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White and red cloth, she decided, and cut and stitched four pieces of flannel together in a pattern of alternating colors. Gold cord for the cinch. Along with the hair and the other ingredients she'd already set aside she added mustard seed for hope, dragon's blood for courage, and five grains of paradise, to heat things up and get them going.

As Mizz Johnson had predicted, her grandchildren failed to show up at Rianne's house that evening. Nor did they come the next afternoon.

Tuesday night, Rianne slept again in the shrine room. As far as she could tell the charm was finished, but till her client came to claim it she should leave the bag open. There might be more to add, depending on what Shinel said, or what Oshun showed her. Carefully placing the bag between her head and Oshun's altar she uttered a prayer for guidance and fell into another dream.

Of zombies. Hollywood zombies, white people's fantasies of the dead. Not proper egun, ancestors honored and remembered. Tattered clothing, tattered flesh, rising from unquiet graves to feed upon the living.

Rianne didn't do dead people. She attempted to awaken and succeeded. On the altars surrounding her, candles shed their reassuring light. Turning over, she calmed her heart and closed her eyes, and soon again she slept. And dreamt. Of him.

He wore leather, red and white, the colors of the King, Shango, Kawo, the Spirit of Justice. He jerked his head and stamped his feet, twitched in time to a strict, forbidding beat, one that had been building all this while underground and now burst forth like the dead, and they were all around him, arching backs and clawing hands snatching at the air, at her—

Rianne awakened several times that night.

She got up for good at five, brewed her coffee extra strong and sat in the living room alone. Death and decay. Evil. Why had she run into such things in her pursuit of justice? What was Oshun trying to tell her?

The man in her nightmare had been born a year before she was. For most of Rianne's life, his music had been all but inescapable. The bright, bouncy melodies he and his brothers sang were the soundtrack of her junior high; his smoothly glittering disco hits lured her fellow college students from classes and study halls out to clubs where they danced until the sunlight. But usually not Rianne. She'd be in some coffeehouse, listening to a poet or folksinger. A woman.

When he had died the year before, she'd been so busy with her own troubles she barely noted the global outpouring of grief. She set herself now to learn what she had missed, looking for clues, reasons why Oshun would keep sending her these visions. She surfed Wikipedia, YouTube, a hundred fan sites with locations from Russia to Uruguay. Downloaded movies, videos, interviews.

Her tears fell softly at first, and then she cried outright. How rich his life looked, yet how hard. Here he stood on a talk show set, encased in a vinyl carapace, shiny coat and pants, and shades over his eyes. There he sat on a golden throne in Africa, newly crowned, starving orphans on his lap. And everywhere, everywhere he danced, a discipline beyond belief when you knew about his pain and injuries, danced like flame, like flowers, like breath, burning and blooming.

Dong! Dong! Dong! Her doorbell rang three times. The number belonging to Eshu. Rianne looked at the time in the bottom corner of her old laptop's screen. Not much past noon; too early for Shinel or Brutus.

Both doors were locked from the night before. She opened the inner wooden one and saw it was Janis Clemmons on the porch. "Come in."

"No I won't. No thank you. I'll call you out your name right here on your front porch. Freak! Bulldagger! I knew you was weird from the get-go. You better not never come near no child a mine again!" Mizz Clemmons hit the screen door with her fist so hard Rianne expected it to cave in. She shouted swear words and Rianne felt sick. Who had betrayed her? Who around here knew?

At last she left. Despite Rianne's first invitation, her guardians had kept Mizz Clemmons out. She was safe—for now.

Who? Rianne slumped on the living room floor, as far from the front door as she could get and still be inside. She should never have set foot on those school grounds, taken those children to the restaurant, let them in her home. Anyone could have seen.

She'd have to sell her new house, move somewhere else. Maybe outside the country. Flee. And be forever strange.

She hadn't done anything. She hadn't done anything.

Except run away. And now she was going to have to do it again.

Of course there had been connections between orisha communities here and in Detroit. Of course there'd been talk back and forth, and of course somehow Mizz Clemmons had heard it.

In Ann Arbor where Rianne had lived for the last year and a half, only thirty miles from Detroit, she had expected her accusers to influence what jobs she got, how teachers and social workers and administrators acted towards her. And the slander suit she filed gave her satisfaction enough to sort of make up for that. Besides, she had never planned to stay in Michigan. Soon as she got the settlement, she came out here.

Rianne still wore her pajamas. She had a few tabs of Percocet left over from a root canal. She swallowed one and went to bed, woke that night after eight hours of solid nothing, zip, zero psychic messages. Then she did what she should have done in the first place: called Madrina.

"Aboru aboye." I place my burdens at your feet, the traditional greeting to a priest who was also a diviner.

It was almost midnight in Michigan, but Madrina had answered on the first ring: "Aboye abochiche." I lift your burdens to heaven. "Alaafia," she added; a wish for peace. "Rianne, what's troublin you?"

Rianne lay stretched on her side on the living room's thick blue carpet. "I know you know that I have troubles, Madrina, but how?"

"Please. You put up a good front, don't get me wrong, and it can be more than a front. Only a daughter of Oshun would have come out of that Detroit mess with a house in California." A long pause. "But I know what you been through. Ain't no picnic.

"So you might as well break it down."

Rianne did. Then she asked if she could come back to Ann Arbor and live with Madrina while she figured out her next move.

"Wrong question."

That hurt. Her palms, her chest, the soles of her feet felt sore, like scabs had been ripped off of them too soon. Rianne inhaled deeply. This was not, could not be outright rejection. Only—only—

"It's my ita, isn't it?" That was the reading she'd received at her initiation, the one that covered the rest of Rianne's life.

"You can run, but you can't hide," Madrina agreed. "Wherever you go, whatever kinda things you do, it's gonna be with children."

Unless she found somewhere in the world without them. The South Pole? Somewhere.

Before she left, though, she'd see if she could do her work. Fulfill her ita, at least for now. Another question, then. "Those dreams. Why did Oshun send them to me?"

"Now that's more like it." Madrina's smile shone through the phone lines. "What were you askin her for?"

Justice. "Help reaching my client's father. Hickory Donald Clemmons."

"Mmm-hmmm! Then that's probably what you got."

"But they—"

"Unless somebody workin the orisha decided to interfere."

The Oya devotee Hick had last been seen with? "Why? What makes you say—"

"See, you don't normally have any connection with this singer, Rianne; you don't own no CDs or none a his albums. So no reason why he should keep coming up.

"Unless somebody bringin him."

Yes. "That makes sense, Madrina." Rianne turned on her other side.

"I'm sure it does. I'm sure it does." A short silence. "I'ma tell you a pataki."

Patakis were parables, legends of the orisha; often they elaborated on truths revealed in divination. Rianne listened closely, though she'd heard this one before:

A priestess of Oya held the King Shango a prisoner. She raised the dead to guard him, so he was unable to escape into the welcoming arms of Oshun. To free him to love her, Oshun seduced the dead.

Rianne stayed up the rest of the night. She spent some of it analyzing what she'd heard, trying to understand how it applied. The unnamed Oya priestess seemed to be exactly that, in real life and in fable, while she herself, Rianne, was a stand-in for Oshun. But what about Hick? Who did he represent? The King Shango? Could be that was how Shinel saw him.

And then the singer. Him. A source of the ghostly guards? He had died. But hadn't he in life been called a king?

Research. She absorbed a movie, more interviews, and music, music, music, music. Still sitting there at 8 a.m., Rianne admitted to herself she didn't need any further information. Only, there was so much she had missed of his life, his work. How could she bear to ever stop? Another song, and another; version after version performed in Manila, Munich, London, Tokyo.

Even the awkward moments endeared him to her: an unzipped fly at a concert in Kansas City; a dance costume that made him look like a boy caught wearing his mother's brass bra and half-slip.

Was she falling in love with a dead man? Was he a man?

Was he dead?

Clinically, yes. There was the rub. Men were all right, but Rianne didn't do dead people.

But somehow, Oshun had. To get what she wanted. What she needed. Justice. Justice and love.

And if Rianne could obtain justice for Hick's daughter, it would be hers also. She would be modeling for the orisha exactly what she herself wanted to receive. Holding herself up as a mirror for the universe to see itself in.

And maybe she could stay here.

Lunchtime. She fixed herself a cheese sandwich and ate it sitting at her desk, looking at her laptop.

No children came to her house that afternoon. Not that she expected them. Janis would be watching. Rianne would have to use the charm herself.

The dreams might well be due to a priest's interference. Rianne had a possible remedy in a box somewhere. She found it in the dining room, under the window seat: a parabolic mirror, a silvered bowl. It went up by her Eshu, its surface swelling with images of his black stone face.

From the same box she selected a second mirror, one cut like a five-pointed star, its center the size of her fingernail. Into the bag with that one. To further invoke Oshun she added in an amber bead rummaged out of her jewelry box. Then she sewed the mojo shut.

For supper she heated up a bowl of chicken soup and ate it with Club crackers.

In the claw-foot tub she bathed in river water from jugs kept below the kitchen sink.

After that, for the third time she went, not to bed, but to her blue pad in the shrine room and lay down on it not just to sleep, but, perchance, to dream.

Success. He manifested relatively whole, unrotted. Post one of his many surgeries, with makeup evening out the white patches on his poor skin. But beautiful. His song shimmered in the blackness, sweet and silver, ice and snow. About mirrors. Rianne reached out with insubstantial arms and held the mojo toward his chopped up face.

He saw. She saw him see. Saw him lift his hand as if to grasp the empty air as always and pull it down inside a fist, miming at passion.

Instead he grabbed her hand, the one with the mojo, solid enough, it seemed. Tugged her toward him in the body she made up as she arrived. And so they danced.

This was what she'd been afraid to want: to move with him as fast as thought. As sure as love. As deep as sex.

Scarves swirled around her legs and waist and hips, shoulders, breasts, and head. Was he a man? She didn't care. Was he dead? Alive enough to skip in place and run and sing, and she could hear him laugh with pleasure, shouting with his happiness to share this moment as they swept from step to righteous step, finger snap to strut to spin and drop on knees, arms wide, and face to face.

Eyes unwavering, gazing into his, she dipped her hand beneath her skirt, scooping up honey. Sweetness and strength. She held it to his mouth. It dripped with golden light. He took it. Ate it. Bent his head and asked for more.

Still asleep, deep in the dream, she knew that she had won.

She awoke and felt him yet within her, the king, seated on his throne. For her client and Rianne herself. Justice, there to see her through.

And love.

She would stay, and fight.

The Bay Area was liberal; people here would understand the difference between a bisexual and a pederast. With a bit of help.

She went out to her front yard, proud, prepared to defend herself if anyone challenged her right to be there. Windblown trash clung to the green picket fence: she was collecting it when a candy-apple red truck drove up to the curb and parked. Hickory Donald Clemmons opened the driver-side door and climbed out.

The turbaned woman emerged from the other side. It was her, the same as in Shinel's drawing, down to the dress. Face smooth, like a mannequin's: a stiff, conventional, repellent prettiness. Wax fruit. She walked quickly to the gate, put out her hand to open it, and stopped—kept by Rianne's warriors from even touching it.

Those who sought to bend the orisha to their will seldom succeeded for long.

The man moved more slowly. The turbaned woman was ready to back off just as he was finishing his approach. One retreating step. A hesitance. Two steps more, and she stood uncertainly on the curb. The man leaned on a fence post, looked over his shoulder at her and faced front again, forehead pushed up in wrinkles of puzzlement. His eyes shifted rapidly back and forth a moment, then focused steadily on the house. "This ain't where my childrens live, Lurena. Why you brung us here? They down the street a ways—"

A smile sweet as strawberries widened his mouth without thinning his lips. "Hidey. My name's Clemmons. You wanna tell me yours?"

"Mizz Rianne. I do hoodoo."

Nisi Shawl wrote the Nebula Award finalist Everfair and the 2008 James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award winner Filter House. In 2005 they co-wrote Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, the standard text on inclusivity in the imaginative genres. Shawl is a founder of the Carl Brandon Society, and for the last twenty years has served on the board of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. In 2019 Shawl received the Kate Wilhelm Solstice Award, and in 2020 they received two Locus Awards. They live in southern Seattle and takes frequent walks with their cat.  
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