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My life ended the day that my father took me to have my fortune told. It was my fifth birthday and it was evening. The heat from the setting sun was sweet and languid, caressing our skin as we walked down the beaten path to the beach. To this day I can feel the sand shifting under my feet, pushing up through my toes, still hot from the ball of fire that was now turning the sky a bloody scarlet as is settled beneath the sea.
The air smelled of salt, the soft susurrus of the waves whispering to me as I fidgeted with excitement, wanting to run on ahead. My father was shirtless, his ebony chest held high with pride as he walked with his only son, guiding him through the first step out of childhood. He ran his hand along his shaved head as he looked down at me and smiled.
The rickety shack wasn’t far, but it was very different from the huts of our village. It was a ramshackle thing, patched together from materials that had washed ashore. The ocean debris was salvaged by the small population of wild ones who lived entirely off the land, making their homes in the jungle and on the beach instead of working in the cities and villages.
People visited these solitary homes from time to time, bringing gifts that the ocean couldn’t offer. Sneakers, tea, spices. Anything the land didn’t provide you could trade for their wisdom, or for their company. I smelled burning basil as we got closer and my toes curled deeper into the sand at its sharp scent.
The inside of the hut was cramped and dark. Woven mats padded the floor and a small table and chair were shoved back against the far wall. A hammock had been halved, and was hanging in a tangle of rope in one corner. The medicine man sat cross legged in the center of the shack, his hair a stiff crest of dreadlocks that snaked their way along his corded shoulders and down his back.
He was humming softly under his breath, a single note repeated in a strange, uneven rhythm. My father set down the plastic bag that carried a pair of cargo shorts and a t shirt by the door. It wasn’t much, but it had taken him a month to save enough money for the offering.
Without opening his eyes the medicine man reached out one strong but slender hand, the roped muscles of his arm playing under his skin as he delicately scooped up a hollowed gourd. His eyes snapped open, pools of blackness in the growing dark. They fastened on me and my stomach dropped, fear intruding for the first time, piercing through my excitement.
“Come here boy.” he said to me, his voice gravely from lack of use.
Hesitantly I stepped forward, trying not to shame my father by shaking. I forced one foot in front of the other, focusing on the feel of the reeds that made up the woven mats beneath my feet. I concentrated on drawing each breath in smoothly and letting it out. It seemed to take forever to cross the small room, but eventually I halted in front of him and he raised the gourd, shaking it as he traced the form of my body, the humming growing in intensity but never straying from that single note.
Beads of sweat burst from my forehead, slicked the space between my arms and my body, across my palms. His face grew more distant, more alarmed as he moved. The terror rising inside of me reached a breaking point and I opened my mouth to scream at him to stop.
He flicked his wrist, scattering the seeds and bones in front of him, and it was too late. Too late to call back the future as it bounced and danced along the dirty beaten mats in the form of dead things; seeds that would not bear life, bones that no longer supported vibrant bodies.
The medicine man waved me aside and leaned forward, slowly tracing his hands over the patterns that curled out before him. His humming picked up tempo, the single note forced free in faster and faster staccato patterns as he studied my future.
I was shaking all over, pushed past the ability to control my body, too scared to worry about shaming my family. I watched him tense and knew that what he was seeing was terrible. My father began to catch the mood and shifted, crossing his arms over his broad chest.
The humming stopped and the silence was thick. The waves seemed far away and timid, unwilling to bring their voices into the darkened hut. The medicine man took a deep breath, placing his hands palm down on his knees and shaking his head sadly. When he looked at me his face was full of pity.
“You will live a cursed life, boy.”
My world crashed down around me. I didn’t want to know. I tried desperately to shut it out, shut everything out as his voice droned on and on. I focused on a single seed, caught in the edges of a bent reed, its frayed stem broken and twisted into grasping fingers. It filled my vision as his voice filled my ears.
“From this moment on, all faces will turn from you. You will find no shelter. You will long for love so fiercely that when it comes it will seem like the coldest, purest water on the hottest most hellish day. You will ignore my warnings, and in doing so you will doom yourself to slavery and pain. You will be shattered, split in two. You will serve darkness and death, and it will own you.”
A little, broken noise sprang from behind my father’s closed mouth, creeping out from his throat. I could feel the medicine man’s gaze, pinning me in place, could feel the gaping pits that were his eyes in the darkness eating my soul with each passing second.
I could hear my heartbeat roaring in my ears as I saw my future dissolve into discord and pain. There was no way out, nowhere to go, I couldn’t outrun the words. And so I just stood, just stood and listened.
“Your soul will be stolen. It will be locked away into a steaming hell. You face an eternity of imprisonment and suffering. Only after you are damned is there the potential for change. There is a slight possibility that you will escape.”
“There will be a small, fiery woman...”
A brightly colored green and orange trolley edged its way past me, painfully slow on the unfamiliar ice caking the streets of
. A few stubborn tourists leaned out
the open window slots, ridiculously under dressed for the bitter cold. I turned
my head from the line of exhaust streaming along behind, trying to convince
myself it was thick from heat and not pollution. The sharp and acrid taste that
filled my mouth and nose said otherwise. Savannah
I coughed and shivered, completely miserable and seriously thinking of calling it a night. My Nikon hung heavy around my neck but my wallet seemed painfully thin as it pressed against my generous, curvy bottom. I patted it, secure inside the back pocket of my blue Dikkies and sighed. My other pocket beeped at me and I popped open the snap, freeing my worn pink Razr and checking to see who was texting me.
Daniel. I groaned audibly. I should have given my boss a fake number, I hated how often he micromanaged me. Reluctantly I flipped it open, not having any real desire to check out what my editor had to say.
“Try to have the pictures in by 9. Two pieces on the ice storm so far. We’re counting on you.” I snorted.
“Tx, Boss. Btw, when you mass send a text it sticks FWD: at the front of it. Killin it on the motivation there.”
I stared at my snarky reply for a few breaths before reluctantly deleting it. I had no illusions about being the only photographer the CoastalEmpireNew.com used, not that it was any of my business. It was a good job, and not one I needed to lose to a fit of pique about the cold. I’d been spoiled enough to do that once, and six months in the ghetto was a harsh lesson on growing up.
C’mon Val, I teased myself mentally, You’re going to be way grumpier if you run out of food! Or vodka.
I was right, not that I needed me harassing myself about the realities of my bad habits. I wonder if other people are nicer when they talk to themselves. I adjusted my grip on my oversized handbag and trudged on.
The ice was as beautiful as it was unexpected and most of the people brave enough to head out into the unusual cold wore expressions of wonder. It cascaded from trees, coating the frothy green of the trailing Spanish moss, taking the normally beautiful neighborhoods of the historic district past enchanting and all the way to mystical.
The grand antebellum homes and businesses sported icicles with a bemused tolerance, the words “frozen in time” being repeated far too cheerfully by tour groups and visiting families. It was obvious that both tourists and Savannaians felt the new winter wonderland theme enhanced the ever present vibe of the city- the feeling that anything could happen.
I took the whole thing poorly and rather personally. I’d traveled eleven hundred miles to escape the chill embrace of winter, leaving everyone and everything I knew. They’d promised me no cold. They had lied, whoever they were.
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