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Excerpt from Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Let Us Descend

A Novel

by Jesmyn Ward

Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward X
Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward
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  • Published:
    Oct 2023, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Ahima
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Chapter 1: Mama's Bladed Hands

The first weapon I ever held was my mother's hand. I was a small child then, soft at the belly. On that night, my mother woke me and led me out to the Carolina woods, deep, deep into the murmuring trees, black with the sun's leaving. The bones in her fingers: blades in sheaths, but I did not know this yet. We walked until we came to a small clearing around a lightning-burnt tree, far from my sire's rambling cream house that sits beyond the rice fields. Far from my sire, who is as white as my mother is dark. Far from this man who says he owns us, from this man who drives my mother to a black thread in the dim closeness of his kitchen, where she spends most of her waking hours working to feed him and his two paunchy, milk-sallow children. I was bird-boned, my head brushing my mother's shoulder. On that night long ago, my mother knelt in the fractured tree's roots and dug out two long, thin limbs: one with a tip carved like a spear, the other wavy as a snake, clumsily hewn.

"Take this," my mother said, throwing the crooked limb to me. "I whittled it when I was small."

I missed it, and the jagged staff clattered to the ground. I picked it up and held it so tight the knobs from her hewing cut, and then my mother bought her own dark limb down. She had never struck me before, not with her hands, not with wood. Pain burned my shoulder, then lanced through the other.

"This one," she grunted, her voice low under her weapon's whistling, "was my mama's." Her spear was a black whip in the night. I fell. Crawled backward, scrambling under the undergrowth that encircled that ruined midnight room. My mother stalked. My mother spoke aloud as she hunted me in the bush. She told me a story: "This our secret. Mine and your'n. Can't nobody steal this from us." I barely breathed, crouching down further. The wind circled and glanced across the trees.

"You the granddaughter of a woman warrior. She was married to the Fon king, given by her daddy because he had so many daughters, and he was rich. The king had hundreds of warrior wives. They guarded him, hunted for him, fought for him." She poked the bush above me. "The warrior wives was married to the king, but the knife was they husband, the cutlass they lover. You my child, my mama's child. My mother, the fighter—her name was Azagueni, but I called her Mama Aza."

My mama set her spear down, stood with her palms open. They shone silver. "Come, Annis. Come out and I will teach you." I started to crawl forward, her blows still stinging. "Don't forget your staff," she said. I inched back before dragging myself up and out, where I stood on the tips of my toes, one foot in front of the other, ready to run. Waiting for her to hit me again. "Good," she said, looking at my feet, my swaying dance. "Good."

I have grown from that night to this one. I am tall enough to look down on my mother's head, her dark shoulders, beautiful and round as the doorknobs I polish in my sire's house. My mother has a few gray hairs, but her fingers are still sure as daggers, and she is still upright, slim and straight in the full moon's gloom. We come here, to our secret clearing with the burnt tree at its heart, only a few nights out of the month, when the moon shines full so we don't need a fire. My mother inspects my hands, pressing each callus, massaging my palm. I may be bigger and thicker than her now, but I stand still as the gap-toothed child I was and revel in her touch, unfurled to her tenderness.

"Your fingers long." My mother taps the center of my palm, and my fingers close fast. "You practice with my staff, tonight.

"Here," my mother says, digging out the weapon Mama Aza left her. She runs her grip down the long, thin limb, stained black and warm from the oil of her hands, and Mama Aza's before. Mama Aza taught my mama to fight with it, determined to pass along this knowing taught to her by the sister-wives across the great ocean.

Excerpted from Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward. Copyright © 2023 by Jesmyn Ward. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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