The house was dark. Curtains drawn, the room illuminated by candles. In one corner, dolls suspended from the ceiling danced within shafts of light. A table with a dark tablecloth held an array of decanters, which Ella believed were full of wild and cruelsome things.
"What do you think?" the conjure woman asked.
Ella shrugged. "You don't look like a witch."
The conjure woman smiled. "But I can cast a spell just the same." She crossed the room. "So you have a beautiful gift as well."
Ella stared at the conjure woman. Even though she was pretty, Ella knew children threw rocks at her house and called her nasty names. Ella knew the women in the community refused to talk to her unless necessary and that they denied their men the opportunity as well. Ella knew people ignored the conjure woman until and unless they had no hope pumping through their veins, no prayers they could force from their lips, no gods left to whom they could turn.
"I don't want no gift," Ella sputtered.
"You are a child of Luck. Be glad."
Ella grunted. Be glad to be despised? The conjure woman's intense look first mesmerized Ella, and then it frightened her. Ella let that fear churn inside itself until it became rage. She turned away, her attention caught again by the assembly of glass containers. Snared in the force of her emotions, she raised her arm, then quickly brought it down, whisking the bottles onto the floor. She rushed from the house, leaving the door open. For a long while it seemed she could still hear the conjure woman calling out to her, telling her she'd regret her anger, that unless she accepted her beautiful gift, she'd be sorry.
She never told her husband any of this. He was an educated and sensible man. Raised in Louisiana, he despised what he termed "voodoo ignorance." So Ella never revealed her "gift," wanting her husband's love, not his contempt. When things happened, she dismissed what she could, and attributed to chance, circumstance or coincidence, that which she could not.
Ella returns to the table.
"You ain't gonna eat?" Ramsey asks.
She shakes her head. "You know working round food fills me up. But you work on what you got." She is still thinking. Ella watches Ramsey push the plate away when he's done, watches the way he arranges the salt and pepper shakers in one place and then moves them to another. She asks, "You ever get around to learning to play chess?"
He tells her no.
Ella thinks, "Too bad," and perhaps this shows in her face, because Ramsey tells her, "I'm not convinced all your hunches mean something."
"What would convince you?" she asks, willing to give it to him if she can.
He shrugs before he leans back in the chair. "So, how long, exactly, have you been able to know the future?" His tone still mocks.
"Since I was a child."
"And did things always come true?"
"Some things, of course, didn't because I was able to stop them."
"But the other times — things happened like you saw them?'
"As far as I know."
"Meaning you don't know 100 percent?"
Ella thinks on it. Many times, she was too afraid to investigate her visions, too afraid to allow herself to confirm the outcome. But she does not tell Ramsey this, although she does tell him the truth of it: "I don't know 100 percent. No, I don't."
"So maybe, it's nothing. I mean if these feelings really meant something, then you would have known about Daddy, right?" He waits for her response.
"Yes," she says, "I would have."
"You gonna be home early tonight, right?" Ella asked her husband as he stepped into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator.
"Uh-huh," he said, retrieving a carton of milk and closing the door. "Ramsey's class is performing at seven; we will be in the audience at six." As he passed his wife, he kissed the side of her head.
There was a stinging sensation where his lips had been. Ella was momentarily dazed, then she looked at her husband. A burning rose within her. She turned her attention to the glass he was filling with milk. The feeling passed. She looked at her husband again. Heat generated beneath her cheeks.
"You okay?" her husband asked.
Ella turned from him, her stomach queasy. "I'm okay," she replied. She snuck another glance at him and there the feeling ignited again.
"You sure you're okay?" her husband asked again, his hands on her shoulders. The burning danced wildly from her neck to the tip of her fingers. Wrestling herself from his grip, she told him she was all right, her reply a bit sharp, and her husband eyed her questionably, but he went on, which was what she wanted.
She needed to think.
The feeling, intense and penetrating, stayed with her throughout the day, materializing only, however, when she thought of her husband. There was a connection between him and the ropes and the burning, though she tried to convince herself otherwise. Still throughout the day, she found herself calling his job to see how he was.
Her anxiety and fears dissipated when, at the day's end, he was again in her presence, unharmed. With a sense of relief, she took his hand and found she could smile because she felt only warmth. Later, following their son's program and ice cream sundaes, Ella thought herself silly and laughed lightly to herself as she and her husband readied themselves for bed, their child already asleep.
"Well, then," Ramsey says, his face breaking out in a grin. "There's the proof it's not 100 percent."
If she had paid attention, surely she would not have been so smug as she laid her head on the pillow, the weight of her husband's body next to her own. If she had paid attention, perhaps she would not have given the conjure woman a thought and said silently, "I'm glad now — glad I was wrong." She would have known her husband's friend would come by, asking for a lift. Would have known her husband, not wanting to disturb his wife, would leave without a word. Would she have allowed herself to know that the two men would get into a senseless argument with some other men, that her husband and his friend would lose the encounter?
The ropes returned, but this time they danced around something. Twisting and intertwining themselves about a body, suspended in air. Bound it tight. It was the yank of the noose, which jerked her upright.
She took a sharp breath when her husband's face appeared before her. Through the darkness, her hand reached . . .
Scrambling out of the bed, she rushed through the house, opening doors. The front and back doors. Closet doors. The pantry. Calling to him in distress until her voice became a howl, waking her son.
Ella stared into space momentarily and then closed her eyes, seeing her husband one last time. She did not allow herself the vision long, opening her eyes before the flames devoured him.
The little boy stirred and turned himself around, crawling towards his mother. "Daddy home yet?"
Holding out her arms, Ella hushed him and slowly rocked him back to sleep.
"Cause there's no way you wouldn't have known— not with the way you felt about Daddy." But, she cannot overcome the dread in her heart that should she confess, she will lose her son's love and she is unwilling to risk it, as she would not risk her husband's.
Ella searches her son's face.
She never was able to teach him how to hook those minnows on correctly. So much for young boy, growing up without a father.
Ella searches her son's face. If she could know that he would not hold her in contempt, she would tell him the truth about his father. If she could know that Ramsey's heart held forgiveness, she would let that story take them long into the morning. Maybe he'd lose his stubborn ways, just this one night.
"It's just a feeling, Ramsey," she says, "but it's awfully deep."
"I told you I gotta do something for Frankie. He's counti —" Ramsey begins, but witnessing his mother's tears, he falls silent.
Ella takes a breath, wipes at her cheeks. She never wanted to have to tell him, but she will, she decides. She may lose him, but she'll keep him alive. It takes something beyond her to help her meet his gaze. "There's something I've got to tell you . . ."
A waitress steps in. "Ella," she says, "Can you help us a moment?'
Ella looks from her son's face to the waitress, then back to Ramsey. Back to the waitress. "Cain't it wait?"
"Mama, jut go," Ramsey coaxes her. "You don't wanna get in trouble with your job."
Ella stares at her son good and hard. "I'll be right back," she tells him. "It's important what I got to say," she adds, standing. "You just wait right here." Ella makes a quick return following the errand, but standing in the passageway, she is met by an empty table.
Ramsey's plate has been rinsed clean and it sits by the sink, a piece of paper rests on the formica and the back door is open.
Ella picks up the note and reads.
"Daddy would've wanted me to fix this fair. I know you said it's important what you've got to tell me so I'll be over early tomorrow, Mama. I'll even let you make me breakfast— but grits, not rice," her son has scribbled.
Ella rushes to the door. "Ramsey!" she calls into the alley. She waits for the response that does not come. Unable to focus, Ella doubles over, the screen door trembling in her hand. A guttural moans escapes her lips.
She doesn't know where he's heading.
Moments pass and she tries to focus on something. Ella's attention turns to the sky.
It is a brilliant night.
She takes a breath and closes her eyes.
It will not matter if Ramsey has been stabbed or shot. He will find himself on an abandoned street, beneath a lamp, his life draining. He will struggle to turn over, the advice of his mother lucid in his mind —You ever find yourself flat on your back, you look up. Just keep looking up. And he will do that, and then, he will laugh, yes, laugh to himself as he ponders his mother's caution.
Mama, he will say, the word trembling across his lips.
His attention will be caught by the clear sky, the myriad of stars gleaming, and he will recall how, when he was a child, his mother would take him up on the roof of their shabby apartment building, a secondhand telescope and used astronomy book in tow. How night after night, they did this until he knew the constellations in the summer sky, the winter sky.
Seeking a familiar cluster of light and finding it, Ramsey will work his way across the heavens, naming every luminous point within each constellation visible, and even those not, until the moment his eyes dim. She can hear him already.
Cassiopeia the Queen. Orion the Hunter. Pegasus. . .
Tears burning against her lids, Ella wishes her son a million stars. And nothing less.
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