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Excerpt from Perish by LaToya Watkins, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Novel

by LaToya Watkins

Perish by LaToya Watkins X
Perish by LaToya Watkins
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  • Published:
    Aug 2022, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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Print Excerpt

There was light knocking on the door, and she could hear Ernestine calling out to her, almost crying but still whispering, begging for a response. But Helen Jean couldn't speak. She was struggling to catch her breath, to breathe, a thing that had always been easy. Dear God of Moses, she thought. What I done now? You gone kill me for trying to right this wrong? She asked him to take the monster growing inside her. The abomination it would be.

And suddenly, her ears felt stuffed, blocked, except for the sounds inside her. She opened her mouth wide and tried to force out a yawn. Everything outside of her felt distant, quiet, and she heard a faint whisper growing from inside her ear, like a mouth inside her head trying to crawl its way out. A life to repay the last one, it said. You can't keep killing them. Bear it or perish yourself.

Her eyes widened and she knew. She knew that God was not with her this time. The sounds around her returned. She could hear herself gasping for air and she could hear her cousin calling her name from outside of the outhouse. She fell to the floor of the outhouse and rolled to her back, raising her knees into a pyramid. The moon slithered in through the splintered wooden slats that were the roof of her aunt's outhouse. The tin had blown away years before, during a tornado, and the poor family had simply replaced it with wood from around their land. She hadn't noticed the glow when her eyes had been on the darkness around her feet.

It had been still all night, but as she lay on the floor, a strong, long wind seemed to come through and rattle every plank that was holding the outhouse together. The wind coupled with Ernestine's shaking the outhouse door made it feel like the end of days was happening outside.

Helen Jean kept her eyes on the moon's glow. It was beautiful. Like what she imagined the God of Moses looked like. And then, she made out a face through the glow. It was a narrow heart centered by a long, slender nose that was slightly humped in the center, like her own. For a moment, she thought she was seeing her own haint. She'd heard the old folks say you see yourself most clearly right before death. But the softness around the eyes allowed her to recognize her mother's face, and Helen Jean's breaths began to come so quickly she thought her heart would explode. This was it. She wouldn't be allowed to see herself clearly in this life. Not even in her own haint. The God of Moses had sent her mother to carry her to the Promised Land.

She wanted to tell her mother something first. She wanted to tell her that things had been hard. She wanted to ask her why she didn't fight for her mind. To stay herself. To stay with her children. She wanted to ask her what possessed her to leave them on that cold night. Why she had been so close to the lake when she couldn't swim. If she had meant to drown. To be found days later with her lungs filled with water, with her eyes wide open and void of life and her lips curled into a smile. If she had meant for them to suffer as they had. Helen Jean wanted to tell her mother about the thing inside her and how much she hated that it was there. She wanted to tell her that she wouldn't allow it to break her. She was stronger than that. That she was stronger than her.

On the floor of that nasty outhouse, with the scent of feces and urine closer to her nostrils than she wanted them to be, unable to catch her breath, she thought she would die, but she turned her head from the moon's glow, from her dead mother's face, and she made promises to God anyway. She wouldn't kill the monster inside her. She promised to never try it again. She'd give birth to any seed to ever grow inside her womb. She would stay with the things that passed through her. She would protect them. All she asked for was life. She promised she'd give it if hers was spared.

And just as quickly as the attack had come upon her, it ceased. She stayed on her back until her breathing leveled and then she responded to Ernestine's voice. "I'm all right, Stine. I'm all right."

Excerpted from Perish by LaToya Watkins. Copyright © 2022 by LaToya Watkins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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