Maria and the Conjure-Man

FROM underneath the big china-berry tree, out by the quarters, where the widespreading branches made a grateful shade in the summer sun, came the sound of splashing water and of a voice uplifted in song:—

“ Oh, Misto’ Tukry Buzzud, len’ me yo’ wing,
Tuh fly ’crost de ribber tuh see Sally King.”

Maria was doing her weekly washing in our back yard, with our soap and tub and wash-board, finding that arrangement more convenient and economical than to wash at home. As she worked she kept the half of one eye on Jacky, her charge, aged six, whom she pronounced “a nyoung vilyun ” and “ a debbil chile,” and loved with all her heart.

“ W’at kine o’ ram-a-ting yo’ call um a chicken ?
Lib een de yahd, an’ he all-e-time pickin’.”

“ Enty yuh ’shamed, M’ri’ Hahpeh, all-e-tam singin’ dem good-fo’-nuttin’, worl’ly chune ? W’y fuh enty yuh sing dem sperrituals, all-e-sem we?”

“Huh!” snorted Maria, scenting battle with her old-time foe, Big Lucy, the cook; “ some folks wat I knows is got many face as a hick’y-nut: sing sperritual wit’ one face an’ play ole Satan wit’ anurrah; an’ wink at de niggehmahn wat dribe de groc’ry wagon wit’ anurrah! ”

“ Hyeh, yuh ’omans, don’ begin dat all-day squabblin’ ergin. Cayn’t git no res’ count y’all quah’lin’. Des hesh right up! ” The voice was that of Samuel Robert, the butler, a person having authority. “ Yo’ two ’ornans kist an’ made up no longer ’n yisteddy. Des remembeh dat w’en de hatchet buried yuh don’ want tuh kick up de blade. Now go longer yo’ wuk.”

Big Lucy tossed her head, but retired to her own domain nevertheless; but Maria, the unregenerate, giggled and cast an admiring glance in Samuel Robert’s direction.

Maria’s full name was Josephine Maria Sophy Ann Sophia Foxhall Harper; but we called her simply “ Maria,” because life is short, and that name carries far when one is calling an absentee, which Maria frequently was, and always when we most wanted her. She had drifted into our yard from somewhere “ down ’pon tap Edisto ” when a half-grown girl, had attached herself to our ménage, as negroes will, and, in time, had become “ Da Maria ” to all four of our children. She was now employing her energies in looking after Jacky, the youngest. She had contracted a good-for-nothing, trifling husband, who generally loafed in the sun, along the water-front; but who, when last heard of, was actually working on a government dredge-boat along the Florida coast. They lived in one of the negro rookeries somewhere in the region of Princess Street: old courts and tenements as full of communicating passages, runways, and occupants as any rabbit warren; and Maria made daily pilgrimage to and from our house, always accompanied by a covered basket, which came empty and returned full.

“ W’at kine o’ ram-a-ting yo’ call um a dawg ?
Lib een de yahd an’ he bite all de hawg,”

sang Maria, with a defiant glance toward the kitchen.

“ Dar, now, dat’s all dis one time, tanky Lawd! ” Maria hung her last piece of dilapidated finery on the line. “ Come hyeh, yo’ Jacky. I dress yuh now, an’ tek yuh up on de Bat’ry tuh play wit’ dem odder chillens.”

Two hours later, Jacky safely returned from the Battery, there was an outbreak at the quarters, and Maria’s voice, shrill with anger, rose above the babel.

“ I’ll git ’im! I’ll git ’im! De goodfo’-nuttin’ vilyun! An dem bes’ clo’es jes’ clean wash! ”

“ ‘ W’at de matteh,’ did yuh ax, Miss Molly? Matteh ’nuff! Some triflin’, low-down niggeh mahn done t’ief all mah clo’es. Jes’ natchally clum oveh de back fence an’ clean de line; an’ dese hyeh good-fo’-nuttin’ niggehs ain’t neveh see ’im. An’ dese hyeh rags w’at I is got on mah back is ev’y livin’ stitch w’at I is got lef!

“ P’leece? No’m’. I ain’t gwine hab no traffic wit’ de p’leece; an’ dey cayn’t do nuttin’ nohow. Tam dem p’leece done mek er move, dem clo’es ’ud be on some niggeh ’oman ’way oveh in Sawanny, lak as not. No’m, I ain’t boddeh wit’ no p’leece; I’se gwine right up tuh de conjuh-mahn, I is; an’ den we see ef dat owdashus vilyun ain’t git w’at comin’ tuh ’im. Yas’m, dat we will! ” And off went Maria, in a fine African rage, to invoke the aid of the voodoo doctor.

Early next morning she burst into the house in triumph, laughing and chattering as she took charge of Jacky boy: “ W’at I tell yuh, Mis’ Molly? Conjuhmahn done fix ’im. Enty! Dem clo’es out ’n de yahd dis blessid minute. Yas ’m’, dey is so! All tie up een a bunnle. Conjuh-mahn fix ’im! Ain’t no t’ief w’at kin keep dem clo’es afteh I set conjuhmahn on ’im. No, ma’am! ”

Sure enough, a bundle lay just inside the fence, where, apparently, it had been dropped from outside. We thought that the “ grapevine telegraph,” by which news moves so swiftly and mysteriously among the negroes, had warned the thief that the conjure-man was after him; but Maria and the rest of the servants knew that the spell of the voodoo had done its work. But Maria made no move to pick up the bundle.

“ No’m, I ain’t gwine tetch dem clo’es; not till de conjuh-mahn come. I done sont fer ’im now, ax ’im, say, please, suh, do come down hyeh. W’y I ain’t tetch dem? Law, Miss Molly, yuh know dat! Chahm on dem clo’es, Mis’ Molly. Niggeh mahn w’at t’ief dem clo’es done put a chahm on dem. Yas ’m, he shorely done dat ve’y t’ing! An’ ef I puts on dem does dat chahm been on me. Yas’m’! An’ den, ef dat niggeh mahn hol’ up he fingeh an’ go dis-a-way, dey ain’t nuttin’ ’tall kin hol’ me back; I jes’ natchally got to pick up an’ go whahebeh dat niggeh mahn is. Yas’m, I does so! An’ it don’ matteh ef it day er night, day-clean er can’le-lightin’, ef dat mahn hol’ up he han’ an’ say, ‘ Come hyeh,’ I bleeged tuh go. Yas ’m! An’ ef I layin’ een mah baid an’ dat mahn say, 4 Come,’ I jes’ gotto git up f’om dey an’ go tuh ’im, no matteh wut tam, deep-dus’ er hag-hollerin’; an’ no matteh wey he is, King Street er oveh tuh Jim Islant; I is bleeged tuh go, hot er col’, wet er dry, sto’m er shine, drylan’ er watteh; an’ w’en I is dey, I gotto do w’at dat mahn duh want. Yas ’m! — But hyeh come de mahn w’at kin fix dat chahm, dis ve’y minute. Yas ’m, dat de conjuh-mahn.”

He was little and old and black, the ashy black of extreme age; the skin tightdrawn across cheekbone and jaw, dull and leathery, seamed with deep lines. His little sparkling eyes, mere beads of dark, set in yellow, were sunk in cavernous hollows, overhung by a scant fringe of eyebrow, startlingly white against the dark skin. An old silk hat, tilted back, covered his head until it rested on his protruding ears. He wore a long coat, buttoned close about his withered body; and his hands, lean and long, clasped a walking-stick, fantastically carved with a writhing serpent, emblem of the voodoo and relic of a primeval worship. As he leaned upon his staff and looked about him, peering from the deep wells of his eyes, he seemed immemorially old; his shrunken figure, his seamed face, his snow-white wool, all were old, old beyond the years of man; he might have been a remnant of another age.

From the group of servants, huddled together by the kitchen door, there came respectful, awe-subdued greeting, and Maria began an explanation of her need; but he took no notice of greeting or story, and they fell silent, following at a cautious distance as he walked slowly toward the spot where Maria’s bundle lay. His lips moved with one knows not what incantations of a far-off day in far-off African forests, and three times he paced slowly around the tied-up clothing. His mutterings became louder, but in an unknown tongue — the mysterious, uncanny gibberish of voodoo spells. The frightened servants drew farther back. Who knew what spirits of evil, what hags and devils, might be hovering near ?

With his snaky staff, the conjure-man drew a circle in the dust about the clothing, muttering still. From some inner recess he drew forth his snake-skin “ conjure-bag,” and out of it took a vial of white powder, which he scattered over the clothing, his bony hands outstretched, the serpent on his staff seeming almost to writhe and twist as he passed it to and fro in cabalistic signs, his incantation rising to a shrill chant. With a tremulous feather he found the direction of the faint breeze, and moved to windward of the circle in the dust. Stooping, he extended his hand, and at once the circle was filled with flames, green and blue, twining and leaping in the air. A frightened murmur came from the group of dusky watchers as the flames sprang up, and a thick, white smoke hid the bundle in the centre.

“ ’Tan’ de-dey! ” commanded the conjure-man, pointing with his staff, and the servants shuffled nervously to the spot indicated. “ No’tan’een’moke. Chahm cyar’ een ’moke. ’Moke tetch yuh, chahm ketch yuh, all-e-sem lak put on clo’es. ’Tan’ ’way bahk.”

The blue flames leaped and ran; the incantation rose louder; the snaky staff writhed and twisted. Then the smoke lightened, blew away, disappeared; the flames dropped; the incantation ceased; the snake grew quiet. On the ground, where the clothing had been, was only a little heap of grayish ash and a circle in the dust. The conjure-man departed as silently as he had come; the servants drew a long breath, and a babel of chatter began, all talking at once.

Above the din rose the voice of Maria, shrilly triumphant: “ I don’ keer ef dey is gone; dat niggeh malm ain’t got mah clo’es, an’ neiddeh is he got no chahm on me! ”