First published 1992 – Of Hobos and Rainbows, Paintbrush Press
"You know Wicked Annabelle!" Jason had said to me.
"I do not!" I liked it when Jason was wrong. Being a year older, Jason knew a lot I didn't, so whenever he was wrong I liked to rub it in. "I do not. Never heard of her."
"You know that house on Railroad Avenue."
"That house that's half boarded up. It has that raggedy ol' couch out front where all those cats sleep."
I knew the house. "What about it?"
"That's where she lives." If it weren't for his curly hair and flat broad nose you'd of taken Jason for white. He was the only boy I knew with a colored dad and a white mom though his dad was dead. Or so Jason had said. Only much later did I learn different.
It was the year after Kennedy had been killed. I was nine. Jason had dragged me to the Projects, forbidden territory for us white kids. He led me to a wooded area just out of visibility of two intersecting highways. There we found O'Henry.
"What you bring that white moth'rfuc'er here for?" O'Henry was thirteen, big and dark as chocolate. He wore a derby hat and jabbed at a dead birch with his stolen pocketknife. I stood as far from him as I could.
"He don't believe me about the witch lady."
"Who? Annabelle? Shi--it. Annabelle'll eat that little white boy for breakfast." A chipmunk approached us, stopped still in its tracks, studied O'Henry a second, then scurried up a hollow elm. "What you hanging 'round a whitey for, Albino?"
"I ain't no albino." Jason said.
The hell you ain't! Your mammy white ain't she?" O'Henry brandished his pocketknife as Jason reached for a rock. "Go ahead, Albino."
The faint breeze that had been blowing held its breath while the three of us stood like statues. "We wanna hear about Wicked Annabelle," I spoke, surprised at my boldness. Jason dropped his rock. O'Henry lowered his knife.
"What you telling this whitey colored folk's business for? Annabelle ain't none of his business."
"Annabelle is colored?" I asked.
"Colored! She's as black as night. Why I'm white as you standing next to Wicked Annabelle."
"Don't nobody go near Annabelle," Jason said. "Not even her family. She puts voodoo on dogs and cats and little babies. And when you hear dogs bark late at night, for no reason---it's because Annabelle is somewhere stealing babies from cribs."
"To eat 'em," O'Henry said. "And cook their eyeballs in her witch's brew." As he said this he crept closer and stuck his face near mine. His teeth were rotten and his breath stank. I moved away. "She don't come out 'cept at midnight. You wanna see her you gotta go then. And on a full moon."
A few days later, during school recess, Jason ran over to where me and Pee Wee Montgomery were playing catch. "You know what tomorrow is?" he asked.
"Yeah." I felt sick to my stomach.
"The full moon," he said, his hazel eyes wide and hopeful.
A fly was buzzing around my face. I slapped at it, then threw the ball I was holding to Pee Wee. Pee Wee missed and had to chase after it. He ran clumsily through some girls playing hopscotch. When they chased after him Jason called out: "Leave him alone!" Then he looked at me. I avoided his eyes.
"You ain't scared, are you? . . .Good, cause I told O'Henry you wasn't. . . You tell your mom 'bout me staying over?"
I nodded. "Of course Jason can spend the night," Mom had said when I asked her. She and Dad liked Jason. "Such a well-mannered little boy," Mom always said. Dad always gave us quarters. They never said anything about Jason being colored but I knew they were pleased I had befriended a Negro boy. That's what they called colored people: Negroes.
Jason tapped me on the shoulder then ran back to his game. The fifth grade boys played softball in the dirt field while we others stayed on the asphalt or by the monkey bars and swings. "Lookout!" Pee Wee called. I turned in time to protect my face but jammed my finger on Pee Wee's throw.
"I'm sorry," Pee Wee pouted. He looked as if he were going to cry. "That's alright," I said. My dad would have called Pee Wee the runt of the litter. He was the smallest person in the fourth grade, smaller even than the shortest third grader though his head was large and his complexion a creamy milk white that seemed to glow. It was Jason's idea to befriend Pee Wee. Jason felt sorry for him. Sometimes I wanted to hit Pee Wee he was so stupid, but like Jason I came to feel sorry for him.
"Let's watch Jason," I suggested as an excuse to nurse my throbbing finger. Jason stood, legs apart, in left field. He was good. So were Roberto and Jonathan, the two other colored fifth graders. They could catch without mitts. When Roberto came up, he hit a grounder to shortstop. He ran fast but not fast enough. Still, the teacher wasn't watching so he argued he was safe. There was some yelling and some pushing and in the end Roberto was allowed to stay on base. Later, Jason used the same tactic.
"It works," he told me that Friday night. We had already climbed into our pajamas so my folks would think we were going to bed. "If you act tough enough," Jason said, "The others'll back down. Try it."
A little past eleven me and Jason crawled out my bedroom window. I had never snuck out of my house before and half hoped we'd get caught. But that hope vanished as we crawled under the garden fence and I watched the orange light in the family den disappear behind the dark shadowy trees. Our plan was to meet O'Henry at the abandoned railroad station, then make our way to Annabelle's. I could picture my father asleep in his pajamas in front of the t.v. while Mom rocked and hummed softly in her favorite chair as she crocheted something she would later mail to a distant relative. My fear increased when I realized I was moving beyond their reach. My fate was sealed.
O'Henry was late. I shivered on the stone platform of the boarded up railroad station, not from cold but from fear. The station smelled of stale urine where Jason said winos and hobos had slept. Everywhere you stepped was broken glass. The full moon watched us like a huge pale face and provided the only light next to the weak beam of a flashlight Jason carried. "I think this thing needs batteries," he kept saying. I wondered if Jason was scared too. When I asked him he looked like he wanted to hit me.
Then we heard something moving in the shadows. At first we pretended not to notice. But the rustling persisted. Jason picked up a stick and investigated. I followed. "It's in those bushes," he whispered, pointing the flashlight. We moved closer. Jason was prodding the large bush with his stick when something jumped out at us. "Boo!" I screamed and we clutched each other. O'Henry was laughing.
"Boy, youse was some scared moth'rfuc'ers. That white boy nearly jumped outta his skin."
"We wasn't scared, " Jason said. I realized I had grabbed onto Jason's shirt. I let go. "Com'on" Jason said to me. We headed toward Annabelle's not caring if O'Henry followed or not.
"Youse better collect you some rocks," O'Henry called to us. "In case ol' Annabelle comes after your white butts."
There were plenty of stones along the railroad tracks so we took his advice. The moonlight glistened along the rails, moving with us as if leading the way. Behind us came the scrunching of O'Henry's sneakers while he snickered, ooh'd like a ghost and howled like a sick coyote. I stayed close to Jason who kept one hand on my shoulder.
When we entered Railroad Avenue and neared the streetlight illuminating Annabelle's house, O'Henry shut up. He came up next to us, his hands in his pockets, his derby hat no longer cocked but pulled over his forehead.
I had seen the house many times although I never really looked at it. Some of the windows were boarded where glass had been shattered. A faint bluish light, like from a t.v., shone through one of the few windows left unbroken. Other than that the house was dark. A weathered, lopsided couch sat out front with two cats resting on it; one an orange calico licking itself, the other a small Siamese staring back at us. The paint on the wooden house was cracked and had fallen off in chunks. A broken drainpipe dangled from one side, perhaps held up by one last hook. No grass grew in the front lawn and both sides of the house were flanked by tall bushes and weeds that defied passage. A thin film of smoke slithered ghostlike from the chimney.
O'Henry pointed. "See. She's making a brew."
I held onto Jason's shirt. "Com'on," O'Henry said. He led us around the block, cutting across a gravel driveway and climbing a low, barbed wire fence. We dropped into a freshly mown lawn. "Keep down," O'Henry whispered. Like Indians we dashed to the center of the yard under some kind of fruit tree. Then I realized where we were---Annabelle's backyard. The pale moon stared down on us as we crept nearer the back porch. The wood of the raised porch had rotted and it was possible to crawl underneath.
"Give me the flashlight," O'Henry said. He pointed in the crawl space. A mother cat with yellow eyes was feeding three or four kittens. Two other kittens were wrestling nearby. "Com'on." O'Henry crawled in, dragging me with him. "Listen up, Jason. Git behind that there tree again and make like youse calling for help. Not too loud though. Don't wake up the whole damn neighborhood. Just sose Wicked Annabelle can hear." O'Henry pulled me in front of him so I could see. He handled me roughly. My arm hurt but I didn't say anything. Jason began calling softly, gradually getting louder, hamming it up like only Jason could.
A light came on, flooding the gray porch steps and the dirt walkway that edged the green, evenly cut lawn. Overhead the high-pitched squeal of an opening screen door cried out. Slow, heavy footsteps dragged along the floorboards above us. "Little boy," a tight raspy voice called out. "Are you all right?"
Then came the groan of the wooden steps as she descended each step in turn. First I saw her legs---thick and solid like tree trunks. As her slippered feet touched solid earth I saw her hunched back and her thick wild dark hair. I tried to inch back but O'Henry's firm rocklike presence wedged me in. He squeezed both my arms. "Pssst," he called. Annabelle turned, her black face visible in the light. Half her face was swollen, puffed to almost twice the other side. One eye moved in its socket while the other seemed dead, or under a spell. I cringed. Then O'Henry shoved me forward. Dirt clung to my lips as I landed at Annabelle's feet.
I should have crawled away but I wasn't thinking. Instead I stood up. Annabelle's cold wet hands grabbed me. I screamed. I wiggled. I batted at her. She held me firmly with big strong hands. "It's okay. It's okay." Her raspy voice was unexpectedly gentle. "Yes, I know I'm ugly. Just don't look at me. I won't hurt you. Are you okay?"
I stopped struggling. I wanted to cry. Not from fear or terror, but from shame. I felt I had been caught playing some stupid joke and the only thing I could do was stand and take my punishment.
"Tell me where you live."
I couldn't speak. I didn't dare. I was about to cry when something flew passed and echoed as it struck the porch floorboards. "Let go of him you dirty old witch!" It was Jason. He threw another rock, nearly hitting me before it clunked on the wooden steps and rolled in the dirt. Annabelle loosened her grip. I ran. I ran towards Jason and passed him. A leg tripped me. O'Henry's leg. I tumbled in the grass, at first too stunned to move. I looked behind me at two silhouettes, one thin and graceful, the other large and rocklike, waving their arms furiously, each wave sending a black stone hurling at Annabelle standing in the porch light. With her thick black arms shielding her face, Annabelle struggled up the steps and into her house.
"Stop it," I yelled. "Stop it!" I caught Jason's raised arm. He stopped. Then I tackled O'Henry, my weight nearly knocking him over as I pelted him with my small ineffectual fists. O'Henry's hammer of a blow caught my jaw. The earth felt like a giant unmoveable rock as I collided into it. My face stung but I held my tears.
Annabelle shouted from behind her screen door. "Why can't you damn kids leave me alone?"
"Shut up you damn witch." That was O'Henry.
"Yeah, shut up," Jason mimicked.
"I ain't done nothing to you,"
"Oh, shut up you old hag."
"Yeah, shut up."
Annabelle slammed her door and disappeared. O'Henry said we should leave before she called the cops. "Pick up that damn white boy," he added. "The fool was possessed. Ol' Annabelle went and put her voodoo on him. But I tell you this white boy, spell or no spell, next time you put your moth'rfuc'ing hands on me, I'll kill your ass."
I said nothing. Jason said nothing. I got up by myself. When we were back at the railroad tracks, Jason and O'Henry walked together. Jason was wearing O'Henry's derby hat. I followed at a close distance, not that they seemed to notice. Then O'Henry took his hat and left. Jason, his flashlight burnt out, said nothing all the way home. We had both crawled into my bed before I ventured to break the painful silence.
"Jason. She was no witch."
"Shut up. Sure she was."
"No she wasn't."
"How do you know? You were under a spell."
I didn't know what to say. When I finally got the nerve to speak again Jason had gone to sleep.
© SETH 1992