So intent was she upon seeing that the weeping cane was stripped of its leaves—even in the dampening rain its brittle edges flew around her like thistledown—that she did not notice she had just dropped a child from her womb. July was born right there—slipping out to fall bloody and quivering upon a spiky layer of trash.
As July lay vulnerable upon the ground, she viewed the nightmare of tall canes that loured dark, ragged and unruly around her, and felt the hem of a rough woollen skirt drag its heavy wetness across her naked body. Then, all at once, she beheld—wrestling a long spike of cane, swinging it in the air and slicing at its length and leaves before hurling the stripped pole away—the mighty black woman that was her mother. Her mother’s arms, flexing under this strenuous work, were as robust as the legs of a horse in full gallop. Her thick neck looked to be crafted from some cleverly worked wood. Her bare breast, running with rain and sweat, glistened as if lacquered.
This colossal woman was still determined upon her work, unaware that she had mislaid anything. When July let forth a fierce, raw bellow that rustled the canes and affrighted the birds, her mother, cane bill raised, suddenly stopped to wonder upon the source of that desperate yell and saw, for the first time, her misplaced child lying there upon the trash. July’s mother cleaned the blade of her cane bill and slipped it into the cloth around her waist. With one hand she then commenced to unwind a scarf that was wrapping her head, whilst with the other hand she gathered up her newborn child in the cup of her palm. Within a fleeting moment that headscarf had July swaddled secure and warm against the solid wall of her mother’s back—whilst her mother, with - drawing the cane bill from the band at her waist, continued with her work.
And so ends the story of July’s birth—a story that was more thrilling than anything the rascal spider Anancy could conjure. With some tellings it was not the rain that beat down upon July’s tender, newborn body, but the hot sun, whose fierce heat baked the blood from her birth into a hard scabrous crust upon her naked flesh. Other times, it was a wind that was blowing with so fierce a breath that her mother had to catch July by one leg before her baby was blown out of the cane field, over the big house, and off into the clouds. While a further version had a tiger, with its long, spiky snout and six legs, sniffing at the baby July, thinking her as food. No matter what glorious heights her tall tale acquired, July always avowed that she had been born upon a cane piece.
But, reader, I cannot allow my narrative to be muddled by such an ornate invention, for upon some later page you may feel to accuse me of deception when, in point, I am speaking fact, even though the contents may seem equally preposterous. Although you may deem your storyteller humdrum for what hereinafter follows it is, with no fear of fantasy, the actual truth of July’s delivery into this world—and you may take my word upon it.
Kitty, July’s mama, gave birth to her in her dwelling hut. For eight long hours Kitty did pace about that hut—first five steps in one direction, then a further five in the other. All the while with her palms pressed to the small of her back, for she feared the protrusion at her belly had the might to pitch her pell-mell on to the ground. The coarse linen shirt she wore was so sodden with sweat as to appear to be made of gauze, and did bind about her tight as a dressing. At times she stopped in her feverish pacing to place her hands high upon the wall, lean her weight on to her arms and pant with the fury of a mad dog.
Kitty’s perspiration was turning the soil underneath her feet to a slippery layer of mud. So Rose, the woman who was attending her, requested that Kitty stoop a little that she might be permitted to mop her face and neck with rags—for Kitty was nearly six feet tall and Rose no more than four. Rose had had two children in her childbearing days—one was delivered stiff as stale bread and the other was sold away before she had properly finished suckling him. But she was the favoured attendant for births upon the plantation, for children born by her physic thrived with the vigour of the most indulged white missus child. But Kitty would not stoop to permit Rose to wipe her. Rose was forced to jump, like some feeble house slave charged to dust a high shelf, to brush the cloth across Kitty’s forehead.
Excerpted from The Long Song by Andrea Levy. Copyright © 2010 by Andrea Levy. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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From NYT bestselling author Ann Leary
The captivating story of an unconventional New England family.
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