Black Winged Roses

The woman was no great beau­ty, not by a long shot. In fact, she was down­right ugly. Junk­yard dog ugly. She was short, with a large behind and top heavy to boot. Her skin was not smooth. It was inter­rupt­ed by dis­col­orations, where she was dark­er around her eyes like a damned rac­coon. Her nose was wide, and her lips were thick and liv­er-col­ored. But her hair was the worst thing about her, the icing on the hideous cake. It was unprocessed, wild and wooly, in thick tufts.

Madame Isis want­ed to sing out ‘baa baa black sheep’ to this poor coun­try girl. At least the girl had both­ered to stick a rose in her hair. It looked like the rose was grow­ing from her head. She was also rea­son­ably out­fit­ted in a dark blue dress, black stock­ings, ear­rings the same col­or as the dress, and white lace gloves.

Miss Lady,” said Madame Isis from her seat in front of the small stage, “this here is an audi­tion for pianists. Not for singers.” She motioned the dark girl off the stage.

I know that,” the ugly thing had the nerve to reply. With atti­tude. “I am a pianist.”

Madame Isis scowled at her. “This ain’t a church, dar­ling. Do you know what kind of club this is?”

I ain’t blue nosed,” she said. Her voice was raspy. It crack­led like mesquite. “I know per­fect­ly well what kind of folk this club caters to.” This answer sat­is­fied Madame Isis; on sec­ond glance, the girl was prob­a­bly a femme. The dark girl sur­veyed the club from her perch on the stage. Madame Isis cringed inter­nal­ly. The Ankh Club had seen bet­ter days, it was true. The tables were scored and tat­tooed with the imprint of a thou­sand drinks, and the chan­de­lier was miss­ing a few crys­tals. The black and white floor tile was filthy and scuffed. It was only her and Jasper, who served as door­man, bar­keep and secu­ri­ty. “May I play you some­thing?”

Madame Isis pro­duced a cig­a­rette from some hid­den pock­et in her gown and snapped her fin­gers. Jasper emerged from the shad­ows, osten­si­bly to light it. The young man fran­ti­cal­ly pat­ted him­self down, look­ing for a lighter. This incon­ve­nience was real­ly the last straw. It had been a sim­ply awful day. She had wok­en up with a pound­ing headache. Horus, her cat, had thrown up on one of her gowns and on her way to the club, some wiseacre had the nerve to call her a “she-male” right in the street, in front of an audi­ence of upright church ladies. The audi­tions had gone abysmal­ly, a pro­ces­sion of incom­pe­tent play­ers parad­ing (and, in one case, stum­bling) across the stage. She was about to snap at Jasper, who should have known bet­ter, when the dark girl glid­ed over to her (with more grace than Madame Isis thought pos­si­ble) and lit her cig­a­rette in one smooth motion.

She thanked the lady pianist after tak­ing a deep drag from her cig­a­rette, and gave her con­sent for her to play. The woman sat at the bat­tered Stein­way and played Sum­mer­time, a fair­ly straight-for­ward ren­di­tion with some minor key flour­ish­es. Though she didn’t sing, the lyrics’ sto­ry played through Madame Isis’ mind like scenes from a motion pic­ture. She saw the fad­ed splen­dor of Cat­fish Row, smelled the sludgy, fishy air of the Coop­er Riv­er. Each orna­men­tal riff clar­i­fied the images in her head. Brown faces sweat­ing beneath a South­ern sun, the heat-haze that rose from the riv­er. Then the song end­ed. The dark girl paused a beat, wait­ing for a reac­tion. Isis motioned for the girl to con­tin­ue. Gloomy Sun­day was the next song. The pianist sum­moned the black coach of sor­row itself, squeaky wheels and all.

Madame Isis tried to come up with a rea­son not to hire the young woman. While the young woman was tal­ent­ed, the per­form­ers at the Ankh Club had to exude a cer­tain glam­our. Cake­boys and bulldag­gers liked women to be ele­gant, fine-fea­tured and light-skinned, like Lena Horne, and not like their dark-skinned coun­try cousin from Down South.

The song changed again, to an upbeat boo­gie-woo­gie num­ber. That’s when Madame Isis saw them. A crowd of peo­ple were in the room with her. The men and women all had the same dazed look on their faces, as if some­one had sur­prised them with flash pho­tog­ra­phy. Their clothes were washed out, and their skin held no lus­ter. Try as she might, Madame Isis couldn’t see their faces. She saw eyes, mouths, and noses. Smiles, and laugh-lines. But she couldn’t hold their shapes in her mind. Her cig­a­rette smoke curled around the group’s faces and bod­ies. And the smoke went through them.

Madame Isis dropped her cig­a­rette the same time the song end­ed. The young woman fin­ished play­ing, and stood. The crowd van­ished, cel­lu­loid fig­ures fad­ing to black.

What is your name, dar­ling?” she found her­self ask­ing.

I am Etta Mae Wat­son,” the dark girl replied.

Oh no. That will nev­er do,” said Madame Isis. “You will have to come up with a stage name.”

* * *

A month lat­er, the Ankh Club was busy. Negroes even lined up to get in. Word spread quick­ly about this lady pianist, who called her­self Coal­rose. She was a nat­ur­al per­former. Though she wasn’t much to look at, you couldn’t keep your eyes off her. That Sat­ur­day night, she wore a pale laven­der pantsuit, sil­ver strap heels and a string of pearls around her neck. This time, there were three black ros­es grow­ing in her hair. She played songs by Count Basie, Cab Cal­loway and Scott Joplin. She even sang some­times. Her voice was deep and qua­ver­ing, like a clar­inet. Bulldag­gers, fairies, butch­es and queens and all points in between respond­ed to “Coalrose’s” music. Dur­ing the sexy songs, they made out, and caressed each oth­er in fren­zied fits. Peo­ple open­ly wept dur­ing the bal­lads. And dur­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly acro­bat­ic key­board work, peo­ple shout­ed out, like folks who got the spir­it in church.

Madame Isis knew she was a con­jure woman. She could prac­ti­cal­ly see the mojo radi­at­ing off Coal­rose. Every ges­ture had unspent ener­gy, wait­ing to burst free. Every note she sang was an uncast spell. Coal­rose siphoned off the mood of the crowd and flung it back to them, trans­formed into some­thing new. Madame Isis knew she had mojo, because she once had it her­self. Back when she was young, Aza­lea, the coastal south­ern town she had grown up in, was famous for its low coun­try cui­sine, its pro­fu­sion of name­sake bush­es, and the sheer num­ber of its con­jure folk. Moth­er Light­ning had taught her how to speak to the dead, and to those spir­its who had nev­er been housed in flesh. Aunt Juneb­ug taught her how to heal, and how to curse. And Broth­er Creek revealed her true self, trapped in a boy’s body, and taught her how to cast glam­ours. Her teach­ers trained her well, until she became skilled her­self. The prob­lem was that Coal­rose didn’t know that she had mojo.

Moth­er Light­ning told her, “It’s a good thing you sought us out. Ain’t noth­ing more dan­ger­ous than a gift­ed one throw­ing charms with no guid­ance. All sorts of mis­chief can hap­pen.”

The depart­ed winked into exis­tence, mak­ing the sub­ter­ranean club seem even more crowd­ed. The men and women wore fad­ed, out-of-date out­fits, like cloche hats or had konked hair­styles. They all wore the same bemused expres­sions when they man­i­fest­ed, as if they had just wok­en up from a deep sleep. They wan­dered around the club, weav­ing between tables and peo­ple who for the most part, ignored them. But every now and then one of the patrons did see them, and gasped at the haints. Poor Jasper was one of the peo­ple who could see them. He kept try­ing to serve them drinks, only to be ignored. The oth­er bar cus­tomers were under­stand­ably con­fused. “Is you talk­ing to me?” they asked the har­ried bar­tender. When Coal­rose went on break, the haints van­ished, like blue smoke. When she returned to the stage, they reap­peared glit­ter­ing eyes focused on the per­former.

When the club closed at three in the morn­ing, the haints were nowhere to be found. But Madame Isis knew that they were still in the club, attract­ed by the resid­ual mag­ic.

* * *

It didn’t take long for Coalrose’s mojo to cause trou­ble. It was inevitable. The Ankh Club was under­ground, for obvi­ous rea­sons. Morals raids were always a threat. Madame Isis had lived through sev­er­al of them. For the most part, though, the Fuzz avoid­ed Harlem and bust­ing fairies and dykes was not high on their list of pri­or­i­ties. As long as they stayed below notice, there would be no trou­ble. Many of the res­i­dents of their neigh­bor­hood knew of the club’s exis­tence, and to whom it catered. The occa­sion­al tough guy might harass the clien­tele, but most folk had a “see no evil, hear no evil” demeanor and let them sin in peace.

Jere­mi­ah Black, how­ev­er, searched for sin like it was his life’s work. He sniffed it out like a blood­hound on the trail of a fugi­tive. He was a big man, at least six foot and built like an ox. His skin was so dark that his teeth and the whites of his eyes were as yel­low as lemons. He always wore the same undertaker’s suit and black tril­by, his thick hair ooz­ing out of the sides. He would stand on street cor­ners, preach­ing his own warped view of the Scrip­ture. His street name was Jere­mi­ad Black.

Most peo­ple tuned him out, but every now and then, Jere­mi­ah would get on a real kick, focus­ing on a pet sin. One sum­mer, he screamed out­side of the Apol­lo, accost­ing any­one who entered into the the­atre. Anoth­er time, he stood in front of the Cot­ton Club and had to be bod­i­ly removed by the secu­ri­ty guards, screech­ing all the while about how the sax­o­phone was the Devil’s trum­pet.

After that, Jere­mi­ah kind of dis­ap­peared. Rumor had it that he had been sent to the Fun­ny Farm. But he came back one Fri­day after­noon and his tar­get this time was the Ankh Club. Some­one had tipped him off to the loca­tion. In the past, Madame Isis had juju-based wards in place to con­fuse and repel inter­lop­ers. Now, the club was unpro­tect­ed.

There is a nest of Sodomites oper­at­ing in the heart of our God-fear­ing neigh­bor­hood,” he shout­ed. He stood at the entrance of the alley where the door to the Ankh Club was. “Men lay­ing with men. Women kiss­ing women. Defil­ing the sanc­ti­ty of the Word with their vile, foul rit­u­als!”

There was a small crowd of peo­ple gath­ered around him, block­ing her way in. She thought that most of them were prob­a­bly rub­ber­neck­ers, eager for a con­fronta­tion. But she had seen peo­ple riled up by dem­a­gogues, peo­ple who were nor­mal­ly sweet natured. Aunt Juneb­ug had been run out of Aza­lea by peo­ple riled up by Preach­er Frame once, peo­ple who used Aunt Junebug’s ser­vices.

Once blood was in the water, any­thing could hap­pen.

She stayed out of the sight­line of Jere­mi­ah, out in the street where there was traf­fic. Madame Isis usu­al­ly arrived at the club in the late after­noon to get some work done and greet per­form­ers and ven­dors. Maybe Jere­mi­ah and his crowd would dis­perse some­time soon. She stepped into Eubie’s, the cor­ner cof­feeshop, and found that Jasper was sit­ting at the counter sip­ping a cup of joe.

Are they still there?” he asked her when she sat down.

Yes. Let’s give them a few more min­utes. They might get bored.”

I hope so,” he said. “Coal­rose — Etta is stop­ping by ear­ly to prac­tice some new mate­r­i­al in an hour.”

They watched the clock move slow­ly as they drank their cof­fees. Madame Isis no longer had the ener­gy or focus to work mojo. She just had bare­ly enough to main­tain her allure. And some­times, even that light dust­ing didn’t work all the time, and she had to go out in her birth body, as Isi­ah. Most­ly, Isis was tired all the time, but she couldn’t prop­er­ly rest. Every room was too cold, even in high sum­mer. And her mem­o­ry fad­ed. Names of rel­a­tives, old lovers, past enchant­ments, the prop­er­ties of herbs all slipped from her mind like sand through a sieve. She tried writ­ing things down, but she always lost the notepad or the pen­cil. Back in the day, she had been a force to reck­on with. She stood sev­en feet tall in heels, and wore dra­mat­ic out­fits that telegraphed her pres­ence. Feath­ered head­dress­es, bright­ly pat­terned wraps, out­fits in lamé and moiré, accen­tu­at­ing baubles of turquoise, topaz, carmine, and onyx. Now she was lucky if she could afford vel­veteen. She no longer wore heels; her sense of bal­ance was pre­car­i­ous. Once, she could feel the earth beneath the pave­ment when she walked in stilet­tos and pumps. The tug of grav­i­ty, the heat-death of the buried and for­got­ten, and the cal­i­bra­tion of the tec­ton­ic plates all coursed through her veins. Now, she wore bal­let flats and only felt the aching of her joints.

The hour was up quick­ly. She and Jasper left Eubie’s and head­ed for the alley. She could hear old Jere­mi­ah still at it. This was going to get ugly. Isis was too old for this shit. She should have been an hon­ored elder, and not still be fight­ing the same bat­tles over and over. At least she had Jasper. Jasper, how­ev­er, was spooked. His eyes were wide, his hands trem­bled. Though he nev­er real­ly gave her a straight answer about his past, Isis guessed that he, like many of the Ankh Club’s patrons, was a prodi­gal son, cast out and tak­ing refuge in the wicked city. No, Jasper would be use­less. She sighed to her­self. Remem­ber, once you were the God­dess-Empress of Harlem. She pulled her­self up to her full six-foot-sev­en height, ignor­ing her protest­ing mus­cles and spine. She turned the cor­ner.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Jeremiah’s crowd had grown. There were now at least thir­ty or so peo­ple crammed into the alley. She had held onto the slim hope that she could have squeezed past them with­out engag­ing, but that would be almost impos­si­ble.

There he is! The sin-ped­dler him­self,” shout­ed Jere­mi­ah. “Don’t be fooled — that’s a man under­neath that who­r­ish cos­tume. Blas­phe­mer!”

It took all of Isis’ resolve not to shud­der. Jere­mi­ah shook with right­eous anger. She might have been Old Scratch him­self.

Jere­mi­ah Black, don’t you have any­thing bet­ter to do than pester hard work­ing folks,” she said. Isis heard the cracks in her voice. “Let us go to work.”

Hush, foul Sodomite! This trans­ves­tite owns this den of sin! A place where men and women per­form lewd acts that are a mock­ery of the sacred union!”

The only acts we per­form are musi­cal ones,” said Isis. “Your mind is in the gut­ter, Mis­ter Black.”

Hebrews 13: Mar­riage should be hon­ored by all, and the mar­riage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adul­ter­er and the sex­u­al­ly immoral!”

Where’s your wife?” Isis shout­ed back.

I am doing the Lord’s work! I have no need of a help­meet, you wretched abom­i­na­tion!”

The words scald­ed Isis. They brought back that fright­ened lit­tle girl that was trapped in a boy’s body. Then, Broth­er Creek’s voice cut through the fear like a knife: You are Isis. Nev­er for­get your true name. She didn’t feel like Isis at the moment. She felt like a freak of nature. There are no freaks of nature, Broth­er Creek once told her. You are a part of nature. It sound­ed bet­ter when Isis had pow­er at her fin­ger­tips.

She said, “Flat­tery will get you nowhere. If you’ll excuse me…” The crowd chuck­led at that, which enraged Jere­mi­ah fur­ther.

A woman shall not wear a man’s gar­ments, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for who­ev­er does these things is an abom­i­na­tion to the Lord! Deuteron­o­my 22,” he spat out. There was a rip­ple of applause.

Abom­i­na­tion com­ing through,” said Madame Isis through grit­ted teeth, and began to swan her way through the crowd. The gath­ered folk moved quick­ly away from Isis and Jasper, as if both were con­ta­gious. Jere­mi­ah, how­ev­er, did not move from his spot, essen­tial­ly block­ing the both of them. Jere­mi­ah was not as tall as Madame Isis. How­ev­er, he was much stronger and could prob­a­bly crack her spine. The two of them came almost face to face. She could smell his breath, which was rank with onions.

Out­ta my way,” she said to him.

There was a dead­ness in his eyes. To him, Madame Isis was a thing, and not a per­son. She was the man­i­fes­ta­tion of evil. She was a weed that need­ed to be uproot­ed from Harlem. She was poi­so­nous, a ser­pent in a gown. She could see in his eyes that he would hurt her, fired up with the wrath of his Lord. She’d been smote by Bible thumpers before. But in the past, she could fight back. Could Jasper help her? She wasn’t so sure. He looked like he was just about to jump out of his skin.

Stop,” she heard the Wat­son girl say, some­where behind her.

Jere­mi­ah broke eye con­tact with Isis. “Who is you?” he asked, “Anoth­er she-male?”

Isis turned around to see the girl shak­ing like a leaf. She wore a tuxe­do, altered to fit her frame, and her hair was teased out to its full length, halo­ing her face.

Excuse me?” Etta Mae said.

I said, are you a trans­ves­tite? Or are you one of those unnat­ur­al women?”

Etta Mae said noth­ing.

Jere­mi­ah,” Isis said. She felt the ten­sion in the air. It was heavy with dark mojo, all com­ing from the girl. It was radi­at­ing from her, like heat, cold, rain, and snow. Isis felt the urge to warn him. That was the good thing to do. Then, she recalled that dead-eyed look he’d giv­en her. The one that had stripped her of her human­i­ty, that turned regal Madame Isis into a fright­ened lit­tle child.

How dare you,” Etta Mae said. Her voice was deep­er, the dusky voice from her stage per­for­mances. That voice crack­led with fire, char­coal-dark.

Hush, woman,” said Jere­mi­ah. “And you — ” He grabbed Isis’ fore­arm hard. He ripped the tur­ban from her head and threw it in a pile of fes­ter­ing garbage. Isis cringed, both from the vice-like grip and from the shame. Every­one could see that she was bald­ing. “Foul deceiv­er, false female. This is the piti­ful crea­ture that hides behind make-up and who­r­ish baubles…”

You low-down snake,” said Coal­rose. Madame Isis could see her pow­er writhing around and through her, dark vine-like skeins. “You let her go!”

For one awful moment, noth­ing hap­pened.

Jere­mi­ah let go of his bruis­ing grip with a cry of pain. Isis saw thorns, pierc­ing his skin and the fab­ric of his suit. They burst from beneath his skin, dark barbs. His arms and legs undu­lat­ed. The thorns van­ished as quick­ly as they had sprout­ed. A look of wild ter­ror etched itself on his fea­tures. Then, he bolt­ed from the alley.

And so did Etta Mae Wat­son.

* * *

It took Isis a week, with Jasper’s help, to find Etta Mae. She lived in a women’s board­ing house in the hin­ter­lands of Sug­ar Hill. Peo­ple stopped going to the Ankh Club dur­ing her dis­ap­pear­ance. They went to oth­er under­ground clubs, like Sappho’s, Jade’s and Delany’s Place. Isis couldn’t blame them — those In the Life had to find each oth­er some­how, and the piers were dan­ger­ous and dom­i­nat­ed by the white queers. For one, brief shin­ing moment, the Ankh Club had been the crown jew­el of the scene. Now, it would fade away, like all of those oth­er water­ing holes, like the lament­ed Daf­fodils, The Flame, and Fairy­land. The Ankh Club was the only venue that fea­tured music. For many, it was back to the docks, and back to the shad­ows.

Isis wore a con­ser­v­a­tive gray dress that fell below her knees and a white tur­ban. The only jew­el­ry she wore were small ruby studs. She con­sid­ered wear­ing a cross, but thought that would be over­selling it. She wore Oxford flats, rather than her pre­ferred pumps.

A scowl­ing sil­ver-haired woman opened the door after she rang.

How may I help you,” she said.

I would like to speak to Etta Mae Wat­son,” said Madame Isis. The woman stood in the door, block­ing her.

Guests must be cleared for vis­its on Sun­day nights. You aren’t on the list.” The den moth­er stepped back and began clos­ing the door.

Madame Isis stuck her foot in the door, jam­ming it. “Let her know that I’m here.” She was glad that she wore the Oxfords.

The woman was tiny and couldn’t move Isis’ foot if she tried. That didn’t stop her, though. “Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

Isis bust­ed through, and the woman almost top­pled over. “Which room is she in?”

I’m going to call the police — ”

Miss Dun­bar! There’s no need to call the author­i­ties.” Etta Mae stood on the stairs. She wore a flo­ral dress and white gloves, mak­ing her look every inch the coun­try bump­kin. “Miss Der­rick, I’ll meet you out­side. Give me a minute.”

Miss Dun­bar looked dis­ap­point­ed. She was a born snitch. Isis stood on the brownstone’s steps as she wait­ed for Etta Mae Wat­son to get ready. Old Sour­puss watched her like a hawk. Madame Isis stuck her tongue out at the lady and imme­di­ate­ly felt bet­ter. Etta Mae came down short­ly after, her Afro wrapped in a scarf. She didn’t meet Isis’ eyes. Instead, she stared at the cracks in the stairs.

How are you doing?” Madame Isis gen­tly touched the girl’s shoul­der.

OK, I guess,” she mum­bled. Then she looked up. “I didn’t hurt him too bad, did I?”

Madame Isis scoffed. “Child, that man was fix­ing to kill me. My very exis­tence rep­re­sents every­thing he hates about the world, and him­self. You didn’t hurt him any­more than he hurt him­self.”

Etta Mae led her to a cof­fee shop called Java N’ Joe. It had clear­ly been some­thing else quite recent­ly. The damask wall­pa­per had been hasti­ly paint­ed over. The linoleum was scuffed. And the cof­fee was awful, full of bit­ter grounds.

I can’t con­trol it,” Etta Mae said. “It just ris­es up out of me, like a storm. They thought I was the Devil’s daugh­ter, back home. Even though I car­ried a cross and went to church twice a week, things would still hap­pen around me. Once, a small flock of star­lings sat by my school win­dow. When I went to the out­house, they fol­lowed me. Then they fol­lowed me back into the school. They flew every­where, and shit on the desks. Anoth­er time, I was walk­ing home with my friend Beu­lah dur­ing a sud­den thun­der­storm. Nei­ther of us got wet, and Beulah’s mama for­bade her to see me. They called me Coal-black Etta, the bad luck girl. When the Higginbotham’s cow had a two-head­ed calf, guess who they blamed? Peo­ple start­ed see­ing me on the sly, for love charms and hex­es. But I didn’t want to hurt nobody. I still don’t.”

Madame Isis took one more swig of the mud­dy brew. “Coal-black Etta,” she said. “I see where Coal­rose comes from. You took the weak­est part of you, and made it the best part of you.”

What do you mean?”

You don’t know how to con­trol your pow­er. But Coal­rose does. Coal­rose is mag­ic.

There’s a gen­tle­man who comes to all of your shows, named Bucephalus Wil­son. Maybe you’ve seen him. He’s a qui­et man, light-skinned, gray-haired, bald­ing with a tiny mous­tache and glass­es. He always dress­es like he’s going to church — in a suit and tie.”

Does he wear a straw hat?”

Yes! That’s him. He is always pleas­ant, and smiles but nev­er speaks. He doesn’t drink and he sits alone, in the same spot, to the left of the stage. Mr. Wil­son is pleas­ant but he’s a lit­tle….off, if you know what I mean. He has a vacant stare, and noth­ing seems to affect him. Like, one time a patron spilled a drink on him. Bucephalus might have blinked. Anoth­er time, he might have acci­den­tal­ly stepped on some queen’s foot or bumped him. The queen had a fit. Read him the Riot Act, and cursed at him like a drunk sailor. Old Bucephalus just slow­ly saun­tered back to his seat as if noth­ing had hap­pened.”

Etta Mae didn’t drink the cof­fee in her cup. She just swirled it around, watch­ing the silt sur­face. She avoid­ed Isis’ gaze. She seemed to be lost in her own pain.

Madame Isis con­tin­ued: “Any­way, Jasper found out from one of the reg­u­lars what Bucephalus’ deal is. You see, he was in Belle­vue for a while. A year or two. I don’t know how or why he got there. But while he was there, they did an oper­a­tion on him. They took a part of his brain, or scram­bled it. And turned him into a placid, smil­ing mute. Ever since then, he wasn’t quite right.

Well, when you played ‘Nature Boy,’ tears fell from his eyes. And I saw him mouth the words.

That’s a small mir­a­cle. Is that some­thing a Devil’s daugh­ter could do?”

* * *

One by one they fell, like toy sol­diers or domi­noes. Jade’s closed due to a moral’s raid. It was all over the papers: NEST OF NEGRO PERVERTS SQUASHED! The more sala­cious papers shared pic­tures of the dis­graced patrons, one of which was an alder­man. Delany’s Place was embroiled in scan­dal: a man had been mur­dered in front of the store that served as the water­ing hole after-hours. He’d been stabbed through the heart. Weegee had trav­eled up above 125th to take one of his crime pic­tures. Isis rec­og­nized the victim’s face; he’d come to the Ankh Club every now and then. Then there was a bomb threat at Sappho’s, and arson was sus­pect­ed at The Inkwell, one of the new­er estab­lish­ments.

Mean­while, the Ankh Club’s pop­u­lar­i­ty grew. There was a line to get in, and the tiny base­ment was filled to capac­i­ty. A Fire Mar­shall would have sure­ly closed them down. But the Chil­dren came any­way. The club was an oasis, a sanc­tu­ary away from the world that hat­ed them. Coal­rose had returned to the stage, invig­o­rat­ed and with a new longer name. She was now Zoë Coal­rose. Etta Mae Wat­son was gone, or asleep. Madame Isis loved the new sobri­quet. The name rolled off the tongue, res­o­nant with dark mag­ic and negri­tude. And when she per­formed on stage, she wove spells out of the gath­ered crowd’s fear and despair. Every note coaxed from the ivories or from the ebony of her voice float­ed above the crowd like a but­ter­fly, or a bub­ble. Isis could see it waver­ing around the ceil­ing, among the exposed pipes. They were all trans­fixed — the liv­ing and the shad­ow folk.

* * *

The night that Madame Isis swore would be her last, the club was hop­ping. Sat­ur­day at two-thir­ty am on a late autumn night the club was misty with sweat, and reeked of alco­hol. The drinks flowed like the riv­er Jor­dan and a crush of folks was up front by the stage, wait­ing. Bulldag­gers had start­ed dress­ing like Coal­rose, in pas­tel col­ored suits, their hair grown nat­ur­al and wooly. The cake­boys paid trib­ute to the per­former by wear­ing ros­es in their lapels. Even Old Bucephalus had pinned a black rose to his vest. Madame Isis wore a long gown of acid green, sil­ver heels and a tur­ban with an ostrich plume. She felt like a queen as she strode through the club, soak­ing up the resid­ual mag­ic Zoë Coal­rose cast out. The set she’d played was full of jaun­ty tunes, bright and gay as Christ­mas tree lights. The shad­ow folk swirled around the crowd, illu­mi­nat­ed by cig­a­rette smoke. Madame Isis heard snatch­es of con­ver­sa­tion as she patrolled the realm.

She’s good enough to play the Alham­bra Ball­room!”

Did you see that trans­par­ent Negro just a sec­ond ago?”

I hear she and Madame Isis are in a rela­tion­ship….”

She was chuck­ling at that one when Jasper inter­rupt­ed her prom­e­nade. She imme­di­ate­ly knew some­thing was wrong.

Jere­mi­ah is in the alley again,” he said.

The night air was a shock after the trop­i­cal warmth of the club. She could hear Jeremiah’s screech­ing, as he hec­tored the peo­ple who were out­side smok­ing. Jere­mi­ah Black was always off, but this time he seemed espe­cial­ly so. His undertaker’s suit was no longer clean. It was frayed, with oily stains and bird shit. And he stag­gered as he walked from each group­ing to harangue them with his apoc­a­lyp­tic blath­er.

The Witch of Endor resides in this den of inequity! A per­vert­ed Delilah, a Whore of Baby­lon!” The mad­ness rolled off of him in waves. “This She-Dev­il prac­tices Dark Arts. She hides her spells in song and dance, but make no mis­take….”

Jere­mi­ah lost his train of thought when he saw Madame Isis out­side of the club. He squint­ed his eyes, and lurched towards her. That’s when the smell hit her. The urine stench of gaso­line burned her nose. His suit was drip­ping with the liq­uid.

Where is the witch,” he said. He grabbed Isis’ fore­arm in the same place he had before.

She tried to wig­gle her way out of his grip. “There is no witch, Jere­mi­ah.”

He laughed. It was almost a gig­gle, it was that gid­dy. “You fool­ish woman. Man. ‘Cause that’s what you are. You think you can play around with hea­then sym­bols, gath­er a — a coven of fag­gots — and escape the eye of the Lord? His will is mighty! He showed me this Coal­rose crea­ture is a demon.”

You’re insane. They should have kept you at Belle­vue,” Isis said.

For a month or more, the witch plagued my sleep, with images of black ros­es, ros­es that flew, and pricked and drew blood, like damned vam­pire bats. Then, the Lord showed me what had to be done. ‘Thou shalt not suf­fer a witch to live.’ Exo­dus 22.”

Still hold­ing her close, he pro­duced a lighter — a mag­ic trick of his own.

Let me inside,” he said.

* * *

It was her choice to make. “Let every­one else go. I’m pret­ty sure that the Lord frowns on mur­der.”

They were through the door and in the crowd. Some­one, maybe Jasper, made the announce­ment to evac­u­ate. Jere­mi­ah pulled her to the side and watched as the club emp­tied. It was a stam­pede — the rumor of old crazy Jere­mi­ad moved through the crowd quick­ly. Then, the sound of the piano rose above the may­hem. The melody was gen­tle, even soporif­ic. It was This Lit­tle Light of Mine and Laven­der Green and When You Wish Upon a Star and some oth­er unknown melody, all woven togeth­er. The lul­la­by lulled the crowd, and the room emp­tied peace­ful­ly until there was just her, Jasper and the woman at the piano. And Jere­mi­ah.

Jere­mi­ah began flick­ing the lighter. It sparked. Soon, she would join the shad­ow folk, become ash and yel­lowed bones. Isis thought of Broth­er Creek, Moth­er Light­ning, and Aunt Juneb­ug. She heard her mother’s harsh voice: “Isi­ah, I told you this path would lead you straight to Hell.” She thought of the god­dess whose name she shared, and of the ankh, the sym­bol of life, the name of her club.

Burn in hell, witch,” said Jere­mi­ah Black.

Zoë Coal­rose gave no indi­ca­tion that she had heard him. She just kept on play­ing the piano, and the song evolved, gen­tle sil­very notes tar­nish­ing. Black­en­ing, like the club was about to. The melody became harsh­er, aton­al, the rhythm stac­ca­to. When she start­ed singing, there were no words Isis rec­og­nized.

Jere­mi­ah flicked the lighter again, and final­ly a teardrop of flame bloomed. It was not the only thing that bloomed.

Some­thing dropped from the ceil­ing. It was black, curved like a clamshell, and it lazi­ly drift­ed down and land­ed on Black’s drip­ping suit. The tiny clamshell was black­er than the suit. Then anoth­er one fell. And anoth­er. These dark shapes spi­raled down, all land­ing on Jere­mi­ah. One of them doused the flame. Then, there were more, gen­tly mantling his face, shoul­ders and shoes.

When the flame died, Isis knocked the lighter out of Jere­mi­ah Black’s hand. He hard­ly noticed. His face had gone as slack as Bucephalus Wilson’s. The fight went out of Jere­mi­ah. His rage deflat­ed as he was buried in soft black petals.

Isis looked up to the ceil­ing and saw the rose vines encir­cling the pipes. The blooms were black as coal.

When Zoë played the last note of her word­less song, they van­ished, like smoke.

Craig Lau­rance Gid­ney is the author of the col­lec­tions SEA, SWALLOW ME & OTHER STORIES (Lethe Press, 2008) and SKIN DEEP MAGIC (Rebel Satori Press, 2014), the Young Adult nov­el BEREFT (Tiny Satchel Press, 2013), and the mosa­ic nov­el­ette THE NECTAR OF NIGHTMARES (Dim Shores, 2015). He lives in his native Wash­ing­ton, DC. His new nov­el, A SPECTRAL HUE, comes out from Word Horde in 2019. Find him on Insta­gram, Tum­blr & Twit­ter: ethe­re­al­lad.