1906, Louisa County, Virginia
I was there when the things came up out of her.
The girl—Maddie and ‘em’s youngest named Heddy—choked and gagged them right out of herself, retching long and loud. Beetles and bugs and even a small black garter snake wriggled its way on through. All them things fell on the ground writhing and scuttling away. She had on this nice yellow dress since, after all, we was at a get-together. It didn’t stay nice for long with that black mess spewing out all over. Everyone else just stood there in their Sunday best looking on with their mouths open, their eyes wide. Some of the ladies hollered. One fainted dead away. Even the menfolk gasped and let loose an Oh Lord here and there.
Me? I just sighed.
A big, long, deep, deep sigh.
I done seen some things.
I know I wasn’t even flinching. Maybe not even blinking twice. My eyes went heavenward for a moment right when that poor gal’s tear-streaked ones fixed on mine, all scared and pleading. Just as she tried to say something to me, her stomach started heaving again. Heddy’s dark brown hand went to cover her mouth, only for her to snatch it away, recoiling as more of the same poured out. All I could think was, What has one of y’all gone and done now?
“Lawd, Reely, you just gonna stand there and let this happen to my baby?!” Maddie, the girl’s mother hollered, her round face hysterical as her daughter alternately screamed and gagged.
“Aw hell … Fine then,” I said, breaking the moment of whatever was going on there with all of these folks. “It’s not like I’d just let her be like that.” Wouldn’t take me too long to run home, and I got to go now after what else I’m seeing lurking.
It’s one of them. Aw no.
Not one of them.
Something was really, really off. “Make her as comfortable as you can. I’ll go and get my things.”
We are so glad you hear. Our voices are not stilled.
We are so glad you listen. You know to trust our words.
We are so glad you learned. This knowledge is now yours, too.
Use it well, use it right, use it well.
Just happened to be that I had a notion of how this one started: Li’l Miss Gal in Yellow—Heddy—liked that Gillis boy way too much for Millie’s—Harris and Mabel’s gal’s—liking. So, that Millie probably got ahold of some of her hair and baked it in a cake. Wonder she ain’t go mute too. Probably got some of that gal’s water too, dabbling around in things she shouldn’t have without no protection. If she knew better, she could’ve just gone on and tried to get that boy direct—a little blood of hers go a long way. Least I hope she didn’t. Lawd only knows what kind of crossing Millie done put on that poor Heddy, but she was now hacking up her insides and then some. I got to get it off her. I ain’t got much time.
Things ain’t right here at all. I studied the faces of everyone there as I tried to figure out what had me so unsettled, like something creeping all along the edges of my senses. The Gillis boy stood there like all the others, a look of disgust and fascination on his face. Standing next to him as close as she could be—and with the nerve to be smiling—was that Millie.
I caught her eye.
She caught mine and looked away.
Wouldn’t have bothered me or nobody else as we weren’t the one she was aiming for, but I ain’t eat none of that cake she made. It was all lemony and moist-looking (I hate some dry cake), but nah … I don’t eat nothing at these get-togethers anyway. All of ‘em know me and they all know why and the reason why I got to be extra careful with mine. I make my own food. Hunt and raise my own critters. Grow my own plants. If I got to be out, I pack my meal or I ain’t eating ‘til I get back. Rest of them just laugh about it, but I know that kind of laughter. They laugh a li’l higher. They smile a li’l broader. You can see it in the nervous way their eyes move when they do. That’s laughing that’s got a bit of fear about it.
Like it’s funny only ‘cause they feel they better laugh.
Sometimes you hear us walking ‘round…
Sometimes talking upon the breeze.
You often hear us singing,
A chorus you join with ease.
I hurried over to my horse Rufus, who whinnied as I approached. I patted his russet-colored head and hopped up onto the saddle. You’ll usually never find me without some basics like my oils and water in my satchel today, but this? This is something else. I needed to go home.
I sang to myself as we galloped along the dirt roads back to my place in Apple Grove. I go to church and my family always has and does, but I ain’t much for it. Love singing the spirituals, though. “You got a good strong voice there, Reely,” Lettie said to me the other Sunday, looking at me with those beautiful brown eyes of hers. She could tell me that the Sun goes ‘round the Earth and I’d believe her. I’d walk on air and breathe water like a fish if she thought I could.
I clucked my tongue at Rufus, urging him to go faster. I’ve helped everyone around these parts at some point, from babies to the elders. Sometimes it’s just small ailments. Sometimes it’s bad things like this. Every time’s different. I just listen to what they tell me and remember what I know.
Passed some of my neighbors walking along the roads who waved at me as we rushed by. Rufus and I turned sharply and cut through the woods. I could ride this route in the pitch-black if need be. We popped out through the tree line and rode right up to my place. I tied Rufus up, gave him some water, and made my way toward the door.
My frizzy hen out front started clucking and scratching furiously when she saw me, ruffling up dark feathers speckled with white spots like so many stars. My daddy told me these birds came on over from in Africa like us. Got those special gifts like us, too. I petted her and softly said “I know, girly, I know … scratch them bad roots right on up. That conjure got to go and it can’t go up in here. Gotta be careful.” A wooden bucket sat beside the door. I lifted the lid, looking at the green and brown herbs swirling on the water’s surface. Took the gourd and splashed some of it over my doorstep, before grabbing the broom that sat next to it and sweeping the front. I reached into a little tin in my satchel and sprinkled some salt and cayenne pepper around my footsteps and at the doorway. “This mess just gonna stay on out here with you, hen. You and Them know what to do.”
I opened my door and stepped inside. My place is real simple. Built it myself. Just a small log home. One big large comfortable room. Got a table, a bed and two chairs. One for me and one for guests ‘cause ain’t nobody just gonna be sitting up on my bed all like that. There’s a cellar and even got a secret way out besides the front door. Ain’t telling how. Wouldn’t be a secret then. But see? Real simple.
I always look around first. Make sure no one’s been up in here. I can feel it beforehand anyway, but I ain’t trying to come home into no surprises. I got two rifles and the spirits by my side.
I’d be ready.
Went over to my shelf and got a bowl. Checked out and picked up different jars with herbs and powders up in them. The drying herbs hanging up around me filled the place with their fragrance. It’s all as familiar as breathing to me. I quickly got a fire going and set a small pot out to boil. I kinda mutter to myself when I’m doing this. Talking through it all. Helps me focus. Helps me hear. Making sure I got the right stuff. One thing might heal, but mixed with something else’ll kill quicker than anything.
I put the ingredients into my mortar and pestle and crushed it all up. Got a clean white cloth to strain it through into a flask. Also bundled some more herbs together and put them into a small pouch. Said the prayer over it that my daddy taught me and his momma before him. I gotta get back to Heddy and whatever it was I saw going on there. Secured my place again and ran over to Rufus, hopping onto him with a leap.
Now you know this is for good
Now you know the things you should
When you use the gift for bad
The Others hear … don’t make them mad.
Once again, Rufus and I galloped through the Virginia countryside. I could see the crowd still gathered there as the white, clapboard church came into view. Everyone’s heads turned in unison as I rode right at them, slowing Rufus down and handing his reins over to whoever was near.
“Lawd, Lawd, LAWD, have mercy on this girl! In the name of …” Pastor Lee was standing there praying over Heddy, now curled up on the ground surrounded by the black mess. Her hair was mussed and she was still screaming and crying and holding her stomach. Pastor Lee’s lips pursed together tightly as I approached, but even he stepped back. He raised his hands in the air, the full sleeves of his black robe catching the breeze as he loudly declared “God Bless Brother Aurelius as he helps this poor child. Let the Lord work wond’rous things through him!” I shook my head, somewhat amused, but figured this girl could use all the extra blessings that she could get. They all gave me a whole lot of space as I knelt down beside her.
I placed a hand across her forehead, closing my eyes and concentrating before pulling out the flask I had filled. My hand began to feel warm, with heat radiating in pulses to my now tingling fingertips. She felt like she was swirling inside. I dropped back in my mind to that place where I could try to gather it, contain it. I could feel it fighting me, fighting back, its dark tendrils trying to creep out and touch me, but nah, I thought … I got ya. I got ya. I pushed forth, wrapping it like a bundle with golden twine, crunching it down, and forcing it to be quiet.
I got ya.
I said an invocation in a low voice and asked Heddy’s ancestors to come forth. I felt a wave sweep past and through me. “I know y’all are here. She can’t call you herself right now. Help her out like I know only you can, please.” An older man and a younger woman appeared beside her, in shades of shimmering gray. They both nodded and smiled at me as they each placed a hand on her. “C’mon now gal … drink some of this. It probably ain’t gonna taste too good, but it’s going to get it out. C’mon now, it’ll be alright. Let me help you.” I held the flask to her blackened, ooze-stained lips as she took her first sip. As I expected, she gagged a little, making a face of disgust. “Go on. Ain’t no worse than what you done already coughed out.” Her momma shot me a withering look.
Heddy drained the flask. Her retching started to subside and then finally stopped. She leaned against her momma, who had also knelt down beside her. I told her to watch Heddy until the next day and handed her the cloth pouch filled with my selection of herbs. “Brew this up and make sure she bathes in it. Pour it over her head, too, and let her air dry. Gotta clean her out. Get rid of this mess. All of it.”
“Oh, thank you Brother Reely! Thank you! What can we do for you?”
“Well, there’s nothing you can give me food-wise …”
Maddie stopped and stared at me. “You ain’t right sometimes, you know?” I shrugged and started to say something right on back to her, but noticed the ancestors hadn’t left yet. One of them was motioning toward something. I nodded.
Hovering nearby was that gal Millie who put the trick on Heddy in the first place. I saw her and shot her a look letting her know I did. She wasn’t smiling as much anymore. As Heddy got better and the spectacle had stopped, the crowd broke off, leaving to go home after all of the excitement. I stood up, people pausing as I pointed directly at the one who did the crossing.
“Hey there, gal,” I said loudly. The heads of everyone present turned to look at her in unison as her eyes went wide. “You. Yes, you. Ya might wanna stop for a minute so I can tell you that everything comes with a price and you’re messing with something that messes back.”
Murmurs and “Nuh-uhs” swept through the crowd, their voices becoming louder as my words sank in. I saw Lettie in the crowd and was relieved that she had on the necklace that I gave her for protection. The Gillis boy looked at Millie with disgust and backed away as she shrank from the crowd’s accusations and admonishments. See, thing is, whole time I could see something they couldn’t … this tall dark shadow that was with her, just behind her. Everywhere she was moving, it was moving, too. I recognized it for what it was and knew that anywhere that she would go, it would go, too. It wasn’t just her being obvious (at least to me) about what she did to that other gal that made me notice her. It was that Other that was now with her. I had already seen it earlier just standing there smiling.
Smiling at me.
“Yeah, I see ya.” I say to it. “Gal, you gone and done it. If you gonna do a crossing, do it right and sure as hell don’t let it stay with you like this.”
The Other shifted behind her, laughing.
“Oh, you laughing, huh?” I shook my head and sighed. A long, deep sigh knowing that I am never finished.
I done seen some things.