for Heroic Mulatto
The drive had been long to do just by herself, stopping often for energy drinks, junk food, and ice, so Tabitha sat for a moment in the driveway. Her grandmother’s squat white house looked the same as when she had dropped her off six months earlier. Maybe a little more rundown. Grandma was getting old and she might not be able to live alone for much longer. She preferred to be called Abuela. Tabitha would have to remember.
Her Abuela walked down the driveway before Tabitha even finished getting out, her gray-streaked bun falling apart, waddling, excited.
“You have it, you have it?” she asked Tabitha excitedly.
“Yes, Gra- Abuela,” Tabitha said. “It wasn’t easy.”
“Nothing worthwhile is, child,” Abuela said in her ear as she hugged Tabitha. “And the father?”
“Harvested, as you instructed.”
“We must get started,” Abuela said and began coughing. She turned back to the house and waved her granddaughter along with impatient motions.
“Yes, of course.” Tabitha pulled the cooler out of the back of her Subaru and followed her into the house.
Abuela held the fetus under the bright lights of her kitchen island and inspected it through the tough biohazard plastic.
“It is perfect, Tabitha,” Abuela whispered. “I knew he would bring a powerful spirit to your offspring. How did you take it from your womb?”
“Mifepristone-induced miscarriage. I expelled it in an emergency room and they bagged it for me so that I could give it a ‘Christian’ burial.”
Abuela giggled. “They were just going to throw it away?” The old woman turned and spat into her sink. “White people know nothing about the world. Let me see the rest.”
Tabitha pulled a Heavy Duty Freezer Ziploc bag out of the cooler and laid it on the kitchen island. Abuela unzipped the bag, spilling out a penis and a set of testicles out on her cutting board. They sat in a a thick pool of red-black blood.
“Mucho,” Abuela said. “You must have had fun with this one!” Her laugh boomed through the kitchen until it dissolved into another coughing fit.
“Are you OK, Abuelita?” Tabitha asked.
“I’m fine,” she said, backing away to spit something black into the garbage disposal.
“Get the sheet pan from under the sink,” the old woman said. “The big one, and the silicone sheet. And set a pot to boiling.”
Abuela manicured the genitals, trimming off the pubic hair and cleaning under the loose foreskin. Abuela tsked. “His prepucio is so loose. He has been with many women.” She picked the genitals up with a pair of tongs and ran them under cold water in the sink.
“How did you take these, Tabitha? You did not drug him, yes?”
“No, Grandma. I followed your instructions.”
“Because some things can ruin the meat…”
“I hit him in the temple,” she pointed at the side of her head, “Hit him with one of his free-weights until he was almost dead and then took it with a carpet knife.”
“And he never knew your true name?”
“And I didn’t meet any of his friends and I deleted all his photos from his phone and the cloud.”
“True names have power,” Abuela whispered as she dried the genitals off with a rough towel, cleaned the tongs, and picked the genital clump back up with them.
“Get a big bowl from the buffet and fill it with ice and then water.”
Abuela began dunking the genitals in the boiling water for a few seconds and then pulling them back out. “Solidifies the blood,” she told Tabitha. She inspected them under the bright lights of the kitchen island. “Just a little more,” she said.
Tabitha set the bowl of ice water down and backed away from the boiling penis and testicles. The penis skin was drawn and gray, the testicles knurled like an oak burl. Abuela plunged them into the ice water.
“Now we let them sit until cool,” Abuela said. “Let us look at the kuman.”
Abuela opened the biohazard pouch with a sharp knife and let the fetus slide out. She bent over to smell it and grumbled to herself. She felt along the tiny legs and fingers and arms and toes.
“There must be no imperfection,” she told Tabitha. “Imperfection will keep the soul from re-entering the body or give it a path to escape before we can bind it.”
“Yes, Abuela,” Tabitha said absently.
“No, you must listen. You will have to do this yourself someday, for your daughter.”
“I don’t even know if I am going to have kids,” Tabitha said.
Abuela slapped her, blood and mucus from the fetus smearing across her face.
“You forget that white nonsense!” Abuela said. “You will have a daughter. You will continue our line.”
“Yes, Abuela,” Tabitha said, cleaning her face with a towel.
“For five generations…” Abuela began.
“I know the story,” Tabitha said, pouting.
“Then you will hear it again!”
“Where is the fat? Did you forget the fat?”
“No,” Tabitha said, pulling a bag of skin from the cooler.
“The fat of a man who died by violence,” Abuela said reverently. She kneaded it through the plastic until she smiled.
“My great-great-great-Abuela came from far, far away, the seawife of a trader,” Abuela said, turning the skin under the light to inspect it. “She slit his throat when they docked and escaped to our village. She brought wisdom with her and made a kuman thong so that she would prosper in her new home. And when the time came, she taught her daughter to make the kuman thong. And her daughter and her daughter. And when my time came, I was taught to make my kuman.” Abuela pointed at the golden lump on its shrine, a bowl of milk and a bowl of meat set before it.
She poured out the piece of human skin out into the sink and washed it under cold water, and rubbed it dry vigorously with a towel.
“It would have been better to have more but this should render enough. Under the sink, child, get a medium saucepan.”
Abuela plopped down the skin on her cutting board and took up a cleaver. “The kuman see for you.” CHOP. “They see both opportunities and enemies.“ CHOP. “And from thousands of miles away.” CHOP. “They bring luck and prosperity.” CHOP. “Long life and protection.” CHOP CHOP CHOP. Abuela used the cleaver to sweep the chunks of skin into the saucepot.
“Now barely cover the skin with cold water and put it over medium heat,” she said. Tabitha nodded.
“Your mother refused to make a kuman to protect her. She spent too long away from home. Too much time in the north. And you have lived your whole life with the consequences.”
“Mom died in a car accident,” Tabitha said.
“No, she had been cursed!” Abuela said, washing the fetus gently. “The kuman thong told me the truth of her death.”
Abuela used kitchen shears to nip off the excess umbilical cord and wrapped the fetus in a kitchen towel.
“My kuman is powerful,” Abuela said. “It has done what he could to keep you safe and lucky. But you must have one of your own before…”
“Before what, Abuela?”
The old woman waved the question away like a gnat.
“We must start the fire,” she said. Tabitha followed her into the backyard.
“Set the kuman here,” Abuela said, pointing at a slab of stone baking in the summer sun. “It will dry in the heat until we are ready.”
Abuela set a colander upside down over the fetus. “To keep away birds sent by other mæ̀md,” she said and spat into her hand and smeared saliva across the bright metal base facing the sky.
Abuela waddled over to the brick grill that had been stuffed with sticks and twigs and twists of dried herbs. “You must light it yourself,” she told Tabitha, handing her a wooden match. “Intention is everything.”
Tabitha swallowed hard and struck the match on the brick of the grill. She watched it flare and begin to burn down, a couple of long seconds stretching like taffy.
Tabitha dropped the match into the sticks and they flared to life.
Abuela tilted the saucepan and skimmed off the scum of blood and skin flakes that had formed on the surface with a crude wooden spoon and then stirred it the entire pot.
“It will be enough,” she muttered to herself.
“Look,” she said to Tabitha. “See how the fat is rendering out? Once the water has boiled away we will filter out all the impurities.”
Tabitha looked into the saucepot, gagged, and staggered back from the stove.
“Now?” Abuela asked, “Now you are delicate?”
“I had the powder you gave me to get through the other parts,” Tabitha managed.
“It made you strong, yes? Powerful and unfeeling?”
“Yes. Are you going to teach me to make that as well?” Tabitha asked.
“What make? It was cocaine.”
“Grandma! You gave me cocaine?”
The old woman cackled and shook her head. “Oh, my little one.”
Abuela went out and checked the fire. She nodded to herself a few times and beckoned Tabitha outside.
“Check the kuman,” Abuela said, as she began to use a stick to stir the fire. Tabitha lifted up the colander. The fetus was wrinkled from the heat and low humidity, the limbs drawn in, the unopened eyes retreating in the eggshell skull.
Abuela shuffled over and peered over her shoulder. “It is time,” she said. “Fetch the genitales and tongs.”
As Tabitha went inside, Abuela pulled the scrap of ancient goat hide from her pocket. The magic words were in phonetic Spanish, written in her ancestor’s hand. Their literal meaning was lost to time.
“Grandma?” Tabitha asked.
Drawn up and grey, the penis and testicles were cooked and stiff. “Yes, they will have to do. Give them to me and bring the kuman.”
Abuela set the grey meat down on the side of the grill.
Tabitha walked up beside her, the fetus held in another pair of tongs.
“You must do everything from now on, girl. And intend to do it. Intend. It is your will that works the magic. To fail now would be a catastrophe for both of us. An unbound kuman could eat the world.”
“Yes, Abuela,” she said.
“On the grill, girl,” Abuela urged.
The fetus began to sizzle as it hit the hot metal, spitting and popping.
“Now you must read this, over and over, until the kuman is black. This summons and binds.” Abuela handed Tabitha the goatskin. “Say the words as written. As written,” she hissed.
Tabitha began to sound out the words. There were hard on her throat, like hot smoke, like a sickness she was coughing out.
“Keep going,” Abuela said, her eyes hot and streaming tears from the fire, clutching at her chest. Tabitha kept reading and flipped the fetus over, noting the deep black grill marks on the tiny body.
“¡La carne del padre!” Abuela called. She tossed the genitals underhand onto the fire and watched as the skin began to sizzle.
“Blacken it evenly, child,” she said as Tabitha continued to mutter the ancient words. Her tongue began to swell, the goat hide blurring under the smoke and tears.
The penis and scrotum finally burst into flames.
“Pick up the kuman and pass it through the flames, back and forth, but do not let it catch fire itself,” Abuela said. Tabitha did as she was told, numbly, the horror of what she was doing simply shutting off her mind. The fetus had drawn into itself as it cooked, the arms and legs mere nubs, the tiny penis shriveled away, the skin of the head pulled against the skull.
“That is enough,” Abuela said and Tabitha stopped chanting. “Now, now, pull it off the grill.”
Abuela stacked four fireplace bricks on the grill and pointed. “Put it there, the heat will finish drying it.”
“Is that it?” Tabitha asked numbly. “Is it done?”
“The spirit is bound,” Abuela answered. “If it wasn’t, we would both be dead.”
“But is it done?” Tabitha said, her voice climbing register.
“No, we have more work.”
Abuela left Tabitha to tend the drying kuman. She stood in her kitchen, watching the girl on the patio, shaking her head to herself. She is so weak, she thought. She should have lived in poverty to make her tough, like bull leather. Close, she is so close. A sudden wave of pain ran down her spine and she held onto the table to keep from falling. The money was taken care of, like the insurance on the house. Hold on, she told herself. She is so close.
“Now the fat of a man who died by violence,” Abuela said. The kuman was cooling on a crude, stained clay plate. It was tiny now, no bigger than a peanut shell, and carbon black.
They had spent almost an hour fishing crispy pieces of skin out of the rendering pot and then straining out the impurities through successive layers of cheesecloth. The result was barely half an ounce of grayish fat cooled to room temperature in a small shot glass.
“Enough, enough,” Abuela clucked.
She handed Tabitha a small paintbrush with soft bristles. “Paint on the fat lightly. You just want enough to seal the kuman from moisture.”
Tabitha gagged again and dipped the brush in the shot glass.
“Get every part,” Abuela said.
“I can barely look at it,” Tabitha said.
“What’s done is done and what remains to do you must finish,” Abuela said. “This is our past and your future.” Abuela turned and left the kitchen. As Tabitha worked she could hear the old woman going through the rooms of the house, the occasional crash, the occasional curse wandering into the kitchen.
“And now the lacquer,” Abuela said. She watched Tabitha’s wet eyes as she painted the roasted fetus in a thick layer of shiny black shellac. The old woman grumbled and coughed the entire time but did not interrupt.
When the lacquer was dry, Abuela brought out the package of gold leaf. She showed Tabitha how to apply the insubstantial squares and then left her to it.
It was near dark when Tabitha finished, a little gold lump the result of all her effort and sacrifice.
Abuela hovered her shaking hand over it. “I can feel its power, child.”
Tabitha looked up at her with red, tired eyes and nodded. Abuela kissed her face. A rare thing. The old woman was not much for physical affection.
“Wait, I have something for you,” she said, her breath sharp with the herbs she had been chewing since the grillwork had finished.
Tabitha watched her grandmother walk into the dark confines of the house. She pulled up her shirt and smelled it. Roasted human meat. The unctuousness of rich fat. She decided to just throw these clothes away rather than try to clean them.
Abuela came into the kitchen, grinning. She had lost so much weight since she and Tabitha had taken their trip, she could see the old woman’s skull.
“Here,” Abuela said, handing her a black lacquered box worked with symbols in red and gold. She opened the lid and showed Tabitha the lining of red silk. “It is for the kuman thong until you find a place of honor in your house.”
Tabitha forced a smile on her face. She picked up the golden boy and placed him carefully into his box.
“How do you feel?” she asked Tabitha.
“Hungry, I guess. For a while there I never thought I’d want to eat again.”
“It is time to eat then,” Abuela said. “Go.”
“Where do you want to go?” Tabitha asked.
“I don’t want anything,” Abuela said.
“I’ll bring you something back anyway.”
“No, just go, you cannot stay the night. I have preparations to make.”
Tabitha sat at the kitchen island, hungry, tired, stunned.
“Go?” she said in a little girl’s voice.
“Two kuman thong cannot stay in the same house,” Abuela said.
“You never told me that…”
“Go!” the old woman roared.
Tabitha stood so abruptly, her stool fell over with an explosive bang.
“There is a bag by the door,” Abuela said. “There is money in it. Find a hotel. Drive in the morning. But take the bag. It has all the things our ancestor brought with her or made for the ritual. Store it away for your own child.”
Tabitha lurched for the front door, the box clutched to her chest. Crying now, blubbering, she grabbed the woven bag and was out on the driveway as night fell. She looked back at the open door but her grandmother had not followed her. It was just a black rectangle, the foul air in the house blowing out. The fresh air made her realize just how much the house stank, meat and blood and a sour smell she could almost place.
She got in her Crosstrek, setting the woven bag on the passenger seat and the little kuman box in a depression in the dash. I’ll throw it out the window, she thought. It can rot in the middle of nowhere, like that crazy old woman. Tabitha started her car and backed out onto the dark access road.
She pulled the box off the dashboard after she drove a couple of minutes.
“I’ll never have children!” she said to the box. “I’ll never put my daughter through this madness.”
On the flat road, she saw her Grandmother’s house explode, throwing light in her eyes with the rear-view mirror, an orange ball rising in the total night.