Rhonda Jackson and I wrote the following short story for the first round in the NYC Flash Fiction 2013 contest.
“Tell Miss Louisa to smash this bottle and stomp on the ship. What she desires will come to be.” The Voodooiene exchanged a burlap wrapped package for Benjamin’s small bag of silver coins. “This is a powerful spell, be careful with it.”
The next day, Benjamin and Mahala, Lawson plantation slaves for many years, hid the package in one of the empty barrels loaded on the back of the wagon readied for the spring supply trip with the overseer, Mr. Jenkins, and his wife Mary. The three-hour trip brought them to Savannah. While Jenkins and his wife had dinner at a nearby restaurant before returning to the plantation, Mahala and Benjamin visited Miss Louisa at the Savannah Retreat, where the wealthy were committed for mental disturbances.
“I’m not sure I want to see a crazy person, Mahala.” Benjamin pulled the package out of the barrel on the back on the wagon and brought it up front as they got ready to leave for the Retreat.
“She isn’t crazy, Ben. She’s a Northern lady. Her husband, Mr. Jefferson, put her there to keep her from teachin’ our kids to read and write and from freein’ us all. He knew she would do that while he was gone to war on that big ship.” Mahala settled on the wagon seat beside Benjamin. She dug out their travel papers in case the paddy rollers stopped them in the wagon without a white overseer.
“That’s a fine ship, that CSS Alabama. The Yanks won’t ever catch up with that one.” Benjamin slapped the reins on the backs of the matched pair pulling the wagon.
Mahala held on to the wagon seat edge as they pulled out into the street. “Miss Louisa’s brother, I believe his name is Franklin Yeats, has been trying to get her out of that place for over two years now. But Mr. Jefferson is the husband and brothers don’t have any say in what husbands do to their wives. Maybe after the Yankee Army comes, Mr. Yeats can just take her away with him.”
Arriving at the Retreat, Benjamin helped Mahala down from the wagon and held the horses while she knocked at the back door. Mahala explained to the nurse that she had some personal supplies for Louisa Lawson. “She likes it when I fix her hair for her.”
“OK, but he will have to stay outside. We don’t want no men in here disturbin’ the women.” The nurse opened the door wide enough for Mahala to enter, scowled at Benjamin and shut the door.
After unlocking and passing through several doors, they found Miss Louisa sitting on the bed, her face turned away. As soon as the nurse left, Mahala placed the package on the bed. “Miss Louisa, we are going to get you out of here.” She peeled the burlap and red flannel wrapping off the bottle, and handed it to Miss Louisa. “You have to act like a crazy person. You have to smash the bottle, stomp on the ship inside, yell about Mr. Jefferson leavin’ you here in this place. Yell at me, saying you don’t want no bottle nor no ship. Then jump on the ship and smash it. All your desires will come to be.”
“I’m a Christian woman, I don’t believe in this casting of voodoo spells.” Louisa looked at the bottle in her hands with distain.
“Just do it, please, Miss Louisa. Just try it. You’ll see. Mr. Jefferson won’t bother you no more.”
Louisa’s eyes grew cold and hard at the mention of her husband’s name. In a rage, she smashed the bottle on the iron bedstead, and stomped on the ship when it fell to the floor. “There!” she shouted, “Take that for leaving me here, Jefferson!”
A doctor, followed by a nurse, burst through the door at the noise. He held Louisa down on the bed. “Go get the laudanum!” he shouted. The nurse pushed Mahala through to the kitchen, shouting “You! Get out!
Mahala ran to the buckboard where Benjamin was nervously waiting with the horses, who were fidgeting at all the shouting. “What happened? What was all that noise about?”
“Just go! I’ll tell you as we head back to Mr. Jenkins.” Mahala looked back over her shoulder as the wagon rattled out of the back yard and onto the street.
In early July, as the summer heat started slowing things down, Mr. Jenkins visited Ms. Louisa, telling her the CSS Alabama sank during a battle with the USS Kearsage off the coast of France in late June. Killed during the battle, Jefferson Lawson’s body went down with the ship.
Remembering the ship in the bottle, Louisa shrieked with hysterical laughter at the news, and then burst into tears. The nurses calmed her with tincture of laudanum and Mr. Jenkins, appalled at her reaction, decided to leave her at the Retreat until he could locate her relatives.
A few months later, as the leaves started to show fall colors, the nurses discussed the rumors about General Sherman and Yankee Army heading east from New Orleans. They said he was destroying everything in his path and were anxious about what to do with their charges. A huge battle was raging in and around Atlanta in early September. Everyone in Savannah was afraid that Sherman would soon arrive, bringing Yankee destruction with him.
Sherman did arrive just before Christmas, Major Franklin Yeats at his side. Yeats took a detail to the Lawson plantation to find his sister. Jenkins and most of the slaves had deserted the plantation, but Benjamin and Mahala remained, and led Yeats to the Savannah Retreat where Louisa was still confined.
Yeats, his sister, and the two loyal servants continued the march with Sherman and ultimately arrived in Boston. Yeats and Benjamin started a furniture business together, and continued to support Mahala and Louisa, who spent the rest of their lives as suffragists and advocates for the rights of married women.