Content note from the author: This story contains implied sexual assault. The scenes are not graphic and I hope you will read it. If it’s triggering, though, please skip over.
There are two things in Garden City, Louisiana. First — a general delusion about the grandeur of the place. The name is a misnomer, given that it is more overgrown hamlet than city. Second — the rampant stench of the racism.
It oozes out of water fountains, red and slick on the sticky summer ground. It whispers out of dusty windows in city hall and the sheriff’s office. It rumbles in the loose red sand on each side of the railroad — one side for the dark people of the Earth, the other for the pale ones. It warms the cold hearts of those who would otherwise have no reason to eke out an existence. Their lifeblood is their paltry power.
But Leah, she has conquered it. The stares on Main Street do not faze her. The sneers over her bright red lipstick, and her books that ask the race questions, and her radically large hair do not affect her. She works at the bar in the white part of town. Each night without fail, there is some large grumbling man insulted by her gait, her self-confidence and self-assurance. She is always prepared with a smart remark or a knife.
Leah is an unconquerable woman.
This Friday night is like all of them. The music is loud; the men are louder. Several women with thick face paint hang just outside the door, reaching at the waists of men who stumble out. Leah, her friend Maria, and Billy, the brawn of the team, scrub and pour behind the bar.
“Leah, how come you never come home with me?” Billy flirts, leaning over her for a glass. His shoulder brushes her chest.
“I don’t know,” she answers, sliding out of his path and handing him one, then pouring a drink for another customer.
“Billy,” Maria remonstrates. “Can you focus?”
He nods and smiles, gesturing to a friend who has just walked in.
“PJ!” Billy calls. “Where’s the rest of the crew?”
The man called PJ jerks his head back toward the door. In walks another man, followed by three others.
“Maria, Leah,” Billy says. “Meet my crew. They’re here from Landen.”
Landen is another, larger town, about thirty miles away. They’re notorious for crime; the most recent story Leah can think of is a lynching. She shivers as her eyes pass over the last man. He’s hulking, and has a brooding look in his deep blue eyes as he surveys her.
“Billy. You’s lucky to have an African queen like that at your disposal.”
Leah doesn’t say anything, and Maria laughs nervously, before grabbing a plate and walking quickly to another table.
“What’s wrong, Cleopatra? Can’t take a compliment?”
“I’m not sure it was one,” she answers.
“Let me make it clearer: what do you think of a little miscegenation? You, me, the motel at the end of town? I might even let the baby keep my last name.”
Billy and the other four laugh uproariously, while Leah backs up until the small of her back hits the sink.
She grabs a food order, and marches to the customer, before going to sit in the back storage room.
Leah takes a few deep breaths. She can sit here, shocked and disgusted. Or she can go back to her job. How different is this from the thousand slights she suffers everyday? When Mr. Terrance, who owns the local store, won’t serve her until she’s waited nearly an hour, when all the white women have gone out? When those same women turn their noses up at her, pretend she is invisible on the street?
And when Billy touches her, on Saturday nights when the customers have gone and he’s had too much to drink? What is different? What will change?
Nothing. She rolls her shoulders back and continues with her job. While Billy’s friends become more intoxicated and jeer, she keeps her mind focused on the carved wooden box in her room. Inside is her money and the note on top, always reminding her: Chicago.
One day, Chicago.
It is near closing time. Maria has gone home early: she has a four year old to tend to, so Leah often agrees to stay with Billy for cleaning and closing.
“Sorry, boys. We’re done for the night,” she informs his four friends, keeping her eyes on the bar as she scrubs.
“Never mind. See you soon,” says the burly one. She nods once in response.
She turns to Billy as she goes to lock the door. “You done here?”
“I’ll be out soon. Give me the keys?”
“Sure,” she says, a tad confused. What else could he have to do? She tosses him the keys anyway.
“See ya Monday.”
The streets are dark and empty. The only light to go by is the lamps in the brothel across the street, and the one flickering at the end of the street.
“Sheriff Pollack was supposed to fix that months ago,” she mutters to herself.
“Leah, was it?” Billy’s friend PJ steps from the alley, a cigarette in his mouth.
“Yes. Have a nice night.” She moves to cross the street. There is already a sense of foreboding in the unnaturally thick fog crowding the already dim lights. If she can get across the street, she knows the night women will come out to help her if they hear anything.
She doesn’t have any time, though. The big friend steps from behind another gathering of shadows — they seem so thick tonight. His arm snakes around her waist and somehow manages to force a gag into her mouth.
Then the other friend, George, and another one, skinny and silent. Finally, Billy steps out of the bar, jingling his keys. She calms for a moment at his familiar face, before she hears him say:
Leah begins to hyperventilate. Billy continues.
“Leah, Leah. I know every nigger bitch like you has a fantasy about a white man. Four white men? Why not just… submit?”
Finnegan’s Tackle Shop is closed; Bertha’s Hair Salon is dark and silent.
Billy catches her around the waist and tosses her back in the direction of the alley.
She almost cries. But why call on the mercy of white men?
The big one goes first. He is impotent, and so punches her for good measure. The second one smells worse than the pee-soaked alley.
Billy is brutal. That is the only word. He is leaning over her. Calling her every name he can.
When he finishes he lingers for a moment. “I’ll do it again. Call me master. Say it: yes, master.” His knee presses into her hipbone so hard she thinks it’ll pop.
The sweep of headlights passes over the entrance of the alley. Billy gives a small smile. “Next time, then.”
Leah is sure she’s imagined it, but all three of them just seem to disappear into thin air. She passes out.
Whoever is in the car doesn’t come into the alley. She wakes up and glances at her watch blearily. It’s three in the morning. Her mother will be sick, absolutely sick with worry.
Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
– Romans 12:19
And so Leah walks home. She walks the five miles and three quarters back to her mother’s house on the Black side of town. It is deceptively quiet. The only other living being she sees is a small garden snake as she crosses the train tracks.
There is blood down her legs and some on her face. There is dirt on her knee and matted into her hair. She knocks on the door four times. Her mother opens it, already wringing her apron.
“Leah, I tried calling the job…” Her eyes fall down her daughter’s clothes. “Baby,” she begins.
Leah starts screaming and does not stop for ten minutes. The lights blow out, the wind outside the windows creaks through the live oak in the backyard. Their closest neighbor, Uncle B, comes running to the house.
“Thelma?” “In here!” “What in God’s name is going on?” He lets himself in with his key. The door slams behind him of his own volition. His sister looks at him through streaky eyes. “They violated my baby. Look what they done.”
Uncle B tries to come closer but finds that he can’t. Leah won’t let him. She flings her hand as he approaches, and a gust of wind knocks him on his back. Her mother rushes over — Uncle B is not young, and she checks to see if he is hurt. He pushes himself up, just shaking his head.
“Who did this to you, Leah?” Leah does not answer, just wraps her arms around her legs. Another light bulb blows. “This is what happens, Thelma Marie. This is what happens when you forget,” he whispers to her. Leah clearly does not hear them.
“You’re blaming this on me?!” her mother asks furiously. “How was I supposed to know? We ran! They chose this. Damned vessels.”
“You can’t run from prophecy,” Uncle B intones. “Tell me when she calms down. We don’t want her to attract any… attention.”
He turns to go. “Leah?” he calls. Silence. “It’ll pass.”
What Black woman is not well acquainted with this particular horror of the white man? Who has not felt it herself; or, if her body has not been violated, that of a mother, cousin, friend?
Leah takes Sheriff Pollack to the bar on Monday afternoon. She stands in front of the bar, completely silent. She has not spoken seven words since Saturday night. Billy looks at her curiously.
“What’s this about, sunshine?”
Every single time she thinks she will be able to vocalize it, it gets stuck on the way past her tongue. Her breathing becomes uneven and something primal in her wants to ignore it. If she makes herself small, this unruly beast will go away.
But no, the beast has already buried its tusks in her ribs. She whispers: “You raped me.”
“What did you say?” Billy leans forward. Sheriff Pollack sighs, like he’d rather be anywhere but here.
“You raped me!” Leah snatches the glass he’s holding and smashes it on the bar. “You and your motherfuckin’ friends! You RAPED ME!”
Sheriff Pollack grabs her hand. “Careful, girl. You can’t go around damagin’ property because you’re upset.”
She looks at him incredulously. “I don’t give a fuck about property. Arrest him.”
“For what?!” Billy demands, beginning to sound angry.
“I’m pressing charges. I got a rape kit done. I don’t know where your little friends got off to; I don’t care. But…” Leah leans in this time, her stomach pressed against the bar. “I’m going to end your pathetic life, sunshine.”
The most infuriating thing about the affair is the lethargy with which the local law enforcement approaches the case. Like so many underwater creatures, too stupid to move except when prodded, Sheriff Pollack proceeds to butcher it. Leah calls him every day for updates. She sends an angry fax to the lab when her results haven’t come back for three weeks.
No one burns a cross on her lawn, but the sentiment is still there, poisoning every interaction she has with the officers who claim to be investigating her case.
We don’t believe you.
Even if it is true, we don’t care.
The body of a Black woman is worth as much in 1987 as it was in 1887 in Garden City — the price of the highest bidder.
But Leah and her mother sink their teeth in for the first five months. Thelma comforts her child, accosts Billy on the street, and deflects the rumors — that Leah is just a nightwalker, a tramp who works in a bar, and that she deserved whatever she got.
By the sixth month, Leah’s energy begins to flag. She’s taken a new job as a clerk at the courthouse — mainly so she can spy on the Sheriff.
It is difficult to get out of bed in the morning. Her mother frequently finds her, bent double and delirious with pain. Her nightmares have intensified, to the point where she can feel Billy’s rancid breath on her face and the weight of his friends as they laughed over her.
Thelma begins to worry, and so she prays. She presses a rosary into Leah’s hand every time she leaves the house. When she stops leaving, she hangs it on her doorknob.
Finally, she can take her suffering no longer. Thelma kisses Leah’s forehead on her way out of the house. She sits silently in the cab. She takes her shoes and socks off, wades into the bayou, paying
no mind to the small snakes winding around her ankles. A stick, which she brought for balance, serves as her staff.
She picks it up and slams it down, and the ripple resounds for miles and miles. In her bed leagues away, Leah turns fitfully in her sleep.
“Help my child!”
The ones that Thelma calls on are not spirits; no, the ancestors will not do. She calls for one flesh and blood person.
The other Marie is suddenly sitting on the bank.
“What you want for me to do? You need killing herb? You need justice, that it?”
“Mama! Help her!”
“Oh, don’t yell. You know I jest. You know I done everything for the girl I said I could.”
Thelma Marie sighs. “So, what? There’s no help to be had?”
“You the one with the Sight. Do it lie?”
“She’s my baby. All I have in this world.”
“She not no baby. You just watch. Believe she will protect herself when she need to. Else all is lost.”
The second Marie is suddenly not there anymore. Thelma trudges home, watches her daughter sleeping for a while.
“In the time of trouble,” she sings, “He shall hide me.”
Leah feels better the next day — a Friday — and so she goes to work. Sheriff Pollack sees her come in and gives her a wide berth. She doesn’t have the energy to say anything anymore. What use is it, trying to convince him her life is worth something, when everything in him doesn’t want to believe it?
She suddenly feels a cold wind pass through the room she is working in. She pulls her sweater around her tighter, mentally noting she should prepare for some sort of sickness soon. Ever since she discovered was pregnant, her body has been sensitive to everything, almost to the point of pain.
She hears a throat clear behind her. She jumps and turns around.
Even if she were blind, she’d know something was wrong with this man. He is so pale his skin seems to reflect a little of every color, like an opal. His eyes are winter blue, not like the sea, but like the last color you see before your eyes freeze shut.
His voice is worse. It is deep but completely empty. Not a rich baritone, but the bottom of a lake.
“Leah, I presume?”
“Who are you? What do you want?”
“Tough. I can see why you’ve been chosen. I’m just here to deliver a message, though, so no need to get fresh.”
“From my boss. Tonight is the full moon. Tonight you must be ready.”
And as soon as he had appeared, he disappears. Leah does what she always does when she is confused or frightened. She runs to the house at number 7, which is exactly what she shouldn’t have done.
“Mama?” Thelma Marie looks up from her knitting, takes one look at her daughter, and shoots out of her seat.
“Get your things, Leah Marie, get your things! We have to hurry. Oh, God —”
“Mama, what are you talking about? Where are we going?”
“No time to explain. We have to get out of this house!”
Then the lights go dark. The last thing Leah sees is her mother’s hand flailing.
She wakes up somewhere dark. Leah can’t hear anything besides the drip of water and something scurrying beneath her. She tries to sit up, and a foot comes to rest against her neck.
It’s the skinny friend. He’s smoking a cigarette and sneers at her as her vision swims to focus.
“Not so fast, pretty one. You’ve got an appointment to keep.”
Leah squirms out from under his foot. She is delirious with panic — where is her mother? — and the pain in her abdomen is stabbing. But she wants to remain calm.
“What are you talking about?”
“Never mind that. Just shut up.”
She shifts some more, slowly, so he doesn’t pay much attention. She realizes they are on a catwalk of some sort, made of metal and suspended about fifteen feet above the floor. She looks up and sees dusty windows.
The factory on the edge of town. It’s another of the curiosities of Garden City — they provide the bulk of the bleaching cream for the state. The stench wafts up to her, and she has to breathe through her mouth to keep from gagging.
“What’s your name?”
He looks at her suspiciously, but she knows he’ll talk.
“Damon,” he says with a small smile.
“You from Louisiana, Damon?”
“Nope. Farther south.”
“You could call it that.”
Leah is silent for a moment. “Why’d you rape me?”
“Billy’s idea of a fun night. It wasn’t so bad, huh? Not bad enough for you to abort.”
She shakes her head. “No. Why did you rape me? What made you do that to me?”
His eyes bore into her. “Because I ain’t have nothing better to do.”
“You said it was Billy’s idea. Did he mention why?”
“What does it fuckin’ matter?”
“I just want to understand, Damon. It’s hard to figure out. I kept going over everything I’ve ever said or done to Billy, and I just can’t imagine why he’d dream up a scheme like this.” She leans closer, her voice intense.
“He’s just followin’ orders.”
“None of your business.”
“Do I know this person? Are they from Garden City?”
“You don’t know them, and you don’t want to. But you’re gonna meet them tonight. Now leave me alone.”
“Please, I just have one more question.”
“What?” he asks exasperatedly.
“Is my mother safe?”
“Safe enough. Don’t worry,” he says, his voice going soft. He takes a long drag of his cigarette and closes his eyes. “It’s all part of the plan.”
Leah lifts her leg. With all her might, she kicks the chair he had been leaning back in. He is quite a bit taller than the railing, and so he tips over with ease. His eyes widen in surprise, right before she hears a satisfying crunch.
“That’s my plan.”
She hadn’t gleaned any important information on where her mother might be, but she prays she’s still alive.
The sound of dripping follows her through the hallways. The factory is three floors; she starts on the first and begins to work her way up. She jiggles each door knob she comes to, all of them locked.
“You’re never going to find her,” Billy’s voice sounds.
Leah whirls around. “Billy, please,” she says, hating to beg him but beginning to panic. “Where is my mother?”
Something in his left hand glints. It’s a short knife, no longer than his hand, with strange symbols carved into the hilt.
“Oh, this? It’s a simple athame. A gift from the queen herself. You know what it’s meant to do?”
“Ah ah,” he sighs. “You have an appointment to keep. And I’m going to cut that baby out of you.”
He lunges towards her and Leah ducks, shooting out beneath his arm. At the other end of the hall, Damon rounds a corner, his leg bent at a sickening angle.
Leah turns the other way and faces Billy. She shoves her knee into his groin and tries to dart around him.
He chuckles. “She’s dumb, too. Guess the only thing she’s worth is that body.”
He grabs her from behind and presses one hand into her breast, the other to her throat with the knife.
“You know what? I think I’ll have you another time. You’re nothing but —“
“Billy?” Damon asks in confusion. Billy’s body, lifeless, drops to the floor and the knife clatters towards Leah.
She grabs it and waves it.
Damon shakes his head. “Won’t do you any good. Boys!” he calls.
Suddenly, instantaneously, two others appear: PJ and George. Damons nods once. “Reinforcements.”
Leah screams. Her vision goes dark for a moment.
When she opens her eyes, the three are suspended in midair. Damon’s mouth is contorted in a disgusting grin; the others have looks of pure malice in their faces. They are outlined by a light, gray and shimmering, like dark lightning. They stay still for a moment, in the space of three drips.
They drop. They are dead, too.
Leah turns and sprints down the hall, nauseous. She stumbles up a staircase.
She hears behind a muffled scream. She stops and pushes at the door frantically.
The door swings open, and her mother stands there. The big friend glances at her for a moment, holding a knife identical to the Billy’s, poised at mother’s temple.
“Later, then.” He disappears.
Leah runs to her mother and removes the gag. Suddenly, a stabbing pain hits her right side.
“It’s okay, baby. You’re okay.”
Leah stands, hand on the passenger door.
“Hold on a minute, girl.” Sheriff Pollack is standing behind her.
“So, Billy and three other men turn up dead in the old bleach factory. All of whom, I believe, you said raped you. No marks on their bodies, just gone. Caput. Cold as ice.”
“You wanna tell me something, Miss Leah?”
“Where ya headed to?”
“Visiting family. Down in the bayou.”
“Mm. Well, I’ll find out what happened to them boys.”
Leah steps in the car and her mother turns the key.
“Well, I’ll be, Sheriff,” she says, putting on best belle accent. “With what evidence?”
The next day, the bodies are gone. Leah knows nothing of this, save a dream she has while her mother drives past the blue waters.
Sheriff Pollack scratches his head in the morgue.
A day later, they arrive at the lake. The other Marie sits at the water’s edge, gazing placidly as a large fish swims by.
“Hi, Grandma,” Leah intones.
“What you gonna do about that baby?” she asks, directing her eyes to Leah.
“What else? Raise her right.”
The other Marie nods slowly. “Smart girl. We’ll be astounded by how far you go.”