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Fiction

A Third of the Stars of Heaven

Henrietta followed the receptionist down the hall of Schneider Hospital. The woman’s keys jangled as she walked, mixing with the echoing clicks of Henrietta’s blue church shoes. No other noises greeted them.

Henrietta watched her shadow stretch itself in each unlit room, her form made large by the ultra-bright fluorescent lights of the hallway. One of the lights in the hall blinked on and off. Henrietta pinched her eyes closed to ward off dizziness. Her lower belly throbbed and she stifled a groan.

To calm herself, she rubbed her hands together. The action did little to ease the pain blooming in her belly or her growing anxiety. Two weeks ago, at least five patients occupied rooms on this floor. Where had all the patients gone?

“Here we are,” the receptionist said when they reached a door with a printed name etched deep into gold plating, the letters thick and dark so they could not be mistaken. Dr. Anna Caldwell.

“All right,” Henrietta said, softly. “Thank you.”

Someone said come in from inside and the receptionist opened the door. Dr. Caldwell was sitting behind her desk waiting. Just then the phone down the hall rang.

“Go ahead inside,” said the receptionist as she shuffled back to her desk, her keys chiming all the way. “Busy day today.”

Dr. Caldwell stood up behind her desk. “Please come in.”

“Yes, well,” Henrietta started, still lingering at the door. She took another look down the empty hallway. “I’m just a little nervous.”

“Nothing to worry about,” the doctor said.

Dr. Caldwell had a rather large smile. Large white teeth behind obscenely red lips. Lips that red were hardly appropriate for a doctor. Henrietta stepped inside and closed the door.

“Please sit,” said Dr. Caldwell as she took her own seat. This bothered Henrietta; surely the doctor should have sat after she took her seat. It was only good and right to do so when you have a visitor.

Dr. Caldwell was a stout woman. It looked to Henrietta like she was in her forties. She had her hair pulled back in a shiny bun. She wore large gold hoop earrings that looked tacky to Henrietta. After shaking Dr. Caldwell’s hand as graciously as she could manage, Henrietta took her seat. She clasped her hands on her lap and stared expectedly at the young doctor.

“It is a pleasure to have you in today, Mrs. Smith.”

Henrietta squinted. She didn’t know how to take this. Was this going to be a pleasant conversation? Weren’t they about to discuss something quite serious? Henrietta crossed her legs. She swallowed hard, her mouth incredibly dry. She gave a polite smile and nodded.

“Oh, sorry,” Dr. Caldwell said. She bent over in her chair, reaching for something near one side of her desk. Henrietta heard the sound of something slamming shut before the doctor sat back up with a Dasani bottle in hand. “Please have some water.”

“Thank you,” Henrietta said, taking the water. “I was very thirsty.”

“Yes, I can imagine,” said the doctor. “You must have had some difficulty doing so much walking to get up here.”

“I took the elevator.”

“Yes, still. At your age—” Dr. Caldwell smiled, saying nothing else.

Henrietta stared blankly, blinking twice. She was not in the mood for this woman. She wished she would just get on with the actual conversation.

“The walk was fine,” Henrietta said finally. “Just my nerves.”

Dr. Caldwell had a manila folder in front of her. She opened it and looked through it, turning a piece of paper every few seconds. Henrietta saw the hideous red nail polish on her fingernails, gleaming even brighter than her red lips, and had to resist the urge to say the Lord’s name in vain.

“Sorry,” the doctor said, not looking up. “I’m just making sure I got this right. You took some tests last week, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Pap test, was it?”

“Yes.” Henrietta was confused again. Didn’t the receptionist say she was expecting her? Wasn’t this appointment written down somewhere in her notes? She should know the details of all this already.

The last time Henrietta was here, a different doctor ran all the tests.

“Excuse me,” said Henrietta. “Where’s Dr. Moses?”

“He moved away.”

Henrietta waited quietly for more information. Dr. Caldwell looked up and noticed the look on Henrietta’s face.

“He left St. Thomas to go state-side. Seattle, I think. The hospital has been downsizing since the Ynaa arrived. Not a lot of demand for doctors.”

Henrietta nodded.

“Okay,” Dr. Caldwell said, closing the manila envelope. “You have cervical cancer.”

Henrietta nodded again. She uncrossed her legs. She uncapped her bottle of Dasani water and took a sip. Of course it’s cancer.

“Not to worry,” Dr. Caldwell said. “We can simply proceed with treatment. We do injections here.”

“I not taking no injections,” Henrietta said, all formality gone in an instant.

“Or you can visit a clinic and get it in capsule form. We don’t have it here. We’re terribly sorry for the inconvenience.”

“I not taking no capsules either.”

“Sorry?” Dr. Caldwell said, clear confusion on her face.

Henrietta said nothing.

“If you are concerned about the nano-synthetic organisms, they don’t stay in the body for long. Once treated, they die and you flush them out.”

Dr. Caldwell’s voice was soft, too gentle, like she was speaking to a child. Under all of this Henrietta could hear the island girl in her. She had gone off to school and gotten herself a Yankee accent. Now the doctor used it to talk down to her patients.

“Don’t care what they do. I not going through with any procedures.” Henrietta’s St. Thomian dialect was thick now, biting.

“Ma’am. I don’t think you understand what you are saying. We don’t have the facilities for chemotherapy. And even if we did, your cancer is rather far along. You will die if you don’t receive this treatment.”

Now there she goes with the “ma’am” stuff. Henrietta took a deep breath, placed the bottle of water on Dr. Caldwell’s desk, and then stood up.

Dr. Caldwell stood as well. “Ma’am?”

“Perhaps you would have more to do in this place if you took the time to consider the individual needs of your patients.”

“No one has ever turned down the treatment.”

“I find that unfathomable. Who want that stuff in them?”

“Sure, people show some discomfort. But with the threat of death—”

“They compromise they integrity?”

“Integrity? What you talking ’bout?” There she was. The island girl no amount of schooling could get rid of. Dr. Caldwell’s eyebrows arched obscenely, her grotesque red lips hanging open in realization of something. “Is this a religious thing?”

Henrietta turned away from the woman. “Thanks for your time. I will take the stairs back down to the main floor.”

“Well, if you change your mind—”

Henrietta closed the door on Dr. Caldwell’s words. She made her way to the stairwell and then descended them. As she went down, the pain in her lower belly erupted again violently. It felt like it had its own heartbeat that matched hers. What an obscene thing it was to have her life controlled by this evil mass, sent by God knows what demons to test her. She would not give it the satisfaction. It had already taken her good health. It would not take her soul.

• • • •

When Henrietta was thirteen, her mother went to an obeah woman.

Her mother worked at the post office on Main Street until five. This meant Henrietta had to stay at All Saints Cathedral School until her mother got off.

Henrietta usually passed the time reading from her little blue bible or doing her homework. On this day, she sat on the shaded steps in front the cathedral. She was reading Revelations. She loved that book in particular because it had the best stories.

This time she read Revelations 12.

And another sign appeared in heaven: behold a great, fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns . . . His tail drew a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to Earth and the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her child as soon as it was born.

Three other students waited for their parents as well. It was St. Thomas in 1963, so most parents didn’t have their own cars. Many of the students caught the school bus or the older kids walked up or down Garden Street with their friends to get to their homes in the area. Not Henrietta. She wasn’t allowed to leave school until her mother came for her. Her mother didn’t want Henrietta getting into trouble with any of the other kids. Her mother never specified what kind of trouble.

The teachers stuck around until all the students left or got picked up. By five, only four kids remained at the small private school. Two younger girls ran around in the courtyard. They always stuck around after school, annoying Henrietta with their yelling and laughter.

And then there was Jared from her class, sitting across the courtyard, near the gates of the school, doodling in his notebook. Jared usually saw Henrietta’s mother first and would yell across the courtyard to inform Henrietta.

“Your mom here,” he yelled as usual, and Henrietta looked up to see her mother standing at the gate in her brown postal uniform.

Henrietta got up and stuffed her bible in her school bag. She ran across the courtyard. Jared watched her stupidly the entire time.

“Bye, Henry,” Jared said, chuckling.

“Bye,” Henrietta said, not really paying him no mind.

“I don’t like that boy,” her mother said once she was outside the gate.

“He just childish,” said Henrietta.

Her mother didn’t respond to that. “What did I tell you about running like that in your uniform? You are wearing a skirt. It is unbecoming.”

“Sorry, Mom,” Henrietta said with a nervous smile.

“Stop smiling at me.”

Henrietta stopped, lowering her head to stare at her worn brown oxfords.

Henrietta didn’t look much like her mother, taking more after her father. She was lanky and a little bow-legged, five inches taller than her mother and taller than all the other girls her age. She was filling out, too. She had to be more aggressive than she’d like with boys so that they wouldn’t take liberties.

“Sorry, Mom,” she said again, careful not to smile.

Her mother reached into her bag and pulled out a Long John. “Here,” she said, handing Henrietta the coconut taffy candy. “I got two more in my bag. I’ll give them to you later.”

“Okay,” Henrietta said through chews. She loved the sweet caramel coconut taste of Long Johns. It was her favorite candy and her mother knew it. Henrietta eyed her mother suspiciously. She could sometimes sense her mother’s moods and right now her senses told her to be prepared.

“I need you to come with me on an errand,” her mother said.

“Okay.”

“It might make you feel a little uncomfortable but I need you to be a witness to something.”

“Okay.” Henrietta tried to read her mother’s face. Like usual, it was unreadable.

She reached out and held her mother’s hand. “Let’s go.”

Her mother responded to Henrietta’s forthrightness with more malleability than usual. She started walking without a word.

Henrietta lived on Rosen Gade. To get home, they had to walk down Garden Street, turn down Back Street and walk for fifteen minutes before reaching 99 Steps. Then they had to climb to the very top and trek up the thin, winding street to their house. By then the sun would be near setting and the journey wouldn’t be so unbearable.

They didn’t do any of that this time. Instead, they walked up Garden Street. The street was steep but wider than the streets near her house. Two massive tamarind trees lined one side of the street and Henrietta could see an iguana perched lazily on one of the big branches as she passed. When they neared the top, they turned into a narrow alleyway. It smelled wet in the alley and Henrietta could hear crickets and birdcalls as she walked with her mother. Large trees towered overhead, making the area several degrees cooler. It was darker than out on the street and something about it pulled at Henrietta’s nerves. She held her mom’s hand tighter.

The alleyway was cramped, unwieldy bush on one side and two-story houses on the other, with nothing more than a thin, winding dirt path between the starkly different worlds. Henrietta and her mother made their way to the very end of the alley to a two-story house with red gating and a white exterior. It was wider than the other houses and well kept. The trees parted there, allowing the house to catch more sunlight than anywhere else. Henrietta relaxed.

Her mother knocked on the door and after about a minute a young woman answered. She had darker skin than Henrietta and her mother but had piercing light brown eyes that caught the light of the sun. Henrietta was taken aback by the woman’s beauty. The woman’s hair fell to her shoulders in well-kempt dreadlocks. Henrietta usually disapproved of the hairstyle but on this woman it looked lovely.

Her mother didn’t look so impressed by the woman’s appearance.

“I’m here for the treatment,” her mother said plainly.

Henrietta wanted to say something then but knew her mother would hush her before she could get the full question out. She wanted to know what was wrong, wanted to know the purpose of the treatment. But her mother was secretive. She wouldn’t talk about it so openly here. Possibly at all. Henrietta would likely have to figure it out on her own.

“Octavia,” said the woman. “Yes, my friend told me you would be coming. I’m Maria. Please come in.” The woman spoke formally, a hint of an accent that Henrietta couldn’t place. It sounded old-fashioned somehow.

Maria led Henrietta and her mother to her beautifully decorated living room. On the floor rested a large blue, red, and green woven rug. Mahogany statue heads sat on a large dark wood table at the center of the room, surrounded by four varnished, handcrafted straw chairs. They all sat around the table. Henrietta continued to look around. On the walls, wooden African masks stared back at her from hollowed eyes.

“What are those?” Henrietta asked, pointing at the masks.

“Don’t bother the woman with questions,” said her mother.

“No, it’s fine,” Maria said. “I don’t mind.”

Maria went over to the wall and pulled one mask down from its place. She walked back over, sat down.

“This one is Olorun, a sky orisha.” Maria smiled at Henrietta’s confused expression. “A sky god. He is the ruler of endless space and creator of the other orishas you see here,” she said, pointing to the other masks on the wall. “People are very careful when they worship Olorun. They only call on him during the gravest circumstances.”

Maria handed the mask to Henrietta. She stared at it in bewilderment. She had no idea what the woman was talking about.

Her mother grabbed the mask from Henrietta and placed it on the table in front of her. “So how much will the treatment cost?”

“Do not worry. No payment is necessary.” Maria smiled.

Henrietta took in a quick breath. Something about Maria’s smile gave her a chill.

Maria seemed to notice this. She adjusted herself in her chair, looking more relaxed, more casual. “We can start right away, if you like.”

“Yes, please,” her mother said. “My husband will be expecting us home very soon.”

“Yes, of course.”

Maria got up and went to a black chest in the corner of the living room, directly under the wall of masks. She pulled out a long thin box and returned to her chair, setting the box on the table before opening it. In the box was a small vial, a metal syringe, and a small gleaming metal ball. Maria took out the vial first. She opened it and poured two small black capsules into her hand.

“Take this, Octavia,” Maria said, handing her the capsules. “You should be able to swallow it just fine without water.”

Her mother nodded. Henrietta could see the small ovular capsules in her mother’s hand. They seemed so inconsequential. What could something so small do for her mother? Her mother stared for a long time at the little things.

“Don’t worry,” Maria said. “It is perfectly safe.”

Her mother didn’t seem calmed by Maria’s encouragement. She watched the capsules carefully as if she was waiting for some revelation. Finally, she brought the capsules to her mouth, slow and careful. Henrietta watched her mother intently as she did this. All the while her mother’s eyes focused on Maria, looking for some sign of danger. Maria just smiled and waited. Henrietta felt another chill as she watched the woman. Maria was too still, not seeming to breathe at all.

Once her mother swallowed the capsules she placed her hands on the table, resting one on top the other. Her mother looked stiff, uneasy. Henrietta had never seen her mother act this way.

“Tell me about the ailment.”

Her mother glanced across the table to Henrietta before returning to Maria. “I’ve been feeling nauseous and very weak. My left breast is swollen. And there’s bleeding.”

“From the breast?” Maria asked.

Her mother nodded. “It is very painful.”

Henrietta was not aware of any of this. She had noticed her mother going to bed earlier more often but didn’t think much of it. Now she was here, in a stranger’s house, learning that her mother was sick. That it had something to do with her breasts. Henrietta looked down at her own breasts. She wondered what could cause your own body to betray you.

“Take off your shirt,” Maria said.

Her mother stared, taken aback by this. She opened her mouth to say something and then closed it again.

“I need to get the cancer out,” Maria added.

Cancer? Henrietta snapped her head towards her mother. She didn’t look at Henrietta, instead choosing to keep her eyes on the obeah woman. Henrietta looked down at her green pleated skirt, part of her white and green school uniform. She played with the creases, running her fingers down the length of them. She felt her eyes burning. She felt her cheeks grow hot.

Her mother took off her shirt and her bra quickly, wincing as she removed the bra. A white cloth lay nestled inside the bra, stained dark brown. Tears collected in her mother’s eyes. Was it the pain or something else? Henrietta couldn’t tell.

She could see it now, her mother’s swollen left breast. The breast looked like the skin of a grapefruit, hard with large pores. The nipple dripped blood.

Maria held the metal ball between her index and thumb and brought it close to her mother’s breast. Her mother made a sound, a soft whimper when the cold metal touched her plump flesh. Tears rolled down her cheeks. She bit her lip in an effort to muffle her pain.

Her mother had been having trouble getting food out of cabinets, Henrietta remembered then. This must have been the reason. But this was the first time she had seen her mother in visible pain. It seemed unnatural to her, frightening. Henrietta wanted to reach out and comfort her mother, but she knew this was not something her mother would allow.

When Maria moved the ball away from her mother’s breast, a large red circle glowed in the place the ball had been. The breast was still swollen, but the pores and skin had softened. Except for the glowing red area of flesh, the rest of the breast returned to the light brown color of her mother’s natural skin. The purple bruising disappeared. The red spot had an otherworldly glow to it, the radiance changing intensity at regular intervals, growing and shrinking, brightening and dimming.

Maria then gently picked up the large metal syringe.

“This will hurt just a little,” Maria said before sinking the needle into her mother’s left breast, right at the center of the glowing area. She pulled back on the plunger and Henrietta could see a bright red fluid fill the barrel of the syringe. Once the barrel filled, Maria removed the needle. Her mother winced as this happened and then her face untightened. She looked completely relaxed for just a moment. Then her eyes widened in astonishment.

Her mother touched her left breast and Henrietta could see the joy on her face. She was not in pain. The breast looked healthy. No bruising. No glowing red blotch. Her mother was cured.

Henrietta watched as Maria returned the syringe to the box, the glowing liquid still inside. She also returned the ball and the vial as well.

Her mother put back on her bra and buttoned her uniform shirt. “Are you sure there isn’t anything I can give?” she asked.

“No,” Maria said. “I just wanted to help.”

Henrietta watched the woman carefully. Maria smiled but Henrietta could see the façade slide away for just a moment, revealing something disturbing underneath. The woman was beautiful, but there was something manufactured about it, another version of Maria buried deep beneath this one.

Her mother didn’t seem to notice. She thanked the woman over and over. Again tears returned to her eyes, but this time she smiled wider than Henrietta had ever seen.

Henrietta looked out the window. It was getting dark. They’d have to leave soon to not arouse too much suspicion from her father. He worked as a manager at a small shoe store on Main Street and would be home a little after six. Her mother followed her eyes to the window before reaching the same conclusion.

“We have to go,” she said. “But I must repay you for this.”

“Oh, no,” said Maria. “I can’t—”

“I insist,” her mother said, handing the woman all the money in her purse. It amounted to only nine dollars. Maria smiled graciously.

On the way out, her mother thanked Maria another six times, each time emphatically. Maria smiled and received the praise. Once outside, they walked down the alley quickly. It was now much darker than before and the sound of crickets filled Henrietta’s ears. They speed-walked down Garden Street and up Back Street. On 99 Steps Henrietta asked her mother if she noticed something wrong about Maria.

“What you mean?”

“Don’t know. Something bad inside her.”

“No,” her mother said. “Maria is a good woman. She helped me.”

“Yes, but—”

“But what?”

“I think she’s a demon.”

Her mother laughed. “Don’t be silly, girl. She just got special gifts.”

“Didn’t God say to be mindful of witches?” Henrietta asked earnestly.

“Stop that, Henrietta.”

Henrietta stared confused, but she didn’t say anything. Her mother was the most religious person she knew. That devoutness had rubbed off on Henrietta, had molded her sense of the world. She deeply feared the Lord and trusted in his word. Her mother was behaving strangely. Any other day she would be quoting passages from the bible or thanking God for her good health. This version of her mother did not do these things. Perhaps Maria had changed her somehow. On the inside.

“You should have prayed to God to get better,” Henrietta said.

Her mother grabbed her by the arm suddenly. Henrietta could hear a dog barking a ways off and the sound of laughter from one of the houses that lined the steps. She looked away from her mother’s now angry face to the cobble steps, still wet from the afternoon’s rain.

“Listen,” her mother said. “Sometimes you got to do for yourself. God doesn’t always answer prayers.”

Henrietta didn’t like the look in her mother’s eyes. She tried to pull away but her mother held tighter.

“Don’t waste your time waiting for help that won’t come. God gives you the strength to help yourself.”

Henrietta tried to pull away again and failed.

“Do you understand me?” her mother yelled, maintaining her gaze. “Do you understand me, girl?” Henrietta heard the laughter in a house nearby die down. The dog too was silent. A man came out to see the source of the commotion. Henrietta saw only his silhouette, a shadow of a man peering down at them.

Her mother grabbed Henrietta by the face so that she would look her in the eye. “Do you understand?” she asked a third time.

“Yes,” Henrietta said. “I understand.”

• • • •

When Henrietta got home from the hospital, she went to sit on the couch. She turned on the television to her favorite soap: All My Children. She had long stopped paying attention to the convoluted plot. Now she just watched the scenes, trying to piece together enough of the story to amuse herself.

After sitting there for a few minutes, her granddaughter walked out of the bathroom.

“Hey, Grandma,” Lee said, sitting next to her on the couch. “How the check-up went?”

“How you get home?” Henrietta asked.

“Jessica.”

Henrietta nodded, relieved it was one of Lee’s girlfriends and not no stupid boy. “It went fine. Fix me some bush tea, no?”

Lee sighed and then got up. She’d have to go out into the backyard to get lemongrass to make the tea. Henrietta knew Lee hated picking lemongrass—she sometimes came back with little stinging cuts from sticking her hand in kasha—but the tea was the only thing that helped Henrietta feel better and got her to sleep.

Henrietta tried watching her soaps for a few minutes before Lee returned with lemongrass in hand and a fresh cut from the jagged spikes of the kasha vine that threatened to choke her backyard garden. Lee chupsed her teeth in aggravation as she placed the lemongrass in the pot and began boiling the water.

“So did they find something wrong?” Lee asked, fishing.

Henrietta ignored the question.

The credits rolled on All My Children, and after a few commercials, the news at seven came on. On the news, Mera issued a statement about a recent riot against the Ynaa.

“Again?” said Lee from the kitchen.

On the screen, Mera apologized for the altercation and asked humans to show restraint when meeting any Ynaa in public. She expressed concern that her people wouldn’t be as diplomatic as she has been, this being code for: “If you aggravate any Ynaa, they will kill you.”

The Ynaa. That’s what they called themselves. When they first arrived, Henrietta was in the middle of an early afternoon nap. Her granddaughter Lee shook her awake and brought her out onto the porch to see the spinning blue disk hovering out in the Charlotte Amalie harbor, the hum so loud Henrietta had to cover her ears. She wondered how she even slept through something so loud.

The first images were of Mera, the Ynaa ambassador. Those piercing eyes. Those well-kempt locks. That false smile. Henrietta knew immediately who she was. They hadn’t all just arrived.

Henrietta had quoted revelations when she saw Mera’s face.

So the great dragon was cast out of Heaven, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the Earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

The Ynaa came promising medicine and technology in exchange for co-habitation. And for research. They had outgrown their world, they said. But Henrietta knew better, though she kept how she knew to herself. Let God deal with the devil.

“It’s a little hot,” Lee said, placing the cup of bush tea on the living room table in front of Henrietta. She dropped down next to Henrietta on the couch, holding a glass of milk in one hand and cookies in the other.

Henrietta picked up her tea and blew at it.

“Be careful, grandma,” Lee said.

“Don’t worry yourself, child. I’ve drank a lifetime of hot bush tea. I’m not decrepit.”

Henrietta could feel the throbbing pain of the cancer in her cervix. Now she knew for certain what it meant for her future. She adjusted herself in the couch and took a sip of her tea. She groaned through the throbbing, focused on the soothing hot tea coating her throat.

Henrietta’s mother had died in her sleep at the age of ninety. She was never as devout as she had been before meeting with Maria. Henrietta’s father died of a stroke. Both her husband and her son died from complications with diabetes. In the last weeks of her husband’s life, he cried all the time, both his legs cut off above the knee to stave off infection. He was a hollowed out man. He whispered to himself. He called out in a wailing voice she had never heard from him before. He’d always been a quiet man, not prone to such strong emotion. When her son slipped off into a diabetic coma without a word she saw the silver lining. At least he didn’t have to suffer like that. He just lost consciousness and never woke up again.

Henrietta had outlived them all.

When she did die, Henrietta hoped to go just as quietly. Not wailing. Not pleading for more life. Her granddaughter was a year away from eighteen and college. She hoped to last until then, see her graduate from high school.

Then she could let the thing take her. She wouldn’t mind one bit. She’d go off to where she belonged, where she’d always longed to be. She’d be welcomed into the kingdom because she hadn’t compromised herself. She was faithful. She had trusted in God.

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Cadwell Turnbull

Cadwell Turnbull

Cadwell Turnbull is a graduate from the North Carolina State University’s Creative Writing MFA in Fiction and English MA in Linguistics. He was the winner of the 2014 NCSU Prize for Short Fiction for his story “Ears” and attended Clarion West 2016. Currently he is working on a novel set in near-future U.S. Virgin Islands after an alien colonization. He teaches ESL to adults in Charlestown, MA.