Ernestine was staring up at Momma’s face like she had never seen anything like her. ‘Tell’er, Clift,’ she said. ‘She ain’t gonna hurt us.’

‘You just trust ev’rybody, huh, girl? I might as well go on back there an’ give up, huh?’


Momma Jo smiled and said, ‘Com’on, honey, you tell me the truth an’ I he’p.’ Those yellow teeth against her face and the armadillo spoor brought to mind a bear in her dark den. She seemed wild and violent and I could feel my heart working.

‘She the best chance you got,’ Mouse told him. I didn’t say anything. I knew that Mouse was working those kids for his own purposes but I didn’t care. I was just a driver, a cabbie waiting for his fare.

Clifton was fair-minded, you could see that by the way he worried over the pressure those three put on him. He was sullen and sulky but his arms and shoulders were jerking so that you knew that the story wanted to come out.

Mouse poured him another scotch and Clifton busted open like an overripe melon.

He told Momma the same story he told in the car; he used the same words exactly. I knew right then that Clifton couldn’t lie to save his life.

It was a strange day. That house was always midnight with its oil lamps burning and the armadillos and the cat skirting the edges of the room. Mouse was slouched up against the wall staring at the dead fireplace as if it were raging. Clifton was looking into his lap and Ernestine had her eyes glued to Momma Jo.

Jo was taking it all in. She looked at each one in his turn. But when she looked at me she’d catch my eye and smile so it seemed like that old witch was flirting. She was more than twice my age but she was still a handsome woman without a wrinkle on her fine-featured face. And I knew that in women it’s the face that gets old first.

She was sitting on the stool with her legs crossed like a man, it was only that long white apron that kept her modest. She was smoking a hand-rolled cigarette for a long time before she said, ‘You chirren got two thangs to do. First off you gotta hide while they look fo’you. That is if that boy really is dead. But that’s easy, ‘cause you kin stay here. I could use a strong boy like Clifton and Ernestine can help me wit’ my herbs.

‘But you got a worse thing ‘cause Clifton cain’t satisfy this young girl’s womanly needs an’ she ain’t woman enough t’teach him yet.’

‘Wha?’ Clifton was drunk by then so he staggered to his feet to challenge the witch. Clifton was a big boy, about my height with more heft to him, but Momma Jo had him by a head and twenty pounds.

She stood up to his face and said, ‘Sit’own boy.’

And he did.

‘I ain’t worried ‘bout yo’ pride, honey. You can see that Ernestine is out tryin t’make men appreciate what she got. That’s ‘cause she want sumpin’. She want satisfaction.’

Ernestine started crying.

Mouse had that invisible smile across his face.

‘I can he’p you chirren,’ Momma said. ‘I got a powder bring out what’s sleepin’ in you, make you see each other a whole new way.’

She went to her table and started working with her powders and spoons. Mouse crawled over and nudged my arm. ‘Oh this gonna be a gem, Easy,’ he whispered. ‘Momma Jo’s especiality is love.’

‘But what’s this gotta do wit’ yo’ stepdaddy?’

‘Dont know, but it’s lookin’ good,’ he said. ‘Aftah while I’ma go out t’see a friend. Don’t you be worried though.’

‘I go wichyou.’

‘Uh-uh, Easy. These country folks don’t like crowds too much.’

Right then Momma Jo interrupted, ‘Ezekiel? Honey, reach over on that shelf and bring me that blue jug. Yeah, that’s it. Bring it over here, baby. Now, Clifton an’ Ernestine you’all bring me yo’ cups.’

She poured a strong alcohol liquid into their bowls and then carefully measured some powder and dried leaves into each one.

Clifton got a brown powder and Ernestine a white. ‘Now drink it all down at once, don’t leave nuthin in the cup... yeah, that’s it.’

They did what she said like they were children. But I didn’t question it either, because that’s how life was back then. You listened to older folks and did what you were told. Even if you knew better you’d follow the rules because that’s how we were raised. Everybody but Mouse.

Mouse never took an order unless that’s what he wanted to do. Mouse wasn’t the only man I knew who’d stand up for what he believed, but he was different in one way: Most men who stood up for themselves would rather die than be slaves; Mouse would’ve rather killed.

‘Okay, babies,’ Momma said to Ernestine and Clifton. ‘You go sit together next to the hearth. Ezekiel baby? Why don’t you blow out some’a them lights an’ I tell you all a story.’

Chapter Four

I went around the big room blowing out lamps. It became more nighttime than ever but I knew it was afternoon not ten yards from where we sat.

Momma Jo brought her stool in front of us and looked down on the two lovers.

‘How you chirren feelin’?’

‘Fine,’ they said together.

Clifton had softened with the drink. I think he felt better too, once he told Jo his story. Good men always need

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