by Eriel Fauser
I left a pot of hocks and greens to boil in a crock pot as I packed up my dorm room. It was my Papa Lee’s recipe: drain the marrow, save the fat, hold the salt, add a pepper. Golden. The key to hocks is the broth: the fat must dissolve enough into the bouillon before melting down the marrow. You have to monitor the pot to ensure the many pieces remain distinct. If the hocks become the greens become the pepper, the meal’s no good.
Halfway through boxing up my book collection, my mom called to tell me my cousin Kenny had died. Cancer. When she hung up, I grabbed a fresh roll of packing tape and continued packing up my dorm. There wasn’t much else I could do. My parents were six hours from campus; the hospital Kenny died in was eight. I only had so long to fill those boxes with my things.
cancer (n.) the disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body; from the Greek “karkinos”: a giant crab that assisted Hydra in its battle against Hercules; one of Herc’s Twelve Labors
The family nicknamed Kenny Herc after his twelfth round of chemo. I humored him with the word etymology and whatnot about cancer and crabs and how it all tied together. He didn’t get it, but he laughed enough to adjust the nasal cannula pumping oxygen into his body, which agitated the flow meter and summoned a plump nurse into his bedroom to shoo me away.
The last time I saw Kenny, I was on a 3-day shower strike in preparation for my LSAT and he was hooked up to his last dose of CHOP; he was barely coherent so I can’t count it. The last time I saw Kenny outside of a hospital was when we were fifteen. It was the last time he and I were in Barrett Station together.
He was sitting shotgun in a Caddy with a baby pig in his lap. The passenger door was cracked so he could stretch his long, brown legs across Momo Rene’s driveway. His shaved head brushed against the roof of the Caddy while his tumor pulsed behind his ear. It had shrunk over the years but — in spite of the chemo, the surgeries, and the diet — Kenny was still dying.
“Hey Bart,” his mouth wrapped around every syllable as it spilled from his mouth. “How’s it going?”
I chucked my SAT manual into the backseat, then crawled in. “Whose pig?”
My other cousin, Dre slid into the driver’s seat. “Like em? I stole it from a Jew. Name’s Otis.”
“No, stupid,” Dre snorted. “The pig. I named him Otis.”
“I thought Jews didn’t mess with pigs?” I said.
“Aw, you know they don’t read the same Bible as Catholics.”
Kenny rubbed Otis’ belly, then asked: “Why we got a Jewish pig?”
“Cousin Chouke needs it. Kinda like a gift. We’re celebratin his homecoming.”
I rolled my eyes. “From prison?”
Last time I saw Cousin Chouke was at Dre’s eighth birthday. We had finished the birthday song and were cutting into a buttercream cake when the doorbell rang. Sheriff had Chouke in custody for cutting the heads off Miss Shirley’s chickens. All my uncles, my aunts, and even Papa Lee left to scrounge up bail money. My parents took me home without getting my slice of cake to-go.
I hated Chouke ever since.
“He’s blood,” insisted Dre. “Besides, he’s offered to help us out,” He went on, backing the Caddy out of Momo’s driveway with a grin carved into his plump face. “Today, we get rid of Papa Lee’s curse. For good.”
“Aw hell,” Kenny groaned.
I pressed my head into the window. “We’re getting too old for this shit.”
The family curse started with Papa Lee. He quit his job as showrunner to St. Martin’s Church so he could focus on family. Too dependent on Papa Lee, the congregation crumbled – no more seasonal fairs, gumbo cook-offs, or after-Sunday-Sunday school.
Everything went to shit.
The town lost faith.
Church attendance went down.
The water supply was contaminated.
God cursed Papa Lee for abandoning his people and, as punishment, killed off a member of the family each year.
Every summer after Papa Lee’s death, my cousins and I made an attempt to remove the curse. It started five years ago with cousin Travi – the summer he burned down St. Martin’s in the name of the family curse. The first of many failed attempts.
Dre parked the Caddy outside the Baptist Church. It was bigger than the Catholic Church. Bloated too. The windows reeked of the Gospel, overflowed with the Holy Ghost, and fed the dying grass beyond the pane with warm holy water.
“Why’re we here?”
“We need money.” Dre answered Kenny as he counted a wad of cash: $177.00.
My fingers curled around the door handle. “What do we need that kind of money for?”
“It’s the price for Chouke’s services.”
“The curse riddin’ services.”
I followed Dre out of the car. “The hell is Chouke doing?”
He shushed me. “We’re on holy ground.”
“Fuck that,” I grabbed the neck of his shirt. “Chouke’s bad news, Dre.”
Kenny zipped Otis into his hoodie, then added: “My mom says he killed someone.”
Dre shrugged. “He’s blood.”
I released Dre’s shirt from my grip. “You sound like Travi.”
“Is that bad?”
I didn’t know.
“I’ll explain everything after we get the money.”
Otis squirmed and wheezed inside Kenny’s hoodie. “I don’t think the Baptists are gonna give us any charity,” he said.
“You know Baptists got dough,” said Dre.
“All that money goes to God.”
Dre smiled his fat-boy grin. “Exactly.”
We spread out.
Kenny stood in back. Dre took the left, me the right.
We sat through a reading from the Book of Ezra, witnessed six Baptists catch the Holy Ghost, and clapped our hands to a rhythmic rendition of “Holy, Holy, Holy” before the donation basket was released.
Trembling, I tucked my hands beneath my thighs and watched the basket bounce from Baptist to Baptist, each emptying their clutches and coat pockets into the wooden weavings.
I stole a glance at Dre; with his bounty secured, he slipped from the aisle.
A round-faced girl, probably twelve or thirteen, dropped a ten with a star and heart drawn over Hamilton’s face into the basket, then passed it to the man next to her. He dropped a blank check with a Christ watermark on top of her bill then handed it to me.
I yanked my hands from beneath my thighs and knocked it to the ground. Paper scattered beneath the benches.
Sliding from the bench, I dropped to my knees and started digging. I grabbed everything green beneath me. Crushed it in my hand. Stuffed it into my bra. I scooped up the remaining envelopes and bills, piled them into the basket, and then looked up.
Glaring at me like I was some sinful roadside attraction, that round-faced girl had both eyes on me.
I stood with the basket in shaky hands. The rest of the Baptists had risen to their feet to “amen” through the closing prayer. That little girl was the only person who could see me: a Catholic phantom here to disturb the peace.
I reached into my bra and removed the first bit of paper: a twenty-dollar bill. I placed it on top of the remaining envelopes and then dropped the basket into her lap. Her glare softened; she looked like she was going to cry or that she was thinking the very words, “I’m gonna pray for you”.
We didn’t talk about the money.
Dre drove down Oak Avenue until we were back on Lynchburg, pulling over every so often to let Kenny vomit on the sidewalk. A combination of Dre’s junk food and the chemo made Kenny sicker by the hour. Dre and I stood on either side of him, listening to him yak, meal after meal.
We didn’t talk about that either.
We sat on the hood of the Caddy outside Big E’s mini-mart. Kenny fed Otis a strip of jerky while I squeezed Kool-Aid in his mouth after each piece. Dre handed him hot chips to nibble on and I gave him more Kool-Aid. Otis was one of us.
“Quit feedin’ him that jerky,” I told Kenny.
I snatched the greased bag from his hand before he could force another slab into Otis’ snout. “This is pork jerky, dummy.”
“That’s forced cannibalism.”
“Aw shit,” Dre quit counting the money to check over his shoulder. “That’s a felony.”
“What do you know about it, fatass?” said Kenny.
“This one guy cousin Boo used to work with – his fiance’s best friend’s boss once fed a live chicken fried chicken, and you know what happened? Cops put him in prison for life.”
“You’re lyin’,” I said.
“Right hand to the man.”
Kenny tossed the jerky beneath the Caddy.
“Whatever man.” I laughed. “I’m sure the cops are gonna be more pissed about us stealing Otis than feeding him one of his uncles.”
Dre stuffed the money into his pocket. “You won’t be sayin that when you’re sharing a cell with Travi.”
Kenny chuckled. I didn’t.
“Kenny,” I started to say, “How much longer is your treatment?”
He tugged on Otis’s ears and counted to himself. “Momma says I should be done soon but I don’t feel any different.”
“Man, fuck cancer!” Dre spat.
“That sucks,” I added, stupidly. I didn’t know any other way to respond to something like that. I still don’t.
“How’d you do on the SAT?” Kenny asked me.
“1420 outta 1600. I’m retaking it in a month.”
Kenny nodded. “I wish I could graduate already.”
I smiled, though I wasn’t set on the idea of graduating at fifteen. Kenny was ready to get away from his mom’s watchful eye and tearful hospital stays, away from his organic diet and morning PT with his dad. My mom just wanted me as far away from Barrett as possible.
I would’ve traded places with Kenny – his cancer for my degree. That way, Kenny could be free from the curse and I could spend the little time I had left fighting it.
Dre took a swig from his cream soda. “School ain’t for me. Money is.”
“I wish I could go to school,” Kenny said, drawing circles around the mouth of his soda can with a fingertip. “It’s always just my momma and me and-” he took in a breath, “She reminds me every day that I’m gonna die. I hate feeling like that.”
Dre let his soda can slide from his hand. It bounced once then emptied itself into a foamy puddle of whiteness. Otis stepped into the puddle and licked up the dirty cream.
Dre leaned in close. “Nobody’s gonna die. The curse ends tonight.”
I wrapped an arm around Kenny’s shoulders. “We’re doing this for the family. For you, Kenny.”
He smiled as he dragged the sleeve of his shirt across his cheeks.
“It’s gonna work, Herc.” Dre promised, emphasizing the Herc, the nickname we only ever used to reassure Kenny of his strength. “I stole a pig from a Jew and Bart looted a Baptist church. Shit, it has to work.”
I forced myself to laugh. “If not, Dre and I will be sharing a space in hell together.”
“You and I are goin’ to hell anyway.”
Kenny smiled wider, laughing even. “Alright,” he reached down to curl his finger around Otis’ tail. “I wish we hung out more, guys. I miss ya’ll.”
Dre snorted. “Whatever, Elephant Man.”
We waited until the sun sank behind the Catholic Church before we climbed back in the Caddy.
Dre drove down Lynchburg towards FM 1942. He followed the freeway from the feeder – seat belts on, speedometer just under the limit. We rode for a good half hour before a motel sign came into view. Dre parked in the lot, killed the engine, and then we climbed out. With Otis tucked beneath Kenny’s arm and the banded bills in Dre’s pocket, we marched on.
“He’s in there,” Dre said, pointing to room number 5. He peered in the window first, hesitating as we listened to cars weave in and out of the motel lot.
We knocked on Number 5.
Kenny dropped into a squat, moaning with his hands clasped behind his head.
“Not gonna puke again, are you?” I asked him with my hand on his back.
Kenny groaned. “Think it was that jerky.”
I watched Kenny coax his stomach as Dre continued to knock. Otis circled Kenny’s hunched body. His blotchy face raised up, eyes on me: a patch of black covered his beady eye, but the rest of him was all pink. Otis dipped his snout towards the gravel at our feet, wheezing softly into our soles. When he lifted his tiny head, those beady eyes found me. To this day, I swear he was smiling at me.
The door opened.
Chouke was massive. Long ways and sideways. Sunken bloodshot eyes, a crooked nose, hollow cheeks, and a mouth of broken teeth. He wore nothing but a pair of tattered, green cargo pants. His body was bony, covered in scar tissue and tattoos. His hair was long and thin, balding at the scalp and braided down to his waist.
He terrified me. I thought of running back to the Caddy and driving home, beyond Barrett and away from the curse.
When he stepped into the soft light above his door, he said one thing: “You got the money?”
Dre nodded and stammered a “yessir” as he fished the baggie from his pocket. “Three hundred. Like you said.”
Chouke counted the bills in his hands then pulled the door open.
I followed Dre through with my head turned back towards Kenny. He had tears in his eyes and Otis squeezed against his chest.
The four of us sat on the edge of the motel bed as Chouke paced. We listened to the heavy bottoms of his boots thump against the chipped floorboards and the hem of his cargos brush over the prickly threads of the rug. When he finished packing, he pulled a t-shirt over his head and threw a duffle over his shoulder.
His eyes then fixed on Otis. “Give em here,” he said.
Kenny hugged Otis tighter.
I reached for Otis and closed my fingers around Kenny’s wrist. “We have to give him back later. The pig. He belongs…”
My voice trailed off as I watched the rage build in Chouke’s face. I clenched my teeth and watched his hands, waiting for him to strike me or punch a hole into the wall because I dared to talk back.
Kenny began to cry beside me.
“No, we don’t.” Dre said, yanking at Otis’ tail. “It’s your pig, Chouke. We took ‘em for you.”
“It’s not his pig,” I snapped, barely a whisper. “Dre said you needed it for the ritual so we thought you could use him for that and then we could return him. Right, Dre?”
Dre didn’t reply.
Chouke flashed a smirk—so quickly I thought I’d imagined it. “Sure,” he said. “I only need a little blood.”
My own blood went cold at the sound. I swallowed and nodded, trying to bleach any image of a bloody Otis from my mind.
We piled on the bed of Chouke’s truck while he drove us back into Barrett. He parked in a ditch then led us through the ravine. We followed him, shoulder to shoulder, keeping Kenny in the middle. Chouke dragged his feet until we reached the bayou at the base of Papa Lee’s old hill. It was fenced off after Travi’s fire took down St. Martins. Chouke found a hole in the fence, pulled aside the wiring, and then waved inward.
We climbed through.
At the top, Chouke told us to sit in the grass and wait, so we did. He doused his body in a white powder.
“Gimme the pig,” said Chouke. A chalky hand extended into our circle.
Kenny clung to Otis. “You’ll give him back right?”
Chouke demanded a second time. Kenny gave in.
“He promised,” I told Kenny. “He’ll give him back to us.”
Dre shook his head.
Chouke squeezed Otis beneath his armpit. Otis squirmed and squealed. Chouke clapped his hands, causing the powder to break from his skin and fill the air with white clouds.
On our knees with our arms around one another, we waited.
Chouke squatted down to dig through his duffle. He removed a long, blunt blade and a silver bowl from the bag.
“No.” Kenny lunged forward, but Dre and I pulled him back in.
We knew what was next.
I turned my head into Kenny’s shoulder and listened as Otis squealed himself into an eternal silence. I gagged as the sound of his fuzzy, pink flesh splitting filled my ears, followed by the echo of blood dinging against the bottom that silver bowl. The smell of rust filled our circle.
Kenny cried. Otis was dead.
Dre’s bottom lip trembled inward, the dimple in his chin vibrated above the many folds of his neck. “I’m sorry,” he cried. “I’m so, so sorry.”
Chouke tossed Otis’ body down the hill and howled. Speckles of his blood painted the dying earth beneath us and the skin of our faces.
Chouke moved toward us. “Stand up!” he panted. “Give me your hands.”
Dre dragged us to our feet. We vibrated with fear.
Chouke took my hand from my own pocket and drew the blade across it in one clean slice. I screamed as tears spilled from my eyes and my hand filled with Otis’ blood and my own.
“You all need to be cleansed.” He grabbed Kenny’s hand and sliced it open as quickly as he did mine. “Bleed out the curse,” he said before slicing open Dre’s. “Bleed!”
Dre swatted the blade from Chouke’s hand. “Run!” he tumbled headfirst downhill.
I dragged Kenny upright and slid after Dre.
We rolled over jagged rocks and ant dunes, snake pits and wet, red dirt until we crashed into the wire fence.
Kenny wheezed beside me, clutching his stomach.
Dre scrambled. “Move!” he pulled at our elbows. “Go! Go! Go!”
Hobbling behind Kenny and Dre, I made myself look back. Chouke’s ashy body glowed at the top of Papa Lee’s hill, watching us. Laughing at us.
We never saw Chouke chase us. Still, we ran until we reached the stoplight separating Barrett from the highway. That was when Kenny started vomiting again.
“Are you kidding me? Now?” Dre galloped onward.
Kenny hurled up the remaining bits of junk food, trying to catch it in his palms so he could keep running. He tried to stand, but slipped in the gravel.
“Slow down, Dre.” I knelt beside Kenny and rubbed his back. “Chouke isn’t following us.”
Kenny spat into his vomit pool. “You – sure?”
I nodded. “This whole thing was bullshit.”
“The ritual worked,” Dre swore it.
“How did it work if we didn’t even finish it?”
Kenny began to speak, barely a grumble at our feet. “Did you know he was gonna kill Otis?”
Dre’s hands loosened at his side, hanging limply. The red glare of the stoplight above us illuminated the grimace on his face.
“Not really,” he said. “I didn’t know Chouke was gonna kill ‘em. I mean, I had an idea that something was gonna happen – but I wasn’t sure.”
Kenny fell silent until the red glare above us flashed green. The moment it did, he leapt to his feet and smashed into Dre. Their bodies collided, but Kenny was too weak to tackle Dre. He fell into the gravel, but scurried back to his feet to swing his frail fists into Dre’s face.
“You evil son-of-a-bitch! I hate you! I hate you so much!”
Dre toppled over and slid against the asphalt. “C’mon Herc! It was a – a misinterpretation!”
I tried to secure Kenny’s arms within my own.
“None of this would’ve happened if you weren’t obsessed with the curse!”
Dre’s plump hands strangled the rocks beneath him. He mashed his lips together, staring down FM 1942. “I’m sorry, okay?” he mumbled. “I just – I just like having you guys around.”
“Shut up, Dre.” Kenny whimpered. “You used us. Just like you used Otis.”
“I just wanted to get rid of the curse.”
“There is no curse.” I threw my hands to the sky. “We’re not doing this anymore, Dre. It’s over.”
The last thing Kenny said to Dre came just before the Caddy was parked back in Momo Rene’s garage: “I’m never coming back to Barrett again.”
And he kept that promise.
The timer on my crock-pot dinged itself to sleep. I sealed the final box of my things and slid it into a corner.
I knew Otis was done for the moment he looked at me outside Number 5. I’m as much a murderer as Dre is. A part of me has always believed Kenny knew that too, that he held me to same disdain he did Dre and Travi – even Chouke.
I pulled a glass bowl from my kitchen pantry and spooned the dark broth into it, followed by the soggy strips of green and a hock.
When I sat at my empty table, I couldn’t lift the spoon. The greens sunk to the bottom of the broth, which was now a murky gray-green. Meat from the hock peeled away, shredded itself, then sunk to the bottom of the bowl. Lumps of pig fat collected along the rim. The broth was ruined—hardly edible. The many pieces to the stew were now indistinguishable. Overcooked bits of green latched to the bubbles of lard while the shallots and the garlic dissolved into the murkiness, leaving nothing visible but a bare bone in my bowl.
Eriel B. M. Fauser grew up in the candy-painted city of Houston, Texas. Her girlhood was split between the bayou and the suburbs, where she garners most of her writing inspiration. She received her BA in English with minors in Creative Work and Global Business from the University of Houston. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Writing from the New Writer’s Project at the University of Texas at Austin, where she also serves on the board of the graduate literary journal, Bat City Review. Her work can be found in Glass Mountain, The Aletheia, Edible Houston, Cold Creek Review, and on her computer.