Excerpt from Spook Lights: Hag Ride
By Eden Royce
“What you need to do is leave well enough alone. Find a way to live your life outside of Henry.”
“I can’t. I need him.”
“You ain’t gonna let this go, huh?” The older woman shook her head and let a sigh escape. “Lawd, that man’s thing must jump up and do a dance inside you.” She fingered the damp, pulpy end of the cigar. “I can tell you this: if I send the Hag after him ain’t no telling what gone happen.”
“She’ll take that extra energy of his and leave barely enough for me.”
“That what supposed to happen. But I just call her. Ain’t no way to control her. She do as she please.” Big Mama’s pause lasted several loping heartbeats before she spoke again. “This ain’t for you. Go home. Pray on it. Accept your man for what he is or leave him.”
“I can’t do that.” Desperation grew in Frieda’s voice, making it higher pitched than usual. “Why won’t you do this for me? Don’t you want me to be happy?”
“More’n you know, gal. But sometime you must decide to be happy, even if you ain’t. Find a reason.”
Frieda picked at her torn and ragged thumbnail. “Do you want me to pay you?”
“Don’t talk foolish. My advice is always free.”
“There’s other rootworkers out there.” She kept her tone even and non-threatening.
“So your mind is made up.” It wasn’t a question.
Big Mama ran her hand through her puffy curls. “When is your woman time?”
“It’s here now.”
The older woman gaped. “You mean to do this tonight?”
“Mercy, Jesus.” The fire sputtered and a length of wood crumbled to ash with a shoosh. “No man ever the same after she done with him, you know.”
Frieda nodded, not trusting her voice to work around the sudden lump of fear in her throat.
The two women sat on the hardwood floor of the cabin with moonlight illuminating Big Mama’s mis en place for the ritual. Two piles of sea salt, a wad of Henry’s coarse hair tied with butcher’s twine and six blood smeared candles sat next to the refilled juice glasses.
“This your last chance, Frieda. Think this through.”
The younger woman’s face remained resolute. “I’m done thinking.”
Big Mama nodded and lit the first candle. Murky shadows danced to its flickering. When the final candle began to glow, she spoke. “Get me a hidin’ man.”
Frieda smoothed her shirtdress and tiptoed out to the marsh, her Keds squishing in the soft, dank mud. The moon was a smile in the darkness as she looked for a stalk of seagrass leaning heavily to the ground. Finding one, she crouched to complete her task, her feet sinking deeper into the cool, black muck. She plucked a conical shell from the crisp grass and hurried back inside.
Big Mama placed the open end of the shell against her neck and hummed low in her throat. The hum filled the small room, vibrated across the floor to imbed itself in Frieda’s chest and infuse her limbs with its eerie, toneless rumble.
She pulled the shell away from her throat and Frieda saw a small, pale crab, stirred by the vibration, peek out of the shell. Big Mama yanked it from its home and pulled a switchblade, slick with sweat, from the depths of her bosom. In one motion, she opened the knife and skewered the frightened crustacean to the floor before it could scuttle away. Henry’s clump of hair covered the crab’s death throes. She took a gulp of the caustic wine, spat it on the gruesome pile and touched a candle to it. It burned, not destroying the wooden floor, while Frieda’s voice joined the humming.
Wind came, strong through the curtains and the hovering shadows coalesced into a swirling ash grey mass.
“She here. Be ready with the salt.”
The grey cloud moved around the calling space, stopping at each candle, before it slunk between the two women to examine its sacrifice. Satisfied, it slid over to Frieda and swayed like a cobra. She could feel its presence inside her mind, inside her chest and she gasped as it probed at her most tender heartaches. Crushing memories rushed to the surface of her psyche: Henry’s countless betrayals, looks of pity from the local women, laughter from the men. Frieda’s heart seized. She gasped for breath as scabs, new and old, tore from each emotional wound. It delved deeper in its search, picking curiously, while tears grew behind Frieda’s fluttering eyelids. Her chest heaved and quivered with impending sobs.
“The salt. Throw the salt!” Big Mama yelled, breaking through the creature’s trance-inducing sway.
Frieda’s arm shook with the effort of tossing a small handful of salt over her left shoulder. While most of the salt found its way down the front of her dress, enough landed behind her to end the Hag’s internal quest. The smoky funnel whirled and spun with its newfound knowledge.
Brought to the surface again, her pain crystallized into diamond hard resolve, but it eased enough for her to gasp her request. “Make Henry stay with me.”
The whirlwind roiled with fervor, covering the wine-soaked crab carcass in its dervish. When it finally moved, only the switchblade remained. The coil of ash rose in the thick, muggy air and hovered above the women. One word came from the twisting center eye.
It extinguished each candle, then dissipated to leave the women surrounded by darkness and the scent of charred sulfur.
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Eden Royce is descended from women who practiced root, a type of conjure magic in her native Charleston, South Carolina. She’s been a bridal consultant, reptile handler, and stockbroker, but now writes dark fiction about the American South from her home in the English countryside.
Eden is the recipient of the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Diverse Worlds grant for 2016 and is one of the founders of Colors in Darkness, a place for dark fiction authors of color to get support for their projects.
She occasionally updates her website edenroyce.com and is on Twitter @edenroyce.