Huckleberry Juju

It was late August when the white folks moved in.

To be sure, the kids were half Cuban or Mexican or something Latin, but the mama was definitely white. They had been living on the base on Parris Island; then the daddy shipped out on an aircraft carrier headed to New York and the mama decided she needed to be away from all that military hustle and bustle, so lo and behold she found a mobile home at the heart of Frogmore on St. Helena. 

It was a clean, sturdy trailer, one of about a dozen sitting on a couple of acres owned by my parents, Mr. and Mrs. Franklin Bailey, whose home spread spacious under the oaks and Spanish moss not a hundred yards from their tenants. Now, couldn’t two people on earth be more different than my mama and daddy. Franklin Bailey had been a studious, quiet boy, and had grown into an accountant, of all things, with an aptitude for numbers that helped him manage his own rental properties as well. Amelia Shaw had been the loveliest Gullah girl in all the Lowcountry, daughter of the slickest conjure man on St. Helena—John Arthur Shaw, more commonly known as Dr. Crow.

Well, though my daddy was an African Baptist who didn’t much truck with hoodoo, he fell in love, hard, and he was willing to ignore mama’s dabbling in green magic from time to time so long as she didn’t bring her “witch-doctor daddy” by the house for supper. 

Then I was born, a caul covering my face. The midwife slit holes for me to breathe through, gently unlooped the membrane from my head. It was fused to my skin a bit and had to be sliced carefully away—I still have small scars just behind each ear. 

Everyone whispered about me. Such births are rare. Intense juju, you see. Granddaddy in particular was very intrigued, wanted me as his apprentice when I came of age.

All this is so you’ll understand what happened, of course. It’s context.

Garza. That was their last name. Three boys, all adrift without their daddy. Oscar must have been about eight, Samuel six. The little one, Fernando, he was just a toddler, always clinging to his mama’s bell-bottom jeans. 

I’d been watching them wandering dumbly through their little yard, kicking at dirt clods all sullen and dull. Not sure why I felt so bad for them. I was twelve, and you know how it usually goes—the younger ones come around like puppies, trying to get the attention of the big dogs. But my heart’s not built that way. I wanted to help them.

I kind of towered over them, so it was nice to see they didn’t shy away. “Hey, there. I’m Kenneth. What are y’all doing?”

The oldest peered at me from beneath his mop of copper hair with clever brown eyes. “I’m Oscar. This is my brother Sammy. We’re just exploring and playing make-believe.”

“Yeah? What are y’all pretending?”

“That this is a desert isle. Some pirate shipwrecked off the South Carolina shore centuries ago. Buried treasure here, Spanish gold and stuff.”

“Cool,” I told him. “Reminds me of something me and my daddy do. Want to come over to my house and check it out?”

Little Sammy sneezed. Kid had bad allergies, I found out later. His green eyes were always bloodshot like a drunk. “Need to tell Mom, Oscar.”

“Let me ask her,” I said. I knocked on the door, and Mrs. Garza leaned out. She was small and pretty clearly Boston Irish, from her red hair to her Yankee accent. 

“Hey, there. Can I help you?”

“I’m Kenneth Bailey, ma’am. My daddy’s, you know…”

She smiled. “My landlord? Yup. Good man. Little serious.”

“That’s for sure,” I laughed. She put you at ease, did Mrs. Garza. Didn’t seem to faze her at all that I was a black kid, not the way I’ve seen my presence stiffen the back of many a white woman before and since. Maybe it’s because her husband was Latin. “I was wondering if you’d allow Oscar and Sammy to come over to my house for a bit, to play and watch some TV.”

“Oh, gosh, could they? That would be wonderful, Kenneth. They’ve been getting on my last nerve with their antics, and me with a two-year-old underfoot.”

“I understand, ma’am. My own mama’s got a little one, a baby girl. A real handful. I’ll entertain these goobers for a couple of hours, don’t you worry.”

We walked through several empty lots back to my house. I showed them in, introduced them to my mama, who was still as lovely as ever, even at thirty-two and just a few months out from my sister’s birth. She gave us each a glass of sun-brewed tea, and I took the boys into the living room, where my daddy had set up on shelves the fruit of our long, patient labor.

“Ships in bottles!” Oscar exclaimed with delight, a big smile lighting up his face. 

Sammy wanted to look closely at each one, asking what sort they were, how we had managed to get them inside.

“Magic,” I said, laughing, and he cocked his head at me all peculiar. “Just kidding. Lots of patience and special tools. Maybe y’all can come over next time we work on one.”

They noticed our console TV with excitement, and we sat down to watch a re-run episode of that Planet of the Apes mini-series. I showed them my Red Ryder BB Gun and my daddy’s boat before walking them back home. I tried to teach them some cool handshakes, but they fumbled around and made me smile at their clumsiness. 

“Come over tomorrow,” I told them before I left. “It’ll be Saturday, and we can watch Godzilla and Tarzan and all them great cartoons.” 

That’s how it started. Like a ritual. The next two weeks, the very last of our summer vacation, we hung out every day. Oscar and Sammy would come over, maybe watch a little TV, shoot at cans in the yard, play with my Matchbox cars. 

What they really liked was exploring.

My daddy’s property stretched pretty far beyond the trailer park, and it was neighbored on two sides by even bigger tracts of empty, marshy land. We’d head out there, me with my Red Ryder across my arm, poking around the rusty carcasses of abandoned cars and looking for snakes. What surprised me was how much Oscar knew about plants and how interested he was in learning more. 

“Our grandma’s a curandera,” Sammy said out of the blue one day when I was explaining about the curative properties of a particular species of milkweed.

“Cállate, menso.” 

I didn’t understand Spanish, but Oscar’s look said everything.

“It’s alright, Oscar. Y’all can trust me. What’s he mean?”

Oscar’s face flushed a bit. “It’s supposed to be a family secret. She’s a healer. Uses plants and magic. A shaman, they call them in books I’ve read.” 

I nodded. “Right on. Very strange coincidence. My granddaddy, he’s a root doctor, too. That’s what we call them in these parts. Hoodoo men. Conjurers.”

“Wow.” Sammy’s eyes were big as plates. Oscar visibly relaxed. 

“Thought it was just a Mexican thing,” he said. “Mom doesn’t like to hear about it.”

I laughed. “Yeah, my daddy don’t like it much, either. Imagine how pissed he would be if he knew I was studying it.”

“Get out,” Oscar said, all incredulous.

In answer, I reached into my shirt and pulled out my conjure bag, a bit of red and white flannel in which some mugwort, Comfrey root and a piece of my caul had been sewn up. “Dig my mojo, boys. Some real potent juju in this thing.”

“What’s juju?” Sammy stretched his hand out, and I let him touch the conjure bag for a second before tucking it away again.

“It’s like the magic all bundled up inside everything. Some things have more of it, but, yeah, man, juju is everywhere if you know how to look.” I pointed at a nearby tree. “There’s holy fire in them magnolia flowers.”

Sammy, always serious, seemed fit to burst with excitement. “And these?” he asked, pointing to some ripe purple fruit in amongst the sweetgrass.

“Oh, hell, boy, those are huckleberries. You bet your ass there’s juju in huckleberries!”

They laughed then, laughter that haunts me to this very day. 

“I bet if I would eat enough of them, I’d be a root doctor, too!” Sammy shouted.

With a chuckle I tousled his mousy hair. “Just might, little man. Just might.”

As fate would have it, that Saturday I went with my mama to visit my granddaddy, who pulled me off into his conjure shack to teach me the ends and outs of uncrossing—removing a jinx from someone. Midway through the lesson he snatched my mojo out of my shirt with a bony hand and hissed in that Gullah-tinged dialect of his. 

“Who you let touch you trick bag, huh? I smell he grubby hand right there! Not long enough for steal you power, but mayhap enough for turn you trick aside.” He straightened, crossed his arms over his chest, tapping the lapels of his black suit with his long, yellow nails. “See them good. Was me fingers what sewed up that magic for protect you, you know this, yaas? Must not let no other body close to it.”

I tried to explain. “It’s just a little white boy. Got no daddy around. I’ve been showing him and his brother about plants and such.”

“White boy?” Grandaddy tsked, adjusted the brim of his hat. “That’s worse. Ain’t no buckruh what can understand we traditions for true. Bad idea, that.”

“Well, they’re part Mexican or something. Their grandma, she’s a conjure woman like you. They already got a little lore from their daddy.”

“Rest you tongue. You unravel you mouth too much, boy. Must heed me words. No more sharing lore what ain’t earned.”

There was rage in his yellowed eyes. Everyone feared him, back in those days. I was no exception. “Yessir.”

“Serious now, boy. You me grandson, but I’ll cross you so hard ain’t no way you could be unjinxed, hear?”

And that was it for my lesson. He told me to get out of his sight, and mama soon drove us home. Daddy was in a shitty mood like he always was when we came back from those “Geechee boondocks,” and he gave me a long list of chores, including washing the cars and his boat, though we hadn’t gone fishing in that thing for months. 

So it was that I was hosing down the hull in tank top, cut-offs and ratty old sneakers when Oscar Garza came running up and changed my life forever. 

“Kenneth!” he shouted. His eyes were wild with desperation and fear. “It’s Sammy! Come quick!” 

I dropped the hose and ran after him without a moment’s hesitation. His frantic strides guided me beyond my daddy’s land to the weed-infested husk of a Chevy Valiant. Sammy was lying atop some clumps of switchgrass, still as a corpse.

“You said you’d be gone,” Oscar panted. “So I was just reading. In my room. Mom told me Sammy was gone. Went to look for him. Found him like this.”

I dropped to my knees. Sammy’s face was smeared with purple juice. I jerked my head up, flitted my eyes over everything. 

That’s when I saw the blood red vines of Virginia creepers, all over the trunk of the Valiant, heavy with purple fruit.

“Oh, shit!” I exclaimed. Seizing my conjure bag in my left hand, I closed my eyes and laid my right on Sammy’s unmoving chest. I felt the eerie cold of a spirit fixing to leave its body. Panic rose to paralyze me, but I shoved it aside. 

I was born with a damn holy caul upon my face. I’m hoodoo through-and-through. I can do this. I can bring him back.

“Oscar!” I leapt to my feet, turning to the car. “Bring me every loose piece of iron you see. Quick! We don't have much time!”

Between the two of us, we found five bits of metal I could use. I set them in the form of a quincunx around Sammy’s corpse, trapping his essence like one might a haint. 

“Okay, okay,” I said, a little calmer. “We got us a few minutes. Not much more. Listen close, Oscar. You know that tree on the far side of my house, the one with a blue bottle hanging from a branch? Run and bring me that. Don’t let my parents see you, now. Hurry!” 

As he bolted, I squeezed some water from my damp tank top and cleaned the purple stain from the boy’s lips, which were going blue right fine on their own now. I could feel the eternal part of him squirming there in my trap, confused and afraid, getting riled up fierce. Carefully as I could, I unstitched my conjure bag a smidge and pinched off a bit of my caul. Opening Sammy’s mouth, I lifted his tongue and laid the shriveled-up scrap of membrane there. 

I heard painful gasping behind me. Oscar collapsed just beyond the quincunx, the bottle tumbling from his hand as his breath heaved mightily in his little chest. I snatched it up, glancing through the translucent cobalt blue at the afternoon sun. Mama had hung it up to stop evil spirits, but there was nothing trapped inside. 

“Okay, Sammy,” I said, raising my voice, which took on some of the rhythms of the root doctor I would one day become. “You done tried to get you some juju, son, but you ate the wrong berries. A little poison in each, and you wolfed down more than I can count. But I’m going to share my mojo with you, Sammy, and you’re going to be just fine. Just come get yourself in this here bottle, now, and do it quick.”

I closed my eyes, felt for that spirit, and drew it slow but sure with my right hand toward the broad opening of the bottle. A little reluctant, but recognizing me at some level, his essence slipped inside. 

Dropping immediately beside Sammy’s head, I tilted the bottle to his mouth, urging him back inside the flesh with every ounce of my will.

“God,” I rasped, “and all His angels and all the mighty beings of the higher realms, help me restore this here little boy, who is blameless and pure in the eyes of heaven.”  

There was a moment when I was certain I’d failed, that I’d been judged at fault for this tragedy. Then the boy inhaled sharply and opened his eyes, more bloodshot than ever. 

“Sick.” It was just a whimper, rough and animal. I helped him sit up, and he vomited up what seemed a gallon of violet bile. 

“Get him home,” I told Oscar. “He should be okay. Tell your mama he had sunstroke or some-such. We’d both be in hot water if they found out what we’ve done.”

He nodded his understanding, and they hobbled away. I high-tailed it over to my house, hung the bottle back up, finished my chores. 

I guess I felt really good about myself, saving that boy. 

The truth of the matter took some time to come clear. 

School started, and the three of us rode on the same bus, though Oscar, Sammy and other grade-school kids got dropped off at the elementary before the bus swung by the junior and high schools to leave the rest of us. As they were the only white kids on the route, I let everybody know they were my friends. They were left alone, even by bullies. My granddaddy’s reputation was good for that sort of thing.

 Sammy, always a quiet boy, was now virtually mute. I reckoned he’d need some time to recover, but two weeks later, he was still shambling around like an old man. 

Hoping to get him excited about something, I had the boys over on the Monday afternoon of the third week of school. A new Japanese cartoon called Battle of the Planets was premiering, and the commercials I’d seen for it looked righteous. But poor Sammy sat through the adventures of the G-Force without so much as a twitch or a smile. 

“Something’s really wrong with him, huh?” Oscar whispered to me during a commercial.

“Nah, man,” I lied. “Death just takes a long time to get over. Quit your worrying.”

But when Oscar wasn’t looking, I yanked a strand of hair from his little brother’s head. That night, locked in my room, I pried up a floorboard and pulled out my bowl of possum bones—specially marked and painted—and the casting cloth my granddaddy gave me when I began my apprenticeship. 

My stomach clenched tight, I laid Sammy’s hair at the center of the cloth and began my investigation. As I asked my silent questions, throwing the bones and again and again, I had my worst fears confirmed.

Nausea rising in my throat, I could almost hear my granddaddy snarl at me, his voice crackling in my head. “He ain’t got no soul, Kenneth. You done return he spirit to that body yonder, but he soul gone and left this here world forever.”

One of the first lessons. Body, spirit, soul. No man is complete unless he has all three. An animated body without a soul, without the personality that makes us who we are, well, there are lots of names for such a creature, but they all boil down to the same thing.


I already knew the only solution. But I loved those boys, understand, like they were my own kin. I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t tell anyone, either. Like my granddaddy used to say whenever it was time to keep some rootwork secret, “Every sick ain’t for tell the doctor.” 

But Sammy got worse. Listlessness turned to aggression, mindless and mean. He attacked a boy at school, tried to bite a little girl. Horrified and confused, Mrs. Garza kept him at home.

“She has to lock him in her room,” Oscar told me the very last time we ever spoke. “He tried to strangle Fernando, Kenneth. You need to tell me what the hell you did to him.”

Ashamed and afraid of being found out, I turned on that child. It was cowardly, evil. But I tried to place the burden on his shoulders alone.

“This ain’t got shit to do with me, Oscar,” I snapped. “You’re the one who let him go off alone. He’s your little brother, man. You were supposed to look out for him, and you didn’t. I saved him, best as I could. Now deal with the consequences.”

His face. Oh, God, that sun-burnt and freckled face, how it collapsed in on itself before he turned away, destroyed.

Not much else to tell. The father took leave from New York, came down to be with his family. There was nothing he could do, really. By late October, they had moved to the state capital. I later learned Sammy’s parents checked the boy into the Columbia Area Mental Health Center. They left him there and eventually moved away. Their daddy was from Texas, so maybe that’s where they wound up. 

And you’d think that’s where this sad old story would end, with Sammy not quite alive and utterly forgotten. But our actions echo down the years, don’t they, growing thinner, distorted, but never quite dying away. It changed me, what I did. Made me into something I might not have become otherwise. Whether that’s good or bad, I can’t rightly say. 

Thirty-five years passed, with all their ups and downs. I finished school, spent a little time at the Technical College of the Lowcountry. I did what I could to help others, though fate ain’t always on our side, so I hurt some folks, too. Married, lost my wife. Never had kids, sad to say. But I lived a life that I wasn’t ashamed of, and there’s not much more you can ask, I guess. 

Late one afternoon I was sitting in my shop—Dr. Crow’s Rootwork Emporium—listening to the news on a beat-up radio, when a breaking story made my heart fairly lurch with regret and fear.

Fourteen people, taken hostage here in Beaufort at the Boundary Street Diner. The man holding them at gunpoint a “disturbed man of Hispanic extraction” recently released from the Columbia Area Mental Health Center. 

His name? Samuel Garza. 

I pulled on my suit coat, dropped a hat atop my greying twists and headed over. Cops had cordoned off a whole block, so I parked my old Caddy on the corner of Boundary and Union and made my way to the nearest officer, a stocky young dude whose eyes went wide when he saw the necklace of feathers upon my lapels, its bronze crow skull stark against my black tie. 

“Son, I need to talk to whoever’s in charge. It’s about Mr. Garza. I know how to stop him.” 

He nodded, swallowing heavily. “Follow me, sir.”

We ducked under the yellow tape and walked to the command center in the boutique across the street from the diner. A detective in a charcoal-grey suit turned and raised an eyebrow. 

“Yes, Johnson?”

“Detective Barnwell, this gentleman says he has information about the hostage-taker.”

Barnwell looked me up and down with a dubious eye. 

“And you are…?”

“My name’s Kenneth Bailey. I’m a licensed practitioner of homeopathic medicine.”

“A rootworker.”

“Yes, Detective.” His Upcountry accent told me he had just moved to the coast, so it was a good sign that he was familiar with the term. “What’s most important, however, is that I have known Samuel Garza since he was a little boy. I know what’s wrong with him.”

“Let me guess,” he said, rubbing his hand absent-mindedly across his close-cropped curls. “Some sort of conjuring, huh? Something only you can fix.”

I ignored his tone. No reason to lay into a brother for his doubts. We all got some. 

“Not quite. He died as a boy. I mucked about with shit I didn’t understand, brought him back to life, but wrong. It twisted him into this thing he is. I’m guessing he’s come to St. Helena for me. He hasn’t made any demands, has he?”

Barnwell shot a glance at Johnson, who shook his head as if to deny telling me anything. After reassessing me coolly for a few seconds, the detective shrugged.  

“Actually, no. Hasn’t said a word.”

“Yeah, he’s trying to get my attention. If I get over there, talk to him, he won’t hurt anyone. I bet I can get him to let those folks go.”

The detective made a reluctant gesture with his hand. “I can’t send a civilian into this situation. If he’s really here for you and you go into that diner, he might kill you. I’m not taking that risk.”

“You still don’t get it. He is incomplete, twisted, and there’s nobody can stop him without collateral damage except me.”

“I’m sorry, no. Officer Johnson, please escort…”

The young cop stepped between us. “Detective Barnwell, sir, I think you should listen to him. You’re not from the Lowcountry. You don’t know who this is. I do. He’s no charlatan. He’s the real deal.” 

“What do you mean? Who is he?”

I slipped on my cobalt shades and spoke up before Johnson could reply. 

“Everybody on St. Helena knows who I am, Detective. Inherited the title from my granddaddy when he died. They call me Dr. Crow. I’m the Hoodoo Man.” 

Ten minutes later I was crossing the street, a bulky flak jacket strapped over my torso. I could feel various sharpshooters behind me, along with the uniformed cops at the ready near their cars. The sun was setting, and the whole street was golden. 

I reached the diner door. I saw Sammy inside, standing by the counter, gun quivering manically in his hand. He was big, not quite as tall as me, but bulky and imposing, his head covered with pale stubble. 

“Sammy!” I called, and his dead gaze fell on me through the glass. “It’s me, Kenneth. I’m here to set you free, son.”  

The undead man jerked his gun at a frightened woman, indicating in pantomime that she should let me in. She turned the deadbolt, and I stepped in, greeted by silence broken only by sniffles and quiet moans.

Sammy stared at me for a moment, madness whirling inside his hollow husk. Then, setting his gun on the counter, he nodded almost violently, shaking his head up and down like an excited child. I walked straight up to him, took him in my arms. Big fellow, sure, but I gathered him up and squeezed him tight.

“Forgive me, Sammy,” I whispered into his ear. Felt him loosen against me, ready.

I pulled back a bit, looked into those harrowed eyes, the green all swallowed up by a red the bloody shade of Virginia creepers. I remembered his trembling hand, reaching for my conjure bag. Just an ordinary boy who yearned for a little magic. I placed my hand across his forehead like a holy roller preacher, then reached into him with my power and unbound his tortured spirit from that long-dead flesh. 

Without a sound, he burst into ash. 

There was a collective gasp from the hostages. Somebody muttered, “Holy shit.”

I grabbed a rag from a table and wiped my face clean. “Go on, then,” I said to the dumbfounded patrons. “EMTs are waiting for y’all outside. If anyone asks, do me a favor and tell them what y’all just witnessed. I’m going to have a hell of a time explaining it to the authorities.” 

They left, some rushing, others stumbling in a daze. 

I stood alone amid the ash as the daylight failed and night sidled close. Echoes of holy fire whispered in my veins. Without warning, I was overwhelmed. I unstrapped the flak jacket with awkward jerks, dropped it to the floor. Clutching my conjure bag, I struggled against waves of despair.

Poor goddamn kid. I should have left him dead. But we do what can, don’t we, to stay that cold, boney hand, to postpone that bitter finale. 

It’s our nature, sweet and lethal, like fruit dangling bright upon the vine, ripe with lovely magic but toxic through and through.