covered table beneath the trees while the outdoor fans buzzed in the background and blew her dress away from her legs. Joshua let Christophe take the paper as he leaned further back and down in his chair. He purposefully spread his legs to take up more space so that Christy squeaked as she had to smash her knees together to make room for him; he hated her lip gloss and her prissiness and for a second he felt a strong urge to press his hand across her face, to smudge her makeup. He didn’t turn and say he was sorry.
Christophe read the program and folded it in fourths and placed it in his back pocket along with his own program. Who knows, he thought, one day Joshua might actually want it. He heard Mr. Farbege giving the opening remarks, and he tuned out as he began to make a list in his head of where he and Joshua could go to look for jobs: Wal-Mart, the grocery store in St. Catherine, the McDonald’s.
Joshua ignored the valedictorian’s and salutatorian’s speeches, the cheesy slide show (he and Christophe were in one picture: their hands in their pockets, they stood outside on the benches used for break—he thought that Christophe looked like he was high). When the principal began calling graduates’ names, Joshua waited patiently as he watched the other students cross the dais: some of them danced and played the crowd for laughs when they got their diplomas, some pumped their fists in the air, while others walked across quickly, heads down, nervous, and seemed to shy away from the applause that clattered from the stands.
Christophe rose, walked to the podium, and smoothed his gown. Once there, he shook Mr. Farbege’s hand with his left and grabbed his diploma with his right. The leather casing was cool in his hand, and it slipped slightly, and he realized he was sweating. The lights were so bright and hot that he didn’t attempt to look out into the crowd or find Ma-mee: instead, he turned and put on his cockiest smile, hoping Aunt Rita was relating everything to her, and walked off the stage.
Joshua stood when he saw his brother exit.
Joshua ascended to greet the principal. He couldn’t focus on Mr. Farbege’s sweating, red face or the secretary fumbling with the diplomas. He turned to the audience, the lights blaring, squinted, and tried to smile. He knew he wouldn’t be able to make them out against the glare of the spotlight, but he looked in the direction Ma-mee and Uncle Paul had gone anyway, and tried to see if he could see her. He saw nothing but a mess of faces and bright, bold outfits, so he raised his hand and waved a little in their direction in time to the applause, and hoped that they knew he was waving for them. He walked to his seat, shuffled past the rows of the students, sat, and realized that he’d been nervous, that the tiny, golden hairs at the back of his neck and on his arms and legs were standing on end. He shivered, feeling as he had when he was little and he’d run into the river just after the sun rose. They’d camped with Aunt Rita and Uncle Paul and the rest of the family on a Friday night, and he’d awoken the next day before everyone else, jarred awake by the sand pressing into his stomach through the sleeping bag where he’d slept on the floor of the tent. He’d run out to the water, wanting to be the first one in, expecting it to be languid and warm, but instead was shocked by the cold of it, the bite of it on his legs up to his knees, how his skin seemed to tighten and retreat across his muscles from the chill. He grimaced and gripped his diploma. He couldn’t believe that he and Christophe had graduated. He leaned closer to his brother, sideways, in his chair, until he could feel their shoulders touching. The litany of names was a buzzing drone in his head, and he waited for it to end.
The sun was turning the tops of the trees red, and from the woods surrounding Aunt Rita’s trailer, the night insects began calling to one another, heralding the approach of the cooler night. Under the young, spindly oaks dotting the yard, Christophe, Joshua, and Dunny sat at one of several folding wooden tables in creaking metal and plastic chairs, plates of food before them. Ma-mee ate slowly, feeling her way around the food on her plate: tiny barbecued drumsticks, meatballs, and potato salad. Children darted back and forth across the yard like small animals, chasing and teasing each other in packs. Most of the twins’ uncles, Cille’s brothers, sat in a circle away from the steel drum barbecue grill, passing what Joshua suspected to be a bottle of homemade wine around and smoking.
There were four of them: Paul, Julian, Maxwell, and David. Aunt Rita, Cille’s only sister, was sweating over the grill: her hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail, frizzed and messed by the humidity, and she cooked with one hand on her hip while the other basted the chicken and ribs with sauce. Myriad gold earrings shone at her ears. She swatted a mosquito away from her head and, lifting one foot to scratch her leg, continued the cooking, mumbling to herself. She was a shorter, rounder version of her sister: Joshua thought there was something different about her movements, something more settled than Cille, as if her lower center of gravity made her more solid, more dependable, less susceptible to disappear from a place. Friends and neighbors filled the chairs around the twins, drinking and smoking, talking and laughing. Joshua waved a fly away from his food and took a sip of his Budweiser; the can was pleasantly cool in the palm of his hand. Christophe was busy fielding questions from Uncle Eze, Rita’s husband. Eze had moved his chair close and ate with both elbows on the table; his arms dark and thick with muscle as he licked his fingers. Once every few minutes, he’d pause to reach over and snake his hand around Aunt Rita’s waist. Then he’d grab his napkin and dab at his face where beads of sweat bloomed large as pearls.
“So, what y’all going to do now? Y’all thought about going to school?”
Joshua snorted and half-smiled, then picked up a boiled shrimp from his plate and began to peel it.
“You better be glad we graduated!” Christophe laughed.
They’d barely passed senior English, and the only reason they hadn’t been in more detention was because they were a team. After smoking blunts with Dunny a few mornings when he gave them rides to school or when they checked themselves out early and skipped class, they watched out for each other: they juggled each other’s excuses, finished one another’s lies, and generally kept one another out of trouble. Joshua placed the naked, pink shrimp on Ma-mee’s plate, and she smiled and reached for his hand before he could remove it and squeezed; the pads of her fingers, even after all those years of scrubbing and washing, were still soft and full on his wrist. He squeezed in return and then began peeling another shrimp.
“Well, then, what y’all going to do?”
Christophe scooped potato salad onto a piece of white bread in spoonfuls so big they threatened to break the plastic spoon in half. He folded the bread and then took a large bite of his potato salad sandwich before chasing it with a swallow of his own beer: the rim of the can was flecked with bits of barbecue sauce and meat, and smeared with grease.
“We going to get a job. We got a whole bunch of places we can go put applications in at. We going to make some money.”
Eze paused to wipe his hands on his napkin, and leaned back in his own chair. He’d sucked the bones on his plate clean. His voice was lower when he spoke.
“Y’all thought about what y’all going to do about a car?”
Christophe took another bite of his sandwich and frowned.
“We was gonna borrow Dunny’s car while he was at work to fill out applications until we could save up enough money to buy one. Somebody got to be selling one for cheap sometime soon. People always trying to get rid of old Cutlasses; it shouldn’t take too much money to buy one and get it running good.”
Joshua noticed Aunt Rita had closed the top of the grill and was standing behind Eze. Her arms were folded across her chest, and her head was cocked to the side. He realized she was looking at him, that she was blinking at him solemnly. Her eyes were large and dark in her face and the liquid eyeliner she’d worn at the graduation was smudged below her eyes; it made them appear bruised. Dunny picked up a beer and paused with the rim of the can to his mouth and found Joshua watching him. Dunny winked, grinned around the can, and tipped the beer back so that it hid his face.
Eze tapped his finger on the table once, twice, and then stood. He dropped his napkin so that it fell as slowly as snow to the paper tablecloth. Christophe looked at Ma-mee. She was chewing thoughtfully on the shrimp and had a small grin on her face. Shrimp were her favorite food. Away from the citronella candles and electric bulbs illuminating the trees into the surrounding darkness, Eze walked into the ascending crescendo of the raucous night, calling back over his shoulder, “Well, come on, I got something to show you.”
Christophe glanced at Joshua and widened his eyes. Joshua shrugged and stood to follow Eze. Christophe stabbed a hot link with a fork and took it with him when he pushed away from the table. Joshua waited for him to catch up. Eze disappeared around the side of the trailer where he and Aunt Rita parked their cars. Once Christophe rounded the corner, he stopped alongside his brother, who stood at the tailgate of Eze’s Ford pickup. Joshua was still. He stared past Eze’s trunk and Aunt Rita’s small red Toyota and noticed that there was another car in the hard-packed dirt driveway, a four-door, gray-blue Caprice. Eze was leaning against the hood. Joshua heard Dunny’s dog, chained to a post in the woods at the side of the house, growl and bark once, high and sharp.
“What do y’all think?” Eze placed one hand on the body and patted it twice, softly. “Your mama Cille sent me the money for it, told me to find something for y’all so that y’all could have something to drive once y’all got out of school. Bookie from over in St. Cats was selling the body for five hundred: I got a motor for six hundred, and then parts came to a little less than four. Used up all the money she sent. She said she’d been saving up for a little bit and she wanted y’all to have something dependable. I got it running pretty good, and it should get y’all to work and back.” He smiled, a glimpse of his teeth in the dark, then walked toward them and held out a key ring with four bright metal keys on it before them. “It’s a good car.”
Joshua stared at the ring that gleamed from the faint reach of the porch light. Christophe was the first to react: he plucked the key ring from Eze’s hand. Neither twin spoke until Eze cleared his throat, nodded to them almost awkwardly, and then walked away and around the trailer.
“Well,” Christophe said low, out of the side of his mouth, “I guess we know why she didn’t come.” He tossed the keys in the air; they glittered in the dim light and fell with a dull metal crush into Christophe’s palm.
“Why show up when you give us a car? Guess she’s really done, now.”
“Yeah, I guess she is.”
Joshua blinked, felt his eyelids slide heavily down, then open. He let the feeling of her absence sink to his throat, skirt his collarbone to settle in his chest, to throb stronger than it had when he had seen her dedication to them in the program. He looked away from the car. He was glad that Christophe had grabbed the keys; he would let his brother do all the driving. He knew that if he reached out to touch the metal of the hood, it would be warm as the night, insect-ridden air, warm as skin, but not so soft. Joshua spoke in a voice lower than his brother’s.
Christophe slid the key ring into his pocket. He moved to nudge Joshua with his other hand, but then seemed to remember the sausage on the fork.
“Shit.” He plucked the sausage away from the metal and then wound his arm back and threw it in the direction of the dog in the woods. It flew through the air, a dark blur, and hit the leaves of the trees with a falling rustle. The dog barked again, sharply, once. Christophe sucked the sauce from his thumb and forefinger and bumped his brother with his shoulder. He was still hungry, and while there was nothing but them and the silence and this car here, there was more potato salad and hot, spicy meat in the front, and Ma-mee was waiting for them. So, Cille hadn’t shown up, and she’d gotten them this car instead. It felt like a bribe. From the front, Christophe heard Dunny shout at one of the little kids, and an answering giggle. Christophe gnawed at a piece of jagged skin on his thumb, and thought of Ma-mee, smiling and expectant in her pressed dress waiting for them out front. This would make it easier for them. He would be grateful. “Well, we did need a car. Come on.”
Christophe turned, and Joshua followed him into the dark brush at the side of the trailer. Joshua was an inverse shadow: full where Christophe was thin. Christophe seemed more of the darkness. The dog was quiet, and Christophe hoped he had been able to find and reach the food. Under the night sounds, Christophe heard the links of its chain clink.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Where the Line Bleeds includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The first novel from National Book Award winner and author of Sing, Unburied, Sing Jesmyn Ward is a timeless Southern fable of brotherly love and familial conflict—“a lyrical yet clear-eyed portrait of a rural South and an African-American reality that are rarely depicted” (The Boston Globe).
Joshua and Christophe are twins, raised by a blind grandmother and a large extended family in rural Bois Sauvage, on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. They’ve just finished high school and need to find jobs, but after Katrina, it proves more difficult than they’d hoped. Joshua gets work on the docks, but Christophe’s not so lucky and starts to sell drugs. Christophe’s downward spiral is accelerated first by crack, then by the reappearance of the twins’ parents: Cille, who left for a better job, and Sandman, a dangerous addict. Sandman taunts Christophe, eventually provoking a shocking confrontation that will ultimately damn or save both twins.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. Why are the boys so sure they want to stay in Bois Sauvage after they graduate? If they didn’t have Ma-mee to think of, would they have been so set on staying?
2. Joshua reflects that “on average now, [Cille] talked to them less and gave them more” (page 10). Why does Cille support them but keep her distance? How does Joshua feel about Cille? How does Christophe feel about Cille? Do they want the same things from their mother?
3. Dunny tells Christophe, “You could find a way to make it. A broke way, but a way” (page 58). Why does he call it a broke way? What else is broken about Christophe’s opportunities in Bois Sauvage?
4. Why do you think the twins’ father, Samuel, is known as Sandman in the neighborhood? What associations does the nickname bring up? Why do Joshua and Christophe avoid calling him by name in conversation?
5. When Joshua and Christophe play basketball together after Joshua is called back to the dock, it’s a relief for both of them. Joshua reflects, “They were talking again . . . for the first time in days, even if they only opened their mouths to grunt, to bare their teeth, and to emit forceful breaths like expletives when they suddenly stopped to shoot, to spin, to score” (page 114). How is “talking” through the game a way for them to communicate even when they’re not speaking? Discuss other ways the twins communicate without words.
6. As Ma-mee frets over telling the boys about Sandman’s visit, she thinks about making them dinner to ease the pain. And when Joshua lets them know Cille is coming for a visit, Ma-mee “wanted them laying on the floor and lounging on the sofa together. She would cook them a big meal, make them lazy and easy with food” (page 125). Why is food so important to Ma-mee? What does it mean to her?
7. Why does “their mutual animosity” become a “veil” between the twins (page 135)? Why aren’t they able to overcome it once Joshua begins working at the dock and Christophe starts dealing at the park?
8. When Dunny tries to hide his stash from Christophe, do you believe Dunny when he says he never smokes it? Is he looking out for Christophe as much as he is for himself?
9. At Javon’s house, Christophe suppresses the “urge he had to walk over to his brother, to wake him, to pull him up and away from Laila and back two months into their world” (page 154). Why does Joshua’s love for Laila upset Christophe so much? Why does Joshua think of Christophe as “forsaken” (page 188)?
10. How does the altercation with Javon and Sandman change Joshua and Christophe’s relationship? Why does it affect them so strongly? What do you think happened to Sandman?
11. The novel begins and ends with water. The twins jump into the river at the beginning before graduation, and at the end they are with Dunny by the river again, fishing. What is the significance of water throughout the novel? How does it affect Christophe and Joshua?
12. At the hospital, Christophe closes his eyes while he holds his brother’s hand and shrugs, thinking, “His brother, their wounds, Ma-mee dimming like a bulb, his parents’ places unknown and orbiting them like distant moons: it was enough” (page 234). What is enough? Is it enough for both Christophe and Joshua?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Ward begins Where the Line Bleeds with a verse from the Bible and lyrics from Pastor Troy’s rap song Vice Versa. Listen to the song and read Genesis 25. How do these two references set the stage for the novel?
2. In Greek and Roman mythology, twins Castor and Pollux were transformed into the Gemini constellation when Castor was killed and Pollux asked Zeus to let Pollux share his immortality with his twin to keep them together. Compare Castor and Pollux to Christophe and Joshua. Can you think of other twins in literature with similar narratives?