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Mama Tulu

The road to Mama Tulu’s shack was nearly impossible to trudge. There were no streetlights, no cleared trail, just rocks and dirt and bushes that reached halfway up my waist and scratched my calves. Makka bush, my mother called them, but I pushed her out of my mind. She’d curse me from morning to night if she knew where I was going. I tried to think about Robbie instead: his tall, lean frame, his long black dread locks, this army green jacket with the Lion of Judah printed on the shoulder like a stripe of honor. Since moving back to Jamaica, thinking of him was the only thing that could make me happy until, of course, thoughts of my father inevitably pushed them out. But hopefully that would end soon. Mama Tulu would end it.

The red dirt road left stains on the hem of my dress, but I didn’t pay it any mind. I’d hide it until my mother went to sell goods at the market then wash it while she wasn’t there. All around me I could hear the chirps of crickets, the hooting of owls, and all the other noises of the island’s night creatures, but I couldn’t see any of them. Only a bit further. Only a little bit. As if the Lord (or maybe something else) heard my plea, a light appeared a few yards ahead of me. I climbed the rest of the way up the bushy hill until finally, Mama Tulu’s house was in front of me. It wasn’t at all what I expected. Instead of the zinc roof hut I had pictured, there was a small house made of wood with vines of all types of bushes entwined around it. The front porch had vines and weeds all over the floor, nearly blocking the wood from view. I stood in awe of the place for a moment before the hairs on the back of my neck prickled. I looked around but saw nothing. The only visible thing was the house and the light coming from the inside of it.

I walked up the four steps onto the porch, the vines and leaves crunching underneath my feet. I raised my fist to knock but stopped short. What if she was asleep? What if I angered her by waking her up? Most of all, what was I doing here? Did I really want this? Before I could think of a real answer a voice startled me out of my thoughts.

“Ah what kind ah gyal just lingah in front of an ol’ woman doorway dis yah hours ah night? Mus be lookin’ fi trouble.”

My breath caught in my throat. I looked around again, but saw nothing. “M-May I come in, Mama Tulu?”

There was silence for a long moment. I started to think that I imagined the voice until she finally spoke again.

“Come in, child.”

Inside of Mama Tulu’s house was like nothing I’d ever seen before. She directed me to sit down in a straw chair while she put a kettle on. I sat and tried not to look as frightened as I felt, but my eyes wondered around the room. There were vines hanging from the ceiling along with colored jars on the ends of ropes with shadowy substances inside of them, but nothing in her house was as strange in appearance as Mama Tulu herself. First of all, no one could tell the woman’s age. She looked to be in her 50’s but her hair was as white as cotton and cascaded down her back in a long messy braid, the front of it frizzy in her face. Her hands were wrinkled, but she always had painted nails, something none of the women over 30 did in this part of the country. Her skin was dark brown like mine, but her eyes were hazel and sometimes seemed to glow, even the daytime when she walked in the market. She always wore a silvery mesh shawl over her dark purple or green dress and sometimes walked with an umbrella perched over her head to block off the sun.

“Nevah seen a stush Obeah woman,” Miss Jacklyne said one day when Mama Tulu passed her fruit stand. She had waited until the old woman was out of earshot and leaned over to my mother as she stacked her yam and potatoes.

“Quiet for she tun yuh inna one ah ‘ar Nameless,” my mother said, flinching as she lifted an unusually heavy yam with her injured hand.

Mama Tulu turned to me, two cups in her hand. I straightened in my chair, a habit that formed from years of elders inspecting my posture. She handed me a cup of tea and kept one for herself before sitting in the chair opposite me. I looked at the cup. I wasn’t sure if I should drink or not. You weren’t supposed to eat or drink from Obeah women, but it was rude to not eat or drink as a guest in someone’s home. I took a sip and she did the same, her eyes still on me over the rim of her cup. Ginger and mint flooded my taste buds before I swallowed.

“Whah yuh name?” she asked.

“Sasha.”

“Sasha. Sasha,” she said as if rolling the word around in her mouth to see if she liked the taste. “Yuh Maddah have a stand eh?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Yuh talk nice. Nuh like them chat bad picknie ah street. Yuh nuh from Jamaica?”

“My parents moved to Florida when I was a baby, but we came back two years ago.”

“Heh,” Mama Tulu scoffed. “Go ah foreign an’ come back? Supm’ bad muss happen.”

I nodded not sure if she wanted to know and not sure if I should tell her if she did.

She looked me up and down. “How old yuh be?”

“Fifteen.”

“Fifteen,” she repeated. “Is a bwoy yuh lookin’? Dah red bwoy wheh hang roun’ yuh Maddah stand? Di dread?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Good. Dread man is a likkle hardah fi catch. Whah yuh want?”

I opened my mouth then closed it again. Even up until now I wasn’t sure that I was really going to do this, and even if I wanted to do it, could she do it? I thought of my mother’s hand, now nearly useless, and how she limped for a week during the summer when we came back here.

“I want you to kill my father.”

Mama Tulu stared at me for what seemed like an hour, then smiled. “Now, why yuh want supm’ like that, gyal?”

I was hoping she wouldn’t ask me that. I was hoping she would just tell me she couldn’t do it and send me on my way, or tell me she could and tell me her price, but of course it wasn’t so.

“He’s a monster,” I said and I wasn’t lying. He was the reason we had to come back to Jamaica after eleven years in the United States. He drank away all of the money he worked and took the money my mother made cleaning houses and gambled it away. After a few losses he couldn’t pay back, the people he owed came looking for him. They tried to beat him up but he fought back, injuring one of the men and putting the other one in a coma. His punishment was deportation and my mother said we had to leave the only home I’d ever known to come back with him. But that wasn’t why he needed to die. Two weeks ago he beat my mother worse than any of the times before. I came back from school to find her laying on the floor, unconscious, her eyes swollen, and her hand twisted at an odd angle. For days she laid on her bed, barely able to move, until finally she could stand on her own again. And the first thing she did when she could was make him breakfast.

“Hmm,” Mama Tulu said after I finished. She sipped her tea, then tilted her head to the side, thinking. “He’s yuh faddah. Yuh real faddah?”

“Yes.”

“Yuh sure?

“Yes. We look just alike.”

She thought again. “And yuh sure yuh wan’ kill him?”

“I want him gone.”

“Seems cruelty run inna yuh family,” she said and stared me in the eye.

I ignored the sting of her words and stared back.

After a moment she laughed and held out her hand. “Gimme yuh palm gyal.”

She took my hand in her own and took out a long knife seemingly from nowhere. The handle was carved from ivory and had black engravings on it. The blade itself was long and pointed, half of it smooth but sharp, and the half closer to the handle, serrated so that it looked like teeth. My first instinct was to pull back my hand, but I held it steady. She pressed the tip into the palm of my hand until a trickle of blood spilled out of my broken flesh. She bowed her head to my hand then looked up at me again.

“Yuh absolutely sure?”

I nodded.

She put her mouth over the wound she created in the center of my palm and sucked. Her tongue was wet and hot against my flesh but my entire body went cold and I felt as if she was sucking more out of me than just my blood. She was sucking my hatred, my anger, my pain. Finally she raised her head and shivered. “It’s done.”

***

For three days my father didn’t so much as cough. He was completely normal. He went to his job mining bauxite in the morning then drank until he passed out if we were lucky. If he somehow managed to stay conscious we were sure to hear his endless cursing or worse. The third day I came home from helping my mother at the market to find him on the porch, a bottle of white rum in his hand.

“Where yuh maddah?” he said.

“She’s coming. She’s packing up everything.”

He unscrewed the bottle cap and took a drink. “Dah Rasta bwoy came here lookin’ fi yuh. Yuh tink say yuh a big ‘oman now eh?”

I ignored him and stepped to go into the house but he stood up and blocked me.

“Yuh ah listen to me, gyal? Yuh nah take up with no dutty rasta bwoy, yuh hear me?”

“Better a dutty rasta than a useless drunkard,” I said looking him in his eyes. They were a deep brown that brightened when the sunlight caught them, the same as mine.

I knew what was coming but it didn’t help the impact of his blow. He caught me across my face sending me to the floor, then sat back down, pleased with himself. He took another swig from his bottle. I tried to steady the ringing in my ears but it was useless. I touched my lip and saw blood. I got to my feet, not looking at him, and went inside barely able to contain my anger. That damned obeah woman was a fraud. He should surely be dead by now, not drinking on the porch. Maybe tomorrow I would go see Mama Tulu again.

A loud crash woke me up. Disoriented, I looked at my clock and saw that it was 3:15 in the morning. For a moment I thought that I dreamt the noise before a louder crash echoed throughout the house. My mother screamed and I ran to her room, sure that I would find my father on top of her again, his fists raised in the air, but instead she was sitting above him shaking his shoulders.

“Errol? Errol?” she cried but he didn’t answer.

His eyes were wide open and glazed over. His mouth was twisted to the side and slack. The cold feeling returned and ran though my body before leaving me there alone with my mother and father.

The doctor said that he’d had a stroke and that we had to try to feed him as best we could. The nearest hospital was miles away and we couldn’t afford it even if it was closer. He wasn’t dead but he couldn’t talk or move. He just laid there, staring up at the ceiling. The doctor came to check on him every day and every day he said that his was getting worse, his pulse getting weaker. Finally, a week later, the doctor pronounced him dead, but when he tried to close his eyelids, my father’s eyes refused to shut. They stuck stubbornly like a door blown open in a hurricane. My mother tried shut them, as well as her cousin and his brother, but nothing could make them close.

***

The funeral was closed casket because of the eyes. My mother cried and shook the entire service as I tried my best to hold her steady.

“Nuh worry yuhself,” Miss Jacklyne whispered to my mother.”Him in a better place.”

“Him suffer that entire week. Couldn’t walk nor speak.” My mother shook her head then calmed herself down. “Well at least him soul find rest.”

That was one comfort that we both shared. He was a useless, abusive, drunk in this life but maybe he could be at peace in the grave. I thought this the entire service and even when we stood over the hole in ground, waiting for his coffin to be lowered. A small part of me felt sad, but I couldn’t help feeling pleased. There’d be no more beatings, no more cursing, no more him, and all because of me. Well—me and Mama Tulu. The moment I thought of her, I knew she was there among us. I looked up and there she was, standing under an ackee tree ten yards away, her shawl flapping in the air and her umbrella twirling behind her head.

I looked at my mother to make sure she didn’t see the obeah woman and sure enough, my mother was so engrossed in lowering my father that she didn’t notice anything else. I didn’t think that the woman’s magic would work, but here we were. “She must want her payment,” I thought, but when I looked back, Mama Tulu was gone.

***

The second time I climbed the hill to Mama Tulu’s house was much easier than the first. I had to do it in the dead of night again, because God forbid anyone saw me climbing to her house. My mother and I would be outcasts like her. The funny thing is, we all knew that people in the village must have went to her, but nobody knew who. In fact, if it wasn’t for Miss Jacob’s son, Troy, I’m sure no one would believe in Mama Tulu at all.

Troy Jacobs was a “nasty little ragamuffin” that the whole town hated. He was in and out of Saint Catherine Correctional facility since he was eighteen, and robbed half the people in the town. “Him all yell out nastiness to the likkle gyal picknie on them way to church. Can you believe?” Miss Jacklyne told my mother a few weeks after we moved back to the parish. “Well, him make a sad mistake one day ah market.”

Apparently Troy had stolen a jackfuit from Miss Jacklyne’s stand and ran right into Mama Tulu, knocking her into the ground. “Move yuh rotten saul from front ah me!” he yelled then ran off.

Mama Tulu gathered herself and didn’t say a word, but that was the last that anyone ever saw of Troy Jacobs. Well, not exactly the last. A bunch of people claimed to see him in the dead of night, wondering through the village. “Yeah mon, she tun him into one ah ‘ar Nameless.” Miss Jacklyne said. “Him wonder ah night time, eyes white as a bed sheet, and gather all di tings wheh she need fi do ‘ar dark deeds and spy pon people fi ‘ar.” She leaned in closer and her voice dropped to a whisper. “She even lay with di bwoy when heat take ‘ar.”

I’d never met Troy because all of this supposedly happened before we moved back, but his fate sounded terrible. To be some obeah woman’s slave for the rest of his life? I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.

Again, I saw the tiny light of Mama Tulu’s oil lamp ahead of me. I had all of my savings with me. Dear God, I hope it’s enough. She never told me how much all of this would cost. After she licked my palm she sent me on my way and I was too happy to get away from her. I tried not to show it, but the woman gave me chills.

Once at her house, I tapped gently at her door. A few moments later she opened it. Her hair wasn’t in a braid but fell in curly white tresses around her shoulders.

She stared at me, confused. “Back again? Don’ tell me yuh wan kill off yuh maddah now?” She moved to the side and welcomed me in.

“No, I-I came to pay you.” I stepped into her house then looked in my bag and pulled out the jar I kept my money in. I extended the jar to her, but Mama Tulu only looked at it.

“Payment? Yuh already pay me.”

Now it was my turn to be confused. “What d you mean? I never gave you any money.”

She laughed. “Money is not di only way to pay gyal. Yuh give me permission over yuh bloodline. Yuh give, an’ me take.”

A creak in the floorboards in the back startled me, but after looking around I saw nothing. I turned back to Mama Tulu. “What do you mean? I didn’t give you permission for anything.”

“Yes, yuh did. Yuh gave away yuh blood. Yuh said yuh want him to go away. Just so happen me need another set ah helpin’ hands around here.”

The cold feeling returned and washed over me. My hands went clammy, but the palm of my hand stung as it hadn’t since the night Mama Tulu pricked me. The floorboard creaked again. And again. I didn’t want to turn around. I didn’t want to face what I had done, but I could feel him standing there behind me, his breath hot on my neck. Slowly I turned, and looked into the deep brown eyes that once brightened in the sun, now glazed over and white.

A bit about the author:

Jessica Guess is a Florida native and daughter of Jamaican immigrants. She enjoys writing tales of mystery, suspense, and dark fairy-tale and reads anything with female villains. Jessica currently resides in Minnesota where she is an MFA candidate in the Creative Writing program at the Minnesota State University, Mankato. Visit author page