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Women & Voodoo
August '08

 

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The Wanderlust
inspired by Zora Neale Hurston
Sarah Bracey White

August 2008

Walter Morgan had the wanderlust ever since he was a boy. Before he married Mae Morgan, he roamed all over South Carolina. After his daughters were born, he doted on them so much he tried real hard to stay put. Now his and Mae’s first child, Rosella, had a sweet disposition, eyes the color of clover in the fields and skin smooth as peaches ripe for picking.  A year later when their next child popped out, she looked so much like her daddy they named her Waltina, after him. She had pecan-brown skin, eyes as dark as midnight and a head full of shiny black curls. From day one, that child was strong-willed and fearless.                                                     

Most evenings when Walter wasn't under the weather — that’s how Mae explained his drinking – he’d sing to his daughters and tell them stories. By grade school, children started teasing them about how their Daddy was a drunk. Walter used to  tell them, “Don’t pay them fools no mind. They’re just jealous their daddies don't love them like I loves y'all. Drinking puts the wanderlust to sleep so I can stay home  – where I belong.”

When Waltina asked her mama what the wanderlust was, she said “it’s a curse put on innocent people to make them run away from the folks that loves them.”

“If it's a curse, don’t the root doctor have something to lift it?" asked Waltina.

“I don't want nothing to do with root doctors,”  Mae said. “They’re in cahoots with the Devil.”

Now, Waltina would have tussled with the Devil himself, to cure her Daddy’s condition, so that night, she sweet-talked her 12 year old sister into helping her find the root doctor. A few days later, they set off down Green Swamp Road. Waltina was so excited about the prospect of saving her Daddy from the curse, that she skipped along, marveling at the way the sun sparkled off the red and yellow leaves, making the day seem magic Waltina had heard scary stories about the swamp, but she just kept saying how pretty the Sycamore trees looked growing up out the waters.  “"I bet they don’t look pretty at night,” said Rosella.

“We’ll be back home before dark,” Waltina said.  Finally, they reached the spot where folks had told them ole lady Esther – the root doctor – lived.

“This don't look like no root-doctor's house,” Rosella said, staring up at the tin-roofed house sitting on top of a little hill.

"Well, I think it is." A black cat scooted past them and ran under the house. Waltina grabbed Rosella’s hand and marched towards the front door. When she reached out to knock, the door opened and a grey-haired woman with skin like shoe-leather and beady black eyes stared them up and down.

“Usually it's man-trouble that brings pretty gals to my door,” she said. “But y’all way too young for that.”

“No, we not,” said Waltina. “Our Daddy’s got the wanderlust and we want something that'll make him stay home and be happy without drinking. Do you have a potion to cure that?”

Esther fingered sprigs of wiry gray hairs sprouting on her chin. “Never had call for a wanderlust portion. But, for the right price, I can look in my book and cook up something.”

“You got a book?” asked Waltina.

“Of course I got a book, honey. I'm a doctor.    Do y’all have any money?"

Waltina reached in her coveralls pocket and pulled out two crumpled bills. Esther snatched them and said, “Come back in a week.”

A week later, Waltina and Rosella headed back down Green Swamp Road. This time, the sun hid behind black clouds and Green Swamp lapped up against the road.

“I’m scared,” said Rosella. “Let’s go home.”

“We can't,” said Waltina, “not without the potion. She took the money, and a deal’s a deal.” By the time they reached Esther's house, rain drops had started splashing on their faces.

“Come on in out the rain,”  Esther called sweetly from the doorway. They did, and she closed the door behind them. The house smelled funny, like eucalyptus leaves and camphor but a fire in the hearth made the room bright and cozy.

“Your mama let y’all drink tea?” Esther asked, taking a iron kettle off the fireplace rack.

“Yes, ma’am,” answered Waltina. When Rosella poked her in the side, she added, “But we’re not thirsty.”

“Well, I am,” said Esther, “and I could use a little company."

“We can't stay,” said Rosella. “Our mama’s gonna be mad if we’re not home by dinnertime.”

“Way it's raining, y’all’ll catch pleurisy before you make it home. May as well make yourselves comfortable.” She motioned to a bench near the fireplace.

They watched Esther pour boiling water over leaves in a pot on the table. When she moved to put the kettle back over the fire, Rosella cowered behind her sister.

“You one jumpy chile,” Esther said. “I could give you a little something to calm you down.”

“No, thank you,” Rosella answered quickly.

“Did you find a potion for wanderlust in your book?” Waltina asked.

“Sure did. But y'all shouldn’t of waited until fall. I spent almost a whole day looking for Lady Slippers.”  Suddenly she laughed out loud. “Felt like I had the wanderlust.”

 The sisters stared at her – wide eyed.

“Y'all not exactly the talkative type, huh? When I was your age, my mama used to  say I talked up a blue streak whenever I got anybody's ear. And I wasn’t scared of nobody,” she said, casting a glance at Rosella.  Esther strained tea into a china cup with blue flowers on it, then settled into her rocking chair. The black cat jumped up on her lap and purred while Esther petted him and sipped tea.

“Can we see the potion?” asked Waltina.

Esther pointed to a small, glass-stoppered bottle on the table. “That's it — the cure for what ails your Daddy.”

Rosella wrinkled her nose. “Does it taste bad?”

Esther cackled. “Not to your Daddy it won't. I mixed in a little moonshine to flavor it up.”

“Moonshine has taste?” asked Rosella.

Esther laughed so hard her skinny body shook. “Not the kind that comes out the sky,” she said, “the kind your Daddy drinks.” She repeated Rosella's question and cackled some more. “Y’all makes me laugh like I ain’t done in a long time.”

“Can I see your book?” asked Waltina.

Esther's face grew serious and she turned her powerful gaze on the girl. “Why you want to see my book?”

“Beause I’ve never seen a magic book.”

Esther motioned towards a table by the window. “It's over there.”

Waltina picked up the only book on it. “Where'd you get this?”

“From my granny. She’s the one who taught me how to make potions. Every now and then, I add some new ones.”

“Where do you get them from?” asked Rosella.

“Some come to me in dreams. Other times, I'll be out in the woods and have a vision – in broad daylight.”

“I had a vision once,” said Waltina.

“You did?” said Rosella. “You never told me about it.”

“I thought you'd laugh at me.” Waltina answered.

“Folks used to  laugh at my visions,” said Esther. “Told me I was crazy. So I stopped telling people about them.”

“I don't think you're crazy,” said Waltina.

“Thank you, chile,” Esther said and settled back in her rocker. “Y'all sure I can't get you something to drink or eat?”

“No, ma'am, but I sure wish it would stop raining,” said Waltina. “We gonna be in a lot of trouble if we don't get home soon.”

"If it don't stop raining soon, y'all won't be able to get home. Green Swamp floods over the roadway when it rains more’n a hour."

Rosella ran to the window and looked out. A flash of lightning lit up the yard. “We'll never get home.”

“Yes, you will,” Esther said. “The swamp'll go down by tomorrow. Then y’all can go your merry way.”

“Tomorrow!” Waltina said. “We have to go home, now.”

“Don't you have a potion in your book that’ll stop the rain?” cried Rosella.

When Esther stopped laughing, she said, “A potion to stop the rain? Chile, if I could do that, I'd be equal to the Devil.  Ain't nothing we can do but wait for it to stop.”

Rain kept pounding on the tin roof.  Esther finally made a pallet on the floor for them and Rosella cried herself to sleep, scrunched up close to her sister. The next morning, Waltina woke up with a start and ran to the window. Green Swamp  was almost up to the fence. She shook Esther from a sound sleep. “I thought you said it would go down.”

Esther staggered to the window. “It will,” she said, “but it takes time. We had a heap of rain last night.”

Thunder grumbled off in the distance, and it began to rain again. “And it looks like Mother Nature's got more rain she wants to git rid of,” said Esther.

“What are we gonna do?” asked Waltina.

“I'm gonna fix me some breakfast. You and your sister are welcome to share it.”

Waltina looked over at her still sleeping sister. “We have to go home!” she whispered. “Mama probably thinks we dead!”

“If your Daddy's had the wanderlust a long time, your mama already knows that just because a person's gone doesn't mean they’re dead,”said Esther.

“But we don't have the wanderlust!”           

"Neither did your daddy, first time he left home. He probably went looking for something, just like y'all did.”

“But we want to go back home!”

“So did your Daddy. It just ain't always possible to do what we want, when we want.”

Suddenly Rosella woke up and ran to the window. “Mama told us not to fool with the Devil's work. We’re gonna drown!”

Waltina put her arm around her sister. “Don't cry,” she said. “We’re not gonna drown.”

“Glory be!” said Esther. “Y’all making a mountain out a molehill. Broad as this land is, you can go stand up in that water. Probably won't come no higher than your waist. But I don't recommend it. Cotton-mouths are probably swimming everywhere. A man with a boat and a strong back could row here from town in short order. Maybe I'll send for your Daddy, so y’all cry-babies can go home.”

“You can do that?” asked Rosella.

Esther grinned. “I’ll need your help.”

“But we don't know magic,” said Waltina.

“Come over here,”  Esther said and took one of their hands in each of hers. “Now hold hands and close your eyes,” she said. “Look deep in your heart and touch your daddy with your love.”                             

“How we do that?” asked Rosella.

“Tell him you love him and need for him to come get you. Then picture him leaving your house and rowing a boat along Green Swamp Road.”

The room got real quiet and the sisters kept peeking at Esther.

“If y’all don't keep your eyes closed, your Daddy ain’t ever gonna get your message,” she said without opening her eyes.

"How'd you know our eyes were open?" asked Waltina.

“Felt you looking at me,” Esther answered, staring back at them. She sighed and closed her eyes again.

This time when they closed their eyes, they kept them squeezed shut and searched their memories for a vision of their Daddy. Every now and then, thunder boomed. When the cat brushed his tail up against Rosella's leg, she flinched, but didn’t open her eyes.

Esther’s sing-song voice filled the room. “Bird of paradise, savior of lost souls, take these children’s love to they Daddy's heart. Guide him across these muddy waters .”

After a while, Waltina whispered in an excited voice, “I see him! I see Daddy. He's got on his oilcloth slicker.”

“Is he coming for us?” asked Rosella.

“No, he's talking to Mama. She's crying.”

Rosella broke away from the circle and threw open the front door. “Daddy, Daddy,” she hollered into the wind. “Come get us, please come get us.”

“Come back, chile,” Esther coaxed. “Your Daddy's too far away to hear you, but your sister's made contact. Come give her the strength to make him come for y’all.”

Rosella took her place in the circle and shut her eyes.

“That's right chile,” Esther crooned. “Send your love on the wings of a bird to light on his shoulder and lead him straight to this door.”

Now, everybody had their eyes closed, so nobody could see the tears rolling down Waltina's cheeks. They were exactly like the tears rolling down her Daddy's cheeks while he looked out over  stormy Green Swamp.    

When Walter had stumbled home drunk, Mae's words sobered him up like nothing else ever had, and set loose a bitter bile in his mouth. He wondered whether his mama had tasted something like it after he first wandered off.  When Mae said Waltina had asked whether a root doctor could cure his wanderlust, the answer had come to him like a bolt of lightning across a summer sky: they’d gone to see ole lady Esther. He’d searched out that old root doctor’s house more than once when he was a boy.

Quick as could be, he borrowed a neighbor’s rowboat and set off towards the place where he knew his little girls waited. The wind and rain blew real hard, but a kind of calmness wrapped itself around him.  Soon as he reached the little island jutting up from the swampy waters, he started hollering. “Rosella! Waltina! Y’all in there?”

Rosella and Waltina heard their Daddy’s voice and ran out on the porch, shouting with glee.  Nobody saw the cottonmouth hovering near the water's edge. When Walter stepped out the boat, he put his foot right on that big old snake's tail, and it sank its fangs into his leg. Then, quick as a flash, it slithered away.

Walter yanked off his belt and looped it around his leg to keep the poison away from his heart. Esther run inside and came back with a sharp knife. “Stay here,” she ordered, “while I go help your Daddy.” Leaning on her skinny shoulders, Walter limped up the hill and collapsed on the porch. Esther cut away his pant leg. Two puncture marks stared up at them. Without a word, she made a cut just above the marks, bent over, sucked out blood and spit it onto the ground. Then, she stood up and went into the house.

“Why did y'all run off?” Walter asked, as he hugged his daughters. “Your mama's sick with worry.”

“We didn't run off, Daddy. We came to get a cure for your wanderlust,” said Rosella. “Miz Esther showed us how to make you come get us. Waltina had a vision!”

“I hope  y’all ain’t been practicing black-magic,” Walter said, though his voice wasn't the least bit angry. “Your mama would be real mad.”

“They’ve been practicing love-magic,” Esther said, then handed Walter a glass-stoppered bottle. “Drink this. It'll keep that snake poison from doing you harm.”

Walter closed his eyes, tilted his head back and swallowed the whole bottle. Esther winked at his daughters. They squeezed each other’s hands and smiled back at her knowing that real soon, their Daddy’s wanderlust would be gone for good.


Sarah Bracey White was born in Sumter, South Carolina. She is a writer, arts consultant, and motivational speaker. Her literary work includes a collection of poetry, Feelings Brought to Surface, many short stories, and several novels. A memoir piece, "Freedom Summer," was included in the Simon and Schuster Pocket Books' anthology Children of the Dream, as well as in Dreaming in Color, Living in Black and White. Other essays appear in Aunties: 35 Writers Celebrate Their Other Mother (Ballantine Books, '04), and Gardening On A Deeper Level,(Garden House Press, '04). The New York Times, The Baltimore Afro American Newspapers, The Scarsdale Inquirer and the Journal News also have published her essays. Her website address is www.onmymind.org. Sarah and her husband Robert Gironda live in Millwood, New York.  
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