When I got born, Mama Frances took one look at me and said, “That child is marked. He got hoodoo in him.”
And that’s how I got my name.
She was talking about the red smudge under my left eye, shaped just like a heart. Not like a real heart I saw in a book one time, with blood pumping through it and all kinds of other stuff, but a heart somebody would carve in a tree with two names inside it.
Everybody said my birthmark was some kind of sign, but what it meant, nobody knew. I’ll tell you one thing, though. People knew I was different as soon as they looked at me.
Mama Frances was my grandmama and she was the one who raised me. My real mama died when I was born. My daddy died when I was five years old. I didn’t know what happened to him, but Mama Frances said he ran off and came to a bad end. Supposedly he went and put a curse on a man in Tuscaloosa County, but I didn’t believe that. I didn’t think I’d ever know the real truth.
The sun was just starting to set and I needed to get back home. I’d been collecting stuff in the woods all day and my stomach was rumbling. I headed down the path, kicking up dirt clods along the way. Some bottle flies buzzed around my head, and I had to run a little bit to get them off. I called them greenies because I saw a dead one on the porch one time and its body was all green and shiny, like a piece of colored glass.
Something good-smelling came drifting through the woods. Mama Frances must’ve been cooking up some Hoppin’ John. Hoppin’ John is black-eyed peas and rice, if you didn’t know. She made it all the time and I loved it.
Back home, I pulled the door shut and put my pillowcase bag on the kitchen table. It was full of rocks, pecans, some old bottle caps, a broken piece of chain, flattened pennies from the railroad tracks, and the skull of a baby bird I’d found under a tree.
Mama Frances eyed the bag on the table. “You know that don’t belong there, child.” She stood over the old stove, her smooth forehead dotted with beads of sweat. It was hot out, the middle of June, and even hotter in our house. I picked up the bag and set it on a chair.
“Not there either, Hoodoo. Upstairs. In your room.”
Not everybody had an upstairs in their house. Most folks had one big room with a coal stove and an outhouse in the back. An outhouse is where people go to do their business, if you didn’t know.
The reason we had an upstairs was because my granddaddy used to live here with Mama Frances, and she’d wanted a whole bunch of children. His name was Emanuel Hatcher. People had to call him by his first and last name or he wouldn’t answer. He’d just sit there and pretend like he didn’t hear you. I called him Pa Manuel, though, and he seemed okay with that. He didn’t live with Mama Frances anymore because she said he was ornery as a yellow dog, so he moved out. I didn’t see how somebody could have enough money to buy two houses but I guessed he did.
Mama Frances never did get all those children. The only child they’d had was my daddy, Curtis Hatcher. That made them my grandparents on my dead daddy’s side. I was an only child too. Mama Frances said my real mama died because she didn’t eat enough white clay when I was in her belly. I asked her why somebody would eat white clay, and she said it helped ladies have babies. That just sounded plain crazy to me.
I grabbed my bag and headed up the steps, keeping my eyes right in front of me. I didn’t want to look at the picture of my family on the wall because it gave me the shivers. The reason it gave me the shivers was because when I looked at it, my great-aunt Eve stared at me with eyes that blazed like fire. Sometimes I thought I saw her lips move, like she was trying to talk to me. The picture was old and wrinkly and the wooden frame around it was falling apart. There was some fancy handwriting on the bottom, and this was what it said:
Sardis, Alabama, 1919
Mama Frances said a white man came out to the country one time to take a picture of the whole family. It looked like a right nice day, because the sunshine was coming down through the leaves, making shadows on the ground. Everybody had put on their best church clothes and stood real still. My daddy was in that picture, standing between Mama Frances and Pa Manuel. This was before he married my mama. A tall hat sat on top of his head. Sometimes I’d stare at his face and ask him what he did that got him killed. He never answered, though. He just looked at me with those dark eyes of his until I had to turn away.
Most of the folks in that picture were dead now, buried over at Shiloh Baptist Church. Mama Frances called them “our people,” and they all used hoodoo, or folk magick, as most people called it. They used foot-track powder that could go up through your foot and make you sick, a black hen’s egg for getting rid of evil spirits, nutmeg seeds for good luck at gambling, and all kinds of other things.
But even though Mama Frances named me Hoodoo, I couldn’t cast a simple spell. I said the words over and over like she told me to, but nothing ever happened. “You got to believe, boy,” she’d say. “That’s the first step. Believing.”
I thought I did believe, but I guess I wasn’t trying hard enough.
Everybody else in my family could conjure, though. Conjuring is using words to cast a spell, if you didn’t know. One way to do it was by using a mojo bag. A mojo bag is a little cloth sack stuffed with roots and herbs and oils and sometimes a picture of somebody’s face or words written on paper. Mama Frances gave me one that was supposed to be for good luck, but that didn’t stop people from picking on me. Jessie McGuire, Otis Ross, and J.D. Barnes called me Hoodoo Doo-doo every time they saw me. They said I must’ve been cursed because of my birthmark. “Somebody put their mark on you,” they’d said. “You got the evil eye.”
But it was summertime, and the schoolhouse was closed, so I didn’t have to worry about being picked on for a while.
Upstairs, I took all the stuff I found and put it in an old steamer trunk that used to be my daddy’s. There was some writing on the side that said 20th Century Limited. I figured that had to be some kind of train. Each corner of the trunk had a brass cap, and if you wanted to open it, you had to unfasten some wide belts and click a bunch of locks. I liked the sound it made when it opened. It’d give a big old groan, and the smell would rise up and greet me. I didn’t know what that smell was, but it always made me think of my dead daddy.
I picked up the bird skull and turned it over in my hand. It was a tiny little thing, bone-white and clean. What could’ve happened to it? Did it fall out of its nest? Did its mama try to save it? I tucked it in a corner of the trunk on top of some old papers and then headed downsta...