They came at night. And brought with them the trauma and fear of all the babies ripped from their mothers’ arms, beings made less than human in the face of violence and humiliation, brightness turned to darkness and hurt. They came as the embodiment of all that unspent pain, and refused to die, made invincible by the same willful instinct that makes a dying man kick his feet in a last death rattle.
I can’t explain it, but when I first saw them, I thought of chickens— the ordinary bird domesticated for slaughter and producing eggs that would never mature to a life. How they come home to roost. What they look like with their heads tilted to the side when their necks are broken. Their blood in the old hoodoo ways that conjured the impossible. The Sankofa bird on my rib, and my auntie’s voice when she asked why I tattooed a chicken on my body.
I had a tightness in my chest as I moved through the night on the shadowy road where my tire blew. I knew where I was. There were signifiers that stood high as warnings—Confederate flags that dotted lawns, place names celebrating a glorious past and the future it produced, the absence of us. I walked alone, an imposing dark figure in the moonlight, shrouded by gray cotton that revealed only the shadow of my face and the locs spilling out of it. An unknown could emerge from the tall trees lining the highway and test the strength of the outstretched branches with my weight. Death could sit high behind headlights, barreling toward me from the nothingness. Flashes of red and blue could illuminate the night and splash over me, bury me where I stood. Fear is a funny thing, who feels it and who yields its power. I should’ve felt relief to see the glow of light in the distance, a sign of life, but I only felt more dread. Life, perhaps, but not life for me. Only more danger, waiting.
Their eyes fell heavy on me when the dangling bell on the screen door tolled to announce my presence. It’s incredible to be pierced with eyes that can never quite meet your own, and to be watched without really being seen. Adrenaline flushed my bloodstream as hairs stood up on my skin and I clenched my jaw, deadened my eyes, readied my mask. Red splotched across their faces and necks and I almost felt the heat from where I stood. One behind the counter with a wall of cigarettes lining the backdrop like wallpaper. Two seated to the left with Styrofoam takeout plates. A fourth further in the corner with a newspaper and tall bottle of beer. My eyes scanned and met the clerk’s.
“My car got a flat and I have no service, I just need to use the phone,” I said.
“Phone’s for paying customers,” he said back, folding his arms. I saw him assessing my form, trying to find a box to place me in, looking for hairs on my chin or a sign of femininity beneath my hoodie. I tossed a pack of gum on the counter and pulled my credit card from my pocket.
“Five dollar minimum for cards, and I’ll have to see some ID.”
“I have to pay five dollars to use the phone, and show ID to spend five dollars?”
“Or you can not use the phone and walk back to your flat tire, sir.”
My blood boiled, but I was frozen by the voice of my mother telling me to be careful as the door slammed behind me. At seven going to ride my bike. At twelve going to explore the park in my neighborhood. At sixteen going to a pool party with my friends across town. At seventeen walking to the store down the street in the rain to buy snacks. At twenty-two driving the empty road back to campus after a long weekend. I swallowed the rage making a lump in my throat and turned to peruse the closest aisle for $5 worth of junk food.
The bell on the door ratted again and I prepared for the confrontation—the buddy they called to teach me a lesson, the cop with his gun drawn, the white woman I would make feel unsafe. Instead, everything went quiet. Even the screams were quiet at first, muffled by the white noise between my own ears, until they pierced through and flooded the entire place. I dropped to my knees behind a shelf and took cover. There was a throaty grumbling spliced between the screams and sounds of flesh being thrashed and pulled from bone. I sucked air deep in my lungs and whispered prayers through the exhales. I peeked around the endcap and couldn’t process what my eyes were reading. There was an image with no context, so I just thought of chickens, and how they come home to roost, and what that even means, two generations removed from the farm.
There had been reports of attacks, in the night, by animals, deranged addicts, or a Satanist cult. Nothing verified, nothing concrete linking the sporadic deaths that seemed to have started near the eastern North Carolina-Virginia line and thinly dotted the map in a southwestern swing. There were only carnage and questions and fear. Fear for others who didn’t have so many realities to fear daily, and had the privilege of hypothetical fears to keep them awake instead.
When I saw their black bodies, covered in a white ash that falls over the elders before they pass on, I felt a strange peace that I took to be resignation. I rested the back of my head against the shelf and sat with the calm, waiting for death. Her sudden presence above me broke through the haze. Another dark body, vibrant with life, falling curls about her head and shoulders, a deep brown aura. She floated in a calmness, too, awestruck, unable to breathe while watching from the bathroom doorway. I pulled her by her hand into a crouch beside me and covered my lips with a finger. I heard the swishing that fabric makes when it moves through the air and felt a coldness creep over me. She gripped my hand, or maybe I was gripping hers. A stout woman with a resolute face, and a wrap snugly tied around her head like a high cotton crown, rounded the corner and stared down at us. A rusting rifle hung from her shoulder in a sling. No one breathed. Her hollow, cloudy eyes fixed on me and I felt my entire body get warm and electric, transfixed by the power. It felt like I would levitate but for the other woman’s hand on mine, grounding me. It all must have happened in only a moment, then the figure was gone, along with the others like her and the gnashing and screams. We remained. The silence returned.
There was blood and flesh and bone everywhere, painted on the walls and floors. It hollowed me out, but a drive inside me took over.
“Is your car outside?”
“We have to get out of here.”
She nodded again, still silent, as we rushed through the door and heard the bell for the last time. A siren was faint in the distance.
“I had a flat about a mile back. Can—”
“Get in,” she said.
Her pale knuckles gripped the steering wheel as she stared straight ahead in a daze. She drove down the road in the opposite direction of my car, but neither of us could speak or process at the moment. I let the dotted yellow lines of the road and the bass and synth of the mix playing through her speakers hypnotize me.
At some point, my voice broke through the silence in a deep, smooth tone that didn’t match the rapid thumping in my chest.
“Huh?” she replied, descending from her fog.
“Simone,” she said faintly. “I just stopped to use the bathroom, and . . .” She shook her head in disbelief.
“That happened, right? There’s blood on my shoe,” I said.
She glanced at me, as if to make sure I was real.
“You had a flat?” she asked. “I heard you, but I didn’t hear you. I just started driving.”
“It’s cool, I appreciate you taking on a stowaway.”
“Do you have a spare?”
“Yeah, it was low too.”
“I have one that should be good, and you can just get it back to me when you get your tire straight,” she said. “Where am I going?”
“You can just hit 561 and it’ll take you back around.”
She looked over at me again and back to the road.
“You have no idea where that is, do you?” I asked.
“Not at all.”
“I could tell by your voice you weren’t from around here,” I said, trying to distract myself from the reality of what just happened. “Where are you from?”
“Like Michael Jackson?”
“Kind of like Michael Jackson,” she said with a smile. “Like here, but colder, and fewer country ass bugs.”
“Hang a right,” I said, pointing at a road ahead. “How did you end up down here?”
“Each One Teach One.”
“You’re a teacher? You don’t look like a teacher. You have a bull ring.”
Her laugh showed nearly all of her teeth. “What do I look like?”
“Some kind of edgy photographer. Or a lost grad student.”
She laughed harder, until it made me laugh. And then there were tears on her cheek. “What the fuck just happened?” she whispered. Her tone was sober again. “What were they?”
“I don’t know,” I said, letting the reality push its way back in.
“They were people, right? They were us,” she continued, still looking for words. “And the way she looked at us, like she knew us. I felt something. I just need someone else to tell me they saw what they were.”
“Who they were,” I mumbled. “Yeah, I saw it too.”
I had seen them before, in their flowing linens, in films about the pre-war south, dotting cotton fields like ornaments, and in old sepia photos with fraught looks, that only told the half of it. But, I had never seen them as they were, as alive as me, or something like it, now.
“And they didn’t touch us,” she said wrinkling her forehead. “Only them.”
“561’s just up here.” The road curved. “Take this right.” I paused for a moment. “My great grandmother used to talk about Zonbis,” I said, remembering. “She was Gullah Geechie and old, and people just thought she was talking. But, she talked about them like a prophecy, like other people talk about Jesus coming back. They weren’t The Walking Dead kind. ‘ZON-bee’ is how she would call them with her thick accent. She said their souls couldn’t rest, they couldn’t return home until they finished some purpose, and Samedi could come and bring their peace, lead them back. They’re conjured by the ones that know, when it’s time, the ones who have the special sight. When she was dying, she used to chant in this whisper that scared me when I was young. And my grandma did the same thing before she died. My mom told me it wasn’t just chanting, it was a conjuring, to give peace to the ones left behind, and curse the ones who cursed us in life.”
The road grew darker as we got closer to my car.
“But you know, just old stories,” I said.
“Your grandmother was from here?”
“South Carolina. But, I’m from here, born and raised. And returned.”
“What brought you back?”
“A lot, but I’m still figuring that out . . . Samedi, maybe,” I continued with a laugh. “I came back when my grandma was dying, and I just saw the need. I saw what was happening in my community and what the kids were going through here, and I remembered being that kid, and I just couldn’t leave it how I found it. I run a little community garden for the kids now, and teach them art and culture through the land. And, I remodel houses during the day to pay the bills—hanging dry wall, adding fixtures, painting inside and out.”
“How did you know this is what you were supposed to be doing?”
“My spirit or gut or whatever you want to call it didn’t give me a choice. It didn’t let me rest or eat or see anything else until I listened.”
“Teaching here was like that for me. I was never supposed to end up here. It wasn’t in any of my plans. But, somehow I had to.”
The road opened up as we came closer to the point where we started.
“My car’s up here on the left, just after the tree line starts,” I said.
A flickering orange glow dimly backlit the trees ahead.
“Wait, slow down.” I squinted my eyes and tried to make out what was in the distance.
“You see it too?” she asked. “What is that?”
“I think something’s on fire back there.”
She let down her window to smell for smoke, and crept slowly along the road. There was a low melodic moan.
“Do you hear that?” I asked. “I know that sound. I can’t explain it.”
She pulled off the road and parked in the grass overlooking a clearing in the trees.
We both got out without a word, both knowing better.
“Do you think it’s a cross burning?” she whispered.
The light gleamed more brightly and the grumbling sound turned to a chant. She climbed onto the hood of her car, then the roof. I followed instinctively, as if my own feet didn’t carry me. My eyes widened and my breath caught in my lungs. I collapsed into a seat, with my feet dangling over the side of the car. She eased down beside me in silence.
The black figures moved around a central glowing fire, like they were floating, falling lightly on their feet. Their cotton clothes spun with them like linens blowing in the wind on a clothesline. They chanted the song in throaty grumbles, a harrowing melancholy spiritual mixed with the joy of release. Tears streamed down both of our faces as we watched them dance in the firelight, unable to contain ourselves. I don’t know how long we were there, suspended in the almost ethereal trance, watching. We watched until their fire went out and they disappeared into the trees.
I drove home in the dead of night with flashes of the woman with the rifle slung over her shoulder in my head, and Simone, and the bodies moving around the fire. That night, I couldn’t sleep, but I dreamt of murky water, and freedom.
I was standing in my bedroom in the darkness, sipping a cup of hot tea, smoking papers, peering into the darkness. Something beyond my door pulled at my legs and played tricks on my eyes, making someone move before me and beckon me with an unseen finger. My feet moved across the cool grass to the edge of water, buried deep in the woods. There was calmness over it, a stagnant film, until a body thrust from beneath and moved toward me on the bank. It was the woman from the store, alive and full of color, in her own time, climbing from the water with the rifle on her back. Bodies sprung up behind her from the swamp, water dripping from their heads and clothes. I backed away from the water as they marched forward, until the woman stood in front of me toe to toe with her hand outstretched, and there was nowhere left to retreat. She pointed with a sharp, bony index finger, grazed it against my chest, and plunged it into my heart. I fell to my knees in a scream. But, it wasn’t pain, more like a declaration. A soldier being marked for battle.
When I sprung up from my bed, gasping for air, I was soaked in sweat. And I thought of chickens. What they sound like when they crow in the morning in the garden to begin the day, and how they come home to roost, and their blood spilled in the old hoodoo rituals to conjure the impossible.
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