original fiction by Natalia Lincoln • “Tadpole banged through the back yard and up wooden bungalow stairs, past the screen door. ‘Mama! Mama, there’s a haint under the Killing Tree!’”
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by Natalia Lincoln
copyright © 2006 / May not be reproduced without permission
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“THIS STORY COMES from my spine, girl!” The raspy old voice rumbling out of the stump scared Tadpole right off her seat.
Shrieking like a forgotten teakettle, Tadpole dove off the stump of the Killing Tree, skinning her knee as she landed. The hem of her calico play dress flipped up immodestly around her dark brown thighs. Scrambling, she tripped over a swollen tree root and sprawled on the grass again, the wind knocked clean out of her.
“Quit hollering and listen up!” Voice so wicked and gritty Tadpole thought its owner must have ate bugs and gravel for supper. “Now, everybody knows bones don’t talk without some shaking, and you just stomped on mine good and hard.”
Slender long shadows raced over the grass. Still gasping for air, Tadpole flopped onto her back. Stumps don’t have bones! she thought. But things under them might….
She stared up into twilight, the deep sky a shattered windowpane. Bare black branches struck into it like lightning — the limbs of a phantom tree writhing and clattering above the place the limbless stump had always squatted.
“Dogs gonna howl and babies gonna bawl, skirts gonna hike and trousers gonna fall, tails and tongues gonna wag, the whole world going to whore itself out just to see these dead bones stop jigging and settle back down!” growled the stump. Or what was under it.
Tadpole got enough breath back to scream “Mama!” Scrambling to her feet, she hauled ass downhill, away from the cackling tree whipping in a wind she heard but didn’t feel. Across the long field, or cut through a patch of marsh?
Shortcut! Tadpole burst through a wall of reeds. Dead grasses hissed against her bare shins. Panting, she gulped a cloud of skeeters as her feet squelched into marsh, spattering her dress. She spat, slapping at her face, pell-mell, bug-blind, sweaty.
Out of the marsh and onto dirt road, lazy lights blinking on as dusk fell, down the street home she ran. Drowsy lamplight in the kitchen window. Mama’s yellow-kerchiefed head bent over the stove. She mopped her dark brown face with a dishrag as Tadpole banged through the back yard and up wooden bungalow stairs, past the screen door. “Mama! Mama, there’s a haint under the Killing Tree!”
Mama put down the dishrag. Her calm hushed Tadpole’s shouting. Pots bubbled on the stove, steam wafting from greens, oven promising buttered biscuits. Tadpole flung herself around Mama’s waist, burying her face in Mama’s red-checkered apron.
Beyond the kitchen, the radio switched off. Wearily, Papa came in from the parlor, floorboards creaking under his muscled solidity. His brown head shone bald in the yellow light. He sat at the kitchen table, absently spreading his left hand over the stained wood, ring finger ending below the second knuckle. “Girl, we chopped that old son-of-a-bitch down twelve years ago in ’26, when your grandmam was still living and you wasn’t yet.” Tadpole remembered Grandmam cooking at the same stove, her wire-rimmed spectacles fogging in the steam. “Your Grandmam fought bravely in the hanging days, didn’t care what the so-called lawmen tried to do to her. Now there ain’t no Killing Tree no more, just a stump.”
“Even stumps got roots, Paul.” Mama patted Tadpole’s back and tweaked one of her braids. “Roots going way underground.” She sat down across from Papa.
“You can’t hang a man from a stump,” said Papa stubbornly.
Tadpole tried to snuggle into Mama’s lap, but Mama gently pushed her up with a groan, hugging her to her side. “You’re getting too big, child.”
A little ways off, a low voice droned and chanted.
Mama tightened arms around Tadpole. Tadpole went stiff as an old bone. “Mama, you never said there wasn’t a haint under that stump.” Footsteps crackled in the unraked front yard, crunched on pebbles towards the back, penned-up yardbirds clucking in alarm.
“Who’s there?” Papa barked. He gripped the arms of the chair, his left three-and-a-half fingers working nervously. Fixing to barge out the door, his legs tensed.
The singing reached the door. “— washed in the Blood of the Lamb.”
“Aunt Alethia!” yelled Tadpole. Mama loosened her grip and laughed.
Mama’s sister strode through the door, hair pomaded into a slick, elegant pompadour. She wore her Sunday best, a store-bought cream-colored silk dress with just a hint of shoulder pad. A brooch of tiny blue flowers was pinned to the lapel of her matching blazer. “Who’s coming to the revival with me?”
“I am!” shouted Tadpole.
“No, you ain’t,” said Mama, planting her hand on her hip, “ ’til you scrub yourself gleaming. You ain’t fit for company, much less church.”
I could wash off in the Blood of the Lamb! Holding her joke inside so it couldn’t earn her a swat, Tadpole ran to the washroom around the corner from the kitchen, as Mama swiveled hand and hip at her sister. “ ’Lethia, how come these things always start so close to suppertime?”
Tadpole drowned Aunt Alethia’s explanation in the wooden wash-basin on the floor. Holding up handfuls of her dress, she splashed bare feet into suds still warm from another bath.
Skirts gonna hike . . .
Tadpole almost dropped her hem into the water. Impatiently, she peeled the dress off and laid it over the hamper. No haints admitted at revivals, she thought sternly. She scrubbed the swamp off her legs with a washcloth, hard, the way Mama scrubbed.
She ran to her room, clutching a towel around her, and jumped into her Sunday dress. By the time she got to the kitchen, Mama had the biscuits out of the oven and a few buttered and ready for Tadpole.
“Eat ’em up now, Theodora,” said Aunt Alethia, the only one who called Tadpole by her Christian name. “There’ll be doughnuts and cider at the revival.” She sounded apologetic. Tadpole saw Mama’s mouth twist ever so slightly. Aunt Alethia must have too. “Now Elaine, it’s just one night.”
Tadpole gobbled down the biscuits, fiery and flaky, rich with butter.
Then Aunt Alethia took her by the hand and they stepped out into the fall-fragrant dusk, crickets in hoarse choir.
The air was cool. It would burn feverish in the revival tent. Tadpole remembered last year: hundreds of black straw fans labeled GOOD SHEPHERD FUNERAL PARLOR waving back and forth, thunder of piano and choir, a sea of flowered hats, air electric with excitement. It was funny to watch grown men and women running down the aisle, dancing jitterbug, falling blissfully. Aunt Alethia called it “slain in the Spirit.” Sounded scary, before Tadpole saw it.
“Does Jesus protect us from haints?” asked Tadpole.
“All except the Holy Ghost, honey,” smiled Aunt Alethia, “and that’s a living spirit, not a haint.” She waved at a neighbor going their way, then peered down at Tadpole. “Why you worried about haints?”
“There’s a haint at the Killing Tree.”
Aunt Alethia’s smile disappeared. “Ain’t much resting in peace going on up there,” she muttered. Determined, she pushed the corners of her mouth back up. “Prayer and my Jesus can beat any haint.”
In the gathering crowd, they kept on where the paved road ended, flanking trees bearded in kudzu and drifting curly dry leaves on the dirt road ahead. Tadpole heard the music before they reached the clearing, where two tents lit up the evening. Voices like trumpets filled the air. The music and its crazy joy lifted Tadpole like a feather floating on a single long breath.
“Two tents?” she asked Alethia. “They only had one last year.”
“Maybe one’s the quiet tent. The prayer tent.”
How quiet can it be? wondered Tadpole. “I wanna go see.” Her hand slipped out of Aunt Alethia’s.
“Not now, sweetheart,” said Aunt Alethia. “Let’s get settled first.”
They headed to the big tent. The music and the roar grew, yawned, swallowed them. Smell of caramel popcorn rose in the air. The canvas entryway flapped back and forth, admitting people, spitting them out.
Tadpole ducked in. Music boomed. Laughter and clapping, hats and flowers, hot sheen on a hundred rainbow hues of dark skin. Lots of strangers. All friendly, but strangers.
Tadpole glanced behind her. “Aunt Alethia?” she hollered, the words lost in the hubbub. Her aunt was nowhere in sight.
Outside. Plunge into cool air again. Had she gone to the right tent? Tadpole ran to the other, saddle shoes pinching her feet. No music from this tent. She punched the canvas flap open, jumped in, and froze.
Rows and rows of empty chairs. An aisle down the middle led to a card table. At the table sat an old woman in wire-rimmed spectacles. Tadpole recognized her immediately.
“It’s all right, child, you ain’t lost. Come here, Tadpole,” said Grandmam.
“Grandmam?” Tadpole sucked in a breath, teetering between running out of the tent or into her arms. “Are you back? You ain’t a —”
“No, Tadpole. I’m a messenger.” Grandmam smiled her old sweet smile, her teeth like little pearls. Not a smile a haint could fake. Skittish, Tadpole picked her way down the aisle, the Sunday dress fluttering around her knees.
Warm brown eyes shone expectantly out of the wire rims.
“I shouldn’t sit in your lap, Grandmam. Mama says I’m getting too big,” Tadpole explained, not sure she wanted to touch Grandmam quite yet. Off in the other tent, the choir swelled.
“Last time I seen you, true, you were much more tadpolish. Now you a young lady,” agreed Grandmam. “Still not old enough to be a Theodora, though.” Her eyes twinkled, then sobered. “But you old enough to hear what’s gotta be heard, and do what’s gotta be done. Your mama don’t work root magic no more, only kitchen magic, for you and your papa. I can show you what to do, but I can’t do it for you.”
Roots? “The haint at the Killing Tree?” squeaked Tadpole.
“Fraid so, dear.”
“What I’m supposed to do about a haint, Grandmam? I already screamed. He knows I’m scared of his cold bones dancing.”
“ ‘He’? How you know the haint’s a he?”
Tadpole stopped. “I don’t.” She put a hand on her hip. “How you know it’s a she?”
“Cause I watch over my children and everything that touches them.” All the warmth of the home hearth was in her smile. “Now listen, child. That haint can’t pass on because your Mama’s got something that belongs to it.”
“Why don’t Mama just give it back?”
“She can’t no more. She lost her second sight, and without her second sight, she can’t see what to give back. Or even why.”
“But Grandmam, I don’t have any more pairs of eyes than I got!”
Grandmam gave her a sharp, darting look. Not anger, but necessity. Papa had looked at Tadpole like that once, when she’d almost fallen through a frozen lake, and he’d grabbed her arm with saving swiftness. “Tadpole, why do you think you can see me?”
Tadpole’s belly felt upside-down, as if she was standing on a cliff’s edge. “But you’re here, right?”
“Always have been, girl, always will be. But you’re coming of age now, coming into your birthright. And I’m a show you what most folks only look past.” Grandma rose from her folding chair, no longer faltering from rheumy joints, Tadpole saw. Backbone straight as a young tree, Grandmam stepped to the rear of the tent and flung open the canvas.
Evening crept in, sweet warm breezes playing with a cooler undercurrent. From the other tent, the piano pounded joyfully, a low rhythm under the full choir, jubilating. Stars blinked sleepily. Light from the two tents fell pale on the dark field, pushed back by the oncoming night.
“What do you see, child?”
“I don’t see nothing, Grandmam. Just you and me standing outside a tent.”
“I know you see this fine fall night, and that’s something, not nothing,” Grandmam said gently. “But now, look ahead for a while, and don’t move a muscle.” Tadpole did as she was told.
Slowly the darkness began to dance, dim red shapes burning and flapping on the edges of her sight. “I see . . .”
“Hush, child. A minute longer.” Tadpole waited, hardly breathing. “Now. When I say ‘Go,’ turn your head quick, just a bit, and let your eyes follow.”
The little hairs on Tadpole’s arms rose.
Tadpole turned her head.
For a split second, so brief she disbelieved it, she saw a bright tall house, sunlight glinting off towers. Night and doubt swallowed it.
“Did you see them?” whispered Grandmam.
Tadpole blinked. She let her eyes reach far into darkness, heart pounding. Turned her head, fast.
In all the windows of the great house, on all the towers, danced a host of people. Some wore old-time clothes, some modern; some even wore flowing robes of emerald, yellow, crimson. On their brown upraised arms shone gold. On the walls behind them hung colorful tapestries and wooden masks.
They flashed and disappeared.
“I saw them,” said Tadpole firmly. Grandmam nodded. “Who are they?”
“Your forebears, child. Watching over you. I’m the youngest in that house.” Grandmam laughed. “And that house just the beginning of your sight, Tadpole. Keep your thoughts free and your memory sharp, and you’ll see many wonders. This world has so many.” She sighed; whether in regret or satisfaction, Tadpole couldn’t tell. “Mind now, you going to need that sight soon. Have those eyes and ears peeled for strangers.”
Tadpole’s flesh prickled. “But I saw plenty of strangers already tonight.” The revival! Where was Aunt Alethia? She’d almost forgot….
“This stranger,” said Grandmam, “is stranger than all strangers. Now go on back, child. This ain’t the last of me.”
“Back?” Tadpole’s eyes fluttered open. Onstage in the crowded tent, the robed preacher strutted to the slow tempo of a joyous song. Tadpole was sprawled out on the aisle, Aunt Alethia cradling her head.
“Slain in the Spirit,” crooned her aunt. “Oh, child, I knew you could feel it.”
Tadpole didn’t tell Aunt Alethia about the grand house or the forebears. Her aunt seemed supremely proud to have a niece who’d been slain in the Spirit, and Tadpole didn’t know what to make of what she’d seen, anyhow. Maybe I dreamed in the Spirit. But most dreams were nonsensical, and came when they pleased, not when she asked.
When the altar call came, Tadpole went down the aisle to the front of the tent with her beaming aunt. Basking in the ecstatic glow of the music and the blessings pouring out from onstage, she knelt with all the brothers and sisters. This is like the house of forebears, only everybody can see everybody. Why don’t the forebears appear to anyone but me?
Of course, Jesus didn’t appear to everybody, either. And He was good and powerful.
Maybe Jesus could find the haint, and Tadpole wouldn’t have to see it herself. After all, Jesus loved her. And everyone was a friend in Jesus now, not strangers anymore.
The music slowed to soulful, the choir swaying. The throng rose, some staggering to their feet, some with tears in their eyes. They held hands and sang, then turned, went back up the aisle and out into the night.
Stars were bright now, sharp-edged crystals of ice, and the fall air crisp. Cinnamon, apple cider, doughnuts and coffee scents mingled, steaming sweet from the buffet table set up outside the tent. Tadpole thought the singing might have called down a little bit of heaven onto the table.
The brothers and sisters laughed and joked now, sipping coffee or cider in paper cups. Children ran through the forest of grown-up legs and around the buffet table, peeking out from under the white tablecloth. Recognizing some kids from school, Tadpole screwed up the boldness to go ask if she could play too. Everybody was friendly now.
In the midst of the crowd, Tadpole glimpsed a stranger.
Her hatless hair was swept up as elegantly as Aunt Alethia’s, wound in tight, smooth rolls back from her temples, just over her ears, into a loose bun at the nape of her neck. The rolls looked like the rounded ears of a panther Tadpole had seen at the circus. High cheekbones made her chin seem pointy. Her eyes were golden, her skin a creamy dark chocolate, gleaming black against the clean white dress she wore.
The lady never stood alone. Every few minutes, a different man came up to her, looking like he was about to get down on his knees and beg. Then another man would tap him on the shoulder. They all ended up slinking away like dogs with their tails between their legs.
Aunt Alethia pressed a sugared doughnut into Tadpole’s hand. “Eat up, child, I got to get you back to your Mama. It’s past midnight.” She read Tadpole’s expression, stared at the spot Tadpole had been riveted to. “What do you see?”
Tadpole almost pointed, but remembered that it wasn’t polite. “I thought . . . I saw somebody,” she stammered, and crammed the doughnut into her mouth.
“Easy!” said Aunt Alethia. “That doughnut ain’t trying to run away, you know.”
“Sorry,” Tadpole said through cinnamon and sweet dough.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full! Come on now, we got to get home.” Aunt Alethia took her by the hand that wasn’t full of doughnut and hustled her away from the table, hastily calling good night to everyone.
How I’m going to find out what that haint wants? thought Tadpole desperately. Oh Jesus, Grandmam and all my forebears, tell me what to do —!
But Jesus didn’t pop up in a cloud. Grandmam didn’t speak from a burning bush. Aunt Alethia only believed in the Holy Ghost, Mama’s second sight was gone, and Tadpole suddenly felt small and alone.
Mama was waiting up for them when they clattered up the back stairs. “Did she behave?”
Tadpole had licked her fingers clean of sugar. She looked appealingly at Aunt Alethia.
“Theodora got right with Jesus,” Aunt Alethia told Mama, winking at Tadpole.
Mama gave Tadpole a wondering smile. “You did? That’s my girl.” Her eyes lingered a moment longer, then she shook her head as if dismissing a thought. “You hungry, child?”
“No,” said Tadpole. Who could be? Something was wrong. “Where’s Papa?”
Mama stirred uneasily. “Taking a walk.” She glanced meaningfully at Alethia. “He’ll be back later. Time for bed, honey.”
“But, Mama, I’m not sleepy.”
“Child, a day will come when you’d sleep through the night and half the day if you could. Til then I got to put you to bed ’fore I put my own self to bed, and I’m already fixing to drop right here. Go get in your nightgown now, hear?”
“What about the haint?” blurted Tadpole.
Aunt Alethia put her hands on her hips. “You still scared of haints? After seeing the power of the Lord? Ain’t no haint coming past this doorpost.”
Mama pulled Tadpole to her and hugged her fiercely. “She’s right. No haints in this house. Now go get ready for bed.”
But Papa ain’t in the house either. More awake than ever, Tadpole knew it was useless to argue. She’d have to scout out the haint on the sneak. She shuffled out of the kitchen and went past the washroom to her bedroom. After she changed into her nightgown, she crept back just around the corner from the kitchen, gripping the wooden doorframe outside.
Mama and Alethia, half-whispering.
“. . . know how he gets any time there’s a revival,” said Alethia. “I wish he’d put it behind him. It was ten years ago, and he’s still sulking about it, boozing, making you and the child fret.”
“He always comes back.” Mama was crying. “He ain’t leaving me, I know. Never. And it ain’t all his fault.”
“Girl, that’s what women always say. You got to put your foot down.” Alethia’s dress rustled. “I’ll go see if Theodora’s in bed.” Tadpole slipped into the washroom. She plunged her hands into the tub.
Alethia appeared in the doorway, stifling a reproach at the sight. “Good girl. I’m a tuck you in. Your Mama will be in to kiss you later.”
Tadpole toweled her hands off and trotted obediently behind Aunt Alethia. She jumped into bed. Its springs squeaked. Lying down, she closed her eyes. Light out and a kiss on her cheek.
She waited ’til the floorboards announced Aunt Alethia’s departure. I got to find that haint, but I can’t go walking. Tadpole opened her eyes and stared at the cracked ceiling. Stared until the cracks disappeared and the plaster swam into starlit waves.
Grandmam, Tadpole called silently. She sniffed. Fragrance stole through the air, not delicious like food, but pleasant and distantly familiar.
Something surely magical.
Van Van, whispered Grandmam’s voice. Incense. Your Mama burning incense for the first time in years. She be fearful. Not all her sight gone….
Tadpole breathed incense.
“I used to play piano, a long time ago.” Papa? Tadpole almost jumped out of bed at the sound of his voice, but only quivered, not daring to move. Then she saw: trees trailing kudzu; four feet crunching slow over dirt road.
The elegant lady with her swirled-chocolate hair, and Papa.
“Played for a gospel choir,” said Papa. “Meant to go on the road with them, just bolt from this town, but —” He held up the hand with the short ring finger.
“I been missing a bone myself for a long time,” purred the lady, her voice not gritty anymore, but just as wicked as it was below the stump. “Just one bone in the right place wouldn’t do me no harm, no harm at all.” She put her arm around Papa’s waist, parting her lips, her head nearing his neck….
“Papa!” screamed Tadpole. The haint’s head jerked up. The sight of them disappeared into the plaster ceiling.
Mama at her bedside. “Hush, baby, it’s all right.”
“Mama, it ain’t all right! The haint’s got Papa!” Comforting words formed on Mama’s lips: just a dream. “I saw them stepping . . . stepping out under the vines!”
The words on Mama’s lips crumbled. Mama’s eyes widened, then narrowed. She reassembled the words carefully. “It’s just a dream. Mama’s going to make dang sure of that. Go back to sleep.” She pushed herself up from Tadpole’s bed, moving purposeful and slow. Out in the hallway, low voices: “…coming right back… can’t be wandering so late… go along?… no, stay with her, make sure she doesn’t…”
Lantern light swinging in the hallway, stealthy footsteps and darkness again. “Mama!” Tadpole called, slipping out of bed. “Don’t —”
Aunt Alethia blocked the doorway. “Theodora, get back in bed.”
“Now.” Her aunt took a step towards her, large in the dark.
Tadpole backed up, got under the covers. Alethia sat on the chair just inside the door, arms folded.
Swallowing, Tadpole squeezed her eyes shut and thought as loud as she could: Grandmam and all my forebears, help me. Help me find what that haint needs to leave us be.
She opened her eyes, stared into the ceiling again. Nothing. She turned her head quick, as Grandmam had told her. Still nothing. Nearby, Aunt Alethia shifted on the chair. Do I have to be alone to see? Tadpole asked silently.
Grandmam’s words returned: Keep your thoughts free and your memory sharp….
Tadpole closed her eyes to picture the grand house and the forebears, letting imagination fill in the gaps in memory. Soon the picture had a life of its own, the ancestors’ music and laughter audible, real enough to walk into.
Earth warm, dry beneath her bare feet. Tadpole walked.
Light cloth rustled at her ankles. She glanced down. A robe like the forebears’ covered her now, its pattern a dancing jumble of brightly colored moons and suns and strange faces. Flutes and drums cut from living wood played ancient music. Creatures in the trees surrounding the house hooted and screeched and warbled in reply.
Grandmam and all Tadpole’s forebears gathered silently round as she neared, as though to protect her.
A figure in blazing white approached them from the woods. Her coal-black face was set in anger.
“What do you want from our family, haint?” cried Tadpole. The haint came on, brazen. One of the ancestors set the butt of his wooden staff in the earth. She stopped, daring no closer.
“What do you want?” repeated Tadpole.
“If your Mama don’t give me back what’s mine,” spat the lady, “I’ll take what’s hers!”
“What does my Mama have of yours, haint?”
The woman tore her white robe in two. She stood naked in the sunlight. Tadpole recoiled, but knew she was safe with her forebears behind her.
As the white robe fell to the ground, the woman shrank into herself. Now a black cat stood before them, golden eyes like embers, tail lashing. “She has a bone of mine.”
Grandmam gasped. “Elaine laid the Black Cat Bone trick!”
“What’s that?” whispered Tadpole.
“I want it back,” said the cat. “Give it to me or I’ll take the man she hoodoo’ed into sticking ’round.”
“You already got his fingerbone, cat,” snapped Grandmam.
“That don’t help a cat none. And it wasn’t my idea, but Elaine’s. Her trick worked as good as she planned, only not as pretty as she wanted. But killing a black cat for its magic bone ain’t pretty, either.” The cat licked its chops. “At least he lost that finger helping chop down the Killing Tree. Now. One of you gotta find me that bone ’fore I’ll go home and stay put.” It stared insolently at Tadpole.
“I’ll find you your damn bone,” said Tadpole. “Then you got to give me my Papa back and leave us alone.”
“Once that bone is mine again,” answered the cat smugly, “he ain’t bound to you no more.”
“Papa loves us,” yelled Tadpole. “He’ll be back in spite of you.”
Abruptly, cat, forest and ancestors vanished. Tadpole blinked. Bedroom walls faded in around her. Dazed, Tadpole sat upright in bed, sheets rustling. Aunt Alethia’s snore broke off, then resumed.
I bet that bone is under Mama’s bed, thought Tadpole. She had crawled under it once playing Hide and Seek.
She glued her eyes to Aunt Alethia. Head leant back against the wall, her aunt was fast asleep.
Tadpole smoothed back the covers. Put a toe on the floor. Slipped out of bed entirely. Dashed silent and scared past her snoring aunt, out the door, and around the corner to Mama’s and Papa’s bedroom.
Dropping to her hands and knees, she cocked her head to look under the bed, lifting the coverlet.
Small chest. She crawled as quietly as she could underneath the bed, grabbing the chest, prying at the lock.
The screen door squealed. Tadpole froze.
Footsteps raced to Mama’s bedroom. Fear-charged, Tadpole stopped breathing.
The coverlet lifted, and Mama’s face peered under the bed. Her hand groped for the chest. Tadpole hoped beyond hope it was too dark for Mama to see her.
Mama slid the chest out from under the bed. The coverlet fell again.
“Come out, child,” said Mama’s voice, not loud, but commanding. Shaking, Tadpole scooted out from under the bed, Mama’s lantern filling the bedroom with flickering light. Mama held her chin high, a mixture of anger, dignity, and regret transforming her face. “We got to undo this thing.”
Fumbling with a tiny bag of worn green cloth around her neck, she produced a key. She fitted it into the lock and opened the chest, pulling out another worn cloth bag. She undid a knot and spilled the contents out on the coverlet.
A ball of wax, some purple string knotted many times, scraps of paper, lint, and, finally, a thin bone not quite the size of a finger fell out. Aged scent of Van Van.
Mama went limp. “That bone wasn’t even stuck in the wax or knotted in the string no more.” She laughed abruptly. “I suppose he could have left for real a while ago.”
“I told that haint Papa loved us,” said Tadpole.
“He does, child.” Mama kissed her. “Now let’s go to the Killing Tree and bury this damn bone.”
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Natalia Lincoln, a writer of dark fantasy and science fiction, is the recipient of Odyssey Fantasy Workshop’s highest Gandalf Grant. Her most recent publications appeared in the Best of Epitaph, as well as the science fiction, fantasy, & horror anthology, Circles in the Hair. The Mirror, her dark fantasy novel set in modern New York and medieval Eastern Europe, awaits publication. A second work, Ambassador Orange, is in progress. Natalia is a founding member of the science fiction, fantasy, & horror writing collective, CITH. She also plays keyboards and sings for Unto Ashes, a New York City neo-medieval band who just returned from their first German tour.