by Adanze Asante
At dusk, a crow caws on the porch of Emma Mae’s home. Before I can get any closer, it vanishes. I trip up the steps and think, at this point, I should bail. Until her front door creaks open, but no one’s at the door. I hesitate, stand still for a few moments, and think I’d rather wait for my ride to return. But the sky grows so pitch-black that I cannot even see my hands when I wave them in front of my face. And the only light is the one behind the door. I have two choices: wait on the road’s side in the dark or go inside with the light.
A vinegary scent assails my nostrils before I enter.
“Have a seat. I’ll be right with you.”
As I wait, the ticking of a grandfather clock irks me. I don’t know why, but I fidget like a six-year-old girl in church without grandma’s peppermints. To keep my mind off waiting, I scan her living room walls full of oil-painted portraits and sepia-toned photographs. One of the paintings portrays a stern woman dressed in a simple black dress and pearls sitting in a chair, clutching an African carved cane. Beside her, a mulatto man is dressed in a Victorian business suit. Below that painting, inside a gold frame, a family of four stands in front of a makeshift garden. All of them wear somber expressions, especially the little boy in knickers. My eyes glide to the portrait of a woman wearing a flowery red-and-yellow head wrap. Her portrait is the center of them all. While I stare at her image, her large almond-shaped eyes ensorcell me. The ticking of the clock fades to what I imagine her voice.
I heal those who come to me. I am the one who wields a lightning bolt with my left hand and the cross of Jesus with my right. I am Madame Marie Laveau-Glapion. I am the one who can manifest your dreams. I am freedom born. I have kept my grandmere’s secrets from Senegal and Dr. John Montenee’s lessons close to my bosom. I am the one who has helped those poor souls destined for the gallows. I am the one who loves all men and women. I am Choctaw, African, and French. I am the one who travels with ease from the Spirit Land to the Land of the Living.
Creaking noises awaken me as Emma Mae saunters down the stairs. My mouth drops open. She resembles Diahann Carroll and the woman in the painting—not a hair out of place in her chignon bun. Her red flowing silk dress flows with her light gait as she descends the steps. I squeeze my eyes shut to stare at her again because Emma Mae must be at least over seventy.
“I’m here to –”
“I know what you’re here for, ma chere.” Emma Mae lights a cigarette and sits beside me. Up close, her face widens like a bright moon as she snips a lock of my hair. “I always need reassurance.”
It’s too late for me to protest and I don’t know what she means about the word reassurance, but I’m here and can’t turn back. My throat stiffens as I swallow.
“Would you like some water, Mademoiselle?” Emma Mae ashes her cigarette with a tap. “Unless you want a little something stronger?” She points to her mahogany bar.
I refuse to drink on this type of occasion, for it’ll be unwise to have a cloudy head with what I’m about to do.
“So, you’re a wise woman to come here.” She grabs a mason jar with a cigarette dangling in her mouth and whispers a few words over it. “I want you to take this into the latrine with your knife.”
My eyebrows furrow as I hold the jar that vibrates in my hands.
“Oh yes, pick a vein. You don’t mind opening and pour some of your blood into it.” A spiral of smoke curls in between us.
I’m all fingers, fumbling the jar.
“Sure, you might not want a little something stronger?”
I cough before relenting. I’m as nervous as a chicken in a fox den. “Yes, that’ll be fine.”
Emma pours a glass of bourbon and swirls it around before giving it to me.
“I want you to think of your intentions.”
As the brown liquor warms my throat, I begin to relax.
“Ah, feeling better, mademoiselle?”
I nod and show her my knife I purchased from Woolworths.
“Oui, c’est un bon couteau; that’s a good fitting knife!” Emma puts out a cigarette and lights another. “Get into the mind frame of what you want.” She stops me again to hand me alcohol and gauze bandages. “Make sure you only fill it to the marking on the jar, which is only a half-inch.”
“Huh, you don’t need a lot of blood?”
“This is not a blood bank, ma chere.” She butts a cigarette and lights another. “I only need a half-inch or less.”
I never had to cut myself, but the story I read in Sunday’s Chicago Tribune forced me to do anything to change my dismal fate. The headline: ARTIE SWOON GETS MARRIED! Beneath the bold letters, a photo of my ex-best friend is clutching my high-school sweetheart—Arthur.
I grow faint, for everything’s white in this bathroom: the marble floors, the sink, the claw-foot tub, and two toilets, except for the burgundy red divan that sits to the right. I am not sure of the two toilets, but one of them is a bidet. What I highfalutin witch!
I take out my knife, place the jar in the sink, and place my inner elbow over its mouth. What if I die cutting myself?
“Don’t worry, ma chere!” Emma yells from the dining room. “You won’t die.”
How does she know what I’m thinking?
My hands shake as I sterilize my knife in hot water and alcohol. I nick my index finger instead and realize it hurts less than that darn article!
Pressing the gauze material onto my finger, I consider my sacrifice minimal. Compared to the years I had sacrificed for our daughter’s happiness. I practically worked twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to make our little girl happy. All of those years marching to work with flapping soles to work as a laundress and to get nothing in return but a slap in the face.
I had grown tired, especially that Sunday when Arthur told me to watch him on the Dick Clark Show. I made sure my daughter and I had worn our Sunday best that day. I dressed our eight-year-old daughter in pastel colors from blue to pink, and I wore my only dress: a wool one. My patience had worn thin as I sat on my mother’s plastic-covered couch on that hot day in July. Beads of sweat dripped down my face while my daughter and I watched the commercials of candy, shortening, cigarettes, and whatnot. My thighs had stung against the plastic until Dick Clark announced: “And now what you’ve all been waiting for! It’s Artie Swoon!”
Arthur gleamed so much inside my mother’s new television set that I’d almost reached for my sunglasses. He seemed so cavalier. Decked in a slim black suit, a crisp white shirt, and a skinny black tie, he’d smiled so brightly that even his teeth gleamed. Commandeering his microphone, he captured that wide-eyed audience with his sultry, soulful voice. And with a swivel of his hips, he made some of the audience members clutch their chests; shake their heads; cry, or even faint. But most of them had clamored for the glory himself as I watched and sweated on my mama’s plastic-covered couch.
My high-school sweetheart had seduced America with the same song he seduced me with on my mama’s back porch. And when I think about that article in Sunday’s Chicago Tribune’s centerfold: ARTIE SWOON GETS MARRIED! I have the right to be here in Emma Mae’s house. I have a right to manifest my desires. I think of how he owes me.
I ease onto Emma Mae’s burgundy divan to regain my composure and breathe for a few minutes. Closing my eyes, I imagine myself as Mrs. Artie Swoon waiting in the green room. I imagine taking pictures by his side, climbing inside his limousine, and traveling the world beside him. I’m sharing that limelight, grinning, and ensuring I show all my teeth for those flashing cameras. Eight long years, I mean eight long hard years, I’ve raised our precious daughter alone with my mama. I’m so tired of scraping and surviving.
Soon my worries melt away to me living in a more luxurious home than Emma’s. I begin to believe I am worthy. I return to Emma, thirsty for a glass of bourbon.
“Est-ce que tu voudrais un autre verre?”
I don’t understand what she’s saying, but I nod anyway. I clutch the glass of bourbon she hands me with more certainty.
While I sip, I observe Emma placing the jar with my blood on the corner of the kitchen table. With a cigarette dangling from her lips, she shakes it up. She whispers a few more unrecognizable incantations. I walk gingerly behind her to her basement: it’s difficult to see because the lights are so dim. She leads me to a room with high ceiling and shelves and shelves of jars blood.
On the table in the middle of the room, I see a gilded book lying in the light with an unoccupied quill. She opens the book with hundreds of scrawled names in red. She dips the quill in my blood and passes it to me.
“Sign here, ma chere.” She beckons me closer to the book.
I shiver, thinking signing in blood is a cliché until I peer at varied red signatures from Harriet Tubman to Theodore Roosevelt to Christian Dior. With a trembling hand, I sign below Katrina Brown’s name, the woman who referred me here.
Once I finish signing, Emma Mae casts a spell over my blood jar. She spews words that sound musical with hard consonants. I think it may be an African language, but I’m unsure. Then she places my blood jar on the shelf next to Katrina’s. “Your number is 111, and your retainer fee is $111.11 a month.” She says, glancing at me. “Please write that number next to your name. It’s my way of keeping inventory.”
“Gosh, that’s a lot of money, Emma Mae!”
“For what you want, there’s a price to pay.”
“So, how did you know what I wanted before I said it?” I follow her back up the stairs to her kitchen.
Emma pulls out a seat and pulls out another cigarette from her pack. “Because the story is written in your eyes.”
I gaze at her, confused.
“L’argent, s’il vous plait, ma chere.” Emma Mae’s eyes brighten as she rubs her fingertips.
“Why so much and that number?”
“Because will manifest all your wishes, and aren’t you worth it?” A car honks. “Your chauffeur’s here.”
“Oh, it must be Katrina.” I glance at my watch. “Two hours flew by that fast?”
“You must understand that there are certain rules we must follow when we do this kind of work.” She levels her eyes at me. “Giving and receiving works main dans la main.”
“Hand to hand?”
“Oui, ma chere, the only rule you’ll need to remember is to pay me every month on the 11th and give me two checks of the same amount on November 11.”
“Every month and twice in November?” I grimace. “This is too much money, Emma!”
“What happened to that determined woman on my divan?” She stood with her arms akimbo. “Not anyone can cut themselves. This is the only rule you’ll need to follow.”
“Okay, but what if I miss a payment?” I take the last sip of bourbon.
“Oh, you wouldn’t want to think of doing that.”
Katrina honked again.
“What will happen?”
“Don’t worry about what will happen; just focus on what’s to become.”
“In other words, stay positive.”
“C’est l’idee, Mademoiselle!” Emma Mae pats me on my shoulder, smiling.
“I can’t believe Katrina’s here already.”
“Time flies when spells are woven, ma chere.” Emma Mae gazes deep into my eyes and laughs. “Vivre tes reves!”
Puzzled, I stare at her.
She coughs and laughs. “Live your dreams!”
“Thank you so much, Emma Mae.” And before I walk out the door, she says: “Remember, you must pay me this fee every month on the 11th day and twice in November. Not 222.22 in one check. Make it two separate checks. The number eleven is important.”
“I promise,” I back step out her door.
I climb into Katrina’s pink La Femme, and she’s grinning at me from the steering wheel. “So, how’re you feeling?”
“Give it a few days, and you’ll see miracles.”
I stand in front of my mama’s house in my flapping shoes. Red dust in between my toes and I think that same dust engulfs my mama’s red brick house, the one adorned in its glowing red awnings trimmed in white at each window. My hands grow cold as I grip the wrought iron railing to walk up to what my life had been for the past eight years without Arthur. I grit my teeth, thinking of that witch’s opulent home. Her sparkling chandeliers, shaggy carpets, and bidets flash in my mind’s eye, making me realize even more that I am nothing. I pray Emma Mae’s magic will take me away from living beneath my mother’s shadow and the snickering, and jeers of being Artie Swoon’s cast aside. Sighing at the place that sheltered me from the cold, hungriness, and too much heartbreak, I knew why I’d fed my blood to that witch’s jar in Peoria.
My heart leaps to my throat when the famous crooner’s voice greets me. And I couldn’t help but smile as wide as the Mississippi River.
“I thought it would be nice to see you again, Mary.”
I regain my composure; I wouldn’t want him to think I’m too excited. “Why would you think that?”
“Time has flown so fast, and I was in the middle of traveling here and everywhere.”
I feign ignorance. “What time should I expect you, so I could have Annie ready.”
“Oh, I’m not only visiting our daughter.” He pauses. “I want my eyes to gaze upon your lovely face.”
“Um, okay.” I really want to say: “Really? Oh, my God!”
“How does tomorrow afternoon sound?”
“Okay.” The excitement bubbling in me wants to burst and explode into confetti bits, but I hold it down. I push that excitement deep inside my belly and lock it up.
Arthur laughs over the phone. “See you soon, Candy.”
He hasn’t called me that in years. Whenever he did speak to me, we only discussed Annie’s business. The usual questions: How much money would I need to place in the account for her new school clothes, or how much money should I send for groceries, or how much money should I send for her private school bill. Oh, he was a miser and never thought of me and my needs. But today, he called me Candy.
So, Emma Mae’s mojo’s working.
“Ma, Arthur will visit Annie and me tomorrow,” I yell at mama in the kitchen.
“You always say he’s picking up Annie; why did you include yourself?”
“I don’t know. He said he wants to see me, too.”
I shrug my shoulders.
“Well, whatever it is, that man’s married.” My mama scrubs the frying pan with a little more vigor than usual. “I don’t want you gettin’ any ideas, you understand?”
“I’m not thinking about that, Ma.” I lie.
Arthur’s limousine pulls up to my front door. He steps out, wearing a cashmere blue sweater, a white collared shirt, and black pants. He smiles, bites his bottom lip, and outstretches his arms for a big hug. I stop myself from running to him like I’m Wilma Rudolph in the Olympics. Instead, I stand still in the doorway. I could lick him like an orange-cream popsicle.
“Girl, you look good!”
“Thank you, Arthur.”
“Arthur? No one calls me that ‘sides my family.” He laughs.
“Well, that’s the only name I know you as, or would you prefer me to call you Artie?” Like your wife.
“No, don’t do that! Please, be your sweet self.” He smiles and winks at me.
His hand brushes against my waist on his way in. A current of excitement flutters from my belly button to my groin. Mama comes out to say hello, and before she returns to her bedroom, she tilts her head to the side. “There’s food already prepared in the fridge.”
Arthur waves at my mother’s back before we both smile, sinking into her plastic-covered couch. His head swivels, staring at my mama’s house like a museum visitor. “Damn, nothing’s changed. It sure does feel good being here again.”
“Annie, your daddy’s here.” Her white patent leather shoes patter across the floor. “Daddy, you were so little in the television. And now you’re a giant!”
Arthur laughs and reaches to pick her up. He swings her around in the air as if she’s on a carnival ride. I cannot help but laugh.
“Family’s everything, Candy.” He puts Annie back down.
“Yes, it is,” I mutter. “Yes, it is.”
In the background, Annie’s jumping up and down. “Papa, do it again, please.”
“Not right now; your daddy’s a little tired from all that traveling he’s been doing.”
“But I got you something.” Artie pulls out a Raggedy Ann doll from his bag.
“This is what I’ve always wanted!” She skips to the other side of the living room, jiggling her yellow yarn-haired doll.
“I love that little girl.” Arthur inches closer to me with his left arm resting on the top of the couch. I cannot help but scoot under his wing as Annie plays in the corner.
“I feel like my old self again.” The plastic on the couch squeaks as he moves his hips closer to mine. “I miss you.”
I inch away from him. I don’t want him to think I’m too eager and easy. “Why did you wait until now to come to talk to me?”
We talked for about two hours about old times and his plans of leaving his singing career and venturing into the music-producing business. He sighs before leaving. “It was terrific seeing you again, Candy.” His soft lips press against my left cheek before walking to his limo.
That day led us to talk every day for a month. And when I read the article about Arthur Sweeny and his new wife, I scratch out Linda’s face using my new ballpoint pen. Getting a glass of water, the radio news announces: “Artie Swoon’s wife was killed in a car accident. A sheet of glass decapitated her as she sat in the car, waiting for the songster’s return.”
My glass of water shatters to the floor. The memory of me leaving Emma Mae’s house bombards my mind.
Right afterward, the phone rings: “I didn’t know who else to talk to.”
“I’m so sorry.” I lie.
“I need you now.”
Arthur knocks at my door in a few hours, tears welling in his eyes. “I’ve never loved her.”
We both hug in the doorway while my mother eyes us askance. Everything’s happening so fast that within moments, Arthur proposes to me.
“How’re you proposing to me when your wife’s body’s not even cold in the ground?”
“Because you’re who I want, Candy.” He stares into my eyes. “It’s always been you.”
Everything’s reeling like a high-speed merry-go-round, and when Arthur leaves, I run to the back porch to take a breath. I take a seat on my mother’s oak swinging bench to gaze at the blossoming juniper trees. Its red cedar, blueish-green prickly foliage, and the sunset’s pink clouds remind me of all the goodness in the world. While the wood groans and knocks against the clapboard, I cringe, thinking of how I don’t want any part of Emma Mae’s magic.
The sky above me turns a blood orange dotted with crows. My led feet sink into Emma Mae’s lush green lawn. As I trudge to her porch, my socks in my shoes moisten from the fresh dew, and my heavy purse digs into my shoulder.
About halfway to Emma’s place, I think I made a big mistake coming here. The crows’ caws fill my ears, but the bird calls drop away to silence as I near her porch. My throat’s dry. Something’s watching me. Maybe that vanishing crow?
When I step upon her porch, the door creaks open like before. I walk inside one step at a time into the living room. The first thing that hits me is vinegar, so tart that it makes my eyes water. My stomach drops as if I’m in my uncle’s operated elevator.
Before I could utter a word, “I’ll be right down, Mary.” Her chain-smoking voice sounds like a car running over gravel. “Take a seat.”
How does she know it’s me? I refuse to stare at the paintings and perform the world’s best magic trick. With my socked feet, I run down to her blood-jar cellar. Luckily her stairs were sturdy and didn’t creak. My legs tremble like jelly as I reach the door. I open it and spot my jar. Within moments, I replace my blood with my homemade concoction of corn syrup, water, and a touch of my daughter’s red acrylic paint. I sigh with relief because it resembles my blood when I place the jars beside each other. I recall how I had cut myself again to resemble my blood. I switched the fake jar of blood on the shelf and sat it next to Katrina’s 110. I also change the numbers of the jars. Emma Mae will never detect the difference. I do it swiftly and white out my name from her ledger.
I leap back up the stairs and straighten my dress before Emma Mae descends the steps.
“Que se passe-t-il, ma chere?”
I shake my head. I don’t understand French, but I guess she’s asking what’s wrong. I behold the woman wearing a long silk red gown with laced belled sleeves. “I didn’t ask for this!”
“Ask for what?”
“You killed Linda Williams!”
“Oh no, ma chere, I didn’t kill her; you did.”
“I didn’t mean for that to happen!”
“Oh, come on, you now have that man eating out of the palm of your hands.”
“Linda’s blood is not on my hands!” I stand arms akimbo. “It’s on yours!”
“Au contraire, ma chere.” Emma Mae sucks on a cigarette and blows a puff of smoke into my face. “Blood is blood, and you gave that here.”
“How do I get out of this?”
“What? Don’t you want to have a little fun with his money, no?”
“Money is not worth murder.”
“Oh, please! Go home and enjoy your new life!”
My uncle honks.
“Time for you to leave.”
I proceed to walk out but pivot and ask, “How do I release my contract?”
“New blood, of course,” she takes another puff and ashes the cigarette with a tap. “If you could replace yourself with someone else, I may release you.” So that’s why Katrina was so eager to introduce me to Emma.
On my way out, I ask, “Will I still be rich?”
Emma Mae laughs so hard that I could’ve sworn the walls heaved in and out with her laughter. She stops and stares deep into my eyes, “But there are consequences…”
As my blood in a jar shooshes around in my bag. I think of how I’m free from Emma Mae or having blood on my hands. I will not have to worry about those consequences Emma Mae warned me about, for they will have nothing to do with me. After all, I have replaced it with new blood—my daughter’s paint from her art class. I almost burst into a giggle, sprinting to my uncle’s car.
As soon as I return home, Annie greets me at the door with a big hug. “Hi, what’s that for?”
“I missed you, mommy,” she smiles with a snaggletooth grin. “Where’d you go?”
“Oh, I had to take care of some business.” I stare at mama, who’s frying a few pork chops. She smirks at me. “So, you and Arthur a thing now?”
“I don’t know,” I say, fumbling at my skirt, afraid to stare into her eyes. “He did ask me to marry him.”
Mama’s wooden spoon hit the pan so hard I jump. “Didn’t his wife just die?”
I gasp. “Yes, but he said he wants us to be a family again.”
“Really?!!” Annie jumps up and down in glee. “Yay! We’re gonna be a family!”
“But I’m not sure if it will happen,” I stare at my mom. “You know how fickle Arthur is.”
I pray my trick worked me switching the blood jars; if it did, I would probably have to settle living with my mother for the rest of my life.
My mother shakes her head, stirring the potato salad.
“Mary, if you ask me, I think it’s bad luck to jump the broom so soon after –”
“Ma, I know what I’m doing!”
“Okay, I sure hope you do.” My mother shakes her head. “I sure hope you do. Just remember, all that glitters ain’t gold. You hear?”
I smile at my mother while I plop onto the couch that sticks to my thighs. I pray everything will turn back to normal, and I’m sure I will return to being Arthur’s castaway. All I would need to do is sit and watch the signs.
To my surprise, as soon as Arthur returns from the funeral, he is on a bent knee, asking for me to marry him with a five-carat diamond ring. We wed in a small church in Bronzeville, Chicago, so all our family and friends could witness. The next day, Annie and I are waving and smiling at the press as we disembark the plane to Los Angeles. Arthur’s chauffeur drives us into a circular driveway. My eyes widen as we approach a two-story mansion larger than a Chicago city block. His butler opens the door to welcome us to our new home. The sunlight spills onto the marble tile floors, columns, and a grand staircase with a wrought-iron balustrade. Various sculptures and paintings are displayed in niches around the magnificent foyer area with flower-filled vases.
“Where’s my room?” Annie swings her daddy’s hand.
“Anywhere you’d like except the master bedroom.” Arthur bends down and smiles at her.
“What’s a master bedroom?” Annie grins up at her father.
“C’mon, let me show you.” He takes Annie’s tiny hand. “But first, you have to race me to the top.”
Is this still happening? Didn’t I switch the jars?
“Candy, you wanna come up to our room?”
As I walk up the stairs with Arthur, I pass more sculptures, paintings, and exotic flowers. Arthur places his hand around my waist, “This is the room Annie chose.” A cute room perfect for a little girl, everything’s pink. “Daddy, how’d you know my favorite color?”
Because I always listen to my baby girl, that’s why.” He reaches down to tickle her.
Annie laughs and gets acquainted with her new room while Arthur guides me to the master bedroom, where I can place my mother’s whole house. Inside that enormous room, logs burn in a fireplace. On the north wall, a king-size bed stood with its elegant mahogany headboard. Bay windows surround the room, with bronze raw-silk curtains. I can prim in the reflection of the polished-parquet floors.
We both laugh, fall into bed, and make love until Annie barges into our room, hungry. He laughs and calls his maid to prepare dinner.
“We still haven’t taken our honeymoon yet.” Arthur feeds me grapes.
“What about Annie?”
“Annie’s gonna be so busy that she won’t miss us.” He laughs. “Don’t worry, my mother will be here for a month.”
A few days later, we head to Paris, where Artie, oops, I mean Arthur, buys me my first mink coat. We travel to London, where he purchases me a pink diamond necklace. Soon that plain-old Mary with flapping soles becomes a thing of the past while I transform into Mrs. Artie Swoon. We spend a week in Valencia, Spain, where I receive my first string of black pearls. I get so lost in the bliss that I no longer worry about paying Emma. I’m sure her eyes will glaze over the pseudo blood I replaced. I won’t need to pay $111.11 per month. Months of pure joy passed until I trusted my trick did work. We had just returned from our honeymoon for Arthur’s second album release party. Everything’s perfect until his wandering eyes spoil the broth.
While sipping champagne, I witness Arthur flirting with a long-black-haired Asian woman dressed in a red-silk mini. Something’s strange about her. Her laugh sounds like Emma’s. No, it must be my imagination.
“Who was that woman you were talking to?”
“You know the woman with the long hair and red mini!”
“Candy, I talk to a lot of people.”
“You weren’t only talking to her, Arthur!”
“This is business,” Arthur’s smile fades into a frown. “I have to be friendly to everyone.”
“Well, you were more than friendly!”
Arthur casts his head back and growls a laugh. “All you need to do is be Mrs. Artie Swoon, baby.” The butler unlocks the door on the word baby.
I am so furious I pour myself a martini. My hand shakes so violently that my martini lands a couple of inches away from his head. Nothing bothers Arthur. Immediately after, he slings me over his shoulder only to toss me into bed. While breathing in each other’s arms, I believe I am safe until that woman in the red silk mini barrages my mind like an uninvited-dinner guest.
I cannot sleep. I toss and turn. In the next few years, Arthur’s-working-late stories become monotonous. He begins to stay out later and later each day. The later Arthur stays out, the more intense our arguments become. A few hours turn into a few days. I seek refuge in martinis, and whenever he returns home, I throw whatever I can find at him. Once, our living room reeked of Chanel No. 5 for weeks. It grew so ugly in such a short period.
“We no longer do things together.”
Arthur rolls his eyes and sighs. “I’ve been busy, Candy!”
“Too busy to be with your family?”
“Yes, too busy to be with you!”
“I wish you’d die!” I yell at him while he walks out. Before I realize my words, I panic, remembering his late wife Linda, the one whose head got lopped off. I pray and pray for that not to happen to him. But Emma Mae’s magic is tricky. It obeys my whimsical desires. I shouldn’t have to worry because I switched the blood jars. Maybe her magic lost its teeth. It’s been over ten years, and I didn’t have to pay a red cent.
In my hot bath, I relax and fall asleep. The phone rings.
“Is this Mrs. Swoon?”
“Yes, I am sorry to inform you that your husband’s body has been found at the Canary Motel.”
What was my husband doing at a seedy motel? Then the Asian woman in the red mini flashes through my mind. He must’ve been with her! How dare he embarrass me! I carry a knife to stab my husband’s corpse at his funeral, but I stop myself, for I wouldn’t want negative press.
Time marches on as it always does, and I grow used to being a single-rich woman. My husband’s wealth and fame had become more to me than his love. My daughter’s safely away in Spellman, and I am happy as Ms. Mary Swoon instead of Mrs. Artie Swoon. Until my mother tells me she’s moving back to Chicago.
“Things are too strange ’round here.” My mother packs her suitcase. “Besides, I don’t want to live in this environment. It doesn’t feel safe.”
“But mama, you have everything you need here!” I sway, holding a martini.
“Not everything, honey.” My mama’s eyes glide from my head to toe with scrutiny. “When’s the last time you had a decent meal instead of a drink? Hmm?”
“You neeeeed to staaay here!” I wobble in the hallway. “Why would you go back to that filth? What do you think Annie would say when she sees her grandmother’s gone!”
“First of all, Annie is now Ann,” my mother scans me from head to toe. “She’s over eighteen now and in college. She can make her own decisions and visit me whenever she wants.”
My breath reeks of vodka and vermouth. “But you can haaaave whawever you want right here!”
“There’s nothing but strangeness here.” My mother grabs her bags.
“How could you return to Chicago? Ain’t nothing there but dirt!”
My mother pauses in the foyer area and turns around. “Well, at least that dirt is full of love.”
I stand in a stupor as she walks out of my life. With no rebuttal, I yell. “Dirt is dirt!” And when the door shuts, I am lonelier than ever.
A day at the Golden Gate, a Japanese Zen spa, always uplifts my spirits. I order my chauffeur to take me there, and as we drive through Malibu, I gaze up at the clear blue sky that reminds me of my aquamarine necklace Arthur bought me in Brazil. A pang of missing those good times pierces my chest as we pull into the Golden Gate’s driveway enshrouded in a bamboo forest.
As soon as I enter, the scent of lavender mixed with eucalyptus relaxes me.
“Good to see you again, Mrs. Swoon,” Akari, my masseuse, bows.
“Ms. Swoon, please.”
“Excuse me, Ms. Swoon, please make yourself comfortable.” She hands me a kimono.
Undressing, I stare at the candlelight room and its flickering orange circles of light. I sigh with relief as I inch face down onto the leather-cushioned table. Tears slide down my left shoulder while I think of being alone. I open my eyes, and the singing Tibetan bowls soothe me. With my eyes closed, Arthur’s image beckons me to run toward him, but I whisper: “I’m sorry, so, so, so sorry.”
Artie fades into darkness, humming one of his tunes. “I Miss You.” A loud whispering interrupts my comfort, but the hum of Tibetan singing bowls returns when I open my eyes. I close my eyes again, thinking my imagination’s working overtime until the whisper becomes a very distinct and familiar voice:
“I always take care of my clients. I fulfill their wishes, but they will pay with CONSEQUENCES if they think they are smarter!”
The door creaks open on the word consequences. I hear a caw. A flutter of wings blows a cold frigid wind onto my back. I shiver as the candle flames flicker. Frost escapes my lips whenever I exhale. The votive candles and masseuse table tremble along with heavy footsteps. A rancid odor of cigarette smoke engulfs the room.
“Akari, did you pick up smoking or something, and can you please turn up the heat?”
My teeth clench as a pair of icy hands kneads my back. I find this to be unusual because Akari’s hands are usually warm. Still, this person’s icy fingers are fumbling my back. Did she hire someone new? I peer to my left, and the shadow on the wall is not a petite Japanese woman.
I try to relax, thinking this might be a new hire, until her nails dig into my back, drawing blood. When I flip over, Emma Mae’s smiling at me. I am aghast. No, no, this cannot be happening. It can’t be… I squeeze my eyes shut, but she is again dressed in a red mini dress, and a diaphanous red scarf covers her bouffant. How did she get here?
“White-out cannot erase blood!” Her gravel voice screeches an octave.
“What! What…are you doing here?”
She stomped her feet and wagged her head. “Do you remember what I said before you exited my door eleven years ago?”
The scratch on my back begins to sting.
I blurt out. “Arthur’s dead!”
“It’s time for you to PAY UP!”
I cannot answer her because I’m shocked that she’s here. Didn’t I switch my blood?
“Do you really think that fake blood would fool me?”
“I—I—I—don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, ma chere, you need to know who I AM!”
I try to speak, but I cannot. The sting of Emma Mae’s scratch must have paralyzed me. I try to move, but I cannot move a muscle except to breathe. It’s as if I’m imprisoned inside my own body.
I watch Emma Mae as she looms over me, laughing. “Que se passe-t-il, ma chere? You can’t move? I’ve paralyzed you with a potion I kept inside my nails just for you. Mmmm mmmm, you say? Ha! I gave you eleven years. Does that number sound familiar to you? I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”
Emma Mae turns her back on me, and she seems to be doing something, but I’m not sure. It looks like she’s holding a jar with the lock of my hair.
“I could’ve snatched you away long ago, but I wanted you to enjoy your life as a wealthy woman. A part of me wanted to see you win. I admired that you were a good mother and took good care of your daughter. But your greed even rotten THAT!”
I’m in shock as I see her whirling the lock of hair in a jar as she continues her tirade. “You need to know ME before we proceed!”
I try to flinch from her spit. Proceed for what?
“My great, great-great-grandmother was La Grande Marie Laveau!”
I can’t open my mouth to cry for help, for my limbs can’t move. I am trapped!
“Our family has been hiding for decades after my great grandmother, Marie the Second, drowned in Lake Pontchartrain. Since then, no one in our family wanted to keep the Grande Marie Laveau legacy alive, nor did they want to stay in Nola. The heels of Jim Crow were too much to bear, and my family rejected their Laveau legacy, except for me.”
Why is she telling me all this?
“We lived in secret and didn’t want anyone to bother us. Until La Grande Marie Laveau and her serpent Li Grand Zombi visited me. Unlike my family, I have embraced my heritage so much that I can become Grande Marie Laveau herself.”
I don’t understand a word what Li Grand Zombi means.
“That’s why you see her when you look at me, oui? My gris-gris was muddled in Chicago. Too noisy, too many people milling about that I could hardly think or concentrate. That noise drove me to Peoria.”
LET ME GO! I DON’T CARE WHERE YOU’RE FROM OR HOW YOU GOT HERE! Why is she painting my face?
“I want to make you pretty with that childish red paint you left.”
She reached for a mirror, and in my reflection, I see she has painted my face with big red lips and a round red nose. AGH! I look like a clown!
“How fitting!” Emma grinned.
LET ME GO!
“I have to transport you, but first, you must fit in here.” She pointed to a bell jar.
How am I going to fit in there? What, Nooo, how are my limbs shrinking!
Everything becomes blurry, and I pass out. A drumbeat is pounding my ears. No, it’s my heart. I feel light, like I’m flying. I open my eyes, and all I see is black. I’m not sure where I am. Oh! My skin is rubbing against the cool glass. I lose my bearings. I finally see the light through a liquid world. How am I breathing in vinegar? Oh, what is that, a giant crow? It’s staring at me. It’s turning into Emma Mae! What’s happening? Through the liquid, I can tell we’ve reached her home. How did we get here so fast?
“No matter how much cinnamon I boil, that vinegar smell always takes over!” Emma carries me downstairs. We pass the oil portraits, and now they’re smiling, including the woman in the headwrap. She’s grinning as her eyes follow me! How is that portrait alive? Emma leads me into the blood-jar room. No, we’re moving past there. She’s walking down more stairs to another room with a sign: The Betrayals. “I dusted off a special place just for you.” My eyes focus on the number 111 taped upon a shelf. Stuffed in pickled jars, hundreds of others with blinking eyes are lined on Emma’s shelves in the Betrayal room. Once she places me on the shelf, I stare back at them, wondering what they did.
2 thoughts on “The Pickled People”
solid solid beautiful exciting emotional story! LOVE IT! Could not stop reading! You’re on fire!
Thank you so much, Clarence.