5 August, 1969
Three months have passed since I saw your smile, since I had your guidance. Only twelve weeks, but it feels like years. I’m practicing my letters and my writing, do you see? Just like you always wanted me to do. I’m writing in English so I practice the language. Are you proud? You always tried so hard to teach me.
It may be cheating, to write instead of speaking out loud. Writing makes it easier to find the words. The words sound too harsh, though. I can’t imagine our African foremothers singing of great battles in English. French, maybe. But never English.
It’s been another long day, and Grandmother Jones seems no happier with me. She called the islands “backward,” and when she caught me dancing the way you taught me, she swore I was Satan’s tool. I’ve never known a woman—or a place—so far from Haiti.
I thought Mississippi would be like Haiti. Like home. But, Ba. These waters are brown, not blue. The beaches are straight and blank, and the sand feels filthy with hate and anger. This place might as well be a dim star lost in the night sky. Without love. Without magic. Magic means a fast trip to Hell here, and Grandmother Jones seems certain I’ve booked my passage.
Why did I have to come here? Why did she have to be my closest relative? Is living in Mississippi my punishment for being too weak to save you from the stormwitch?
It’s shameful, but last night I actually wished for the stormwitch to send another spirit, and I hoped that spirit would eat Grandmother Jones. But, I’d be alone, then! How can I think such things? She’s my father’s mother. I should respect her. She took me in, and I’m sure she’s doing her best. I must respect her, even though she’s not a warrior like you were. I can’t speak back to her even when she makes me so angry I want to use my battle training against her.
And if the stormwitch does send another spirit, I must protect Grandmother Jones. She would never trust me that much, though. Even if she did, I don’t know if I would be strong enough to fight the witch’s magic alone.
I dreamed again last night, of there. Of them, of the past. Our ancestors in Africa, the Fon people from Dahomey. Africa crouched like a cat, dark and burning with the fire of a thousand souls. Night spices hung heavy, and clouds raised fists to the moon. I heard Dahomey drums, and they thundered so loud I thought my heart might wing to the stars. Thump and pound, and pound and pound, until they pulled my spirit down and into the celebration.
The war women of Dahomey had won a great battle for their king. What you taught me—I remembered it all, and when I danced with the war women, I named Dahomey’s kings back to the time before memory. I named my foremothers, too, and the war women said they were great soldiers. Their eyes were bright and happy, Ba. The same brightness I used to see in your eyes when we danced on the beaches in Haiti. Those women were so tall! Just like you. Tall and strong, and they fired their muskets straight, and all their arrows hit their marks.
Will I ever be so strong, so skilled, without you to help me learn?
The winds are changing here in Mississippi, Ba. The seasons are moving onward, and I’m afraid even though I know you wouldn’t approve.
What if the stormwitch does send a spirit to find me?
What will happen to my new home—my only home and the only people I’ve got left—if I fail to stop her?
Friday, 8 August, 1969: Morning
“Ruba. Ruba! Up, child. You need to get your nights and days straightened out before school starts. You’ve only got a week or two.”
I squeeze the worn leather journal curled in my hands, open my eyes, and stare into those of Grandmother Jones. Her skin lies coffee to my ink, rough to my smooth. My hair hangs black and strong while hers curls thin and white above her wrinkled brow. For a moment, I’m amused by how small she is, shorter than me, like the little people in American fairy stories.
“You awake?” Her gaze seems soft. Almost kind.
Warmth floods my chest. “Oui, Grand-mère.”
The soft-kind eyes turn to obsidian. Black glass, shining from bloodshot fields. “I told you, quit that French-talk. Nobody in Pass Christian will have a clue what you’re saying, and besides, it’ll make folks nervous. This isn’t Haiti.”
“Oui—I mean, yes, Grandmother.” Warmth gives way to cold rain inside me. I slide to my feet still squeezing my journal, wishing I could have stayed in my dreams. Wishing my day will hurry by so I can write to Ba again, even about the stormwitch and other dark thoughts. Somehow they scare me less than this woman.
Grandmother Jones hands me a white cloth dress. “Here. I finally got this made so we can put away those loud African dresses. All that color draws attention—and not the good kind. Try it on.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I hesitate, then carefully tuck my journal beneath my pillow before accepting the unexpected gift. Part of me feels joy that she made something for me, and part of me feels horror that she took my real clothes. I rub the cotton between my thumb and forefinger, and I can’t help a single hot tear.
Grandmother Jones makes a lemon-face and pats my shoulder. “I know I’m not what you’re used to, and this place—it’s new. But you’ve got to get to know it. And me. We’re all you’ve got left now. It’s time you started letting go of what’s lost before it pulls you down. Got to live on that high plane, march ahead, like Dr. King talked about.”
She stands like a shadow over the sun, casting her small but stern presence through my room. I swallow to keep from crying harder. I didn’t need reminding of my troubles so early this day. Her words bring my old life and my new life fresh to my mind, and I can’t stand to see them next to each other.
The house seems suddenly closed and still around me, all clapboard and flaked paint. It smells of flour and fresh grease. Of starch and old chocolate. No sage. No clove. Dull green beans and dull green peppers dry on strings in the kitchen instead of fruit or cowry shells.
All that color draws attention . . . .
Ba kept her home true to Dahomey tradition. Simple and colorful, and full of life. We lived as our foremothers in Africa lived, and I always felt like I belonged. I didn’t know how much I loved that until I came here.
In Pass Christian, I’m nothing but a tall oddity to be stared at and “brought up all over again,” to hear Grandmother Jones talk. She keeps her home clean and pressed, like her white aprons. For her white job. Working for white men and their white wives. Even their white children. Between them and church, her cooking, her cleaning, and her sewing, I feel like she has no time for me. And I feel like she has no idea what I lost, or what I’ve got left.
I sniff and wipe my nose, and pull the dress she made me over my head. I’m careful to keep my right side covered so she won’t see the blue crocodile tattoo covering my lower belly, hip, and thigh. This she would never understand. It would be something else to upset her. The mark of Dahomey’s war women comforts me, though, with its fierce teeth and bright colors. My tears dry themselves, and I rub the ivory bracelet on my left wrist. Another mark of my past. All war women—Dahomey’s Amazons—wore the bracelet. I think of my dream, of the tall, strong soldiers, and I find it hard to believe they were destroyed. All but one, of course.
“Ah! You’re a vision, Ruba.” Grandmother Jones offers me a rare smile. Rarer still, a look of approval. “Proper clothes do you wonders. I wish James Howard could see you now!”
I nod and try not to frown. My father never saw me before, so I can’t understand why he would care to see me now. He died in Vietnam after he met my mother at Tougaloo College, and she died from fever before I celebrated my first birthday. I never knew her, and I never knew him. Ba was my mother, my father, my sister—and my friend. The first I saw of Grandmother Jones was the day she came to Haiti to claim me.
Why she did that, I will never know, especially since she thinks me so dirty. Stained, like her old rags, because I believe in magic and spirits and many gods. I would have stayed in Haiti, but I had no one left. Grandmother Jones forced me to come with her to the Les Etats Unis, the United States. To Mississippi. To Pass Christian, where whites own the Earth and the sand and the waves, and “colored” find no welcome, even on the beach.
I feel like a fool in my white cotton dress, and I think Grandmother Jones knows this. She probably believes it’s good for me and thinks it will teach me humility. Just what I need to bring me down a peg.
We need to bring you down a peg, Ruba.
She says that often, along with, This isn’t Haiti, and we don’t do those things in America.
What does she really think of me, past the fact I’m a heathen because I haven’t been to proper school and I don’t believe in her one god? When I look into Grandmother Jones’s endless black eyes, I can’t tell.
“You were yelling in your sleep again, child,” she says, smoothing my dress and picking off a few loose threads. “Something about a Stomwish.”
I shiver. “Yes, Grandmother.”
“Stomwish. Is that somebody you knew in Haiti?”
According to my beliefs and everything Ba taught me, if I lie to my elder, I’m cursed. But, according to Grandmother Jones’s beliefs about gods and magic, if I speak the truth, I’m condemned to a fiery hell.
But truth sits better on my stomach, hell or no hell.
“Not Stomwish. Stormwitch.”
Grandmother Jones’s face twists. “I thought we had an understanding about talk like that in my house. Witches and all such nonsense—from hell, going to hell. And all who believe in them, too. But not you, not yet. God gives some grace time for learning. ‘Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.’ Dr. King said that, you know.”
“Beg pardon,” I say quickly, hoping to cool her anger. “Ba taught me that the women of Dahomey, Africa, the ones who served the king, sometimes made spells—thought they made spells—to control the winds and the waves. They thought it would help the Fon people win wars. People called them stormwitches, and there’s a story about cruel stormwitch named Zashar—sometimes I have bad dreams about her.”
Grandmother Jones goes quiet. Her thundercloud look worsens, then passes. “My great-grandmothers probably knew about such, but we’re long past that now. You young folks, always studying Africa like it’s some sort of Heaven.” She waves a hand by her cheek, as if swatting gnats. “Maybe when you introduce yourself at church, you should tell some about Haiti and Dahomey. But no talk of witches or conjuring. I won’t have Juju under this roof, or in God’s house.”
“Yes, Grandmother.” I fidget, thinking about her church.
Introduce yourself. That’s a step in joining, and I’m not sure if I want to take it. More than that, I dread standing up and facing all those blank eyes and stiff smiles. Most of those people don’t know me, and I don’t know if I want to know them. The very thought makes my stomach hurt. My eyes drift to the corner of my journal sticking out from under my pillow
I need to take it and get away from here for a time. I need to write.
Grandmother Jones is talking, and I have to make myself listen as she prattles about the day’s plans. “Now, you got grits and bacon on the stove for breakfast—oh, and some biscuits, and I left beans and ham in the icebox for later. And—”
“Yes, ma’am.” I can’t stand to hear this next part again, so I say it for her. “The number for the Richelieu Apartments is on the wall by the telephone. I’m not supposed to leave our road or the part of beach straight across the highway from us. I’m supposed to say ma’am and sir to white folks I meet, and keep my eyes on the ground when I say it.”
“Good girl. I’ll be home around five.” Grandmother Jones kisses my cheek and I can’t help going stiff like her starched cotton blouse and apron. She’s off to work for white people. She keeps telling me this is the way of things in America, and I mustn’t speak against it no matter how the television blares of change and revolution. She tells me black people don’t have many businesses to hire other black people, that working for white people puts food in our mouths and shoes on our feet.
Me, I could do without the shoes.
I see Grandmother Jones to the door.
One breath of Mississippi brine makes my heart pounds in my throat. The breeze smells of salt and wind and storms, with the slightest hint of spice.
Is there a storm coming?
Is Zashar the old Amazon stormwitch sending a spirit across the sea?
No. No! Not yet. I can’t face her!
“You okay, Ruba?” Grandmother Jones asks as she walks past me and outside, heading for her old yellow and black car.
“Y-yes, Grandmother,” I manage.