Secrets of Silk
How the infant found its way into the backwoods Louisiana shack of Mattie Moreaux was as much of a mystery as the ingredients in the potions Mattie sold to white folks who lived on the right side of the tracks. Some of the residents of Devil’s Swamp said the baby was the unwanted offspring of some hot-to-trot white gal with a penchant for colored boys.
More imaginative gossipers said the child was one of many discarded fetuses that old Mattie had helped desperate women purge from their wombs.
But there was one secret that the townsfolk only dared to whisper. According to legend, when the old voodoo woman put one particular fetus in the ground, as she had with all the others that fertilized her unnaturally bountiful garden, the tiny, dead baby came to life, howling and screaming in fury. And the resurrected baby girl that she named Silk on account of her straight, blue-black hair, had been raising hell ever since.
• • •
The Low Moon, a honky-tonk in Devil’s Swamp, had seen better days and more illustrious entertainment than was currently available on the weekends. Old-timers enjoyed reminiscing about the time Bessie Smith had put on a bawdy show that raised the roof
from eight o’clock Saturday night until it was time for Sunday morning sermon. The glory days of the Low Moon spanned the Depression Era through the early 1950s when Big Mama Thornton charged onto the stage singing her hit record, “Hound Dog,” the same song that catapulted Elvis Presley into an international celebrity when he recorded it a few years later.
By 1962, The Low Moon was nothing more than a dilapidated, wood-frame structure that leaned a bit to the right side. The dimly lit, one-room establishment with its uneven, wood-plank floor, littered with cigarette butts, housed an untuned piano as a testament to the days when Fats Waller came through, tinkling the ivories, and had the joint jumping. Nowadays, a dusty, old juke box that was filled with mostly out-of-date music was the only source of entertainment, but that didn’t deter the locals from filling the place to the rafters every Friday and Saturday night.
Wearing a low-cut, tight, pink dress and a pair of black, spike heels, Silk Moreaux looked gloriously scandalous as she came wiggling into the honky-tonk around ten o’clock when the place was in full swing. She brusquely pushed past dancing couples as she made her way to the bar.
Pudgy Hales, who was as drunk as a skunk on a combination of beer purchased from the bar and the homemade corn liquor he had stashed inside his seersucker jacket, took the liberty of grabbing Silk by the wrist. “Come on, gal; let’s shake a tail feather,” he slurred, his eyes bucking as his plump body shook comically from his shoulders down to his feet as he invited Silk to join him in a lewd, fast-moving dance.
The average woman would have rebuffed Pudgy in a more courteous manner, but not Silk. “Keep your filthy fucking hands off me or I’ll cut you too short to shit.”
Becoming instantly sober, Pudgy backed up, both palms held up in surrender. “I ain’t mean no harm, Silk. The way you all dolled-up, I thought you was looking for a good time tonight.”
“Not with your fat ass,” Silk scoffed, giving Pudgy a searing look of disgust.
As she continued her tantalizing sashay across the bar room, couples that had momentarily paused to observe the fireworks now scrambled to get out of her way. Silk was known to use her switchblade for lesser offenses than being asked to dance, and if she didn’t get you first, the all-seeing eyes of her blind-as-a-bat, voodoo mama would locate you no matter how cleverly you hid. If you messed with her baby girl, Mattie would put some roots on you that the most experienced voodoo priestess was hard-pressed to remove.
Only a few months ago, Darcy Nesbit developed severe facial spasms and started walking with a terrible limp after she began spreading the rumor that Silk was carrying on with the husband of one of the white women she delivered Mattie’s passion potion to once a month.
At that very moment, there were at least two of Silk’s victims inside The Low Moon, women who bore physical evidence of the sharp, slicing stroke of Silk’s knife.
Silk sat atop the ripped, plastic seat of the barstool and smiled at the bartender. “I’d like a rum and Coke, please,” she said in a honey-laced voice that was guaranteed to earn her free drinks with a generous shot of liquor added to each Dixie cup.
Drink in hand, Silk swiveled around on her stool, crossed her legs and leaned back against the bar. Slowly sipping her strong cocktail, she scanned the room, weighing her options among the men whom she felt were all at her disposal.
The mood in the place changed when the first few beats of a slow song poured from the jukebox. On cue, the space closed up between couples who moments earlier had been frenziedly dancing to a driving upbeat tempo. As if hypnotized, they reached out and clung to each other, their eyes filled with a primal longing. Their bodies were pressed together as they rhythmically dry-humped and grinded. In the midst of this public display of unbridled passion, tight skirts inched upward, while groping male hands palmed and squeezed the plump derriere of their partners.
During these intimate moments at The Low Moon, when the room became muggy with body heat, there was bound to be an unwelcome tap on the male partner’s shoulder by a fellow who found himself deprived of a female dance partner, and who desperately wanted to get in on the erotic action. The intrusion was handled in various ways. Some men bowed out gracefully, reluctantly handing over his dance partner and others flat out refused to allow another man to cut in, growling in objection. On rare occasions, a fistfight would break out.
It was unheard of for a female to do the shoulder tapping and cut in on another woman’s slow dance.
Warmed by the effects of the alcohol, Silk started off innocently enough, moving sensually to the music while sitting atop the bar-stool, her black hair swaying back and forth like a satin curtain blowing in the night breeze.
But when she slid off the stool, and sauntered in the direction of her old beau, Duke Durnell, who was thoroughly engaged in a slow grind with Gwen Withers, a hush fell over the room. Silk didn’t merely tap Gwen on the shoulder; she gave her a harsh and impatient smack on the back, and when Gwen didn’t let go of Duke fast enough, Silk bunched up the fabric of Gwen’s yellow
blouse into her fist and roughly snatched Gwen out of Duke’s tight embrace.
Several expressions crossed Gwen’s face: surprise, annoyance, embarrassment, and finally acceptance as she skulked away to join Brenda and Fayette, two lonely wallflowers who sat at a table in the back, sour-faced and bordering on drunk. Gwen flopped down on a wooden chair and without asking permission, she picked up Brenda’s drink and guzzled it down.
The record was coming to an end when Duke welcomed Silk into his arms with an inviting smile. Another slow song immediately followed, and Silk and Duke launched into a lustful dance that was so provocative, tongues quickly began wagging.
“Looks like they need the privacy of a rented room,” Fayette groused, noticing how Duke’s hands freely roamed over Silk’s body as he hunched over, kissing and sucking the side of her neck.
“Duke ain’t nothing but a fool when it comes to Silk,” Brenda added. “She treats him any way she wants and all he does is take it with a big, ol’ stupid smile plastered on his face.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Fayette agreed with her lips twisted to the side. “He could have at least told her to wait for the next record instead of letting her embarrass Gwen in front of everybody.”
Gwen nodded in agreement as she finished off Brenda’s drink and now reached for Fayette’s half-filled cup of gin, hoping to numb the pain of humiliation.
While Silk and Duke were carrying on as if they had the place to themselves, the door burst open and trouble entered in the form of a well-dressed, scowling white man, whose fierce eyes scanned the semi-darkened room. A few people recognized Nathan Lee Willard as a city-slick politician, but since none of the coloreds ventured into the city much, nor did any of them have the legal
right to show up at the polls and vote, most had never set eyes on the man.
Figuring an innocent colored man was about to be accused of some petty crime or perceived misconduct, male patrons attempted to make themselves scarce…or even invisible. Bunny Carter kept his face obscured by lowering his head as he studied the repertoire of music in the jukebox, Aaron Joseph made a beeline to the john, and Tad Pritchard scanned the packs of smokes inside the cigarette machine as if considering changing his regular brand. Those who were left without cover, mopped nervous perspiration from their brow and quickly downed stiff drinks.
The shift in atmosphere went unnoticed by Silk and Duke, who were enthralled in their wanton display of passion and lust. The white man stalked across the dusty floor, and yanked Silk by the wrist, pulling her out of Duke’s arms. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he shouted.
“What’s it look like,” Silk answered, snatching her wrist out of his grasp. She turned back to Duke, but he backed away without uttering a single word, relinquishing her to the white man.
“Come on here, gal. We’re gonna talk this thing out in private.” Nathan Lee took hold of Silk again. She laughed derisively, stumbling over her high-heels as he jostled her out of the honky-tonk and down the dirt path that led to the small parking area in the rear.
“Get in,” he demanded, pointing to his flashy, brand-new Plymouth. Silk got in and slammed the door. Nathan Lee got into the driver’s seat, and he too, slammed the door. “I waited under the bridge for two solid hours. What do you have to say for yourself?” he demanded, his face turning red with anger.
“I ain’t got nothing to say.” Silk examined her fingernails briefly and then turned her head and looked out the window.
“You can’t treat me like I’m one of those jiggaboos you got wrapped around your finger.”
“And you can’t treat me like I’m nothing more than a good-time girl. I’m tired of meeting you under the bridge and by the lake. When are we gonna run away up North like you promised?” Silk had an image of her and Nathan Lee living together in a place like New York or Chicago where interracial couples could cohabitate without anyone batting an eye. In her fantasy, Nathan Lee bought her a shiny Chevrolet like the one his wife had. She daydreamed about him keeping her jewelry box overflowing with trinkets, and providing her with plenty of help around a house that was much too large for her to even consider cleaning.
“We’re gonna run away together as soon as I get some things straightened out.” Nathan Lee’s tone softened as he placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, his fingers meandering upward, caressing the soft hairs at the nape of her neck, and then moving around to the side and lightly stroking.
Silk flinched as his fingers touched bruised skin. With the glint of moonlight shining into the car, Nathan Lee detected the bluish-purple, passion mark that Duke had left on Silk’s fair skin. Enraged, he grabbed her by both shoulders and shook her. “How’d you get that love bite on your neck? You been two-timing me, you dirty tramp!” he accused and then slapped her soundly.
Silk laughed tauntingly and offered him her other cheek. “Go ahead and smack me around if that’s what it takes to make you feel like a big, strong man. Maybe if you’d hit me enough times in the past, you would’ve felt virile enough to get your wife knocked up without the help of Big Mama’s potions!”
A stunned look appeared on his face. “How you’d know about Dolly’s pregnancy?”
“Not much gets past Big Mama’s all-seeing eyes. She has a special way of knowing when her remedies take hold.”
Nathan Lee reached inside his shirt pocket and pulled out a pack of filter-tipped menthols. He shook one out of the pack and fired it up, using a lighter that was engraved with his initials. “I’m sorry for losing my temper, honey.” Looking remorseful, he extended a hand, but Silk leaned out of his reach.
“Now that the missus is carrying your baby, I suppose that puts the brakes on our plans.” She waited for him to respond, but he puffed away at his cigarette without speaking. “When were you planning on telling me, Nathan Lee?”
“Did you change your mind about our big plans?” she persisted.
He looked down guiltily. “No, but we’ll have to postpone things for at least nine months.”
Silk made a scoffing sound. “That’s a mighty long time to wait when I done already been waiting for over a year. What happens after nine months have passed? Oh, let me guess…you’re gonna tell me we have to wait for your little crumb-snatcher to start school. And after that, you’ll try to keep me on standby, doing nothing but twiddling my thumbs until he finishes college.”
“You’re exaggerating the circumstances; it’s not going to take that long.”
“I’m not exaggerating a damn thing. Every word I spoke is the truth, and you know it. What kind of fool do you take me for?” Silk asked bitterly.
“All I’m asking for is a little more patience, sugar plum.”
“Don’t try to sweet-talk me ’cause I done ran clean out of patience.” Silk glanced out the window to keep from having to look at his puppy-dog expression, which enraged her rather than softening her heart.
“I can’t leave Dolly high and dry with a new baby on the way. I need some time to figure things out,” he said softly as his hand wandered beneath her dress and then lightly caressed her firm thigh. “I miss you, Silk. Let’s take a drive over to the lake, and look at the moonlight together.”
Silk chortled. “I done lay on my back and watched enough moonlight to last me a lifetime. What I’d like to watch is a picture show or even a little bit of television every once in a while.”
“I’d buy you a TV set if your mama had some electricity in that ramshackle hut y’all live in.”
“You’re a politician; why can’t you get some electricity to run through our place?”
“That area’s not wired for it.”
“And that’s one of the reasons why I want to leave this godforsaken town.”
“I know, I know,” he murmured in a placating tone, while his fingers took more liberties, rubbing on the crotch of her panties.
Silk jerked his hand out from under her dress. “I’m going back inside the honky-tonk and finish having me some fun.”
“No, the hell you’re not,” he said brusquely, roughing her up as she reached for the door handle. “I didn’t buy that dress and those snazzy shoes on your feet for you to prance around, enticing a bunch of black bucks.” He put a vise-like grip around her forearm and spoke through clenched teeth. “You try to step foot out of this here car and I swear for God, I’ll break your neck. Now get your ass in the backseat and take those drawers off. I’m not gonna waste any more time fooling around with your uppity nigger-ass tonight.”
“Fuck you, cracker!” Silk looked him dead in the eyes, staring so defiantly, she didn’t see the hand coming that flew up and backhanded her hard across the face, splitting her bottom lip.
The metallic taste of blood that filled her mouth sent her into a blind rage. But she didn’t kick, bite, or scratch as was common among most women who found themselves in the sudden position of having to defend themselves.
Silk stuck her hand down in her bosom and pulled out her switchblade, and quick as lightning, Nathan Lee’s throat was slashed from ear to ear, presenting a deep, crescent-shaped gash that flowed dark red. Staring at Silk in horror and disbelief, he clutched his neck, attempting to staunch the gush of blood that squirted through his fingers, splashing the insides of the car. The interior of the new Plymouth suddenly looked as if it had been spray-painted carmine red.
There were also blood splotches on Silk’s arms, her face, her dress, and her shoes. She sat paralyzed for a moment or two. But when Nathan Lee’s body fell heavily against hers, she let out a little shriek and scrambled out of the car.
She looked right and left, searching for prying eyes, but there was no one to be seen in the desolate back lot. The only other car was an old beat-up Ford that belonged to Mr. Roland, the elderly owner of the honky-tonk. And by the time Mr. Roland or anyone else discovered Nathan Lee’s dead body, Silk would be long gone.