“You ain’t no different from all us. Here in Huet Pointe, we nothing to them. So, you got to learn. You got to become nothing. You got to empty yourself of all that pain and fill it up with what they don’t know.” Mamba Loo’s voice rose well over the cicadas’ song. They’d walked undetected through the sugarcane field, the round, solid Voodoo priestess and her pupil, Sabine. The green stalks had done well to conceal their midnight excursion with the bright moon lighting their way. But, now, in the tree line, the plentiful pines blocked the light.
“What I got to do is sleep.” Sabine tracked behind Mamba Loo down the narrow, rugged path, her right foot wrinkling in the damp sole of her boot. Her calves tightened as the ground sloped toward the creek. She had planned to stitch the hole in her boot that very night, but Mamba Loo had other plans for the recent girl-turned-woman. And, none of their social circle turned away Mamba Loo. Now, hours later and the hole ripping wider with every step, she marched behind her teacher. Resistance only prolonged Mamba Loo’s teaching.
“Mamba’s gonna learn you all you need.” As she gulped down a breath needed for teaching and walking and talking, the older woman paused and raised one arm. The sugarcane stalk she’d been chewing waved against the breeze then fell still, as if on command. Mamba Loo, now a black statue in dingy white skirt and blouse, examined the sweet shoot. Her breath silenced and muscles tensed as she held the stalk high in the air, silently begging it to move. “Do you hear them?” the woman whispered.
Sabine nearly bumped into Mamba in the darkness of the path; their mud-stained skirts brushing against each other’s. “Sleep, Mamba. I need sleep. And I planned to stitch up this hole in my boot tonight. They had finally dried out enough to – ”
“Quiet, child!” Mamba Loo glared at Sabine. “Can’t you feel ‘em? They’s all around us now.” Her bare feet planted in the muck like roots of a mighty oak. She craned her neck and peered into the dark forest.
Sabine froze, familiar with the stories of Mamba Loo’s ability to feel spirits and of the spirits’ proclivity to awaken at midnight. The tree line began to whisper. The cries of untethered, discontented souls escaped the trees and fell in Sabine’s diminutive ears. At least that’s what the chill rising in her spine indicated.
“Mamba,” Sabine pleaded, no louder than the muttering of a mouse.
“Hush, child. Listen to them.”
Mamba Loo’s intuition had kept her alive despite the efforts of many a foreman, master, and mistress across the South. If her memory was correct, she’d served in four households. The first was an impressive Georgian home with sprawling porches and columns climbing two stories toward the Charleston sky.
Walking along the Battery, her mother had told Mamba of her gift. “Millie,” her mother said, speaking in lyrical but broken English decades before Mamba Loo earned the title of a Voodoo priestess and spiritual guide to all she counseled. “You chosen. You’s chosen to be wise and knowing. And I know. Trust Mama. You see, child, most babies break their sacs as they fightin’ and kickin’ to come out. But not you, my sweet. You wise then even, just a teeny thing, but wise. You knew to keep your sac on as long as you could ‘cause you already know what’s out here in the world. That caul done taught you to stay protected as long you can.”
“Protected from what? Who?” Young Millie rubbed her thumb against her mother’s hand, finding comfort in the dry, rough skin.
“They’s spirits in the world. Some good, some bad. Some them devils jump in an unsuspecting vessel and grab holt. Most us cain’t feel ‘em, cain’t hear ‘em, but you will. That’s what that caul done give you. Soon as Lou-Lou pulled you out of me, I saw it. You still swimming in that sac, your tiny fingers covering your face like you not ready to see what you gotta see, to hear what you gotta hear. But it’s time for you to see and hear and listen.”
From then on, Millie listened to the trees at night. They told her when change approached, good or bad. The trees told her to run to her mama’s bedside as the fever overtook her body. They told her to let her mama go, that she’d suffered enough. The trees told her to avoid the master and all four of his sons. And the trees told her when to leave Charleston.
As soon as she reached maturity at thirteen, the trees reported to her the envious nature of her Charleston mistress, enflamed by the wandering eyes of her master. A man in Atlanta bought Mamba the very next week.
Her second home, a grand Gothic Revival at the end of a long, gravel driveway lined with oak trees, proved more treacherous with every whisper from the trees. Beware the foreman. Beware the head butler. Accept the whip. For her refusal of the butler, she got the whip. For her failed attempts at refusing the foreman, the whip left scars no salve could soften. Soon after, she was traded to a family in Mobile, after the baleful Scotsman with a slick head and sour pits grew bored with the chase.
In Mobile, the spirits fell silent. For months they remained mute, waiting until she had given herself over to her master. She’d judged him to be kind enough, although still ruled by his immoral urges. She’d allowed him to come into her bedroom night after night. With barely enough space for her cot, chair, and wardrobe, she spread her legs as he lowered himself onto her, his blue eyes shut as if not looking at her lessened his sin.
Months passed before the trees awoke one January evening, screaming with fright for her and the infant tucked next to her—blue eyes alight as if he too heard the sound. Their screams crashed through the tiny window one minute before her bedroom door burst open. Her mistress ripped her from her bed, digging her nails into Millie’s flesh. The mistress cursed the bastard child and the whore who bore him. Abomination! Sin incarnate! Millie wiped the spittle from her cheek. For that, the mistress rewarded Millie with a slap so hard the baby nearly sprang from her arms.
With only the baby boy and the nightgown she wore, she was banished, sold to the Durand Plantation in Huet Pointe for pennies on the dollar. Over the next several hours, Millie feared the frigid dawn ride in the open wagon would kill her. Her naked toes burned as she tried to cover as much of her skin as possible with the thin cotton gown. With her right arm shackled to the wagon, she held the baby to her breast with her left arm. Within a few hours, her left arm began to spasm. A few hours more and the spasms stopped, replaced by numbness more troubling than the twitching and wringing.
The man shackled next to her, a field hand from a plantation an hour west of Mobile, offered to hold the baby for her. Millie considered his offer, but refused. What if he tossed the crying baby from the wagon? Nothing, not even a baby tossed into the brush, would stop the two drivers, paid only half up front.
At last, with shriveled tongue and her stomach twisted from hunger, the wagon reached the bayou crossing. As she rocked back and forth on the small barge, the middle-aged porter ogled her barely covered breasts. Millie lacked the strength to turn her back to him or even purse her cracked lips.
Although her vision blurred from exhaustion, she marveled at the afternoon sun dancing off the brown water. The ripples smiled at her. She lacked the strength to return the smile, but she made a deal with the spirits of Huet Pointe. If they agreed to keep her safe there with the shimmering water and trees taller than she’d ever seen, she’d never give herself over to another man again. She promised to devote herself to her son and to the trees, her Iwa manifestation. So, she perfected the ways of her mother and grandmother and all the women who went before her to guide the lost and burdened and frightened.
To do this, she made herself undesirable. She chopped at her hair so that without a tignon to cover her head, she looked as if a rat had crawled from the swamp and chewed her hair away. She snuck extra pats of butter, biscuits, and whatever else she could smuggle from the kitchen. With her teeth and tongue, she cleaned the chicken bones and dinner plates of her new charges. After one year, she glanced at her reflection in her new mistress’s bedroom and smiled, pleased with the plump, aging woman she’d become.
After two years in Huet Pointe, she’d earned the title Mamba. She chose Loo to honor the woman who’d washed the caul from her coffee-colored skin, dark eyes, and ears, now open to hear the spirits as few on Earth could.
For the first time in her life, Mamba felt secure. She’d made herself indispensable in Huet Pointe for her wide range of home remedies, miracle salves, affective conjures, and ability to calm any crying baby or toddler simply by resting them upon her substantial bosom. To the white women of Huet Pointe, she became essential, although not a one dared say so out loud.
“You hear ‘em, Sabine? You ears open?” Mamba Loo asked, arms wide and raised to the heavens.
“I’m…I’m…” Sabine whispered, trembling, “What happens if they breathe on you?”
“You feel that on the back of yo’ neck, don’ cha?” Mamba Loo turned and grinned at Sabine with large, white teeth framed in thick, purple lips. “That’s good. Means they want you to know they’re here with you. But don’t brush up any of ‘em by accident. They don’t like it when you’s so wrapped up in you own you forget they there.”
Sabine stood as still as she could, petrified to bump a spirit.
“You see that!” whisper-yelled Mamba Loo, pointing down the path before them. “A rabbit! Blessed be! We’s on the right path now. He done showed us.” Mamba Loo tossed the sugarcane stalk aside and picked up her skirts. Light-footed down the path, she moved as if her feet and legs were decades younger than the folds on her neck. “Hurry, Sabine. We got’s to get that toad!”
“Toad? I thought we were listening to spirits!” Sabine tried to keep up with Mamba, the bottom of her boot spitting water and mud with every quick step.
“I did! We listened good so they give me a sign,” Mamba yelled, still running. “That rabbit is the spirits telling me to keep going. That what I been needin’…” Mamba stopped with such abruptness she nearly fell forward into the shallows of the creek. She reached down, plunging one hand into the muck. Turning, she held her hand out to Sabine. “This! This! I finally got it!” The toad, probably from being squeezed in Mamba’s mighty grasp, croaked and blinked his wet eyes at Sabine as if begging for help.
Nearly the size of Mamba’s forearm and covered in pearl shaped bumps, the toad croaked slow and loud. Faint stripes extended from his nose, over his head and bulbous neck, and down to the rounded tip of his butt.
“I ain’t never seen one this perfect before.”
“I didn’t know toads could get that big,” Sabine said, backing away from her teacher. “What is it for?” Mamba Loo had already taught Sabine to never take from nature what you will not use, so she knew Mamba Loo had a plan for the frightened creature.
“My momma when I’s young told me something you need to know. Not all the spirits out here is good. Some is bad. Real bad. Some jump into a living body and make them do the devil’s commands. Now, once that happens, they’s only a couple things you can do to save ‘em. Well, I know somebody who done the devil’s biddin’.”
“And the toad will help the person?”
“No. The toad will help me.” Mamba Loo pulled a dishtowel from her apron pocket and wrapped it around the frog, trapping it in her pocket. She marched the entire way back to the tree line, through the sugarcane field, and to her shack on the edge of the Durand Plantation without a single word to Sabine, at least none for Sabine to comprehend. Mamba muttered about bits of red cloth, needles, and whether or not it was too late in the evening to roast something.
Later that evening, after careful preparations and an hour of fervent prayer, Mamba Loo snuck out of her shack for the second time that evening. At the neighboring plantation, she burst from the tree line, displaying the same quickness through the shadows she had near the creek. Breathing hard and sweating, she stopped just in front of the grand, antebellum home. She slipped her hand into her pocket and retrieved a linen sack. With care, she lifted the conjured article out of its temporary tomb. The large toad, dead, its flesh crisped on the spit, had red strips of fabric tied to each leg. Silver needles pierced the fabric. Mamba Loo laid the curse on the doorstep and then glanced toward heaven. “It won’t be long now,” she said and dashed back into the trees, hot breath on her neck as she hurried home.
For those who have little, each possession is valued. Some are priceless.
Sabine headed straight to her shack as soon as she arrived back to the Lawry parcel. The main house was vast but lacking in good taste or finery. She shuddered at the thought of her mistress lurking in dark corners, drunk and waiting to extol her demons. From the far side of the property, Sabine heard hooting and hollering, no doubt the result of passing a jug of whiskey up and down the planked porch of the bunkhouse. She wanted no part of the others employed by Ray Don and Marguerite Lawry or their carousing. As soon as she pushed the latch down on the inside of her door, she pulled off her damp boots and stockings. Her toes suggested dead minnows, pale and bloated; skin so drenched it threatened to rip.
Sabine’s quarters, “the cabin I provide you,” Miz Lawry told her day after day, was nothing more than a shed, bare-walled except for the jagged splinters that snagged her blouses and catch on her skirts whenever she walked through the narrow doorway. In the corner, a messily mortared hearth and fireplace stood, the flue always open, so that Sabine would have to prop a board and rocks against the opening when it was too warm to sleep without a fire burning. On nights too warm to sleep without a fire burning, Sabine blocked the fireplace opening with boards and rocks. If not, the rats and possums and raccoons saw her mattress and warm body as a comfortable place to sleep.
Sabine had few possessions to call her own and kept them well hidden within the walls, within the ticking of her bed, or beneath uneven floorboards, for which she thanked the Lord on High every morning that she had boards to set her feet upon rather than only dirt and mud. A hand-embroidered tignon given to her by a nun at Our Lady of Sorrow was tucked between the mattress cover and stuffing, folded thin so not to draw attention. The rosary presented to her on the day she completed her grammar school education and boarded passage to Huet Pointe fit perfectly behind a knot on the wall left of her slim bed. She’d wedged the charcoal pencil and paper she took from the Lawry main house in the crease between the fireplace and wall. That pencil and paper gave her hope but reminded her of an inclination to sin. Thou shalt not steal.
Sabine held one possession more precious than all the rest. If pressed, Sabine would surrender all her possessions to keep this one. That night in her shack, alone with barely any light, she pulled a folded piece of paper from a quarter-inch space below the foot-wide windowsill.
She glanced at the paper, in awe that years of unfolding and folding, rubbing it against her cheek, inhaling, longing for the scent washed out by air and time, had not caused the paper to disintegrate—tiny pieces of decomposed paper falling to the ground like the snow. Or, rather, what she assumed snow looked like.
With the paper in hand, she stood and peered through the window. If surprised by a midnight visitor from the main house, she didn’t know if he’d burn the page, or worse, read it, stealing the words that were hers and hers alone.
Standing at the window, her mind slipped to Mamba Loo and her talk of spirits in the trees. “You must learn to listen,” Mamba Loo had told her. “Listen!”
How badly Sabine wanted to yell at her mentor and friend, “Stop! The spirit I need won’t ever speak to me, not in your way. The spirit I need, I want, is not in your trees.” Sabine cupped her hand over her mouth to stifle the rage that resided just below her caramel skin.
With a deep breath, she sat on her bed and unfolded the paper. She leaned back, curled on her side and read herself to sleep.
“My Dearest Sabine,” the letter began. “How can a heart be so big and yet so fragile? This is the wonder I live."