Boogers, Haints and Heathens
by Dixon Hearne
“Where you headed, Miss Lizzie?” a familiar voice calls. “On ya’ way to town? Visitin’? Ain’t no need keepin’ it to ya’self.” Swish-swish-swish goes her straw bag, never breaking stride. Skeet Rouse is a no account heathen in Lizzie Fate’s estimation, an abomination lower than Judas himself. Not a day goes by she doesn’t say a quick-prayer to shield herself from him and all his kind. Folks off in the woods make potions and spells to throw on you if they wander into town, and Lizzie Fate doesn’t go near any of them. Especially Skeet Rouse.
Lizzie’s mama said when she herself was just a girl – back when boogers and haints were strong on them – she found herself lost one day out in the woods and halfway to Vicksburg with the sun getting ready to sleep. She wandered around all night long, chasing the moon and losing her mind. Come morning, when she stuck her face over the black bayou water to wash it, she was plumb white-headed in the reflection. Next thing she knew, a woman the color of swamp gum popped out of a tree hollow and cast the evil eye at her, and when she woke up she was lying in the middle of a circle with heathens dancing and chanting and shaking spirit-powder at her. When they all finally retreated to the bayou’s edge, she bolted and ran, with a haint howling at her heels till she could hear the sound of horse hooves and church bells. From that day on, she believed. And Lizzie was raised on it.
Skeet follows her, like he’s done for weeks now, talk-talk-talking, trying to wear her down. No use though, Lizzie’s single-minded and heads straight away into Cantrell’s Hardware.
“Hep’ ya’ with ya’ load, Miss Lizzie?” he says to her when she pops out again. “Mighty heavy load for a little sparrow like you, Miss Lizzie.”
She just moves along, pretending he disappeared – like the Booger Woman that tried to take her, too, when she was six years old. She knows she’s still out there, though. Somewhere.
Lizzie Fate was a dimple-chinned, wide-eyed angel near the color of tanned leather as a child. Her and her mama lived at the good end of colored quarters, next to Preacher Rayford and his wife. Their daughter, Cynthie, was her best and only friend till she was stolen one night by the Booger Woman. Sometimes the Booger Woman would snatch children up along country roads or on their way down a river trail with a fishing pole. Children went missing more often back then, but Lizzie hasn’t forgotten for a second her own close call, not one year after Cynthie was taken.
Skeet stops still right in front of her and stretches his arms like he’s on the cross. “Move out the way, fool! You blockin’ my road,” Lizzie snaps at him.
“I’m hurtin’ for ya’, Miss Lizzie. Ain’t ya’ got a little smile for me? A little nod of any kind?”
“Outa my way, I said!”
“You a cold woman, Lizzie Fate. You cold as yo’ mama.”
This was not the right thing to say, and Lizzie nearly bit her tongue off holding it in check. Hollow-eyed heathens like Skeet Rouse poke at folks’ weak spots till they gain entry, but she is wise on it and shows him nothing, not the least hint of vulnerability. That’s how the game is played – cunning and devil-like. And off she traipses to Miss Beckett’s to cook and clean the rest of the long, hot day.
Come nighttime, Lizzie hears a far-off whining from her house at the edge of town, the last row house before the black woods start. She’s used to the hoots and howls and growling of nocturnal creatures, but this is a tune she hasn’t heard, and it echoes like it’s thrown from a deep canyon. It conjures images of the Booger Woman again and the night she almost got her so many years ago. And though she was only six years old, her mind had made a picture permanent as the face of Christ. She senses the woman lurking sometimes, out there hidden among the tree shadows and haint-spell haze. But Miss Lizzie would never let on to a soul.
A strong silence falls over the woods and lingers for some time. Not a hoot or screech or cricket chirp.
“Liza,” she hears a singing. “Liza,” it calls to her, faint as a sigh. Her mama’s the only one that ever called her by that name, and she’s been gone ten years now. Just up and boarded a bus one morning and never came back. They didn’t give much value to country folks that went missing back then – coloreds even less – and the sheriff said she wasn’t lost or crazy just because she bought a one-way ticket from Teahall. “Liza,” it calls again, raising her neck hackles to a point.
“That heathen, Skeet Rouse,” she whispers to herself, pinching her lips. SLAM goes the front room window and ZIP go the blinds, leaving the house to swelter under the kerosene lamp and summer heat.
“Are ya there, Liza?” comes the voice from the front porch now, followed by a gentle knocking. Lizzie knows it’s a trick. She knows it’s Skeet Rouse on the other side of her door. Him and some other hollow-eyed heathen set on turning her hair white. She could tell by his boldness in town today that he’s up to something. A second knock comes quick on the first. “Are you in there, I say?” the voice whispers, disguised to sound like a woman.
“Get thee behind me, booger, haint or heathen!” Lizzie shouts at the door – three times. “A hundred prayers and holy angels descend and keep the heathen out! Do your devil dance and die!” she scolds. “Amen and hallelujah!”
A sudden silence falls on both sides of the door again and remains, but tensions hang and voices haunt her through the night, echoing, “Liza…Liza…Liza.”
Come morning – still wadded in yesterday’s clothes – Lizzie strikes out for town. Swish-swish-swish goes her straw bag, never breaking stride.
“Mornin’, Miss Lizzie Fate,” comes her daily nuisance. “Carry ya’ bags today? Nawsum? Then hep ya’ with ya’ shoppin’?”
“Outa’ my way, heathen,” she says back at him, hurrying up the steps before he can make his sacrilegious, full-body sign of the cross at her.
Fifteen minutes later she pops out the front door and charges back down the street – swish–swish-swish – where she climbs aboard the ten o’clock outbound. The bus idles for a bit, then lurches forward with a gassy grunt and rolls slowly past Skeet, still standing in the dirt road. He studies Miss Lizzie real hard, grinning back at him ear to ear in the rear window and flashing a silver crucifix and spirit cache in his direction, her dark hollow eyes fixed tightly on his till the bus moves forward and he’s swallowed up by the dust.
West Monroe, Louisiana, native Dixon Hearne lives, writes and teaches in Southern California. His short fiction has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His new book, Plantatia: High-toned and Lowdown Stories of the South, was nominated for the 2010 PEN/Hemingway prize and recently received the 2010 Creative Spirit Award-Platinum for best general fiction book. Hearne is editor of two recent anthologies of Southern fiction. Others of his Southern stories appear in Louisiana Literature, The Louisiana Review, Big Muddy, Roanoke Review, Kennesaw Review, Wisconsin Review, Potomac Review and many other magazines and journals. He is currently at work on a novel and another short story collection.