At the heart of Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones are two very different but parallel stories of new motherhood: that of the central protagonist, Esch, and that of China, Esch’s brother Skeetah’s prize fighting dog. At the start of the novel, China is giving birth to her first litter; shortly thereafter, at the end of the second chapter, Esch reveals that watching China give birth has made her realize that “something’s wrong”: she, too, is pregnant, with the child of a local boy named Manny who will not return the feelings of love she has for him. As the novel progresses, Ward tracks China’s violent first few days of motherhood and shows Esch adjusting to her changing body and struggling to keep the secret of her pregnancy. Running like an undercurrent through the novel is Esch’s obsession with the ancient Greek myth of Medea, who famously killed her two children in order to wound her husband, Jason. Through Esch and China’s twinned stories—and indeed through the invocation of Medea—Ward suggests that though one of the primary duties of motherhood is to protect one’s offspring from the violence of the world, there is often a violence inherent in the act of mothering as well.
When it becomes clear relatively early on in the novel that Esch is going to have a baby, the fifteen-year-old girl—raised in rural poverty by her absent father after her mother died nine years ago in childbirth, friendless, surrounded by men and boys at every turn—finds herself without a model for how to be a mother. The only “mothers” she knows of are China and Medea, and as she considers the violence of Medea’s story and the vicious arrival—and, in a few cases, the quick dispatching—of China’s puppies, Esch finds herself beginning to conceive of her own pregnancy in increasingly violent terms, and to worry whether she herself will, in spite of this legacy, be able to mother her unborn child well. The scene in which China gives birth to her puppies is narrated in visceral, unflinching detail. As the puppies come forth, several are stillborn, demonstrating the cruelty and randomness of the act of giving birth; readers learn, too, that Esch’s own mother died giving birth to Junior, the youngest of Esch’s brothers. As China nurses her new puppies over the next several days, they fight against parvo, a viral gastrointestinal illness that kills one of the litter; China’s own violent instincts, which lead her to kill one of her own puppies when it wanders too close to her food bowl; and ultimately against nature, as Hurricane Katrina eventually washes away all of the remaining puppies and China, too.
The violent side of motherhood is put further on display when Skeetah decides to fight China against another dog, Kilo, just days after she has given birth. He argues that China will be stronger rather than weaker now that she is a mother. Though his friend Manny asserts that weakness in the wake of motherhood is the “price of being female,” Skeetah believes that motherhood is “when [dogs] come into they strength” because only then do they have “something to protect”—and that instinct gives them “power.” Esch overhears this conversation and wonders whether it will apply to her, too—whether she, who is often meek and silent, desperate for Manny to pay attention to her and uncertain of how to ask for help from her brothers, her father, or her neighbors, will soon come into her own “power.” China goes on to win the fight against Kilo, though one of her milk-swollen breasts is mangled and torn. This symbolic injury demonstrates Ward’s argument that motherly and violent traits are bound up inextricably within one another, and the equally grisly wounds Kilo sustains show that just because China has become a mother does not mean she has lost her capacity for violence—if anything, in accordance with Skeetah’s prediction, her new status as a mother has given her a new fierceness.
What constitutes motherly “power” in Esch’s eyes is complicated by her fascination with—and her idolatry of—Medea, one of the most notoriously violent figures in Greek myth; a woman who betrayed her family in order to marry her husband Jason, only for Jason to betray her by falling in love with another woman. In retaliation against Jason, Medea killed their two children before escaping in the chariot of the sun god Helios. Medea’s story is so striking because of how it seemingly goes against nature: mothers are not supposed to kill their children. However, as the narrative progresses and Esch watches China eat, maim, and neglect her own young, Esch is forced to confront the fact that her own memories of her sweet, kind, loving mother are perhaps outliers—perhaps motherhood is a darker transaction.
At the end of the novel, Esch and her family—and the unborn life inside of her—have survived Hurricane Katrina—a cataclysmic storm with a feminine name, which Esch describes as “the mother we will remember until the next mother with large merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.” Esch’s models for motherhood have mostly been models of violence, distance, and mythic fury; the storm has descended “merciless[ly]” like China, lingered for just a while with Esch and her family like her own mother, dead too soon, and returned to the sky just like Medea. As Esch and her brothers sit in the ruined, washed-out shell of their home waiting for China, who swam off into the woods when the rising water levels washed two of her puppies away, Skeetah has no doubt that China will come home, even as his brothers doubt him. Esch, too, looks forward to China’s triumphant return, and the moment in which China will look at her and recognize that she and Esch are the same; they are both mothers, and are bound together by the violent demands of their sacred but impossible roles.
Motherhood and Violence ThemeTracker
Motherhood and Violence Quotes in Salvage the Bones
The puppy is pure white. She is her mother in miniature. But while her mother moans, she is silent. Skeetah bends over her. The other puppies are opening their jaws, twitching legs. We're all sweating so badly we look like we just ran into the shed from a hard, heavy summer rain. But Skeet is shaking his head, and I don't know if it's all sweat or if he's crying. He blinks. He scrapes his pointer over the pure white skull, down the puppy's chest and her belly. Her mouth opens and her belly inflates. She is her mother’s daughter. She is a fighter. She breathes.
"You ran slow yesterday."
I hold the bandage close. Skeetah grabs a rusty safety pin from off the sink and pins it shut.
"Only in the beginning," I say.
"I don't know." The light is creeping into the bathroom like fog. Skeetah pulls his shirt back over his head, looks down at my body to my chest, my stomach, my feet. What does he know? I shift, barely help myself from folding my arms.
"Maybe you’re gaining weight."
"You’re saying I'm fat?" I am trying not to cry. I don’t want him to know, but I can’t tell him, because I can’t say it. I haven’t said it to myself yet, out loud. Just chased it around in my head since I saw the lines.
"No," Skeet says. “Just growing up, maybe."
I push with my hands, and it will not sink to dense pearls like fat. It pushes back, water flush and warm. I unpin my shirt. We all share clothes, so it's mostly men's T-shirts for me, loose jeans and cotton shorts. They cannot tell, but it is there. Perhaps Skeetah saw when I walked from the water and put on my clothes. I do not know, but I will not give him the chance to see again now. I will not let him see until none of us have any choices about what can be seen, what can be avoided, what is blind, and what will turn us to stone.
"I ain’t saying [she] weak." Manny still hasn't looked at me. "But you know China ain’t as boss as she used to be."
"What?" Skeetah's tendons are showing.
“Any dog give birth like that is less strong after. Even if you don’t think it. Take a lot out of an animal to nurse and nurture like that. Price of being female." Finally Manny glances at me. It slides over me like I'm glass.
Skeetah laughs. It sounds as if it's hacking its way out of him.
"You serious? That's when they come into they strength. They got something to protect." He glances at me, too, but I feel it even after he looks away. "That's power."
China is licking Skeetah's hand like she licks the puppies. Skeetah pushes her head away but she keeps at it, and he looks away from Manny. The tendons in his neck smooth. The menace leaves him; if he were a dog, his hair would flatten.
"To give life"—Skeetah bends down to China, feels her from neck to jaw, caresses her face like he would kiss her; she flashes her tongue—"is to know what's worth fighting for. And what’s love." Skeetah rubs down her sides, feels her ribs.
Daddy has only knocked down one of the chicken coop's walls. The chickens wander drunken and bewildered around his feet, seemingly mystified that he is dismantling their house, even though they haven’t roosted in it in years. In the half-light from the bulb from the shed and Daddy's headlights, they look black. Daddy lets his hammer fall, and the chickens scatter, fluttering away like leaves in a wind.
"The storm, it has a name now. Like the worst, she's a woman. Katrina."
"There's another storm?" Randall asks.
"What you think I been talking about? I knew it was coming," Daddy says. Like the worst, l repeat. A woman. He shakes his head, frowns at the coop. "We going to try something."
“I want you to get on my tractor and I’m going to direct you to this wall right here.” Daddy points at the longer wall. “And we going to knock this damn thing over.”
"Do it," Skeetah commands China.
China's ears are fat as plastic knives laid on her head and her mouth is wet and pink as uncooked chicken, except here the bone shows. She is quivering, her muscles beset by a multitude of tics. She is shaking all over, now eye to eye with Skeetah, seemingly ignoring the dirt-red puppy rounding her bowl, waddling for milk. He is the one that is a model of the father, of Kilo; he is the fattest, the most well fed, the bully. Turgid with the promise of living. When their eyes eventually open, I think that his will be the first.
The tractor idles and the engine turns, sounds as if it going to move.
"Don't do it!" Daddy yells against his tugging, but his grunts eat the Don't, and I don't know what Randall hears, but he lets up on the brake and slips it in gear, and the tractor eases forward. "Stop!" Daddy yells. He is pulling back, his hand clenched in the wire, and he twists so hard his arm looks long and ropy.
The red puppy creeps forward, rounds China's bowl, noses her tit. China is rolling, rising. The rumble of the tractor is her growl. Her toes are pointed, her head raised. Skeetah falls back. The red puppy undulates toward her; a fat mite. China snaps forward, closes her jaw around the puppy's neck as she does when she carries him, but there is no gentleness in it. She is all white eyes. She is chewing. She is whipping him through the air like a tire eaten too short for Skeetah to grab.
The blood on Daddy’s shirt is the same color as the pulpy puppy in China's mouth. China flings it away from her. It thuds on the tin and slides. Randall comes running. Big Henry kneels with Daddy in the dirt, where what was Daddy's middle, ring, and pinkie finger on his left hand are sheared off clean as fallen tree trunks. The meat of his fingers is red and wet as China's lips.
Skeetah kneels in the dirt, feeling for the mutilated puppy; he knocks into metal drums and toolboxes and old chainsaws with his head and his shoulders.
"Why did you?" Skeetah wails.
"Why?" Daddy breathes to Randall and Big Henry standing over him, the blood sluicing down his forearm. They are gripping Daddy's wrist, trying to stop the bleeding. Skeetah is punching the metal he meets. China is bloody-mouthed and bright-eyed as Medea. If she could speak, this is what I would ask her: Is this what motherhood is?
We have never done it like this. His hands are on my ass, and he tries to look down, to see, but it brings us face-to-face. Sweat gathers at his hairline, catches on the red grooves left by the clippers, like ant trails, across the top of his forehead. He grimaces, looking down, away, over my shoulder, up to the ceiling.
I grab his face.
Under my hands, his jaw, freshly shaved, feels like a cat's tongue. My fingers are black as bark against his paler skin.
He will look at me.
He shrugs, twists his head to the side. Flipping like a caught fish. I roll my hips. It is too sweet.
He will look at me.
He snorts, puts his head down into my shoulder. I pull hard, and my hands slide along his face. I grab again.
He will look at me.
He grunts, grabbing at my sweaty sides, his eyes closed. His lashes are longer than those of any girls I know. Beautiful. The thumbs of his long hands press into my stomach, so he can pull again, but then they stutter. He presses hard again: my belly pushes back. He looks down and back up, eye to eye: all I have ever wanted, here. He is looking. He is seeing me, and his hands are coming around to feel the honeydew curve, the swell that is more than swell, the fat that is not fat, the budding baby, and his eyes are so black they are all black, and they are a night without stars. All I have ever wanted. He knows.
I listen for the boys and the dogs somewhere out in these woods, but all I can hear is the pine trees shushing each other, the oak bristling, the magnolia leaves hard and wide so that they sound like paper plates clattering when the wind hits them, this wind snapping before Katrina somewhere out there in the Gulf coming like the quiet voice of someone talking before they walk through the doorway of a room.
A cloud passes over the sun, and it is dark under the trees. It passes, and the gold melts through the leaves, falls on bark and floor: foil coins. Soon we reach a curtain of vines, which hang from the lowest branches to the needle-carpeted earth, and we crawl. Skeetah dusts China's breasts off, waves us on. We have been walking for a long time when I hear the first tiny bark.
"You tired?" Randall asks.
"No," I say. My stomach feels full of water, hurts with it, but I will not tell him that. I push aside a branch, let it go, but it still scratches my arm. Medea's journey took her to the water, which was the highway of the ancient world, where death was as close as the waves, the sun, the wind. Where death was as many as the fish waiting in the water, fanning fins, watching the surface, shad- owing the bottom dark. China barks as if she is answering the dog.
Skeetah is squeezing China’s neck, murmuring in her ear. This time I cannot hear what he says. Skeetah is whispering so closely to China's ear I only catch half of his lips behind the red-veined white of her ear. Her breast drips blood. China licks Skeetah's cheek.
Rico stands, already smiling.
"Maybe I don't want the white [puppy]," Rico says. "Maybe I want the colored one that got more Kilo in it." He laughs.
Skeetah stands, and China, stout and white, looks up at him. "She fights," Skeetah says.
Randall pulls the stick from his shoulders, swings it around
to his front. "She's already fucked up enough," Randall says.
"Cuz, if she lost, she lost," Big Henry says, slowly, as if he is tasting the words.
"She didn’t lose," Skeetah breathes.
"It's salty. Taste like pecans. And if worse comes to worst, we can eat like China." Skeetah rubs China from her shoulders to her neck, up along her razor jaw, and holds her face, which goes wrinkly with the skin smashed forward. It looks like he is pulling her to him for a kiss. She squints. I want to kick her. Randall shoulders his box, grabs the ramen box from me, and turns to walk into the house. Junior is tying his cord around an old lawn mower now, pulling at it like he's playing tug-of-war. The sun shines, blazes like fire, funnels down in the gaps between the trees, and lights up Skeetah and China so that they glow, each kneeling before the other, eyes together. Skeetah has already forgotten the conversation, and China never heard it.
"We ain't no dogs," Randall says. “And you ain't either."
[Manny] stops in profile. His nose is like a knife.
“And?” His hair grows so fast it's already starting to curl. Sweat beads at his hairline.
Manny shakes his head. The knife cuts. The sweat rolls down his scar, is flung out onto the rotten asphalt.
"I ain’t got nothing here," he says. Manny blinks at me when he says it. Looks at me head-on, for the second time ever. "Nothing."
Nothing. For some reason I see Skeetah when I blink, Skeetah kneeling next to China, always kneeling, always stroking and loving and knowing her. Skeetah's face when he stood across from Rico, when he told China, Make them know.
I am on him like China.
I am slapping him, over and over, my hands a furry, a black blur. His face is hot and stinging as boiling water.
"Hey! Hey!" Manny yells. He blocks what he can with his elbows and forearms, but still I snake through. I slap so hard my hands hurt.
"I love you!"
"Esch!" The skin on his throat is red, his scar white.
"I loved you!" I hit his Adam's apple with the V where my thumb and pointer
finger cross. He chokes.
"I loved you!" This is Medea wielding the knife. This is Medea cutting. I rake my fingernails across his face, leave pink scratches that turn red, fill with blood.
Mama had talked back to Elaine. Talked over the storm. Pulled us in in the midst of it, kept us safe. This secret that is no longer a secret in my body: Will I keep it safe? If I could speak to this storm, spell it harmless like Medea, would this baby, the size of my fingernail, my pinkie fingernail, maybe, hear? Would speaking make it remember me once it is born, make it know me? Would it look at me with Manny’s face, with his golden skin, with my hair? Would it reach out with its fingers, pink, and grasp?
I kick, grasping at the air, but the hurricane slaps me, and I land in the water on my back, the puppies flying out of the bucket, their eyes open for the first time to slits and, I swear, judging me as they hit.
"Esch!" Randall yells, and Junior tightens his legs like a looping shoestring across Randall's waist. Randall grips Junior's shins, those legs thin as rulers. Randall cant jump in. "Swim!" he screams.
I kick my legs and palm water, but I can barely keep my head above it. It is a fanged pink open mouth, and it is swallowing me.
"Fuck!" Skeetah yells. He looks down at China, who is thrusting up and against his sling.
"Esch!" Junior screams, and the water is dragging me sideways, away from the window, out into the yard, toward the gullet of the Pit. I snatch at the puppy closest to me, the brindle, which is limp in my hand, and shove it down my shirt. The white and the black-and-white have disappeared.
"Fuck!" Skeetah screams. He grabs China’s head, whispers something to her as she scrabbles against him. Her teeth show and she jerks backward away from him. She writhes. Her torso is out of the sling he has made. Skeetah grabs China by the head and pulls and her body comes out and she is scrambling. She flies clear of him, twists in the air to splash belly first in the water. She is already swimming, fighting.
"Who the daddy?" Big Henry asks. There is no blazing fire to his eyes, no cold burning ice like Manny's. Only warmth, like the sun on the best fall days when the few leaves that will turn are starting and the air is clear and cloudless.
"It don’t have a daddy," I say.
"You wrong," Big Henry says. He looks away when he says it, out to the gray Gulf. There is a car out there in the shallows of the water. The top gleams red. "This baby got a daddy Esch." He reaches out his big soft hand, soft as the bottom of his feet probably, and helps me stand. "This baby got plenty daddies."
I smile with a tightening of my cheek. My eyes feel wet. I swallow salt.
I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.
"She's going to come back to me," he says. "Watch.”
China. She will return, standing tall and straight, the milk burned out of her. She will look down on the circle of light we have made in the Pit, and she will know that I have kept watch, that I have fought. China will bark and call me sister. In the star-suffocated sky, there is a great waiting silence. She will know that I am a mother.