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Sis' Mame laughed light-heartedly. "Plumb fool talk, Jim; plumb fool talk," she assured him. "She's jes ersheddin' her heart."
He looked at her blankly, and she gave a little scornful sniff, and took up her sidling march up the middle of the road again; but fifty feet away, she turned and sent back a cackling call.
"Doan' yo' b'liebe Ah know what Ah know?" she snapped. "Go 'long, fool yalleh man! Ah was suckin' aigs 'fo' yo' mammy cut her toofs; er yo' gran'mammy, eider. Yah!" And turning her back again, she derisively waved her staff over her shoulder, and went muttering up the road.
MYRA was sitting on the door-step in the hot morning sun as the figure of a woman appeared on the steep, white road that curved upward to her gate. A brown dress flapped in the trade-wind about her meager form, and round her head was bound a high, spotlessly white bandana. She came sidling up the road, leaning on a stout stick, first one long step, then two short hitches with the other foot; she stopped frequently to rest. One could see her head wag, as if she talked vehemently with herself. It was Sis' Mame.
It was not until she turned in from the road and stopped to rest under a tamarindtree that she lifted her eyes to the girl. She cackled breathlessly, throwing back her head as she laughed.
"Oh, ma Lawd!" she exclaimed, "dis yerry hill done beat da ol' 'ooman! Ya! ya!" She sidled up and dropped on the ground in front of Myra, fanning herself with her skirt. "Marra, chile. Yen't yo' goin' say 'Marra' tow Sis' Mame, comin' all da way up yerry hill faw tow see how yo' is?" she demanded, glancing about her carelessly.
"Marra, Sis' Mame," replied the girl. "How yo' is dis marra?"
"Me? Libely 's er lizard." She ducked. her head in soundless laughter. "How yo' is yo'self?"
Myra turned away her eyes. "What yo' eyes faw if yo' cain't see widout tellin'?" she asked sullenly.
"Who? Me?" demanded Sis' Mame. She lifted her claw-like hand to her mouth to hide her laughter, then leered into Myra's face, her own darkly grim. "What ma eyes faw?" she repeated. "Tow see mo' 'n yo' kin, gal-tow see da libin' an' da dead, an' obbe doin's. Huh!" She snorted scornfully.
For the first time the girl looked at her with other than indifferent eyes. A grayish hue of fear settled upon her tense face.
"What yo' see, Sis' Mame?" she whispered.
The old woman gazed long in her face. At first the girl dropped her own eyes, but that narrowed, unwinking look held her like a bird in a snare. It was a serpent threatening to spring, a wave about to engulf her, and, like one in a nightmare, she could not resist. With a moan of surrender, she raised her eyes to its compelling insistence.
"What yo' see, Sis' Mame?" she repeated tremulously.
Sis' Mame caught at the girl's dress.
"Ah see yo' foots go creepin', creepin' down in da Valley o' da Shadeh," she muttered hoarsely; "Ah see yo’—”
With a little cry Myra threw her skirt over her head and rocked to and fro in terror. "Doan' say da wud, Sis' Mame!" she moaned. "'Foh Gord! doan' say da wud!"'
Sis' Mame seemed not to hear. She had locked her hands about her knees and, rocking slowly on her heels, dropped into a singsong drone: "Yo' go creepin' down dah, an' den Ah cain't see yo' no mo', faw dah yen't no light; an' Ah cain't heah yo' foots, faw dey done gone die; but Ah heah yo' soul er-flyin' roun' an' er-cryin' an' er-mou'nin' 'ca'se it cain't find yo' body. But Ah feel yo' body go walkin' by; but it doan' know, an' it doan' see, faw yo' soul 's done gone erway."
Myra could hear no more. From the terrifying realism of Sis' Mame's picture of her actual dissolution she shrank with an unspeakable horror that her old morbid resignation to the thought of death had been far from bringing. With a wailing sob she threw herself forward, clasping Sis' Mame's knees. "Hush, Sis' Mame!
hush!" she moaned. "Yo' wan' kill me befo' ma time! Ah don' wan' tow die lak dat; Ah 's tow young, Sis' Mame, tow go down dah in da dark all alone. Ah 's afraid."
"Yo' stop ri' dah, gal!" sternly commanded Sis' Mame. "Yo' heah me-ri' dah! Ah yen't say yo' was dade-ninny! Dat 's jes er sign, gal; it yen't come true -yit."
to her feet and walked back and forth before Myra in a grotesque but startling mimicry of Rose Mary. Then with a wag of her head, she stooped for her stick as she added: "Ah reckon Ah 'Il prance erlong maself. Missa Sun 's gittin' mighty hot an' high; no place faw ol' bag er bones lak me on da road, takin' his sass." She turned, but Myra called timidly:
'What it mean, Sis' Mame-dat sign
"FOR HOURS THE SOLITARY GIRL WATCHED ITS SLOW MARCH TO THE WESTERN HORIZON"
"What it mean, Sis' Mame?" gasped the girl. She shrank from the answer as from a threatening blow.
But Sis' Marne made no reply. With a quick revulsion to her lighter mood, she turned to look down the hot road, exclaiming:
"Dah, now, if dah don' go Sis' Rose Ma'y lumbe'in' erlong lak en ol' cow! Ma Lawd! dat 'ooman 's da beatenest! She such is. Jes watch her prance erlong!" She doubled over with laughter. 'Hoo-la! Ah 's goin' trim her wings faw her some fine day; yas 'm." She sprang
yo' been see?" Her voice was husky with unspoken dread.
"Dah yo' go!" exclaimed Sis' Mame, turning with a quick look of reproach. "Yen't Ah got sorreh 'nough now, widout weah'in' maself out faw fool gals what doan' know da shadeh f'om da sugahcane stalk?" She paused in sad deliberation, sighed, then dolefully shaking her head, added: "Well, if Ah mus', Ah mus'." She drew nearer to the girl. "When da moon drop down behin' da sea-wateh tow-night, rise up an' come tow ma do'-an' come slow. An' don' look
behine yo', an' don' look beside yo'. Yo' heah, gal?" And at that she turned and went shuffling down the hot road, with her snuff-colored skirt flapping straight out in the gale.
That night the moon set at eleven, and for hours the solitary girl watched its slow march to the western horizon with a gaze numbed by terror to sheer impassiveness. As it dipped to the sea, a bloodred drop seemed to elongate its lower rim and clutch at the edge of the world. With quick-beating heart, Myra watched it disappear. Above her on the heights a dog howled dolefully, and a dark shape, bat or bird, flitted unheeded before her eyes as the red upper rim vanished and dark night fell like the sudden closing of a door.
At that moment, as she rose, a tragic little figure, from the door-step, she presented a well-nigh sublime example of masking flesh triumphing over the indwelling spirit. For it was as automaton, rather than as compelling mind, that she now moved mechanically to her appointment, alive only to the mysterious injunctions that Sis' Mame had given her for her guidance.
It was early in the week, and therefore not a festival night with the negroes, and the quiet little town had long since given itself to slumber. Only the night wind, softly blowing through the tops of the trees, went with her-her whispering voices. Mindful of Sis' Mame's parting injunction, she went on slowly, with eyes steadfastly fixed ahead until, toilsomely mounting the steep stairs that led her to Love-Lady Court, she saw within Sis' Mame's open doorway the flickering glow of a hidden fire. Shaken by soundless sobs, Myra laid her hand on the top of a broken wall.
"If yo' ebber goin' help me, oh, ma Lawd!" she whispered brokenly, "den help me now; faw Ah cain't go on an' Ah cain't go back! Lemme die right heeh, Lawd, an' now! Lemme die, an' en' ma mis'ry!"
With streaming eyes she looked up at the sky, but even the stars were now hidden; the wind had suddenly dropped: it was as if all nature stood remotely unresponsive to her distress. The shadowy world in which she had lately moved had come, with her profound conviction that she was under the spell of the obi, or hoo
doo, to be merely a place of portents and malign influences, and it was with the mysterious rites of the obi cult that she had now to do, Myra was aware. It was therefore with a deepening sense of her remoteness from all sympathy or aid that she again took up her slow progress toward Sis' Mame's door, now ominously
As she paused irresolutely in the open doorway, it was with an assumption of well-feigned surprise that Sis' Mame greeted her, looking up from the lighted brazier where she sat crouched on the floor, warming her hands at the feeble. flame, though the night was hot and close.
"Ma Lawd, chile, is dat yo' yo'self!" she exclaimed, lifting her hands in amazement. "If Ah did n' t'ink it was yo' ha'nt!" She ducked her head, doubling over with laughter. "Says Ah tow maself: 'Poor Sis' Myra 's done gone at las', scrummagin' roun' in da dahk lak dat dis time o' night. Tow be such! tow be such!" She laughed again, then beckoned hospitably. "What yo' standin' dah faw, wid yo' eyes all starry? Come in! Come in, if yo' cain't fin' no betteh comp'ny dan er ol' open-eye lak me!"
"Yo' tol' me tow come, yo' know, Sis' Mame," Myra answered timidly, as she advanced uncertainly into the room. "Ah doan' wan' 'sturb yo'."
"Who? Me?" laughed Sis' Mame, with scorn. "Yen't nobuddy nor nuttin' goin' 'sturb no ol' fly-high, fly-low bat lak me. Lawd! gal, dis jes ma time o' day! Ah feel lak Ah got wings on ma hoofs."
As she spoke, she leaped to her feet, and shuffled through a fantastic little dance, holding her skirt high that she might watch her moving steps. Suddenly she sprang erect, and with wide-spread arms whirled round and round on her toes. It was with an almost incredible suddenness that at last she paused, and with her hands on her knees stood leaning forward, peering at Myra. Her pointed chin and sharp, long nose, wholly unlike the Kongo negro's, seemed almost to meet beyond her toothless mouth. Her smile had vanished. Under the fixed, uncanny stare of her narrowed eyes, Myra's own dropped, and at tremulous sigh escaped her. Sis' Mame softly closed the door, and went back to her crouching position by the brazier.
The fresh charcoal with which she had filled it had burned itself out, and now lay a mass of ruddy coals, alternately paling and darkening, making in the bare, mean room its one spot of light, above which Sis' Mame's lined and yellow visage, with its somber eyes, seemed a grotesque caricature of humanity. Indeed, at first it seemed, rather a symbol of that humanity rudely carved in wood, so motionless was she. But as Myra's first sensation of benumbing fear gradually gave way to an awed and curious interest in the spectacle before her, she noted that Sis' Mame's face had relaxed. Her lips now moved in rhythmic regularity, as if in time to whispered music; her head, nodding, seemed to be marking the same cadences, while momentarily a spasmodic shiver ran through her shoulders and jerked her arms like those of a marionette. Then all at once she broke into a crooning song of the obi worship.
At first a mere croon, the song gradually increased in volume and time as the singer's movements became wilder. Suddenly, still chanting the barbaric measure, she rose to her feet, and in a sort of processional dance went from point to point of the room, collecting the strange objects used in the heathen worship and setting them in orderly array about the brazier. With them she brought candles, placing these in a circle about a closed box, surmounted by a bell, which seemed the center of the ceremony.
As the mystic rites gradually composed themselves in a series of incantations and frenzied dances about the mysterious box, from which now Sis' Mame no longer turned her eyes, Myra was borne further and further away from the inertness of body and spirit that had long bound her, as it were, in chains. An odd physical interpretation of any mental distress from which she longed to escape, which her childishly imaginative mind had always pictured as a stifling room where from a door might suddenly open to boundless space, now came to her anew. Somewhere near, she thought, there was surely an open door back to her old joyous life.
She had not seated herself on entering, but standing at first at a distance, step by step she had drawn nearer to Sis' Mame as, under the influence of her growing excitement, fear had gradually dropped
away. In her absorbed and fascinated attention she was wholly unaware that her mind had become the reflex of Sis' Mame's, transmitting every movement of the older woman's body to her own in unconscious though lessened mimicry. It was therefore with no shock or revulsion of feeling that, as she found herself at Sis' Mame's side, she felt her hand seized, and was guided forward toward the mysterious box, keeping step, in momentary pauses, with the queer, shuffling dance with which the old negress broke her hesitating advance. As they stood at last above the mystic receptacle, suddenly Sis' Mame began a quick-moving series of genuflections, directing her gaze toward the box and chanting in a low, staccato recitative:
But the limit of human endurance was at last reached, and suddenly Myra fell, and lay prone upon the dirt floor, her hand still gripped by Sis' Mame, who crouched above the box, breathing in quick gasps. With a quick movement she flung back the lid and sank upon her heels. the half-stupor of complete prostration, Myra's eyes, dumbly watchful, dilated with the paralyzing sickness of an unspeakable fear as slowly above the uncovered receptacle the green head of Miche' Nabo, a snake, rose and began to weave back and forth with a lightning-like darting of its forked tongue. With a moan, My: a closed her eyes and lay limp, lost to all things but the expected blow that she had no strength to escape.
She never knew how long that breathless silence lasted. She seemed to herself
to have died a thousand times when something sharply flipped her cheek. Even then she did not know that she shrieked; she was only aware that she seemed to be drifting out on the tide of blackness, and blessed unconsciousness, which she thought death, folded her in arms of tenderness.
She must have wakened with the first cool rush of the morning wind, after that stifling room, for life seemed to her to come back with a spring, and all at once her world lay unrolled before her eyes hardly a step from Sis' Mame's door-the steep stairway of Love-Lady Lane; the mean hovels lining it, but dignified now with the translating glamour of the morning twilight; the whispering trees; and, far beyond, the ocean stretching wide, with the first faint hint of dawn flushing its sky.
She knew that she was being rapidly though tenderly borne over the familiar road to her own home, but she had no curiosity. Her utter exhaustion for the moment left her dulled to everything but the grateful coolness and sense of rest. And just then again, though gradually, amid the awakening memories of the wild night now passed, through the old, familiar passage-way of fear, there came the thought of the sharp blow upon her face. With a sudden convulsive lifting of her hand to her cheek, she moaned.
"Whah yo' huht, honey chile?" It was the voice of Gumbo Jim, her bearer. She turned her face quickly, looking up into. his suffering eyes.
"Heeh," she whispered, and touched her cheek with trembling fingers. "He bit me-dat Miche' Nabo." Her voice broke in a sob.
His own was choked with impotent rage as he answered:
"He won't bite no mo'; Ah done kill him wid ma heel. But yo', liddie gal! Oh, ma Lawd!" In a blind frenzy at the thought of his own helplessness, he broke into a shambling run, continued to her very door.
Then, struggling, she freed herself, and sank upon the door-step, covering her face with her hands. He bent over her.
"Lemme see yo' face, liddie gal," he said.
Hesitatingly she drew her hand away, as he bent closer in the growing light. He gazed long.
"Chile, dey yen't no mahk-not er scratch!" he exclaimed at last.
"Dat's whar he bit me," she persisted, "an' it huhts. Oh, Jim, is Ah goin' tow die?" She seized his hand, clinging to it. "Doan' lebe me! Ah doan' want tow die all erlone."
"Ah yen't nebber goin' tow lebe yo' no mo'," he replied; "not 'ca'se yo' goin' tow die, but 'ca'se yo' goin' tow libe. Dat snake yen't huht yo'; dey yen't no mahk." Doubtfully she rose, and passed into the house, returning a moment later with the broken bit of a looking-glass in her hand. The eastern hills still hid the risen sun, but the white radiance of day was flooding the sea beyond the point of cocoapalms.
Crouching on the door-step, Myra dropped to her lap the mirror into which she had been gazing.
"Ah doan' unnerstan'," she murmured. "He bit me, an' Ah done pass erway; but dey yen't no mahk, jes lak yo' tell me; an' it doan' huht no mo'." She looked up doubtfully at her companion, sitting at her side. Half-unconsciously she laid her hand on his shoulder. A new light came to his eyes.
"Mebbe he done cure yo', liddie gal," he said eagerly.
She nodded thoughtfully, and wearily let her head fall against the doorpost.
"Mebbe," she agreed. A trembling came to her lips, and her fingers tightened on his sleeve. "Anyway, Ah doan' want tow be erlone no mo'. Ah 'm sick o' sorreh."
He leaned toward her eagerly.
"Yo' want me, liddie Myra?" he whispered. "Ah want somebuddy," she replied in a low voice.
"Well, dat 's me, chile-dat 's me," he exclaimed.
"Yass," she said dutifully.
He sprang to his full height, and, leaping high, brought his feet sharply together. "Heah dat!" he laughed. Then stooping, he let his hand fall tenderly to her shoulder. "Now yo' go res', liddie gal; go res'. Ah mus' go tow wohk, but wid joy. An' Ah come ergain wid joy."
But she held him a moment longer. "How yo' know how tow fin' me?" she whispered.
He grinned sheepishly.