The woman’s face contorts into an angry frown—but just for a moment before she closes her eyes and collects herself and begins to explain something.
We got something you don’t have, child, she says. We got something unique. You wanna know what it is? We got loyal blood. We watch out for each other. That’s how we come to survive for so long. My family, it’s the oldest family in the county. Hell, I guess by now we’s the oldest family in the state. That’s what I mean, survivors. See, long before this plague of foolishness descended on the world, we was livin apart—up in the woods where there wasn’t no one to bother us. We had our land. We made our food. We was one family, and we stayed one family for six generations. Blood is holy blood. It’s God’s gift, and it ain’t to be watered down. My children is the gift of the spirit, and let them be legion.
By the end of her speech, the woman is worked up, and she has snailed across the floor until she is right close to Temple’s face, her breath coming hot and powerful on her cheeks. Then she leans back, pulling herself together once more.
She sips the lemonade, her bones clacking.
See, she goes on, this plague is sent to cleanse the earth. It sweeps with prejudice, honey, and it favors those strong enough to keep together. What it does, it sweeps away the mess of commonness, and what it leaves behind are those Americans who keep America stored up in their blood lineage. What lineage are you trailin, girl? Do you know what togetherness is? What have you ever been together with? We got us the blood of the nation, you better believe it.
Uh-huh, Temple says. So you all are the inheritors of the earth?
That there is God’s truth, girl. The question is are you smart enough to see it.
Temple considers. She thinks about the people she’s known, the things she’s seen. She thinks about the nation she’s traveled since she was born, the derelict landscapes, the rain that washes the blood and dust into rust-colored puddles.
Finally she shrugs.
All right, she says. So you’re the inheritors of the earth. It ain’t the wrongest thing I ever heard.
The woman leans back, satisfied.
But, Temple continues, that don’t mean I can stay here and be your pet. You can keep old Moses—he ain’t nothin but trouble anyway. But Maury and I, we got places to be.
To everyone else they’s a curse, the woman says with a wave of her chalky crusted arm. To us, they’s a blessing.
Who you talking about? The meatskins?
After the plague, we come down out the hills and took up our place in our rightful homes. And the shells of the lost, them that walk a foolish death, they contain the blessing for us as knows how to pluck it out. Our family, we’s nourished on the blood of God and the foolishness of the past—and we grow as giants on the earth.
Okay, Temple says. You got your ear to God’s lips. I got it already.
The woman’s hand shoots out and grabs Temple by the neck, tightening its bony claws around her throat. The fingers are huge and encircle her neck completely. Temple struggles to breathe, but Royal holds her arms behind her.
You’re a mouthy girl, the woman says. You don’t be careful, it gonna get you kilt.
She releases her grip, and Temple falls to the floor, gasping.
Then the woman’s gaze falls on Maury.
Bodie, she says, there’s somethin special about this one. He’s a bright light in the firmament. Blank as any child of God lookin for a home. You look you can observe that pureness in his eyes, sure as anything. I wanna see what the family blessing does for him. Get Doc.
THEY ARE returned to their cells, and she blinks her eyes to adjust them again to the dark.
How’s Mama? Moses Todd says.
She’s a big white lobster.
So what’s the story?
They’re the inheritors of the earth. Used to be they were just hillbillies. Now they’re the inheritors of the earth.
And what else?
And we best get ourselves out of here, toot sweet. Whether they like you or hate you, it seems like things might culminate in unpleasantness. Oh and also, I think I figured out what they’re shootin up.
At that moment the door of the room swings open and Bodie and Royal come in followed by another man, smaller, more human-sized, with glasses and long wisps of hair circling the crown of his bald head. He has a peevish, sneering expression on his face, as of a man who dislikes the company he keeps.
This time I want me a full dose, he says to the other two.
Come on, Doc, Bodie says. You know it ain’t our choice. Mama don’t like you messin round with your fine motor skills. You’re the only one knows how to harvest the stuff. From what I can tell you can’t get it just by squeezin their heads like lemons. You gone, we ain’t got nothin.
The one called Doc sneers and examines the array of slugs tripping over one another in the cell.
That one, he says, pointing to a woman with dried blood caked on her chin in a way that makes her look like a ventriloquist’s dummy. I reckon she looks fresh.
Good choice, Doc, Royal says, unlocking the cage. We just picked her up day before yesterday.
He leads her out and pushes the others back and swings the door of the cage shut. Then, while Doc sorts through a bunch of instruments on the table and preps the lab equipment, Royal begins to play with her, offering his arm up like a bone for a dog, leading her around the room and laughing.
She opens her mouth and lunges at him, and he steps back out of range of her teeth. He laughs shrilly.
Come on, he says. I know you want a taste of Royal in yer belly, dontcha?
Having led her around the room twice, he gets her to the foot of the autopsy table and with a quick movement takes her by the back of the neck and twists her around and pushes her back onto the metal surface, where she squirms trying to rise. Then he takes the leather belt straps and flings them over her torso and legs and fastens them tight so she can’t move.
You’re a lively thing, ain’t you? Hey, Doc, you ready to go yet?
Gimme a few goddamn minutes. It ain’t carvin a pumpkin, it’s surgery.
It’s okay—this one’s a downright pretty one. Seems like she could get used a little before we get started.
He looks at her lasciviously with his one rolling eyeball, and then Temple looks away. This is one thing God has nothing to do with.
TEMPLE’S PERSPECTIVE is obscured, but from what she can tell the operation seems to involve splitting the slug’s head open and extracting something from it. Bodie holds the head straight between his hands while Doc gingerly makes a cut using an electric bone saw. Temple wonders why they don’t just kill her first and not have to contend with a wriggling body—but then she determines that it must make a difference whether the thing is active or not when they do the operation. They take pains to go only so far into the slug’s head, and only in a particular place near the base of the skull. It isn’t until after the procedure is over that Doc says, Okay, and then Bodie takes a long blade, a butcher’s knife, and drives it up into the hole they made in the skull until the woman stops moving.