Cast aside the bloody hands of the self-righteous for they brittle and collapse amongst the bones of saints.
The tree leaves blew just as they did nineteen years earlier, and Adrina remembered it all. She remembered dropping clothes in a huge black kettle full of boiling water when her mother and Aunt Josephine pulled up in the wagon. She remembered her mother’s frowning face, the over-washed dress with the fading, blue-flowered print, and the brown hat on her head. She remembered her aunt was the first to jump out the wagon when the horse came to a stop. Dust blew through and around a squall of insects in the air. Josephine walked right through the dust and insects.
“Ain’t no time fo’ you to be washin’ clothes, ‘Drina,” Josephine rushed out as she brushed dust and insects away from her face. “Yo’ momma done killed a man. You may as well know ‘cause them peoples be comin’ soon.” She walked to the house and slammed the door hard behind her.
What peoples, Adrina wanted to say, but knew them peoples couldn’t be good. She heard her aunt fussing and cussing inside the house. Adrina’s mother remained on the wagon, staring ahead. Adrina was only eight years old, but she knew killing a man wasn’t good. The steam from the black kettle drew sweat on her face. She tightened her fingers around the wash paddle she held as dust and insects flew around her. Madelyn’s brown hat lifted on the right side before flying on the grove of yellow-tipped grass. Her thin wisps of hair looked like incandescent strings in the sunlight.
The glowing strands reminded Adrina of the thing Miss Patricia said made the round glass glow in her house. She didn’t need no gas lanterns, her mother had said. Miss Patricia had… What did her mother call it?
“Lecticy,” Adrina whispered. Her mother had lecticy lighting her hair. She forgot about the lecticy when she heard her aunt coming out the house with a shotgun and a mason jar.
“Take this, Maddy,” Josephine shoved the jar in her sister’s hands. “You might need it for them fools that call themselves men.”
Madelyn ignored the mason jar and its content; her eyes were steadfast on the shotgun. “You cain’t shoot any of ‘em, Josie.”
“Why not? Seem like blood the only language they understand.” Josephine leaned the rifle against the wagon. “They comin’, sis. You know they are.”
Madelyn shook her head and took a deep breath. “I should’ve pulled back a long time ago.” She unscrewed the red metal lid on the mason jar and then poured brownish, red-tainted water over her hands. Adrina recognized the jar. It was the one her mother forbade her to touch.
Madelyn screwed the red lid back on the glass jar after all its contents were gone. She looked at Adrina, still standing by the big, black kettle. A few wet garments were hanging on a clothesline, drying quietly beneath the southern sun. Adrina’s tattered blue dress was wet and clinging to her brown skin. Her small child face was perturbed by the thought of the black crows her aunt Josephine said would be near soon.
“What we gonna do about Adrina? Ain’t no tellin’ what they…” Josephine’s voice trailed away. Madelyn rose from the wagon and went to her daughter. She stooped to Adrina’s eye level and grabbed her shoulders with wet, red-streaked hands. Adrina felt her mother’s wet hands press into her skin.
“It be some bad men comin’, honey. They think they work for God.”
“Did you kill a man, Mama?” Adrina asked plainly. Madelyn nodded her head. “Why?”
Madelyn stared at the steam coming from the black kettle. “’Cause some men want more than what other men would believe.”
Adrina’s eight years of life could not make sense of her mother’s answer to her question. She stood calmly in her mother’s wet grip and wondered what her mother was looking at ahead. Adrina followed her mother’s trail of vision to the open field. The sun glowed and radiated the hilltop of green grass and dandelions. Adrina saw three dark figures break into the sunlight and bob down the hill. Madelyn rose to her feet.
“’Drina, go get ya shoes,” her mother said suddenly yet calmly. “Now, girl!”
Adrina still had the wash paddle in her hand. She didn’t know what to do with it, plus there was the apron caked with cornmeal stains that needed cleaning. She knew her mother would have a fit if it wasn’t wiped clean of each grain. She dropped the apron in the kettle of water and pressed it down with the wash paddle. She should at least let it soak some.
“The hell with them clothes, girl! I said go fetch yo’ shoes!” Madelyn snarled.
Adrina ran in the house and got her no-lace shoes by the hearth. She slid on each shoe with a quick motion, feeling the pressure of her mother’s words at her neck.
She couldn’t leave Patty. Patty was her sister that never spoke, couldn’t run, or do anything but stare at her with black button eyes. She had put Patty (she named her after Miss Patricia, imagining the doll dressing and putting on airs like her) in her mother’s room. Her mother didn’t really like Miss Patricia that much and had told Adrina so. Adrina didn’t really know why she kept her doll, named after Miss Patricia, in her mother’s bedchamber. Maybe she felt her mother’s opinion about Miss Patricia was too strong.
Patty was tucked under the bedspread; a strand of her brown, yarn hair jutted beneath a pillow. Adrina grabbed Patty and ran for the door. Her no-lace shoes almost flopped off her feet. She came out and shoved the thin, wooden door away from her. She was hit with a blast of sunlight in her eyes, so brought Patty over them. She stepped forward on the dirt.
Her mother and Josephine were gone. She looked around and saw their wagon moving in a dust cloud until the wagon disappeared. Adrina looked up at the sky and became scared. The dark figures in the field were getting near. She could see the three men coming. Adrina ran in the house, shut the door, and hid under her mother’s bed. She whispered to Patty not to be afraid, as her own hands shook. Where did Mama and Aunt Josie go, she wondered.
Adrina heard voices outside. It was hot underneath her mother’s bed. She hoped the men would leave soon. Her ears heard the sound of creaking wood in the next room. Adrina clutched her sister doll tightly.
“She in here, Clee?” Adrina heard a man say.
“Naw. I think she ran out back.”
Adrina could tell the man addressed as Clee was closer to her than the other man. She closed her eyes and smiled, grateful that he thought she had run out back. Her eyes flew open and the smile on her face turned upside down as she screamed. She felt her body dragged from under the bed. A strange-looking man, with even stranger eyes, stood Adrina on her feet and carried her to the front of the house. Adrina screamed and twisted in his arms. The man sat her down, grabbed her shoulder, and looked sternly in her eyes. Adrina breathed heavily and her body shook from fright. She looked up at the man’s strange, unfriendly eyes.
“Stay still, lil’ girl, and don’t run. Yo’ momma in enough trouble.”
“Take her outside, Clee,” a stout, darker-skinned man said. Clee grabbed Adrina by the upper fabric of her dress and led her outside.
The third man, who was lighter in complexion and tall like Clee, fanned a swath of insects from his face as he stood on the un-leveled, wooden porch. Adrina watched his eyes pan the road that Josephine and her mother fled upon.
“What kind of mother would leave her child like that?” he said.
“The kind that ain’t of this world and shouldn’t be,” Clee responded. “Got that manly sister with her…” He kept a tight grip on Adrina’s dress, pulling the fabric into her neck tightly. Adrina squirmed under his capture.
“Oww,” she cried.
“Don’t be so rough, Clee,” the dark-skinned man insisted. “She just a child.” Clee reluctantly loosened his grip on the blue fabric. Adrina let out a deep breath. “You don’t know why we here, do you?” the dark man said to her. Adrina shook her head. “We are Nazareth’s Disciples. Yo’ momma done did a bad thing. They say when a woman is wicked, a man must resolve hisself to do what’s right for the land, for God’s law is mighty and right, and those that trespass on His goodness should expect a wrath for all the ages.“
Adrina looked at the man with perplexity. He saw the bewilderment in her eyes and patted her head. “It’s okay. You just a child. There is a chance for you.”
“How you know that, Will?” Clee began. “That’s Madelyn’s child. What’s in the momma is bound to be livin’ in her! They say you ought to nip a thing in the bud… I say nip it!” Adrina observed Clee’s dusty, brown skin. His face, arms, and hands were ashy like he had been in the middle of a dust storm since birth.
“We won’t do no such thing,” Will said with a smile on his face. He seemed nicer than Clee, Adrina thought. “What we gonna do is take her with us for a lil’ leverage.”
“Damn women folk done abandoned this little girl,” the tall, light-skinned man said. “What in the hell?”
“It’s to be expected of a witch!” Clee said indignantly and then spat on the patch of dirt in front of the house.
“Well, I’s got reservations about people seein’ three grown men with a little girl and no woman around,” the light-skinned man said.
“Dammit, Travell!” Clee snarled. “You makes everything a chore.”
“It just don’t look proper. Folks start askin’ questions and makin’ assumptions.”
“You forget who we are,” Will said. “Madelyn done committed a grave act, but I see the point in your words.” He shook his index finger at him. “We go through the woods and make way for Clee’s momma’s barn.”
The three men and Adrina set forth through the vast field before them. Adrina clutched Patty tightly as Clee kept a hard, heavy, dusty hand on her shoulder. She turned her head and saw the three-room cabin she was born in grow smaller as her feet approached the hilltop.
“I want my mama,” she began to cry.
“So do we,” Will insisted. The smile on his face this time was not nice. Adrina felt fear from these three, strange men. Where did her mother and Aunt Josie go? If her mother had killed a man, did that meant that these men would kill her? Adrina wanted to run and knew she had to do it very soon, but the man named Clee had too heavy a grip on her shoulder. There was nothing kind about his eyes or spirit. If she was caught, he would beat her bad, but she didn’t care. Auntie Josie always said, “Don’t be afraid to look death in the eyes. It’s real as the day.”
That’s what Adrina would do – look death in his eyes.
As they neared the hilltop, Clee had to muster his lanky legs for the upward climb. He let go of Adrina’s shoulder to brace one of his knees. Adrina turned swiftly and ran toward her house.
“Get her, Clee!” Will shouted. Clee made a mad dash for the little girl. She ran, nearly flew, down the hill. Her braided pigtails swung in the air like pinwheels and her no-lace shoes flew off her feet. Clee felt his feet scurry too fast down the hill. His body stumbled and collapsed on a field of dandelions and grass. He slammed a hand on the soil of grass. He failed his mission. He looked ahead at Madelyn’s wild child, running like it was something she did every day and he did very seldom. As the girl approached her house, Clee could see two figures emerge toward her. It was Madelyn and Josephine, no doubt.
“There they is, Will!” Travell shouted, pointing at the women. Clee remained in the grass, exhausted and disinterested. He heard his companions’ footsteps approach, and then Will spoke.
“So, even a witch has some humanity.”
“There is nothin’ but evil in that woman,” Clee insisted. “What she did to John Wade…” He shook his head and twisted his face.
“Now, we done lost the girl,” Travell said. “How we gonna bring her momma to justice now? Ain’t got no leverage.”
Neither Will nor Clee spoke a word. They didn’t have to, for Madelyn, Josephine, and the little shoe-less girl began to walk the hill toward them.
Josephine’s strong limbs braced the climb like an amble athlete with a rifle in her hands. Madelyn walked steadfastly by her side, holding her daughter’s hand. Nazareth’s Disciples sat and stood in silence as the women and girl approached. Clee still hadn’t raised his tired, bony limbs from the ground. As the women got closer, he could see uncertainty on Josephine’s face and stern righteousness on Madelyn’s face. She was guilty as sin.
“Murderer,” Clee hissed.
Within minutes, the women and girl were face-to-face with the men self-ordained as God’s hands of judgement. Clee stood up in the grass, looking contemptibly at them. Madelyn was the first to speak.
“I don’t know what you three un-Godly men want, but I tell you this – your brother wanted what I gave him.”
“No man wants to die like that,” Will said. “You committed a sin beyond the sins of this Earth.”
“John Wade was a troubled man,” Madelyn insisted. “You think you knew yo’ brother, but you didn’t. He was bad inside. He knew it and wanted me to do somethin’ about it.”
“I highly doubt John Wade wanted you to suck the blood from his eyes,” Clee said emphatically, contemptibly.
Adrina looked up at her mother. She sucked blood from a man’s eyes? How did she do that? Madelyn tightened her grip on Adrina’s hand, similar to the grip Clee had on her earlier.
“What you expectin’ to do with my sister?” Josephine said sternly, raising the shotgun rifle from the ground. “She said the man wanted what she gave him.”
“Miss Josie… Can I call you that?” Will asked with a sly smile. “Now, I would think a woman like you may not want to be dragged into a mess of blood and justice. I’m sure God’s wrath will be comin’ for you soon, but for now, we needs to take matters up with yo’ sister and give her body and soul to the breath of God.”
“You ain’t takin’ my sister to no God of yours,” Josephine said. “ You ain’t takin’ her nowhere! You gots to kill me first!” She raised the shotgun and pointed the barrel at Will.
Will shrugged and touched Clee’s shoulder. Clee rose from the ground. Travell pulled a knife from his back pocket.
“Am I supposed to be afraid of that knife, Travell,” Josephine said. “You gonna have to do better than that.”
Travell smiled. Josephine stared at him pensively. She thought he meant to threaten them with the knife despite the fact that she had a shotgun, but now she understood it had a different purpose. It was the ivory-handled knife that Madelyn used when she gouged John Wade’s eyes out of their sockets. She could still hear his screams as the knife sliced the skin beneath his eyeballs. Madelyn had instructed her to get the mason jar with the red lid from the kitchen. She fetched it quickly and watched her sister hold the bloody knife over the mason jar. Drops of John Wade’s blood fell into the jar that had some kind of liquid inside of it. After a few drops of blood were released into the jar, Madelyn shook the jar gently and then put it to her lips. As she drank John Wade’s blood and whatever else, John Wade’s screams subsided. Madelyn wiped his sweaty forehead with a damp towel but let the blood drain from his eyes. It poured down his face like a red wonder.
“Is he dead yet?” Josephine asked.
“Not yet, but he will be soon.”
“Why his eyes?”
“He saw somethin’ he don’t wanna see no more.”
Madelyn’s brown eyes turned white before shelling out a grayish hue. Currents, like waves in a river, revealed John Wade’s reflection. Josephine saw a smaller image move in her sister’s eyes before they suddenly turned black. She now looked at the knife in Travell’s hands, the knife Madelyn left upright like an ivory staff or cross in John Wade’s dead hands.
“Justice for John Wade,” Travell spoke candidly and fiercely.
“If only you knew your brother,” Madelyn said.
“We knew him well enough to know he was murdered by a witch!” Clee snapped. “And just where did you go just now, leavin’ yo’ daughter alone like that? We had her, you know. We could’ve did to her what you did to John Wade!”
Madelyn pulled something from the inside of her dress within the folds of her breast. Clee let out a gasp of air when he saw the two, bloody, brown eyeballs moving loosely in her hand.
“A witch! See? Burn her and these bitches!”
Will was befuddled like his companion but kept his cool. He swallowed the spit in his throat. This woman was truly evil. Not only did she cut out John Wade’s eyes but kept them close by like souvenirs of a righteous, bombastic kill. The man was even buried without them. His wife had collapsed when she saw his eyeless countenance. John Wade’s funeral was a sad affair.
“Mercy,” Will seethed. “There can be no mercy for this wickedness!”
“I have decided to go with you, Will, you and your disciples.”
“What?” Josephine turned to her sister. “They will hurt you and then I will hurt them!”
Madelyn shook her head and looked the gang leader, Will, in his eyes. “I done thought long and hard on this. I will go with you. All I ask is that you leave my daughter and my sister alone. I want to take you somewhere, the place where John Wade’s sight was broken.”
Josephine looked at her sister, perplexed. She was confused by her sister’s sense of moral duty to these men. She had vowed to protect Madelyn from these vile men but now Madelyn was willing to let them exact their self-righteous justice upon her.
“It’s a trick, Will!” Clee decried.
“No trick can pass before God,” Will insisted. “Her evil cannot hurt us.”
“Tell that to John Wade!” Clee shouted.
“Mama, please don’t go with them,” Adrina said, pulling her mother’s attention by tugging at her hand. Madelyn looked down at her dear child and mustered as great a smile as she could.
“I’ll be alright, Adrina, and so will you. Auntie Josie will take care of things.”
“No! I want you, Mama!”
“Maddie, I cain’t take care…” Josephine stopped talking when she saw the determined look on her sister’s face.
“I have to take them where their brother’s sight was broken,” Madelyn insisted once more. “They want to see … they need to see.” Josephine nodded her head. Madelyn released Adrina’s hand to hold John Wade’s bloody eyeballs firmly in her own.
“Evil witch!” Clee hissed. “I oughtta take that knife and use it on you!”
“Hush now, Clee,” Will said. “Her daughter can hear you.”
“Since when you care about an abomination and what it can hear?”
“She just a child.”
Madelyn watched and listened to the men squabble about her and Adrina. Without notice, she took a step toward the hilltop where the sun shone white in the sky. The men lifted their feet and followed her pace.
A week later, Nazareth’s three disciples were found wandering the woods, blind and mute. The day after, two young boys fishing at the river hooked the dress of nine-year-old Johnnie Mae Thomas who had been missing for weeks. They reeled to the surface her bruised and bloated body. Years later, Adrina asked her aunt, Josie, about that very peculiar day.
“Was my mother really a witch?”
“She could see things and knew things.”
“They thought she was a witch, Aunt Josie, but she died two days later. What happened to her?”
“Baby, if I only knew.” Josephine sipped the beer in her glass.
Adrina was now a woman. She was a shade lighter than her mother, Madelyn, but resembled her sharply around the nose. Josephine thought Adrina looked more like her father, Anxious Joe Turley, who bled to death after getting his hand caught in a turbine grip.
“Why did that man of God go to my momma if she was a witch?” Adrina said.
“To unsee what he had done. Devils don’t run to God when they need help.”
“What did he do?”
Josephine exhaled a quiet pressure from her chest. “John Wade was havin’ his way with little girls. One day he saw his reflection in the river. He saw his face soaked in blood and his eyes was gone. He saw all that next to the body of the little girl he had been havin’ his way with and eventually killed.”
Adrina took in a deep breath as she sat in a chair on the porch of the old cabin that was her childhood home. She remembered the clothes she hung on the clothesline that day and wondered whatever happened to the cornmeal-stained apron? “Didn’t they know what he had done … what he was doin’?”
“There was a rumor that John Wade was havin’ his way with young girls, but men only see what they wanna see.”
“Nazareth’s Disciples,” Adrina whispered into the air, remembering those frightful men.
“God’s hell.” Josephine’s attention was drawn to the sound of the 1939 Ford Prefect carting down the unpaved road. It was a deep red, like the blood that flowed from John Wade’s eyes the morning Madelyn lifted his eyeballs out their sockets with that ivory-handled knife. His scream was terrifying. Madelyn had mixed his blood with water from the river and drank it from the mason jar. John Wade’s scream had then subsided to a whimper. His last words never left Josephine’s ears:
“It’s gone… She gone…”
Madelyn grabbed his sweaty, shaking hand. John Wade felt the coldness of her palm and inhaled the acrid, musky scent of river and blood that flowed from her breath.
“And so are you, John Wade. And so are you.”
Are you a writer? We’re looking for short stories and personal essays to feature on our digital and print platforms. Click HERE to find out how.