That night, the Reaper came to dinner, hot and thick upon the lips of festive company, burning to claim the innocent in Gullah Country.
It was much too hot for September. The Eastern swamp had swallowed up hellfire and held the wind’s breath.
It was the kind of hot that made you want to sleep but wouldn’t let you. But it was even hotter in Mawmaw’s kitchen, as Celeste, eight and tawny, tipped a bowl of cut okra into a cast-iron pot the size of Texas, perspiring bullets of paprika and childish angst. The family trip to the Gullah Islands had been cancelled for pa’s dinner.
Mawmaw leaned over the pot and slurped up a spoonful of the steaming gumbo, then threw in a handful of salt big enough to season the ocean as Silas – chunky legs dangling freely at the table – gorged himself with enough buttered bread to carry him out of toddlerdom and into obesity.
“Chile, go get them tobac’ peppas from my garden,” demanded Mawmaw.
Celeste took off her apron and slinked through the creaky screen door, pushing her way through the mess of late summer weeds that was Mawmaw’s garden. She malaised over to the far end of the plot, where the tobacco peppers had long strangled the tomatoes. But nothing had been left for man, save for two puny, charred peppers lain on the ground like helpless war casualties.
Celeste scooped up the measly capsicum and clenched her buttocks at the thought of Mawmaw’s spoon meeting the end of her rear, then sulked back into the kitchen.
“Weren’t but two tobac’ peppas left, Mawmaw” whispered Celeste timidly, uncurling her hand.
“Of all the days…!?” exclaimed Mawmaw, as she turned around real slow, squaring up her spoon.
At that moment the bells from Holy Sanctity’s A.M.E. church rang out like wolf’s teeth cutting through deer’s veins. Mawmaw whipped her head towards the clock.
It was already 3.
Saved by the grace of God, or man’s temple to him, Celeste put the peppers in the waste bin.
“Ain’t even started the cake yet,” whispered Mawmaw as if she was saying the devil’s name.
She took out the bowls and flour and began mixing like the Furies on Orestes. Then, without looking up, she dug into her apron pocket, and placed $2.50 into Celeste’s hand.
“Ya’ll go buy them tobac’ peppas from Uncle Harvey’s Store. Quick.” said Mawmaw, eyes serious.
Celeste nodded, fetched Silas, and blew through the door and into the feverish boil of the day.
The heat baked Celeste and Silas into something fierce, from grapes into raisins, little raisins in the sun.
The siblings ambled about a mile down the road, passing the crossroads where stood the only stoplight in the county, an election billboard that read “Vote Julien Currie for Mayor,” and little else; not a single soul to salute on their short quest.
When the siblings arrived at the store, they passed through the produce section, ignoring the racks of sweaty Coca-Cola bottles and cold shoulders.
Near the end of the aisle there was sweet corn and watermelon, but no sign of tobacco peppers.
Celeste walked straight up to Uncle Harvey at the register, cutting a short queue of sanctimonious customers who must’ve gotten out of church late, and sending up whispers of outrage and sighs of offense about the store.
“Hi, Uncle Harvey,” chimed Silas.
“Whatcha need?” Said Uncle Harvey with a smile so wide it could reach down to the Bayou and catch a catfish.
“Tobacco peppas,” beamed Celeste.
“Sorry, baby girl, we’re all out of tobac’ peppas til next week,” sang Uncle Harvey. “But there’s some ruby red bell peppas back there if you like.”
Celeste turned to spy a small mountain of bell peppers and frowned.
“Thanks, Uncle Harvey,” said Celeste somberly.
“Tell your pa good luck in the runnin’,” chimed Uncle Harvey.
“Yessir,” answered Celeste, as she and Silas headed towards the open doorway where two old women dressed in their Sunday best sucked their teeth and stood stiff, staring at the children with their hands on their hips and disapproval on their lips, saying “Think they own everything now, just cuz their big pa is…”
Celeste and Silas brushed passed them and meandered back out into God’s open oven.
“Celeste, you gonna git it,” taunted Silas.
“Oh hush!” hissed Celeste, annoyed.
As the siblings retraced their path, a large hand of distant green and yellow came into their vista of the crossroads, where the billboard had been just moments ago. They halted, squinting. Silas grabbed Celeste’s hand.
“Where’s pa’s billboard?” asked Silas.
Celeste didn’t answer. She was too hot, too bothered, to defeated to care.
“Com’n,” she said to Silas wearily as she began to drag him along beside her.
As the children grew closer to the strange object, it became clearer. It was a tall tree, vibrant with emerald leaves.
Under the tree, sat a large seagrass basket filled up to the brim with green-gold, speckled pears.
Silas walked under the tree and plopped down in its shade.
“This tree wasn’t here the whole time, was it?” asked Celeste as she spotted a skinny ladder leading up into the thick of the tree’s branches.
Silas grabbed a pear from the basket.
“Silas, put that back,” said Celeste, as she looked about the tree.
Celeste grabbed Silas’ hand and pulled him up, making him drop the pear.
“Maybe you weren’t looking hard enough” purred a disembodied voice from above.
The children halted.
A tall, slender man with ashen skin and a mustache descended the ladder. He was dressed in black, church trousers, a white shirt, suspenders, and a black necktie. He looked like he was going to a funeral…or coming back from one.
Each step the mister took on the rungs of the ladder sounded like hooves in a barn.
The mister landed softly beside the latter, another basket of delicious, gold fruits in his hands. He placed the basket beside the one on the ground, then leaned against the trunk and peered at the children.
His hair was as silky black as Celeste’s newly polished shoes. His voice was as smooth as buttercream over biscuits.
“This your tree, mister?” managed Silas.
“The best pears in the county here,” said the mister, smiling as he took a fruit out of the larger basket and held it out to the children.
“Gon’ ahead a try it for yourself,” bade the mister.
“My Mawmaw don’t like us eating before supper,” mustered Celeste, voice trembling slightly.
“Uh huh,” murmured the mister, taking a bite of the rejected fruit.
“Well, best git on home to your Mawmaw then,” he charged. “…unless, there’s something else you lookin’ for.”
Silas broke in, “we was just buying some tobac’ peppas. But Uncle Harvey’s Shop was out of em.”
The mister spat out two…three black, shiny seeds and nodded, wiping off his hands on his trousers.
“Got somethin’ better than tobacco peppas,” said the mister as he stepped behind the tree and grabbed a wrinkled, brown paper bag.
Celeste looked up and down the road, but there wasn’t a single soul or car in sight. She grabbed Silas’s hand tighter.
The mister turned and held out the open bag towards the children.
“Go on,” he nodded.
Celeste slowly reached her hand into the bag and pulled out a shriveled, red pepper.
“That there’s a Reaper, a Carolina Reaper,” purred the mister.
Celeste stared at the hot red pepper in her hand until it started to burn. She quickly replaced the capsicum back into the bag and asked, “How much, sir?
The mister smirked. “How much you got?”
Celeste took the money Mawmaw gave her and held it out towards the mister, who looked at it disappointedly.
“Tell ya what, I’ll give you one of them baskets o’ pears for that jingle from your pocket,” said the mister, stroking his chin. “As for the peppas, all you gotta do is carve your name into this here, tree trunk.” Then he placed the bag of peppers on top of one of the baskets full of pears, pulled out a pocketknife, and stuck it into the tree.
“Yo discission,” said the mister, nodding at the children and ascending the latter, disappearing again above the bush.
Celeste a Silas stood in silence for a moment, staring at the knife in the tree. Then, hastily, Celeste walked over towards the trunk.
“Don’t,” pleaded Silas.
“Hush,” hissed Celeste, as she pulled out the knife and began carving something in the wood.
Celeste turned around, threw the money on the ground next to one of the baskets of pears and grabbed the basket with the bag of peppers on top.
“Help me carry this,” said Celeste, heaving the basket onto her back.
Silas reluctantly grabbed one end of the basket, and the children made their way down the road, as the heat sizzled off the horizon.
When Celeste and Silas got home, Mawmaw was already dressing up the cake.
Celeste didn’t mention the pears. She cut up six peppers and stirred them into the gumbo.
Just as she was about to taste the stew, the doorbell rang. Celeste rushed to open the door for the first guest to arrive for her father’s mayoral inauguration supper. It was the Reverend Aron. Celeste shook his hand. He pulled his back instantly, cringing.
“Sorry,” apologized Celeste. “I just finished chopping hot peppers.”
“That’s alright, said the reverend muchly bothered, as Mawmaw took over showing the reverend in the sitting room.
Celeste finished setting the table, just as the guests arrived.
In less than an hour everyone was seated at the dining room table. Ma [Mabel] and Pa [Julien], Reverend Aron – who’s hand was swelling red – Governor Kelly, Pa’s running mate, Simone, Ma’s sister, Selena, and her husband, Isaac.
Silas – too young to listen to grown folks’ conversations and no fan of spicy foods himself – was given a plate of rice and leftover fried chicken and sent into the living room to watch television.
Mawmaw placed The Holy Bible under her seat in the corner of the room for protection from the evil influence of politicians.
After the reverend prayed a much-too-long grace, supper was served, and the gumbo was doled out into large soup bowls, and everyone began to eat.
It only took a few seconds.
Ma started to get a hot flash and began beating her paper fan as if she was trying to blow a sailboat across the sea. Pa loosened his collar, and the reverend loosened his shirt cuff to ease his now-throbbing hand.
Celeste, who had been enjoying the gumbo, and deciding if Mawmaw hadn’t added too much salt, looked up to find a colorful scene of red-hot faces burning through varied layers of melanin, bouts of coughing from both sides of the table and her Pa, excusing himself to go to the restroom.
Simone’s nose began to run, and Aunt Selena vomited violently into her bowl before fainting.
The table erupted into chaos. Mawmaw – who had taken a few spoonfuls of the gumbo and was just barely sweating slightly above the brow – rushed into the kitchen and brought out a carton of milk. But she was too late. Everyone at the table, save for Celeste had fallen unconscious.
Suddenly, the house shook. The table cracked down the middle and the silverware started rattling like those snakes up in Appalachia.
“Oh dear, Lord,” whispered Mawmaw, as she rushed into the living room to check on Silas. “It’s the reapin’ of us all.”
Celeste’s face, which was lit with worry and guilt, suddenly melted into a satisfied grin.
All the souls at the table had been claimed.
Celeste carefully finished her gumbo until only one morsel was left in her bowl…a single, small, red, shriveled, Carolina Reaper pepper.
Celeste smiled and pulled out the pocketknife she’d used to sign ‘Currie Campaign’ into the tree.
Celeste gently spiked the pepper with the knife and ate it whole. Her eyes turned red as she began to whisper, “the Carolina Reaper’s already here.”