This story is by Fiona Raye Clarke and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Joe Turner couldn’t bring himself to let her go. He couldn’t let any of them go. But it wasn’t out of fear that they would identify him, march the cops to his front door step as soon as they were able. Joe felt the way he decided a slave owner must have felt; the women had become his charges. He fed, bed, and bred them. They ate, wore, saw nothing that he didn’t provide. He was their epicentre and they were merely emanations of him. They were what he would have had if he had children. The only piece betraying the truth of the situation was that they were Black.
Joe Turner’s only wish was that he had someone to talk to about them – the six Black women he kept in his basement: Gloria, Joanne, Marsha, Kelly, Stephanie, and Lydia. Every time the mailman came to deliver the mail or Jehovah’s Witnesses came to proselytize not knowing that Joe’s soul was already lost to them, Joe wanted to grab them and lead them to the basement. Not to keep them, but to show them: look at the family he built.
To Joe Turner it really was a family. Though they exchanged no hugs, no tidings, no affections their relation had grown in his imagination and it was impossible to weed it from him. The first of his daughters, Gloria, had learned: he was able to teach her not to spit whenever he came in; restrain her pounds and kicks, and it only took her ribs being broken.
He had rescued them; turned their heads and their bodies from addiction and made them stare at him. Despite this, Joe Turner knew he would eventually lose this family and he was counting the days until it would happen.
Joe Turner initially had the idea of cleaning up the neighbourhood. An economic downturn had flooded it with backwater drugs and people were wandering around begging. Joe Turner decided to corner one of them. She was a Black woman with a matted afro that had begun graying before its time. Her name was Gloria, though she told Joe, he could call her whatever he wanted if he paid her.
She hadn’t gotten all the way through his door before she started undressing. There wasn’t much on under her taters, and Gloria was slender to the point of emaciation. Joe Turner let her undress all the way before he stopped her. He told himself he was only curious.
Gloria asked him, “Isn’t this why you brought me here?”
Joe Turner shook his head, and turned his back to her. He went to the kitchen of his 2-bedroom house with an unfinished basement with a locking door, and dished out some food from the the stove and opened the tap and poured a glass for her. Though Joe would never drink the water from the tap himself he figured it was good enough for Gloria. He set the small table in the kitchen-dining room with only one chair.
Joe Turner remained silent until the tension caused Gloria to sit. More silence followed until she picked up the spoon, and even more until she actually ate the food.
She wasn’t sure if he was trying to poison or drug her, but it was better than what she had come to do. She ate the food. It didn’t taste funny, just bland like food that had only been heated for consumption.
Joe Turner didn’t speak until she had eaten 95% of it. “I want to help you get clean.”
Gloria laughed. From doctors, pastors, to the police: no matter how much they pressed, no matter how much she wished desperately for sobriety, the crack had a way of making her body scream.
“You think you can do that? By giving me food, pass up sleeping with me, only after you’ve gotten a good look?”
Joe Turner was flustered by her uppity attitude, but he remembered he had learned to control his anger. He said, “I can get you clean and I will, Gloria.” He hadn’t had another person’s name to say in years.
“And what if I don’t want to be?” she asked.
Joe Turner decided to bolt the door. He was pretty sure that had been the first food Gloria had tasted in days, and he was right: her withdrawal was nearly instant. It didn’t take days for her to become a sweating, heaving, shivering lump; it took hours.
As soon as the symptoms started, Joe dragged her to the basement. He got a piece of foam core and placed her on it. He would sit her up while she was vomiting and let her slump back down when she was finished. Every once in a while she would throw off her blankets and go from teeth-chattering freezing to melting.
Joe Turner took care of Gloria for 3 days. She hadn’t stopped breathing yet so Joe figured he must know what he was doing. He would leave her in the basement for short periods, and she was always breathing when he got back.
Eventually her symptoms seemed to subside and Gloria was just still. Joe Turner didn’t know what to make of it. He figured she must have found peace. He decided to try again and found a second woman named Joanne. She took her time before offering herself to him, and Joe was curious about the experience he would have with this one.
As Joanne started to get worse, Gloria got better and told Joe she was grateful but wanted to leave. Joe decided that he couldn’t let her. If he did, Gloria would probably start using. Instead, he had her stay to take care of Joanne.
Then Joe found Marsha, Kelly, Stephanie and Lydia to add to his collection. Gloria took care of them, each in succession. Lydia was different. As the drugs ran a marathon out of her system, she started screaming, catching spirits no one else was seeing. Her fits were so violent no one believed it was just her body cleaning. She would stare at a particular corner for hours as if there were something watching.
Marsha said Lydia must have some obeah on her. Kelly thought it was too bad that obeah couldn’t redirect to Joe Turner. Whether it was the spirit, detox, or obeah, Lydia started choking and couldn’t stop. They all begged Joe for an ambulance but he insisted the police would find them. They were his daughters and if they left, he would miss them.
Lydia died staring. Even after her body stiffened, Joe refused to bury her. He claimed he would have to do it on his own and dragging a body would draw too much suspicion. They would have to live with it. The women no longer had to fear an invisible spirit, they had Lydia’s body to haunt them.
Joanne said it was a spirit that killed Lydia, not Joe Turner. She removed her clothes, tied them together and hung herself, though no one knew how she had done it without any of them noticing. In the end, everyone was forced to live with Joanne too.
On the 74th day of their keeping, dusk flood the sky unexpectedly. Joe had been so enjoying the company of his girls, he decided to spend the evening in the basement. Joe Turner was in the middle of a lesson to his daughters when the power went. Joe so believed in his family he was unconcerned about the darkness.
It was when Joe bent to pick up the flashlight he kept hidden that Gloria pounced. He was shocked that she was the first to bite him.
Her teeth were not the choice weapon she had fantasized about wielding against him, but the shock of the opportunity had left her mouth open: unable to close it, unable to speak out against him for reasons of being killed, beaten or seasoned by him, Gloria let her mouth and let her disused teeth do the fighting.
Joe Turner’s screams drew the other women. In the dark, they used his guttural screams as echolocation. They struck him with the quickness of stingrays – digging nails, heels, knees, teeth and foreheads, and using them all to peel him. They wanted to rip and shred every speck, every bone, every trace of him to disappear him; alight him in the sweetest immolation. The resulting black smoke would swirl up to heaven, asking what life is this that they had been given, and rain would fall down and forgive them.
Unlike them, no one would ever find him. They would cannibalize his surprisingly frail body like he had spiritually cannibalized them. They would eat and bleed and belch him and not even the smell of him on on their breath would linger or reach any other soul that knew of him.
Many of those women, Gloria included, did not know they practiced obeah, but were damn grateful that the spirits were in the room, watching.