Rumpus Original Fiction: Shadow Catchers

By

The obituary listed the date of Israel Wilmot’s death as June 13, 1987, but many claimed the seventeen-year-old died on June 4 and that for the next nine days, he had wandered around the Parish of St. Thomas looking for his shadow.

Zina was fourteen years old on that hot June day when the townspeople learned her older half-brother’s shadow went missing. With a complexion neither light nor dark, hair neither straight nor locked, and having only inherited medium brown eyes from her father and not the amber ones Israel had inherited from his, Zina was used to existing in the background. Still flat-chested, boyish-hipped, and of average academic and athletic ability, Zina had no expectation of being favored anytime soon. And then her brother’s shadow went missing.

They had been at the river that day; their mother, Peta-Gaye, wringing out clothes after Zina scrubbed them with laundry soap. Israel reclined against the trunk of a tree, singing off-key and skipping rocks across the water. Peta-Gaye hummed along with him. When he said he was thirsty, Peta-Gaye told Zina to get him a drink. Zina mumbled something about not being his servant and Peta-Gaye whirled on her, hand raised as if to slap. Zina recoiled and Peta-Gaye lowered her hand. The girl went to the cooler, selected a bottle of juice, and handed it to her brother. Peta-Gaye and Israel went back to harmonizing. And then, after a while, Zina heard only her mother’s voice.

***

***

The Wilmots had inherited evangelical beliefs from their enslaved ancestors, but they inherited other beliefs, too: ones from Africa brought to the Jamaican sugar plantations. So they believed infants should be christened, but also passed those babies over their parents’ graves to keep them from being haunted. They asked the pastor to bless their new houses but stepped backwards into their homes at night to prevent duppies from following them inside. They believed cleanliness was next to godliness but didn’t sweep their houses after dark to avoid bad omens. And they believed that everyone had two souls—one that went to the God of the Pentecost and the other, the shadow, that went to the grave. Unless it was stolen.

“Don’t accept drinks from just anybody,” Peta-Gaye’s grandmother had always warned family members. “That is how bad-minded people capture shadows. Once they take it, that’s it. It’s worse than death because you will never rest in peace unless you get it back.”

Her grandmother could attest to this, having witnessed it happen to a neighbor back in 1952. People still reported seeing the woman roaming the countryside looking for her shadow. So Peta-Gaye had been careful. She had been vigilant around her family. She never let them eat food from strangers.

And she always watched their shadows.

On sunny days, Peta-Gaye cast a quick glance at the ground behind her children to make sure their shadows were there. When evening came, she lit candles to confirm their second selves were still in the room. So that day on the riverbank, when she looked towards her two children to tell them to get out of the sun, Israel’s shadow was the first thing she noticed missing.

 

 

Zina hadn’t been entirely convinced that shadows could be stolen, but then she finally sensed something in the air as they stood on the riverbank. Something different. It wasn’t until she heard her mother bawl for Jesus that she turned and confirmed that something was wrong with her brother. His face was expressionless and though the morning was warm, Zina watched as a silver mist escaped from his mouth.

And then Zina saw that the amber eyes she had long coveted had turned the color of coal.

 

 

Israel’s father had made every woman flush when he looked at them, and long after he’d abandoned Peta-Gaye to find himself among the Rastafarians who had repatriated to Ethiopia, she still loved him. “Copper and gold jewels, just like your father,” Peta-Gaye would say, grasping Israel’s chin between her fingers and admiring his eyes. But when Zina had once placed coins over her eyes to imitate her brother, Peta-Gaye had scolded: “Take those dirty things off your face.” Zina had the misfortune of resembling her own father, a salesman with a foul temper. He had left two years after her birth when it became clear that Peta-Gaye had no love for him. He was not missed, and though Zina would agree that her mother loved both her children as any mother is required to do, she would also say that her mother had always favored the boy child.

 

 

The fissures in Zina’s relationship with her brother started two years before Israel’s shadow disappeared, when their mother had sent Zina to care for her sick father. The directive to go to Mandeville had come as a surprise; Zina was not close to her father, and she hadn’t wanted to go to him.

But the man insisted.

The letter he sent to her mother, discarded on the kitchen table, provided all the explanation needed: the monthly stipends would end if the girl didn’t come. Zina couldn’t remember the last time her mother held down a full-time job. And it didn’t matter that Israel had volunteered to go with Zina, that he had intervened when Peta-Gaye collared and shook her after Zina declared she wasn’t going anywhere. He would always be the first-born child their mother had prayed for. And, Zina knew, it mattered that their mother would’ve never sent Israel away in the first place.

That last week before Zina was sent to Mandeville, she had trampled through the family garden, knocking green mangoes out of a tree and kicking the blooms off hibiscus flowers and, if only briefly, had allowed herself to imagine those blooms as the heads of her parents. She had just pitched the last of the bruised fruit into the bush when she saw a man standing at the edge of the trees watching her. He wore a turban, and the breeze lifted the folds of his white robes. She had never seen Papa Linford up close before, but she knew about him: the one who lived alone in the hills at the edge of their town, the one who could lift a burden or create one if the money was right. “There is a tea and a tonic for everything,” he’d said to her, and walked away through the trees. She’d hesitated for a moment, then followed him.

 

 

A week later, Zina went to her father alone. “You will make a good nurse one day,” he told her soon after she arrived, as he hacked bloody phlegm into a handkerchief and handed it to her. A nurse. Not a doctor. She did not complain. Instead, she washed his bedding, cooked the food to his specifications, and gave him the medicines the doctor prescribed.

 

 

Three months after she had arrived in Mandeville, after the doctor had revised her father’s prognosis from a few more months to another year, after she’d received the letter from home with pictures of Israel posing in new school clothes paid for with stipend money, Zina remembered what the man on the hill had taught her about night magic that day in the garden, that there was a solution to every problem. “Nightshade vegetables can cause a little inflammation,” he’d said, then shown her bright red beads on vines coiled like snakes around a tree. “Rosary Pea. To cause someone to burn with fever.” Back at the edge of the garden, Papa Linford had stood in front of a shrub covered with bright flowers. “Oleander to disrupt the heart,” he’d told her. “See? It’s all here. It just depends on what you want to do. I warn you, though. You must know what the consequences are. Now,” he had stroked his beard with thumb and forefinger, “what is it you want to do, my dear?”

It hadn’t taken long for her to decide to make a way for herself. Zina paid for the parchment paper he gave her, providing the instructions for teas to brew for her father.

 

 

One month after receiving the doctor’s revised prognosis, Zina attended her father’s funeral. The next day, she boarded a minibus back home, a satchel of herbs for her special teas stashed in her bag. She resumed her position as the second child, confident that things would be different.

She knew now how to shift the world in her favor.

 

 

The fall after Zina returned, Israel announced that after high school graduation, he wanted to pursue his education in Kingston. But he also made no secret of his interest in Vanessa Persaud, a small-island girl who’d just transferred to the high school in the town.

“Israel is ungrateful,” Zina declared to her mother. “After all you’ve done for him, he wants to abandon us. And they should ship that Vanessa back to where she came from.”

But she didn’t mean it. It was the first time she felt her brother might be falling out of favor with their mother and that she could be falling into it. It was a good feeling. And so, Zina welcomed the wedge the girl created between her mother and her brother. The two of them had become closer in the year Zina was away, reminiscing and laughing at jokes that started with, “Remember when….” Memories for which Zina had never been present. She’d felt more like an outsider than ever when she returned. And when her mother finally began paying more attention to her, it was only to confide how she, too, wished they would ship the girl back to her island.

 

 

The girl. Well before Israel even knew who she was, Zina had noticed the stir Vanessa caused. Their math teacher had broken four pieces of chalk on the board that first day Vanessa came to class. She’d taken the first seat in the row next to the door, and every time Mr. Garrison turned around, he seemed startled by her presence. The next day, he told her to take one of the seats in the back corner, next to Zina. The girl was beautiful. And beguiling enough, Zina thought, to convince the teacher to give her extra tutoring sessions every week to prepare her for teachers college. Even though he had declined to do the same for Zina when she’d made the request a few weeks earlier.

 

 

At the end of March, during the week of Jamaica Champs, Zina put on the school colors and attended the track and field events. Squeezed into the stands, she mustered up some school spirit as the boys took their marks for the 100-meter race. It was no surprise to anyone that Israel came in first. Zina cheered along with the other teachers and students who reached out to congratulate her brother as he trotted by. She noted how Vanessa leaned over the railing to wipe Israel’s brow with a washcloth and drape her school uniform’s tie around his neck.

In the weeks that followed, Vanessa started to skip her tutoring sessions, turning her full attention to Israel, now the most popular boy at school. Towering above most of the students, he was hard to miss. In the yard, boys mimicked him, leaning against the walls or striking Captain Morgan poses when girls drifted by. Israel, with gleaming white teeth and those amber eyes, would raise one lanky arm and gesture to Vanessa to maneuver through the crowd toward him. She showed all her teeth when he grabbed her by the waist.

Some of Vanessa’s friends remarked how good she and Israel looked together, but some fell silent when she brought up his name in conversation. She saw how the girls’ eyes followed him in the schoolyard. And she saw how Israel’s eyes sometimes followed the girls back.

 

 

The village drugstore was midway between the school and Peta-Gaye’s house. One month after Champs, when Zina stopped in to pick up Dettol disinfectant, she noticed Vanessa inquiring about the powders and oils kept behind the counter.

“Yes, some people buy them.” The clerk laughed. “The Love Me Only oil and the Go Away Evil sprays are the most popular. And the money spray, too. But some people prefer to go to that man up at the top of the hill to get the really powerful stuff. The teas and that sort of thing.”

“Is that right?” Vanessa said. “You mean that little hut just over there? That guy who is always floating around the place in that white choir robe lives there?” She pointed north and squinted, as if lost in thought.

Standing behind Vanessa, Zina studied the powders and oils, and heard the clerk laugh about the man at the top of the hill. She remembered what her mother always said about small-island people working magic, being nothing but trouble, and wondered if she and Vanessa were sharing the same thoughts.

Vanessa put her change in her purse and when she swung around, Zina stumbled backwards. “God, is so you stand so close behind people? I feel like when bread stick to cheese,” Vanessa hissed. She picked up the parchment paper that had fallen from her hand and walked out the door.

Zina stepped up to the counter and pulled her own sheet of parchment from her pocket, then pointed at one of the oils. “Can I see that one, please?”

 

 

By mid-May, rumor had it that Israel was spending his private time with Audrey Campbell, equally attractive as Vanessa but ready to please. And after Audrey, he’d turned an eye towards Monique Sampson.

One day after class, Vanessa approached Mr. Garrison’s desk. “I don’t think I’ll be going to Sam Sharpe Teachers College anymore, so I won’t need the tutoring.”

“Why not? Sam Sharpe is the place to go if you want to focus on education.”

“I know, but I want to go to UTech instead.”

Mr. Garrison shook his head. “You should give it some more thought.” He turned towards the blackboard.

“I know exactly what I’m doing,” she said.

She left the classroom.

 

 

It was not just the students. Everyone wanted a piece of Israel. Zina had noticed how even the female teachers stalked the finish line every time he ran a race.

“They love you like how fire love dry bush,” Zina warned.

“I don’t see that as a problem.”

“Vanessa seems happy, anyway.”

Israel shrugged. “I don’t want to really be tied down, you know?”

Zina laughed. “Don’t let Vanessa hear that. I think she would do anything to hang onto you.”

Zina didn’t tell her brother how she’d seen Vanessa at the drugstore picking up a piece of parchment paper she’d dropped. How she wondered whether Vanessa had gone to Papa Linford too. How she still had instructions of her own written on parchment paper, tucked in her bottom dresser drawer.

***

***

On that early June morning when Israel’s shadow disappeared, Peta-Gaye couldn’t remember what, if anything, her grandmother told her to do if someone stole your shadow. So she whispered for dear God, grabbed the boy by the wrist, and took off for the church, half dragging him as he lumbered along, trance-like.

Zina trailed behind them.

Pastor Rhoden, writing his sermon in the church office, felt the air turn cold. He dropped his pen and reached for his collar. Out in the sanctuary, Sister Janice choked on Joyful, Joyful and dropped the hymnal when that cold air chilled her throat. The church women clutched their song books to their chests as the doors of the church opened and Peta-Gaye stumbled in, pulling Israel behind her. At the commotion, the deacons ended their ministry meeting early and gathered near the altar.

Pastor Rhoden entered the sanctuary. It had been three years since Peta-Gaye and her children had set foot in his church. They might not be entitled to a welcome, but forgiveness was a right. During that last service, Pastor Rhoden had noticed how Peta-Gaye had fawned over the boy, wiping his face, picking lint off his shoulder, rubbing his back. How she hadn’t bothered to open her Bible with the rest of the congregation.

Now, Pastor Rhoden didn’t ask what had happened or why. It wasn’t the first time someone had turned from the Heavenly Father to earthly magic seeking a miracle, and Pastor Rhoden, assessing the situation, believed Peta-Gaye had faltered in this way. A weak soul who had turned her back on the Holy Spirit to seek out a different one. The fallen almost always came back, hoping he could undo what bad works they’d done in secret. Pastor Rhoden stared at Peta-Gaye, shook his head in disgust, then did the only thing left to do: pray the soul would find its way home.

Pastor Rhoden poured holy water into his hand and gestured for Peta-Gaye to bring the boy, who was becoming more unsteady on his feet. Israel stumbled against his mother. Two deacons rushed forward to help the boy to the stage, lifting his legs and guiding him. Placing his palm on Israel’s head, Pastor Rhoden sank him to the floor. He prayed for the burden to be lifted, for the light to return. Thank you, Father, for being the source of all comfort. Peta-Gaye murmured her yeses and hallelujahs. Grief distorted her understanding. Had she accepted the Pastor’s words were the prayers for grievers and not the soon-to-be deceased, she might not have left the church with hope.

From the door, Zina watched the pastor weighing her brother down with his touch. She saw judgment in the pastor’s eyes as he looked at her mother, as if trying to read Peta-Gaye’s soul to figure out what kind of person she had become. Zina knew, if he looked into her own eyes, he might see only darkness. If his gaze fell upon her, it would be full of condemnation.

She hung her head when he turned in her direction.

The deacons picked Israel off the floor and, when it appeared as if he might collapse, pulled his arms around their shoulders and volunteered to carry him home. Zina walked behind them. Peta-Gaye reached for the pastor’s hand and mumbled a thank you. He pulled his fingers out of her grip, clasped his hands behind him and gave a curt nod. When they left, Pastor Rhoden grimaced, poured holy water on his palm and wiped her ungodly residue off his hands.

The air turned warm again.

At home, Zina found the Bibles and placed them at the window and door of Israel’s bedroom. The church women, cloaked in sanctified authority, invited themselves over to hold a prayer session that evening, led by Sister Janice, who spoke in tongues while she walked the floors on her knees. Zina peeled ginger to soothe Peta-Gaye’s stomach and boiled teas for the women—dandelion for Sister Janice, who was retaining too much water; mint for Sister Debbie’s headaches; and cerasee for Sister Faye’s diabetes. Zina cooked soup that no one touched and sliced the cake that no one washed down with their tea, although Sister Faye took hers home so it wouldn’t go to waste.

Peta-Gaye prayed, too. For forgiveness. For wishing that her child be punished for trying to abandon her. Didn’t the Bible say a son must leave his mother and cleave to his wife? But then, didn’t it also say that a child should honor his mother and father so his days might be long? So wasn’t Israel in the wrong for choosing the girl’s wishes over hers?

The prayers didn’t work.

Over the next few nights, Israel somehow gathered strength and left the house to look for his shadow. In the morning they found him standing between the buttress roots of a silk cotton tree, searching its branches with his coal-black eyes. Sister Faye witnessed him on his way to the tree, disheveled in his wrinkled t-shirt and pajama bottoms, lumbering along the road, his knees bent and feet dragging through the dust. She called out to him, but he trudged past her as if he hadn’t heard a thing.

Pastor Rhoden came to the house to pray twice more. Each time Peta-Gaye stood in the corner, chewing the ginger Zina gave her to settle her stomach. He spoke little to Peta-Gaye, offering reconciliation but not respite. She would be welcomed back into the church, he told her, but she would have to confess to what she’d done to the boy before she could be absolved.

Guilt kept Peta-Gaye from speaking much during those nine days. Guilt over the way she’d shouted at Israel just two days before his shadow went missing, telling him he was no better than his father. After all she’d done for him, after all she’d sacrificed for him, he was giving her no consideration. Wanting to up and leave like his father did. “Running track is not a career!” she’d shrieked when he’d said UTech had offered him a scholarship.

“So what? Hmm? I should just stay here and be miserable like you?”

She had slapped him, then. Open-palmed and with such force, she took two involuntary steps forward to keep her balance. He stepped out of the way. His mouth hung open and he slid his hand over his jaw.

“I’m sorry” slipped out of her mouth before she knew it. She tried to touch his cheek, but he snapped his head back.

Israel had fled the house that night. Zina reported that he was staying at a friend’s place and then watched her mother fume and swear that she would not let him back in the house. How she had apologized, even though she was the mother—he owed her an apology for back-talking. It was Vanessa, that small-island girl, who’d put those thoughts of leaving in his head, who made him think he could talk to his own mother in that way. UTech! That girl who was trying to mash up their family. This was all her fault. No, Peta-Gaye would not have it. Not at all, not at all.

But then she sent Zina to bring her son home. Israel returned and when his apology finally came, Peta-Gaye accepted it. But it was with a spirit of aloofness. Even though the tension between them had dissipated, Zina agreed with her mother that there was no reason to let the matter go entirely. Not yet. Because as far as she knew, Peta-Gaye told Zina, the small-island girl was still a problem she’d have to deal with.

 

 

So, on that June 4th morning when Peta-Gaye announced that she and Zina were going to the river, Israel offered to carry the basket of clothes. They took this as a further sign of his repentance and Peta-Gaye merely nodded her assent. But Israel had as much charm as his father and Zina caught her humming along when he started to sing their mother’s favorite song.

Guilt rode Peta-Gaye for cursing him, for praying to any god or spirit to punish him and remove Vanessa from their lives. She worried she had gotten what she’d asked for and so she did not deserve absolution. But Zina comforted her mother. She assured her that she did.

***

***

In the days following that June 4th morning, the church women reported to friends and family how ashy and disheveled Israel had become since his shadow disappeared. Sister Debbie said to her hairdresser: “I saw him standing on the side of the road near the cemetery, like he was waiting for the undertaker to show him where he would be staying.”

Picking up her dry cleaning, Sister Faye told the proprietor: “I went to Peta-Gaye’s house to drop off a book of prayers and I almost had a heart attack. I had my back to the kitchen, so I didn’t even see him standing in the doorway until he groaned. If I had jumped any higher, my head would’ve gone through the ceiling.”

Sister Janice could only shake her head when she talked with her husband at dinner: “Not even to comb his hair or put on clean clothes. That boy used to look so sharp. Now he looks like any old beggar off the street. Just dusty and gray.”

 

 

Israel stared through people when they spoke to him. “It’s like talking to a dead person,” the church women all said at the Sunday afternoon Prayer Partners meeting. The neighbors added to the story and passed it to their children, who took it to the school: how Peta-Gaye had been slathering Israel in coconut oil trying to rub life back into his skin, but it wasn’t working; how his feet dragged; how he seemed not to recognize anyone—not even his own mother could get his attention when she called his name with a choked voice. When word of Israel’s state reached the high school’s faculty, they were consumed with sadness: “Poor Peta-Gaye. How could anybody do something so wicked to that nice young man? A track star, you know. And beautiful eyes. I never see anybody like that before. He was going to be somebody.”

Soon after the shadow disappeared, gossip turned to accusation. That girl Vanessa stole the shadow, some of the townspeople alleged. Small-island girls were rumored to use charms to hold men, mixing teas with menstrual blood or rubbing oils on a man’s skin to bind him. Others at the school thought maybe someone had done it because of the girl—Miss Higgins blamed that teacher, Mr. Garrison, who, upon reflection, may have been paying too much attention to that Vanessa, who may have been paying too much attention to Israel. It was not only small-island girls who knew how to work magic. Still, others thought that Israel was simply dead and just didn’t know it. The dead had no use for shadows or souls. But no one would say this aloud.

Zina knew her place.

She did not comment as the adults speculated. Instead, she tended to her mother, who finally said, “Zina, I don’t know what I would do without you.”

Standing at the kitchen sink, Zina allowed tears to slide off her cheeks and mix with the dishwater.

 

 

During that week following Israel’s shadow disappearance, Peta-Gaye sent word that Israel was in no condition to attend school, but Zina still went every day, wearing a mournful expression, winning both sympathy and praise from the teachers. “Oh, what a blessing she is to her mother. Peta-Gaye is lucky to have a child like that.”

Vanessa wore a mournful expression, too, but her mother was partially to blame for this. That Monday, Mrs. Persaud found the Love Me Only oil and a washcloth reeking of man-sweat tied in a bag under Vanessa’s bed. When Vanessa arrived home from school, her mother ambushed her from behind the front door. “Is this what you’re doing instead of studying your lessons? Trying to work magic? My God.” She screamed and lashed at Vanessa with the dirty rag. “Where did you get this from? How did you learn to do such things?”

Vanessa ran to a corner of the room and wouldn’t answer.

Mrs. Persaud crossed the floor and then stopped mid-stride. “Wait…did you…steal that boy’s shadow?”

Vanessa shook her head. She said she only wanted Israel to notice her again. She said she would behave.

Mrs. Persaud picked up the phone and called the church. “Is this the pastor’s office? Please to send somebody to come and take this girl out of my house. I cannot manage her anymore.” She glared at Vanessa as she hung up. “I should’ve sent you to convent school from last year.” She threw the Love Me Only oil in the rubbish bin.

The next day, Vanessa slunk low at her desk, while Zina fielded questions about her brother. She didn’t call Vanessa by name, but when the students wondered aloud who did it, Zina flicked her eyes in the small-island girl’s direction. The other girls wrinkled their noses in disgust.

By the end of the week, Vanessa didn’t have a single friend left in the school.

When she got home on that Friday, she flung her schoolbag across the living room floor. It landed at her mother’s feet. “If you’re going to send me away,” she cried, “then please to make it as far from this hell hole as possible!”

 

 

Everyone knew—when the prayers didn’t work—who you were supposed to call to get the shadow back. On the fifth day, Peta-Gaye sought out Papa Linford, who lived at the top of the hill. “It seem like everybody want to talk to Papa Linford lately,” he said when Peta-Gaye knocked on his door. He smoothed his hands over his white robe. “Go to the cotton tree down the road from the church. Twelve o’clock tonight. Tell everyone to come. As many people as you can get.”

When the church women came to pray that evening, Peta-Gaye delivered Papa Linford’s instructions.

“You don’t really believe in that business, do you?” Sister Janice said.

Peta-Gaye began to cry. “I’m desperate.”

“Hush. Don’t worry yourself. We do what we must.”

Peta-Gaye sent the church women away, and on the way back through town, they told everyone they met what Peta-Gaye and the obeah man had planned. “What a thing,” they all said. “What a thing.”

At twelve o’clock, the townspeople gathered at the cotton tree as Papa Linford had instructed. Some came ready to participate, others just to watch. The pastor was not there, but the church women observed the scene from the other side of the road. Vanessa stood with them.

The townspeople came with their eggs, their chickens, and a bucket of water. Papa Linford was waiting when they arrived, dressed in his white turban and robes. Peta-Gaye looked warily at the crowd, but Papa Linford seemed pleased with the turnout, nodding as he met their gazes. He spoke only to Peta-Gaye at first, but then guided the rest of the crowd. They were all needed, they were all welcomed to help. They gathered behind Peta-Gaye, and on Papa Linford’s word, flung their eggs at the tree, then wrenched the necks of the fowls and threw them at the tree, too, demanding the release of Israel’s shadow. The obeah man uttered chants and walked around the tree several times, and the crowd followed, shaking fists and splattering blood everywhere. With suddenness, Papa Linford stopped and held both hands wide above his head. He shook his open palms in front of the tree, then plunged them into the bucket of water at his side.

Papa Linford told Peta-Gaye he had captured Israel’s shadow in the bucket. “Soak a piece of white cloth in the water,” he commanded her, “and place it on Israel’s head.” Mr. Garrison, who stood to the side of the family, cast an eye towards Vanessa. He offered to carry the bucket, but Zina held onto it. She took it home for her mother, found the cloth, and Peta-Gaye did as she was told.

The cloth stilled Israel, but Peta-Gaye did not see his shadow when she lit the candle in his room that night.

Zina handed her mother a cup of tea. “Go and rest yourself, Mummy. I will stay with him.”

But Israel wandered off again, and the night after, and the night after that. All those nights, Peta-Gaye wanted to lock the doors, but one of the neighbors convinced her to let him go, that maybe Papa Linford hadn’t captured the shadow after all and Israel still needed to look for it.

Peta-Gaye wasn’t sure what to do. On the ninth night, Zina brought her mother a piece of rope. “Maybe it takes a while to work,” Zina said. “The cloth needs to stay on his forehead longer.”

Peta-Gaye and another neighbor tied Israel to the bed. She prayed into the early morning hours. At sunrise, she awoke on the floor beside her son’s bed. Relieved to find him there, she removed the cloth from Israel’s forehead. His skin was still cold, and his eyes stared up, still black. Still.

 

 

A doctor came and pronounced the boy dead.

Peta-Gaye wailed uncontrollably, dragging the sheet from Israel’s body as she collapsed on the floor.

The doctor pulled a syringe from his bag. “To give you rest.”

Peta Gaye tore at the sheet and screamed.

Two of the neighbors held her firm. The doctor gave her the sedative. Peta-Gaye freed herself and clawed her way back to Israel’s side. One of the neighbors wrapped her arms around Peta-Gaye’s waist and pulled her back to the floor. She rocked Peta-Gaye until her body finally eased. The church women came back to pray. The deacons arranged the burial. Zina put the bucket in her room.

Because Israel’s soul was missing, there was no need for a pastor to pray over it. Instead, they buried him in black clothes and boots with spurs and armed him with a knife in his right hand and a candle in the left, so he could continue to hunt for his shadow on the other side. So he could take it back by force.

 

 

At the gravesite, Zina was the last to leave. She kept glancing back as the workers filled the hole.

The bucket she’d taken from Israel’s room was still wedged between her bed and the dresser. The parchment paper Papa Linford had given her, with his instructions on how to capture a shadow, was tucked beneath her mattress. Tonight, she would burn that paper, scatter its ashes to the wind and pour the water over her brother’s grave. Let the earth take back his soul, and hope he wouldn’t come after her for what she’d done.

When Zina had first met Papa Linford, he had warned her. “There are consequences,” he had said. His words haunted her now. Only God knew what her mother would do to her if she found out what Zina had done.

She stared at her watch. If she hurried and cut through the schoolyard, she could make it home before her mother and be ready to assume her new position as first child. But at the edge of the cemetery, standing under a logwood tree, she saw Papa Linford. He walked towards her, his robes gleaming white when he stepped into the sunlight. When he reached her, he rested a hand on her shoulder, and shook his head in disapproval.

“Your time now, my dear,” he said.

 

***
Rumpus original art by Honey Gilmore


Dionne Peart is an attorney, serving as Executive Director for Adjunct Services at Georgetown University Law Center. She is the 2019 winner of The Caribbean Writer’s Vincent Cooper Literary Prize, and her work has appeared in Midnight Breakfast, The Caribbean Writer, and elsewhere. She also was a finalist for the D.C. Mayor’s Awards in the Larry Neal Writers’ Award category. Dionne received her MFA in Writing with a concentration in fiction from Bennington College. More from this author →