The Misfortunate Ascension of Duckie Waterback
Most of you’d rather burn at a kerosene stake with dynamite britches than be a runaway slave girl covered in a white man’s blood. Challenge my inclination and I’ll submit you a liar till your last breath. Yet and still, it is with minor irritation that I commit to you, the candid account of the misfortunate ascension of one Ducky Waterback—free of embellishment or editorial.
The lids of her eyes were stuck and sticky when she awoke. The songs of the bayou played reluctant witness all evening. OverSee’r Paulson’s eyes stared up at her like he’d been stopped mid-sentence of a conversation he’d waited ages for. She pushed his cold clammy torso away from her and shot up knowing full well his lifeless body would have her swinging from the old oak by sunset. Her skull felt like a pack mule trampled it backwards and sideways. Her left hand felt so tight around her cotton card it hurt to move it. She’d used it to straighten her daily cotton haul. Hard thankless work for a cruel thankless world. She pried her pained fingers back to see the tacky goo between her fingers matched that on her forehead. Blood. Not her own. Groggy eyes adjusted slowly as the moonlit marsh gave the same introduction it had every other night before. She tripped over two other bodies looking for a way out of that swamp in the pitch black night. Tommy Forsyth had a head of ginger locks that were bright even in the darkest night. His skin was pale as silver moonbeams and eyes were green as moss on a cool afternoon. She couldn't note much else about Tommy below his neck on account that those parts were missing from the equation. His extremities, that is. All of them to be exact. Perhaps not missing but for certain not accounted for either. Fireflies flittered about the dark night. Her head felt twisted about her shoulders like it didn’t belong there. The way her heartbeat thumped up side her forehead felt more like a drummin’ stick against a hollow log.
Broken limbs littered the wet ground like plucked feathers from a butcherèd hen. See’r Paulson had told Tommy and Osgood what he’d planned for her and neither boy had an opposition. Ducky was told she was like any other slave, property in a long line of property to be used as her owner saw fit. Considering what those men had done to property over the years, she tucked any human sentiment away with all the other things she valued. The time had come to make herself a scarcity. She ran, as any of you would in her position, I’m sure.
Dried blood crusted over her fingers and in between her knuckles. She relished the dark cloak of night; to feel the cold swampy soil between her toes. Her smooth coal skin would aid her present fleeing as the moon lit the way through a treacherous marsh. The fieldhands must not have alerted the master on account that the dogs were still in their holding pens. Her safety, temporary as it was, could also be because two of them happened to be lying in pieces on the ground. The only barks she heard were those of gator pups off in the distance. She wondered how many black babies the trappers used to catch those gators. Hides, teeth, and bones sold at the cost of life they never valued. Trappers. Yet again, something else to fear on the road to liberation.
The color of her skin kept her far removed from the safety of the big house and closer related to cotton cards and blistered palms. Her bond with Chessa made Emperor Jones (he didn't like it when you called him Massa) assign her more value than the other chattel. It kept the lash away. For a time. That and the fact that it’d kill poor Chessa if anything foul befell her. They shared a womb before entering this cruel and unjust world. A trick of the blood had Chessa coming out white as alabaster and her dark as the abyssal night sky. Chessa wouldn't budge two steps without Ducky close behind. “Where’s my Ducky?” she’d cry out. “Where is my precious Little Duck?” Mama Yabo said they must’ve shared one soul. Ducky’s nickname should have been ‘shadow’ as much as she trailed behind Chessa.
One day, old Emperor decided Chessa would be better off with his own sister in Carolina. And it ripped Ducky’s veil of safety. Now, why’d he go and do that? He cast out her soul and left her empty as chicken coop when a fox comes callin’. Who would protect her from See’r Paulson and his lecherous predilections? Chessa kept her as safe as she could, and that promise of safety made Ducky's tongue sharper than Emperor’s razor after a good strop.
The week before last she heard Paulson tout, “You gon' be under me, one way or the other, little duck.” She swayed her arms pridefully on her way to the big house party. “Only if’n I’m in the ground.” S’pose he beat her to it.
Ducky knelt over a swampy puddle as the cool, moss-filled water rippled at the dip of her bloody palms. Tiny tadpoles took it for bait. They bit and licked at the crimson stains. They’d all be on the way soon, she thought. The hunting party. Those who drank mint juleps and ate apple turnovers. Those dedicated to her dangling feet and strangled breath. Had she not grabbed that cotton card when she did, Paulson might have done worse to her than just scrapes and bruises. She put everything she had behind that card. Was that what did it? “Couldn’t be,” she thought. “You can’t cut up bodies with a cotton card, try as one might.” Canelow taught her to twist her hips when she needed something more behind a punch. The sound of it cracking his skull still echoed in her mind. What happened to them, though? The blood. The bodies. Ain’t no cotton card do that. Cattail reeds thumped on hollow logs as crickets and bullfrogs croaked the familiar clatter of the Louisiana marsh.
What she heard soon after was both common and terrifying. A smooth euphonious whistle from beyond the rough high reeds told Ducky the cover of night would suffice no longer. It wasn’t just any ole’ whistle. It was "Dixie". The very Song of the South. "Dixie" was heard when a lashing was on the way for an unruly field nigga. "Dixie" came in the middle of the night for the young girls and left them cold and broken on a splintered piss-stained wooden floor, staggering for one another in the aftermath. "Dixie" followed her every evening on her way to the big house where Chessa lived. That whistle hardly ever touched Ducky, though.
Chessa would beg Emperor to lash anyone that’d lay a finger on her precious Ducky, be they field nigga or overSee’r. But oh, that whistle… Tonight that whistle slithered its way up the bayou, surpassing every sound from gators to cattails. That horrific sound pierced her soul. Ducky’s breathing shallowed as her pulse shot through her neck causing her ear lobes to throb. See’r Paulson was usually behind that whistle. He was dead…shit…was he though?
She shot a glance over her shoulder. “Where’d that come from?” she thought. Only the melodious bayou answered. See’r Paulson huffed that whistle every Saturday night. Of all the people to whistle "Dixie" tonight, she knew one who’d find it cumbersome to whistle—much less breathe.
Again, she heard it, followed by several sharp clicks. She looked over her other shoulder to a hollowed-out moss ridden oak. Standing atop a fallen deadwood in the dark of night was a purple spider. She knew it was purple on account of it glowing bright enough to make out a full head of eyes and eight gangly legs. Dadgone thing was bigger than Miss Mildred’s pet possum. “Now, how often, in all creation,” she thought, “do you find a critter like that?”
“Will you wait all night for him?” it asked. Ducky’s eyes shifted faster than a field mouse in a hoot owl’s sights.
“Huh?” she stared into the darkness and mustered a whisper. “You say something?”
“The whistle, child,” the critter spoke once again as its mandible claws clicked. “If the man whistling is a friend, by all means, excuse my intrusion and I’ll be on my way. However, if you do not favor an encounter, follow me.” See’r Paulson’s whistle had now become shrill like an axe on a grinding wheel. But how could she be hearing that whistle when she knew Paulson was laid low? Between that whistle and a full-on fright, Ducky was not prepared to experience the effects of a nervous breakdown. Ducky set that bill with a cotton card. It was due and somebody was coming to collect. She peered into one of the arachnid’s eyes and eight of them peered right back into her-cold and calculating. She rubbed her eyes and blinked. Then it blinked back and supplied an accompanying blink for every eye it possessed. The sound of Dixie seemed closer and closing in. A dreaded anticipation dripped into the night sky like oil in water buckets.
“Come now, child.” The spider stiffened and chided, “He cannot be too far.” Her brow folded inward as sweat rolled off her chin. She took a deep sigh deflating her chest. “What do I do?” she thought. Without pause, as if answering her query, the spider crept to the opening of the old log and beckoned for Ducky. “In here.” It vanished into the rotting wood with a lavender glow. She got on all fours and dashed inside quicker than a wild coon on the run. Surely, whoever found See’r Paulson had caught up to her. She would have none of that retribution. Death was better than going back to that plantation and even then, Chessa wouldn’t be in the afterlife. Driftwood it is. Besides, she was much too scared of "Dixie" to pay some talking critter any never mind. As the moss and cold swamp mud squished beneath her hands and knees, she could hear the spider inside her head. “Lay down and be still,” it said as its legs scraped against the hollow wood. “Do not move.” She complied noticing how fast it moved in the dark of night. Its little legs scored across the wood sharp as a whittling knife. She attempted a slew of songs in her own head to distract her from that whistle. The spider crawled out of the deadwood as Ducky felt the entire log rock back and forth. It was light and smooth, at first, like rocking a baby in a cradle. Then, it felt like the whole damned stump was about to burst open. She lifted her head to see the spider flash by the opening several times. Gorgeous silvery spinning webs of silk shot past like tiny ropes. The rocking stump shook so much she could taste the last bit of cornbread and bile in the back of her throat. Before she knew it, every opening of that old oak was covered in beautiful webbing. The spider poked a hole in its own web just above Ducky’s chest. It closed the web behind itself and plopped onto her sternum like a glob of fresh molasses on heaux cakes.
"Dixie" rang through the damp swamp air and hovered above the log, silencing the very atmosphere. No reeds. No pups. Not a single crick, croak, or crack. Just whistling "Dixie". It was like that swamp yielded everything over to that horrific melody. How dare that sound of supremacy terrorize the power and ferocity of the Louisiana wilderness! The spider dimmed its lavender light and sent a soft thought straight to Ducky’s mind. “Breathe and it may be the end of us both.” She replied with a grave nod. The veins of her neck flushed with blood as her heart clamored without mercy against her chest. Panic settled in making itself extra comfy in her restless spirit. That ol’ critter knew some tricks, though. It landed a pointy gangly limb in the middle of her forehead. It was so sharp, Ducky just knew it was ‘bout to use her head for a roasting spit. Instead, it was warm and, somehow, a comfort. “Sleep, child,” she heard it speak within her own head. Clear as any sound. And she did—like a lamb drunk off its mother’s teat.
The light of the early morning sun sank deep into her skin and penetrated down to its every pore. Oh, that gorgeous skin! The skin of black folks, as you call them now, is that of legend. Cosmic even. It wouldn’t be until some centuries later that your kind (humanity, that is) would ever truly understand it. Dawn broke past an ageless old willow as Ducky squinted through the balmy humid air. She was not only outside the log, but the log itself was, by sweet deliverance or some other medium, clear on the other side of the river. She only knew that fact because Emperor used to take Chessa to the bayou off the plantation for crawfishing, who of course would have her shadow of a sister in tow. He taught Chessa the way Red Iron Joe taught him about the river and paying it a ‘good respect’. “No man in his right mind,” he’d say, “would dare cross that river when it’s in a rage.” It was the primary reason slaves died escaping if it not at the hands of the See’r’s. Imagine Ducky’s utter shock to discover her current position clear on the other side of The Big Muddy.
To be this far away from her little field shack was unimaginable. Yet, there she was, sitting cross the river robbed of the faintest clue of what to do next, aside from running till her feet were blister-ridden to the bone. The warm air caressed her toes as the sun-dried mud shawled against her smooth skin. She sat against the log to gather herself. “You done left the fields Ducky. Now what?” She pondered. She looked to the Louisiana sky, “Death, demons, critters alike. The whole while covered in the blood of crackas.” Peering deep into the riverbed something whispered through the trees in reply, “That must have been some dream”.
Ducky yelped as her soul jumped to the top of that old willow tree and threatened never to return.
“Might I suggest something to eat, child?”
She turned to find that purple spider was, in fact, no dream at all. In fact, it was sitting atop a freshly caught catfish sitting atop a bushel of turnips. After that, any debate of lucidity had been abruptly adjourned. Again, Ducky cast aside disbelief in deference to an empty belly.
“I am in your debt.” The creature blinked all eight of its eyes at her and clicked its mandible. “What shall I call you, little brother? Brother Spider?”
“You will call me Nanzi.” The spider extended two hairy front legs to lower its body in a bow. One part amused and all parts delirious, Ducky rose, dusted off a dress miles from clean and gave her best curtsy. It was, at best, a decent attempt to reproduce what she gleaned from Chessa’s etiquette lessons.
As dinner smoked over the old oak embers she kindled together, she couldn’t help but keep her head swiveling for lit torches and ears open for barking hounds from across the way.
“Tell me your name, child,” Nanzi said with a soft tone. “Ducky.” she replied beaming through her smile.
“No.” he said floating in the breeze with a tone so stern and confident, “I do not believe that to be true”. She tilted her chin down as she looked at the critter.
“No?” Ducky probed with furrowed brow. She squinted her gaze and placed a hand on her hip. “You sayin’ my name, the words my mama spoke before she took her last breath ain’t right?”
“That is precisely my intent, child.” His eyes blinked slowly and Ducky studied the critter unsure of what to make of his statement.
“What are your thoughts, brother spider?” The hint of sarcasm was not lost on the cunning creature.
“I do not challenge your mother gave you that dreadful name child…” Ducky stood towering over Nanzi for a short time until he reeled his web up several inches to meet her eye.
“Now just a minute, you.” She shook a finger across his multi-eyed gaze. “Saving me and feeding me don’t mean you get to bad talk my mammy, rest her soul.” Nanzi brought his legs close to his body in apology.
“A thousand pardons…Ducky”, he said, “Please sit and allow me to elaborate my line of thinking.” Ducky disarmed her finger and lowered onto a stump by the willow.
“Go on ahead then.” Nanzi settled on her leg which she kept still for his sake. His rude behavior was not enough to justify hurting him, she thought.
“Your mother gave you the name Ducky for what reason, child?” Ducky smoothed the wrinkle in her angry brow and mused about her own doting mother for a moment.
“She saw a patch of mallards on the river one day and saw that no matter how much they flapped about in the water, it never stuck on them-the water, that is. When I came out of her, she took her last breath and decided to give me a name that made sure this cold world would never stick on me. So, she called me Ducky Waterback.”
Nanzi chose a careful tone. His placement on her knee boasted a direct line to a smoking fire. One wrong word and he could have a first class escort to an eight-legged fricassee. “I suppose that’s as good a reason as any for such a…unique designation. However, just because she named you does not mean that is your name, child.”
Ducky frowned up again, “Whatever do you mean, Nanzi?” Sensing her dismay, “In due time, my dear.” He hopped from her knee to the log and beckoned her to tend her dinner before overcooking it. She complied and removed the fish and turnips from the fire. Ducky plowed through the food faster than a thoroughbred with a feedbag. Nanzi swung from a branch a few feet away as she ate half that old catfish. The silk of his web curved against the river breeze as his eyes bore into Ducky at every mouth-watering bite she took. She ate without a single care in the world. She didn’t bother to ask how he made a full meal, without pots or plates, for that matter. She relished every bite knowing her next meal was as uncertain as any storm on the oceanfront. Ducky felt a tension press deep like Mama Yabo’s thumb in her shoulder whenever she tried to get away with more chitlins than she was allotted.
Were it possible for a talking spider to sigh in exasperation, he would have indeed. “If we are to continue this accord,” Nanzi clicked, “we simply must discuss your manners.” Ducky snapped straight in the air. How inconsiderate of me, she thought.
“Oh, Nanzi. I am sorry.” She broke a piece off the meatiest portion of the fish and set it atop the log with a few turnips over a bunch of Virginia Bay Leaves. “Please forgive me,” she said. Nanzi tapped a gangly leg against the log and accepted the appeasement. She couldn’t be sure but it seemed like he even lifted his li'l spider head in disdain as he picked at the remainder of his meal. The orchestra of a Southern afternoon swamp song played a chorus as they filled their respective bellies. Unable to conceal her wonder, she probed a bit.
“Seeing as how you’re a spider an all,” as she picked from lessening bones, “I thought you just ate flies and lesser critters.” Nanzi stopped, looked up and shifted his head, “Can I not have both, child?”
She puzzled and had no answer. Ducky shrugged and finished the best smoked catfish and turnips she ever had the pleasure to consume. The day was confusing enough as she now discussed etiquette and evolutionary philosophy with the most eloquent arachnid she’d ever spoken with. Not that she’d had discussions with many arachnids in a formal setting-or any setting.
“What makes you think I am only a spider, child?”
Again, she shrugged, “If looks don’t do it Nanzi, what else can I assume?” He clicked a few times and enjoyed a few more stabs of his dinner.
“Assumptions, though responsible for much of the cosmos, have played equal share in the destruction of civilizations.” Ducky nodded in oblivious agreement.
He blinked every one of his eyes and clicked. “Oh, the places you’ll go.”
After helping him construct a basket of dry twigs, woven silk and bay palm, Ducky set off with Nanzi upriver. For no self-respecting spider simply travels long distances without proper accommodation. Most certainly not in the middle of Louisiana at the hands of a dark skinned beauty, no less. Nanzi promised Ducky she’d once again see her beloved Chessa even if it meant braving the perils of apartheid. Ducky took his big words in stride and focused more on his sincerely offered aid. Then again, who was she to judge his authenticity? Up until yesterday she didn’t believe in talking critters neither.
They scaled the unforgiving swamp, passed rolling riverbeds, and hid along the shore, away from legitimate travelers by day. By night, they evaded torches and less than savory characters looking to trade their own souls for the currency of human flesh. Two weeks passed before she ran into anyone of cautious warning. She wept as they passed oaks baptized in the blood of innocent souls, longing for homes they’d never again see. Under weeping willows old as the river itself, Ducky told Nanzi how she came to be running through the swamp so late at night and far from home. She told him about "Dixie" and See’r Paulson’s lecherous eye. In turn, Nanzi told Ducky about his own travels from his homeland. The land of his Sky Mother and Great Father. He regaled her of everything from his days as a great general in a place called Al-kebu-lan, to how he trained a boy named Hannibal to be a great general, to the time he tricked a great black fish into swimming the length of the whole world-twice. Before Ducky, it was his sisters that would hear his stories. They were less likely to believe him, but their smiles were enough to keep him going. He even told her how he got separated from his beloved sisters on something called the Middle Passage. They’d gone to protect tribes of people who were taken without cause, and hoped to breathe enough new life into them so they would resolve to fight and make their way back home. Ducky wasn’t sure what to believe, but his stories kept her mind free and far from "Dixie".
As the sun laid its head behind the lush Louisiana horizon, she heard it again. The humid sweat of that evening took hold and trickled down her lean frame. Even on a muggy night like that, the chill of that song rattled her bones to the marrow. “What we gone do, Nanzi?” Cool and calm, Nanzi peaked from the basket.
“We say hello child.”
Hello, she thought. She didn’t know if the ones who found Paulson had finally caught up to her, and this crazy critter thought it best to bid this stranger a delightful greeting. The eight-legged audacity. Next thing you know he’ll want her to make him shrimp and grits before he drew and lashed her silly. Well that simply just won’t do.
“The sound is close,” he clicked, “you have neither the energy nor the opportunity to flee.” Nanzi’s words spoke a harsh truth. She hadn’t the strength to escape an angry mob. Besides, the warmth of the camp and the smell of whatever was being cooked punched her so far up the gut that her stomach hit her spine in salacious reply.
Ducky knelt down and grabbed a smooth stone from the base of a tree. It was heavy and spread her fingers wide around it as she held Nanzi’s basket with the other hand. She rounded the corner of a willow and felt the warmth of a fresh fire. She took a whiff and was certain her own nose betrayed her. Whoever was whistling "Dixie", had a smoked chicken that smelled better than Mama Yabo’s Sunday feast.
A voice called out in that dark evening of the swamp, “You won’t need that rock, cherè.” She kept it firmly in hand.
“Good decision,” Nanzi clicked from under the leaves of the basket.
“Best you be quiet, brother.” She whispered. He complied and tossed a blanket of palm over his body. “Who you be, stranger?” She called, still hidden in darkness.
“Oh, I am a great many things, mon ami.” His voice was crushed velvet as it caressed her ears with every syllable. “Tonight, I’m a traveler, like you.” Ducky frowned.
“You ain’t like me, traveler.”
“Oh no, cherè?” he quipped. “Come and tell me of our differences.” She was tired, filthy and the tatters of her dress told a story impossible to ignore. Ducky took a deep, fortifying breath and stepped into the light of a fire so comforting she could feel her guard slipping. She’d been on the run for weeks and was worn down in spirit and body. With the light of a setting sun at her back, Ducky experienced wonders both great and minor. Nanzi, in his vast knowledge, had shown her beauty she hadn’t known before. The man on the other side of the fire was something else altogether. Beautiful could never describe that stranger any more than you could assign blue to the sky or wet to a bullfrog’s back.
“I’m alone here,” bright orange embers flickered and molded the angular shadow of his face, “In case you’re pondering.” He smiled from the corner of his eye and it sent lightning through her gut. The warm light danced across the stranger the same way a flame chars flesh lapping around it in conspicuous consumption. His skin was the color of fresh ashen oak one minute and pink as a pudgy piglet the next. And those eyes. Everything around those eyes could change but his gaze stayed true. Sharp as a needle point and the same shade as bright blood. To look upon him was to view a vast expanse of the sea from the edge of a cliff face: breathtaking yet terrifying. The beat of her heart rapped a quickening tempo with every look in his direction. Nonetheless, he was white and not to be trusted.
“Even beautiful things can be lethal,” Nanzi said in her head. “I sense that he is closer to my kind than man.” Over the fire sat a pair of fat hens, plucked fresh and stabbed through with a bunch of long oak twigs and shawled with a smoky char. The bends of their broken necks were visible as the heads had not yet been separated from the bodies. The back of Ducky’s tongue tingled at the scent of sassafras and pork fat, to which, hint of neither ingredients was present in the encampment.
“Where’s your help, stranger?” she whispered.
The man frowned and smiled. “You mean, my niggra?”
“Said what I meant the first time.” She bristled, shocked at her own belligerence. Few would retain a heartbeat after an exchange.
“I meant no harm, girl.”
“I know what you meant,” She kept her head down. He may be friendly now, she gathered, but Ducky knew any white man was sure to exert his dominance sooner or later.
“You got no fire and no pans. You got no plates. And for the life of me, I can’t figure how you got hens that fat basting in pork drippings, in the swamp no less, with no wares or nobody to keep everything.” His chin wrinkled up as his thin lips pursed in another coy grin.
“You are quite the articulate ni…girl.” Ducky stared at the roasted hens and caressed her empty belly. “Please,” he beckoned, “eat your fill.” His words were honey gliding over tree sap. Flies get caught in tree sap too. She caught her guard slipping once again. Everything outside her voracious hunger told her to keep the good sense Mama Yabo beat into her. His gaze coasted on the aroma of pork fat and sage hens.
“How should I know if’n ain’t you poisoned me, sir?” Ducky was barely nineteen. She wouldn’t be far from womanhood by any means, according to Mama Yabo. The lash had yet to touch her like the others. Swift wits saved her more than Jesus. Most of all, she followed the word of her elders well. Nothing that ever fell from Mama Yabo’s mouth ever missed her ears.
Of all the things she recollected, “Outside this field, sweet baby,” she could still hear her rasp heavy like a burlap sack full of taters, “are both wonders and terrors. Knowing your presence in either are the line dividing life and peril. Wondrous things seek only to be.” she held her face in her rough cotton-boring palms, “But, baby, terrors seek the end of existence. Pay attention, sweet baby. The devil is in the details.” In an instant, Ducky knew of the presence in which she had come to reside. Terror swam through the viscous air like a gator in swamp mud. It rolled in it and relished every drop. Ducky could feel this man’s orbit. Things that spun around him were anything but good. Yet, you couldn’t turn away from it.
“I got no money, mister traveler.” Ducky gripped her basket. She was ankle deep in pig shit and there wasn’t a foothold to be had. “I’ll be getting’ on my way.” He waved his palm and a deep fog formed around them. She moved to take her leave, but the camp was enveloped in an instant. Ducky looked out into that swamp, searching for a light or saving grace that would never come. Dread slithered across her skin and gripped a piece of her soul. She lifted her hand and pressed against the air in the thick darkness and the darkness pressed back. She could hear the wails of things human and not so human in that wilderness.
“It appears we have no place to go,” Nanzi clicked.
“And hogs sleep in shit, little brother.” Her sarcasm was not lost.
“Well, I never!” The stranger laid a sharp slap across his knee that bounced off deadwood and swamp moss. “I’ve invited you to a meal, I spent considerable time and toil to prepare it with only the finest ingredients,” with a turn of his wrist, Ducky was lifted in the air and spun around opposite her own volition. “And this is how I’m to be treated in turn, cherè.”
If hunger were a person, it’d look like this man. Lumps strained in her already parched throat. But see, you never count out an underdog with a knack for survival. Ducky engaged that snap wit and cleared what felt like a mouth full of briars. “Forgive me mister traveler,” a nervous grin overtook her lips. “I simply thought it best to leave you with grace-as I am free of any goods to exchange in return for such a favorable and ingratiating feast.” Chessa would be impressed. Shit, all the elocution mistresses this side of the Mason-Dixon would faint at the most proper nigger girl there ever was. All at once, he released his hold of her as a wicked smile of impish arrogance crept across his face. Ducky knew then that even though the stranger wasn’t a man, he still suffered the same affliction, an inflated yet fragile ego. So, her move across the board ensued. Ducky sat across the fire and set the basket that held Nanzi on the cool moss beside her, keeping her eyes on the stranger. He didn’t have a white to his eyes like most of them. They were colored in beautiful hues of whites, pale peaches and pinks. He stared back for an eternity or two. So much so that Ducky began to squirm a bit. Then, with no warning, he burst into a bawdy chuckle, so loud and boisterous Ducky was certain See’r Paulson would wake from his watery grave. The sheer unholy laugh echoed through the swamp and vaulted back to the camp.
“Hush up, chile.” The stranger giggled. “I’s just joshin' with you.” He pulled a palm leaf from behind him and plucked a few pieces of the scaldning hot hen just as easily as you pull berries from a vine. He stalked slowly around the fire like a starved jackal. He lowered to one knee and set the food at her feet, but not before laying a smooth long finger under her jaw. His caress made her skin heat up and tingle, both exciting and terrifying. He made his way back to his seat looking over his shoulder all the while with a sly smile in his eye. She swallowed hard as the scent of the dinner at her feet assaulted the back of her throat.
She did not hesitate to break some chicken off her serving for brother Nanzi. With another flick the stranger sent a palm leaf of chicken next to the basket. “Didn’t want your…friend to feel admonished.” The leaf covering the basket lifted a smidge and the food was yanked under in seconds. “Obliged, mister traveler.” She blew on her hot meal as she used the corner of her vision to scout an escape.
He peered into her face like a ragged book and asked, “What’s your name, girl?”
“Ducky, sir.” He looked up from his own food and took a swig from his lamb skin. “Ducky Waterback.”
Like Nanzi, he smiled, spoke with all matter of fact, “No it’s not,” and returned to his meal with the most amusing grin. Well, by now, Ducky was mighty perturbed. The utter boldness of everyone she’d met on this journey so far. Would she not meet a single person on this journey that respected her mama’s choice in names? And why was it so maddening? How was it that the name her mother bestowed upon her was such an offence to not one, but now two unholy creatures?
“I’on know what else to tell you, sir,” she pinched and snatched a sliver of the hen and shoved it in her mouth. With each cautious bite she pursed her lips to null any heat.
“No injury intended,” he said. “Just doesn’t fit you, is all.” She frowned and cursed under her breath as the hen cooled allowing her to supply more to her aching belly.
“What does fit, then, mister?” He nibbled away at his meal behind a coy grin. His look was full of secrets like a hog was full of slop. Every once in a while taking a drink from a lamb-skin bag, seemingly old as Abraham’s robe. Unable to keep it all in so it fell out the gorgeous corners of his pale lips. It trickled down the corners of his mouth and she wanted to shower in that wine. Whatever he was made of, it made her feel things a woman of any age shouldn’t feel for a man she never met. Ducky adjourned her meal and looked at the man across the fire.
“Well, what do I call you?” She tossed the leaf into the fire but kept the bones. "You’ve shared your meal with me. Is it not rude to still be strangers on one end of the conversation?” He took a last swig of his wine and patted his mouth. He rose tall as he cast a shadow over the fire.
“Pardon my indelicacies.” His ego brimmed over his smile. “You may call me Crowley.” Something deep in Ducky felt unease. The fog, his shadow, and even the taste of the food didn’t seem right.
“That’s not your name.” Ducky surprised herself with that statement. She didn’t even know why she blurted it out. As she held the remains of the sacrificed hen, it just felt right in her own bones. And deeper than that.
“Curious indeed,” Crowley said as he returned to his plate.
“I share that sentiment” Nanzi clicked.
“Besides your obvious trespasses, what else has you prancing about these marshes, Ducky?” asked Crowley.
“My sister,” Ducky replied as she shoved hot chicken in her mouth with her fingers. It was delightful. The paltry hens she ate on the plantation could never measure up to this meal in all the years she had there. Nanzi spit the bones just outside his basket confirming the safety of the meal’s integrity.
“Your pet doesn’t have to hide.” Crowley said as he finished his meal.
“Oh…He’s not my pet,” she shook her head with furrowed brow. Ducky regretted confirming Nanzi’s presence the minute she said it. “He’s, my friend.” Unable to conceal his presence any longer, Nanzi crawled out from the palm leaves. He’d grown a bit larger and seemed to puff up in the stranger’s view. Even the end of his thorax was changed and was now in possession of several small thorny burrs.
“And who would you be?” the stranger looked at the space above Nanzi as if he were talking to both the spider and a whole other person all at once.
“You are aware that unlike you,” the critter quipped, “I do not feel a compulsion to answer you.” What did that mean, Ducky thought. “Yet and still,” Nanzi sighed through his mandibles, “it would make a poor dinner guest to be so rude.” Ducky pursed her lips around her last bite. “You will call me Nanzi.”
Ducky felt something shoot through her for the first time since engaging with her new traveling companion. His name was not a lie, but she could tell it wasn’t the whole truth either. She didn't have to let on to the stranger. He knew it himself. “Well…little one.” Crowley lit a pipe of after dinner tobacco, “welcome, indeed.”
“We should be going, Mr. Crowley.”
“Just, Crowley, girl.” Ducky rubbed her arms, warding off the cold chill coming on. “And sheer nonsense you speak,” Crowley said. “We’ll begin our journey at first dawn. Until then, be my guests.” Nanzi crawled to Ducky and leaned against her tattered dress.
“He, indeed, has the upper hand, Ducky.” He said with every eye gazing to Crowley. “The swamp is full of his ilk.” she stared into the swimming darkness.
“But, I won’t bite,” Crowley interrupted with a meek raise of his hand.
“What certainty do I have of that?” Ducky shoved an index finger out to a phantom filled forest. He smirked and shrugged his thin broad shoulders,
“My appetites have a far deeper conquest in mind than hurting you, cher.”
“And, what would those appetites be?” She replied. He said nothing and sat on his stoop of a log in that swarthy air. He was so smug, she wanted to pull that log out from under him like a dirty rug in need of a good broom beating. Ducky looked into the fog. In that nothingness, she saw something far from who she but was close enough to suck her back down. “I got people looking for me. I won’t survive the night much less broad daylight.” Crowley took a long drag of his tobacco pipe and released a puff of smoke over the fire. It churned and spun into a ball as polished and as bright as the noonday sun. At first glance, the shapes in the smoke were shadowy and twisted. Like mudpies under the willow after a good rain. From within the smoldering sphere echoed a voice that pierced her clean through. “Where’s my Ducky?” The voice was weak and rasped. “Where is my precious little Duck?”
About the author
Just your average, run-of-the-mill, melanated storyteller, hoping to make new friends and become a fan of new writes. Im a disabled vet, husband(20 years), father, devastatingly handsome grandfather, and purveyor of chocolate chip cookies.