The first time I ever danced with death was when I was ten years old. Precocious like a curious flower that blooms before its brothers and sisters, I saw everything and sought to conquer it. When boys tried to threaten me around, I’d punch them on every inch of their body till they apologized, then best them all at basketball, racing and swimming. When girls tried to make me be the ugly, uncultured duckling, there was none of them that could say a damn word when I showed up at school the next day wearing some of my Granny’s makeup and carrying around the pink family copy of Miss Manners.
Yet all my adventurous spiritual energy couldn’t face down the wiles of Mr. Thorns. He lived in a shanty off Ricebird Road, the same road my schoolbus passed every morning and noon, where the kids would cast pencils and rocks and leftover lunch bits on his weedy front lawn. Sometimes you could hear him screaming from within: “Yes! Yes, my children! More garbage, more garbage! Cast all your cares upon me! FOR I AM THE SON OF GOD!”
“White trash! White trash! Mr. Thorns is white trash!” we sang from the open bus windows. The bus driver didn’t seem to care. She just rolled her eyes each time and touched the little pendant of Jesus dangling off her rearview mirror as though He would protect her from whatever evils awaited anyone who teased Mr. Thorns.
None of us ever saw Mr. Thorns. We just knew he’d been in there since 1964, rotting away, white and fat and ugly and crazy.
It was the last Saturday before graduation when I saw Mr. Thorns. Granny had sent me and Virginia to Rootworks to get a Santa Margarita candle, two jars of honey and a new mojo bag. She told us to take the ‘safe road’, Sykes Street, to and fro, and to never go towards Mr. Thorns house, lest we want our asses whooped. Miss Erica-Anne Bowen, half a century old yet always looking no older than thirty, owned Rootworks, and gave us everything on discount. She forever looked so pretty in her cap of white-blonde hair and sea-green cardigan.
“Y’all just get whatever you need,” she said, “I’ll be in the storeroom.”
Smelling of Carolina jasmine and wax, the shop was piled with candles, herbs, statuary and aged grimoires written in Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Sanskrit, Greek and Cherokee. When I brushed my fingertips against the spine of a grimoire that belonged to a 14th Century Italian astrologer, a little shock pricked me and I swooped back, blinking sweat from my eyes. Serpent-swift, I bought everything we needed while Virginia lollygagged in a corner, reaching out to touch the statue of a Black mermaid with three breasts.
“Now why in the hell would somebody need three breasts?” she roared.
Miss Bowen wasn’t having any of it. She clapped her hands together. “I think it’s time for you gals to leave!” she screeched.
A spirit-doll fell off the shelf at Virginia’s feet, one with red hair and blue eyes—just like her. This was the first warning.
Rushing out with the little bag of wares, I took Virginia by the wrist and muttered, “can you not think of any more ideas to get us killed, Gin?”
On the way home, we walked along the side of the ‘safe road’, kicking little pebbles into the sewage pits beside us.
“I’m bored, what d’you wanna do?” I said. The only music we could hear was the silent hum of passing the cars and the beginning choruses of crickets.
“I dunno,” said Virginia. “My parents said I can spend the night, though. Although my mama didn’t really want me to.”
I rolled my eyes so hard I thought they’d fall out of my head. “She still prejudiced?”
Virginia gave me a look that could scorch meat. “What d’you think? Y’all are Black. And y’all are witches.”
“Yeah, but ain’t nobody know we witches,” I hissed. My grandmother will kill me if I ever speak like this in front of her.
Virginia let out a piggish snort. “All Black people are witches.”
I couldn’t disagree.
“Let’s go mess with Mr. Thorns.” The words came out of my mouth slicker than water. I’d never been the one to rabble up trouble on purpose. This was Virginia’s task in life. She looked at me with eyes that said “the hell?” and then shook her head, ginger curls swaying around like fiery curtains.
“You’re crazy,” she said, “nobody’s ever messed with him before. What d’you expect us to do? Walk up on his grass and moon him?”
My shrug was the answer. “Maybe. Or we could start shouting nonsense at him. That’ll really make him mad. Then we run.”
I was stupid for suggesting it. Virginia was even stupider for agreeing with me, traipsing away from the safe-road down the path that led past his house. It emerged from the high weeds moments into sundown, the familiar place of purple-and-blue rotted wood, with an American Flag sashed across the front door. The house rested on concrete slabs, and I swore I saw a night-creature scurry around in the dank, shit-smelling hovel.
When my sandaled Black foot took root on the hot grass of that barefooted White man’s house, something inside me screamed, “leave! Leave now!” I ignored the hell out of the sensation, staring at the house, Virginia’s hand laced in mine.
“Kippa-kippa-yippie-yippie-chick-a-doo!” We began to bark one of our childhood cadences, total nonsense. “Kippa-kippa-yippie-yippie-chick-a-doo! Cluck for me, cluck for you! Cluck for a doggy who looks like doo-doo!”
Virginia screamed and pointed to my left, tripping over a rock, unknowing of what to say. I felt a warmth near my body, sickly and unwelcomed, and I spun round on one heel, staring at Mr. Thorns. He wasn’t White at all. He was Black—Blacker than me. Like beautiful, sun-soaked tar. With a livid face, Mr. Thorns lunged, brandishing a filthy knife.
“C’mere, girl! C’mere! Let me be your Christ!” One of his muscled arms took me by the waist, and the ground dropped away from me, and I couldn’t leave his grip. The world was hazy, unreal. Virginia was yelling obscenities, me shouting to the top of my voice, clawing at his oily skin, unable to feel rage because his arm was pressing onto my ovaries.
The knife swung down, missing my face by the grace of an angel. It swung again and I ducked, my little fingers grasping at his wrists and it threw it all off course, grazing his shoulder. He roared at me. I kicked, but my feet did nothing against his rock of an abdomen, and then his hand was mashing against my vagina.
Virginia appeared at my side, crying, “duck!”, and as I did so the Rootworks bag clanged against Mr. Thorns’ face. Once. Twice. Three times. Four times. I fell on the fourth, my breaths ragged, my entire body furnace-hot, and the both of us sped into the bushes, abandoning all.
My Granny did not beat me. She did not chastise me. She remained as calm as death while she cleaned us off, then sent Aunt Arella to take Virginia home. As though she were collecting science samples, Granny took some of Mr. Thorns’ blood that had smeared across my chest and mixed it with the grass and dirt from his lawn that was on my body and placed it into a glass jar. I watched her throw a lit match into the jar while she whispered words I couldn’t understand and her eyes became bloodshot with rage and power.
In three days Mr. Thorns fell dead.