Set in a small Louisiana parish, deep in the segregated South, Rootwork follows school-age sisters, Betty, Ann, and Pee Wee during one life-changing summer when the three of them head off to stay with their hoodoo-practicing aunt, Theodora, a powerful woman feared by the local townspeople. She teaches the girls the secrets of her craft, like how to make "hot foot powder" and how to whip up some "goofer dust" to get back at an enemy. The girls delight in their harmless hoodoo adventures until a tragic event involving the town's racist sheriff promises to change their lives forever.
A story of love and redemption, Rootwork explores the strength of family and the darker side of the heart.
Release date: November 15, 2022
Publisher: Dark Hart Books
Print pages: 181
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“Rootwork is one part magical realism, one part coming of age story, one part examination of American identity, and all parts pure magic. It’s unique and spellbinding, and I loved it.”
—Lisa Morton, six-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award
“With Rootwork, Tracy Cross introduces herself to readers as a gifted storyteller of the highest order. This is a richly folkloric tale of traditions passed down, or community and family, and the lasting links forged through the shared experiences of sisters and the impenetrable bonds that anchor them to their histories and each other. At the heart of Rootwork is its plucky, free-spirited heroine, Pee Wee Conway, who is certain to beguile readers of all ages.”
—Vince A. Liaguno, Bram Stoker Award-winning editor of Unspeakable Horror: From the Shadows of the Closet and Other Tales: An Inclusive Anthology
“Rootwork fearlessly brings folk horror to the Deep South. Tracy Cross paints a dark portrait of Black family life, with all the wisdom of our ancestors—their accomplishments, their sorrows, their unresolved hope and rage—and in doing so delivers uniquely American horror without pulling any punches. If you’re a fan of historical fiction and tales of the supernatural, this book will resonate with you long after you’re done reading it.”
—John Edward Lawson, author of Bibliophobia
“Rootwork transported me to another world, on I was unfamiliar with but thoroughly enjoyed. Blending history, hoodoo, and horror elements, Tracy Cross delivers a compelling narrative with characters I sincerely hope to meet again. I really did feel like I was right there alongside Pee Wee and Aunt Teddy.”
—Janine Pipe, Splatterpunk Award-nominated author of Sausages: The Make of Dog Soldiers
“The power and promise of fiction is the ability to take you places you can’t go and do things you’ll never do with people you’ll never meet. Rootwork delivers on that promise with an engrossing coming-of-age tale set amid the voodoo and hoodoo of backcountry Louisiana in 1889. Tracy Cross works magic with the characters and setting of her debut novel. You will love this book and the people in it.”
—F. Paul Wilson, author of The Keep
“Rootwork is a love letter to Black American spirituality, history, and resilience. Much like the work of Zora Neale Hurston, Tracy Cross’s debut novel demystifies and uplifts the medicinal and magical practices of rootwork in Black communities while never straying from its true mission: to tell you a story about a family that loves, fights, and heals. In this time of upheaval and uncertainty, Rootwork is the kind of novel you want to curl up with at the end of the day. It is a story that reminds us of the courage and love we hold in our hearts.”
—Wi-Moto Nyoka, Head Spooky Chick at Black Women Are Scary podcast, and Dusky Projects
Rootwork © 2022 Tracy Cross
This book is a work of fiction. Any reference to historical events, real people, or real places are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and events are products of the author’s or artist’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or places or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any manner without the prior written permission of the copyright owner, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Edited by Marissa van Uden
Book Design and Layout by Rob Carroll
Cover Art by Ryan Mills
Cover Design by Rob Carroll
ISBN 978-1-958598-01-6 (paperback)
ISBN 978-1-958598-14-6 (ebook)
This book is dedicated to my Grandma and Grandpa Cross, Grandma Katie Mae, Grandpa Eddie Lovelace, Great Aunts Betty and Lois, and of course, my Mom and Dad.
Table of Contents
Pee Wee, the youngest and boldest of her sibling explorers, took off running through the woods to beat her sisters home. The sun whispered through the trees, shining on her red-brown skin. Her jet-black pigtails bobbed as she ran fast, chin high, sweeping past the willow trees and feeling the soft Spanish moss beneath her shoes, stray twig bushes swatting her legs, all while carefully skipping or jumping every mud puddle in the humid parish backwaters, knowing she didn’t want to splash-up her good white knee socks, even if one sock did hang around her ankle, for this was not just a day leading into summer break. It was something much more special.
The last day of school was always exciting for Pee Wee, Betty, and Ann Conway, mostly because it meant they were free to roam all the parts of the parish they did not know, especially its dark side.
Pa was coming home with the promise of sweets, and she couldn’t wait to taste them.
“Slow down! Ain’t no fire!” Ann’s shrill voice nipped at her heels only making her fly faster.
“No, no, I can’t wait to see Pa. I been waiting to see him all spring. Wrote me a letter sayin’ he bringin’ some car’mels! And I been extra good. Got me all good marks on my card. He promised them to me!”
“Hattie, you’s a liar! You made them marks on that card y’self. Ma ain’t stupid. She gonna beat yo ass when she find out.”
Pee Wee, ever on the move, slowed and sassed Ann. “Don’t call me Hattie. Name’s Pee Wee, girl. And I’m a tell her you been cussin’ and kissin’ them mixed boys down in the bayou.”
“You gonna do no such thing, or I’m a call you a liar!”
Pee Wee doubled down and increased distance. “Everybody know, Ann! Whatcha gonna do when you gets pregnant? With a lil mixed baby? Shoot, some white folk gonna snatch him up, talkin’ bout ‘Look at how purty his skin is. This here ours now. Them ol’ nappy heads in that parish sure can make good lookin’ car’mel babies’.”
Betty, tawny-skinned enough to almost pass for white, her springtime hair clipped short, came not far off Ann’s flank, slowed to a stop, and doubled over, wiping at her freckled face, her voice sober. “Y’all, that ain’t funny, Hattie Mae.”
Pee Wee slowed and trotted backward. “Ann call me a liar. Do I lie?”
“Now you just bein’ mean. ’Sides, who you sayin’ nappy? You the nappy head. Look here! Mama press a comb to it this morn, now it look nappier than that time you fell in that mud patch.”
“I may haves that nappy hair, Bettina Jean, but I’s gonna see Daddy faster than you!”
Ann laughed as she caught up steady, one mocha-colored hand grabbing at Pee Wee’s white blouse, her skin reddish. The last sunburn she had laid her up and made her bedridden for two days, and she was getting ruddy.
“When I catch you, Pee Wee, I’m a kick your ass for talkin’ too much!”
Pee Wee shoved her sister off, spun, and kept running. “And I’m a tell mama you’s cussin’!”
Ann ran up beside Pee Wee. “And there you go! Talkin’ too much, again!”
Betty smiled as she zipped by them both. “No school, Daddy home. Life ain’t get no better, sisters!”
The trio ran along the path, each teasing at the other until they arrived breathless at their cabin, whose stilts stood on the firm ground of a clearing surrounded by tall wild oaks. The stilts were high enough to keep the house from flooding when the heavy rains fell in the summer. One year, the water flooded the cabin, and Ma lost everything, including her precious quilts from her mother. She wagged a finger at Pa and told him to make sure this never happened again. He measured the highest water mark and built the stilts to sit higher because even Pa was afraid of Ma from time to time. Several other homes, similar in size, clustered in a half circle, while off to the left leaned the weeping willows that led to the nearby fishing hole. Beyond all that: a field of wild cotton they each could pick and harvest unto themselves, because they were blessed enough to own the land.
Pee Wee, Ann, and Betty all considered their home as a comforting and restful place, and each of them had a space slightly bigger than most for themselves. There were two bedrooms, an attic (which the girls shared, divided by clotheslines and makeshift curtains that Betty made), a huge living room, and a wide front porch, which, like its humble neighbors, had a few short steps up to the front door. Their daddy worked both construction and along the railroad and was able to add such extras himself, if only so he and Ma had a place to sit out and smoke their pipes. He even painted the window borders haint blue, just to keep the bad spirits away, and when he finished, neighbors fought to pay him for the rest of the slather. Daddy refused, instead sending them to a man in town to help his business. That man, grateful for the customers, told Daddy that if he ever needed anything, all he’d have to do was holler.
The land around them was so dirt-worn that if someone wanted to hold a meeting, everyone would just drag a chair or something to sit on and there’d be speaking, usually beneath a huge tree at the heart of the cabin circle. Sometimes there’d be a huge party in the same place just to end the summer, where the men dragged up logs to build a circle-fire with a blaze big enough to roast covered pots of boiling crawfish, catfish soup, beans, and rice all at once. Some members of the Natchez Tribe and their wives shared their spices, added them to the stews, and the aroma of the cooking made the whole town smell so delicious you wished you could eat the air. Even the Cajuns would come looking for a morsel, knowing their cooking was too hot to taste for anyone there, except maybe Pa and Pee Wee, who ate it all up without a blink.
When the sisters stopped at the front door to wipe the mud from their shoes, the air was scented with baking bread. Their mother swept at the porch, the broom’s whisk blending that aroma with the new honeysuckle that curled and crept along the ground outside the cabin like sleeping snakes. The aroma spelled not only the treat of fresh baking but also of new butter for the girls, who loved coming home to both and would beg to see it fresh-churned. They would stuff themselves so full before dinner that their appetites would be joyously spoiled, and this happened often enough that Ma, the master baker, couldn’t even get mad anymore.
Ma nodded as she swept. “How was school today?”
The girls answered in unison: “Fine, ma’am.”
Then Pee Wee came forward, fidgeting. “I got some good marks on my card!” she said, handing her mother the paper.
Mama held the paper a distance from her eyes. “Mm-hmm,” she purred. Then she waved it in the air before pressing it to her ample bosom. “Sure you ain’t write these in yourself? Look like some scribbles I done seen before.”
Pee Wee feigned sincerity, rising onto her toes. “Promise! Pa come home?”
“I dunno. Depends on your sisters’ grades.” Ma held out her sand-colored hand, itself as covered with freckles as Betty’s face. “Bettina, Patricia Ann…y’all’s marks?”
Each came to her, papers out, and she eyed them with a mix of suspicion and humor. After a few moments, she laughed, loud and hearty. “Pa, c’mon out! Your girls is smart and home!”
A comforting footfall bumped off the wood as Robert Conway, a huge, strapping man, skin shining and clean as new molasses, stepped onto the newly swept porch, his short hair cascading in waves across his head. He held a raggedy towel up to his face and wiped it dry.
He held his arms out to them. “There’s my girls!”
Pee Wee laughed. “Good thing you’s a big man, Pa. Else you can’t catch us all!”
“I missed y’all bunches! And before you even ask, yes, Pee Wee, I gotcha car’mels.” The girls stood around him while he dug deep into his pockets. “I think I gots one for each one of y’all. And maybe a few extras.”
Betty took the entire handful and ran into the cabin. Pee Wee shuffled after her, almost bumping into her.
Ann remained on the porch. She clasped her hands behind her back and leaned back on her heels.
“Patricia Ann, did ya wanna talk ’bout somethin’?” Pa pulled out a pipe, sat in a chair, and lit it.
Ma set the broom against the door, pulled out her own pipe, and lit it as she sat next to him.
“Not really. I mean, I just was wonderin’ ’bout if we can visit your sister over the break. That one that Ma don’t like. ’Haps I can earn some money doin’ work around her place.”
Ma and Pa sucked on their pipes for a long time in silence. Ma opened her mouth, but Pa placed a hand on hers and patted it.
“Lemme think ’bout it. I just got home, y’know,” he said. “But I don’t see no harm in y’all earnin’ a lil money…”
Ma’s face turned bright red. She spoke through gritted teeth: “Workin’ for some conjure woman—What’s Ann goin’ to do, Robert? Boil cats and skin frogs? Y’know your sister don’t make much a nothin’. People gots to leave her offerings cuz she ain’t s’posed to ask for money!”
Pa leaned back in his chair and smiled. “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with the girls spendin’ time sweepin’ and runnin’ errands once in a while. ...
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