Milk Blood Heat, the stunning debut short story collection by Dantiel W. Moniz, is populated by characters, most of them women or girls, standing on the cusp of change — or sometimes on its cliff edge. As its title suggests, this book’s 11 stories are about human need, about intimacy physical and otherwise, and about what happens when it fails.
Moniz, a Florida native who lives in Jacksonville, sets many of the stories in that sprawling city, where sometimes, she writes, “even the sidewalk seemed to sweat.” Like fellow Florida writer Lauren Groff, Moniz writes about the darker corners of the Sunshine State, a place where, in one story, water in a decorative pool at an apartment complex is “dyed ... a kind of golf-course aquamarine” to hide the “glass bottles, burger wrappers, used condoms, or the cigarette butts” that settle on its bottom.
Moniz writes powerfully about adolescent girls as they navigate that perilous age. The title story focuses on the bond — sealed with a blood ritual — between Kiera and Ava, who recognize something wild in each other. It’s told from the point of view of Ava, who is Black; Kiera is white, and her parents have doubts about the friendship. As is true in many of these stories, in which most of the characters are Black, race is a factor in their relationship but just one part of its complexities
Both girls feel themselves changing into something unfamiliar. For Ava, it’s confusing but empowering: “She is Frankenstein’s monster. She is a vampire queen. She is newly thirteen, hollowed out and filled back up with venom and dust-cloud dreams.” Kiera, too, is hungry for new experience, but she will take a shocking path.
In Outside the Raft, Shayla envies her slightly older cousin, Tweet, despite the fact that Tweet’s parents are in prison. Shayla is beginning to question what adults tell her, including whether God exists or is just a “story” to scare children. During a family trip to the beach, Shayla, Tweet and two other kids are tossed from a raft into a rip current, and Shayla revises her thinking about God: “He was the burn of salt in my nose, the blueblackness of the underside of the waves.”
Tongues is one of the stories that focuses on siblings, in this case youngsters Zey and her little brother, Duck. After Zey has a disturbing encounter with their pastor, the man spreads vicious rumors about her. Duck comes to her defense, and she comes to his — and then he rescues her from herself.
The siblings in Thicker Than Water, Lucas and Cecilia, are adults and estranged, for reasons narrator Cecilia doesn’t reveal. Their mother, determined to reconcile them, demands they both take their late father’s ashes to Santa Fe, New Mexico, as he had asked.
That sends them on a road trip where Cecilia meets Lucas’ girlfriend, a wispy, lavender-haired white girl named Shelby. At first Cecelia is a bit put off by her — Shelby makes her living, and quite a good one, as a foot fetish model. But there’s more to Shelby than her “rosy little toes.” And the reason for the siblings’ rift is not what you might guess.
Several of the strongest stories in Milk Blood Heat are about mothers and daughters. In Necessary Bodies, a young woman named Billie has just discovered she’s pregnant. She has a happy marriage and a supportive husband, but she hesitates to share the news with her mother — even though the mother, Colette, wants nothing more than to be a grandmother.
Billie is full of doubt about whether to have a child; a trip to a planetarium, a random conversation with an old high school acquaintance and Colette’s gala 50th birthday party help her figure it out.
The narrator of Feast finds herself pregnant, too, but she doesn’t have doubts: “This baby validated me in the same way as my master’s degree, my good credit; Heath’s getting down on one knee.” But early on, a visit to the doctor reveals the heartbeat has stopped, and months later she is still overcome with grief.
So great is her loss that she is having delusions — the story opens with her seeing a pair of tiny hands crawling around on her bedroom curtains. “I saw the first baby part in a bouquet of marigolds Heath brought home that night” after the miscarriage, she tells us. She struggles to relate to her husband and young stepdaughter, and finds solace in the unlikely form of an octopus.
In The Hearts of Our Enemies, Frankie is the mother of a teenager, Margot. The common friction between mothers and teenage daughters is escalated in their case because Frankie has confessed to an almost-affair to her husband.
Margot scorns her mother, and Frankie can’t really argue with her. Then she notices signs that one of Margot’s teachers might be pursuing her daughter — even before Margot figures it out herself. “She was of that special age where she knew both nothing and everything,” Moniz writes, “and no matter where or at whom she looked she saw her own reflection glimmering back like a skim of oil.”
Frankie’s fury at the man takes her to a dark place, before she devises an ingenious revenge.
An Almanac of Bones revolves around three generations of women. Sylvie is an 11-year-old being raised by her grandmother and dealing with whispers that the grandmother’s moon festivals, celebratory gatherings of women, are some sort of suspect “gypsy” ritual.
Sylvie also boils with resentment toward her mother, Helen, an adventurous world traveler who drops in and out of her life unannounced. When Helen shows up for the moon festival and asks her daughter what another girl’s mother does, Sylvie says, “Stays.”
As difficult as her relationship with Helen is, Sylvie loves and admires her grandmother: “I hoped I would be like that someday: my hair over my shoulder, posture immaculate, fixing sandwiches in my own home in a man’s Hawaiian shirt.”
When women gather for the moon festival, Sylvie feels herself part of “an unbroken chain from the center of time, connected by milk and blood.” She even begins to understand how that chain connects her and Helen.
Milk Blood Heat
By Dantiel W. Moniz
Grove Press, 208 pages, $25