Every Monday night my Grandmother made red beans and rice
. This was the summer the cicadas
were singing. My parents had left me behind in that un-air conditioned shotgun house
surrounded by dogwoods and night-blooming jasmine with a woman I'd only met twice before.
My Grandmother frightened me a little. She was a brusque woman with a sudden, booming laugh and hair that was an unnatural fiery red. At night, she kept her teeth in a glass.
She told me to call her "Dear", not Grandma or Granny, and I did. On my second Monday there I asked, "Why are you making beans and rice again, Dear?" She was chopping onions. She never took off her rings, not even when cooking, and as her knife sliced down diamonds and emeralds
sparkled in the early afternoon light, "We have red beans and rice
every Monday, boy".
She continued chopping and I continued to stand in her little kitchen shuffling one foot over the over, the canvas on my scuffed Keds made a scraping sound. Finally, annoyed, she stopped mid-chop, turned to me and put her hands on her hips, "Monday nights are for visitin'. I like to offer the visitors something that brings them comfort."
I knew I'd get no better answer out of her and decided to go play outside with the neighborhood kids. The local children were always grubby and barefoot and they had taught me how to spit and curse, skills my parents had neglected to instruct me in. There was an old tire swing that hung over a pond nearby, and Eli, Charmaine and I would take turns swinging out over that pond and jumping in. After we got tired of splashing and whooping and cursing, we lay on the bank of the pond and stared at the sky. I tried to make animals out of fluffy white clouds that were bisected by telephone wires. Charmaine turned to me, pulled on the aluminum foil capping one of her braids and said, "They say your Grandmama can conjure..."
"And that she turn into a black cat on full moon nights, and she can fly on dragonfly wings" Eli interjected. Annoyed, Charmaine swatted her brother with an open palm and continued, "Shut up, Eli. Stupid baby. She ain't no storybook witch," her tone dropped lower, "She a bad woman to cross. She ever show you a gris-gris? I hear she make 'em on Mondays. Won't make 'em on Sundays on account of being a Christian woman. But Monday nights she conjure, sometimes for good, sometimes for evil."
Stupefied, I responded, "The only thing I've ever seen her make on Mondays is red beans and rice"
They both threw back their heads and laughed at this, and Eli shoved me into the pond. As I surfaced, sputtering and flailing around comically, I overheard Charmaine whispering conspiratorially, " -- don't know nothing."
Feeling unjustly patronized, I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and challenged, "Who don't know nothing?"
Charmaine put her hands on her hips and laughed, the beads in her braids clattered together in time. She looked at Eli and said, "Time to get home. Streetlights are fixin' to come on."
Those two ran off and left me alone for the walk back. When I got to my grandmother's house, weary, muddy and stinking of pond algae, I found her in the kitchen frying a chicken in a heavy, cast iron skillet. She looked at me and pursed her lips, "You didn't track that mud all over my front room, did you?"
I had been careful to leave my shoes to dry on the front step, "No, Dear."
She nodded and turned her attention back to the skillet, "Wash up and get ready for supper. You can fix yourself a bowl red beans and rice. There's some sweet tea in the ice box," grease popped, as if for punctuation, "You can have a wing, if you like. Rest of the chicken's for company."
I took a bath in my grandmother's old, cast iron tub, the kind with feet and tried not to feel homesick. If I felt homesick, I reasoned, I would cry, and it would not do to cry in front of my grandmother, she'd only think I was a baby. Washed and refreshed, I went into the kitchen to eat. Playing all day had made me surprisingly hungry, and my mouth began to water as I removed the lid from the big pot of beans simmering slowly on the stove. She had seasoned them with a spicy sausage that I loved, that morning she had fried me one and served it with a plate of grits. I was about to wolf my food down when my grandmother boomed, "What about grace, boy? Your mama did have you baptized Catholic, did you turn into a heathen since then?"
Suddenly shamed, I crossed myself, lowered my head and muttered a prayer. My grandmother smiled and placed a hand on my shoulder, "Maybe time you learned the Rosary. You're old enough."
I ate, washed my bowl and was given a narrow slice of dense pound cake and a glass of milk. It was dark now, and I could hear music swelling off in the distance. My grandmother hummed to the music and kissed me on the forehead, "Early morning tomorrow. Best you get some sleep."
And so I went to the back room, where a narrow cot had been made up for me to sleep on. A breeze came in through the screen door, and the moon hung huge and yellow in the sky. Music wafted on the air and broken fragments of song wafted in through the open window. I nodded off, I'm not sure how long I was asleep for when I heard the sobbing voice of a woman and my grandmother's answering murmurs. I crept furtively up to the kitchen and hid behind the curtain of beads that separated the front room from the rest of the house. My grandmother was talking to the woman in a commanding, terrifying voice that was somehow masculine, goosebumps stood out on my arm as she spoke, "-- and then when those seven days are over, you take a bar of soap. Ivory soap and you write his name on it seven times up and seven times down. And you throw that ivory bar into the river. When it reaches the sea, that man will bother you no more."
The woman sobbed, "Oh thank you, thank you, Tante Ursula. You are mighty!"
My grandmother responded in her normal voice, "None of that nonsense. Shh, child. Let me get you some sweet tea to wash down those red beans,"
Through the beaded curtains, I saw my grandmother's form loom as she headed towards the kitchen. Quickly, I scampered back to bed, but not so quickly that my grandmother did not see me. She said nothing to me, however.
The next morning, the cicadas woke me with their song, and my Grandmother and I took a trip to the market to buy crabs and shrimp for gumbo. She showed me how to pick the best crabs, "look for one who's still fightin'. If you poke him with a stick, and he snaps at it with his claws, that's a good crab. If he just sits there, or moves away, that's a crab that's given up on life. Crabs that don't fight make the gumbo taste bad."
Although she was in a rare, talkative mood and a seemingly good humor, I did not have the courage to ask her about last night's visit. Instead, I learned things about cooking; these things I learned were perhaps the most essential. I learned how to feel onions, how to pick okra. Later that afternoon I learned how to make a roux. I did not understand then that my grandmother was passing on to me her most treasured secrets.
It was on the following Sunday that I finally broached the subject of the Monday night visitors. It had been tantalizing me all week. Eli and Charmaine had filled my head with stories about dark magic and the walking dead. My Grandmother was humming a hymn while washing red beans for the next night's supper. We had just come home from Church and my Grandmother had introduced me to several nuns, resplendent and severe, but lovely in their black and white habits. The nuns had told me what a good woman my Grandmother was and how they hoped I would be a good Christian boy. It was with the image of my Grandmother as a saintly Catholic rather than the thought of the dark, midnight magic that Eli and Charmaine had hinted at that I gathered to courage to ask, "Dear, why do people come to visit you late on Monday night?"
She sighed and smiled at me, "I don't know how much your Maman would want you to hear about this."
"The nuns said you're a good Christian woman," I persisted, "How could Mama have any problem with you?"
My grandmother chuckled, "Your Maman a good daughter. I love her, but we don't always see eye-to-eye."
"Well, she left me with you, she must trust you."
My grandmother sighed, "Well, thing is, the Good Lord is good, but he's very far. And the saints and the Blessed Virgin are good, but also far. Sometimes folk need a little help from someone a little nearer."
"You're that someone?"
My grandmother laughed, her meaty upper arms wobbling slightly, "Well sometimes. Mostly I'm a bridge to those that can help."
"Is that why your voice was different on Monday?"
My Grandmother said something softly in French that I didn't understand. She shook her head sadly and said, "Could be you got the gift too. Come Monday, you can sit in the kitchen and watch when someone comes to visit, long as you promise to be quiet. Not a peep, mind you."
I nodded assent greedily and my Grandmother laughed and said, "Go on you, go outside and play".
The next night my Grandmother added ham to the Red Beans and Rice. I asked her why ham this time and not sausage, my grandmother said, "I just get a sense about these things. What to add. Maybe you'll get one too, come time."
It rained that night, hard and heavy. I waited in the kitchen with mounting excitement The rain sounded like little boots marching on the black slate roof. My grandmother lit a hurricane lamp and pushed back the curtain of beads to admonish me, "remember, not a peep."
I was about to ask her if anyone was even going to come out in this weather, when I heard the front screen squeak open and a knock at the front door. I pushed close to the curtain of beads so I could see. Veiled as my vision was, I could make out a girl in her teens, wet and bedraggled, her dark brown skin glistening like cane syrup in the flickering light. She threw herself on the floor at my Grandmother's feet and wailed, "Please help me, Tante Ursula, please!"
"Get up child. The floor ain't a place for a woman. Tell me what's wrong,"
The girl's eyes were huge and wide, she struggled to her feet and I got a good glimpse of her. She was a pretty girl. She had dark, smooth skin the color of coffee beans, a small mouth with lips like black cherries. She was very thin, except where her hips curved softly over her thighs. In a halting voice she said, "That pretty red Braud boy swore he love me. He said he marry me even if his Mama hate me 'cause I'm so black. He swore he love me, said he was dying for a taste of sugar. Said he wouldn't never disrespect me..."
During her speech, my grandmother's shadow seemed to lengthen and swell. The shadow she cast seemed to belong to a younger woman, a woman with a curvaceous figure and long hair. My grandmother's tone was dulcet and coy, "Men tell no new lies."
The girl burst into tears, "I believe him and now I'm in trouble. He say the baby ain't his! He laugh at me in the street."
My grandmother embraced the girl and said throatily into her ear, "What you want from Tante Ursula?"
The girl answered, "I want him to love me. I want him to love me so much he can't sleep, can't eat, can't chase girls without thinking of me."
My grandmother stepped away, "Love's a powerful thing, girl. Could be you're better off without his."
"I can't live without him loving me!"
She turned her back on the girl, fingered her chin, "I'll fix you some red beans and rice. Then we talk about love."
My grandmother bustled past me without so much as a sidelong glance, and prepared a bowl for the girl. The girl wolfed down the food greedily, she did not say Grace. My grandmother smiled to herself, secretively and said, "You ain't been eating right since that boy."
It wasn't a question, but the girl shook her head anyway. When the girl finished eating, my grandmother sat down next to her and leaned in close, "There's a heavy price to pay to make someone love you."
"You will. But do as I say and his heart will be yours. On the next full moon night pluck a red rose that grows in a graveyard. On this same night, prick your finger with one of its thorns and write his name and your name on a piece of paper. Burn the paper by candle in the light of that moon and make sure to save the ashes. Put the ashes in a brown paper sack with a fresh tomato. Put that sack under your bed for three nights. On the fourth day cook something with that tomato. Get him to eat so much as a spoonful of that food and he will love you forever."
A smile spread over the girl's face, she had two gold teeth. She again fell prostrate before my Grandmother and said, "Thank you, Tante Ursula! What I owe you for this?"
My Grandmother sighed, "Nothing now. I may ask something of you one day. Be sure before you do this that this is what you want. A heart is a dangerous thing to play with."
"I want him more than Heaven."
The girl did not waste time thanking my grandmother again, instead she ran outside into the summer storm without looking back. My grandmother's shadow seemed to become her own again. She crossed the room, parted the curtain of beads and looked down at me tenderly. She said, "So?"
"Was there another woman with you?" I blurted without thinking. Suddenly a strong fragrance of roses filled the air. My Grandmother smiled sadly, "Yes. Could be she visit you one day."
"I thought the people who came for help were the visitors."
My grandmother shook her head, "Those people, they come to me for a spell or a hex. They come to me to see the future. They don't care about mystery. But the mystery comes, anyway."
"Will it come for me?"
"Could be, in time. But the thing is, the important thing is not the spells or the potions. The important thing is the hospitality. All guests want to feel loved, even those ones you can't see. Time for bed. Your maman would have me skinned if she knew you were up that late."
I went to bed, my head filled with ideas of mystical transformation and impossible feats. I fell asleep to the sound of my Grandmother's humming. It was not until many years later, long after my Grandmother was gone from this world that I finally understood what she meant; everything wants to feel like it has a home.