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Yvonne Navarro has published over 70 short stories (mainly in the horror genre) and eleven novels and novelizations. Her upcoming novels include That's Not My Name (Bantam Books) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Paleo (Pocket Books).

The novel from which this excerpt was taken, DeadTimes, was published in March 2000 by DarkTales Publications.


Dark Planet is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments, please contact her at lusnyde@cyberus.ca.

All materials copyright 1996-2000 by their respective creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).

The following excerpt is taken from Yvonne Navarro's new novel, DeadTimes, which was recently released by DarkTales Publications.

Cover Graphic

 

DeadTimes

by Yvonne Navarro

 

CHAPTER THREE: 1943

     She woke alone in the dark, face-down on the floor and with dirt in her mouth. The first thing she felt was the pain, like a hundred needles sliding deep within her right side and stomach; the second was heat, searing her skin from behind and singeing the hair on her arms. There was no time to wonder where she was or how she'd gotten here. Instinct sent her hands forward, making them search for something to grab onto. She found a chair and a table and hauled herself to her knees, then managed to lurch upright. In the short span of seconds it had taken her to stand, the darkness had become lit by a fierce red glow.
     She was in some kind of tiny room or shack. Fire was spreading rapidly around the walls in her direction and blocking what might have been a door, the flames in a wild race against themselves as they jumped from a mini-inferno that had once been a stuffed chair to a small bed, then onto the side of a rickety wooden chest of drawers. She stumbled, then hissed in fear and rage and pain; she would not die -- again-- in this hell-hole and be roasted like a butchered pig! Smoke swirled in heavy clouds around her head and she thudded back onto her knees, cursing the invisible wasps that were bent on torturing her side. Barely detectable off to her left was a small window with no glass--if she could get there before the ravenous fire, she might be able to escape.
     Scrambling forward along the dirt floor, she made it to the window and summoned the strength to hoist herself up, feeling the fire licking at her bare feet and ankles, like the flashes that leapt from a campfire. Jesus, she was tired! And hurting, too. Falling rather than climbing over the sill, she landed on the ground, gasping at the new rush of pain and holding her side, her hands finding the area wet and sticky. She rolled on tough, scrubby grass, putting distance between herself and the flames that were busily consuming the small structure. It was night and except for the fire, she could see no other light; above her the trees parted to show sky but the stars were blocked by roiling clouds of smoke even blacker than the night sky. She could hear voices calling out in the woods; dazed, she wondered who they were and if they were calling for her. She wondered who she was.
     "Myra? Honey, you all right?" Suddenly there were hands on her, firm but gentle, a woman's. Myra must be me, she thought as she gazed up at the concerned face of a middle-aged black woman. All at once more dark faces surrounded her, silhouetted by the light from the burning pile of wood that had once been her home. The sudden realization that all she owned in this world was being destroyed hit her and she began to cry, hitching and choking as the pain in her side worsened.
     "My place!" Her wail as she tried to rise was hoarse and painful; her mouth felt as though someone had spooned soot into it. Hands reached to help from all sides, then unaccountably drew back. A dozen voices with deep southern accents rose in outcry as her legs gave out and she pitched forward once again.
     "Mama, look! She's all bloody!"
     "She's been cut!"
     "Oh, my lordy, who would do such a thing?"
     "Must be somebody with no fear, that's for sure!"
     "Adam, go get some rags and some water--clean water from the well, you hear?"
     "Do you think she's gonna die?"
     "Hush your mouth, boy! Go with your brother--git!"
     A deeper voice. "Looks like she's hurt real bad, Lucy. How--"
     Sounds pulsed in and out as she felt the old woman's capable hands pushing her arms away and pulling at the shredded place in the side of her dress, heard her nurse's dismayed, indrawn breath.
     "Jesus, Wilson. This is worse than I thought--"
     "Shhh! She'll hear you. We'll take--"
     Mama Lucy's voice, harsh and suddenly afraid. "Myra, can you hear me? Who did this to you--can you tell me?"
     She wanted to answer the insistent question, straining unsuccessfully to focus the garbled, faraway memories of the last hour beyond the pain that coursed through the nerves. "Can't... 'member, right... now," she gasped. She fought to clear her raspy throat of the smoke's residue.
     A young boy ran up with a small pail and Lucy dipped a hand into the water and held her cupped palm to Myra's lips. "Drink--easy! Not too much at once--"
     She inhaled some of the water and choked, her lungs spasming around the liquid and forcing it back out with a croaking cough. The involuntary movement sent a ferocious peal of agony through her belly and her eyes opened wide, then rolled upward as the fire's hellish light dwindled to a small pinpoint that finally winked out.

 

     The men from town built her a new shack. Myra didn't know why; she had no money to pay them and only a fleeting notion of what kind of hold she maintained over them. The replacement was a simple one-room affair constructed right next to the one that had burned away; she assumed that meant this was her own land although the constant sight of the charred ground rankled and teased her at every glance.
     It had taken nearly two weeks for Mamma Lucy to pull Myra through the worst of it, and not a board or nail was picked up until the men were sure Myra would live and be worth their efforts. Now she sat and healed and watched the men work, thinking and getting used to her new surroundings and to the feel of sleeping on the hard ground despite the homemade quilting in her bad side. She studied the others; she studied herself. She watched her own fingers open and close, appreciating the sinewy movement of working muscles. She'd never had reason to think about it before, but having black skin didn't make her feel any different and she decided she liked it; her skin was a clean, dark ebony, smooth and young, lightening to pink and cream at her palms and the bottoms of her feet. So far she'd seen herself only in the moving reflection of the creek's water during the rare time or two she'd fetched her own water; she couldn't tell much except that she might be pretty and her hair was short and curly and wild. She ran her fingers through it and felt its tangles, but she couldn't remember what to do with it.
     For the most part the other folks were avoiding her, either out of respect or fear or both; her injury and the trauma of the fire had taken a bad toll on her memory, and she was doing good to even guess her whereabouts, so the whys and wherefores were mostly out of reach right now. In the heat of this late Louisiana summer, the men could only do so much and she waited patiently through the week it took for them to finish the shack, the ragged wound in her side and belly slowly healing but yowling anew each morning. Her new place was like all the others she'd seen in the tiny town on the edge of the swamp in the course of her week-long stay with Lucy, roofed with a battered sheet of tin and constructed mostly of pieces of wood foraged from anywhere possible. After a while Myra came to realize with a small shock that this was not her land any more than it was anyone else's. Watching the men nail the stray pieces of board together, it occurred to her how interesting it was that her house was placed so far away from the others. She did not know why, and didn't dare ask.
     Myra was lonely. There was so much she wanted to know and re-learn, but how could she do this if no one would speak to her? She knew just enough to get by and to make the townspeople furrow their brows at her hesitant questions, and only so much could be blamed on the fire. Even her own voice sounded foreign--deep for a woman and husky, with an ingrained Cajun drawl so different from anything she'd ever heard that she found it musical and ceaselessly amusing. To make her situation that much stranger, the only one who would talk to her was Mama Lucy, the old woman who had sewn up the gaping wound in her side and stomach with a minimum of conversation, wariness ever-present in her watery eyes. And though Myra hadn't seen the elderly woman in days, it was Mama Lucy's sons who brought Myra meals each day.
     The insects were terrible--how would she ever get used to them? Gnats, mosquitos, muddaubers, constantly flying around her, always trying to stick her somewhere, no doubt lured by the blood-spotted bandages under her dress. It was a good thing that they were almost finished with the shack, she thought irritably, otherwise she might stand up and scream and really give everyone something to be frightened about... that is, if her side weren't still so sore that she could manage only intermittent swats at the vinegar flies and mosquitos dive-bombing her sweaty skin, and the rusty fly swatter at her side for the meaner horse flies went mostly unused. Myra's fingers were an oddity unto themselves, moving constantly, searching for something still unknown to touch or twist or tie. It was just as well, otherwise she'd be slapping at herself constantly, stretching the scabby lips along the webwork of linen thread across her gut. She couldn't wait to get inside a new shack, no matter how hot, find some netting to block up the window opening and the door, and be away from these damned bugs.
     But the bugs were not the worst of what bothered her, no indeed. Dark questions nagged at her constantly--
     Who stabbed me?
     And why?

     --as she watched the townspeople watch her.
     Which of you wanted to be my murderer?
     Myra looked up to see a small girlchild gazing at her from a distance of about ten feet; she motioned the child to come closer. The little girl took a few hesitant steps and stopped, waiting, poised to run.
     "Why are you so afraid?" The child jumped and Myra realized her voice was harsher than she'd intended. She softened it. "No, don't go. Tell me your name."
     The child stood as though frozen. "S-Sulu," she stammered. Suddenly her lower lip protruded and she drew herself up in defiance. "And I ain't afraid."
     Myra smiled for the first time since the night of the burning. "You're not, are you? Well, let us see. Come closer." Sulu hesitated and Myra's voice became demanding once again. "Come!"
     The child obeyed. The noises from twenty yards away sputtered then stopped altogether as the men nailing the final boards in place at the shack flagged from their work and looked toward her in apprehension. Myra inspected the child standing before her with interest: grubby face and hands, clear brown eyes, a hundred tiny corn rows in her hair. The smell of breakfast biscuits wafted from the child's shabby clothes. "How old are you, Sulu?" she asked.
     "I'm seven," Sulu replied shyly, then she looked down at her toes. Digging into the dust, they showed the girl's nervousness. "But Mama says I'm too small for my age," she admitted suddenly.
     Myra felt honored that this little girl, so scared only a moment ago, would share her mother's thoughts. "Well, maybe a little bit," Myra agreed. "But I'm sure you'll grow out just fine." She ran her hand gently over the small head, feeling the tight rows and the mixture of oil and perspiration between them. It had been a long time since she touched a child and doing so made her feel warm inside.
     "You really think so?" Sulu's hands clutched at her dirty shift, bunching it up and showing knobby, little-girl knees. There was something odd about one of her hands, a missing middle finger. "Maybe then the others'll stop pickin' on me."
     Myra smiled. "You go on home now," she said. "Before your Mama gets worried." She waved the girl off and Sulu trotted away obediently as the men returned to their labor; Myra laughed inwardly at them. Did they think she ate children?
     Just around the path Sulu's excited voice floated back through the thick foliage of the ash and cypress trees.
     "She blessed me! The Mambo blessed me!"
     At the worksite, a man called Lucius drove the final tenpenney in place with a furious stroke.

 

     Myra was resting inside her new shack, enjoying at least a small reprieve from the swamp insects, when the townspeople started arriving. They came in groups of two or three, each person presenting her with one, sometimes two small gifts. Privately bewildered, she greeted each visitor politely and accepted his or her offering with a calm thank-you. They gave her so much more than they realized; with each item returned a little more of Myra's past.
     "Here's my best chicken, to give you eggs," offered a tall, bony man with skin so black he might have been cut from coal.
     "Sheets, so's you kin be comfortable, Miss Myra." This came from a huskily-built woman who carried a toddler as if he were a second skin. It was the first time anyone had called her "Miss" Myra, though it settled into her cracked recollections with easy familiarity.
     A burly young man and his brother lugged forward a cracked formica table and two beat up chairs, another woman came up with a few mismatched dishes and some flatware, a child sent by her ailing mother presented a battered pot and frying pan. Myra was grateful but remained silent, accepting each item as if it were her due although she couldn't imagine why it would be; while it was impossible, she wished she could tell each benefactor how much she was beholden not only for the housewares but for the flash memory each provided. Her feelings for these simple people grew.
     A gangly teenager held out his packet. "Miss Myra, my maw sent these here pieces of cloth, figured you could make some clothes." Pieces ticked into place in her mind, filling yet another gap in the puzzle: the boy's name was Samuel and he lived alone with his mother, Mattie. She had no man and times were hard; they barely got by, yet she sent a gift. Still, Myra squelched the urge to refuse, knowing that to do so would go beyond insult and into a grey area of her mind that had not yet returned.
     More of the townsfolk came with their offerings: a middle-aged woman named Janu, whose hair had gone prematurely grey when her husband vanished in the swamp six years previous and left her with eight kids to raise, brought Myra a newly made broom; a man called Marcel, Janu's brother, came with the much longed-for mosquito netting. By sunset her small shack was furnished well enough to be more than comfortable, and others, Myra knew, would continue to bring gifts of game and vegetables and bread.
     When the last person had left, Myra sat by her carefully netted window and rested on a new-to-her but thoroughly broken-in rocking chair and listened to the night crickets sing.
     The swamp, she had finally come to realize, wasn't just a place or a part of the land tacked onto the southern end of the country in which she'd been born. First of all, Louisiana, as it actually existed in 1943, was a pretty big nut to swallow for a woman who'd never given much thought about what America west of the Mississippi River was like beyond the far-fetched tales told by a father who had died more than two and half centuries earlier. While it was true that superstition in the Adirondacks was strong, most--but not all, and she sure knew that more than the average farmer--of those old beliefs were nothing but grandfathers' yarns twisted up around spooky night campfires. And yes, she'd been through a whole 'nother set of beliefs, hadn't she, and sometimes she'd wake deep in the hot, damp night and still feel the bite of rough hemp around her throat as a reminder.
     But Louisiana, ah! This was a different woman altogether, a dark, sultry she-snake who twisted and danced among the people in the swamp with breathy promises and the threat of a hundred ugly deaths if disobeyed.
     And with a start, Myra knew.
     All those gifts, they weren't really for her. They were for what the people of this green and bedeviled swamp believed lived within her. That slippery, seductive swamp mistress.
     The loa.

 

     What she couldn't grow in the brush-choked dirt behind the shack, Myra dug up in the swamp. Instinct kicked in at last, feeding her hundreds of bits of knowledge each day, everything from knowing where not to put her hands when she was hunting for roots to the proper ingredients of the tiny jujus she was constantly twisting from branches and leaves. But her memory was still like an out-of-reach harlot: besides the always tantalizing question of her would-be murderer, something which never left her thoughts for long, Myra burned to know what kind of a person she had been to bring such fear into the gazes of those in town, people with whom she now longed to sit and talk and learn from. But she was never bored; she hung plants and herbs and roots to dry, then ground them up into fine powders that she stored in the little jars, boxes and bags the townsfolk were constantly bringing her, as if they knew she would have need of such things.
     The swamp, Myra discovered, was a mysterious place filled with strange creatures and wildly potent plant life, from mushrooms that could kill a person inside ten minutes to roots that would make a man's heart quicken with desire when combined with certain special words. It hadn't taken her long to come up with a concoction to ward off the biting flies and mosquitos, and now, boatless, she wandered the marshes for hours each day, watching and listening to the creatures and knowing that something in her spirit could charm even a deadly copperhead right into her hands without harm. She thought at first the constant humidity along the waterways would bother her and though it never did, the general spookiness sometimes made her nervous; with all those shadows and rustling leaves and chittering animals, not to mention the 'gators sliding through the water like living gray logs, a woman wouldn't be able to tell if she were being watched or not--and sometimes she felt as if she were, indeed, being spied upon.
     Evening would find Myra back at her shack, sitting on the old rocker and longing for company. Better than two months had passed and the people still avoided her, though she'd find their daily offerings of food and what-nots on her porch each evening when she came in from the swamp. Everyone and everything seemed to have its place or purpose--some folks harvested food, others were builders, others were storehouses of old knowledge and advice that she had no way of tapping. What was her place in the scheme of things beyond a few good-luck trinkets and an apparently expert knowledge of swamp survival? But the answer, if there was one, always stayed just out of reach. What, she wondered, would be the thing that jarred the memories free?

 

     "I don't have much to offer," said Marcel. "But I figure there's got to be something that I could trade. You jus' name it."
     Myra studied the man standing before her and said nothing. He shifted anxiously and his wide eyes glistened with a deep fear that wanted to make him turn and run. Stubbornness and love of his sister forced him to hold his ground.
     "Please, Miss Myra," he said. His pleading gaze collapsed and he ended up staring at the ground. "There's eight kids over there and I don't know nothin' about raising that many young'uns."
     "I don't know," she finally answered. He looked crushed and her doubt wavered. "But I guess I can try."
     It was the first time an adult in the town smiled at her.

 

     "Janu," Marcel whispered to his sister. "Can you hear me? I've brought Miss Myra. She's gonna help you."
     Janu's lids fluttered open and Myra thought she saw a flash of fear in the woman's watering eyes. She was sick, all right--her brown skin was dry and almost gray, her lips pale and cracked bloody with a fever that wouldn't break; the old acne scars sprinkled across her cheekbones looked as though someone had pocked her skin with black ink. Janu's forehead burned with heat under Myra's gentle palm.
     "Leave us," Myra ordered without taking her eyes from the bed. She heard Marcel's reluctant footsteps as he pushed the children from the room and drew a ragged curtain across the doorway. As Myra knelt next to the bed, Janu's harsh attempts to breathe increased. "Don't be scared, Janu," she said soothingly. "I won't hurt you." There was a bowl of clear water and a cloth on the stand next to the bed and Myra soaked the cloth and wiped the woman's face. When Janu seemed calmed, Myra stood and opened the small pouch she'd brought with her, then carefully sorted through its contents at the foot of the bed. There--dried milkweed petals. She swept them up and stepped around the curtain.
     "You there," Myra said, pointing at one of the younger boys. She didn't know his name and probably wouldn't have remembered it if someone had told her; there were just too many kids around. This one was about six years old and whip-thin; she was sure he'd be able to find what she needed in no time at all. He looked up at her, his little face nervous, but stepped forward obediently; she put a firm hand on his shoulder.
     "I want you to go into the swamp and fetch me a turtle--an edible one. You know which ones are, don't you?" He nodded solemnly, his black eyes flicking past her to his mother's sick and shuddering form. "Good. Then go, as fast as you can. And mind you be careful of snakes, you hear?" The last of her words were called out to the boy's back as he scampered through the door on small legs. Myra turned and went back into the bedroom, the curtain all that stood between her and the frightened, mistrustful eyes of Janu's family. There were other faces scattered around the room besides, friends of Janu and Marcel, no doubt come to add their support, and the instant the curtain was drawn the muttering began, arguments tempered here and there by a few weak warnings. Perhaps they though their presence would intimidate her and Myra laughed aloud purposely, noting with satisfaction the sudden silence from beyond the doorway. She searched her feelings but found no fear.
     It took the child a little more than an hour to find and return with the turtle, and in that time Myra planned her moves. At her direction Marcel built a fire outside and boiled up a kettle of water, then brought it into the bedroom with the boy's find, a young, dark brown snapper. She could tell the small boy was proud he'd carried it home without getting bitten and though she said nothing else to show her gratitude, Myra did smile warmly at him. In the bedroom she dipped a small pot of scalding water from the kettle before dropping in the live turtle and holding it under the water with a wooden spoon. The iron kettle held the heat like tar on a hot roof, and Myra began adding things from her pouch by instinct--had she been questioned, she wouldn't have been able to name the ingredients. To finish up the whole thing she added salt and a bit of dried garlic to make the soup palatable, thinking even the sickly would have a hard time swallowing the thick, greenish liquid. In the meantime, Myra brewed a tea of milkweed and hot water and added a spoonful of sugar, coaxing Janu into drinking a little every few minutes until it was gone. By the time the soup was done, Janu's labored breathing was coming a little easier.
     "Janu," Myra said firmly as she stood next to the bed and stirred the final ingredient, a heavy, vile-looking red powder, into the soup, "this is going to burn your mouth and throat, but you have to drink it anyway or the fever won't break and you probably won't last the night." Janu's black eyes stared into hers a little too wisely and Myra dreaded the unspoken question but felt compelled to answer.
     "I don't know if this will work or not," Myra reluctantly admitted. "I can't promise anything. All we can do is try it and see what happens."
     Myra waited, and finally Janu closed her eyes wearily and parted her lips to accept the first dipper of fiery liquid.

 

     Janu went into spasms, her fever climbing so high that it knotted her muscles until her whole body shook and danced. At dusk Myra called Marcel in to help bathe his sister with cool water; he looked guardedly at the straw and herb charms that were thrust here and there about the room and grimaced at the pungent air as they struggled to keep Janu from twisting onto the floor. Myra accepted the presence of the charms blearily; she did not remember making them during her past hours of keeping watch. His face a study of worry and mistrust, Marcel nevertheless held Janu and watched as Myra forced more of the soup down her patient's throat in between spasms.
     Shortly before midnight sweat finally poured from Janu's skin as the fever relinquished its hold. Within an hour the woman slept soundly for the first time in a week.

 

     It was nearly two more hours before Myra felt confident enough with Janu's progress to step outside the battered little house and think about her own shack and bed, a good fifteen or twenty minutes' hike down the dusty path. A crowd had gathered behind Marcel and even at this late hour most of the townsfolk had turned out, though the children had long since been sent to bed. It was strange to feel their eyes upon her, yet hear no sound or movement, unthinkable that so many would care what she had to say; in a way, even the swamp seemed to be holding its breath with anticipation, unaccountably silent. Myra put one hand against one of the poles supporting the porch overhang with a carefully casual move; all those faces--not at all friendly, either--raised a quick, ugly memory of a crowd in another place and time best forgotten. Experience had taught her to expect noise from so many people, but the folks in this group lowered their eyes and waited for Marcel to speak.
     "Your payment?"
     Myra saw with a frown that now Marcel truly was afraid. It showed in the way the whites of his eyes seemed so large and bright in his dark, shadowed face, and the change in her expression appeared to increase his anxiety as well as make the people closest to her fidget. Myra's gaze slid to his side and dropped; for some inexplicable reason, the boy who'd fetched the turtle for her had been pulled from his bed and now stood next to his uncle, one hand holding onto the side of the older man's pants pocket, too sleepy to be afraid. Seeing the direction of her eyes, Marcel swallowed, his Adam's apple jerking in his thin neck, and pushed his nephew forward; Myra thought she heard sharp intakes of breath in the crowd but couldn't be sure. The child looked up at her trustingly and stuck his thumb in his mouth--such an innocent gesture for the youngster who'd been entrusted with the first ingredient of his mother's life-saving medicine. At the sight of his small fingers, a memory, ugly with violence, roared to life in her mind--
     "Your payment?"
     The fee for removing the self-same dark spell she'd been paid to place on Lucius by a scorned and spiteful woman.
     "The middle finger of your youngest daughter's hand."

     She swayed slightly, but no one offered to help. She could understand why.
     How would she repay this child's obedience? She reached a hand out and let her fingers smooth the nappy hair on the boy's head; how sweet the children always smelled! No matter how grubby, they always held the scent of sugar and swamp grass. She pulled away and curled her fingers into fists.
     "I suppose," Myra said slowly, the unreadable pools of her eyes never leaving the boy's face, "I could use a cooking pit." She stepped off the porch and the group of men and women parted without comment, their faces creased in bewilderment as she turned and headed towards her shack, opening her chilled hands and welcoming the hot Louisiana darkness that enveloped her like an old lover. When she was just out of range of the flickering lights that ringed Janu's house, Myra stopped and spoke again, her words barely discernible above the renewed screaming of the night crickets.
     "Mind you, line it with swamp stones, too."

 

     There was much talk in town, gossip and speculation as to why Myra seemed to have changed her ways from bad to good, dark to light. Still, no one risked approaching her to question her motives; to do so would have been disrespectful and might arouse the anger within her soul that the townspeople felt had gone to sleep--perhaps only temporarily. Myra didn't care what they thought, so long as they left her alone; while she had been lonely at first, the time had passed and she'd not only gotten used to her solitary existence, she found she actually preferred that other folks only bother her if they needed some small charm or illness treated. After she'd refused the third or fourth person who asked for a dark spell, it became clear that she'd turned a cold shoulder to the darker side of her faith, preferring white magic to the evil at which she'd ostensibly once been an expert.
     The darkling's side, Myra knew, was nothing to scoff at. She could still feel its call within her, especially at night when the moon whispered and coaxed her to a special, temple-like place in the marshes where she would hum aloud and sway her body to a silent rhythm. On these nights a she-beast rose from some murky depth inside Myra, enticing others from the town who would join her and bring drums, their dark faces unrecognizable behind homemade masks under the starlight. Once she and her followers had sacrificed chickens and an occasional goat in this thirsty, sacred spot, but now she gave them small, powdered doses of a mildly hallucinogenic mushroom instead of the thick, foul-tasting animal blood. The change in the ritual seemed not to disturb them, and each apparently still found the spirits he or she sought.
     But questions still plagued her, fragments of the same terrifying night still studded her dreams and sent her gasping awake under the morning's first rays of light. Myra and the townsfolk shared a platonic existence, but no more; although she no longer preyed upon their fears and hidden deviltry, they did not trust her, and while they warmed bit by bit to the changed woman she'd become, she--and they--never let down their guard.
     Who?
     Prime among the suspects was Lucius, father of small, defiant Sulu, the child whose finger Myra's iniquitous past had demanded as payment two years ago. While Myra knew herself to be different now, she could not go to the girl's father and try to explain why; even had she known the answer, no excuse on this earth could justify that monstrous mutilation. Likewise, no apology or show of regret would reverse the deed, though during the times she let herself think on it too long Myra's face burned with horrified shame. Perhaps the raw pink scar that spiraled across her belly and side like a gigantic spider was payback, though guilty as she was, murder was still a mighty high price to pay for a child's finger.
     But there were others, too, dozens of people whom she'd wronged through the years that this town had been her home. Even Janu, the woman with the wise, wary eyes whose life Myra had saved, had reason to hate her, though Myra didn't know if Janu even knew the sordid truth or not: years ago, for the price of a suckling pig, Myra had worked a spell on Janu's husband that had caused him to go to another woman.
     There was no chance for Myra to change her deeds now; the best she could hope for was to somehow atone. These people would never trust her because of what she'd been; she could never trust anyone until she knew who'd killed her.

 

     As each month went by, Myra grew more appreciative of the swamp and the creatures and growing things it sheltered; she also grew to know her body and remember the more private things that had at first remained just out of her mind's reach. She was not a virgin and the shadow-filled room that held her memories admitted a little more light with each sunrise; she could recall those special men--only a few--who had shared her bed over the short span of her life. In this small territory it was said she was the youngest mambo ever (she was in her late twenties), and folks knew no man in his right mind would marry a woman such as she, and God forbid she should bear a child. From her own perspective, Myra thought it was better, too, that there was no one so close to her whom others could use as a threat.
     Still, she couldn't help the occasional longing for company and the touch of a male hand, and while she welcome each returning memory eagerly, some only increased her hunger. Sitting on the front porch just after dawn one late summer morning, savoring the quiet and the damp, cool air that would turn hot and sticky in another few hours, her mind gave her the sudden picture of a man who had passed through these parts two years previous--a bible salesman of all things! Her mind's eye could see him now: tall and lanky with a head full of thick curls, black, black eyes and skin that glowed like rich mahogany wood. Myra could remember slipping her fingers into his hair and yanking his face to hers, their mouths colliding with a fierceness that would forever dull the memories of her two other lovers, could still feel his knowing fingers sliding across her hot skin. Remembering made her heart pound and her face flush, and she finally rose and headed into the swamp, scowling and thinking how damned silly it was for a grown woman to let an old memory bring herself right into hot flashes.
     The swamp was her life. Myra's storehouse of herbs and medicines increased daily and the swamp held nothing she feared, not the cottonmouths or 'gators or poison sumac. She wandered where she would, collecting plants, salamanders and insects for drying, grinning at the sheer size of the bullfrogs and water bugs that called the swamp home. Almost everything that had been destroyed in the fire at her shack had been replaced; a few things--certain kinds of oils and candles--would have to wait until she scraped a little more cash from her charms and someone from town made a trip to New Orleans, but since most of what she once would have bought no longer needed replenishing, certain aspects of her supplies were not so critical. Myra felt happy and safe, though subconsciously she worried constantly about the more stealthy townsfolk and the people who had once come to her for dark practices; had they learned to live without their petty vengeances, or did they now go to someone else?

 

     "Miss Myra, I got me a problem."
     "What's that?" she asked. It had been almost a week since the last person from town had come to ask for a favor and times were lean; with the decline of Myra's willingness to give out evil little jujus and such, so too had dwindled her popularity and livelihood. She still ate all right, but now her source of meat was mostly the rattlers that she caught in the swamp herself--the old saying about how they tasted pretty much like chicken was true--and she would have dearly loved to be able to fix up a nice plate of beans and pork for her supper. Few people seemed to need good luck charms in the small, isolated town, and while it was a frightening thought, Myra was starting to wonder if she shouldn't move on, maybe to New Orleans where folks would always be willing to pay for candles and oils blessed to bring them luck, protection, or just keep away the bill collectors. She remembered the city as a loud, wild place filled with men and women who were budding entrepreneurs, all itching to cash in on the stupid curiosity of endless wide-eyed tourists looking for that voodoo spell to make them rich or heal their ills, and in a place like that a person with her talents could make a killing right quick and not have to miss a meal for turning away a vicious man or bitchy mistress. Myra loved the swamp right down to her bones and she was a simple woman with few needs, but the bayou didn't seem able to support her unless she gave into the darker sides of the same people whom she'd rather were her friends. And here another youngster stood before her, a boy, and waited trustingly for her help; it seemed as though only the children would have anything to do with her anymore.
     "It's my Mama. You 'member she's been sick, right?"
     Myra nodded and could've slapped herself for not thinking to help before now. The child's name was Martin and his mother Alberta was the sickly woman who'd sent Myra a couple of cooking pots after the shack had been rebuilt; Myra was thoroughly ashamed when she realized she used one of those gifts nearly every day, yet had never thought to check on the woman's welfare. Had Alberta been ill all this time? Little good it did for Myra to turn away those wanting bad potions when good folk with children went untended.
     "Well, she ain't getting no better." Martin looked at her worriedly and shoved his hands in his pockets; his mother had been sick for a long time and the boy was probably ten years old going on twenty. "I was hopin' you'd, you know, sort of come by all on your own. My Mama, she said not to bother you, but I thought I'd ask anyway. I could do a lot of stuff for you, Miss Myra, if Mama was better. You know, planting and hoeing, fetching things. We even got three baby chicks last week. You could have 'em all if you'd just take a look at her."
     "Well, let's see if I can do some good before you go offering your chickens, Martin." Myra stood and went inside the shack to gather a few herbs; the thought of accepting one--just one--of the chicks was appealing. If she could get a hen, she'd cook the lazy, dull bird that pecked around the shack once the chick grew to laying. The thought of fried children--real chicken and not fried strips of snakemeat--made her mouth water. Another minute and she and Martin were picking their way along the part of the dusty, disused path that connected her place to town. In places the grasses and reeds had narrowed the track to only a foot or so wide, and here more than anywhere it was plain to see the town didn't have much of a need for her services any longer.
     She was concentrating so hard on her uncertain future that Martin made her jump when he suddenly spoke. "My Mama says someone put a bad charm on her, that's why she's sick," he said. Above the frayed collar of his T-shirt, his jaw jutted way out, as if just saying the words was a scary thing but he was bound to do it anyway. The stoic expression on his unlined young face, a strange, almost adult determination to deal with and conquer his own fear, reminded her of that long-ago conversation with tiny Sulu.
     Myra glanced at him. "Why would someone do that?" she asked. The youngster shrugged and didn't answer; Myra guessed the boy's mother wouldn't have told him the reason anyway--even if she knew. It was an interesting idea, though; who besides Myra would have the knowledge to do such a successful bad spell on someone? They trudged another quarter mile in silence and the path started to widen where smaller trails led away from it to battered shacks here and there among the heavy green foliage; as the number of dwellings increased the path finally became more of a wide, dirt street beaten clean by countless feet over the decades, with the menfolk regularly scything back the willful greenery always creeping from its edges. Soon they were in the center of town, if the small collection of buildings could be called that: there was a dilapidated feed store with grimy windows that never carried more than fifty pounds of any one type of grain at a time, and the tiny general store that barely kept its doors open, so deeply were the residents in debt to it. Scattered on either side of the two structures were maybe another fifteen old houses, almost every one with a beat-up rocker or two out front or on a sagging front porch. At the end, finally, was the small Baptist church, its white-washed sides better kept than the rest of the buildings. Of the seven or eight junky automobiles--vile-smelling machines that were so loud Myra thought she'd faint the first time she saw one--parked here and there by the houses, only the preacher's ran with any dependability, and most appeared to have simply been left on the road in favor of the more trustworthy transportation found in human legs. Occasionally she and Martin passed a house where the residents didn't mind the high heat of midday and watched the goings-on from the questionable shade of their front porches as they talked about World War II and the fighting that seemed about as close to them now as the concept of airplanes had once been to Myra; while a few men and women nodded politely, no one offered to start a conversation. As Myra and Martin passed the church, the preacher was dribbling water into a pot of listless flowers next to the church's entrance and he made no attempt to hide his frown as his gaze found Myra.
     The house wasn't much farther. Stepping inside, Myra saw that Alberta's home was barely larger than her own, though in one dim corner there was a tiny woodstove for cooking and to help drive away the swamp chill at night. Two twin beds were placed head to head in one corner; the neatly made up one, Myra knew immediately, was Martin's. While the temperature had already soared into the eighties and the humidity was so high that sweat trickled down the back of Myra's neck, Alberta was huddled on the other bed beneath several frayed blankets. As Myra stepped to the bedside and drew the covers away from Alberta's face, the woman's attempt at a smile made her look more like a grimacing corpse.
     Alberta had once been pretty, but whatever the sickness was that held her now had robbed her of any traces of beauty, perhaps permanently. Myra's memory told her that Alberta was not yet thirty, but Myra's recollections seemed to be off-duty today and she couldn't call back much else about the woman other than she wasn't married. Martin's father had been a drifter, a stranger with a silken tongue who'd stopped at the general store for a cold bottle of cola and wooed the then-teenaged Alberta with a suitcase full of lies. He'd disappeared a mere two weeks later; in spite of this, Alberta had wanted and kept the child she'd soon found filling her belly. Alberta's mother had died about five years ago and she and the boy had no other family, and as far as Myra could recall, no enemies either.
     "'Berta?" Myra said softly, "can you hear me?" The woman's eyes fluttered weakly as she tried to focus on Myra, then they closed again. Myra touched her forehead, expecting to find a fever; instead, Alberta's breathing was faint and strained and her skin felt cold and dry--no wonder Martin had covered her with the blankets. Myra glanced at the child standing patiently beside her. "How long as she been like this?"
     He frowned, the expression looking odd on so young a face. "I'm not sure--for a long time. A couple of months maybe, since before you was in that fire," he answered at length. "She finally seemed like she was getting on a little better not so long ago, then she got bad all over again--no, worse."
     This was going to be hard, Myra realized as she gently pulled the covers down to just past the woman's collarbone. Alberta's skin was covered in dry, flaking scales, as if her body simply hadn't the energy to replace its own skin. The condition made Alberta look like a reverse image of a white ash tree , and try as she might Myra couldn't think of any ailment that would do this--at least nothing natural. But oh, there were lots of unnatural things to think about. She drew a finger along Alberta's shoulder and the dead skin powdered under her light touch. Alberta started shivering violently and Myra quickly pulled the blankets back up and tucked them beneath the sick woman's chin.
     "Remember what you said about your mama thinking someone put a spell on her?" Myra asked. Martin nodded solemnly. "Did she say anything else, like maybe who? Or why?"
     "No," he said. "We talked about it some, before she got so sick again she just couldn't speak no more--"
     "When was that?"
     "Two days ago." Martin shoved his hands into the pockets of his dirty tan-colored shorts as he concentrated. "It was right after I came home and found somebody'd been in the house here while mama was sleepin'."
     "You mean someone broke in?" Myra asked with interest. She moved over a few steps and sat on the edge of Martin's bed, keeping an eye on Alberta.
     "Can't really say they broke in," said the boy. "Just came in while she was sleeping and went through the chest of drawers. They sure had a lot of nerve, but I can't even say if they took anything."
     "They went through your stuff, or your mother's?" Myra's eyes swept the dusky interior of the shack, noting a battered, paint-splattered chest at the end of Martin's bed. Piled on top of the chest were kitchen items: a small, mixed assortment of dishes and utensils, a worn-out dishrag beside a few wrinkled paper bags, and a couple of fire-blackened pots and pans.
     "Mama's," he replied. He indicated the chest with a wave of his hand. "Only the top two drawers was gone through-- the bottom two are mine. That's the second time it's happened, too."
     Myra's eyebrows shot up. "Someone's come in twice?"
     "Sure. The first time was before Mama got sick. We come home from church one Sunday and found just about everything in the house on the floor." His forehead creased. "That is kinda funny, ain't it? You think they left something here, some kinda potion? But how come it ain't made me sick, too?"
     Myra waved off his question, stood and walked around the inside of the shack. On a shelf above Alberta's bed she found a brush with the woman's dark hair still tangled in its bristles; off to the side a hand-woven basket held dirty clothes. She guessed the boy did all the washing since his mother was so sick. "Was anything taken that first time?"
     "Mama said she couldn't really tell--maybe an old pair of her underwear, though she couldn't figure why anyone would want her pants. Then again, she said they might've just floated away in the stream when she did the washing."
     "Uh-huh," Myra murmured. Her feet carried her back to Alberta's bedside and she reached for a few strands of the dark hair that lay on the pillow; just the feel of the hair sent a faint sensation of the energy-sapping sickness that infected Martin's mother. Instinct told her fingers to shake away the hairs before their bitterness leached into her own skin; instead Myra forced herself to close her fist. Martin was chattering away, but his voice seemed to be oddly receding.
     "We don't got no enemies, Miss Myra. Least none that we know about." He sounded much older than he was as he hesitated for a moment, then finally continued. "Used to be you was the one might do something like this, but folks say you've changed. That's why I thought maybe you could help. I hope I ain't made you mad."
     "No, not at all." Her assurances sounded strained to her ears and even though it wasn't even meant for her own flesh, Myra could feel the sickness creeping through her slowly, radiating from the hand that held the hair from Alberta's head. It would be a simple but cowardly thing to drop the hairs and be done with it, to shy away from the charm hidden somewhere around here and causing this woman to be so ill. Myra clenched her jaw; she'd be damned before she'd give in to such a yellow impulse, and she'd search until she found it or dropped; from the way she was feeling; she'd have to get to it fast. "Stay with your mother, Martin," she said. Her voice was punctuated by small gasps of breath between every couple of words. "Don't come out of the house until I call, you hear?"
     "Yes, ma'am." Myra tried but couldn't seem to get her vision to widen beyond a narrow strip a few feet directly in front of her. Thankfully the door was there; she couldn't really see the boy as he backed away from her, though she could hear the sudden fright in his voice.
     Even in this sad cluster of shacks, there were clear divisions in the degree of poverty. Alberta's home was one of the few porchless dwellings, and there was only one step leading down from the wooden floor of the shack to the ground outside. Myra promptly tripped on it and went down on her knees; behind her Martin whimpered but did not come outside. She barely registered the feel of the dirt grinding into her knees and palms and the sting along the cap of her left knee as a sharp pebble slid across its width; there was an instant of wet warmth as a few droplets of blood seeped from the cut, then were greedily soaked up by the beaten earth. The world had become a dizzy place and staying on the ground seemed safest, so Myra rolled on one hip and forced herself into a sitting position. Now facing Alberta's shack, she aimed the narrow line that remained of her vision along the dirt and the step down which she had just fallen; she was having a terrible time making her fingers stay closed around the strands of hair and was concentrating on maintaining her hold when her gaze was drawn to a slight bulge in the ground under the step. Her fingers relaxed gratefully and Alberta's hair spilled out; the strength began rebuilding in her body almost immediately as she crawled on all fours and dug into the damp soil below the step with determination.
     After a few minutes of effort, Myra brought up her find triumphantly. It was an old, gallon-sized mason jr, the kind the menfolk sometimes used to store their cherry moonshine. The lid had been badly battered and the jar buried upside down, so that the greenish liquid within--swamp water, most likely--seeped slowly into the soil pit that surrounded it. In the ugly depths of the jar floated a piece of cloth that might have once been light blue: Alberta's long-missing underpants. The heavy green growth which encircled the inside of the jar beneath the waterline proved that while the lichen had flourished on the glass while it held swamp water, when the jar's loathsome contents had depleted entirely it had been refilled, coinciding with the most recent ransacking of Alberta's shack and the woman's relapse into sickness.
     Myra turned the jug upright and unscrewed the lid, then reached into the moss-filled water and pulled out the dripping wad of fabric. She rung them out thoroughly and dropped them on the step, then pushed herself up and hauled the heavy jug around to the rear of the shack. Nearly all of her strength had returned and it didn't take long to find a tree branch a couple of inches around; two good whacks and the jar shattered, spilling its brackish moisture into a patch of the thirsty soil which led to the outhouse. Myra used the branch to push the pieces against the wall of the shack where the boy and Alberta wouldn't cut their feet, then returned to the front of the house. Just before she stepped inside, she saw the preacher watching her intently from outside his modest church down the street; as far away as she was, Myra could tell his face was still twisted into a fearsome look. Her mind made a few quick turns to try and link the man with Alberta and Martin but came up empty, as if it were too tired from tangling with this latest trick to worry about the town's cranky bible-thumper.
     Alberta was already sitting up in bed; Martin was pacing around the small room excitedly as he waited for the small pot of water he'd set on the woodstove to come to a boil so he could make his mother a cup of tea. The sick woman's skin looked ravaged but her eyes were clear and bright, and she was thinking coherently for the first time in days. Studying her, Myra didn't know if Alberta would ever look quite the same as she had months ago--Myra vaguely recalled a young woman with beautiful skin and a fine, bright smile--but at least she was alive and from all appearances there would be no crippling after-effects. Anyway, Myra could recommend a dozen or more recipes that would help repair the damage done to Alberta's complexion. As Alberta looked at her from the bed, this time the woman's face came closer to showing the smile she'd intended when Myra had first walked in the door.
     "I... don't know what to say," Alberta finally managed. "Thank you isn't near enough. This is the first time I've been able to speak in... a while." She glanced at her son and Myra could see that the nervousness of the old ways still remained. Perhaps it would never completely vanish. "We don't have much to pay you with, Miss Myra."
     "I promised her the three chicks," Martin piped in. "I'll go find a sack to put 'em in."
     He started for the door and Myra stopped him with a gentle hand. "One will be just fine," she said, then grinned impishly to hide her weariness. "But be sure it's the best one."
     Martin nodded quickly and ducked outside as Myra turned to Alberta; already the woman's gray pallor had started to fade and no doubt a good washing would get rid of most of the scales of dead skin peppering her body. Myra held up the green-stained underwear that had been floating in the jar, then sorted through the small packets she had stuffed into the pockets of her shift until she had the three powders she wanted: hearts ease, lemon verbena, and ground salep, a good luck root. She picked the smallest rumpled paper bag from the jumble of kitchen things and carefully poured a bit of each inside it, then added a generous shake of the contents of another of her packets--cinders from the ruins of her own shack. "As soon as you can be up and about without Martin, wash these yourself, using plenty of lye soap, and let them dry without rinsing. Then toss them and this little bag into the stove and burn them both until there's nothing left but ashes. Take the ashes out to the swamp-- you do it, not Martin--at sunset on the same day you do the burning and throw them to the west." Myra smiled at Alberta. "And just to be safe, don't cook anything on the stove while you're burning your pants. You got all that?" Alberta nodded mutely.
     Myra couldn't think of anything else. The lye would destroy all traces of Alberta from the garment before it was burned with the bag of herbs and cinders. Throwing the ashes into the sunset was really unnecessary, but it would symbolize the final end to the spell, and the woman had been sick for so long that Myra wanted to take every precaution. "Well," she said at last, "I'll be going now." Alberta opened her mouth to speak but Myra held up a hand. "No, really. You just rest up, and the chick'll do me fine."
     She stepped outside and automatically glanced in the direction of the tiny town; to her relief the dour-faced preacher had moved along. Martin was waiting patiently by the walk with a small, threadbare burlap sack; Myra could hear faint cheeps coming from it and she smiled to herself and calculated how long it would be before the bird would being laying--if it was a hen. If not, she'd keep the one she had and fry this one--provided she could control her appetite until then. She took the bag happily, gave the boy's head an absent-minded pat, and headed for home.
     Another half hour and Myra was back at her own place. It only took a few minutes to fight an old length of beat-up chicken wire into place so she'd have a place to put the chick where it'd stay separated from her crabby old hen. That done, she dusted her hands against her shift and pushed through the netting over the door; it would be good to get out of this dirty dress and away from the heat, and take a cooling sponge bath. But the instant her foot passed the door frame, Myra stopped cold.
     Someone had been in her shack while she was gone.

 

     They hadn't taken anything, at least as far as Myra could tell. She had an excellent knowledge of everything in her place, since she had to know immediately if she already had all the right ingredients to turn away a trick, like today, or make up a new charm. Myra hadn't paid much attention to regular personal possessions since the fire; as a result she didn't own much in the way of clothes: a couple of shifts made from donated fabric, a slip, a few pair of underwear. A quick search accounted for everything, including her towel and washcloth, and her one set of sheets. The only shoes she owned were the sandals on her feet. She knew better than to ever leave hair or nail clippings where someone else could get to them.
     That left little besides Myra's storehouse of herbs, powders and mixes from the swamp, but even there nothing seemed amiss--and besides, all these roots and such were generally used on other folks, not herself. The whole thing was spooky, knowing someone had been here, knowing someone had gone through her things, but not understanding why. She couldn't begin to guess if one of the jujus of straw and herbs was missing, but again that didn't matter; they weren't personalized to anyone yet and they were all white magic anyway, nothing that could be twisted around.
     What then? Myra went over her "inventory" again but still couldn't make a connection, and for the first time in weeks the troublesome question of her killer reared again in her mind. The attacker was still unknown and, presumably, lived in town. Was he--or she--finally getting ready to strike again? What would have happened had she been her for the person's visit? She shuddered.
     After a third and final search, she shook her head in defeat. Her bag of rice was open and almost empty, and to be safe Myra tossed it in the corner to be disposed of later and opened a new one. As she fixed a light supper of seasoned rice and hot sauce--there had been no time to hunt in the swamp for turtle or frogs' legs today--she wondered if it had simply been one of the children from town, looking around inside her shack on a dare from friends, outright bold but too nervous to actually steal anything. That might explain why nothing seemed to be missing, but her sense of balance, of self, was disturbed and Myra knew she was not wrong. Someone had been inside her home and, more important, had done something.
     But what?

 

     Myra didn't feel well. Last night's supper of rice and hot sauce sat in her stomach like a ball of warm, sticky wax, and the niggling fear that she had been think in the wrong direction when she'd looked for something to be missing last night didn't help. Now it was pre-dawn and all she wanted to do was throw up and she couldn't; she had horrible stomach cramps and she was to go to the bathroom terribly, but nothing would come out that end either. At first Myra thought that maybe the heat had turned the hot sauce she'd poured all over the rice--she just loved the stuff--but then the thought occurred to her that something might have been added to it, though the only way would've been to use something long and skinny, like one of those fancy restaurant straws. If something had been added, she was in terrific trouble because she'd used up the last of the bottle and there wasn't even a drop left to try and turn the trick back on whomever had put it on her. An hour ago she'd groped her way across the shack and found her little beaded change purse; from it she'd pulled a shiny silver dime and shoved it under her pillow. Now, in the dim light just before sunrise she felt for it and pulled it out to see; Myra's stomach contracted painfully in either fear or sickness--she could no longer distinguish between the two--at the sight of the now blackened coin, proof positive that she had become someone's victim.
     But who? That question was maddening enough, but another was much more crucial. What on earth had she eaten?
     Her thoughts were bleary, unfocused mental impulses that faded in and out. So many people, so many reasons--valid ones, too. But she had tried to make good, to reverse at least some of the evil she had spread in the time before she "awoke." Obviously to someone her repentance had not been enough; as she doubled over for the second time in ten minutes, Myra realized that the spell she had removed from Alberta was slow and mild in comparison to this.
     Gasping, she huddled on her bed and tried to think who would have the knowledge necessary to pull off a serious conjure like this one--not that the trick on Alberta wouldn't have killed the weakened woman had it been turned a third time. Myra had always been suspicious of Lucius, but with his wife and children he had little time to learn tricks, though there was always the possibility that he had paid someone else to do it. Yet that would bring him back full circle, wouldn't it? And what would have been the next conjurer's price? The finger from another child? Myra shuddered; she just couldn't accept that he would think revenge worthy of the cost.
     There was still the question of the trickster's identity. Myra had started her own learning as far back as she could remember, and since it had been a family tendency the knowledge had come easier to her than it would to most others. That same education didn't come in books, and it would take time that a busy man like Lucius just didn't have--another reason she didn't believe it was him.
     The preacher? She barely knew the man--had, in fact, dealt so little with him through the years that she didn't even know his first name. To her he was just the Reverend Pearl, though every time Myra thought of his glowering face and the way he'd watched her by Alberta's she had the feeling she was forgetting something. Now, racked by pain and with her concentration lagging on the simplest of tasks, was certainly not the most efficient time to try and bring up old facts. Her stomach and intestines seemed intent on tying themselves in knots, but what she could remember was that for as far back as anyone--and not only herself--could recall, tradition in this town had a woman providing the secrets--light and dark--not a man. Her mother had passed it to Myra, and her grandmother to her, and not a one had ever been married. The vague memory of that bible salesman flitted by and she smiled bitterly; she'd been so positive that union would bring a child, and had even used a charm or two at the time, but it was not to be. Thinking back now, Myra wished she'd gone beyond the simple charms and worked up a full-fledged trick to hide under the bed. Her gut quieted for a moment and she closed her eyes and dozed, exhaustion blacking out her thoughts and sending her quickly into the deeper realm of sleep.
     When she woke up that evening, Myra finally remembered something of the history relating to Reverend Pearl, or at least his wife. She was gone--dead? The man had told everyone she'd gone to visit her parents in Atlanta--she'd always talked highly of her mother--and had died in a bus crash during her stay; her folks had arranged for Mrs. Pearl's body to be cremated and the ashes sent back to the town, where the preacher had held a small memorial service for her and displayed the urn. But something didn't set right with that tale, because Myra clearly remembered the woman--her first name was Louisa--coming to her for a spell sometime before she was supposed to have gone to Atlanta. The way Myra had been at the time, nothing had surprised her and she'd mixed up Louisa's trick quick enough, though right now, with her stomach cramping anew, Myra couldn't quite remember what it had been or why, or even what Louisa had paid--not that it mattered anymore. Turning it over in her thoughts now, Myra didn't believe the woman had died in any bus accident in Georgia; instead, Myra thought Louisa had gone somewhere. If Myra's mind was functioning the way it was supposed to--and who could tell that with the way she was feeling--Myra remembered Louisa as a pretty woman with a body built to drive a man crazy and an attitude that surely didn't seem fit for a reverend's wife.
     As if to tease her, the pain in Myra's stomach waned a bit and she got up shakily, pulling off the sweat-stained dress and managing the sponge bath she'd forgotten the night before. Her stomach rumbled ominously as she slipped a clean shift over her head and waited dully for the cramps to start; instead she felt a mild pang of hunger, although the thought of actually putting food in her mouth made her nauseous all over again. She glanced over her food shelf and decided that maybe she could stomach some chicken broth but eyed the jar of bouillon cubes with suspicion. Still and all, she decided, it was a new jar and when she opened it the paper-wrapped cubes looked undisturbed. She made the liquid weak on purpose, afraid that a rich mixture might make her vomit. While the idea was tempting--like a hangover, she wondered if she might feel better if she went on and threw up--it was doubtful there was anything in her stomach to expel and if she didn't keep something down after all this time she was bound to dehydrate. But she still wished she could go to the bathroom.
     But she was better, Myra decided, definitely better. Or so she thought until the cramps started again at midnight. By dawn of the second day her belly was swollen as though she were five months' with child and she'd passed most of the night sitting on the rocker, slipping in and out of consciousness and too weak to travel the five feet to the bed. In one of her more lucid moments, Myra realized with a surge of frustration that she was dying... and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it.

 

     Three days. Myra loved life above all things and had brazenly sold herself to prove it, but now all she wanted was for this hell to be over. Her guts twisted in agony and the blood in the veins beneath her skin crawled and itched all the time, growing worse with every hour that passed. She could feel the sickness, chart its progress as the stinging started in her neck and ran down her left arm, or perhaps began in the soft spot just to the inside of one of her hip bones to travel down her leg. If she could have found even the smallest bit of strength, she would have used it to claw at her arms and stomach to try and stop the insane prickling. Sometime during the past eternity of hours she had staggered to the bed and now curled between the sticky sheets, moaning and still wondering who'd done this to her. Despite winding in and out of delirium there was no need to wonder what anymore, not with the crawling sensation in her veins. Some type of snake blood, she realized, mixed in good and unrecognizable in that infernal bottle of hot sauce. Myra wondered if it were snakes or some other kind of creature that fed on her now within her own body. How foolish that she had never considered that someone else might put a spell on her!
     "Myra? Myra, can you hear me?"
     Myra opened pain-filled eyes at the sound of a vaguely familiar voice; the sunlight flowing through the single window of her shack told her that she'd managed to doze only for a moment.
     "What?" she croaked. She wished the person would go away and leave her to die quietly and--hopefully--quickly. "Who's there?"
     "It's Janu," the voice answered. When she tried, Myra could just make out the woman's face and someone else's, standing off to the side.
     "Who else?" she whispered. "Who's with you?"
     The question was met with silence for a moment, then a venom-laced male voice spoke. "Reverend Pearl."
     Myra's tortured mind tried to connect the two but failed. "What do you want?" she managed. She was tired of having to ask these inane questions; people came calling to your house, she thought irritably, they should announce their business and not force a body to play guessing games. She wished she had the energy to tell them so.
     She sensed rather than heard the preacher open his mouth to speak before Janu cut him off in a silky, deadly voice. "Why, Myra," she purred, "we've come to watch you die."

 

     "I remember now," Myra rasped. Where she had gotten the strength to do it she didn't know, but she'd managed to sit up and face her two tormentors. It might have been little besides sheer force of will. "It was your wife, preacherman, who came to me for a charm to take Janu's husband. You lied when you told the townsfolk she died in that bus crash in Georgia."
     "Then you should remember the rest," Janu said, her face a study in dark shadows of hate. But Myra's mind wouldn't function and all she could do was stare at the couple blankly. "The night I stabbed you--the fire... no?" Janu laughed harshly. "Here you had no memory of it and all this time I was scared you might be coming after one of us at any time. Why, I could have just let the whole thing alone!"
     Something slid across the inside of Myra's stomach, drawing a deep, knifing pain with it. Outwardly stoic, she set her jaw against the cry that tried to pass her lips; she'd be damned before she'd let these two killers enjoy the sight of her pain.
     Janu wandered to the window and looked out at the swamp. Smelling blood just beyond their reach, horse flies batted enthusiastically against the netting Myra had tacked tightly over the opening. "The preacher here knew all along what you'd done--Lucius had told me and him before I told the man to shut up about it. Lucius had seen Louisa and my man leaving, but the Reverend here was too much a man of God to do anything 'cept try to save his face and the good name of his precious church. When I came to him that night and told him I'd killed you, then suggested he burn your shack down, he saw it as a way for him to get a taste of revenge without actually sinning--"
     "Just doing God's work," Reverend Pearl broke in. Through her hazy vision, Myra could see the sheen of nervous sweat that covered his face. "Destroying the tools of evil that you'd used to wrong other folks through the years." The tremor in his voice smoothed out, and for a second Myra saw another preacher in her mind, all the more horrifying for the sudden resemblance.
     "That's right," Janu said. "But I never did like butchering and getting my hands messy and I botched the job real bad, didn't I?" She smiled and raised her face to the sparse morning breeze that eased past the netting; Myra thought how different she looked from the woman that had almost died not very long ago.
     "What about Alberta?" Myra rasped. "Why did you make her sick?"
     Janu giggled before she spoke. "Alberta is nothing," she admitted. "At first she was only a test to see if my spells would work and if my learning was finally doing some good. Then, after you came back, I used her as a tool to get you out of here so's I could put the snake blood in your bottle of sauce. When I refilled that jug while she and the boy were off in the swamp and she got sick all over again, I knew the kid would get desperate and come to you. You done got yourself quite a fancy for doing good now." Her voice hardened. "Too bad you waited so long."
     "But I saved your life!" In her amazement, Myra's voice was almost clear though the effort of speaking so loudly cost her plenty. "I helped you!"
     "Anybody could have!" Janu spat. "Besides, you saved me from what? And for what? You took my life when you took my man and gave him to that whore--"
     Myra saw the Reverend Pearl blink at Janu's words.
     "--and left me with eight hungry kids and no way to feed 'em. All this time you've been turning folks away when they come to you for spells, I've been giving 'em what they want. Still, nothing you can do will bring back all those years I been on my own and lonely with nothing for company but crying children and worry over the next meal. I spent a long time thinking about it, a long time learning, and you ain't the only woman in this town who knows secrets. Your biggest mistake was in thinking you were." Janu's voice grew even fiercer as she leaned over Myra's shuddering body, though the fact that she saw no fear in Myra's eyes only enraged her further. "And let me tell you something else. I don't owe you nothing! A person don't owe someone who caused her that much misery, and keeping me alive only prolonged it and gave me the will to fight back and get even."
     "I kept you alive because your brother asked me to!" Myra snapped, the fury in her voice startling both Janu and the reverend into taking backward steps. "And because of all those kids who needed their mother!" It was a good thing she'd come to the end of her sentence, because Myra had no breath left to utter another word; her chest felt like someone had dropped a blacksmith's anvil on top of it.
     "Oh, spare me your retelling of attempts at saving your soul!" Janu cried. "They're all a little late now." She bent over the bed again and peered into Myra's pain-filled eyes. "You had me scared enough for a while, yes sir. Stabbed you myself, got so full of your blood that I had to slink through the swamp like a lizard so no one would see me that night." The woman reached down and grabbed Myra's hair angrily; behind her Myra heard the preacher choke slightly, but she barely felt the sting at her scalp. A lot of the room seemed to be fading away at the edges, like the final feet of the one silent film at a movie house in New Orleans she'd gone to years ago. "You must have had some strong magic, Myra. I felt the lifepulse go out of your body myself--when I pulled that knife out of you and pushed you on the floor, I sure did think you were dead." Janu released Myra's hair with a shove and Myra was dimly aware that the small bed bounced as her head was flung back.
     "But it don't matter now anyway. The hot sauce was the biggest, but I've put so many tricks on your body that you couldn't save yourself even if you wasn't already sick--you'd never find them all in time to turn 'em back against me. You've had it," Janu finished contemptuously as she turned her back on her victim at last.
     "You're nothing but a talking dead woman."
     The door opened and Janu and the reverend stepped outside without bothering to look back; Myra didn't know about Janu, but perhaps the bible-thumper just couldn't stand to watch her die. She wondered how he would live with his conscience, knowing down deep that he really had helped kill her. But the bayou was a dark place and always had been so; the past few months of her life, with her feeble attempts to bring light and good into this swamp-surrounded town, had barely made a ripple in its shadows.
     Soon the good Reverend Pearl would return with his matches and this shack which had been her home for such a pitifully short time would be consumed by his holy fire. She imagined that her body would burn but as she closed her eyes and felt the torture in her belly and the crushing weight inside her chest hurl her into unconsciousness, Myra knew she'd never feel the pain of the blaze.

 

THE END