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art by Melissa Mead

Requiem Duet, Concerto for Flute and Voodoo

Eugie Foster calls home a mildly haunted, fey-infested house in metro Atlanta that she shares with her husband, Matthew. After receiving her master's degree in psychology, she retired from academia to pen flights of fancy. She also edits legislation for the Georgia General Assembly, which from time to time she suspects is another venture into flights of fancy. Eugie received the 2009 Nebula Award for Best Novelette and was named the Author of the Year by Bards and Sages. Her fiction has also received the 2002 Phobos Award; been translated into eight languages; and been a finalist for the Hugo, Washington Science Fiction Association Small Press, and British Science Fiction Association awards. Her publication credits number over 100 and include stories in Realms of Fantasy, Interzone, Cricket, Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Fantasy Magazine; podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, and Podcastle; and anthologies Best New Fantasy, Best New Romantic Fantasy 2, and Nebula Awards Showcase 2011. Her short story collection, Returning My Sister's Face and Other Far Eastern Tales of Whimsy and Malice, is available from Norilana Books. Visit her online at EugieFoster.com.
Movement 1:
I could ignore the boys at school. By and large, they left me alone. Guess I wasn't pretty enough or interesting enough to be worth their attention, which was fine by me. It wasn't like I wanted to cram my feet in suicide heels or dangle door-knockers from my ears like some hoochie bimbo, anyway. But the girls were trouble. Since Mom and I had moved from Chicago to New Orleans into the pink and yellow house Gran had left us, they'd honed in on me like they had something to prove.
"What's the matter, Zo? You goin' cry?" Kyana especially took my existence as an insult. She dangled my backpack from one hand; the other rested on her cocked hip. Around us, Kyana's crew packed closer.
I crossed my arms and leaned against the alley wall. "What are you? Seven? Like I care if you dump my Social Studies book in the bayou." I hid the battering thud-ump of my heart in my throat, my mouth dry as sand.
The backpack held a couple school books, some scribbles of homework, and a pencil or two. No big loss. Except today, I'd shoved Dad's gudi flute inside when the voice in my head warned me to get it out of sight, a second before the girls from school came at me.
"What'd you call me?" Kyana's eyes narrowed.
"Too subtle for you? I'll break it down. You sound like you get your lines from B-movies. I mean, does it get any lamer than 'you gonna cry?'"
Kyana's hands curled into fists, and she let my backpack tumble to the alley's muddy ground. The tip of Dad's flute, made from the fragile wing bone of a crane, glinted from the half-open bag. More than anything, I had to keep them away from it.
"You ain't nobody here," Kyana spat. "You mouth off all big, but you ain't."
"Look who's talking. The littlest nobody in nobody's-ville."
"Say what?"
"Geez, I wasn't using big words."
Kyana slapped me. Surprise rocked me almost as much as her stinging palm. I'd seen it, watched it happen back in Illinois, but never been the target of real violence before.
She swung again, and I shoved her away. Hard. Harder than I expected. She stumbled and fell onto the muddy ground. A gasp, a moment of laden silence, and half a dozen outraged faces turned to me. Not good.
"Bitch."
"Freak."
Like birds swooping, the girls plucked debris from the alley floor.
Duck! The warning rang in my head.
I ducked. A rock missed my face by inches, shattering on the wall at my back.
Look out!
A jagged hail flew at me. I couldn't move fast enough. My thigh lit with pain as something slammed into it, and before I could yelp, a piece of rubble hit my shoulder. I went sprawling. The other girls stampeded at me, kicking and scratching.
I curled into a ball. Voices clamored in my head, garbled and deafening, flash-bulb counterpoints to the thud of blows.
Suddenly, the abuse stopped. Like a storm blown out, Kyana and crew dissipated, the sound of running feet scattering.
"Konmen to y? Can you get up?" A guy's voice, thickly accented.
I uncurled, ears still buzzing, my body a raw ache from neck to ankles. "I-I think so."
I first thought my rescuer was an old man, slender as a whippet in his oversized shirt, but his face had no wrinkles. He was probably my age, maybe a year or two older. But his pale hair, not blond but chalk white, gave the impression of "old." It swung around his ears in short dreadlocks, the ends ornamented with twists of metal, colored beads, and knotted string.
He leaned down, hand outstretched.
I hesitated. The pallor of his hair created an eerie contrast against the darkness of his face, made the whites of his eyes luminous.
Go ahead, the voice in my head murmured.
I reached up. Hand to hand, his skin wasn't much darker than mine.
He hauled me up. "You want en ambulance?" Ambulance came out with a drawl at the end, partway between a Southern accent and a French one.
I pulled away. "Nothing's broken, I don't think."
"You are bleeding."
I glanced down at my torn pants where a dark wetness spread through the gash at my thigh. "Whoa." The sight left me dizzy, and I reached to the alley wall for support.
The stranger kneeled and pulled the tear wider with a jerk.
"Hey!"
"Your leg, c'est pa bon if glass remains."
"Glass?"
He nodded at the shard of soda bottle lying nearby. "They do not like you, it seems." He squinted at the wound, and before I could stop him, he dipped a hand beneath his shirt and came out with a sprinkle of white powder to toss over the cut.
"What're you doing?"
He glanced up. "For the bleeding and pain. So you do not faint."
"I won't faint. I've never fainted in my life, even when Dad--" Then I remembered the flute. Pushing past him, I stumbled to my backpack.
"Oh, no," I groaned. "Dad's gudi."
Someone had stepped on my pack, by accident or on purpose, it didn't matter. Although still in one piece, slivers splintered off the bone instrument, leaving gaping holes and cracks cobwebbing its length. I lifted it, cradling it as though it were a hurt animal.
"Your pape, he be glad it was the flute and not your bones treated so rough."
"I doubt it. He's dead." Furious, I kicked my bag, remembering too late what a bad idea that was. But the pain was muted, not the zing of a fresh cut. I leaned to inspect my thigh. Whatever he'd thrown on, it worked great; the bleeding had stopped, and it hardly hurt at all.
"Then you be glad bone mends," he said. "Dead bone easiest of all. Vien Campo Santo, come to me."
"Huh--?" I unbent too fast and had to shut my eyes against the woozies. When I opened them, he was gone. Neat disappearing act. Also, kinda creepy.
By the time I got home, my head had joined ranks with the rest of me, throbbing and complaining. All I wanted was to flop in bed and sleep until tomorrow, or next week, or forever. But Mom would do a deep ender when she got home from work if she saw me battered and bloodied. So I stripped off my pants and the soiled polo shirt and dumped them in the washer. I hated that the schools here had a uniform policy, and these were secondhand and ill-fitting to boot. All the same, I hoped they could be saved. We couldn't afford replacements.
In the stark bathroom light, I cataloged my injuries.
'Least you didn't get kicked in the face. Rufus's voice. I'd named him after a cartoon character from my childhood. I'd named them all: Millie with her mellow voice and motherly advice; Rufus, squeaky and teasing; and Uncle Grim, grump and plushy umpa in one.
"To make up for it, they kicked me extra hard everywhere else," I said. A bump swelled my shoulder, red and painful, and bruises blossomed up my arms and down my back. "You might've told me that stupid alley was a dead end."
Then you'd never learn how to walk through walls.
"Ha ha." I wasn't mad, not really. Sometimes they don't think like people do, don't get how constrained I am by wheres and whens.
But I can count on them. They've always been there for me. Uncle Grim, always upfront the way grown-ups never are, told me about Dad.
I'd been watching TV in my room, can't even remember the show now.
Your father just died.
Don't know how long I sat there with everything gone to static in my head and my chest tight as a tripwire. It never occurred to me not to believe Uncle Grim; none of them have ever lied to me.
When the phone rang, Millie told me I had to go to Mom, to reach her before she got to the phone. I didn't make it in time. I caught her as she collapsed, sobbing, to the linoleum.
I taped a square of first-aid gauze over the gash before pulling on a pair of sweatpants and a long-sleeved raglan. Situation dealt with, my legs began to shake. Right on cue. Take care of business first, then lose it. It's how I work. I didn't cry at Dad's funeral. Still haven't.
I sagged to the floor, shivering. Glass. They'd thrown glass at me.
What if that guy hadn't come along?
You're stronger than them, Uncle Grim's gruff voice chased the "what if" images away. You'll be fine.
I gulped a mouthful of air. "Uncle Grim, what am I going to do about Dad's gudi?"
In my tiny room, the flute rested on my bed. Dad had been the only one who'd ever played it, his breath transformed into sounds of wings and water. I'd wanted to learn how to make those sounds so I could keep that part of him alive. I'd even gotten up the nerve to ask the school music teacher if she knew someone to teach me. She seemed nice and asked to see the gudi. A pretty harmless request. But now I'd never play it. No one would.
Tomorrow, Uncle Grim said. Take it to Campo Santo.
"Campo Santo? What that guy in the alley said?"
No more chit-chat, Rufus called before Uncle Grim could answer. Mommy's home.
I had time to wrap the flute in my softest t-shirt and tuck it into my pack before the jangle of keys sounded from the front door. Time to put on my best lying face.
Movement 2:
The next day, I dreaded seeing Kyana at school. But she wasn't in homeroom for roll call, didn't show for English or Algebra or P.E. Without her as ringleader, no one tripped or pinched me all morning. It was turning into one of the best school days I'd had here. At least until lunch, when I caught Michelle gesturing with her index finger and pinky in some obscene salute behind my back. Of course, the other girls picked it up, and everywhere I turned, I saw finger horns aimed at me.
Still, it was better than being pelted with glass.
As soon as the last bell rang, I hurried out the school's double doors. I was not going to let them corner me again. I jogged the several blocks to Arts Street, my leg not even peeping at the workout, but when I came to Independence Square, Uncle Grim stopped me.
That way.
"That way" from a disembodied voice is not on par with Mapquest directions, but this time, I didn't need more specifics. A block away, a black gate marked the entrance of an aboveground cemetery. Two alabaster statues flanked the gate, one of a woman with hands steepled in prayer, the other with them folded over her chest. Curlicue iron letters formed "Saint Roch's" in an arch with smaller lettering beneath that read "Campo Santo."
"This is creep factor on steroids, guys."
Zombies and vampires and ghouls, oh my! Rufus chanted. Zombies and vampires and ghouls, oh my!
"Oh, shut up." I stepped through the towering gate onto a paved walkway. Mausoleums, like rows of little stone houses, lined the avenue. Stone doors faced out, some with elaborate entrances complete with steps and guardrails, as though the residents might pop out for a stroll at any time.
I kept to the path's middle, as far from the doors as I could get.
Once, years and years ago, I'd asked the voices if they were ghosts. Millie told me I was being rude. There's no arguing etiquette with her. I never asked again.
A bigger-than-belief crucifix on a stone mound marked the lone intersection--a cross within a cross. At the white feet of the stone Jesus, a statue of a little girl reclined, sleeping or dead, a wreath of alabaster flowers in her hands. The path ended behind them in a tiny chapel while more tombs bordered the crossroad.
"Zombies and vampires and statues, oh my," I muttered. "Okay, now what? Should I yell or whistle or something? I don't even know the guy's name."
Maurin, Uncle Grim said. It's Maurin.
"Maurin? Maurin what?"
"Bonjou." The voice came from my back.
I yelled and spun around.
As silent as any ghost, the guy from yesterday stood in the shadows of a marble-gray tomb.
"How is it you know me, ti fii? Maybe I be flattered they still talk of Maurin the Hollow." He pursed his lips. "Or maybe not."
My heart slowed from its gallop. "Tifi--what? I'm sorry, I don't speak--is it French?"
He arched an eyebrow as white as his hair. "Not French. Kryol Lwizyn. You do not know this city's past, its culture, yet you know me?"
"I just moved here--"
"And still my name falls like dpomm-y labouch," he drawled.
I blinked. "De-huh?"
Dpomm-y labouch "like fruit from your mouth," Millie whispered.
Poetic, sort of. But since when did Millie speak Creole?
"Who gossips of me in your ear?" Maurin asked.
Go ahead, Uncle Grim said. Tell him about us.
"Uh." I bit my lip. "There's three voices who tell me things. No one else hears them, but I'm not schizo. Really."
Maurin relaxed, the tension pouring from him like water. "Ah, the loa. They know me well and may speak of me as they like." He bowed shoulders and head. "We shall call iyr, yesterday, professional courtesy then. Mais the next time you send your loa to fetch me, I expect appropriate compensation."
He turned to go.
"Wait!"
He glanced back.
"You said something yesterday about mending Dad's flute?"
Maurin grinned, the whites of his teeth brilliant. "Come into lamzon." He gestured with a flourish at the chapel.
I wasn't ready to go anywhere with him. I crossed my arms. "For the record, I didn't send any loa the other day. I don't even know what a loa is."
He eyed me sideways. "You call them something else? The mystres, the invisibles, the spirits, perhaps?"
"My voices?"
"W. The ones you serve."
"I don't serve anyone. They're my friends."
Maurin snorted. "Friends? The bridge between Bondye and man, friends like you play games with?"
"Maybe they're not your friends," I snapped, "unbelievable as that might seem to such a personable guy like yourself."
Zo, tch, Millie clucked, Tell him this: Ki c'est ki parle y krwoi y toujou pli intligen, mais y pa my.
I stumbled over the strange words, and Millie had to prompt me a couple times. But when I was done, the smug look left Maurin's face.
"I am chastised," he said. "Who am I to deny your claim upon the loa?"
The change was nice, but I felt like the kid from the short bus who never gets anyone's jokes.
"Millie told me to say that. I don't know what it means."
"It was a reminder, ti bokor, that once I found how others lorded their knowledge over me infuriating, and the wisest of us is he who accepts that he knows nothing. I beg your pardon."
Except now I felt guilty for my outburst. "I didn't mean to get snarky. I should be thanking you for fetching me out of that mess yesterday."
He shrugged. "Driyin. The loa all but dragged me to where you were beset."
"So you can hear my voices, too? Then how come Millie didn't tell you whatever it was herself?"
"Non. My mistress was as you, one who's ashe be so strong she hear the loa speak. Mais I must rely on charms and portents. Still, it was easy to rouse the fear of bbs and set a gris-gris on the skinny girl."
Skinny girl? Oh, Kyana. "What's 'setting a gris-gris'?"
He cocked his head. "En piti mal. Those who dare harm one the loa protect must be reminded of the power of voodoo."
"Voodoo?" I frowned. "Wait, you put a voodoo curse on Kyana?"
"W. Ekskiz-moi, you prefer to punish her yourself?"
"I don't believe in curses. Or voodoo."
He stared at me as though I'd sprouted an extra pair of arms and turned blue.
"It's all psychological effects, self-fulfilling prophecies and stuff. I'm no voodoo witch--"
"Bokor."
"Whatever. I don't want the kids at school thinking I'm this bokor thing."
"Pourkwa? Then they are afraid to give insult. Fear be a bokor's mantle."
"I don't want to be feared. Don't you get it? I don't want to be the fruitcake kid who hears voices, and you better believe I don't want to be the freak who does voodoo."
He smiled. "Too late, I think. Else why they try so hard and so determined to hurt you?"
"Because they're assholes."
He clicked his tongue. "Non. Because they sense the ashe, the power in you, and it frightens them."
I had an unhappy thought. "Does this--" I showed him the finger horns Michelle had pointed at me. "--mean something in your voodoo-land?"
Maurin nodded. "A child's charm to ward away evil. They have brandished it at you? Ti bokor, surely you comprehend the truth?"
"Quit calling me that!"
"Then what shall I call you?"
"What's wrong with my name?"
"Mais I do not know it."
"Oh." Oops. "I'm Zo."
"Enchant." He turned and set off for the chapel. His legs were longer than mine, and I had to trot to catch up.
Inside, a few white-washed pews led to an altar with candlesticks and a statue of Christ in repose behind glass. Above it, a wooden shrine featured Saint Roch (I assumed), holding up the hem of his robe to display a red wound on his thigh. I touched my own gauze-taped cut in sympathy.
To top off the bizarre, a fenced-in niche to the side had plaster body parts arrayed on display--hands and feet dangling from hooks, faces hung up like pictures, a pair of eyeballs on a plate, and even a big, brown brain atop a ledge.
I shuddered. "What is that about?"
Maurin kneeled before the altar, crossing himself like any good Catholic schoolboy. "Saint Roch, the patron saint of miraculous cures. Those be ex-votos from the healed. Tradition say to make in plaster the afflicted member and offer it as thanks."
"Macabre much?"
"C'est tradition." Maurin rose and tugged a thin bone from one of his dreadlocks. It was small, frail-looking, maybe a rat femur or a pigeon's wing. "You have t instrument?"
With misgivings, I pulled out Dad's flute and handed it over. Maurin set the flute and the bone sliver side by side on the altar.
"What compensation I expect for my services, mon ch?"
"I don't have much money--"
He waved his hand. "Bokor do not trade in such currency, bokor to bokor."
"I told you, I'm not a bokor."
"As you like. Still, money will not pay here."
"Then what do you want? 'Cause I'm not doing the promising you my firstborn thing."
Maurin lifted his eyes from the bones. "There is only one thing I want. T kr, your heart."
I took a step back. "My heart? As in 'you have my heart, you are my sunshine'? Or like 'give me the heart of Snow White still beating in a box?'"
"Still beating? W. Box? Non."
I edged another step away and wondered how loud I'd have to scream for someone to hear me.
"You misunderstand. I do not wish you harm."
"I kind of need my heart to live."
"Au contraire, you are bokor, favored of the loa. Without t kr, if you wish it, you will cease to age or sicken."
"I'm thinking it's more like I'll keel over and bleed to death."
"Non, on my honor. I show you." Maurin pulled his shirt over his head, displaying wiry muscles and a seamed patch of skin on his chest in the shape of an "X." He also revealed the hilt of a big Bowie knife tucked into the belt strap of a blue fanny pack. So not reassuring.
He brushed a handful of white powder, courtesy the fanny pack, over his chest and drew the knife. As I watched, he inserted its point into the center of the "X" and peeled back a corner of skin, neat as could be, like folding origami.
The absence of blood or ucky bits didn't matter much. I totally lost it.
I bolted from the shrine. Maurin didn't come chasing after, but I still didn't stop until I clattered onto Gran's yellow porch. I collapsed on the steps, panting and wheezing. My nerve came straggling back as my lungs shifted out of overdrive.
"What were you guys thinking?" I shouted. "Sending me into that place to chat with some psycho who collects hearts?"
Hearts are overrated, Rufus said.
"Not a compelling argument from a disembodied voice!"
Maurin is honorable, Uncle Grim said. You were in no danger.
"Me and you gotta have a talk about what you consider 'danger,' Uncle Grim, 'cause guy with a big knife wanting to cut out my heart, that pretty much defines it in my book."
Silence.
"Well?"
If I'd had crickets in my head, they'd be chirping.
"You're giving me the silent treatment? Fine. You know, sometimes you guys are total shits."
I stood, reached for my house key, and got another nasty to top off the day's pile of them. I'd left backpack, keys, and Dad's flute with Saint Roch.
"That's great. Absolutely fantastic." I plunked myself back down and fumed. Mom wouldn't be home for hours. I had plenty of time to hate myself, uninterrupted, for losing Dad's flute.
I sat, scowling at my feet, and mulled over the idea of going back to Campo Santo. The part of me squicked out at Maurin opening his chest screamed "no way!" But even though I was mad at Uncle Grim, I put a lot of stock in his claim of Maurin's honor. Really, a guy poking himself with a knife wasn't the same thing as trying to stab me with one. Still crazy, though.
When the hating me part got louder than the squicked part, I set off for the cemetery, a good deal slower than I'd departed it.
Movement 3:
I heard the music before I got to the gates. Rich, airy, and bright, wings and water played on a bone flute. It spilled a chain of memories like avalanching dominoes: summer vacations in the cabin by Wood Lake, Dad serenading the water as he drifted in an aluminum rowboat, the fishing rod he never baited trailing in its wake. Dad's music belonged there, at harmony with birdsong and sky. But the last few years it had played to the white walls of a hospital room as often as not. Sterile contrast to the lake, I saw Dad sitting with pillows mounded at his back, eyes shut in concentration as he blew into the polished bone. He told me the music couldn't be forced out, that it had to be released, like the flute was a door. But the key was air, and Dad kept having less to spare, until he didn't even have enough to get him through the day, much less any leftover to unlock the gudi's music.
It was stupid, but for a minute, standing outside the cemetery gates, I thought it was Dad playing. Even as I sprinted to the chapel, racing to get there before the music stopped, I knew it couldn't be. He was dead, and dead people don't play flutes. Yet I couldn't shake that awful longing, the kind where you know, just know what you want isn't possible, but you can't help hoping anyway.
The music ended a second before I burst in, a stitch zinging my side.
The shrine was deserted. Just me, Jesus in a fish tank, and old Saint Roch hiking up his hem. Dad's flute lay on the altar, my pack beside it.
I swallowed back the tightness in my throat and the stinging pressure behind my eyes, same as I had at Dad's funeral. Stupid to cry then, stupider to cry now. I wasn't going to be one of those losers who get weepy whenever they hear a certain song or eat bleu cheese or something dopy like that.
I picked up the gudi. It was like it had never seen yesterday--no cracks or chips--good as new. A shard of bone lay beside it, Maurin's rat femur or pigeon's wing. A break ran through the shard, like a tiny person had stomped on it. Insight or intuition, I knew the bone had taken the injury Dad's flute had suffered. Magic. Voodoo magic.
Why had Maurin fixed the flute without his pay?
I almost put it down. Would taking it home be the same as agreeing to have my heart carved out?
I wanted to ask Uncle Grim, but I wasn't so sure he, any of them, were on the Zo-keeps-her-heart wagon. Then again, maybe I was the one riding the wrong wagon. If voodoo worked, if what Maurin said was true, I'd be better off without a heart. Maybe if I'd known how to do voodoo back in Chicago, I could've removed Dad's heart before it made him so sick. What if some bokor had suggested to Dad what Maurin had asked from me? Would he still be alive?
"Take it. I will not stop you."
Maurin stood at the entrance. At this rate, he wouldn't need to cut my heart out; he could just scare it out of me.
"Do you gotta sneak up on a person like that?" I yelled.
"Mo chagren. Apr my mistress removed m kr, the still-quiet in here," Maurin touched his chest, "taught me to be still-quiet out here." He spread his fingers to the air.
"Just shuffle your feet or something, okay?"
"Pou toi." Maurin made a show of stomping his feet as he sat on a white-washed bench. He slumped, head lolling and eyes half-closed. The change in him was dramatic. Did it take so much out of a person to do voodoo?
"Why are you here still?" His voice was low and tired. "I demand no fee. Va. Take what is yours and go."
A few minutes ago, I would've been out the door faster than he could've said "boo." But Maurin looked like he could barely hold his head up, much less go Ted Bundy on me.
"What do you want my heart for?"
He lifted a hand over his eyes. "Pourkwa? Why you want to know?"
"When you tell a girl you want to cut her heart out, it sort of makes her curious as to your intentions."
"Bien." He let his hand drop. "Today, I have been in my mistress's service for dpi cent ans--"
"What?"
"One-hundred years."
I wanted to blame the translation or call B.S., but the resignation in Maurin's tone left no doubt.
"A powerful bokor, she," he continued. "I asked of her a voodoo spell, but she would consent only if I made compact to serve as en apprentice and give her m ker. One-hundred years and she return it. It is so I may learn the craft, you see? So I do not age or die."
"Or run away," I said under my breath.
Maurin heard me. "Mais I have no wish to leave her. She is not cruel, and she show me how to parlay avek the loa."
"What happened?"
"Katre-vint-diss set ans, ninety-seven years, I serve her. But the storms and floods, the worst this city has seen. She die, and I am alone."
"I'm sorry."
"Msi bien. Mais I cannot grieve for her, to my regret."
"Why?"
"She hid m kr. I am a bokor, w, but I need a heart to grieve."
"No, I mean why do you want to? Grieve for her, that is. Boohooing and carrying on doesn't change anything. It won't bring her back."
"Ti bokor, grief is how we fill the emptiness when those we care for depart. It is the last tribute we give to our cherished ones."
"I suppose." Maybe an emo meltdown wasn't the worst thing a person could do at a funeral. But I didn't buy that it helped anything. If I'd dissolved like Mom had, then there would've been no one to take care of her. How pathetic that would've been, both of us bawling our eyes out beside Dad's plastic-stiff body in the casket. Better that one of us, that I had stayed strong.
"Too, it reminds the watching emissaries of Bondye," he continued, "that even we bokor regard this world's gifts as precious. Without m kr, without my grief, I am not whole. So I search for it."
"I suppose you didn't find it."
"Non. I search and search. I ask the loa, beg them, command them, but non. Worse, they tell me at la compact's finish, if I have no kr, I shall die. For en apprentice who kill his bokor is an evil thing. And why, otherwise, would she not return m heart?"
"But she died by accident. It wasn't your fault."
"W."
"And you want my heart why?"
"Only la kr of a true bokor will satisfy the compact. I believed, I hoped when the loa called me to you, for surely I may find m kr in another cent ans--" Maurin shook his head. "Mais, non."
I did feel bad for him. Being smacked by fate like that counted as a seriously raw deal. I knew how that felt better than most. "For what spell did you sell yourself for a hundred years?"
He closed his eyes. "For en fii, a girl I loved. She suffered zy y malad. When the darkness depart, she thanks Saint Roch for the miracle."
I remembered the plaster eyeballs on the plate.
"Her joy is enough. I am content." He sighed. I waited, but he didn't speak again.
"Maurin?" I crept closer. Grayness rimmed his eyes and mouth. I'd seen that ashen look before. For a half-second, I couldn't remember where, and then I could: on Dad's face, in the hospital, when they'd hooked him up to that machine--the tube down his throat so he couldn't talk, the mask and medical tape holding the rig in place. My insides twisted into a leaden knot. The last time I'd ever see Dad, and I'd gone wiggity. Worse, that afternoon when Mom brought up going back to the hospital to visit him, I'd put her off. That's why we hadn't been there when Dad died. My selfishness and weakness. My fault he'd been alone.
I couldn't abandon Maurin. I wouldn't.
He was so still. Nervous, I shook him. He wasn't breathing. I checked for a heartbeat, a pulse. Nothing. But he didn't have a heart, right? So he wouldn't have either of those.
Maurin's life is forfeit to the compact, Millie said.
Through my spiking panic, a thread of relief. At least they were talking to me again.
"But that's dumb, Millie. He has to die just because his bokor didn't tell him where she stashed his heart before hurricane season?"
What do you care? Rufus asked. Not like you know the guy from spit.
"He fixed Dad's flute."
So?
"So he didn't have to. It's not like he knows me from spit."
I tugged up Maurin's shirt and grabbed the hilt of the knife. Unzipping his fanny pack, I found it filled with Ziploc baggies of powder: black, yellow, white, and red. If I hadn't known better, I would've thought he was a dealer.
I dumped a handful of the white stuff over the "X" on his chest. Yanking off my own shirt, I pushed aside my embarrassment--inappropriate and useless--and dusted myself in the general vicinity of my heart.
My skin went numb, but I hesitated. We haven't gotten to the heart in Biology yet. Did bokor training include anatomy lessons? This could be really, really bad.
It wasn't like I was doing surgery for real, right? It was voodoo magic ... which I didn't believe in. Maybe I was schizo. Only one way to find out. I pointed the knife at my chest and took a deep breath.
Stop!
The triple wallop of Uncle Grim, Millie, and Rufus all shouting at the same time made me drop the knife.
I clapped my hands to my head. "Ow. Keep that up and for my next trick, I'll pull an aneurism out of my hat. I thought you wanted me to give him my heart."
You must have a vessel, Uncle Grim said. To spill the emptiness into.
"That makes sense." I shook my head. "That was sarcasm, by the way."
Like the bone and the gudi, Millie said.
"Oh. 'Cept where am I going to get a--" I stared at the ex-voto niche for all of two blinks. Slamming open the protective grill, I found feet, hands, a pair of leg braces, and there, next to a plaster ear, a heart. I snatched it from its hook--it was so light, definitely hollow--and brought it over.
"I got the vessel. Now what?"
Fill it, Uncle Grim said.
"Can we quit with the esoteric, already? Fill it with what? Chewing gum? Paper clips?"
Dummy. Fill it with heart, Rufus said.
"You guys suck. You know that, right?" I picked up the knife. "If any of you have something useful to say, now would be the time."
What good's a heart if it can be broken? Rufus sing-songed.
Your heart's in the right place, Millie said.
Definitely a heartfelt gesture, Uncle Grim agreed.
I scowled. "You call sappy metaphors useful? If this voodoo bugaboo is figurative, how come Maurin's got a big X-marks-the-spot on his chest?"
Seems to me you've got your heart set on being foolish, Uncle Grim said.
Leaves me heavy hearted, Rufus chimed in.
"Why can't you guys tell me straight what I need to do?"
We are.
We are.
We are.
"You are not!" Tears of frustration stung my eyes. "I don't know what to do. I haven't known anything since Dad died. Why did he have to die? Why won't any of you tell me?" I blinked, the tears overflowing in a cascade down my face.
Momentarily clear-eyed, I saw the heart. No longer plaster white, it had turned a deep red. And it wasn't my imagination. It was heavier, weighing my hand down.
Cry your heart out, Millie whispered.
And I did.
I cried for Dad, because he'd never sit in that stupid rowboat on that stupid lake playing his flute ever again. And I cried for me, because I loved him and missed him, because I hadn't been there to say goodbye when he'd died, and because there are some things you never get a chance to fix. My body rocked with ugly, hiccupping sobs that hurt both coming and going. I sank to my knees, clutching the plaster heart to my chest, and bawled. My nose ran, my face got raw and puffy, and my throat hurt. I cried until the last tear wrung itself free, leaving me exhausted and drained. But also lighter, like I could breathe again, even though I hadn't realized I'd been drowning before.
Maurin was right. Shutting away my grief hadn't made me strong. It had hollowed me out, sucking away everything but my misery and guilt and resentment. Another realization, I hadn't wanted to cry for Dad, hadn't wanted to let myself mourn because a part of me, beyond any logic or sense, still clung to the hope that he was coming back. Like if I could just show him how strong I could be, that I was sorry for how I'd broken down before, he'd come back. But he wasn't. And nothing I did was going to change that. Accepting that released me from the load of guilt I'd been carting around, and I felt better--still sad, but at peace.
The heart throbbed in time with the pulse in my ears. I knew what to do, clear as if I'd read it out of an instruction manual. Guess I am a bokor.
I picked up the knife and slipped its point into the "X" on Maurin's chest. Easier than peeling an apple, folding back those flaps and opening his chest. Nothing to get squicked about, really, more like opened flower petals than Hellraiser. I laid the gently beating heart into the emptiness, and it fit just right. Voodoo magic.
I closed him up and watched the seams disappear. No more X-marks-the-Maurin.
I took a breath, and Maurin's chest rose and filled. I took another, and tears spilled down his cheeks. He opened his eyes, astonished, and the next breath he took was his own.
"I'm sorry," I said. "It was the only thing I had in my heart."
"Non, non, ti bokor. Grief is good. Good to share, good to let go. And I have much to mourn. Msi." He took my hand. "Msi bcou."
"Driyin," I said.
He smiled through his tears. "You are en quick study, I see."
"I hope so. I was sort of hoping you'd teach me--"
"Voodoo?"
"Yeah, that too. But actually, I was hoping you might teach me how to play the gudi."
Maurin's mouth quirked. "Ki? Who has told you I can play?"
"Can't you?"
"Non."
"Then who--?"
Don't ask silly questions, dear, Millie said.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 9th, 2011

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