COTTONMOUTH

September 7, 2021

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Joelle Wellington grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where her childhood was spent wandering the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Her love of the written word led her to a B.A. in Creative Writing and International Studies. When she isn’t writing, she’s reading and when she’s not doing that, she’s attempting to bake bread with varying degrees of success. She is represented by Quressa Robinson of Nelson Literary Agency.
Content Warning(s):
Abuse, Blood/Gore, Kidnapping and abduction, Racism and/or racial slurs, Violence

He finds her in his grandpa’s attic, in the Big House.

The hatch has been locked up tight since the day Grant Dixon was born—twenty-two years of locked up tight—and long before.

He used to ask about it, between the stories his Grandpa Dixon liked to tell.

Grandpa Dixon used to read to Grant’s daddy when he was young, and they’d all been from the Good Book. Warnings against greed and lust. Warnings about things not of God.

By the time Grant came around, Grandpa Dixon relaxed, the starch of his white preacher’s collar leaking from his spine. But Grant remembers what his grandpa said about the attic.

Don’t go up there, boy, Grandpa Dixon said. ‘He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear because you are not of God.’ Don’t be the second half of that verse, boy. Don’t.

And so, Grant listened, because he was of the first. Of God. He was good, as all the town was, crooked in their obedience, as his Grandpa spat fire and brimstone from behind the pulpit.

But, one day, the lock falls off. It lands at his feet with a heavy crack, splintering the rotten wood that makes up the third floor of the family home. Grant Dixon swears he feels the house breathe, and he looks out the picture window, across the acres of Mississippi green sea, and feels like something is alive.

The ladder rolls down, swollen planks of wood as steps, connected by ragged rope that looks twined together by hand. He expects the first plank to snap under his weight. He’s even more shocked when it’s the second that snaps.

Grant snatches onto the next and climbs. He climbs and climbs until his blunt fingernails catch on the soft edge of wood and he heaves himself upward, sliding along it like a serpent would, head then belly, and finally the tail of his feet, catching over the mouth of the entrance to the attic.

The ladder rolls up and the hatch falls shut.

There isn’t any dust to suggest that the attic hasn’t been touched in years, but the smell of stale air and the spores of an oak tree convince Grant otherwise.

This is where he finds her.

§

She finds him in Preacher Dixon’s attic.

He is a gorgeous boy, elegantly dressed, the smell of cotton and linens at his pulse point. His skin is so pale that she can see the blue of his veins.

She thinks he’d look better with a little blood on his collar.

§

She is a girl. A black girl curled on a bed of black curls that match the hair upon her head. Her hair is cropped short, a harsh thicket that looks hard as the bristles on a wooden brush. She seems to be asleep, but the moment that Grant takes a step back—step forward—her eyes open and she’s on her feet.

She slinks, too small to be called a crocodile, but too majestic to be a garden snake—docile and green as the grass it hides in.

There is something inevitable in the air, Grant can taste it like dust. He hesitates for a moment—this girl is in his grandpa’s attic, and yet, it feels like she’s there for him. Grant knows the Bible, knows his grandpa’s stories well—parable and verse alike—can recite them by heart too.  “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” Matthew 25:21.

And Grant has been good. Grant has been faithful. Grant didn’t open the attic.

The attic opened for him.

“And who are you that I see?” she asks, voice low and crooning, like the chirps along the swamp edge and a story’s breath.

Grant moves because he’s never been able to resist swamp nor story.

“I’m Grant.”

“Grant no-last-name?”

“Grant Dixon,” he says. And then, he asks, “What’s your name?”

She is beautiful, nails long, lavender and sharp. He gorges on the sight of her, her dark skin, so different from his, the place where her cotton shift clings to the curve of her breasts, the dip of her waist, and he wants to trace the lines of her with his tongue.

It’s her eyes, though, that demand his attention, hazel bright with hunger deep.

“I have none,” she says. She takes another step forward, and her thin colt legs tremble. He stares at them, and something low in his belly, just above his pelvis, tugs tight towards his chest. She smiles like she knows. “But, come again, Grant Dixon, and I may tell you.”

This is the first night.

§

The next time he crawls up the hatch-hole, she is waiting.

She stands by the tiny porthole at the apex of the Big House. He wonders what she’s looking at, the window so crusted with dust, the outside must be an eternal fog. When she sees him, the curve of her generous mouth twists into a smile that shows the fine points of her white teeth. He doesn’t see people like her often, so he pays special attention to the richness of her skin, a depth that’s missing in his flesh. When Grant inspects her, he notices for the first time, three chains wrapped around her ankle—pewter, copper, and iron. He waits for her to say something, but she just smiles.

Grant swallows the silence, then his nerves, in that order.

“I—”

“You came back,” the girl-with-no-name says like she’s only mildly surprised.

“Will you—”

“No,” she interrupts again like she can pluck his thoughts from the grey matter. And then, she turns away, like he isn’t worthy.

Grant creeps forward, the near-silent sweep of the soles of his feet on the rotten wood cracking the air. He looks from her chained ankles up her back. White ropes of flesh crawl up into the nape of her neck and disappear beneath the neckline of her cotton nightshirt. He thinks the scars suit her; they’re perfect. She’s perfect.

“What can I ask you?” Grant asks because he can tell—he can see the stories thrumming in her sinew, and he wants them. He wants them more than anything.

“Ask a good question, and I might answer.”

“Have you ever seen the ocean?” he asks her.

And the girl-with-no-name says against the dust-fogged window, “I have seen the edges of everything twice. Yes, I have seen the ocean.”

Grant sits at her feet and says, “Will you tell me a story about the ocean?”

And so, the girl-with-no-name tells him a story of moving heaven and water, of delving deep into the pools until there is only blackness. She tells him of a boy named São Jos… that rode the waves, and the beautiful girl that stole him into its depths until the blackness of the whale swallowed him whole. When she is done, Grant feels compelled to press his face against the meat of her thigh as he looks up at her.

“Thank you,” he breathes.

She looks surprised, for just a moment, before she smiles and runs her nails through his hair, presses it to the white of his scalp.

“Do not thank me, Grant Dixon,” she whispers. “I only ask one thing of you.”

“Okay,” he says because he wants to.

She leans down, nudging her nose against his, and he thinks, I’m breathing her carbon.

“Deny me.”

§

When she is alone, she listens to the whispers in the house. She listens to the preacher’s words and scents his blood, and she waits. She waits for the boy to break his word, to shatter her trust. She hears nothing for a long time, nothing but the sound of her breath.

“Did you go into the attic, boy?” Preacher Dixon asks. “Have you been to the attic?”

Preacher Dixon is the kind of man that beats truth from one’s mouth with his words. He is the kind of man that expects obedience.

She will only give him violence.

A breath.

“No, sir, I haven’t been to the attic.”

She smiles.

This is the first denial.

And the pewter chain cracks.

§

“You denied me,” she says when he sneaks to her in the haunt of night, when the moon is hidden behind the fat swell of a purple cloud—that’s the thing about living so deep in the country, the skies look purple, and Grandpa Dixon always said it’s the blood steeped in the soil reflecting back at the night.

“You asked me to,” Grant says softly. He takes a step closer—tonight, her curls are longer, spilling past her shoulders. She steps away from her bed of hair, revealing the long porcelain seashells of her toenails. He wants to know her. “Tell me your name.”

He does not ask this time—he does not realize. The girl-with-no-name no longer looks surprised.

The girl-with-no-name hesitates for only a second, holding the lie at the back of her tongue as if it were a preciously guarded truth. When it slides from between the gap in her teeth, it comes out like reluctance and jelly.

“Inanna, for the sky.”

“Tell me a story of the sky,” Grant demands. He pauses. “Please.”

The girl-with-no-name but Inanna for the heaven begins to tell a tale, lets it slip past her teeth in song and verse. He feels the heat in the pit of him swell fat as she tells him a story about a boy named Zong with oil slick for eyes and a mouth that yawns sin, and that girl that he feeds moonshine and cherry pie to, a girl that he brands with his name and hides in the hollow tree trunks in the woods. She tells him a tale about the rich man that wanted to buy his way to the sky and keeps his girl cleaved to his chest. And Grant listens, takes these stories, and seals them beside the parables that Grandpa Dixon tells.

When she is done, he makes her kneel before him. Grant takes her face in his hands, feeling the flesh mold to his palm, feeling the sharpness of her cheekbone. When he bends down to kiss her, it tastes like bread and wine—Communion on her tongue. She kisses him back, sweet and terrible, licking over the caps of his molars. His tongue dips to the back of her mouth and he notices—there is a tooth missing.

When she pulls back, there is blood on her teeth. Grant admires how the red looks against white, how the brown looks against white.

“You are beautiful,” Grant swears, and her smile grows impossibly wider, yawning like the man in her story, like she wants to eat. He wants to eat.

“You could,” his girl says, and he realizes that he’s been speaking aloud. She laughs, a bright noise that sounds like a wind chime. It’s the type of sound that could turn him into a pillar of salt.

Grant leans forward again to kiss her, to devour her, his hands large on her neck. He kneels so that they’re both on their knees, and he presses her to the ground. Hands on wrist. Lips on neck. Teeth in skin. And then she drags his face to hers, staring at him with eyes like pools of honey.

“Wait,” his girl whispers. “I will tell you one more story, and then, you may have me.”

“Why can’t I have you now?” he demands, licking the hollow of her collarbone.

“Because I have a question,” Inanna says. “Answer it the next night, and you shall have me.”

“And?”

“Deny me twice.”

§

He is easy, mind wrapped tight in lunacy and lust, enamored with the scars on her back, and the taste of unstrange fruit on her tongue. But he will do anything for a taste of it, a taste of her, a taste of the chains on her feet, and the stories like she is both nursemaid and whore.

But he does it when he is asked again by Preacher Dixon: “Have you been to the attic?”

He denies her twice. “No, Grandpa. I haven’t been to the attic. No.”

When the Good Preacher comes to see her and lays a peck of cornmeal and three pounds of pork at her feet, he asks, “Has there been a boy here?”

The Good Preacher comes up rarely, just enough to keep her fed, to keep her whole. With every year, his back grows more crooked, knees just a little more ruined. Still, he makes the climb.

She watches him, pretends to cower when he raises a hand to her. She has long stopped flinching from the back of a pale hand. But when the Good Preacher sees her flinch, he smiles his disgust, and she sees it in his teeth. It has always been there, in the Dixon boys’ mouths.

She’s tasted it for centuries.

Abomination, he does not say.

She remembers it on his tongue. She remembers it from the lines of hands.

She thinks that he forgets—she will not allow the new boy to forget. The Dixon boys will stop forgetting her. They’ll never be able to forget her, just like she doesn’t forget where they’ve pressed themselves into her skin and scarred it over and over again.

They will not own her bones.

“No, sir-uh. No boy here.”

Let him think it. Let him ask. Let him lose.

He does not notice. And the copper softens.

§

The third night that Grant goes to her, the girl-with-no-name but Inanna reaches for him first. He goes to her like he can’t help it, and she presses her hand against his cheek, and he reaches for her, pale blue veins pressed into russet skin. Her curls are a wild mane, trailing behind her, nearly to her ankles, where only the iron shackles remain.

“Did you deny me?” she whispers.

“I wish I didn’t,” Grant says. “I want to scream that your stories are mine, that you’re mine.”

Inanna hums. She pulls him close, muscles wrapped around his neck in a chokehold. Her lips press to his earlobe, and he shivers against her. His arm loops tight around her waist, pressing even tighter. He thinks she might feel the length of his cock. He thinks she might not mind.

“I am not yours.” Hissed soft and vicious, and Grant jerks back, staring at her with hurt. And her eyes are still honey, and her voice is soft again, like cotton candy spun in the bottom of a gritty metal bowl when she says, “But I could be.”

He looks up at her—he has to look up at her now, and he’s just realized—and nods. “How?”

“What would you do?” she asks gently. “To make me yours.”

“Anything.”

She smiles at him, sweet and slow. “How do you find death?” she whispers.

It sounds like the beginning of a story. But it isn’t a story that Grant knows. This is a question he cannot answer because he thought death was something God gives. He pulls away to stare at her neck, her face, her bare arms. His fingers trace the lines at the nape of her neck, and he wants to taste the white scar tissue.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Please, Inanna—”

“There is a woman somewhere, with a wide memory, wide enough to hold the girth of me there still. She will arm you, if only you’d ask,” Inanna promises.

The thrush of sickness sings in his gut because there are talks of arming and weapons as if this is a holy war—because it must be holy, for his skin to sing where it touches hers. “I don’t know how to fight, Inanna. I don’t know this story,” he insists.

Inanna laughs against him, the sound of it rippling the short hairs of his arms.

“I don’t ask you to fight. I ask you to look. Where do you find death? Where do you find mine?” Inanna asks. She leans forward and kisses the answer into his mouth. “Inside a little girl’s milk tooth, pressed into the pit of a peach, wrapped in a bundle of raw cotton, tucked in the hollowed-out trappings of a Bible, trapped in the belly of a great black hog, which is buried under a cypress tree, drooling over the murky swamp water.”

And he hears all of this against the flesh of his bottom lip as he possesses her mouth, his fingers buried in the thicket of her curls. He wants to lose his soul in it if only to hear her stories.

Grant steps back to look at her.

“And what happens if I do? Find your death? Will you be free?” he asks gently.

“Yes, my love. I will be free, and we will be together. Always,” she says in her sugar-spun words. Her white teeth glint like the swamp-worn bedrock.

“Always,” he repeats, because it is a dream—a story without fire and brimstone, unlike his grandpa’s stories. He would have his story in his bed, beneath him, inside of him. He would fit himself in the space of her ribs.

“Yes, always. Go, my love. Go and fetch my death from the woman by the swamp. Feed it to me, and I am yours.”

Grant lets her go, reluctant, and then, he asks, “And deny you thrice?”

“My love, you can learn,” Inanna laughs. “And deny me thrice.”

So, that night, Grant gets into his dead father’s rusty pick-up and drives into the night, to the witch by the swamp’s edge. In his head, he thinks about her stories. All of his stories.

§

He does not remember to close the hatch this time. He has made many mistakes.

He opened the latch with his lust. He crawled up the ladder with his greed. Leaving it open is his last mistake.

When the Preacher comes, he spits fire and salt at her and she takes the licks up her back. She does not flinch from the cracking, and she does not feel her skin split. She takes it because she can. She takes it because soon, she won’t, and when the Preacher sneers at her and calls her whore and liar and witch, she bares her teeth; she remembers a time where she was ‘his’ too.

She’s always ‘his’ until she’s someone else’s.

She is tired of the Dixon boys, and her marrow is too.

She is tired of the Preacher thinking that he’s always right. He knows too much of his verse and not enough of the way blood wails, the magic in it.

The boy has made many mistakes too. The Preacher barely notices them.

The iron shackles do not open, but they crack.

Just a little.

It’s enough.

§

He knows her. The woman at the swamp. She is more than a woman with a wide memory. She is a witch.

Grant has heard about her—she is Eugenia Marie. Everyone knows Eugenia Marie.

Grandpa Dixon has warned Grant about people like her. Exodus 22:18, Grant thinks.

My girl Inanna, he remembers. He has to remember her. He’ll do what he must. For her. His girl.

Eugenia Marie is tall, like his Inanna, but nowhere near as beautiful with orange polyester scarves wrapped around her head. When she sees Grant, she simply leaves the door open, and when Grant meets the edges of light from the inside of her shack, he looks at the crooked shelves and potions they hold. He takes in the cloying smell of spices and pork salt, accentuating the rotting smell of swamp that catches in Grant’s nostril hairs.

“Help yourself,” Eugenia Marie says where she sits in an overstuffed chair, her daughter sitting on the ground between her thighs. She braids the young girl’s hair, nodding to the glass of cheap whiskey next to the piles of old bound books, the dirt-crusted shovel, and a butcher’s knife.

Grant tips three fingers down his throat, enjoying the burn. It feels like Inanna’s mouth.

Eugenia Marie sneers. “You are here for a death, then, boy?”

“How do you know?” Grant demands. “I haven’t told you why I’m here.”

“You think you are the first?” Eugenia Marie asks with a low laugh. Even from where Grant stands, he can smell coconut oil on her greasy weathered fingertips. “The memory is deep; this tale is an epic. You are not the first to search for a girl’s death.”

“I am the last,” Grant promises with a boy’s earnestness because he thinks it will make for a good story—the boy that proclaims to find a death and feed it to his love, to be the last to do so, to be the only one named and mattered.

Eugenia Marie smiles a secret smile and nods to the knife and the shovel.

“Then be the last, boy. Be a hero.”

Grant snatches up the shovel and the knife. He points the shovel at Eugenia Marie and her girl and sneers. “Inanna believes in me.”

“Speak not of the girl-with-no-name. They will hear, and they will wail for her,” Eugenia Marie warns.

Grant pauses. “Who is ‘they’?”

“Don’t forget to deny her. Deny her thrice.”

Grant leaves then because there is only so long that he can suffer a witch and her brood. He treks across wooden bridges towards the cypress tree that dangles over the walkway like a canopy, the Spanish moss falling into his brown hair. He presses into wet earth with his shovel and then he begins the dig.

The dig is a climb, in some ways, he thinks, because this is what a good story would sound like. The dig is a climb to heaven. To his Inanna. His.

The dig feels like it’s forever and a half-day, the sun rising and setting, for every inch he digs deeper, more mud slips in, and then when the moon is high, he feels the shovel hit something wet and hard, not the same wet dirt. Grant feels the belly of a beast and he falls to his knees and pulls out the carcass of a hog, stiff and rotting and smelling like fresh bacon and pork fat. He yanks it up onto the walkway.

For Inanna, he thinks. For her death.

And so, he pulls his knife and cuts the black hog wide from anus to sternum and pulls out the Holiest book, a Bible that resembles the one that sits on Grandpa Dixon’s pulpit. He pulls it open and in the place of Leviticus, he finds cotton. And when he digs through that cotton, cutting his palms wide with the roughness of it, he finds the pit of a peach.

And then, he puts the pit of the peach between his front teeth and bites.

§

It is the next night by the time he cracks open the peach pit, revealing a little girl’s tooth.

“Inanna!” Grant shouts as he crawls up the rotting ladder, her death tucked close to his breast and his fingers curl into the attic floor as he levers himself up.

He does not notice Preacher Dixon until he stands to his feet and reaches for her.

When he does, Preacher Dixon is upon him, his lips curled into a snarl as he takes in the tacky blood spackled over Grant’s jaw, the dirt caught underneath jagged nails. Preacher Dixon grabs Grant by the shirt and rattles him.

“What have you done, stupid boy?” his grandfather roars. There is no fire and brimstone in his voice anymore. There is a whimper, and Grant thinks that he should end with a bang. “Do you know this girl?”

Grant looks at her—his Inanna who has never looked more lovely, more alive, than she does as she stares at him, cowering in the corner, her back wet with red, nightshirt split.

“N-No, I don’t,” Grant insists. “What did you—"

Preacher Dixon slaps him hard, hard enough that Grant stumbles back, foot skirting to the side, just missing the mouth of the attic. Grant clutches his jaw and groans.

“Do you know this girl?” Preacher Dixon demands again. “The hatch to the attic was open.”

“No,” Grant says again, this time firmer. He stands, pulls himself up by the spine, and realizes that he is taller than Grandpa Dixon, old Preacher Dixon, who has curdled with age, liver-spotted by time. He shoves Preacher Dixon back once. “No, I do not.”

This time, Preacher Dixon is smaller again, soft and old, and he asks in his frail voice, “Please, Grant … tell me the truth … please tell me if you know this girl?”

“I don’t,” Grant roars. “Now, what did you do to her? Did you … did you whip her?”

§

This is the third denial.

And the iron shatters.

§

Before Preacher Dixon can answer, the sound of iron clattering to the ground rings, like the sound of a clock striking midnight. The Dixons turn and there is Inanna.

Grant has never noticed how very tall she is. She is taller than him, and her long curls are a bundle at the top of her head, spilling over her split-back, her front, everywhere. With every step, Inanna grows larger, her hazel eyes black now, her dark red mouth full of sharp white ivory, mouth so wide that he can see the missing tooth.

And still, Grant finds her lovely.

Inanna takes another step and then she jerks back. She looks down.

Wrapped around her left ankle, in the space where the shackle had bound her tight is a ring—small and slight—of cotton, raw and rough against her bruised skin. She hisses something in a language that Grant does not know, and then she looks up at him, soft and vulnerable and his again.

“My love,” she whispers. “Feed me my death, please. I can’t … cannot leave without you. Please.”

Inanna is beautiful, Grant thinks. The world will think her beauty is for them.

She will leave, he thinks. She cannot leave him. He does not know what he would do—without her stories, without her hands, without her mouth, without her. She is his. Her stories, her body, her face, her name, given to him and him alone. He earned her.

This is the Lord’s gift to those that follow his Word.

“Grant—” Grandpa Dixon starts, startled as Grant pulls her death from his shirt pocket.

And then Grant takes the little girl’s milk tooth and swallows it whole. It goes down jagged and crooked, tearing his esophagus. When he coughs, he spits blood into his palm and he stares at her, smiling her bloody smile back at him.

“What have you done, stupid boy?” Grandpa Dixon moans.

“You can’t leave. Now, you can never leave me. We can be together. You’re mine,” Grant says with her tooth in his belly and ‘mine’ like a noose. “I want to keep you.”

Inanna does not stop smiling. The cotton band about her ankle turns to ash, and she is free.

“Four hundred years,” the girl-with-no-name rasps in a voice not all her own. “Free after four hundred years.”

“What have you done? What have you done?” Preacher Dixon bemoans, again and again, lost to his fate.

Inanna reaches for him and pulls him close. “There are no shackles on me, Massa,” she swears, and she tears into his chest, fingernails now black and ragged as she shreds the preacher’s frock. Deeper she digs, through muscle and bones, until she wrenches his heart out.

Grant watches as she eats, aorta whole, heart caught between ragged teeth.

“Inanna, what are you doing? Inanna—” Grant begs and then he is on his back as she crawls over him.

For a moment—just for one—she looks as she always had. Heartbreakingly lovely with her hazel eyes and her generous mouth and the tight curls on her head.

She looks like she had when she was his.

“You do not own me,” she whispers.

And then there is something in his mouth, spores on his tongue, growing, growing, and growing still. Out from behind his teeth grows cotton. It spills from his nose, out of his mouth, until all he can taste and smell is the scent of salt and blood.

He tries to scream, but he can only watch as Inanna drags the chains forward and wraps him up tight—first the pewter, then the copper, and finally iron. She binds him, hands and feet, chains about his neck.

Grant Dixon likes his stories.

He likes them best from his girl’s mouth.

Give him a tale from a silver tongue instead; he likes to hear the licks and breaths between words, the hissing of spit between teeth. He gorges on those words, eats until his belly feels hot and swollen with it until the back of his eyes sting with unspoiled tears and the pleasure of grief. He grows fat on them, gluttonous for the tales of boys who drown and boys who find the sun and boys who burnburnBURN when they get too close to calling the sky their own.

Grant Dixon feasts on the girl-with-no-name’s stories and doesn’t realize how she spins his last.

His story ends like this: the girl-with-no-name—for he thinks now that she lied, because her name, it is not for his tongue, for his cotton-stuffed mouth—stands to her feet, and she is beautiful again. She walks like she hasn’t walked for a long time, knees knocking together like a foal’s, and she crawls down the hatch.

Grant Dixon does not move for a very long time. He is still, struck stone by cotton and chains.

The stench of her blood lingers for four hundred years.

And how Grant Dixon hears the ground wail.

© Joelle Wellington

2 Comments

  1. edward.serken

    What a wonderful voice! Really enjoyed.

  2. Steph

    This is an amazing story–beautifully poetic, and I do love me a good tale of vengeance!

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