Live Encounters Poetry & Writing, Volume One, December 2020.
A Short Story
Crickets and frogs harmonise in the dying light, cicadas rattling a rhythm to life. Tupelo trees and bald cypress roots cast long shadows over the murky water. I’m reminded of nights spent watching dancers circle a bonfire, their whoops and cheers rising with the pulsing drumbeat and my Ma’s smiling face as she takes my hand in hers and tells me to dance, Hadiya! Dance!
Those nights are as far as the sun now— long gone. The fingers of my right hand run across the palm of my left. I remember gawking at just how small my hand looked against hers. A whisper of willow leaves makes me look up from my lap. The wetlands are pitch black, dotted with fireflies floating like embers. In the sky, a curve has been cut into the side of the moon.
The wicker chair squeaks when I get up and head inside my shack. Ma’s wine-red ceremonial dress is draped on the back of a chair; she’d never let me wear it, but tonight I will, once all the dirty work is out the way. All her clay bowls of dried herbs and ground-up animal bones lay out on the floor next to unlit candles. My stomach twists a little and there’s a bitter taste in my mouth— it feels wrong to come back to this business after all it took from me. After all Ma took from me.
I look over at the dinner table where the glass jar sits, filled with her blood. The once-white square of cloth beside it seems to be dry enough now.
It keeps me company, tucked in my dress, as I head down to the solid land at the banks of the swamp. I stop at a wooden stake rising from the tallgrass, careful not to stand on top of the small grave it marks. I stare right at the bat skull still sitting on top of it, putting aside all those months spent holding my breath and looking away, with Ma telling me it ain’t good to dwell on it, especially for as long as you have, honey. Of course she’d think that, glad as ever to have a real fresh start. It’s you and me now and that’s all we need.
Over in the distance I spot a slender tree with two low branches sticking from its sides. I laugh a little— it looks like a man! Nearly as tall as Joseph from back home had been. “Why, you’re looking handsome as ever, Joseph.” I point at the grave at my feet and raise my eyebrows, “Us three could’ve had a good life, you know.” Joseph, of course, doesn’t answer. I chew on my bottom lip and grab the pair of scissors from where I’d set them down in the trampled grass earlier today.
“’Course you had your missus to worry about…” The woman had been a wretch— I wonder if Joseph misses me or if he’s forgotten our nights together, sneaking around his big fancy house, down to the empty boatyard. No doubt that little wife of his would ever get up to anything near as exciting as those moments Joseph and I shared. Why, she was just about as fancy as Joseph’s folks were; with her own big house and shoes cleaner than the plates my Ma and I ate off of. I snort, bet he’s having fun with a girl like that. Lively as a slug, that one is.
To the left of the older grave is a larger, open one. I move over to it, avoiding the mound of dirt between them, and set the blood-soaked cloth down beside me. Both my free hand and my knees sink into the loose dirt around the pit— it’s soft; Ma looks comfy down there, and if she still had breath in her chest, I don’t think she’d have used it to complain. I reach down and pick a tightly coiled lock of black hair, snipping it off. The end of it gets caught in the still-sticky gash on her throat. “Come on now, Ma…” I pull the lock towards me and watch it stretch before springing up. “Thank you.” I set it down on the cloth, wrapping it tightly and tucking it into my dress.
I stand up and pluck the shovel from the ground, taking a moment to look at Ma’s blank face one last time. All the warmth has left her familiar brown eyes. There are crow’s feet etched into the corners of them, from years of laughter. I’ll never see her smile again. My stomach lurches suddenly, I grit my teeth. Now’s not the time to get all soft. If only she hadn’t dragged me out to the middle of nowhere— away from my friends, away from Joseph. I should’ve paid more attention; I could’ve stopped her from taking the only thing I had left of my old life from me. My fingers tighten on the shovel handle. I spit in her grave.
All that time Ma was feeding me chicken feet, saying it was to protect the baby. I should have known she would curse them. She’d have never let me keep anything linking me to Joseph. I still remember the sharp, stabbing waves of pain in my belly, the soreness of my lower back at night, and the splintering headaches in the mornings. Ma was supposed to help me, to make me and the baby better. I knew, when I cried on the floor, blood running down my legs and pooling beneath me, my happiness robbed from me, that she only helped herself. And although she was with me, the shack felt like it stood empty and silent for many weeks.
As I bury her, I let myself smile and look back up at the moon, more than halfway covered in darkness— I won’t be alone for much longer now.
Once I’m back home I clean myself up and change into Ma’s ceremonial dress. It fits me perfectly and I can’t help but think how angry Ma would be if she saw me now. I sit on the floor, light the candles and gently open my journal to the pages where I’d pressed a loop of fine hair months ago. I pinch the lock between my fingers. This time, I won’t have to share her with nobody. It’ll just be the two of us— without Ma getting in the way.
Some of Ma’s blood sits in a clay bowl to my right, the two locks of hair and stained cloth lay in a bowl to my left. I strike a match, drop it into the bowl on the left and watch it catch fire. The hair shrivels as the flames eat away at the dark fabric. Eventually there’s nothing but ash remaining. Smoke rises from the bowl, straight as a thread pulled taut, before curling like a drying leaf. When the last wisp of smoke lifts into the air, I inhale and hold it in my lungs. It smells vile and my tongue tastes like the charred bottom of a frying pan, but it’s got to be done. I scrape the ashes into the bowl of thickening blood, mixing until it turns into a paste, then finally exhale.
Outside, I hear the wind-chimes tinkle. A breeze rushes through the window, killing the flickering flames dancing on top of the candles all at once. I’m left sitting in a square of red moonlight, stretched across the floor. I’ve finished the ritual in time for the blood moon to have emerged. Ma always told me how magic was strongest on those nights.
There’s not a sound— no trace of the band of bugs and frogs, not a creak from the shack or a rustle of leaves. The world is waiting with me. Then— a shrill cry. It’s muted but unmistakable. Oh Lord, it’s happening. I rush back outside, running down the steps, hearing the wailing get clearer the closer I get. There’s a patch of mud hidden in the grass and it makes me stumble. But that doesn’t keep me from moving forward, tripping over the hem of Ma’s dress.
My heart thunders; I can feel it in my throat, in my bones. My stomach’s cramping with anticipation but I can’t ignore the part of me that tells me this feels wrong. What if something went wrong and I’ve lost Ma over nothing? What if, after all this, I still wind up alone and worse off than where I started? Nothing good can come of all this but God I just want my little girl back.
I spot the stake with the bat skull; the shrill cries, despite coming from deep underground, are deafening. Looking frantically to my left, I see the shovel poking up from Ma’s grave and snatch it, the movement yanking some dirt with it. Something rises in my throat, I choke back a sob. It’ll be worth it.
With a deep, shaky breath, I raise the shovel and stab solidly into the ground. My foot comes up to sink it deeper into the more solid earth. When I push against the end of the shovel handle, it scoops up the first mound of soil. It feels like I’m cracking my own ribs open. This land was meant to keep my baby safe, undisturbed. I’m going to hell for breaking that peace but I’ll be damned if I’m leaving her down there all alone.
The crying seems to echo through the swamplands. It’s not the mocking call of a bobcat at night, this time; it’s my girl and she’s right there. I dig and dig and my shoulders hurt, my forearms burning. With a glance up at the wetlands I note that the whole landscape is washed in a rusty brown colour. It seems to grow dimmer— I’ve not much time left, the blood moon is slipping away.
Soon enough I’m crouching in a waist-deep hole, clawing at the smooth dirt. I can feel it settle under my fingernails, it’s uncomfortable but I couldn’t care less. The moonlight is fading fast, red shifting into pale white and I still haven’t reached her coffin but Lord I should have by now. I’m shivering, the night air scorches the inside of my throat as I pant. She’s so close. I call out to her when she whimpers. My fingers finally scrape against wood, they come away with splinters lodged under the nails.
Desperately, I throw handfuls of dirt out of the grave, pushing clumps to the side when I uncover more of the small coffin. A sob drops from my lips. “Oh, baby, hush now… I’m here- give me just a second, baby…”
Just as I pull the coffin open, she goes silent. The blood moon has passed. She’s washed in white light and it’s too harsh, too cold for my little girl. She’s supposed to meet the soft, warm glow of a red moon, not—
I reach for her, lift her to my chest with trembling hands and press my nose to her forehead. Her skin is smooth. “It’s alright now, I’m here… Ma’s got you…” My heart clenches, her brown eyes stare, unblinking, at the ivory moon above. No— it’s okay. It doesn’t matter. She’s here and she’s not Joseph’s or Ma’s or anyone’s— she’s mine and she’s so beautiful. It’ll be just us two; we’ll look out for each other and we’ll be perfect together.
I stroke her cool cheek, the back of her hand, letting out a wet laugh. It’s so small against mine, her whole fist fits in my palm… I plant a kiss to the top of her head and rock us back and forth for a long moment. “Oh my girl… my darling… my Splendid…”
© Vivian Bolognani