When you’ve been here a while, when you’re at least four feet tall and you’ve got one viewing of Roots under your belt, I’ll take your slender wrist between my thumb and forefinger, turn your arm palm-up, and tell you to sit.
There’s something I want to show you, I’ll say.
We’ll look at your veins, winding greenish and blue under what I predict will be maize-colored skin.
Every vein is a storyline. I’ll trace them with my index finger for emphasis. Every story belongs to a woman who’s come before you. These are your grandmothers’. This one’s your aunt’s. And this is mine.
I will tell you that, just as some parts of the vein are visible and close to the skin, and others are buried deeper, toward the bone, so also are the stories of your ancestresses: some portions are knowable; others will be forever hidden from view.
These days, my own veins have become far more prominent. Beneath my shoulder blades, dozens of greenish paths are writhing and converging in a race toward the center of my breasts. As if overnight, my body has become its own cartographer, my veins a series of routes spread out, as if drawn on an interstate map.
They are paving a way for you.
Though my stomach is darker than my chest, its veins are also emerging, wider and thicker than the ones above.
I am filling with proteins and fats and stories. Years from now, when I hold your wrist and trace its risen lines, I will repeat the words my body is whispering daily.
We will start with the tale of the teenage girl who creeps off to a bar on a corner, with a few of her older siblings. Terribly shy, she feels scandalized there. The walls are sweating liqour; the moisture accosting her skin has no respect for the painstaking work of her hotcomb. She wants a stool in a corner, a quiet place to shrink away and wait for the music to swell. Her siblings have scattered, like ants in bakery littered with crumbs. The brazen suggestions of sailors, the broad, jutting shoulders of bricklayers, the bony, jabbing elbows of wire-rimmed junior collegiates are bruising her body, all over. She considers leaving, obedient as she usually is, and self-conscious enough to know that she’s too young for this scene, full of porters and rail workers and factory men, full of women she’d heard her mama whisper about at first ladies’ luncheons.
But then the band began to kick up, a trumpeter at the fore, beckoning offstage, and out came pompadoured Bobby Bland, in slacks tailored slim and suggestive. The women’s knees buckled before he even neared the microphone. The men cussed their approval, raising glasses of whiskey and gin. But the girl’s own heart didn’t quicken till he leaned in, grinning almost evilly as he crooned: I went down to St. James Infirmary—and I heard my baby groan….
Her body shuddered before she could temper it, and she pulled the collar of her green wool sweater tighter around her narrow neck. She wanted to cast sidelong glances, to make sure no one had noticed, but before she could, an arm snaked its way around her waist and the heat of a gravelly, honeyed voice singed her ear.
“Slow down now, girl.” He rested his chin on her shoulder, then moved before she could shrug him away.
But she wouldn’t have.
Now she’s gone, she’s gone and may God bless her, wherever she may be. She has searched this wide world over, but she’s never found a man like me….
She watched him pretend not to be aware he was being watched. He took a long drag off a short cigarette and narrowed his eyes at the stage. He wasn’t tall, but he was dark and handsome, with eyes at once kind and menacing, and though he wore civilian clothes, she knew he was a soldier long before he told her. She fancied herself intuitive, then.
They sipped watery gin from a clouded glass. She cringed, her entire face a pucker, and his throaty laugh carried, over the somber blues and the raucous chants of the crowd.
She loved him. She was certain of this, at sixteen, even after she found out he was already husband and father to another brown and burgeoning family, even after it became clear he’d never leave them for her and the girl he’d left growing inside her.
Your lips will part, dewy with eager inquiry, but I’ll let my finger flit to another vein and begin anew.
You needn’t investigate these tales for accuracy. Fact, uttered hastily and under cautious breath, is often imparted sparingly in families. Much of what I’ll tell you will be imaginative meat added to bare, brittle bone.
But it’s important that you know what the women who made you are capable of. We are, generation upon generation, fierce and earnest lovers of the absolute wrong men. We are women who tend to breed babies with ghosts. So you must listen beneath the fiction, beneath the fact. You must listen for the throb of the pulse, and find yourself a frequency that frees you from this unkindly inheritance.
I will hunt for new veins till I’ve exhausted our family’s stories. I will never, ever mention that the blood flowing through them is your father’s.