Tree of Life Review



AIRMAIL: Bodhi Blues — A Year in India: Questioning The Maitreya Project by Jessica Falcone

COLUMN: Storiedmusic — The Night I Walked Out by DJ T’challah

NOVEL EXCERPT: In a State of Partition by Aneesha Capur

UP THE CREEK: Editor’s Notes — Art, Yoga, and Abu Ghraib

Blood Grip

“We consider it a mere waste of words to talk of ever enjoying citizenship in this country.”
— John Russworm, Editor, Freedom’s Journal, 1829.

“The ease and grace of manner with which they are capable of bearing themselves in company — their strict observance of all the nicer etiquettes, proprieties and observances that are characteristic of the well-bred — render their society agreeable and interesting to the most fastidious in such matters...”
— Joseph Willson, Sketches of the Higher Classes of Colored Society, Philadelphia, 1841.


These folks got money hollering off the walls. Jerusalem stood in Forten’s hallway and stared at the creamy wallpaper, a large mirror in a fancy frame, the delicate carved legs of a small table. But he’d seen it coming. When the Fortens — the man himself, his wife Charlotte, and their eight children, all but one grown — stood at Mother Bethel, money strutted and winked in their clothes. Ma would have pissed herself with all that finery on parade. Where’d she gone?

Forten had looked like a mile of rutted road when he led them to his carriage. His wife — she could pass for his daughter — looked pale and shaky. During the short ride, she and her family talked of Diener’s shot missing and God’s grace. Jerusalem had sat quiet, all ears and wonder at riding with such high-stepping colored folk. He and Jake smelled strong as male minks, but no one let on.

In the hallway Jake nudged Jerusalem and pointed to Forten, shepherding his family and guests toward the parlor. “Him black like you, me, but money, money.” He patted his right palm.

Jerusalem rubbed his stomach. “Food! Food!”

Mrs. Forten caught the sleeve of one of her daughters. “Could you see to things for a moment?” She motioned toward the parlor.

Behind her, Forten signaled to someone in the room. A young man strode from the parlor and followed Forten down the hall. Mrs. Forten watched after them and seemed to forget him and Jake. When he shifted, she turned to him.

“Could you two do with some dinner?”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Jerusalem said. He looked at Jake and jabbed a finger toward his own open mouth. “Eat.”

Jake grunted, clutched his stomach.

In the dining room Jerusalem stared at the crystal chandelier, wrapped in silk for the summer, and the handsome mahogany table and chairs.

“Great day in the mornin’!” he said, under his breath. He looked at the silver urn on the sideboard, sorry it wasn’t pocket-sized. Who knew what Forten had in mind? Maybe a meal and their behinds out the door. A piece of silver would tide them over.

A short, heavy, copper-colored woman lifted a pot lid as they entered the kitchen. Savory steam billowed up. “Martha,” Charlotte said, “We have guests.”

“And a peck of trouble, from what I hear.”

“Who told you?”

“The neighbors flap their lips the live-long day. Said some fool shot at Mr. Forten.”

“Missed him, thank God.”

“But you look done in. Have some sit-down in the parlor. I’ll see to these two.”

Mrs. Forten put glasses, buttermilk, and cookies on a tray and left the kitchen.

Martha turned to them, looked them up and down pokerfaced. “Sit there.” She pointed to a small table with her stirring spoon.

Best step light around this old sow. Look like she’d as soon stomp us as feed us.

Martha cut slices from a loaf, then picked up bowls and ladled something in.

Jake bowed his head toward her when she served him.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Jerusalem said, after she set down his lamb stew. He scalded his tongue with the first spoonful.

Only slurping and Martha’s pot-tending broke the silence until Jerusalem said, “Ma’am?”

Martha turned toward him.

“Mistress said something about colored folks voting.”

“That’s all they can talk about in this house now.”

“Colored votes here?”

“Yes,” she said, “and no. The old state constitution don’t say nothing about colored voting, one way or t’other. So, some places they vote, some they don’t. It ain’t clear. Aplenty whites want the new constitution to say straight out, no colored voting.”

“You ever vote, Ma’am?”

“You ever shut your mouth?” Martha whipped her spoon through the stew, then said, “Women don’t, white nor colored. Colored men hereabouts try, but the ’lection people turn them away or go upside their heads with brickbats.”

Jake grunted. “Her say what?” he signed.

Jerusalem lifted his hands then shook his head. He had no sign for vote.

They returned to eating and left their bowls shiny. Martha snatched them up and shoved a saucer with peach cobbler in front of each of them.

In a moment Jerusalem said, “Please, ma’am, could we kindly get a drop more?”

Martha snorted. “You think I’m blind in one eye and don’t see out t’other, but I seen you looking at the silver.”

“Admiring it, was all.”

“Never heard a bigger lie. Don’t even think of taking nothing out this house.”

“No, ma’am.”

“Lying again. Just look at you two. Dirty. Stink from here to the corner. Heads so nappy it puts a sheep to shame. Jesus would still be messing with the fish and loaves if the multitude ate like you two.”

“Reckon he would, ma’am, if he gave out peach cobbler like yours.”

“You can’t honey me up. You take this brush.” She thrust one at Jerusalem. “And you take this one.” She shoved it at Jake. “There’s buckets behind the door. Fill ’em from that yard pump. You scrub here, where I can see you,” she told Jerusalem. “And you scrub there.” She pointed outside.

Jake nodded, got moving.

“When you finish we’ll talk cobbler.”

Constance Garcia-Barrio

Constance Garcia-Barrio

A native Philadelphian, Constance Garcia-Barrio has roots that reach back to Fredericksburg, Virginia, home of her great-grandmother, Rose Wilson Ware, or Maw, born into slavery about 1851. Some details of Garcia-Barrio’s novel come to her as oral heirlooms from Maw, who lived to age 113. Garcia-Barrio spent some summers of her childhood on Maw’s farm.

Garcia-Barrio, an associate professor at West Chester University, West Chester, PA, has held writing fellowships at the Ragdale Foundation, Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Her credits include Pennsylvania Magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. The National Association of Black Journalists gave her a magazine journalism award in 2000 for her article on African Americans in circus history. This past summer the Interact Theatre Company chose her short story, “The Sitting Tree,” for its “Writing Aloud” series.

Widowhood and approaching retirement have given her a second wind, and she means to sail on it.

NOVEL EXCERPT: Blood Grip — Chapter 1
NOVEL EXCERPT: Blood Grip — Chapter 2
NOVEL EXCERPT: Blood Grip — Chapter 3
NOVEL EXCERPT: Blood Grip — Chapter 4