“Milk Blood Heat,” the title story of Dantiel W. Moniz’s collection, opens on Ava and Kiera, a twelve-year-old best friend duo, slicing their palms. Ava and Kiera combine their blood with milk and drink. The ritual brings the best friends closer—they marvel at how their bonds form at a cellular level. Then, they race off to their next adventure. “This is the hour of reckoning,” the two girls shout as they run to Retention Lake behind Kiera’s house. It’s a beautiful scene, but shot through with something sinister. As with great coming-of-age stories, “Milk Blood Heat” is full of tension—between what these characters are and what they might become. In this atmospheric and elegant debut, Milk Blood Heat, Moniz centers those in the process of metamorphosis: tweens wading through adolescence, women about to be mothers, soon-to-be widowers, brothers and sisters grappling with the recent death of a parent. Milk Blood Heat invites us to look close—guided by Moniz’s lush yet urgent prose, these stories offer the reader an intimate look at growth, life, and death.
Moniz brings the physical toll of growth to the forefront of each story, drawing our attention to the body. In “The Loss of Heaven,” Moniz opens with the protagonist’s weight—Fred is 210 naked, 217 pounds in his leather jacket, boots, and gold chains. His heft is contrasted with the slimness of his wife, Gloria, who is refusing cancer treatment and losing weight rapidly. Fred spends much of his time at a local bar, fantasizing about a younger cocktail waitress. After a disastrous night, Fred returns home and finds himself too ashamed to look at his naked body in the mirror. It is as though his transgressions might have been grafted into his skin. In one scene, Fred and Gloria have sex, and Fred considers the difference between her body and his. Moniz writes, “He tugged her closer and pressed himself against her, wishing he could push her inside of his body and make them one again…he [filled] his fingers with the memory of her prior flesh.” Here, their closeness verges on claustrophobic. Reading this, I can’t help but feel the heat of skin—both what is present and the ghost of what has been lost from Gloria’s illness. Moniz weaves such a feeling throughout Milk Blood Heat. The result is simultaneously haunting and tender.
Many of Moniz’s characters are young Black women, and Moniz’s examination of girlhood is a particular strength of this collection. In these stories, too, we see the effects of change in the whole body. In “Tongues,” Zey, a young woman from a religious family, learns more about the devil. Moniz writes, “this idea, this word, quickens in Zey, growing big in the eternal Southern heat.” Such phrasing evokes stretching, a magical reaction happening between ideas and bodies, and the summer night.
And, Moniz reminds us how formative girlhood is—how the decisions we make as adolescents stay with us and how they haunt us. In “Outside the Raft,” the narrator and her cousin, Tweety, share a close relationship—”She grasped my hand in the dark, as if to check that I was still there, her nails sinking softly into my palm. ‘I love you, Shayla,’ she said.” Later, the cousins and their friends visit the ocean and are thrown from their raft. In a desperate bid for survival, Shayla clings to Tweety. Told in dramatic staccato, Shayla almost drowns her cousin to stay afloat. The narrator feels the reverberations of her choice long after she and her cousin are safe on land. As the narrator of “An Almanac of Bones” realizes: “every one of us was a link stretching back, mother to daughter to mother, in an unbroken chain from the center of time, connected by milk and blood.”
Indeed, each of Moniz’s characters circle, as though trapped in orbit, around their past transgressions, the weight of their family histories, and the implications of how they have loved and have lost. In “Thicker Than Water,” the complexities of an estranged sibling relationship are laid bare during a road trip to disperse a father’s ashes. The narrator and her brother, Lucas, have both suffered trauma at their father’s hands yet hold radically different interpretations of their father. We move quickly in “Thicker Than Water”—characters cross state lines, the narrator periodically dips into memories of her and Lucas’s childhood. It could be easy to feel unmoored. However, Moniz’s prose slows, unspooling the complex interiors of her character. At the story’s conclusion, the narrator sits alone in a broken-down car, relieving a painful memory from her childhood. She tries to retreat inwards, to find comfort in her skin: “My shirt is damp under the arms now, two dark patches growing like eyes and I can smell myself. Root vegetable. Earth. A Murkiness. I try to sink down into the depths of my own scent, try to linger, to like it.” Once again, Moniz’s searing viscerality reminds us that gender, trauma, and history are experienced with our bodies.
Moniz’s prose conjures a landscape just as intimate and knowable as the topography of her characters’ bodies and minds. With only one exception, the stories in Milk Blood Heat take place in Northern Florida. My family moved to Florida when I was 17, and I struggle to give a great answer to: what is it about Florida that you love so much? There’s something about the night, I like to say. Moniz conjures place vividly and beautifully—much like the Southern Floridian swamp-scape of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia or the gritty Boston of Kate Wisel’s Driving In Cars With Homeless Men. Moniz’s prose bursts with life and precise detail, no room or scene allowed to exist as hazy, nondescript space. Moniz gives the reader a palpable sense of life—teeming in every surface of water, in every suburban backyard, and every flat, urban expanse. Milk Blood Heat captures what I mean when I say, there’s just something about the night.
Of course, Florida is not just a set-piece. Instead, it is an active participant in the lives of Moniz’s characters. Across this collection, characters’ interaction with nature powerfully mirrors their inner lives and conflicts. In “Milk Blood Heat,” Kiera and Ava play with tadpoles as they, too, are in an intermediate stage of growth. In “Snow,” cold temperatures and frost come to Jacksonville, mirroring the chill between the narrator and her new husband. Their surroundings turn perilous, too. In “Thicker Than Water,” as the narrator and her brother debate their dead father’s role in their lives with increasing fervor, “the night shrinks down until it traps [them].”
“Exotics,” the collection’s penultimate story, ends on a simple question: “Haven’t we always eaten our young?” After reading this collection, I might answer: well, haven’t we? In Milk Blood Heat, Moniz renders the terrains of girlhood and Florida as gorgeous, but not without danger.
Aleksia Mira Silverman lives and writes in South Florida. She is an contributing fiction editor for Barren Magazine. In Fall 2021, she will begin her graduate studies as an MFA candidate in fiction. Read more of her writing on twitter at @AleksiaMira