Monday, November 2, 2015

Haunted Echoes, Chapter One

The pungent stench of dried herbs hangs heavily in the air, a stifling heat suffusing the room as I quickly shave the bark from the gathered branches of a willow tree. The small room is hardly ideal for brewing home remedies that Grecia sells in the shop below, but with the aftermath of Katrina still rocking the foundations of the city, a room isn’t something that we are able to afford at the moment. The meager two story townhouse that serves as both shop and home to our strange little family is always full of local shoppers looking for a balm or cream for their latest rash or blemish, and curious tourists who want to see a real Voodoo doctor’s place of business.

Lucky for them Grecia, the frail and waifish woman my uncle married, is amused by their incessant questions rather than annoyed. While not as skilled at performing curses or making poppets, she’s more adept at fortune telling and potions and tonics. She typically uses me as her semi-willing assistant to prepare the various herbs and reagents for her to cook or broil together. While I’d jokingly referred to this as my own training as a witch to harvest eyes of newt, my joke had ended when she made me do just that.
Hey, you try taking a bucket of dead newts and plucking their eyes out into a mason jar, see how well your humor lasts.
“Monica!” Grecia calls from downstairs, the creaking of the fan in the corner drowned out by her melodic voice. “Could you come down here for a moment?”
Wiping my forehead of sweat, I stand up from the stool where I’d been crouched over the low bench, taking a moment to stretch out my back. Smiling at the series of pops, I pick up a small strip of willow bark and slide it into my mouth, chewing on it slowly so as to release the pain-relieving chemicals into my system in a controlled manner.
Walking out of the side room, I smile at my appearance in the mirror. Contrary to the skinny girl that’d been taken by surprise by the supernatural world this past summer, winter had been a serious time of training under the tutelage of my aunt and a book from a former cult leader from central Texas. The hand written book was a mixture of satanic rituals, Judaic mysticism and Romani charms, creating a conglomerate of spells and rituals that held a wide variety of uses, from the mundane (cleaning one’s body of sweat and grime in a matter of moments) to the more, um, aggressive (tearing a person’s soul from their body to create a spirit bound to serve you) and everything in between.
Muttering a few words of Aramaic and waving my hand over my body, the sweat and bits of bark stuck beneath my fingernails vanish, leaving me odorless and clean from the grime I’d accumulated during the last three hours cleaning willow branches in a cramped work space in the middle of New Orleans. Wiping down my hands over my apron, which hung loosely over my tank top and denim shorts as it was sized for my uncle’s titanic form, I make my way to the top of the stairs and slowly plod down, one step at a time.
The shop itself is really more of a menagerie of relics from the far corners of the world. Some of the items supposedly possess magical qualities, while some are rumored to be cursed. Uncle Boon, the bearded giant behind the glass counter speaking in hushed tones with a young man with dreadlocks, goes off on expeditions where he recovers these goods, bringing them back to sell to the highest bidder. While this might not sound like a profitable business, he showed me an only auction for a Roman gladius, a type of short sword, that he’d found in a dig in the Middle East. It was already up to twenty-two thousand dollars and had over five days left before the online auction expired.
Grecia is behind another counter with two older men standing in front of her, one leaning on a polished black cane. Both are dressed a tad bit formally for visiting a hole-in-the-wall shop such as ours, but I’m hardly one to judge. Moving behind the counter to join Aunt Grecia, chewing slowly on the bark like a chaw of tobacco, I smile at the two men, who nod back at me. One is far older, with snow-dusted hair and long, deep wrinkles. His suit is expensive and rumpled from the sweltering heat of the shop. The other man is a tad younger and bears a striking resemblance to the older one.
Must be his son, I think to myself as Grecia makes introductions, waving her thin arms between us as she exchanges our names.
“Monica, this is Mr. Peddleworth and his son Maxwell. They’ve come in today to have a soapstone heart carved for Mr. Peddleworth’s departed wife.”
“Now wait just a moment, the girl seems a little young to be doing a task as important as this.” Mr. Peddleworth croaks, his voice deep and creaky. “My wife needs something to help her stay at rest without interference. I don’t need your lackey doing a second-rate job on this, especially when I was sent to you specifically by my regular doctor.”
“I assure you Mr. Peddleworth, a soapstone heart will be a trifling matter for my apprentice here,” Grecia says, waving away the complaint as if it were a foul odor. “She has performed far more complex tasks than this, and I imagine she’ll have it ready by days end if you give her the needed materials.”
Mr. Peddleworth looks over at me, looking me over in a calculating manner. His son looks distinctly uncomfortable being in the room, especially when Uncle Boon and the young man in dreadlocks begin arguing in French. I cock my hip to the side, resting a hand on it as I give Mr. Peddleworth my most withering glare, daring him to turn down my one ticket away from peeling branches for the next four hours.
Finally, he gives a minute nod as he reaches into his jacket, retrieving a lock of hair. A soapstone heart, from what I’ve read, is an egg carved from soapstone that hairs of the recently deceased are pressed into and covered with red wax, creating a red egg that is to be buried with the body, usually placed in the hand of the deceased. This is an older superstation that suggests that should an evil spirit come across the body, it will go after the soapstone heart before going after the mortal remains of a beloved family member. Very basic magic, all latent. The hardest part is brewing the purification tonic that you mix in with the red wax, just to make it difficult for the general nasties that lurk in the darkness from doing anything untoward.
He hands over the locket of hair to Grecia, giving me a foul look. “You better do a good job girl, I don’t feel like finding my wife’s grave empty because you fouled up a supposedly easy task.”
“I’ll do what needs to be done, no more, no less,” I reply cryptically, taking the hair from Grecia. It’s silky and red, tied off with a black ribbon. Rubbing my hand over the hair, I scowl before looking at Mr. Peddleworth. “Did your wife dye her hair?”
He looks slightly taken aback by the question though he does hesitantly nod.
Aunt Grecia clucks her tongue. “There will be an extra charge to remove the dye from the hair, as it will interfere with the protections.”
Mr. Peddleworth’s son finally breaks his silence, stepping forward. “How dare you? You fucking vultures are here to take advantage of my grieving father, and you dare bring up and extra fee for something so trivial.”
“You’ll find that in magic, there is nothing that can be considered trivial,” Grecia says with an air of superiority. “Now the total cost will be sixty for the soapstone heart, and an extra fifteen to purify the hair, so seventy-five dollars. Take it or leave it.”
“I have half a mind to report you to the authorities you scheming charlatan…” the younger man threatens, stepping closer to the counter. He comes to a halt, however, when his father lays down four twenty dollar bills on the glass countertop. He looks at his father incredulously, before shaking his head and turning from the counter to march out of the shop.
“Do you have anything that’ll soothe the nerves? I’m a recovering alcoholic and would rather not go back to the bottle if I can help it.”
Grecia smiles, kneeling down to root about the various vials on display. She selects a sky blue vial, standing up to show the vial off. “Here, for five dollars you can have this; willow extract with crushed rose petals and a hint of nightshade. Ease your anxieties and calm the nerves.”
Mr. Peddleworth smiles, taking the offered bottle from Grecia and slipping it into his breast pocket. “Any instructions?”
“Take it with a meal, preferably at night. A few drops on the tongue and you’ll be fine Mr. Peddleworth, it should ease your nerves.”
“Thank you,” Mr. Peddleworth wrings his knotted hands as he regards me for a moment. He turns back to Grecia. “Will it be ready by tomorrow morning? That’s when we’re holding the wake…”
Grecia laughs softly, a hand drifting to one of her many necklaces. “Just give me that address and I’ll send Monica here to the cathedral to drop off the heart. A few incantations once placed and your wife will be safe from anything looking for easy prey.”
“Thank you… I apologize for my son, he doesn’t really believe in any of this.” Mr. Peddleworth offers somewhat lamely, watery eyes roving between Grecia and me.
I just shrug. “Ask me six months ago and I wouldn’t have believed it either. Here, let me go get to work on the heart.”
I turn before either adult can utter another word and begin climbing up the n arrow stairs leading to the open loft above our shop. Walking across the main room, around a large work table, I stop at a shelf where we keep minerals and rocks grabbing a fist-sized chunk of talc, I scoop up a scalpel and a chisel and move towards the work table. Setting them down, I grab a small mortar and drop the bound lock of hair into it. Walking over to a wine rack with dozens of glass bottles, I run my hands over them until I find the right one.
Pulling the cork, I sniff the sloshing potion within, crinkling my nose at the tart stench of vinegar. “Ew… this should rid any impurities in her hair alright… as well as clean my mortar.”
Tipping the wine bottle carefully, I allow the faint pink fluid to glug out until it has covered the hair, which is already streaming away strains of red. Popping the cork back in the bottle, I set it on the table and take a seat, snatching up the scalpel and carving off a chunk from the greater rock roughly the size of an egg. Carefully, I split it down the middle and begin hollowing out the inside with the chisel.
Grecia comes up after about ten minutes, gliding along the steps like some kind of fairy. She comes up behind me, peering over my shoulder as I carve in the correct astrological symbols along the seams of the two halves of the egg, which has taken on one side a grinning face, the other a scowling one.
What can I say, the artist in me demands attention.
“Very nice work,” Aunt Grecia says, clearly impressed. One hand rests on my shoulder as I set one side down on the table. “I like the faces… while not necessary, sympathetic magic reacts stronger when the carver has some personal tie to the creation.”
“Sympathetic magic?” I look over my shoulder into Grecia’s dark brown eyes.
She smiles. “Positive Voodoo, a magic that helps and aids people, relying on good emotions and clear judgment! The older branches of magic from Europe would agree with me save for the fact that it is Voodoo, but to each their own.”
I turn back and reach into the mortar where I pull a damp lock of gray hair, setting it down on a towel to air-dry while I gather the herbal additions to this little project. Turning to get up, I find Grecia with a small basket of the supplies needed her ever present smile on her mocha-colored face.
“So sympathetic magic eh?” I say, taking the Sage from the basket, along with a lighter and several pebble sized stones pulled from the stomach of a man possessed by evil (not as hard to come by as you would think). Dropping three of the pebbles into the hollow of one side of the egg, I crush up the sage between my fingers, sprinkling it into the opening.
“Yes, it’s what I primarily use. Well, that and herbal tonics and potions.” Grecia comments, leaning over another chair to watch me work. Picking up the partially dry hair, I light several ends on fire before dropping the smoldering hair into the hollow. Picking up the other half of the egg, I place it in perfect symmetry with the other, sealing the burning hair and Sage in with the three kidney stones.
“Pass me the bone paste, would you?” I ask Grecia, looking around for the small mayonnaise jar of powdered bone and grave dirt we keep around, mixed with blessed water to form a valuable sealant for projects such as this.
She looks around, apparently lost for a moment, before giving a cry. Bending down, she picks up the jaw from the floor and slides it over to me. I twist off the cap and use a spoon wedged into the jar to pull out a single glob of the pale white mud. Using the spoon, I smear the mud around the edges of the egg, closing the gapes my scalpel had made. After two minutes of smoothening out the clay-like substance, I hold the egg up and examine it.
While not the greatest talisman against evil, it would definitely keep any nosy specters or ghosts away from the body. It should also serve as a perfect type of grenade if needed against a ghost, but that will hardly this be this hearts purpose. I hold it out to Grecia, who takes it gingerly and carries it over to a wooden ledge that is in full view of the sun, to hasten the drying process.
She turns to regard me for a moment before a small smile graces her features. “You should be able to fit into one of my dresses I should think,” she says, measuring me with her eyes.
“And why would I want to do that?”

“Because you’ll be delivering the heart tomorrow, and laying it in the corpses hands.”

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