This story first appeared in Black Treacle magazine in August, 2013. I encourage you to go read it there and support them.
NELL WATCHED a beetle trundle past her shoe. The white lady gurgled like a backed-up sewer, and then she was quiet and there were only the wet smacking sounds of Grandmother eating.
The white lady’s gun lay in the dirt. Nell thought about taking it, but it was too heavy and too long–at least twice as long as the rifle Mama was teaching her to shoot. Instead she dragged it into the shadows and hid it beneath some scrap wood. The spyglass on top looked valuable, but Nell didn’t have time to salvage it.
Nell raised her head to scan the wooden walls of Fort Jefferson. They were in terrible danger this close, she knew, but Grandmother got the woman’s throat before she could raise an alarm, and the rest of the fort was still and quiet. It wasn’t the first time Grandmother’s hunger had got them out of trouble.
Grandmother dropped what was left of the woman and shuffled toward the river, leaving a trail of blood droplets in the dirt. Nell thought about hiding the remains, but she took one glance at the wet mess of ripped up flesh and clothing and had to look away. She couldn’t do it. Instead she’d have to hope they moved fast enough to avoid detection. It was dawn, and the long shadows and sun glare would make them hard to see as they snuck past, but they had to be gone before anyone found the body.
They followed the river, the rising sun smoldering on the horizon ahead. In places the shore gave way, trying to drop them into the fast-moving current. Before he died, Nicolas told her to follow her grandmother. She remembers the way, he said. For two days they trudged through swamps and briars, stopping when Grandmother needed to eat. She was always hungry.
“I hope this is right the way,” Nell said as she pulled her foot from the black sucking mud. Grandmother didn’t look back, which was all right. Her eyes were too angry.
By the time the sun came up full, they were Riverside, and Fort Jeff was far behind them. Nell’s stomach made a fist. She hadn’t eaten since Nicolas died–she couldn’t eat what Grandmother did. Maybe she could get something in her belly when they finally reached their destination. Fort Jeff was the last obstacle, besides distance, between them and Vieux Carre.
Mama and the other ladies told stories about the days before the bayou took back the city. It was a favourite topic at the gumbo ya-ya, where the women drank moonshine and shared stories with the young girls. Nell often asked for stories from before the flood. When they weren’t telling stories, the ladies liked to brush her hair and give her advice about how to live once she got her woman blood.
All this had been city, and the bayou was just a trickle. Millions of people lived here, and every year millions more came to town to drink and throw beads at a big party. But the bayou remembered, and like the whale that ate Jonah it swallowed the city. Lake Punchy Train and the river shook hands, and folks started to think there would be nothing left but water. Seeing it now with her own eyes, Nell understood. Some of the houses had fallen completely, leaving only their foundations to remember them. The cypress trees were quick to move back in, kicking up knees almost as tall as Nell. Up ahead were the towering ruins that used to be office buildings, crumbling concrete slumped like sleepy housecats with whiskers of bent rebar. Nell wondered whether there might still be treasures in the upper levels for a little girl brave enough to venture so high.
“Look, Grandmother!” Nell pointed toward the structure like a popped stone pimple on the other side of the overpass. “The Superdome!”
Grandmother showed no sign of familiarity or recognition. She only shuffled onward.
Just past those buildings was Vieux Carre, the Quarter, the thriving heart of the Crescent and the seat of the Loas. That was the destination of the pilgrims who passed through New Avondale dressed in rags and robes, the place the old women mentioned before crossing themselves. It was the place old men snuck off to when they needed a break, and young women when they needed quick money.
Grandmother wasn’t heading for the Quarter proper, Nell knew. They were going into the bayou, to a flooded-out place Mama called Congo. There was a cemetery there, and when the bayou rose it washed all the bodies out into the streets, where the swamp dragons came to eat them up. Congo was the home of the biggest, meanest man-eaters in all of Dixie, Mama said. But that was where they had to find Nainaine Laveau.
Nainaine Laveau, Nainaine Laveau
The teeth that bite, the eyes that glow
She’ll snatch you up, she’ll lay you low
She’ll stir you into her gumbo
She’ll roll your bones upon her stones
And sit you on Samedi’s throne
Nainaine Laveau, Nainaine Laveau
Nell knew more than one nursery rhyme about the voodoo witch. The children said she was the daughter of Rumplestiltskin, and her babies were trolls that guarded the bridges out of the Crescent. Nainaine Laveau was the reason the Dawn feared the Loas. She was the one that raised up the bayou and flushed out the dead, and she slept in a bed made from bones and kept swamp dragons for pets. Before the flood she used to put on shows in the Quarter, and the old-timers told about the things they’d seen her do. She raised up a man dead four days and made him tell his secrets. He talked funny, said lady who saw it happen, because his lips were all dried up and pulled back from his teeth.
Nainaine Laveau was the most feared woman in the Crescent, but she was the only one with the magic to help Grandmother.
Sometimes the ladies of the Ya Ya would gather up the children and, together, tell them all a story. It was one of those stories Nell thought about now, a story she loved about a little girl, Dorothy, who was sent to find the only wizard with the magic to help her. Dorothy followed a road of yellow bricks, though, while Nell and Grandmother had to follow the muddy brown river.
The collar of Nell’s white shirt was as wet as her skirt where it skimmed the bayou. The air was as heavy as a backpack on her shoulders. Nell’s feet sunk into the soft muck beneath the water, snagging occasionally on a hidden root or bit of debris. Some of the old timers back home had deep valley scars along the soles of their feet where they’d stepped on sharp hunks of glass or twisted metal, but the river worked fast, and buried such remnants of life before under layers of soft silt and slime, so it was safe now to walk barefoot, mostly. Old Nat Dufraine claimed a big turtle had snapped off the two toes missing from his right foot, but Grandmother said he’d stuck his foot under a lawnmower, and anyway big snappers were afraid of people. When Nell asked what a lawnmower was, Grandmother told her to nevermind.
Yesterday Grandmother began to smell. Today the funk was almost unbearable, sweet and thick as molasses. Nell could track her by the buzzing cloud of shiny green flies. Nell had smelled that scent before, but she couldn’t remember where. After a while it came to her–a year or more before, one of the old men had been bitten by a spider in his sleep. The ladies tried to save his foot, but eventually they had to pay a traveling surgeon to take it off. The surgeon gave the man whiskey and something called “loud numb” that the women all seemed very serious about, but even from outside the house Nell could hear him scream. The way Grandmother smelled was the way that slimy black foot had smelled.
Nell grunted as hunger pains gripped her. She thought about trying to eat a locust, or even one of the flies that followed Grandmother. She wondered how they might catch a nutria, which men back home said were okay for eating. She wondered if Grandmother might help her, but Grandmother was interested in nothing except walking and killing, and she only killed people.
Nell tried not to think too much about those people. It was Grandmother who had first taught her what death was, when she was five years old and Ray LeRou, who the old folks called Sugar, came back dead from a clash with some One-Percenters. Grandmother said then that only the wicked killed innocent people, but now it was her doing the killing. Maybe they weren’t all innocent people, Nell thought. If she hadn’t killed the bikers, they might have kidnapped Nell and tried to sell her, and the white lady at Fort Jeff might have used that rifle, if she knew what Grandmother was. Maybe Grandmother’s hunger was God’s way of getting them safe through the bayou. That was a tidy thought, but it didn’t explain about Nicolas or Antoine.
Nell didn’t notice she was light-headed until the first time she fell, one hand splashing out and sinking into the soft bottom of the bayou. So far Grandmother had not steered them wrong, but the mud on Nell’s hand when she withdrew it reminded her about quicksand. Nell stood up straight and the world went spinning. Grandmother looked back, her sunken eyes hot with disapproval.
“I’m sorry, Gran-Mere,” Nell said. Her tongue felt hard as a dry sponge. She hadn’t had a drink since her canteen ran dry the day before. Grandmother continued in her slumping gait, the buzzing emerald-green flies fighting for room in her matted hair. Nell pressed on, her suddenly-heavy feet splashing through the murky water. After a moment the dizziness passed.
The sun sank lower, the shadows lengthening and growing into eerie blue twilight. This far into the bayou, the water reached to her hips and past Nell’s belly-button. Around them, some of the sturdier stone houses still stood. The bayou had pushed others over, softening and collapsing them like sandcastles. Now they were piles of driftwood, held together with vinyl siding. The cypress here hung curtains of Spanish moss along the flooded streets. With the twilight came the noise and movement of frogs and swamp birds, and ripples on the water that might be snakes or channel cats–or swamp dragons. Dusk was the bad time, when the dragons and the snakes were all warm from the sun and ready to hunt in the dark. She had never seen a real swamp dragon, and she didn’t want this to be the first time.
Nell was so intent on watching the shadows that she walked right into Grandmother and nearly fell back.
Grandmother, hands at her sides, stood still as a stone before a red brick church with a white cross above the doors. Nell spotted the gris gris, the bones tied together and hung before the windows, and the little black dolls made from wood and cloth and straw nailed to the eaves. On the cross, someone had carved a veve. This was their destination, the house of the voodoo witch Nainaine Laveau.
The gris gris turned slowly on their strings. Nell had to pee. Her body was jittery. It wanted to turn and run away. But Nell thought about Grandmother, standing still in the ankle-deep water and wavering slowly. The shiny green flies buzzed around her. The witch was her only hope.
Nell forced herself up the steps, her legs shaking like they were boiled noodles. When she tried to swallow her tongue seemed to fill her mouth up. At the top of the steps she stopped, wondering if she should knock. It seemed crazy, like she was visiting one of the village ladies to borrow a cup of sugar.
In the story, Dorothy was afraid of the wizard too. But when she was brave, the wizard rewarded her and set things right. When Dorothy woke up she was back at home, and everything was as it had been. After she first heard the story of Dorothy at the Ya Ya, Nell sometimes asked Grandmother to tell it to her again. It was one of her favourites.
The red paint on the doors was beginning to flake and fade. They were open just a little bit, enough that Nell could see a thin slice of the dark room beyond. She pushed one of the doors, which opened with a long, slow creak. The low angle of the sun meant the room didn’t flood with bright light, but the dusk crept in and Nell saw tiny specks of dust dancing in the dim light. The church looked as it probably did when it was occupied, the pews and altar and marble font all in their right places, but there were things hung all around inside now, gris gris charms and dolls and fetishes in all shapes and sizes. There were so many of them, hanging all around, Nell wondered if Nainaine Laveau did anything else with her time besides make gris gris.
Nothing inside moved, so Nell crept a half-step inside to see more of the room. That’s when the wrinkled brown hand slapped onto her wrist like a handcuff and tugged her forward, off-balance, into the dark church. Nell tripped forward and fell onto the dirty floor, skinning her knee as she went down. She tugged her arm, but the thin hand around her wrist was quite strong. She waved her other arm, kicking and screaming at the unseen witch.
“No!” She screamed. “Don’t dice me up and steal my bones, Nainaine! Don’t shrink my head for a voodoo doll!”
“Hush, child,” came the old voice in the dark. She pronounced it chile, like the ladies from the village. She stopped kicking and opened her eyes. Staring back at her was Nainaine Laveau.
She was dry and folded like a raisin, her old skin pulled taut over her skeleton, dressed in a red and white Madras adorned with layers of gris gris, herbs, woven cloth and hair, and dolls. Curly black hair seemed to explode from beneath her tignon like a lion’s mane. Beneath her long nose twisted a toothless smile. Her eyes, though small and ancient, were bright. The bony brown arm that wasn’t occupied holding Nell’s wrist extended to point out the front door.
“Who are you?” Nainaine snapped. “Why did you bring that thing here? Who sent you?”
“I’m sorry, Nainaine,” Nell cried. “I am Nell LaPomeret, from New Avondale! I come to ask you to help my Grand-mere!”
Nell felt tears on her face. Her skin was hot, her mouth open wide in wheezing sobs. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Nicolas said you would help! He said you would!”
She wished Nicolas were with her. He would know what to do. He wouldn’t collapse onto the floor like a sobbing baby.
“Child,” Nainaine Laveau said. “I’m not going to cook you.” The hand on Nell’s wrist relaxed, and a crooked finger brush a tear from her cheek. “You’re as scared as a trapped nutria, child. Never could eat them, either. Come, tell me about your Grand-mere.”
She brought Nell to a rough wooden table near the altar. It was piled with bones and tied up bits of feathers and hair. There were tiny skulls among the bones, Nell saw, a few with pointed beaks. Nainaine Laveau set a mug in front of her.
“Take a drink,” she said.
“What’s in it?”
Nainaine looked offended. “It’s water, child. Clean water. Drink, and catch your breath.”
Nell meant to sip, but suddenly remembered her thirst, and gulped the mug dry. Nainaine took it to a bucket across the room and ladled it full again. Nell looked out through the open door at Grandmother, staring back, still wavering slowly in the bayou.
“Can my Grand-mere come inside?” she asked. Nainaine looked out at Grandmother, and she made the face Mama sometimes made when Nell said something embarrassing.
“No,” she said, and crossed herself. “Why don’t you tell me about your Grand-mere?”
So Nell told her the story. She told how it was Grandmother’s idea that the children check for gold and jewelry in the houses around New Avondale, and how they spent that treasure to pay for protection from Outlaws and Catholics and crazies. She told how Grandmother hid their treasure cache, and when her heart attacked, the ladies of the Ya Ya said the village was doomed. They had to leave New Avondale, they said, and leave Grandmother behind, buried in the ground.
But then the traveling circus came, and the painted man–when Nell mentioned him, Nainaine Laveau spit on the floor and made the sign of the cross–said he could bring her back so she could show them the treasure.
“He said he would make her a zombie,” Nanaine said.
Nell nodded. “The Ya Ya agreed it was a terrible thing to do, but that Grand-mere would have wanted it. It would just be long enough to find the treasure, they said. To save New Avondale.”
Nell told how the painted man used coloured powders and candles, and how his face looked like a skull in the dancing firelight. When she told the story, she could see it in her mind, the stick-thin man stripped almost naked, the pictures in his skin blue and green and yellow like the brightest birds and bugs Nell ever saw. The way he danced, his arms flailing like the legs of a frog squeezed too tight. He wore shoes, she remembered, brown leather loafers. Old Nat said they were the nicest shoes he’d seen in years.
She told about the painted man’s voice, that low burpy voice, and the strange words he sang, and how outside the tent the ladies of the Ya Ya were arguing with the mayor and with each other. She said how she held Grandmother’s hand, and how it suddenly twitched and held her hand back, and how the painted man looked scared when Grandmother sat up, and how he ran out and she could see the ladies outside the tent make the sign of the cross, all at once.
Nell told how the circus pulled up stakes and left that night, and how Grandmother didn’t want to talk to anybody. At first she just stood in one spot, for hours, and looked around like she was confused about where she was. Then she wanted to kill everybody. Everybody except Nell.
“Did she bite people?” Nainaine asked.
Nell nodded. “She bites everybody. Bites them to death, if she can. Some she eats after. She’s so hungry.”
“She bite you?”
This question seemed very important. Nell shook her head. “She’s angry with me,” she said. “But she doesn’t hurt me. That’s how come they sent me with her.”
Nainaine Laveau looked down at her hands. “They sent you alone? A small girl?”
“No,” Nell said. “Nicolas and Antoine came too, but…” She trailed off.
“But your Grand-mere ate them.”
Nainaine went to the altar and leaned on it, hanging her head so her long hair hid her face. She spoke in a low voice, in Creole. Nainaine seemed to be conversing with someone Nell couldn’t hear.
When she turned, the old woman’s face was hard. In one hand was a leather bag on a cord. She swung it like an incense censer as she spoke.
“The painted man told lies. He was a hoodoo man, a liar and trickster. Your Grand-mere is not a zombie. A zombie is a loyal servant brought back from the dead. Your Grand-mere is not dead, but un-dead. The painted man put a wanga on her. A curse. She has an angry spirit in her that makes her hate the living. Your Grand-mere is a ghoul.”
Nell gasped. “Help her, Nanaine!”
“Part of her is still alive, inside, and that part remembers her love for you. But that part is rotting, like her body. Soon she will forget and then she will kill you.”
“But,” Nell said. “That part is there. Can’t you bring it out?”
“I cannot,” Nainaine said. “No one can. The best thing for your Grand-mere now is to send her with the Baron, before it is too late for her soul.”
“But Ferrand said you were magic! He saw you raise up the dead, when he was young. You’re the voodoo witch, Nainaine Laveau!”
“I am she,” Nainaine said. “I have spoken with the Guédé. I’m sorry, girl. This is the way of it.”
“But, no!” Nell shouted. “Grand-mere taught me dice, and how to catch a channel cat with just my hand! Grand-mere tells stories about New York City, and once she went to see the Saints at the Superdome! She knows the best songs to sing when I can’t sleep, and rubs my hands when I feel scared!”
Nanaine said nothing. Her mojo bag swung slowly in one hand. From outside, Grandmother stared. Nell met her eyes, but there was no softness there, no memory.
“What about the treasure?” Nell asked softly. “Can she at least tell us about the treasure? She would want to save the village!”
Nainaine took a breath. Her face was intense, like the face of the painted man in the fire, the hoodoo man who spoke lies.
“Your Grand-mere bit people?”
“Yes,” Nell said.
“Others stayed back to care for the bitten?”
“Then your village is gone,” Nainaine said. “You can never go back. They are all dead. Dead or ghouls themselves. They will haunt the village until they rot, or until the gators eat them up.”
“I’m sorry, girl,” Nainaine said. “You’ve seen too much hoodoo for a girl your age. But this is the way of it.”
Nell could not stop herself from crying. This was not like the stories she realized. Nainaine couldn’t send her home and make things like they were. This wasn’t a dream. This was real life, and in real life there was only death. Nainaine let her cry, as her Mama did sometimes, until she was finished. Then she asked, “What do you want to do now, girl?”
“I want to do right for Grand-mere,” Nell said.
“And after that?”
“I want revenge.”
Mama would have scolded Nell for wanting revenge. Nainaine Laveau didn’t flinch. It was as if she expected it. Maybe the Loas told her.
“A hoodoo man is a powerful enemy,” she said. “He is a snake in tall grass, a rabbit in the briar patch. A little girl has no chance for revenge against him.”
“But a voodoo witch does,” said Nell. She held Nainaine’s gaze. “Can you teach me?”
“Teach you to speak with the Loas?” Nainaine asked. “To open the gate and write the sacred names of the dead? I can do this.”
Nell swallowed hard.
“It will take years, child. You will see terrible things you never dreamed. And when we are through, your body will be withered like mine, and children will sing songs about you. You will be a Nainaine of the Bayou.”
“But I can have revenge.”
Nainaine Laveau nodded.
“Then it’s what I want.”
A grin pushed up wrinkles on the brown witch face.
“You will be my apprentice,” she said. “From this day, a piece of the painted man’s soul belongs to you. He will never sleep well again, and he will not know why until the day you meet.”
As her first task, Nainaine Laveau told Nell she had to go into the Quarter, to ask for a man named Lafitte. He would have supplies for Nainaine, supplies she would need to take on an apprentice. But first, she had to say goodbye to Grandmother.
Nainaine told her to tie a rope around Grandmother’s neck. Only then would she allow poor Grandmother into her home. Nell took the raspy woven hemp in one hand, and stepped out into the bayou where Grandmother still waited.
She stood before Grandmother, holding the raspy woven hemp in one hand. It was full dark, the light from the stars and the near-full moon sparkled on the water. The frogs and crickets filled the air with song. The old woman glared, sharp and unrelenting. Nell told her she was sorry to have failed her, and their village. She failed Mama and the Ya Ya and Nat Dufraine, and…well, just everyone, she said. She thought about Grand-pere, waiting for his bride in his lonely grave, and the empty plot beside it where Grandmother would never be buried. There was one thing she would not fail at, she said. She would make that painted man sorry.
Flies buzzed around Nell’s head. She raised the rope to put it over Grandmother’s head, but something held her arms. Grandmother’s hands, gnarled and gray and filthy, had taken hold of her, and were drawing her forward. The flesh was split and peeled away on one finger, exposing a knuckle of bone. Nell struggled, but those hands held tight.
Grandmother opened her mouth slowly, exposing cracked yellow teeth and an oily black tongue. Her eyes were hot and intense.
Nell knew she deserved this fate, but her fear was strong. She fought back, kicking her legs in the water and twisting in Grandmother’s grip. “No, Grandmother,” she screamed. She wondered if Nainaine Laveau, who was in her house and gave no sign that she was watching, would be of any help.
Then Grandmother stopped. Her hands still gripped Nell’s arms, but she closed her mouth, and something in her eyes seemed to change, introducing a touch of softness into her fixed and skull-like expression.
“Yes,” Nell said. “We are saying goodbye.”
She remembered again of the story of Dorothy, of the end when she has to say goodbye to the new friends who helped her on her way. Nell always thought that was the saddest part. I’ll miss you most of all, she thought.
Nell wrapped her arms around Grandmother, even though her body was soft and swollen like a rotten melon, and she smelled like the swamp when it ran low. She cried once more into Grandmother’s shoulder and she told her that she loved her and that she was sorry and that she would miss her and remember her. Then Nell drew the hemp rope around Grandmother’s neck and led her back into Nainaine Laveau’s house.
They tied the other end of the rope to an iron ring set into the wall. Grandmother watched her with those intense, hateful eyes, but she did not attack. Once her gaze moved to Nainaine Laveau, but mostly she seemed not to notice the witch.
“When you return,” Nainaine said. “Your Grand-mere will be in a better place. You don’t want to watch what I have to do.”
A night breeze swept away the heat of the day as Nell stepped outside. She felt a surge of fear, but she told herself the night was now her home. She was apprentice to a witch. The night might hide horrors, she thought, but it would also hide her. She decided it would be night when she killed the painted man, and she would slip up on him like a swamp dragon from under the bayou.
Nainaine watched the little girl sweep out the door. The Loas liked Nell. For one so young, she had spent much time in the company of death. The bayou was a dangerous place, but Nainaine knew Nell would return, and with exactly the supplies she was sent to fetch. She was a bright girl, and she would make a wonderful student. Someday, she would be Nainaine.
Nainaine Laveau went back into the church, where the old ghoul rotted. Her eyes were ferocious, but her posture was passive, arms limp at her sides. She teetered as if she might fall over. Flies buzzed around her head.
Nainaine stopped just out of reach of the gangrenous arms. Those eyes followed her every step.
“Now,” she said. “Before your granddaughter returns, let’s see if we can find out about that treasure.”