by O.Z.A. Lee

John Ramsey had always frowned on buying and selling children, but for his dear mother exceptions could be made. By all accounts, the child, both bright and willing, would make a suitable lady’s maid, and so he awaited delivery of the slave girl with pleased anticipation.

“Just because that buckra woman’s skin don’t fit right, don’t mean a boohag got her.” Retta punched the dough she was kneading, sending tiny puffs of flour into the hot air.

Lipsy’s head snapped up and she almost spilled the slop from the heavy buckets she was maneuvering across the uneven planks of the kitchen floor. Buckra, tutteh, cooter, dayclean—her quick mind sorted through new words she’d picked up in the days she’d been here. What was boohag?

“What you doing here, lilgal?” Skinny Gen turned on Lipsy like she’d just noticed her, but Lipsy had felt her baleful surveillance as soon as she’d slipped into the kitchen. “Nobody told you take them buckets out.” Skinny Gen stood back from the cast iron stove into Lipsy’s path, her heavy skirt swishing at the floor, menace in the move. Lipsy’s stomach dropped, her whole body clenched, but she did not back away.

“Let the child be,” Retta said.

Skinny Gen was tall to Retta’s short, light to her dark, and tight-faced and seething to her smooth calm, but Retta stared her down. Then she moved her gaze to Lipsy. “What you doing in my kitchen? I can’t imagine Miss Eugenie sent you to take out slop.”

“I just wanted to help. Miss Eugenie sent me away.”

In fact, Miss Eugenie had hurled a book at her and told her to get out of the room while she took a nap, or she’d send her to the workhouse.

“You mean you just up and left her? That how ladies’ maids do in Virginie?” Skinny Gen scoffed.

Being from Virginia brought scorn and distrust down on Lipsy in this bewildering place. So did talking like white folks and trying to do everything she was told just exactly right and being the wrong color—too dark for the light slaves and not rich-black dark enough for the others. Being twelve years old and working in the big house was the biggest sin of all in Skinny Gen’s eyes.

Lord, if she could give that job away, she would. Miss Eugenie scared her down to the bottom of her soul. She told herself it was because the old lady was as mean as a snapping turtle, but it was something deeper, something not right in the old lady’s bright, cruel eyes.

Retta was the only person who had shown kindness to her in this forsaken place and after her first days with Miss Eugenie, Lipsy wished with every beat of her heart she had been assigned to kitchen work instead. She would scrub pots till her fingers bled, haul slop or water or sacks of goods all day long and never mind her aching muscles or the sweat trickling into her eyes or the everlasting jumpy fear of the likes of Skinny Gen, just to be where some kindness lived. Even if she would never quite trust kindness again.

“Let her by, Gen,” Retta commanded. “Set those buckets by the door, lilgal, then you come here and listen to me.”

Lipsy eased the buckets down outside the door. She rubbed her arms, kneading some hurt from them, and stared at the big house. Comfortable enough inside, she reckoned, it had a weather-used, rack ruin air against the mop-headed palmetto trees. Set back from dunes that hid the beach and separated from the tangle of bushes that screened the slave cabins by a lawn of springy grass, it was nothing like the stately Virginia estate she had been sold away from.

Her new mistress was nothing like her old one, either, and it was not because Miss Eugenie was old and withered and sour. Miss Lily, young and bright and sweet, had treated Lipsy well starting when she was very young. From her mistress’s pet, she had become her mistress’s helper, then her lady’s maid in training.

“She’s a smart little thing,” Miss Lily would brag to her lady friends. “I have great hopes for her.” The praise warmed Lipsy’s heart and made her want to be smarter and better and please Miss Lily more. Some of the house slaves said it put pride in her walk and look, but it was gratitude, not pride, that made Lipsy’s heart willing and her hands happy in the service of Miss Lily. Gratitude clasped them together in the fervor of the prayers Miss Lily taught her to say daily, gratitude for her benefactress, for the kindness she was shown, for her ability to serve according to the order that the Lord decreed. She stayed grateful right up to the day Miss Lily sold her.

Lipsy shook away the swirl of remembrances, squared her shoulders for a scolding and went back into the kitchen. She started a bit when Retta gave the bread dough a pair of thumps and a roll and kept her eyes away from Retta’s when the woman spoke, fixing them instead on a stark white streak of flour across Retta’s cheek.

“Lilgal, I know you got sense, so understand this,” Retta began. “Skinny Gen, here, she’s ornery, but she’s not out to hurt you.”

Lipsy was not so sure. She had never felt such hate until she had come here, never felt hate directed at her at all, and she did not know how hate acted out.

Retta sank both hands in the pile of dough and squeezed. “You got bought and brought here for serving Miss Eugenie,” she cut her eyes around the kitchen before resting them on Lipsy’s face, “and that woman is a sight more ornery than anyone I know and she likes to hurt. Don’t you cross her. Don’t go running off just ‘cause she send you out the room.” Retta worked the dough hard. “Marse John, he passes for a good master in these parts. He don’t hold with beatin’ and whippin’, but come down to it, he won’t stop her. He’s buckra, and she’s his mama.”

Buckra, Lipsy knew, meant white folk. She also knew, whether you said buckra or white folk, whether in Virginia or Carolina, white backed white, and black took the brunt. She had lived soft till now, but she didn’t need Retta to explain that to her.

“Now, get on up to the big house and hope Miss Eugenie’s still asleep.”

Dread of returning made Lipsy drag her feet. “What’s a boohag?” she asked, a diversion Retta was having none of.

“Nothing worth wasting time over.”

“Don’t you reckon she should know?” intervened Skinny Gen. “Seein’ as there’s one roamin’ around here.” She bent towards Lipsy, her solicitude scarier than her hostility. “Specially if this one decides it wants a new skin, maybe a soft little black girl’s skin…”

“Enough!” Retta glowered at Skinny Gen, then at Lipsy. “I said ‘get’!”

Lipsy went.

The walkway that connected the larder, the smokehouse, the kitchen and the big house had been built high against downpours that made temporary lakes of the spongy ground. She stayed carefully on it, an eye out for snakes. Carolina snakes not only crawled, they swam and hung in trees. A snake could get on the walk easy enough, but on the walk, you could see it coming. A boohag, she reckoned, whatever it was, would be among things you didn’t see coming.

Mercifully, when Lipsy got back to the parlor, the old woman was dozing. She was so still and pale she looked dead, her eyes sunken, her head lolling. A dank odor seeped through the lavender perfume Miss Eugenie used copiously. It was just her old lady smell, but Lipsy suddenly wanted it to be the odor of death. Her heart lifted at the thought of Miss Eugenie gone, then seized in fright. She was a good person. Never had she wished ill on anyone. Even in the crushed bewilderment of being sold, even through the rattling hardship of the trip from Virginia, she had wished no evil. Would the devil take her if Miss Eugenie died because of Lipsy’s dark thoughts?

Old skin sagging from slack cheeks quivered, and Miss Eugenie came out of her snooze with a snort. Hard, little eyes focused on Lipsy. Lips stretched into a thin, catlike smile. “Bring me a glass of water. I swear I’m dry as a bone.”

Lipsy turned to get the water.

“Girl!” A tremor of anticipation in Miss Eugenie’s voice warned Lipsy to search out her fault or be punished. She cut her eyes to the martinet, the short stick with rawhide strips tied to it that Miss Eugenie kept at her side and went through a feverish review of Miss Eugenie’s many rules. The first time Lipsy had felt the rawhide bite her skin, the act stupefied her more than the pain. Never had a white person struck her with such vicious pleasure. A bow. That was it. Miss Eugenie proclaimed that she should bow at each order. Lipsy whipped around and dipped her upper body, her eyes on the floor. She served the water from the covered pitcher on the corner cupboard and bowed again.

The old woman sipped the water and grimaced. “This water’s been sitting too long. Fetch me fresh water, from the well.”

There was no well out here on the island, and the workhouse that Miss Eugenie constantly threatened Lipsy with existed only in Charleston. Workhouse or not, the woman could have her whipped, and well or not, she wanted fresh water. Lipsy ran back down the path she had just taken to fill the crystal pitcher with water kept cool behind the larder’s thick walls.

Back, panting and sweating, Lipsy filled the glass with cool water. Miss Eugenie stuck up her nose. “Where’s the lemon? You know I don’t take my water without lemon!”

Lipsy did not know. In her five days in Miss Eugenie’s service, the old lady had never once asked for lemon. Her chest puffed with protestation, but she stifled it at the stalking look behind the woman’s face.

A stream of abuse in language that burned her ears sent her scampering back to the kitchen for lemons.

She presented a plate of wedges to Miss Eugenie.

“What do you expect me to do with that?” she cried. “They are no good to me on the plate.”

Carefully, Lipsy set the plate on the round table beside Miss Eugenie’s chair and took a wedge of lemon. She was about to squeeze it into the water when a screech stopped her, and a bony hand caught her across the cheek with such force she spun against the table. The glass and pitcher went flying. They skittered over the carpet and crashed into the baseboard across the room. The heavy crystal pitcher bounced back, but the more delicate water glass shattered.

“Mother! What in Sam Hill…” John Ramsey hurried into the room. His glance slid over the stunned and cowering Lipsy and the blood on her cheek, then jumped to his enraged mother, the wet carpet, and the broken glass. Behind him Miss Annabel, Marse John’s wife, surveyed the scene, her hands on her hips.

“She was about to…” Miss Eugenie hiccupped, fairly frothing with rage, “about to squeeze lemon in my water with her bare, black hands! A field hand knows better! You promised me a proper maid!”

Marse John’s eyes clouded at his mother’s fury, but he smoothed his troubled expression, and his words were gentle. “There, there, Mother. She is young. She will learn. Mr. Dabney told me she has great promise. Come, let us sit on the veranda for a spell.”

Lipsy glimpsed grimness on Miss Annabel’s face as she watched her husband escort his mother from the room with soothing words and a firm hand, but whether it was for Miss Eugenie or for the cut welling blood on Lipsy’s cheek, she did not know and would not guess.

Lipsy’s sore and squeezed heart had leapt when she’d first set eyes on the tall woman with hair the color of apple jelly. She’d seen a mildness in her looks that reminded her of Miss Lily. But Lipsy’s heart was schooled now with harsh lessons, so she kept it as still as a mouse under the slit eyes of a hunting cat.

Miss Annabel crossed the room and took Lipsy by both shoulders, not ungently. Her grip made Lipsy’s arms feel thin. She stiffened herself in her chest and neck and tried to smooth her face. After a glance at the doorway, Miss Annabel bent and put her face close. “You look like a bright child to me, Lipsy,” she said, her voice low and even. “You were brought here as a lady’s maid.”

Lipsy nodded.

“My mother-in-law is particular about how a lady’s maid conducts herself.”

Lipsy gave a tiny nod and hoped the blood from the cut on her cheek wouldn’t drip on Miss Annabel.

Miss Annabel looked towards the door then back at Lipsy. She went on quietly, “I’m told you are a good girl. Your former mistress trained you up to be helpful. Your new mistress is old and…” Miss Annabel paused mid-sentence, tightened her grip and went on in a firmer tone “…used to obedience. You must do exactly as she says at all times. It is the only way to help yourself, girl. You understand?”

Lipsy managed a slight up and down of her head, her eyes big on Miss Annabel’s face, her frightened thoughts catching on the words ‘help yourself’.

Miss Annabel sighed. “Answer properly, girl.”

“Yes, mistress.”

“Now clean this up,” Miss Annabel said in a normal voice. She looked like she wanted to say something else, heavy or kind, Lipsy couldn’t tell, but she didn’t. After she was gone, when Lipsy’s legs would carry her, she went to find a broom under the house where work and storage rooms were partitioned off.

She leaned against a brick wall, smelling the damp and salt in the air, and nursed her cheek. She squeezed back tears. Help herself? How? Did she have the power to make it better? With everyone against her? Everything ready to hurt her? Miss Eugenie was the worst, but there were so many others: snakes and black widow spiders, the wicked sandspurs that hid in the grass to stab her bare feet, bellowing alligators, the everlasting heat and the ever-present ticks and blood-hungry mosquitos. Even the tabby walls, made out of sand and crushed seashells, reached out to hurt her. The sharp bits of shell sliced like a razor. A stumble against a wall on her first day had left mean scrapes on her arm that healed slowly, so slowly, into three thin white lines. She touched the cut on her cheek. Would she have a thin white line there, too?

“Retta don’t wanna listen, but I know the boohag took the skin of that stringy-headed cracker woman down by the swamp.”

Skinny Gen’s voice! Lipsy backed into the shadows of the toolroom, making herself as silent as the walls, listening beyond her muted breathing as footsteps came down the central hall.

“How you know that?” a woman whose voice Lipsy didn’t recognize said.

“I’ve been watching how she acts. Used to be sharp and mean-mouthed, now she talks as sweet as honey-water. You see someone change like that, you can bet the boohag trying to fool folks. And like I keep telling Retta, that woman’s skin don’t fit right. Boohag’s got her, for sure.”

“Maybe it has and maybe it hasn’t,” said the other woman.

“I’ll be finding out come night. When the boohag’s out roaming, I’m going to find that skin.”

“You going to salt it?”

“Nah,” said Skinny Gen with a cackle that startled cold into the pit of Lipsy’s stomach, “I’m going to let it be.” The cackle turned to a sneer. “’Course I’m gonna salt it.”

A harrumph of satisfaction from the other woman. Lipsy licked at a drop of sweat that settled in the fold of a grimace she hadn’t realized she was making. Fear of being discovered and fascination of what she was learning focused every ounce of her attention on the two women.

“I got nothing against that boohag riding that cracker woman,” Skinny Gen went on. “More power to it. But I’ve been thinking. If it gonna suck the breath out of someone all night, wear a body down, make her too tired and too sick to bedevil black folk, I reckon there’s a better skin for it.”

“You better watch out, gal. Someone’s gonna hear you talk.”

“And what? Hear buckra tell it, ain’t no such thing as a boohag.”

“Boohag don’t care if they believe or not,” the woman sniffed, then added in an anxious tone. “It ain’t right to go wishing evil on folks.”

“What about someone that match a boohag evil for evil?”

“You talking about Miss Eugenie?”

Skinny Gen didn’t answer, but her face must have confirmed the other woman’s guess.

“She’s bad, for sure,” the other woman said slowly, “but Lord knows it’s wrong to wish evil on a body.”

“Lord knows a lotta things…” Skinny Gen’s words were little more than a mutter and Lipsy wasn’t sure she heard them right. The footsteps shuffled past the room Lipsy was in and stopped. She flattened back against the rough bricks and held her breath.

“She didn’t always act so ugly,” the woman said. “Highfalutin’, for sure, but no better or worse to black folks than anyone else. Then her husband made him some children down by the woodpile; folks say he did it just to spite her. That’s when the meanness started.”

“Miss Eugenie’s mean because she can be,” Skinny Gen said flatly. “Meanness feeds meanness, and she’s been visiting torment as long as I can remember. ’Bout time something bring torment to her.” Skinny Gen’s voice lowered. “I took all the blue outta her room already, and I been leavin’ a crack in her window. When that boohag can’t get back in the skin it took, it’ll follow the smell of her evil and sniff her right out. It suck enough breath outta her, maybe she’ll go on and die, like she oughta. Miss Eugenie dead, then I’ll be done here.”

“Shut your mouth.” The other woman’s gasp covered Lipsy’s. “Don’t you say nothin’ to me about running off. I don’t want to hear nothing. Not a word.”

“What’s wrong with your ears? You hear me say them words?”

“I know you been…”

“Now you shut your mouth. You didn’t hear nothing about me going nowhere, nothing at all.”

Aghast, Lipsy remained pressed against the wall until the voices and the footsteps faded, then she grabbed a broom and a rag and hurried back to the parlor.

What she had heard darted and jumped around in her mind while she sponged water out of the carpet and gathered up shards of glass. She knew of hants and ghosts, and they would scare her, she figured, if she hadn’t been taught not to believe in them. So why did that boohag sound so frighteningly real? Maybe the icy finger down her spine didn’t come from the boohag, but from the calculation in Skinny Gen’s voice. Or maybe it was how Skinny Gen’s plan made her feel. Wrongheaded and crazy as siccing an evil spirit on an old woman sounded, Lipsy felt a lift in her spirits at the thought of acting and not just enduring.

Maybe there was something Lipsy could do? Nothing as abhorrent as what Skinny Gen planned, just something to make Miss Eugenie want a different servant. She remembered a girl in Virginia, put to work in the nursery where she didn’t want to be. In her care the baby wailed more than it slept, and it never got fed right. The day the girl dropped the baby she was sent right back to cleaning and scrubbing. What if she hadn’t been thick-headed like Lipsy thought? What if she’d just found a way to help herself out of where she didn’t want to be?

Maybe Lipsy could help herself. Maybe she should stop trying to do a good job. She didn’t have a baby to drop, but most anything set Miss Eugenie off anyway. Enough fumbling to get Miss Annabel to move her from a hated job to a hard one wouldn’t be hard. But she would have made it happen.

Lipsy went straight to the kitchen after the parlor. Retta didn’t say a word about her cracked cheek, just gave her a rag. Lipsy wet it and worked the dried blood off, pushing and patting the tender flesh, and then squared her shoulders for Retta’s scolding.

“Set yourself down,” Retta said instead, pointing to a pile of rice sacks. “Rest yourself, lilgal. They want you at the big house tonight.”

“Why do I have to go to the big house at night?”

“Miss Eugenie wants you outside her door. Lord help you if she calls you and you asleep.”

Lipsy’s heart sped up. Sleeping might be a way to try her plan. She quickly lowered her eyes so Retta wouldn’t see that thought light them.

Retta walked Lipsy to the big house after a meal of hominy and molasses. Under the rising moon, huge and blue, eerie shadows shifted as a sea breeze tickled palmetto fronds. Lipsy stuck close to Retta.

“Is the boohag a hant?” The words just popped out.

“Skinny Gen been talking about that again? Her mouth’s too big for her face!”

“Well, is it?”

Retta huffed. “No. Folks that believe say it’s evil that can’t give up being evil and stays on this earth after the body dies. It needs a skin and steals it from some poor soul. It leaves the skin at night to roam.

“What for?” Lipsy edged closer to Retta.

“To find a victim and claim its breath. Don’t need more than a keyhole or a crack to get in a place. Then it rides the poor soul, sits right on his chest to suck out his breath. That’s how it keeps going.”

“Does it kill the person?” Lipsy whispered, thinking about what Skinny Gen had said about Miss Eugenie.

“Never heard of that. Mostly it just bedevils his dreams, and the next day the poor soul’s so tired he can barely drag himself from hour to hour.” Retta looked down at her. “Least that’s what folks that believe say.”

Lipsy felt a heavy sort of relief. If the boohag wouldn’t kill Miss Eugenie, then Skinny Gen’s mortal soul might not be in danger from her plan. Another thought struck her. She’d be right outside Miss Eugenie’s door. What if the thing wanted black girl’s breath, like Skinny Gen had said, instead of sour old white woman’s? Maybe she wouldn’t sleep tonight after all.

“Can it ride a person who is not sleeping?” she squeaked.

Retta gave her an appraising look. “You worried ’bout a boohag? Best you stay awake then.”

“But what if I fall asleep?” Lipsy didn’t mean to wail, but it came out anyway, rising from beyond her disbelief, stoked by ghostly possibilities whispered at her under the blue-white moon, by the rustling spikes of the palmetto fronds, and the throat-growling of the surf. It came from the daunting prospect of spending all night alone in front of a room Skinny Gen had made welcoming to an evil spirit. It came most of all from finding out sleeping could mean more trouble than any ugly-acting old white lady could give her.

Retta heaved an amused sigh. “Ease yourself, child. Easy enough to keep a boohag away.”

She took Lipsy to the tool room, where she picked up a sturdy broom used for sweeping walks and thrust it at her. Then, in the cutting room where the slaves’ clothes were made, Retta found four long strips of earthy blue material and draped them over her shoulder. On the way out, she instructed Lipsy to pick up a pile of sewing.

“What’s all this for?”

“You’ll see.” Retta marched her up the servants’ stairs to the second-floor landing outside Miss Eugenie’s bedroom. Moonlight poured onto the landing through a high window, making elongated rectangles on flooring the color of swamp water.

“Lay those strips out, just so,” said Retta, showing Lipsy she should make a square. “Make sure they touch good at the corners.”

Lipsy did as she was told, creating a blue-bordered space big enough to sit in.

“Boohag can’t stand indigo,” Retta said. “And it can’t cross blue, so stay inside and it can’t get you.”

“What about the broom?” Lipsy imagined herself poking or hitting at the creature as it came at her. Would she have the courage? Would she be strong enough?

Retta balanced the broom against the wall on the stick end. It slid and almost fell, but it stopped against the doorframe to Miss Eugenie’s room and stayed, the straws sticking straight up. “Boohag can’t resist a broom,” she explained. “It just gotta stop and count the straws. With this big bushy one, it’ll be counting all night. You keep it propped up like this and stay in the square, and you’ll be all right.”


“Now, the sewing.” Retta nodded at the cut-out cloth. “It’ll keep you awake. Keep your mind on the stitches and dayclean be here before you know it.”

From inside the indigo square, Lipsy watched Retta disappear down the servants’ stairs, then she sat on the floor and took up the sewing. With a trembling sigh and shaking fingers, she threaded the needle and started basting, squinting in the pale light of the moon.

“Water!” Miss Eugenie’s cry startled her into pricking her finger. She wiped the blood on her skirt, stood, and started towards the door, then hopped back realizing she would have to leave the square to go to the old woman.

“Bring me my water!” The voice was edged with ugliness.

There’s no such thing as a boohag, Lipsy reminded herself. And how are you going to mess up serving her if you don’t go in there? Wiping her hands on her skirt again, she stepped out of the square and opened the door. In the shadows thrown by the lamp-light, the old woman was as scary a sight as Lipsy had ever seen. Propped against the pillows, lank grey hair framing her gaunt face, she drew back her lips when Lipsy entered. Lipsy could swear the glints of light on her old teeth showed pointy ends.

Flustered, her heart pounding, Lipsy scuttled over to the marble stand and took a pitcher, putting it down hastily. She had gone to the wash bowl instead of the drinking water. An unintended mistake, but it might do to start her plan. She turned, the pitcher in her hand.

“Washing water, you stupid girl?” Miss Eugenie cried. Her eyes narrowed to sly, knowing slits. “Or maybe you’re not so stupid. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing? They think I won’t see it because you’re just a child. You’re doing their sneaking work, aren’t you? Tainting my water with your filthy hands? Sickening me little by little? It’s that high yellow girl, that Skinny Gen, isn’t it? She’s the one slipping slow poison into the soup…” Miss Eugenie ranted on, building a litany of horrible ways a slave could kill a master, her lips twisting with malice.

Appalled at the wild reaction to her timid attempt at messing up, Lipsy looked for soothing words to quiet her, or at least bring her back from madness to anger, but no sound came out. Under the growing terror the old woman’s ranting and accusations stirred in her, she wondered just what Skinny Gen was capable of. Her eyes cut to the window, spying out the tiny crack at the bottom. Would she be willing to do more than crack a window to let in an evil spirit to bedevil Miss Eugenie? Would she put something in the soup? Or the water? Lipsy looked at the water pitcher, then shook away the idea. This ranting was just more of Miss Eugenie’s hatefulness tainting everything around her.

Lipsy approached the bed and extended a glass of water filled from the proper pitcher, keeping as far out of reach of a punch or a swipe with the martinet as she could manage. Miss Eugenie’s eyes focused back to human, her face lost its wildness. Sniffing, she took the water and drank deeply. “Get out of my sight,” she snapped, thrusting the glass back at Lipsy.

Shaken, her plan temporarily forgotten, Lipsy left before Miss Eugenie could start up again. A wave of pity for the old lady surprised her as she went back to her blue square, her moonlight sewing, and the dark broom.

Three more times Miss Eugenie called her. Three more times she endured her tirades. Once she was pinched, once she was slapped, once she was spat on. When she closed the door after that last time, pity was gone from her heart and her determination to look like a bad servant came back. The next time, she cracked the door and waited, painting her face with a sullen look. The old woman berated her and fell back into grumbling snores. The time after, she did the same. Was it enough? If Lipsy didn’t go in, Miss Eugenie seemed to forget why she’d called. What if she didn’t remember in the morning? Didn’t complain to Marse John?

“Lord help you if she calls you and you asleep.” Retta’s words came back to her. If Marse John or Miss Annabel found her asleep in the morning, well… If a boohag found her asleep tonight…

As if summoned by her thoughts, sleep pricked Lipsy’s eyes and tugged at her eyelids. She eyed her sewing, the landing, Miss Eugenie’s door. She had the indigo, she had the broom. Sleep was as good an idea as any. She put up the needle and thread, made a pillow out of the pile of sewing, and curled up inside the square. It wasn’t hard to sink heavy into slumber.


Something woke her, she couldn’t say what. A creaking of the wooden stairs, a nearby soughing that should have been outside, a sharp, metallic smell of raw meat. Her eyes flew open. Glowing, devil-deep light gleamed from soulless eyes that fixed on her with greedy hunger. Her muscles locked; her breath hitched. A face, skinless and glistening and red, slick and shiny with sheeted blood, veined with thick blue lines, pushed at her above a hideous form, sinewy with raw muscle, like a calf newly skinned and poorly bled. Red skinless lips stretched in anticipation over sharp predator teeth. Terror struck Lipsy deep and hard; she could not so much as blink.

A snarl tore from the thing’s throat. It extended a claw to where the cloth marked Lipsy’s refuge and jerked back. The smell of singed meat rose with a wisp of smoke.

Help, she wanted to scream, but her throat was too constricted, and she knew too well no one would come. Help yourself. The voice was tiny. How? Breathe. She brought the shallow jerky gasps that were making her lightheaded under control, then she shifted one foot, ever so little. The thing snarled and lunged again but stopped just short of the indigo cloth.

It can’t cross indigo. Lipsy forced herself to believe what her eyes were telling her.

The cloth strips thwarted its furious hunger for her, but the boohag wasn’t giving up. It moved around the square, glowing eyes fixed on her, a canny beast of prey looking for the tiniest opening. Then it saw the broom.

The greed in its eyes grew crafty, and horrible gurgling worked its throat. It moved swiftly to the door, long claw-like fingers reaching towards the bristling straw. At its touch, the broom fell clattering to the floor, half inside the indigo square. The boohag sputtered and fumed and stretched its sinewy arms for the broom straw only to leap back, both arms smoking, and the stench of burnt blood filled the air again. Her heart pounding, Lipsy grabbed the broom, lest the boohag use it to destroy her sanctuary.

The creature could not get inside the square to rend her, or sink claws and teeth into her, or steal her life in long sucking breaths, but it scraped and slithered and snarled around her, growing more and more furious, never taking its eyes off the broom.

“Well, lilgal. You in a fix.” Skinny Gen moved out of the darkness at the end of the hall by the servants’ stairs. The boohag lunged at her, but fell back, chittering and whining. Gen was dressed in blue from her head to her feet. In her right hand, she carried a sack, and in the left a string of hot peppers.

Silence fell. Skinny Gen advanced, tall and menacing, her shadow stretching behind her, stark and blacker than any shadow should be. “Yeah, I reckoned you’d come,” she growled at the boohag. “But it ain’t this little girl you want. And you ain’t getting that broom. Don’t need you counting straws, do we, when you got easy pickings right there in that room.”

She never took her eyes off the creature as she advanced, a twisted smile on her face. She brandished the little sack. “You want some of this salt? How about these nice hot peppers?”

Clutching the broom tightly, Lipsy watched Skinny Gen herd the creature towards the door of Miss Eugenie’s room.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Gen said. She shook her bag of salt and backed the monster against the door. Evil eyes blazed at Skinny Gen, but her eyes were just as terrible. She shook the salt at the skinned face and the boohag’s form wobbled, then got ropy, then whittled down to almost nothing and slipped through the keyhole with a whisper. Lipsy whirled around inside her square, her eyes searching every cranny of the landing. It was gone.

“You have yourself a good long ride now,” Gen said softly, the softest Lipsy had ever heard from her.

Lipsy met Skinny Gen’s eyes.

“What you lookin’ at?”

“You… you sent that thing into Miss Eugenie’s room.”

Skinny Gen nodded, her face unholy with satisfaction. “I reckon one good ride’ll finish the old witch.”

“But, but… oh Lord, will it really kill her?”

Skinny Gen’s lip curled. “Maybe, maybe not.”

“But it’s wrong!”

“Nothing wrong with settin’ evil against evil. Which you rather have after you, that boohag or Miss Eugenie? Watch out lilgal, she’s mean enough to send that boohag back to hell and come out here for you. Indigo won’t stop the likes of her.” Skinny Gen swept across the moonlit landing towards the stairs.

“Where are you going?”

“The good Lord helped me; reckon I can help him some. I’m gonna work out where that thing left its skin and salt it good. Dayclean catch it without a skin and no more boohag.”

Lipsy stood a long time after Skinny Gen left. She fixed her eyes on the keyhole. Had she really seen the monster go through it like a wisp? Was it sucking out all Miss Eugenie’s breath? Would it kill her? With a wash of shame, she remembered how she’d hoped for the old woman’s death earlier that day. But dying was one thing, being killed was another, wasn’t it?

Remembering how the indigo strip had seared its arms, and how Gen had made it cower, Lipsy put the broom down and wrapped indigo strips from her protective square around her one by one, finishing with a turban, wound high. Holding the last strip in one hand, and the broom, straw end out, in the other, she sucked in air to feed her courage and cracked open Miss Eugenie’s door.

The room was deathly quiet, deathly still—no moans, no cries, no crouching, twitching silhouette. Rumpled shadows lay on the bed, smooth ones filled the corners. Drawn by the silence and the stillness, Lipsy crept to the bed and turned up the lamp.

Yellow light flared. Lipsy gasped, raised the lamp high.

Skin. Only skin. White and wrinkled and flaccid, it lay on the bed like something sloughed off a snake. A gasp released the breath she’d been holding, and she leaned in, pulled by horror. A reek of lavender rose from the darkness that misted inside the skin. The darkness squirmed, quivered, and stretched towards her as if to claim her. It was hungry.

Lipsy jerked back and tightened her jaw against her supper trying to come back up. She stumbled to the washstand and filled the basin with lumpy molasses-smelling throw up. When she was as empty as Miss Eugenie’s skin, she straightened shakily and wiped her mouth with the indigo cloth.

Retta said the boohag sucked the breath out of folk, not their whole insides. Unless the boohag had been in Miss Eugenie all along? But hadn’t Skinny Gen said to the woman under the house that it turned folk sweet when it was in their skin? Sweet as honey water? Her fingers probed her sore cheek. No. The blows, the curses, the sly cruelties, the pleasure in hurting, she was sure, she couldn’t say how, that was all Miss Eugenie.

“Well, well, well, lilgal, looks like I can’t leave you alone for nothing. What’s going on in here?” Skinny Gen slipped into the room and closed the door softly, narrowed eyes on the empty skin. Lipsy barreled into her, rocking her back on her heels as she hugged her tight. “It was here all the time. In Miss Eugenie’s skin. Don’t go near. It’s hungry.”

“What you talkin’ about?” Skinny Gen undid Lipsy’s grip and pushed her away. “I found that boohag’s skin. Salted it good. It’ll have to go back to hell come dayclean.” She shook the almost empty bag of salt as proof.

“Then there were two?” Suddenly two boohags seemed preferable to the unexplained and hungry malignancy on the bed.

“Nah, never two roaming the same territory.”

“Then what about—about that?” Lipsy stared at the twisting, reeking skin.

Skinny Gen’s eyes narrowed to calculating slits. “Looks like that boohag weren’t no match for the evil inside her. Looks like it don’t want to share with no boohag. Gonna chase it right to hell, I reckon.” She gave a hard chuckle and a wondering shake of her head. “Let’s make sure they both stay there.”

“Stay there?” Lipsy swallowed hard. “Are you going to salt Miss Eugenie’s skin too?”

“Ain’t no amount of salt keep that evil from coming back.” Skinny Gen, suddenly all business, gestured toward the washstand. “Clean that basin. Go on back out to the landing, take up your sewing. When they ask you, the old lady sent you out for something, something that would take you away for a while. When you got back, you reckoned she was asleep, so you didn’t disturb her. You had no idea she wandered off.”

“Wandered off? But…”

“Shush, lilgal.”

Lipsy’s mouth wouldn’t shush. “What are you going to do?”

“You don’t want to know.” Gen pulled the putrid edges of the horrid skin closed, folded it down head to foot, once, twice, bundling it small, then tied it with an indigo strip and stuffed it in a pillow cover.

Arranging the bedcovers to look like Miss Eugenie had gotten up and out of bed, she patted the pillow and picked up the grisly bundle.

Lipsy stood between her and the door. “What about that evil? That evil took Miss Eugenie’s insides? It’s hungry. With her skin gone, won’t it take somebody else’s? Marse John or Miss Annabel? We got to stop it.”

Skinny Gen’s face slackened, bleak and tired for a tiny second, then came back to the hard lines Lipsy had always known.

“Too late for that,” she said, her voice copperhead mean.

“What do you mean…” Lipsy stopped. Scenes from the afternoon came back to her: Marse John comforting his mother while Lipsy trembled and cowered; Miss Annabel’s tight grip as she instructed Lipsy to obey Miss Eugenie’s whims. She closed her eyes and Miss Lily’s sweet, fair face floated an instant in front of her, closed and composed as she announced to Lipsy that she had been sold.

“Maybe some got enough good in them to stand against it, maybe not,” said Skinny Gen. “That’s up to them.” She stared at the bundle, then straightened tall. “I’m through with maybe. The Lord helps those that help themselves, and you and me, lilgal, all we got is ourselves. You’ll help yourself by saying you didn’t see the old lady wander off, I help myself by getting as far from here as I can.”

“You can’t run away,” said Lipsy, aghast.

“Sure I can,” said Gen. “I been planning the end of Skinny Gen since before you was born.” Her eyes glittered. She set her lips in a hard line. “Her gone, there’s a little less evil around here. Me gone, they’ll have someone to blame. Now, get outta my way, lilgal.”


John Ramsey signed the bill of sale for the slave girl called Lipsy with some regret. He was taking less than what he had paid, but after the loss of his dear mother, he could no longer bear the sight of her.

It was not that he did not believe her story: how his mother had ordered her to the kitchen for lemons in the middle of the night to flavor her water, how she had not dared disturb her when she returned, how she discovered her absence only in the wee hours and ran to the high yellow woman called Skinny Gen for help.

“She told me to sit tight. She went off and I stayed here and prayed,” the girl told him fervently. “I prayed and prayed.”

He believed her when she told him and he believed her after the grisly discovery of bits of skin, oddly blackened on the inside, torn clothing, and a hank of black hair by an alligator wallow. He believed, too, that the slave woman had lost her life trying to save her mistress.

It was that or believe worse: that the slave woman, who had a hard reputation, and a mere child, whom he had bought to tend his dear mother, had done harm to her. And that would mean they had harbored evil in their household, fed and clothed and sheltered people capable of foul deeds against the weak and helpless. That would mean they had helped evil thrive.

As an army brat who grew up on army bases in Japan on Okinawa, among others, O.Z.A. Lee contracted travel fever at an early age. Going into the Peace Corps after graduating from the University of Texas was a great way to keep traveling, and after three years in Morocco, it landed her in the South of France, where she pursued further degrees at the Université Paul Valery in Montpellier. Now living in Nîmes, she fully assumes her hybrid Franco-American status and indulges in her passion for writing and for painting to the hilt.

“Help” by O.Z.A. Lee. Copyright © 2022 by O.Z.A. Lee.

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  1. I've just finished reading Help by O.Z.A. Lee and I've enjoyed every bit of it. English is not my mother tongue but the voyage was beautiful! Merci beaucoup!


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