A Walk at Dusk, “Coffin Water” part 1

V. Coffin Water

Tabitha lived in a hovel well outside of town that was more a collection of separately built rooms than a house, sprawling out over the bare earth in odd directions as poorly built spaces had been added on to the original square cabin that dated from the first settling of Laughlin. The added wings of the house sagged with their poor foundations, giving the whole building the look of a drooping dog’s face. A single light glowed in one of the dingy windows as David rode up and dismounted. Before he could knock on the door it opened, revealing the voodoo witch holding a lamp in one hand a pistol in the other.

“I’m not here for trouble,” David said, panting slightly and holding up his hands. “I didn’t even bring a musket.”

“Why are you here, child?” Tabitha said. She lowered her pistol, but did not un-cock the flint hamer.

“Child?” David said. He felt a sudden twinge of anger, but took a breath and continued. “I’ve come to buy something. I would have come during daylight hours, but…” David hesitated as he thought about the men in the woods, unable to conjure up another excuse.

“But you didn’t want to be seen cavorting with a witch, and a negro,” Tabitha said.

“No,” David said and stepped closed. “Well, it doesn’t matter why. I am here to acquire something. Coffin water.”

Tabitha gazed at him in the lantern light, and then said in a low, creaking voice. “Come inside.”

David followed her through the door, which was weather-blasted and warped into an uneven grey set of slats, the cracks filled with white plaster. Tabitha bolted the door after David ducked through. The interior of the main room was neatly kept and overly decorated. The windows each contained two sets of curtains of mismatched patterns, the padded chairs were each covered in a different textile, and the large table in the center was set with two table cloths, one red and one blue. Tabitha set her lamp down on the table and uncocked her pistol and tucked away in her flowing dress. In the pale light, David could see large curtains separating the main room from the small added wings.

Tabitha sat down at the table in the center of the room and kicked one of the chairs away. David sat in it, watching carefully Tabitha’s intense eyes.

“What do you want coffin water for, boy?” She said, knocking her knuckles softly on the table.

“Does it matter? If you have it, sell it to me,” David said. “I’ll pay a premium.”

“The why matters more than the money,” Tabitha said. “This is my living, but boy, you’d best believe me when I say that Voodoo is no matter of taking profit.”

“I want it as a restorative,” David said.

“You don’t need any restoring,” Tabitha said.

“It’s not to restore myself,” David said. “Obviously I’m healthy.”

Tabitha nodded subtly, then stood and walked to a large chest of drawers at the far end of the room near the fireplace. She opened a drawer and removed several small bottles.

“I’ll make you a tincture, then,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“If you don’t know what you are doing, coffin water can be quite dangerous.” She brought the bottles over to the lamp-lit table. “But if you mix it down with a bit of alcohol and potash it can work well to help a man sleep and loosen his joints.” She frowned as she opened a small box. “It appears I am out of potash. You’ll have to come back later.”

“I can’t,” David said. “I need it tonight.”

“I doubt anyone needs it,” Tabitha said. She narrowed her eyes.

“I do,” David said. “Not for me, though.” He took a breath. “I do need it.”

Tabitha’s eyes took him in for a protracted moment, then she sighed and said, “I suppose I trust you. You’ve always been the best of your brothers.”

“What about my brothers?”

“I’m not saying anything you don’t already know.” Tabitha cracked a ghastly smile. She held up a small bottle to the lamplight. It glowed nearly red. “Here is my last vial. I’ll give you the tincture recipe for free. Ten silver.”

“Ten dollars!” David said. “But I have only five.” He shut his mouth and crossed his arms in frustration, knowing he was ruining his bargaining position.

Tabitha stared at the vial, half-lidded. “Very well, five and a favor.”

Vexed, David said, “I don’t know when I’ll be able to do you a favor.”

“And I don’t know when I’ll need one,” Tabitha said. “But I’m sure I’ll need one eventually.”

“What sort of favor?” David said.

“Nothing that will bring you harm, or harm another,” Tabitha said. “You can trust me on that. But I favor I will undoubtedly collect.”

“Why should I trust you?” David said.

“Because I’m trusting you, of course,” Tabitha said. “And with something dangerous that you don’t understand.” As if reading his thoughts, she added, “And I know that you won’t refuse. Despite your family, you are an honorable man.”

Tabitha placed the vial of red-brown liquid on the table in front of David. He stared at it for a long time in consideration, then reached into his pocket and withdrew five dollars. They clinked loudly on the table. Tabitha scooped them up as David picked up the vial and held in front of the lamp, gazing into its murky depths. He broke his gaze when Tabitha handed him a torn piece of paper.

“What’s this?” David said, picking up the yellowed sheet.

“The recipe for the tincture, of course. It’s a trade secret, but you’re not in my trade and you had to come to me for the coffin water, so I’ll let you in on it.”

One side had printed words, but on the reverse was written a hasty scrawl in charcoal in a series of lines describing a potion. He squinted at it.

“Be sure you follow those instructions as exactly as possible,” Tabitha said. “Otherwise, the tincture is likely to draw out nothing.”

“I will,” David said. He stood up and nodded at Tabitha as he walked towards the door. He paused as he opened the door and looked back at the voodoo witch. “I would appreciate discretion.”

“As would I,” she said.

David walked outside to find his horse stamping his feet anxiously. The wind had picked up and chilled him slightly. David looked at the vial in the pale, fleeting starlight, and noticed that the hue of the bottle had deepened to a red.

“What on earth do you really want this for, Michael?” David said. As he said it, he knew that he could not claim innocence or even ignorance from what his brother might have planned.

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