A woman able to communicate with spirits must assemble a ragtag crew to pull off a daring heist to save her community in this timely and dazzling historical fantasy that weaves together African American folk magic, history, and romance.
Some folks say, it wasn’t just being born with a caul that made Clara Johnson ornery as a red hornet, it was being born at the crossroads. Her spirit, unlike most, had a choice to make right there at the beginning. Cold or hot, salty or sweet, lion or lamb. She came into this world through one of the forks in the road and Clara being Clara, she chose the rockier way.
See, her mama and daddy was migrating up North from Gastonia, North Carolina, riding in the back of a wagon with her grandmother and two other distant kinfolk from down that way, when her mama’s water broke. They was about to cross the Virginia state line, just outside a place called Whitetown, which didn’t give nobody in that vehicle a good feeling, when they had to pull over to the side of the road—one of those roads that no colored person wanted to be on at night—just so that gal could push that baby out.
Her mama was hollering up a storm and her daddy was holding a shotgun in one hand and his woman’s hand in the other when he first caught sight of his baby girl—a slippery little thing covered head to toe with the birthing sac. Mama Octavia pushed her son aside and did what needed to be done, freeing the child so she could breathe and making sure to wrap that caul up in a sheet of newspaper and put it in her satchel.
Everybody was breathing a sigh of relief that mother and child were healthy—for a first baby she came out smooth and quick without too much bleeding or tearing or anything like that. And then that baby got to screaming. It was like to wake the dead. In fact, it did shake loose a few spirits who’d been hovering over yonder, waiting on someone like Clara to come ‘round. And they’re more than likely to do their hovering closer to a crossroads than not.
Mama Octavia sat back as her son’s common law wife tried to hush the child, and the menfolk watched the darkened road for signs of trouble. She scanned what little she could see by the moonlight and the lantern-light and caught sight of a pile of ashes and wax someone had left in the center of the crossroads. A shiver went down her spine like someone walking over her grave.
She realized her mistake, that precautions should have been taken when a child was born this close to a fork, but it was too late to do anything about it, and she didn’t have the working of things the way her own grandmother had back there at Old Man Johnson’s plantation, so she said a prayer for the soul of her grandbaby, hoping the child’s little spirit had chosen well.
It wasn’t long before she, and everyone else, found out exactly what Clara Johnson was made of. Or just what else her birth had awakened.
Clara Johnson paced the sidewalk in tight, agitated circles, trying in vain to release some of the pent up anger welling within. “That pompous, arrogant, sonofabitch,” she muttered under her breath.
Her fingers coiled, pressing almost painfully against her palms, taut as the head of a drum with a tempting rhythm of rage beating against it. Like the thump, thump of fists meeting flesh.
Her grandmother’s voice chided in her head, You know you ain’t about to fight no grown man. Which might have been true, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t fantasize about kicking him in his family jewels and bruising up the face that the other girls in the office seemed to think was so handsome.
Footsteps sounded behind her, but wisely kept their distance. “Miss Clara?” a cautious voice sounded. She took a breath and turned slowly, grabbing hold of the trickle of calm that accompanied this distraction.
Young Samuel Foster stood watching her, more worry than wariness in his gaze. “Thought you’d left without me,” he said, breaking into a grin. Tall since his recent growth spurt, with an ebony complexion, the boy would be a heartbreaker in a few years.
Clara smiled back and shook out her clenched fists. “And deprive you of the pleasure of my company?” She let out an unladylike snort. “Let’s get going. Happy to leave this place behind for the weekend.”
Samuel chuckled and fell into step beside her, heading toward Rhode Island Avenue. “Dr. Harley nearly made you blow your top back there. I thought for sure you was gonna let loose on him.”
“Nearly did.” Thoughts of the man in question and his smug, punchable face almost made her turn back. “Still might.” Though higher on the food chain in the office than she, Harley wasn’t really her boss, but he took great pleasure in ordering her around with his nasally whine and treating her like warmed over trash. And while he had a good foot of height on her and probably one hundred pounds, he didn’t know how to fight dirty like she did. “I’m sure I could take him. He’d probably be afraid to scuff up his shiny brogans.”
Samuel shook his head, watching her carefully until the light changed, as if anxious she may really go back and start a fight. “Can’t let folks like that get to you none, the ones always trying to tear you down. Nothing gets built up that way.”
Clara turned sharply to look at him. From the mouths of babes.
That boy has more sense at fourteen than you do, her grandmother’s voice lamented.
Blinking under the force of her scrutiny, Samuel changed the subject. “Big plans for the weekend, Miss Clara?”
She exhaled slowly, her fit of pique now almost completely dissolved, replaced with a welling sadness she refused to show. “A stack of library books is waiting on me. What about you?”
“Shifts at Mr. Davis’s drugstore and making deliveries over at the print shop.” His chest puffed up with pride.
“Didn’t you hear, weekends are for resting?” She bumped him on the shoulder.
“Dead men can rest, until then I got to work. Got me some big dreams, Miss Clara.” And a handful of younger brothers and sisters all relying on the paychecks from his various jobs, but he didn’t mention that so neither did she.
“I ain’t forgot,” she said instead. “You gonna own one of these businesses on U Street. You figure out which one yet?”
He scratched his chin, considering. “Not quite yet. But I will.”
“You keep going the way you are and you’ll be working at each and every one of them.”
That infectious grin returned. “I’ll have one heck of a resume then.”
Clara admired the boy’s drive and determination—she wished she could borrow a little of it for herself. She was happy enough to have the one job. The big dreams she’d leave to him.
They chatted as they walked through the edge of the Washington, DC neighborhood once known as Hell’s Bottom. The intense poverty and crime had faded to the edges, now the streets were well-maintained and safe, filled with a wide range of Negroes battling the August heat. Here were folks coming home from a long day of work whether in an office or labor yard, going to change, eat, and rest a bit before heading over to U Street for the evening. Maybe they’d take in a picture at the Lincoln or a band at Cafe De Luxe or maybe go dancing at the Palace. None of which Clara had ever done.
As usual, Samuel insisted on walking her to her door, though it took him several blocks out of his way. But he was resolute since it was the gentlemanly thing to do. After saying their goodbyes, he turned and ambled off, while Clara dug her key out from her purse.
The billiard parlor she lived above was still shuttered until later that evening. Miles, the owner, took Fridays off to “sleep in,” probably a good idea seeing as the place wouldn’t close again until Monday morning.
Miles was a friend of her daddy’s, and before he’d gone back down to North Carolina a few years ago, he’d asked the man to keep an eye on her. Miles owned the whole building and charged her a fair price for two rooms with heat and hot water, and though living here was often noisy, Clara had long ago been forced to learn to sleep through just about anything. The work-week was over and she wanted nothing more than a bath and her lumpy mattress. The heat and her receding anger had left her bone-tired. She turned the key in the door, ready to shut out the world for the weekend.
“Miss Johnson? Miss Clara Johnson?” Her shoulders tensed at the lilting voice calling her name. All she had to do was twist the doorknob and slip inside, pretend she hadn’t heard.
It could just be one of her neighbors—the voice was unfamiliar, but she had more of a ‘nod as you pass by’ relationship with them than a speaking one. Ruth Anne, the woman who ran the beauty parlor next door, often looked like she wanted to start a conversation. And it wouldn’t be too unusual for folks to know her name—every Negro in the city knew her name at one time.
But the questioning, halting tone to the voice made her almost certain this was no neighbor. The urge to slide inside the narrow vestibule and slam the door in the face of her would-be questioner was strong. However, the husky voice whispering in her mind minced no words. Gal, you better turn your narrow tail around and see what that young woman wants!
Clara sighed deeply, and pressed her forehead against the wood of the door.
I know you hear me talking to you, Clara Mae. Best not ignore me.
“Yes, ma’am,” she uttered under her breath and turned around.
The girl standing on the curb behind her looked like she’d been cut from the pages of a magazine. Her chestnut hair was smartly pressed and curled—immune it seemed to Washington’s formidable humidity—with a fashionable cloche hat perfectly positioned on her head.
Her face was somewhat plain, but you’d never know it from the way she carried herself. She looked several years younger than Clara, maybe eighteen or so, wearing a green silk dress and shiny patent leather Oxfords.
“Miss Johnson,” she said holding her hand out. “I’m Louise Wyatt, and I need your help.”
A stinging sensation nettled Clara, uncomfortable and insistent, locking her into action. It wasn’t due to the heat or the traffic, this was pure magic. She could not deny someone who came to her for help, that was the deal she’d made when she was about Louise’s age—and one she could never ignore. Guilt for something that hadn’t even happened yet attached itself to her like a suit of armor.
“Come inside then,” she grumbled and pushed the door open.
MISS LOUISE WYATT
Miss Louise Wyatt chattered all the way up the steps to the second floor apartment. She apologized for calling at the end of a work day, but this was an absolutely urgent situation and it just couldn’t wait for the weekend. Clara unlocked the door, a headache already blooming. She ushered the girl inside and set her purse down on the table. Next to it, a wooden folding cot rested against the wall with a dirty apron that would need a good bleaching to be white again draped across it.
The owner of the apron stood at the stove, measuring coffee grounds into the percolator. Louise entered and took a slow look around the small space, then froze at the sight of Zelda. “Oh my!” she said, blinking rapidly.
Used to reactions far more severe, Zelda struck a pose at the stove with her hand on her hip. She was dressed in a pair of sports knickers buttoned below the knee with striped socks and a man’s button up shirt. Her shock of fluffy, pale golden hair had been wrangled into a braid circling her head.
“Miss Wyatt, this is Zelda Coleman. I agreed to let her stay on my couch until she found a place of her own. That was six months ago,” Clara said wryly.
“Y-you have a white roommate?” Louise actually took a step back.
Zelda, taking perverse glee in this assumption bared her teeth in a frightening smile. “Why, I’m just as Colored as you are.”
Clara slipped off her shoes and wiggled her pinched toes before taking a seat on the couch. “She ain’t white, she’s an albino.”
Zelda crossed the space and sidled up to Louise to give her a good look. Her skin was pale as milk, but her broad features were unmistakably Negro. Brown eyes, in shocking contrast with her skin, ringed with blonde lashes glittered with amusement. Zelda held out her hand and Louise stared at it for a moment before blinking rapidly and offering her own to shake.
“Oh, how… interesting.” Louise’s complexion, a cool buttercream with plenty of warm undertones, was much closer to Zelda’s than to Clara’s. Her bearing and manner shouted a so-called better class of people than either Clara or Zelda could lay claim to. She probably ran in the same lofty circles as that jackass at work.
“What was it you needed help with, Miss Wyatt?”
It took a moment for Louise to extract herself from Zelda’s firm grip. She smiled nervously before perching on the seat of the wobbly armchair. “Please, call me Louise. You see, I—” She looked back toward the kitchenette, but Zelda had slipped out silently to give them privacy.
Louise took a deep breath. “There’s a young man. Robert.” A dreamy smile overtook her face. “And he was courting me.”
The air next to her shimmered and a diaphanous figure began to take shape. Clara ignored the spirit, focusing on Louise’s words. “He told me how much he loved me and well, I believed him.”
“That gal gave up the goodies is what she did,” a slightly hoarse voice announced. A sturdy body began to take shape, with arms crossed in disapproval.
“And?” Clara motioned for Louise to continue.
“Well, you see after we ah…” The girl blushed. “I was certain we were going to get married, so why bother waiting when it was practically all set up?”
“See? I told you.” The older woman’s face was now visible, though still somewhat translucent.
Louise wrung her hands. “But afterwards, he stopped calling on me. There was always some excuse.”
The spirit snorted. “Already got the milk, what he need the cow for?”
“Mama Octavia,” Clara said through clenched teeth. “I can’t listen to you both.”
“Um, Miss Johnson? Are you talking to me?”
Clara shook her head. “No, my grandmother has made an appearance.”
The girl’s eyes widened; her gaze skittered around the room.
“You are here because you know I can talk to spirits? Did you not think there would be some spirits hanging around?”
Louise’s lips moved but no words came out. Clara stood and crossed to the kitchenette to pour a cup of the coffee bubbling on the stove. “So is that what you came for? To get back your beau? Don’t seem like the type of man who’s reliable. Maybe you’re better off without him.”
When she turned around, coffee cup in hand, Louise was flustered, shaking her head back and forth. Clara really should offer the girl a cup, it was good manners and she wouldn’t hear the end of it from Mama Octavia, but they didn’t have much left. And Clara was the one who’d worked close to sixty hours that week, each and every one of them struggling not to put her foot where the sun don’t shine on that over-educated, highfalutin’ gum beater only to be interrupted by this foolishness when she really wanted to go to sleep.
“Oh, but he’s perfect,” Louise gushed. “Handsome and from the right family. He’s at Howard studying to be an engineer. And besides…” She looked down at her clenched hands. “I’m in a family way.”
Mama Octavia clucked her tongue and floated over to the window to peer through the sheer curtain, shaking her head the entire time. “These fast-tailed girls,” she muttered.
It seemed to Clara that the boys in these situations were just as fast, but she’d never heard her grandmother slander them. “How old are you?”
She dropped her head. “Seventeen.”
The coffee she’d just drank grew heavy in her belly. She placed the cup back on the counter. “Listen Louise, I don’t do love spells or potions, you should see Uncle Nazareth about that.”
“I don’t want to deal with that old witch doctor. I heard from Mamie Jackson, whose god-sister’s auntie said you helped her. And what you do really works. I need Robert back, Miss Clara, I just do.”
A weight settled around Clara’s heart as the girl went on.
“You’ve done so much for the community, helped so many people. And you bring hope. I mean, I was just a girl back during the rioting, but I remember—”
Clara held up a hand. “All right. I’ll do what I can, but you have to know there’s a cost. And it’s probably more than you want to pay. Not money—I don’t charge anything, but the spirits do. They require a hefty price.”
Louise nodded, her perfect curls bouncing. “I’d do anything to get him back, you just don’t know. If my daddy finds out, he’d be so disappointed in me. And he just might kill Robert. This baby needs a father, and I love him so much. And once we get married then everything will be right as rain.”
Clara doubted that, but as usual what warning she could give had fallen on deaf ears. “All right, follow me.”
Bone tired and uncomfortably sweaty with no breeze coming in through the open window, she led Louise to what should have been the coat closet. Instead, the tiny space held a stool and table—an altar, covered in candles of different colors and widths. Thick wax congealed on the surface of the wood. Colored fabric lined the walls including the ceiling.
Clara sat on the stool and motioned for Louise to stand behind her. With regret gripping her chest, she struck a match and began lighting candles. For the return of a lost love, the spirit she needed to call would have to be a romantic. Summoning an entity with the wrong temperament would lead to an even greater disaster.
“So how does this work?’ Louise whispered.
“I use the candles to invite an Enigma to come through to our world and hear your plea.”
“Some folk know them by other names. Genies, fairies, duppies, jumbies—they been called all kinds of things in different places. They’re powerful spirits who like to play in the human world, make mischief, grant wishes. We ask one of them and if they choose to, they’ll give you a gift—a Charm that will help you solve your problem. But they’ll also give you a Trick, and that’s something you won’t like so much. That’s the cost of their aid. The Trick is like a debt you owe them until they feel like they’ve been paid back. Are you sure you want to do this?”
A look of concern crossed Louise’s face, but then her hand drifted to her stomach, still flat as a board. “I’m sure.”
“Now once I start, it’s important that you stay quiet. No matter what happens, don’t make a sound unless I tell you too.” Wide-eyed, the girl nodded.
Clara turned back around and sighed. No getting around it then. She stared at the flame on a fat red and white striped candle. It burned steadily in a solid orange. Quieting her mind, she closed her eyes, but the vision of the flame blazed on in her mind. It danced, moving sinuously, slithering through the air like a snake. Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, tempting Eve with knowledge that would come with a dear price.
The veil between the world of humans and the world of the spirits, Over There, was always perilously thin for Clara, but during these meditations it shrank down to nearly nothing. The sense of the unseen was stronger. The presence of invisible bodies surrounded her, their world existing on top of her own.
She stretched her senses forward, seeking a spirit that felt like love. This was how she’d always done it, how Mama Octavia had taught her to. Find the Enigma who wanted what the petitioner wanted, that was the best way to mitigate the consequences of dealing with the beings at all.
An insistent presence made itself known, but this one was all wrong. Nettling and aggressive, it pushed itself at Clara, but she avoided its energy. Romance and tenderness was what the girl needed, not this tenacious beast. Again she focused on the qualities of the spirit she wanted to call until she felt a more appropriate entity grow nearer. The telltale tug of a connection made her jerk on her stool. Her eyes flew open and the fat candle in front of her sparked with a white flame, which grew higher and higher.
Clara held up a hand when she felt Louise move behind her. “Welcome. Who do I have the pleasure of speaking with?”
“I am called Lalin, though some know me as The Moon.”
Louise stiffened and brushed against Clara’s back. The surprise of hearing a voice coming out of a white flame would hopefully help keep the girl’s lips sealed.
“Our sister Louise Wyatt seeks the return of her lost love. She entreats you for your aid, Lalin.” Clara spoke slowly and clearly, choosing her words carefully. “Will you bring him back to her so that they may be married and raise their family together?”
A figure began to emerge inside the flame—a woman’s face. It was indistinct, just the suggestion of eyes, nose, and mouth, but it gazed to the side at Louise, who was now shaking.
“This is what you seek, child?” Lalin asked.
Clara turned her head. “Answer her,” she whispered.
The face of the Enigma retreated, falling back into the flame. The candle wax began pouring down faster than what was natural. The red and white rivulets bled like a jugular vein sliced open.
“And what will you give me in return?” the spirit’s voice turned teasing, almost flirtatious.
“You will get your Trick,” Clara said quickly before Louise could utter a word. “Your Trick and nothing more.”
“Very well then,” Lalin pronounced with a sigh, the faint mouth pursed in a pout. “I will grant your desire. Your love will return in three days, chastened and desirous of renewing his affection with you.”
While Louise’s excitement was palpable, Clara tensed, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“He will find you irresistible. In fact, all men will be entranced by your beauty. You will shine brighter than all other women.”
Clara’s heart sank even as Louise giggled with delight. “I’ve always wanted to be beautiful.”
“And the rest?” Clara asked, weary to her bones. “The Trick?”
Lalin chuckled ominously. “All will look upon you with desire, but none will ever truly have your heart.”
“That’s all right, all I want is Robert. I don’t have eyes for anyone else.”
“Is that your will, Lalin?” Clara’s voice was thick. Her dress was plastered to her back and she just wanted this over with.
“Then be it so.” Clara blew out the candles, ending the connection to the Enigma and sealing Louise’s fate. Smoke danced in trails up to the ceiling and scented the air.
“Please let me pay you,” Louise said, reaching into her purse. “I can’t thank you enough.”
“No, no money. I can’t take money.” Clara had a hard time looking the girl in the eye. Back in the main room, Mama Octavia still stood at the window, her back to them.
Louise hustled to the door, her eyes shining with tears. “Thank you again,” she said before leaving.
“Please don’t,” Clara whispered, staring at the closed door.
Zelda reappeared with a fresh cup of coffee and handed it to her. “How bad was it?”
Clara settled on the edge of the armchair, one leg swinging restlessly. “Her man will come back and marry her. And she’ll be irresistible to all other men—but none will truly have her heart.”
Zelda tilted her head in question.
“None.” Clara repeated. “That will include her future husband, I’m certain. He will love her, but she’ll never be satisfied with him. That’s her Trick. A life without love. Men competing for her attention, becoming jealous, promising her the world. Giving it to her even. But she’ll feel nothing.”
“Oh.” Zelda pursed her lips.
“That girl is in for a heaping of sorrow.”
Mama Octavia clucked her tongue and turned around. “You’re just giving her the same deal you got. It’s their choice to make it or not. Everyone has a choice.”
“Not always a good one,” Clara grumbled.
Zelda raised her brows but she’d long grown used to Clara’s habit of speaking to thin air.
“No,” Mama Octavia said sadly. “Colored folks don’t often get good choices, do we?”
Clara’s shoulders slumped. She went off to her bedroom knowing her grandmother spoke true. She couldn’t remember the last time she had a good choice.