Beguiling Mona

By M. Thomas, illustration by Nicole Cardiff

Nayessa's mother was a spider. Nayessa didn't know how this was true -- her mother had only the expected number of arms and legs -- but the old people in the neighborhood on Blue Cat Way said it was true, and they were old enough to know such things.

"You know your mother Mona? She's a spider, huh? She got a thousand webs, all weaving and stuff like she do."

Nayessa considered her mother normal in all the ways that counted. Mona was round, and kept her hair cut close to her head to show off her high, black brow and strong cheeks and the carved cocoa flesh of her lips. She wore enormous shirts and billowy pants, a necklace of cowry shells, and a cheap pair of large gold earrings that were so old the gold paint was flaking off, showing the slate gray of the metal underneath.

Her mother's one passion was her back yard. Mona swept the dirt daily, watered the yucca and cactus and sharp green mesquite tree once a week, at night, so the sun wouldn't suck up the water from them, and put empty bottles on the tips of the mesquite branches to catch bad spirits in. Pathways of broad stones circled the flat, swept earth courtyard in the middle -- each stone hand-painted black with white designs: some with spots, some with lines, some with strange animals and birds. They speckled the yard, and in the light of a full moon made other paths with their pale outlines.

"Here, Nay." Mona would hand her daughter a newly painted rock every Saturday night. "Go put this in the garden. But don't put it next to any jimmies or nanchas. Just put it next to one of the spotted ones."

And Nayessa would trudge out to the yard, placing the stone down in an empty space. Secretly, she hated her mother's garden and her place in its upkeep. Other people had grass and bushes and flowers -- Mona had dirt and rocks and bottles on tree limbs.

"Of all the fuck, Nay," her mother would sometimes sigh from the porch, come to oversee. With the way she slung her words into one another, it sounded like ovaldayfuck. "Don't point it east! I taught you nothing, you don't know not to point it east?"

Nayessa would roll her eyes, reposition the stone, and go back inside where her mother would tug on one of her braids, grin at her, and say, "You still mad at me that I didn't buy you that blue eye shadow, huh? That why you point that old rock east?"

Sometimes it was blue eyeshadow. Sometimes it was cheap shoes, or shopping excursions where designer labels were profanity to Mona. Sometimes it had nothing to do with Mona at all -- rather it was the loneliness of an Ashanti accent that the other children mimicked, giggling, or the emptiness of a lunch table where no one would sit with her.

Nayessa would resist until her mother put her hand against Nay's cheek; a platter of rough flesh cradling a small and delicate jaw. That was the only time Nayessa smiled. This had been true since she came to America, four years ago, with Mona. It seemed to Nayessa that her smile was full of dangerous power -- the uplifting of cheeks, the parting of lips, the baring of teeth, the revealing of soul -- and sometimes it frightened her. However much she smiled, it never brought anyone to her lunch table; sometimes it seemed to chase them away. So she put her smiles in her mother's hand, where she knew they could do no damage; where she knew they would be safe.

It was on a Wednesday in late September that the Hollower came. Nayessa knew about the Hollowers, though she had never specifically been told about them. What she knew, mostly, was that her mother chased them away from Blue Cat Way. Every night, after dinner, she and her mother went for a walk around the neighborhood. On these walks, Mona always brought her black cane with the bird's-head handle, though she didn't need a cane to walk. Instead, she tapped the cane as they went up and down the old sidewalks with the weeds jutting up from between stones, tap-tapping out not so much a rhythm as a pattern.

"Halala, halala," Mona would pray to herself, bringing the tip of the cane down at the foot of someone's mailbox. "Halala, your mama's ring rolled under the couch, Fanchon Jones. Last night when you brought that man home from the bar, and your two babies sleeping only in the next room. Halala, tomorrow when you find that ring, you should go get that job at the law offices you looked at. They need a good office manager, and you're the best, and this messing around with men won't last long. Halala, you got babies to think about, and that job got a dental plan. Halala."

"Halala, Loose Maria, your husband ain't as dead as you think. Tomorrow he going to give you a sign, halala. He still loves you, and I know you love him, though you won't say it even now he's dead. Halala."

And so it went, down the street: Mona poking and prodding into lives she understood just by looking at the way their porches leaned, the way their yards dried up, the way their cars rusted.

One night she stopped outside the house of Blanca Escovides, and peered at it. Nayessa could hear the screaming from inside, the voices of Little Blanca and her husband Tanito raised in argument, the sounds of Blanca's three children weeping. It made Nay want to crawl up into her mother's skin; sit safe somewhere in the folds of her belly.

"Halala," Mona said, her shoulders slumping as she slowly tap-tapped on Blanca's driveway. "You go on, Tanito, you old Hollower's child. You go on, halala. We don't need none of your kind here." He-ah, she said, like it was some strange country.

After that night Tanito never came back to Blanca's house, and it couldn't be said that anyone missed him.

There was only one house Mona did not drive the Hollowers from. It was the house on the corner, the one that had been remodeled with tall windows full of single sheets of glass; that had lilies in the garden though they couldn't survive the summer heat; that had a pebbled driveway and glass lanterns lining the walk to the front door. That house and its occupants were new to Blue Cat Way. They had shiny cars, and shiny clothes, and a pretty little boy who sat on the front porch and smiled beautifully whenever Nayessa went by, all the while calling out "neeggur, neeggur, neeggur" at her.

Nayessa hated him. He was golden, and gifted, and never suffered the indignities of a dry yard nor an unintelligible accent. Nayessa's mother would pause outside the beautiful house on their evening walks, look into the well-lit parlor with its glass vases and perfect portraits, and shake her head.

"Of all the fuck," she would say. "Can't get a figure on them. Can't weave until I do. Seem like something so shiny should be good, but . . . I think those people going to bring a Hollower right to us. I sure like those drapes though. And the built-in bookshelves."

On that particular Wednesday in September, Nay caught sight of the boy peeking at them through the front window. His lips spread wide, then pursed. Spread wide, then pursed. She could hear him as if through the glass itself.

Neeggur, neeggur, neeggur . . .

"I don't care if the Hollowers do come," she said. "They deserve it."

Her mother turned to stare at her. Then she smacked Nay on the leg with her cane.

"Halala, she didn't mean it!"

She poked Nay on the shoulder with the cane, so that it stung a little.

"Halala, she didn't mean it!"

She poked Nay on the other arm, and the other leg, each time saying the same thing, until Nay felt the tingle of Mona's cane all over, radiating out to heat her. Not quite fire, but something close, something fierce and protective. Then Mona pulled Nayessa to her and hustled her home, casting her eyes about at the growing darkness.

When they got home, Mona made Nayessa bathe. The places where she had been struck with the bird's-head cane had no marks on them, though they still stung. After the bath Nayessa went to join her mother and their mute neighbor Loose Maria, who had once been a whore, on the porch. The two women sat in rocking chairs looking out at the yard. Nay sat herself down between her mother's feet and waited. Soon her mother's iron fingers began to tug and weave plaits of her hair. Nayessa knew by Mona's gentle touch that she had been forgiven for what she'd said.

The sun set. Loose Maria rocked her chair, saying nothing. Mona hummed under her breath and occasionally tapped Nayessa's head with her free fingers even as she braided. The old porch light bulb guttered, then rallied back. Then Loose Maria stopped her rocking, brought her feet down firm on the porch, and stared out into the yard where the white patterns on Mona's rocks had begun to make their paths under the moon. Mona stopped braiding, resting her hand heavily on Nay's head.

He came to the edge of the yard, scattered remnants of porch light falling on him there, and there, so that he was not so much a whole person as pieces of darkness clinging together. He seemed to peer up at them on the porch, but even in the bare light of the waning porch bulb Nayessa could see that he had no eyes. The skin under his eyebrows was smooth and unlined. His feet were bare, and he kept them turned outward, like a ballerina's first position; Nayessa still remembered it from a torturous community summer camp program, where the teenaged instructor had once gotten down on her hands and knees and forced Nay's heels together and her toes out, saying all the while, "What's the use when you've got these big, flat feet?"

For a moment, the Hollower kept his mouth closed.

Then he grinned, straight white teeth with gaps between them, as if spread apart by some design by which he could smile and suck at things all at once.

Mona stood up from her chair. "What you want here?"

"It's a nice yard," he said.

"You can't come in it, Aigamuxa."

"So I see." He lifted one foot toward the stones lining the yard. For a brief moment, as the foot came within the weak boundary of light, Nay saw the flash of something wet and round in his in-step. It blinked.

"But one might think, for friends as old as we, there would be a path in. One might think, for all we've done for one another, there might be a place for me on your porch, and a tall glass of cool water," he said.

Mona sniffed. "All you've ever done is play your games, and leave me to sew up the mess."

"Ah, Mona." He sighed her name and a slight, chill wind brushed against Nayessa's legs. "Weren't they splendid games though? Didn't I teach you to tighten your knots and keep your threads straight, after Shaka kaSenzangakhona? And he had such promise, until he turned into . . . well, whatever it is the victims call men like him. Please, Mona. Give a thirsty man a glass of water."

"You may as well go away. I got nothing to do with you. Did you think you could come around here and pretty please me? Think you can smooth-tongue me, trick me, beguile me? You go on, you old Hollower. We don't need none of your kind here."

His shoulders fell, and he closed his mouth. He looked straight at Mona. "Go on then," he barely whispered, though they heard him clearly. "Weave your webs. But you were never as good at it as your father was."

Then he stepped back into the darkness of the driveway, where Mona's old Toyota sat rusting, and was gone.

"Halala," Mona muttered, shaking her head. "Going to be some trouble now." Loose Maria patted her on the shoulder.

Even though Mona did not look at her daughter, Nay felt the weight of the Hollower's appearance fall on her, and press her down.

In October, Mona made Nayessa an Asase Ya costume to trick-or-treat in, even though Nay protested that nobody would know who she was. Nayessa wanted to dress as a Bad Gangsta Boyz Bizatch action figure, but Mona said no.

But she was never to wear the Asase Ya costume, with its brilliantly patterned dashiki and the tall, coiled wig of black yarn. Two nights before the event, the police came to the house with the tall glass windows at the end of Blue Cat Way. The neighbors, seeing the red and blue lights fractured in the panes of their living room windows as they sat down to dinner, came out, raised their garage doors, set up their lawn chairs and the occasional cooler of beer, and watched the police sit on the fine couch, the wife bury her face in her hands, and the husband stand grimly by the bookshelves Mona so admired.

Nayessa, her mother, and Loose Maria went to sit on Little Blanca's driveway, while Blanca's three children raced plastic cars up and down the grass, excited that they didn't have to go to bed. When the police left, the wife stood at the front door to say good-bye, glaring around at the watching neighbors.

"It isn't as if anyone around here would care. Think this is some damned spectator sport?" she shouted at the neighborhood. "My baby's gone, and you're all sitting there like you're watching fucking teevee, some Bernie Mac episode or whatever the hell you people watch!"

The policemen murmured quiet words to her and released her to her husband, who drew her away from the door and into the house. Then the officers left in their car, with the lights still flashing. The wife and husband sat together on the couch in the front room without drawing the curtain, as if they had forgotten people could see into their lives through the tall glass windows.

It was then that the people of Blue Cat Way began their own search for the boy. They did not move from their chairs. They didn't have to. In the ancient tradition of messaging that had existed even before electricity and technology, they sent their children to one another.

"Abuelita says to tell you the boy was playing near the fire hydrant this morning around seven, waiting for the school bus."

"Oh yeah? Go and tell that to Fanchon. She leaves for work at seven."

"Miss? Guillermo says to tell you the boy was playing by the fire hydrant this morning at seven."

"Go and tell Little Blanca. She doesn't leave until eight. I didn't leave this morning till seven thirty, 'cause Terrance had an appointment at the dentist, and I saw the boy out by the curb then."

"Miss Jones says to say she saw the boy outside at seven-thirty, 'cause she went to the dentist with Terrance."

"Yeah, Mami." Blanca's daughter raised her head from the game of cars. "I seen him there with the blind man."

Loose Maria, Little Blanca, and Mona sat up. Nayessa felt little tingles run up and down her arms where the long-forgotten strikes of Mona's cane connected all across her body.

"Of all the fuck," Mona whispered.

The next night Loose Maria brought them a chicken dinner, and they sat around the table eating without speaking. While Nayessa cleared the plates she watched her mother and Maria have a one-sided argument.

Maria gestured to Nayessa, then to her house next-door.

"No. Ain't no reason she got to stay with you."

Maria folded her arms over her chest and scowled.

"No need to talk to me like that. Don't I know how to protect my own? Besides. She got to learn sooner or later."

Loose Maria left, the sun set, and the old porch bulb came on. Mona made Nay bathe, then sat her between her feet on the porch and tugged her hair into braids.

"Gonna be that old Hollower here tonight," Mona said. "You know that."

Nay couldn't nod, so she said, "Uh huh."

"Took that little boy. The one you hate."

"'Cause I said what I said."

"That's right."

"I didn't mean it."

"Sure you did. You meant it when you thought nothing would come of it."

Nay was quiet a moment, then saw the truth of this.

"You know better now."

Nay said, "Uh huh."

Mona put her hand on Nay's head. "All right then. That's all needs be said about it."

Nay got up, her hair finished, and went to sit in the chair opposite her mother's. She stared out at the yard. Moonlight carved its trails in Mona's garden. The dirt courtyard in the center was full of their bare footprints, and for the first time Nay saw that all her small prints followed her mother's. Whether she had walked beside her mother or not at the time, in the end her paths inevitably followed Mona's.

Mona cleared her throat, as if some piece of glass was stuck there. She eh-hemmed, and ha-hucked, opening her mouth and working the back of her salmon-colored tongue like a cat about to bring up a hairball. Finally she hawked and spat, then drew a small red stone from her mouth and handed it to Nayessa.

"Keep a good hold on that," she said. "Don't let go of it, no matter what. I don't give it to no one I don't trust. I did that once with your father, and had a hell of a time getting it back. When the Hollower comes at you, don't you let go of my soul."

Nayessa took the stone in her hand, warm and wet, and nodded.

"And when the boy comes, you keep a good hold on him too. Whether you like him or not."

Nay nodded again and sat down on the porch floor, her legs tucked under her and the stone hidden in her fist.

Then Mona climbed down the porch stairs into the yard, and took up the old twig broom leaning against the side of the house. She began to sweep the flat-earth courtyard, starting in the middle.

Husha-husha-hush, she swept in short strokes. Husha-hush, husha-husha, tap, tap. Husha-husha, until she made a circle, then a larger circle, always wiping out the imprint of her own footsteps as she moved further and further out. The neighborhood sank into quiet. Loose Maria's chickens didn't make any noise from next door. The dog down the street stopped barking. A few crickets chirped once, then fell under the swishing lull of Mona's sweeping.

When she finished at the edge of the yard, and the entire thing had been swept clean, the Hollower showed up again along the edge where the painted rocks would not let him in.

"I thought you said you didn't want me here." He peered blindly at them, his feet bare.

"I don't. I want back what you took," Mona said.

"He wasn't one of yours. The house had no marks around it. You never put them in your web."

"I was busy. I meant to get around to it."

The Hollower raised one leg, pirouetting on the other. Once again, Nayessa caught the glimpse of something dark and wet on the inside of his foot. She clenched her hand tighter around Mona's stone.

"Well then," he said, putting his foot down. "A nice clean slate. What shall we play for? Some small country? Future world leaders?"

He turned his head to the porch, and Nayessa. "Anansi's grandchild?"

"Me," said Mona.

"Ah." He grinned, showing his colander teeth. "You. I would play for you any day, Mona."

She nodded, and removed one of her sentinel stones, tossing it aside.

Nayessa shivered as the Hollower stepped into Mona's garden.

Mona broke off two of the thick twigs from her broom, and handed one to him. He put it between the toes of his left foot, then turned his feet out in the ballerina's stance. Hobbling this way, he went to the center of Mona's new-swept courtyard, leaving no footprints where he walked across the ripples of dirt. Once at the center he raised his left foot and turned it: once to the north, once to the west, once to the south, once to the east. His gaze lingered on the east, and he chewed his lip thoughtfully. Then he brought his foot back down, and began to draw.

He started with a point in the center, drawing a line outward to the edge of the courtyard, ending at one of the walkways. He went back to the center then, drawing another line outward to another point opposite. He went back to draw a third line, then a fourth, anchoring his dirt web to the solid walls of Mona's stones.

But Mona did not wait for him to finish. As soon as he began his second line, she drew her own -- connections radiating from the center around and around until she met each of his lines with her own circles. When the Hollower realized what she was doing he leapt to cut her off, grabbing the tip of one of her lines before she could finish it and drawing it around backwards. Mona merely nodded, muttering, "Halala," under her breath, moving around him behind his heels where he could not see, catching up his line from between his very toes and tracing it on, turning it back to its original path.

Nayessa could make no sense of it. Ragged patterns wove here and there, cutting one another off, ending abruptly with the uncertain geometry of children's chalk-drawings on sidewalks. Even as she watched, she became aware of something coming into being on the porch next to her. She did not look at first, afraid of what it was, yet knowing who it was.

The boy came back, little by little, beginning with the toes of one dirty foot poking down over the seat of Mona's chair. She grabbed him by the ankle, and he let out a small mew, jerked, and might have broken free if she had not tightened her grasp.

As Mona and the Hollower continued their dirt traceries, Nay saw more forms come into view. There were warriors and queens, beaten men and weeping women and lost children -- all the Hollower's victims Mona had not reached in time, had not put her web around, for what web could go around the entire world and all its ages? One girl near the porch looked to Nay like some lost cousin, and wouldn't she like to have a cousin her own age to talk to? All it would take was reaching out, grasping an arm . . . but she had only two hands. One was for the boy she had offered up to the Hollower. The other was full of Mona's soul.

Mona was sweating now, and her halalas were gasps. The Hollower kept his eyes on the patterns and Mona went on, beguiling him into forgetting about the souls he held, so they could come back into being for one moment.

The garden was crowded with the souls of lost folk, and the patterns in the dirt were a great confusion of figures. Here a curve became the smooth surface of a thigh fading into the shore of a distant land, there a spear was raised and became a fist. Where Mona drew pictures of triumph, the Hollower drew defeat, until the entire yard was a mass of threads drawn in the dirt, filled with a thousand nameless shades of flesh. It seemed they went on like this for hours, while the stars shifted around. It seemed they went on like this for centuries, and while they did the sky became the fat belly of a spider, and all the stars were its thousand eyes, watching.

Then, when the moon had set at last, Nay saw her mother weave drunkenly and collapse, sweating and heaving, near the outer rim under the sharp green mesquite tree. But she did not let go of the boy, nor Mona's stone. When the Hollower looked up, and was able to focus his attention again, all the hollowed souls disappeared.

All except the boy, who was crying, and at last substantial.

Nay let go of his foot. He was here now; she had won him. The Hollower raised his foot to stare at Mona, then at her.

"Now," he said. "Now I get Mona. And I'll take you too, little nit." He grinned as if to suck her up.

Because there were no rocks between them, no painted patterns to keep him out, Nayessa popped Mona's stone into her mouth, and swallowed her mother's soul.

The Hollower's mouth fell open. He shuffled forward, then back again, and Nay saw why. He had become tangled up in Mona's web. The lines in the dirt clung to his heels, not with the delicate gossamer of a spider's threads, but with the thick grume of sucking mud.

"Halala," Nayessa said, her throat dry. She swallowed, moving the stone further down, and raised her chin. Mona's soul grew hot in her belly, fierce with the knowing of perfect accents and the power of smiles.

"Halala. You go on, you old Hollower. We don't need none of your kind here."

And he was forced to turn away, back through the dirt to the opening in the rocks and further still, until the guttering porch light made pieces of him. He stared at her there with his eyeless face for a long time, then fell apart into pieces of night. Nayessa jumped down off the porch, replaced the garden stone in his wake, and went to her mother. The boy stared at them for a moment, then ran off home.

Mona woke up, blinking. She stared at Nay as if the child was all new. Then she put her hand on her daughter's stomach.

"Well," she said. "It's as good a place as any, for now."

When the police came back to investigate the mysterious reappearance of the boy who had been stolen, the people of Blue Cat Way sat in their lawn chairs, sending their children to one another to say little things as they watched the wife crush the boy to her chest and weep on the couch inside the tall glass window.

"Auntie's got two pairs of shoes, nice shoes with heels, for your interview tomorrow."

"Abuelita says don't use so many chiles in the soup."

"Mondo's shop got an opening for a mechanic. Mami wants to know, does your cousin Frankie want to talk to him?"

"They say that boy ran off to play under the Montopolis bridge. Who can figure kids these days?"

And so on, and so forth, until the story of the missing child was woven into their neighborhood talk.

A week later Nayessa passed by the house on the corner on her way to the bus stop. The boy got to stay home even though she didn't; his parents still had the fear of losing him. This, she thought, rubbing sleep out of her eyes, was completely unfair when she had done all the work to retrieve him.

When he peered out of the window and worked his lips back and forth -- neeggur, neeggur, neeggur -- as if nothing had happened, Mona's stone grew hot in the pit of Nay's stomach.

Nay grinned at him.

Beguiling Mona illustration © 2003 Nicole Cardiff
Beguiling Mona illustration © 2003 Nicole Cardiff


Copyright © 2003 M. Thomas

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M. Thomas is a teacher and writer, as well as contributing editor to the e-zine Deep Magic, where many of her articles can be seen. Her work has also appeared in Abyss & Apex and is forthcoming in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. She dabbles in magic realism and humor. For more on her work, see her website.

Nicole Cardiff is currently a student at the Savannah College of Art and Design majoring in 3D animation. She's also a freelance illustrator and a fencer, and can often be found with her nose in a book, still being a dreamer. For more on her work, see her website. To contact her, send her email at