When the taxi pulled to a stop in front of a large iron gate, Esther could feel her heart begin to pound. Still, she came here for a purpose and she had no choice but to follow through. She climbed out of the car and turned around to pick up little Etta. Her daughter was ill and the medication she’d obtained from the pharmacy hadn’t helped. The doctors threw around turns like ‘unlikely’ when it came to Etta getting better, but no one would say flat out that her child was dying. She understood though.
She carried Etta’s limp body towards the gate and did not look back as the taxi pulled away. She’d been warned by the cab driver not to come here, but it wasn’t the first warning she’d received. The girls at the house told her not to come here… all but one. The girl who told her about this place said it would be safe. That the rumors were just that, rumors.
Esther and Etta had been in group home since her husband Frank was killed. A derailed trolley ended the brief life of her husband, a construction worker.
The gate was opened just enough for them to slip inside, as if the master of the house knew she was coming. Or maybe the household was just careless. She liked to think it was the latter.
As she made her way up the walkway and drew closer to the house it became easier to make out the details through the fog. The walkway itself was surrounded by overgrown grass. The house ahead was an old pre-Civil War plantation, not uncommon for the swamps of Louisiana. What was odd, however, was that the house was dilapidated and lit only by candle light. The front yard was heavily shielded by weeping willows and the surrounding swamp land made the area smell of deep earth.
A thick line of red dust was laid across the threshold of the front door and a wind chime made of animal bones hung from the porch arch. At least, she hoped they were animal bones. As that thought crossed her mind, Esther nearly walked away. Yet, fueled by the fear of losing her daughter, she rang the bell against her own will. Moments passed, maybe just seconds but it felt like an eternity before the door finally opened.
A pretty dark skinned woman in traditional African dress stood before her. “Miss Esther?”
Esther’s eyes widened. “Yes… yes, how did you…”
“Your friend told us you were coming,” the woman told her, smiling softly. “I didn’t mean to scare you. Come on inside. He’s expecting you.”
A small sigh escaped Esther’s lips and she smiled, trying to calm herself. How silly it was of her to assume there was some magic in knowing her name. No, her friend had just called ahead. A simple explanation. “I was told the man here could help my sick daughter.”
“He will try. My name is Maya,” she shared as she helped Esther inside and led her to a large staircase.
For as run down as the house looked from the road, the inside was well kept. It was sparse, not well decorated, but the windows had treatments that shielded the inside from the outside world. The staircase was sturdy and clearly had been maintained over the years. As she climbed the steps with Etta in her arms, she could see and hear other people moving throughout the house but no one paid her any mind.
Once they reached the top, a dank hallway seemed to stretch on forever before her. She followed Maya past at least ten doors when finally the darkness gave way to a faintly lit door at the end. Maya knocked softly before opening the door and leading Esther inside.
“Nico, the girl and her daughter are here,” Maya explained, bowing her head and turning back to Esther. She laid a soft hand on Etta’s back and gave Esther a reassuring smile before taking her leave. She closed the door behind her.
Esther wet her lips and moved forward so she could get a better look at the man sitting on the floor. He was sitting cross-legged, in front of several cards laid out on the floor. Esther recognized them as Tarot cards. She’s had her future read before, but never truly believe in the magic of the cards.
“Sir,” she began, kneeling down across from him. Etta was heavy in her arms and she laid the two year old on the floor in front of her to rest. “My daughter is ill. We have been to the doctors, to the hospital, to clinics but nothing helps. The cancer has moved through her body… I can’t lose her. We lost her father last year and she… I can’t.”
She choked back her tears and looked at him, studying his face. He wasn’t what she had expected. His slender face was hidden by long, unruly hair and his clothes were marked with holes and no effort of mending had been made. A long mustache and beard kept his face hard to read. But his eyes… pale blue eyes stared at her. There was something there, something very human and she felt suddenly at ease as if she instantly knew everything would be alright.
“I cannot help her,” he said plainly. “But I am a catalyst. Those that will help her can do so through me. Unfortunately, they require payment.”
“I have no money left,” Esther became but the strange grin that formed on the man’s face made her realize he didn’t want money.
He chuckled. “Monetary value means nothing to them. Or to me.”
Esther waited for him to say more, and yet he didn’t. She didn’t know what that meant, but his silence gave her an idea. “I… I have nothing at all. But…. I will do anything to save her. Anything.”
Nico offered a throaty laugh, shaking his head. “You are of no value to them. Or to me for that matter. They are far beyond pleasures of this world and your sad state has no appeal for me. Your husband died,” he said, gesturing to her wedding rings on her fingers.
Esther’s hand immediately covered her ring and Frank’s which she wore on her thumb. It was all that she had left of her husband and she didn’t want to give it up. She had to sell everything they had together to pay Etta’s medical bills and to pay her rent at the housing she shared with other women who were down on their luck. “Yes… last year. I…” she hesitated. To save Etta, she’d give up the rings, taking them both off, she handed them to the man who accepted them willingly.
Nico held both rings in his closed hand, absorbing the history there for a long minute. “Yes, that will do.” He handed her back both the rings.
Confused, Esther’s brow creased. “You don’t want to keep them?”
“Gold is of no value to them or to me… “ Nico explained again, taking her hand and placing the rings in her palm. “They want your memories, Esther. Your emotions. Where they are, they can no longer feel love or pain or joy or regret. That is their payment, to share your emotions. Now… there is another fact you must understand. Neither they nor I can create or destroy life. Life is eternal, it is energy, light. It does not leave this world, it just moves to another place or plane of existence. In this plane, we can move life from one vessel to another. But we cannot create it. To cure Etta, I would need to take healthy life from another place.”
Esther put her wedding rings back on, taking note of the fact they felt lighter but she was too afraid to ask why. She did not understand everything he said. Nor did she really grasp who or what he meant when he said ‘they’ and ‘them’, but she wanted Etta to live. At any cost. “You mean I have to find life… somewhere. An animal sacrifice? I will find…”
“No,” Nico cut her off. “What lives as long as a human, Esther? You take life from a dog, then your daughter has the years that dog has left – eight, ten at the most. To cure a human of her age, you must take life from a human.”
Gasping, Esther shook her head. “I can’t! I won’t kill someone.”
“I did not ask you to,” Nico clarified. “I don’t want you to kill anyone. A dead body is useless because the life is already gone. I need someone alive, someone with life to give. If you wish to cure her, then someone must die. The choice is yours, Esther. She lives or dies based on what you are willing to do. I can help her feel no pain, I can help her rest easy, but I cannot cure her without taking life from elsewhere.”
“Take mine,” Esther blurted out without thinking. She was scared, but she had no other choice. She wouldn’t harm someone else. But then it dawned on her: what would happen to Etta. “You will keep Etta.” It wasn’t a question or a plea, she was telling him what would happen. She could not leave this world without knowing Etta would be provided for. “You will raise her here as your own child. You and Maya will keep her safe.”
Nico’s brow creased. A sadness took over him then. Because he’d known from the moment Esther entered the house this was her choice… or at least would be. He saw the future and knew what it was. Etta was one of his family from the day she was born. He had been expecting her and he had been expecting Esther’s choice. “It is done.”
Esther felt her breath grow short and her body, grow weaker. The day Frank proposed to her rose to her mind and his words echoed in her head. He was down on one knee and he held out the ring to her and said ‘Just say yes, don’t think about it. No major choice should be thought about for any length. Over-thinking makes life pass you by, just say yes.’
“Mommy,” Etta said, her little voice returning as she sat up. Esther hadn’t heard her voice in days and she thanked God that she was able to hear it now.
“Hello, sweetheart,” Esther replied, brushing Etta’s hair out of her face. “Mommy has to go for a little while. You’re gonna stay here. Here with Miss Maya and Mister…” She looked at Nico’s face and realized she didn’t know his name.
“Nicodemus,” Nico offered. “Nicodemus Bastian. And you will not make it home, Esther. The time your daughter had was very limited. You have only what was left and it is not enough to make it back to the city. Stay here. We will make you comfortable and give you proper care.”
Out of breath, Esther nodded. “Care? I thought there was nothing that could be done.”
Nico nodded in agreement. “I mean after you’re gone. We will bury you here, so that you can always keep an eye on your daughter.”
Blinking away the tears, Esther shook her head. “I have a plot already, next to my husband. Call me a cab, I want to leave before… I don’t want her to remember me this way. Please.”
The sun rose, cutting through the fog. It was Maya’s idea to take the little girl for a walk before the sun got too high and the air, too hot. She was surprised Nico decided to come with her. The man rarely left the house. She respected him more than anyone else in this world. Her feelings for him were always a mixture. She loved him. Of that she was certain. But sometimes she looked upon him as a mentor, a father, and other times, she wanted nothing more than to touch him, to kiss him. She took the opportunity to link her arm in his as they walked and was pleased by the fact he did not pull away.
Little Etta ran ahead, every so often looking back at them to ensure they were still behind her. This land belonged to the plantation and therefore to Nico, but he did not believe in foolish things like ownership of land. He understood that land belonged to the earth, not to any man, woman or child.
Etta giggled as her bare feet sunk into the grass. It had been several days now since she’d asked for her mother. Maya read about Esther’s death in the paper. Nico had been correct, the woman died in the cab before reaching home. The paper said she was full of cancer, but made no mention of her daughter.
She wished Nico had insisted the woman stay and let Maya take care of her, but she understood Nico did not believe in interfering with other people’s free wills unnecessarily. He had rules. The family had rules. “What will you tell her when she is older?”
“The truth,” Nico offered plainly. “As we know it. My truth is probably different from yours and from Esther’s, but she will know that her mother died saving her. The details are unimportant.”