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The prophets : a novel
First Chapter or Excerpt
Maggie She woke. She yawned. A burial place. This house is a fucking burial place , Maggie whispered, before it was time to go to the other room, the kitchen that she was chained to even though not a single link could be seen. But yes, there it was, snapped around her ankle, clinking nevertheless. She mumbled the curse to herself, but it was meant for other people. She learned to do that, whisper low enough in her throat that an insult could be thrown and the target would be none the wiser. It became her secret language, living just below the audible one, deeper behind her tongue. The sky was still dark, but she laid in her hay pallet an extra moment, knowing it could cost her. The Halifaxes each had their own way of communicating their displeasure, some less cruel than others. She could tell you stories. She climbed out of the pallet and rolled her eyes at the hounds that lay on the floor by her feet. Oh, she slept on the back porch with the animals. Not her choice. Though it was enclosed and provided views out onto Ruth Halifax's garden. Beyond it, a field of wildflowers bursting with every color, but the blues were the ones that were perfect enough to hurt feelings. Several rows of trees marked the end of the field and gave way to sandy ground that opened onto the bank of the Yazoo River. There, the people, when permitted, would scrub themselves down in the sometimes muddy water under the watchful gaze of the man whose name Maggie stopped saying for a reason. On the other side of the river, which seemed farther away than it was, a mess of trees stood so close together that no matter how hard she squinted, she couldn't see past the first row of them. She wanted to hate the fact that she was made to sleep there on the porch, low to the ground on some makeshift bed she piled together herself from the hay she got from Samuel and Isaiah, whom she referred to as The Two of Them. But so often the smell of the field calmed her and if she had to be in the damn Big House with Paul and his family, then it was best she was in the space farthest from them. The hounds were Paul's choice. Six of them that got to know every living soul on the plantation in case any of those souls tried to drift. She had seen it before: The beasts chased people into the sky and managed to snatch them down no matter how high they thought they could float. Them dogs: Ears just a flopping, woofing in that gloomy way that they do, sad eyes and everything. You almost feel sorry for them until they got a hold of your ass and bit it all the way back to the cotton field--or the chopping block, one. They whined the minute she sat up and she detested the sound. Why they kept the animals enclosed was beyond her reasoning. Animals belonged outdoors. But then again, the Halifaxes were indoors so that meant all of creation had some right to be inside as well. Maggie got up. "Go on," she said to the hounds, unlatching the door that led out to the garden. "Go find a hare or something and leave me be." All six of them ran out. She inhaled deeply, hoping she took in enough of the field to last her through the day. She kept her hand on the door so that it would close quietly. She limped over to another door on the opposite side of the porch and went into the kitchen. It could have been its own cabin given that it was twice the size of even the largest of the shacks people lived in at Empty. Still, she felt cramped in it, like something unseen was pushing her down from every direction. "Breathe, child," she said aloud and dragged her hurt leg over to the counter that ran underneath a row of windows that faced east and looked out onto the barn. She grabbed two bowls and the sack of flour stored in the cupboards beneath the counter. She removed a jug of water and a sifter from the cabinet left of the counter. Once combined, she began kneading the ingredients into dough for biscuits: a heavy thing that, with heat, time, and her bruised knuckles, became yet another meal that failed to satisfy Halifax appetites. She moved over toward of the front of the kitchen to get some logs to heat the stove. There was a pile of them under another window, one which faced south. During the day, that window allowed her to see past the row of willow trees in front of the house, down the long path that led to the front fence and intersected with the dusty road to Vicksburg's town square. She had only seen the square once, when she was dragged from Georgia and hauled off to Mississippi. Her old master had loaded her up onto a wagon, chained her feet, and sat her amongst some other frightened people. The journey took weeks. Once they got past the lumbering trees, the road opened up upon a great number of buildings, the kind of which she had never seen. She was marched from the wagon onto some platform, where she stood before a great crowd. A toubab, filthy and smelling of ale, stood next to her and shouted numbers. The people in the audience looked at her, none raised their hands in pursuit of her--none except Paul, who she heard tell his young charge that she would make a good kitchen wench and companion for Ruth. She picked up two logs and headed for the stove, which sat near one of the doors. The kitchen had two doors. The one closest to the stove faced north and led to the covered porch where she slept. The other, facing west, led into the dining room, beyond which was the foyer, the living room, and the sitting room where Ruth entertained when she was up to it. One of the windows in the sitting room faced the cotton fields. Ruth often sat and stared through it for hours. On her face, a smile so delicate Maggie couldn't be sure it was a smile at all. At the back of the house was Paul's study, which contained more books than Maggie had ever seen in one place. Glimpses of the room only intensified her desire to be able to open one of the books and recite the words, any words, as long as she could say them herself. On the second floor, four large bedrooms anchored each corner of the house. Paul and Ruth slept in the two rooms facing south, adjoined by a balcony from which they surveyed most of the property. At the back of the house, Timothy, their only surviving child, slept in the northeastern room. The last bedroom remained empty for guests. Perceptive folks called the Halifax plantation by its rightful name: Empty. And there was no escape. Surrounded by dense, teeming wilderness--swamp maple, ironwood, silverbell, and pine as far, high, and tangled as the mind could imagine--and treacherous waters where teeth, patient and eternal, waited beneath to sink themselves into the flesh, it was the perfect place to hoard captive peoples. Mississippi only knew how to be hot and sticky. Maggie sweat so profusely that the scarf wrapped around her head was drenched by the time she began gathering the cookware. She would have to change it before the Halifaxes got up to eat. Her neat appearance was important to them, these people who didn't even wash their hands before they ate and who didn't clean themselves after leaving the outhouse. With powdered hands, Maggie rubbed her sides, content with how her own figure--not just its particular curves, but also how it never burned and became red under a beaming sun-- separated her from her captors. She loved herself when she could. She regretted nothing but her limp. The world tried to make her feel some other way, though. It had tried to make her bitter about herself. It had tried to turn her own thinking against her. It had tried to make her gaze upon her reflection and judge what she saw as repulsive. She did none of these things. Instead, she fancied her skin in the face of these cruelties. For she was the kind of black that made toubab men drool and her own men recoil. In her knowing, she glowed in the dark. When she felt her shape--narrow, hard--it evoked in her another outlawed quality: confidence. None of this was visible to the naked eye. It was a silent rebellion, but it was the very privacy of it that she enjoyed most. Because there was precious little of that here--privacy, joy, take your pick. There was only the four dull corners of the kitchen, where sorrow hung like hooks and rage leaped in from any opening. It came in from the spaces between floorboards, the slits between doorjambs and doors, the line between lips. She threw the logs into the belly of the stove, then grabbed a pan out of the cupboard above. She went back to the counter and removed the dough from the bowl. Tenderly, she molded. Properly, she spaced the shapes into the pan. Then into the oven. But that didn't mean that she could rest. There was always more to do when serving people of invention. Inventors for the sake of inventing: out of boredom, solely to have something over which to marvel, even when it was undeserved. Their creativity puzzled her. Once, Paul called her into his room. When she arrived, he was standing near the window, the sun rendering him featureless. "Come here," he said, his calm laced with venom. He asked her to hold his manhood while he urinated into a bedpan. She thought herself lucky considering the other possibilities. And when he ordered her to point its slit at her chest, she left the room splashed yellow and drawing flies. She counted her blessings, but still: how confusing. She tried to remember something Cora Ma'Dear--her grandmother from Georgia who taught Maggie who she was--said to her. She was just a girl then, and their time together had been so brief. But some things printed on the mind cannot be erased; fuzzy maybe, but not gone. She tried to remember the old word from the other sea that Cora Ma'Dear used to describe toubab. Oyinbo! That was it. There was no equivalent in English. The closest was "accident." Then it was simple: These people were an accident. Maggie didn't much mind their brutality, though, because it was what she had come to expect from them. People rarely deviated from their nature, and although it pained her to admit, she found a tiny bit of comfort in the familiarity. Their kindness, however, sent her into a panic. For it, like any trap, was unpredictable. She rejected it and risked the consequences. Then, at least, the retaliation took on a recognizable form and she wasn't rendered a fool. When she first arrived at Empty, years ago, she was greeted so warmly by Ruth, who looked to be about the same age as she. Both of them still girls despite the newly flowing blood. "You can stop crying now," Ruth said to her then, eyes cheerful and thin lips pulled back into a smile, revealing crooked teeth. She rushed her inside what was the biggest house Maggie had ever seen. Ruth even took Maggie upstairs to her room, where she pulled a dress out of a dresser drawer. Maggie had the nerve to adore it. She was seduced by its pattern of orange rosebuds so tiny they could be mistaken for dots. She never had anything so pretty. Who wouldn't quiver? Ruth was with child at the time--one of the ones that didn't survive--and used her body's new shape as justification for giving away such a fine thing. "They say I'm due in the winter. Terrible thing to have a child in the winter. Don't you think so?" Maggie didn't answer because any answer damned her. "Well, we'll just have to make sure the death of pneumonia don't reach here, now won't we?" Ruth said to fill in the silence. Now that was a safe one to answer. Maggie nodded. "Oh, you're going to look so pretty in this dress! You so shiny. I always thought white looked better on niggers than it did on people." Maggie was young then and couldn't know the price. How dangerous to be so accepting. The dress could have been reclaimed at any moment, accompanied by an accusation. And, indeed, when it was said that Maggie stole it, after Ruth had been nothing but kind her, Maggie didn't deny it because what would be the use? She took her licking like a woman twice her age with half the witnesses. Oh, Ruth cried her conviction, imagining that it would make her sincerity indisputable. The tears looked real. She also spoke some silliness about a sisterly bond, but never once asked Maggie if it was an arrangement she desired. It was assumed that whatever Ruth wanted to piss, Maggie wanted to cup her hands and drink. So Ruth cried and Maggie learned right then and there that a toubab woman's tears were the most potent of potions; they could wear down stone and make people of all colors clumsy, giddy, senseless, soft. What, then, was the point of asking: So why didn't you tell the truth? Winter came and Ruth gave birth, a girl she named Adeline. She brought the child--pale and discontent--into the kitchen and said to Maggie: "Here. I'll help you unfasten your dress." Maggie had seen other women submit to this and had feared this day for herself. Only with a great deal of restraint could she act as a cow for this child. It had dull eyes and eyelashes so close to the color of its own skin that it might as well not have had any at all. Maggie detested the feel of its probing lips on her breast. She forced herself to smile just to keep from smashing its frail body to the ground. What kind of people won't even feed their own babies? Deny their offspring the blessing of their very own milk? Even animals knew better. From then on, all children disturbed Maggie, including her own. She judged harshly all people who had the audacity to give birth: men who had the nerve to leave it inside; women who didn't at least attempt, by hook or by crook, to end it. She regarded them all with great suspicion. Giving birth on Empty was a deliberate act of cruelty and she couldn't forgive herself for accomplishing it on three out of six occasions. And who knew where the first or the second were now. See? Cruelty. Chirrun, as she called them, didn't even have the grace to know what they were, and neither did many of the adults, but that was on purpose: ignorance wasn't bliss, but degradation could be better endured if you pretended you were worthy of it. The youngins ran around the plantation, in and out of the stables, hiding in the cotton field, busy as manure flies. Their darting, knotty heads were unaware of the special hell tailored for each of them. They were foolish, helpless, and unlovable, but whatever loathing she felt for them was mitigated by what she knew they would one day endure. Toubab children, however, would be what their parents made them. She could do nothing to intervene. No matter what kindly tricks she employed, they would be the same dreary, covetous creatures they were destined to be, a blight their humorless god encouraged. For them, she could only muster pity, and pity only served to magnify her disgust. It had occurred to her early on to rub nightshade petals on her nipples just before being forced to suckle. Against her skin, purple was disguised. It worked. Adeline died for what appeared to be inexplicable reasons. She foamed at the mouth. But this arose no suspicion because Ruth had miscarried once and had a stillborn child just prior. The fourth child, Timothy, however, had a will to survive nearly as strong as Maggie's own. Grown now. Handsome, for one of them . Kinder than she would have imagined he could be given what he was. What was he doing now? she wondered. Painting, probably. He had a talent for such things. She didn't spare the adults. She knew her attempts would be puny, insignificant rootwork that was more dangerous to her than to her targets. But miniscule power was still power. Therefore, when she was able, when not under surveillance, which was rare but not impossible, after she believed she had gained a modicum of their trust, she would seek all manner of things to add to her recipes. Slowly, patiently, a few drops of snake venom in the sweet tea. A tiny bit of heel-ground glass dust in the hominy grits. Never feces or urine because that was too personal. Not even a hair on her head, which is why the head-wrap was so important. She wouldn't allow them the pleasure, the privilege, of having any part of her freely given. And beyond that, it was simply insulting; it would only grant them even greater mastery over her. As with any good magic, she topped it off with a gentle humming that listeners often mistook for an ode to some far-off trickster in the sky. At the very least, if she couldn't kill them, she could make them uncomfortable. Cantankerous bellies and the rare bloody stool were pleasant, reassuring results. But she remembered that she mustn't raise suspicion. She didn't put anything in the biscuits this time. She recently received a warning in her dreams. Typically, she dreamed only of darkness. Sleep of the dead, they called it, and she suffered at Paul's hands for it more than once. So when her mother came to her whispering, dressed in white with a veil over her face, Maggie recognized all the signs for danger and knew that she would have to be particularly cautious. Just bread for now. The dogs were back, fussing and whimpering at the back door, aroused by the scent of the pork she started frying in the pan. She stepped out onto the back porch and into the dark morning. The sky had just begun to get pallid at the edges, but the sun was nowhere to be found. She kissed the air out loud in the hopes of getting the dogs attention, get the pack of them to hush. For a moment, they quieted. Then, they started up again. She stepped down into the field and picked up a stick. She shook it at them and then threw it as far as she could into the brush. They gave chase. "Thank goodness," she said. She gazed into the darkness, the same direction toward which the dogs ran. Whatever was in those woods, and beyond, was sure to be better than here, she thought, certainly couldn't be no worse. When she was younger, she let herself think about what could be behind the clusters of trees. Another river, surely. Maybe a town with people who almost looked like her. Perhaps a giant hole where creatures lived. Or a mass grave where people were thrown when they were no longer useful. Or maybe the toubab were right and there wasn't a single thing beyond the woods but the edge of the world and those who ventured there were doomed to be swallowed up by nothingness. Nothingness seemed as good a choice as any, though. She stared and stared, but didn't move. She didn't admit it, not even to herself, but she was broken. Her years on Empty had succeeded in hollowing her like its name promised. From friend to rag doll to cattle to cook, and not a one with her permission. Wouldn't that bust anyone up? So yes, she was broken. But she wasn't shattered. She could keep passing her misery back on to its source. Maybe that could be a mending. Essie, who helped Maggie in the house sometimes, would be up by now. Surely, tending to that crying burden of hers; the one that nearly killed her coming into the world. "Mag, I don't know what I'm gon' do. He look at me with those glassy eyes and scare me so," Essie said to her once. Maggie looked at her: Essie's hair was disheveled, her dress torn, her face ashy with tear stains. She had only seen Essie like this once before. Both times, it annoyed her. "Woman, ain't nothing you can do now. What's done is done. That baby your'n. If it's the eyes that scare you so bad, close yours. Or hand him off to Be Auntie, who love that color more than her own," Maggie replied with more sharpness than she had intended. She paused and rubbed Essie's shoulder. "Maybe," Maggie then said softly, "Maybe, I could come by every now and again to help." She forced a smile. "And we can get Amos to pitch in; I don't care what he say about it--'specially now that y'all done took the broom leap." Maggie didn't really care what Amos said about most things. She remembered when, some time back, he walked into the study with Paul Halifax and emerged transformed into something unrecognizable; more beautiful to some, but to Maggie, every glint in his eye and click of his tongue was deception. Yet, he was so proud. People liked pride. Mistook it for purpose. "Good morning," Amos would say with a smile too earnest to be honest. Maggie would nod in return as she walked by him and then cut her eyes the moment she was clear of him. She did, however, understand what Essie saw in him when Paul sent him in to her. It was nice to be asked rather than taken, to be held close rather than held down. Nevertheless, a snake was still a snake and its bite hurt whether it was poisonous or not. Sometimes, when Maggie watched Amos closely--the gait of his walk, the upward tilt of his nose, how his habbage rode his back--she laughed. She knew what he was trying to do, who he was attempting to imitate, and she knew why. She had no contempt for him, but had no warmth either. He had a kind face, though sorrowful, the latter connected him to their people and this place. He was as black as virgin soil even if his loyalties seemed to lie elsewhere, where the potential for backfire was imminent. He would learn that if he learned nothing else, and when he did, it would crush him. Maggie shook her head and put her hands on her hips. "Just plain foolish," she said to no one. She turned to walk back into the kitchen and saw that the sky had begun to lighten a bit and she could make out the shape of the barn amongst the shadows. That was where Samuel and Isaiah spent most of their time working, tending to the animals, breathing, sleeping, and other things. Those poor boys: The Two of Them. They learned, and learned early, that a whip was only as loathsome as the person wielding it. Sometimes, they made it even harder for themselves by being so damn stubborn. But never had stubbornness been so enchanting. She didn't take to them at first. Like all children, one was indistinguishable from the other. They blended into a mass of ignorant, pitiful bodies; and they laughed, high-pitched, without reserve, which made them too tempting to ignore. There wasn't a single blade of grass that didn't bend to the sorrow of this place, but these little ones behaved as if it could be openly defied. But by the time hair began to sprout around their sexes, The Two of Them had figured out (maybe not figured out as much as revealed) an ingenious way of separating themselves from the others: by being their own selves. And the split exposed a feeling in her long hidden. Even now, she couldn't explain it, but her breasts became tender around them, like they should have, but didn't, when she was forced to be Empty's mare. Along with the tenderness of breast came a tenderness of heart. It wasn't simply that they were helpful, that she never had to lift a bucket of water from the well or a log for the fire or a boulder to beat the wash when they were around. It wasn't just that they had never asked anything of her, not even her approval. It might have been that the feeling had nothing to do with them at all, but rather with something they helped her to remember. She saw something once. Just as the moon had gone as high as it would go, she crept over one night to bring them the food that she had hidden earlier that morning: a strip of fried quail, half an egg, a few apple slices that she mashed into a sauce, no poisons. She moved quietly from the house to the barn. She came up from the backside of the barn and intended to enter from a side door, but it was latched. She heard noises and pressed her ear up against the wall. A moan, perhaps; a gasp; the longest sigh ever. Then she peered through a crack between the boards of the wall. She could only see them because of the moonlight that shot in through the parts of the roof where the planks needed repair. Shadowy figures. From a distance, they seemed to be tussling. She was certain she saw Samuel bite Isaiah's shoulder in an attempt to be free from his grasp. They tumbled down the haystack, crushing misplaced saddles and frightening wayward crickets into the air. They were naked, sweaty, as twisted together as earthworms, and grunting pig songs. When they had finally come to a stop, their faces were pressed together, held there, seemingly, by their quivering tongues. Then one turned on his stomach. She hurried back to the Big House. To ease some other pain, surely. Surely. But what was that flitting around in her head and why had she begun to sweat so? What was she remembering? Her journey to the barn became nighttime routine. Quietly, she peeked into it, gladly offering her soul for just a sliver of moonlight. She watched them from underneath ladders, behind stacks of hay, or through the jambs of horse-pen doors. She had no desire to interrupt or even to discuss what she saw; simply bearing witness was treasure. For they were as frisky and playful as crows and her proximity made her feel as if she was in the dark sky, suspended upon the surface of their wings. Oh so black. Oh so high. Up there, where there was safety and glow. But down here, they had better be careful. She had tried to find a word for what she witnessed. There was none she could think of; at least, there was no word extraordinary enough, particularly not in the tongue she spoke now. Why aren't they afraid? Maggie found herself asking as she stood in the kitchen, still staring at the barn. She rubbed her face. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw something blink into existence, shimmer, and then fade out as soon as it had arrived. It was the edge of something black. Then, something swirled. With it came the stench. She could only see the outline, but it might have been someone on fire. By the time she reached for a jug of water, it was gone. A spot of dried blood on the floor right where the haint had visited was the only evidence she had that she was not imagining things. The pounding in her chest subsided and she scratched her own cheek to stop from weeping. Was it memory or prophecy? She couldn't tell. Sometimes, there was no difference. She held onto herself regardless and put past and future things as far away as they would let her--as though that mattered. Visions had the keys to the cage and would let themselves out whenever they pleased. This condition had to be lived with. There was no other way. The cage was unlocked when thinking about the Two of Them. And it was, then, no surprise to her that they chose each other above the other, more readily available options. It was unremarkable that they mostly didn't pay attention to a woman, not even when forced. Not even in July, when toubab women would wait for toubab men to render themselves unconscious from spirits. These women--who went on and on about what it meant to be a lady (a term Maggie thought foolish)--got down on barn floors, pulled their dresses up over their breasts, spread their legs from one corner to the other, and writhed for the men they publicly despised. Isaiah and Samuel weren't moved in January either, when people sometimes huddled together for warmth. Thisclose to a woman--whose skin and hair was dark with readiness, whose breath comforted and agitated, whose nether-scent threatened to make the insides of men shatter from longing--and neither of The Two of Them so much as twitched a pinky finger. No, those boys risked more than was necessary searching each other's faces, again and again, for the thing that made rivers rush toward the sea. Always one smiling and always the other with his mouth angry and ajar. Reckless. She looked out the window again at the barn and saw the sun peak its head through the eastern trees. The pork was almost done. She took a plate and wiped it with the edge of her dress and went to the dining room table. She had set the table with unfathomable resentment. White table linen, sharp at the corners, napkin rings strangling, cutlery already its own kind of deadly. All living things smothered, even the picked-wildflower centerpiece. The dim candle lighting cast a brass shadow, making everything, even Maggie, appear appropriately solemn. She had to arrange the table the same each day: Paul always at the head; Ruth always to his right; Timothy always to his left, and three extra settings for the occasional guests. She would stand around after she had set the table and listen to the family give, in unison, thanks to the long-haired man whose gaze always turned upward--probably because he couldn't bear to see the havoc wreaked in his name. Or maybe he just couldn't bother to look. Maggie only knew about this man because she let Essie talk her into going to one of Amos' sermons one Sunday. They held court in the woods, in the circle of trees at the southern edge of the cotton field. The man whose name she couldn't speak for a reason was there with a few of his scraggly minions and she wanted to turn right around when she saw him. But Essie had begged her to stay. She seemed so proud--and something other than proud, but Maggie couldn't tell what. Amos stood up on a tree stump. That was exactly what the clearing smelled like to her: dead trees and the things that hid underneath them--or in this case, stood on top of them. There were about thirty people in the crowd then, sitting on logs or on the ground. That was before people started to believe Amos. He opened his mouth and she sucked her teeth. He wasn't doing anything but repeating some bits and pieces she heard Paul discuss around the dinner table. She knew from experience that no good could come from folks spending so much time alone with the toubab. She found it rather dreary. Amos did have a way of talking, though. More like singing than anything else. The tree stump showcased him in a new light. Sun rays came down through the leaves, giving his blackness a kind of golden hue, showering him, too, with the kind of jagged shadows that made men mysterious, which was another way of saying strong. And Essie seemed so pleased. That was what made Maggie promise Essie that she would come back and sit with her in the same shady spot Essie reserved just for them. Until it could be so no longer. Until the day Amos's words took a different turn, spoke of things that made Essie look down and Maggie lean back. Maggie immediately placed the meanness in them--toward The Two of Them, of all people!--and she gave Amos only a stern eye when she wanted to give more. Uh huh, she thought, there it go ! "It's an old thing," she told Amos. But he didn't listen. She didn't wait around to hear another word come out of Amos' mouth. She unlocked her arm from Essie's, stood up, and marched her way back to the Big House, tall with lips curled, shadows falling down her back and light fluttering across her chest. She only looked back once and that was to let Essie see her face so she would know that it wasn't because of her. She stopped setting the table for a moment and turned to look at the barn from the window. "Mm," she said aloud. Maggie suspected Essie knew about the Two of Them and never said a word. That was good, though, because some things should never be mentioned, didn't have to be, not even amongst friends. There were many ways to hide and save one's self from doom, and keeping tender secrets was one of them. It seemed to Maggie a suicidal act to make a precious thing plain. Perhaps that was because she couldn't imagine a thing--not a single thing--worth exposing herself for. Whatever she might have ever loved was taken before it even arrived. That is, until she crept up and saw those boys, who had the decency to bring with them a feeling that didn't make her want to scream. She grabbed a rag and removed the biscuits from the oven. They browned perfectly. She tumbled them into a bowl lined with a square of linen and set the bowl on the table. She held two biscuits in her hand and squeezed until the crumbs pushed through her fingers. She looked around the room and then back at the table again. She wondered if she had the strength to flip it over because she already knew she had the rage. She placed her hand on a corner of it and give it a little tug. "Heavy," she mumbled to herself. She heard the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs. She knew it was Paul because of how deliberate each step was. He'd come in the kitchen and sit at the head of the table and watch her, like her wretchedness brought him joy. He might even have the nerve to touch her or stick his tongue where it had no business being. She wished she knew a spell that could slit his throat, but alas, that would require a hands-on approach and she wasn't certain that she could take him. "Shit." Excerpted from The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr. All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
Fiction/Biography Profile
Isaiah (Male), Slave, Tends to the animals with Samuel; the barn is a place of refuge
Samuel (Male), Slave, Tends to the animals with Isaiah: the barn is a place of refuge
Young men
Plantation life
African Americans
- South (U.S.)
Large Cover Image
Trade Reviews
Booklist Review
The most horrific tales often inspire the most exquisite language. How else to explain The Prophets, a first novel of slavery's brutality, racism, misogyny, and homophobia recounted in prose of limpid beauty? On a Southern plantation eerily named Empty, Sam and Isaiah grow up as friends, then lovers under the watchful and protective eyes of their community. However, when fellow slave Amos decides to ingratiate himself with the plantation owner by becoming a preacher, he slowly yet methodically cultivates suspicion and division, with tragic results. Jones conveys powerful truths with well-chosen words in spare prose. After a night of love-making, Isaiah and Sam "Reluctantly . . . swept the evidence of their bliss back into a neat pile, nearer to where their misery was already neatly stacked"; the poison of Amos' accusations against the boys "jumped from one face to the next, like lanterns." The horrendous hierarchy of oppression is made clear, such as when Puah, a young woman sexually abused by slave and slaver alike, wryly notes that "Men and toubab [whites] shared far more than either would ever admit . . . They both took what they wanted; asking was never a courtesy. Both smiled first, but pain always followed." A masterfully told story that will haunt readers from beginning to end.
Kirkus Review
An epic attempt to imagine a history of Black queerness from the African past to the antebellum American South. In his debut novel, Jones--perhaps better known to readers as the blogger Son of Baldwin--delivers an ambitious tale of love and beauty in the face of brutality. Samuel and Isaiah are two young men enslaved on a Mississippi plantation known as Empty. Isaiah is haunted by fragmented memories of the mother he was stripped from as a child; Samuel became Isaiah's first friend on the plantation when he was brought there in chains, and their relationship has bloomed into a love affair that sets them apart from the other slaves and disrupts the plantation's functioning. The plantation's owner is Paul, a White man who forces his slaves into having sex so the women will produce new slaves. Samuel's and Isaiah's sexuality throws a wrench in Paul's cruelty, and the consequences of their love send ripples through the novel's vast cast of vividly rendered characters. There's Essie, for instance, the female slave Isaiah can't impregnate and who eventually is raped by Paul. She becomes pregnant with Solomon--whom she can't bring herself to love--and this infuriates Amos, an older slave who loves her and schemes to turn the plantation against Isaiah and Samuel for what he thinks of not only as their selfishness, but their unnatural love. "There was no suitable name for whatever it was that Samuel and Isaiah were doing," he reflects after seeing them coiled together in the barn they share. Jones spins a sprawling story of jealousy and passion that foregrounds Black queerness, asserting that queerness has always been part of the Black experience--not just in the slave past, but the African one as well. The novel stretches itself to the point of disbelief when Jones dips his toe into that African past, and there are too many balls in the air for the details of life on Empty to cohere into a satisfying plot. For all its faults, though, this is an inspired and important debut. An ambitious, imaginative, and important tale of Black queerness through history. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Best Book of the Year
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* Finalist for the National Book Award
* One of the New York Times Notable Books of the Year
* One of the New York Times Best Historical Fiction of the Year
* Instant New York Times Bestseller

A singular and stunning debut novel about the forbidden union between two enslaved young men on a Deep South plantation, the refuge they find in each other, and a betrayal that threatens their existence.

Isaiah was Samuel's and Samuel was Isaiah's. That was the way it was since the beginning, and the way it was to be until the end. In the barn they tended to the animals, but also to each other, transforming the hollowed-out shed into a place of human refuge, a source of intimacy and hope in a world ruled by vicious masters. But when an older man--a fellow slave--seeks to gain favor by preaching the master's gospel on the plantation, the enslaved begin to turn on their own. Isaiah and Samuel's love, which was once so simple, is seen as sinful and a clear danger to the plantation's harmony.

With a lyricism reminiscent of Toni Morrison, Robert Jones, Jr., fiercely summons the voices of slaver and enslaved alike, from Isaiah and Samuel to the calculating slave master to the long line of women that surround them, women who have carried the soul of the plantation on their shoulders. As tensions build and the weight of centuries--of ancestors and future generations to come--culminates in a climactic reckoning, The Prophets fearlessly reveals the pain and suffering of inheritance, but is also shot through with hope, beauty, and truth, portraying the enormous, heroic power of love.
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