Authors: Catherine Wittmack
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Paranormal
© 2010 Catherine Wittmack
For my mother, Joan
you to Joan and Dee for the gift of time; to Lauren, Tanya, and Laura Neely for
your patience and encouragement; and to my husband, Charlie, for sharing a life
with many adventures, some of which served as inspiration for aspects of this
“I’m gonna tell you the
secret, rosebud.” Mother said with a sly smile. “Fry a little bacon in the pan
before you add the shrimp. Then you’re really cookin’.”
“Now, don’t forget to stir those grits.” She
I dug my toes into the stepstool and whirled the
big wooden spoon around the pot, watching the milky grains thicken inside.
“A dash of salt, a little pepper, and you’re on
your way.” Mother said cheerfully.
That’s what I remember of my childhood. Hours
spent in the hot kitchen of our old tidewater house with my mother, cracking
and stirring, pouring and baking, frying and tasting.
It had always been just us, at least, that’s all I
knew. Though I never told her that. It would have broken her heart. I was four
years old when my father died and I didn’t remember him. I couldn’t recall his
profile or the sound of his voice. When I tried to conjure a memory, all I got
were animations of the photographs we had around the house. Him smiling above a
white button down shirt and blue blazer from the picture on the mantel, or
looking proud holding the tuna he caught off shore from the picture mother kept
on her nightstand.
Because my mother was all I had, when she
disappeared into the night of a Georgia hurricane, my life, as I knew it,
washed away like a sandcastle in the surf.
My mother was an artist. Though I can’t say she
ever found a medium that satisfied her. Looking back, I know that her
restlessness wasn’t just about art. Something inside her wanted to get out and
no amount of clay or paint could set it free.
She was particularly enamored with everything
Gullah, a culture sewn into the fabric of our small town. Moco was nestled in
the soft spot between the sea and swamp of southern Georgia on land that was
once a plantation. The Gullah people were the descendants of Africans brought
to Georgia to work on colonial plantations. Their customs and beliefs were rich
with the wisdom their ancestors brought with them and spiced with local
knowledge gained from living close to the land for hundreds of years. In the
daylight, people often called the Gullah ways folklore but in their darkest
hours, when conventional remedies failed, many residents of Moco put faith in
Signs of my mother’s fixation with the beauty and
the secrets of the Gullah were everywhere. Sea grass baskets were tucked into
every nook and cranny of our house and she filled canvas upon canvas with the
deep brown faces of our neighbors.
Moco was the place my mother was born and raised.
And at times, she behaved like it was as vital to her being as blood and other
times, she acted like the roots that fed her were bound so tight she might
never bloom again.
As for the raising part, as much as I longed for
grandparents to spoil me, I never met them. Mother didn’t speak of them and when
I asked, her face just clouded up like a summer storm, answering only with her
brooding silence. I’d met my father’s sister, Jane, once. She’d come through
town before settling up north. As far as I knew, we hadn’t heard from her
since. The family I had was the family my mother chose. Those were her friends,
largely other artists.
It was a terrible shock when my mother slipped out
of my life but looking back, there were signs.
She had been jumpy all summer long,
double-checking the locks on our doors, always looking over her shoulder and
between cars in parking lots. But by the end of August, her jumpiness had
eased, replaced by a strange calm I’d never known her to possess.
The bright stone jewelry that signified her bold
style sat quietly in a bureau drawer. She’d taken to wearing only a gold chain
with a simple flower charm that dangled discretely against her smooth cinnamon
Her friends visited less often and when they did,
the conversations were strained. Some of them drew me aside and pressed small
pieces of paper containing scribbled phone numbers into my palm, imploring me
to call them if ever I needed help. I wondered at their concern but worried
little because with me, my mother was more peaceful than I’d ever seen her. And
I liked it.
Our last day together was memorable. October in
Moco could be downright hot and that day, ironically marked by Halloween, was
in the mid-80s and still as a corpse’s breath. I’d been invited to a party at
my friend Scarlett’s house and had unfortunately chosen to dress as a mummy.
Around five o'clock I wiggled into my costume, realizing that it would be a
sweaty night. I waited for my mother on the porch stairs, the humid air seeping
into my wraps.
Mr. Tucker, our elderly neighbor strolled by
raising his eyebrows at my garb, “Evenin’ Eliza. Don’t you look festive
tonight,” he said courteously. “Bad weather is comin’.” He muttered glancing
warily toward the sky.
“Yes sir. Everyone’s talking about it.” I
It was officially hurricane season. While Moco was
far enough inland that we never evacuated, we’d been hit plenty hard and often
enough to respect Mother Nature.
“Well, hey there, Mr. Tucker. You out for trick or
treating?” Mother asked playfully, appearing on the porch.
Mr. Tucker chuckled. “How do you like my costume?
It’s called one-foot-in-the-grave.” He joked grimly.
“Ah now, Henry, don’t say such things. You’re
looking strong as ever.” Mother said kindly.
“You flatter me Nia. Good evenin’ to y’all.” He
said with a wink and shuffled away.
I remember mother’s outfit perfectly. She was
dressed up for meeting friends in town for dinner. She looked beautiful wearing
a long black gauzy skirt, fitted purple t-shirt, and black ballet flats. Her
luxurious black hair hung straight down her back.
“Come on, Eliza. We better be on our way or we’ll
both be late.” She urged hopping off the porch steps.
As we walked toward the park that separated our
house from Scarlett’s, mother peppered me with questions about who would be at
the party and what costumes people were planning to wear. It was getting dark
by the time we reached the gates and the wind was picking up.
“Looks like we’re going to get the weather they
called for after all.” Mother said squinting up into the branches of the
massive live oaks and magnolias of the city park. “We’d better be quick to
avoid the rain.”
We scampered down a path that led straight through
the park. Halfway, a woman stepped between the trees. Mother and I were
startled. She laughed nervously exclaiming, "Narissa, you nearly scared me
Though her tone was pleasant, I felt her body
tense. She pulled me closer to her side. She didn't introduce me to the woman
and I was sure I'd never seen her before. She was very pretty with long red
hair and large eyes slanted like a cat’s.
She smiled at mother. "I'm sorry, Nia. I
didn't mean to scare you. Is this your little one?" She asked with creepy
Her strange amber eyes sent a shiver down my
sweaty spine. I shrank deeper into my mother’s side.
“Yes, this is my daughter. We really have to go
now, tryin’ to beat the storm.” Mother said, her grip tightening around my
shoulders. Leaves and Spanish moss whirled through the air, carried on the wind
gusting from the sea.
“Of course. Wouldn’t want you to get wet. Bye
now.” Narissa said with a smirk before stealing back into the darkness on the
other side of the path.
"Bye." Mother replied weakly and
forcibly picked up the pace. Once Narissa was out of earshot she looked down at
me, concern shadowing her face.
"I hope she didn't scare you, baby. We better
hurry or you’re going to miss the first game!" She added, eager to change
We quickly crossed the park to Scarlett’s house.
The front door was open and kids were running wild in the living room. Mother
giggled as she hugged and kissed me goodbye. "Have fun, rosebud! I'll see
By the time mother arrived to take me home the
rain was coming down in sheets. We ran the two blocks to our house getting
soaked to the bone. Thunder boomed and lightning flashed violently across a
“Well we’re really havin’ us a storm, now aren’t
we rosebud?” Mother said snuggling down into my bed with me to read a bedtime
The lights flickered and cut out.
Mother found a candle and brought it to my room.
She read me stories by candlelight. We prayed together. Then she kissed and
hugged me and told me she loved me. I drifted off to sleep to the sound of
I woke to the sound of breaking glass. Water
sprayed against my face and flashes of light lit up my room like a disco.
Droplets found my tongue. Salt. One thing everyone in Moco knows, when the rain
tastes like the sea, we’re in trouble.
Crash. The branch pressing against my bedroom
window broke through another pane letting the hurricane wind wreak havoc through
my bedroom. My door slammed shut from the force of it. I leapt out of bed,
pried it open and scrambled out onto the second floor landing. At the base of
the stairs, our front door slammed against the wall, battered by the wind
raking through the house.
I ran to my mother’s bedroom. It was vacant. Her
bed was made as if she’d never retired.
Branches from the ancient trees around our house
beat against the walls and roof. Thunder cracked so loud it felt like I was
inside the cloud. Smack. A squirrel’s limp body slammed against the window and
flew off again into the maelstrom.
Terrified, I ran down the stairs and pressed my
weight against the front door forcing the storm out and secured the lock.
Shards of glass littered the foyer, threatening my bare feet. A portrait of my
mother and I lay scratched on the ground, its frame shattered. The glass
fragments spilled into the kitchen like breadcrumbs.
A sick feeling of dread spread in the pit of my
stomach like kudzu in August. I followed the jagged trail to its end at the
edge of a murky puddle of water in the middle of the kitchen floor.
Watching the hurricane’s fury from the kitchen
window, I cried for my mother. But she never answered.
Port Rune, Massachusetts
CRASH. Boom. BOOM. Patter, patter,
patter. You’d think I would object to starting my day with a thunderstorm. But
actually, I liked it, the symphony of sounds that reminded me of where I’d come
from and where I was now, safe from the storm.
in my down comforter and let the sound of the storm warm me as I wiggled my
body awake. Rising to a higher level of consciousness, I sank deeper under the
blankets remembering that it was Monday, again.
finally admitted to myself that I was going to be late if I didn't move, I
reached over and banged the alarm button. Storm silenced.
reluctantly pulled the cord to the lantern suspended above my nightstand and
stared at the lofty industrial ceiling of my room before rolling out of bed.
With a rustle and thud the paperback I’d been reading the night before slid
from the folds of the blanket onto the ground. I carefully stepped over the
book and various other items strewn along the floor as I crossed the room.
of coffee and breakfast cooking brought a smile to my
determined-to-be-cranky-because-it's-Monday face. Jane was up.