Merrick, p.9

Merrick, page 9

 part  #7 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series



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Chapter 8



  I WAS SURPRISED to see so many people standing about. Indeed they were everywhere, and a very subdued but attentive lot. I observed at once that not one, but two small paneled trucks had come from the Motherhouse, and that there stood guard a small group of Talamasca acolytes, ready to pack up the house.

  I greeted these youngsters of the Order, thanking them in advance for their care and discretion, and told them to wait quietly until they were given the signal to begin their work.

  As we went up the stairs and walked through the house, I saw, where the windows permitted me to see anything, that people were loitering in the alleyways, and as we came into the backyard, I noticed many persons gathered far off to the right and to the left beyond the heavy growth of the lowlimbed oaks. I could see no fences anywhere. And I do not believe there were any at that time.

  All was dimness beneath a canopy of luxuriant leaf, and we were surrounded by the sound of softly dripping water. Wild red hyacinth grew where the sun could penetrate the precious gloom. I saw thin yew trees, the species so sacred to the dead and to the magician. And I saw many lilies lost in the choking grass. It could not have been more lulling and dreamy had it been a purposeful Japanese garden.

  As my eyes became accustomed to the light, I realized that we were standing on a flagstone patio of sorts, punctuated by several twisted yet flowering trees, and much cracked and overwhelmed by slippery shining moss. Before us stood a huge open shed with a central pillar holding its corrugated tin roof.

  The pillar was brightly painted red to the midpoint and green to the top, and it rose from a huge altar stone quite appropriately heavily stained. Beyond in the darkness stood the inevitable altar, with saints even more numerous and magnificent than those in Great Nananne's bedroom.

  There were banks upon banks of lighted candles.

  It was, I knew from my studies, a common Voodoo configurationthe central pillar and the stone. One could find it all over the island of Haiti. And this weedy flagstone spot was what a Haitian Voodoo doctor might have called his peristyle.

  Cast to the side, among the close and straggling yew trees, I saw two iron tables, small and rectangular in shape, and a large pot or cauldron, as I suppose it is properly called, resting upon a brazier with tripod legs. The cauldron and the deep brazier disturbed me somewhat, possibly more than anything else. The cauldron seemed an evil thing.

  A humming sound distracted me somewhat, because I was afraid that it came from bees. I have a very great fear of bees, and like many members of the Talamasca, I fear some secret regarding bees which has to do with our origins, but there is not room enough to explain here.

  Allow me to continue by saying only that I quickly realized that the sound came from hummingbirds in this vast overgrown place, and when I stood quite still beside Merrick, I fancied I saw them hovering as they do, near the fiercely sprawling flowercovered vines of the shed roof.

  "Oncle Vervain loved them," said Merrick to me in a hushed voice. "He put out the feeders for them. He knew them by their colors and he called them beautiful names. "

  "I love them, too, child," I said. "In Brazil they had a beautiful name in Portuguese, 'the kisser of flowers,' " I said.

  "Yes, Oncle Vervain knew those things," she told me. "Oncle Vervain had been all over South America. Oncle Vervain could see the ghosts in the middle air all around him all the time. "

  She left off with these words. But I had the distinct feeling that it was going to be very difficult for her to say farewell to this, her home. As for her use of the phrase "ghosts in the middle air," I was suitably impressed, as I had been by so much else. Of course we would keep this house for her, of that I'd make certain. We'd have the place entirely restored if she so wished.

  She looked about herself, her eyes lingering on the iron pot on its tripod.

  "Oncle Vervain could boll the cauldron," she said softly. "He put coals under it. I can still remember the smell of the smoke. Great Nananne would sit on the back steps to watch him. Everybody else was afraid. "

  She went forward now and into the shed, and stood before the saints, staring at the many offerings and glittering candles. She made the Sign of the Cross quickly and laid her right two fingers on the naked foot of the tall and beautiful Virgin.

  What were we to do?

  Aaron and I stood a little behind her, and at her shoulders, like two rather confused guardian angels. There was fresh food in the dishes on the altar. I smelled sweet perfume and rum. Obviously some of those people crowded about in the shrubbery had brought these mysterious offerings. But I shrank back when I realized that one of the curious objects heaped there in seeming disarray was in fact a human hand.

  It was cut right before the wrist bone, and it had dried into a dreadful clench of sorts, but that was not the full horror. It was overrun with ants, who had made a little massacre of the entire feast.

  When I realized that the loathsome insects were everywhere, I felt a peculiar horror that only ants can bring.

  Merrick, much to my amazement, picked up this hand rather daintily in her thumb and forefinger, and shook off the hoodlum ants with several small fierce gestures.

  I heard nothing from the audience in the crowd beyond, but it seemed to me that they pressed closer. The humming of the birds was becoming hypnotic, and again there came a low hiss of rain.

  Nothing penetrated the canopy. Nothing struck the tin of the roof.

  "What do you want us to do with these things?" asked Aaron gently. "You don't want anything left, as I understand it. "

  "We're going to take it down," said Merrick, "if it's all right with you. It's past its time. This house should be closed up now, if you will keep your promises to me. I want to go with you. "

  "Yes, we'll have everything dismantled. "

  She suddenly looked at the shriveled hand which she held in her own. The ants were crawling onto her skin.

  "Put it down, child," I said suddenly, startling myself.

  She gave it a wring or two again and then did what I said. "It must come with us, everything must," she said. "Some day, I'll take out all these things and I'll see what they are. " She brushed off the unwelcome ants.

  Her dismissive tone filled me with relief, I must confess it.

  "Absolutely," said Aaron. He turned and gave a signal to the Talamasca acolytes who had come as far as the edge of the patio behind us. "They will begin packing everything," he told Merrick.

  "There's one thing in this backyard that I have to take myself," she said, glancing at me and then at Aaron. She seemed not purposefully or playfully mysterious as much as troubled.

  She backed away from us and moved slowly towards one of the gnarled fruit trees that sprang up in the very middle of the patio flagstones. She dipped her head as she moved under the low green branches, and lifted her arms almost as if she was trying to embrace the tree.

  In a moment, I saw her purpose. I should have guessed it. A huge snake had descended, coiling itself about her arms and her shoulders. It was a constrictor.

  I felt a helpless shudder and a total revulsion. Not even my years in the Amazon had made me a patient liker of snakes. Quite to the contrary. But I knew what they felt like; I knew that eerie silky weight, and the strange current of feeling they sent through one's skin as they moved very rapidly to encoil one's arms.

  I could feel these things as I watched her.

  Meanwhile, out of the overgrown tangle of green there came low whispers from those who watched her as well. This is what they had gathered to see. This was the moment. The snake was a Voodoo god, of course. I knew it. But I was still amazed.

  "It's definitely harmless," Aaron said to me hastily. As if he knew! "We'll have to feed it a rat or two, I suppose, but to us, it's quite¡ª. "

  "Never mind," I said with a smile, letting him off the hook. I could see he was quite uncomfortable. And then to tease him a little, and to fend off the deep melancholy of t
he place, I said, "You know of course the rodents must be alive. "

  He was appropriately horrified and gave me a reproving glance, as if to say, you needn't have told me that! But he was far too polite to say a word.

  Merrick was talking to the snake in a low voice in French.

  She made her way back to the altar, and there found a black iron box with barred windows on all sides¡ªI know no other words for it¡ªwhich she opened with one hand, the hinges of its lid creaking loudly; and into this box she let the serpent slowly and gracefully settle itself, which fortunately for all of us, it did.

  "Well, we'll see what stalwart gentlemen want to carry the snake," Aaron said to the closest of the assistants who stood speechless, watching.

  Meanwhile, the crowd had begun to break up and slip away. There was much rustling in the trees. Leaves fell all around us. Somewhere, unseen in the lush garden, the birds continued to hover, beating the air with their tiny busy wings.

  Merrick stood for a long moment looking up, as though she'd found a chink in the rooftop of foliage.

  "I'll never be coming back here, I don't think," she said softly to both of us or to no one.

  "Why do you say that, child?" I asked. "You can do as you like, you can come every day if you wish. There are so many things we must talk over together. "

  "It's ruined, this whole place," she said, "and besides, if Cold Sandra ever comes back, I don't want her to find me. " She looked at me in a level manner. "You see, she is my mother and she could take me away, and I don't want that ever to happen. . "

  "It won't happen," I responded, though no one on earth could give the child such a guarantee against a mother's love, and Merrick knew it. I could only do my best to see that we did what Merrick wanted.

  "Now, come," she said, "there are some things up in the attic that only I want to move. "

  The attic was in fact the second story of the house, a very deep sloped roof affair, as I have described, with four dormer windows, one for each point of the compass, assuming the house was correctly oriented. I had no idea whether it was or not.

  We made our way up by a narrow back stairs that doubled once upon itself and then entered a place of such delicious woody fragrances that I was caught off guard. It had a snugness and a cleanness about it, despite the dust.

  Merrick turned on a grim electric bulb and we soon found ourselves amid suitcases, ancient trunks, and leatherbound packing cases. It was vintage luggage. An antiques dealer would have loved it. And I, having seen one book of magic, was very much ready for more.

  Merrick had but one suitcase that mattered above all else, she explained, and she set this down on the dusty rafters beneath the dangling light.

  It was a canvas bag with leathered patched corners. She opened it with ease, as it wasn't locked, and stared down at a series of loosely wrapped cloth bundles. Once again, white sheeting had been used for these items, or perhaps to put it more simply, cotton pillowcases past their time.

  It was obvious that the contents of this case were of very special importance, but how special I could not have guessed.

  I was astonished now as Merrick, whispering a little prayer, an Ave, if I'm correct, lifted one bundle and moved back the cloth to reveal a startling object¡ªa long green axe blade, heavily incised with figures on both sides.

  It was easily two feet in length and quite heavy, though Merrick held it easily. And Aaron and I both could see the likeness of a face in profile carved deeply into the stone.

  "Pure jade," said Aaron reverently.

  It had been highly polished, this object, and the face in profile wore an elaborate and beautifully realized headdress, which if I'm not mistaken, involved both plumage and ears of corn.

  The carved portrait or ritual image, whichever it might be, was as large as a human face.

  As Merrick turned the object, I saw that a full figure was etched into the other side. There was a small hole near the narrow tapering end of the object, perhaps to allow suspension from a belt.

  "My God," said Aaron under his breath. "It's Olmec, isn't it? It must be priceless. "

  "Olmec, if I have any guess," I answered. "Never have I seen such a large and exquisitely decorated object outside of a museum. "

  Merrick showed no surprise.

  "Don't say things you don't mean, Mr. Talbot," she said gently. "You have some like this in your own vault. " She locked her eyes on me for a long dreamy moment.

  I could scarcely breathe. How could she know such a thing? But then I told myself she might have learnt such information from Aaron. Only, a glance at him let me know I was quite wrong.

  "Not as beautiful, Merrick," I answered her quite truthfully. "And ours are fragments, as well. "

  When she gave me no reply, when she merely stood there holding the gleaming axe blade with both hands out before her, as if she liked to look at the light on it, I went on.

  "It's worth a fortune, child," I said, "and I never expected to see such a thing in this place. "

  She thought for a long second, and then gave me a solemn forgiving nod.

  "In my opinion," I went on, struggling to redeem myself, "it comes from the oldest known civilization in Central America. And I can feel my heart thumping as I look at it. "

  "Maybe even older than Olmec," she said, looking up at me again. Her wide gaze swept lazily over Aaron. The gold light of the bulb spilled down upon her and the elaborately dressed figure. "That's what Matthew said after we took it from the cave beyond the waterfall. That's what Oncle Vervain said when he told me where to look. "

  I looked down again on the splendid face of shining green stone with its blank eyes and flattened nose.

  "You don't need me to tell you," I said, "that it's all very likely so. The Olmec come from nowhere, or so the textbooks tell us. "

  She nodded.

  "Oncle Vervain was born from one of those Indians who knew the deepest magic. Colored man and red woman made Oncle Vervain and Great Nananne, and Cold Sandra's mother was Great Nananne's grandchild, so it's inside of me. "

  I couldn't speak. There weren't any words to express my trust or my wonder.

  Merrick set the axe blade to one side, on top of the many bundles, and reached for another with equal care. This was a smaller, longer bundle, and when she unwrapped it, I was again too breathless for words.

  It was a tall figure, richly carved, and obviously a god or king, I could not say which. As with the axe blade, the size alone was impressive, not to mention the gloss of the stone.

  "Nobody knows," the child said, speaking to my thoughts very directly. "Only, you see this scepter, it's magic. If he's a king, he's a priest and god too. "

  Humbled, I studied the detailed carving. The long narrow figure wore a handsome headdress which came low over his fierce, wide eyes, and down to his shoulders all around. On his naked chest was a disc suspended from the radial collar about his shoulders and neck.

  As for the scepter, he seemed about to be striking the open palm of his left hand with it, as though preparing to do violence with it when his enemy or victim approached. It was chilling in its menace and beautiful in its sincerity and intricacy. It was polished and seemed to glow, as did the mask.

  "Shall I stand him up or lay him down?" Merrick asked, looking at me. "I don't play with these creatures. No, I would never do such a thing. I can feel the magic in them. I've conjured with them. I don't play. Let me cover him once more so he can be quiet. "

  Having rewrapped the idol, she reached for yet a third bundle. I could not calculate the number that remained in the closely packed case.

  I could see that Aaron was speechless. One did not have to be an expert in Mesoamerican antiquities to realize what these artifacts were.

  As for Merrick, she began to talk as she unwrapped this third wonder¡­

  "We went down there, and followed the map that Oncle Vervain had given us. And Cold Sandra kept praying to Oncle Vervain to tell us where to go. It was Matth
ew and Cold Sandra and me. Cold Sandra kept saying, 'Aren't you happy now, you never went to school? You're always complaining. Well, you're getting to go on a great adventure. ' And to tell the truth, that's what it was. "

  The cloth fell away from the long sharp pointed pick in her hands. It was all of a piece of green jade, and its handle bore the distinct feathers of the hummingbird and two small deeply carved eyes. I had seen its type before in museums, but never such a fine example. And now I understood Oncle Vervain's love of the birds in the yard beyond.

  "Yes, sir," said Merrick. "He said those birds were magic. He was the one to put the feeders out. I told you. Who's going to fill the feeders when I leave this place behind?"

  "We'll care for the place," said Aaron in his comforting fashion. But I could see he was greatly concerned about Merrick. She went on talking.

  "The Aztecs believed in hummingbirds. They hover in the air like magic. They turn this way and that and make another color. There's a legend that Aztec warriors became hummingbirds when they died. Oncle Vervain said magicians need to know everything. Oncle Vervain said our kind were all magicians, that we came four thousand years before the Aztecs. He told me about the paintings on the cave wall. "

  "And you know where this cave is?" Aaron asked her. He was quick to clarify his meaning. "Darling, you must tell no one. Men lose common sense over secrets such as these. "

  "I have Oncle Vervain's pages," Merrick answered in the same dreamy voice. She laid the sharp blade of this knife back down on the bed of cotton parcels. Offhandedly, she laid bare a fourth object, a small squat idol as beautifully carved as the one already revealed. Her hand went back to the perforator with its round, hummingbird handle. "They used this to draw blood in their magic. That's what Oncle Vervain told me I would find, a thing for drawing blood; that's what Matthew said this was. "

  "This suitcase is filled with such objects, isn't it?" I asked. "These are by no means the most significant of the lot?" I glanced about. "What else is hidden in this attic?"

  She shrugged. For the first time she looked hot and uncomfortable under the low roof.

  "Come on," she said politely, "let's us pack up the suitcase and go down to the kitchen. Tell your people not to open all those boxes, just to move them to where they will be safe. I'll make you some good coffee. I make the best coffee. I make better coffee than Cold Sandra or Great Nananne. Mr. Talbot, you're about to faint from the heat, and Mr. Lightner, you're too worried. No one's going to break into this house any time ever, and your house has guards all over night and day. "

  She rewrapped the axe blade, the idol, and the perforator carefully, then closed the suitcase and snapped its two rusted locks. Now, and only now, did I see the withered old cardboard tag on it listing an airport in Mexico, and the stamps that indicated the suitcase had traveled many miles beyond that.

  I held my questions until we had come down into the cooler air of the kitchen. I realized that what she'd said about my failing in the heat above had been perfectly true. I was almost ill.

  She set the suitcase down, took off her white pantyhose and her shoes, and turned on a rusted round fan above the refrigerator, which oscillated drowsily, and set to work to make the coffee, as she had said.

  Aaron rummaged for sugar, and in the old "ice box," as she called it, found the pitcher of cream still fresh and quite cold. That didn't much matter to Merrick, however, because it was milk she wanted for coffee and she heated it to just below a boil.

  "This is the way to do it," she told us both.

  At last we were settled at a round oak table, whose white painted surface had been wiped quite clean.

  The caf¨¦ au lait was strong and delicious. Five years among the Undead can't kill the memory. Nothing ever will. I piled the sugar into it, just as she did, and I drank it in deep gulps, believing thoroughly that it was a restorative, and then I sat back in the creaky wooden chair.

  All around me, the kitchen was in good order, though a relic of former times. Even the refrigerator was some sort of antique with a humming motor on top of it, beneath the creaking fan. The shelves over the stove and along the walls were covered by glass doors, and I could see all the accouterments of a place where people regularly take their meals. The floor was old linoleum and very clean.

  Suddenly, I remembered the suitcase. I jumped and looked about. It was right beside Merrick on the empty chair.

  When I looked at Merrick I saw tears in her eyes.

  "What is it, darling?" I asked. "Tell me and I'll do my level best to make it right. "

  "It's just the house and everything that ever happened, Mr. Talbot," she answered. "Matthew died in this house. "

  This was the answer to a rather momentous question, and one which I had not dared to voice. I can't say I was relieved to hear it, but I couldn't help but wonder who might lay claim to the treasures which Merrick regarded as her own.

  "Don't you worry about Cold Sandra," said Merrick, directly to me. "If she was going to come back for these things, she would have come back a long time ago. There was never enough money in the world for Cold Sandra. Matthew really loved her, but he had plenty of money, and that made all the difference in the world. "

  "How did he die, darling?" I asked.

  "Of a fever from those jungle places. And he'd made us all get all our shots too. I don't like needles. We got shots for every disease you can imagine. Yet still he came back sick. Some time afterwards, when Cold Sandra was screaming and hollering and throwing things, she said that the Indians down there in the jungles had put a curse on him, that he never should have gone up the waterfall to the cave. But Great Nananne said it was too strong a fever. He died over there, in the back room. "

  She pointed to the hallway that separated us from the room in which Aaron and I had spent our uncomfortable night.

  "After he was gone and she went away, I took out the furniture. It's in the front bedroom next to Great Nananne's. That's where I've slept ever since. "

  "I can imagine why," said Aaron comfortingly. "It must have been dreadful for you to lose them both. "

  "Now Matthew was always good to us all," she continued, "I wish he had been my father, lot of good it would do me now. He was in the hospital and out of it, and then the doctors stopped coming because he was drunk all the time and shouted at them, and then he just choked out his last. "

  "And had Cold Sandra already gone?" Aaron asked gently. He had laid his hand on the table beside her own.

  "She was out all the time at the barroom down on the corner, and after they threw her out of that one, she went to the one on the big street. The night he started to go, I ran down two blocks and over there to get her, and banged on the back screen door for her to come out. She was too drunk to walk.

  "She was sitting there with this handsome white man, and he was just in love with her, you know, adoring her. I could see it. And she was so drunk she couldn't stand up. And then it hit me. She didn't want to see Matthew go. She was afraid to be at his side when it happened. She wasn't being hardhearted. She was just really scared. So I came running back.

  "Great Nananne was washing his face and giving him his Scotch, that's what he drank all the time, he wouldn't have any other kind of drink, and he was choking and choking, and we just sat by him till sometime about dawn, the choking stopped, and his breathing got very steady, so steady you could have set a clock by it, just up and down, up and down.

  "It was a real relief that he wasn't choking. But Great Nananne shook her head to mean no good. Then his breathing got so low you couldn't see or hear it. His chest stopped moving. And Great Nananne told me he was dead. "

  She paused long enough to drink the rest of her coffee, then she stood up, pushing the chair back carelessly, and took the pot from the stove and gave us all some more of the heavy brew to drink.

  She sat down again and ran her tongue along her lip, a habit with her. She seemed a child in all these gestures, perhaps because of the conventschool way in w
hich she sat up straight in her chair and folded her arms.

  "You know, it's nice having you listen to this," she said looking from me to Aaron. "I never told anyone all about it. Just the little things. He left Cold Sandra plenty of money.

  "She came home around noon the next day and demanded to know where they'd taken him, and started screaming and throwing things and saying we never should have called for the morgue to take him away.

  "'And what did you think we were going to do with him?' Great Nananne asked. 'You don't think they have a law in this town about dead bodies? You think we can just take him out and bury him in the backyard?' Turned out his people in Boston came and got him, and soon as Cold Sandra saw that check, you know, the money he'd left her, she was out of this house and gone.

  "Of course I didn't know it was going to be the last time I ever saw her. All I knew was that she had packed up some of her clothes in a new red leather suitcase, and she was dressed like a model from a magazine, in a white silk suit. Her hair was pulled back to a bun on the back of her head. She was so beautiful she didn't need any makeup, but she had put some darkviolet eye shadow above her eyelashes and a dark color, like violet, too, I think, on her lips. I knew that dark violet meant trouble. She looked so beautiful.

  "She kissed me and she gave me a bottle of Chanel No. 22 perfume. She said that was for me. She told me she'd be coming back for me. She told me she was going out to buy a car, she was driving out of here. She said, 'If I can just get across that spillway without drowning, I can get out of this town. ' "

  Merrick broke off for a moment, her eyebrows knitted, her mouth slightly open. Then she began again.

  "'The hell you'll come back for her. ' That's what Great Nananne told her. 'You've never done anything except run wild and let that child run wild, well, she's staying here with me, and you go to Hell. '"

  Once again, she stopped. Her girlish face grew quiet. I was afraid she was going to cry. I think that she swallowed the tears very deliberately. Then she spoke again, clearing her throat a little. I could hardly make out the words.

  "Think she went to Chicago," she said.

  Aaron waited respectfully while the silence filled the old kitchen. I picked up my coffee and drank deeply again, savoring the taste of it, as much out of respect for her as for the pleasure.

  "You're ours, darling," I said.

  "Oh, I know, Mr. Talbot," she answered in a small voice, and, without moving the focus of her eyes from some distant point, she lifted her right hand and laid it on mine. I never forgot the gesture. It was as if she was comforting me.

  Then she spoke. "Well, Great Nananne knows now. She knows whether my mother is alive or dead. "

  "Yes, she knows," I answered, avowing my belief before I could think the better of it. "And whatever she knows, she's at peace. "

  There was a quiet interval in which I became painfully conscious of Merrick's suffering, and of the noises of the Talamasca acolytes who were moving every object in the place. I heard the grinding noise of the large statues being dragged or pushed. I heard the sound of packing tape being stretched and torn.

  "I loved that man, Matthew," said Merrick softly. "I really loved him. He taught me how to read the Book of Magic. He taught me how to read all the books that Oncle Vervain had left. He liked to look at the pictures I showed you. He was an interesting man. "

  There was another long pause. Something in the atmosphere of the house disturbed me. I was confused by what I was feeling. It had nothing to do with normal noises or activity. And it seemed imperative suddenly that I conceal this disturbance from Merrick, that such a thing, whatever it was, not trouble her at this time.

  It was as if someone altogether new and different had entered the house, and one could hear that person's stealthy movements. It was the sense of a coherent presence. I wiped it from my mind, never for a moment fearing it, and keeping my eyes on Merrick, when, in a daze of sorts, she began to speak rather rapidly and tonelessly again.

  "Up in Boston, Matthew had studied history and science. He knew all about Mexico and the jungles. He told me the story of the Olmec. When we were in Mexico City he took me to the museum. He was going to see to it that I went to school. He wasn't afraid in those jungles. He thought those shots protected us. He wouldn't let us drink the water, you know, all of that. And he was rich, like I told you, and he would have never tried to steal these things from Cold Sandra or me. "

  Her eyes remained steady.

  I could still feel this distinct entity within the house, and I realized that she did not feel it. Aaron did not know it was there, either. But it was there. And it was not far from where we sat. With all my soul I listened to Merrick.

  "Oncle Vervain left lots of things. I'll show you. Oncle Vervain said we had our roots in the jungle land down there, and in Haiti before our people ever came up here. He said we weren't like American black people, though he never said the word 'black,' he always said colored. He thought it was polite to say colored. Cold Sandra used to laugh at him. Oncle Vervain was a powerful magician, and before him there had been his grandfather, and Oncle Vervain told tales of what the Old Man could do. "

  I realized her soft speech was becoming more rapid. The history was pouring out from her.

  "The Old Man, that's all I ever called him. He was a Voodoo man in the Civil War. He went back to Haiti to learn things and when he came back to this town they said he took it by storm. Of course, they talk about Marie Laveau, but they talk of the Old Man too. Sometimes I can feel them near me, Oncle Vervain and the Old Man, as well as Lucy Nancy Marie Mayfair, who's in the photograph, and another one, a Voodoo queen whom they called Pretty Justine. They said everybody was afraid of Pretty Justine. "

  "What do you want for yourself, Merrick," I asked her suddenly, desperate to stop the ever increasing speed of her words.

  She looked at me sharply, and then she smiled. "I want to be educated, Mr. Talbot. I want to go to school. "

  "Ah, how marvelous," I whispered.

  "I told Mr. Lightner," she continued, "and he said you could do it. I want to be in a highquality school where they teach me Greek and Latin and which fork to use for my salad or my fish. I want to know all about magic, the way Matthew did, telling me things out of the Bible, and reading over those old books and saying what was tried and true. Matthew never had to make a living. I expect I will have to make a living. But I want to be educated, and I think you know what I mean. "

  She fixed her gaze on me. Her eyes were dry and clear, and it was then perhaps more than at any other time that I noticed their beautiful coloration of which I've spoken before. She went on talking, her voice a little slower now, and calmer and almost sweet.

  "Mr. Lightner says all your members are educated people. That's what he told me right before you came. I can see those manners in the people at the Motherhouse and I hear the way they talk. Mr. Lightner says it's the tradition of the Talamasca. You educate your members, because it's a lifelong thing to be a member, and you all live under the same roof. "

  I smiled. It was true. Very true. "Yes," I said, "we do this with all who come to us, insofar as they are willing and able to absorb it, and we'll give it to you. "

  Merrick leant forward and kissed me on the cheek.

  I was quite startled by this affection, and at a loss as to the proper thing to do. I spoke from the heart.

  "Darling, we'll give you everything. We have so much to share, it would be our duty if it weren't . . . if it weren't such a pleasure for us to do. "

  Something invisible was suddenly gone from the house. I felt it as if a being had snapped its fingers and simply disappeared. Merrick showed no consciousness of this.

  "And what will I do for you in exchange?" she asked in a calm sure voice. "You can't give me everything for nothing, Mr. Talbot. Tell me what you want from me. "

  "Teach us what you know about magic," I answered, "and grow up to be happy, to be strong, and never to be afraid. "
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