Carolyn Boykin: Perverse Spirits
The sun beat down on the corrugated, tin roof from a cloudless sky. The metal had rusted in many places, producing an overlay of new tin grafted onto old in odd patches. The heat it produced, encapsulated the two-room shack housed beneath it, transforming it into an oven that broiled the raw, pungent smell of Fannie’s sweat. It comingled with the blood, mucus, urine, and feces that lay in a pool between her raised legs, stirring into a nauseating stench. The hands of Cora, the midwife; Fannie’s mother; and two sisters strained to hold Fannie’s thrashing form still as her back arched with the force of another pain. The women looked across her body at each other, shaking their heads, death swimming in the unshed tears pooling in their eyes, preparing for the death that lingered in the fetid air around them.
Cora was a big woman, standing just under six feet in height, broad shouldered, and muscled as some men. Sweat poured from her forehead, sliding over her coarse features which contorted from the strain. Her muscles bulged and flexed as she grabbed Fannie across her back, rolling her onto her side, allowing the other women to snatch the soiled sheet from beneath her before rolling her back onto the bare mattress. Her large, strong hands began kneading the round mass of Fannie’s abdomen as it hardened with another contraction. Fannie’s heels dug into the mattress and she threw her head back, her mouth stretched wide in a scream. Cora could see the entirety of the baby’s form outlined and knew that the head was not pointing down the way it should.
“Lord,” she whispered, turning her face upward, seeking direction and solace from heaven. “Help me, Jesus. Show me what to do,” she prayed, the gentle healer’s spirit encased in her formidable body reaching out to her spiritual gifts. Beneath Cora’s skin, she felt snakes writhing in agitation, cold suddenly enveloping her, radiating from the hands that touched the baby still in Fannie’s womb and upward through her body. Her gift manifested itself in warmth and light, or cold and darkness. This was cold.
Beaulah, Fannie’s older sister, wiped a cool, wet rag across Fannie’s brow, cooing soothingly. Her mouth moved in silent prayer as fear twisted her heart, seeing again the wreckage of her sister’s body when they had found her nine months before this day.
Fannie, legs sprawled apart, the lower portion of her body torn and mutilated, her life’s blood seeping into the dry ground. Deep wounds circled her neck, dark bruising welts, her breathing shallow and labored. She had screamed until James Henry, her sister’s husband, arrived and carried her limp form back to the house. Fannie never told her sister what or who had attacked her that day in the woods. She had simply lain listless and silent for weeks, staring at the wall, while being tended to by her family as her stomach began to swell.
Beaulah visited every day, ignoring the whispers of the family and folks around her, praying with, and for her sister. Discernment was not a gift that she possessed, but anyone with two eyes could see the madness that had descended upon Fannie.
She gazed into Fannie’s eyes, noting the same fixed stare focused on the space beyond her. Reaching out, she stroked the hand resting in her sister’s lap.
“Fannie? Fannie? I knows you can hear me.”
She waited and began again, keeping the skin-to-skin contact, her voice soft. “It weren’t your fault. This ain’t what God want for you. You gon’ keep on an’ lose that baby chile’, an’ then what James Henry gon’ do?”
Fannie slowly raised her eyes to search her sister’s. When she spoke, her voice dry from disuse, Beaulah barely recognized it.
“You don’t know, sister. You don’t know what I done. An’ this here is my punishment.”
Her eyes lowered again, and tears slowly coursed down her cheeks, dripping onto the round mound beneath the faded housedress she wore.
“That ain’t so. God don’t be like that. We all got judgement an’ that a sure thing, but he ain’t gon’ punish a youngin’. You know it ain’t nothin’ he cain’t forgive if we ask him.”
Fannie raised her eyes to search her sister’s again, a glimmer of hope sparking. Beaulah seized it, speaking rapidly as she fell to her knees, her head in her sister’s lap, forehead bumping against the roundness of the baby. She pulled both of Fannie’s hands into her own, shaping them into the familiar form of prayer.
“All us needs to do is pray. Pray wit’ me Fannie, pray wit’ me.”
Beaulah would have done anything to save her, promised the Lord any sacrifice, and that day, Fannie found God again, both of them leapt and danced with joy, shouting and praising his lost sheep being brought back into the fold. Something in God’s word had reached her, and Fannie had sobbed in Beaulah’s arms, her words incomprehensible to anyone but the God she now served.
God became more real to Fannie than he ever had been before, offering her absolution from the darkness that had surrounded her since the attack. He became her light. Day after day, Beaulah found her cradling her stomach with one hand, holding her bible with the other. And now, the baby was coming, the special son that Fannie was assured God had promised her.
Looking up, Beaulah saw Cora raise her chin, motioning her and the other women into place to hold Fannie’s shoulders down. Each woman pressed one hand down on a shoulder and used the other to hold an ankle. Her mother, Corinn, stood at her head and added her hands and strength to pin Fannie to the bed.
Cora used one hand to press against Fannie’s stomach while she reached up through her vagina, pushing her hand upward, grunting in pain as a contraction squeezed her arm and wrist, making her pant until it passed. Feeling the small feet of the child, she wrapped her hand around both feet and yanked, putting all her strength behind it, and felt the body sliding forward. Turning the baby to ease out the shoulders, she pulled again until he lay in her waiting hands, face down.
Even from the back, she could see that his head was misshapen from the force of being pulled through the narrow birth canal. His blue-black skin was pale, showing no hint of blood flow, and she turned him quickly, gasping at the sight of his nose squashed into his face, his bulging eyes, and his wide, silent mouth.
But, more than his disfigured head and face, more than his large body and shriveled legs, was the darkness that radiated from him in waves as he began struggling to breathe, his body twisting with the effort. The snakes under her skin rolled in protest and Cora felt her eyes rolling upward, her body swaying unsteadily.
“Jesus, somethin’ wrong wit’ him. Look at him.” Cora hissed the urge to place her large hand over his face and deny him the breath of life rising and writhing with the snakes. Beaulah, Ethel, and Corinn shrank away from her, their eyes rounded in terror, their open mouths flapping without sound.
“Wha’s wrong?! Give him to me,” Fannie cried, having forced herself into a sitting position. Grimacing as pain tore through her body, she reached out for the fragile newborn. The smell of copper rose into the air as hot blood rushed from her, startling Cora, who blinked twice, freeing herself from her trance, and moving into action. She looked down at the baby once more, hearing the words that would end him clearly whispering across her mind. The baby’s eyelids slid open slowly and stared at her, unflinching.
Cora felt her body deflate, the ramrod steel of her determination dissolving as she stared into his eyes. Her light melted. The snakes stilled.
Hastily, she pushed the baby into Fannie’s arms and turned, moving quickly across the room to her bag, her large bare feet making prints in the dust of the earthen floor. She rummaged, hands trembling as she searched for the herbs to pack Fannie’s womb, and stop the bleeding before she lost both mother and child. On the bed, Fannie clutched the child to her chest, and from the corner of her eye, Cora saw him wriggling. He was alive.
“Fannie, he ain’t right chile, he evil; I can feels it.” Cora called up the last of her remaining courage as she walked back across the room. “You know I got the sight, was born wit’ a veil an’ I can see it. You got to let me send him back.” Her head swiveled from side to side as she attempted to catch the eyes of the other women who stood with heads bowed, each slowly making their way closer to the door.
Fannie stared down into his small distorted features, all too big, overpowering his face, with his dark skin turning purple from his efforts to breathe. She laid him in the crook of her arm and leaned her head down until her mouth covered his nose and mouth, and she exhaled into him, watching his small chest rise. She ran her fingers lovingly over the wrinkled crevices of his skull, down his cheek and across his small body, and then repeated the procedure.
She noticed the small, shrunken legs attached to his large torso and wondered if they might be able to support him. She gazed into his eyes, willing him to live, infusing him with her spirit, remembering that God had talked to her and shown her how to still the darkness she saw swirling there in the depths.
“He be alright. God, I’ll help him be alright.” She spoke against the tendrils of evil and malice, the same ones that she had seen in the eyes of his father, Charles, that last day in the woods.
They met at that place, deep within the trees, the one that had become their own. It had been that way for months as he had loved her the way that her husband never seemed able to, making her insides glow, praising her beauty. She forgot the hard callouses on the palms of her hands from scrubbing, washing, hoeing the yard, and always cleaning or cooking. His touch seemed to soften her.
“Come away wit’ me, Fannie,” he begged, his breathing still harsh in her ear as the passion eased from them both. She reached down to smooth her dress back into place as she turned her head away.
“You know I cain’t do that, Charles. I got them kids. They cain’t come wit’ us. I got to stay wit’ ’em ’til they get big. Then us can go.”
His body hardened against hers and he leaned back to look directly in her eyes, forcing his words through his lips. “You don’ loves me, Fannie. You loves him an’ them.”
“No, Charles, I loves you, it jus’. . . .” The words faltered, flopping around in her mind like a fish out of water, and her limbs began to tremble under his gaze.
He stood up, his body rigid, swelling with fury growing in him as she spoke, and she watched his eyes change, becoming darker, larger. Something swirled in their depths just as his hand made a fist and came down to strike her.
Her left eye exploded with pain, her hands flew up to cover it, leaving her defenseless against the blows he rained on her. The bone in her forearm cracked from the force of the next blow, and then fell limply at her side. She tried to form words that would stop him, bring back the love between them, but nothing came through her swollen lips except grunts and groans.
He lifted and slammed her into the earth, and felt the soft grass that had been their bed a moment ago, now filled with stones and brittle branches that dug into her back. One hand fumbled with his manhood as he stretched her legs open wide, pulling and clawing at her as he tore her body.
His face was a rictus of hatred as he pounded into her broken flesh. She remembered the raw searing pain as tissue ripped and tore. He pounded her body; his hands wrapped around her throat, squeezing until the last of his rage poured out of him with his seed flowing into her. She saw him stand and walk away, never looking back at her ravaged body while her fractured mind tried to comprehend what happened as the pain dragged her down into complete darkness.
She closed her mind to the memory and looked down at her son. Hers, not his. Tears slid down her cheeks, anointing his head and body. She knew that she could make her son better, fix in him whatever it was that had broken in his father that day. Her love would fix him.
“You gon’ be different,” she whispered into the shell of his ear. She would not let him die; she would not let him leave her. Only God could take him away from her, and He wouldn’t do it. He had promised her through His forgiveness that He would not. She curled her body around the baby protectively, watching the slow rise and fall of his little chest with each harsh and labored breath. Her fingers and palm continuously rounded his crown, smoothing the dented skull before moving to stroke her fingers on either side of his nose, shaping it.
Cora turned away, her shoulders hunched, her face a closed mask of despair. She imagined pulling the child from Fannie’s arms and bashing his head against the floor. The feeling in her was so strong, her legs strained to move on their own. Frantically searching for support, she found Beaulah’s eyes locked into her own, along with Ethel and Corinn. She paused, hesitating to do what, in her heart, she felt was right.
But the moment passed. She could not do it now without it looking like a murder. Sighing in resignation, she moved toward the other women, forming them into a circle as she joined hands with them. “God’s Will will be done sisters, let us pray,” she intoned. She closed her eyes and turned her back to Fannie and her son.
Carolyn Boykin is currently working on her MFA thesis at Columbia College which had its origin in the short story, "Perverse Spirits." In 2019 she received the Daniel Friedman Award for her story "Ugly" in Hair Trigger 41 and the Compassionate Chronicles award from Words for Charity for "Afros Bellbottoms and Bald Heads" and "Body of Work."