Anger is an energy. A young girl, a slave in the South, is presented with a moment where she can grasp for freedom, for change, for life. She grabs it with both hands, fiercely and intensely, and the spirit world is shaken.
In a wooden house on a modest farmstead by a dense wood near a roving river to the west of town, miles from the wide road and far away from the peculiar madness that is men at war, lived the Missus, the Missus’s grown daughters Adelaide and Catherine, the Missus’s sister Bitsy, the Missus’s poorly mother Anna, and the Missus’s fifteen-year-old slave girl Sully, who had a heart made of teeth—for as soon as she heard word that Albert, the Missus’s husband, had been slain in battle, she took up arms against the family who’d raised her, slipping a tincture of valerian root and skullcap into their cups of warmed milk before slitting their throats in the night.
The etherworld, always one eye steady on the realm of humankind, took note. Disturbances in the order of things could be exploited, could cut paths between dominions. The murder of a family by a girl so tender and young ripped a devilishly wide tunnel between the fields of existence, for it was not the way of things, and the etherworld thrived on the impermissible.
Sully’s breaths blurred together into a whispery, chafed hum as she stood over the bodies. Blood marked her clothes, hair, and skin. She tasted it in her mouth, where it had shot in a stream from Bitsy’s artery. Her tongue, too, was coated, but Sully wouldn’t swallow. She couldn’t bear to have that hateful woman all up inside her body, slick and salty and merging with her own blood. Saliva gathered in her mouth till she had no choice but to spit on a patch of rug in the second bedroom, where Bitsy and the Missus’s daughter slept.
She stumbled downstairs and out to the barn and grabbed the bar of soap from the metal tin that held all her possessions. Determined, she slaked it over her tongue before biting off a morsel and swallowing it, just in case a smidge of Bitsy had made its way into her and needed eradicating.
Sully’s whistley, syncopated pants could’ve been the dying wheezes of a sick coyote or the first breaths of a colt, the battlesong of a screech owl, a storm wind. Sully closed her eyes. In the darkness and quiet of the barn, she could hear every night sound as loud as a woman hollering a field song. The music of it entered her, and she succumbed. When next Sully opened her eyes, she could breathe properly again. A few moments after that, she felt steady enough to return to the house.
Sully gathered the blood-laden sheets from inside and carried them to the property’s stream, where the rush of water rinsed away the stains. She knew well how to untangle blood from cotton, having regularly scrubbed clean the Missus’s, the Missus’s daughter’s, and the Missus’s sister’s menses-soiled undergarments.
When her fingers turned still from the mix of cool water and the brisk night wind, she carried the sheets to the tree and hung them over the naked branches. The beige linens blew back and forth in the wind, possessed. Sully went inside to warm her hands over the woodstove then carried the bodies of her slavers one by one over her shoulder outside. She dug a single grave for hours and hours and hours into the night, into the next day, and into that night, too, never sleeping, and filled the wound she’d made in the earth with Missus, Adelaide, Catherine, Bitsy, and Anna, and covered them with soil.
Her heart should’ve ached for these women—they’d raised her from age six—but it did not. She was still seething, madder, in fact, than she’d been before the kill because her final act of rebellion had not brought the relief she’d imagined it would. These ladies who’d loomed Goliath in her life, who’d unleashed every ugliness they could think of on Sully, were corn husks now, souls hollowed out. Irrelevant. How could that be? How could folks so immense become nothing in the space of time it took a blade to swipe six inches?
BUY IT NOW
It was Sully’s unsoftened anger in the face of what she’d done that cut a path between dominions. The etherworld spat out a teenage girl, full grown, called Ziza into Sully’s womb. Ziza had spent the last two hundred years skulking in the land of the dead, but she rode the fury of Sully’s murders like a river current back to the world of flesh. Ziza felt it all, wind and sky and the breath of wolves against her skin. She spun through the ages looking for the present, time now foreign to her after being in a world where everything was both eternal and nonexistent.
“Yes, yes, yes!” Ziza called as she descended from the spirit realm down a tunnel made of life. Breathing things, screaming things, hot, sweaty, pulsing, moving, scampering, wild, toothy, bloody, slimy, rich, salty things. Tree branches brushed her skin. Sensation overwhelmed her as she landed with a soft, plump thud into the belly of her new god. Ziza took in the darkness, swum in it. It was nothing like the violent nothingness of her home for the past two centuries. For here she could smell, taste, feel. She could hear the cries of the girl carrying her, loud and unrelenting.
Sully had never been with child before, and she didn’t understand the pain that overtook her so sudden as she shoveled the last gallon of dirt over the graves of her masters. Spasms in her abdomen convinced her she was dying.
As she fell backwards to the ground, her belly turned giant and bulbous. She stared up at the crescent moon and spat at it for the way it mocked her with its half-smile. Sully hated that grinning white ghoul, and with all the spite at the fates she could muster, she howled and she howled and she howled at it. She howled until she became part wolf, a lush coat of gray fur spiking from her shoulder blades and spine. It was magic from the dead land that Ziza brought with her, where there was no border separating woman from beast.
Hearing the pained wailing, Ziza made herself as small as possible as she felt herself being birthed, not wishing to damage her host. With her last ounce of etherworld magic, she shrunk herself down to the size of a large baby for the time it would take to come out.
“Help,” moaned Sully, but she’d killed anyone who might be able to offer intervention. “Help me!” Sully’s womb contracted, and overwhelmed with the urge to push, she squeezed until that baby who was not a baby came out of her.
Sully’s mouth hung agape as she watched the birthed-thing crawl from the cradle of her thighs then grow bigger, bigger, and bigger until it was full grown. It was a girl Sully’s age, and though she was not quite smiling, she was—Sully struggled to put a name to the stranger’s expression—impressed with the situation. “Lordy,” said Sully, but she was in too much pain to worry over this oddity. The skin betwixt her legs had suffered from the delivery, now inflamed. Her vulva felt like a broken bone.
She tried to stand but was too weak, and the freshly bornt teenager offered a hand. Sully took it but shoved it away once she was up, then limped along to the kitchen where she fixed herself a poultice of mashed bread and soured milk. The smell of it turned her stomach and she vomited on the table before collapsing over a chair. Was this how it would end, in this dank kitchen, on this dank farmstead?
Sully felt a hand on her back. “Ma’am?” the fresh-bornt teenager said. “My name’s Ziza. I’m going to take care of you,” she said. She had a small, squeaky voice that reminded Sully of a mouse. “Don’t you worry,” she said.
Ziza pressed the bread-and-milk poultice to Sully’s vulva, fastening the mixture to her body with strips of cotton. She mashed herbs into a thick, leafy tea. “Drink this, girl,” she said, smiling with a joyful warmth that did not match the bloodiness of these hectic circumstances. “It’ll help along with the poultice.”
Sully’s nose curled up at the scent of it. “You just raised me up from the dead, and now you’re telling me you can’t swallow a little of my brew?” asked Ziza.
Lulled by Ziza’s gentle, chiding way, Sully obeyed—her first time ever to do so not under the threat of violence. “Shhh, now. Sleep,” said Ziza. She began to hum, but it wasn’t a lullaby sort of song. Too lively.
“I’m not tired,” Sully insisted, but she couldn’t breathe through the pain between her legs and her words came out as a series of gasps. “Am I dying?”
“You’re passing out,” said Ziza, stroking Sully’s face.
“You an angel or something?” asked Sully.
“Oh, I think you might be the angel. An avenging angel,” said Ziza.
Sully hadn’t spoken to a soul besides her masters in years. She hated how heavy her eyelids felt, how much of a strain it was to keep them wide open. The limits of her body were robbing her of this moment, this bewildering, strange moment.
“Sleep,” said Ziza. And then one more time, “Sleep.”
For once it was a blessing for Sully to do as she was told.
Two days later, Sully stirred awake. The pain had gone, and someone had carried her to Missus’s bed, which was made up with the linens Sully had washed.
“Ziza,” she called out, remembering her savior’s name. It slipped prettily off her tongue and teeth. “Ziza? You there?” Distantly she heard singing, but it was so faint she wondered if she was hallucinating it. She swung her legs over to the floor and stood, her bones and muscles creaking stubbornly. “Ziza!”
When no answer came, she went downstairs. The farmhouse had been recently cleaned. A metal pail filled with gray water sat in the corner near a mop and a discarded rag. The layer of dust usually visible on the floors and walls and wood stove had been washed away. Layers of grime that Sully had previously believed permanent had been scrubbed clean. The scent of lavender had done away with the previous odor of musk and sweat. Sully rubbed her eyes, made a shade out of her hand to block out the midday sun.
“Good afternoon, you,” said Ziza as she poked her head through the open window. Sully turned around to see the girl she’d birthed wearing a smile, one of Sully’s head scarves, and the Master’s church shirt, trousers, and suspenders. “Glad to see you’re finally up. I was getting lonely with only livestock as company.” There was that smile again, so wide and open it hardly fit on her face.
“You’ve made yourself quite at home,” Sully said.
“It got tiresome trying to be the polite house guest. There was too much needed doing,” she said. Sully saw that the panes of glass in the door, which had always been a murky brown, had been washed clean. They were clear and bright, sparkling just about. Ziza had turned this ramshackle cottage into something palatable, something the Missus had always hoped Sully would do. “You should come out here if you’re feeling up to it,” she said.
Sully peered around the main room of the farmhouse, all evidence of her murderous deed erased. Ziza had cleared away the pot of tea she’d brewed with analgesic leaves. The bloody clothes Sully had been wearing on the night in question were cleaned, dried, and ironed. They lay folded on a chair.
She wished she missed them. She wished at the very least she felt sadness or guilt. But all she felt was the same old rage. It burned her up, leaving her numb, nerves charred. She’d done the thing she’d always dreamt of doing, and now what? Perhaps now it was her time to die.
“You coming or not?” called Ziza.
Sully joined Ziza outside, where the sun was too bright. Her legs still weak, she leaned against the rotted wooden frame of the house, chewing her lip, arms crossed over her chest.
Across from her, not far from the chicken coop, Ziza drank in the sky. Her head tilted back at such a sharp angle that the base of her skull was perpendicular to the line of her neck. She touched her skin. Patted it. Poked it. Pinched it. Her whole body gestured joyousness. “Hallelujah, hallelujah,” she said.
Sully rolled her eyes at this stranger who’d made a house of her uterus. “What are you so happy about?”
“Haven’t you seen the sky today? Isn’t that reason enough to be happy?”
Sully slid her hands into the pockets of her apron and focused her eyes hard on Ziza. “No.”
“How can you be sure unless you have a look at it? Go on. Do it.”
Sully didn’t like to do what people said, so she looked out at the expanse of poorly managed land before her instead. The Missus’s family hadn’t been the most skilled of farmers, their approach to tending the earth one of brute force. They beat the ground with their hoes and rakes and called it tilling. The dirt was hungry. It needed feeding, cajoling, coaxing, singing to. Building up not breaking down. What had the Master and Missus known about growing something? All they knew was how to bleed something for all it was worth. What must it be like to live life when every interaction included the question, How much value can I extract from this?
“I can’t make you look, but it sure is beautiful,” said Ziza, eyes now affixed to Sully. She was small and birdlike, her mannerisms sharp and jittery. Her body was too small for her spirit.
“I don’t believe in beauty,” replied Sully, saying it because it sounded controversial, not because she particularly meant it. She counted the rows of cotton plants, which looked as scraggily and ugly as anything she ever saw. Ugliness was something she could count on.
“If you don’t believe in beauty, then I suppose you must’ve never seen your own reflection before,” said Ziza.
Now Sully didn’t have a response for that. “What did you say?” she asked.
Ziza returned her gaze to the sky. Her face was angled away, so Sully couldn’t see it properly, but she thought the girl was smiling.
“You’re nothing like how I imagined a ghost would be,” said Sully.
“Maybe because I’m not a ghost. If I was, could I do all this?” She grabbed a stick off the ground and flung it at Sully.
Sully batted it away then picked up another and tossed it right back. She reached down and grabbed handfuls of dirt and pebbles and threw them at Ziza, too.
“Stop! Stop!” Ziza cried, all the while laughing wildly.
Worn out from Ziza’s constant frivolity, Sully huffed a breath. “What are you even doing here? Leave me alone. Go away.”
“I promise to stop pestering you if you look at the sky,” said Ziza.
“I don’t think you could stop pestering if you tried,” Sully said and mashed a little dandelion into the ground with her boot.
“Damn, girl, just look.”
Sighing, , Sully cast her gaze upward. At first all Sully observed was the cloudless, bright blue that she suspected had entranced Ziza so much. She felt disappointed that after all of Ziza’s haranguing for her to look, there was no revelation, no moment of transcendence. Sully didn’t feel moved at all. The sky was the sky, like it had been yesterday and so many days before. She was about to look away when out the corner of her left eye she saw a fluttering of white. A flock of seagulls approached, so far inland that surely they were confused. “What in creation?” said Sully, mouth and eyes wide. The seagulls dipped low to the ground to give her what looked like a bow.
“Mercy,” Ziza cried out, then laughed in astonishment.
The chorus of squawking hurt Sully’s ears, so she yelled for the birds to hush. At once, the seagulls became silent. She covered her mouth to stifle the gasp.
Ziza, grinning widely, turned away from the circling birds and the cavernous sky to look at Sully. “You did this, did you know that? You are astonishing.”
Assaulted with such strangeness, Sully didn’t know whether to be joyful or frightened, to revel in this new inexplicable power or cower in its presence.
Sully removed the artifacts of her past life from the house and burned them in a bonfire outside, thinking these vestiges of the Missus were the reason for the sick feeling she still had even now that the family was dead. What could not be burned, she smashed. What could not be smashed, she buried in the woods past the property line. The Missus had collected all sorts of knickknacks and bric-a-brac over the years. Needless figurines. Stacks of newspapers ceiling high. Old, busted musical instruments that no one played. Bottles of snake oil bought from this and that traveling salesman, promising to cure ailments no one even had.
“With all the accoutrements gone, this place doesn’t feel like much of a home at all,” said Ziza as she helped set the table for supper. She’d invited herself to stay. “Looks like a tomb in here.”
“You’d know all about tombs, wouldn’t you, Miss Dead Girl?” Sully said, experimenting with a partial smile so Ziza would know she did not intend her comment anything but facetiously, but she hated the way it felt on her cheeks. She resolved never to do it again.
Ziza snorted as she folded a cloth napkin and placed it on the table, laughing with her tongue against her teeth so the sound of it was a soft hiss. “What’s a woman like me know of tombs? I died in a outhouse and was surely buried in an unmarked grave or burned. Tombs are for kings and queens.” She grabbed a piece of cornbread from the basket at the center of the table and brought it to her mouth, her manner far from proper. Crumbs stuck to the corner of her lips and she wiped them away with the fabric of her shirt cuff. In the days since she’d been here, she had yet to take off the ivory-colored button-up that used to belong to the Master. His single bit of fancy attire. Clean and barely worn. Though Master Albert had been a small man, the fabric draped like a carnival tent over Ziza’s miniscule skeleton.
“I don’t mind that you’re so very uncouth,” said Sully and sat down to join her new guest, her sort-of child, at the table. She’d taken—not quite pleasure, not quite comfort, perhaps reprieve—in the routine she’d fallen into with Ziza, enough that she could try to make pleasant conversation through the numbness.
“Says the girl who slain five womenfolk with no more thought than she’d throw out dirty bath water,” Ziza said.
Sully reached with her fingers beneath her head wrap to scratch her sweaty head and sized up Ziza from across the small wooden round table. She didn’t look like any girl Sully had seen before with her light brown skin and green eyes, sun-colored nappy hair, a cornucopia of freckles.
“Was you always that color?” Sully asked. She’d heard tales about ghosts possessing women, turning them white with death. “Or was it what happened to you in the Thereafter? I knew a boy who had a patch of white in his black hair from all the worries of his life, though I’ve always been an aggrieved sort of person, and that never happened to me. They say I’m dark as a raisin.”
After a few bites of beans, Ziza had a gulp of lemonade. “I was just born like this,” she said. She dipped her cornbread into a bowl of spicy red beans, thick pieces of meat from the ham hock mixed in among the onion. She ate every meal so ravenously, and it occurred to Sully there might not have been food in the Thereafter.