LuJane stared after Callie’s apron strings swishing down the sidewalk.
Her tongue, gone bone dry, was keeping her from calling out Callie’s name. There were no words she could think of anyway that might stop the girl in her tracks. So, LuJane did what she could do—she hugged herself and squeezed her eyes shut.
Lawd a’ mercy Jesus! Dem hoes still here! Dem hoes STILL here!
Callie was heading straight for them. She might even try to talk to them. She would find out…
LuJane pressed both hands to her ears. “Black heffa’s,” she muttered. “Dat’s whut I git. Ain’t gonna git no bowl o’ ice cream now!”
She slid off the bench and hurried in the opposite direction, down the steps toward a knot of folk standing in the road still gossiping and pointing at the trees that had enveloped Araminta.
“She wuz talkin’ to them ‘hoes like they was friends,” somebody said.
“Able Handy wuz too!”
“An’ eatin’ wit ‘em!
LuJane ducked down the alley between the cobble shop and Cleotis’ barbershop with anger binding her chest like a corset. She hated hearing anybody talking behind her back, and these folk were telling lies!
I wuz jist lookin’! She wanted to holler out. Able wuz th’ one doin’ all th’ talkin’!
Her mouth snapped shut when she realized they’d said something about eating with them...
“Yeah,” somebody else said, “shoulda taught dat chile better. Dey callin’ theyselves teachin’ somebody!”
LuJane ducked further. Teachin’? Dey talkin’ ‘bout Minee!
She slipped from the alley when she heard a voice say, “…called Miz Hughes an’ Miz Lassie niggah’s t’ they face!”
“Dat ain’t nothin’…” LuJane spoke toward the closest body to her, “I hear she runned away,” she nodded vigorously, “Two o’ three times now…say dey found ‘er at dat cabin. Th’ one in dem woods!”
Gasps came from the few women left in the crowd but LuJane got a wide-eyed stare from a tall brown-skinned man who was missing the outside of his ear. He crossed his arms and said, “Who sayin’ dat?”
She ignored him. “My mama tole me womens like dat, dey hair start fallin’ out in patches. Y’all nev’ah seent Minee’s head?”
A skinny dark girl with badly bowed legs piped up, “Me! I seent it! She bald in th’ front an’ it all broke off in th’ back. My mammy tell her mammy she need t’ see CHAEAH ‘bout it. She say it pig mange!”
At the mention of CHAEAH’s name, the group fell silent. LuJane was surprised to see folk slipping away from the mob, like blowing leaves. None of them looked back. She stood confused and disappointed at the loss of her audience until an answer came. It came from behind. Something like hot breath fell on the nape of her neck. It came flowing across her face and made her scalp prickle. She was scratching at her head with both hands when she heard the first whisper. Her head tilted, to better hear, and something soft as feathers tickled her cheek. LuJane swung around. She could hear shrieking and crying. Softly at first, then roaring louder, only to fade away. It came from everywhere. Her shaking legs were able to carry her to the closest tree. She fell against it to keep from falling into the dirt in the road, but slid to the ground when the sound of someone wailing her name began to echo inside her head.
LuJane sobbed out loud. No one along Freedom Boulevard was making the noise she could hear, and no one was paying her any mind that she could see.
When the wailing stopped, it was sudden.
She wiped at her face and twisted her neck, looking for anyone who might be watching or laughing, but everyone seemed to be doing whatever they could to ignore her. She used her skirt to wipe muddied tears off her neck and when her breathing finally eased, was left to believe the heat of the day had sickened her. She took deep breaths with her eyes closed and promised herself she wouldn’t come out in such heat again, no matter how badly Mu’dear got on her nerves.
When her eyes flicked open, she was face to face with Shakeah.
LuJane could hear herself talking—she was talking to people…talking about…a girl. She was telling…lies…about…Minee. She…was telling them. And Shakeah had heard.
LuJane straightened herself and stood with her lips tight. Shakeah’s eyes stared through a black mask.
LuJane wiped at her mouth. I kin…I kin say I need t’ git on home…I kin say I need t’ go now…I need t’ go see my Poppy.
It was what she wanted to do. But she couldn’t say a word. Something heavy and cold, it felt like fingers, were pressing against her lips. They were fingers she couldn’t see. Her eyes stretched wider than they’d ever been.
“Why’re you lying on that girl like that?” Shakeah asked softly. “She’s never been to that cabin. You know it.”
LuJane’s legs were causing her whole body to quake.
Shakeah studied her. “You’re a spider,” she said. But your web is made of lies. And you don’t even see that you’re the one that’s caught in the web.” She frowned. “Do you know what truth is? I mean, do you know what’s real and what’s not real.”
LuJane didn’t know if she should nod or shake her head.
Shakeah went to stand behind the girl. “I don’t think you do know. And I know you don’t care because you keep right on doing it. You lying ass.”
She poked LuJane in the back. “You’ve been lying all day…monster spider.”
She walked back around to stand before LuJane. “There are things that eat spiders,” she said, “did you know? They look for them, they find them, and they eat them.” Shakeah’s jaws chomped the air and LuJane saw what looked like white daggers shining from the blue-black face.
When Shakeah opened her eyes wide, LuJane screamed, loosing streams of pee down her legs that ran into the dust of Freedom Boulevard. She bolted down the alley dribbling pee past the Seed Store, running fast as she could, but she could hear Shakeah running behind her, laughing.
It frightened LuJane out of her wits when she turned to find herself running alone—and heard the laughter coming from her own throat.
Blinded by eyes filled with muddy tears, she rounded the corner of the Church side garden and cowered behind a snowball bush with her arms covering her head. The black witch had heard every lie. She’d made her piss her clothes! How awful. How awful. How awful to be so hot and nasty wet. How could she get herself home? Her skirt and bloomers were stuck to her legs. Everybody she met would be able to see!
She had to get home. She had to tell Mu’dear. She had to tell Poppy what the voodoo heifer had done!
After calming herself enough to sit herself up, LuJane felt a small bit of relief. The Church yard (thank you Jesus) was still and quiet. She crawled from the behind the bush and slipped through the arbor to open the heavy back gate. There she saw a most beautiful sight, Mrs. Simmers’ clothesline, laden with skirts and aprons and sheets, hanging clean and hot in the sun.
LuJane fell weak in her relief, until she saw all the windows to the house thrown wide, ready to catch a breeze that might play amongst the trees (or a thief among the flowers). She dropped to her knees to crawl, listening for voices, and saying prayers of thanks for the silence.
She knew meeting the Reverend Simmer would be much worse than walking home with dried pee stinging her legs. She wouldn’t just be caught stealing…she’d be caught stealing from the Church! God knew she’d straight away die of shame if the white man jumped out, grabbed her, and dragged her down Freedom Boulevard screaming her name and ‘thief’ in the same breath. What would Poppy say!
LuJane scratched at her legs and waited, too afraid to move. The black witch had already called her a liar, now her head was filled with thoughts of somebody else calling out ‘thief’, but she couldn’t stay where she was. The smell of drying piss was strong now. The bloomers and her skirt had to come off. She had to wipe herself clean. She had to get home. And to get there, she would have to steal some of Mrs. Simmer’s clothes.
She crawled toward the clothesline whispering, “Lawd, don’t let ‘im see me…please don’t let ‘im see me.” Crouching beneath it, she reached out as far as her arm could go, stretched out her fingers, and pulled down one of Mrs. Simmer’s skirts. It came down over her head, so fresh and so warm. LuJane kissed it before rolling it against her chest and was in the midst of thanking the Lord for watching over her, when shock rooted her where she knelt.
Though her eyes could not believe it, they saw Able Handy through one of the open windows. He was in a back room in Reverend Simmer’s house. One of the bedrooms.
And he was holding the Reverend Simmer’s wife in his arms.