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.