“God gave us words to live by and yet so many of us fall short of glor-“
The words gave way to static, and James Burkner was glad for it. He’d heard most of his adolescence that God had a plan for a perfect life lived in Him, but James was always more interested in the words of humans. The orphans, who struggled on the barren earth void of a father.
The Louisiana sun sat low on the horizon, its haze red and seeping through the tree-line like blood from a wound. He took in the air of the wetlands surrounding him, cool and crisp as it entered the open window of his 1961 Impala. His hair alive in the breeze.
Where was God in all of this? Nowhere as far as he was concerned, and that was fine, James wasn’t one to wait around for someone else’s help. He was a fit and fine do it yourself type of guy. A real handy-man with whatever life threw his way. James had done this, this was all thanks to him.
The setting sun cast a shadow along the blackened leather dash, and came to rest just before the picture placed there not one year ago. A photo of a woman holding a wide-brimmed hat onto her head. Blonde hair blown in a gust of wind, one hand still on the hood of the black Impala she leaned against, facing away from the camera. James remembered that photo well, stealing a snapshot of his Mary those years ago, when they drove out to the ocean to get away from it all, and the exact moment they decided to mimic the cover girl in a magazine they’d seen in a beachfront store. Mary smiling, lipstick bold as smelted iron, as the wind ruptured her composure. Lifting her sundress, hair and hat all at once, like an array of voices yelling surprise in an abruptly lit room.
If given the chance, James could’ve been 33 forever, he and Mary had it all then, or at least they did by society’s standards. An American made house with an American made car with an American made refrigerator and an American made television. No mistaking them for communists, no sir, not the Burkners, but Northern Virginia had lost its flavor shortly after they’d settled there, so they up and sold their American possessions, all but the Impala, and moved south, way down to The Big Easy. Somewhere obscure, or as Mary put it, unhinged. Somewhere still wild and boasting a certain kind of mystery. The obscurity drove Mary to move there, and James’s love for the woman would’ve taken him to Antarctica if it meant continuing their life together.
The image of the nineteenth century two-bedroom flashed through his mind now, and despite that first year in the house together, it just wasn’t the same without Mary there, filling it with her peculiar flavor, that sense of life she had about her, all summed up in that smile and those boldened lips.
“It takes a vast amount of time lost to finally realize that life is short,” he said to the swamp and the buzzing of the animals there-in. The words first said to him by a passer-by at Mary’s funeral after she had been lowered into the ground. Heaven’s final jab, making her passing that much more real. But what is reality other than what you make it? What if her death was merely the lights blinking on and off again, signaling intermission?
The sun was just a sliver of light along the dash now, and as it receded further James watched the light pull away from the woman in the small portrait. Her features obscured, barely visible now in the growing darkness. Sucking in the air of the swamp and cool breeze, he closed his mind’s eye a moment. Tuning it all out, just following the motions of driving along the highway. Taking each turn with minimal effort, even managing to completely drown out the roar of the Impala’s engine.
And then it all stopped. The sound of the engine, the bustling of the animals outside. Hell, even the rush of the wind entering the cabin of the coupe. James grabbed the knob of the radio and wrenched it to the right bracing himself for the abrupt rise in static that would soon follow.
He heard her wet breath behind him before he saw her, like the panting of a dog in heat, and where once was nothing, Batilda was there, in the backseat of the Impala. Her dark skin a single shade lighter than the black of the leather. Her eyes white gaping holes, mouth slightly ajar, a single line of blood falling down the corner of her white-powdered lips. The priestess’s face powdered in whitened chalk in triangles above and below her eyes, a red cross, boldened and bright in the center of her face where her brows met.
She leaned up from the backseat, the warmth of her blood-soaked breath washing over James’s neck and though this was far from the first time he’d seen her, he had never quite gotten used to it. She pulled her tongue up and along his neck, just under the ear, and it was all James could do to keep his eyes glued to the Louisiana backroad, having taken the notion it was better to just let whatever happened happen when the priestess appeared. See, he hadn’t the money to pay her for her service, and they had been able to work out another more, unordinary contract. An opening of his life to her, or at least the thing which took her shape around him from time to time. He wasn’t sure if it was the priestess Batilda at all anymore, and given her line of work, thought she might not even remember the encounter they’d had almost a year ago.
But dammit, it had worked, and if that meant keeping up his part of the bargain, having an uncanny visitor every now and then was fine by him.
An ocean of static roared from the Impala’s speakers and if all of creation had held its breath for the duration of her visit, it made up for lost time now. The bull frogs and birds of the wetlands screamed into the night in a sickening chorus, and as the fear grew in James, as it did from time to time, he longed for the stillness once had.
His eyes crept up to the rearview mirror, and as always, the dark woman was gone, as if she’d never been there at all.
He clenched his eyes shut, squeezing the false reality from his mind, and upon reopening them saw someone in the distance along the side of the highway.
The lights of the Impala flicked on, slicing through the thick dark of the wilderness and shone on the figure, now visible and waving him down.
James pulled the coupe to the side of the road, headlights on the man, or rather, boy with his thumb extended. A brown suit jacket, the only wholesome part about him from Wall-Street’s standards, a headband clung to his long brown hair, resting atop a pair of black wayfarer sunglasses worn despite the dusk’s change to night minutes earlier. The hitchhiker gave a smile, then a wave, before heading towards the Impala. James noted the bag on his back, and the guitar case he toted in his off-hand.
Leaning across the front seat, James wrenched the passenger-side window down and the traveler leaned down and in as well.
“Hey man,” the traveler said, same smile on his face. “Thanks for stopping, not sure where the hell I am.”
“Nowhere, Louisiana,” James replied, looking up at the man. “Where you headed? Not a great idea to be out in the wilderness past dark. Stupid, really.
“Well, I’m glad you found me then, brother. I’m headed to Baton Rouge, trying to catch The Who on the 26th.
James heard what the man said, but was occupied elsewhere. The whites of Batilda’s eyes, gleaming from the trees a few feet behind the traveling hippie.
“Yo, man, you in there?” The hippie asked, and ironically so, James caught the rash smell of marijuana emanating from the man. He was high as hell.
“I can take you, headed over to New Orleans come the morning, it’s no trouble at all.”
“Can’t thank you enough, brother. Pop the trunk for my guitar?”
“Just throw it in the back seat, trunk’s full.”
“Fine by me, man,” The hippie said and opened the door, sliding the guitar case and his bag over the headrest. James leaned backward for the neck of the guitar, which almost clipped his jaw on its journey to the backseat.
The passenger door shut with a clunk, and the hippie smiled over at James.
“Really can’t thank you enough, man” he began, hanging his arm from the open window. “I had a ride, guy promised to take me to the nearest town but ended up leaving me more or less where you found me. He was square though, not like you, man. You got spirit. I have a sense about people, my friends say that I…”
The rumble of the Impala’s engine made tuning out the hippie easy enough and in the rearview mirror, James saw the priestess crawl across the highway on all fours, white eyes focused on him before the forest swallowed her whole.
They came to a stop, four ways, and James allowed the other car on by first.
“So, man, my name’s Tony, Tony Hoyne. Really can’t thank you enough for picking me up. Walking’s such a drag…” As he said this, he took a joint from his inner breast pocket and extended it towards James. “Want some, man? Gotta take your medicine, stay aligned.”
James noted the joint, and his eyes met Tony’s a moment. The last time he smoked was with Mary, at the beach house those years ago. The Animals blaring in the background to drown out their high above the stratosphere love-making. But hell, he figured he still had the tail end of youth on his side, 39 wasn’t all that old, right?
“Yeah, sure, not laced with anything, right? We’re trying to get to Baton Rouge alive.”
“Nah, man, just the greenest green you’ve ever had.”
“Fair enough,” James said, and took the joint in his mouth, Tony leaning over to light it. James took a few puffs and passed the joint back to the hippie, the irregularities of the Louisiana backroads crunching beneath the wheels of the steel cage.
Marijuana was never really James’s thing, but he figured for what he had to do, it couldn’t hurt. And as the grass started its work on him, he gave Tony another look.
“So, what’s your story, Tony?”
“What do you wanna know?”
“Anything, really, Baton Rouge’s a ways off yet.”
“Well, I’m Tony Hoyne, 25 years old, and a fucking free spirit, man. Born and raised in Texas, what a fucking square state you know? Anyways, my old man’s a racist and my mom’s one of those women who always expects some kind of pre-paid answer. I got sick of their agenda and left, been hitching a couple months now. When I left, I had a joint, two dollars, and my guitar. Been one hell of an adventure…”
James kept his eyes straight, the headlights of the Impala combing the dirt of the road before them. The clear night sky filled with stars, and the cool breeze of the nearby wetlands cascading all around them. Crisp, free.
“Damn, man…who’s the fox?”
James looked over and Tony had the miniature portrait of Mary in his hands. Drooling over it like some frat boy.
“My late wife, Mary,” James replied, eyes flicking over to Tony and the small leather-bound pouch resting behind where the portrait had been, once hidden and now in the open.
“Ah, man…I’m sorry, brother….something as choice as her shouldn’t be able to die…should be against the way of things…”
“She was too good for me…for this whole world,” James said, eyes on the road ahead. “She’s my Annabel Lee.”
“Huh?” Tony replied, eyes still stuck to the portrait. “Anna Lee?”
“You don’t read much do you, Tony…”
Tony smiled, as he turned his gaze to the sky. “Just the stars, man…books aren’t really my thing.”
As the Impala came to another middle-of-nowhere stop sign, James spoke up, “You mind?” His eyes flicked to the picture and back to where it once lay.
“Oh, sure, man, sure. No need to come unglued,” Tony said, and lifting the frame to its resting place, he paused a moment, chuckling at the leather bag now unobscured.
“Shit, man, you actually believe in that mumbo jumbo?” Tony said, and James thought the hippie was inquiring as to the existence of love until he saw the stoner’s eyes on the leather-bound Gris Gris. Its strap curled up and around the pouch itself.
“Can’t say I do, picked it up in one of those touristy shops on Bourbon street. Doubt it’s authentic though.”
He’d seen it made first-hand by Batilda, who explained every step along the way. Each ingredient in turn as she muddled them together, grouping them in the red flannel bag.
“Dried toadstool, High John Root, Camphor, Jellyfish.” And then finished it all off by drawing a symbol on the underside of the cloth before placing it all in the leather-bound pouch.
“For protection, Mr. Burkner. For protection from what we do here.”
He remembered nodding, his voice choked up from within him, as he took the Gris Gris from Batilda, the white chalk on her face blending with the blood there as well. Black feathers in her hair, aligning the small animal skull she wore atop her head.
“Soak in whiskey every Friday, without fail. Do not forget. It needs to rejuvenate itself to still be effective as a ward, understand, Mr. Burkner?”
“Yes, ma’am,” James had managed, and holding the Gris Gris would’ve felt outlandish if it weren’t for what followed.
“Voodoo’s way out, man…turns me off, but that’s religion altogether, man…what’s it matter though. As long as its not a bible, we’re good…my racist dad totes a bible around…”
“No bibles here,” James replied, and saw the stilted images of Batilda in his mind’s eye once more. The orange and red of the flames, and of her dancing in the woods that night after giving him some sort of hallucinatory cocktail. Despite only remembering her dancing, and not much of the ritual itself, he could still feel the heat of the flames sometimes, in the darkness alone in his bed, lapping and licking his face.
“You there, man…?” Tony asked, ripping James from the half-remembered fragments of the ritual.
“What do you want out of life, Tony? What are you striving for exactly?”
Tony chuckled. “Eh, what now, man? I don’t know…to have a good time? You sound like my fucking pops…”
“So, you don’t know then, that it?” James asked, serious now. Eyes straight ahead, not even considering Tony.
“I just want to be happy, man, yeah, that’s it, I wanna be happy.”
“But will it be enough?” James asked, wrenching the leather steering wheel in his hands. “When you have everything you’ve ever wanted, will it be enough? Can it ever be?”
“What’s your bag, man? Why are you asking me this shit anyways?”
“Look,” James began, glancing over at Tony for the first time in a long while. “The best advice I can give you is to know what you have while you have it, alright? Live presently, and not in some future that isn’t even promised to you. It’s arrogant to look forward to something. We’re not guaranteed anything in life, you hear me?”
“I mean, alright, man but what the hell? You’re really killing my buzz right now…” Tony said, leaning back in the leather seat. “How far is Baton Rouge again?”
“Couple hours, but we’re making good time. Don’t you worry, Tony. So anyone waiting for you back home, in Texas?”
“Nah, man…cut ties with everyone back there, they couldn’t find me if they tried. Had a sweet young thing too…but I fouled that up, man…”
“How do you mean?” James asked, more interested than he thought he’d be.
“Got caught red-handed with another lady. My thing walked right in on me and my friend’s girl. No talking my way outta that one…”
Tony laughed at that, and James felt a pang of anger flare up in him, but he managed to quench it and instead, posed a question.
“Did you love her?”
“Aaaaah, I don’t know, brother, I’m not sure love exists.”
“Love is something you feed, Tony. Doesn’t just happen like the movies. You have to feed it, or else it’ll die.”
Tony laughed a laugh flush with smoke and horrid coughs.
“Well, I’m not sure about all that…I just needed a new start, you know? Just trying to find myself, man…”
“Who isn’t…?” James replied, as the Impala veered off and onto a dirt road, just barely large enough for the width of the car. The tall wetland grass reaching up and into the open windows of the Chevrolet, if only to feel the quality of the leather interior. The pale moon shone down on the two men, the rustle of the wilderness and chirping insects the only sound for miles.
“You sure this is the way, man…I mean, we’re in the middle of nowhere…” Tony said, looking out of the window, having pulled his arm inside for the tall grass reaching in after him.
“I need your help with something, Tony,” James said, eyes glancing in the rearview mirror to Batilda and her blood-soaked mouth in the backseat, her eyes on Tony.
“Help? It’s after midnight and we’re in the middle of nowhere, man…what the hell are we doing…?”
The tall grass gave way to a clearing, the sound of the swamp alive and well, moonlight glimmering off the top of the water. Bone-like trees, black and gnarled, shooting up and out of the still water, reaching out to the stars above them, always there and yet always so out of reach.
The Impala came to a stop, the engine ticking in the Louisiana heat. James opened his door but paused a moment, eyes stuck to the picture on the dash. He took up the Gris Gris and pulled it around his neck.
“Come-on, Tony. Time to live.”
Tony grabbed the edge of the door, frozen a moment.
“Brother, can we just go?” Tony said to no one in particular, having lost sight of James now.
“Out of the car,” James said, from the passenger side of the Impala.
“Now wait a minute, man-” Tony began, but the glint of James’s revolver stopped him dead. “Man, what is this, man…what the hell is-“
“Out of the fucking car, Tony,” James said, and the door opened, with a whining creak.
“Man, please…you don’t have to do this. Whatever this is, you don’t have to-“
“The guitar too,” James replied, nudging him on with the barrel of the gun in a one-two one-two motion.
Tony slid the guitar case up and out of the car, his movements stiff. Stepping outside of the car, Tony’s eyes found the open coffin, lid slightly ajar near the bank where the swamp nibbled at the shoreline.
James nudged him with the barrel once again, and the two men walked toward the water.
“What is that, man…what is this, what is this…”
“Stop, right there. Turn around, Tony.”
“Get your guitar.”
“What, man? You’re crazy…you’re cra-“
The click of the revolver’s hammer into place dissuaded any further complaint from Tony and he pulled the guitar on, adjusting the strap with trembling hands.
“Why did she have to die, Tony? Why not you? Someone useless. Someone with nothing to offer. She was a nurse for god’s sake, she helped people everyday. What do you do? Smoke weed, mooch off others? I know your type, Tony…but you’ll do your part, right now. You’ll serve an actual purpose.”
Tony opened his mouth but couldn’t find the words, tears streaming down his face.
“Go on, Tony. Play.”
Tony plucked a malformed melody strung together by a man about to die, off-key and laden with fear, but it didn’t matter, she was already there.
From behind him, a mess of blonde hair rose up and out of the water, obscuring the face beneath it. The woman’s body twitched, shaking violently, and as her head lurched upward, so did her arms, fingers extended towards Tony, who spun around too slowly to stop it from happening.
Mary’s teeth ripped through his throat, blood spurting from the wound in a line. The hippie’s screams ripe with a gurgling, bubbling wheeze, drowning in his own blood as Mary took him down into the water. His body convulsing as she tore into him, eating him alive, alive- as she once was.
James took it all in from the shoreline, marveling at her appetite, despite having fed her just two days ago. He wouldn’t have believed any of this possible if he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes that first night.
When the voodoo priestess spoke in her abyssal tongues, raising his love from the dead, shearing off parts of Mary’s hair and fingernails and adding them to the Gris Gris she gave him. The one he clutched to him now, as his love went to work on the wayward traveler.
“Life is about feeling everything you can before you feel nothing at all, Tony. This is the lesson.”
Mary rose up and out of the water, a croak coming from down beneath her throat. Her lips and neck plastered with Tony’s blood. A severed arm floated off atop the stillness behind her, passing through the moonlight gleaming on the water’s surface.
Though her eyes were sewn shut, Mary walked right up to James, her nose tilted upward from the scent of his skin, his sweat, his dwindling fear each time he witnessed her killing. A red cross cut into her flesh, right where the brows would otherwise intersect. She brought her face close to his, not an inch away, and James gripped the Gris Gris in his hand, knowing it was the only thing preventing him from becoming Tony, or any of the others.
He smiled, looking into Mary’s closed eyes, partially obscured by her moss-ridden hair, like the veil on their wedding day. “I hope you liked him, doll. I’m sure you’re getting sick of chickens every other night.”
James moved to the trunk of the Impala with Mary in tow, her arms dangling at her sides. The trunk creaked open with a heavy lurch, and James removed not one, but two decapitated chickens from within. Their blood collected in the trash bags lining the trunk’s interior.
James had tried praying to a god he wasn’t sure existed, had tried having faith in the doctors who couldn’t save Mary from the aneurism that stole her away. And when no one came through for him, he did what he’d always done- took care of it himself.
He snatched her back from the jealous angels, and he’d be damned if he let them take her again.
Scott Moses is an office manager by day and a writer by night. His work has appeared in Beautiful Losers. He currently resides in Baltimore, simultaneously loving and loathing humanity.