by Shannon Barber
There are rules in our neighborhood. No dealing in the open, no purse-snatching, no rape, no gang work in the neighborhood. Other neighborhoods knew, and it was rare that anyone who had a lick of sense came into our neighborhood to do their dirt.
We were feared for good reason.
One summer my sister and I were walking to our apartment, she was holding my hand, and we were singing some Spanish pop song we’d heard from a passing car, it was warm, and I had gotten my hair done at a real shop for the first time. I felt like a real grown-up pretty lady, just like my sister.
I remember the solid thwack of my braids against my back. I was ten, and my sister had promised if I did well in school, I could get big-girl braids like hers. With the promise of a full summer of glamour and beauty, I not only did well but won awards and accolades from my teachers. I even made new friends. My sister was so proud, she not only got me my hair done, she got me my first manicure and pedicure.
As we approached the corner store, I felt like the most special most beautiful little girl in the world, a feeling that I am grateful for to this day. People stopped us and complimented me on my hair. Even old Mrs. Grace stopped to look me over.
“Don’t you look pretty. Gonna grow up and look just like your Mama. Go on now you two, get on home.”
My sister and I responded almost in unison, “Thank you ma’am, yes ma’am.”
We went on our way.
When I say that our neighborhood was peaceful I don’t mean to imply that it was better than the rest of the hoods in our city. We still had problems, people got killed, and like every neighborhood in America, there was a Nastyman.
I remember my mother glaring at him as we passed by and hissing in my ear, “JJ you stay away from that Nastyman, you understand? If he tries to talk to you, you run and come tell me or your Daddy okay?”
The way she said it scared me more than anything. All one word, Nastyman, the warning sibilance in her voice made me clutch her hand as I stared at him. I still don’t know if he was a sex offender or just one of those people who just creeps out the neighborhood with their too-long looks at the children. Mama never said and I never asked.
That summer night my sister left me on the sidewalk outside of the corner store while she picked up a few items for our parents. I sat, swinging my new braids and examining my gleaming purple toenails. I felt so grown up, I wondered if I shouldn’t ask everyone to call me Janice rather than JJ because it sounded more like a real grown-up lady name.
I looked up to see the Nastyman standing across the sidewalk from me. He was smiling, and I was positive he was looking up the leg of my shorts at my panties. It was the first time I felt the weight of a sexual gaze on my skin.
“Oh, little Miss JJ. Look how pretty you look. Ain’t you growin’ up to be a glamorous little miss.”
I felt his words slime across my skin, and I frowned up at him. “You ain’t supposed to be talking to me. Better go away before I tell my Mama on you.”
He stepped closer, openly leering at me then. His bald head was sweating, and I could smell him, and it made something happen in my throat and chest, a simultaneous loosening and tightening.
“Who you gonna tell? You know your fast-ass sister is in there talking to that stock boy. Ain’t nobody out here. Why don’t you come to my house? I got dolls and clothes for you to play dress-up.”
For the first time in my life I felt blood rush to my face in something other than childhood mortification. I wasn’t blushing–I was angry. I felt my skin heat up, and the two familiar smooth fangs on the roof of my mouth ached.
I rocked forward onto my hands and knees and got low to the ground, my shoes kicked off and new glamorous looks forgotten. Something moved in my throat, and I watched his eyes go wide as I hissed at him, “If you don’t leave me alone Nastyman, I’m going to eat you.”
For the first time I felt my jaw disengage in anger and the two familiar delicate fangs extended behind my canines. It hurt and made me even madder. I opened my jaw as wide as I could and unrolled my tongue, tasting the air and untwining the two forked lobes I usually held together tightly out of habit.
This is why our neighborhood is so good. There are more of us than there ever were of them. Our neighborhood is where we live in this city, we children of Apep–the snakes, the serpents. We live together with the Anansi and many others. The humans came, and we couldn’t stop them but when they got out of hand, we handled them.
I heard the Nastyman let out a wheeze. It rattled deep in his chest, and he turn and ran. I was too young for the full change but I felt my little body charge with adrenaline and strength, the strength I hid from other children. I let my little humanoid legs carry me at speeds I had never dared let loose. I was on his heels until I lost my momentum, and skinned my knees.
I howled in pain, and the burning anger warmed my cool insides. I wanted, no, I had to eat him. Behind me I heard my sister calling, “Janice! Janice, no! 0h, no, oh, shit! Raheim, go get my Daddy.”
I felt the pound of her feet on the pavement in the tiny bones in my ear, and I was up, tasting the trail of fear and filth the Nastyman left in his wake.
There was an empty field a block away, and I heard him duck into the tall grass. I followed. At that age, I could not yet achieve a full shift really. I was less pure snake than snake with chubby sturdy little arms and legs, I probably looked like a chubby axolotl without a fringe. Probably more terrifying than the smooth black scaled form I know now.
He crouched somewhere in the field. I was too small to see over the nodding heads of the weeds and sticker bushes. I sank to the ground, belly-crawling. I hissed again and heard his muffled whimper to my left. I could hear my sister approach, and I belly-crawled through the grass until I saw his calf.
I tilted my head back just like Mama taught me when I practiced hunting little rats and things, my jaw unhinged, and I struck him.
I was still too young to have venom, but I chewed, feeling my strong little fangs dig into the meat of his calf. When the blood hit my tongue I moved my lower jaw back and forth and felt my teeth scrape bone. He was shrieking for help. His shrieks hurt my ears, and I chewed harder. I was frenzied, hungry, and he was my prey.
Beneath his screams and the feel of his fists yanking my new braids I heard the tiny Anansi babies and the real spiders skittering away and calling to their bigger brothers and sisters.
When one of us had one of them, it became a neighborhood effort.
Just when I thought I would faint from the pain of him yanking on my braids, I heard her.
It wasn’t my sister or mother–it was the Daughter of Sekhmet. I was secretly in love with her after seeing her in the middle of her hunt earlier that summer. I opened my eyes in time to see her striding long-legged and dusky brown with the face of a lioness coming. She ran and leapt on the man. She struck him perfectly, right on the back of his exposed neck. I was so enthralled by the loud decisive crunch of broken bone, my lower jaw slipped. When he let go of me to try to gouge out her big golden eyes, I tumbled backwards. I was exalted and terrified. When she jerked her head sharply to the side to break his neck, I burst into noisy sobs.
I howled the way only children can, my head thrown back and the sound pouring out of me. I was covered in his blood and spat out a chunk of his filthy flesh. I got to my feet, feeling my body change, and wept in fury, frustration, and abject terror.
Strong arms scooped me up, and my fangs folded back into place against the roof of my mouth with a sharp pain. I cried harder and clung to my Daddy, shaking and, as sense returned to me, thinking I would get in trouble.
Mama had told me a million times, “Never hunt in our neighborhood.”
When I paused my wailing to breathe, I heard my father and Kissa the daughter of Sekhmet laughing. Kissa’s face had returned to the high cheek boned beauty I loved, and my father was kissing my face and rocking me.
I struggled in his arms and squirmed back to the ground. I stared up, balled my fists, and turned on Kissa whom I loved but in that moment hated. I quivered with a new rage, “That was, that was my prey.”
That was not what I thought I was going to say, but once I realized I had been robbed of my hard earned prize, I howled again.
share of the meat. Daddy carried me home and put me in the bathtub. When Mama got home he explained, and after her tight, frightened hugs, she beamed at me, “I told that Nastyman to stay away from my girl. I’m sorry you didn’t get to eat him.”I was still a big girl ,but I laid my head between her ample breasts and let her rock me in her lap. “It’s okay,” I said. “He tasted like human poop.”She made the low, soothing hiss that always made me feel good and safe. “There will be others.”
That night I ate like a queen. My sister even let me in her room to watch television with her while she fixed my braids and massaged my scalp with coconut oil. I fell asleep curled into her warmth.
At ten years old I learned the real bloody meaty truth about why our hood takes care of its own. I realized that summer why my cousins and everyone else’s cousins stayed, and why I would stay too. We are not many but we live among you. I will live here forever where I am safe, and you are prey. Even to terrified little girls.
Shannon Barber is an author from Seattle where she lives with her
partner and a small collection of oddities. Her most recent work has
been seen in Thuglit and Yellow Mama. To see more of her work,