In Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s novel, Promise, the Kindred sisters are on the cusp of change, bounding toward and through adolescence. The small New England community where they live — as one of only two Black families — is also on the cusp. It’s 1957, and as the country changes, so will the sisters’ feelings of belonging, safety, and friendship in their almost-all-white neighborhood — even among their closest white friends. But the Kindred family, unbeknownst to their neighbors, is not new to resilience.
There’s so much to admire about the voice and story in this book, but I’d feel remiss not to mention the heart-song unleashed by where it begins, not only as a text or a matter of plot, but as a point of view: in the rich abundance of love that surrounds Cinthy and her sister Ezra. Not all of that love can survive unchanged by the tectonic shifts in the world around them, but it, too, is inheritance.
—Jina Moore Ngarambe for Guernica
I am named for my mother’s favorite flower – hyacinth. It is my mother’s favorite scent. Ezra is the one who came up with Cinthy. When I was very small, I loved how my sister used to sing my name to me. So I am much more like a Cinthy than a flower. My sister is named after a prophet and because Mama believed that she was having a boy. There was no doctor to tell her the facts and my mother would not have necessarily been partial to a doctor’s opinion. She disliked science slightly more than she disliked religion. Mama had been raised in a convent. While reading in the library there, which is where she spent much of her time when she was not cleaning and praying, she discovered that the word Ezra also means Help. Unlike me, Ezra was born in Damascus. Our parents left as quickly as possible after Ezra was born in our grandmother’s house.
Being a Cinthy feels difficult anywhere but particularly in Salt Point, and never having lived anywhere else, I have always wondered what it might feel like to live elsewhere with the melancholy of the sea trickling through me.
I wish I did not have the manners of Salt Point and did not possess their likeness beneath my brown skin. It has always left me at odds with myself. Though I have never searched for proof, I wonder if I am the only Negro who is native to this geography. How impossible, how suspicious, it feels to join myself, my girlhood, to the ways of white people who would prefer me and my family dead. Being raised in such a place I have always felt as though I was sitting on the lid of my own headstone.
Damascus, I was told, is inland. The people there, Mama said to Ezra, will get mad if don’t greet them in the morning or wish them a good night’s rest. Mama said that the people in Damascus don’t take it for granted that they’ll wake up the next day. When Ezra and I frowned and rolled our eyes about it, Mama interrupted us in her quiet voice. She was packing Ezra’s suitcase and it was too painful. Mama folded a pair of wool stockings as she glanced at us suddenly.
“They believe in God,” she said.
I begged Ezra to let me follow her to the bluffs, having no day-before-school adventure of my own. This is often the plight of baby sisters all over the world and I had settled into the idea. The pond beyond our house on our property bored me by now and I knew better than to ask Mama if I could bicycle down into the village alone.
When Ezra said that she and Ruby were doing Something I began to plead my case immediately. Of course, absolutely, I would be capable of keeping up with their pace. I assured Ezra that I would be very good, today at least, at keeping my mouth shut too.
“We’re doing something,” said Ez, repeating herself. Her voice, irritated, carried across the space of the shared bathroom, which connected our bedrooms.
“Something what? You telling Mama about Something?”
“Come on then, Cinthy. Put a dress on and hurry up. Don’t take all day to do it either.”
“It’s hot, Ez. I want to wear shorts.”
“Dress,” said Ezra in a flat, non-negotiable voice as she came through our bathroom and fixed her eyes at me, her fingers working through tangles so that she was able to tame her hair into a single braid that twisted between the blades of her shoulders. “Put on that dress or stay here and read one of those gigantic books you love. Don’t make no difference to me.”
“Any,” I said. “Any difference.”
Sitting on a faded cushion arranged on the sill in the large window of my bedroom, which looked out on Clove Road, the dead-end where we lived, I could see the shining of green leaves from my beloved oak. My room glimmered with light as though we were in an underwater room with glowing, flowered wallpaper.
The charred building set back from the road across from our house, its black face nestled like a rotting skull in wild grass. Growing up, we had never had a tree house but I thought we were luckier because had a haunted house.
Mama didn’t like us to play inside of the house because she warned us that one day the entire structure would collapse. When she caught us running out of the house or trying to sneak around the side of our house so it appeared that we were coming home from a different direction, we were punished. When Mama was in a bad mood about us disrespecting, her our house was filled with the sound of her fussing. Aloud she wondered who had raised the kind of daughters who thought it was fun to play inside of something so ugly and wasted.
This would have been a fair question if Mama herself did not have the problems she did with our grandmother. Ginny, who refused to be addressed as grandmother, still called Mama on the phone, trying to reach her no matter how many times we had heard Mama’s quiet voice telling her to leave us alone. When Mama complained about us to Daddy, I sometimes thought it was more about what was wrong with her and Ginny. In fact, our disobedience had little to do with what was really wrong.
Over the years, Ginny had sent letters. Sometimes my father attempted to read them to Mama but he gave this up when I was ten or eleven years old. Daddy liked peace under his roof. According to Mama, our grandmother knew nothing about peace.
From my window I could see white-green butterflies alighting and hovering in the shadows of the large butterfly bush that nearly obstructed the original entrance to the haunted house. The porch and front door were sooty heaps of wood and plaster where sometimes we discovered kittens or snakes, or found ourselves confronted by what we really feared — the ghost of the woman had set her house on fire on purpose. A mother-ghost who refused to leave the earth until she was reunited with her three daughters. The girls, trapped inside tubes of smoke, climbed down the side of the house in their nightgowns. Some say that the girls never actually made it out of the house and burned to their deaths. Other rumors from the village insisted that the girls had either fallen from the bluffs, dying in the air as they dropped to the sea, or that the girls, lost and overwhelmed by their mother’s madness, had crawled, afire, across Clove Road where they had then drowned in our pond.
Though I risked Ezra changing her mind about inviting me to go with her, I slid down our bannister from the top of our stairs. Ezra, bare-footed and clutching her leather sandals against her chest, stepped lightly down the front staircase, careful to mind the places where the wood would give us away. Our back staircase led directly into the kitchen where we could hear Mama moving around beneath a slow ballad that was playing from the radio. I pulled back from the door because I loved Sam Cooke and when he sang You Send Me it was like being under a spell.
Ez rolled her eyes at me to convey her disapproval. I had no business on that bannister, big as I was. Though I was younger than my sister, I was already as tall as her.
When Mama introduced us to people, strangers really, because we did not have friends in the village or elsewhere except for the Junketts, they immediately commented on our height. “Your girls are tall,” a person might say, as though they were reading a newspaper aloud and remarking that the day would be mildly sunny with a chance of showers.
My sister and I could never say from whom we had inherited our height. Unlike other peoples’ homes, our family did not have framed photographs of our relatives on the wall or arranged on the mantel above our fireplace. Instead of snapshots of Mama or us, my father kept specimens of butterfly wings or bird skulls on his desk for company. Our grandmother had begged Mama to send pictures of us to her so that she could place them in her album but Mama declined. While I liked the idea of a grandmother savoring pictures of my sister and me, I understood that her possession of us, even in photographs, was intolerable and painful for Mama to consider.
Mama and Daddy kept our house absent of our past on purpose. Any inquiry Ez and I mad about our height or our relatives was usually ignored, the subject changed, or as Grown-Ups really liked to do, they talked over us without listening. Their voices plowed through the spaces between our words until the questions they refused to answer were broken into particles that would not bother their Last Nerves. Which was another favorite subject, especially for Mama and Miss Irene.
I imagined Mama in our sunny kitchen, lifting her arms, the apron tugging above her waist. She would have a paring knife or wooden spoon in one hand. A drink sweating with ice in the other. Her fingertips would be cold from her glass where the ice melted into whiskey or scotch. Sam Cooke’s voice coated the entire room with honey. It was his voice that also helped return Mama to a hidden closet in herself she could never reach unless she got to drinking.
But Mama was concentrating. She would not visit that private closet today. Instead, she would sip her watery drink and switch to lemonade by the time the cooking was completed. She was making our special day-before-the-first-day-of-school dinner she had always prepared for us since we were children.
This evening we would have a pot roast with mashed potatoes and wild carrots, all seasoned from the fresh herbs – thyme, rosemary, sage, and lavender – that Mama grew and dried. We would have her baked, homespun rolls that were browned on the top but were pillowed inside with butter. To celebrate Daddy’s first day of teaching another year, there was lemon cake with lemon frosting. We would sit our dining table with our eyes sparkling, our hearts jittery.
Our parents would permit us to walk by ourselves down to our pond, which we called The Waterfront, to make new wishes for our first day of school. Our parents spoke of Our Education as though knowledge itself was a being, a third child. Knowledge was an action, a tenderness, a bow to be wielded in defense of our right to pursue it. After we stood at The Waterfront and made ourselves appear solemn in case our parents were watching, we sometimes spoke of what we really wanted, which was the freedom to be ourselves and to feel safe to do so. Deliberately, we walked slowly back up to the house. Sometimes my sister would hold my hand or without speaking, she might throw her warm arm around my shoulders. I loved that and it became one of my wishes –– that my sister and I would always be together. If the world could not bear to think of two Black girls as free then at least between ourselves we share our understanding of ourselves without explanation, magic, or God.
Ezra twisted around at the front door and scowled. “What I’m thinking is that I better leave your behind right here.”
I placed my finger over my smiling lips before sticking out my tongue and pushing her a little so that she out on the porch. The door made a loud sound as I pulled it shut.
We took off running, rushing past the haunted house that we liked and did not make us afraid. Recently, Mama had asked us not to do so much of it. Ladies take their time, she would say. Ez and I would look at each other, shrugging. We didn’t see any ladies except for Mama, who was the lady of our home. We didn’t need two more ladies but we couldn’t tell Mama that we’d already decided that we would never be ladies.
Approaching the long shadows where the woods began, we doubled over, laughing. Running pleased us. I was faster than my sister except we never said that I had beaten her. Nothing beat Ezra.
Catching my breath finally, I stood straight and looked at the back of the haunted house. It never looked the same because of its ruin. The ruining is what made us return to it the way we did. Planks warped, new wildflowers and strangely colored weeds appeared in rotten corners, birds flying in and out of nests built inside blackened rooms. The back of the house looked like the back of a dollhouse that had been set afire with a match. The roof had a gaping hole through which an entire tree had rooted and was growing tall, from the broken foundation. The black ground beneath the foundation struggled with the burden of what refused to be knocked down or cave in, buckling from the damage of the water.
The house looked as though it was trying to push itself back together. Other times it looked like an unseen hand in the sky was pressing it down in attempt to flatten or submerge it, like a head being pushed under water against its will. The ivy exploded like guts from wood. It was the gentle ivy of fairytales and the fallen house appeared resigned to the history that had disfigured it. Like Ezra, the haunted house had a will and way of looking at itself that was unbothered by whatever anybody else might think about it.
“Whatever we do on the bluffs is not something you need to go running around talking about either,” said Ezra.
“Who would I tell?”
“You seem just fine when it comes to keep your own secrets, Cinthy. But it when it comes to my secrets you seem unable to control yourself.”
“Well, this would be our secret.”
Ez nodded then rolled her eyes. She tried to explain it to me. “Last spring, when we got our periods, Ruby and I had decided we’d do this thing on the day before school. We’re not changing anything now because of you.”
“Ruby’s coming to school tomorrow?”
“Don’t look at me like that.”
“She got her supplies? Soap and water? Home-training?”
“Cinthy! She has a brain, doesn’t she? I wish you wouldn’t speak of her that way, treating her like everyone else around here. No matter what she looks like she has feelings.”
Sometimes my sister took on Ruby’s problems as though they were here own. Frequently, I had to remind Ez that the problems white girls have were not the same as the problems she and I knew. That’s what Mama and Miss Irene always said.
Ruby, foolishly, believed that it went both ways.
When somebody treated us like nothing, Ruby walked around dyed in our insult. When Ruby saw us in the village, walking with our heads high, the way Mama had taught us, she held her head up like we did without truly understanding the forces, and there were many, that wanted us headless, lifeless, dreamless, burnt out of our black skin. When Ruby tried to take our side, trying to take on the education that the busy world was so intent on teaching us, I couldn’t stand her.
“You wearing clean underwear, Cinthy?”
Surprised, I didn’t speak as I snatched my gaze away from the haunted house. I took in Ezra’s face, flushed from the run. She wasn’t winded but her chest was going in and out like the birds I held on my palm when I found them injured in the forest.
“Ez, you know Mama don’t like nothing nasty.”
“Mama don’t like nothing…Jesus! That’s exactly what Mama likes most ¬ a bunch of Nothing and sometimes…Jesus. I hope you don’t hurt yourself thinking too hard about what Mama would do when I already told you this thing is a secret. You keep going around like a goodie-goodie the way you do and all you’ll like is Nothing too. I keep trying to tell you, Cinthy. The world is nasty. It isn’t about liking it or not. That doesn’t matter because it’s already everywhere. Miss Irene says that knowing nastiness, really knowing it, is actually wisdom. Miss Irene is wise and has been in the world longer than us both. Remember that.”
“I don’t have to believe you.”
“See for yourself. I don’t lie to you. I’m not going to help you lie to yourself. I know you can see a thing if you want.”
The way Ezra sighed to herself shamed me. There was nothing quite as bad as feeling like I had disappointed her. What was even worse was the thought that my sister might find me boring.
“Ruby waiting in the woods for me by now,” she said.
“Who cares about that white girl. Let her wait there ‘til the Judgement Day,” I said, putting a hand on my hip the way Lindy Junkett did when she couldn’t say what exactly bothered her sometimes about other people.
According to Mama, whatever was bothersome to us would be solved by powers on the Judgement Day. Whenever Mama or Miss Irene were ruffled, they invoked the Judgement Day and then went on about their business. If I had learned anything it was the Judgement Day belonged to Black women who were devoted to calling on it when the present world needled their nerves, their reservoir of understanding. What confused me though was that sometimes our grandmother must have claimed her rights to the Judgement Day too because I had heard Mama’s voice lashing out against the receiver of our telephone about this very subject. Mama you have no right to judge us! Mama, you’ll never be my judge and you know why.
Tilting my head, I pulled thick, warm air into my lungs before I spoke again to Ezra.
“Hey turtle-face, hey girl. You feel like racing or what?”
“Yeah,” said my sister. Her face broke open like a smiling flower and she took off, calling over her shoulder. “I always feel like racing! Racing ahead of you!”
We had scrambled through woods along our house to meet Ruby on an old trail that ran between our home and hers. From this path we’d walked, resolutely, to another trail that was scuffed with weeds but where the trees did not scratch our legs as badly as other trails did. As we raved through the brush, the feral brush that we’d always known, we were mindful of the thorny light that snapped at our bare heels, our leather sandals struggling not to tear against our brown, straining feet.
Finally, the land opened.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s novel, Promise, is out this month from Penguin Random House.