"De Paat'" Artwork copyright Ron Maxwell, 2014

De Paat’

Word Count: about 4,100

Red called into the shadows beyond the trees. “I yent got time for ya’ nonsense! I got places to be!” The thick canopy of the trees kept most of the mid-morning sun from baking the leaves to the forest floor, but someone still moved in the dense brush and the leaves crackled beneath unseen feet. Red clutched her basket tighter to her. It was filled with precious items and she wasn’t about to lose them to a thief like Wolf. “Either come on out or let me on my way!” The surrounding forest was rich and green with pockets dark enough to hide a moving body, and she wasn’t looking to be surprised.

In front of her, in a patch of sunlight no bigger than a dinner platter, he stepped out onto the paat’ from a bramble of thickets and berries. He was a large looming figure with a shaggy head and large hands and his dark skin clung to the shadows. He swayed, either from drink or sleep, Red didn’t want to get close enough to say. They stood for a moment just taking each other in. Red, a full head shorter, in her fancy walking cape made just for sunny but cool days, and Wolf, in clothes held together by dirt and sheer will. The birds stopped chirping and the forest held still before a few more moments passed and Red had had enough.

“This paat’ yent big enough for all of us, so take y’own baby elephant feets and go on home.”

“Oonuh yent never see no el’phant,” came the voice felt more than heard, and he stepped forward. Red took a few steps back to keep the distance equal. Wolf was no more an animal than Red was a sunset, but he was a tall, broad man with wide hands like large paws. Atop his head was a wild sun-bleached kinky-brown nest of hair and leaves. His shredded blue work pants and a filthy white t-shirt hung on his emaciated body and he eyed Red’s basket with greedy malice.

“Wolf,” he said pointing at his chest as if it said absolutely everything, and he threw his head back and howled a screechy imitation of a hound dog.

Red set her face in a frown and squared her shoulders as she sighed. “I know, Wolf, and yent nothing for you.” She emphasized his speech, though it shamed her a little. She’d been attending a day school and worked on her words because she had heard no one in the North sounded like Gullah. She meant to travel and leave this place, and Red had a mind to sound like more like North-folk them and decidedly less like Wolf. She raised her head to look down her nose as she meant to push past him. She’d seen a movie star do it once in a film, nose in the air, and it looked very classy. Her red hood fell from her own deep brown curls, once smooth from setting lotion and heat, now kinking up from the walk and humid heat from her own body. She caught an unraveling curl from the corner of her eye and sighed inwardly. The texture and waves would still make her classier and stronger, she decided, even if it wasn’t the slicked Josephine Baker ‘do she intended. She straightened and used the words she learned in the schoolhouse, still thick with her own Gullah tongue.

“I have grown up business, Wolf. Please stand aside.”

Ooo, please stand aside,” he mocked in falsetto. He minced back a few steps as he threw his head back and laughed at the sky. Wolf was missing two teeth, the ones immediately in front. It made his dog teeth look much bigger and gave him that wild animal look people feared. There was a part-time constable that crossed the bridge from the mainland, but he didn’t deal in the affairs of Colored People if he could help it unless they were killing each other or stealing from landowners. Wolf only made a nuisance of himself by stealing anything he could tote and eat, and the Constable didn’t have time for his flavor of nuisance.

This was St. Helena Island, “Gullah Island” to the locals, and the Black Crash of the Stock Market had sent many wealthy folk from the island in search of imaginary money someone else held on the mainland. In the last year, one of the large plantation houses which had employed easily 50 people shuttered, leaving 100 acres of corn and cotton to grow wild. The people that could, left. You stay when you have nowhere else to be. The Gullah, the former slaves, descendants of, and other assorted free-Blacks left behind survived and dealt with the nonsense. Lately, a lot of that nonsense was Wolf, who did what he wanted, how ever he wanted. One day after the folks left and the town wondered how to keep itself, Wolf was just there, spinning in wide drunken circles and howling in the street, and he’d been a menace every day, ever since. His stolen clothes never fit and his hair was never combed. If staying out of his way meant a stolen chicken or missing pig, then so be it. It was better than broken dogs and beat up men too slow or arrogant to get out of his way. Besides, folks reckoned, if they got rid of Wolf, something worse might take his place, and no one wanted to think what might be worse than Wolf.

Red’s raised nose caught his scent, part garbage, part BO, part bubblegum, all wrapped in woods and leaves and du’t. It was a heavy warm smell, like days spent under the forest canopy running in hollars and splashing in streams.

Or chasing game from hiding places and washing blood from newly skinned meat and sticky hands.

She opened her mouth but Wolf cut her off with words of his own.

“Going to Auntie House? Gonna mix a little magics? Mebbe chew a little root? My maamy used to say, ‘you chew the root, or it chews you.'” He laughed again, a low distant noise, and there was no humor in it.

“None of your business.” Little glass bottles tinkled inside her basket as she drew her red cape over the contents.

“Your Grammy eb’rybody’s Auntie. Eb’rybody says so, but her magics yent like mines. Mines real and powerful.”

Red affected a bored look. She saw that in a movie once, too. “That’s nice. May I go now?”

“Don’t you want to play tag with me?” Wolf’s face looked like Red was about to go backsies on something they’d planned to do all along.

Red sighed. “Wolf, I don’t have time –”

Wolf put two meaty hands to her chest and shoved her hard to the ground. He let out a whoop of delighted “TAG!” before dashing off into the forest again, disappearing into the thick leaves under the darkened canopy. Red grabbed the basket tight to keep it from tipping and dumping its contents, but it left her nothing to break her fall, and she landed hard on her backside. She stood and brushed herself off, dismayed to find a tear in her fancy walking coat. Wolf was nowhere to be seen, or heard. She checked her basket, rearranging the shifted contents and set off again. Maybe Gramma could do something about the tear, and then maybe they’d get to real talking and she’d something about Wolf, once and for all.

In the center of a clearing, a ways and a walk down the paat’, Gramma stirred a large pot over an open fire. It was only laundry with a few herbs for smelling good and insect control, but in that moment with a large stick and steaming pot, Gramma looked every inch the Auntie the Island had come to depend on. She mixed the salves and chased the haants and was the ear when the man was stepping out and the woman wanted to fix him good.

She was old but not slow, and even in the diminished capacity age always brought, she felt Wolf approaching long before she saw him. From the pocket of her blue gingham housecoat, she pulled a small white bone. It was the most precious magic of her kit due to the difficulty in obtaining it and she kept it on her at all times. Gramma she walked as fast as she could to the front of the house as Wolf appeared at the edge of the trees. She had only just made it up the steps to her front door and she placed the black cat bone to her forehead. She felt a puff of wind like a sudden breeze as the magic took hold and she vanished from sight.

“Auntie!” Wolf put his hands to his mouth and hollered. “I’m here for your magics. Mek me smart and pretty!” Wolf looked around the clearing and only saw the pot on the fire with the stick still poking from the water. On a nearby line, housecoats and headscarves hung. Wolf pulled a few housecoats down, sniffing and tossing them to the ground before he found one his arms could fit through. It wasn’t a good fit by a long shot, but he could button it and he seemed satisfied with his new look. He walked towards the little house and up onto the front porch sniffing the air.

She stood as still as her body would let her, as close to the porch rail as she could get. She was close enough to smell the stink on him and she had to breathe through her mouth to keep from gagging. Her hand shook with the effort of holding the bone still on her forehead.

Wolf walked through the open door, letting himself in and tracking dirt and leaves all over her newly washed floor. Gramma tried to calm herself of her irritation and mounting fury, and peered around the front door, marking his progress through her home. She thought of the ways she would fix him, but she needed help.

Wolf moved around the little shack, opening cupboards and poking in drawers. “Aaaannn-teeee,” he sang. “A need your magics. A kin mek my’own ef yunnah show.” He made another tour of the shack, and crawled on top of the little bed covered in a patchwork quilt of cotton and memories. His filthy, cracked heels left dirt on the quilt and snagged the cotton.

For Gramma that was one step too far. She walked over to the bed and shouted, “Git yunnah du’tty feets off’uh my’own bed!” and she smacked the side of his foot.

With the hand holding the bone.

And became visible again.

She realized her mistake immediately. She froze as if the very air could hide her again.

Wolf sat up straight, his eyes very large. “Oh, yo’ magics be cunning. Ef bin mines, Wolf bin sump’n’ keen.” Wolf used the younger years in his younger body to spring. Gramma turned to run, but she was slow and old and he grabbed her arm. “Come’yuh and seddown!”

Gramma gave a little cry of pain as the brittle bone beneath his large hand snapped. He sat her hard in a chair at the little kitchen table.

From the yard, Red hollered a hello to her Gramma. Wolf leaned toward the window in time to see Red stirring the large pot in the front yard.

“Yuh ‘im yo learner and e laa’n mi ting, too,” said Wolf. His patios became thick but gramma thought she understood.

“She can’t teach you anything. She’s learning herself.”

“I use miyown wu’d.”  He pried the bone from her clenched fist. Wolf squeezed himself into a corner next to Gramma, put the bone to his head, and vanished as Red stepped onto the porch and walked through the door.

Gramma was seated at the table, her arms crossed, cradling the wrist. Red set down her basket on the table and leaned in to kiss her grandmother on the cheek. She was eager to show what she was learning in her school and enunciated carefully. “You’re sweating, Gramma – are you okay? Did you fall?”

Gramma’s eyes flicked to her left where she could feel Wolf’s massive presence. “I will be. Some teas would make me feel better. Fetch that blue tin from the upper shelf.”

Red frowned, but did as she was told, fetching a large blue tin from a high shelf upon which sat other tins containing herbs and bark Gramma had not yet taught her house to use. It was the Dark Shelf, and Red wondered if today would be the day she learned about the things in those tins. Gramma felt Wolf shift away as Red passed very near him to the shelves over the sink.

Red set down the tin and had herself a sit, undoing her cape and letting it drape on the chair behind her. “Wolf knocked me over.” She pulled the back of her cape up to the light to show the tear. “Can you mend it?” She stopped and lowered her cape. Red peered closer at her grandmother. She’s never seen her grandmother in such a state.

“Gramma – your eyes are as big as saucer plates.”

Gramma’s eyes flicked to the left again. “Tis better to see what is around us, chil’. Show what you brung me.”

Red nodded, and pulled back the cloth napkin on the basket and her grandmother nodded. Bottles of green and brown liquids, along with the wrapped stems and stalks of grasses and twigs filled the interior. Gramma felt Wolf lean in and his hot breath on the top of her head. She shook her shoulders and they connected with his stomach. He overbalanced and put the hand not holding the bone out to catch himself on the table.

The table jumped and everything skidded to the edge. Red started and steadied the edge of the table. Red leaned over to the floor to pick up the fallen items, her head slipping beneath momentarily. Wolf also grabbed the table to keep it steady, dropping his bone hand from his head but quickly put it back. Red picked up the last of the five-finger grass bundles from the floor saw something that almost made her gasp.

She caught a peek of Wolf’s feet beneath the table for the closest of seconds before they once again vanished. She swallowed down her fear in one hard gulp before rising again. “Gramma, dems your feets?”

Gramma laughed and it was shaky and weak. “More the better to get around, chil’. I woke up and dey was swole up something fierce.”

Red looked at the old woman and nodded in understanding. “See what else I brung?”

The basket held one more item and Red removed it with great care. She opened the drawstring on the muslin bag and laid the fabric flat, revealing a black hen egg and fireplace ash that clung to its sides.

“You know what to do with those?” Gramma asked, and she sat up a little straighter and leaned back just a hair from the table.

Red nodded again. “Yes ma’am. I’ve been practicing and learning and listening, just like you said.” She placed the basket on the floor and slid the fabric and to the center of the table. Red moved her hands to the edge of the table and closed her eyes, concentrating hard on the magic inside that little black egg.

The dusky black egg jittered on the tabletop, making a soft rumbling noise like the world’s smallest du’tquake. It began to spin, first anti-clockwise, and then clockwise, faster and faster until it was just a blur standing on its nose.

“Release!” Red cried and she slammed her hand down on the egg, crushing the shell. Red drew back her hand and scoot as far back from the table as fast she could get as the tiny black spiders the size of black-eyed peas raced for the edge of the table right next to Gramma. Dozens it seemed scrambled up an invisible form to her grandmother’s right side and there were cries of disgust and a squeal of terror. In his flailing, Wolf dropped the bone to the table, brushing at his clothes and hair.  The spiders picked up the bone in their many, many legs, and carried it off in a small black cloud thicker than a shadow, down the table leg to disappear into the baseboards.

Red and Gramma looked at Wolf, their faces both fearful and angry. He stopped brushing at his clothes, now that the spiders were gone and smiled his large toothy smile. He spread his large hands wide and placed them flat on the table. They took up a lot of room.

“My, what big teeth you have”, said Red. Wolf laughed, his big shaggy head nodding with his chuckles.

“More’s the better to eat you with,” he said, “but if you make me like you I might could make an a-ception.” Red and Gramma exchanged a look. “Give me all of your magics, and I won’t eat you all the way up.” he put a dirty finger and filthy thumb an inch apart and held them up to a bleary, bloodshot eye. “Just maybe a nibble.”

“I’ll tell you a secret if you promise to eat me last”, Red said, and Wolf grinned with most of his teeth. Red leaned in and beckoned him closer. She dropped the schooling and the words and let the real Red seep through.

“Dey yent no rale wolves in dese paa’t. Yaas, Wolf?”

His eyes narrowed. “Shure dey is. You looking at one. I’m the bigguh, badhad Wolf dey ever was, and I’m fixing nyam hunnah up.”

Red leaned back into her chair, crossing her arms. “Naw, I asked. Dey yent no wolves. Dey all killed. Oonuh can’t eat me. Oonuh yent nothing but a wee one in big people clothes, playin’ pretend and getting underfoot.” As quietly as she could, Gramma pushed the blue tin closer to Red.

Wolf’s eyes narrowed and he stood up, raising his hand to deliver a blow. “Oonah see me, gal! Oonah see me from the flo’?”

“I see you well enough,” Red said, standing and meeting his eyes. “I see you nonsense, I see you lies, and I see you hurt!” She picked up the tea canister, prying off the lid and flung the contents at Wolf. The light black particles fell like soot upon his shaggy head and thin skin and he began to howl. Red and Gramma backed from the table in time as Wolf kicked and thrashed, knocking it to the floor. His skin was smoldering and his eyes were wide and the leaves in his hair smoked and caught fire. The flames raced down his face and over his filthy coveralls.

Gramma grabbed a quilt off her bed, heavy and awkward with just the one hand, but Red caught the other end and together they flung it over Wolf and tackled him to the bed. He was too long for Gramma’s short bed and his legs hung over the edge. His cries were high and keening and from beneath the quilt, the heels of his dirty feet drummed against the floor before disappearing beneath as he drew them to his chest. The quilt stopped moving and settled over a too small form on bed. The smell of burnt hair and flesh was heavier in the air than the smell of damp leaves and du’t.

“Oh, chil’,” Gramma whispered. Her voice was trembling and her whole body shook. “You done bu’n him up.”

There was exasperation in Red’s voice. “I done no such thing.” Red walked over to the form on the bed and leaned over. She poked the lump of flesh and it kicked back. “See?”

Red raised the corner of the quilt and revealed two very brown, very filthy, very small feet. The feet kicked out once and were pulled back under the quilt. Red gave her Gramma a look and walked to the other side to raise the corner. Beneath a crown of matted, curly hair was the face of a young girl, no more than five years old.  Her eyes were screwed shut and her teeth were bared in a clench. Her two front teeth were missing.

“You done with the nonsense, now?” Red asked as she scooped up the little girl and set her in a chair. There wasn’t a spot on the little girl that wasn’t covered in dirt or mud. Not even the tears she was now crying would cut tracks.

“I wanted to be big,” said the little girl. “I wanted to be big so I wouldn’t be afraid.” She began to sob.

Gramma peered closer and asked, “Maggie Belle – is that you?” Maggie Belle’s eyes flew open in wide surprise.

“I’m not Maggie Belle! I’m Wolf! Ah-roooooooooooooooooo!” Her little howl was enthusiastic, if small.

“Your momma’s been looking for you ever since they closed the big house,” Red said. “She went to Michigan to get work, but she always writes back asking after you.”

Maggie was fixing to let out another howl, but she stopped in mid-pant. She looked even smaller. “Dey left me.”

Gramma leaned over still cradled her arm. “Dey looked all day for you. Didn’t you hear dem calling?”

“I was playing!” Maggie Belle sounded petulant. “I was playing and dey left me. But I found a man.” She stopped and took a deep shaky breath. “We played and he gave me this tooth and now I’m big!” She wriggled her hand free from beneath the quilt and opened her closed fist to reveal a very large, very yellow, very sharp fang. In her small hand, it looked enormous. Maggie gave Red very wet eyes. “Did you break my wolf?”

Red looked at the tooth in Maggie Belle’s hand. “You were right, Maggie, your magics is real and powerful. But I don’t think it’s for little girls.” Red gave her a gentle smile and reached for the large tooth in the little hand.

Maggie bit her.

Red snatched back her hand and Maggie Belle lept from the chair and wriggled out of the quilt. She ran out of the house and into the yard stopping only when she reached the other side of the boiling pot. She turned, defiance and rage radiated from the dirty little body wearing only a filthy over-sized t-shirt. “I’ll have all of your magics!” She turned and ran deeper into the forest, gone from sight before Red even stepped onto the porch.

Red went back inside to set Gramma’s broken wrist. It would never heal right, not at her age, but if she kept it wrapped tight, it wouldn’t kill her. As Red packed the poultice in cotton strips, she asked, “Where do you reckon she got that tooth?”

Gramma sipped a tea of wild cherry and shrugged with one shoulder. “Des forests are deep and dark and I yent been to all of it. I’m not the only one on this island who knows the Root, and dey things I’ll nebbuh do, and places I’ll nebbuh go. I do know if you want something hard enough, no matter how terrible, it will find you.”

“Maggie Belle wanted to be big so she wouldn’t be afraid.”

“And she wanted magics.” Gramma settled back in her chair, already slipping into a doze and the deeper patois of the island. “Mind the paat’, chil’. We must be aware. She hurt an’ paining an’ off de paat’ with no one to lead her back.” Gramma began to snore and Red removed the cup from her hand before it fell.

Red would not get her usual lesson today, but she still learned a great deal. She tucked the quilt around the broken wrist and tended to the laundry outside. She reckoned she’d be learning Protections soon, and maybe one day, they’d go hunting for the man that gave wolf-teeth to scared little girls.

In the distance, muffled by the forest and the leaves and the dark moldy parts the sun never reached, a little howl floated on the breeze. There was a splash in the river that runs to the ocean and when the howl sounded again, it had the deep-throated rumble of a sad, lonely man-child who had wandered off the path.

###

Erie Tales, VII: Myths and Mayhem, GLAHW, 2014, Print
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