I’ve always been told to write about what I know, and have taken this advice to heart. As a result, there’s always a seed of truth buried beneath my stories. Sometimes, as in Witches Gumbo, the reality is metaphoric. That story shows manner in which a community treats a person who is different—a situation of which I’m well aware. Often, a story emerges from a specific experience, and then finds a life of its own—by which I mean my vivid imagination leads me to an alternate reality. I’ve explained this so I can tell you what led to my short story, Second Hand.
The setting of Witches Gumbo is a fictional Louisiana bayou, and the story tells of the family of a woman called the Swamp Witch. I knew to do my research about the bayou—learn of the flora and fauna, and the lifestyle of residents. What I hadn’t researched was the witchcraft element—a fact pointed out to me when I sent a friend a second or third draft of the story.
“Susan,” the friend told me, “if you want it to have a ring of truth, you need to learn about witchcraft.”
Al was right, of course, so I secured several books on the subject, and began to read. Halfway through the second book, the Wicca beliefs, and especially the idea that we’re to be caretakers of the natural world began to make sense. This was shortly followed by the idea that we are able to bend the workings of nature to our will. Sold on these ideas, I decided I would become a Wicca and practice witchcraft. I found stores that sold the tools I’d need: colored candles, strange sounding herbs (what in heaven’s name is mugwort?) and a double-bladed knife called an athame with which to bless the herbs. I now had everything I would need, except a cast iron cauldron.
The problem of the cauldron was nearly solved one day when my sister, Robin, and I were driving down the main street in West Palm Beach. In the middle of one block, through the passenger-side window I spotted a second hand store. In the middle of the shop’s small windows sat just the cauldron I’d looked for—neither too big nor too small.
“Stop the car, Robin!” I shouted.
“What? What?” she said, while she pulled to the curb and looked around.
I point to the shop window.
“What do you want in there?” she asked.
As I opened the car door and began to get out, I told her everything: Witches gumbo, the books I’d read, what I’d decided I would do.”
Before I finished speaking, she grabbed one of the belt loops on my jeans, and yanked be back into the car. Then, in simple words even I would understand, she explained why, with my sense of humor, I am the last person on earth who should know how to do such things.
Needless to say, I’ve long since surrendered to idea of being a practicing witch. Still…
So, this is the underpinning of what became the story, Second Hand (first published in 2012 by Literary Juice). So you might see what a writer’s imagination did with this, here’s the story.
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Susan Lynn Solomon
Susan Lynn Solomon
It was a good afternoon for shopping on Worth Street. Ample parking: August, hot, humid, is off-season in West Palm Beach.
Though upscale boutiques sporting Sale signs lined both sides of the street, Deidre dodged cars to reach the window of a dimly-lit store. Beyond gilt lettering that read, Wapinger’s Second Hand, were vintage dresses on battered seamstress forms, and 19th century hand-tools strewn among a mélange of Art Deco jewelry and partial sets of chipped china. Deidre’s eyes seemed focused on a rack inside.
Sharon tugged the strap of her cousin’s shoulder bag. “You’re wasting time.” All the bargains around, you stop here? God, writers are such a pain, her expression said.
Deidre tilted her head as if mentally measuring a corner of her living room to determine whether the treasure she’d spotted would fit there.
With a snort, Sharon took half a dozen steps up the block. Sighing, she glanced back, turned, and again pulled at her cousin’s bag.
“Give me a minute,” Deidre complained. A bell tinkled when she opened the door.
Assaulted by the musty odor of things long disused, Sharon stopped just inside, sniffed, and sneezed. Deidre inhaled deeply. She clearly liked the smell of the past.
Another sneeze clogged Sharon’s sinuses. She did an about-face. “I’m waiting outside.” The bell rang then rang again. The small relief offered by an overworked air-conditioner was better than the sweltering midday. Braving the atmosphere, she craned her neck to peer into the shop. “Now where are you?” Impatiently, she muttered, “Impossible, the way you just disappear—”
“Over here,” Deidre called.
Sharon inched down one tight aisle then another, loose sandals stirring dust from the scarred wood floor. Deidre was in the third. Crouched on her heels, she flipped the handle of a round-bottomed, cast-iron pot.
“Not another planter… Her house is already a nursery,” Sharon complained to the nearby man in an apron.
Wiping perspiration from his forehead that stretched, past a fringe of gray hair, to the back of his head, the man said to Deidre, “That’s an old one. Name’s on the bottom near the legs.”
Turning the pot on its side, she felt for the stamped-in letters.
“Andre…Verdeau…” The shopkeeper seemed loath to invoke the name.
Deidre looked up at him. Sharon turned away with a head shake and shrug intended to ask, Who cares who made that useless thing?
“Acadian. Ran a foundry upstream from the delta.” the shopkeeper said. “1820, 1825, around then…”
“…Legend has it—”
Sharon’s head snapped around. “Not again.”
Sharon had seen her cousin go through other passions. Always they ended with a yawned ‘it just got old.’ Sooner or later everything got old for Deedee—even her marriage to Ray. At least, that’s what she’d said, though Sharon knew better. But her latest mania—for magic, of all things—hadn’t abated.
Deidre’s fascination with herbalism, and through it, the ability to bend time, nature, human hearts, had begun when she researched a story set in a Louisiana bayou. Her maltreated heroine cast cunjas—hexes—for vengeance. She wrote it just after Ray left her. In a store much like Wappinger’s, she’d found a ‘How Too’ on Wicca. The modern emanation of ancient beliefs made sense to her, she’d told Sharon. The universe is interconnected: gravity draws everything to everything else. ‘It’s irrefutably logical,’ she’d said. The book outlined herbs that achieved certain results; described tools needed to cut, mix, and sew them into amulets—silk threads, un-dyed linen, a double-bladed ceremonial knife, colored candles…
It was strange, frightening almost: by following the directions, her cousin seemed able to, well, do things… Became more adept at it every day. ‘Nothing evil, mind you,’ she’d sworn to Sharon. ‘Evil has…uh, consequences.’
So, good things only: an herbal amulet chanted over, and a neighbor’s dog that forever threatened Sharon now sought affection from her; another chant and a widower Sharon was mad about called for a date. When she asked, “Did you do that? You didn’t… Did you?” Deedee answered with a smile that never failed to annoy, “Does it matter? Got what you wanted.”
Not long ago, Deidre had said that to reach her desired skill she needed one thing more…
Deidre slid the bowl from the shelf, and stood up. She turned it, looked inside, hefted it. “Could be bigger. Still…” she said.
“C’mon already. I can’t breathe in here?” Sharon sniffed.
“Stop whining, I’m thinking,” Deidre said to her, then, to the shopkeeper, “How much?”
Lower lip protruding, Sharon clomped to the front of the shop, where she stood, foot tapping, hands on hips, looking out the window.
After a minute, the shopkeeper said, “It’s very old… You don’t find Verdeau cauldrons everyday… $250?”
“Deedee, come here,” Sharon called over her shoulder. “Isn’t that Ray’s car? Who’s the woman with him?”
Deidre’s glance lasted only long enough to identify the familiar red corvette, and the blond laughing in the passenger seat. “Marsha…Blaine…” She looked up. “Yeah, $250 sounds fine.”
Sharon caught her breath. The way her cousin said it…
“Have any black candles?” Deidre asked the shopkeeper. “Two should be sufficient,” she said as he headed to the back.
“Oh, no!” Sharon rushed towards her cousin; no sneezes from scattering dust. “No, no, no! You said you’d only… You promised…”
Deidre’s smile was inscrutable, her expression unreadable by anyone who knew her less well than Sharon.