Bo sat up front with daddy. Julius rode in the back with me. The dirty rag tied around his arm looked black in the moonlight; all that blood mixing in with the dirt. It was too dark to see his eyes, but my memory was fresh. More than the shock of having been shot, his nonsensical words and vacant stare resulted from a different kind of trauma. To be sure, the bullet hole in his arm was a problem, but the scowling woman in the blue kerchief—the one standing on the edge of the crowd, curses leaking from her blood-red lips—she was our primary concern.
Daddy hit a bump. The car groaned, and so did Julius. I had my arms around him, but he was too heavy. Too big. He was practically lying in my lap, his damaged arm hanging lifeless at his side. He stank of vomit, and sweat; blood, and strong perfume. I imagined it rubbing off on me, the curse of the one who’d worn it, somehow seeping into my bones. I shivered, and tried to hold my oldest brother steady, but it was a battle I was going to lose.
“You got to hold ’em, boy!” my father shouted. He looked frantic—the specter of his fear causing anxiety to bloom inside my narrow chest.
“It’s just a little way ‘round this bend,” said Bo. He was ten years older than me. Five years younger than Julius, and the most serious of all my brothers. He had a rifle in his lap and was holding a piece of paper. Directions, or instructions; matters of life and death scribbled in daddy’s anxious hand. For as long as I could remember, momma had warned my brothers about cavorting with fast women. The smoking, liquoring, sitting in men’s laps who wasn’t their husbands kind of women. The kind that liked dark rooms filled with dark, and dangerous men. The type that Julius loved to keep company with; exactly the type of woman who may have ruined him in the end.
I felt disconnected from myself the entire time. I was surrounded by almost one hundred years of manhood, but all I could think about was my momma. She didn’t know where we’d been or where we were going. I assumed the same could be said for Julius’ wife.
I don’t know how daddy knew to do what he did, but he took one look at Julius, and then several things happened real fast. When word first came that his eldest son had been shot, he rushed off the porch and ordered me to come along with him. We picked up Bo at his house, ignoring my sister-in-law’s questions, and rushed to the spot where a boisterous crowd had gathered. Somebody had tried to make a tourniquet, but it didn’t seem to be doing much good. Bo set things right and got Julius into a sitting position. Right away, it was obvious that the gunshot wound wasn’t the real cause of my brother’s debilitation. Before that moment, I’d never heard that word, but it’s the one she used—the woman who shot my brother. At least I believed she was the one who did it, and based on Bo and daddy’s reactions, I was pretty sure that I was right.
She stood out because of her blue head wrap and those bright, red lips. She tossed that word into the crowd like a hot grenade; a retroactive promise to make Julius atone for every one of his wrongs. Debilitation. It was a distinctive word, memorable for its multi-syllabled attraction. She made a bold prediction—sermonic in front of the crowd—that my brother and all that he touched would come to rot. Everybody heard it, and we all could see the state Julius was in. Something changed in daddy’s face and I knew things were gonna be bad. Five minutes later, we were speeding down a back road I wasn’t familiar with. Dust swirled in the car’s wake. Heat strangled us through the open windows. Daddy was quiet. As usual Bo was serious. Julius was moaning, and saying things that made no sense. I was inexperienced and confused. No … I was terrified.
I didn’t know why I was there, plunging deeper into the bowels of those dark and unfamiliar woods. I kept thinking that daddy should have brought Jake or Olee. They were stronger. Older. Much closer to being a man than I was. But they hadn’t been at home. We didn’t know where they were, and daddy didn’t have time to send for them. So, there I was, sitting in the back of daddy’s bumpy DeSoto. One brother bleeding. The other one plotting; and me, growing up faster than should have been expected.
The scariest night of my life would turn out to be a long one that involved three stops in all. The first was at a house that sat back from the road inside a small clearing. Daddy stayed inside for several long minutes. When he came back to the car, he was carrying a bag, a bundle of clean rags, and the piece of paper Bo now held in his hand. The second was little more than a shack propped up on cinder blocks that had a narrow dirt path leading up to the front door. There was no way to get close, and daddy had to walk at least forty yards through dense scrub just to reach the mouth of the path. My heart pounded when I saw him slide along the outer wall, and disappear around the back. This time Bo got out of the car. He stood inside the open door, his rifle dangling between the ‘V’ formed by the window and door frame. Bo was a good shot. He liked to hunt and took care of his guns. Once we backtracked out of the woods, and turned onto the main road heading south, I was only sure of two things: we were on our way to Darlington, and the situation was much worse than I’d originally thought.
I worked with the rags while Bo told me what to do. There was blood everywhere, and traces of spittle and vomit. I’d been holding the bag according to my brother’s instructions but Julius was uncooperative.
“Is it something he drank?” I asked of no one in particular. The front seat was quiet. They exchanged a look, but didn’t say anything to me. The South Carolina heat was oppressive, and Julius smelled something awful. Worse than hogs being slaughtered. Worse than when momma killed a chicken for dinner.
“Watch ’em,” my father said to me. Julius’ head kept lolling back, and we couldn’t have that if he threw up again.
“What’s wrong with him daddy?” I asked. I felt like a child and was trying not to sound like it.
“Don’t you worry none, Sister Laura gonna fix ’em up.”
“Who is she?” I asked. Bo was studying the piece of paper in his hand. Daddy looked over at Bo, but didn’t say anything.
“Is she the one who gave you that paper?” I’d been asking my father several questions — most of which he pointedly ignored. Bo, who’d been relatively quiet up to that point, decided to answer for him.
“She the one we goin’ to now,” he said.
“Who is she?” I asked again. Once more, daddy looked at Bo.
“He here,” said Bo. “He in it with us, so he might as well know.” Daddy sighed and looked out the driver’s side window before answering.
“Don’t you breathe a word of what I’m ’bout to say, and don’t you say nuthin’ ’bout what you see tonight, ya hear?”
“Not even to momma. You hear me?” I paused. I was close to my momma. Really close. In fact, we were so close that it was impossible for me to lie to her.
“Not a word. Not even to momma.” This couldn’t be good. I was scared, and sorry I’d asked the question. I worried about what would happen if momma found out. I couldn’t imagine her questioning me, waiting for an answer I dare not deliver. Daddy looked at Bo again. Bo’s eyes told the story of how far we’d already come.
“Sister Laura is a root woman.”
“Like momma?” I asked. The sharp intake of breath was unmistakable, and my fear expanded by several degrees. My mother grew her own plants and herbs; collected leaves from surrounding woods to make balms and medicinal tonics. On occasion, some type of root was involved. More silent tension greeted me from the front seat. “Does momma do what Sister Laura does?” I asked again.
“Lord, I sho’ hope not,” daddy said. The way he looked, and the way he said it …. After that, I felt like I just needed to keep my mouth shut.
The sign for Darlington told us we had seven more miles to go. The road was dark, and we were surrounded by thick woods of pine on both sides. Total blackness like this always made me think of death … and haints. The idea of them—floating through the forest, closing in on us from both sides—made me a little nervous, but I didn’t have time to completely give in to such worrisome speculation, because somehow, I knew we were on the threshold of something much more frightening.
Sister Laura’s place was nothing like what I’d expected. It was painted the color of egg yolk, with golden light illuminating the front windows. It seemed to radiate its own warmth, like a fire was burning underneath it … like it was alive. This wasn’t the tar paper tin roof shack we’d just left. This was a real house, with a brick chimney, roof shingles and grass in the front yard. The house sat on a quiet, shaded street with other houses nearby. This fascinated me—a black person living in a structure that looked and felt so fine. She wasn’t exactly in town—where the white folks lived and transacted their business—but she was dangerously close. I’d never seen anything like that back home in Cheraw. It was the first of many puzzles that would grab my attention as the night wore on. The yard was small, with a low white fence. The stoop was also made of brick, and the front windows were shuttered. We were surprised to see her standing in the door … waiting. Daddy just sat there for a moment, staring in her direction, like he was weighing his options. Bo finally touched his arm, and daddy slowly climbed out of whatever stupor he’d fallen into. He got out of the car and opened the back door. Bo laid his rifle across the front seat and joined him. Together, they pulled Julius to his feet, but they basically had to carry him up to the house. This left me alone to fully contemplate the gravity of what I was seeing and feeling; to settle into these new surroundings, and especially to watch Sister Laura. She was slender, and tall, with dark skin and green eyes. She wore a white, cotton shift and her hair was tied up beneath a red checkered scarf. It looked like simple cloth, but the material was double-wrapped with an elaborate knot that trailed down the left side of her face. Julius was the tallest member of our family, but even if he’d been standing straight up through his six plus feet, I believe Sister Laura would could have looked him straight in his eyes.
“Jacob from Cheraw,” said the dark, chiseled woman once we were all inside. Been expecting you.” Daddy didn’t say anything. He seemed to have lost his voice. “Bring him ova’ here so we can make him comfortable.” She had a deep voice for a woman, accented with something I couldn’t quite place. The house was simply furnished; everything neat and well worn, but in good working order. It was divided into three sections. We were in the front room. To the left, a short hall pointed to a kitchen that ran across the back. On the right was a door which I assumed led to a bedroom. Daddy and Bo draped Julius across a chair by the fireplace. He was mumbling softly, and Sister Laura studied him for a while.
“Tell me about it. What happened?” she asked. Daddy looked uncomfortable, but Bo’s face gave away nothing. Sister Laura looked like she could wait a lifetime for an answer. “What about you, baby? Whatchu’ think happened? I was startled to find her looking all the way through me.
“He just a boy,” said my father. “He don’t know nuthin’.” Sister Laura smiled.
“This boy knows everything.” she said with a conviction that took my breath away. My heart was racing. My throat was constricted and dry. “Baby, fetch me that jar sittin’ on the table there.” Daddy’s entire demeanor went stiff, but when Bo gently touched his arm, he relaxed a little. “It’s ok, child. Don’t be afraid. Go on now,” said Sister Laura. “That small black one on the edge there.” Everyone was watching; even—to my great surprise—a recumbent, and glassy eyed Julius.
It was late. I should have been at home in my bed, where the world was predictable and everything was in its place; but instead, I was out here in this strange house in a strange town with a beautiful woman who smelled like camphor and mint. Daddy was worried. Bo looked like he was ready for anything. Julius was crumpled on death’s doorstep, but the beautiful woman continued her ministrations in a way that made me know he eventually would be fine. She unbuttoned Julius’ shirt, humming something that was foreign and slightly familiar at the same time.
“Start from the beginning,” she said. She was looking at daddy. This time, there was only a slight hesitation, before he spoke.
“A woman put a root on ’em.”
“Julius?” asked Sister Laura. Daddy’s look was a combination of frustration and surprise. “What woman?” Sister Laura asked in a way I think was designed to keep daddy going.
“I don’t know. Some gal he took up with. She from Charleston,” my father said. I wondered how he knew this. If Bo was curious, he didn’t show it.
“How you know it was a root?”
“I know a root when I see one, Laura … and so do you.” Daddy’s voice jumped. Sister Laura was quiet for a while. She had her hand on Julius’ chest, right over his heart. When she spoke again, it wasn’t to my father.
“Bo honey, there’s a pot of water on the table in back. Put it on the cook stove for me, and watch over it till the water is bubblin’ strong.” I’d been watching Sister Laura closely the whole time, but now I was gaping at her, steeped in wonder and without fully understanding why, just a tinge of alarm. She took her hand away from Julius’ chest, placed it in her lap and then looked at me with a sanguine smile on her face. Flames danced in the hearth, and I felt as if I might melt. We’d been in this woman’s house for ten, maybe fifteen minutes. There’d been no introductions, and very little in the way of an explanation; and yet she knew everybody’s name. Daddy. Bo. Julius. As she pierced my composure with those light green eyes, I had no doubt that she knew mine as well.
Inside the jar I fetched for Sister Laura was a thick, copper-colored ointment. Before she touched it, she checked all of Julius’ pockets. She pulled off his shoes and socks, and gave those a thorough inspection as well. When she was done, she pulled some ointment from the jar with her finger and started rubbing it on my brother’s neck and chest. I wanted to ask why she was doing this, but thought better of it. Her arms were thin, but there was strength in the way she cradled Julius’ head and massaged his shoulders. The room was dimly lit, just two oil lamps and weak flames from the fireplace. Sister Laura got up and added two logs, then she went around the room lighting candles, four in all, which gave the space a warm, and lustrous glow.
“Do you know if he ate or drank anything?”
“You mean that she gave ’em?” daddy asked.
“That’s exactly what I mean.”
“I couldn’t say,” said my father.
“Well, for now we’ll assume she did.”
“What I don’t understand, is why she shot ’em,” my father said, almost to himself.
“How you know it was her?” asked Sister Laura. That got everybody’s attention, even Bo, who had returned from the kitchen.
“You think it was somebody else?” Bo asked.
“I don’t know,” Sister Laura replied. “Maybe. Maybe not. We can’t know for sure, so it’s best not to jump to any conclusions.”
“But …” Bo started before Sister Laura cut him off.
“Roots is one thing, honey” she said to Bo, while looking at daddy. “Gunshots is sumthin’ else.” Everyone considered this. Even Julius stirred at this proclamation; lolling his head and releasing a solemn grunt. How’s that water? It ready for me?” Sister Laura asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” said Bo.
“See them clean rags on the table? Drop a few in the pot, then bring ‘em here. I need to clean up this arm before I get started.” The mention of my brother’s arm reminded me that Julius was suffering from multiple ailments, but if there had been any doubt, it was clear to me now that the damage from a bullet wasn’t the reason we were there.
While Bo fetched the rags, my father huddled with Sister Laura. They were obviously familiar, but to what extent, I couldn’t be sure. What I did know was that the root woman was on our side. Daddy was scared, and needed her help. A conjure woman from Charleston had put a root on my brother. She’d possibly shot him in the arm. Not in question was the curse she screamed into the crowd after we arrived—that everything he touched would come to rot—more confirmation of the root, or hex that daddy spoke of. Julius’ battered and crumpled form had been the first sign. The sickness and foolish talking followed soon after that. It was unsettling to see my father so upset. I got the impression he’d done this before. Been here before. As soon as he saw Julius, he knew exactly what to do, making a series of decisions that landed us right here in Sister Laura’s front room. We had come to ask her for a mojo to ward off the other woman’s spell. It’s the word daddy used, along with a bunch of other phrases and expressions that had my young head spinning.
Years from now, I would remember this night well. Crackling embers. Orange flames reflecting off dark skin. On an end table near the fireplace was a thick, brown bible. With its gold cross and embossed letters, it looked just like the one daddy always used. That night would present me with my first lesson in managing my fear of the mysterious and unknown; a process made infinitely more bearable by of the heady smell of a beautiful woman, and the benevolence I found in her emerald eyes.
Sister Laura went to a cabinet where she pulled out a wooden box with brass hinges and a clasp-like lock. She set it on the floor near the chair where Julius was sleeping … or resting; at least that’s how he now appeared to me. He was no longer moaning and talking incoherently, and we took that to be a good sign. You could even say he looked peaceful during this early stage in Sister Laura’s process. The change in him was remarkable, given how agitated and sick he’d been on the ride down from Cheraw. Was it the copper-colored ointment that came from the black glass jar? I could think of no other reasonable explanation. My young mind made the mental leaps, but that only left me with more questions.
After cleaning and dressing Julius’s wound, Sister Laura handed Bo a bowl filled with powder, broken twigs, and some leaves she’d taken from the various canisters she kept inside her special box.
“Drop this in the rest of that water, then wash your hands. Wash ’em good, you hear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. Bo left to do as he was told. Daddy hovered near Julius, more concern creeping into his features.
“Make this right, Laura.” Daddy’s statement wasn’t a request, but neither was it a command. His was an expression borne of familiarity, a lifetime of common ground that had him and Sister Laura walking hand in hand on the same page.
“Conjurin’ ain’t nothin’ to play with, Jacob.”
“I know it, and that’s why I’m here.”
“This Charleston woman … whatever she done, it was powerful. Your boy is gonna be fine, Jacob, but he won’t never be the same.” Daddy’s face was grim, but the foundation for hope still lived there.
All the canisters inside Sister Laura’s wooden box were made of glass. Each one had a different color, and the substance of what it contained, whether liquid, solid, or something in between, was another color that was different than that. From a clear, squat container, she took out a handful of ashes and rubbed them on Julius’ head, hands, and feet; then she unscrewed the top from a light blue, bottle-like container and poured a pale yellow oil into her hand. She put this on Julius’ neck and chest, then touched her fingers to her mouth and found his. In one purple jar, she took out what I can only describe as some variety of brown nut—although I’d never seen one like it before. She put it in her mouth and sucked on it for a while. I tried not to stare, even though I knew she knew that I was.
Bo returned with a steaming cup. The root woman smiled, and nodded in approval.
“Won’t need quite as much, but this is good.” she said. She blew on the liquid. Tested it with her finger. Put some on Julius’ lips and hummed to him softly when he stirred. Sister Laura opened her mouth, and I watched, fascinated, as she inspected the soggy fragments of what remained of the nut-like object before placing them on Julius’ tongue. Then she transferred more liquid from her finger to his lips, before coaxing him to sip slowly. Gently. Rubbing his neck, and wiping his brow. She made him sip from the cup until a third of the brown, cloudy liquid was gone. Julius had Sister Laura’s full attention. She hummed to him. Sang. Recited what sounded like a short prayer. She was casting a spell that was crushing me with its weight, until she stopped abruptly, and turned to my father.
“You got it?” Sister Laura asked.
“Yeah,” my father said.
“Well, let’s have it then.” Daddy went inside his pocket and came out with a balled-up fist. Sister Laura reached out and cupped it in her hand. Daddy was shaking a little bit, so she used her other hand to keep everything steady. With both hands back in his pockets, daddy went quiet and stared at the floor. That’s when I saw what Sister Laura was holding. It was a small clump of black hair. She stuffed it inside a little cloth bag, along with some dirt, feathers, crushed bones, and a badger tooth. She made a point of referencing each item along the way—more souvenirs from her colored, glass canisters—which I greatly appreciated, because they were among the many questions I was dying to ask.
“You sure he gon’ be alright?” daddy asked.
“He got to keep this here bag tied ’round his neck,” said the root woman.
“How long?” my father asked.
“He got to wear it every day, all the time. Six weeks … no more, no less, or all of this is just a waste of time.”
This time, I did a better job of helping with Julius. He was moving with minimal assistance and no longer unruly. He even smelled better. Sister Laura had cleaned him up—from the inside out. As we walked out the door and down the steps to daddy’s car, I kept thinking about my mother; how she boiled teas and made medicines. Stopped us from bleeding and gave us ointments to lessen our pain. Was there really any difference between her and Sister Laura? I kept coming back to the same question; curious as to why the suggestion had upset my father so. I was wondering about a lot of things, growing up fast, and feeling overwhelmed by the hard logic of too many unwelcome revelations. Bo slid into the front seat. Once again, I was tucked in the back with Julius. We were waiting for daddy. I wondered, without the slightest bit of irony, whether he needed Sister Laura’s permission before we could finally leave.
“You done good, Laura,” my father said. The root woman smiled, and adjusted the scarf on her head.
“Jacob. My sweet, sweet Jacob …” This seemed to catch daddy off guard. He looked embarrassed, and stumbled over his words. I listened to the breathing patterns of my two brothers, floored by the enormous price my father had just paid to save the life of his eldest son.
“I … I owe you, Laura,” my father said.
“Yes, love” said the root woman in a voice that by then, was a surprise to no one. “You certainly do.”