Dirt crawled under Zuzi’s fingernail as she traced another letter into the shack floor, her secret game. When the door swung open, she hastily smoothed away the evidence. It could put her and Mama in danger. She couldn’t say why, but she certainly felt it. A mass, tangled as her hair, stuck in her throat.
Orange dusklight streamed through the open door, obscuring the two backlit figures standing there. The first one was Mama, carrying a pot of supper water between her arm and waist, as she had done every evening for as long as Zuzi could remember. She entered and pointed one of her knobby fingers toward Zuzi’s straw bed.
“You can sleep there.” Mama went to the stove, stoked the waning fire. “Baby, you’ll sleep with me tonight.”
Zuzi squinted in confusion when a fella, just old enough to be called man, entered after Mama. The skin of his tired, ochre face was covered in lashes.
“Hey there little one, I’m Antonio.” He crossed the shack in a single stride and threw his burlap sack onto the bed. Then he rummaged in it and after a few seconds pulled out a corn husk doll that he extended to her. “I’ll be staying with you until they find space for me somewhere else.”
Zuzi reached for the doll but grew distracted by something past it. It was the young man’s other arm, held closely by his side. Where his left hand should have been—nothing.
“Did the thing in the wood do that?” Zuzi stared wide-eyed, worried about the threat of the young man’s bone making its way through taut skin.
“Stop it, child.” Mama looked up from the fire. Her voice came in a whisper but her face bore a warning.
“It’s alright.” Antonio softened Mama with a flat smile. Zuzi thought it made him look grim more than friendly.
“What’s in the wood?” he asked.
Zuzi’s scowled and clenched her jaw. “We don’t go out at night, because of it. It ain’t got no skin so it tries to get ours.”
Antonio cocked his head and studied her. A mirthless laugh rocked his chest. It lacked the brightness she was used to when laughing with Mama. “You ever consider that’s just a story to scare you here at night?”
“It’s real.” Zuzi shook her head in denial.
“That’s enough of that talk.” Mama put three bowls of stewed greens on the table. “Come get this supper and get to bed, so you can get on your work in the morning.”
# # #
At day-clean, Zuzi made her way to the big house and started on her tasks. Feeding the dogs. Weeding the rose garden. Sweeping the walkway. Dusting the manor’s various rooms. In the kitchen, she helped prepare breakfast and served it to Master and his family, who ate on the veranda while conversing like she didn’t exist.
“Really dear, a one-handed Negro?” The Lady’s brown eyes passed over Zuzi and went for the plate of biscuits.
Master lingered on a mouthful. He swallowed and said, “he was a fair price and we need to conserve resources.”
“Clearly the poor thing has drapetomania. And if he goes, so does the money.” She rubbed her thumb across her fingers in a circular motion, as if stained by some unwashable residue.
Zuzi mouthed the Lady’s word, trying to get her tongue around it. She decided it was made up, a series of sounds that didn’t mean anything. She flinched when Master leaned toward her and ran his tongue across his teeth.
“You tell our newcomer about what’s in them woods?”
Her dry mouth wouldn’t produce sound, so Zuzi nodded.
“Good, good. Wouldn’t want it to get him too.” He winked and sat upright.
When the Lady opened her mouth to speak, Master held up his palm. She stiffened under his gaze and sank back into her chair.
Zuzi stared, picking at the skin on each forearm. She wanted to understand.
The Lady turned toward her. “What the hell are you staring at, you hedge-creeper? Don’t you have more labors to do?”
Her voice sent fear coursing through Zuzi, another daily reminder of the Lady’s buried cruelty. It was a vein of ore that ran through her bedrock. Zuzi gulped air and nodded, before turning around and hurrying away.
At midday, she fetched a pitcher of water and took it to the fields where Mama and the others worked. The sun beat down on the field, cooking Zuzi’s bare feet like skillet bread. She arrived to find the planter’s teen son strolling back and forth with a practiced menace.
He grabbed the pitcher and poured himself a large cup, not caring to stop excess water from spilling down the side of the glass. When he stepped away, Mama and the others crowded around Zuzi. She poured them all cups with restraint, just like Mama showed her, making sure the next person got some too.
Antonio sat at the edge of the field, in the shade of an oak. He wore a face of exhaustion that saddened Zuzi. She brought him a cup of water and he gulped it down.
“Thank you, sweetie,” he said.
Zuzi smiled and he did too. He looked less scary in the sunlight.
The others languished, almost broken from another day of labor in the heat. With first dark still hours off, they took what rest they could find. Antonio glanced their way and turned back to Zuzi.
“So, how did you learn to draw them letters?”
Zuzi’s eyes watered, and the mass in her throat seized. She looked for Mama, who had made for a shaded spot beneath a nearby oak.
“I won’t tell nobody. ”Antonio raised his arms and held his palm forward, like Master had hours before. However, there was a recognizable curiosity in his eyes that calmed her. “I was just hoping you’d teach me too.”
When the Master’s son shouted in their direction, she was certain he had heard their voices on the wind. But it was simply time to get back to work. Antonio stood and made his way back to the group.
Zuzi stood rooted and dazed. A chill out of place for the season ran down her neck.
# # #
Zuzi paced in front of the shack, spreading feed as the cocks crowed. Sometimes they nipped at her heels for more, but this didn’t bother her much.
Everything moved slower during the Sabbath. Mama sat on the bench unaware, humming to herself while mending a smock. A few yards out, Antonio was on his knees, rooting around in the shared garden plot.
Zuzi had avoided him for the rest of the week, throwing herself into her tasks as an excuse. She returned his distant smiles, but only to mask the numb horror that he would tell someone her secret. After all, she didn’t know him.
But as the days went on, and she sat with this fear, it shifted into a desire to share. If not for her own safety then for a partner in crime. What use was a system of scratches and letters that she could only use in secret?
Zuzi let one more fistful of seeds fall through her fingers and ambled over to the young man. As her shadow fell over him, he turned to face her.
“Hey babygirl.” He plucked another carrot out of the ground, tossed it into the basket next to him. “You thought about what I asked you?”
“If you want to learn, you got to tell me what happened to your hand.”
Antonio paused in surprise. His face hardened and he sat back on his haunches. Zuzi worried she had crossed an invisible line, then he spoke.
“Not much to tell. Family had a lean year that made winter hard. Stole some bread for my sister and got caught doing it.” He brandished his left arm and winced.
It was unclear whether it came from the pain of the memory or of losing his limb. “Does it hurt?” was all she could think to ask.
“Sometimes. Feels like lightning that starts where my hand used to be and goes up my arm.” Antonio paused, watched the young girl shift from one chestnut foot to the other, smock billowing in the breeze. “You remind me of her, you know. Filled with imagination, hungry to know more about everything. Now that I’ve answered two of your questions, can I ask you one?”
“Where’s your Daddy?”
The question prompted Zuzi’s own ghostly pain, which she couldn’t locate but seemed to attack her body everywhere at once.
She hung her head and said, “One night Daddy left the hatchet at the stump in the clearing past the trees. Master doesn’t like that so Daddy went to fetch it and take it to the tool shed. We ain’t seen him since.”
Zuzi squatted down and scratched its name in the soil, circling it roughly. When a bitter wind gusted, and thunder pealed somewhere in the distance, she shivered. Tears slid down her face but she stopped herself from sobbing.
“Guess we’ll just have to look after one another.” Antonio frowned at the scratches in the dirt, symbols that criss-crossed in random places. As the rain began to fall, he gazed upward, letting water run through the tributaries scarred into his face. It wet the earth. Zuzi’s writing washed away, imaginary as the creature she feared.
# # #
Zuzi’s heart raced the following morning when, before day-clean had even arrived, she strode to the big house. A feeling of ecstasy grew with each step, born from the prospect of finally being able to share what she knew with another. But she wasn’t sure her grasp on the information was tight enough to guide Antonio on her own.
She would need the book.
At the end of the day, she went to dust the parlor. She began with the mantle and moved on to the sofas and their tables. She tarried at the grandfather clock, and observed the room. Then she ran the dusting cloth along the wooden bookshelves, casting nervous glances at the entryway.
Finally confident she was alone, Zuzi reached for the children’s alphabet primer she had found almost a year ago. B is for Barn. She beamed at the cover while renewed excitement welled in her chest.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
It was the Lady’s feminine trill, cutting through the room’s stillness. She stood in the entryway with her arms folded. Her face contorted into a mask of anger and contempt, petrifying Zuzi. The Lady closed the distance between them before the young girl could even respond.
Zuzi was barely shorter than the woman but still felt like she was craning her neck to speak with someone atop a lighthouse. The Lady glared over her and drew her arm back for a back-handed strike.
Zuzi raised the book to shield her face and the Lady’s mouth opened in astonishment. The fury in her eyes grew as she huffed, clutched the book, and tugged. Zuzi’s nostrils flared and her cheeks grew hot, as she maintained her grasp on the book.
Why couldn’t its contents be hers too? They already were, though the Lady didn’t know that. The deepest parts of Zuzi felt a sort of power from that arcane knowledge.
Zuzi locked eyes with the lady and glared, as she struggled for possession of the book. She felt frozen in the moment, their arms sawing back and forth. The sound of tearing parchment filled the room a moment before Zuzi tumbled backward onto her butt.
She looked somberly into her lap, where her hands cradled a shorn book half. She yelped when she looked up.
A few paces in front of her, the Lady lay on her back. Blood seeped from beneath her motionless head, staining her pale skin like cotton run through turkey red dye. Above her, paler flecks stained the corner of the mantle. The book’s other half rested next to her outstretched palm.
The hint of vindication Zuzi felt was swiftly replaced by terror and regret. They bubbled and churned, she thought she might vomit. She ran instead.
Her feet pounded against the wood floor as she fled. In the courtyard, she tried her hardest to ignore the servants’ gazes. She flew past the fields, where the others were finishing their labor and preparing for the walk toward respite.
Zuzi could hear someone calling her name from somewhere far away. Still, she kept running. She went for the only place she had, arriving at the shack as first-dark began to descend.
Her lungs burned and sweat poured from her brow.
Zuzi looked back at the silhouette of the big house, backlit by the setting sun. She turned back to the shack to find Mama staring at her, body rigid with worry. “What have you done, child?”
# # #
Apprehension brought Zuzi’s attention back to the deepest parts of the wood. She peered into it, worried that Master and his son would materialize from the dark itself.
They moved steadily, cutting a swath through a grove of trees far off the road. Antonio led the way, carrying a lantern and humming a sorrow song low as he could. He stopped whenever he heard a sound, and started up again when he was sure they were safe.
The drinking gourd twinkled in the sky ahead of them while a sliver of moon hid behind the clouds, illuminating them like a candle held to a sheer curtain.
Stinging nettles bit at Zuzi’s skin. As her feet began to ache and she grew tired, she got less careful with where she stepped. She wanted to rest but Mama wouldn’t let her stop. She just put her hand on Zuzi’s back and pushed gently whenever she slowed down.
It made Zuzi wonder whether Mama was angry with her. The same grim expression had been plastered to her face since she found out.
They all sprang to attention when they heard the chorus of baying dogs, eager and raging to be let loose. This was followed by men jeering and balls of light in the distance behind them. Without the voices, they might have been mistaken for fireflies.
Antonio snuffed the lantern, looked back and gestured toward the wood’s depths. His suggestion came in a breathy, forceful whisper. “We can lose their trail in here.”
Zuzi’s feet squelched through the mud, growing more caked with each step. She hated it, but tried not to think about it. Fear ground her fatigue and disgust into a desire to survive.
As she continued forward, her foot caught on something solid.
The world shifted, ground rose up to meet her floating body. She landed hard next to a patch within the dimness. Somehow blacker and seeped cold air. She squinted to see a humanoid-sized warren at the base of a tree, where its roots extended into the ground.
Zuzi struggled to catch her breath, overcome with the feeling that something was watching her from the hole. But Mama’s rough hands pulled her upright and she felt an urgent pressure on her shoulder that told her to keep running.
Master and his son’s voices pierced through the nearing shouts and crescendo of barking. As they grew closer, their words became clearer—they wanted to hurt them. The nigger would be would be lynched while the negresses would know what some called worse, a life of violation.
Zuzi didn’t understand all of it but dread found a place to nestle anyway.
Mama cried out in pain and she glanced behind her. A dog growled around her calf, using it to play tug of war with her body. Another appeared through the bushes and lunged at Zuzi, but something scooped it up. The animal let out a shrill yelp. A duet of wet thuds came next.
Antonio dropped his belongings, ran to Mama, and brought a large branch down on the other dog’s head. It fell to the ground and didn’t move again.
Mama clutched her leg. Blood seeped from jagged punctures cuffed by her fingers. “Run, child!” she pleaded.
But Zuzi froze and shook with terror, staring at the mob of white men filtering through the trees. They brandished pitchforks and reaping hooks that reflected the light from torches and lanterns. Master and his son stood at the head.
“You unruly lot,” he yelled.
The mob advanced a few paces and one of the men was pulled skyward. His lantern soared through the air and smashed against a tree, raining oil and fire down on the mob. He screamed above them, and hit the ground somewhere far enough away to be soundless.
Disbelief flashed across Master’s face. He turned to the mob, entangled among themselves. The men collided with each other, dropping their makeshift weapons as they scrambled to comprehend.
Zuzi was certain it was the thing in the wood—it came from the burrow. She had spent the past night so concerned with human monsters that she forgot about the ghastly. She recalled a few among the countless times she had carved its name, unaware that to name something is to conjure it.
Amid the confusion, Antonio helped Mama limp back to Zuzi. He clutched the young girl’s shoulder and pulled her from the nightmarish reverie. Screams echoed through the trees as the thing in the wood ripped through the men. The last thing Zuzi swore heard as she fled into the night, the sound of tearing parchment.