BY ANNA B. WILKES
So far, the smells had all been wrong. Their names had been wrong, with their overuse of words like “crystal” and “mystical.” Even their placement was wrong. This store was on the second floor of a suburban shopping mall, not even tucked away towards the steadily dying end by the arcade, but sitting proudly between two high traffic clothing stores. Dana knelt outside the shop, re-lacing her shoes and pulling them tightly around her feet, then unlaced them and tied them tighter.
It was called Mystical Vibes, which almost made her turn away, and she vowed it that if she did step inside, it had to be the last place she would look in this town before giving up her search for High John. Even though it felt wrong to her to carry one she hadn’t felt and picked herself, she might have to settle for one of the online stores to get it for her. When she got to the display window, she glared at the cheaply glinting ornaments and the gloom of the unlit back of the store. Her chest ached where her High John should have been. They hadn’t had it anywhere else, and most of the people she asked didn’t know what it was, so it was worth a try.
It didn’t quite look like Miss Nancy’s shop, but instead seemed more like one of the new age stores her mother began frequenting when she went on her brief but intense Celtic phase. For about a year, she had filled the house with blankets depicting green, blocky looking knots on deeper green backgrounds, and often gave Dana long speeches about the importance of reconnecting with one’s heritage. That gave way to a Jungian six months, and soon Dana’s mother was back in Miss Nancy’s shop, asking her which root would help her get over the last free spirit who had wooed her into a new tradition. It always ended up like that. New names would be dropped,
Still, despite the name, it certainly had few enough patrons inside to suggest a kind of legitimacy. No true magical shop ever had more than six visitors in a day, and out of them, no more than two who bought anything. The incense and candles in the window were definitely good signs, partly because of their familiar labels, and partly because they were covered in dust. She had seen those in Miss Nancy’s Herb Shop as a child. Miss Nancy’s was little more than a cheap canvas gazebo outside the woman’s house, like the tents at the fair, but older and more weathered because she never moved it. Inside, every wall was covered with dusty vials of wrinkled roots, withered as if they had been fermenting in the hot Georgia sun, and small jars of dark tonics and floor washes. She always wondered if roasting in the heat of the day made the herbs more powerful, or if it accounted for the smell. She was seven before she realized it was the incense that danced through the air in long cords that made everything smell so musty, and that the herbs were sealed up in airtight containers. Large plastic bins held lucky pendants, red velvet bags for holding the herbs, and small crystal chips or lodestones to bring luck and power to the holder. Dana never opened the jars of the herbs, afraid she might accidentally open one that people threw on each other to cause strife and harm, or that she might spill some and Miss Nancy would turn her dangerous stare on her.
She bought an evil eye pendant with her allowance money when she was young to protect herself in case she made Miss Nancy angry somehow. The eye was a deep blue and seemed to stare in all directions at once, but its gaze couldn’t be met. It made Dana shiver to look at it, so she kept it in a drawer, hoping she could feel its protection without having to see its iris. She memorized the names of the herbs and was always too shy to ask what they did. Solomon’s Seal. Arrowroot. Deerstongue. She was twelve before she realized the ones named after animal body parts were just herbs with strange titles and not really gathered blood, bones, and eyes pulverized and poured into little canopic vials.
It hadn’t taken her long for her to get discouraged, finding head shop after head shop with storefronts that promised magical gifts and delivered only thinly-disguised bongs. Too many cashiers had pointed to the signs reading “for tobacco use only” when she had asked for High John.
Here at Mystical Vibes, they at least had the smell right. She recognized the incense as the kind Miss Nancy burned, with its first hit of spice notes that finished, on the exhale, with something earthy and old. It had to be the same incense, but she didn’t see a burner anywhere, or any plumes of smoke. A few spell packets that boasted the ability to bring love and fortune were stuffed into a basket on the counter towards the back, but she didn’t see many other powders.
It did, however, have rows of herbs, some in jars with colorful labels like Miss Nancy’s and some in bags with purple cards stapled to them. Each card boasted the powers of the bag’s contents. Some listed the ingredients and magical correspondences to each plant or stone or powder, and some listed the various levels of holy women who had blessed them before sealing them inside. They had crystals like the ones she had sifted through years ago, trying to find the smoothest turquoise or brightest bit of pyrite. They had roots. The prices were a little steep, seven dollars for a small bag of Galangal, but they had High John and that was all that mattered.
A bell like the one on the front door clanked from the back storeroom. The door was covered with a poster that showed all the astrological signs and their symbols, all outlined with glowing gold against the starry background. She turned around to greet the shopkeeper, ready to thank them for running perhaps the only true occult store in all of Tallahassee. Instead, when she saw the limp hair and the oversized sweater with the holes near the shoulder, the strange way of walking with the head turned down like a bull charging, she turned around and began running each , slipping her fingers through the polished jade as if to find the perfect one. One more look, with the help of a silver mirror on the wall, let her see the full lower lip and sleepy eyes she knew already.
None of the roots felt right yet, but it was nice to be sifting through them. She had to find the right one. If she kept looking down, perhaps he would at least not walk over. He might stay behind the register if she didn’t look up. He seemed to be the only one working there.
It was a small bin, but she was sure she could find the right one.
The root she bought from Miss Nancy was shriveled and small, the brown skin covered in ridges that were higher in some places than others. Miss Nancy told her she obviously wasn’t one to be fooled by looks, which is why she had chosen such a small one.
“They’re men’s roots, usually,” Miss Nancy had said. Her brown eyes always seemed wet, especially when she grew excited. She leaned in and lowered her voice as if sharing a secret, though they were the only two in the shop. “On account of they look like testicles, all shriveled up like that. That’s why men pick all the biggest ones.”
It steadied her breathing to handle the roots. They were more wrinkled than she remembered. She supposed hers had just been rubbed smooth after years of anointing, its crags sinking under the weight of all the oil she placed on its surface to protect her, to bring her luck, to help her. Still, the cold feeling at the back of her neck wouldn’t go away. The roots weren’t hers yet. They couldn’t help until she had one of her own.
Her hands didn’t yet have wrinkles on them, so they looked pristine next to the roots. Not like Miss Nancy’s hands. She watched her smooth fingers sift through the bin to find the right one and wondered how she had ever thought his hands were good for anything but grabbing her hair and holding her in place on the dirty brown sofa.
Dana had kissed her High John when she sent away her college applications, and kissed it again when she got accepted. She rubbed her High John to pass exams, flipping the side with the fuzzy root stalks against her palm as if it would help her remember. It always worked. If she had her new root with her when she left the store, perhaps he would at least not say anything. She hadn’t worn it the day she went out with him.
Her mother usually called it Southern John or Dixie John, but Dana preferred the more formal High John the Conqueror. For luck. For conquering obstacles. For besting enemies. A tiny, withered St. Michael to keep your barriers strong. It was what Miss Nancy had told her it was called when she first put her hand into the bin as a teenager while her mother shopped for St. Michael candles and sacred oils. Saint Michael beat back the demons at the gates of heaven and protected the sacred. Taking her hands from the bin, she picked up a vigil candle for him, tucking it under her arm while she continued to find the right root. Her root.
The bin here had the full name above it. High John the Conqueror. Like what Miss Nancy had told her it was called, right before she said she rubbed it to get a marriage proposal from her late husband, and kissed it to get a loan for her business. Dana never saw her touch it, though. Miss Nancy kept it in a red flannel bag around her neck. The cord that kept it in place was worn and frayed, and she never removed the root from the bag, just nudged at it with a dry knuckle when business was slow. Sometimes she nudged it when Dana’s mother had been crying in the shop for too long over her newest conversion as she sifted through spellbooks and candles.
Dana kept her root with her for years, tucking it into the left cup of her bra when she became old enough to wear one. It had crumbled, really, the root breaking up into small slivers that had grown soft with years of being massaged with oil. The bottles of oil had pictures of women catching money in large baskets or sacks overflowing with gold, smiling to themselves with their eyes closed and pursing their lips above what must have been perfect teeth. In her teens, Dana had anointed her High John with oils called True Love and Come to Me, pressing the root to her chest whenever her current crush walked past her. Those oils had dripping pierced hearts and swooning couples on the labels, and she kept them hidden under her bed. The luck oils she left out for her mother to find and approve of.
The day she met him, she had worn Look Me Over oil, rubbing it into her temples and just above her breasts. It made her hair soft and sleek when she oiled her scalp with it, and made her skin smell faintly sweet. She watched him in class and he watched her. He always stared straight at her when she raised her hand, his pursed lips and almost-scowl seeming then to be filled with soft fascination. She liked how hard he concentrated on her when she spoke. When he asked her out a few weeks later, she took the High John out of her bra and put it in her purse in case she decided to sleep with him later, as if she were keeping it safe in exchange for always keeping her safe.
The phone rang in the shop, and she managed to keep herself from jumping. He answered it. “Mystical Vibes,” he said. There was that pause of his, like the one he gave after a professor corrected him in class or someone interrupted him. “Yeah, we have those. They’re five dollars each.” That pause again. She wondered when he’d raise his voice, but then he simply said, “We’re open until six. Bye.”
She wondered how she had ever thought that voice sounded so smooth. He slammed the phone down too hard. She jumped this time.
There were reddish chips of Dragon’s Blood resin that had fallen into the bin with the roots. Dragon’s Blood was for love, for power, for potency. Any caster could burn chips of it and the black trails of smoke would increase the power of their prayers. The chips were as red as the wine she had drank that night, gulping big mouthfuls as someone does when they’re still learning how to drink. His lower lip always looked soft, but when he first kissed her, they felt hard. And his hands were rougher than she thought they would be, pulling her dress up and snagging on her tights. She managed to squirm away from his mouth when he was on top of her, and in that moment it almost seemed like a small victory.
She hardly spoke in class for the rest of the semester, instead she just clutched her High John root close whenever he spoke. Once, he had asked her why she never spoke to her anymore, and she had muttered something about being busy at a new job. Sometimes he paused a little too long, the way he had paused the first time she had pushed against his chest, staring as if sizing her up before pushing back into her, and she would have craggy imprints of the High John in her palm all afternoon.
She brushed the Dragon’s Blood chips away from the roots and unearthed a High John. It had a sharp bend in it like a lobster claw, and in the crook of it, the surface was so wrinkled it looked like it would hold rivers of her oils. Miss Nancy always told her they came in all shapes and sizes, but there wasn’t a right or wrong way for a root to look. The trick was to find one that felt like you. The ends where the root had been burrowing into the ground were frayed, and the bit that had grown towards the surface was sharp. One side of the claw was bigger than the other, and the large side bulged grotesquely and bent towards the tip in one sharp angle like a broken finger.
Dana held it in her palm, picturing how its skin would darken after she rubbed Healing Miracle oil into it. She would place it against her chest and eventually make the root smooth with her potions and her heat. Because it was flatter than her last one, it might even fit in her bra better and not wrinkle the cups. With it held in her hands, she looked towards the counter.
She could feel him not looking at her. She was sure he hadn’t looked at her until he looked up at her and smiled, saying, “oh, hey.” There was nothing to do but walk up and put the root on the counter, which she managed to do with steady hands. He typed in a number on the cash register She finally looked up, her stare boring into his averted gaze.
“High John, right?”
“Yeah,” she said, digging through her purse and looking up at him, then away, in brief bursts.
“Three dollars,” he said. “How’s school? Haven’t seen you in a bit.” He took the root from her hand, his fingers just brushing her palm as he did. He dropped the High John in the bag as she said a few rounds of “fine” and other pleasantries, handing him the crumpled money, not waiting for the receipt to print before she left.
“It was good to see you,” he said, and she turned back, giving him what she thought might register as a smile before she walked outside.
When she got home, she took the High John from the bag and held it, warming it in her palms. She rubbed luck oil and sprinkled protection salts into the still wet skin of the root. Tucked into the left cup of her bra, it was nearer her heart this time than usual. It ached to keep it there, and she felt aware of the root in a way she never had before. It pressed against her skin and bulged out through her bra cup unless she tucked it towards the bottom, even though she had chosen it because she thought it would lie flat. Her old root had never left dents in her skin like that, and it certainly had never made her heart flutter to touch it.
In her underwear drawer she kept a small red bag. She had bought it years ago from Miss Nancy but never placed anything inside it, thinking it was too lovely to spoil with any spell that wasn’t important, and only recently had found it again. Now, she dropped the craggy, crooked root into the bag, tying it up and double-knotting the drawstring that held it closed. It felt better next to her chest with the cloth between it and her, as if she had to protect herself from the rough heat of its surface.
She wondered what kind of person could have touched Miss Nancy’s High John root all those years ago and made her put it away in a bag. Maybe a man with too-low eyelids and a voice that seemed smooth at first. She pictured Miss Nancy, younger then and with no wrinkles on the backs of her hands, meeting a man by a stagnant pond in the moonlight. Maybe Miss Nancy would have wanted to seduce the man, slowly allowing him to see the extent of her in teasing fits and starts. Perhaps the man had shiny black hair like her husband, the one she still missed for years after his death, and whose picture watched over her shop beside the glass evil eye pendants. Maybe those eyes and petulant lower lip hid fire behind the illusion of softness. The cicadas must have screamed a little louder just as the man took off Miss Nancy’s bra, his calloused hands chipping the crags of her High John as he tossed it aside. Miss Nancy might have known that the High John would ache against her skin when she picked it back up. She probably already planned to wrap it up and keep the residue of his fingers from touching her before he was even done. Perhaps the Spanish Moss swayed above them and Miss Nancy fixed her eyes on the grey coils twisting from the boughs like incense plumes until it was over. Then he would offer his hand, slack now, and help her up out of the grass, pulling her up from where he had pushed her.
Dana nudged the soft bag with one knuckle.
Anna B. Wilkes earned her MFA in poetry from Rutgers University-Newark, where she now teaches composition. She earned her BA in English from the University of Tennessee, where she was the recipient of the Margaret Artley Woodruff award for poetry. Her work has appeared in Stirring: A Literary Collection, Regardless of Authority, and Apogee.