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Hairwork

No plant can thrive without putting down roots, as nothing comes from nothing; what you feed your garden with matters, always, be it the mulched remains of other plants, or bone, or blood. The seed falls wherever it’s dropped and grows, impossible to track, let alone control. There’s no help for it.

These are all simple truths, one would think, and yet, they appear to bear infinite repetition. But then, history is re-written in the recording of it, always.

Ici, c’est elle,” you tell Tully Ferris, the guide you’ve engaged, putting down a pale sepia photograph printed on pasteboard, its corners foxed with age. “Marceline Bedard, 1909—from before she and Denis de Russy met, when she was still dancing as Tanit-Isis. It’s a photographic reference, similar to what Alphonse Mucha developed his commercial art pieces from. I found it in a studio where Frank Marsh used to paint, hidden in the floor. Marsh was Cubist, so his paintings tend to look very deconstructed, barely human, but this is what he began with.”

Ferris looks at the carte, gives a low whistle. “Redbone,” he says. “She a fine gal, that’s for sure. Thick, sweet. And look at that hair.”

“ ‘Redbone?’ I don’t know this term.”

“Pale, ma’am, like cream, lightish-complected—you know, high yaller? Same as me.”

“Oh yes, une métisse, bien sur. She was cagey about her background, la belle Marceline, liked to preserve mystery. But the rumor was her mother came from New Orleans to Marseilles, then Paris, settling in the same area where Sarah Bernhardt’s parents once lived, a Jewish ghetto. When she switched to conducting séances, she took out advertisements claiming her powers came from Zimbabwe and Babylon, darkest Africa and the tribes of Israel, equally. Thus the name: Tanit, after the Berber moon-goddess, and Isis, from ancient Egypt, the mother of all magic.”

“She got something, all right. A mystery to me how she even hold her head up, that much weight of braids on top of it.”

“Mmm, there was an interesting story told about Marceline’s hair—that it wasn’t hers at all but a wig. A wig made from hair, maybe even some scalp, going back a long time, centuries . . . I mean, c’est folle to think so, but that was what they said. Perhaps even as far as Egypt. Her mother’s mother brought it with her, supposedly.”

“Mummies got hair like that, though, don’t they? Never rots. Good enough you can take DNA off it.”

You nod. “And then there’s the tradition of Orthodox Jewish women, Observants, Lubavitchers in particular—they cover their hair with a wig, too, a sheitel, so no one but their husband gets to see it. Now, Marceline was in no way Observant, but I can see perhaps an added benefit to her courtesanerie from allowing no one who was not un amant, her intimate, to see her uncovered. The wig’s hair might look much the same as her own, only longer; it would save her having to . . . relax it? Ça ira?

“Yeah, back then, they’d’ve used lye, I guess. Nasty. Burn you, you leave it on too long.”

Exactement.

Tully rocks back a bit on his heels, gives a sigh. “Better start off soon, you lookin’ to make Riverside ’fore nightfall—we twenty miles up the road here from where the turn-off’d be, there was one, so we gotta drive cross Barker’s Crick, park by the pass, then hike the rest. Not much left still standin’, but I guess you probably know that, right?”

“Mmm. I read testimony from 1930, a man trying for Cape Girardeau who claimed he stayed overnight, spoke to Antoine de Russy. Not possible, of course, given the time—yet he knew many details of the events of 1922, without ever reading or hearing about them, previously. Or so he said.”

“The murders, the fire?” You nod. “Yeah, well—takes all sorts, don’t it? Ready to go, ma’am?”

“If you are, yes.”

“Best get to it, then—be dark sooner’n you think and we sure don’t wanna be walkin’ ’round in that.

A mourning sampler embroidered with fifteen different De Russy family members’ hair once hung upstairs, just outside my husband’s childhood bedroom door: such a pretty garden scene, at first glance, soft and gracious, depicting the linden-tree border separating river and dock from well-manicured green lawn and edging flowerbeds—that useless clutter of exotic blooms, completely unsuited to local climate or soil, which routinely drank up half the fresh water diverted from the slave quarter’s meager vegetable patch. The lindens also performed a second function, of course, making sure De Russy eyes were never knowingly forced to contemplate what their negres called the bone-field, a wet clay sump where slaves’ corpses were buried at night and without ceremony, once their squeamish masters were safely asleep. Landscaping as maquillage, a false face over rot, the skull skin-hid. But then, we all look the same underneath, no matter our outward shade, ne c’est pas?

In 1912, I took Denis’s hand at a Paris soiree and knew him immediately for my own blood, from the way the very touch of him made my skin crawl—that oh-so-desirable peau si-blanche, olive-inflected like old ivory, light enough to shine under candle flame. I had my Tanit-wig on that night, coils of it hung down in tiers far as my hips, my thighs, far enough to brush the very backs of my bare knees; I’d been rehearsing most of the day, preparing to chant the old rites in Shona while doing what my posters called a “Roodmas dance” for fools with deep pockets. Frank Marsh was there, too, of course, his fishy eyes hung out on strings—he introduced Denis to me, then pulled me aside and begged me once again to allow him to paint me “as the gods intended,” with only my ancestors’ hair for modesty. But I laughed in his face and turned back to Denis instead, for here was the touch of true fate at last, culmination of my mother’s many prayers and sacrifices. Mine to bend myself to him and bind him fast, make him bring me back to Riverside to do what must be done, just as it’d been Frank’s unwitting destiny to make that introduction all along and suffer the consequences.

Antoine De Russy liked to boast he kept Denis unworldly and I must suppose it to be so, for he never saw me with my wig off, my Tanit-locks set by and the not-so-soft fuzz of black which anchored it on display. As he was raised to think himself a gentleman, it would never have occurred to Denis to demand such intimacies. By the time his father pressed him to do so, I had him well trained: Something odd about that woman, boy, I heard him whisper more than once, before they fell out. Makes my blood run cold to see it. For all she’s foreign-born, I’d almost swear I know her face. . . .

Ha! As though the man had no memory, or no mirrors. Yet, I was far too fair for the one, I suspect, and far too . . . different, though in “deceitfully slight proportion”—to quote that Northerner who wrote your vaunted testimony—for the other. It being difficult to acknowledge your own features in so alien a mirror, not even when they come echoing back to you over generations of mixed blood, let alone on your only son’s arm.

You got in touch with Tully last Tuesday, little seeker, securing his services via Bell’s machine—its latest version, any rate—and by yesterday, meanwhile, you’d flown here from Paris already, through the air. Things move so fast these days and I don’t understand the half of it; it’s magic to me, more so than magic itself, that dark, mechanical force I hold so close to my dead heart. But then, this is a problem with where I am now, how I am; things come to me unasked-for, under the earth, out of the river. Knowledge just reveals itself to me, simple and secret, the same way soil is disturbed by footfalls or silt rises to meet the ripple: no questions and no answers, likewise. Nothing explained outright, ever.

That’s why I don’t know your name, or anything else about you, aside from the fact you think in a language I’ve long discarded and hold an image of me in your mind, forever searching after its twin: that portrait poor Frank did eventually conjure out of me during our last long, hot, wet summer at Riverside, when I led my husband’s father to believe I was unfaithful expressly in order to tempt Denis back early from his New York trip . . . so he might discover me in Frank’s rooms, naked but for my wig, and kill us both.

Workings have a price, you see, and the single best currency for such transactions is blood, always—my blood, the De Russys’ blood, and poor Frank’s added in on top as mere afterthought. All of our blood together and a hundred years’ more besides, let from ten thousand poor negres’ veins one at a time by whip or knife, closed fist or open-handed blow, crying out forever from this slavery-tainted ground.

After Denis’s grandfather bred my mother’s mother ’til she died—before his eyes fell on her in turn—Maman ran all the way from Riverside to New Orleans and farther, as you’ve told Tully: crossed the ocean to France’s main port, then its capital, an uphill road traveled one set of sheets to the next, equal-paved with vaudeville stages, dance floors, séance rooms, and men’s beds. Which is why those were the trades she taught me, along with my other, deeper callings. Too white to be black, a lost half-girl, she birthed me into the demimonde several shades lighter still, which allowed me to climb my way back out; perception has its uses, after all, especially to une sorciére. From earliest years, however, I knew that nothing I did was for myself—that the only reason I existed at all was to bring about her curse, and her mother’s, and her mother’s mother’s mother’s.

There’s a woman at Riverside, Marceline, ma mie, my mother told me before I left her that last time, stepping aboard the steamship bound for America. An old one, from Home—who can say how old? She knew my mother, and hers; she’ll know you on sight, know your works, and help you in them. And so there was: Kaayakire, whom those fools who bought her named Sophonisba—Aunt Sophy—before setting her to live alone in her bone-yard shack, tending the linden path. It was she who taught me the next part of my duty, how to use my ancestors’ power to knit our dead fellow captives’ pain together like a braid, a long black snake of justice, fit to choke all De Russys to death at once. To stop this flow of evil blood at last, at its very source.

That I was part De Russy myself, of course, meant I could not be allowed to escape, either, in the end. Yet only blood pays for blood, so the bargain seemed well worth it, at the time.

But I have been down here so long, now—years and years, decades: almost fifty, by your reckoning, with the De Russy line proper long-extirpated, myself very much included. Which is more than long enough to begin to change my mind on that particular subject.

So, here you come at last, down the track where the road once wound at sunset, led by a man bearing just the barest taint of De Russy blood in his face, his skin, his veins: come down from some child sold away to cover its masters’ debts, perhaps, or traded between land-holders like a piece of livestock. One way or the other, it’s as easy for me to recognize in Tully Ferris by smell as it’d no doubt be by sight, were I not so long deep-buried and eyeless with mud stopping my mouth and gloving my hands, roots knot-coiled ’round my ankles’ bones like chains. I’d know it at first breath, well as I would my own long-gone flesh’s reek, my own long-rotten tongue’s taste.

Just fate at work again, I suppose, slow as old growth—fate, the spider’s phantom skein, thrown out wide, then tightened. But the curse I laid remains almost as strong, shored up with Kaayakire’s help: Through its prism, I watch you approach, earth-toned and many-pointed, filtered through a hundred thousand leaves at once like the scales on some dragonfly’s eye. I send out my feelers, hear your shared tread echo through the ground below, rebounding off bones and bone-fragments, and an image blooms out of resonance that is brief yet crisp, made and remade with every fresh step: you and Tully stomping through the long grass and the clinging weeds, your rubber boots dirt-spattered, wet coats muddy at the hem and snagged all over with stickers.

Tully raises one arm, makes a sweep, as though inviting the house’s stove-in ruin to dance. “Riverside, ma’am—what’s left of it, anyhow. See what I meant?”

“Yes, I see. Oh, pute la merde!”

Tree-girt and decrepit, Riverside’s pile once boasted two stories, a great Ionic portico, the full length and breadth necessary for any plantation centerpiece; they ran upwards of two hundred slaves here before the War cut the De Russys’ strength in half. My husband’s father loved to hold forth on its architectural value to anyone who’d listen, along with most who didn’t. Little of the original is left upright now, however—a mere half-erased sketch of its former glory, all burnt and rotted and sagging amongst the scrub and cockle burrs. Like the deaths of its former occupants, its ruin is an achievement in which I take great pride.

“Said this portrait you come after was upstairs, right?” Tully rummages in his pack for a waterproof torch. “Well, you in luck, gal, sorta . . . upstairs fell in last year, resettled the whole mess of it down into what used to be old Antoine’s ballroom. Can’t get at it from the front, ’cause those steps is so moldy they break if you look at ’em the wrong way, but there’s a tear in the side take us right through. Hope you took my advice ’bout that hard-hat, though.”

You nod, popping your own pack, and slip the article in question on: It even has a headlamp, bright-white. “Voila.

At this point, with a thunderclap, rain begins to fall like curtains, drenching you both—inconvenient, I’m sure, as you slip and slide ’cross the muddy rubble. But I can take no credit for that, believe it or not; just nature taking its toll, moisture invading everything as slow-mounting damp or coming down in sheets, bursting its banks in cycles along with the tea-brown Mississippi itself.

Ownership works both ways, you see. Which is why, even in its heyday, Riverside was never anything more than just another ship, carrying our ancestors to an unwanted afterlife chained cheek-by-jowl with their oppressors, with no way to escape, even in death. No way for any of us to escape our own actions, or from each other.

But when I returned, Kaayakire showed me just how deep those dead slaves had sunk their roots in Riverside’s heart: deep enough to strangle, to infiltrate, to poison, all this while lying dormant under a fallow crust. To sow death-seeds in every part of what the De Russys called home, however surface-comfortable, waiting patient for a second chance to flower.

Inside, under a sagging double weight of floor-turned-roof, fifty years’ worth of mold spikes up the nose straight into the brain while shadows scatter from your twinned lights, same as silt in dark water. You hear the rain like someone else’s pulse, drumming hard, sodden. Tully glances ’round, frowning. “Don’t like it,” he says. “Been more damage since my last time here: there, and there. Structural collapse.”

“The columns will keep it up, though, no? They seem—”

“Saggy like an elephant’s butt, that’s what they seem . . . but hell, your money. Got some idea where best to look?” You shake your head, drawing a sigh. “Well, perfect. Guess we better start with what’s eye-level; go from there.”

As the two of you search, he asks about that old business, the gory details. For certainly, people gossip, here as everywhere else, yet the matter of the De Russys is something most locals flinch from, as though they know it to be somehow—not sacred, perhaps, but significant, in its own grotesque way. Tainted and tainting, by turns.

“Denis de Russy brought Marceline home and six months later, Frank Marsh came to visit,” you explain. “He had known them both as friends, introduced them, watched them form un ménage. Denis considered him an artistic genius but eccentric. To his father, he wrote that Marsh had ‘a knowledge of anatomy which borders on the uncanny.’ Antoine de Russy heard odd stories about Marsh, his family in Massachusetts, la ville d’Innsmouth . . . but he trusted his son, trusted that Denis trusted. So, he opened his doors.”

“But Denis goes traveling and Marsh starts in to painting Missus de Russy with no clothes on, maybe more. That part right, or not?”

“That was the rumor, yes. It’s not unlikely Marceline and Marsh were intimates, from before; he’d painted her twice already, taken those photos. A simple transaction. But this was . . . different, or so Antoine de Russy claimed.”

“How so?”

You shrug. “Marsh said there was something inside her he wanted to make other people see.”

“Like what, her soul?”

“Peut-etre. Or something real, maybe—hidden. Comme un, eh, hmmm . . . ” You pause, thinking. “When you swallow eggs or something swims up inside, in Africa, South America: It eats your food, makes you thin, lives inside you. And when doctors suspect, they have to tempt it out—say ‘aah,’ you know, tease it to show itself, like a . . . snake from a hole. . . . ”

Tully stops, mouth twitching. “A tapeworm? Boy must’ve been trippin’, ma’am. Too much absinthe, for sure.”

Another shrug. “Antoine de Russy wrote to Denis, told him to come home before things progressed further, but heard nothing. Days later, he found Marsh and Marceline in Marsh’s rooms, hacked with knives, Marceline without her wig, or her, eh—hair—”

“Been scalped? Whoo.” Tully shakes his head. “Then Denis kills himself and the old man goes crazy; that’s how they tell it ’round here. When they talk about it at all, which ain’t much.”

“In the testimony I read, de Russy said he hid Marsh and Marceline, buried them in lime. He told Denis to run, but Denis hanged himself instead, in one of the old huts—or something strangled him, a big black snake. And then the house burnt down.”

“Aunt Sophy’s snake, they call it.”

“A snake or a braid, oui, c’est ca. Le cheveaux de Marceline.” But here you stop, examining something at your feet. “But wait, what is—? Over here, please. I need your light.”

Tully steps over, slips, curses; down on one knee in the mud, cap cracking worryingly, his torch rapping on the item in question. “Shit! Look like a . . . box, or something. Here.” As he hands it up to you, however, it’s now his own turn to squint, scrubbing mud from his eyes—something’s caught his notice, there, half-wedged behind a caryatid, extruding from what used to be the wall. He gives it a tug and watches it come slithering out.

Qu’est-ce que c’est, la?”

“Um . . . think this might be what you lookin’ for, ma’am. Some of, anyhow.”

The wet rag in his hand has seen better days, definitely. Yet, for one who’s studied poor Frank Marsh’s work—how ridiculous such a thing sounds, even to me!—it must be unmistakable, nevertheless: a warped canvas, neglect-scabrous, all morbid content and perverted geometry done in impossible, liminal colors. The body I barely recognize, splayed out on its altar-throne, one bloated hand offering a cup of strange liquor; looks more the way it might now were there anything still unscattered, not sifted through dirt and water or filtered by a thousand roots, drawn off to feed Riverside’s trees and weeds with hateful power. The face is long-gone, bullet-perforated, just as that skittish Northerner claimed. But the rest, that coiling darkness, it lies (I lie) on—

You make a strange noise at the sight, gut-struck: “Oh, quel dommage! What a waste, a sinful waste. . . . ”

“Damn, yeah. Not much to go on, huh?”

“Enough to begin with, certainment. I know experts, people who’d pay for the opportunity to restore something so unique, so precious. But why, why—ah, I will never understand. Stupid superstition!”

Which is when the box in your hands jumps, ever so slightly, as though something inside it has woken up. Makes a little hollow rap, like knocking.

As I’ve said, little seeker, I don’t know you—barely know Tully, for all I might recognize his precedents. Though I suppose what I do know might be just enough to feel bad for what must happen to you and him, both, were I any way inclined to.

Frank’s painting is ruined, like everything else, but what’s inside the box is pristine, inviolable. When my father-in-law disinterred us days after the murders, too drunk to remember whether or not Denis had actually done what he feared, he found it wound ’round Frank’s corpse, crushing him in its embrace, and threw burning lamp-oil on it, setting his own house afire. Then fled straight to Kaayakire’s shack, calling her slave-name like the madman he’d doubtless become: Damn you, Sophy, an’ that Marse Clooloo o’ yours . . . damn you, you hellish ol’ nigger-woman! Damn you for knowin’ what she was, that Frog whore, an’ not warnin’ me . . . ’m I your Massa, or ain’t I? Ain’t I always treated you well . . . ?

Only to find the same thing waiting for him, longer still and far more many-armed, still smoldering and black as ever—less a snake now than an octopus, a hundred-handed net. The weight of every dead African whose blood went to grow the De Russys’ fortunes, falling on him at once.

My cousin’s father, my half-uncle, my mother’s brother: all of these and none of them, as she and I were nothing to them—to him. Him I killed by letting his son kill me and set me free.

I have let myself be dead far too long since then, however, it occurs to me. Indulged myself, who should’ve thought only to indulge them, the ancestors whose scalps anchor my skull, grow my crowning glory. Their blood, my blood—Tully Ferris’ blood, blood of the De Russys, of owners and owned alike—cries out from the ground. Your blood, too, now.

Inside the box, which you cannot keep yourself from opening, is my Tanit-Isis wig, that awful relic: heavy and sweet smelling, soft with oils, though kinked at root and tip. You lift it to your head, eyes dazed, and breathe its odor in, deeply; hear Tully cry out, but only faintly, as the hair of every other dead slave buried at Riverside begins to poke its way through floors-made-walls, displace rubble and clutter, twine ’round cracked and half-mashed columnry like ivy, crawl up from the muck like sodden spiders. My wig feels their energies gather and plumps itself accordingly, bristling in every direction at once, even as these subsidiary creatures snare Tully like a rabbit and force their knotted follicles inside his veins, sucking De Russy blood the way the lamia once did, the astriyah, demons called up not by Solomon, but Sheba. While it runs its own roots down into your scalp and cracks your skull along its fused fontanelles to reach the grey-pink brain within, injecting everything which ever made me like some strange drug, and wiping you away like dust.

I would feel bad for your sad demise, little seeker, I’m almost sure; Tully’s, even, his ancestry aside. But only if I were anyone but who I am.

Outside, the rain recedes, letting in daylight: bright morning, blazing gold-green through drooping leaves to call steam up from the sodden ground, raise cicatrix-blisters of moisture from Riverside’s walls. The fields glitter like spider webs. Emerging into it, I smile for the first time in so very long: lips, teeth, muscles flexing. Myself again, for all I wear another’s flesh.

Undefeated, Maman. Victory. I am your revenge and theirs. No one owns me, not anymore, never again. I am . . . my own.

And so, my contract fulfilled, I walk away: into this fast, new, magical world, the future, trailing a thousand dark locks of history behind.

Originally published in She Walks in Shadows and reprinted in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2016.

About the Author

Previously best-known as a film critic, teacher, and screenwriter, Gemma Files has published around seventy-five short stories since 1993. Some of them have been compiled in two collections. She is also the author of the Hexslinger trilogy of novels and We Will All Go Down Together, a story cycle. Files’ most recent book is novel Experimental Film (2015). She lives with her husband and son in Toronto, Ontario.