It was way back in fifty eight when I first met Nancy ‘Ol’ Nan’ Mangrove.
My father had been transferred from Fort Knox, Kentucky to the military base at Houma, Louisiana.
It was only natural that the locals would give the new kid on the block a hard time, a sort of initiation test to see if I was worthy of joining their gang.
But after my dad’s really stupid and unthinkable act, he had made it quite impossible.
He had grabbed Zommie out of the back window of the fifty two Chevy and tossed him at me.
“Don’t you think you’re a little old to still be playing with this? You’ll be turning nine next fall.”
“Thanks a lot, Dad!” I exclaimed sarcastically as I turned to face the jeers and snide remarks from the small crowd that sat upon the curb. They had gathered, not too unlike flies upon a steaming turd, to watch the new neighbors moving into the old two-story wooden building.
“Hoo hooo!” shouted one placing a thumb in his mouth. “Big guy still sleeps with his teddy!”
“Bet he still pees his bed at night!” laughed another slapping his knee.
“Thanks a lot, Dad!” I repeated walking past him into the building. “Just like you promised, Houma is gonna be a great place for me to grow up. Especially now. I sure hope your next transfer is real soon.”
“That was a pretty nasty thing to do, Rick!” chided my mother.
I had listened to the rest of the conversation from my second story bedroom window.
“The boy needs to toughen up, Allie. Hell, at his age I was out huntin’ raccoon; not reading all that science mixin’ junk they printin’ these days.”
“Science fiction! It’s good for a developing mind. Stimulates the imagination.”
“Boy needs to get his feet on the ground and keep ‘em there.”
“I’m pretty sure you must have imagined yourself a real Davy Crockett when you were out hunting.”
“I guess so,” said dad smiling proudly.
“Well, that was your way of imagining things. Not much difference from what you begrudge Theodore.”
“At least Davy Crockett was a real person, not some hokey space ranger from a Saturday matinee. And look at all those pictures he hangs on his wall. Even you say that they give you the heebie jeebies.”
“That makes no difference. The fact remains that a fertile imagination is a good thing. If you try to suppress the mind instead of stimulating it you’ll end up with a zombie for a son. I guess that should make you real happy.”
“Why on earth would you say a thing like that?”
“Because, then at least he’ll make good military material. Obeying everything without question. Just the sort the army likes using for cannon fodder.”
“If that’s the way you feel about the army, how come you married me in the first place?”
Mom always knew the right things to say when my dad was irritated.
“Because you looked so dashing and handsome in your uniform,” she had clutched onto his arm tightly. “And still do.”
They had kissed and laughed.
“Maybe I’d better see if I can cheer Buck Rogers up?” said my dad. A minute later he was in my room handing me some loose change. “I think I saw a soda shop down on the corner. Go get yourself a malt.”
I was busy scanning the magazine rack at the front of the shop when Jake Dreskil walked in. He must have been at least two years my senior. I tensed as he approached.
“You’re the new guy? The one who’s dad bought the old Monroe mansion?”
“Mansion? More like a shipwreck!”
“Ha! We just all call it that ‘cause it’s so old. My ma says its got style. Built by some French fella who later moved to New Orleans.”
“I suppose you gonna tell me it’s haunted or something?”
“Nah, but it is kinda creepy looking. I think it’s neat.”
“We only renting it. My dad never stays too long in one place. His job is forever moving him around. You like scary things?”
“Yep, I see you do to.” He pointed at the magazine in my hand.
“I’m Theodore Stone.”
“Jake! Jake Dreskil. My dad owns the bait shop on Fifth and Main.”
“Mine’s a lieutenant in the army.”
“Jim Preston’s dad is also stationed at the base. He’s a Staff Sergeant or something.”
“Lucky guy, at least he doesn’t have to salute his dad when he comes home.”
“Ha! You got comic books?”
“Wanna swap? We usually do that on Saturdays at the Bijou before the show, but I was hoping to get a look at your place from inside.”
“We’re still moving in, but make a turn tomorrow afternoon. I’ll make sure I got the comic books unpacked by then.”
“Ted! You’ve got a visitor!” shouted my mom from the front porch.
“Come on up, Jake!” I shouted.
We spent the rest of the afternoon swapping comics and chatting about horror movies. We had had a long heated debate as to whether Lugosi or Karloff was the better actor.
After returning from the bathroom, I found Jake and Zommie missing.
Dad, of course, was happy. “You should be pleased knowing that your friends also still want to play with dolls. Just let it be.”
I was devastated. Zommie was no ordinary teddy bear. He possessed an essence that is common to many toys - nostalgic value.
Mom had bought him for me when I was a tender five. Zommie and I had put four great and important years behind us. We had comforted each other thru many dark nights and clung to each other when that darkness was shattered by the flashing and crash of terrible thunder storms. We had confided in each other our darkest secrets. Everything that I knew, Zommie knew, and visa versa. Even when mom was unable to understand me, Zommie did. He was more than some comfort blanket, he was my best friend. Hell, he was my only friend. When your father is constantly being shifted around the country, it becomes difficult to make and keep friends. Apart from my folks, Zommie had been the only constant in my life.
So, even though he was worn from the caresses and hugs of love, he had always appeared mighty grand to me.
Sure, he no longer shared my bed. To please my dad I had moved him from my pillow and given him a special place seated on the top of my toy chest. Somehow I just could not bring myself to place him inside with the rest of the collection, and I still had the odd habit of speaking to him.
Mom told me that she knew a boy who had gotten so into the habit of stepping over the cracks in the sidewalk, that he continued to do it when he was a man of forty.
“Step on a crack, break your mother’s back,” he told her - and meant it.
I guess that sometimes a habit is hard to break. Still, it should have been my decision to quit; not made by some thief who pretended to be my friend.
I saw Jake a couple of times on the street, but he was quick to avoid me. School was starting in a couple of weeks. Needless to say, I was not looking forward to it, but it would give me the opportunity to confront him.
It was, instead, Jake and his big pal Jim Preston that confronted me. I recognized him as one of the loud-mouthed gang that had gathered on the curb the day we had arrived in Houma.
Jim was literally big. He was not too bright. He had failed seventh grade and been forced to pass all his old mates on their way to high school in the morning. It must have been a constant irritation and embarrassment to him. To this end he had decided to relieve his frustration on the new kid in town.
Much to Jake’s pleasure, on the very first day of school, Jim bloodied my nose.
The second day showed no improvement when Jim swiped my milk money.
The third day was the worst. The bell had rung announcing the end of the school day and I was heading down the long corridor to the lockers to collect my stuff. I noticed a crowd around the locker that had been allocated to me.
The gathering was the result of what Jake and Jim had placed on the steel door.
It was Zommie. They had hung him by his neck using a length of wire.
“Look everyone!” shouted Jim. “Here comes the bed-wetter now!”
“Have you been able to sleep properly since I took your teddy bear!” pouted Jake sarcastically. “Does your momma still have to leave the light on till you fall asleep?”
The crowd giggled and guffawed.
“Oh, I get it!” I said smiling. “You play this silly joke on all the new kids.” I removed Zommie from the wire. “Very clever idea for someone with your IQ.”
“What?” said Jim grimacing a confused yet angry frown.
“Here,” I said tossing the bear at him. He caught it with both hands. “You’d better put him back wherever you keep him. Besides, he suits you far better than me.”
The crowd roared with laughter as Jim stood, red-faced, holding Zommie. He threw the bear at my feet.
“That’s a lie!” shouted Jake. “You know I took it from your bedroom!”
“Yeah, sure! And when would that have been?”
“When…when…” stuttered Jake.
Even though he had done it with an ulterior motive, I knew that Jake would not want anybody else to know that he had befriended me for a short time. That would cause his status as big Jim’s right hand man to be seriously damaged.
Jake looked at Jim questioningly who suddenly turned and stormed off.
I took my time opening my locker and collecting my stuff. When the corridor was finally deserted I quickly slipped Zommie inside my satchel and headed out towards the back exit.
If I guessed right, Jim and Jake would be waiting for me somewhere along the road to my house. And by last sight, they would not be in the best of moods. I would have to find some alternative route back home.
During recess, I remembered seeing some of the older boys slipping thru a hole in the back fence on the far side of the football field. I surmised that they had some sort of secret spot, just beyond, where they could puff a fag on the sly.
I climbed thru the hole and followed a narrow worn pathway thru some thick shrub that opened into a small circular clearing. I smiled to myself, commending my great detective brain, as I gazed down at the vast assortment of butts that lay scattered about on the damp earth.
The path continued once more on the other side of the clearing and I proceeded to follow it.
I hadn’t gone all that far when I noticed that the ground on either side of the pathway began to fall away into scattered pools of water. Another hundred yards and I came across an old sign that read: ‘Danger! Alligators! Proceed at own risk!’
I looked ahead and noticed that the pathway snaked precariously into the swampy wetlands.
I decided that it would be best to turn back.
As I reached the clearing Jake Dreskil stepped out from behind some brush.
“Thought you could escape us that way?” he smiled.
I decided to try my luck with the alligators, but found my way blocked by Jim Preston.
“Thought you were very clever making a fool of me!” he growled grabbing my satchel. Moments later he was shoving Zommie in my face. “Now why you suppose you put this in your bag if it don’t belong to you?”
“Give him back!” I said reaching forward.
A sharp shove from Jim saw me sprawled in the mud.
“I’ll give him back to you alright!” he shouted with an almost insane gleam in his eye. “Piece by piece!” He plucked at one of the black eyes and ripped it free from the bear’s head.
“Zommie!” I shouted jumping to my feet.
“Here!” shouted Jim throwing the eye at me and then proceeding to rip out the remaining orb. “And here!” he said throwing it into the mud. “What I’m doing to your precious teddy is nothing compared to what I’m going to do to you!” Then he ripped off the head and started to pull out the stuffing.
He was still throwing wads of cotton at me when my foot landed squarely in his groin. He collapsed to his knees.
In a flash I managed to recover Zommie’s head and torso. I shoved them into the satchel and bolted off towards the swampland.
I only stopped to look back once I reached the alligator sign. For a while it seemed as though they had chosen not to pursue me, but then I heard their voices swiftly approaching.
“I’m gonna get you Stone! I’m gonna beat you to a pulp!” shouted Jim.
“This is the only way back!” added Jake. “You gotta come this way sooner or later! And we’ll be waiting!”
“If the gators don’t have you for supper, I will!”
“And if the gators don’t get you, I hope Mad Nan will. That old witch will make stew outta yew! Ha! Ha!”
Perhaps Jake was lying. Perhaps there was another way back to solid ground further in. The swamp suddenly seemed very inviting. There may be unknown danger ahead, I reasoned, but behind was the very certainty of a painful beating.
As I moved deeper into the swampland, the path became narrower and the water wider, deeper and darker. At times I could make out the vast expanse of a bayou thru the trees, but the path continued to run a parallel course some distance away from the large open waterway.
The mind has a strange way of playing tricks. Especially when you have the overactive imagination of a nine year old. Soon, every half submerged log was a razor-toothed horror; twirled creepers became coiled, deadly, venomous serpents; Spanish moss was the web of some monstrous arachnid that waited to pounce the moment I let down my guard.
I was beginning to wonder if my mother had been wrong about stimulating a child’s developing mind when the path broadened into a large dry patch of land. I heard a high-pitched squeaking honk above me. The lack of trees showed a bright, clear, blue sky as some black-feathered water fowl flew directly over my head. I felt a sense of relief, but it was very short-lived as I approached the rectangular stone tablet that was planted in the centre of the clearing. On the large weathered gravestone was simply engraved:
1839 - 1869
I did a quick bit of arithmetic. “Thirty,” I said to myself. “That’s kinda young.” I was wondering what could have been the cause of death when I saw the lotus flower lying at the base of the old stone. “How did you get here?” I asked lifting it up and giving it a sniff. It had a pleasant enough aroma. The bloom was covered with large water droplets and appeared freshly picked.
I replaced the flower and continued along the path which now passed thru some thick shrubbery. On the other side was an even larger area of open dry land. In the centre stood a small log cabin, smoke wafting gently from its clay chimney.
For a moment I felt relief, but then Jake’s words began to echo in my brain: ‘And if the gators don’t get you, I hope Mad Nan will. That old witch will make stew outta yew!’
“Probably just said that to scare me!” I said loudly to myself. “No such thing as witches!”
“Ya sure ‘bout dat!” said a cracked voice behind me. I wheeled to see an old black woman approaching. The words crone or hag would be more appropriate to describe her. “Somebody been tellin’ tales about Ol’ Nan?” Her hair was long, snow white, and reached halfway down her back. It contrasted greatly against her dark wrinkled face. The left eye had a milky cataract that pronounced her somewhat foreboding appearance. Under her right arm she clasped a large bundle of kindling. In her left hand she clutched tightly to the oversized feet of one of those black-feathered water fowl that I had recently seen flying above the clearing. Each time she spoke revealed a row of uneven and rotted yellow-brown teeth.
Needless to say, she was a rather unsettling sight to gaze upon.
“Are you Mad Nan?” I asked gulping.
“Mad?” she queried scrunching up the right side of her face. “I likes ta tink o’ m’self as bein’ a liddle eccentric maybe. Not mad. Dat be like insinuating insanity.”
“Sorry, I never…”
“What yer name sonny?” She walked off towards the cabin. The bird, that I had thought to be dead, suddenly raised its head to stare at me. It had eyes the color of blood. “Cat got yer tongue?”
“Theodore,” I said starting to following her. “Theodore Stone.”
There was a small fire burning in front of the cabin. She threw on some of the wood that she was carrying and gestured towards an old wooden stump. “Sit yerself down. Not often dat Ol’ Nancy Mangrove gets ‘erself a vis’tor. Specially such a young’un.”
“Are you?” I asked as I reluctantly sat down.
“Am ah what?”
Before I knew it, the words kind of found their way out of my mouth. “A witch?”
She threw her head back and cackled thru those terrible teeth. I suddenly had an image of her cabin being constructed from all sorts of candies, cakes and other delicious goodies.
She stopped laughing and moved towards a brown-splattered stump. I flinched as I noticed the axe stuck in the log. “You see a broom about?” she asked pulling the axe free. I shook my head nervously. “Or black cat?” She waved the axe about. “Or big cauldron fer cookin’ curious critters like yerself?”
“Nope,” I said feeling my twisted nerves tighten even more.
A moment later she brought the axe down and a severed head fell near my feet. I watched in horror as the creature’s beak moved in some macabre silent plea for help. The crone proceeded to twist some wire around the bird’s tail feathers before hanging it on a post.
“Gotta make sure it bleeds good an’ dry, otherwise da meat gets spoiled.” She hobbled over and eased herself into an old rocker opposite me; the small fire separated us.
“When do you know it’s ready?” I noticed that the bird’s feet were still twitching as well.
“When it fall away from da feathers, only den it be ready fer eatin’”
“Eew!” I exclaimed scrunching up my face.
“Yep, ya gotta waits till she’s ripe. Much ta fresh ta be eatin’ now.” She reached inside a large pocket on the front of her dress and pulled out a corn cob pipe. After using a twig from the fire to light up she asked, “So, why yous askin’?”
I hesitated before saying, “If you’re a witch?”
She nodded slowly. “You need ta be puttin’ a hoodoo on summin’?”
“Hoodoo. Ya uses da voodoo ta place da hoodoo. It be like a curse, only worse.”
“What sort of curse?”
“Oh, like makin’ dat ingrown toenail pain summin’ awful.”
“That ain’t so bad.”
“You ever had an ingrown nail, boy?”
“Ooh! It be worse than a toof ache.”
“Wow! That bad?” She smiled and I felt my twisted nerves starting to unwind at last. I smiled myself as I surveyed the clutter that surrounded her home. “You may not have a broom, but this place could sure use one.”
“No tank you very much. Ol’ Nan, she like tings as dey is. Everyting in its place, jus’ where ah puts it.”
“I must remember to tell my mom that one,” I said laughing too loudly.
“Uh-huh. So what brings ya ta Ol’ Nan den?”
“Nothing, I was just exploring the swamp. Didn’t even know you lived here.”
“You a brave young’un, explorin’ da swamp all by ya lonesome. Ah thought maybe it be sometin’ else dat brought yous here?”
“Oh, like what?”
“Like maybe a couple o’ nasty bullies from yer school.”
“Nan know a ting or two,” she said pointing the narrow part of her pipe at her cloudy retina. “She may be old but her ears an’ eyes still work real good. Why not tell her da whole story.”
When I had finished, she knocked the spent tobacco from her pipe before replacing it in the large pocket. She added some more kindling to the fire before saying, “Now dat be da strangest coincidence. Did ya be knowin’ dat da very first teddy bear be named after our twenty sixth president, Theodore Roosevelt?”
“God’s honest truth.”
“Ya wanna be showin’ m’ da liddle critter.”
“My ma might be able to fix him up,” I said removing Zommie’s remains from the satchel and handing them over to Nan, “But the eyes are gone. I don’t think I’ll be able to find them again.”
With a serious narrowing of the eyes Nan slowly turned and studied the pieces in her hands before saying, “Sometings gotta die afore dey can be resurrected all anew.” Her face scrunched into a gleeful malicious grin that rekindled my previous state of uneasiness. “All anew an’ even better dan afore.”
“Really?” I asked apprehensively.
“Ol’ Nan here will fix dis cute fuzzy ting better dan he was afore dose swamp rats a gotta hol’ o’ ‘im. What you call da liddle critter den?”
“Oooh!” she exclaimed smiling again those uneven rows of rotted teeth. “Zombie! Dat be de God-given p’fect name fer ’im. How’s a liddle fella like you come ta give ’im such a dark moniker?”
“Zommie! Not Zombie!”
“Close enow. Id’ll do jus’ fine. You leaves ‘im ‘ere wid m’ an’ I’ll fix ‘im real good fer yer.”
“Sure, only I’ll be needin’ yous ta be fetchin’ m’ some special items.”
“Ingredients might be a better word.”
“I guess you’ll be wanting a needle and thread?”
“Nah, ah twists an’ spins m’ own special thread, boy. Uses a spinnin’ wheel m’ granpappy made.”
“You spin your own cotton?”
“Not cotton – alligator innards. Stronger dan any fishline you’ll buy in a store. Ah calls it gator gut. Ah does a lot o’ sewin’ you knows. Makin’ raggedy clothes fer m’ voodoo dolls and, o’ course, stitchin’ dem mouths shut on m’ shrunken head collection. Don’ want dem mouthin’ off any curses against Ol’ Nan, now do we?” she cackled gleefully.
I didn’t know if she was for real or just putting me on. “You ain’t got no shrunken heads.”
“Sure!” I answered excited yet disbelievingly.
“Take a look inside,” she pointed over her shoulder.
I stood up and moved cautiously to the cabin door. My heart almost stopped as an enormous ginger cat suddenly exited. He paused and we stood staring at each other.
“I thought you didn’t have a cat?”
“I don’t. Nobody ever owned a cat, boy. Dey too strong-willed ta be belongin’ ta anybody. Dey jus’ be pretendin’ ta be belongin’. It gits dem a free meal an’ a cozy fireplace.”
“What’s her name?”
“Dat be a tom. He kinda fancy da name Elvis some days an’ Quincy on others. He got damn good taste in music dat one.”
“How do you know that?”
“’Cause he be tellin’ me.”
“You speak cat?”
“Nah, Elvis, he be speakin’ five languages, includin’ Cajun an’ da Queen’s English.”
“Ah! You just funnin’ me!”
“He sure is big and fat.” I stroked his bushy fur. He arched his back in approval.
“Hmm, an’ not from catchin’ any swamp rats either. He be a real lazy one. Jus’ likes ta feed on Ol’ Nan’s gumbo. Has develop’d a pallet fer m’ crawfish stew.” The cat suddenly wheeled to face Nan and meowed. “See, jus’ mentionin’ it gets him all in a frenzy.”
“Ain’t he afraid the alligators might get him, living out here on the bayou and all?”
“No gators in dese parts, boy. Dey knows good an’ well ta stay outta Ol’ Nan’s back yard. Dey sure’s afraid o’ becomin’ gator gut. Hell, in fact, da only fings with any teef in dese parts is da skeeters. Big bugger bugs. Suck a small critter like you dry in no time.”
I slapped my arm. There was a large red splotch.
“Ooh, dat was a close one. Here!” She tossed a small bottle in my direction. Rub dat on yerself afore dem vampires carry yous off.”
“What is it?” I asked popping the cork and smelling at the potent vapour.
“Oh, jus’ m’ own brand o’ moonshine. Dis one been specially brewed ta eighty percent. Can’t smoke m’ cornpipe after a swig o’dat. I’d go off like a skyrocket onna fourth o’ July.”
“You use this for insect repellant?”
“Sure, only difference is dat ah don’ puts it on…ah puts it in. Ah puts it on from da inside. Makes m’ blood all bitter an’ unpleasant. Once had a foolish skeeter try his luck. Turned him inta a firefly.”
“Aw, go on,” I said putting my tongue on the bottle opening.
“An’ don’ be gettin’ any ideas. Dat stuff’ll kill yous dead afore ya hit da ground.”
She was probably right. The tip of my tongue had gone strangely numb. I rubbed some of the clear liquid on my exposed areas. Then I walked over and poured a drop into the fire. I lost a good deal of my eyebrows. “Wow!” I exclaimed thru the acrid stench of burned hair. “Nitroglycerin! Can I keep this? Please! Please! Please.”
“Not on ya life boy. Ya tink Ol’ Nan want da law bangin’ on her rickety ol’ door when ya momma find it? Also, it be makin’ a damn good way ta start m’ fire in da mornin’. Not much dry kindlin’ ta be found in da swamps ya know.”
I reluctantly returned the bottle and watched disappointedly as she placed it in the large pocket before asking, “What else can you do with a hoodoo?”
“Turn your enemies inta a zombie. Make ‘em your slave.”
“Wow! Can you do that?”
“I ain’t no voodoo queen, boy. You be playin’ with fire tryin’ ta cast dem hoodoos. You dancin’ with da debbil, young’un. You see, it cost da curser summin’ too. Ol’ Nick gonna want some retribution fer his services.”
“Nah, dat be old school. Nuttin’ so drastic anymore. Tends ta scare all da prospective clients away. Nowadays a bit o’ chicken blood will do fine.”
“Seems like a small price.”
“Not ta da chicken.”
I stared at the severed head. It seemed to be staring back. “If you ain’t a witch, how come you know so much about it all?”
“I reads a lot. Started real young too. M’ pappy always used ta say ah be poisonin’ m’ mind with all dat trash.”
“What sort of trash?”
“Oh, ‘Tales from da Crypt,’ ‘Vault o’ Horror’, ‘Haunt o’ Fear,’ ‘Weird Tales’ an …”
“You read that stuff?” I interrupted excitedly. “My dad hates me reading it too?”
“Dat be stimulatin’ entertainment fer da mind an’ da imagination. Good stuff fer a growin’ boy like yerself.”
“That’s what my mom also says!”
“Sounds like yer momma got a good head on her shoulders.”
I walked over and picked up the severed head; the eyes still wide open.
“What bird is this? I never seen one before.”
“You must be new ta dese parts. Dat be da American Coot.”
“Coot? Sure looks evil with these red eyes.”
“Dem Cajun folks sure loves ta be tellin’ stories o’ da black-feathered red-eyed coot. Dey calls it Pouldeau du Diable. Dey say it be da foul fowl o’ da debbil. Don’ stop dem from puttin’ it inta dere gumbo though. Mind you, ah don’ blame dem, dat pouldeau be a mighty fine tastin’ bird. Make a pleasant change when ya gets tired o’ crab boil. Ya sees dat red spot on da fore’ead?” There was a large crimson dot between the eyes. I poked a finger at it. “Dat where ol’ Nick put his sharp-nailed red finger ta mark dem as his own.” Nan laughed as I pulled my finger away sharply. “Dat why yous gotta lop off da head an’ buries it in ‘oly ground.”
I remembered the gravestone on the other side of the thick shrubbery. “Is that holy ground back there by the grave?”
The question instantly removed the smile from her wrinkled face. She stared for some time at the path leading between the thick shrubbery before saying, “Ah would like ta tink so, although ah believe no man o’ da cloth ever be officially consecrating it.” She quickly added, “Not ta m’ knowledge anyways.”
I had been hoping to ask if she knew anything about the grave’s occupant and the flower, but her apparent uneasiness to my previous query had brought an anxious air upon our so far pleasant exchange. I hoped some humor would help clear it. “I think the eyes are all red from swimming under water too long.” Nan smiled, so I added, “The red forehead is from bashing into the river bed when the water’s too muddy to see properly.”
“Yo momma sure’s right ‘bout dat imagination o’ yous,” she said slapping her thigh. She spat into the fire before lifting herself out of the old rocker. “Let’s go see what ah gots an’ what ah gonna be needin’ ta be fixin’ dat Zommie o’ yous.” She creaked off towards the cabin door.
“I thought you said you didn’t have a cauldron?” I exclaimed staring at the large boiling pot hanging inside the fireplace.
“Oh, dat ol’ ting? Ah uses it ta makes m’ gumbo an’ ta boil da flesh off o’ dem gator skulls.”
“Wow!” I said staring at the long row of alligator skulls that lined a shelf on the far wall.
“Tol’ yous ah be havin’ a shrunken head collection.”
“Swell! Why do you do that?”
“Once dey good an’ dry, ah gives dem a few coats o’ clear varnish an’ sells dem ta Beach ‘n’ Bayou, dat souvenir shop on Main. Dem Northerners buys dem up like black treacle sweetcakes. Uses dem fer ashtrays an’ such.”
“Could I have one? I’ll pay!”
“You too young ta be smokin’.”
“Not for an ashtray! It would look really neat on my wall.”
“Could be givin’ yous da nightmares summin’ awful?”
“Nah, I already got posters of Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolf Man up. They scare my mom though. She says they give her the heebie jeebies.”
“No poster o’ dat fishman fella?”
“Nah! He’s a woosie.”
“Woosie? He swim amongst all dem gators dat you be so scared o’, boy.”
“I didn’t think of that. I’m gonna ask my mom to order me one as soon as possible.”
“Yo poor momma!” Nan moved to the shelf of skulls. After some deliberation she picked out one and handed it to me. “Dis one ah tink.”
“Thanks! What I owe you?”
“Jus’ promise Ol’ Nan yous not be scarce; dat you come ta visit her real regular like. Ah kinda fancy yer company. It get lonely out here in da swamps by m’self, an’ ah’s already heard all what Elvis got ta say.”
“I promise!” I said studying the row of gnarled teeth that protruded from the sides of the skull. “Fact is, I like you too.”
“Now ain’t dat summin’. Two o’ natures rejects findin’ pleasure in each others company.” There was a large live chicken in a small birdcage hanging from the ceiling. It clucked frantically as Nan passed beneath it. “Hold yer tongue Henry!” she chided knocking against the cage. Not much longer now!” She must have noticed the frown on my face. “Henry’s been a bad boy. Been pickin’ dough outta m’ breadpan.” She pointed to a large wooden chest in the corner. “See dat box?” The sides had been intricately engraved with images that I expected were based on Greek or Roman mythological characters. Fauns or satyrs dancing and playing flutes. Mermaids or sirens combing their hair amongst wave beaten rocks. Snake-haired gorgons stared with evil reptilian eyes. “It once belonged ta Red Ned.”
She waited for a response, so I gave her one.
“Yous heard o’ Edward Teach? He better known as Blackbeard, da most bloodthirsty pirate ta sail da Spanish Main. But even he was nuttin’ compared ta da vile Caribbean debbil dat was once Edwardo Lafayette. Not only did he have a big red bushy beard, but he also wore a scarlet-hued tunic whenever he went inta battle. Some say it was so his men would not get discouraged by da sight o’ his blud whenever he got ta be wounded. Others say it was so none would realize da extent ta which he reveled in butchering his victims…his prey.”
“Where did you hear that?”
She shuffled over to the chest and opened it. After some rummaging about she proudly raised a fancy embroidered, scarlet-hued tunic towards me. “Looksee!”
“Wow! That must be worth a few bucks.”
She folded the item of clothing over her arm and stroked the front portion affectionately. “Dis worth much more ta Ol’ Nan dan money can buy. Ah gots m’ much better plans fer dis ‘ere garment. It practically saturated with…with…memories.” We stared at each other for awhile before she continued. “Yes, dat will take care o’ dat jus’ perfectly. Now, let’s see what else we be needin’.” She returned to her rummaging. “Good! Got plenty gator gut an’ claw. Good! Good!” There was a short silence then, “Oh, oh! We gonna need plenty more o’ dis.” She tossed a small ball at me.
“What is it?” I asked studying the unfamiliar substance.
“We’s gonna need some wax boy. Not from dem candles yer folks be lightin’ when da fuse box blow. It be too briddle fer m’ purposes. You need ta find beeswax. Beeswax is malleable.”
“Means yous can bend an’ shapes it without fear o’ it breakin’.”
“Where am I gonna get beeswax?” I lamented.
She removed her pipe again, refilled it and then rekindled it with a twig from the fireplace. She closed the chest and sat down on top of it. After some puffing and deliberation she asked, “You allergic?”
Horrified and staring, I shook my head. “No, but is the beeswax really necessary? Can’t you use clay or putty or something?”
“Main ingredient, beeswax!” she exclaimed shaking her head whilst staring solemnly at the boiling pot. “Now listen carefully, boy!” After a few more puffs she began a ten minute narrative explaining to me in minute detail where I could find a hive. The ten minutes following that was an explanation of how to smoke out the bees without getting stung. The concluding ten minutes involved the process of collecting and separating the beeswax from the honey so that it would be in its purest form. Then she spat into the fire and said, “Course ya can jus’ mosey on down ta Da Pipeline.”
“The Pipeline?” I asked with a sense of relief.
“Da store on da corner o’ Robert E an’ Versailles.”
“Is that where you buy your tobacco?”
“Pipeline ain’t no tobaccy store, boy. It cater fer dem crazy kids dat use dem nautical ironin’ planks.”
“Nau… you mean surfboards?”
“Just what is it that you’re smoking, anyway? Smells kind of strange. Not like the rum and maple my granddad uses. I ain’t smelled nothing like it before.”
“Nuttin’ yous gonna be findin’ in any tobaccy store. Is jus’ a liddle sometin’ ah grows in m’ secret garden. Keeps Ol’ Nan bright-eyed an’ bushy-tailed jus’ like ol’ Br’er Rabbit.”
After searching about her place she finally gave me, verbally, a list of the rest of the items she would be needing.
“You are mad?” I spat. “Why on earth do you need that to fix Zommie? I would rather face a hive of angry bees than try to get that.”
“Do ya enjoys ta be shoved around an’ bullied every single day o’ yer life?”
“No, course not!”
“An’ from yer tellin’ it sound ta m’ dat it only gonna be gettin’ worse from now on. Do as ah asks. Ol’ Nan can help ya real good.”
“How can you…?”
“Jus’ be doin’ as ah asks,” she interrupted smiling. “Ol’ Nan will make sure dat no one mess with yous ever again.”
“You gonna place a…hoodoo on them?”
“Shush, boy. Yous makin’ da debbil’s pointy ears all itchy. Jus’ be gettin’ dem items.” There was another silent stare between us. “Yous seem like a bright young’un. I’m sure yous can come up wid a simple plan o’ action. Besides, from what yous already tol’ m’, it should be more simple dan yous tink. Simple, but unavoidably painful.” She walked out the door. “You tell Virgil at Da Pipeline dat Ol’ Nan sends her greetings.”
“Giddouttahere jokaboy. An’ don’ be comin’ back till yous got all dat stuff ah tol’ yous ta be gettin’. Be quick about it too. Ol’ Nan finds ya company invigoratin’. Ah feels real perky like…like bein’ young again.”
“Is there another path out of here?” I asked gazing in the direction from which I had come.
“A few, but none dat yous will want ta be takin’.”
“That’s just what I was afraid of,” I said handing her the alligator skull. “Please keep this for me till next time.”
“Id’ll be waitin’ safe ‘n’ sound fer yous here wid Ol’ Nan an’ Elvis an’ Henry an’ Zommie.”
“Thanks, aunty Nan!”
“Jus’ Nan will do, tank yous. Ah ain’t nobody’s aunt or uncle Remus. Ya better hurry now b‘fore yer folks be sendin’ out a search party.”
“Sure Nan,” I said walking back towards the path. I began to sing and whistle a silly song I had just made up: “Worse than a curse! Use dat voodoo ta place dat hoodoo jus’ like juju.” I think I heard Nan laugh.
Jim and Jake had been most patient. I arrived home that early evening with a swollen eye and lip. I smiled at the item in my hand and hoped that the pain of obtaining it was worth the effort that I had suffered in gaining one of the ingredients that Nan had requested.
I placed the hank of hair, ripped from Jakes head during the scuffle, in the cigar box that I used for all my precious keepsakes.
“One down,” I said to myself before going to the bathroom to remove my muddied clothes.
It was a week before I returned to Ol’ Nan with all the ingredients - all bar one. A week of absolute hell.
Jake and Jim, it seemed, had now resolved to making my life unbearable. They would taunt and terrorize me during every free minute from their schooling. This meant that I was now forced to arrive late for classes, spend recess in the school library where I was forbidden to eat my lunch, and was required to run straight home after school. Straight being a relative term as I had to use different routes that had me crossing thru strange backyards. One time I narrowly missed being mauled by an enormous Rottweiler, but twisted my ankle during the escape. This made my daily attempts at evasion all the more difficult.
To add insult to injury, my late-coming gained me a seat in the detention class. A seat between Jake and Jim.
“This is all your fault,” hissed Jake under his breath.
“We’ll get you real good after this,” added Jim in an equally serpentine whisper.
“If you three continue with your talking,” chided Miss Buchanan, who was obviously not pleased at having been allocated detention duty on a Friday afternoon, “You’ll find yourselves here again next week!”
“Why yous not be tellin’ ya pappy about dem nasties?” asked Nan placing the items I’d given her onto a deep metal tray. “Surely he can do summin’ about it?”
“I did,” I said dejectedly. “How could he not notice my shiner? He says it’s all part of growing up. It’ll make me tougher.” I made the tone of my voice deeper, “‘One day when you’re a man, you’ll look back and be thankful for it. You might hate me now for not doing anything, but you’ll come to understand that it is all for the best. Later, you would hate me even more if I interfered. Trust me, what don’t kill you, makes you stronger.’” I sat down on the wooden chest. Elvis jumped up next to me. He seemed to sense my emotional state and rubbed against me in sympathy. I stroked back. “The way things are going, I don’t think I’m ever gonna make it to manhood. It is killing me. I feel half dead already.”
“Yer pappy sound like a military man ta m’?” she said studying the items.
“You guessed it.”
“Stationed at da base, eh?”
“Military men always tink dey in da right. Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini…”
“Custer,” I added. She nodded. “Robert E.”
“Good example,” she said pointing at me. “See, even American’s can be wrong. When da Confederacy an’ da Union went ta war, da men on both sides believed dey fightin’ fer da right ting.”
“Our history teacher told us that more Americans died fighting in the Civil War than all the other wars we’ve fought in together.”
“Dere ya go!” She suddenly got a vacant stare in her eye as if reminiscing about some long gone event in her life. “Ya teacher right ‘bout dat one. It was an awful price ta pays fer da abolishment o’ slavery. But even den dey still continued ta treats us with contempt. Indifference would o’ been a welcome change fer us.”
“You speak as though you were there?”
“What?” she asked coming out of the trance. “Oh! You knows dat not possible, young’un. Ah jus’ guess a lot o’ bitterness has been passed down from generation ta generation.”
“Why do you stay out here in the swamps by yourself? Don’t you have anyone that can take care of you?”
“I takes care o’ m’self jus’ fine tank yous. Been here since…since…longer dan ah cares ta remember. Dis be m’ home. Dis be where ah plans ta die.”
“That’s so sad,” I said staring at the dark wrinkled face. “I would never want to die alone. What will happen when you get too old to look after yourself? Don’t you have any family?”
“All gone a long time ago.”
“Don’t you have any children?”
“I never gots married. Never saw any use in it. Dat don’ mean ah never fell in love. Ah made m’ fair share o’ mistakes.”
“Aren’t you afraid the government might force you to leave here?”
“Dey can’t be doin’ dat. Ah owns it all - lock, stock an’ gators. Got da deed in Red Ned’s chest.”
“You own a piece of swamp?”
“Sure do! M’ granpappy bought it a long, long time ago. ‘Only a crazy person want ta be purchasin’ a piece o’ land in da middle o’ da swamp,’ dey tol’ ‘im. He jus’ laugh an’ say he do it because Jemina tol’ ‘im ta. An’ he don’ wanna be makin’ Jemina fret none.”
“Who was Jemina?”
“Da most powerful voodoo queen in da territory. She was plenty respected by all da peoples. If she placed a hoodoo on summin’, it was placed real good.”
“Ha!” I laughed slapping a knee. “I don’t blame your grandfather for doing what she said. I guess he must have been pretty scared of that Jemina?”
“Not at all. He loved her very deeply. She was his wife.”
Jemina was your grandmother?”
Nan nodded. “She say da land m’ granpappy purchased is special. She say da land contain special powers.”
“This piece of land here?”
“And does it?”
“Oh, fer sure.”
“It don’t look very special to me.”
“It’s not what one sees, it’s what ya feel.”
“I don’t feel nothing either.”
“Dat because you don’ be havin’ Da Sensin’.”
“It be like a special connection with nature. Plants, animals an’ even da soil. Very few people ever lucky ta be born with Da Sensin’. Some may even live an’ die without knowin’ dey gots it. Especially dose who are unfortunate enough ta live dere whole lives in da concrete jungles.”
“So, Jemina had this Sensing? That’s how she knew this soil was special?”
“Zactly, but da power do much more dan dat. It also make her a great healer. All da witchdoctors around da world dey got Da Sensin’ in ‘em. Ah mean da real ones, not da charlatans dat jus’ be pretendin’ so as ta takes yer hard-earned money. Jemina, not only she be genuine, but she also be one o’ da best. She knowed exactly what ta use ta cure any or whatever ailment ya got.”
“Even an ingrown toenail?”
There was a hint of a smile before she continued.
“Dere wasn’t a ting she couldn’t cure. From tetanus ta shortsightedness, from art’ritis ta a broken heart. She even had a cure fer da common cold. It was prepared from gator gall, fish oil, ground boll weevil larvae an’ red root sap. Tasted sometin’ awful, but it sure worked. She could even tell her patients what was wrong with dem before dey tol’ her da symptoms.”
I spent the rest of the afternoon listening to more tales about Nan’s grandmother. I have no idea how much of it was true, but I didn’t mind if most of the details had been fabricated - it was still all very intriguing and, certainly, most entertaining.
It was getting late when I asked: “How long do you think it will be before Zommie’s ready?”
She stared down at the items I had brought. “Ah only sees one hank o’ hair here. Ah thought yous tol’ m’ dere be two bullies botherin’ yous?”
“Its been pretty impossible to get any of Jim’s hair. He keeps it cut real short. I mean really, really short. Any shorter and the guy would be Yul Brynner. I would have to use a razor to get any of his hair.”
“Dat’s a real pity, boy. Still, if ya likes, ah can proceed without it?”
I nodded. “There’s no way I could ever get any of Jim Preston’s hair.”
Nan’s eyes seemed to widen and brighten at the mention of the name. “Jim Preston you say?”
“Yeah, big dumb ox of a guy.”
“Frank Preston’s boy?”
“I’m not sure. Jake Dreskil once told me Jim’s father also worked down at the military base. I think he said Jim’s dad was a Staff Sergeant.”
“Dat’s da one.” She rubbed her hands together as if trying to remove a persistent grease stain. It was only now that I noticed she was missing two important digits. Each hand was missing a thumb. “Dem Preston’s all bad news. Da world would certainly be a better place without dem. Real pity yous couldn’t get any o’ dat boy’s hair. Maybe one day providence will help you out.”
Nan smiled. “Providence ain’t a who, boy, it mean fate.” She scratched her chin. “Den again maybe it is. We sometimes call her Lady Luck.”
“I once read a story that told about these three witches who were called The Fates. They were immortals who decided how long each human being had to live. I can’t remember their names, but…”
“Nona, Decima an’ Morta,” said Nan almost nonchalantly whilst tossing a log into the fireplace.
“Yeah, that was them!” I exclaimed in amazement. “So, you also know the story?”
“Nona spun da thread o’ life, Decima measured it an’ Morta cut it.”
“Yeah, Morta also chose the way in which the person would die.”
“You likes dat myt’ology stuff?”
“I guess. A lot of it can be silly and boring, but there’s some pretty neat stuff as well. I like reading stories about Hercules or Perseus.”
“Yer pappy must be happy when he see yer don’ jus’ read all dem comic books?”
“Oh, I actually got quite a few books on my shelf at home. Read them all too. Treasure Island, Moby Dick, Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers, The Invisible Man, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds; plenty others too. I seen most of their movies as well.”
“An’ which did yer find ta be better? Da books or da movies?”
I thought for awhile before answering.
“Depends…Kirk Douglas fighting the giant squid in Twenty Thousand Leagues was pretty exciting to watch, but in the movie of War of the Worlds I found it disappointing that the aliens didn’t move around in giant tripod machines like in the book. I got the Classics Illustrated of that, and that’s my favourite to look at. I think tripod machines are pretty neat and creepy.”
“I wonder jus’ what it is why peoples likes ta be scared, an’ dey willin’ ta pay good money fer it too?”
“Matty Jones, my friend back in Kentucky, his older brother told us that whenever he takes a girl out on a date, he makes sure they go to see a scary movie; the scarier the better. He says it’s one sure way to get ‘em to hold real tight onto you.”
Nan laughed before asking, “What ‘bout yous? You got yerself any special female friend?”
“You mean like a girlfriend?”
“Yuck! No thank you! Girls are just plain silly and stupid.”
“Not too long from now yous gonna be tinkin’ real different.”
“You got no choice, boy. When yer body start changin’ an’ dem hormones start bubblin’, yer gonna be droolin’ an’ chasin’ after da girls jus’ likes a googly-eyed zombie. It’s jus’ all part o’ da natural way o’ growin’ up. Yer pappy thought jus’ likes yous when he yer age, but if nature never changed his mind, dere would be no Theodore Stone around taday. Weren’t no stork dat brought yous inta dis world.”
I felt slightly embarrassed and quickly asked, “How come you never married, Nan?”
An expression of great pain came over her face. I could even see that her eyes had become quite watery. I immediately regretted having asked the question.
She stared into the distance and said, “I was nearly married once. M’ big handsome beau an’ ah, we was on our ways down ta da courthouse one sunny Saturday mornin’. We never had much money, but we still planned ta honeymoon down New Orleans way fer a short spell. Never happened though. Strange how tings never seem ta go quite according ta plan.”
Curiosity had bested my recent concern, so I pried further. “What happened?”
She gazed silently into the glowing embers near her feet before saying, “Somebody helped ta change his mind.” There was another uneasy silence before she looked up at me and added, “Permanently.”
“You worse dan Elvis when it come ta curiosity, an’ we all knows what dat do ta da cat. Maybe one day ah be tellin’ yous da whole story. Fer now, ah jus’ be lettin’ yous know dat ever since dat day, ah be takin’ a special interest in da Preston kin.”
“Jim Preston’s family?”
“Uh-huh, yous could say dat we got ourselves some common history.”
“What sort of history?”
“Like ah be tellin’ yous, ‘Maybe one day.’ Fer now ah be tinkin’ dat perhaps it be more dan da fear o’ bullies dat brings yous ta Ol’ Nan, maybe it sometin’ more powerful.”
“Yep,” smiled Nan. “Dat ol’ Lady Luck been lookin’ after m’ real good all dese years, dat why ah pretty sure yous gonna get what needed ta…complete ol’ Zommie. Anyways, fer now, I’ll do what can be done. Gives m’ a week ta finish da job.”
“A whole week?” I lamented.
“Dese tings can’t be rushed. Dey needs ta be done…delicately.”
And so it was that I endured yet another week of hell before returning to Nan.
“Where’s m’ manners? Dis be already da third time yous comin’ ta visit Ol’ Nan an’ she done never offer yous sometin’ in da line o’ refreshment. Would ya be likin’ a cup o’ tea den?” She scratched her chin pensively. “Hmm, only problem is ah don’ gots no milk or sugar. Ah gots m’ no ‘lectricity out here, so no icebox ta be keepin’ tings fresh an’ all.”
“You don’t need a refrigerator to
keep sugar fresh. In fact, I read somewhere that it’s actually a preservative.”
”Oh, dat be da truth,” A look of great pain filled her features. Once again she made that strange motion of rubbing her thumbless hands together in an effort to remove some unseen stain. “Dat be da fortunate truth. All sorts o’ tings preserved with sugar. Sometimes yous can even preserve memories. It jus’ dat ah lost m’ taste fer anytin’ sweet a long time ago. Even da smell o’ sweetness sets m’ innards all a turnin’. Ah prefer m’ coffee black an’ bitter now.”
“Yeah,” I smiled enthusiastically. “‘Just like a cowboy,’ that’s what my dad always says when he wants a cup. ‘I want coffee like the cowboys used to drink. Make it black, no sugar and strong enough to float a bullet.’” Nan smiled. “So, how about it?”
“How ‘bout what?”
“Brewing up two cowboy coffees, pardner?”
She shook her head and turned towards the cabin.
“This ain’t Texas, boy. An’ Houma ain’t Yuma either. You’ll be havin’ tea like a southern gentleman.” I pouted my disapproval.
As Nan went into the cabin, Elvis came plodding out. He must have been sleeping because he yawned and gave one of those long stretches that only a cat can do, placing his head low whilst arching his backside high into the air.
“Hi, Elvis!” He gave a short meow when he saw me and came over to rub himself against my leg. I rubbed back, and only now noticed that his left ear had a small semi-circular chunk missing. “What happened to you, boy? Get too close to one of them gators?” I sat down on the stump and he hopped onto my lap. After some time Nan reappeared with two delicate china cups and a plate of biscuits on a silver tray. It seemed strangely surreal to be served in such fashion in such surroundings.
“Ah thought it a special occasion, so ah decided ta be usin’ da good stuff. Had ta scratch it out o’ Red Ned’s chest.”
“Actually, every visit yous make ta Ol’ Nan be a special occasion fer ‘er, but taday it be one fer yous as well.”
“Zommie?” I asked enthusiastically. Nan nodded smiling. “Where is he?”
“He look even better now dan da day yous momma bought him fer yous.”
“Wow! Really? Please, let me see him!”
“All in good time, young‘un, all in good time,” she said moving forward with the tray. “Let’s first have refreshments.” Then she scolded Elvis. “Come on, get down. Give da boy a chance ta enjoy his tea in peace.” Elvis had an almost indignant air about him as he flopped to the ground. He proceeded to sharpen his claws on the log I was sitting on. “Dat’s actually Elvis’ scratchin’ post. He sure do love ta sharpen his claws on dat piece o’ ol’ wood.” By the extent to which he had already worn away the side of the log, he must have been using it for a long time; a very long time.
I gazed up at Nan who had sat down herself down in the rocker and was sipping gently at the tea. I thought it was about time, so I mustered the courage together to ask the question at last. “I hope you don’t mind me asking this, but what happened to your hands?”
Her attempt at a hasty indifferent response to the query told me that she had known that, sooner or later, it would become a topic of our conversations. She raised her left hand and wiggled her fingers. “Yous referin’ ta why Ol’ Nan look like some strange sorta freak o’ nature?” Her statement made me feel uneasy, so I gave no physical or verbal response. Realizing my discomfort she momentarily changed the subject. “I baked some herb biscuits knowin’ you’d be comin’ round again. Dey might not be sweet like yous kids like dem but dey sure is tasty.”
I popped a whole one into my mouth and munched. “Hmm, great,” I said spluttering crumbs. “These really are swell, they’d be terrific with my mom’s white gravy.”
Nan spread her fingers in the air. “Dis ‘ere be a genetic defect dat run in da family. M’ gramma had it too. Ya see, sometimes nature decide ta take sometin’ away from yous, but it give yer sometin’ else in its place; sometin’ much better.”
“What can be better than having thumbs?” I asked reaching for more biscuits.
“Da power o’ Da Sensin’ o’ course. It be like a lifeline ta momma nature herself.”
“You also have The Sensing?”
“I thought yous knew dat?”
“No, you never told me.”
“Well, how ya tink ah be able ta be fixin’ yer Zommie real special den.”
“It did cross my mind though.”
“Course it did, yous a bright boy.”
“Can I see him now?”
“Yous jus’ like a kid on Christmas Eve.”
“He’s the bestest present that I ever got.”
“A real pal, hey?”
“Yeah, that’s why it upset me so to see him ripped apart by some idiot rednecks.”
“I tink Zommie know everytin’ ‘bout yous; even yer darkest secrets?”
“Yeah!” I said louder than before.
“Ya know what dey say is da sign o’ a true friend?” Nan had an uncanny understanding of my special relationship with Zommie. “It be someone dat know all dere is ta be knowin’ ‘bout yous, but still loves ya anyways.”
“Yeah, that’s my Zommie alright!”
“Then ah guess yous both waited long enough by now.” She reached into the large pocket on the front of her dress and pulled out the repaired Zommie. She held him face out towards me.
My first reaction was one of shock and horror; a look that I had obviously failed to conceal from Nan.
“You don’ like him?” she asked sounding more than disappointed. “I thought a boy with yer interests would appreciate da new look?”
I stared hard at Zommie. Slowly but surely it began to register in my brain that this ‘new look’ was somewhat appealing. In fact, it was almost perfect. Why hadn’t I thought of doing something similar to Zommie myself? After all, mom’s always saying that a change is as good as a holiday, but that mostly happens just before I get told my dad’s been transferred to another base…again.
Nan had used her home-spun gator gut to sew on some alligator parts in rather creative and artistic ways. Zommie’s fluffy paws were now equipped with black, razor-sharp claws. Across the mouth area she had strung a row of gnarled teeth, placing two longer ones at the edges so that they appeared menacingly fang-like. The eyes I immediately recognized. Two large Red Buttons taken from Red Ned’s blood-hued tunic, and cross-stitched into place. The small hard stubby black nose was the only thing that remained of Zommie’s original face. Nan had also cut a small semi-circular chunk out of his left ear. It gave him a certain look of being well-traveled and battle-wise; something similar to a scar or a pirate’s eye-patch.
Finally the words burst forth: “He looks…wow…swell…great…actually, he looks flipping fantastic!” I knew a few other expletives that were much stronger than ‘flipping,’ but that was the strongest one that I could think of that could be used safely in adult company.
I held him out towards the cat. “Look Elvis, he looks just like you now!” The cat stared indifferently at the teddy bear as if to say, ‘You gotta be kiddin’ me!’
Nan beamed. “So yous really be likin’ what ah done wid da liddle fella, den?”
“I think he looks fantastic, ominous and yet somehow appealing. Just like those posters on my wall.” There was one little thing about Zommie that bothered me. “He really looks great, Nan. Except…well, I was wondering if…if…I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but…”
I quickly blurted out: “I was just wondering if you could maybe redo the eyes?”
“You don’ like dem red buttons?”
“The buttons are fine, it’s just that…well, I was wondering if you could do a square stitch instead of a cross one.” She frowned. “He looks dead. Just like they draw dead folks in the comic books. They always give them x’s for eyes.”
Nan threw her head back and laughed. “You gots it all wrong young’un. Dose ain’t dead eyes. Zommie now be havin da special x-ray vision. He jus’ like dat other guy in ya comic books? Da one dat can fly so fast. Besides, he not dead anymore; now he one o’ da livin’ dead. Resurrected jus’ like in dem zombie movies yous kids all fancy.” She raised her arms and rolled her eyes. “But dem ain’t real zombies. Real zombies can be controlled.”
“Fer sure, young’un. Why else be makin’ a zombie ‘less yous can manipulates it?”
“Yous said it boy. Ol’ Nan here once had enemies too, but ah showed dem, showed dem good. Dey not mess with m’ no more after dat.”
“You killed them?”
“Why do dat? Den ah not be able ta reach dem no more. Dere be far worse tings dan death, boy. But ah certainly put da fear o’ death innum!” Her good eye glinted young and wild as she laughed.
“Can he help with my problem now?”
“Fer sure. Jus’ keeps ‘im close ta yer bed, yous not even gonna have ta tell yer ol’ pal yer problems no more. He gonna sense dem right out.”
“He can read my mind now?”
“Sorta, he feel yer pain an’ discomfort an’ he make it right fer yous.”
“He gonna visit da dreams o’ da one dat be causin’ all yer distress. It be a slow process, but it work pretty good in da end. Trust me, it always get positive results in da end.”
“How many times have you done this before?”
“Only whenever it become extremely necessary ta do so. Dat be not too often, luckily, but definitely never with a teddy bear afore.”
“Couldn’t that be a problem? Couldn’t it affect the…hoodoo somehow?”
“Ah don’ see how.”
“Cross m’ heart, young’un.” And she did.
I picked up Zommie to have a closer scrutiny of my old pal. “I guess the eyes are okay.” The rest of the body had been well repaired, but I could feel that he was no longer as soft in the middle as he had once been, and the head was now pretty much solid to the touch.
“What did you put inside his head?” I gave it a hard squeeze.
“Thoughts!” she exclaimed wiggling her fingers in the air. “New thoughts an’ ideas.”
“None o’ yer beeswax!” she replied and laughed.
“Dat’s a joke, boy. Because dat exactly what da liddle critter got in der; he got yer beeswax fer a brain. It help him ta sort out all dem strange new thoughts dat been buzzin’ round his furry liddle head lately.”
“What sort of thoughts?”
“Who knows what teddy bears be tinkin’ about? Maybe honey? Maybe picnics? Maybe he tinkin’ he glad ta be back with you? But ah really believe dat he be tinkin’ it time ta be doin’ sometin’ about dem nasties at yer school.”
“What’s he gonna do?”
“Oh, you’ll be surprised how far a liddle imagination can go. An’ Zommie dere, with his new brain - he got plenty imagination; enough fer da both o’ yous.”
“Maybe they’ll accept him now with his new look. He does seem rather…scary now. Gee whiz, even my dad might like the new look.” I scrunched up the left side of my face. “My mom on the other hand…”
Mom was actually quite accommodating regarding the new look Zommie.
“If any of these alligator parts start to give off unwanted odors or even seem to be developing mange or whatever diseases it is that sick reptiles get, I’m turfing the whole lot in the garbage! And that goes for the skull on the wall as well! Have we got an understanding?”
“At least I don’t keep real live snakes in my room like Matthew Jones did back in Fort Knox, and one was even poisonous.”
“Hmm, don’t get any bright ideas, young man. I asked if we had an understanding?”
And that was the crux of it.
Of course, I never told her about Nan. I said that it was Jake that had made the changes to Zommie. That’s why he had stolen him in the first place, he had done it as a joke in the hope of upsetting me, but instead I quite fancied the new look.
That night I shoved the toy chest up against the top of my bed and placed Zommie as close to the pillow as possible.
Before going to sleep I stared at him and said, “It’s good to have you back again, Zommie. I really need your help, pal. I don’t know how much more of Jake and Jim’s bullying I can take. I sure hope Nan was telling the truth that you can help me. I’m saying this because I know for certain that she was lying about something else. She wasn’t born without any thumbs. Something happened to them. If she was born that way then how come she’s got those terrible scars on her hands?”
It was probably some lucid dream state that I had entered into before falling into a proper deep sleep, but I could almost swear that Zommie had winked at me.
That night I had an even stranger and more vivid dream; although strange and disturbing it had still been oddly pleasant.
I was moving at great speed down the hill on the street that ran all the way to my school. It was night and the area was deserted. The buildings around me seemed larger and taller than usual, as if I were viewing them from a very low angle. Also, very peculiar was the fact that the world appeared crimson-hued, akin to looking at it thru a sheet of strawberry-colored glass. As I approached the intersection at Fifth and Main, Jake Dreskil appeared from around the corner. He gazed down at me from a great height. I was beginning to feel anxious at his seeing me when the expression on his face turned to one of absolute terror. I wanted to look behind me to see what was causing his fear, but I found myself unable to do so. Jake wheeled to flee across the street, but lost his footing at the curb so that he fell painfully onto the tarred surface. He quickly rolled over onto his back and sat up as I moved towards his feet. Only when he started screaming and kicking did I realize that it was I of whom he was so afraid. Twice he connected with my face before I somehow managed to get hold of his shoe. The curious thing about it was that I seemed to be holding onto his shoe with my mouth. A moment later the shoe had come off and I was flying thru the air. As I hit the ground the shoe was dislodged from my mouth and hopped once before disappearing into the wide slit of the storm drain. When I looked back towards Jake, he was on his feet again and running down the hill as though his very life depended on it. I gazed up at the apartment windows above the street stores where lights were starting to flicker on; Jakes screaming had obviously awoken a number of concerned people. An instant later I found myself in pursuit. He screamed again as he glanced behind to find me rapidly gaining on him. It made no sense why he viewed me with such dread, but I had found the situation extremely exhilarating. I remember laughing loudly, yet somehow the sound that I emitted was more that of a low growl or snarl. At the bottom of the hill he clambered up the locked school gate. His shirt hooked on the large capital L in the elementary of HOUMA SOUTH ELEMENTARY. He was only able to free himself by ripping the shirt. He landed awkwardly on the other side. He must have sprained his right ankle because he proceeded to run with a notable limp towards the football field. I found that I could easily pass between the painted wrought iron bars in order to continue the chase. As I moved towards the centre of the large field it became increasingly darker as the street lights faded into the distance behind us. Eventually everything was in total blackness, only the sound of Jake’s screams could be heard. They finally became rather high pitched and intense before ceasing altogether.
I awoke shortly after that with a terrible dryness in my mouth. After stumbling to the bathroom to quench my thirst I returned to my bed to find that Zommie was missing. I had most probably knocked him onto the floor by accident. I couldn’t see him anywhere and surmised that he had tumbled under the bed. I felt too exhausted to search any further; it would have to wait till morning.
In the morning I opened my eyes to find Zommie back on the toy chest. I guessed that my mother had found and replaced him. Although now, there was something different about him. His golden-brown fur had turned dark brown. Only on closer inspection did I notice that he was totally covered in a strange substance. Was this something that Nan had placed inside him and had now leaked out and permeated his coat?
He looked terrible, so I decided to wash him.
It took several washes before the crimson substance had rinsed out completely. Remembering what my mom had said, I hoped that the water wasn’t going to encourage the growth of any mould or mildew that might give rise to any unwanted odors. I needed to make sure that he would dry out safely and rapidly. I placed him on my north-facing windowsill where I knew he would be exposed to a good deal of sunlight thru the day. Then I got ready for school.
That day, although it had begun rather strangely, was also to be one of the best that I had experienced in weeks. Both Jake and Jim were not only absent from school, but also from the routes that I had taken to get there and back. I celebrated the fact by perusing the comic books at the corner store. I left only after Pops Papadopolous complained in his funny accent, ‘Enough! Enough! You kids alla da same! You just reada alla my stuff, but you never pay da monies! You go now!’ I appeased him by buying a title that I had never seen before, but which promised to be highly entertaining.
Zommie was completely dry by the time I got back home. I used one of my mom’s hair brushes to fluff out his fur before placing him back on the toy chest.
“Looks as if Nan is a person of her word after all,” I said to Zommie whilst stretching myself out and starting to page thru Famous Monsters of Filmland. “I thought she said it would take some time to work. Not that I’m complaining.” There was a picture of Vincent Price in the magazine. I showed it to Zommie. “You see this guy? He not only looks great, but he’s got the best voice in movies today; even better than Claude Rains or James Mason. Did you know they used his voice for the Invisible Man in Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein? Nah? Well, now you do.”
The next day found Jim waiting for me at the school gate. “Did you miss me, Stone?” he asked with a sneer.
“Not that you really care, but his folks got the police out looking for him.”
“You heard right! He never went home last night after visiting late at my place. They were at our place yesterday asking a lot of questions. They think he may have run away from home.”
“Really?” I exclaimed repressing a smile.
“Yeah, really! But that don’t mean you’re gonna get off any easier from me.”
He was right.
That night I told Zommie my problems in even greater detail and earnestness.
Jim was at school the next day, but he appeared pale and upset. To my puzzlement and joy, he had no interest in terrorizing me. It was when I noticed the uneasy buzz amongst the other students that I realized that something was amiss.
Lawrence Sewall broke the news to me. “Have you heard about Dreskil?” He seemed unsettled himself.
“Uh-huh.” I knew something really bad had happened before he said, “They were busy with football practice yesterday afternoon when Guy Sommers found his body in that long grass behind the C Field.”
“He’s dead?” I asked a bit too loudly so that a group of students all turned to look at us.
Sewall nodded. “It must have looked pretty bad. Sommers is a tough guy, but they had to take him to the hospital because he was shaking so bad. They say it was difficult to see that it was actually Jake.”
“They think it was probably a rogue gator that managed to wander too far from the water; a pretty big one as well.” He pointed towards the C Field. It was only then that I saw the three patrol cars parked out there. There were men with dogs on leashes as well. “Nobody’s allowed to go near the fields or swamp till they’ve caught it. It probably happened kinda late, night before last.”
“How they figure that out?”
“The school gate gets locked at night, and they found a piece of the shirt he was wearing at the top. He was probably trying to reach the bayou thru that hole in the back fence, you know the one near…?” I started to run towards the main gate. “Hey, where you going?”
“Home!” I shouted over my shoulder. “I don’t feel too good!”
I only stopped running once I reached Fifth and Main. I bent over double as I regained my breath. I stared at the pickup truck parked on the corner next to the storm drain. There was a man reading a sign on the door of Bait and Tackle. He cursed under his breath as I approached, then he stormed off towards the pickup truck. The sign read: ‘Closed until further notice.’ The store belonged to Jake’s dad. They lived in the apartment directly above. I waited for the pickup to leave before moving towards the storm drain. I stood in the street and looked around to see that no one was watching. I first pretended to tie my shoelace before lying down flat on my stomach and placing my arm inside the wide slit. My hand returned with the one item I was praying not to find. I quickly dropped the shoe back into the drain before sprinting all the way home.
My mother met me at the door. “What’s wrong?” she asked?
“I don’t feel too good,” I moaned. She was about to place her hand on my forehead but I wretched my breakfast at her feet and started to cry.
“Get yourself to bed,” she said sympathetically. “I’ll phone dad to ask Captain Mallory to come have a look at you. I hope it wasn’t something that I made this morning.”
“I just need to lie down, mom. I’ll be alright in a while.”
“Don’t talk nonsense,” she said moving towards the phone. “I’m getting you a doctor right away.”
“Please, mom, I’ll be alright!” She turned around. “It’s just that I heard some terrible news at school.”
She walked back towards me. “What news?” she asked wide-eyed and kneeling down next to me.
“It’s Jake Dreskil.”
“Jake? That boy who stole Zommie and then…?” I nodded slowly. “What about him? Has he been bullying you again?”
“He’s dead. They found his body near the football field yesterday.” She covered her mouth with a hand. “They think it was a rogue alligator that killed him. They say he looked pretty bad.”
“My goodness,” she said standing up. She went to sit at one of the dining table chairs. She was quiet for awhile before saying, “I don’t blame you for feeling ill. You better get on up to bed.”
I walked cautiously into my room. I stared at Zommie on the toy chest. He seemed to have some sort of perverted grin beneath those large ruby-colored eyes.
“Why?” I said softly. I moved towards him. “Why?” I shouted loudly. “You were only supposed to scare him or something!” I picked him up. “I don’t know if this is your fault or Nan’s, but until I find out I gotta do something you’re not gonna like!” Then I did something that almost broke my heart. I put Zommie inside my toy chest, making sure that he was right at the bottom, beneath all the other playthings. I had just sat down on the side of my bed when my mother came in.
“Are you sure you’re going to be fine?” she asked narrowing her eyes at me.
“I just need to rest a while.”
“I thought I heard you shouting up here?” She glanced over at the toy chest. Mothers are irritatingly observant. “Where’s that ugly bear thing?”
“I…I…uh…decided to put him inside.”
“Reminds you too much of Jake, hey?” I pouted my lips and nodded. “Wonderful! That suits me fine as well. Now try to get some rest. I’ll bring you some tea up later; maybe you’ll be feeling better by then.”
I lay on the bed mulling the whole incident around in my head. I ran the dream through my head again and was surprised to find myself smiling. Was this really so terrible? After all, half my problem had been permanently solved.
It wasn’t long before I fell into a deep sleep. I don’t remember what I dreamed, but I do remember hearing a sound like a mouse or a rat scratching and scurrying behind wood paneling.
It was late afternoon when my mother woke me with a cup of extra sweet tea and the words, “You won’t get any sleep tonight if you don’t wake up now.” She placed the tea on the toy chest.
“Thanks, mom,” I mumbled gazing up at her through bleary eyes.
Before leaving she said, “Dinner will be ready in about an hour. If you feel well enough you can join us downstairs. I see you’ve changed your mind about Zommie? Pity!”
I sat up and turned towards the toy chest. Was my mother playing some sort of sick joke on me? If she was, the only one who found it amusing was Zommie. He grinned at me with that perverted smile.
My appetite had returned with an uncanny vengeance so that I was feeling well enough to join my parents at the dinner table.
“I don’t want you going anywhere near the swamps or bayou,” said my mother slapping a large spoon of mashed potato onto my plate. “You hear me?” I nodded.
“Why the hell would they build a school so close to the water anyway?” asked my father.
“Language,” said my mom staring at my dad. Then she glared even more intensely at me. I’ve always thought it strangely humorous how mothers will attempt to protect you by using the threat of even worse violence. “I’ll skin you alive I ever find out you went near the swamps.”
“The school ain’t that close to the water,” I said ignoring the statement.
“From what you told me about this morning,” said my father mixing his peas and mash together, “The boy’ll be too terrified to go anywhere near there.”
Dad was wrong. I desperately needed to speak with Nan, but the constant warnings and restrictions given by the police, school and my parents had made it near impossible. Even the hole in the back fence had been thoroughly wired up. The smokers had been forced to move their recess activity to the back of the gym hall.
It was almost a month before I found the nerve to perform my act of defiance.
Our school was hosting a home game against a team from Baton Rouge. I worked my way to where the fence had been wired up and waited for an exciting play. While all the spectators were keenly watching the football game, I scrambled over the top and dashed towards the concealing brush.
“You lied to me!” I shouted. “You killed Jake! They say it was an alligator, but you and I know better! It was Zommie! You told me that you don’t kill your victims! You said that they’re more useful to you alive! You said you’d just give them an ingrown toenail or something painful!”
Nan seemed genuinely astounded. “Dead? Jake be dead?”
“Don’t play that game with me! You know you killed him with your hoodoo or voodoo or whatever! You should’ve seen the blood on Zommie! It was awful!”
“Killed, hey? Well, dat surely explain my surprise da mornin’ after.”
“It was not supposed ta happen so quickly. It gets people talkin’.”
“What are you talking bout?”
“Never minds. All ah can tells yous now is dat Jake was not supposed ta die. Dat should never o’ happen. Not unless…” She became silent.
“Unless…I didn’t tink yous had it in ya; such an innocent lookin’ young’un.”
“Such terrible hate. Yous must o’ hated dat Jake Dreskil summin’ awful?” Her eyes were clear and bright as she glared down at me. “Did ya be wishin’ fer Jake ta be dead?”
“Did ya wish fer Jake ta be dead?”
“I did, but…”
“Were yer happy when ya got da news?”
“I…I…” I dropped my head in shame. “Yes, I…I suppose I was.”
“Even more happy dan shocked?”
“Yes,” I almost whispered.
“Den it was you dat be killin’ him, not m’.”
“That’s not fair!” I said raising my voice again. “You should have warned me this could happen. If I knew, I would never have brought you that stuff in the first place.” I opened my satchel and removed Zommie. “Here!” I said handing him over to her. “I can’t keep him, and I don’t have the heart to burn him either. You keep him from now on!”
“As yous wish, boy. When yer start pining fer da liddle critter yous be knowin’ where ta be findin’ him. Nan’ll keep him sound an’ safe fer yous.”
“I don’t think it’s his safety I’m worried about!” I headed towards the path.
“Where yous going?”
“I dunno!” I shouted. “Home, I guess!”
“When will ah see yous again, den?”
“Never!” I shouted wheeling. “I never want to see you or…Zommie again! Ever!”
“But yous promised? Yous promised Ol’ Nan dat yous…”
I ran off crying before she could finish.
As I made my way back through the swamps it came to my mind that there had been something different about Nan. The thought troubled me all the way home until it finally manifested itself as I entered my room. “Of course!” I exclaimed loudly to myself. “The problem had been staring me right in the face.” I had meant this literally, for it suddenly dawned on me that Nan’s milky eye had been clear and sparkling.
Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.
There are many variations to this statement, but I believe that this particular one was coined by William Shakespeare. It has a rather bittersweet ring of truth to it.
If Jim Prescot had ceased to terrorize me on a daily basis, the events that followed; events that would cause consequences that spanned many years into the future, would never have happened.
I guess, in some sort of strange twisted way, I shall be eternally grateful to Jim.
“Haircut Wednesday!” shouted my father clapping his hands together furiously at the bottom of the stairs. “Let’s go, Joe! Time to get that mop trimmed! I won’t have any ducktail living under my roof!”
Haircut Wednesday. That was the more common name for Wednesdays in our home. Every Wednesday afternoon family members of army personnel were allowed a free visit to the base’s barber; just one of the many perks the army afforded their employees.
My father dropped me outside the military barber and promised to pick me up in an hour.
My heart sank as I entered the large rectangular room. Jim Preston was busy getting his hair trimmed by Corporal McKinley. He glared at me from the large mirror in front of the barber chair.
“Hey, wiener Stone!” he sneered loudly so that all the other youngsters waiting their turn could hear. “Where’s yer teddy bear? Scared that Mac might shave all his hair off?”
The Staff Sergeant leaning against the wall and sucking on a Lucky Strike between thin taught lips moved hastily forward and slapped Jim hard on the back of his head. A smack like that would surely have caused my eyes to water. Jim just stared at the man, a look of fearfulness in his eyes.
“I tol’ you before, boy, it’s Corporal McKinley to you - not Mac!” spat the Staff pointing a long spindly finger at Jim’s nose. “And stop making such a goddamn row!”
“Ah, it’s alright Frank,” said McKinley. “I don’t mind…”
“No, it’s not!” interrupted the Staff. “The boy needs to learn respect. If he’s gonna be a good soldier one day, he better know his ranks!”
“I already know all the ranks, Pa. You taught me real good.”
After another slap, the Staff continued his reprimand, “Don’t you be talking back to me, boy! You’re getting as bad as yer ma!”
“Yes sir,” answered Jim sheepishly. He glanced quickly at me again in the mirror. A flush of embarrassment colored his cheeks. “Sorry, sir.”
“That’s more like it!” The Staff turned to leer at me. “And you? You got something to say as well?”
“No sir,” I answered nervously, almost coming to attention.
“You Lieutenant Stone’s boy?”
He studied me slowly, his eyes moving up and down. “Figures,” he scowled.
“Jim tol’ me all about you an’ that little teddy bear o’ yours.” He looked around slowly at all the other boys. “So, what you doing here?”
“My dad brought me for a haircut, sir.”
“I just think you’d look much better with two ponytails all tied up with nice pink ribbons.”
Everyone except Mac laughed. A strong urge to turn and flee from the room gripped me, but I knew that it would only make matters worse.
“Leave the boy be,” said the barber sensing my pain. “Some kids just take longer to grow up is all.”
“Yeah!” said the Staff loudly. “And you wanna know why? It’s all this commie crap they’re feeding into their heads these days. Commie TV programs, commie movies and worst of all those damned commie comic books. Stuff should be banned outright. No true American would read that shit. Makes ‘em all soft inside; kills that killer instinct. The Ruskies know well that every man gotta have that killer instinct in order to survive. No son of mine is gonna watch that crap. I ever catch him doing it, I’ll take my belt to his hide. No sirree, no kin of mine is gonna turn out to be some queer pansy marshmallow. I’ll sooner put him down like a sick dog before I let that happen!”
“Next!” said Mac removing the towel from Jim’s neck and giving it a hefty flick. It made a loud whack like a whip being cracked. Bits of hair drifted gently towards the floor.
McKinley had a ritual. I had been coming here long enough to know it by now. Between each cut, as he waited for the next person to be seated, he would fetch a broom from the corner and sweep away the last person’s hair shavings from around the base of the large adjustable barber’s chair.
“I’ll do that for you,” I said rushing past Mac and grabbing the broom.
“Thanks Theo,” said Mac smiling. He ruffled my hair. “You’re a good kid. It’ll give me a chance for a quick puff.” He reached for a pack of cigarettes on the large wide counter in front of the mirror.
“That broom suits you real fine, boy!” said the Staff loudly whilst grabbing Jim tightly on the back of his neck. Jim winced. “My boy here, you know what suits him? I got him a hunting rifle last spring. You wanna know why? Cause every man…every real man got hisself a rifle. And one day Jim here is gonna shoot something; something big and mean.”
“That’s right, Stone,” said Jim sneering. “One day I’m gonna bag me a mountain lion or a grizzly; a real live dangerous bear with teeth and claws. Not some silly harmless teddy bear that sleeps next to you each night on your pillow.”
“That’s telling him,” smiled Jim’s father. “But you’ll make your old man even prouder if you take out a bunch of them commie bastards, just like I did back in fifty three in Korea. You ain’t lived till you’ve killed. I’m talking righteous killing. It’s like disinfecting a toilet; removing the germs that plague society. I sleep better nights knowing that I did my own small part to make this planet a better place. Some try to use a broom to clean the mess. I always found that my rifle did a much better job.” He pushed Jim towards the door and followed.
I gazed down at the hair surrounding the chair and smiled. “Providence.”
Nan was more than thrilled to see me again.
“It been awhile, but ah knowed yer be keepin’ yer promise ta Ol’ Nan. Yous a good kid; a man o’ yer word.”
I handed the ball of hair to her. “I need your help, but I don’t want anymore killing.”
“Dat gonna depend on youself, young’un.” She held out the hair towards me. “How much ya be dislikin’ dis Jim fella den?”
“Pretty bad, I guess, but I understand now where all his anger and frustration is coming from.” She frowned at me. “It’s all his dad’s fault. He only takes out on me, what his dad takes out on him. I dislike Jim, but I also feel sorry for him. But no matter how much I understand or sympathize, it ain’t gonna make my problem go away.”
“Sounds ta m’ dat yous be havin’ da perfect disposition fer m’ ta be placin’ one o’ m’ hoodoos, boy.”
“That…is exactly what I figured myself.” After a short silence I said, “I missed you Nan. I don’t know why. Especially after what happened. It wasn’t that I felt sorry for you out here by yourself. I should have hated you, but I found myself actually missing your company.”
“Dat because ah placed a hoodoo on yous as well.”
“I don’t think so,” I said smiling.
“Whadever,” she said smiling back. “Tea?”
“Oh, yeah,” I said reaching into my satchel and pulling out a brown paper bag. “I used some of my pocket money to buy milk and sugar.
“Sugar?” she asked and started rubbing her hands violently together. “Thought ah told yous ah don’ fancy da stuff.”
“It’s for me.”
She took the packet, holding it between two fingers like some smelly diaper. “I guess it’ll be nice ta have m’ tea wid a spot o’ milk fer a change.” She walked towards the cabin door. “Elvis gonna be real pleased too.”
A week later I placed Zommie back on the toy chest before heading off to Pops with some pocket money. By the time I was chased out I had a handful of bubblegum and a new Sad Sack comic book.
I walked straight into Jim Preston.
“Well now, if it ain’t The Teddy Bear Boy,” he sneered. “What you got for me, Stone?”
I arrived home empty handed and seething.
“What’s wrong?” asked my mother.
“Nothing!” I exclaimed rushing up to my room.
A minute later she was at my door. “It doesn’t look like nothing to me.”
I stared at Zommie intently. “Nothing I won’t be able to handle.”
“What is that hideous thing doing on top of your toy chest again?” She grimaced her displeasure. “It seems that you can’t make up your mind whether to put him away or keep him on top?”
“I thought you liked Zommie?”
“That is not Zommie. If Zommie had looked like that when I bought him for you, the child welfare would have taken you away from me.”
“That is the resurrected Zommie. New and improved.”
“And maybe I’m Doctor Frankenstein?”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because,” she said jabbing a finger into my ribs and tickling me, “I think I may have created a monster.”
We both giggled.
The next morning I stared horrified at Zommie. I wondered if I would ever be able to laugh again.
I wrapped the blood drenched toy in some old newspaper and hid it under the mattress. I would burn it later. I first had to make sure that my worst fears were not true.
I washed and dressed for school in record time.
It was a prolonged hell waiting for my mother to pack my lunch.
“You’re keen to get to school today?”
“I…uh…we got an arithmetic test today before recess and I promised Larry Sewall I’d help him to go over some of the tough stuff before school starts.”
“That’s very nice of you. It makes me proud to know you’re helping out some of the children that are struggling.”
As I ran, last night’s dream began to disturb my memories. I recalled the vivid images with no little trepidation.
Once again I was viewing the world as if thru a sheet of rosy-colored glass, and again my view was from a very low angle. I traveled along a familiar street with great haste. It was familiar because it was one that I had made a point of avoiding at all costs. It was the street on which Jim Preston lived.
I remember hoping to pass the house without being seen. Upon reaching the house I stopped to gaze up the narrow polished pathway leading to the door. I tried to run away but instead found myself moving towards the side of the house. There was a high thick shrub blocking entrance to the back yard. I began to move with a slight amount of difficulty through the hedgerow. After a short struggle I found myself emerging on the other side and moving around and onto the back porch. Although my mind was screaming to run in the opposite direction, my body moved with an unerring rapidity towards the back door. The strange thing was that I must have been small enough to fit thru the pet flap because no sooner had I reached it than I immediately found myself inside the darkened house. Without any hesitation I moved through a kitchen area and then turned right into a long passageway. There was a bedroom at the end; the door was open and a light was on. I stopped at the entrance and, from my point of view, could see a pair of naked feet near the edge of the bed. On the wall, above where the pillows would be, was a picture of Tretchicoff’s ‘The Green Lady.’ There was movement as the person turned the page of a comic book he was reading; it was a Sad Sack comic Book. The last thing I remember before waking was moving towards the base of the bed.
I don’t recall any further dreams that I may have had on that particular night, but I do distinctly remember hearing the sounds of distant sirens before drifting off again.
My heart skipped a beat as I noticed the two police cars in front of Jim’s house.
“Why, Jim?” I asked staring up that same pathway towards the front door. “Why did you have to take my stuff yesterday of all days.”
“You waiting for your pal, fella?” The voice came from behind me. I wheeled to face a policeman. He knelt down and gently held my shoulders. “You’ll have to go on alone, he ain’t gonna be making it to school today.”
“Why not? What’s wrong?”
“Something very bad happened here last night.”
“What?” I asked moving back. “What happened?”
“I’m not certain. I haven’t been inside myself. I’ve just been told to make sure no one goes inside while the detectives are busy. All I know is that your friend was taken to the military hospital down at the army base.”
“He’s alive? Jim’s alive?”
“That’s all I know. Sorry, fella.”
It took me the best part of half an hour to reach the hospital.
“Grace Preston’s boy?” asked the receptionist.
“I don’t know his mother. Father’s Staff Sergeant Frank Preston.”
The receptionist nodded. “They brought him in very early this morning. His mother’s with him now. She’s one of our nurses.”
“Is he alright? Can I see him?”
“I’m not sure. You’ll have to ask the ward matron.” She flipped through some cards before saying, “He’s in the pediatric ward. Room 2E on the second floor.” She pointed towards the elevator. “Your best friend, hey?”
I forced an uneasy smile onto my face and pushed the button.
There was no one at the ward reception area. I noticed a 2A above the nearest door so I quickly moved down the passage. As I approached 2E a lady in a military nurse’s uniform exited the room. She closed the door and stood for a moment with her hand over her mouth before bursting into tears.
I felt my stomach twist and knot.
A moment later a lady dressed in civilian attire rushed passed me. She grabbed the nurse’s hands tightly and said, “Oh my, Grace, why didn’t you call me sooner? How is he? I got here as quickly as I could.” The nurse just shook her head. There was a wooden bench near the corner of the passage. “Sit down. Tell me what happened? You weren’t making any sense over the phone.”
I hastily dashed around the corner where they would not be able to see me. They sat down and I listened intently as the nurse began to speak.
“I had just gotten home from work when it happened. It was late, or very early depending on how you look at it. It was my turn on the midnight shift. Manny, one of the ambulance drivers dropped me off at about two - two fifteen maybe. He had just driven off when the shouting started. It was Frank. I couldn’t make out everything, but the last thing I did hear him shout was, ‘Come on you commie bastard! I won’t go easy!’ Then there were shots fired from our bedroom. Many shots. I saw the flashes coming from the window. I was terrified; too scared to go in. Then came those awful screams. I’ve never heard anyone scream like that before. It turned my blood cold. I was frozen with fear. I just stood there on the sidewalk not knowing what to do. Then a voice behind me almost made me scream as well. It was Sergeant Ned Granger from next door. He had come to see what all the ruckus was about. He asked if Frank was having another one of his drunken fits. I told him that I thought something was seriously wrong. He returned a short while later with a pistol in his hand. By then the screaming had stopped. He said that he had phoned both the police as well as the MPs. He thought it best to wait until one of them arrived, but I had regained a little courage by then and was concerned about both Frank and Jim. I unlocked the front door, and Ned went in alone.
“When he came back out, he was as white as a sheet. He threw up on the front lawn. He insisted that it would be best not to go in; that there was a lot of blood.
“ Now, I only wish that I had listened to him. The bedroom…it looked as though someone had used Frank’s blood…to paint the walls.” The civilian lady made exclamations of shock and disgust. “I’m a nurse. I’ve seen some pretty bad things down at the Military Hospital. I even did a short stint in Korea. But last night, seeing Frank like that. They had taken his…his…and…” She made strange gestures with her hands before beginning to sob violently, her whole body shook and her words became unintelligible.
“What about Jim?” asked the lady anxiously. “Is James alright?”
Mrs. Preston slowly regained some of her former composure. She gave her nose a long hard blow into a large white handkerchief before answering. “He’s alright; Jim’s okay.” I felt a great sense of relief flood over me. “At least, physically,” she added. “The police eventually found him hiding in the bath tub behind the shower curtain. He was totally terrified and catatonic at the time. The doctor gave him a sedative to relax him, but when he did eventually say something it was just all confused babbling. The doctor says that between the drugs and the trauma of his father’s death, it’s still too early to get any reliable answers. We should wait awhile before we try to pressure him for any proper information. It’s just so upsetting to hear him scream such foolish nonsense all the time.”
“What sort of nonsense?”
“He keeps saying that a teddy bear came into our house and ripped his father to pieces.”
“A teddy bear? He thinks that a teddy bear could do that to Frank?”
“Yes, a hideous little teddy bear with claws and fangs. And when it had finished, it pointed at him as if to say ‘You’re next!”
“Good heavens, Grace! Whatever are they putting into the medications these days? The cure is almost as bad as the symptoms.”
It didn’t take me long to figure out what had happened. Staff Sergeant Frank Prescot had taken his son for a haircut at the military base, but had then decided, being a good commie-hating patriot, to have a quick trim himself. When I collected up the sample of Jim’s hair from around the barber’s chair, I must have somehow gotten a quantity of his father’s hair as well. This was a most unfortunate event for Frank Prescot, especially since I disliked him far more than his son.
That’s right, I hated him enough to wish him dead, just as I had done with Jake. Both were tragic events that I have come to accept as unfortunate accidents. I blame no one for these mishaps; not Nan, not Zommie, and most definitely not myself.
In fact and in retrospect, I believe the world to be a much better place during their…extended absence.
I guessed later that Frank had found and confiscated the comic book from Jim. He had most probably given Jim that promised beating as well. Later that night, the hypocrite was deservedly attacked and killed whilst reading that very same commie comic book.
It was only many years later that I realized too the irony of Frank Preston’s choice in wall hangings. Then again, the fact that he wasn’t too bright had been very obvious. For a commie-hater he had chosen to hang a picture of a Chinese girl above his bed; a Chinese girl that had been painted by a Russian-born artist. I still laugh today when I think about it.
That afternoon, after returning home from a most pleasant day at school, I removed Zommie from under the mattress.
“I’m glad to see you stayed put this time,” I said unwrapping him.
During his shampoo, I wondered how I could have ever thought of destroying him. The little tyke had brought so much happiness into my life.
Later, after brushing his fur into a lovely fluffy coat, I sat back to study him.
“Hell,” I said starting to chuckle. “You really are an evil looking critter. Frank Preston must have browned his jammies at the sight of you?” I laughed until the tears streamed down my cheeks. “I gotta tell Ol’ Nan the good news real soon. Gotta keep my promise to visit her regularly.”
The next morning I found The Courier, Houma’s daily newspaper, on the kitchen table where my mom always placed it for my dad.
The newspaper headlines read: Police Baffled at Man’s Brutal Slaying. They had used the word Slaying instead of Murder. Did this mean they believed the killing to be done by something not human?
I sat down and finished reading thru the rest of the article.
It told of how both the front and back doors had been locked during the entire incident. Mrs. Prescot had unlocked the front door, and the safety chain on the back door had still been in place. Some of the victim’s blood had been found on the small pet flap at the base of the door.
To strengthen the possibility that some small feral creature had indeed entered the Prescot home, the police report stated that Frank’s rifle had been fired until the clip was empty. The strange thing was that every single shot had been aimed down into the wood-paneled flooring. It was as if he had been trying to shoot at something small and scurrying around the bedroom floor with great speed.
The article ended with, ‘Any information that could help the police in their investigation would be welcome. Contact Inspector Mulholland at the 38th Precinct.’ Beneath that some telephone numbers had been given.
“I’ve never known you to be interested in reading the newspaper?” asked my father sitting down opposite. “I thought you only liked reading those comic books of yours?”
“Commie comic books.”
“That’s what Jim’s dad called them. He said they make a person soft.”
“Ah, of course. Frank’s son is in your school. You’re reading about the murder. Let’s have it.”
“Can I keep the strips section?”
“Sure, go ahead.” I removed the comic strip section and handed the rest to my dad. He read a little before saying, “Most of the guys at the base couldn’t stand his guts, but he couldn’t have been all bad.”
“Why you say that?”
“Commie comic books.”
I could sense him smiling behind the paper.
“I kind of thought of him as a germ,” I said starting to read the first strip. “Like something nasty that you might find inside a toilet bowl.”
The paper flopped forward. My dad had a puzzled yet concerned appearance. “I’m not sure what bad things you heard about Staff Sergeant Preston, but it is not right to talk ill of the dead. So, we’ll have no more of it. Okay?”
“Sure dad. Sorry dad.”
“Good,” he winked before returning to the article.
Of course, Jim never changed his story. The doctors said that his mind was unable to deal with the terrible reality of what he had actually witnessed that night. Whatever it was, it had forced him to construct a most bizarre tale of the events. ‘It’s a safety barrier to conceal the true horror of what happened,’ concurred all the specialists. ‘With time, that truth may eventually reveal itself. But how much time? A month? A year? A decade? A lifetime? The answer to that also remains a mystery.’
Out of all the uncertainties emerged one most pleasant fact - Jim Preston would never be the same again. Medicine, therapy and constant visits to a local psychiatrist could not dispel his chronic, morbid and highly intense fear of any and all teddy bears.
Every school kid that had ever been bullied by Jim, and there were plenty, was quick to exploit this fact. The local stores were curious at the sudden increase in the sales of their teddy bears - especially the smaller-sized variety.
Isn’t it great when the tables are turned? Isn’t it wonderful to be able to bully the bully? The teddy bear tied to Jim’s school locker was all my own idea of course. An act of ultimate irony.
Even though many of the antagonists were threatened with Friday detention, the reward of seeing a big kid like Jim screaming in absolute terror at a cute fluffy little teddy bear far exceeded the risk or even the actual reality of the punishment. Hardly a day passed at the school without Jim’s screams ringing down the school corridors. It was a fitting and divine justice; it was retribution to the nth degree.
Even the headmaster had difficulty concealing his amusement when making a special announcement, requested by the highly distraught widow Prescot, to the entire congregated school. He tried to choke his laugh behind a feigned cough, but I had seen the smile on his lips before he placed a clenched fist against them.
I had not been the sole person to view that fleeting grin. Muffled giggling was heard, not only from the students, but from some of the staff members as well. One thing was now very obvious - Jim Preston might be well-known by all, but, boy, he sure was unpopular. With Jake permanently out of the picture, I doubted whether Jim had a single friend left on the entire planet.
Also, in trying to help, Mrs. Prescot had only managed to pour more fuel onto the fire. The announcement helped to garner the complete opposite effect of its intended purpose. Now, even more students knew of Jim’s peculiar phobia. Children have a habit of being curious to the point of performing acts of extreme cruelty. To illustrate, they will throw a moth into a spider’s web just to see what happens. Jim made a most marvelous moth - over and over and over again.
His screams became a pleasant part of our daily school life.
Jim’s mother eventually had him placed in another school, but good news travels fast, especially when someone makes certain of it. It wasn’t too long before the teddy bear attacks were renewed at the new school.
Eventually, Jim was forced to leave school altogether. Without any decent qualifications and a rather strange disposition regarding certain toys, any future in the American armed forces was impossible.
I later heard that he had managed to find work in a small supermarket that, most fortunately for him, did not stock toys.
I believe his job was to sweep the aisles clean.
Yes, sometimes vengeance is sweet, and other times it can be just plain glorious.
About a year and a half later, the inevitable happened - my father was once again transferred to a new base. This time it was way up north where Christmases felt normal with all the December snowfall. Still, I missed Houma and all the wonderful experiences that I had had. Apart from the time during which I had been constantly bullied, Houma provided some of the best memories from my childhood. I had even managed to make a lot of new friends in our short stay down south, but the best of them all had been ‘ol Nan. I remember saying goodbye to her as if it was only yesterday.
“I’m gonna miss you most of all, Nan.”
“Ah, ya jus’ sayin’ dat ta make an ol’ lady feel good.”
“No, really, it’s the truth.” I kissed my pinky and held it in the air. “I wouldn’t lie to you. I’m gonna miss coming out here to the everglades to hear your crazy old stories.”
“Crazy Ol’ Nan with her crazy ol’ stories.”
“I never said you were crazy.”
She smiled. “Jus’ a liddle eccentric maybe?”
“Just a little,” I said smiling back. “Eccentric and fascinating.”
“Oh, so now ah’s da sideshow freak is ah?”
Ignoring the remark, I asked, “Who else comes to visit you out here.”
“Oh, mostly jus’ Jonah from Beach ‘n’ Bayou. He pops in fer a visit whenever he be needin’ more o’ m’ ‘gator skulls fer his shop.”
“Must get plenty lonesome out here.”
“Gonna be worse now dat you’re goin’ away.”
I started opening my satchel. “I brought someone to keep you company and to remember me by.” I held out Zommie towards her.
She stared at the teddy bear for some time before saying, “I haven’t seen dat critter in a very long time. Da last time was when yous…” She paused then solemnly asked, “Yous sure ‘bout dis? Ah knows how much yer attached ta dat liddle fella.”
I nodded. “I’m going to high school soon, and you were right about girls. I’m already starting to feel…different about them. I even got me film posters of Voodoo Woman and The Seven Year Itch on my wall. My mom’s still not happy about my choices in wall hangings, but at least my dad doesn’t seem to mind now. He was the one using my mom’s own words to protect my interests. ‘Leave him be. It’s good for a developing mind, remember? Stimulates the imagination’”
Nan laughed and took Zommie from me. “Well, in dat case it would be a pleasure ta accept him. I’ll look after him real good fer yous.”
“I know you will. Still, I feel really bad about leaving. Wish there was something I could do.”
“Ain’t your doin’ young‘un. So don’ be frettin’ yourself too much about it. Jus’ be promisin’ Ol’ Nan dis.”
“Anything you ask, Nan.”
“If providence ever bring ya back ta dis part o’ da woods, boy. Yous be sure ta be looking Ol’ Nan up, ya hear.”
“That’s a promise, Nan. That is another promise that I’ll surely keep.
We hugged, and I felt a tear welling in my eye. If I remember clearly, Nan’s eyes were also a little watery that day.
My strangest recollection of Ol’ Nan was that she seemed younger, much younger on the day I said goodbye, than on the day I had first met her. Of course it was probably just that set of pearly white chompers that she claimed to have gotten from a local dentist around the time of Frank Preston’s death.
It had been over twenty five years since I said goodbye to Ol’ Nan. Providence never did see me returning to Houma. Not till late May in nineteen eighty six, that is.
At the time of my return, the New York Giants had done themselves proud in the playoffs and went on to finally defeat the Denver Broncos to win their first league title in thirty years. Top Gun was causing a big stir on the movie circuit. It would become the highest grossing movie for that year, and also causing a phenomenal boost to the recruitment numbers of both the air force and navy. My father, who had recently retired, thought it was ridiculously far-fetched and also felt they were placing too much emphasis on the role of women in the military. He often bragged that, since his marriage, my mother had never once supplemented his salary. Sure, they had gone over a few financial bumps along the way, but never anything too serious to handle. Although most of the wives of his friends and colleagues had been forced to find employment outside the home, he had always managed to retain my mother’s proud and important title of housewife. My mother was exceptionally bright, and I often wondered if she had ever felt the need to prove herself beyond the kitchen and wash basket. She had developed a malignant brain tumor early in eighty one and I never had the opportunity to ask her before her death later that same year.
My father wasn’t overly disappointed when I joined the police in sixty nine; especially since he knew that I had great ambitions to work in homicide division. I proved myself most capable and within three years I made Detective. Five years later when a case came up that required for someone from my office to liaison in person with the Houma division, I volunteered for the assignment. I guess I had found it necessary to force providence.
Of course, Ol’ Nan Mangrove would be long gone by now, but I was curious to see how the old neighborhood looked after all these years. Perhaps, I might even have the fortune of running into a few old friends.
I stopped the hired car on a wide part of the shoulder of the raised highway that crossed the everglades. It was illegal to stop on the elevated roadway so I popped the hood, climbed out and raised it before turning to gaze across the shimmering patches of water towards the old city. It had changed a lot since my youth, but a few familiar landmarks helped me to get my bearings. In the distance I could see the old Catholic Cathedral’s steeple. Beneath that was the old main road running all the way to my old school. I followed it with my eye until I found it. Behind and to the left of that would be the area where Ol’ Nan had stayed.
I wasn’t surprised, yet still somewhat disappointed, to see a number of high rise apartments standing whitewashed in the very spot. Some developers had been clever enough to reclaim a portion of the wetland in order to build a rather lucrative investment.
The view from the top stories would be rather spectacular. I expected there would be no problem to see all the way to the open bayou.
Nan had once told me that she owned that land. If her story was true, then who had inherited the area after her death? If she had left behind no family or will then the state would probably have claimed it back after all those years.
I looked at my watch. My plane had been delayed and it was too late now to head down to the precinct. I decided to take a drive into the old town; maybe have an early dinner at one of the places that served some good old southern fare.
When I reached the old Houma South Elementary, I noticed the new road that cut towards the bayou. I could see the high rise apartments and figured the road must lead to them.
I was right. I pulled into the visitors parking area and walked towards the main entrance. I had decided to do a little detective work on my own time. Perhaps I could find the number of an agent or owner who could tell me what had happened to Ol’ Nan.
“Mangrove Heights,” I said reading the name above the entrance. “Catchy!” I walked inside. There was a large foyer, but entrance beyond that was blocked by a strong metal security gate. To the right of the gate was an intercom, and next to that, on the wall, was a large board that listed the apartment numbers and the names of the occupants. “Bingo!” I said walking over to the board. “There has to be contact numbers on there.”
I wrote down the number next to: ‘In case of emergency.’ It was a long shot but it was the only telephone number on the board.
I was about to leave when my eye caught the name of the occupant listed at 001.
“No ways!” I exclaimed moving closer. “Preston J. F.” I shook my head. “Can’t be the same guy. This place smells of money.” I eyed the intercom. “Maybe he won the lottery or something.” I walked over and studied the device. There was a three-digit keypad and an enter button. “Worth a try though. Nothing to lose.” I keyed in 0…0…1 and pushed enter. There was a beeping sound.
A few seconds later a voice said, “Yeah?”
I leaned forward, “James Frank Preston?”
There was a short silence before, “Come on in!”
I walked over to the gate. I pushed on it as it buzzed and it swung open.
“Zero zero one. Has to be the very first apartment?” I walked down a short flight of stairs and turned right into a long hallway of doors. As I started to move forward an elderly man, I guessed in his early sixties, stepped out of the first door.
“Yeah?” he asked looking me up and down. “What you want?”
“I’m looking for Jim Preston. I was hoping he may live here?”
“That would be me, yeah.”
“Nah, the man I’m looking for is much younger, about my age. You wouldn’t happen to know of any other James Preston in Houma?”
He shook his head. “Don’t know any other Prestons. I got no more family hereabouts or anywhere else.”
“I’m sorry to have bothered you. Good day.” I turned to walk off.
“Stone?” said the voice behind me. “Theodore Stone?”
I turned back towards the old man. “You know me?”
“Yeah, thought it was you.” He walked back inside. “Come on in. Close the door behind you.” I obeyed. There was one of those ridiculous choreographed wrestling matches showing on an old fake wood-paneled television set. He grabbed at a remote and the picture winked to black. “Want a drink?” He sat down in an old armchair and gestured towards a pine cabinet. There were several bottles of cheap whiskey on top; half the bottles were empty. “Help yourself, I already got one.” He raised the tumbler towards a small refrigerator standing against the living room wall. “There’s ice in the freezer compartment.” The ice in his glass clinked against the sides.
“How do you know me? Do I…”
“Get a drink. Sit down.” I poured a small shot into a dirty glass I found in the cabinet and sat down. “I thought for a minute there you gonna tell me you don’t drink.” There was the hint of a sneer on his face and in his voice. “At least you seem to have grown into a better man than you were a boy.”
“I’m sorry?” I asked frowning.
“I know I’ve changed a lot, Stone, but I would have thought that you’d recognize the guy who kicked your ass every day at school.”
I stared in disbelief at the wrinkled face. “No! Never!” He nodded. “Jim?” He nodded again. “It’s not possible! You must be about… you look about…”
“About sixty something?”
“Yeah! God, what happened to you?”
“You know what happened. You of all people should remember?”
“Of course, I remember about your father and everything else. That was a terrible time, but that doesn’t explain this…you.”
“Doesn’t it?” He looked at the drink in his hand. “There are certain illnesses that can cause the body to age or deteriorate more rapidly than normal. I’ve seen pictures of ten year olds that look even older than me.” He looked at me with a strange intensity. “The doctors said that my keeping an awful truth buried inside me all these years is like having a cancer that eats away at your body. Of course, all the medication and…alcohol helped as well.”
“Geez, that’s terrible, Jim. I’m really sorry. I’m…”
“Ah, spare me the bleeding heart. I’m used to it already.”
“And the problem? That thing you have about…with…?”
“You can say it - teddy bears!” He took a long swig at his drink. “That’s what they called me later on you know - The Teddy Bear Boy. Ain’t that ironic? You must have found it pretty hilarious?”
“Why you say that?”
“Because that’s what Jake and I used to call you.” He stared at the blank television screen. “Ah, shit! Poor Jake Dreskil; what a way to go.” He stood up and started to pour himself another drink.”
“They never did find that rogue gator, did they?”
“It wasn’t any gator that got Jake.”
“I’m guessing it was the same thing that got my pa.”
“A teddy bear?”
He ignored the question and opened the refrigerator. “What brings you round here? Why you looking for me?”
“What? Oh, I was looking for something else when I saw your name on the board in the foyer.”
“I was hoping to find out what happened to an old friend.”
“Anyone I know?”
“You remember…Mad Nan?”
“Mad Nan?” He pointed his glass into the air. “That crazy old black witch who lived way out there in the swamps all by herself?”
“Actually, she used to stay right here. This apartment block is built right on top of where she used stay.”
“It is?” He became pensive for a moment before saying, “Shit, I think you’re right. Yeah, you are right.” After some more thought he asked, “She was a friend of yours?” He laughed rudely before sitting down again. “You musta been really hard up for friends?”
I felt bile rising in my chest and decided to change the subject with a snide remark of my own. “How the hell does a loser like you afford to stay in a swank place like this? The last I heard, you were pushing a broom in some dime-a-dozen store.”
He stared at me and smiled. “You’re still sore at me after all this time. Its been what…twenty…twenty-five years and you still hate my guts?” He shook his head. “You gotta learn to let these things go or they’re gonna make you old before your time.”
He was right. I felt stupid and embarrassed. “So?” He frowned. “This place?”
“You heard right. I’m still pushing a broom at The Lucky Seven. I clean the place and bag groceries. It don’t pay all that well, but I get enough tips to keep me in booze and smokes.” That seemed to remind him that it was time to light up. He held the pack towards me.”
“No thanks,” I said holding up a hand. “Tobacco’s just too manly for me.”
He smiled and asked, “What about you? What sorta work you do?”
“I’m with Boston Homicide. I’m here on a case. I thought I’d look up a few old friends while I was here.”
“Some fucking policeman you are. That crazy black bitch must have been a hundred years old back then already. Only way you gonna find her is by checking the cemeteries.”
It was difficult, but I managed to remain composed. I calmly said, “I figured as much. Just thought I might get a lead here.”
“Like I told you, she used to stay here. She owned the land under you.”
He became pensive for a moment then said, “Maybe Jem can help you.”
“Jem! Owns all the ground floor apartments. Lives two doors down. If anybody can help you it’ll be her.”
“Her? Jem’s a woman?”
“Nope,” he said blowing smoke into the air. “Jem’s an angel in disguise.” I frowned. “You wanted to know how I can afford to stay in a place like this.” I nodded. “The truth is, I can’t.” I frowned again. “Three years ago my mother, bless her heart, passed away. I was still staying with her at the time. The house was one of those military-owned deals which meant I had to find new digs real soon. Luckily my mother had managed to leave me some money. Well, actually it was quite a bit of money. Not enough to afford a swank place like this, but more than enough to be able to drink myself into a stupor every night. Within two years I had used up the money and lost my job. I was living on handouts and sleeping in cardboard boxes in alleys.” He held out his wrists towards me. There were scars running the length of his lower arms. “I eventually did this to myself with a broken beer bottle. I woke up in a hospital bed at Saint Mary’s. I didn’t know you got black angels, but there was one sitting next to my bed. She was the one who had found me and called the ambulance. After my release she brought me back here and helped me to clean up my act…sort of.” He held up the glass. “Want another? You’ve been nursing that one forever.” I shook my head. “She even helped me to get my job back at The Lucky Seven. This apartment…,” he said waving a hand across the air, “This great fucking apartment, she said had been standing empty for some time and that I could stay here as long as I like. No charge.”
“I don’t know why. She just said that everybody deserves a second chance. I just know that if it wasn’t for her I’d be dead today.”
“Sounds too good to be true.”
“I kid you not.”
“I think I will have that talk with her,” I said standing up and placing the untouched drink on the cabinet. He gazed at it in disgust. “Two doors down, you said?”
“Number three. Tell my guardian angel I said, ‘Hi.’” The last thing he said before closing the door was, “You gotta admit that I helped to keep you on your toes back then. You should thank me. Kept you young and fit, I did.” Then he laughed loudly and I felt the bile rising again.
I knocked at number three, and had an attractive black lady, I guessed in her early forties, open the door.
“Can ah be helpin’ yous?” she asked frowning.
“Yep, dat be me.”
“Afternoon, I was hoping you would be able to assist me in…finding someone.”
“Yous da Police?”
“Well, actually yes. I’m with homicide, but this has nothing to do with any official case.” I paused before asking, “I was wondering if you ever knew a person by the name of Nancy Mangrove.”
Her eyes blinked rapidly before she asked, “Dat crazy ol’ lady dat be stayin’ in da swamps?”
“Yes!” I exclaimed smiling. “Do you know what happened to her?”
“She dead o’ course. Died many years ago.”
“I expected as much. Would you know where she was buried?”
“You plannin’ on puttin’ flowers on her grave.”
“Dat be real sweet o’ yous. She liked dem lotus blossoms a lot, you know?”
I remembered the old weathered gravestone. “That’s right. How do you…?”
“Come on in.” She shut the door behind me. The apartment was the exact shape and size as Jim’s, but the furnishings were far better.
She waved me to a chair and asked, “Tea?”
“I don’t want to be taking up too much of your time. I just…”
“Hush now,” she interrupted. “Ah don’ gets m’ too many visitors. Specially such handsome ones.”
I felt my face blush. “Tea will be fine,” I said sitting down.
She disappeared into the kitchen. After some clinking and clanging she returned. “Be ready in a minute. Jus’ needs ta draw a little bit more.” She sat down opposite me and held out a pack of cigarettes. I declined the offer. “Been tryin’ ta kick da habit fer some time now,” she said lighting up. “I know its bad fer ya, but it’s one o’ da vices ah still be allowin’ m’self.” She gave a wry smile. “Don’ be tellin’ anyone, but ah actually prefer ta smoke m’ pipe when nobody’s watchin’. Don’ wanna appear too unladylike you know.”
I laughed, but then immediately asked, “How come you know about the lotus blossoms?”
Without hesitation she said, “Nancy Mangrove was m’ momma.”
We stared at each other for some time before I said, “She told me that she was never married.”
“An’ yous be right ‘bout dat fact. M’ momma never did get round ta marryin’ m’ pappy.”
“You were…are her illegitimate child.”
“Also her only child.” After a long drag on the cigarette she said, “I’m afraid dere ain’t no grave fer yous ta be visitin’.”
“You had her cremated?”
She shook her head slowly. “She jus’ up an’ disappear one day. Some be tinkin’ one o’ dem gators dat she always catchin’ finally catch her instead.”
“What?” I exclaimed in shock. “They think an alligator killed her?” My thoughts were flooded with the memory of Jake Dreskil. “That’s awful!”
Jem nodded. “She made her livin’ catchin’ dem smaller gators fer souvenirs an’ such. Ah guess one o’ dem momma gators musta caught her unawares. But we’ll never knows da truth because her body were never found. Dey did find one o’ her shoes near her traps though.” I remembered the storm drain.
“She never ever told me about you.”
“Maybe she was ashamed o’ dat fact?”
“Well fancy that. I guess that also explains why you own all the apartments on the ground floor.”
“Who be tellin’ yous dat?”
“Jim Preston. He said to tell you, ‘Hi’”
“Jim? Why you been speakin’ with dat lowlife.” She stood up and walked towards the kitchen. “Tea should be ready now.”
After what Jim had told me, I found Jem’s remark shocking. “We went to the same school.” I shouted towards the kitchen.
Their was some more clinking and clanging before she returned with two delicate china cups and a small milk jug on a silver tray.
“I decided ta be usin’ da good stuff,” she said placing the tray on the coffee table in front of me. “Dere jus’ one problem. Ah ain’t gots m’ no sugar ta be offerin’ yous. Ah never uses da stuff m’self.” She rubbed her hands together as if trying to remove a persistent stain. I immediately noticed the missing digit on each hand.
“That’s alright. Just milk will be fine.”
“Handsome an’ diplomatic too,” she said adding milk and passing me the cup.
To cover my embarrassment I asked, “Do you also have The Sensing?”
She glanced down at her hands and said, “Jim be tellin’ yous da truth. When dem men come with an offer ta be buyin’ da land in m’ momma’s deed, ah tol’ dem ah not be wantin’ any sort o’ money. We eventually agree upon dat ah be ownin’ all da ground floor property once da buildin’ completed. Dat was m’ payment. Ah makes a pretty good livin’ by rentin’ out da rest, except fer Jim’s one o’ course.”
“It sounds like a fair deal, but why didn’t you push to get something higher up? I’m sure the top floor apartments, with their view of the bayou, must be worth far more?”
“Let m’ shows yous sometin’,” she said standing up and beckoning. She moved back towards the kitchen. I quickly followed. She unlocked the back door and walked out into a beautiful garden area of rolling lawns and immaculate flowerbeds. There was a covered barbeque standing near the door. She waved a hand around. “So what do yous tink? What be better?” She pointed towards the top of the building. “Da view from up dere or da one from down here?”
“You’ve made your point,” I said gazing towards a pond of wild geese and water lilies. “And no fire hazard when you light up the barbeque either.”
“Zactly!” she exclaimed. “Also no stairs ta be climbin’ when da elevator out o’ order.”
“I never thought of that,” I said looking up and laughing. “How many floors to the top?”
“That’s…a lot of stairs.”
“Yous said it!” She stared at me intently before pointing at the ground. “I gotta be tellin’ yous sometin’ else ‘bout dis soil right here.”
“A secret ah never be tellin’ anyone else afore.”
“Yeah? Why me?”
“Because sometin’ ‘bout yous tells m’ yous can be trusted.”
“What yous be knowin’ about a fella called Ponce de Leon?”
“The guy who discovered Florida?”
“And legend says he discovered Florida whilst searching for The Fountain of Youth.”
“Well, da truth is, if he had searched a bit more ta da west, he may have been successful.”
“What are you saying?”
“Da Fountain o’ Youth is in Louisiana.”
“Uh-huh, sure,” I said not hiding the skepticism in my voice.
“Well, ta be honest, it not be a fountain at all. It actually be sometin’ in da soil.”
“It be hard ta explain. Ol’ Poncy wouldn’t have known he had found it even if he was standin’ right on top o’ it. It take a special person ta know…feel dese tings.”
“You’re talking about The Sensing?” She nodded. “You’re trying to tell me that…?”
“Dat’s right. At dis very moment yer standin’ on a piece o’ Eden.”
“But Nan stayed on this land all her life and it didn’t make her any younger?”
“Dat’s not da way it works. Yous be needin’ some sort o’ key ta be unlockin’ da power…a catalyst.”
“What sort of catalyst?”
“Sometin’ really special.” She walked back inside. “Come, I’ll shows ya.”
I followed her down the apartment passage. She stopped at a door. “Dis here be da spare room.” She turned the knob and pushed the door open. “I tink you’ll be findin’ some interestin’ stuff in dere.” She waited outside while I cautiously entered, then she followed flicking on the light switch.
I stared in amazement. It was as if the interior of Nan’s rickety old single-room cabin had been miraculously transported to this room. The large boiling pot stood as a reminder that the only thing missing was the fireplace with its fire.
In the far corner was Red Ned’s wooden chest; seated on top was a very familiar figure.
“Zommie!” I exclaimed walking over and picking him up. “This used to belong to me. It’s my old teddy bear!”
“Dat also be da catalyst ah be tellin’ yous about.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“Don’t be playin’ da ignorant fool with me.” She reached for Zommie. “You an’ ah both knows dat Zommie ain’t no ordinary toy.” She stared at the red button eyes. “Dis liddle critter is quite some fella. Ah tried ta keep him in Red Ned’s chest but he wouldn’t have dat at all. Prefers ta sit on da top where he can keep an eye on tings. As small as he is we both knows dat he gots da blood o’ two peoples on his paws an’ claws.” I was about to say something but she quickly added, “Yous remember when Nan tol’ yous dat it be a waste ta be killin’ yer enemies?” I was dumbfounded but managed to nod. “Do yous remember dat she tol’ ya dat dere can be some fates dat are far worse dan death?” I nodded again. “For da power in da soil ta be workin’ you needs a catalyst, but yous also be needin’ another human being. O’ course it never be easy ta find jus’ da right sort o’ person.”
“Jim!” I exclaimed. “Of course! I gave Nan some of his hair all those years ago. Zommie still has some of Jim’s hair.” I pointed an accusing finger. “You’re not being kind to Jim at all. That’s why he looks the way he does. You need to have him near in order for your…your magic to work on him!”
“Not at all,” she smiled. “It would still have effect even if he were ta be on da other sides o’ da world.”
“Because da fool got hisself suicidal tendencies. Ah can’t afford ta have him die on me. Da result would be disastrous. You already seen what be happenin’ ta m’ when Jake Dreskil an’ Jim’s father were killed. Da change is far too rapid; people start askin’ questions. One day ah gonna wake up in diapers, an’ den what am ah gonna do? Ah gotta makes sure dat man last a few more years yet.”
“Nan?” I asked, but I had instinctively known all the time that it was her. “Is it really you?”
She smiled two perfect rows of healthy white teeth. “Its been a whiles since anyone be callin’ m’ dat. Oh, hell, Theodore, ah knows ah couldn’t be keepin’ dis ting secret from yous. Not from a bright homicide detective like youself. So, it would seem dat providence has eventually brought yous back ta visit Ol’ Nan.”
“Not so ol’ anymore,” I smiled back. “Hell, you look about…fortyish.”
There was an uncomfortable hesitation between us, but it soon shattered and we found ourselves laughing and hugging. How different it was from the time we had said goodbye. I was taller than her now and she felt strong and firm as her full bosom crushed against my chest.
We spent the rest of the afternoon reminiscing about old times. Some tears were shed, but they were all of joy. Nan recalled things that I had all but forgotten.
After my second cup of tea I asked, “Exactly how old are you?”
“I was born in eighteen forty, which be meanin’, come next August, ah shall be zactly one hundred an’ forty six years old.
“Wow!” I exclaimed smiling. “That is amazing! You still got a pretty sharp mind for a hundred and forty six year old.”
“And it be gettin’ even more sharper with every passing day.”
I became pensive before asking in a serious tone, “Don’t you think he’s suffered enough?”
“Jim?” I nodded. “Yous must be tinkin’ dat Nan is a pretty nasty creature fer doin’ what she doin’? You tinkin’ dat ah be evil puttin’ da hoodoo on dat lowlife. Let’s not first be forgettin’ dat he woulda already been worm food if ah hadn’ta pulled him outta da gutter when ah did. Ah even helped ta give him back some o’ his dignity. He much happier now dan he been in a very long time. But da second, an’ dis be da most important reason o’ all - James Frank Preston is da last o’ his devilish line. Ah tank da Lord above dat he never had da fortitude ta spread his demon seed. When he breathes his last, den an’ only den will dis world be free o’ da scourge dat was once Robert Preston.”
“A Sugar Baron who be buildin’ his empire on African blood an’ sweat; he also be Jim’s great great grandfather.”
“What’s a Sugar Baron?”
“Ah suppose you like all da rest who tink dat slaves was only used fer pickin’ cotton.” I nodded. “Open yer eyes. What yous tink be growin in all dem fields around Houma.”
“Of course, sugar cane!”
“Dat’s right. Sugar was, an’ still is, an even bigger business dan cotton. White gold some called it. An’ Robert Preston, he own some o’ da largest cane fields ‘tween Morgan an’ Houma. He be a Sugar Baron alright, but dere was nuttin’ sweet ‘bout dat man at all. One o’ da cruelest men ta walk God’s earth. Sure, most plantation owners treated their workers harshly, but dat was normally only when dey failed ta meet their quota. Not Robert Preston, he revel in seein’ another human being suffer. Hardly a day be passin’ without his whip drawin’ blood. He called African peoples a loathsome race cursed by God; Cane’s children; a subspecies o’ humanity. He often say dat he found all blacks ta be hideous an’ despicable, yet on days when his breath be reekin’ o’ whiskey or gin, he would often tend ta be forgettin’ dat particular view. Yes, many times he force himself upon da women dat he own. Ta be emphasizin’ da evil dat he was capable of, he also make sure dat none o’ da women were ever ta be producin’ his bastard offspring. If ever dere was a debbil o’ flesh an’ blood, den his name was Robert Preston. Da other slaves really happy dat ah be born with dem special powers o’ Da Sensin’. If not fer m’ medicinal knowledge, many would o’ perished.
“When da day come dat Preston be tryin’ ta force himself upon m’, ah be knockin’ him senseless with a wooden shovel. Fearin’ fer m’ life, ah fled. Ah managed ta remain hidden in da everglades fer quite some time. Over two years be passin’ an’ ah would o’ managed ta avoid bein’ caught until da abolition laws be takin’ effect, but unfortunately another runaway who be murderin’ his foreman be bringin’ a large group with dogs an’ determination inta da wetlands. Da dogs picked up m’ scent an’ divided da group, but both groups were bein’ successful dat day. Dey be hangin’ da one an’ leavin’ his corpse ta rot, da other dey be returnin’ ta her master. Ah was beaten within an inch o’ m’ life, but dat was not enough. Preston had a special punishment fer runaways dat he be allowin’ ta live. Can yous be guessin’ what it was? Do yous know what he be doin’ ta slaves what had tried ta escape from his plantation?”
“I think I do,” I said gazing down sadly at her hands.
“It’s not too difficult to guess - he had their thumbs cut off.”
“Cuttin’ would o’ been quick; quick an’ merciful. Robert Preston was not a merciful man.
“Dere was a special machine on da plantation fer squeezin’ da sap outta da cane. It was made o’ two very large metal drums. Dese cylinders were higher dan a grown man an’ about three times as long. Each had been filled with concrete ta be givin’ it tremendous weight. Dey were connected ta a large lever thru a system o’ gears. Da handle o’ da lever was large enough ta accommodate three men standin’ abreast. Whilst dey be turnin’ da lever others be feedin’ bundles o’ cane between dem massive cylinders. Da juice from da cane would pour down da bottom drum an’ inta a large removable trough. When da container was almost full it would be replaced with an empty one. Da sap was den taken away so dat it could be boiled ta be removin’ da excess moisture before bein’ poured inta cones an’ allowed ta harden. Da finished product was called a sugarloaf an’ da peoples used a special pliers called sugar nips fer cutting off pieces ta be used. It also how dat Sugarloaf Mountain in Brazil get its name, because it look like one o’ dem real sugarloaves.
“Robert Preston was extremely proud o’ his sugar press. It was a very efficient machine; hardly a drop o’ sap remained in da crushed cane dat passed out from between dem two rollers. He had always bragged how wonderful his device was built; unlike John King’s an’ Major Barrington Butler’s steam driven presses who had ta refeed da crushed cane thru da press a second time ta avoid unnecessary wastage. O’ course, he also be braggin’ dat he wasn’t gonna have any o’ dem new fangled steam contraptions, because he don’ want da debbil ta be findin’ any idle hands on his plantation.
“Robert Preston was so proud o’ his machine dat he had even taken ta be givin’ it a name - ‘Ol’ Purgatory’ he be callin’ it.
“O’ course da name was carefully chosen so as ta have a certain significance, fer Robert Preston had decreed dat all serious sinners be…obliged ta be spendin’ a night with Ol’ Purgatory. An’ dat was another advantage his machine had over da steam models - it could be turned real slow whenever necessary. Dat necessity come soon after m’ whippin’. He turn over da empty trough below dem rollers an’ tells m’ ta be climbin’ on top. Den he tells m’ ta be puttin’ m’ thumbs where dem two big cylinders come together. When ah starts cryin’ an’ beggin’ him, he pulls out his pistol an’ holds it ta m’ head an’ say, ‘Ah don’ wanna be makin’ more mess dan be absolutely necessary. Do yous wanna give yer fella niggers more work?’ So ah comply, an’ he tell dem ta be turnin’ dat handle real slow till he say stop. Dey almost not hear him over m’ screams, but he stop dem jus’ after m’ fingernails disappear between dem crushers. Den he tol’ everyone ta get outta dere, an’ warned dem if anyone try ta help free m’ den dey gonna suffer da same fate.
“I never experienced such pain afore in all m’ life. Yous got no idea what it be like ta feel yer bones crushed so flat an’ da blood in yer fingers forced back until it pop outta yer fingers like a cherry bomb stuck inna overripe t’mata. Dat was pretty bad, but da worst was still ta come.
“I was left alone by da sugar press fer about six hours; six hours what feel more like an eternity. Before he leave, Preston make sure ta be leavin’ a kerosene lamp burnin’ above me. Not because he tink maybe ah be scared o’ da dark. Oh no! He know dat lamp an’ da smell o’ dat sweet juice on ‘Ol Purgatory’s rollers gonna be attractin’ every bitin’ insect within a mile.
“By da time Preston come back, m’ hands be swollen ta twice dere normal size, but ah was beginning ta get used ta da pain by den, but m’ fear grew when ah feels him strugglin’ ta climb up behind m’ an’ ah smell da liquor on his breath.
“I gots no more strength in m’ when he take m’ from behind an’ ah be voidin’ m’ bladder. Da next ting, Preston be shoutin’ an’ callin’ m’ a filthy whore what try ta be contaminatin’ his sugar press. He goes over ta dat lever an’ starts ta turn it some more. Ah somehow still had strength in m’ ta be screamin’ as m’ swollen thumbs were crushed all da way up ta where dey meet m’ hands. Den he come over an’ kick dat trough away so as ta leave m’ hangin’ dere by m’ two digits. Thru da haze o’ pain ah hear him shoutin’ some more as he storm off: ‘How yous expect m’ ta explain da piss on m’ trousers ta m’ wife?’
“Dat be da last ting ah hears fer some time. Tankfully at dat point ah be havin’ da pleasure o’ losin’ consciousness at last.
“When ah come to agin, ah be back at da slave quarter in m’ bed. Scylla, m’ friend had done a good job o’ patchin’ m’ up. Luckily fer m’ ah had taught her well how ta help someone wid m’ particular ailments. Luckily too, dat da sugar sap on da press be actin’ as medicine ta prevent any serious infection settin’ in. But…bein’ left alone with dat smell an’ dat pain fer so long make sometin’ snap inside o’ m’ head. From dat day on ah be havin’ a strong aversion tawards anytin’ sweet. Yous can imagine da problem fer m’ as well, bein’ a slave workin’ on a sugar plantation. Anyway, ah be real lucky ta be losin’ jus’ m’ thumbs an’ not m’ hands as well. If dat had o’ happened, Preston would surely o’ done away wid m’ fer good. Ah could still harvest his damned cane, but it made reachin’ m’ quota jus’ dat bit more difficult. Luckily, it was not too long thereafter, although it did seem like an eternity in comin’ at da time, dat da abolition laws were finally enforced. Robert Preston lost his slaves, an’ when no one be wantin’ ta be workin’ fer da white debbil, he lose most o’ everytin’ else too. Da only ting he don’ be losin’ was his taste fer cheap liquor.”
“I’m so sorry, Nan. That has to be one of the saddest and most frightful accounts of the mistreatment of slaves that I have ever heard.”
“M’ story ain’t over yet. Believe it or not, but dere be even far worse tings fer m’ ta be tellin’ yous ‘bout Robert Preston.”
“Oh, yes,” she nodded and continued with her narrative. “Da reason ah never fled far enough from Robert Preston when ah be havin’ da opportunity was because ah had found dis special piece o’ land ‘tween da waters o’ da swamplands. Ah could feel da power in da soil but ah jus’ never knew how ta release it. Ah never knew how ta be constructin’ da catalyst. Robert Preston was da one who would open m’ eyes ta da true power o’ dis piece o’ land.
“I returned here as soon as possible after receivin’ m’ freedom, but not alone. Ah was joined by Lukas. He was also one o’ dem what be emancipated from da Preston tyranny. We had always had strong feelings fer one another, but had been too afraid ta show it openly.
“We built ourselves a home out here an’ lived a good an’ happy life fer awhile. Den one day Lukas come back from town with a heavy melancholy. When ah be questionin’ his sorry disposition, he say we needs ta be makin’ our relationship legal. He say da folks in town is frownin’ ‘pon our fornications. Ah tol’ him dat we already wed in da eyes o’ God. Adam an’ Eve were married in dat Garden o’ Eden an’ dey never had no judge or preacher ta be makin’ it legal. ‘Da first time yer ever made love ta me, Lukas,’ ah be tellin’ him in all earnest, ‘Dat was when we become one flesh in da eyes o’ God.’ But he insisted dat we also need ta be married in da eyes o’ da law so dat we be keepin’ good relations with da community. He also say dat we needs ta be doin’ it afore we gets any new arrivals in da family. ‘It be better fer da chilins’ sake too,’ he say. Ah guess he was startin’ ta get dat primeval urge ta be fruitful an’ preserve da lineage. O’ course, havin’ da power o’ Da Sensin’, ah knew how ta safely prevent anytin’ from happenin’ till we was good an’ ready ta increase da family.
“Anyway, after enough o’ his fussin’ an’ frettin’ about da matter, ah eventually agreed ta be his lawfully wedded. Ah made m’self a white dress special fer da occasion. Nuttin’ too fancy or expensive. Lukas say ah look real beautiful in it, but dere sometin’ missin’. So he go ta da bayou early on da wedding day an’ he find his honey a real fine-looking corsage.”
“A lotus blossom!”
Nan smiled and nodded. “He bring m’ a big lotus flower dat he gives m’ ta pin on da front o’ m’ dress.
“We was all smilin’ an’ jokin’ as we walkin’ down da main road ta da courthouse. Jus’ da two o’ us lovebirds.
“But den we be seein’ da one man ah hope never ta be seein’ in m’ whole life again, an’ he be seein’ us too. Robert Preston come out o’ da general dealer store with his wife an’ young son.
“‘Well, well, well,’ he be sneerin’ at us. ‘If it ain’t m’ ol’ slaves Lukas an’ his nigger whore, Nancy No-Thumbs. What be bringin’ yous heathens ta town? Where yous goin’ all dressed up like dat? Tryin’ ta be like da white folks, eh? Well, dat dress is da closest yous ever gonna come ta bein’ white. Yous tink our courts gonna recognize yer marriage as sometin’ legal? We’d sooner start marryin’ our dogs before we do dat with da likes o’ yous.’
“Luke was immediately enraged. He moved forward ta confront Preston, but ah held him back. ‘Leave dat white debbil be,’ ah tol’ him. ‘One day, he gonna get what comin’ ta him. If not in dis life, den most certainly in da next.’
“‘What yous saying?’ spat Preston. ‘You tink maybe God gonna put m’ in hell? Fer what? Fer helpin’ Cane’s hellspawn ta be seein’ da evil o’ their ways? Fer showin’ yous niggers da light?’
“It was Luke’s turn ta be holdin’ m’ back. ‘See da light?’ ah shouted. ‘And jus’ how did ya do dat Robert Preston? How did any o’ dem poor girls yer raped see any light when ya beat dem; beat dem so bad ta make sure no bastard chil’ o’ yers ever see da light?’
“Louise Preston’s naturally ashen features became even more pallid. ‘What she talkin’ ‘bout, Robert?’ she had lamented.
“‘Don’t be listenin’ ta her lies, Louise!’ he scream so dat da spittle be flyin’ outta his mouth. ‘She jus’ wants ta hurt us da only way she able - by smearing da good name o’ Preston in da dirt!’ He grab his wife’s hand. ‘Come, let us be off afore da witch babbles more nonsense.’
“‘No!’ ah shouted stepping forward. ‘Why yer suddenly in such a rush, Robert Preston? Afraid dat yer wife an’ chil’ be findin’ out yer true nature? I’m sorry ta be given pigs a bad name, but yer nuttin’ but a fat ol’ lecherous swine who couldn’t keep his manhood in his pants whenever he reeked o’ liquor; an’ dat was more often dan not. Look!’ ah shouted pointing at his wife who had begun ta sob bitterly. ‘She know it ta be da truth, Robert Preston. She probably always suspected it too, but now she know it fer sure.’
“‘Yous heathen cow!’ he shouted an’ give m’ a backhand dat sends m’ staggerin’. Ah immediately felt m’ lip startin’ ta swell.
“Any free man who truly loves his woman will not stand by an’ watch her being beaten. Lukas was no exception. Years o’ toilin’ in da cane fields had forged him inta a weapon o’ spring-steeled muscle an’ sinew. Afore ah knowed it, Robert Preston was lyin’ on his back in da mud, nose all bloody an’ busted.
“I almost laughed as Lukas sprang on top o’ him. He grab Preston by his long hair with his left hand an’ was about ta plant a second punch with his right when it happen. M’ joy was soon ta be replaced with an even greater pain dan dat which had taken away m’ thumbs.
“Da pistol seemed ta appear almost magically in Preston’s hand. Dere was a crack an’ a flash. M’ white dress turned red as da back o’ Lukas’ head exploded. Da bullet had entered thru his left eye.” A tear welled up in Nan’s eye. “An’ so, what was supposed ta be a weddin’, turn out instead ta be a funeral. Ah brought Lukas back here. Ah dug a hole an’ carved him a gravestone with m’ own two hands.” The tear ran down her cheek.
“What about Preston?” I asked concernedly. “Surely he must have been tried for murder?”
“Da trial ended jus’ as ah had expected it would - Preston was acquitted on da grounds o’ self defence. When he come out o’ dat courthouse an’ see me, he give m’ dat nasty sneerin’ smile dat ah hates so much. He never say anytin’, but he sure must o’ wondered why ah was smilin’ even wider an’ brighter dan him.”
“Why on earth would you smile at Preston’s acquittal? After everything he…”
Nan held up a hand. “Because ah had come ta know sometin’ dat would yet see justice prevail. Da court may have acquitted him, but not m’; not Nancy Mangrove. Ah would make sure dat debbil would pay fer all o’ his crimes with his life, or should ah say with his life essence.
“On da same day dat ah buried Lukas a great revelation was laid open ta me. As ah lowered his body inta da cold earth ah notice sometin’ clutched in his left fist. It be a hank o’ Robert Preston’s hair. As ah held it in m’ own hand, kneelin’ ‘pon dat fresh earth from da grave, Da Sensin’ stir some mighty powerful emotions in m’. When ah return home dat evenin’, after puttin’ da last handful o’ soil on top o’ Lukas, ah was knowin zactly what ta be doin’.” Nan stared at me. One might almost have considered the smile on her face to be somewhat …wicked.
“Carry on,” I said impatiently. “What did you do?”
“It shouldn’t be ta difficult fer yous ta be figurin’ it out. Robert Preston passed away at da ripe ol’ age o’ forty nine. Ah believe da coroner said dat da cause o’ death was old age. He did, after all, appear ta be more dat o’ a man well inta his seventies.”
“What now, Nan? What will you do once the last of Robert Preston’s line has been removed? Will your hatred be sated?”
“I can’t really say. Ah still got da mental an’ physical scars ta remind m’ dat dere many more Prestons out dere. Ah don’ mean Prestons literally, but people like Robert an’ Frank an’ Jim. People who gots no respect fer life or da livin’. People who deserve what comin’ ta dem.” She stared intently at me. “I can help yous too. Ah can do da same fer yous, Theodore Stone. It jus’ a matter o’ acquirin’ da proper ingredients. Hell, we can help each other.”
“I don’t know Nan.” I shifted uncomfortably. “It just doesn’t seem very...moral.”
“Yous still be too young now. Maybe one day yer be changin’ yer mind; one day in da far future when yer body start ta feel all dem aches an’ pains what come with age. Jus’ be rememberin’ dat dere be plenty Prestons in dis world ta help yous out. Da jails across our beautiful country is full o’ da likes o’ garbage like dat. Yous is a homicide detective. I’m sure yer got no problem gettin’ ta meet some o’ dem antisocial types up close…if you knows what ah mean. Especially da murderers an’ rapists. Ah tol’ yous long ago you a bright boy. Look how you handled da problem with both Jake an’ Jim.”
“Maybe one day Nan, maybe one day.” I recalled something. “It’s so ironic.”
“Jim.” Nan frowned. “Do you know what he said to me earlier, just before I left his apartment? He claimed that all his bullying was beneficial. He said that it had helped to keep me young and fit.”
“Many a true word spoken in jest.”
“I remember once when I was a kid thinking, ‘Sometimes revenge can be sweet. Sometimes it’s just plain glorious!’ I got up. “Keep well, Nan. I’ll be seeing you around.” I walked towards the front door.
“Yous gots m’ address an’ number now, so ah hopes yous won’t go back ta becomin’ a stranger agin? Jus’ because we gots ourselves forever don’ mean yous should be visitin’ Ol’ Nan only when yous be needin’ her services agin?”
“No fear of that Nan. I’ll keep in touch and visit whenever providence allows. I promise.”
“You always was a man o’ yer word.” She smiled. “I always liked dat ‘bout yous.”
A thought struck me. I wheeled around and said, “Actually I could be needing your services sooner than expected.”
“Yeah, I got me a slave driver for a boss back in Boston. A real bastard who’s given me nothing but flack for the past five years.”
“Dere yer go den.”
“Only one problem with it though.”
“What be dat?”
“The fucker’s as bald as a coot.”
We stared at each other for a short moment before bursting out laughing. We continued to laugh until tears ran down our cheeks. Our laughter had disturbed the occupant in the main bedroom. A large fat ginger cat exited to see what all the commotion was about. I noticed that there was small semi-circular chunk missing from his left ear. I started to laugh even louder.