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Fiction by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory

Beacon Hill

Bayou St. Claude, Louisiana was a town too small to have its own dot on the map, but folk knew it was there, down halfway between the Sabine River and the swampy Atchafalaya Basin. People there knew first hand that there were a lot of things in this world that had never been mapped, measured or written down but that existed nonetheless--things like Beacon Hill. Ask anyone in Bayou St. Claude, and they'd tell you; Beacon Hill was a magical place. The old ones remembered waking up one morning to find a hill had sprung up from the earth, right where there had been a cornfield the night before. Folk couldn't explain where that forty-foot hill had come from. Nobody wanted to go near it either--nobody but Tauntzia.

Beacon Hill belonged to Tauntzia. She had grown up there, gone down to Bayou St. Claude to bear and raise her twelve children, and come back up the hill to get away from a spiritless and unhappy modern world. She claimed that folks in Bayou St. Claude had given up on God, and she.wanted no part of that little town anymore. So after her husband died of a stroke and her last child married, she packed up to go live in the shack on Beacon Hill that her Daddy built. She told her children that they could come visit as often as they liked, but she wouldn't be coming back down the hill, not in this lifetime nor in the next if she had a say in things.

Tauntzia had no phone, but from time to time, she sent word for her children to come see her. This time, word had traveled all the way to Houston. Tauntzia's granddaughter Carletta was to bring Brandy, her twelve-year old child, to Beacon Hill at once. And the last thing in the world Brandy wanted to do was to leave her friends in Houston to spend a week with her great-grandmother, a woman who scared her half to death with those long, arthritic fingers.

"I don't want to, Mama, not by myself." Brandy turned away to avoid her mother's insistent eyes. Her crinkly sable brown hair was drawn into a thick plait that swung like a pendulum across the small of her back. She was 5'9" and lean, a perfect blend of her Creole parents, with her Cherokee cheekbones, French nose, and Masai extra-long limbs.

Itıs just for a week or so. It's not the end of the world. You know Tauntzia's not going be here forever."

"She's always dying. I think she's faking it. And there's nothing to do over there. Please don't make me stay with her."

"Baby, she's asked for you. Back home, when the old ones call for a child, we send them. That's the way it's always been."

"I'm scared of her."

"Don't be silly. She's your great-grandmother. She loves you."

"I'm going to hate this trip." The more Brandy protested the visit, the more vigorously she scratched her abdomen.

"And what's with all that scratching you're doing this morning?"

"I don't know," Brandy said, raising her pajama top, "but there's a red bump that's been stinging for a couple of days. See, it's swollen."

"Well, quit scratching it. Put some iodine on it and let's get out of here before the traffic gets heavy."

Before noon Brandy and her mother headed east on Highway 90. Brandy blew huge bubbles as the road signs swished by--Barrett Station, Beaumont, Orange, the Sabine River, dividing Texas and Louisiana, Lake Charles, Jennings, Crowley, and then the Rayne/Church Point turn.

As they headed north, Brandy pouted. She knew she was getting close to her destination as they passed through Bayou St. Claude heading toward Tauntzia's farmland.

A cloud of dust followed the car as they pulled onto a bumpy, narrow, gravel road.

"This is home for me, Brandy," said Carletta, who romanticized the little farm where she grew up. Carletta knew she'd been blessed to get a scholarship to Texas Southern University, and Houston was such a big city, so full of opportunities. It was easy for her to stay, begin a career and a family.

Sometimes she worried about Brandy, though. Carletta remembered the rush she used to feel as a girl, days when she could smell a storm or change of season in the air. Brandy knew only the smells of buses and freeway gusts. She knew to beware of people. There were times Carletta felt guilty about raising a child in the city. Brandy was born a city girl. She had a city girl's sensibilities. But rural Bayou St. Claude was home for Carletta. It always would be.

Waving at friends as she passed through town, Carletta pointed the car toward Beacon Hill. Her Toyota bumped along as it climbed the dirt road up to the hill where Tauntzia looked down on Bayou St. Claude and the fields and pastures beyond.

"You know some people think Beacon Hill is magical, huh Brandy? They say that one day they woke up and--"

"Yeah, I know. You tell me that old story every time we come here. Mama, this place gives me the creeps. Please don't leave me here."

Carletta sighed and patted the back of her daughter's hand.

Beacon Hill was crowded with beautiful, plentiful shrubbery, vines, and trees that embraced each other--sycamore, oak, pecan, pine, chinaberry, magnolia, cypress, cedar, crepe myrtle. The trees were so thick, the travelers could not see the little shack until they were almost upon it. People seldom came up the hill anymore because of the potholes in the road, long since abandoned by the parish officials. Yet Tauntzia lived happily up on that hill, with over a thousand acres.

Brandy eyed Beacon Hill as if this were the first time she had seen it. She had been up the hill just last month, but she thought it looked different today, maybe because she was going to stay with Tauntzia all by herself.

As they drew near Tauntzia's house, Brandy saw the little faded shack with its two windows, a latch door, and a porch. The house had two rooms but it was no bigger than a large tool shed. Brandy could see smoke coming from the chimney. She knew her great-granny was probably cooking on the wood-burning stove. Even at ninety-something, Tauntzia still made the world's best biscuits and fried homemade sausage. She could make gumbo like no one else, with chicken, sausage, shrimp, crab, and smoked rabbit. Into the boiling roux-based mixture, she'd add onions, garlic, parsley, scallions, and other herbs and spices. Her great-granny's Creole cooking was the only thing Brandy knew she would enjoy on this trip. Brandy had learned early on that Tauntzia was an "old timey" Creole who proudly claimed her mixed blood--African, French, and Native American. Tauntzia called her ancestors "the gumbo people."

Brandy was fast approaching the home of the family matriarch who was content to live without indoor plumbing, a bathroom, a kitchen sink, or anything. There was a water well behind the shack near the outhouse. She didn't even have a fan, let alone an air conditioner. Brandy felt like she was being taken a hundred years back in time.

When Brandy and Carlotta walked into the shack, they found Tauntzia lying down. The few pieces of crude, handmade furniture-- a long narrow bench, a clawed-feet oak table, a few straw-bottomed chairs, a kitchen counter-- were all familiar and well-worn. The dishpan had a few dirty plates and cups in it. The wood floor was covered with sawdust. The pine center-matched boards made the walls look like a lined writing tablet. This was the antithesis of what Brandy had left behind in her upper middle-class Houston neighborhood where all of the homes looked like plantation manors.

"How are you feeling, Tauntzia?" asked Carletta as she hugged her grandmother.

"Not too bad for an old lady." She propped herself up on a pillow to get a look at Brandy. Her face beamed.

"Kiss Tauntzia," whispered Carletta.

"Do I have to?" whined Brandy just loud enough for her granny not to hear, or so she thought.

Brandy knew the drill. She knew that if she didn't kiss Tauntzia, her mother would ultimately launch into a lecture that would cover several hundred years--spanning the Middle Passage to the present--ending with a reminder of Tauntzia's place as matriarch. Brandy reluctantly hugged the old, bony woman who had very strong arms. She braced herself when she leaned to kiss the old sage. As a rule, Brandy hated to kiss. She especially hated to kiss old people. They smell like mothballs, she always said. When an old person kissed her on the lips, it was like kissing the unclean.

Tauntzia was about six feet tall, lean, and tough as cowhide. Her skin was pecan brown. She covered her few strands of hair with a bandanna. She wore ankle-length dresses and an apron, regardless of fashions that came and went.

"I've been expecting you, chere," whispered the old woman as she took hold of Brandy's hands. She rubbed the sides of Brandy's pinkies where there were smooth, narrow scars. The growths, a pair of tiny appendages, had been surgically removed when she was born, and the scars had deepened in color as Brandy grew older. Tauntzia always rubbed Brandy's missing growths. Today when she let Brandy's hand slip from hers, Tauntzia involuntarily began rubbing her own missing growths.

"Aba Natwa Kunga," mumbled Tauntzia as she gently stroked her pinkies.

Brandy always felt uncomfortable when her great-granny spoke gibberish. That's what old people do, she thought, sit around thinking of things to say that don't mean anything to young people.

Everybody in and around Bayou St. Claude believed that Tauntzia had special power. They called her "Ole Mom" to her face and "Juju" behind her back. The old woman didn't fear living on Beacon Hill alone because no one with good sense would dare lift a finger to harm her. She was by nature a sweet, gentle, huggable old woman--unless she felt wronged. Then she would blow up her face, twist it to one side, show her toothless gums, and hiss like a snake.

Brandy had once seen Tauntzia's rage when a representative from Bayou St. Claude came to install utilities on Beacon Hill.

"Don't come messing up Beacon Hill like you messed up the rest of the world," she shouted to the service man as he ran away, flying down the hill like he had just seen a spirit.

Tauntzia hadn't completely given up on humanity. She was, after all, a healer, a treateur. Almost every soul in Bayou St. Claude at some point in their lives had made that journey up the hill to consult Tauntzia when they knew they'd exhausted all their more conventional resources. They came to get healing for a child, to bring a stray husband home, or to procure a potion or powder to stave off an enemy. Sometimes, a mother with hungry children came to get their palms read or to find out if money was coming soon. Tauntzia never took money for her services, for she feared she'd lose her gift if she ever charged. So, townspeople would leave chickens and pigs and ducks and geese for her. That's why the entire hill was densely populated with animals and fowls that Tauntzia let run wild.

"You'd better get going, Carletta. I don't want darkness to catch you on the road," said Tauntzia to her favorite granddaughter.

"I hope you feel better soon." Carletta hugged her grandmother good- bye. "Brandy'll be a big help to you."

Brandy rolled her eyes at her mother and blew a huge, dissatisfied bubble.

When Carletta drove off, Tauntzia sprang out of bed like an agile woman half her age. She was suddenly full of life and dancing around the room like she'd just drained a jug of moonshine.

"I thought you were sick," criticized Brandy. "Have you been drinking too much cough medicine?"

"You're just the medicine I needed, chere." Tauntzia nearly shimmied as she added wood to the stove. "Let's try to get along, dumpling."

Brandy felt like shouting, "Fake!" On top of everything else, she hated being called "dumpling"--what a childish nickname.

"I got seven days with you, and there's not a minute to spare. I have things to teach you."

The old lady hopped around barely keeping her feet on the floor.

"What things?" Brandy indignantly snapped her gum in rapid succession.

"Just things, now come along. We're going into the woods to gather some herbs."

"I don't want to go into the woods. It's dark in there."

Tauntzia ignored Brandy's whining. She wasn't going to have her way during her stay on Beacon Hill. Before she knew it, Brandy was out in the woods, carrying Tauntzia's basket, following slightly behind the old woman.

Tauntzia carefully described for her all the herbs they must collect: wild alum root, tormentil, bayberry bark, sage, bisort root, pilewort, witch hazel, arnica, yarrow saffron, raspberry leaves, and pleurisy root. Brandy tried not to listen as her great-granny told her where to look in the wooded area for the herbs.

Though Brandy liked to boast of her explorations in her great-granny's forest to her girl friends at camp, she was no different from most children who grow up in an urban area with plenty of pavement-frightened and unaccustomed to the forest floor's mix of life and decay.

Tauntzia and Brandy spent the better part of the afternoon collecting scores of herbs that could be used to treat various ailments. The old woman was methodical in the way she described an herb, told Brandy where to look for it, and then quizzed her on its use.

"What are you going to do with all of these leaves?" Brandy knelt and cracked a pecan.

"You'll find out in due time, my little one. Now, keep up!"

The old woman and the child made their way back to the shack shortly after dark amid the chattering of crickets and locusts and snorting bullfrogs. Ninety minutes in the woods and Brandy felt like she was sleepwalking. Tauntzia was as refreshed as if she had just popped up from a nap.

When Brandy headed for the bench in the kitchen, Tauntzia called to her, "Come help me with supper, child." Brandy wanted to collapse onto the bench and rest a bit, but Tauntzia gave her a firm look. She had a way of saying, "Don't mess with me!" with the squint of an eye.

"You must do what I tell you and don't doubt me, Brandy," cautioned the old lady as she pointed a crooked finger.

"Now, go on out back to the well and bring in a bucket of water."

"Yes, ma'am." Brandy popped her gum once, then again ten decibels louder. Instead of doing as she was told, she climbed up to the loft in the barn and fell asleep on a pallet of hay.

When Brandy returned, there was rich jambalaya, made from fluffy white rice, thick tomato sauce, succulent beef spare ribs, diced onions, garlic, parsley, and cayenne pepper fully prepared and spread out in serving bowls. Brandy stood with her eyes stretched in disbelief at the finely crafted Creole meal.

"I can't believe you whipped this up so quickly," said Brandy licking her lips.

"One thing you got to have in this life is faith, child. If you believe, it'll take you a long way," said Tauntzia as she helped herself to a bowl of jambalaya and sat at the round table, which had been carved long ago from the stump of an oak tree.

"Don't just stand around with your thumb in your mouth, help yourself to something to eat."

"Yes, ma'am."

"And next time I send you out to get water, don't you doddle.²

Brandy wiped the sleep from the corners of her eyes. "I don't know what's going to become of you, chere."

Brandy feared Tauntzia might launch into one of her old-timey stories any second.

When Brandy was younger, she used to hang around family gatherings on Beacon Hill and listen to all the stories about Tauntzia's healing powers. Kinfolk said Tauntzia had been born with a caul--a thin membrane covering her face. That meant she'd been given the gift of clairvoyance. Brandy didn't believe any of those tall tales; they were just stories to scare children.

"Is that jambalaya good, chere?" asked Tauntzia as she snapped Brandy from her thoughts.

"Yes, ma'am." She intentionally didn't say anything complimentary.

"Didn't believe I was all woman, huh? Yes, child, I'm not just a piece of a woman. I'm all woman."

Brandy ignored her great-granny's bravado. She chewed and sucked on a bone, something she knew always annoyed Tauntzia.

When supper was done and the pots and pans were washed, Brandy curled up on a pallet of blankets and moss next to Tauntzia's big, iron canopy bed. The old woman never locked any doors or closed any windows. This was Beacon Hill, Tauntzia's hill. The little shack gently swayed with the cool breeze that blew in all night on Beacon Hill.

On Brandy's second day at Tauntzia's, she rose to the smell of cush--parched cornmeal--a favorite family breakfast dish.

"You like cush, huh?" asked the jolly old lady.

"I hate cush. That stuff is nasty."

"You don't know good eating, chere."

"Cush chokes me up--and sometimes it rushes through my nose."

"That's because you are used to cereal made at a factory--nothing but bleached sugar. Try some cush, chere."

"I'm not hungry. I don't feel so well."

"What's ailing you?" "I feel weak and tired."

"We'll have to fix that. You know, chere, we had all kinds of remedies for ailments in the Old Country."

The Old Country-- Brandy knew that her great-granny was referring to Africa. Tauntzia's parents and grandparents had told her many things about the Old Country, and the griot had filed them away to be able to tell them to her own children and great-grandchildren. Tauntzia meant to keep alive the traditions from the Old Country with stories she'd heard as a child.

"In the Old Country, we used to pound our own yams. We did a heap of hard work, child, in the Old Country and right here, too."

Brandy wanted to cover her ears, clench her eyes shut, and scream whenever Ole Mom launched into her never-ending stories about the Old Country. She especially was bored with talk of "jumping the broom"--the Old Country marriage ceremony.

"Today, folks start thinking about divorce on their way back from the church. The glue is missing. There was a time when folks said 'I do' and did their best to mean it. Today, they say 'I do, maybe."'

Tauntzia could not be swayed from describing the broom-jumping rituals, especially concentrating on the festivities. She took great pains to describe every nuance of La Grande Boucherie--the grand butchery--, the ceremonial slaughtering of a cow to feed the wedding party.

"They called it 'The Sacrifice."'

The old woman told Brandy that in the Old Country relatives and friends encircled the wedded couple and beat drums and danced and sang for hours. The elderly of the community danced first, followed by younger and younger members until the youth wore themselves out. At the end of the ritual, mothers formed a circle and held their naked babies above their heads and chanted "Nimimba" to ensure that the couple was spiritually clean and ready for the marriage bed.

She also told Brandy about the many dishes that folks in the Old Country ate, like honey-cooked fowl with nuts, foo-foo, couscous, yams, stewed okra, and roasted wild pigs.

Brandy flourished a loud yawn with a long, dramatic stretch, hoping Tauntzia would take a hint and stop talking, but the old lady just kept spinning her yarn.

She told Brandy about the necessity of paying homage to the ancestors--pouring libations and offerings of food and blood sacrifice, like sheep or fowl, in order to remain in the good graces of the spirits. Tauntzia also described the "blessing of the virgin" on her wedding day. It was customary for the parents and siblings of the betrothed to encircle the bride-to-be and, using palm leaves and palm wine, bless her. The parents conjured up the spirits of the ancestors and asked them to assign a good "chi" who would ensure the birth of many healthy babies, especially sons.

Brandy started swatting at flies when the old woman launched into her story about tree naming. In the Old Country, folk named trees after their ancestors because it was believed that spirits inhabited the trees, her great-granny noted.

"Look out yonder, Brandy." Tauntzia pointed to the wooded backyard. "I know every one of my trees by name. Your people never die when you name your trees, chere."

Brandy gave Tauntzia a stubborn blank look. "Naming trees? How ridiculous," Brandy thought.

Tauntzia told Brandy about the charms and amulets from the Old Country, that there were objects which could ward off an enemy. Brandy's eyes moved around the room at the mentioning of charms. She noticed cloves of garlic tied on a long string, hanging across the top of the front door. She also zeroed in on the pyramid-shaped crystals hanging from Tauntzia's neck and the dozen or so jangling, thin, gold and silver bracelets on each of her arms. Brandy eyed the turquoise-beaded anklet Tauntzia wore. There were also little cloth pouches hanging in the house. Then, her eyes landed on a large mahogany crucifix and a picture of St. Theresa.

Tauntzia's house was a mixture of Old World and New World. She was a staunch Catholic who also made room for Oshun and Shango from time to time.

"Old folks used to say, 'That white Jesus is a good Jesus, but Oshun is just as powerful,"' mused Tauntzia.

As they pickled cucumbers, hot peppers, and quail eggs, Brandy popped her bubble gum relentlessly, trying to drown out this pesky old woman's ramblings about the Old Country. Her jaw was beginning to get numb from resistance.

Toward nightfall, Brandy felt herself scratching her abdomen more frequently. When she raised her shirt, she almost fainted. The little red pimple was now the size of an olive. She was suddenly aware of an ache that radiated from it, down to her toes, up to her forehead. She went from feeling feverishly hot to shivering cold and back again in a matter of seconds.

"Look at this," she nearly screamed in panic.

Tauntzia placed her index finger on the lump and with her fingernail, drew an invisible circle three times around the inflamed area.

"This is bad, chere."

"What is it?"

"You have to go to bed--rest."

"What's wrong, Tauntzia?"

"Last week I saw this." Tauntzia pointed to the lump and covered it from her view as if it had an evil eye.

"You dreamed about this?"

"Non, I saw it, child. That's why I sent word for your mama to bring you here. "

"My head hurts."

"Rest, chere, rest." She led the child to the bed.

At nightfall, Brandy woke up to a pungent smell and looked up to find Tauntzia boiling something.

"What's that?" asked Brandy while pinching her nose.

"An old woman can't tell all of her secrets, you know." She teased as she continued stirring the mixture.

Brandy noticed Tauntzia reaching into the basket where they had placed the herbs from the woods. She wondered what potion she was brewing.

As the night lingered, Brandy felt worse, like her whole body had pins sticking in it. She tried to reach for her robe on the rocker but fell to the floor. She struggled to get up but found she couldn't move. She could see the old woman stirring in the kitchen, but Brandy lay face down paralyzed on the floor.

When Ole Mom heard the thud, she spooned her potion into a bowl and came running. She slid onto the floor next to her weakened great-granddaughter.

"Drink this, chere. You'll feet better by and by."

Brandy could hardly swallow. The potion was bitter and made her tongue curl.

"What is this? I'm going to vomit!"

"Drink it all down, chere. A spider bit you-- a Brown Recluse."

The two of them leaned against each other on the floor for a good long time, until Brandy felt strong enough to move. The life that had drained from her limbs slowly came back. After a while, they helped each other up from the floor, and Tauntzia ordered Brandy back into bed.

Throughout the night, Brandy slipped in and out of consciousness.

The one thing that gave her comfort was Tauntzia, tending to her, wiping her face with a cold, wet towel, praying on the lump on her abdomen, chanting and dancing in a circle. When Brandy woke up the next morning, the bed was wet with perspiration, and her granny was asleep in a rocker next to the bed.

For the first time, Brandy looked upon the old lady with tenderness. Something awful had happened to her, and Tauntzia's herbs had made her better.

Brandy knew that something was different this morning. She looked at the old woman with new eyes. As her granny sat there snoring, Brandy remembered some of the stories she had heard about Tauntzia. She felt a sadness weighing down upon her when she remembered all the times she had thought that Tauntzia was nuts. She had never believed in the old woman's healing powers. Now she was not so sure that the stories were just tall tales. Brandy remembered the story about Uncle Regious who had a jealous woman chasing after him. He was always ducking bullets and knives and axes and machetes until he climbed Beacon Hill to get help from Tauntzia. Well, right away she made powder out of several dried herbs. She told Uncle Regious that the next time he saw that woman he was to blow a little of that dust on her shoulders. It was him that was her obsession and only him that could lift her burden. The potion must have worked because she packed up and moved out of town within a week.

Brandy also remembered another story she had heard from Cousin Becky whose husband, Cousin Bud, was always sneaking in and out of other women's homes. Cousin Becky loved that man down to the dried mud on his boots. When she got tired of fighting Cousin Bud with a broom, she climbed Beacon Hill. Tauntzia must have mixed up something good because Cousin Bud not only stopped chasing women but took to bringing his wife bonbons and wild flowers. From then on, his pick-up truck went only in two directions, to work at the slaughterhouse and back home. Of course, Cousin Becky almost had to go back to Tauntzia because Cousin Bud was getting to be a real pest, always underfoot, wanting to cling to her. Cousin Becky couldn't go to the outhouse without Cousin Bud holding the door open for her and hanging around until she came out.

Then there was Cousin Laura and Cajun Ben who fought hard against a passion that was swelling and threatening to devour both of them. The lines that divided black and white kept Cajun Ben and Cousin Laura meeting secretly in the woods under an oak tree where they had picnic lunches and leisure afternoons. In time, they knew it was a healthy combination of love and lust. One day, a hunter in the woods came upon Cajun Ben and Cousin Laura lying naked on a quilt under the oak tree, Cajun Ben curled like a spoon behind Cousin Laura. His arm was wrapped around her waist, his hand cradling the base of her belly. That hunter ran straight back to town and branded Cousin Laura a woman who loved white men. Folks in Bayou St. Claude thought Laura was a disgrace. She wanted peace in her family and among her friends, so one day Cousin Laura climbed Beacon Hill to tell Ole Mom about the love she felt for Cajun Ben and to ask her how to put out the fire, kill the passion. Tauntzia told her, "Can't do it. Won't do it. Besides, there's a baby growing in you." Cousin Laura skipped all the way down the hill and into Cajun Ben's cabin where she gave him eleven healthy yellow babies. Folk talked about how that little Cajun slaved to take care of his Colored family. Behind their backs, they said that Cousin Laura and Cajun Ben had graveyard love--a love that lasts until death, no matter the stresses and strains or ill-fit between the two lovers.

"I see you made it through the night, huh," said Tauntzia rising from the rocker to check on Brandy.

"What happened?"

"You almost died, chere. But it wasn't your time, child."

A light suddenly flashed on in Brandy's head. "I've been a pain in the behind, huh?"

"Nothing like nearly dying to make a person do right." The old woman laughed to the fullness of her height.

On Brandy's third day on Beacon Hill, she and her granny stayed close to home. Brandy was slowly getting her strength back. So, they spent the whole day working on a quilt. Tauntzia pulled tiny pieces of fabric from under the mattress, bright colors--red, green, orange, purple, and gold. The old sage taught Brandy how to stitch a heavy-duty quilt with needle and thread. Her face shifted like a kaleidoscope as she told Brandy the history of each piece of fabric. One piece had come from Tauntzia's grandmother's burial dress, one piece from her father's wedding jacket, one piece from her mother's favorite apron, one piece from the skirt of the midwife who delivered her first child, and a piece from her husband's well-worn field overalls and red bandanna.

"This piece is special to me." She held up a piece of red corduroy.

"Why, Granny?"

"This piece went from me to you and back to me. I made you a jumper when you were a year old. When you were about five or six, you cut a hole in that jumper and made me a present."

Brandy remembered the gift. She had carved out an odd-shaped heart from the jumper and had given it to her great-granny as a Christmas gift.

Tauntzia attached the heart made of red corduroy and announced they had done enough quilting for one day. Brandy marveled at all the stories about each piece of fabric, all the history, Tauntzia's and her own, stitched and bound into a single quilt. Tauntzia had remembered so many spirits that afternoon.

"To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die," whispered Tauntzia as she placed a kiss on Brandy's forehead.

"That's cool, Tauntzia."

"Chere, I saw that on a tombstone once. Made me think of my own Ma and Pap. I think about them every day of my life." She paused to look at her great-grandchild. Her voice was low and soft. "These are our people. Don't forget them," warned Tauntzia.

Ole Mom appeared to be less fresh and perky than she was two days ago.

Brandy now had a string of stories about the ancestors to support her into adulthood and for the rest of her life.

On Brandy's fourth day with Tauntzia, they spent most of the day picking figs behind the shack. Her great-granny had three towering fig trees from which she made numerous jars of preserves for her twelve children.

Brandy noticed that Tauntzia was moving slower than the day before, but her spirits were high. She kept taking breaks from fig picking to stare at the shack. Finally, Brandy asked her what was she looking at.

"Oh, sugar, I was just talking to the spirits. Lots of folks were born and died in this shack right here."

Ole Mom told Brandy that the little place she calls home was built in the late 1870s.

"It was the first home owned by our people after freedom came." Tauntzia straightened her back with pride.

"My Pap and Ole Ma bought Beacon Hill."

Tauntzia went on to tell that her parents had managed to buy over a thousand acres from surrounding neighbors who sold their land for a dollar an acre, just to be rid of land that sprouted hills. The rich black soil up on Beacon Hill produced cotton that could be matched by no other farms in the area. Woods, however, had replaced the farmland when Tauntzia left the hill to raise a family in Bayou St. Claude.

"With their sweat, they built this house board by board, dumpling. Nobody lived up here before they did. Folks said it was haunted. 'Whoever heard of a hill so high in the middle of flat country."'

Tauntzia turned her attention back to picking figs. She looked so much like the pictures Brandy had seen of slaves picking cotton--sweating, tired, overburdened.

Tauntzia read Brandyıs mind and said, ³Slavery wasnıt the worst thing that happened to Coloreds.²

"Wasn't nothing worse than that," Brandy mumbled.

Brandy stood with her arms akimbo, like she actually had an idea of what it meant to know trouble.

"There's nothing like trouble to make us strong. Now I'm not saying slavery was a good thing. It was evil, but worse things have happened to us.²

"Name one." She eagerly challenged her great-granny.

"It was when we stopped trusting each other. Somewhere between the Old Country and the New Country, we forgot we were supposed to be family, no matter what, no matter who tries to break us up."

The old woman paused. She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the palm of her hand.

"You can break one twig, but you can't break twenty of them put together."

"Yes, ma'am." Brandy removed her gum and tossed it beyond the trees.

"And another thing. Don't let nobody tell you what you can't do. I always say, 'If I can't do it, I can find somebody who can."'

"You think you're tough, huh, Tauntzia." Brandy felt herself drawing closer and closer to this old woman who was passionate about everything she touched.

"You bet I am. You know what else I always say?"

"What?"

"Don't you hang around with no dumb folks. Aim high. Can't no dumb person teach you nothing!" Tauntzia chuckled and slapped her bony thigh.

"Yes, ma'am," laughed Brandy, slapping her own thigh.

"Don't quit, child. Find a way to make your life worth living."

"But look at you. You came up the Hill. Didn't you quit? You're alone. Just one twig." She prodded her great-granny.

"I'm not a twig. I'm all woman. And don't you forget it." Tauntzia reached for a fig.

"Didn't you give up on Bayou St. Claude?"

"No, I just came home. Folks know I'm on this hill. They know where to find me when they need me." She wiped the sweat from between her bosom and kept picking figs.

"I think that's an excuse." Brandy heard herself and knew she was hedging on disrespect.

"What?" The old lady's head snapped around to face Brandy.

"You gave up on Paran Black." Brandy felt the name spring from her lips much too quickly.

Brandy had pushed the wrong button. She had conjured up Tauntzia's long dead son whose name, Paran Black, was never to be mentioned. He was a ghost, even before he died--lost to the family. Her son had done the unforgivable.

He had sold family-owned land in Bayou St. Claude to strangers, to the highest bidder. Before moving back up to Beacon Hill, Tauntzia had divided Bayou St. Claude acreage among her children. Much to Tauntzia's sadness, her middle son, Paran Black, lost himself to bootleg whiskey. He plowed down everybody and everything in his path because he had expected life to be fair. When he realized life wasn't fair, he turned on Ruth, his wife. When he finally tired of whipping Ruth with his foul mouth, he sold the clothes right off of her back, blew her head off with a shotgun, and cursed Tauntzia for giving him life.

"I bore that child, but I didn't recognize him."

"How come you didn't fix him, make him well?"

"Don't come reproaching me. I won't stand for it, you hear me, child!"

Brandy could see that she had tested the old woman's metal, and it was flawed. There was her great-granny standing there trembling with anger about the son she never forgave, the son who cut her heart in half. The sickness had taken over him, yet she had not been able to forgive him for the rage that colored his life and the lives of everybody who loved him.

"That one hurt me to my heart, chere."

Tauntzia told Brandy that in the Old Country, no one spoke the name of the lost one. No more was said about Paran Black.

On the fifth day of Brandy's visit, she woke up feeling like she had rolled down Beacon Hill. Her head was pounding and she ached all over. She rolled on her pallet and saw Tauntzia picking a turkey. She held its lifeless head while she dipped it in boiling water to help loosen the feathers. Brandy gagged when she saw Tauntzia gut the turkey. The smell of blood and feathers and feces made her nauseous.

The girl watched as her granny hobbled out of the shack with a cup of turkey's blood. The aching Brandy crept to the window in time to see the old woman pitch the blood to the north, south, east, and west while muttering something.

After she was able to force down a cup of tea, she watched as the matriarch prepared the bird for roasting. She slit holes all over the turkey and stuffed them with a mixture of salt, cayenne, black pepper, bell pepper, garlic, celery, scallions, and dried shrimp. After the giant bird was stuffed outside and in, Tauntzia basted it with cayenne pepper and butter and put it to cooking on top of her wood-burning stove.

Brandy's aches got worse as the day wore on. She felt like she was blowing up like a balloon.

"It'll be all right, chere." Tauntzia reached for the small glass of liquids she had set aside. It contained the potion made from herbs they had found in the woods.

"What is that stuff?"

"Something for your aches. Drink it all down!" commanded Ole Mom.

Close up, Brandy saw the myriad of wrinkles in Tauntzia's face now. She hadn't remembered seeing so many wrinkles before. Ole Mom was so youthful looking a couple of days before. Now she was shriveling up and the child was becoming increasingly concerned.

"This stuff is awful. It tastes like skunk's pee."

"And how do you know what skunk's pee tastes like?"

Brandy gagged each time Tauntzia lifted the glass to her lips.

"It'll clean you out. We have to make you ready." The old woman coaxed the last of the concoction down Brandy's throat.

"Did your mama talk to you about the cycle of nature?"

"You mean my period?"

"Yes, your menses."

"Tauntzia, I've been knowing about that for two years now. Mama and I talked about it when I was in the fifth grade. Plus, the school nurse told us about the "Big P", too."

"At school? They talk about the "Big P" at school?"

"That's not all they talk about, either."

"I don't want to know. " She raised her hand to stop the child. "In the old days, when a girl was about to start her menses, she was sent to the old ones in the community. At dawn, the old women would wake the child up and each would tell her own story about the first day on "the rag."

Brandy cringed at the thought that Tauntzia might feel compelled to tell of her first time on "the rag". Instead, the old sage merely explained that "the rag" was the cloth fabric that women used before the availability of sanitary napkins. These "rags" were washed and rewashed countless times and hung to dry in private places away from the gaze of males.

"Is it my time? The rag, I mean?"

"Soon, child."

"Is that why you sent word for Mama to bring me here? Did you see my period starting--like you saw the spider?

The old woman did not answer. She shifted the pot to see if the turkey was cooking fast enough. Lord, I've cooked many a bird on this hill."

"You ever thought about leaving here?"

"I did leave Beacon Hill. I went down to Bayou St. Claude when I married. I raised my family down there. Worked like a slave to buy land down there--when I had all of God's bounty up here."

"I mean Louisiana. Did you ever wish you had gone off to Texas or to somewhere up North to find a better life?"

"I already had a better life, you silly girl," chuckled Tauntzia. "I didn't need to go somewhere to find myself. I always knew just who I was. And, child, don't talk about going North!"

Tauntzia told Brandy all about the Great Black Migration--with thousands of Coloreds during Reconstruction heading North looking for a haven. She recalled families who packed up and went to New York, Detroit, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. She told Brandy about her brother, Octave, who went to Chicago in the 1920s.

"He traded the cotton fields for the factory. One was worth the other, except he didn't have no family up North to prop him up when the gold road turned to gravel."

Just as she finished telling her story about Octave, Tauntzia called Brandy and signaled her to kneel down.

"It's time now, child." She began praying over the girlwoman. Brandy just knelt there, speechless but unafraid.

The resilient old woman reached out with one hand only and touched Brandy on the forehead. This was the laying-on-of-hands that she'd heard so much about. Tauntzia prayed softly at first, making the sign of the cross, slowly and repeatedly. Her praying increasingly became louder and gradually sounded less and less like English.

"She's speaking in tongues," Brandy thought to herself.

When Tauntzia was done praying, it was dark. Then Tauntzia sent Brandy to the outhouse. Brandy wasn't surprised to find what Tauntzia had called "the rag" laid out for her. She knew immediately that the rag signaled the start of her menstrual cycle.

"I'm a woman," she kept shouting as she rocked the little outhouse. "I can't wait to tell Mandy and Tunisha when I get home!"

Later that night, Tauntzia gave her more of the potion to drink and instructed her to sleep in the bed that night. She told Brandy that she was going to rest in the rocker next to her. When the girl woke up the next morning, her great-granny blessed her with the sign of the cross several times and then rushed her out of bed. They were going back into the woods to collect more herbs. Ole Mom wrapped herself in a black shawl and grabbed a basket for the herbs. She threw in a few pieces of roasted turkey and cornbread and gave the basket to Brandy. They began the long walk down the path to the thick woods. Brandy could barely see the sun peering through the trees as they moved deeper into the woods.

Tauntzia took Brandy's hand in hers. Brandy looked across at her great-grandmother and saw her hide a smile. They were, finally, becoming best of friends, making it through the woods, chatting as they went about, first one thing and then another--school, boys, dancing. Brandy told Tauntzia about her neighborhood in Houston.

It seemed like they had gone miles from the shack, but still the old lady pressed on. She seemed to be more hunched over, leaning more and more on her cane and on Brandy as they moved still deeper into the woods.

Just as she began to preoccupy herself with Tauntzia's increasing frailty, wondering what she would do if the old woman couldn't make the walk back home that afternoon, Brandy accidentally stepped onto a cottonmouth moccasin. It looked to be three or four feet long and was brown and black. Brandy shrieked and recoiled.

With uncharacteristic speed, Tauntzia reached with her cane and flung the snake to a safe distance away.

Brandy couldn't believe what this old woman had done. She looked so helpless just moments before and yet in a flash she had tossed the treacherous snake without so much as a grunt.

"How did you do that?" panted Brandy.

"Faith, child. I believe. " She stooped to pick up the basket Brandy had dropped. Brandy walked a little closer to Tauntzia as they continued through a part of the woods with thick vines and trees covered with moss. It seemed darker and darker as they moved deeper and deeper inward. Brandy spotted an owl perched on a tree. She had never seen a real one before. It just sat there. She took note of the white circles around the eyes and the smooth brown feathers.

"Don't disturb her," said Tauntzia as they went still deeper, down into a flat space, a pocket in the low hills, and came upon a frothy green pond.

Brandy had been daydreaming about the owl and wasn't aware of the small stretch of water before her until she felt a dull sting in her eyes and nostrils. An oddly familiar stench rose from the depths of the pond-- the salty, putrid smell of things dead.

"Tauntzia!" Brandy gasped, "What's that smell?"

"That's salt water, chere."

"Like ocean water? How did that get here?" Brandy watched as her granny hobbled across the bridge that spanned the width of the pond.

"Same way these hills got here. Some things you just don't question. Now, come along."

Brandy stiffened as she stared at Tauntzia across the water.

"I'm not getting on that thing, Tauntzia. It's rickety."

"You have to have faith, child."

"The wood is rotten."

"Hurry up," Tauntzia commanded.

Brandy timidly placed one foot on the bridge and then another. Halfway across, with the bridge swaying from side to side, Brandy felt the pull of motion sickness. She stopped abruptly but the rocking seemed to get worse. She felt waves of nausea rising and eddying with each step she took. She became aware of the heat baring down on her.

Then, she saw three women walking toward her on the water. She immediately knew they were African. Their dresses were long, draping, and rectangular, beige and white with thick, matte gold collars. Bangles lined their arms; their earrings hung halfway to their shoulders, accentuating their graceful necks. Their hair was wrapped in brilliantly colorful scarves that shone like halos. Their skin was rich and dark, smooth as finished wood. They were calling her name. She was sure of it.

"Brandy! Brandy! Brandy," the three Africans called to her.

Brandy forced herself to look toward Tauntzia who was calling to her, "Brandy! Brandy! Brandy, come to me."

Finally, Tauntzia walked back across the bridge and reached for her great-granddaughter. Brandy threw herself into Tauntzia's arms and burst into tears. So many things were swirling around inside of her--the past and the present were wrestling and shaking up her insides. She felt something swell up inside of her and she couldn't breathe. She gripped the rail of the bridge and, looking down into the water, she saw her reflection. Suddenly, she began to regurgitate everything she had eaten since morning. Tauntzia held onto her as she emptied herself into the pond. When this moment had passed, Tauntzia helped Brandy to the other side and held her firmly in her bony arms.

When Brandy had regained her strength, they continued their journey. Finally they came to a sunlit clearing which seemed to be at the end of the earth. The woods just opened up into a flat stretch of land covered with beautiful flowers of every kind, white, yellow, purple, and red lilies, begonias, caladiums, and petunias. There were also acres and acres of yellow and purple wildflowers, which took away Brandy's breath. She took a good long, deep breath. The sun was as warm as her mother's hand against her face, and the breeze in her hair was so cool and crisp that it sent a pleasant tingle through her entire body.

There was no Bayou St. Claude to look down upon from this part of God's country. This wondrous garden just opened up to nowhere and yet everywhere. It seemed to Brandy like a magical land with deer and rabbits and squirrels running around freely.

"You can come here whenever you want. This is my gift to you, chere."

"I couldn't find this place again if I had a map."

"You will not forget--not this."

This wide open, breathtaking piece of land had growing green things, peach, orange, and pear trees. It was enchanting.

Together they sat under an oak tree taking in the wonders of this secret world. Tauntzia spent all day telling Brandy stories about growing up on Beacon Hill and about her years in Bayou St. Claude. She told her about many healing remedies. She also talked about farm life and blustery cold winters.

"Life was hard, child, but we made it--and we got stronger by the day."

"I don't know how you made it. Seems like all you did was work all the time."

"Then you haven't been listening. We made it cause we prayed and worked and danced and played and laughed together. You got to always be able to laugh, child. It'll keep you in your right mind."

"Did you used to dance, Tauntzia?"

"Child, I was the Zydeco Queen in my day. I can still cut a step if the spell hits me," laughed Ole Mom while slapping her bony thigh.

All the way back home through the woods, Brandy and her granny laughed about Cousin Bud, Uncle Regious, Cousin Becky, and Cousin Laura and her little yellow Cajun babies. On her way back, the bridge seemed less formidable and Brandy crossed it without so much as a whimper.

When Tauntzia and Brandy made it back home, it was way past bedtime. The old lady, again, called Brandy to kneel down in front of her. This time she placed both of her hands upon Brandy. Tauntzia seemed a bit disoriented.

"I never forgot the ways of the old African people. They can cut off the fingers, but they can't stop the power," she said more to herself than to Brandy. Tauntzia squeezed Brandy's hands and lingered at the healed-over scars on the child's pinkie fingers.

"My old uncle passed his gift on to me before he died--told me it was my turn to be the healer, the treateur."

Tauntzia mumbled something and scribbled on Brandy's forehead with her crooked finger.

"It's your turn to heal now, chere."

"Come on, Tauntzia, I couldn't heal nobody." Brandy shied away from Tauntzia's gaze.

"I picked you," said Tauntzia firmly.

On Sunday morning Brandy woke up to a pounding in her head. She had been dreaming of the owl, but its eyes had been replaced with black hollow caves.

She looked over toward Tauntzia and heard the shallow breathing.

"What's the matter?" Brandy jumped out of bed, moved close to her great-granny and then backed away panic stricken.

Tauntzia opened her eyes and closed them with a sigh.

"Tauntzia! Ole Mom, what's wrong?" Brandy came within an inch of her granny's face.

"I feel bad, chere." She was barely audible.

"I have to go get some help."

"No, chere, it's my time."

Brandy ran from the room and didn't hear her. She bumped into the kitchen table and the drinking gourd went flying into the air.

"Oh, God, help me!" Brandy screamed and covered her face with her hand. She was hyperventilating.

She tore the kitchen apart looking for the herbs. The terrified child found the sack hanging on a nail inside the pantry. She then added a bit of water to the tea kettle and stoked the fire feverishly.

"God, I wished I'd paid attention. I can't remember what she said to mix for healing."

The water would take a while, so she ran outside to get a towel from the clothesline to wash Tauntzia's face. The old woman looked like a burnt wood chip, tiny and barely breathing. Brandy ran to the front door, but she knew there was no one to call. She was on Beacon Hill, out of earshot of anyone or anything but the animals roaming the hill.

Brandy closed her eyes and prayed, first to Jesus, then to Oshun, and then in an unfamiliar language that spilled off of her tongue before she even realized what she was doing. With her eyes still closed, she saw her mother, Carletta, driving up Beacon Hill. Her mother was coming to take her back to Houston. The little Toyota was straining as it inched up the hill with a cloud of dust following it. Brandy froze as she saw Tauntzia sitting next to her mother in the car. She couldn't make out what her mother was singing, but Tauntzia was nodding her head to the rhythm. The kettle's whistle blew Brandy back into consciousness. She jumped to mix the herbs that would heal her granny; her hands shook as she poured the tea into a cup and went running into Tauntzia's room.

When she reached the bed, Brandy could tell from the way that Tauntzia's head draped that she was gone. Brandy knelt and held Tauntzia's still warm, bony hand.

"I let you down. I didn't listen. I could have saved you." Brandy sank deeply into herself, and wept. Her Tauntzia was dead.

A stone silence filled the room.

Then Brandy thought she heard something outside, maybe in the trees. It came again, from the Chinaberry tree just outside of the window--leaves rustling, flapping like giant wings. And suddenly, she heard something else--the sound of tires rolling on the gravel outside, the short beep of her mother's horn.

"Mama's here." Brandy looked at Tauntzia, but she was empty. Just lying there, still and hollow, with a rosary in one hand and a potion in the other.

"Tauntzia?"

The Chinaberry tree rustled on. Brandy stared straight at it and exhaled, long and soft. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.

"Tauntzia?" she whispered to the tree, soft as the breeze through the window. "Mama's here, Tauntzia."

 

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