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The dark woman’s voice came from beneath the knotted hive of her tangerine kerchief. “Béba Daio ain’t taking no prayers,” she said, without looking up.
“Tell her it’s Clem Watkins, from two blocks down.” The woman paid no attention. “Please ma’am, I grew up down here. I have to speak with her.”
She lifted her head. The woman’s face was saggy and looked like a mudslide; a windswept, ebon sea with her bright eyes reflecting like two moons in the rolling tide.
“You can speak all you want mister,” the woman said. “She ain’t listening. I told you, Béba Daio ain’t taking no prayers tonight!”
“I never come to her before now. Just ask her.”
She gave the man a damp look.
“Hold on right here,” she said and disappeared through a beaded curtain behind the counter.
Clem drummed the floor with his shoe awhile and felt the gathering sweat from behind his neck race down the groove of his spine to his belt. He edged slowly toward the door and had nearly backed completely off the loggia when the woman suddenly returned.
“Come on, she’s expecting you.”
The woman escorted Clem through a labyrinth of curtained backroom doors. Each room was lined with wooden plank shelves stocked with Mason jars of various sizes. Some jars’ contents were hidden in thick, opaque fluids while others housed strangely unnatural forms suspended in the glow of amber liquid. The woman stopped at a door of hanging sea shells, rapped her bone fingers on the wall, and motioned Clem to enter. The room was dimly candlelit with a thick aroma of mold and brine.
“Sit down, child,” a low voice garbled from behind a translucent wall set next to a small round table and a single chair at the far end of the room. It was like the one of those walls Catholics use for confessionals. Clem slid himself into the chair.
The shadowy figure slid a hand out from behind the screen. It was small and looked frail to Clem. The skin was almost limpid and, if not for the murkiness of the room, he felt he would be able to see right through to the meat and the blue-green veins. He took hold of it and the gossamer skin bunched up beneath his fingers. Covering the pinky finger was a ring with a cloudy, oblong opal set in dull silver. Clem bent over and kissed the stone.
“Whatchu want from Béba Daio?” the voice asked.
“I came to ask a favor of you, Béba Daio. I need you to hear my prayer. I wouldn’t have come if--”
She raised her hand.
“You here now, Clement Watkins. Speak your prayer to Béba Daio, this ain’t no place for da timid man.”
“It’s my grocer’s shop—a couple blocks over on Saint Ann--been there the last two years or so,” he explained, hoping that she would recognize the place. “I put all the money I ever had into that store, but I never get no business. I don’t really have no regular customers and the ones I do got steal from me.” He paused. “I got nice fruit and vegetables though, Béba Daio, I’ll bring you some. And my prices are real reasonable. If people just knew about my place . . .” His voice began to strain. “Béba Daio, I got a family—a wife, a girl and a baby boy, and another one coming--I’m a good man. I been here my whole life and I want to stay here. I need you to help me. Take my prayer, Béba Daio, please.”
The old woman cleared her throat. It sounded like a backed-up drain. “Been waitin a long time for you, ‘Lil Clement Watkins, to come in here and ask Béba Daio for sumptin.”
“Well, you know I never wanted to be owing nothing to no one but the bank,” Clem cackled nervously. “I can’t afford no more debt.”
“We all end up with debts need paying, dat’s just life. I’ll pray on it for ya, Clement Watkins.”
“I’m obliged to you, Béba Daio,” he said. “They always say you help folks in need.”
“S’that what they say?”
“Sure, ever since I can remember.”
“Dey say anything else about Béba Daio?”
Clement’s throat knotted up. “No, no, that’s it.”
“Dat’s good,” she murmured. “Now I’m gon need sumptin from you—some sorta payment.”
Clem drew a heavy breath. “How much you need, Béba Daio?”
“Spirits say just a couple a inches.”
“Inches? Inches of what?”
“Oh, an inch a strength, an inch a will, an inch a nerve. Nothin you can’t make do without, I promise ya,” she told him. “You think you could part with a couple a nothin inches, Clement Watkins?”
He waited and, finally, “If that’s all, I guess I have to.”
Béba Daio dropped a large, dirt-brown sack on the table in front of him, the contents of which crunched and cracked against each other, their shapes jaggedly denting out the skin of the bag. She loosened her grip on the neck of the sack.
“Reach in dis here bag f’me, Clement Watkins,” she told him.
The man hesitated a moment.
“Go on now, I can’t do it m’self,” she said.
He dipped his hand into the bag and buried it to his wrist.
“Take one out,” Béba Daio instructed.
Clem fished through the bag, allowing the more minuscule objects within to pass through his fingers like too-tiny fish in a net until he clamped down on a plump piece and plucked it out: a single scarlet stone, a ruby maybe.
“Dat’s plenty good,” Béba Daio said, closing the bag and setting it on the floor. She immediately reached out for the gemstone. Clem handed it to the old woman and she dragged it behind the wall with her.
“You all done, Clement Watkins. It’s gon be alright now. You come back and see me t’morrow night and I get my inches from ya.”
It hadn’t been as bad as all that, he thought. She didn’t string him along or charge him outrageously like the priestesses from other parts were known to do. Why all the fuss about Béba Daio? She’s been taking care of people in the neighborhood for as long as anyone around here can remember, even old Willie Tyme--and Willie’s been around forever. Willie’s so old that some folks got to calling him “Father Tyme” a ways back. The rest of us just call him “Red”.
The next morning, Clem kissed each one of his family goodbye. He descended the wrought iron stairwell behind his store with cautious hope for some sign of prosperity in the coming day, some sign of Béba Daio’s influence. The sight he met with when he turned the corner, though, he could never have imagined: A group of people, customers was his best guess, were waiting in a line that curled from the small stoop in front of his store to the street. They’d heard his produce were the freshest in the Quarter and not too pricey. They needed French bread for po’ boys, milk and rice and eggs, red beans, and while they were there they’d pick up some cayenne and chicory, boudin and one woman asked, “You got crawfish?”
“Surely do, ma’am,” Clem smiled. As the day went on, more and more people stopped in. More people than Clem had ever seen.
“How’s business, Clem?”
“Picking up, Zoe,” he said. His arms pointed exaggeratedly around the store. Zoe quickly bought a Nectar soda and a pack of chewing gum.
“That’s great, you deserve it. You got the best stuff in town. Hey, you happen to hear about ole Father Tyme?”
Clem reached for a small paper bag and shook his head.
“Some young villains broke into his place last night, stomped him dead. Didn’t take nothin.” She took a swig of soda. “Shoot, everybody knows he didn’t have nothin to take.”
Clem offered a tsk-tsk and lamented offhand about the state of the youth these days.
Zoe said before she left, “I’m gonna miss his freckles and his nappy ole red hair walking around here. Neighborhood won’t be just the same without him, I know that.” She stopped inside the doorframe. “What with ole Red last night and with you being so busy today, well, folks around here been wondering--”
“Wondering about what, Zoe?”
She looked Clem stone square in his face.
“You been down to see Béba Daio?” she asked. Zoe waited a moment for the man to answer. When he didn’t, she walked out on him without so much as a goodbye. Clem went back to work that afternoon and, even though the store never had such a good day, his mind was muddy with thoughts of Father Tyme and his visit to Béba Daio’s.
He returned to the old woman’s home that night just before twelve to settle his debt. Walking the canal, he passed the old cemeteries, the Cities of the Dead, with their crypt-lined streets. Votive candles threw a ghostly light upon the lifeless stone cherubs atop their sun-bleached tombs. Hoodoo money was strewn across a few graves. Clem finally reached the old Creole townhouse with the sunrise painted across its door.
“How’s things, Clement Watkins?” Béba Daio’s voice curled around the wall like a water moccasin.
“Things is fine, Béba Daio, better than fine, even.” He took his seat at the table next to her divider. “We was real busy today and I can’t help but think it was something to do with you.”
The old woman gave a burbling laugh. “I told ya, boy, the spirits always listen to Béba Daio’s prayers.”
Clem fidgeted in his chair as Béba Daio spoke. Then he broke in, “Father Tyme died last night, got kicked around like a dog, y’heard?”
“Mmm-hmm, I heard,” she replied.
“Béba Daio, there’s something I got to know,” he said. “Does your helping me and what happened to old Willie got anything to do with each other?”
Béba Daio said, “Sometimes a good thing happens to folks, sometimes bad things happens too--ain’t no telling either way. Willie Tyme had his share of good fortunes, I seen ta dat. Can’t expect all fortunes to be good though.”
Clement’s face soured.
“Aw, don’t have no sad eyes, Clement Watkins. You gots real nice eyes, bright, like yo daddy. I likes da color, too--the way dem blues shine.” Béba Daio reached around the wall and placed a polished cobalt stone near her edge of the table. She then produced the large brown bag again, holding it open just beneath the table’s edge, beside the cobalt stone.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“That’s your stone. You ready to pay Béba Daio what you owe? You ready to give me dem inches?”
With a grim realization slowly upon him, Clem’s muscles petrified, unable to move but for his jaw, which allowed his teeth to chitter.
“C’mon, boy, it’s time to cast your lot. I can’t do it for ya--even Béba Daio gots rules to follow. Just put your hand to that stone and slide it off da table into dis here bag.” Her final, haunting words rang in Clem’s ears. “It’s an easy thing to do, Clement Watkins. It can’t be more den a couple inches.”
Clem forced his arm over the table and touched the blue stone with his fingertip. He eased it the inches’ length across the wood, hard swallowed, and guided it over the edge into the bag. The stone disappeared with the faintest tink.
Béba Daio leaned forward and choked the top of the bag closed with both hands, sealing its contents. Clem was now determined to peek around the screen and steal a single glimpse of the witch’s face. He tipped his body to one side. What he caught sight of beneath that thick black hood was not a face, merely a slimy tangle of undulating tentacles and gelatin flesh; her skeletal visage an explosion of spiny white bone and suckers and matted sea fronds. Holes in her mottled skin opened and closed, gulping and venting the air, and somewhere, hidden in all that, Clem knew there was a smile.
She shook the bag. The stones jangled against one another and settled. “Welcome home,” she said.
Clem leapt from the chair and bolted through the curtained door, cutting himself on one of the shells. He navigated the backroom passageways desperately until he emerged in the sitting room. He threw open the front door of Béba Daio’s house and bounded down the steps into the street.
He paced the streets like a zombie for hours before ending up in front of his own store. Raymon, from the nightshift, was standing by the window and saw Clem. He ran up to his boss, frantic. “Mr. Watkins, thanks goodness, we ran out of all the fresh food today on account of it was so busy and the next shipment ain’t due ‘til Tuesday. What do you want to do? You want me to go down to the all night market and bring some back?”
Clem thought for an instant and shook his head. “No, just put out anything we got left in the back.”
“But, Mr. Watkins,” Raymon said, more than a little perplexed, “we just got all these new customers. That stuff in the back is old. You put that out, they might not come back here no more.”
“They’ll keep coming,” he said.
“You sure about that, Mr. Watkins?”
Clem told him, “I bet my life on it.”
delziggio - Thank you, Michelle. I would be remiss if I didn't mention that this story first appeared in the inaugural edition of the now-defunct podcast Parade of Phantoms. It is republished with their permission. Questions about it? Feel free to contact me and I'll be happy to answer them.
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