“They fixing to eat us, they fixing to eat us, they fixing to eat us,” Old Maurice whispered to himself. With each slow, creaking step he took, his head bobbed up and down and his entire body shivered. It was so peculiar to see him with his hands wrapped around his body like he was comforting a baby. When I was a boy, Old Maurice looked like a giant to me. He was a mighty Goliath that no man could shake nor rattle, and I respected him for it. Guess thirty years can change a lot.
“I heard some talk ‘bout that some years ago from my mama,” Samson said to me. “My mama’s grandmama came straight from Africa, you know. Story is that fore she was captured, she’d hear adults talk about the white slavers coming round, gathering up all the Blacks and taking ‘em off to never be seen again. Mama said in those days, Africans thought that white men were eating us.”
“White men do eat niggers,” a little boy in front of us said, slowing down a bit to turn back to Sam and me, “Miss June told me. Back when she worked down in Mississippi, she saw them do it. Walked in on a bunch of white folks standing round a table with one a’ her friends on the table with his body all cut up. And she ran out the room screaming, and they caught her n’ beat her n’ told her not to tell nobody what she saw.”
“She was telling you a story,” I told the boy, then glared at Samson.
“It was true!” The boy cried out.
One of the overseers rode up on his horse and shouted at us to stop talking and keep walking. Because of his shotgun, we sped up. But even that gun didn’t scare us enough to stop our talking.
“If they ain’t taking us to be eaten, then what you projecting they want with us?” Samson asked.
I shrugged, “When white folk ever got a reason to do what they do?”
Samson nodded and added, “But that’s the problem. The less reason they got, the worse that thing usually is. I think this is it, Leroy. I think if we don’t run now-”
“Keep your voice down you idiot!” I snapped at him. He shut up immediately, and I regretted losing my temper with him. I didn’t like being angry, but Samson, Old Maurice, and the kid had all gone insane for thinking we could just talk freely with owners and overseers from the six largest plantations watching our every move. Talking bout white men eating us was risky enough, there was no way in hell that we could even think of gossiping about running away.
“There’s too many Negroes out here in the middle of the night, that’s undeniable,” I began. “But eating us? That don’t sound reasonable to me. No, I’m thinking all the bosses got together and decided they need us for some work. Maybe some trees fell when that storm came through couple nights ago, and they need us clearing the roads.”
Samson nodded, but I could tell he didn’t agree. We’d left the road behind about half a mile back, after all.
Eventually, the popular rumor made its way up to us. Somewhere further down the line was a man that had gone through this before. According to people that claimed to have talked to the people that claimed to have talked to him, the white folk was taking us to some kind of ritual.
“He say God ain’t in heaven tonight. He right here in these woods. These white men gonna baptize us in His glory, and God gonna give us freedom and anything we want. Ya’ll gotta start thinking of your wishes now, cuz you only gonna get one.”
I looked at Joe, the one that had told us all this. The skinny fella had always been good for a laugh around tough times, but was otherwise a rational, straight talking kind of guy. He was one of the few people I felt I could really depend on to use his head. For him to believe something as crazy as that made me wonder if there was some truth to it.
“You really thinking we bout to be free?” The boy asked me.
I shrugged, “Ain’t no such thing as a white man giving away freedom. Maybe this is some kinda baptism, but I don’t know if we’re really going to be free after.”
I thought of freedom, how attractive and alluring it had been to me when I was the boy’s age. Too old to be distracted by the childhood nonsense that tells me this is just how the world is, but too young to do anything about that disillusionment. I would once dream of walking out on my own somewhere, working on my own land or building my own house just for me and the people I saw fit to invite inside. I thought of walking around without that nervous anxiety that always drew up a deluge of sweat at the back of my neck. I dreamed of the day where I knew there was a God up in heaven, and that He cared for me just as much as the Bible said, and just as much as He cared for anyone else. But I knew that the type of freedom I dreamt of was never going to be in my reality.
It wasn’t long before our marching stopped. We found ourselves situated in a large clearing in the woods. It was a corner of our country that neither I nor Samson had been to or even seen before, and I knew instantly that there had to be a reason for that. Upon our approach, I felt my knees begin to buckle and all my muscles tense up. With a sharp pain in my chest, cold blood began to cycle in my veins. My head felt cloudy, and my stomach did flips. I didn’t know what caused such a reaction. I am still unsure whether to blame the ancient trees with their crooked, finger-like branches that seemed to reach out for us, or the crowd of whites with torches that were awaiting our arrival there.
My and Samson’s own Master Jacobs walked to the center of the clearing. He first addressed the other white men, thanking them for coming here today and assisting in commuting the rest of us from our respective plantations and homes. He addressed us Negroes next, assuring us that no harm would befall us if we all behaved proper and respectful.
“You was brought out for a simple reason,” he said, “n’ while I could explain what that reason is, I daresay that you wouldn’t fully understand. So, I’ll show ya. Bring ‘im out!”
Two white men stepped forward. In each arm, they supported the weight of a negro man, one that had come and left from my own plantation not too long ago. I didn’t need to see much of him to recognize him even in the dim torchlight. John wasn’t a friend, and he wasn’t family, but there wasn’t a single one of us who didn’t know who he was and why the white people were so inclined to keep him around. He was a strong, powerful man, and that was what made him so dangerous to us. I looked for the boy that had been walking near us, and I instinctively grabbed his shoulder.
The two white men propped up John in front of Master Jacobs. Some words passed between the two of them, but their whispers were so silent that it was impossible to make out their full conversation. Yet I could detect an odd faltering to John’s voice, one that I’d never heard before. Consequence, it seemed, had finally caught up to him, and he was pleading his case to an unkind Master that didn’t care to listen. John cried – a man of infamous brutality across all our plantations was so captured by fear that he displayed rare vulnerability. But Master Jacobs was not swayed by his pleas. He looked John in the eye and shook his own evil head.
With one cut, John was dead. A spray of blood erupted from his body and sprayed Master Jacobs in red paint. The two white men dropped John and backed away, coldly. Even in the weak light of the torches, we could see the pool of blood pouring on the forest floor around his corpse. It oozed from his neck wound and dripped into the dirt, staining his clothes and the grass beneath him. The entirety of John’s terror and fury now lay before us, spilling out to be swallowed by the thirsty earth below.
The little boy in front of us began to cry. I didn’t blame him for it, but he was being too loud. I didn’t want him to be executed next. I grabbed onto him and held him close to me, whispering in his ear that it was okay.
“He was a bad man, he was a bad man, he was a bad man,” I said to him. I didn’t mention the women John had raped or the children he’d touched. The boy had seen too many horrors that night, and I knew he was liable to see more of them very soon.
Master Jacobs began to back away from the body. He had a wide smile on his face, and I knew it was more than just feeling proud of spilling more Negro blood. He was happy about something greater, and I knew that ultimately meant there’d be more pain in store.
“Here it comes! Here comes our Lord! This is our gift to you niggers on tha eve o’ your freedom! Now you, too, will be touched by His light!”
The ground around John began to change. Dirt rose and cascaded on top of itself, creating a hole in the ground that quickly grew larger. In just a few moments, there was a large crater in the ground, and in the center of the crater was an odd mound, slowly rising from the earth.
It looked a bit like candle wax or sticky-sweet tree sap. But it smelled worse than death. A sour, fowl scent like the corpse of a pig that had spent a hot, summer day laying in its own decay and filth. I strained my eyes to see the mound through the torchlight, angry at the sky for being so black. I wasn’t sure, but deep within the white slime, glimmering in the torch and lantern light, I could just barely make out the shape of a man’s face.
“Lord,” my Master continued, “Accept this, a ripe, healthy nigger with a virile n’ insatiable manhood. Draw ‘pon the strength of this field nigger, n’ let it fuel your own.”
The slime, which had appeared solid before, began to slide down the mound and spill into the crater. As the sticky fluid ran down the sides, we all saw the truth of the mound. Sitting twenty feet high with white ooze flowing out of every crevasse was a pile of bodies. The white men had dragged us to a burial mound of Negroes and Indian men, then added John to the pile.
The local judge, Judge Warren, walked towards Master Jacobs. The two embraced each other briefly, then shook hands and smiled in a brotherly way. Judge Warren turned away from Master Jacobs after that, and he called out to all of us, “Step forth! Any one of you. You stand before God. Accept God, look onto Him with reverential gaze. He shall give you whatever you ask of Him, but only once. Who among you is brave enough to stand in His glory?”
Everyone was too scared to move, and that included me and Samson. We looked at the white men around us in the same manner we so-often did: fearful confusion as we searched their bodies and hearts for signs of their true intentions. Was this optional for us? Would they have dragged us out in the middle of the night if it were? We were frozen by our questions, and we weren’t the only ones. The Negroes of six plantations stood in front of a monument of Indian and Negro death that the white men called God, and all of us were too dumbstruck to speak. Still, just as the white men that forced us here, we knew it was only a matter of time until one of us was either bold enough or stupid enough to take that first step.
It was Ms. Maddie, an old woman known to everyone on my home plantation. The kindest, sweetest, gentlest soul anyone could imagine. But her life was a tragedy, as the lives of kindly, old Negro women often are. So, I could not and did not judge her for beseeching the monstrosity before us.
“If we really bout to be free,” Ms. Maddie began in a shaky voice, “then I want my babies back. They all been sold off to some other places, and I don’t know where they gone. God, please, give me my babies back, and I will be among your flock forever and raise my babies the same.”
“God” thought for a minute. I suppose that’s what it was doing, the way that the sticky, white moat around the mound began to bubble. All of us, colored and white alike, stood in anticipation as we watched Ms. Maddie stand in front the moat and the mound of bodies encircled by it. Her hands and body shook and shivered so furiously you’d have thought she’d caught the Spirit. But I could sense that her soul was absent of the joy that she usually had during worship. This was not a ritual of love and passion for the Lord.
“I don’t like this,” Samson whispered to me. I willed him to hush up so I could think of a plan. I was beginning to think might’ve been right about running. But there were too many masters and overseers around. Sure, they were transfixed by their monster called God, but I didn’t want to test just how close they were paying attention to the rest of us.
The white sap in the moat began to stretch. A slimy, long arm with no sign of hand nor bones reached up and shot itself towards Ms. Maddie. She stared at it, and I assume it stared back at her. She smiled as a tear rolled down her face, then opened her mouth wide as if she was fixing to cry out in joy. The arm shot itself into her mouth, and her eyes rolled to the back of her head.
I heard screams behind me and had half a mind to join in. The slimy arm wriggled and rippled in too purposeful a manner. I knew it was crawling down and all around her body, filing every crevasse with the same white, waxy milk it had emerged from. Soon, Ms. Maddie’s tears began to turn red and thick. Blood poured down her face from her eyes and ears, and I saw dark, red spots forming on her clothes as her lifeforce was forced from every opening there was.
Just as quickly as it had begun, it was over. The liquid arm stretched itself far as the pool would let it go, and soon it was just a floating thing in the air that kept shrinking and shrinking as it went further down poor Ms. Maddie’s body. Finally, it was gone, and I watched as Ms. Maddie crumpled her body down to the ground and sat there, crying blood for a few moments more. It was unbearable. I took a step towards her; white men and their guns and dogs be damned. I reached out an arm so I could touch her and see that she was still alive.
Ms. Maddie shot her arms up and screamed to the stars above, “Praise the Lord, He is Risen!”
She turned to face me; her face still streaked with blood but a smile pouring just as loosely from her mouth. “You fixing to go next?”
I jumped back and instinctively reached for Samson.
“Ain’t nothing to fear, niggers!” Master Jacob said with a hearty chuckle. With eyes of widened glee and a face still soaked in John’s blood, he looked and behaved like a man who’d imbibed too much. “This here’s our gift to you, remember? Ms. Maddie nursed me, it’s only right that on the eve of ya’lls freedom, she and all you mammies get a chance to see your little pickaninnies again.”
Judge Warren nodded his head, solemnly, “Negroes of Redd County! All children can be returned. Families reunited. Homes built. We, the gentleman of this town, gift this to you as a show of good faith. This same rite was given to our families upon entering this fine land, and now we offer you a chance for the same blessings we hold dear! Remember our kindness in the years to come.”
“There ain’t no need for no brutality or tha like. Don’t let them Nats mess up a good thing ya’ll got here,” Master Jacobs continued. “We coulda sacrificed any one a’ you to the Lord’s mound. But look who we picked: A rapist of women n’ children. A nigger that’s a threat to your homes as well as ours. Just keep ya little heads down and follow the rule of law and we’ll take care of you just as we always have, we promise you that!”
It was slow going, even then. People weren’t ready to believe the claims that Ms. Maddie or any of the white folk made. Her children didn’t magically appear in the field with us, and even if they had, they had to be adults by now. I think we all reasoned this, but none of us had the courage to say it. The white men and Ms. Maddie continued singing the praises of the God, and finally the curiosity got to one other person.
“I am old, and years of hard labor have weakened and sickened me.” Old Maurice said. It was a strange sight, the same man that had been talking about the white folk eating us during our approach was now praying to their God. “I don’t want to live forever, because that would mean the world could hurt me forever. Please, God, grant me some strength in my old age, and I will be loyal to you. Let me die when I was always meant to, but until that day, repair and heal this body. Give me the strength of a young man, Lord, please.”
Maurice, too, seemed to please the God. It pushed its way into his body the same way that it had Ms. Maddie. In a matter of moments, he was on the ground. I wasn’t fool enough to try checking on him, no matter what my instincts told me to do.
Old Maurice jumped up, hooting and hollering and singing the praises of the Lord as Ms. Maddie had done. His body still covered in streaks of blood, with every move he made I wanted to run into the woods and hide from him. But I, as everyone else that knew Old Maurice, was too transfixed to look away. He didn’t yelp out in pain, he didn’t move slow and creaking. Old Maurice danced like a much younger, more limber man, one that hadn’t been plagued by years of arthritis. He raised his hands in the air and wiggled his fingers; those same fingers had curved and twisted themselves almost into claws in these later years of his, but now they moved like worms in the earth. It was nothing less than a miracle.
One by one, volunteers stepped forward, asking their God for land and wealth. They asked for love and healed injuries. Some asked to keep working on the same plantations they always had, but to be paid fairly. Some asked for new jobs in the North, so they could finally put this land and its people behind them. Some asked for greater strength, more than any God-fearing man could or should have. There were those that asked for power, the type of power over other men that’d stop them from ever being chained ever again. There were women that asked for protection from men, and there were men that asked for women and a house. Some requests were granted immediately, but God did not see fit to appease everyone so suddenly, nor would it deign itself to speak on the matter. God simply slid its way into their bodies, and in a moment, they stood up to testify the wonderful power of God’s might.
Finally, I’d seen enough. I took a step forward, but felt an arm reach up to stop me.
“Don’t. Can’t you feel it? There’s something wrong here. They got Negroes and Indians on that mound of bodies, but not a single white man!”
I shook my head, “I don’t think we got a choice. They gonna make us do this ritual anyway. If there’s a chance we can get what we’ve always wanted...”
“We don’t know that we will!” Samson snapped.
“But if there’s a chance! I gotta take it. I gotta try for us. I want us to have a life, Samson.”
I wrenched my wrist from his grasp. It was hard to do that. It was even harder to turn away from him. I walked up to the mound and took my hat off, then began to wring it meagerly in my hands.
“Lord? Gotta say you don’t look like what I expected. I’m Leroy, and I was baptized in your name some years back. Now they say I gotta do it again.”
“Hurry up! I’m tryna get my acres and money!” I heard a voice cry out from behind me.
“Shut up! Everyone gets as long as the Lord allows!” Master Jacob cracked his whip in the air for good measure, then indicated for me to continue.
"I got a man, Lord." The back of my neck grew hot as I suddenly remembered the torches and lanterns all around me. Torches held by the same white men that brought us to a mound of dead Negro and Indian bodies just to make us watch as they added to the pile. Even if the Lord could give me what I wanted, what guarantee did I have that he would deliver before those white folks could pick me or my Samson for another sacrifice?
I took a deep breath and ignored the pit that was opening up in my stomach. I cleared my throat and continued looking straight at the heap of corpses before me. "I got a man that I love. He treat me right, Lord. Never make me feel like less of a man for loving him. I want to be happy with him, but I already know that ain't possible for us. No matter how many wars them men up North start, me and him won't ever be free. But can you give me something close to that? A little farmhouse of our own, where we can live off the land and be away from anyone that'd ever bother us. Please, God?"
The waxy, white liquid in the moat surrounding the death heap began to shift and bubble. Though I'd seen it happen to the people before me, I still felt my chest race as one of the bubbles stretched itself forward. It slid up the walls of the moat, then slithered through blades of grass as it came towards me. It moved like a snake, but with a human-like intention. I shuddered as it began to crawl up the side of my body, and my eyes watered with the scent of sickly-sweet decay that wafted from it. The wax arm folded itself around my neck, then held its round end in my face for a few seconds. I could feel it in my mind, instructing me to do the same thing all the men and women before me had done. Without uttering a single word or making a single sign, the slime ordered me to open my mouth and receive it.
It didn't taste like anything at all. I wouldn't have known it was there were it not for the burning. The fire filled every part of my body, including parts I never knew I had. I became aware of new dimensions of myself, more than just my limbs and torso. I could feel my organs, I knew their shape and texture as if I was holding them in my hands. I could feel the content of my own flesh down to its smallest partition. I felt that liquid fill me up and push out everything it didn't need. I felt the blood burst from my eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and every other opening that I had.
I felt the smallest part of it go into the smallest parts of me, and there I felt something else. An old thing that was just as much its own being as it was me. It had been with me as long as I'd lived, giving me life and power when I needed it most. I felt God enter every part of my body, and I felt it obliterate that other thing everywhere it found it. In that other thing's place, God took up post. My body would only know power and strength if God allowed it.
At some point, I must have passed out. I woke up with Master Jacobs standing over me, with a curiously raised eyebrow that asked if I was okay, and a frown on his mouth saying that I'd have to pick myself up even if I wasn't. I pulled myself up from the pool of blood that was one part mine and one part everyone else. I walked over to the others that had already been baptized, and I waited for everyone else that hadn't yet gone. I heard murmurs among my group, of how close we were to freedom now that we were true Americans and had completed the same rites these white men had when they first arrived. I heard them talk of how they were going to thank their masters for baptizing them. They were happy to finally be equals under God, soon to be free of the yoke of slavery.
None of them spoke to me.
If you like this story (and I hope you do), an audio version is available from the Nightlight Podcast--a podcast for Black horror writers.