The leaves on the two maple trees in the yard beamed a spectacular fiery red as the blue bottles that hung from them shimmered under the late afternoon sun. It was an uncharacteristically warm Fall day in the small southern town of Divine. The unexpected yet welcome weather kept neighbors lingering outdoors a little longer than normal this time of year.
Thirteen-year-old Marjani Crabtree was sitting on the front porch swing chipping away the old white paint with her fingernails when Grandma Leslie called her inside. It was her favorite activity, reflecting on her day, her dreams, penning poems and short stories, letting her imagination run free; all while gently rocking and leaning into the fresh breeze swaying past her bare cocoa-brown shoulders. She slipped off her brown strappy leather sandals in the foyer and glided down the hall, glancing up at the ornate silver photo collage of distinguished faces against a backdrop of peeling burgundy and shimmering gold-striped wallpaper. She recognized a smell of sweet smoke, and briefly caught her reflection in the mirror in the center.
As soon as she crossed the kitchen threshold, her elder demanded, “Go out there and tell that man walkin’ I said wait for me.”
Not once looking up, Grandma Leslie continued stirring the cast iron pot of hot okra stew while her perplexed yet obedient granddaughter furrowed her brow, took a sharp turn and walked out of the room. Her white maxi skirt fluttered at her ankles as she slipped back into her sandals, pushed open the rickety screen door and stepped out. The worn wood clapped shut against the frame.
Standing on the sidewalk next to where a tree root began to emerge from the pavement, Marjani scanned the block.
Women chatted on porch steps while sashaying up and down Divine Street, sharing the latest gossip and foresight into what the new season would bring. Ms. Mary swept her driveway next door after spending her morning pulling weeds; her white wide-brimmed sun hat, a crown on her head; like the church hats she wore each Sunday. Two houses down, three little girls, sisters, dressed in shorts and t-shirts played hopscotch, singing hand-game songs as they bounced from square to square. Their mother joined in laughing loudly. Marjani smiled, moved by the free expressions of joy between a mother and her daughters.
Two of the five Ladke boys flew past on the blue, rusted bicycle they all shared. The eldest, Shawn, sat on the seat while his baby brother Michael balanced himself on the handlebars; the untied shoestrings of his black and white Converse sneakers dangling in air. Then there was Mr. Ralph, right across from the Crabtree residence, completing the finishing touches on his car detail. He waved both hello and goodbye before closing his garage door for the day.
But that’s all Marjani saw. There were no men walking along anywhere. She returned to the kitchen.
“Grandma, I don’t see no—”
“Chile, I didn’t ask you what you see,” Grandma Leslie said in a low, calm and steady tone as she placed the lid on the pot.
Her almond-shaped gray eyes pierced through Marjani’s honey-brown globes like a dart. She could feel the tension seize in her neck. “I said to go out there and tell that man to wait. Don’t make me say it again.”
Marjani understood with that, it was best she’d stop talking. She knew better than to question her grandmother. Doing so would guarantee a quick backhand to her mouth. She walked back onto the porch, down the stairs and sat on the bottom step, her feet placed firmly on the dry grass. Grandma Leslie smirked and took a sip from the ladle while watching her granddaughter turn and go.
Pulling her bundle of auburn locs to the top of her head, Marjani exposed her long, slender neck adorned in colorful beaded necklaces; a white scarf tied across her crown. She rolled her eyes and rested her elbow on her knee, her face in the palm of her right hand. The blue glass bottles hanging on the few broken branches of the trees in the yard sang out low and achingly whenever a gust of wind blew past. The sound contrasted the shiny musical jingles and clangs of the wooden and brass wind chimes hanging from the porch soffit. Marjani found the cacophony comforting.
She rose to her feet as she noticed a shadow stretching down the road before its owner appeared in her line of sight. A man, smooth skin the color of nutmeg, slowly strolled along. He smiled and waved.
“Hey there, miss. Good evenin’ to ya,” he said as he continued up the sidewalk.
“Good evenin’!” Marjani called. “Oh! Good evenin’!” Marjani ran across the yard to the tall stranger. He wore an off-white, short-sleeved button-up; brown tweed pants and matching vest. He smelled like sweet orange smoke. He turned to her, searching her face for any clue to what was wrong.
“Just. Wait here. My grandma… I know it sounds,” Marjani crossed her arms. “She told me to tell you, well, a man, but I think that man is you…”
The man blinked.
“She told me to tell you to wait here for her,” she blurted out.
With a furrowed brow, he started to turn and walk away.
“No, please!” Marjani grabbed his arm, his bicep, and was stunned silent.
“Um,” Marjani said while quickly releasing him from her grip and lowering her gaze. “Just let me go get my grandma, and it will all make sense then.” She peered into his deep-set eyes before positioning herself to head back inside. Just as she did, Grandma Leslie appeared next to her. Wiping her hands on her apron, she began to speak.
“You listen to me and you listen to me well. Leave that man’s woman alone.”
A wary smile crept from the corners of his mouth. “How did you—”
“That’s all I was given to tell you,” Grandma Leslie said. “What it means, I don’t know. But when I’m told something, folks listen. And when they don’t, they soon wish they had.”
“Deni. Your name’s Deni,” Marjani suddenly shared. “You’re seeing Janice, Reverend Bolton Bea’s daughter.”
Grandma Leslie looked at her granddaughter then back at the man. “Is that right?”
Clenching his jaw, he slowly nodded.
“It’s too late!” Marjani screamed, staring past him into her vision. Quickly, she covered her mouth. Her eyes glistened and her body shook. Grandma Leslie rubbed her back.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Deni said. “Y’all both crazy!”
Deni took off in the direction he was headed as Grandma Leslie sent Marjani inside for dinner. Reaching for the doorknob, she suddenly heard her grandmother calling on her ancestors and the gods. Deni had turned around, ran, and tackled Grandma Leslie to the ground.
“I don’t want to hurt you!” he said, pinning her down. “Just tell me what else you and your girl know, and I’ll let you go!” Marjani stood at the top of the porch yelling for him to release her.
“Tell me what else you know! Please.” he continued.
Marjani felt heat rise in her body. She opened and closed her hands three times and paused before facing them toward Deni. The energy lifted him from the ground, launched him in the air and down on the sidewalk, hitting his head on the exposed tree root. “Before you moved down here, you killed that poor woman and her baby,” Marjani said, kneeling beside him. Even through the slits of his eyes, she could see the horror behind them, knowing that his secret would not go with him to the grave.
He grabbed her neck, squeezing tighter and tighter. Marjani responded by clenching his forearms. The force from his grip transferred to her body, flowed from her hands through his arms, and to his heart. She saw his spirit fly away. His arms hit the ground as his eyes became fixed at no particular point in the heavens.
The wind sat still. Yet, the blue bottles on the trees began to rattle. A wailing moan soared into the quiet of the night.
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Photo credit: Andrew Ruiz
Jeanna D. Rutledge is a freelance writer and editor based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina where she lives with her husband and three young sons.