By David Canfield
August 20, 2019 at 02:00 PM EDT
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Beowulf Sheehan; Random House Children's Books

The following is an excerpt from Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (Freshwater), a YA exploration of identity and justice. The novel centers on best friends Jam and Redemption, and their encounter with Pet, a creature made of horns and colors and claws, who emerges from one of Jam’s mother’s paintings has come to hunt a monster — and Redemption from shadowy danger. Pet publishes Sept. 10 and is available for pre-order.

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Jam leaned forward to look at the painting. It was manywhite and thick and textured, paint climbing on itself as if it wanted to get away from the canvas, away from the floor underneath the canvas, even. There were raked gouges in it, next to delicate veined imprints, next to pieces of Bitter’s palm. Something large and loud in the center of the painting had the legs of a goat, fur like grated bone, solid thighs, their surface thrusting toward the ceiling of the studio. Jam pointed at it and looked at her mother. Bitter held her chin, thoughtful.

“I’m not sure, you know. The thing just coming out the way it want so.”

Its arms were long, even longer than Jam’s. It didn’t have a head yet. The smoke Bitter had painted around it was as dense as clouds, and Jam thought she could see it move, a jerky tendril here and there.

“Name?” she asked.

Bitter shrugged. “You could name something when you not sure what it is?” They stood and looked down together at the thing struggling out of smoke. “It’s just waiting sometimes,” Bitter murmured. “Just waiting.” Jam wasn’t sure if she meant that she was waiting for the thing to show itself or if the thing itself was waiting for Bitter to be done making it. Maybe they were one and the same. She took her mother’s hand and pulled her toward the angel books.

“Ah,” said Bitter. “What you have there?” Jam flipped some of the books open to the pages where she’d tucked the glittered bookmarks Redemption gave her on her last birthday. She pushed the books out across the table so her mother could see the pictures in each of them.

They were supposed to be angels, but they were terrifying: eyes filled with licking flames even as they looked out from the page, armored faces that weren’t faces, wings full of mouths, wheels of reddened eyes, four-headed forms that weren’t even vaguely human. There was a butchered lion head bleeding somewhere in there. Bitter hummed and touched the pictures.

Jam looked up at her. “Angels?”
Bitter hummed some more and nodded.

Jam frowned. But Lucille, the mayor and the council and everyone who came together to take away the monster, those were angels, not these, she signed.

Her mother ran her stained fingers across the books. “‘Do not be afraid,’” she said.

Jam didn’t understand, so she kept the frown on her face.

“That’s the first thing angels does say, you know? Do not be afraid.”

Jam looked down at the pictures. It seemed like a reasonable opening line, considering how horrific they looked. Her mother laughed at her expression.

“Exactly,” she said. “We does think angels are white robes and harps and all kinds of pretty things, but chile!” She clicked her tongue. “Look at them. Good reason why they does strike fear into the heart.”

Jam wondered—if real angels looked like this, then what did that mean for the angels in Lucille? Did it mean people didn’t really know what they were talking about when they said angels in the first place? Angels weren’t supposed to look like this. They were supposed to be good, and how could something good look like this?

She tapped on the pictures and looked up at her mother, worried, pitching her voice low. “Monsters,” she whispered.

Bitter’s eyebrows shot up. “You think so?” She hummed some more and turned a few of the pages. “Well, I suppose one could see how you could see that. Only if you don’t know what a monster looks like, of course.”

What does a monster look like? Jam asked.

Her mother focused on her, cupping her cheek in a chalky hand. “Monsters don’t look like anything, doux-doux. That’s the whole point. That’s the whole problem.”

Okay, Jam thought, fine. She wasn’t worried about the monsters anyway; she was worried about Lucille’s angels, because if they secretly looked like the pictures, then it was hard to imagine that they hadn’t done, well, some pretty bad things.

Our angels, she signed, the ones here. Are they good? Are they innocent?

Angels had to be innocent, right? Like, wasn’t that the whole point of them, to be good and innocent and righteous?

Bitter tilted her head, and something sad entered her eyes. “It not easy to get rid of monsters,” she said. “The angels, they had to do things underhand, dark things.” The sadness in her eyes deepened, and Jam took her hand, not understanding what pain was coming up but feeling its ripples in the air. “Hard things,” her mother continued. “You can’t sweet-talk a monster into anything else, when all it does want is monsterness. Good and innocent, they not the same thing; they don’t wear the same face.”

She came back to herself and studied Jam for a little bit, the sadness lifting from her eyes. “It’s good to think about the angels like so,” she said. “Critically, yes? Can’t believe everything everyone tells you, even in school, it’s good to question. But remember, is Lucille angels that organized we. And what did we learn from that?” Bitter squeezed Jam’s hands. “Tell it to me.”

Jam made a face.

“You don’t have to voice it, you could sign it, ent?”

Jam sighed and freed her hands from her mother’s so she could say the words, lifted from an old Gwendolyn Brooks poem, words the angels had used when they gave Lucille back to itself. A revolutionary cry.

We are each other’s harvest. We are each other’s business. We are each other’s magnitude and bond.

“Yes, child. Angels aren’t pretty pictures in old holy books, just like monsters aren’t ugly pictures. It’s all just people, doing hard things or doing bad things. But is all just people, our people.”

Excerpted from PET by Akwaeke Emezi, on sale Sept. 10, 2019. Published by Make Me a World, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books.

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