“To read The Serpent’s Gift is to experience rebirth”
Walter Mosely | author of Black Betty
Helen Elaine Lee's supremely assured The Serpent's Gift is a first novel that gives to us—with the fullest emotional resonance, humor, and exultation in the novelist's art—the intertwined stories of two families from early in this century to our own times.
Central to this haunting (and sometimes haunted) novel are the mothers, a study in contrast in strength and rigidity, Ruby Staples and Eula Smalls, and their children: LaRue Smalls, adventurer, storyteller, and chronicler of his people; his sister Vesta, intimidated by life from an early age, yet determined, valiant even, to hold her disparate family together; and Ouida Staples, a rare beauty who elects, in the face of convention, to spend her life with another woman. Each will face trials and challenges and sometimes be transformed, shedding like the serpent, an old skin, reborn by the art of invention.
From its opening pages, which recount in eerily compelling detail, the death that will bring these people together, to its almost pastoral conclusion, The Serpent's Gift creates a world that is both realistic in its detail and lyrical in its presentation—it is a superb, triumphant debut.
"Lee has created an emotional, suspenseful page-turner... A book whose colors will linger behind the eyes long after you read the final page."
—Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Emphasizing the power of storytelling and the strength of memory, Ms. Lee presents a richly layered portrait of individuals struggling to sustain the bonds of family."
—The New York Times Book Review
"Vivid metaphors and bravura storytelling give texture and pattern to Helen Elaine Lee's tale... Beautifully crafted and profoundly insightful, this staggeringly accomplished first novel redeems heartwarming from cliché. I hope to hear much, much more from Lee; she's obviously got lots to tell."
—The Washington Post Book World
"Lee writes with skill and compassion... the lives of these two black women, one a refugee from terror and the other an emblem of succor and kindness, are intertwined for the next three generations as their families form a lasting bond, forged of devotion instead of blood."
—San Francisco Chronicle
Vesta reached for the bottle of aged brandy, armed against excess with two firm rules. She never had a drink without a reason, and she drank only the best.
Today, she had one excellent reason and one that, if less compelling, was often invoked. It was her seventy-first birthday. And she needed something to soothe her aching joints.
She measured an inch of liquor into the hand-cut crystal glass which she felt lent the activity dignity, and straightening the tatted dresser scarf on her coffee table, she leaned back against the damask-covered couch that had been sealed for decades in plastic.
She smoothed out her white skirt and put the brandy on a coaster, reaching for an orange from the glass bowl on the end table. Resting her head against the back of the couch, eyes closed, she turned the fruit in her hands, reading its glossy pocked skin. "It feels like the color orange," she thought.
As the little twisted button fell off the end and dropped in her lap, she could smell, again, in its sweetness with an edge, that night when she was eight, that night of running, and an open door.
She sank her nails into the springy pulp, piercing the thin lacquer, and remembered waking to the sound of breaking glass, fetching LaRue from his crib and tucking him into the curve of her body to anchor herself with the rhythm of his breathing. She could hear, again, the splintering of each shard.
"No, Ontario. Please." She heard her mother's voice. "Not those ... Not those."
Vesta knew from the flowery smells that her father was smashing the perfume bottles that he had brought as gifts, that had appeared in his hands like fragile birds. He had saved for the tiny creations of blown colored glass, little by little, from his window-washing and carpentry jobs. Vesta lay curled around LaRue and imagined the breaking of tiny wings.
A few months before, she had stood with her mother at the sink, reciting the verse she had learned that day in school, "Twinkle twinkle little star ... " and stopped suddenly to stare at the purplish finger-shaped marks on the arms that disappeared again and again into the soapy water. Her mother looked over at her and then straight ahead, scraping hard at a burned pan.
After a long silence, she offered the only thing she had. "He didn't mean it, Vesta, He's crazy when he's drunk."
Vesta stared up at her while she continued. "Your father's a good man," she said. "Now go on the stoop and play." As Vesta walked toward the door, Eula added, "And please don't soil your dress."
With her jacks in the hollow her dress made between her legs, she sat and wondered if her mother had been "bad," and what that meant for parents. She thought about that label on her own little lies... back talk ... and forbidden reachings, and thought that maybe it was like when her mother sent her outside to pick a switch, and she knew she had been wrong and felt ashamed.
Vesta shared her mother's shame, and noticed the tightening that had been taking place around her mouth. And to keep her from an open sense of smallness, they devised a language for what went on.
"Is this a good morning, Mama?"
"Can I get you anything?"
She tried to help by never naming it, by never asking her why. And when he wasn't looking, she watched her father for some clue that he might betray.
He sometimes let her choose the colors for his carved decoys, and bits of cherry or oak for the inlaid landscapes he made on Sundays. He let her sit and watch him as he shaped and painted the pieces of wood with long thin hands that were calloused, yet deft. And Eula would find her staring at the detailed bits of artistry that she was forbidden to touch, which spoke of gentle patience and distilled care. The little things he had taken such effort to reproduce: the curve of a beginning wave or a hint of shadow behind a tree. She stood looking at his work on the decoys with their individual feathers painted on, and longed to touch them. To feel the polished grain of the wood.
She studied her father for a clue, and even though she had never seen him hit her mother, when she closed her eyes at night she saw an entire landscape the color of her mother's bruised arms.
Learning the sounds of nascent violence, Vesta could hear anger in his footsteps ... the scraping of a chair ... a falling fork. Her body tightened when she heard him at the door and relaxed only when he slept, and on the nights when there wasn't sleep, she lay awake and heard the little bits of killing that were delivered from his long graceful hands.
"No, Ontario. Please ... " She tightened her hands around the orange as she heard it again.
The thud against the wall. The perfume. And the sound of her mother swallowing her cries.
Again and again she heard the thud, and then a cry that started to escape but was sucked back in, as her mother ran in and pulled her and LaRue from the room, trailing the covers behind her down the stairs in one hand. As they ran past the bedroom door in stockinged feet Vesta saw him, doubled over on the Hoar, clutching his crotch.
She could see her mother's breasts moving beneath her nightgown as she fumbled with the door. Her hair stood out in clumps, matted with blood.
"Don't you even think about trying to leave me," he called out.
"Woman, I'll kill you before I let you go."
They ran down the porch steps in their stockinged feet and turned toward a lighted window of the block they had just integrated. Each sound was a signal that he was close behind. LaRue had begun to cry, Vesta stumbled as she tried to look back while her mother pulled her along by the arm.
They came to a lighted porch and Eula lifted the iron knocker and slammed it down. The door opened and a sliver of light shone through.
"Please my babies he's after me." A telegraphed message for help, where each word costs. But the gray-skinned woman shook her head and said quietly, ''I'm sorry, but I can't," pushing the door closed with firm, flat palms.
They stood on the porch for a moment, stunned. Ashamed in some way for the stranger who had just turned them away. And then they moved on to the next light, where Vesta's mother stood, knocking and pleading as the curtain was lifted and lowered.
Looking frantically back the way they had come and then ahead, searching for lighted windows, Eula turned back and forth and then moved on.
They saw the lights go out at one house as they reached the porch, and at the next house and the next, ''I'm sorry, but I can't," and there was the image of her mother leaning, leaning, into their closing doors.
None of them could help her as she ran with matted, bleeding hair, holding one wailing child on her hip and pulling the other by the hand, toward their lighted homes.
They ran, then, with no end in mind, moving in order to get somewhere else, and came to a house several blocks away where Eula stood whispering "Please." She looked at the house, trying to remember if she had seen colored over that way.
As they approached, a head peered beneath the yellowed shade, and a woman with golden-brown skin opened the door. "Please," Vesta's mother repeated in a whisper, as the woman motioned for them to enter. "Ruby Staples," she said as she took LaRue from Eula, and she noticed that a wedge-shaped part of one of his eyes was a lighter brown than the rest. Vesta sat on the couch where Ruby had led her, her feet not quite reaching the door, and looked around at the braided rag rugs and the rich dark wood around the windows. She stared up at the half-moon panel of stained glass at the top and stared at the ceramic bowl of ripe shiny oranges that sat in front of her.
Ruby put her arm around Eula and supported her as she guided her upstairs to wash the blood from her hair and dress her wound, and Vesta heard the baby's crying stop and the sound of running water and quiet voices. She looked at the oranges, mesmerized by their luster and their sharp sweet smell. She knew better than to touch.
When she had gotten Eula to bed, Ruby returned to the living room and Vesta looked up at her face with its strong cheekbones, broad nose, and narrow, slanting eyes, which were the same color as her skin. And then Ruby took a piece of fruit from the bowl, and after pulling apart Vesta's locked fingers with palms so dry and lined they seemed like maps, she placed an orange in Vesta's hands.
Vesta sat in that spot holding her orange while Ruby brought blankets and tucked her in on the couch. She drifted in and out of sleep most of the night, listening for footsteps, and awakened to the biting perfume of her orange, cradled against her chest, then, as it was sixty-three years later.
It visited her often, the memory of that night, triggered by the smell of citrus ... the finality of a closing door ... the sound of breaking glass. That night of oranges, where loss and receiving had met.
Lined unknown hands and a gift of fruit. Running, and an open door.
They made love those Alabama afternoons in a bed with one leg shorter than the others, under sun-washed deep blue medicine bottles that were lined up on the windowsill. Tentatively, awkwardly, they found the way into each other and learned their bodies over the course of that first August. But even in their fumbling, even before there was grace, there was recognition.
He opened to her and she to him, and they found themselves meeting in the sweet, throbbing center of a prayer.
The bed rocked and they laughed.
The light struck cobalt and it made them want to cry.
LaRue longed to do anything, everything for her, and he was amazed by all that he felt. He touched Olive. Her hands, her mouth were on his skin, and he couldn't believe, couldn't believe the beauty of the unencumbered, spontaneous her, couldn't believe the things he could read in her eyes. He was astounded by what was received, what was received as he gave.
They built their love up slowly, so slowly, that it seemed to have been happening forever, and in the instant it took her to get her breath. Olive reached for anything to ground herself and her fingers found the wooden spools at the head of the bed. Slipping her hand through the rungs she gripped the turned wood, gently, firmly, mooring herself, and then she went into it, to where he was taking her, further in. To where he was taking her to meet herself.
To the threshold they went and stayed, just short of the crossing, for what seemed like time beyond time, and there they balanced, arriving forever, and became their trembling.
He wanted to give in to her and to his own joy and suffering, to it all, for in the middle of his pleasure there was his fear, too, at how they burned, how they burned. At the way she looked into him, beyond his face, her eyes showing love that was tender and fierce, there were instants when he had to fight a pulling back, when he almost thought he couldn't, couldn't bear to be known that way.
But Olive looked in his eyes, into the wedge of light, in that moment, that sweet and terrible moment of recognition, and LaRue felt her scorched into him, and it was then that he let her take him in the cobalt blue. It was then that he let her take him. It was then.
As he gave himself over to her, LaRue pulled away everything that she could hide behind, and Olive surrendered to all that it was and all that it could be.
"Say my name," she whispered, and he did. He said it, over and over, chanted it in the wash of deep blue light.
They were barely moving, and in total flux. She was her own, completely, and she was his. It was too much to bear, and it would never be enough.