This week, a story from the Harlem Renaissance featuring none other than Zora Neale Hurston.
A transcript is available on the NIGHTLIGHT website.
Narrated by Cherrae Stuart.
Produced by Davis Walden of the Viridian Wild Podcast
Executive Producer and Host: Tonia Ransom
All episodes are brought to you by the NIGHTLIGHT Legion. Join us on Patreon for as little as $1 per month to help us produce more stories for you to enjoy.
Hi. I’m Tonia Ransom, creator and executive producer of NIGHTLIGHT, a horror podcast featuring creepy tales written and performed by Black creatives from all over the world.
This week we have a tale from the Harlem Renaissance featuring a cast of characters including Zora Neale Hurston and a serpent spirit.
But before we get to a trickster entities, just a reminder that all episodes are brought to you by the NIGHTLIGHT Legion. Thanks to our newest members Kennede, Jennifer, and Ramon. Thanks also to Kaylee for donating via PayPal. You all have my eternal gratitude. We’re working toward our goal of bringing you new episodes every week, but we need your help. Just go to patreon.com/nightlightpod to join the NIGHTLIGHT Legion and get a shoutout on the podcast.
Now sit back, turn out the lights, and enjoy “Etta, Zora, and the First Serpent”, by Michele Berger, narrated by Cherrae Stuart.
Etta knew that no one should talk openly about spirits. As she listened to the writer, Zora Neale Hurston spin a tale to the room of gue
sts, she also knew that this charismatic, six-foot-tall, big-boned woman with a dimpled face was trouble, plain and simple.
While other party goers danced at the front of the apartment to the tunes of Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong, many were crammed in this back room hanging on Zora’s every word. She’d been holding court for the last half-hour. Etta sat at a small round table, on a hard chair, squashed between two large men. She flexed and pointed her foot as was her dancer’s habit. She gathered that most of the people here were like Zora: writers, actors, spiritualists. Strange people. She didn’t belong.
Etta knew about spirits, though—haints and night shifters—from her grandmother and her own eyes. Her family grew up with a house spirit. A mean, frightening thing. Loved to make blood stains appear on her mother’s clean laundry. Spirits weren’t nothing to play with, and you damn sure didn’t goad them.
Her roommate had invited her to this party and then had the bad manners to leave early. She should have followed, but she couldn’t take her eyes off Zora. No one could.
“I believe the devil is nothing but a clot of misguided spirits. Like a hive mind. One is called the First Serpent. That’s who I want to find,” Zora said.
Etta chilled, as if someone had raked his or her fingers across her arm.
“Zora, you’re going to make all the ladies faint,” said a man sitting next to Etta. He was dressed in grey slacks, a handsome double-breasted black sweater and black and white oxfords.
“I’ve been known to make a lady or two swoon,” Zora said with a smile and a wink.
Even after living in Harlem for a year, Etta could never get used to the ways of city folks. At seventeen, she knew she had seen more than all the people in her hometown combined.
“Trying to catch something so evil . . . Your soul could just burn up,” a woman said, sounding slightly breathless.
“If my soul is that flimsy, then it must not be any good,” Zora replied, her big face taking on a mischievous grin.
The crowd erupted with laughter.
“Scandalous,” whispered one of the men sitting next to Etta. He fiddled with the brim of his bowler laying in his lap.
She was a good performer; Etta would give her that.
Lila, the host, a woman with wispy hair and a slight face, walked in and said, “No one has touched the chiffon pie. Zora, let my guests get some slices and dancing into them!”
Zora bowed. “I would never keep anyone from your pies, Lila. To be continued.”
As people stretched and went in search of dessert, Etta stood, determined to make her exit.
Zora, a cigarette in her mouth, held out an arm, touched Etta.
“You’re not buying what I’m selling?” she asked.
Swallowing hard and feeling put on the spot, Etta mumbled, “Nothing against you, but taunting spirits is dangerous.”
“How would you know?” Zora asked.
Etta looked down.
“The spirits ain’t nothing to be scared of. I’ve studied a few and they are in many ways just like us, petty, vain, bold, misunderstood, and sometimes glorious,” Zora said.
Mustering up her courage, Etta asked, “Why do you want to talk to the First Serpent?”
Zora leaned close. “Because he can give me something I want very badly.”
Etta could see the desire in Zora’s eyes, like the full promise of morning.
“Ms. Hurston,” Etta began.
“Zora, please,” the woman said, lighting another cigarette.
“Spirits have a way of coming at us. They’re smarter, older. I know that you’ve studied lots and traveled, but—”
“I hear you’re from Florida,” Zora said, turning a little to make way for folks entering the room, plates piled high with pie.
Etta nodded. “Yes, from Little Hill.”
“That sounds more country than Eatonville.”
Someone from my home state! Etta perked up. “It is! You blink and you’d miss our main street and the General Store.”
The cigarette smoke made a halo around Zora’s head. “Working at the Cotton Club,” Zora said, stubbing out the butt in a nearby ashtray.
Etta took a step back. “You keeping tabs on me?”
Zora wiggled her eyebrows. “Nothing stays secret in Harlem for long, Etta. What’s it like?”
“They put all the light girls up front,” Etta said, her hands springing up to cover her mouth. She looked around to see if anyone else had heard, a flush creeping across her cheeks. “Never mind.”
Zora’s expression changed and her face took on a hungry, wolfish look. “Now, that’s not fair at all,” Zora said with a shake of her head.
Etta knew she had said too much. But, it’s true and there’s no one else to talk to about it.
One of the men who had sat next to Etta approached. “Zora, you gonna pick up where you left off?”
“In a minute,” she said without taking her eyes off Etta.
“Sounds like you got something that weighs on you. Maybe the spirits can help. You come find me.”
Etta stood there for a long moment thinking on Zora’s words.
Etta massaged her ankle and tried to hold her tongue.
“You gonna fall like that every time, Etta?” snarled Albert from the front row. “You’re off cue.”
Albert was a thin, weaselly brown-faced nothing of a man, but a nothing of a man in charge of the twenty dancers at the Cotton Club.
You just hopping around, puffing yourself up because one of the owners is here. Etta had gotten a good look at this recent silent investor when she walked on stage. Mr. Stitt. A pink walrus looking man stuffed into one of the chairs a few tables back. With his reddish hair curled around his face, he nursed a drink, saying little. The way his eyes followed the girls gave Etta chills. She had heard rumors that, when he visited, he didn’t just like to see the rehearsals; he liked to meet the girls.
The day had started out bad. She arrived at work with little sleep from bad dreams to find the dancers practicing the “savage island” number again. At Albert’s insistence, long-legged and almost-white Laney—who took forever to learn the steps—was up front. She’s a terrible dancer. She can shake her body, which ain’t dancing in my book.
Laney missed her cue again, wrecking the timing for all the other dancers. But, of course, no one was going to point that out.
Laney looked at Etta and sniggered.
Etta cut her eyes at the woman. “Laney, your timing was off.” Maybe it was the conversation with Zora last night that had loosened her tongue.
Albert’s face contorted as he came storming up on the stage. Towering over Etta, he bellowed, “When I ask you what went wrong, then you get to speak!”
All the other dancers except Laney stiffened.
“That’s right,” Laney said. “Correcting me, humph,” she added with a tap of her foot.
“Perhaps they need a break,” the pink walrus said.
Etta saw a familiar change come over Albert’s face. It was the look he had when he wanted to blow up at someone—usually another black man—but couldn’t because the man had some sort of advantage over him. Either the other man was bigger and meaner or he was a musician that Albert needed in the band. He wouldn’t dare shout and rage at this powerful white man. That much Etta knew for sure.
Albert pulled his lips in, plastered on a fake smile, and nodded. “Excellent idea, Mr. Stitt. Everyone take fifteen.”
He leaned down and whispered between clenched teeth into Etta’s ear, “No more fucking lip from you.”
Etta turned away from his sour breath, stomach churning, and continued tending to her ankle.
“Etta?” a girl’s voice said.
She looked up. The twins, Big Georgie and Little Georgie had their hands extended.
She smiled. “I’m alright girls, thanks.” They’re always looking out for others.
They waited for her to get up and the three of them walked to the dressing room.
“You doing OK?” she asked.
They nodded. Out of all the girls here, they were Etta’s favorites. They said they were eighteen, but she suspected that was a bold lie that they got away with because of their talent, and like Laney, the hue of their skin was what some Negroes would call “bright”. Both possessed a curtain of hair that nearly reached their bottoms. They, like Etta, had no kin folk in the city.
When the door closed behind them, the dressing room erupted in conversation. Some dancers reached for cigarettes, others hair brushes, and some just flopped down on their seats. Etta noticed that the light-skinned girls sat together, as did the girls who had café au lait coloring, as did the darker girls, like herself. Like a beautiful zoo, but a zoo all the same.
“Country girl got a voice, eh?” someone said.
“Albert will come and slap you down. Don’t sass him in front of the white man,” another dancer admonished.
Laney walked into the middle of the room. “She’s so country, she barely knows how to put on her drawers the right way, let alone how to talk to anyone.”
Amber-skinned Delilah, one of the oldest dancers at the Cotton Club, who usually kept to herself, rose from her chair. “Knock it off, Laney. She was right, you were late.”
Laney sniffed and shook her head. “Y’all bitches just jealous of me because you know my jelly rolls are the best. The men come to see me.” She patted down the curves of her body and shook out her wavy hair.
“Why it got to be about me or any of us being jealous?” Etta said, feeling heat rise in her throat.
Laney walked over to Etta and said in a tight voice, “You wouldn’t want me to say something bad about you to Albert or Mr. Stitt?”
Looking up into Laney’s eyes, Etta smelled her perfumed breath and saw the pink little tongue wiggle. She thought of the good money she sent home to her family disappearing. Etta shuddered when she thought about working at the shady knock-off clubs in Harlem. Etta choked down her anger and said, “No.”
The door popped open and Albert walked in with no warning knock. He looked around the room and snapped his fingers. “Laney and twins come with me. Drinks at the bar with Stitt.”
“Great,” Laney said and grabbed a shawl.
Etta and the twins looked at each other.
Albert stomped his foot. “Now, not yesterday. Move it!”
“Why he want them?” Etta said.
Pointing his finger at her, he said. “He don’t want you, so mind your business.”
Laney strutted, saying over her shoulder, “You girls just follow my lead. Keep your mouths shut.”
Etta’s heart spasmed as she watched the twins leave.
Etta stood on the stoop of her building and looked up at her dark apartment window. She began climbing the stairs, but turned when she heard her name.
“No one’s home,” Zora said with a smile, pointing toward the apartment. “Your roommate is out for the night.”
Etta looked down at Zora who stood at the foot of the stoop. “How-?”
“This is the time most dancers finish for the night. My best time to write. I’m done and needed a walk.”
Etta sighed. She wasn’t sure if she should go upstairs or keep talking with Zora. She kept thinking about Little Georgie, who had been asked to go for a ride with the pink walrus, and the worry on Big Georgie’s face.
“Come,” Zora said waving her hand.
Etta followed, frustration and curiosity mixing together in her heart. They walked a few blocks in silence. Then they talked of their towns and the down home meals that they missed so far away from loved ones. They walked to a late night diner, one Etta had passed many times.
The waitress greeted Zora. “Anywhere you like.”
Zora nodded and chose the farthest booth.
After getting settled, she gave her order to the waitress. “Two egg creams, please, and two grilled cheese sandwiches.”
Etta’s eyes widened then narrowed in suspicion. “How did you know I like egg creams?” Egg creams were a delight! Frothy, cooling, and sweet. She would do just about anything for an egg cream.
“Just a guess,” Zora said with a shrug. “Most folk new to the city do.”
Watch yourself, Etta. Zora’s a charmer and spinner of tales.
Zora folded her hands on the table. “I’m looking for a dancer, Etta. A very good dancer.”
“A dancer? To do what?”
“In the archives at Columbia, I stumbled upon some interesting ideas about the First Serpent, something no one knows anything about,” she said, her eyes brightening with each word.
Zora compelled her attention, so although “archives” sounded foreign to Etta, she nodded.
“The First Serpent has Egyptian roots. Egyptian as in African,” Zora said. “There’s an order to things and, just like ants, bees, and wolves, beings like to live in groups. So do spirits. I want our people’s stories—the foremothers and the slaves, those who are gone. I want those secrets. I want stories that no one else can write. I need the First Serpent to put me in touch with those spirits.”
Etta shook her head. “That’s crazy.”
“No crazier than anything else.”
Etta looked around to see if anyone was overhearing their conversation.
Zora waved her hand. “People aren’t listening to us. You help me and I’ll help you.”
“What? I don’t need your help,” Etta said, turning her head to look out the window. She turned back to find Zora watching her.
Zora stroked her chin for a long time before speaking.
“At the Cotton Club,” Zora said, leaning back in the booth. “Your job. There are people that you don’t like there. They don’t see you, Etta.”
“My grandmother taught me to believe in Jesus,” Etta blurted.
“Well, that’s good. I believe in him, too. But not just him.”
“Spirits should be left alone,” Etta said, folding her arms.
“Suppose you could be the best dancer, not just at the Cotton Club, but wherever you wanted?” A slow smile crossed Zora’s face.
Zora wore a long colorful scarf that hung over each of her breasts. As she talked, it was as if she were dancing with the scarf moving from hand to hand.
Etta stared open-mouthed and shook her head. Zora was mad. Isn’t that what her roommate had said? That Zora was a bit touched? Still, Zora’s magnetic personality and unusual ideas drew her in, and that smile? Almost irresistible.
Zora kept talking. “You understand the arts. You understand what it means to strive for something, to love it.”
Etta slurped the last of her egg cream and fiddled in her purse for money.
Zora reached over and grabbed her hand. “It struck me recently that I need to do something bold. Something that will speed things up. Us country girls have to take things into our own hands. You think the world is ever going to treat us fairly, Etta?”
Etta leaned back and considered. From what she’d seen so far, Etta had to admit that the world probably wasn’t going to treat either of them fairly.
“You love to dance, right?” Zora asked.
“Just like breathing,” Etta said.
“That’s all you have to do when the time comes. The First Serpent is very fond of dance. That’s where you come in. Dance for the love of dance. Do you think you can do that?”
“I’ll think on it.”
“Don’t keep me waiting,” Zora said, placing money on the table.
Tonight, Etta wore a skimpy two piece: a halter top and shorts with a feather headdress. Normally, she’d be cold in such a flimsy outfit, but now her anger kept her warm.
The club was full, and the band’s horns and drums created an atmosphere of intrigue and excitement. The savage number was in full swing. She swirled and dipped in time with a line of five dancers. Etta should have been thinking about the music, the choreography, how her muscles responded to the power of the dance. Instead, her mind kept flashing back to Little Georgie’s bruised arms, swollen eye, and sad face in the rehearsal room before the show. How Big Georgie had argued with Albert and the slap she’d received. How Laney’s churlish laugh sounded in her ears, and Laney’s words to Little Georgie. “Everybody got to grow up sometime. I was nine when it was done to me. And he didn’t give me no money, either.”
Albert had chimed in, “Didn’t you get some money, girl?”
Little Georgie sat on the chair head down, hugging herself.
Laney smirked, walked over and grabbed the girl’s hair like she was nothing but a rag doll. “Stitt did give you some money, right nitwit? You knew to make sure he gave you some money, I hope.”
At that Etta had thrown a perfume bottle at Laney so fast it clipped the side of the pretty woman’s head, stunning her. The room flared into a knot of knees and fists with Albert yelling that they would all be fired if they didn’t get their asses ready to dance.
Drums thudded, and she saw Laney’s dolled up face, the sweat soaked leering face of the pink walrus, and Albert’s smugness. She imagined them as balls in front of her, so when she kicked in time with the music, it was with an extra, bitter force.
But she couldn’t kick away the memory of Little Georgie’s tears and the numbed, stony look of her twin. She decided then, in the middle of a leap, that she would help Zora and also ask for a favor from the First Serpent. For the twins.
Zora finished casting a six foot wide circle of what she said was baking soda and salt around them. In the middle of the circle she created a smaller circle from heavy rope, she said to, “properly bind the spirit.” They sat in Zora’s living room, both dressed in white. “Whatever happens, don’t stop dancing. You understand? And don’t ask for a favor until I tell you. This is a powerful spirit.”
“You’re distracting it, calming it while I talk,” Zora continued.
“Yes,” Etta said.
“If you break the circle, spirits can get out.”
After Zora issued several exotic incantations, Etta swayed from side to side, finding her inner rhythm. She danced, slowly at first and then concentrated on making every breath a joyful exploration of how she could move, forgetting herself, letting go.
Zora periodically whispered, “More.” And, “Faster.”
After a while, Etta felt the air in the room swell, and then in another moment, a breeze whipped up her skirt and tickled the length of her spine. Her feet registered the degree or so change of temperature in the circle. Sweat dripped from her face and neck as she strutted, kicked and leapt in the salt circle.
“That’s it,” Zora cried.
Etta gyrated her hips and contorted her limbs. Dancing in the presence of the unknown was nothing at all like regular performing. Her heart hammered in her chest, her mouth felt as if she had swallowed sand, and the hair on the back of her neck and arms stood on end.
She opened her eyes and saw Zora on her hands and knees bowing, greeting something. Etta moved as close to the rope circle as she dared.
“Great one,” Zora shrieked. “I am your humble servant. Your loves, beauty and dance, are present.”
Her stomach clenched as she saw a gigantic gray cloud rise up from the floor into the smaller circle. Etta blinked rapidly and stared. Zora’s plan is really working!
The gray cloud grew into a figure. Its scaly head was reptilian, its neck extended in the characteristic hood of a King Cobra. The rest of the spirit’s body remained shadowy, human-like.
“So many have forgotten me,” the First Serpent grunted.
“I venerate you,” Zora said.
The First Serpent turned its head toward Etta. “Very beautiful.”
Etta’s knees shook, and she could barely focus on keeping her body upright. Just keep dancing!
A rip in the very air around her popped her ears, and before Zora could say another word, the spirit had coiled itself around her.
Etta screamed and jumped toward the struggling Zora.
“Keep dancing!” Zora shouted.
Etta continued as the First Serpent’s gaze locked onto her. She hopped on one foot and then the other, fear making her movements jerky and uncoordinated.
“Dancer!” it called.
“First Serpent, great one, she has not called—” Zora began and then stopped, as the air rushed out of her. She closed her eyes, still struggling feebly, a wheezing noise coming from her open mouth. Then all motion ceased. The spirit released Zora’s limp body.
“A strong vessel she is, Dancer,” the First Serpent said, flicking its tongue at Etta.
“Zora!” Etta called.
“I remember when humans danced for me all the time. You remind me of one of my favorite dancers from eons ago.”
Zora’s eyes were still closed, and Etta wasn’t sure if she should talk to the spirit.
“Gr…Great Serpent,” she began, her tongue trembling. “Great First Serpent, I am nothing. Zora knows everything.” Shut up, Etta!
The First Serpent gurgled a noise that sounded to Etta like a laugh.
“What troubles you, Dancer?”
Her mind ran through every dance step she knew or had invented. Her body responded, she arched and whirled as never before.
The circle felt stifling, and no matter where she moved it was as if invisible flames licked at the bottoms of her feet.
“Dancer, I have been long away from humanity. What troubles you?”
“I . . . I . . .”
“Answer!” the First Serpent bellowed.
Etta trembled, but unable to resist the power of the spirit, she began talking about the Cotton Club, about Laney, about the pink walrus, about Albert. About her life in great detail. She talked about how she worried for the twins, how much they meant to her. The First Serpent seemed to sop up her anger, her indignation, and her dissatisfaction. The more she talked, the freer she felt.
The First Serpent said little as she talked and hopped around, breathless.
“Etta, stop talking!” Zora was awake and unsteadily rising to a sitting position, a look of panic on her face. She got to her feet. “I banish you! I send you back to your dead place.”
“Zora?” Etta started.
“Quiet!” Zora said, holding out her palm, her face now a mask of anger.
The whole room shook, and Etta almost lost her footing.
“Doors once opened, Conjurer, do not close so easily,” the spirit said.
Zora locked eyes with the First Serpent and shouted a flurry of commands in a strange guttural language, rapidly opening and closing her hands, shaping her fingers into gestures that Etta had never seen before and not thought physically possible.
The First Serpent’s chest expanded to twice its size, and the creature hissed. The sound started low but grew to an ear-splitting shriek causing Etta to cover her ears. Zora’s concentration remained unbroken though her body shook.
After a tug of wills, the First Serpent’s presence slowly dissipated.
Etta realized she was still dancing and abruptly stopped.
Zora picked up a white handkerchief and wiped the sweat from Etta’s face. She lay on the floor and motioned for Etta to sit.
“What happened to you?” Etta asked.
Zora looked at the ceiling and let out a long sigh. “The spirit was too strong for me. I fainted or maybe was in a trance. That’s never happened before.”
“Well, great,” Etta snapped. “I didn’t know what was going on with you, so I talked to it.”
“What?” Zora said rising onto her elbows. “You just needed to dance.”
“Oh, don’t be angry with me,” Etta said, fighting tears.
“Did it ask you questions?” Zora said.
Etta nodded and told her everything. Zora shook her head. She stood and said, “I need to open the circle. Stay put.”
Etta hugged her knees to her chest.
Zora said a prayer, and boomed, “We ask for the protection of our ancestors and for any invited spirits to return to their realm. Thank you elements of Fire, Water, Air and Earth.”
Etta rose and they stepped over the circle.
Zora hushed Etta as she rushed to grab a green leather diary on a nearby table. She scribbled nonstop for a few minutes.
When finished, Zora said, “You know what I thought as I came to?”
Etta shook her head.
“That it was probably the wrong spirit to contact.”
Now you tell me!
“OK, here’s what we are going to do, I’m going to give you some things to protect yourself.” She opened a cabinet and started pulling down small bottles of liquids and pouches of herbs.
“The First Serpent showed interest in you. Way too much interest.”
“What does that mean?” Etta said, sitting down on a chair.
“I want you to take these things and use them as I say, and I want you to cover any mirrors in your apartment.” Zora dug out some sheets of paper and began writing.
“All I did was dance and a little bit of talking. I didn’t even ask for a favor.”
Zora sighed. “It’s OK. It’s my fault. The spirits are tricky, and I thought I researched that one quite well.”
“You were wrong about it,” Etta said, her nerves so frayed she felt as if she couldn’t stop shaking.
“I know, I know, Etta. I’m sorry.” Zora opened a sugar canister and pulled out some money. “It’s not much, but this is for you,” she said tucking several ten-dollar bills in one of the herb-filled pouches.
“What about your storytelling? What about getting what you wanted?” Etta asked, taking the items Zora offered.
Zora shook her head and pointed to a small desk where a typewriter sat. “I’ll find another path to get at my stories.”
A flush of anger raced through Etta. “You tricked me!”
Zora’s eyes flashed. “You’re upset. It’s a lot to see spirits summoned.”
Etta felt as if her life were folding up around her. Why did I ever trust Zora? “You got something for yourself, though, didn’t you? You so smart, you figured out something, something I didn’t see! What did you write down?”
Zora folded her arms. “Stop talking nonsense, girl.”
Shaking her head, Etta didn’t know what to believe. “City folk all alike, everyone got an angle.”
Zora’s eyebrows gathered together, and she sighed. “That’s not true of me. I got ahead of myself, is all.”
Etta walked home, feeling the weight of Zora’s items in her pockets, looking over her shoulder at each sound, flinching at each shadow. She couldn’t help feeling that Zora was hiding something from her. But why would she do that? She should never have listened to Zora. She should never have ignored the little voice in her head, the wisdom of her youth: you don’t mess with spirits.
After the visitation, Etta’s week dragged on. The memory of the encounter became increasingly dreamlike. Life had not changed for the better, and Etta felt silly ever thinking that it would. What troubled her most and made her heart hurt was that the twins had stopped showing up to work. No one knew where they lived, and within a few days, they were replaced by two new dancers. It seemed like she was the only one who missed them.
In a few days, Etta’s anger at Zora had cooled. She missed seeing her, and on several nights, walked over to the diner to try and catch Zora there. Each time, the waitress had said that Zora hadn’t been there. The waitress said it was unusual for Zora to be away so long. She added, “I hope she puts me in one of her stories someday. Wouldn’t that be something?”
Etta nodded politely.
With an hour to spare before work, she made her way to Zora’s apartment. She knocked several times, but Zora did not answer.
Pressing her ear to the door, Etta could hear Zora’s typewriter, a steady sound of clacking.
“Zora, please let me in.”
The quiet hall closed in around Etta. Worry pricked at her. Her clammy hands grabbed the doorknob and she gave it a strong turn. It opened.
She entered with care, surprised that Zora would leave the door unlocked. She walked through the long foyer and past the empty dining room.
The typewriter’s steady clacking caught her attention. Etta’s nose wrinkled as she registered a vinegary smell permeating the apartment.
“Zora?” she called.
A moan came from around the corner and Etta followed. Everything in the living room was rearranged from her last visit. Zora’s table with her typewriter and pile of books was in the middle of the room. Zora sat with her back to Etta, her hands moving rapidly. Her wavy hair hung limp and looked like it hadn’t been attended to in days.
“Zora!” Etta exclaimed, as she reached the other woman. She placed a hand on Zora’s shoulder and all but reeled at Zora’s musky smell. “I need to talk to you.”
Zora didn’t move or respond to Etta’s touch. Etta came around the table, and what she saw tightened her throat. It sent her heart racing.
Zora’s eyes stared straight ahead, her lips pulled in a thin line, rigid. It was a shell of a face, a mask. The only trace of softness was the shimmer of tears in her big brown eyes.
Etta watched, as Zora’s hands flew over the keys. They struck the keys with an unnatural ferocity. She hit the carriage repeatedly. As soon as she came to the end of a sheet, she loaded a fresh sheet, her movements mechanical, automated, and began again. Only Zora was typing, but sound bounced everywhere, making it seem as if there were ten typists in the room. It was maddening.
“What’s wrong with you?” Etta said, gritting her teeth and grabbing her friend’s shoulders again. She shook Zora, but Zora continued. She grabbed Zora’s hands and received a stinging shock.
Etta cried out, releasing her friend, almost losing her balance.
Zora’s eyes focused on Etta and, she muttered, “Not what I wanted. I was arrogant . . . Foolish. So sorry, Etta. Can’t stop. It found a way—”
“Dancer,” a voice said from behind her.
Etta spun around and flinched, her insides reeling.
The First Serpent stood in front of her, more man now than spirit. Average height, the man-spirit wore a heavy black coat. Etta noticed the olive hue of his skin and how his nose had developed from a slit to a short bridge with flattened nostrils. The iridescent sheen of snakeskin covered his bald head.
Backing away from him, she knocked into a sharp edge of Zora’s table.
“Do not cry for her,’” he gestured with long tapered fingers. “She is getting her wish. She will now know so many tales that she’ll never run out of things to write.”
“She’s not her,” Etta choked out.
“No, not anymore,” the First Serpent replied. With a slight nod, he continued. “She will always be my subject, but, . . .” He paused. “She may return to herself after a time.”
Etta turned and bolted.
Heart-thudding and out of breath, Etta said nothing to anyone when she arrived at the club. Gulping down a glass of water, she ruminated. Zora hadn’t known what she was getting them into. Etta could see that now. She had put her faith in city people, and they were just people after all. She would call her grandmother tomorrow and confess. Maybe there was some way to help Zora. Yes, that was what she would do.
During the first show, she felt like the First Serpent was lurking unseen somewhere in the audience, watching her with unnatural desire, approving of her. Etta danced through the first number in a nervous daze. She fumbled through the second, almost missing her cue.
Backstage after the set, Delilah placed a hand on Etta’s shoulder. “What’s gotten into you? You’ve been jumpy all night,” the older dancer said.
“Nothing,” Etta murmured.
Between sets, the dancers massaged their legs, stretched, and talked. Etta stayed out of Laney’s way, although tonight, Laney seemed to be in too good of a mood to bother anyone. She hummed a popular tune while brushing out her hair.
Delilah glanced over at Laney. “What’s got you so happy?”
Laney smiled and put the brush down. “After the show, Stitt and me are going away for the weekend to his place in Connecticut.” She pointed to a small brown bag sitting under her vanity table. “It’s in the country and everything.”
Delilah scrunched up her nose. “I can’t believe that you are still messing with him.”
Neither can I, Etta thought.
“He’s come to his senses and has stopped toying around with little girls,” she turned and gave Etta a cold look.
“You’re a fool to believe that, Laney,” Delilah said, shaking her head.
Disgusted, Etta looked down at her costume. She tugged on the buttons in the front of her sailor’s outfit to make sure they were secure.
A knock on the door signaled that their break was over.
As Etta filed out with the other dancers, she heard a faint hissing sound. She froze, her mind going blank. Laney bumped into her and cursed. Laney’s subsequent shove jolted Etta into the present.
Later that night and accompanied by a group of other dancers, Etta walked down Lenox Avenue, away from the Cotton Club. She saw Laney, wearing a tailored red coat that complimented her ample bust and showed off her tiny waist, get into a cab with the pink walrus. The cab, driven by a slender figure in a black coat, pulled away from the curb and into traffic.
As it passed, the cab driver glanced at her. Etta sucked in a half breath when the streetlight illuminated the driver’s face. No. She couldn’t have seen what she thought she’d seen: a face cloaked in unnatural shadow, a slit of a nose.
“Where are you going?” Delilah asked, as Ella quickened her pace then broke into a run.
“I need to see about something,” she called over her shoulder.
The cab slowed, and she weaved through traffic to catch up to it, her ribs aching from the evening’s routines and this fresh exertion. The front window was rolled down. She peered inside.
“Good evening, Dancer,” the First Serpent said.
Oh, no! “What are you doing?” she cried.
“Doing you a favor, for sure.”
No, no, no! As cold terror seeped into her bones, she ran to the back passenger door and attempted to yank it open. When it didn’t budge, she pounded on the window.
Laney, rolled it down. “What do you want?” she snapped.
“Get out of the car. You have to get out of the car, now!” Etta said.
The pink walrus leaned toward Laney. “What’s the meaning of this? Is she drunk?”
Car horns blared at her; she was holding up traffic. “Laney, look, I know we haven’t gotten along, but get out of the car. Please . . . I didn’t mean for—”
“She’s always trying to take away my good. She’s jealous.” Recoiling from Etta, she turned to the pink walrus. “Will you fire her?”
“Right now?” the pink walrus asked.
“Yes,” Laney hissed.
“Done,” he said with a wave of his fat fingers. “I’ll tell Albert on Monday. Roll up the window. Drive, cabbie.”
Etta was still trying to open the passenger door when the cab sped away, almost taking her with it. Releasing the door handle, she tumbled to the street, and cars swerved by her.
“Etta!” Delilah called.
Etta stood, watching helplessly as the car raced through a red light. She turned away but heard the terrible pitch of the cab’s screeching tires, the sound of shattering glass, and the metal scraping of two vehicles colliding.
People started screaming.
Her coat flying open, she rushed to the scene of the crash. A truck had hit the cab head-on. The driver’s side of the car was crushed. Laney had burst through the windshield and was sprawled face-down on the hood. The cab’s winged female hood ornament had pierced Laney’s head. Blood streamed from her torn, once-beautiful body.
A long, mournful sound came from the other side of the cab. Etta’s stomach twisted, and she dashed around the cab. The pink walrus lay on his back, halfway between the car and the ground, blood pouring from his nose. Etta reached him as his enormous body convulsed. His arms jerked up, as if to grab her, then his body sagged, and the light left his eyes.
Etta saw no one in what was once the front of the cab, but spied a long brown and beige discarded snake skin on the ground.
Turning away, she hugged herself as people rushed past her. Gulping big breaths, Etta, couldn’t shake the image of Laney’s punctured head.
Struggling to keep down her gore, she looked up and cried out as she saw the First Serpent approaching.
“Is this the way to greet your master, Dancer? Do you not appreciate my finesse in dispatching those loathsome humans? Should I receive nothing for my part in their demise?”
“I didn’t want that!” Etta screamed, stumbling backward. She cowered as he neared. But when she felt his touch on her face, it was lighter than expected. Tender almost. The hand on her face moved lower, to her neck, and then rested lightly on her collar bone, his palm hot over her racing heart. Her mind registered disgust, but her body, obeying his silent command, relaxed and she leaned into his touch. As the First Serpent stepped back, she stumbled toward him, warmth spreading in her feet. They began to move, tapping right and then left of their own volition.
Behind her she heard Delilah calling her name. The sound of Delilah’s voice grew faint as the First Serpent kept his small, tawny colored eyes fixed upon Etta.
A tingle snaked through her, an oily, silky feeling that began at the top of her head and slithered down her spine. In the haze of the night, Etta’s body jerked, crouched, and leapt. She couldn’t control it. No matter how she tried to make her limbs obey her thoughts, they refused to obey. Her body spun. It contorted in a manner that she knew it shouldn’t. As she moved about, a feeling of perfection flooded her awareness, quelling her despair, connecting her to a thrill that she could only call divine. A leap and a twirl. She was on the best stage—a stage between worlds.
“And, now Dancer, you shall dance for me.”
As she felt her life’s energy seep from her body, she thought of her movements less as ones that conveyed artistry, but that were puppet-like. As her conscious thoughts sank into a dark bog, she understood just how right her grandmother had been—spirits were nothing to fool with.
Thanks again to our patrons for supporting this podcast. Because of your support, listeners around the world get creepy tales in their ears every other week. If you want new stories every week, the only way for that to happen is to join the NIGHTLIGHT Legion by going to patreon.com/nightlightpod and supporting this podcast. You can also make a one-time donation via PayPal at PayPal.me/NightlightPodcast. If you’re unable to support us financially, word of mouth is the next best way to help. Give us a shoutout online on Twitter or Instagram @nightlightpod, or Like us on Facebook @nightlightpod. Reviews are also a huge help, so be sure to leave a few kind words on your podcast platform of choice.
Audio production for this week’s episode by Davis Walden of the Viridian Wild Podcast.
And to thank you for listening until the very end, we have a creepy fact for you.
Many cemeteries in America are still segregated. In fact, Zora Neale Hurston, was of course buried in a segregated cemetery. The sad truth is that she died alone and destitute and it wasn’t until Alice Walker decided she deserved a headstone that she got one. The birth year on it is wrong–Zora liked to tell people she was born in 1901 and not 1891, but at least she has one now. Unfortunately, the cemetery, like many Black cemeteries, is not well-kept. The same is true for the place in which my family is buried. So, I encourage you, my darklings, to go out and find a Black cemetery and spend an afternoon bringing dignity to the dead by straightening, weeding, or perhaps even donating to a local charity for headstone placement and restoration.
Join us next week for an interview with Michele, then a new story the following week!