Excerpt from Jilo by J.D. Horn

Jesse’s mama hadn’t been entirely right in thinking Nana Tuesday hadn’t passed down any of her magic. Jesse had received this box, and its mystery contents, from his grandmother’s own hands. When he was a boy—just turned twelve, as he recalled—she’d called to him softly through his bedroom window one night, coaxing him out into the approaching twilight. Once he was outside, she held her finger up to his lips to signal that he shouldn’t talk, then led him away from the house and into the grove of oaks that separated the house from the very field where the dead child now lay.

 “He may call himself John,” Nana Tuesday had said, pointing to the name inscribed above the picture, “but this is him all right. This here’s the Red King. He changes how folk see him, so ain’t no two folk ever agree on the shape of his face or the color of his skin, but you can always tell it’s him from his tall hat and the fancy way he dress himself. From his shine for tobacco and rum, and from his foul language. These are the ways he shows himself to us.” She placed the box in his hands. “I put somethin’ in here, somethin’ that will protect you from those who serve him, who worship”—she stressed the word—“him. You got to take this inside the house yourself. Nana can’t do it, else he’ll know she workin’ against him. And you can’t take it through the front door, either. That’ll undo the magic. You take it back with you the same way you came out, you understand?”

Though he didn’t rightly understand what that meant, he nodded and said, “Yes’m.”

 “Okay, then,” she said. “Now you get back inside, ’fore your mama realize you out here.” He turned and took a few quick steps away. “Jesse,” his nana called out, causing him to turn back. “Don’t you tell your mama about this. You keep it to yo’self.”

“Yes’m,” he repeated.

She called out to him once more as he was turning away. “And don’t you ever try to open it. Nana sealed it for a reason. You keep that box shut and it’ll keep you safe. You open it, and it gonna let out somethin’ worse than what she trying to protect you from.” She paused and gave him a good hard look. “You gonna try to open it?”

“No ma’am,” he said.

“Good, then, you get on back inside.” He had no sooner shimmied back through his window than he held the box to his ear and shook it. Though it sounded empty, the heft of it told him there was something inside. He tugged on the lid, but the edge wouldn’t even bend up. He set the box on his bed and fetched his prized pocketknife from his nightstand, intent on sticking the blade into the seam his nana had sealed with some kind of glue or wax. But as soon as he set the blade against the seal and pressed, he felt a whack against his fingers like he’d been caught in a mousetrap. A sharp pop sounded in his ears, and he was nearly blinded by a flash of light. He dropped the knife and shook his agonized hand, wanting to cry. He might have done so, too, but he heard the sound of his nana’s laughter drifting in through his window.

He rushed to the opening. “Yo’ nana knows you better than you know yourself,” he heard her say, though she was nowhere in sight. “Now you put that thing away where it won’t be a temptation.”

That was all the scolding he’d needed to swipe it up from the bed and push it to the back of the closet


             Until today, he’d done a pretty good job of forgetting about the box, but the thought of that simple child lying dead not a quarter mile away pushed it to the forefront of his thoughts. So did his mama’s words about the Red King.
             He no longer needed to stand on tiptoe to reach the box. He opened the closet door and reached back to where he felt the cool cardboard. He pulled it out into the light, shocked to see how closely the smiling face beneath its elegant top hat matched his memory. Turning the box, he placed the sharp edge of the knife he’d borrowed from the kitchen against the seal. As soon as he pressed the blade down, a sharp pain shot through him, so strong that he dropped the box to the floor. The Red King’s smiling face looked up at him, mocking him.
              Seemed that the magic still worked, and as soon as the feeling of having his fingers roasted left him, Jesse decided he was mighty glad of that fact.
         There had been enough magic in it to protect him as a child. Now he hoped there would be enough to protect all three of his baby girls. The pain eased enough for him to reach down to grab the cigar box, but he pulled back at the last moment, his body remembering all too well the shock it had just experienced. Damn, he thought to himself, and made another swipe, this time forcing his hand to pick it up. “Not gonna try to open you,” he said out loud. “Just want to take you home.” As if the magic protecting the box understood him—a thought that sent a quiver through him—he felt a cooling sensation spread across his injured fingers and hand.

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