And where is truth? On tombs? For such to thee
Has been my heart – and thy dead memory
Has lain from childhood, many a changeful year,
Unchangingly preserved and buried there.
THE SEPULCHRE OF MEMORY
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLY
The young man had taken the whole thing rather well, I’d thought at the time as I readied myself for bed; slipping the long shirt I used as a nightie on over my head. Placing my head on the pillow I let my eyes close and allowed my mind slip from me, tendrils of it brushing the wall’s and floor of the slightly dusty spare room; oozing through minuscule cracks in the wall that separated his room from mine.
My consciousness hovered over him, the eye inside it opening, gazing down at his worried, rough-hewn face. For a moment I watched passively as his face slipped from emotive look to emotive look, betraying his every thought. In the room beside us I felt my lips smile, heat rising in my cheeks as I caught a breath of his thoughts.
He closed his eyes and turned on his side, facing the wall that isolated his body from my own. Slowly his mind eased into the limbo between sleep and its less pleasing brother and I felt – in a childish, feeble way – his consciousness attempt to circumvent the bonds of his form: His breath deepening, evening to a soft, gentle snore.
I pushed through the warm air that rose up from his body and settled down over him like an extra blanket: My disconnected body tingling as my consciousness glide into the man’s heart and soul.
I crept into his dreaming intellect and curled up in a darkened corner, watching as the inner movie screen of his mind began its nightly showing. The foreign thoughts and feeling comforting my drifting heart, I gradually eased into a place where even I could feel at home.
I was little more than a child when Mama Lucrese had died, leaving me a rusted ring of keys and the massive diary that could be secured closed with its heavily polished metal clasp. Despite its size its pages were tissue thin, almost transparent in the right light; and I had yet to count their full amount.
I had met the woman twice before her supposed death, both times in her cellar room under her master’s house. Her wide hips rocking back and forth as she walked from her rickety chair to the coarsely fashioned table that held the steaming pots and bottles of her profession. At the time I had not realised how special a woman she had been, or how special my own mistress was until Mama Lucrese had died and my mistress had given me my freedom. It then occurred to my inexperienced mind that we never know who our true friend’s are until they’re no longer there.
My mistress had become my adoptive mother and had treated my as every good mother would, teaching me to read and write; and appreciate the wonders of the world around me. One moment I was nothing but a servant girl – a slave – albeit a well treated one, the next I was a member of one of the finest families in the fledgling town of Blackbridge.
But that’s not all I became.
The diary and the key’s were a deathbed gift from a Macumba Priestess; they were a Kuthun, a passing on of power and an inheritance to her neophyte.
The moment I had accepted her gift I had become more than a collection of girlish dreams, I had gained so very much but I had lost things as well. As I learned I read what little of the book I could understand, working my way from the more recent entries at the back of the leather bound volume to the more archaic – and ultimately indecipherable – script towards the book’s middle; leaving perhaps a thousand pages still unread.
By my eighteenth year I was a woman to be loved and feared, knowing so much that in my youthful conceit I thought I knew it all, even though the magical book was still only half read.
People came to me from near and far, begging and buying spell’s and incantations designed to bring fortune, or luck, or love, or any of a thousand things the human heart craves. As my spell casting increased so did my desire for the pleasures I saw in others, the sometimes-simple joys of those who purchased my wares. Finding my own conjurings to be inadequate I poured through the book to find a surer path to the joys that I sought.
Erzulie was called to a solitary bank beneath the newly constructed ebony bridge that gave our town its name. She was the Loa of love, the embodiment of the perfect woman, so be the Loa that could most likely grant me what I wished. I placed her offerings on the purpose built altar before the raging flames of the oak fed fire. Erzilie’s gifts of rare perfumes and freshly cut flowers were placed beside the Bones of Divination’s I had offered to the Loa Legbe, the gatekeeper of the Spiritworld, and I lowered my head to chant my requests; my body beginning to twitch and glide as the Spirits of the Loa led my Dance.
The ritual ate up the nightly hours, leaving me exhausted and spent as the rays of dawn rose over the horizon; but the sight was not the revelation of beauty that it should have been. As the light struck me I felt its rays begin to burn, my exposed skin drying and cracking open as my spilt blood steamed in the dawn sunlight.
I turned from the makeshift altar and ran into the safety of the thick woodland undergrowth that was a blanket of jade under the ebony bridge. There I hid from the sight of the sun until the moon, the symbol of Erzulie, rose and replaced it as the skies dominant entity.
The book of Lucrese open before me, I struggled to make some sense of the earlier, ancient, languages it contained.
The young man twisted and turned in his sleep, his dream darkening with a touch of desire, his dream self plunging deeper into a tenabrous stage-play of lost hope.
I crouched in one dark corner, viewing without touching as my own body slept, my consciousness unanchored to this time or place.
Erzulie had seen my great disdain for Her, She had seen that my lust for corporeal pleasure had usurped my love for the Loa and had punished me – so I thought at least – in my haste I had forgotten that She was not only the Loa of love, but of discord and vengeance as well.
But was that the case? Or was it that She’d granted my wish, that within the realm’s of her influence I was to have all the things I craved, giving me everything that sat beneath the silent gaze of the moon.
I sat in my room upon the silken sheets of my bed and silently cried into the night with my loss as the rest of the town slumbered in their homes. I had little idea what I’d gained from the bargain, but I knew of one thing that I had lost and I feared for all that was left of me.
Time sped on, my adoptive mother – Lady Gweniveve – seeing the finest years of her life drift by; her pace slowing and her skin wrinkling as age stealthily crept up on her. Her age finally out distancing my frantic spell’s as she was swept away, her N’áme sinking back into the earth.
Her body was prepared and her soul was split into its Ti-bon-ange and Gros-bon-ange – her life-force and personality – and sent on their way into the heavens allowing her mortal remains to decay without her Spirit roaming the earth.
Her Dissounin completed, I seeded her with Hoholi seeds and contacted the authorities to allow her a Christian burial for the sake of the social standing that had so concerned her during life. As I watched for someone to arrive I watched over her with swollen red eyes.
She had been the only family I’d ever known, but for a twist of fate I may have never known her. Once she’d told me that she’d opposed her husband when he’d bargained for my ownership, as she was a disbeliever in slavery. But I had never told her how glad I was that she’d lost her argument with that cruel and violent man; though my youth was a maze filled with his aberrant viciousness; my adolescence had been nothing less than perfection.
With my mothers soul dispersed and sent to………
It was with that thought that a horrible idea had struck.
Erzulie had done both.
My soul was in two halves, my Gros-bon-ange had been taken and held apart from me, leaving me with my N’áme and Ti-bon-ange.
Erzulie had left me with my personality and bodily spirit but had taken the life force that made me mortal. She had granted my wish, but at a dreadful price.
I had all of eternity, but with part ownership of my soul.
Within the man’s head I shifted, raising my consciousness from the warmth of his dreaming mind, drifting upward out of his muscular body until, once again, the force of my personality hung over him. Silently he shifted again, his eyes moving beneath his lids and his lips curled slightly as he uttered a single word.
“Anetta?!” He mumbled and I felt my body in the next room shudder as if I were cold; but cold I was not.
I knew that if I wanted him I could have him, few men were an equal to me and fewer still could resist me. I was Erzulie’s perfection made flesh; the Great Petro Loa and I were one.
But that was why I couldn’t do it eve if I wished to; why I had to ignore the momentary shudder of desire I felt and push my mind from such thoughts.
How could I so bless She who cursed me?
Instead I hovered over him and watched as time ate the night away until morning, signalling him to wake, from above him I watched as he climbed from the bed and dressed for the day ahead.
I felt no guilt over me surreptitious observation, I knew from my sleeping dip into his brain that he wouldn’t have turned me out if he knew I was there, so such an emotion seemed pointless under the circumstances.
The young man left his room and I followed, slipping under the door and I heard him knock once at the door to my room. The sound echoing oddly as it reached my consciousness and body at different times. He knocked again and waited, calling my name softly, but not softly enough for me not to hear.
Frowning with a look of profound disappointment, he turned and walked down the hall into the open plan living room and kitchen to make himself something to eat.
Slithering over the ceiling above him I watched as he pottered around the room.
I heard that time doesn’t heal everything.
Most things perhaps, but not everything.
Everything I experienced, all the joys of my life were shared joys, nothing being entirely my own. Even my thoughts could not be trusted, for where did I end and Erzulie begin? Which desires were mine and which hers? I was cursed with the gift of perfection that I could never use for anything that I cared about. How could I ever share someone I loved with an Entity so different and powerful?
How could I be sure that my love was my own?
He carried his breakfast to the scarred and battered table in the centre of the living room and sat, peering around for the TV’s remote. I pushed my mind downward, settling on the couch beside him in the dim light from the still curtained windows and watched as he ate, his eyes glued to the television screen.
Slowly months turned to years and years to decades, and through it all I never touched a man I cared for, never a man I thought I could love. In their place I chose a more violent breed, dim-witted and cruel, which could never truly love me; even if such a thing was what I wanted.
I had lost my life, but Erzulie would get nothing from it either. We would be in eternal stalemate, neither loving nor being loved.
Until she released me, or until I died…
Silently I slid across the flats floor and slipped under the door to my room – my body lay waiting, eyes closed – breathing in shallow, steady gulps.
I moved into a position above myself, gazing down on the woman I’d become, my close cropped hair standing like pins over my scalp: and my pale brown skin flawless and soft, betraying not one year of my long life.
My eyelid fluttered as I watched, allowing my non-corporeal consciousness to sink closer to its home, the outer reaches of it sliding into my warm flesh. Slowly, silently, I became one again.
I twisted in the bed, the smooth sheets a novelty against my naked legs, sliding over my shaved skin gently. I paused and wriggled from my nightie, throwing it into a heap beside the bed – my underwear soon joining it – before I snuggled my body deeper into the frictionless warmth of the borrowed bed.
Eventually I slept, but I did not dream.
When I awoke I found myself alone, my young benefactor out on some errand or another in the silent night, so I rose from bed and grasped a handful of clothes, carrying them – nude – down the hall to the bathroom. Above me the florescent lighting flickered on, I stepped over to the large bathroom mirror and peering at myself in it, examining my fat-free torso and small, firm breasts for anything untoward or worrying; but finding nothing I washed and quickly dressed.
Somewhere in the flat a door opened and slammed closed, heavy footsteps thumping across the floor towards the room in which I stood. My eyes moved to the bathroom door as the handle turned just under the thrown bolt.
“It’s me.” I said needlessly and from the other side of the partition I heard him laugh quietly.
“Who else would it be?” He answered; then continued. “You’ve been up long?”
“Hungry?” He asked with not an inkling of all the myriad possibilities that the word implied and I stifled an unladylike laugh.
“No thank you.” I managed eventually. “But don’t mind me.”
“Don’t mind you at all.” He answered and laughed again as he turned from the door and walked in the direction of the kitchen/living room.
I turned again to the mirror and peered into my brown, expressive eyes as I listened to his footsteps retreat across the flats creaky floorboards.
Careful Anetta! I thought. No woman is an island.
He had half eaten his meal by the time I walked into the room and deposited myself in the chair with the torn cushion beside the TV, its screen blank and dead. I watched as he ate silently, polishing off the remainder of the egg-fried rice that his diet seemed to solely consist of. Chewing the last mouthful he pushed the plate aside and looked over at me and I remembered the thoughts that had drifted through his mind the night before I wondered if I were blushing.
“Where have you been?” I asked in an attempt to rid myself of what had just slipped in.
He shrugged in return.
“Here and there,” he said, “you weren’t awake so I went for a walk down by the river, but I couldn’t find a way down to that plot of wasteland under the old bridge so I decided to get back; see if you were awake yet.”
“What would you want to go there for?” I asked, wanting to know if anything I’d done the previous night had seeded the idea.
Again he shrugged as he carried his plate to the sink and washed it.
“I used to play there when I was a kid.” He answered, the plate sliding back into its place beneath the sink, before he returned to the couch opposite me.
He slumped back into the worn seat and stared at me.
He could’ve been thought of as a handsome man if it weren’t for the slight cast of doubt that seemed to hide behind his eyes; an uncertainty that I knew he felt though it never reared its head except within his mind.
“So what are you planning to do tonight?” He said suddenly in a voice that was somehow both deep and soft.
“I have no idea.” I carefully responded. “Read, write.”
“Are you from Blackbridge?” He asked as he shifted on the sofa, drawing up his legs and kicking off his trainers; shoes that were worn flat across their soles.
“I guess: I was born in the area at least.”
“You a city girl then?” His voice raised in a good-natured tone of amusement. “Trying to leave the busy streets of Gravesend to escape to …”
“No.” I interrupted, smiling. “I’ve been living in Missing Heath.”
“Oh! So you’re a real country girl.”
“Yes, I’m a real country girl.” I answered, feeling the tone of my own words change this time as I continued. “When I lost my parents I moved to town.”
“I’m sorry.” He said quietly and I felt a sudden powerful pang of guilt at my lie. “I had no idea.”
“No reason why you should have.” I answered him just as quickly, moving rapidly from the thin ice of my lie before he got curious enough to question me further. “Luckily I met Jack within a week of arriving and he told me that they needed a bartender at the Inferno.”
“Lucky for you.” He said slowly and I looked at him a moment, certain that his words hid something on his mind.
“Yes, it was lucky for me.”
It was no lie, it had been.
“Very lucky.” I continued. “Jack is like that, he has a way of being in the right place at the right time;” I smiled a little sadly at myself, “the right time and place for other people that is.”
“So you’re very fond of him?” The young man said and I thought I saw the bubble of doubt slide up behind his eyes.
“Everyone is fond of Jack,” I said in the gentlest voice I could, “he’s that kind of man.”
For a moment he was silent, a nerve in him plucked by my comment, an emotion in him roused that I couldn’t read in his eyes lit by the dull streetlights that shone through the curtained window.
The image of this dark haired boy playing by the spot where, two hundred years before, I had summoned Erzulie on the riverbank popped into my mind and I raised my gaze to the dejected looking man before me.
“I can’t say that I felt overpowering love in my childhood.” I began. “I suppose by today’s standards you’d say I was an abused child, but things weren’t like that then.
“I had too much work to ever play; and even if I hadn’t I had no friends.”
I paused a moment.
Where was this going?
I had no idea.
“A little distance away lived an old woman who I sometimes saw, a big old woman who was built like a barn that some eccentric had filled with books.”
“So she was your friend?” He asked me and I sat silently for a moment, wondering.
“Closest thing I ever had.” I shifted in my seat again, sliding my right leg over my left, noting his eyes as they glanced at them before I continued. “Never had any time to myself; always prayed I would have though.”
The man before me moved, his elbow on his knees as he listened intently to me. My words dried up for a time, mind shedding the thought that were in it a moment. It felt strange to be listened to; to be really listened to.
“Thing is that now I’ve all the time in the world I have no idea what to do with it.”
“That’s the way isn’t it?!” He grinned and the doubt behind his eyes momentarily retreated from view. I smiled back at him, feeling the heat rise in my face, the images of his private cinema showing the night before slipping through my mind.
“That’s always the way it is.” I agreed. “That lady I spoke of left me things after she died; she had no family of her own I suppose, things that made me a,” I paused again, “lady of leisure. She gave me everything, but now I really don’t know what to do with it all.”
“What did she leave you? Money? Property?” He asked and I felt innocent curiosity in his voice.
“Property I suppose you’d call it.” I answered, bending the truth this time rather than shattering it completely. ”Like a trust fund I guess. It’s not like I can cash it in and move to Florida, but I don’t have to worry about where I’m going to eat next once I’ve sorted myself out.”
It was true, from a particular point of view. All things would change once I worked out what my options were; I was just not telling him that I’d been working on those options for two centuries. He watched me as I spoke, nodding understandingly in all the right places and I felt the pang of guilt once more.
More talk then, never of anything that was truly on my mind, safe things, dancing around the subjects of my family and past with such ease that – again – I felt the now familiar sting of guilt at the constant deceptions.
He spoke of his family, of his mother’s small business as a seamstress and of his father’s untimely death at the hands of drunk driver when he was little more than a babe in his mother’s arms. As we talked the night sped on, the sky outside shifting from a dismal dark blue to a more lustrous black; the orange streetlights blazing a sharper hue across the across the large rooms ceiling and walls, diffused by the unlined curtains. He liked the night, or so he said; he saw it as a gentle time caught like an inoffensive animal between the constraints and schedules of the day, a time that was only soiled by the occasional flood of humanities waste that the day could no longer hold.
I was beginning to like him more.
More than what was healthy.
“I used to spend a great deal of time walking the night.” He said as he returned from a trip to the refrigerator with a single bottle of beer and one bottle of my own preferred brew; passing me one like the gentleman he was before opening his own. “That was when I was a youngster, but a kid can find himself in a Hell of a lot of trouble if he isn’t careful so I gave it up. So I settled for the hours between dawn and dusk, instead of the reverse.”
“So what happened?” I asked as I drank the drink from my unmarked bottle, a thick brew that sported a metallic, soothing aftertaste.
“I was seeing this girl whose father ran a martial arts dojo on the outskirts of town and I used to train a little there, mostly because she did.” He smiled almost apologetically. “You know how men are.
“The problem was that she had two brothers, neither of which liked me a great deal; consequently neither did her father after she and I got serious. I continued there for a while, things getting steadily worse, his eldest son worked as an assistant to his old man so I didn’t get any break from them at all. Even when one was busy the other would be on my back.
“When we’d finished at the place of a night it was almost ten and, because I haven’t a car, it would take me the better part of an hour to get home. Back then of course I didn’t bother going home a great deal. Sometimes I was with her and other times I walked around for a few hours instead. One night though the two brothers met me after I’d left, I was alone, and they beat me so bad that I lost consciousness; waking near dawn the next morning feeling like a steamroller had rolled over me.”
“I’ve known the feeling.” I interjected truthfully and he nodded and smiled a humourless smile. “So that’s why you stopped appreciating the night so, eh?”
“Oh, no!” He said, genuinely surprised at my assumption. “That day I got home and found two policemen waiting for me, they looked like Laurel and Hardy dressed in blue. They looked over my bloodied face and torn clothes as if I’d done something wrong; which they’d thought I had. They stepped into the flat and I spoke to them as I changed.
“The eldest brother was dead, shot in the stomach the night before, just after they’d left me, according to the younger brothers statement, and obviously I was one of the first people they wanted to talk to about it. While the fat one spoke to me the other looked around casually, asking at one point if he could use the bathroom; I knew he wanted to snoop around the rest of the flat so I said yes, I had nothing to hide from them.
“I went with them to the station, where I was interviewed, interrogated actually, and photographed among other things. Eventually I was released, the police finding the man who did it with the weapon still on him.”
“So nothing came of it then?” I asked as he paused, presumably for that very reason. “You were never really charged or anything?”
“I can’t see they could’ve ‘charged’ me any more than they did, but no, not officially.” He replied before continuing his story. “It turned out that the elder brother had gotten into an argument some weeks before with a lad whose girlfriend he’d been trying to chat up; stupid really isn’t it?”
“They actually thought you’d done it?” I was incredulous at the idea. He shrugged and drank half of his bottle before he answered.
“Perhaps they did, I don’t really know.” He said; his words punctuated as he dropped the thick-bottomed bottle onto the scarred coffee table before him and swung his legs across the couch, lying down. “The point it,” he continued, “that while I stood at the booking-in desk waiting for them to return my things I thought that perhaps the only reason I didn’t do it myself is because of cowardice: and not because of any kind of morality; you understand ?”
I nodded back at him, worried at where his tale was taking us.
“It sickened me that nothing about his death bothered me but for the idea of being implicated as part of it.” His eyes moved over the orange-lit walls, shards of the light caught in their moist corners. “I don’t know if you understand this but it was one of the biggest blows to my masculinity I could’ve imagined, not to mention a blow to my humanity.
“So I decided to walk the streets that night, the back of my mind filled with adolescent dreams of becoming a knight in shining armour to some distressed woman, the rest of me pretending I was merely an adult that couldn’t sleep.”
He paused, his eyes moving through the gloom to mine, despite the fact that I had sat in the darkest corner of the room. The moment stretched to a minute as his eyes burrowed into my own, our soul’s brushing.
“I think I believe in love at first sight Anetta. The first time I walked through the night I could feel the world turning around me. It was a place filled with serenity and beauty that I can’t quite express.” He paused once again, his mouth opening to say something more, working a moment silently then snapping closed; then he grinned his boyish, handsome grin.
“As I roamed the endless streets I became aware of figures that slipped from shadow to shadow, materialising as if from the air only to disappear into the darkness as quickly as they had appeared. I wondered about them as they scampered along their way. Many of them were in packs; men and women on their way to or from some party. More still were dressed in the shabby, grimed uniform of the outcast.
“But it was the others that concerned me Anetta, the ones that came in no particular age or dress and that was never seen in groups. What worried me about them was their awareness, whereas the others were too wrapped up in themselves to notice anything, these had an intelligence that seemed to crawl out of them like something malevolent. I began to watch them, without even realising what I was doing, until I saw a man standing beneath a streetlight – one of the new ones that glowed that sickly orange glow – who was watching a couple closely as they weaved drunkenly.”
The mans eyes never left me as he told his tale, drawing me closer even though I was already on the edge of my seat, my bloodless fingers clutching at my knees as I battled to keep my tongue still lest it betray what I knew.
“He was watching them like a predator Anetta; he looked at them like he knew everything they had ever done behind closed doors. Then, lazily, he looked over to me – I couldn’t know how he’d seen me, it was so dark – but he saw me as if it were day. The man stared for a time, and then he turned and walked away. I stood frozen for a moment, unsure of what had just happened, until the man had walked from sight.
“Would you like another drink?” He asked and it took a moment for my baffled brain to realise he was speaking to me. I looked down at the bottle I had placed on the edge of the small table that sat between us, it was empty so I nodded.
“Of course, after my mind had caught up I gave chase. As I ran into the alleyway I almost collided with him,” he lifted my bottle by its neck and walked over to the adjoining kitchen, throwing them into the trash before opening the refrigerator.
“‘Why were you watching me?’ He asked me and I opened my mouth to speak but found that nothing would come out. He pushed away from the wall – against which he stood – and directly blocked my path, for the first time since the police visit I felt real fear, that turbulent, slimy sensation that ripples around your stomach. I stood staring at him; I must have looked like a child out of his depth because he took a step closer.” Ash popped the caps off the bottle and carried them over to where we sat, perching on the edge of the table in front of me, close enough to feel the heat rise from his body. My mind slipped to the night before as I hovered above him but I tore it back, not wanting the added distraction. The man stood there a while longer without speaking, looking down into the bottle in his hand.
“The truth was that I was afraid of the man, he had a kind of intensity that made me think of that little Vietnamese girl in the photo; you know the one?” I nodded as he looked at me with a wide-eyed look of beseechment. “She was naked, running with her arms wide. I thought that this man could cause that kind of terror.
“’So who are you?’ He asked me casually, but – whether it was my imagination or not – I felt a threat behind the phrase. My heart began thundering like a train ready to blow so I took a deep breath and willed it to slow. Then – to my amazement – the stranger shuffled back a little and I thought; was that because of me? Was that of fear? So I spoke for the first time to the man.
“’I’m no one important.’ I said to him and it was his time to pause a moment. He watched me and I saw a tiny tattoo half hidden in shadow from the streetlight above. It was the silhouette of a blackbird flying across the edge of his jaw.
“‘This place is ours, do you know that? It’s ours.’ He murmured as his eyes moved to the far end of the alleyway with what I thought were a nervous twitch. I suddenly felt the tension leave me, my amazement growing – peaking – then turning to amusement as I threw my head back and laughed. The man was afraid of me I thought and took a step forward. The man took a step away from me and I matched it with one of my own. Then a thing happened that should have sent warning bells off all over my head, but in my arrogance it didn’t. The man turned and bolted from the alleyway.”
Ash grinned and shook his shaved head in a slow, strangely graceful motion for a man and I watched him as he talked, re-living the thrill of the hunt, describing a thing I knew so well. Here and there his lips curled into a self-depreciating smile that was the shadow of his boyish grin. His eerie speech was carrying me over the rough ground of building sites and wastelands to the lush green of an abandoned park. His words trailed off into silence and there we sat for a time, waiting for my companion to gather the courage he needed to finish his tale.
“Why is it,” His words slid slowly through the air, “that sometimes you feel as though you can run forever? Sometimes the Devil himself couldn’t leash you in? The world seems so unreal to you that your body falls for whatever lie you tell it and you can bend reality to your will.”
I felt heat rise in the palm of my hand and I glanced down as his fingers entwined with my own, his strong, large hand so soft and frail within my small palm. I allowed my head to rise, looking into his face, his eyes staring off into a corner of the room, seeing that far off night. Like an electrically induced spasm I felt the thump of his pulse travel up my arm from his clutching hand and my own heart struggled to beat in unison.
“It was hardly fair when I caught him – or so I thought – I slammed into him and sent us both sprawling across the grass. He tried to cry out but his face hit the edge of a slide worn shiny by many children, his lip splitting. He slid along its surface, leaving a shiny snails trail behind him. I climbed to my feet quickly and planted a solid blow into his stomach to keep him down: never acknowledging that it was my fear that still ruled my actions; that I was afraid to allow a fair fight.” He stopped and laughed a short, bitter laugh that choked off into a near sob. I squeezed his hand, grasping it against my thigh tightly. I knew what would come. All things are connected and all things finally come around.
“It was about then that something slammed into my head from behind, sending me sprawling down beside my victim, his hands fighting to wrap around my throat even as a new set reached in to drag him to his feet. I rolled to my back and looked up into the accusing faces of half a dozen others as they peered down at me, my victim helped into their ranks. Then a woman spoke to me, stepping out from behind the group, like Moses through the Red Sea.
“‘He has no idea what’s happening, ” she said to the others before turning to me and saying, ‘do you my friend ?’ I tried to say something in return but realisation suddenly hit me; I had been lured here, I was meant to chase that man and I had played my part like a well-trained animal. The others behind her each muttered to each other, one or two of them peering at me with obvious disappointment. One was a woman with dark eyes almost as beautiful as yours, Anetta, and her gaze of distaste hurt worse than the head wound I’d just received.
“My male pride never does take much to weaken.
“Roughly the woman went through my pockets, searching for something. Finding my wallet she tore it open and pulled the assorted bills from it, letting the money flutter across the damp grass. I felt her fist hit my face before I saw her move, one tooth breaking loose instantly. She began to scream at me, shrieking ‘where is it?’ and ‘what have you done with it?!’
“But I had no idea what she meant so she hit me again, the others behind her like statues. I tried to put my arms up to protect myself but her blows rained down through them like I was a child. Eventually she stopped, one small hand vice-like around my neck, her rage filled face softening slightly.
“She was beautiful Anetta.” He said, looking up at me, his fingers squirming deeper into my hand. “But I’ve never been so scared in all my life; I thought she was going to kill me. I thought that if she wanted to, she could, but I heard another woman speak, and the one who held me snapped her head to look at the new arrival.
“She was a small, finely boned woman who had a mane-like mass of red hair, like fire. She wasn’t as beautiful as her companion – but she was only a hairs-breadth from it.
“‘He doesn’t know of what you speak!’ She said, looking at me with something like pity. ‘I fear we’ve arrived in his life too soon.’ The woman holding me threw me away with a flick of her wrist and I left the ground, colliding with the slide before coming to a rest.
“‘What do you mean Sister?’ She said as she stalked closer to the fiery haired woman. ‘How can we be too soon?’
“‘The Loa said it was he, but they do things when they wish.’ The smaller woman replied.
“Are you okay Anetta?” The young man said to me gently. I tried moistening my dry lips with the tip of my dry tongue and nodded slightly.
“Do you know what a ‘Loa’ is Ash?” I said in a voice that threatened to disappear with fright. His brows wrinkled in confusion, his head shaking. “The Loa are the Old Gods; the Gods of my ancestors.”
“But she wasn’t…. “His voice trailed away in childish embarrassment.
“She wasn’t a coloured girl?” Again he shook his head. I pondered this for a moment, afraid of what answers I may discover. “C’mon Ash, finish your story.”
In one long swallow he drained his bottle dry and placed it aside. “I think I was slipping in and out of consciousness when the two women began to argue – ’cause half the words I couldn’t even understand – but finally the woman who’d hit me strode over to where I lay. She picked me up by my throat like I was a little girls doll and, glared into me.
“They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul don’t they Anetta? Well if they are, I don’t ever want to be anywhere near that woman ever again, ’cause her soul must be the deepest, darkest place anywhere in all of everything.
“‘Listen to me little buddy,’ she said to me, ‘looks like we’ve run you around for no good reason. The good Sisters Loa fumbled the ball a little.’
“She let go of me and I fell back to the ground with a thud, pushing back against the steel slide as if it afforded me any kind of protection. Slowly the group seemed to dissolve into the shadows surrounding me, leaving the two women until last; the fiery haired one standing at the very limit of the light, threatening to slip into the darkness at any moment.
“‘Should he be left alive?’ Asked the larger woman, her eyes on her companion, my presence a mere formality it seemed and the small woman nodded once thoughtfully before taking a single step back into nothingness.
“The lone woman stepped away from me, walking in the direction of the shadows as I slumbered in a kind of waking nightmare. She turned, her face in profile, and spoke.
“‘It’d be easier just to get it over with, it seems cruel to leave you this way.’ She took another step from me, her outline fading a little from my view then paused once more. ‘But to be on the safe side, don’t make any dates you don’t want to break. Be seeing you.’ Then she, too, stepped into the shadows.
“To this day I sometimes find myself lying awake wondering if the noises in the house are her finally deciding to finish me. It’s like she’s became the symbol of all my fears, she’s out there and she knows me. No matter how far I roam from this town, no matter what I do, where I go I can always feel her eyes on my back, and I find myself afraid.”
Ash sat a moment in silence, staring off into the room’s dark, empty corner as if listening intently to music I could not hear. I glanced over to the small stereo that sat beside the ancient T.V. and, letting his hand slide from mine, I moved over to it. The young mans collection dated from the mid-seventies to the early nineties, consisting almost solely of music to slit your wrist by but, after much searching, I slid a Billy Idol C.D. into the machine and heard a whine as it began to spin.
“You’ve never seen any of them again?” I asked as Billy began asking some unseen woman if he was the only one. Over my shoulder I heard Ash shift to face me; his distorted image otherwise clear in the plastic covering the stereos LCD readout.
“I’ve only ever told one other person that,” I wasn’t sure whether he heard what I’d said, or if he was just ignoring it, “and he didn’t believe me.”
“He said that it ‘just doesn’t happen’. God only knows what that supposed to mean.” I saw his reflection lean over and pick up my half-finished bottle, shaking it he found it still partially full, so he returned it to the arm of the chair. “I guess he couldn’t believe a woman could scare me so bad without really doing anything to me.”
I turned to face him, sitting on the floor, my legs folded beneath me.
“He understood, he just couldn’t admit that he’d react in the same way.” I replied, leaning my arm along the front of the T.V. unit as my free hand held up the C.D. case, my eyes pretending to study it.
“So what is it with these ‘Loa’?”
I stared through the clear plastic covering the track listing, the white words bleeding into the black background. “The Loa are the Gods of the African Yoruban beliefs, well, I don’t know if ‘Gods’ is the right term, but it’ll have to do.” The words tumbled from me like a recital, like a pre-recorded message that he’d tripped on some flesh and vein answering machine.
“So what did it all mean do you think?”
“The red-headed woman was probably a believer in those things, she’d suckered the others into following her and you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.” I mumbled, feeling sick at the amount of lies I’d told the poor man tonight.
“Its nothing I’d worry about.” I lied.
“So, how come you know about ‘em?” He said as he stood and threw his bottle into the rubbish from where he stood: his arm surprisingly accurate.
“You remember the old woman I mentioned earlier, the one who was built like a barn?” He nodded silently, his eyes moving to mine, the light from the streetlights outside reflecting in his pupils momentarily, cats eyes. “She fancied herself as some kind of witchdoctor, when she died she left me a big old book and a set of rusted keys, the keys you know about, but the book; it was like a diary.”
“Potions and predictions?” He cut into my slight pause and I was struck by the sudden idea that he knew about it all and that our time together had been an elaborate game.
“Yes, mostly.” I answered slowly, unable to shake the odd feeling of disassociation caused by his flippant remark.
“I couldn’t go into the entire family of Loa, there are more than any mortal man could count, but most are simply variations of an important few.” I began, hiding my sudden discomfort behind my faith hid behind myth. “The old Yoruba beliefs have a supreme deity, but he’s considered too…“ I paused, searching for the word. ”Remote… for worship, so instead devotees have always served the Loa.” As I spoke Ash stared into me as if all depended on my words, his face caught in an expressionless, dreamlike gaze even though his eyes were solidly focused on my face. “Damballah-Wedo is the great serpent who created the world in the shifting of his seven thousand coils before shedding his skin in the sun and releasing the waters over the lands he had created. The dawn of the first day there was a rainbow and he fell in love with its beauty and it became Aida-Wedo, his wife.”
“So they’re like the Loa Adam and Eve?” He said his voice soft in the muted light from outside. On the stereo the track ended and the room fell into a moment’s silence as I looked at him. “Anetta?” He near whispered and I smiled a slow smile, breaking the moment.
“I suppose you could say that, they’re the mother and father of the Loa but, unlike Christianity, the Loa aren’t all good. Some of them exist in the Rada Loa and Petro Loa – the angels and demons of the Yoruba religion – simultaneously. Its like they got split personalities or something.”
“So there’s lots of others?”
“Ogou, Loco Atisou, Baron Samedi, Guedé, Legba and god only knows how many others; each branch of the religion seems to have their own versions of each.” Slowly he nodded his understanding, leaning forward, his elbow on his knee, looking like the sculpture of the thinker I’d seen in books.
“You still got the book?” He said quickly, curiously.
I nodded as casually as I could.
“She was my only friend.” I replied as if it explained everything; keeping the bizarre for sentimental reasons. He sat in silence, thinking, seconds ticking by laboriously, like a drunken man walking. Finally he shifted, leaning back, his palms on his knees as he pushed to his feet and moved again to the kitchenette.
“You’ll have to let me see it sometime.” I let out a breath that I hadn’t realised I’d been holding, thankful there was no reason to lie to him any more than I already had. Ash moved around the small kitchen area, peering in the cupboards, staring in the fridge, searching for something to eat even though he’d eaten less than half an hour ago. My knees popped as I climbed to my feet, moving over to the scratched work surface that separated the living room from the kitchen, the pockmarked top of the kitchen unit cold against my bare forearms as I leaned over it.
“What do you think those people wanted then?” My words were carefully modulated, slow, and casual.
He shrugged almost inperceptively as he placed a block of cheese on the counter top beside a loaf of bread, a knife struck into a granite hard square of butter next to it all. “I’ve been thinking that, if the red-head could, for the sake of argument, tell the future, then they could’ve been after the keys you gave me.” He dragged the knife from the butter and attempted to scrape some across his bread, ripping the slice to pieces in the process. He stopped, his knife hovering inches over the groundwork’s of the sandwich, bread torn, held together only by the crust.
“You’d have to be able to tell the future first Ash,” I said back to him, a false smile of derision plastered over my face, “and if I could tell the future I’d be more interested in winning Lotto numbers then keys.”
I watched as he finished the sandwich as best he could and ate the thing with such speed I thought it may have been a figment of imagination. Putting the bread and cheese away he pulled another bottle from the fridge and popped it open.
“How many’s that been?” I counted three in thirty minutes, more than I’d prefer when sharing a room with an amorous male whom I liked more than I should. I watched the muscles of his forearm flex as he pushed up, sitting on the edge of the unit, the cheap fibreboard creaking beneath him.
“What if she could though?” I opened my mouth to answer him but he quickly continued. “No, listen to me a sec’, just pretend, what if she could? I mean, we never know how what we do effect others, not really, you don’t know if something you do will change things in the future in some way.“ He stopped, a smile spreading across his lips.
”Ultimately none of us knows how important we are; what does that religion say about telling the future?”
“Life is like a river,” I began, resigned to speaking of that I didn’t wish to, “and people are the stones and silt at its bed. The water of time washes over you and around you, changing you as it carries you along with it, sometimes you clash with other stones and they change you too. There are eddies in this river, little swirls of time that curl back on itself, and an observer can see these curves and divine their meaning. In fact sometimes these eddies are so strong that they send stones flying out of the river all together, and these stones themselves become observers.”
“Like the red-headed woman.”
“Yes.” I nodded, not able to look him in the eye. “Like the red-headed woman.”
“I feel kind of foolish but I guess I feel a bit haunted by it. Its not a thing that you’re taught to deal with is it?” He stopped and peered at me.
“No?” I responded with faint surprise. I had always felt more than a match for anyone who’d crossed my life’s path. He watched my reaction for a few more seconds intently, then smiled wanly.
“Should have known you’d say that.” he grumbled and I had to smile.