‘It’s up here, Ease.’

‘How far?’

‘Dont rightly know, man.’ He smiled and let go of a bamboo stalk.

‘What you mean you don’t know?’ I had to duck down to keep the bamboo from hitting me in the face.

‘Ole Momma Jo’s a witch, an’ witch houses on out here is like boats.’ He made his voice sound ghostly. ‘Floatin’ on the bayou.’

He didn’t believe in that voodoo stuff, but Clifton and Ernestine got quiet and looked around as if they expected to see Baron Samedi looking out from under his skull mask.

‘You can tell you gettin’ close t’Momma’s when the cicadas stop singin’ an’ the mosquitoes die down,’ Mouse said.

I thought he was still trying to scare us, but after a while there came a sweet wood-burnt scent. Soon after that the whining of the cicadas receded and the ground became firmer.

We came to a clearing and Mouse said, ‘Here we is,’ but all I saw was a stand of stunted pear trees with a big avocado rising up behind them.

‘She live in the open?’ Clifton asked.

A cloud shifted and the sun shone between two pear trunks. A light glinted from the trees. Mouse whistled a shrill warbled note and in a while the door came open.

It was a house hidden by trees way out there.

The house was a shock, but it was the woman standing there that scared me.

She was tall, way over six feet, wearing a short, light blue dress that was old and faded. Over her dress was a wide white apron; her jet-black skin shone against those pale colors so brightly that I winced when I first saw her. She was strongly built with wide shoulders and big strong legs.

When she strode toward us I noticed the cudgel in her broad fist. For the first time in my life I felt the roots of my hair tingle. She came to within three strides of us and pushed her handsome face forward like something wild sniffing at strangers. There was no sympathy in her face. Ernestine jumped behind Clifton and I took a step back.

Then she smiled. Big pure yellow teeth that were all there and healthy.

‘Raymond!’ The swamp behind us got even quieter. ‘Raymond, boy it’s good, good to see you.’ She lifted Mouse by his shoulders and hugged him to her big bosom. ‘Mmmmmmmmmmmm-mm, it’s good.’ She put him down and beamed on him like a smiling black sun. ‘Raymond,’ she said. ‘It’s been too long, honey.’

Raymond is Mouse’s real name, but nobody except EttaMae called him that.

‘Jo, I brung you some store-bought.’ He held out the sack that still had two fifths of Johnnie Walker. ‘An’ some guests.’ He waved his hand at us.

Momma Jo’s teeth went away but she was still smiling when she asked, ‘These friends?’

‘Oh yeah, Momma. This here is Easy Rawlins. He’s my best friend. An’ these chirren is the victims of a po-lice hunt. They in love too.’

She took the sack and said, ‘Com’on then, let’s get in.’ We followed her in between the trees into the house, passing from day into night. The room was dark like nighttime because the sun couldn’t make it through the leaves to her windows. It was a big room lit by oil lanterns. The floor was cool soil that was swept and dry. The whole place was cool as if the trees soaked up all the swamp heat. In a corner two small armadillos were snuffling over corncobs and above them was a pure white cat, its hair standing on end as it hissed at us.

The cat was on a ledge over a fireplace. Also on the ledge were thirteen skulls. Twelve of them were longsnout opossums, six on either side of a human skull that had been dried with the skin still on it. The skull leaned back with its teeth pushed forward, dried black lips for gums. The teeth were brown but here and there white bone poked through cracked human leather. The eyelids were shut and sunken but there was no repose in the broad features of that face. It was as if the agony of life had followed that poor soul into the after world.

‘Domaque,’ Momma Jo said, and I turned to see her looking at me.


‘My husband,’ she said. ‘Com’on, chirren, have a seat.’ She gestured for us to settle on the dirty blankets and piles of pillows she had surrounding the fireplace. There were only two pieces of wood furniture in the whole room. A three-legged stool and a rough-hewn plank table that had six legs. The table was piled with dried plants and all kinds of powders in glass jars and bowls. I didn’t look too close at the table because I didn’t want to see any other keepsakes like Domaque.

She opened the sack and smiled when she saw little Johnnie. She said to Mouse, ‘You brought me lightnin’,’ then she looked at me, ‘an’ sugah.’

‘That’s right, Momma, you know I take care’a you.’

‘Uh-uh, baby, you takes care’a Raymond, an’ that’s why I loves you,’ Momma laughed. ‘Yes, yes. Raymond take care’a hisself.. .’

We settled in and Momma broke out the scotch with hand-carved wood bowls that she used for glasses. She poured us each a drink, and then another one. We were down to the bottom of the second bottle. Mouse was talking about the wedding when Momma turned to Clifton and asked, ‘An’ why is the po-lice chasin’ you, honey?’

‘Well they ain’t really aftah me at all. Just sumpin’ come up an’ me an’ Ernestine had ta go, that’s all.’

Momma Jo had been smiling and pleased the whole time, but she frowned then.

‘He kilt a boy in a bar fight, Momma,’ Mouse said. And before Clifton could speak, ‘Momma don’t always know what’s truf, Clifton, but she sure’n hell can smell a lie.’

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