The Gray Girl by Stephanie Lenz
Location: Mardi Gras
Curse: Your cocktail has been spiked with a voodoo potion!
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“The Gray Girl”
Mardi Gras, 1981
Since her mother’s disappearance, Maia had been drawn to the old St Louis cemetery. Mardi Gras made people careless so she had hope. Locked again but at its base, just inside the gate, she found a palm-sized rag doll. It smelled of lavender and she hugged it to her face. Attached to its dress was a note with words Maia couldn’t read.
Inside, a yellowish curtain of light seemed to cut the cemetery in half. A woman walking through the graveyard caught Maia’s eye. Not a ghost. Maia couldn’t see ghosts. Just people and their colors. She was as real as Maia herself and she glowed faint violet. The woman smiled, took three steps, and disappeared into the light.
In the morning, Maia found a woman sweeping beads, paper, and broken glass into Bourbon Street. She held up the doll and asked for help. The woman fingered the note, then wrapped an arm around the child and invited her inside. She made Maia a sweet cherry-almond drink that drew the damp from her bones, then made a telephone call that began, “Queen, I have a kid for you.” She smiled and draped cheap purple beads around Maia’s neck, adding, “Hold tight to that gris-gris, girl.”
“Gray girl?” Maia pulled at a goat’s hair poking through the fabric.
The child had been curled in the corner of Queen Clémence’s shop since Giles had brought her the day before. No magic, real or imagined, could get her to speak, move, or take a sip of water.
“I can’t leave the Quarter,” Maia said, sipping a beer and leaning on the register counter, her bronzed arms glistening with sweat and work.
“Maia, it’s mandatory this time.”
“And the police,” she replied, pointing at his badge, “are trying to turn me into a babysitter. That is not what I do.”
He leaned forward. “I know what you do. That’s why I brought her here.”
Maia looked down toward the girl, barefoot with the dampness of the Ninth Ward still up to the knees of her pants. “What color was that man? The policeman who just left. Not his skin. His other color.”
The little girl allowed her eyes to meet Maia’s. “Purple.”
“I thought he was more of a pinkish-purple.”
The child unfolded and curled her legs alongside her body like a mermaid’s tail.
“He told me your name is Espie.”
“You’re purple too.”
Maia held up a finger, then opened the purse with the strap that she wore across her chest. Removing the doll, she asked, “Do you know what this is?”
The little girl’s eyes opened wide. “My dolls are all at home. Under the water. With my grandmamma.”
“Have you ever made a gris-gris?”
“Grandmamma says voodoo comes from the devil.”
Maia offered her hand as Espie stood. “Did she show you how to keep him away?”
Mardi Gras, 2014
“Goat Herder, wasn’t it?”
“You remembered.” She accepted the cocktail Hunt delivered to her, jostled by tourists spilling beer on her emerald green Tulane t-shirt.
He watched as she drank. “My, my, Maia. We never thought we’d get you.”
The potion he’d mixed into her cocktail rushed under Maia’s skin. Her protections, her memories, her training, as impossible to grasp as handfuls of water. His aura dissolved from pink to dusty orange.
She spotted this year’s kid on the other side of the club, his gris-gris bag knotted through a belt loop, as he sipped beer from a plastic gold cup. He’d gone from red to purple, the strongest aura Maia could sense. Hunt couldn’t see him. She’d done her job.
“Clémence’s hand-raised kid. Savior of the goats without horns.” Hunt ran his hands over her shivering flesh. He kissed her neck and whispered. “I’ll drain your mind before I’ll drain your blood. The meat,” he said with a squeeze, “is least of what I want. I might spare your precious Quarter for the year if you give yourself – all of yourself – to me, ma biche.”
As he spoke, Maia’s fingers searched her purse for her own red satin bag filled with herbs, cemetery dirt, and goat hair. She found it. He couldn’t see her or feel her but it was only temporary magic, a few minutes at best. She ran toward Basin Street, darting through the crowds to St. Louis #1.
As the night’s last tour group filtered past, carelessly dropping bits of stolen brick, Maia slipped through the gates, clutching the gris-gris with both hands over her pounding heart. The darkness rose like water.
“Voilà,” Hunt’s voice echoed off the marble and brick. “Maia Gray, Protector of Goats.”
Maia positioned herself carefully. The old border of the Vieux Carré ran right through St. Louis #1, soft, yellow, and pulsing. She took a step backward. The other colors of her world faded into gray.
Hunt picked plaster from a whitewashed tomb. “I have a lot to repay you for. Twenty-five years of hornless goats we didn’t get, plus that kid you kept as a souvenir from the Feast of Katrina. We’re hungry and we’re inviting you to the table, ma biche.”
Another step backward. Her dark curls lifted in a low breeze.
He recognized what she was doing. “You made a vow, Protector. You can’t leave The Quarter.”
“You’re right. I’ll never leave it.”
“You knew. You knew what I was gonna do, didn’t you? How long have you known?”
“All eight years.”
He nodded. “You drank it of your own free will. You know who I am, what I want. There’s nothing to save you from me now. Nothing to save the Quarter. Nothing to save your precious ‘kids.’ Let me feast on your fear, Maia.”
She dropped the gris-gris.
His eyes followed it, then fell on her face. His expression changed. The shadows around him swirled and rose like smoke. “No fear. How are you unafraid? For yourself. For the Quart… Another Protector? Th-that’s impossible! Tell me!”
His scream caught in his throat as Maia took her final step backward and disappeared.
Hunt de Chèvre had promised he would deliver The Protector, that they would finally devour her – body and soul. Instead, they would starve. He waved a hand in front of the cemetery gates to open them. He didn’t see the orange sparks that flew from his hand.
The young woman sitting cross-legged on a low tomb did see. She’d always seen the colors. Grandmamma had told her it was a curse. Miss Maia showed her it was a blessing. Maia had also taught that those with this blessing were called by the Quarter to protect the innocent. Otherwise they – prey and Protector alike – would become “hornless goats,” sacrificed and consumed by de Chèvre and his followers. The final lesson had been how to dissolve into the Quarter if, by time or by trickery, your powers grew too weak to protect anyone, including yourself.
She carried two gris-gris in her bag: the one she’d made with Maia and the one Maia had given her. The Gray Girl, she’d called it.
Esperanza slid along Bourbon Street like sap over bark. She hooked a finger through a set of discarded purple throw beads, looped the beads around her neck, and let the Quarter lead its Protector into its heart.
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