Brownman

By C. Scavella Burrell

Part 1 of 2

Uncle Livingston said, Don't look behind you when we pass the graveyard. I couldn't help myself. I peeked over my shoulder. You got to look through your legs, he said, if you want to see the ghosts.

I stood up and bent in half to look between my knees and almost jostled myself off the cart. That's when I saw him, not following us, not standing on his name plate or sitting on a pile of dirt or crawling out from under a vault stone. Just leaning on a yew tree between the graveyard and the road. A man in an old brown shirt and work pants and no shoes. A workman or the gravedigger or some beggar, watching me watch him upsidedown.

He looked at his feet then scuffled off behind the big yew tree, and my head went dizzy from being upsidedown so I sat in my seat.

"Told you not to look," said Uncle.

He drove past the fence, tugging the horses with the one arm he had left from the Great War, and put the graveyard way behind us.

"You saw him?" The horses twitched their ears at how loud I spoke.

"I've seen them," said Uncle. He'd had plenty of chance, delivering flower arrangements and stone slabs and people. "Wanting to follow. They can't, don't worry. The dead stay by their homes. They won't bother you in yours."

I worried all down the road, pressed against Uncle and putting as much space as I could between me and the trees on both sides. Whoever people lived in the swamps before city people got here cutting roads and clearing bush, they would have died in there too, wouldn't they? The oldest vault stone in the graveyard, sunk low and pulling ground down around it like a fat man in a lumpy bed, wasn't more than thirty years old. Where were all the people who came before? Anyplace could be a graveyard and full of ghosts.

The sun boiled big and hot over the road, but past the edge, vines and leaves crisscrossed back and back into a dark like swamp water filling the spaces in between. You wouldn't think anybody would live there, but some did when they hid from being stolen off as slaves, when they joined up with the Miccosukee, who were hiding too. The trees still could be a good place to disappear, if you don't mind living in a palmetto-thatch chickee in a swamp.

Uncle's cart caught up with Third Avenue, and the trees backed off. Houses sat in rows, whitewashed school and its neat yard with coconut trees in a line, flat grass in between. Twenty-First Street, Twentieth Street, Twentieth Court, Nineteenth Street. Barber shop, funeral home, church with tall candy windows. Papa Charlie's chemist's shop on the corner, where Uncle stopped the cart.

The horses relaxed so much they dropped steamy plops onto the street. Papa Charlie came out and flared his nose at the mess. He swung me down and looked up, standing in his dark working suit like a thumb sticking out of the road, frowning at Uncle, who sat hunched like a thin crooked finger. "You gonna get a proper truck some time, Livingston?" asked Papa Charlie, with a twitch at the deposit near his neat-swept curb.

"We get along," said Uncle, then clucked to the horses and flicked his hand on the reins. "Tomorrow?" he asked.

"Come by early," said Papa Charlie. "We'll see." He meant they'd see what to do with me. Papa Charlie and Mama took turns finding me something to do all summer. Papa Charlie put me to work in the shop some days, but he saw me sigh whenever a breeze came teasing over the doorstep. I didn't mind getting my air with Uncle Livingston. Graveyard was a quiet place to go, with shade trees stuck in every here and there and knotty yews around the edges, and not too many people I knew underfoot.

I waited while Papa Charlie cleaned and closed shop. Shine and Jack wagged around our legs all the way to the house, where they went slinking under the porch for shade. I slinked to the piano and worked on my scales.

Big brother was home for supper again.

You ought to be eating with Her, Mama said before she filled his plate with biscuits and rice and dumplings and gravy and something green, and Bo shrugged and said She was working at the bar tonight, and Papa Charlie flared his nose at the mention of that bar and said it was just as well Bo ate Mama's food and drank her lemonade instead, because no one from his house needed to be drinking at all.

Ever since Mama gave Dottie so much paregoric it looked like she was never waking up again, and Papa Charlie took the medicine bottle and threw it hard out the back door and the bush swallowed it up, we kept nothing strong in the house. No wine, no beer, not the cough syrup or Wine of Cardui for Women's Needs Papa Charlie stocked in the store. Mama made do after that without a drop of brandy for a fussy baby, though I don't know what she gave those babies she took care of where Papa Charlie couldn't see. None of us tasted anything stronger than Communion until Bo did as he pleased and got a job at the bar in Goodbread Alley, where I know he tasted plenty.

I wasn't born when Dottie was a baby and drank too much paregoric, but I knew all about the bottle that nobody had seen to this day. Maybe I caught the memories out of the air. Maybe so many people talked about things so much I never noticed hearing any of it for the first time. Like how I knew Mama's dog Bino when she was a girl that danced around the fire and the pig that slept in the bed before they had to eat it and the problem with the yew tree in the yard.

I don't know about this house, Mama said when Papa Charlie showed her what he built for the first time, proud and almost-new married. Inside bath, screens on a porch to keep the palmetto bugs on the outside, great-grandfather's tapestries on the walls, piano in the front room, lace on the table, silver on the lace. "That's a yew tree out the back," Mama said in spite of Papa Charlie's pride. "Yew tree always marks a graveyard."

Papa Charlie said, "Silly woman. Nobody ever lived way out here before." Papa Charlie and the men who built for white people during the week had cut that street out of palmetto bush with help from Miccosukee men, and he wasn't going to start all over again. Mama gave in, but she kept an eye on the tree, planting anything that would grow between it and us.

What grew in the yard ended up on our plates, one way or other, fruit or leaf, tart or sweet.

Before Bo left to work he tucked me in and said goodnight and opened the curtains to let in the moonlight. From bed I could see the yew tree. Past it I could see the Dawkins house next door that everybody said had a ghost rearranging things at night. Bo caught me looking and grinned. "Dogs'll let you know if a ghost comes by."

I sniffed. "They never speak up when a light starts moving around in the Dawkins house."

"There's no dead thing can hurt you, Charlie," said Bo. "It's the living you watch out for." He took the rosary from the dressing-table mirror and looped it on the bedpost. "There's some magic to keep you safe," he said.

Then he left me in the quiet and the moonlight over the sleeping dogs.

I wasn't asleep yet, not all the way, when dogs scuffling to the side of the house farthest from the yard woke me up, all the way. The curtains fell still and dark grey, some shadow blotting out the moon.

A tree brushed the house where there was no tree before, on the other side of my bedroom wall. Branches scraped the windowsill, a trunk leaned on the house and pushed it ever so slightly until the slats creaked one rubbing over the other. I held my breath and stayed still, but I couldn't close my eyes. If that thing was going to grow under the house and turn us upside down, I wanted to see which way to run. Two round leaves pressed on the window like eyes looking back into mine. Then the tree pulled its backyard-wide shadow into itself and whittled down to the size and shape of a man.

He seeped through the window, pieces of him clinging like water on the screen before catching up. I couldn't see him clearly unless I watched sideways from the edge of one eye. Only a ghost, I whispered to myself. Only the ghost of a gravedigger or dirt-poor workman in old brown clothes and no shoes. Was I going to be afraid of some lost spirit couldn't find his way home? Plenty of times Mama said someone walked up the stairs to the kitchen door and through our house and out the front door on their way someplace they used to go before a house was there, general agreement was a soldier who didn't get back from the War, and there had to be plenty of those. I unlooped the rosary and held it tight. If things got bad, I'd pray; but things didn't look too bad, yet.

"I know you're awake," said a man's voice, smooth and low. "Do you?"

"I know I'm awake," I whispered, and my little breath shook his hair like a hurricane in a grove. He swung back then leaned in close, washing a smell of bruised fruit-tree leaves through the room.

"Then what you want?" he asked.

"You must be the one who wants something," I said, "haunting somebody's room in the middle of the night."

He curled up small as a palmetto bug and beat against the walls, bouncing from one side to the other and off the pillows, then unrolled into a man again and pinned me with eyes black as ackee seeds and grinned and shook his palm-frond hair.

He waited for me to be impressed. He waited some more. I didn't have anything to say to someone who could be small as a bug and huge as a tree all in one night.

"What you want, little girl?" he asked at last. "Something now, or something later? You only get one, you know."

"One what?" I watched him carefully, hooked on the corner of my eye.

"One thing you want most of all."

"I thought it was three wishes," I said.

"That's somebody else's story," he said.

"Don't want anything from a strange man in my room, especially not a ghost," I said. But I didn't think a ghost could grant a wish, so he had to be something else, something lived in the trees, something that was a tree. Something maybe Mama would have a word for.

"Anybody sees me gets to ask," he was saying. I half thought about wishing I didn't get a wish. "How about I let you consider it?"

"All right, then," I agreed, hoping he would go.

"I'll be back."

"Best not be," I said.

He snuck out the window, a shadow from a passing lamp. I peeled myself from under the bedspread and looked out after him, fingers on the windowsill, rosary hard under my hand. There he was stamping through the low grass under the clothesline and into the knee-high bush.

He hunted around in the bush until he found something small wrapped in weeds. He pulled up and the vines pulled down, popping their claws one by one out of the ground until whatever it was he found stretched a web of roots back to the earth. One more tug and the vines let go and curled their claws into the grass. He held an old medicine bottle pinched by the neck between his thumb and index finger, shook it back and forth. A wind took the smell of it right to my nose, a smell of leaning over the big glass jar of licorice in Papa Charlie's shop. One other thing smelled like that.

"I know what that is!" I hissed out the window.

He winked at me, then stuck the old paregoric bottle in his shirt pocket. "Your papa was smart. He never saw me, but he saw where I was walking in." He tipped an imaginary hat to me. "I'll be seeing you."

He strolled past the yew tree, curling around the trunk until the last slip of him disappeared around the edge. I couldn't see him walking off through the tangle of scrub on the other side.

It was easy to be brave when that brown man was standing right in front of me and I had no choice. Now he was gone, I was scared and cold. I climbed in bed with Eva. In the morning Mama decided I looked peculiar and dosed me with castor oil in my serasee tea. Both oil and tea tasted like licking a road after an automobile. She felt my forehead and sent Eva to pick fever-leaves just in case, and I had slivers of leaves stuck behind my ears when Uncle Livingston came by to see what was being done with me today.

While he settled in to eat his ackee and codfish breakfast, he asked me, "What kept you from resting right last night?"

I said, "I'm always seeing something over at the Dawkins house," which was true, just not the recent truth. I wanted to get Mama alone to ask about last night, or maybe ask Uncle, alone, not with both my sisters listening. "You think there are ghosts in there? How about out back in the bush?"

"Maybe you were dreaming, Charlie," said Mama, setting down another cup of tonic for me with half an orangey-yellowy-green fruit off one of the trees from out back. Uncle raised his eyebrows. I ate my fruit and collected all the different sizes of seeds together in Mama's seed cup in case the yard needed filling up. Big, pale, and flat; small and slippery and shaped like people always draw teardrops; some smooth, some rippled with ridges. I shook the cup and they mixed in with the dark ackee seeds already in there.

"Something knocks pots off Miss Dawkins' shelves every night," said Dottie.

Eva said, "What about that time Miss Johnson was over there and the two of them saw something roll through the living room?"

"Miss Johnson and Miss Dawkins have too much beer in the house," said Mama. "Ghost's not something you see, is someone you feel."

"Not what my father said," Uncle disagreed through a mouthful of codfish. "When my father Livingston Albert, your great-grandfather, was sentry at the fort, nights he walked back and forth along those guns pointing over the sea, watching, waiting, never saw anyone but once." My sisters gathered around the table to hear, and even Mama tucked her dishcloth on the drawer-pull and sat a while and listened. "Halt! he says. Who goes there? The stranger all dress up in an old type of uniform like he stole it from his own great-grandfather, he gives no answer, just keeps on walking to the guns. Halt! Livingston Albert says again, I'm warning you. Who goes there? The man keeps walking closer, closer. Halt! he says, one last time, but the man keeps on walking. So Livingston Albert takes his rifle—" Uncle pointed his fork at me "—and bang! Shoots him. The man, he stops, grabs his chest, and shouts, 'Oh Lord! I done dead twice!' And then he disappeared."

Mama smiled and Dottie and Eva laughed like they had heard this story before. Why hadn't I heard this one before?

Uncle went back to scraping the last bits of fish off his plate.

"Did a ghost ever give your father any wishes?" I asked.

"Maybe would have if he hadn't shot him." Uncle grinned, set his fork and knife neatly by his plate, thanked the cook, and pushed back his chair. "Little Charlie gonna ride with me today?"

Mama shook her head. "Charlie's staying home to rest today."

Papa Charlie was already gone to the shop. Dottie and Eva left for the church, and Uncle didn't offer them a ride. They would never be seen behind a horse as if they weren't good enough to ride in a car if they felt like it. Mama hurried so she could catch the bus. Only one bus ran in the morning from here to the rest of the city and there was no missing it.

She felt my forehead and pulled out the leaves from behind my ears. "I'll ask Miss Dawkins to sit with you."

I had a trickle of a thought coming to me, something I wanted done with me. Something only safe to do in the middle of the bright day. "I can sit with Great-Aunt Kate. Or Bo. He's home all day."

Mama grabbed her handbag and sunhat. "Now is not the time for him to have his little sister underfoot." But she stood, one hand on the screen door, thinking about it. "I'll ask him to come by here later. Meantime Miss Dawkins can watch. You come out on the porch where she can see you."

I followed Mama and sat where I could be seen. I knew Bo, he would say Be right there then take his time ironing creases and sniffing at bottles of skin tonic to find the right one for the weather. He would count on me to stay put. Everybody always did.

After Mama left I counted five minutes—five Minute Waltzes hummed in my head—for her to stop at Bo's and wake him up and hurry to the bus. Counted three more minutes—Minute Waltzes were getting boring, so I did Für Elise—in case the bus was late. Watched inside my head her stepping up, paying the fare, sitting in the back. Door closing, bus groaning. Until I was certain she was on her way.

I waved at Miss Dawkins where she was getting the air at her front door, and walked into our house like I was headed to the bathroom, and climbed out the bathroom window. I had come out where she could see me, like Mama said, hadn't I? Some people might call that The Letter Of The Law.

I walked around the house, into the grass and under the clothesline, through the bush to where our yard twisted into the trees. Blue-grass tangled my ankles. Fever-leaves big as me hung in the way like doors. On the other side the trees grew thick, papaya banana mango soursop sorrel palm tamarind ackee pushed into each other all becoming one tree.

The ground disappeared under roots lying one on top of another. I balanced on a snaky road of roots half in half out of the ground, into the grown-over places with no paths, into the warm, dark browns and hot, humid greens. The trees got taller and pulled apart to give themselves breathing space, making round tunnels in to the damp mangrove, where green turned black, where sand and soil sank into water and mud sucked at my ankles and ruined my white socks. Each raised foot pulled up a stink of whatever fed the roots down under the slinky mud.

Breeze shifting the high-up palm fronds meant nothing to me in the no-breeze stillness down below. Then there was a rustling on the ground like footsteps then there was a scratching on my back. I spun around fast to look behind. Only leaves and vines. No one following to stop me. No one tapping on my shoulder but a tree branch. No one to tell me Go Here or Be There. No road behind or ahead to lead me one-way-only.

Two steps more, and I knew by the itch that crept through the middle of my bones I was close to a place where ghosts lived. A buzzing scrabbled in my ears. Without having to look upsidedown and backwards I saw flickers of things sunk deep in the soil like vault stones, and pale things stretching overhead and trickling back down. I was about to get Somewhere. Somewhere that didn't belong to ordinary days. Past one more fever-leaf door, or the next one.

A pepper cloud of tiny bugs flew in my face. I squeezed my eyes shut and batted them away, and my foot came down on something hard and flat.

When I opened my eyes I was standing on the road to the Miccosukee Seminole village, the grass and bush and trees at my back and the open sky and sun above my head. Across the road the village was doing its ordinary day. A lady pulling a rainbow of cloth through a foot-pedal sewing machine waved at me. I waved back, politely.

I knew I had walked too long to get only this short piece from home. I knew I had been close to someplace important before I stepped the wrong way and stepped back into the everyday road. He was out there, I was sure of it, pushing me aside.

"How do I get my wish if you hide?" I said, maybe loud enough for a brown ghost tree man to hear. Not that I knew what my wish was. All right, I thought: Next time, I find you, for sure.

I ran back home on the road, got there before Bo turned up to see me not where I was supposed to be. I scrubbed my socks in the bathtub but they wouldn't get clean. I let them dry a while then scrubbed them again, and this time instead of brown and green they came up brown and grey. All the fruits in the yard weren't going to hide the smell of swamp bush and swamp mud. I wouldn't get a next time to sneak into the trees if Mama found ruined socks and I had no good explanation.

Bo knocked on the bathroom windowsill and leaned in smiling, and I dropped the socks. "I've been here all morning," he said with a wink, climbing in, barely fitting through, wrinkling his nice pants. He watched a minute while I acted like I was doing something normal. "Throw those away," he said, "and come on out."

I went by the side door and tossed my socks under the porch where the dogs could take responsibility for ruining them.

Dottie and Eva were just home and settling in chairs on the porch and unstrapping their heels and fanning away the afternoon heat. Both Bo and I had been barely in time. Bo sat in Papa Charlie's chair. "Don't you ever have somewhere else to be?" Dottie complained at him.

"I'm watching Charlie." He pulled me onto his lap. "Anyway, work doesn't start 'til six."

"What could your wife think, you spending all your time at home?" asked Dottie.

"That's what's wrong," said Eva. "He needs to be home, and home is with his wife."

"That's it," agreed Dottie, nodding.

"I have to do something about it," Bo said, face stiff.

"About time," agreed Eva.

He slid his chair forward and gathered us close. We huddled in a tight fist, heads together. He told us how he found a bowl of water under his bed, and a scrap of paper with his name and some other words he wouldn't tell us, underneath. "Woke with my fingers in this bowl," he explained, showing us the corner of a paper scrap before tucking it in his chest pocket.

"What was that for?" I asked.

Dottie and Eva were shivering like a cold rain had poured through the sunlight.

"She's trying to put magic on Bo," said Eva.

"Nothing good, I'm sure," said Dottie.

"Oh," I said. I was only just getting to know about ghosts and brownmen and getting pushed off your way in the trees, and the only magic I knew how to do were little things like when to cut the Xs on hot cross buns and which birds to listen for to get news about the weather or family back in the islands.

Move out from that woman, said both my sisters, but Bo said, No, he planned to do something. There was only one person to see when serasee tea or fever leaves weren't strong enough to make you better. A man alone couldn't go into her place, and Eva wouldn't go, and Dottie said, Don't look at Me. So he looked at me instead.

He steered me ahead of him by the shoulders, out through the porch door. "You walk ahead," he said, "so she'll let me through the door." He stepped me into fistfuls of sun between coconut trees and palm trees with bunches of seeds around their waists, his big hands serious and hot on my shoulders through my cotton dress. Down to the house at the end of Twenty-First street, but not up the porch to the pale blue front door. Down around back, three stairs cut into the ground, to the cooking cellar where she sat and boiled and simmered and brewed.

Read Part 2 here


Carol Scavella Burrell is a native New Yorker. She works in children's and young adult publishing, and draws webcomics for grownups. As a child she spent summers near the southernmost tip of the continental U.S. in a house with a yew tree in the yard and mysterious doings next door.