She’d felt it coming for weeks.
They had gathered round her bed at night and whispered it to her. The lwa, the mystères, the invisibles. No matter how you called out to them they answered, and their message was clear, sober, unanimous. They spoke from a place beyond certainty.
“Run,” their voices cried.
And she’d listened, or tried to. But it was looking as though she had waited too long. That soft heart. Hamstrung by love. Now the lwa were laughing, pouring drinks. They had rolled the dice of her and seen the answer. They were singing songs in preparation for her welcome.
She could hear them. The rhythm of the tires rolling against the pavement was their percussion. Thump, thump, thump. Her heartbeat syncopated.
The car must be going at least sixty, maybe seventy, she thought, trying to measure it. It could hardly be some backroad they were on. Thump, thump, thump. The sound travelled up through the suspension, through the frame, and into her right ear where it was pressed into the velvety seat cushion.
“Please,” she said.
But the man in the driver seat said nothing for the moment. He fiddled with the radio.
Tiny legs kicked in her belly. Did those legs know too? The legs were strong and alive and desperate to remain so. A part of her. She could feel the car changing lanes and accelerating.
“Please, the baby.”
“It was some devil that brought you to this,” the driver said, raising his bony pointer finger. “Perhaps it is the devil you feel in your belly.”
She squinted her eyes, trying to push back the tears. Her wrists had been zip-chorded together in front of her, tightly, roughly. The blood trapped in her palms pulsed with anger. She tried every combination of movement, wriggling her wrists back and forth in the desperate hope that the material might weaken, bend, twist, separate: anything at all beside bind her there helpless.
“Please…I won’t run again. I just got scared. Scared for the baby.”
The man laughed softly. His head rocked from side to side. “We are all scared. Anyone who isn’t is a fool.”
With her hands useless, she began to use her fingers, digging into the fabric of her blouse, hiking it up until she could just get one finger under her bra, digging for the spot where she knew the small, soft, red bag waited. She needed it now, needed to hold it in her hand in this moment.
“How could you do this?” she yelled, her voice cracking. Why had she allowed it to crack?
That made the man laugh even louder. “How? You make me laugh, woman.”
But then he stopped laughing, cleared his throat. “Do you know what the code noir was?” he asked.
She palmed the bag just as her tendons began to ache from the awkwardness of her reach. Now she had it, soft and velvety in her sweat-drenched hands. She held it gentle but sure, like the last ember of a dying fire.
“No,” she coughed, wriggling in pain.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” the man said, glancing over his shoulder at her.
The baby’s kicking grew stronger. Was he dancing? He wanted to be out, to be free, to run just as she did. But they were both trapped. The dice were rolling and it was beyond their control. She kneaded the little bag between her hands, feeling the two rough spheres inside, just beneath the surface of the chamois.
“Code Noir was the black code. A set of rules. For the slaves of the city.” The man looked at her in the rearview mirror. “The first time a slave tried to run, do you know what was done to them?”
“But I’m not…I’m not your slave.”
“The first time they ran, they were to be branded with a fleur de lis. Like cattle.”
She started to cry. As she did, she began twisting at the knotted hemp cinching her red bag closed. Her fingers trembled and fumbled in desperation and fear.
“And the second time? Well, the second time, they hamstrung the slave. A hot knife right through the Achilles.” The man made a sawing gesture with the flat of his hand, and then slapped it back down on the steering wheel.
The car hit a pothole in the road, and it sent a small shockwave through her body. She left the seat and bounced back down harmlessly on the cushion. But the baby didn’t approve of that. He shifted inside her suddenly, sending a wave of nauseous pain up her spine, and she dropped the red bag on the seat. Her shaking hands reached out for it once again.
“And the third time? Of course, the third time was the last. Three strikes, as they say. The third time a slave tried to run, they hung him in the square. For all the other slaves to see. They left him there for weeks until the crows had all but finished him. Him or her.”
“Why you telling me this?” she cried, finally managing to regain her hold on the bag, clutching it, feeling its power. The lwa applauded her efforts.
“To help put things in perspective for you. You know…there is nothing quite so valuable as a little perspective.”
She finally worked the knot off of the bag and was able to get at what was inside, one in each palm, feeling their strength course through her. The little shriveled, brown balls were warm and potent in her hands. Now the lwa were cheering wildly, and their song gained tempo.
“Do you want to know my perspective?” she said, the courage welling up in her.
“What is that?”
“I think you are the devil.”
That made the man roar with laugher. “Me? No…no…no sister. I’m not lucky enough to be the devil,” he said, slapping the steering wheel.
The root hummed in her hands, each one seated in the folds of her palm, and she knew what had to be done. The baby knew it too, and he raised his little head up, peering into the other world. Peering past all this pain and suffering—he too could see and hear them.
“Fly,” the lwa sang. “Fly.”
The door at her feet had an old-fashioned, manual cylinder locking mechanism. She knew what she had to do. Her bare feet felt their way up the leather until they rested there on the door’s lip, pressed against the cool glass of the window.
The man in the front seat noticed, knew what she was thinking, and he grinned at her in the rearview. She could see the glint of his gold teeth, even in the low light. Glowing metal was checker-boarded across his mouth, each tooth etched with a different rune.
“I know what you are doing,” he said.
Her big toe had managed to get itself under the locking mechanism. She gripped it and kicked up. Once, twice, three times: click. The lwa nodded appreciatively and inside her the baby chirped.
Click, click, click.
“But I’m not going to stop you. Because you’re right. You ain’t my slave,” the man was saying.
Now the door handle. It was a simple lever for the hand, byzantine for the foot. She wiggled her big toe under it, grasping the two root balls in her hands in determination, careful not to crush them to powder.
“Fly, fly, fly,” the lwa chanted, beating their sacred drums.
The door opened against the wind, just a fraction of an inch, and a deep, sonorous whistle filled the car.
“You have a choice,” the man in the front seat said. “No one can make it for you. For the baby.”
Her palms sweated into the root, so that it grew damp, sodden, soft around the edges. Its bitter aroma filled her nostrils, and still the wind whispered.
“Fly, fly, fly.”
She put the force of her thighs into the door, kicked with all her might. She had her legs out now up to the knees, squirming like a worm towards the whistling freedom outside.
“You will not make it,” the man in the front seat was saying, his grin turned into a frown.
Now she was up to her waist in the rushing night air, the door bouncing against her sensitive belly. The baby, if he felt it, gave no more sign of protest. Perhaps he was as ready as she was to be out, no matter what that meant.
The man in the front seat fidgeted, shuffled his long legs in his seat, but he did not slow down.
Her feet dangled inches above the pavement, above the ground which tore by in flashes of paint and great asphalt-filled cracks. It was as if the whistling ground smiled at her as it rushed by beneath. “We are coming,” she whispered, speaking softly to the spirits, lest they take offence.
“When you see them, tell them to set a place for me,” said the man.
She paused at the precipice, feeling her weight shift finally to the point where it was no longer a choice.
“I will tell them to spit on you,” she yelled.
The last thing she thought of, as she tumbled onto that rushing, inflexible roadway, was the child. The last image in her mind at the first cruel bounce against the hateful, seventy-mile-an-hour cement, was the baby inside her. That, and gripping those two redemptive bits of root as tightly as she could, feeling them burning from her palms down her wrists, and into that place where her soul lived.
The back of her hit first, the force of a great and immediate friction snatching her around violently. Her blouse ripped apart like tissue paper. As she twisted, she could feel the lower part of her belly coming into contact with the sandpaper of the roadway, where it tore a chunk out of her skin. Next, her shoulder found the pavement with a deep crunch. She tightened her grip on the roots, against the agony and fear. She could hear them singing: a glorious chorus.
She rolled and rolled. It felt like hours she spent fearing the next scrape of pavement, the next crunched bone. But she did not lose consciousness. She waited for it, and it happened, and she could not believe it. Blinking eyes, drawing lungs, a pulse in the temple. She found herself hurt, but it was pain. Simple pain. Pain of the living, pain that only a person in the world of the living could know. Instead of death she was merely looking up into the night sky, the stars all muted and deadened by the city’s lights.
She braced herself, hoping to feel the kick of the baby again inside her. But she did not.
Could she move? Her right leg was broken, unresponsive, lying shattered in the moonlight. The other? Perhaps it could be called upon. John would give her strength.
As she sat upright, it ended, and it felt like nothing. Some weights are just too much. Some pressures just exceed what a human can withstand, and there are things that a person was never meant to bear.
She had all but a second to stare down the barrel of the 18-wheeler’s headlights. It honked its horn, it squealed its rubber tires against the roadway, its load twisted behind it. The driver was trying to save a life. But the die could not be uncast.
She knew them then. Like she had never known them before. The lwa, the spirits, the invisibles: they had already set a spot at the table for her.
Two spots, in fact. One for her, and the other a tiny chair with a tiny plate and fork.