by Eden Royce
Frieda stood in the kitchen’s dull light with a chopping knife clutched in one hand. The dinner on the table lay untouched, ice-cold and bathing in congealing fat. Her cinnamon coloring disguised the angry flare of heat in her cheeks. Still, she knew yelling wouldn’t get her husband’s attention, so she forced a calm tone into her voice.
“Why aren’t you staying for dinner? I made your favorite.”
“I told you, I got to go out.” Henry came out of their bedroom, buttoning up his good shirt and tucking it into slacks she had taken her time to iron that morning.
“Out where? You can’t stop to eat dinner with your wife before you go? Give me some of your time?”
“Thought I just gave you some.” Henry laughed, his tongue grotesquely pink against his smooth ebony face. He waggled his long, limp penis at her before he tucked it back into his pants.
“Good you put that away. I was going to lop it off.”
“You wasn’t gonna do that to this valuable piece of merchandise.”
“I wanted to spend some time with you. Just us. Like we used to.” Tears threatened to fall from her maple syrup colored eyes.
“A man needs some time to hisself, baby. Told you that long time ago.”
“I know, but…”
He took a pick from his back pocket, a metal one with a balled up fist for a handle and ran it through his short, tight Afro. In the hall mirror, he patted it with both palms to even out the ’do.
“You never said where you were going.”
“Goin’ out with the fellas. Relax and get a couple drinks.”
“You look mighty nice for a night out with Butch and them.” She put the knife down and wiped her hands on her apron. “You promised me no more sleeping around, Henry.”
“I know, baby, I know. Don’t you worry ’bout nothing.” He kissed her cheek and grabbed a pork chop from the platter before heading for the door.
“When are you gonna be home?”
“Late, baby. Real late.”
Frieda parked the aging Chevy at the edge of the dirt road leading to the marsh. She sat in the driver’s seat with the window down and breathed in the sulfurous scent of plough mud and sea grass. Although the marsh teemed with life, loneliness pressed in on her like an unwelcome suitor in the dark.
She walked along the water’s edge toward the small house nestled in the marsh’s protective embrace, unafraid in the blackness. The moon parted the dark in shifting layers as clouds crept across the Carolina sky. As the toe of her shoe hit the porch, the front door creaked open.
“Evening, Big Mama,” she said.
Big Mama stood just over six feet without shoes. Her husky frame held up a massive bosom and her hair, fluffy and cotton white, stood out against her dark skin.
“Lawd, Frieda. You here in the middle of the night? I know what this must be. Get on in here.” The Gullah accent, born on the coastal waterways of the Carolinas, was musical as it fell from her dark, unpainted lips.
Cool marsh breeze broke through the muggy night and the thin curtains fluttered. Frieda sat at the rough-hewn table in the middle of what served as the cabin’s kitchen and dining room while Big Mama bustled around in cabinets and muttered under her breath. She returned to the table with two jelly jars filled with rose-colored liquid.
“Big Mama, I—”
“Drink this first.”
The homemade liquid scorched her throat. She coughed, but the burning cleared her head. The swirling thoughts she’d brought to the cabin solidified into a concrete block of determination. She took another sip while her godmother eased into the chair opposite and lit a cheroot with a blue-tipped match, producing the sweet scents of tobacco and clove.
“What Henry done now?” The wicker chair creaked as Big Mama settled her bulk into it.
“Same old,” Frieda said, turning the jar in her hands, the light from the fire in the nearby iron stove filtering though the glass, causing the liquid inside to shimmer. “Cheating. Staying out all night. I’m tired of it.”
“Mmmph.” Rings of smoke dissolved in the air.
“I’m married. I shouldn’t have to bump around in that house alone all the time.”
“That why you got married? To never be alone?” Her snort forced smoke down from her wide nostrils like an enraged bull. “I got news for you, chile. Alone you come in this world and alone you go out. Nothing gone change that.”
“I got married because I love him. I just want him to love me back.”
“Henry love you in his own way. But that ain’t the way you want, huh?”
“I can’t live like this.”
Her godmother leaned forward and placed a hand on her arm, her scent clean and sweet—peach wine and clothing starch. “You still a beautiful young woman. Find yourself somebody else. Don’t let no man be the death of you. Not like your daddy was to your momma.”
Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes. “I don’t want another man. I made a promise before God and everybody and I will not leave Henry.”
Big Mama tapped ashes in a chipped china teacup. “He ain’t worth the heartache. You better off alone.”
“I don’t ever want to be alone again. I hate it.”
“Sure it not his ding-a-ling you missin’?”
“That’s not the problem.” She turned away from Big Mama’s intense gaze.
“No shame in it, girl. You supposed to like going to bed with your husband. That what make him feel like a man. But it seem your man like going to everybody else bed.” A look of sympathy crossed the heavy woman’s face and her tone became gentle. “You can’t change him, Frieda. You married him that way.”
Henry had been late for their wedding. Big Mama and Francis, her fourth husband, had found him drunk in a motel room with a street girl. Only Francis’s cool head had kept Big Mama from killing Henry right then. She’d pulled a derringer from her bra and had leveled it at the naked couple. The girl had screamed, the crusty motel sheet held to her nudity, then she’d run for the door.
As the girl passed by, Big Mama grabbed her arm and whispered something in her ear before letting her go hollering out into the sunset. Then she waited while Francis cleaned Henry up and they headed for the church. Frieda and Henry were married an hour later.
“I know I can’t change him,” Frieda admitted. “But you can.”
Big Mama extinguished the cigar and drained her wine, but said nothing.
Frieda rushed on. “You can fix it so he never strays from me again. You can put him in a jar or something. I’ve seen you work root. That’s why people are scared of you.”
Big Mama laughed, the sound a rich singsong echo. “They scared ’cause they think root worse than voodoo. Ain’t true. They both dangerous, in the right hand.” The chair groaned as Big Mama leaned back and looked at the ceiling of what had once been slave quarters. “Puttin’ his spirit in a jar don’t stop a man from cattin’ no ways. Only one thing can do that.”
“Right. And the Hag ain’t nothin’ to play with. Not even for me.”
“But you can do it.”
“Oh, I can do it. But I ain’t.”
Frieda got up from her chair and knelt beside the woman who’d taken her in after her mother’s death. “Please. I don’t what else to do.”
“What you need to do is leave well enough alone.”
“I can’t. I need him.”
“You ain’t gonna let this go, huh?” The older woman shook her head and let a sigh escape. “Lawd, that man’s thing must jump up and do a dance inside you.” She fingered the damp, pulpy end of the cigar. “I can tell you this: if I send the Hag after him ain’t no telling what gone happen.”
“She’ll take that extra energy of his and leave enough for me.”
“That what supposed to happen. But I just call her. Ain’t no way to control her. She do as she please.” Big Mama’s pause lasted several loping heartbeats before she spoke again. “This ain’t for you. Go home. Pray on it. Accept your man for what he is or leave him.”
“I can’t do that.” Desperation grew in Frieda’s voice, making it higher pitched than usual. “Why won’t you do this for me? Don’t you want me to be happy?”
“More’n you know, gal.”
Frieda picked at her torn and ragged thumbnail. “Do you want me to pay you?”
“Don’t talk foolish. My advice is always free.”
“There’s other rootworkers out there.” She kept her tone even and non-threatening.
“So your mind is made up.” It wasn’t a question.
Big Mama ran her hand through her puffy curls. “When is your woman time?”
“It’s here now.”
The older woman gaped. “You mean to do this tonight?”
The fire sputtered and a length of wood crumbled to ash with a shoosh. “No man ever the same after she done with him, you know.”
Frieda nodded, not trusting her voice to work around the sudden lump of fear in her throat.
The two women sat on the hardwood floor of the cabin with moonlight illuminating Big Mama’s mise en place for the ritual. Two piles of sea salt, a wad of Henry’s coarse hair tied with butcher’s twine and six blood smeared candles sat next to the refilled juice glasses.
“This your last chance, Frieda. Think this through.”
The younger woman’s face remained resolute. “I’m done thinking.”
Big Mama nodded and lit the first candle. Murky shadows danced to its flickering. When the final candle began to glow, she spoke. “Get me a hidin’ man.”
Frieda smoothed her shirtdress and tiptoed out to the marsh, her Keds squishing in the soft, dank mud. The moon was a smile in the darkness as she looked for a stalk of seagrass leaning heavily to the ground. Finding one, she crouched to complete her task, her feet sinking deeper into the cool, black muck. She plucked a conical shell from the crisp grass and hurried back inside.
Big Mama placed the open end of the shell against her neck and hummed low in her throat. The hum filled the small room, vibrated across the floor to imbed itself in Frieda’s chest and infuse her limbs with its eerie, toneless rumble.
She pulled the shell away from her throat and Frieda saw a small, pale crab, stirred by the vibration, peek out of the shell. Big Mama yanked it from its home and pulled a switchblade, slick with sweat, from the depths of her bosom. In one motion, she opened the knife and skewered the frightened crustacean to the floor before it could scuttle away. Henry’s clump of hair covered the crab’s death throes. She took a gulp of the caustic wine, spat it on the gruesome pile and touched a candle to it. It burned, not destroying the wooden floor, while Frieda’s voice joined the humming.
Wind came, strong through the curtains and the hovering shadows coalesced into a swirling ash grey mass.
“She here. Be ready with the salt.”
The grey cloud moved around the calling space, stopping at each candle, before it slunk between the two women to examine its sacrifice. Satisfied, it slid over to Frieda and swayed like a cobra. She could feel its presence inside her mind, inside her chest and she gasped as it probed at her most tender heartaches. Crushing memories rushed to the surface of her psyche: Henry’s countless betrayals, looks of pity from the local women, laughter from the men. Frieda’s heart seized. She gasped for breath as scabs, new and old, tore from each emotional wound. It delved deeper in its search, picking curiously, while tears grew behind Frieda’s fluttering eyelids. Her chest heaved and quivered with impending sobs.
“The salt. Throw the salt!” Big Mama yelled, breaking through the creature’s trance-inducing sway.
Frieda’s arm shook with the effort of tossing a small handful of salt over her left shoulder. While most of the salt found its way down the front of her dress, enough landed behind her to end the Hag’s internal quest. The smoky funnel whirled and spun with its newfound knowledge.
Brought to the surface again, her pain crystallized into diamond hard resolve, but it eased enough for her to gasp her request. “Make Henry stay with me.”
The whirlwind roiled with fervor, covering the wine-soaked crab carcass in its dervish. When it finally moved, only the switchblade remained. The coil of ash rose in the thick, muggy air and hovered above the women. One word came from the twisting center eye.
It extinguished each candle, then dissipated to leave the women surrounded by darkness and the scent of charred sulfur.
“What’s happenin’, my man?” Henry’s palm met his friend’s in an intricate succession of slaps before he sat on the next barstool in the smoky lounge.
Butch Dempsey took a sip of scotch and turned a shrewd eye on Henry. “Same old, same old. Working til I die.”
“I hear that.”
“What you doing here, anyway? Ain’t this your anniversary night?”
“Shee-it. I was wondering why Frieda was so hell bent on having dinner with me. Shoulda known.” Henry ordered a boilermaker from the bartender and rubbed a broad hand over his face. “How you remember my anniversary and I don’t?”
“’Cause y’all got married six years ago on Janey birthday and I never forget Janey birthday.”
“Right, right. How she doing?”
“Janey? Oh, she has good days and bad days.” Ebony circles hung under Butch’s eyes, stark against his pockmarked mahogany skin. “Starting to be more bad days. But her mama’s with her. Give me a few hours rest.”
“I couldn’t be sick like that. You know, live my life sick. I wanna go quick. Don’t want nobody giving up they life for me.” Henry glanced at his friend. “I don’t mean nothin’ by that, what you do for Janey is good, it’s—”
“Yeah, I know.” Butch drained his glass and stood. “I better get on home.” But he no longer had Henry’s attention.
“Uh huh.” Henry’s gaze was fixed on a woman at the end of the bar. He rose from the barstool, picked up his shot glass and the bottle of beer as though she’d bid him.
“Where’d she come from?” Butch frowned at the sly smile on the strange woman’s lips. A chill crept through his bulky frame and gooseflesh grew on his meaty arms.
“Don’t know. But I’m gonna find out.”
“No, I mean, she wasn’t there a minute ago.”
“Then she come through the back door.” He shook off the hand Butch placed on his shoulder and straightened his collar. “You disturbing my groove.”
“You need to stay away from that one. She seems… freaky.”
“Just what I’m hoping. Catch you on the flip side, man.”
But Henry didn’t respond. He had the scent and nothing could get him off the trail.
Butch watched his friend approach the mysterious woman. He started forward to intercept him and the woman looked up, straight into his eyes. Her grey-blue gaze, startling against her tawny skin, held him fast.
All ambient sound from the crowded bar faded. Butch felt himself grow hard and the throbbing ached like a wound. His skin itched like it was covered in dirt. He dug his short nails into his arm with ruthless fervor. Angry welts rose up and still he raked his flesh, unable to get rid of the feeling that she was on him—in him—crawling around.
He yelped when his blunt nails broke skin. The mental hold loosened and he was able to move. Without another glance at Henry, Butch pushed through the throng of people and hurried from the bar.
The woman was chatting with the bartender as Henry strolled up. “Hey man, give the lady here another one of what she drinking.” He gave her hourglass figure a lingering once-over. “I’m Henry. You sure is foxy.”
“And you’re a little cocky.” Her voice was husky with no trace of Southern drawl.
“You got me wrong, baby.” He took a long pull from his beer then pointed toward her with the bottle. “I’m a big cocky.”
She almost choked on a sip of strawberry daiquiri, but it turned into a spurt of laughter. “Now that is one I haven’t heard before.”
“What’s your name?”
“Does it matter? You’ll only forget it afterwards.”
He leaned closer and her fragrance glided over the smokiness of the bar, a tangy mixture of sea air and citrus fruit. “After what, little mama?”
A coy smile accompanied her words. “After tonight.”
“Now, how you know what gonna happen tonight? I might decide to take my time and court you.”
She shook her head and chestnut ringlets brushed her bare shoulders. “It’s my last night in town.”
“You got people here?”
“Nope, it’s a business trip for me.”
“Business? What kinda work you do?”
She ran her tongue over her straight, smooth teeth. “I make people over.”
Henry nodded. “That Avon kinda thing? Cool. Cool.” He downed the shot of whiskey. “So, this your last night, huh?”
“Umm hmm.” She looked up at him, her grey-blues glittering.
“That’s a shame. Guess I’m gonna have to work fast.” He slapped a ten down on the counter and stood.
“Not too fast, I hope.”
“You must make some serious bread. This ain’t no cheap motel.” Henry strolled around the expansive suite, whistling at all the extra touches. Fresh flowers blossomed in a vase on the side table next to an overflowing fruit basket. A corner of the king-sized bed was turned down, revealing crisp sheets.
“I like to be comfortable when I travel.” She tossed her clutch purse on the bedside table.
“This ain’t just comfortable. This is… nice. Real nice.” He stood in the middle of the room, gawking, until the sound of a zipper grabbed his attention. The woman stepped out of the purple satin puddle at her feet and stood, clad in only a black strapless bra and panties, at the foot of the bed. Any thoughts he might be out of his league evaporated.
“Well, don’t stop now.” He unbuttoned his own shirt and tossed it on the floor as he strode over to her. She nudged him toward the bed.
“Why don’t you lie down and watch the rest?”
“Oh, yeah. I like that, baby.”
Henry lay down in the middle of the bed and watched her reach behind her back to unhook her bra. Her high breasts sprang free from their confines and he salivated at the sight of her dark, hard nipples. She climbed onto the foot of the bed and crawled up Henry’s body, her eyes laughing with challenge.
She straddled his waist and ground herself against his hardness as she brushed one breast over his lips. He opened his mouth and sucked on the stiffened tip. Warm liquid flowed into his mouth and after his initial surprise, he suckled harder. He tried to reach up and pull her closer, but his body resisted, seizing up with the effort of movement. His eyes widened.
“No, Henry. You don’t get to touch me.” Her silky voice darkened as her milk soured in his mouth. Lumpy curds drained down his cheeks. He gagged, tried to turn his head and spit, but his thick lips were fused to her slick flesh.
“You asked me what my name was,” she said as her fingers stroked his throat, forcing him to swallow the thick pap. Henry groaned as his stomach twisted, but it refused to expel the foul liquid. Her swollen nipple popped from his mouth when she leaned back to remove her brief panties. “It’s Eldra.” As the silk slid down her thighs, fat drops of her vaginal fluid fell onto the crotch of the panties, bleaching the fabric a sickly yellow-white.
“Don’t ring a bell?” Eldra draped the ruined underwear over Henry’s face, ignoring his gurgled protests as the caustic fabric burned his skin. “No one here calls me that. They call me a hag. Can you believe it?” She slid down to his crotch, her bristly pubic hair like needles in his groin as her nails ripped through denim and exposed the length of him. She squatted, legs wide, her nether lips open to expose two tiny rows of glinting silver-white teeth.
His scream bubbled through the lumps in his throat as she lowered herself onto his stiff penis. Eldra shoved her fingers into Henry’s open mouth, turning the panties into a putrid gag as she rode him with demonic wildness while he lay immobile, unable to stop the flesh-rending fuck.
Hours later, Eldra climbed off his limp, wasted body. She gave an impressed grunt. “Ooh, Henry. You’re still hard.” She took his mutilated penis in her palms and gripped it, holding the flayed pieces together. Her salt and citrus scent filled the room as she lowered her acidic mouth again and again.
“We patched him up the best we could, Miz Frieda.” The young nurse said as she reached for the door to the shared patient room.
Frieda blocked the door and whispered, “How bad is it?”
The nurse hesitated. “It’s… uh… He’s been asking for you.”
“Frieda? That you?” Henry’s voice was high-pitched and weak. “Frieda, please. I need you.”
He sounds exhausted. That witch must have done her job.
“I’ll be at the desk if you need anything.” The nurse made a hasty exit.
Frieda hovered in the doorway, twisting the knob back and forth. The police had found him in an alley, the doctor had said, unconscious. He’d been beaten badly, but his clothes were still neat and pressed, as if they’d been removed and replaced later. They’d wanted to talk to her more, but she said she needed to see Henry first. She put iron in her spine and pulled the door open and strode in. Two beds were inside—the near one cradled an old man and the other housed a hunched figure, turned to face the far window, covered in a thin blanket. No sign of her husband.
She walked toward the window until she heard a rasping behind her. “I’m here. Frieda. Here.”
Slowly, she turned to face the first bed. Her breath caught in her throat as she realized it was her husband, her Henry, small and shriveled in the middle of the bleach white sheets. His face was a mass of blotches, where the smooth dark skin seemed to have dissolved. At the corner of his lips, white chunky crusts formed. I need him, she’d said. Now look at him.
He reached out a shaky hand to her, his flesh slack over the wasted muscle. One of his eyes was wide and pleading, the other a cloudy grey. She stepped toward the bed and pulled back the sheet covering his lower body. No, not that, too. Shriveled to nothing, the skin held together with tiny black stitches.
What you gonna do now, Frieda?
The officers waited for her in the hall, she could see their indigo uniforms through the window. One of them looked up and met her gaze. Absently, she patted Henry’s hand then beckoned the men to enter.
“We’d like to ask you some questions, Mister Cannon. Are up to talking about what happened to you?”
Henry turned his head into the pillow.
“Henry,” she whispered loud enough for both men to hear. “Answer them.”
When he didn’t respond, Frieda closed her eyes and her hand dropped away from her husband’s shoulder. “Officers, I don’t think he’s up to talking to anyone right now. I’m going to get some coffee.”
All three of them left the room and headed toward the canteen. The taller man placed his hand at the small of her back to usher her forward and it sent a thrill through her where it pooled into her core. She looked up into his disarming grey-blue eyes. “It’s gonna be okay.”
Frieda knew that it would.
About the Author
Eden Royce is from Charleston, South Carolina, but now lives in the Garden of England. She’s a recipient of the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Diverse Worlds grant and a regular contributor to Graveyard Shift Sisters, a site dedicated to purging the black female horror fan from the margins. Her short fiction can be found in Fireside Fiction, Abyss & Apex, FIYAH Literary Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, and on PodCastle.
About the Narrator
Rasheedah Prioleau is an award winning southern writer with an eclectic range of screenwriting and ghostwriting credits. She graduated from Georgia College & State University with a BS in Art & Marketing and went on to earn her MFA in Creative Writing from Full Sail University. Her self-published novels include the southern dark fantasy series, American Specter and the Gullah horror novel, Everlasting: Da Eb’bulastin. They can be found in paperback on Amazon and downloaded on Kindle. She currently resides in Sumter County, South Carolina.