Mama wasn’t dead… exactly. They all said she was, but when Elma was small, she seen Mama creep into her room at night, half-naked, head all bloodied red like when they found her by the well that day, and Elma reckoned dead just meant pretendin’ you couldn’t move or breathe until nightfall when you got up and walked around like you was free.
Elma thought she would have liked dead too, especially when Uncle Jeb came round with all his pointy parts. Sometimes, she wished she was night-black like her older brother Kebo, that way she could sneak off into shadow and never come back just like Kebo done.
Every night, Mama tucked her in and every night, Elma asked her questions. “Why you dead, Mama? Where’s your clothes? Why you gotta come at nighttime?” But Mama only ever shook her head and put a finger to her lips to shush her.
But as Elma grew, and as Elma learned dead was dead, Mama stopped comin’ round so much—least ’til that night in late July when the heat of summer still brought waves from the asphalt even in the dark.
Elma was sixteen, or so she figured. There never was birthdays in their house, and Mama was gone by the time she was old enough to even think of askin’. She tried sometimes, but Mama just shook her head as always.
They said there wasn’t no slavery in Mississippi goin’ back some sixty years, but Elma knew that wasn’t true cuz what they paid her to empty old man Haggle’s waste and clean his soiled sheets and naked ass was barely enough to feed her. She and Jacob stayed with Uncle Jeb after Mama died, though Jeb wasn’t really their uncle, only the man Mama lived with ‘fore she passed.
Jeb’d said it was harder for a pretty girl to find work; even white men liked flowers, whether red or pink or blue. “White women won’t hire none they think their men might pluck up like an apple and get with child like done happened to your mama.”
Mama’d been standin’ in the corner that day, shakin’ her head with her finger to her lips, so Elma’d bit her tongue and gone to work for Mrs. Haggle whose husband was too old and fragile to care if she was pretty or not.
Elma was just comin’ round the bend toward home that July night, still wet with Haggle-piss—least that’s what her little brother, Jacob, called it when the old man made a river of her at bath time.
The soles of Elma’s shoes stuck to the steamin’ road. She was hummin’ Mama’s tune, the one Uncle Jeb used to play on his fiddle sometimes when she was small.
“It’s gettin’ late, Elma-girl,” a man behind her said.
Elma tasted fear in her spit as she turned. She couldn’t see nothin’, but she knew the voice.
“Leave me be, Liam,” she said, clutchin’ the tiny sack of herbs and weeds Mama gave her that she wore ’round her neck for a charm. She didn’t know how close Liam was, didn’t know if there was time to run. It was always worse if she tried to run.
“You could almost pass for white, you know that?” Liam whispered, beside her of a sudden, his breath all gas and whiskey. Elma was glad she hadn’t run, but she knew there was somethin’ funny in what Liam said and how he said it. That’s the way Mama’s stories used to start. “You could almost pass for white, Elma; that’s cuz your papa was a gypsy.”
Elma froze, goosebumps prickin’ at her skin ‘spite the heat as Liam rubbed his hands all up and down her arms and throat. “You smell like piss,” Liam said.
Elma almost smiled. “That’s your papa’s piss,” she said. Haggle piss.
Liam grabbed her anyway and kissed her. Hard. She didn’t move.
“Now, why you gotta be like that?” he asked. “All frigid like, when you know I love you?”
She didn’t tell him white folks couldn’t love the same as coloreds. She couldn’t love the same neither though, cuz more than half of her was white. “Your papa was a gypsy, alabaster pale like snow.” Mama was half-white too, though darker than Elma, all soft nut-brown like an almond.
She bit her lip near bloody as Liam drug her down in the dirt, lifted her skirt, dug dry calloused hands in secret crevices she aint never touched herself. Watchin’ shadows shift through moonlight she just lay there, blinkin’ back the sour sweat that spilled from Liam’s brow and run down her cheeks like her own tears shoulda, but she never wept no more when Liam touched her.
After he was through, she always went to Widow Morris’s farm and found Regina out back where she lived in the old slaves’ quarters. The ramshackle house smelled like death, risin’ up from the dirt floor where blood had sunk so deep it was the only foundation kept the walls from fallin’.
“You should get someone walk you home, child,” Regina would say in her raspy Creole drawl as she mixed her a potion to stop Liam’s seed from startin’. “It aint safe out, late at night, all by your lonesome.” But tonight, Regina only looked at her sideways as she come in.
“When you gonna kill that boy?” Regina asked instead.
Elma crept smooth as silk past the saints and snakes and brick-dust linin’ the floor. “I aint never,” she said.
The air was sticky hot and shadows played crosses all along Regina’s night-black jaw.
“You aint?” Regina pointed to the dark outside and Elma turned to see Mama’s murky figure pressed up against the open door as if the air was made of glass.
“I don’t see nothin’ there,” Elma lied, but inside, her heart was playin’ faster than a fiddle.
“You never told no one you see your mama’s ghost?” Regina’s gnarled hands kept a mixin’ and mixin’, but she didn’t look up again, even though Mama reached out, her face all pained like she was dyin’ one more time.
Elma sat up on a stool, just like she used to do when she was small and Mama brought her here. She didn’t want to see Mama’s face like that and didn’t want to know why Mama was there. Mama’s ghost never come there before.
“No such thing as ghosts, Regina,” Elma whispered.
“You tell your mama she can’t come in,” Regina said, pourin’ the juice she made through a sieve.
Elma reckoned Mama knew that anyway so she just shook her head and said, “Don’t know what you mean.”
The potion went down like lard and vinegar and tasted worse than all the other ones she drunk. Elma’s stomach roiled but she gripped the edges of the stool ’til she could breathe again. The cramps weren’t like to start for hours yet, she knew.
“Can’t pay ya,” Elma said, “but Jeb’s got chickens and I can bring ’round fresh eggs tomorrow.”
Elma never told Regina she sometimes come from Jeb’s hurts too, but that was less and less now since his bones got soft and gnarled.
“Keep Jeb’s eggs,” Regina said, unwindin’ the charm from Elma’s neck, stuffin’ some new brown weeds inside with a sorta knowin’ smile that Elma couldn’t make no sense of, “but do us both a favor and tell your mama leave you be.”
“Mama’s dead,” Elma said, but Regina just smiled and tied the charm back ’round her neck.
Mama didn’t follow Elma home but stayed all pressed against Regina’s doorway. Yet when she woke up in the night, Mama was standin’ over her bed, drippin’ make-believe blood from the gash in her skull.
Through her half-sleep, Elma almost called for Jacob to get Mama a rag, but she only watched Mama shake her head when she asked why she was there.
“Aint no one up,” Elma said. “Just me could hear you anyway.” Mama put a finger to her lips to shush her, but Elma didn’t stop. “Why you come here if you won’t say nothin’?”
This time, Mama walked up to the door and waved her hand for Elma to follow.
It was still coal dark outside, still hot and moist. Elma’s night-dress, long to the toes and high up the neck, was stiflin’. She wore it in summer or winter-didn’t matter; it covered her up and felt like armor most the time, but out there it burned like fever struck her, sweat pourin’ down her back like honey.
Mama pointed to the shed and Elma went, fannin’ out her night-dress to cool herself. She could barely see where Mama stood wavin’ her hands through the handle of the spade.
“You want me bring that?” Elma asked and Mama smiled.
Down the field, up to the road, Elma followed where Mama led. By the time they reached the river, the sky was almost light.
“I gots to tend to Mr. Haggle, Mama,” Elma said, but Mama just kept walkin’ like she didn’t hear.
Elma wasn’t wearin’ no shoes and her feet hurt somethin’ awful, but finally, Mama stopped and Elma sat down, almost cryin’. She must be mad or fool or both: followin’ ghosts, half naked like Mama was when she got killed. And then it struck her like a hurricane deep in her throat, a kinda knowin’ dread that made her knees go weak.
“What happened to you, Mama?” Elma asked. She never asked before cuz she reckoned Mama wouldn’t answer, but this time Mama made a small sound, a grunt, like she was tryin’ to talk but couldn’t remember how.
“Were you followin’ a ghost, Mama?”
Mama made the sound again.
“Was it Papa?”
Elma didn’t know of no more she thought might be dead, but she knew now what it was Mama wanted. “You want me to dig here, don’t you?”
As Mama watched her, Elma got chills all up and down her back, even though the air was hot and hotter still in her long, thick nightdress. “Am I gonna find a dead man here?”
Soon enough, the spade hit somethin’ hard and Elma sunk down to her knees, openin’ the dirt with her bare hands instead. She found finger bones first, then other dead parts, wrapped in tattered clothes. Her stomach hurt when she looked at them, but not cuz they were bones. A charm sagged from the body’s throat just like the one she wore next to her own heart.
She couldn’t cry, even though she wanted to. “This is Kebo,” she said to Mama through a hard lump in her throat. “Was it Kebo you followed?”
Mama grunted again, but didn’t shake her head this time.
Elma dropped the spade. She started walkin’. “I gots to tend to Mr. Haggle now.”
Halfway down the road she heard Mama grunt again. She didn’t stop. Just kept walkin’, tryin’ not to think of Kebo or Mama or anythin’ at all. She felt fear down to her toes, all quiverin’ inside her blood, and she knew somethin’ would happen if she didn’t get back ‘fore the sun rose.
In the pale light she seen Jacob runnin’ outside the house, laughin’ and a hollerin’ as she come up.
“Kebo come home! Kebo come home!” Jacob shouted, but when she opened the door the house was empty, ‘cept for Uncle Jeb asleep with a bottle in the rockin’ chair.
“Aint no one here, Jacob,” Elma said.
Her brother laughed. “He’s playin’ hide and find, Elma. You gots to find him.” But Elma just got dressed.
She went to work like nothin’ happened; all the while her heart was thuddin’, her hands clammy wet with sweat. Once, she nearly dropped the basin after she done washed Mr. Haggle up, but she caught it with her hip and only splattered the dirty water on her dress and not the floor. She was glad for that, cuz sometimes Mrs. Haggle would beat her with her broom handle if she done wrong, even though they said there wasn’t slavery no more.
When it was nearly dark, she went down to the kitchen and hung her apron on the long hook in the pantry. Her skin was cold as ice, though the air was smolderin’, and her fingers shook somethin’ fierce as she folded up her uneaten lunch into a square of wax paper and started stuffin’ her things into her basket.
She gasped as a shadow poured over her, but when she turned it was only Liam come up behind her, leanin’ across the pantry door, smilin’ crooked, his face all brown with dirt and sweat from tendin’ his fields.
“This is a nice, quiet place,” he said.
Elma frowned back at him, rememberin’ the way the shelves had shook the first time he took her. They’d been here in the pantry and a jar of Mrs. Haggle’s fine strawberry preserves had crashed on down to the floor. Liam had rubbed the jam across her lips, kissin’ it away all gentle like. He’d even helped clean up after and walked her home like he was courtin’.
That wasn’t the first time she said yes. Liam was good lookin’ to her then, and soft. He’d always smelled all sweet and sour like the fields, but now he only smelled like whiskey.
“Your mama’s upstairs,” Elma said.
“That don’t bother me none, Elma. You look so pretty tonight; your skin’s all pale and pink.”
Elma didn’t tell him it was fear done drained her color: fear of him, but even worse, fear of goin’ home and findin’ Kebo’s ghost waitin’ for her with Mama.
“You’re gonna lose me my job, Liam,” she said. “Leave me be.”
Liam put his arms around her, soft-like, like it used to be, but Elma wasn’t fooled. Before she started sayin’ no, he’d got her round, and then his hands got rough, then rougher, ’til one night she had to crawl home, bleedin’ baby parts from between her legs, purple from the bruises Liam and Mrs. Haggle done put on her when Mrs. Haggle went in to count the jars of strawberry preserves she was plannin’ on givin’ to the church.
Every part of her body had hurt that night, but her heart had pained her worse. It wasn’t even that Liam had beat her—Uncle Jeb had beat her plenty when she was small and told her it was for her own good—it was that Liam done asked his mama to count those jars; done quoted Bible verses and called her thief with every blow, though he knew full well she hadn’t stoled nothin’.
That was when she realized she couldn’t trust herself neither cuz a piece of her was white like them.
“Your papa was a gypsy, Elma, all alabaster pale like snow.”
“I try hard to leave you be, Elma,” Liam was sayin’ now. “I’ve tried everythin’ I know to leave you be, but I can’t. Elma, I love you.”
Elma pushed him away. She didn’t know where she got the courage. “You don’t know ’bout love, Liam,” she said.
His hand whipped ’round like a snake uncoilin’. She heard the slap and stepped back at the impact, but she didn’t feel nothin’ ‘cept blood on her lip. There was some sorta power boilin’ up inside her, somethin’ dark and twisted like she been drugged without the dizzies or done stayed out too long in the sun. It festered all hot and bubblin’ in her insides, meltin’ away her fear. She didn’t know what it was, but she liked it.
Liam looked at her, his eyes all wide. “I’m sorry,” he said. “You get me angry, Elma. I don’t know why I do it. I don’t want to hurt you. I want it like it was before.”
“It aint never gonna be like it was before.”
“Elma, you don’t understand,” Liam said, but Elma reckoned this time she did.
She grabbed him by the shoulders, smilin’, watchin’ him smile back at her like he thought she was gonna kiss him. And then she pushed him again, with every last scrap of strength in her; pushed like the power done told her to, until he run into the wall. His body shook against her hands and she felt the jolt as the hook went through his neck. Blood was drippin’ all over the floor right where those strawberry preserves had fell, drippin’ from Liam and from her apron strings still a quiverin’ behind him.
Her heart was beatin’ somethin’ frantic, but she felt the power within her grow, hotter now, darker. She grabbed her basket and smoothed her skirt, checkin’ to see Liam’s blood hadn’t touched her, and then she pushed out through the pantry door and closed it softly behind her.
“Mrs. Haggle,” she called. Her voice never even cracked. “I’m goin’ home for the night.”
She went out the back door and let the darkness swallow her.
It wasn’t ’til she reached the crossin’ that she heard the commotion behind her. She smiled, imaginin’ Mrs. Haggle’s cruel white lips twisted up when she found what Elma done to her boy. She hoped folks’d think the old woman done it; hoped they hanged her for it. She was grinnin’, feelin’ almost free. And then she remembered Kebo.
She turned at the tracks where the asphalt stopped and the dirt began, walkin’ down through the brush on toward the delta. She felt the power inside her groan, but even so, she was too afraid to go home now, not when Kebo might be waitin’ for her. She knew she shouldn’t be feared of him; he was her brother; but an urgent warnin’ hissed through her insides like a siren.
She thought of Liam; of how she thought she loved him once ‘fore she knew she couldn’t love. For half a heartbeat, as she trudged through the brush, turnin’ the charm ’round in her fingers, she was come over with grief, with guilt at what she done, but it passed, replaced with the roilin’ power.
She didn’t know where she was goin’ ’til she turned at the plantation road.
She found Regina hunched over a rooster in the front outside her house. Headless, the bird still twitched, blood all black across Regina’s hands. The woman didn’t look up. “You kill him?” was all she asked.
“Go home then, child. I don’t want them lookin’ for ya here.”
Elma didn’t move.
“I said git, girl. I’ll come and find you out tomorrow if’n you’re still here. You’ve got another brother waitin’ in your bed for you. You best go take care of that’n too.”
Elma didn’t understand, but she went like Regina said.
The power inside her multiplied.
She found the front door open when she come up the walk. Jeb was snorin’ in the rocker and Jacob was asleep on the floor.
She undressed quietly and put on her night-dress, then sunk down to her knees at the bedside and prayed. She didn’t ask for no forgiveness though for she reckoned now that God kinda didn’t exist and likely didn’t care none for her even if He did.
When she opened her eyes, Kebo was there, sittin’ cross-legged on her bed, watchin’ her. He was cradlin’ somethin’ in his lap, somethin’ brown and fleshy that done wriggled like a worm. She didn’t look at it, but looked into the glowin’ whites of her brother’s dead eyes instead.
“I dug up your bones, aint that enough? Now you gots to haunt me too?”
She didn’t expect him to say nothin’ back and when he did a hammer hit her chest and the power fizzled around her, fadin’ into the black of the room.
“Me and Mama can’t cross the brick,” Kebo said. “But I reckon you can, Elma.”
Her breath fled when she seen that Kebo had her charm. He was holdin’ it out so she could see, coverin’ the top of the wrigglin’ brown thing.
Elma stuck out her hand, shakin’ from the inside out. “Give it over, Kebo.”
Kebo laughed and stroked the brown thing’s head. She seen eyes in it now and pulsin’ veins that seemed to beat in time with her own heart.
“I gots more of these if you wanna see,” Kebo said. Elma didn’t want to see; she didn’t want to know what the thing was; didn’t want to know what he was talkin’ about, but she knew she needed that charm, needed it to get the power back. Without it, all she wanted was to crawl up inside a hole and die for what she done to Liam.
“You know who killed our Mama?” Elma asked.
“Same’n killed you?”
Kebo smiled and stroked the brown thing’s head. “Same’n sorta,” he said. “Don’t you wanna know who?” He put the charm in her hand.
“I don’t wanna know nothin’, Kebo,” she said, tyin’ the charm ’round her neck, breathin’ in deep as the power filled her up again and made her tremble on down to her core. “Now leave me be.”
She didn’t know it was so easy gettin’ rid of ghosts. She wished she knew before, those times when Mama come to her all bloodied up and wouldn’t say nothin’; she wished she knew ‘fore she went and dug up Kebo.
She couldn’t remember sleepin’, but she woke to Uncle Jeb a hollerin’ from outside. She got dressed quick as she could and come outside to see what he wanted. Constable Mobley was there.
“You Elma?” the constable asked. He was tall and fat with three chins jigglin’ like custard.
“Yessuh,” Elma said.
“You work for the Haggles, girl?”
“You seen Liam Haggle about last night?”
“When about was that?”
“I don’ts tell time, suh,” Elma said. “Right ‘fore I left, I reckon.”
“Did you talk to him, girl?”
“He asked after his papa,” Elma lied, easy as breath. “I told him his mama was upstairs with him. Then I left. Why you askin’, Constable?”
“Did Liam look like he’d been drinkin’?”
“Yessuh,” Elma said and the constable tipped his hat.
“Liam Haggle’s dead, girl. I reckon he slipped and fell, ran his throat right through a hook on the pantry wall, else his mama pushed him. Whatever happened, Mrs. Haggle done hung herself this mornin’.”
Elma gasped for real and tried hard not to smile. She crossed herself for effect, like she seen some white folk do outside that pretty church with the colored windows ‘cross from Constable Mobley’s office.
“I reckon you best come with me,” the constable said, wipin’ away his sweat with a handkerchief. “Mr. Haggle’s all alone up there. You’d best be tendin’ to him.” He tipped his hat again, then started walkin’ on down the road.
The Haggle’s house was just the same as always, ‘cept for Liam’s blood on the pantry floor. Elma got the mop out of the closet and filled a bucket, then set to scrubbin’. When she was through, she took the bread out the bread box and buttered it up, then plucked a jar of strawberry preserves out the pantry. It opened with a pop so loud it almost shook the walls. Elma jumped, then laughed out loud as she spread the jam, thick, thick, thick.
It was the sweetest thing she ever tasted.
When she heard a poundin’ from upstairs she set out a plate and buttered up more bread and spread more jam. She poured out a glass of milk and set it on a tray. “I’m comin’, Mr. Haggle,” she called.
Hummin’, she skipped all light up the steps. She pushed open Mr. Haggle’s door with her foot.
“Mornin’, suh,” she said.
Mr. Haggle grunted. He couldn’t talk none since the stroke and couldn’t move on half of him, but he made out a series of grunts and moans and movements of hand that Elma’d come to know the meanin’ of.
She sat on a stool beside the bed and pushed the bread toward his mouth. His hand jerked and he grunted somethin’ awful and turned his face away like he did when she done tried to give him pills.
“Just breakfast, Mr. Haggle, suh,” she said, pushin’ the bread closer to him. “Now open up else I’ll fix your nose.”
Then Mr. Haggle screamed.
Elma couldn’t make no sense of it ’til she looked down to see blood splatterin’ off the bread onto the sheets. She blinked at first, thinkin’ she must be crazy, but when she opened her eyes there it was again, drip, drip, drip, oozin’ off the bread where she done spread the jam before.
She stood up quick, knockin’ back the stool, and ran downstairs to the kitchen. The jar of preserves was still open on the counter, settin’ in a pile of bread crumbs. When she looked inside she felt a burnin’ in her throat. The jar was full of blood.
Elma froze as she heard footsteps from the parlor and a sound she knew right well, the broom handle hittin’ the inside of Mrs. Haggle’s hand. Next she heard a grunt. She turned to see Liam comin’ through the pantry toward her, one hand to the back of his neck, the other to the front, holdin’ the flesh together so’s he could talk. “It’s nice and quiet here, Elma,” he rasped.
She ran up the stairs fast as she could and locked herself in one of the bedrooms. She leaned up against the door, heart all a poundin’, listenin’ as Liam climbed the stairs. “I love you, Elma,” he shrieked, laughin’, and she heard his mama up behind him too; thud, thud, thud as the broom handle hit the old woman’s hand again and again.
She ran to the window, but outside she seen Kebo, floatin’ there like a cloud, the brown fleshy thing in his arms. In the day now, she could tell what it was. A baby. Her baby.
She screamed ‘fore she realized where she was and the power started swirlin’ round inside her again. This was Mrs. Haggle’s room. She seen the broken rope swingin’ limply from a tipped up chandelier, frayed where someone’d cut it to bring the old woman’s body down; seen her own face in the mirror with the adjoinin’ door to Mr. Haggle’s room reflectin’ behind her.
The power flared.
Soft as she could she crossed the room, almost trippin’ over one of Mrs. Haggle’s shoes that got left there discarded like the old woman done kicked it free whilst she was swingin’.
The power screamed in Elma now, roilin’ and burnin’, and she smiled as she turned the door handle and seen the empty room inside all bathed in shadow.
Someone was sittin’ in a rockin’ chair there, next to Mr. Haggle’s bed. At first she thought it was Mama, but as the shadows shifted she seen it was Regina instead. Her dark face was kinda murky like, her hair swayin’ free like gauzy silk behind a ratted kerchief, almost see-through.
“We gots two more, Elma,” the Creole woman said. “Him and Jacob.”
Elma didn’t ask what she was talkin’ ’bout. By the power all festerin’ up inside her blood, she knew. Regina wanted her to kill old Mr. Haggle too.
She smiled first off, rememberin’ how he laughed when he done pissed on her. But that was all he done. He never beat her like Mrs. Haggle; never tried to put his thing in her like Liam Haggle.
“Why the ol’ man gots to die?” she asked and flinched like she been slapped. She felt the sting of it on her cheek, though no one touched her. Regina still sat in the rockin’ chair, her form still all hazy.
“Mr. Haggle’s your papa, girl,” Regina said, cold as that and smilin’.
Elma touched her cheek, tryin’ hard to ignore the tempest churnin’ ’round inside her. “No,” she said, “my papa was a gypsy.”
Regina laughed. “That what your mama said?”
Elma didn’t know how to answer. “Your papa was a gypsy all alabaster pale like snow.”
Outside the room came the thud of the broom handle, the raspy wet sound of Liam’s voice callin’ out to her, sayin’ how he loved her. Elma put her hands to her ears, but it didn’t do no good.
“Pick up the pillow, child,” Regina said. “All be over soon.”
Elma picked up the pillow like the power inside her demanded. The feathers and cloth was heavier than lead in her hands, but it felt so good, all soft and slick ‘twixt her fingers, glidin’ through the air, closer and closer toward the old man’s twisted, screamin’ mouth.
Quick as that she covered him up. He tried to fight her with his one good hand, but she was too strong for him, the pillow too heavy. His good leg kicked, his bad leg spasmed; then he done stopped movin’ altogether.
Regina took up Elma’s hand, her misty touch light like air, and led her out the door and down the hall. As they passed, Elma looked at Liam, his throat all bloody; looked at Mrs. Haggle, her face all black, her eyes all bulgin’. And too, she looked at Mr. Haggle, frownin’ down at her from behind his wife and son.
She waved her hand. “Leave me be,” she said, rememberin’ the trick, and all as one they left her.
The walk back home was silent. Regina didn’t talk and didn’t need to. Elma felt her through the power, tellin’ her what she had to do.
Jacob would be out back with the chickens, whittlin’. She could see him clear as day inside her head, barefoot and shirtless, all nut brown like Mama. She could hear him too, singin’ that old song of Mama’s Uncle Jeb used to play on his fiddle sometimes when she was small.
Somewhere deep inside her, in that place she locked up a long time past, she felt a secret sadness, felt a burnin’ need to know. It pushed against the power, drainin’ every drop of her resolve as she found herself askin’, “Why I gotta kill Jacob?”
Regina slapped her. Hard. For truth this time with a solid murky weight; but not with imaginary hands. It shook Elma’s brain and made her tremble on down to her toes.
“Jacob’s your brother,” was all Regina said, so Elma just kept walkin’. Yet even so, that burnin’ sadness pushed, and Elma couldn’t help herself.
“Why I gotta kill my kin?”
This time, Regina smiled.
The house was dark when they come in. Jeb was sprawled out in the rocker, half-drunk already. He smiled up at her all lazy-like, then froze when he seen her charm. Elma didn’t give him no time to say nothin’. She plucked the bottle off the floor beside him and smashed it into the wall. It shattered, leavin’ only the spout like a handle in her hand, the bottle broke so bad it formed a spade. She ran it right through Jeb’s heart, even though he wasn’t kin; even though the power hadn’t told her to.
His blood was cool on her hands and felt so good. She wanted to rub it all up on her skin, but Regina nudged her shoulder and pushed her and she stepped over Uncle Jeb and walked on out back.
Jacob was standin’ there, same as she seen him in her head, shirtless, shoeless, all brown like an almond, only he wasn’t singin’ now and he wasn’t whittlin’ neither. In one hand, he held tight to the bow belonged with Uncle Jeb’s old fiddle, the tip shaved off to a point, the horse-hairs cut and swayin’; in his other hand was his pocket knife, opened up point toward her.
“You come to kill me?” Jacob asked.
Regina was walkin’ ’round the shed, closin’ in behind the boy. Through the power, Elma knew the other woman was gonna flush her brother forward like a bird.
“I played hide and find with Kebo,” Jacob said. “Wanna know what I found?”
Jacob stepped back as she stepped forward. He was smaller than she was but she knew how strong he’d got from haulin’ plows and liftin’ cotton bales. She didn’t want to wrestle; she wanted it clean, like all the others, and she didn’t want Jacob to suffer.
“What you find?” she asked absently, watchin’ Regina move closer to him. He kept on steppin’ back, further and further away from Elma.
“I found our mama’s mama,” Jacob said.
Then he spun, hurtlin’ Jeb’s bow like a spear. It ran right through Regina’s belly, not even pausin’ as she fell to the ground like a sack of soundless flour.
For a moment, Elma stopped; the power fizzled, but it was just a moment. She took a step. Jacob held his knife out like a cross.
“Now our mama’s mama’s dead,” Jacob screamed, but Elma barely heard him, barely understood what it was he was sayin’. She just kept walkin’ ’til his back was to the barn and he couldn’t go nowhere else. Then she grabbed his wrist.
The power made her strong and even stronger now that Regina wasn’t movin’ no more. She was killin’ Jacob like the power told her to, sinkin’ his little pocket knife on up into his belly, blood spillin’ all red across her hands. So good, that blood, and better still that it was Jacob’s, for whether inside or out, it was the same blood ran through her veins too, and a piece of the power roiled in it.
She knew what she had to make happen next. She was kin just like the rest of them and she was gonna have to pay it with her own life just like them.
She was thinkin’ how to do it, Jacob’s blood runnin’ hot all ‘cross her arms, when suddenly, she felt a tearin’ at her throat—her brother had grabbed her charm. Somewhere in the back of her head, she heard Regina scream, then in a blindin’ rush the whole world washed away. She screamed too, understandin’ swarmin’ through her like a mob of bees. She pulled out the knife, but that only made it worse.
Jacob’s face, all drained of color, looked white like Mr. Haggle’s now, his skin all slick with sweat.
The ghosts were all ’round her, too: Liam, Mr. Haggle, Mrs. Haggle, Kebo, even Mama. They fluttered up near her shoulder like wisps of wind, Regina’s ghost strangely absent.
Elma pressed her hands to Jacob’s belly, tryin’ to stop the blood. “Leave me be,” she screamed between sobs, but the ghosts paid no more mind.
She looked down at Jacob, strugglin’ to keep focused on her brother’s white and wanin’ face. She brushed the hair back from his brow, kissed his cheeks ’til he was soaked with her tears. She remembered long years past when he was born, how he done slipped out of Mama all pink and squirmy like a fish. ‘Fore Mama got cleaned up and come to feed him, Elma’d rocked him in her arms, makin’ promises she didn’t know was lies. “Your big sister, Elma, gonna keep you safe,” she’d told him. “I aint never gonna let no one hurt you.”
Now, as she held her brother’s little body up tight against her chest just like she done back then, she lied to him one last time.
“‘S gonna be alright, Jacob,” she whispered. “It’s me now, Elma. I aint gonna let you die. Jacob… I’m sorry.”
The boy shuddered in her arms, clutchin’ tight to the charm as if it coulda saved him.
“You know who killed our mama?” he asked, blood gurglin’ from his lips.
Elma wailed, “Kebo?” It didn’t make no sense, nothin’ made no sense no more.
Her brother nodded. “Then Kebo killed hisself,” he said. “The charm, it did it. Regina did it. Then she buried him, Elma, buried him deep, deep down so no one’d find him. Kebo told me.”
“Why?” It was barely a whisper now. Elma was so choked up she couldn’t see.
“Papa aint no gypsy,” said Jacob, gaspin’, gurglin’, dyin’. “Mr. Haggle, he’s our Papa, Elma, and our mama’s papa too. That’s why Regina done it. She gots to right her wrong.”
Jacob didn’t move no more. Elma kept on cryin’, askin’ why. When she looked up he was with the rest of them, all faint-like.
Her heart thundered up inside her throat like it was gonna come in pieces out her mouth. “Jacob!” she screamed. “Don’t you leave me too!” But Jacob wasn’t listenin’. He was slippin’ into Mama’s see-through arms, smilin’ like he done won a prize-they was all smilin’, Mama, Jacob, Kebo, sizzlin’ in the air, their figures slowly fadin’.
Elma stretched out toward them, but her hands passed through her kin like they was wisps of wind. She clawed at the ground for somethin’ to hold on to. Too late. They was already gone.
Only the Haggles remained: pale, white Mr. Haggle starin’ back at her amused; Mrs. Haggle, broom in hand, cheeks all swelled like purple tar; and Liam Haggle, grinnin’ crooked, his hands pressed tight against his throat.
“I love you, Elma,” Liam whispered, laughin’, and Elma shivered from the inside out like she done killed ’em all again.
By the time Elma staggered into Constable Mobley’s office she was drippin’ sweat and blood and tears. Her skin was so pale and sallow she knew she could have passed for white in truth now, ‘cept for the dirty strings of hair that falled loose of her braid and ran down her back like coiled up snakes.
Regina was there, sittin’ all calm and quiet in a chair beside Constable Mobley’s desk. She wasn’t dead though and on her dress there wasn’t no blood. She wasn’t hazy no more neither. She was real and solid and smilin’. She looked victorious.
Tremblin’, Elma met Regina’s gaze. Now she knew the truth, she seen shards of Mama in her face, though all the softness Mama had was hard cruel lines in her.
She couldn’t look away, even as Constable Mobley stood up quick and grabbed her arm with hands as rough as Liam’s ever was. Some festerin’ rage was churnin’ ’round her insides, far, far worse than the power’d been, leakin’ out her tears, drippin’ down her cheeks where Jacob’s blood had dried up dark as Kebo’s skin.
“She’s the one who done it, Constable,” Regina said, her eyes all cool and crazy white, and as she smiled Elma realized she done fooled herself these long, long years.
If she could hate this much she sure as hell had loved.
Shannon Celebi resides in Ashland , Oregon with her husband of 13 years, their handsome 12 year old son, two ferociously neurotic cats, and a dilapidated laptop she lovingly calls Persephone. A professional editor for a series of online publications by day, Shannon spends every other waking hour working on her nearly completed Fantasy novel, Paragon. Her blog, The Write Way, (which she swears no one but her sister reads) can be found here.
When I was first learning to speak Turkish, I invented crazy mnemonic devices for hard-to-remember words. One in particular—the word for apple, elma—I gave a young woman’s name which I religiously repeated in a hasty Southern drawl. From then on, every time I plucked a Granny Smith from the backyard or stuffed a few juicy fujis into a plastic bag at the grocery store, I would whisper venomously to my prey, “You can never escape the hungry teeth of Men, Elma girl.”