By Kim Fears
I stood over the man’s body and held his heart in my hand. I hadn’t gotten a great look at him in the bar. All I knew was that he was drunk, and according the Internet, he was a convicted sex offender. He had also been eyeing some girls who looked way too young to be frequenting a bar like this.
Looking down at him now, I almost felt bad about spiking his drink, dragging him out the back, and cutting out his heart. He was somewhere in his fifties, with wiry brown hair desperately clinging to his receding hairline. His eyebrows were thick and equally wiry, and his nose was just a little too big. He was scrawny too, which worked for me. Standing at a solid 5’9’’, I wasn’t eager to take on some sort of monster-sex-offender.
His heart was warm and squishy, and a bit coarser than I imagined it would be. The blood oozed in between my fingers and dripped down onto his soaked button-down shirt. I stared at the horrific Hawaiian pattern of the shirt, and my guilt lifted.
Yes, I had just murdered someone, but for good reason! Cassie needed the heart, and my job was to get whatever Cassie needed. She fixed me after all.
I was seventeen years old and drunk out of my mind when I stumbled up into the ratty old house on Bourbon Street. I’d been an alcoholic for two years and living on the streets. No school, no family, and no one to tell me how terrible my life was going.
Sneaking out of foster care at fourteen got me mixed up with a bad crowd of guys, and got me selling every kind of drug I could get my hands on. For two years I shacked up with them in an old warehouse off of Chipwell Avenue, and the only people who knew where to find us were addicts and dealers. That is until we got raided by the cops. I was wasted when it happened, and by some miracle I slipped out the back window, fumbled my way down a ratty alleyway, and made it to Bourbon Street.
I had a bottle of Jack in my jacket, and as I stumbled down the street laid out along the outskirts of the city, I downed it. I wasn’t particularly sad about seeing my group broken up, or hearing the shouting and gunshots. I was only with those guys for the security, and even that wasn’t very good. But I did feel a bit guilty about running away, and about not helping any of the others get away. So I drank until that guilt was gone. I drank until the guilt left, and then the feeling in my face left, and then my clear vision left.
When I came to again, I was lying on a hardwood floor with candles all around me. I was horrifically hungover, with a pounding headache and a dancing stomach.
I rolled onto my side, and squinted through the flickering flames to see a woman on the other side of the room, standing behind a simple folding table. She looked to be around thirty or so, with dark brown skin and long flowing braids reaching her waist. She wore a simple black tank top and a pair of jeans. Her fingers were adorned with silver and gold rings, and beaded bracelets traveled down her wrists.
But my eyes weren’t so much on the fascinating woman as they were on the boa constrictor laid out on the table in front of her. She eyed me for a second, with strange eyes like the pines of an evergreen. She winked once, chopped off the snake’s head with a meat cleaver, and chucked it into the fireplace.
“You’re fixed now,” she said, in a thick Caribbean accent.
I didn’t know what she meant at first, and then I felt something coming over my body. The drunken haze I’d been clouded in suddenly lifted off of me, as if a vacuum had sucked it away.
I let out a groan and forced myself to sit up. The woman took the rest of the snake’s body and dropped it into a garbage bag as if it were dirty laundry.
“What’d you do to me?” I asked, rubbing the back of my neck.
She wiped her hands clean with a towel, and then wiped the blood and guts from the cleaver. “I fixed you,” she said.
I stared up at her, confused. I reached into my jacket and pulled the bottle of Jack. There was just a drop or two left, and normally I’d have downed it just because it was there. This time, I didn’t want it. In fact, that brown liquid I once loved so much now almost looked…nasty.
My head snapped back up, and I beamed at the woman.
“How did you…?” She only smiled.
And that was how I met Cassandra Portiere, the voodoo artist. I didn’t know it then, but she would change my life forever. She called herself an artist because she didn’t like being called a witch or a priestess. According to Cassie, witches were evil, and priestesses could be deceptive. Artists were always honest. “Art comes from passion,” she told me one morning, as she lifted a heart from a dead crow. “And passion comes the truth,” she added, before tossing that heart into the fireplace.
I stayed with her after that night when she killed the snake. I had nowhere else to go, and she was the first person to actually do a kind thing for me simply because she could. She also never told me I had to leave, and as the days went on, she started giving me jobs to do.
At first it was just to sit on the front porch of the house and call out to her if “clients” approached. That was interesting for a time. Cassie’s art wasn’t widely known, but there were lots of rumors about voodoo happening on the outskirts of New Orleans. Cassie trusted her clients to keep her talents to themselves, unless they came across someone who needed her and didn’t know where to go. For most people, she was a myth – a voodoo lady by the river. But for me, and for anyone who knew where to find her, she was very real indeed.
Everyone who came for Cassie’s help was a bit different. A pregnant woman worried about the location of her missing husband, a crippled old man wanted the strength to walk his daughter down the isle, a worried older brother didn’t want his sister dating a loser. And Cassie helped all of them.
A rat’s tale or the tooth of an opossum thrown in the fire with the right prayer could straighten a crooked spine. A whole giant centipede could sharpen weak hearing. Snakes were good for just about anything. Cassie liked ugly animals.
“The uglier the beast, the better the fix,” she explained to me once. “Big snakes, big spiders, big worms.”
As my first year with her went on, she sent me out to start collecting supplies for her. First it was digging for worms in the back yard, and then it was collecting spiders. And whatever dislike I felt towards picking up nasty little critters and shoving them in a box, I pushed through that for Cassie. Every time a spider crawled up my arm as I tried to catch it, I thought of the gumbo she made me on my first day with her. Whenever I pulled a wriggling night crawler from the ground and wanted to gag, I thought of her teaching me the banjo in our quiet time. And when she sent me catching snakes in the bayou, I thought of how she fixed me.
For two years I worked my way up from door boy, to bug boy, to critter boy, to snake boy, to gravedigger boy. If Cassie needed it, I got it for her. Some tasks were certainly more complicated than others, like sneaking into the graveyard to collect skulls from a man, a woman, and a male child. Lucky for me, I was pretty fast so getting caught was never a problem.
By the latter half of my second year with Cassie, we had a great system going. Clients arrived, she listened, she sent them home, and then she told me what to get. The only times she ever turned anyone down where when they broke her rules.
1. She would not cast a spell to kill.
2. She would not cast a spell to bring back the dead.
3. She would not cast a spell for a child.
I never questioned these rules. They made perfect sense to me. Killing was bad, bringing people back from the dead was complicated, and children weren’t old enough to know the consequences of their actions. Cassie never granted a spell without firmly explaining the consequences, for all magic had consequences.
“The universe never willingly gives,” she explained to me. “It only gives when it receives, and I do what I can to make the giving count.”
It didn’t necessarily make sense to me, but every now and then Cassie would say something difficult like that and ignore all of my questions. To shut me up, she’d usually just give me something to eat. I was a sucker for her fried catfish. One bite of that stuff would silence me for life if she wanted it to.
I only ever questioned her once, and it ended with me cutting out a man’s heart. That was the day a little boy came into the shop asking for Cassie to cure his dying mother of cancer, and she turned him away.
The boy ran off crying, and Cassie watched him with a pained but pensive look from the front porch. I stepped out behind her and didn’t even get a breath out before she said, “Too young.”
The door creaked shut behind me.
“But his mom is dying,” I replied, trying to hold back my own pain. I knew what it was to lose a parent - to be alone in the world. This kid, whoever he was, didn’t deserve that.
Cassie turned to me, her green eyes piercing into my very core, as they often did.
“I keep my rules for a reason,” she said, her voice like iron. “They protect not only me, but the ones asking for them as well. This boy is too young to pay the cost for what he is asking.”
“Can you heal his mother?” I pressed. Cassie’s eyes narrowed.
“Cancer is not an easy sickness to heal,” she said. I raised an eyebrow.
“But you can heal her.” Cassie brushed by me and stepped into the house.
“Not for him,” she said. “Not for a child.” I chased after her.
“Do it for me then!” I shouted. She stopped in the entryway and kept her back to me. “You will make the request?” she asked, glancing at me from the corner of her eye.
I nodded. “You can’t let this woman die, Cass.”
Cassie turned and slowly crossed her dark arms across her chest. She tapped her foot on the hardwood floor, and she watched me. She challenged me.
I clenched my fists and looked deep into the eyes of the woman who fixed me.
“What do you need me to get?”
And then she told me to cut out a man’s heart.