Laraine Herring

The Conjurer

“There’s a man in the closet,” I said.

“No, honey, that’s a coat,” said my mother.

“But I think that a person can have three eyes,” I said.

“No, sweetie, people have two eyes,” said my art teacher. “Erase the other one.”

“Someone’s watching outside the window,” I said.

“That’s a tree,” said my sister.

“I’m going to be a professional singer,” I said.

“You can support the singers, honey,” said my grandmother. “But you’re tone deaf.”

“I hear people I can’t see,” I said.

“No, no,” said my father. “Those are just your thoughts. Sometimes thoughts sound like voices.”

When I was nineteen, the woman with the pink feathered hat came and sat on the edge of my bed, swamp water dripping from her dress. I wanted to tell everyone, but I didn’t. Her eyes were kudzu green and she wore high-buckled boots. “My name is Roberta,” she said. “Take this.” She pulled a damp turquoise peacock feather from her hat brim. “You can show them if you want to. Keep it safe.”

I could touch the feather, but I couldn’t touch her gloved hand. I should be afraid, I thought, and I wondered what voice in my head that one was. I should scream, but why? She was just sitting there, dripping. The feather shimmered like icicles. “Are you a ghost?”

She shook her head.

“What are you?”

“One day you’ll know,” she said and vanished. The quilt was cool and dry where she’d sat. Where did all the water go? The feather was in my hand, but its shimmer had dimmed and it had grayed to a pigeon’s hue. I put the feather in my nightstand. What a dream. No more wine coolers for me. At least not the bottom-shelf ones.

The next time I saw the woman in the pink feathered hat I was twenty-seven and she’d brought a water moccasin and another woman with her. “Lillian,” she told me when I sat up in bed, moonlight blue across my face. “This gal is Lillian, and she’s my great-grandaughter.” Lillian wouldn’t look at me, her face shielded with her fingers. She wore jeans and an apron that said Carolina BBQ: The secret sauce is vinegar.

The snake was fat and pulsing, mouth open to reveal its tell-tale cotton. “Pit viper,” said Roberta with a grin. “That’s how I die.” She pulled her collar down and showed me the bite. Then she handed the snake to me. “Put it around your neck,” she said.

“You’re crazy,” I said, not sure why that was all I was saying. Not sure why I wasn’t screaming, though by that time I knew why I wasn’t telling anyone about her.

“Do you trust me?”

“You said you weren’t a ghost,” I said.

“I’m not.”

The snake wound itself around my wrist. My breath was even, my heart calm. The snake stretched its head toward my neck, and the cotton-white interior that we’d been taught to fear since our first days walking outside was beautiful, like the etched marble of my grandmother’s coffee table. I leaned in closer and the snake struck, and rather than panic I opened to it. The snake unwound from my arm and dissolved into ice crystals.

“He liked you,” said Roberta. Lillian, even though she was a grown woman, curled into Roberta’s stiff side, crying. “There, there,” said Roberta.

“I didn’t mean it,” said Lillian.

“I know,” said Roberta.

I touched my neck, and the welt raised and tingled hot. My throat, rather than closing with venom, opened. I should call 9-1-1. I’m hallucinating. I’m dying. A cottonmouth bit me on the neck in my bedroom in the desert, where there are absolutely no poisonous water snakes anywhere.

The welt disappeared beneath my fingers. Lillian was gone. Roberta was now only a torso and a pink feathered hat. “Look in the closet,” said Roberta. “You’ll find there’s someone there after all.”

I reached for the lamp by the bed. “Don’t turn on the light!” said Roberta, only this time she was inside my head. The closet in my one-bedroom apartment had accordion doors. I always kept them shut, but there was a glow now underneath the left one. I pulled it open, bracing for the inevitable screech along the track, but it was oil-slick smooth. In the back corner, hanging from the rack, was a man with a noose around his neck. His smile flooded the closet with light. “Well hey there, young lady,” he said. “I’m Gabriel. Are you finally ready?” His neck was blue-black swollen, but he smiled and swung like he was in a playground. My blouses ruffled with wind. “Come on, cat got your tongue?”

My neck burned, and when I put my hand to it, it came away wet and dripping with ink.

“We’re here now,” said Gabriel. “You finally ready to write that book?”

Laraine Herring holds an MFA and an MA in psychology, with an emphasis on using narrative therapy to address trauma. She is the author of four books of nonfiction and three novels, including the award-winning Writing Begins with the Breath. She teaches writing and psychology at Yavapai College.