“It took only a single page of ‘Belly’ for me to know we had come upon an extraordinary storyteller in Desiree S. Evans. Soon I was carried away by her lyricism and her skilled portrait of a family with a girl named Jaima at its center. A whole world is contained in these beautiful passages, ferocious and unforgettable, lush with lyrical language and resonant with hope.”
—Nova Ren Suma, New York Times bestselling author

Jaima has known the truth most her life: the river is greedy.

There are days when she can hear the river’s throat humming a siren song down at Chinotuck Falls, making enough music to send the trees out in Spooky Marsh dancing. Sometimes the river’s belly starts rumbling over in the southern hinterlands, where not many folk dare to go anyway because it’s too dark even when the sun’s at its highest point in the sky. Then there are the summer days when the river’s long tongue licks up the sides of Pauper’s Gorge, where the water cascades down into a swimming hole that local boys and girls splash in during the thick, noonday heat.

Jaima’s the only person still living who’s been inside the river’s hungry belly. As stories go, this one is her own: when she was five the river swallowed her up, took her deep down into the darkest darkness, and spun her around and around and around inside of it. Then it spat her out by Old Snook’s place, almost a mile inland from the river’s northern banks. The rising waters left behind a shriveled-up piece of girl, gone cold to the touch. But alive.

No one knows how Jaima survived, especially since the river took Jaima’s parents and their tiny house down into its deep, murky bottom and kept them there like a sacrifice. Leaving Jaima all alone.

That was the year of the last great flood, when the rains lasted for three whole weeks and the sky dropped down to meet the land turned sea. Chester Town’s winding dirt roads turned into silt-red streams that flowed into the fronts and backs of the townsfolk’s homes. Yards became lakes. Valleys became oceans. Everywhere, the river ran long and full and greedy.

Jaima doesn’t remember any of it, outside of dreams of dark and cold. But she knows this one thing to be true: since the age of five, part of the river has lived somewhere inside of her. She feels full with it, weighty like a stuffed bird. It sloshes around in her belly some days, like it’s aching to find the rest of itself. Jaima shivers at the thought of returning to the river, fearing sinking into that darkness, fearing losing herself. Maybe it wants her back, but she’s standing on dry land now. It can’t have her.

Since the flood, Jaima has lived with her grandma, who everyone in Chester Town calls Sweet Ma. Some mornings Jaima heads out with her backpack and a bag lunch to the eastern side of Sweet Ma’s homestead. It sits at the edge of the big pine forest, where the ground is soft and boggy under her feet. It’s the place where she goes to feel the most like herself: here she can watch the river wind down into the valley below, feel it bubbling up inside of her, seeking the missing parts of itself. When the summer rains come, as they always do, and when the water inches closer and closer to town, tempted to overrun its banks, Jaima can feel the river reaching out to her, waiting for her.

The river is greedy.

*  *  *

The river cuts through everything here, and everything finds its way down to it. Chester Town is populated by folk who’ve lived in the lowland valleys for generations, working the vast land and growing big families. Their tired hands built up a community year after year, during slavery and after when it became one of the first freedmen towns. Jaima knows this history because Sweet Ma taught it to her the summer after Jaima turned twelve and she wanted to know where she came from. You came from this place, Sweet Ma told her. Your great-grandmother’s the river and your great-grandfather’s the land. Jaima had frowned of course, because Sweet Ma is a bit special and everyone knows it. But she thought maybe there was something to it: the river is the same rich, muddy brown as her skin, and the smoky-black soil carries the shine of her hair.

This time of the year, the world’s on fire. Your skin hot from the sun, your feet hot from the walking, and the river’s the only thing that cools you. Wednesday afternoon finds Jaima out by Pauper’s Gorge, where the land gets hillier and everything smells like the living world, fertile earth and green, growing things. Jaima’s down to her thinnest piece of clothing in the June heat: a yellow bikini top and ripped, dirt-stained Daisy Dukes. She’s barefoot and sweaty, her body aching for some cooling down. But Jaima’s not in the water like the rest of the town kids: she’s eating Funyuns and watching her best friend Byronisha Baptiste breastfeed her six-month-old baby boy Jaquan.

Jaima and Byronisha have been best friends since they were born two hours apart, held in the same midwife’s arms, and thereafter destined to share the same hand-me-down clothes. Jaima is one of seven children living with Sweet Ma in a crooked little shack at the end of Sugar Rum Road. Byronisha lives across the street with her mama in a double-wide trailer surrounded by a sea of pink milkweeds and a large family of plastic pink flamingos.

They look like opposites: at seventeen, Jaima is short and big-boned and dark-skinned. Boys at school peer too long at her wide, child-bearing hips and at her full chest that bounces when she walks. Byronisha, on the other hand, is tall and slender and mixed enough to freckle like white folks do in the summer months. She’d been flat-chested and curve-less most of her teen years, only getting full tits and hips with the baby.

“You gonna finally go in the water this summer?” Byronisha asks, fumbling with her son before she flops down on the ground beside Jaima. She pops out her milk-swollen breast, lets the baby latch on, and sighs heavily when he suckles in a way that tells them both he’s more than satisfied. Jaima watches the baby gum at Byronisha’s brown nipple, his little hands opening and closing against the smooth skin of her chest.

Byronisha catches her watching and laughs. “He a greedy lil thang, ain’t he?”

Jaima’s face goes warm and she averts her eyes. “Yeah, he is,” she chuckles, staring down at the soft ground, nudging the dirt loose with her big toe. “And no, I’m not going in the water this summer.”

“Girl, the water ain’t gonna do you nothing,” Byronisha says, rocking Jaquan when he starts whimpering.

“Says who?” Jaima says, offering her best friend the bag of Funyuns, which Byronisha takes once Jaquan quiets. They sit for a few moments, silently watching the other teens splash around in the swimming hole down below.

The thing is, Jaima hasn’t been in the river since she was five. “It wants me,” she sighs, her belly aching at the thought of the water’s pull.

Byronisha snorts softly, shakes her head. “Calvin Babineaux wants you.”

Jaima looks over at Byronisha and the gurgling baby boy stuck to her tit. “Calvin so trifling though.”

Byronisha shrugs. “And you so picky. That’s probably why you still a virgin.”

Jaima rolls her eyes. “And ain’t you the poor teen mama Sister Loretta prays over in church every Sunday morning?”

Byronisha laughs, kissing her baby boy on his big bald head before saying, “You got jokes, I see.”

Jaima feels her lips twitch. “A few,” she admits.

Byronisha laughs, shaking her head. “Calvin should know better, anyway.”

Jaima nods, agreeing. “Lord knows why he keep asking after me when he know I don’t want his sorry butt.”

“Girl, you know these boys ain’t got no sense,” Byronisha says with a smirk, knocking Jaima’s bare foot with her sandled one. “Plus you’re such a grouchy old lady, what would you two even talk about?”

Jaima laughs, because that’s what Sweet Ma tells her too—apparently Jaima is not-so-secretly an old lady with a stern eye and a bad temper. She smiles at the thought, tilts her head to the sky, watches the clouds.

Byronisha reaches out and grabs Jaima by the wrist, squeezing. “You know you my girl,” she says, her eyes soft and brown and round like an owl’s. “Wouldna been able to do this whole mama thing without you. So you know I’ll sit out here in the heat and forget about swimming for another thirty years if you ask me to.”

Jaima laughs, because Byronisha likes to get real deep sometimes. Before the baby came, summer used to mean just the two of them—free time with no one holding them down; school-less days spent hot and sweaty here at Pauper’s Gorge, running around the pine and hemlock woods with scraped knees and rose-colored dresses, summer braids wound around their heads like African queens. Jaima loved to make up adventure stories about this place, about pirates and hidden gold, about the ghosts trapped inside the trees. Byronisha would follow behind her, a trusted sidekick to her hero. In this place, where the water falls to the earth like a dream, where the forest hugs the riverbank, where the road splits apart—dark woods on one side and stubby hills on the other—Jaima feels like she’s watching two sides of the world love on each other. Great-grandmother river and great-grandfather land.

Byronisha’s voice is low when she asks, “You still dreaming about it, huh?”

Jaima’s gaze flicks to her friend’s face, outlines the soft freckles on her nose. Jaima thinks maybe she wants to kiss Byronisha, but she knows that’s kind of a weird thing to be thinking about, so she looks at the ground again and says, “Sometimes,” referring to the dreams. She sometimes has dreams of the flood, ones that flow into her like the water itself, rushed and unnamed. They usually come when she’s in bed alone (a rare thing because she shares a bed with her cousin Tiffany, and they share the room with two other cousins, Lil Bit and Ayesha). But those few times when she is alone in the dark bedroom, she feels like a small thing in a very big place, and she knows she’s back inside that river, twisting about in the cold, scary dark. She can feel the river in her veins even now, rolling like waves under her skin.

Byronisha is cooing something soft at the baby. Jaima turns her eyes back to the swimming hole, watches the town’s horny teenagers roughhousing and swimming, their slick brown skins shimmering like gold in the noonday sun.

*  *  *

On Saturdays Jaima works at AJ’s, the gas station over in Cowenville. Even though she’s on the plumper side of curvy, she still manages to fit herself into the station’s regulation tan overalls. Her thick braids she pushes under a baseball cap. Whether standing behind the station counter or pumping gas into mud-encrusted pickups, she draws attention, no matter what. The men who stumble out of their vehicles will almost always glance at her long enough to make her slightly uncomfortable.

Jaima’s cousin Domino fixes cars in the attached garage, which is how she got the job. He usually manages to keep an eye on her during her shift, to scare away the fools. But today Domino’s in Houston picking up parts, and Jaima’s working in the shop with just the owner’s son, Bobby Greer Jr., who’s been looking her way for far too long from where he’s settled behind the store counter.

Ass, she thinks as she mops the floor with her back to him, sighing because she knows it means he can see the outline of her butt in her too-tight uniform, but not wanting to turn around and have to look at his face. He’s got this greasy red hair that sticks to his forehead whenever he sweats, and he’s always whistling at her, like she’s a dog looking for a treat. The Greers own farms up and down this way, and the lot of them are sneaky little shits, always stealing things that don’t belong to them, like other people’s land and farming equipment.

The smell of Pine-Sol is nothing like actual pine, but she’s trying to pretend it is, to remember the story Sweet Ma told her about Great-Uncle Left Cheeks, who climbed to the top of a pine tree back in ’89 when the loggers came to try to clear-cut his trees. He ended up falling and hitting his head, spending a month in a coma. Hasn’t been able to walk right since.

Bobby Jr. whistles at her, and she glances back at him to see what he wants. He’s got to be in his mid-thirties, with a wide jaw and bug-eyes too big for his face. His lankiness isn’t hidden by his camouflage shirt and his dirty hair isn’t hidden by the matching baseball cap.

“Why you always ignoring me?” he asks, voice all soft and tender-like. Probably attempting to sound hurt.

Jaima frowns. “Just thinking ’bout that hundred acres of land your daddy stole from my cousin Odelle last year.”

“Ah, girl, that ain’t nothing to do with me,” he laughs, shaking his head. “That’s just my daddy’s side business. And it’s the banks that did your cousin wrong, not my daddy.” He stands up and stretches, flexing in a way that Jaima thinks must be his attempt to impress her.

She sighs and says, “Okay, Bobby, I’ll try thinking ’bout something else then.”

Bobby Jr. laughs. “Well, we can start with you just giving me a smile for today. You’re way too pretty not to be smiling,” he says.

Jaima groans internally but plasters on a fake smile, hard enough to make her lips hurt with the stretch. Bobby seems satisfied, patting his gut like he’s had some hearty meal. Jaima turns back to scrubbing sticky stains from the cracks in the linoleum floor. She thinks about this place in the woods where the river runs fast over the rocks, flowing into a small pool where deer come down to drink. She’s seen the animals there from time to time, watched the nervous way they looked around before satisfying their thirst. She feels like one of those deer, watching for Bobby as he slinks behind her in the store. She spies him out of the corner of her eye.

There’s a tightness behind her belly button when she heads home that day, the river inside of her cresting, almost spilling over.

*  *  *

Come Sunday dinner after church, everyone in Jaima’s family is wondering what the Greers are up to.

“Snakes, all of them!” Her Uncle Lester pronounces from his seat on the couch. “They want us gone, but we ain’t leaving.”

Cheers go up all around and Jaima smiles. The house is filled with their kin, and the loud rumble of voices makes the room sound like a family reunion. Half of them are eating boiled crawfish and potatoes and watching the Sunday game. The other half are playing Spades in the back of the living room, shouts ringing out every once in a while, louder even than the TV. Jaima’s tempted to go jump in and win because she’s unbeatable, but Sweet Ma said today was “wash and detangle day,” and she’s working Jaima’s scalp like she’s got a battle to win herself.

Sweet Ma currently has her hands all up in Jaima’s hair. Those rough, sure fingers rub against her scalp, pressing and rolling and massaging down with heated olive oil. This must be what the soil feels like when Sweet Ma’s making something grow in the garden, Jaima thinks as the oil drizzles down her forehead and settles behind her ears.

Jaima’s thick naps catch on the wide-toothed comb’s teeth, and she jerks up when Sweet Ma pulls too hard. “Stop ya squirming, girl,” Sweet Ma chides, and Jaima huffs a breath and settles back against the couch. Sweet Ma’s hands relax in her hair again, parting and oiling, massaging and detangling.

Jaima looks up to see the twelve-year-old twins, Malcolm and Martin, running around shirtless and covered in the red-clay silt of the backyard, probably chasing the rooster again. The screen door slaps loudly every time they run inside or outside. “Gremlins,” Sweet Ma whispers under her breath in exasperation, and Jaima agrees. Gremlins.

The littlest girl cousins are arguing over their Barbies, and Uncle Lester is sucking on the head of a crawfish like it’s the gods’ own nectar. He earns a laugh from everyone when he slaps at his gut, sending it jiggling like a big mold of Jell-O. It’s four-year-old Tee-Ray who eventually drops down in front of Jaima, settling himself into her lap without saying a word. Jaima laughs and starts messing with his hair, parting his untamed Afro and braiding it like Sweet Ma’s doing to her hair.

“You got grass in your hair,” Jaima says, picking out the pieces of leaves caught between his fine, dark curls. Lord, it’s like a bird’s nest up in the child’s head. “Where you been, Tee?”

“Down in Spooky Marsh with Sugarboy and his brothers,” he says, grinning up at her with his gap-toothed self.

Jaima sighs, exasperated. These children and their big-headed ideas. If he wasn’t so cute, she’d be tempted to bump him to the floor. “You know y’all not supposed to be down there no more,” she says. “That’s government land now.”

“It was our land before it was government land, so we can go where we please,” Reggie yells out (unhelpful as always) from the Spades table. Jaima frowns over his way—her older cousin Reggie is nineteen, in college, and full of spit and fire. And usually bad ideas that come from him being so smart and in college.

“So Reggie, you gonna take care of these boys when they get arrested for trespassing?” Jaima asks, because she and Reggie are always arguing. Sweet Ma says it’s because they both have big brains and big brains like to find each other and argue. It’s the law.

“Look, alls I’m saying is that most of this place used to be ours, all around here surrounding the river,” Reggie explains. He even stands up to say it, because that’s something college boys do apparently. Makes them feel important. He’s dark-skinned, tall and lanky, and built solid like most of the country boys out here who spend their summers running the woods and diving into the river. “And now we got to fight off loggers, oil companies, the gov’ment, golf course developers, and now them damn Greers,” he says, counting off each a finger at a time. “We ain’t gonna have nothing left soon.”

Jaima doesn’t disagree, but she still knows better than to encourage these boys to do whatever they please. “Ain’t enough reason to get ourselves arrested.”

Reggie groans, but settles back down at the table. “When they start damming up that precious river of yours, you gonna care. You know that’s something they’re talking about too, right? We ain’t even gonna have access to the river no more.”

Jaima swallows and goes back to ignoring him. She hates it when he makes good points. This was land not a lot of white folks wanted back in the day, the thick forests and scattered marshlands proved too much trouble for them. It was wild, angry country, but the runaway slaves and freedmen took to it, made a life among the tangled vines and flooded plains. Even tamed, the place still had a mind of its own. Yet it seemed these days everyone wanted a piece of it.

Jaima plucks a twig from Tee-Ray’s hair and tosses it on the floor, an act that sends him squirming in her lap. “Chile, be still,” she whispers as she works the knots out.

“These children see the glory in this place,” Sweet Mama tells her. She’s working on the last piece of Jaima’s hair, whispering her homemade love into every rough pull of the comb.

Jaima understands the glory more than most, aches with the understanding of the river’s depths. “I know they do, Sweet Ma,” she says. “I know it.”

Sweet Ma hums softly. When most of the tangles have been worked through with the oil, she sets to braiding the detangled strands. “You don’t understand it all, Jaima. You ain’t grown yet, even if you think you are. One day though, you gonna understand why this place is made of you, and why you are made for this place.”

When Jaima looks up from the twists she’s making in Tee-Ray’s head, she sees Reggie watching them with a satisfied smirk on his face, and Jaima sighs, because she knows Sweet Ma’s words are a gospel written just for her grandbabies, and if she listens long enough, there’s salvation for them all somewhere inside of those words. Maybe.

*  *  *

Summer comes in fast, a series of days that swelter and linger long and wild. She’s chasing the twins through the woods one evening after supper. Following behind them on legs too short for this kind of running. They break into a run every time they see her nearing them, weaving and snaking in between the trees, their skinny little bodies camouflaged by the moss and leaves.

Jaima’s boots sink into the soft mulch of the forest floor, and she’s breathing hard when she pauses to slow her racing heart, her body bending over, her hand resting against a gnarled tree trunk. She can hear them ahead, their laughter and loud breathing ringing in the forest.

She loses them at the river, the gurgling rush of water drowning them out completely. She pauses there for a while, the rush of her own river-synced blood loud in her ears. After a time she turns to head back toward Sweet Ma’s, knowing the twins will make their way back when they are ready and not before. It’s still hot out, even for the early evening. The sun slices through the tree cover, the world a mix of dappled light and dark. When she left earlier, the house was quiet, everyone gone down to the river, leaving Sweet Ma to nap on the porch.

Last night Jaima dreamed of the river, even though she had a bed-full of cousins stealing her covers. She kept dreaming Martin was fighting the cops out by Freeman’s Run, that Tee-Ray’s hair was made up of just twigs and golden leaves, and that she was standing at the jetted rock where it was safest to dive into the swimming hole. But every time she went to make the dive, she woke up, breathing hard, heart pounding.

Sweet Ma says the dreams aren’t any kind of premonition, just Jaima’s mind dealing with things too big for her brain to figure out in the waking light of day. Sweet Ma says the dreams are just about her fear and her trauma. But Jaima’s body feels heavy with the weight of the dreams, like at any moment she could close her eyes and be right there inside the dream, on the edge of the river, diving down. Jaima shakes off the thought, walks the mile to the northern property line, sweating under her yellow sundress and kicking up clumps of dirt with her boots. Byronisha and Jaquan are in Olakusa visiting their auntie, so Jaima’s got some time to run her errands today. This is the area where she usually finds the horsetail roots Sweet Ma uses for her healing teas.

Because she’s so busy parsing out the weeds, it takes a minute to notice the distant figures parked out by Bullhill Road. She doesn’t recognize them until she crosses through the grove. It’s three of the Greer boys, including Bobby Jr., moving around like land surveyors. She’s heard about them doing this, staking out neighboring acres. She spies on them for a while, making sure they’re not up to something shifty. Mostly they talk amongst each other, talk into their phones, walk around like they’re plotting something. After a time all the Greer boys except for Bobby Jr. leave, and Jaima gets hot and impatient waiting for him to get going as well. After about ten minutes, she makes her way toward him, determined to not let his presence get in the way of her day.

Bobby Jr. stops her of course and says, “Evenin’, Jaima.” He leans back against his truck, white teeth on full display as he takes her in. He wipes the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief, lets out a deep exhale. “Hot as the devil’s ass today. Whatcha doing all the way out here?”

“Enjoying the heat,” she says, squinting over at him, the sun too bright in her eyes. “What brings you out here? I think your new property ends just about ten yards that way.” She points to a distant piece of grassy meadow just to make the emphasis clear.

“Well, you know,” Bobby Jr. says, pocketing his handkerchief and scratching at his thick stubble, looking like he’s deep in thought. “Land is funny like that sometimes. My daddy found some older maps at the assessor’s office, and we may need to stop by and talk to your Sweet Ma. Looks like some of these lines are off some. You know these big ol’ trees always confusing everything.”

Jaima is only seventeen, but she’s smart; she’s seen a lot and knows folk’s ugly ways. She’s got river in her blood too, and it’s roaring something fierce right about now. She tightens her scarf around her long braids and looks over at Bobby Jr. for a time, wondering what his game is. She says, “Yeah, that’s funny. Lines and all, they’re funny like that. Always seem to be changing.”

Bobby Jr. looks at her for a long time, eyes dark from this distance, like he’s trying to figure her out. She knows she’s sweaty, and her dress is covered in dirt and leaves from chasing the twins. She probably looks different out here, more untidy, wilder than she must look in her uniform. Her skin glistens near black in this sun, like the dark earth under her boots. She arches her chin high, doesn’t care if she’s rough-looking. She tries to come off professional, serious. Doesn’t like the looks Bobby Jr. is always giving her. He’s smiling at her now, like he knows something she doesn’t, and she doesn’t like that kind of look either.

She clears her throat, knows when a battle’s lost. “Well, Bobby, good luck on figuring out those lines of yours,” she tells him, because she’s tired of him giving her the creeps like always, and her stomach is rolling too much, wanting to go back home. She turns around to go the way she came. She’ll avoid Bullhill Road until he leaves, and do her foraging later this week.

Maybe something in her had been waiting for it. Maybe the river inside of her had been warning her, sounding an alarm as it rushed through her, greedy to devour, because she’s not at all surprised he’s following her with quick steps, his boots crunching loud over the forest floor. Following her like he does in the store, but this time he’s not playing games, and when she turns to look at him, she’s ready for him.

“Can I do something for you?” she asks, voice rough with warning as he steps closer. He’s at least a foot taller than her, but Jaima juts her chin high, her gaze resolute and uncompromising. She watches him, watches the way he watches her, and when he touches her shoulder, she stiffens, jerks away. “Stop that,” she says, voice gone cold, like the river’s threat.

“Why you always ignoring me, huh?” he asks, and he’s back to touching her shoulder, lingering for a moment. She swallows, watches as his rough, calloused fingers start to play with the strap of her sundress. “You’re such a pretty girl, always showing off for me in the store,” he tells her, his words low and gruff.

Jaima hates him so much right then, thinks about Sweet Ma’s shotgun under her bed, thinks about running to get it, but her feet have turned to stone. “Move your hand or I’ll scream, I swear,” she whispers, because he doesn’t have a right to her, not like he has a right to everything else. Her body wants to run, but it’s stuck like those deer by the pool, sensing the danger but not able to move. He moves even closer, pushes at the strap of her dress, pushes it almost off her shoulder, and she feels everything in her body trying to break free from her, the tears behind her eyelids burning, wanting to pour out.

She closes her eyes, feels the river rise inside of her, gathers enough energy to jerk away from his touch. She stumbles back, her boots catching in the long grass. She looks at him and says, “Stay away from me from now on or I’m telling.”

“Girl, you ain’t telling nobody,” he mutters, stepping toward her again. “Not if you want to keep your land. Not if you want to keep the peace.” He moves quick, grabs her by the arms and pulls her in close. She struggles in his grip, his rough fingers digging into her flesh. He’s too hot, too stinking, too heavy, and she’s choking on it. This close she can see his eyes: the black rimming a green iris. She can see every part of his face: the pink pimples on his forehead and the peeling red patches of sunburnt skin above his nose. She freezes, turns her face away when he kisses her cheek, runs his mouth down along the side of her face, slipping along her sweaty neck. The rough bite of his stubble scratches her skin. Bruises her.

“Been wanting you,” he whispers, squeezing her arms tight before he grabs her at the joint of her neck to pull her in so he can whisper against her ear, “You like me right, Jaima?”

She stiffens at hearing her name in his mouth. He pulls her face between his hands and looks at her. “You can just stay quiet and I can do the work,” he says, and he bends to kiss her mouth. His lips are dry, cracked, taste like salt. She opens her mouth slowly, pretends she’s playing along, and then bites down on his soft bottom lip. Ass.

Bobby Jr. jerks away, pulls his meaty hand back and slaps her cheek. The sharp sting is enough to startle her, her face sparking with fire. She’s set in motion now, and turns and runs and runs, everything a sudden blur. Her body crashes through the trees, her boots knock down the weeds, and her dress snags on the branches. She’s afraid he’s going to follow, catch her and keep her out here in the woods with the sun setting too fast. But all she hears is his yelling, no sounds of a chase.

She stops minutes later, heart pounding, a surge of power rushing through her veins as she turns to look back at him. His bulky frame is cast as a silhouette against the burnt-orange sky. He’s standing there calling her a bitch, telling her to come on back, to stop playing around.

Jaima laughs at him, loud and reckless, her whole body filling up with the sound. At this moment, she’s made of laughter and surging water, ready to drown him like the giant tsunami that would follow the shaking of the entire world.

*  *  *

Jaima doesn’t tell anyone. Doesn’t even consider calling the sheriff's station because most of the boys who work there are kin to the Greers anyway. Instead, she spends the next day in bed, her belly hurting so much she almost asks to go see Doc Murphy. Sweet Ma brings her funny-tasting tea made from the herbs she grows in the backyard and feeds her tomato soup for lunch and dinner. Jaima sleeps mostly, tired as tired can be.

Reggie visits her on the second day of her self-imposed bed rest, and she doesn’t know how he knows, but she can tell it in his hard eyes the minute he walks in, see it in the tight line of his body.

“Nothing happened,” she says, sitting up in bed.

“Malcolm sure saw something,” he says, voice hoarse and dry like he’s swallowed grit. “I’ll kill that piece of shit Greer, you know I will, Jaima.” He’s trembling with rage, his jaw pulsing as he looks at her.

Jaima closes her eyes and inhales sharply. She remembers that the twins had been running around out there somewhere, realizes they must have headed back early and seen her. Jaima opens her eyes but doesn’t look at Reggie, can’t look at him. She just picks at a piece of string unwinding in the seam of Sweet Ma’s quilt and frowns. “Just tell them not to say anything to Sweet Ma, all right?”

Reggie sits down at the foot of the bed, his weight causing the old mattress to dip. He exhales loudly and asks, “You really think Sweet Ma won’t find out?”

Jaima shrugs. Of course Sweet Ma is going to find out. Sweet Ma finds out all.

Jaima looks up at him after a time. He’s looking at her like he wants to say something else, but he doesn’t. He’s the oldest of Sweet Ma’s grandbabies, and he is handsome in a sharp kind of way. Stubborn in a sharp kind of way too. If he doesn’t get killed fighting somebody, he’ll probably go on to be a lawyer and come back and use that to settle all the things that need settling out here.

But for now, Reggie has to know they can’t do anything about the Greers without bringing trouble and risking more. “You can’t go after him,” she says it aloud so he hears it spoken.

“I know,” Reggie snorts softly to himself, shakes his head. “Don’t mean I don’t want to.” He sighs and looks at her for a long moment, eyes dark and serious, before adding. “He could still come after you. Hurt you. Or worse.”

Jaima’s limbs feel numb, her fingertips twitch on the quilt. Two summers ago, before Reggie left for college, they were arguing about her not knowing how to swim and why it was dumb that she was so scared of the water. She doesn’t really remember all of what they said to each other beside that, just that they had gotten angrier and angrier, likely yelled about everything and nothing, about the weight of being oldest, the fear of leaving family. She does know that at some point in the heat of the moment Reggie had smacked her hard, knocking her against a tree, leaving her lip swollen. She’d covered her face and ran to the house, tears streaming down her cheeks. They never talked about it, but she knows he’s probably thinking about it now, how he’d hurt her once too, taken his anger out on her. But Reggie’s never hurt her again, and if anything, he’s gotten more protective. Even told her once how it ain’t right for powerful people to hurt people just to feel good about themselves.

She can’t tell for sure if that’s what he’s thinking now, not with that stone-faced look of his, so she reaches out and takes his hand and squeezes. “I’ll be careful.”

Reggie looks at her and nods, squeezing her hand in return. “Okay,” he says. Their brains like to fight, sure, but he’s also the one who used to sit with her on the porch after dinner and help her with her social studies homework. He’s the one who used to catch grasshoppers with her in the backyard, and pat her back when she cried about her parents being at the bottom of the river. Reggie is the only one she ever told about sometimes wanting to kiss Byronisha.

When Reggie gets up to leave, he glances back at her over his shoulder and nods to her before he exits. Jaima feels better knowing he’ll keep this secret too.

*  *  *

In the dream she’s breathing underwater. She’s swimming in the deep, dark depths, and the world is foggy and blue and infinite. There’s something glowing down in the dark, near the river bed, something that looks like a ball of fire burning even underwater. She swims toward the flame, and she laughs in joy when she finally reaches it, holding it tightly in her hands. The light grows so strong, she has to close her eyes. In the distance she can hear her name being called—it sounds like a man and a woman telling her to hold on, baby girl, just hold on.

Jaima wakes up to the sound of raindrops falling heavy on the tin roof, the metallic thump-thump rhythm mimicking her own heartbeat. She keeps her eyes closed for a long moment, the memory of light still shining behind her lids. She feels a deep sense of loss, even as the sound of her name slowly fades from her mind. When she finally opens her eyes, Jaima sees Sweet Ma sitting in the old wooden rocker in the corner of her bedroom, fanning herself and watching The Price Is Right on the small box TV on top of the dresser. The volume is low, and scrolling across the bottom of the screen Jaima can just make out warnings about heavy rains and flash flooding in the area. Jaima places her palm over her tender belly, breathes out uneasily. Her hand feels warm against her skin, still tingling from the dream fire.

“You know my nerves get bad when y’all get sick,” Sweet Ma says, turning to look at Jaima. “How’s your tummy, girl?”

“Better,” Jaima says, yawning as she sits up and tosses the quilt aside. “Needed the sleep I guess.”

Sweet Ma hmmms, rocks back and forth in her chair. Jaima looks at her for a long time in the dim room light. Jaima knows that her mama looked a lot like Sweet Ma—she’s seen pictures from her mama’s childhood. Both of them were small and delicate, with a thick nest of kinky hair that they kept twisted up around their heads. Sweet Ma is wearing her hair down today though. It makes a ring around her head, silver and black curls that dangle like moss hanging from a cypress tree.

Sweet Ma had lit all the candles on the dresser top, and their warm light flickers over her face, makes it seem softer and younger. Maybe more like what her mama would have looked like if she’d lived, Jaima thinks. In the soft light of the room, Sweet Ma’s skin is the color of copper pennies.

In a memory that is probably more dream than actual memory, Jaima is with her mama, who is singing while putting rainbow beads on Jaima’s braids. They’re sitting together and singing along to the radio, and when her mama pulls her into her lap, the memory morphs into another one—the two of them rocking back and forth in a porch swing. It’s nighttime and Jaima is barefoot, and the soft cotton nightgown she wears is too thin in the chilly night air. But it doesn’t matter because she’s with her mama and they are watching the moon.

“When I was a girl,” Sweet Ma says, breaking Jaima out of the memory, “the river flooded like it did that year it took my baby girl, your mama.”

Jaima looks up at her again, and Sweet Ma is looking at her like she’s looking back in time. “Another great flood?” Jaima asks.

“There’s always another great flood,” Sweet Ma says with a nod. “The waters came and the river rose, and it chased us into the hills.”

“That river is greedy,” Jaima says, breathing it out, feeling it dance inside of her.

“Or maybe,” Sweet Ma says, her lips curving softly. “It’s just a river. Doing what rivers do.”

*  *  *

Through the next night her dreams are troubled, memories of the past mixing with pieces of her present life, swirling storms and lights at the bottom of the river, Bobby Jr.’s face and his hands tugging at her. The next day the rain comes down like a slow release. Jaima’s belly feels a little better, although it’s still rumbling when Byronisha comes by during one of the storm’s midday lulls. Her friend says she wants to spend some time outside after being cooped up all weekend with the baby, but Jaima thinks Byronisha is worried Jaima’s turning into a hermit. So Jaima peels herself out of bed, tosses on sweatpants, an old T-shirt, rain boots, and a raincoat. Byronisha is similarly dressed, the hood of her yellow raincoat covering most of her cherubic face.

The two girls walk the perimeter of the house for a time, watching the grey clouds move in a slow dance across the sky. They go down to the edge of the property line, close enough to see the river beyond.

“The water’s high alright,” Jaima says, watching the churning rush of it as it curves the bend next to their land.

“High enough to crest,” Byronisha says, entwining her arm with Jaima’s as they continue down through the tall grass.

It starts to sprinkle again, the raindrops falling slow and fat, spattering Jaima’s forehead and running down her cheeks. Near the bottom of the property they encounter the twins, barefoot and shirtless, covered in thick, black mud. The boys have matching guilty gummy smiles, their identical pairs of brown eyes wide with surprise.

Jaima takes in the ditch filled with muddy water and shakes her head. Beside her, Byronisha is cracking up, praying in between garbled breaths: “Lord, I ain’t ready for this. Please let my boy have the sense you gave him.”

Jaima just shakes her head, too tired to ask how long they’ve been fighting in the muddy ditch. “Get on home, and get cleaned up,” she tells them instead. “And if you track anything in Sweet Ma’s house—”

Martin stops her from fussing by wrapping his disgusting arms around her waist, and then darts away when she tries to grab hold of him. Malcolm is slower in his escape, stopping in front of Jaima, his cheeks scrunching up and his forehead wrinkling as he asks, “Did you hear what happened to Bobby Jr.?”

Jaima frowns, the world tilting just so. “What do you mean? Did Reggie do something?” she asks, worry filling her already pained gut.

“Nah, man, it was the high water!” Malcolm says, excited. “Yesterday the highway washed out down by the Greer place. They say Bobby and his truck got stuck in the deep water.”

“Yeah, I heard some roads got closed because of high water,” Byronisha says, coming closer. “They had to rescue some folks stranded out by the bridge.”

“Well they say it took three people to pull Bobby free. All that water flooded his truck,” Malcolm said, smiling like he’s the cat that caught the canary.

“I hadn’t heard,” Jaima says, dropping her hand on top of the boy’s slick shoulder and squeezing gently, thanking him silently for the news. Malcolm’s grin widens and then he shakes his head at her, sending droplets of rain flying everywhere. Jaima jumps back, watches as he runs off after his twin. The world is hazy with rain.

“Those Greers are such creeps,” Byronisha says, sliding her hood back over her head of slick curls. “A big old family of creeps.”

Jaima nods, closing her eyes, shivering; everything around her rocks like she’s on a boat at sea. Her belly sloshes joyously, and Jaima can’t help herself—she laughs, soft at first, like a whisper, and then louder when she opens her eyes and feels the rain on her skin. It’s a good rain, ozone-rich.

“Girl, you okay?” Byronisha asks, and Jaima laughs even louder, taking her friend’s hand and twirling her around and around until they’re both dizzy. And then, oh God, the rain. Falling warm and sweet and necessary, a solid sheet coming down and soaking them to the skin in only a few seconds. Jaima laughs into the breaking sky and then takes off running, Byronisha right behind her.

They race through the grass, Jaima edging just a fraction ahead before the ground slips from under them. Jaima slides first, her boots losing their grip in the bubbling mud. The weight of her body pulls her down into the half-filled ditch, and Byronisha comes tumbling in after. The fall happened so fast, Jaima doesn’t even know what to say when she looks around and realizes they are lying together in the muddy run-off at the bottom of the ditch, still laughing like children.

Byronisha’s body rests on top of hers, heavy and familiar. The heat curling in Jaima’s gut feels different now, wilder, like the storm. Above them, the rain has slackened, the blue sky near visible.

“Damn girl,” Byronisha giggles as she looks down at Jaima. Her arms tighten around Jaima’s waist as she says, “Good thing I caught you.”

“Good thing,” Jaima says, a laugh hiccupping from her throat as she takes in the sticky muck tracking down Byronisha’s face and neck. Both of them are wet through and through, clothes clinging and hanging. Arms and legs covered in the mud and grassy debris of the ditch. Hurricane girls, she’ll call them from now on. Storm-born girls.

“You ain’t scared?” Byronisha asks, nodding to the water pooled around them. Jaima knows they could drown in even a few inches of water, but the feel of it sliding around her is soothing. Jaima thinks about how Bobby Jr. could have been swept away yesterday—wonders if he even understands how close he came. How the river could take him anytime it wants.

“Not scared,” Jaima says, curling her arms around Byronisha, feeling the other girl’s warm breath on her cheek. Byronisha rests her head on Jaima’s shoulder.

They’re quiet for a time. Jaima listens to the sounds of the storm receding—the drips and drags and distant roars. She listens to the breathing of her best friend, imagines the air moving in and out of her lungs, the blood running through her veins, the same blood spilled long ago in the ground around them, when their people first made a home here.

Jaima thinks: their bodies are blood and earth. Their bodies are water. The thought of it sends shivers up and down her spine. She imagines her belly full: her inner-river cresting, rushing and widening. Greedy, hungry, but patient. She squeezes her eyes tighter, lets herself go under. Her heart thumps loudly as she surfaces.

When Jaima opens her eyes, Byronisha is looking down at her, her eyelashes wet, lips quirked. “Good thing I like weirdos,” Byronisha says.

Jaima snorts, then leans in and kisses the other girl’s cheek, sloppy and warm. Byronisha giggles, pulls them closer, and slides them deeper into the mud. They’re a mess and a half.

“I think I’m ready,” Jaima whispers after a time.

“For what?” Byronisha asks, words low like a secret.

“Everything.” Jaima doesn’t have to be afraid. She just has to be what she is. A girl with a river inside of her, strong enough to flood the whole world maybe. She closes her eyes, breathes in and out. Thankful for the rain.


As a child growing up in the rural Southern United States, I first learned the power of story here. I learned storytelling at the feet of my grandparents, during hot summers spent on the front porch listening to them spin family tales. I learned it during the afternoons hiding out in the shadows of my childhood home, listening to the conversations being had over the kitchen table. I still remember being eleven, alone in my room with a pen and pad, looking out the window to the sugarcane fields surrounding my home as I began to write down the stories of my community. I learned early on that the South is a place where stories themselves hold power—stories of renewal, of resilience, of deep survivalisms in the face of historic injustice. I learned how storytelling can be a way to heal, to knit the broken memories of our pasts into something we can hold today.

When I began writing the short story “Belly,” I thought about our histories and our present moments and I asked: what does it mean to be of a place, to be bound to a place? In what ways do we mimic the power of a place? “Belly” is an exploration of power, home, grief, and family. My seventeen-year-old protagonist Jaima has to come to terms not only with the river that threatens to run its banks, but with those who seek to take the land away from her and her family. Land and place are critical to understanding the lives of the people in this story, and Jaima’s relationship to this land is as important to her character development as is her relationship to her family and friends. The river and the natural world in this story are both life-giving and life-taking; they hold their own kind of sacred magic. I loved working on edits for this story with the editors at FORESHADOW, figuring out how to expand on the natural heart of the story—bringing Jaima into her full powerful young adulthood, and centering her capacity and desire for love, for connection, and for healing.

{ Edited by Emily X.R. Pan. }
This new voice is sponsored by David Levithan.