I was putting away the Halloween decorations today and found this short story I wrote seven years ago. When I lived in New Orleans a group of us would gather for a weekend at Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana where we'd rent the same turn of the century cottage. We'd prepare a great feast and then afterward gather by candlelight to read aloud ghost stories we'd written.
Every year was a different theme. This was from 2004 and I believe the theme was a journey with a spiritual guide. Something close to that anyway.
Anyway, here's mine:
The Price of Things
July 2, 2004
I met the old witchy woman in the French Quarter. Jackson Square to be precise.
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon and the winter wind was blowing straight through my down jacket right into the marrow of my bones. The woman had a small dilapidated table with a garish blue cloth edged with improbable purple tassels thrown over it. On top of the cloth were the most unique and exquisite looking grails I had ever seen.
In my seven years of living in the city of New Orleans, I had always made it a point not to make eye contact with any of the Jackson Square vendors, tarot readers or artists. I considered most of them to be cons pure and simple and I'm not much for being scammed.
Yet these wooden grails called to me. I could not walk past the table. My steps slowed and finally stopped as I greedily let my gaze crawl over them. All I could see of the witchy woman was threadbare black velvet dress with most of the velvet rubbed away leaving an inky smudged fabric thin enough to almost see through in many places. Buttons in the shape of black roses marched crookedly up over a flat nearly concave chest to a scrawny, wrinkled neck.
I was on my way to a voodoo shop to buy Papa Legba a candle, but I suddenly remembered that I had been looking for a wooden grail for nearly forever. And here was a table full of them.
My eye was drawn to a tall, delicate goblet, the whirls and gnarls of the cypress wood lovingly polished to an almost mirror like sheen. I reached out a hesitant hand and it was then she spoke, in a thin, reedy voice, full of the South, burned by countless bottles of whiskey and quavery with extreme old age.
"That's not the one for you, baby," she said.
Unaccountably, I flushed with shame, as if I had been aught in the act of doing something wrong.
"You want me to, I make you a grail just for you. Only for you. You special, you is, girl."
"How much is this one?" I asked her, determined not to be sucked into some sort of street scam. Special indeed. But, still, I felt strangely as if her words were actually true. The dainty goblet really wasn't for me, pretty as it was.
"Ain't for sale. Leastways not to you," she said and then she laughed, a wild, witchy laughter that floated thinly across the Square, amplified by the cold wind. Gutter punks, tourists, tarot readers and children all seemed to look over at once.
It was as if the Square was a stage and we two, the witchy woman and I, were in the spotlight.
"All right. What about the one you'd make for me special. How much would that be?" I asked, desperate for the eyes of the Square to turn away and go about their business. I just wanted to be in the background, part of the scenery.
"You can never not be noticed, girl," she said as if I had spoken aloud my thoughts. "Like I said. You special."
"How much?" I insisted on knowing.
"You think too much about the price of things. How much that be. How much this be. And it ain't just in terms of cash money, either, is it? It's all about time too. And effort. And how much of your soul be required to own your desires."
"Well, nothing is for free if you think about it," I said.
"You think too much about it." Her voice was flat and emphatic. "Can't you just for once take what you want without worrying about how much it costs?"
I swallowed hard, considering.
"I don't know," I replied honestly. "I've never tried."
She snorted contemptuously again. "Don't I know that for sure!"
"Okay, so I will buy the special grail you'll make for me. I won't ask you how much it is. I'll just take it. When will it be ready?" I felt stung by her mocking contempt.
"There you go again, asking the price of things."
"I did not!"
"You asked 'when'. There's a price tag attached to that word and you know it."
"Well, how will I know when to come get it if I don't ask when?" I demanded angrily.
"You just will, that's all. If you let yourself be, girl."
I was silent for a moment, wanting to shout out, That's the kind of thing that sound deep when you say it, but means nothing when you think about it. But I didn't.
She saw me think it anyway by the wrinkled old smirk on her dark brown face.
"Fine," I said instead. "I'll be back when I've let myself be."
"You do that," she cackled, showing her nearly toothless old gums in a grin that both mocked me and yet somehow praised me. "I ain't got no doubts. You special, you is."
For a few days afterward I did nothing but think about that old witchy woman and my grail. I fretted over when I was supposed to know it was time and how, precisely, I would let myself *be*.
Although this was about me, it was outside of me as well. I was not in control and it itched at me, the thought of that grail and the thought of the witchy woman.
It occurred to me a few days later that I didn't even know her name. A few days after that it also occurred to me that there were a lot of things I didn't know and never would. And while I had always known that, somehow it now bothered me. Why not? What was stopping me from knowing all the things I wanted to know? What were these limitations on me? Were they self-imposed or not? Did it matter or not?
I felt myself going quietly insane because I couldn't stop thinking, so that when I just let it all drop.
I must have walked through Jackson Square a hundred times after that, without a thought for the grail or the witchy woman, but then one time I found myself looking at the spot where her table had been and I heard my mind whisper, What witchy woman? And she was there.
I realized I had seen her, and her blue cloth covered table, without recognizing what I was looking at.
She was smiling.
When I walked up to her, eager and reaching out, instead of handing me a grail, she gave me another smile.
"Friday night long abut dark, you come by my house and I give you the grail. I worked hard on it, baby. Best work I ever done."
Bitterly disappointed that I couldn't have the grail right there and then, the words, How much drifted up and almost across my lips, but with an effort I stopped them. She watched me, her black eyes murky as swamp water.
Instead, I said, "Ill be there." And forced myself to walk away.
Then came Friday night when I set out in my car to find the old witchy woman's house.
Up until it started to rain I felt infused with vitality and a sense of right and purpose. I was more than myself and yet I was still me.
Torrential rain pounded down. I swore violently and hit the brakes, but not very hard. All I needed was to hydroplane off into the black branches of some old tree. There were a lot of trees on this stretch of the road. Standing like rain drenched sentinels against the night sky and the shroud of clouds lit from within by flashes of lightning. More trees than you usually saw in Louisiana.
I realized I had no idea where I was or where she lived. She had never told me. Caught up in the otherworldly drama of it all, I hadn't even thought to ask her. But then again, maybe that was the point. I didn't need to ask her because I knew where she lived. But if I knew where she lived why was I suddenly lost and why couldn't I find her?
I came within an ace of turning around and going back home to the comfort and predictability of a Twilight Zone episode on DVD by candlelight. Maybe a glass of champagne and the cats sprawled on my lap...
"Damn it!" I swore again, trying desperately to focus myself. "The least little bit of difficulty and you start thinking about champagne. You can have champagne anytime. What you can't have is this grail and the experience of actually having this grail made for you, especially, by some supernatural old woman straight out of the Twilight Zo.. No! Stop thinking about the familiar. The tried and true. Just because the Twilight Zone is creepy doesn't mean it's not mainstream and ordinary and status quo. Tonight isn't supposed to be status quo. It's not supposed to be about being comfortably seated in the front row watching the curtain part. It's supposed to be about being on the other side of that curtain. Being instead of watching."
I started to cry.
I drove up and down that road all night long, alternately sobbing and cursing, sometimes preternaturally calm, other times wild and raging. I even drove with my eyes shut one time, certain that if just gave up trying to see and instead just let myself be, I would find that damn old witchy woman's house.
It was a miracle I didn't drive into a tree. The thought I might made me slam on the brakes and just behind my ids, the ghost of possibility coasted and then floated away, out of reach. In the act of braking, I lost it. I could never just drive with my eyes closed. I was too afraid of hitting something, or someone, of killing myself, of losing my license, of having my insurance canceled, of forfeiting my house because of bills I might owe to pay for the damage I might do. In short, of the price of such a thing.
When dawn started streaking blushy pink fingers across the grey clouds, erasing the rain with the night, I gave in and drove home.
In the days that followed that night, I have come to the conclusion that I'm just not ready. I may be special, I may not b able to avoid being noticed. I may be capable of great things, even the greatest of things, of knowing all that I want to know and being all that I suspect I can be.
But I'm not there yet. And I can't help but start to cry when I wonder about that old witchy woman and what she was trying to show me. wonder if she would even look at me, presuming I ever ran across her again. I wonder if I failed her and if I failed myself. Sometimes I think I have. Sometimes I think I might have. Sometimes I think of the price of things and how much I have to pay for them. Sometimes I think that until I can get past putting a price tag on that grail, I will never find it. Other times I think that I'm crazy because the price tag on the grail is all that I have, all that I ever had, all that I ever will have. All that I ever will be. And I whisper, "Please, just let me find it and let me have it."
But as of now I haven't found it. Although I often haunt Jackson Square, watching people watch me as I watch them, I never see her, the witchy woman who made me my grail.
What's terrifying is the thought that I perhaps I never will. I had my chance and I lost it, worrying about what it would cost me.
What's even more terrifying is the thought that perhaps I will see her again and I finally take that grail into my hands, fill it with elixir, and drain it to the last dregs.
What will I Become then? Will it be Death? Will it be Afterlife? Will be oblivion? Will it be more than I can dream of right now? Will it be all of that? Will it even matter?
And so I chase my Death, my Dreams, even as I chase myself, and I swear if I'm given the chance again, I won't ask the price, I won't count the cost. But what if I do? What then?