A Walk at Dusk, “Heartsick,” part 4

Deciding he had spent enough time in the study, David went to his own bedroom and hid his new letter in the same place he had stashed the first, along with his personal money: a hollowed section of his dresser not visible from the front. When he got downstairs, well ready for a long read beside the hearth and a hot supper cooked by Mayem, he found Michael being picked up by two of the slaves, who David knew as Jim and Will, friends of Tiny. Michael no longer looked pale so much as flushed red. His shirt had been removed and the red rash covered his chest as well.

He caught the worried eyes of his mother, who said, “I think it’s the German measles. A few days of bedrest and he’ll be bright and new.”

David didn’t feel like he had anything to say to that, certainly not what actually went through his mind, which was that Michael had already had German measles two years prior. He watched the men carefully carry his brother up the staircase, looking nervous as they held him.

“Dinner’s at your convenience,” his mother said, following the men up the stairs.

David felt suddenly stuffy in the living room. He went through the kitchen, gathering up a few rolls and some leftover beef from lunch, then went out the back door and toward the pine grove by the stables. He found a comfortable spot that was bright and yet out of the sun directly and opened his book. His mind was in many places, but the story still held him.  The hours dwindled as the pages turned, and the sun finally fell behind the trees into darkness. Standing up, he started toward the stables with a mind to find an unattended lamp and continue his reading. As he approached the building he noticed something amid the soft brush of the breeze.

It was singing, rolling along at high pitch. He paused and listened, and soon he was able to discern that it was several voices, all women. After a moment, they were answered by men. He followed the sound and realized as he rounded the stables that it was coming from the slave quarters. He stopped and went back to the stables to fetch a lamp, though he had made up his mind to go and hear what the slaves were singing. He grabbed one of the smaller lamps and went back toward the sound. As he got nearer, he realized that the singing was not actually coming from the clusters of poor huts that made up the slave quarters, but from the thin woods that marked the edge of the plantation proper. Amid the trees he could see faintly the flicker of firelight.

“I’ll be damned,” he said under his breath.

“Not if you stay here,” A deep voice replied. It was Jim, one of the slaves he had seen in the house. He stood in the deep black shade of a willow. Next to him stood Mayem, who grabbed tight to his arm. David let his eyes adjust and was able to make out two more shapes. One was sitting on the ground with a crutch leaned against the tree – that could only be Tiny, and other was another woman who David presumed to be Tiny’s wife.

“What are they doing?” David said softly. He was about to ask whether he should fetch his father or one of the taskmasters, but thought better of it given his company. Instead, he added, “It’s singing, but I can’t make out the words.”

“It’s voodoo,” the woman beside Tiny said.

“Quiet,” Mayem said. “Don’t say such things.”

“Donna speaks the truth,” Jim said (So that’s her name, David thought). “You know that’s what they aim to do over there. Waving snakes and sticks, and saying awful things. Awful things.”

“Don’t tell him that,” Mayem said. “He’ll fling the whip down on all of us if they think there’s devil worship up in here.”

“Didn’t say nothing about no devil,” Jim said.

“David’s a good man,” Tiny said. “The best of them, for sure. He won’t tell unless it be for our sakes as well as his. Besides, those shouters don’t have any power anyhow.”

“Don’t give me conditions,” Mayem said. “I might as well throw the lot of us in my cooking pot.”

“You can trust me,” David said. “But I do want to know what they are doing. Not to punish, but…” he trailed off. “I’ve heard stories. About voodoo witches. They take a lock of your hair, or something else, as long as it’s yours truly, and they make a doll with it. Then…”

“They stick it with a pin,” Jim said. “We know what you’re talking about. We know, but there’s more to the Voodoo than pins and needles. Gods and spirits. Dark gods.” He spat off to the side. “Maybe we should send the young master back for the rod.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Donna said.

“What did you say earlier, Tiny,” David said. “About them not having any power. It’s all just words, not magic?”

“Oh the power’s real,” Tiny said. “Magic ain’t what I’d call it. Witchcraft, not magic. Magic means you control it. The witches, they make bargains. Deals. With the devil and the demons. The children of Lilith. That’s real. I been lots of places before I come here, David. Been in lots of hands and had lots of hard truths laid on me, but you don’t have to believe me. You heard…her. In the woods. Don’t deny it.”

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