Wednesday, September 25, 2013

IDOL CURIOSITY

by Gil James Bavel









     The first thing I noticed was the old faded sign in the window, Antiques, it read.  It was a green velvet signboard with red letters, tattered with age and faded by sunlight.  From its boarded-up side doors and barely visible interior, the store looked like an abandoned warehouse.  It was almost as if the old building didnt want to be noticed.  It was the perfect hideout. 
     
      I breathed deeply, trying to relax a little, and pulled off the ski mask.  I can do this, I thought, I can make a clean getaway.  Just dont panic.  I took the elegant brass doorknob, cold in my hand, and opened the door.  It complained with a long creak.  The tinkling of bells announced my presence, and I entered the shop’s foyer, leaving the too-close noise of the Akron police sirens outside.  It was cool and dark and I was still breathing hard.
     
      The store’s musty smell hit me right away.  Jam-packed with antiques from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, the place looked bigger on the inside than it had from the outside.  I heard movement in the back room, the sort of I’ll-be-right-there noise one hears from the backs of such places.  I used the moment to stash the ski mask and the overstuffed bank bag in an old urn, grabbing a wad of money from it first in case I couldnt get back here for a while.  As I replaced the urn’s top, an older woman in a black vintage dress emerged, stepping over boxes and clutter.
    
      Welcome, come in, she said, approaching.  I couldn’t exactly place her age—late middle-aged, I thought, but even so she was striking.  In her day she must have been quite pretty.  She was certainly still attractive, and her flowing walk complemented what was left of her figure.
    
      She smiled.  Looking for anything in particular? she asked.
     
      No, I answered, stepping into the store proper.  I just never noticed this was a store before—that you were open, I mean.

     The woman nodded.  Most folks say that their first time in.  She reached into her pocket and withdrew a silver cigarette case—from the Thirties, I’d say—and took a cigarette from it.
     
      How do you stay in business then, I asked, if people dont know youre open?
     
      She lit up with an old Zippo.  I have a few regular customers.  And I do a lot of mail-order business.  Besides, she exhaled smoke, we’re in the phone book.  Have been ever since we opened the doors.  She smiled again.  But thats been ages ago.
            
      Returning her smile, I looked around and thought, the thrill of actually robbing a bank increases tenfold when youre making your getaway.  I just wished Id planned a better one.
    
      The womans black leather boots click-clacked on the dusty wooden floor as she walked to the long glass case that spanned the entire length of one wall.  I quickly lost myself in a world of green glass vases and World War II relics.  Funny that I should end up in an antique store, since Id worked in my grandpas when I was a kid.  

      This lady had some good stuff, better than most of the junk stores you find nowadays.  As I wandered, I noticed a jet-black cat silently appear out from the back room, apparently aware that someone was here.  The cat stopped to look at me, and then headed for the glass case and its owner.
     
      Cmere, Jasper.  The woman sat down in the chair next to the case, and the cat padded quickly over to her and jumped into her lap.  It was soon purring loudly.  Returning to my browsing, I saw among the tables of stuff that the old woman had collected an assortment of small, unpainted figurines.  Although uniform in their size and make, each was an incredibly realistic, detailed, distinctly individual work.  I didn’t recognize the medium. I picked one up to examine it and found it was a smooth and clean piece.  Not something I would want, but interesting all the same.  Putting the statuette back, I moved on, hoping I had given the cops the shake.  I was nervous and invigorated at the same time.
     
      One thing stood out from the divans, lamps, silver and pewter chess sets, brass beds and other antiques out on the floor: a narrow shelf attached to the wall about ten feet up, running all the way around the store.  I assumed it must have been for items of unusual value or delicacy.  A wheeled ladder leaned up against the shelf, for easy access.  I pointed to it.
     
      Would it be all right if I climb the ladder to see whats up there?  The woman gently dropped the cat to the floor, and got up.
     
      Yes,” she cautioned, “but mind yourself.  My husband killed himself on that fool thing.  People rarely go up there these days.  She twitched.
     
      Oh, Im sorry, I said, looking at my watch.  Youre a widow?
     
      Yes.  She walked over to the ladder.  Have been, well on ten years now.  Here, let me hold this for you.  She grabbed the ladder, and rolled it against her boot for stability.  I offered thanks, and started up.  It was fairly sturdy, and I climbed it carefully, intrigued at the thought of what treasures might have gone untouched in this out-of-the-way antique store.
     
      When I reached the top, the widow called to me, Here, while youre up there, dust up a bit, will you?  Im too old to be up there like a monkey, and Im sure it could use it.  I leaned down and received the worn feather duster she extended.  Once I turned around, I was surprised to find all kinds of odds and ends to be sorted through, and it was indeed dusty.  I ran the duster over the shelf, lightly touching its feathers to the objects located there.  It was so dusty in fact, that some of the items were too obscured to recognize.
     
      To my surprise, I found a ceramic bowl brimming with old glass marbles—the real thing, not the crappy manufactured repros they make these days.  They must have been pre-World War II, rare and valuable.  Marbles are pretty common fare in most curio shops, but not this good—amber cat’s eye shooters, bright green ones flecked with gold—they just dont make em like that anymore.  I looked them over and made a mental note to take them down when I had finished examining the rest of the shelf.  Next to the bowl of marbles was a set of china, which I wasnt even remotely interested in, but dusted carefully anyway, while looking further down the shelf.  This was a perfect cover—if the cops looked in here from outside, I would look like an employee, working with the owner.
            
      An iron weathervane rooster and its matching horsehead hitching-post top stared each other down as they probably had done for unknown years.  They met the wrath of the duster, and I moved on.  Some porcelain eggs sat nestled in a wicker basket, a pretty Easter decoration that undoubtedly held some interest at one time for someone.  I came to the end of my reach, and asked the widow to roll me down the wall further.  She complied.  After dusting off a bulldog clock, more porcelain, several pillboxes, green glass bottles, and some jewelry boxes, I saw nothing else of note.
     
      See anything you like? asked the widow.
     
      Nothing so far except some marbles, I called down.
     
      Oh, those, she acknowledged.  Those belonged to Jasper when he was a boy.  Theyre old ones, you know.
     
      Uh, yeah, I noticed that.  Jasper?  Hadnt she called the cat Jasper?  It must have been named after her dead husband—a rather morbid practice, I guess, but people do bizarre things to cherish loved ones passed on.  I let it go, more concerned with my own fate than some old ladys neurosis.
     
      I continued on.  I came across what I initially thought to be a log, but when I saw its flat bottom and set it on end, it turned out to be a statue, strangely free of dust.  I turned it to face me, and saw that the statue was crafted from dark wood, smooth, and about two-and-a-half feet tall.  It was obviously some kind of devil or god, with its leering face and a long barbed tail, the end of which it held in one hand like a phallus.  It was carved with master skill—so much so that it was eerily lifelike in every detail, down to the ten clawed toes on its feet.  All in all, the statue radiated an evil presence.  The thing was obscene.  I had to have it.
     
      It was plain that the statue was not created in the Western world, nor could any civilized man have had anything to do with its creation.  It was almost as if the artist had created it from life, using an anatomically correct model.  The thought of such a thing ever actually having lived filled me with dread, yet fascinated me at the same time.  Who knows what savage peoples had danced around this thing by flickering firelight, making blood sacrifices to it in some unholy ritual?  I had always thought of devils with barbed tails as Judeo-Christian images.  Perhaps there were darker, older influences on our unconscious beliefs than we knew.  The statue was mysterious and compelling.  I found I was letting my attention wander.
     
      Wow! I said, before remembering what my grandpa had taught me.  Junk Shoppers Rule #1: Never show interest in a piece youre interested in.  I didnt care, though.  It wasnt like money was an issue now.  I grabbed the thing off the shelf and proceeded down the ladder with care.
     
      Whats that youve got there? the old woman asked, cocking her head to see.
     
      An old statue, I replied, and a real prize by the looks of it.  I set it down gently on the long case and ran my fingers over its smooth surface, proud of my find.
     
      Oh, its a prize, all right, said the widow, fishing for another cigarette, and staring at me.  I wondered what she meant by that.  She screwed up her face to light her smoke, and shook her head.  I had almost forgotten that was still around, she said with a twitch.  She stood there for a moment, holding her cigarette in one hand, and her elbow in the other.  I suppose you want it? she inquired, eyebrows raised.
     
      You bet I do, I replied, realizing I had disregarded the Junk Shoppers Prime Rule twice.  Grandpa would have been so disappointed in me.
     
      She walked over to a plush red velvet chair by a nightstand and sat down, crossing her legs.  I hadnt noticed her fishnet stockings until now.  She had nice legs for an older woman.
     
      I dont know... my husbands mother brought it back from Africa, she recalled, a faraway look in her eyes.  She was a strange bird... let me tell you about—
     
      Its incredible, I said, interrupting.  I dont think I can live without it.
     
      The woman looked at me and smiled, taking another drag off of her cigarette, the blue smoke from the tip slowly curling into the air.  I could see she was mulling something over; I could feel thoughts running around in her head like a dull telepathy.  The cat jumped into her lap again, completing her contemplative pose.
     
      She tilted her head and exhaled blue smoke into the air.  I have to warn you, the thing is cursed, she said.  I keep it up there because I can’t get rid of it, and I don’t want anyone else to inherit the curse.  The cat squinted.
     
      I laughed.  Oh, come on.  Ive been into a few antique shops in my time.  I dont go for that old ‘cursed’ routine.  Thats like something out of a bad TV show.  The widow didnt seem to think it was funny at all; if anything, her expression soured.
     
      No, young man, I mean what I say.  If poor Jasper hadnt ever seen that fetish, he might still be with us today.  You see…” said the woman, taking another drag from her cigarette and sitting upright.  …Jaspers mother brought the fetish back from Africa, where she had been traveling with her father.  He was an anthropologist, studying the tribal customs and religious ceremonies of the animists indigenous to the jungles of Africa.  He fell under the ill will of the tribes shaman, she flicked ash off of her cigarette, when he crossed the line by participating in, rather than observing, their strange rites.  The shaman knew it was taboo to remove the idol, so he made a present of the fetish to Jaspers grandfather.  According to the curse, if the idol is removed from its native ground, the new owner meets a strange and horrible end, or changes into some weird form.

      “Jaspers grandfather knew full well about the curse, but, like you—he scoffed.  Not long after they returned to the ‘States, he died amid mysterious circumstances, the coroners report vague as to the cause of his death.  Then, after Jaspers mother inherited it, she disappeared, also not without queer happenings.  Finally, after Jasper got a hold of it, he fell to his death on that very ladder.”  The widow twitched.  “Thats when I was finally convinced.  The thing is simply cursed.

      With an air of finality, she stubbed her cigarette out into the ashtray on the nightstand.
      
      I bent down to pet the cat, which came bounding up to my outstretched hand.  Assuming what you say is true, I offered, wouldnt you be cursed by it, too?  The cat nuzzled my fingers, scratching its nose.
     
      The woman got up and started to walk down the aisle, running one hand along the case.  Ahh, I’m immune to the magic of the fetish, you see, she said, her boots click-clacking slowly on the floor.  She turned toward me, smiled and said softly, because I’m a witch.
     
      I wanted to burst out laughing, but the womans face was so serious, and her tone so grave, I stifled it.  Besides, it was obvious by now that she was at least a little off her rocker.

      But at the same time, I knew I had to have that statue.  I could leave with it and come back for the rest of the money later.  Id buy the urn and shed never know.
     
      If it’s got such a horrible legacy, I inquired rationally, why don’t you just throw it out?”
     
      I have, many times,” she answered, twitching again.  “It always finds its way back somehow.  Eventually I just had it put up there face down, so no one would try to buy it and continue this horrible madness.  She twitched again, turned around at the end of the case and shot me an unwavering gaze that made me uneasy.
     
      This ladys story was getting harder and harder to believe, but she seemed quite serious.  I looked her in the eye and asked, Others have tried to buy it since your husband died?
     
      Oh, yes, plenty.  The last couple in here who bought the fetish was never seen again.  And, of course, the next day, the thing was back in here.  It used to spook the bejesus out of me,” she said, blinking oddly and turning away again.  “But Ive grown used to it.  After a moment’s pause, she started back from the end of the case, and looked at me soulfully.  You seem so nice,” she said, and reached toward me for a moment, then slowly withdrew her hand.  She shook her head.  “Look, just believe what I say, and nothing will happen to you.  Leave it.  Buy some china or something.  I have a complete set of Napoleonic era wooden soldiers, just wonderful—
     
      I laughed again, shaking my head.  Youve only convinced me all the more that I have to have it.  It has such a fascinating history.
     
      All right, She said, looking at me with resignation.  The price is five thousand dollars.
     
      Five thousand dollars?!”  I was incredulous.  “Thats a lot of money!
     
      The widow shrugged.  Actually, idols of comparable size and age from that region regularly sell for around thirty-five hundred.  And, considering its condition and the sentimental value, I think five thousand is a fair price.
     
      I could tell she just didnt want to sell the thing, plain and simple.  Cursed.  Yeah, right.  She had probably just forgotten it was up there in the first place.  What she didnt know was that money was no object. 
     
      Cash all right?  I pulled out a rubber-banded roll of C-notes from my pocket.  I just got my tax refund.
     
      The widow smiled, with a dubious look and raised eyebrow.  Tax refund, huh?  She took the money and it disappeared into a pocket in her dress.
     
      The old woman walked behind the case, pulled open a drawer, and removed a bottle from it.  She also produced a glass from the drawer and poured herself a generous portion of scotch.  I wondered, why the nutty story about the curse?  And her being a witch?  I wasnt falling for it, but I wasnt going to let her put one over on me.  I really wanted the statue, and since it wasnt my money anyway, what the hell did I care?  Besides, buying the statue was all the alibi I had.  She couldve charged several thousand more for it, and Id still be able to retire comfortably in my choice of several Latin American countries.
       
      Screwing the cap back on the bottle, she gestured toward the fetish.  Go ahead, its yours now.  She set the bottle down, and picked up the drink.
     
      Id almost forgotten about the marbles.  “How much for these wonderful marbles?” I asked, grabbing the idol and carefully climbing up the ladder again. 
      
      “Oh, nothing,” she said, “You can just have those.  Call it a gift.  Just come back soon.  Make sure to tell all your friends about the nice lady you met at the antique store.”  She twitched again, nervously.
     
      Oh, Ill be back, you can bet on that.  I went for the marbles and wondered if the cops had left the area yet.  The devils grinning visage loomed next to me as I lifted it.  Maybe I should buy the urn now, just to make sure....
     
      The widow sipped her drink, and then said curiously, “But you’re sure you understand the ramifications of what you’re doing?”
     
      “Yes.” I said, smiling.  “I know I’m playing with forces I can’t possibly understand.  An ancient curse that will kill me, or transform me into something hideous.”  I chuckled, and shifted the bowl of marbles into my left hand, under the idol.  I stepped back down the ladder.
     
      She looked at me darkly; she was different somehow.  “Then you inherit the curse.”  Her voice was raspy now, no longer sweet.  “May you live long enough to enjoy your new antiques.”
     
      "Yeah, um, well, okay, thanks. I said to the kooky old widow, and turned to leave.
     
      Moving toward the foyer, I looked out the window to check my escape route.  My load shifted and I almost dropped the bowl of marbles.  As it was, a few fell out onto the floor in front of me and I tried to regain my balance so the rest wouldn’t spill.  It was too late.  The bowl tilted and the rest of the marbles spilled out while I frantically searched for solid ground.  I was already slipping on the rolling marbles.
     
      The fetish fell from my grasp, and in slow motion, I saw the leering face rotate around, mocking.  Unwilling to let the idol be damaged, I reached out to catch it.  In doing so, I sacrificed breaking my own fall.  My head hit the hardwood floor and I could hear the marbles rolling everywhere as I lapsed into unconsciousness.
     
      When I awoke, I heard a male voice.  I was surprised to find I didn’t have a splitting headache.  My neck was sure stiff, though.  My eyes were open, but I couldn’t move them at all— or any other part of my body.  I was still on my side, on the floor, but everything looked wrong, somehow.  The marbles....
     
      Were looking for a bank robber, maam, about five-nine, Caucasian, maybe wearing a ski mask?  He just knocked over Akron First National down the street.  The police were here!  One of the policemen pulled out a small notebook.
     
      No, havent seen him.  The widow picked me up off of the floor, and my view swept the room as she righted me, and set me on the table among the other figurines.  From that vantage point, I saw that the undamaged fetish had appeared back up on the shelf, and could see its insane, unholy face grinning down at me.  Those blank, unmoving eyes seemed to look right through my soul.
     
      The other cop fidgeted.  Well, be careful.  He may still be in the area.  Heres my card.  If you see him, or remember anything—
     
      Ill give you a call, she finished.
     
      Yes, maam, thank you.  The policeman turned and left.
     
      The widow went back to her red velvet chair, sat down, and Jasper jumped into her lap.  She somehow looked younger, now.  She reached for her drink, and running her hand down his soft black fur, she looked in my direction, and said, They never listen, do they, Jasper?  They never listen.”  She drained her drink to the last drop and gave a satisfied sigh.  “One more and well have another complete set.” She reached for a small pine box and began crumpling up newspapers and lining the bottom of the box with them.  I could just make out the address label.  The box was heading to the Congo, in Central Africa.  Where ever I was going, it was going to be a long ride, a very long ride.  And I had left an urn filled with who knows how many thousands of dollars inside it behind for my trouble.  

      A widow’s ransom.


~The End~




COMING FRIDAY SEPT 27



2 comments:

  1. Appropriately menacing for a story centered around creepy figurines. Two wooden thumbs up.

    ReplyDelete

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behind Scapegoat (an ambient-tribal-
noise-experimental unit). THE HOUSE
IN THE PORT is his first publication.


K.B. Updike, Jr's
THE GOLDEN THIRD EYE


K.B. Updike, Jr. is a young virgin
Virginia writer. KB's life work,
published 100% for free:
(We are not certain if K.B. Updike, Jr.
has lost his Virginian virginity yet.)