People liked to say that Messir Wong was not quite as wide as he was tall, but when he rode his donkey down to market in his red coat, it sometimes looked as though a great apple was perched atop it, and it made me laugh.
From a distance, at least. He came to the market regular-like, but he always stopped at my house where my mama sold him the meat pies baked in yellow pastry just the way he liked them. She always gave him a discount, of course, because Messir Wong was an alchemist and she said it paid to be on friendly terms—in case somebody got ague or my uncle had another attack of gout. I heard it said he was a witch, too, but I’d had a good look at his hands when my mama handed him a packet of twelve meat pies—he had a good appetite, he said—and I didn’t see any backwards thumbs. Everybody knows witches have those. Even my mama said so.
The last witch we had on the island was a hundred years ago—maybe more, because nobody ever talked about it if they could help it—and that witch was burned in the town square, outside the mayor’s house. No grass grows on that spot now, only red moss, and nobody walks on it, because magics can do bad things if they touch you. So it’s good not to do witch things, Messir Wong says, because even just wanting to do ‘em is bad enough, even if nothing ever happens from the wanting.
Today the sky was dark and thick and the air hung heavy with the fog that rolled in off the sea, and I didn’t see him until he was just at the edge of the porch, his donkey peering up at me with its brown eyes.
“Messir Wong!” I yelped. He gave me such a start. I hadn’t been wanting to do nothing, but he always looked at me like maybe he thought I was thinking in my head about witching things.
“Ai,” he said. “All the fog and the rain. It’s soaking into my bones. Amina, is your mother ready for me?”
“No,” I said. My mama was inside, fanning the coals so the meat pies would finish cooking. “The wood was too damp today.”
“You’re a naughty girl,” he said, and he groaned and puffed as he slid off the donkey. “You should do a better job of bringing it in.” But he was teasing me, I saw, because he reached into his jacket and pulled out a hard candy wrapped in a bit of bright paper. “Take your medicine,” he said, and he flipped it to me. I caught it. “To make you sweet.”
He always said that. For as long as I could remember, he had been coming every week, and every week he had a bit of candy for me and he liked to joke it was my medicine. I never been sick that I knew, except when I was a baby, but he always said the same joke. “To make you sweet, because you’re a very sour girl.”
That part was true. My mama told me that when I was very small, there was a terrible fire and I had been still a tiny baby and I almost burned up to death. But Messir Wong’s tinctures and salves saved me, and all I had now were the tight shiny scars that pulled one eye down and the corner of my mouth up, so that I puckered my face when I talked like I was eating a sour ju-ju fruit. I almost died. That’s what everybody said, and they said I must have used up all the luck in my family because that same day my father was out on the water in his fish boat, and he got caught up in a lobster trap and dragged to the bottom of the sea, where he slept for all time. Everybody said it was a bad accident, but they happen in fish boats all the time, and it was just his time.
Today I scratched the donkey’s nose and Messir Wong gave me the reins to hold while he went in to see my mama. In my mama’s stories, the witches always had donkeys that were cloud-white with blue eyes, and they were smart and gentle. But Messir Wong’s donkey was regular grey and black, just like all the donkeys on the island, and it wasn’t very nice. Sometimes it would bite people, and once I saw it kick a man so hard he walked funny for a week.
Messir Wong said it had a name, but he wouldn’t tell me what it was. “That’s the donkey’s business,” he said. Not my own business. So I just scratched his donkey nose and told him not to bite me, please, and sometimes he let me scratch behind his ears where the bridle pushed his hair flat.
This morning the donkey rested his hairy chin on my shoulder and whuffled in my ear because he was feeling friendly, and I liked that. I waited for Messir Wong, holding onto the reins and wishing we had a donkey to ride instead of having to walk everywhere on my own two feet. We couldn’t afford a donkey. I listened to my mama talking to him as she poured him a cup of cocoa tea and told him she still had to wrap up his meat pies.
They talked like grown-ups do, all quiet and then with little bursts of laughter, and I started to unwrap my candy and sang a little song I made up just that morning. My cousin Nomi came from around the edge of the porch through the fog, and the donkey threw his head up with a surprised snort and swung his tail all around.
“You wanna come play?” she asked.
“No,” I said, and I put the candy in my pocket so Nomi wouldn’t see, because it was just for me. “I gotta wait here, like I’m told.” And I jerked my head towards the door of the house.
“Oh,” said Nomi, and she sat down beside me. She was littler than me, born after the fire, but we were best friends in all the world, and she never made fun of my sour scar face. Both of us looked out at the fog, swinging our legs and petting the donkey.
“Look at this,” Nomi said, and she put her hand in her pocket. “Gris-Gris caught it.” It was a little pecker-bird, the kind with the flame red feathers and a yellow tuft on its head, and we looked at it lying in the palm of Nomi’s hand.
It was dead, of course. Gris-Gris was a champion mouser, and he could catch the big blue-bottle bugs and the dusty brown sparrows, and he liked to bring them to Nomi because he loved her best. I was sorry to see he got a pecker-bird, though. They were special. They had to be, to get those kinds of colors on them. “Can I see?”
“No,” said Nomi, and she pulled her hand back. “I’m gonna bury him on the beach.”
“You dumb girl,” I said. “Gris-Gris is gonna dig him up.”
“I’ll let you see, if I can hold the reins,” she said.
I hesitated. The donkey was supposed to be my job. But I wanted to touch that pecker-bird, because I’d never done that—you couldn’t even get close to one, they’re so fast—and the feathers were so pretty. “Just hold the reins,” I said. “Don’t do nothing.” And she took them from me and tipped the pecker-bird into my cupped hands.
Its feathers were silky soft. It looked just like it was asleep, except for the spot where Gris-Gris sunk his fangs in and the little clot of dried blood on its chest, dark brown against the pretty red. He had bitten it through, and now it was gone. I felt sad. I started to hum my little song because I felt so sad, and I wished it wasn’t dead. I touched the cold, dead beak with one finger. I only touched it that one time. I swear it. I touched it with my one finger and sang the little song while Nomi kissed the donkey on his nose, and I thought I wish you would come back awake, little pecker-bird. And all of a sudden, something so strange happened I thought I was gone crazy.
The little pecker-bird twitched in my hand.
I stopped singing and I held my breath. Wishing for a thing isn’t the same as thinking about witching things. It can’t be, ‘cause people wish for things all the time and they never come true.
But the pecker-bird twitched again, and then, ever so slowly, its beak fell open and its tongue stuck out, and one eyelid flickered closed and then opened up again. I looked at Nomi but she was still talking to the donkey. And then I did something. I didn’t know why. But I held my hands up to my sour face and I pursed my lips and blew onto the bird’s head. Just blew on it like when you have an ember and you want to make it spark up and glow red hot, and I wished it over and over in my head.
That was probably a witching thing I did.
The pecker-bird quivered as I blew, and then it went still.
So I blew again, just like I do when I start mama’s fire for her when we get up, and now the pecker-bird gasped and flipped open both its eyes and turned its head up to me, so I blew some more, and then it fluttered its wings and I opened up my hands and it flew away! It flew up and clung to the porch post and hung there for a moment, still panting and Nomi shouted as it flew up and away into the fog.
“It’s flying!” she shouted. “All that time it wasn’t dead! All the time it was in my pocket!”
“It was probably sleeping,” I just said, because I felt shaky and sick in my head, and my heart was bumping in my chest like it could shake itself apart. I thought the fog had got thicker and swirled all around me, but I rubbed my eyes hard and shook my head and it went away. And then I heard the boards behind us creak. And I turned around to see Messir Wong looking at me, and I didn’t know if he saw it. I was so afraid he’d say something.
But he didn’t say nothing to me. He took the meat pies from my mama and asked her if she might come up to his place in the afternoon to see him. She said she would, but she didn’t sound surprised or nothing, because sometimes he paid her to clean his house on account of not having a wife. Then he turned to me and said, “You be good today, doux-doux, and don’t be making trouble, you hear?”
I was too scared to say nothing, in case he might think I had thought witching thoughts in my head, so I waved goodbye and I went down to the beach with Nomi, who was still talking about the pecker-bird. I didn’t say a lot, but by then I wasn’t feeling so sick in my head, and I thought maybe it all hadn’t quite happened. My thumbs weren’t on backwards. I’d checked. They hadn’t even turned in a little. I wasn’t a witch. But I felt funny, like Messir Wong’s taffy candy stretched thin and about to break in the middle, and I walked slow until I started to feel a little better. It wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t wrong to wish for a pecker-bird to be alive again. I didn’t mean it no trouble, and Gris-Gris was the one who killed it dead. Not me. I didn’t do nothing but wish a little.
We went down along the beach, past Nomi’s house where my auntie waved and blew us a kiss from the garden, and we walked out as the tide pulled the water back. We filled a bucket between us with the little clams that stick in the mud, the ones my auntie likes to steam open in her big iron kettle. I didn’t feel so sick anymore, and I forgot all about feeling scared. We went back to Nomi’s house, and we had lunch under the big ju-ju tree in her yard. My favorite, salt cod and cornbread.
Then we were sitting in the shade, because the sun had come out and burned off the fog. Nomi was throwing a little ball for Gris-Gris and patting him, and I was licking the salt from my fingers and singing my song, and all of a sudden, Nomi said “Oh, Gris-Gris! Are you sick?”
Gris-Gris had been sitting up in the grass, flicking his tail from side and side and waiting for Nomi to throw the little ball, when all of a sudden he growled funny in his throat and hissed, and then he fell over stiff like a board and shivered, and then he didn’t move at all. She was bending over him and crying his name.
I thought a bad thing. I thought he was getting what he had coming to him because of the pecker-bird. I thought that, and then I felt bad, because Gris-Gris was Nomi’s best friend in the world, except for me, and he was just doing what cats do best. Messir Wong says sometimes a creature can’t fight its nature, because that’s the way it’s supposed to live. I wanted to wish Gris-Gris would be all right, and I guess I did.
My head felt sick again and my eyes felt filmed over with some kind of fog, but I didn’t say nothing because Nomi had gone yelling for her mama and left me alone with Gris-Gris at my feet.
He wasn’t breathing. And I thought about that pecker-bird, but I thought about how much Nomi loved Gris-Gris, too, because he was as nice and gentle a tomcat as ever we knew, and smart enough to come when you called him, and how he purred and could dance on his legs for a little bit of meat or a feather on a string, and I did it again. I wished he’d be back alive. I pursed my lips and blew.
His grey fur moved where I blew on it, but nothing happened, and I felt desperate sad but also, in the back of my mind, I felt so happy to know I wasn’t a witch. It wasn’t working and he wasn’t coming back alive, so I wasn’t a witch. But when I thought that to myself, something in Gris-Gris seemed to tremble, and I touched his chest with my finger and felt it move.
Well, what was I supposed to do? I wished harder. I couldn’t just stop.
My auntie saw it. She saw me lean over Gris-Gris and blow on him, and she saw that cat get up and she looked at me and I looked at her, and Nomi said, “She woke him up, mama, just like the pecker-bird!”
“What about a pecker-bird?” my auntie said.
I wanted to tell Nomi to keep quiet. “The pecker-bird she kissed this morning. She woke it up! The one Gris-Gris got. It was just sleeping!”
I didn’t say nothing. I wasn’t wishing for it on purpose, it just happened. But I felt so sick again, like in the morning, and my auntie looked at me and I tucked my thumb under my fingers and shoved my hands into my pockets, and she said real quiet that I better go straight home and not stop to talk to nobody. So I did.
When I got home, my mama wasn’t there, and I remembered she was going to go visit Messir Wong. So I went to bed in my corner and laid down, pulling my blanket over my head. And I thought, I ain’t no witch. I’m just a girl with a sour scar face and no papa, and that’s all I am.
I heard my mama come back some time later, and I heard her talking to somebody in the yard, and when I peeked out the window, I saw it was my auntie. They were arguing about something. But I watched and I saw my mama wasn’t arguing back, just standing with her arms hugged around her and her shoulders bent down, and then she shook her head and came into the house. I thought she would say something, she would ask to see my thumbs, but she only said I should stay inside the house until she told me I could go out. I asked if I could go out to play with Nomi. But she said no, I couldn’t play with Nomi. Not for now or for a while. “I got to think,” she said. “Messir Wong is coming to see you tonight. So you stay inside now, and you mind me. You hear me, Amina?”
And I said I did, and I sat in the old rocking chair and knitted until it was time for supper, and my mama took down a pot of beans from the stove and gave it to me to eat, but she still didn’t say much. “Show me your knitting,” she said finally. I went to get it and she looked it all over. “That’s real nice,” she said. “Now look, you dropped a stitch there. Let me show you how to fix it.”
“But mama, “ I said. “I ain’t finished my supper.”
“It’ll keep,” she said, and she told me to crawl in her lap so she could put her arms around me. I could watch her fix the knitting like it was my own hands doing the work, her strong brown hands showing me just what to do to fix it. She sounded sad, but she told me she was fine. Just fine. Then she told me to finish up the beans I was eating, and she sat and watched me.
Very late that night I went to bed, but my mama stayed up, sitting in the rocking chair and looking at the fire. “You be a good girl,” she said, when I kissed her cheek to say good night, “and you remember what I showed you with that knitting.” It was a strange thing to say, but I promised her I would, because her voice was still sounding sad, and then I went to bed, and when I said my prayers, I added one in. Please don’t let me wish for nothing no more. Not one more thing. I’ll be a good girl from now on. I felt something hard in my pocket, digging into me, and I put my hand in there and pulled out the wrapped candy Messir Wong gave me that morning. I put it under my pillow for later, because I was trying to be a good girl. Good girls don’t eat candies at night time. They sure don’t.
Well, some time late, when the birds outside were silent and the frogs too, that time of long night before the dawn, there was a pounding on the door that scared me awake.
I heard my mama get up and then I heard my auntie’s voice, shrill and scared, and mad, too. Then there was light in the room from a lantern that made me almost blind, and I rubbed my eyes and saw my mama trying to pull my auntie away from me. And in my auntie’s arms was Nomi. And she wasn’t moving.
She was limp like a stuffed doll, and her arms were swinging loose, hanging down and her fingers were slack. Her eyes were open, and when I looked I saw they were flat and staring, just staring, and her skin was ashy the color of old soot.
My auntie stood there with my cousin, my best friend in the world, in her arms, and I knew it was bad. I knew it. My heart was thudding and my head felt sick again, and I thought about the pecker-bird in the palms of my hands and Gris-Gris, and I knew it was all because of me. I had wished and then things had happened, and wishing was a witching thing, and witching was a bad, bad thing.
“You can change her,” my auntie said. “You can do it again. She told me about the bird. And the cat. You touched that cat. You touched her, and now it’s happened again. You change her back.”
“Mairee, no!” gasped my mama. “No, you know what Messir Wong said... it’s got to stop, or it’ll just keep going....”
“I don’t care,” my auntie said, and her voice was savage and cold. “You had yourself a witch baby and you knew what would happen. Now we’re all paying for it. There’s always a price. Always! You lost your man and now I lose my girl. Well, I’m not gonna give her up, you hear me? You hear me?!”
And she screamed, and my mama shrank back from her, tears running down her face, and started to sob. “No, Mairee, no... no, no, no....”
But my auntie was coming up close to me and she looked at me and held out my cousin. “You bring her back,” she hissed. “You bring her back.”
And I reached out and took my cousin’s cold hand in my own, feeling how the skin was dry like dust, and I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing, like I was some other person completely. I was some other sour scar face girl in another body, who wasn’t me but was me, and that awful sick feeling in my head got worse and I thought I would die. My chest was cracking open from my heart, cracking wide open because it was fairly beating against my ribs like a wild caged animal.
But I wished. I wished harder than I ever wished for anything before, wishing ‘til all of it filled me up, and I felt like I was full of fire and it burned me so hot I couldn’t see nothing, couldn’t hear nothing. I wished and I wished, because Nomi was my best friend in the world, and it wasn’t wrong to want her alive again. Not ever going to be wrong to wish for that, even if it meant my thumbs turned right around backwards on my hands right there and then.
My auntie was still holding Nomi in her arms, and I was still holding on to her hand, wishing. Then Nomi made a choking noise, and something green came dribbling out her mouth, and there was a gurgle sound as she drew a breath, and then another, and then she started to cry, weak and thin like a kitten, but she wasn’t cold no more and she wasn’t dead sleeping neither. I fell down on the floor with a thump, and I was so sick I threw up all my dinner on the floor. That fire had burned me up in the middle, and I felt so awful sick I didn’t have time to look at my thumbs.
My auntie just started at me, her face gone pale and her lips blue, and all of a sudden she was on her knees and Nomi went rolling out of her arms to the floor. My auntie looked at my mama with wide open eyes. And then she was clawing at herself, pulling at her throat and thumping her chest when her fist like it was on fire, on the inside. Then my auntie made a keening noise and she bent double, her body shaking in a wild fit, falling to one side. She jerked and thrashed until she was on her back, her heels drumming against the floor in a wild dance, her head thrown back and the veins in her neck standing out like knotted ropes. There was frothing spit all around her mouth, and it seemed to flow out her nose and then her eyes, and my mama snatched up Nomi and held her close.
My auntie gave another heaving jerk and then she stopped moving. Just stopped. Nothing. Not moving, not breathing, just lying there with her eyes open and staring. I was crying. I’m not ashamed to say. I was sobbing and Nomi was still crying and my mama was yelling. I crawled out towards my auntie. I knew I could wake her up. I knew I could do it. Just like the pecker-bird and Gris-Gris. Just like Nomi. I could wake her up. I could wish it and it would be true.
As I reached for her hand, my mama threw herself in front of me. “No!” she yelled. “No, you don’t touch her. Amina, you just let her lie there and you do nothing. Don’t you touch her, Amina, or I’ll be next!”
But it was too late; before she said that, I had touched my auntie’s leg and wished just a little, but that burning up fire was still in me, I guess, because it burned me up even more and I felt all over sick. I lost my balance and fell into her, and my mama screamed as my auntie started to shake again, and then the fog rolled into my eyes again and I felt hands pulling me away and I was outside the house. Messir Wong was holding something smelly under my nose and slapping my face, and I was in the cool night air, riding the donkey and going somewhere up the hill, to Messir Wong’s house, and he made me drink a medicine.
That was the last time I ever saw my mama.
Nowadays Nomi and my auntie live in their house by the sea and I live up the hill with Messir Wong, and he teaches me about medicines and how to make salves and about the herbs that grow in the tall grasses and in the woods. Sometimes Nomi comes to visit me, but not very much. She doesn’t remember what happened that night, and my auntie said never to tell her.
Messir Wong gives me a medicine that makes me tired, and so I sit in a rocking chair on his porch and knit and I talk to his old donkey. Sometimes Messir Wong takes me with him when he goes down to market but I have to stay at my auntie’s house, and she doesn’t talk much to me. She talks to Messir Wong sometimes, and the both of them tell me I can’t never wish to wake anybody up again, because of what will happen. I asked them if my thumbs would be on backward and Messir Wong said no, but my auntie said never tell anybody, never even once, because nobody would want to know me if they knew I was a witch. They might even want to kill me dead.
I know she’s right. I still get the sick feeling in my head, still I do, but my thumbs aren’t backwards yet. I wait for it to go away and I knit pretty shawls and scarves. But sometimes I think about the pecker-bird, and I think about how it came to life in my hands, and I wonder about where my mama is. I wonder where they buried her, but Messir Wong won’t tell me and Nomi doesn’t know, and I’m too afraid to ask my auntie. I wonder if I could still wake her up, if I ever could find where she’s sleeping.
I think maybe I could.