A Walk at Dusk, “Heartsick,” part 5

David opened his mouth to do just that, but closed it hastily. After a moment he said. “Very well. Why don’t they have the power?”

“Wrong words,” Tiny said. “Words have power, but only the right words. That’s why books are powerful. They got the right words. This witch-”

“Who is it?” David interrupted.

Jim laughed. “You’ll figure it out, I’m sure.”

“This witch,” Tiny went on. “She got no book. Not the right kind, anyways. She can’t read, either. She’s just trying to say the things she heard away before. Trying to be the witch, but she doesn’t have the right book.”

“What kind of book?” David said.

“Why, a black book,” Tiny said. “A book of incantations to the spirits and demons. Every proper witch has one.”

“Of course,” David said. “The witch of the woods had one, I think.”

“That’s just a story,” Jim said.

Tiny laughed. “Stories are true.”

“Not all of them.”

“All of them,” Tiny said. “Maybe not on this earth, but somewhere.”

“Don’t be a fool,” Mayem said.

David took a deep breath. “Why are you all standing around out here?”

“Because we don’t want nothing to do with the devil,” Donna said. “So that means being scarce.”

“But if they have no power-” David began, but Mayem cut him off.

“I don’t want my creator to see me cavorting with those types. Life here is bad enough. I don’t need to spend the next one cooking for Satan.”

“I’m going to look closer,” David said. He raised his hand to tiny. “Don’t worry. I’m a good woodsman when I choose to be.”

“Stay here, or go back home,” Tiny said. “Don’t get to seeing what shouldn’t be.”

“I’d keep that knife in hand if I were you,” Jim said. “Should have a pistol, but don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”

David nodded and drew his belt knife, a long double-edged affair that his father had given him two Christmases prior, and his mother had just recently consented to him wearing. He placed his small lamp and book on a nearby rock, and ducked under a hanging branch to enter the deep darkness of the grove. He padded through the trees, mindful of his steps in his heavy-soled shoes, but the undergrowth of the little wild grove was wet from rain and muffled any footfalls. He edged closer to the pale firelight, then rested down on his heels a stone’s throw away, behind a bush.

What he saw was a black woman, dressed strangely with a wide cloth tied around her head. He didn’t recognize her. She sang a line of a song. David thought he could make out most of the words, but the accent skewed it enough that none of it quite came out as intelligible. The circle of slaves around her sang it back, with the same lilting quality. She threw some sort of liquor on the fire and it roared up for a moment, then settled back down.

She then regarded the people around her with a scowl, and sang another line. They repeated again, and the gathering went on such a fashion for a few moments. Occasionally the woman would bring out a fetish or other object and give a saying. David found it very odd, but not nearly as disturbing as Tiny had made it out to be. It was more like watching a stage play, where even the actors knew it was all pretend. After the third or fourth round of strange incantations David decided that he had seen enough, and wished very much to be away before the singing stopped and the gathering broke, thus making it much more probable that he would be caught. He picked himself up and slipped away, back to where Tiny and Jim sat with their wives. As he approached, he noticed their heads were bowed, and they had a lamp of their own lit.

“So you’re back,” Mayem said. “Devil worship?”

“Seemed like a bit of silliness to me,” David said.

Tiny smiled. “Good. It’s the wrong words, then.”

“I didn’t recognize any of them,” David said. “Well, I recognized some, I suppose. Who is that woman? You said I would find out.”

“I’m sure you will,” Jim said. “Now you ought to get home, sir.”

“That I will,” David said. “Keep yourselves safe. I’ll sort things out.”

“Sure you will,” Tiny said. He smiled half-heartedly.

David took a pine needle and lit it in the small lamp Jim and the others were using, then lit his own. He set off back toward the house, going under the boughs of several old oaks. The lamp lit a small circle around him that darkness, and the moon was clouded over beyond. As he approached the big house, he noticed lights and lanterns out on the porch. His father sat out in a chair, rocking slowly, with his hands folded.

“Where have you been?” he asked kindly. Worry creased his face.

David considered telling a lie for a moment, then decided that wouldn’t do, and he would make sure Mayem and the others weren’t punished. “I went out to read, and saw the slaves having a gathering. Just a few of them.”

“Voodoo.”

“You know?” David was surprised, but his father made no real inclination toward any sort of gravity with his revelation. Edward Smith was always a reserved man, but easily read when angry.

“Nothing really passes under my eyes here, son,” his father said. “The voodoo queen is a free woman. Despite what the kids in town say, Voodoo is a bunch of hogwash, but it keeps the slaves placid. A few coins to Tabitha – that is her name, by the way – and she’ll keep us posted on anything we ought to know about. She lives out by the river on the other side of town with a few other free Negros.”

David nodded slowly and said. “How is Michael.”

“Not well. He…” his father trailed off. “His fever won’t break, and he’s having trouble keeping down water.”

“Should we fetch the doctor?”

His father let out a long sigh. “It’s late, but that would be best. I don’t think we’ll have and easy time bringing Michael if it comes to that. Take a horse and fetch him if he will come, won’t you? The  doctor likes you.”

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