Photo by Jan Canty on Unsplash

The scorching mid-day sun beat mercilessly overhead, threatening to reveal her pain to the crowds around her. Constance needn’t have worried about anyone noticing the dark bags under her eyes or the pale bruises on her neck though. And if they did happen to notice, they wouldn’t have commented, Constance was one of the swamp people, too poor to matter. Nevermind Woman, she was a Nevermind Woman to the genteel and decent folk of the city. She headed down Market, her head hung low. The anonymity was perfectly fine by Constance, she liked being invisible.

Gingerly, she slipped into the alley that the old woman at the river had told her about long ago. The woman had told the tale through disapproving lips, she’d meant it to be cautionary. “You stay away from there, girl”, she’d said ominously before breaking into her signature wheezing cough. Constance had filed that story away in the secret place. The place she kept the soft, precious memories of Mama and the much darker, more shameful secrets Zeke had forced upon her.

A brown cur stood unrestrained just outside the blue door. At her approach he growled a warning. He meant to be menacing, but Constance was accustomed to both snarling dogs and men. She avoided eye contact and pushed her way past him. The faded blue paint of the door scared her more than the dog. There was something about it that made her skin feel cold and prickly, even as the day’s humidity seemed to glue her simple dress to her thin frame. Standing before it, she tried to raise a fist to knock but found she just couldn’t make herself do it. That guttural instinct that all living creatures are endowed with warned, “run!”

The door swung open despite the fact her hand had never made contact with it. It was so dark inside, and the sun so bright overhead that for a moment all Constance saw were a pair of white eyes staring at her. She blinked hard, and slowly the rest of the figure came into focus. The old, black woman sniffed the air around her, and Constance suddenly felt shame. The trip over the river and subsequent miles walked under the low country sun had been exerting. She knew her body odor now overpowered the small bit of soap she’d pridefully washed with that morning.

“Whatchoo want girl?” The woman asked suspiciously.

“I need… ma’am are you the conjure woman?”

The woman didn’t reply at first. She just stood staring at Constance, judging her, reading her darkest secrets. She still didn’t invite her in, but she did step out into the brightness of the alleyway. At her appearance, the dog whimpered softly and walked away, tail tucked between his legs.

One dark hand suddenly reached out and lifted Constance’s chin, forcing her to make eye contact. A second later, the woman’s hand repelled back and she stepped backward with a hiss. “You got a haint”.

Constance nodded. She’d suspected as much for several months now. No nightmare could compare to the terror of the dreamless nights that now beset her. Before, she’d had plenty of days when the exhaustion of day to day house duties, and working the garden, and avoiding Zeke’s fists, had threatened to overwhelm her. But lately it had been a different kind of tired. Lately it had been the kind of tired that wouldn’t allow her to keep food down or shuck beans without losing her train of thought.

“What do I do? How do I make it go away?” she asked, her voice almost a whisper.

The old woman’s hand shot out again, this time grasping her wrist. Constance looked down at the mahogany hand that enveloped her fine boned arm. She saw the bruises that the woman’s hand now traced. The woman’s hand was no match for the girth of the prints though. His hand had been much larger.

“Haint didn’t do that.” the woman said knowingly.

Constance looked away, her cheeks now tinged red. She pulled her hand away reflexively.

“How do I get rid of the haint?” she repeated.

The woman raked Constance’s face and body for a moment and then she replied, “It’s a boo hag. She coming to you at night, she eat your breath and then she wear your skin. No telling what she do once she out there in your skin, girl. She gonna keep coming too until you can’t take no more and just give up. Then she find someone else to ride.”

Constance shuddered at the image in her mind, “Can I stop her?”

The old woman nodded. “Aint nothing free girl. If it was, it wouldn’t work.”

Constance reached into her pocket and extracted the coins she’d stolen from the tin teapot and handed them to the woman, there’d be hell to pay from Zeke when he noticed they were gone but what other choice did she have? The woman weighed them carefully in her left hand and then nodded again.

“You can stop her. First, you need to make sure you put your broom by your bed. It’ll slow her down. She need to count e’ry one of them bristles. She can’t stop until she do. Your people don’t like the blue paint, but you can do that too. All ‘round the windows and doors. It might stop her. Problem is you look like yous probably in a shack and shacks got plenty o’ cracks and she can come in through those too so unless you paint the whole thing it won’t do no good.”

The old woman looked both ways down the alley and then leaned in closer and said conspiratorially, “Keep salt by the bed too, just in case. Don’t let her catch you awake. You don’t want to see that sight, even if you survive it will scar you child. But if she do catch you awake, throw the salt on her. Only way you make it to morning alive. If she takes you, your spirit won’t be here with your people, she gonna turn you. You gonna be just like her. We don’t need any more like her. You hear me girl?”

Constance swallowed hard, terrified of the imagery in her head, and gulped out a yes ma’am. Then as quickly as she’d appeared, the woman stepped back into her dark quarters and shut the door. She stood staring at the blue door for a moment, when a sound behind her made her jump. Turning she saw the mutt had returned. The fur on his back was raised and he was growling, she dropped her eyes and hurried toward Market so she could begin her journey home.

*****

She went through the nightly ritual, cooking the beans that had been soaking all day, and then the greens. There wasn’t any pork, there almost never was these days. That was going to be her excuse though. She’d carefully ripped a hole in the pocket of her dress, and practiced telling the lie over and over until it sounded true. Some days Zeke might drink for hours at the hole and not come home for dinner and she’d set it aside still in the pot with a towel draped over the top to keep the flies out. It’d be cold and mushy the next day but she’d eat it for breakfast and lunch before starting a fresh pot for dinner. Sometimes, the best times, he would pass out entirely and not make it home at all until the next day. She hoped this might be one of those times so she could put off the lie for one more day.

When he failed to appear at the dinner hour, she took the straw broom from the corner and gave the small two room shack a good sweeping, before bringing it into the tiny bedroom. Knowing he’d notice if she lay it on the floor right next to the bed, she kicked it slightly beneath the old pine straw filled mattress. Would the boo hag see it there or was it too hidden? Concerned, she reached down and inched it ever so slightly toward the room. They didn’t have a table in the bedroom to place the salt shaker on, so instead, she hid it under her pillow. As for the windows and doors- the old woman had surmised correctly. Painting them blue wouldn’t have done a thing. Too many cracks and crevices through the walls and ceilings.

She was lost in her thoughts when he entered the room, stealthy as a swamp panther. It was the stench of liquor and tobacco smoke that alerted her. She turned to see him glaring at her silently. Then, before she could utter a word, he was across the room and had her down on the bed. She didn’t fight him, she never had. Zeke was twice her size and whatever humanity that might have once existed in him that could have listened to her appeals, had long since died. He didn’t speak at all, just grunted and pushed as she lay silently beneath him. When he was done, he stood and left the room.

Her heart pounded as she waited for what would happen next. She knew his routine, and as expected she heard the sound of tin slamming into a wall and he yelled an obscenity. Then he was back and on top of her screaming. “Where is it?”

She uttered the lie she’d practiced, her voice wavering. “I was going to buy some pork today, it’s been so long. My dress, there’s a hole in the pocket.”

He yanked her up to her feet and stared down at her before screaming, “Why are you so stupid? Do you know what you’ve done?”

She knew what she had done. She’d spent every last cent of his whiskey money. There would be hell to pay, and hell was starting right that moment. Before she had a chance to expand on the lie, to share the sob story she’d invented in her head about how his birthday was coming up and she wanted to prepare him a special meal, his fist connected with the side of her face. Stars exploded around her, the room spun, and then there was blessed darkness.

When she awoke, he was asleep beside her. He’d moved her from the foot of the bed to her normal sleeping spot. It was strange to imagine him laying her there, placing her head on the pillow. Had he done it tenderly? Had there been some form of regret as he deposited her small figure, or had he just tossed her there like an unwanted rag doll? Her head pounded, and her jaw ached. She tried to open her mouth, but an excruciating pain shot through her jaw. She raised her hand and touched her face, it was swollen and hot where he’d punched her, and there was evidence of dried fluids. Spittle or blood, she wasn’t sure but she suspected it was a combination of both.

She turned to the sleeping form next to her. He lay on his back, and his loud snores shook the bed. Had she ever felt anything tender toward him? It was hard to remember such a time. He’d been almost handsome the first time they met, lean and muscular with the thick black hair and black eyes that marked his kinfolk. There hadn’t been any warmth in his eyes though, not even back then. Mama had just passed and her father was already looking to remarry. When Zeke showed an interest her father had handed her off without bothering to ask her opinion. She learned he was a drunk, a cruel man, not long afterward. By then, she had nowhere else to turn and she’d just allowed herself to sink into the darkness of her new life.

In the seven years since, there hadn’t been any babies. Constance was able to maintain her belief in God only because of that. To bring a child into the cold shack that had seen so much anger, so many degradations, would have been the cruelest thing she ever could have done. Over the seven years, Zeke had lost whatever slightly handsome edge he’d once had and Constance had aged from young maid to old crone. They’d been seven lonely, hungry, terrifying years. And now she found herself in the position of being attacked by both the monster who lived in her house and the monster who came from outside it’s ramshackle walls at once.

Carefully, Constance eased out of the bed. The snoring continued unabated, and with more confidence, she reached under the mattress and withdrew the broom. She stared at it for a moment, transfixed. How long exactly, would it take the boo hag to count the bristles? She glanced again at the sleeping figure and stepped quietly from the room to place the broom in its proper resting place.

When she lay back down, the fatigue of the day threatened to pull her under but she forced her eyes to remain open. She thought about that broom, pictured it against the stove wall, and began to methodically count the straw bristles in her head. She’d only made it to 28 when she felt the chill. A whisper of something unintelligible came from the keyhole in the door. Constance stiffened, and thought about the salt shaker under her pillow. She could reach back now and grab it, there was time. But frozen, she lay there and watched the shadow of the creature advance until she was revealed fully in the moonlight that streamed through the window.

Red and glistening, with sinewy limbs that must have been human at some time, she climbed atop Constance’s still frame. For a moment, their eyes locked. Constance thought she saw a flicker of something in the yellow depths she stared into, something almost like surprise. The eyes look excited and hungry. Constance had seen hate enough times in Zeke’s stares, that she knew there was no hate here. Just urgency and purpose. The creature’s face leaned onto hers and the throbbing pain in her jaw dissipated, even as her very breath was sucked from her chest.

*****

He’d gone far enough, he reckoned. No one came this far back in the swamp, not even the whiskey runners. He lifted the threadbare blanket that was wrapped around his wife’s body, and stepped out of the boat. For the first time in a very long time, he felt scared. Would anyone ask about her? They usually never did, maybe they’d forgotten she ever existed. Maybe they would just keep forgetting and his sin wouldn’t be discovered.

He sludged through the tall grass to an old cypress and lay her beside the tree so he could work away a large fallen limb and expose soft ground that would be easy digging. When the spot was ready, he dropped the body into it and stared at the cocoon he’d made for a moment. He hadn’t meant for this to happen, she’d just pushed him too far this time spending every penny they had. She knew better. She’d made him do this. He wasn’t sure how exactly he killed her, it had been a hell of a jaw crack but he hadn’t touched her neck and her head was still intact. When he’d found her that morning, she’d had an odd look to her mouth and it’d taken a moment to understand what he was seeing was a smile. He couldn’t remember ever seeing one on her face before. In death, even with the swollen purple jaw, she looked younger, almost beautiful really.

He shook the thought off. He’d finish burying her here, the swamp would devour the proof. If anyone asked, he’d tell them she ran off with his last pennies. She must have found some other poor fool to support her lazy ass. They’d believe him, even if they didn’t really. He was the man of the house after all and her people had been nothing. She had been a Nevermind Woman.

Afterward he headed to the hole where the whiskey man would be. He’d take an IOU, Zeke was good for it when there was drink involved. He lost himself in the drink for a while and then headed back to the old shack. He ate yesterday’s cold beans and greens, they were mushy and tasteless. He knocked around the cabinets but couldn’t find the salt, they definitely needed salt. He realized he’d need to cook his own from then on. There were also his other needs, it wasn’t healthy for a man to keep his seed bottled up. He’d need another woman, and he’d need her soon. Another swig of whiskey and he headed to bed. Sleep came quickly.

The red figure danced in through the keyhole in the door. She danced gleefully across the old rotting wood floor, toward the snoring figure on the bed. In life, she’d never felt so powerful, so free. She stared at him. It was already difficult to remember before. He smelled familiar though, he smelled alive. His eyes shut peacefully, his mouth slightly open, his body slack and unaware, his fists unfurled, his manhood shrunken, his skin so ready to be used… and then she pounced.