Nina was beyond confusion.
She had just read my story “The Fetish,” and demanded to know what on earth do a voodoo priestess and a missing man have in common with Uncle Tom’s Cabin?
I could have told her that many American slaves were influenced by the Caribbean practices known as voodoo that date back four centuries and encompass Catholicism and African spiritualism. Think Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans whose 19th-century followers included slaves. Or the original Doctor John. Born in Senegal and enslaved before becoming a prominent voodoo king and healer, also in late 19th-century New Orleans, he is credited with reanimation, leading to the myth of zombies.
But the truth is more mundane. I belong to the Pelican Pens Writing Group. Each week, we write a thousand words or so on a random topic. Last week, we were joined by author Diana Wagman, who also teaches fiction in Los Angeles. Her assignment: Go to your bookshelf or Kindle, pick the third book from the end, turn to page 22 and write a story using the 13th sentence of the book page as the starting sentence of your story.
For me, that was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, p. 22, sentence 13: “All this may happen to him yet.” My story is “The Fetish.”
“All this may happen to him—yet,” the priestess whispered, her voice as thick as the patchouli-infused room in which I hunkered. Surrounded by tattered arras, the creased woman slouched over a stubby candle divining disembodied souls and hideous beasts from strew gris-gris. . “But because you have sought my help, your lover may be spared.” In a chant to Damballa, we prayed for answers. I prayed for answers, anyway—I don’t know what the hell Zingara prayed for.
I needed to know what had happened to my husband. Ganon had disappeared seven years ago on a trek through the slot canyons of Utah. An experienced solo hiker, he planned to be gone three days. We needed a little time apart, he said. Our lives had taken divergent paths. He wanted adventure. I wanted a family. But we still loved each other, didn’t we? Now I had the option to declare him dead, but how could I do that without answers.
“Pay attention,” Zingara hissed me back to the present. Or maybe it was the caged snake in the corner. What was I doing here? I wanted to blame this ghoulish scenario on my best friend. A fortuneteller was her idea. But I willingly went along.
Sofia and I met in college. She was a New Yorker with a penchant for the occult; I, a high-desert realist. But we understood each other as if we lived in the other’s skin. When she suggested a girls’ weekend in New Orleans to help me make a decision, I readily agreed. But ubiquitous signs for fortune tellers and one too many Sazaracs landed me at the claw-like hands of Zingara.
“Damballa,” she intoned. A soft whistle crept up my spine until my already spikey hair stood on end. “Stave off the horrors that may happen to an unfound man. Find him. Send her a sign.”
Yes. Please, I wanted answers, but a sign would do. Years had passed with no trace of Ganon. Park rangers said he never checked in, and no bodies were washed out by a flash flood. No car was abandoned. Finding no evidence of foul play, the sheriff intimated that Ganon had planned his own disappearance. Did he? Was there an accident? Murder? Or even, for God’s sake, an alien abduction?
Squirreling around in her billowing scarves, Zingara produced a small coarse object. A stale garlicky breath separated us as she leaned forward and placed it in my reluctant palms.
“Into a wilderness where the silenced night is light and gentle, you must go,” she instructed. “And at the foot of a lone mountain, plant this raccoon paw.”
“Zingara, please…” I sought answers, not a mummified appendage.
Glaring away my attempt to speak, she stood up. “You came to me and to me you shall return. When your man responds—in spirit or flesh—return to thank Damballa.” She gestured toward the snake. “Now go.”
Needing no further encouragement, I scurried into the moist cobblestone streets of Faubourg Marigny, five blocks and a few dimensions downriver from the French Quarter. Jazzy notes from Frenchman Street clung to my pores, wisps of stale beer swirled at my feet, and a raccoon’s paw hung in my pocket. For this experience, I guffawed, I paid twenty bucks. At least it would make a good story.
Sofia waited in our rental car.
“Tell me, Abby!” My friend’s black hair slicked blue in the iridescence of the streetlight, her eyes agog. “What happened?” I fished out the fetish and handed it to her. “What the…”
“It’s a freakin’ raccoon paw. I’m supposed to plant it at the foot of a lone mountain in a wilderness where the silenced night is light and gentle.” We laughed at the absurdity of it all. “Let’s get outta here.”
That night, foregoing sleep wracked by discombobulated bodies, serpents, and animal paws, I read and reread the legal documents concerning Ganon’s death. I didn’t need life insurance. I needed closure. What a dumb concept, I used to say. But now I needed something to help me accept what happened, even if I didn’t like it or didn’t know what it was.
Needing a mood change, I suggested over morning coffee that we head up river. After a full day of touring plantations, we ended up at a little eatery on Manchac Pass. Full of fried catfish and too lazy to head back to the city, we settled on a little bench to soak in the gentle bayou breeze and watch the sunset. A lone cypress atop a small hillock, silhouetted against a deep orange and purple sky, begged a picture. I reached into my pocket for my phone but instead pulled out the damned paw.
“Holy shit,” I muttered, ping-ponging my eyes from paw to tree. “I wouldn’t call that mound of dirt a mountain, but it’s higher than anything around here.”
“And I’d say the silenced night is light and gentle,” Sofia added.
I dug a little hole for the fetish with my hands. Wiping them on my jeans, I felt lighter. “Can you imagine explaining that to airport security!” Then we noticed a raccoon stalking the car.
“Maybe he’s looking for his paw,” Sofia laughed. But he looked right at me, convulsed, and dropped to the ground.
“He’s dead,” I said. Then after a long moment, I whispered, “He’s dead, Sofia. Ganon’s dead.”
Maybe I just wished it so. Maybe a rabid animal was a coincidence. But maybe, maybe, Damballa had found Ganon and through the raccoon, Ganon had found me. Maybe I was crazy, but maybe this was my answer.
“Let’s head over to Zingara’s,” I said, getting into the car. “I need to settle up with Damballa.”
3 thoughts on “The Assignment and the Fetish”
Eerie, yet compelling. I hope you had as much fun writing it as I did reading it.
Glad you liked it. I indeed enjoyed the experience. I sat down, wrote the sentence, and then closed my eyes to hear the voices in my head reveal themselves. I did not know the ending when I sat down, because I didn’t even know the story! Hubby Bob read the first draft and asked good questions about setting, characters, and context.Otherwise, I followed the lead of Damballa.
Patti, you have a God given, natural and wonderful talent for putting words to paper. This was intriguing and drew me in almost immediately. Your command of the English language leaves this freshman linguist in awe and humbled. I loved this story!