The New Orleans heat – a wrathful, humid curse from God – made Marshall unbearably sticky. His legs stuck unrelentingly to the pleather seats as he shifted his weight from one buttock to the other.
The AC that blasted from the vents below the seats had no impact whatsoever.
Marshall had boarded the Greyhound bus almost thirteen hours ago in Denver. Ever since then, he fought to keep his motion sickness at bay. To combat his nausea, he stared at a sleeping old man with a “Vietnam Vet” cap. Of course, the fellow had been decked out in fatigues and had the faintest outline of a pistol in his jacket pocket. His snores added to the rumbling, bumbling sound of the bus.
Marshall’s right leg throbbed even more in the heat. The visible tumor that grew from his calf muscle looked like someone had stuffed a lumpy ham under his skin. The heat only served to agitate it more, and no amount of Advil could block the pain he felt.
He watched as the marshlands faded into a broken down suburbia. Caved in buildings from Hurricane Katrina stood unoccupied or with a gaggle of people sitting out on the front porch. As the bus barreled down the highway, he kept an eye also on his reflection, which grew more gaunt and sickly by the hour.
He only told one person about the cancer, a woman he trusted above all others: Ol’ Marg.
Ol’ Marg was more grandmother than landlord to Marshall, although she acted as both – the only one to give him shelter when his parents kicked him out on his eighteenth birthday.
As he had sat there weeping at his shortened life – he’d never seen the Grand Canyon or visited Paris – Ol’ Marg had clomped up the stairs with her cane. She had a hunched back and yellow-brown fingernails, but her wrinkled face had the warmest smiles.
“What’s wrong?” she had cooed in her caring way.
Marshall blurted out the doctor’s report between sniffles and snot bubbles. He said that he wouldn’t try chemo since he knew that would ruin what little time he had left. Ol’ Marg had wrapped one of her crocheted blankets around his shoulders. And that’s when she told him about Witch Doctor X.
A long, long time ago (she had stressed the “long” part) when Marg’s hair shined red and her tits didn’t sag, she worked in New Orleans as a dancer – code for stripper. She suffered from chronic migraines (you know, the sort that made you beg for death and hide under the covers) because of a fight where she was knocked unconscious by a beer bottle.
One day, when she complained to her friend about these trouble, the friend told her to visit Witch Doctor X. After exploring the deep bayou, she happened upon an old shack where a miracle worker sprinkled her forehead with blessed water and cured her. In the forty years since her visit, she never once experienced so much as a headache.
Marshall had long given up on God, and the idea of some sort of miracle voodoo man incapable of aging in Louisiana seemed laudable at best. Still, he harbored a secret hope that he could be freed of his sickness, so he hopped a bus to New Orleans in hopes of finding the witch doctor.
The bus slowly rolled into the depot and he found himself in New Orleans.
He hailed a yellow cab sitting outside the bus depot. The driver smelled like weed, but he seemed friendly enough. “Hey man, where’re you headed?”
Marshall handed the driver a tattered card – an old copy of Witch Doctor X’s business card, complete with a skull and crossbones.
“Oh hell nah, man,” the cabbie said, shaking his head vigorously. “Get the hell out of my cab.”
“What, why? What’s wrong?” Marshall asked.
The cabbie turned and looked Marshall squarely in the eye. Marshall saw the fear etched into the man’s face. “Seriously man, you don’t want to go there. No cabbie’s gonna take you there. You’re better off just returning to where you came from.”
“What are you talking about? I though Doctor X was a healer.”
Again, the cabbie shook his head vigorously. “He steals souls, man. He’s the devil incarnate! Claiming to be all righteous, ordained by God, he’s nothing but a demon.”
“Can you at least take me part way? I can walk the last mile or two to his place?”
“Nope! Now get out of my cab, man.” And the cabbie handed Marshall the card back and sped away.
Marshall shrugged it off as a bad trip and decided to hoof it to Witch Doctor X’s place. He was only a couple of streets down from the bus depot examining a map, when suddenly a broken down truck caked with mud put-put-putted next to him. Hanging out of the passenger window was the Vietnam vet from the bus.
“Stranded, stranger?” the Vietnam vet said. “Just don’t oogle me like you were on the bus.”
“I could use a ride, if you’re offering,” Marshall said. And he handed him the business card. Thankfully neither the vet nor his friend, a man just as grizzled and old, recognized the place. Marshall hopped into the bed of the truck and they puttered away.
They drove for a while before they reached the edge of a bayou, where they dropped Marshall off.
For a while, Marshall meandered on his swollen leg, each step a constant reminder that all his goals rested on X’s shoulders.
Soon he came to a dilapidated shack with a sign that had the letter ‘x’ carved into it. The roof looked like one good rainstorm would cave it in.
As Marshall approached the door, he heard pots clank and the occasional frog’s croak. Nasty bugs as thick as his fingers buzzed his ears and grazed against his skin.
He raised a fist to knock – but the door opened before he could.
Standing in the doorway was a man no older than thirty. His skin was a chocolaty bronze color. He dressed in purple robes stained with something or other on the front, a disturbing yellow goo. Marshall couldn’t fathom wearing such a get-up in the middle of such a heatwave.
“Yes?” the man said. His voice had a richness to it that calmed and alarmed Marshall simultaneously.
“Yeah, uh…hi,” Marshall stammered. “Are you Witch Doctor X?”
“Really that depends on who’s asking and what they require of him,” the man said. “I am but a humble servant of God. May his protection be with me always.”
“I’m Marshall,” he said, “And I need your help. I heard that you perform miracles?”
“God performs the miracles, son. I am only a tool which he may use to unleash his unrelenting power and mercy.”
X walked back into the shack, his robes billowing at his knees.
Marshall hesitated to follow.
“Get in here,” X hissed.
The inside mirrored the outside in dilapidated squalor. Cat skulls, rodent bones, and countless voodoo dolls lay strewn across the table. The windows were boarded so no light could shine through; only three red-lit candles cast a flicker throughout the room. Clouded jars filled with what looked like fetal masses floated ominously on a nearby shelf. A large cauldron – yes, cauldron – with a clear, off green color, boiled in the fireplace.
X sat down at the tiny wooden table while Marshall dragged a step stool over to sit on.
“So what, pray tell, do you require help with?” X pressed his fingertips together. “Weight loss? Love life?”
Marshall glanced down at his pudgy midsection before shaking his head. Wordlessly, he stuck out his swollen leg for X to see.
“Cancer in the leg, then?” X said. He emitted a sucking noise from his mouth.
He took a crucifix from his pocket and prodded Marshall’s leg. Then he pressed the top of the crucifix to his ear and began to nod. He stared into the cauldron for a while.
What is this, the 1600s? Marshall thought to himself.
X remained in deep concentration as he began to sprinkle unknown powders into the cauldron, stirring it occasionally. He opened and slammed drawers, pouring globs of the sticky fetal matter into the cauldron as well.
Once the brew had boiled for twenty minutes, X ladled a bowl for Marshall.
“What is this?” Marshall asked, breaking the established silence. The goop formed large, thick bubbles that splattered on the sides of the bowl whenever they popped.
“Swamp soup, with all the fixin’s” X said, pushing the bowl closer to Marshall.
Marshall’s stomach churned. “Does it really work?”
X clutched the crucifix again. “Sir, God ordained me master of this swamp. He has blessed the waters and given me the ability to cure the lame, heal the blind, eradicate headaches.”
And Marshall flinched, curious to know whether he was talking about Marg.
“Yes, I remember Maggie well,” X said, his eyes clouded in some sort of daydream. “Her case was easy – yours, not so much.”
Well, Marshall was convinced. He lifted the bowl to his lips (as no spoon was offered to him) but X went on.
“Drink this soup and all your ailments will pass,” X said. “Be forewarned, though. Should you choose to drink, you are inevitably at God’s mercy. If you are of His Chosen Ones, the soup will be as smooth and sweet as honey. If the soup remains as is within your mouth, a vile unappeasing concoction…well, I cannot control what happens to you.”
Marshall sipped. A disgusting taste, worse than bile mixed with day-old garbage sludged down his gullet.
Marshall ran outside to vomit, cursing all the while.
X followed him outside. “Be gone from this place! God has not chosen to save you.”
“Holy shit, that tasted awful,” was the only thing Marshall could say. He looked pleadingly to X, but he had already slammed the door to his shack.
Still terribly nauseous, Marshall hobbled to the highway, his leg a swollen mass, where he stumbled upon a run down motel. He decided to rent a room for the night before hopping on a bus back to Denver in the morning. But as he laid on the flower-patterned sheets and watched in a daze as the ceiling fan churned round and round, Marshall felt his right leg tingle. Had the swelling gone down? Slowly, the constant ache in the muscle disappeared, as did the swelling. The mass reduced in size and virtually disappeared. Had the soup worked after all?
He began to feel very stretched as he fell asleep, joyful at the new beginning God had gifted him with. But as if by a nightmare, he began to turn darker and darker shades of green. The next morning he woke up as a frog. He couldn’t scream, he could only croak. His image had turned him into a six-foot two monster. He hopped around the hotel, wishing he could cry. He had to go back, he had to make Witch Doctor X change him back!
Marshall tried to run but found his legs too rubbery and weak to do so. He hopped on all fours now, unable to cease the low croaks from his mouth.
He looked like an irradiated frog mutated to gargantuan proportions. Using his tongue, he managed to turn the doorknob and escape his hotel room. In the hallway, a young Puerto Rican woman vacuumed. He waited for her to turn her back before hopping in the opposite direction. No luck though – she turned only a second later and screamed Spanish curses.
Marshall hopped into the lobby and out the door. Only when he had hopped one hundred yards away did he stop to look back at the hotel. The cleaning lady and the concierge both gawked at him. The concierge had pulled out his cell phone to record the video of Marshall.
Down the highway Marshall hopped, though he kept to the more wooded areas for his own safety. When he crossed a narrow dirt road, he knew it was where he needed to turn.
Suddenly, however, as Marshall hopped down the road, he saw the Vietnam vet’s truck barrel down the dirt path. He attempted to wave at the truck to stop, but found his muscles could no longer work that way.
Whether in fear or fun, the truck sped up until it hit Marshall squarely in the chest. He flew back, dead.
Witch Doctor X slowly meandered up the road with a basket in hand when he saw Marshall’s dead frog body. He chuckled. “Poor Marshall. Thanks be to God for supplying me with more food, though.”
He drew a knife from his pocket and began to slice off pieces of Marshall, folding each one in a napkin to keep for his next swamp stew. If God was right, another cursed soul would come to the shack today asking for help.
Alyse DeVan hails from Southern Colorado – the part of Colorado without yuppies, ski resorts or $12 lattes. When she’s not working as a communications specialist, she nit-picks misspellings in literature, laments the loss of her imaginary friend named Bobo the Penguin, and drinks wine. She hopes to someday learn the meaning of life.