Chapter 15 (From Bongo Jack, a novel in progress)
The road to Root Mary's was little more than tire ruts winding back along a
field road and through a large thicket very near the bank of the river. Jack
bounced along in the middle of the front seat of Cleotis' pickup, wedged in
between the old driver and Claudie Longwood, Jr., who let it be known that
he always "rode shotgun" when he traveled. Jack was still sore from the
beating he had taken; breathing deeply still caused pain around his short
ribs on the right side. No wonder, since those ribs had been kicked in
almost to his lungs. And he felt that former displacement with every jolt up
through the seat of the old pickup.
"How you doin' boy?" asked Claudie. "You be hurtin' bad? Here, have a taste
uh good stuff, it good medicine." He handed Jack the Mason jar of white mule
Cleotis had brought to him. "Don't drank too much though. We show up drunk
an' Root Mary work hoodoo on all our asses an' runs us off!"
"I'm OK. Still just a little stiff," said Jack. He took the jug and drunk a
small sip of the fiery liquid. Just that small amount took his breath.
Cleotis said, "She be double run mule. She kick yo' ass good, 'cause that
real whisky, boy!" Cleotis wasn't a big drinker, according to what Claudie
had told Jack. But this night he'd had a couple of big pulls on the mule jug
and Jack could see him smiling, as Claudie would say, like a knocked down
possum. "I sho does feel good!"
"Damned sure is powerful whiskey. Whew. Don't know that I'm man enough to
drink it, tell the truth." Jack thought he could detect the faint odor of
kerosene swimming around in the powerful odor emanating from the jar. He
recalled homemade whiskey he bought as a youth back in Tennessee, how it was
sometimes cut with a bit of kerosene to add extra bite.
Claudie laughed, a cackle that spilled out the open cab window and into the
hot and sticky night. "Hell, boy, that stuff burn the hair off'n yo' nut
sack-that is if'n Miss Janetta ain't done rubbed it all off anyhow."
"I bet she done done it," Cleotis said. Jack was glad it was near midnight
so the high red on his cheeks wouldn't show.
"I'm still pretty much in one piece," Jack replied, laughing through his
embarrassment. He was more embarrassed because the old men's suspicions had
so recently been made fact, after all the time he'd spent with her. Right
now nothing was very certain. He liked where he was at the moment with the
woman, but that was about the size of it. He had no idea of where the path
ahead led them, if indeed it led anywhere.
Jack wasn't even certain about what they were up to this night. Trying to
settle scores by working black magic on someone sounded too crazy to even
consider and, if it was possible, too dark and evil to consider. And yet he
knew that the law would never deal with Lester, that so far as the cops were
concerned it was a done deal. Lester's daddy owned the sheriff just like he
owned anything else he wanted. And so he let Claudie Longwood, Jr. talk him
into meeting with the old black woman, whom Claudie said had more power than
any courthouse full of white lawmen.
Claudie had told him, "She don't like white folk too much, boy, so y'all let
me do the talkin', heah now? She see you a friend uh mine it be OK. Me an'
ol' Mary, we goes back a ways. Way back, if'n you knows what I mean. She do
this fo' me, I know it. She put that debil in his place. He won't be messin'
with you no mo'."
Claudie had told him Root Mary was a "conjure woman" who could do a "job of
work" on a body. She toted something called a "nation sack," a bag of red
flannel, under her dress. The bag, also called a mojo hand, held magical
items that protected the old woman. She could, according to Claudie, work
magic with roots and bones and other things only she knew about. She could
cross a man or throw a spell on him.
Jack had heard some of the terms, like mojo and nation sack, used in old
blues songs, but he didn't believe in that stuff. There was no way anybody
could use roots and chicken bones and incantations to cast spells on another
person. It was all the shit of myth and lore, that kind of thing. Things
slaves brought from Africa and passed on to ancestors in the southern states
and in the Caribbean. It wasn't difficult to imagine that in another time,
where the practitioners were abused property of other men, great consolation
might have been found in attempts to destroy torments by such means.
But he figured what the hell, if it would give Claudie some satisfaction he'
d go along with it. Nothing gained or lost either way. In fact, Claudie
seemed to be more upset by the beating than he was himself. Maybe it was
because of the way Claudie had been pushed around most of his life, forced
to conform to preexisting ideas just to survive. If life still wasn't a bowl
of cherries for an old black man living on pension in the South, it was far
better than it had been in the olden days.
Jack knew that Claudie had lived through the times of back door only
entrance, of "white only" signs on water fountains and restrooms, the back
seats of busses. He'd heard his own parents speak of the movie theater in
the little town where they were born and how blacks were consigned to half
of the balcony, and were forced to use a separate entrance to get there. If
they wanted popcorn they had to come back down the stairs out to the
sidewalk in front and have it brought out the door to them. Even as a kid
Jack had felt there was something very wrong in that.
He couldn't begin to imagine how such discrimination might affect a person,
but he knew it had to in a severe and lasting way. He recalled something he
had read years ago, written by a black author named Louis Lomas: The
white man had better learn to love before the black man learns to hate.
And yet Claudie didn't appear to hold a grudge against white society in
general. Jack got the idea that maybe Claudie held his wrath for the whites
who, were things different today, would certainly own all the slaves money
could buy. People like Lester's father, who he said called blacks nigger
without a second thought, and indeed, most times without even thinking he
was doing a disservice to anyone. To many people, the way things have always
been are the way they are meant to stay forever.
Having grown up in the South, Jack knew that was a problem widespread among
the older people, those who had spent much of their developing years in an
atmosphere of segregation. It wasn't so much that most of the older people
hated blacks. It was simply that many had no respect for them and no
expectations of them. When word spread that some black about town had gotten
into trouble, the whites would grin in that well, what do you expect way.
They didn't know any better, so they were supposed to fuck up. You couldn't
really blame them, but of course you had to punish them.
Jack said, "Are you sure this is a good idea? What's this woman going to
think if we just show up this late?"
Cleotis laughed. "Hell, boy, she done know we comin'. Root Mary know ever'
thang, blind's she is. She be waitin' right now."
The lone headlamp on the old pickup broke through the saplings and
illuminated a small clearing. In the faint glow of the light, Jack could see
a weathered and leaning structure that looked much like the shed he'd been
spending his nights in. A kid goat chained to a tree near the shed raised
its head and bleated loudly and chickens ran around in the bare dirt yard
exposed in the headlight.
A faint and flickering yellow light showed through the two windowpanes. Jack
could not tell if the light came from a lantern or candles, but he thought
that all scene needed to score big in a horror movie was for someone to come
lurching into the yard wearing a hockey mask and toting an ax. He suddenly
became about twice as uneasy as Cleotis shut off the truck engine and
headlight and plunge the world into virtual darkness, save the faint yellow
Claudie said, "C'mon, y'all." He opened the door and slid out of the pickup.
"Watch yo' step, might be some big cotton mouths crawlin'. Damn place et up
That was less than reassuring to Jack. Cottonmouth moccasins were among the
more venomous reptiles and, unlike some snakes, could be very aggressive.
Jack remembered how he and a cousin were once fishing on Kentucky Lake as
youngsters and the war they raged with boat paddles to keep a large moccasin
from climbing aboard their jon boat. Several times the snake, thick as a man
's forearm, got a start over the top of the gunwale but each time they
managed to knock it away. The fought it all the way to the rocky back and,
once ashore, the enraged snake came up after them. It was stopped only by a
very large rock they dropped on it.
They were about halfway across the yard when the door creaked open.
Silhouetted against the faint glow was the form of a tiny woman, who
appeared to Jack to be somewhat less that five-feet tall. She had a red
bandana tied around her head and her arms, like darkened twigs, waving
around out in front of her. Jack wondered if she was casting some kind of
spell on them right then.
"Y'all got a white man." she said. "What's y'all doin' Claudie Longwood,
brangin' a white man here. Y'all knows better! You knows I ain't got much
use fo' white folk."
"I thought you said she was blind," Jack whispered to Cleotis. The old man
snorted. "She damn blind, but she jes knows, boy, she jes knows thangs."
"Hol' on, Mary," said Claudie. "This white boy a friend of me'n Cleotis, he
a good boy." They had stopped about ten feet from the old woman.
"Ain't too many good white folk I know of," she said. Her voice was high
pitched and cracked. She appeared to be at least a hundred years old.
"Maybe we should just leave," Jack said to Claudie. "I don't think this is
too good an idea." Jack figured if the old lady somehow knew they were
coming, she ought to also know why they were there. That seemed proof enough
to him that it was all a scam.
"He the boy got whupped, I knows who he is," the old lady said, as though
she had read his mind. "He don't thank I know that, but I does. I know who
whup him too. An' I don't got no newspaper nor radio."
"You still de magic conjure woman, Mary," said old Claudie. "Lawd knows you
The old woman finally invited them inside her shack, cautioning that they
should mind where they stepped and not knock over any of her things. Once
inside, Jack noticed that the place was far less appealing than Claudie's
little house. There were sheets of lined notebook paper tacked to both
sidewalls and upon them were odd scribbles and forms. The yellow light
emanated from a kerosene lantern that sat on a small kitchen table in the
far end of the one-room structure. The old lady's narrow bed was against the
west wall. It was covered with a red chenille bedspread, the kind with
little fuzzy balls hanging down all around the edge. The room smelled of
something salty, perhaps like bacon fried too hot and fast in an old
Looking at the old lady, it was easy to see why she was virtually blind. Her
eyes were covered with cataracts, appearing almost like mother of pearl in
the faint light. She could probably see a bit of light and maybe vague form,
Jack figured, but no detail whatsoever. But she fooled Jack.
"You ain't need seed nobody what got the eye film, boy?" she asked,
obviously addressing Jack. She was staring right at him.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to stare. I didn't know you could see
me, to tell you the truth."
"They be more to seein' than eyes," said the old woman. "They be ways to see
the eyes can't find."
"I believe that, " said Jack. And he did.
Indeed, he was suddenly beginning to wonder just how silly all this was. It
was obvious that the old woman has some kind of power he didn't understand.
There was no other way to explain her knowing who he was, or for her to even
know he'd been staring at her.
"I reckon you knows why we here," Claudie said.
"I reckon I does," Mary replied.
"Can you help us?"
"I reckon I might--though I ain't throwin' no dead spell on nobody."
Claudie laughed. "We don't wan' no dead spell throwed, we jes wan' dem what
done the boy dis way to suffer a mite."
"It that Lester Dykus an' two other fellers," said the old woman. "Dey whup
the boy while he asleepin'. Dey sorry peckerwoods and dey cowards too. High
shuff knows it dem too, but he ain't 'bout to do nothin' 'bout it."
The old woman told them she could put a hex on the culprits, but it wouldn't
be too powerful. She could cause them some misfortune. In order to hex em
bad, like ruin their finances or love life, she had to have something
personal from the victims.
"I do the little job of work on 'em first," she said. "Dat don't get dey
'ttention, we goes on a bit mo'."
Old Mary smiled, like she was enjoying herself. Jack thought about such
power and wondered why the government hadn't harnessed it, why nations didn'
t use it to even scores with other nations. Why rich men didn't buy it, or
the people who possessed it, to give them total power.
"We sees what happen," Claudie said. "C'mon, boys, les git goin'."