Thunder rumbled, and a jagged flash of lightning speared the belly of a low thunderhead. Because of the thick foliage overhead, we hadn’t noticed the rapidly approaching storm until it was upon us.
“We’re gonna get soaked.” Beth pulled a couple of yellow rain slickers from a backpack while steering toward an outcrop of dry land.
“Here, you two can share.” She handed one to Tex, then unfolded a wrinkled map and studied it for a moment. “There’s an abandoned ranger station near here. It’s pretty rundown but it can give us shelter.”
We climbed out of the swamp buggy, now bucking and leaping on the wind-whipped water. Beth tied it fast to the trunk of a sturdy tree, while large drops pummeled the leaves overhead.
“This way.” Beth brandished a flashlight that cut a swath through storm-darkened undergrowth.
We followed, huddled under the slicker and holding it tight to prevent the wind from jerking it out of our hands.
Sure enough, a small concrete-block building appeared in the gloom. The door hung open on rusted hinges. We ran for it as the swollen clouds spilled on the wetland.
Inside, Beth found a candle and lit it. The place had little to offer but dust and a roof. Wind-driven rain whipped through a broken window, but we found a dry corner.
Beth cleared a space in the dust and sat down on her slicker. She motioned for us to do the same
I couldn’t wait any longer. “Beth, do you think we’re crazy?”
She eyed me a moment. “I believe your story. Since I’ve had this job, I’ve seen plenty of evidence of voodoo cults in the bayous, and I know they do some pretty weird things. Heard of a woman a few years back. She worked in the fields of a sugar plantation. People said she was a zombie, so I visited the place. She certainly acted like one.”
Beth’s brow furrowed. “Here’s the weird part. I knew this woman before her supposed death. Knew she had an unusual scar on her right arm. I looked for it, and it was there. She was the same woman all right. I decided she couldn’t have really died. There must have been a mistake. Later, I checked the records and found her death certificate, all official and authentic. The whole thing gave me the creeps.”
As I listened to Beth’s story, the wind moaned and howled around the building like an angry, wounded animal. Sitting there in the flickering candlelight, once again in the middle of a swamp, I thought it the spookiest story I’d heard in my entire year of reporting for Beyond Fantasy—not counting what had happened to Tex and me.
We were not yet out of our own difficulties, and that unwelcome thought, together with the storm’s fury, left me unnerved.
Tex described how his own zombie experience involved the use of a paralyzing drug, followed by an antidote to revive him later.
“Makes sense.” Beth appeared relieved to find a natural explanation to the mystery.
Her calm, decisive attitude inspired confidence. We couldn’t have asked for a better rescuer. Not only would she see us safely back to the city, she could also be very helpful when we talked to the authorities. We needed someone to assure them we weren’t a couple of loonies.
There was a brilliant flash of lightning, and I saw a gap-toothed hag illuminated through the broken window.
I pointed, wide eyed, toward the window.
Beth patted my hand and in a calm voice said, “Come on inside, Sofronia.”
Sofronia appeared at the doorway and entered somewhat hesitantly. I realized my scream might have thrown her a curve.
“I be out fishing,” she said by way of explanation. Wet and bedraggled, the woman’s gap-toothed grin did not add any charm to her features. She wore baggy trousers and a man’s denim work shirt over her withered frame. Her gnarled hands were callused, no doubt from years of hard work. I couldn’t help thinking of the wicked witch from Hansel and Gretel, but now I saw her more clearly, the word wicked did not seem to apply.
She nodded toward Tex and me. “You get caught in the storm, too?” Then she peered at us more intently. “You be them the voodoo witch is lookin’ for.” It was an observation rather than a question.
“How did you know that?” I asked, astounded.
“Word travels in the bayous. Sofronia knows things. I talk with Cajun Jack. His daughter tell him.” She pushed a wet strand of yellow-gray hair from her forehead.
“Jacqueline! She is all right then? And her husband?” I lost my breath for a moment, the news was so welcome.
“They be fine. Been to police. You gonna get away from her sure enough.”
“What do you mean?”
“She fears your power.” The old crone gave me a knowing look.
“You have a greater power in you. She don’t be workin’ her spells on you without harm to herself. She’s afraid. But she keep tryin’ ‘cause she want dat book. She wants the secret to livin’ forever young.”
I thought of the moment in Madame’s enchanted shack when I spoke the name of my Lord. The atmosphere of the room had changed completely, and Madame had exploded in a fit of rage.
Consumed by a desire to know what Sofronia believed, I asked, “What faith do you follow?”
She made herself comfortable, seating her rickety body on a corner of Beth’s slicker before beginning her story.
“I be here in the bayous since born. I be knowin’ all about the voodoo, the Rada, and the Daome. There is power in these.” She spoke with solemn conviction, the voice of experience.
I was vaguely aware of the wind and thunder. Rain pelted our shelter, but inside with Beth and Sofronia’s calming presence, I felt safe, dry, and almost cozy.
“I’ve known Sofronia for years,” Beth said. “She’s a lady who doesn’t speak unless she has something to say. And when she does, it’s worth listening to.”
Tex and I turned our eyes to the old woman, who looked less like a witch and more like a wise old grandmother, now that I could see the light in her intelligent eyes.
“My grandma, she took me to the meetin’ house when I be small. I heard the preacher. He be yellin’ and shoutin’. The people, they be yellin’ and shoutin’. Me, I just be scared. So I don’t go back when I growed.” An expression of regret clouded her face.
“I go to the fire rings. I see what they do. I know they make things happen. I want to be where there is power. So I stay with them for long times.”
“What kind of things can they do?” Tex asked.