That night, the sumptuous summer heat created sweaty pools in thick eyebrows and nightgowns, swollen petals and thigh creases, as Jackson, Junior walked next to the slave quarter towards the coffin shed, the full moon clamping down on him like a watchdog.
Under the sky’s star mosaic, he saw a picture of his sister, Bethy, short for Elizabeth, set in a small, curly, wrought iron picture frame that sat on a white, marble bench inside of the mausoleum. There, he promised his father that he would stay away from the women in the slave quarter. But brothel flesh was thrill-less, lacking the spice and sweet of frightened flesh.
He had no tears for Bethy, new and fresh in the spirit world. What was Bethy doing walking alone in the swamp with a strange man anyway, he thought. She got what she deserved.
As he walked closer to the shed, the sound of a woman’s moan gave him pause—the orchestral sound of a woman, moving in secret, her body setting in its own invisible sun, the earth’s godless end, squeezed between her legs, echoing from a voice so filled with ecstatic fear, it could only be a slave woman.
He walked to the side of the coffin shed and peeked in a small hole fashioned by the carpenter ants just for him. The lights from the hanging lanterns traced the lovers’ dark bodies like the devil’s own eye.
He saw Leslie, a cotton dress wrapped around her waist, a man’s face lost in her long neck, one of her full breasts escaping as if to greet Jackson, Junior, her tiny, raisin nipple, so tight, it looked like it could fly off and kiss his thread-thin lips. The man’s chiseled, scarred back moved in circles on top of her, her mouth agape, his rippled arms pressing into long arms that were over her head, her hips rising up to meet his.
He was so aroused, Jackson, Junior’s own warm blood chased him out of himself. He calmly walked to the shed’s entrance and gently opened the door.
“Well, well,” he said in a low, aggressively still tone.
“What do we have here?”
He watched the slave whom he did not recognize scrambling around the hay, his bruised, hard, soil-black backside moving around like two fists, Leslie frantically buttoning the top buttons on the faded, cotton, blue dress, each hole fastened to the wrong button, her breath so labored, she thought she’d pass out.
Jackson, Junior, leaned against the wall, watching them, his blood so warm, it cooled at the fire of his thrill.
“Suh, Suh,” the slave said. “We is married, Suh.”
“Married?” Jackson, Junior, asked, laughing. “Only humans can be married, Niggar.
“What’s your name, Boy?”
“Where you from, Boy?”
“I belongs to Reverend Keyes, Suh.”
Jackson, Junior, nodded, his aggressive stillness like a whip cutting through their sanity. What was he going to do to them, they wondered.
“And what do you think Reverend Keyes would do if I brought you back to his estate and explained that you were fornicating with my slave?”
“Suh, Suh, I can’ts…”
Floyd couldn’t speak, the thought of feeling Reverend Keyes’ cat o’nine tail whip again bringing tears to his eyes though he did not let them fall.
“I do doubles duh work, Suh,” Leslie said, holding Floyd’s thick arm. “I picks double duh cotton, Suh. Please don’t…”
“Cotton doesn’t interest me.”
Jackson, Junior smiled as he walked over to the coffins, each one fixed on a solid wood stand. Some did not have lids, some were closed. Then he slowly walked to the coffin that Leslie and Floyd were leaning on. He rubbed his large, sandy hand against the polished, cherry wood top as he edged toward them.
“You realize that some good, God-fearing man or woman will be laid to rest in this coffin—some mother or father, a preacher, a saint. This is like the holy door leading to heaven…”
Then he turned his back to Floyd and Leslie.
“But you have turned it into a den of fornication.”
“Sorry, Suh…We sorry.”
Jackson, Junior, put his index finger on his lips.
“Well, how do we absolve you of your sin?” he asked, as he removed the tan, wide-brimmed, leather hat from his head. Then he ran his hand through his wavy, mixed blonde hair that touched his collar bone, a sadistic grin appearing on his long face that featured an aquiline nose, cleft chin and beady, green eyes.
“This time, turn her to the side, so I can see those supple, brown breasts flopping around…” he said, looking at Leslie with brooding lust, touching his own chest in a daze.
“Yes, I want to see them flopping around… flopping around like chickens after you chop off their necks” he continued, grabbing his crotch.
“Leslie, my, how you’ve grown,” he said, a glowing tear of sweat racing down his forehead, down his freshly shaven chin, down his neck disappearing into his beating chest.
Floyd eased in front of Leslie, pulling up his trousers while covering his penis.
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about me, Floyd.”
Floyd and Leslie didn’t move. Jackson, Junior’s words consumed in their fear.
“Oh, Lord,” he said, rolling his eyes.
“Don’t tell me that you’re simple…What I’m saying is that I’m going to step out this door, and I want you to carry on as you were. I’m going to be looking from that-there peep hole,” he said, pointing at the hole.
“If you please me, well, all is forgiven, and I see no reason why anyone has to know.”
Jackson, Junior, stepped out of the shed.
“I can’ts do dis is,” Floyd said to Leslie. “He lyin’. He finnuh tells Reverend Keyes.”
“Listen here,” Leslie said, grabbing his face. “We gots do dis. We ain’t gots no choice.”
Then Leslie closed her eyes, inhaled deeply then mouthed these words as she exhaled:
tali, tali, mama, tali
tali, tali, mama, tali
She kissed his lips that were closed and tight at first.
“Jus’ pretends he ain’t here,” she whispered in his ear, licking his rich lobe and putting his hard, battered hand on her breast.
She nervously unbuttoned the dress that hadn’t been buttoned correctly.
“Come on,” she whispered. “He ain’t here.”
She kissed his neck and chest and rubbed his flaccid penis.
Then she turned around, pulled up the dress, so it wreathed her waist and traced small circles around his penis with her smooth, round, generous backside looking directly at the hole that the carpenter ants fashioned for Jackson, Junior. Then she licked her lips.
“Yeah,” Jackson, Junior, said quietly. “That uh Girl. Show him how it’s done.”
She turned around and looked at Floyd.
“Touch it,” she commanded.
“Come on, Niggar,” Jackson, Junior, whispered to himself, his penis stiffer than it had ever been in any brothel.
Floyd rubbed her backside as he felt the fear drifting from his body, though it hovered overhead, his eyes closed, trying to focus.
Floyd’s hand felt like a tree bark against Leslie’s backside. It was the grated grit of hands that crawled out of hotboxes, out from the “hem of his garment,” only to find his manhood hung from a hope that was as empty and as full as the universe before him. She closed her eyes, slightly opening her backside cheeks, cupping his penis like the body of Christ she saw placed in those clammy, wicked palms, those lily-of-the-valley-white-as-snow palms that hung her body on dignity’s cross time and time again.
She shook her cheeks like timbrels, looked at the hole where heaven and hell held her destiny, and wiggled her tongue. She wiggled her tongue fiercely. She wiggled her tongue as if, like a wand, it had the magical power to set her free.
“Oh shit, Girl. What are you doin’ to me?” Jackson, Junior, whispered, frantically looking for his pant zipper, staring at her face, fearing if he blinked, he would miss something magnificent.
Floyd entered the warm, wet space that was fear and survival, digging his nails into her universe-backside as Leslie kept winding her waist in circles. He moved fast and hard as her breasts flopped around, her hair, slowly detangling from four long plats. She grabbed her breast and kept wiggling her tongue at the hole.
“Oooooooohhh shit,” the couple heard.
Leslie pulled herself from Floyd and quickly started putting on her dress.
“What you doin?” he asked standing there stiff.
“We done…He gots what he wanted.”
“How you knows?”
“’Cuz I knows, Floyd…Ain’t you gonna puts yo’ clothes on?”
Jackson, Junior, gently opened the door and walked in.
“Girl,” he whispered though slightly out of breath, his hand on his wet pant crotch.
“Girl, damn. I feel good—real, real good,” he whispered, biting his bottom lip, staring at Leslie, leaning against the wall.
Floyd put on his brown, potato sack pants covered in holes.
“This is exactly what I needed.”
Leslie stood behind Floyd.
“See you tomorrow. Same time, same place,” Jackson, Junior, said still trying to catch his breath.
“Floyd, get on back to Reverend Keyes before he notices that you’re missing. Leslie, get to sleep.”
Then he turned around and walked out.
Floyd looked at Leslie and rolled his eyes.
“What wrongs wid yuh? I saved yo’ life.”
He walked out of the coffin shed.
“Floyd,” she whispered. “Floyd! What wrong?”
He turned around.
“What wrong? I don’t wants my womans carryin’ on like dat.”
“Carryin’ on like what?”
“You a whore,” he said, looking down at her with piercing disdain then he turned around.
Leslie hit him hard on his back.
“Every slave woman is a whore. Dis ain’t my body. It belongs to duh Jacksons. Who you tink you iz, Floyd? You heards what he dun said—Only human gits married.”
Floyd hugged Leslie hard then turned around and walked into the darkness.
The next night, Jackson, Junior, went to the coffin shed, but Leslie was sitting down on the floor, her head folded into her knees.
“Evening,” Jackson, Junior, said in a loud whisper.
“Evening, Suh,” she said startled.
“Where’s your partner?”
“Don’t know, Suh.”
“Is he usually late?”
“Think he’s gonna be late tonight?”
“No, Suh. Don’t thank he comin’, Suh.”
Jackson, Junior, nodded his head.
“Think you can please me without Floyd?”
Leslie started to take off her dress.
“Wait, stop,” he said. “Slow down.”
“I’m not going to touch you, but I still want you to please me…like you did yesterday. Think you can handle that?”
Leslie started taking off the dress again.
“Okay, stop, Leslie…Put your dress back on.”
Leslie put the shoulder of the dress back on nervously, worried that she wasn’t going to understand what he wanted.
“Leslie, what you did last night was divine—the way you moved your body, licked them thick lips of yours. It was art. Know what I mean?”
“No, Suh. But I thanks I can learns.”
“That’s the spirit…Now, I want you to pretend that Floyd is here, making you feel good, and I just want you to move the way you moved last night. You see how you took control of the situation? I just want you to be in control of this situation.”
“Suh, you gon’ be outside, lookin’ through duh hole again?”
Jackson, Junior, nodded.
“Yes, why don’t I do that…give you some time to get into character.”
Leslie had no idea what Jackson, Junior, meant by art and getting into character, but she knew how to survive. She understood that what she had between her legs was a kind of freedom even though so many white men tried to convince her that it was dirt. No man goes crazy for dirt; they go crazy for freedom, she thought.
First, she closed her eyes and mouthed the words: tali, tali, mama, tali, or mama, mama, for you, mama—the chant Miss Mabel taught her to say when she needed saving, the goddess chant that lived beyond the skinned souls still swimming beneath the east African sea where her grandmama hid her mama carefully in her womb, those shackles now fins and wings more pernicious than nooses or cat o‘ nine tails. These magical words—tali, tali, mama, tali—that reverberate against Death, bringing life to the spirits that say in their silence, “Mama, sister, we are with you.”
Leslie felt a force shoot up through her bones and radiate around her hips and through her pooma ruby—the small jewel that lived between those thick, poked-and-prodded lips covered in black seeded dandelions. That’s what her mama used to call it—pooma ruby. Because that’s what her grandmama called it. “If you rubs it, you feels good, and you be free,” she used to say. “See white folks don’t want us, womens, to feels good eva. If you feels good, you feels free.”
She stood face forward in front of the hole, those carpenter ants now drumming fire through her body, her mouth slightly parted, the pinkness of her tongue peeking out, her eyes slanted, her heavy lids hiding machetes she wanted to cut Jackson, Junior’s soul with.
She slowly pulled down the dress off her left shoulder that revealed a sun-shaped, keloid scar she got from a mistress at a different plantation. She pushed the dress slowly off her left breast, as she imagined her raisin nipple shooting a curse directly into Jackson, Junior’s eye. She wiggled her tongue and pinched her nipple, hearing his body implode with pleasure.
She moved her hips in perfectly tight, small circles though it didn’t feel like she was moving her body. It felt like hands were moving her body, moving her hips. She pulled the right sleeve off her right shoulder and let the dress fall to the ground, her big hands, moving around her breasts, breasts that hung low and swung high, her hips continuing to move in perfectly tight circles. Then she turned to the side like she had done the night before and shook her cheeks like timbrels. Then she moved her backside in wide circles.
Her eyes were closed as she moved. She heard Jackson, Junior, gasping for air which made her feel powerful. She could kill him in this moment. He could drop dead inside of her without being inside of her. She got her on knees, facing the hole again and moved her hips around and around.
Suddenly, Jackson, Junior, heard drumming. His heart was beating hard, fast.
Through the hole, he saw women glowing like moonlight, black crosses charring on their foreheads. They squatted over djembe drums, their generous breasts shimmying left to right. The coffin shed walls melted away as he saw other women beat timbrels hard, eyes closed, heads bent towards the full, vibrating moon that now looked like a breast caught in the mouth of a handsome, dark sky. Their mouths moved, the words, chanted, full and wet, beating between their full, ripe lips, but Jackson, Junior, did not hear their sound. His body was on fire. Other women danced, their full legs opened wide, hips thrusting back and forth, rolling their heads, up and down, their beautiful, locked hair grazing the ground then leaping back up like sugarcane stalks. Leslie joined the ancestral sister-womb dance, arms roped together as they moved in a circle—embroidered fuchsia, teal, tangerine, cucumber fabrics flowing through their hips and intertwined through their long, weaving limbs. Other women played beaded guitars, smiling at one another, baby girls, bare, hopping joyfully through the circles. They moved around Leslie—chanting, singing. There was a woman moving wildly on a tree stomp—her pale skin glowed as if she had fallen out of a star’s womb. Her brown hair was coiled into bantu knots and her eyes sizzled like blue silk. When she stomped hard, a blaze of fire embraced her body then faded out. She did this again and again, her small, lean, naked body moving as if she belonged to the fire—a fire goddess. Then the woman embraced by fire, eyes sizzling blue silk, danced closer to the hole fashioned by carpenter ants for Jackson, Junior, her sweet pink nipples spread across her flesh like a new city, her seeded dandelions blooming in front of his very eyes. Then… the world stopped, the moment became eerily silent, as she poked her big, blue eye in the hole.
When Jackson, Junior, came into the shed, he was trembling and pale. He stared at Leslie, and she saw that he wanted her but was afraid to touch her.
Leslie quickly put on her clothes.
“Good night, Leslie,” he said then walked out.
The next morning while Leslie was picking cotton in the fields with her daughter, Precious, she saw Jackson, Junior, charging towards her in the same clothes he had on the night before. Suddenly, all the light of the day became iridescently dark, and all she saw was Jackson, Junior’s wild eyes plunging through the slave-strewn darkness, her lifeless body hanging from a tree.
“Girl, what you done did?” one of the older slave women said, scurrying away.
“Girl, what you done did?” Precious repeated as she had a habit of repeating what the older folks said.
“He gots some fire in his step,” one of the men said, moving the hat towards the front of his head.
“He gots some fire in his step,” the little girl repeated looking up at her mother.
“Oh, Lord, have mercy,” another slave woman said, breathing hard. “Oh, Lord, have mercy.”
“Oh, Lord, have mercy,” the little girl repeated, pretending to breathe hard. “Oh, Lord, have mercy.”
Then the day went totally black—no sound, no movement.
“Morning, Leslie,” Jackson, Junior, said for a third time, staring at her.
She wanted to say “Morning,” back to him, but the words were frozen in her mouth that was wide open.
“I wanted you to know that I would not be returning to the coffin shed…ever,” he said, smiling slightly.
“Good day to you,” he said, titling his hat forward before he turned around and stomped away.
“What ya’ll, Niggars, staring at,” he said sternly. “Get back to work.”
“Good day to yuh?” the other slave woman said, laughing. “Girl, I wants some uh what you gots. Ain’t no white mans ever said good day to me ever.”
“Good day to yuh?” the little girl repeated. “Girl, I wants some uh what you gots. Ain’t…”
“Stop dat repeatin’ fo’ I put a whippin’ to yuh. Gettin’ on everybody nerves.”
“Penny, I’m finnuh go talks to Miss Mabel. Can you watch Precious fo’ me?”
“Sure can, long as she don’t start repeatin’ thangs.”
“Sure can, long as she don’t start repeatin’ thangs,” Precious said before she dashed into the fields.
Leslie caught her breath and calmly walked toward the big house. When she arrived, she peeked inside of the back door where Miss Mabel was working in the kitchen.
“Miss Mabel,” she whispered.
“Girl, it’s too early to get food fo’ yo’ girl. Come back ‘roun lunch.”
“Not dat…I needs to talk to yuh.”
“Girl, I got too much to do ‘roun here. Day finnuh have some fancy dinnuh on Sunday, and I gots to get the menu togeddah…Plus, I gots to make breakfas’…I ain’t got time, Leslie. Go on now.”
“It ‘bout Jackson, Junyah.”
Miss Mabel stopped abruptly and looked around to see if anyone was coming.
Miss Mabel wiped her hands on the apron. It was covered in flour from the morning calas.
She stepped outside, and they walked at the side of her quarters which was not easily seen from passersby.
“What he did to yuh?” she said.
“Nothin’…I means, he do somethin’, but he ain’t touch me.”
“At night, he watch me takes offs my clothes, and he make me move ‘roun,” she said.
“Make you move ‘roun? What you mean, Leslie? You ain’t makin’ sense.”
“I be nekked and dancin’ like,” she said, twisting her hands around nervously.
“He like it?”
“Yeah, I thanks so.”
“But, he ain’t put no hand on yuh, right?”
“Den what duh problem?”
“I did what you tolds me to do when I was just a girl, to say dem words: tali, tali, mama, tali, and Miss Mabel, day ain’t neva really works befo’ when duh white mens come to the quarter, I say dem words, but day ain’t neva works, but dis time…Dis time I thanks they did,” she said, tears coming to her eyes.
“Girl, you betta start makin’ sense soon.”
“He come out to duh field dis mornin’. At firs’, I thanks he gon’ whip me or somethin’. I swear I was already dead when he was talkin’ to me. He said, ‘Mornin’ and ‘Good day to yuh.’”
“What?” Miss Mabel asked, her eyes bulging out of her head.
“Yes…den he say, ‘I ain’t coming back to the coffin shed…eva’”
“Goddamn,” Miss Mabel said, smiling.
“Yes, yes…I jus’ needs to thanks yuh fo’ dem words. Day saves me.”
“Chile, somethin’ happen. I bet it’s dem duppy-gals from duh swamp. Yes-siree. Dem was witcha,” she said, smiling and slightly jumping up and down with Leslie.
“I feels…I feels likes I heard my mama and somebody else mama and somebody else grandmama. I can’ts explain it, Miss Mabel, but I feels so good. I feels so good. I…I feels like I be protected, knows what I mean?”
“Yep…You gots a visitation, Baby Girl.”
“Who dem duppy-gals from duh swamp?”
“Long time ago, Mrs. Williams-Holt…she be duh mistress on the plantation jus’ down the road. Well, she kilt off all duh slave baby girls on her lands ‘cuz Mr. Williams-Holt be in love with one of dem mulatta gals. Yep. He be real jealous over dat mulatta girl, neva let her out his sights, buyin’ her rangs and thangs. Used to calls his wife fat cow ‘fo everybody. Anyway, Mrs. William-Holt be real mad, and one day she asks dem boys to put fire on day foreheads. Yep. Day put crosses in fire on day foreheads den day cuts off dem baby girl heads in duh sugarcane fields and dump duh bodies in duh swamp where duh alligators be. Chile, everybody’s in town smells duh blood and bones and sugar. Folk say day see dem at night—dancin’, singin’, playin’ drums, ridin’ dem alligators. Day knows it’s dem ‘cuz day see duh crosses on day head…”
“Leslie, get back in the field,” Jackson, Junior, said harshly, startling the women, then he gave Miss Mabel a ferocious stare before he walked into the big house.
That evening Jackson, Junior’s brother, Ethan, knocked on his bedroom door.
“I’m not here,” he said, laying on his canopy bed, a bottle of Miss Mabel’s passion fruit moonshine in his hand.
Ethan entered the room, carrying one of his twin baby girls.
“What’s the matter, Brother? Brothel blues?”
“Shut up, Ethan.”
“Why weren’t you at dinner?”
“Doesn’t that mean you had a good night?” he asked as he kissed his daughter on the forehead.
“I saw Bethy.”
“What do you mean?”
“I saw Bethy last night?”
“I think that moonshine’s getting to you.”
“I saw her in the coffin shed dancing up a storm with those niggar-gal ghosts from the swamp.”
“I’m going to ask Miss Mabel to fix you a plate ‘cuz…”
“Remember those niggar-gals from the Williams-Holt plantation?”
“Of course, I do. What she did to those girls—New Orleans’ greatest shame.”
“You know how people say they see them a night, dancing and singing?”
“Yeah, but Junior…”
“The crosses…I saw those crosses on their foreheads. I saw Bethy dancing with them with those deep blue eyes.”
“Hmmmm…and how was she?” Ethan asked sarcastically.
“Free,” Jackson, Junior, said as he sat up on the edge of the bed. “She looked free.”