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Fiction

Sweetgrass Blood

The Weaver

I blotted the blood from my braids with a hotel towel, making sure to keep the plaits in their intricate swirling pattern. The blood was viscous and sticky and it clung to my strands like a gruesome pomade. I worked by candle light, making sure to clean my hands and nails of red before sitting down to weave. It would not do to get smudges on the baskets.

The crisp sweetgrass softened and gave under the pressure of my hand, releasing the scent of the sea at midnight. My lips, dry and cracked from lack of water, formed the words to the hex in a language that died even as I spoke it.

A part of me broke, each time I did the magic. Not my soul or my spirit—they were far too distant, far too thickened, like bark on a pecan tree. Perhaps they’d fled completely like the rest of me—my heart, my sympathies—all gone with the tide.

But no. None of those things.

I wound the strands of grass tighter, using the sharpened spoon to push them through each other, pinching where the next loop needed to be, my fingers cramped into claws, the stiff grasses leaving tiny splinters invisible to the eye but not to the flesh.

The grass was just right, pliable enough to bend but not so fresh that it leaked sap, its own blood, onto my hands. Four completed baskets lay on the floor to the left of my bare feet. This one would be the last and it needed to be larger, to hold the head.

Weary now, I lay the basket aside and pushed myself upright. Once, I had been able to pull both of my feet into my lap, but I was no longer capable of a full lotus. Time and broken limbs had removed that ability. Now, I placed a foot on the sofa in front of me, and picked at the layer of dead skin on the sole of my foot.

It came away without resistance, a thin, diaphanous layer of my body—pale against my hands—fluttering in the wind from the box fan. Left was a tender pink layer of flesh, new, unable to withstand the tortures of the world. I stared at the circle of skin, so stark in its baby softness against the ashy roughness of my feet. I chewed it as I went outside.

In the front yard, I walked barefoot and silent. The camellia tree’s leaves rustled at my approach.

“Hush, Sister,” I crooned. “Just a few, my lovely, a few.”

I plucked the soft, mauve petals and carried them inside. By moonlight, I returned to the weaving, my fingers soothed with the tree’s scented oil.

Once the baskets were finished, and my hands were aching from hours of twisting and bending the grass to my vision, my will, I took up my stick. Holding the polished wood eased the pain, allowing me to open and close my fingers around the cloth covered dowel. I stood with the wood’s help, but once I was on my feet, I didn’t need its support. With strength once again in my body, I pounded the stick on the wooden floor. Again and again, stick and pound, stick and pound, turned the house into a living, vibrating drum.

Voices of those gone from here came to me amongst the resonance. Husha da soun’. Warning me, protecting me as they had done for over forty years. You brin’ da poet. I acknowledged their silent whispers with respect, inviting them to join me.

“I know. Let her come.”

The Poet

The ink I used—ground by my own hand and mixed with well water—seeped into the paper. A snowy sheet of felt lay under the paper to compensate for the bleed. The brush made no sound as it flowed along the page.

Quiet. Heavy and the air is full of water. Rain will come soon.
No struggle this time.
Only shock and the swiftness of the blade.
Sweet and tough.

I signed my name, then went into the bathroom of the old plantation house I’d grown up in. A spot of dried blood lay on my cheek like a beauty mark. I left it there, enjoying the coquettish look it gave to my worn, tired face. Reconsidering, I ran a hot bath laced with the scent of vanilla and sandalwood—warming scents against the chill that seemed to be embracing me constantly—and submerged myself. As I looked up at the pinkening water, I knew this was just beginning.

Unbidden, the sound of a stick pounding into the earth reached me.

Thudding. Pounding. Rhythmic madness. Thundering into my mind, obliterating the calm I had so carefully conceived over these years. Killing it.

It was my fault that I heard it. Years ago, when I was in unruly pigtails, my grandmother had warned me.

If ’n you hear your name call, make sho it me. If ’n you aine sho, don’ answer.

Not only had I answered, I’d done so more than once.

And now whenever they needed me, wanted me—an errand, a stalking—more, even—they called. I suspected that when they wished or when I didn’t answer, they entered anyway.

I submerged myself again, to drown out the sound—the stick pounding its rhythm deep into my brain. Eyes open, I stared at the widening cracks in the ceiling. The rhythm, the pounding of the stick grew, swelled, deepened until chips of paint flaked from above me, dropping into the water like dead flies. Even with the water buffeting my ears, I heard them, their voices, and I knew at some point, I’d respond.

Seconds ticked by as I lay there, the room looking murky and ethereal through the warm, still water. Respiration became a luxury I didn’t need, barely wanted, as I slid slowly into unconsciousness, their songs taking the place of my breath.

When I woke again, I was on the floor of the house. The living room. Even in the sweltering heat, the hardwood floor was cool against my bare belly. I turned over onto my back, the drone of the ancient air conditioner slowly taking the place of the voices, returning me to myself. My wrists, my hands ached. I opened and closed them, staring at the brown palms before my trembling fingers covered them. One of my first thoughts was to get some polish to cover the deep, ruddy stains on my nails. Red or maybe purple or black. Then they would match the bruises on my arms.

I pushed myself to my feet, stumbling only once—twice—as I gained my footing. As I shuffled over to the kitchen, I saw them stacked up in a corner by the old, dusty console TV. Baskets, at least a half a dozen, all woven from the sweetgrass that grows alongside the ocean. I knew the shapes—you could always tell which family made the baskets from their shape, their design—and the sight of them made me itch with memory. Scratchy fibers, leaves bent until their limits were reached. My hands ached.

Thrown, I rushed past the remembrances into the kitchen, to first gulp, then splash water onto my face. It was the water, always the water that brought me back. It also helped carry my being, my mind, and my actions, away in the first place. But I couldn’t live without it; it was part of me, just like they were. Escape was useless and damning.

Words rushed up at me like waves, and I scrambled to put them down. Frantic, I searched the kitchen, finally finding an old envelope to write on. My ink was elsewhere and I couldn’t spare the time to look for it—the words might be gone by then, and I burned to capture them. Head spinning, heart lunging, I found a knife-sharpened pencil, eraser-less and chewed. I wrote, fingering the patch of new skin on the bottom of my foot.

Inside me lie oceans
The sea’s dead are my kin
De famblee
rises on buzzard’s wings,
feathers spouting from the stumps of pain
soaring away from their bones
leaving dust inside me

I filled the envelope, turning it and writing along the edges until it was filled with grey lead. It calmed me, but not like the ink. Why hadn’t I noticed it before?

Only the ink took away their voices. Maybe I had noticed, but the emptiness of being cut off from everyone I had loved, those who had died for me, was too much, and I put away the revelation.

They shied away from everyone else, my people; they eschewed the written word, its documentation of their ways and thoughts.

We had never been a people to write things down. We—a mish-mash of African and Black Carib—lived by our voices, songs and tales, and they had kept us alive, had kept us apart from the outside. But I’d gone outside. To the world of poetry, of academia, of word processors and digital recorders. It was to this world I took the old ways, recorded them for others to see and hear. It was for that and only for that they couldn’t forgive me.

It was for that and only that—they’d kill.

In a daze, I stumbled from the kitchen, back the way I came. My feet were clumsy and my ankles protested holding me upright, and they twisted from under me and I went careening into the wall of the living room, knocking into the stack of baskets. They scattered with a rustling, scrambling sound and one reedy lid slipped from its home, then another.

My mind didn’t want to accept what my eyes couldn’t refute. For a flash of time, I was confused and I sank to my knees to get closer, needing to know and not wanting to. Without effort, my hand reached out to the contents, but I recoiled when I felt the Weaver’s—no, my—handiwork: the slickness of blood, the putty-like texture of dead flesh. Flashes of memory peppered my vision: capture, screams, the whistle of my blade through stale air.

I was on my feet without hesitation, running into my bedroom. There, I threw open the closet door, tossed out unmatched shoes, shirts that had fallen from their hangers onto the floor. My old yoga mat from when I thought meditation would bring me peace and silence. Finally I found the roll of paper.

It was old, soft, and made of rice, a sustaining product for my people. Wound tightly, the roll was the length of my arm from shoulder to wrist. I unrolled it until it reached from one wall to the next, then down the long hallway that ran the whole of the first floor. I gathered up pencils, pens, found the pot of ink I’d made from galvanized nails and strong black tea.

Frantically, I wrote. On my hands and knees at first, then changing to a squat, then to sitting cross-legged on the floor. I wrote everything I could think of: gospel hymns, victory songs, work songs older than slavery and the pop song lyrics inspired by them. Scratched onto paper. Preserved and documented. Ghost stories. Cautionary tales. The sounds of humming rose in my ears. The stick pounding was heavier, closer.

Your paper won’t save you.

I know the Weaver’s voice by now, although her weighted rasp was always accompanied by others long dead, some whispering in a chewy-sounding Gullah, some shrieking in dagger-sharp Kreyòl. There was no need to look up as I knew she was there above me, shadowy and dim but as real as the screeches, the screams. Her scent was salt: from sweat and from the ocean where her bones lay.

Down the hall I moved, ignoring the ache in my knees, the constant pop of my joints as I adjusted position. Write. That’s all you have to do and this will all come to an end.

“Let me go,” I managed, still inking the rice paper as quickly as I could while keeping my words legible. My fingers cramped, my back bent to the task like a sharecropper.

Our blood flows in you. Our pain, our sacrifice has made you what you are. How dare you? How dare you deny us!

“Don’t make me do this anymore.”

For a moment, something akin to sympathy crossed her face.

Accept our fate, Sister.

My hand only faltered a moment, a missed word, a malformed loop on a letter. The Weaver’s voice was irate, and it came to me on breath that was stale and unused. But I kept writing, preserving the ways in a manner anyone would be able to grasp. The stories, the songs, the superstitions, even the reasons behind these methods of madness, I managed to scratch along the rice paper.

I was halfway down the hall now and I was getting tired. My arm at the shoulder was tight, the muscle ready, poised to jerk and spasm. But it was my knee that gave out first, sending me toppling into the pie pan of ink I’d laid out. The paper soaked it up like a bandage, obliterating some of my words and forcing me to start the entire section again. Lying on my stomach, I took up the ballpoint pen, but the paper couldn’t withstand the pressure needed to make the ink flow. It tore, leaving holes in the fine ream. Where the ink spilled and softened it, my weight separated it from the rest of the roll of paper with a chilling silence.

No. Nonono.

The pencil was no better. It left no more than a spectre of words on the page. I pressed harder, turned the pencil to sweep the page in an attempt to sketch my words, but the paper wouldn’t hold them. I scraped my fingers against the empty pan, trying desperately to gather enough ink to make the next letter.

My inked finger touched the paper for the tiniest moment, before the Weaver had me. As she pulled me into her embrace, I saw I’d left a fingerprint on the rice paper—like a signature.

When I came to, I couldn’t move. At first, I thought it was a dream or that I had been called again by the voices and I had done—something. That I would be waking up yet again, with blood saturating my braids, leaving featherlike swirls of red on the hardwood floor. I waited for clarity to come, for the sea of fog to lift from me, and when it did, I opened my mouth to scream. It came out like the call of a buzzard. As I breathed in, I tasted the salt of the sea.

The Weaver’s fingers were deft and sure as they pulled the drying sweetgrass through my skin, pressing each new row of fiber into me with the sharpened end of a spoon. Her firm tugs forced the grass to obey and it bound my fingers, silencing them. The voices were also quiet now, the stick pounded no more, but she hummed as she worked, secure in telling me secrets of my people.

Eden Royce

Eden Royce is a Freshwater Geechee from Charleston, South Carolina, now living in the Garden of England. Her short stories are in or forthcoming from various print and online publications including The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, Vastarien, Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Pantheon Magazine, and PseudoPod. Her debut middle grade historical Southern Gothic novel, Tying the Devil’s Shoestrings, is forthcoming from Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins. Find more at edenroyce.com.