Pee Wee, the youngest and boldest of her sibling explorers, took off running through the woods to beat her sisters home. The sun whispered through the trees, shining on her red-brown skin. Her jet-black pigtails bobbed as she ran fast, chin high, sweeping past the willow trees and feeling the soft Spanish moss beneath her shoes, stray twig bushes swatting her legs, all while carefully skipping or jumping every mud puddle in the humid parish backwaters, knowing she didn’t want to splash-up her good white knee socks, even if one sock did hang around her ankle, for this was not just a day leading into summer break. It was something much more special.
The last day of school was always exciting for Pee Wee, Betty, and Ann Conway, mostly because it meant they were free to roam all the parts of the parish they did not know, especially its dark side.
Pa was coming home with the promise of sweets, and she couldn’t wait to taste them.
“Slow down! Ain’t no fire!” Ann’s shrill voice nipped at her heels only making her fly faster.
“No, no, I can’t wait to see Pa. I been waiting to see him all spring. Wrote me a letter sayin’ he bringin’ some car’mels! And I been extra good. Got me all good marks on my card. He promised them to me!”
“Hattie, you’s a liar! You made them marks on that card y’self. Ma ain’t stupid. She gonna beat yo ass when she find out.”
Pee Wee, ever on the move, slowed and sassed Ann. “Don’t call me Hattie. Name’s Pee Wee, girl. And I’m a tell her you been cussin’ and kissin’ them mixed boys down in the bayou.”
“You gonna do no such thing, or I’m a call you a liar!”
Pee Wee doubled down and increased distance. “Everybody know, Ann! Whatcha gonna do when you gets pregnant? With a lil mixed baby? Shoot, some white folk gonna snatch him up, talkin’ bout ‘Look at how purty his skin is. This here ours now. Them ol’ nappy heads in that parish sure can make good lookin’ car’mel babies’.”
Betty, tawny-skinned enough to almost pass for white, her springtime hair clipped short, came not far off Ann’s flank, slowed to a stop, and doubled over, wiping at her freckled face, her voice sober. “Y’all, that ain’t funny, Hattie Mae.”
Pee Wee slowed and trotted backward. “Ann call me a liar. Do I lie?”
“Now you just bein’ mean. ’Sides, who you sayin’ nappy? You the nappy head. Look here! Mama press a comb to it this morn, now it look nappier than that time you fell in that mud patch.”
“I may haves that nappy hair, Bettina Jean, but I’s gonna see Daddy faster than you!”
Ann laughed as she caught up steady, one mocha-colored hand grabbing at Pee Wee’s white blouse, her skin reddish. The last sunburn she had laid her up and made her bedridden for two days, and she was getting ruddy.
“When I catch you, Pee Wee, I’m a kick your ass for talkin’ too much!”
Pee Wee shoved her sister off, spun, and kept running. “And I’m a tell mama you’s cussin’!”
Ann ran up beside Pee Wee. “And there you go! Talkin’ too much, again!”
Betty smiled as she zipped by them both. “No school, Daddy home. Life ain’t get no better, sisters!”
The trio ran along the path, each teasing at the other until they arrived breathless at their cabin, whose stilts stood on the firm ground of a clearing surrounded by tall wild oaks. The stilts were high enough to keep the house from flooding when the heavy rains fell in the summer. One year, the water flooded the cabin, and Ma lost everything, including her precious quilts from her mother. She wagged a finger at Pa and told him to make sure this never happened again. He measured the highest water mark and built the stilts to sit higher because even Pa was afraid of Ma from time to time. Several other homes, similar in size, clustered in a half circle, while off to the left leaned the weeping willows that led to the nearby fishing hole. Beyond all that: a field of wild cotton they each could pick and harvest unto themselves, because they were blessed enough to own the land.
Pee Wee, Ann, and Betty all considered their home as a comforting and restful place, and each of them had a space slightly bigger than most for themselves. There were two bedrooms, an attic (which the girls shared, divided by clotheslines and makeshift curtains that Betty made), a huge living room, and a wide front porch, which, like its humble neighbors, had a few short steps up to the front door. Their daddy worked both construction and along the railroad and was able to add such extras himself, if only so he and Ma had a place to sit out and smoke their pipes. He even painted the window borders haint blue, just to keep the bad spirits away, and when he finished, neighbors fought to pay him for the rest of the slather. Daddy refused, instead sending them to a man in town to help his business. That man, grateful for the customers, told Daddy that if he ever needed anything, all he’d have to do was holler.
The land around them was so dirt-worn that if someone wanted to hold a meeting, everyone would just drag a chair or something to sit on and there’d be speaking, usually beneath a huge tree at the heart of the cabin circle. Sometimes there’d be a huge party in the same place just to end the summer, where the men dragged up logs to build a circle-fire with a blaze big enough to roast covered pots of boiling crawfish, catfish soup, beans, and rice all at once. Some members of the Natchez Tribe and their wives shared their spices, added them to the stews, and the aroma of the cooking made the whole town smell so delicious you wished you could eat the air. Even the Cajuns would come looking for a morsel, knowing their cooking was too hot to taste for anyone there, except maybe Pa and Pee Wee, who ate it all up without a blink.
When the sisters stopped at the front door to wipe the mud from their shoes, the air was scented with baking bread. Their mother swept at the porch, the broom’s whisk blending that aroma with the new honeysuckle that curled and crept along the ground outside the cabin like sleeping snakes. The aroma spelled not only the treat of fresh baking but also of new butter for the girls, who loved coming home to both and would beg to see it fresh-churned. They would stuff themselves so full before dinner that their appetites would be joyously spoiled, and this happened often enough that Ma, the master baker, couldn’t even get mad anymore.
Ma nodded as she swept. “How was school today?”
The girls answered in unison: “Fine, ma’am.”
Then Pee Wee came forward, fidgeting. “I got some good marks on my card!” she said, handing her mother the paper.
Mama held the paper a distance from her eyes. “Mm-hmm,” she purred. Then she waved it in the air before pressing it to her ample bosom. “Sure you ain’t write these in yourself? Look like some scribbles I done seen before.”
Pee Wee feigned sincerity, rising onto her toes. “Promise! Pa come home?”
“I dunno. Depends on your sisters’ grades.” Ma held out her sand-colored hand, itself as covered with freckles as Betty’s face. “Bettina, Patricia Ann…y’all’s marks?”
Each came to her, papers out, and she eyed them with a mix of suspicion and humor. After a few moments, she laughed, loud and hearty. “Pa, c’mon out! Your girls is smart and home!”
A comforting footfall bumped off the wood as Robert Conway, a huge, strapping man, skin shining and clean as new molasses, stepped onto the newly swept porch, his short hair cascading in waves across his head. He held a raggedy towel up to his face and wiped it dry.
He held his arms out to them. “There’s my girls!”
Pee Wee laughed. “Good thing you’s a big man, Pa. Else you can’t catch us all!”
“I missed y’all bunches! And before you even ask, yes, Pee Wee, I gotcha car’mels.” The girls stood around him while he dug deep into his pockets. “I think I gots one for each one of y’all. And maybe a few extras.”
Betty took the entire handful and ran into the cabin. Pee Wee shuffled after her, almost bumping into her.
Ann remained on the porch. She clasped her hands behind her back and leaned back on her heels.
“Patricia Ann, did ya wanna talk ’bout somethin’?” Pa pulled out a pipe, sat in a chair, and lit it.
Ma set the broom against the door, pulled out her own pipe, and lit it as she sat next to him.
“Not really. I mean, I just was wonderin’ ’bout if we can visit your sister over the break. That one that Ma don’t like. ’Haps I can earn some money doin’ work around her place.”
Ma and Pa sucked on their pipes for a long time in silence. Ma opened her mouth, but Pa placed a hand on hers and patted it.
“Lemme think ’bout it. I just got home, y’know,” he said. “But I don’t see no harm in y’all earnin’ a lil money…”
Ma’s face turned bright red. She spoke through gritted teeth: “Workin’ for some conjure woman—What’s Ann goin’ to do, Robert? Boil cats and skin frogs? Y’know your sister don’t make much a nothin’. People gots to leave her offerings cuz she ain’t s’posed to ask for money!”
Pa leaned back in his chair and smiled. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with the girls spendin’ time sweepin’ and runnin’ errands once in a while. ’Sides, my sis always been like that. She wasn’t never one to ask for much. It’s also the code: gotta give to get, y’know?”
Ma blew some smoke out the side of her mouth. “Says you. And how much you bring back this here time, Mister Traveler?”
“Sorry, Ma and Pa. I’m a do my chores now, if’n that’s okay.” Ann eased inside before they started arguing about money. Pa could spend it faster than he got it. Ma said Pa holding on to money was like trying to grip a wet eel.
Pee Wee, after running to get the empty clothes basket and pull the clothes off the line outside, struggled to get in through the tiny hallway. Betty blocked her and the doorway, holding a cleaver in her hand ready to go get dinner: a chicken from a few houses over.
“You need to move over so I can get dinner,” Betty said.
“You need to move over lest you want your stank clothes. I will show everybody your bloomers.” Pee Wee said.
Betty shot Pee Wee a glare before easing past her and out the door.
“Y’all takin’ somethin’ from the garden for that chicken?” Ann asked.
“Ma already took care,” Betty said. “I’s just takin’ my cleaver to knock out them boys that block my way. You know, like Gene.”
“The one with the Indian ma?” Ann asked. “He sure is pretty, for a boy. You should think ’bout him ’cause he like you an awful lot. And they gots money. Least that’s what I heard. And Ma asked me to get more stuff from the garden, on account of Pa bein’ extra hungry.”
“What you mean, ‘that’s what you heard’?” Betty set the cleaver down on a stool by the back door and put one hand on her hip.
“Well, his mee-maw is half white. I seen her in town, talkin’ to the sheriff. Sheriff was smilin’ and what not. She look real white, it’s why he like talkin’ to her.”
“We can pass. Well, maybe not you. Pee Wee can’t, unless Ma press your hair and you don’t sweat it out before you get to town.” Betty laughed, picked up the cleaver again, and stepped out the door. “You comin’? Gotta get them chores done, and that laundry ain’t gonna fold itself.”
Pee Wee picked up the basket and walked like she was a rich woman, her nose high in the air. “Thanks, kind lady, for holdin’ that door open. I’s appreciate it.”
“You sure is stupid! But you make me laugh with your stupid self.”
Betty and Pee Wee broke up laughing.
Pee Wee asked, “If’n you help me with the foldin’, can I walk with ya to get that chicken?”
“Sure, why not?”
“Y’all eat all them candies?” Ann yelled from the step. She stood in the doorway, tying her apron around her waist. “I mean, they is the only real sweets we get once in a while.”
Pee Wee put her hands on her hips. “We left yours on your bed. Go on!”
“She always act like she the oldest of us,” Betty mumbled, “makin’ plans and everything. She ain’t the boss of me.”
“All of fourteen and you so tough.” Pee Wee elbowed Betty.
“Better than to be ten and scramblin’ behind everybody sniffin’ at they buts!” Betty nudged her back.
Betty ran and grabbed one end of the sheet off the clothesline, and Pee Wee held the other. The way they folded the sheet was like a dance: in then out, down and up.
“Hey, y’all, listen,” Ann said. “I got an idea. How ’bout we stop by Pa’s sis’s house on the way to get that chicken?”
Betty and Pee Wee looked at each other.
“You done lost your mind!” Pee Wee took the sheet from Betty and dropped it in the basket. “That’s clear on the other side of the pond!”
“I asked if I could work over there this summer.” Ann raised her chin. “And Pa said yes.”
“Bull!” Pee Wee and Betty said in unison.
“He did, and I’m goin’. Probably end of next week.” Ann nodded to emphasize it.
“Ain’t no way,” Betty said. “‘Sides, Ma hates Auntie. Don’t you remember when she brought them bones over here and a bucket a pee? Talkin’ ’bout how we needed protection. When Ma saw ’em under the porch, she like to had a stroke! Can’t say it didn’t work, though. For one week, everything was okay.”
“Bones and pee!” Pee Wee made a face. “Eww!”
“You see them houses painted that ‘haint blue’?” Betty asked. “She gave us that paint too.”
“I heard the sheriff and them white boys in town like her a lot,” Ann said. “Guess it’s because of what she can do.”
“Where you hear this?” Betty grabbed some pants off the clothesline, folded them, and dropped them into the basket.
“Don’t matter. It’s what I heard.”
Pee Wee glared at Ann. “Look, I gotta get this done, or else Ma is gonna beat my ass. And I wanna go with Betty to get the chicken.”
Patricia Ann!” Ma called. “Get some more vegetables since your Pa is here. He like to eat everything in sight. Pee Wee and Betty went to get the chicken.”
“Ma, I just wanted to take a walk!” Ann said.
“Then walk over to the garden and get the vegetables!”
Ann kicked at the dirt and headed towards the garden.
Even though she had to head to the garden, she liked walking alone. It was nice to be surrounded by quiet instead of competing with Pee Wee and Betty to see who could talk the most or the loudest. Ann liked the silence because she spent a lot of time in her thoughts. Her thoughts were of becoming someone big and powerful. Somebody to command respect when those white boys came to town looking for something.
Ann saw a little dark-skinned boy that lived near Cousin Skeet running towards her. She didn’t know his real name but around the village he was called “Bump.” He jumped around like a June bug and talked twice as fast as the other kids.
“Ann! Ann! Where ya goin’? Can I come?” He doubled over next to her and caught his breath.
“So much for bein’ alone in my thoughts,” Ann said.
He jumped onto the logs that lined the path to the community garden, flipping over a few of them. That made her laugh. He was a clumsy boy, all long limbs like a colt.
“Bump, whatcha doin’ out here alone? Where Skeet?”
The boy jumped in the air and spread his arms out, balancing on a log. “I dunno. I saw ya walkin’ and I wanted to come see where you was goin’.”
“I’m gonna mind my business.” Ann made a gesture like she was going to push him off.
“You goin’ to the garden? Can I help ya carry stuff back? I got me a basket there for helpin’.”
Although she wouldn’t have the time alone in her head she wanted, she laughed and motioned for him to come along with her.
The garden was a bit away from where they lived, over a wide wooden bridge that had seen better days. Hay was stacked at the beginning and along the bridge, and a combination of hay and dirt covered the bridge as Ann kicked her way across it. The land on this side of the river was more fertile, she was told. Everything grew like crazy, and all the animals liked it as well. This was where they kept the horses and cows. An Indian named Lone Wolf lived over here and kept an eye on things. The Cajuns were always close by, ready for anything to happen.
Bump kept talking nonstop: “…and I call this the straw bridge, cuz they put straw on the part we walkin’ on…”
Ma gotta get up and go to work every day. The way she talk about Pa’s sister makes me think I should try and do something else. Not workin’ for somebody, but make everybody come to me. She don’t never say that ‘the swamp rat’ gotta go to the city. She say how everybody come to her. Aunt Teddy ain’t got a man; she just got herself. Least that’s what Ma say.
I wonder if Aunt Teddy went to school? Maybe she been on her own for a long time. Mostly everybody here got a man or a baby nipping behind them. I don’t never hear her say nothin’ like that about Aunt Teddy. Aunt Teddy livin’ free and go where she want. She live by her own rules and makin’. I would love to live alone in the bayou, catchin’ fish, doin’ whatever and maybe…maybe I find a good man to have around to fix things. Make himself useful in ways men are useful. Not naggin’ me ’bout no supper or what I do all day.
Maybe, just maybe, if I train with Aunt Teddy, I can get a job in the city. I know I can make a lot of money pretending to know more than those wannabe voodoo white women downtown. If them white womens can pretend to know something and make money, imagine what they would do with a black girl that knew what she was doing. Nothing but respect for me, and all them old white ladies can go back to sippin’ tea…
“Ann! We almost there! I hope I can catch a grasshopper. I wanna catch some good fish—not catfish—for dinner.”
“Yeah, Bump. Where do you go to catch fish?” She unlatched the gate and walked down the rows, looking at all the vegetables: bright yellow squash almost pulling themselves free from the vine, collard greens as big as elephant ears, and okra sweeping up toward the sky—the hard pods followed the direction of the sun and grew straight up. She plucked a few, and then headed over to the lettuces and cucumbers in the far corner. She pulled out a huge knife and started cutting away.
“You want me to pull some potatoes? I can do that because I know where they at.”
“Pull the potatoes, Bump.” Ann laughed to herself. If kids are this annoying, I ain’t havin’ none. Gonna find me a rich man and go round the world, tellin’ fortunes and doing rootwork. I’m gonna be so rich that nobody will ever call me out my name again.
’Sides, in a year, Betty’s gonna be gone. They want me to go to finishing school with her but never asked me what I wanted to do. I wanna do rootwork. I wanna be like Aunt Teddy.
“This enough?” Bump held up several carrots.
“I thought you was pullin’ potatoes.” Ann stood and put her hand on her lower back.
“Oh!” He looked at the carrots. “I can take ’em home and ask Skeet to make me a stew or somethin’. All this is hard work.” He laughed, dropped the carrots in his basket and went to dig for potatoes. “Only, thems my carrots. Don’t take ’em, okay?”
“Bump, how old are you?”
“Old enough for you.” Bump looked up at her, a smudge of dirt on his nose.
“You thought about whatcha want do in your life? Like leave this place and go somewhere else?”
Bump tilted his head and stared. “Well, all I know is this place. The world is so big. And I’m so small. But when I grow up taller”—he motioned with his hand up high—“I’m gonna get me a job and make so much money. World best watch out for me.” His voice trailed off.
Not me. I’m gonna leave this town and take as much knowledge with me that I can. I can read, write, and clean, but I’m not gonna be like Ma, waitin’ for Pa to bring money home. I’m a have my own money and my own place to live. I’ll even get Betty her own horse.
Bump dropped the potatoes in the basket, startling her. “Sorry, Ann! I ain’t know you was thinkin’. You look like you wanted to say somethin’.”
“I was gonna say that I gotta get home to make dinner. I got some other plans to start makin’.” Ann picked up the full basket and put it on her hip. “Lock the gate behind me. And don’t forget your carrots. We sure don’t eat ’em”
Bump’s back was to her. She looked at his dirty bare feet, his cut-off pants that hung on his skinny frame, his old blue T-shirt with holes in it. She smiled and pulled the carrots out the basket. “Eat these and you’ll get big and strong.”
“I’m already strong!”
“Not as strong as me, cuz I’m gonna leave this place,” Ann mumbled, and they began walking back to the cabins.
“You say somethin’, Ann?” Bump called.
“Nothin’ you’d understand.” Ann said.
Bump scratched his head before yelling, “Ann! Ann! Don’t forget to bring my basket back!”
The early-morning sunlight filtered through the sheer curtains of the attic, lighting up the speckles of dust drifting in the air. Ma waved the dust out of her way as she walked into the room. Each girl slept in her own bed, which served as a look into each of their personalities. Pee Wee’s wooden bed frame was covered with heavy black scribblings and copies of symbols she saw outside on some of the other cabins. Ann’s had roses painted on the headboard, herbs on the foot of her bed, and vines crawling up the outside of the wooden frame. Betty slept on an extravagant bed with a mosquito net that the sisters would crawl under once in a while. When they huddled together, Betty would always remind them that she made it herself and that they should always thank her. She also made pillows all the time from the softest fabric she could find.
“I know, since Pa come home and we been eatin’ good, ain’t no reason to get lazy,” Ma said as she woke them all up. “Now, since y’all wanna learn ’bout rootwork, here’s the plan. Y’all gets to go see your pa’s sister for the whole day. Come back and tells me whatcha learned. And maybe go back out there tomorrow.”
“Ma!” Pee Wee yelled, sitting up in the bed. “I ain’t wanna go! That was all Ann!”
“Don’t make no difference. Pa thought it’d be a good idea for y’all to go together. You know where that swamp rat live, don’t ya?” Ma put her hands on her hips. “Down near where the creek run off to the right. She live near the levee. I done packed some hoecakes and stew. Should last ya two meals, if’n y’all don’t get greedy. Now, get up, get dressed, and get downstairs!”
“What ’bout for later, Ma? You pack us some food for later?”
“That swamp rat Teddy can feed ya. I ain’t got no time. And I’ll tell you what, when y’all come back, tell me if ya wants to work for her all summer, okay?”
Ma walked down the stairs from the attic. She stopped at the bottom and yelled up, “An layin’ in bed cryin’ about it ain’t goin’ to do ya no good. So, come on downstairs!”
The girls shuffled around, pulling themselves together slowly, but they paused all movement when they heard Pa’s voice rising up from downstairs: “Ma, forgot to tell ya. Guess who I ran into the other day?”
“Dunno,” Ma replied.
“Sheriff come askin’ me for a donation for somethin’ in town. I told him he should be payin’ for all these babies he got everywhere. Man got a thing for our women.”
“What he say?” Ma’s voice had moved around.
“What they talkin’ ’bout?” Ann whispered.
Betty scooted to the top of the stairs and made a shush motion with her finger to her lips. “I dunno. Maybe Pa done did somethin’ again.”
“He say, ‘Well, you pay for the babies, and I’ll keep makin’ ’em.’ He don’t even care how half these little back squats ain’t nothin’ but his lil mixed kids with poor mothers. Young girls that ain’t finished school. Got no kinda life but waitin’ for that man to come and spill all up in ’em and hope he give ’em some money or somethin’.”
“I don’t like that man,” Ma said. “If he ain’t makin’ babies, he snatchin’ up our girls to sell off to his wife and her kin folk. Maybe he keep ’em to work in his house. You know, Buck used to work for him, and he said he had all kinds a kids everywhere. Where he find these lil young girls?”
Pa said, in a low voice, “These girls are our girls. You know that Ma. He just come and take his pick of ’em.”
Ma made a sound, like she agreed.
“Most of these women don’t want nothin’ to do with him. He best not come round here. I’d shoot him first and ask questions later, ya know.”
Betty and Ann looked at each other, wide-eyed. Pee Wee covered her mouth and gulped.
“What’s that mean?” she asked.
“Nothin’ good.” Betty whispered.
“If’n you can find the shotgun. Then, the bullets.”
“Maybe you underestimate me, woman. Maybe, just maybe, I got my own lil piece a somethin’ I keep close by.”
“Lord, Pa, we don’t need no more problems in this house.” Ma walked away from him and pulled something from the stove. “Almost made me burn this cornbread.”
“You know, Ma. I been thinkin’ that we should find somewhere else to live. I mean, up North, I done seen a black man get treated with respect. White men treatin’ us like equal, workin’ side by side on the tracks or at the factories. You know, feels like we always waitin’ for a flood to drive us out or somethin’. I tell ya’, the North is like a whole new world.”
“Well, Pa, we don’t live up North.”
“I keep tellin’ ya, we should move up there. Take the girls, get ’em a fine education.”
“Like your sister?” Ma’s voice cut across the room.
“Yeah, matter of fact, just like my sister.”
“They can come back here and be swamp rats just like her.”
“Aw, Ma, maybe we got us another Nat Turner in one of them girls.”
The sound of Ma’s laugh filled the room. “Nat Turner was too smart for his own good. Where he now? Dead, that’s what. You wanna kill our girls?”
“Ma, is much more to it than that, you know.” Pa sighed. “I mean, when I was on the railroad in Ohio, I heard a black woman done graduated college. School was called ‘Ober-lain’ or somethin’ like that. Imagine us havin’ three girls like that. Everybody round here would respect us. Them rich womens from the city would probably come ask them for advice. And maybe they even buy a nice place near where that LaLaurie place was so we can look down our noses at white folk.”
“You sure is a big dreamer and a knucklehead, Pa.”
“You don’t think our girls is smart enough?”
Pee Wee pointed at Betty and whispered, “He talkin’ bout you, cuz I knows I’m smart.”
“Smart enough to draw dumb stuff all over your bed,” Betty snapped.
“But I sleep better at night and not moanin’ ’bout some boy.” Pee Wee wrapped her arms around herself and made kissing sounds.
Ann reached out and covered their mouths. “Y’all shut up! I can’t hear nothin’!”
“…smart as a whip.” Ma’s voice rose up the stairs. “They can choose to do what they want and I hope they leave this place!”
Their voices seemed to move closer. Perhaps Pa was slipping behind Ma the way he did, wrapping his hands around her waist. “What’s with all the fussin’ ?”
“Nothin’ Pa, is just hard because I want them girls to decide they own destiny. We made ours and let them make theirs. Besides, I told them they could go see your sister for a day or so.” Ma’s voice sounded stressed. “Is that all right with you?”
“Why not let them girls stay for a few days? We could get us some time together.” Pa crooned, letting the baritone in his voice smooth over any problems she may have had.
“This must of been like when they was courtin’,” Betty whispered, “on account of how Pa sound like he tryin’ to get her to do somethin’ she don’t wanna.”
“Is that how Gene sound, Betty?” Ann asked.
Betty shot her a glare, and Ann shrugged.
The three girls finished dressing and crept down the stairs. Sunlight flooded through the windows and streamed across the floor, slinking its way over the threadbare red carpet. They watched their massive father envelop their mother, who giggled and covered her face. She laughed while he whispered stuff in her ear. She wrapped her arms around his and giggled even more—until she realized the girls were standing there, watching.
“Uh, why don’t ya stay with your pa’s sister for a few days. Give me and Pa some time to uh…” Ma stumbled as she fixed her work clothes, a dark skirt and white shirt.
“My sis ain’t gonna mind,” Pa added. “Tell her I said ‘hey’.”
The girls looked at each other.
“This here is all your doin’,” Betty growled at Ann. “I’m a go, but I ain’t gonna have no fun.”
“That’s because you gots no sense of adventure,” Ann snapped at Betty. “’Sides, you just wanna go and pass the time hidin’ and kissin’. C’mon, Pee Wee, we can go and have fun.”
“Now, Patricia Ann, don’t tease,” Ma said. “One day, you gonna have a man and think the world of him.”
“Not unless he rich,” Ann mumbled.
“What was that?” Ma asked.
“Nothin’.” Ann stifled a laugh and glanced at Pee Wee, then Betty.
Normally, Ma was the one yelling, but since Pa came home, Ma stepped back and let Pa discipline the girls.
“No sneakin’ off,” Pa said, his voice filling the room, “and maybe I’ll bring back some pralines or somthin’.”
He might come across as gruff and stern, but he was soft-hearted, and his rules always came with rewards like pralines, caramels or other sweet bribes.
Ma was in the kitchen area of the room, checking her packed lunch for the girls. She walked over with a cup of black coffee. Ma never liked anything sweet in her coffee. She liked to say, “The blacker it is, the better it tastes.” One day, Ann had replied, “Well, it sure must taste delicious cuz it’s black as night.” Ma didn’t think the phrase was funny. Ann had chuckled, but she never joked about Ma’s coffee again.
Betty huffed. “Fine! I’ll go to Aunt Teddy’s. I ain’t goin’ to like it though.”
“I gots to head to town for work. You comin’?” Ma headed for the front door. “Cousin Skeet is comin’ by to watch the house while ya’ll are gone. I’ll pay her two bits to do the laundry and cleanin’.” She stopped at the threshold and looked back. “I just want y’all to see what it’s like workin’ with your aunt for a few days. Don’t like it, you can work the fields with Skeet.”
Pee Wee and Betty groaned aloud, but Ann ran over and kissed Ma on the cheek. “Thanks, Ma!”
Ma smiled. “Well, tell Skeet to hang out for a few days, in case y’all may be gone longer. I’ll pay her a lil extra.”
Pa held his arm out for Ma, and they stepped out the front door together.
“See you girls in a few days with pralines,” he called back to them. “Fresh pralines! Tell my sister that I sends all my love!”
“Right,” Pee Wee muttered under her breath.
After the door was shut, Pee Wee threw a shoe at Ann.
“Whatcha do that for?” Ann picked up the shoe and threw it back.
“Cuz all this was your dumb idea. Ain’t askin’ us if we had summer plans.”
“Pee Wee, you’s too young for plans, and Betty almost out the house. If’n anything, she need to finds a man or somethin’.”
“That’s what I was gonna do ’til you decided my summer ain’t important no more,” Betty said. “Next time, will it hurt to ask if we wanna do somethin’ like this? You know, run it by us before you start talkin’ to Ma and Pa, on behalf of us?”
“On beee-half of us!” Pee Wee echoed.
A sharp knock at the door quieted them.
“I never asked for y’all to come,” Ann snipped. “Ma just decided on beee-half of y’all. Be thankful somebody think ’bout you.”
Betty opened the door, revealing Cousin Skeet. The warm sunlight shone down on her brown-leather skin. She had one eye and wore a ratty old apron. She liked to laugh loud and clap her hands when she did. She wore her hair in a long braid down her back, and she would always tell everyone she was some part Indian on account of her hair. She shuffled inside with her trademark limp. Whenever asked about it, she claimed that she’d lost a part of her foot in some kind of fight. “That other guy that tried to fight me looked worse,” she’d say, snickering, whenever someone looked at her foot.
The girls ran over and hugged her. They weren’t sure if Cousin Skeet was really their cousin, or if she was even related, but they loved her all the same.
“Cousin Skeet, you gonna be fine here all alone?” Pee Wee asked.
“Fine and dandy.” Cousin Skeet’s voice filled the room. “Ma says y’all goin’ to work for the ‘conjure woman.’ If’n you can, ask her for somethin’ to fix my feets. I’d be grateful.”
“Ann, since this all you, you gets to talk to her.” Betty adjusted her shirt. “I ain’t into none of this. Rather stay here.”
“Well, let’s go!”
“Skeet, Ma wanna know if you can stay a few days,” Betty said. “All because of Ann, we gotta stay away from home for a bit.”
“Y’all goin’ someplace else?” Cousin Skeet leaned in and half closed one eye. “Tell ol’ Skeet.”
“Just passin’ time with Pa’s sister,” Betty said. “Against our will.”
“Y’all gonna have fun. Stop all that fussin’! Sides, I ain’t too busy. I don’t mind. Least your Ma can pay me a bit more. I can go gets my shine from them boys.” She leaned back and guffawed.
Pee Wee mouthed, “Shine?”
“Moonshine, idiot.” Ann smacked Pee Wee in the head. “For someone that grew up down here, you sure is stupid.”
“Your pa is stupid,” Pee Wee retorted.
Betty moved the girls apart. “Stupid is as it does, so shut up both of y’all.”
“Right. Skeet, we’s leavin’,” Betty said. “Shotgun behind the door, if’n ya need it. Ma should be back tonight. I think.”
Ann pulled closed the door and showed Skeet the shotgun. “Bullets is over by the chair. I’s sure you can find ’em.”
“Skeet don’t need no bullets.” She held up her hands like she was going to punch someone, and they all laughed.
Cousin Skeet sat down in the rocking chair, and the girls sauntered toward the door.
“Hey! Girls! Don’t call your aunt a swamp rat, okay? She may throw them roots on ya.” Cousin Skeet clapped her hands and laughed. “She may throw roots on that lil cute boy that come round lookin’ for you, Betty.” Her feet flew off the floor as she kicked back and laughed again. Her laugh sounded like something scratching at the door.
“Oooooo, you like Gene!” Pee Wee pointed at Betty. “That’s why you don’t wanna go with us, huh?”
Betty’s cheeks flushed red. “Just shut up and go!”
Ann was the last one out the door. As she pulled it closed behind her, she heard Cousin Skeet mumbling to herself to get cleaning.
Betty led Ann and Pee Wee down a well-worn path. Huge oaks lined the sides of the path, and sunlight dappled the path, showing them the way. Everything was in bloom and seemed to be alive and moving.
“Is it true? You likes that boy?” Ann asked Betty.
“I can say I’m interested. He come to my window night before last. Asked me to take a walk down yonder. I nicely declined.” Betty swatted at a bush on their right. “I mean, maybe? I don’t know. I can even work in town at they store. Since I can pass, she may get more business. You know, with all my good looks and charm.”
“Some of them folk in the city are crazy. It could be a bad idea. Them ol’ white men come round and only want one thing.” Pee Wee trudged behind them, playing with a twig.
“What them white men want, Pee Wee?” Betty asked. “You don’t know nothin’ ’bout some birds and bees. And you only ten. Enlighten me.”
“Then, lighten me! I’ll lighten you!” Pee Wee snapped.
“You only ten, what you know ’bout nothin’?”
“Excuse me, ten and a half!”
Betty waved her hand and dismissed Pee Wee. “Not enough halves.”
“Ma say that ’bout you, Gene, and ‘that got-damned store’,” Pee Wee sassed, upset that her age was always figuring into something.
“Y’all stop it!” Ann interrupted.
The girls walked in silence. The only sound was the wind rustling through the leaves around them. The air smelled like wet grass and wood rot. Pee Wee lagged behind, pausing often to look up at the huge trees touching the sky. She’d walk over, put her hand on a tree trunk, and pretend to listen to it. Betty warned her to watch for the moss around the roots, because that’s where the monsters live that take you to hell. Pee Wee laughed it off, but after that she stayed away from the trees.
Ann jumped and screamed when a snake fell off a tree in her path.
“Take one to know one,” Betty tossed over her shoulder.
The further they walked into the forest, the more it smelled like wildflowers.
“Like a skunk,” Ann deadpanned.
“Well, them flowers smell sweet, and I imagine they is pretty.”
A branch cracked and fell off a tree, crashing down next to the path. They all jumped and then laughed.
“I think ya can hear the trees groanin’ when they reach up to the sky,” Pee Wee said, craning her neck upward. There wasn’t much sound around them, just a few woodpeckers pecking at trees once in a while.
A duck with a line of ducklings behind her crossed their path. They looked like they were trying to find the nearby river. The girls stopped, and Pee Wee squatted down. She ooh-ed and aah-ed at how tiny the ducklings were.
“There’s a ‘Pee Wee’ everywhere. Look at how them lil ducks is waddlin’.” Pee Wee laughed.
“Careful, don’t want a gator to come up from the water and get ya!” Betty pushed Pee Wee a bit.
“You best watch it!” Pee Wee said.
“Well, least we can do is spread the bushes so they can see the water over yonder.” Ann leaned down and shifted a shrub to the side for the ducklings to find the water.
They walked on, with Betty leading—until she stopped abruptly and began dancing about on the path. Ann and Pee Wee looked at each other and shrugged.
“I done walked into a spider’s web! Dammit, Ann! This is all your fault!” Betty pulled at the invisible webbing on her body and swatted at her face. “Pee Wee, is there anything on my face or back?”
“I kinda don’t like spiders, so I’m gonna say no.”
“Really? Ann! Can you check? I don’t like spiders much either!” Betty twirled in front of Ann.
“Stay still! I can’t see much with you moving!” Ann tried to inspect Betty’s shirt. She looked up at the leaves blocking the daylight. “There’s not enough light under here. We gonna have to go find a field or somethin’.”
“There’s some sun over there!” Pee Wee pointed.
To their left was a thick patch of grass. Dragonflies drifted lazily above it, and frogs croaked on some nearby logs. To their right, they heard something splash into the river.
“Probably ducks,” Ann said.
“Well, let’s get over there and see.” Betty marched off the path and toward the grass.
Ann stepped forward, following Betty, and stopped. “I don’t think this is a good idea. My foot is stuck in somethin’.”
“Oh no!” Pee Wee whispered. “Gators!”
“Please! Ain’t no gators down here—” Betty tripped mid-sentence. She stumbled and ran back over to the path. “C’mon!!”
The girls ran behind her, Ann still trying to get the muck off her shoe.
Finally they stopped and leaned over, breathing heavily.
“What was it?” Pee Wee asked.
“I wanna say a gator, but coulda been a log.” Betty laughed. “I feel real stupid now.”
Ann whacked her shoe against a tree trunk. “And had us running like fools!”
They all laughed and started walking again.
Ann half-jumped down the path, trying to put her shoe on again.
“Ann, is your shoe okay?” Pee Wee asked.
“Good as it get.”
“Ya know,” Betty said, “when Pa is home, sometimes Ma is real happy. But when he ain’t there, she’s floating around the place. What is going on? Y’all know?”
“Well, she say he come home rich and go out to the races,” Ann said. “Then he come back broke…or somethin’.”
Pee Wee perked up. “Y’all think he gots another family somewheres?”
“Dunno,” Betty said. “But Pa ain’t the smartest.”
“Well, it’s just when I can’t sleep, I think stuff like that,” Pee Wee said.
“I’d be sad though,” Ann said. “I’d be real sad.”
“I know. Man, I loves my pa.” Pee Wee swatted lower at the shrubs.
“Nothin’ we need to worry ’bout now. He home with us now.” Betty faced them. “We smart like Ma and her kin. They always put a little aside. They call it just-in-case money.”
Ann put her index finger and thumb under her chin, looking up at the sky. “Ya know, we always got stuff and never do without. I’m not gonna worry ’bout it.”
“Let’s get to gettin’,” Betty said, leading them again. “Looks like clouds rollin’ in, but I can’t be sure. We should almost be there.”
Pee Wee snapped a twig off a bush. “Hey, y’all, seriously, what if Pa runnin’ numbers again?”
“I heard Pa’s pa was killed gamblin’,” Betty said.
“For real?” Ann asked.
“Yup, and how Ma only wanted girl babies cuz she ain’t wanna have to send her sons to follow the railroad. Y’all know, lookin’ for work like Pa. She say it ain’t safe.”
“Well, we ain’t no safer!” Betty said. “Y’all know Deborah in my class last year? I heard she done already got married an everythin’. Her Ma let some rich white man take her to the city, and she live in a big ol’ house on Bourbon Street.”
“How is that not safe?” Ann asked.
“I said he was a white man! And besides, no one heard from her since.”
Pee Wee joked, “Maybe she got a new face or somethin’.”
“Maybe she just in Europe or somewhere,” Ann said hollowly.
“Shh! I hear something!” Betty squatted a bit, and the girls pulled in close to her.
Leaves rustled nearby. Someone was approaching. She was singing a melody then switching to talking to herself, as if reciting a list of groceries.
A very tall, dark-skinned woman walked out of the trees onto the path and looked down at them. “I can hear y’all a mile away. Y’all louder than a rooster in an empty hen house. I heard you way back over yonder.” She smiled and extended her hand. “Betty, Ann, nice to see you again. I only ever heard of you, Pee Wee.”
“Aunt Teddy!” Betty stepped forward and hugged her. “Ann, you was real little when she come round.”
“How little?” Ann asked.
“Like a baby little.” Teddy stretched out her arms.
Ann hugged her next. “You got a smell like somethin’ familiar. I remember this smell. And I heard so much about you. I mean ’sides from Ma callin’ you a swamp rat. Skeet say good stuff though.”
Teddy hugged her and kissed her on the forehead. “Some things don’t change.”
“You look like Pa,” Pee Wee whispered, “but you a lady.”
“He’s my little brother and all I got in the world. Now, come give your Auntie a hug.” Pee Wee ran and jumped into her arms. “That’s a girl.”
“Oh, you do smell good.” Pee Wee exhaled into her neck.
“A lady has to be unforgettable, remember that.” Teddy smiled and placed Pee Wee on the ground. “Now, I gots three beauties for nieces, so I guess I’s happier now.” She turned, picked up a burlap bag, and started walking. “Y’all comin’? I’m guessin’ my brother put up a good enough argument, seein’ as your Ma still calls me a swamp rat.”
“What else ya know?” Ann teased.
“I know y’all s’posed to stay with me a few days.”
The girls looked at each other in amazement.
“She magic,” Pee Wee whispered.
“So, what you do?” Ann pushed her way to the front of the line and walked directly behind Aunt Teddy.
“Today I’m out gathering stuff. I gots some work to do for some townsfolk.” Aunt Teddy stopped and picked up something, “See, this here onion is for fever. If you got one, you bind it to yourself or somebody, and it’ll break the fever right up.”
They watched her grab a bunch more onions from the ground, dust the dirt off the roots, and shove them into her bag.
“What else ya got in that bag?” Ann asked.
“A lot of this and that.” Teddy set the burlap bag on the ground. She started to pull things out. “I always have my Bible. That’s important.”
“But you’s a conjure woman” Ann furrowed her eyebrows. “Why you got that Bible?”
“I can believe in Jesus and God. This ain’t voodoo, child. This here is hoodoo that I do.”
Pee Wee pushed forward. “What’s the difference?”
“Hoodoo got one God. Voodoo don’t.” Teddy rooted around in the bag. She grabbed some things and put them on the ground. “These are dried snakeskins and some dehydrated scorpions. I got some brown beer bottles to catch spirits.”
Ann squatted, examining a snake. “What’s this snake for?”
“Well, I can use it to make goofer dust. I got some sacks of spices in these little bags. And here’s some devil grass for blinding someone.” She held up a clear plastic bag filled with something that looked like sand. “Dirt from an anthill. I hear if you sprinkle it on food, it makes a person crazy.”
“Oh, I wish I had that in school,” Pee Wee said under her breath.
“No, ya don’t. You too young to cast spells and such.” Teddy laughed. “But I’ll show you how to gather some stuff for me.”
“Is that all we gonna be doin’?” Betty put a hand on her hip.
“If that’s all you want to do. If not, don’t worry about it.” Teddy returned the items to the burlap sack. “I got a feeling that you don’t want to be here.”
“What gave it away,” Betty said dryly.
Ann stood, wiping the dirt from her knees. “I’m sorry for my sister. She just…just…had other stuff to do.”
Teddy smiled. “It’s okay. I got somethin’ for all ya to do.” She grunted and lifted the burlap sack on her back. “Can you grab those bottles on the ground? I gotta pick a little bit more stuff before we head back.”
Pee Wee grabbed two brown beer bottles, Ann grabbed two more, and Betty tried to step over the others before Ann pressed the bottles in her hands. “Please?”
Betty snatched the bottles and turned her nose up. She sighed and stepped around them to follow Teddy. “Try and keep up, y’all.”
Teddy led them. “We gots lots of work to do, so let’s get movin’. I got us a chicken and some fresh berries for lunch. Unless y’all ain’t ate them hoecakes yet, then you can have that.”
Pee Wee stared at her, and then looked at her sisters. “She’s ah-MAZE-in’!”
Aunt Teddy laughed. “Lets get goin’, lil one. There’s a lot
involved in learning rootwork. It’s not a one-day kinda thing.”
Pee Wee was last in line and throwing the biggest questions forward. “Is you a Amazon, cuz I heard they got them in Africa? Cousin Skeet asked if you could make somethin’ for her foot too. She limpin’ real bad again.”
Aunt Teddy turned and looked at Pee Wee. The line stopped. “How bad is she limpin’? Because I don’t think I can fix what she got.”
Pee Wee spoke up from the back. “What she got?”
“She got that ‘ol’ lady syndrome’. Her body ready to quit. She keep pushin’, and one day she gonna die in them fields. Now, c’mon…idle hands and all that.”
They trudged along in silence, with Pee Wee at the back, Betty carrying the sack that contained their food and two beer bottles, and Ann marking the trees with a piece of chalk she’d pulled from her pocket.
Betty looked back at her, eyebrows raised.
Ann grinned. “Don’t wanna get lost in the woods, you know?”
Betty snorted and kept walking.
Off in the distance, there was the sound of an animal making a high-pitched hoot.
Pee Wee ran up on Ann. “What was that? Did you hear that?”
Ann stopped. “The sound of you running into me?”
“No…” Pee Wee looked around. “That!”
“It’s an owl.”
“In the daytime?!” Pee Wee pushed Ann to walk again.
“Yes, in the daytime!” Ann started to laugh. “It’s the woods; everything is out everywhere. I mean, look up! We can’t even see the sky!”
“Well, this part of the woods don’t look so good. It’s just a bunch of dead trees leaning on each other and falling. I hope we don’t run into another gator.”
“Teddy knows the way. I’m sure she ain’t gonna kill us.”
“Unless I need a body part for some powder or something!” Terry shouted. “We almost there!”
“I rather be at home, ya know,” Betty said. “Not in the woods lookin’ at these snake-lookin’ vines.”
“If you lucky, try and grab one,” Terry said with a laugh. “I can always use more snakeskin. They not poisonous. I don’t think.”
Pee Wee groaned. “She a joker like dad.”
Aunt Teddy casually reached her right hand out and grabbed something. She inhaled it and dropped it to the ground. “No good.”
The girls looked down at the discarded green twisted leaves on the ground.
Ann elbowed Pee Wee. “I dare you to touch it.”
Pee Wee stepped on it instead. “She didn’t want it. Ain’t no good.”
As they walked on, Pee Wee paused now and then to look up at the vines hanging from the trees or at insects crawling on the ground. She ran her hand over some moss-covered rocks and watched Teddy pick things to smell or taste. Pee Wee mimicked her, eating some sweet berries and smelling leaves that had a lemon scent.
Ann motioned for Pee Wee to catch up.
“At least we walking toward the sunshine,” Pee Wee whispered.
“No owls up here,” Ann snickered.
Pee Wee stopped to stare at some rays sliding between the branches, shining down on the forest like spotlights.
“C’mon, Pee Wee, keep up!” Betty yelled.
“I’m getting my bearings so I don’t get lost. Ann’s map is in her head.” Pee Wee waved them off. “Do I need to hurry?”
“Would be nice,” Betty said.
“Maybe you want to hurry.” Ann’s voice was flat, and she was pointing at something to the left.
Pee Wee joined them, and all three stared. The short black-iron gates were twisted and falling apart, and just beyond them were headstones—or rather, there were some headstones, and some mounds of rocks where headstones should be. Further away stood a few statues. Even in daylight, it looked like a bad place. Cemeteries were places you didn’t pass in the dark.
Pee Wee looked up at the sky and back down at the headstones and wondered why a cemetery would be out here, hidden in the woods.
“That’s where some slaves were buried,” Aunt Teddy said, pausing to fix her bag. “We don’t use that one for hoodoo stuff. We respect it. Never steal from your ancestors, you gonna be sorry.” Her words had a heaviness about them.
“Can I go look?” Pee Wee asked.
“Why? You don’t know nobody over there.” Aunt Teddy raised her arm and pointed at something off in the tops of the trees. “C’mon, let’s get to gettin’ while it’s good.”
They followed Aunt Teddy around a deep marsh with dragonflies lazily drifting above it.
“There it is. My house.” Aunt Teddy pointed, but they didn’t see anything that even resembled a house. “Look up,” she said.
The house was built on stilts high enough that it was almost completely hidden by the tree canopy around it. Leaves rested on the rooftop and fluttered to the ground all around it. Grass grew thick and high around the base of the stilts, and Spanish moss hung from the house like strings of pearls and spiderwebs.
As they drew closer, the girls noticed the short dock that led out to the river. It seemed much wider now than it had earlier, where they had seen the ducks A small rowboat was fastened to the dock. There were two ladders: one directly beneath the house, and another in the front, which Aunt Teddy climbed up, telling them to follow.
The front room was a porch with screens covering the windows and a faded green flower-print sofa. The sickly sweet smell of magnolia and jasmine swirled around the room, and beneath that was a layer of what smelled like wet earth. Baskets and buckets of plants filled the porch, front to back. In a corner was a small table with small jars and red pouches on it.
Ann picked up a red pouch. “You use this to cast?”
“Yep. But be careful. Don’t go pickin’ nothin’ up in anybody house.” Aunt Teddy grinned and nodded for Ann to set the bag back.
“Don’t touch nothin’!” Pee Wee whispered.
Aunt Teddy tossed the burlap sack she was carrying onto the sofa.
“Let’s go inside.” She stood in the threshold of the door and waved her hand inside the house.
Initially, the smell was peppermint. Then lavender. Then honeysuckle. Then cinnamon. The smells were intoxicating and came from every part of the house. Plants were everywhere, and if the many shelves on the walls weren’t covered by plants or bottles, there were stacks of paper. The papers were filled with sketches of plants and scrawled notes.
The worn, wood floor groaned as they stepped across it.
“You got a cat or somethin’?” Ann asked.
“Cats good for one thing…bones.” Aunt Teddy laughed. “I ain’t got time to care for one! What I’m gonna do with a cat? ’Sides from boilin’ it.”
Betty feigned a gag, and they followed Aunt Teddy into the back of the house.
“On the right is my bedroom, and on the left is the kitchen.” She walked into the kitchen and sat in a chair in the corner before walking to the kitchen doorway, watching the girls touch several bottles on the shelves. Some were filled with powder, others contained liquid with a creature of some sort floating in it.
“What’s this?” Ann asked, holding a jar with some dried dark powder in it.
“Oh, that’s ‘High John the Conqueror. Watch it.” Teddy pointed.
“And what is this?” Pee Wee picked up a glass jar almost as big as her head and turned it around. “Look like a snake or somethin’.”
“That is snakeskin. Used for different things.”
“Meh, like puttin’ roots on somebody.”
“And what’s in these jars?” Ann ran her finger over a shelf of short jelly jars filled with different colored powders.
“Well, the first one is lemongrass, then licorice root, lavender, cinnamon, some sage, roses, red salt, white salt, and sulfur.”
“Wow, look at this here.” Pee Wee shoved her hand into a huge brown bowl filled with bones. “Can’t nobody have this many real bones in a house.”
The sisters laughed.
“Well now, them’s black-cat bones. See, the secret is, ya gotta get a wild cat. They give the best bones and always have the best luck.” Aunt Teddy groaned and stood from the stool she sat on. She reached up and pulled down a bouquet of dried flowers. “I’m gonna need for someone to grind these up real good. Smell it.”
“Uh, how you kill a black cat?” Pee Wee pushed. “I mean, how you get the bones?”
“I got a pot out back, and one in here. You gotta get the whole cat in and cook it for a long time. It’s gotta be alive. No dead cats. Dead cats are bad luck…”
“But if you boil them, you kill ’em, right?” Betty said. “So, it don’t matter.”
“Well, you gotta know how to boil ’em. I think I gave your pa a black-cat bone on a string. He used to throw them dice instead a goin’ to church with your ma. I told him that he best come home with the sweet blood a Jesus, if he was goin’ to miss a sermon.”
“Did he?” Ann asked.
“Is your ma still with him?” Teddy threw her head back and laughed. Her laugh filled the entire house.
“All right, come on into my room. I got somethin’ to show ya.”
How this place held up a four-poster bed seemed to defy all physics. On one side of the bed were more pieces of paper with different scribblings, drawings, and writings on them, and a jar filled with writing utensils. On the other side of the bed, on the floor, were several large books half-stacked and half-strewn, with pages marked by different colored ribbons or folded edges. There were even knives in place of ribbons, marking the pages as well. Some had hand-drawn leaves and flowers on the cover. Others were covered with leather and shiny gold letters on the front.
Betty picked one up and thumbed through it. She stopped on a picture of a black cat with different marks on it. “Where’d you get these books?”
“I get ’em from the gettin’ place.” Aunt Teddy took the book and snapped it closed.
“Where’s the gettin’ place?” Ann asked.
Teddy laughed, her white teeth shining like pearls against her dark skin. “Why, my dear, that would be next to the shittin’ place.”
Pee Wee stifled a laugh, and Teddy winked at her. Betty and Ann looked at the floor, their cheeks flushing a bit redder than when they had run through the woods earlier.
“So, we supposed to spend a few days over here cuz Ann wanted to come,” said Pee Wee. “What else is we s’posed to do all day?”
Aunt Teddy made a motion for them to sit on the bed. “I was gonna show y’all some easy spells, and how to gather some herbs and stuff.”
Ann, sitting on the edge of the bed, tented her fingers. “Where you from? You don’t sound like us when you talk.”
“Ah, well, I take it since your ma is still callin’ me a swamp rat, she ain’t tell ya my story.”
“Oh yeah, Ma don’t like you at all,” Pee Wee answered.
Teddy fixed her overalls, tugging up one of the straps that had fallen off her shoulder, then walked into the other room and picked out three bowls, three grindstones, and some flowers.
She gave a bowl to each of them and made a few motions to show her how it was done. The three sat on the floor, grinding, while Teddy stepped out onto the porch to grab the burlap bag.
She returned to the big old armchair in the corner, placed the bag between her spread legs, and started going through it. “How’s my brother?”
“He come home and brought us car’mels.”
Teddy raised her eyebrows. “Car’mels, you say? Pee Wee, you got taste like a rich white woman.”
Pee Wee raised her chin and crossed her arms. “I’ve been tellin’ y’all, I’m supposed to be rich.”
“Ma was real happy,” Ann said, jumping in. “He went to town this mornin’ with her.”
“Hmm.” Teddy chewed on a blade of grass like a cigarette while she looked through the bag. “He still playin’ numbers?”
Betty held her hand out in front her sisters, signaling for them to stop talking. “Not ’til you tell us where you from.”
“Well, you got me.” Teddy leaned back. “We was born down here in the South, but, somehow we got split up. I think maybe Ma took me up North to get a education, and little Robert—your pa—stayed in the South with my pa to work and send up money for school.”
Ann’s voice rose from the floor: “Get to the part ’bout hoodoo learnin’! I wanna know how you learnt it!”
Aunt Teddy smiled. She looked away from the girls. “Well, one day I was waitin’ for my ma at school, and this lady showed me a trick. I can’t remember the trick, but it was a good one. She told me I could learn them tricks too, but I gots to come to her shop. When Ma showed up, I told her about the lady and the shop, but Ma was not havin’ it. Said she knew that lady and told me to stay away.”
“Did ya listen?” Pee Wee asked.
“Course not! I snuck over to the shop one day when I’s suppose to wait for Ma. I was amazed! Never seen nothin’ like it. I walked into the shop and looked around at everything. Didn’t say much, just looked. ‘What ya need, honey?’ some lady asked. I shook my head, like I was a mute. Then, the other lady come from the back and said I was there to see her. I stared at her. She was the lady that showed me the trick. Dressed real strange but smiled like a cat, she did. She led me in the back. I seen some strange stuff back there. Strange.”
Pee Wee jumped up, spilling petals on the floor. “Like what?”
“Well, ya got to understand, voodoo is all kinds of stuff…like a gumbo. Goddesses and stuff…and what I saw was some kinda chicken feathers all over the place. There was a woman. She was wearin’ all white but had some blood on her. She mumblin’ somethin’ and look right at me. I like to pee my pants. For the first time in my life, I was scared.”
“I know I woulda been,” Ann whispered.
Betty asked, “Why ain’t you leave?”
“Because that lady had me by the wrist. She was draggin’ me somewhere. We ended up in a storage room. She showed me all the stuff round the walls like mockingbird eggs, red devil lye, lizards and things in jars, and these pictures of voodoo saints. She blew somethin’ in my face and laughed. I was fallin’ all over that room, tryin’ to get out. Then, everythin’ went black.”
“Did she kill you?” Pee Wee gasped.
“She is sittin’ right here, so, ah, no,” Betty said.
Aunt Teddy laughed. “I was powerful scared. Next thing I know, Ma is standin’ over me with fire in her eyes. Oh, she was mad. She also cussed that voodoo lady out and dragged me out that store.”
“How she know you was in back?” Ann asked.
“Dunno. She never answered me when I asked. And I asked for a long time. But after that, we moved around a lot. Maw kinda went crazy, sayin’ no grass could grow under our feet if we keep movin’. We finally made it down here to the parish. Ma’s kin folk live on that other side of this mountain.
“But when we got down here, Ma let go. She just gave up on everything. Like life and stuff. Pa come back with Robert. They made it in time for Ma’s funeral. Pa asked if I could stay with Ma’s people and he would send money. They said okay, and I was alone again. But they was real good folk. Took good care of me and taught me the ways of hoodoo.” Then she spoke through clenched teeth: “I always wanted to go back and get that voodoo bitch. She gone get hers in the end times.
“My brother wrote to me whenever he could. His letters made it sound fun. Him and Pa would hop a train. They worked on railroads with Chinese men!”
“Chinese men?” All three girls asked.
“Uh-huh. ’Til Robert found someone to write for him. He sent me a letter sayin’ Pa was killed in some kinda accident. They gave him Pa’s money and scraped up stuff for a funeral. Robert said he was comin’ back to the parish. Said he met a girl.” Aunt Teddy winked. “Y’all’s mama. Next thing I know, two of ya was out, and Pee Wee was on the way. Lot of my folks is gone, and it’s just me, Robert, and your ma. ’Til your ma found out what I did and said she ain’t want no parts of me. I protected y’all though. Just cuz you can’t see me, don’t mean I ain’t there.”
“But who taught you hoodoo?” Pee Wee finished with her bowl and set it next to her.
“My ma’s folks. They real heavy in it. I learnt from the best in the South!” Aunt Teddy raised her chin and stuck out her chest. “Folks would come see them ladies from far and wide. Even the daddy of the sheriff came, cuz his wife couldn’t have no babies. Next thing, she pregnant and he was all happy. He thanked them women and didn’t come round no more.” Teddy leaned forward. “Tell me ’bout your pa. Still gettin’ in trouble?”
Betty snickered. “Yeah, Pa still runnin’ numbers. We ask him to stop, but he get on a roll and then he go shoot the dice and come home. He give Ma enough money to keep her happy and to keep shoes on our feet. I’m gonna be goin’ to school in town—like, finishin’ school—next year. Ann’s comin’ too, and Pee Wee’s gonna finish here.”
“And what you wanna do, missy?” Teddy nodded at Ann.
“I wanna learn to do some rootwork with you. I wanna spend my summer here, learnin’.”
Teddy nodded her head. “And you, little one?”
“I dunno,” Pee Wee said. “I’s just out with my sisters cuz ma told me I had to come.”
“But your life. Whatcha wanna do?”
“Ain’t thought ’bout it much. I’s just a kid.”
Aunt Teddy looked at Betty again. “I guess you don’t wanna be here. I can tell, ya know. Don’t lie to me.”
“I ain’t really interested in none of this stuff—” Betty began.
“I know, but you got a special part in all this. All y’all do. Who can read and write good?”
Betty nodded. “I read pretty good.”
“Can ya write?”
“Good, I need you to take some notes.”
“What about me?” Pee Wee pointed to herself.
“When y’all finish with the lavender, I need for you to put these gloves on and go catch me some toads. Not frogs, but toads. They look like the ones by the door, on the second shelf. Get the bucket on the porch.”
Pee Wee happily squeaked and jumped up.
Ann was the most enthusiastic. Her mind was set to start weaving spells and putting curses on people…maybe even bringing someone back from the dead. She was upset when Teddy told her to clean the chicken coop instead, despite the assurance that she had something fun for Ann to do afterward.
The three girls worked hard for several hours, until Teddy called Ann and Pee Wee in for some lunch. They trudged up the ladder and lay on the couch on the porch, with Ann leading and Pee Wee in the rear.
“We out here!” Ann yelled to Teddy inside.
“Here is your bag of toads.” Pee Wee tossed a heavy burlap sack on the floor and flopped on the floor behind the sack. “I smell like a swamp. I needs a bath, kinda bad.”
Teddy came out and set plates on either end of the couch. She now wore a black wrap around her head, making her look regal with her high cheekbones and smooth skin. “Smell means y’all worked hard. Let’s have lunch.” She grabbed the burlap bag and smiled at Pee Wee. “Nice.”
“That smells good.” Ann sat up and wiped her hands on her pants. “Who cooked?”
“Go on in the kitchen and wash your hands.” Teddy pointed into the house. “I made chicken and hoecakes for lunch. We can pick some fruit for after dinner.”
Teddy watched the girls drag themselves to the table. Pee Wee’s eyes were downcast, Ann sighed, and Betty barely looked at anyone. Once they sat, they spread their napkins in their laps and started grunting and scarfing down the food. She covered her mouth and laughed a bit.
“What?” Ann said with a mouthful of food.
Pee Wee looked up at Teddy.
“Y’all sound like pigs and eat like men,” Teddy said. “Do your ma feed y’all at home?”
“She say we growin’…that’s all.” Pee Wee picked up a chicken leg and tore into it.
“My Lord.” Teddy fanned herself.
When they all finished, Teddy told them they had one more thing to do before they had to start on dinner. She gave them each two bottles, a spade, and a dime.
“We gonna walk up this hill to the cemetery. I wrote names on the bottom of the bottles. Find that grave, go to the foot part, get some dirt from deep, and put it in the bottles. And that’s it.” Teddy looked at each of the girls. “Okay?”
After they climbed down the ladder, Betty put her bottles on the ground. “I don’t know nothin’ bout digging in no grave. I mean, ain’t that disrespectful or somethin’? I can stay and finish writin’.”
“No, it’s not disrespectful. I do what I have to do. This is my job.” Teddy picked up the bottles and gave them back to Betty. She adjusted a tan-colored bag with a long strap across her shoulder, putting the full pouch behind her. “You gotta come with us, either way! Child, it’s gettin’ late.” Teddy turned and marched up a hill to the right of her house, beyond the chicken coop.
They walked through a small forest until they reached a clearing with a hip-height wrought-iron fence. The fence formed a square around a cleared patch of land and beyond that were trees that had not been cleared. It seemed as though the trees offered more privacy the further back they were, almost like they were intended to remain there. The entire area was quiet. The air wasn’t exactly dead, but it wasn’t alive either. There were no flies or crickets, and no grass grew in the area. There was nothing but dirt and gravestones.
Pee Wee looked around and opened her mouth to speak, but Ann shook her head.
“What’s goin’ on here?” Betty asked. “Why ain’t there no sound?”
“Well, I think someone put a spell on the land or somethin’,” Teddy said. “Maybe witches? Maybe Indians. But it’s always been real quiet in this one spot.”
She made a motion indicating the girls should wait. “Y’all got them dimes, right?”
Each girl pulled a dime out and showed her.
“Sit the dime on the headstone, if’n there is one. If not, put it by the head. On the outside up, not in.” She stopped and looked at them. “On second thought, Pee Wee, you come with me. I’m gettin’ somethin’ off you girl. Like you wanna be here but you not sure. Right?”
“I wanna say ‘yeah’ cuz it’s like an adventure, but I don’t wanna make nobody mad.”
“Ain’t nobody mad at you. Pee Wee,” Ann whispered.
“Betty?” Pee Wee asked.
“I wanna go home, but I’m savin’ all my anger for Ann.” Betty lurched forward and pointed in Ann’s face. “I will whup yo ass before this time is over.”
“I wanna see you try it!” Ann set the supplies on the ground.
“What in the hell…?” Teddy stood between them. “Y’all tryin’ to put each other in the cemetery too? Well, you don’t wanna fight over this one. Now get your supplies and do what I done told ya! Put the dimes up, take the dirt, and meet me back here. Me and Pee Wee goin’ to the far part of the cemetery. We gots some harder work to do.” Teddy grabbed Pee Wee, and they all went through the gate. Newer headstones were near the front, with the older headstones, some crumbling, some gone and replaced with rocks, near the back.
Betty and Ann turned their bottles around and tried to match the names to those on the gravestones. It seemed as though each girl’s pair of bottles matched to a pair of people buried near each other.
“Well, is it everythin’ you wanted?” Betty huffed at Ann. She jammed the spade in deep and pulled up a clump of dirt.
“And what would we be doin’ if we wasn’t here? Bent over in a field, pickin’ apples.” Ann eagerly dug into the ground. She moved with skill and purpose, knowing this was part of a spell that Teddy would have them cast. At least, she hoped. “I mean, we all don’t have boyfriends.”
“I ain’t got no…shut up!” Betty flicked dirt at her.
“Be careful, sis, this work is probably somethin’ that’ll kill us. You don’t know.”
Teddy led Pee Wee to the darker part of the cemetery—the area closer to the thick, dense trees that blocked the sun. The ground there resembled scorched earth, but it was
covered with small bottles and trinkets. Crickets were fooled and chirped loudly. The earth looked darker than it did in the rest of the cemetery. A few headstones were covered in a thick, heavy moss. Moss tendrils slithered like snakes on the ground, reaching toward the uncovered tombstones.
Teddy carried a small shovel and a plastic bag in one hand and pulled a lighter from her pocket with the other. She flicked the flame and held it out toward the names until she found what she was looking for. Then she dropped her shoulder sack on the ground and pulled a lantern out of it. She lit it and passed it to Pee Wee. “Hold this.”
Teddy leaned down and pushed a piece of plastic tarp to the side that covered a deep and half-dug hole.
She stepped down into the hole, jammed the shovel into the dirt, and began digging.
Pee Wee glanced around. Things seemed to be alive and moving in the dirt. Or her imagination took over and she made herself see things slithering and crawling in the dirt. Nervous energy made her jump a bit when she heard Teddy move behind her. “I think there’s a snake.”
“We outside Pee Wee. Snakes live outside.” Teddy grunted and kept shoveling. “I need more light. Come closer. I’m not gonna bite you. And ain’t no snakes over here, at least.”
“Any snakes over there?” Pee Wee asked, pointing to a random spot.
“Not poisonous ones. I’ll tell you what, I’ll do somethin’ to keep them away.” She grabbed some dirt, rubbed it in her hands, and tossed it around the grave. “No snakes are gonna come over here.”
“Well, that makes me feel better.” Pee Wee relaxed a bit.
Teddy grunted and dug deeper until she could kneel in the hole. Then, she slammed the shovel against something hard and hollow-sounding. “Good.”
“Why this person?” Pee Wee asked.
“All these folks was criminals or from prison. Some bad people.” Teddy grunted as she worked the shovel. “That’s why, when I die, I wanna be buried down low with my ancestors. Don’t put me on this hill. Nope.”
“Why didn’t you drag Ann here with you? She wanted to do all this stuff more than me and Betty.”
“Feels like you’ve got a bigger hunger in you to learn. Could be that you are the youngest and have the most energy.” Teddy pointed. “Now, hold the lantern over here more.”
“A body ain’t gonna jump out the hole or nothin’, right?” Pee Wee’s hand holding the lantern shook as she leveled it near Teddy.
Teddy glanced at Pee Wee. The way the light from the lantern played on Teddy’s face made her look like a demon with hollowed-out eyes and a black hole for a mouth. Pee Wee felt a bit of pee trickle down her leg.
“Better not be pissin’ yourself! Now come closer,” Teddy hissed.
“Too late,” Pee Wee whispered.
Teddy glanced at Pee Wee and laughed. “Now, you can take a bath when we get home. I can’t believe you pissed yourself.”
“I never said I did!” Pee Wee snapped.
After Teddy finished laughing, she turned and dug a bit more in the hole.
“I’m gonna need you to close your eyes. I know you won’t, but there is a dead man’s skeleton in here. This here is a sinner-man grave. I gotta get the third rib on the left side.”
Pee Wee whispered, “Is that hoodoo strong when you use a sinner-man?”
“Powerful. Can’t make nothin’ more powerful than with a sinner-man bones.” She balanced herself on the edge of the coffin, raised the shovel high, and grunted as she brought it down. The wood gave easily.
Teddy grabbed the lantern from Pee Wee and leaned forward. “Pass me them gloves in the bag.”
Pee Wee passed them over. Teddy pulled them on, mumbling, “Smell like nobody loved you enough to do a washin’.”
“What’s that?” Pee Wee asked. She saw some small bugs or something fly up out the ground in front of Teddy.
Teddy jumped out the hole and crawled around to a different part. She lay on her stomach, reached into the hole and strained as she moved something.
Pee Wee was unaware of the small sounds of fear and grunts of nervousness she was making.
“Quiet, girl! I gotta get this.” Teddy huffed. She steadied herself with one black-gloved hand on the ground beside the hole as she bent over it and reached in. “Thank goodness I already had most of this done.”
A loud snap cracked the silence.
“What’s that?” Pee Wee asked.
Teddy groaned as she pulled herself up out of the hole. “Sinner-man bone.”
Pee Wee looked at the bone. Shredded clothing still hung from it. Teddy brushed the dirt and fabric off it and motioned for the bag.
“Now, get some dirt from the foot-part of this grave while I go ’bout fixin’ this up.” Teddy began shoveling dirt back into the hole.
Pee Wee set the lantern on the ground, took a bottle from the bag, and walked around to the foot of the grave, where Teddy had just rested. She willed herself not to look into the hole, but one of her eyes managed to roll over and look at the bones Teddy was covering. Pee Wee gasped and fell backward.
“Ain’t no time for playin’! Come on!” Teddy said.
Pee Wee pulled herself together and slowly scooped some moist dirt into the bottle. She gagged when she grabbed a few worms as well, thinking these same worms had eaten the flesh off the sinner-man.
Teddy looked back and smiled. “Atta girl.”
Copyright © 2022 Tracy Cross