Once upon a time in a crowded neighborhood spewing apartments, shops, and clubs, there was a man named Jimmy Long. He owned the jazz club The Heart, a cozy spot in the basement of a laundromat in the center of Harlem. The Heart was a place of liberation, libations, and good times. The best jazz musicians in the neighborhood played every night. Girls with eyes full of dreams and diamonds came to audition in the hope of being one of Jimmy’s dancers. This was the kind of gig that could help a gal make it big. In fact, the last girl had made it to Broadway.
Jimmy Long was the king of this castle, pulling the strings like an expert puppeteer. Contrary to his name, however, he was short in stature. Small pock marks spread along his cheeks, a sinister version of freckles. He had a deep voice and a toothy grin. Business-wise, he was an oracle, always having foresight in deals. When it came to broads though, he was a blind man groping along their grooves and curves. If he’d had foresight about the witch, things might have turned out differently.
When she auditioned to dance at the club, he let her do half her set before calling, “Next.”
“I haven’t gotten to the finale yet,” she said, her eyes pleading for the chance to finish.
“Next,” he said, his jaw set. The stage lights made the caverns of his face seem black and endless. He wasn’t someone who accepted begging.
The witch thanked him for her time, her caramel skin darkened with embarrassment. She gave a side glance to the next woman auditioning before heading to the dressing room to collect her belongings.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?” Jimmy Long asked the young woman before him. Her skin was a gorgeous shade of cocoa, smooth and dark. Her midnight hair was in ringlets that framed her full face. The classic hairstyle reminded Jimmy of a movie star. The woman had painted a long thin black line over each of her eyes. She wore a blue fit and flare dress with tiny white flowers, showing off her petite figure.
Her eyes flirted with him, displaying her confidence, yet her lower lip trembled, betraying her nerves. “Virginia.”
“What do you got for us today, Virginia?”
“Let me show you, sir.”
By the end of her routine, she’d been picked up by the club and by Jimmy Long.
Their courtship was like a spark; once ignited it burned quickly, taking them down a path neither foresaw. They certainly didn’t see a baby girl in the not so distant future, or the ruin her birth would bring to their kingdom.
Neither of them gave a thought to the woman who’d auditioned before Virginia. The woman that Virginia had watched size her up, as she did the same. The woman that could have risen to status and wealth Virginia had. Neither of them recognized her when she waltzed into The Heart a few months later. By then it was too late.
The witch’s name was Jacinda. The story goes that she was born with magic in her blood; her parents were witches as well. Growing up, her family lived in secret in the small town of Little Falls, New York; her parents didn’t want anyone to know they had powers. The trials in Salem weren’t far enough in the past for them to live without fear. As a child, however, Jacinda couldn’t contain her powers, no matter how hard she tried. Every time she became upset or angry, her magic flared like a sparkler. In time, it spread like wildfire, burning down homes and people, incapable of stopping until everything and everyone was dead.
Sadly, her parents were a casualty of one of her wildfires. Jacinda was 16, and the boy she’d been crushing on asked another girl to the spring fling, so Jacinda gave the girl a humped back. Jacinda’s parents knew it was intentional; since her thirteenth birthday she’d learned to control her magic. Yet instead of living in secret as her parents did, Jacinda chose to flaunt her powers. She wanted to prove to the world she was better than it and its many creatures. Her parents tried to warn her of the consequences if her abilities got out. “Do you want them to come after us?” her father said. “They’ll think we’re monsters.”
“Maybe I want to be a monster.”
“They won’t understand you, honey,” her mother said.
“Maybe not, but they will fear me.” Jacinda’s pupils dilated, turning her eyes pitch black. She said an incantation under her breath as her parents shrank from her in horror. A mischievous grin spread across her face as Jacinda imagined the high school being stormed with poisonous gas. She saw the twisted faces of the boys and girls in her class as the gas enveloped them, and watched with delight as their tuxedo and chiffon clad bodies began to convulse. A giggle escaped her throat. It grew with each breath, getting higher and higher in pitch until it resembled a hyena cackling.
She continued to giggle until her parents’ faces began to twist and the living room of their home filled with yellow fog. The poisonous gas had spread farther than Jacinda had intended. She stood there watching her parents scream and writhe, knowing she couldn’t do anything to stop it. They were too far gone. She knew if the gas had made it here everyone else in Little Falls was dying. At 16, she’d murdered an entire town.
She stood there as her parents died, their wide, possessed looking eyes gazing up at her. Once their heartbeats stopped, she packed a bag with clothes and food. Before she left, she wiggled her hand into the back pocket of her father’s slacks to get his wallet. She didn’t let the tears building in her eyes fall. “Bye, Momma and Daddy,” she said, as she stuffed the wallet into her bag. She then left her home and started walking to the nearest town. When she reached it, she bought a train ticket to New York City.
Jacinda had been living in the city ever since. Somewhere along the way she decided she liked dancing and singing; really she liked the attention. Not just from men, mind you, but the kind of attention a woman receives when another woman desires what she has. She was hungry for adoration, and when she didn’t get it, she whispered one of her many incantations, a devilish grin on her face as she watched her latest punishment unfold.
The witch knew that to be adored she had to become a star. And Jimmy Long’s club was the place to make that happen. When Virginia was chosen as the new dancer at his club, Jacinda took it personally. She believed Virginia had stolen her life and the witch planned to steal it back. So six months later she strutted into The Heart Club once again. She saw Jimmy talking to Virginia by the stage, his hand on her swollen belly, and the witch saw opportunity. She pulled a shiv from her sleeve, sliced a vertical line across the palm of her hand, and walked up to the couple. With each step, crimson droplets hit the scuffed wooden floor. When Jimmy saw Jacinda approaching, her one hand bloody, the other holding the knife pointed at them like a bull’s eye, he went to step in front of Virginia, to shield her from whatever darkness was about to happen. He found he couldn’t move. Neither could Virginia. Jacinda stopped when she was inches from them. Her eyes ablaze, she held her bleeding hand above Virginia’s popped belly, and chanted an incantation under her breath as her blood dripped onto the woman’s white and silver beaded dress. When she was done chanting, Jacinda told Jimmy Long and Virginia they were having a girl. She continued, her lip drawing back in a snarl, “On her seventeenth birthday she will turn on a jukebox, and as soon as she hears the jazz music play, she will instantly fall asleep. For all eternity. She’ll never be your star.” With that, she released them of her spell, cackled, and said, “Congratulations,” before turning and sashaying out of The Heart.
The witch knew that the girl’s eternal sleep was much worse than death to her parents. Jimmy and Virginia would have a healthy, vibrant daughter for years until one day she wouldn’t wake up. They would spend those years paralyzed by fear of losing her, constantly wondering if this was the last time they’d see their sweet girl do this or that. And once their daughter was in her eternal slumber, they’d press their ears to her chest, listening for a heartbeat, as they felt twisted relief when her chest rose and fell with breath. Yes, she would be alive, but she would never open her eyes again or smile at them or speak. Death can be grieved and accepted over time, but this, this was an unimaginable nightmare. Jacinda knew the couple would cling to the hope of the Jimmy, Virginia, and their daughter living happily ever after in their Harlem kingdom. She knew this unrequited hope would be the end of them, one way or another.
In fact, her plan worked out better than she’d anticipated, but not because of magic. Virginia went into labor a few weeks early and died giving birth. She never heard her daughter scream as she entered the world or saw her tiny chest rise and fall with its first breaths. She was denied the sixteen years they could have had together. The doctor held out the baby to Jimmy, but he couldn’t will himself to take his daughter. He couldn’t go through this without Virginia.
The next day he drove the baby to Virginia’s sisters’. He stood outside of the farmhouse, his daughter in his arms. Her eyes squeezed shut, she whimpered for her mother. Bessie answered the door, her hair wrapped in a red scarf, and Jimmy Long held out the crying baby, offering her to Bessie.
“That woman–whatever she is–” He shook his head, “This is all because of me.”
“What happened to Virginia? Where’s my sister?”
He pushed the baby into Bessie’s chest. Her arms wrapped around the child instinctively.
“Jimmy,” she said again.
“She’s dead.” He swallowed. “You take care of her, you hear?”
Bessie’s whole body started to tremble. “But Jimmy—”
“I got to go.” He turned and walked towards his oldsmobile.
Her voice hoarse, she called after Jimmy, “What’s her name?”
He stopped, his hand outstretched for the door handle. “Virginia,” he said without turning to face Bessie. “After her mother.” He got into his car and drove off.
You might think that’s the end, but it’s just the beginning of this tale. Jimmy Long never returned for his daughter, for me. My aunts said he died several years later of illness, but I know it was from drink or a pistol. It was said that my mother was the heart of the club, maybe even the heart of Harlem, and without her the club and my father went to pieces. The Heart Club was no longer the place where stars were born. It was as though the light had been stolen by darkness.
Even with said darkness, I had a pleasant childhood. My mother’s older sisters Bessie, Lucy, and Adele adopted me after my mother died and my father left, and they raised me on their farm. The next sixteen years were warm and joyful in their normalcy. My aunts and I had a routine, and together we were a family. Though even I was content, I dreamed of going back to the city and starting up The Heart Club again. In some ways, my wish came true, but in the most wicked of ways.
I didn’t know about the curse until it was triggered. I didn’t find out about Jacinda or the spell until I was already under it. Aunt Lucy, who’s never done well with silence, told me the story I just shared with you after she and my other two aunts found me in my eternal slumber. If you saw me right now, you’d probably think I resemble Snow White or another princess under a spell. From what Lucy says, I look peacefully asleep or beautifully dead. But let me assure you that I’m very much alive, and that nothing about this is a peaceful rest. This is not a fairy tale, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you should cut out. Because there’s no happily ever after here.
But let’s go back to the beginning, to the day the curse began. I remember feeling drawn to something or someone. It was as though I wasn’t in control of my body; it moved on its own accord. I don’t remember it seeming odd to me though. Even as I wandered away from the farmhouse, my home, I thought nothing of it. The witch must have added that into the curse. I didn’t think it odd or a mistake until my fingers pressed the play button on the jukebox. As soon as the piano began to spring to life, my eyelids grew heavy.
One moment I was in a place I’d never been before—it looked like an old speakeasy. Later I found out it was my parent’s old club. The whole place was dark except for the radio. It was shining, as though a spotlight was illuminating it. I felt myself walk towards the jukebox and then my fingers were reaching for the switch. Once I’d twisted it, and the piano began to play, everything went black. The next thing I knew I was where I am now. Not that I know precisely where that is. I’ll tell you what I do know though. Not being able to see makes a gal rely on her ears and nose. I knew immediately I was in the city as the country has this almost dead silence to it. The sound of the city, on the other hand, is one of life—depending on what part of the city you’re in you can hear the heartbeat of that neighborhood. From all the brass and shouting, from the vibrant pounding, I figured I was in Harlem or tucked somewhere near it. I may never have met my parents, but my aunts raised me listening to jazz. Jazz has a steady, booming heartbeat like no other, and so does Harlem.
It didn’t take long for the music and people outside to fade to background noise. That’s when I noticed the small, persistent buzzing. I tried to squeeze my eyes and roll away from the incessant sound, but my body didn’t move. I tried to roll over again and couldn’t. I tried to sit up but couldn’t. Finally I tried to wiggle my fingers and toes, yet still nothing happened.
The buzzing wasn’t getting any quieter. What is that? I wondered. I thought I was having a really real dream, and that I would wake up shortly. It didn’t take too long to realize that this wasn’t just a dream, mostly because I never woke up. I’m still asleep. The buzzing continues to taunt me and my body fails me refusing to move. It’s like being in a dream where you’re trapped in blackness–you can’t see anything or find a way out, however, you can hear everything around you. You just keep roaming through a black hole hoping to find a light or an exit; anything to escape the total darkness.
When my aunts started visiting I felt relieved. I thought, at least I’m safe. They rented an attic apartment in the neighborhood in which to keep me, they said, until I wake up. If that ever happens.
I don’t know how long I’ve been like this—it’s hard to keep track of time when every minute blurs togeth—the buzzing has stopped. If I could, I’d turn my head to see what’s stopped it. The two faint lines between my eyebrows would deepen in curiosity. Music is playing now. I’m not familiar with the song, but I can pick out several instruments—trumpet, piano, drums. I suppose being the daughter of a legendary jazz club owner means this type of music is in my blood. Wait. I think I hear something else. Not another instrument or the buzzing, but a consistent thumping. And it’s growing louder—the noise feels closer—with every second. My nostrils pick up something—spirits and smoke and a musty cologne. The stench reminds me of the bottle of my father’s cologne my aunts gave to me as a child. Yet it has a more sour musk. I swallow; whoever is here with me is a man. I don’t know any men, and from what I’ve heard, my aunts are the only ones who know I’m in this apartment.
I feel his hands run through my kinky hair—Lucy has done her best to tame it while I’ve been asleep, but it continues to grow in curls and volume—before I feel his hot breath on my forehead. “I’ve been looking for you for awhile, chickadee. You thought you could get away from me, and Miss Jacinda, but that isn’t so. Whoever hid you, didn’t do a swell enough job.” His voice seems high pitched for a man. “You sure look dead,” he says. Inside I’m jumping in fear, but my body remains still. Suddenly, I feel something cold and sharp under my nostrils. “You sure aren’t. Lucky me.” I curse my breath for giving me away.
The man removes the cold, sharp object from my nose; I can hear a clasp click together and a small smack. I assume he’s put the object—probably a mirror—into his pocket. I don’t want to know what he’ll pull out next.
I’m surprised when he strokes my cheek. He does it in such a tender fashion that I think maybe he’s not going to harm me after all. Maybe he’s here to rescue me like a prince in a fairy tale.
I’m wrong of course. His hand leaves my cheek and glides down to my exposed collarbone. I feel the chill of goosebumps rise on my skin. He caresses my flesh with four fingers. I wonder if he’s missing one. Perhaps he lost it in the war. “My, my, my. Your skin feels as smooth as this satin nightgown of yours. You know, I’ve never touched a girl like you before.”
If he’s a war veteran, the man’s no hero. He was probably invalided out. The thought gives me slight comfort as he paws at my body. His fingers continue down my torso, stopping momentarily to dip back and forth in my cleavage. Then his hand slides down to my stomach and thighs. He’s getting excited; his uneven fingernails are started to claw through my nightgown at my flesh. I want to scream. I’ve never been touched by a man. This isn’t how it’s supposed to go. Every girl thinks about what this moment will be like, and this isn’t it. His fingers are skimming my thighs now as his other hand lifts my nightgown, exposing me. As his fingers get to my knickers I try to block out the sound of his erratic breath and sadistic comments and the stench of his cologne as he begins to perspire.
I picture myself in a lake of water: my body floats for a moment before I let it sink to the murky bottom. I keep my eyes closed though I can hear the bubbles escaping my mouth and nose. My nightgown clings to the curves of my body, and I feel the bottom of it wave like a white flag in surrender. I hear the man unzip his pants and the clank of what must be his belt buckle coming undone. Then I feel his lips press into mine. They are warm and wet with saliva and bitter with spirits. As he leans over me, a strand of his hair tickles my face. It’s soft and smooth like no hair I’ve ever felt. The added horror of the situation is not lost on me.
I fight to get back to the bottom of the murky lake. Is it supposed to feel like this? Like I’m being torn apart? I feel a rush of liquid in between my legs. From its hot thickness I know it’s blood. “Shit,” he croaks. He keeps going. What about this is a fairy tale? I ask you.
When he finishes he starts cursing about the mess. “Poor girl,” he says. “All soiled now.”
I guess he pities me and so he leaves me alive. I wish I could tell him not to bother. I wish I could have done anything to alter this, but I’m frozen. The buzzing begins again as he switches off his music and leaves the room.
Some time later my aunts find me. They clean and change me as the three of them fill the room with salty tears and sour sweat. Finally Lucy stops crying and asks what they’re going to do. Adele mumbles to herself. She’s been standing at the bottom of the bed holding my feet for a while.
“We’re going to find and gut that son of a bitch,” Bessie says.
Adele sniffles. “Now let’s be smart about this.” She grips my feet harder.
“Let’s get this taken care of.”
“You saw how he left her—her bloody, ripped knickers on the floor, her body open for viewing and mocking like a damn stage performance. No. We were supposed to protect her.” She sighs deeply. “We gotta fix this.”
“How?” Adele says.
“We take care of it,” she says.
They never speak of him or what happened again. I assume the man was taken care of though because my aunts haven’t moved me to a new location and it’s been awhile since the invasion. That’s how I think of it. An alien from outer space, pillaging Earth with its four fingered hand. If I had to guess it’s been about eight months since the invasion, and every second of my condition’s development has been a violation. I assume my aunts have draped me in a tent-like slip; none of my nightgowns fit currently. I don’t know what they’ll do with me when the baby comes. I imagine they’ll keep him or her, and raise him or her like they did me. My aunts are probably planning to leave me where I am, or maybe they’ll bring me with them back to the country. The latter would be nice. If I could smile, I would at the thought of stars. I haven’t seen stars or the moon in what feels like several lifetimes; all I’ve seen are the twinkles and twilight my mind has created to keep me from being utterly surrounded by midnight darkness. I wonder, will I be stuck like this for eternity?
I pray the birth of this baby frees me from this wretched plane, this no man’s land. The possibility of change—even if it’s just my uterus doing what women’s bodies were created to do–will be a sign that my body—that I—am still alive, in some capacity. I can hear the baby’s heart beating steady like a drum. Rap. Tap. Tap. Tap. And on and on it goes. Maybe he or she has a little jazz in him or her. Rap. Tap. Tap. Tap. I remember how my heart beat frantically against my chest as I felt the blood flow down my legs that day. I remember telling myself, I’m alive. Over and over again. As my child’s heartbeat grows louder—rap, tap, tap, tap, tap—getting ready to enter the world and breathe life for the first time, I feel my heartbeat accelerating out of control, like dynamite about to blow, and I remind myself once again, I’m alive. I’m alive. I’m alive.