Wench_ a novel - By Dolen Perkins-Valdez




Six slaves sat in a triangle, three women, three men, the men half nestled in the sticky heat of thighs, straining their heads away from the pain of the tightly woven ropes. The six chatted softly among themselves, about the Ohio weather, about how they didn’t mind it because they all felt they were better suited to this climate. They were guarded in their speech, as if the long stretch between them and the resort property were just a Juba dance away.

The men nibbled and sucked at yellow flowers, spitting the seeds into the water tins beside them, offerings they would make to the women when they were done. The women parted the hair with their fingertips, meticulously straightened lines crisscrossed like checkerboards. They warmed a waxy substance in their hands and spread it onto the hair. Two of the men had silky coils that stretched long. The other one had hair so short the plaits stuck out like quills.

They watched as the stranger approached. She balanced a basket on her head, the way they had in the old country. They could tell from the way the woman’s skirt moved the fabric was a good one. But what was most striking about her was the bush of red hair that sprayed out from beneath the basket like a mane. None of them had ever seen hair so red on a colored woman.

Reenie, the oldest of the group, spoke first. “You staying at Tawawa?”

“Yeah.” The red-headed woman took a careful survey of the group. Two of the women looked to be about her age. The oldest of them, the one questioning her, had yellowed, rheumy eyes that still maintained a sharpness. The men—twins and a third one with a flickering cheek—looked well fed and healthy. “Mawu.”

“What?” said the old woman.

“That be my name. Mawu.”

“I ain’t never heard a name like that,” Lizzie said. “How do you spell it?” Lizzie was proud of the fact that she could spell.

Mawu did not answer. She pulled at her left earring.

The slaves examined the red-headed woman as if she had just dropped from another world. They were unashamed in their curiosity, boldly eyeing the freckled hands, the unruly hair, and the two small earrings that bent the sunlight.

The stranger let them look, accustomed to such invasions.

Sweet spoke up. “Us can plait your hair.”

Lizzie instantly wished she had thought first to ask. She wanted this creature with the strange name to be trapped in the curve of her own strong thighs.

Yet Mawu only regarded Sweet and her swollen stomach with a pitying look. She lifted a hand to her crotch, as if to warn off the misfortune that had resulted in Sweet’s circumstance.

“No,” said Mawu. “Tip wouldn’t like it.” She gathered the skirt and waved it about, boasting that the fabric was the result of keeping this “Tip” happy. But the three slave women responded with a tacit acknowledgment that this Tip was no different from theirs.

“Sit with us for a spell,” one of the twins offered, pointing to the thickest patch of grass.

Lizzie was certain Mawu would decline the invitation, so she was surprised when the woman set down her basket, pulled up her skirt, and gathered her legs beneath her.

“They call me Philip,” said the man between Lizzie’s legs. He liked the looks of this one. He also liked the way she talked—a melodic accent that pulled at the corners of her mouth. He hadn’t taken a woman in months, and hadn’t had a woman of his own in years. But something about her—maybe it was the hair—warned Philip that his interest shouldn’t be of the permanent kind. “And this here is henry and this is George. They brothers. I suppose these here women can introduce theyselves, but I can save them the trouble. This here is Reenie, they call this one Sweet, and the one here behind me is Lizzie. Me and Lizzie from the same plantation down in Tennessee.”

Mawu added, “I come from Louisiana,” although no one had asked.

Reenie nodded briefly and the other two women took that as a sign to go back to their work. The men tilted their heads again and popped the flowers into their mouths. Lizzie’s hands were working on Philip, but her eyes were working on the lioness. She watched as Mawu looked off into nowhere, and so was the first to see Mawu’s lips pucker and begin to hum something light. It sounded like it had some spirit in it, but it was no tune