The city slowly gave way to the bayou. It was a type of wilderness that was new to me. My nature was misty mountains covered in snowy evergreens, not tall trees covered in vines growing out of the still waters of the mosquito-ridden bayou. Not even two days in this new city, and it’s like I’m part of a completely different world.
“When I told you I live in the bayou, I meant I live in the bayou. Only accessible by boat.” Sani was another new experience that this relocation had brought me. A skinwalker was not necessarily within my natural wheelhouse of interest, but he sounded desperate. Besides, his word-of-mouth reviews of my help could be what I needed to get my secret business off the ground. How could I say no?
“So you’re saying I should’ve changed out of jeans,” I said flatly.
“You won’t get wet. Probably.” As uneasy as this strange man had made me when we first met, he was slowly growing on me, due in no small part to his sense of humor. “Are shamans common in your family?”
Why is this guy so damn curious about my family? “We’re from a line, but it supposedly skips a generation. We’ve also kinda kept it on the DL when dealing with outsiders.”
“You remind me of the shaman I mentioned earlier. Aki.” Yeah, he had mentioned the name my family insisted on passing down through the generations. My mom is the last living member with the name. “You look just like her.”
I had suspicions about who he might’ve been talking about from the moment he mentioned the name Aki. I thought about not telling him. My family had instilled protective guardedness into me since birth. The idea of breaking that, even now, was still anxiety-inducing. So what was it about this guy that was breaking my walls down so quickly? “Might’ve been my grandmother. Or great-grandmother. My mom’s also named Aki, but not a shaman herself.”
From the corner of my eye, I could see Sani rubbing his chin. “It was about a hundred years ago. Maybe your great-grandmother. Did you ever meet her?”
Here we go. “That’s a complicated question. She died holding me for the first time after I was born.”
I didn’t have to look at Sani to know that his eyes were bulging out of his head. Everyone who heard this about my great-grandmother had the same reaction. “You act just like her. Almost like your souls are connected.”
“Now you’re sounding like my mom.”
“Take it as a compliment. Aki was an amazing woman.”
“So they tell me.”
The conversation fizzled out, settling into silence. I was quietly thankful for it. I didn’t want to keep revealing my family’s secrets, even if this guy knew my family. “Take the next right, and we’ll be at the boat landing.”
I followed his directions and took the next right, a rickety old dock greeting us. Anchored to the dock was a longboat with ANIMAL painted on the side in red paint. The boat could probably fit up to twelve people. Mounted on the back of the boat was the biggest fan I think I’d ever seen in my life. That thing’s gonna cause a tornado.
I killed my truck’s engine and stepped out, grabbing my supplies from the bed. “I guess today is gonna be full of new experiences.”
Sani found my statement amusing. The smile he had while we were walking towards the boat was reminiscent of the cat who ate the canary. “You never come to the bayou without experiencing a few new things.” He started untying the boat from the dock while I stood by awkwardly. We’d done some trips to the lakes and the rivers back home, but even then, I never strayed too far from the shoreline. This was definitely out of my comfort zone.
With only one rope left to anchor the boat to the dock, Sani approached me and offered his hand. “Take my hand and jump.”
He makes it sound so easy. With a deep breath, I took his hand and leapt onto the swaying platform of the boat. I had to catch myself from falling, but Sani’s hand helped with that. “Thanks.”
With a nod, Sani went to the back of the boat where the fan was. “Whenever you’re ready.”
“Uh, do I need to… I don’t know. Batten down the hatches?”
“Just sit down and enjoy the breeze in your hair.”
I shrugged and did as he said. “Ready when you are.” Sani yanked on a crank, backing the boat away from the dock. Once we were righted on the bayou, he pushed a lever. In an instant, we went from stagnant to flying, the water splashing up in a wave as we went. The sheer speed at which we were traveling pinned me to my seat. I had to wrap my arms around the back of my chair to keep myself from sliding down to the deck of the boat. “You weren’t kidding about the breeze!”
I didn’t even know if Sani heard me over the rushing wind around us until he responded. “It’ll knock you in the water!” He was definitely enjoying watching the lily-livered sea-lover failing to get her sea legs. Bayou legs. Whatever.
Turning the corner on the bayou, a cabin suddenly came into view about a mile away. This was obviously Sani’s home. We pulled up to the small dock and Sani killed the engine. He tied the boat to the dock, but I didn’t dare to let go of my seat. He de-boarded and offered his hand. I struggled to my feet and let him help me onto the dock, feeling safe once I was back on solid ground.
Sani gave me a moment to catch my breath before asking, “So, what’s the first step?”
“I think I need a tour to start with. I’d like to be sure this will be of the most help to you.”
Sani shrugged, saying, “There isn’t much.” He led me to his cabin and allowed me to enter the space. A shiver ran up my spine as I entered. Sani noticed and asked, “You okay?”
“Yeah… I’m… I’m fine.”
Sani wasn’t kidding when he said that there wasn’t much to the cabin. It was all one room, and there wasn’t even a sign of a bathroom. “That’s where I sleep,” Sani said, pointing to the twin-size bed in the corner. “That’s where I cook.” In the other corner of the one-room home, there was a fridge and a stove. “That’s pretty much it. I travel light and live simple.”
“Well, that makes it easy,” I said, choosing to look on the bright side of the situation rather than ask why he lived so meekly. Stepping into the middle of the room, I scanned the place, taking it in and trying to see what I could feel. I wanted to see if I could find the source of the chill that went down my back. “What came first? Chicken or egg?” Sani gave me a confused look. “You said you’ve been dealing with this darkness for… a really long time?”
“Since I met the skinwalker who lived outside my village. I used to play at the river by his home. We became friends. Or so I thought. Eventually, he put some sort of protection over my soul. He said it was a protection.”
Jesus, man. This isn’t “How to Catch a Murderer”. “Gonna need you to stop being so cryptic, buddy.”
“That’s all I know,” Sani replied with a shrug. “He trained me in dark magic. That’s where I learned it. He taught me everything I know. He said he wanted to protect me, so he used magic to do something. I just don’t know what it was. I was a young kid at the time and didn’t ask questions. He promised me power, and it’s what I wanted. He promised me immortality and cast a spell around me. It was then that I truly felt the power. And the darkness.”
“I don’t suppose you know his story? Before you came to him? You said he lived on the river. It sounds like he was an outcast?”
“It was pretty well-known in the tribe that he was a skinwalker, but he protected our tribe from other skinwalkers, so nobody messed with him. I don’t know much more besides he was about a century old and had been using dark magic almost as long.”
It wasn’t much to go on, but a beggar couldn’t be a chooser. This was the first job I had with cleansing in the city, and I needed to start somewhere.
I set my bag down and started pulling out my supplies. Sage incense with a holder, a stone bowl, an eagle feather, and a smudge stick made of holy basil and rosemary. Dammit. I forgot to buy a lighter. “Got a light?” I asked Sani. He walked over to a drawer, opening it up. He pulled out a matchbox and handed it to me. “Thanks.” As I set to work lighting the smudge stick, I explained. “We’ll need to open all the doors, windows, cabinets, drawers. Anything that can open.” Sani didn’t even ask for an explanation before he started opening up every little nook and cranny in the place, per my instructions. Once he was done, I walked over to the front door and started a counter-clockwise walk-through. I used the eagle feather to wave the smudge stick’s smoke throughout the entire cabin. I took extra time in the corners of the building, knowing that stories suggested corners were where the spirits of evil liked to hide the most.
“So, what are you doing?” Sani asked for the first time.
“General cleansing. The last thing we need is other unexpected guests from the previous homeowners being in the mix.” I just didn’t know where else to start. It was a whole new ball game, unlike any I had played so far in my life.
“This place was abandoned before I moved in. Not even sure how long it’d been abandoned for.”
“I take it this wasn’t exactly the top listing for the local real estate agent.” The smoke from the smudge stick suddenly stopped. I pulled another match out of the matchbox, relighting the stick and continuing the space cleanse.
“Not much out here in the bayou.” Sani shrugged.
“Do you like it that way?” The smudge stick went out again. That was odd. I’d had a smudge stick go out maybe once during my cleansing, but never twice, and it happened so soon after I relit it.
“I prefer to be away from humans.”
“And Alo?” I asked, relighting the smudge stick again.
“I’m stuck with him.” I didn’t like the way Sani looked over his shoulder when he said that. Like he was looking at this phantom who didn’t seem to like me.
Wait a minute. “I wonder if he’s the one blowing out the smudge stick.”
There was a pause before Sani turned his attention back to me. “He says he’s not.”
That’s what they all say. “And is he known for lying?” Sani shook his head. “You said he didn’t like me.”
“No, I said he’s opinionated,” Sani corrected. “He’s cautious of you because of Aki.”
My great-grandmother? “He didn’t like her?”
“It’s complicated.” Of course, it is.
I shrugged, releasing the idea that Sani’s ghostly brother was the one trying to interfere. “So the question is, is it your skinwalker friend or somebody else here who doesn’t like me?”
“Well, it could be whoever or whatever has a hold of me. It’s been pretty vocal about not wanting me to break away.”
“Prime suspect identified.” As if on cue, everything that Sani had opened—all the windows, doors, drawers, and cabinets—slammed shut simultaneously. I couldn’t stop myself from jumping at the sound, and I cursed myself for letting…whatever it was set me ill-at-ease.
“Well, it doesn’t like that,” Sani said.
As Sani went around the building, reopening everything, he said, “Alo says whatever it is, it isn’t a spirit. He would be able to see them.”
“Thank you, Alo,” I called to the air. “That’s a big help.” Maybe I can get him to like me.
“What could it be?” That was the same question I had been asking myself since I’d set foot on the land. And I still hadn’t found an answer.