We buried the first ones, nice and proper. It sounds foolish now, but what could we do? After all, they were still our children. I even dressed my Sarah for the occasion—decked out in her Sunday best, yellow cotton bright against the dark brown of her skin, pattern hand-stitched to cover a mismatched body. We let her rest in a small wooden box, nestled in a hole Ray dug behind the house, just below the surface. Only the best for my first baby girl. But even later, when our scrap of land held more graves than ground, I kept my daughters close, creeping through the night to dump burlap sacks into the dark water of the bayou at the end of the walk and casting swaddled bundles into the bone pits where not even gators and foxes fed. Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention.
The way of things was this: you had a child and hoped it would be unbent, unbroken. You fought through the bitterness as your baby turned into a monster, eyes bulging out of a head no bigger than an overgrown tomato, arms and legs growing long and spindly like untamed weeds in a widower’s garden. But still, you loved your little one, draped its body in rosary beads and spirit cloth, prayed that they would somehow purge the demons from a broken soul. And when it died, you wailed and mourned and took comfort in your husband’s arms, and just like that, you had another.
At first, the good folks visited you after, brought prayer books and lost bread, said Poor Marie as they held your shaking hands steady. You nodded as they told you how you needed to wear conjure beads at night, or wash yourself from the inside with holy water, or only eat white fish on Fridays. You made sure to smile as they reminded you that it happened to them once, and the conjure man took care of things, and look at them now, surrounded by a pack of perfect angels.
You never said a word about what happened in the last days, when the prayers had failed and the nights grew cold and the food stores went from low to empty. You never mentioned Sarah’s too-long arms flailing and too-big eyes bulging as you held your hand tight over her nose and mouth, or that you only got it right on the third try, when she cried out and bit your hand and in your anger you snapped her neck like a common chicken. And you never ever told a soul about the way she kept on coming back. Who could blame a little girl for missing her mother?
It was a month past Junior’s first birthday when the smell of death crept into the air, bitter and heavy with a tang of copper, like vinegar and musk. Ray said it was the lingering stink of drowned swamp rats on muddy banks and the murky water lapping against the wooden stilts beneath our porch, like any summer with too many rains. I blamed it on the conjure man’s concoctions—Healing Mud to be rubbed on Junior’s forehead when the moon was high; a Charm Bag to shove under his crib from sundown to sunup; and something he’d only call the Good Stuff, to be mixed with water fresh from the cistern and drunk twice a day. All to keep the devil away from our little boy’s body.
“I’m sick of all that mess,” I told Ray. “Never does a lick of good.” Conjure man had been coming by with oils and poultices and candles since just after Sarah came out wrong, lurking like a snake in the grass, and his juju had never made a bit of difference in any of the baby girls who’d gone twisted since. Junior was just special. Still as perfect as the day he was born, same as the new baby would be. I was carrying high again, which meant another boy, and the child inside me tumbled like a windmill. Junior had been like that, bouncing and turning as he grew, dancing along with my heart like it was a washboard beat. Even now, he stood in the wood crib shoved into the corner beside our narrow bed, pushing at the bars like he was gonna launch himself over the edge and come crawling into the kitchen calling Mama.
“Marie, please.” Ray clutched the latest conjure bag in his hands like it was made of gold instead of piss-worn leather. “Think of it as a little good luck to balance out all the bad. And conjure man says something’s gotta watch over you while I’m gone.” Of course. Ray never did know how to just say goodbye.
“How long this time?” I put my hand over his, and he squeezed tight. He’d stayed close to home ever since Junior’s birth, working day shifts and bragging about how fast his little man grew. It was good having him close by. It kept the emptiness out of the air.
“Few days grassing the rice fields over East,” he said. “Got a family to feed now. Got a son.” I smiled at that, just a bit, and Ray grinned in return, left corner of his mouth lifting higher than the right, begging to be kissed straight.
“I don’t like it when you leave.” The house was spitting distance wall to wall, but it always felt too big without him in it, and the wind howled louder against the windows as soon as he walked away.
“I know, but I got to,” he said. “Can’t rely on charity forever.” He had that deepness in his voice that meant he was done deciding. “And conjure man says this’ll keep you safe while I’m gone. So you keep it close, you hear?”
I nodded and made myself pick up the brown leather, damp with whatever foulness the conjure man had used to bind the spirits. Ray smiled again as I hung it around my neck, like everything would be okay.
“Marie?” he said, stroking the back of my hand with his thumb.
“You take care of yourselves while I’m gone.” He eyed Junior in the crib, then the conjure bag, then my swollen stomach.
“Always do, Ray,” I said. “Always do.”
It was three days later that I woke from another dream of souring soup bones and swamp rat livers, to an empty bed and the high-pitched sound of a child’s laughter.
No. This voice was higher, bubblier. Girlier. I listened for a few moments, hand cupped behind my right ear, but the giggle disappeared as quickly as it had come.
Just a nightmare, I told myself. Just your body’s way of keeping you on your toes. Junior was twice as old already as any of the babies after Sarah. Everything was fine. He wasn’t going crooked. I didn’t need help from my little girl.
The new baby seemed to agree, shifting inside me and pressing hard against my bladder. But as I rolled myself off the bed, taking my first steps towards the piss pot I’d shoved in the corner, the high-pitched laugh was there again. And then a whisper, gentle and soft against my ear.
“Sarah?” I still barely knew her voice. Sarah had never spoken much. Not as she toddled shakily from room to room, long arms hanging at her sides, the only sound her fingers scraping the floorboards. Not in those last cold days before her third birthday, when even Ray had to admit that no prayer or conjure or doctor could fix her. He’d squeezed my hand then too, before leaving on another long job, talked about dwindling food in a hard winter and making hard choices and how sometimes you had to give up what you had, make way for something new.
Sarah hadn’t made a sound then, just stared out at me from the crib, like she knew what was coming. Never said a word since either, not even all the too-many times I sat counting the long days until Ray’s return from some faraway worksite, watching until my new baby’s face went twisted, letting Sarah comfort me in silence as I did what needed to be done.
“Mama.” It sounded like Sarah. Like the frightened cries that had come out of her tiny mouth as I tried over and over again to silence her at the end, wishing that she had grown straight and tall, that she could unbend herself and be the child that I deserved. A child like Junior.
I looked over to his crib, but even in the dim light of dawn I could see that it was empty, the shirt-turned-blanket that I had tucked in around him dangling useless over the crib rail.
“Junior? Sarah? Ray?” I tried to speak calmly, but my voice came out high and shaky, and only the wind outside replied. I scanned the room in the half-light, but my baby wasn’t there. Just the door, hanging open, and a flash of yellow cloth on the porch beyond. I ran the five short steps through the living room towards it, slamming through the front door and sending it swinging into the house frame so hard I almost jumped at the sound.
“Junior?” I called out again, working to keep my voice calm, trying not to focus on the stagnant brown seepage water lapping just below the wood deck. Maybe he had already crawled too far, too fast. Maybe his giggles had turned to choked gurgles in the dark water, tiny arms churning as he gasped for air and breathed in death. I knew how fast a little thing could disappear beneath the surface. I knew better than anyone.
Sarah giggled again, as if we were playing a game, her laugh echoing off to the right. I turned, and there Junior was. Safe, but only for now. He was still too close to the edge, crawling slowly towards the soup of brown water. And in front of him, standing in her yellow dress, impossibly small head lolling to the left side of her long-limbed body, Sarah, holding up her arms as if to stop him or pick him up or hold him tight.
I yelled as I moved towards him, narrowing the gap between us in an instant, faster than I thought my waddling feet could possibly take me, and scooped him up in my arms. I checked him all over, squeezing and hugging, kissing the top of his straw-coarse hair ‘til it was damp as the early morning air. Still perfect. I said a prayer, thanking all the gods whose names I could remember, and pressed his body against the conjure bag hanging from its string around my neck, even though I knew it was nothing more than filthy leather. Anything to keep my baby safe.
“Don’t you ever go outside like that again, Junior,” I said. “Scared me half to death. If it hadn’t been for Sarah . . . ”
I glanced back at the edge of the wooden porch. Sarah still stood there, tiny disfigured head drooping to the side, swollen eyes wide and small black plaits dangling, her yellow Sunday dress gleaming against the brown of her skin and the water behind her. She spread her long arms wide again like she wanted me to pick her up, but I clutched Junior to my chest instead.
Sarah let her arms fall, slamming her knuckles into the wood planks of the porch. Her bulging eyes couldn’t tell me if she was sad or happy or angry or content, and this wasn’t the time for guessing.
Sarah followed behind me as I walked inside; her steps slow and unsteady, fingernails dragging against the wooden porch and floor. The scraping stopped and started as I moved from room to room, latching the front door shut and double-checking the one behind the kitchen just in case. By the time I put Junior down and sat on the bed to watch his chest rise and fall in the rhythm of sleep, she stood beside his crib, laying her head against the wood frame to stare at him through the bars. A tiny shiver crawled up my leg and through my back, but I let it pass. Sarah had been the one who woke me, who saved Junior from disappearing into the dark brown water. Sarah had always been the one I could count on. I reached over to touch the side of her face. It was cold and clammy and just a little sticky, but I patted again, even stroked it twice with outstretched fingers. I wasn’t Ray; I’d never had the luxury to be squeamish.
“Thank you, Sarah,” I said. “For everything.”
“Mama,” she whispered back. “Mama.”
I expected Sarah to be gone by full light the way she always was, like fog after sunrise, but she stayed by the side of the crib all day, barely moving. I didn’t feel much like stirring either, but I heaved myself up to heat up some old gumbo and new rice, keeping the crib in sight while I slowly gathered pots and pans and tried not to bump my belly against the stove. Usually by mid-day, Junior would’ve started hollering to be fed and changed, but he slept sound and still, and Sarah just stared, head resting against the crib bars above his mattress. I wasn’t even sure she blinked.
“You’re going to have to leave sometime, Sarah,” I told her. Ray would be back in a few days, and he would never understand, would sprinkle holy water in every crack and crevice and have the conjure man painting the door frame haint blue to trap her soul. He would think she was what had gone wrong all those times, with all those lonely nights and broken baby girls. He wouldn’t understand that she was the only thing that had gotten me through it.
Sarah didn’t answer, but she raised one of her long arms and pointed at the front door. She backed away from the crib and towards the kitchen, her other arm still dragging against the floor. I’d only gotten my head halfway around when the knock came, loud and sharp and sudden. I stepped forward to grab Junior, soothe him if he cried, but he lay just as still as ever, breathing soft and easy.
“Ray?” I called. It was days early for him to be back, but maybe he’d left something behind. Or missed me too much to stay so long away.
“Miss Marie? Ray sent me on over to check on you.”
Even through the walls, I knew the conjure man’s voice when I heard it. His spirit cures might not have helped my babies, but any fool could tell by the whistle in his voice that he’d been touched by something from beyond. Nobody rightly knew what had happened to him, though some folks said he drowned and came back to life and others said he’d been born in the caul and had to tear his way out to take his first breath. Either way, he wasn’t somebody you turned away at the door, not even with Sarah backed all the way into the kitchen, arm still pointing, head bobbing against her chest with every unsteady step, leaving a damp chill where she brushed against me.
“Miss Marie? You in there?” I quickly wrapped my hands around Sarah’s waist and lifted, holding her at arm’s length. An achy cold spread through my hands and up my arms, but I held tight, moving her by the side of the oven where the conjure man wouldn’t be able to see. Before I turned, I put my finger up to my lips, watching one of her too-large eyes blink in what I hoped was some sort of understanding.
“I’m here—just moving slow these days,” I called out. “Be right with you.” I moved as fast as my feet could carry me, glancing over my shoulder to make sure Sarah was out of sight. All I could see was Junior in the crib, finally shifting just the tiniest bit, like it was Sarah’s leaving that set him free.
I put on my brightest smile as I unlatched the door and opened it wide. Conjure man crouched by the right side of the porch, staring out into the seepage water. It didn’t look half as treacherous as it had in the dawn light, but I still had to fight not to picture Junior slipping under the surface and drifting away.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” I said. Conjure man stood, slowly, unbending his long skinny body and turning my way. His face was ten kinds of ordinary, but I could feel the spirit in him from where I stood.
“You locking the door now, Miss Marie?” The whistle in his voice hissed just a little.
“Junior’s almost to walking now,” I said. “Don’t want him falling in out here.” I could hear my voice getting thin, and the conjure man cocked his head like he knew there was more I wasn’t saying, but I kept my smile on.
“Ray didn’t tell me you were coming or I would’ve fixed something up.” I hoped he couldn’t smell the gumbo out by the door.
“Thought it might be a nice surprise,” he said, “Knows you get lonely here with just the baby.”
He narrowed his eyes like that wasn’t all Ray had said, a shadow of the way Ray had looked at me when he came home last and the house was empty and silent, scrubbed clean of any sign of baby, and I told him that another of my little girls died in her sleep and not that I’d had to hold the pillow down tight over her twisted face and maybe we always made monsters.
“Junior’s plenty company.” I patted my stomach a little harder than I meant to. “And this one’s practically dancing already. Got the conjure bag to keep us all safe, right?”
The conjure man nodded and stepped towards me, but I reached back and pulled the door shut. I didn’t need him going in and seeing Sarah, didn’t need him taking her away. She was the only little girl I still had.
Conjure man kept coming forward anyway, like he was going to push through me to get inside the house, but I kept one hand on the handle and my feet planted in front of the door.
“I want to check on Junior,” he said. “Ray doesn’t want things going like . . . like how they been going. You hear?”
“Junior’s asleep,” I said. “Just got him down. And I don’t want you waking him with your fussing.”
That stopped him, but I could feel him staring through me, right to where Sarah was crouched in the back. If I let him in the house, I wasn’t ever gonna see my baby girl again. Might even take Junior for good measure. That was his way. Didn’t matter how many of the crooked ones he took in and raised up; he always sent them off far from the bayou and the folks who’d birthed them. Further than I’d ever get to travel. I hadn’t let him take any of the others and wasn’t gonna let him start up now. They might be monsters, but they were my monsters. I wanted them close to home.
“I need to check on him.” The conjure man’s voice whistled as a breeze blew by, like he was calling up something from the wind. “Something in that house don’t feel right. And if it ain’t, well you know I’ve got plenty space for foundlings. Might even be safer there than here.”
“He’s fine. This just ain’t the time,” I said, words coming out fast and harsh. “I’m barely dressed as is, and the only thing wrong with the house is that it’s in no state for company. You come on back tomorrow, check on Junior then.” I smiled bright again, but it felt like my face was shaking.
The conjure man stepped closer, ‘til his stick of a body was right up against the swell of my belly, and leaned in to stare me straight in the eye. I thought he might push me over, tug me out of the way, turn the sky dark and call lightning down, but he just grabbed the conjure bag around my neck with two hands, whispered a few words I didn’t understand and jumped back like he’d heard a rattler slither by.
“I’ll be back tomorrow,” he said. “You take care ‘til then. It’s snake season. You let one in your house and devil only knows what it’ll do.”
I waited a good long while after the conjure man’d gone before I went back inside. That man moved faster than a mongoose, and no way I was letting him sneak on past me.
“Sarah, you have to go,” I said, crossing through the living room towards the kitchen. But Sarah hadn’t stayed where I put her. She was back in the bedroom, against the crib, one long arm draped over the top of the bars and dangling inside. She stroked the side of Junior’s face gently as I watched—once, twice, three times.
“Mama,” she said, voice flat and even, pointing to herself. Then she reached back, slowly, to point at Junior. “Mama.” Same voice, same tone.
“No,” I said. “This time’s different. Junior’s not like you. Junior’s fine.”
Sarah shook her head. It jerked against her shoulder with the movement, and Junior shuddered and started wailing, louder than I’d ever heard before. Sounded like the wind howling in the trees during a hurricane. Sounded almost like she had stolen his soul.
I grabbed for Junior, pushing Sarah aside roughly, paying no mind to her body falling to the floor with a thud and squish. I cradled him close to me, touching him everywhere, holding the damp conjure bag against his head, saying the Our Father backwards and forwards under my breath until he quieted and smiled up at me, eyes bright and big. Too big.
“Sarah,” I whispered. “What did the conjure man make you do?”
Sarah’s body lay flat on the wood floor by my feet. Dark liquid began pooling beneath her head, but she pointed her hand at Junior, fingers flexing and reaching up like she was doing the kind of juju that came straight from the devil. Same as all those times she’d come to me, right as each of my babies changed and I had to put them out of their misery, reaching her hand out as I held them tight. Same as she’d opened her arms to Junior. Saving him, maybe, or maybe guiding him right to the water that would swallow him whole.
I stepped back and she grabbed for my ankle, her hands as cold and damp as ice left out to sweat. I shook her off, holding Junior closer. I wouldn’t drop him. I wouldn’t let her touch him. He was my perfect boy. I opened my mouth to ask her why, but as I looked down, it was right there in her eyes, in the way they glinted in the light. Conjure man had gotten to her, messed with her soul. Just like he said – snake season.
I put Junior back in his crib and grabbed Sarah with both hands, squeezing tight, ignoring the cold shivers running down my spine and the liquid running down her back, staining her perfect yellow dress a dingy brown. She reached towards Junior again, but I jerked her away, carried her through the living room and out of the front door as she dripped on my feet.
“I don’t care what conjure man’s whispering on the wind,” I said, as if she was going to answer. “You can’t let him get you.”
She just giggled.
I shook her limp frame, hard, and the conjure bag swung free, hitting her in the side of her tiny face. The leather hissed as it touched her and a high keening cry came from her mouth. Back in the house, Junior began to wail again, and the two sounds mixed together like a banshee’s chorus.
“Stop it!” I wrapped my hands around her throat. Somehow, even as I squeezed, she screamed louder, her voice deeper than any child has a right to have, drowning out Junior’s cries. This was no child of mine. Not anymore.
I gripped tighter. Her arms and legs twitched as if she had been bitten by an adder, and her eyes bulged like fat grapes ready to pop off of a summer’s vine. Her cries grew louder, and a coyote yowled back from somewhere downriver, as if it planned to come to her rescue. I heard the conjure man’s whistle from far off, high and taunting.
Shoulda opened that door, Marie. Shoulda let me in.
I ripped the conjure bag from around my neck, shoving it into Sarah’s mouth as she tried to bite me. This time, I didn’t hesitate. I pinched her nose between my forefingers and held the bag in her mouth with the palm of my hand, felt an icy chill in my fingers that seemed to race through my bones like a bolt of lightning. Her body jerked as she tried to wriggle away, but I held on tighter, squeezed harder, ignored the pain in my shoulders and legs and face, let her feet slam into my thighs and her fingers slash at my cheeks until her limbs went limp and the only cry left was Junior’s.
I dropped her body on the landing and crossed back to the bedroom where Junior screamed, picked him up with my still-cold hands and bounced him on my shoulder until he grew quiet. I cradled his sleeping form in my arms, looking down as he breathed in and out. With each breath, his eyes bulged as if they wanted to break free from his face. Even as I held him closer, rocking him back and forth, I felt his arms droop down towards the floor, his head shrink into his neck. I tried not to drop him as I put him back in his crib. I knew what that meant. I knew better than anyone.
I walked outside. Sarah lay there on her back, unmoving, conjure bag in her mouth. She looked so innocent—plaits spread out behind her head like a pronged halo, her face still as if she was dreaming, her closed eyes protruding only slightly from her tiny face. But the devil came in many guises. I reached my hand out carefully, waiting for her to open her eyes, sit up, grab at me with her long arms. She didn’t move. I nudged her body with my foot. It would be easy enough to push her over, let her sink into the seepage waters, but even now, I couldn’t kick my little girl.
This time, I felt no rush of cold as I lifted her, just her wet back and the weight in my arms. As I stood holding her, the new baby kicked out, hard. A reminder of what needed to be done.
Sarah’s body barely splashed as it hit the water, but it sunk fast. I made the sign of the cross as she disappeared into the murk.
“May your spirit rest, little girl,” I said. “And this time, stay dead.”
I turned and walked back into the house. The new baby seemed to walk with me, dancing along as I crossed over to the crib. Maybe, with Sarah gone, Junior would be different. Maybe his head would be as big as it should be, his arms as small. Maybe his eyes would be set back in his head like before. Maybe he would be my perfect boy. Even now, sitting in the crib, he seemed no worse than normal. His eyes were just a little large, his head a little small, his arms a little long.
Still, I knew the truth. Junior was a monster now too.
I prayed over Junior until the sun went down, chanting things I’d heard my Mama say, lighting sage in every corner of the house, holding him close against my chest. It made no difference. Never had. Conjure man would come tomorrow morning, tell me he’d made everything right, that he’d take Junior off somewhere far off to be somebody else’s child, but I wouldn’t let him. He’d already taken one of my babies, and he had no right. I’d taken care of Sarah all on my own. I always took care of things on my own. That was the way of things.
I kissed the top of Junior’s head and picked him up for one last tight squeeze. His cheek rested against the conjure bag, but he didn’t seem to notice. He was too far gone.
“I love you, Junior,” I said, cradling him in my arms as I walked out into the moonlit night. “Goodbye.” The splash this time was gentle, echoing through the air soft and delicate, like a child playing in a wash basin. It was Ray’s voice that cut through the air.
“What in the hell are you doing?” The moon was three-quarters full, so I could see his broad shoulders as he dove into the water after Junior. He didn’t understand.
I stopped at the edge of the porch and grabbed at my belly. I couldn’t go in the water like this, not even to save him. All I could do was watch him go under and come up, under and come up, arms and legs kicking and flailing, until he grabbed at the porch and pulled himself onto the wood planks.
“What did you do?” The words barely made it out through the gasping and the coughing as he sprawled on the deck. Just like Sarah.
“It was conjure man’s fault,” I said. “You sent him here and he had Sarah turn Junior, just like the others. You sent him to take my babies away.”
“Like the others,” he said back to me, like he’d never heard the words before.
“I had to let him go, Ray,” I said. “But I took care of Sarah, and the new baby, he’s going to be perfect. I took care of it. I took care of everything.” Ray shook his head, hard and fast, like he was having a fit, water drops flipping off his body as he shivered in the moonlight.
“Conjure man told me come home,” he said, voice like a summer night’s breeze.
“Conjure man’s the one done it,” I said. “He made Sarah turn Junior. Probably turned all the other babies wrong too, tried to take them away.”
“Turned all the babies wrong.” His face twisted, like he was tasting the words and there was something sour in every bite. “Turned Junior.”
I nodded, but he didn’t move from his spot on the deck, just reached out for my belly with the tips of his fingers.
“I thought we were just unlucky,” he said. “Whatever folks kept telling me.” I shook my head and reached down for his fingers, but he pulled them back and I couldn’t reach.
“Marie, I saw his face,” he said. “Junior’s. Before he went in the water. It was as perfect as the day he was born.”
“No, he was broken,” I said, “Like Sarah. You remember Sarah, right? You told me to take care of her and I did and Junior too. I did like you asked me.”
Ray didn’t answer, just rolled away from me, eyes wide, moon glinting off of his wet skin. The baby kicked—once, twice, three times—telling me the truth. I could see it right there, in my Ray’s eyes. Conjure man had gotten to him just like Sarah, twisted his mind the way he twisted those babies’ bodies. I stepped forward to see if I could get the bad juju out of his body, but he jerked back from my hand just like Sarah had, and I knew. I had to do what needed to be done.
Didn’t take but a second to go ‘round back for the shovel, the one Ray used to bury Sarah just beneath the ground. I half-thought he’d be gone when I came back, half-thought I’d hear the conjure man’s whistle on the wind as he came for my soul. But Ray just lay there on the deck, shoulders shaking, like he knew what was coming. I stood staring at his quivering back, thinking maybe I should go inside, latch the door, leave him be. But the baby kicked again, and I couldn’t argue with that.
“Don’t you worry, sweetheart,” I said softly. “Mama’s taking care of things.” It wouldn’t take more than a swing. My belly was big, but my arms had always been plenty strong.
Took a few weeks for Ray’s body to wash up, three miles down the bayou. Conjure man was the one who came and told me, sprinkling salt over his shoulder all the while, moving from foot to foot like my front porch was made of fire, trying to whisper his way through my door. I kept it closed, said ten Hail Marys, told him he wasn’t touching my new baby boy. Once you get a snake out your house, you don’t let it back in.
The new baby, Little Junior, was big and healthy, tucked into a crib packed full of hand-me down blankets and baby toys, surrounded by a pack of good women ready to lend a helping hand. Good folks always take care of a woman whose husband died trying to make it home to her the very night she lost her baby boy. They visit every day and bring food and hand-me-down toys and stroke my arm and say Poor Marie. Ray might’ve been gone, but the house didn’t feel so empty any more.
Not for me and my perfect little baby boy.