December 8, 2023
First Place Winner - CWA First Chapter Contest - “Lene”
By James Drummond
We’re about twenty-minutes into the session when my client reveals the real reason for her visit. She needs a hex intended to inflict harm. Only a little harm. She stresses this point. The intended recipient just needs to be sidelined for a few days. A week at the most.
I begin collecting the components for a small batch of Goofer.
The curse calls for snakeskin sheds, anvil dust, red pepper, black pepper, and sage. The final ingredient is dirt from a graveyard. However, since my client doesn’t want the damage from this curse to be too severe, I suggest that we use powdered sulfur instead. It will lessen the spell’s potency, or so say several of the books I’ve studied on voodoo spells.
I step toward the rickety museum ladder attached to the ten-shelf high and twenty-five-foot-wide bookcase that spans the back wall of the parlor. The wood shelves house a variety of spell ingredients stored inside multi-colored jars, glass vials, and metal containers of various shapes and sizes. There are also voodoo dolls and figurines, countless strands of beads, bound jumbles of roots, and, as one might expect, lots of books.
Tiny wheels squeak like excited mice as I roll the ladder down to where the sulfur is kept. As I start to climb, my client, Lauren Bishop, speaks in a melancholy tone. “You probably think I’m a monster.”
I don’t . . . at least not generally speaking. This particular request is a bit sinister, but I’m not about to share that opinion aloud and risk losing a sale. I’m also not one to define a person’s morality based upon a single request.
“I think you want to help a member of your family,” I reply, while securing the jar of powdered sulfur and beginning my descent.
“By hurting a member of someone else’s.”
I step off the ladder and give her a reassuring smile. “It won’t be permanent harm, or even all that serious. And it’s not my place to judge.”
Setting the final ingredient on the rustic farmhouse table that serves as the chipped and scuffed centerpiece of my voodoo parlor, I explain the mixture I’m about to make. “Goofer Dust spells are derived from African foot-track magic. Meaning the victim is infected through their feet. Depending on the potency of the curse, the target can develop diabetes, gout, or—”
An audible gasp escapes Lauren’s lips.
I tap the sulfur jar’s copper lid. “Or, when using a less potent ingredient, the damage is more along the lines of a sprained ankle. At worst, plantar fasciitis.”
I know I need to tread carefully here. Lauren is a true believer—in voodoo and in me as a practitioner. Her faith in me comes largely from the perceived success of a reasoning charm I fashioned for her two months ago. She purchased the leather and brass trinket a week after her teenaged son was arrested for cocaine possession.
Desperate to protect him from future felonies, she hid the charm inside a dresser in his room. As far as I know, he never found out about it. And as far as Lauren can tell, he’s stayed on the straight and narrow ever since. She credits the reasoning charm for that.
I credit what was sure to have been a good scare from the NOPD.
When informing me of my spell’s success during one of our follow-up sessions, Lauren also confided that she’d been hesitant to ask for it after laying eyes on me. At the time, she worried that I might be a drug user myself, and not someone who could be counted on for anything useful. This wasn’t an altogether incorrect assumption on her part.
To be honest, I’ll go through stretches when I’m not all that interested in being useful to anyone other than myself. She was also spot on about the drugs. However, I tend to steer more toward mild hallucinogenic and mostly avoid stimulants.
She didn’t know any of that, though. Her conjecture, she explained, wasn’t connected to anything I’d said or done. It was based solely on my appearance. A couple of my clients have dubbed the look as “Goth meets girl next door.” I sometimes wonder it’s driven off a customer or two, but I think most folks find that it fits with the overall voodoo vibe.
I was born with high cheekbones, molasses eyes, and a delicately disarming smile that my parents blessed me with. The features of my gypsy-like look that I can take credit for include my jet-black hair, chopped short into a messy bob, and three tattoos—a lightning bolt on my left tricep, fleur-de-lis on my right shoulder, and the word “endure” written on my right wrist.
I also have ten piercings, although that’s not as intense as it might sound. Nine of them are in my ears and I added a super tiny diamond stud to my nose about a year ago. It was an impulsive decision but not one I regret. In fact, the sparkly little freckle caps off the Goth meets girl next door look rather nicely.
“Now you’ll need to sprinkle this somewhere your victim is sure to step on it,” I explain, while adding the spell ingredients into a flannel pouch. “I’d suggest near the front and back doors of the home. You’ll run the risk of blighting a member of her family, but unless you can somehow get the powder inside her shoes . . .”
Lauren begins to nervously fiddle with her wedding band, a guilty look in her eyes. “If that sorry excuse for a drama teacher was capable of recognizing true talent, none of this would even be necessary. I’ve attended two rehearsals, Lené. It’s painfully clear that my graceful little Ally deserves the lead in this year’s recital. She’s a much better dancer than that gawky goose Rebecca. All I’m doing is righting an evident wrong.”
Her words are meant more to convince herself than to sway me, so I don’t need to pretend to agree. Instead, I tie the bag shut and give it a good shake to mix the ingredients together.
“It’s important for you to maintain that mindset,” I say. “Let doubt poison your thoughts and you might as well toss this Goofer in the garbage. Remember, your complete commitment is required for the spell to work.”
That’s the fine print. The disclaimer. To maintain credibility for as long as possible in this business, it’s important to manage expectations and put at least some of the onus of success on the client. For example, whenever I perform a reading, I always inform my customers that they need to assist me in interpreting the signs I receive. To do this, they need to remain receptive to everything they hear. Whenever I struggle to correctly infer something about them, I can always claim it’s because they haven’t kept an open mind. Their skepticism is what soured the session.
It’s a trick all frauds use.
And I am most definitely a fraud.
But Lauren doesn’t see me that way. If I keep doing my job right, she never will.
I graciously accept payment for the session and escort her down the hallway and into the front shop. We’re greeted by the scents of cedarwood and cinnamon incense. Favorites of Kaelyn Hill, a twenty-one-year-old transplant from Jackson, Missouri. She gives us a smile as we pass the front counter. Two likely tourists perusing the talismans and amulets section do the same.
I see Lauren to the exit and, using a neat little scheduling app on my phone, book another reading for her in two weeks. Then she’s off, with intentions to potentially impair an eight-year-old girl who, if judged by an impartial observer, might actually be a better dancer than her graceful little Ally.
I stand in the entryway for a moment and soak in the early October day. There’s a light breeze. The sounds of jazz and the smell crawfish étouffée waft over from establishments down the street. I step onto the banquette and gaze down the block. Several of the balconies and storefronts are already decked with orange and purple banners or wreaths adorned with bats and spiders to celebrate the season. Two doors down there are four skeletons dressed as a jazz quartet.
I love this time of year. Not only do the temperatures tick downward, but business always ticks up around Halloween. I’ve always found it revitalizing after the months of oppressive temperatures and humidity. Fall in New Orleans just can’t be beat.
With a contented sigh, I turn back toward the shop and nearly collide with an anxious-looking man hovering just outside the doorway.
“Jesus!” I gasp, too startled by his sudden appearance to offer a more congenial greeting.
“I need protection,” he replies, skipping any introduction or apology. There’s the hint of a Spanish accent, but it doesn’t have a strong intonation. Based on his olive-tone complexion, my guess is he’s possibly Peruvian, maybe Chilean, but I can’t say for certain. One thing I am certain of is that he looks spooked. “Is that something you offer here? Can you help me?”
“Possibly,” I reply, my heart rate returning to a more normal rhythm, “but I have an appointment I need to prepare for. If you could come back later this afternoon—”
“This is an urgent matter!” he says, nearly shouting. “It cannot wait!”
I’m not one to accommodate pushy people, but this guy’s panicked state seems genuine. He’s got a desperate air about him, and I hate turning away the desperate ones. It might be worth hearing him out.
I wave him inside. “We’ll need to be quick about it.”
Kaelyn makes eye contact and simulates making a call by bringing a hand to her ear. I wave off the idea. This guy might be a little hysterical but he isn’t giving me threatening vibes. At least not yet. His eyes scan the assortments of dolls, flowing scarves, silver pendants, and bottles of scented oils that fill the front shop. All are available for what most tourists seem to deem a reasonable price.
The stranger pauses for a moment, does a full turn. I don’t get the impression that he’s looking for anything in particular. He looks more confused than he does interested.
With a shake of his head, he starts walking again. “I’ve seen this place.”
“You’ve stopped in before?”
He skips answering my question and instead asks another of his own. “Are you sure you’ll be able to help me?”
Almost certainly not, but I get the sense I can make a quick buck here. “I’m pretty sure I’ve got a talisman in back that should do the trick.”
The stranger shoots me an incredulous look. “How can you know the exact item already? I haven’t even told you who I need protection from.”
He’s right. He hasn’t told me because I didn’t think to ask. I’m trying to rush this along and now I may have already lost him. Although, in my defense, there are some fairly well-established reasons for why someone requests a protection charm.
“You owe someone money,” I reply, trying not to sound too dismissive. “Or maybe you slept with another man’s wife. Believe me, whatever your offence; I’ve dealt with it before. The talisman’s design incorporates many symbols that I’ve linked to a variety of shielding spells and the results are—”
“I’m not here for protection from some bookie or jealous husband,” the man protests. “It’s Samedi who’s come to put me in the ground.”
Did he just say . . . Samedi?
Kaelyn and I exchange another glance.
“Okay, well,” I motion for the stranger to follow me into the parlor. “I have to admit . . . that’s a new one.”
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