Brownman

By C. Scavella Burrell

Part 2 of 2

Read Part 1 here

Back in the islands where there were thousands of women like her, picking fruits and mixing plants, she sold spicy cold mawby drink from a barrel balanced on her head. But here, where she was one by herself, all that magic must have stuck to her like ants on a sweet cup of mawby, carried her underground with her roots and her pots and her fire always boiling. She cooked up more than mawby now. I thought chance was good she had given Bo's wife that piece of paper. Who else knew how to do something so secret and so strong?

Her wide brown eyes met mine over a clay pot huffing steam, and her smooth, old face nodded once with a tiny smile before she looked past me to my brother. She looked at him, but she said to me, "What he want?"

Big brother squeezed my shoulders. I said, "Help with his wife."

"Cold glass of mawby each day keep a man strong for his wife," she answered, straight at me, "but not better than what serasee your mama can make for you." She waved a thick hand around the bundles and bowls and jars on shelf, table, windowsill, and any other flat place in the room. "For what ails I have restoratives and analgesics, soporifics and emetics." What she sold sounded same as those forbidden bottles in Papa Charlie's shop: palliative, epulotic, prophylactic. Except she didn't get her tonics out of shiny bottles and fancy boxes, she boiled them up from the ground. "Anything else ail you?"

Big brother lifted a hand to his breast pocket while the other hand stayed holding hard, almost crushing my shoulder. My hair was sticking to my forehead. There was nothing to breathe in that room but steam and smells. Suddenly I didn't want to be there, didn't know why I did whatever anyone told me. Mawby woman scared me. She was all roots and tricks, things put on people to make them do something they didn't want to, sometimes to make them happy or healthy, but too many times to bring harm as somebody's revenge.

Bo pulled something from his pocket and passed it past my eyes, blurry white in his dark fingers, to her tea-and-milk hand. A scrap of a slip of paper damp from the sweat of his chest.

"Cat Island magic," she said, and flicked the paper into the fire. "Keep her husband in her bed and make him no good for anybody else's bed." The scrap of paper turned bright then black then was nothing but smoke and a little bit more heat in the room. "She have Cat Island magic in her bones, that's where he found it."

Bo leaned forward against my back, asking, Who, who, but mawby lady was ignoring him again. He gave me a nudge. I said, "Who?" since that was my part here.

"He what fills you up when the drink sends your mind somewhere else," said the old lady.

"You saying she's got another man," said Bo, not angry, like I would be if I had a wife and she had a man on the side, but sounding like he was speaking out something he thought all along. "She wants to keep me close so I don't notice? What other man?"

"Who do you think makes you do all those things you didn't plan to do?" Mawby lady left her pot and picked up a bundle of dried blue-grass from a big wood chair and sat herself in its place. A cloud of steam followed her there and waited around her head for a while. "Not you. You sent you away, washed away on the drink. You is just watching, watching him, do for you." She fixed her eyes on me. "You want to be like that?"

"No," I whispered.

"All things in moderation," she said. She looked up, through Bo, up her stairs and through the open door and through the houses and into the trees. "They keep cutting and building, like that gonna tame him, and they forgot things got to balance, him there, we here. It don't beat him back, just sets him free. That swamp is out of control. Wasn't her. Was him did it."

I thought I understood who she meant, one strange man out of the swamp, crossing my life too.

"Was six bottles of beer at Goodbread Alley did it," said Bo. "We were too young to be stuck together in the first place. We don't fit anymore, but she won't see it that way." He knelt by her chair like he was going to ask that old woman to marry him instead. "I can't up and leave her," he said, pleading. "I don't know what she'll do. I might never—" he glanced at me "—that piece of paper. But I can't stay. I don't know what to do."

"That's what comes of a woman drinking bitter beer." The old lady reached without looking and pulled a blue snake of fabric from where it curled in a little clay bowl. She spoke right at Bo for the first time. "Tie this ribbon round her wrist. Don't let her see you do it."

Bo took it, nose wrinkling, asking, "What's on it?" I caught a sniff, sweet as mango, as he held it like a mouse by the tail. "Nothing's gonna fall off, shrivel up, turn white, or anything else, right?"

Old mawby lady shrugged. "Depend on what you do next."

Next thing Bo did was think about that for a week. When he came by the house, he kept sniffing at that piece of blue ribbon in his pocket like he couldn't help himself, it was so sweet. Next thing Mama and Papa Charlie did was put me to work with no time for detours to the trees to search for that Somewhere I almost-found.

I stood on a crate at the shop and tended the counter, leaning over the licorice jar, smelling dark green leaves. Three Miccosukee ladies came in, rainbow skirts in big bells around them, their hair wrapped in sleek black butterfly cocoons on top of their heads, tied up and tamed or maybe about to burst off and dance and tangle wild strands. Maybe I would wish for hair like that with my one wish from the brown tree-man. Hair like boys said nice things about, instead of cat hair too red like the sun had burned it and had to be pinned into curls to look like something a girl should have on her head.

The ladies sorted through shelves stacked with cures: Three Sixes Laxative, Lydia Pinkham's Tonic, Wine of Cardui for Women's Needs, Black Draught, BC Powder, in black-and-white cartons and dark bottles. Bay rum for men and Magic Shaving Powder that melts off a beard but leaves behind the devil's own stink. They chose ladies' things, and I handed them brown-wrapped packages. I took my time wrapping and tying and handing over. I wanted to ask if they knew the man from the forest, if they had ever lifted their rainbow skirts and looked upsidedown through their legs and seen him in the trees.

But they were so much older than me, older than my sisters, and their swirling red, white, yellow, green, blue stripes plugged up my words. I didn't get a question out before they left.

After the shop, work was cleaning Great-Aunt Kate's back bedroom. Great-Aunt Kate left her lookout post on her porch and sat inside in her lacy white dress and watched me sharp-eyed, her hair twirled up in a bun that was still mostly black. She was scrunched up small into herself, small as me, but big long hands rested on the armchair doilies. I stepped carefully around her giant leather slippers with the dust cloth and cleaning bucket, while she cracked pecans with a snap of her back teeth. Folding up with all that old age had made her square and solid. Not the sort of woman would be afraid of ghosts. I decided not to be the sort of girl who was too coward to ask a question. When I took a rest from dust rags and doily-fluffing, I asked Great-Aunt Kate about ghost men in the trees.

She brushed pecan shells plinking into a cut-crystal bowl and said, "We met all kinds of things that belong to the trees when we came here. They aren't to do with us."

I asked, "Like something gives you wishes?"

Great-Aunt Kate shook a warning finger. "Don't trust a man who offers you wishes. Living, dead, or otherwise."

All she would say. She could tell me stories 'til the end of the day about back on the islands, but the brownman she said Leave alone.

End of that week, Bo finally decided to use one magic on another, and his wife woke with a blue ribbon tied around her wrist. It smelled so pretty she used it to tie back her hair while she worked at the bar, which by all accounts made her look ten years younger. One of those men from the other side of town took a second look and sniff at her, and next thing you knew she was asking to leave Bo instead of the other way around. Big brother was so happy he gave her the keys to the house and came back home.

Mama was teaching me recipes that kept falling out of my head when Bo came around to tell her the news. Mama said About time you got out of that house, and that was that. She swept me and Bo and all those dropped pieces of mixed-up recipes out the kitchen door, and me and Bo walked together to the shop to tell Papa Charlie before he heard on his own from people off the street.

While Papa Charlie and Bo talked in low voices by the icebox I stood on the crate at the counter and waited for customers like I was supposed to.

"You'll have to earn your keep." Papa Charlie's voice filled the store.

"I still have my job at the bar," said Bo, proud. "I don't mind working near her, long as I don't have to sleep near her."

"You'll work at the store," decided Papa Charlie.

Bo winced, but he nodded, looking from shelf to shelf of boxes and cans and groceries everyone needed that they weren't allowed to get from the shops downtown, his eyes adding pennies, quarters, dollar bills from people with nowhere else to go.

He came behind the counter, nudging me out of the way. He said, "I'll take over," and I heard that he meant Take over store and all. Papa Charlie was the one looked proud now. "How about you go meet Uncle Livingston for lunch at the conch stand today?" Bo told me. Take over deciding what to do with little girls.

"You make your greeting to Great-Aunt Kate when you pass," Papa Charlie reminded me.

Yes, I said. Yes yes yes, I repeated in my head. Great-Aunt Kate would report on who did and did not pass by, who did and did not stop in, who she saw through the space between houses sneaking over on fourth court where they didn't belong. Not anywhere to go wasn't someone knew where I was except that one day set loose with the vines in the swamp.

Mama didn't know Bo's plan for me to be with Uncle Livingston all afternoon, so I made a plan of my own to stay indoors and play piano. It wasn't the best plan, but it was my plan. Hot sun had to make it through screen windows and across the porch then in around the curtains and through another window and mostly gave up before getting in as far as the front room. It was grey and cool when I sat on the bench.

Even playing piano was having Beethoven or Chopin standing behind me watching me repeat their music, waiting for me to look upsidedown between my fingers and see them nodding, or frowning at me if my fingers were having a bad day. I got tired of playing something written for Elise and not for me or anybody I knew. It was time for a For Dottie or For Eva or For Bo On Getting Out of That House. I took a pencil and Dottie's leftover yellowed staff paper out from the piano bench.

I thought and thought, searching all inside my head, trying to hear something. It could take hours to write something one minute long. Maybe I could wish for inspiration, to hear music right away instead of waiting and waiting for something to grow in my head, listening to the insect buzz outside and the creak of the coconut tree and sword plants snicking against each other. Dogs under the floorboards, birds on the roof. Plinking of shells in a glass bowl. I spent a long time listening before it came to me, a whole line of melody, with the bottom bouncing like bugs thumping on a screen door.

Finally getting inspired was like snatching a lightning bug out of the air without bruising its wings, catching it because you were quick and clever enough. Not at all being handed a wish by a brownman, which I thought had to be more like being hit by the lightning itself, burning all at once.

Eva came up beside me like she'd risen out of the rug. All I'd heard was music in my head and all I'd seen were lightning bugs crisscrossing the page blinking on and off in a rhythm of notes. "You've been in here hours," she said.

Had I? Time flew past when dead men weren't watching you. "I've been writing."

Eva shoved in next to me on the bench. "Let me hear." I played my line of music. "That's all?" she said.

In my hands cupped over the keys I felt the lightning bug flicker out. Why did she have to ruin it? It had been good until somebody said how bad it was. Hours and now nothing to show. Maybe getting hit by lightning would be better, no matter how much it burned.

"Supper's soon," Eva said. If I hadn't been catching lightning bugs I would have smelled chicken and dumplings and heard silverware on the tabletop. She swung her long pale legs around and swept to her feet, skirt swirling as if every day were a ballet. I never moved like that. My legs were short and worked for climbing over tree roots but got my feet stuck around the pedals when climbing off a piano bench. Maybe long legs were worth wishing for. "Go wash up," Eva grumbled, "and I'll drag Dottie out of my bed." She didn't sound so elegant when she complained about Dottie moving back into her room to make space for Bo.

Over supper Bo talked about plans for the store. Mama let him mix business with food, and Papa sat at the end of the table, small round thumb, Bo on one side pointing this way and that. Him saying, "Rest of the summer we keep Little Charlie on the counter. Now there's two of us—" pointing this way at Papa Charlie and that way at himself "—we can make more trips around to the chickees, do some deliveries overtown, put in more stock." Papa Charlie nodding and agreeing, and even Mama and Dottie and Eva putting in ideas, the whole family wrapping around the big new store Bo would make. Maybe two stores. Maybe stores all over. Planning ten, twenty, thirty years from now.

I stared out the kitchen window, littlest finger waggling off on its own looking for lightning bugs.

After the radio shows Bo tucked me in and said goodnight and opened the curtains. He smiled and said, "Dogs'll let you know if a ghost comes by."

"Dogs are cowards," I said.

He tucked the covers tighter.

Voices murmured, him and Papa Charlie, in the back room for a long time before they went to sleep. The whole house went to sleep, dogs and all. But not me.

I watched out the curtains where the moon had come around to full. A puff of light paced back and forth at the Dawkins place from window to window, front room to kitchen to front room to kitchen. Then bathroom. Then front room, back and forth and back and forth again. By morning all the vases and teacups and picture frames on Miss Dawkins' shelves would be rearranged or on the floor. That ghost had strong opinions about how Miss Dawkins decorated, and all night long to express them.

The light went out, like the ghost had dropped its lamp.

What scared a ghost?

Moonlight poured in and filled the crevices of the old yew tree, where the shadows spilled out and turned into the brownman. I flipped the hooks off the wooden frame and took off the screen. I didn't want to watch somebody pour through a hundred holes like he had done before, not if I ever wanted to lie down again without seeing people dripping through the window whenever I closed my eyes. He rolled across the yard the way the wind blows leaves ahead of the storm. He smelled of hurricane. He smelled of wine shining with candle flames bouncing off the bottom of a Communion cup. He smelled of beer in a glass rooted on a sticky bar. Of sugar from green cane turning into rum, and paregoric spilled in the wet grass, and a fog of shaving-powder sulphur.

"You know your wish?" he asked, leaning at the windowsill, smiling too hard. "A closet full of dresses? Boxes full of jewelry? A thousand silver dollars?"

Where would I wear fancy dresses and jewelry, and what would I do with a thousand dollars except spend it and it would be gone? That wasn't thinking twenty, thirty years ahead. I stood a few steps back from the window. "Why give me a wish, anyway? Why's that your story?"

"It's always tit for tat," he said, the palm-fronds on his head filling the window space, blocking out the sky until only his face glowed straight through with stolen moonlight. "I give to all you."

"All who?"

"All got wishes from me."

"I don't have a wish," I told him, waving him away. "I'm fine. I have everything." Nothing else I needed. Wasn't that true? People should want something, but maybe I wanted nothing. What I needed, I got. I need a dress, I got, and not always hand-downs from Eva. Everybody helps me, because I'm the youngest. I'm the little finger. I go where the rest of the hand puts me. "Papa Charlie says be in the store, that's where I am. Uncle says ride in the cart, that's the day I'm in the graveyard with him. Bo says come to the mawby woman or Mama says stay where Great-Aunt Kate can see or Dottie and Eva say it's too late for piano go to bed or rules say stay on the road and don't look behind you—" I ran out of breath. He jumped through the window while I was drawing another chestful of air.

"Don't all little girls and boys say that?"

"I don't see how it gets better when you grow up." I had planned to tell him go away, don't come back, my wish is leave me alone, but the more I talked the more everything flipped the other way in my head, belly up. "With the one man saying work here and other man saying live there. Walk here, sit here, don't walk here, don't sit there, get back, get out, get around." He scratched his chin, branch on bark. "Don't try on this hat in our store, don't drink our water, don't put your feet in our shoes." Would growing up mean go here be there, or being free to push through the trees and bush where there's nobody to direct you, no signs, no knowing what's next? Down under the fever leaves where even the breeze can't see, listening for leaves to snick across each other and birds to clatter their beaks together and insects to bounce off pools of still water. "I don't care if my socks get muddy and every part of me turns dark, dark black."

He gave a shudder. "And vines around your wrists, and roots snapping at your ankles?"

Store and work snapped tight around Mama and Papa Charlie a long time ago and was about to snap up Bo too. Maybe that was good for Bo. People said, over my head like I couldn't hear: She's smart enough. She can be a teacher, nurse, work at the mortician. Run the two stores or more making deliveries overtown and in the chickee village, for the next twenty, thirty years. All I could think of, while he swayed there waiting, was wishing I could go anywhere any time I want, so that's what I told him.

I expected him to say Wait until you're grown up. He said, "Times'll get to there on their own."

"What's that mean?" I threw right back at him. "What's that mean for me except waiting for what might not happen?"

"This'll happen," he said. "I can spin up the wheel of things, get you where you want real soon. But once it start rolling faster, bottom come back around on top just as fast. Takes a long time for the world to slow down again, and who knows which end up when it does. Sure you want to risk that?"

Moving wheel sounded better than stuck in mud. He laughed. Fruit dropped off the trees and burst on the ground and ackee split on the branch. "Starting tomorrow," he said, "you could be so free, you don't know where you gonna fly. Cut all those vines just for you. Sit anywhere. Try on shoes anyplace you like. Draw up anybody's water. Own everything from here to the other side of the swamp. You could be Mayor."

It was rude to laugh at someone but I did. "A girl mayor?"

"Why not. If a mayor can be black like swamp or brown like tea, why not also be a girl—when the girl's grown-up, of course."

Those were his craziest words yet. "A mayor can't be brown or black."

"Go on." He leaned close. "Dare me."

I said it. "I dare you."

"Done."

I looked around. Same room. Same old lace bedspread. Same bedposts climbing up from the dark floor. "That it?"

"I give to who give to me, so you do something for me," he said. "Cut it all down." Before I could ask all what, he said, "Put in roads. Build up towers. Line up fruit trees. Flatten runways. Cut a highway right through. Drain it, bury it, cover it with cement. These swamps, got to go. Got to disappear. Chickees too slow. Big house with porch and pipes inside and screens up, that's quicker. Shops in rows, blacktop streets, highway going state to state, that's quicker still."

Destroy all that so I could get somewhere faster I was already going? I shook a finger right in his face, rude or not. "Tree man like you ought to be protecting the trees, not asking people to cut them down."

"Where do the ghosts of trees go when they're dead?" he asked and answered, thumping on his hollow chest, "Right here. I remember every one. Just waiting 'til enough of them come back to me."

I stared and stared. "Then what?" I didn't think I'd like the answer.

"Then all that magic stick to me one. Then I get the thing I want most of all." I didn't like the answer, because I didn't like the growl in his voice, low and slow and deep like an ancient tree falling down. "Been waiting a long time, since the start. Waiting to be free to do what I want in the world. Do tit for tat for all been done to me."

"Like when you make people do bad things, drink too much and be bad to their husband? That tit for tat?"

Lightning blinked in his eyes. "Just make them more how they already are. People want to do what they want to do anyway."

"What if I can't help you?"

"Try," he said. "You can try anything. And those other wishes you won't ask, I'll roll up in one big wish for you."

For a moment, I heard the melody I was trying to write at the piano, all of it, start to finish, darting this way and that too fast to catch. For a moment, and I knew he could give me all the music I wanted, drop lightning in a jar and screw the lid on and I'd never have to go looking for it.

He slid out the window and poured across the yard. Dark clouds thickened across the sky.

His smells stretched out behind him: Communion wine spilled on a sticky bar, paregoric in the mud. I watched him slide around the yew tree and waited until the shadows crawled back into the wrinkles of the tree where they belonged.

When the yard stood empty, I hooked the screen on the window to keep the palmetto bugs out, and tiptoed to the kitchen. Picked up the cup from the sideboard. Little shapes, round and teardrop and wrinkled and smooth, slithered and rattled in it. Opened the door. The air tasted of rain and oranges instead of damp curling up a mangrove and sneaking out from under vault stones. He was gone, back to the swamp to wait for the swamps to disappear.

Whatever he wanted to do, maybe it wasn't up to me to tell him no, to stick him in the mud and tie his ankles. Mawby woman said the swamp is out of control. Great-Aunt Kate said Things in the trees aren't to do with us. Never asked the Miccosukee ladies, but they weren't from around here either, so maybe they would say the same.

He was right. I can try anything. Turn wheels. If there was one thing he did whether he wanted or not, was give out inspiration to do what a person wouldn't otherwise dare.

The soldiers walking through the side door on the way somewhere they used to go stepped aside for me. The light from the Dawkins house paused in the window to shine my way through the tall bush, to where my bare toes sank deep in soil damp with fresh water.

Don't trust a man who offers you wishes, when who knows what he has in his back pocket. I listened for that snatch of melody. It was out there, at the edge of where I could touch it. Too hard to catch just yet. Too far away. Gonna take a long time listening. Time, I had.

I planted my cupful of seeds—round and teardrop and smooth and wrinkled, ackee black as his eyes—deep in the dark wet earth, and listened for them to rise.


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.